Denying people their jokes

When I was in Bangalore earlier this year, I was talking to a “US returned” friend about moving back to India, and he mentioned that one of the reasons he moved back is that he didn’t find very good “culture fit” in the US. “The thing that got to me”, he said, “was that I couldn’t even connect with their jokes”.

Living in the UK, that is not that much of a problem for us, since British humour is pretty good, but this anecdote illustrates how important jokes can be for people.

Regular readers of this blog might know that I get damn irritated by the new-found culture of political correctness. While it is not my intention to hurt anybody or their feelings, I feel that political correctness is being overdone nowadays, and that severely restricts what you can say. And that is a problem for people like me who like to say things without thinking.

Reading the odd news report from the US – about the Trump campaign, for example – it’s clear that I’m not alone in having a problem with this newfound political correctness (oh – I can now expect people to attack me for having views similar to Trump’s voters). In some ways the left-right battle in the US can be described as a battle of political correctness, where the “left” likes to be all correct, and expects that everyone else is also always politically correct and not offensive, while the “right” wants to say things as they are.

Anyway, putting together my friend’s anecdote about not getting American jokes, and the culture of political correctness, I can think of one other, possibly major, reason why people are pissed off about the culture of political correctness – it denies people their jokes.

Most popular jokes – may not be the best ones, mind you, but ones that have high memetic fitness – are cracked at the expense of an “other”. This “other” can sometimes be another person – even a public figure, but at other times, it defines a particular community (though not necessarily a certain community). And the joke consists of laughing at this particular other community (broadly speaking).

So you have short people jokes, and black jokes, and Jewish jokes, and Pakistani jokes, and Muslim jokes, and so on. And then you have sexist jokes.

Now put this in the context of political correctness – most jokes that most people have grown up on are now taboo, because they are offensive to one or the other community, and it is not polite to make fun of these communities. So a whole truckload of jokes that people are grown up on can now not be cracked in polite company. And as even the Soviet Union discovered, that can be oppressive.

I recently read this book called Hammer and Tickle – a History of Communism through Communist Jokes (you can find an extract here). This sub-heading accompanying the extract summarises the Soviet attitude towards jokes:

Communism is the only political system to have created its own international brand of comedy. The standard interpretation is that communist jokes were a form of resistance. But they were also a safety valve for the regimes and jokes were told by the rulers as well as the ruled—even Stalin told some good ones

Now if only the “modern Soviets” were to get this!

Indian Americans and the Selection Bias

There is this one chart from the Economist that has been doing its rounds over the interwebs over the last few days:

Basically it shows that Indian Americans are much more accomplished academically and professionally compared to other immigrants. And there are many theories floating around as to why Indians are so successful.

The answer, however, is rather simple – selection bias. Migrating from India to the US was an extremely difficult task till the 1960s – there were some quotas that the US had for immigration under which the Indians had nothing. And when Indians did finally start migrating in the 1960s, it was mostly for education.

Most people who migrated from India to the US even in the 1960s and 70s did so to go to graduate school. And this meant that they already had 16 years of education in India, which either meant an engineering or medical degree, or a masters in one of the other fields. So basically most Indians migrating to the US were highly accomplished already.

And considering the kind of foreign exchange controls imposed by the Indian government, the only Indians who could afford to go to the US for an education were those that received a fellowship or support from their universities. Thus increasing the seelection bias! (Now that I’ve mentioned foreign exchange controls, you should listen to this song, which was apparently meant to parody such policies)

Yes, you had the odd Patel without much education who made it to open a “Potel” (Patel run Motel), but that is probably the reason that the Indian bubble in the above chart is not farther out!

So that Indians have done better than other migrating communities in the US is not about innate Indian intelligence, or innate Indian ability to work hard, or because the Americans took in the Indians much better than other nationality. It is simple selection bias, based on tight immigration controls and tight emigration controls and stupid foreign exchange policy on the part of Indian government (which, at one point of time, only allowed citizens to take out eight dollars from the country).

To illustrate this point, look at the country that is “second” (quotes since we are looking at two dimensions here, so second is subjective) in this list – Iran.

Targeting government transfers

Bryan Caplan, quoting from Greg Mankiw, puts out some very interesting numbers on government transfers to households in the United States.

Source: Econlog

As Caplan puts it, this table shows a pattern “neither liberals nor conservatives will expect”. Some points to be noted:

1. government transfers per household to the top quintile is much more than to the bottom quintile. While the former pay taxes and the latter don’t, this is simply bizarre and shows how ill-targeted transfers in the US are

2. The bottom 60% of households in the United States pays negative tax! The “middle quintile” pays taxes but gets transfers from the government of twice the amount.

3. The net taxes paid by the 4th quintile is negligible ($700 per household). So effectively in the US, only the top 20% pays tax.

I wonder if it is possible to get such data for India, and if we can, what it will look like. If we manage to tack on all subsidies to the “transfers” thing (food, fuel, etc.) it should present a very interesting picture. My guess is that the “effective tax base” in India will be much lower than that of the US.

Any data sources that can help us construct one such table for India?

Why Should Anyone Invade Syria?

I don’t understand why the US or the UK or any other country should invade Syria now. Yes, there are gross human rights violations in that country now, and the civil war has been raging for a while now. However, before any foreign country wants to intervene, they need to ask themselves the following questions:

1. what is the objective of the invasion? 

The objective of the US invading Afghanistan in 2002 was to track down Osama bin Laden, the mastermind behind the WTC attacks of 2001. The then Afghan government (Taliban) was not cooperating with the US’s efforts in locating bin Laden, and sensing that having bin Laden on the loose for too long would be a further threat to America’s national security the US invaded. So far so good.

The objective of the US invading Iraq in 2003-04 was that Saddam Hussein was apparently harbouring “weapons of mass destruction”. The US decided that if any such weapons existed with Iraq, it would harm their national interest and so went ahead and invaded. That no such weapons were found is a different matter.

The question is what would be the objective of the US or the UK or any other invading power in Syria? Do they know what they want? Or is it just that they want to invade simply because they can? I repeat – Syrians might be dying but why is it in the national interest of any other country to intervene?

2. What does the invading country seek to achieve by invading?

This is similar to the previous point, but different. Basically what does an invading power seek to achieve in Syria? Rather, what is the event that needs to happen at which point the invader will decide to call off the invasion and return? In Afghanistan there was one such objective – get rid of bin Laden, get rid of the Taliban, put in a new government, stabilize it and go. Yet it’s taken this long. The objective in Iraq wasn’t as clear, still it’s been an extremely long invasion. What would an invading power’s objective be in Syria? Remove Assad? But what would that achieve?

3. What about the chemical weapons then?

Agreed that both the sides in Syria might possess chemical weapons, but why would the US or Western European countries want to invade because of that? If anyone would want to invade for that particular reason it would be one of Syria’s neighbours – Turkey, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Lebanon, etc – for they are the ones that are likely to be vulnerable to collateral damage. Given that both sides are likely to have chemical weapons it is unlikely that by taking sides in the civil war the chemical weapons could come under control.

Moreover, the nature of the civil war in Syria seems rather uncivil, and I don’t think either party will care about any convention that restricts the use of a particular kind of weaponry. So hoping that one side will give up the use of chemical weapons just because you take their side is futile .

To me, the civil war in Syria is like the Battle of Kishkindha, where Vali faced off Sugriva in a one-on-one combat. There, Rama had a strategic reason to intervene, for he had 1. struck a deal with Sugriva. 2. having no army of his own, he could count on the support of the victor in his campaign against Lanka. As far as any Western nation is concerned, there is no such incentive here. There is no treaty, and it is unlikely that help in this war will lead the victor to be an ally of the invader. The reason I qualified the previous sentence with a “Western” is that it doesn’t apply to Russia. Russia (and formerly USSR) has a pact with al Assad, and they have been long-standing allies. By taking al Assad’s side in this war, Russia knows that they will have a valuable ally in the Middle East in the event of his victory.

None of the Western countries have any such agreements. The only organization which has any sort of alliance with either side in Syria is the al Qaeda, which is supposedly supporting the rebels.

That Western powers such as the US and the UK want to intervene in Syria, and that too on the side of the rebels (in alliance with al Qaeda) shows that these countries are yet to get rid of the cold war mindset. They seem to want to intervene in Syria on one side only because Russia is supporting the other side. In fact, if the US or the UK were to want to invade Syria, the only thing that might make sense is to get in on Assad’s side and take out the Islamist rebels.

H1B visas in 2013

It is amazing how much of the annual quota of H1B (worker) visas that the US issues goes to IT outsourcing companies.  The top 20 beneficiary companies are shown in this graph.


As you can see, Infosys is by far the biggest beneficiary of this. I wonder if it is a result of the lawsuit by an American employee last year against the company, which alleged that the company was misusing B1 (business) visa, which has led the company to play it safe by taking H1B visas instead.

Indian companies have been shaded blue, while non-Indian companies have been shaded red. The amount of blue on this plot tells you that India is the biggest beneficiary of the H1B visa system of the US.

The data also gives the mean salary paid by each of these companies to their H1B workers.


Apart from Intel, all non-Indian companies pay their H1B employees well over $90,000 per annum. None of the Indian companies even come close to that number. This might help you understand why H1B visas are such a contentious point in American domestic politics.