By the Way • December 24, 2013

Waking up to the BRA

In our last podcast, “Where’s Boston,” citizen activist Shirley Kressel excoriated the Boston Redevelopment Authority as a corrupt, powerful, unaccountable and non-transparent organization that gives away Boston land and tax-money to wealthy developers, ignoring the ...

In our last podcast, “Where’s Boston,” citizen activist Shirley Kressel excoriated the Boston Redevelopment Authority as a corrupt, powerful, unaccountable and non-transparent organization that gives away Boston land and tax-money to wealthy developers, ignoring the dire need for affordable housing in this rapidly gentrifying city.

Today, the Boston Globe reiterates her claim in an article that reveals some shady deals by the BRA, contrasting Mayor Thomas Menino’s public statements supporting affordable housing in the city. By law, developers are required to allocate at least 13 percent of their housing units for middle-income families or pay fees to build the units in a different location.

However, Globe reporters discovered hidden “discounts” unequally granted by the BRA to some developers but not others. In one particularly egregious example, the BRA staff awarded a $5.9 million discount to Anthony Pangaro, the developer of the luxury Millenium Place and campaign contributor to Menino. Additionally, the Globe writes, “a four-month Boston Globe investigation has found that the BRA has allowed at least four other developers breaks on affordable housing fees valued at a combined $3.4 million without disclosing them publicly.”

Unfortunately, the problem seems to extend beyond the secret tax breaks and loopholes that erode public funds for affordable housing. When money is collected, it is misused. According to the Globe, “the BRA has spent just $18 million on affordable housing since Menino established the housing program in 2000, less than a quarter of the $75 million the agency should have collected if the BRA had consistently followed the rules… the rest either has not been collected, was diverted to other purposes, or languishes in a BRA account.”

Four out of five of the BRA board members are appointed by the Mayor, and all report directly to him alone. During his campaign, Mayor-elect Martin Walsh acknowledged the need for change in the BRA, saying “the BRA must be reformed for efficiency and transparency.”

Will he keep these promises and prevent the siphoning of money away from affordable housing and into the pockets of developers? How will these uncovered deals impact the legacy of Mayor Menino? Is the BRA giving away the city of Boston to its political friends?

June 11, 2012

Real India: a land soon without tigers, and maybe orchids

Suprabha Seshan -- a gardener and guardian of the land, living for the last 17 years in the wild rain forest of Kerala, near the southwest tip of India -- is taking a fierce run here at the glad gab in Bangalore about the software boom, jobs, sudden wealth, the "New India," which she believes has delivered itself into a deadly trap of consumerism, pollution, ruined forests and rivers, a "virtual" prosperity but a profoundly un-natural India. It is a New India, in short, without tigers or, soon, even orchids. But Ms. Seshan is scathing in a light, laughing, maybe specially Indian way.

BANGALORE — Suprabha Seshan — a gardener and guardian of the land, living for the last 17 years in the wild rain forest of Kerala, near the southwest tip of India — is taking a fierce run here at the glad gab in Bangalore about the software boom, jobs, sudden wealth, the “New India,” which she believes has delivered itself into a deadly trap of consumerism, pollution, ruined forests and rivers, a “virtual” prosperity but a profoundly un-natural India. It is a New India, in short, without tigers or, soon, even orchids. But Ms. Seshan is scathing in a light, laughing, maybe specially Indian way. It’s an underlying premise among Indian chatterers, as they keep telling us, that often the best point in an argument is one whose direct opposite may sound equally plausible, even true. So let the conversation continue, through many paradoxes. “Is it possible,” she asks herself in conversation, “to live a life without contradiction?” — i.e. without petroleum, chemical fertilizers, technology? “In today’s society,” she answers, “it’s not possible.” There’s a cutting Indian edge here on the global contradictions of growth in a collapsing biosphere. Tea and eucalyptus plantations under the British Raj upset the balance and beauty of the green range of India’s Western Ghats in the 19th Century, and destroyed vast natural forest lands — but not so much that the state of Kerala doesn’t still market its mountains as “God’s own country.” For 20 years now there’s been an eco-tourism boom in Suprabha’s jungle — with roads, hotels, breaking-up of farms and new construction to serve high-end and mass visitors. The “eco” industry gets its name from the jungle, Suprabha says, but the jungle is withering. Ayurvedic medicine, the rage in New Delhi as well as Los Angeles, draws heavily on plants from Kerala wilds, “but where will we get them in a few years?” Better eco-tourism, I wonder, than the coal and bauxite mining that is churning a tribal rebellion in Eastern India? “Mining is rape,” Suprabha responds. “Eco-tourism is prostitution.” The good news from her own two decades on 60-plus acres in the wild is that forests and all their complexity do grow back. “The forest will return if given the chance. We call it ‘gardening back the biosphere.’ It can be done.” The bad news is that no one in or out of power will say “no” to eco-tourism and the promise of jobs. How, I asked her, will all this be remembered in the emerging story of the new India?

SS: I cannot relate with the new India at all. We have nothing in common in terms of what we seek as a possible future. The new India is appalling to me, if the new India means the exclusion of the forests. The new India means the end of nature to me. The two cannot go together: this is an apocalypse in the making. Because what is new “Shining” India going to shine with if it doesn’t have its rivers and its plants and its forests? What will it go forth with? CL: What piece of the old India are you invoking? And what is it in the old India that might ring an alarm? SS: The old India, what little I’ve known, is the diversity of things, the beauty and the sacredness and the diversity of things. In people, in the land, in trees and plants. Everything was sacred, and this was commonly felt. But modern industrial civilization, colonialism, all the powers that be have made it their special mission to destroy that relationship. The sacred doesn’t mean worship necessarily. The sacred means seeing each thing for what it is, and that it has its own right to be. And unfortunately it seems that a lot of mainstream religion has ritualized the sacred and has made an idol out of the sacred. So the sacred is now a plastic idol ringed by lights in someone’s concrete home. And so you worship your elephant that way. And meanwhile, the actual elephant is dying of tuberculosis, and herpes virus.  So my question has always been with regard to the so-called famous Indian tradition which is spiritual and so on: it’s become so symbolized and so ritualized and so separated from the actual earth that it has lost its meaning. It is virtual. It’s a virtual religion. CL: You sound like high Hindu priests I’ve read about, who teach this reverence for the single wasp, for every form of life… Is that a foothold for India to catch, against environmental disaster? This reverence for the planet, for life. SS: Reverence of any kind, of course, would be a very very powerful foothold. But I just don’t see it. Except in textbooks and stories. I do feel the modern media are crowding them out. Because you can have this experience of nature, of the wild, of the sacred, of anything, and you can almost believe that it’s true. And that’s the danger of the new technology to me: you can track a tiger in the forest through your computer and feel all that adrenaline rush, but you don’t have a relationship with a tiger. Because when you are with a tiger in the forest and your adrenaline rushes you’re a life and death situation… One gym instructor told me in the city, when I told him I live in the forest. He said “Oh, the jungle is a deadly place to booze!” That’s a crude version of what a lot of people do. They go to the jungle and they’re shut away from the jungle. The new technologies and this kind of removal that we see: it’s a severing that’s happened. They’re blind when they go to the forest. They have no means to look at the forest, to see it in a simple way. Just the beauty of it, let alone sacredness. Sacredness is so much more, it’s part of a life and a relationship, a recognition that we all have our spaces and relations with each other.

The deeper messages of entering the forest, and the silence, and the sensitivity, opening up and so on. That is a very quiet thing. That can’t happen in the way outdoor education is being sold to people: you work in an IT company and then you go for a weekend to the forest and then you have this outward bound experience. I don’t think it can happen like that. A relationship with nature is built over generations for the human species — the human species has come out of this million-year evolution, eye-to-eye contact with snakes, and elephants, and plants. You can’t really do it instantly. But a lot can be done: awareness is a pretty instant thing. People can be suddenly opened up in a pretty instant way. But, for that to build into a living relationship of sensitivity and mutual care, I don’t think that is so simple.

Suprabha Seshan in conversation with Chris Lydon in Bangalore, India. July, 2010

Podcast • May 11, 2012

Dan Ariely on the “Irrationality” of American inequality

Dan Ariely of Predictably Irrational fame, makes the arresting point that from the standpoint of fairness and equity in the distribution of wealth and power, the vast majority of Americans (90-plus percent) would prefer to ...

Dan Ariely of Predictably Irrational fame, makes the arresting point that from the standpoint of fairness and equity in the distribution of wealth and power, the vast majority of Americans (90-plus percent) would prefer to be living in Sweden. Which is to say: Mitt Romney’s scariest nightmare, “a European-style welfare state,” may be just the briar patch that most of us Bre’r Rabbits long for.

Dan Ariely is the Israeli-American psychologist, now at Duke, who has made a big name and career in the Dan Kahneman school of “behavioral economics.” The special Ariely gift is for surveys and social experiments that probe the gap between what we want and what we choose when we buy a house, pick a mate or vote for president. I’m bringing to the conversation my own probe for symptoms and causes behind Tony Judt‘s dying diagnosis, in Ill Fares the Land, that “something is profoundly wrong with the way we live today… We cannot go on living like this.”

Main roots of Judt’s and our own unease seem to pop right out of Dan Ariely’s experimental surveys — typically clever in their simplicity. First, when he asks his thousands of respondents to estimate the real division of wealth in the US, and then to propose an ideal distribution, we Americans confirm our sentimental attachment to a polite tilt of privilege. We cherish our mythic legacy of quasi-egalitarian social democracy, with no extreme concentrations of wealth or poverty. But what our answers really confirm is our delusion about the economy we live in now. The top 20 percent of the people in fact own 84 percent of the goods, and the bottom 40 percent of us, barely floating on a sea of debt, own less than half of one percent of the wealth of the nation. We live across roughly double the rich-poor gap measured in Germany, Japan and Denmark. By the standard “Gini coefficient” of wealth inequality, the US ranks with Turkestan and Tunisia, just a tad more equal than Chad and Sri Lanka.

The second key question in Ariely’s survey is even simpler; the answer is a slam dunk. Respondents were shown two pie charts — one with the actual American shares of wealth, in which 60 percent of the population nearly disappears with less than 5 percent ownership altogether; in the alternative, modeled on Sweden, the top 20 percent owns 36 percent of the wealth (almost double its claim by sheer numbers) and the bottom 20 percent owns 11 percent (about half its numerical share). In Dan Ariely’s study (with Michael Norton of the Harvard Business School), 92 percent of us Americans want to live Swedish-style instead. Women (93 percent in favor of the Swedish model) are a ever so slightly more egalitarian than men (90 percent for Sweden). But the results come out very nearly the same — Republicans and Democrats, richer and poorer, NPR listeners and readers of Forbes Magazine.

What we hear eternally in political chatter is Joe the Plumber’s dread of “spread the wealth” government, and Newt Gingrich’s alarm about “European Socialism.” And now the screech from Mitt Romney’s ex-Bain partner Edward Conard in the Times Magazine that we need bigger payoffs and “twice as many people” in the high-end investor class — in short, that we need a lot more inequality. But Dan Ariely’s evidence is that in the most steeply skewed social order in the industrialized world, we’re miserable about being skewered on the contradictions in a proud democracy that’s eroding fast at the foundations.

Dan Ariely brings, yes, the social-democratic biases of the Israeli left. He is imprinted unmistakably — body and soul — with the scars of severe burns he suffered as a teenager in a freak explosion: his face and most of his skin were remade over three excruciating years in hospital, all of the immeasurable expense covered by Israel’s socialized healthcare. Without it, as he told me, his family would have been bankrupted, his care might well have been curtailed.

The hope in Dan Ariely’s forecast for American politics and culture is for people who can hold out a while. How much do we need to change? I asked him:

A lot. I’m not a Biblical scholar, but after Moses came down from the mountain and saw the people of Israel celebrating the Golden Calf, God basically punished them by getting them to walk in the desert for 40 years, so that a generation would die. It might take a generation. That might be a reasonable time scale. The current generation that is running things might not be the right one. It might be that the generation that went to college during the financial crisis is the right generation — even if a lot of them are out of work. They’re thinking about what to do. They don’t have the Princeton-to-Wall Street path. They’re thinking of other things they might do with their lives, and because they don’t necessarily have jobs they are open to following their passions. My understanding is that volunteering is up. People are trying all kinds of things. There’s an increasing interest in graduate degrees — education is always counter-cyclical to the economy. This is a generation that saw the breakage of some ideologies of perfect capitalism, ready to revise their thinking. And they might be the right people to envision a new approach. The protests are a good signal. They’re a step in the right direction.

Dan Ariely with Chris Lydon in Boston, May 2012

Podcast • April 27, 2012

Daron Acemoglu on “Extractive” Politics and Us

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Daron Acemoglu (42 min, 19 meg) Daron Acemoglu pops up in his office at MIT with the big bold energy of the book that’s made him famous. Like ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Daron Acemoglu (42 min, 19 meg)

Daron Acemoglu pops up in his office at MIT with the big bold energy of the book that’s made him famous. Like Why Nations Fail, Professor Acemoglu is large-size and learned, young in spirit, digressive, reader-friendly and not at all shy about the after-argument around the epic account of economic inequality he wrote with political scientist James Robinson at Harvard.

The book is a theory of “development” wound through 500 years of mostly predatory colonial history. The argument can be made simple enough: that the mal-distribution of money and happiness in our polarized world is rooted not, for example, in the geography of foodstuffs (the Jared Diamond account in Guns, Germs and Steel), and not in the burdens of climate, bad soil and disease (a main line in Jeffrey Sachs’ The End of Poverty). No, no no… Acemoglu and Robinson affirm what feels intuitive anyway. The big difference in the world is between political arrangements designed and built to serve the many — or the few. It’s between state structures (usually resembling their dominant industries) that are purposefully maintained as “inclusive,” in the interest of pluralism, innovation and the common good; or “extractive,” for the benefit of an economic and power elite.

It’s the after-argument around Why Nations Fail that becomes the core of our conversation. I’m asking: isn’t a main warning in Why Nations Fail directed at the United States? Aren’t the scariest symptoms of “extractive” politics on our home turf, where the financial elite is throwing billions this year at both parties to block economic reform and taxes on itself? And shouldn’t we see a striking fit here with historian Tony Judt’s last judgment in Ill Fares the Land that an American “way of life” is on a cliff edge, desperately in need of a new public conversation?

On the broad questions Daron Acemoglu is both gravely worried and tentatively optimistic. What “really worries” him about the United States is that we’ve “already started the slide toward extractive institutions.” It’s not just the wealth inequality “that has soared over the last three or four decades.” It’s the eclipse of the myth and often the reality that Average Joes rule our politics. “That you cannot say today. Today the political system, I believe, is largely just listening to the very rich. The SuperPacs are the icing on the cake. It’s lobbying and campaign contributions — just the fact that whenever politicians want to get advice they turn to the very wealthy.” Citizens United and SuperPacs made a bad situation worse. “That’s where the slide becomes very serious,” he said.

And still, Acemoglu is optimistic because “we’ve been here before.” At the end of the 19th Century and the Gilded Age, when economic inequality was even higher than today, American politics was open enough to let Populist and Progressive movements take root in both parties, to enlist Teddy Roosevelt in the war against monopolists and “malefactors of great wealth,” to sustain a long reform era that delivered antitrust laws, direct election of Senators and voting rights for women. “That sort of thing was possible 100 years ago. The question is: is it possible today?”

The sharpest rejoinder is from Acemoglu’s close friend and MIT colleague Simon Johnson of Thirteen Bankers fame, the onetime IMF economist who described our problem as “state capture” by the financial industry, meaning we’re a banana republic owned by big money. “The Acemoglu-Robinson book is ultimately upbeat about the United States. We have built strong economic and political institutions, and these will prevail. I’m not so sanguine,” Johnson wrote in the New York Times recently. “I’m surveying the political landscape closely for anyone who can play the role of Teddy Roosevelt, using legal tools to break monopoly “trusts” and shifting the mainstream consensus decisively toward imposing constraints on the abuse of power by powerful individuals. So far, I see no one truly in the Roosevelt tradition with a realistic chance of election, while the rich become more powerful and the powerful become even richer.”

Professor Acemoglu concurred heartily with the Johnson diagnosis, then tossed the question back at us — that is, at all of us. “Is the system open enough to finally rally around somebody to stop the slide?”

Podcast • March 28, 2012

Mark Blyth (8): How Germany gets to eat our lunch

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mark Blyth (32 min, 15 meg) Mark Blyth is back in the pub, just in time, with the economic script for 2012. You remember the Sean Connery version ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mark Blyth (32 min, 15 meg)

Mark Blyth is back in the pub, just in time, with the economic script for 2012. You remember the Sean Connery version of a trans-Atlantic political economist at Brown? As usual, he’s talking faster through that Glasgow brogue than I can listen or think. But when I transcribe him, I begin to get his big picture: of Europe still strangling itself with debt born of Euro-nomics, while Germany (despite everything) takes care of industrial business. The US, meanwhile, looks to be tip-toeing away from financial meltdown but neglecting its old productive core.

Nobody’s noticed this. Two years ago the Germans decided they were phasing out nuclear power, completely. Nuclear power is around 20 percent of their electricity generating capacity. If you spend any time in Germany in the winter, you will know one thing: it faces Russia, and it’s cold. This is not something you screw around with. So what are these guys going to do? Well, when you think about Germany, you think about — apart from austerity and madness in the Eurozone — you think of really good engineers, right? You think about people that still have serious apprenticeships, serious skills, an entire engineering culture… (I’m sure I’m talking into a German microphone; that means it isn’t going to break.) The point is: what they’ve basically decided to do is go all-out into alternative energy. They’re going to put about 300-billion Euros into it just to get started over the next ten years. They’re bringing together all the top guys and top firms in collaborative research. They’re not competing; they’re trying to develop the best technologies — wind, solar, everything. Why? Because they know something we’re in denial about. Oil is running out. That’s a fact. The planet’s warming up. That’s a fact. You can call it Climate Change Chicanery if you want; but you’re not paying attention. The Germans don’t believe any of that stuff, and they know we’ve got one shot, and one shot only. Whoever figures out how to make sustainable green tech in the next 30 years gets to sell it to everybody else for the next 1000. That’s what they’ve figured out. What are we doing? We’re shutting down our engineering. We’re hollowing out our skills. We’re closing down our options. The Germans are going to have our lunch. The Chinese will be in for the appetizers, but the Germans are going to take the main.

On the Occupy movement which Mark Blyth says could be back any minute because the streams of discontent are o’errunning their banks — sky-high college costs and 20-percent youth unemployment feeding the flood: You heard it here first that it wasn’t the scruffy kids who started Occupy. It was their parents.

A lot of this is an inter-generational problem. My colleague Sven Steinmo — a Norwegian-American who teaches now in Florence — finds himself telling his kids when they ask what he wants for Christmas or his birthday: ‘I want nothing! I have everything! My generation has absolutely everything.’ He came of age in the 1960s when it was perfectly possible to go to Berkeley for $400, and he did. And then grad school, and then a job in a higher-ed system that was expanding. And then he lived through the 1980s and 90s when investments were booming. And now he’s the guy who’s coming up for a pension, and he’s got two houses and lives in Italy. And all the people coming after him, including his kids between them, can’t afford a mortgage. So there’s an interesting problem. The people who vote in the US, and the people the politicians pander to, tend to be old, and gray. They have the money. They have the pensions. They have it all, and they’re not giving it up for anyone. So you have an inter-generational conflict that hasn’t yet spoken its name. Maybe that’s the way Occupy comes back.

Mark Blyth with Chris Lydon in Boston, March 26, 2012

Hang in for the Blyth case — listen three times if you must, as I do — that there’s no plausible alternative out there to an “American-dominated global order.” It has everything to do with the point that China’s assets are still, in the end, our paper.

Podcast • January 21, 2011

Howard French on Africa in a Chinese Century

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Howard French. (52 minutes, 25 mb mp3) Fifty years almost to the day after the catastrophic assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo — a Cold War murder ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Howard French. (52 minutes, 25 mb mp3)

Fifty years almost to the day after the catastrophic assassination of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo — a Cold War murder by Belgium with help from our CIA — the journalist Howard French is sketching an alternative path ahead for African development today. China is the big investor in 21st Century Africa. China sees Africa as yet another “natural-resource play” but also as a partner in growth — not a basket-case but a billion customers who’ll be two billion by mid-century. With the West and Japan deep in a post-industrial funk, China is keeping its focus on manufacturing, exports and markets, “and we’ll have them largely to ourselves,” China calculates, “because the West doesn’t make the stuff middle-class Africans are buying — cars and houses and shopping malls and airports and all the things associated with a rise to affluence. Those are the things that China makes.”

For the New York Times Howard French covered Africa and then China, where he learned Mandarin. He returns to Africa now on a book project, observing and overhearing Chinese migrants to places like Ethiopia, Mozambique, South Africa, Namibia and Liberia.

HF: I was struck every time I got on a plane: the Westerners tend to be rich American tourists on their way to seeing lions and giraffes; or aid workers and NGO people — coming with a mission to minister to Africans about capacity-building or democracy and what my father used to do: public health. I say none of this with scorn, but the Chinese have a very different mission. The Chinese that I saw on the planes — and by the way, ten years ago I saw no Chinese; now they’re maybe a fifth of all the passengers — are all, almost to a person, business people. They’ve pulled up their stakes wherever they lived — in Szechuan province or Hunan province — and they have come to make it in Africa. And they’re not leaving until they do. Whatever it takes for them to make a breakthrough in farming or in small industry, they’re going to work 20 hours a day till they make it. They see Africa as a place of extraordinary growth opportunity, a place to make a fortune, to throw down some roots. These are not people who’re there for a couple of years. They’re thinking about building new lives for themselves in Africa. So you have this totally different perspective between the Westerners and the newcomers. One sees Africa as a patient essentially, to be lectured to, to be ministered to, to be cared for. The other sees Africa and Africans as a place of doing business and as partners. There’s no looking down one’s nose or pretending to superiority. It’s all how I can make something work here.

CL: I just wonder: among those development geniuses who argue about Trade vs. Aid as America’s next gift to Africa, in the face of all the Chinese activity buying forests, or building railroads, or planning the sale of billions of cellphones, what is the West’s better bet? Do we have one, or are we still asleep?

HF: I think we’re still asleep.

Yes, Howard French observes a Chinese style of racism in Africa, both familiar and different. “There’s a certain discourse about Africans being lazy or lacking in intelligence or unready, variations on a theme. One guy said to me just last week in Liberia essentially: ‘there’s a thousand-year gap between them and us,’ meaning… culturally, educationally, just sort of temperamentally; the ability to save, to sacrifice, to commit to a long-term project. But there’s an important distinction to be made. Western racism was instrumentalized to justify the sale of black people and their enslavement across the ocean to work as animals of labor on other continents. Chinese racism is, comparatively speaking up until this point, a largely rhetorical phenomenon…”

And what are Africa’s chances of doing well in the new Chinese “deal”? Howard French sees “an incredible opportunity for Africa,” but no guarantees. States with a vigorous civil society, strong elites and an informed view of “how people’s daily and longer-term interests will be served” stand to get good results. “In states that are stuck in the kleptocratic authoritarian mode, the Chinese will pay cash on the barrel for whatever they want and all of the contracts will go through the state house and none of the money or very little of it will enter the public budget. Twenty years from now, China will say: it’s not our fault if the money is frittered away on Mercedes and villas in France and Swiss bank accounts. We paid you exactly the amount we said we were going to pay you. Don’t blame us if you have twice as many people and all of your iron ore is finished.”

Podcast • August 25, 2010

Real India: The BBC’s Mark Tully on Poverty and "Tinderwood"

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mark Tully (40 minutes, 19 mb mp3) NEW DELHI — Mark Tully is something like the Edward R. Murrow of India. He has been the beloved voice of ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Mark Tully (40 minutes, 19 mb mp3)

NEW DELHI — Mark Tully is something like the Edward R. Murrow of India. He has been the beloved voice of the BBC in New Delhi since 1964 — knighted by Queen Elizabeth in 1991 even after he quit the Beeb in a row with management; and endlessly decorated by Indians for coverage that always sounds incisive, fair and curious. “Try and talk with Mark Tully if you can,” everybody told me, about an institution like none other in India.

Mark Tully didn’t “go native.” He is native, born in Calcutta in 1934 into an English commercial family. Anecdotally at least, he’s a link to the last days of the British Raj — when, as he says, an Englishman in India knew it was time to wake up and get busy when he chanced to feel his chin and realized he’d been shaved. Tully went to school and university in England, then returned to India for the chance to talk on the radio.

At home in the shadow of Humayun’s Tomb, he is speaking about changes he’s lived through: the enlistment of lower castes as voters; the rise and decline of Hindu nationalism; the rising power of a rich business class and the declining competence of a “flailing state”; the American-style “malling” of India, against the grain of a broad Indian distrust of American culture as “consumerist” and “vulgar.” Of the official relations with the US that warmed toward partnership in the George W. Bush years, Tully says “America expects more than India is going to be able to give unless it’s a relationship of equals.” Of the “new India,” Mark Tully’s sense is still of a vast nation moving steadily and slowly in many of the right directions, “a dangerous country to try and move forward too fast.”

One of the big changes I see is that there is a great deal more self-confidence in India now than there used to be. When I first came here, India was said to be living “from ship to mouth,” because it was so dependent on American food aid. They were very touchy about any suggestion of foreign interference or anything like that. They were very uncertain of themselves. There was a whole lot of questioning about the stability of India after Nehru. Now, India is almost over-confident. It is so self-confident that in my view it is actually failing to look at the problems that it faces.

India really does believe that it is going to be one of the great economic superpowers of this century… What is wrong with this talk is that it is based on one figure only, which is GDP growth. Now, GDP growth does not tell you who is growing. It just tells you that the nation as a whole is growing, and even then we all know it’s not a very accurate figure of that. The problem in this country is a very obvious one, which is still not being properly tackled. And that is that the economic growth is not getting down to the poorer people.

Now, India is facing the problem or the advantage of having a very young population coming up. And we know that the young population can be a huge advantage in terms of their inventiveness, their willingness to take risks, their entrepreneurial skills, and all the rest of it that young people have. But at the same time, young people who are dissatisfied, young people who are not getting what they feel they should get — not getting jobs, not getting good education, not having opportunities, being under financial strain, being poor — those sort of people are tinderwood. They are the sort of people an explosion can be fired by. And that is the real danger in this country…

In some ways, the whole caste system and the belief in karma, the belief that the way you are now is partly fated by what you did in your last life… these things actually do matter, they do count. But these pressures are now weakening. Caste doesn’t have the same impact as it used to have before. More and more people are no longer prepared to accept this poverty. In the old days, the poor were scattered in villages all around the country. Now, more and more of them are coming in to the big cities, and more and more of them are living in slums, where explosions of violence and rioting can easily take place. And they do take place.

Mark Tully in conversation with Chris Lydon in New Delhi. July, 2010

Podcast • August 24, 2010

Real India: Shashi Tharoor, the ‘NRI’ who came home

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Shashi Tharoor (41 minutes, 20 mb mp3) NEW DELHI — Shashi Tharoor is the global Indian who came home — who scored a thundering victory in his first ...

Click to listen to Chris’ conversation with Shashi Tharoor (41 minutes, 20 mb mp3)

NEW DELHI — Shashi Tharoor is the global Indian who came home — who scored a thundering victory in his first run for office, and has been paying the price ever since.

Bounced in April from P. M. Manmohan Singh’s Cabinet but still a honeyed voice in the Indian Parliament, Shahshi Tharoor is the politician people talk about in India, the one that 800,000 follow on Twitter.

Married for the third time this past weekend, at age 54, his life appears to unfold as in a 19th Century novel by George Eliot or Anthony Trollope. Bollywood-handsome and a moon-light novelist himself, Shashi Tharoor could be living a version of the triumphs and trials of Phineas Finn, The Irish Member in Trollope’s Parliamentary series of Palliser novels.

The best of Shashi Tharoor’s story is that though several long plot lines are clear, the outcomes are not.

Born in London, he is a child of privilege who marked himself, with a certain theatrical flair, for public service — first at St. Stephen’s College in Delhi and then at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he was the youngest ever (22) to take a doctoral degree.

After a meaty 20-year career at the United Nations in peacekeeping and refugee crises, he became Kofi Annan’s Under-Secretary-General and spokesman. When Kofi Annan stepped down, Tharoor made a creditable run in 2006 for the Secretary General’s job. When that failed (on the nod of the Bush White House) he made an unconventional choice in middle age: to develop his own political base in India.

But can a Non-Resident Indian go home again? Can a smooth-as-silk diplomat from the East Side of Manhattan put down roots in Trivandrum, the capital of famously leftist Kerala? With strong support from President Sonia Gandhi and the Congress Party, the popular vote last year was overwhelmingly: Yes.

But could Shashi Tharoor, a voluminous commentator on Indian history and politics, and a biographer of Jawarhalal Nehru, learn the hard way how the inside game gets played?

Could a master of public-speak and digital media cope with newspaper headline writers who seemed suddenly out nail him — for referring on Twitter, for example, to economy air-line seats (in the land of the sacred cow) as “cattle class”?

And then, crucially, in the gold-rush of professional made-for-TV cricket, did Shashi Tharoor blur public and private interests when he advocated for a Kerala franchise in which his fiancee had a sweat-equity interest of nearly 5 percent? This was the question — about judgment and appearances, not wrong-doing or financial gain — that cost Shashi Tharoor his plum seat in the Cabinet as Minister of State for External Affairs.

Will he be invited back, after a decent interval, into the government? And will he yet emerge as a talking embodiment of a New India still more seen and admired than it is heard?

ST: I think India stands for an astonishingly important experiment in the world, of trying to pursue development and overcome huge problems of poverty and internal social divisions, violence and so on, through democracy. And that is its most important contribution to the world of today. Secondly, it’s been an astonishing advertisement for the management of pluralism of a diversity that rarely can be found anywhere in the world and that yet is being managed without tyranny, and indeed with a startling insight that people are free to be themselves, including fully covered Muslim women and Turbaned Sikh men and people in a wide variety of clothes and so on, because the whole logic is that you can be divided by caste, creed, color, culture, cuisine, custom and costume, and even conviction, but still rally around a consensus. And that consensus is around the sort of Indian idea that it doesn’t really matter whether you agree all the time or not, as long as you agree on how to disagree. We’ve managed to sustain that effectively, and it’s a very different example from that of China, which is rightly being admired around the world for what it’s been able to accomplish, but which functions as a society and as a player on the world stage very differently from India. And I think that the world should have room for both styles and both ways of doing things. Both are ancient civilizations with their own cultural underpinnings that give us the contemporary reality of today.

CL: There is something in this moment, I sense, that is calling for India. It has something to do with India’s post-imperial recovery and its growth, its emotional groove, and a connection with so many other parts of the world that are struggling with these same transitions. Africa first, but Latin America too; the South, the poor, the post-colonial. Would you draw a little bit on your own dealings in Africa, with Rwanda for example, and elsewhere where you sense some sort of potency in the Indian idea?

ST: It’s been very, very striking. First of all, Africa represents a continent of enormous need and enormous potential. But there is a global perception of this kind of scramble for Africa in which China is beating all comers. I would just say with all respect that we are not China. I mean, we’re not there to scavenge for resources. We are certainly not doing anything as India to either directly influence African governments or to tell them what to do. Our approach is very much, “Tell us what your needs are, and let’s see if we can help you” sort of thing. And it’s been working very well. We don’t have the kinds of resources that others do to give large grants, but we do do a lot of very soft loans, practically with no interest, which are being snapped up. We do have one intriguing advantage that I’ve discovered from talking to a very large number of African leaders, which is that when Africans look at the Western model or the Chinese, they are very impressed. They look with awe and admiration. But they don’t actually see any affinity there, whereas when they look at India, they see a country which seems to be facing many of the kinds of problems they face, and seems nonetheless, through all the chaos and difficulties, to have overcome some of them. And they feel, “Hey, if India can do that, maybe we can learn from them, maybe we can overcome some of our problems too, because they’re so much like us.” That affinity is a huge advantage to us, and it helps that India has been on the side of African freedom from the colonial era onwards, and there are lots of longstanding relationships between India and Africa.

CL: But then what? What does India do with it?

ST: What India does with it is we offer them our expertise, we encourage our private sector to go in again. And another way that India is different from China is that most of India’s current engagement in Africa is through facilitating the work of our private sector. It’s Indian companies going in and building the presidential palace in Ghana or building a railway line in Ethiopia or constructing factories like many, many countries in the world. An Indian entrepreneur has bought large chunks of land in Ethiopia to grow flowers to export to Europe. Now that’s the sort of thing that would never occur to an Indian government organization, but it’s part of the sort of newly liberalized economic thrust of today’s India that we’re seeing. And I must say that it’s a way in which India can contribute to Africa without being part of … allegations of either government corruption or statism, or any of the problems that have bedeviled previous international economic engagement on that continent.

Shashi Tharoor in conversation with Chris Lydon in New Delhi. July, 2010

Podcast • August 12, 2010

Real India: At Koshy’s Cafe, The Talk of Bangalore

Click to listen in on the conversation at Koshys Cafe. (35 minutes, 16 mb mp3) “… And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy ...

Click to listen in on the conversation at Koshys Cafe. (35 minutes, 16 mb mp3)

“… And our nation, though it has no drinking water, electricity, sewage system, public transportation, sense of hygiene, discipline, courtesy or punctuality, does have entrepreneurs. Thousands and thousands of them. Especially in the field of technology. And these entrepreneurs — we entrepreneurs — have set up all these outsourcing companies that virtually run America now.”

From the self-satirizing narrator of The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga’s Man Booker Prize novel of 2008.

Koshy’s Cafe on St. Mark’s Road in the heart of Old Bangalore is the spot where India’s sense of itself gets born again every morning in once-and-future war stories — where dreams of a “second wave” of the entrepreneurial boom underlie every other conversation. As jumping-off point and non-stop salon, it’s Rick’s Cafe in Old Casablanca, from about the same starting point in 1940. Prem Koshy — today’s Rick — is the grandson of the founder and the chief of the “Ladies and Knights of the Square Table.” In his youth, Prem Koshy moved to Kansas to go to baking school, and then to New Orleans to tend bar and run a couple of night clubs. “Now I’m back home,” he explained, “ready to see India move out of its diaper stage and into our adulthood.” He invited us to sit in over eggs and record the daily gab one day late in July:

Ashok K: … What you had in Information Technology was a whole bunch of young people who created an industry from the ground up, without a rule book… That’s given them the ability to pick up something new and run with it, to go after any opportunity they see. Which area? You can get lists from renewable energy to pharmaceuticals to whatever. But the important thing is you’ve got hundreds of thousands of people who have the ability and the confidence to run with any idea that seizes them…

CL: What a visitor like me sees is that the new wealth of India is not eliminating the old poverty.

Satish S: As the pace picks up, the slums will disappear. I’ll give you an example. Many of us when we came from the rural area didn’t use a toothbrush; we used a stick. The marketing people have said: if they introduce people to toothpaste, no company will be able to meet the demand. India is a huge market. It’s a very simple thing.

CL: Are you going to buy one?

Satish S: Oh, I definitely use a toothbrush…

Prem Koshy: Now, about this trickling-down effect. It’s the 80-20 law that’s at work. Nature’s law of 80-20 — you know that, right? If you take all the wealth and equally distribute it, 20 percent will control the wealth again, and 80 percent will support them. In nature as well, 20 percent is the strongest part of nature’s crop, and 80 percent is usually the fringe that die. We need to move the 80 percent into the 20 percent that’s going to keep us going…

Hameed N: India needs people who can see things and say that the emperor has no clothes. For example, urbanization and this current model of development which I think is the most horrible thing. And yet we seem to be helpless. But no one is helpless. We wish to be helpless. And we follow the same models with the same consequences. We are rending our social fabric. We are destroying our environment. And yet we maintain this is the only way. I doubt it is the only way. Of course it is not. But either you are for this kind of thing or you are a Cassandra, or a leftist — all kinds of names unfortunately… I would say, if people are serious about change, start with children. And you educate them not merely in technology — also not in that bogus spirituality which India talks about all the time. You educate them about the real stuff: what’s good, living well, being kind, being generous, sharing, learning to cooperate, learning to collaborate.

CL: Oh, man. You’re my guru. You’re the man I came to meet.

Hameed N: Well, thank you. But a guru is a most dreadful person — India has lots of them — because then we suspend our thinking and start listening to what somebody else tells us. That’s India’s problem…

Mena R: I know you are American, but I feel the Americans have gotten into India very insidiously. They have changed culture in India — multinationals selling toothpaste and French fries and chips. They’ve changed Indian habits and customs for whatever reason, to sell, to make money… We have been filled with a lot of information and consumerism from Western countries which we could do without.

CL: What’s the worst of it?

Mena R: Indian children — upper-class and middle-class children — now their aspirations are to be American. The way they dress, the way they eat, their attitudes, are all American. Hollywood cinema, American TV, have influenced India — a lot!

CL: Do you see anybody you like on American TV?

Mena R: Yeah. I like Drew Carey! Ha-ha-ha-ha-ha…

Mena R: About six months ago the newspapers were trying to bridge a friendship between India and Pakistan. And they sent musicians and artists back and forth. I was told the Americans were funding this. But there really is no way that India and Pakistan can ever talk. It’s foolish to accept that we are going to talk. We’ve been traditionally enemies since they broke away, since 1947. If you ask any Indian, “who’s your enemy?” they will not say England, or Burma, or Sri Lanka. Not even China. We always think of Pakistan as our national enemy, and we will never make friends. The Americans understand this, yet they come and tell us one thing and then hand over huge amounts of money to Pakistanis to buy arms. Where are the arms used mainly? Back on India. So-called they are trying to contain Taliban and Al Qaeda, but finally it comes back into India…

Ashok K: The second wave [of the Indian boom] is at the high-chaos stage. It’s a churn, a maelstrom. All the pieces are there: the old, the new, the confused present… You don’t have to spin the wheel anymore. It’s spinning on its own. It’s no longer a question of: will it succeed? Of course it will succeed. But how quickly can it happen? And how can you minimize the misery that’s going to happen? There’s a lot of misery in the making, and these are new kinds of misery. Crime is going to go through the roof… It’s very much America in the 70s, when you had a runaway crime problem and didn’t know what to do with it. You have a complete churning — everything you’ve heard around this table from the connection with the older generation, parental supervision, crime, the politics and the school of resentment that Harold Bloom would talk about. Everyone in Indian politics is carrying an axe. It hasn’t helped that Indian politics has been divisive — not to bring people together but to break people into groups which are convenient at election time. You don’t have an end in sight, but hope is very strong. One would like to see the worthies who take our tax money putting a plan behind this.

Hameed N: In the life of a nation, five or ten years is nothing… What more can India give? It has given Yoga. It has given the Indian philosophy. It has given Kama Sutra.

CL: And Gandhi, too. And Prem Koshy.

Prem Koshy: In the famous words of my grandfather: Listen, buddy: before you try to save the whole world, please try not to be the monkey who pulls the fish out of the water to save it from drowning.

Podcast • August 11, 2010

Real India: Confidence-building in the new "Women’s Work"

Click to listen in on Chris’s visit to the Ubuntu workshop in Ramanagar. (22 minutes, 11 mb mp3) RAMANAGAR — We drove out about 50 kilometers south and west of Bangalore to see a busted ...

Click to listen in on Chris’s visit to the Ubuntu workshop in Ramanagar. (22 minutes, 11 mb mp3)

RAMANAGAR — We drove out about 50 kilometers south and west of Bangalore to see a busted “silk city” and a social “silver bullet” in action. Vibha Pinglé, an Indian-American scholar and activist is our guide. Ubuntu-at-Work is her NGO, with roots in the US and other branches in South Africa. It opened its sewing workshop in Ramanagar less than a year ago, one of its far-flung experiments in green manufacturing and global design for a world market. The real inspiration in Ubuntu’s third-floor community space in Ramanagar is the conviction that women’s empowerment through training and sustainable work is the ready remedy for over-population, family inequities, hunger, hopelessness and poverty, for starters.

About a dozen graceful ladies in the collective are a glimpse of the proud poverty everywhere to be seen in India. At present, the women say, they are subsisting on cash incomes in the range of $2 dollars a day. Ubuntu’s commitment is to give them each a personal stake in the production of embroidered fashions from international designers for stores in Europe and the States. The second big promise is to give the women work at home, not factory, to sustain motherhood and family life at the same time.

You can hear a lot in this visit about the indirect ways even of silver bullets. Women speak, for example, of residual family pressures to stay at home; and of the habitual payment of bribes for government jobs, and the interest payments on loans required to finance the bribes. A lot of these women are paying loan-shark rates (5 percent per month!) for their own or their children’s education – even when they call it microfinance.

Yet my other big impression from a morning in the needlework collective is that the quiet confidence they’re after is palpably here now. There’s laughter and warmth among the women that smashes our equation of poverty with unhappiness. These feel like connected, resourceful, family folk, with long experience at making do – no matter that we call them impoverished. I left their workshop wondering: is this why people say: India will grow, but it will never have a social revolution?