Aggregate quality of life

I was going through some discussions on the “Bangalore – Photos from a Bygone Era” (membership required to view) group on Facebook. From some of the discussions, it is evident that people are nostalgic about the quality of life in Bangalore in “those bygone days” compared to now (irrespective of your definition of bygone).

For example, someone was marvelling about how empty the HAL airport used to be in those days, until it became intolerably crowded in the late 1990s necessitating the construction of the new airport in Devanahalli. Someone else, perhaps in the same thread, wondered about how one could make a dash from HAL airport to Commercial street and back in 30 minutes “back in those days”. Outside of the group, I remember Vijay Mallya mention in an interview a couple of years back about how when he was young he could drive from his home in the middle of town to HAL airport in 15 minutes, and it’s not possible any more.

Reading such reports, you start thinking that life back in those days was truly superior to life today.

While narratives like the above might indeed make you believe that life in a “bygone era” was significantly superior, what that doesn’t take into account is that life was possibly superior for only certain people back then – airports were empty because tickets were prohibitively expensive and the monopolist Indian Airlines ran few flights out of Bangalore. Traffic was smooth because there were few cars, so if you were lucky to have one you could zip around the city. However, if you were not as lucky, and one of the many who didn’t have access to a personal vehicle, things could be really bad for you, for you had to either walk, or wait endlessly for a perpetually crowded bus!

One of the ostensible purposes of the socialist model followed by India in the early decades after independence was to limit inequality. Yet, the shortages that the system led to led to widening inequality rather than suppressing it. By conventional metrics of inequality – such as the Gini coefficient, it might be that wealth/income inequality in India today is significantly higher than in the decades immediately after independence.

However, if you were to take into account consumption and access to living a certain way, inequality today is far lower than it was in those socialist years. In the 1970s you could get an asset only if you knew someone that mattered (my father waited four years (1976-80) before he was “allotted” his scooter. His first telephone connection took six years (1989-95) to arrive), and this only served to exacerbate the inequality between those that had access to the “system” and those that didn’t. Today on the other hand you are able to purchase any asset on demand as long as you can afford it! And so a lot more people can afford a “reasonable” quality of life that was beyond them (or their ancestors) back in those days!

What we need is a redefinition of the concept of inequality from a strictly monetary one to one based on consumption and access to certain goods and services. While wealth inequality is indeed a problem (because of lower marginal utility of money the super-rich don’t spend as much as the less rich), what matters more is inequality in terms of quality of life. And this is something standard measures such as the Gini coefficient cannot measure.

I tried getting some students work on a “quality of life index” to show the improvements in quality of life (as explained above) since the “bygone era”. Perhaps I didn’t communicate it well enough, but they just stuck to standard definitions like per capita income, education, life expectancy, etc. What I want to build is an index that captures and tracks “true inequality”.

A culture of thinking and differentiated services

In a very interesting Op-Ed in Mint this morning, Anurag Behar argues against vocational training at the school level, arguing that the purpose of school education is to enable children to think, and that the ability to think is paramount in offering superior services.

He gives the example of a welder who understands basic geometry and the mechanics of metals, saying such a welder can offer superior services to one who has just been trained in welding. Thus, a welder who had been through school and thus understands the basics of geometry and mechanics can do a much better job as a welder than one that has just learnt how to weld.

Now, while this culture of thinking is important, another important pre-requisite is the culture of differentiated services. The question we need to ask is if the market here is mature enough to pay a premium for the welder who knows geometry and mechanics compared to an illiterate welder.

Intuitively it makes sense – an educated welder is likely to be more careful in his work and is likely to offer much superior quality. However, what I’m not so sure of is that the market in India is currently mature enough to recognize this increase in quality and thus pay a premium for such services. And unless the market matures to pay a premium for an educated welder, an educated person will choose a career other than being a welder and we will be only left with uneducated welders offering poor quality.