Aggregating ideas destroys them

It has been a long time and perhaps I can talk about it now, with no one ascribing any ulterior motives. It was the early days of AAP, a few AAP well-wishers invited me to help them draft an economic policy document for the party. Having been involved with other political parties as well, I shared some learning’s with them. Simply, economic policy is an outcome of an internal vision and unless the scribe interacts with the key people he would not be able to do a decent job with any integrity. For, economic policy is not about right or wrong, I believe. Good economic policy is one that flows naturally from the political vision of the political leadership.

Having extracted promises of meeting with whatever constituted AAP leadership then, I did try to prepare for it, and looked deep into they were saying or writing. What I found was so clear, so in your face. While the lazy journalists and blind politicians were screaming away on AAPs ‘untenable’ promises, the bulk of AAP messaging to the masses was about one single idea – transparent processes. It was not lower prices of electricity gas or water. And even when talking about low prices, it tended to be couched in terms of transparency. (“eg. CAG Audit will lead to 50% reduction in electricity prices”)

This orientation of AAP was no doubt attractive for the purist in me. I do believe that doing things the right way should be the objective of Indian economic policy, not necessarily achieving high or inclusive growth (the latter two being byproducts and outcomes, but that’s another story I will go into in another posting). I googled and found a monograph by Arvind Kejriwal titled “Swaraj”. I found two versions, and it was so apparent, the more complete version had additional phrases, put in by someone else. I would not know who that was, but the mindset was different, this person who had added onto what was written before, was more inclined to a greater role of the bureaucracy (or government), whereas the original author had (in my view) a healthy cynicism about the role of the state.

I cannot confirm, but I suspect that the original manuscript was penned by Kejriwal, and someone else may have completed some unfinished parts. Or if Kejriwal himself completed it, he had changed over from a Gandhian to a Socialist within a few months. In the process Kejriwal’s Swaraj had become a dud. I did manage to extract some insights from what he was saying, and had known Yogendra’s Yadav’s views for long. No one else in AAP seemed to be saying anything else, apart from that most powerful of all – how the government had become completely dysfunctional, corrupt and slothful. No one would argue with that.

So after a short note based on certain key principles derived from a few public statements and Kejriwal’s Swaraj, I was invited to a larger AAP meeting. I thought it was going to be a gathering where the key AAP functionaries would be present. And I thought my role was to help them thrash out certain elements that could then form the basis of a coherent and internally consistent economic policy.

What happened after has perhaps been the most important learning of my life. Politicians are by the very nature of the process, aggregators of different forces. Politicians need to get different types of people and views on the same wagon. And the method they chose is typically consensus. A group of about 15-20 people sat in a circle, I was the only economist, but there were politicians, entrepreneurs, management consultants, bankers, journalists, academicians from different fields, etc. And all were assigned the task of evolving an economic policy document.

I must confess I felt like running away, for how could any coherence be achieved in this manner? While I recognized this underlying problem in political-economic interaction, I also figured another problem. It is not simply an issue of integrating diverse worldviews. How could anyone in the political party know that any one person would do a good job? These are highly politically charged times, and many checks and balances are required. Putting in many people as contributors and a group working on the document is a practical method of ensuring some checks against idiosyncratic views creeping in. As stated earlier, I have found similar methods being used elsewhere, AAP had simply rediscovered the method of other political parties.

But what came out of that exercise had no character and was an amorphous mass. There were Yadav type socialist thoughts of what government will do; Kejriwal type thoughts of greater role of open sabhas; the well-meaning journalist’s ones on strengthening environmental norms; the infrastructure specialist’s orientation on greater roads etc. Individually, you could not fault any of the items, but together they had no character. A shapeless document was eventually put together and shared with AAP leadership, which I think killed it! (They did bring something out eventually, but it was less ambitious and more about the general vision type issues. AAP never contacted me again, my guess is they did not have the time or the patience for such an exercise, and did not have the bandwidth to even judge the output that would come out.)

This note, as you would have guessed, is about my experience with a political entity that was trying to figure out how to do things. And they came up against the same set of problems that all other political parties come up with. All political parties need to aggregate economic and political objectives in order to bring a large enough group of people together. In the process a deeper coherent economic vision is difficult to evolve. Economists therefore are redundant as advisers to political parties. Even if they listen to us, they will be forced to incorporate so many other ideas that any clarity would dissipate into fuzziness.

So this is my problem. And I for one do not have an answer. Economists, political and social scientists are trained to be internally consistent in our recommendations, have a 20 year horizon, explicitly lay out the costs and benefits, etc. But no political entity would prosper or even survive this way. What should change?

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