Clubs and other Collectives (and the Welsh Incident)

I’d like to explore a few important concepts like government, constitutions, democracy, etc. They are embedded in the fabric of Indian society. Taking a clear-eyed view of their genesis, nature, function, modes of failure, and implementation can be intellectually rewarding but more importantly it can help in creating the good society. I’ll start with something seemingly unrelated — clubs.[1]

Consider an average workplace lunch club. We will call it the “Wednesday Lunch Club.” A bunch of coworkers[2] — five in our club — go out to lunch every Wednesday. Where? The restaurant is decided by a simple majority rule vote. If three out of the five members agree on Chinese food, then a Chinese restaurant it is that Wednesday. The two that wanted Indian food have to go along with the group decision. It’s not that they hate Chinese food but on that particular day they preferred Indian food. So they incurred a loss in terms of not being as satisfied with lunch as they would have been if the WLC had gone for Indian food.


That’s a simple story. But if one examines it carefully, in detail and in very small steps, it can be instructive. It’s a very small elephant but it’s still significant. Slowly walking around the small elephant, examining its features carefully, making sure we are on firm ground each step of the process, and integrating different bits of what we learn gives us an understanding of the big elephants we encounter in real life. The small elephant is a model.

Economists, as the witticism goes, do it with models. Models are stripped down little stories, necessarily unrealistic, that select some salient features from the real world so that we can understand the relationships between those features, and which understanding can then be applied to explain the more complicated real world that we are really interested in.

One of the basic lessons learned in the study of economics is methodology. Aside from the content of the subject, you learn how to approach a subject that demands logical analysis. You start with a set of axioms that define the variables under considerations, and a set of operations that are considered valid for manipulating those variables. These constitute the assumptions that define the system under consideration. Then you proceed to work out the logical implications of the workings of the system thus defined.

Think of it like a story. Just like in a story you have some background, a few characters, and their nature. The story that you tell has to be “true” to the nature of the characters and the background for it to be believable. The story could be entirely fictional but if it is internally consistent, then it makes sense. Furthermore, if the story’s assumptions are realistic — have counterparts in the real world — then the story teaches us something about the real world.

The subject matter, the domain, of economics is human behavior. That is distinct from the methodology. The methodology of economics is the careful definition of axioms (assumptions about human behavior such as rationality) and terms (such as utility, preferences, etc), and the institutional setting (these define the constraints within which action takes place), and the consistent application of logic in every step of the way to the final conclusion. The ability to reason is the most important skill required for this. Learning how to reason competently can be perfected to the degree that one’s natural abilities allow but it depends on the desire to do so and requires effort. It’s the same as in any other human activity, physical or mental.

Now that I am done with that digression, let’s get back to our model, the Wednesday Lunch Club.

Lunch Club

What’s the point of the lunch club? Why don’t they each get lunch on their own? Who decided that they will use the majority vote rule? Who gets to be a member? What are the obligations of a club member?

I was coming to that.[3]

 ——  Notes  ——

[1] The picture at heading of this piece is from the Faculty Club at the University of California, Berkeley. I used to go there with my faculty advisers.

[2] Back in the usenet days, it was an in-joke to write the word “coworkers” as “cow-orkers”.

[3] Here’s why I wrote, “I was coming to that”. One of my all-time favorite poems is “The Welsh Incident” by Robert Graves (1895 – 1985), the English poet, classicist, historian. I love the poem well enough that I know it by heart. I bet you big bucks that you’d love Richard Burton’s reading of the poem. What makes his reading so endearing is that he was Welsh and his accent is delicious. Both the voices in the reading are Burton’s. Below the video, I have the included the poem for you to follow along. Here it is:

The Welsh Incident

‘But that was nothing to what things came out
From the sea-caves of Criccieth yonder.’

What were they? Mermaids? Dragons? Ghosts?’

‘Nothing at all of any things like that.’

‘What were they, then?’

‘All sorts of queer things,
Things never seen or heard or written about,
Very strange, un-Welsh, utterly peculiar
Things. Oh, solid enough they seemed to touch,
Had anyone dared it. Marvellous creation,
All various shapes and sizes, and no sizes,
All new, each perfectly unlike his neighbour,
Though all came moving slowly out together.’

‘Describe just one of them.’

‘I am unable.’

What were their colours?’

‘Mostly nameless colours,
Colours you’d like to see; but one was puce
Or perhaps more like crimson, but not purplish.
Some had no colour.’

‘Tell me, had they legs?’

‘Not a leg nor a foot amongst them that I saw.’

‘But did these things come out in any order?’
What o’clock was it? What was the day of the week?
Who else was present? How was the weather?’

‘I was coming to that. It was half-past three
On Easter Tuesday last. The sun was shining.
The Harlech Silver Band played Marchog Jesu
On thirty-seven shimmering instruments
Collecting for Caernarvon’s (Fever) Hospital Fund.
The populations of Pwllheli, Criccieth,
Portmadoc, Borth, Tremadoc, Penrhyndeudraeth,
Were all assembled. Criccieth’s mayor addressed them
First in good Welsh and then in fluent English,
Twisting his fingers in his chain of office,
Welcoming the things. They came out on the sand,
Not keeping time to the band, moving seaward
Silently at a snail’s pace. But at last
The most odd, indescribable thing of all
Which hardly one man there could see for wonder
Did something recognizably a something.’

‘Well, what?’

‘It made a noise.’

‘A frightening noise?’

‘No, no.’

‘A musical noise? A noise of scuffling?’

‘No, but a very loud, respectable noise —
Like groaning to oneself on Sunday morning
In Chapel, close before the second psalm.’

‘What did the mayor do?’

‘I was coming to that.’

Author: Atanu Dey


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