Sunday, July 28, 2013

Reforms and contradictions

One of the best things to have happened to Indian politics has happened over the last few months. I refer to the involvement of major economists, and therefore of economics, in the debate on how India should develop. Finally we can stop asking if the Prime Minister will be X or Y (where X=RG and Y=NM). How is that the point, until we know what they will do once in power? When it comes to issues where the UPA and NDA agree, it doesn't matter who forms the government, so the electorate needs to know where exactly they differ (and not what names they - or their increasingly idiotic supporters - are calling each other).

Given this situation, I welcome the ongoing debate between Amartya Sen and Jagdish Bhagwati. Two economists with a substantial research and publication record, and faculty positions at two of the world's leading universities (Harvard and Columbia), have concrete things to say about whether India is making the right economic decisions and what it should do next. It's true that they didn't just start expressing these opinions recently, both having written numerous books on economics some of which are specifically about India. As far as I can make out, Mr Bhagwati's major books on India are "India in Transition" (1993), "India's Reforms: How They Produced Inclusive Growth" (2012) and the recent "Why Growth Matters" (2013). I assume India also plays a significant role in other books of his about underdevelopment etc. Many of Bhagwati's books are co-authored with Arvind Panagariya. Amartya Sen's major books specifically on India's economy are "India: Economic Development and Social Opportunity" (1995), "Indian Development: Selected Regional Perspectives" (1997) and "An Uncertain Glory: India and Its Contradictions" (2013). Many of his books are co-authored with Jean Dreze.

It's interesting that both authors have chosen to write books about the Indian economy after a long gap of over ten years.Another symmetry is that both are linked to models based on development in a particular state. Bhagwati supports the Gujarat Model while Sen supports the Kerala Model. Only in a limited sense is this a "right vs left" conflict. Gujarat has a strong trader culture and follows a somewhat strident form of capitalism. Kerala by contrast has a strong unionist orientation and follows a rather militant form of... no, not what you think. Whatever anyone might claim, it follows capitalism like every other state in India, but puts a left-leaning emphasis on it.

It's easy enough to condemn both models: one for being focused too much on business and showing insufficient concern for the weak and underprivileged, the other for being focused too much on rights and too little on the obligation of hard work. But these criticisms are not entirely fair. In Gujarat there is an emphasis on overall development and infrastructure including schools, roads and hospitals, and these things immensely benefit poor people. In Kerala the literacy rates are enviable, medical care and education are good and a large majority is able to lead a meaningful middle-class life. Compared to some Indian states I can think of, both Gujarat and Kerala seem to be doing quite well. I would also argue that, given the culture and history of each state, the Gujarat model might not be possible to implement in Kerala and vice versa.

Both Bhagwati and Sen agree on the importance of economic growth of an inclusive kind. Their dispute is only about the relative importance of growth and inclusiveness. Sen prefers to emphasise the inclusive aspect while Bhagwati emphasises the growth aspect. Their similarities of outlook are greater than their differences: as another Indian-American economist, Pranab Bardhan, points out in today's TOI, the media "is blowing up relatively small and perfectly normal differences of opinion between two respectable economists".

So why are Bhagwati and Sen fighting at all? Well here the asymmetry comes in. Bhagwati may be correct or incorrect about economics, I can't be the one to judge this. But his manners and his way of handling disagreement come across as slightly dubious. The following quotes are taken from an article by Bhagwati that you can read in full here:

Sen has caught up with such issues only later and is sometimes described as the Mother Teresa of economics. But she did a lot of good at the micro level, whereas (as I discuss below) his policy prescriptions have done huge damage instead. Let us not insult Mother Teresa. 

Sen, with no evidence and with only wishful thinking to support his assertions...

Sen puts the cart before the horse; and the cart is a dilapidated jalopy!

So much, of course, from Sen who has conned foreigners into believing that Indians believe in debates that lead to an informed democracy. As it happens, Indians traditionally are more into falling at the feet of great figures like Sen and me. Alternatively, they indulge in personal attacks like musicians who describe singers from other gharanas as “dhobis”! As I once remarked jokingly, we Indians are so ingenious that we multiply by dividing!

This kind of writing does nothing to enhance the stature of an otherwise respected economist. The line "falling at the feet of great figures like Sen and me" should raise your eyebrows (it certainly did mine) and the incoherent nature of the last paragraph suggests Mr Bhagwati's own jalopy may be veering dangerously off the road.

Now I can't very well prevent Mr Bhagwati from embarassing himself. But can one hand clap on its own or did Mr Sen also say rude things to him and his friends? In the above article Bhagwati makes a specific accusation to this effect. He claims that Sen, in a panel on NDTV, said "Panagariya could not speak on NFSB issues as he lived in New York". I would be surprised if Sen really said this, since a philosopher such as himself would know the pitfalls of argumentum ad hominem. I couldn't find any evidence on the net, other than Mr Bhagwati's claim of what was said, but I'd be happy to see the evidence if it exists. Sen's own recent comments about the controversy and about the Indian economy are published here today in the form of an interview. His economic and political opinions are stated bluntly but there are no personal attacks.

To return to my original point: debates about economic policy in India are important and worthwhile. If they are conducted in a professional vein then we will all learn something and Indian democracy will be stronger for it.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Infrastructure growth but...

In a response to my last posting, vbalki pointed out that we Indians are no better than Americans when it comes to social prejudice. It wasn't hard to find a story that nicely illustrates his point. The article Developed Ahmedabad denies Muslim professor a homecoming that appeared early last year in the Ahmedabad Times, recounts how Prof. Javed Malik, originally from Baroda, found it hard to return to his native Gujarat because he is a Muslim. Having worked at IIT Kanpur for the last 11 years, he was tempted by a faculty position at the recently established IIT Gandhinagar but was turned away from every upmarket housing society solely because of his religion. In what has become a very familiar story, things would go fine until his religion was revealed and then the deal would suddenly fall through. The only open option was to reside in a Muslim ghetto 25 km away from IIT, something he rightly did not wish to do. Prof. Malik commented to the press that Ahmedabad has "excellent infrastructure growth but no mental growth".

The story is over a year old, so I thought I would do some fact-checking. What I found, just now, is that the website of IIT Kanpur still shows a Prof. Javed Malik, Civil Engineering. The website of IIT Gandhinagar not only has no mention of him, but has not a single Muslim name among its faculty. I think we can safely assume that Prof. Malik went back to Kanpur, and after his experience Muslim scientists decided they would not try to look for housing in the town named after Mahatma Gandhi. Though Prof. Malik's story appeared in the press long ago, I couldn't find any online evidence that any politician or ministry or minorities commission or court intervened. So it's still business as usual out there.

Though this story is often used for Modi-bashing, for once I don't think it's his fault (and nor is it Sonia/Rahul's fault, though so many believe them to be the root of all evil in our country!). The remarkable thing is that such blatant and ignorant discrimination is practised not by uneducated villagers, but by the upwardly mobile residents of elegant housing complexes. Even in the stylish new developments in Pune there are signs warning against "renting out to bachelors and foreigners". This is a general statement of prejudice but also comfortably covers the many Iranian students in the city. The same is true in certain areas of Malabar Hill in Bombay, where buildings are declared "vegetarian" in a bid to keep out the obvious communities. And let's not forget the time the actress Pooja Bedi Ibrahim (as she was then) was asked to drop the "Ibrahim" when applying for a credit card. "You see madam, our bank doesn't give credit cards to Muslims" she was told. It wasn't the BJP or the Congress that took this decision. It was a middle-class bank official. In other words it was you, me and our uncles and aunts.

One thing that amuses me is that the same communities which refuse to rent their flats out to bachelors and foreigners in India have sons and daughters in the USA. How would they feel if Americans refused to rent housing to them for the same reason? Here one sees the Indian trait of hypocrisy at its most exemplary: it's fine when I do it to others, but not when the same thing is done to me.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Fifty Shades of Black

I expect not too many Indians found time to follow the recent verdict in the US about the killing of unarmed teenager Trayvon Martin by a "neighbourhood watch coordinator", George Zimmerman. The story runs as follows: Trayvon and his father visited his father's fiancee at a gated community in Florida. Trayvon hopped out in the evening to buy a snack. While he was walking home, Zimmerman who was in a car found his movements suspicious, recounting later that Trayvon was peering into windows while he walked. He called the police, who said they would come soon and advised him not to follow the suspect. They came within two minutes! But it was all over and Trayvon was dead. Zimmerman admitted he had followed Trayvon, who - he says - jumped on him and attacked him with his fists. At this point, Zimmerman fired his gun and killed him.

Trayvon was not armed. Whether he was peering into windows and whether he attacked Zimmerman first can never be proved, since there were no effective witnesses.

Zimmerman was recently found not guilty on the grounds that he was defending himself from a physical attack. The case is complicated by the fact that Trayvon was black and Zimmerman white. (Much has been made of the fact that Z was technically Hispanic, but in fact his father was of German origin and his mother Peruvian.) Since there were no witnesses, the story lends itself to interpretation and there have been two popular ones: (i) white man sees black man, wrongly suspects him of being up to no good (out of racism), follows him thereby provoking an altercation and shoots him dead, (ii) black man behaves in a shady manner  a responsible neighbourhood volunteer holding a licensed gun calls police and follows the suspect, who - probably up to no good - turns on him and the volunteer shoots to defend himself. Those who believe interpretation (i) inevitably point out that had the races been reversed (armed black man follows unarmed white man and shoots him dead) the shooter would surely have been condemned. Those who believe interpretation (ii) argue that race had nothing to do with it.

I don't have anything to add to the story but I'm powerfully struck by the extent to which skin colour determines one's opinion. See this very nice page on the Guardian where the "top 10 commentaries" on the case have been posted. The newspaper helpfully provides photos of the commentators, four of whom are black and six are white. Three of the four black commentators clearly support interpretation (i), while the fourth has a more nuanced view. Four of the six white commentators support interpretation (ii), while the other two differ. Thus there's a clear correlation between one's own race and one's view on this legal case. I find this incredibly sad, though it's not news that modern societies are still highly polarised about identities.

The four white people holding the "official white" view work for right-wing media (one of them works for the extreme-right Fox News). I find some of their comments revolting and dishonest. One says we should "not keep this particular wound open any longer". In other words, bad things do happen! Another refers to "more than one reasonable doubt about Zimmerman's guilt". The Fox News Nazi comes up with a brilliant one: "No one should be charged with a crime unless prosecutors themselves really believe that the person committed a crime." and goes on to argue that in this case they did not. In other words, it should be down to the personal opinion of the prosecutors! At least in this case.

But let's highlight the sensible folk. Alex Fraser (black) writes an open letter to Zimmerman on Facebook: "For the rest of your life you are now going to feel what its like to be a black man in America. You will feel people stare at you, judging you for what you think are unfair reasons" It's an oblique message. And Bob Seay (white), on his own Facebook page, gets right to the heart of it. "I am not Trayvon Martin" he says: "You don't have to be black, or young, or a 'troubled student' or a pot smoker to know this was murder." His point is that white people should stop blindly identifying with their own race and show more empathy with minorities, with the "other", because they are unfairly victimised all the time. I think this is an important message for all majorities in all countries.

This story also casts serious doubt on the jury system in the USA. If the correlation between one's own race and one's judgement on the case holds, then an all-white jury would find Zimmerman innocent and an all-black one would find him guilty. What was the actual composition of the jury that found him innocent? Five white and one Hispanic.

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Will 2014 be 1933?

Returning to this blog after a longish time, I'd like to make a very brief comment on what is happening in Indian politics today.

I'll first point my readers to another website: (thanks to my cousin Harish for the reference).

Next, please answer the following questions (but don't submit your answers to me - this is a blog, not an exam paper!): Do you see the run-up to the 2014 elections in India somewhere on this page? Do you see the Indian middle-class? Indian industry? India in general?

Finally, please focus on the boxed quote from Source C.  I find those simple words more eloquent than all the rhetoric in today's press.