## Friday, December 21, 2012

### The Scamster versus the Statesman (or why the Indian National Congress fancies its chances in 2014 and 2019)

A Scam Response Model
The loss due to government-blessed scams and failed populist schemes in India run in the order of Billions and Trillions of Indian Rupees in a country where the impoverished still form a sizable percentage and earning under or around the government designated poverty level of ₹20+ a day (50₹ ~ 1\$). To many Indians, such twelve-zero numbers seem fantastic. Thus a person caught stealing thousands in a small town may receive a sound thrashing because people more clearly recognize the utility of amounts that actually show up in their historical experience. However, as the size of the theft increases beyond imaginable sums, the magnitude of the public response does not appear to proportionally increase. The law of diminishing returns seems to kick in, resulting in a concave response function. We postulate that:
Change in Public Response (ΔR) ∝ Change in # of Zeros (ΔZ) in Scam amount S , i.e

R = k log S, where k is a constant to be estimated using historical data.

The assumption of a logarithmic response model turns to be quite useful in the Indian context. For example, if political party A pulls off a 12-zero scam, and party B a 6-zero scam (using a log-10 base):
response(A) = 12k, and response(B) = 6k.

The response is only a factor of 2 more for the scam that was a million times bigger. This makes it easier for party-A to equate itself to party-B in the eyes of the public. It can have its cake and perhaps eat it too. Most Indians would not find it hard to map A & B to their real-life representatives.

Statesman versus Scamster - Round 1
A subjugated, under-informed electorate may exhibit a strong concave response that is characterized by relatively high sensitivity to small thefts at one end, and a disregard for mega-scams at the other end.  We postulate that such a population's mental decision making model tends to be (1) myopic, (2) local optimality seeking, and (3) pessimistic (MYLOP). It accepts its terrible local living conditions provided the situation doesn't get perceptibly worse, and votes in polls based on this mental model. The immediate cause-and-effect tied to a local 100 theft represents a clear and present risk to current survival and is likely to elicit a swift and violent response, just like a populist cash-equivalent freebie elicits an equally enthusiastic response. However, a gigantic national scam that all but ensures that its future generations will see no improvement is shrugged off. MYLOP behavior is akin to a frog that allows itself to boiled alive because it does not register the gradual increase in water temperature until it is too late.

On the flip side, a government that is largely scam-free and claims to work on long-term growth, but is perceived to have marginally worsened the status quo can get booted out of power in the next election. Asking such a population to endure temporary 'hard choices' in order to be rewarded with medium-to-long term improvement ("no free lunch", "it will get worse before it gets better") implies a non-convex decision model - a hard sell since it clashes with the MYLOP attitude of the population. Scamsters + freebies trumps the Statesman here. Let's dig a little deeper into scams.

How to Hide a Scam?
Answer: A new scam that is an order of magnitude bigger. This can be explained via a mathematical model based on an interesting technical report by John Cook, M. D. Anderson Cancer Center (and author of the Endeavor blog):

The soft maximum of two variables is the function
g(x; y) = log(exp(x) + exp(y))

Given scams S1 and S2, the cumulative response from the public per our postulated model is log(S1 + S2). For example, the Commonwealth Games of India (CWG) plus a few other scams put together was a 9-zero scam, and this was followed by the 2G bandwidth sell-off, which was a thousand times bigger, i.e., a 12-zero scam. The cumulative response is:
log(10^12 + 10^9) = log(10.001 ^ 12) = 12.0005211273k,
a value that is barely more than the response to just the 2G scam itself (12k). In other words, the cumulative response to scams is approximately its soft maximum. The 2G scam simply eclipses the CWG scam in the mind of the public and the media. Even if there were 10 CWG-level scams, they'd be cumulatively eclipsed by a new 2G-level scam for all practical purposes and drop off the radar.

Scamster versus Scamster
Suppose a generally honest political party-B gets greedy seeing the muted public response and its forgiveness of prior scams. If it imitates party-A and pulls off a CWG-level scam, the public's anger would not be a 1000 times smaller. It would only be (12-9)/12 = 25% smaller. Having a clean prior record is not very helpful. Furthermore, if Party-B campaigned on a plank of 'transparent party that is different', it will be perceived as being not very different from party-A (75% alike) despite being 99.9% less corrupt compared to party-A, measured in terms of money siphoned off.

A MYLOP population that is forced to choose between two scamsters (even if their scam sizes are different) will pick the one that offers better freebies. If both provide equal freebies, the MYLOPs are likely to alternate between the two choices, every electoral cycle (e.g state of Tamil Nadu or Uttar Pradesh).

Statesman v/s Scamster - Round 2
Getting out a terrible locally-optimal situation may require a statesman to bring out and maintain a series of organic (sustainable and permanent) and highly visible improvements to first earn the trust of its MYLOP people over a sufficiently long period before unveiling any risky long-term development models. This means a lot of very hard infrastructure work: providing reliable 24x7 electricity, good roads, clean water, primary schools for girls, security for women, etc., to fundamentally alter the decision model of the population from MYLOP to a more optimistic and forward-looking model where people begin to see the possibilities within their grasp. An electorate that is moving along such a positive gradient is more likely to vote to continue along this path of incremental improvement without settling for "dont rock the old boat" and "here and now" populist freebies provided by the scamster.  So the statesman can win (e.g. State of Gujarat), but it takes a lot of heavy lifting to be done upfront.

The two seemingly contradictory outcomes from the two state elections that were announced yesterday (Gujarat and Himachal Pradesh), as well as many other Indian elections in the recent past can be plausibly explained using these simple models.

Update 1: 01/21/2013
Interesting quote from 'Steve Jobs' top 5 mistakes" that directly relates to the above idea of hiding scams using bigger scams:
"... The lesson that I take from these defunct products is that people will soon forget that you were wrong on a lot of smaller bets, so long as you nail big bets in a major way (in Jobs's case, the iPod, iPhone, iPad, etc) .."