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July 17, 2005

My money is on America

Suketu Mehta wrote an Op-Ed piece on the NY Times on July 12th 2005 titled "Passage to India."  Suketu is a wonderful writer who  recently wrote a book called "Maximum City:  Bombay Lost and Found" which I really liked and recommend for those trying to get a sense of India independent of the cliches of poverty, outsourcing, and the caste system. 

I was however disappointed with this piece because I did not understand what it had to say and I definitely disagree with some of its conclusions.  Here are some excerpts from the piece:

Now I face the possibility that my children, when they grow up, will find their jobs outsourced to the very country their grandfather left to pursue economic opportunity.

Okay folks let us do some Math - the US economy is $15 Trillion growing at 2-3% a year which means the US economy is adding $300-$450 Billion a year.  The Indian IT industry in its wildest goals would be happy to be a $100 billion industry in 2010.  Even if the Indian IT industry attains its goals it would still be less than 1/3rd of the growth of the American economy every year.  Its hyperbole to think that this is going to deprive your kids of a job.

But I am here because the country of my ancestors didn't understand the changing world; it couldn't change its technology and its philosophy and its notions of social mobility fast enough to fight off the European colonists, who won not so much with the might of advanced weaponry as with the clear logical philosophy of the Enlightenment. Their systems of thinking conquered our own. So, since independence, Indians have had to learn; we have had to slog for long hours in the classroom while the children of other countries went out to play.

Ah, Suketu you might want to get out of your upper middle class Indian perspective and smell the roses a bit my friend.  Most Indians *barely* go to school and even when they do, they do it in schools with no text books or competent teachers.  Yes the Cathedral school types might be studying but most Indian schoolkids are just happy to get a "free lunch" in school. 

When I moved to Queens, in New York City, at the age of 14, I found myself, for the first time in my life, considered good at math. In Bombay, math was my worst subject, and I regularly found my place near the bottom of the class rankings in that rigorous subject. But in my American school, so low were their standards that I was - to my parents' disbelief - near the top of the class. It was the same in English and, unexpectedly, in American history, for my school in Bombay included a detailed study of the American Revolution. My American school curriculum had, of course, almost nothing on the subcontinent's freedom struggle. I was mercilessly bullied during the 1979-80 hostage crisis, because my classmates couldn't tell the difference between Iran and India. If I were now to move with my family to India, my children - who go to one of the best private schools in New York - would have to take remedial math and science courses to get into a good school in Bombay.

Why do I hear such reasoning so often from Indian immigrants?  Let us see - you were part of a group of fortunate well educated, upper class Indians who managed to migrate from India to Queens.  There you ended up going to a public school and found yourself to be more competent than the students there.  What is the surprise ? How would a student who actually went to a "public school" in India compare to one in Queens or what if Suketu had attended Philips Exeter instead of a public high school.  Also I am not sure where Suketu's kids go to school but the other day I was looking at one of my partner's kids homework (she goes to a private school in Cambridge) and I found her Math homework hard - granted I am not that smart but still I am a product of the "fabled Indian school system"

The rich countries can't have it both ways. They can't provide huge subsidies for their agricultural conglomerates and complain when Indians who can't make a living on their farms then go to the cities and study computers and take away their jobs. Why are Indians willing to write code for a tenth of what Americans make for the same work? It's not by choice; it's because they're still struggling to stand on their feet after 200 years of colonial rule.

Whoa, hold on a sec.  Now I am totally lost.  Are you for a second suggesting that because of agricultural subsidies in the west, rural farmers in India are leaving their fields to write code.  That's absurd.  Indians are willing to write code for 1/10th the price because that is a lot of money in India and its worthwhile for them to do so economically.  They are not making any grand statement on colonial rule - they are just trying to make a buck like everyone else.

But we have a resource of incalculable worth right here to help us compete: the immigrants who've been given a new life in America. There are many more Indians in the United States than there are Americans in India. Indian-Americans will help America understand India, trade with it to our mutual benefit. Just as Arab-Americans can help us fight Al Qaeda, Indian-Americans can help us deal with the emerging economic superpower that is India. This is the return of the gift of citizenship.

And just in case, I'm making sure my children learn Hindi.

Yes Suketu, I agree that we "Indian American" immigrants can help America.  We help America and Americans understand India better and help them to take advantage of the economic opportunities India offers.  India's emergence as an economic power is not zero sum but rather its a huge positive for the world especially America.  We as Americans benefit as India grows economically as we can then sell India our goods and services (movies, technology, drugs, etc.) and also create economic value by leveraging the tremendous talent India has. 

I am also glad that your kids are learning Hindi.  I am trying to teach my kids Tamil - not because I think this is going to be of economic benefit to them but rather I would like them to stay in touch with their cultural heritage and be able to enjoy their visits to India more. Isn't it ironic that while you are teaching your kids Hindi, there are 300 Million Chinese and 200 Million Indians who are  desperately trying to learn English for economic benefit.  Are they wrong?

India, China and (name your favorite developing country) are all great places and its in all our interests for them to grow and be economically successful.  However lets not get too carried away.  America has 230 years of building a capitalistic society based on property rights and personal freedom that is not easily replicated overnight.  America has an unique ability to absorb people, customs and social mores from all over the world and mix it into the American melting point. This is our biggest strength and until this stops happening I am not worried.  There is no other place in the world where a 16 year old with no money and no family can come to a country and build a career, where an Austrian body builder can marry into blue blood society and became governor, and where immigrants can get a chance to build a life.  That is why my money is in America and why I will make sure that my kids can speak and write English better than I (not too hard).  And Suketu I suggest you also do the same. 


Posted by Venky Ganesan at 01:43 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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This is a great post. I also just got done reading the latest
fortune article . I think the single biggest focus for america in the next few years has to be education. In fact, I think the education market needs to purge itself of doomsayers and get people who can actually execute. Anyway, Awesome post.

Posted by: Sunder | Jul 19, 2005 12:38:06 PM

All said and done. I agree india has still got a long way to go to match or even come close to the US. but in the very long run ..and i mean another 50-60 years ...Its going to even up nicely. You cant ignore sheer number of people in either India or China. taking even a simple %age of people in the population as intelligent and Having the capability to make changes in india ..will overwhelm US. and the thing where the US and its people have to wake up is from their complacency. years of an easy life ..assured jobs ..have made them so. but as the world opens up ....u gotto keep running to even stay in the same place.
Indians and chinese have had a taste of the gud life and
its like blood on the mouth of the tiger..the thirst is there they can see they can visualize the comforts.
earlier the culture in india was more laid back...but now u ask any youngster and its like..they are willing to fight for what they want..and believe me the indians are going to fight tooth and nail for everything. the inferiority complex that was once there is going away.
so its better the US and other developed countries buck up. if they want to remain in the same position as they are right now. wat say

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