Kahani Contract Ki: Holmstrom’s Sholay connection!

Dear Reader,

Hi! Here’s a tweak piece arguing that the Contract Theory of the Nobel Laureate Bengt Holmstrom is but a spin-off of Sholay 🙂

This piece appeared under my column Tweakonomics in the Hindu Business Line today. You can read it at http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/opinion/columns/tweakonomics-on-nobel-prize-for-economics/article9211922.ece; else read it here directly. Cheers!

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The modern world rests on the foundations built by contracts. Contracts, when completed, when partially honoured, when inefficiently designed, lead to different scenarios that can be used to describe situations in the world of economics and sociology. It is for “launching contract theory as a fertile field of basic research” that the Nobel Prize in Economics for 2016 has been awarded to Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström.

Year 1975. As fate would have it, Holmström, then a professor at Kellog’s Graduate School of Management, was bored. Life had become but a bowl of cereal. Paul Samuelson had already received his Nobel for unifying static and dynamic analysis. There was Kuznets who had had the last word in growth, and Kenneth Arrow who took the system from growth to welfare. In the process, if there were any fluctuations at all, Myrdal and Hayek had already explained them. Milton Friedman had had the last word on most of stabilisation theory and Ohlin broke the trade barriers. Aaaarrrrgh! Was there anything at all left to be analysed?

Frustrated, Holmström went home and idly flipped channels on TV. Lady Luck was watching. Had Holmström decided to watch the many antics of Lucille Ball, she would not have helped him. The world would then be a different place.

A certain Cambridge economist would go on to become FM and then, against all odds, the PM of a developing country. Quite a strange contract it would be. The intense political economy situation would lead him to pen the theory of political contracts and later to a powerfully silent Nobel acceptance speech. After all, a lot rested on whether he would flip over to the next channel or not. Holmström hesitated, paused, and flipped.

An Indian movie was being aired. There were people dancing to a song. And then suddenly came dacoits. The villagers ran helter-skelter and two good-looking young men shot at the dacoits, who were forced to return to their lair to face the wrath of the Sardar. “Kitne aadmi thhey?” asked the Sardar spitefully. How interesting! This guy, who is the principal dacoit, does not really know what his agents face in the field. The main fella has an objective function of dominating the local area with the help of Kalia et al., whose main objective is to bully and snatch food from villagers. How non-optimal! A breach of contract is imminent. Hmmm. How will the principal control his little gang of agents? “Jo darr gaya, samjho marr gaya.” Ouch!

But see how the coin flips (ahem, quite literally too, in the film). There’s this cop, who too is a principal working with the agents. He is not only armless, but also pretty much blind to field issues. But he is smart. He has the objective function spelt out: “Mujhe Gabbar chahiye. Zinda.” He keeps the money part of the contract simple. Half the amount to be paid at the beginning, half once the job is completed. This thakur tests his agents’ capabilities, gives them information over a spiffing cabaret performance to complete the contract, and in the end also uses the verbal promise made by one friend to emotionally fortify the terms of the contract.

“Brilliant!” thought Holmström feverishly. Every situation is basically an outcome of a contract, wisely or unwisely written. Let me put this down into an academic paper. As the thakur would have said, “Loha garam hain. Maar do hathauda.” The rest is history.