The ways of our lives

Posted in Bollywood, culture, development, economics, history, macro, movies, music, politics, society by jrahman on October 19, 2011

I don’t know whether the West has anything like the ‘social drama’ (সামাজিক  in Bangla) genre of Desi films.  Hrishikesh Mukherjee’s Abhimaan is a very good example of this genre.  There is great music — composed by SD Burman, sung by Lata Mungeshkar and Mohammed Rafi: arguably two of the greatest voices of the 20th century.  Jaya Bachchan gives one of the best performances of her life, while a young Amitabh Bachchan does not play an angry man.  There is no dhishum dhishum.  But there is some poignant social commentary.  Nothing too radical or risque mind you.  And all ends happily, just as any great Desi movie should — we don’t believe in sequels, it’s always happily everafter for us.

Oh, did I mention great music?  This song is hardly the best in the movie.  But this post is not about music.  Not directly anyhow.  Rather, this song captures an interesting point about how we live.

Have you noticed how people listen to the song in the clip?

Abhimaan is a few years older than me.  But I do recall some of these appliances.   

I heard stories of my grandparents’ record collections, which were played on a কলের গান — gramophone player  — purchased in Calcutta before partition.  I also heard stories about these being looted in 1971.  We didn’t have a turn table in our house, and didn’t listen to vinyl records.

We listened to ‘audio cassettes’ in a Panasonic two-in-one.  My maternal grandmother used to listen to a transistor, while my paternal grandfather had a radio — the kind shown by the couple walking in the clip.  I don’t remember the brand of either.  And we had a Sony 12-inch black-and-white TV.

We got a ghetto-blaster in the 1980s — no idea what the brand was.  VCR and colour TV came in that decade too — Akai and Sharp, I think.  I wasn’t allowed to get the ultimate status symbol of my teen years — a Sony walkman — until the mid-1990s.

That’s the stuff that provides at least part of my rock-and-roll memories.  I continued head-banging, to cassette tapes — I had an original tape of Nevermind until a few months ago — into the 1990s.  Of course like everyone else, I acquired proper stereo systems — a second hand Sanyo first, then a standard Sony.  And for some odd reason, I got into short wave and ham radio in the early 1990s.

I don’t remember how I discovered Napster.  But it was just after I reacquainted myself with Bangladesh (and the neighbourhood).  Online file sharing took me back to Rafi, Lata, Kishore, SD Burman, Abbasuddin, Debabrata — stuff my father listened to.  And in 2000, I was writing proposal essays about the microeconomic and growth theory implications of this new technology — that’s the stuff of its own post, for another day.  

It seems like a blink between Metallica vs Napster and i-pod/phone/pad.

I am now halfway through discarding hundreds of CDs acquired over the past two decades.  Next will be all the DVDs — easily over 200 of them.  Stuff recorded on the camcorder in the 1990s, currently in VHS tapes, will have to be digitised too.  The aim is to have a fully rationalised entertainment repository by the end of the year.  (The aim is also decisively win the battle of the bulge.  I’ll probably fail on both counts.)

Dear reader, the above monologue is hardly unique to me.  The male insecurities portrayed in Abhimaan still plagues us.  But in my lifetime, as in yours, the way we listen to music, or watch recorded images, have changed radically (though some things remain the same).  No doubt you’ve had enough of Steve Jobs, so I won’t push that angle.  Instead, let’s just stop here and think about how else our lives have changed.

And when we do that, it turns out that the answer depends crucially on who ‘we’ are.

If ‘we’ refers to the West, may be things haven’t really changed all that much in recent decades.  Observing the kitchen during his lifetime, Paul Krugman wrote 15 years ago:

By any reasonable standard, the change in how America lived between 1918 and 1957 was immensely greater than the change between 1957 and the present.

I have no idea what Krugman’s kitchen looks like.  But there aren’t really anything my kitchen that someone in my income group wouldn’t have had 15 years ago.  Tyler Cowen has expanded on the theme that things haven’t been changing all that much for most people for a few decades now.  If there is one economics book you’re going to read in 2011, you should read his The Great Stagnation.  To paraphrase Krugman, productivity slowdown isn’t everything, but in the long run, it is almost everything. 

When you see all the populist rage in the West, keep in mind that the median family income has stagnated for nearly four decades.  As Cowen says:

If pre-1973 growth rates had continued, for example, median family income in the United States would now be more than $90,000, as opposed to its current range of around $50,000.

When you hear both John Boener and Paul Krugman talk about losing the America of their childhood, remember that they are both right — American economy hasn’t been kind to working class white men in the past few decades. 

But what about ‘back home’?  What if we apply the kitchen test to a typical middle class Bangladeshi family? 

My parents bought their first fridge in the late 1970s.  Gas stoves came around the same time, though firewood and kerosene stoves were also kept well into the 1980s — you never knew what would face a shortage in the markets when.  We didn’t have a microwave until my parents moved to the West.  My in-laws didn’t get one until the late 1990s.  None of them have a proper oven — though my parents have built a tandoor in their country house.  Moving from kitchen, both households got washing machines and air conditioners in the late 1990s.  But the electricity crisis means their utility isn’t as much as one might have thought. 

Any Bangladeshi, or South Asian, reader would have a similar story.  Indeed, so would most non-western folks.  And if we did the same thought experiment with what our grandparents had in the 1950s and 1960s, or their parents did a quarter century earlier, we would conclude that not only have we seen our lives change more than what was experienced by the earlier generations, for many (if not most) of us, there are plenty of changes yet to come. 

The anecdotal stuff in the above paragraphs are actually backed up neatly in the data.  In the past few decades, a group of countries — first the newly industrialised countries of East Asia, then major South East Asian economies, then China, and most recently India — have seen their per capita GDP rise relative to that of the US. 

This slow but inexorable convergence in living standards achieved over the recent decades is the most important reason to be hopeful about countries like Bangladesh, where decades of steady progress now means that anyone who has enough to eat also has access to the wider world that television provides.  And yet, there is nothing inevitable about this process.  Particularly, actions in the rich West (or North) may well risk it.

If any reader is involved with the populist movements of the West, I urge you to think very hard about what your populism could lead to.  Libertarians should think about the xenophobia that pervades your right wing populist allies.  Progressives should think about the protectionist sentiments lurking among your fellow occupiers.  Maybe you don’t wish to hurt the real 99%.  But your enthusiasm and activism could be hijacked by those whose actions will have that effect. 

A better world is surely possible.  But so is a grim replay of the 1930s.  I shudder when I hear politicians across the spectrum talk about jobs being stolen by China and India. 

Do you?

2 Responses

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  1. Crisis Pepun said, on November 2, 2011 at 3:14 am

    Awesome Article…!

  2. সাতকাহন « Mukti said, on September 21, 2012 at 1:48 am

    […] – Kasparov says there is a great stagnation.  (My take). […]

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