Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 19

by Pranab Bardhan

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

There was another well-known economist who later claimed that he was my student at MIT, but for some reason I cannot remember him from those days: this was Larry Summers, later Treasury Secretary and Harvard President. Once I was invited to give a keynote lecture at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics at Islamabad, and on the day of my lecture they told me that Summers (then Vice President at the World Bank) was in town, and so they had invited him to be a discussant at my lecture. After my lecture, when Larry rose to speak he said, “I am going to be critical of Professor Bardhan for several reasons, one of them being personal: he may not remember, when I was a student in his class at MIT, he gave me the only B+ grade I have ever received in my life”. When it came to my turn to reply to his criticisms of my talk, I said, “I don’t remember giving him a B+ at MIT, but today after listening to him I can tell you that he has improved a little, his grade now is A-“, and then proceeded to explain why it was not an A. The Pakistani audience seemed to lap it up, particularly because until then everybody there was deferential to Larry.

Later when I asked Stan Fischer if Larry was my student, he told me that he might have taken my undergraduate class. The undergraduate classes were larger than graduate classes, and I do not remember many of those students (one very bright MIT undergraduate I do remember teaching was Hal Varian, who later became my colleague at Berkeley, and has been the Chief Economist at Google for some years).

In my undergraduate classes at MIT I noticed that many of the students were ready with the class textbook and their yellow markers, waiting to highlight parts of the text as I lectured. But in my lectures I usually talked about my thoughts on the subject not following any particular textbook, which confused these students. They seemed to be bright but a bit more like high-school kids. This was somewhat different from the undergraduates I had seen in Cambridge, England. This could be because the English students started college about a year later and so a bit more mature; and also there could be differences in the general level of school education.

Shortly after my arrival at MIT a petition protesting American bombing of North Vietnam was circulated among the faculty, where I immediately signed. Next week the signed petition came out as a full-page ad in the New York Times, but I was disappointed to see that most of the senior professors at MIT did not sign it.

Around that time I remember Kalpana and I joined an anti-war protest march, that started at the Cambridge Common near Harvard Square and proceeded across the Charles River all the way to Boston Common. (Some people, over-cautiously, had advised me against it, saying that this might put at risk my then-tentative immigration status in the eerily exotic category called ‘resident alien’).  During this march one feature of American political life became clear to me. Most of the protesters were students, faculty and other liberal educated professional people. In some areas blue-collar workers from the sidelines were jeering at us, and at one place became rather hostile, and started throwing garbage bins at us. I think many blue-collar workers thought that these privileged educated people were being unpatriotic, and disrespectful of their boys who were fighting and dying in the jungles of Vietnam. The gulf between the working classes and the liberal elite in US has widened much further in recent years. To me this was (and is) a major organizational failure of the liberals and the left, in not approaching workers with more empathy and attempting to convince them how vested interests use their boys as mere cannon-fodders.

In about two to three years I noticed a big change in the mindset of the MIT faculty. On another petition protesting the Vietnam War most of the senior professors now did sign. Around that time I remember some heated discussion in the lunch table at the Faculty Club. One senior professor who still refused to sign kept saying “I’d like to keep my mind open”. To this Robert Solow made a cutting remark; he said “If you keep your mind that open, stuff’s going to ooze out”.

On one issue of international politics, however, I learned over the years not to open my mouth–when it comes to the actions and policies of the Israeli government. I have seen the same distinguished faculty member who’d loudly deprecate violent killings of civilians or suppression of human rights by the American authorities in Vietnam or elsewhere will be blind to similar actions by the Israeli government against Palestinians. I have been astounded by the facile labeling of any criticism of Israeli government action as anti-semitism or prejudice against the Jewish people, a confusion made by otherwise so brilliant people. Over the years I also found out that my friends in Israel (particularly those who used to be active in the Peace Now movement) were much less likely to indulge in this confusion than my Jewish friends in New York and Boston.

On this matter I was quite naïve at the beginning when I joined MIT. One day when people were discussing that morning’s newspaper headline and deploring American action in Vietnam or Cambodia, I pointed out that the other headline in the same day’s newspaper was about similar Israeli action against Palestinians. At this I noticed a resounding silence around the lunch table. After some interval of embarrassing silence somebody started discussing house prices in Lexington. I took the hint and fell silent. But my neighbor at the table, Joe Stiglitz, suddenly interrupted the Lexington house-price conversation, and said he thought I was right and that we should seriously discuss the Israeli issue. But nobody else showed any interest, and people at the table soon dispersed. I also stood up, but Joe kept going. As he and I were slowly walking down the stairs to our second-floor office, Joe went on talking still agitatedly. Moments later, I saw a senior professor at the Department hurriedly running down the stairs, but not before muttering something when he was passing Joe. I did not fully hear what he said, but I think I heard something about what ‘self-hating Jews’ do.

Over the years, very slowly, this has changed somewhat. An increasing number of liberal Jewish people in the US have started being somewhat critical of Israeli government actions. (On the other hand, Christian evangelicals have now become dedicated supporters of the latter). One major public intellectual I used to read avidly in the New York Review of Books was Tony Judt who wrote both on Europe and Israel. On his latter writings he often earned the epithet of ‘self-hating Jew’. In 2003 he wrote a piece where he argued that Israel was on its way to becoming a “belligerently intolerant, faith-driven ethno-state.” In almost two decades since then no one has convincingly shown that Israel has definitely changed course. Unfortunately, now India seems headed that way too.