Changing image of Indian society and economy: A discussion with Steven Levitt


Steven Lewitt at an HTLS session

Dr. Steven D. Levitt is a renowned professor of economics at the University of Chicago and co-author of Freakonomics and SuperFreakonomics

Aptly named as “Unconventional Thinking for an Unpredictable World” the session ran on through various streams of thought but as Steve pointed out that no matter what research he might have done about prostitution in US, juvenile crime, or drunk driving, he has “never impacted anything in policy.” “The policy makers are never interested,” said Levitt at HTLS. I think that this exposes the hypocrisy of the governance and the lack of interest our policy makers have in the matters that affect us in our daily lives.

Steven Levitt may be freaky in the sense that he brings in social and moral questions under the scanner and tries to put numbers on them to create an economic model. In India’s context he might have doubts about “how can this country work at all” but India must be doing something right because in spite of all the chaos we are emerging as a superpower. The answer may lie in the core fact that the mode of our communication still remains very intimate and personal. As Steven noted that every time he takes a cab to go somewhere in India, the cab driver stops to ask around for directions. Maybe the GPS still hasn’t taken away the charm of a little more personal guidance.

With India on the verge of becoming an economic superpower, here are a few things that that make us concerned:


  • Will the rapid rate of development cause us to abandon our cultural constructs and non-consumerist nature?


  • Will we compromise on our philosophical outlook to become more individualistic in an effort to reach our materialistic goals?


  • Do the western economies understand the need to change public perceptions to usher in that consumerism so as to fulfill their capitalistic colonial interests?


  • More importantly, are they already in the process of doing that by subtle messaging through media and advertising or through more direct tools like FIIs and FDIs?

The question that I posed to Steven was if he had read Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk. In the novel, the antagonist is a violent extremist who believes that all the credit card companies are responsible for the consumerism that has caused all the debt. By destroying all the credit card records he aims to remove the problem of debt and push everyone back to the simpler times. Can this be a case with India too if we turn consumerists and trigger an anarchism from the lesser privileged classes? What probable impact will it have on our economy then?

To this Steven was very categorical in saying that “yes, Americans are consumerists and surely there are chances where a subtle messaging has been used to push such a mindset amongst Indians During the 60s in the US there was a sudden rise in crime rates due to the fact that many sections were never exposed to such materialistic aspirations and realities, but when they were and when they realized that these could not be fulfilled so easily, they resorted to violence. For India, such a situation would be certainly disastrous.” Steven did point out that “such factors may be or rather should be considered but economists consider only numbers and make predictions based on them”. Quite wittily he had already suggested this weakness by saying “never ask an economist to make predictions – if you are a single economist in the room you feel like the smartest person around, but if by any chance there happens to be an another one, you feel stupid because then you find out that you both talk exactly the same”.

Click to Watch interview with Dr. Steven Levitt at HT leadership Summit, New Delhi 


Written by Koustubh Bhattacharya for Image Management

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