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Jagdish Bhagwati: The World’s Preeminent Free Trade Evangelist

The Columbia University economics professor’s path-breaking work on trade and welfare has been the staple of generations of graduate and undergraduate students.
BY Uttara Choudhury |   2011

New York– Larger-than-life Indian American economist, Jagdish Natwarlal Bhagwati, once told a reporter that he prefers to consider himself ''a public nuisance,'' challenging established policies, stirring up protests and picking apart conventional beliefs.

The 77-year-old Professor of Economics and Law at Columbia University is loved for his flamboyant style and witty quips. Economists take great pride in being a SOB — student of Bhagwati.

Jagdish Bhagwati is Professor of Economics and Law at Columbia University.

Indeed, Paul Krugman, the Princeton economist, who won the 2008 Economics Nobel declared at a Bhagwati Festschrift in 2005: “I am, of course, an SOB. One of the things I came to learn, as I started to have students of my own, is that what your students remember is not what you hoped they would remember. You think they would remember your brilliant exposition of a model or your stunning blackboard technique, and instead they end up remembering the particularly good joke you told at some point.”

Theory of Reincarnation

Krugman says Bhagwati once shared his personal theory of reincarnation with his class, which was that if you are a good economist, a virtuous economist, you are reborn as a physicist, and if you are an evil, wicked economist, you are reborn as a sociologist.

Bhagwati says his data sources showed that in skilled fields such as medicine, law and accounting, outsourcing was boosting efficiency and creating more jobs than the US was losing.

“The point is that the joke is not about sociologists or physicists. The joke is about economists. It’s about people — economists — who aspire to what they imagine physicists to be, to this rigor and certainty and mathematical complexity… There is this tendency which Jagdish knew better about at the time, that the models are there to enlighten, not to show-off your mathematical technique, which was terribly — I think I might say crucially — important in my own life,” said Krugman, whose elegant models have been praised for being “lean and transparent.”

Year after year, Bhagwati’s name is bandied around for the Nobel for Economics. He awaits recognition of his path-breaking work on trade and welfare that has been the staple of generations of graduate and undergraduate students.

Committed Free Trader

“Economists are notorious for dealing in abstractions, when the audience hungers for flesh-and-blood stories about real people. Bhagwati, an author of many books on trade, makes all the right economic arguments, but without the flurry of statistical correlations often used to make the case,” said Daniel T. Griswold in “National Review”.

Bhagwati, who was awarded India’s Padma Vibhushan in 2000, has advised everyone from the Indian government to the World Trade Organization. A committed free trade advocate, Bhagwati, still opposes the enforcement of intellectual property rights, especially software copyrights, in countries such as India and Brazil.

When Princeton University economist Alan S. Blinder suggested the downsides of trade for America are “deeper than once realized,” Bhagwati fired the first salvo. Blinder had told the “Wall Street Journal” that a new industrial revolution — communication technology that allows services to be delivered electronically from afar — would put as many as 40 million jobs at risk of being shipped out of America in the next two decades.

“Blinder is a good friend but he is dead wrong,” Bhagwati had told me before debating Blinder at Harvard over his assertions about the magnitude of job losses from trade.

“You have two-way flows, three-way flows; you have what we call trade in variety. Even if India has the same skill person it doesn’t mean the US is going to suffer. It just means the US and India will transact within the same industry,” said Bhagwati citing the example of clinical trials now being done in India. “An American surgeon is not going to lose his job because drug trials are being done in India.”

“Outsourcing Boosts Efficiency”

Year after year, Bhagwati’s name is bandied around for the Nobel for Economics. He awaits recognition of his path-breaking work on trade and welfare that has been the staple of generations of graduate and undergraduate students.

Bhagwati said his data sources showed that in skilled fields such as medicine, law and accounting, outsourcing was boosting efficiency and creating more jobs than the US was losing. “You ask any American was it a mistake to put Japan and Europe back on their feet and therefore make them more like America after the World War? Does any American say this was a bad thing on economic grounds? So why fear India or China who specialize in different aspects of the same thing?”

Interestingly, Bhagwati has co-authored a book with Blinder called “Offshoring of American Jobs.” In the book, Bhagwati focuses on globalization and free trade, while Blinder addresses the significance of labor market adjustment caused by trade.

A Prolific but Accessible Economist

Bhagwati has written or edited 40 books and founded two journals, “Economics and Politics” and “The Journal of International Economics.” Daniel T. Griswold, director of the Center for Trade Policy Studies at the Cato Institute in Washington, praised Bhagwati's ambitious book, “In Defense of Globalization,” for filling many of the holes in the pro-globalization argument.

“Economists are notorious for dealing in abstractions, when the audience hungers for flesh-and-blood stories about real people. Bhagwati, an author of many books on trade, makes all the right economic arguments, but without the flurry of statistical correlations often used to make the case. Instead, he tells the story of how globalization has delivered a better standard of living in less developed countries, and how experiments with protectionist "import substitution" policies have systematically failed,” said Griswold in “National Review.”


Uttara Choudhury is Associate Editor, North America for TV 18’s Firstpost news site. In 1997, she went on the British Chevening Scholarship to study Journalism in the University of Westminster, in London.   

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