About Jaya

Jaya Jha is an entrepreneur, a techie, a writer and a poet. She was born and brought up in various towns of Bihar and Jharkhand. A graduate of IIT Kanpur and IIM Lucknow, she realized early on that the corporate world was not her cup of tea. In 2008, she started Pothi.com, one of the first print-on-demand publishing platform in India. She currently lives in Bangalore and divides her time between writing and working on her company's latest product InstaScribe (http://instascribe.com) with a vision to make it the best e-book creation tool. Blog: https://jayajha.wordpress.com Twitter: @jayajha Facebook: http://facebook.com/MovingOnTheBook

Universal Basic Income – Nobody Should Worry About Basic Needs

SI have been curious about the idea of universal basic income for a while. The idea, by itself, is simple. The government gives a certain amount of money, no strings attached, to all its citizens. The money should be enough to meet basic needs and there is no condition on who gets it. Everybody does. It is different from many normal public welfare government programs or laws we are familiar with.

  • It is not a minimum wage law. Minimum wage is what you must get when you are working. Basic income is something you get irrespective of whether you are working or not. And if you are working, it is apart from, and independent of, anything you are making on your job.
  • It is not a cash to the poor scheme. There is no condition on who gets it. Rich and poor, employed and unemployed, villagers and urban dwellers – everyone gets it.
  • It is not an employment guarantee scheme. You just get the cash. You don’t have to work for it.
  • It is not one among the myriad of food, education or health schemes. There are no conditions on how you spend the money you get as the basic income. Your can drink your brains out and spend the night in the drains if you wish. (You might get caught under some other law, but not because of what you did with your basic income money). You can buy an iPhone (if the basic income is sufficient for that). Or you can spend it on food, education, and health.

If you have not heard of the idea or considered it before, you are perhaps shaking your head at this point. What does that even mean? That’s worse than communism. Who will ever work if they get free money?

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If you decide to trash it right away, I can hardly stop you. It so obviously doesn’t make sense, right? The idea is naively misguided at its best.

But you can consider hanging on for a moment.

Will nobody work if everybody was given a basic income?

I don’t think so. If you are an optimist you will call it human ambition, if cynical call it human greed; it is infinite. People are not satisfied with even much higher amounts of money than what a basic income scheme can provide. They want to continue earning more to keep up with, and stay ahead of, Joneses and their cousins. The world is not going to stop working just because they have enough money to feed themselves. They always want more. At least for materialistic gain they will continue working.

But working is not just about earning. Many people find an intrinsic satisfaction in the work they do. A lot of early work in philosophy and science came from the so-called “gentlemen of leisure” – people who didn’t have to work for their livelihoods. Of course, the leisure of this class of people was earned by the exploitation of a much larger part of the population. So nobody wants to go back to those days. But the point here is that good work is not necessarily motivated by livelihood needs. In fact, if you think of  fields like literature and arts, where popularity (economic benefits) and greatness do not necessarily go hand in hand, leisure and basic income will help create more good work. Could it mean not enough of popular work will be produced? Unlikely. See the earlier paragraph about working for materialistic gains. Even in sciences and business, if people didn’t think that the alternative to holding onto their jobs was dying of hunger, we might see less of meaningless or even harmful work getting produced. Perhaps people won’t feel as justified in publishing papers with fudged or wrong data or going along with unethical business decisions if they didn’t fear so much for their jobs.

But poor people will become lazy and their men will only use the money to drink.

Many among the rich do not know how to manage money. Many among the poor also, perhaps, do not know. And we are misdirected in taking this paternalistic approach specifically towards the poor. For the most part, people on the brink of hunger will buy food first and that will be a good thing. Besides basic income is not a one-time dole out. It is a long-term, ideally lifelong, assurance of basic dignity. Once the direness of life stops killing you, positive ambitions are more likely to take its place in your mental space. Maslow’s hierarchy may not be as neatly hierarchical as its diagram tends to suggest, but there is an essentially correct idea in there. There will always be some lazy, useless people in the society – poor or rich. But overall I have more hope of poor people becoming upwardly mobile and living more meaningful lives than all of them becoming lazy drunkards.

What we do really fear (but won’t say out loud) when we express worries about poor people becoming lazy is that we won’t get cheap labor. In India, you don’t have to be super-rich to hire a maid or a cook or even a full-time driver. That’s because we can find them cheap. With the basic income, they won’t have an incentive to work too cheap. Already with schemes like MNREGA, in some parts of the country, people are complaining about not getting labor easily for farming or household work. I will read that “easily” as “cheaply”. But middle class losing some convenience (I will be one of the losers in this case) of the cheap labor is no reason why a whole population should not live with more dignity. And with universal basic income, the maid-hiring middle class is also eligible for it. Perhaps we can use that to pay the higher salary demanded by our domestic help!

This introduces another reason to consider universal basic income. The increasing automation and less need of human labor. We can celebrate it or we can denounce it, but we can’t deny it. A lot of basic tasks do not need as much human labor as they used to need (With washing machines many of us don’t need maids to wash our clothes!). How many kinds of jobs have disappeared in last two centuries? And how many more are on the brink of disappearing? Oh yes, yes – I hear that – reskilling, upskilling, so-many-employers-can’t-find-employees etc. But firstly, even reskilled jobs will continue to succumb to automation. A significant part of Infosys kind of “software engineering” may be automated sooner than we would ever have thought. Secondly, perhaps so much work is really not needed. In the beginning of the industrial age, hopeful people had dreamed of lesser working hours in a more industrialized society. That hasn’t come to pass. Why do so many organizations want to hire skilled sales people? To increasingly push products on the consumers who aren’t interested enough in them? Why? Why can’t we do with less production? Why do we need overproduction of clothes to be sold at 70% discounts online or in the malls to the people with already overstuffed wardrobes, when our garment workers are paid paltry sums and when there are still others who are dying of cold in want of sufficient clothes? For good or for bad, our production systems are becoming so efficient that we may not need all the human labor available to produce enough for everybody. But people need to eat, to wear clothes and to live. Hence basic income. And then let them work on things they desire whether or not it pays. Let them create poetry, art or organic gardens nobody pays for. Or perhaps enough people do and they become the next bestselling author or the next hot artist or the next unexpected business success. Let both the possibilities exist.

Back to earth. Universal basic income is by no means an idea that is ready to go. Especially not in India. In the countries that are considering such experiments (Canada, Switzerland, Netherlands etc.), to decide how much the basic income should be, people start by looking at the public welfare spending of the government and dividing it by the total population of the country. The idea is that all other kinds of welfare programs may be replaced by the single one of universal basic income. When I tried doing that for India with the numbers I found online, the result was laughable.

Besides that India specific problem, even if one were to experiment with it on a small scale, it will have to be a leap of faith. You can argue about the possibilities – good and bad – but to predict the real effects is impossible unless a long-term experiment is successfully conducted and analyzed. There are too many variables involved. Obvious technical issues of administration, inflation, labor market changes aside, the human behavior – especially when a whole population is involved – is nothing if not unpredictable. Some earlier attempts at experiments in other countries either did not survive long enough to get a result or the analysis never came forward or what came forward turned out to be faulty. Long-term experiments by governments seem to become the victim of political vicissitudes. Perhaps an NGO trying the experiment will fare better.

What I wonder about is if it would be possible to do an experiment of giving a basic income to people in some small, relatively isolated part in India. If the experiment is not universal (for the entire country), we have to deal with the conditionality which is not there in the original idea. Who all get the money? We don’t want it to be on the basis of income. So all residents of a relatively isolated place would make a good choice. Small and isolated will help in administration. We don’t want people shifting to the selected place surreptitiously just to get the money. If the place is small we should be able to identify the residents in the very beginning.I am still thinking about it.

To sign off, here are some articles related to universal basic income that you can read

Ramblings in an absurd, absurd world

I think it is time to change the name of the blog. I would like to call it “In an absurd, absurd world”. Feels strange that at some point of time I thought it should be called “Miles to go…”. Go where? To an unappetizing future? Or to the unappealing past that, unlike some luckier souls, I can’t romanticize. Of course, to the extent that you are living, you are going somewhere. And the distance might very well be in miles. It doesn’t leave you or the world any better off though. So why have that as a motto of sorts. It is simply a given, a compulsion.

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The only miles I would really like to go are the literal miles. That you cover in traveling. But I don’t want to do so to achieve anything, not to make the world a better place, nor to make myself a better person. It seems like more harm is done to the world in the attempts to make it better than just letting it be would have done. And more pride is instilled in one’s person by the attempts at betterment than would have naturally been there.

It is theoretically impossible to create more happiness by creating more things. Either physical or virtual. More things only create more reasons to be disappointed when you don’t have them. The solution to happiness problem today is in distribution. And that solution will not come about, because we, the human race, are not the product of anything “humane”. We are the product of a bloody (literal, not the curse word) evolution. There is nothing inherently (what we call) humane in us. It is all self-interest and an immediate, highly short-term self-interest at that. For one reason or the other we have kept coming up with systems to channel and control the fierce self-interest. Tribes, religion, rulers, nations, democracy, organizations, corporates etc. etc.  We will keep coming up with them, but they will be products of our limited abilities, and each of them will be marred by the same self-interest it tries to control. So we can keep creating institutions, but it is self-interest that has caused our rise (if it can be called rise) and it is self-interest that will lead us to our fall. Because the self-interest is now combined with illusions of grandiose.

But until then, we are at the mercy of man-made systems. They have become so pervasive that an individual will find no space outside of them. And in that system, if you have to eat and survive, you have to keep making things. Things that cannot create happiness.

You are doomed.

The evil facebook ad reporting

Recently I started using Facebook Ads for Pothi.com. And ran into a problem that must be familiar to most Facebook advertisers. The click-through numbers reported by Facebook were nowhere close to the numbers reported by Google Analytics.

GoogleAnalytics

So, we searched around and put into place some more tracking setup so that we could have more accurate data on traffic coming from Facebook Ads. But the traffic number tracked on our site was still about only 25% of the Facebook ones.

Then we studied the potential reasons on Facebook’s official page about it.

Some of those are reasonable, but 75% of the traffic not being reported was still too much! Then the following caught our eyes –

EvilFacebook

Umm… What?

Because a person saw my ad on Facebook (correction – Facebook served the ad, whether the person saw or ignored can hardly be known!) and later visited my site, it will be counted as Facebook’s conversion? Even though he didn’t click on the ad.

Pothi.com is not a new venture. We already have many customers, many of whom are on Facebook, many of whom might be served the ad. Later they log in to check the status of their order or their sales dashboard, or to upload a new book, and Facebook takes credit (and money!) for that??

I might even be running other promotions elsewhere. And it is one those other promotions that brought this person to my site. But that too will go to Facebook’s credit (and pocket)?

No wonder my real cost of clicks from Facebook is four times of what they claim.

When I advertised for InstaScribe, since most of the traffic was coming from Facebook ads, I think this problem was not too big. But with Pothi.com, which has an existing user base and traffic, this is just ridiculous. Time to reevaluate Facebook Ads!

Appreciating Indian Classical Music… And Indian TV Serials

What would happen if someone who has grown up on the exclusive diet of Bollywood music was taken to an Hindustani classical music concert?

Predictably, he would come back rather dissatisfied. Perhaps even angry at the money wasted on the concert.

“You can’t even understand the words they are uttering, there is so much aa-aa-aa going on,” he would fume. Although if he is the consumer of 21st century Bollywood music, probably not understanding the lyrics will not be his biggest complaint.

Still all that artistry of the alaap and the taan and catching ‘sam’ after a complex maneuver and the difficult dedh-gat and expert use of vivaadi and respecting the time of the day in the choice of the Raga would leave no impression whatsoever on him.

“I’m better off on YouTube,” he would declare and put on his fancy headphones.

Do you see what the problem is? Appreciating classical music needs you to have some training. Otherwise, you are like an illiterate person trying to appreciate a great work of literature which doesn’t even have any photos to entertain you.

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It is the same with appreciating Indian TV serials. You need to be trained to see the nuances involved in the art.

If you are not trained to see those nuances, you would not know the difference between an Ekta Kapoor serial and a serial by a new production house that is making a “different” kind of show. You will fail to see that while a misunderstanding between the protagonists (that admittedly should not have occurred between two beautiful people who are endowed with the abilities of seeing, talking, hearing and presumably also a bit of thinking) goes on for two months in the Ekta Kapoor serials, while it is resolved within a week in the newly minted “different” serial.

You would also not appreciate the genius of being able to shoot knee-buckling romance scenes after romance scenes, day after day when actors in real life have long ceased to talk to each other. But they can’t move on because the show must go on until the TRPs start falling, whether or not you have a story.

Check this review of a show on First Post, for example. What is he complaining about? That the makers of a show called Reporters don’t seem to know anything about how a newsroom works. But you know what a trained Indian serial watcher would appreciate in the show? That there is no evil saas in there (not for the heroine anyway). And although the heroine’s hairdos are superbly intricate for a busy field reporter, she isn’t doing her job in a benarsi silk saree. You need to be trained on a heavy dose not only of the now outdated Kyunki Saas Bhi Kabhi Bahut Thi, but also of the Balika-Vadhus, Saath Nibhana Saathiyas and Ye Rishta Kya Kahlata Hais of the world.

And if you are not willing to spend your time and effort in some difficult training, well that’s your choice. Classical music, or Indian serials, are not your cup of tea. You keep listening to the Bollywood songs or watching Mad Men.

Heroes are a means, not an end!

Note: Please read “hero” in a gender-neutral sense in this post.

Earlier this month, I attended a women’s day event. There were professional men and women there, discussing different issues about – well – women in workplaces (perhaps it was specifically about tech industry, but that doesn’t matter for the purpose of this post).

A familiar phenomenon played out. A lot of chest-thumping by women who have “made it”.

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I will come to what the problem was, but before that let me clarify that the chest-thumping was not undeserved. Most women who make it anywhere in the professional world have to do it against the societal expectations and pressures. Sometimes by outright fighting, at other times by at least ignoring the expectations and taunts. If a younger woman asks me for advice today, I will also tell her all these stories to encourage her to do her own thing and not give into what the society expects from her.

But a problem arises here. A problem arises when these stories start overwhelming the larger, real social issues. When you have gathered to discuss the situation of women in workplaces, it is not the time to sweep aside the societal issues by chest-thumping. This is how it typically goes:

Person 1 raises issue X which limits women.

A professional woman who has “made it” jumps up and objects. “That’s not really true. I have faced issue X and overcome it. Look where I am today. So why should it stop others? All you need are A/B/C qualities.”

(Replace A/B/C with things like self-confidence, talent, hard-work etc.)

Everyone else claps.

More similar stories are told and it is decided that issue X doesn’t really exist.

To understand what I find problematic in this, let’s consider a parallel hypothetical discussion in a society from middle ages. It is ravaged by constant wars.

Person 1 says that because of the wars, the farmers are not able to peacefully do their work and raise crops. Not only is there a shortage of grains in the country, but the farmers are also poor and hungry. Their condition is deteriorating everyday.

A farmer jumps up and objects. “That’s not really true. It’s just an excuse of the coward and the lazy. I am a farmer, but I learned to wield weapons and I can protect my farms. Why can’t others do the same? You just need some resourcefulness, weapon wielding skills and courage.”

Everyone else claps and it is decided that constant wars in the land are not really a problem for the farmers.

Does that sound right? Not to me! We like our current society better than the ones in middle ages because we don’t need to be warriors to be reasonably certain that we will live out our natural lives and won’t be killed by a stray weapon or a raging soldier. Wars create many heroes like the ones in the above fable, but as a society creation of heroes doesn’t justify constant wars.

It is the same with women issues. Or with pretty much any societal issue that involves a suppressed or an underprivileged group.

The heroes are good as an inspiration. They should be the means of proving that the discrimination is uncalled for. They should be the means of bringing about changes. They shouldn’t be used for brushing the issues aside. It is good to have women who make it against all odds. But as a society, we need to move in a direction where someone doesn’t have to overcome an odd just because she is a woman. Such a society will not consider a successful career woman any more of a hero than a successful career man. But despite fewer heroes that is the society we want.

Next time, please think about that before using a heroic story to sweep an issue aside.