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Jagdish Bhagwati

One of the most influential trade theorists of his generation, Jagdish Bhagwati is a professor of economics at Columbia University and a Senior Fellow in International Economics at the Council[…]

Economics is about the amelioration of the human condition.

Jagdish Bhagwati: What I do for a living is really two-fold. But it’s all related to my being a professor actually, which I’ve always been. Even when I was doing work on the Planning Commission in India on poverty reduction, that was on loan from as a professor from the Indian Statistical Institute.

I’ve always been a professor. And I believe that there are two things which professors should do. Not all of them do it. And one is to teach students, and the other is to create research. And teaching students, an important component has to be teaching them ___________. Meaning not a set of commandments, but how to arrive at ethical solutions to the problems facing humanity.

So we create knowledge, and then we teach students how to put it to good use the way they see the good that they want to achieve. I’ve always been fond myself doing both of those things.

There’s a third way also which we do, which is to go into the outside world and actually get involved. The young kids today are activists. Of course I always tell them that look, this is not in conflict with intellectual pursuit of ideas and so on, because they also translate into the kinds of things you would want to do.

When they do research and teach students, we aren’t pacifists. We are cerebral activists. But we also go out. Some of us like to do it. So I write in public a lot. I have actually done pro bono work for international agencies.

One thing I don’t do is to consult with corporations, simply because I think corporations do a lot of good, and I don’t want to be accused of being taking handouts from them. I want to retain my independence. So I’m free to defend Nike or Starbucks or even Wal-Mart for that matter, simply because I keep myself totally clean.

Well I could give you an academic answer as to which way the things are going. But let me give you an answer from the point of view, the fact that economics is a social science. It’s about society. Therefore it’s about amelioration of the human condition. So to me, that is the central focus of where economics ought to be. It’s more or less the English focus which I learned. It’s also the focus I learned at MIT, which is where I came and spent a little time. Because that’s the most English school in the United States actually, in terms of its orientation towards solving problems, which matter rather than doing mathematical pyrotechnics and so on.

The most important challenge facing us today, I think, is globalization. In the sense that I think things have changed very dramatically in the system and the world economy. Part of it is, of course, what is sometimes called the death of distance. People are much closer. A lot of economies have gotten much more integrated into the world economy as a result. We have reduced a lot of barriers to transactions. That’s manmade. We have also improved technology. That is manmade too. 

But on the other hand, it’s something which is not, which is not policy. It is in fact technology which is really changing the conditions under which we live.

I mean imagine in the 19th century. I read somewhere there were 12 deliveries of the mail in London. On horseback, of course. Then it got steadily less. And then we had,  two, I think, was the last when I was studying in England. There were two. And then I think now there is one. Now we’ve got e-mails. We’ve got delivery every second, right?

In fact one of the most distracting things in the world is to have your Blackberry with you, because it’s very hard to control your impulse to see if somebody sent you something. So what we now have is a tremendous growth of technology, under which transactions have become so much more easy, and more dramatic, and instantaneous and so on. This is really the way to do it.

My student Paul Krugman, who is a major economist of the younger generation, and writes an interesting column in the New York Times. His major work – for which I hope he will get the Nobel Prize one day – is on economic geography. Meaning people actually transacting face-to-face with one another, right? So people having to be in the same physiological space.

And I often tease him because it’s a privilege of a professor to tease his students – particularly the ones he admires. And I say, “You know Paul, you’re just behind the curve. Geography has now become history.”

It’s gone because today, very rarely do you really need people to be together in the same place. You look at a number of people writing papers together. Hardly anybody writes papers together with the people who are in the same department. Most of them are doing it with people who are skillions [sic] of miles away.

Recorded On: Aug 14, 2007.

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