Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Hate for the middleman

There's a debate going on about whether to allow foreign retail chains to operate in India. There are libertarian voices who, by principle, are aghast at the thought of imposing needless restrictions. Urban Indians view retail FDI favorably mostly because they like the idea of having more joints to shop in. Yet the majority of the folks I have come across seem to embrace a protectionist view that invokes dire consequences for everybody if these retail chains come in. I have been more intrigued by how people have been taking sides of some perceived victims while inexplicably abandoning others.

People talk about the three separate characters that have a role to play in the FDI drama; the farmer, the middleman and the retailer. As expected, folks view the farmer most sympathetically. He's the innocent, hard-working soul barely making ends meet. Of course, for this argument, nobody is thinking of the rich areca growers that populate my village or the spoilt coffee planters in my neighbouring town because that would completely spoil the narrative. The retailer too has earned his share of the pity. FDI will take away his livelihood and that would be sad. The stereotype here is the neighbourhood kirana store guy your mom loves to haggle with, who despite his thrifty ways is invested in the community for the long term. The third player, the middleman, for some strange reason gets no backers at all. He is always caricaturized as the scheming opportunist who needlessly drives up costs of your provisions and screws the farmer all at once. People are definitely not thinking about the mandi owner in Tarikere who is taking enormous risks in keeping his unpredictable, erratic income flowing in, while vitally providing a conduit for the farmers' produce to make it to the markets. Despite doing exactly what the retailer does - buying at a cost and selling with a margin - nobody spares a thought for how the Walmarts and Tescos will definitely drive him out of work. There's something about our innate sense of ethics that makes us hate the speculator who makes his money without putting a regular amount of work every day.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

Death of a really good salesman

Apple did a lot of things right, most important of them, I admit, was to build exquisitely designed products. But a lot of their success owes to a brilliant marketing effort too. It convinced people that they could, at a starting fee of USD 199, join an exclusive club. Even today my twitter feed has a steady stream of smug comments from Mac users subtly indicating that they know something that others don't. The company also perfected perceived obsolescence; you would feel the greatest gratification when you bought their latest device but feel equally unsatisfied when they released the next version, in the process keeping you panting on that hedonic treadmill. In Jeffrey Sachs's words they qualified as a great company because "they manufactured wants".

In typical cult-like response Apple consumers went overboard with their tributes to Jobs when he died. I lost track of the number of people who compared him to Edison. Vaclav Smil does a better job than I could hope to do in putting that claim in perspective, but the best counter came from Prem Panicker "Edison changed lives, Jobs changed lifestyles".

What Occupy Wall Street tells me - early days, of course - is that civilization may finally be reaching that inflection point when people stop identifying themselves primarily as "consumers". In that new order Jobs's legacy might not really age all that well. I think that will be a good thing.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Political Debates

My favorite political debates of all time were those that preceded the confidence motion before the Vajpayee government was ousted from its second term in 1999. Watching the likes of Pramod Mahajan, Somnath Chatterjee and George Fernandes take the floor was such a joy, but nobody could put you in a trance like Vajpayee could. Even his seemingly unending pauses were filled with such a sense of anticipation. I'm glad that he lived in a time when TV coverage was merely incidental and not the primary objective. A perfect example of the latter is the republican debates happening here in the US right now. Candidates are asked to sum up their thoughts on healthcare in 30 seconds. 30 seconds!! That's one half of a Vajpayee pause. Anyway, TV stations want to make the debates as exciting as possible for even an audience that is not interested in politics. I must say it makes for interesting viewing. Since it's not really an arena to discuss policy and ideology, you might as well enjoy the soundbytes, canned talking points and a lot of veiled personal cheapshots. Some comedian said that when people watch an airshow they are really wishing for an air-crash. Well, that might be sadistic when applied to airshows, but in debates such wrecks make compelling viewing. Yesterday, the audience must have prayed really to make this happen.