What do millennials and mathematics have in common? If that sounds like the beginning of a bad joke, that’s because it is – courtesy the government of India. Over the last few days, Indian ministers have come up with novel ways to explain away an economic crisis that the government spent months denying even existed. Now that the numbers simply cannot be ignored, out comes the spin.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman blamed the “mindset of millennials” as one of the reasons that India’s automotive sector is facing a massive sales slump, the worst in two decades. She claimed that this generation that is now coming into its peak spending years is “preferring not to commit [to] an EMI (equated monthly installment) towards buying automobiles, but would consider taking Ola, Uber and everything else or take the Metro.” Ola and Uber are both ride-sharing services that allow you to conveniently book taxis through a phone app.
If this were actually true it would be positive news. While this may mean short-term pain for car companies and their employees, the longer term effects of a generation that is moving away from car ownership would be full of encouraging outcomes for urban planning, environmental concerns and congestion in cities. Indeed, if this is the reason behind the slump, the government needs to quickly jump in and re-focus its urban planning on mass transit instead of more flyovers.
Yet few people took Sitharaman seriously. This is partly because blaming millennials for killing things has become something of a trope. They have been credited with ruining the prospects of everything from breakfast cereal to honeymoons to bar soap and even the diamond industry.
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Moreover, the data does not seem to bear it out. A report from June suggested that the growth in number of trips taken on services like Ola and Uber has also slowed to a halt. And the country’s largest carmaker, Maruti Suzuki said that the ride-sharing apps may not be a strong factor in the slowdown, since car ownership patterns remain the same.
In other words, Sitharaman’s facile millennial explanation seemed to reinforce the impression that the government is unwilling to see the slowdown for what it is: A collapse in demand, because people do not have enough money in their pockets.
But counting how much money you actually have shouldn’t be a bother, per Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal. On Thursday, Goyal dismissed growth-rate calculations saying that sort of maths never helped anyone. His exact statement was “if you’re looking at a $5-trillion economy, the country will have to grow at 12%, today it’s growing at 6-7%... don’t get into those maths. Those maths never helped Einstein discover gravity.”
He actually had two more attempts at this and in both cases, Goyal quite comically continued to reiterate that Albert Einstein (and not Isaac Newton) discovered gravity. But the more problematic part of his statement was the dismissal of calculations and maths. In one of his clarifications, Goyal claimed his point was that businesses need to have an open mind and the ability to think big, ignoring the pesky task of dealing with mathematics and calculations.
This might explain a lot about the current government: Everything from demonetisation to Gross Domestic Product numbers to flawed Budget documents make much more sense if you simply realise that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s team approaches these things with “an open mind and ability to think big” without getting into the maths.
Unfortunately, the wider populace – which lives in the real economy, unfairly encumbered by the effects of mathematics and gravity – does not have such privileges. For most people it is easy to see that the slowdown is here and unlikely to go away anytime soon, especially if the government’s response to it comes down to blaming millennials and maths.