Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Ashok Mitra - End of an Era

Ashok Mitra passed away today. I met him a few times, given his proximity to my paternal grandmother's side of the family (especially, her elder brother, Sachin Chaudhuri, the founder-editor of EPW) but didn't know him well.
I remember him giving a guest lecture at Presidency College when I was a second-year undergraduate student. I still remember how unassuming he was despite his obvious fame and stature, and being impressed with his ability to quote statistics from memory. Of course he was very critical of mainstream economics but to be fair, there were grounds for being so.
We are all familiar with his opinionated columns in English and Bengali. Whatever one's political views (and, in all honesty, I disagreed a lot more than I agreed with his political opinions - from the left and the right depending on the issue and the evolution of my own thinking) there is no doubt Dr Mitra was one of the last great bilingual intellectuals of post-Independence Bengal - equally fluent and powerful in English and Bengali.
I loved his biographical sketches of various political and cultural personalities, his autobiographical writings, and especially his writings on poetry and writers (and completely shared his admiration for Samar Sen and Buddhadeb Basu).
His voice will be missed. And I will keep reading and re-reading some of his writings.

Thursday, April 12, 2018

Sorry, Asifa

It is difficult to keep the face of a certain eight year old girl and her gaze off the head in the middle of all the newswaves that continuously hit our radar.


One can argue that posting on such gruesome events when there is nothing more to say other than express sadness and outrage is pointless. Indeed, given that social media appears to have become a platform for collective venting without much consequence beyond that, one can argue that it is perhaps better to channel our energies, money, and effort to help organisations and individuals who work to prevent such things from happening, or to provide help to victims and their families when they do.

In the end human depravity has no bounds - such events have happened in the past, and unfortunately will continue to happen. Outrage will not stop them. The only recourse is law enforcement - those who commit heinous acts must suffer the consequences whether that is a deterrent or not. 

I don't think any right-thinking person can disagree with any of this. The trouble is, when such events happen in the context of a political and religious conflict, what should be simple does not stay simple. Some people are making comments like "let's keep religion out of it" or "why politicise it?" 

Hard as it might be to imagine, there are in fact such apologist narratives dripping with defensiveness and whataboutery, and not just by trolls. 

See, for example:


I am sorry, but there is an organisation that is defending the accused called Hindu Ekta Manch. And two ministers from the ruling party attended the rally (who have since had to resign with the news hitting the national and international headlines). 


Given this, it is disingenuous to deny the political and religious angle to it. 

Sorry, Asifa. You deserved a better world...even in your death. 

P.S. And yet there are some rays of hope in the heart of darkness. The leading investigating police officer and the lawyer representing the victim's family both are Kashmiri Pandits. 



As one has to continuously remind oneself, it is wrong to lose hope, or one's faith in humanity.  

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Economic Growth in India and the Gandhi-Nehrus - Update

"Why is it that during the years that your family ruled India, India's per capita income was growing less than the world average? And yet, in the years since your family relinquished the prime ministership of India, India's per capita income has grown substantially faster than the world average?" 

This statement, by a participant in an event in Singapore addressed at Rahul Gandhi happens to be factually incorrect. However, the participant, who describes himself as an author, has now shifted the goalpost to assert that he meant India’s per capita income grew less than the world average for 1947-89. This is well-known and sits uncomfortably with the original assertion given that both the World Bank and Angus Maddison data-sets show that if you consider the years a Gandhi or a Nehru was a PM, it is not the case that the growth rate of India was lower than the world. In a recent Op-Ed I did the exercise with the World Bank data-set:

Repeating the exercise with the Maddison data-set that has a longer time horizon going back to 1950 yields the same conclusion. 

A scholar or a researcher who is serious about facts (and I am not at all concerned with formal degrees or qualifications) would acknowledge that the original statement was not correct as stated and suggest a reformulation that can be backed up empirically. But instead we have a self-congratulatory op-ed in the Swarajya

The long and meandering account repeats basic facts that are well-known, repeats ad nauseam why the Gandhi-Nehru family is to blame for everything, but provides no evidence in support of the original statement. And as one would expect, unable to objectively back up his claim he resorts to political name-calling of those who have pointed out the error - for example, referring to me as "Congress’ thinkers (like Maitreesh Ghatak)"  without a shred of evidence to support the connection (a reference that has since been removed by the Swarajya editorial department). 

For the record, I am a left-leaning liberal who does not identity with any specific political party.  As a liberal I oppose any form of authoritarianism, including the ones in the current or former socialist countries. Being liberal means I place the importance of civil/democratic/human rights above everything else and cherish social inclusiveness. I am left-leaning in the sense of being progressive and placing poverty-eradication to be the main objective of economic policy. At the same time, I am economically pragmatic and support private enterprise (including non-profits) while acknowledging the necessity of a public sector to do what private enterprise cannot or would not do. My political biases are based on issues, not partisanship. Any party that upholds some or all of these values will have my support.  

Everyone is entitled to their opinions. Everyone (including me) have their political biases. Facts are another matter.  They are objective and can be independently verified. How you interpret them is subjective. Scholars and researchers can tell the difference.

As I said to one of several who disagree with me but engage in a civil manner in Twitter about facts and logic (a genuinely positive aspect of the platform) debating is like football. You want your "side" to win, but fairly. You need good opponents to raise your game. And, no team can or should win forever - not good for the game. 

And about this gentleman's partisan leaning? Just look at the profiles of his Twitter followers or the slant of the television channels where he seems proud to have appeared. Why is it that the most partisan are the first to charge others of being partisan? 

Here are the links to the World Bank and the Maddison series for those who want to check it


Monday, March 12, 2018

Economic Growth in India and the Gandhi-Nehrus

Rahul Gandhi was asked by an audience member at an event in Singapore recently chaired by my former LSE colleague Danny Quah:
"Why is it that during the years that your family ruled India, India's per capita income was growing less than the world average? And yet, in the years since your family relinquished the prime ministership of India, India's per capita income has grown substantially faster than the world average?"
Wasn't sure whether I should first look at the numbers or the history books as to who ruled when. Amitabh Dubey has looked at the numbers (figure below) and I did the standard growth rate comparison (not “moving averages”). Also adding a nice graph that Eswaran Somanathan has posted.
Have to wait for the new history books being commissioned to come out. Everyone is entitled to their opinions. Why brings facts into it? 

Sunday, February 25, 2018

New Research on Poverty Traps

Come to think of it, one of the most basic question of Development Economics has to be: why does poverty persist, i.e., why do (some of) the poor stay poor?

I am very excited about some recent research I have been doing with my LSE colleagues Oriana Bandiera and Robin Burgess, and two of our students, Clare Balboni and Anton Heil, that combines theory and data from a randomised control trial from the BRAC ultra-poor project in Bangladesh to answer the following question - can a one-time push get the poor out of poverty or is it something more systemic?

In other words, we try to test between a "poverty trap" view vs a "bad fundamentals" view of poverty. According to the former, poverty is a vicious cycle that can be broken by a "push" that will help the poor to reach a better self-sustaining equilibrium. According to the latter view, the poor do reach their potential as opposed to staying trapped in a bad equilibrium, but because of bad economic fundamentals (low human capital, bad infrastructure) this potential is very limited.

Here are the slides of Oriana Bandiera's Kapuscinski Development Lecture delivered recently at the University of Barcelona where she discusses some of this work, along with her other related work on the topic. 


Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Knowledge and Man vs Machine

Growing up in Kolkata's academic and intellectual circles, I was always baffled by "erudition" being the most respected intellectual attribute. Someone who knows a lot, has read a lot of books etc was referred to in hushed tones of respect.

Yet I was drawn to ideas, creative expressions, and analytical insights and was never too keen on "knowing a lot" unless I had to, on a given topic. Somehow it felt that erudition was a means to an end, but not an end itself. The few times that someone had a big impact on me (and I have written earlier about my High School maths teacher Pinaki Mitra in this context) it was because they opened up new horizons and methods of intellectual exploration. I fell in love with mathematics because Pinaki-da's off-the-textbook ruminations convinced me that a lot of half-baked philosophical puzzles about the concept of "infinity" that I had in my muddled teenage brain could be formulated so crisply and elegantly.
A quarter century later, machine intelligence is replacing most routine tasks, including storage of facts and data as well as routine analysis. Google can beat anyone on just the capacity to store and draw upon knowledge (with due caveats about errors). Where does that leave the cult of the erudite?

Or, to put it provocatively, can a Sidhu Jyatha (the avuncular figure in the Detective Feluda stories of the Satyajit Ray who had an encyclopedic memory) compete with Google the Great?