Talk of ‘minority takeover’ demonises a population, says Abhijit Banerjee

Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee. File

Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee. File   | Photo Credit: Scott Eisen

‘Minorities in India and the United States are actually minorities and nowhere close to being dominant’

Observing that minorities in India and the United States are “actually minorities” and nowhere close to being dominant, Nobel Laureate Abhijit Banerjee said that he did not feel there is “real fear there’s going to be a Muslim takeover of India”.

Mr. Banerjee said that the talk that “one hears at least from the fringes of the ruling party about the demography of the Muslim really just a way to demonise a population”.

“You could imagine a context when these are two equal groups, and you worry about the other group becoming too powerful. This is just not realistic here,” Dr. Banerjee explained, citing the example of African Americans and Mexicans in the U.S. as minorities that are relatively economically and educationally deprived compared with a much better-off and economically powerful majority.

The Ford Foundation International Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology was speaking to author Udayan Mukherjee at the Tata Steel Kolkata Literary Meet in the Victoria Memorial Hall grounds late on Monday evening, where he touched on a host of other issues such as migration, and whether India could be in recession. Dr. Banerjee was speaking on his book Good Economics for Bad Times at the event.

Experimental approach

Later, on Tuesday, while delivering the convocation address at Calcutta University, the Nobel Laureate spoke about his experimental approach to economics, and research on randomised controlled trials. While speaking of experiments in health and education, Dr. Banerjee explained how immunisation was positively impacted when people were given a kilogramme of dal in India, and how, in Africa, cheaper mosquito nets caused a fall in the number of child deaths due to malaria.

“The starting point of a lot of efforts taken, and for which we won the Prize, came from a very simple point. Even though we are often wise and often able to see things that have deep insights, it is also the case that we are often wrong. Our intuitions about the world are often false,” he said.

On recession

Earlier, on Monday, when asked whether India is facing a recession, Dr. Banerjee said, “We have really no way of knowing. It’s not that this question has an answer and somebody is hiding it. Nobody really knows. We are just picking up the symptoms from different sides.”

Pointing out that India’s statistical apparatus is essentially incapable of capturing short-term changes in the informal sector, he added, “ If you ask me, ‘could we be in a recession?’ There is nothing in data that says we could not be in a recession.”

While the economist observed that poverty in the country has fallen dramatically, he pointed out that, for the first time since the 1960s, average consumption per capita, as measured by the National Sample Survey Organisation, had dropped. “The data was in the public domain for a while, and then the government said the data is bad,” Dr. Banerjee said.

‘Zero effect of migration’

On the economic impact of migration, he said the net effect of migration has been measured in many contexts to essentially be zero. Describing India as a “ slow migration economy”, he said that drivers of migrations across the world are “the push of disasters and not economic pulls”.

“So, you have Iraq, Syria, Venezuela supplying migrants to the world. These are not poor countries. These are middle-income countries, with civil wars, [causing] complete economic disasters. It’s not economic pull that gets a lot of migrants out. It’s the push,” the economist said.

Citing an example from the Greek crisis, where unemployment for the young rose to 50%-60% and the entire welfare system turned bankrupt, he said only 60,000 Greeks left Greece after it. “The image of people waiting at the border to rush in — there is no data for it,” Dr. Banerjee said.

He also pointed out that there was no evidence that migrants depressed low-income wages. “I think people have this idea that these people are coming in and they must be taking my job away. But, in fact, what happens when a lot of people come, [is that] you end up in a slightly different job. You become the manager for these people, the newcomers — you start a restaurant to feed them,” he said.

Budget ahead

On his hopes from the country’s Budget, he added that money must be pumped in to refinance the banking sector and improve infrastructure. “All the vibes I hear are about tax cuts to the middle class. I don’t think there is much leverage in it,” he said, while expressing the wish that the Budget should also not come up with “giveaways to the corporate sector”.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 3:31:12 AM |

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