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The Underappreciated — July 28, 2020

The Underappreciated

COVID 19 is changing the dynamics of many industries around the country, causing some to shrink and even close while making a few prosper. While many of the workers are only cyclically unemployed and should be rehired soon as the new normal emerges, there are some without such hopeful prospects; moreover, these workers were already in dire states before the pandemic: domestic workers. 

Maids and other domestic workers are rather common–or were–in much of the upper-class areas of Pakistan. Many of them managed to eke out a living through their precarious jobs—until now. Thanks to COVID 19, many Pakistani households are now reluctant to let maids into their houses, lest they may be carriers of the virus and potentially spread it around the house. The worry is undoubtedly well-founded but disastrous for the maids, cooks, cleaners, et alia. These workers already had miserable jobs: meager pay, strenuous long hours, unhygienic work, and no socio-economic protection. There have also been widespread reports on domestic workers abuse: Outrage in Pakistan over abuse of child domestic workers | Saba Karim Khan. Now, the domestic workers will lose their jobs, or at least see their working hours, and maybe even hourly wages (for their bargaining power has now fallen) plunge. 

The implications of this shakeup are grand, especially considering the sheer number of domestic workers in Pakistan: 8.5 million, in 2015, according to the International Labour Organization (ILO) Giving rights to millions of domestic workers in Pakistan. Domestic work is the biggest industry in the informal sector, providing a lifeline for many families. Most of these workers are children and women, who already face dire prospects in other industries. Once they lose their jobs, they are ultimately left with no income, no food, and no hope, because 99% of them don’t have any workers’ union vouching for them. And in such dire states, the only option they’re left with now is to beg on the streets—a rather dehumanizing outcome. 

Not only is this disastrous for the domestic workers, but it’s also bad for the economy. We’re talking about 8.5 million workers here (potentially even more), at least half of whom would lose their means of income and see drastic fall in their consumption. This will drag the economy down, further reducing aggregate demand and GDP. The unemployment rate will rise. Though these workers’ effort, wages, and jobs may not be documented in official figures, when they purchase fewer goods themselves, they will reduce demand for other goods and hence also the demand for workers in other industries, causing rippling effects throughout the economy.   

Moreover, as many households end up without the help of domestic workers, they will have to change their lifestyles; they may find less time for their own jobs and work—their productivity falls and they contribute less towards the economy. Adam Smith’s fundamental idea of division of labor is how economies grow and everyone benefits. You do what you do best, and I do what I do best. 

This can not only be a grave humanitarian crisis, but also an economic one. That is unless we do something.

Online websites are emerging where domestic workers can register and offer their services Mauqa Online: Verified Maids, Cooks, Cleaners & Babysitters. These websites can reassure households these workers are healthy and showing no symptoms of COVID 19.  Admittedly, few domestic workers can, and even fewer would register with the online services. Most are not aware of such services; therefore, making them aware of the online world, and then helping them register, should be of utmost priority. Of course, the most optimal solution would be testing: test the workers for COVID 19 frequently. But then this is rather unrealistic considering the limited supply of tests we have. 

Next, once domestic workers lose their jobs, we, as a nation, should ensure they’re reasonably well provided for. We should provide more to charities and NGOs. Moreover, and even better, if we are in touch with these workers, we can directly provide them with food and money. Many Pakistani households are struggling themselves, but the onus is on us—especially the more affluent households and the former employers—to provide for these workers. Besides, if we all donate even a little amount, that can amass to quite a sum. 

Domestic workers find pride in what they do; begging on the streets is a dehumanizing prospect for these hardworking individuals. They deserve our attention and resources, particularly in these dire times. As a nation, we haven’t done much to raise their pays and provide a better standard of living for them; now, the least we can do is ensure they can keep those meager pays. 

Rain: A test of state capacity — July 21, 2020

Rain: A test of state capacity

Pakistan, with an average of 240mm rainfall per annum, is one of the aridest countries in the world. We have constant water shortages. But they are trifling compared to the shortages we will face in a couple of decades as climate change worsens and our population keeps burgeoning. Given that, Pakistanis must love rain, right? No, we despise rain (except the lower class and folks on the street, for they are accustomed to the messy and decrypt conditions rain brings.) 

Rain, at least in Karachi, is a harbinger of good weather, but hard times. Very hard times. Businesses, in particular, abhor rain and the monsoon season. As soon as one single drop falls from the sky, our world goes dark. Power outages, wire trips; entire systems crumble. Businesses and households remain drowned in darkness for days, hell even weeks sometimes. And this invariably happens. You can bet on it. 

Without electricity, many shops can’t function. Many have no choice but to close. But the damage is not merely on the supply side, but also on the demand side. Folks are reluctant to leave their homes and purchase anything unless it is a necessity. And why wouldn’t they be? Why would they risk marring their vehicles (especially if it happens to be a posh car) by driving on roads inundated with 3 feet high water and mud, which can’t be drained because the sewage system is an unmitigated disaster? Why would they want to go out if there is a considerable risk some electricity grid malfunctions and ends up zapping them, potentially lethally? Indeed, it is a surprise anyone still bothers. 

Given how many businesses rely on electricity, and given how much of Pakistan’s economy relies on those businesses and consumption (consumption as a part of GDP is more than 80%), it is truly astonishing how incompetent and lax our state is with safeguarding our electricity system. The returns to investing in this industry are huge, but it is beyond me why they are always overlooked. It is beyond me why we build underpasses and largely pointless bridges (let’s be honest) and invest so little in the electricity system. For political reasons, Karachi has it the worst. But, to varying extent, this is true for the whole of Pakistan. 

I haven’t even touched on the other issues that ensue from rainfall: for instance, the deaths that occur due to shoddy construction units collapsing and electricity grids electrocuting pedestrians, the falling of innumerable trees that are left weak without any irrigation, and the diseases spread by stagnating water on every street and avenue. Despite all this, some Pakistanis, especially Karachiites, are grateful for the rain. The change in the weather–the temporary suspension of the humidity and the scorching heat–is a relief. Alas, the change in weather is only fickle, but the loss of GDP, growth, and lives is permanent. Even a 0.1% loss of GDP per year is something that would’ve compounded over the years and could have potentially lifted thousands out of poverty. Indeed, perhaps that’s part of the problem: the benefits are visible only in the long run, and even then a politician can’t convince anyone that the greater prosperity is a result of investment in the electricity sector. Might as well just build a bridge; who doesn’t notice that? 

It is also mystifying why international organizations, particularly the IMF, don’t include improving the electricity system as part of their loan stipulations. The conditions of improving foreign reserves and increasing tax revenues are all good and well, but improving the electricity infrastructure wouldn’t only benefit Pakistan’s economy substantially, it’ll also go well with the public. The majority of Pakistanis hate the current IMF’s conditions: “[The IMF] package is littered with conditionalities that are putting [a] burden on the lives of ordinary people. Pakistani people and traders have no capacity to pay taxes demanded by the IMF,” said Farooq Tariq, spokesperson and the former general secretary of the Awami Workers’ Party. IMF would do its reputation much good by introducing this new condition.  

Rain is a blessing for Pakistan; we will need it more in the upcoming years. It allows our agriculture to flourish, our citizens to have drinking water, and our weather to remain tolerable. God knows what we’d do without it. Yet, we have made rain into a double-edged sword: on the one hand, it contributes to the economy, and on the other, it drags us down. And so far, the state has contently let it drag us down. But the time is short now; changes are needed.

Modern Devaluation of Humor — July 16, 2020

Modern Devaluation of Humor

Almost since the advent of language, humans have had humor and jokes. Billions of people have enjoyed satire, ripostes, and comedy. There is a sense of pleasure—of laughter—that humor evokes unlike anything else. Jokes are as much as a part of us as consciousness and hunger.

Jokes, however, almost invariably involve insulting someone; there is always someone being offended: some race, some generation, some group of academics (an economist/psychologist/chemist walks into a bar…), or even some individual. As social creatures, we joke about other humans. No surprise there.

What frightens me about this movement of political correctness—the “woke” culture—is their attitude towards offending. Of course, they freely offend their opponents, but almost everyone else—especially groups considered as marginalized—should never be offended in any possible way. And so follows their apathy towards jokes, stand-up comedy, and satire. They quite literally cannot take a joke.

Indeed, then, not only jokes are deprived of their enjoyment, but also entertainment such as tv shows, movies, music, and even books, for they all may be complicit in offending someone. Science fiction may escape, for it typically doesn’t involve much offensive content. But anything that’s offending someone else in any way, especially someone with a low standing in life’s social hierarchy, is up for grabs. Expunge it. Cancel it. Unless, of course, the entertainment involves disparagement of white men.

I don’t want to delve into the cancel culture and it’s perils here, but the problem is quite obvious: relative to other people, these folks devalue humor. Thus, it doesn’t take much effort to conclude they must be less happy overall, ceteris paribus, for they have less to laugh about and enjoy. Given fewer opportunities to laugh, people end up depressed and contemptuous. Life is hard; there are numerous things you can fret about, be gloomy about, be depressed about. And, unfortunately, there aren’t that many that you can be joyous about. There’s a limited supply of laughter, unless you happen to be a naturally jolly person, or perhaps not even then. It’s then a folly to deprive life of jokes and humor. Doing so only creates a limited capacity to enjoy the limited supply of laughter.

This contempt politically correct folks carry around furthers more cancel culture; your mood decides your actions and attitude. This, then, creates a vicious feedback loop, where this initial level of contempt leads to more canceling, less humor and entertainment, and more depression and contempt. And on it goes.

There might not be any research into this, but I suspect there is a causal relationship between this wokeness movement and recent high rates of depression and suicides. Is it really difficult to see this contempt will then inevitably lead to such levels of discontent and we see in modern societies?

Just recently, while reading Stephen King’s book On Writing, I came across a joke about Muslims. I can imagine thousands of Muslims being offended by it—so was I, a bit—though does that mean others can’t laugh? Hell, I laughed a little too. Pakistanis get ridiculed daily on media, but does that mean I can’t enjoy it? Does it mean it should be canceled? Offending and laughing can coexist; there’s a word for it—it’s called banter.

Moreover, a simple cost-benefit analysis can tell you the benefits of jokes far outweigh the chances of being offended. You belong in only one group, but you can banter about millions of others. This may sound exploitive, and odd, but it doesn’t mean you MUST joke about those groups, only that the benefits outweigh the cost.

If you take away banter lest it offends someone, you not only ruin your mood but also others’. You manifest contempt. You create anomie. Of course, I might just be catastrophizing this; but if people are willing to protest, destroy careers and integrity all because they, or folks they know, have been offended, then clearly there is contempt and ire burning within them. Depression is only a corollary then. 

The Allure of Lockdowns — July 9, 2020

The Allure of Lockdowns

Debates over opening the economy and a lockdown have been raging for quite some time now and will keep doing so as COVID 19 cases increase. Both sides have good arguments. The majority, at least over the internet and social media, favors a strict lockdown. The policy of a lockdown attracts us, almost instinctively, more than that of opening up the economy. There’s a psychological reason behind this. 

To explain this reason, it is best to start with a classical example, oft used by the philosopher Peter Singer. Imagine you’re going to a business meeting in your best, most expensive clothes—a full suit and all—and you see a little girl drowning in a pond. There is no one around to help; it is just you and the little girl. Despite being attired in your best clothes, you do not take long before jumping into the pond to save the little girl. 

PHIL 101: Peter Singer's Drowning Child Analogy - YouTube

Now consider this scenario: scrolling online, you see an advert asking for donations to save the lives of African children. The ad is appealing: it shows a group of children, all gaunt from malnutrition and dressed in tattered clothes. You notice the ad and feel sympathy, but you keep scrolling. The suffering of these unidentified children simply seemed less urgent. While previously you had decided to save the little girl from drowning, you decided differently when asked to save not one but many children from malnutrition.

(An ad for donations)

What changed? Arguably, it wasn’t the money; you could have donated much less than the price tag of the suit you were ready to ruin to save the drowning girl. While there are certainly some moral differences between the two situations, that is not our focus. Our focus is on one prime reason that explains the discrepancy—the identifiable victim effect. 

You could identify the drowning girl easily; she was right there. But you could not easily identify the African children; they were almost an abstraction. You could donate to them, but you had never get to know their names nor their futures. They are not identified. The internet makes it hard to identify people—to listen to their stories—and truly get to know them. That’s why some things in life, like visual conversations, are simply not that appealing virtually. And this brings us to our current crisis and its implications. 

When we argue for a strict lockdown, we are influenced by all the deaths we hear about being circulated on the social media: the doctors that lost their lives, the elderly, thousands of folks overseas—all the personal stories of suffering. We see all that. We identify the victims. We establish a personal emotional connection with them. But what we don’t see are all the souls suffering from unemployment, poverty, and destitution. We do not see all the people dying from malnutrition. We do not hear about them on TV or see their pictures on social media. We do not see or hear their messages of starvation and pain, cautioning us against the perils of a lockdown. 

Such is the nature of this virus: it is risky going to the dilapidated areas where these poor folks live. Their narratives are lost, whereas we, using the internet, can express our side of the story ad infinitum. We have got this powerful technology at our hands and we are starting to take it for granted. The internet provides us the opportunity to spread our opinions and feelings anytime—it’s a medium of free speech—but not for everyone.

Only 36.86% of our nation’s population has access to the internet—or had access as of December 2019: // The reality has changed. The number is probably even lower now. When one is unemployed, as during a lockdown, one scrimps to purchase food and necessities rather than pay for the internet. And that’s only access. Of the 36.86% populace that has access, more than half are not even aware of this aspect of the internet—of free speech. And of the very few that are aware, most are not sensationalists; they do not get coverage. And of the minuscule that do get coverage, they are crowded out by thousands of other stories and the damning rising number of COVID 19 cases and deaths. 

I should note that I am not arguing against social distancing or even a partial lockdown; in fact, I am socially distancing myself, but only because I have the means to do so. Moreover, this is by no means an argument against lockdowns; it is merely a reminder that the effects of lockdowns often go unseen and hence unconsidered. 

The bottom line: we are unable to identify the detrimental effects of lockdowns. But we do see the numbers of cases climbing higher every day—every victim is identified as a number, and sometimes even as a story. The ones that we do not hear about also have their stories. It’s about time we consider those, even if we can not identify them. 

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