Ethics and Economics @ BYOB Party in May 2018 (Part 2)

Image result for ethics blackburnSamarth started the ethical debate with Ethics by Simon Blackburn.  This book is part of the OUP series of Very Short Introductions to various topics from philosophy to quantum theory. In this book on ethics, Simon Blackburn talks about human conduct and the moral dilemmas that have led to the systems that govern us. Ethics is a branch of philosophy among others including ontology, metaphysics, etc. Blackburn touches on contemporary issues or problems from time immemorial and makes sure that this very complicated subject becomes accessible to the lay reader. The prose is elegant and this makes this slender volume a pleasant read. The immediate takeaway that Samarth had was about the all-encompassing nature and ubiquity of ethics. In a way, ethics is based on some impulse and the gratification of some desire. You have to justify how viable your behavior is in the long term and how it affects the welfare of the people around you. You may think you are operating outside this purview but there are unavoidable questions that steer our life. The book doesn’t have all the answers; it starts a dialog in your mind about human behavior. Abhaya spoke of a similar book, one on democracy, from the OUP series.

A fiery debate ensued about AI ethics- programmers who remain far removed from their actions, bots who imitate human speech, human responsibility to all things not alive, gene editing, molecular cloning….found this interesting article on bot ethics here:

Image result for games in economic development

Pallavi spoke about Games in Economic Development, by Bruce Wydick a book that deals with how strategy is employed in political and economic decisions. The book looks at economics through elementary game theory and offers an all-round perspective across games in natural resource use, education, technology, insurance, etc.

More books in Part 3.

Princesses, Friendship and Democracy @ BYOB Party in December 2016 (Part 7)

The party ended with conversation about women in books, and democracy.

princessRenu spoke about a book called Princess: A True Story of Life Behind the Veil in Saudi Arabia. The story revolves around Sultana, a Saudi Arabian princess, who is immensely wealthy but is a prisoner in a gilded cage. The story has been told anonymously and recorded by Jean Sasson. For Renu, the trilogy is not as heart wrenching as A Thousand Splendid Suns but she still thinks that the book has great aspirations and talks about some very important issues like women’s rights. Where Sultana lives, young girls are forced to marry men five times their age and victims of unreasonable punishments. Baraa believes that while the discriminatory practices of Saudi Arabia are well-known, not all Arabic speaking nations are the same and Arabian history has been forgotten too easily. Anurag mentioned how the ideas that people have about anything, including women’s rights, is governed by the society we live in. In China, for instance, it is not surprising when women technicians come home to fix the air-conditioning. In India, this would still raise eyebrows.

my-brilliant-friendKeeping with the woman-inspired book series theme, I’ve been reading one of Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels, the first one of the series My Brilliant Friend.  The story is a translation and focuses on the friendship of two women spanning four books. It is hard for you not to order the subsequent parts of the series as the friendship between Elena Greco and Lila is absorbing, filled with the conflicts and rivalries of any close friendship. Simultaneously, Elena’s circle of friends reveal the socio-political milieu of Italy during the 1950s.

democracyAbhaya spoke about Democracy: A Very Short Introduction, a short account of democracy published by Oxford University Press. The book speaks about the origins of democracy from ancient Greece and Rome. While democracy entails the concept of liberty, there are no specific duties associated with it, except or jury duty in the US. So participation, which is a defining feature of democracy, is not an absolute necessity. Another contradiction is how in some situations human rights limit democratic claims. It is a good idea to understand democracy, Abhaya said and he quoted: “Man’s inclination to justice makes democracy possible, but it is our capacity for injustice that makes it necessary.”

And with that we wound up the BYOB Party. The next stop was the food.


Article of the Week: Dr. Raghuram Rajan’s speech on Democracy, Inclusion, and Prosperity

The question that Dr. Raghuram Rajan, governer of RBI in his professor of political economy avatar, asks is

But how do countries ensure political freedom and economic prosperity? Why do the two seem to go together? And what more, if anything, does India have to do to ensure it has these necessary underpinnings for prosperity and continued political freedom?

Dr. Rajan starts by explaining Fukuyama’s three pillars of a liberal democratic state

  1. Strong Government: Strong government does not only mean one which has great military power or effective intelligence against enemies, but one that can provide effective and fair administration too. Dictatorships are usually weak governments. They can terrorize their citizens, but not provide good governance.
  2. Rule of Law: Government’s actions are constrained by rule of law, which might be enforced by religious, judicial or moral authority.
  3. Democratic Accountability: Government has to be popularly accepted.

Strong governments do not always move in the right direction.

Hitler provided Germany with extremely effective administration – the trains ran on time, as did the trains during our own Emergency in 1975-77. His was a strong government, but Hitler took Germany efficiently and determinedly on a path to ruin, overriding the rule of law and dispensing with elections.

Both rule of law and democratic accountability are needed to steer a strong government on the right path. (Why both? Read the explanation in the full text of the speech.)

Dr. Rajan then goes on to introduce a fourth pillar in his discussion – free enterprise.

Why are political freedoms in a country, of which representative democracy is a central component, and free enterprise mutually supportive?

It isn’t quite obvious that they should be. Democracy treats everyone equally. Free market system does not. Income and property decide an individual’s power in a free market system. But despite this difference there are certain circumstances in which they go hand and in hand.

(To) the extent that the rich are self-made, and have come out winners in a competitive, fair, and transparent market, society may be better off allowing them to own and manage their wealth, settling in return for a reasonable share of their produce as taxes. The more, however, that the rich are seen as idle or crooked – as having simply inherited or, worse, gained their wealth nefariously – the more the median voter should be willing to vote for tough regulations and punitive taxes on them.

The key, then, is level playing field. When there is a perception of fairness in competition, inequality does not breed resentment. Democracy and free market support each other by giving everyone the opportunity.

The level playing field, however, is easier hoped than achieved.

(In Western democracies) quality higher educational institutions are dominated by the children of the rich, not because they have unfairly bought their way in, but because they simply have been taught and supported better by expensive schools and private tutors. Because middle class parents do not have the ability to give their children similar capabilities, they do not see the system as fair.

This is something India needs to be careful about. Right now we are moving in the direction of providing level-playing field to more and more people by giving access to education. But it would not automatically remain so.

In the concluding part, Dr. Rajan makes an interesting point about India’s political situation. He is of the view that (despite many shortcomings), the checks and balances on the government is not in a bad shape. The rule of law and democratic accountability is functional here. But strong government is still wanted. This is a situation unique to India because in most parts of the world, strong governments have emerged first and checks and balances have followed.

Let me emphasize, we need “checks and balance”, but we should ensure a balance of checks. We cannot have escaped from the License Permit Raj only to end up in the Appellate Raj!

Read the complete speech on