Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Nobody's perfect.

In Sydenham College of Commerce & Economics, then partly resident in the now-demolished Sukhadwala Building, close to Kitab Mahal and Excelsior Cinema, you had to climb steep rickety stairs to reach the FY Commerce lecture hall on the third floor. If you had patience, you could wait and try your luck with the rattling elevator. This was back in 1952. I had just passed my SSC exam and enrolled for the B Com course only because one of my cousins had become a Chartered Accountant. I wanted to emulate him, I guess. Anyway, that's how I came to know of Joan Robinson. Professor Gangadhar Gadgil used to teach us Economics or Eco as we called it. He wasn't as good a teacher as he was a Marathi littérateur, I'm sorry to say. He lectured deadpan and made Eco sound a parched, scorched, desolate, harsh, coarse, grating and excessively rude discipline. Reading Joan Robinson, thanks to my ingrained habit of going to the source, made me realise how much fun it could be. She had quite a writing style all her own. She was perfectly lucid about imperfect competition. From her, I learned the "monopsony" concept, the buyer-side equivalent of monopoly. We did not hear of it in the lecture hall. It's amusing to note that the most striking latter-day example of monopsony is the government as the sole buyer of sophisticated weaponry in a national market. The entry of the terrorist buyers turns the scenario "duopsonic". By the early fifties, India was already showing clear symptoms of morphing into a state monopoly. In the automobile market, a duopoly was emerging. This reminds me of her perceptive remark about India made popular by her illustrious student, Amartya Sen: "Whatever you can rightly say about India, the opposite is also true." It seems she lived for three years with her husband, Austin, in India before the country got its Independence. "I don't know mathematics, therefore I have to think" was her other oft-cited remark. Her ability to put into words really complex mathematical concepts was the result of this realisation on her part. Reading her and W Arthur Lewis, the first Novel Prize winner of African descent, spurred me to do research in development economics for my M Com degree. Unfortunately, Robinson could not get the Nobel Prize for Economics although Business Week had tipped her as the likely winner in 1975 echoing all her colleagues' expectations. Her Indian ward, Amartya Sen, did. The reason she missed the bus was, it was rumoured, her increasing leftist leanings as she aged. For instance, she openly expressed her admiration for Mao Zedong’s China and Kim Il Sung’s North Korea. In the meantime, perfect or pure competition continues to remain the neo-classical economist's ivory-tower fantasy. Maybe, he wasn't paying attention to Jerry Louis' repartee to Dean Martin when he called him a perfect fool. "You're wrong, Dean. Nobody's perfect."