Thursday, February 16, 2006

Fat in the fire

Okay, two rants.

The first against the New York Times and their reports about the Women's Health Initiative studies - all these articles they've been coming out with on how new studies have 'proved' that low fat diets don't lower the risk of heart disease or breast cancer, etc [1].

Let me start by saying that I have a lot of respect for the researchers behind the actual studies - reading through their work I'm more than satisfied with the level of rigour they've brought to the research, and just given the sheer scale of their experimental design, I'm fairly impressed by the experiment they've run. There are some issues with their study: it's not clear how much the manipulation actually works (subjects in the treatment group don't seem to have substantially reduced cholesterol levels when compared to those in the control group, for instance), and because the authors don't seem to have a clear causal mechanism for the link between heart disease and fat intake, one can question whether their test is really theoretically rigorous (could it be particular types of fat that do the damage, for instance?). Still, overall it's a fairly robust and interesting study, and it's hard to imagine how they could have done it much better.

The trouble with the NY Times reporting of it, though, is that while they discuss many of these more nuanced concerns, they almost entirely neglect to mention one fairly pertinent fact: this is a study with a sample of post-menopausal, mostly white women in the age group 50 - 79. So even if we assume that the findings of the study are valid for that population, it's certainly not clear that the results are generalisable to the world at large. All the study is saying (at best) is that if you're a woman and switch to a low fat diet when you're 55 it's not going to lower your risk of dying of a heart attack in any significant way. That doesn't mean that going on a low fat diet at twenty won't help, or even that it's not useful for 50 year old men to go on a low fat diet. The trouble is that just skimming the NY Times articles you wouldn't realise this, and it upsets me to see careful, well-thought through research being mauled in that way by cheap sensationalism.

So. The second rant of the day is against people (like this cretin here hat-tip: Desi Pundit) who go on and on about how MBAs from premier institutions in India (and I mean truly premier institutions, not the Ponytail variety) are entirely selfish and don't contribute back to India's development.

To begin with, there are several interesting ethical questions built into the assumption that MBAs should be held responsible for contributing back to India, but I'm (uncharacteristically) going to ignore them and take it as read that MBAs as a class should contribute back to India's development in some way or the other. The only contention then is whether this is or is not happening.

The first argument usually made by people who want to bemoan the lack of social responsibility among MBAs is that all the graduates from the IIMs end up going abroad and therefore don't contribute to India's development (I used to think that this was an argument only brain-dead politicians like Murli Manohar Joshi made, but I've discovered that a number of otherwise perfectly rational people think this too). Aside from the fact that I think the real extent of this migration is probably overstated (I mean, okay, so a whole bunch of my batchmates ended up in the US - but an equal, if not larger, proportion have stayed in India - some of the brightest people from my batch among them), I think the assumption that the only way to contribute to India's development is by being in India is a patently ridiculous one, simply because it completely ignores the realities of a networked global economy. It's not just that the large proportion of Indians on Wall Street or in Silicon Valley represents a rich source of repatriated income and entrepreneurial talent [2], it's also that, in a world where social networks matter, it's not hard to see how the presence of a large Indian diaspora in corporate America creates a wealth of opportunities both in the US and back in India for Indian human capital. It's hard to believe for instance, that there is no correlation between the amount of young Indian talent in the western corporate world and the popularity of India as an outsourcing destination. Obviously there are issues of national competitive advantage built into that outcome, but to assume that that's all it comes down to is to be excessively naive. The point is that the notion of overturning the established structure of international economic dominance from outside is a foolish and romantic one. Any realistic hope of India's development comes from a tighter (though informed) integration with the realities of the global economy, and young Indian professionals in the West are the critical fulcrum for achieving such leverage.

The other argument you hear a lot from people is that even the MBAs who do stick on in India end up sitting in their airconditioned ivory towers, living a life of conspicuous consumption and therefore not aiding in any way in India's development. Ten seconds worth of consideration will show you how entirely contrary to every theory in economics that argument is. What do these people think MBAs are trained for, if not for running companies? That MBAs do what they do is simply division of labour - would they rather that IIM graduates ran about trying to farm fields while a bunch of illiterate farmers ran India's top companies? What do you think our GDP would grow at then? It's important not to confuse the contribution of an action with its immediate objective (corporate profit) or the intention behind it (career fulfillment). MBAs may act entirely in self-interest, but as long as their actions lead to positive outcomes for corporate India[3], thus helping the economy grow at a rapid rate, they're contributing to development.[4]

The other problem with the 'MBAs don't give back to society' argument is the metric used to measure this contribution. If you're going to argue that a very small proportion of MBAs end up doing anything for society, you have to ask the follow-up question - what percentage of the population in general works selflessly for the good of society? After all, no one's ever claimed that doing an MBA increases your propensity to give back to society - the issue is not (or should not be) whether people are selfish in general but whether MBAs are more selfish than everyone else. Obviously that's a harder effect to measure, but a quick scan of some of the non-government initiatives working on development in India suggests that MBAs from top business schools may not be quite as callous / selfish as they're made out to be. Take your pick of large non-profit initiatives in India - Pratham, CRY, the Give Foundation, the Gates Foundation, Akanksha, the Eklavya Foundation - and you'll find alumni from the top business schools in the country playing critical roles in each one of them. Choose your favourite CSR effort - HLL's Project Shakti, the Azim Premji Foundation, ITC's e-chaupal, ICICI's social development programs - and again, the people working there are typically MBAs from top business schools. I don't have any numbers to prove this (though it would be interesting if we could collect some) but I remain convinced that, as a percentage of the population, MBAs do as much, if not more to support and encourage development efforts in India. Which is not, of course, to suggest that they do anywhere near enough, or that it wouldn't be heartening to see more involvement from MBAs in development. But people who argue that MBAs are all arrogant, selfish people who don't give a damn about India are jumping to a conclusion that's frankly insulting to the dedicated men and women who are actually out there working on development issues. [5] Selfishness is a deep and troubling malaise, but MBAs have no special prerogative on it.

Bottomline: Getting an MBA doesn't change who you are. It only amplifies your personality - gives you the power and the confidence to be who you've always wanted to be in a far more effective way. So if you see someone emerging from an IIM immoral and self-centred - blame the person, not the degree.


[1] I've outlined some of my issues with the study in this comment on Veena's blog. I'm not really saying anything new in this post. I just felt like ranting.

[2] It's always amused me how nationalists like to have it both ways - Indians working abroad is bad because it drains the country of talent, on the other hand, MNCs coming into the country and bringing their technology and jobs with them is also bad, because they'll repatriate all the value back to their own countries.

[3] Of course, one can legitimately question whether the content (or even the process) of what an MBA provides adds genuine value to the student. I'd be the first to agree, for instance, that many of the syllabi taught in the IIMs are woefully outdated and desperately in need of revision. On the whole, though, I'm inclined to believe that the IIMs do add value (in the sense that they help young people do a better job of managing companies), and while I'd be willing to debate that conclusions, it's not what most people seem to be focussing on. Regrettably so.

[4] One could argue that growing the economy overall doesn't mean that everyone benefits - and I'd be the first to agree. Certainly GDP growth per se is not a sufficient condition for socio-economic development, though it's hard to argue that it's not a necessary one.

[5] My apologies for the slightly over-shrill tone of this part of the post. It's just that too many of these people are friends of mine, so that stupid generalisations on the issue really bug me.

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Neela said...

yeah. agree totally on the IIM thing. but then its nice to be considered evil and dissolute and Master of the Universe esp if one is, in reality, a battered, humble ASM in Punjab/Haryana wondering anxiously if Pravinbhai in Patiala will manage to sell his targetted number of Funjooses this month and having retailers tell you sombrely "mey-dam, aap MBA degree kyon nahi karte hain? Phir aapko office mein kaam milega". let people think that MBAs have all the Power and the Glory - someone should envy us dammit (though if they could envy grad students, would be even happier - are you sure no one has a blog angsting about being a grad student and getting overpaid to do nothing?)


Falstaff said...

Neela: Doubt there's anything like that on grad students. Also, if someone were making the claim that PhD students add absolutely no value and therefore get overpaid even with their pathetic salaries - could one seriously take exception to that statement. I may be only a conscience-less MBA, but there are levels of untruth even I will not stoop to.

Also, look at the bright side - at least if you're an ASM you presumably get sent to places where there's a market, implying that there are people and there's at least the possibility that they might have enough money to buy things. Plus you know what you're getting into when you take the job. It's a hell of a lot better than becoming a consultant and finding yourself in a district that made the India Today Bottom 10 list of underdeveloped districts working out of a stupid manufacturing plants and spending your evenings attending 'cultural programmes' put up by the children of the local staff who you're supposed to encourage and applaud. Aarghhh!

Neela said...

but seriously, don't you think its entirely fitting that one should rant on a blog about the cushy life of an MBA just before one gets sent off to artificially inseminate cows in Etah?

oooh and I just luuurve the thought of you sitting through song and dance routines by local spawn. makes my humble sales and marketing life with its "can we offer a more interesting PET jar to jaded retailers in the Punjab wholesale market so that they will sell even more custard powder" seem so totally wholesome! And to think - all I did was teach the Factory Manager and Chief Engineer and assorted other men the Macarena for a Factory Day performance (yes, they did do an encore).


sambar42 said...

I got here because Prufrock posted on my blog and said I should pick an argument with you :). And here I find that I agree with pretty much everything you have to say :)

I totally agree with pointless sensationalism screwing up research. Especially when it comes to weight/fitness/health issues. There was this thing I found on cnn about how you could get fit in 6 minutes workout a week. Of course, what they were talking about was something totally else.

dhoomketu said...

Too harsh on the poor guy. I agree with your logic, but all that the poor guy did was rant.

It was his last month in IIM, and when he's looking back, he's just feeling sorry for himself. I actually didn't see him make any comment on how MBAs are selfish and do not contribute to India's development. All he's saying is how he has not taken the risks that he wanted to.

Which might be true. Which, I continue to believe, is true for a lot of us who go through IIMs.

By the way, I didn't realise that the cultural performance will leave such a deep imprint on you. In my case, I was slapped hard on the back by a intoxicated old man... That hit me the hardest!

Govar said...

Oh! That's everything I wanted to give as a reply to people who ridicule MBAs. I agree that there is a fair share of problems with MBAs - some not knowing what they really want to be, no contribubtions to PSUs etc, but MBAs are certainly not half-arrogant or half-useless as a lot of people put it.

Falstaff said...

dhoomk2: Dude, that wasn't the cultural performance - you're thinking of the random booze sessions we had to do with client team (okay, okay, I know you think alcohol is the purest form of culture, but still). Also, you weren't the one who had to take week long train trips to obscure plants in Tamil Nadu with said client team. or have them come over to your hotel room in Vizag with a bottle of Old Monk and watch Fashion TV. (neela, are you listening?)

govar: thanks

shravan said...

Thanks for the kind words dude.
The point that I was making was very different, but I didnt expect you to get it anyway.

I don't care that MBA's aren't giving back to the society. Underworld dons don't either. Thats their problem. It's a career choice, and they are happy with it.

My entire argument was that the enormous potential in students from the IIMs are being wasted by people who end up as ASMs in Gorakhpur, or monitor the stock market in Hong Kong. All those childhood dreams that you grow up with, everything gets lost in a mad pursuit for money. The post was about chasing your dreams, about challenging reality, not about contributing to the society!

However, I expect little logic from such a silly post, which ducks the entire issue I was trying to raise.

Also, since its your blog, I guess you will delete this message.

Falstaff said...

Shravan: My apologies. I thought you might actually be trying to say something. I didn't realise you just couldn't write. Your post says:

"Yes, us Managers don't care about anyone else. Us managers only want money, because that is what buys us cars and mobile phones and the prettiest girls that parents can find on".

You contrast this with a point of view that emphasises exploiting opportunities in a growing economy like India, and suggest that MBAs aren't really concerned with that. You return to that point in the last paragraph of your post talking about how MBA is not about anyone else, it's just about you.

All of that may, in your head, translate into not being able to fulfill your dreams, but in plain english it suggests that MBAs are selfish people who don't care about the rest of the world. Which is why the point I was making was that just because you don't really care about India's development or growth is no reason to generalise and argue that MBAs don't care about it. YOU may want only money and a mobile phone and a car; YOU may want an arranged marriage - then say so. Don't drag the rest of us into the pit of your mediocrity by saying "us managers".

Also, even if the point you were trying (so incoherently) to make is about not being able to achieve your dreams, the last paragraph of my post still applies: "MBA doesn't change who you are. It only amplifies your personality", etc. What exactly is stopping you from pursuing your dreams? All the people working with NGOs I mention do? If an MBA from an IIM didn't give you the self-confidence to pursue your dreams then you're just a loser who would have copped out anyway. Don't blame the fact that you're a wuss on your MBA.

P.S. What exactly is this big dream of yours you keep talking about anyway - it sounds to me like you don't really have one. If you want to make the point that MBA has destroyed your dreams why don't you a) spell out what your dream was, exactly and b) how doing an MBA (and only an MBA) has made that impossible to pursue.

Neela said...

falstaff: cut the poor guy some slack!

shravan: I agree with falstaff and so will you, after you're done feeling totally injured and ramming heavy duty pins into falstaffian voodoo dolls. Anyway, to add to your database, I always had a childhood dream to be an ASM in Gorakhpur. Honest! Ok, not honest. My childhood dream was actually to be an ASM in Vijaywada and dump stock in Gorakhpur and that didn't quite pan out the way I dreamed, but I'm Ok, really I am. I WILL SURVIVE! (Start Gloria Gaynor music here). Anyway, good luck with your career and you know who NOT to turn to if you get existential angst about your cushy MBA life (hint: not me!).

Falsie, all you have to do to shatter my weekend is to tell me that your childhood dream was to watch Fashion TV with Tamil Nadu plant managers in Vizag. (which I half-suspect you will). Not only do you get free coffee in your stupid office, you are one of those rare IIM souls who realized their dreams. Is there a limit to how much I can truly hate you?

shravan said...

My apologies too. I should've used sign language and put up the video on the net. Maybe then you would've understood.

The point with:

"Yes, us Managers don't care about anyone else. Us managers only want money, because that is what buys us cars and mobile phones and the prettiest girls that parents can find on".

was that managers are selfish people, yes, but only because of what they have become due to the system, not because they were born like that. They fall prey to the plum pay packets and forget that they could do a lot more in life (ONLY BY THEIR OWN CONSENT). If they think they are in the right by selling soap, then god be with them. Not contributing to the society is only one of the effects.

I'll summarise, for the benefit of the "cretins":

"Everyone is born with dreams. An MBA could, just could kill them early, by putting you on a corporate path to riches."

I hope this sentence was not too complicated for your understanding.

The arranged marriage was but an example. I would thoroughly expect you to interpret it the way you did. My sympathies to you and your employer.

You still don't get it, do you? The dream is not mine. The dream is of everyone, of every student who ever cut his wings in the system and got on the path of riches. Its not about an IIM, its about the system. Its a much larger issue.

Think about it. Do they straitjacket you anywhere in the world with a placement week, like they do here in India? Foreign B Schools leave the students to fend for themselves.
Thinking pratically, would a student be willing to take a risk with life, if he knows he has a secure and safe job in hand?

You should really stop smoking that stuff. Its hurting your intelligence.

I would understand if you delete this post. Its really beyond you and your silly blog to understand such issues. You should just stick to ranting about "the girl at the corner table" and being "snowed in on a sunday". Thats more befitting your IQ.


Neela said...

falstaff: over to you. this is becoming addictive.


Falstaff said...

Shravan: "would a student be willing to take a risk with life, if he knows he has a secure and safe job in hand?"

Yes. If he / she had a dream they cared enough about. Or were truly selfless, not just pretending because they couldn't make it.

That's what every single one of the MBAs working for NGOs in India have done, that's what every almost single friend of mine from my batch in WIMWI has done too. These people don't do what they do because of money or status, they do it because it's what they've always wanted to do, and the fact that they have an MBA from a premier institute has helped them make those choices real. I don't have an employer (so you needn't worry) because I've never let money dictate my decisions on what I would do with my life. I do what I do because it stimulates and challenges me, and the fact that I could easily make significantly more money elsewhere is completely irrelevant.

So I'll say this again - it's not the MBA - it's you. It IS the way you were born / raised. If anything, the fact that you now have the CV value that an MBA gives you means you have more security and can afford to experiment more with your life. If you choose not to take that opportunity, the malaise is entirely your own.

If you're going to spend the rest of your life in a job you hate because you don't have the courage to try to make something of your dreams, then I feel genuinely sorry for you. But that doesn't give you the right to whine or project you own inadequacies on the system. And you don't speak for the rest of us, so don't try to.

shravan said...

You are right.
Its the person, not the degree. Maybe its the person because of the degree, but theoritically, it is still the person. That should suffice to satisfy your ego.

About generalizing, I have been told by many people that this is the story of their life, and the discussion on my post, by a few really smart people who passed through this system (not losers who rant in the solitude of their blog), has really helped them. It sure helped me. Maybe if you took time out and read the discussion, it would help.

However, it still doesnt take out the fact that your post didn't even understand the issue I was trying to raise, which, thankfully, you have finally understood.

Will accept a public apology.

thanks and regards, and sorry to disappoint Neela, for the lack of fireworks in the post

Falstaff said...


Let me get this straight. You put up a post on your blog that makes an argument that was missplaced in that it blamed the system for what you now admit is something you personally are responsible for. Moreover, you make the argument in a way that attempts to wrongly generalise to a population a failing that is your own and that of a few people you've talked to - worse, you make this argument badly, so that it's hard to understand what you're talking about. And I'm supposed to apologise to you because your post 'helped' a handful of people (by which you mean, presumably, that it gave some four people the comfort of knowing that there were other people who had also copped out the way they had; and one solitary person the opportunity to pontificate about his life)?? I described you as a cretin in my post - the fact that you're asking for an apology for that on these grounds proves that none is necessary.

As for misunderstanding your argument - if you read the original post carefully it was a rant against a point of view, not necessarily against a particular person / post - I just mentioned you as an example of someone who levels the kind of invalid and unthinking criticisms of the MBA degree that I was ranting about. If I'd meant it to be a critique of your post per se i would have written it that way (going paragraph by paragraph through your post and showing why what you were saying didn't make sense). So in fact, if anyone misunderstood anyone else's post, it would be you misunderstanding mine.

Neela: Ya, I know. Listening to this guy is like watching the traffic snarl up at an intersection - none of it's getting you anywhere, but it just keeps coming.

Heh Heh said...

shravan: a lot of us around here have gone through the same system that you rant about and have managed to realise our dreams without caring for the fat paychecks that seem to bother you so much (and that you secretly desire).
pull your head out of your ass and look around. there's a lot of opportunity in this world, and nobody is asking you to even be part of the 'week-long' placement process that you complain about.

Manu said...

I'm an IIMB guy myself, but I think I'll talk about the first part of your post instead!

Conclusions by universities are invariably very amusing when they hit the mainstream press!

- A professor takes the conclusion "it gets cold in Palestine" and converts it to "Jesus walked on ice, not water", thus earning reams of newsprint.
- A Slimes of India report said "Lab mice were made to run alone (!), and also with company, and it was found that the group mice were more sociable. You lose brainpower if you jog alone rather than with company. QED."

My Hoa said...


I used part of your blog entry in my blog entry today at

Hope that you don't mind.

All the best,
My Hoa