Old Wounds

When pride takes a fall it’s the same the world over.

After Boris’s election, I caught a little bit of his gung-ho optimism. I began to think it could be my year for the Nobel. Sadly my hopes seem to be fading as fast as Boris’s smugness. Rumour now has it that Gordon Granman is in the running for the Nobel. This is a particularly bitter blow as he and I have history. And it is not a good one.

When I was (relatively) young, I was appointed as a research fellow at Harvard to work on theories of economic development. It was very exciting. All the professors were in a froth. Their theories had actually been put into practice in Africa and things weren’t working out at all well.

Actual testing of economic theories in the real world is thankfully a rare event. The other well-known example is Robert Merton and Myron Scholes. Their theories on finance were disproved within a year of winning the Nobel prize after they crashed the global financial system.  Very embarrassing.

So Harvard had hired a PR guru to help deal with this potential disaster. He held workshops, which was quite revolutionary at the time and didn’t go down well with the professors. They did not like to be asked to “brainstorm”.

Anyway, they were tearing what was left of their hair out. It just seemed so obvious that growth in Africa had taken a nosedive since the ‘80s when so-called “structural adjustment” packages were implemented. You really didn’t have to do fancy econometric regressions to see that.

My inspiration came as I got increasingly fed up with being asked to “have a nice day”. Why did American culture have to be so irritatingly different? I then remembered an anthropologist boyfriend explaining endlessly about “Ubuntu” and how this meant African culture was different from the West – the relationship didn’t last long but the theory did.

Well, I happened to mention this to Gordon Granman and he became very excited. He kept hitting his head and saying “Yes, yes, yes…”. So to cut a long story short, we wrote a joint paper on why African cultural norms were a barrier to development. We explained how these had led to their poor economic performance rather than perfectly sensible economic policies based on sound economic theory.

The article was published in the very top journal: the Quarterly Journal of Economics.  This was an incredible feat for a paper on development economics, a subject generally low on the pecking order.

But then on my return to Oxford, I bumped into Cal Anders in our college cloisters. He excitedly told me about “Granman’s theory” of economic development and African culture.  It was then that I realised that I was not going to see much of the credit for my idea.

When two years later Gordon published an article on the effects of the distance from the magnetic poles on economic development in Africa, I couldn’t help myself. I lashed out. I told Professor Hemlich that I thought Gordon’s idea seemed like it came from a bipolar cult.  This must have got passed on and I didn’t receive any further invitations to visit Harvard.

Now I am also no longer persona grata with our building’s manager. While daydreaming about my Nobel prize ceremony, I bumped into him coming down the stairs. He took a tumble and opened up an old wound he gained when Mugabe’s thugs invaded his farm in Zimbabwe.  We are now both nursing old wounds.

Verity Bastion

Verity is an emeritus professor of economics now living in a retirement apartment after a distinguished career with her husband, Thomas. She writes a regular column for The Mint on …

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