Escape From The Benevolent Zookeepers – The Best Of Swaminomics (A Detailed Review)

Long before Stephen Levitt stormed the world with his contrarian and quirky take on economics, Swaminathan Anklesaria Aiyar did (and continues to do so) the same, and even more, in the Times of India on Sunday in his column – Swaminomics. Swaminomics The Times Of India has recently released a collection of some of his best columns published over the last two decades as Escape From The Benevolent Zookeepers – The Best Of Swaminomics. If you don’t get it at your local bookstore, you can buy it online from Indiatimes Shopping (only place I can find it online atm).

[India has long suffered from having its best minds compared with those who have followed later on. So for the purpose of this review, Swami is not the Indian Levitt but Levitt is the American Swami (and to fix another pet grouse of mine, I also decree that Chanakya is no longer the Indian Machiavelli but Machiavelli is the Italian Chanakya).]

The book has a total of seventy-three articles divided into thirteen different sections and every article displays his flair and trademark wit. I have selected a few truly contrarian gems to list and summarize.

Globalisation And Empowerment
In Get Ready For Davos, 2035, Swami peeps into the future and tells us what the inaugural speech at the WEF 2035 will sound like. It is being held in Gulmarg, Kashmir, and China and India are some of the biggest economies in the world. Infosys has taken over Accenture and Tata Motors has done the same to GM. The world is a different place, really.

In The Slowcoach And Sour Grapes, he ridicules the then commonly held view among most Indians that India’s controls on capital account convertibility and slow pace of liberalization saved us from utter ruin. Don’t jump with glee at the ruin of highly developed Asian economies with per capita income ten times the Indian average, he says. That is nothing but a case of sour grapes.

Politics And Governance
In Seven Commandments of Mr. Singh, he corrects journalists who think Manmohan Singh is the head of government. That can never happen in the Congress Party where the only ones who can rule must have the Nehru-Gandhi blood flowing through their veins. Manmohan Singh is playing the part of regent, waiting for Rahul and Priyanka Gandhi to become politically mature so that they can continue ruling as the rightful heirs of the Nehru-Gandhi family. A teaser in the form of two of the commandments –
4. Thou shall focus on surviving a full five-year term.
5. Thou shall accommodate in the cabinet all criminals who can help this aim.

A Criminalised, Sectarian, Misgoverned Decade talks of the increasing criminalization of poitics and the way in which it has degenerated into a politics of divisiveness. The result is that economic development has suffered. A few statements – parties bent on smashing mosques and burning Christians are unlikely to focus on rural roads and electricity. Parties bent on creating patronage networks for particular castes are unlikely to improve the administration or reduce corruption.

A Vote Against Misgovernance is a triumphant ‘I told you so’. For, Swaminathan Aiyer had predicted months before the 2004 general elections (and provided concrete reasons why) that the BJP-led-NDA was going to lose it.

Communalism: The Biggest Threat
Every article in this section is important and is deservedly serious.

General Dyer’s ‘Gaurav Yatra’ compares Narendra Modi to General Dyer, and Swami demonstrates that their actions were very similar. The British sacked Dyer. Did the Indians do the same to Modi?

In Terrorism is Not A Muslim Monopoly, Swami rips apart the inane statement – “All Muslims may not be terrorists, but all terrorists are Muslims.” The question of who is a terrorist is a matter of political expediency, he says. At various times in history, Hindus, Jews, Christians (including Protestant Christians), Sikhs and Buddhist organizations have been involved in some or the other kind of terrorism. The Indian fear of a Muslim terrorist is a result of following the Western media (which has conveniently forgotten the damage caused by Jewish and Irish terrorists) too much. And what about the secular terrorists – the Maoists, who terrorize about 150 Indian districts?

In The Sad Silence Over Abdul Rahman, Swami flays all those people in India who cry hoarse over secularism whenever the BJP and its sister organizations go and do something communal. “If the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) proposed that any Hindu who converted to Islam or Christianity should be hanged, there would be a hue and cry……So, I am aghast at the virtual silence in India over the proposed execution of Abdul Rahman Of Afghanistan for what his country’s legal system regards as a capital offense of converting to Christianity.” Why did the secular parties in India not speak out?

Terrorists as Vote Banks presents a scary possibility where political parties do not mind courting support from terrorist organizations like they have already done with criminal ones. In the end, he offers a unique way of cleaning up the political system – fast track all cases against Members of Parliament.

Economics For You
This is a kind of a dummy’s guide to economics. But he surely does not treat the reader like one. Here, he turns most economic concepts on their head and even takes potshots at Michael Moore. Some good articles in this section include –
Rise Of Left-Wing Capitalism,
The Ultimate Theory Of Lemons, and
Trickle-Up, Not Trickle-Down

Economic Reforms
In The New Delhi Consensus, he questions the then Finance Minister’s complaint that consensus on economic reform was being broken. There has never been any consensus on this issue according to Aiyar. The only consensus among political parties (he dubs it the New Delhi Consensus) is on continuation of subsidies and the practice of graft.

Socialism is Casteism is an attack on Nehruvian socialism. It is nothing but a form of casteism, Swami says. He even proves it by quoting a paragraph from Nehru’s autobiography.

Knowledge Economy : India’s Star Achievement
This section contains articles that toast the emergence of India as a brain-power based economy.

History And Its Ironies
This section is an attempt at correcting the various misconceptions about India and its freedom, and the entire concept of colonization.

Poverty And Its Discontents
You Cannot Legislate Away Poverty explains why raising the minimum wage or doing something similar will not impact poverty in a positive manner. It might just have the reverse effect, he says. That is the result of the relentless law of unintended consequences, and he’s got a few striking examples and one historical tale to prove it.

In Poverty Reduction By Helicopter, he throws up a maverick idea that will send cash to the poor with the guarantee that they will get most of it. The idea involves a helicopter, and is outrageous. Read the piece to find out what he proposes.

Social Uplift: Ways Out Of The Poverty Trap
This section has articles that discuss innovative ideas which are already being practiced on a small scale, and suggests that they be tried out on a larger scale.

Education: A Sadly Unreformed Sector
In Lion’s Looks, Rabbit’s Liver Swami heavily criticizes Nobel Prize winning economist Amartya Sen for his suggestions on education that go against the very concept of free choice.

In Pitfalls Of Universal Education, Swami cautions that schools the world over are producing functionally illiterate graduates. He offers possible solutions in the next column, The Challenge Of Functional Literacy.

In this section, Swami picks up a fight with environmentalists who, he says, are diverting the attention from issues like unclean water and air to non-issues like global warming. He also warns us against the threat of green fascism. And he ridicules weather experts and their stand on global warming when he asks (in his son’s words) – “they can’t even forecast tomorrow’s weather properly. How can they forecast 100 years ahead?” Some good articles in this section include –
Ashok, Teri Ganga Maili Ho Gayee,
How Markets Protect The Environment,
The Threat Of Green Fascism,
Nature Is The Cruellest Killer, and
Clean Water Or Hot Air?

Freedom Of Expression
In From Live-8 To African Al-Jazeera, Swami says that Africa would be better served by investing in building a Africa-wide independent news reporting network similar to Al Jazeera. According to him, while the US and Israel are not very pleased with Al Jazeera, it is making a big difference to the Arab countries in the form of small but significant concessions being given to people by autocratic rulers who find themselves being the constant focus of public attention.

A Liberal Atheist Demands Respect exposes Muslim hypocrisy in the context of the Danish cartoon controversy.

International Relations
This section is governed by Machiavellian (I say Kautilyan) maneuvers. Swami provides suggestions on and exposes myths relating to Indian Foreign Policy. He is for civilian nuclear co-operation with the US and warns against sinking too much money in deals with unreliable energy suppliers like Iran, Venezuela, Nigeria and even Russia.

Swami has covered a vast amount of territory in the articles that make up this book, and these are just a year and a half worth of articles. Swaminomics has been running for just under two decades. Hope it goes on for another two.

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  • Farooque Shahab  On March 27, 2008 at 7:55 pm

    Great review. Aiyar demytifies esoteric economic concepts, approaches issues refreshingly and communicates with the readers effortlessly. I share the author’s admiration for Aiyar and am eagerly looking to have the collection of his essays in my library. Farooque

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