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Society US Politics

America is a (glamorous) “shithole country”

Think back to the last time you thought “damn, I like America”. What was it that caused you to say that? Was it Hollywood? Was it the military victories of the World Wars? Was it Yellowstone? Was it the history of commitment to internationalism and free trade? Or was it the unlikely story of a backwater republic’s rise to power within a century of indepedence?

For me, it was the election of a black man to the office of President in 2008. When Obama was elected president, I was in high school. At home, the first term of the UPA was nearly done, and the story of India’s development was a conclusio inevitabilis. Politics at home was dry, predictable and repetitive. Like everyone around me, I amused myself with the affairs of the USA. For a whole year, I followed the breathless coverage of his “Yes We Can” campaign, watched all his interviews on talk shows, almost memorised his victory speech and closely followed the first years of his presidency. My mind screamed “America is the best!” and I wanted to move there as soon as I could.

In my heart, though, there was a seed of doubt sown by something I read in an op-ed: America is 13% African-American, and its economy is built on the backs of people of colour; yet, it took the country 230 years to let a black man rise to be Commander in Chief. Why? As years went by, I started noticing cracks in the Great American monolith and the more I knew, the less inclined I was to give America a free pass in world politics.

This post is a long-overdue crystallization of that line of thought. Some of you who read the title may go “well no shit!”, but I’m not trying to preach to the converted. My intention is to reach out to the skeptical, maybe even the unbelievers. I’ll try to lay out a case that doesn’t assume that you hate Trump already, or that you’re a globalist, liberal, SJW, libcuck, libtard… You get the point.

Part 1: What makes a shithole country?

Let’s be honest about one thing: we wouldn’t be here discussing “shitholes” if Trump hadn’t brought that word into popular discourse. His original comment, per The Washington Post, included Haiti, El Salvador and several African countries. Going by the nations covered by Trump’s travel ban, I’m assuming this meant Somalia, Nigeria and several middle-eastern countries as well.

The WaPo piece includes an explanation by a White House spokesperson:

Certain Washington politicians choose to fight for foreign countries, but President Trump will always fight for the American people . . . Like other nations that have merit-based immigration, President Trump is fighting for permanent solutions that make our country stronger by welcoming those who can contribute to our society, grow our economy and assimilate into our great nation.

Raj Shah (son of immigrants from one such shithole country)

Note that the White House people don’t dispute the substance of the allegation. Trump himself issued this rebuttal:

OK. So poor countries can be considered shithole countries under some conditions. Fair enough. What else do we know about the countries Trump considers bad? There’s a pretty detailed account of what kind of countries Trump doesn’t like in this NYT piece. From there, we can add a few more characteristics of shithole countries:

  • Has high prevalence of AIDS and other deadly diseases
  • Large section of population is homeless or lives in low-security housing

In the past, he has made several unsavoury comments about Mexicans, and from them we can also get an idea of what makes them so revolting to the American mind.

From all of the above, we get a more complete picture of what makes a country a “shithole”:

  1. High rate of poverty
  2. High incidence of preventable/deadly/communicable disease
  3. Homelessness
  4. Personal violence

To the above, I will also proceed to add a few more features that I think of when I think of the word “shithole”. Feel free to play your own version of a free association game to see what you, your friends and family come up with. Here’s my shortlist of essential shithole characteristics:

  • Institutionalised corruption
  • Political and politically-motivated violence
  • General sense of lawlessness and prejudicial justice
  • Lack of accountability in governance

Depending on where you are in life, you may even think that an absent or weak “social safety net” is one of the conditions of being in a shithole. To me, a social safety net is a paid feature in the freemium game called Life. We can agree to disagree on this one.

A small proviso

In many ways, Trump’s position on immigrants is nothing new. On this and other matters, his is the voice of a silent majority on Capitol Hill and in towns far from the “coastal elite”. He is no great orator; his greatest political gift is that he says the quiet part out loud. A simmering hostility towards immigrants is almost essential to the American life. Bush Jr. acted on the same Islamophobic principles during his “war on terror“, Nixon felt the same paternalistic revulsion towards Chilean socialism when he ordered the overthrow of Salvador Allende. Raegan used “war on drugs” as a dog-whistling tactic to rouse anti-immigrant feelings in middle America even as he pumped the Contras in Nicaragua full of arms, leading to the very refugee crisis that Trump bemoans now. But wait! Before you begin to think of this issue as a Republic construct, let me remind you that the Contras were created almost out of thin air by Jimmy Carter. Let me also remind you of Clinton, the man who turned the immigration system into the violent edifice we see today. And at last, let’s not forget Obama’s immigration track record, which was built around a rotten racist core that demonised immigrants and made humanitarian refugees (which were, by the way, created by America’s policy of waging endless war) seem like grifters begging for freebies.

So let’s not act all sanctimonious about this: everybody in Washington has always believed something roughly along the same lines.

Part 2: What makes America a shithole?

Hint: It’s not this guy.

Let me be honest about another thing: I’m not the first one to say that America is a shithole country. Right after Trump made his comments about Haiti and El Salvador, a wave of political pundits descended onto liberal magazines like The Atlantic and New Yorker to lay out their reasons for why America is itself a shithole country. Much ink was spilt on the question of exactly who made it this way, with the inevitable conclusion being that, yes, it was Trump’s fault all along.

(There is a one-liner to be made of how people in White Houses shouldn’t be slinging mud, but I can’t find the right words for it.)

For my part, I’ll try to ignore the Trump connection, because I think it’s shortsighted, politically motivated and also plain disingenuous to posit that the country was somehow much better earlier and this one guy has driven it into a ditch within the last 3.5 years. Trump does sometimes have a role to play, but largely as an actor within a much broader system. I’ll explore this in part 3. In part 1, I laid out my citeria for what makes a shithole, and now I’ll try to show that America does in fact live up to each one of those criteria.

Poverty and homelessness

What do you think is the poverty rate in America? And what do you think is another country with a similar poverty rate? Whatever you thought, you were wrong. It’s 15%. Think about that: one in six Americans is below the poverty line. And depending on whom you ask, that’s equivalent to either Lebanon or Indonesia. If you want to see how high the poverty rate can go, here’s a useful heatmap:

Southern states remain the poorest in the U.S. even as the ...

Among US states, US Census data shows that Mississippi has a poverty rate (19.7%) roughly equivalent to Iraq (according to the World Bank and CIA World Factbook).

But if you want to see grinding poverty, you need to look at the “other” territories of the USA. In many ways, US treatment of outerlying islands is the textbook definition of “stepmotherly”. American Samoa has poverty rate of 65%, and a per capita income equivalent to Botswana. Puerto Rico, despite the odds and decades of neglect, has a median per capita income of $20k, which is more than Greece and less than Saudi Arabia.

Nearly as egregious is the youth poverty rate: almost one quarter of all American youth live in poverty. Kids are even worse-off: the Stanford Center on Poverty and Inequality calls the US a “clear and constant outlier in the child poverty league”. One in five children in the US don’t get enough to eat. The UN Special Rapporteur on poverty toured America and concluded that it has some of the most extreme poverty he had seen anywhere in the world. (The introduction to his report can be found here, and the full report here.)

Does that not make it a “poor” country? No wait, you may add, what about New York City and Los Angeles and the beautiful kleptopolis of Seattle, WA? Ah yes, the tale of the American city, where fortunes are made and dreams are realized. But whose dreams exactly? Over half a million Americans have nowhere to go at the end of the day. The three cities of NYC, LA and Seattle have over 150,000 homeless people between them. New York, that quintessential “city of dreams”, has nearly 80,000 homeless people, the majority of whom have been on the streets for over a year.

To my friends who want to pretend like the scores of homeless at your subway station don’t exist: at what point do you stop looking up at those gleaming high-rises and look down at the grime and dirt of the streets?

Disease

Everybody likes a good Bernie joke. Here’s one by Conan O’Brien: Bernie Sanders says his campaign is trying to appeal now to senior citizens. The problem is, every time Bernie says, “Feel the Bern,” the seniors think he’s talking about acid reflux.

Acid reflux, dental implants and hip replacements are great for use in one-liners about old age. But what about obesity? Or random parasitic infections? This widely-quoted paper found that nearly 12 million Americans have an undiagnosed or neglected parasitic infection. In 2017, a study by Baylor University found that in the rural south, all sorts of diseases of extreme poverty continue to thrive. Ever heard of hookworm? Nearly 34% of people tested in Alabama were found to have traces of it.

And it’s not just entirely preventable third-world diseases. Equally appalling are the rates of “diseases of affluence“: diabetes, obesity, asthma, coronary heart disease, cancer, allergies, gout and alcoholism. Despite the misnomer, “diseases of affluence” are not entirely born out of sedentary lifestyles and an excess of comfort. Studies show that more and more, it’s the poorer regions of the world that are being affected by lifestyle changes and unhealthy diets.

Empty calories are often very cheap calories for poorer sectors around the world, so that consumption of processed or dominantly carbohydrate diets with insufficient whole grains, fruits, and vegetables is more common among the poor. In addition, poorer households often are less able to pay for the expensive consequences of these diseases in the middle-aged and elderly (e.g. insulin provision for diabetics, the consequences of heart attack and stroke in the elderly). Ironically the same poorer sectors in poorer parts of the world and even within the United States can simultaneously face the issues of “traditional malnutrition” (i.e undernutrition, insufficient consumption of vitamins, iron, zinc, calories), especially among children and women, as well as diseases of overconsumption of empty calories.

https://serc.carleton.edu/integrate/teaching_materials/food_supply/student_materials/1205

And what does that lead to? Obesity, that’s what. Nearly 42% of all Americans are obese, which has increased from 30% in 2000.

Prevalence of Self-Reported Obesity Among U.S. Adults by State and Territory, BRFSS, 2018. See map details in table below.
Obesity in the USA. Source: CDC

But eh, you might say, obesity is no big deal. My momma is pretty fat and she rolls around just fine.

What about infant mortality? What about the fact that more children in the US die in the first few hours of their lives than in 50 other countries, many of them considerably poorer and lacking in resources? It’s not just the children: the United States has the worst maternal death rate in the developed world, with black women three times as likely to die of childbirth than white women. Predictably, this is much, much worse in the rural south. The CDC admits that over 60% maternal deaths are entirely preventable, and if you take that into account, the US would still be ranked in the mid 20s worldwide, and in the bottom half among developed countries. And this situation is only getting worse:

Chart: The maternal mortality rate in the U.S. (26.4) far exceeds that of other developed countries.
Deaths per 100,000 live births. Source: NPR

I don’t want to belabour the point, but there is also this other thing called an “opioid epidemic” merrily sauntering through middle America. But I guess legitimate wars on drugs would be too much for the helpless American populace to handle. Drugs come from Mexico and Colombia, fool! Have you not watched Narcos? Drugs are made in the jungle, and they most definitely are not because of one pharmaceutical company headquartered in Stamford, CT. Even if that were true, not now! Not when there’s this other unseen epidemic that is mysteriously spreading across the country. There are rumours that some people have lost jobs or something, but I don’t know man. It all seems anecdotal to me.

So what kind of care can you expect when you’re sick, pregnant or for some reason need the healthcare system to take care of you?

Unemployment benefits? Maybe. But not gratis.

Mandatory maternity leave? Zilch.

In a pandemic? $1200, take it or leave it.

Special consideration? None.

Living wage? GTFO.

Job security? Nope.

If you happen to be dying, or need intensive care but cannot afford to pay your medical bills, you’re humanely sedated and carefully dumped butt-naked at a bus stop in the freezing cold.

So yes, America ticks the “disease-ridden” and “no social safety net” boxes quite comfortably.

Crime and violence

Even before BLM, most sentient beings knew the perils of living in America: guns, religious fanatics, white supremacists and an absentee healthcare system all together mean that to move to America was never the best option you had. In order to really see the pernicious undercurrent of crime coursing through American veins, you need to look deeper than the shocking (and rightly so) incarceration rates in the US.

Yes, there is a drug issue in the USA. And yes, there is a violent crime issue as well. And obviously, there’s a gun crime issue too. According to some highly intelligent people, the spike in the 60s-80s was caused by lead. Yes, the heavy metal. Not violent leaders or a history of institutionalised racism or gratuitous wars leading to a cult of the soldier. Lead.

Be that as it may. The first and most important thing to know about American violence is that it works very differently from the way crime works in developing countries. In most modern states, there are two categories of violence: interpersonal and state-inflicted. Interpersonal violence is simple: you harm someone else and he harms you back. State-inflicted violence is when people in authority use state apparatus to cause you harm.

In America, interpersonal violence exists everywhere and forms the visible violence that most people talk about when they discuss violence. The south is, predictably, more violent than the north, but not in all kinds of violent crime. Of course, there’s the issue of definition: what is a violent crime, and what is not. As commonly understood, violent crime includes mugging, assault, homicide, rape, hate crime etc. Horrible, but generally there are legal remedies to these. Obviously, the way to deal with a fear of interpersonal violence is to carry some sort of deterrent: pepper spray, guns, bodyguards, body doubles etc.

What most people don’t ever see but always have an uneasy feeling about is the other kind of violence: state-inflicted. The kind of violence that you can’t do anything to deter. This is the kind of violence that people in positions of privilege don’t fully comprehend. Police brutality is the most obvious manifestation of state violence.

In Torture and State Violence in the United States, Robert Pallitto lays out a comprehensive view of the widespread use of violence by state actors to stamp out dissent and cultivate a sense of fearful awe among the American populace. Today, thanks largely to the Black Lives Matter movement, we are all aware of the extent to which police brutality is common. To a person of colour, modern America is scarcely different from a warzone.

For example, black people and people of colour are much more likely to end up in violent interactions with the police, and more than twice as likely to be tasered to death. Being tasered is actually the best-case scenario if you’re a person of colour. Tasers in general are not lethal, and allow policemen to handcuff you without having to bump you over the head with a glorified baseball bat. Deaths in custody and suicides following arrest are commonplace, and are several times the rate in UK, Australia or NZ.

This is taken from a brilliant CNN piece about police crime, and I highly recommend going through the original for more details.

(Sidenote: there’s a nice report from the UK about the inner workings of police violence there. Yes, it’s a different country with vastly different social norms and much less violence of any kind but it’s instructive as to how people actually die, and what sorts of remedies are offered to the victim’s family.)

Let’s say you’re the target of police violence in America. What happens to you then? What can you do to hold them accountable? As any person from a shithole country can tell you, absolutely nothing at all. The technical term in the US is “qualified immunity“, which is basically fancy-people talk for “unless they violated some federal law, you can go fuck yourself”. Supreme Court judges have sided with the police in quashing case after case meant to hold police accountable for the violence they perpetuate. Nearly every infamous cop accused of violence, brutality and murder has walked away practically scot-free. Most are only suspended for a brief time, and nearly all get to keep their salaries and pension.

According to this peer-reviewed paper, “the average lifetime odds of being killed by police are about 1 in 2,000 for men and about 1 in 33,000 for women. Risk peaks between the ages of 20 and 35 for all groups. For young men of color, police use of force is among the leading causes of death”. This level of callous disregard for human life is scarcely any different from India – which, I should have mentioned at the top, is most definitely a shithole country – where policemen routinely get away with murder, rape and all manner of torture. Some even become popular icons.

Remember Cops?

Ring a bell, America? Your pop culture is filled with “rogue cops” who don’t care about justice and use it as a means to personal glory. Let’s not forget the glorious dumpster fire that is the show Cops which makes it seem like every POC is up to something shady and if it weren’t for the ever-watching eye of the beat cop who’s armed to the teeth, the entirety of Western civilization would just come crashing down.

Corruption

This is the final aspect of America’s shitholery that I’m going to consider. Not because it’s conclusive, but because in nearly every discussion of developing countries like Nigeria, India and Mexico, “corrupt” is used as a sort of dirty word, a smear intended to show uncivilized these countries are, and used as a prop to lean on and gloat about how great the West is for having gone beyond cash bribes.

Reuters has consistently reported on how the Supreme Court uses its flawed machinery to shield murderous cops from justice. The untrained, “educated” eye is ready with a defense: courts only act on precedent, and can only act within the bounds of the law.

But the uneducated native of a shithole country (such as myself) can tell you in an instant that there has to be some sort of funny business going on here. No judicial system can uphold one statute of abused and misused laws for 50 years without puncturing some holes in it. Besides, the issue of violent cops has been in the popular mind for at least 30 years now, since the murder of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991. According to nearly every independent study, at least 1000 people die at the hands of the police every year. The “lack of precedent” argument doesn’t pass the sniff test.

There are hints that the judiciary in America is indeed extremely corrupt. A recent Reuters report found that thousands of state and local judges across the United States were allowed to keep their positions on the bench after violating judicial ethics rules or breaking laws they pledged to uphold. In the same decade, two Pennsylvania judges were found guilty of sending thousands of minors to juvenile detention in return for cash kickbacks from the detention center operators. Then there’s the now-infamous case of a judge who overturned a billion-dollar lawsuit against an insurance company that had financially supported his appointment to the bench.

A paper from 2009 raised this question of corruption in US courts, finding that it may be a seriously underreported issue. The paper found that there are indeed no robust mechanisms in place to prevent and uncover low-level judicial corruption, but estimates that around 3 million bribes are paid each year in the US judicial system. 3 million individual bribes.

All of this means that there is most definitely a corruption in America’s courts. And the American public don’t know it simply because there’s just no way to know about it. In other words, America, your courts are no better than the banana tribunals of rural Rwanda.

Is that not the definition of being a shithole?

Part 3: The Glitz and The Glamour

The part where Trump makes an appearance

I have one more thing to be honest about: I lied earlier; Trump does matter. He matters because he’s part of the woodwork now, and any discussion of the Trump administration’s actions without discussing the influence of the man they’re all cheerfully following to the grave would be just as foolish.

Let’s begin at the beginning. Trump is a byproduct of America’s shitholery system. The roots of his billions are in unhonoured contracts, low-level kickbacks and relentless exploitation of US insolvency and bankruptcy courts. His hotels materialized only because he struck deals with municipalities and unions. His apartment complexes were built on land previously used for low-rent housing, which he found ways to swallow up – generally by abusing eminent domain. At every step of the way, he used other people’s poverty and misfortune to the benefit of a handful of wealthy people who could afford his properties. When thinking of Trump’s rise to power, the term “klepto-plutocrat” comes to mind.

(Sidenote: Trump’s signature project – the border wall – can only ever come to fruition through a free-wheeling abuse of eminent domain. Vox has a nice short explainer on this topic. In many ways, the Trump story is almost causally linked to the evolving concept of where private property rights must be superceded by the need to provide public goods.)

Even as Trump’s projects sank and took whole communities with them, Trump himself stayed above the water. This cultivated feeling of personal invulnerability permeates Trumpian thought, and informs every single decision his administration makes. Consequently, the very kind of people who are drawn to Trump are the kind of people who stop at an accident scene to steal wallets and jewelry. There’s no need to name names here, because literally every last one of them is animated by a desire to profit from America’s wretchedness at any cost.

Trump’s worst vice, then, is that he takes his hands off the wheel just so he can claim insurance later. Whereas previous administrations tried to keep the country from descending to anarchy, Trump feeds the flame to try and gain from it. When the Bush administration’s “War on Terror” led to mass Islamophobia and anti-war riots, Bush tried to put out the fire by insisting that he was fair and made a point of trying to bring Islamic clerics into political dialogue. When Obama realised that his administration’s actions on immigration reform had led to more border deaths, he saw to the passing of DACA as a token gesture. When Obama’s environmental reforms and Obamacare led to the Republicans flipping the Senate and the House, he went soft on African-American issues and even went so far as to denigrate Black Lives Matter, leading to many recent commentators to question his overall position on the matter of black rights.

In nearly every administration before Trump, there was present a self-correcting impulse which kicked in after something major had occurred. Trump, on the other hand, actively makes things worse, like he has done in the ongoing BLM protests. A few months ago, as the COVID cases started to rise, Trump saw it fit to spout conspiracy theories, asking people to go out and not believe the “Chinese hoax”. The administration has used protests to try to conceal its more nefarious dealings: he commuted the prison snetence of Roger Stone, the man who helped Trump take the presidency, and who was later convicted of obstruction, witness tampering and perjury. You know where else this happens? You guessed it: in sub-Saharan kleptocracies. The administration has also used the pandemic aid as a political tool by withholding details of who received how much. Would anybody be surprised if Trump himself was found to be skimming off the top? Of course not. That’s just what leaders of shithole countries do. Remember Lula?

The people around him are no different: even as oil companies faced losses and employees lost jobs, Big Oil CEOs reel in big bonuses. Even as the country is convulsed by COVID-related deaths and related job losses, the stock market is at a record high. Even when Florida’s pandemic response has been on the same level as India’s, a Florida pastor got rich peddling bleach as a cure. Just across the sea, Cuba’s population is largely free of the virus, and officials worry only about the risk of Floridans infecting Cubans.

Some other countries that have managed to contain the COVID epidemic? Rwanda, Uruguay, Vietnam and Senegal. People from Rwanda are allowed to travel to Italy and other parts of the EU. Guess who can’t? People from China, India and the US of America.

Oh, how the tables have turned.

Categories
Culture Society

Overpopulation, or The Great Indian Lie

Unlike what Western “experts” (and increasingly Indians themselves) think, India isn’t over-populated. It’s merely under-governed.

I have a bone to pick with Hasan Minhaj. I don’t particularly like his comedy but I don’t really hate it either. He’s like this ex-Indian dude who thinks he sees things that Indians don’t notice because they’re too used to it. He combines elements of observational comedy with a casual, city babu approach which results in an oversimplified, somewhat lazy understanding of Indian people and politics. Case in point: the video below, where he talks about how there are too many Indians holding redundant jobs and doing what he sees as useless activities.

This isn’t an entirely horrible joke, but that’s not why the people are laughing. They’re laughing because they recognize the scenario and agree with the observation. Click the links for more about the evolutionary and social purposes of laughter (good read).

He alludes to a pernicious notion among foreigners and Indians alike: India is overpopulated. It’s almost a truism in policy circles, and a regular topic of discussion in upper-class family discussions. If only maybe 30% of those other people could just do us a favour and die without any trace, we’d all be so much better off. Even as most Western economies are at less-than replacement levels of fertility, Indians (and Indian women in particular) are constantly chastised for having too many kids. At various points in our history, leaders have made attempts to address what they saw as a fatal flaw of Indian society: the extreme fecundity of its populace. As recently as during the 2019 Independence Day speech, the Supreme Leader of India sought to make overpopulation a key issue for his government:

There is one issue I want to highlight today: population explosion. We have to think, can we do justice to the aspirations of our children? There is a need to have greater discussion and awareness on population explosion

Prime Minister Narendra Modi, 2019

To be fair, this misconception isn’t exactly new: even the British government saw India’s population as a nuisance. Never mind that the British saw themselves as separate from the native Indians and thus at a numerical disadvantage. This constant sense of vulnerability gave rise to all sorts of weird relics that we still live with – I’m looking at you, Police Act of 1861. While Gandhi and Nehru saw the vast oceans of people as a force for good and thus harnessed them in the Indian freedom movement, subsequent generations weren’t so forgiving or thoughtful. Nehru’s daughter Indira defaulted to the British impulses of population containment. During the Emergency, her son – an omnipotent pustule, automotive engineer and cultivator of ‘chamchas‘ – Sanjay Gandhi put in place a program of forced sterilization where the state sent officials and doctors to round up men and snip their pipes. At its peak, the program was responsible for the sterilization of hundreds and thousands of Indians every day. Although the exact numbers are hard to come by, it remains independent India’s worst episode of state overreach (I have a whole theory of how this program essentially sealed the Congress’ fate in the 90s and created the space for the subsequent rise of the BJP, but that’s a post for another day).

The Indian government, as a result of state-sponsored sterilisation drives, held an effective monopoly over the production of condoms until the late 90s

Why they’re wrong

It’s an open secret that India has delusions of grandeur. A common pastime among Indian chachas is to sit around in front of TV sets gazing into their navels and gawk at the greatness they see inside. The nauseating refrain I hear is that India is going to beat China in the next 20 years. How, exactly? By treating people as pests living off the land and multiplying like crazy? No; India’s future is tied to its investment in its population.

Modern obsession with Asia’s overpopulation is born out of European colonizers’ misplaced understanding of human populations. Nearly everybody who believes Asia is overpopulated believes in some form of the Malthusian theory of population:

By nature human food increases in a slow arithmetical ratio; man himself increases in a quick geometrical ratio unless want and vice stop him. The increase in numbers is necessarily limited by the means of subsistence. Population invariably increases when the means of subsistence increase, unless prevented by powerful and obvious checks.

Thomas Robert Malthus

Most economists and public policy experts agree that this theory is not true, and that there’s no real limit to the maximum population that any piece of land can handle. Human ingenuity, technological progress and cultural attitudes all play a role in determining how large societies get before they face any issues. Malthus’ understanding of Britain may be true, but Britain is a small island stranded off the coast of a sparsely-populated woodland. Europe was never as fertile as Mesopotamia or the Nile Valley, and neither was as resource-rich as India or China. For a more detailed (yet accessible) discussion of how chance features like terrain, rivers and coastlines have a strong bearing on nations’ fate, read Prisoners of Geography by Tim Marshall.

Aided by geography, China grew to its present state because of its immense population; not in spite of it. The higher population gave China a huge head-start over much larger economies like the US and allowed China to leapfrog from a backward, poor, poverty-stricken medieval playground to the modern-day hyper-urban wonderland it is today. All in less than the 70 years that China has been a modern nation-state. If we ignore the years under Mao’s failed experiments from the 1950s to the late 1970s, China’s history really only begins in 1979 with Deng Xiaoping’s liberalizing reforms. So, China reached modernity in 40 years while European nations achieved it in 400 years and America in 200. There are several explanations generally offered for why – world politics, geography, historical connections through the Silk Roads, Chinese historical cycles etc. While all of these theories have a kernel of truth to them, none would ever make any sense without China’s manpower. China’s population was its passport to greatness.

Today, there’s not a single shred of evidence to show that Indian society is being strained by its population. India’s economy is in decent health, per capita consumption of energy and food are not egregious (unlike in America and Australia), forest cover is increasing (though only marginally), urban areas don’t sprawl (again, unlike in America and Australia), urbanization is proceeding at a rapid pace but is contained to a few large clusters, there’s a fairly robust legal framework to protect the environment and provide compensation to displaced peoples, and the number of refugees from India is a minute proportion of the number of refugees worldwide. So, the number of people is not really an issue right now. I agree that at some point, it may very well become one but as things stand now, India’s population is a non-issue.

But hey, you may object, if population isn’t an issue, why does India have hundreds of millions of homeless people? What’s with the unemployment and malnutrition? Why do so many children go hungry? Why are schools so crowded and underfunded? Why are graduates leaving the country in droves? Why is crime so prevalent yet under-reported? Why are Indians so blase towards violence, death and misery? Why is there so much filth on the streets? If not for population, why has India been an “emerging economy” for the past several decades? The answer is simply under-government.

State capacity

India’s state performs poorly in basic public services such as providing
primary education, public health, water, sanitation, and environmental quality. While it is politically effective in managing one of the world’s largest armed forces, it is less effective in managing public service bureaucracies.

Devesh Kapur in “Why Does the Indian State Both Fail and Succeed?

During the 19th and 20th centuries, it was common to refer to China as the “sick man of the East“, but in the 21st century, the term is more aptly applied to India. And all of India’s ailments come down to one simple diagnosis: a profound lack of state capacity born out of a misplaced zeal to appear “efficient” at the cost of being “effective”.

It’s not just me saying this, and neither am I some sort of a discoverer. Every single person in India is aware of it. I can very confidently state that most non-Indians know it as well. Writing about India’s weak state has made many journalists’ careers, and continues to be the raison d’etre for every BBC reporter in the country. But to the casual observer, India’s overpopulation and weak enforcement of laws are two separate issues. Most people – including our friends Hasan Minhaj and Narendra Modi – don’t appreciate that a weak state is the common cause of both problems.

Let’s consider for a brief while how deep it goes and how many aspects of Indian life are touched by a lack of state capacity. Consider for example the corrupt, inept and oft-maligned police. As I mentioned earlier, the police force in India was created (and still operates by) rules and procedures contained in the Police Act of 1861. That’s a 150 year-old law that is still largely the same as it was then. A law whose primary purpose was to protect the British state from the population. So, India’s policemen don’t “protect and serve” anybody other than the state. In the traditional “three pillars” understanding of government, policemen are in the border between the executive and judicial branches. But in India, the colonial nature of the force means that in reality, the police are at the intersection of executive and legislative. Their primary goal at all times is to protect their asses and serve their political overlords. But let’s say we forget this for now and just hire more policemen. Not just a few thousand, or a hundred thousand. I mean at least a couple million more, to bring the total number of policemen and women to well over 3 million individuals, possibly 4 million. What would that do to society?

I saw these all over Bangalore during a recent trip. I didn’t see it then but I realize now that this is a perfect example of a lack of state capacity. Why do you need a mannequin, especially when the government says it has a severe shortage of policemen, and there’s growing concern over unemployment? Why not employ a real person to stand around in filth and not do anything?

Bring out the crystal ball

First, existing laws can be enforced, property rights overseen and its women protected if the state hired more policemen. The extra policemen wouldn’t all be out on the streets patrolling; most would just sit behind desks filling out paperwork and taking complaints. Western police forces are more effective because they have people both out in the streets and behind desks. In India, they’re usually either out there or behind desks. So, when a non-urgent case (like sexual harrassment, rape, domestic violence etc.) is brought before them, policemen prefer to not go to the scene. They couch their laziness and ineptitude behind pretences of family values, “private matter” and all that.

Second, if you follow supply-demand logic from Econ 101, as the supply of police jobs is increased, the societal value of being a cop reduces. So, they stop enjoying exalted privileges. If every street has a policemen living around there, it reduces to just another profession, like being a tailor or a teacher. For one, a policeman cannot demand money for just doing his job. For another, off-duty cops will be more likely to be caught in random shootouts (or “encounters”), which reduces the willingness to engage in such vulgar displays of power. So in one stroke, employing several thousands more policemen would not only reduce corruption, but also extrajudicial abuse of power. No more Nirbhaya and no more Sohrabuddin.

Third, these policemen need to be paid, which means that a robust financial services network is needed to ensure timely payment of salaries and pensions. So now, you need ATMs and bank branches in more places. Where not economical, you will see the growth of cashless economies. Whereas the disastrous demonetization drive of 2017 created a scenario where regular transactions were replaced by cashless transactions (for a short while), our scenario would see the growth of a cashless economy that doesn’t compete with the cash economy.

Finally, it would spur economic growth. because there are many more policemen now, they spread out to every part of the land and start families in all sorts of unlikely places. With policemen comes a sense of safety, which dampens the urge to migrate to cities. Instead, this safety encourages local investment and small-scale entrepreneurship. Farmers don’t have to worry about theft so they invest in high-yield, high-value crops, which improves agricultural productivity. Even if all of this seems a bit far-fetched, hiring 2 million policemen at the rate of 10000 rupees per person per month is equivalent to giving the economy an additional 20 billion rupees per month. Even if the household savings rate stays at 30%, that means that over 14 billion rupees gets spent on goods and services, which would have a huge ripple effect that creates new jobs, industries and entirely unknown markets. Yes, there will be inflation, but economic growth needs inflation.

And all of this is just from hiring 2 million policemen. Imagine how radically India would transform if it hired more teachers, peons, janitors, cashiers, land inspectors and marketers; funded more scientists and researchers, trained more doctors and nurses, conducted more workshops and health clinics. India’s greatest successes – the eradication of polio, the creation of the Aadhar system, the postal system and the general elections where over 900 million people take part in a convoluted and boring spectacle – are all examples of India using its people as resources.

A conclusion

India’s population is its greatest asset. Centuries of colonialization have convinced us otherwise but we must shed this baseless, outdated, racist and often self-flagellatory opinion if we are to grow as a nation and expect more out of our leaders. In a way, a slim state is another instance of India’s socialist nature clashing with its capitalistic state – resulting in a system that claims to serve everybody but doesn’t have the necessary resources to serve anybody but itself. Decades of IMF loans, World Bank investments, US aid funds and numerous balance of payment crises have resulted in a state that almost apologises for its very existence, and hesitates to spend on even the provision of basic services. In trying to ape Western, advanced economies, Indian policymakers are only too eager to talk up efficiency measures, while saying nothing about being effective.

It’s about time we changed this. The nation needs its politicians to spend more on capacity building, which will inevitably require massive levels of public spending and job creation. But all of this can only begin when we stop talking about overpopulation and start talking about undergovernance instead.