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Economists & glorious uncertainties

- Amartya refers to Bhagwati ‘attacks’

Calcutta, July 19: Caps are off the mighty pens of two distinguished economists. So is a veil that has enveloped an intriguing relationship in the world of economics.

Fellow economists always felt a glacial undercurrent between Jagdish Bhagwati and Amartya Sen, two of the most respected economists who trace their roots to India. But true to the inexact science they are devoted to, the perception was rarely backed with empirical data from both sides.

The missing piece fell into place this week — where else but in the venerable columns of The Economist, the “newspaper” that has been taking part in “a severe contest between intelligence, which presses forward, and an unworthy, timid ignorance obstructing our progress”.

In response to a letter by Bhagwati in The Economist, Sen wrote: “I have resisted responding to Mr Bhagwati’s persistent, and unilateral, attacks in the past, but this outrageous distortion needs correction.” (See chart)

The nub of the debate is not new: Bhagwati has over the years come to be identified as a strong votary of economic growth and Sen as an advocate of welfare measures that will lead to growth.

What is new is that Sen, a Nobel laureate, has rarely made such pointed and specific references to Bhagwati, who many think deserves a Nobel — so much so that he was made the fictional winner of the prize in an episode of The Simpsons, the animated satire.

While Bhagwati has been making statements wondering why Sen will not engage in a debate with him and stating that “young Indians have little patience for people who hide behind their laurels”, Sen has been confining himself to debating the economic issue at hand.

“I cannot recall Sen responding like this in the past. He expresses views on issues but not on individuals or their remarks on him,” said Tarun Das, the former CII director-general who knows both the economists well.

On Monday in Calcutta, Sen had told economist Suman Ghosh who interviewed the Nobel laureate on behalf of The Telegraph that “I don’t like brawls”. Asked about Bhagwati, Sen had said: “Can I not talk about Bhagwati, please? I don’t like talking about Bhagwati. He loves talking about me, I do not like talking about him.”

Sen had laughed while ending the sentence on Monday. But something seems to have snapped after Sen concluded that Bhagwati “misdescribed” his past work and the new book.

It was not clear when Sen replied to Bhagwati’s letter that appeared in the July 13 edition of The Economist. Sen’s reply appears in the July 20 edition but the online version has already been uploaded.

In the reply, Sen has picked up the arrows (such as “lip service” and “horse before cart”) fired by Bhagwati. “It (that growth is helped by public support for education and health) can scarcely be like putting ‘the cart before the horse’,” Sen points out while concluding the letter.

Bhagwati told The Telegraph in an email this evening: “The criticisms are NOT ‘attacks’; intellectuals debate policy prescriptions all the time in countries like US and UK! I am also ‘unilateral’ because I am an intellectual, not an activist….”

A coincidence is that a book each of Bhagwati and Sen has been published in close succession. Why Growth Matters: How Economic Growth in India Reduced Poverty and the Lessons for Other Developing Countries by Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya was published in April. An Uncertain Glory: India and its Contradictions by Jean Dreze and Sen came out in July.

Such “intellectual debates” need not necessarily be associated with books. Renowned economists do not usually split hairs in public on their areas of expertise — precision debates take place in the hallowed environs of academia. Differences mostly spill out in the open when they step out and prescribe public policy.

Bhagwati’s area of expertise is international trade and it is unlikely that Sen would have joined issue over any contribution Bhagwati has made in the field.

Both Sen, 79, and Bhagwati, 78, teach in the US now — Sen is the Lamont University Professor at Harvard and Bhagwati is the University Professor at Columbia.

They were in Cambridge in the 1950s when Manmohan Singh, now Prime Minister, was also a student there. Sen was in Trinity College while Bhagwati and Singh were in St. John’s College. In the 1960s, Sen and Bhagwati were at the Delhi School of Economics.

Both books have come at a time Manmohan’s second shot at the top is drawing to a close and a debate is raging in India ahead of the elections — whether stress should be laid on steps to revive economic growth or provide affordable grain to the poor as the food security drive aims to do.

Sen has not argued against growth, which he feels is a means, not an end. But he is in favour of the food measure though he prefers a full debate in Parliament.

Das said: “While Sen is talking about a welfare state which focuses on human indicators like health and education along with economic growth, Bhagwati is of the opinion that growth alone will take care of the rest, lifting people out of poverty and improving human indicators.”

But some feel that the differences between Sen and Bhagwati are not as pronounced as made out. Neither is Sen against growth nor is Bhagwati against fighting poverty.

One commentator could not help but point out how the prose of economists sounds less impregnable when they put pen to paper to air differences.

On May 9, 2004, Bhagwati responded thus to a reviewer, Daniel W. Drezner, in The New York Times: “Like a careless teenager scratching his new car, Daniel W. Drezner mars his review of my book In Defense of Globalization…. No, I did not rely only on my maid as evidence of the possibly liberalising effect of migration on women…. If an economist may be permitted to cite the market test, Drezner’s fears are belied by the book’s already marvellous sales.”

To which, Drezner replied: “The quotations I highlighted needlessly raise the hackles of the very civil-society elements that Bhagwati wishes to engage. These groups — like soufflés, hothouse flowers and small children — are sensitive to even the mildest of jabs. I heartily applaud the book’s robust sales. They are richly deserved.”

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