Setting the Bar

Jagdish Bhagwati

Clear Purpose

Professor Jagdish Bhagwati believes that academic scholarship and real-world impact should go hand in hand

By Amy Feldman

Fall 2011

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Economists are sometimes accused of devising grand, complicated theories that purport to explain the world but then exist apart from it. Jagdish Bhagwati, University Professor of Economics and Law, turns that critique on its head: He believes in the power of economics to affirmatively create a better world. As one of the most widely respected proponents of free trade in America and beyond, Bhagwati is bridging the gap between the theories of international trade and the legal frameworks that enable it.

Bhagwati, who turned 77 this summer and is also a senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, works at a pace that would tire many men half his age. He is finishing up a new book (his fifth since 2004) on illegal immigration, teaching at the Law School, and writing, blogging, and lecturing. In the midst of doing all of that, Bhagwati has been instrumental in strengthening ties between the Law School and India. Last year, the government of that country funded a new constitutional law chair named after Dr. Bhimrao Ramji Ambedkar (a renowned Indian lawyer, politician, and civil rights activist who studied at Columbia) and two fellowships in Bhagwati’s name. He speaks with great pride of those gifts, the connections they will foster, and how Columbia has shaped the lives of so many from the country of his birth. “Dr. Ambedkar was the father of the Indian constitution,” Bhagwati says. “He was an untouchable, and in his memoirs he writes that, at Columbia, it was the first time he had experienced social equality.”

Mid-summer, in his sun-filled corner office, Bhagwati speaks most animatedly about the importance of using his expertise and knowledge to help spur change that has a positive effect on people’s lives. He argues that academics must throw themselves into public policy conversations in order to have an impact on the real world. “The economists and the social scientists should not be writing just for each other,” says Bhagwati, who has published more than 200 op-ed articles and has trained students to write financial opinion pieces. “I do think one of the most important things, even for a scholarly person like me, is to work the system to be able to influence policy. And that’s where I think, partly, my interest in law comes from.”

For Bhagwati, trade is an important lever for economic equality, and law is integral to the discipline. To understand any trade dispute that is settled at the World Trade Organization, he says, one needs to understand not just economics, but also law. Bhagwati immersed himself in the legal aspects of trade two decades ago as an economic policy adviser to the director general of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the precursor to the WTO. “I got my hands dirty, and got interested, and realized how important it was to look at the fine print,” Bhagwati says.

Today, as part of his work at the Law School, Bhagwati teaches two courses on WTO law in conjunction with two prominent law professors: Petros Mavroidis at the Law School and Merit Janow ’88 at the School of International and Public Affairs. At the same time, he also is branching out. With the nearly 10-year-old Doha round of trade talks stalled, Bhagwati says he is currently writing more about other important issues, as well.

Most recently, he has redirected focus to his forthcoming book on immigration. The publication will come at the controversial issue from an economist’s perspective and argues that states should be allowed to take the lead in creating immigration laws, setting up a natural competition among states for workers. This concept would allow pro-immigration “good states” to attract and retain more labor, and cause the anti-immigration “bad states,” like Arizona, to lose out in the market competition for workers. Says Bhagwati: “It’s a little book, but a big message.”

Amy Feldman has written for Reuters, as well as The New York Times and Time, among other publications.

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