Sep 16, 2010

Protestant Ethics and Whole Lotta Bunkum

China and India have been catching up to America not only via cheap labor and currencies. They are catching us because they now have free markets like we do, education like we do, access to capital and technology like we do, but, most importantly, values like our Greatest Generation had. That is, a willingness to postpone gratification, invest for the future, work harder than the next guy and hold their kids to the highest expectations.

In a flat world where everyone has access to everything, values matter more than ever. Right now the Hindus and Confucians have more Protestant ethics than we do, ……..”

Every time I watch a film like PL or Aakaler sandhaney, I turn to that great upholder-of-all things-Indian-&-Chinese - Tom Friedman. It’s like soaking in the honeyed praise of an insincere, callous boyfriend where you know everything he says is insincere and yet you find comfort in it.

The entire problem with Friendman, and I suspect this is true of all Americans, is his/their habit of reading/determining/understanding complex & evolving situations in very simple and clichéd terms of good vs evil, outsourcing vs patriotism, rich vs poor, tax reform vs irresponsible spend, and so on. But matters are never that simple.

Friedman has no idea of how much India has changed with the infusion of easy cash from the BPO sector. He is bang on about the great Indian proclivity towards savings and delayed gratification but he is wholly unaware that like all things, this too is slowly changing here. Second, these comparisons are infantile since you cannot compare spending trends and consumer data for two nations as diverse as the U.S & India. Software services is pegged as one of our greatest sources of revenue and yet it accounts for a measly 0.2% of the GDP!

There are 2 kinds of kids in India today and Friedman seems to be aware of only one. The former is the
23-yr old K.C College graduate who joins the Wipro BPO in Powai and blows all of the Rs 10,000 he makes partying at Lush Lounge, buying CDs for his play Station (which obviously has been gifted by daddy dear) and gifting expensive phones to his gf. Then there is the 23-yr old hailing from a small town near Shimla, who joins an LG call centre at Noida, makes Rs 10,000 a month out of which he is forced to pay for his rent & food and also send money home regularly. Sacrifice and the habit of saving have been drilled into him by his circumstances. It is inane to compare him with the 23-yr old student at Rutgers whose father has lost his job in the recession and is struggling under the weight of a huge mortgage. What is he supposed to do? Flip hamburgers at Denny’s? Sure, he’s already doing that and most probably making plans to backpack across Europe. To expect him to lift boulders and contribute to the mortgage is like asking Salman Khan to develop grey cells.

The divide is not so much between the countries as between types of people & the upbringing they have had. I doubt if any of our children will ever have the drive or tenacity to achieve what our fathers did (at least mine & A’s.) They have too much going for them and there is nothing inherently wrong in this. This is what conditioning is all about. To speak of this as an Indian vs American personality issue is to reduce it to stereotypes.


I don’t think anyone living in India can be untouched by poverty: it is too much in your face & a constant reminder of how much, when compelled, we can lower the threshold of basic sustenance. I’m currently reading ‘Churchill’s Secret War’ by Madhusree Mukerjee. It’s a slim book, not more than some 350 odd pages, but I’m finding it difficult to traverse those 350 pages. It recounts the gruesome Bengal famine of 1943 and alleges that the famine could have been avoided had it not been for then Brit PM Churchill’s almost rabid hatred for Indians that made him stop the flow of relief food supplies to India. While the ostensible reason was scarcity of shipping vessels, Mukerjee’s painstaking research (7 yrs) shows that on the contrary Britian had such a surplus of carrier fleet that it did not have enough cargo to load all of them! I don’t think anyone can read this book and remain calm when you realize the extent of Churchill’s culpability in not averting the disaster, or when you read about mothers leaving their infants at strangers’ doorsteps in the hope that they would be taken in and thus avoid certain death. What fuels the rage is that nothing has really changed: while Brit imperialism has been dismantled, the poor are still at the mercy of others who decide their fate. So whether it is employment under a Jawahar Rozgaar Yojana or grants under the NREGA, the bureaucrats sitting in air conditioned cabins dole these out in accordance with their whims. If you make the cut, good for you; if you don’t, better luck next time, mate. 

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