Irreversible Decisions

A friend of mine with whom I had dinner last night at a restaurant in Colaba has an interesting job. As he puts it, he gets women pregnant and is paid handsomely for doing it. He is a doctor and runs an in vitro fertilization clinic. There are more than one way of making babies (18 ways, according to his website Malpani Infertility Clinic) and he knows them all.

He has been following this debate. Is it an irreversible decision, I asked? I was refering to Prashant Mullick’s objection which he raised in a comment to the entry The Market for Reproductive Rights.

Prashant told a story in which a poor slum dweller sells his half-child quota and later becomes rich and prosperous and regrets that he does not have a child and cannot have one. Thus, Prashant concluded that the buying and selling of reproductive rights cannot be a market since it differs from other markets where if you regret something, you can always reverse the decision.

Dr Malpani, of the 18 ways to make a baby fame, put paid to that misconception (pun intended.) When a guy gets surgically sterilized so that he can no longer produce babies, the procedure is not irreversible. So Prashant’s slum dweller who becomes rich can go back to the same market and buy many permits and father a whole host of children. Only this time around, he will not be fathering slum dwellers.

Prashant helps illustrate an interesting feature of the market for reproductive rights by his little story. Markets are where trades take place. We normally trade with other people at a specific time in a market, where one party is the buyer and the other party is the seller. But you could imagine a market where the same person is a buyer and a seller of the same thing but at different times (or intertemporal trade). That is, the trade is not between two people but just one person. The slum dweller is the seller of his reproductive right at a time when the money he receives from the sale is extremely valuable to him.

Imagine that he gets Rs 20,000 in cash, an amount that enables him to start his little business and which finally makes him rich in a few years. After becoming rich, now he goes back to the market and buys a permit an amount which he can afford and therefore in effect he traded with himself: his past self sold the permit to his future self. Absent this ability, the slum dweller would not have the Rs 20,000 to start his business, and instead would have an unlimited right to produce as many little slum dwellers as he wishes and these little slum dwellers would in turn produce many many more little slum dwellers in a few years. (In Mumbai you have had that process going on for a few generations and today we have an estimated 8 million–8,000,000–slum dwellers. Give another 25 years, and Mumbai will have 25 million people of which 12 million are expected to live in slums.)

Markets enable trade. Any trade undertaken voluntarily is welfare improving, both for the buyer as well as the seller. Both parties have to see value in the exchange, for otherwise the trade would not take place. The seller has to value the money received higher than the value of the good sold, and vice versa for the buyer. So the slum dweller has to value his reproductive right higher than the money he makes in selling his right. So as a seller he gains. Later, if it ever happens that he values having the right to have a child higher than the market value of a permit to have a child, as a buyer he again gains. Aggregate these sorts of gains over a large population, and the welfare gains are immense.

Selling one’s reproductive right is a reversible decision. Having millions of children without having the resources to feed, clothe, nurture, and educate them is irreversible. At the moment in India’s history, we don’t have the resources, the smarts, the political will, the fundamental ability to care for the millions that are being added every year to the population. We are taking irreversible decisions, one decision at a time. A no-regrets policy is what we need.

Douglas Adams, the author of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, wrote a wonderful book called Last Chance to See. It is part travelogue, part humor, and deadly serious. It was about the disappearing flora and fauna of the planet. In the end of the book, he recounts a Sybilline tale. I found it so compelling that I copied the story down and if you care, here is Sifting Through the Embers.

It is a cautionary tale. There are problems which I call “the escalating variety”. First, it appears to be no problem at all. Therefore it is considered a pointless waste to consider paying even a modest amount to solve it. In the next stage, the problem becomes more manifest but now the cost of the solution has also mounted. So people say, yes, there is a problem but we can’t afford the solution now; perhaps later when we are wealthier, we will solve that problem. But time goes by and the problem continues to become more acute and the price of solving gets higher and higher. In the end, one pays an enormous amount to solve a problem which one could have solved with very little effort at an earlier stage. I have just explained in many words the wisdom contained in the saying a stitch in time, saves nine.

Please do read the story and when you do, pay special attention to what the old woman says at the end.

Categories: Population

5 replies

  1. It’s uncanny that you mention the Douglas Adams story in this post. I just finished reading it on your link two days ago and forwarded it to a few friends too!!! 🙂 One of them came back pointing to a grammar mistake in it and was doubtful whether it really was a Douglas Adams story.

    Would I be wrong to assume that it is a paraphrasing of the story? Or is it the original text?

    Now coming back to the reproductive rights tale. It was my understanding from the initial proposal that the sterilization would be one that would be irreversible.

    If it isn’t irreversible, then what is the point of having it at all? Why not just have credits and allow people to have bear children based on the number of credits they own? The sterilization doesn’t enforce anything in this proposal if it can be reversed.


  2. The story “Sifting throught the embers” appears at the last chapter of Douglas Adams’ book “Last Chance to See” and as he says there, it is an ancient story that he had read when he was really young and only understood the meaning of the story after his journey to see some species on the verge of extinction. So, no, I did not paraphrase anything and I am not clever enough to have come up with the story.


  3. Its a wonderful story!

    Alongwith the “Man Who Planted Trees” it was really an enjoying time I had! 🙂

    For some reason I thought the first paragraph was written by you as an
    introduction to the story and that you had understood the story after
    going on this long voyage somewhere…


  4. Enjoyed the story “Sifting Through the Embers” – Douglas Adams. On a different note, can a population like the one India has be its asset?


  5. My guess is that we all seem to be on the same page in terms of economic growth, literacy, female empowerment etc as being the real catalysts for population control and general well being. If I am right, the real question is how do we move from a low-level equilibrium to a high level equilibrium in all areas.

    At the risk of being branded a pessimist, I’ll say that there is no short cut or magic bullet. Sustained growth is the only option. In terms of specifics, microfinance aimed at the bottom 20% of the population is a good place to concentrate. Independent banks are better off at this than government ones. Where the government has to concentrate on is education and health care. Food security is not an issue today in terms of production. So the rigor mortis in the PDS has to be addressed.

    In my opinion, the credit system that Atanu proposed earlier is not workable. For any such system to work, enforcement is key, and for enforcement to work in such a fundamental human activity, that is not possible without a dictatorial regime in place. Further, you cannot do that in only one aspect. Regulation in something as basic as reproduction will lead to regulation in other aspects of life, some of which we don’t want. In fact there is too much regulation in India, which is what we bitch about anyway. Unless you are willing to transform a multi-cultural, diverse, democratic society into a one-party dictatorship like China, social engineering will not work. It has not worked in history otherwise. Notwithstanding other carrots, fear was the main catalyst in this working in China. Stong-arm coercion worked there, will it work in India? Sanjay Gandhi tried it in the 70s, where is he now? I don’t know about historical comparison, but the last 50 years have caused considerable cultural differences between Indians and Chinese that is not acknowledged in a lot of social and political literature. People can protest in India, they can’t in China.

    In addition, there is the issue of skewing the population distribution in favor of older people and males by controlling reproduction. It remains to be seen how this will affect society, but China is going to face it. Now from a global perspective, it is argued that 20th century nation-states, passport controls and citizenship rights have restricted immigration that actually skews population problems more than they will in a freer environment. While I don’t know what can be done about it now, it is a real issue, as real as just population growth in India.

    While I don’t disagree that population is a real issue, I prefer to concentrate on things which are practical and positive and have a reasanable chance of acceptance and success. Things like RISC, microfinance etc give hope and optimism while ideas like population credits and controls are restrictive, pessimistic, and scary. It is a path of high resistance and will not get traction when alternatives exist.


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