On Being Positive – Do You Have Your Bullshit Receptors On?

Be positive.

My friends have told me to be positive.

My extended family has asked me to be positive.

Unknown people on the social media have suggested the same.

Because in their heads they feel that being positive will drive us out of the rut and all the troubles that we currently find ourselves in.

Of course, it’s not as simple as that. It never is. 

Dear Reader, have you ever wondered why the be positive messages started going around on WhatsApp, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and what not, last month, right in the middle of the worst phase of the second wave of the covid pandemic? People were dying. People were not getting oxygen, beds or medicines for that matter, and in the middle of all this man made chaos, friends and family, were sending WhatsApp messages promoting the idea of being positive. 

Well, if you are like the people who have been asking me and others to be positive, you clearly didn’t think about it. This is simply because you were busy being positive and didn’t bother to figure out why this bullshit of being positive came up right when it did and not before or after.

The Nobel Prize winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman along with Olivier Sibony and Cass Sunstein, have got a possible answer for this in the book Noise—A Flaw in Human Judgement.

As they write:

“Sure enough, some people are more receptive than others to bullshit. They can be impressed by “seemingly impressive assertions that are presented as true and meaningful but are actually vacuous.””

The word vacuous means empty or mindless. From religious gurus to corporate gurus to religious gurus morphing as corporate gurus (yes there is a category like that as well), follow this formula with great success. Doing this involves use of phrases and sentences which sound profound when heard, but mean nothing, if you sit and think about it.

As Kahneman, Sibony and Sunstein write:

“Gordon Pennycook and colleagues have conducted many studies of people’s reactions to meaningless, pseudo-profound statements generated by assembling randomly selected nouns and verbs from the sayings of popular gurus into grammatically correct sentences, such as “Wholeness quiets infinite phenomena” or “Hidden meaning transforms unparalleled abstract beauty.” The propensity to agree with such statements is a trait known as bullshit receptivity.”

In order to make the population at large receptive of bullshit, it is important that they are in a good mood. While  doing this would have been very difficult earlier, now with cheap internet and rock-bottom mobile phone rates, and many smart phones going around, people can be bombarded endlessly with messages of being positive. It doesn’t cost anything except a few message writers, who are available dime a dozen.

As the authors point out:

“Inducing good moods makes people more receptive to bullshit and more gullible in general; they are less apt to detect deception or identify misleading information.”

And this is where the entire idea of being positive which has been promoted so extensively over the last one month, comes in.

The idea is to make sure that people are in a good mood and hence, more receptive to misleading explanations around why there is shortage of vaccines, why the government was caught totally unprepared for the second wave and why the government is not be blamed for all this. And it needs to be given the benefit of doubt.

Recently I was told by someone that the vaccine shortage is primarily because of journalists (yes, journalists). They wrote columns questioning the efficacy of the vaccines. This led to a situation where many people did not vaccinate between January and March, before the second wave broke out, as they thought the vaccines are not safe.

Given that enough people were not getting themselves vaccinated, the government ended up exporting six crore doses. Hence, now there is a shortage, and the government can’t be blamed for it, because journalists questioned vaccine efficacy. This is one argument going around among the be positive crowd.

There are many ways of puncturing this argument but let me use the simplest one. The current government has no interest in listening to journalists or anyone else who does not conform to their way of things. So why would they listen to them on just this issue? The more important question is why the government did not bother to order enough vaccines in advance, like governments of so many countries did.

The government didn’t do this simply because it got caught in its own rhetoric of India having successfully beaten the covid pandemic. The trouble with government propaganda is that sometimes the governments end up believing in it and the citizens have to bear its cost, which they currently clearly are, though many of them are busy being positive. 

It is important to keep in mind what Carl Bergstrom and Jevin West write in Calling Bullshit – The Art of Scepticism in a Data Driven World:

“Human language is immensely expressive, in the sense that we can combine words in a vast number of ways to convey different ideas… This is a good skill to have when trying to communicate efficiently—and it’s equally useful when using communication to manipulate another person’s beliefs or actions. That’s the thing about communication. It’s a two-edged sword.”

The entire be positive campaign (can’t think of a better word to describe it), is what the American philosopher Harry Frankfurt called a deliberate misrepresentation in his book On Bullshit.  And this deliberate misrepresentation has been carried out to ensure that there are no scratches on the teflon coating surrounding the government. 

To conclude, be positive in 2021 is basically what acche din aane waale hain was in 2014. They are two sides of the same coin. They were both designed to mislead. 

The costly ticket to achche din

A few days back a friend complained on Facebook that since the Narendra Modi government had come to power, power cuts in his city had gone up dramatically, and he had not been able to sleep at all during the night. “So where are the
acche din that had been promised?” he asked. To this someone cheekily replied that the promise was of acche din and not acchi raatein.
Narendra Modi and the Bhartiya Janata Party fought the Lok Sabha election on the plank of “acche din aane waale hain”. The slogan offered “hope” to the people of this country, in an environment where economic growth had been falling and inflation had been rising. It was for the first time that a political party was not treating the voter as a “victim”. The slogan struck a real chord with the Indian voter.
The success of the slogan has now led to a scenario where every tough economic decision that the Modi government makes is and will be viewed through the lens of the “
acche din aane waale hain” slogan. Take the recent case of the decision to increase the railway passenger fares by 14.2 per cent and freight fares by 6.5 per cent.
The hike in railway passenger fares has been the steepest in 15 years and has been long overdue. Between 1999 and 2014, the passenger fares were increased only thrice, of which one hike was reversed. This has left very little money with the railways for any sort of modernisation and the upkeep of railway tracks. It has also led to a scenario were traveling has become increasingly unsafe, as can be made out from the spate of railway accidents over the last few years.
The trouble is that for too long Indian Railways has been used as a political tool and not a service which is economically viable on its own. One way to correct this is to index fares to the prevailing rate of inflation and increase prices on a regular basis, every year. So, if the inflation is 8 per cent during the course of the year, then fares can go up by 8 per cent at the beginning of the financial year, on April 1. If this practice were to be followed, the chances of railways being economically viable and safer are likely to go up. Also, it would rule out the chances of one-off increases in fares, which upset the monthly budget of people who use the railways to travel regularly.
In the short-term, this increase in fares is expected to add to inflation. There are other decisions that the government will have to make over the next few months which will add to inflation. Take the case of oil. The price of the Indian basket of crude oil stood at $111.94 per barrel on June 19, 2014. It averaged at $106.72 per barrel between May 29 and June 11, 2014.
The price of oil has gone up by close to 5 per cent in such a short period of time primarily because of a threat of war in Iraq. India imports 80 per cent of the oil it consumes. The government will have to pass on this increase in the price of oil to the end consumer. If it does not do that it will have to compensate the oil marketing companies for the “extra” under-recoveries they are likely to face on the sale of diesel, cooking gas and kerosene. This would lead to an increase in government expenditure and, hence, the fiscal deficit. Fiscal deficit is the difference between what a government earns and what it spends.
The government is already very stretched on the fiscal deficit front with the last government leaving unpaid bills of more than Rs 1,00,000 crore. Hence, it will have to pass on the increase in the international price of oil to the end consumers. This will mean higher inflation and another jolt to the promise of
acche din.
What makes the situation even more difficult is the fact that the monsoon is expected to be much lower than average this year. In fact, data from the India Meteorological Department shows that rainfall upto June 18 has been 45 per cent lower than normal. This number may improve in the days to come, given that it is still early days for the monsoon. It needs to be pointed out that a bad monsoon does not necessarily lead to a lower production of food. In 2009, even with a 22 per cent deficient rainfall, the agriculture production did not go down. The real problem is once the psychology of drought sets in, the prices of food products start to go up, even though their production may not be impacted.
One thing that the government can do to prevent inflation is to procure a lower amount of rice and wheat from farmers this year. As on June 1, 2014, the Food Corporation of India (FCI) had food grain stocks of 74.8 million tonnes, when it does not require more than 41-47 million tonnes. By buying less from the farmers, the government can ensure that more rice and wheat lands up in the open market, and helps prevent a price rise. The government also needs to ensure that it does not raise the minimum support price of rice and wheat at the rate that the Congress-led UPA government had done in the past. These moves are unlikely to go down well with the farmers, who have also been promised
acche din.
It is important that Mr Modi borrows a leaf from Franklin Roosevelt, the President of the United States between 1933 and 1945. This was a difficult time for the US — the Great Depression was on. Between 1933 and 1944, Roosevelt made 30 fireside chats through the radio, explaining to Americans the tough decisions he was taking to get the economy back on track. Mr Modi and his government need to keep talking to the people and explain why they need to take some tough decisions over the next few months.

The article originally appeared in The Asian Age/Deccan Chronicle on June 23, 2014
Vivek Kaul is the author  of the Easy Money trilogy. He can be reached at [email protected]