Under my byline

Plenty from poverty

Posted in Books by Rrishi on 28 January 2009

J K GalbraithOVERLEAF 14

Adiga, Amartya, Krugman, Kluge prize, Freakonomics, Swaminomics, Slumdog, 24/7 business TV and comment on the op-ed pages. What’s the connection? Money, obviously, but also explication. People and programmes are gaining awards and recognition not just for pioneering thinking in economics but also for transmission, for making sense of it all for non-specialist audiences.

It’s more than the financial crisis driving this trend. Ask a trade publisher and he will tell you that, across the publishing world, non-fiction has seen a renaissance. In the last decade and more, the spotlight has shone on biography and memoir, then popular history, and now it’s turning towards economics.

Who’s writing these bestsellers? In the West it is academics, mostly, particularly those who have established themselves as public intellectuals by the expedient of frequently being published on the op-ed pages of prestigious papers and oft commented-upon in the blogoshere. As teachers, researchers and journalists, they possess the necessary tools: in-depth knowledge, communication skill and a touch of cheery demagoguery.

In India academics, especially economists, still by and large lack the common touch. So our public intellectuals are mainly journalists, political-fringers, think-tankers, the occasional anodyne corporate chieftain, and diverse activists. (Perhaps we too need an active and influential blogosphere to stir all the voices together into a single civilisational argument, and — crucially — to throw up new citizen-savants.) Even so, it’s striking how much more economic analysis appears on op-ed pages now than a decade ago.

With all the fuss of late over Slumdog Millionaire, thinking to learn something about slums, I dug out an old copy of John Kenneth Galbraith’s The Nature of Mass Poverty (1979). It turns out Galbraith — economist, academic, diplomat, administrator, liberal — was writing about rural poverty rather than urban. Nevertheless, his book was a revelation.

First of all, in the whole book there’s not a single table, pie-chart, figure or flowchart. It is unencumbered by numbers. There’s no need, because Galbraith uses experience and observation to draw out the thread of his argument from the common stock of information — which is, after all, just data.

Second, he lays bare the historical environment within which ideas of poverty, and solutions to poverty, were generated — in his case the postwar USA, particularly the Kennedy Administration’s foreign aid programme. He writes that because Americans could most conveniently offer only two things, that is, capital and expertise, it was the lack of those two things that they theorised were the root cause of poverty in the Third World, India included. Naturally, those early American aid efforts were an expensive failure, because they were based on no understanding of the target environment. We are limited by what we know.

Galbraith with JFK, B K Nehru, v-p Lyndon Johnson and Jawaharlal Nehru, 6 Nov 1961Third, his argument is crystal-clear. He writes that rural poverty in India differed from American poverty in that there were few escape routes. Hence, in a Malthusian way, any improvement would quickly be neutralised by the fact that it would have to be distributed across an increased population. He calls this the “equilibrium of poverty”. Because poverty was the normal condition, people accommodated to it, which was (contrary to what Western planners might think) a rational response, more rational than struggling fruitlessly against it. Ancient practice meant that village technology was already optimised. Only a tiny minority rejected this static paradigm; and the most important way in which they did so was to migrate.

Perhaps this is wrong — I don’t know — but you could never fault Galbraith for obfuscation. I hold him up as an example of the finest sort of expert, the kind who bridges the chasm between truth (as the adept sees it) and understanding (truth made sensible to the non-adept). Using his framework, whether wrong or right, it is easier to qualitatively identify what, if anything, has changed since the 1970s in the poverty paradigm.

An expert like Galbraith also bridges another chasm: orphaned by information, we moderns surrender to the “experts” in individual and communal life, yet remain wary and sceptical of expertise. The bridge is called credibility, and it’s a scarce commodity.

The book is 120 pages long, short for a non-fiction work. These days, the crisp polemical statement, the pithy summation, is a rarity. But we might encourage it. If there’s a hunger for credible explication, then let it be fed. There’s no harm in the 500-page discourse on globalisation, say, but let us ask our better explicators, and not just academics, to strip some of their arguments down to the bones and give them to us in 100-150 power-packed pages. In return they may sell more copies and help create a better audience.

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