Swiftly moving from Cornell professor to Chief Economic Advisor of the Indian government was a unique but challenging transition, Prof. Kaushik Basu, economics, recounted. Baru, senior vice president and chief economist of the World Bank, described his life story at a talk Thursday.
Basu said that his recently published book, An Economist in the Real World — which discusses economic policy development — was only written because he kept a detailed diary during his tenure as Indian CEA from 2009 to 2012.
According to Basu, his sudden appointment to the CEA’s office and entry into economic policymaking was a somewhat traumatic experience for him.
“India’s CEA, I discovered after I went [to India], has never been a person who has had no experience in government. My entire career had been in academia, research, and teaching,” Basu said. “On the ninth of August, 2009, completely out of the blue, I got a phone call in the evening from the [Indian] Prime Minister’s office asking if I would consider being the CEA to the Indian government.”
Basu, an Indian national, underwent two months of background checks while still at Cornell before traveling to India to take up his new post.
As CEA, Basu had to adjust from working on problems for months — a pace he was accustomed to as an academic and researcher — to putting together documents in days. The experience taught him that policymakers are not always able to give compelling answers with the time and resources available to them, he said.
“You have to cut corners,” Basu said. “You don’t want to say wrong things and want to put in caveats, but given the short time horizon, this was the best job I could do.”
Basu said he had never worked in such close proximity to politicians or trained bureaucrats before, and initially found the fast-paced environment very stressful.
“In the first two to three months, if I could quietly slip out of the country back to being a professor at Cornell, I would love it,” Baru said. “The whole experience was very, very disturbing.”
During this time, Basu used the story of Polish anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski, who spent years studying the Trobriand Islands, to encourage himself to stay in India and adjust.
“I told myself that if Malinowski could go to a faraway island and stay for three years, I can stay in the North Block Delhi for two years and take down notes like an anthropologist does,” Basu said. “That’s where my diary keeping started.”
As time passed, Basu said he became accustomed to his new role and helped tackle a number of challenging issues, including high food inflation rates.
Basu encouraged Cornell students to persevere through their difficult situations, the way he did in India.
“The interaction between the world of talk and the world of action doesn’t happen so neatly. The real world is so complex,” Basu said. “There will be problems you will encounter that are so difficult you won’t know what to do. You fumble, you make policy, you will get things wrong, but occasionally you will get [it right], and that occasional benefit can be just so very large.”