Undergraduate Economist

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Archive for November, 2011

What Can Indian Economists Learn From Sismondi?

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 11th November 2011

Although J.-C.-L. Simonde de Sismondi (1773-1842) lived in Geneva and wrote on economics, history and public policy, his concerns about the role of political economy is valid even today, especially for India. Marx considered Sismondi to be the last classical economist. Sismondi engages with the economics of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and J B Say in his 1819 work New Principles of Political Economy: Of Wealth In Its Relation to Population. This work has been translated into English by Richard Hyse in 1991 (available at Google Books). According to Sismondi, the objective of Political Economy is to ensure that majority of the population live a happy life.

Indian realities

Sainath informs us that India has seen over a quarter of a million farmers’ suicides between 1995 and 2010. The total figure according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) is 256,913. And, since 1998, at least 15,000 farmers have committed suicide very year. More unsettling is that fact that the total number of farmers have been declining significantly. In Andhra Pradesh, it is alleged that 90 farmers committed suicide, that too, in rain-fed areas, in the last few weeks.

The inflation of food articles has reached double digits. Food inflation doubly affects the actual cultivators. Since, the prices are fixed by the Government (minimum support prices), the price rise does not benefit the actual cultivators. Secondly, their ability to purchase their usual consumption basket also falls when price rise. It is in this context that M S Swaminathan’s reminders need to be understood. He rightly asserted: “If agriculture goes wrong, nothing else can go right for this country.”

Very recently, Dreze and Sen pointed out the nature of the asymmetrical growth that is driving India with a majority of the population living without access to basic amenities. They concluded their article in the Outlook by stating that one of the ways forward is to have a “radical broadening of public discussion in India to development-related matters—rather than keeping it confined to simple comparisons of the growth of the gnp, and naive admiration (implicit or explicit) of the high living standards of a relatively small part of the population. An exaggerated concentration on the lives of the minority of the better-off, fed strongly by media interest, gives an unreal picture of the rosiness of what is happening to Indians in general, and stifles public dialogue of other issues.” In other words, how much has the socio-economic condition of majority of the Indian populace (who happen to be farmers and weavers) improved?


In the hurry to build sophisticated DSGE models and while working out monetary and/or fiscal solutions to inflation and economic growth, it is often forgotten that actual human livelihood is at stake. How can Indian agriculture not be a necessary component of the curriculum in economics? Within economics, steep walls which cannot be crossed exist between agricultural economics, macroeconomics, monetary economics, labour economics, development economics, etc. The so-called specialization in these fields (to be understood as literature which is not easily accessible or comprehensible to an economist from another field) has reached alarming levels. Sismondi says the following on the nature of economic inquiry:

However, I believe I should protest against the manner, so often superficial, so often false, in which a work on the social sciences is judged in the world. The problem which they offer to resolve is tangled in quite another way than those that arise from the natural sciences; at the same time it appeals to the heart as well as to reason. The observer is called upon to recognize unjust sufferings that come from man, and of which man is the victim. We cannot consider them coldly and pass them over, without seeking some remedy (Sismondi 1819: 13).

Maybe, the idea of modern science does not allow investigators to be moved by the ‘object’ under study. Nevertheless, as Sismondi reminds us, economic problems and their solutions affect people (who are not ‘objects’) in a significant manner. The state of Indian farmers and weavers is certainly to be given attention, especially in terms of livelihood building, through providing employment and incomes in a dignified manner.

The following lines from Sismondi echoes what Dreze and Sen recently pointed out as regards Indian growth:

If they find a tremendous accumulation of riches, an improved agriculture, a prosperous business community, manufactures which multiply without end all products of human industry, and a government that disposes of almost inexhaustible coffers, as in England, they call the nation opulent that has all these things, without stopping to inquire whether all those who work with their hands, all those who create this wealth, are not reduced to mere subsistence; whether every tenth member among them must not apply each year to the public welfare; and whether three-fifths of all individuals, in a nation that is called rich, are not exposed to more privation than an equal proportion of individuals in a nation called poor (Sismondi 1819: 22).

In India, the wealth creators, the farmers, are forced to live below even ‘subsistence levels’ as Sainath’s commentary on farmer suicides indicate. Even though we have 53 agricultural universities in India, their contribution to the farming population is circumspect. Three to four decades before, working on agricultural economics and debating issues related to agriculture was fashionable and ‘important’. Today, it is even more important but, perhaps, not very attractive. In fact, the Government admits that the farm sector has been neglected.

Admitting that the government is neglecting research in the farm sector, the agriculture ministry has sought more funds in the next Five Year Plan (2012-2017) for significant jump in food grain production.

But, focussing on aggregate food grain production is clearly insufficient. One needs to look at the ‘production conditions in Indian agriculture’. As Sismondi points out very clearly

Commercial wealth is augmented and distributed by exchange; and even the produce of the ground, so soon as it is gathered in, belongs likewise to commerce. Territorial wealth, on the other hand, is created by means of permanent contracts. With regard to it, the economist’s attention should first be directed to the progress of cultivation; next to the mode in which the produce of the harvest is distributed among those who contribute to its growth; and lastly, to the nature of those rights which belong to the proprietors of land, and to the effects resulting from an alienation of their property (Sismondi 1819: 133).

In 1974, Krishna Bharadwaj published a book Production Conditions in Indian Agriculture. In the same period, economists such as Amit Bhaduri, Ashok Rudra, Amartya Sen, K N Raj, C H Hanumantha Rao, Pranab Bardhan, etc wrote extensively on various aspects of Indian agriculture. The issues Sismondi pointed out were discussed and debated. Bharadwaj points out the significance of examining property relations, technology, local patterns of power, etc. Moreover, she notes that non-economic variables such as tradition, customs, caste and religion determine the economic position of a farmer and thereby determines their income and asset levels. The rise in food inflation has prompted many commentators to hold employment guarantee schemes (NREGA) responsible. If agriculture generated adequate incomes (to maintain a decent and dignified life) employment guarantee would not be necessary. In other words, employment on and off farm cannot be treated as independent of each other. Further, in India, markets are interlocked through both price and non-price links (with the Government playing an ambiguous role). These interlocked markets are exploitative as it denies the following freedoms to the agricultural farmer, who is very much an entrepreneur.

(1)   What to produce?

(2)   How much to produce?

(3)   For whom to produce?

(4)   When to sell the produce?


As Sismondi reminds us, we cannot ignore the majority of the Indian population who do not have access to the basic necessaries of life. Agriculture provides livelihood to more than half the Indian workforce. A farmer is an entrepreneur who produces food, the most basic of all commodities. Although, it might not be academically fashionably and profitable to study Indian agriculture but as Sismondi notes: “We cannot consider them coldly and pass them over, without seeking some remedy.”

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Posted in Agricultural sector, Amit Bhaduri, Development Economics, Economics, Employment, Government, India, Inflation, Krishna Bharadwaj, Labour Economics, Macroeconomics, Political Economy, Unemployment | 1 Comment »

The Politics of Microeconomics

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 5th November 2011

Recently, some students walked-out from the lecture of the exceedingly famous economist, Greg Mankiw, who teaches EC10, Introduction to (neoclassical!) Economics at Harvard University. He is, perhaps, more known for his best-selling textbooks. This post was drafted for a different purpose almost a year ago. However, given the relevance of the essay/post, I decided to publish it here.


“Students, economics is divided into microeconomics and macroeconomics,” says the professor. This classification dominates economics teaching at all levels – from schools to post graduate studies. What is not mentioned is that, this classification is a characteristic of a particular kind of economics – neoclassical economics. The introductory chapters of microeconomics textbooks teach us that there are two kinds of economics, namely, positive economics and normative economics. With this distinction students are led to believe that microeconomics is objective, scientific and apolitical. Such arbitrary and artificial characterization, I argue, is an important way in which neoclassical economics perpetuates its dominance both in academia and in the arena of policy making. However, the “politics” of microeconomics comes to the fore when one closely examines its history. This essay will closely examine the concepts of factors of production and marginal product.

The so-called objective and scientific microeconomics treats all factors of production (land, labour and capital) on an equal footing. In particular, the roles of labour and capital are depicted as symmetrical. No mention is made of their particular social and historical characteristics. Land, as we know, cannot be treated on par with labour in any unique way. At this juncture, let us recall the objective of economic theory and policy – to improve the conditions of human life. However, such a human-centric objective must not be taken to imply complete disregard for animals or for the environment. Given this, what is the rationale for employing the concept of factors of production in economic analysis? One wonders whether it is to depoliticize economic theory. The earlier economists (classical economists and Marx) had employed the concept of social classes to understand the working of the economy. In their analysis, society was divided into landowners, workers and entrepreneurs. This division was necessary to develop a theory of income distribution. That is, it is the division of the society into ‘social classes’ or ‘factors’ which provides the foundation on which the theory of income distribution is erected. In the former structure, landowners received rents, workers earned wages which were often at subsistence level and entrepreneurs received profits. Whereas, according to microeconomic theory, the rewards accruing to the factors of production are as follows: land earns rents; labour earns wages; capital earns interest and entrepreneur/organization earns profits.  In the latter case, one notices that a distinction has been made between the “agent” and the “factor” of production. Notwithstanding this, the apparent objectivity of microeconomic theory crumbles and arbitrariness enters once we ask: what are the units for measuring capital? Land, as we know, can be measured in hectares, acres, square feet, etc. Similarly, labour can be measured in head count, man hours, man days, etc. But, how is capital measured? In fact, even before posing this question, we need to ask: what is capital? Why is capital, which is produced by labour acting on raw materials, considered a a factor of production? There appears to be no clear reason or rationale behind this. It seems that such an arbitrary concept was introduced to remove “politics” and “conflicts” from economic theory. Even the nomenclature “factors of production” appear significantly distanced from society vis-a-vis that of social classes, which was conceptualised taking into account the conflicts, especially over the means of production, prevalent in the society. Employment of “factors of production” in economic analysis presented a harmonious view of the society as opposed to the conflicts in income distribution which was pointed out by the classical economists.

Next, we briefly discuss the role of the concept of marginal product in microeconomics. In simple language, marginal product measures the contribution of one unit of the factor of production to the production process. Marginal productivity theory is a widely taught concept in graduate programs in economics and business. It is this concept which links factors of production to a theory of income distribution in neoclassical economics. Clearly distinguished “factors” of production is a prerequisite for the theory of marginal productivity. As pointed out in the previous paragraph, the owners of means of production do not find any explicit mention. Microeconomics teaches us that, in conditions of perfect competition, labour and capital get (monetary) rewards in proportion to their contribution to the production process. In other words, wages paid to labour equals marginal product of labour and interest paid to capital equals marginal product of capital. But, note that marginal product can only be computed by considering ‘potential change’, which is computed with the aid of differential calculus. What we do not pay adequate attention to, is that the origins of marginal analysis are to be found in the differential rent theory of Ricardo. Land, owing to technological constraints generated output at a diminishing rate as more and more labour and machinery were applied. This was because of the characteristics particular to land. Neoclassical economists extended this notion of diminishing marginal returns in land to other “factors of production” such as labour and capital. Such a generalisation has been shown to be inadequate on logical and historical grounds. Today, microeconomics textbooks and microeconomics professors hardly mention the historical origins of marginal productivity theory.

Neoclassical economics, as we have seen, misguides economic policy making by projecting a harmonious view of the society, comprising financiers, rentiers, entrepreneurs, wage labourers, salaried workers, etc. This is mainly done through the conceptual apparatus of “factors of production”. The idea of symmetry is introduced through this manoeuvre. Neoclassical economics also teaches students that a state of perfect competition is desirable because each “factor of production” will get what they deserve (their marginal product) as incomes. This, as indicated above, is a misinformed generalization of the rent theory of Ricardo. In fact, through the theoretical apparatuses of factors of production and marginal productivity theory, neoclassical economics tries to be objective, scientific and apolitical. However, as this essay has shown, most concepts of neoclassical economics have been devised in order to mask the conflicts and politics involved in economic phenomena.

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Posted in Economics, Economics Education/Teaching, Neoclassical Economics | 17 Comments »