I think what he means is…?

Partha Dasgupta has written many fine papers, and his talent and work at theoretical analysis are vastly superior to my own… but in this oped Getting India wrong he just doesn’t make much sense.  He writes for example:

If the methodology adopted in these two books [Bhagwati vs Sen, and their co-authors] continues to be the orthodoxy, development thinking will remain tethered to cross-country comparisons of quality of life. Meanwhile the links between population growth, acute poverty, and environmental degradation will remain unexplored, and “sustainable development” will fade into a fashionable term aired only at cocktail parties.

What are the links, anyway?  He doesn’t say; they must be real bad, and very dangerous and tricky since they have not been explored yet. And people who talk about them are pretending (at cocktail parties) solely to impress… nobody really knows!

The “methodology” he refers to is the “counting” of economic activity (and hence well-being) which leaves out the depletion of nature.  Growth (and decline too sometimes) often is associated with destruction of the environment.  If that destruction were valued, perhaps our evaluation of the benefits of growth would be considerably reduced.  Fine. Econ 1 textbooks have included words to that effect.  Do intelligent people not know that?

He also mentions that “population growth” is something important.  But no sentence in the oped gives any precise indication of what he has in mind. Is he going to value people like a village woodland, as a capital asset that persists over time and generates benefits for others?  According to Dasgupta standard development thinking ignores “… the possibility that population growth could contribute through habitat destruction to the persistence of poverty and hunger.”  I just don’t see how anyone can claim that population growth and environmental issues are ignored in development studies…. one of Dasgupta’s earlier articles on this very topic, published in Science in 2000 The value of nature and the nature of value has over 600 Google Scholar citations.  World Development must publish are article on this very subject in every single issue.

Maybe this is how you become a fine theorist, by not taking much time on expository writing.  Since math is more precise than words, why bother?

Here’s what I wish he had written:

Bhagwati and Sen (and co-authors) both fail to tackle the problem of population growth.  In a poor country such as India, widespread poverty means that families are large.  Large families mean that as India develops (slower than it could if families were smaller), environmental destruction will be greater.  This will slow growth further, and induce families to continue to be large.  Cultural entrepreneurs (religious and ethnic leaders) have a strong interest in opposing habit/identity change that would lead rapidly to smaller families.  Someone then must take the lead and convincingly preach the social virtues of family planning and contraception.  Now give example of program/NGO/political leader doing exactly what Dasgupta wants…

If Dasgupta could write down his own thoughts with that kind of precision, his opeds would be a lot more influential.

the possibility that population growth could contribute through habitat destruction to the persistence of poverty and hunger – See more at: http://ideasforindia.in/article.aspx?article_id=180#sthash.VFtQDSy1.dpuf
the possibility that population growth could contribute through habitat destruction to the persistence of poverty and hunger. – See more at: http://ideasforindia.in/article.aspx?article_id=180#sthash.VFtQDSy1.dpuf
the possibility that population growth could contribute through habitat destruction to the persistence of poverty and hunger. – See more at: http://ideasforindia.in/article.aspx?article_id=180#sthash.VFtQDSy1.dpuf
the possibility that population growth could contribute through habitat destruction to the persistence of poverty and hunger. – See more at: http://ideasforindia.in/article.aspx?article_id=180#sthash.VFtQDSy1.dpuf

About mkevane

Economist at Santa Clara University and Director of Friends of African Village Libraries.
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