“this diwali, drink coca cola classic!”

Some early reflections on the economics of India:

(What, you wanted to hear about the Taj Mahal?)

0. Outsourced

The stereotype of Indians is that they are computer programmers who steal our jobs. Some of them clearly are, but most of them are not. For every Tata there are thousands of really, really poor people, and if you leave (the good parts of) the big cities, you will quickly find yourself amid filth, noise, and seriously extreme poverty. You hear about this as a caveat in some discussions of India’s ascendance as an economic power, but up close you see few signs of economic “ascension” in these poor people’s lives.

1. Nonzero

India is, based on a week of observation, a land of zero-sum games. The first dude who hangs around the Taj Mahal, offering to be your tour guide for fifty rupees, he’s creating some value. The second dude doing the same is creating value too, although a tiny bit less. And the third a bit less, and the fourth even less still. But there’s a point where it stops. The 150th dude is not adding any value; he’s just trying to reallocate the total pie of tour-guide money toward himself.

We’ve mostly stuck to tourist spots so far, but in Jaipur we wandered off through the bazaars of the old city. One of these streets had ten bicycle shops in a row. Each shop had the same bicycles for sale, and a couple of workers sitting out on the sidewalk in front assembling more of them, nuts and bolts and washers simply lying all over the ground. It is tough to imagine that the tenth bicycle shop adds any value to the economy; it merely re-allocates some of the bicycle-selling surplus from the other nine shops to itself. It is not enlarging the pie; it is merely cutting it into more pieces.

What’s more, haggling is a negative-sum activity — it wastes time and energy and creates nothing of value. We hired a driver for four days to take us from Delhi to Jaipur and from Jaipur to Agra, and at the end of the trip he insisted vehemently (and on the shakiest of rationales) that we pay him for five days of driving. After a nontrivial amount of argument, we gave him an extra 1000 rupees ($20) and he dropped his crusade. He was an impeccable driver in most every way (except that he only spoke about 5 words of English), and then he blew his karma by trying to insist on more than his (previously-agreed upon) slice of the pie.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I don’t begrudge people for trying to get a bigger piece of the pie (and in fact I have mixed feelings about trying to save an extra 100 rupees when dealing with someone for whom 100 rupees is a nontrivial amount of money (in which case haggling is potentially positive-sum, although this is the exception)), but these zero-sum games aren’t going to create wealth, and they’re not going to alleviate poverty.

2. The Crystal Mall

When driving through poor areas, pathetic-looking women holding tiny babies will come up to your car and tap on your window for money. They’ll keep tapping no matter how many times you say no. Ganga finds this heartbreaking; I, being heartless, consider it roughly on par with (though slightly more aggressive than) the “EVEN A SMILE HELPS GOD BLESS” freeway-entrance sign-holders.

In Jaipur we drove by “Crystal Mall”, which looked relatively clean from the outside, so we decided to walk there from our hotel. (We won’t, at this point, delve into how it is impossible to walk more than about 100 feet without being accosted by a rickshaw driver.) Whereas I had no problem ignoring the beggar-women, Crystal Mall I found terrifically depressing. It was set up like an Amrikan mall, with a “food court” in the basement (with two beat-up looking video games, whose coin slots claimed “100 Yen” to play) and four stories of mall shops. Each mall shop was a dark tiny room with walls of shoes or Engrish t-shirts or “vintage” toys, maybe a shopper, and two or three Indian dudes sitting inside. Woe to he who actually looks in a shop window, as one of the Indian dudes invariably hops up and runs out of the story and starts accosting the would-be shopper: “you want cloth? I sell you best cloth! only 500 rupee. come in, I show you cloth.”

I am struggling to describe what was so depressing about this all, and maybe the best way to understand it is if you’ve ever been to a “dying” mall. (When I was growing up, Roswell Mall was one of these.) A “dying” mall has a dingy Radio Shack, and a pretzel stand, and a closed movie theatre, and tons of boarded-up storefronts, and is a sad sight to see. Here, except for the fancy malls catering to rich people (which I haven’t seen yet but which I’m told are on par with Western malls), all the malls have the same “dying” vibe.

3. The Persistence of Indians

People don’t like pushy salesmen, and in India all salesmen are pushy. At Fatehpur Sikhri, there is a 1km walk from the parking lot to the ticket office. Hence the parking lot is mobbed by auto-rickshaws, camel-carts, and pedal-rickshaws wanting to offer rides to those too lazy to climb 1km uphill in 100-degree heat. This is fine, as far as it goes. The problem is that they don’t take no for an answer.

“Sir, sir, very far to top, I take you.”

“No thanks.”

“Sir, only 100 rupees.”

“Not interested.”

“Sir, but 100 rupees is a good price.”

“I said no.”

[All the while you are walking away, but he is following you.]

“Sir, far way to top.”


“Sir, only 100 rupees!”

“Fuck off!”

“Sir, 100 rupees!”

And once you finally lose this guy, another hops in to take his place. (Bonus point to the guy who starts the sale about 85% of the way up the hill, at five times the price.)

Anywhere there are things for sale (sweets, sodas, peacock feathers, trinkets, coasters, postcards, tourguidery, …) there are people who feel compelled to badger you incessantly. The fact that they do this indicates that someone, somewhere responds to these high-pressure tactics and (just like the guy who buys something from a SPAM email) ruins it for the rest of us.

4. Indifference

All of our hotels have had buffet breakfasts. They’re supposed to ask you for your room number when you show up, so they can check that your room rate includes breakfast. They do this about 50% of the time. Once you sit down, someone will ask you if you want coffee or tea. You tell them coffee or tea, and then you fill a buffet plate, and then you sit down and have not yet received coffee or tea. About half the time it will show up a few minutes later, the other half of the time eventually a second dude will come over and re-ask whether you want coffee or tea.

At every restaurant we have been to, there has been a huge number of service staff simply standing around and not providing service. Being ready to order, getting more water, getting a check, these are all things that American waiters and waitresses (who are not, as far as I can tell, routinely overstaffed) are (in general) diligent about. Indian waiters (there seem to be few waitresses here) are about as un-diligent as it is possible to be and not lose your waiting job.

At “Cafe Coffee Day”, which we have visited twice, it always (twice) takes them (for there are always three people behind the counter) ten minutes to make simple coffee drinks, even though there are no other customers in the store.

There is an obvious tension between the overbearing persistence of the street-hawkers and the lazy diffidence of the wait staff, and I haven’t yet figured out how to resolve it.

5. Girls! Girls! Girls!

I have spent the last week driving around north India, and (“Hero Honda” advertisement for a pink “Why should he have all the fun?” billboards aside), I haven’t seen a single car (or truck or tractor or camel or auto-rickshaw) driven by a woman, and I’ve only seen a handful of female-driven scooters. (The not-driving I sort of understand, as my woman, who grew up in India, refuses to drive here, and also refuses to let me attempt driving.) The mall stores were all run by men, and the waitstaff are almost entirely male (whereas it’s easy to imagine that women would do a better job). The only jobs I’ve actively seen women participating in are

* hotel greeter

* bangle maker (in a small shop in the bazaar)

* street beggar

None of these are real “growth” jobs. (Although I suppose “tour guide” and “pedal-rickshaw driver” are not particularly growth jobs either.)

6. Nazis! Nazis! Nazis!

They sure like the Nazis here! There are swaztikas everywhere! Maybe if they were more welcoming to the Jews they might be able to get bank loans and grow more businesses.

More thoughts next time I get internet access, which might be a while.


3 Responses so far »

  1. 1

    herbaliser said,

    I look forward to reading the next newsletter.

  2. 2

    Keerazeebam said,

    It must be so liberating to escape from the petty materialism, greedy selfishness and small-mindedness of America, and breathe the exotically spiced air and spiritual enlightenment of older and still-communal peoples. Namaste, brother jaggdish!

  3. 3

    Harry B. said,

    The swastika is a symbol many thousands of years old, that has been used as a symbol of Buddhism for over 2000 years.

    The Nazis adopted a swastika in the 1930s.

    They are as Nazi as you would be Scientologist if the Scientologists suddenly started carrying around defaced pictures of you as posters.

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