The recent public intervention by a group of economists over data published under the Narendra Modi government and a rejoinder to them by a bigger group of chartered accountants makes it appear as if public policy is a numbers game. And as if economics and accountancy are two rival ideologies contending for political power. Both these impressions are wrong, dangerous for public policy and corrosive for democracy. Here’s why.
At a time when India needs greater expertise in public policy, the oversimplified “economists vs chartered accountants” framing seems to suggest that the two disciplines are substitutes, and in doing so, devalues the role of any expertise in public policy.
Just as it would be very unwise to approach an economist to help you with corporate structuring or tax planning, it would be wrong to rely on chartered accountants for recommendations on monetary policy, welfare schemes or public finance.
Of course, economists have a role in the corporate world, chartered accountants in government policy and neither ought to enjoy the final word on policy issues. But it is important for both the public and the political leaders to understand that they are not substitutable.
The more our public discourse ends up with an impression that you can exchange one for the other, the more we undermine the value of expertise in government policymaking. As Kaushik Basu tweeted in sarcasm, “There is now alarm that 153 gourmet chefs are getting ready to give their opinion on the economy & data.” To be sure, gourmet chefs have as much a right to express their views on the economy as on, say, the correct way to conduct brain surgery, but we would be foolish to treat all opinions with equal credence.
A rapidly growing, complex three-trillion dollar economy cannot be governed without expertise in various highly specialised domains of public policy. (Disclosure: I am the co-founder of a non-profit organisation whose mission is to train people to be public policy professionals.)
We should resist caving in to the anti-intellectualist sentiment that characterises the populism that prevails around the world today. We cannot afford that luxury. We need sanitation experts to help us design our sewage systems, traffic experts to reform our transport, agriculture experts to resolve the agrarian crisis, and so on. It’s impossible that one of them will be able to do the others’ job well. Our unreformed “steel frame” civil services are already a major hurdle to expertise. If we add anti-intellectualism to that, we are very much done for.
The argument that we must give greater credence to the opinions of people who have spent years working on a particular subject is not the same as accepting their views uncritically. Yet, anti-intellectualism often and paradoxically sits alongside blind faith in famous individuals.
A few years ago, I postulated the Law of Indian Expertise (LIE), which states that in India, “a person who has achieved fame in one area is immediately considered an expert in all others.” When he was still playing, I used to joke that Sachin Tendulkar’s views on nuclear strategy might carry more weight than those of the less famous members of the National Security Advisory Board. After he became a Rajya Sabha member, I stopped cracking this one, out of fear that it might actually happen.
Ordinary mortals are not exempt: the television producer persisted in inviting me to a prime time show on Uttar Pradesh elections, despite my equally persistent protestations of being both ignorant and disinterested in the subject.
When LIE involves individuals with no known expertise in the subject, we can laugh it off. But blind faith in domain experts is also a problem. More than a decade ago, when I argued that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) is likely to cause labour shortages and rural inflation, quite a few people told me that they believed Manmohan Singh and John Dreze, who, unlike me, were economists of repute.
A lot of people are like this, either incapable of making up their mind on a specialised topic, or unwilling to devote time and effort to understand it. They will blindly go by reputations, or believe what other people in their social circle seem to believe in. It is this characteristic of human behaviour that is vulnerable to exploitation in the world of smartphones, mobile internet and social media. If intelligent discourse is undermined, democracy will yield perverse outcomes.
So what should we do — and what should we teach our children to do — when economists, chartered accountants and gourmet chefs all jump in on the same topic? Since experts can be both wrong and partisan, should we accord the same weight to them all? Not quite.
The answer is to attach greater weight to people who have specialised in the field most relevant to the issue at hand: you can usually make this out by their educational qualifications, their employment history, and their publication record. Just like what you would look for in a medical specialist. You would then check out what they have to say, and see whether there are other experts from the same field who have other opinions. Again, just like what you would do when getting a second opinion from another medical specialist.
This is not hard, and unlike in the medical analogy, experts in social sciences are seldom unanimous. That is why an exasperated Harry Truman said, “Give me a one-handed economist. All my economists say ‘on the one hand…on the other’.” If economists have only two hands, Indian chartered accountants, like Indian goddesses, have a lot of them.
Listen to their arguments and counter-arguments. Then make up your own mind.
The author is the director of the Takshashila Institution, an independent centre for research and education in public policy.