Is a Basic Income Utopian?

An essay review on the case and evidence for a universal basic income, from The Financial Times.

We live in implausible times. Robots may take our jobs. The Arctic might disappear. A new wave of strongmen is pushing back against what only yesterday seemed like an unstoppable tide of liberal democracy. As the New York Times recently reported, media references to that menacing line from Yeats — “Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold” — have spiked to a 30-year high.

The notion of a guaranteed income for all may appear counter-intuitive, even heretical in an era marked by anxiety over rising deficits and creaking welfare states. Opponents of the idea also worry that no-strings-attached free money could reduce incentives to work. Bregman is relatively sanguine about costs, suggesting, alternatively, that a universal income would be cheaper than existing welfare programmes, or that it could easily be paid for by new taxes on “assets, waste, raw materials, and consumption”. Concerns about incentives are similarly unfounded, he argues, relics of old, patronising thinking about poverty and welfare.

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The Return of the Utopians

From The New Yorker: What today’s movements for social and economic reform can learn from the intentional communities of the nineteenth century.

Contradiction and hypocrisy have always hovered over the utopian project, shadowing its promise of a better world with the sordid realities of human nature. Plato, in the Republic, perhaps the earliest utopian text, outlined a form of eugenics that would have been right at home in the Third Reich—which was itself a form of utopia, as were the Gulag of Soviet Communism, the killing fields of Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and, more recently, the blood-and-sand caliphate of isis. “There is a tyranny in the womb of every utopia,” the French economist and futurist Bertrand de Jouvenel wrote.

The twentieth century was perhaps the cruellest for utopian hopes. “Innumerable millions of human beings were killed in this century in the name of utopia,” the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz reminded his audience, at a 1986 pen conference. In a 2007 polemic, “Black Mass,” John Gray proclaimed “the death of utopia.” Indeed, utopia’s name has become so tarnished that it has recently been used almost interchangeably with its evil twin, dystopia—a word coined by John Stuart Mill, three and a half centuries after the publication of More’s book, to describe a society that was “too bad to be practicable.”

Now the tide may have shifted. Utopias come in waves. Could these books—along with the other recent utopian books—offer guidance for a grand new moment of social reform?

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How to Find Happiness in Switzerland

A family journey to “the happiest country in the world,” from Conde Nast Traveller

When I was younger, I used to travel alone a lot. I loved the sense of discovery, of newness and serendipity. Most of all, I revelled in the freedom: no one to consult, no permission to be asked. Travelling with family—with any group, really—is more complicated. It has its joys, of course, but I’ve learnt the hard way that much time on family trips is likely to be spent planning, weighing everyone’s preferences, working out compromises to keep the peace.

The difficulty of harmonising preferences is directly proportionate to the attractiveness of a destination. As a family, it’s easier to visit cities with a single attraction, towns with few good restaurants. The less there is to choose from, the less there is to argue about.

So it was with some trepidation that I approached Switzerland—that tiny, land-locked country that famously contains multitudes within its tight boundaries. “Switzerland would be a mighty big place if it were ironed flat,” Mark Twain once wrote. He was referring to the mountains, of course. But there was a sense, too, of densely packed plenitude, of a variety in experience and landscape that has drawn eager travellers for centuries. It was precisely this plenitude that worried me. How would we decide what to do?

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The Mountain Shadow

My review, from The New York Times Book Review, of Gregory David Roberts’ The Mountain Shadow

Gregory David Roberts’s “Shantaram” was an unlikely publishing sensation. Literary purists scoffed at its purple prose; Indian (and many other) readers bristled at its stereotypes and cultural simplifications. The book nonetheless possessed a grittiness and vividness that helped Roberts sell four million copies around the world. Hollywood rights were scooped up (though a film has yet to be made). The book has gone on to occupy a distinctive — and deserving — place in an emerging genre of Bombay noir.

“The Mountain Shadow,” Roberts’s second novel, appears more than a decade later. A sequel in a planned tetralogy of novels, it is likely to please many “Shantaram” fans. The book is populated by several of the same characters (notably Lin, also known as Shantaram), and it unfolds on much the same urban landscape of drug lords, corrupt police and washed-out expatriates. The story begins with Lin’s return to Mumbai from a smuggling trip; we follow him through a thinly plotted litany of killings and violent encounters as he seeks to reunite with his love, Karla (also a repeat visitor from the earlier book).

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Why Roger Federer Hasn’t Broken Down

Another piece on tennis for The New Yorker (online)–this one on Federer’s remarkable longevity

There are many reasons for Federer’s longevity. Talent, hard work, good timing, and a little luck have all contributed to his remarkable staying power.

The talent—that outrageous grace and fluidity that David Foster Wallace famously compared to a religious experience—comes first. Federer’s smooth, effortless style, his near-perfect balance and poise, are throwbacks to an earlier era in men’s tennis, before all the grunting and power shots, when men like Ken Rosewall and Rod Laver played into (or almost into) their forties. That classic kind of game isn’t just beautiful to watch; it’s also far easier on the body, reducing the wear and tear that have plagued practitioners of a more modern, physical game.

Nadal, for instance, plays a brash brand of tennis that has often overwhelmed Federer. He is the boxer to Federer’s ballerina, and, faced with Nadal’s power and sheer physicality, Federer has often seemed fragile, a little anachronistic. But now, in this late stage of their respective careers, Nadal is plagued by injury and loses in the early rounds, and Federer glides his way to titles.

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The new tennis league is crazy but good fun, says Federer

My piece for The New Yorker online on the International Premier Tennis League and what it means for the future of the sport.

I can’t deny that the league possesses a certain easy charm that, gradually if not entirely, grew on me over the weekend. There was, for one thing, the sheer novelty of watching all those stars assembled in the same place. I couldn’t take my eyes off Federer and Sampras, who were huddled together on a bench—what were they talking about?—and my eyes kept following Sampras as he sauntered over to Boris Becker, who stood a few metres in front of Goran Ivanisevic (Becker wasn’t playing; he was part of the audience). Gaël Monfils danced with the Indian star Sania Mirza. Ivanovic laughed a lot, wrapped her arms around the French player Fabrice Santoro, and at one point broke into a fake bow to mark her awe at a particularly impressive Federer overhead.

This was sheer entertainment, of course, just cheap celebrity watching. It certainly lacked the intensity of a Wimbledon final (or even, truth be told, of the club matches I play a couple of times a week). But I think that’s part of the point. Tennis is an amazing sport, but even its biggest fans would be hard-pressed to say that it is a fun sport. Agassi called tennis “the loneliest sport” in his autobiography; he compared it to “solitary confinement.” Few things in life are as nerve-wracking as going for a second serve at, say, 30-40, 4-5. There’s nothing quite as miserable as netting an easy volley on match point, or as watching yourself—helplessly, as if from the outside—fritter away a lead.

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More on the Bay of Bengal…

Last year I had the pleasure of reviewing Sunil Amrith’s fascinating book on the Bay of Bengal for The New York Times Book Review. I recently met Amrith in Pondicherry. We drove up the coast and talked about his research and the fascinating–if often overlooked–history of this part of the world. I wrote about our afternoon together for The Hindu.

I’m standing in the fishing village of Arikamedu, outside Pondicherry. I’m visiting with Sunil Amrith, a professor of History at the University of London. Amrith is the author of a recent book titled Crossing the Bay of Bengal: The Furies of Nature and the Fortunes of Migrants.

I first came across the book about a year ago, when I was asked to review it. It piqued my curiosity. I have grown up along the Bay, in Pondicherry and Auroville. Very little writing and research exists about this area. I feel as though I have grown up lacking a conceptual vocabulary to understand my world. Amrith’s work has given me a new frame of reference. It has led me to revisit, and re-imagine, the landscape of my youth.

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Turning Litter Into Roads

My article from Bloomberg Businessweek on a new technology that has the potential to solve (or at least alleviate) two of India’s biggest problems: garbage and infrastructure.

It is difficult to exaggerate India’s garbage problem. Jairam Ramesh, the nation’s former environment minister, has said that if there were a “Nobel prize for dirt and filth,” India would win it. As much as 40 percent of the country’s municipal waste remains uncollected, according to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Of the waste that is collected, almost none is recycled.

Much of India’s garbage is made up of plastic—a scourge of the nation’s new consumer economy. The country’s Central Pollution Control Board says more than 15,000 tons of plastic waste are generated daily. The Supreme Court of India recently observed: “We are sitting on a plastic time bomb.”

Vasudevan sees an opportunity. A professor of chemistry at Thiagarajar College of Engineering, near Madurai, he insists that plastic gets a bad rap. Rather than an incipient environmental calamity, plastic, in Vasudevan’s opinion, is a “gift from the gods”; it’s up to humans to use it wisely. And he’s devised a way to transform common plastic litter—not only thicker acrylics and bottles but also grocery bags and wrappers—into a partial substitute for bitumen in asphalt.

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NPR All Things Considered

A short written and recorded segment from National Public Radio, All Things Considered: India’s election through the prism of literature. I chose V S Naipaul’s India: A Million Mutinies Now to talk about the significance of Modi’s election.

Audio clip here 

When I think of what just happened in Indian politics, I think about a book I first read some 24 years ago. That book was India: A Million Mutinies Now, by the Nobel Prize-winning author V.S. Naipaul. Naipaul traveled through India in the late ’80s; he wrote before the economic reforms of the ’90s, before the social transformations of the new millennium.

But Naipaul was prescient. In a series of incisive portraits, he captured the incipient hopes and ambitions of the Indian people. He wrote detailed character sketches of businessmen, stockbrokers, politicians, women breaking free from oppressive traditions. Naipaul described these people — ordinary people — finding a new voice and identity. He wrote that they were discovering “the idea of freedom.”

In many ways, that idea — a sense of self-confidence, of individual self-expression — has found shape in Modi’s election.

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India’s Election Choice: Growth Economy or Welfare State

An article from Bloomberg Businessweek, on the upcoming elections in India.

Indian elections aren’t known for their clarity. Messy, cacophonous affairs, they stretch across months and almost invariably result in fragmented verdicts. Political groupings are opportunistic, driven by personality rather than issues; competing party platforms are often indistinguishable.

This year’s parliamentary elections—the nation’s 16th since independence, running from April 7 to May 12—are proving an exception. The distinctions between India’s leading parties are unusually sharp; the race is shaping up as a genuine battle of ideas, a real debate over the direction of the nation.

Youth vs. experience, communal vs. secular: These are the lines along which the elections are generally being interpreted. But there is, also, a third distinction between the parties, one that’s less remarked upon but arguably more important. The elections are in many ways a contest over economic ideas, over the model of development best suited to India. This contest significantly raises the stakes for Indian voters; the outcome of these elections could very well determine the fortunes of an economy that has recently fallen into stagnation.

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