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Cricket good for economy, but mah-jongg better

Cricket good for economy, but mah-jongg better
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First Published: Fri, Apr 01 2011. 10 08 PM IST
Updated: Fri, Apr 01 2011. 10 08 PM IST
Cricket versus Baseball as an Engine of Growth By Howard Wall, University of London, http://research.stlouisfed.org/econ/wall/cricket.pdf
This paper, first published in the Royal Economic Society Newsletter in July 1995, is an absolutely brilliant parody of research papers in economics. A classic work of its genre, the author was, till recently, vice-president and regional economics adviser at the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis.
Howard Wall starts by invoking Alfred Marshall’s alleged dictum that the sport best suited to be an engine of economic growth “involved the carrying, and sometimes the tossing, of a ball; and the frequent collision of opposing bodies”, which led to much discussion about the opposing claims of American football and rugby. But the ground was cut under the feet of these two games by mathematicians Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead, who found, after some complicated mathematics, that “the necessary, but not sufficient, conditions for a sport to be an engine of growth are (1) that it uses an ash implement to strike a round object; and (2) that at any time the majority of players spend their time standing idly in an expanse of grass, or sitting on a wooden bench doing nothing”. Naturally, that pointed to cricket and baseball, and a heated debate on the merits of the two games took place, a debate made all the keener when a Canadian mathematician proved that the number of sports “that can satisfy the Russell-Whitehead conditions, and create economic growth, is exactly one”. Worse, he said that some sports that satisfied the conditions could even lead to economic contraction. That, says Wall, proved that not only could only one of the two games be good for growth, but the other could actually have an adverse effect.
Wall continues in this richly comic vein, and his debate on the relative merits of baseball and cricket as drivers of economic growth is hilarious. To take one example, he says that economic growth is the result of people doing the most pointless and tedious tasks for long hours, a condition both baseball and cricket satisfy.
A French economist aptly named Le Point then made the point that he couldn’t see any point in either cricket or baseball. Wall says his most biting insight was that “there is a fine line between playing baseball and standing in a pasture dressed like an idiot”, an observation that could equally well apply to cricket. Le Point’s critique was so devastating that all traces of the debate were expunged from the literature, with later editions of John Maynard Keynes’ famous treatise The General Theory of Employment, Interest, Money and Cricket dropping his 25th chapter on the role of cricket in ending the Great Depression.
Wall then says that modern statistical techniques and availability of data make it possible to analyse whether cricket-playing countries do better than baseball-playing ones. After fooling around with some regressions, he concluded that baseball has led to higher growth rates in baseball-playing countries, while playing cricket has actually subtracted from the growth of cricket-playing countries. His recommendation: “For emerging countries without a history of cricket or baseball, baseball instruction and subsidies should be an immediate priority.”
Wall was writing in 1995 and there’s no doubt that he would have changed his conclusion if he was writing his spoof today. Obviously, India’s spectacular growth rate is in no small measure due to its cricketing skill, a prowess that came to full flower only after we won the World Cup in 1983.
Our economic growth rates jumped up immediately. A baseball-playing nation like Japan, on the other hand, has declined precipitously. Keynes was right about cricket after all.
Or was he? How is it that China, which doesn’t play cricket, has such a high rate of growth? To find out what drives growth in China, please read Adam Smith’s seminal work, The Wealth of Mah-Jongg Playing Nations.
Write to simplyeconomics@livemint.com
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First Published: Fri, Apr 01 2011. 10 08 PM IST