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A passage to India


A couple more Friedmanesque vignettes from earlier this week:

(1) For complicated reasons, I found myself stranded at a hotel near the Detroit airport late Wednesday night, needing to find a way to get to the Ann Arbor train station about 25 miles away by 7 the next morning. A further complication was that I didn’t have my credit card, or enough cash to pay both for a taxi and the train ticket. So I was reduced to having to “download” the Uber “app,” so that I could pay for a ride via my Paypal account, which is funded exclusively by this website (thanks to our generous readers, corporate sponsors, and a certain rootless cosmopolitan born in Hungary in 1930, although perhaps I’ve said too much.) After successfully doing this — this is literally the first “app” I’ve ever “downloaded” — I reserved a ride for the morning (this costs an extra seven bucks btw).

Wanda picked me up at 6:20, and I proceeded to extract as much information as I could about the economics of her Uber driving, which consisted of the following:

A 48-year-old Black woman, with three children aged 32, 30, and 16, and a husband who she moved with to Michigan from Virginia a few years ago, she drives for Uber seven days a week, for about six or seven hours per day on average.

She rents a car through an Uber program, for $350 per week, plus paying an average of $30 per day for gas. She can use the rental for other livery services (Doordash etc.), as well as for her own personal transportation, as long as she doesn’t go out of state. Her goal is to clear $200 per day after gas expenses, which she generally manages to do being in service six or seven hours per day (again this is with no days off). She doesn’t get any benefits from Uber, which is something outside observers tend to underestimate in terms of its economic importance.

She much prefers long trips to short ones, and will regularly turn down short trips unless such a trip is likely to get her to some place where long trips are more likely to originate, such as an airport hotel.

People in Michigan are somewhat more rude than people in Virginia (a factor here is that she’s living and working in a big metro area now, while she lived in a more rural setting in Virginia).

She’s going to take a five-week course this summer to get her CDL, because she wants to become a truck driver, which is something several relatives of her do.

Before she told me her age I would have guessed she was 30, and wouldn’t have been surprised to find out she was 25.

(2) On the train, I ended up sitting next to a 31-year-old Indian mechanical engineer, who has been in the US for five years. He got a masters from the engineering college at the University of Michigan 18 months ago, and is working for an Illinois-based firm that builds various kinds of trailers, including trailers for trucks, mobile homes, and other such things.

His wife is a 30-year-old Indian, also trained as an engineer, who is finishing a Ph.D. at Michigan in some sort of cyber-technology. His parents live in Midland, Michigan, for six months of the year, where his brother is an engineer for a company affiliated with Dow Chemical, and for the other six months of the year — their visa status requires them to leave the country for at least a few days every six months — they’re back in India, where his father runs two factories in the Punjab region, that manufacture jackets.

He was quite an Indian nationalist, telling me that India was going to be the world’s second-largest economy in another ten or 15 years , passing China, and perhaps the largest another decade or two after that. You can’t throw stone in India without hitting an engineer or a doctor or a software developer he told me. He also boasted about how many of the world’s biggest tech companies have Indian CEOs. This is because Indians have an excellent educational system and a great drive to give their children a better life than they themselves have had, especially in regard to having to work so hard (This made me think of Daniel Bell’s The Cultural Contradictions of Capitalism).

He also started talking politics without any prompting from me, asking if I supported Biden or Trump. He turned out to be a huge supporter of Modi, and therefore of course of Trump, who he sees as a very Modi-like figure (I should note that I know essentially nothing about Indian politics, so I had to ask him whether it was a parliamentary system, how Modi exercised power, how their Supreme Court worked etc. According to him anyway India has very strong judicial review).

He then again told me without prompting that he supported Trump in large part because of Trump’s immigration policy. He is on an H1-B visa through his employer, while his wife is on a student visa. Right now the wait time to get a green card when you have an H1-B as an engineer is 15 years, according to him, which means the visa has to be renewed for that long by his employer(s) or he can’t stay in the country legally. His wife on the other hand is doing some cybersecurity thing where the wait would be more like two years to get permanent resident status, which would give him that as well as her spouse.

Trump recognizes that only immigrants who are following the rules, like they are, should be allowed to stay, which would make it much easier for them to get permanent status.

He also told me that Modi is getting rid of the quota system in India based on caste status, which is good since many economically privileged lower caste people exploit it unfairly (again I have no basis for evaluating any of this). It all sounded more than vaguely familiar of course.

He also said that he thought there was going to be a big reverse brain drain effect soon, as Indians in places like America and the UK went back to India. You can live really well in India for $150K per year he told me, meaning five live-in servants, including two cooks. Also you can get a five-star hotel in Punjab for $300 per night, but it’s really a seven-star hotel, because the service you get at luxury hotel in India is immensely superior to what you get at a similar place in the USA or England.

He also was a big fan of various mystic yogi figures in India, who he told me he had seen do things like cause rain to fall. I quoted him a line from Orwell, where he remarked that having lived for some time in the Far East he had acquired a certain indifference to miracles. This amused him, as did my quote from Peter Berger from the 1960s that, if India was the most religious country in the world and Sweden the least, America was a country of Indians ruled by Swedes. This also made him laugh, although needless to say it’s not the 1960s any more in this and many other respects.

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