Interview Insights: Dr Saibal Kar

Dr Saibal Kar is currently professor of economics at the Centre for Studies in Social Sciences, Calcutta (CSSSC), India and a Research Fellow of the Institute of Labor Economics (IZA) Bonn. He completed his PhD degree in Economics from Northern Illinois University, USA and his MSc degree in Economics from Calcutta University, India. Dr Kar is the Managing Editor of the South Asian Journal of Macroeconomics and Public Finance (Sage) and also serves as the Director (Hon.) of the Eastern Regional Centre, ICSSR. He has authored the book “The Outsiders: Economic Reform and Informal Labour in a Developing Economy” (jointly with Sugata Marjit), which was published by the Oxford University Press in 2011. To read more about his work, visit: https://www.cssscal.org/faculty_saibal_kar.php

What are your current research interests and what prompted you to pursue those specific areas?

I am trained in Labor Economics as my principal field of interest, but more generally I work on different issues categorized as applied microeconomics. This would imply that the basic tenets of microeconomics at the level of an individual or a household, a firm, and often specific government policies with impact on certain sectors within an economy as also on factors of production like Land, Labor and Capital are looked into categorically. These could involve topics in International Economics, Public Economics – including but not limited to corruption, crime, environmental economics, institutions, etc. Within Labor Economics proper, I am predominantly engaged with questions on international labor migration, and remain fascinated by so many dimensions one can explore either remaining within the classical ambit of this field or in the interface of international factor movements, public finance, production organization, public policies, legal provisions, ethical questions, etc. To me it serves as a never-ending source of ideas.

Apart from these, in recent times I have worked on the influence of Big Data analytics on socio-economic issues, not simply because it is popular right now – which often matters for the subject of Economics, but more so because I came across a few interesting questions that required understanding how big data algorithms can help analyze patterns and trends otherwise hard to determine from smaller data sets. I will talk about this subsequently.

What, in your opinion, does Economics have to offer to captivate the mind of a beginner?

Economics, as I see it more and more, has this strange ability to model and analyze all kinds of situations and behavior – both normal and erratic. Apart from some of the basic sciences using their own universality and rigor, I do not think any other subject mixes scientific procedures with social consciousness and comes up with such generalized predictions so successfully as Economics does. It often fails also, which probably makes it even more interesting – because basic science holds this aura of infallibility, which economics does not. But that’s pretty lofty as an attraction for a recent high-school graduate. So, on a more mundane note, I think the ability among a beginner to understand how an individual, a firm or even a government operates under all possible conditions observed at any time is a plus point in favor of launching a good career. When it comes to making decisions about employment or business, financial choices, important public policies, Economics as a subject serves as the bedrock. Therefore, anybody with an analytical bent of mind should find economics as a good starting point in life.

Of all the projects you’ve done, which one stood out from the rest? Which one do you like/dislike the most? What skill set is most important to you in your research work?

It is unfortunate for the discipline that sometimes outcomes of research projects do not meet with adequate success in terms of its impact. One of the issues I worked on was about how lack of transferability of adequate information across countries hurt the choices of skilled workers migrating from one country to another. It was a simple but fundamentally strong theoretical idea that explained a large body of statistical findings around the world. It also explained production organization and welfare levels across countries. I enjoyed working on it but it did not receive sufficient acclaim. I would try to do better in future if I re-work this topic. Later I worked on many projects I liked, and fortunately some of these got some attention from the community of academics and policymakers.

I hated working on one publicly-funded project that was delegated to my institution, and I was a member in the chosen research group. It involved collecting secondary information from designated public officials who were very slow and incompetent about furnishing anything to us. I was in charge of one district, and while in the end I got some data, I disliked every moment of it.

To be able to translate the research question to an objective and workable theoretical and/or empirical model is a research skill that I think is very important.

How can we, as students, learn to bridge the gap between theoretical knowledge and the practical applications of the theories and ideas that we learn in the classroom?

It depends partly on the teachers to guide the students to practical applications of any theory – microeconomics or macroeconomics to begin with. It also helps to be aware of the data sources which have been used previously to test important theories. Fortunately, some of the databases are free and presently accessible online, which could help the students get a first-hand feel of the data once the context has been introduced. For example, Reserve Bank of India maintains all-India and state-specific indicators of most macroeconomic variables of interest, ranging from inflation rates, unemployment level, consumer prices, foreign exchange reserve, various monetary indicators both as stock and flow, and of course quarterly GDP, state domestic product, share of industry or services, etc. These are the common variables that we use all the time and could be picked up by students to see if casual relations could be established. Simple correlations between two variables with long time horizons and also plotting them by use of MS-Excel-like programs generate a lot of interest in ‘seeing’ what is being discussed. In economics, drawing a graph or getting a plot is more eloquent than a whole paragraph. Similar data sets are available from the Federal Reserve Bank of St Louis Website for free; from ICSSR-NASSDOC website also for free by registering your Email and letting them know that you will use the data for academic purpose only (and not for resale).

Benjamin Franklin once said – Tell me and I forget, teach me and I remember, involve me and I learn. How can we inspire students to want not only to gain knowledge for a career but to enjoy learning?

In recent times the use of IT-based solutions and access to the Internet have made life so much easier to keep the motivation for learning run non-stop. For example, I use some lectures by Prof. Kaushik Basu available online to motivate UG students (I do not normally teach UG, but had to on a couple of occasions) on issues of Behavioral Economics and Development Economics, which drew recent Nobel Prizes. I am sharing this link, and you can further share if you like (it is in public domain and not restricted): https://www.parisschoolofeconomics.eu/en/economics-for-everyone/meeting-formation/public-conferences/2016/15-june-kaushik-basu-the-social-and-behavioral-roots-of-development/

You will see that such readings (or viewings) are pure pleasure and there is no sermon in it while getting you thoroughly engaged. One can hold a question-answer session after that. In addition a number of Hollywood films by top directors and actors also qualify as motivation to explore financial and behavioral (sometimes, darker) practices in various countries. Our everyday questions come from many of these sources. Students could be contributing to these questions based on what they observe.

How would you describe your teaching style in one word or sentence?

It is really for students to tell. For me, it would be enthusiastic and engaging.

If you had to choose an alternate career, what would it be?

Football Player

What do you like to do for fun?

Cooking and watching football and basketball

What other academic or non-academic subjects interest you?

Geography and Literature

What is your success mantra?

Never back down!

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