The Wisdom of Ants: A Short History of Economics by Shankar Jaganathan; Tranqebar Press; Rs 295. www.westlandbooks.in
Economics can be boring, dry subject. Yet many of us need to have a working knowledge of economics – and the challenge so often, is to find a short cut, a sort of dummies guide to the key concepts in an attractive and manageable package. This is easier said than done. The best economists and academics are often lousy communicators. Shankar Jaganathan is an exception – and his short history of economics is a lively, reader-friendly guide to the leading ideas in economics from the Ancient World to the global crisis of 2008.
At one time or another, Jaganathan has been associated with Wipro, the Azim Premji Foundation, Indian Institute of Science, Union Bank of India, Oxfam India and the Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies. This wide experience is apparent, in the telling comments with which the author peppers the narrative as he reviews the birth of economic thought in four civilisations exemplified by the work of four pioneering thinkers: Aristotle among the ancient Greeks, Kautilya aka Chanakya around 400 BC in India, the Chinese Lord Shang around 1500 AD and the Tunisian Islamic scholar Ibn Khaldun in the 14th century AD.
Jaganathan uses the work of later thinkers like Adam Smith and John Maynard Keynes to highlight how modern-day greed overwhelmed the innocence of the old world where even the collection of interest for a loan was seen as sinful usury. Up until the 15th century, pawnshops in Europe were seen as charitable institutions to help the poor and needy – and interest if charged at all was strictly limited to 6 percent to cover administrative costs. We have come a long way from those times to a present age where credit card rip-offs have the stamp of official sanction.
Without stating the obvious, Jaganathan sets the reader thinking about the true origins of current trends – like nepotism in politics and business. The Harvard-Kalahari Project, a pioneering study of hunter-gatherer societies in Southern Africa, which covered 27 years from 1963 to 1991, observed that nepotism in the sharing food among mates was a genetic trait critical for their survival. Today what was essentially a survival strategy has taken the form of sons and daughters stepping into the well-heeled shoes of politically powerful parents!
One of the most interesting outreaches of this book is the very telling correlation that Jaganthan draws between the winners of the Nobel Prize for Economics since its inception in 1969 and the domination, of capitalist free market economics… right up to the global recession of 2008, when for the first time the principles of socialism derided for so long began to seem much more sensible.The book derives its title from the fable of the ants who busily gathered food in the summer, while the grasshoppers lived a carefree life. When winter came, the prudent ants could live off their store, while the grasshoppers were starving. The Wisdom of Ants, is the foundation of economics as a distinct discipline, suggests Jaganathan, even as he views economic ideas through an ethical, social and political prism.The result is arguably one of the most useful and readable books on the subjects for a long time – a necessary and sufficient companion, for professional as well as lay readers grappling with the complex environment of business and governance today- Anand Parthasarathy