Economics, Development & Policy Takeaways, 2017

It has been an extraordinary year in academic realm, especially in public policy and economics. This is the year when economics got realistic, if one regards the annual Nobel Prize in Economics as a defining moment in economics research. Richard Thaler won it for for showing how the human traits of ‘limited rationality, social preferences, and lack of self-control’ systemically affect individual decisions as well as market outcomes. This has been a clear break from the past. When have economists bothered about psychology before?

Besides being my areas of interest and training, public policy and economics, in my reading went through a rather significant transition led by eroding away of the traditional orthodoxy. The heterodox economics movement has now acquired the necessary critical mass which makes me hopeful about the discipline’s future.  May be, the Nobel prize recognition to behavioural economics also helps the cause.  The kind of change required was articulated well by Jean Tirole trying to push for economics for common good – ‘we urgently need economists to engage with the many challenges facing society, helping to identify our key objectives and tools needed to meet them.’ It is further affirming when the most influential thinkers contribute to a book titled Economic Ideas You Should Forget, edited by Bruno Frey and David Iselin. Some of the ideas to forget about, included in this book are “capitalism”, “rational expectations” and the efficiency-equity tradeoff”.

As for public policy, traditional policy thinking has been about what ought to be done, imagined in isolation from political factors like incentives for politicians. Thinking about policies that help institutions align social and private interests has only begun, as I figure. However, I’d still wish there was more concern shown to issues of work in digital era and workers’ welfare in these times of cheap goods and services. The year’s readings to the least makes me sure of pursing labour welfare research in the future. At the moment it looks somewhat ignored, in contrast to its consequences for development outcomes in an economy.

In terms of reading preference this year, it was India focused. I picked up Sumantra Ghoshal’s World Class in India and began looking at the case studies on Indian corporations again. This is a fine collection of innovative, risk taking and forward thinking Indian corporations detailing their paths to growth and transformation. I am particularly struck by Dr Parvinder Singh’s remark on the theme of building a world class company in India – ‘Ranbaxy cannot change India. Instead what it can do is create a pocket of excellence. Ranbaxy must be an island within India.’ As a philosophy for change, this is simple and compelling.

In development, I was led to Bad Samaritans: The guilty secrets of rich nations and the threat to global prosperity by Ha-Joon Chang. Earlier this year, I also read his Kicking Away the Ladder: Development strategy in historical perspective. Both these books are a seminal read in thinking about development from a mix of economic and historical perspective. The intersection of these perspectives makes Chang’s works insightful. Bad Samaritans alerts the reader to ‘the historical double standards involved in recommending free trade and free market to developing countries’. Whereas, the developed countries grew by practicing exactly the opposite. What follows is a careful, evidence-based and tempered argument for the same. I have learnt the art of constructing a clear and forceful argument from Chang’s writings.

In July, 2017, I graduated from MPP course. The quantum of reading in public policy almost dipped after that, except occasional academic papers. I intend to now begin a policy-thinker series which gives me an opportunity to discuss interesting ideas as well as develop a set of policy thinkers who are shaping the discipline. In all of these readings, I am struck by how few Indians I come across. May be, it says much about my exposure. While we do have scores of economists, those in public policy research seem few. I hope to discover them in the year ahead.

Overall, the year’s readings leaves me feeling positive about these disciplines’ focus and concern. I didn’t feel this way last year or before that. In fact, the state of disciplines made me reconsider if I ever want to pursue a Ph.D. But this year is different. I am considering research again, over abandoning it for business and work.

Among others, I was fascinated by Dror’s critical examination of public policy making which reviews the state of discipline in the early 1980s, and goes on to propose a shift (away from the idea of ‘muddling through’ of Lindblom) towards theoretical frameworks. Perhaps, there is a characteristic policy approach in the developing world and countries of the tropics, as opposed to others. It could be seen as ‘policy-making in the tropics’. I hope to build this idea further, in the months ahead. For one, policy-making in tropics is intricately linked to an institutional working culture which is somewhere between formalism and non-procedural, incidence-based functioning.

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When Breath Becomes Air

Paul Kalanithi’s book When Breath Becomes Air is an unsettling read which at the same time leaves the reader with a compelling sense of optimism.  It is a stirring experience of knowing a man’s mind from the frighteningly close distance of his own words, as he prepares himself to meet his end. It certainly doesn’t seem like death. To use that word would be to demean all that Paul strives for since the time his terminal illness is confirmed by medical examinations. It isn’t death. It is a man trying to re-size a life time’s plan into the shortened time that he is given. The book is an account of the short span when every day is lived as a conviction to finish all that one can, instead of a surrender to the inevitable. It is not a fight as the popular versions of experiences with terminal illness go. Paul’s is a preparation and finding satisfaction in what is.

Paul is diagnosed with state IV lung cancer at the age of thirty-six and at a time in his career when he is about to reap the fruits of his long training as a neurosurgeon and neuroscientist. What does a man think in those moments after he is told that he doesn’t have much time to live? When instead, he has lived with a belief that there is a lifetime ahead to work and achieve his dreams? Does he pass away in dejection or makes the best of what he has? If he makes the best possible use of his time, then I wanted to know what does it take to be that hopeful against the hard and cold ceiling of the inevitability of fast approaching death. Paul’s writing answers much of it. In the face of mortality, Paul manages to show remarkable thoughtfulness and compose. From insights into a surgeon’s work to a young man’s quest and aspirations in life and on to a couple’s heartbreaking journey through the illness, the book is an insight into lived experience in situations of life that one tends to not imagine upon oneself.

Here is an intelligent young man who isn’t succumbing to despair but rather manages to see things objectively. From one of his early meeting with his Oncologist, he writes –

I began to realize that coming in such close contact with my own mortality had changed both noting and everything. Before my cancer was diagnosed, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. After the diagnosis, I knew that someday I would die, but I didn’t know when. But now I knew it acutely. The problem wasn’t really a scientific one. The fact of death is unsettling. Yet there is no other way to live.

Personally, to not despair in the wake of difficult situations has been hard. Perhaps, this makes the book even more important for me at this time in my life.

Again, the following conversation between Paul and his wife is extraordinary, in the face of what they face ahead and the clarity about suffering.

“What are you most afraid or sad about?” she asked me one night as we were lying in bed.

“Leaving you,” I told her.

(…)

“Will having a newborn distract from the time we have together?” she asked. “Don’t you think saying goodbye to your child will make your death more painful?”

“Wouldn’t that be great if it did?” I said. Lucy and I both felt life wasn’t about avoiding suffering.

In face of daily life situations one tends to feel pushed against the wall. Coping with them feels daunting. Reading this book is to know what the extremes can be and that there are people who have responded to such situations in a constructive manner. As the last moments of Paul’s life are described in the epilogue by Paul’s wife, Lucy, one sees a family united in sorrow yet cherishing a life that left behind a certain kind of completeness and contentment that is felt typically when people die in their nineties.

For the importance of this book, I find the reason in Paul’s remark “Words have a longevity I do not.” The final words of the book are for his daughter Cady, who is eight months old when Paul died. He leaves this passage for her and I believe this to be indicative of his attitude towards his illness and mortality. This shall remain a very fine piece on human spirit in the face of insurmountable odds, for me –

There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

That message is simple.

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, right now, that is an enormous thing.

As this year draws to a close, I realize that I have spent several months grieving over matters that can never be as soul destroying and hopeless as Paul’s illness. In his writing I find an attitude to work and life that was unknown to me. If I were on as short time as Paul’s, these months I lost doing very little would have been a colossal waste. The book then brings back the importance of time and making the most of it, while has the good fortune of having that time.

Art of Monstrous Men

The Paris Review ran a thought-provoking piece last month by Claire Dederer, who reflects upon What Do We Do with the Art of Monstrous Men?  set against the backdrop of series of allegations of sexual assault and misconduct by several famous men, who have also been exceptionally good at what they do for a profession. As Dederer lays out in the beginning, ‘They are monster geniuses, and I don’t know what to do about them.’ She ends with, ‘What is to be done about monsters? Can and should we love their work? Are all ambitious artists monsters?’. I am fascinated by the journey of the author in-between these points.

Beyond that clarity of question, the impressions, views and observations in the piece are often mixed. It is a difficult subject understandably. The point of me writing this post is to note that I wish she meant people when she wrote men because it is art and a certain monstrosity of human behaviour that she discusses and not just predatory sexual behaviour. In their monstrosity men are not alone. It can be said as much about women, although it happens that the gender balance (and some would obviously add power balance) across professions in the world is skewed with men outnumbering women everywhere. This is likely to rile the feminists.

Without a doubt this is a brilliant piece and I love it for the analytical yet personal tone. By the end, Dederer comes close to looking at monstrosity that in the beginning verged on sexual conduct of men to a certain selfish behaviour. This softening of view is worth taking note of because when reasoned, people undergo this kind of softening, not out of fatigue of reasoning, but perhaps out of an understanding that human failures and moreover, perspectives, beliefs, convictions and values among people has tremendous variation. Your morality isn’t your neighbour’s. If it was, law wouldn’t have had such a hard time in societies across the world!

Oddly, when Dederer does get to writing about ‘female monster’ she ends up portraying them as victims with Doris Lessing and Sylvia Plath. These are monstrous women just because they placed their writing before family, children and others, she seems to argue. There is sympathy for women and relentlessness for men, which, as a view is okay. But it seems to be an epidemic now. This needn’t be. And this is my contention with opinion pieces and commentaries being published every week since the Weinstein scandal, that hatred for men and assertion of women as weak is back with a greater force. The propensity to hurt, violate and perhaps force others to do things towards one’s own interest is perhaps the same in men and women. Men do it and get noticed (or caught, if you will) for their acts far more than women. Maybe? It is naive to imagine violence only as physical. Both men and women can be violent in same or different ways. Each of these have consequences. In these times we are only willing to speak of consequences of actions of men. I do not even for the slightest part mean to say that men should not be pulled up for what they do. They must pay for it. Retribution after all is a part of justice. The problem is with generality of it and the sweeping generality that takes over later too – that men are the problem. It is them, always them.

The argument is not in defense of men. I am merely trying to figure out if we are helping anything by bring in gender in almost every issue that occupies humanity’s attention today. Or is it complicating matters needlessly. I have a feeling we are complicating and adding to the noise much more than trying to get any helpful reason or solution across.

The gender divide is affecting all of us, in varying degrees and for sure, negatively. It doesn’t help to infuse ‘feminist perspective’ in every aspect of life. As I write this, I recollect that while teaching sociological perspectives to A level students at Poorna, not every girl student had that revelatory moment when they figured what feminist perspective meant in a broader sense. In fact, some remarked if there was a need to have such an exclusive perspective and if it wasn’t already implied in views on society and social processes that are discussed in contemporary sociology.