Originally Published 2019-09-16 11:17:54 Published on Sep 16, 2019
Einsteinian economics

A recent statement by the Union minister for commerce (and railways) Piyush Goyal gave rise to a small storm of commentary — some gently amused, and some ill-natured. Goyal — after a meeting of the Board of Trade, and in the context of a target of $1 trillion for Indian exports — suggested that we should not be interested in discussions about the composition of such targets, as seen in the media, which he paraphrased as follows: “If you're looking at a five trillion dollar economy, the country will have to grow at 12%. Today it's growing at 6%”. Doing these calculations was a waste of time, he said: “Don't get into those maths. Those maths have never helped Einstein discover gravity... If you'd only gone by structured formulae and what was past knowledge, I don't think there would have been any innovation in this world."

Now, of course, it was Isaac Newton who “discovered” gravity. This sort of minor slip is exactly the kind of thing guaranteed to keep Twitter amused, and the names of both scientists shot to the top India’s trending topics. (Imagine how disappointing for some Indian physicist who happened to click on these trends, excited that we were finally developing a scientific temper, only to discover that we are actually sticking to what we know best, mocking politicians.)

This was a minor error, frankly, and it’s unfair to go after it. Maybe he meant to say Newton, maybe he meant to say relativity. The BJP might have transformed such minor errors from Rahul Gandhi in the past into an election-winning image of him as a buffoon, but such slips should be shrugged off by a mature polity.

The problem, however, doesn’t end there. Worryingly, Goyal issued two clarifications through the medium of the government-friendly agency ANI. They were increasingly combative, rather than dismissive, which was odd. Further, Goyal repeated the factual error in his clarifications: “While maths helped Einstein discover gravity, it’s because he had an open mind and the ability to think big that he could use maths to discover gravity.” Once is an error, twice is puzzling, three times is a problem. Because it means that either nobody told the minister he made a mistake; or that, knowing there was a factual error, he nevertheless persisted with it in order to emphasise his larger point. Neither reflects well on how communication is being managed in New Delhi these days. If you can’t accept even a minor factual error, how will you reverse or modify bigger errors?

But the real problem is the message Goyal was trying to send out. His purpose, he clarified, was to “make the people confident, give them a spirit of positivity”; “if we live in the past”, he added, linking “structured formulae” of growth economics to this past thinking, then we won’t achieve our targets.

If this is how the government is thinking, then we are in real trouble. For if this can be called thinking, then it is the magical kind. However much the government might wish us to close our eyes and just believe, the economy is not a fairy story. We can’t set aside the hard choices of economics — expressed in those “structural formulae” — and wish our way to success. For a Union minister to mock the basic maths behind criticism of the government’s targets is a bad signal indeed; disdain for expertise seems to now be the ruling ideology in New Delhi.

The government must realise what people mean when they discuss the “structural formulae” behind the slowdown in growth and the stagnation in exports. Those producers, exporters and economists are not “living in the past”; they are seeking to change our future. They are making the point that business as usual will prevent India from achieving the targets the government has set. They are advocating for the reforms or administrative changes that, according to these “structural formulae”, will in fact ensure India achieves these targets. In the case of exports, that means a massive reduction in red tape, an increase in trade facilitation, better linkages to ports, a reduction in tariffs, and so on. If the government’s only answer to these pleas is to demand that we suspend our disbelief and “go beyond the structured way of thinking”, then we are doomed. Not only will we not make these ambitious targets, but such anti-intellectualism at the highest level means that even regular growth might be difficult to achieve.

A final word on Einstein and mathematics: whatever Whatsapp University might tell the credulous, he was never poor at maths. Naturally he wasn’t. And when he worked on the general theory of relativity, he needed to draw on the most up-to-date developments in mathematics: non-Euclidean geometries in particular. He had a wide correspondence with mathematicians, and a crucial insight was provided by his friend Marcel Grossmann. Even Einstein needed to consult experts. Unless the current government is even smarter than Einstein, so do they.

This commentary originally appeared in Business Standard.

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Mihir Swarup Sharma

Mihir Swarup Sharma

Mihir Swarup Sharma is the Director Centre for Economy and Growth Programme at the Observer Research Foundation. He was trained as an economist and political scientist ...

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