The meaning of ‘bare talk’

Bare talk is the name for my column in MINT. It is a play on the word, ‘bear’ and also it means ‘plain talk’. By nature, I am a contrarian. At a young age,  I had read this quote attributed to Justice Learned Hand. Wikipedia informs me that his full name was Billings Learned Hand. He lived for 89 years and that he was a judicial philosopher.

The quote I read was this:

You do not always have to voice the majority opinion. By sheer definition, there are many others to do it.

I might have paraprhased it instead of citing it verbatim. I am writing this from memory. I could not find the quote on the internet. May be, it was said by someone else. Does not really matter for our purposes because what matters is that it made an impact on me at a young age.

So, since then, I have set out ot find a niche in crowded opinion-places. In a way, that has marked my attitude towards the topics I have picked for my weekly columns and that has shaped my opinions too, no doubt.

Therefore, I have viewed my columns as instruments of (thought and intellectual) provocation. They are not meant to please. That outcome may purely be incidental. Sometimes,  unfortunately, they end up simply provoking. Period. No prefix – thoughtful or intellectual. Looks like that is what happened to my column of today. But, before that, on last week’s column.

Last Tuesday (May 1), as soon as I had sent my column out to some friends, one of them called me and said that he was not happy that it ended on a note of hopelessness because, in his view, certain public intellectuals have the responsibility to foster hope and optimism. After all, billions have to go through their lives, regardless of whether they liked it or not. It makes sense to go through it with a sense of purpose, optimism and hope rather than being resigned to the possibility that we were doomed as the column concluded.

He had a point, notwithstanding the fact that the underlying message was that we were doomed if we persisted with the way arms-length capitalism was being practised these days.

I did clarify to him that my columns were not stand-alone pieces in the sense that I write every week, therefore, they were a continuum and that I voice all sorts of opinions – positive and negative – and that they were meant to provoke thinking, etc. But, all told, he had a point.

I was reminded of our discussion when I read John Authers on corporate earnings and workers’ compensation in America:

The youngest adult Americans now tell pollsters that they actively prefer socialism, while capitalism in general is found by many to have rather negative connotations. Unlike “liberty” — which still gets Americans’ pulses racing very positively — capitalism is no longer very popular. How can this be? Recall that over the past 12 months Americans’ average hourly earnings have risen by 2.6 per cent…..

…..There is a huge gap between 2.6 per cent and 25.7 per cent, and you do not need to be a Marxist to find that gap morally alarming. [Link]

Now, to the column of May 8th.

I took up a topic for this week’s column a topic that was sensitive because I had read two opinion pieces (by friends) that had hailed the idea of having women in the labour force as a formula for economic growth. I had no problems at all with having more women in the workplace. I had problem seeeing it as a sure-shot thing for economic growth for two reasons. One, there is no particular basis to linking more women in the labour force to faster economic growth. In fact, India’s experience since 2004 actually is inconsistent with that proposition. Growth accelerated even as women’s participation rate in the labour force declined. Two, elevating it to a public policy goal would then lead to government activisim which, invariably, would create other costs and prove counterproductive. Third, it misses the point about whether women contribute to GDP growth only through working for wages.

As an author/columnist and as an individual,  I have no personal views on women in the labour force. It is a decision for women to make just as it is a decision for men to make on their work -whether they wished to work or earn from home or be entrepreneurial, etc. These are micro decisions. Macro responsibility is for the government to create enabling conditions for employment generation in the economy.

In fact, the same goes for economic growth. In my view, governments are better off not pursuing economic growth as a policy goal directly. Their role ends with creating and continuing to create enabling conditions (and maintaining them) for economic activity to happen and hence growth to materialise. With respect to economic growth and labour, governments should facilitate labour force growth, regardless of whether it is through addition of men or women to the labour force. There is no particular theoretical basis to prefer one over the other.

Similarly, governments should ensure safety on the streets for women, safety in the work place, enable girl students to be able to maintain personal hygiene and sanitation in schools and colleges with dignity and safety, etc. These are important responsibilities. If they meant that more women joined the workforce, well and good. IF they did not result in women joining the labour force, so be it. The government has to do or mandate these things anyway.

This is the point I had made in the column. But, from what I gather – from the Twitter shots that a friend shared with me – one paragraph has been understood differently than what I had intended:

Therefore, it is quite possible that an educated mother with emotional and intellectual stability bringing up children as physically, mentally and emotionally healthy humans contributes more to economic growth and social stability than she would by spending time at work. In other words, there is a fairly significant opportunity cost to having women in the workplace and it is a conscious and careful choice that they have to make. Public policy has a role—if at all—to help them make that choice in an informed manner. [Link]

This paragraph has been interpreted to mean that the author (Yours truly) is bigoted and is a misogynist! Well, to the extent that one’s readers are led to infer things differently form what the author intended, then he/she has failed, especially if it is a preponderance of readership. I do not know about the number of readers who interpreted the paragraph in a particular way. But, all I know is that it included one thoughtful analyst. It is a different matter that I was able to persuade him out of his understanding.

I had learnt that the word ‘possible’ is different from ‘plausible’, ‘probable’, ‘most likely’ and ‘certainly’. Indeed, in the hierarchy of the likelihood of outcomes, it is the weakest. That is the word I had used and that is what I had underlined above.

In hindsight, I could have re-worded the following sentence:

In other words, there is a fairly significant opportunity cost to having women in the workplace and it is a conscious and careful choice that they have to make.

as follows:

In other words, there might be an opportunity cost to having women in the workplace and it is a conscious and careful choice that they have to make.

It did not strike me probably because I believed that, in the Indian context, the opportunity cost was indeed high for women to juggle both, except under special family circumstances and very supportive spouses. Given the state of the infrastructure and support services for infants and children (including school hours), it could be quite difficult for mothers to handle both responsibilities. It is stressful. This will be on top of the Indian work place that is considered quite stressful. See here, here, here, here and here. Then, it will tell on their emotional health and on that of other family members, including children.

Given these evidence, there is a tradeoff – for many women – between being in the work place and being emotionally healthy oneself and being able to bring up children with good emotional and mental health such that, as adults, they experience satisfaction with their lives. It goes without saying that those with life satisfaction will be economically more productive than those without and on a sustained basis.

Now, within the limit of ‘5500 characters (with space)’, one has to convey all of this. So, one can only point to or allude to certain things and move on.

Finally and very importantly, I mentioned that it was a “conscious and careful choice that they (women) have to make.”

I did not either recommend that they were better off staying at home, bringing up children or that they should go to work. It is their choice and, earlier in the text, I had also mentioned,

…. it is wrong for men in patriarchal societies to deny women the right choose their career—whether to be at the workplace or stay at home.

Oh, well.

I started with Justice Learned Hand. I will end this post with him. One of his quotes is this:

Life is made up of constant calls to action, and we seldom have time for more than hastily contrived answers. [Link]

Let me paraphrase this:

Twitter is made up of constant calls to action, and we seldom have time for more than hastily contrived answers.

One thought on “The meaning of ‘bare talk’

  1. Darn, I feel like I have so much to say on this, as usual…
    On the modern capitalism article, I commented on the mostlyeconomics blog, but to summarize my misgivings:
    a) perhaps modern capitalism can be distinguished from say pre-Greenspan/Robert Rubin capitalism and one could still make a case for it for india. The problem in India is we have gone from state-led economy to modern capitalism, without the fruits of free markets for basic development.
    b) I keep hearing this argument that capitalism was supposed to have avoided the frauds of state-led economy. This is often a pretext for perpetuating state corruption and sloth. I think this is a wrong assumption. Fraud is in human nature and it will be around regardless of which economic setup we use. The answer lies in improving the justice system (not asking for govt intervention which is likely to be wrong) and in focusing on the govt-private sector interface and design of policies which preempt corruption.
    c) the myopia might be something external to modern capitalism. I’m not sure the myopia should be seen as a property of capitalism per se… people seem to be myopic these days in varying economic and social setups. Maybe it is a phenomenon larger than the economic idealogy.
    d) my gripe with an article like this is not that it is pessimistic but that it becomes an excuse for restraining development of the private sector. It is the misguided legacy of the great recession in India that we should not reform too fast or not encourage private risk-taking too much or that we were and we are better off not relying as much on free markets. That we have a perfectly fine system which will give us high growth with some tinkering here and there.
    I wish the article was titled something along the lines of: Modern capitalism might lead to doom but free markets still have everything to offer in India. Not sure how to put it in better language. On the plus side (although completely superficial) it would also be optimistic.

    On the issue of optimism and sexism, it shouldn’t be surprising. I learnt many years back that people become like deer stuck in the headlights when told about an incoming crisis, rather than taking action against it. No wonder the policy makers have dealt out strong medication and brushed problems under the carpet. People can’t handle the truth. It is vastly more prevalent in India, where people are more fatalistic: air pollution, water crises go unattended as no amount of information and exposure to the situation helps. I was quite bemused by it in 2007-08, but I am no longer surprised. The sexism thing too is par for the times. These days people have to resign for less.


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