Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 12

by Pranab Bardhan

All of the articles in this series can be found here.

I knew that Cambridge was by the river Cam, but the first day when I looked for it I could not find it. From the map I knew that on my way to the Economics Department I had to cross it, I stopped and looked around but I could not see anything like a river. Then I asked a passerby, and he pointed to what I had thought was a small ditch or a canal. It was difficult to take it as a river, as in India I was used to much bigger rivers. Over time, however, I saw the serene beauty of this mini-river, with its placid water by the weeping willows, the swans, gliding boats and all.

There was a time when the Cambridge Economics Department was one of the most famous in the world. By the time I went as a student its relative rank had declined somewhat, particularly compared with a few American universities, but it was still very high. As I was going to specialize in International Trade Theory, the professor who was assigned to supervise me was James Meade (later to get the Nobel Prize in that field). He was an extremely decent, soft-spoken, and modest man (he declined a knighthood). I was told that he was a superb musician (I occasionally heard him humming inside when I knocked at his door) and an excellent carpenter.

He was also an austere man. He usually gave me appointments at 8 AM; in wintry mornings when I arrived shivering from the long walk from my bed-sitter, I’d find that he had switched off the heating in his office (he, of course, asked me if I minded, but how could I). He was the most conscientious supervisor imaginable. He’d promptly and meticulously read all the writings I inflicted on him, write detailed comments on the margin, mark a few lines on some pages saying that he had not vetted those lines as the mathematics used there was somewhat beyond him, which I should get checked by someone else (at his urging, I had soon a joint supervisor appointed: Frank Hahn).

Looking back one regret I have about James Meade is that preoccupied as I was with my dissertation on international trade I mostly talked with him on that subject. Much later I started working on a subject where I found out he had worked off and on for many years—the subject of combining democracy, liberty, equality and economic efficiency, involving sub-topics like worker-managed firms, firm-level partnership between capital and labor, market socialism, and universal basic income (what he called ‘social dividend’). By the time I read his work on these topics, he was already too old, and died shortly after. I had missed a golden opportunity to benefit from interacting with him on those topics.

It is also unfortunate that this gentlest of men had to suffer from the bitter partisan battles the Economics Department went through shortly after I left. It had originally started with respectable intellectual disputes about the concept and measurement of capital and its role in capitalist production systems, linked with some issues of income distribution. There were healthy debates on these issues between economists at Cambridge, Massachusetts and those at Cambridge, England. This intellectual issue was in a way hijacked by some far-left economists in the latter place as part of their partisan-political battles within the Department in faculty appointments and direction of research. Unhappy with these squabbles, some of the big names in the faculty, including Meade, left Cambridge, leading to a decline in the Department’s standing in the world. History has repeatedly shown that, in academia as in the world of politics, such doctrinal differences between the far-left and the social democrats can lead to irreversible damage, even though the real difference is really not that large in the ultimate analysis. It has been said that academic politics can be nasty “because the stakes involved are so small”.

It was also unfortunate that one far-left economist whom I have greatly admired, Joan Robinson, let herself be used in these partisan battles. I have always thought that her contributions to Economics—both in the 1930’s, on Keynesian economics and the economics of imperfect competition, and in the 1950’s on the intricate questions she raised on capital theory—easily deserved a Nobel Prize, which she never got. We students were actually a bit afraid of her, she was brusque in her manners and did not care for social pleasantries. I used to see her taking long walks in Cambridge, always dressed in Indian salwar kameez. (I was advised by other Indian students not to greet her casually when you met her walking. Apparently, one Indian student greeted her with an innocent but formal “Good Morning, Mrs. Robinson!” and she sharply retorted: “So What?”) She, however, had a special affinity with India and used to spend a few weeks there (mainly in Kerala) every Christmas (she told us that she was there escaping from the commercial ‘hell’ of England during Christmas).

In seminars she’d sit in front and quickly fall asleep, and then at the end ask the speaker sharp questions. I also found her a bit politically naïve, the way she repeated the then Chinese government rhetoric eulogizing the ‘great Cultural Revolution’ or the way, once after a visit to North Korea, she gave us a lecture, all gaga about the splendid achievements of the North Korean government.

There are alternative speculations about why she did not get the Nobel Prize. I don’t think it was necessarily the misogyny of the Nobel selectors at that time. More likely, they were afraid that she might have rudely refused it, or even on acceptance, might have behaved ‘improperly’ in front of the Swedish monarch during the elaborate prize-giving ceremony (something the Swedes care a lot about).

Frank Hahn, who became my joint supervisor with Meade, was personality-wise quite the opposite of Meade. He was a boisterous man given to coarse remarks, took childish pleasure in outraging you, and if you looked offended by his remarks, he’d try to be even more outrageous. Once when I told him that in the vacation I was going to India, he said: “I see you and Amartya always going to India. What’s there for you? People there are defecating all around, and without electricity the peasants just copulate, as the only entertainment in the dark they can have”. I knew if I acted aggrieved at this, he’d go farther. So just to stop him, I said: “Frank, you have a Eurocentric idea of the time of copulation. Indian peasants don’t copulate at night. The peasant works the whole morning, then the wife brings their lunch to the field. After lunch in the shade of a tree and some hookah smoke, they make love in the lonely serenity of the afternoon.” He gave me an impish smile appreciating my invention.

But as a supervisor he helped me with his sharp mind and sage advice. I last saw him in Siena, Italy, ill with an incurable degenerative disease; he came to my lecture on a wheel-chair and at the end told me: “My dear boy, good lecture, but A-, you need to work on it a bit more”.