In Conversation: Professor Prasanta K. Pattanaik

Dr. Prasanta K. Pattanaik is Emeritus Professor in the Department of Economics, University of California, Riverside, U.S.A.  Born on April 5, 1943 in the Puri District of Odisha, India, he obtained his B.A. degree from the S.C.S. College (Puri), Utkal University, Odisha in 1963. He obtained his MA (1965) and PhD (1968) degrees from the Delhi School of Economics, University of Delhi. His research interests include welfare economics and the theory of social choice; decision theory; measurement of deprivation and living standards; and development economics. He has been conferred with the Padmashree award by the President of India in 2020. Professor Pattanaik was the President of the Orissa Economics Association (OEA) in 2018.

In an interview about his professional experiences and research pursuits – past and present – Professor Pattanaik shares his views with Dr. Amarendra Das, Secretary of the OEA and Reader-F at NISER, Bhubaneswar. Here are the details of the interview.

Amarendra Das (AD): What motivated you to work on the voting theory for your doctoral thesis?

Prasanta K. Pattanaik (PKP):  When I completed my M. A. at the University of Delhi in 1965, I had two favorite areas in economics, namely, microeconomic theory and the theory of international trade. This was understandable: Amartya Sen taught us microeconomic theory and Jagdish Bhagwati taught us the theory of international trade, and both of them were superb teachers.  Shortly after I passed my M.A., I was looking into the theory of portfolio choice to see if I could possibly do some work there. But then I met Amartya Sen and sought his advice about a possible area of research. He suggested welfare economics and asked me to read K.J. Arrow’s Social Choice and Individual Values. The book was unlike much of the economics that I had studied earlier. The subject was a blend of economics, political philosophy and ethics. It used formal logic as its analytical tool rather than calculus which was being used in much of economics at that time.  I had some interest in philosophy, but my prior reading in philosophy had been confined to Indian philosophy. Thanks to Mr. Gopal Patnaik, an inspiring teacher who taught me logic in my undergraduate years, I had a good training in traditional logic, but my knowledge of modern logic was very limited and gathered from my own piecemeal reading of parts of A. Tarski’s Introduction to Logic[1]. Thus, I wasnot at all well-equipped to work on Arrow’s book.  But the subject of the book fascinated me and I decided to work on it for my Ph. D.

AD: Please tell us about your early job career.  

PKP: The first 10 years (1965-1975) of my career after my M.A. degree involved moves between different institutions (Ramjas College, University of Delhi; Delhi School of Economics; Harvard University; Nuffield College, Oxford University; and Delhi School of Economics, again). I do not want to tax the patience of your readers with details of these moves in my early career. I would just like to mention that, while my peripatetic existence during 1965-1975 did not make for an easy life, I am glad that I went through it. It gave me a variety of experience and some self-confidence.  

AD: How do you see the growth of research in India and abroad in the field of social choice theory?

PKP: There has been a phenomenal growth of the theory of social choice and welfare economics during the last 60 years. What is heartening is that young scholars are continuing to enter the area and making important contributions.  To get an idea of the wide range of issues currently being tackled in this area, one just has to glance through some recent volumes of the journal Social Choice and Welfare, a major outlet for research on the theory of social choice and welfare. 

Let me take this opportunity to try to dispel a rather narrow perception of the theory of social choice and welfare economics. I have come across many people who tend to identify the theory of social choice and welfare with attempts to resolve the paradox uncovered by Arrow’s celebrated ‘impossibility theorem’.  This perception is understandable given that Arrow’s Social Choice and Individual Values[2] is a pioneering and monumental contribution to the modern theory of social choice and welfare economics.  But the perception does not do justice to the richness of the subject.  One can distinguish between two distinct streams in modern welfare economics.  The first stream deals with the problem of aggregating diverse opinions of people in a society so as to reach social decisions.  Suppose different people have different rankings of the alternative policies, which are available to the society and only one of which has to be chosen by the society.  How should the society take its decision when faced with such diversity of opinions?  Should the society go by the simple majority rule?  Should it go by Borda’s rule?  Such issues have been discussed and debated ever since the time of the French mathematicians, M. de Condorcet (1743-1794) and J.- Borda (1733-1799).  Arrow’s celebrated theorem belongs to this stream in the theory of social choice and welfare economics. What it shows is that there is no rule for aggregating opinions satisfying certain conditions proposed by Arrow, which are prima facie reasonable. This is a stunning result. It has far reaching implications for many branches of the social sciences and has inspired an enormous literature.  Nevertheless, it would be misleading to identify the theory of social choice and welfare with Arrow’s theorem and the literature that investigates alternative ways of escaping the deep paradox uncovered by that theorem.   There is also a second stream of thought in welfare economics. It is not concerned with Arrow’s problem of aggregating opinions or judgments of individuals.  Instead, it deals with the ethical bases of an individual’s judgments about what the society should or should not do.  Consider just a few examples of the issues which have been discussed in this branch of the literature.

            (i)  What criteria should one use to identify a just social state or to say that one social state is more just than another? Do principles of distributive justice require us to allocate resources among individuals according to their need or according to their ‘merit’? 

            (ii) Should the society necessarily help an individual who is not doing well economically or should the society first ascertain to what extent the person herself is responsible for her not doing well economically? How does one make precise this notion of personal responsibility? 

            (iii) Why does the freedom of individuals in a society matter in assessing the goodness or badness of the state of affairs in the society. What is the relation between an individual’s freedom and her well-being?  How does one precisely define the notion of an individual’s freedom?    

            (iv) Should an individual have the right to take her own decision regarding matters relating to her private life (e.g., her choice of a religion, her choice between vegetarian and non-vegetarian diets, her choice regarding matters of dress, and so on)? What would be a reasonable formal formulation of the notion of individual rights? 

            Note that the examples that I have given above are not directly concerned with Arrow’s problem of aggregating the opinions of individuals in a society.  They are concerned with ethical issues that come up when we form our personal ethical judgments about the state of affairs in a society.

AD:  Please tell us about your present research works and the scope of research in this field for young researchers.

Currently, I am working mainly on the measurement of multidimensional well-being, deprivation and inequality.  Traditionally, economists have identified an individual’s well-being with her utility, utility being interpreted either as desire fulfillment or as happiness.  Also, traditionally, deprivation has been thought of as income poverty and inequality has been visualized as inequality in the distribution of income or wealth. Following the fundamental contributions of Amartya Sen[3] and Martha Nussbaum[4], over the last few decades economists have been increasingly concerned with individual well-being, deprivation and inequality as multi-dimensional concepts. Thus, in the analysis of multidimensional individual well-being, the emphasis is not on the individual’s happiness or desire fulfillment, but on her achievements in terms of attributes such as being well nourished, being in good health, protection from the elements, being able to participate in the affairs of her community, and so on, which people value in their lives. Such attributes constitute the different dimensions of a person’s well-being and the well-being of a person is the value that is attached to her achievements along these different dimensions.  This conception of well-being avoids several problems involved in the notion of individual well-being as happiness or desire fulfillment, which has been so widely used in economics.  But it also gives rise to new and challenging conceptual problems of its own.  For example, if an individual’s well-being is to be identified with the value attached to the individual’s achieved bundle of the relevant attributes, then the question arises as to whose valuation of the attribute bundle should be taken into account.  It may seem reasonable to take the position that one should take into account the valuation of the individual whose well-being is under consideration.  But that raises a major problem in making interpersonal comparisons of well-being. If, as in much of traditional welfare economics, an individual’s well-being is identified with her desire satisfaction or happiness, then it is possible (at least in principle) to compare the well-being of two different individuals since the notions of desire satisfaction and happiness have descriptive content.  In contrast, if an individual’s well-being is identified with the value that she attaches to her own vector of achievements along the different dimensions of well-being, it is not clear how to compare one person’s well-being with that of another since the notion of the value that a person attaches to her own achievement vector does not have any descriptive content.[5] This causes serious difficulties, given that the need for interpersonal comparisons of well-being arises inevitably when we compare different social states in terms of the society’s well-being.

I believe that the measurement of multidimensional well-being, deprivation, and inequality provides much scope for analytical and applied research.           

AD: How do you see the education system (teaching, research, incentives and role of state) in India vis-à-vis that in the U.S.A.?

PKP: It is rather difficult to generalize about educational systems of two countries, especially when they are large countries such as India and the U.S.A. and the conditions often vary widely between different institutions of higher learning located in the same country. But it seems to me that, though one can think of many outstanding centres of teaching and research in India, in general institutions for higher education in India tend to be handicapped by the inadequacy of resources available to them. A vast number of colleges and universities in India have to manage on shoestring budgets.  This often leads to unreasonably heavy teaching loads for instructors and poor library and laboratory facilities for faculty and students.

AD: Since your young days, what all significant changes do you see in Odisha’s economy and society?

PKP: After I left India in 1975 to live elsewhere permanently, I have not spent much time in Odisha.  So my impressions about changes in Odisha’s economy and society are mainly based on my casual observation and anecdotal narratives of friends.  With this initial caveat, let me now try to respond to your question.  I would like to note three points:

            (i) As far as my impression goes, in general the economic condition of ordinary people in Odisha has improved over the last 60 years.  I believe that this impression is corroborated by available data.  At the same time, it is also my impression that, as in many other states of India, in Odisha also, a significant chunk of the resources that the government allocates to promote the well-being of poorer sections of the state’s population does not really reach the intended beneficiaries. I do not know whether reasonably firm data are available for us to be able to estimate the magnitude of such “leakages”.

            (ii) It seems to me that over the last several decades, the rural population in Odisha has become much more politicized.  There are two aspects of it.  On the one hand, people have become more aware of their rights and more ready to fight for those rights, which, of course, is a good thing.  On the other hand, partisan political conflicts in rural areas seem to have spiked considerably. The resulting erosion of trust and social cohesion has a very tangible cost.

            (iii) The middle class in Odisha seems to be less aware of its cultural roots now as compared to 60 years ago. Lack of basic familiarity with Odia literature and cultural traditions seems to be widespread now in Odisha despite much greater access to higher education.  As I have said earlier, this is my personal impression. I shall be only too happy if my impression is false.           

AD: What are your views on the way economics as a discipline has evolved in the past few decades?

PKP: In the past few decades, economics has become an immensely richer and diverse subject. Many relatively new areas of economics have emerged and expanded very fast.  Let me give just one example: over a relatively short period, behavioral economics has become an important and flourishing field of research in economics. The use of advanced mathematical and statistical tools has become quite common in economics and the resulting gain in analytical rigour has been very valuable.  At the same time, the links between mainstream economics and subjects such as philosophy, politics and sociology seem to have become weaker, which, I believe, is rather unfortunate.   

 AD: The present state of Odisha will be 100 in 2036. What would you suggest as next steps for the state to prepare for?

PKP:  If I were to prepare my own wish list for Odisha, eradicating malnutrition of children and making high-quality school education available to all children would come at the top of that list.  There is no reason why we cannot attain such basic objectives even before 2036. Much can be done with the resources available to the state if the already existing development programs can be implemented effectively.   

AD: What role should the Orissa Economics Association play for development concerns and what can we do collectively to make it a vibrant and meaningful institution?

PKP: I believe that the primary goal of the Orissa Economics Association should be to promote in Odisha high-quality teaching as well as research in economics. Without effective teaching right from the undergraduate level, one cannot hope to turn out well-trained researchers in economics.  I understand that economics is a fairly popular subject among students in Odisha.  But, from what I have heard from many people, undergraduate students of many colleges have very limited access to good text books in economics.  Can anything be done about it?  Is it possible to arrange, during summer holidays, advanced lectures for economics teachers working in remote colleges of Odisha, who may not have access to such lectures otherwise?  The Orissa Economics Association is a vibrant forum for research.  I very much hope that the Association will also serve as an effective force for bringing about improvements in the quality of the teaching of economics in Odisha.              

[1] A. Tarski, Introduction to Logic, Oxford University Press, New York, 1941.

2. K.J.Arrow, Social Choice and Individual Values, 1st ed., Wiley, New York, 1961; 2nd ed., Wiley, New York, 1963.

3. See, for instance,  A. Sen, Commodities and Capabilities, North-Holland , Amsterdam, 1985; and A. Sen, The Standard of Living, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1987.

4. See M. Nussbaum, “Nature, Function and Capability: Aristotle on Political Distribution”, Oxford Studies in Ancient Philosophy, Supplementary Vol. I, 1988, pp. 145-84; and M. Nussbaum, “Human Functioning and Social Justice: In Defence of Aristotelian Essentialism”, Political Theory, Vol. 20, 1992, pp. 202-46.

5. See Amartya Sen, Commodities and Capabilities, North-Holland , Amsterdam, 1985, pp. 36-38.


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