issue 173 - July 1987
In praise of seminars
You may not like seminars, I may not like seminars, but what will happen to the superstructure we belong to if nobody likes seminars?
So you agree to attend yet another one. You have to fly to a distant city. The plane fare, going and coming, is equivalent to roughly three times the country's annual per capita income, which is even less than one hundred American dollars. The habitual attenders of conferences and seminars come from all over the world; they have to be billeted in hotels conforming to international standards. At least, the hotel tariffs must not fall below international standards. The price tag for a night's stay in the hotel room where you are put up, meals excluded, works out at just about the annual national per capita income. Soon, the calculator in your mind learns to behave cerebrally: you begin to tot up the expenses incurred on your behalf by the organizers of the seminar in terms of units of per capita national income, PCNI for short. Plane and taxi fare, the hotel room for three nights, meals and refreshments, the honorarium for the rubbishy paper you presented, the proportionate part of the general overheads - by the time the seminar is over and you fly back to your home town, almost 10 units of PCNI get spent in order that you could participate. Despite your subjective aversion, perhaps you do have to attend on the average, even within the country, at least four such seminars every year. After all, how could you say no when the seminars were supposed to discuss such themes as the international debt crisis, disinvestment and South Africa, the role of NGOs in human resources development, AIDS and the underdeveloped world, and rock music, ethnicity and exchange entitlement?
Are you, then, the harbinger of income inequalities? Since, in the course of a bare 10 days, you spend the equivalent of 40 units of national per capita income, are you thereby depriving 40 of your compatriots of their life and living for an entire year? You soon learn to divest yourself of such discomforting thoughts. Nature abhors a vacuum. Had you refused the invitation to the seminars, some other individuals would have filled your slot; the expenses which, in retrospect, make you feel somewhat guilt-ridden would have been incurred in any event. Besides, be reasonable, you cannot on your own usher in a cultural revolution.
Consider also this other aspect. What will happen to healthy international relations if persons of your ilk begin to shun seminars? Their banalities notwithstanding, conferences and seminars, howsoever obliquely, serve a purpose. Foreign scholars come in droves to attend them; it is important for you to interact with such distinguished people. Didn't that smart fox, Winston Churchill, sum it up neatly some 50 years ago: jaw-jaw is to be preferred to war-war?
And, at this stage, statisticians will chip in with their point of view. Given your country's economic framework, seminars contribute to shoring up the national income in their absence, income from the services sector will shrink, and there will actually be a fall in per capita income. So be proud; by condescending to attend seminars, you are participating in great patriotic endeavour. Seminars are an economic activity; many incidental incomes are generated when these are on. You are not taking away the year's income of 10 of your countrymen by attending such seminars; on the contrary, you are ensuring that they come to such income. Shouldn't you therefore increase the frequency of your participation in seminars and conferences? The larger the number of seminars you attend, the faster will be the rate of growth of national income. Apart from other things, please also consider this possibility. In the course of the discussions, you will, perhaps lazily, perhaps absent-mindedly, let drop a thought; its wisdom will be contested by another participant others will join in; challenges will be met by responses, and new challenges will follow. From the resulting mayhem, the idea of holding yet another seminar will germinate, thus striking a blow for the cause of national income growth.
What therefore emerges is a clash between your instinctive dislike of seminars and your acquired knowledge of accelerated national economic growth these can bring about. It is a toss-up. You cannot, for the present, change the system. True, with a different kind of relationship between the base and the superstructure, it would be possible to have a much faster growth of national income, a growth which would be more evenly spread, and one which would not have to depend upon the vacuity of seminars to sustain itself. But since that arcadia is not yet to be, why not accept the philosophy of a-bird-in-the-hand-is-worth-two-in-the-bush, and join up? Or shall we have another seminar to thrash out the issue? What do you know? With some deft pulling of wires, we might even arrange some international funding for it. The prospects are excellent - must you be a spoilsport?
Ashok Mitra is an economist, politician and dilettante
who has been Chief Economic Adviser to the Indian
Government and Finance Minister in West Bengal.