The Two Overton Windows

If you want to appear intelligent when discussing something about public policy, you could do worse than uttering the phrase “Overton Window”. The Overton Window, “invented” by one Joseph Overton, suggests that there is a “range of policies acceptable to political mainstream”.

And so you frequently have political commentators talking about the Overton Window “shifting” whenever a new political idea (or person) comes to the fore. This was bandied about much when Modi became Prime Minister of India, or when Trump became President of the US, or when Jeremy Corbyn became the Labour Party leader.

While “shifting Overton window” is something you come across rather often in policy discourse, my argument is that with the rise of subscription media, the Overton window is not shifting as much as it is “splitting”. In other words, we now have not one but two Overton Windows.

Without loss of generality, let us call them the “Jamie Overton Window” and the “Craig Overton Window”. Since both the twins are right arm fast bowlers, it doesn’t matter which brother is associated with which Overton Window.

So how did we get here, and what does it mean for us?

We started with the classic Overton Window. Let’s assume that all politics can be reduced to one axis (if we do a Principal Component Analysis of political views, the principal axis is certain to account for a large share of the variance, so this is not a bad assumption). So the Overton Window can be referred to by a line which the shifts.

As long as the world was “ruled by mainstream media”, this Overton Window kept moving back and forth, expanding and contracting, but it remained united. And then with the start of subscription ad-free media (maybe a decade or decade and half ago), the Overton Window started expanding.

The “left media” (that’s a convenient term isn’t it?) started admitting stuff that was left to the then Overton Window. The “right media” started admitting stuff that was to the right of the then Overton Window. And so over time, the Overton Window started expanding. And things can’t get into the media Overton Window unless they’re part of the mainstream political Overton Window.

The thing is that as the media became subscription-heavy and hence biased, political ideas that were once on the fringe now got a voice. And so the Overton Window got larger and larger.

Until a point when it got so unwieldy that it split, giving rise to Jamie and Craig. The image on the right is an approximate illustration of what happened.

And once the Overton Window split, there was no looking back. They started moving away from each other well-at-a-faster-rate. The Jamies could not come to terms with the policies of the Craigs, and vice versa. Political analysts and commentators started getting associated with the Jamie and Craig camps.

For a while, a few commentators continued to write for both sides, but the extreme fringes, which were getting more and more extreme, started overreacting. “How can we have someone who has written 10 articles for Craigs write for us”, the Jamies asked. “Most of our commentators are Craigs, so we might as well become a Craig newspaper”, the other side reasoned.

And that’s where mainstream media is going. The Overton Window has split down the middle. Crossing this gap is considered a crime worse than crossing the floor in Parliament.

Sadly, it is not just media that is getting Jamie and Craig. Mainstream politics reflects this as well, and so across countries we get political opponents who just cannot talk to each other, since everything one says is outside the Overton Window of the other.

Maybe the only way this can end is by going across axes, or inventing a new axis even. With the current spectrum politics, there is no hope of the two Overton Windows coming to meet.


Why Border Control Is Necessary

India is shutting down its domestic flights today in order to stop the spread of Covid-19. This comes a day after shutting down the national railways and most inter-city buses. States and districts have imposed border controls to control the movement of people across borders.

The immediate reaction to this would be that this is a regressive step. After a few decades of higher integration (national and international) this drawing of borders at minute levels might seem retrogade. Moreover, the right of a citizen to move anywhere in India is a fundamental right, and so this closing of borders might seem like a violation of fundamental rights as well.

However, the nature of the Covid-19 bug is that such measures are not only permissible but also necessary. The evidence so far is that it has a high rate of transmission between people who meet each other – far higher than for any other flu. The mortality rate due to the illness the bug causes is also low enough that each sick person has the opportunity to infect a large number of others before recovery or death (compared to this, diseases such as Ebola had a much higher death rate, which limited its transmission).

So far no cure for Covid-19 has been found. Instead, the most optimal strategy has been found to prevent infected people from meeting uninfected people. And since it is hard to know who is infected yet (since it takes time for symptoms to develop), the strategy is to prevent people from meeting each other. In fact, places like Wuhan, where the disease originated, managed to stem the disease by completely shutting down the city (it’s about the size of Bangalore).

In this context, open borders (at whatever level) can present a huge threat to Covid-19 containment. You might manage to completely stem the spread of the disease in a particular region, only to see it reappear with a vengeance thanks to a handful of people who came in (Singapore and HongKong have witnessed exactly this).

For this reason, the first step for a region to try and get free of the virus is to “stop importing” it. The second step is to shut down the region itself so that the already infected don’t meet the uninfected and transmit the disease to them.

Also, a complete shutdown can be harmful to the economy, which has already taken a massive battering from the disease. So for this reason, the shutdown is best done at as small a level as possible, so that the overall disruption is minimised. Also different regions might need different levels of shutdown in order to contain the disease. For all these reasons, the handling of the virus is best done at as local a level as possible. City/town better than district better than state better than country.

And once the spread of the disease has been stopped in a region, we should be careful that we don’t import it after that, else all the good work gets undone. For this reason, the border controls need to remain for a while longer until transmission has stopped in neighbouring (and other) regions.

It’s a rather complex process, but the main points to be noted are that the containment has to happen at a local level, and once it has been contained, we need to be careful to not import it. And for both these to happen, it is necessary that borders be shut down.

Why Activists Should Not Be In Government

Back in 2008, Salil Tripathi had argued in an article for Pragati (RIP) that human rights activists need to be unreasonable (check page 5 of this PDF). He had written:

[…] they see their role as defending the indefensible, so that the rest of us won’t suffer at the hands of a government with authoritarian tendencies. If they were to begin appearing reasonable, they’d lose resonance. More important, nobody will be speaking out for the innocent who will otherwise go to jail.

While Salil was talking especially about human rights activists (his own profession), this is broadly true of all activists in general. It is their duty to be unreasonable, since in a lot of cases they will be defending the indefensible.

If you are an environmental activist, for example, you will want to take unreasonable positions in favour of environmentalist causes. As Salil goes on to write in his old piece, the job of being reasonable belongs to somebody else.

They may even be selective – nothing prevents from others to pick up cases and causes these individuals do not. Let the think tankers and policy-makers become practical. Because otherwise, everyone will support the idea of safety-over-liberty, and we would all be losers.

That activists need to be unreasonable also comes from Graham Allison’s political resultant model. The basic idea is that every government decision is a function of all the positions submitted to it. You can think of the final direction of the decision as being the vector sum of all the positions submitted to the government. In this case, the job of the activist (human rights or otherwise) is to present the unreasonable and extreme case in favour of the activism, with the full knowledge that the government will go with a sort of political resultant.

So what happens when an activist comes into government? Remember that the activist is coming in with years of experience of taking extreme and unreasonable positions. Taking the “resultant” and the “reasonable view” has always been someone else’s job.

The risk of such a person being in government is that they could abandon the process of taking the “resultant” (which is what governments are expected to do), and continue from within government the process of going with the unreasonable policies and politics. That, however, makes for bad government and doesn’t give the people what they deserve.

As politics has been getting more and more extreme over the years (read this lovely essay on how louder politics is making it more unreasonable, drawing from sound theory), activists have been throwing their hats into the ring. Mainstream politicians have been endorsing extreme positions rather than taking them as just one of the inputs.

The problem is that such extremism isn’t how a government usually operates, and doesn’t make for good policy. Hence, activists shouldn’t really be part of the government.

News, Subscription, Advertising, and Bias

Dibyendu Mishra and Joyojeet Pal of the University of Michigan have some very interesting research out on the political bias of Indian news publications. Rather than do complicated gymnastics such as NLP, they’ve simply looked at the share of articles from each news publication that is retweeted by BJP and non-BJP publications, to draw out a measure of their bias (see link above for methodology).

They have made a nice scatter plot (the other axis is how “popular” these news outlets are in terms of the number of articles retweeted), and looking left to right, you can see the understood (by politicians) bias of various Indian news publications. As Helmet pointed out on Twitter, the most “centrist” news outlets seem to be the Times of India and the Economic Times, both from the Bennett, Coleman and Company group, who people crib about for “being too commercial” and “having too many advertisements”.

This reminds me of another piece of analysis that was in the news a few months ago, about how subscription-driven online news has led to news outlets being politically polarising. For example, Zach Goldberg did some analysis of frequency of words/phrases in the New York Times that are associated with the extreme left.

Note the inflexion point sometime in 2012 or so, around the same time when the NY Times put up its paywall.

David Rozado has a more comprehensive picture (check out his nifty tool here).

The idea is this – when newspapers depended on advertising for most of their funding, they needed to be centrist. Taking political sides meant that large mass-market advertisers wouldn’t want to advertise in this newspaper, and the paper would thus lose revenues. Hence, for the longest time, whatever the quality of the reporting and writing was, news outlets strove to be reasonably politically unbiased – taking sides would mean a loss of money.

Once digital took off, and it became clear that digital advertising wouldn’t really sustain the papers, they started putting their content behind paywalls. And subscription revenues meant two things – news outlets weren’t as beholden to advertisers as they used to be, and it was easier to get paying subscribers if you had a strong ideology. Moreover, online you can provide targeted advertising (rather than mass-market), so you can get away with being biased. And so with the coming of paywalls, newspapers started becoming far more political as the New York Times graph above indicates.

In India, there haven’t been too many publications behind paywalls, but media is evidently getting more and more polarised over time. Papers and channels are branding themselves (implicitly) as being pro or against a particular political party, and that is driving their viewership.

While these media outlets are good for fanbois (and fangirls) of particular ideologies, the ideological bent has meant that it has become harder to get objective news.

And that’s where money, and advertising, comes in.

The positioning of ToI and ET in the middle of the Indian media ideological graph is interesting because they belong to a group that is brazen about commercialisation and revenues (from advertising). And in terms of news objectivity, that’s a good thing. Since ToI and ET are highly money minded, they want to get as much advertising as possible, and in order to attract mass marketers, they need to not be biased.

Taking a political stand means pissing off people belonging to the opposite political persuasion, and that means less readership, which means less advertising revenues. And so if you read the editorials of these newspapers (I read ET everyday), you see that they maintain a careful balance of not appearing too biased in favour or against any party. And you see them raking in the advertisers while more biased (and “ideological”) competitors are forced to request for donations, or put up paywalls restricting their readership.

Putting it another way, there is no surprise that ToI and ET are not biased in their news, and are retweeted by politicians of all persuasions. It is the classic money-driven media model, and that is the one that is capable of providing the most objective news.

War, Terror and Leaderless Protests

A while back, I’d written on this blog that the phrase “war on terror” is incorrect since terrorism is not a war (actually I have written two posts on this topic. Here is the second one). A war is a staged human conflict with the aim being a political victory, and wars inevitably end in a political settlement, which in chess terms can be described as “resignation, rather than check mate”.

The issue with terrorism is that it is usually a distributed method. There is no one leader of terror. You might identify one leader and neutralise him, but that is no guarantee that the protests are going to end, since the rest of the “terrorist organisation” (a bit of an oxymoron) will keep the terror going. With a distributed organisation like a terrorist outfit, political settlements are impossible (who do you really settle with), and so the terrorism continues and there is no “victory”.

It is similar with spontaneous leaderless protests that have become the hallmark of the last decade, from Tunisia and Egypt in 2011 to Occupy Wall Street to the recent anti-CAA protests in India. To take a stark example with two protests based in Delhi, the Anna Hazare protest in 2011 was finished in fairly quick order (it started two days after India won the World Cup, and finished two days before the IPL was about to begin), while the Shaheen Bagh protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act have been going on for nearly three months now.

The difference between these two Delhi protests is that the first one (2011) had a designated leader (Anna Hazare, and maybe even Arvind Kejriwal or Kiran Bedi). And the protestors effectively followed the leader. And so when the government of the day negotiated a settlement with the leader, the protest effectively got “called off” and ended abruptly.

The Shaheen Bagh protests don’t have a designated leader to negotiate with (at least there are no obvious leaders). The government might try to negotiate with or round up or be violent to a handful of people who it thinks are the leaders, but the nature of the protest means that this is unlikely to have much effect since the rest of the “decentralised organisation” will go on.

In that sense, protests by “decentralised groups” are attritional battles where no negotiation is possible, and the only possible end is that the protestors either get bored or decide that the protest is pointless (that’s pretty much what happened with Occupy). Each member of the protesting group takes an independent decision each day (or night) whether to join the protest or not, and the protest will die down over a period of time (how long it will take depends on the size of the universe of people participating in the protest, overall interest level in the protest and how networked the protest is).

From that point of view, a leadered protest (like the Anna Hazare protest) can end suddenly (so everyone can go watch the IPL). A leaderless protest dies slowly and gradually (stronger network effects among the protestors can actually mean that the protest can die a bit faster, but still gradually).

There are claims on social media and WhatsApp groups that the communal violence in Delhi on Monday and Tuesday was designed in part to intimidate the Shaheen Bagh protestors to stop the protests. Even the violence was “successful” in achieving this objective, the leaderless nature of the protest will mean that it will only end “gradually”, more like a “halal process” rather than with a “jhatka”.

Distribution of political values

Through Baal on Twitter I found this “Political Compass” survey. I took it, and it said this is my “political compass”.

Now, I’m not happy with the result. I mean, I’m okay with the average value where the red dot has been put for me, and I think that represents my political leanings rather well. However, what I’m unhappy about is that my political views have been all reduced to one single average point.

I’m pretty sure that based on all the answers I gave in the survey, my political leaning across both the two directions follows a distribution, and the red dot here is only the average (mean, I guess, but could also be median) value of that distribution.

However, there are many ways in which people can have a political view that lands right on my dot – some people might have a consistent but mild political view in favour of or against a particular position. Others might have pretty extreme views – for example, some of my answers might lead you to believe that I’m an extreme right winger, and others might make me look like a Marxist (I believe I have a pretty high variance on both axes around my average value).

So what I would have liked instead from the political compass was a sort of heat map, or at least two marginal distributions, showing how I’m distributed along the two axes, rather than all my views being reduced to one average value.

A version of this is the main argument of this book I read recently called “The End Of Average“. That when we design for “the average man” or “the average customer”, and do so across several dimensions,  we end up designing for nobody, since nobody is average when looked at on many dimensions.

External membership of unions

The ostensible reason for the violent crackdown on protesting students at Alighar Muslim University and Jamia Millia Islamia last month was the involvement of “outsiders” in these protests. In both cases, campus authorities claimed that student protestors had been joined by “outsiders” who had gone violent, which forced them to call in the cops.

And then the cops did what cops do – making the protest more violent and increasing the damage all round, both physically and otherwise.

I’m reminded of this case from a few years ago from some automobile company – possibly Maruti. The company had refused to recognise an employee’s union at a new plant they were starting, because of an argument on the membership of non-employees in the unions.

The unions’ argument in that case was that external (non-employee) membership was necessary to provide the organisational and union skills to the union. If I remember correctly, they wanted one third of the union to consist of members who were not employees of the firm. The firm contended that they wouldn’t want to negotiate with outsiders, and so they wouldn’t recognise the union with external members.

I don’t remember how that story played out but this issue of external membership of unions, whether student or employees, is pertinent.

At the fundamental level, unions need to exist because of the balance of power – the dominance in favour of an institution over an individual employee or student is too great to always produce rational outcomes in the short term (in the long term it evens out, but you know what Keynes is supposed to have said). The formation of unions corrects this imbalance since the collection of employees or students can have significant bargaining power vis-a-vis the institution, and negotiations can result in more rational decisions in the short term.

The problem I have is with external membership of unions. The problem there is that external members (who usually provide leadership and “organisation” to the unions) lack skin in the game, and the union’s incentives need not always be aligned with the incentives of the employees or students.

Consider, for example, the protests in the universities last month which became violent. The incentive of the protests would have been to peacefully protest (to register their dissatisfaction with a recent law), and then get back to their business of being students. The students themselves have no incentive to be violent and damage stuff in their own institution, since that will negatively impact their own futures and studies at the institution.

External members of the unions don’t share this incentive – their incentive is in making the union activities (the protest in this case) more impactful. And if the protest creates damage, that can make it more impactful. The external members don’t particularly care about damage to the institution (physical and otherwise), as long as the union’s show of strength is successful.

It is similar in organisations. It is in the interest of both the employees and the management that the company does well, since that means a larger pie that can be split among them. The reason employees organise themselves, and sometimes go on limited strikes, is to ensure that they get what they think is a fair share of the pie.

The problem, of course, is that negotiations aren’t that simple, and they frequently break down. The question is about what to do when that inevitably happens. Each employee has his own threshold in terms of how long to strike, and at what point it makes sense to back down and accept the deal on the table.

In an employee-only union, the average view of the employees (effectively) guides when the strike gets called off and the negotiations end. External members of the union lack skin in the game, and they have a really long threshold on when to back down from the strike. And this makes strikes longer than employees want them to be, which can make the strikes counterproductive for the employees.

One infamous example is of the textile mills in Mumbai in the late 70s, and early 80s. There was massive union action there in those times, with strikes going on for months together. Ultimately the mills packed up and relocated to Gujarat and other places. The employees were the ultimate losers there, either losing their jobs or having to move to another city. If the employees themselves had controlled the union it is likely that they might have come to a settlement sooner or later, and managed to keep their jobs.

In the automobile case I mentioned earlier, if I remember correctly, the union demanded that up to 33% of the membership of the union be comprised of outsiders – a demand the company flatly refused to entertain. Now think about it – if external members control a third of the union, all it takes is one fourth of the employees, acting in concert with the union, for something to happen. And there is a real agency problem there!

The Ramanamurthy Spectrum

The basic point of the protests ongoing throughout India opposing the recently passed Citizenship Amendment Act is that it doesn’t follow the “Ramanamurthy Principle“. Let me explain.

The Kannada classic Ganeshana Maduve (1989) is set in a cluster of houses owned by one Ramanamurthy, where all houses apart from his own has been let out to tenants. His battles with his tenants is one of the running themes of this comedy.

One notable conflict has to do with whitewashing. Ramanamurthy decides to get his house whitewashed, but his tenants demand that their houses be whitewashed as well. After a long protracted hilarious battle (starring a dog, also named Ramanamurthy), the tenants come to an agreement with Ramanamurthy – that if he gets his own house painted, he has to get the entire cluster painted.

In other words, the conflict between Ramanamurthy and his clients had only two permissible solutions – all houses are painted or no houses are painted. All solutions in the middle were infeasible. This gives us what we can call the “Ramanamurthy spectrum”.

Here it is visually.



The protests against India’s citizenship amendment act can be summarised by the fact that the act fails to follow the Ramanamurthy Spectrum. The act, as it has been passed by parliament, uses an arbitrary criterion (religion) to determine which incoming refugees will be given Indian citizenship.

And the protests against that come from both ends of the Ramanamurthy spectrum. In Assam and the rest of the North East, areas that will be most adversely affected by the act, they want the solution that Ramanamurthy finally adopted in the movie – “I won’t get my house whitewashed as well”. They don’t want any of the incoming people to be given citizenship.

Elsewhere in the country (now I must admit I haven’t been able to follow this crisis as closely as I would like to, since it is very difficult here to separate news from “reaction to news“), the protests seem to be at the other end of the Ramanamurthy spectrum – that everyone should be let in.

In any case, the incumbent government has utterly failed in recognising this important principle of politics, and going ahead with a regulation that is neither here nor there in terms of the Ramanamurthy spectrum.

No wonder that the whole country is rioting!

Baskets of deplorables

OK this is a political post. You might infer something about my political leanings from this, and you might classify me as a “deplorable”, but I run that risk.

I don’t like the way our politics is turning out nowadays. You are free to interpret “our” and “nowadays” in whatever way you want. What I don’t like is that people seem to wear their political beliefs on their sleeve, and think it is okay to shame and cut contact with people who don’t share their beliefs.

I don’t know when exactly this started – but it was surely sometime between 2013 and 2016. The culmination of this attitude was US Presidential candidate Hillary Clinton describing her opponent Donald Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables“. And that attitude seems to be being taken forward by people of various political dispensations three years on.

I long for the days when people treated their political opinions like their private parts – stuff that existed and was put to good use when required, but not put on display. Nowadays, though, trawl through any social media platform, and you find people making political statements all the time. If you aren’t in a filter bubble, you will surely be seeing flamewars. And a difference in political opinion is no longer just a difference in opinion – you consider someone with differing views as despicable.

I’m friends with a lot of people who hold strong political opinions, and whose opinions might differ from mine. I don’t care about it – since there is plenty to them otherwise that makes them valuable to me, and so I continue to hang out with them.

Some people, on the other hand, don’t think like this. According to them, some political positions are so horrible that anyone who endorses that position is necessarily a horrible person, and not worth engaging with. For them, their political axis is fundamentally uni-dimensional – the world doesn’t exist outside of the dimension that they consider to be a dealbreaker.

As a consequence, any stand endorsed by a politician who endorses their dealbreaker position also becomes a dealbreaker. Political commentary and evaluation is based on who takes the stand, rather than the stand itself. Everything is seen through a political lens, and anyone who disagrees with them is worthy of ridicule.

It is sad that politics has taken over our lives so much, and people consider other people’s political opinions as such an important part of their lives. And the way social media and feedback loops work, I see no way out of this.

Mass marketing and objective journalism

This is a fascinating essay by Antonio García Martinez on the history and future of journalism (possibly paywalled). The money paragraph is this:

The bigger switch happened as a national market for consumer goods opened after the Civil War, when purveyors like department stores wanted to reach large urban audiences. Newspapers responded by increasing the number of ads relative to content, and switched to models that went light on the political partisanship in the interest of expanding circulation. This move was driven not exclusively by lofty ideals but also by mercenary greed. And it worked. Newspapers used to make lots of money. Mountains of money.

Basically, the move to objective journalism came in the late 1800s when advertisers such as Macy’s wanted to take out full page ads, and wanted to do so in newspapers that served the largest sections of the market. And when a newspaper had to reach a large section of the market, it inevitably had to tone down the partisanship, and become more objective.

Over the last decade, we have been witnessing (across the world) the decline of objective media. All media is “#paidmedia” based on which side of the political spectrum you stand on. There aren’t that many truly objective papers around, and social media is bombarded left and right by extremely politicised reporting that goes as “news”.

It is perhaps no coincidence that this period has coincided with a time when print circulation has been dropping steadily (in the developed world at least), and where online advertising can be highly targeted.

In theory, mass marketing is inefficient. When you pay to put up a hoarding somewhere, you’re possibly paying a small amount for each person who sees the hoarding, but not all of them might find it interesting. Consequently, this reflects in a depressed per-person price of the hoarding implying the owner of that real estate can’t make as much as she could if the hoarding were to be more “targeted”.

When you can target your advertisements more precisely, everybody wins. You as the marketer know that your advertisement is only being shown to your intended audience. The owner of the real estate where you put your advertisement can thus charge you more for your advertisement. Even the customer will be less pained by the advertisement if it is highly relevant to her.

Another way of seeing it is – an advertisement shown to a customer who doesn’t want to see it is wasted. The monetary cost of this waste are borne by the owner of the real estate and the advertiser, and the non-monetary cost is borne by the customer (being forced to see something she didn’t want to see). And so one of the biggest technological problems of today is on how we can target advertisements better so that we can minimise such costs – and in the last decade and half, we’ve made significant progress on that front.

The problem with greater efficiency, however, is that it comes with the side-effect of biased media. When Nike knows that it can precisely target an advertisement at American leftwingers, it makes an ad with Colin Kaepernick and shows them to American leftwingers to sell them more shoes.

This doesn’t however, mean that Nike only sells to left-wingers. The same company can make another advertisement targeted precisely at right-wingers and use it to sell shoes to them!

So now that you can make left-wing and right-wing ads, and you have the ability to target them, you want to cut the waste and place the ads so that you can target as best as possible. In other words, you want to place your left-wing ads in places that only left-wingers want to see, and right-wing ads only in places that right-wingers will see. And so you prefer to advertise in CNN and Fox rather than in a hypothetical “broad market” media outlet.

And the reason you created the politically charged ads in the first place was because there were some outlets (Facebook, for example) where you could precisely target people based on their political orientation. And so you see the vicious cycle – that you can target in some places means you want other places where you can target and that creates demand for more polarised media.

It was the opposite cycle that took effect in the late 1800s and early 1900s. There was no way brands could target (also, when you make physical advertisements, with 1900s technology, each advertisement is costly and you don’t want to make one per segment) too effectively, and so they went mass market in their communication.

And this meant advertising in the outlets that could get them the maximum number of eyeballs. When you can’t discriminate between a “right” and a “wrong” eyeball, you pay based on the number of eyeballs. And the way for media organisations to grow then was to cater to everyone. Which meant less less bias and more objectivity and more “features”.

Sadly that cycle is now behind us.