March 2017


I just finished Kautilya’s Arthashastra, which is perhaps the greatest book I know of that I can’t recommend to readers.

CHANAKYA-4

So, first, what is it?  It’s a book on state policy: how to run a country, how to run a spy network, how to regulate commerce, who to appoint as ministers, how to manage allies and enemies, how to conduct war. It was written somewhere from 2200 to 1700 years ago in India, attributed to one Kautilya or Vishnugupta.  It’s often claimed that Kautilya was Chanakra, the wily minister of Chandragupta Maurya, founder of the first Indian empire, but this is unlikely.

It’s often compared to Machiavelli. On the whole Kautilya counsels the king to be virtuous: he must avoid dissipation, reward loyalty, punish criminals, put down bandits, encourage (and not overtax) production. But when he’s cynical, he’s cynical.  He tells you how to recruit spies, how to double-cross your friends, how to poison people, even how a minister can declare himself king.

He’s also, truth to tell, extremely dry, and it’s not clear how much of his advice was followed, which is why I can’t urge anyone to run out and score a copy.  As Patrick Olivelle says about the similar Laws of Manu (which is coming up on the reading list, watch this space), the book dates from a time when northern India was often as not run by low-caste upstarts, by Buddhists (i.e. heretics), or by out-and-out mlecchas (barbarians)– Greeks, Kushans, Sakas. So Kautilya and Manu are both describing things as they think they ought to be.

But the thing is, more than most ancient books, Kautilya gives loads of details on everyday life: crop yields, names of measures, structure of the government, how a fort was laid out, how many yojanas the army could travel in a day, how to use elephants in warfare. (Pro tip: you can use a line of elephants as a makeshift bridge to cross a river!) That is, it’s a treasure trove of information useful in conworlding.

This will take a few posts to work through.  Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit: magical formulas!

(As a warning, this is Kautilya at his worst and most credulous. But it’s entertaining.)

  • A powder made from lizards or stinking insects, a black snake, and panic seed, will cause instantaneous death.
  • For a longer death, try root of vyaghata (Casia fistula), flower of bhallataka (Semecarpus nacardium), and essence of an insect.  (Mad props to the translator, R. Shamasastry, for working out the botanical names.) The dosage for killing a man must be doubled to kill a horse, and quadrupled to kill an elephant.
  • Smoke from the burning of krikalasa (a lizard) and grihagaulika (a house-lizard) causes leprosy.
  • You can turn an animal white using oil prepared from mustard seeds kept for seven nights in the urine of a white goat. Didn’t work? Did you keep it in a bitter gourd for a month and a half?
  • Another way to bring on leprosy: make paste from gunja seeds which have been kept for seven nights in the mouth of a white cobra. (Is the cobra dead?  Doesn’t say. If not, that’s some impressive snake training.  And if it is, I’m not sure I want to retrieve seeds from a snake left out in the Indian sun for a week.)
  • The powder of a firefly mixed with mustard oil emits night at light. One of the few believable recipes!
  • A serum applied by roasting a pregnant camel along with saptaparna (Lechites scholaris) will make a journey of a hundred yojanas fatigue-free. If you have no pregnant camel on hand, dead children roasted in cremation grounds will do. This may be hard to get past the ethics committee at your lab.
  • Fast for three nights, then take the skull of a man who has been killed with a weapon. Grow barley in it, irrigating with goat milk. Make a garland from the sprouts; it will make you invisible.
  • Make a sack from the clothes of a man who died of natural causes, and fill it with the ashes of a dead Brahmin. You can then put the sack on your back and walk about invisible. Or perhaps people will just be too polite to acknowledge your presence.
  • Fast seven nights, get hold of three white hairs from a porcupine, and make a fire with 108 pieces of the khadira tree (Mimosa catechu), along with honey and ghee. Chant a certain mantra while burying one of the hairs at the entrance to a village.  All the animals in the village will fall asleep.

Now, I don’t actually blame Kautilya for repeating this nonsense. It’s evident that he is basing his book on earlier books.  He doesn’t say he tried any of this; he’s obviously copying down similar lists from the library. This is the last chapter of the book, so he’s already given you the standard and much more plausible methods of statecraft. His attitude is obviously “This stuff might come in handy if all else fails, so here it is.”

What’s more intriguing is the mindset of whoever created these recipes. The thing that makes them implausible is the very thing that makes them hard to check: the plethora of arcane ingredients.  If someone claims to have alchemical knowledge, and someone pesters them hard enough for a recipe, this is exactly the sort of thing they’d come up with. Extra points if the ingredients are disgusting (thus the urine and ground-up lizards) or impious (Brahmins’ ashes). The questioner, without modern chemical knowledge, can hardly say “That can’t possibly work”; all he can do is write down the recipe and slink away.

Of course, it’s also possible some of these recipes ‘worked’, in the sense that some of the plants and animal products involved had some effect.  E.g. Casia fistula is used in Ayurvedic medicine as a “purgative”.  Maybe if you used enough of it, you could make someone sick, who knows.  Few of the recipes have convincing details, though, like precise dosages.

Anyway, if this whets your appetite, you can read the whole thing here.  The recipes are found in Chapter XIV.

Paul Ryan worked out his health care bill in a GOP-only clubhouse and rushed it through committees before the CBO had estimated the impact, but unfortunately for him legislation has to be published eventually, so now we can take a look at Trumpcare. It isn’t pretty.

obamacare-trumpcare

Here’s a good overview from Vox. Bottom line: Trumpcare will throw 14 million people off insurance immediately, and 24 million more in the next ten years, in order to give a $600 billion tax cut to billionaires who don’t need it.

The CBO estimates that a 64-year-old earning $26,500 a year, who currently pays $1700 a year for health care (i.e., after the Obamacare subsidy), would pay a whopping $14,600 under Trumpcare. Republican assholes think this person can just give up their iPhone, but of course the reality is that this person can’t afford that kind of “access to healthcare”.  They will go without insurance.  If they need the coverage, they will die.

And they probably voted for Trump.  Trumpcare is hardest on older people and rural areas, precisely the people who supported Trump and believed his lies about “terrific” health insurance that would cover “everybody”.

We’re used to Trump lying by now, but today’s point is that the GOP plan is the end result of years and years of Republican lies. The chief architect of this fiasco is Paul Ryan, a man who has a wholly undeserved reputation as an honest policy wonk, among pundits who desperately want to find such an animal in his party. In fact he’s a Randite whose only actual policy concern is to give the 1% more money and tear up the social safety net. It’s right there in his bill, but his public statements are full of polished lies about “choice” and “access” and the supposed evils of Obamacare.

Now, Republicans could, if they chose, be absolutely honest about their preferences. They could say they don’t believe in the government providing health care; that they are only governing to benefit billionaires; that they want to phase out Medicaid; that insurers should be able to deny coverage to whoever they want and make insurance unaffordable for the old and sick.  Probably two thirds of their voters would completely accept this— so long as they didn’t touch Medicare and Social Security. And as I’ve said before, repealing Obamacare is basically a return to the status quo of 2013.

But obviously this would be a political disaster with the muddy center of American politics, the 20% of the electorate which bounces left and right like a bobblehead and determines who actually wins elections.  Obamacare has insured millions of people who didn’t have coverage before; those folks like their new coverage, and are pissed that Republicans want to take it away. This is particularly important in the 20 Republican-led states which accepted Obamacare’s Medicaid expansions.

Klein and Schiff in the linked article make an excellent point about affordability. When health care wonks talk about health care affordability, they mean the nation spending less on health care. The liberal ones mean restraining the absurdly high prices of American health care (no other nation pays so much for so little). The conservatives mean reducing demand for health care. (Conservatives are convinced that everyone but themselves are hypochondriacs who only go to the doctor because their job or the government pays for it.)

When ordinary people talk about health care affordability, they mean what they themselves pay. People on expanded Medicaid are pretty happy: there are no deductibles and they can go to the doctor.  People on the marketplaces (like myself) are more likely to be unhappy, because deductibles have gone way up, and restrictions on who you can see have become way more cumbersome. But it’s still better than the pre-Obamacare options.

The thing is, Republicans have unwisely echoed those complaints— which means they are expected to do something about them.  You can’t say “the problem with Obamacare is high deductibles” and then create a Trumpcare that costs people 7 times as much.  That’s the problem with lying; it eventually catches up with you.

As Matt Yglesias has said, why don’t they just leave health care alone and just pass a tax cut? Mostly because Ryan and his co-conspirators thought that healthcare was low-hanging fruit. After all, they’d “repealed” Obamacare more than 30 times! The base would love them! They didn’t expect their town halls to be filled with angry constituents and the popularity of Obamacare to go up. And it’s apparently very hard for legislators to give up on a tactic and go try something else.

Ryan also seemed to expect that Republicans would just fall in line. The biggest wildcard, Trump himself, was no problem; his promises on health care turned out to be garbage. But a bunch of more-moderate Republicans in the Senate are terrified of being blamed for the catastrophe of Trumpcare, and a bunch of ultra-conservatives in the House are furious because some poor people will still get government assistance. There’s no way to make both groups happy at the same time, and it’s hard to picture how to threaten both wings to make them back down.

(The bill has to pass the House first, so the obvious “solution” is to make Trumpcare worse now, to appease the loonies, and then let the Senate deal with it somehow.)

(Maybe another lie will save the bill: promise that the real Trumpcare will be done later, and fix all the problems. Thing is, Ryan’s bill is somewhat limited by his insistence on passing it as a reconciliation bill, with zero Democratic support, but also no Democratic filibuster, because that’s the magic of reconciliation bills. The later bill would have to have Democratic votes. But if they had, or wanted, Democratic votes, they’d be pursuing them right now. The later better bill is a myth.)

Health care is hard, but all these problems are essentially of the GOP’s own making. The real problems people have with Obamacare could be easily solved with a magic ingredient: money.  But this solution isn’t available to Ryan, because he’s lost the old Reagan-Bush magic of approving of government spending when Republicans do it.  He’s created a mess for himself and the country, just to get that tax cut.