Attacks on Abhijit Banerjee are repulsive, but Nobel prize does not put him above legitimate critique

  • The news of Mumbai-born Banerjee, a Bengali who grew up in Kolkata and studied in JNU, winning the coveted award (never mind his co-awardees) exploded as a mega bombshell on India's polarised political climate

  • It hasn't helped that some of the criticism against the economist has been crass, mindless, ad hominem attacks

  • The liberals claim that questioning the credentials of a Nobel laureate reveals the 'unintellectualism' of the ruling dispensation and its supporters

The Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has given Abhijit Banerjee and his wife Esther Duflo, both professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and professor Michael Kremer from Harvard University, the 2019 Nobel prize for Economics in recognition of their work in the field of developmental economics. And all hell has broken loose. At least in India.

The news of Mumbai-born Banerjee—a Bengali who grew up in Kolkata and studied in Jawaharlal Nehru University (JNU) winning the coveted award (never mind his co-awardees) exploded as a mega bombshell on India’s polarised political climate. It didn’t take long for opinions to form and harden along partisan lines as it emerged that the economist had advised the Congress party on its minimum basic income schemeNyay, that bombed at the electoral hustings — and has been frequently critical on various aspects of the BJP-led NDA government at the Centre.

The reactions and debates on this topic, in which the newest Nobel laureate has played no small part as he gave interviews to various media platforms, may broadly be classified in two categories. On the one hand we have what some commentators call 'nativist' reactions that find fault with Banerjee for being a well-heeled global elite with a French wife spewing hifalutin theories about eradicating world poverty and for not being mentally “fully Indian”. A chunk of these reactions has come from those who may be loosely grouped as ‘non-Left’. Many of these voices are largely supportive of the BJP.

On the other hand, we have so-called 'liberals' who have seen in Banerjee their latest knight in shining armor, his sword validated by the Royal Swedish Academy with which he may slay the band of barbarians who happen to be ruling India and their countless harebrained supporters. The Congress party has duly weighed in, with Rahul Gandhi labeling all those who happen to oppose Banerjee as hateful 'bigots'.

 Attacks on Abhijit Banerjee are repulsive, but Nobel prize does not put him above legitimate critique

File image of Abhijit Banerjee. PTI

The “liberals” claim that questioning the credentials of a Nobel laureate reveals the ‘unintellectualism’ of the ruling dispensation and its supporters. Randomised controlled trials (RCTs), that inform the developmental economic policy propagated by Banerjee, Duflo and Kremer, have come in for sustained criticism from scholars and fellow Nobel laureates but 'liberal' are trying to use the Nobel prize as a cosh to hush all debates, including some basic questions that have been raised against their methodology. More on that later.

Into this heady mix we have a dash of Bengali parochialism. This also carries a political flavor. West Bengal remains one of the last bastions for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to conquer, and the state’s volatile chief minister Mamata Banerjee has weaponised Bengali parochialism to ward off the BJP which has made rapid inroads into the state of late. In the recently held Lok Sabha elections, BJP surprised all including the ruling Trinamool Congress by winning 18 seats. By virtue of becoming the latest Bengali after Amartya Sen to bag the prestigious award, economist Banerjee may soon find himself becoming a pawn in regional politics.

Lost in this melee are some legitimate questions that need to be raised and debated about the position of RCTs as the so-called 'gold standard' favoured by developmental economists. There are also some questions to be raised about the attitude of Banerjee on being questioned on the efficacy of Congress’s NYAY scheme. According to Rahul Gandhi, Banerjee was one of the chief architects of the scheme that failed to lift Congress’s electoral fortunes.

But in order to do that, we must first clear the cobwebs of straw man arguments. It hasn’t helped that some of the criticism against the economist has been crass, mindless, ad hominem attacks. For instance, BJP leader Rahul Sinha has mocked the Indian-American for getting married to a French national. “Those people whose second wives are foreigners are mostly getting the Nobel prize. I don’t know whether it is a degree for getting the Nobel,” BJP’s national secretary has been quoted, as saying. Implicit in his dig at Banerjee is also a barb at Sen, another economist and a Nobel laureate who is married to Emma Georgina Rothschild, a British historian who teaches at Harvard.

Then we have Union minister Piyush Goyal, who has called the Nobel laureate “Left-leaning”. Goyal has congratulated the economist for his achievement, but has interpreted Congress’s heavy defeat in Lok Sabha elections to add that “people of this country has rejected his suggestion.” Goyal was obviously referring to the NYAY scheme, through which Congress promised to provide Rs 72,000 annually to “each of the poorest 20 per cent families” in India. Banerjee had given Congress some inputs on this scheme.

Calling someone’s policies “Left-leaning” isn’t a crime and does not qualify as an ad-hominem attack. The problem with Goyal’s position is that he has conflated Congress’s defeat in elections with the rejection of NYAY scheme but this causal relation has not been established. There’s no conclusive evidence to suggest that people have rejected the idea of ‘NYAY’, when in effect they may have distrusted Congress’s delivery mechanism. Congress suffers from an image problem, having been associated with a laundry list of scams the last time they were in power at the Centre.

These attacks, however, take away from the intellectual sleight of hand that has become the calling card for 'liberals'. While ad hominem attacks, uninformed positions regarding Banerjee’s RCT methodology or animus towards the economist’s marital choice are wrong and self-defeating, it doesn’t mean that the Nobel prize has perched the MIT professor on a stratosphere.

Banerjee (and other awardees) deserve praise and congratulations for their hard work, credentials and achievement. But the act of winning a prestigious award cannot and should not make the economist immune to criticism and place him above debates. That some 'liberals' are taking this essentially illiberal stance is delicious irony.

There are legitimate questions against the much-publicised ‘randomised control method’ that forms the keystone of Banerjee’s work, and presumably earned him the Nobel. The fact that the poor can be made a part of an “experiment” ought to raise questions on ethics and freedom of choice. The idea that the methodology for testing the efficacy of new medicines could be extrapolated into the field of developmental economics, ostensibly to make the projects more effective, is revolting and outrageous.

As Samir Shukla, professor of Bionics at IIM, Ahmedabad, writes in The Times of India, “Thanks to a man from one of the poorest nation who has worked on 'experimental' method and conducted “field experiments and conducted randomised control trials”, obviously on the poor, we are now getting to discuss poverty and in turn poor in a new context, as if they are sick lab rats and we are helping them by conducting clinical trials on them.”

In an interview with The Times of India newspaper, Banerjee does use the word “experiment” to define Duflo, Kremer and his approach. On Universal Basic Scheme (UBI), Banerjee says, “Right now, among economists there is a strong view in favour of UBI. We are doing a very large experiment in Kenya to find out whether income transfers work. We should wait for the evidence.” It is one thing to experiment and conduct trials as part of medical research, and quite another to apply the same principles on economic policies.

As it turns out, 15 noted economists including some Nobel laureates have raised strong objections against Banerjee’s extrapolation of RCT methodology into developmental economics. In the open letter published in a British newspaper last year, the economists had said that “relying on RCTs to guide welfare and aid spending will lead to short-term, superficial and misplaced policies.” Some of the critics include past Nobel laureates like Angus Deaton of Princeton University, Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University and James Heckman of Chicago University.

One of the reasons why RCT has gained in popularity, according to the authors of the letter, is that donors want more bang for their buck, politicians demand better financial accountability and practitioners are eager to produce “results”, thereby, in their hurry, tend to “ignore the broader macroeconomic, political and institutional drivers of impoverishment and underdevelopment.”

In his piece for Brookings Institution, a think tank based in the US, Jeffrey Hammer, Charles and Marie Robertson, Visiting Professor in Economic Development, Princeton University, discusses three problems with the RCT method in developmental economics. The first problem, writes professor Hammer, is that there “seems to be an unholy alliance between self-serving politicians and us researchers” on “systematic bias toward analysis of private goods as opposed to public goods.”

The second issue is the tunnel vision of practitioners who define “very narrowly” the “objectives ascribed to peoples’ actions” and often “ignore their specific constraints”. And finally, “the jump from positive analysis to normative policy is stunning,” according to the professor.

It is evident that the usage of a medical research tool in formulating economic policy remains a controversial subject. This should be a matter of public debate. The Nobel prize does not exclude Banerjee from criticism. But the 'liberals' are keen to use the award as a beating stick to stifle all discussions, and demand unquestioned acceptance of the recipient’s brilliance just because he/she has been conferred with the award.

This intolerance towards fair criticism and debates, steadfast belief in 'group think' and labelling of those who dare raise their voices against what liberals take to be 'axiomatic truths', have come to define neo liberalism which sounds dangerously close to fascism. Economic policies and theories, by nature, will remain vulnerable to critique. That ought to work in favour of a theory. Politicisation of a particular approach, just because the practitioner’s political belief aligns with the 'liberal' stance, is an intellectual sleight of hand.

Finally, the speed with which Banerjee has disowned NYAY in an interview with News18 as 'badly designed' over which he had no control ought to raise questions over his attitude. Right now, the idea of a minimum income support seems sadly orphanised.

Updated Date: Oct 22, 2019 17:38:01 IST