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Saturday, August 24, 2013

Debarshi in the Netherlands

My favourite old boy Debarshi has just gone off to the Netherlands, to do a master's course in engineering at the University of Delft. He has written the following little essay about his first impressions.

From Durgapur to Delft

In Zuid-Holland, lies a city that is poetry expressed in reality, a municipality that finds its beauty from its canals, and from the breathtaking vistas of Nature bestowed on it so bountifully by the Almighty, and the place that houses one of the finest universities of technology- Delft. I made this journey with one objective in mind- I wanted to learn the way I liked to. It's not every day that the Rector magnificus asks his students to think of themselves as an academic family, where hierarchical power distance is almost non-existent- and invites all of his students to create, innovate and design solutions to real-life problems that affect society as a whole. "If Engineering doesn't change our lives for the better, really address the pressing challenges economically, then that technology is of no use, and just increases theoretical complexity." I attended the Welcome address this very day, and came back with an experience of a lifetime. Care, efficiency, and humanity in every single aspect- this is The Netherlands for me. The Dutch love their tulips, their cheese, their canals, their country- but they love people. Coming from a place that's seen more dog-eat-dog competition than camaraderie, the first days here tasted better than the sweetest chocolate! I found myself thinking- "Maybe it's because they have such a tiny population, in such a beautiful country that seems like a portal to a place back in Time- but, could it be that they had really known the secret to living the good life? It was to co-exist peacefully in harmony, both with their fellow-men and Nature, since all we ultimately are dust in the wind."

Finding luggage too heavy to carry? The Dutch are going to help you out, going out of their way, putting their GPS-enabled phones to real use at the same time while lending a hand with your luggage- and wishing you good luck, when they finally take your leave. Finding yourself in a spot at a busy ticket counter, because you are unable to comprehend their language, that seems to be full of misplaced consonants? The official manning the counter is going to help you out with every single step, and making sure that you understand the concept clearly. Can't seem to find a shop? They will ask you to sit on their bicycles (oh, what a common sight they are all around Delft- there seem to be more bicycles than people!) and get you in the correct direction. The University campus was already strewn with leaves in fall, yet all other alleys and streets and buildings were spotlessly maintained. Love is in the air in The Netherlands- love for beauty, for keeping it so, and comprehending so flawlessly that 72 different nationalities have different cultures, different economic background, diverse religions. TU Delft puts it all in one giant pot, and the concoction tastes sweeter than any other brew! Cooking, cleaning up, washing, studying at the same time- I don't have the warmth of family here, but have found the warmth of fellowship. It has been a long journey- but then the road goes on and on, and whither then? We can only trust that it goes back to the beginning.  

I am now waiting for Saikat to fill me in from the University of Rochester, NY, USA. That should be another blogpost.

Thursday, August 15, 2013

The Sen-Bhagwati 'debate', part two

The Pioneer of Delhi carried this article of mine yesterday. My bit for Independence Day this year.

And this is Gopal Gandhi's edit page article in The Telegraph today. I am glad the Mahatma's grandson thinks the way I do, and immensely proud that he has mentioned some teachers with respect.

To pick up the threads from where I left off in the last post:

First of all, despite being as keenly aware as the next economic historian of how much growth has done for humanity over the long term (I have myself written elsewhere that the average American factory worker today lives a lifestyle that would be the envy of medieval kings in many ways), I am with Galbraith in believing that growth is not a cure for all diseases, and growth beyond a point, unguided growth especially, can itself become a terrible disease.  

For one thing, anyone who knows how national income/product accounts are drawn up knows how much jugglery and fudging is involved (polite and canny economists refuse to mention such things to laymen). I won’t go into details here: ask if you are interested. But this means that growth figures not only hide as much as they reveal, but are also far too misleading to be regarded with as much awe and excitement as most economics-illiterate journalists do – are paid to do. For another, as honest professors tell even undergraduate kids, any kind of increase in output is growth: more lifesaving drugs yes, more narcotic drugs yes, too; more nightclubs count for no less in the aggregate national accounts than more schools and libraries and museums! So growth cannot be called a ‘good thing’ without strict qualifications, and a lot of serious value judgments. Third, growth has very unhealthy ‘side effects’, to put it mildly: witness the epidemic of obesity, heart disease, ADHD, casual crime and suchlike that invariably comes hard on the heels of the kind of growth that lets people eat more (of the worst kind of food), work less manually, and have too much leisure and ‘entertainment’ of the tweeting sort. Fourth, there can be near-‘jobless’ growth, as has been by and large the case in virtually all developed countries over the last three decades, so that average unemployment levels have been steadily rising. Fifth, the kind of growth that simultaneously causes rapid depletion of critical non-renewable natural resources and extreme forms of environmental pollution can be sustained at most for a few decades more: no economist can answer that except with the prayer ‘I hope not in my kids’ lifetimes, not at least in my country!’ I can extend this list considerably, but if my point is not yet taken, that is only because the reader just doesn’t want to listen. So it is already a sad fact that both Sen and Bhagwati are eager to assert that they are equally in favour of endless, aimless, pointless growth, important as that may be for the poor in the poorest countries still. Surely economists and politicians could think of higher aims. Once upon a time they actually did!

Now, even if it is admitted that growth is essential, there are still important things to think of.

1.   Who benefits from growth, and how much? The usual pattern – especially in the absence of correctional intervention by government – is that the already rich and privileged get obscenely richer, while the poor keep scrounging, or things get actually worse for them, or at best improve at an agonizingly slow pace (in a slight variation of the idea of ‘you will get your rewards in heaven’, economists keep telling them ‘things will get better in the long run’. Lord Keynes’ unanswerable repartee was ‘In the long run we are all dead’). The difference tends to become steadily wider, as successive generations of the rich get things ready made and cut out for them, and ‘money begets money’. Not fair at all. Only a very selfish or very foolish person will claim otherwise.

2.   They claim – the ‘neoclassical’ (currently mainstream-, because they are good with the calculus, matrix algebra and statistics) economists – that there’s no way you can get growth going without encouraging private entrepreneurship, and private entrepreneurs ‘need’ to make astronomical fortunes in order to keep going: deny them that right, and they will sulk and sit back and let things slide, and the whole nation’s fortunes will suffer. Now, there are three things I must note here: a) they have no real theoretical underpinning for claiming such a thing, for no theory really ‘explains’ growth unless you are willing to start off with all sorts of ridiculous assumptions about human beings, b) funny that only entrepreneurs ‘need’ the lure of vast fortunes in order to make them do their thing, when so many other socially valuable types, from teachers to musicians to soldiers can get along fine without similar blandishments, always done! and c) the historical record says that all countries, including that much-vaunted paradise of ‘free enterprise’, the US of A, have achieved growth and increased social welfare only by virtue of continuous governmental monitoring, regulation, intervention and assistance at times of dire crises in the larger public interest (indeed, American corporate tycoons have a glorious record of insisting on ‘freedom’ only when the going is good, and they run to the government for help when disaster strikes far more eagerly and shamelessly than the poor do – though it is always the poor who are blamed for wanting to live on ‘unearned entitlements’!), and indeed, the ‘best results’, from the collective point of view, have been achieved precisely in those countries which have neither tended too far towards communism nor pampered laissez faire capitalism but steered a steady middle course, from Germany since the time of Bismarck (barring the chaos between 1914 and ’45) and Japan to the Scandinavian countries and Switzerland, New Zealand and the like. Growth may have been somewhat slower there, and they have far fewer billionaires to show off, but from the national point of view, it never really mattered. Both crime rates and poverty are far less there, and the highest average standards of living overall, even if you leave out cultural and environmental criteria.

3.   Sen keeps insisting not only that large-scale government initiatives on building infrastructure, spreading basic education and health care (government, because nowhere on earth do private businessmen want to spend on such things – too expensive, returns too low and slow and risky – though they want the benefits thereof: let the government build the roads while they make the cars, but government is BAD because it calls on them to pay for the roads through increased taxes!) are not only good things in themselves but they actually accelerate growth. I have never stopped wondering how supposedly educated and worldly-wise people could ever think otherwise, blind to all the evidence before their eyes. Whereas Bhagwati actually wants these things too, but seems to imagine they can happen without the presence of that ‘great evil’ called government!

4.   Bhagwati and his tribe see only efficiency and high productivity and maximum all-round social welfare ‘in the long run’ from unfettered competitive laissez faire, while government brings only ‘corruption’,  tyranny, red-tapism and stagnation. Half truth, and as usual, half truths are often more dangerous than outright lies. For one thing, governments do not have a monopoly on the aforementioned evils, as anyone who has lived half a life in the real world and does not have an ax to grind in favour of the private sector will admit (yesterday an old boy was telling me how he has got far better service in a public sector bank compared to a famous private one; and I, for one, have been cheated more than once by private insurance companies and others). For another, the private sector wouldn’t even exist in safety and peace without the protective umbrella provided by governments via the law, the courts, the police and the civil services: the rich actually need government far more than the poor.  For a third, we need governments for reasons far beyond the preservation and development of the economy, a fact that economists too easily forget; slavery would not have been abolished without government effort, nor sati nor child marriage and a hundred other ancient evils. The real debate should centre on how much government we need, without surrendering to extremist notions and perverse SPIN on either side.

P.S.: This editorial in Monday’s issue of my newspaper says that Bhagwati has come down to abusing Sen personally. No better admission of defeat!

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…]

Friday, August 02, 2013


To start with, here's the link to the post titled 'Bye bye time again'. It will help my current senior batch, who will be leaving in a few months' time. After you have read that post, don't forget to click on the link provided there!

More than one person asked, after reading the 'zen' story, 'Sir, a) do you really think that kind of passionate interest and devotion are possible?, and, b) is it possible in today's trivia-obsessed world, when anything you write can be forgotten as soon as another Katrina Kaif item number is released, or iPhone6 comes on the market?' My reply is, of course not. I was merely talking about two kinds of extreme. One type will gladly cut off an arm, another won't 'sacrifice' a Facebook account for Sir's sake, and yet would be offended if I laugh at their protestations of love and respect and devotion: they must be given 'reason' enough before they take such a 'drastic' step (but let it go on record that three people have already told me they have deleted their FB accounts after reading the last post, and I won't be surprised if a few others have done it without telling me).

I have decided I shall communicate much less directly with individuals than via these blogs. For one thing, individuals don't really matter much unless they make themselves valuable, but no sooner do I give them some leeway than they begin to take all sorts of liberties with me, and for another, the '200,000 plus page views' tells me something very reassuring: a lot of people are reading what I write, and some do let me know how they are being affected, in a way that gratifies me, so I don't need to bother about particular individuals anyway. Besides, I have said before that my blogs are extensions of my classroom. Those who come to my classrooms come basically to listen to me and learn from me, and perchance to remember and think about and be improved by what I have told them, not to give me the backchat they haven't earned the right, intellectually and emotionally, to try. I have noticed, and not with one person, that those who are only too eager to give me a piece of their mind (whatever passes for their minds) in personal conversations are far more circumspect about doing that on the blogs, to the extent that 'they can't think of what to say', even when I want them to. And maybe that suits me best. 

Also, some people raised the question of gratitude and ingratitude recently. No one of course will deliberately call himself 'ungrateful', but I sometimes think I have got more than my fair share, still. Look up this blogpost.

That's all for now. I shall write very soon again. Don't forget to look up the previous post: it's not grown stale. Language is everything.

P.S.: Looking at the map showing people currently reading, my curiosity is tickled again. I know who reads from Golden, Colorado, and from Kure, Japan, and from Auckland, New Zealand - but who is my reader in Calgary, Canada, in Nokia, Finland, in Mountain View, California, home of Google, and the 'unknown' in Nigeria? Why won't they ever tell me?!