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 .
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 , 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, thus helping the economy grow at a rapid rate, they're contributing to development.
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.  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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
 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.
Categories: Rant, CurrentAffairs