Thursday, September 15, 2005


0. Happy Onam.

1. Finished yet another John Keay book, The Spice Route: A History. This man is rapidly turning into one's favourite historian about these matters. His India: A History was also very good, a judicious mix of history sprinkled with Keay's own pointed remarks about everything ("...the Near East in the Middle Ages was almost as troubled and strife-torn as the Middle East in nearer ages..."). Of course, it all started off over a year and a half back when we wrote about Tall Ships and en passant touched upon The Honourable Company, which was a history of the British East India Company. "The Spice Route" and "The Honourable Company" have much in common, intertwined as the history of colonialism and spices is.
The chronology of "The Spice Route" however starts in the dimly seen past, when Phoenicians, Egyptians and other sundry Levantine types started sailing. A history of spices follows - Greece-Rome-Dark Ages-Middle Ages and so on, before arriving at the point where the Iberians, the Italians, the Low Countries, and of course the English took to serious blue water sailing in search of "The Origin Of Spices". The pioneering work of Hippalos; the mysteries of Periplus Maris Erythraei (which is available in its entirety here); the peregrinations of Marco Polo, Ibn Batuta and Xuan Zhuang; of Admiral Cheng-ho's argosy (thanks to Zoo Station) and so on.

This history is full of the most surprising characters: shady Italian industrial espionage types who converted to Islam so as to be able to hang out with Arabs and learn their secrets; a Greek cabin boy who joins a British ship, finds his way to Siam, becomes a favourite at the King's court and is virtually Prime Minister of Thailand for a few years; Siam and Golconda going to war over the harassment of Indian porters (at British instigation) who carried cargos from the eastern end of the Malay peninsula to the western end over the isthmus of Kra, and so on.

UPDATE: This should've been posted yesterday (thanks to Anonymous for the reminder), but John Keay is indeed touring the country. More information is available. If you get a chance to hear the man speak, please intimidate us at Choultry also.

2. There are many blogs devoted to economics. Zoo Station, Indian Economy, Deesha, Secular Right, India Uncut are some blogs that frequently feature very readable posts on economics, government, the role of government in economics, and so on.

While they present different and interesting facets of and takes on various economic systems, it wouldn't be unfair to say that by and large the bloggers agree on (for want of a better phrase) "laissez faire free market capitalism" as their preferred economic system, for various reasons. Further, in general, these blogs are critical about socialism, communism and all other related -isms (complete the list yourself).

As someone who's knowledge of conventional economics and economic history is abysmal, and further more someone whose ability to gather the facts and analyze them is also pathetic, it becomes hard to frame any decent questions, or come up with any decent arguments about these issues. But but someone who writes a blog read by 6 people, who's to stop us from asking some stupid questions anyway? Huh?!

  • What are the ethical/moral underpinnings of any economic systems? What is "good", "bad"? What does "equitable" mean? Is "equal access to resources and opportunities" "good"? Is it necessary? Is it sufficient? Have people who advocate any one system over the other answered these questions to their satisfaction? Is that necessary?

  • Generally, the laissez faire folk seem to be "meritocrats". This means, you have minimal regulatory interference, let individuals/firms compete in the open against each other, may the best man win, and to the winner go the spoils. This is "fair", and this is "good" for everyone. This seems to work nicely when all concerned start on the same level playing field, in terms of access to resources and opportunities, and the only variables are the capabilities of the entities concerned.
    Unfortunately, these entities include people. What happens after the first generation?

    Mr. A did well in life, so his children go to the best schools and so on. Ms. B didn't do so well, so her children weren't able to get an education and so on. Now what? Is anyone studying the effect of inequalities and how they are propagated across generations? What is the "good" solution to this problem? What is the "fair" solution? Wouldn't it be "fair" and "meritorious" to separate all children away from their parents as soon as possible, put them in some kind of residential school system where everyone is equal and turn them loose in the real world, without their parents' accomplishments backing them up? How do we draw these lines?

  • Doesn't it seem as though for about 5000 years, we lived in a free-for-all smash-and-grab world, where the bhains resided with the owner of the lathi, and the more you managed to hoodwink others, the better off you were? Then, suddenly, in the last 100 years or so, we've discovered "ethics" and "fairness" and now we changed the rules. "Oh no, you can't use violence to become rich any more." Seems like a bit of a children's game.

  • Macro economically speaking, what is the "end" of economics? If economic performance is measured in terms of "growth", and rewarded based on that performance, does this mean that this "prosperity" thing is inextricably linked with "growth"? Does "economic growth" always mean that, ultimately, we are using up more and more of some non-renewable resource? Per conventional wisdom: "economic growth" is a "good" thing, population growth is a bad thing, does this mean that the same number of (or fewer) people have to consume more and more things forever? Aren't war/calamities and the subsequent rebuilding, or even economic activity for the sake of economic activity, then a viable solution to our economic problems? Does this ever end? Where does this end? Where do economists want this to end, and where do they see this whole shebang going?

And so on and so forth... Very vexing these questions are, no answers in sight, and no one making a halfway decent attempt to explain this to the hoi polloi like us.

And a bloody long post.



uma said...

good questions.

Anonymous said...

In case this interests you - John Keay is going to be in India this month and the next. He will be lecturing at various towns and cities in the country. You can get details of his itinerary here.

Very interesting and thought-provoking questions.

Anonymous said...

Good questions.
By the way, if economics interests you, maybe you should watch Commanding Heights: The Battle for the World Economy. The movie is about the globalization of world trade in 20th century and showcases evolution of economics over a period of time. Learn more about it here.