Do the (Right) Math

To most who’ve dealt with the CAT, and then admired the red bricks in Louis Kahn’s arches, math is probably second nature. However, you likely don’t need to have cracked the CAT or have been inspired by the red bricks to know that 942 > 353ii. The problem becomes a whole lot more complicated when you givethe numbers more meaning and the question then becomes, which side are you on? The number on the right, 353 is the amount of CO2 (in gigatons) that the earth’s atmosphere can apparently take to have an even chance of average global temperatures not rising above 1.50°C. The scientists give no guarantee that even if we are to restrict carbon emissions by 353 gigatons, we would be able to achieve the goal agreed
to in Paris, but it gives us a 50-50 chance. There is a widespread agreement that 1.50°C represents the
“new red line,” beyond which lies cataclysmic disaster. The number on the left, 942 is the amount of CO2
(in gigatons) contained in coal mines, oil and gas wells currently in operation globally. The math is terrifyingly simple, we have more CO2 currently in the pipelines – physical and financial — than our capacity to absorb. Are we ready to trample on investments (or are we still hoping to make it to Mars)?

Let’s move to two other numbers: 4 and 1. Four is the number of days, it apparently takes for a CEO of a top global fashion brand to earn what a Bangladeshi worker, likely working in a factory that the CEO sources his garments from, makes in one lifetime. Other than a useful reminder to pay attention to the units accompanying a number, this comparison might appear to be unnecessary or even tedious. An interesting statistic for trivia or a comparison best consigned to annual headlines and academic debates. It might elicit, a “so what”? Some might see it as a source of motivation for all workers. Other might even ask a question about how much was the worker
earning without the job? Perhaps it might also be worth asking why workers are in such an exploitative position to begin with. Many of us would, however, recognize in these numbers, not only outcomes but also facilitators of business-as-usual. Pay the labor fair wages or ask the CEOs sitting on the CO2 reserves, to internalize the true cost of translating their investments into wealth and business as we know it would come to a halt. A numbed sense of justice (and perhaps some somber homilies) might help us ignore the inequities in compensation that stare at us. Till of course, we are rocked by them, perhaps like Maruti was. However, it is not clear what one does with the carbon number. Who pays for what is in the books (and banks) of companies and their investors? And how much should they be paid? These questions cannot be answered without an engagement with questions of fairness and justice, questions which are inherently political in nature.

The world around has changed and is asking new questions, but is the world on campus trying to understand them? The required course on “Business, Environment and Sustainability” has fittingly earned the “PGP Review of Review Survivor” t-shirt. However,we should be asking whether subjects such as this or like Socio-Cultural Environment of Business (of which
I am a co-instructor, for disclosure) should be separate courses? I am yet to come across a business decision that does not in some way impact society or be affected by it. We might choose to ignore them or attach the number zero to those aspects that don’t fit easily into the optimization routine, but that does not mean they don’t exist. Likewise, economics can just label
certain costs as externalities without discussing how costs come to be externalized (because of material, institutional and discursive influence over regulators), but that does not imply that there is something natural about what costs come to be externalized and what don’t. Perhaps the assumption is that students can do the integration. Much like the manner in which we
set aside a few of the innumerable decision making situations students grapple with in their first year, with the demand that those being studied for the Ethics course, be examined ethically. Don’t all decisions have ethical dimensions, even if they are only evaluated with the moral framework implicitly taught in microeconomics? It is another matter that we make a moral choice not to grapple with them so that the solution can be made more tractable.

The engagement within the two-year program, however, might still be considered an improvement, compared to the what perhaps prevails in the one-
year program. While participants slog through their many required courses, it is unclear why not a single one places these questions at the center. The irony is that these participants are closer to leadership positions in which they would directly grapple with the complexities of society and the environment. It would have been ideal if this represented a world in which
questions of sustainability social and environmental constituted important themes in their other required courses. These arguments are only reaffirmed by the experiences of at least some of the participants in their international exchange where they found themselves to be hopelessly out of touch with where their international colleagues were, on these issues.

There is indeed a lot of pride that we take on our collective mathematical abilities. I have even heard this expertise being called our “comparative advantage,” our “differentiator,” our “USP” (that’s how much my strategy vocabulary stretches). It is this “inherent strength” that perhaps also justified inaction as we came close to resembling a finishing school for (essentially male) engineers. At some point, perhaps we also need to reflect on the problems being solved and not just whether we could crack them. In studying the human reality that numbers symbolize, we might appreciate the values that underlie them and see
them as much more than just representing numerical values, to be manipulated with spreadsheets. We can do the math for management, but it also might be worth asking, what exactly are we trying to manage? Undoubtedly, the faculty has a role to play in all of this. But even more is the role of the alumni, the real role-models for each succeeding cohort. For instance, no amount of academic lecturing or case discussions can rival the impact Sandeep Sachdeva, Prabhat Agarwal and Ravi Gulati (all from PGP 1991) had on an auditorium full of first years. Sharing their journeys from IIMA, they got students thinking about worker safety drawing on the remarkable work they are doing through their initiative, Safe in India. The clock is ticking much faster for those currently in the wooden seats around the well. They can undoubtedly solve problems as competently as those who sat in those seats in the past. Let’s hope for all our futures, that they are not only doing the math right but also doing the right math.

Written By: Prof Ankur Sarin

Prof. Ankur Sarin is a faculty with the Public Systems Group at IIM Ahmedabad.

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