Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 20

by Pranab Bardhan

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

When I first attended the occasional Harvard-MIT joint faculty seminar I was dazzled by the number of luminaries in the gathering and the very high quality of discussion. Among the younger participants Joe Stiglitz was quite active, and his intensity was evident when I saw Joe chewing his shirt collar, a frequent absent-minded habit of his those days. Sometimes one saw the speaker incessantly interrupted by questions, say from one of the big-name Harvard professors, Wassily Leontief (soon to be a Nobel laureate). At Solow’s prodding I agreed to present a paper at that seminar, with a lot of trepidation, but fortunately Leontief was not present that day.

At Harvard the economist I knew best was Steve Marglin whom my friends, George Akerlof and Mrinal, had introduced me to. He was at that time regarded as a whiz kid who was one of the youngest tenured professors at Harvard. He had earlier spent some time in India and became an admiring friend of Punjab’s strong-man Chief Minister Partap Singh Kairon. He was very friendly with me and Kalpana (Steve gave her useful comments on her dissertation), but I had seen him behaving somewhat abrasively with others, including senior professors.

Steve’s early work was on investment and evaluation of development projects. Then by the late 60’s his research and politics took a major turn in a heterodox, radical direction. When he gave me the first draft of his later widely-known paper titled “What Do Bosses Do?”—arguing that the Industrial Revolution was less a technological advance and more an organizational restructuring, with capitalists getting dominant control of the labor process– I was quite impressed reading it.

But I was less impressed a few years later—by that time I was in India—when he turned to more sociological themes, sometimes praising traditional Indian joint families and community life as an exemplar for individualistic western society that banishes old people to lonely exile in nursing homes, and allows market transactions destroy community life. I remember having a long correspondence back-and-forth with him on this. I asked him to check with the young people and the daughters-in-law in Indian joint families about how they felt on this matter, and pointed to how oppressive communities in India could be for some individuals/castes. He later went a step farther and published an article titled “Development as Poison: Rethinking the Western Model of Modernity”.

Around that time I met in Delhi his then wife Frédérique, a cultural anthropologist, who expressed a similar view. I remember once getting into a tense argument with her when she even spoke out against vaccinations (for small pox and cholera) in Indian villages that ‘westernized’ intellectuals like me supported. She thought villagers’ turning to superstitious worshipping of goddesses that would ward off diseases, instead of vaccinations, was also how community bonds got strengthened. Another American cultural anthropologist I know had approvingly termed such phenomena as “calamity is community”.

Another professor at Harvard I came to know reasonably well was Gottfried Haberler, who in his early years was a product of the Austrian School of Economics. As he was a leading international-trade economist and since he found out that I had specialized in that area and was teaching the course at MIT, he’d often invite me to his seminar and to lunches at one of the residential ‘houses’ of Harvard undergraduates with which he was associated. I found him very pleasant but rather conservative in his views.

At a different end of the political spectrum was another senior Harvard economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, whom I met but did not really know. (By the way, to meet this man of 6’9” height was to feel crushingly ‘vertically-challenged’—someone once vividly described the sight of Galbraith getting out of a car “one limb at a time”.) I read his best-seller book Affluent Society when I was in Presidency College. I have heard that when someone told him that on the basis of this book he was then the second largest-selling economist author ever, the first being Karl Marx, he immediately said, “But the purchases of my book are all voluntary”. I think his economics belonged to the distinctive American tradition of Thorstein Veblen and other institutional economists, but I found most technical economists dismissing him mainly as a popular writer. He was a master of English prose and in the latter part of his life he was invited to give lectures in campuses more often to the literature departments than in Economics. In the days of Vietnam War protests in a campus rally he called on Harvard students to boycott the classes of professors engaged in ‘classified’ research.

At MIT I also noticed the close relation between some technology-related academic researchers and parts of the US Department of Defense. Of course there were different kinds of such research (after all, the internet was the outcome of defense-related research). Much depended on the nature of the contract between the Government agency and the research team and how much freedom the academics retained in their independent pursuit of research. The boundary between the need for secrecy on grounds of national security and the need for transparency and integrity of academic involvement can be rather tenuous or ambiguous.

Sometime before I joined MIT the New York Times came out with a report which found that the MIT Center for International Studies (where some of the development economists had research projects) was partly funded by CIA, and some of these projects were also in India, which gave rise to considerable tension in the relationship between the Center and the Indian Planning Commission, and the relationship was soon terminated.

I found out that MIT connection of research with grants from commercial enterprises was also strong. I remember once somebody from Campbell Soup Company walking into my MIT office and telling me that he had found out that I worked on growth theory, and Campbell Soup Company was indeed acutely interested in growth, so he’d like to know if we could come to a mutually helpful arrangement. It took me some time to persuade this man that my work was completely useless for making soup or increasing its sales, and to get him out the door.

The aforementioned New York Times report also happened to show that CIA had funded the widely-known Congress for Cultural Freedom (CCF). I remember in my student days I was an avid reader of the British literary magazine Encounter of which the poet Stephen Spender was a founding editor; in Kolkata my teacher/friend Amlan Datta and the philosopher-writer Abu Sayeed Ayyub used to edit a similar magazine Quest –both of these magazines were publications of CCF. As I myself have contributed some essays to Quest, I was initially shocked when the revelations about the CIA funding of CCF came out, but I did not particularly feel guilty, even though my contempt for CIA had remained unabated. The only trouble was that this could give a handle to those who’d like to deprecate you anyway. But sometimes I even thought that the CIA money that went into bringing out good magazines like Encounter and Quest (and Pasternak’s novel Dr. Zhivago some years before then) was to that extent less of its money spent on nefarious purposes.