Sunday, August 30, 2009

Gujarat’s Prohibition.

I have been schooling in the state of Gujarat in India for the last four years. It is one of the few places in India that still has a prohibition on consuming liquor. If you are wondering whether liquor is available contrary to established laws then yes – it is available and it is no secret. Historically, the ban was in place before India's independence and has continued to stay in place in an attempt to uphold the "values" of Mahatma Gandhi's. The man also wanted to ban beef and whatnot.

After consuming illicit liquor, about 136 people had died last month in the State's capital city. Critics have zeroed the cause of death to the prohibition imposed by the State. The prohibition outlaws the manufacture and sale of liquor in the State. Those who cannot afford the smuggled liquor fall back on illicit liquor which is literally speaking – the highway to hell. Smuggles don't face competition on a free market and as a consequence don't face bankruptcy. Competition absent, they have little or no thought for their reputation when they end up killing people with adulterated liquor. Most people who would have otherwise provided quality booze disappear because smuggling liquor is illegal and even face a death penalty for bootlegging. At least two commissions, one headed by Justice M N Miabhoy and another later by Justice A A Dave had said that prohibition has not worked well.

Undeterred, the ministers are coming up with twisted arguments to still keep the prohibition. For instance, the Ministers have stated repeatedly that deaths by illicit liquor have occurred in other parts of the country and are not exclusive to Gujarat. However, this does not provide any indication as to why the deaths happened in the first place. I think most people consume illicit liquor in other parts of the country for the same reason they consume it in Gujarat where there is a prohibition. In the case of Gujarat, it is smuggled liquor and in the case of the rest of the country its taxed liquor. In most cases, the taxes imposed on liquor are prohibitively high for the purpose of "constructive social change" or whatnot resulting in the fact that not many can afford safe liquor and end up drinking illicit liquor which is available for a cheaper price.

I think the minister's observation that people elsewhere [not living under prohibition] are also dying from consuming illicit liquor has profound significance – just not in the way he would like us see. The prohibition in Gujarat forces people to consume adulterated liquor if they wish to have a drink by eliminating competition while taxes in other States force people to resort to adulterated liquor which would not have been the case in the absence of taxes. In both the cases, the principle that the government shouldn't dictate the way I choose to live my life is conceded. The only real difference between both the cases is that of measurement or of how much intrusion by the government is acceptable.

The question debated is not whether the government should violate both the rights of the seller and the buyer by making it impossible for them to agree to a certain price but what is being debated is how to curb the deaths by illicit liquor while ignoring the cause that led to the deaths itself: government intervention. Without the prohibition and the taxes, buyers would be left free to buy safe liquor provided by sellers. If the seller sold adulterated stuff, he would be held liable and charged accordingly in a Court of law. Cheaper prices means buyers would have more money left to invest or spend elsewhere entailing more jobs and more wealth for all.

Any of this doesn't mean that one should associate themselves with alcoholics and their likes in a free society. To the contrary, one is free not to associate with or not finance their booze. But when the government steps in enacting laws prohibiting trade in liquor – the field is left open for all sorts of twisted individuals to sell illicit liquor without any regard to reputation of their product nor to human life.

The only real alternative to death is the path of freedom. The path where people are left free to think and then act accordingly to one's highest judgment. Man doesn't live by means fangs, claws or the legs of a cheetah. His sole means of survival is thought followed up by action. The government can choose to ban the liberty to think and act on it but it cannot choose to escape the consequences of its policies. Man is man and if one ignores the requirements of human life then death necessarily follows.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

The Nature of Miracles.

Every time I discuss the issue of religion with any non-Objectivist, I usually cover all the bases I understand best: identity, causality, the "super" natural and mans means of knowledge – revelations v. reason. However, my favorite ground for disqualification of the notion of a god lies in the nature of miracles.

Most people confuse miracles with magic tricks. They confuse illusory tricks with metaphysical impossibility. Could magicians really get a normal rose to speak? Could Jesus really break a normal piece of bread and break into a thousand parts? No, the discussion here is not about whether they have found a special rose that could speak or special bread that would break itself into a thousand different pieces. If there was really something special about the thing, then why would such an act even qualify as a miracle? It doesn't. And it doesn't because there is nothing "miraculous" about things acting the way they are supposed to act. In essence, a miracle has to this: It has to make a thing act in violation of its properties, its identity, its nature. In technical terms, it has to violate causality. It has to make a thing act against its nature – it would require that a normal rose speak instead of blooming and that a regular piece of bread break into a thousand parts.

As Greg Perkins puts it in his great essay, "In short, a genuine miracle requires a thing to act against its own identity—to have a contradictory identity—to literally not be what it is, which is incoherent."

As far as the magicians go, any successful magician will tell you that magicians have to closely conform to the identity of things to perform a trick. If he expects a heavy rock to fly in spite of gravity expecting a miracle in the course of a trick, he will without doubt end up making an ass of himself.

Update: A few corrections.

Sunday, August 16, 2009

An Awesome Commercial.

I've always been a sucker for creative commercials and this one by BMW definitely makes the cut.

The Cheapest Car In The World.

Enter the cheapest car in the world. TATA Motors has recently announced the release of its car, the TATA Nano which has caused quite a flutter among the middle class families in India. It costs roughly about $2500. The great news for most of them is that people will now switch from using motorbikes to cars. Unlike Western countries a lot of folks drive around on bikes in India because it is cheap and gets you from point A to point B. It's great news for them.

Also, the Nano is quickly becoming the symbol for progress. A few hate it because it will cause even more global warming and a larger group hates it becuase it will end up clogging already overcrowded roads owned by the government. A friend of mine had a sharp retort for the later complaint -- "Would you privatize regulated roads or regulate private car companies -- how would you roll?" A no-brainer by all means!

Here is a review by Autocar

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

The bizarre airlines “bailout”.

There have been a series of bizarre events over the past few days in the Indian domestic airline sector. What triggered it off though was not. The government owned airline, Air India which was facing dire losses asked the government for a bailout for about Rs 20,000 crores. The government was aware of the losses and the finance ministry made it mandatory for all government officials to fly Air India while travelling on work, on both domestic and international sectors. A couple of days later the airlines popped the big question – "Could we get some of that booty you stashed away from the taxpayers?" The aviation minister, Praful Patel went to the extent of saying that a government bailout was on the cards for Air India with the only condition being that the government would only dole out a fraction of the requested amount.

Watching this trend, the domestic private airlines jumped in and apparently asked to be bailed out with the ultimatum that if the government failed to bail them out – all services were slated tp be terminated on August 18th or worse – even indefinitely if the government refused. Barely a day after the airline chiefs announced that they wouldn't fly on August 18, Delhi based low-cost carrier Indigo withdrew from the industrial action. The government flatly refused to yield and even cut Air India's bailout "which was on the cards" and the other airlines gave in.

In my opinion, the airlines demand does not even constitute a bailout in the first place. Responding to a question in an interview Ajay Singh, Director, Spice Jet said,

"Let me just clarify. You said when introduced the story that the airlines were looking for a bailout. The airlines are not looking for a bailout. Essentially, what the airlines are saying is that let us create an environment for aviation in which the cost of aviation in India is comparable to the cost of aviation anywhere in the world. Today, airlines in India are paying 60-70% higher tariff on aviation turbine fuel (ATF). Sales tax is averaging 26-30% and we are requesting that this sales tax be put in a level of which is sustainable and which is comparative to any other airline in any other part of the world. Similarly, airport charges landing and parking fees are very high. There is a new ground handling policy, which increases the cost of aviation further. We believe that we should be in terms of cost put at the same level as airlines in other parts of the world."

The private airlines are not asking for a positive – i.e. a sum of money from the government but on the other hand are asking for a negative – to cut back breaking taxes which are making it impossible for the aviation industry to stay in business. Praful Patel, Minister of State for Civil Aviation said, "The government understands the difficulties of the sector and also would see whichever way we can be of help. We understand aviation is very important to the economic development of the country but to say we will cause inconvenience to the passengers and to the people, I think, that is not acceptable." If the government really understands the difficulties of the sector and would like to be of service, why don't they simply roll back all the crushing taxes they have enacted in the first place?

The answer to that would most likely be that government needs the revenue from taxes to fund all the programs that they would enact in favor of the "public good". Even speaking only in terms of free market economics and "public good", one could point out that taxes have the seen and the unseen effects as illustrated by Frédéric Bastiat in the Broken Window fallacy. Were the money from the airlines not snatched away then they could have more money to spend on building their business which would result in creation of more jobs, cheaper air fares and more "public good" than any government program could ever attain. If anyone ever doubted the efficacy of freedom in a market, one simply has to look at India before and after 1991 – and what's more, all the fruits were a result of only partial freedom that was allowed to seep in.

But the good as the minister puts is that the individuals in the airlines industry should self-sacrificially work themselves and run a business that is hardly profitable but what's "unacceptable" in the whole matter is that they may "cause inconvenience to the passengers and to the people". Mr. Minister, could we please ask how do you expect any good if you pursue policies that are contrary to man's life such as the initiation of force against private individuals who decide to sell their product at a particular price? What is "unacceptable" then is for people to ask the question: "What's in it for me?" As long as the airline industry is willing to slave away, devoid of any profit to their own selves, for the general public – they are moral and good and to the extent that they would like benefit from their own actions, they are immoral or at best amoral. I think this is the root cause that is literally plaguing mankind on earth. All welfare programs that are eating away the freedoms of individuals eventually justify themselves that they are noble because the beneficiary of one's actions is somebody else.

If the airlines are to stand a chance the next time around, it is the principled stand against such arbitrary power they must take. They should do precisely what they are omitting to do now – assert that the governments function is to protect individual rights from agencies that initiate force which includes the government also. If the principle is conceded that the government may initate force and collect taxes – the question then is only how much should it tax or take away. How much of taxation is permissible is only a measurement with the principle conceded. They should not employ pragmatism by conceding that such taxes are great in theory but impractical in reality. It is not merely the "non-initiation of force principle" that they should invoke but also assert that being moral consists of acting in a fashion that promotes man's life and that anything that thwarts it is evil – and deserved to be condemned to be so. As Leonard Peikoff puts it his famous essay, "Health Care is not a Right",

"This is not a case of noble in theory but a failure in practice; it is a case of vicious in theory and therefore a disaster in practice. I want to focus on the moral issue at stake. So long as people believe that socialized medicine is a noble plan, there is no way to fight it. You cannot stop a noble plan—not if it really is noble. The only way you can defeat it is to unmask it—to show that it is the very opposite of noble. Then at least you have a fighting chance."

Russell Peters is hilarious!

Russel Peters, the Indian stand up comedian -- plainly speaking -- is funny as hell. He has been my favorite stand up comedian ever since I watched his show the first time. One of the greatest things he ever did, I think, was to get Indian people interested in stand up comedy. At least I do not recall most Indians interested in comedy before they watched him. Yeah, Chris Rock is pretty funny and was around for a while but does not make the cut in India by a far cry.

He is especially great with the Asian and Indian people -- and he is frickkin hilarious. Here are a few. Enjoy!

Saturday, August 1, 2009

Group or Arrange?

I have been working for my LSAT's from the Logic Games Bible lately and found something interesting I thought I would share. When a problem discusses linearity [arranging or ordering given variables into fixed positions] and grouping [which sets rules as to which variables can go together and which cannot or which variables can be chosen and which cannot be chosen with a given variable], do you first order the variables in accordance with the linear rules or group with the grouping rules?

The answer to that is one has to group before arranging the variables. Taking an example from the book – if I win ten tickets to the Super Bowl I don't start off by putting people in the second, the fifth or the tenth seat. Instead I would first select the group that I intend to invite and then arrange if necessary. Thus, one always groups before starting out with the linear component of the game.

Explaining such an abstract principles with reference to a simple example is really, really smart.