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Pop economics

One of India’s best-known economic writers gathers his thoughts all over again.

R. Sridharan        Print Edition: April 20, 2008

Escape from the benevolent zookeepers
Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar
Times Group Books
Pp: 253
Price: Rs 495


Years before young economists such as Steven Levitt and Tim Harford made economics pop, there was Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar using his unique perch at one of the corner rooms in Times House on Delhi’s Fleet Street to break down complex socio-economic-politico issues for the layman in India. His preferred vehicle for this, for more than 17 years now, has been Swaminomics, a weekly column he writes in The Times of India. Benevolent Zookeepers is a compilation of 70-odd columns (of the hundreds) he’s written for Swaminomics over the years. Reflective of Swami’s 360-degree vision and strong opinions, his columns cover a wide swathe of issues, ranging from hard-core economics to politics to globalisation to environment.

Yet, in a business where the average life of a story is a few hours or a day at the most, it would be a vain journalist who believes that what he wrote several years ago would still be relevant enough to merit a (re)read. But Swami isn’t vain. If anything, he’s incredibly talented, insightful, irreverent, a contrarian and, to an extent, plain lucky. Lucky that he writes in a country like India where key economic issues tend to burn for a long, long time. That’s why the issues he has chosen to deal with in his column are relevant even today. Take, for example, his seemingly pet topic of socialism. Writing as far back as 1997, when liberalisation was still in its infancy, Swami lambastes India’s version of “swadeshi socialism” and how a well-intentioned but misplaced sense of self-reliance had kept India poor and miserable and economically isolated from the rest of the world. The answer to India’s crushing poverty, he was at pains to point out, wasn’t less of economic openness but more of it. More than a decade and a half into economic reforms, we now know that creating an economy of artificial scarcities was the worst thing our policy makers of yore had done, and what India needs to do is to open up even more.

Swami’s columns are a pleasure to read for several reasons. For one, he seems to have a knack for picking up subjects that are topical and yet timeless in some sense. For another, he’s a delightfully simple writer and intellectually honest. To be sure, he does tend to get carried away once in a while—for example, believing that Indian software companies have become world-beaters, and not merely competitive at delivering services— but that takes little away from the compelling and persuasive logic he mostly employs. But, most of all, Swaminomics is a delight to read because despite its writer’s apparent angst, he’s an optimist at heart. He’s a believer in the India Story and the country’s—rather, its people’s—ability to find solutions to the myriad problems that afflict it. As Swami mentions in one of his columns in a different context, he’s a dreamer. But in the new India, so are the billion others. Can Swami be partly blamed for that? Fans of Swaminomics would probably say yes.

Big think strategy
Bernd H. Schmitt
Harvard Business School Press
Pp: 179
Price: $29.95 (Rs 1,198)


Can companies institutionalise systems to encourage out-ofthe-box thinking? Yes, says a new book, Think Big Strategy, by Bernd H. Schmitt, Robert D. Calkins Professor of International Business at Columbia Business School. A majority of companies, he says, are trapped in “small thinking” that kills creativity and initiative. That’s because small thinking is safe. Managers are reluctant to stick their necks out to steer their companies into uncharted territories where success is not guaranteed. Why? Because companies reward managers who deliver quarterly numbers—and not those whose strategic thinking does not immediately impact the bottom line.

But, the author cites the example of the Trojan Horse to highlight how non-linear thinking can change the course of history. In the corporate world, he highlights how Steve Jobs dragged Apple out of a decade-long slump by entering the music industry with the iPod and Apple iTunes, and completely changed the rules of the game by disrupting notions of what constituted value.

Can this be institutionalised and replicated elsewhere? The book provides guidelines on how to harness innovative thoughts from eclectic sources for use in corporate strategy. Read it to find out how.

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