The Arrogance of The Elite

Back in 2016, prior to the US elections, I listened to a US radio show where a truck driver had called in to share his confidence that Trump would win based on how many more Trump yard signs he saw across America compared to Clinton. I remember laughing at his ‘insights’ and conclusions – being pretty smug myself on all the probabilistic election forecasting & commentary that I was following on Nate Silver’s fivethirtyeight.com. At that time, I considered myself ‘well-informed’ and took pride in having some knowledge about the many issues being faced by Americans – mostly by reading the newspapers and watching cable news. Suffice to say, I had to re-examine my own standing in short order. 

Four years on, what we have seen is an unprecedented and shocking amount of negative reporting, criticism and hate – a lot of it justified, some not – on Trump the person, on the people in his administration, and maybe some on their policies. But, during the same time, what we have seen very little of commentary or reporting on, are the perspectives of everyday people from different backgrounds – emphasis on ‘different backgrounds’. 

The media’s dedication has always been to Trump (positive or negative) – never the people who voted him in. The only times they do cover the people who voted Trump in are while associating him with far-right extremists – usually of the white supremacists kind. 

Actually, we have to go one step further, so let’s try this again. 

The media’s dedication is to Trump – never the people who voted (or not). Period. 

The people who control the news and make editorial decisions are increasingly far removed from the everyday, regular people in the country – especially those they do not personally see or interact with regularly. These media elites are typically based in big cities, have an office in the downtown area, and work/hang out with other media elites. They discuss the issues in the country with other media elites and develop an opinion about it  – without ever actually having personally interacted with the people impacted. They decide that their own perspectives are the ones that the people of the country need to hear and proceed to publish or broadcast those news stories or opinion pieces. Other media elites read it and the cycle continues.

And somehow, amidst all this, no one seems to ask if the opinions of these elites are actually representative of the people on the ground. The answer to that is ‘very rarely’. But never underestimate the everyday person, because they DO see their problems not reflected – or worse, actively dismissed – in what the media elites have to say. And these people do vote – especially to a candidate who is giving voice to their problems, however rhetorical it may seem.

This ever-increasing gulf between what regular, everyday people ask for, and what is actually covered in the media is one of the reasons why Trump got elected in the first place. The media did do a brief introspection on that aspect – but never really acted on them. On the contrary, they doubled down and went on a rampage against one man – while completely ignoring the realities and issues of the people on the ground.

And that is why the media’s obsession with Trump is toxic. It is because what matters is not just what they choose to focus on – but also who they ignore, and who they (incorrectly) claim to speak for. The former is what we all SEE, the latter are only seen when their ABSENCE is highlighted. 

There are a thousand different reasons why Trump doesn’t deserve to be President, and almost none of them have to do with the media’s hit jobs on him. Joe Biden may well make an infinitely better President than Trump. But then, the elites in the media would still only be talking about Trump and Biden – and no one would be discussing the issues of the everyday American.

The arrogance of the elite and their categorical conviction of knowing what is right for the masses may well be what dooms America to 4 more years of someone clearly unfit to hold the office of the President of the US. This makes me almost – almost – WANT to see Trump being re-elected, just so I can witness the media elites implode and self-destruct once and for all. 

The Perils of a Trump Impeachment

Everybody seems to be talking about it, all the media outlets are covering it, social media has it trending 24/7, and everyone has their own opinion on the legitimacy of all of it. And I honestly have no interest or stake in what happens to the man at the top of it all – President Trump. But what I do have an interest in is in the maintenance of civility and unity in any society – especially one that is already as divided as the United States.

Most Presidential elections in the US are truly just an exercise in the demonstration of the division within that country. It is Us vs Them, Left vs Right, Democrat vs Republican, Liberal vs Conservative – name your labels. But nobody seems to point it out for what the division really stands for today – Americans vs fellow Americans. Now how about that label, eh?

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I am not an expert historian to tell you when exactly this division started to take its present shape. Was America truly ready for a Black President in 2008? How did Obamacare’s passing impact the legislative process? What about MitcConnell’s obstruction of Obama’s judiciary appointees? How much did Obama’s executive orders piss off Republicans? How angry did the ‘Liberals’ in America get when Mitch McConnell refused to confirm Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court – only to later confirm Gorsuch and Kavanaugh? How confused were people when Donald Trump became the President? What about that Republican bill giving tax breaks that was passed behind closed doors? What did the relentless criticism of Trump tell those who voted for him?

And how do you think society reacts when every one of the above events were amplified by a biased and loud mainstream media – print and cable – along with a significant dose of extreme opinions accompanying it from all the different parts of the internet?

I am not even going to repeat the talking points that are propagated in the media for and against this process. To me, they are rhetorical at best, and political at worst. Nowhere do I see the actual interest of the people being represented in any capacity. But I will quote a statement from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi from back in March this year (emphasis mine):

Impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it.

The media, of course, just focused on the last line of “he’s just not worth it” because it was a great soundbite – nothing else. That statement about how an impeachment process can divide the country unless it is based on something compelling and has bipartisan support is the absolute truth. Which is why it is rather unfortunate that Pelosi herself is the one championing the impeachment process now.

For the sake of discussion, let us say the President has just been impeached along party lines in the House. What do you think will happen? You think the nation will rejoice? Is this some sort of a victory? If so, can you tell me who won? What constructive things do you see happening after this? Oh you don’t say it will help elect a Democrat President in 2020? Because clearly that is NOT what this impeachment is about right? Oh I hear you say he just deserved to get impeached? Well, in the immortal words of Snoop Pearson from The Wire, I think what you really meant was:

Deserve got nothing to do with it. It’s his time, that’s all.

I will tell you what WILL happen. CNN, MSNBC, ABC, WaPo, NYT, and the likes will rejoice – openly, and with an in-your-face attitude. Half the nation will rejoice too. Operative word being ‘half’ – because the other half will be pissed off. All Dem politicians will claim victory and try to sell that to their base – you know the half that rejoiced. Fox News, Breitbart, Drudge Report, WSJ, and the likes will continue questioning the legitimacy of the process. All the Republicans will cry unfair, play victim and sell that fear of ‘Dem takeover’ to THEIR base – you know the other half that did not rejoice. There will be some superficial pressure created on Mitch McConnell and he will hold a hearing and eventually Trump will not be convicted. The media will get all the coverage and pageviews and get rich with all the divisive and biased rhetoric.

And the poor American people will come out of it more divided and entrenched than ever before. There will be even lesser room for civil debates and discussions. It will be harder to change people’s minds on any damn thing. The ideas of subtlety and nuance will cease to exist in any conversation even remotely political. Friends are chosen based on their political leanings. Extreme positions will become even more common. More politicians will begin to endorse extreme positions. As the Left goes more woke, the Right will double down on rejecting any change at all. Supreme court justices will be confirmed depending only on which party holds the Senate. No significant legislation will ever get passed in the House and Senate. And yes, impeachment of a sitting President will become more common. Everyone will have an opinion, but the American people will ultimately bear the brunt of it all.

Fact is divisive events have a cumulative effect on society over time. And division breeds further division, thereby cementing a dangerous spiraling loop. In the USA, I strongly believe that these events have led the society close to the point of no return. There is a tipping point approaching and this impeachment will make the American people see what lies beyond. Just remember, there is no way back from that.

What I would like to see is a new leader emerge who works not to ‘energize their own base’, but instead seeks to unite the country – and wins the next elections. There are very few in the Democratic primary field who can be fit into that category. I will not take names but just know this – the more to the left the Dems go, the more to the right the Republicans go. So by that metric, figure out for yourself who is likely to unite and who is likely to further divide. But really all that is a redundant exercise because Trump is going to win in 2020 regardless – the impeachment would make sure of that.

So, yeah, have fun.

The United States of America: A Blueprint for a Divided Society – Part I – The Issues

NOTE: This is the first installment in a series of posts outlining my observations on the divided nature of this country. All posts can be found here

In the run up to the 2016 Presidential Elections, the New York Times wrote the following in an opinion piece titled “The Divided States of America”:

Most large cities, college towns, the Northeast and the West Coast are deep-blue Democratic. Ruby-red Republican strongholds take up most of the South, the Great Plains, the Mountain States and the suburban and rural areas in between. Rather than compete directly against each other, both parties increasingly occupy their separate territories, with diminishing overlap and disappearing common accountability. They hear from very different constituents, with very different priorities. The minimal electoral incentives they do face all push toward nurturing, rather than bridging, those increasingly wide divisions.

From a macro perspective, those observations are very valid and true. But they only speak about one of the many factors that divide the people of this country into two rather distinct categories – Liberals and Conservatives.

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The Divided States of America

The history of this country may have taken whatever route it did to get here. But simply taking a long and hard look at ‘the system’ now  can go a long way in explaining the growing divide among the people here. What I present below (and in future posts) are  some simple observations that have had a profound influence on the divided state of this country. I do this with the ultimate objective and hope of informing people from other countries to keep a look out for these very symptoms in their own country, lest they become victims to the same divisive power plays.

What are the Issues?

It starts with a simple question: How can you divide a set of people if you don’t have anything to divide them over? It has an equally simple answer: You can’t. So any process with the stated or implied objective of dividing a set of people has to necessarily start with the identification of issues that can be used for that purpose. But it cannot be any issue. Trying to divide a large group of people over a debate such as “Should Government funding be increased to Arts or Science education?” is far less likely to have an impact than a debate such as “Should Muslims be allowed to migrate to the USA?”.

The key to coming up with a divisive issue is to use a topic that has a very visceral basis. For instance, issues arising out of religion are usually safe bets when it comes to their ability to generate strong and conflicting feelings (think abortion and gay marriage). Real or perceived threats against strong traditions that also have a controversial side-effect are also equally effective (think gun rights/control). Role of Government in the day-to-day working of the economy is yet another topic that can generate strong feelings (think socialism/free market).

It is not enough to simply identify divisive issues. It is equally important to create two (and only two) very distinct approaches to resolve the issue. And once these approaches are identified and articulated, it is then that the crucial act of labeling one approach as ‘liberal’ and another as ‘conservative’ can be taken up. This labeling is the final step in the ‘creation/identification of divisive issues’ step of the process. And in a country where most of the people identify as one of liberal or conservative, once you label a particular approach to any divisive issue as either liberal or conservative, you have then automatically scaled up the division on that particular issue to the entire population.

It is a scary observation, but one that is far too commonplace in this country today. Perhaps the more relevant aspect of this process of creation of divisive issues is that the ‘conservative’ or ‘liberal’ approaches to these issues do not necessarily have a common overall basis. That is to say there is no defined set of values for either of these groups from which these differing approaches take shape.

The most glaring example of this lies in the perception of socialism and religion. Both are divisive issues that this country has fought over for decades. For liberals, socialism (or at least some form of it) is generally perceived as a necessary means to address issues such as income inequality and capitalistic greed. The conservatives, on the other hand, view socialism as absolute evil and denounce any form of it. Fair enough. But what about religion? The bible and the values and messages derived from it are by far the most important guiding principles for conservatives. The liberals, on the other hand, vehemently oppose any interference between the church and the state. Again, fair enough.

Now I ask this simple question: What kind of a society does Christ/God preach in the Bible? Does he preach a socialistic society where each person looks after the other? Or does it preach a capitalistic society breeding a dog-eat-dog philosophy where one looks out only for oneself? Even the most cursory reading of the Bible will tell you overwhelmingly (and categorically) that it is the former. (Click the links and you can see for yourself)

So if the Bible preaches a socialistic society, then why do the group of people (Conservatives) who so vehemently propagate its message also support the exact opposite in capitalism? It is an open and glaring contradiction. And so, like I said, there is no basis of common values from which the approaches of a particular group of people spring from.

The damaging significance of a divisive issue in a country cannot be understated. The USA is a country where legislatively bringing about a big change (think Civil rights) is a deliberately slow process. In such a ‘system’, a divisive issue inevitably leads to a situation resembling more of a trench-warfare between opposing groups rather than that of an open and fact based debate and resolution. Needless to say, trench warfare over the same issues over a long period of time only works to divide the society that much farther and deeper. This deepening of the division leads to a feedback loop that incentivizes the systems in play to propagate these divisions even more.

But a society cannot be truly divided into two distinct groups just because people have differing opinions on some specific individual issues. To better understand this, consider a (hypothetical) middle aged man in rural California who owns a small farm, employs legal AND undocumented immigrant workers to work his farm, carries guns with pride, goes to church every Sunday, wants universal healthcare, opposes abortion and gay rights, wants the rich to pay their fair share of taxes, advocates for tuition-free college, advocates for climate change initiatives and wants tariffs on goods (including food) imported from outside the USA.

How on earth would you label him – a Conservative or a Liberal?!!?? He supports issues on both sides as it would be perceived today. It is simply impossible to put him in one or the other category as these categories are understood today. Now imagine if America was made up with people like him – people who have strong and differing opinions about the seemingly divisive issues, but do not have a set pattern in their opinions across these issues. In such a situation, when everyone has differing sets of opinions about the same issues, there cannot be a sufficiently large population group that can be thrown into just two distinct categories. Instead, there will simply be dozens (or hundreds) of different groups where the people within that group share common opinions on ALL the issues. But this does not lead to a divided society! This actually leads to a lot of different groups of people with lots of different priorities – but no sustained division. So then why exactly is it so hard (or just plain impossible) to find such people?

The answer lies in grouping. The ultimate key to generating a divide  is to identify these divisive issues and the two contradictory (for or against) opinions about these issues. Then allocate a ‘for’ to specific issues and an ‘against’ to the other issues. (Which ones get a ‘for’ and which ones get an ‘against’ are not necessarily rooted in any common basis or philosophy. And the question of exactly WHO decided these ‘fors’ and ‘againsts’ is for another post). This becomes one group – say liberals. Reverse the allocation of ‘for’ and ‘against’ and we have the second group – the conservatives!

So, for example, one group of such opinions would be to stand for gun rights, oppose gay rights and abortion, for free market, for lesser taxes, against Climate control initiatives, for religion, against immigration, against government programs for general population, pro-business, etc. These, as we understand them today, are considered conservative opinions. The opposite group of opinions would then be considered as liberal opinions. So once the opinions of people on these issues are grouped in a certain set way, the label can then be applied to that entire group.

So instead of having dozens (or hundreds) of groups with each group having different sets of opinions on the same issues, we now have two specific groups where the set of opinions on the same issues are pre-determined. In the former, there is no real way to create and sustain a deep division between dozens (or hundreds) of groups of people. But in the latter, it becomes very simple to create the divide when you only have two groups of people with pre-determined and contradictory sets of beliefs/opinions about the same set of issues.

(Yes there are obviously many many people who do not identify themselves as a strictly conservative or liberal in the way these terms are understood today. But there is no one representing these people in Congress or anywhere for that matter. In other words, they are not large enough in number to actually have a voice that can make a difference. This, unfortunately, makes their presence quite redundant. Similarly, it is also true that the current administration’s trade policies aren’t exactly favoring a ‘free market’ – which has led to some conservatives getting rather confused on how to respond to this).

And that is what has happened to this country. There are exactly two groups of people – liberals and conservatives – each seemingly represented by one specific political party. And with each group having a pre-determined (and opposite) set of beliefs and opinions about the same issues, the ease of creation and sustenance of division becomes that much easier.

But then this leads to further questions: WHO exactly creates these divisions? WHO sustains them? And HOW?

Future posts to discuss these and other aspects of a divided society in detail.

New H1B Bill: How the Indian Media Provided False Information

Note: This is the second post on this topic. In the first post, I explained what the current H1B law provides for and what exactly the bill proposes to change. Please read that to get a full understanding of the situation. 

The Protect and Grow American Jobs Act that was reintroduced last week by Rep Darrell Issa (R-CA) has received a large amount of attention from the Indian media due to its specific targeting of H1B visa changes. I have discussed in detail what the current law is and what the bill does previously. In this post, I will cover how the Indian media has incorrectly reported this bill.

To summarize the impacts of the bill, the following points should be sufficient:

  1. This bill applies only to H1B Dependent Employer (HDE) companies (those that have more than 15% of their workforce under H1B visas) and Willful Violator (WV) companies. It DOES NOT apply to ALL H1B visa seekers.
  2. The HDE and WV companies, unlike the rest of them, are required to recruit an American worker before applying a H1B visa for a foreign worker. They also cannot fire an American worker within 90 days before and 90 days after an H1B foreign worker is hired. They also cannot post the H1B worker at a different employer’s office. This is done to reduce visa abuse, to offer basic protection to American workers, and to ensure that only the best workers are hired under H1B.
  3. Under the current law, the additional requirements for HDE and WV companies, as shown in #2, can be easily bypassed in either of two ways. One is by hiring a foreign worker who has a Master’s degree in the area of the job. Second is by offering the foreign worker a minimum pay of $60,000 per annum. These two ‘exemptions’ allow the HDE and WV companies to bypass the additional requirements, thus making it very easy for them to abuse the visa system. (See the Disney H1B lawsuit for example).
  4. The new bill aims to change two things in the criteria that allows the HDE and WV companies to bypass the additional requirements (in #2). One, it aims to increase the minimum pay to $100,000 per annum. Second, it removes the Master’s degree exemption – meaning you cannot bypass the additional requirements just because the H1B worker the company plans to hire has a Master’s degree. This aims to close the loophole that allows visa abuses to take place.

So that was a summary of what is happening here. Now let us look at how the Indian media is reporting this news.

I will start with the most egregious falsification: The Hindu. The Hindu news article lists 6 separate items that it says the Bill aims to do. Only one of these is even partly correct. The rest are just outrageous falsifications. Let us look at them:

  • The Bill prohibits companies from hiring H1-B employees if they employ more than 50 people and more than 50 per cent of their employees are H1-B and L-1 visa holders. ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT. There is no such language in the bill at all. Even the HDE company definition is incorrect going by this rule.
  • The Bill encourages companies to recruit American workers. This provision would crack down on outsourcing companies that import large numbers of H-1B and L-1 workers for short training periods and then send these workers back to their home country to do the work of Americans, the Senators who introduced the Bill had said. This is a very generic statement offering no specific information on how the bill aims to do this. As a general intent of the bill, it is correct. But there is no language listing this explicitly. 
  • It explicitly prohibits replacement of American workers by H1-B or L-1 visa holders. ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT. The general intent to not replace American workers is indeed contained in the bill, as it is in the current law. But there is no ‘explicit’ language in the bill that talks about prohibiting replacement of American workers. 
  • The Bill seeks to give the Department of Labour enhanced authority to review, investigate and audit employer compliance as well as to penalise fraudulent or abusive conduct. ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT. Again, this is a very generic statement offering no information. More importantly, the bill text itself does not include any language in this regard. 
  • The Bill seeks to increase the minimum salary of H1-B visa holders to $1,00,000 per annum. INCORRECT AND MISLEADING. As discussed in the summary above, the minimum salary only applies to the H1B workers under the HDE companies seeking to bypass the additional requirements. This DOES NOT APPLY to all H1B visa holders, as this statement suggests.
  • Currently, firms need not go through extensive paperwork if the potential H1-B employee has an equivalent of a Master’s degree or higher and he or she is paid at least $60,000 annually. The Bill aims to do away with the Master’s degree exemption (as “they are easily obtained by foreign workers”). PARTLY CORRECT. This is the only bullet point that has even a shred of correct information in it. As seen from the summary, what The Hindu lists as ‘extensive paperwork’ are essentially additional requirements that (only) the HDE and WV companies have to adhere to in order to ensure there is no visa abuse. Additionally, this statement mentions the Master’s degree exemption, but does not state what the exemption is for!

There is absolutely no excuse or justification for publishing such large amounts of wrong information on a leading national daily website (and presumably their newspaper as well). I am currently preparing an email to the Editor of The Hindu pointing out this outrageous misinformation. I do not expect a response, however.

The next biggest blunder I saw was from Zee News. Their article listed 3 separate items as part of the bill and its impacts. Here they are:

  • To get H1B visa approved, you will have to fit in the salary bracket of $100,000 a year, up from $60,000 currently. ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT. This only applies for HDE companies looking to bypass additional requirements.
  • One will need to have a Master’s degree, as recognized by the US. ABSOLUTELY INCORRECT!! Removing the Master’s degree exemption language is foolishly misinterpreted as a Master’s degree ‘requirement’! 
  • It is estimated that any change on visa law will largely impact companies who have more than 50 employees based in the US. INCORRECT. The HDE companies are those that have 15% or more of their workforce under H1B visas. Companies even under 50 employees have the HDE categorization. 

It should be noted that the Master’s degree ‘requirement’ mentioned above is actually being listed in many newspapers and websites. This is completely incorrect. There is no such requirement at all! Do not confuse the removal of the Master’s degree exemption to the ‘requirement’ of a Master’s degree!

\[UPDATE March 29th 2017]\

One of the journalistic sources that I have been personally reading for the past 3 years and would strongly recommend is The Caravan Magazine. Its writing primarily includes long form journalism and has generally provided very high quality articles – albeit with a left-leaning perspective. However, I was particularly disappointed with the way the magazine had covered this H1B bill’s developments in this February’s edition. This error becomes even more egregious considering the writer is a Professor of Political Science at Indiana University and is an author of multiple books. It is difficult to comprehend how something as simple as this escapes folks who are expected to be well informed.  Here is what it states and how it is incorrect:

  • ….the bill proposes to raise the minimum salary of H1-B professionals from $60k to $100k, making it costlier for employers to hire foreign workers. INCORRECT AND MISLEADING. As discussed in the summary above, the minimum salary only applies to the H1B workers under the HDE companies seeking to bypass the additional requirements. This DOES NOT APPLY to all H1B visa holders, as this statement suggests.
  • It also promises to end a provision that allows as many as 20,000 foreign nationals in excess of the annual H1-B quota to avail of the visa if they hold a Master’s degree. This is the part which particularly disappointed me. The Master’s degree exemption that is discussed in the bill is essentially the loophole through which HDE companies can bypass a lot of additional requirements. It has absolutely NOTHING to do with the existing quota of 20,000 H1B visas being issued to people with Master’s degrees from US Universities. These are two separate and independent things. Even just the most cursory reading of the bill will make it clear.

I have written to The Caravan requesting them to issue a retraction on their upcoming issue. (There was none issued in the March edition). I am hopeful that they will.

\[UPDATE March 29th 2017]\

\UPDATE May 30th 2017\

The Caravan responded to my email and have issued a correction in their online and print article to reflect the correct information.

\[UPDATE May 30th 2017]]

Let’s move on to other big publications. Websites of Times of India, The Indian Express, Live Mint, and Economic Times all include more or less the same statement regarding this bill:

The bill among other things increase the minimum salary of H-1B visa to $100,000 per annum and eliminate the Masters Degree exemption.

And as we have seen, this is only partly correct and also does not include any information on what the actual exemption is. Additionally, the Economic Times ran a slightly different spin on this statement. This is what it said:

The new bill would require workers on the H-1B visa pay a minimum of $100,000, up from $60,000 currently. The bill also removes the Master’s degree exemption to the cap on the number of visas available.

The second line is what is total garbage. There is no impact to the ‘cap on number of visas available’ as this report states. The Master’s degree exemption is completely unrelated to the H1B visa cap of 85,000 per year. Completely false information!

I do not have access to all the local newspapers which may be carrying different incorrect versions of this information. But I do suspect most of these versions were covered by the big newspapers (not a compliment!). I do not know exactly what was discussed in all the ‘panel discussions’ on news channels, so I cannot comment on that. However, I do not expect it to be any different than what I have seen on the websites. I was also appalled at people in high positions in various big name companies provide quotes on this matter without knowing anything about it in the first place.

What did concern me though was that this false information was said to have caused a fall in the share price of these big IT companies. This should not happen. The media loves to profit from sensationalizing new developments. But in the process, it should also be made aware of its responsibilities to report correct news. This is not something that should even be pointed out. It should form the basic bedrock of their whole operation. But the fact that a regular guy like me can dig up the correct information within an hour – all on the internet – while paid journalists do not bother to do so, and in fact report falsified information, is a definite cause for concern.

The Oxford Dictionary listed ‘post-truth’ to be the word of the year 2016. Its definition is: Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief. We always counted on the news media to show us what is actual truth and what is not – to separate the facts from the claims. But not any more. It now appears that as citizens of the world, we now need to verify what the media is reporting (or not reporting) prior to believing them. It is indeed a scary realization of today’s world – that the media is, in fact, part of the ‘post-truth world’.

I am sure that makes a sensational news story.

Dear America, Let’s Talk About LEGAL Immigration

Dear America,

I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien

I’m an Englishman in New York

That was Sting singing in 1987. This is not 1987, this is 2015. I am not Sting. I am not even an Englishman, and I may not even be living in New York, but I am one of the many many aliens – more specifically, I am a ‘legal alien’- that moved to and currently live in this country. Rest assured, I do not come from a different planet with the objective of taking away your natural resources and destroying mankind. On the other hand, I am just another human being (of the homo sapien variety) who came to this land from half way around the planet about 6 years ago. (It is not me who is saying I am an alien. It is the US Government who says so and who reminds me of it every time I fill in some paperwork.)

No Not this Alien.

My story is like the many many stories you have heard over the past decades and centuries. It is the story of people coming here in search of a quality higher education and in search of a better, more liberal lifestyle than their home country. In the six years I have been here, I have had a great number of memorable experiences and befriended a large number of wonderful people. Everyone of them have been nothing short of being super nice to me. I have lived a lifestyle I never knew I could ever afford. And notwithstanding the sacrifices I have had to make in choosing to remain here, I can confidently state that I have thoroughly enjoyed my time here in the United States, taking in everything this country has to offer.

And all along the way, I have vastly contributed to you by working on the design of a number of highways and bridges critical to your infrastructure. I have paid my fair share (about 35% of my income) on taxes and have been a law abiding person (or alien, if you so prefer). I have supported and continue to support a lot of global and local businesses (including the neighborhood dive bar) with all the money I spend.

I am repeatedly told that I have a lot of great opportunities for me to pursue in my career in this country. I am told there are even more opportunities here lying ahead that will help me explore the world and live the lifestyle I have always wanted. And my mind savors the possibility of that future when I can do that. But alas! That is where the fairy tale ends and the nightmare begins.

You see, as far as the Government here is concerned, I am still an alien. I maybe a ‘legal’ alien, but an alien nonetheless. And I am treated as one. I am willing to acknowledge that yes, I am coming from a different country and I need permission from the host to continue my stay. Unfortunately, the issuance of that permission involves the process of transforming from the status of an ‘Alien’ to that of an ‘Immigrant’ or ‘Permanent Resident’. And as you may be aware, this is a general nightmare for all the ‘aliens’.

What is it that you said? You are NOT aware of the nightmare? Oh, my bad! Of course you do not know! That is because nobody ever talks about the ‘legal’ immigrants in this country. I am sure you are fully up to date on the latest proposals to stem the flow of ‘illegal’ immigrants from the southern border with Mexico. Of course you are! All you have to do is switch on the news and you will find all you ever need to know about how the influx of illegal immigrants is creating a national security issue and how it is killing American jobs. You will learn the full gamut of opinions on this matter – from granting amnesty to the illegal immigrants to making them pay fines to deporting the bad ones to deporting all 11 million of them. Of course everyone wants to build a wall of some sort on the US-Mexico border. You know all about that for sure.

So yes, you know all there is to know about ‘illegal’ immigration and all the impacts to the US economy and security that are associated with it. But you have absolutely zero idea about the ‘legal’ immigrants and what we go through. We are the people who sought a legal way to come to this country. You have no idea of all the shit we had to go through to just get a visa to come here and study. And we worked hard every step of the way – always staying (with an abundance of fear) within the legal framework. We came here to not just consume the better life on offer, we also came here to contribute our services and skills. We have worked hard after we came here and we have made a good life out of the opportunities that came our way.

So in a way, we have achieved the American dream – until our visa runs out that is.

You see nobody is paying any attention to us people who seek to migrate to the United States legally and who have all our paperwork in place from the beginning. Did you know that, as a citizen of India, I need to wait for a total of up to 15 years in order for me to get my status changed from ‘Alien’ to ‘Permanent Resident’? Did you know that right now 2 out of every 3 applications for a highly skilled immigrant visa are being denied? Did you know that you can come to this country, get a Master’s or PhD degree in one of the top universities here, get a job requiring a very specific skill set, be a top performer at the job, and then just have to leave all of it within a year just because you happened to be among those who did not get their visa approved? Do you even know that the highly skilled work visas are granted on the basis of a lottery? Yes. Absolute chance. No merit. Do you know that during the Clinton years, the H1B visas (highly skilled workers) was hiked to 4 times what it is now? And did you know that the number of Green Cards issued annually stayed the same, creating a massive massive backlog (of 10 years) for people who have been waiting in the ‘legal’ line?

Of course you have no idea about all this. Why would you? Why would the media care about this? They don’t see any immediate detrimental impact to the society. It is much easier for them to stick with the ‘They took our jobs!’ narrative instead. Our work here is not measured on our contribution to the society and economy. It is measured in terms of number of American jobs lost. Never mind that the special STEM related skill sets that many of us ‘legal’ immigrants bring with us is something that this country sorely needs to sustain itself. Also never mind that that demand is impossible to be met from just domestic supply. None of this matters to the media who are only focused on exposing the ‘plight of hard working Americans whose jobs are being taken away by immigrants!’ How dare we provide the skills and services this country so badly lacks? And how dare we demand that we be given due recognition for our work by granting us permanent residency?

What about the politicians you ask? Well, what about them? Barely anyone has made any noise. This is a low risk low reward issue for all politicians. Can they do anything? Of course they can. They can do a number of things that can easily fix this mess that is the legal immigration system. But they just don’t. And because they haven’t done anything worth while for decades together, guess what? The system has been ripe for abuse!

Oh the irony.

The incentive to come to this country is so great for a lot of people that you inevitably have people who game the system, find its loopholes, and willfully exploit them for their own benefit. Oh and there are a whole bunch of them. Did you know that you can have one single person apply for a visa through up to 6 different companies? That is 6 different applications for the same person, in case you didn’t figure out. Way to increase your odds, right? Or what about those people who come en masse to the US to attend a makeshift/fake university for the sole purpose of becoming eligible for a work visa application? Did you know that these pseudo degree holders stand the same chance of getting approved for the visa as a legal immigrant who is a PhD holder from MIT? Did you know that each country has a fixed quota for allotment of green cards every year? On what is it based, you ask? Well, here is what it is NOT based on: Merit. I come from a country that currently has a back log of about 10 years. That is 10 years after you file the application, which usually happens 2-4 years after you start working, which in turn happens after I have finished my 2-5 year schooling. I will let you add up the numbers for shock value. So what is it based on? Again, the answer is not merit. Many many times, a person (or alien) who doesn’t necessarily have any significant skill set to contribute to the society stands to get his/her Green Card within a matter of months just because of their specific nationality. Is this fair? Is this helping this country? And guess whose low paying jobs these unskilled Green Card holders are taking away?

So yes, the politicians and the media have neglected the legal immigration system long enough to enable its long running abuse. You know the disappointing part? It is easy to fix. It is infinitely easier to fix than the ‘illegal immigration’ problem that everyone ‘wants’ to fix. But nobody is talking about it. Actually, I take that back. I did go through all the 2016 Presidential candidates’ stance on the issue of immigrants. Most of them didn’t have one – legal or illegal. Some had the usual rhetoric about building a wall and securing the borders. But there were two candidates who actually gave specifics on the issue of ‘legal’ immigration. Both said the same exact thing. They spoke about raising the minimum prevailing wage for the positions that call for immigrant workers. This is definitely a step in the right direction to address the abuse of the system. But it is no way sufficient. More needs to be done to bring awareness around this issue and to call for Congress to pass laws that will reform the system for those who wish to migrate to this country legally and contribute to its growth and culture.

Oh you ask who those two candidates are? One is Bernie Sanders and the other is Donald Trump. Yes, a Democratic Socialist and an arrogant Buffoon are the only two people who have even got some kind of an idea about what needs to be done to bring workers into this country legally. (Not sure what that says about this country’s politicians, but that is another story for another day).

So my dear America, yes this is the state I and thousands of others like me find ourselves in. We have a highly specialized skill set that this country badly needs. We all achieve and live the American dream until our visa runs out. But our contribution is always measured in terms of the number of American jobs lost. We are subject to being the victims of people who abuse the system we are trying to respect – a system that has been neglected for far too long. We go out of the way to ensure that we live here ‘legally’, yet no one is paying attention to our needs. All the while when the whole country is looking to find a ‘solution’ to those who come here ‘illegally’.

Yes, we know that is necessary as well. But please, do not pretend that we don’t exist. We do, and we are only trying to contribute. So please pay us some attention and in the process, help us help you grow?

Yours Truly,

A Legal Alien

Bobby Jindal and the ABCD

There is a colloquial term that is used among the people from India and the Indian sub-continent. It is used to describe and/or identify children of Indian immigrants in America. The term is ABCD, and it stands for American Born Confused Desi. (Desi being a generic term for the people from the Indian sub-continent). For the most part, this term is used as a tool for mockery and satire. But from what I have seen, there is a lot of truth to what it stands for. And when I dug deeper into Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana Governor and 2016 President hopeful (!), and what he had to say about where his parents came from and how he identifies himself, this post began to write itself. But as I gave it more thought, this post took a different direction altogether (as is evident from below).

But first with Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal.

Just so the reader is aware, Bobby Jindal isn’t his birth name. His parents named him Piyush Jindal, but then he changed it to a more ‘American’ sounding name when he was 10 – based on a character from Brady Brunch. He then went on to renounce his religion – Hinduism – in favor of a more accepted American South’s Catholicism. Apparently, the Bible made a big impression on him when he read it under the sheets in his bed as a kid (since he had to hide it from his parents). On the other hand, I would like to know if he even made the effort to read a single Hinduism religious text, and if he did, then what he did or did not like about it. He has publicly made statements to the effect that he wants to be called American, and not Indian-American. (There is some validity to this, but that is a separate discussion in itself). He has a self portrait of a white man in his office. Yes, that is true. And his campaign slogan now appears to be ‘Tanned, Rested and Ready’.

Bobby Jindal’s Self Portrait featuring White Guy

Bobby Jindal Self Portrait featuring even Whiter Guy

Now here is something about an ABCD who was in my circle of friends a couple of years ago:

He told me I reminded him of Rajesh Koothrapalli (the ABCD character from Big Bang Theory) in front of a bunch of white people. (Oh the irony!) He actively distanced himself from where his parents were and about his (clearly forced) visits to India. He once pointed to an Indian origin anchor on TV to me and said, “Hey man! Look on TV. It is one of YOUR people.” He once pointed to other fellow Indian immigrants on the street and remarked they were ‘Akshay’s cousins’.

Apart from the fact that that was the only time anyone has ever made a racist comment to me here in America, it is extremely ironic and disappointing that it came from a guy with the same ethnicity. My first reaction was disbelief and anger. (Needless to say, I no longer have any contact with him). But over time, I have come to understand a far more fundamental issue in play among children born to Indian immigrants in general. It is what eventually manifests itself in racist remarks to one’s own kind, ridiculous campaign slogans, as an active distancing from one’s own community, and the ‘C’ in ABCD. I am not just referring to the simple case of the identity crisis, but more importantly, to how the ABCDs deal with and respond to them.

I cannot even begin to comprehend what children of Indian immigrants have to go through growing up with kids that have zero resemblance to how they look. What kind of bond do they form with the other kids? How do the other kids react when they see a non-white, non-black, non-Asian and non-Hispanic kid in their classroom? Are they curious? Or do they already have pre-conceived opinions and look at him weird? Do the other kids make fun of his/her skin color? How does the kid with Indian parents answer the question, “Where are you from”? And what do the parents tell the kid at home? How do the parents bring him up? Do they bring him up to be an American? Or have they decided that their kid is going to be brought up with what they have understood to be Indian values? How do they find a balancing act? What kind of resources do they have to guide them? Are they even aware of the impact their potential ignorance has on the kid?

Once we begin to find the answers to questions like these, only then can we claim to truly understand how it is to be the child of Indian immigrants. These are hard questions. And the answers to them generally point to a set of circumstances where the kid is the easy subject of ridicule, bullying and casual (if not explicit) racism to the point of being ashamed of his own skin color. It points to a situation where the parents have very little to no idea about what is happening or how to deal with it. It paints a picture where the kid is torn between what he is told at home and what he is expected to be at school. They tell us a story of the parents bringing up the kids in the same way they would if they were in India -and being blissfully unaware of the repercussions. They tell us the story of the brown kid who ultimately learnt that he needed to be an ‘American’ – in style, looks and thought, not just in passport – in order to fit in with the world around him.

And it is at this critical juncture that a lot rests on. More specifically, what does the kid do about all of this? The ultimate destination is clear – be more American so that you are considered part of the world around you instead of being seen as the stranger in a strange land. But the path to get there is less evident. The kid sees two major paths to get there: embrace all the things that America has to offer while remembering your own ethnic identity and heritage, or completely reject and deny your ethnic heritage and identity while going all out to prove to everyone around you that you are an American.

It is not too hard to see which path is more easy for the child to take. An adolescent kid with a natural propensity to rebel, with no real guidance around him, whose main priority is to be accepted among his school friends who are not his own skin color, and who has ‘decided’ to be more ‘American’ has very little to choose from. Rejecting and denying where his parents came from, what his ethnicity is, what his religion is, what he eats, and which languages he speaks is – in the child’s head – the easiest way to ‘become more American’. And thus the kid reaches his destination not by embracing what the American lifestyle and freedom has to offer, but by rejecting who he is, how he looks, and all the values his parents believed in.

Popular portrayal of the ABCD has not particularly helped matters. It has almost always involved showcasing a guy or a girl in their youth, having conservative Indian immigrants for parents, and is struggling to ‘break away’ from their conservative ways to explore the ‘freedom’ that America has to offer. This has pretty much been it. I am unaware of any popular portrayal of the ABCD where there are bigger questions – identity crisis, bullying, casual racism, alienation, lack of counselling – asked of being an American born to Indian immigrants. There is no ‘why’, just a ‘what’.  And that is rather unfortunate.

And so we have a world where American kids born to Indian immigrants feel the need to reject the values taught at home in order to be accepted among friends at school. Over time, this manifests as a deeper hatred and shame towards people of one’s own kind and everything that is associated with them. And this is what leads to brown-skinned people believing they are white, changing their religions, finding Indian food too spicy or refusing to eat anything that doesn’t have beef in it, making racist remarks to people of their own skin color, and actively distancing themselves from anything remotely associated with India and other Indians.

When one looks at Bobby Jindal or my ex-friend through this frame of reference, the perspective changes from mockery and ridicule to one of sympathy and understanding. I may never actually change my opinion about what kind of a person they are now, but I do so with a better understanding of how they got to where they are. Without a shred of doubt, I am extremely glad that neither me nor my parents had to go through this daunting experience. Being born and raised in India until the age of 25, I had my identity and values well set before I made my move here. As I have slowly integrated myself with what America has to offer, I have embraced those aspects that do not conflict with my core values, and did so without forgetting where I came from. But I was able to do so only because I knew who I was and what I stood for before I got here.

I started writing this post sitting on my high horse passing judgment and mockery at a set of people whom I thought were just simply bad. But as I now conclude it, I am glad that I have a better understanding of why they are that way. I will even go to the extent of admitting that I myself may not have turned out any different than them if I was brought up here. So I can only hope that a lot more awareness is spread around on these aspects of growing up as children of Indian immigrants in this country. And at some point, maybe, we will have a generation of children who are indeed proud of where their parents came from and all the good things that India has to offer.

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PS: It would be summarily incorrect to assume or stereotype that all children born to Indian immigrants end up this way. Or that all parents have no clue about how to deal with such situations. The point being made here is that more often than not, the conditions surrounding a kid growing up are conducive to such an outcome.

Millions of people around the world go into depression after realizing Democracy does not work

In a surprising development towards the end of yesterday, hundreds of reports from all over the world poured in claiming large masses of people going to depression simultaneously. The reason : Democracy – or more specifically the realization that it does not appear to be working.

It first started with people in Japan reporting en masse to psychiatrists and psychologists complaining about general depression and a growing inability to trust anything. People were seen making long lines outside pharmacies waiting to pick up their prescription medication to battle depression.

Meanwhile, many reports started coming in about similar developments in Greece, Cyprus, Portugal, Spain, Italy and a few other European nations. This was then followed by reports in the United States where millions of people were first confused if their depression was the result of the extended winter this year. However, after continuing to watch their preferred News Channel  – Fox or MSNBC – just to see the ‘other party’ get thrashed, the people found their depression getting worse and ultimately attributed it to the failure of democracy.

Depression is the only consequence

Common questions the people seem to be asking all around the world included: “Why isn’t anything getting done here at all?”, “If a party is elected by the people, then why doesn’t it get to do anything?” “Majority means they should be able to pass all the bills right?”, “I thought Obama had won the reelection. But then why is he still campaigning against the Republicans instead of getting things done?”

Questions like these were asked repeatedly by people when journalists inquired about their depression and what they thought of the economy.

A worldwide survey had shown a few years ago that democracy was “The Shit, Yo!”. It was apparently not just a ‘good system’ of governance, it was also the ‘only system’ of governance. People all around the world appeared to agree that the United States was ‘just awesome’ because it kept bringing in ‘democracy’ to all those poor souls in the middle east who were ‘totally suffering without democracy’.

A noted commentator who has been supporting democracy setups all his life had this to say about the new democracies in the Middle East: “It’s cool yo! I mean, there are a lot more people getting killed, more religious persecution, more security problems, more economical problems, and on top of it all, nobody is able to do shit about it! But it’s cool because they have a democracy, right?”

Another pro-democratic intellectual masturbator said this in response to all the increased violence and unrest in the new democracies: “Hey! At least now they get to feel awesome and brag to the rest of the world that they live in democracies right? I mean, now they actually have a RIGHT to brag and feel awesome! Yeah, take that Bitchas!”

Actually, this reporter was unable to find anybody who held anti-democratic views who could talk about the other perspective. Apparently, it was just ‘not cool to be anti-democracy’. Why? The only answer this reporter was given repeatedly to that question was “Because Democracy is the Shit, Yo!”

When more people were interviewed to hear their perspectives about why they felt democracy would not work, many of them echoed similar thoughts.

“I was told from my days in middle school that democracy is the shit. I never understood it back then but just thought it was something cool that everybody liked. So I  began to trust it as well. But I just don’t see it working ANYWHERE.”

Citizens of India, the largest democracy in the world, were initially upbeat about the next elections so that they could vote the ruling Congress party out. But then they realized that even a different party would never be able to satisfy the needs and demands of hundreds of retards  who will still be in the parliament- all thinking differently.

“The only thing that will continue for sure is the regular adjournments of the parliament sessions. No bills will get passed and no reforms will take place. Because this is democracy right? So you get to put down a bill just because it won’t help you win reelection.”

The only people who appear to be celebrating democracy and those that have not gone into depression are the folks who have been making their lives out of subsidy and welfare money from the governments. Social Security, disability, medicare, medicaid, unemployment benefits, you name it. People who utilize these welfare schemes appear to be extremely happy about democracies.

“I hope democracy continues. This way nobody will have the balls to take away my disability checks and Medicaid because if they do, I will vote for the other guy who promises me my free money. Isn’t that awesome? I  hope the people in the Middle East also begin to reap the benefits of democracy soon. Go welfare schemes!”, said a 43 year old American who has been claiming disability checks simply because his ‘back hurts a bit when he tries to stand up’.

It appears that only people who work, making money and leading generally better lives were affected by the depression epidemic that has swept the globe. The poor who have been living mediocre lives through welfare schemes and subsidies appear to be more than happy to continue to live in mediocre conditions as long as they keep getting their free money that in turn supports their mediocre existence.

All the people living off subsidies and welfare schemes were of the strong opinion that ‘Democracy indeed is THE SHIT!”.

When President Obama was asked about this mass depression epidemic, he responded with a prepared statement with beautifully crafted sentences, messages of hope, general GOP bashing, and a lot of promises and by the end of his speech, people were so excited and enthusiastic that they seemed to have forgotten what it was that they had asked him in the first place.

The President did refer this reporter (who pressed him with the same question a second time) to the following video from The Dictator…..

…..thus missing out the whole point altogether.

In conclusion, it appears that Democracy is not just ‘The Shit’, it is simply SHIT.

From a Land of Handouts to a Land of Opportunities

One of the most powerful sources of clarity is contrast. Societies in different countries offer glaring contrasts between each other in a myriad aspects of life – all inevitably attributed to a range of factors including the history, the diversity, the founding principles etc. When both extremes of any specific aspect of a society are experienced or witnessed, the nuances of the society’s working reveal themselves in more detail and clarity. Growing up in India and now living in the US since 3 years has provided ample opportunities to observe this very contrast in many many important facets in both the countries.

The role (and its extent) of a government in the functioning of a democracy is one such prevailing contrast. I have been fascinated to see how Americans perceive the Government in stark contrast to how a majority of the Indians see it. Several questions inevitably are raised when this contrast is quantified in terms of where the two societies are right now and what the Governments are doing in each case. What components of public life does the Government concern itself with? Where exactly do they decide they need to interfere? What are the people demanding from the Government?

Profit was a dirty word for Nehru

In order to attempt answering this question, let’s go back to the time India got independence and the first Government came to power. When Jawaharlal Nehru became the Prime Minister in 1947, he inherited a country in chaos and disarray that needed quick solutions. Tasked with the job of restoring order and generating faith among the people in a quick and easy manner, the founding fathers of the Indian Government decided that the Govt’s role was to act as the entity which had a responsibility to personally take care of every single aspect of its populace. Not only did it see its primary role  to be that of shielding the masses from the problems facing the country, it also saw that the only solution to these problems was the Government itself. Inevitably, when this school of thought manifested in the generation of policies, Govt interference became the primary mode of problem addressal at every level of public life.

The impacts the society faced over the next several decades should not only be viewed as a result of what the Government did back then. Equally important is to look at what the Government did NOT do. When it told the people, “We are the Government and we are responsible for you. We will take care of you so you do not have to take care of yourselves”, the Govt did not frame policies that generate opportunities and jobs for the people to solve their problems themselves. It did not encourage the people to seek out and build their own lives. Instead of framing policies and laws that generated jobs and opportunities, the Govt decided that the easiest way to “take care” of the poor and the lower class was to give them ‘handouts’.

These handouts came in many forms – subsidies on cooking gas, petrol, diesel, loan waivers for farmers, tax breaks etc. The lower class families were shielded from the real problems of the society by the appeal of free money. An added benefit for the Govt was that it made it more popular among the voters. (When did free stuff ever become unpopular?). But the important question to ask is how the Govt paid for all these schemes. Its answer was simple. All it had to do was to play Robin Hood. It made sure to tax successful businessmen at insanely high rates (up to 70%) in order to give free handouts to the poor. (I mean, surely those rich people did not NEED that money, right?) This led to the now obvious consequence of discouraging  job creating businesses and instead encouraging Government dependency among the people. More the people depended on the Government, more the Govt decided it was their responsibility to take care of them. The effects of this vicious cycle over the years are reflected best in the demands the poor and the lower class make now.

The entire population that has received handouts from the Govt over the years now demand only one thing – more handouts. They do not demand  better infrastructure and more opportunities for them to build their lives on. This does not appear to them to be the solution to their problems. Why? Simply because the only solution they have ever known has come in the form of free handouts from the Govt. Bad rains? Wave the farm loans. High diesel price? Subsidize it. So much so, these handouts have almost become a fundamental birth right for the long term recipients. And any attempt to get these same people to do without the handouts is going to be futile.

In addition to the obvious consequence of mass objection by the recipients to any reduction in the handouts, there is always going to be a political party that is bound to take advantage of the discontent among the voters to further their own agenda. So ultimately, we have a society in which a Govt gives handouts instead of opportunities or infrastructure, which is in turn voted to power by people who demand more handouts as opposed to opportunities and infrastructure – and all this in a democratic setup that does not allow the breaking of this vicious cycle.

Contrast this with what I have observed in the USA. The founding principles here were based on individual liberty and achievement. The people were encouraged, and in fact expected, to build their own lives by hard work and effort. Meanwhile, the Government saw its primarily role as the entity tasked with the responsibility of framing policies and laws that generated sufficient opportunities for the people to go out, build their own lives and to take pride in their achievement. The Government also sees that it has a responsibility to provide the necessary infrastructure and security that facilitates the effective utilization of the available opportunities by the people. When elections come in, people don’t demand subsidies or handouts. They want to know how each candidate plans to create opportunities, improve infrastructure and provide healthcare and security.

The prevailing mindset in a society that has been subjected to THIS process is very evident. People take pride in building their own lives and achieving their dreams. This in turn leads to improved dignity of labor  – something that is grossly lacking in the Indian context. But perhaps more importantly, we will have a society that attracts and retains the best talent in the world – and this is extremely evident in what is happening in America. You see, this is because the best minds seek appreciation of their talent through opportunities and reward for hard work, not through handouts and subsidies. Ultimately, we have a society where the economy prospers when the people prosper.

(As a side note, the fact that President Obama is going exactly in the opposite direction – that is more Govt control, more food stamps, more subsidies, bailouts, redistributing wealth Robin Hood style – is what will make him never get my support. Do read the full text -not taking anything out of context – of his now infamous ‘You did not build that’ speech and if you still feel he does not have Socialistic tendencies, then you are perhaps already an Obama supporting Democrat no matter what. This ideology, however, sets a very dangerous and irreversible precedent for going down the wrong path)

But I digress.

My main aim of providing this contrast is for it to serve as a means of explanation for the origins and roots of something so deeply ingrained in the Indian psyche. Make no mistake. This is not to imply that the average Indian will consciously NOT make an effort to make use of opportunities and infrastructure. On the contrary, Indians have shown what they are capable of when the economy was hit with reforms in early 1990’s. The middle class rose to the occasion to make use of all the newly available opportunities to build their own lives. Entrepreneurs blossomed amidst encouragement for businessmen and industrialists – generating employment for millions. Today this result can clearly be seen in the ever booming software industry.

Even the poor lower class have shown a propensity to utilize whatever opportunities and infrastructure is available to improve their livelihood.  As Nandan Nilikani has pointed out in his book ‘Imagining India‘, a million dollars spent on laying a road to a remote village is likely to create a lot more jobs than the same amount being spent to provide subsidies for the people of the same village. However,  the fact that their demands still revolve around subsidies should be attributed more to their own prior experience regarding what they have received, instead of implying an inherent hesitancy to work.

The proof is evident and clear. Whenever opportunities are provided, and along with it the necessary infrastructure, the people of India have always risen to the occasion to make use of it and succeed – irrespective of how rich or poor we are. The Government needs to recognize this and prioritize its spending accordingly. What India needs are opportunities – not handouts; it needs infrastructure for the people to effectively make use of these opportunities – not increased subsidies that increase Government dependency and drive up the deficit.

However, as I pointed out earlier, in a multi-party democratic setup like in India, there will always be someone who will seek to appease the people by promising them more handouts. And the unfortunate fact is that this approach has shown to work repeatedly. When or how this vicious cycle is broken is hard to tell. And until that point, India will never make the transition from a land of handouts to a land of opportunities.

 

On Mitt Romney and the One Way Road of Entitlements

Everybody is now familiar with the leaked videotape of Mitt Romney’s comments on the 47% during a campaign fundraiser held in May. The American media has spared no time and left no holds barred in providing scathing criticisms of his comments and its implications. So much so, the real issue at hand is lost, or at best, obscured in a remote column somewhere. You will see a lot of judgment and opinion, but no inspection or meditation. The closest one does find to ‘inspection’ is the actual breakdown of the 47% who do not pay income taxes. But that is not the issue that should be the focus of Romney’s comments.

Mitt Romney

Before going to his actual comments, it would be prudent to put the whole comments into proper context. Everyone has seen the comments. But how many actually know what question Romney was trying to answer? His comments about the 47 percent were in response to this question:

Audience member: For the last three years, all everybody’s been told is, “Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you.” How are you going to do it, in two months before the elections, to convince everybody you’ve got to take care of yourself?

The inquiry is not only clear and specific, it is also very important. The audience member is worried, and presumably tired, of hearing the rhetoric emphasizing government dependency by President Obama in all his policies and speeches. And now he wants to know how Mitt Romney intends to convince the same set of people that the right thing to do is actually to assume responsibility for oneself and not depend on the government’s plans.

It is to this question that Mitt Romney responds with the now well publicized comments. I am only going to quote one small line that, perhaps, best serves as a platform for my arguments:

Romney: And so my job is not to worry about those people— I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.

There are two things to this. First, his comment about ‘my job is not to worry about these people…’ is only being said in context with who he can target for votes in the elections – NOT with regard to who he intends to care for when he is President. It is important to emphasize that this can only be seen within the proper context of the question asked. (And of course, the media won’t tell you that).

Second, when he says “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives”, he is making an extremely profound observation. Its spontaneity may have likely clouded the message. But that is not to imply that the message isn’t there.

Mitt Romney is not only talking about entitlement, but he is also pointing out what it does to a society in the long run. Subsidies, tax breaks, welfare schemes and food stamps are quick fire and sure shot processes to put money in the hands of the vast middle and lower class. There will be a lot of beneficiaries and a lot of happy people. Condition of life will generally improve and a lot of praise will be given to the President for having taken up this initiative. These welfare programs continue in their various forms, expanding the net to include more people all the time, while the federal debt and deficit continue to grow. A large number of people continue to extract the benefits year after year after year simply because they can.

But what this does over time is that it renders upon the beneficiaries a sense of entitlement –  an expectation that the government is going to support them no matter what. And this expectation takes form more out of habit, repetition and prior experience, rather than a genuine appreciation of one’s own situation. The longer these schemes run, the less the people are prone to be motivated to achieve something by themselves. Add high unemployment rate to this, and you have a society feeding off of government grants and subsidies.

And here is where comes in the idea of the one way road of entitlement. You see, welfare schemes can only be introduced or expanded. They can never be stopped, paused or downgraded. Firstly, it is going to be an extremely unpopular decision as all the beneficiaries treat those tax breaks or welfare schemes as a true entitlement. (They have simply been GETTING IT for so long). Secondly, as pointed out earlier, these people, who are now simply used to the idea of these handouts and feel that they are entitled to it, can never be convinced that handouts are not the way forward. And finally, within the workings of a democratic government, there is always going to be a party which will sing the rhetoric of populism and appeasement for votes, if the benefits are indeed stopped.

Put all these three together and the fact that every party in power wants to remain in power, and you will find that everyone is staring down the one way road of entitlement and deficit.

The current President’s idea is to continue this drive of government dependency of the middle class with tax breaks and welfare scheme expansions. Mitt Romney, on the other hand, recognizes the one way nature of the road and clearly intends to take a deviation. And within this context, his comments about “I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives” ring true. For, you see, a large number of people now view these schemes as an entitlement that cannot be reversed. And there really is nothing anybody can tell them that will help them understand otherwise.

Now, the idea is to make sure that Obama does not get the chance to continue on that same road and allow more people to walk it. The solution is to create jobs for people to build their own lives upon – not to keep giving handouts to the vast majority and increase their dependence on the government. I am actually glad Mitt Romney made those comments (albeit not in an ‘elegant’ manner) that have now created a furor everywhere. It had to be said. Too bad he did not say it in one of his campaign speeches. THAT would have been something!