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Monday, June 27, 2022

Economic Graffiti: The Turin miracle

A magical trip that almost didn’t happen. A moment when disbelief was shaken.

Written by Kaushik Basu |
Updated: December 28, 2017 12:15:10 am
Indian economy (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

About a year ago I was invited to give the Luca d’Agliano Lecture in Turin. This annual lecture has established itself as a major event, I was keen to share some new research I have been doing on law and economics, and I had never been to Turin. In short, there was every reason to give this lecture; and in the process I got to spend three blissful days in Turin.

I lectured on law, economics and corruption control, covering an expanse of material, from Kautilya’s writings, c. 300 BCE, to contemporary research. In most emerging economies, from China and India, through much of sub-Saharan Africa, to Brazil and Argentina, corruption seems like an endemic problem. As Kautilya had, maybe too cynically, noted, “Just as it is impossible not to taste honey on the tip of the tongue, so it is impossible for a government servant not to eat up at least a part of the king’s revenue.”

But we know that there are countries, such as Sweden and Britain, that have moved from being high-corruption societies to low, over one or two centuries. There are also economies that have made the transition in even shorter time. This is true of Singapore and Hong Kong, which are today ranked by Transparency International not just above Italy and Greece but above the US, in terms of freedom from corruption. How this transition can be made is a fascinating question and thanks to advances in game theory and the rise of behavioural economics, we have some understanding of this that we did not have earlier.

The many discussions after my lecture over meals in wonderful Turin restaurants were instructive; and, on occasion, amusing. An Italian friend who had gone to Delhi some time back told us about his stay at the India International Centre, and how it was memorable because of the early morning walks he took in “Modi Gardens”. As I wondered whether to tell him he was confounding historical names with contemporary Indian politics, a suave Italian, who regularly goes to India, leaned over and held forth on the Lodis, and their 16th century tombs in the gardens, clarifying that these are not “Modi Gardens”. The only disturbing part of the discourse was — I cannot be sure of what he meant because he was mixing Italian and English — that it ended with “not yet”.

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Turin is a city of museums and mansions. Most famously, it is the city of the shroud of Turin, the linen cloth in which Jesus Christ was allegedly wrapped after the crucifixion. The jury is still out on whether it is really that cloth since some scientific tests seem to contest the claim.

As always in any city, I enjoy the museums but even more so the ebb and flow of everyday life in the streets. Luckily, I managed to slip out between meetings and seminars to stroll through the city. Turin is the city where Antonio Gramsci studied and started the weekly magazine, L’Ordine Nuovo, and took to political activism, before being arrested and jailed by Mussolini’s police; it is the city that Nietzsche lived in and loved, where he had his famous mental breakdown. It is a city with magnificent mansions and, equally, picturesque poor neighbourhoods and ghettoes, enhanced by the many passers-by, with what Auden described as “soul-bewitching” faces.

My final stop was on my way back to the airport. I toured the Castello di Rivoli, a 9th-century castle atop a hill from where I could see the ancient town of Rivoli, half covered in morning mist. The castle is home to some outstanding contemporary art, elegantly displayed. But the big surprise was the enormous room in the museum displaying art, video and photographs connected to Rabindranath Tagore’s play, The Post Office. The exhibition was also a tribute to Janusz Korczak, a Jewish writer who staged the play in an orphanage in a Warsaw ghetto, just before he and many of the orphans were sent to a death camp in Treblinka in 1942. It was a sad but moving exhibition that drew the curtain on my three magical days in Turin.

Magical and also miraculous, given that it almost did not happen. A week before I travelled, my US green card had gone missing. After turning our home upside down, to no avail, I joked with my wife that it was time to try prayer, and how God listens to me. So I sat self-consciously cross-legged and prayed, in gist saying: God, as you well know I don’t call on you every day. In fact, I pray once every several years when I am desperate; and today is one of those days, since it will be truly embarrassing for me to cancel this long-planned lecture. I am not sure you exist but, if you do, please appreciate my honesty, and give me my green card. Further, I am not saying that if you do, I will become a believer. Looking around the world, there is so little evidence of your existence that one miracle is unlikely to make me change my mind.

I got up, did my usual late night reading and writing, and went to sleep. Next morning, unmindfully, I opened the same drawer which my wife and I had searched repeatedly. And there it was, in plain sight, the green card. I felt an emotional charge, a mixture of elation and confusion. I tried to reconstruct all the events of the previous few days and could in no way explain what had happened.

So what do I make of it? The most likely interpretation is the green card was always there and neither of us saw it. On the other hand, violations of the laws of induction do not trouble me because of my innate scepticism. I believe whatever is not logically impossible is possible. However, what I experienced was so confounding that the only way I can sum it up is with an equally confounding thought: Whether or not God exists, what is certain is he loves me.

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The writer is C. Marks Professor at Cornell University and former chief economist and senior vice president, World Bank.

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