In a reversal of the podcast’s usual format, producer Dallas Floer interviews Shruti about the guests who appeared and the issues that were discussed on the podcast in 2022. They discuss how to get good data on India, why it’s important to learn more about India, what Shruti has learned from the job market series, and much more. They also answer listener questions and discuss the all-important topic of what Shruti is binge-watching.
DALLAS FLOER: Hello, everyone. My name is Dallas Floer. I’m one of the producers of Ideas of India. I’m very excited today because we’re doing our first-ever special end-of-year episode where I’ll be interviewing Shruti. We’ll reflect a bit on the episodes from the past year, learn more about Shruti the economist and Shruti the individual, and take some of our favorite listener questions that were submitted on Twitter and the Google form that we sent around in our newsletter.
If you don’t follow us or Shruti on Twitter, or aren’t subscribed to our newsletter, please do it now because you might miss out on more fun episodes like this one in the future. Shruti, thanks for doing this.
SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Dallas, thank you so much for having me. This is very strange to have this reversed, but I love that I get to have a chat with you. So it’s awesome.
Getting Good Data on India
FLOER: I’ll just jump right in. This year has been a big year for the podcast. It’s grown the most this year since we started in 2020. I think that’s partially due to the great guests that we’ve had on the show, which we’ll get into. I also think that it’s also due to the ideas that you’re discussing on the show. They’re really important and diverse topics. There are a few that I’ve noticed that have come up consistently this past year and even years prior.
The first one being the importance of not only consistent data, but good data about India’s population and demographics, particularly from Lant Pritchett, who we’ve had on twice, and Rukmini Shrinivasan. Rukmini, she seemed pretty optimistic overall about the future of data in India, where Lant was not so optimistic. He was very opposite of Rukmini. Where do you land on that spectrum of optimism in India regarding data?
RAJAGOPALAN: You’ve picked up on an important theme. We get a lot of discussion about data because so many of our guests are economists or social scientists. Then we talk about how did you collect the data? Did you get what is relevant? Of course, Rukmini’s book is directly about how India is counted and India through numbers. The odd thing is, both Rukmini and Lant, I think, are optimistic and pessimistic for similar reasons, which is state capacity.
Rukmini’s optimistic about Indian data, but not about government producing good-quality data. She’s more optimistic about philanthropic efforts. She’s more optimistic about academics producing high-quality data, or something like the Pew platform, which does these surveys the world over—efforts like that, in the long run in India.
Lant, actually, is not just critiquing government data, though he’s very familiar with it. He’s an empirical economist, so he knows that work inside out. I think his critique goes much deeper, which is that oftentimes, very narrow data questions—which are typically in the context that we were talking about in the case of randomized controlled trials—very narrow data collection efforts to establish causation, which is something we care a lot about as economists and as social scientists—that is not necessarily the best data that is going to tell you something about the real world and how complex it is and how messy it is.
Lant’s pessimism actually comes from the same source as Rukmini’s optimism in one sense. Not that she was all, “Rah, rah, RCTs,” but more about academics collecting data to make sense of the world—they necessarily have to be narrow; they have to make it legible. But in the process, they often lose the complexity of what’s happening.
I think on this, I’m very much on Lant’s side of things. I am skeptical about the Indian government’s ability to produce good data, both for reasons that sometimes the incentives are bad. Like in the case of COVID numbers, they just don’t have the right incentives to reveal the right death count or estimate. In the case of other kinds of aggregate metrics, just state capacity not good at counting, for instance, the extent of roads that they might have or how much flooding there is in a particular area.
I’m much more on Lant’s side of this in the sense that I don’t see academic economists doing a great job of studying complex phenomena, but we do need better data. I will put that out there, that there are people working on efforts to improve data collection, like Emergent Ventures winners. Then I think I would love those kinds of projects, and we do support those projects at Mercatus.
Development Economics and Growth
FLOER: I think that’s an interesting perspective to have. Even though you said that you’ve sided with Lant, for the most part, you did have some instances of disagreement in your conversations with him. How do you perceive those debates that you had with him previously? Also, where do you specifically differ there?
RAJAGOPALAN: The Lant episode was fantastic. First up, he has written, I think, over 100 papers at this point. Preparing for that episode was like doing a little field exam in economics, just studying quite hard to go over all the material. I learned a lot from him. In fact, we had to break it up in two episodes, because he’s written on so many topics that you couldn’t cover it in one. You’ve also picked up on the right episode, because we got a lot of feedback from the development community in India. There was one group that was just very furious about how one-sided they felt that the episode was.
There was another group who work in policy who were like, “Thank God, someone’s finally willing to say the emperor has no clothes.” It was a very polarizing episode. I am much closer to Lant’s view of the world. Lant’s an economist, as am I, and other than being good at empirical technique, I feel like the main thing we do as economists is we understand human behavior, and we try and understand the intended and unintended consequences that other people can’t necessarily see. That’s what our training is in. Seeing and understanding patterns in the face of a lot of messiness, complexity and in a dynamic and changing world, that is the job of the economist.
In that sense, both of us come from a very similar worldview of what is the job of an economist, or what is it that we are studying. We’re studying complex phenomena. He has spent his career studying economic growth, and a large part of the India project is economic growth and prosperity in India specifically. Even on that, we are aligned quite a bit. The answers are typical. All the places that have economic growth, they typically have good institutions, good enforcement of property rights, contracts, law and order—they look a particular way.
We can say something very basic about what leads to economic growth, but it’s actually a really complex question. If it were easy or simple, then everywhere in the world would have development and economic growth. Lant’s main point in that episode was that in the process of chasing causation and attribution when it comes to economic development, development economists are missing the woods for the trees. There I’m 100% in line with him. I feel like there is this huge movement in development economics which feels like economic growth is simply not that important.
It could be for various reasons. For some people, it’s because they feel it’s well established and we’ve got to conquer new areas in economics. For some people, they genuinely believe that economic growth is not what is going to get us where we need to go. It’s probably because they are in elite institutions and countries that are already developed, and they’re at a different point in the development trajectory than poorer countries.
For various reasons, there seems to be this agreement—there was some secret meeting that Lant and I were not invited to where they decided that economic growth is not that important. On those things, I am 100% in line with Lant. One area where we do differ is, should we have RCTs and what can we learn from them? I think I’m a little bit more optimistic about the value of RCTs in the following sense, that I think they tell us something very important, but we have to be careful that we don’t misinterpret the result.
That just because we see, in one place, that if you take photographs of teachers and that leads to lower teacher absenteeism, we don’t conclude that timestamping and photographing teachers is what gives us better education outcomes. That’s not the appropriate inference. I think what we need in economics—and I think Lant would agree with me here—is that a lot more people need to read Hayek. They need to read James C. Scott. They need to read Elinor Ostrom. They need to read the older classical work on methodology and history of thought, to even interpret the results that they themselves are trying to write about.
This is not like some amazing new invention. I would say there’s a lot more agreement between me and Lant than disagreement. Any disagreement would be minor. I think I just don’t have the same views he has on the World Bank, or as strongly. I do think they did a lot of good work on development and national development and economic growth, and they’ve lost their way. But he’s an insider in that context, and I’m not. He’s one of my favorite economists, and I’m thrilled he came a couple of times. I hope he comes again.
FLOER: Yes. The reactions were a bit more polarizing than the actuality of your thoughts and opinions.
Another theme that I noticed this year that’s similar to what we just talked about is—it’s been discussed by a couple of guests that we had—Indian nationalism, so Ramachandra Guha and Arvind Elangovan, in particular. Ram continues to root for Indian nationalism while Arvind is pro-rethinking Indian nationalism altogether. What do you think? Are you rooting for it? Should we rethink it? Where do you stand?
RAJAGOPALAN: Again, great, you’ve picked up on such interesting, nuanced themes. I think I’m much closer to Arvind Elangovan on this question. You’ve zeroed in on the two conversations on one specific point. My view is that Indian nationalism is highly contextual. Right now, everyone’s saying there’s this wave or surge of nationalism in different parts of the world; it’s happening in Turkey and it’s happening in Russia, it’s happening in Hungary.
In India, the longer-run picture of nationalism very much comes from the colonial legacy. Indian nationalism was set up, thematically, as a counter to colonialism. The point was, there’s this oppressive imperial power which needs to be overthrown so that we can have self-government, so that we can have individual liberty, individual dignity and freedoms, which are not guaranteed by an oppressive colonial power. At that point, it feels like nationalism and a lot of the other values we believe in—liberty, pluralism—those things are going hand in hand. There’s a lot of alignment between the Indian nationalist movement of the early 20th century and those values.
Let’s come to the postcolonial moment. The moment we get to that point, suddenly all the great heroes of the nationalist movement are the ones who are your new leaders; they formed the government. Now the question: Is nationalism criticizing the government, or is nationalism supporting the government? The interpretation was very much, if you oppose this new government of India and its five-year plans and its development agenda, it’s anti-national. Once again, I don’t think you can have liberalism and pluralism and the other values we care about if one of the important themes in nationalism is, it’s synonymous with the government in parliament, and we can’t critique the government in parliament.
Of course, 75 years later, it’s the Modi government. Now nationalism is synonymous not just with not critiquing the government, but with a particular religious identity. Now we are calling it Hindu nationalism. There’s a particular flavor to it, but it’s the same theme. Once again, this nationalism doesn’t go very well with pluralism, liberalism, free speech, the other values we care about. My question to both of them was very much in this context that, does nationalism have the same meaning and the same import if you don’t have a colonial oppressor oppressing you?
Arvind and I are on the side of, I think we need to rethink nationalism in the current environment and context. I think Ram met us almost halfway there because he said, “I think nationalism is different from jingoism.” Just going, “Rah, rah, India. Rah rah, Modi,” or, “Rah, rah, Nehru,” is not what he means by nationalism. He means something much more nuanced, which is national development. And Ram’s idea of nationalism would include critiquing the government and all the other things I was talking about. I think we’re a lot closer, but maybe we disagree on specific terminology.
FLOER: How do you think that impacts or affects India’s journey as a growing economy and as an international player in the current global scenario?
RAJAGOPALAN: My biggest worry with this nationalism, especially the current, very macho, “India is great, and you can’t criticize India and you can’t criticize Indians; you can’t criticize the government”—anything which is that uni-dimensional and against debate and discussion always worries me. Economic growth, as we’ve discussed in so many episodes, it’s a team effort. It’s not a single cause and effect.
It requires a lot of consultation and lots of discussion amongst academics, amongst economists, amongst policymakers, politicians, even the Supreme Court and the judiciary, which is intervening in many of these matters. If we say that everything in India is great, and whatever the government does is fantastic, and we can’t critique Indians, then that worries me. It does have implications for the future of economic growth or anything else that we may discuss.
Again, this goes back to something Lant was talking about in his episode. There are places like China, which have had this great episodic economic growth. They’ve done it without free speech, without pluralism, without democracy. He’s not that optimistic that, in the 100-year game, you’re going to have very consistent growth in these sorts of countries.
In India, he’s more optimistic. We’ve had lower rates of growth than, say, China and many of the other countries that are dictatorships or single-party rule. He’s much more optimistic because he thinks, kinks and all, India can chug along. I think, in that space, it’s important what we mean when we say India. We do mean a democratic country, and we do mean a country where there’s consultation and free speech. I think it’s more directly linked to economic growth than is apparent at first glance. You’ve again zeroed in on the really nuanced question.
Freedom of Speech in the U.S. and India
FLOER: Yes. You had mentioned free speech already, but I would say that that’s the biggest theme of them all with all of our episodes this past year. And we hear it discussed constantly in the United States. Especially, we had election season end last month, and the changes that are going on with Twitter, which we won’t get into. What would you say is the main difference in this discussion in the U.S. versus in India, or is there a difference at all?
RAJAGOPALAN: I think the fundamental difference is the constitutional guarantee for free speech and how it’s interpreted in the United States versus how it’s interpreted in India. Going back in time, the Indian constitutional framers were very inspired by the American Constitution. In fact, the Indian chapter called fundamental rights is quite inspired by the Bill of Rights. A lot of the bits and pieces are actually directly taken from, for instance, the original eminent domain clause or due process clause, in the case of free speech.
Having said that, right off the bat, the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution actually guarantees the right to free speech. It brings in the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments. It does so because the original U.S. Constitution is actually a very procedural document. It doesn’t guarantee specific rights. There’s a big debate on that, on whether rights should be guaranteed—or if they are guaranteed, are those the only rights which are guaranteed, or are there more, and so on. That’s a separate discussion.
In India, the constitution was adopted in January 1950, and there was a period of about 16 months before the first elections could take place. During that time, the same assembly, which was a Constituent Assembly of India, became what was called the provisional parliament. It was sort of, “We’ve written the constitution. We’re just going to govern. We’re the temporary legislature pending elections.” This temporary legislature actually amended the constitution and brought in the first amendment.
It was very controversial, but they were the same people who wrote it, so people thought, “It’s the same framers, so it must be okay for them to amend the constitution.” The very first amendment actually severely abridges the right to free speech in India. It is guaranteed under a provision called 19(1)(a), and 19(2) is what lawyers typically call a non obstante clause. Lots of these legal provisions that begin with, “Notwithstanding anything in the previous provision, A, B, C, D are excluded,” that’s what they call a non obstante clause. The Indian fundamental rights are full of them. And the worst example of this is free speech, where, immediately after independence and after adopting the constitution, Nehru’s government and the provisional parliament amended the constitution.
The background to that is, they were worried about communist uprisings. They were worried about religious riots because they were post Partition. It was a very bloody Partition. There were people who were writing these pamphlets, trying to reignite religious sentiments and get Hindus and Muslims to get on opposing sides. The communists were trying to overthrow the government. They brought in this crazy catch-all clause, which said things like, “Oh, the right to free speech and free press is guaranteed, except the government can make law and reasonable restrictions in line with public morality, public decency, national security, law and order, overthrow of the government,” so on and so forth.
Those exceptions are many, and so broad that pretty much anything can be shut down by the government of India in the name of free speech. That I think is the fundamental difference, how much the government can infringe. It’s mostly constitutional. This, obviously, because it’s constitutional, the government can make all kinds of rules. And the downstream effect is, we have nowhere close to the kind of free speech protection against the government that we have in the U.S.
Twitter is slightly different. It’s a private platform. There, free speech means something slightly different. It is more in the context of content moderation by private entity. Is Twitter a public square? Should it be treated like a utility? Should it be treated like a private company? Is it like a private newsletter? I think that’s a slightly different question. The guarantee for free speech against the government in the U.S. is so strong that the question is dominated about safe spaces on campus or safe space on Twitter and things like that, but that’s not the question in India. It’s literally, can a comedian go to jail because he told a joke and the government didn’t like it? That’s the level of free speech in India.
FLOER: Yes, which is intense.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s intense, and we have had comedians go to jail.
Why Learn About India?
FLOER: I have a general question—and I think this rounds out this first part of the discussion nicely—but why should we talk about India more? Why should more people be listening to, not just your expertise, but anyone who spends their time doing research and talking about India?
RAJAGOPALAN: The world demographics are changing, and I think we are not good at looking at the 30-, 40-year horizon, because of Twitter and all the other things we talked about. We’re so in the moment of what’s happening now. If you look at global demographics—and I recently started a Substack, it’s called “Get Down and Shruti,” and the first post was on this topic—the developed world is depopulating, or at least, the fertility rates are dropping quite rapidly. In fact, China will start depopulating next year, and it’s so far the largest country in terms of population.
Image Credit: Max Roser and Lucas Rodés-Guirao, “Future Population Growth,” Our World in Data, Nov. 2019.
RAJAGOPALAN: India will not depopulate until 2065. India’s population, which is right now 1.4 billion, will continue to grow and then start to go down only in 2065 when it peaks. Over the next 40 years, China will lose a quarter of a billion people and India will gain a quarter of a billion people. That’s like the size of Brazil and three-quarters the size of the United States, so that’s big numbers. What this means is India is very young; it’s only going to get younger as the world gets older.
RAJAGOPALAN: One in five young people in the world actually live in India, and half the Indian population is below 25. Even for very self-serving reasons, if people have nothing to do with India, the global talent pool, the workforce is going to come from India. And as India starts peaking, then it’s going to come from Africa. That’s where we need to pay more attention. The world just doesn’t pay enough attention to India or Africa, so that’s the big picture.
The other part of it is, India is also a subcontinent. It’s 1.4 billion people. It’s stitched together as a collection of people with different—it’s actually, religiously, the most diverse place in the world. It’s linguistically the most diverse place in the world. There’s, of course, caste heterogeneity. For these reasons, it’s difficult to understand India. Thinking that India is your buddy from accounting or IT in your office, that’s like one type of India and one type of Indian that you may meet in your social circle or in the neighborhood or in the office place.
India is actually very diverse and requires a lot of context to actually understand. If the future is India, and you’re going to have more people coming to universities, and there’s a good chance that some of the older listeners in this episode, their children end up marrying an Indian they met in college.
RAJAGOPALAN: Even if the base reason is you don’t want to make a cultural boo-boo in front of your future in-laws, you’ve got to know some cultural context. You’ve got to know a little bit more about India. I think, for various reasons, of course, if you’re a university or if you’re hiring, if you work in the AI or tech space, all the talent there is coming from India. So for different groups, India might be more or less relevant. If you work in the climate space, you should really focus on India. It’s going to be one of the largest-growing spaces, which means we need to worry about technology and how to control carbon emissions. It’s different for different people, but I think everyone should pay more attention to India.
RAJAGOPALAN: More generally, the baseline has to increase. And then, depending on what you do, you may want to zero in on certain kinds of books and podcasts and experts. Most Indians now have access to electricity. About 800 million-plus Indians have access to a smartphone, so now they’re on the internet. We are slowly getting to a point where the internet will also get dominated by Indians. In terms of natural language processing, more people sound like me than sound like you, Dallas. More people will spell like me than spell like you and so on.
I think, with an overwhelming number of Indians on the internet, people will also see that landscape change faster than immigration or them visiting India. Their Netflix front page will change quite dramatically and so on.
The Job Market Series
FLOER: Yes, that’s interesting. And I think that’s a good transition to talk about the job market series that we do here on “Ideas of India.” For the past couple of years, we’ve done a job market series on the podcast, where you ask Ph.D. students to submit their dissertations or other academic works to you. Then you give them the opportunity to come on the show and discuss all of it. More importantly, you give them a platform to use in order to, hopefully, get a job in academia, which is great. I think more and more people should do this across professions and disciplines.
Ideas of India in particular has a listenership that is comprised of former political leaders and academics of all kinds. Getting a job market candidate’s work and research to them in a digestible format, like a podcast, is really important to their journey in getting that job. What was your job market journey like when you were going through that process?
RAJAGOPALAN: Ah, oh boy, it was bad. We started this so early, if you remember, that I didn’t even know our numbers then. I remember the first six, seven months, you and Jeff were like, “Don’t worry about the numbers. Just do your thing, and after six, seven months we’ll evaluate.”
FLOER: We started in August, and we do this at the end of the year, every year. We didn’t have much time.
RAJAGOPALAN: We didn’t have much time. I honestly didn’t know the numbers at that point, I can say. My goal was not, “Oh we need to platform these people.” I didn’t even know how big our platform was. It started with, I read all this stuff anyway. And I routinely have job market candidates who reach out to me on Twitter or email and say, “Hey, will you take a look at my paper?” Or, “This is my paper. Can you share it with other people?” I find it quite interesting.
And my thought process was, “We are telling our listeners that we are going to bring them the frontier ideas on India, especially those that will bridge the academic world of ideas with everyday, real-life policy problems.” The people who are on their job market have just spent their dissertation doing this. They’ve studied a problem very deeply and keenly for a few years. They’re literally at the forefront of whatever that area is because they’re the youngest, coolest researchers, and so we should read them. So that’s how it started.
Now, I wanted to get these young people in, but calling it a job market series actually was very helpful because it helped us have a clean box on who’s getting included and who’s getting excluded. Second, it would also make listeners or readers think about them in a very particular way that, “Oh, these people are on the job market, and this work is amazing,” and not compare them to, say, someone like Ram Guha. There were multiple reasons for putting them in that bracket. It started and ended well. People could pay attention. It coincided with the season. That’s where I would leave that.
It has just so happened that it’s turned out to be a great platform for them. With that feedback, we’ve continued it each year. And I’m thrilled that it’s a platform in addition to the original goal of, we should bring the newest, best ideas by the youngest, coolest researchers onto the forefront.
Shruti’s Job Market Experience
RAJAGOPALAN: Coming to my experience on the job market, it was not good. I wrote my dissertation in the field of constitutional economics, which is very niche. I wrote it on the economic analysis of amendments to the Indian Constitution, which is even more niche. It was not a very empirical or mathematical dissertation. It was very history and qualitative heavy, very archive heavy.
Basically, I think the rule in economics is, you can either have a niche area/subfield of economics, or you can have a weird country, or you can have a weird method, but you can’t have all three. If you’re doing historical stuff, you should do it in monetary economics or labor, or something very macho. If you’re doing a weird country like India, you should do it in development.
But if you do constitutional economics, you should do it for the United States, because that’s the country which is the largest market. If you do all three, you’re basically putting yourself in a bizarre position where not many people are interested in that research. That’s the view.
George Mason’s this amazing place where they just let you write whatever you’re passionate about. My advisers and professors were like, “Hey, you want to do this, you go, girl. You do this.” They never imposed this pressure on me. The job market was very clear. I applied to more than 150 places and got no interviews.
FLOER: That’s surprising to me.
RAJAGOPALAN: It was shocking to all of us. Because normally the feeling is, if you’re a woman in economics, you actually get lots of interviews, but you don’t get too many callbacks. I was told all this meta information, but I honestly didn’t expect that. I had booked everything for the AEA meetings, which that year was in San Diego. I was like, “Do I go? Do I not go? This is crazy.”
Now, it just so happened that after the AEA meetings were over—this was 2012, so people were still reeling with the recession and budget cuts and stuff like that. There were some universities, especially state schools, which didn’t come to the AEA meetings because of budget cuts. I got one interview call in January, which turned into one fly-out, which turned into one job, which turned into tenure, and that was it.
I had a very strange experience, but my general feeling for all job market candidates is, it’s not personal. No one is attacking you or your work. It’s just a very bizarre matching exercise with thousands of people optimizing for thousands of things. Oftentimes in smaller departments, someone has to retire or die for a position to open up in a particular field.
If you’re doing very niche work and you’re very good at it, you may still not get great options because it’s such a small field. Just hang in there; it’ll work out. Do what you are passionate about and keep at it. That same paper, the job market paper, it took eight years to get published eventually in the Journal of Legal Studies. It was weird. Just hang in there, is my general advice to all job market candidates.
Learning from the Job Market Series
FLOER: Yes, I was going to say that’s good advice. What have you learned from these interviews now that you’re doing with the people on the job market, now that stage of your life is over?
RAJAGOPALAN: Oh, yes. First of all, that they are amazing and I was garbage when I was at the same stage. My job market paper was nowhere close to as well done or polished or good or thought through. Number one, I thank God I’m not on the other side, submitting to the job market.
FLOER: Been there, done that.
RAJAGOPALAN: These guys are just amazing. What I am super impressed by is the diversity. We’ve had students in economics. We’ve had students from anthropology, history, culture, political science, lots of political science people, sanitation, public health. One is not just the diversity of field but also within economics. The two economists we had on this year, the first one’s talking about a universal basic income safety net. The other one is talking about biodiversity and birds. It’s a really wide, very different topics and themes. My favorite thing about the job market series is, I get to read all this super fun stuff, and it’s hot off the press.
FLOER: You get the first look.
RAJAGOPALAN: I get the first look, and I get to know about how this research came about, which is also super nice. Because this stuff has been cooking for four, five years while these guys have been at it. That, I think, is my favorite thing. What I’ve learned the most is—I don’t know if this is learning as much as reinforcement. It’s more that I always knew that we don’t pay enough attention to young people and young scholars, and academia is very ageist. They want to wait for someone else to vet these people. Only after they get this publication and tenure at that place are we going to take someone seriously.
I’ve never held that view, but doing a job market series has further reinforced that for me, that they are not yet credentialed by the academy and vetted. They’re really just about finishing up their Ph.D. or fresh Ph.D.s. Many are yet to publish their first book or first major paper, but they are amazing, and there’s so much to learn from them and they’re very passionate about what they do.
The one thing I would tell everyone is, pay more attention to young scholars. Some of them might turn out to be terrible, which is fine. But a lot of them will turn out to be great, and you’re missing out by only listening to the seasoned, well-known voices because that’s a different kind of echo chamber.
FLOER: I would say that their excitement to talk to you about it is contagious, too, you can tell. Most of them are through Zoom, too, and you can tell just through the computer screen that they are just psyched to talk to you about their research.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. They’re psyched to talk to me. Actually, when I first started it, one of the things I was worried about is, “Am I going to get this job market spiel?” Because we’re all put through that: What’s your elevator pitch? What’s your seminar pitch? Actually, that’s not been the case at all. They’re just so thrilled to have a conversation with someone about something they really care about. You’re right. The passion is super infectious. They have been so generous, I’ve got to say.
We have to do it at a particular time in a particular window. We have to schedule it in a particular way. Sometimes it’s weird hours for these people who are on the West Coast or in India or somewhere else, so they’ve been very generous. They’re my favorite in the overall list of people, the job market candidates, I love. Good luck, guys.
The previous, no credit to me, they’ve done well because they’re amazing. It’s always thrilling. I love following their journey. They’ve all landed in amazing universities. They always send me a note saying, “Hey, I got a job,” which makes me feel super special. I had nothing to do with that, but it’s just always nice to know that good scholars have landed in good places. It’s a very nice, I dare say, now, elite club that is growing.
FLOER: I think it’s really great. What do you hope for next year? Because we will be doing it next year.
RAJAGOPALAN: Oh, yes. The same as every year. Just for those who are unfamiliar, I typically just put out a tweet early in the fall. It’s typically in August or end of the summer, something like that. I just invite applications, and people send them in. We have a limited number of spots, because there are only so many weeks in the fall when the job market season is on. They get filled up very quickly. Always my request is, amplify the tweet. Please don’t think, just send your stuff in, do it quickly.
The spots fill up quickly, and we try and genuinely accommodate as many people as possible. Every discipline is welcome, every kind of point of view is welcome, every ideological position is welcome, any weird topic, no matter how weird—the weirder, the better—is welcome. Send them in, and I look forward to reading the next set of scholars.
FLOER: Me too. I’m excited for next year, but we still have some things to talk about from this past year. We’re going to move on to a segment that I have titled “Who binge-watched what?”—trademark pending on that—where I’ll read off what guests from this past year have said they’ve been binge-watching over the pandemic, which, of course, you ask pretty much every guest on the show, and you’ll have to guess who it was.
RAJAGOPALAN: I’m hoping my memory on this is pretty good, because I might forget what their book said, but for useless details like who is binge-watching what, I usually have a good memory.
FLOER: You’re like, “I got it.”
RAJAGOPALAN: I’m hoping I do well at this, though fingers crossed. Let’s see.
FLOER: Before we start with that, one thing, Shruti, that you mentioned to me when we were planning for this episode was you wanted to get the entire team involved on this particular episode. What we’ll be doing is, basically we have clips from everyone who works on the team saying what they’ve been binge-watching.
FLOER: We’ll insert it into the edit so everyone who’s listening will hear it shortly.
RAJAGOPALAN: I can’t wait. To the listeners, the reason I was keen on this is, I don’t think everyone knows, but there is a large team that supports the Ideas of India podcast. It’s a fantastic team. You never hear from them, but they are the reason this has gone this long, this well, at this level of quality, whether it’s audio or content or editing or transcript. I’m very, very excited that the listeners will hear their voices for the first time, but also I want to know what they’re binge-watching because now my Christmas, New Year vacation slots will get filled with garbage things I can watch.
RAJAGOPALAN: Or fun things I can watch.
FLOER: Yes, and get to know us just a little bit better.
FLOER: I’ll start. I haven’t been binge-watching any shows lately, but my boyfriend and I have been making a running list of movies that we should watch, movies that are just critically acclaimed, super popular, like 10 out of 10, that have really impacted pop culture, et cetera. We’re chipping away at that. The last one that we watched was “Forrest Gump.” I had seen “Forrest Gump”—
FLOER: —quite a few times, but he had never seen it. So we watched that. And he watched it for the first time and really enjoyed it.
RAJAGOPALAN: I love it. I love this also because it tells the listeners so much about you, Dallas. There’s also the difference between me and Dallas.
RAJAGOPALAN: I like to waste my time mindlessly. And I’ll be like, “Oh, this thing sounds weird and interesting,” and I’ll watch it.
FLOER: Push play.
RAJAGOPALAN: Dallas is very organized, and Dallas has lists, and Dallas is the one who keeps us on the straight and narrow. This is also the difference between us. I’m all over the place, and I’m not at all surprised that you have a list of critically acclaimed films. On this, I will say, very recently there was an Indian adaptation which bought the rights of “Forrest Gump” and made an Indian version of “Forrest Gump.”
FLOER: Oh, I didn’t know that.
RAJAGOPALAN: The movie didn’t do well, but it’s on Netflix. It’s called “Laal Singh Chaddha.” They literally bought the screenplay, and it’s an Indianized version of that. I think you might enjoy that.
FLOER: Yes. It’s a good story.
RAJAGOPALAN: It is a good story.
FLOER: I’m sure it would translate well.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s just, it’s a 30-year-old screenplay, and it’s about the South in the United States, so the pace is slower than what the new generation is used to on Netflix. Like on Netflix nowadays, everything just goes fast. You might feel like this is, oh, my God, so slow. That’s what I felt when I was watching the movie, and I never felt that way when I first watched “Forrest Gump.” That was the big difference for me, but I’d love to know what you thought of it.
FLOER: Yes, I’ll have to check it out. I’ll add it to my list.
FLOER: My separate list.
RAJAGOPALAN: The separate list.
FLOER: Yes. Okay.
SHREYAS NARLA: I am Shreyas Narla. I work with Shruti as part of the Indian Political Economy Program. Besides The 1991 Project and other research initiatives, I also assist the Ideas of India podcast team with vetting and hyperlinking the transcript. We do this so that the students and other listeners can access the many books and papers that are mentioned in the episodes.
The last show that I binged was an Irish one called “Bad Sisters” on Apple TV. It’s a murder caper meets absurd comedy that is centered around the lives of five sisters who are dealing with the abusive husband of one of them. It was quite a joy to watch. I discovered “Abbott Elementary” quite late but have been following the new season since, and just finished watching season two of “The White Lotus.”
KINSHU DANG: Hi, this is Kinshu, and I handle outreach for the India program at Mercatus. I just finished binge-watching “The Bear,” a show about a Michelin-star chef who inherits his family’s sandwich shop. I loved it, and I recommend you check it out.
CAROLINE BAIR: I’m Caroline Bair. I worked on marketing for Ideas of India. I’ve since moved on, but the team wanted to include me, which was so thoughtful. Recently, I have been binge-watching the show “Sister, Sister” on Netflix. It’s a favorite from my childhood. It’s just short episodes with really comforting humor and engaging plot lines and absolutely zero stress, so it’s the perfect evening binge-watch.
SLOANE ARGYLE: My name is Sloane. I do social media marketing for Ideas of India, and I’ve done a lot of binge-watching this year. The best show that I watched was “The Sopranos.” I realize that I’m late to the party on that one, but it truly is excellent. Anyone who appreciates cinema should watch it at some point. My favorite new series is “The Bear” on Hulu, and again, great cinematography. Anyone who has ever worked in a restaurant or a kitchen should definitely check out that show, or even if you just have an appreciation for food, it’s very excellent. It reminds me a lot of the movie “Chef,” which I also highly recommend.
MORGAN HAMILTON: Hi, my name is Morgan Hamilton, and I’m the associate producer and editor for Ideas of India. I help edit the episodes as well as recording each episode with Shruti. Cartoons are my favorite thing to binge-watch and my go-to way of unwinding after the work day. My favorites are probably “Family Guy,” “Bob’s Burgers” and then “The Simpsons.”
CHRISTINA BEHE: Hi, I’m Christina Behe. I work on the transcripts for the Ideas of India podcast. I’ve been binge-watching a lot of things since the pandemic. The most recent thing is an NBC sitcom called “Great News.” It’s a really quick binge; it’s only like 25 episodes. It’s about a cable news show. It’s funny and weird, and I would recommend it.
MARY HORAN: I’m Mary Horan. I’m the copyeditor for the Ideas of India podcast transcripts. There are two categories of shows that I’ve been binge-watching: shows that I watch by myself and shows that I watch with my husband. The shows I’ve watched by myself recently include “Dream Home Makeover” with Syd and Shea McGee. It’s their show about interior design. Another show I’ve watched recently is “Buy My House,” which includes negotiations between real home buyers and real estate investors. The last one is “The Home Edit,” about organizing different areas of your home. Then the shows I watched with my husband include “The Crown,” “Shetland” and “Father Brown.”
JEFF HOLMES: My name is Jeff Holmes. I’m the executive producer of Ideas of India. Lately, I’ve been binge-watching “Andor.” I was a little late to the game, but Tony Gilroy, John le Carré meets “Star Wars.” It’s the best “Star Wars” story, I think, of the last 20 years. Check it out.
Who Binge-Watched What?
FLOER: Are you ready to start our segment?
FLOER: Great. All right. The first one I have: “In the last year, I rewatched the entire ‘Yes Minister’ series. I’ve rewatched ‘Big Bang Theory.’ I’ve rewatched ‘Modern Family.’ I’ve rewatched ‘Frasier.’ I love watching light stuff. I basically only watch comedies and the occasional mystery. I’m not one for really serious stuff. I don’t like science fiction. I can’t stand horror. If my best friends were to see a horror film, I wouldn’t go with them.”
RAJAGOPALAN: This is Naushad Forbes.
FLOER: Yes. Nailed it.
RAJAGOPALAN: I remember this because he loves “Yes Minister.” I love “Yes Minister.” He’s also a big fan of P.G. Wodehouse and that kind of humor, so I feel like we both enjoy a very similar British kind of humor. This is definitely Naushad Forbes. I don’t think anyone else said “Yes Minister.” Is that right?
FLOER: Yes, you got it right.
FLOER: I relate to him a little bit. I think Barkha Dutt also mentioned this too in her episode, but just during COVID, it was really hard to watch anything heavy. I definitely stayed away from—
RAJAGOPALAN: The serious stuff.
FLOER: —the heavy, serious stuff on Netflix and any other streaming platform. Yes, great job. We’ll move on. This one is: “I’m going to disappoint you and bore you by saying that the stuff I’ve been listening to are good and random podcasts.” This person has not been actually watching anything, but they have been listening to podcasts. “I’m geeking out on the—”
RAJAGOPALAN: Rajesh Veeraraghavan?
FLOER: He continues and says—
RAJAGOPALAN: He mentioned cricket clips and Vadivelu, the comedian, right? He watches Tamil comedy on YouTube.
FLOER: Maybe he did.
RAJAGOPALAN: He’s not binge-watching anything. That’s right.
FLOER: Exactly. Yes. He said that he’s “geeking out on the Western philosophical podcasts as well as the discourses on Gita and other Buddhist texts.”
FLOER: Yes, you nailed it. Two for two. All right, we have one more.
RAJAGOPALAN: This is the thing I’m good at. Not so much at economics.
FLOER: I don’t know about that. All right. Last one is, “I have grown obsessed with, strangely, ‘The Mindy Project,’ which is a really interesting choice, of all things. Then I decided, maybe because I was feeling like I needed to reconnect with my Bengali roots, I have been rewatching Satyajit Ray films.” I hope that I’m saying that right.
FLOER: Satyajit. “Rewatching them again and again, because I just love them. Now they’re on movies, so you can see them properly the way they’re supposed to be seen.” Who do you think that was?
RAJAGOPALAN: I’m now thinking about our Bengali guests who might like “The Mindy Project.” I think this is Shrayana. Is that right?
RAJAGOPALAN: Okay, good. The Bengali was the good giveaway. Otherwise, this would’ve been a tough one.
FLOER: Yes, I almost took that out, but I thought, yes, keep it in.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, that helped, because “The Mindy Project,” yes, I remember that.
FLOER: Yes. For a lot of her episode too she talked about her Bengali roots, so I thought, might as well keep it in there. That was all I had, so three for three.
RAJAGOPALAN: Awesome. Three for three. I’m excited.
FLOER: Yes. If we do this next year, we’ll get the trademark on the title for this segment. And yes, we’ll see if you can be perfect, keep a perfect record.
RAJAGOPALAN: Keep a perfect score. I got it. Yes, I’ll do that. I find it hard to go back and listen to my own voice on the episodes, so I have to think about the conversation. If it’s very specific, it would be tough. I don’t remember everything everyone said.
The Impact of Weather on Economic Growth
FLOER: Right. Of course, yes. Now, let’s move on to some listener questions. We asked all of you on Twitter and in our “Ideas of India” newsletter what you’d like to know about Shruti, us, the show or anything in general, and Shruti and I have chosen our favorites. The first one I have is—they gave their email, but I’ll assume that their name is Divraj. They want to know, how do you think extremely hot and humid weather is holding back growth in India?
RAJAGOPALAN: There’s an interesting literature and economics on this, more generally on the impact of weather in the economy. This comes from Montesquieu. There are people who are even older in the Middle East, Indian scholars who’ve talked about how the weather might hold people back.
I think in recent times, there was a nice paper by Ben Olken and his co-authors, and they were looking at measuring short-term temperature fluctuations. They were looking at, what does increase in one degree Celsius do in the short run, holding other things constant? What they found is actually, higher temperatures adversely impact economic growth, but only in poor countries. One degree increase in a rich, developed country does not have this impact on economic growth.
RAJAGOPALAN: It only has in poor countries. That’s interesting in itself. It doesn’t just impact the level of growth, also the growth rate, so this can have long-term effects. Even though it’s a short-run phenomenon, it may have long-term effects because of compounding.
I think the main channel through which it impacted economic growth in their paper was agricultural output and industrial output. And to some extent, I think they were talking about political instability and stuff like that, and in India, that’s the serious concern. A majority of the Indian population is still agrarian, and a one-degree increase severely impedes people’s ability to work outside in the heat. That’s one, in a country that’s already very hot.
The second is it also changes their access to water and irrigation and those sorts of things. Agricultural output in India is still very dependent on weather because India doesn’t have well-established and regulated irrigation systems or futures markets and things like that. This is still a major issue. If there is a way in which weather contributes to reducing economic growth, my assumption is that’s how it would do it, and that would be the channel, because of decreased agricultural output and industrial output.
Having said that, I want to just make it clear that India is not poor because of bad weather. It’s poor because of bad institutions and a long path-dependent history of low state capacity and socialism and colonialism and not embracing free trade until two or three decades ago. There are many reasons India is a poor country, and economic growth is largely determined by institutions that can foster greater access to trade and innovation. Temperatures can have an impact on that, but that’s not the reason that a country is rich or poor. I just want to make that clear, because there’s that whole idea too, which has been fairly well debunked now.
GDP and Environmental Destruction
FLOER: Yes. Next question. “I keep hearing arguments about the irrelevance of GDP and how it doesn’t account for environmental destruction. What are your views on this, and what do you think are the alternatives?” This is from Preeti.
RAJAGOPALAN: There’s this new kind of environmentalism that demonizes economic growth as the reason for the destruction of the environment. But the relationship is actually not that simple. It’s not that as economic growth goes up, destruction goes up, and as economic growth goes down, destruction goes down. Because if that were the case, then poor countries should be the best in terms of environmentalism and rich countries should be disasters, and oftentimes we find the opposite.
Many people are inferring this from the recent Chinese experience. China industrialized very, very quickly, and that meant lots of construction, lots of burning of coal and fossil fuel, lots of cutting of trees. I think it’s unfair to infer too much from the Chinese experience. Most of the time, actually, higher levels of economic growth and GDP help with environmentalism because there are more resources and greater state capacity to enforce the rules that have been put in place for a clean environment, better trees, and so on.
I wrote a Substack that released on December 12 exactly on this, and I have a chart up there, and we can link it in the transcript, which compares air pollution levels in London and Delhi. And 100 years ago, London was actually way more polluted than Delhi. I mean in terms of the ambient, particulate matter in air pollution index, London is like 500 or 600. And Delhi is below that even today, and Delhi is one of the most polluted places in the world.
Image Credit: Hannah Ritchie and Max Roser, “Air Pollution,” Our World in Data, Jan. 2021.
Now, in the last 100 years, it’s not that London stopped growing and therefore they got cleaner. Today, London on the same index is below 25 or something like that. It’s because London got richer, and as London got richer because of economic growth and innovation, you got better access to cleaner fuel, which means now people aren’t burning wood and coal inside the household. They’re actually burning gas.
Their electricity sources got cheaper. Their cars were held to a higher fuel standard. Once again, if we’re talking more broadly than air pollution, there was a commission in Victorian times that Prince Albert oversaw. The river Thames used to be a sewer, like they would literally dump sewage and waste in the river, and people were getting very sick. And it required a royal commission to bring the two houses of parliament together and actually build a sewage and waste disposal system in England.
That can’t be done if you’re not a rich economy. Same thing with the underground. The relationship is not that simple. I think there is a much stronger relationship between weak state capacity and environmental degradation. Oftentimes you can be a country which is on a strong development path and have weak state capacity, like India. And you can be a country which is poor and have weak state capacity. This is like many countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
A lot of times when countries like India and China are growing very quickly, people think it’s the economic growth that is making them environmental disasters. But it’s actually the fact that there is a lag in environmental regulation which is not being enforced in the same way, or state capacity is not able to maintain public sanitation levels of pollution, plant trees, maintain roads, reduce road dust, maintain water bodies in quite the same way. I think that’s exactly what’s happening in India, so I don’t think GDP is irrelevant at all. I think the higher the GDP, the better.
Misconceptions About India
FLOER: No, that makes sense. Next question: “What misconception about India is most prevalent among non-Indians?” This is from anonymous. Anonymous, if you’re out there, hello.
RAJAGOPALAN: Hi, anonymous. I think a couple. I’m guessing this is about non-Indians who haven’t traveled much to India; at least that’s how I interpreted the question. I actually have two answers for this. I think one is, a lot of people think that the caste system is a thing of the past in India. And I think the reason for that is that the Indian diaspora is of a particular level of education, and they often make up the other 1% in the United States, all very elite and educated. When you ask them does caste matter, they’re like, “Oh, it doesn’t matter,” but it just so happens that they all happen to be upper caste, very privileged, have access to multi generations in terms of education and so on.
Caste in India is still very much alive. It governs what people eat, where they live, who they marry, pretty much everything else, and Rukmini Shrinivasan’s book told us so much about that. A lot of the Indian caste conversation, even for people who’ve traveled to India, it’s not verbalized. It is so well known and is so implicit and so well known to everyone, it’s like an insider thing. So oftentimes to the outsider, the caste element may not even be apparent, even if they’re visiting these places and they’re watching how people interact. It may appear to be a class distinction, or an income distinction, or something else, or a regional distinction. I think the caste system is not a thing of the past. I think that’s one big misconception.
The other one I think is that I don’t know if people truly know the variety and diversity of Indian food, because the kind of Indian food we get outside of India is of a particular kind. It’s typically Mughlai food, which is not even all of North Indian food. It’s one particular kind of food in one particular part of North India, which has traveled very well to countries abroad. The whole curry and Balti cuisine, that is the cuisine we know best outside of India, and Indian cuisine is a lot more diverse.
For further information, ask Tyler Cowen. He knows, and he’s written about it and blogged about it, so he probably knows more about the diversity in Indian cuisine than me because I’m vegetarian. That’s the second thing I would say. These are, I think, the two misconceptions.
FLOER: I would say that I would want to try different Indian food than the typical here in the United States, especially.
RAJAGOPALAN: Done. First we got to get you home, but that’ll only be vegetarian, and then we got to get you to India. Hopefully IOI will travel to India, and who knows?
FLOER: Then I’ll have to.
Favorite Travel Destinations
FLOER: All right, last question. This is from Morgan, who’s our associate producer.
RAJAGOPALAN: She’s right here.
FLOER: Hello. She wants to know what your favorite place to travel is and why.
RAJAGOPALAN: I think about this two different ways. If you mean favorite by what am I most excited about, like the place I’m most excited about going to, it’s always the next place that I haven’t been to yet. The next visit is to Argentina, and that currently is my favorite place because I’m reading all about it, and it sounds so exciting and exotic and amazing. If by favorite place you mean the place I like to visit most often, it would be London.
New York, I consider home. Otherwise, it would be New York. India is again home. I’ve got to go there for work and family and all other things. The place I actually like visiting for no other reason than I like visiting the place is London. It’s got fantastic theater, the best museums; it’s just amazing. We have lots of friends there. My husband used to live there for a brief period. I spent a long summer there with him. This was a long time ago, but yes, it would be London.
FLOER: Morgan and I are actually going to London in February for Conversations with Tyler.
FLOER: With? Well . . .
RAJAGOPALAN: We can’t say.
FLOER: I think we can, but we’ll keep it a secret.
RAJAGOPALAN: We’ll keep it a secret so that people tune in.
RAJAGOPALAN: You can tell me after. Oh, that’s awesome. I’m excited. I’ll send you some recommendations.
FLOER: Yes. I agree too. I lived in New York for a short period of time, and I love visiting too.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. New York is the center of the world. I just don’t want to call it my favorite place to visit because that means that I have to admit that I have left and I’m no longer living in New York. And I still like to live somewhere in denial in my head that all moves away from New York are temporary, and I still actually really live there. I could live there any moment. Yes, but New York is—
FLOER: Still part of you.
RAJAGOPALAN: Oh, yes.
Shruti the Individual
FLOER: All right, Shruti, for our final segment, we already started talking about it, but I want to learn a little bit more about you the individual, not so much Shruti the economist. I think listeners—
RAJAGOPALAN: They’re not that different.
FLOER: Yes, fine line. I think our listeners know you as the economist pretty well, but I want them to learn a little bit more about you, what makes you you. First question I have is, what have you learned about yourself since doing the podcast?
RAJAGOPALAN: I have an awful voice. I cannot bear to listen to it. That’s the one thing I have learned.
FLOER: I think a lot of people feel the same way when they hear their voice.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s not fun. When I do the final checks and after you guys have done all the post-production and I listen to it, I always listen to it on very high speed, because then when I squeak, I feel it’s okay.
On a more serious note, I think I’ve learned to read better and read differently. A lot of the times as academics, we read very intensely for things that we’re working on and stuff that’s a direct input in our academic work, or whatever we’re writing at that moment. Everything else we put on the back burner, or we skim over it. We’re not really reading it carefully.
Now, of course, when one has to have a conversation with someone for a longish period of time and engage them and think about their work carefully and value their time, I have to read their work and also place their work in a larger context. What is the literature in which they belong? What are the themes that they’re addressing?
I think I’ve learned to read more broadly, and I’ve learned to read in a way that I can place whatever is being read in the larger context of things, both what I have read in the past and also of the literature that they’re working on. That has been the game changer for me in terms of personal growth, just learning how to read differently than we learn in school or learn in grad school or something like that.
FLOER: Right. That’s super valuable, too.
RAJAGOPALAN: It’s super valuable. It’s pure consumption at this point—
RAJAGOPALAN: —so it’s awesome.
Leaving a Tenured Position
FLOER: You left tenure at SUNY Purchase to do research and other work at Mercatus, where you currently are, obviously. I ask why just because getting tenure at an institution is a huge feat in someone’s career. What made you do that? What led to that decision?
RAJAGOPALAN: For the reasons that we were talking about earlier, about why India is important, Indian prosperity and Indian economic growth is actually very important for the rest of the world. If India doesn’t grow and India is poor and India is divided and has Hindu nationalism, and Hindus and Muslims don’t get along—by the way, we talk about Muslims as a minority in India, but they are 13%, 14% of the population. So we’re talking about close to 200 million Muslims. This is not a small number of people—
RAJAGOPALAN: —in India. All of these questions—if India is poor, if Indian youth can’t get jobs, this is a massive problem for the rest of the world, be it in terms of political unrest or be it in terms of terrible commentary on the internet or the spreading of bad ideas. Or if this group of young people can be productively channeled as part of the global economy, then you could unleash the greatest wave of innovation we’ve ever seen because it’s the largest number of young, smart, educated people and the human capital being plugged into an already very productive world.
That was the big thing at the back of my mind, that I don’t think I can work on a more important problem than how to make the Indian subcontinent richer, more prosperous, freer. That was the big-picture impetus. Academia has a very strict formula. You have to do research, and you have to publish in certain places. You have to teach, and you have to teach so many courses. You can get some course buyouts and things like that, but you can’t just stop teaching stuff that is not fun or not directly plugged in with your research and things like that.
I was at a state school, and this is taxpayer money, and students are working very hard, getting into debt to pay for my lessons, so I better do a good job. It’s a very narrow way of thinking and communication, and I didn’t think that a public university in the United States was best suited for the sorts of things and the conversations I wanted to have about India. Mercatus is awesome because it is so broad. You guys run a kickass podcast production.
We have multiple podcasts: ours, Conversations with Tyler. David Beckworth is fantastic with Macro Musings. There’s also the policy podcast. There’s the ASP, Mercatus Academic Student Program, and the Hayek Program and their podcast. There’s that kind of channel. Then there are policy papers. We all still do academic research, most of the senior research fellows. There are amazing M.A., Ph.D. students to work with. We can kick off programs like The 1991 Project, which is a new platform, or I can write on Substack.
These are just things that are not possible within traditional academia, either because they don’t have the infrastructure for it or the budgets for it, or it’s not considered a valuable line on the CV. I figured that those are the conversations in those places that I needed to have for India. That was the big impetus for moving. The goal, honestly, for me, was never to, “Oh, I’m going to get tenure, and that’s the end goal.” It was always to be productive and to be in the world of ideas.
Most of this work is still consumption good for me. I can’t believe I get paid for this. Even now sometimes I have that feeling that, oh, my God, this is so exciting. I get to learn this, I get to write this, I get to do this. Yes, so that was the reason. I miss the students at SUNY. SUNY was an amazing community. I miss New York City, but I don’t miss traditional academia at all. I’m still at a university, and I still had to do ASP seminars and all the lectures and all the good stuff. I feel like I have the best of every world.
FLOER: Yes. You wanted to do more.
RAJAGOPALAN: I wanted to do more. That’s the simple answer. Yes.
The 1991 Project and Emergent Ventures
FLOER: That’s awesome. Related to that, so other projects you have at Mercatus you’ve mentioned, you do The 1991 Project and also Emergent Ventures India. What are your goals for both of those programs moving forward, and do you see Ideas of India fitting into either of those in some fashion?
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. Just for those who don’t know about Emergent Ventures (EV), it is a grants and fellowship program that supports moonshot ideas that we started at the Mercatus Center. Tyler Cowen kicked this off, and we started getting amazing applications from India. He told me to look at the India set of applications, and now I direct the India grants. It’s big. I think it’s close to 100 grants just in India now, and it’s our largest pool globally, a single largest country pool globally.
For The 1991 Project, this is trying to understand the big bang reforms that happened in ’91 that fundamentally brought India out of socialism and to embrace markets and more free trade, and a set of micro- and macroeconomic reforms that continued after that. The goal of the project is, first of all, to understand what happened, and how can we keep that reform agenda going so that we can keep streamlining, deregulating, liberalizing other parts of the Indian economy and plugging them into the global economy so that India can prosper.
These are the two big projects. The similarity that I see between all three—Ideas of India, The ’91 Project and EV—is, to me, they’re all basically pipelines for excellent talent. IOI, we have amazing scholars, either from India or everywhere else in the world, writing about India and showing an enormous amount of nuance on what is a pretty complex topic in each of their cases.
EV India is one of the youngest, coolest group of entrepreneurs, doers—not just people who are academics, but also people who are working with data, people who are working in policy. Actually our biggest group is young startup founders who are working in ed tech or climate tech. That’s another talent pipeline. For 1991, again, the thing we realized was that the reforms were possible because there was a group of technocrats, politicians, bureaucrats in that point in time who all thought a particular way about the economy and a particular way about how India needs to embrace markets and needs to grow.
We haven’t been able to replicate that since then in quite the same magnitude. Once again, I think that is a pipeline and talent question when it comes to India’s technocracy and bureaucracy and political class and the policymaking world. I think of all three projects as an intellectual endeavor that cares about ideas, but that really thinks through the fact that ideas are incubated in individuals, and we need to make sure we empower these individuals. We platform them. Sometimes we have to give them money the way we do with EV. Sometimes it’s a platform like the job market candidates, and really try and figure out how we can build these pipelines and communities.
Shruti’s Mother’s Influence
FLOER: Your mom [Saraswati Rajagopalan] is a musician.
FLOER: Does anything from her career overlap with yours, and has anything that your mom has done with her career influenced the way that you have done your work?
RAJAGOPALAN: I also learned music from my mom pretty early on, and I played quite a bit. But in my family—all my mom’s friends were musicians and so on—the expectation was that, oh, you’ll do this professionally. Most of my nieces and nephews who learned the piano or the clarinet, the expectation is, oh, this is a nice extracurricular cool—
RAJAGOPALAN: —thing that you will do as a kid. That was not the expectation. And I knew very early on that I don’t have it in me to be a professional musician, though I love music and I did enjoy playing. Luckily I was blessed with a good ear, and I had no delusions about how I sounded versus how my mother or a professional sounded and how large that gap was.
The one thing I did learn, and it’s ingrained in me, is I saw the amount of effort it takes to be a professional musician, world-class musician in any field—or even an ordinary, not world-class, but just a regular professional musician and a music teacher or something like that. It’s an extraordinary amount of work and diligence. There is no shortcut to it. Even now, my mom was visiting me last month, and I asked her something the other day. I said, “Do you want to come with me while I walk the dog?” She said, “No. I haven’t done my scales today,” and then she went and she started doing that. Every day, even though she is—
FLOER: On vacation.
RAJAGOPALAN: —on vacation, and at this point in her career, every single day, she will do her scales. She will rehearse whatever she’s working on. I’m very much the same. It’s just a different field, but I’m very process-driven. What have you read today? What have you written today? Those are the questions that are appealing. I think the other thing I learned from her is, you have to really enjoy what you’re doing. We are privileged enough to have a job that you don’t have to earn to save your family or something like that.
I get to pick a job that I love, which is a privilege that is reserved for such a small fraction. Even among rich people in developed countries, there’s a tiny fraction of us who get that. I think you have to really enjoy what you do. Sometimes rehearsing is painful, literally, like your fingers hurt and your head hurts, but that’s what you do because you’re process-oriented. I think that’s probably the lesson from her.
FLOER: I do see both of those things in you.
RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you.
Being a Dog Mom
FLOER: Good job, mom. Speaking of moms, what’s your favorite part about being a dog mom?
RAJAGOPALAN: My favorite part? Just the dogs. This is weird: I haven’t met a dog that I haven’t instantly loved or who hasn’t instantly loved me, and I can’t say the same for humans. I feel like I just do better with dogs than with humans. They are my favorite people—
FLOER: That’s fair.
RAJAGOPALAN: —and things. The favorite part of being the dog mom is just I love my dogs to a point of irrational, crazy behavior. I love them. The thing I have learned through COVID with my dogs especially is just to be in the moment. They do that so well.
The other thing is, I think they keep you sane. You may have a great day and you write something and it goes viral, or you do a podcast and it goes amazingly well. Or you send a paper for submission and it comes back with the rejection and horrible reviews from the editor and the referees. They’re the same every day. They love you the same. They care about whether you threw a ball for them or you went for a walk with them. I feel like a lot of my level of detachment and my mental balance comes from the fact that I have dogs, and that’s what I’ve learned from my dogs. They’re the ones who keep me very even keeled.
FLOER: I think that was one of the first things that we bonded over when I first met you, was your dogs and your love for them and just my love for animals as well.
FLOER: I had a dog growing up with the same name as your first dog, Coal—
FLOER: —which I thought was so fun.
RAJAGOPALAN: An awesome coincidence.
FLOER: Yes, an awesome coincidence, because I had never run across someone with another dog with that name. That was cool.
RAJAGOPALAN: Coal and Trane are on Instagram, and Dallas follows them, and you should too.
RAJAGOPALAN: Everyone should follow them on Instagram.
What Has Shruti Been Binge-Watching?
FLOER: Shameless plug for the dogs. Before I ask the very last question, I did want to extend thanks to everyone who works on Ideas of India. There are a number of people who work on the show behind the scenes. Those people are Jeff Holmes, Morgan Hamilton, Sloane Argyle, Christina Behe, Mary Horan, Shreyas Narla, Kinshu Dang and Caroline Bair. Everyone I just listed has contributed a significant amount of time to the production of the show in the past year. So on behalf of Shruti and myself, I just wanted to thank everyone for all of your hard work.
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, and you’ve thanked everyone else, and I want to thank you. Dallas is a kickass producer. Thank you so much for keeping this going as long as it has because I didn’t think I had it in me. And without your organization and the entire team—and there’s such a big effort that goes whether it’s scheduling, the sound, the audio edit, the transcript and then the transcript edit—there’s such a big effort that goes in all of this that there is no way that I could have done this on my own. So thank you very much, Dallas. It’s a pleasure.
FLOER: You’re welcome. No, it’s a pleasure to do this with you. My very last question: What have you been binge-watching, Shruti?
RAJAGOPALAN: Ah, I have not been binge-watching anything. I will say, though, because it’s the end of the year and it’s just crazy right now, the three things I’m looking forward to binge-watching are “The Crown,” “Emily in Paris”—there’s a new season coming out of “Emily in Paris,” there’s a new season of “The Crown” that just released, and there’s a new season of “Jack Ryan” that’s coming out.
FLOER: Oh, yes.
RAJAGOPALAN: This is the noncritically acclaimed mindless crap that I like to watch during the holidays to unwind.
FLOER: I watch it too. We just made this list because we were like, “We got to do this before we run out of time.”
RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, that’s fun. And the last thing I binge-watched was “The Great British Bake Off.”
FLOER: “The Bake Off,” yes.
RAJAGOPALAN: I binge-watch each season. I go back and watch old seasons. I’m obsessed with that show.
FLOER: It’s a great show. It’s very wholesome.
RAJAGOPALAN: It is. I know.
FLOER: Who doesn’t love that? Thanks, Shruti, so much for letting me interview you today. If you’re a first-time listener and you’ve enjoyed this podcast, please subscribe. We would really love to have you here and stick around. You can also read a full transcript of each conversation at DiscourseMagazine.com. We release episodes every other Thursday.
We also have merch available. There’s an Ideas of India mug and a tote bag available for purchase on mercatusmerch.com, and all of the proceeds go towards the production of our podcasts here at Mercatus. So please consider buying some swag so we can keep doing more episodes. Thanks again, Shruti, and thanks for listening.
RAJAGOPALAN: Thanks, Dallas. And thanks to all the listeners. We love hearing from you, and we hope you keep listening.