Beginning of the month, 07 December, I was in Delhi, at LSE’s Asia Forum. I’m lucky enough to have gotten to speak at all three of these now, beginning in Bangkok in 2004, then Hong Kong in 2005, and this year Delhi. And it is with some considerable pride when it came clear to me at this event that the LSE in India is no casual flirtation but instead a relationship that has bedded in over decades.
Since the Forum itself has already been written up elsewhere, I won’t rehearse again announcements on how the Reserve Bank of India and the State Bank have helped endow the IG Patel Chair at LSE; how Nick Stern, who’d just authored the Stern Report on the Economics of Climate Change, will leave the UK government to be the Chair’s first incumbent, and so on.
Instead, I’ll just put down what I saw. At the Forum both Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and President Abdul Kalam attended and spoke. President Kalam is the only Head of State with whom I have had dinner who brought along to that dinner a Powerpoint presentation to accompany his speech: a detailed plan to alleviate rural poverty in India. Before becoming President, Kalam had contributed critically to India’s space and missiles programs. He continues to support Open Source Software; and he is popular enough throughout India to have been nominated an MTV India Youth Icon.
Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spoke in the morning. I expected to hear good things about the relationship between LSE and India, and economics more generally, which he addressed sure enough; and about down-to-earth micro infrastructure problems in India, which, surprisingly, he did not. Instead, he talked the big macroeconomics of growth and distribution: the rise of India in the international marketplace; the changing balance of world economic power; the adjustment needed to expectations and well-being worldwide as global distributions of income and consumption shift, eastwards towards India and China.
Perhaps modern macroeconomics can stop being shy in how it saves itself only for bread and butter policy questions in the already developed economies of the world.
That morning I got to chat with Nandan Nilekani, who together with Tarun Das of the Conference of Indian Industry, Sheila Dikshit the Delhi Chief Minister, and Kishore Mahbubani the Dean of Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, had agreed to be on a panel with me for the Forum. In case anyone missed Nilekani on p. 5 of Thomas Friedman’s The World is Flat (credited, no less, with planting the eponymous idea in the author’s mind) Nandan really is as enthusiastic and nice and down-to-earth as is widely reported. He confirmed to me the amount of money spent on Indian publicity at the World Economic Forum last year (2006) in Davos. I told him how much I enjoyed seeing mega-celebrities and multi-billionaires lining up, scrambling, and fighting for the souvenirs his people handed out there. Fighting? Oh, yes, fighting me for those same souvenirs.
In Delhi I met many ex-students of mine, other alumni, and LSE friends. They were all so full of good cheer, I felt awkward inside when I thought about how little time I might have given them when I knew them at LSE. For the past seven years, though, I actually did at least lecture to almost every single undergraduate enrolled at the LSE and definitely to all the MSc Econ students. How do other academics deal with meeting alumni if they have never taught those alumni, but still have to represent their university in financial, intellectual, or policy negotiation with them?
The LSE Asia Forum was replete with goodwill, and rightly generated a lot of press. My own talk appeared in the Times of India 2006 December 13. (The version I prefer, one that points out infrastructure problems elsewhere, is slightly longer. But I still omitted discussion of how avoidable medical errors in the US kill 100,000 a year. Even if that were a gross over-estimate by 50%, say, that’s still more deaths than from automobile accidents, breast cancer, and HIV/AIDS.)
So I’m cheering on all the billion-people economies. What used to be political correctness is now just plain, hard-nosed economic calculation.