Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Anatomy of a scam

Once, even twice is a coincidence. But three is a pattern worthy of a second look.

Exhibit 1: The financial monoliths that rode the cash wave in an ocean of American tax payer money have pretty much gotten away scot-free. Their criminal greed has been marketed as a simple combination of market upredictability, non-robust math models, and corporate irresponsibility.

Exhibit 2: The response from the Pakistani government after the double-tap delivered to Osama Bin Laden a few hundred yards away from their West Point, was to admit 'gross incompetence' rather than confess to any willing participation in hiding a notorious fugitive. No punishment and continued pouring of billions of dollars down the drain. They happily take out a full page Ad in the Wall Street Journal on the 11th of this month to celebrate.

Exhibit 3: The government of India is for all practical purposes run by the Darth Vader-like Italian-born Sonia Maino, who has propped up an equally complicit 80+ year old mute puppet as the prime minister to take the heat. The current regime that has ruled India for 50 of its 60-odd post-independence years is neck deep in a series of corruption scandals and midnight arrests of peaceful anti-corruption activists. The most blatant of these is the so-called '2G scam', where billions of dollars (1.86 trillion ₹) worth of public money in form of lucrative bandwidth was all but given away to friends and family. Only the most junior ministers (belonging to the coalition-party :) are in jail. Their defense is rather innovative but inevitably based on this same theme - 'negligence' and 'uncertainty', rather than admitting to any criminal wrong-doing or fraud.

Case 3 is an interesting example. This tab has already touched upon it twice before and arguments outlined turned out to be in line with what the Harvard-affiliated anti-corruption lawyer Dr. Subramanyam Swami used in his own article to describe the reasons for the mess.

The defense in all three examples of colossal fraud essentially argue that they merely maintained the 'status quo', claiming ignorance of the true value of doing the (obviously) right thing. Their second line of attack is to plead down the severity of the charge all the way to a misdemeanor. In exhibit 3, this is being done along the following flimsy lines "since the true value of the resource can only be determined if an auction had actually taken place, the figures quoted are cooked up by vested interests". Two factors go against such an argument:

1. This figure was calculated by a government agency (!) - the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG).

2. Unless the CAG has performed a rigorous math-based analysis and run simulations to determine the maximal revenue obtainable from selling a scarce resource in a gigantic market like India, the quoted figure that was based on an average or a reasonable auction scenario is more likely to be a lower bound on the true cost of the swindle.

How dependable are 'opportunity cost', and more generally such "if" based decision models? A paper that I co-authored as a student of civil engineering many years ago happens to be based on this idea and was used in highway resource planning in Virginia. Often times, business value of an analytics idea can only be viably demonstrated by calculating 'what would have happened to a set of past outcomes had this OR method been used instead". On the other hand, if a researcher were to build up a ladder that consists of several degrees of conditional dependence to arrive at a final value, then such chain-of-events driven claims have to closely scrutinized to ensure that we simply do not end up with 'noise'.

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