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Tuesday, March 17, 2009

From young turk to defender of the status quo

I have often noticed how many individuals who were unconventional in their thinking about Indian economic policy in the 1970s and 1980s, and got influential out of being correct then, are apologists for or defenders of the status quo today. This seems to happen often enough that it can't be mere accident; there must be a mechanism which generates reversion to the mean.

Today, Tyler Cowen takes a stab at this (in a broader setting) on his blog:

Do influential people develop more conventional opinions?

  1. People "sell out" to become more influential.
  2. As people become more influential, they are less interested in offending their new status quo-oriented friends.
  3. As people become more influential, their opinion of the status quo rises, because they see it rewarding them and thus meritorious.
  4. The status quo is good at spotting interesting, unusual people who will evolve (sell out?) and elevating them to positions of influence.
  5. Oddballs who are influential arrive first at where the status quo is later headed, and eventually they end up looking conventional.
  6. Influential people are asked to write increasingly on general interest topics ("How to Be Nice to Dogs") and thus they find it harder to be truly unconventional. They cultivate skills of conventionality because that is what they are paid for or allowed to express.

Larry Summers is one person who's done well in not losing his intellectual edge as he has gained influence, and he made treasury secretary (the equivalent of finance minister) at the tender age of 45. It's hard to think of the Indian political process recruiting such a person as finance minister (at any age). Another example of a personality type that Indian politics is not friendly to is Ed Balls, who had a huge influential on the macroeconomic policy framework of the UK.


  1. It is not surprising in India because the whole academic community also undermines the younger generation ability to function even a department of economics in a college or university or institution. And the same thing is happening in the top level ministry also.

    No Indian economics professors ask (or teach) his or her student to examine their (including others) works and extend the ideas independently.


  2. That is a great post Ajay.
    People seem to be trapped in their thinking even when circumstances changes.

  3. Ajay, this is one of the most potent observation. We have so many examples around us in very influential positions who are now acting as bottlnecks in institutions which are expected to continue to make a difference

  4. Oddballism is driven out by fraudballism: Burfy's Law.

    Anyone else left must speak in anonymity. This is what a certain Omigosh has to say:

    "The key question is when will an economic recovery now begin? Post-elections? What if the “aam” party that demonstrated it KNOWS how to contain the fisc for the 4-year fast track (9% plus, no less), while also giving the aam aadmi a safety cushion, and then how to let it loose for the obstacle course (chunaav season), while also winking at India Inc, loses traction? What then - so be it?"


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