New Media:Old Media, Parasite:Host? A Discussion Between Bruce Bartlett & Subroto Roy (Updated Sep 27)

From Facebook:

Bruce Bartlett: This is the best picture of the diminution of the formerly major media that I have seen.

Subroto Roy: The long run problem though is how does new media actually become profitable enough to supplant the old, not just supplement it as it does now.

BB: I think it’s a given that that will happen eventually. The problem is how to maintain quality control and accountability in the new media when editorial oversight has effectively disappeared.

SR: Editorial oversight is substituted for by mutual peer review and reputation protection (as well as a return perhaps to a pre-codification state of customary law). But still, small subscription or user charges for many millions of users may be the only long run way to sustain it, not old media advertising.

BB: I have doubts about peer review being a viable replacement for editorial control. It’s too easy to delete comments, links get broken, search engines only scan the surface etc. The virtue of traditional media is that they have systems in place that ensure a degree of responsibility at least in the hard news coverage. That simply diesn’t exist in the new media and probably won’t be created because such systems are costly and time-consuming.

SR: In that case new and old will coexist, with new continually lifting material for free from the old without recompense. (Arianna H. had a nice comparison/contrast some months ago.) The equilibrium outcome may be one of vertically integrated companies…. Come to think of it, where is Rupert Murdoch in the new media world?

BB: I am sympathetic to the idea of modifying the antitrust laws to allow newspapers to collude to create some sort of payment system that all papers could participate in. Congress created such an exemption for baseball and I think newspapers are at least as important.

SR: Well vertical would involve the Murdochs of the world buying up the Googles and the Facebooks (or perhaps being bought up by them instead).

BB: Murdoch tried that by buying MySpace, which hasn’t worked out so well.

SR: Vertical integration is not easy managerially but it may provide the only business model in the long run for new media to coexist parasitically with old media — old media does the basic research and earns the revenue, new media spreads the technology and earns the goodwill while living off the old.

BB: I don’t agree. I think some sort of horizonal integration among news providers may be viable. The new media are essentially parasitic, living off the reportage and infrastructure created by the old media. We all know that the old media need to charge for content. But they can’t without creating some sort of arrangement that would basically involve price fixing. This is where modification of the antitrust laws would help. The alternative, I fear, is government subsidies of some kind to preserve the basic news gathering function.

SR: Well there is agreement then that the parasite metaphor may be useful. Old media is the host where new media is the parasite. Good parasites tend to be in a symbiotic relationship with their host, feeding off it but also doing good to it. It would be a foolish parasite that kills off its host altogether. In case of media, someone (Publisher) pays someone else (Reporter) to witness/record Event A. That is Stage One. Then Publisher pays someone else again (Editor) to evaluate whether the report about A deserves or not to be published via the airwaves (radio, TV), cables (Internet) or dead trees (newsprint). That is Stage Two. Our new media parasite can do Stage Two well but relies on old media entirely for Stage One, and without Stage One there is no Stage Two. Vertical integration here would merely mean the host-parasite relationship becomes contractually acknowledged. I do think the dead-tree aspect will become reduced even further but radio and TV will survive.

BB: The biggest problem with my idea is the problem of leakage. One blogger like Drudge can subscribe to all the hard news web sites and just recycle their reportage for free. I don’t know what to do about that and it argues for your idea of vertical integration. But you have the same problem in that there is no way of controlling new entrants. It may be that the problem cannot be solved and we will have to muddle through somehow. In a column a while back I suggested that reporting will never pay for itself and will have to be subsidized through foundations, universities and the like.

SR: A point of yours on which I agree is this: consumers of the Internet are gaining a free good, namely the outcome of the parasitic process we discussed, and hence there is a prima facie argument for them to be taxed (by a license fee for example) and, say, newsprint or journalism schools subsidised with the earmarked proceeds.

BB: Insofar as news gathering is a public good there is a case for some sort of tax to subsize it. The problem is that I don’t see any practical way of taxing Internet access, which would be the logical tax base. Second, I don’t see any practical way of subsiding news gathering without the danger of government control. There are also first amendment problems. Perhaps there is some way that the major search engines like Google could finance a C-SPAN-type basic news gathering service.

SR: We simply do what the BBC did when it started 70+ years ago, namely, license fees for radio and then TV. So each Internet connection gets taxed or pays a one-time or annual license fee. It is the logical tax base for sure. Re. subsiding news gathering, that is why I said subsidise newsprint (expensive raw material common to all newspapers), and perhaps subsidise young journalists in training (left, right or centre). That’s about it. Yes the C-Span model is good too but will depend on largesse of very rich people.

BB: Per our discussion.

SR: Cool.

(That is where the conversation stands as of about Sep 27 2009. Feel free to join in or model better.)


Nandan Nilekani’s Nonsensical Numbering (Updated to 11 January 2013)

Original post: 14 Sep 2009

I have been a rather harsh critic of Indian English-language media but I was pleased to see Mr Karan Thapar with good research systematically expose the other day the nonsense being purveyed by Mr Nandan Nilekani about the idea of branding each of a billion Indians with a government number. This is not Auschwitz.   Nor can India create an American-style Social Security Administration.  Mr Nilekani seems not to have the faintest idea about India’s poor and destitute, else he would not have made a statement like “We need one single, non-duplicate way of identifying a person and we need a mechanism by which we can authenticate that online anywhere because that can have huge benefits and impact on public services and also on making the poor more inclusive in what is happening in India today.”  (italics added)

What does he plan to do?  Haul away the hundreds of thousands of  homeless from the streets  and  flyovers of our major cities and start interrogating, measuring, photographing and fingerprinting them against their will?  On what ploy?  That without the number  he will give them they will not be able to continue to live and do what they have been doing for half a generation?  Or that they will get a delicious hot meal from the Taj or Oberoi if they cooperate?  And what about rural India?  Does he plan to make an aerial survey of India’s rural landscapes by helicopter to find whom he can catch to interrogate and fingerprint? It will be grotesquely amusing to see his cohorts try to identify and then haul away India’s poor from their normal activities — he and his friends will likely come to grief trying to do so!  Guaranteed.  And the people will cheer because they know fakery when they see it.

Mr Nilekani needs to ask his economist-friends to teach him about asymmetric information, incentive-compatiblity theory etc.  There have been several  Bank of Sweden prizes given to economists for this material, beginning with FA Hayek in 1974 or even earlier.

(As for the wholly different stated agenda of preventing crime and terrorism using Mr Nilekani’s numbering, might we recall that Kasab’s dead companions have remained unclaimed in a Mumbai morgue for almost ten months now?)

The whole exercise that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has with such fanfare set Mr Nilekani is ill-conceived and close to complete nonsense  — designed only to keep in business the pampered industry that Mr Nilekani has been part of as well as its bureaucratic friends.   The Prime Minister has made another error and should put a stop to it before it gets worse.   The poor have their privacy and their dignity.    They are going to refuse to waste their valuable time  at the margins of survival volunteering for such gimmickry.

A Discussion Regarding Mr Nilekani’s Public Project

September 15, 2009 — drsubrotoroy | Edit

In response to my “Nandan Nilekani’s Nonsensical Numbering”,

Friendly Critic says:

I don’t think registering everyone in the country is such a bad idea. It may be difficult. But the post office reaches letters to anyone in the country, even the homeless. I don’t think it is doing anything wrong.

I replied:

The post office reaches letters to those with an address.

Friendly Critic replied:

You are mistaken. It reaches letters to beggars, addressed to the nearest pan shop. To repeat, I do not think it is wrong to register all residents; there are some good uses for it. If it is all right to enumerate residents once every ten years, there is nothing wrong in maintaining a continuous inventory. Only the British have an aversion to doing so, on grounds of piracy. But even their electoral registers are based on enumeration. And to attack Nilekani simply because he has taken on a job offered seems excessive to me.

I replied:

Thanks for this correspondence.  We may be slightly at cross-purposes and there may be some miscomprehension.  Of course if a beggar has a pan-shop as an address, that is an address.   But we are not talking about the efficiency or lack thereof of our postal services.

We are talking about the viability and utility of trying to attach a number, as an identification tag, to every Indian — for the declared purposes of (a) battling absolute poverty (of the worst kind); and(b) battling terrorism and crime.

Many Indians have passports, driving licenses, Voter cards,  PAN numbers, mobile numbers etc.    I am sure giving them a Nandan Nilekani Number will be easy.  It will be, incidentally, lucrative for the IT industry.

It will also be pointless to the extent that these people, who may number into the hundreds of millions, are already adequately identifiable by one or two other forms of photo id-cards.   (By way of analogy incidentally, Americans used to cash cheques at supermarkets using one or two photo ids — but the Social Security Card or number was not allowed to be one of them as it had no photo.)

Neither of the two declared objectives will have been explicitly served by giving Nandan Nilekani Numbers to those already adequately identifiable.

My point about incentive-compatibility is that the intended beneficiaries in any program of this kind (namely the anonymous absolute poor) need to have clear natural incentives to participate in order to make it work.  Here there are none.  Taking the very poorest people off the streets or out of their hamlets to be interrogated, photographed, fingerprinted and enumerated against their will, when they may have many more valuable things to be doing with their time in order to survive, is a violation of their freedom, privacy and dignity.   Even if they submit to all this voluntarily, there are no obvious tangible benefits accruing to them as individuals as a result of this number (that many will not be able to read).

If those already adequately identifiable easily get an NNN (at low cost and without violation of indvidual freedom or dignity), while those who are the intended beneficiaries do not do so (except at high cost and with violations of individual freedom and dignity), that would enhance inequality.

Because such obvious points have failed to be accounted ab initio in this Big Business scheme paid for by public money, I have had to call it nonsensical.

Some follow-up  11 January 2013

From Facebook 11 January 2013

A biometrically generated large number is given to a very poor barely literate person and he/she is instructed that that is the key, the *sole* key, to riches and benefits from the state. The person lives on the margins of survival, eking out a daily income for himself/herself plus dependents under trying conditions. It is that absolute anonymous poor — who are *not* already identifiable easily through mobile numbers, voter id cards, drivers’ licenses etc — who are the intended beneficiaries. Suppose that person loses the card or has it stolen. Has the key to the riches and benefits from the state vanished? Those who are already easily identifiable need only produce alternative sources of identification and so for them to get the number as a means of identification is redundant, yet it is they who will likely have better access to the supposed benefits rather than the absolute poor. What New Delhi’s governing class fails to see is that the masses of India’s poor are not themselves a mass waiting for New Delhi’s handouts: they are *individuals*, free, rational, thinking individuals who know their own lives and resources and capacities and opportunities, and how to go about living their lives best. What they need is security, absence of state or other tyranny, roads, fresh water, electricity, functioning schools for their children, market opportunities for work, etc, not handouts from a monarch or aristocrats or businessmen….

Satyam and IT-firms in general may be good candidates to become “Labour-Managed” firms

Satyam may be able to summarily solve the problems caused by its high-level corporate fraud by transforming itself into a “Labour-Managed Firm”.

One of the new Government-appointed board members has stated publicly today that the company has little or no debt.  If this is true it would be interesting because not only were the vast cash-assets non-existent, the liabilities-side of the balance-sheet also may be small, which could mean the company was simply far smaller in terms of value than it had made itself out to be.  In a bankrupt firm, the remaining assets normally come to belong to the creditors but what if the main creditors happen to be the work-force?  If that is in fact the situation in this case, Satyam may be a prime candidate to be transformed into a “Labour-Managed Firm” of the sort discussed by Jaroslav Vanek (The General Theory of Labour Managed Firms and Market Economies, 1970) and James Meade (The theory of the labour-managed firm and profit-sharing, Economic Journal 1972), and surveyed by e.g. Louis Putterman in the New Palgrave Dictionary and by Martin Ricketts in The Economics of Business Enterprise 2003.

As I had briefly mentioned earlier here, the transition could be made by Satyam’s existing  technical and other staff being allowed to participate (with their personal savings and claims to future income) in any auction of the “works-in-progress” that constitute the client contracts the company presently has around the world and which constitute its major intangible asset.   This may be the single best way to preserve the firm’s value as well as the income-streams of its staff.

The staff would have to make a transition from being employees to becoming self-managers which may not be easy in practice, although in theory the information-technology industry may be well-suited to labour-managed firms given the peculiarly intangible nature of their products.  The marginal cost of production of (true) information is typically very high but the marginal cost of dissemination of information  is near- zero.

If this happened and a corrupt bankrupt Satyam-I transformed itself into a viable Labour-Managed Satyam-II, the newly appointed board would become redundant even more quickly than it would have done otherwise — though this board may be even less likely to know of Vanek and Meade than to be familiar with modern corporate finance.  Time perhaps to hit the textbooks, gentlemen, and burn that midnight candle!  Is that something we can expect from some of the key lobbyists of India’s organized business sector?

Subroto Roy, Kolkata

Postscript  1 :  Of course if the asset-side has been fraudulently exaggerated while the liabilities-side has been small, the fraud has been directly perpetrated on equity-holders who held stock that was overvalued  by the market as a direct result of the fraud.

Postscript 2:  I find (grotesquely) amusing the new found emphasis on “Independent Directors” in view of the obvious fraud in the advertised biographies of some rather notorious Independent Directors in the IT-business and other sectors of corporate India and the higher bureaucracy!   There seems in fact to have been a wild hyperinflation of reputations generally, especially in Delhi,  Mumbai,  Bangalore, Pune and other such hip with-it places  — people claiming to have earned PhDs when they have none,  people calling themselves “Dr” on the basis of some defunct Soviet management institute  having once paid them off, people claiming to be Harvard postgraduates on the basis of  some outsourced executive development programme of a few weeks’ duration, people claiming academic publications and academic affiliations which are non-existent, etc etc.   All that for another day!  (But any former students of mine who may find the above pertinent to themselves may please know their old prof is cross with them! Tsk tsk!)  (And then there was the one of the senior government economic planner who told his astrologer on the  telephone his correct date  of birth but had lied to the Government of India by a couple of years…. clearly he did not want to get his own Ptolomaic horoscope wrong even if his plans for India in the Copernican world went awry!)

Corporate Governance & the Principal-Agent Problem (a brief lecture dated 31 May 2006)

Corporate Governance & the Principal-Agent Problem

Subroto Roy
for a conference on corporate governance, Kolkata,  31 May 2006

I am most grateful for this opportunity to speak at this distinguished gathering.  I have to say I have had just a day to collect my thoughts on the subject of our discussion, so I may be less precise than I would wish to be.  But I am delighted I  have  a mere 7 minutes to speak, and I will not plan to speak for a second more!

I would like to ask you to consider the following pairings:


You will recognize something in common to all of these pairings I am sure.  A patient goes to a doctor with a problem, like a swelling or a stomach ache or a fever, and expects the doctor to do his/her best to treat it successfully.  A client goes to a  lawyer with a problem, of a contract or a tort or a criminal charge, and expects the lawyer to represent him to the best of his ability.  A student attends a University or higher educational Institute, and expects the professors there to impart some necessary knowledge,  to explain some difficult or complex natural or social phenomena, to share some well-defined expertise, so the student too may aspire to becoming an expert.

In each case, there is a Principal – namely the patient, the client, the student, — and there is an Agent, namely, the doctor, the lawyer, the professor.  The Agent is not acting out of charity but is someone who receives payment from the Principal either directly through fees or indirectly through taxes.

The Agent is also someone who necessarily knows more than the Principal about the answer to the Principal’s problem.  I.e. there is an asymmetry in the information between the two sides.   The Agent has the relevant information or expertise —  the Principal needs this information or expertise and wishes to purchase it from him one way or another.

A company’s Board of Directors and the management that reports to it, may be similarly assumed to have far greater specific knowledge than the company’s shareholders (and other stakeholders) about the state of a company’s operations, its finances, its organisation, its position in various input and output markets, its potential for growth in the industry it is a part of, and so on.  Yet the shareholders are the Principal and the directors and managers are their Agents.

And indeed the Government of a country, i.e. its political leadership and the bureaucracy and military that are reporting to it, also have much more relevant decision-making information available to them than does the individual citizen as to the economic and political direction the country should be taking and why, and again the body of the ordinary citizenry of any country may have a reasonable expectation that politicians, bureaucrats and military generals are acting on their behalf.

In each of these cases, the Principal, having less information than the Agent, must necessarily trust that the Agent is going to be acting in good faith on the Principal’s behalf.  There is a corporate governance problem in each case simply because the Agent can abuse this derived power that he acquires over the Principal, and breach the contract he has entered into with the Principal.   Doctors or lawyers can practise improperly, professors can cheat their students of their money and teach them nothing or less than nothing, boards of directors and managers can cheat their shareholders and other “stakeholders” (including their workers who have expectations about the company) of value that should be rightfully theirs — and of course politicians, bureaucrats and military men are all too easily able to misuse the public purse in a way that the public will not even begin to know how to rectify.

In such situations, the only real checks against abuse can come from within the professions themselves.   It is only doctors who can control medical malpractice, and only a doctor can certify that another doctor has behaved badly.  It is only lawyers who can control legal malpractice, and testify that yes a client has been cheated of his money by some unscrupulous attorney.  It is only good professors and good teachers who can do what they can to stand out as contrasting examples against corrupt professors or incompetent teachers.

In case of managerial malpractice, it is only fellow-managers who may be able to comprehend the scam that a particular CEO has been part of, in stealing money from his shareholders.   And in case of political malpractice, similarly, it is only rival political parties and when even those fail, rival political institutions like the courts or the press and media, who can expose the shenanigans of a Government, and tell an electorate to throw the rascals out in the next election.

In other words, self-policing, and professional self-discipline are the only ultimate checks and balances that any society has.  The ancient Greeks asked the question “Who guards the guardians”,  and the answer has to be that the guardians themselves have to guard themselves.   We ultimately must police ourselves .  I think it was William Humboldt who said that a people get the government they deserve.

In India today, indeed in India in the last thirty or forty years, perhaps ever since 1966 after the passing away of Lal Bahadur Shastri, we may be facing a universal problem of the breach of good faith especially so perhaps in the Government and the organised corporate sector.   Such breaches occur in other countries too, but when an American court sends the top management of Enron to jail for many years or a Korean court sends the top management of Daewoo to jail for many years, we know that there are processes in these countries which are at least making a show of trying to rectify the breaches of good faith that may have occurred there.   That is regrettably not the situation in India.  And the main responsibility for that rests with our Government simply because our Government is by far the largest organised entity in the country and dwarfs everyone else.

As an economist, I have been personally intrigued to realise that Government corruption is closely caused by the complete absence of serious accounting and audit norms being followed in Government organisations and institutions.   Get control of as big a budget as you can, is the aim of every Government department, then spend as little of it as is absolutely necessary on the publicly declared social or national aim that the department is supposed to have, and instead spend as much as possible on the travel or personal lifestyles of those in charge, or better still transform as much as possible into the personal property of those in charge – for example, through kickbacks on equipment purchases or building contracts.  For example, it is not unknown for the head of some or other government institution to receive an apartment off-site from a builder who may have been chosen for a major construction project on site.  This kind of thing has unfortunately become the implicit goal of almost all departments of the Government of India as well as the Governments of our more than two dozen States.    I have no doubt it is a state of affairs ultimately being caused by the macroeconomic processes of continuous deficit-financing and unlimited printing of paper-money over decades.   For the first two decades or so after Independence, our institutions still had enough self-discipline, integrity, competence and optimism to correct for the natural human instincts of greed and domination.  The next four decades — roughly, as I have said, from the death of Shastriji — there has been increasing social and political rot.  I have to wonder if and when a monetary collapse will follow.