Book Review: An Economist in the Real World (By Kaushik Basu)
Kaushik Basu is no stranger to readers with vivid interest in economics policy matters. In fact, his observations and analysis are considered must read for anyone searching for economic theories which in point of fact fit into the real world. A professor of economics in the Delhi School of Economics and Cornell University, Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India (2009-12), and currently Senior Vice-President and Chief Economist of the World Bank, Basu has authored several tomes. The man also comes across as a prolific contributor for many news publications both Indian and foreign.
The latest book An Economist in the Real World unlike his past volumes can straightforwardly be categorized as a bit of a memoir, reflecting his stint as the chief economic adviser in the Manmohan Singh-led United Progressive Alliance, or UPA. He says, “From an existence totally immersed in the world of research, and with little forewarning, I was transported or, more aptly, hurled to the post of Chief Economic Adviser to the Government of India at the Ministry of Finance, in December 2009, in response to an invitation from the then Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.”
The book provides for a subtle inside outlook into the Indian economic history just after Lehman Crisis of 2008 and what transpired during the UPA rule especially during its second stint. Or, to be more articulate what went wrong during the UPA II regime. The book is a good guide and an insider view of a captivatingly momentous phase of the Indian economic history – the same segment when coal and 2G scams were ruling the roost.
One may not trace too may anecdotes as was disbursed by Sanjaya Baru in The Accidental Prime Minister but whatever it has is worth the salt. In the book, Basu has admitted maintaining a diary that contains succulent yarns, but declines to share it: “The revelations and notes on personalities—the reader will not find here.”
Nevertheless, Basu shares experiences both mesmerizing and humorous.
The hilarity is self-deprecating at times which makes certain sections very bubbly. In one such sketch, he recollects how his domestic help ingenuously thinks how the most important role of a chief economic adviser was to be “in charge of raising prices in India” (it was the time when food price inflation was running amok).
About the book, he says: “It is a book on the Indian economy and the art of policymaking, blending economic theory with personal experience.”
Basu has always been known to be logical, astute and crafty with his views on economics.
His involvement in policymaking led him to see that “economics is a strange discipline because it has one foot in science and one in intuition and common sense”.
Basu leaves his imprints on the book wherever he tilts on game theory to explain the policy choices in theory.
Conversely, the most conspicuous feature of the book is when Basu talks about corruption. “In India ordinary citizens and, at times, even large corporations are asked to pay a bribe for something to which they have legal entitlement,” he laments.
He also notably shares the hullabaloo that was generated after he publicly floated the idea of making bribe-giving legal, but receiving illegal a characteristic scholarly idea, drawn from somber economic theory, which sorrowfully has no place in politics.
The book is a good read in no doubt, but could have been more captivating had Basu unlocked the secrets from his Delhi diary. Eventually, to a reader, Basu gives a view of an academic who is more restful analyzing the outer world from the corridors of the North Block where sparkling brains and the latest machines are working hard, but all veiled inside rooms with windows snugly fastened.