Heat and dust over a Nobel award

Heat and dust over a Nobel award

S. Sivadas

It was as well that the announcement of the Nobel Prize for economist Abhijit Banerjee came at the height of the two state elections in India and he was caught in the crossfire. While the Congress pointed out to his endorsement of the NYAY scheme that was the party’s poll plank in the earlier Lok Sabha elections, the BJP was quick to point out that the electorate had rejected it with their verdict. The usual jubilation and appropriation that attend to such a major announcement went missing in this tussle. While the leaders, from the President downwards, sent their congratulatory messages, somewhat missing was a national jubilation and warmth such an honour normally evokes.

Even the response in Kolkata and especially from its Presidency College (now University) was slow to begin with.  But when it picked up there was not that kind of exuberance that you expect in that metropolis. Kolkata did claim that two of the most eminent winners were from that city and that particular college. More lukewarm was the response from the other institution that he attended, the Jawaharlal Nehru University that has never been out of news. The tag of being leftist was utilised by the ruling party to have a crack at him for having assisted in the preparation of the Congress manifesto. It was also a coincidence that the announcement came just as his publishers had made plans for the release of his book in the country and had planned promotional tours. So there were interviews lined up, meeting with the Prime Minister, walk through the JNU campus, all of which he did with the ease of a seasoned US academic. He had tea with his state’s chief minister Mamata Banerjee and talked on the poverty policy. The handling of the economic crisis was also a debating point with the BJP being blamed for the crisis and invoking the names of economists like Manmohan Singh, Raghuram Rajan and others. The Nobel also became an occasion for the ongoing slugfest. Modi did some deft fire-fighting with a well-publicised a chat with Banerjee that helped douse the embers somewhat.

It was also a happy coincidence that Banerjee was a student at JNU when the finance minister Nirmala Sitaraman was studying there and were more or less batch mates. It was also a coincidence that her husband had written critically of Modi’s economic policies and backed Manmohan Singh’s line. Here, in this country and this campus, nothing can be simple and even the most plain facts can assume diabolical dimensions.

Banerjee explained his approach to development economics thus: the randomised controlled trial (RCT), that involves breaking the problem of poverty down into infinitesimal, disconnected pieces. Bad health outcomes, for instance, are broken down into smaller factors like medical staff not coming to work, poor quality medicines, lack of preventative vaccinations. Each factor is then individually ‘experimented’ upon.

A researcher might withhold the pay of one group of nurses for each day they are absent, and compare the results to a group that weren’t so targeted which help them see if punishing is the way to fix attendance. Such experiments are carried out on other tiny issues and at the end a set of tiny policy prescriptions emerge.

This method has come in for criticism from experts, like the one that the scope of randomised controlled trials, in terms of the evidence they can generate, is just too small. There are problems to scaling up as well; whether something that works in rural Rajasthan will also work in metropolitan Delhi? Since these trials focus on a narrow set of questions that almost always have to do with individual choices, these also raise questions as to why do nurses choose not to come. Most often the questions asked are about their supposed faults, why don’t they save and why don’t they forego cups of tea and eat only rice? Why don’t they buy expensive farm equipment?

Banerjee’s work, critics argue, focuses on the individual causation of poverty, providing explanations of the type another Nobel laureate has described as ‘fairy tales.’ One can trust economists to be in that argumentative mood, especially if they are Indian.

As another economist said, instead of humans, the world described by economists in the text books is populated by a species referred to as homo economicus. These Econs solve problems like a super computer, have the willpower of saints, are free of emotion, and have little regard for their fellow Econs. Indeed they love telling stories that ridicule the flawed decision making made by others, such as their spouses, offspring, deans, students, political leaders, and one even hears stories criticising the decision making made by the esteemed members of the Economics Nobel Prize committee.

Over the past 40 years, he continues, some economists have been trying to figure out how to introduce humans into economic theory. Humans are absent minded, tend to be a little overweight and procrastinate and are notoriously over confident. But there is still need for economists.

As Richard Thaler, a laureate and behavioural economist, said, ‘Once we acknowledge that humans are fallible creatures, we can ask how to help them make better decisions. We can often do so with simple nudges that point people in the right direction, but don't force anyone to do anything. We need these helpful nudges now more than ever. Consider the most important issues facing the world now, such as climate change, health care, an ageing population, income inequality, xenophobia, and mounting threats to world peace. Each of these problems is, at its heart, behavioural.’

While the prize for Banerjee raised some heat and dust, the literature prize, resumed after a two-year break, caused quite a storm, because one of the winners was a controversial figure having backed a questionable regime. Peter Handke established himself as one of the most influential writers in Europe after World War II, the academy said. He also co-wrote the script of the critically-acclaimed 1987 film Wings of Desire. This author of books such as The Goalie’s Anxiety at the Penalty Kick and Slow Homecoming had attracted widespread criticism for attending the funeral of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic in 2006.

Handke himself provided the answer; that we are living live in an age that is losing the capacity to distinguish art from ideology and artists from politics. ‘I’m standing at my garden gate and there are 50 journalists,’ Handke lamented, ‘and all of them just ask me the same questions about my political views. Not a single person who comes to me has read any of my works or know what I have written.’ He said he didn’t win a Nobel Peace Prize or some other humanitarian award and his art deserves to be judged, or condemned, on its artistic merits alone. There are eminent predecessors, like Gunther Grass and Knut Hamsun who supported the Nazis, Sartre who was an unabashed admirer of the Stalinist repressions, and Churchill, who was an outright imperialist and even his work was of doubtful literary merit.

When Kailash Satyarthi was awarded the Peace Prize some years back, a Nobel committee member said that they were trying to right a wrong for not awarding the prize to Mahatma Gandhi when India became independent. That year the name of Sri Aurobindo had been suggested by two earlier awardees, Gabriela Mistral and Peal Buck, for his epic poem, Savitri, but that also did not happen. That year a pioneering Indian biochemist, Yellapragada Subba Row, who developed a whole broad spectrum of antibiotics, including tetracycline and chlortetracycline and a drug for the treatment for cancer, would also have been a deserving candidate for the medicine prize. That would have been a hat- trick of prizes for the emerging independent nation. But that did not happen.

One of the reasons for the two-year break in the Literature prize was that the new global epidemic that has been raging, the Metoo movement, had infected one of the Nobel immortals. It is reassuring to know that even immortals sometimes have feet of clay.