Thursday 18 February 2010

Trade ends all ills

Of course. But the Caribbean has traded with the US for quite a few centuries now. And they don’t seem too well off, do they? Wonder why.

Friday 12 February 2010

The Brahman professor

In his lectures on the Middle East, Graham Leonard repeatedly says that Indian and Chinese can’t invent or discover anything because they lack a liberal education that fosters the spirit of inquiry. Hence, an Indian or Chinese engineer or scientist, while knowing the past very well, cannot play any role in shaping the future. To be fair, he does warn his American students that once the Asians learn to think, they will pose a bigger challenge than they do now.

Dr Leonard’s lectures are fairly recent. If he ignored the rocketing number of research papers coming out of China, and the vast number of Chinese and Indian researchers in American institutions, he must have done so deliberately. Therefore, he does his American students a grave disservice, assuming they trust their professor more than plain facts.

It is inconceivable too that Asian researchers rote till their early 20s, then suddenly become original thinkers on touching American soil. Or is there such a dearth of talent among Americans that they are scrapping the bottom of the global intellectual barrel?

(On the other hand, none can deny that Indian business is enamoured with screwdriver technology and Indian academics have probably missed the bus in research (if one goes by the number of, say, peer-reviewed scientific papers) while China and Brazil have pulled far ahead.

But – here we go again – if -A is true for India, so is +A: With 1.2 billion people, it can’t be otherwise. It can well be that India’s loss has been the West’s gain. As someone said, brain drain is far better than brain in the drain.)

However, my real problem is elsewhere. Teachers in Western collages, like Dr Leonard, now teach international classes. Often, students from their own country are minorities in such classes. How right is it for such teachers to mean ‘American’ (or French or, more broadly, Western) when using the pronoun ‘we’? Would it be ok for a Brahman professor to use the same pronoun, in the same sense, in a mixed-caste class?    

Monday 8 February 2010

Why not Marathi for CEOs?

Chief Minister Chauvan has made it mandatory for Bombay cabbies to pass a Marathi test. Why not make that test compulsory for all Indian immigrants to Bombay? Or take it a step further. Make it compulsory for foreigners who want to do business there. Surely they will only gain by learning Marathi.

Chauvan needs to wake up, fast. And get real. 

My ears have gone sore hearing about the income tax Bombay pays to India. Let India boycott goods made by companies headquartered in Bombay for half an hour. That’ll tell them where that income, so cruelly and ungratefully taxed, comes from.

By 2020…

…China’s chairman will chair the world. It’ll overtake USA in this and that. And will be running shuttle services to Jupiter.

Strange, a world mired in economic crisis (It wouldn’t have been a crisis had it been predictable, would it?) is so sure of what China will do by the end of the next decade! Is the media building another bugbear for American politicians to go after, now that the USSR has left us.

All you have to do is read this book

Prof Douglas Lamont’s online notes on international marketing has a longish passage on India, from which I quote (emphasis mine): “Is there a viable alternative to market capitalism that can bring forth prosperity and equity to the world’s masses? In the West, such fads as Fabian socialism, the admiration of Soviet central planning, the small-is-beautiful movement, and Third World dependency were researched, written up and offered as consulting solutions by university professors. In India, ‘tragically, they were translated into policies, with poverty-stricken peoples as guinea pigs.’

Singapore and Thailand that welcomed outside capital and developed export industries vaulted its people out of poverty into economic Tigers and middle-income countries.

India insisted on self-sufficiency, and its state-enterprises produced shoddy goods—that is, goods which could not be sold in export markets. India didn’t want its firms to make money so they could invest in jobs that would raise Indians out of poverty. Not until 1990 under the pressure of the IMF did India change its economy policies. Today, it has become a dynamic hub of software, Internet, pharmaceutical, and media firms. The Information Age is triggering the start of an economic takeoff towards long-term sustainable economic development.

Problem: Is IT another fad? If the IT and revolutions are over, should India invest in world-class manufacturing. Why cede this powerful engine of economic growth to China?”

Ok. Now the source of this wisdom. Gurcharan Das, India Unbound, (New York: Knopf, 2001).

Ah, and who’s Mr Das? A graduate in philosophy and Sanskrit from Harvard; who later ‘attended Harvard Business School (AMP), where he is featured in three case studies’; CEO of P&G India; MD, P&G Worldwide (Strategic Planning); author since taking early retirement in 1995; on the boards of a number of companies; regular speaker to the top managements of the world’s largest corporations.

Most impressive, but not omniscient.

Surely, there are others who don’t think the Indian government was quite so ruinous, and the post-IMF story has been quite so rosy.

So why not let students have a little of those views too?

If they’re not going to do business in India, one source is one too many. But if they are, one point of view is fatally dangerous.

Which reminds me. The famed Hofstede Dimensions of Culture counts all Arab countries, from Qatar to Mauritania, as one Arab World. And has some place called West Africa and another called Eastern Africa. But it dutifully takes Denmark, Norway, Sweden and Finland separately.  

Now, I’m not for a moment suggesting that those Scandinavian counties should be clubbed. I’m wondering how useful it may be to bunch together Arab and African nations, especially to someone who has to deal with Arabs or Africans.


Google, China and Arabs

Google will quit China because the Chinese government and jingoistic hackers are giving it all sorts of trouble. Fine. But a question. What about numerous Arab dictatorships? Can Google show anything it wants there?

Nigeria’s Alaskan Utopia

A few weeks ago, I read an article recommending an Alaskan scheme for Nigeria.

In Alaska, citizens get money directly from oil companies. This has made Alaskans among the richest Americans. A similar direct payment should solve Nigeria’s problems.

And how much could the Nigerians expect? $ 20 a year. Not a small amount in that part of the world, the reporter assured.

I’m not so sure. Even with all the purchasing power parity and hocus-pocus $ 20 cannot be a fortune in any country. But $ 20 multiplied by a several million, in the hands of a honest government, can mean roads, hospitals and schools.

Except that there are no, and cannot be, any honest government in Africa. Or so the article seems to imply. Hence, western oil companies have decided that they will bypass the administration and deal directly with the people, village by village.

When one compares the economic sizes of villages and oil companies, one is no longer sure that doing good was the only reason behind the oil companies’ undermining government authority. Would any Western government allow such direct contact and contracts between foreign miners and local bodies? Would, say, Obama let the Chinese government negotiate carbon credits directly with his voters?

I don’t know how corrupt the Nigerian government is. Perhaps it is very corrupt. But the way out, for Nigerians, is unlikely to be no government at all.

TV succeeds where all else fails. Or does it?

In the introduction to Super-Freakonomics there is a section on how TV is rescuing Indian women.

Before they come to the boon of TV they give some statics and quote a couple of anecdotes. Then they inform that most government schemes for women’s uplift to have proved ‘complicated, costly, and, at best, nominally successful’.

So what was successful? TV.

Two American economists, Oster and Jensen, found that out ‘by measuring the changes in different villages based on whether (and when) each village got cable TV’ as the unlikely saviour rolled out over the Indian countryside.

The wording is important. Hence I quote: “The women who recently got cable TV were significantly less willing to tolerate wife-beating, less likely to admit to having a son preference, and more likely to exercise personal autonomy.”

After some speculation on the reasons behind this sea change and the veracity of survey the economists’ initial findings on women’s attitudes was based on, the book continues, “Rural Indian families who got cable TV began to have a lower birth-rate than families without TV. (In a country like India, a lower birth-rate generally means more autonomy for women and fewer health risks.) Families with TV were also more likely to keep their daughters in school, which suggests that girls were seen as more valuable, or at least deserving of equal treatment.”

There are two problems with this story. First, it’s old. We have heard a different version while growing up, in which the transistor radio proves to be the most effective method of family control in otherwise entertainment-starved poor families.

Second, it’s very likely that this research mistakes effect for cause and vice versa. Is it not possible that progressive households and villages got TV sooner than regressive villages? The authors do not tell us if there were attitudinal and behavioural differences before any of those villages had TV, and if being able to afford TV may have been the effect, not the cause, of women’s liberation.

Take a different, but closely related, change. In my generation the Indian educated middle class underwent an enormous population contraction.

I don’t have figures but I do have plenty of anecdotal evidence. Only one piece will suffice for now: My father has seven siblings; my brother and I have seven cousins (from our father’s side).

Now, did TV do that or the fact that my father and his siblings are all college graduates married to college graduates?

For that matter, one wonders if it has ever occurred to any economist to research if TV benefited women in the West as it supposedly did in India?

Just as TV didn’t come to the Indian countryside all at once, it didn’t spread over the West in one shot. The data on launch of TV and women’s development shouldn’t be very hard to find. But would anyone even think of linking them for developed countries?

I admit I haven’t read the original paper, but so wouldn’t most of the readers of the book. In such case, shouldn’t the authors have mentioned that possibility? Doubtlessly it must have occurred to them.