2023 in Review

Producer Dallas Floer speaks with Shruti about the podcast, its underrated guests, how Shruti prepares for episodes, the wide-ranging topics covered over the past year, and much more.

SHRUTI RAJAGOPALAN: Welcome to Ideas of India where we examine academic ideas that can propel India forward. My name is Shruti Rajagopalan and I'm a Senior Research Fellow at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University, and today the roles are reversed. In the 2023 end of the year review episode, my amazing producer Dallas Floer asks me questions from our listeners about my ideas of India, how I prepare for the podcast, our various guests, and the most listened to and the most underrated episode picks of the year, and much more. 

For a full transcript of this conversation, including helpful links of all the references mentioned, click the link in the show notes or visit mercatus.org/podcasts

DALLAS FLOER: Hello, everyone. My name is Dallas Floer. I am one of the producers of Ideas of India. I am back and very happy to be hosting our special end-of-year retrospective episode where I interview Shruti. We’ll reflect on the episodes from the past year. We’ll chat about Shruti’s experience as a podcaster. Get Shruti’s underrated picks for the episodes that released this past year. Reflect on any new perspectives that Shruti has gained this year on India in particular, and of course, we will take your listener questions from those who submitted some, and finally, we’ll look a bit towards the future and what Shruti is looking forward to in 2024. Shruti, it’s good to see you.

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s great to see you, and Dallas, you are one of my very favorite people.

FLOER: Oh, thank you.

RAJAGOPALAN: Everything works on this podcast. There’s a whole team that supports us—

FLOER: Of course, yes.

RAJAGOPALAN: —but you are the single most organized human being I know.

FLOER: Thank you.

RAJAGOPALAN: You keep all the crazy that I bring to the table under control, and the reason we release every week on time and get this done is thanks to you and your team. Thank you for everything you’ve done this year, and it’s a pleasure to be here.

Answering Listener Questions

FLOER: Thank you. Yes, I’m feeling a little chaotic with the end of year right now, with holidays and just other stuff happening, so I appreciate that very much. [chuckles] Anyway, yes, so I figured this year we could start with listener questions that were submitted. We had quite a few. I’m going to start with a hard-hitting one. This one was submitted by Robert S on X. He wants to know, "Do you ever fear getting canceled?"

RAJAGOPALAN: Not really. There are two kinds of canceled. One is for people who did shady things, like because of conduct, the Harvey Weinstein kind of cancellation. I’m really not worried about that. I haven’t done any shady things, and the second kind is for speech, and there is above a 0% chance that one gets canceled for something one said, especially given that I’m not exactly mainstream, have very, very clear, strong views about certain things, markets, the role of government and so on.

It’s possible. I’ve had Twitter mobs come at me for columns I’ve written and so on, but I’m really not that worried. Plus, George Mason and Mercatus are very strong on free speech, so they’ve really got their priorities right. I’m not worried about any of that kind of pressure either. Can it happen? Sure. Do I fear it? Not exactly.

FLOER: Yes. I think it’s something that just in today’s world that everyone has in the back of their mind. Fear, I think, might be a strong word. Next one. This is from Pramod. He wants to know, "What will be the impact on government finances of the increased welfare measures being rolled out by many states in the recent past? Will it pay off in terms of better quality of life and higher tax collection over time?"

RAJAGOPALAN: This is a great question, Pramod. Welfare spending pays off in the long run as long as it’s done for the right things. The biggest is investing in human beings. Investment in healthcare and investment in education, basically building human capital that can strengthen and be portable over time. I think that kind of welfare expenditure pays for itself. Now, unfortunately, most of the state governments in India are not engaging in those kinds of welfare schemes. We’re talking about giving away subsidized housing or giving away subsidized, I don’t know, natural gas cylinders or toilets or something like that.

A lot of their subsidies are electricity, water targeted towards agriculture, like specific interest groups. I actually don’t think those are going to pay for themselves. They are going to jeopardize state government finances, and it is something we should worry about in India a lot more than we are worried about right now.

FLOER: This one, I have a little bit of an anecdote for it. The question is from Om on X. He wants to know, "Why does Keynes not get mentioned in popular economists?" Tyler Cowen just came out with a book, Econ GOAT, as you know.

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s an awesome book. I recommend everyone reads it and uses the chatbot to learn more. It’s actually a very fun website that one of our colleagues, Jeff Holmes, was instrumental in creating.

FLOER: Yes, that’s what I was going to go into. I put that question into the chatbot in Chat GPT-4 on the website, and it spit out a few answers to this question, but I’ll read one that it gave me. It says, "There is the issue with his theoretical contributions. While Keynes is a giant in macroeconomic thought, responsible for fundamentally changing our understanding of government’s role in the economy with his revolutionary ideas during the Great Depression, it’s mentioned that he was less invested in microeconomics. Tyler argues that Keynes’ distaste for the ‘patient routine work’ necessary for rigorous microeconomic analysis could be one reason why his stature might seemingly lower when it comes to popular discussions of economists.” With that in mind, what do you think?

RAJAGOPALAN: I think that’s one of the reasons. I’ll add a couple more. I think he just looms so large in macroeconomics that when that happens, no one needs to mention him. We don’t always mention Ricardo when we say comparative advantage, or we don’t always mention Adam Smith when we talk about division of labor. It’s just assumed that this is a long-established idea within economics, and you don’t need to add the prefix of Ricardo or Smith. I think a lot of Keynesian thought in popular economics doesn’t necessarily come attributed to him because most economists just assume.

The other reason, I think, is because no one reads anymore. People are reading papers mostly, and hardly anyone is reading the big books. Keynes wrote, he wrote a lot. He wrote well. I don’t think he got everything right, but a lot of it is worth reading, but no one really reads from what I understand. That might be the other reason.

FLOER: Tyler put him in his book. Would you agree with Tyler that he’s one of the GOATs?

RAJAGOPALAN: I agree with Tyler’s assessment that he should be on the shortlist, but he’s not the GOAT.

FLOER: Makes sense. All right, moving over to some questions that we got from our newsletter. This is from Parth. He wants to know, "Should a founder move out as recommended by venture capital, or should they stay in their local country keeping patriotism in mind?" 

RAJAGOPALAN: I think in this case it might be more specifically, a lot of the venture capital is in Silicon Valley and a lot of the startups are in India, and that might be the more direct, "Should we relocate to Silicon Valley and leave India?" I think that’s where this is coming from, if I’m not wrong. This is a great question, Parth, but I honestly think that for a startup founder, their allegiance should be to the business, which is to customers, investors, employees, and not to patriotism. At a more philosophical level, I don’t think a country "owns its people" or “owns its businesses.”

I think each person needs to do what is right for them. I obviously don’t think any individual or business should actively harm the safety and sovereignty of their country. There’s a low bar patriotism that they should definitely meet, but I think beyond that, they should just do what’s best for their business, and usually, to build a business, the most scarce and difficult things to put together are human capital and talent and financial capital. Wherever that combination works is where startup founders should go.

FLOER: Sure. Yes. This next question is similar. It’s related to people moving away from India if they so choose, but this is from Raghav. He wants to know, "We always hear about the talent drain happening where people are moving out of India. Can you discuss the reasons causing this and what can be done to prevent it?"

RAJAGOPALAN: I don’t agree with the premise of the question too much because it assumes that this is a bad thing and something has to be done to prevent it. The brain drain problem, I think this is over amplified. I've learned a lot from reading the work of one of our colleagues at George Mason, Michael Clemens, who's an economist at the econ department. There are a few reasons for this. First, it assumes that developing countries, especially India, possesses this finite stock of talent, which is not true, and if certain kinds of human capital building get very high returns, then we know that people rush towards that.

If engineers are going to be able to command a very high wage in the economy, or doctors are going to be able to do that, or they get amazing opportunities or sometimes status, we know people flock towards that. Even if a few engineers and a few doctors leave, it doesn’t mean we have five less engineers because five of them left. It could be that because of the pull effect it’s so exciting, the opportunities for them, that 5 people may have left, but another 500 people may have become engineers because the prize at the top is so great. It’s not clear to me that the reason that people are leaving, which is they have much better opportunities elsewhere, necessarily leaves India disadvantaged, and we should prevent it.

Now, to the first part of the question as to why this is happening, I think this might be just wage differential. I think that’s pretty obvious. I think also nowadays increasingly other factors like standard of living, they might move to places that have a better education system for their children, where there is lesser air pollution. For instance, I don’t visit New Delhi about six months of the year because the air is so bad; I can’t breathe. Some people leave because of political free speech issues and things like that. Another good model to think about it is just think about within India. India is this giant subcontinent. Each state is larger than most countries.

Kerala, which is a state in India, for instance, produces a lot of nurses. Now, a lot of those nurses leave, and they serve hospitals in other states in India. That doesn’t mean Kerala has no nurses left. Kerala actually has more nurses per capita than virtually any other state in India. What’s happening is Kerala is very good at producing nurses. Because Kerala nurses get such great opportunities outside, there are more nurses that are produced in Kerala. There’s actually some great work to show that this is what’s happening in Philippines, nurses in Philippines leaving and going to developed countries. This is what happens to doctors in Nigeria. This is what happens to engineers in India. I’m not worried about preventing it.

FLOER: You’re more focused on just the creation of these jobs, period.

RAJAGOPALAN: Absolutely. Also, just every country, I think people should have the freedom to move wherever they wish to move because the country you’re born in is just a complete birth accident. I don’t want any additional restrictions. Keeping people where they are mobility is one of those great human rights of the modern world. I don’t want to infringe on that.

FLOER: Sure. All right. We have a question from a previous guestThis is Pranay Kotasthane, he wants to know, "Are there any core ideas of Smith or Hayek that you disagree with?" Going back to economists.

RAJAGOPALAN: I love Pranay. He always asks great questions. He has a fantastic podcast in Hindi that I’ve been on a couple of times. He’s one of my favorite people and one of the favorite guests this year. Pranay, I think a core idea of Hayek that I have a problem with, I find the entire Constitution of Liberty book a little bit problematic. Hayek’s conception of rule of law is that laws need to be general, neutral, and equally applicable. That sounds reasonable, and it comes from this common law culture. I don’t think these three characteristics alone get you the rule of law and protect individual liberty.

If I were to give you an example, I was recently reading Gulliver’s Travels. Gulliver ends up in all these different places, and it tells you about what a different world it is relative to where he is. Of course, there’s a whole politics to it. Let’s say Gulliver ends up in Lilliput, and he decides to settle there. Then Gulliver, a few of his friends figure it out and they join him in Lilliput. Now, they’re the minority, and they’re huge, and Lilliputians are small. Now, let’s say Lilliputian government decides that it’s going to set up a rule that says no home can be higher than 2 feet tall. That’s a rule that is general, that is neutral, that is equally applicable to all, but it is going to disproportionately affect the minority.

Now, you can imagine rules like no one may eat or drink in public from sunup to sundown for 40 days a year. We know countries that have rules like this that are generally applicable to all, but a lot of people may just not either adhere to those values or those principles or have other reasons that they can’t follow them. It does infringe on liberties. I think that’s one core issue I don’t think Hayek quite gets rule of law. We need procedural constraints, we need some substantive rules, like a bill of rights, something else to actually protect individual liberty.

FLOER: All right, moving on, this is from David Beckworth. He is a Mercatus senior research fellow, and he also hosts another podcast that we have here at Mercatus, Macro Musings. He wants to know, "Do you foresee the India Rupee becoming a more important global currency, maybe even a reserve currency, as the Indian economy continues to grow? What steps are needed to hasten the rupee’s journey to becoming a more important global currency?"

RAJAGOPALAN: This is great. I love David. David asks the best questions—

FLOER: Yes, David’s wonderful.

RAJAGOPALAN: —on and off his podcast. I do see the rupee becoming more important as a global currency, but I absolutely do not see it becoming a reserve currency. The idea of a reserve currency is that other central banks and financial institutions actually hold your currency. Usually, the reasons to do that is that it reduces their transaction cost for paying for goods and services for various things. Most transactions across the world happen in one or two particular currencies, and therefore, it’s valuable to hold on to them.

If we go one step deeper, what it takes to become that kind of currency, the kind of currency that reduces transactions cost for everybody, is you need a currency that’s very stable, that has very low and predictable level of inflation, where the central bank that’s actually regulating or monitoring that currency is not doing nutty things. Very little regime uncertainty, basically. India does stuff like demonetization. We just do some really nutty things. A country or a currency that has gone through demonetization of 86% of its notes, you can’t be a global currency.

Nepal, which is a neighbor to India and India is a very big trading partner to Nepal. A lot of the Indian rupee is actually accepted as currency in Nepal, or at least, used to be. They went nuts when India demonetized because so many of the Nepalis were affected. You can’t have a country doing ridiculous stuff like that and then expect their currency to become a global currency. Now, will the Indian rupee become more important globally? Yes, as long as we are becoming stronger trading partners. Only countries that have strong trading relationships with most other countries in the world end up having a currency that’s of high value.

The last part is what are the steps needed to hasten? I think just having very, very little uncertainty on monetary questions, keeping tight deficits, the inflation targeting regime actually following in. The big hurdle is capital controls. India still imposes a lot of capital controls. The second big hurdle is the Reserve Bank of India, which is the equivalent of the Fed in the United States. It literally governs things by circular. They just issue executive notification after executive notification. That does not make for a central bank whose currency can be a world currency or a reserve currency. Those are the reasons that make me pessimistic. If we can fix all of that, that would answer David’s question.

FLOER: Follow up to that. You were in Argentina recently.


FLOER: You want to talk about Argentina’s currency?

RAJAGOPALAN: Oh my God. I thought India is cuckoo. No. Argentina is cuckoo.

FLOER: Met its match.

RAJAGOPALAN: No, no, no. Argentina is just way worse.

FLOER: Oh, yes. Okay.

RAJAGOPALAN: India’s never had these kinds of deficits and inflation. To give you some context, I was in Argentina about a couple of weeks ago, and even during the preparation for the trip, when we were booking hotels and things like that, the monthly inflation rate was about 12% to 13%, w. Which was insane. The annual inflation rate for the last year has been 143%. These are obviously approximations. We really don’t know what’s happening. The whole thing is bananas. Now, to add to this, it’s a preposterous official exchange rate. I’ll tell you my favorite exchange. The official exchange rate when we went, and by the way, all these numbers are going to be outdated by the time we air because literally this is changing day on day.

When I landed in Buenos Aires, the official exchange rate was Arg$355 to a dollar. The unofficial illegal market exchange rate was Arg$930. In addition to that, now people obviously lose it, special interest groups, and they say, "Oh, this is going to impact tourism." Now, to make sure tourism stays alive, they have something that is called the card rate. If you with a visa, you get a rate, which is not as close to the illegal rate because those markets adjust much more quickly, but it's Arg$870, I think, is what we got as the card rate.

From three different sources, I have three different exchange rate numbers. Someone told me there are only seven exchange rates. I know that'‘s wrong because I've counted more than seven. One of the locals told me there are 19 different exchange rates, and one businessman told me there are 30 exchange rates. The conclusion I've come to is no one knows.

FLOER: Yes. Which is it? [chuckles]

RAJAGOPALAN: The thing is, I think all of those numbers might be correct depending on when they were talking about because they just keep introducing weird stuff by exception. I'll tell you my very favorite Argentinian exchange rate.

FLOER: Please do.

RAJAGOPALAN: It is the Qatar World Cup exchange rate. Argentina made it to the finals, and Argentinian fans would have been really mad if they couldn't go to Qatar to actually see the finals, for which they need foreign exchange. Now, they have restrictions on how much foreign exchange each person can hold, and at the official rate, which is so preposterous and unrealistic, people are basically losing money. They created a special rate, an exchange rate, which is much closer to the illegal market rate than it is to whatever the central bank is saying just for people to travel to Qatar for the World Cup.

It’s monetary policy by exception, the whole thing is bananas. It’s highly dollarized already in a sense that I understand why suddenly this question has picked up so much because with 147% inflation, their poverty rate right now is 40%, and this is an incredible country. It'’s resource rich. It's got fantastic human capital. The people are amazing.

It’s got really every skill that is required to be a superpower in that region, and they have just destroyed it because they can't get their spending under control, and they literally just keep printing money. The whole thing is crazy.

Dollarization will be hard. We know some people who've written about this. Tyler's written about this. John Cochrane’s written about it, but the people have lost faith in that currency, and to me, that was astounding.

FLOER: I'’m interested to learn more about it.

RAJAGOPALAN: I have a Substack coming out on this, so I will send it to you. I have some really fun stories. The Substack is mostly about the cost of inflation, what happens when prices change daily, and some of my experiences, like how did I cope with this craziness? Everywhere that I saw, it was like living an economic textbook, honestly. It was so crazy. My husband thought I am nuts because he said, “Is this what it feels like to live with an economist 24/7 inside the classroom?” Because wherever I went, I was just checking prices and what's going on with the inflation.

FLOER: That's fun, yes. Very last question, last but not least certainly, is from Ashley Schiller. She works on our development team here at Mercatus. She wants to know what are the major challenges to developing and supporting talent in India.

RAJAGOPALAN: Ashley is another one of my very favorite people at Mercatus and in the world. Tyler and I work on Emergent Ventures. I run the India part of the Emergent Ventures Program, and Ashley is just probably one of the biggest supporters for us in terms of helping us raise money, helping us raise awareness amongst donors that this program is very important and how do we support our EV winners better. Ashley is very much part of my efforts towards supporting talent in India and supporting talent in India. 

I think, actually, the biggest issue is in a sense lack of imagination; our idea of what is talent is very limited. People think talented people have already been found. It works both ways. One is if someone is talented, they must look a particular way. They must come from elite schools. They must have gone to elite colleges, they must be highly credentialed and so on. The corollary to that is anyone who doesn't fit that description is probably not talented, and that creates a massive opportunity for us. I think step one is just people's imagination of who's a talented person is very limited and very elite, and snobbish, frankly, and that needs to adapt. I think the second is India is still relatively a very poor country, and most philanthropists are still focused on reducing pain and suffering.

This is making sure people get free meals, people get free healthcare. There are these massive drives, for instance, cataract operations. This is a relatively low-cost thing, which can dramatically change the life of a person and make them productive for another 15, 20 years if it's done on time. Those things get prioritized above talent identification. I think that's the second constraint.

I think the third is capital controls. Oh my God, it is so hard to send money to India. They have all these crazy rules on transacting with individuals. 

There are so many more rules for transacting with think tanks and supporting think tanks efforts or non-profits. It'’s just really hard. I think the FCRA requirement, which is the Foreign Contribution Regulation Statute requirement, I think that's just one of the stupid—It's just unnecessary. We're just creating problems in India that don'’t need to exist.

FLOER: I hear about some of that just being in the office and working with Ashley myself.

RAJAGOPALAN: The finance team, oh my God. Keelan and the finance team deserve a prize for dealing with the crazy of sending money to individuals, businesses. We don'’t even actually send money to too many nonprofits. It's usually startups in individuals who have not yet incorporated, and it's just such a pain.

Shruti’s Experience as a Podcast Host

FLOER: Yes. On that note, thanks everyone who submitted questions. We really appreciate it, and we hope that you got some insight out of it. Moving on. Shruti, I want to talk about your journey as a podcaster. Essentially just talking about the medium overall, the podcasting space, how it’s evolved. We’ve been doing this podcast for over three years now. This episode will be 96, actually. Just through all of that experience, what has your experience been like podcasting, especially as an academic who uses this popular medium for platforming and disseminating ideas?

RAJAGOPALAN: I think it has changed the way I read. At different points in my life, I’ve read differently. When I read as a student, I would have all these different color markers and highlighters and a ruler. I would highlight and mark everything really straight and stuff like that. Very much think of it as, “Oh, I need this to answer some other question that I may be asked in an exam or that I may have myself.” Then I started reading as someone who produces papers and ideas and books. At that point, it becomes very specific. I’m reading a mountain of literature on a very specific question, and I'’m literally picking from each paper exactly what I need.

It’s sort of an extraction exercise. Now, in this role at Mercatus and with the podcast, I feel my big difference in the reading habit is I still read broad literatures, but now I try to connect the dots across disciplines. For a particular question, I will not just look at the political economy literature because I’m going to publish this in a political economy journal. I’ll just look at everything. I look at history. I look at fiction. I look at film. I just connect the dots across a much broader frame, and that has been a big difference. The other nice thing is I get to read a lot more and call it work, and I get to watch a lot of videos and call it work. 

For Aditi Mittal, there was no book there was just her stand-up material, stuff like that. I get to do a lot of research, which ends up being consumption for me, so that’s awesome. I get a lot of books to review, potentially for the podcast and otherwise, which is very nice. It’s always so awesome to receive books in the mail. I still have a little happy flutter when I see a stack of books come in. I think that’s the most obvious way in which it’s changed my life.

FLOER: Sure. Yes. With that in mind, how do you think about picking the guests that you want to appear on the show? I know that sometimes we get requests that come in or myself or another producer will suggest someone or someone else on the team will, but mainly it’s you thinking about them, so what’s your process like?

RAJAGOPALAN: Usually, just what I’m reading at that time, and what I’m reading depends on a few things. It’s governed by new books that are getting released, and like I said, publishers will send me the book. A lot of my friends and acquaintances are themselves scholars and writers. A lot of the times, I get to read the book in manuscript stage, or I get to read it at the dissertation stage, and then it turns into the book of a young scholar and stuff like that. It’s governed by a lot of the reading that I do. It’s governed a little bit by what’s going on in the world. If there’s a major policy change or something that’s happening, then I might be reading a little bit more about it, which leads me to a person or a book that then I want to talk about.

The third is what I’m working on. Whatever I’m writing, like right now, this year, for instance, we’ve had C. Rangarajan, we’ve had Montek Singh Ahluwalia. They were all very much part of the 1991 project. We recorded oral histories with them, so the podcast was a by-product of them being here and us having an opportunity to engage with them, and therefore, I read their books, and I got a chance to have the conversation. These are really the factors that determine what I’m reading, but what I’m reading almost always determines who shows up.

FLOER: How do you usually prepare for these episodes? Generally, or very specifically?

RAJAGOPALAN: At a very low level, I’m always preparing for these episodes because I’m always reading something, making notes on the margin, that kind of a thing. The more episodes I do and the more papers I write or columns I write, or Substacks I write, the more, in some sense, I’m prepped for the next podcast. There’s an accumulation effect that happens. Very specifically, I’ll first read stuff and mark on the margins, and then I’ll try and convert them into a Word document full of bullet points. For a typical podcast, I would have maybe 20 pages of notes like that. No one can make sense of it other than me. These are random thoughts I’m having.

Sometimes I’ll have them while walking the dog. I’ll just quickly put that in the dump file or the notes file. After I do that, I gather it together and maybe a few days before we’re recording, I’ll just look at all 25 pages, and things will start jumping out. What I mean by stuff starts jumping out is you had a big picture idea of what the entire book was about, all the thoughts that came to me when I was reading that material, when I was reading that stack of papers, and then I try and make a list of broad themes that I want to discuss. I never really put down questions. Maybe a few hours before the podcast or a couple of hours before the podcast, I’ll put down the first question.

I like to have my starting ready because otherwise I fumble and flounder and things like that. After, I leave it open, and they’re just like, "I want to get to this theme and that theme." Earlier I used to actually write down whole questions, but I was so distracted by the whole writing down the entire question that I said, "I probably should know that." That’s what the prep looks like, there’s also a lot of fun prep. For instance, for Aditi Mittal, I was just watching stand-up videos again and again, and I was just laughing the whole time. I wear headphones. My husband just randomly look at me, and I’d just be laughing. He said, "What are you doing?" Then I get to say, "Research."

FLOER: You’re working.

RAJAGOPALAN: "I’m working. This is research," and he just rolls his eyes at me and be like, "Yes, right." It happened for Uday Bhatia’s podcast because that was about film and actually watched the movie that his book was about and a couple of other movies for that. Recently I recorded with Nasreen Munni Kabir, and I got to see some of her documentaries. I do a lot of that, that’s usually what the prep looks like.

FLOER: What direction has Ideas of India taken for you? Just thinking about how the podcast has evolved since we started and what this podcast has allowed you to do that maybe you didn’t think that you would be able to do before we started doing this podcast.

RAJAGOPALAN: This is going to sound a little bit naive and silly, but I honestly didn’t think that it would help me reach so many strangers. That’s because when we are actually working on the podcast, you know what it’s like we’re just in a room or in my office or in the studio, and it’s a pretty solitary affair. I know there are listeners at the end of it. I know you guys keep—

FLOER: You see the numbers.

RAJAGOPALAN: You see the numbers. You have notes on who’s listening, where they are, but I’m not actively thinking about them. It’s only people who write to me that I’m like, "Oh, these people actually listen to the podcast," because they’ve written to me a direct question or on Twitter. I didn’t realize how intimate it is to have someone talking in your ear, and a reflection of that is when I meet people, they often tell me, "Oh, you sound exactly like you do on your podcast," and it’s so jarring. My favorite, and this has happened now dozens of times, like, "You sound so different at normal speed. I normally listen to you at like 1.5 or 1.75," that happens all the time.

There are so many people out there, and I’m so grateful to our listeners who listen to me, and there is an intimate relationship that I never thought about while doing any of this. I’m very grateful for it because they actually give back, they send recommendations, they ask questions, they’re fantastic, they suggest guests. It’s honestly a great group of students. That I think is amazing. Another direction that it’s gone that I didn’t expect is how many journalists and editors in India actually listen to the podcast. Again, I didn’t have a particular group of people in mind, but the podcast gets listed in these newsletters for the various big newspapers.

I think Shreyas and Kadambari’s episode actually, the blurb was just quoted in Times of India, which is the biggest English daily—we didn’t send anything. I never send any of this stuff to any particular news, to anyone, actually. That stuff has truly surprised me, just how many people who are working on contemporary stuff find this deeper level discourse so useful to them. That has also been wonderful. What else did I think would not be possible? I didn’t think I would read across so many topics because I was pretty nerdy economics professor person. That has been fun.

My earlier guests told me that, "Oh, listening to you do this, you show up in your favorite professor’s office hours and ask a list of questions." Because they were all economics professors initially. Then that changed. I think that has also changed me that I actually am able to have a conversation with all these people who do all these different things. It’s fun. I think I hopefully will only get broader, that personal limitation I probably just imposed on myself for no reason, I think that’s slowly lifting.

FLOER: That’s one thing that I’ll mention later in the conversation, just the diversity of topics that we talked about this year. I thought was way more than we’ve done previously, just like you said.

RAJAGOPALAN: It wasn’t planned. It happened because the podcast is changing me as I work on it.

FLOER: Which is good.

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s awesome.

FLOER: I was just going to say, too, yes, anyone that has suggested a guest or has given us feedback or just said, "Love the podcast." Any note that you give us is very much appreciated, so please, don’t be shy and don’t stop those. Those are very nice.

RAJAGOPALAN: I get the maximum number of compliments for the production quality and the transcript. I never get compliments like, "Oh, Shruti, you are amazing on your podcast." I don’t think that’s ever happened. It’s usually the guest is amazing, which is as it should be. The questions to me are usually, "Hey, why didn’t you do this? Why didn’t you ask that? What do you think about this?" They’re never compliments, but they’re deep engagement. Again, I’m deeply appreciative. The compliments are always, "My God, the sound quality is so much better on your podcast than anything else we’ve heard," or, "The transcript is so fantastic." There’s a big team of people who work on these things, cleaning it up, editing it, you guys are amazing.

FLOER: We definitely do our best.

RAJAGOPALAN: Those compliments I appreciate a lot, and I always forward them, so please do keep them coming.

Most Popular and Underrated Episode Picks of 2023

FLOER: Moving on, just looking at the episodes from this past year, I wanted to get your thoughts on your underrated picks, but I wanted to ask you first what you think the most listened to episodes were this year. I looked at the stats this morning, I did the top three, but I’m curious, you have not looked at these.


FLOER: I’m curious who you think the top three are.

RAJAGOPALAN: That’s really hard. If I just went by how many Twitter followers, these people have or something like that. I would have to say like the big names and the big Twitter following, Amit Varma for instance. Aditi Mittal, she’s really big. Montek Singh Ahluwalia probably is [a] big name. Nirupama Menon Rao. These are very big names. Those would be my obvious guesses because I’m not basing this on quality. I’m just basing it on some heuristic of who I think has a bigger reach on X or something like that.

FLOER: Then we can say that those were probably your underrated picks because almost all of them were not in the top three.

RAJAGOPALAN: Oh, they weren’t.

FLOER: You did mention Montek Singh, he was number three. Then number two was Nikhil Menon on planning democracy.


FLOER: Then number one was Alain Bertaud.

RAJAGOPALAN: I’m so happy to hear that because that was one of the highlights for me this year. He’s really the top listened episode?

FLOER: Yes. He was.

RAJAGOPALAN: Nothing thrills me more than that. The reason I say that is all my guests are fantastic, I love all of them, but I think Alain is just truly underrated and truly underrated in India. India is urbanizing in a way that his ideas are just—if we implemented even 5% of his ideas, it would make this enormous change to the lives of 1.4 billion people. I am so thrilled that that episode did so well. I’m going to tell him that. It was a highlight for me. We were sitting exactly at this table when we were recording. I had to pinch myself routinely. I have admired his work for so long. You’ve met him. He is just the kindest person.

FLOER: Absolutely.

RAJAGOPALAN: Just a genius. We’re so fortunate to have him as a colleague at Mercatus. I’ve known him since both of our New York days. It was a pinch-me moment. I’ve had many pinch-me moments this year, but Alain was my top pinch-me moment. I would’ve said that’s the most underrated, actually. Clearly not, everyone rated it well.

FLOER: I was going to say, too, it was interesting to hear from him, his perspective on India, because my first exposure to him was when we did—

RAJAGOPALAN: [crosstalk] CWT.

FLOER: Conversations with Tyler, and he mainly focused on New York City.

RAJAGOPALAN: That was one of my favorite. Do you remember that place?

FLOER: Oh, yes. Absolutely.

RAJAGOPALAN: For our listeners, this was pre-pandemic. It happened live, and it happened on the top—what do we call it? The viewing box.

FLOER: The One World Trade Center.

RAJAGOPALAN: Exactly. One World Trade Center. What is that? Is it like a viewing space or an event space right at the top?

FLOER: Yes. We can call it that.

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s got this panoramic view. I actually went back and heard the episode, even though I was present there live because I was so distracted by the views—

FLOER: I know.

RAJAGOPALAN: —that I thought, "Oh, I mustn’t have listened as well as I should have." That was a treat. Seeing him again here is a treat. I really miss his wife. I’m so thrilled about Alain.

Alain Bertaud on Conversations with Tyler


Alain Bertaud on Conversations with Tyler
Highlights from Episodes this Year

FLOER: Yes. I’ll have to share some pictures from that event, too, in the transcript, just so people can see the view that we got to see. With that in mind, too, what are some of the highlights for you this past year besides finding out that Alain was in the most listened to episode?

RAJAGOPALAN: That I’m truly surprised by. The other reason I’m surprised by that is I was told that people who have a very thick accent, and he’s French, and a French accent’s quite foreign to Indian audiences, I would’ve assumed that that automatically is a barrier. Again, I’m so thrilled that it is not. I’m very, very overjoyed. I had a few pinch-me moments. For instance, Alain was one of them. Montek Singh Ahluwalia is just an absolute giant. We don’t have to go into his resume of being finance secretary and all of those things, but also just one of the great economic minds we’ve had, and just truly one of the nicest people. He spent a week with us here at Mercatus.

FLOER: Yes, he did.

RAJAGOPALAN: Again, at this table we recorded—I was sitting where you were sitting. It was a pinch-me moment, C. Rangarajan. When you asked about India versus Argentina, that was the first question I asked him on the podcast that all these Latin American countries kept having these currency crises. To me, he’s the reason we never had one again because he was at that time, deputy governor of the RBI and then became governor and literally wrote the playbook on how to manage the currency and the external sector and balance of payments without descending into crisis. That was another pinch-me moment.

A nerve-wracking moment was a recording with Peter Boettke, which also happened in person. He was my dissertation advisor. For our listeners who are doing their PhD, the nervousness never goes away, guys. Just FYI. The dissertation chair always is going to keep you on your toes a bit. That was a joy because I got to read a lot of Pete’s work again, and a lot of Hayek again. It was like being back in his classroom, and I’ve taken so many seminars with him. That was a very pinch-me moment. Actually, the other one where I’m on the other side, not so much because I was a student of these, was Shreyas and Kadambari.

Again, this was in person in the studio. We’ve all been part of the [1991] project together. I’ve seen them do this research, but there was a moment when we were recording the podcast where I was just so proud of them because they didn’t let these questions go. They didn’t say, "Oh, there are no women in the system," and make an observation on it or say something cute on social media or something about how this is India misogynistic or something and just move on. They just didn’t let it go. They dug deep. Not only did they find the missing women to piece together the story, they also found institutional reasons why there aren’t as many women in the upper levels of economic policy in India.

When we were talking about it, there was this moment, it just hit me, I was just so proud of them as researchers for just being at it and to find the answer to a question that deeply troubles all of us. That was an awesome moment. I guess now, the pattern that’s emerging for me is the stuff I did in person clearly feels different. All the highlights I’ve named were the in-person recording. Maybe I need to think about the question more carefully. These were some.

FLOER: That was actually going to be one of my underrated picks was the one with Shreyas and Kadambari. Then another one for me was the one with Janhavi Nilekani.

RAJAGOPALAN: Janhavi. She was fantastic.

FLOER: She was our very first episode, I believe. I just really was struck by just the data that she was giving us with maternal healthcare and just her experience as well.

RAJAGOPALAN: She’s extraordinary as a person also. I’ve had the good fortune of knowing her for a few years. She got her PhD in development economics and development policy. She’s been on our side of things in the sense that looking at things like an economist, finding out hypotheses, running randomized control trials, but now she actually runs a hospital full time. Evidence-based research, like it’s not a punchline for her. It’s her entire life’s mission. Aastrika, which is both the foundation and the hospital that she runs is just doing extraordinary stuff when it comes to maternal care and also testing, training, having better evidence-based medicine for women who are pregnant, which is, anyway, such a complicated thing in India.

When I meet her in person, because we are also together at conferences and things like that, I’m always astounded because suddenly she’ll get a phone call, and it’s actually coming from her hospital. She is so busy running this full time and still has time for scholarship and to think about the bigger picture question and to test and to publish. 

I would say anyone who doesn’t know much about her should read up on her, should watch out for her. She’s going to be one of the truly spectacular people to emerge in that field in India. I’m very fortunate that I got a bird’s eye view into what she’s doing and then got to have an intimate conversation. She’s also part of the only mother-daughter duo we’ve ever had.

FLOER: Absolutely.

RAJAGOPALAN: Her mother, I don’t know if the listeners know this, is Rohini Nilekani was also on the show, which was joyous.

Big Themes from Episodes this Year

FLOER: We’re going to talk about her right now. Going into big themes from this past year, one that I took away from Rohini’s episode and then also Pranay Kotasthane and also Raghu S. Jaitley was that markets matter. We talk about this at Mercatus all the time. They talked a lot in their episodes about just their optimism for India, and particularly India’s infrastructure, their philanthropy, and also the Indian state itself. Do you share that optimism or are there aspects that you’re still maybe not sure about?

RAJAGOPALAN: I’m very optimistic on India. If I were to flip the question like Tyler would ask it, I’m not shorting India at all. I’m long India. I share their optimism on Indian talent. I share their optimism on how quickly Indian infrastructure is growing. I share their optimism on how much Indian philanthropy has come into its own. We were at an event in Bangalore recently, and I met five people, Indian homegrown entrepreneurs, first generation, who are all members of the Giving Pledge. This is not old money and businesses that have existed for hundreds of years. The youngest among them was, I think, 25 years old. It was extraordinary. I’m very optimistic about those things.

What I’m pessimistic about is both the institutional rules and structures that govern India, the scaffolding within which policy gets made, and a better understanding of that scaffolding and how to fix it. I just feel like we’re all a little bit asleep at the wheel. We should care more about the rules of the game. We should care more about how people get elected. We should care more about how Supreme Court justices actually come up with decisions. I know this is also a very George Mason thing. My personal training is in constitutional political economy, so those are the questions that naturally attract me, but that is an area that actually leaves me very pessimistic.

If you asked me this year, "What have you made of Supreme Court decisions?" I honestly don’t have a coherent answer because I have no clue what they’re doing. My only answer is I don’t think they have a clue what they’re doing. I think those sorts of things leave me pessimistic, the Indian elite, the absolute top, which is designing the rules of the game in some sense.

FLOER: Another theme that I picked up on was policy reform. We chatted last year in our review episode about India’s growing population and how that ties into markets and policy reform, which is something that Montek Singh Ahluwalia and Nitin Pai touched on in their conversations this year. Can policy reform keep up with the rapidly growing population in India?

RAJAGOPALAN: I hope so. One thing, and we can talk about it more in detail later, is the entire Indian regulatory system is against scaling in India. Part of this comes from the socialist structure. You don’t want big monopolies to exist because the monopolies will get all the rents in a closed economy and a system that relies on licenses and permits and so on. Because it’s anti-scale, one is we miss the Adam Smithian idea of gaining from the economies of scale. That’s one problem.

The second is the moment you have economies of scale; you can actually employ a lot more people. What we end up getting in India is all these little manufacturing units of between 1 and 10 employees. We don’t have large-scale manufacturing the way we see in China, the way we saw in Taiwan. Now Vietnam is the new entrant. Even Bangladesh has manufacturing units that have, I don’t know, thousands of employees.

We haven’t managed to do that yet in India. India needs to do that. It’s a very young population. These people need jobs. My big worry is labor law is part of it, but also how we think about buying and selling land, assembling other factors of production, capital mobility. Just permits, zoning, and permits on how we’re able to build. Now, we’re talking tens of thousands of bad regulation. That needs to go. I think Montek and Nitin, they’re absolutely on point, but that’s I think the bottleneck. I’m hoping that, next year is an election year, a new government will come in. I hope that the government’s agenda is to focus on this set of reforms on how you can get rid of that thicket of regulation that prevents small firms from scaling and larger firms from scaling more. I think that’s the big one.

2024 Elections and What to Expect

FLOER: That was going to be my next question. 2024 is the year of national elections in India. By spring, summer, the world’s largest democracy will head to the polls. What does a reform agenda look like for that?

RAJAGOPALAN: We don’t know yet, actually. It’s not clear. We don’t know who’s going to come back to power, though Prime Minister Modi is the most popular democratically elected leader in the world right now by his own people. All the pollsters are currently predicting that the Modi government will come back for a third term, but it’s a parliamentary democracy. It’s hard to say. A lot can change between now and April, May, next year. I don’t want to make predictions on who will form the government. Any government that comes in has to figure out some big-picture questions. One is fiscal federalism, how the union government and the state government actually share their finances. I think that’s a very big one. We started the conversation with that question, and I think that’s a big one that needs to get figured out.

The second is the regulatory framework that I was telling you, which is we need to actually not just streamline taxes, but we also need to streamline how we think about labor regulation, how we think about land use, which we have a big urbanity project here. The problems are identical in India. You would not be surprised. How we think of capital mobility. All that. I can tell you what should be on the agenda. Now, will it be on the agenda? I don’t know. We are trying to pull together some of these reforms and put them together as a list at Mercatus on The 1991 Project next year in the run-up to the election. Listeners, watch out for that. We are going to be add[ing] on the ‘91 project. Basically, we need growth fostering strengthening reforms. There’s just no question about that. Economic growth and job growth, that’s the big thing on the table.

FLOER: Going back to what we talked about earlier, where I mentioned that—we talked about a lot of different things this year. Just to name a few podcasting, comedy, urbanity, marriage equality, Austrian economics, maternal health care. That was more than a few. We run the gamut when it comes to different things to talk about. Did you prepare for these any differently? I know you said with Aditi Mittal, you watched a lot of her stuff because she does stand up and things like that. Maybe beyond that, was there anything that you did differently?

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. I think for the Saurabh Kirpal episode, which was on marriage equality, I read a lot more cases than just books and papers. I read his book. He has a wonderful, edited volume on it. Beyond that, I think there was a lot of case law that I had to go to and go back to. That was one major difference in prep. Actually, Amit’s episode was relatively easy. I have known Amit Varma for 20 years, maybe more, at this point. I’ve been one of the more frequent guests on his podcast. I like to call myself the Mike Munger to his Russ Roberts. I’ve been a frequent guest, and we’ve had conversations at this point for years on end now. We’ve been having the same conversation for a long time. I feel like that was the easiest one to prep for, in some sense.

Same with Aditi. I’ve been following her comedy for so long, so a lot of the stuff I’m saying, I’m actually rewatching it. Those are the ones where it was slightly different. Everyone else, I think, was about the same. Now, you would imagine that the Austrian economics one was the easiest to prepare for because I was trained in that, I took a field exam in that, but it was Pete and I was nervous like a student. I re-read a lot of that material. It took a bit of prep. What else? For me, the most surprising stuff came from Janhavi’s episode. I was just not familiar with those numbers. Every paper I read, every bit of work, column she’s written or interviews she’s on, whatever I was reading, I was just so struck by, "What are these crazy numbers?"

Sometimes that actually makes the prep easier. When you have things that genuinely surprise you, you’re like, "That can’t be right." Then you go down to Google rabbit hole, or Google Scholar rabbit hole, and you’re like, "Oh, this is so interesting." Then that’s how the podcast comes about. I think that was fun. The economists [are] the most predictable kind of prep. I’ve been reading some of their stuff for a long time and I know what I’m doing.

FLOER: Yes, that’s interesting. Do you think that we should engage with these topics differently to learn more about India, or do you think we should just engage with them, period?

RAJAGOPALAN: I don’t even know if people should engage with these topics. I think people should engage with whatever they find super interesting. At the same time, with one eye open in the world. You can’t bury yourself in the sand and not know that there’s a huge marriage equality constitution bench being heard at the supreme court. Even if someone’s not deeply interested in the question, I guess they should at least read the paper and be aware. I would say, engage in stuff that just interests you. The other thing I would say is I find, and this is true of a lot of the younger people I meet, they think watching YouTube videos is a waste of time, they think watching movies is a waste of time, or listening to music is a waste of time. I think wherever your mind is taking you, if you’re generally a curious person, none of it is a waste.

Last year, I wrote a Substack, and this was about wrong numbers and crossed connections in Indian movies over the years, and what that tells us about technology in India, telecom liberalization in India, and so on. My dad called me, and he said, "I’m so happy that watching all those useless comedies and slapstick comedies over the years over and over again has finally been put to good use by you." My parents used to think I’m [a] nutjob watching this crazy stuff. I have managed to reference, I don't know, Rock Hudson and Doris Day movies. I have managed to reference Mr. India. Indian pot boilers basically.

It’ll eventually fit somewhere in your mind on what you’re trying to achieve. That was part of The 1991 Project because it was talking about telecom liberalization but through cinema. I think people are too limited. They think only top five peer-reviewed journals are the good thing to read or only academic presses, books should be read, or only the top 10 bestseller in FT. I just say read everything. Go read weird blogs. I started reading MR when it was a weird blog on the internet that only libertarians were reading. That’s what I want to put out in the world. To all the young people listening, don’t be snobbish. Don’t doomscroll, but go where life takes you.

FLOER: I agree with you. I was going to say how boring would it be to just limit yourself to the top five of whatever.


The Job Market Series

FLOER: I agree. That brings us to job market series from this year.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, my favorite.

FLOER: Your favorite series. We talked about a lot of different topics on the job market this year, too. Anti-transgender discrimination, pessimistic beliefs, internet expansion, et cetera. Do you think this research is creating any lasting social change in India right now, or do you think there’s more work to be done before that starts happening?

RAJAGOPALAN: It’s hard to say. I think there’s a lot more work that needs to happen, and I honestly think these are the scholars who’ll do it. The idea of the job market series was our commitment to our listeners was that we will bring them really good ideas, the best of the research, and so on. The frontier is always young people working on ideas during their dissertation or young assistant professors, because they’ve literally spent the last six, seven years working on these topics. People don’t usually get them on podcasts because they are not a big name, they’re worried about will there be name recognition, will the listeners listen? I actually think these are the people working on the cutting-edge new ideas. I think it’s important we listen to them. 

But because they are so new in the space, it means it'’s going to take a few years before—one, they build up a big body of work, and two, they start influencing the rest of the literature and then eventually policy or culture or people. Only time will tell, but I do think all of them have the ingredients to eventually bring about the social change that we're talking about, or the change in the discourse, or to build that world of ideas that we care so much about. All of them.

FLOER: Flipping this on you a little bit. What are some challenges that you face as a scholar who focuses on India and the Indian economy, like these students in the job market, either when researching, writing, or talking about it? There are bottlenecks, as you mentioned, in the knowledge creation and the dissemination process when it comes to India. How do you navigate those challenges?

RAJAGOPALAN: The biggest problem probably, as an economist, is always data. Even something really simple as GDP per capita or year-on-year growth. We’ve managed to create problems in India. There’s a series that was growth up to a certain year. I think 2014, 2015 is one particular series, and then 2015 onwards, a different series. I was recently very struck. If you go to the Bank of England website, you can get an inflation adjuster to the early part of the 13th century. That’s incredible. You read an old historical document, or you read a Shakespeare play and someone says five shillings or something and you know exactly what it’s worth today.

It is so difficult to even just get a basic, simple inflation adjuster from something 100 years ago. That kind of data problem just always exists. Granular data problem. India hasn’t done the latest census. I know it’s come up in multiple podcast conversations, but it should have been done in 2021. There was a pandemic year. It’s still not out. That’s the basic level problem. The second is accessing Indian government websites. Even when the data exists, you can’t always get to it. We used to try and do this through VPN but now VPN has been banned in India. If you’re a foreign IP address, usually you can’t access a lot of these government websites even though the data are public, but they just don’t allow it. I’m not sure why. That’s usually the big constraint.

Sometimes and right now I’m working on a historical project. It’s language. Some of it is in old language. I’m actually looking at land title records and things like that, which are just in another language. Even the stuff in English, the handwriting is all handwritten. You have to take a scan of it, you have to clean it up. I have enormous admiration for the historians we’ve had on the show and the kind of work they do. Those are the typical problems. Dissemination, actually, I don’t see the problem. India has a pretty good level playing field when it comes to dissemination. The internet just changed everything.

In fact, I feel like dissemination might be even easier in India because the research we do, it’s such a small group of people who do that, that we don’t have to compete with too much other material. You have to compete with noise, which is your 24-hour news cycle or what’s happening on X or something like that, but it’s a pretty good space to be in as a researcher.

FLOER: We’ve had 33 total candidates since we’ve started this. I am just genuinely curious. Are there any success stories from the people we’ve had previously? I do see some walking around Mercatus sometimes [laughs] that you introduce me to, which is exciting. Anything that you want to share?

RAJAGOPALAN: Let me first define what I mean by success. This was an academic job market series. The idea was that these are people who either just about finishing their PhD or just finished and are looking for academic jobs. I will only talk about 25 because the current 8 we had this year, it’s too soon. They’re on the market now. Let’s see the last three years that we did it, right? The first three years. That’s about 25 people. I think pretty much everyone, maybe except a couple of people who chose not to be at universities, pretty much everyone ended up being at a university. Either this is as an assistant professor, or they got a postdoctoral fellowship.

In terms of they’re still in the business of producing academic ideas and working on that field, I think we picked a phenomenal group of people. Now, if you want to go by the other usual markers of success, we’ve had people on the podcast who are now assistant professors at like Duke, and Georgetown, and University of Texas, Washington University, Boston University. Internationally, we’ve had a couple of people who are now at the LSE, University of London, different colleges, Birmingham, Manchester. Within India, people at the IIT, which is the flagship engineering school in India, like the MIT equivalent, they say. The Jindal School, Krea, so old universities, new universities. The assistant professors are at these universities.

If we talk about postdocs, we have postdocs currently who are at Stanford, Oxford, Bocconi. They’re all in very good places. I think they’re all continuing doing great work. I wouldn’t take any credit for it. The credit I think I can take is our listeners are fantastic and high quality—

FLOER: And engaged.

RAJAGOPALAN: —and engaged and that’s why they come. They’re aware of the job market series, therefore they show up on it and hopefully, they get something out of it. Pretty much everyone that I’ve engaged with has been fantastic. I would call all of them success in that sense. On the other hand, it’s too soon to say for most of them. They’re all very early stage in their career. I’m sure they’ll do very well as we go forward. These are all talent one should look out for.

FLOER: No, I had no doubts that they would move on to do great things. Just curious if any of them—

RAJAGOPALAN: Are favorites? I follow the work of people whose work is a little bit more overlapping with mine. For instance, Vaidehi Tandel, she’s an urban economist. She’s co-authored with Alex Tabarrok. Working on areas on urbanization, litigation in India, law and economics, urban economics, political economy, questions I’m very interested in. I follow her work a little bit more closely. Another is Apurav Bhatiya. He’s working on elections, very public choice questions in India. Looking at whether we should have simultaneous elections or all of India should have election on the same day, things like that.

There are some people whose work I follow a little bit more closely, like Bhumi Purohit, we were looking at her work so keenly when we were working on women in The 1991 Project, or like Ashish Sedai, and his work on development. There’s just some people I end up reading more closely. Arkadev Ghosh, who’s looking at Hindus and Muslims in India and when putting them together in a non-segregated form can lead to better outcomes, greater productivity, greater work, and lower levels of discrimination and what are the situations where they may not happen. These are people whose research I’m just much more keenly interested in, which is not to say I think other people are doing badly. It’s just I’ve kept up more with the research of these guys than someone who’s doing financial economics or health economics, which is not an area I write about as much.

Why India?

FLOER: No, that makes sense. I wanted to move on to questions—you were talking about questions that you’re interested in and things that you’re constantly thinking about. Something that you covered a lot this past year was just why India, and you did that on many different platforms and outlets this year. What were some new perspectives or insights that you gained on India this year?

RAJAGOPALAN: A big one was just how little we know about the recent history of India. I don’t just mean we as like this vague collective, all of us. I mean scholars working on India, we know so little. Rahul Sagar, another fantastic episode that we had this year, I learned a lot of it from him and his work that our understanding of what happened in the 19th century is just missing. We know what happened with the Mughal Empire. We in fact have better understanding of some of the ancient Indian stuff like the Mauryans and so on. We don’t know what happened as recently as the 19th century. We especially don’t know much about what happened in the regional monarchy.

Even under colonialism, there was British India, and there were parts of India, which were under regional monarchs who all had arrangements and treaties with the colonial government. First of all, I didn’t know that was a big gap in my personal knowledge and more generally. I’ve been thinking a lot about that. How do we just get a better understanding, what archives we need to preserve? It’s helped me give better Emergent Ventures grants to preserve historical archives. It’s helped me have podcast guests. This year, if you look at the books I read this year, so many of them are about the history of that time period. I’ve been reading and catching up in one sense reading a lot of the historical material. I think that has been one big change, in my perspective.

FLOER: Looking towards the future with all of that in mind, what are your goals for the upcoming Ideas of India conferences?

RAJAGOPALAN: So what we do at conferences, we usually have a theme, and we try to bring together a pretty diverse group of people. These are people from government, from think tanks, from academia, public intellectuals, journalists, students. We try to bring them all in one place and not only brainstorm the topic but also foster deep connections, which will eventually lead to collaborations. I hope we get to do more of that. I hope we get to bring these people together. I hope we get to foster these networks and connections that will sustain over a long period of time.

We haven't yet chosen the theme for next year, but I very much want to focus on state-level policy in India and not just federal government-level policy. I think that’s an underrepresented area, both in policy discourse, in terms of focus. The largest state in India is about the size of Brazil, maybe larger. I may be getting the statistics slightly wrong, but I think the top 12 most populous states in India would be listed as countries in the top 50 countries. It’s a pretty sizable chunk that we’re talking about. At some point, we have to stop talking about national policy because there’s so much variation within India and start digging into individual states.

I’ve given Emergent Ventures grants to people who are focused on state-level policy, so that has opened up that channel but I’m really hoping we can we can do that better, we can do that more. I hope we think better about AI policy in India. I know it’s such a cool thing to get into AI policy and then everything is AI, and then everyone wants to regulate it, but I think we need to be really thoughtful about it. Those are the two big things that are brewing in my mind, but we don’t have a theme for next year yet. More of the same structurally, but a more diverse group of people and a theme that’s just on questions that affect a lot more lives in India.

FLOER: That’s good. What do you hope the podcast will bring in 2024? Do you think more people outside of our audience will be thinking and talking about India?

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes, definitely, because election. The election is this crazy thing. Indian elections don’t happen over one day. It’s just such a large country. I think we have, I don’t know, 900 million voters, maybe more than 900. We don’t have the latest census so I can’t say with confidence, but I think something like 900 million voters or more than that. What we end up doing in India is for the parliamentary elections at the national level, they divide the country into six or seven zones and the Election Commission of India literally moves from zone to zone with all of its equipment, the security, everything, and then that entire zone will have election that one day, and then it moves to the next place. This happens over seven or nine weeks.

The election cycle is so long in India. It feels endless but that also ends up bringing up a lot of the questions. It both brings India into the international discourse but there’s also a lot of policy discussion happening in India. I think, yes, absolutely. A lot more people will be talking about India. 

What do I hope the podcast will bring? More listeners. More diverse group of listeners, like people we don’t normally engage with through the usual Mercatus channels, but hope to reach more people. I was recently on Joe Walker’s podcast and his effort in the number of clips he puts out and how much he promotes his guests has shamed me. I feel like maybe I should do a better job of profiling our different guests and that kind of thing. Hopefully, platform our guests better, engage with more diverse listeners, engage with more diverse viewpoints.

FLOER: Maybe the election will bring all of that.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. That would be super fun.

FLOER: 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 have worked on the show behind the scenes this past year. Those people are Jeff Holmes, Sam Alburger, Morgan Hamilton, Jen Whisler, Christina Behe, Mary Horan, Shreyas Narla, Kadambari Shah, Kinshu Dang, Corrie Schwab, Beata Nas, Liliann Albelbaisi, Ben Brophy, Keelan O’Carroll, and Ankita Dinkar. Everyone I just listed has contributed a significant amount of time to the production of the show between recording, scheduling, editing, working on the transcript, marketing, and generally just always trying to make the podcast better. On behalf of Shruti and myself, I want to thank everyone for all of their hard work.

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. They are amazing. We’ve had some changes. The list is also long because some people have now moved on from Mercatus and new people have joined and so on, but even those who are not at Mercatus anymore, just a huge thanks, they’re wonderful. And all our colleagues at Mercatus, they’re just amazing how much effort goes into this, and my biggest thanks is to you, Dallas.

FLOER: Thank you, Shruti. Last question. We haven’t asked many guests what they’ve been binge-watching this year. I think we’ve maybe asked a few early on but what have you been watching this year, either TV or movies?

RAJAGOPALAN: I haven’t asked too many people that question because I haven’t been watching as much stuff.

FLOER: You’ve been reading [laughs].

RAJAGOPALAN: Yes. Well, I was reading before—I think the pandemic was just, it created circumstances where we didn’t go out too much and we got to watch a lot more television. I think now the world is up and about again. I actually do end up traveling more. All the usual things. What have I been watching? I recently caught up with the first half of The Crown, the latest season. That was interesting to me because now, again, I’m going to date myself, but I remember Lady Diana’s death very vividly. I was a teenager at that time. It was extensively covered in India, the funeral. I remember after she died, the next five or six issues of Time and Newsweek, she was literally the cover. It’s somehow very salient in my memory.

Watching something I have lived through on screen in that detail, she’s wearing the same outfit on the show as she did in real life. That was just a weird experience. That was nice. Earlier this year, I watched a show called The Diplomat. I think one of the writers was on the West Wing and things like that. It’s really a fun show. I found it very engaging. Very fun. I watched an Indian show called Guns & Gulaabs. This is by Raj and DK. Oh God, Dallas, this is such a pulpy show. It's about '90s gangsters and policemen and small-town India and they have all the '90s references. The '90s haircuts, cassettes, mixtapes, handwritten love letters with perfume sprayed on them. It’s just a very charming show. Quite violent but very fun. I enjoyed that. I continue my lifelong obsession with The Great British Bake Off

FLOER: It's a good obsession to have.

RAJAGOPALAN: —as one must. You might eat the spoils of that tomorrow at our Christmas gathering.

FLOER: [laughs] That's fine.

RAJAGOPALAN: Those are some of the things I've been watching. One of the big movie stars in India, Shah Rukh Khan, had a couple of movies this year. I got to actually go and watch them in the movie theater. He's been away for four or five years. The equivalent in the United States would be Tom Cruise or something. This mega movie star making these huge movies, large mounting action, thriller kind of things. I went and watched those. That was a lot of fun. Yes. That's what I've been up to.

FLOER: I was telling you before we started recording, my husband and I have been binging The Sopranos. I've seen The Sopranos in full before, but he has not. He's watching it for the first time. I am watching it as a rewatch. Sometimes, we'll watch a couple of episodes, and we have to take a week break or so because some of these themes are very intense and it's usually, my husband being like, "I don'’t know if I can watch another one. I need a little bit of time." That's been fun doing the rewatch. It's been years. I'm much older than I was when I first watched it. Having a new perspective and then also seeing him watch it for the first time has been fun.

RAJAGOPALAN: It's one of my all-time favorite shows. This is no surprise. I also lived in New York City like yourself for such a long time. That feels very familiar in some sense, and I love that stuff. I’m a sucker for these morally questionable protagonists.

FLOER: I agree.

RAJAGOPALAN: I love Mad Men and I love The Sopranos. I love this stuff. I must really question my own moral compass.

FLOER: I’m with you, though. I’m with you. Yes. A movie, it just came out, The Iron Claw, I’m looking forward to seeing that. I haven’t seen it yet.

RAJAGOPALAN: I haven’t seen it either.

FLOER: That’s one on my list that I am looking forward to.

RAJAGOPALAN: I’m looking forward to The Killer. It’s the latest David Fincher, which is I think out on Netflix, and I really want to watch that so that will be exciting.

FLOER: Yes. Thanks again, Shruti. I appreciate it. 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. Tell your friends and share the episodes with them. That's one of the simple ways that you can get more people thinking and talking about India and listening to the show. You can also read a full transcript of each conversation at mercatus.org/ideasofindia. 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 the podcasts that we produce here at the Mercatus Center. Please, consider buying some swag so we can keep doing more episodes. Thanks again, Shruti. Thanks for listening.

RAJAGOPALAN: Thank you, Dallas. This was such a pleasure.

About Ideas of India

Host Shruti Rajagopalan examines the academic ideas that can propel India forward. Subscribe in your favorite podcast app