It’s hard to say exactly how many economists
the world has produced in the past 200 years.
But one thing is for sure: Most of them have joined the profession after 1945. That’s when economics became an assembly-line factory.
Like all normal people, 99.9 per cent of them have political opinions, which they express only privately. But a very tiny number align themselves with this political party or that. That’s ok, too.
This alignment happens when they get tired of academic anonymity and want to be recognised as fellows who can, or will, quickly change the world. The consequence is instant analysis by them.
So, like party spokesmen, they talk a lot. Their comments pertain to government policy. Some praise it, others criticise it. It’s all mostly babble, especially in this age of sound bites and tweets.
In their anxiety to be heard, they also tend to contradict themselves with metronomic regularity. One day it’s this, the next day it’s the opposite.
The result — and I know this for a fact — is that neither the political parties nor governments take them very seriously. Both are content to use them and discard them.
The Indian variant
In this context, a typical Indian variant must be mentioned. These are those who, after joining the government for public service, take long leave from it and get themselves ornamental PhDs for career advancement in government. These people like to play from both sides of the net.
A microscopic minority quits the government. It disappears without a trace.
As must be evident, the path to glory can be from those who come from outside the government to jobs like chief economic adviser or governor of the Reserve Bank of India.
Some make it to both jobs. Their aspirations are boundless.
But the glory of public office lasts only as long as the tenure permits. The hankering for it, however, lasts a long time.
Or, the glory can come from inside, when the ornamental PhD entitles its holder to establish a greater claim on a powerful post. These people have the best of both worlds till the political dispensation changes. Then it’s the doghouse of think tanks for them.
The genuine professionals are thus left with very limited options. To count for something in the policy world, they have to join government prior to acquiring excellent academic credentials because if they join after acquiring those credentials, they must forever accept humiliation by the guys who joined government well before them.
If they choose the first option, of preferring power over academic pelf, they have to outdo the bureaucrats in brown-nosing the politicians.
If, on the other hand, they prefer not to, as indeed many don’t, they must be content with the frustration of belonging to the Indian Economic Service.
The really clever outsider-insiders avoid this fate. For visibility, they rely on the media, which serves as a substitute for academic excellence, and obedience to the bosses for career advancement. Of course, having a political benefactor helps immensely. Then nothing else matters.
By the way, all this is true of all countries that possess economists.
India is just one of them where the phenomenon is more pronounced.
I should add here that there are, as always, everywhere, honourable exceptions. These are the insiders with a PhD who are not politically aligned and the outsiders who don’t want to cling to the power and pomp that public offices offer.
No one cares about them, regardless of their experience and competence. Which is India’s abiding tragedy.
A new Indian mutant
Over the past 15 or so years, India has developed a mutant. This one wants high political office.
Very few get it. Others have to be content with just the rank — usually of minister of state — as heads of some government think tank or commission or something. They count for nothing.
But now a V2 has come into being. This is the NRI who has served the government, or one of its institutions, and now wants political office.
These people jump up and down, excitedly waving their arms about to catch the attention of one political party or the other. This mutant can be very dangerous.
It has a private agenda that it tailors to the preferred political party. The political party is happy as long as its opponents are being shown up as fools and knaves.
Given this, I have a suggestion for the Modi government. It should offer some ministership to the “opposition” economists.
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