March 28th, 2015
in Op Ed
by Ajay Shah, ajayshahblog
Editor's note: What part of economics is real and what is fake? What is valuable and what is counterfeit? Haven't we all questioned whether a model used to characterize expected trends in the macro economy can be expected to produce any accurate forecasts? All too often the usefulness of a model is limited by the assumptions of the researcher, sometimes clearly presented and sometimes not (and maybe not even recognized as assumptions by the researcher). Prof. Shah contemplates one aspect of this question as it specifically relates to the economics of India.
In my own world - the world of English writing and publishing in India - the language has wrought neuroses of its own. India, over the past three decades, has produced many excellent writers in English, such as Salman Rushdie, Vikram Seth, Amitav Ghosh and Arundhati Roy. The problem is that none of these writers can credit India alone for their success; they all came to India via the West, via its publishing deals and prizes.
This meant that it was not really possible for writers like myself to pursue a serious career in an Indian language. We were forced instead to make a roundabout journey back to India. We could write about our country, but we always had to keep an eye out for what worked in the West. It is a shameful experience; it produces feelings of irrelevance and inauthenticity. V. S. Naipaul called it "the riddle of the two civilizations." He felt it stood in the way of "identity and strength and intellectual growth."
I feel similarly about Economics in India.
Economics in India ought to be about looking at our backyard, understanding what is going on, and getting involved in fixing things. But, to paraphrase Taseer: We can write about our country, but we always have to keep an eye out for what worked in the West. It is a shameful experience; it produces feelings of irrelevance and inauthenticity.
There is no problem of authenticity in (say) physics. A physics paper is a physics paper and it does not matter who you are and where you are. But as Werner Heisenberg said, every electron is the same but every love is different. There was a time, in Economics, when the datasets were few and far between. Economists then analysed imaginary worlds through theoretical models. At that time, the questions that academic economists talked about, the world over, were similar. Now, things have changed. There are thousands of datasets all over the world. Economics today is about diving into these datasets, and the reality that surrounds them, and figuring out what's going on. And each of these datasets is a world of its own. The intellectual imperialism of Economics, where a person in one corner of the world could pretend to know about all parts of the world, has subsided.
In the peer review process, research is judged on two counts:
"Is the question interesting?" and "Is the answer persuasive?".
On both questions, authenticity is a key problem.
What is an interesting and important question in the Western discourse is very different from what is an interesting and important question here in India. Economists in India, who work on India, have to struggle to distort their work, to package it in a way that it fits the interests of editors and referees outside India.
On the issue of persuasiveness, all too often, editors and referees outside India do not know enough (about institutional arrangements and data) to judge the quality of a research design. This creates incentives to do shabby work and get by.
In this world, a paper on India in the American Economic Review is generally not useful for those of us who want to understand India.
The use of international journal publications in the academic HR process creates severe incentives for economists in India to ignore India and figure out how to succeed when judged in the eyes of editors and referees who do not know India. We should organise ourselves to do research in physics very differently from the way in which we do other fields.