Our Gilded Age (India version)

James Crabtree’s The Billionaire Raj is a page turner – really informative and well written (as one would expect from the FT’s former Mumbai bureau chief), full of surprises, and above all a fascinating window on India’s super-wealthy. The theme of the book is corruption, and its co-evolution with the Indian economy as the ‘licence raj’ restrictions were progressively removed, and new sectors like telecoms grew dramatically. In this new world, the super-wealthy businessmen and the politicians found they needed each other: the deployment of legislation and contracts helped the former, the opportunity to take part in business helped the latter. As one of the interviewees puts it: “They [the politicians] are saying: ‘We don’t want briefcases full of cash and Swiss bank accounts and all that any more. We want to own businesses ourselves. We want equity stakes.”

The scandals covered in the book – from airlines to cricket – are extraordinary, as are the descriptions of wealth flaunted. It is somewhat cheering to know that some scandals resulted in at least disgrace and sometimes arrest. There are also some thoughtful reflections on whether the practices described are always entirely bad: might they in some phases of development ensure that infrastructure gets built? One example in the book is a half-built steel mill and power station complex, halted by the cancellation of coal mining licences  due to allegations of corruption. Crabtree writes: “Watching him [Naveen Jindal], I was struck by the stress of his position: the billions in loans, the half-finished projects and the thousands of workers who …expected him to find a way to fix them.” The downside of doing business by politica favours is the unpredictability of it all.

There is something of this flavour in David Pilling’s Lunch with the FT with Nigeria’s Aliko Dangote, who recounts how he got his big break:

‘“Obasanjo called me very early in the morning and said, ‘Can we meet today?’ ” says Dangote, recalling the presidential summons. He wanted to know why Nigeria couldn’t produce cement, instead importing it by the boatload. Dangote told him it was more profitable to trade than to produce. Only if imports were restricted would it be worthwhile. Obasanjo agreed. Dangote has never looked back.’

Crabtree also cites Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Forevers, (reviewed on this blog), which describes corruption at the bottom of the income scale. Although this clearly acts as a tax on low incomes, she has sympathy for those who earn so little that they can’t afford not to demand bribes.

I ended up not sure whether to be optimistic about India’s dynamism and scale, seeing this Gilded Age as growing pains, or pessimistic because of the debt mountain involved, and the nationalist politics of the present government – the chapters on Narendra Modi do not leave the reader reassured. Either way, this book opens a window on an extraordinary period of change in India, a country too big and important for its future not to affect all of us.

Here is the author being interviewed about the book on NPR.


Global Britain and national Britain

It has taken me a while to finish David Edgerton’s new book, The Rise and Fall of the British Nation: A Twentieth Century History. This is because of the packaging rather than the contents – it’s a heavy volume I’ve had to read at home propped up with cushions. So although I’ve enjoyed the book, I have a rather impressionistic take on it.

The chief impression is that there isn’t a single piece of received wisdom about Britain in the 20th century the author doesn’t challenge. Edgerton has challenged the ‘declinism’ thesis in his previous books and does so again. But there are other myths to bust. The welfare state wasn’t distinctively new after 1945 – a lot of it had been established in the 1920s. The Labour Government of Harold Wilson wasn’t especially technology-friendly. It is nonsense to claim the Establishment consisted of anti-scientific art historians and classicists, there were loads of technologists and scientists in government. It is indeed refreshing to read such an upbeat take on the 1950s and 60s.

Above all, the book argues, the key phenomenon of the post-world war 2 decades was not welfarism or corporatism but  the creation of a distinctive British nation – until Mrs Thatcher started to turn the country back into an internationalist capitalist one, as it had been in the early 20th century. Edgerton’s British nation lasts only from 1945 to 1979.

This makes for a refreshing read, there’s nothing like a bit of lively contrarianism. In fact, you can see Edgerton’s compulsion to be contrary in his challenge to both industrial declinism and techno-boosterism simultaneously, which – while surely the correct stance – is also pretty argumentative.

But not every bit of his myth-busting is wholly persuasive. On the NHS, for instance, Edgerton argues that most of the provision was in place prior to 1945, and those with low incomes did not have to pay for treatment. He offers some facts on the extent of municipal provision, the role of GPs, and so on. This surely greatly underplays the uncertainty and anxiety of getting medical treatment before the NHS. Even if it is true that people ended up being able to access treatment and not having to pay, I remember from my 1960s childhood the deep, deep financial worry illness caused older people, not habituated to the idea that you could turn up at a surgery or hospital and nobody would ask about your means.

The book is at its best on technology and industry, which is hardly surprising given Edgerton’s wonderful previous books on technology – particularly The Shock of the Old but also Warfare State and Britain’s War Machine. It ends with New Labour, and the attempt to define a forward-looking, techno-optimistic Global Britishness. In fact, it ends with Mrs Thatcher’s state funeral – the first accorded to a PM since Churchill’s:

“There were no cranes left to be dipped in respect by dockers in the unprecedented honour the London proletariat gave Churchill in 1965. In the old and distressed pit villages of England, Scotland and Wales, forgotten former miners celebrated bitterly. Tony Blair meanwhile was making money working for some of the vilest torturers and dictators on earth. Only satirists, not historians, could do justice to this turn of events.”

And then it stops. Hmmm. There were of course loads of cranes on the London skyline, contstructing rather than unloading, and nobody chose to dip them for the funeral. Mrs Thatcher’s governments had indeed ravaged the country’s economy outside of south east England – this book does far better than many histories of Britain in not being a wholly London- and Westminster-centric one, given its focus on industry – and the real criticism of the decision to give her a state funeral would surely be her divisiveness. It’s an unsatisfactory (lack of) ending to a very interesting book.

An earlier chapter considers the emerging divisions in society but also within the main political parties from the 1970s on and it would have been more satisfying to see this rounded out somehow with reference to current debates about the utter mess of Westminster politics, a devolving Britain, the polarisation over Brexit, and in the middle of all this ideas about industrial policy and the technology frontier. Unfair to ask a historian for comment on the present – but the idea of the British nation is surely at the heart of it all today?

Anyway, as noted, these are impressions. It isn’t just the bulk: there is a flavour of one thing after another, as sections plunge into detail – albeit always fascinating. This is well worth a read nevertheless (although in paperback maybe?)


Cognitive engineers, not choice architects

Although I’ve been reading at least as much as ever, it’s been difficult to find time to post about the books, given the length of my To Do list and the depth of untackled emails. One book I finished a while ago and wanted to flag up was Cognitive Gadgets: the cultural evolution of thinking by Cecilia Heyes. This is outside my territory, but as she incorporates cognitive science and linguistics in her work, I’ll be bravely inter-disciplinary too.

The book’s argument – as the subtitle flags up –  is that humans’ distinctive cognitive abilities are due to cultural evolution rather than genetic. It considers the evidence for cognitive differences between human babies and newborn chimps, and concludes that are rather subtle although importantly including a greater human ability to learn, and to remember. Then as humans grow we acquire our far greater distinctive cognitive skills from the society around us – they are not encoded in our minds, they are not simply shaped by social learning, but rather mechanisms or ways of thinking that have been built by cultural evolution: “They are cognitive gadgets rather than cognitive instincts: pieces of mental technology that are not merely tuned but assembled in the course of childhood through social interaction.” Some parts of the gadgetry will of course be inherited genetically, but the assemblage is the result of natural selection operating on cultural variation.

The book argues that this approach overcomes one of the issues with the idea of memes, because the issue is what units are memes measured in? What does the force of natural selection actually operate on – tunes, ideas and other memes? This seems unlikely. Heyes suggests the memes are grist to the mill of cognitive mechanisms such as causal understanding, imitation, reading aloud, causal inference, language, and other ‘gadgets’. The best gadgets thrive in the cultural evolutionary process. When it comes to inheritance mechanisms, it is social and cultural learning. This can largely occur inside individuals’ minds, but can also involve social processes such as story-telling, learning to take turns, group dances, even teaching.

History suggests that these have been quite robust – here we are, after all, with all the warp and weft of modern life. However, the theory does suggest a certain vulnerability, as many of these mechanisms could fail to be passed on: “The cognitive instinct view implies that human nature is relatively invulnerable to catastrophe. In a decimated and isolated human population … the group would lose some of its knowledge and skills. However, with each birth there would be a new child equipped with Big Special cognitive instincts. … In contrast the cognitive gadgets view implies that both grist and mills would be lost.  … The capacity for cultural evolution, as well as the products of cultural evolution, could be lost.” We are already failing to pass on to many children some quite basic (you’d have thought) gadgets such as critical thinking. Heyes specifically suggests looking at how moral learning has evolved and continues to do so.

Anyway, amateur that I am, I found this a persuasive approach and a really interesting book to read. It suggests a different approach to thinking about decision-making – not for example as a matter of setting up choices in ways that nudge flawed humans to do the right thing (but then what makes the choice architects any wiser?). Instead the engineering challenge is devising better gadgets, which is surely difficult but then humanity has invented them before.