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‘Policymaker’s Journal’ review: The essential lightness of being

It is said that economists — like the Oscar Wilde character Lord Darlington’s view of cynics — know the price of everything and the value of nothing. An economist may know the precise remuneration for an hour of a person’s work, and yet draw a blank on happiness, loyalty and love. But Prof. Kaushik Basu’s newly published diary, Policymaker’s Journal: From New Delhi to Washington, D.C., affirms that love for economics isn’t always a diminishing condition. He chronicled his quick takes on work and life during the years he was chief economic adviser from 2009 to 2012, and chief economist of the World Bank from 2012 to 2016. The diary reverberates with irreverence and makes for delightful reading.

Wheels of bureaucracy

It captures the author’s many moods but stops short of having an in-depth discussion. There are no exposes, no skeletons tumble out from his working days with the government. Humour and wit in place, his opinions are candid. Readers will laugh over the silliness of important people in big jobs, worry about problems facing the world and wonder about the big questions of life.

The book’s first part gives a peek into the workings of India’s notoriously bureaucratic bureaucracy. It reminds readers of Jim Hacker’s encounters with the civil service — although Indian bureaucrats come across as slightly dull relative to the quick-witted Sir Humphrey Appleby and Sir Bernard Woolley.

Basu’s struggles to get a health check-up completed at Delhi’s Ram Manohar Lohia Hospital are at once dismaying and hilarious. In the specially designated men’s room in the Finance Ministry, towel stacks are labelled to indicate ranks of officials. Basu’s office assistance staff insist on getting this privilege extended to him, knowing it would ensure that they get to bask in the reflected glory of their boss.

Political economy insights appear between the lines. As files travel from desk to desk, gathering no-objection signatures, “everybody gets involved in every decision”.

Basu’s belief in the need for government to recede from our lives is evident. Looking at Air India convinces him that ‘big government’ is folly, at least at this stage of working history. It has the best collection of old Hindi film songs, dripping with romance, but it is still a dismal story, guzzling money and delivering poorly. “Governments are generally wasteful and unnecessarily intrusive.” The government must not hold on to the tax revenue and grow big, he believes, “otherwise, “sooner or later it will get captured.”

Ideology, Basu discovers, plays hardly any role in policymaking. Pursuit of political gains is the guiding force.

Economic policy is poorly crafted because the scope for making plain, simple mistakes increases when clarity of thought and the intention to be effective are subordinated to being guided purely by political gain.

Chats on economy

Dr. Manmohan Singh is presented as an exception to this rule; his primary interest is to implement good policy. The contrast with his successor, Narendra Modi, and other politicians is especially striking.

At one point, the author explains to then Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee that the solution to runaway inflation is not government diktats and price caps (for they will give rise to shortages and queues like in erstwhile USSR and other communist countries).

Dr. Singh meets Basu regularly and many of the diary’s entries are about their chats on the economy. The author’s fondness for the former prime minister is a recurring theme through the book.

In one of the many anecdotes recounted, Dr. Singh disagrees with an idea Basu has aired. It has stoked controversy, causing the prime minister political difficulty. But he tells the author that that doesn’t mean that he should fall silent, as the role of an adviser is to bring ideas to the table even if they are controversial. When the Cabinet Secretary tries explaining Basu’s note on inflation to the other politicians in the Cabinet, they show “not the slightest interest”.

Debating poverty lines

The second part recalls his years at the World Bank where he dealt with big questions and debates: “Exactly, where do you draw the poverty line?”; the “possible conflict between industrialisation and green growth” and the “alternative to the Washington Consensus”.

Besides economic theory and policy puzzles, Basu reflects on the loneliness of modern life and attachments with places and people. He meditates on the search for meaning in everyday existence and the wisdom of life’s ambitions. “Is what one is doing of any worth?”

On some days, Basu writes with light-hearted wit; on others with penetrating clarity. He pauses now and then to admire beauty and grace— in art, poetry, nature, music, literature, buildings and women. To laugh a little too. At a talk in Dhaka he is called the Shah Rukh Khan of economists. “I tried hard not to nod but I think I did.” But he never loses touch with reality. The plum salaries in the World Bank bring out the best lines. Instead of “Our dream is a world free of poverty”, the board at the main entrance should read, he writes, “Our dream is a world free of poverty, and our nightmare is that the dream will come true.”

Policymaker’s Journal; Kaushik Basu, Simon & Schuster, ₹699.

The reviewer is a journalist and author.

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Printable version | Sep 26, 2021 10:28:31 PM |

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