Business Today

Of Bananas And Sex

Which inventions influenced the world the most? An economist provides an eclectic list.
Palakunnathu G. Mathai   New Delhi     Print Edition: December 17, 2017
Of Bananas And Sex

The year: 2008. The scene: a textile plant in Mumbai. Conditions are chaotic. India's textile industry could do with a top-to-bottom revamp. So researchers from Stanford University and the World Bank seize this opportunity to test whether management consultants make a difference. They send teams from Accenture to some textile companies and not others.

Management consultants had been accused of charging extortionate fees for inconsequential advice. So this would help decide whether consultants were useful or not.

Management consultants, of course, are but one of the developments or inventions that have had the most impact on modern times. Tim Harford, economist and columnist for the Financial Times, lists 50 of them - and an eclectic list it is too. It includes the plough, Google search, the welfare state, TV dinners, the pill, the limited liability company, the cold chain and the iPhone. They're a motley collection, but my favourite is the humble plough, because of the vast consequences its introduction unleashed.

Some 10,000 years ago in India and China, and earlier or later elsewhere, says Harford, the world had become dryer. Humans moved to river valleys for water and took up agriculture. By using ploughs, farmers were able to produce more food, enough to feed the entire population, leaving the rest free to focus on other areas. So specialisation arose. When no food surplus exists, little can be appropriated from growers. But an abundance of food created inequality in society; the powerful grabbed the produce of the weak. What's more, the plough may have affected sexual politics by encouraging men to police women closely. If men were out ploughing the whole day, what were their wives doing at home?

The author of The Undercover Economist looks at the history of many of these inventions and at the people behind them, in the process exhibiting a wicked wit. In a chapter on limited liability companies (the East India Company was the first), he writes: "The Economist magazine was sniffy, pointing out that if people wanted limited liability they could agree it through private contracts." But once limited liability companies became the rage, "The Economist was gushing that the unknown inventors of limited liability deserved 'a place of honour with Watt, Stephenson and other pioneers of the industrial revolution.'"

Or take the chapter on the cold chain. In the 1870s, a co-founder of the United Fruit Company, imported bananas into the US. "Bananas became a delicacy in port cities like Boston and New York. Ladies ate them with a fork and knife, to avoid any embarrassing sexual connotations."

Harford offers a wealth of information, presented lucidly. He reminds me of another economist whose lucid writing was aimed at more than an audience of economists - the late New York-based New School University economics professor Robert Heilbroner. However, Heilbroner was a true-blue economist; Harford often takes on a journalist's role.

This book is based on a series of BBC radio broadcasts. It tells short stories. But that is also its weakness - what worked wonderfully as broadcasts sometimes can have mixed results in a book format.

P.S: It was worth hiring consultants. The textile companies that roped them in saw productivity leap by 17 per cent.

The reviewer was editor of Mirror magazine, a deputy editor at The Telegraph and worked at India Today

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