The Elastic View of Rules

Suketu Mehta, journalism professor and Maximum City author, landed an exclusive interview with Raj Rajaratnam and wrote a compelling article for Newsweek on the former hedge fund titan who was sentenced to 11 years in prison for insider trading. Rajaratnam, of Sri Lankan origin, has some choice words for the Indian-American associates who betrayed him. But some readers might have choice words for Mehta, who suggests that Rajaratnam is not too different from other South Asian immigrants.

The whole story speaks to the South Asian–American community: its pursuit of success and money at any cost; the differences between immigrants and the first generation; and the immigrants’ incomplete understanding of the rigor of the law in the U.S. [Daily Beast]

Just in case you have an incomplete understanding of what he means, here it is again later in the article.

The Rajaratnam case can be seen as a metaphor of the difference between immigrants from South Asia, who have a more elastic view of rules and a more keenly developed art of networking, and their children, the first generation, schooled to play by American rules. [Daily Beast]

Elastic view of rules? For a moment there, I thought he was referring to the rules of journalism.

30 thoughts on “The Elastic View of Rules

  1. Rajaratnam is hardly a Fresh Of the Boat South Asian. He went to high school in England and to college in some of the best US colleges. He was schooled to play by American rules. He knows exactly how things work here. He was just careless or unlucky enough to get caught

  2. I did find myself nodding my head to the excerpts in the post above, but, uhmmm…Rajaratnam ain’t the only one that may have “elastic view” of the rules and I’m pretty damn sure the collection of those folks’ ancestry spans the globe… Although, I think there may be some interesting commentary tie-in about the style of business and finance in resource/infrastructure deficient vs. abundant countries and their trust with local/regional/national governing bodies… Interesting story by the Economist a week or two ago about India’s style of capitalism. –S

    • THANK YOU. THis is not an “brown” problem, but a rich problem; and last time I checked, there are rich, corrupt, sociopaths in every group I can think of: Gays, Jews, Russians, Persians, Chinese, Muslims, Atheists, Neopagan Conservative Cave Dweller Vegans, etc.

      • It’s not a rich problem. I don’t think there are many gay black white-collar crooks (with the exception of One), some groups are certainly over-represented. Before you accuse me of Antisemitism or “reverse-racism”, there’s historical precedence worldwide not least referenced by this website.

  3. Elastic view of rules? For a moment there, I thought he was referring to the rules of journalism.l

    I wouldn’t dismiss this too quickly. A. K. Ramanujan has been in the news lately in India; this might be an appropriate time to bring up another of his remarkable essays: Is there an Indian way of thinking? (Do a web search if interested.)

  4. So, are you saying that ABDs are equally unscrupulous, that DBDs are equally observant of the letter and spirit of the law? I kid–I found Mehta’s article disappointing, myself, even without the unsubstantiated generalizations. (So desi of him.)

  5. Mehta’s piece strikes me as 50% journalism and 50% literature/story… not surprising, but a bit disappointing. Good content though and nice to have Rajaratnam side of the story, I have to say.

    @suresh – An “Indian way of thinking”? Well, do you feel there’s an “American way of thinking”…or a “Canadian”, “South African”, etc., etc.? Maybe a more valuable question would be – “is there an immigrant” way of thinking”? Or is there more “hunger for success” amongst immigrants than the native born if they go to lands with more freedoms?

  6. This idiot Mehta is so clueless that after 2006 Bombay (Mumbai) train blast, he was insinuating on a lefty new york radio show that the incident happened due to a haves-v/s-have nots conflict. Not making this up. The man cannot buy a clue.

  7. I too see a desi journalistic problem of easy generalizations with a datum of one. Others are just following the American dream.

  8. Anyone annoyed that a South Asian being a greedy person is used to represent all South Asians as people who like to ignore laws, but the district attorney, who was born in Punjab and brought these charges on Raj, is completely ignored? How could you use this argument about south Asians being law breakers when the guy bringing these people down is also south asian?

    • Well, The New Yorker did have a lengthy article about Preet Bharara several months ago.

      The bigger story is that it was not illegal insider trading which caused the financial collapse of 2008. It was perfectly legal, but incredibly risky, business practices that brought down the house of cards. While there have been some attempts to curb Wall Street’s excesses, they can still get away with a lot of risky behavior.

  9. As multiple episodes demonstrate, a belief that elite immunity is both necessary and justified became the prevailing ethos in the nation’s most influential circles. In countless instances over recent years, prominent political and media figures have insisted that serious crimes by the most powerful should be overlooked— either in the name of the common good, or in the name of a warped conception of fairness according to which those with the greatest power are the most entitled to deference and understanding.

    That’s an excerpt from Glenn Greenwald latest book aptly titled, “With Liberty and Justice for Some”

  10. Suketu Mehta needs to keep better company. The South Asians I know of have a clear understanding of right and wrong , are God fearing.

  11. Suketu Mehta is speaking about elastic rules? The “Mehtas” that I know of only obey rules preferentially.

    On another note, although I believe that Rajaratnam and Gupta are guilty, I believe that the media and public is scapegoating them. How come no i-bankers are in jail for this multi-trillion dollar meltdown that we had a few years ago? Because they hid their shenanigans a lot better than Rajaratnam and Gupta.

    I sometimes wish that USA had shariah law, and I’d love to see many of those i-bankers without right hands.

  12. @shalin:

    The reference was to A. K. Ramanujan’s article with that title. Please read it before mouthing off.

  13. Another Gunga Din shills for his white masters, by stereotyping Indians. ‘Cause we all know that Bernie Maddof, Ken Lay, Dennis Kozlowski, Jon Corzine, Bernie Ebbers, and John Rigas are all South Asians with elastic morals (/s). Seriously, why give losers like Suketu Mehta any prominence on this blog?

  14. I don’t think that all Indians are immoral or amoral, and I certainly don’t think that all white people have superior moral standards, particularly in the world of big business.

    However, it is beyond question that compared to white Americans, Indian (and Chinese) immigrants in the US are much, much less likely to care about the moral content of their life’s work, or even whether we enjoy it. We are much more likely to care about how much we make, how “successful” we are, how “important” we appear in the eyes of our peers. And should we try to break away from this thinking, it is reinforced every time we speak to our parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, and friends. (Not everyone: most.)

    It’s not nice to have this called out in a national magazine – though Newsweek is practically a tabloid these days – but that shouldn’t stop us from honest self-examination.

    • Oh please, In this winner-take-all capitalistic society, everyone only cares about care about how much they make, how successful they are in the eyes of their peers. The Wall Street bailed out crooks are the worst in that regard. Very few people in this world today care about the moral content of their work, and whether they are making a difference.

      Newsweek is very good at employing Gunga Dins to attack Indians.

      • You’re wrong. Let me give you an example:

        I work in Silicon Valley among engineers – at some companies you’ve heard of. The white American engineers without exception love technology. They may be very geeky, but they are engrossed in what they do, almost to a fault. With their analytical brains, they could make more money on Wall Street (not every company goes public like Google), but they choose to “play” with technology all day.

        The Indian engineers, on the other hand – and I’ve met hundreds – with (10-20%?) exceptions don’t care about technology. They aren’t geeks, tech hobbyists. It’s just a job to them. It’s like Three Idiots. They’re only doing it because their parents told them to study engineering and/or they got into engineering college. Is working as an engineer wrong? Not necessarily – depends what you’re doing. Is it wrong for these people? Yes, because they don’t give a f*ck what they’re doing, or whether the company is curing cancer or making bombs. Raise the issue and their eyes glaze over.

        • Uhhh…no, You are wrong in assuming that. I am a Ph.D guy in a hard quant field, and I have over the years applied my skills to various industries from transportation, to logistics to retail and banking. You could charge me with lack of passion as I never viewed any one job as my true calling, but my true calling was to solve problems, and make a difference, and yes I did not care whether the company was making bombs or curing cancer. So you are just being presumptuous in assuming that.

        • You could not be more wrong, let me give an example to clarify. I’ve worked in Silicon valley and the THOUSANDS of Indians there have a burning desire to play with the latest technologies and make love to Java. Sometimes they tap into high culture like Three Idiots, but not on Thursdays because that’s when they talk to parents and grandparents over career and marriage.

          I’m not being racist or stereotyping by saying all. Just most (exception of 5-15%), and it generalizes because Silicon Valley immigrant engineering is the epicenter of all Indian interests at all times on all blogs. You’re right in that WE Indians, not you of course, need to be more passionate given our less analytic brains – evidenced by an inability to read or stick to the subject.

          After all it’s what’s in the heart that truly counts. And being related to many Indian doctors I know the organ.

  15. Let me also add, in response to your last sentence: if white people are committing crimes for which they’re being prosecuted, let’s fix that. But the evidence against Rajaratnam (and for that matter Rajat Gupta) is OVERWHELMING. Much of it is public – don’t take my word for it.

    Unless you want to say “let’s just ignore all white collar crime,” you do Indians a disservice by throwing around charges of racism. Yes, anti-brown/black racism still flourishes, but that’s quite independent of whether we Indians are leading our lives in the best way we could.

  16. Ashish, I wonder which Silicon Valley you work in. It’s surely not the place that I know. I know too many Indians out there who are fabulously talented, run their own firms, who live very modest lives, despite making a pile of cash. In contrast there are any number of American-Americans who are very talented who instead choose to make multi-million $ bonuses on Wall St. It takes all sorts to make the world. .Can we please stop throwing Gunga Din as a term of abuse for desi watercarriers? Kipling’s Gunga Din is a heroic character with an immense heart. The least you could do is read the poem,

    Din! Din! Din! You Lazarushian-leather Gunga Din! Tho’ I’ve belted you an’ flayed you, By the livin’ Gawd that made you, You’re a better man than I am, Gunga Din!

  17. Okay, I get the point: Preet Bharara is Indian. But everyone knows we discriminate against ourselves before others. I still have yet to see why someone who worked for an prominent OLD American firm that did the same things Raj Rajaratnam did and get prosecuted. The racism is in favoring the “white” companies while Rajaratnam started his own. Vikram Pandit isn’t in jail because he works for Citgroup, and they own the Democrats.

    Why did the Sri Lankan get wiretapped and Goldman Sachs not? It may not be some straightforward racism but definitely an elitist atmosphere that favors the old guy over the new guys (who probably are immigrant and didn’t donate enough to the two political parties). THAT is the point.

  18. @Ashish…good point.

    Sadly most desis will jump out of their pants to deny this…we can’t take the shame of the world knowing how truly limited we are.

  19. What rigor of american law or rules do you speak of. The same one which talks about the “great constitutional right of freedom of religion and creation of churches of all faiths in equal to all citizens “. But every time a mosque or temple is trying to be built by citizens of america in their communities, the bible thumping majority, great american suburbia and urban together — come up with ridiculous parking problems, hazard issues to local life etc, but when a church wants to be constructed none of these issues come up.

    American law and rules are selectively applied, and christian bias through the american majority populace is evident across this wide land.

    Second generation or not, fair or not, american rules are just those of convenience, and this website can try to push pluralism. But until it breaks down the american seduction with the bible thumping blind evangilism, nothing american does will really matter in terms of making a change that is sustainable. Change starts at home.

    No wonder Narendra Modi is becoming popular across rural idaho and southern maine. Kid me not, I ran into some white 41 year old farmer and the guy was talking about the modi effect on idaho. DAMN!

    Jai ho, you ivtory tower miscreants

  20. Pursuing a profession for money/status rather than passion is more common than you’d think even in America. Do you honestly think that all those accounting and business administration undergrads, law students, and MBAs really give a damn about what they’re studying? The mentality of choosing a career for economic rewards alone is not uncommon. Engineering and science seem to be a little bit an exception and do attract genuinely passionate people, but most other careers pull people interested in how much they can cash out. Get out of Silicon Valley and you’ll see this mentality all over the place. The lack of intellectual curiosity I see among college students and professionals, of all races, amazes me.

    I’m not sure why tech careers don’t attract the money hungry as much compared to other fields, in America, but I’d guess the geek/nerd stigma has something to do with it. In desi culture, the average guy is what would be considered geeky/nerdy by our standards, so no stigma in geeky careers. Also, being a poorer country, Indians have to be more practical on what they choose to study.

  21. Not that I use stereotypes, but yeah, there is that mentality in our kind. To do whatever it takes to get money. Have you ever seen an Guju family in Best Buy on Black Friday? I don’t know where it stems from but I know there is this universal understanding within our kind, or at least the first generation’s parents. But does that mean we are different from other immigrants or, for that matter, minorities? Probably not. All sorts of examples pop up. Remember the 19th-century Italian and Irish immigrants? Their gangsterism needs no explicit analysis. And while we’re talking about gangsterism – an ideology that is totally backed by the “do anything it takes” philosophy – look at African Americans and the Latinos. Yes, there are the strict Catholics (remember Senora Lopez: “your father is a hardworking man who get money the right way). But lets not be ignorant here. There is a larger population among immigrant communities to go down “the wrong path.” And Rajaratnam is just an example of that. But he especially embodies the main difference between Desi Immigrants and other immigrants. Maybe we are a little more “posh.” We are a little more educated so we commit white collar crime. Either way, I have to agree with Prof. Mehta. Desi Immigrants have this mentality. But the Prof. is looking to narrowly. This tendency can be expanded to just about any immigrant group. But the sad thing is, more often than not, this mentality stays with the second generation. If Mehta’s analysis is correct. This is another difference between most immigrants and Desi Immigrants. Cross your fingers and hope this is true and this will rub off (not trickle hahaha) on other immigrants. So our nation will have less crime, especially in the financial sector so our economy doesn’t come crashing again. But, wait, one last note to leave you thinking: Madoff and Goldman & Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein aren’t immigrants. Hmmm….