Monday, February 23, 2015


[I spent an academic year in Stanford in 1999-2000 on an invitation from Anne Krueger. This is the first column from there, published in Business World of 10 October 1999.]

Excess of  prosperity

I have moved to Stanford for some months. I had never spent much time on the west coast of America before. So I have got a chance for a while to look around with wide-eyed curiosity.
The first American one encounters on landing is, of course, the immigration officer. I went to Geneva for the weekend, so I’ve met two immigration officers by now. The first was a young woman in her 20s. She asked me about economics in Stanford. She said she had a degree in economics from Davis (That is the Davis campus of the University of California, a vast state-financed university with campuses strewn across the state); she had been three years in the immigration service, and was thinking of going and doing a doctoral degree.
The other immigration officer took me by surprise. When I told him I was an economist, he asked whether the prosperity of the US economy was due to Greenspan. I said Greenspan had made a very dexterous governor of the Federal Reserve. So he asked who was better, Greenspan or his predecessor, Volcker. That was a difficult one; I said the American economy had done better under Greenspan, but that he had built on an inheritance from Volcker. As I came out, I realized why I had been so surprised. There was, of course, the difference in demeanour: Indian immigration officials are so dour, where the American ones were affable. But more important, the American officials did not see it as their primary job as being to catch the guilty. Quite possibly they were finding out whether I was what I claimed to be; but if so, they did it more subtly and cleverly than an Indian official would.
As soon as you face an Indian immigration official, he starts doing some mysterious ritual behind the counter – placing the passport under laser, punching keys, turning his head one way and another, staring at you for 17 seconds etc. I have tried to talk to some of them. Once one was taking a very long time, and the queue was getting longer and longer. So I went up to him and asked: “Are you on strike or on go-slow?” To my great surprise, he asked me inside his cubicle, and said, “Look! This man’s name is Gurmeet Singh. I look up Gurmeet Singh in the computer, and I find 17 of them. So I punch in his father’s name, and I still get five names. So I punch in his village, and so on until I am sure that he has a valid passport.” The fact is that the software he was using had been designed years ago by National Informatics Centre; it was outdated, and bogged him down in time-consuming fingerwork. So he faced long queues, and could never take time off to chat with or study his victim.
The next thing you notice is the labour shortage. There are no taxi stands. You ring for a taxi, but it will take at least a quarter of an hour, often longer, for one to arrive. The chances are 99 to 1 that the taxi driver will be a foreigner and will not know his way around – I have picked up a Russian, a Jamaican and a Ghanaian till now. The Russian did not like America; people had no warmth here unlike in Russia. The Nigerian had lived opposite a single woman for a year and a half, but never talked to her for fear she might misunderstand his overtures.
And there is a shortage of hotel rooms. I was locked out of my apartment. First I tried to get help from neighbours, but it was some time before I could find one who would open the door. He would not let me in, but obligingly called a taxi for me. I asked him to keep my bag overnight, but he refused: there may be something valuable in it, and I may accuse him later of having stolen it. I went to one hotel after another. Except in upmarket Sheraton, all the people at the counter were foreigners – Gilbert from the Philippines, Praveen from Fiji, and a man with an indefinable accent, probably from some British colony. After a considerable search, I found a vacant room for $250. Next morning, Christina ordered a taxi for me, but said it would take at least a quarter of an hour, and advised me to take the first taxi that came.
I went to a bookshop; there was an express queue for customers who had fewer than five books. There, Jane at the counter said, “Where did you get this Blue Book (Blue Book is a 400-page used car guide which gives the valuations for all the cars, vans, and trucks sold in the US since 1984)? I never knew we had it.” So I asked her advice about which car to buy; she went through all the reasonable options and came down to her own car, a Volkswagen Jetta, which was the best. She had got it when they were three; now they were five, and it was getting a bit small, but she loved it. Here was a young mother of three young children working eight hours a day. She needed to work and supplement the family income if she wanted to live in this very expensive region. But there are jobs for everyone like her.

And why should she want to live here? Because it is heaven on earth. The temperature is in the higher 20s (in the 80s as they say here), the sky is a clear blue, the sun is so bright it almost hurts, the air smells of eucalyptus and cut grass. The children still grow up naturally here; no shootings in schools. Even Indians think this is a good place: not just software engineers, but taxi drivers as well.