Business Today

Invitation to Dissent

The CEA finds our economists too polite
Ashok V. Desai   New Delhi     Print Edition: June 18, 2017

Arvind Subramanian has already proved himself an unconventional chief economic adviser. He threw away the template he inherited for the Economic Survey and wrote what came to his mind. He was not quite the first. I had in my first year in finance ministry brought out the Survey in two volumes: in the first I explained the crisis we were in and what we had done to resolve it, while the second followed the conventional model. I believe Raghuram Rajan had taken in bright students for a few weeks to help him write the introduction to the Survey. Subramanian has tried more systematically to make us think.

It was no use; he is not satisfied with the results. That is what he said in the V K R V Rao memorial lecture he recently gave in Bangalore. As he put it, "Today there are hundreds of economists outside the government and RBI and several within. Instead of getting a hundred-plus views, we get about ONE view, the official view."

Is he right? Do Indian economists refuse to engage in debate? So it must seem to any economist who comes from the United States, the home of modern economics. Just why it should be so is a mystery. For like in the US, Indian universities are free from government influence; Indian academics enjoy as much freedom in theory as in the US. But economic debate is certainly less lively and vigorous in India.

I think it is due to the difference in academic ecosystems. There is far more competition between universities, and within every academic profession, in the US; it is reflected in the number of papers written, number of talks given away from home, and publishing outlets, both academic and popular. And because the volume is so much larger, every subject and policy attracts more debaters and more dissent.

But Subramanian was not referring just to the volume of debate; he was referring to the tenor. He finds debate in India too polite, and debaters too submissive. That is because Indians are more polite and less frank in general. In the US it would be normal to have a bruising debate at the end of a lecture and then turn into a cordial version over coffee; here, people are more sensitive, and that constrains their frankness.

And then there is Subramanian. He is the first chief economic adviser in a long time who welcomes debate. In general, the CEA puts out the Economic Survey the day before the budget. It attracts some comment in the press in the following week, and then the CEA is forgotten for the rest of the year. I had organised meetings of economists, industrialists and farm leaders with the finance minister in the month before the budget; I believe something like that goes on now as well. But as Subramanian notes, those who come to these meetings are so polite and inarticulate that it is waste of time.

I was keen to create a debating culture; so after I left the ministry, I began to get together a few good economists for a conversation on Saturday mornings. It worked well for some months; then going shopping with wives and to the pictures with kids took priority, and people dropped out one by one. Indian academics are less involved with their subject than American ones - maybe because their social duties are more demanding, but more likely because their academic careers are less demanding.

Still, debates are important. Instead of inviting economists to North Block, Subramanian should travel more across the country, and get local economists together in the cities he visits. If they do not come to him, he should go to them, and make them open their minds. Not all of them will have great minds, but all one needs is a dozen good ones.

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