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I = S - M

The modern way of thinking about economics has been I = M - S Where I is the I as in me, M is what is 'mine' and S is what ...

5/31/14

Gandhiji was the greatest of the great. Like Krishna, Christ, Zarathustra, Buddha, and Mohammad, he brought light to our planet. He changed the trajectory of history: macro-history -- without him the beautiful country I was born and grew up in would never have existed; and micro-history -- my father (an economist) upon reading Gandhiji's autobiography in its original Gujarati (both his and Gandhiji's mother-tongue) changed his life and I was born not just living but breathing Gandhiji's message.

And yet, outside of India, Gandhiji is seen more as a symbol than as a great thinker. Gandhi statues are erected everywhere (I think this is wonderful!) but how many people read even 1 of his 100 books? He is certainly not recognized as a great philosopher and economist. For those of us who grew up knowing him, in person or in spirit, that is a matter of deep sadness. We know his greatness intuitively and instinctively but the wider world while recognizing Gandhiji's greatness as a person does not as yet recognize his greatness as a thinker and economist.

I am concerned with Gandhiji being recognized as a great economist. To be a great economist, as Robert Heilbroner author of The Worldly Philosophers points out, you must be a great philosopher. So we must establish that Gandhiji has been recognized both as a great philosopher and a great economist.

Richard Sorabji's brilliant book Gandhi and the Stoics: Modern Experiments in Ancient Values is a closely reasoned analysis by one of the most respected philosophers of our time that concludes that Gandhiji was, contrary to general opinion, a great, consistent, and brilliant philosopher. Sorabji applies the highest criteria of intellectual rigor to test Gandhiji's lifelong writings and is satisfied that Gandhiji applies logic and reasoning at the highest standard and should be considered as one of the greatest philosophers who ever lived.

E. F. Schumacher, author of Small is Beautiful, was one of the world's great economists. He gave a talk in India late in his life where he prophesied that Gandhiji would one day be recognized as a great economist and even perhaps as the greatest of them all.

So what is going on here? Two of the greatest minds in the world, two scholars with impeccable credentials, have told us that Gandhiji was not only a great thinker but also a great philosopher and great economist! How is it that the world continues to miss this very important point? I think there are 3 reasons why Gandhiji is not widely recognized as the great economist-thinker-philosopher that he was. The 3 reasons are 1) Methodology; 2) No one reads Gandhiji; and 3) Humor.  I will discuss each reason below.

1. Methodology

Like it or not modern economics worldwide employs the methodology of neoclassical economics. The original and broader meaning of the term neoclassical is an approach that tries to perfect nature's shortcomings. It is an attempt to create perfection where perfection does not exist. It is a system that takes it as its duty to correct the imperfections of human beings to create a uber-perfection.

Under this system there is only one correct way. Economics is treated as a convergent problem, where solutions converge to one single solution. The result is singularities that are rigid, dogmatic, and vulnerable to cyclical crises.

Gandhiji's economics, on the other hand, is gothic. I use this term as used by John Ruskin. It was upon reading Ruskin's book Unto this Last on a 24 hour train journey from Johannesburg to Durban in 1908 that Gandhiji decided to create his own economics. He writes in his autobiography in a chapter entitled The Magic Spell of a Book:

"The train reached there in the evening. I could not get any sleep that night. I determined to change my life in accordance with the ideals of the book."

The gothic methodology involves the acceptance of the fallibility of humans -- their imperfections. So Gandhiji's economics treats economics as a divergent problem, with divergent solutions. There is no one correct answer, no one correct Gandhian economics. The point is for us to explore solutions together. The result is multiplicities that are rich, varied, and resilient. If you think about it that is the approach of nature. I believe that this gothic methodology with divergent solutions all held together and accepted, was Gandhiji's genius as an economist. Of course as you can imagine it was precisely this multiplicity, this not-knowing, this refusal to play God is what made so-called intellectuals, especially in the West, unwilling and perhaps unable to appreciate Gandhiji as a great economist.

2. No one reads Gandhiji

And here is where we come across a major problem. While there are many books written about Gandhiji and his ideas, not many people actually read Gandhiji's own writing. As Makarand Paranjape puts it, "Gandhi is either pre-read or unread." He means that Indians assume that they know what Gandhiji said (pre-read) and outside of India he remains largely unread.

No more excuses! Navajivan Trust, in Ahmedabad, India, the original publishing house for all of Gandhiji's writings has, in the spirit of Gandhiji himself, made all his writings available in the public domain, without copyright, without royalties. Anyone may publish and distribute them. And more to the point -- anyone may read them for free.

We should all devour Gandhiji's own insights into economics which are contained within each and every piece of his writings on each and every subject under the sun.

3. Humor

Gandhiji, like the great Zen masters, was full of humor and used it with great and nuanced intelligence to awaken his listeners into realization of truth. For instance, when pressed by economists of his time along narrow neoclassical lines, he told them that he had not undertaken a study of the 'great' neoclassical tomes and begged their forgiveness for being a "sinner beyond redemption".

Gandhiji's humor here is so transparent for anyone who is not brainwashed by a strictly convergent framework of analysis to see. He is pointing to the uselessness of the so-called 'great tomes' of economics, telling his listeners that he sees no value in them and would never ever see value in them!

Of course as you can imagine, this humble yet brilliant humor has been misunderstood for ignorance of the subject. When we re-read Gandhiji's words with an open mind today, we can see his genius quite easily and enjoy his humor unequivocally.

Gandhiji's sense of humor was at its greatest in old age, when he was with the many children always flocking around him at the ashram. One long-standing joke amongst them was that Gandhiji was the ugliest man in the world. To tease him, a child would say innocently:

Bapu, today we saw a man who was so ugly, so ugly!

Gandhiji would respond with mock seriousness:

Really? Was he even uglier than me?

And the children would reply:

It is possible that he was even uglier than you!

At this Gandhiji would make an exaggerated face and act very sad for a minute, after which he would 'recover' with a twinkle in his eyes and all the children would laugh with him.

Fairy tales of the West are often about great and perfect beauty. Who is the fairest of all is the common refrain of a popular one. Neoclassical economics, born of that Western heritage derives from the old fairy tales of beauty and perfection and failed attempts at the imitation of it or the acquiring of it at great moral and human cost. Paul Samuelson, one of the most famous of the neoclassical economists called economics the "queen of the social sciences". I would suggest that modern economics has been more of a fairy queen, living in a fairy land, oblivious of the brutal reality of life for most people.

We must now look to the East, to Gandhiji, with ugliness rather than beauty as our point of reference. Life is very hard for most people in most of the world. Let us face it, life is ugly. Gandhiji understood this. He embraced the gothic and the ugly in the most palpably human way possible and created a new economics.