Why ex-chief economist’s tirade against ‘India’s usual critics’ is illogical

In a Times of India article, KV Subramanian claims political preferences influence analyses more than critics admit.

WrittenBy:Jammi N Rao
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On October 15, KV Subramanian wrote an opinion piece in the Times of India lambasting “India’s usual critics”. Since he has served as India’s chief economic adviser, an article by him cannot be dismissed without serious consideration. But does his “critique” really stand up to scrutiny or is he indulging in the very same politically-motivated analysis which he accuses his unnamed antagonists of?

To decide for yourself, you will need, of course, to read his essay, which is behind a paywall, but a screenshot of which is part of a laudatory tweet by former Niti Aayog vice chairman and Columbia University professor Arvind Panagariya.

I have to take serious issue with the headline when it refers to “India’s critics”. Yes, there are political commentators, academics and others who criticise the government’s policies but to refer to them as “India’s critics” is logically wrong. This is the classic fallacy of ad-hominem attacks targeting the individual rather than his argument, often used by trolls on social media. The term “India’s critics” is but a polite and superficially inoffensive variant of “anti-national”, “urban-naxal”, or “lib-tard” – abusive epithets often used by right-wing trolls to silence arguments against the government’s actions or policies.

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Subramanian’s thesis is that “Indian intelligentsia” (who exactly they might be he does not say) in reputed universities and think tanks provide “expert” commentary about India that is in reality far from objective. It is, he asserts, a result of their political biases masquerading as expert opinion. Presumably, this criticism applies only when their expert opinion is unfavourable to India’s government. That they might be motivated by ideology or politics is not even entertained as a possibility when they praise the government – for example those who lauded the note ban.

This is an extraordinary claim, one with no evidence at all. While it is bizarre that he does not mention any names, one can guess who is referring to through his mention of Nobel economics laureate Friedrich von Hayek. He quotes Hayek to say that an economist who wins a Nobel prize should be wary of using his new-found prestige to influence politicians and laymen. Could it be that Subramanian’s real targets here are award-winning economists from India such as Jayati Ghosh, Amartya Sen, Abhijit Banerjee, and Raghuram Rajan – all of who have been critical of India’s lurch towards economically neo-liberal, socially regressive and communally divisive policies? One can only speculate.

Subramanian cites two examples to back his thesis. The first is Sri Lanka’s recent descent into economic turmoil and political chaos. He accuses these unnamed “India critics” of claiming that “Sri Lanka’s economic crisis is because of their persecution of Tamils decades back”. These critics then allegedly go on to “inappropriately extrapolate to India an incorrect correlation of a genocide with the current economic situation”.

By not quoting a source to confirm that someone somewhere has indeed made this claim, he may well be guilty of the strawman fallacy. This is a logical trap for the unwary in which the author misstates, inadvertently or otherwise, the argument that he then proceeds to demolish.

Subramanian presents a series of facts about the situation in Sri Lanka to conclude that “the current economic crisis has nothing to do with Sri Lanka’s treatment of minorities”. But in drawing this conclusion, he ignores the indirect effects of decades of Tamil persecution and civil unrest ending in a brutal civil war that may well have finished off the Tamil separatist rebellion but also entrenched in power a nationalist dictatorship that put itself beyond democratic accountability.

The most proximal contributory cause for Sri Lanka’s economic woes may have been a balance of payments crisis caused by the Covid pandemic and the loss of tourist dollars. But it is hard to see how the prolonged communal conflict did not significantly degrade the country’s resilience, corrode its democratic institutions, frighten off foreign investment, and rob the country of many of its talented citizens who fled abroad as refugees. For a fuller account of the causes of Sri Lanka’s woes, read University of Sydney historian Niro Kandasamy’s essay.

“As political expert Neil DeVotta explains of Sri Lanka’s road to political ruin: It was nationalism that enabled governance rooted in meritocracy to be supplanted by ethnocracy, which over time has led to kakistocracy – governance by a country’s worst citizens,” stated the essay.

The other example that Subramanian presents is the failed attempt by the Narendra Modi government to reform India’s farming sector. According to him, all the adverse analysis by “India’s critics” were simply politics dressed up as “expert commentary”. This is unfair because it paints all the many economists and other experts who have argued against the three farm laws with the same brush, that they are politically motivated.

It is also ill-informed because Subramanian’s principal defence of the farm laws in the article is that the reforms sought to introduce “unimpeachable principle that greater competition – be it among buyers or among sellers – [increases the] welfare of all stakeholders”, as it has done in other sectors such as “airlines, telecoms, banking, or mutual funds”.

Subramanian does not state this categorically but one can guess that his target here is Kaushik Basu, who, in this article attacked the pro-market fundamentalism that Subramanian holds forth as sufficient reason for the farming reforms to be wholeheartedly embraced without further ado. Basu’s point is that while, on the face of it, the farm laws promised greater choice, the farmers correctly realised that with greater choice came greater financial risk. Instead of listening to the critics, and putting in place a legal framework that could deal with the risk of market failure, the government ill-advisedly dug its heels in and ended up being forced to do a U-turn.

Having given these two examples to make his case against the critics of the government, Subramanian goes on to make some further general points. He wants scholars and experts to repay the trust reposed in them by adhering to “a strict moral compass”. The critics he rails against would argue that they are doing precisely that. They would argue that by speaking truth to power at some considerable cost to themselves, they were doing the right thing, for India.

Quite rightly, he cautions decision makers to “evaluate the message independent of the messenger”. It is true that the halo effect can lead to some renowned experts wielding an influence far greater than their arguments should allow. He cautions against “echo-chambers based on the messenger” and calls for “competition in the market for ideas”. The wise policy maker would, I suggest, pay more heed to those economists and policy experts who disagree with him or her, to avoid the group think that sets in when like minded people feed off each other’s ideological prejudices. Indeed this point is best made by the farm laws fiasco.

Subramanian’s final message would be music to the ears of all those calling for a better approach towards journalism in India. Nobody in his right mind would disagree with his call for India’s media houses to recruit journalists with “deep understanding of economics so that they can robustly question the expert peddling snake oil as expert commentary”.

If mainstream media had had such talented and brave journalists, then Indians would have heard a story very different from the one they got through usual government sources on demonetisation, the corporate tax cut, or the economic and public health consequences of the pandemic and ill-planned lockdowns.

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