Charaiveti: Journey From India To The Two Cambridges And Berkeley And Beyond, Part 59

by Pranab Bardhan

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

Being in Berkeley for more than four decades I have met and encountered many leftists and several of them are/were radical in their politics, though in recent years the radical fervor has been somewhat on the decline even in Berkeley. I remember some time back reading one east-coast journalist describing Berkeley, with a pinch of exaggeration, as moving from being the Left capital of the US to being its gourmet capital—this transition is, of course, most well-known in the case of Alice Waters who, a Berkeley activist in the 1960’s, started her iconic restaurant Chez Panisse in the next decade, though she herself considers the novel approach to food embodied in that restaurant—insistence on fresh ingredients and cooperative relations with local farmers– as growing out of the same counter-culture movement. (This transition was, of course, much more agreeable than some of the militant Black Panther leaders of 1960’s Oakland turning to Christian evangelism).

In campus politics the decline in radical fervor became plain to see in the first decade of this century during the Iraq War. There were protests in the campus but nowhere with the same intensity that was observed during the Vietnam War. I think this was partly because the military draft had been lifted meanwhile so that young men from middle and upper classes which are in large numbers even in a public university like Berkeley were no longer conscripted—wars in America now (as has been the case always in India) are largely fought by poor people—so the Iraq War was not an immediate threat or interruption of life for the young in the campus.

Also wars are now less dependent on soldiers on the battle field, more on computers and precision-guided weapons. Targets in West Asia are hit by missiles directed from a situation room thousands of miles away. A large part of conducting a war is now almost like an amplified version of a video game played by young military operators. I have often told my American friends that without improvements in American school education particularly in geography and history the rest of the world is in great peril. You can almost imagine a military operator with poor education exclaiming from his air-conditioned office in a military base somewhere in the Arizona desert: “Oops, I just wiped out the wrong town/village in whatever is the name of that shithole country where we are fighting!”

And, of course, with poor knowledge of world history American politicians and military planners heedlessly bumble into alien places like giant zombies, causing mindless destruction and mayhem. (When my son Titash was in school I saw how little of history of other countries American kids learn. As an attempt at partial compensation, part of my bedtime stories for him for a time involved books on world history. The most useful book for this purpose was Jawaharlal Nehru’s Glimpses of World History, which he wrote in the early 1930’s from British prisons in the form of 196 letters to his young daughter, Indira, in lucid English prose. These were letters, written from his heart, introducing his daughter to the story of human civilization as it unfolded in different parts of the world. I thought Titash would be bored after a point, but he remained an enthusiastic listener till the end, largely because of Nehru’s style of story-telling meant for a young loved one. When the book came out the New York Times described it as “one of the most remarkable books ever written”.)

Another contrast with the Vietnam War time was that many otherwise liberal Jewish members of the faculty and students (wrongly) thought that the Iraq War would enhance Israel’s security. I remember around the beginning of the War Andrei Shleifer came from Harvard to give a seminar at Berkeley, and we took him to the Faculty Club for lunch. It so happened that morning the New York Times carried a full-page petition signed by many Nobel laureates to stop the War. My friend George Akerlof was one of the signatories. In the lunch table Andrei who was an ardent supporter of the War started even taunting George about his signature to the petition (the subtext was as if he was betraying the Zionist cause). George became uncomfortable and started scratching his head in some confusion. I could not take it anymore. I turned to him and said, “George, you did absolutely the right thing. Andrei is not realizing the big mistake he’s making”.

The radicals I came across in Berkeley and elsewhere, mainly among non-economists, were often utopian socialists. They were moved by the primacy of social justice in their value system, and did not have the patience to think through the various trade-offs that one has to keep in mind in a real-world economy, even in pursuit of worthwhile social-justice goals. For example, for effective redistribution and vigorous social welfare over the long haul one needs to ensure a viable system of continuous innovations in place to keep the economy prospering and the state coffers filled, and this may require some encouragement of capitalist enterprise and profit-minded creative thinking. In social-democratic Scandinavian countries by and large they have worked out a system in which workers have an assured well-functioning welfare system but they have also made sure that the incentives for private business innovations remain strong—in the global index of innovations the Scandinavian countries remain among the highest in the world ranking in spite of high tax rates.

Economists are more adept at thinking of the various trade-offs involved in the pursuit of social justice, but many of them are conditioned to think that there is an inevitable equity-efficiency trade-off, so that if you want more social justice and equality you have to give up on efficiency, and waste a great deal of resources that could have been used in enlarging the social pie. I think recent advances in economic theory and actual experience have shown that equity and efficiency can be complementary even in an otherwise broadly capitalist framework. For example, a properly designed and implemented land reform even in a private-enterprise agricultural context may improve both productivity and equality. Leftists need to further explore the various possibilities of this kind (I’ll come back to this).

Leftists, on the other hand, are correct in viewing many economists’ approach as much too narrow in being individual self-interest-centric, that they often overlook the importance of community-level cooperation, where egalitarian efforts may build trust and solidarity. An unequal and divided society makes social cooperation difficult, and may in the end harm all. As the Anglo-Irish writer Oliver Goldsmith famously said in his 1770 poem ‘The Deserted Village’: “Ill fares the land, to hastening ills a prey/Where wealth accumulates, and men decay”.

Of course, as I have discussed before in the context of anarchists and communitarians, there are forces of both conflicts and cooperation at the community level, and one has to be wary about the romantic illusions some nurture about the local community. If one takes the three social coordination mechanisms in most societies, of the state, the market, and the community, all three have both many advantages and pitfalls, and a sane social commentator has to take a balanced approach. Such balance is often missing among both the Left and the Right.

In Economics the analytical framework to study both conflicts and cooperation in interactive human decision-making is provided by game theory. I was first exposed to elementary game theory when the professors in my undergraduate days in Presidency College, Kolkata told us about the ideas in the landmark 1944 book by the mathematician John von Neumann and the economist Oskar Morgenstern. Then for me there was a long gap. In my studies and research in the two Cambridges I was too busy with the theory of economic growth, and on my return to India I was preoccupied with village studies and analysis of rural institutions in India. So when I went to Berkeley, I found out that people did not do much of growth theory anymore and the new fad was about game theory, transformed in the intervening period by the application of the ideas of John Nash the Princeton mathematician and also by those of the Berkeley economist John Harsanyi and Reinhard Selten of Bonn (three of them got the Nobel Prize in 1994). I decided to attend a couple of courses in Berkeley in game theory (including one by my then colleague Drew Fudenberg, now at MIT) to make myself familiar with the basic concepts and their applications, but I could not say I really mastered it.

John von Neumann was the Hungarian polymath who had revolutionized several subfields of mathematics and physics but also made path-breaking contributions to economics and in the invention of the atomic bomb, nuclear energy and digital computing. Some people think he was probably the most intelligent person who ever lived (possibly using a special definition of intelligence). I once met his daughter Marina Whitman, an economist, and simple-mindedly asked her how it felt to grow up as the daughter of such a genius. I still remember her cryptic answer: ”Better than being the son of a genius”. I see that in a recent biography of von Neumann by Ananyo Bhattacharya Marina went a bit farther about her father: “He tended to be oblivious to the emotional needs of those around him”. Marina was two when her parents divorced; her father agreed to let her live with him only after she turned 12, when he could be sure that she was “approaching the age of reason.”

I have heard many stories about him. When at work at the Institute of Advanced Study at Princeton he’d often play very loud German martial music on the gramophone in his office, which used to annoy people at the neighboring offices including Albert Einstein. Despite being a bad driver, he loved driving, often while reading books, leading to various accidents and arrests. In the one-hour train journey from Princeton to Penn station in New York, he’d challenge anyone to give him the toughest mathematical problem which he’d then solve before the train reached Penn station.

He died of cancer at age 53. After his terminal diagnosis for the first time in his life he faced something he could not take control of, and I read somewhere that for a time the neighbors used to hear at night the howls coming from his home. But on his deathbed, he reportedly entertained his brother by reciting the first few lines of each page from Goethe’s Faust, word-for-word, by heart.

John Nash’s life was written up by the journalist Sylvia Naser (I remember discussing it with her when we met once) in her book A Beautiful Mind, later made into an Oscar-winning movie. The book covers Nash’s years at Princeton and MIT and also his years of struggle with paranoid schizophrenia and slow recovery (and the strength and large-heartedness of his El Salvadoran wife, Alicia, throughout—Alicia did Physics at MIT and was a student of Nash). The Nobel Committee had considered Nash’s name for quite some time but was unsure about his mental condition, lest something embarrassing happened at the Nobel ceremony. Jörgen Weibull, a Swedish economist, was discreetly sent to Princeton to check up on him, and Weibull came back with renewed confidence as an advocate for awarding the Prize to him. (John Nash and Alicia died in 2015 when their taxi crashed on their way home from the airport).

The Nobel Committee’s anxiety about avoiding embarrassment at the ceremony reminds me of a story I have heard about the Physics Nobel laureate—and the great prankster– Richard Feynman. When the Prize was announced in October 1965, Feynman was, of course, enormously pleased, but then one of his Caltech colleagues told him that at the ceremony he had to be very careful. After getting the Prize from the King of Sweden, he’d have to retreat with his face toward the King, he should not show his back to him as that’d be disrespectful; and, mind you, there were some steps he’d have to negotiate while retreating, and it’d be embarrassing if he were to tumble there. So then Feynman started practicing in the staircases of Caltech going backward. Soon he became so good at it, he started leaping two steps backward at a time. Caltech students used to gather and observe this strange sight of the big-name professor walking backward in the staircase two steps at a time. I don’t know if he performed this feat in front of the King the following December.