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”.

Caste, socialism and social capital

Some new research by Dan Ariely (of Predictably Irrational fame) and co shows some interesting correlation between a socialist/communist upbringing and attitude towards lying (The Economist reports this research under the headline “Lying Commies“). While I’m not particularly convinced about the research methodology (sample of 250 respondents under a simulated environment – but then most behavioural research suffers from this problem) I find this research interesting since it supports another hypothesis that my wife and I came up with a few days ago – that India’s low social capital is a consequence of the caste system.

I’ve long maintained that the Indian caste system is perhaps the earliest example of a socialist economy. Assuming that reproductive rates across different castes were similar (there is no reason to believe otherwise) what the caste system ensured was that the relative supply of labour across different occupations remained constant even in small geographical areas, and consequently the relative prices of goods remained broadly constant. We can thus think of the caste system as an instance of a socialist model where each one’s profession is determined at birth, and relative prices are fixed. I will go as far to say that there is no better example of a planned economy than the ancient Indian caste system.

One of the inherent problems of Indian society is the lack of social capital. To use my co-INI blogger Nitin Pai’s framework, Indians value Swaartha (self-interest) over Paraartha (interest of others) to an extent that is far beyond the optimal level. The hypothesis goes that there is an optimal mix of Swaartha and Paraartha that should enter one’s objective function while making decisions in everyday life. For example, do you allow the other car to pass before you so that you avoid the traffic jam or do you rush ahead just because there is space in front of your car? Do you over-graze the commons just because it is there or do you consume it in moderation so that others have something to consume, too? A society with a high degree of social capital gives a higher weight to Paraartha in these objective functions, and people in such societies cooperate more and collectively take decisions that make more sense at the societal level.

Now, societies where life is tough (due to geographical or environmental factors) generally face a higher degree of social capital than those where life is easier. One way to experience this would be to drive from Punjab to Himachal Pradesh. On the wide roads of the Punjab plains, it is dog-eats-dog on the road – people overspeed, overtake like crazy and don’t give too much consideration to others on the road. Once you enter the hills of Himachal Pradesh, though, the whole equation changes. Here, a confrontational paradigm doesn’t get you too far – the narrow roads and winding curves mean that drivers need to cooperate more in order to get their way. Social capital in such societies is naturally higher.

Social capital is sticky in one way – if a particular generation in a particular location has high social capital, it is extremely likely that the preceding generation also had high social capital. The reverse, however, is not necessarily true – social capital can sometimes be destroyed in double quick time (think, for example, of the Lebanese Civil War between 1975 and 1990). Thus, the fact that social capital in India today is low could either be because it was always low, or because there was a particular event that destroyed social capital. Since it is unlikely that there was one event which destroyed social capital in the entire country, it seems more likely that social capital in India has always been low.

Social capital is important in a society where there are no rules – if you have a traffic signal at an intersection, for example, the lights will ensure that there is no jam. However, in the absence of rules (or lights) high degree of cooperation is necessary between drivers in order to lead to higher throughput from the signal. One way of combating a society with low social capital is to have lots of rules – these rules rather than social conventions can then drive the society. The converse is also true – in a highly rule based society there is no real need for social capital, and thus social capital can wear off down the generations.

As explained earlier, the caste system meant that the ancient and medieval Indian society was highly planned and rule based. Complex caste rules ensured that there was a rule for any possible social occurrence which might otherwise require cooperation. A brahmin’s cart and a shudra’s cart on the same one-lane path? There was a rule regarding right of way. Two people reaching the river at the same time to bathe? A rule governed who might swim upstream. And so forth.

My hypothesis is that the rule-based society ancient India had due to the caste system meant that there wasn’t much need for social capital. And thus India has never been a high social capital country (except of course for tracts such as Himachal Pradesh where life has been difficult). To put it another way, we see that a socialist economy from the past ages has led to consistently low social capital.

Which is not that far off from what Ariely et al say in their paper.