The Independent Student Newspaper of Ashoka University

The Dismal People of a Dismal Science

Vinayak Sahi, Class of 2020

Credits: Ashoka University

An economics major must realise beforehand that nothing in this world can be certain but death, taxes, and exams. The life of an Ashokan majoring in economics is a lot of work and if they expect that they will have a college experience equivalent to the one seen in Hollywood films, one might say they are yet to come to their senses. When they do though, they often make it a point to grudge the work they have every single day, until they relinquish themselves to the bitter truth that they must work consistently in order to keep themselves above the water.

It is evident that the Economics program in Ashoka is a challenging one where the student must be fully committed to educating themselves in the discipline by listening to some of the most brilliant minds that the world has to offer. Even our professors, who are well acquainted with the subject at hand, put in hours of work so that every lecture is crafted to precision and delivered in perfection. However, if I maybe so bold as to give a dissenting opinion about the subject with which I am yet to acquaint myself properly, I want to present a two-fold contention with what I am presently learning — an ideological one and a technical one.

Firstly, the ideological trouble that I have is not as narrow as the one between socialists and capitalists. These labels can be far too limiting to permit a sociable conversation and I do not intend to argue about the economics taught to us being heavily oriented to either side. The issue that I have is rather an environmental one.

Economics as a subject has been moulded by crisis. For instance, David Ricardo’s theory on comparative advantage came as response to the economic nationalism of that time, enforced in the form of the Corn Laws enacted by the then British Prime Minister, Lord Liverpool. A more recent instance is that of the Great Depression and the subsequent crisis of freedom characterized by the Second World War and the despotic regime of the Soviet Union. The Great Depression was not solved by a miracle of God but rather by the power of Keynesian ideas of increased government spending. Moreover, it was thinkers such as Hayek and Friedman who showed the intrinsic relation between freedom and the capitalist economic system.

The crisis of our generation is not primarily one of freedom or world poverty. Of course, we are still plagued by issues of freedom and world poverty. If we were to dedicate resources to solve the said issues, as a species, we shall definitely be better off. But our crisis is an existential one — of the environment, and if we continue to turn a blind eye towards the brewing environmental problem, we would be infinitely worse off. One method of approaching this problem has been to say that the issue of global warming is a hoax or that the scientists who have dedicated their lives to research on this issue are just propagating ‘fake news.’ But a rather prudent way would be to see it as an eminent problem in urgent need of a solution. The question I ask is this — is the economics being taught in our classroom equipping us to deal with arguably the most eminent crisis we face as a generation? I certainly don’t think it is.

In classes, we are taught the Smithian idea of the world where individual pursuit of self interests leads to a structure of society which makes everyone better off. If we add the element pertaining to the sustainability of the planet and the survival of future generations, this structure fails us. Its perpetuation shall lead to a sorry outcome for everyone on this planet. In the language of economics, all of us might be better off in the short run, but in the long run, we will all be dead.

I find a certain academic irresponsibility when we discuss powerful models of organizing production and distribution of goods and services, while hardly talking about the massive unaccounted externalities created by the current system of excessive conversion of natural resources to marketable assets. For example, the production of 1kg of meat uses 5000 litres of water (as per the Guardian), and leads to a huge amount of carbon usage. The system we have propped up and learnt about is a definitive recipe for disaster. Economics at Ashoka is tooling us up for the past crises that have come and gone while forgetting the responsibility towards the future where all of it will matter conditional upon the system’s survival. The system in turn will survive only if the students think about the current economic structure and about reforming it to form a stable sustainable scheme. But the technical problem I highlight next has played a role in preventing engagement with these ideas.

This brings me to the second issue, which pertains to the organization of classes at Ashoka. It would not be wrong to assume that the Ashokan academic model is an abridgment of the American Model, designed for four years. However, the UGC restrictions mould Economics at Ashoka in tandem with a three year programme, out of which a year is spent on finishing foundation courses, with two spent on finishing the major chosen. We are offered an optional fourth year but the courses, especially in Economics, are essentially designed to fit the UGC constraint.

This results in Ashokan professors and students being hurried to finish the basic amount of knowledge required for the next course in a linear structure. There is a transfer of knowledge, but not necessarily an efficient enough one. There seems to exist a Pareto optimal allocation of time which we still have not reached. It would not be imprudent to consider extending class time per semester, either through more class hours, or extending the semester by just two weeks. This could be implemented if the professor deems it necessary for a certain course, and while, the students might not be too happy about it, at least a satisfactorily good enough pace for teaching and being taught can be achieved.

The economics at Ashoka University introduces us to many powerful ideas but hardly allows us to engage with them. We touch the idea, but are forced to run for the next so that the mandated portions may be covered adequately. The issue with this is that we do not struggle to confront or understand both the idea and its significance in the world. In order to allow for effective learning, there is a need to question and critique ideas. Even if you might be proven wrong by minds of equal if not more prowess, it still strengthens your knowledge. For instance, think of the ‘aha’ moment in mathematics when you realize that you have been approaching the problem wrongly the whole day. It may seem to be a wastage of your time, but the impact of that realisation shall ingrain itself in your brain, and the conceptual clarity arises out of logic, not memorisation.

The status quo may seem to be satisfactory. But Ashoka’s foundation is not to recreate status quo. It is to make a better one, and then question the same. I completely agree that the curriculum designed for us matches some of the top institutions of the world, but the larger, bolder question remains — will the economics tools taught to us in class be adequate for the looming challenge of the environment or must we replace the entire armoury to combat the threat to our very survival?

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