Studied economics, didn’t become an economist !
I became an entrepreneur!
Yes, it is ironical that I studied economics both at Santiniketan and Oxford and yet I didn’t become an economist! Instead I had always wanted to become an entrepreneur, wanted to have my own independence, I wanted money, lots of money and do a great many things! In this I encountered obstacles at every turn. More cruel irony is that these sorts of obstacles continued when my son came back from Oxford and when I wanted to induct him into an independent entrepreneurial career!
Somehow in our home there was this aversion for jobs from a very early age of my life. Perhaps, my going to a Gandhian school must have put in me much of an idealist outlook. More than that perhaps is my rural or rather feudal background. I always looked upon others, the society from my family’s point of view. Our family had a fiercely independent existence and the very village environment gave us this, robustness. My mother was known for her extraordinary mental courage and resolve. She always faced uphill situations, so her in-born native courage stood her well. May be, I might have inherited this trait from her, so, I believe.
Now as for economics, there was no particular reason for choosing the subject. I went to
an Intermediate course in Tamil! That brought soon disillusionment. So, I wanted to get out. I couldn’t. So, I applied to the distant Santiniketan. The Bengalis didn’t understand what subject I studied. I got very high marks. That is all. So, they gave me the subject I sought. So, I joined economics. Now, having joined economics I did do well in the subject. There was at my time in Santiniketan an young Bengali student, by name, Amartya Sen who had just then come back from Cambridge. Yes, this Sen is the Nobel Laureate in economics! He was already famous for he had a rival in one Sukhomoy Chakravarthy. These two became famous as brilliant students at the famed Presidency College, Kolkatta. So, we students at Santiniketan were all inspired by Sen’s intellectual capabilities and one day I met Sen. I had narrated elsewhere more about Sen. So, here I would come back to economics.
Sen and Sunil Khilani
In fact, this piece is just provoked by reading a review in the London Financial Times of Amartya Sen’s latest book (The Argumentative Indian: Writings on Indian History, Culture and Identity, Allen Lane, 432 pages). The title caught my attention: the argumentative Indian! Yes, Sen if anything but simply argumentative and he excels in arguments often verging on minute analysis of the arguments of others! Sen’s writing style, “dry, removed”, “coolly maintains an embattled tone”, often doesn’t make for easy reading ,except to the chosen few! There are some myth-building already about Sen. There is a curious reference to the “Scotland of Adam Smith”. What is Adam Smith tradition? Wealth of Nations? Private enterprise-driven wealth creation? Academics must write with some clarity of purpose so that ordinary readers would benefit. I remember the Santiniketan days. The economic dept. of the Presidency College had an economics magazine and in which Chakravarthy argued a case. Sen famously tore it up by ending his article by saying Chakravarthy’s case is like “putting the cart before the horse!”. So, Sen had this capacity for arguments, more also for counter- arguments! So, we find here as the reviewer (Sunil Khilani, the author of “The Idea of India”, now professor of politics at John Hopkins University in Washington D.C.) says that” Sen made his reputation in economics”. Then Khilani’s own description of economics: “That technical and cultural unlocated social science given to abstract formulations which leaves particular human beings out of the picture”. Ironically, I knew Sen so well but I don’t know Khilani, the reviewer!
Khilani’s description is quite an accurate understanding of economics. In spite of all his brilliance of Sen and his winning the Nobel Prize that made every Indian proud, there is this curious phenomenon of Indian economists becoming a distinct breed! All full-time economists are either employed in government or in academia. I don’t know a successful politician or an entrepreneur, unless you call Dr.Manmohan Singh a successful politician! And much worse, all Indian economists have become a timid crowd. They have no beliefs of their own, they were government economists all through the Nehru Planning years, suddenly they lost faith in Marxism, once the 1991 reforms were announced. It is a bit embarrassing to note that Dr.Manmohan Singh is an archetypal case in changing sides and remaining always in government service!
Those like Sen who migrated abroad, are of course so well known in the intellectual circles but lately their importance in their home country is getting diminished. There was talk sometime ago the NRI professionals like economists coming to teach in India periodically. This idea was aired by Sam Pitroda and quickly forgotten. For the simple reason, no one in India is happy to welcome competition nor the NRI finding the remuneration attractive. The dollar earnings are ten times, if not more than what any Indian university can pay. More than that what quality of students who now want to study economics. Already in the UK there is a shortage of candidates for degree courses ,more so for doing P.hD course in economics.
And lately, I had come to distrust much of what the economists say. See what credibility the PM’s promise to ensure economic growth is faced with a decline in the promised growth rate. Also, see the Deputy head of the Planning Commission’s solutions to ensure fast growth. So, what chance for high calibre theoreticians and argumentarims like Sen has for offering any practical solutions to India’s manifold problems.
The tragedy with economists, more so the Indian economists is there is a pretentious fringe who call themselves Marxists who offer all sorts of advice no government takes seriously. Thus, even such a momentous issue like globalisation remains undiscussed in an open and objective manner. No one in authority in India I had seen,who had given a convincing argument why globalisation is here to stay, we can’t do much against it, rather we can and should do everything in our power to turn globalisation to India’s advantage. I hadn’t yet studied Sunil Khilani’s book (The Idea of India). The book is lying before me! But I had just now gone through his introduction to the 2003 edition. It is already out of date! His focus on BJP outrage in Gujarat is overturned by the last General Election that sent out the hot heads! So, in spite of scholars like Khilani trying to find some theoretical definitions of identity, India’s identity is historically and culturally well established. There is now a new momentum to bring Pakistani people towards India and this process is very likely to lead to unpredictable positive consequences.
Sen Economics outside political context loses its significance
Sen harps on choices. What choices, other than the way ahead for more freedoms. Freedoms in politics as well as in economics. In a perceptive remark Khilani notes that Sen believes in reason, reasoning, puts great faith in public deliberations. But Sen in a critical sense is not interested in politics. Power, the sociology of power. Khilani says: “Yet the arena of politics is shaped by power( a concept that figures lightly in his work), in ways that can all often leave reason disarmed”. In fact, I lost interest in Sen somewhere when I realised he won’t offer any open opinion on the performance of the governments, or his own friends like Dr.Singh and Ahluwalia and others like the highly rated economists and bureaucrats on the PM’s Economic Council Advisers! These persons all operate outside the sociology of power, the power structure shapes its own dynamics. The sociology of power defines the various classes, the caste and social dominant groups and Indian politics today is nothing but the dynamics of how these various sociological power groups operate. Talk any amount of economic or other theories, they all founder on the rock reality of these power groups. So, in a very significant sense, we have to counter Sen’s too much for rationality in economic decisions. Doesn’t he know that highly desirable social goals are reached or achieved often in unexpected, anti-rational ways too? So, at one point or another, you have to take political and class positions. There is a misplaced glamour associated with the subaltern politics in India. While this is inevitable, no amount of subaltern groups ganging up can upturn the class structure, the dominant group capturing all the levers of power. Even through subtle manipulations in an outward Constitutional manner!
There are areas where the present government in Delhi is simply insufferable. In agriculture they have failed miserably and yet they shift the blame on others! This they do after more than a year in power! And when the public opinion is overwhelming to give them the benefit of doubt!
Yes, Sen had long and put out insightful concepts on poverty, gender equality, literacy etc. But his own state of West Bengal (and Kerala) he is always popular among the Marxist politicians is a model of all that is not economically or reasonably justified in the names of so many outdated ideological grounds. Khilani quotes, rather surprisingly the New York Times Correspondent Thomas Friedman. I have just now finished reading his second column on Ireland. The “hire and fire” labour policy in Ireland, says Friedman, had led to more new jobs created. As against what is happening in France and Germany. Sen won’t give any single piece of advice to his fellow Bengali politicians. Bengal today is educationally backward, its health record is a scandal and gender equality, I imagine no better and the labour is very miserable and yet there is no FDI or IT industries forthcoming to invest in Bengal. What is Sen’s practical wisdom? He shies away, obviously.
So, the state of economics in the end at any rate in India proves to be a big disappointment. The only redeeming feature of current India is its thrust in IT and software and related BPO and in one word in the outsourcing. This development came about without economists or the politicians knowing about a thing at all! That is the strength of technology, globalisation and the weakness and limitations of too much reliance on theoretical expertise and also the current crop of mostly “illiterate” (uninformed) politicians.
Lord Keynes remains an exception in that he could write a theoretical economics book to prove an economic reality and he can castigate the ignorant politicians who believe in outdated economics of their school days. In India, there is no such tradition or an atmosphere conducive for applying innovative economic policies. This globalisation, this IT revolution all came suddenly without any expert or experts anticipating. There is a curious anecdote narrated by Eric Habswam, the eminent Marxist historian. In the late 1980s there were groups of economists visiting Helsinki (where there was a UN university where Sen and his peers were also stationed. The visiting economists, says Habswam, were always looking out towards St.Peter’sburg with much hope, hoping the Soviet economy would grow without realising within days. The Soviet Union was collapsing! Yes, such is the economists capacity (or incapacity?) to reason and anticipate and predict!
Nehru’s approach to economic development
Nehru believed in building the economic strength of India and he opted for Soviet-type Planning. This economic conception helped Nehru in the initial stages. That was also the time when much of development economics was concentrated on developing “economic models”. Harrod-Domar “model” was much discussed. I was a student of Sir Roy Harrod! I bought his “Dynamic Economics” book and read it religiously! Nehru was helped largely by P.C.Mahalanobis, a statistical “scientist” and it was his great practical commitment that made him so indispensable for Nehru to draw up the Second Five Year Plan. I bought his, this particular formulation of the Second Plan and I still possess as a souvenir! It of course stirred my interest in the practical use of theoretical economics.
I remember one day in a Santiniketan tea shop. I was sitting there and discussing things and suddenly came there Amartya Sen all of a sudden! We students were so excited. After all left, I was the lone company for Sen who while in Santiniketan loved “adda bage” (idle talk!). I mentioned rather innocently that I had read Nicholas Kaldor’s book, “The Expenditure Tax”. Suddenly Sen countered me: “What you think of the Expenditure Tax?” I was caught off-handed. I couldn’t come out with any articulated reply. In a typical Indian fashion I quoted some definitions given by Kaldor. He then queried about my own views. Simply I couldn’t give any answer! Yet, Sen didn’t show off his skills, he was the same old amiable Santinketanite, he walked in, I think bare foot, and in the Bengali fashion dhoti kurtha and while I accompanied him back to his house across, I remember, some fallow field he pulled his dhoti above so that it doesn’t get caught in some left-over paddy straw or some shrub. So, simple and so by himself. I noticed Sen’s one characteristic, he won’t talk any serious academic topic while in public places. He was there in all places. He was there at one bhaitalik, the morning prayer spot and immediately all his old teachers gathered around him in eager love and attention and he used to walk with us, students. I in particular was so drawn towards him that I fashioned myself, rather my academic goals around Sen. So I sought his advice and that is how I also one day landed up in Oxford. In fact, I tried first Cambridge on Sen’s advice, though I remember he said getting admission into Oxford or Cambridge was very difficult. But once he put the ambition into my head, then there was no turning back for me. I was determined to go to Oxford and I did everything in my powers to make it possible!
I was narrating Nehru’s conception of economics as a tool for economic planning. That was fine. But as years rolled by and when I came of age and when I entered life and when I looked at my personal fortunes, I realised that economics as such won’t help me to make my wealth. Wealth creation is a different game altogether. This realisation came to me late in life. All my Oxbridge colleagues and friends didn’t understand my own insights. Perhaps their backgrounds were different. But for me. I realised economics as such won’t help. I must take some bold steps. I think, I realised that the very definition of entrepreneur is one who takes difficult steps to attain one’s goal. I realised I had no use for economics, that is theoretical economics. So, my very conception of economics, wealth creation and my very outlook changed. I became a new man, literally and metaphorically!
I had gone through the Life of Keynes by Robert Skdelsky. A massive volume of 1000 pages! What use, I wondered. For whom such a volume would be useful? May be because in UK only the theoretical economics originated as we know it now, there is a tradition of teaching and writing such big books. But in other countries where also great original minds had come out and helped to change the theoretical economics like in Austria and Sweden, there have been great economists. The two who interested me are the great Austrian economist, Fredrick von Hayek, the Swede, Gunnar Myrdall, were both among the winners of the Nobel Prize for Economics.
In India we followed the economic planning and so what we have got among the economists were mostly imitators, VKRV.Rao and others. Only Sen and his generation had ventured into broader territory. Sen had a tutor, Maurice Dobb. I corresponded with Dobb for some months for getting admission to Cambridge. I remember one of his lines. He wrote: “I wonder whether you would benefit by studying under me. I am a sort of Marxist and I teach in a fashion that is not popular here…” It was nice of him to enter into correspondence with a total newcomer about whom he didn’t know a thing. Then such is British manners and etiquette!
When I sent my exam answers that were conducted under the supervision of my Santiniketan Economics Professor, Karunamoy Mukerjee, the New College tutor in economics, Peter Wiles, it seems wrote, that “this boy is a potential First! and as such I got my formal admission to enter Oxford. But in the Oxford scheme of things, I had to also take a paper in French! That was a compulsory paper as I was admitted initially under the condition: “you must undergo a three year undergraduate course”. I said yes without fully knowing all the implications! I was very keen to get into Oxford, I didn’t even have any hazy idea where the money will come from! My mother, being a daring lady, was my only source of confidence. How my confidence had taken me all through my life’s various daredevil paths, into my unimagined course to take on big ideals and the accompanying challenges! So, I went to Oxford to stay there for three years. But as my luck would have it, I passed my M.A. in economics at Santiniketan (Visva Bharati University) by getting a First class! That saved me one year at Oxford. Under the rules, I was given what is called “senior status” that meant I could skip the First year. That also saw the compulsory French paper went off! Though I was struggling hard to read Toqcquville’s “Ancient Regime” in French! I didn’t do well initially in economics and Peter Wiles is a very clever economist but somewhat as I was later to discover, a bit misdirected! Though he was also Prize Fellow of All Souls, a great academic honour.
I remember he also saw me winning the Warden’s Prize for an economics paper! The rules stipulated that I must first discuss with the economics tutor the topic on which I wrote. My topic was something on imperfect competition. There was a raging dispute between the then two famous economists. One was Joan Robinson, a lady Cambridge economist. Women economists, then and now, are rare breeds! There was one Chamberlin at Harvard. They didn’t agree on what constituted imperfect competition. When I mentioned to Peter Wiles what I was going to write about, how my point of view was a novelty he pooh-poohed my idea! But I persisted. He was a highly critical man and after questioning me for long, in the end he conceded: “Okey, you seem to have something new, let us see, go ahead and write.. “I wrote and I won the prize of five pounds!
I remember the day. The notice announcing the results was pasted in the notice board at the Porter’s Lodge (entrance hall). I was looking at the notice. Suddenly, I turned back and noticed my friend Xerxes Desai was also reading the same and said: “Oh, congratulations! You have done something, fine!”. Yes, in Oxford everything is taken seriously. Even the small acts or activities counted much. Thus, my participating in the Oxford Debating Society was considered something extra-ordinary. Now, looking back I realise how I did things, individually, without anyone guiding me into all my forays in different directions. About my academic economics study I could write at length. But I am not keenly interested. In India itself I had read much of the standard economics books. I bought Lord Keynes’ General Theory of Employment in hardcover edition. So too other books.
At Oxford what I found was the professors, Sir John Hicks and Roy Harrod and others were all teaching what they were researching at that time. Thus, text books were never on our minds. It was particular areas of specialisation that caught my attention and stimulated my interests. Thus, I wrote a paper on monetary theory and sent it to the journal Oxford Economic Papers. Roy Harrod was a friend of Lord Keynes and wrote the first biography of the great economist and as such he was given to tell us often in the course of his lectures that he only knew the correct way to understand Keynes.
Now, all that is past. Keynes theories made many controversies and Keynes came at a time when the Great Depression led down many pet theories. Now, for the common non-specialist readers I would say it was Keynes who made government intervention in economic matters respectable and it was in a way inevitable. So, Keynes went on to construct a “theory” that was long disputed by more orthodox theorists. Keynes was lucky to come at a time when Britain was a big power and Oxbridge economics had a reputation. Also Keynes was also working as a civil servant, at the Treasury, and as such he had inside knowledge of the functioning of government and he also had a powerful pen. So, he was more a practical economist, he wrote also in popular journals. He was both an academic as well as a journalist. So, many of his ideas were found working, the US economy came out of the great economic crisis.
It is a different thing whether Roosevelt’s “New Deal”, powerful government intervention was inspired by Keynes. I don’t think so. Yet, the academic economists helped the government with certain ideas. No doubt. But once the Empire broke up Keynes ideas spread through his former students in other countries.
Now, one can dispute whether Keynes saved Capitalism. This is to equate with Karl Marx as the father of Communism. Both are, in my view, rather crude formulations. I studied so many economists. I remember Lionel Robbins book, The Nature and Significance of Economics”. It was he who formulated the famous definition of “economics as defining the allocation of scarce resources” among competing demands. This position I hold even now.
I also became fascinated with so many innovative economic theories of Nicholas Kaldar. He was also friend of Indian government which sought his theory of “Expenditure Tax in place of Income Tax. But without my tutors prompting me.
I read other economists, not fully but partially. Thus, I was fascinated by the great Austrian economist, Joseph Schumpeter. Also, another fellow Austrian economist, Fredrick von Hayek. Also other Swedish economists Knutsell and Ragner Frisch. They were all great economists who, had they lived now, would have easily won the Nobel Prize!
Now, after the Nobel Prizes for economists were started ,the whole concept of economics changed, the whole conception of what economists do also underwent change.In my view, economics had now become one of a maze of highly technical puzzles! Thus, the latest list of Nobel Prize won economists, most of them American economists, read like puzzles not for the common man’s good. Thus, so many disastrous consequences came about when some Nobel Prize winning economists theories were put into practice.But there is the wide realisation that economists, like statisticians, can help give meaning in quantitative ways, the growth ratios, rate of growth etc. for government ministers (most of them often plain illiterates!) to bandy about! As Keynes in one of his memorable, often-quoted sentence, said: “when men in power quote some dead economists whom they had read in their school/colleges” what they would actually do when in power are often out of date ideas!
Can we say the same thing with what Dr.Manmohan Singh and his colleagues are doing? I wonder!
Now, in my practical entrepreneurial life what I do in agriculture and rural development is surely completely out of tune with the macro-economic principles. Why poverty perists? Why inequality persists? Why wealth buy its very nature accumulates leading to in great economic disparities? Our present day economists, both here and abroad, are more professional ones. They don’t apply their theories. They have no interest in politics and they have no practical experience to test their theories.
So, I have not much use for profesional economics or economists. Instead, the new breed MBAs at least bring with them some business management principles. Here too, we in our day to day practical business solutions we apply our own gut feelings and go about our ways. So, what use academic economics? Practically none!
Of course one learns from actual life. In the process of living. What one does in life matters. Academic life for me is no glamour. It is genteel poverty! At the end of the day!
Wealth creation is a different ball game. It requires a very different set of conditions. Guts, courage, to take risks and also to visualise the future patterns of technological changes and the suitable business opportunities to spot them out.
For me, living in Bangalore and the current IT revolution had given me more insights into the dynamics of power, businesses and wealth creating opportunities. All these one leans only by actually doing things. Hand-on, as it is!