Amol Agrawal on Autonomy and Institutions

The Supreme Court (SC) recently passed an order related to the appointment of the Chief Election Commissioner (CEC). Until now, the CEC was appointed by the president, based on the recommendation of council of ministers headed by the prime minister. The apex court has said the panel should include the leader of opposition and the chief justice of India as well.
At a broader level, the order has once again led to revisiting the old discussion on autonomy of public institutions in India. The public institutions, whether it is the Election Commission of India or any other, have been created to provide various public goods and services to the citizens. It is important that the institutions have autonomy to serve the desired goals; else, they will be captured by the State, defeating the purpose of creating these institutions.

https://www.financialexpress.com/opinion/true-autonomy-for-indias-institutions/3015117/

As per usual, please read the whole thing!


Is eating three gulab jamuns after lunch today a good idea?

Me today: hell yeah! Maybe a fourth?

Me thirty years down the line: How about skipping the gulab jamuns and having some salad instead, you greedy, focussed-only-on-the-present so-and-so!

Both answers aren’t wrong, per se. If I’m looking to make myself happy today, with not a thought to be given to seventy year old Ashish (assuming I make it to seventy of course), then yes, three gulab jamuns is a most excellent idea, and I would even be willing to listen to arguments for wolfing down a fourth one. In fact, the more gulab jamuns I have today, the less I need to think about seventy year old Ashish, because I’m more or less guaranteeing that he won’t be around!

Similarly, when evaluating policy, ask three questions:

  1. Is this the best way to do it, given what you are optimizing for?
  2. Is your answer the same regardless of what time horizon you have in mind?
  3. If no, are you optimizing for the short run rather than the long run? If yes, why?

In this specific case, for example, let’s assume that you agree with what the Supreme Court has done. Let’s say that you have agreed with it because you think this is best for India (however you define best). Does your answer change if Modi is not in charge? Does your answer change if the BJP is not in charge?

Similarly, let’s assume that you disagree with what the Supreme Court has done. Let’s say that you have disagreed with it because you think this is best for India (however you define best). Does your answer change if Modi is not in charge? Does your answer change if the BJP is not in charge?

If your answer changes in either case, you are optimizing for present circumstances, not for the long run. That is, you think this solution is good (or not good) given the situation we have in front of us.

But that would be the wrong way to think about it. Why?

  1. Because one shouldn’t keep changing rules given circumstances. That’s the whole point of rules – that they stay the same regardless of situations.
  2. Because institutions that see an erosion of trust very quickly lose their credibility, and as a consequence, much of their effectiveness
  3. Because it is a ridiculously dangerous precedent to set – optimizing for present circumstances.

If you are a BJP supporter, resist the temptation to first think “Oh, this will make it more difficult to appoint a CEC who will be more sympathetic to the BJP today. That’s bad, and therefore this is bad.”

If you are a BJP opponent, resist the temptation to first think “Oh, this will make it more difficult to appoint a CEC who will be more sympathetic to the BJP today. That’s good, and therefore this is good.”

Your first thought should be “Regardless of who is in power, today or tomorrow, is this a good system in and of itself?” If the answer to that question makes sense, sure, go ahead and ask one of the two questions above, and move further with your analysis. But if your analysis indicates that your ideal first thought’s conclusion is different from your short term considerations, go with your first thought’s conclusion.

Why?

Because in the long run, gulab jamuns are bad for you.

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