Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Keynes Was Never This Much Fun

Updated: March 23, 2013 11:35 am

For anyone who thinks economics is boring, the authors of Indianomix turn that idea on its head. With stories of how people respond to incentives, and digging up various statistics to highlight points you’ve probably never thought of before, the book shows how economics touches our daily lives.

The book is a fascinating analysis of modern India why it is the way it is. Indianomix is a groundbreaking collaboration between Vivel Dehejia & Rupa Subramanya. Through forceful storytelling and wry insight, the authors show that economics is, at root, the study of incentives how people get what they want, or need, especially when other people want or need the same thing.

In 2005, economist Steven D. Levitt and journalist Stephen J. Dubner wrote the scintillating Freakonomics, which applied wisdom from the dismal science to explain all manner of interesting real world phenomena not usually of interest to mainstream economists. Seven years on, the authors of Indianomix take the Freak and Economics and apply it to India. The end product is not quite in the Levitt-Dubner league—at least partly because Freakonomics was wildly original and Indianomix is an obvious imitation—but it nevertheless makes good reading.

The book doesn’t quite, as its subtitle promises, ‘make Sense of Modern India’; that is an exercise that would certainly take much more than 219 pages. What it does do is to provide answers, or at least explanations, to questions that Indians often ask of themselves.

Why, for example, do thousands of Mumbaikars lose their lives every year crossing railway tracks despite plenty of warning not to do so? Or why did Nehru ignore the Chinese threat in the lead up to the 1962 war? You will also get an answer to why India’s Independence Day is not on the day on which it is celebrated. Why are Indian opinion polls on elections as predictive as the toss of a coin and why do auto rickshaw and taxi drivers refuse our fare, even if it means they have to travel empty a further distance before they could find a fare? The concept of Indian Stretchable Time at the beginning of the book sets the tone of an easy read.

In this book you will find explanations to a lot of peculiarities about India that you might have wondered about or puzzled over. The topics covered are varied and touch upon many interesting aspects of India. There is also a chapter on violence against women, with statistics and research that is both illuminating and surprising. In this, it tries to find the reason why India features at the bottom of the rankings in a global poll ranking countries based on how safe they were for women, India ranks even lower than countries like Saudi Arabia and Indonesia where basic civil liberties are denied to women. The authors have done a commendable job of choosing some of the most relevant and uniquely Indian problems to tackle and make sense of.

The most interesting story is of the extraordinary role played by luck in the life of Antonia Maino, now Sonia Gandhi. As the authors put it, “Sonia’s journey from shy Italian housewife to the most powerful person in India took two assassinations and five unexpected deaths after her chance meeting with her future husband. While it’s impossible to calculate, the odds would be so stacked against such a possibility as to be almost zero.”

So it’s not purely an economics book. It is a book which attempts successfully to make sense of India hidden behind the apparent chaos. A must read for anyone who wishes to understand why India behaves the way it does. If you’re reading Indianomix for making sense of modern India, then you’re probably reading the wrong book.

Indianomix isn’t really a practical book per se. In fact, you won’t learn much about economics. On the other hand, you’ll learn a lot about all kinds of things you never expected.

By Anil Dhir

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