And if you’re wondering why Lego, of all things – it is because I and my daughter are learning about Democritus and atoms:
Why is Lego the most ingenious toy in the world?
For a start, Sophie was not at all sure she agreed that it was. It was years since she had played with the little plastic blocks. Moreover she could not for the life of her see what Lego could possibly have to do with philosophy.
But she was a dutiful student. Rummaging on the top shelf of her closet, she found a bag full of Lego blocks of all shapes and sizes.
For the first time in ages she began to build with them. As she worked, some ideas began to occur to her about the blocks.
They are easy to assemble, she thought. Even though they are all different, they all fit together. They are also unbreakable. She couldn’t ever remember having seen a broken Lego block. All her blocks looked as bright and new as the day they were bought, many years ago. The best thing about them was that with Lego she could construct any kind of object. And then she could separate the blocks and construct something new.
What more could one ask of a toy? Sophie decided that Lego really could be called the most ingenious toy in the world. But what it had to do with philosophy was beyond her.
Gaarder, Jostein. Sophie’s World: A Novel About the History of Philosophy (p. 42). Orion. Kindle Edition
Some books are entertaining, and some books are erudite. Rarely do we get to read a book that is both.
Why do I write this blog? There are many reasons, but one of the most important one is that this is my attempt at making learning fun for everybody. And the most important factor behind me liking this book is just this – they make learning about public policy fun.
The subtitle of the book is “Why You Should Care About Public Policy”, but something that us academicians often forget is that supply does not, in the case of learning, create its own demand. You can write the most impressive (not to mention comprehensive) tome on public policy, but that’s no guarantee that people will read it. But with this book, the two authors have pulled off an amazing feat: not only will you most likely finish this book if you pick it up, but you will learn a lot from it. And more, you will be entertained for having done so.
Pranay and Raghu’s book is a delightful romp, but not through the subject of public policy, and the distinction matters. It is, instead, a romp through different aspects of life, to which the tools of public policy are applied. My biggest complaint with textbooks is that they teach you the subject, and include “boxes” in which you are allowed to think of the world outside the textbook. This book belongs to that all too rare (and therefore even more delightful) category of books that does the opposite. You are asked to only think of the world, and they attempt to make the world a more understandable place by supplying ways of thinking about it.
In order to do this, they divide the world into three different aspects: the state, the market and society. Or, to use their terminlogy: sarkaar, bazaar and samaaj. Think of the individual, and the individual’s life, as being impacted by her interactions with these three ‘pillars’ of society. How do these pillars impact her? How do these pillars interact with each other? What happens when the interactions between the individual and these pillars do not go along expected or ‘ideal’ lines? What are the potential remedies for these problems, and what are the costs of implementing these solutions? That is the focus of this book, and the answer to the subtitle of the book is, well, the book itself.
These three aspects – the state, the market and society – make up the three sections of this book. Each section is divided into bite-sized chapters, each dealing with a separate, specific issue. Three things bring each of these chapters to chirpy life – the breezy tone that they adopt, their obvious mastery over the concepts that they are explaining, and their obvious love of Bollywood. One chapter may be titled on the basis of a famous line from a Bollywood movie (Aap party hai ya broker, for example), while another may explain how to think about atmanirbharta by talking about Manoj Kumar and his movies.
But my favorite usage of this lovely party trick is when you encounter a line like this one: “The foundational premise of modern India is that the state is ontologically prior to society.” This is just the kind of line that is likely to make your eyes glaze over, no? Those of us who have struggled with weighty tomes on dreary afternoons in musty college libraries have learnt to resign ourselves to hours of tedium while tackling with what follows prose such as this. But this is what I meant when I wrote that first sentence of this post – they choose to explain what this sentence really means by asking you to think about Shakti, a movie starring Dlip Kumar and Amitabh Bachchan.
Even better, they first speak about Shakti, and then foist that sentence upon you. A little bit like putting healthy veggies in a chicken pizza one might make for the young ‘un at home, if you see what I mean.
The authors mention in the book that it isn’t ‘an economic reasoning textbook’, but I’d beg to disagree. It absolutely is an economic reasoning textbook, and of the very best kind. It tells you how to get the most out of life, and better, tells you how and why one is unlikely to succeed in getting the most out of life if one gets basic tenets of public policy wrong.
Think of this book as the public policy companion to a book like The Economic Naturalist, by Robert Frank. Look at the world, and ask how the world becomes a more understandable place for having learnt public policy.
As an economist, I particularly enjoyed the sections on sarkaar and samaaj. Not, I hasten to add, because the section on the bazaar is in any way inferior, of course. It is simply because I am somewhat more familiar with the material in that section. But that’s all the more reason to buy the book, especially as a student of economics – becaue this book makes you more familiar with how the state and society also influence economic outcomes. Within the economic sections, the sandalwood story and the airline pricing story are my personal favorites. But practically every chapter brings along a delightful little nugget of information that is surprising, or a delicious twist of phrase that will likely make you chuckle, or sly titles to some of the chapters that will elicit both raised eyebrows and raised tempers.
The one complaint I have with the book is that I find myself wishing for an index and a bibliography at the end of the book, both of which are missing. It is understandable, for more than one reason, but as a fundamentally lazy person who also hopes to use this book as a teaching aid, both of these things would have gone a very long way. An online resource, perhaps, if one is permitted to be a little greedy?
But that minor quibble apart, there is nothing that prevents me from heartily recommending this book to you. Younger people might miss some of the references (“Vinod Kambli? Who he?” I can hear ’em go already), and they may also not have seen more than half the movies that have been referenced in the book – but that actually brings me to my final point.
A great way to read this book together would be to start a film club, and watch the movie in question in each chapter, before reading that chapter. Before the next movie screening, have a discussion about both the movie and the chapter, and all of the many “that reminds me” that might emerge from said discussions. Rinse and repeat for twenty-eight glorious chapters, give or take. I hope students in colleges and universities take up this suggestion, and spend some time in learning about movies, life in India, the role of the state, the market and society in the our own day-to-day lives, and a whole host of books, reports and papers as well. A positive externality that will result as a consequence of this will be the fact that you will have acquired a degree of expertise in public policy.
But as the authors themselves (and that wise old sage Crime Master Gogo) tell you, aa hi gaye ho, to kuchh lekar jao.
In all seriousness though, please do make sure that you read this book, if you are in any way interested in India. Recommended wholeheartedly.
In general, I prefer reading content rather than listening to it.
I read much faster, for one. And while it is certainly true that I can listen at 2x, it still is faster in my case to read. Plus, no matter how hard I try, listening at 2x doesn’t seem like a – for lack of a better word – nice experience. I know I should be defining this better than simply saying “not nice”, but that’s the best I can do for the moment.
There are exceptions, of course. If it’s an Amit Varma podcast, 2x is an imperative (although I do know folks who listen at 1x). And given the quality of each episode, and given the fact that transcripts aren’t yet available, the opportunity costs are worth it. But in general? Reading trumps listening.
But even in the case of Amit’s podcast, my preferred location for playing it is in my car. I get far too easily distracted during walks – could be a chain of thought that develops because of something that was said on the podcast, could be a dog that walks past me, or it could be a nice little bout of daydreaming. Shouldn’t be happening, and I ought to be worried about my attention span, but now what to do?
In a car, though, it is a different story. The hassle of trying to drive a car through the dynamic jigsaw puzzle that is Pune’s traffic is the perfect semi-distracted environment in which I just have enough attention to give to the podcast and nothing else.
But audiobooks? Never been able to consume them. I’ve tried with a couple, but rarely gone past the first two chapters. I did listen, with my daughter, to a couple of Harry Potter novels during the lockdown (Stephen Fry was a major reason why), but that apart, I haven’t had much luck.
Recently though, David Perell recommended a book called “The Goal”, and specifically recommended the audiobook. I’ve been listening to it, and it has been a very enjoyable listen. I’m about halfway through, and in this case, definitely plan to finish it.
It’s got a lot of dialogues, and the audiobook does a nice job of making them seem very stylistic and entertaining.
The rhythm of the conversations sounds much better when you’re listening to it, and because the book doesn’t contain a lot of dry descriptive sentences, the format really works.
Each chapter is fairly short – about ten minutes or so, and these bite sized chunks work for me when listening.
There is also some background music that plays at the start and during the chapter, and that enriches the experience of listening, at least for me.
The concepts that are being spoken about in the book are directly related to economics, and the treatment is novel enough for me to remain interested.
The fact that these concepts are interwoven with at least two different stories involving the protagonist make for an interesting tale, and that acts as a lovely bonus. It’s a hook that has kept me interested so far.
All of which was to explain to you why I like this particular audiobook – and to explain why I’m more than willing to try some other audiobook content once this one is done.
After yesterday’s post, I asked some folks for their choice of textbooks that undergraduate students should definitely be reading before getting their BSc/BA degree in economics. And what a list we have, already!
If you are an undergraduate student, please bookmark this post, and keep coming back to it when you want book recommendations. And I would argue that even if you are not an undergrad student of economics, you might still want to keep checking on this post, because I will be updating it regularly.
In what follows, I have not mentioned who has recommended what. That’s simply because I’m writing this post out on the fly, and haven’t had time to format it, add hyperlinks or even figure out how I want to tabulate this data. More than one person has recommended some of the books on the list too, and that’s an additional complicating factor. Note that not all of them are textbooks, and some aren’t even books (they’re essays), but hey, when it comes to reading, there’s no bureaucratic stuffiness in these parts.
Folks who have read some of these books might wonder at the very broad political and economic ideology spectrum over here, but surely this is a plus and not a minus. As an undergrad student, read far and wide, and figure out over time what resonates and what does not (and why).
Finally, to everybody who took time out of their busy schedules to reply, thank you very much!
Here is this most magnificent list, in no order whatsoever:
On the Wealth of Nations, by Adam Smith
That Which We See and That Which We Do Not See, by Frederic Bastiat
(Bonus points if you saw this coming) Economics in One Lesson, by Hazlitt
Micro Motives and Macro Behavior, by Schelling
Free to Choose, by Milton Friedman
Both the Freakonomics books, by Levitt and Dubner
Road to Serfdom, by Hayek
Modern Principles of Economics, by Cowen and Tabbarok
Public Finance and Public Policy, by Jonathan Gruber
Economic Growth, by David Weil
The Effect: An Introduction to Research Design and Causality, Nick Huntington Smith
Economics Rules, by Dani Rodrik
An Uncertain Glory, by Amartya Sen
Everybody Loves a Good Drought, by P Sainath
In The Service of the Republic, by Vijay Kelkar and Ajay Shah
Of Counsel: The Challenges of the Modi-Jaitley Economy, by Arvind Subramanian
In Spite of the Gods, by Edward Luce
The Vision of the Anointed: Self-Congratulation as a Basis for Social Policy, by Thomas Sowell
The Meaning of it All, by Richard Feynman
Delhi Rape: How India’s Other Half Lives
Principles of Economics, by Mankiw
Intermediate Microeconomics, by Hal Varian
Macroeconomics, by Dornbusch Fischer and Startz
International Economics, by Dominic Salvatore
Introduction to Econometrics, by Woolridge
Complete Business Statistics, by Aczel and Sounderpandian
Using Econometrics: A Practical Guide, by Studentmund
Introduction to Economics, by Richard Leftwich
Theory of Econometrics, by Koutsoyiannis
Principles of Economics, by Koutsoyiannis
The Worldly Philosophers, by Heilbronner
Macroeconomics, by Alex Thomas
Economic History of India, by Tirthankar Roy
India After Gandhi, by Ramchandra Guha
Macroeconomics, by Snowdon and Vane
Causal Inference Mixtape, by Scott Cunningham
International Economics, by Paul Krugman
Capital, Vol. 1, by Karl Marx
Classical Political Economy and the Rise to Dominance of Supply and Demand Theories, by Krishna Bharadwaj
Three Essays on the State of Economic Science, Koopmans
Universal/University Economics by Alchian and Allen
Introduction to Econometrics, by Cristopher Dougherty
Studies in Indian Public Finance, by M. Govinda Rao
I’m about to share my own list, but before I do that, a couple of points.
I’ve read the first, second and fifth book, and they’re all great books to read. I look forward to reading the other two, and the description of the fourth in particular sounds particularly exciting to my ears:
This is the book to read if you want to understand why capitalism—and economists’ way of thinking—has triumphed the world over. By the beginning of the 1990s, it was clear that the capitalist system had defeated the communist one. Today, however, many people yearn to move to a new system, such as “millennial socialism”. A left-leaning scholar, Mr Milanovic sympathises with these feelings. But ultimately he finds many radical prescriptions unconvincing. A country which tried to de-marketise on the scale envisaged by socialists would, he says, be unstable and dissatisfied in other ways. Shifting towards a much shorter working week, for instance, would leave it poorer than its neighbours. For how long would people put up with that? Capitalism is far from perfect, his book shows, yet it is hard to shake the notion that it is the only system that broadly works.
In a way, this reminds me of Churchill’s quote about democracy being the worst form of government, except for all the others that have been tried. And it rings true – there’s many things that we all wish could be “better” when it comes to capitalism, but one of my favorite econ questions is very apposite here: relative to what? That is, if you say capitalism is not good/not perfect, you need to answer the question “relative to what”?
Second, please don’t interpret this blogpost as a critique of the list put out by the Economist. This blogpost is very much in the spirit of “Yes, and” rather than “No, but”. But that being said, my own opinion of the main features of thinking like an economist are slightly different. I couldn’t agree more with the first feature (opportunity costs), but I do disagree with the second one. I would argue that it is entirely possible to get the most out of life without having to put a number on it. In fact, as Russ Roberts recently pointed out in a podcast, it simply isn’t possible or desirable to put numbers on some things. I haven’t read the book yet, but the podcast was instructive in many different ways. Here’s one apposite quote (Russ is answering a question by Tim about how to decide whom to marry):
Alain de Botton has a wonderful YouTube video I recommend on that; I think the title is “You’re going to marry the wrong person.” Fantastic short video. Don’t show it to my wife because she thinks she married the right person, I don’t want her to see it and depress her. But seriously, there’s no best. And part of the theme of my book is that most of life is a matrix. And by that, I don’t mean the movie, the red or blue pill. What I mean is that it’s a set of complicated attributes that are pluses and minuses for all kinds of things. So the person you’re with, that you’re seeing now, whoever’s listening out there, there are certain levels of attractiveness, there’s a certain level of kindness, there’s a certain level of intelligence, or a certain level — many, many, many attributes. And then there’s chemistry and sexual attraction. We’ve got all those things working. And so, which is the best one? Oh, well I need a formula to add up all those measurements so I can get a single number, and then I’ll just pick the one that gets the best score. And I’d argue that’s the wrong way to think about life. It’s the wrong way to think about how to pick your friends. It’s the wrong way to think about how to find the best job. It’s the wrong way to think about most things.
As I mentioned, I haven’t read the book yet – sometimes I think I should get a T-Shirt with this line printed on it. But I very much belong to the school of thought that would argue that not everything in life need be quantified.
So if I disagree with “if possible, put numbers on everything”, what according to me are the main features of thinking like an economist? If I had to pick just two, here they are (and I’m going to cheat, so there):
Opportunity costs are everywhere
Life is a non-zero sum game
Getting incentives right, and worrying about what happens if incentives go wrong ought to be part and parcel of your toolkit an an economist. And if you asked me to recommend a book about this topic, my pick would be Discover Your Inner Economist, by Tyler Cowen.
And re: life being a non-zero sum game, I would recommend In The Company of Strangers, by Paul Seabright. If you do end up reading the book, you might end up coming away with the “complaint” that it is about much more than just life being a non-zero sum game, but in my world, that’s a feature, not a bug. But for the moment, here’s a relevant excerpt from the book:
Once bands were willing to make tentative peaceful contact with other bands, they could exchange with them, thereby enormously expanding the kinds of foods, tools, and resources to which they had access. We have evidence of exchange between hunter-gatherers from many thousands of years before the foundation of agriculture, although their lifestyle must have made such contacts sporadic and limited by comparison with the opportunities available to sedentary farmers in later millennia. Some of the oldest known symbolic artifacts, carved beads dating back over forty thousand years, may have played a role in facilitating such exchanges.7 In more recent times, the Yir Yoront aboriginals of Northern Australia had stone axes even though they lived many hundreds of kilometers from the nearest stone quarries (they exchanged stingray-tipped spears for them with neighboring tribes) and even steel ones, well before their first contact with European traders at the end of the nineteenth century. Trade allowed access not only to their neighbors’ skills but to those of their neighbors’ neighbors, and so on.
Seabright, Paul. The Company of Strangers (pp. 46-47). Princeton University Press. Kindle Edition.
Shown here are two people who, in my opinion, have perhaps done more for India than anybody else. That’s the kind of remark that can keep Twitter going for days, but I would honestly be surprised if these two didn’t make at least the top ten for most people.
Read the entire Wikipedia article, because it is quite the story. And if, after reading the article, you still wish to learn more, consider reading a book called The Wizard and the Prophet:
In November 1963, Swaminathan received the next shipment of Borlaug’s wheat: 220 pounds each of four commercially released varieties and samples of another 600 breeding lines that were promising but not yet commercially available. IARI researchers divided the wheat among five-acre plots in four different experimental stations. The results were remarkable. Indian farmers typically reaped less than half a ton per acre. The four Mexican varieties yielded a per-acre average of about a ton and a half, and some plots came in at almost two tons.
Mann, Charles C.. The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Groundbreaking Scientists and Their Conflicting Visions of the Future of Our Planet (Kindle Locations 6706-6710). Pan Macmillan. Kindle Edition. (Emphasis added)
How and why India (and other nations) fell short in terms of food production, Borlaug’s research in Mexico, and the fascinating story of how both Borlaug and his wheat made it to Asia is told incredibly well in the book (there is much more in the book besides, and I mean that as a compliment), and I would strongly recommend you read it.
Their work has gone a very long way towards making sure that the so called Malthusian Trap hasn’t really been a problem for most countries.
Russia and Ukraine supply 28% of globally traded wheat, 29% of the barley, 15% of the maize and 75% of the sunflower oil. Russia and Ukraine contribute about half the cereals imported by Lebanon and Tunisia; for Libya and Egypt the figure is two-thirds. Ukraine’s food exports provide the calories to feed 400m people. The war is disrupting these supplies because Ukraine has mined its waters to deter an assault, and Russia is blockading the port of Odessa. Even before the invasion the World Food Programme had warned that 2022 would be a terrible year. China, the largest wheat producer, has said that, after rains delayed planting last year, this crop may be its worst-ever. Now, in addition to the extreme temperatures in India, the world’s second-largest producer, a lack of rain threatens to sap yields in other breadbaskets, from America’s wheat belt to the Beauce region of France. The Horn of Africa is being ravaged by its worst drought in four decades. Welcome to the era of climate change. All this will have a grievous effect on the poor. Households in emerging economies spend 25% of their budgets on food—and in sub-Saharan Africa as much as 40%. In Egypt bread provides 30% of all calories. In many importing countries, governments cannot afford subsidies to increase the help to the poor, especially if they also import energy—another market in turmoil.
The effects are already being felt the world over, and as the article points out, this is likely to get much worse before it gets better, and for a variety of reasons. These are worth listing out:
The war in Ukraine has resulted in supply chain disruptions
Unexpected changes in weather patterns the world over. You may wish to debate the word “unexpected”, and I would be in agreement with you!
Raging inflationary pressures due to loose monetary policies (how loose for how long with what effects is a topic that will turn into a miniature cottage industry in academia)
A steep rise in oil prices, which impacts and is in turn impacted by 1., 2. and 3.
And the worst of it is that none of these factors look likely to subside anytime soon. And once you bake in the inevitable political response in most countries, you have found a way to make a bad problem worse:
Since the war started, 23 countries from Kazakhstan to Kuwait have declared severe restrictions on food exports that cover 10% of globally traded calories. More than one-fifth of all fertiliser exports are restricted. If trade stops, famine will ensue.
This is a story worth keeping track of, and you can be assured that all governments will be doing just that. Working through the myriad implications of multiple scenarios in a geopolitical situation as volatile as the one we’re going through right now is a migraine inducing thought, but it needs to be done.
Who is Kevin Kelly, you ask? Lots of ways to begin, but my favorite learning from Kevin Kelly (so far) has been the idea of 1000 true fans:
To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans. A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the “best-of” DVD version of your free youtube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month. If you have roughly a thousand of true fans like this (also known as super fans), you can make a living — if you are content to make a living but not a fortune.
I cannot for the life of me remember where I read about 1000 true fans first, but it most likely was via Tim Ferriss. (As an aside, Kevin Kelly has advice about this as well!) The extract above is an assertion, and if your reaction is along the lines of “but why is this assertion true?” – and I hope that is the case! – you will want to read the rest of the essay. It’s got spin-offs too, this essay, which only drives up my opinion of the original.
Long story short, he is a person worth knowing about, and trust me when I say we’ve only scratched the surface, if that. But today, I wanted to point you to his birthday gift to all of us, a lovely set of 103 observations that he has called “103 Bits of Advice I Wish I Had Known“. It goes without saying that all 103 are worth a ponder, but I’ll list here ten that especially resonated with me right now:
About 99% of the time, the right time is right now.
Anything you say before the word “but” does not count.
When you forgive others, they may not notice, but you will heal. Forgiveness is not something we do for others; it is a gift to ourselves.
When you lead, your real job is to create more leaders, not more followers.
It is the duty of a student to get everything out of a teacher, and the duty of a teacher to get everything out of a student.
Productivity is often a distraction. Don’t aim for better ways to get through your tasks as quickly as possible, rather aim for better tasks that you never want to stop doing.
The consistency of your endeavors (exercise, companionship, work) is more important than the quantity. Nothing beats small things done every day, which is way more important than what you do occasionally.
Half the skill of being educated is learning what you can ignore.
When you have some success, the feeling of being an imposter can be real. Who am I fooling? But when you create things that only you — with your unique talents and experience — can do, then you are absolutely not an imposter. You are the ordained. It is your duty to work on things that only you can do.
Your best job will be one that you were unqualified for because it stretches you. In fact only apply to jobs you are unqualified for.
It’s possible that a not-so smart person, who can communicate well, can do much better than a super smart person who can’t communicate well. That is good news because it is much easier to improve your communication skills than your intelligence.
For the best results with your children, spend only half the money you think you should, but double the time with them.
Don’t bother fighting the old; just build the new.
You are as big as the things that make you angry.
Efficiency is highly overrated; Goofing off is highly underrated. Regularly scheduled sabbaths, sabbaticals, vacations, breaks, aimless walks and time off are essential for top performance of any kind. The best work ethic requires a good rest ethic.
The observant among you might have noticed that I ended up picking fifteen rather than ten, but why short change myself and my readers? I didn’t bother culling out five – and to be clear, this is not to imply that the other eighty-eight are somehow inferior. These fifteen resonated the most with me, and I sincerely hope that your list is completely different from mine.
Note to self: of the ones I have selected here, the fifth one is the one where I really need to pull up my socks.
And speaking of hope, it would be nice if this list sparked conversations and your own lists!
Single narratives have never been able to explain all of India.
S, Rukmini. Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India (p. 220). Kindle Edition.
There is this line that is often quoted when big picture discussions about India take place, and it is only a matter of time before it comes up: whatever you say about India, the opposite is also true. The quote is attributed to Joan Robinson, and I can’t help but wonder if I will end up creating a paradox of sorts by agreeing wholeheartedly with it.
But I do agree with the spirit of the quote, which is why that one line extract from Rukmini S’s book, Whole Numbers and Half Truths, resonated so much with me. All countries are complex and complicated, but India takes the game to giddying heights.
Take a look at this map, a version of which is present in Rukmini’s book:
What is India’s TFR? First, for those uninitiated in the art and science of demography, what is TFR? It stands for Total Fertility Ratio, or as Hans Rosling used to put it, babies per woman. Well, it’s 2.0, which is good, because roughly speaking, two parents giving birth to two children will mean we’re at the replacement rate (note that this is a very basic way of thinking about it, but useful as a rough approximation).
But as any student of statistics ought to tell you, that’s only half the story (or half the truth). Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Jharkhand are well above the so-called replacement rate, and that will have implications for labor mobility, taxation, political representation and so, so much more in the years to come.
Data then, is only half the story. How is the data collected? If it is a sampling exercise rather than a census, how was the sampling done? Has the sampling method changed over time? If so, are earlier data collection exercises comparable with current ones?
How should one think about the data that has been collected? What does it mean, and how much does context matter? For example:
‘That’s data about marriage, madam,’ he said—not about love. ‘I think if your data asked people if they have ever fallen in love with someone from another caste or religion, many will say yes. I see that all around me among my friends. But when it comes to getting married, most of us are not yet ready to leave our families. That’s why your data looks like that,’ he said. As for the rest? ‘There is a lot we will not admit to someone doing a survey. But things are changing. At least for some of us,’ he said.
S, Rukmini. Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India (pp. 127-128). Kindle Edition.
Rukmini’s excellent book is, in one sense, a deep reflection on the data that we have, have had, and would like to have where India is concerned. It speaks about how data has been collected, which are the agencies and institutions involved, how these have changed (and been changed) over time, and with what consequences.
But it also is a reflection on a truism that many economists and statisticians underrate: data can only take you so far. As the subtitle of her book puts it, it is an analysis of what data can and cannot tell you about modern India.
And what data leaves out is often as fascinating as what it includes:
Yet, most people know little about the NCRB’s processes and methodology. For instance, the NCRB follows a system known as the ‘principal offence rule’. Instead of all the Indian Penal Code (IPC) sections involved in an alleged crime making it to the statistics, the NCRB only picks the ‘most heinous’ crime from each FIR for their statistics. I stumbled upon this then unknown fact in an off-the-record conversation with an NCRB statistician in the months after the deadly sexual assault of a physiotherapy student in Delhi in September 2012. In the course of that conversation, I learnt that the crime that shook the country would have only made it to the NCRB statistics as a murder, and not as a sexual assault, because murder carries the maximum penalty. This, I was told, was to prevent the crime statistics from being ‘artificially inflated’: ‘If the FIR is for theft, there will be a[n IPC] section for assault also, causing hurt also. If you include all the sections, people will think these are separate crimes and the numbers will seem too huge,’ he told me. After I reported this,2 the NCRB for the first time began to include the ‘principal offence rule’ in its disclaimer.3
S, Rukmini. Whole Numbers and Half Truths: What Data Can and Cannot Tell Us About Modern India (p. 13). Kindle Edition.
The paragraph that follows this one is equally instructive in this context, but the entire book is full of such Today-I-Learnt (TIL) moments. Even for those of us involved in academia, there is much to learn in terms of nuance and context by reading this book. If you are not in academia, but are interested in learning more about this country, recommending this book to you is even easier!
Rukmini’s books spans ten chapters on ten different (but obviously related) aspects of India. We get to learn how Indians tangle (or quite often choose not to!) with the cops and the courts, how we perceive the world around us, why Indians vote the way they do in the first three chapters. The next three are about how (and with whom) we live our lives, and how we earn and spend our money. The next trio is about how and where we work, how we grow and age and where Indians live. The final chapter is about India’s healthcare system.
Each chapter makes us familiar with the data associated with each of these topics, but each chapter is also a reflection on the fact that data can only take us so far. When you throw into the mix the fact that the data will always (and sometimes necessarily) be imperfect, we’re left with only one conclusion – analyze the data carefully, but always bear in mind that the reality will always be more complex. Data is, at the end of the day, an abstraction, and it will never be perfect.
One reason I liked the book so much is because of its brevity. Each of these chapters can and should be be a separate book, and condensing them into chapters can’t have been an easy task. But not only has she managed it, she has managed to do so in a way that is lucid, thought-provoking and informative. Two out of these three is a good achievement, to achieve all three and that across ten chapters is a rare ol’ achievement.
If I’m allowed to be greedy, I would have liked a chapter on the world of data that the RBI collects, and to its credit does share with us via its website. But it does so in a way that is best described as unintuitive. In fact, a book on how data sharing practices with the citizenry need to improve out of sight where government portals across all verticals and at all levels are concerned would be a great sequel (hint, hint!).
I’d strongly recommend this book to you, and I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I did.
We will be hosting Rukmini on the Gokhale Institute campus this coming Friday, the 29th of April. The event will be from 5.30 pm to 7.00 pm at the Kale Hall. She and I will speak about the book for about an hour, followed by a Q&A session with the audience.