Sunday, September 28, 2008

Foreign policy 'Hit'

Here's something for you Sarah Palin/Asif Zadari haters. The two met recently in New York and here's what happened:
On entering a room filled with several Pakistani officials this afternoon, Palin was immediately greeted by Sherry Rehman, the country's Information Minister.

"And how does one keep looking that good when one is that busy?," Rehman asked, drawing friendly laughter from the room when she complimented Palin.

"Oh, thank you," Palin said.

Pakistan's recently-elected president, Asif Ali Zardari, entered the room seconds later. Palin rose to shake his hand, saying she was “honored” to meet him.

Zardari then called her "gorgeous" and said: "Now I know why the whole of America is crazy about you."

"You are so nice," Palin said, smiling. "Thank you."

A handler from Zardari's entourage then told the two politicians to keep shaking hands for the cameras.

"If he's insisting, I might hug," Zardari said. Palin smiled politely.
I'm not going to even comment. I just think someone should make Zadari the admin of Sara Palin:VPILF group on facebook. He earned it. And what did Palin think of all this?
"It's going great," Palin said. "These meetings are very informative and helpful, and a lot of good people sharing appreciation for America." [link]
God Bless America. The whole thing is on youtube. I told you these Paks are horny.

Sri Lanka's brain drain -- Redux

Last month I tried to estimate how much of Sri Lankan youth go overseas for studies. I found this Island article which puts a number on that estimation:
Around 7,000 students go abroad for higher education annually but the Higher Education Ministry does not keep records or register students going abroad for higher studies privately, Ministry Secretary Mrs. P. B. G. Abeyratne said.

However, the Controller of Immigration and Emigration P. B. Abeykoon said there may be more than 7,000 who go abroad annually for studies but around 20,000 passports are issued purportedly for those leaving the country for higher education.

Higher Education Ministry sources attributed this large exodus of students to the inability of universities to admit all those who qualify at the AL examination. Parents who could afford to send their children abroad do so, source added. "This is a feature of the global scenario of this era."

Though university education is free, it can accommodate only a limited number of students. Currently, there are only 16 state universities and only about 16,000 students are admitted. [link]
7,000 seems like a conservative estimate, especially if the number of student visas issued are around 20,000. But even 7,000 per year is a big number, given that the state Universities can accommodate only around 16,000. There is absolutely no case for free higher education, more on that soon.

Why I love P.J O'Rourke

Because he says things like this :
From Parliament of Whores (1991) 
  • Giving money and power to government is like giving whiskey and car keys to teenage boys.
  • The whole idea of our government is this: If enough people get together and act in concert, they can take something and not pay for it.
  • Every government is a parliament of whores. The trouble is, in a democracy, the whores are us. 
Eat the Rich (1999):
  • Your money does not cause my poverty. Refusal to believe this is at the bottom of most bad economic thinking.
Give War a Chance (1992) :
  • You can't get good Chinese takeout in China and Cuban cigars are rationed in Cuba. That's all you need to know about communism.
FromThe Liberty Manifesto (1993):
  • There is only one basic human right, the right to do as you damn well please. And with it comes the only basic human duty, the duty to take the consequences.
  • If you think health care is expensive now, wait until you see what it costs when it's free.
From All the Trouble in the World (1994):
  • A politician is anyone who asks individuals to surrender part of their liberty — their power and privilege — to State, Masses, Mankind, Planet Earth, or whatever. This state, those masses, that mankind, and the planet will then be run by ... politicians
  • Of course, the humans in Haiti have hope. They hope to leave.
  • War is a great asshole magnet.
Why I Am a Conservative (1996):
  • There is no virtue in compulsory government charity, and there is no virtue in advocating it. A politician who portrays himself as caring and sensitive because he wants to expand the government's charitable programs is merely saying that he is willing to do good with other people's money. Well, who isn't? And a voter who takes pride in supporting such programs is telling us that he will do good with his own money— if a gun is held to his head. 
P.J. is an awesome satarist, journalist and a political commentator. I'd highly reccomend his two books, Parliament of Whores and Eat the Rich.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Myths and Realities of the U.S financial crisis

There is a financial crisis in the U.S. and we are hearing the same old silly arguments. Apparently, in the last few weeks capitalism has collapsed, Bush has become a socialist and it's all the fault of the World Bank and the IMF. If you belive any of that, you should really update your feed reader.

But if your concerns are more serious, the ever impressive Ajay Shah does some myth busting:
Myth: Governments are bailing out rich people. 
Reality: Acute pain is being inflicted on shareholders and top managers of financial firms.

Myth: unregulated hedge funds are dangerous.
Reality: The unregulated hedge funds were fine. The problems were created in the heart of regulated finance, in banks giving out home loans.

Myth: The crisis has demonstrated the failure of financial capitalism.
Reality: Financial capitalism has delivered $50,000 per capita of GDP in the US.

Myth: This is the failure of laissez faire ideology in the US
Reality: The US ‘Federal Register’ publishes over 50,000 pages of new regulations every year. Regulatory expenses rose 44% from 1990 to 2008 in the US. US financial regulation is far from laissez faire! What failed was dysfunctional governance structures.

Myth: The crisis has demonstrated that credit derivatives are dangerous
Reality: The crisis has demonstrated that OTC derivatives are dangerous.

Myth: Innocent bystanders have got hurt because of the shennanigans of millionaire rocket scientists. 
Reality: US GDP is doing surprisingly well.
The above is based on slides (PDF here) from a talk Ajay delivered on the financial crisis. Obviously, it would have been better to hear the man speak along with the slides. 

The presentation goes into broader range of issues and well worth a look for anyone trying to understand what went on in the financial markets. 

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Mirror on Me on Obama

This probably some kind of cheating. It's useful when you have friends in the media. In any case, here is Dinidu writing on something I (supposedly) said about the U.S. elections:
Deane would vote for: Barr–Root (Libertarian)

He says he would vote for the Libertarian candidates because "I agree with Obama on some things and with McCain on others. But I don't agree enough with either one of them to actually vote for them. At least I agree with Barr on most things." But interestingly, Deane goes onto say "Now pretending we are Americans is cute, but the fact is, we are not. Sure Obama knows how to work the teleprompter and give a great speech, and Sarah Palin is one hot governor but surely, those are not good enough reasons to root for anyone."

He explained his stance by saying, "Unfortunately 'talk' is all what most twenty-something Sri Lankan Obama supporters have considered. They might give all sorts of sophisticated policy-wise reasons for it now, but the fact is most decided to support Obama just by listening to him and not by examining his policies. Obama for example proposes to 'save American jobs', now I can understand why some Americans might support that, but why on earth would Sri Lankans want to save American jobs? I'm sure the American union bosses would find it rather cute. Protectionism of one country directly opposes opportunity of others. That's the great Obama plan."

"Like Rudy Gulliani said, "change" is not a destination and "hope" not a strategy, and I think Americans are waking up to empty cheesy rhetoric, and that's why Obama is going down in the polls and loosing the election. There is one good reason though Obama should win – he's black. If he loses, all the media here and in other countries will put it down to racism and would argue the fact that not even in America can a person from a minority win an election. That's not good for minority groups anywhere."

Ok ok that going down on the polls and loosing the election part was stretching it. But I stand by everything else. I could have written anti-McCain something as well. But what's the point in making fun of an old white guy, of whom everyone hates anyway? Obama-bashing is much more fun. And did you know he just flip-flopped on net neutrality? gasp!

On Barr, he's toast. He just lost Ron Paul's endorsement by playing bad boy. He (and frankly Paul) screwed up what could have been Libertarian Party's best year yet. 

More on Obama, McCain and the U.S. elections.

I, Society and Public Policy

Centre for Civil Society is organizing it's annual seminars on public policy, now called "I, Society and Public Policy" renamed from "Liberty & Society Seminars" starting in October in Delhi, Cochin, Bangalore and Pune. If you are between 18 - 25 with an interest in Public Policy, do apply before the time runs out

I was in the Cochin seminar in January andI highly reccomend it. See my somewhat related posts on the Cochin  seminar here and here.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Early warning on the financial crisis

In as early as 2003, someone had the wisdom to see what was coming. Who said the following?

One of the major government privileges granted to GSEs is a line of credit with the United States Treasury. According to some estimates, the line of credit may be worth over $2 billion. This explicit promise by the Treasury to bail out GSEs in times of economic difficulty helps the GSEs attract investors who are willing to settle for lower yields than they would demand in the absence of the subsidy. Thus, the line of credit distorts the allocation of capital. More importantly, the line of credit is a promise on behalf of the government to engage in a huge unconstitutional and immoral income transfer from working Americans to holders of GSE debt.

The connection between the GSEs and the government helps isolate the GSE management from market discipline. This isolation from market discipline is the root cause of the recent reports of mismanagement occurring at Fannie and Freddie. After all, if Fannie and Freddie were not underwritten by the federal government, investors would demand Fannie and Freddie provide assurance that they follow accepted management and accounting practices.

Ironically, by transferring the risk of a widespread mortgage default, the government increases the likelihood of a painful crash in the housing market. This is because the special privileges granted to Fannie and Freddie have distorted the housing market by allowing them to attract capital they could not attract under pure market conditions. As a result, capital is diverted from its most productive use into housing. This reduces the efficacy of the entire market and thus reduces the standard of living of all Americans.

Despite the long-term damage to the economy inflicted by the government's interference in the housing market, the government's policy of diverting capital to other uses creates a short-term boom in housing. Like all artificially-created bubbles, the boom in housing prices cannot last forever. When housing prices fall, homeowners will experience difficulty as their equity is wiped out.

Furthermore, the holders of the mortgage debt will also have a loss. These losses will be greater than they would have otherwise been had government policy not actively encouraged overinvestment in housing.

Perhaps the Federal Reserve can stave off the day of reckoning by purchasing GSE debt and pumping liquidity into the housing market, but this cannot hold off the inevitable drop in the housing market forever. In fact, postponing the necessary but painful market corrections will only deepen the inevitable fall. The more people invested in the market, the greater the effects across the economy when the bubble bursts.

Congress should act to remove taxpayer support from the housing GSEs before the bubble bursts and taxpayers are once again forced to bail out investors who were misled by foolish government interference in the market. I therefore hope this committee will soon stand up for American taxpayers and investors by acting on my Free Housing Market Enhancement Act.

The answer is Ron Paul in a speech he gave in September 2003. The pointer from the Mises Blog. Now most financial experts wouldn't have agreed with Paul then, and probably won't agree with him now. But the bottom line is the Austrian analysis is the only one which predicted what was coming.

In late 2005, Tyler Cowen, himself no Austrian, put a post on "If I was an Austrian post" on his influential Marginal Revolution blog. In it he made several predictions as to what would happen if he were to follow the Austrian business cycle theory. As Tyler later admitted, most of it has come true. He said however, loose monetary policy, like the Austrians thought was only one of several and less important triggers to the problem. Here Paul seems to suggest that apart from loose monetary policy, government guaranteed line of credit to Fannie and Freddie was at fault for creating the 'mal-investment' and the high risk-taking.

Whether you comepletly agree with the analysis or not, you have to hand it to Ron Paul, he called this one. That's why he's all over the media now.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Sri Lanka : The 3rd most horniest country in the World?

The most horniest is Pakistan, followed by Bangladesh. That's according to Google Insights. See the graph here:

(Click to enlarge or see Google Insight link)

I used insights to show the results for the terms 'porn' or 'sex'. Also notice that the top 4 countries with the highest search volume for these terms are all South Asian -- Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India. A SAARC orgy anyone?

In any case, I can think of two possible explanations for the results.

First, in lower-income countries, the utility of non-porn related internet activities (searches in this case) are low. There's no real thriving e-commerce industry, so searching for soap, books or mini-skirts wouldn't yield much. Nor do people search for things like local news on general search engines like Google, because of all the noise created by 'western content'. After all according to Alexa 9 of the the 100 most visited websites in Sri Lanka are porn-related.

But there are few kinks with this hypothesis. If this were true then most lower-income countries would have higher proportion of horny-searches. This isn't exactly the case. Nigeria for example has a much lower per-capita income level than Pakistan and it produces less horny searches than the U.S.

The second explanation, (which I think is more to the point) is this: All people are horny. But countries of who's cultures promote a hush-hush attitude towards sex, find other means to satisfy their horniness, such as watching Internet porn. Notice that middle-eastern countries such as Egypt, Yemen immediately follows their South Asian counterparts in the horny search index.

Conclusion: we are just bloody sexually-oppressed and bored on the Internet. But you didn't need me to tell you that. Bugger, what a waste time..

Notes : 1) Google Insights normalizes all data. Biases resulting from higher-search volumes of certain countries are removed. 2) Horny-country inspiration from IndiaUncut.

WTF Headline of the day

Comes from the Sunday Observer: 
NCPA saves 13-year-old girl from further rape
One must be grateful for the NCPA. Unfortunately, we already know at least one of the questions the Police are going to ask this girl,"why didnt you use your mobile phone?"

[HT on link: Achcharaya]

Sunday, September 21, 2008

The upside of the Colombo Visa

Marking the International day of Peace, the Sri Lankan Police decided to launch registration of residents from the north currently staying as 'guests' in Colombo. The new Colombo Visa is complete with details such as purpose of visit, expiry date, etc. Those already having 'visas' will be able to confirm the validity of their documents. But that's not all, according to a report from the Sunday Observer,
Refreshments will be provided for the northern civilians who register themselves today with the police in the Western Province
Realiable sources say however, that the 'refreshments' consisted of bunty toffees. 

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A Palin Theocracy in a bikini

It strikes me as rather odd when the most right-wing of the Sri Lankan media is retardedly leftwing when it comes to reporting about U.S. politics. But this choice picture for an anti-Palin piece on the Sunday Times takes the cake. Here's a screenshot : (Also see it in the ST site)

I mean, Christ..

Oh wait, I shouldn't say that. That would make me an extremist fundamentalist christian who wants to shoot women in cases of rape, incest and have a fondness for pigs with lipstick. No, I dont think I have that quite right.. but you get the picture. Oh and by the way, the bikini pic is fake

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Racists playing the 'Obama' card

Obama is down in the polls, including on InTrade, which means lots of people are quite literally betting he will loose. So the Sri Lankan communalists are now pointing to racism to explain this turn of events. Case in point  --  this Island piece by some fellow called Mano Ratwatte.  The writer makes number of claims, 
  1. Obama is loosing because there is a racist conspiracy against him. Majority of the people in the southern states will not vote for a black candidate because of racial prejudice and tradition. 

  2. He says, "No one other than a Christian will ever have any chance of seriously running for public office even for a small city council (perhaps, with the exception of San Francisco)".

  3. Iraq war was about oil.

  4. Sarah Palin is a rightwing christian extremist. These people brainwash innocent people, doesn't care about Iraqi IDPs and calls Obama a baby killer.

  5. On the other hand, Sri Lanka is wonderful. There are lots of instances where Sinhala Buddhists majorities voted for Muslims, Christians and Tamils. 

  6. Ranjan Ramanayake and Janaka Perera are devout catholics. They got highest preferential votes in the buddhist dominated Sabaragamuwa and North central provinces. Sinhala-buddhists are not so bad like the newspapers say. 
In sum, Obama is loosing because of racism, We are so much better. Yay!

If Obama continues his downward trend and eventually looses, expect to hear more of this, and not just from Sri Lanka. If there was ever one good reason for Obama to win the election, it's because he's black. Just that. For the sake of proving that it can be done. and deny all those other communalists the pleasure of making  "look it can't even be done in the U.S., so why here" type arguments.

Let's take some of these "arguments" by the writer. First of all, isn't it criminal that in the days of Google and Wikipedia, these 'journalists' don't bother to using them? 

If  Ratwatte did manage to use a search engine, he would find that there have been plenty of Jews who have been American politicians including at least a couple of Muslims, BuddhistsSikhs, Hindus, and at least one Atheist.  Some of these people have been Governors, congressmen, mayors, senators and Republicans from 'red states'.  So.. Can't run for city council? Ratwatte is lying or most probably have no idea. Let's also bear in mind we are taking about a country where non-christian religious beliefs comprise of just 5.2% of the population, including Jews. 

But let's go back to his first point, Now I don't claim to know why exactly Obama is loosing ground. If I did, I'd be a Washington strategist, not a Sri Lankan blogger. Perhaps Obama is following a flawed strategy, perhaps Americans are waking up to the naive "Hope" and "Change" stuff, can't be sure. But claiming that it's racism is just nonsense.

As for the 'Southern states', they are called red states for a reason, they go Republican whether the opposing candidate is black, white or luminous green. The battle is not fought in Texas or Alabama like Ratwatte suggests, it's fought in swing states like New Hampshire and Virginia. One needs to understand how the U.S. presidential electoral college system works, it's not like the guy with the most votes win as in Sri Lanka.

Finally, anybody who thinks Sarah Palin is a christian extremist needs get his/her head examined. If evangelicals are in control of the Republican party like some liberals like to think, Mike Huckabe would be on the top of the ticket, not John McCain. 

Now I don't know about Sinhala-Buddhist majorities voting in Muslims, Christians and Tamils, but if that is indeed the case, as a litmus test, let's put a Tamil to run in Hambantota, A Sinhalese in Jaffna and get one of the major parties to nominate a Muslim in one of the presidential elections, let's see how that go. I won't be that optimistic.  I wouldn't read too much into the Ranjan, Janaka Perera situation other than achievements of an actor and a Military man. 

To summarize, yes, I do think there are racial prejudices which play a part in the election, and yes, there are intolerant Christian fundamentalists U.S. politics, but they are not in control of this election and unlikely to make a deterministic impact in the future. Nor can Sri Lanka hope to compete for a prize in multicultural politics with the United States.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Austrian Economics in Sri Lanka?

Emailing me about to my last post, a reader asks me whether I know any Austrian economists in Sri Lanka.

Personally, I don't. I'm pretty sure it's not taught in any university. I'd say the popular Sri Lankan business portal LBO has Austrian leanings, especially the fussbudget column focusing on monetary policy. 

About an year ago, I helped arrange a couple lectures by Cris Lingle, an economist of the austrian tradition also a fellow at CCS.  He spoke about Globalization for a Youth group I'm involved with and also about imbalances at global markets at the Chamber of Commerce.  That pretty much sums up what I know about Austrian economics in Sri Lanka. 

Personally, I'm a student of the austrian tradition as much as I am a student of the neoclassical tradition and not really prepared (or know enough) to pass judgements on either. 

Austrians are also committed classical liberals or Libertarians. Sadly, I don't know many Sri Lankan libertarians either. If you have any info about Austrian economics in Sri Lanka or Sri Lankan libertarians, leave a comment or better yet, drop me an email. I'd be interested in knowing.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Seminar on Austrian economics

Foundation for Economic Education has put up podcasts of its seminar on Austrian Economics. Sri Lankans might find the two podcasts on monetary equilibrium and costs of inflation interesting. You'd need some background in economics and at least some familiarity with the Austrian school to fully appreciate it. The cost of inflation lecture might still be useful for anyone given the current circumstances.

Austrian theory is certainly not mainstream econ, but it has informed the mainstream throughout the last century. Austrian monetary theory in particular, is probably more valid here, in developing countries where central banks truly do suck, like the Austrians like to think.

Non-economists, especially those not trained in the neoclassical mainstream would probably find Austrian econ easier to appreciate and understand. There's no hunt for the elusive equilibrium, there's no emphasis demand curves (austrians think it's more like a demand fog than a curve), no assumptions about perfect competition. It's logical and commonsensical, until your probably get a sense where the austrians are taking it. I wouldn't do away the Friedmanites just yet, but If you want to give it a go, have excellent resources on the subject. 

For daily doses of Austrian econ, both the Mises blog and even more so the Austrianeconomists blogs are highly recommended.  


Friday, September 12, 2008

Holy.. Cat?

See this is why I hate cats. From the Daily Mirror
A cat in Ratnapura is wanted for swallowing jewellery worth thousands of rupees after it entered several houses uninvited and swallowed valuable rings and pendants lying around, police sources in Colombo quoted residents as saying.

Residents reported their missing items to the police early last week but were unable to identify the suspect.

However when contacted the Ratnapura police said they have some complaints of jewellery being missing but could not confirm an involvement of a cat.

The brown street cat, who had been roaming in the neighbourhood for over a month, was spotted swallowing the jewellery by a gardener who immediately narrated the incident to the house owners. The cat which carried out its crime in another house the following day was immediately caught red handed, swallowing a gold earring by three people who had been following the animal, but escaped unharmed when the men tried to grab it.

The hungry cat has not been spotted in the neighborhood since then. [link]

Maybe the JHU should just bring an Animal Disciplinary Act. Otherwise these cats nowadays..

Budget-air, No-plane

Finally, it dawned on me why they call Mihin Lanka a "budget airline". From LBO:
Sept 11, 2008 (LBO) - Sri Lanka's troubled state-run budget carrier Mihin Air is to ask for another three billion rupees in peoples' money in the next budget to revive operations, an official said.
It's financed by government budgets you see. Budget-airline, get it now?. Anyway Moving on.. 
The airline is now without aircraft after having lost its start-up capital and also money borrowed from state-run Bank of Ceylon, and was said to be in the red by more than two billion rupees. [..]
With no source of revenue, the firm is paying salaries with difficulty and out 200 workers about 40 have already left the airline the official said.
Ok so let me this straight, Mihin. You are an airline with 200 employees and you don't have any planes? 

All I can do is clap for such brilliant entrepreneurial ingenuity. No further questions.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

For a Colombo Reform Process

Finally, there's some good news on the reform front :
Sri Lanka has been rated the top South Asian reformer in an annual business regulation study by the World Bank group, with a new company law and credit information improvements boosting its scores. [link]
That's according to the World Bank's Doing Business Report 2009, an annual study which analyzes and ranks countries on easy it is to do business in countries are. The bad news of course, is there's still a long way to go. Although Sri Lanka is the top regional reformer for the last year, it still languishes in 102nd position globally and behind regional countries like Pakistan (rank 77) and Maldives (rank 69), south-asia's richest and most business friendly economy. India is further behind in 122nd position, but I think the study ignores the impact of SEZs and other regional disparities in terms of policy.

Sri Lanka does especially badly with regards to paying taxes with a total of 62 payments and a total tax rate of 63.7%, which frankly is insane. This ridiculously high number of interactions with the bureaucracy is one of the reasons for bribes and corruption in the public sector. Maldives, as LBO notes, only has to make 1 payment as opposed to our 62.

We also door horribly poorly when it comes to property registration, dealing with construction permits and enforcing contracts. Labour laws are inflexible as well, something that will really hurt Sri Lanka in a low-tariff, post-GSP world.

That said, it's great that we have done some reform in the past year. The type of reforms undertaken are just mainly improving legal framework rather than getting into more politically-explosive issues, which is, at least for the moment, a decent strategy. Another thing we can probably improve is trade facilitation, which will have enormous benefits without being a political hot-button issue.

I have been thinking for some time about, what I decided to call the Colombo Reform Process. The idea is kind of modeled similar to the Copenhagen Consensus. The idea is to bring together, perhaps bi-annually, bunch of experts (mostly economists) and get them to come up with the top 10 (or 20) reforms which Sri Lanka could peform and rank it according to effectiveness and political feasibility and produce a report. I think that could really speed things up.

But this is not something that I'm in a position to do at the moment, so here's a shoutout to all the policy people at IPS, Chamber of Commerce, and the likes -- try and do this!. It might just work.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Convention speeches

I just managed to catch John McCain's full speech on Youtube. I think he did a reasonable job, and his VP Pick and the convention bump means he's now leading in the polls for the first time. The thing is with Sarah Palin in it, the Republican ticket looks likable, and have this thing going on which Obama had when he first came in. We will have to wait and see how things play out.

My favorite convention speech though is by Ronald Reagan, not his own nomination speech, which is also good, but the speech Reagan gave in support of Barry Goldwater in 1964. I think it eloquently articulates the values and principles which would fundamentally change the way government worked in the U.S. ever since the Reagan presidency.

A small excerpt of the speech is below. But do see the full version (Video| text)

Here's a few quotes from the speech I really liked:
"You and I are told increasingly that we have to choose between a left or right, but I would like to suggest that there is no such thing as a left or right. There is only an up or down--up to a man's age-old dream, the ultimate in individual freedom consistent with law and order--or down to the ant heap totalitarianism, and regardless of their sincerity, their humanitarian motives, those who would trade our freedom for security have embarked on this downward course."

"No government ever voluntarily reduces itself in size. Government programs, once launched, never disappear. Actually, a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we'll ever see on this Earth."

" the trouble with our liberal friends is not that they are ignorant, but that they know so much that just isn't so"

"You and I know and do not believe that life is so dear and peace so sweet as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery."

"You and I have a rendezvous with destiny. We will preserve for our children this, the last best hope of man on Earth, or we will sentence them to take the last step into a thousand years of darkness.

We will keep in mind and remember that Barry Goldwater has faith in us. He has faith that you and I have the ability and the dignity and the right to make our own decisions and determine our own destiny"
Barry Goldwater's son, Barry Goldwater Jnr, himself a former congressman was not at the GOP convention last week. Instead, he was at Ron Paul's convention. Interesting times.

Could Sinhala Rock?

I just finished watching Rock On, which is quite a good hindi movie about four guys and a band. I dont think I like the music all that much, but generally there is a decent hindi rock scene. I'm wondering why there aren't any(?) Sinhala Rock bands. Does certain languages sound better in rock than others? I wonder. But listening to songs like the Nadee Ganga Tharanaye by Chitral Somapala (Lion beer ad.) one would think not. But I wonder.. 

Tuesday, September 09, 2008

You have free speech, except when you don't

A friend of mine likes to obsess about the article 14 of the Sri Lankan constitution, which according to him guarantees freedom of expression. Here's what Chapter 3, article 14 say,
(1) Every citizen is entitled to -
(a) the freedom of speech and expression including publication;
(b) the freedom of peaceful assembly;
(c) the freedom of association;
(d) the freedom to form and join a trade union;
(e) the freedom, either by himself or in association with others, and either in public or in private, to manifest his religion or belief in worship, observance, practice or teaching;
(f) the freedom by himself or in association with others to enjoy and promote his own culture and to use his own language;
(g) the freedom to engage by himself or in association with others in any lawful occupation, profession, trade, business or enterprise;
(h)  the freedom of movement and of choosing his residence within Sri Lanka; and
(i) the freedom to return to Sri Lanka.
Sounds allright at first glance. But anyone who obsess with this must read article 15, which says:

5. (1) The exercise and operation of the fundamental rights declared and recognized by Articles 13 (5) and 13 (6) shall be subject only to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests of national security. For the purposes of this paragraph “law” includes regulations made under the law for the time being relating to public security.

(2) The exercise and operation of the fundamental right declared and recognized by Article 14(1) (a) shall be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests of racial and religious harmony or in relation to parliamentary privilege, contempt of court, defamation or incitement to an offence.

(3) The exercise and operation of the fundamental right declared and recognized by Article 14(1) (b) shall be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests of racial and religious harmony.

(4) The exercise and operation of the fundamental right declared and recognized by Article 14(1) (c) shall be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests, of racial and religious harmony or national economy.

(5) The exercise and operation of the fundamental right declared and recognized by Article 14 (1) (g) shall be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests, of national economy or in relation to -

(a) the professional, technical, academic, financial and other qualifications necessary for practising any profession or carrying on any occupation, trade, business or enterprise, and the licensing and disciplinary control of the person entitled to such fundamental right, and
(b) the carrying on by the State, a State agency or a public corporation of any trade, business,, industry, service or enterprise whether to the exclusion, complete or partial, of citizens or otherwise.
(6) The exercise and operation of the fundamental right declared and recognized by Article 14 (1) (h) shall be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests of national economy.

(7) The exercise and operation of all the fundamental rights declared and recognized by Articles 12, 13(1), 13(2) and 14 shall be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests of national security, public order and the protection of public health or morality, or for the purpose of securing due recognition and respect for the rights and freedoms of others, or of meeting the just requirements of the general welfare of a democratic society. For the purposes of this paragraph " law " includes regulations made under the law for the time being relating to public security.

(8) The exercise and operation of the fundamental rights declared and recognized by Articles 12 (1), 13 and 14 shall, in their application to the members of the Armed Forces, Police Force and other Forces charged with the maintenance of public order, be subject to such restrictions as may be prescribed by law in the interests of the proper discharge of their duties and the maintenance of discipline among them.
In other words you have total freedom of speech, expression and assembly except when they think it conflicts with national security, national economy, public order, health, morality, harmony, disciplinary control, general welfare, etc, etc.. 

Maybe they should have just said something like "you have all the freedom of expression you want, except when you don't".  That would save space, paper and probably help mitigate global warming.

On a related note, take another look at how our right to free speech is worded in the Sri Lankan constitution, 
(1) Every citizen is entitled to -
(a) the freedom of speech and expression..
and compare it with this,
American Constitution, Amendment 1- Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press… 
On the first, the emphasis is on the citizen, while the later puts it's emphasis on the government. The latter puts in writing what a constitution is meant for -- to put limits on what the government can do, and not, as is the case with Sri Lanka, put limits on what citizens can do

At least The Sri Lankan constitution is forthcoming about it's socialism and like any good socialist document, assumes state-ownership of our lives and gives us licenses to live, under certain conditions. This is one more reason why we should have a fresh constitution. If you need another good reason, just go through the damn thing. It's really really badly written with tons of redundancies. 

Harsh Gupta, who first did this comparison with the Indian constitution, puts the whole thing more succinctly than I do. Do read it here.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Street food and the Spontaneous Order

Partnhe Wali Gali, Old Delhi. Pic Courtesy: Krishna 1951

Lanka Reviewed has a post on my favorite street food joint in Colombo, "Burger King" in Malay street. Here's a brief about the setting from LR,
Mr Burger King is imaginatively located in Colombo 2 on the pavement next to the intersection of Malay St and Union Place: the one where you can go straight to go to Taj/Holiday Inn or turn right to Trans Asia.

MRBK is a cart with a grill next to it. They have placed a canopy right next to it with four plastic chairs so as to accommodate a more settled dining experience, with the aroma of diesel fumes and sounds of bus engines adding just an ambient touch of class. (It probably also makes the meat taste smokier so it's all good!) [link]
The place makes an awesome chicken Shawarma, the best I've had in Sri Lanka. Shawarma brings back childhood memories from Oman where I lived for sometime and spent all my Christmases till I was 11. Every weekend, or when he was free enough to take me out, dad would get me one of those 'rotating sandwiches'. Shawarma in Oman, If I recall correctly, tasted different and they had this amazing pickle to go with, which local places don't seem to have.

Among my other favorite street food joints are those juice stalls in Pettah, which sells anything from cordial to lime juice. The cordial is best avoided, but the lime juice is unbeatable, especially when you are in frantic Pettah under the hot Colombo sun.

But if you are a street food fan, you can't do much better than New Delhi. Street food is an integral part of Delhi's culture and you get wide range of stuff. The best I've had is possibly at Candni Chowk's infamous Paranthe wali gali or "Partha lane". The paratha joints there have been around since the time of the Mughals and the cooking is exclusively on the street, which frankly, makes me feel safer when trying out street food. Delhi's full of roadside eating joints but I especially recall Cannaught Place (or C.P. for Delhites) where I digged into Momos, corn and masala chai, perfect for the freezing weather, I found myself at that time in Delhi.

Another reason I love street food and the street vending in general, is because it teaches me economics. I'd wonder things like, why lime juice costs Rs.20 in Pettah and Rs. 120 inside say Queen's cafe? Then I'd get it, I'm not paying for lime juice at Queens, I'm paying for the service of getting a lime-juice at a place like queens. I'm paying for the possibility of chatting up with a bunch of friends, munching into a burger while I sip my juice in a comfy, cool environment. Something I cannot get at the Pettah place. The same goes for coffee prices at Barasita's. This realization has lead to my first (untested and probably wrong) theory in economics: There's no such thing called 'goods' in a market place. Only Services to provide goods.

Half-baked theories aside, watching and thinking about the seeming chaos in places like Pettah and Chandni Chowk has helped me visualize a Hayekian insight that a few people understand, and even fewer appreciate. I think Mary Kissel, writing for the WSJ captures it well,
The first time [my friend, Shruti] took me to Chandni Chowk's maelstrom of commerce, my feet froze in fear. She grabbed my hand, I shut my eyes, and we plunged into a bewildering web of weaving couriers, tooting cycle rickshaws, buses bursting at the seams, sacred cows, sari-clad grandmas and the occasional man stomping by with a 100-pound bag of chilies perched on his head.

After a few minutes, I stopped long enough to take a good hard look. And then I noticed it: Order. Not a single laborer walks aimlessly around this place. In every cranny, nook and lane, someone is selling something to someone. Even the men sitting on the sidewalks are ready for work. [..]

There's no government imposing order. And why should it? As Smith said, there's a "certain propensity" in human nature to "truck, barter and exchange one thing for another," so it's natural that a certain kind of system, guided by an "invisible hand," results. Chandni Chowk must be the perfect place to watch it at work. [link]
Hayek would call it Spontaneous Order.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Why Chinese can't speak English and why Singlish rocks

Swaminathan Aiyar offers an explaination:
I was asked once by a Chinese magazine for a ‘short’ article of 3,000 words on the Indian economy. I protested that 3,000 words was much too long. ‘‘No,’’ said the Chinese editor, ‘‘when translated, 3000 English words will shrink to just 800 Mandarin words.’’ 

Every letter in Mandarin is a full concept. That gives Mandarin a totally different structure. So, it is truly difficult for the Chinese to master English, and for the British to master Mandarin. For similar reasons, the Japanese remain weak in English. Some Chinese speak excellent English, but they are so few [..]

It’s much easier for Indians to learn English. Sanskrit (the root of Indian languages) and Latin (the root of European languages) belong to the same group of ancient Indo-European languages. When a Swaminomics column of 800 words is translated into Hindi, the translation is also around 800 words. [link]
Sinhala (and Tamil), like Hindi, have the same Sanskrit roots, which is why Call Centres could have become big in Sri Lanka, had the Sinhala nationalists not abandoned English driven education.  

Swaminathan dedicates the rest of the article to talk about how Hindi-speakers directly translate Hindi to English, producing more than a few chuckles. Sinhala-speakers do much the same. It's common for Sri Lankans to ask 'so so how how?' a direct translation from ' ithin ithin kohomada', a reference to how someone is feeling. 

My favorite phrase comes from my 12th grade physics teacher. One day in class, a friend of mine has not done his assignments and was giving an elaborate version of the 'dog-ate-my-homework' story. Ms.Kumudini listens for a while, but soon looses patience, She cuts him off mid-sentence and yells, "Niroshan! enough! you're lying horizontally and vertically!"

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

The Brain Drain

Last Wednesday, Anila Banradanike's column for FT focused on Sri Lanka's 'Brain Drain' particularly among urban youth. She complains, rightly, that there are no credible statistics available on how many people go abroad for studies. I agree, all I can say is it's quite a large and growing number. Why do I say this? Let me offer a small anecdote.

After completing up to my O-levels at St.Peter's, a semi-government school in Colombo, I transferred to a so called 'international school' to finish my A-levels. For you non-Sri Lankans, that's a type of schools which offer (mostly) British curriculum of study. My batch consisted of about 70-80 people. Thanks to the weird subject combination I took -- Physics, Economics, Math and Computing -- I took a class with everyone in the batch and now about three years later, I can count only about 6 people in the country. I may have lost touch with a few, but I am quite positive the number remaining in Sri Lanka is less than 15. The rest of them are studying in places like Australia, U.K, U.S., Malaysia and increasingly in China, India and a few medical students in places like Bangladesh and Belarus.

Let's do the math, 15 out of 80 students is roughly about 20% of the batch in my school, that means in general roughly about 80% of most decent international schools (some more, some less) go overseas annually. Add to this the contribution from local schools, we have a significant proportion of some Sri Lanka's best talent going overseas mostly because, higher ed. in this country sucks.

If anyone's serious about stopping (or at least slowing down) the brain drain, they should really think about reforming higher education.