Some readers have been asking, “Atanu, when will you write more about SSRS?” As luck would have it, I got an email from someone who has actually met the man. He wrote me a very nice email saying that he has read all the SSRS posts patiently and then proceeded to inform me that he disagrees with me. That is not the least surprising as I am sure that an overwhelming majority of people won’t agree with me on anything of substance. That’s because my point of view is different from that of the majority, and the difference in the point of view is the result of differing life experiences. I merely state my opinion and note the differences and move on. Differences are good because otherwise it would be rather boring if we all had the absolutely same opinion.
Anyway, here’s my response to the gentleman, for the record.
Dear Mr N:
Thanks for writing. I believe that you have mis-read my pieces on SSRS. That is easy to do because many people — such as yourself — arrive at the posts with the preconceived idea that I am trashing SSRS. Let me restate my position even though it should not require restating as I have made these points again and again in my posts and in my responses to comments.
1. AoL is a personality driven cult. It makes many of its followers zombies who worship SSRS and have abdicated their reason. I have met SSRS followers in person and in cyberspace. Some of them — not all — are totally brainwashed and can only talk of SSRS as the Supreme Commander and Owner of the Universe. I am serious about this. And if you need some evidence, see some of the comments and emails that I have published from such people on my blog.
I am all for the promotion of good ideas — and Indian philosophy and religions have an incredible store of that sort of thing. But when the personality becomes the focus, the ideas take a back seat. This is a pity because the ideas are important, whereas the person is merely the instrument. Of course AoL is not the only organization which promotes a person over ideas, and SSRS is not the only demi-god in the world. We can name quite a large number of them — J Krishnamurty, Sai Baba, Satya Sai Baba, Mahatma Gandhi, Nehru, and so on.
2. AoL is a commercial operation. Nothing wrong with that as I am an economist and fully endorse all commercial activities that contribute to society and make a profit. But to attribute superior motives to it is flawed, in my opinion. Coca Cola company and AoL are in this way doing exactly the same thing: supplying to what people want. There is a difference though: the CC company makes a product and sells it to make a profit. AoL takes donations (and course fees) and part of its income it devotes to social work. In purely economic terms, it is a transfer of resources, not the creation of wealth.
Suppose BigCorporation makes and sells cars and then of the $1 billion profits, contributes $100 million to build schools for the blind. That it makes a profit means that its cost of making the cars is lower than the revenues. And the revenues is a measure of how much value people who buy those cars put on the work of the BigCorporation. The BigCorporation therefore actually creates the wealth and then spends part of that to build schools.
Now AoL takes donations from people and aggregates it and does social work. It does not create the wealth — it only transfers it from a large number of people (who have presumably worked in creating that wealth) to itself and then claims that it has done social work itself. I am not saying that the intermediation that AoL does in taking the money from its followers and aggregating it is worthless. That is valuable. But it cannot be claimed that they created the wealth that they used. They merely took it by persuading people that they are good people.
I think that SSRS can claim that he built those schools only if the funding came out of his pocket. And if indeed it was his own personal wealth that went into the social work, then I don’t see why anyone can fault the position that he runs a commercial organization whose owner he is.
From my point of view, SSRS and Ratan Tata are both useful people. And so are most of us — useful. The scale differs but not the basic idea. We work, we create some wealth, we get paid, we consume some of that income, we give some of that income to charity, etc. Sure I don’t give the same amount to charity as say Ratan Tata gives. But qualitatively there is no difference, even though the quantitative difference is huge.
I note the dismissive tone you took to “logic” and other such things. Perhaps logic is not very useful in your scheme of things. Many people do derisively dismiss logic while quietly enjoying the luxuries that a hardheaded use of logic by others has created. Faith, they say, is more important than logic. OK, so tell me which of the things that you find useful was developed and created by faith? Let me put that in a different way: imagine a poor person who has little food, no shelter, and is materially impoverished. He is given two bundles of goods to choose from. One bundle consists of goods that are the end product of logic and hard work. The other bundle is of goods that are the result of faith. Which one is he likely to choose?
Only the rich can afford the luxury of claiming all sorts of benefits of having faith. The rest of us have to somehow manage to get some stuff so that we can continue to keep body and soul together in this material world. Once that is achieved, I am sure that I will be happy to talk about faith — with a full stomach.