Saturday, March 31, 2007

Quote of the day
President Pervez Musharraf of Pakistan has always believed in freedom of speech, press and judiciary. It is the hallmark of the present government to provide basic freedoms and not to politically victimize opponents.

A letter from the Pakistan embassy in Washington to the New York Times. You couldn't make this stuff up.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Quote of the Day

If Tendulkar had found an honest mirror three years ago and asked the question; "Mirror, mirror on the wall who is the best batsman of all?" It would've answered; "Brian Charles Lara." If he asked that same mirror right now; "Mirror, mirror on the wall should I retire?" The answer would be; "Yes."

Ian Chappell, in his column on Cricinfo. I should say I have no real opinion on whether or not Tendulkar should retire. Actually, let me rephrase that. I do have an opinion on whether or not Tendulkar should retire, but I simply don't care whether or not Tendulkar retires. His time as a world-class force in the game ended more than three years ago, and really, who cares when an average (Chappell's words, not mine. Well, mine too) player retires?

I should say that from around 1996 to 2000, Sachin Tendulkar was the best batsman in the game (not the greatest, but the best. If you don't understand the difference, then you don't understand sport). The things he did to Australia in series after series were just astounding. But it wasn't just his runs against the best team in the world. I remember when I was in 8th grade, in the winter of 1996-97, India went on a disastrous tour to South Africa. Time after time they would crumble, because none of them could handle pace, bounce, swing or seam. But not Tendulkar. He'd play those punchy cover drives off the back foot, the vicious cuts, the disdainful pulls, and my favourite Tendulkar shot of all (one that no player I've seen has ever managed to play successfully): the on-drive/push from the crease, to a ball around his hips, through straightish mid-wicket/wide mid-on. Unless you've actually played the game, you have no idea how difficult that shot is. I only ever played at school level, and I can't even fathom attempting it against 17 year-olds bowling at 65 mph, let alone pulling it off against the McGraths of the world. The amount of power required in the wrists and forearms for that shot boggles the mind, because you're essentially forcing away a ball still rising, at pace, at an extremely difficult angle with a ramrod straight arms and a high elbow.

It's really too bad for India and Tendulkar that his best never coincided either with (a) Dravid's best or (b) the introduction of relatively ballsy guys like Dhoni and Yuvraj. Dravid became a man on that 1999 tour of New Zealand and from there he went from strength to strength, to the point where, some time around 2002, teams started regarding him as India's best player (even if commentators would continue to pay lip service to the idea that Tendulkar was still the Man, everyone deep down knew he wasn't even the Man in India's middle order). Meanwhile, the Ganguly era saw India bring in new players that weren't wussy losers who were as easily pushed around as some of the 90s players (Prabhakar, Raju, Azharuddin etc). Unfortunately, both these developments kicked in when Tendulkar was past his absolute peak, so, in essence, Tendulkar's brilliance was as close to wasted as 25,000 runs in international cricket can get.

No one, though, will ever convince me that Tendulkar was the best player of his generation. I don't even think he was one of the three best players of his generation. If you happen to be Indian while reading this, relax, take a deep breath, ask yourself this question and try to answer it as honestly as possible: if you could trade Lara's career for Tendulkar's, would you? I say you would have to. Furthermore (and perhaps more controversially), would you trade Dravid's career for Tendulkar's? I would again say yes, you would. Finally, (and perhaps most controversially), would you trade Ponting's career for Tendulkar's? I, once again, would say yes, you would.

I can examine the Ponting and Dravid claims on another day. But insofar as the Lara comparisons are concerned, I think the difference did not lie in whether or not Lara "won" more matches for West Indies than Tendulkar did for India. I say this because Lara had the benefit of playing with two of the top fifteen quick bowlers of all time in Ambrose and Walsh for a significant chunk of his career and, as everyone knows, it's bowlers who, by and large, win matches. As an example, think of perhaps Lara's most famous match-winning innings - the 153 not out at Barbados against Australia in 1999. I myself have gone on the record as saying that Lara won this match for the Windies. It would be remiss of us, however, to forget that Ambrose and Walsh shared seven wickets in Australia's second innings total of 150-odd that kept the fourth innings target relatively chaseable. Put India in the same situation, and the eventual target would have been 550, not 310. The Aussies would have eaten the likes of Srinath and Prasad for dinner. In that situation, could one really hold it against Tendulkar if he didn't "win" the match for India? I think not. I do, however, believe that Lara is/was the better player under pressure, for whatever it's worth. Put it this way: Lara would never have tried to hoik Saqlain out of Chennai and holed out 15 runs short of a famous test victory. Not saying he wouldn't have gotten out in some other way, just saying he wouldn't have tried what was essentially a cross-batted slog when only the tail was left.

As I said, I don't think the win-loss records really tell us about the true difference between Sachin and Sir Brian Charles. No, the gap between them was something intrinsically more difficult to measure, something statistics or records couldn't capture. I'm trying to find the perfect word to explicate what I mean but am failing to do so. The closest I can come up with is presence. Simply put, Tendulkar at the crease and Lara at the crease mean(t) two entirely different things. With the Tendulkar at the crease, you got the model of perfection. The perfect stance, the perfect back-and-across trigger movement, the perfect straight bat. The pretty boy, good-guy, always-saying-the-right-things image didn't help either. Tendulkar always seemed a little artificial to me, both in the way he carried himself and the way he batted. If a computer scientist designed a batsman, the result would be Tendulkar.

Lara? Oh my goodness. The backlift that went on forever, almost touching the back of his head. The flashing blade. The shimmy down the pitch to spinners. The one-legged swivel-pull that he, for some unimaginable reason, abandoned in the latter part of his career (why, God, why?). The "stand at leg stump and flail wildly to a wide half-volley without moving the feet anywhere close to the ball" shot. No true follower of cricket, not even the most devout of Indian followers, can deny the following claim: Lara with the bat in his hand was the most beautiful sight in cricket for the last twenty years. You know how I said Tendulkar would be the result if a computer scientist designed a batsman? Well, Lara would be the result if an artist designed a batsman. That's the difference.

One especially pertinent point that Chappell makes in his column is how Lara never really changed as a player. Tendulkar did. This difference too can be reduced to the artist-computer scientist dichotomy. When a computer starts under-performing, what do you do? You troubleshoot it, you call the guy at Dell, you stop running some programs (the Limewires of the world), perhaps install a new virus scanner and so on and so forth. The point is that you try and adjust the computer (or any other machine) to its new surroundings. What about the artist? He's completely different. He never adjusts to the environment. He says I'm doing things my way, and that's the way I'm doing them till I'm out of here. Remember Kurt Cobain's suicide note? "It's better to burn out than to fade away"? You will never, ever, ever catch Lara fading away. He's too much of a genius and respects his skills too much for that. Tendulkar? He's been fading for three years. Every machine, now matter how smooth, has a shelf-life. Maybe, in Tendulkar's case, it's time to stop trying to fix it, and simply get rid of it.

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Microfinance and Poverty

It appears that Microfinance is the anti-poverty measure du jour. Muhammad Yunus winning the Nobel Peace Prize obviously has something to do with all the attention it is garnering but what might also be important is that microfinance is actually, you know, successful. Nicholas Kristof wrote a column a couple of days ago and followed it up with a blog post, some of which I'd like to highlight (don't bother clicking on either link if you don't have NY Times Select. By the way, Times Select is now free for anyone with a .edu email address, so if you're a student, you no longer have any excuse for not signing up).

One reader commented that micro-lending is not for the poorest but for the lower middle class, because the poorest don’t have the capacity to borrow. That’s just not true. In Afghanistan, Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, you routinely see the poorest and most vulnerable people (e.g. widows) borrowing $50 or so to buy goods from a wholesale market and sell them in a retail market for a mark-up.

Moreover, empowering women is an essential part of the micro-finance story, and you don’t find anybody more vulnerable than poor women in these societies. In Pakistan, I spent a day with Kashf Foundation (a superb micro-lending organization, run entirely by Pakistanis), and it was incredibly inspiring. The borrowers are often completely illiterate and barely able to buy food. And the stories are amazing.

One woman who had only had daughters told me that her husband had been about to get a second wife (on the theory that she would bear him a son) when she borrowed a bit of money from Kashf to start a small embroidery business in her home. The business prospered, and now her husband says he would never think of getting another wife. Another woman told me that whenever her husband beats her, she tells him that she’ll stop borrowing — and then he stops and goes off sulking, but doesn’t beat her.

I'd never heard of the Kashf Foundation so I googled them and found their website. I find it a little strange that they have no link for people wanting to donate. Anyways, I found that the Kashf Foundation is actually affiliated with the Grameen Foundation, which has this story up on its website.

Kishwar lives with her family in a slum near the railway station in Lahore, Pakistan. Health and sanitation conditions are extremely poor, causing disease and infections to run rampant. Kishwar’s husband and sons together run their shoe-making and selling business-selling from the shop and also taking orders from wholesalers. In 2001, their business suffered huge losses and they nearly went bankrupt. The family took a loan from a moneylender to rejuvenate their business. Unfortunately, the exorbitant interest rates, coupled with harsh penalties for late repayments, caused the family’s debt to spiral out of control. Desperate for a way out, Kishwar discovered Kashf Foundation through a friend. Kishwar was wary of taking another loan, but her husband encouraged her to have faith.

The first loan of 5000 Rs. ($83) was used to purchase leather, rexine, ready-made soles, thread and other material for their shoe shop. As production increased, sales also picked up. Slowly Kishwar and her husband were able to pay back the moneylender. Savings in the first year of the Kashf loan were nominal because of this, but now their weekly profits are between 1000-2000 Rs. ($16-30). Kishwar plans to take the next loan and increase their product range.

Recently, one of Kishwar’s daughters had to submit the equivalent of $16 as a fee for her college entrance exam. Unable to come up with such a large amount of money on short notice, Kishwar applied for and received a consumption loan from Kashf to cover the expense. Though illiterate, Kishwar understands the value of education. She has chosen to use the family’s meager resources to educate her two daughters, rather than her five sons, because she believes her daughters are more serious about their education. In a society where male children are given first priority in everything, particularly schooling, Kishwar has bravely broken with tradition and set an example for her entire community.

Kishwar has aspirations for sending both her daughters to college and also helping her sons establish individual, reliable and profitable enterprises. In two years, with Kashf’s sustained assistance she sees her family’s business thriving like never before with ten employees and a telephone installed at the shop.

Kashf’s impact on Kishwar’s life has been more than just financial. She is now a center manager (five groups of five clients each form one center) and says that she can confidently address and advise her center members on different issues, whereas earlier she was too timid to say more than a few words to anybody. With this new sense of self-esteem and confidence, Kishwar mentors other women in her community, encouraging them to take advantage of the opportunity provided by Kashf and to take control of their economic situations and make better lives for themselves and their families.

Having been around for more than a decade, and having loaned more than $17 million to more than 100,000 clients, it's a little puzzling to me why Kashf has restricted itself to Punjab - according to their website, their working areas are Lahore, Kasur, Sheikhupura and Gujranwala. That's not necessarily a "bad thing" - I'd much rather have an organization do really good work in a limited geographical space, as they are, than average work in an expansive one - just difficult to understand. What could possibly be holding them back from moving to the slums of Karachi?

Exam Troubles

I got these images in a forwarded email and given how forwarded emails work, it's quite likely you've already seen them. In the event that you haven't, I'm reproducing them here for your viewing pleasure.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What Does It Mean To Be A Pakistani Liberal?

There was an interesting op-ed by Mohsin Hamid (of Moth Smoke fame) in the New York Times this morning on how Musharraf's recent actions like suspending Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry represent the antithesis of "enlightened moderation" and are drawing away the support for Musharraf of secular minded liberals (like Hamid), who, by and large, overwhelmingly support(ed) him.

I think these crises are bringing to the fore the tension between being a political liberal in Pakistan and being a social liberal in Pakistan. I like to think I am both - I want free and fair elections and parliamentary democracy as well as women's rights and the separation of religion and state. The dynamics of Pakistan render these two positions somewhat (though not completely) at odds with each other, at least if one considers the last fifteen years. Comparing Musharraf to Benazir and Nawaz, one can only conclude that it is the military dictator who has done the most for women's rights and for press freedoms (though these are being rolled back at an alarming rate).

I suppose I am what can be termed as an "Irfan Hussain liberal," that is, someone who is a political liberal to the point that the politicians of the day do not extensively threaten social freedoms (Irfan Hussain, you will recall, supported Musharraf's coup because had Nawaz Sharif retained power, he was primed to push Sharia Law through the court system of Pakistan). This is not to say I "support" Musharraf wholeheartedly. For one thing, I find it increasingly difficult to support people as opposed to positions. In other words, I support not Musharraf but his women's rights rhetoric, if not practice. I support not Imran Khan but (gulp) his views on democracy and its importance in Pakistan.

When I was interning at a think tank in Washington a couple of years ago, I had the opportunity to meet Hussain Haqqani who was at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace at the time. He said something that has stayed with me ever since. He told me that the elite in Pakistan are social liberals but not political liberals. That statement may not be especially profound but it made me realize just how contradictory those two identities can sometimes be. That's why I have no idea what it means to be a liberal in Pakistan today. In some respects, Qazi Hussain Ahmed is more of a liberal than Musharraf. In others, Musharraf is more of a liberal than Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. Crazy world, huh?

Robert Andrew Woolmer, 1948-2007

With the ubiquity of the internet and 24-hour news channels, getting shocking news, or any news for that matter, by word of mouth is almost a quaint concept, a relic from a past era. Last weekend, I was eating brunch at a restaurant with two people, one of whom got a call from another friend. As he spoke on the phone, my friend's eyes opened wide and his eyebrows raised, and he used sentences that contained no more than three syllables, like "What?!", "Are you sure?", "How?", and "Oh my God". It obviously didn't take a detective to figure out something was wrong. When he hung up, he looked at me and said: "Bob Woolmer just died. He was found unconscious in his hotel room, and now he's dead." Given we'd just lost to Ireland the previous day, my first reaction was that a crazed Pakistan fan must have gotten to him and, holding the nefarious "foreign laptop coach" responsible for the defeat, killed him. When I got home, I immediately went on Cricinfo and discovered that it was either a heart attack or something related to his diabetic condition and/or his high blood pressure. A few days later, the Jamaican police threw those initial hypotheses out of the window and confirmed that Woolmer had been murdered.

Who might have killed Bob Woolmer, or who might have wanted to kill Bob Woolmer, is not the subject of this post. That speculation is best left to the relevant authorities in Jamaica. Contrary to what I'm sure is the position of most of Five Rupees' readers, I generally try to limit myself to topics of discussion which I might claim to know something about. International politics? Yes. Cricket? Yes. Criminal investigations? Definite no. So if you're looking for a post conjecturing what happened that night, you can stop reading right now.

I remember reading the late Omar Kureishi's column in Dawn the week Woolmer was hired to coach the Pakistan team in mid-2004. After the usual caveats about his salary and language difficulties, Kureishi wrote that this was a coup for Pakistan cricket, and that Woolmer's credentials could not be doubted. How wrong he was. Over the next three years, it wasn't just Woolmer's credentials that were doubted but also his commitment, his "patriotism", his methods, his attitude, his coaching background, his weight, and, generally speaking, his value to Pakistan. Kureishi obviously did not account for the slime that passes as the media in Pakistan or the scum that passes as former Pakistani cricketers. These two groups pilloried Woolmer for the duration of his entire tenure as coach for entirely selfish reasons, never objectively taking facts into account or keeping Pakistan cricket's true interests in mind.

What are the facts? That Woolmer took on the toughest job in international cricket and did the best he, or anybody else, could under the circumstances. That he united what is notoriously and historically a faction-driven team by not playing favourites and by staying above the political fray. That he achieved more in terms of fostering team spirit and camaraderie than any other coach before him ever has (indeed, most of our coaches have a worse-than-zero impact on team spirit - they actually prove deleterious to it. See Miandad, Javed). That for the first time in our history, the quick single became both an offensive weapon (i.e. running the opposition into the ground) and a defensive weapon (taking pressure off oneself and the team by rotating the strike when early wickets have fallen). That in ODIs before July 2004, Shoaib Malik averaged 27 with the bat and 39 with the ball and after July 2004 upped those numbers to 39 with the bat and 29 with the ball. That in Tests before July 2004, Younis Khan averaged 37 and after July 2004 averaged 59. That Shahid Afridi averaged 32 with the bat (in Tests) before Woolmer and 43 with him. That bowlers like Shahid Nazir and Mohammad Asif, who would have been consigned to the dustbin on history under the peculiarly Pakistani logic of "Thou shalt not bowl at less than 145 km/h if thou wishes to be considered for selection," were encouraged and brought into the team at the behest of Woolmer to reap fantastic results and, in Asif's case, brought us the world's best quick bowler (quick: name me another non-spinning bowler you'd rather want if you were starting a team from scratch. Right, you can't). That we drew a test series in India that, on paper, we should have lost 3-0. That we won three, drew one and lost no Test series at home under Woolmer after having a run of disastrous results in Pakistan immediately preceding his tenure that were arguably the worst of all the top-Test nations at home other than the West Indies. That we rose to the No. 2 spot in the Test rankings and the No. 3 spot in the ODI rankings, places we couldn't sniff under previous regimes.

None of this, of course, ever mattered to our gutter press and the Imran Khans and Javed Miandads of the world. Because these people only cared about furthering themselves and not about Pakistan cricket, they ruthlessely attacked Woolmer even when it was not justfied. The media complained about his salary, but never bothered to check the rates at which coaches around the world were being hired. Former players criticized his methods ("laptop coach") without regard to their effectiveness. Everyone criticized results, without comparing them to what they were before he came on. The truly bizarre criticisms (Waheed Khan et al), Woolmer dealt with on his website. The truly vicious, he left alone. He was too good a man to be drawn into the brutal mud-slinging typical of Pakistan cricket.

His personality and demeanor, I think, are what were most impressive about him. Leaving behind the results on the pitch, the way he interacted with the players and the media was such a refreshing change for those of us used to "There's an Irfan Pathan in every gulli in Pakistan" and stories of coaches resigning on the eve of a World Cup because of difficulties with senior players (both attributable to the immortal Javed Miandad). You could tell the players, in general, really liked him. In various interviews, the likes of Younis, Yousuf, Shoaib (Malik, not that other chootia), and Afridi were always quick to mention not just how much Woolmer had added to their games but to how well he got on with everyone in the dressing room. He learnt a few Urdu words, he enthusiastically immersed himself in a culture alien to him and typically held in scant regard by people of similar background (what do you think the average Englishman/South African thinks of Pakistan?) and he always defended our players and their ways in public (even if he was less than sure of them in private). Remember how he stood up for us after L'affaire Hair? I recall thinking how lucky we were to have a Western man familiar with the ways of the media to deal with that public relations nightmare. The guy truly responsible for being that guy (the manager, Zaheer Abbas) was nowhere to be found, except of course, with the odd retarded comment. Woolmer was always there for us: on the field and off it. Now, sadly, he is not, because some motherfucker(s) decided that Woolmer's life was worth taking.

On a purely selfish note, one can say that this episode effectively guarantees that no foreign coach wil ever want to step foot in Pakistan again. Whether his murder came at the hands of someone connected to the Karachi-Mumbai-Dubai bookie mafia or a nutjob fan angry at the results of the World Cup is irrelevant. The point to be made is that the lesson that has been learnt by people all over the cricket world is "Pakistan: Enter At Your Own Risk". No amount of money or travel perks will ever be worth it for the Whatmores and Moodys of the world. Nope, we're going to be stuck with the likes of Haroon Rashid, Intikhab Alam and, at best, Aaqib Javed. With those choices will come the inevitable politicking, stories of backstabbing, selection issues, newspaper reports that so-and-so got into the team because he's the new coach's cousin's neighbor's wife's uncle's stepson's friend, discord between the captain and coach, and general chaos. You know how they say countries get the politicians they deserve? Well, they get the cricket coaches they deserve too.

Rest in peace, Bob. You were too good for us.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Quote of the day
I am a simple soldier and do not understand the niceties of legal processes.

Or, one may add, political processes either. It seems to me that this one crisis has completely and irrevocably changed Pakistan's political landscape in general and Musharraf's future in particular. Three weeks ago, Musharraf was looking at a scenario where he'd be elected by the existing assemblies as President for a further five years, keep his uniform and strike a deal with the PPP as a pliant MMA and cooperative Uncle Sam looked on. Now? Not so much. More analysis from Ahmed Rashid in the Washington Post here and from The Glasshouse here, here, here, here, and here.

I will hopefully return to a regular blogging schedule by the beginning of next week.

Sunday, March 11, 2007

Photographs of the day

These pictures are amazing.

Link courtesy Andrew Sullivan.

Friday, March 09, 2007


It's one of the reasons I love cricket. And cricket's bloody well suited to it. I mean, try to imagine another sport in which (a) players are within talking/hearing distance of each other (unlike, say, tennis); (b) there are repeated and regular breaks between each "play" of action (after every ball there's essentially a 30-second timeout, for God's sake); and (c) the game is just unclean enough for insults to be flying around (unlike golf where you're more likely to see women given membership to Augusta than a guy trash talking his opponent).

Anyways, I've always, always, ALWAYS wanted to know what the hell Ramnaresh Sarwan said to Glenn McGrath a few years ago that pissed him off so much (remember all the finger wagging and bluster?). Well, thanks to a little bit of free time and this blog on the website for The Australian, I finally found it. (Caution: really rude and inappropriate comment coming up)

McGrath: So tell me, what does Brian Lara's dick taste like?
Sarwan: I don't know. Ask your wife.

McGrath's wife, you will recall, was recovering from cancer at the time.

Some of my other favourites are:

McGrath (to Eddo Brandes): Why are you so fucking fat?
Brandes: Because every time I fuck your mother, she gives me a biscuit.

Warne (to Cullinan, who literally was forced to see a shrink because of Warne's hold on him): Let's see if we can't get you back on the couch, then.

Sangakarra to Pollock: No need for me to transcribe it, watch it yourself on Youtube.

Wednesday, March 07, 2007

This Is Disgusting

It really, really is.

Monday, March 05, 2007

Don't Write Us Off

I don't have time to do a full blown preview of the World Cup but I want to make a few quick points.

1. Don't write us off. We may well not win the World Cup if only because our fielding is atrocious. But in all the hand-wringing about Shoaib, Asif, Razzaq and all our other bullshit controversies people are forgetting (a) that Shoaib never plays and Asif is relatively new to the ODI team, so our past success in ODIs wasn't really built on those two anyway; (b) that Razzaq, while leaving a big hole, has a pretty good replacement in Azhar Mahmood; (c) that in the last five years of bilateral ODI series in the Windies, we have the second best record (SA won 5-0, we won 3-0, Australia won 4-3, SL won 2-1, England drew 2-2, NZ lost 1-3, India lost 1-4); (d) that we have the type of attack that can do well on those dry pitches (reverse swing for Gully, Rana and Sami, good ODI spin options in Hafeez, Malik and Afridi, who I daresay will be our best bowler); (e) that with everyone from Ranatunga to Ian Chappell counting us out, there will be NO pressure on us and consequently everyone will play loose (like in India, 2005); and (f) that we're number three in the world for a reason - the core of our ODI team (Younis, Yousuf, Inzi, Afridi, Malik, Akmal, Rana) has been together for a while and has been performing for a while, so it's not as if we have me and my neighbors turning out to play for us. Will we reach the semis? I don't know. All I'm saying is we have a shot.

2. India, Australia and Sri Lanka are my favourites, in that order. India because they bat deep, they bat hard and their bowling is good enough to get the job done. Their biggest issue will be their fielding, but it's not nearly as bad as ours. If it clicks for them the way it clicked for them four years ago in South Africa, look out.

Australia are Australia. You lose a couple of games and suddenly you're in decline? Huh? They had something like six of their first eleven missing. Yeah, Lee is out but their bowling will be fine. Everyone is reading way too much into the end of the CB series and that bullshit Chappell-Hadlee trophy which they didn't want to play anyway. They are guaranteed of reaching the semis; the only reason I have India in front of them is because I think, on form, India has the better batting lineup and because Symonds' status is uncertian. If he is fully fit by the middle of the tournament, they become favourites for me, with India dropping to second favourites.

Sri Lanka have the perfect bowling attack for the Windies. The best spinner in the world (probably of all time), good pace (Malinga), swingers and cutters (Vaas, Maharoof), and the Jayasuriya types who always end up getting important wickets and/or squeezing the runs in overs 20-40. They are also one of the three best fielding sides in the tournament and have an excellent captain and coach. My only concern with them is their reliance on Sangakarra with the bat. You worry about these guys if they fall to 100-4, the type of position where Australia routinely end up with 280 but where they are more likely to end up with 230.

3. South Africa will NOT win. The choking thing is not why I say that; in fact, I don't think this SA team are a bunch of chokers at all. You have to remember it was the Hansie/Kirsten/Cullinan/Donald team that choked all the time. This team's personality is completely different because the personnel is completely different (similar to the way India changed from a wussy, pathetic team that could be bullied in the 90s to a stronger, tougher team in the present era because they made Ganguly captain for five years and brought guys like Yuvraj and Dhoni into the set up). The reason I say SA doesn't have a chance is their bowling. They have NO decent spinning options, no left arm pace, no semblance of variety in their attack at all. Their fielding is unbelievable but I think they're going to give away too many runs because good batsmen will get a measure of their attack and start teeing off.

4. It really is ridiculous that the World Cup is longer than the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup. Look, I understand you have to market the sport and try and spread it all over the world. But do we really have to have six associate members in addition to Zimbabwe and Bangladesh? Six? I liked the 1999 format best, with four associate members, two groups of seven each, top three in each group advance (thus ensuring that at least two, if not three, of the bigger name teams would not get there which meant that the first round actually counted for something), everyone plays the other group's top three in the Super Six, semis, final, finish. That was a great format because you got excitement in the first stage (England, Sri Lanka, West Indies didn't get through), you got excitement in the second stage, you got crappy teams getting airtime and exposure (Scotland etc), and you got a good number of matches - it was a perfect balance. This World Cup is bloated, uninteresting until the second round (at which point it bears a striking resemblance to the 1992 format), too long, with too many bad games lined up in the beginning. But, hey, what the hell do I know?

On Tenure

Steven Levitt (author of Freakonomics) had an interesting post on his blog yesterday regarding tenure. He essentially calls for the entire concept of tenure to be abolished.

For those unaware (I'm sorry if I'm insulting anyone's intelligence but I want to make sure everyone understands what the hell we're talking about), academics are up for tenure review between three and five years after they start teaching at a particular institution. If you get tenure, it means you can never be fired from your job for performance-related reasons (sexual assault will still get you fired, if not thrown in jail). If you do not, you're essentially fired on the spot. So say I finish my PhD in 2011 (here's hoping) and get a assistant professorship at Random State University. Around 2015, based on my productivity/brilliance/teaching/hygeine, the tenure review board at RSU will decide my future by either granting me tenure, in which case I'm set for life at RSU (I only leave if I want to) or by not granting me tenure, in which case I'm out of a job (there's no grace period - as soon as you're turned down for tenure, you're done. This is why many people start looking for another job a year before they're up for tenure). The historical reason for the concept of tenure which, admittedly some find quite strange ("How can you not be fired? What is this, France?") is guaranteeing academic freedom. In other words, professors are given tenure so that they never have to fear that anything they write or research will cause them to get fired, thus ensuring that an academic will do the work he/she considers most valuable/interesting, not the work considered most safe/uncontroversial. That's the idea of tenure in a nutshell.

I'm reproducing Levitt's post in full because he raises some issues that are worthy of discussion.

If there was ever a time when it made sense for economics professors to be given tenure, that time has surely passed. The same is likely true of other university disciplines, and probably even more true for high-school and elementary school teachers.

What does tenure do? It distorts people’s effort so that they face strong incentives early in their career (and presumably work very hard early on as a consequence) and very weak incentives forever after (and presumably work much less hard on average as a consequence).

One could imagine some models in which this incentive structure makes sense. For instance, if one needs to learn a lot of information to become competent, but once one has the knowledge it does not fade and effort is not very important. That model may be a good description of learning to ride a bike, but it is a terrible model of academics.

From a social standpoint, it seems like a bad idea to make incentives so weak after tenure. Schools get stuck with employees who are doing nothing (at least not doing what they are presumably being paid to do). It also is probably a bad idea to give such strong incentives pre-tenure — even without tenure young faculty have lots of reasons to work hard to build a good career.

The idea that tenure protects scholars who are doing politically unpopular work strikes me as ludicrous. While I can imagine a situation where this issue might rarely arise, I am hard pressed to think of actual cases where it has been relevant. Tenure does an outstanding job of protecting scholars who do no work or terrible work, but is there anything in economics which is high quality but so controversial it would lead to a scholar being fired? Anyway, that is what markets are for. If one institution fires an academic primarily because they don’t like his or her politics or approach, there will be other schools happy to make the hire. There are, for instance, cases in recent years in economics where scholars have made up data, embezzled funds, etc. but still have found good jobs afterwards.

One hidden benefit of tenure is that it works as a commitment device to get departments to fire mediocre people. The cost of not firing at a tenure review is higher with tenure in place than it is without it. If it is painful to fire people, without tenure the path of least resistance may be to always say you will fire the person the next year, but never do it.

Imagine a setting where you care about performance (e.g. a professional football team, or a currency trader). You wouldn’t think of granting tenure. So why do it in academics?

The best case scenario would be if all schools could coordinate on dumping tenure simultaneously. Maybe departments would give the deadwood a year or two to prove they deserved a slot before firing them. Some non-producers would leave or be fired. The rest of the tenure-age economists would start working harder. My guess is that salaries and job mobility would not change that much.

Absent all schools moving together to get rid of tenure, what if one school chose to unilaterally revoke tenure. It seems to me that it might work out just fine for that school. It would have to pay the faculty a little extra to stay in a department without an insurance policy in the form of tenure. Importantly, though, the value of tenure is inversely related to how good you are. If you are way over the bar, you face almost no risk if tenure is abolished. So the really good people would require very small salary increases to compensate for no tenure, whereas the really bad, unproductive economists would need a much bigger subsidy to remain in a department with tenure gone. This works out fantastically well for the university because all the bad people end up leaving, the good people stay, and other good people from different institutions want to come to take advantage of the salary increase at the tenure-less school. If the U of C told me that they were going to revoke my tenure, but add $15,000 to my salary, I would be happy to take that trade. I’m sure many others would as well. By dumping one unproductive, previously tenured faculty member, the University could compensate ten others with the savings.

It must not be that simple because few schools have tried, and my sense is that those that took a stab at it capitulated quickly and reinstated tenure. What am I missing?

For starters, I would say that Levitt is right about two things, both to do with the question of incentives. First, he's completely right in his point that making incentives so strong in the beginning of an academic's career is almost superfluous. When someone gets hired right out of grad school, they're eager to impress anyway; they don't need the pressure of tenure to make them productive. Think about it: in any other job, when you first get hired, aren't you most cognizant of the need to show people you're worthy in the first few years of the job? Stop nodding, it was a rhetorical question.

Second, he's completely right that tenure
does make some professors lazy after they get it. This is a fact and everyone knows it. There's really nothing else to add here.

Levitt, however, jumps the gun when he says tenure should be abolished wholesale. I say this for a few reasons.

First, Levitt, as I'm sure you know, is an economics professor. If he can't imagine research "in economics which is high quality but so controversial it would lead to a scholar being fired", it's beacuase he's talking about economics. He would not, I guarantee you, be saying this if he were a political scientist. I'm not making any normative claims here on why political science is cooler than economics (which, incidentally, it is); all I'm saying is that there is a greater likelihood that a research program in political science is controversial than one in economics being so. I can't imagine any reasonable person quibbling with that assertion, so let's move on.

Second, the controversiality of research is not the only reason scholars might be persuaded to follow different research agendas if tenure was abolished. It is also a question of time. If tenure was abolished, academics would always feel the whole "publish or perish" pressure. If you want to publish fairly regularly in order to preclude the possibility of getting fired, you will never pursue research that takes a long, long time. Some projects can take up to ten years. Some of these projects are incredibly valuable to both the academy and the general public. We risk losing these works if tenure is abolished because scholars will be too scared to ever contemplate doing research that takes such a long time; they'd rather do short and sweet research that gets them in a journal every four years.

Third, I think Levitt ignores just what a world without tenure would look like. As it stands right now, old professors choose whether or not a young professor is going to be allowed to carry on at a particular university. Now, if tenure is abolished, can you guess what will happen? I can. Old professors will never hire brilliant young professors because they'll be afraid that said young professor will be so good that they (the old professors) won't be needed. Only when a young professor is not a threat to the old professors will they make the best choice for the university. Hiring committees should not, for the sake of the university, ever be motivated by anything close to fear; if they are, everyone loses. And abolishing tenure would do just that: bring fear into the calculus.

Fourth, tenure compensates for cash. Academia is one of the lowest paying professions when you compare salary-to-years-in-school ratios. Consider the fact that I will have at least five, if not six, more years of education than my friends on Wall Street (well, friend). I would have read the equivalent of about 1000 more books than him by the time we're 28. I would have written a friggin' dissertation. That's a whole lot of education. What are the rewards? Well, financially, they're not great. Most assistant professors (the post you get straight out of grad school) will make between $50,000 and $80,000, depending on (a) what university they're teaching at; (b) the city the university is in; (c) how good their dissertation was; (d) which other universities, if any, have given him/her an offer; and (e) which university they got their PhD from. An associate professor (up one step on the ladder) makes between 65k and 95k. Professors (top rung) make between 75k and 110k. These are very general numbers, some are lower and some are higher. The point to be made, however, is that for all the years slogging through school, academics aren't particularly well paid, especially if you compare them to lesser educated people (sorry Nikhil) who make substantially more. Tenure (and summers off, no doubt) is a way of evening the score. The bargain is: we make less, but we're secure. You make more, but you're dreading the next recession. Now, some academics (like Levitt above) are perfectly willing to give up that security for more money (as he says, he'll give up his tenure for 15k more). But I doubt that all of them, or even a majority of them, are willing to do so.

All that said, I myself am uncomfortable with the way tenure is structured today. I don't think it should be abolished but I do think it can, and should, be modified. I would make two broad changes. One, I would change when faculty are first up for tenure. The first few years of an assistant professor's life are stressful enough; they really don't need this sword of Damocles hanging over their head. If faculty are up for tenure about six or seven years after getting hired, as opposed to the three or four right now, I think they'd be more likely to do better quality research (one consequence of having it after three years is that people want to get their name in a journal as much as possible, so will write and do less than perfect work. They basically sacrifice quality for quantity).

Two, I wouldn't leave tenure as a life-long promise of employment. I would make it subject to revision every, say, eight or twelve years. I think this would solve the problem that Levitt and I agree is a big problem: the lazy prof who's done nothing for 25 years but is still cashing the university's checks (I should say there's not a great number of these so-called lazy profs, but there are enough of them to ensure that the system is less than perfect). The exact number of years that elapse before another tenure review is not important, what is important is that such a review take place periodically to ensure motivation among faculty.

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Why The World Is Going To End Soon II

From an article in the Washington Post today:
Math tutor Anthony Maida tells me that he frequently works until 11 p.m. to accommodate kids in Montgomery County whose extracurricular activities keep them busy as late as 9, by which time they are too tired to absorb information. He tutors one girl who has taken the SAT four times already -- and she's only in 8th grade. Her parents want her to get a perfect score.

Why The World Is Going To End Soon

A new restaurant in Karachi charges Rs. 500 for burgers and around Rs. 1000 for steaks. What the fuck is going on? When the hell did going out for a decent meal become this ridiculously expensive enterprise? The "well, a thousand rupees is less than $20 and that's how much you'd pay for a steak abroad, so why are you complaining" defense really doesn't work. For one thing, there's a term called purchasing power parity (a 300ml bottle of coke costs around Rs. 15 which works out to about 25 cents. I guarantee you nowhere in the United States can you get a coke for 25 cents). For another, people abroad generally earn in proportion to prices. For example, let's say the average salary in the U.S. is $40,000 a year. That works out to 2000 steaks a year. Are you telling me that the average person in Pakistan earns Rs. 2 million (2000 steaks multiplied by Rs. 1000) a year? No, they do not.

For the record, I should say I'm no "the workers have nothing to lose but their chains" Marxist. I think it's completely fine that some forms of recreation cannot be afforded by everyone; that's the way it exists all over the world, in every society. The problem, however, with Pakistan today is that most forms of recreation are beyond the reach of the "common man". Even simple, everyday pleasures like going to the beach (which should be completely free) now require a token payment. There's just very few affordable, enjoyable activities for middle class people in Pakistan today. And this government, bless its heart, is doing all it can to make sure the wall between the rich and the poor gets higher and higher. Their message to stockbrokers, industrialists, cartel managers and real estaters is: Come join the party! Their message to everyone else is: Don't come to our beaches. Don't eat at our restaurants. Don't even try to make a living because we're going to build resorts and golf courses where you and your families have been fishing for hundreds of years. Just do us all a favour and go fuck yourself.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Kirchner, Pulling a Putin

With one important difference: while Putin is searching far and wide for a worthy successor, Kirchner is restricting his search to the boundaries of his bedroom. Oh, and of course, there's the little matter of Argentina's elections being free and fair and all. So I guess that makes it two important differences.