Sometimes, historical and literary narratives shed more light on the silent spectators to the events described than on the main actors.
One such narrative is that of Ekalavya in the Indian epic “Mahabharata”.
Ekalavya’s tale is a deeply distressing one.
It is the story of a young man and of his society’s inexplicable indifference to quality (inexplicable because their indifference is bad for them).
In the story, Ekalavya is sentenced to lose his thumb for the sole reason that he is a better archer (through his own efforts) than the royal princes of the land.
The story is scary because if you put a little thought into it, you realise that:
a) the people around Ekalavya valued the influence represented by the princes more than the quality represented by Ekalavya.
b) they failed to realize that should their country ever be invaded, there would be one less good archer to defend them.
c) they proved incapable of realizing how demotivating the sentence would have been to all the other archers in the land (whose help they’d need in times of trouble).
d) they did not stand up for one of their own – did not defend a vulnerable member of their team – did not protect a kid.
e) they condoned nepotism.
f) they approved of a teacher misusing a student’s trust.
Each time we retell the story of Ekalavya without realizing this, we become, in a sense, complicit in it.
Corruption in India leads to a situation where low quality is very likely to be rewarded.
We had written about a model of corruption (involving three parties https://aiaioo.wordpress.com/2012/11/18/tools-for-the-mind-and-how-you-can-change-the-world/) where the person offering the lowest quality of service is the one who is most likely to be rewarded.
Here is a brief description of the same:
This is corruption where someone is appointed a trustee over a common pool of resources. He is now a middle-man who must allocate those resources fairly.
In the realm of public services, like the construction of roads and schools, that middle-man is government.
In the presence of corruption, the middle-man ends up selecting the service-provider who pays the highest bribes, not the service-provider who does the best job.
This leads to a market where the lowest-quality service provider wins and the higher quality providers leave the market altogether – a result that follows from the work of George A. Akerlof (‘The Market for “Lemons”: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism’).
But we must remember that there is a price we must pay for choosing low quality. Bad roads, delays and poor infrastructure can all be traced back to low quality preference.
But another price we pay is poverty.
To illustrate that, I must point you to an article http://boingboing.net/2008/08/08/california-supreme-c-1.html on the California supreme court directive making non-compete clauses unenforceable in California.
The article shows that supporting and protecting quality helps the economy:
“I’m reminded of the study from the Duke Center for the Public Domain that concluded that the reason that the tech corridor on Route 128 near Boston had grown so much more slowly than Silicon Valley was that Massachusetts has enforceable non-competes, while California does not. The researcher concluded that in California, the best talent moved to the best companies, while on Route 128, crummy companies could lock up great people for years at a time through non-compete agreements.”
Each time someone undeserving is preferred for a job, each time kickbacks are given, we have – in a sense – betrayed Ekalavya.
(Here is an article on how one might compute the quality of value systems. References some very interesting work by Daphne Koller on using graphical models and game theory to model multi-agent decision-making frameworks).