Kaushik Basu, Again

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Some of the comments on my post, http://www.manojenath.in/

Thanks, but no thanks Mr. Kaushik Basu, have focused more on the scholarly eminence of the author of the idea of "harassment bribe", than on the practicability of its implementation. In an unstated manner, it is also a soft impeachment of my credentials to join issues.

I am not surprised that my venturing an opinion on his proposal, in itself, has been taken to be an act of intellectual impertinence.

No one can question the formidable academic achievements of Mr. Kaushik Basu. He is one of the leading economists of our time. Cornell University does not offer a professorship to any Tom, Dick, or Harry. To boot the government of India has chosen him to be the chief Economic advisor. But having said that, are we to believe that the expertise and insight gained in one academic field is transferable to other messier domains of law making, crime and criminality? Shall we take Mr. Basu on trust just for his eminence and applaud a proposal which is against plain common sense? Just because I am not a professor of economics at Cornell, should I forsake my right to an honest opinion? Must not a cat look at the king?

It does not take an expert on game theory to realize that the conclusions arrived at from an intellectual model, howsoever elegant, as an exemplar of human behaviour, would be a little like, Arthur Koestler's "ratomorphic fallacy" - applying the results obtained by experimenting with animals to the sphere of human experience? Nor is the experience of several decades at the actual job of investigating instances of "harassment bribe" and corruption, something to be dismissed out of hand. In my earlier post, to the examples generated in the realm of abstract thought I had counter posed three scenarios, rooted in empirical experience, for the possible misuse by the more crooked. Is the idea likely to fare any better as a helpful tool for the really needy - the poor - as advocated by Basu and promoted by his acolytes? 
 
The poor – an unconscionably large number of them have always been with us, no matter how much growth we may experience, and economists have somehow always felt a little shame faced about the "trickle down" effect failing to explain the appalling poverty amidst areas of unimaginable wealth. The issue of poverty has been at the centre of their concern, especially, since after our country gained independence. Poverty estimation has become a self augmenting exercise as newer issues are included under the self propelled process of rising expectations and widening equality gap. Newer and more targeted programmes based on these estimations, however, have failed to ensure that the sums marked for the poor reach its destination.

There are more than 12 million BPL families in Bihar. They are the potential candidates who may be compelled to offer "harassment bribe" to access their limited entitlement, their quota of red card ration, or kerosine oil or the first installment of the subsidy of Indira Awas Yojana. Having paid their bribe they line up before the police stations to lodge their complaint of "harassment bribe", as also to claim the reimbursement of the bribe, which is now a legal entitlement. The Basu thesis would work only if the Police functioned at hundred percent efficiency to lodge the complaints and see them successfully through the court. I am even prepared to release the police from the more onerous duties of attending to murder, dacoity, kidnapping, and instances of terrorism. For the Basu thesis to function properly, it would be desirable that the conviction and reimbursement take place before the next installment of the dole or subsidy falls due to the complainant. Otherwise even "harassment bribe", which earlier was one of the modes of seeking opportunities to those who were otherwise excluded, will also not be available. (As an economist, Mr. Basu, would he not consider it a better idea for the poor to be directly reimbursed their 50, 100, 500, and 10,000 by the state itself and separate budgetary provisions made under the heading, "harassment bribe", given the much greater cost of the delivery of the justice, and the cost of lost opportunity in terms of missed wages for the days the ‘harassed" poor will have to attend courts?)

My hunch is that people - at least the poor for whom even a fraction of their entitlement matters, because they have not learnt to claim it as a matter of right, would rather pay up and remain quiet. No point in annoying the system or the functionaries so much. You can't live with them but you can't live without them either! But on the other hand, the public servant would begin to entertain more urgent expectation of the "harassment bribe" as his legal entitlement. The neat division of an intrinsically immoral and illegal act into two distinct acts of civic and criminal nature - will end up emptying the whole act of the element of moral debasement, in practice making bribe more acceptable.

The root cause of corruption – corruption on a gigantic, unconscionable scale is the direct product of the current financial order, but no neoliberal economist worth his name will repudiate this order. Unable to address the root cause of the disease he finds it convenient to tinker with the symptoms. David Harvey, (I must enlist some authority or the other henceforth) one of the more reliable interpreters of capitalist maladies locates its crisis in what Marx said, its desire to accumulate for "accumulation sake", capital as the sole good thing, without reference to any particular end. The over accumulated profit must be invested to earn ever more profit. In earlier times it fuelled imperialist expeditions and conquests. In the famous words of General Smedley Butler, "The trouble with America is that when the dollar only earns 6 percent over here, then it gets restless and goes overseas to get 100 percent. Then the flag follows the dollar and the soldiers follow the flag."

Finding that the world is long past the age of colonization and annexation for capital to indulge its urge for lebensraum, it takes recourse to the credit system, the creation of "fictitious capital", where the gap between asset and value is bridged by the credit system. The subprime experiment was an emblematic example where "more building and selling of houses had been financed than could be paid for by with income deriving." It led the world to the brink of financial ruin. The entire subprime crisis, it is sobering to realize, was ignited by brilliant outsized minds with deep scholarship and impressive CV who claimed to create wealth ex nihilo.

It appears that there is something demiurgic about the advance of Indian capital. It does not recognize the colour of money; it is indifferent as to the source of its origin. If it had its way it would make money, every bit of it - colourless, odorless, and anonymous. Reduced to pure value and recognizable as such demanding free access to the financial system solely on this strength. What is a little corruption, fraud or nepotism in to facilitate  its triumphal march? At its worst it will be termed as "unaudited business expenses," at its most euphemistic "education expenses." (Does anyone remember bribery being described as such in a defence deal?)
 
The world however does not appear to be entirely ripe for financial capitalism. The  various laws and regulations, formulated from time to time, still make a distinction like ill gotten, tainted and unaccounted money. This regime would like money to be legible, traceable, and indelibly stamped with the identity of the owner. Every bit of it. The clash of civilizations led to the mother of all, the 2G scam. The CAG reports keep unraveling the everyday epic of irregularities and it seems we may see some action in the petroleum sector). Money as pure value- as almost always - won and the battle left behind the wrecked debris of political bigwigs, media moralists, civil servants and a shattered moral universe where Premchnad's Namak Ka Daroga would be unthinkable.

Human beings are after all fragile creatures; they can withstand pressure only up to a point, whether of the physical kind or others. The kind of temptation that the buccaneering capital can bring to bear on mere mortals is of a superhuman nature. 3000 crores as bribe? Ministerial berth as reward for expected favours? Isn't that too much of a price for any individuals conscience; one could buy a whole community for it. Truly, we have created a monster that has run out of control!

So while we are at it, and while Mr. Kaushik Basu and his distinguished ilk have turned their gaze towards the problem of bribery and corruption, would they not be better engaged thinking about self limitation, limits to growth, limits to capital, which taken together would mean reining in the monster which feeds on our greed. Or is it more urgent to legitimize "harassment bribe" because corruption at the lowest level creates the shrillest noise attracting attention to the peacefully profitable exchange of "sweeteners", "business expenses" or the activity of PR firms trying to canvass important public appointments for the smooth functioning of the capitalist enterprise  at the highest level.


 

India Today magazine once referred to Manoje Nath, a 1973-batch IPS officer, as being fiercely independent, honest, and upright. Besides his numerous official reports on various issues exposing corruption in the bureaucracy in Bihar, Nath is also a writer extraordinaire expressing his thoughts on subjects ranging from science fiction to the effects of globalization. His sense of humor was evident through his extremely popular series named "Gulliver in Patiliputra" and "Modest Proposals" that were published in the local newspapers.

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