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Saturday, August 10, 2013

The Sen-Bhagwati 'debate'

Some of my most favourite readers have been asking me for my take on the currently raging debate between the two famous economists of Indian origin, Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati, over how central the need for economic growth is to India’s overall development. So I shall try to oblige, within my very limited powers. But here are a few observations first:

1.   The debate is not really new. The two (now very old-) men have been fighting over it for half a century now. I got in and out within less than a decade, and have become very tired of more or less the same things being said over and over ad nauseam. It’s only a new generation of journalists and politicians and maybe academics who have never read anything written before 1950 who can get all het up over it – and I know for a fact that you can get a first class master’s degree in economics from some of India’s best universities these days, and go off to hotshot US universities on scholarship, without ever having touched the seminal classics, basically doing only math and reading only textbooks and class notes instead. It still wasn’t like that in my day.
2.   It is not basically about which of the two stalwarts is more learned and more clever and better informed. It is ultimately a question of which values have priority for them – even if they deny it vehemently (as I think Bhagwati will, much more than Sen: support for unbridled rapacity still calls for more justification, at least among the educated classes, than support for human sympathy).If you accept that, you can avoid the quarrel altogether.
3.      Any serious reader with a memory will know where I stand on this issue, of course. You only have to have read my earlier blogposts like Values, prices, incomes; and Poor little rich thug; Counterculture; My mother is sixty; Good CEOs, bad politicians; Forests, tribals and sombre thoughts; I love Lalit Modi and India, twenty years after, to mention a few that immediately spring to mind. Read them now, or brush them up: it will save me a lot of repetition.
4.      My own views have not been quickly and easily formed. They can be traced back to the Bible, the Koran, and the many texts of Hinduism which enjoin upon us the need for sympathy and justice and brotherhood and charity as the highest desiderata in social life; to the teachings of Adam Smith, the father of modern political economy (and not just The Wealth of Nations but the book he wished all to read in tandem, A Theory of Moral Sentiments, but few have, even among economists), the loftiest (rather than most pragmatic-) urges expressed by the Founding Fathers of the US as much as the noblest socialists (‘the free development of each must be the essential condition for the free development of all’), and, among economists of more recent times, by giants like Joan Robinson of Cambridge (‘one great benefit of reading economics is that you will never be hoodwinked by economists again’) and the great Harvard professor of yesteryear, John Kenneth Galbraith. Anybody who wants to join issue with me must have at least digested Galbraith’s greatest books, including The Affluent Society and Economics and the Public Purpose (and also know that arch supporters of the worst kind of capitalism keep suddenly finding merit in him whenever capitalism undergoes major crises, as keep happening, most recently in 2008).
5.   I took away from the university a lasting disappointment with and contempt for the subject of economics, and much more so for what economists have become: all show and little substance, all arcane math and pretty jargon and little practical sense, all eager to advise statesmen and tycoons on how best to run governments and corporations, yet best only at making up ever more fancy models to explain why their advice led to disaster, and their predictions went hopelessly wrong. Really not much better than astrologers, and slightly worse than meteorologists. I won’t elaborate on this, firstly because it makes me tired at this age, and because someone far more competent – Dr. Ashok Mitra, an economist of impeccable credentials – has recently done it for me here. His article is a must read.
6.      One last thing to be noted: both Sen and Bhagwati, despite their professed philosophical differences over how the world should be managed, have done, and almost equally efficiently, the best for themselves that their profession allows, in terms of degrees, honours, money, fame and security. Also, their greatness as theoreticians notwithstanding, they haven’t really contributed to human welfare and happiness anywhere near as much as scores of great politicians, social workers and writers I could name. That’s my view anyway. Neither would compare himself with a Gandhi or Tagore, I am sure.

Now, to the main issue.

Broadly speaking, as things now stand, both Sen and Bhagwati claim that they agree that economic growth is important for national development and progress. Only, while Bhagwati is gung-ho in support of laissez faire capitalism, because that allegedly best guarantees rapid long term growth, Sen insists not only a) that growth by itself does little (little good, at least) without conscious large scale efforts to redistribute incomes, wealth and opportunity, but indeed such redistribution, according to the historical evidence, best ensures rapid growth, b) nowhere ever has unbridled capitalism produced the best results, and c) the ‘best results’, if you look at things from the collective perspective, are not achieved by saying ‘let the poor wait for whatever trickles down their way while the rich get ever obscenely richer, because there’s no other way the gross national product can grow rapidly’.

[Now this is getting to be a long post, and I know very well about average attention spans. So I consider it prudent to keep the rest of my comments for the next blogpost. Meanwhile those who do not want to bank purely on Sir’s pov might look up this link to see what others have been saying…]

2 comments:

Saikat Chakraborty said...

Dear Sir,

Forgive my ignorance if I overstep or digress from the contents of this post; I am trying to learn about this issue from this post and the links that you have provided.

Having read the name of Cherwell in Dr. Mitra’s article, I was reading up about him. This link helped (I think you have already read it Sir)-

http://www.historynet.com/lord-cherwell-churchills-confidence-man.htm.

It sent a chill down my spine to learn that the same person Lindemann (I came across reaction mechanisms conceptualized by him earlier in Chemistry text-books) is responsible for influencing decisions that wrought havoc upon the Indian sub-continent. Learned men armed with the right connections and access to power centres can easily have their way by means of apparently convincing arguments and oratory skills. The controversy surrounding the advocacy of Vitamin C stirred by Linus Pauling is also testimony to the fact how one man, banking on reputation and intellect and being convinced about the righteousness of his own purpose, can bulldoze an idea to the masses.

If Amartya Sen (as claimed by Jagadish Bhagwati) is putting the cart before the horse, isn’t Bhagwati himself advocating that the horse be left to run amok while the cart will somehow fall in place at a later stage all by itself? It is true that in the current times, almost every nobody (from common man to politicians who run the country) has an opinion on any and all matters under the sun whereas at the other extreme end, we have these educated hot-shots who are perhaps not in touch with the ground reality. How will we avoid placing too large a premium on any one side? How will we gain the consciousness to try to bridge the gap by following the middle path (as you repeatedly tried to stress by referring to the ‘Golden Mean’ advocated by Buddha)?

With regards,
Saikat.

Tanmoy said...

Dear Suvroda
Thank you for writing on this matter. I did not follow the debate from here at all until you wrote about it. Further to your write-up, I read a few articles on the internet and quite frankly I feel as always there is too much hullaballoo created by mainstream media when difference of opinion between Bhagwati and Sen is nothing new.
Sen and Bhagwati belong to different schools of thought. As you noted Sen has traditionally believed that growth should be supplemented by state sponsored social development programmes and Bhagwati’s support for further liberalisation is not new. Both lines of thoughts have been tested in India and the outcome has been far from ideal.
To my mind, for any economic policy to succeed in a country like India, honest intent and implementation is of utmost importance. In a country where social development schemes such as mid-day meals in schools end up costing lives of innocent children time and again, you have to ask questions to people who implement policies. We would never know following the disaster whether a review of the policy would be undertaken, whether someone would be punished etc.
Neither Sen nor Bhagwati have the onus to implement any of their theories, so how does it matter which side of the debate we belong?
Apologies if my thoughts appear disjointed.
Regards
Tanmoy