RIP Deena Khatkhate, far-sighted IMF and RBI economist

Deena Khatkhate, who raised the quality of economic discourse through his work at the Reserve Bank of India and the IMF and his editorship of World Development, has passed away. A review of one of his books by Charles Collyns and myself gives a flavor of Deena’s intellectual contributions and independence of mind.


“Life is lived forwards but understood backwards,” wrote the philosopher Kierkegaard. This collection of a life-time’s work of the Indian economist Deena Khatkhate can be understood as an act of rebellion against much of his intellectual inheritance: socialism and central planning, Keynesian macroeconomics, and an adversarial view of North-South relationships. Instead, these essays put forward a spirited (but not uncritical) defense of capitalism and markets, espouse a macroeconomics as much Friedmanite as Keynesian, and urge a constructive approach to relationships between developing and advanced nations.

The last of these themes is illustrated in arguably the best article in the collection, which is on the brain drain—the emigration of skilled workers from developing to advanced countries. In this article, published in F&D in 1971, Khatkhate challenged the prevalent view of the brain drain as an evil, a form of aid from the poor to the rich. He showed that because most emigration occurred from developing countries with a clear excess supply of skilled workers, it was actually a social safety valve for the poor countries. And because it encouraged the “cross fertilization of ideas” between skilled workers from the poor nations and the richer nations, the brain drain could be “a desirable investment.”

There are examples of this prediction coming to pass, such as the success of software exports from countries like India, Ireland, and Israel to more advanced nations. Ashish Arora, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, has shown that this success is due in part to “the reserve army of underemployed engineers and scientists in these countries [that] had previously migrated to the United States and the United Kingdom.” Through their work abroad, this diaspora gained experience with the business practices of their future customers—an earlier brain drain had turned into a brain gain, as Khatkhate predicted.

Other essays on North-South relationships in the book include one on “conflict and cooperation in the inter- national monetary system.” Written in 1987, it anticipates many reforms of the IMF and other international agencies—such as giving “greater voice” to the South in decision making—that have taken place or have come to the front of the agenda. To be sure, Khatkhate was one of many making similar suggestions. But, as he notes in the preface, he “received some flak” for this article since he was employed at the IMF at the time. In any event, Khatkhate soon left the IMF, after two decades of service, and went on to become editor of World Development, a scholarly journal.

Prior to joining the IMF, Khatkhate worked for over a decade—from 1955 to 1968—at the Reserve Bank of India, the country’s central bank. Not surprisingly, therefore, a second major theme of the essays is the role of macroeconomic and financial policies in promoting economic growth. In the 1950s, the Keynesian view advocated running fiscal deficits to promote growth in developing countries. The rationale was that since there were underemployed resources in these economies, heavy government spending could lead to employment of those resources without triggering inflation. However, Khatkhate writes that the negative evidence on the actual impact of government spending convinced him that “all that happened as a result of heavy resort to fiscal deficit was inflation, decline in income, saving and investment.” Khatkhate’s views on monetary policy also differed from the 1960s Keynesian view, emphasizing as they did the need for rules to guide the central bank rather than give it too much discretion.

A third theme is the rhetoric vs. the reality of socialism and central planning. Khatkhate blamed socialism for trying to deliver both growth and equity and delivering neither. The real problem in developing countries, he said, was not so much the skewed income distribution but “improving the standard of the whole mass of people, which is possible only with rapid economic growth.” These views were far from the mainstream when Khatkhate wrote them in 1978. He is not, however, an unvarying defender of capitalism and free markets. On the free mobility of capital, for instance, his views are close to that of his compatriot Jagdish Bhagwati in favoring a cautious approach, given the evidence that hasty liberalization can contribute to financial crises.

Posted by at 10:57 AM

Labels: Profiles of Economists


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