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The visible hand

I have little sympathy for the lament I hear from my leisure-class friends in Delhi about how life is hard in the age of inflation, writes Kaushik Basu.

india Updated: Jun 22, 2008 01:51 IST
Kaushik Basu

I have little sympathy for the lament I hear from my leisure-class friends in Delhi about how life is hard in the age of inflation. For this class of people, this simply means that they now have to spend more to keep up appearances. Nevertheless, to address them all at one go, I devote my column this week to some elementary economics of keeping up with, without spending like, the Joneses.

We all know that annoying feeling when boarding a flight from the front. It entails walking down the aisle under the disdainful glare of business class passengers spreading themselves out in their ample seats. Here is the technique for avoiding this. As soon as you enter the business class cabin start peering at the seat numbers, pause, squint, compare with the ticket in your hand and move slowly forward. Every few steps, keep repeating the same. It will be presumed by the dimwits in expensive suits that you are in the same cabin as them, hesitating only because you have still to find your seat. This way you will get the respect of all business class passengers, except those in the last row, who will of course notice you sliding into the next cabin.

You have travelled to wherever you have, and those busybodies keep sending you messages from their shiny Blackberries or Iphones. These devices have several advantages but the biggest one can be got for no expense at all.

Every time you send an email, after signing off, type in by hand: “This message is sent from my Blackberry.” Alternatively, you can put this into the ‘signature’ of your email; that will save you from having to type it each time. Your reputation as an owner of a Blackberry will spread far and wide, with your bank balance unaltered.

The twenty-first century Indian is nothing if not peripatetic. Suppose you have arrived at some distant land, famed for its culture and history. Say you are in Italy; and of course you have to see the famous museums — the Uffizi in Florence and the Cathedral at the Piazza del Duomo in Siena. To really learn about the sculptures, the frescoes and the history behind the stones you need a guide; but guides can be expensive.

Fortunately, if you show a little ingenuity, you need not pay at all. On entering, stare at the first few exhibits and hang around. Basically you are waiting for a Scandinavian tour group to arrive. They always come with an English-speaking guide. As soon as you see one such group, start moving with it.

A standard ‘good’ is something that, if one person has it, another does not. The apple I consume is one such good. In the language of economics, a ‘public good’ is the polar opposite of that. When one person consumes it, others get to consume it for free. When a rich person installs a machine to remove the soot being spewed out by a factory chimney, he gets to enjoy the clean air but so do others. Hence, most environmental goods are public goods.

Of course, you are not supposed to eavesdrop on someone else’s guide, but a guide’s speech to a large group is a ‘public good’. All you need is to be a bit brazen. If you feel uncomfortable because the guide is staring accusingly at you, there is a more advanced technique that can be used in extreme conditions. With most big Scandinavian groups there will be an adopted South Asian kid. Stand very close to the kid. From the body language of the adults it will be obvious that the kid is part of their group and the guide will take you to be the uncle from rural India visiting his niece.

In these places of high culture there is always the scholar tourist who stands endlessly in front of each fresco with the fat book that describes each artwork in the museum, while you breeze past with your thin catalogue of All Museums of Europe. Do not develop an inferiority complex vis-à-vis such tourists. Remind yourself that one year later you will both be on par. He will not remember what he saw in such detail and you will not remember what you barely saw.

Finally, a word of warning. Do not get carried away by the above economy tips and take the penny saving practices too far. The best words of caution on this occur in the new Broadway play, Queen’s Boulevard, when a South Asian merchant in the U.S., with a marked desi accent, offers tips to some new arrivals for staying out of trouble: “When at a 7-11, don’t take Sierra Mist Free without paying for it … It is free from sugar, not free to take.”

(Kaushik Basu is C. Marks Professor and director, Center for Analytic Economics, Cornell University)