Saturday, March 07, 2009

Lifting millions of readers out of reality

I'm constantly reading accounts of corporate globalization that extrapolate from a single anecdote a metaphor for entire nations.

Take, for example, this:

Tucked away behind a busy street in south Mumbai stands a smart, clean, and modern apartment block.

In it, lives the Vas family. Austine, 40, and his wife, Philomena, 35. They are typical of India's burgeoning middle class - a group which has exploded in size over the past fifteen years and is responsible for driving what economists call the 'new India'.

I've never read any of Tom Friedman's books, but I'm willing to bet that shit like this comprises 95% of them -- prompting a reviewer of "Hot, Flat, and Crowded" to chide its author that "the plural of 'anecdote' is not 'data.'"

Nonetheless, the approach may be the best on offer for the business press, which has some stake in selling the "social benefits" attached to making money hand over fist in desperate societies. After all, nobody wants to believe they are motivated solely for that reason!

Still, every once in a while some numbers slip through the cracks that make your head spin:

Since economic reforms kicked off in 1991, the share of Indians employed in the informal sector — where they are not covered by stringent, socialist-era labor laws from the time of the cold war — has grown steadily to more than 90 percent, according to a recent government-commissioned report.

Among them, the report found, nearly three-fourths lived on less than 20 cents a day and had virtually no safety net.

Now, I don't know what a "stringent, socialist-era labor law" entails, but if it includes "virtually" some safety net, then it is probably the kind of policy that the other 90% of the Indian workforce would like to have; as opposed to the Empty Stomach Program, which helps drive what economists call the "new India."

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