ET View: Nobel for Abhijit Banerjee

Harry Truman famously called for a one-handed economist, tired of ecnomists who forecast this, on the one hand, and that, on the other. He would have been happy with any one of this year’s Nobel awardees for economics. Abhijit Vinayak Banerjee and the other two awardees of the Economics Nobel for 2019, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer, have been recognised for their work in development economics, specifically experiments to identify the best way to combat poverty in its different forms.

While Banerjee got his PhD from Harvard, he did his Bachelor’s in economics from Presidency, Calcutta (it had not yet morphed into Kolkata) and his Master’s in the same discipline from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. His recognition signals a few things.

One, the attack on poverty has to be more nuanced than the proposition that fast growth will cure poverty, or that a rising tide will lift all boats. Certain problems call for specific solutions. The existence of large pockets of poverty and of poverty traps in the most affluent nations of the world is proof that a prosperous economy does not, by itself, guarantee that everyone would share that prosperity. Who gets left out and why, and how to fix that problem call for specific investigation.

Angus Deaton got the Nobel in 2015 for his extensive contribution to measuring poverty. This year’s laureates brought sophisticated tools of microeconomics — Banerjee’s PhD was for mathematically intricate papers in information economics — to designing and evaluating experiments in tackling poverty.

Two, the Nobel prize is not reserved for those who keep a hygienic distance from politics. Banerjee has signed petitions that questioned the present government’s practices on statistical data. He has joined Raghuram Rajan and Gita Gopinath in producing an economic blueprint for India critical of the present government’s policies. He was one of those consulted to frame the Congress party’s basic income scheme, Nyay for the 2019 parliament elections.

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Three, institutions of higher education such as Jawaharlal Nehru University should be nurtured as places capable of producing Nobel prize winners. Keeping alive a culture of questioning and probing, instead of merging into submissive homogeneity is the way to keep the spirit of inquiry burning and ignite passionate minds to excel in diverse areas of knowledge, all the way to winning recognition and acclaim, such as the Nobel Prize, apart from doing other useful things.


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