Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Great Inequality Debate - II: What's Wrong With Inequality?

This is the second part of a rather long blog post on economic inequality that I set out to write a couple of weeks ago. The first part dealt with definitions, scope and taxonomy and established key facts and figures pertaining to income inequality. The main take-aways from the first part were: (a) there's a lot of economic inequality all over the world, with some really large gaps in several countries (b) in most of those countries income disparities have been consistently increasing over the last two or three decades, and (c) in the view of many economists, appropriate policy prioritization, imaginative democratic practices and investments in infrastructure and human capital would go a long way to reinvigorate democracies and economies.

In this second part, I get into the "so what" of the first two points above and explore the "how and why" of the third point. These are good questions to ask, because the search for answers to those questions would reveal whether or not inequality has any bearing on the well-being of society as a whole and therefore on sustainability (which, as you may recall from my earlier post, is the focus of my concern). And if indeed it does, then it is useful to know what its impact is and what kind of difference it would make (if any) to humanity as a whole, if we were to try and fix it. So let's start with the "so what" questions and take it from there. There's a lot of inequality? OK, so what? It has been increasing over the last few decades? OK, so what? Short answer: severe (and growing) inequality brings along many risks, and if we can avoid it we should.

Inequality – a global risk

In January this year, the World Economic Forum (WEF) released their "Global Risks 2011" report, which highlights two very basic risks that are broad in scope and deeply interconnected to each other – economic disparity and global governance failures – both of which "influence the evolution of many other global risks and inhibit our capacity to respond effectively to them". Reproduced here below is an excerpt from the Executive Summary (which, incidentally, makes an interesting note of what it calls a 21st century paradox: "as the world grows together, it is also growing apart"):
Globalization has generated sustained economic growth for a generation. It has shrunk and reshaped the world, making it far more interconnected and interdependent. But the benefits of globalization seem unevenly spread – a minority is seen to have harvested a disproportionate amount of the fruits. Although growth of the new champions is rebalancing economic power between countries, there is evidence that economic disparity within countries is growing.  
Issues of economic disparity and equity at both the national and the international levels are becoming increasingly important. Politically, there are signs of resurgent nationalism and populism as well as social fragmentation. There is also a growing divergence of opinion between countries on how to promote sustainable, inclusive growth. 
Appendix 1 of the report lays out the methodology underlying the WEF study. Here's the introductory portion of the opening paragraph:
The Global Risks Survey seeks the opinion of experts, business leaders and policy-makers on a selection of global risks tracked by the World Economic Forum. This is a perception survey which received approximately 580 valid responses across the 37 global risks in five risk categories. Respondents were asked to assess risk likelihood and impact over a ten year time horizon (2010-2020) and also provided their level of confidence in their answers. Respondents also assessed risk interconnections by choosing up to six other risks they judged were related in some way to the risk being assessed. Respondents also had the option to add data on the dominant type of interconnection between risks. Data were analysed using a range of statistical techniques, both descriptive and analytical.
Clearly, economic inequality has been perceived by many business leaders, policy makers and experts, to be one of the two major global risks. The report lists 3 other risks as "risks in focus", of which the first two are what it calls "the macroeconomic imbalances nexus" and "the illegal economy nexus" (both of these are have strong causal linkages with economic disparity and global governance failures). The report analyzes these in detail and tabulates the direct as well as indirect impact of each, on governments, on businesses and on society at large. But the following paragraph gives us a pretty good flavor of what other kinds of risks the respondents to the WEF survey associated with economic inequality:
Economic disparity is tightly interconnected with corruption, demographic challenges, fragile states, global imbalances and asset-price collapse. Respondents perceived economic disparity as influencing chronic diseases, infectious diseases, illicit trade, migration, food (in)security, terrorism and weapons of mass destruction.
As the Wikipedia page on economic inequality informs us, various studies have been carried out on whether inequality can harm societies and if so, how. One study particularly, conducted by Richard Wilkinson (Professor Emeritus of Social Epidemiology at the University of Nottingham and co-founder of The Equality Trust) and Kate Pickett (Professor of Epidemiology at the University of York, a National Institute for Health Research Career Scientist, and co-founder of The Equality Trust), examines in detail the relationship between inequality and the overall levels of happiness, health and well-being within a society.

Equality and happiness: coincidence? correlation? causation?

Here's a video clip from TED Talks, in which Prof. Wilkinson tells us how, among the more developed countries, economic inequality harms societies, and how societies that are less unequal tend to be healthier and happier on the whole. This conclusion is based on research that has been documented in the book "The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone" by Profs. Wilkinson and Pickett. (Prof. Pickett has also presented these findings at the Green Party conference, where she discussed equality and sustainability).

According to the authors, their research found hard evidence to support their conclusions. (More details and access to source data and other resources are available at The Equality Trust website.) However, some critics claimed that Wilkinson and Pickett had got it all wrong. Peter Saunders and Christopher Snowden, in their respective publications – a report by Peter Saunders and a blog by Christopher Snowden (who has also written a book on the subject) – said that the evidence presented by Wilkinson and Pickett was weak, their analysis superficial and most of the correlations in their book did not stand up. Following such sharp criticism that challenged the very basis of their findings, key contentious issues with regard to the data and the methodology were heatedly debated, and responses to the criticisms were promptly issued by Wilkinson and Pickett. The video clip embedded below captures the RSA debate and is worth watching if you have an additional 40 mins. to spare.

Going by the chronology of events (given that the TED Talks video is more recent than the RSA debate), I would imagine that the Wilkinson-Pickett thesis in its present form has resolved critical objections and now provides a higher degree of confidence in the validity of its claims. Prof. Wilkinson's concluding comments in the TED Talks video, suggesting causation rather than correlation, sound like they arise from a stronger conviction, having overcome at least the big "gotchas". Notwithstanding this, different people may react differently to these exposés by critics like Saunders and Snowden, depending on their own unique outlook and disposition. Conservative skeptics may summarily reject the Wilkinson-Pickett thesis in its entirety, in favor of the Saunders-Snowden antithesis, while others may be more selective. Liberal rationalists may accept those parts that stand up to scrutiny (i.e., where the correlations are indisputably strong or where the critics' arguments are weak). Those who favor an intuitive approach may accept correlations of inequality with factors that they feel have a direct linkage, but not others.

Be that as it may, there's the old saying that is better to be safe than sorry. (And this wisdom holds for climate change debates as well.) If one is so inclined, one may take the view that even if income inequality does not impact the well-being of a society as adversely as Wilkinson-Pickett would have us believe, and even if economic disparities don't pose such serious risks as the WEF report points out, it may still be worthwhile to explore avenues to reduce it. But should it be brought down to zero (a Gini coefficient of 0 means everyone has an equal share of income) in order to have a healthy, happy and risk-free world? Probably not, even if that is physically possible to achieve (which I don't think it is). Many hold the view that a certain quantum of inequality is a good thing in a competitive capitalistic economy.

"Good" inequality and "Bad" inequality

In the book "The Haves and the Have-Nots" author Branko Milanović (lead economist in the World Bank's research department) writes: "There is 'good' and 'bad' inequality, just as there is good and bad cholesterol."  (In an interview with CNN Money he discusses this point in more detail, and also touches on other aspects of inequality covered in his book.) The author argues that "the possibility of unequal economic outcomes motivates people to work harder, although at some point it can lead to the preservation of acquired positions, which causes economies to stagnate" (quoted from the New York Times review of his book). His view is echoed by another article at the New York Times, of which relevant excerpts are presented below:
Some inequality may be necessary to encourage investment for growth. But as recent research shows, intense inequality actually stunts growth, making it more difficult for countries to sustain the sort of long economic expansions that have characterized the more prosperous nations of the world.
The economists[1] found that income distribution contributes more to the sustainability of economic growth than does the quality of a country’s political institutions, its foreign debt and openness to trade, the level of foreign investment in the economy and whether its exchange rate is competitive. 
It’s not too hard to see why. Extreme inequality blocks opportunity for the poor. It can breed resentment and political instability – discouraging investment – and lead to political polarization and gridlock, splitting the political system into haves and have-nots. And it can make it harder for governments to address economic imbalances and brewing crises. 
So if a little bit of inequality is a good thing, but too much of it is a bad thing, then exactly how much inequality should we have? I haven't (yet) come across a heuristic or a model that could help answer that question (though earlier studies[2] have tried to calibrate that scale and actually put numbers around how much is too much and how little is too little). What I did come across was some interesting research that contrasts Americans' perceptions (of wealth distribution in the U.S.) with the reality, and then also with their projection of the "right" distribution based on their personal judgment. The chart below plots all three – the perceived (estimated), the real (actual) and the projected (ideal) levels of inequality in the U.S. – based on the report published by Dan Ariely and Michael Norton. (Their research also finds mention in a debate on rising inequality in the New York Times, which may provide additional insights.)

Percent wealth owned | Source: "Building a Better America--One Wealth Quintile at a Time" by Ariely & Norton

The abstract of their research paper may help decode this infographic:
Disagreements about the optimal level of wealth inequality underlie policy debates ranging from taxation to welfare. We attempt to insert the desires of "regular" Americans into these debates, by asking a nationally representative online panel to estimate the current distribution of wealth in the United States and to "build a better America" by constructing distributions with their ideal level of inequality. First, respondents dramatically underestimated the current level of wealth inequality. Second, respondents constructed ideal wealth distributions that were far more equitable than even their erroneously low estimates of the actual distribution. Most important from a policy perspective, we observed a surprising level of consensus: All demographic groups – even those not usually associated with wealth redistribution such as Republicans and the wealthy – desired a more equal distribution of wealth than the status quo.
And speaking of how even the wealthy indicated a preference for a more equitable distribution, I am reminded of how, last month, some millionaires demanded their taxes be raised, in support of the Buffett rule. However, these are exceptional individuals. Most wealthy people would rather not pay tax, and instead choose to rely on the "trickle-down" effect to spread the benefits of prosperity. But does it really work that way?

More on perceptions and realities

The trickle-down effect may be more myth than reality, going by what OECD Secretary-General Angel Gurría pointed out while launching the OECD report:
The social contract is starting to unravel in many countries. This study dispels the assumptions that the benefits of economic growth will automatically trickle down to the disadvantaged and that greater inequality fosters greater social mobility. Without a comprehensive strategy for inclusive growth, inequality will continue to rise. 
Then there's the view that inequality spurs competition, which in turn unleashes creativity and innovation. But as Richard Florida (Director of the Martin Prosperity Institute at the University of Toronto's Rotman School of Management, and Senior Editor at The Atlantic) points out in an article, "It is possible to design an economic system that is innovative and competitive, but that causes far less severe socioeconomic divides than we are experiencing today." In the concluding paragraphs he says:
Our analysis has identified the key factors that shape the competitiveness, happiness, well-being and broad prosperity of nations. Countries with greater levels of creativity (measured on the GCI) have higher levels of economic output, entrepreneurship, and overall economic competitiveness. More creative nations also have higher levels of human development, life satisfaction, and happiness. And perhaps most importantly, highly creative nations are less likely on balance to suffer from the deep class divides that beset the U.S. and U.K. The Scandinavian and Northern European countries as well as Japan combine high levels of innovation and creativity with much lower levels of inequality.
A high-road path to prosperity is not only possible, it's already working in some of the world's most advanced, competitive and prosperous nations. Economic growth increasingly turns on the full development of each and every single human being. Real sustainable economic prosperity can and must benefit the many, not just the few.
Let's look at another popular belief – that there are trade-offs between equality and efficiency; that efforts in improving equality result in lowering economic growth. Research by economists Andre Berg and Jonathan Ostry of the International Monetary Fund (referred to earlier; see footnote [1] below) re-examines the relationship that was thought to exist between equality and efficiency. Their report opens by asking: "Do societies inevitably face an invidious choice between efficient production and equitable wealth and income distribution? Are social justice and social product at war with one another?" which it answers with a categorical: "In a word, no", and then goes on to explain:
In recent work (Berg, Ostry, and Zettelmeyer, 2011; and Berg and Ostry, 2011), we discovered that when growth is looked at over the long term, the trade-off between efficiency and equality may not exist. In fact equality appears to be an important ingredient in promoting and sustaining growth. The difference between countries that can sustain rapid growth for many years or even decades and the many others that see growth spurts fade quickly may be the level of inequality. Countries may find that improving equality may also improve efficiency, understood as more sustainable long-run growth.
According to the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD) 2010 report, "growth and equity can be mutually reinforcing, but only when supported by well-thought-out economic and social policies." It notes that "while greater equality is often considered to come at the expense of growth, there is also evidence that under some circumstances, and with appropriate institutional arrangements, lower inequality can contribute to greater economic efficiency." The report then goes on to outline the development experience of Scandinavian countries as an illustrative example.

Arguing as to "Why America Should Spread the Wealth", Mark Thoma (a macroeconomist and time-series econometrician at the University of Oregon) examines the effect of the Bush tax cuts on equality and efficiency, and concludes that: 
The claim that there is a tradeoff between equity and efficiency was a key part of the argument for tax cuts for the wealthy, but the tradeoff didn’t materialize. We sacrificed equity for the false promise of efficiency and growth, and society is now more unequal than at any time since the early part of the last century. It’s time to reverse that mistake.
What exactly were those mistakes? How do we reverse them? These are important questions though they end up stirring the pot of political controversy. As Andrés Velasco (former finance minister of Chile and a visiting professor at Columbia University) notes in an article, the "debate about inequality's causes is complex and often messy; the debate about how to address it is messier still."

Probable causes and possible remedies

If we are looking for an analysis of the causes of inequality that is comprehensive while remaining generic and global, the Wikipedia page on inequality that I keep referring to has a section on causes of inequality. Then there's a paper published by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) titled "Why the Rich Are Getting Richer" (which in my opinion is a rather churlish choice of words for a title, though the NEF's credentials are impeccable and their analysis is excellent). While it addresses economic inequality in the U.K., the NEF paper's main findings appear quite generic and applicable to other countries as well.

But, as Andrés Velasco points out, each expert is likely to have their own theories and their own list of causes and remedies. His own proposed solution for example, applicable to Chile and most of South America, focuses on employment opportunities. He explains:
In the rich countries of the global north, the widening gap between rich and poor results from technological change, globalization, and the misdeeds of investment bankers. In the not-so-rich countries of the south, much inequality is the consequence of a more old-fashioned problem: lack of employment opportunities for the poor.
In a forthcoming book, University of Chile economist Cristóbal Huneeus and I examine the roots of inequality in Chile and elsewhere in Latin America and come away with three policy prescriptions: jobs, jobs, jobs.
In a 3 part series of articles for Slate magazine, Robert H. Frank (Professor of Management and Professor of Economics at Cornell University and author of "The Darwin Economy") starts by asking "Does inequality matter?" in Part 1, in which he describes how "expenditure cascades" are squeezing the American middle class, followed by "Why has inequality been growing?" in Part 2, in which he suggests that technology and winner-take-all markets have made the rich much richer, after which he presents in Part 3 "The Progressive Consumption Tax" as a win-win solution for reducing American income inequality.

The WEF report I quoted at the beginning of this post says the following, by way of causes of economic disparities within countries:
Many factors may have contributed to this trend within countries, including the erosion of employment culture, the decline of organized labour, and failures of education systems to keep pace with the increasing demands of the workplace.
Echoing similar thoughts, Angel Gurría's comments while releasing the OECD report clearly call for investment in human capital as the key to unlock the secret to reduction in inequality:
There is nothing inevitable about high and growing inequalities. Our report clearly indicates that upskilling of the workforce is by far the most powerful instrument to counter rising income inequality. The investment in people must begin in early childhood and be followed through into formal education and work.
To quote again from the UNRISD flagship report for 2010, "Income inequality is on the rise, partly as a result of neoliberal economic policies adopted in the 1980s and 1990s." Even a decade ago, when inequality levels were much less (and, of course, the crisis of 2007-8 was still a long way off), a study by the World Institute for Development Economics Research (referred to earlier; see footnote [2] below) notes:
It is clear that there are some common factors causing the widespread surges in inequality around the world. With the exception of worsening educational inequality in Latin America and Sub Saharan Africa, worsening situations in the 'traditional causes' of inequality, such as land concentration, urban bias, abundance of natural resources and inequality in education, are NOT generally responsible. Rather it is 'new causes' that are crucial. These 'new causes' are linked to the excessively liberal economic policy regimes and the rushed manner in which economic reform policies have been carried out.
Speaking about his book "The Price of Civilization" at the University of Oxford, Professor Jeffrey Sachs (Director, The Earth Institute, Columbia University) lists three fundamental shifts in policy initiated by former U.S. President Ronald Reagan that, according to Prof. Sachs, are the main causes of the growth in inequality: (i) tax cuts that mostly favored the wealthy (ii) reduction of government spending on public goods and services that resulted in significant reductions of investment in infrastructure and human capital, and (iii) deregulation of key sectors of the economy, especially of the financial sector.

Nouriel Roubini (Professor of Economics at the Stern School of Business, New York University and co-author of the book "Crisis Economics") writes in "Instability of Inequality"
But the laissez-faire Anglo-Saxon model has also now failed miserably. To stabilize market-oriented economies requires a return to the right balance between markets and provision of public goods. That means moving away from both the Anglo-Saxon model of unregulated markets and the continental European model of deficit-driven welfare states. Even an alternative "Asian" growth model – if there really is one – has not prevented a rise in inequality in China, India, and elsewhere. 
Any economic model that does not properly address inequality will eventually face a crisis of legitimacy. Unless the relative economic roles of the market and the state are rebalanced, the protests of 2011 will become more severe, with social and political instability eventually harming long-term economic growth and welfare.
These are but a few examples of the many criticisms of the Reagan (U.S.) and Thatcher (U.K.) administrations (and other countries that followed suit), that hold their laissez-faire neo-liberal policies responsible for the sharp increase in inequality over the last 3 decades, and argue for more effective government intervention through suitable changes in policy and regulatory reforms that promote equitable and inclusive growth. These, however, are the voices of intellectuals who tend to take a top-down, systemic view in a calm and rational manner. There have been more visceral reactions against these gross disparities in the recent past – other voices that have been vociferously denouncing businesses and governments and their unholy nexus of collusion (I am channeling those voices here) that has left the 99% in the economic doldrums.

Inequality and the Occupy protests

According to many observers, one of the Occupy movement's main accomplishments is to have legitimized discussion of rising income inequality in the United States. Indeed, the very purpose of the "Occupation" was to bring a sense of urgency to issues surrounding gross inequality – framing it as a protest against the top 1% income earners by the bottom 99% drove that point home very clearly.

I am not going to spend too much time and effort in writing about the Occupy protests, since a lot has already been written and said about this by people far more intelligent and better informed than I. Instead, I will quote from what others have said. Let me start by quoting U.S. President Barack Obama, the leader of the free world.

By coincidence, a day after the OECD report (another thing I've been referring to extensively) was released, President Obama, delivered a speech about the U.S. economy in Osawatomie, Kansas. The speech unequivocally asserts that growing inequality is the result of systemic failures that arose from weaknesses in both – the design of our economic models and also their implementation. Reproduced here below is an excerpt:
Today, we are still home to the world’s most productive workers and innovative companies. But for most Americans, the basic bargain that made this country great has eroded. Long before the recession hit, hard work stopped paying off for too many people. Fewer and fewer of the folks who contributed to the success of our economy actually benefitted from that success. Those at the very top grew wealthier from their incomes and investments than ever before. But everyone else struggled with costs that were growing and paychecks that weren't – and too many families found themselves racking up more and more debt just to keep up.  
For many years, credit cards and home equity loans papered over the harsh realities of this new economy. But in 2008, the house of cards collapsed. We all know the story by now: Mortgages sold to people who couldn't afford them, or sometimes even understand them. Banks and investors allowed to keep packaging the risk and selling it off. Huge bets – and huge bonuses – made with other people’s money on the line. Regulators who were supposed to warn us about the dangers of all this, but looked the other way or didn’t have the authority to look at all.  
It was wrong. It combined the breathtaking greed of a few with irresponsibility across the system. And it plunged our economy and the world into a crisis from which we are still fighting to recover. It claimed the jobs, homes, and the basic security of millions – innocent, hard-working Americans who had met their responsibilities, but were still left holding the bag.
Note the categorical "It was wrong". This was the same speech in which he referred to economic inequality as "the defining issue of our times", as I'd mentioned in my earlier post.


Matt Taibbi (author and journalist) in a blog post in Rolling Stone magazine:
The amazing thing about the wave of corruption that has overtaken the financial services industry is that most of it couldn’t happen without virtually every player at every level signing off on these deals. From the ratings agencies to the law firms to the accounting firms to the regulators to the bank executives themselves, everybody had to be on board in order for a lot of these fraud schemes to work.
Paul Krugman (Nobel Laureate, Professor of Economics and International Affairs at Princeton University, Centenary Professor at the London School of Economics) in "Confronting the Malefactors" in the New York Times:
In the first act, bankers took advantage of deregulation to run wild (and pay themselves princely sums), inflating huge bubbles through reckless lending. In the second act, the bubbles burst — but bankers were bailed out by taxpayers, with remarkably few strings attached, even as ordinary workers continued to suffer the consequences of the bankers’ sins. And, in the third act, bankers showed their gratitude by turning on the people who had saved them, throwing their support — and the wealth they still possessed thanks to the bailouts — behind politicians who promised to keep their taxes low and dismantle the mild regulations erected in the aftermath of the crisis. 
and in "Oligarchy, American Style" (concluding paragraphs):
But why does this growing concentration of income and wealth in a few hands matter? Part of the answer is that rising inequality has meant a nation in which most families don’t share fully in economic growth. Another part of the answer is that once you realize just how much richer the rich have become, the argument that higher taxes on high incomes should be part of any long-run budget deal becomes a lot more compelling. 
The larger answer, however, is that extreme concentration of income is incompatible with real democracy. Can anyone seriously deny that our political system is being warped by the influence of big money, and that the warping is getting worse as the wealth of a few grows ever larger? 
Some pundits are still trying to dismiss concerns about rising inequality as somehow foolish. But the truth is that the whole nature of our society is at stake.

Supplementary reading:

"Bankers' Salaries vs. Everyone Else's" in which Catherine Rampell (an economics reporter with the New York Times) tries to find out why the Occupy Wall Streeters are so angry at bankers.

"How to stop the bogus bonus" by soi-disant "undercover economist" Tim Harford (author, columnist, blogger, economist, presenter on BBC), writing for the Financial Times, comments on how fund managers game the system to claim their bonuses and creating bigger risks in the process.

"What caused the Financial Crisis? The Big Lie goes viral" in which Barry Ritholtz (author, columnist, blogger, equity analyst, guest commentator on Bloomberg TV) tries to separate fact from fiction in the analysis of the causes of the financial crisis, and concludes "The previous Big Lie — the discredited belief that free markets require no adult supervision — is the reason people have created a new false narrative. Now it’s time for the Big Truth."

"A Theoretical Look At Why Societies Become Extremely Unequal" by Rick Bookstaber (senior policy adviser at the SEC; views expressed are his own), which I found interesting because he discusses John Rawls' Theory of Justice at some length, in the context of the Occupy protests, and concludes with the following paragraph:
This discussion was not one of capitalism versus socialism. We can take unfettered, eat-what-you-kill capitalism as a starting point. The knob that is being turned is the level of social stability. From their perch in my version of the veil of ignorance those who are wealthy in the initial state will choose to construct a society that induces less inequality with the knob turned to the "do not disturb" setting.
"The Moral Foundations of Occupy Wall Street" in which Jonathan Haidt (Professor in the Social Psychology area of the Department of Psychology at the University of Virginia) whose research currently focuses on the moral foundations of politics, visits Zuccotti Park and finds that the moral foundations of the Occupy protests are primarily centered around fairness, followed by care and liberty.

This is an excellent segue into my third and final part of this long post, which will deal with ethics and sustainability issues relating to inequality. More about that next week. Actually, make that next year.

Oh, and while we're at it, have a great new year ... and dare I add? ... hopefully a more equal one!

[Continued in Part III: Ethics, Morality and Sustainability]


  1. This is a reference to research by Andrew Berg and Jonathan Ostry, economists at the International Monetary Fund
  2. The Wikipedia page on economic inequality has a section on "Inequality and economic growth" that contains an interesting paragraph about a 2001 study which concluded that inequality below a Gini coefficient of .25 or above a Gini coefficient of .40 negatively impacts growth. 

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Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Great Inequality Debate - I: A World Of A Difference

Over the last couple of years there's been quite a bit of talk about economic inequality, in the wake of the global economic crisis. More recently, thanks to the Occupy (Wall Street, etc.) protests, inequality-related issues have been receiving substantial mindshare from not just economists, policy wonks and academicians but also concerned laity. The mainstream media have been playing a useful role in providing a platform for and promoting public discourse on the subject. The Economist invited guests, earlier this year, to comment on inequality and how it matters. The New York Times runs a special section ("Times Topic") on income inequality. The Boston Review has just recently published a series of opinion essays on inequality by Stanford University professors, exploring key issues raised by the Occupy protests.

Like other controversies of our time, inequality has precipitated sharp differences of opinion, among pundits and plebs alike. But impassioned debate on this subject is not a new phenomenon. Inequality was the subject of fiery discourse even at the time of Greek philosophers, over two millenniums ago. While no clear consensus generally emerges from such debates, it is usually agreed that too much inequality could potentially result in disaffection among the marginalized (whether justified or not is a different question), leading to civil unrest. Dramatic widening of the gap between the haves and the have-nots has been historically known to trigger social uprisings and even revolutions, when the wealthy and powerful few have manifested a "let them eat cake" attitude towards the misery of the many.

Social harmony is a key element of sustainability – my pet "theme-meme" as I track global trends – and so the subject of economic inequality has stayed on my radar, inviting me to study it in a little more detail, at least enough to develop a more informed view of its impact on the sustainability of our current design of human society, and in a broader sense, the longevity of our species. Unfortunately or otherwise I don't have a Ph.D. in economics or other social sciences (or any other subject for that matter), which means I've had to do my own research "from scratch" in order to gain adequate knowledge and insights. As one may expect in such learning expeditions, the initial challenges are mostly about definitions, scope and taxonomy, as one endeavors to mark the contours of the domain under study and map all topics thematically linked to the core subject, and to then develop a method for categorizing, linking and indexing the various terminologies, concepts and constructs within the domain.

I'd like to present this blog entry as the record of a journey rather than an academic thesis, narrated in the spirit of a curious explorer rather than a rigorous researcher or a pedagogical professor. Though my foray into this specialized domain over the last year or so has been a bit of a "random walk" (and a sporadic one, I might add) through a maze of facts and figures, theories and opinions, ideas and ideologies, formal dissertations and informal blog posts, I've aspired for some degree of structure and order in reporting my observations and findings on that journey. I hope the panoply of points to ponder (and pointers to ponderables) presented here makes it worthwhile for you, dear reader, to go through what has turned out to be an inordinately lengthy post. To make it less taxing to read, I've broken it into three parts. In this first part I try and get my head around what exactly we are talking about when it comes to economic inequality, how much of it is prevalent today, and what recent trends seem to indicate. In the second part I ask what, if anything, is wrong with inequality (with specific reference to the Occupy protests, since they have vociferously complained about wrongdoing that has led to inequality), and follow it up with a commentary on the ethical and moral issues involved in the third and concluding part.

So, what exactly are we talking about here?

A good place to start exploring the taxonomy of this domain might be the Wikipedia page on economic inequality, which presents a comprehensive overview covering a variety of related issues, and in doing so, acts as a spoiler to some of what is to follow in this post (though that doesn't stop me from recommending it). Of the many items worthy of note on that Wikipedia page, the distinction between equality of outcome (which, loosely put, means that everybody ends up more or less equally rich or poor) and equality of opportunity (which, loosely put, means that everybody gets the same chances to shape their destiny) stands out as the most significant, asking to be addressed right away. It is particularly significant in that it allows me to clarify my own perspective and vantage position (for which, please see footnote [1]).

Another point of distinction worth mentioning, though not quite as significant as the one we just dealt with, is the one between inequality of income and inequality in distribution of wealth (though both are related). The former refers to differences in what people earn as personal income, say per annum (regardless of the value of assets owned by them), while the latter refers to gaps in the value of assets owned by people (regardless of their annual income). Other topics related to economic inequality include economic mobility and intergenerational equity, though the emphasis on these parameters in this post is limited to contextual relevance. This post focuses on income inequality for the most part.

There are several ways to measure income inequality, and the Wikipedia page on income inequality metrics lists most of them. Of these, the Gini coefficient is perhaps the most noteworthy, since it is referenced extensively. Wikipedia also provides a list of countries by income inequality and a list of countries by distribution of wealth, both of which are interesting to review, in order to get a better idea of where we are by way of economic inequality. It turns out that in a few countries (particularly Scandinavian ones) inequality has remained relatively low over the years. However, in many other countries, such as the U.S., the U.K., India, etc., inequality has been increasing over the last couple of decades.

Inequality in the world's greatest democracy

In the United States, a recently published study by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) found that between 1979 and 2007 (i.e., a period of close to 3 decades) the average after-tax household income in the U.S. grew by 62% (computed after adjusting for inflation). However, that growth was not uniform: the top 1% households' income grew by 275%, the next 19% households' income grew by 65%, the next three-fifths grew by just under 40%, and the bottom one-fifth by 18% (see chart to the left, below). Further, the study found that the proportion of overall income going to households in the higher income bracket had increased: the top one-fifth of the population saw a 10 percentage-point jump in their share (most of which went to the top 1%), whereas the slice of the pie going to middle and lower income households decreased by 2 to 3 percentage-points (see chart to the right, below).

Income growth in the U.S. between 1979 and 2007 | Source: CBO Director's Blog

As Joseph Stiglitz (Nobel laureate, Professor at Columbia University and former Chief Economist of the World Bank) noted in July this year in his article The Ideological Crisis of Western Capitalism: "Even in its hey-day, from the early 1980’s until 2007, American-style deregulated capitalism brought greater material well-being only to the very richest in the richest country of the world. Indeed, over the course of this ideology’s 30-year ascendance, most Americans saw their incomes decline or stagnate year after year."

Interestingly, the inequality is even sharper within the top 1%. According to research carried out by some economists, three decades ago a taxpayer at the cutoff for the top 0.01% was making about 10 times as much as someone at the cutoff for the top 1%, but now, someone at the cutoff for the top 0.01% makes 30 times as much as someone at the top 1%. Clearly, keeping up with the Joneses has become far tougher for the rich in America. As far as wealth concentration is concerned, an article in Forbes magazine notes that the "top 0.1% – about 315,000 individuals out of 315 million – are making about half of all capital gains on the sale of shares or property after 1 year; and these capital gains make up 60% of the income made by the Forbes 400." This is consistent with documentary film-maker Michael Moore's claim earlier this year, that "Just 400 Americans – 400 – have more wealth than half of all Americans combined", which has been subsequently verified by PolitiFact.

For more on income inequality in the U.S., there's the Wikipedia page on the subject and for even more commentary, analyses, charts and infographics, here are a few recommendations: (Not) Spreading the Wealth in the Washington Post; The United States of Inequality in Slate magazine; It's the Inequality, Stupid in Mother Jones magazine; Charting the Great Inequality Debate in the New Yorker; Global income inequality: Where the U.S. ranks in CNN Money.

Additional reports, on the related topic of economic mobility in the U.S., are available at the Economic Mobility Project (EMP), an initiative of the Pew Charitable Trusts. (A recent EMP report found that "Americans are more likely than citizens of several other nations to be stuck in the same position economically as their parents.") A New York Times infographic on mobility explains how mobility has worked out in the U.S. over the last few decades. Other useful resources include websites such as managed by the Institute for Policy Studies, a Washington-based think tank. Also read: transcript of U.S. President Barack Obama's speech in which, referring to the Occupy protests regarding inequality, he called it "the defining issue of our times" – a landmark declaration, according to the New York Times.

Inequality in the world's largest democracy

The deeply interested reader might find it useful to forage for data, research papers, resource links, etc. at the personal websites of economists Emmanuel SaezThomas PikettyTony Atkinson and Facundo Alvaredo, who have carried out considerable research on income inequality levels in many countries. Their seminal collaborative contribution, in my opinion, is The World Top Incomes Database, an excellent source of income-related statistics, which lets you create your own custom-defined chart for any choice of listed parameters for any of the listed countries over any available period, and export it as a PNG file.

Unfortunately this database does not cover the last decade (i.e. 2000-2010) for India. Be that as it may, the two charts I've created (pasted here below) that plot the growth of incomes over 50 years since Indian independence, tell their own story. (Note that the blue curve in the chart to the left corresponds to the red, not blue, curve in the chart to the right.)

Incomes in India - 50 years since independence | Source: The World Top Incomes Database

As an article in (which, I am guessing, has drawn on the same data sources as above) explains, the rich did get richer in India too. By itself, this not only not objectionable, as many would rush to point out, but even desirable – as long as the promised "trickle down effect" also kicks in. But has it kicked in? According to a report released earlier this week by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), "India's income inequality has doubled in 20 years" to quote a Times of India news item that covers the report. This seems consistent with the pattern observed in the two charts above. Apparently, keeping up with the Joneses doesn't seem to have gotten any easier for Indians either.

The picture doesn't look any better for India if one were to use a slightly different metric, such as the Human Development Index (HDI) as defined by the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) (which publishes the Human Development Report every year, ranking countries by their HDI – please see footnote [2] for additional information and links to UNDP's database on HDI). Since last year, they have introduced an Inequality-adjusted HDI (IHDI), which represents the actual level of human development, taking inequality into account (in contrast to the "vanilla" HDI, which may then be viewed as an index of the potential human development that could be achieved if there is no inequality). A recent UNDP report on the IHDI for Indian states found that "inequality in the distribution of human development is distinctly pronounced in India in comparison with the world scenario". The study estimates that while globally, India is ranked 119 out of 169 countries on the HDI, it would lose "32% of its value when adjusted for inequalities" (i.e. on the IHDI). Commenting on "India's Opportunity Gap" with reference to the report, an article in the online WSJ blogs has this to say:
To some observers, higher inequality at least for a while is the price we have to pay for higher growth. They would cite the famous "Kuznets curve," a staple of development studies which claims to show that inequality first rises and then falls with economic development. 
What this misses is that unequal outcomes in areas such as income may be the result of underlying inequalities of opportunity, such as access to education and health. Unequal access could also be the result of belonging to an underprivileged group, such as a religious or ethnic minority, or in the Indian case specifically someone belonging to a Scheduled Caste, Scheduled Tribe and Other Backward Class.
Other studies cited in the WSJ article, examining related factors such as inequality of access to education, wage inequality correlated with inequality of opportunity and the impact of caste considerations, provide the basis to support the hypothesis in the second paragraph quoted above. Some of these findings seem like grotesque reality checks, when seen in the context of India's aspirations to global superpower status. To many observers, such striking contrasts that seem peculiar to India appear to be irreconcilable contradictions. However, such disparities have their reasons, as eminent economists Jean Dreze (visiting Professor, Department of Economics, Allahabad University) and Amartya Sen (Nobel laureate and Professor of Economics and Philosophy at Harvard University) explain.

In a magisterial essay in Outlook magazine titled "Putting Growth In Its Place", Dreze and Sen resolve the apparent contradictions of India's dynamic post-liberalization growth story (dubbed "India Shining" by some), juxtaposed with the poverty starkly visible on the streets and in the shanties of Indian metros, smaller cities and towns. They compare these disparities with China and other countries in South Asia, where the gaps are relatively less than in India (as the tabulated indicators in the article show). In conclusion, they write:
India’s recent development experience includes both spectacular success as well as massive failure. [...] There is probably no other example in the history of world development of an economy growing so fast for so long with such limited results in terms of broad-based social progress. 
There is no mystery in this contrast, or in the limited reach of India’s development efforts. Both reflect the nature of policy priorities in this period. [...] An exaggerated concentration on the lives of the minority of the better-off, fed strongly by media interest, gives an unreal picture of the rosiness of what is happening to Indians in general, and stifles public dialogue of other issues. Imaginative democratic practice, we have argued, is essential for broadening and enhancing India’s development achievements.  
Pranab Bardhan (Professor of Economics, University of California at Berkeley and author of "Awakening Giants, Feet of Clay: Assessing the Rise of China and India") compares inequality in the U.S. and India and comes to a similar conclusion:
The world’s two largest democracies face a grave economic challenge. They must find a way to channel the rising anger caused by economic inequality into productive investments that make the rich feel that they have a stake in ameliorating conditions for the poor. If India and the U.S. move towards overcoming the most pervasive inequality of all, they will reinvigorate their democracies – and their economies.
Key words: policy priorities, imaginative democratic practice, productive investments, reinvigoration of democracy.

Inequality in the world's oldest democracy and elsewhere

The situation in most other countries of the world is not much better. Rather than dwell in detail on the inequality levels in other countries, I will simply list a few links here that tell the story of inequality in the U.K. and elsewhere in the world:

The "Income inequalities" page at the The Poverty Site provides a lot of data points and graphics, as do the Guardian/ Datablog pages: "Inequality in the UK: the data behind the National Equality Panel report" (almost two years old) and the more recent "OECD inequality report: how do different countries compare?" both of which provide a fairly comprehensive idea of the level of inequality in the U.K. (and both use images of John Cleese, Ronnie Barker and Ronnie Corbett to symbolize the three classes). As is visible from the graph in the latter report that plots Gini scores in 1985 and 2008 for various countries, the few countries where the Gini coefficient has improved in those 23 years, such as Greece, Spain and Ireland, are the ones that are presently in the economic doldrums. France seems to be the only exception. All other economically stable countries in that graph show a deterioration of the Gini coefficient, which essentially points to an increase in inequality.

The OECD report (referenced twice, above) "finds that the average income of the richest 10% is now about nine times that of the poorest 10 % across the OECD." Further, it notes that:
The income gap has risen even in traditionally egalitarian countries, such as Germany, Denmark and Sweden, from 5 to 1 in the 1980s to 6 to 1 today. The gap is 10 to 1 in Italy, Japan, Korea and the United Kingdom, and higher still, at 14 to 1 in Israel, Turkey and the United States.
In Chile and Mexico, the incomes of the richest are still more than 25 times those of the poorest, the highest in the OECD, but have finally started dropping. 
Income inequality is much higher in some major emerging economies outside the OECD area. At 50 to 1, Brazil's income gap remains much higher than in many other countries, although it has been falling significantly over the past decade.
Supplementary reading:

"Jobs for Justice", an article by Andrés Velasco (former finance minister of Chile and a visiting professor at Columbia University), which says "Income inequality is a top concern not only in tent cities across the United States, but also among street protesters in Taipei, Tel Aviv, Cairo, Athens, Madrid, Santiago, and elsewhere."

"Global inequality: tackling the elite 1% problem" at the Guardian's "Poverty Matters Blog", which quotes Branko Milanović (lead economist in the World Bank's research department and author of "The Haves and the Have-Nots"), presenting at Warwick University's International Development Summit: "75% of the world's population find themselves in the bottom income quintile, i.e. share 20% of the world's income, while 1.7% of the world's population (119 million people) are in the top quintile." Further, the article notes that the world as a whole has become even more unequal, more so than any one country. "While few countries have a Gini measure of income inequality above 60, the world's Gini coefficient is 70, up from 55 in 1850."

[Continued in Part II: What's Wrong With Inequality?]


  1. In the interest of full disclosure of predilections, propensities and such, this would be a good time to state my personal biases: I am not in favor of equal outcomes; what I am in favor of is equal opportunity. Given that different people have a different mix of ambition, attitude, acumen and ability, it naturally follows that they will respond to the same opportunities differently and also perform differently at them, and as a consequence their incomes will be different. In my view, this is OK as long as the difference in their incomes is purely a function of these factors and does not arise from differences in access to opportunity.

    I must also mention here that a sad fact about discourse on economic inequality is that it is haunted by the ghost of McCarthyism, to the extent that any stated position risks being labeled as commie propaganda (at worst) or the rabid rant of an intellectual pariah (at best), unless prefaced with due apologia and explicit reassurances of a robust pro-capitalism stand. Even now, as a recent article in the New York Times notes, "participants in the national political discourse [are] queasy about addressing issues of class and distribution directly. One of the intellectual victories of the Reagan Revolution was to make it feel practically un-American to talk about how the pie was divided. The culturally acceptable, win-win question to ask was how to make that pie grow."

    Let me hasten, then, to reiterate that my ulterior motive here is merely to provide context for discussing proposals aimed at strengthening and improving capitalism, in order to make it more sustainable (though this post does not actually discuss such proposals – that's for another blog post, another day).
  2. The UNDP Human Development Report for 2011 is worth browsing through, though it deals with a broader scope of issues than income inequality. Also, earlier this year, the UNDP partnered with Google Labs to place their Human Development Report database in the public domain through Google Public Data Explorer, with an interactive charting facility that lets you correlate various parameters for all UN member countries – highly recommended to anyone wanting to play with the statistics a bit and test out various hypotheses.

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Monday, July 25, 2011

Terror: What Are We Fighting?

The terror attacks in Mumbai and Oslo within the span of just this one month left me deeply disturbed at a personal level. While Mumbai is home to me and my family, Oslo is home to some very dear friends who hosted us on our visit to their peaceful and scenic country last year.

The highlight of our 2010 summer holiday was the "Norway in a nutshell" tour package, which took us by train through the hills, then by boat through the fjords, then by bus on steep winding roads down the ravines and then by train again. From Oslo to Bergen, where we stayed back for a few days to witness the Constitution Day celebrations, and back to Oslo, it was perhaps the most picturesque journey I have ever undertaken. The more or less ubiquitous music of Edvard Grieg complemented the visual experience beautifully to complete the experience. We stopped over on our way back for a couple of days at a quiet little hamlet called Ulvik that might well have popped right out of a Nordic fairy tale, to nestle itself in the neck of Hardangerfjord.

View of Hardangerfjord from our hotel room in Ulvik

I was shocked to learn just the other day that the very same irenic idyll of Norway we took delight in a little over a year ago was shattered by the boom and staccato of terror. It was even more shocking because barely a week earlier the thronging chaos Mumbai thrives on was benumbed by yet another round of brutal bludgeoning by a series of bomb blasts; the buoyant, vibrant spirit of cosmopolitan Mumbai dampened by the persistent overhanging clouds of terror.

On deeper reflection today, a simple truth shines through the miasma of IED explosions even as the dust settles and the bereaved are condoled. And though its voice is soft, its import is clear: we have not framed the problem correctly. Our perspective on terrorism is fundamentally flawed, informed as much by the perfervid rhetoric of ideologues and demagogues, of politicians and religious leaders alike, as by the subtle predilections of prejudiced op-ed columnists, jaundiced celebrity intellectuals and biased news anchors, all cleverly packaged around media coverage of terror attacks and delivered directly to our homes. These opinion-shapers, whose combination of confirmation bias and cognitive fluency recognizes only the vile hand of another religion, would have us believe that such senseless carnage is an extension of some medieval "clash of civilizations" playing itself out again after a thousand years. No. This violence is actually just the visceral reaction of a fanatical kind of jingoism directed against the universal celebration of diversity in an increasingly globalized world.

Norway's stand on terror opens our eyes to this simple truth -- one that we have overlooked for too long now -- that the real clash is not between Islamic and Judao-Christian/ neo-Nazi/ Hindu bigotry, but between tolerance and intolerance; between pluralism and parochialism; between the warm, welcoming, hospitable inclusiveness of the open-minded and the frigid, insular, hostile exceptionalism of rigid xenophobes. While we mechanically mouth clichés such as "terror knows no religion" on the one hand, on the other we are quick to classify terrorists as Islamic or Christian or Hindu fundamentalists. What we should be crusading against is not the intolerance of a specific religion but intolerance per se. When we see it this way, it changes the game. Intolerance is palpable in many small, mundane, routine acts of ordinary people, even atheists. It lies at the very core of discrimination of all kinds, based not only on religion but also politics, ethnicity, race, culture, gender, nationality, language and so on. Perhaps even favorite football teams or preferred Operating Systems. But what do we do about intolerance, once we spot it?

To the naive mind it may appear that we are stuck in an intractable trap of a vicious logic. Living out the paradox of fighting intolerance with intolerance would mean playing into the hands of the intolerant. And typically, this is how minor conflicts escalate and become wars. On the other hand, fighting intolerance with passive tolerance would mean exposing our soft vulnerable underbelly in a tacit invitation to more barbarism. (Example of the latter: in the aftermath of a series of attacks in recent years, helpless Mumbaikars seem to have resigned themselves to a "do nothing; get back to business as usual" approach, more by default than by design.) So the dilemma seems to be: "an eye for an eye" versus "turn the other cheek". We must be quick to realize that this is a false choice.

There is another way, and that is the way of aggressive constructive engagement. It involves more dialog with the intolerant and more debate among the tolerant (including religious moderates) on how to conduct that dialog and trigger reforms. More dialog, actively and proactively pursued. And pursued relentlessly. This is what we should do: appeal to the rational side of intolerance (yes, there is one, weak and small though it might be), get the xenophobes, the alienated, the disaffected, the disenfranchised, the marginalized to the negotiating table, understand and sort out their issues without shying away from them. In many cases there are simple socio-economic realities underlying their feelings of deprivation as some observers argue. In many cases there are simple political motivations (of internal seditionists or external adversarial rogue states) that instigate violence by stoking simmering discontent or sense of alienation. Where religion is concerned, we must work with religious leaders to initiate reforms aimed at removing elements of intolerance and replacing them with elements of inclusiveness; at muting elements that sanction violence against non-believers and amplifying elements that promote love for all humanity.

We must learn the art and science of conflict resolution through peaceful dialog and negotiation. In every situation of conflict, there is a way to look for trade-offs and find positive-sum outcomes. The trouble is that the very voices that have colored our perspectives on terror with the tint of religion are also the voices that hanker after a zero-sum outcome. These voices talk of victory and defeat. As long as there is talk of victory and defeat, nobody wins. Today's victor is tomorrow's vanquished. Then the cycle turns. And "in the long run we are all dead" as Keynes warned us.

Sadly, India and the US (two of the highly affected nations) play to the macho "no negotiation with terrorists" attitude, which eliminates the possibility of any kind of dialog. Guess where that leaves the intolerant fanatic.

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Thursday, May 26, 2011

Apostatic Alumnus? Or Pragmatic Patriot?

India's Environment Minister Jairam Ramesh, whose observations and comments invariably attract controversy every now and then, opined to the press the other day that the faculty at the IITs and the IIMs and the quality of the research produced by them were not world class. (Not that the faculty were bad, mind you, just that they were not world class.) A news report from CNN IBN quotes him as saying:
"There is hardly any worthwhile research from our IITs. The faculty in the IIT[s] is not world class. It is the students in IITs who are world class. So the IITs and IIMs are excellent because of the quality of students, not because of quality of research or faculty." 
His comment was seen as heresy, given that he is an alumnus of IIT B and that his father was on the faculty there, and provoked an emotional outburst from several quarters (including the lead opposition party, who pounce on every opportunity to bash an incumbent Minister) but hardly evoked any cogent counter-arguments. All criticisms so far either question his moral right to say what he did or accuse him of ignorance and prejudice, and stoutly assert the generally accepted view (in India) that these venerable institutions are indeed among the finest in the world. Nobody has yet stepped forward with specific evidence that the faculty at these institutions and the research produced by them are indeed world class, in direct contradiction to Jairam Ramesh's statement.

Jairam Ramesh's view on this matter is not very different from my own, and when I had aired this view in an earlier post, it drew as much ire (proportionately scaled down to the modest size of my audience), as is evident from some of the comments on that post. My tweet yesterday, questioning the basis for outrage against Jairam Ramesh's comment, was met with equal outrage by someone who offered as proof the fact that Bill Gates and Scott McNealy thought highly of IITians and the fact that in the US, IIM alumni competed (presumably with local managers) to head American corporations. While I have no doubt that these are indeed statements of fact, they not inconsistent with, and therefore do not challenge, the essence of Jairam Ramesh's observation -- that the students are great but not the faculty. Where is the proof that the faculty, and the research they produce, are world class, regardless of the quality of the students or other characteristics of these institutions? Is there any data out there in the public domain that can serve as a basis to substantiate either view?

I decided to investigate the subject of university rankings, focusing on what, according to global academia, might constitute a world-class institution of higher learning, and accordingly, what a list of the world's best institutions might look like. I readily found the 2010 QS World University Rankings of the top 500 institutions within a few minutes of searching. I also came across an old news report that summarized the findings of this same 2010 study from an India perspective. Depending on your inclination and your available time, feel free to download the entire report and analyze it, or to just scan through the rediff news summary. If, however, you are keen on drilling down to the bottom of this issue and so need far more details than what the downloaded pdf ofers, then visit the home page of QS World University Rankings. The home page also explains in detail the methodology underlying the rankings including the parameters for scoring and their respective weights, the process of conducting academic peer reviews and employer assessments and the logic behind the scores.

In the overall "2010 World University Rankings", no Indian institution figures in the top 20 or the top 50 or the top 100 or even the top 150 -- not one single Indian institution of any kind (i.e., not even non-IITs/ IIMs). IIT B, ranked at 187, just about makes it to the top 200. It is interesting to note that among other parameters, 'citations per faculty' (a research/ faculty -linked indicator, under which IIT B ranks 291) and 'employer reputation' (a student-linked indicator, under which IIT B ranks 50) both contribute to the overall rankings, and that our Indian Institutes, generally speaking, rank highly on the latter and rather poorly on the former. This is consistent with Jairam Ramesh's claim. Since I didn't see the IIMs anywhere, I probed further and found a separate niche ranking for "Social Sciences & Management" where JNU and University of Delhi appear in the 125+ range and IIT D, University of Calcutta and IIM A in the 280-300 range (with IIM A just about making it into the list, tying for the 299th position). I also found a separate niche ranking for "Engineering & Technology" in which IIT B manages to make the top 50, coming in at rank 47. Another 4 IITs follow in the 51-100 range, giving India a total of 5 IITs within the top 100 Engineering & Technology universities of the world. These domain-specific rankings certainly paint a better picture of the IITs than the overall rankings, though they don't do much for the IIMs. The 2011 Asian University Rankings are not so kind to the Indian Institutes either -- nothing within the top 10 or even top 20. However, the five "legacy" IITs (i.e., not the more recently established ones) are all within the top 50 and this may be the source of some consolation to the less ambitious. (Shouldn't world-class institutions be within the top 10 or at least top 20 of their own geographical region, if not the world?)

A claim to world class, I would imagine, could best be substantiated if a critical mass of the IITs and IIMs (e.g., the "legacy" institutes: 5 old IITs and 3 old IIMs) were each within the top 100 of the overall world rankings, and each within the top 50 of their world niche/ domain category ("Engineering & Technology" and "Social Sciences & Management" respectively) and further, also well within the top 20 of the overall Asian rankings. These are just numbers I plucked from the air, and you may have your own way of setting the bar for the Indian Institutes of Technology/ Management to be called world class. Either way, the QS rankings for 2010/2011 do not establish either the IITs or the IIMs as world-class institutes. And QS seems to be the only acknowledged brand for ranking universities across the world.

Aggrieved faculty members of the IITs and IIMs and angry alumni (whose wrath, I think, is directed more at the perceived insult to their teachers than to the perceived falsification of facts, if any) would do well to calm down and analyze the hard data freely available to all, instead of being in denial and adopting the proverbial ostrich-like approach. I have this short and simple message for them:

Questioning the validity of the QS rankings or their relevance to the Indian higher education system is not a constructive approach, it is in fact futile and self-serving. It would be useful to understand how the academic world today defines "world class" and to then introspect as to what your institution needs to do to get there, assuming you consider this a priority. If you love your alma mater and your country, then recognize the problems faced by them and look for solutions, rather than question the problems themselves. The first step is to accept reality. But in order to do this, you need to pull your collective head out of your collective ... er ... um ... I mean .. out of the sand, instead of burying it deeper still. (Yes, I'd alluded to ostriches, so sand would be more appropriate.)

Post Script - May 27, 2011

Woke up this morning to find news reports that the Union HRD Minister (responsible for education) Kapil Sibal (whose initial reaction was to say something to the effect that Jairam Ramesh, being an IIT alumnus probably has better insights) had "demolished" Jairam Ramesh's argument, based on "evidence, not perception".

The evidence he offers is in the form of the claim that "IITs rank among the top 50 in the global index, with IIT-Bombay placed at No 21, IIT-Delhi at 24, IIT-Kanpur at 37 and IIT-Madras at 39." I searched extensively for this global index but couldn't find it, and if you do, I'd be much obliged if you could provide a link below in the comments section. For the sake of completion, I thought I would also add other ranking frameworks I found instead:
1. Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU): The wikipedia page presents a table of the top 100 universities in the world ranked over the last 8 years by the ARWU methodology, and states that "If a university is not listed in this table, it did not rank in the top 100 in any of the eight years tabulated." India doesn't figure anywhere in this list.
2. Times Higher Education (THE) World Universities Rankings: THE presents the top 200 ranked by their methodology, in which no Indian Institute (of anything) appears, and also the top universities ranked by reputation (based exclusively on their reputation for teaching and research) where the Indian Institute of Science appears in the 90-100 range, but no mention of any of the IITs or IIMs.
3. Other ranking systems such as webometrics and 4icu that rank world universities based on their web presence and search engine results. Clearly, not relevant criteria apropos of this discussion.

On the subject of research, Kapil Sibal defends the paucity of research, arguing that "the focus of IITs at least for the first 50-odd years was to provide technically trained manpower for the country's needs and that research had not been top priority." Wonder how he feels about that fact that the bulk of that technically trained manpower migrates to the US immediately after graduation.

Kapil Sibal goes on to argue that that 25% of the IIT faculty are IIT alumni, and since by definition IIT students are world class, the faculty is world class too. You don't really need me to point out the fallacy in this logic, but just in case you do, I have three points for Kabil Sibal to consider: (1) Great students do not necessarily make great teachers (2) Even if they do, what about the remaining 75%? (3) How many of those 25% took to teaching as their first choice of career?

Our Minister responsible for education, astute politician that he is, was clearly engaged in damage control, as a reaction to the flak the Government must have received from all the enraged "ostriches". This is indeed a sad day for the Indian education system!

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