Economist's 'Chat in the Stacks' draws large crowd to Mann Library

02/19/16

At the jam-packed first installment of Cornell University Library’s Chats in the Stacks series for the spring semester Feb. 4 in Mann Library, World Bank chief economist and Cornell professor Kaushik Basu spoke about his new book, “An Economist in the Real World: The Art of Policymaking in India.”

Prior to his current role at the World Bank, Basu served as chief economic adviser to the government of India 2009-12, and his book is based on his experiences in that position. Basu had been inspired by the Indian finance minister to write a diary as an anthropological exercise, and stories in “An Economist in the Real World” are loosely drawn from his journal. According to Basu, the book is meant to serve as a “serious take on development policy in a developing country.”

Basu first spoke about his professional background prior to working for the Indian government. He explained that his book highlights the somewhat rough transition he had from academia to the “real world” – initially a “disorienting” experience. Basu was the first chief economic adviser to take on the role with no government experience. A member of the Cornell faculty since 1994, Basu had been accustomed to conducting research rather than opining on potential political and economic policy, but this responsibility was thrust upon him almost immediately as chief economic adviser.

Just 10 to 15 days into his new job, Basu was given 24 hours to determine the “welfare implications [for India] of allowing futures trading in certain commodities.” In his former life as a researcher, Basu explained, he would have explored this question for a number of months, but as someone centrally involved in the policymaking process, he did not have the luxury of time.

Additionally, Basu talked about his policy-forming experiences, noting his newfound appreciation for the importance of fresh ideas in government, and the lessons he learned about careful and deliberate public speaking from his experiences in dealing with the media. Basu closed by telling the audience about the human side of his transition, touching on “the sheer politics” of his position in the Indian government, as well as the broader problem of corruption in India. Although Basu mentioned he never personally had close dealings with anyone of whom he was suspicious, he was highly conscious of the issue and could not help but feel stressed about it.

Basu will return to Cornell in the fall to resume his position as a professor of economics and the C. Marks Professor of International Studies.

A version of this story initially appeared in the Cornell Chronicle.