Corona, Audacious Frenchmen, Boeing, and Socialism

After two months of deep introspection (and mild-to-medium writers’ block), I am ready to bring in the 2020 series of The Daily Somethings. One letter, every week.


2020 started off with a virus of the Wuhan persuasion (nCoV). It spread left, right and centre, and before we knew it, a couple of Chinese cities were under lockdown. Now call me cynical, but the numbers coming out of China cannot be real. They locked down Wuhan on the 23rd of January, when there were 639 cases in ALL of China (PRC), per this map. Let’s say that around 50% of that number was from Wuhan, making it around 320ish cases (I don’t remember what the exact Wuhan number was at that time). Do you, as a government official, lock down a city of 11 MILLION PEOPLE, because of roughly 320 cases of a disease? It doesn’t make sense at all.

Look at what this guy says on Twitter, for example. If you’re too lazy to click on the link, he says that the numbers coming out of the PRC are increasing in a linear fashion, and fall within quite a narrow band. Which means that it is not epidemiology that’s responsible for the increase in “reported” cases, it’s actually the testing capacity of these places! Thus, the fact that more cases are being reported comes down to the fact that hospitals have been able to acquire more testing kits, that’s all.

I have another suspicion. What if the government in these places is looking to massage these numbers by withholding testing kits? If people are never diagnosed with the nCoV, then their death will not be attributed to the nCoV either. It’ll be attributed to pneumonia, or whatever related problems that the virus brings to the human body. Hence, I do not trust the numbers out of China one bit.

Let us all also remember Dr Li Wenliang, one of the first (that we know of) people to warn the government about the problems that the virus could cause. He was warned by the Wuhan government against speaking out, as this notice that was served to him shows (this is a translated version, scroll down in that link to see the original version). He passed away at the age of 33, and is survived by a wife, who is 6 months pregnant, and a 5 year old son.


Today, I’ll teach you how to cook up a weird situation. You will need the following -

  1. a temperamental Lebanese-French dude (named Carlos Ghosn) with a penchant for thinking big (the Renault-Nissan-Mitsubishi Alliance that he presided over sold 1 out of every 9 vehicles worldwide). This guy is a celebrated business leader, and Japan arrested him on charges of fraud
  2. Japan’s rigid legal system
  3. some mercenaries who are former special forces operators (of course, no international weird situation is complete without them)
  4. a couple of disinterested customs officials at a Japanese airport
  5. private jets
  6. liberal quantities of money

If you mix the ingredients correctly, you will have an international law situation on your hands, which is always weird.

Ghosn was arrested by Japan on 19 November 2018 on allegations of misuse of company assets and underreporting his income. A whole year went by with Ghosn going in and out of jail, being put in solitary confinement and later under house arrest. His passport was impounded, and he was quite miserable. When you have money, though, misery of this kind can be chased away. Ghosn soon turned on his tap of cash and a high-stakes plan was developed, which required him to leave home, take a train, go to a hotel and climb into a box used to carry music equipment. The box was then flown across 2 continents, and our man Carlos was home (Lebanon), free at last.

By escaping from Japan in a box, Carlos Ghosn has ensured his spot in the list of people I want to meet at least once in my lifetime. It takes a special kind of audacity to escape from confinement - which should also tell you just how much the Japanese managed to push his buttons over the past year. I do not condone any kind of escape from justice - all I’m saying is, if you do escape, make sure you share every detail with reporters who will write it down for my enjoyment. Many thanks.


Boeing has had a rather bad 2019, which started in March after the loss of the Ethiopian Air 302. And 2020 doesn’t look too good for them either. The company projects to lose around US$19bn from the entire 737 Max fiasco.

It was already embarrassing for Boeing to manufacture planes with faults. Around 350 people lost their lives because of poor decision-making and miscommunication on the part of Boeing (please do not think that I’m absolving regulators of their mistakes - their attitude towards their job was lackadaisical at best, enabled by chronic under-funding). What made the whole thing even more embarrassing for Boeing were the internal emails that were released by them to comply with US Congress’ investigation. Tell me, would you fly on a plane if you knew that the people who built it wrote any of the following describing the plane in question?

this airplane is designed by clowns, who are in turn supervised by monkeys

OR

I’ll be shocked if the FAA passes this turd.

OR

This is a joke. This airplane is ridiculous.

Huh? ALL of these messages described the 737 Max. And to think that in 2019 February, there were around 400 of these planes in the skies, ferrying people to and fro. Anyway, these planes are only going to be re-certified sometime in 2020, which is still some time away. Hopefully, the company learns from this entire process; hopefully, this case is taught in colleges around the world as an example of what not to be done when leading a gigantic engineering company that is responsible for the lives of billions of people.


Here’s a fun bit about India in the 60s and 70s, that will be unimaginable for those of my readers who come from free-market countries. Keep in mind, the gentleman quoted here is Rahul Bajaj, chairman of the Bajaj Group, one of the larger Indian industrial houses -

Throughout the 1980s—it started from the 1970s and continued throughout the 1980s, and the beginning of the 1990s—for 15 to 20 years—the Bajaj scooter had a ten-year delivery period. Nobody outside India understands what that means. It meant instead of going to a dealer and taking a vehicle and going home, you had to make a booking, and your turn would come probably after ten years.

He isn’t joking. Socialist countries regulated both the inputs a manufacturer could purchase, as well manufacturers’ output. If the government of the day said that Bajaj could only manufacture 6,000 scooters in a year, then that was that. Never mind the fact that the market demand was 10,000 scooters. And an entire country ran this way for almost 44 years. It took a crazy balance of payments crisis in 1991 for a demure Sikh gentleman in a blue turban to stand up in Parliament and say that India was going to liberalise its economy, and to hell with all the socialist crap.

If you have time, take a look at the entire conversation that Mr. Bajaj had with Srikant Datar, a Professor at Harvard Business School. It’ll give you good insights about what it was like to be an industrialist in a socialist India. And for those of us who were not born in those times, it paints quite a surreal picture.


Hope you guys have a great week ahead!