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A Review of Jean Drèze’s Jholawala Economics

sensesolidarityJean Drèze is a familiar name among social science students and researchers. His contributions unarguably have helped improve the state of social programmes in India and have motivated several students to take up social research. In 2013, he co-authored An Uncertain Glory with Amartya Sen on the importance of public programmes in achieving social development.

Sense and Solidarity: Jholawala Economics for Everyone (2017, Permanent Black) is his second sole-authored book after No.1 Clapham Road, the Diary of a Squat (1990, Peaceprint, published under a pseudonym) on homelessness in London. The 2017 book is divided into 10 sections: draught and hunger; poverty; school meals; healthcare; child development; employment guarantee; food security; corporate power; war and peace; and a set of miscellaneous essays (of which only one was unpublished, but this has now been published in The Wire). His 2017 book is a collection of his previously published essays, mostly in The Hindu, with a fresh general introduction and a section-wise commentary, which sets out the context. This review post engages only with this fresh material.

Vision

Drèze’s vision, like most of the current and future readers of the book, is to “create a good society” (p.3). As he writes, this warrants the abolition of caste and patriarchy. Such a vision requires a progress in “ethics and social norms” (p.3). He titles his approach “research for action” (p.4). This reminds me of Marx, who wrote in the Theses on Feuerbach that: “The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.”

It is indeed commendable that Drèze along with Reetika Khera and others have been able to conduct field surveys with student volunteers. Moreover, he has participated in several village meetings, public hearings, and social audits (p.9).

Drèze’s underscoring of “ethics and social norms” is extremely important today. Many public policy measures try to create policies with appropriate incentives as if they are gods. What we truly lack, to use Adam Smith’s phrase, is good “moral sentiments”—sympathy, compassion, friendship, care, etc. These cannot and shouldn’t be quantified or reduced to monetary terms. Nor can they be incentivised. It is here that ‘experience’ plays a significant role. Looking at theory and quantitative secondary data is insufficient to capture most of social reality. It is precisely this reason that has led to the critique on men writing about patriarchy and Brahmins writing about Dalits. Not only is the lived experience missing in these instances but also can it never be obtained.

Methods

Drèze rightly criticizes the quantitative fetishism found in the community of economists and development studies researchers. And, as if they weren’t enough, the public policy specialists have joined this quantitative bandwagon, or rather the bullet train, as it were. This is not to suggest that we abandon quantitative analysis altogether but rather to use it with great care.

I completely endorse Drèze’s recommendation to study literature as a way to understand a society better. He lists the following authors in his book as people who ought to be studied: Bibhutibhushan Bandyopadhyay, Daya Pawar, Laxman Gaikwad, Om Prakash Valmiki, and Shantabai Kamble (p.17). In fact, I strongly think that the economics students would benefit with a compulsory course on ‘Literature for Economists’ alongside ‘Mathematics for Economists’ in the curriculum.

There is not much that Drèze writes on economic theory except his approval of game theory, which is not really a theory but a mathematical method of studying conflict and cooperation. I would go further and argue that there is much to be learnt from the theories of economists such as Smith, Marx, Keynes, Kalecki, and Sraffa. A deep understanding of methods—complexity theory, experiments, field work, game theory, instrumental variables estimation, lived experience, ratio and proportion, regression analysis, textual analysis, etc.—in all their plurality is much needed along with a similar understanding of various theories.

Another important learning from Drèze’s book is the need to engage with publicly available data, reports, and legislations. For instance, some of the legislations/programmes mentioned in this book are the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), National Rural Health Mission (NRHM), National Food Security Act (NFSA), and Right to Information Act (RTI). As voters, we too should be reasonably aware of their key provisions.

Action

Many students pursue social sciences with the intention of making a change in the society. And currently, there is a palpable sense of disappointment and disillusionment among these students. Perhaps, Drèze’s approach of “research for action” is one solution. At the very least, such research should be recognized and encouraged by academics and the society at large (particularly, parents). Of course, not everyone might have the means or the luck to pursue this course of action. However, this shouldn’t deter anyone from pursuing good research, which can be in the realms of theory, history, methods, action, or some combination of the four.

To me, the central takeaways from Drèze’s book are that as members and analysts of the ‘Indian’ society, we must be sensible in our approach to theory and methods by bringing in pluralism in these two areas. And, more importantly, solidarity warrants collective discussion, engagement, and action, which also aids in the progress of our “ethics and social norms”.

Finally, I felt that the book is expensively priced at Rs. 795 (hardback). One hopes for a paperback edition priced around Rs. 250. Although all but one are previously published essays, Drèze’s introductory chapter and section-wise commentary provides the readers a peek into his valuable philosophy. I end by wishing for the book to be translated into the many regional languages of India.

I acknowledge Abhigna A. S. for her editorial inputs and Aashish Gupta for alerting me to Drèze’s 1990 book.  

The Political Economy of GST

India welcomed the Goods and Services Tax (GST) on 1st July 2017, sixty-three years after France first adopted it. In his parliament speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that “GST marks the economic integration of India.” It is expected to unify India through the creation of a single market for goods and services as the GST slogan aptly captures: ‘one nation, one market, one tax’. Moreover, it is expected to increase the tax base in India where less than 1 per cent of people pay income tax and close to 90 per cent of the workers are in the informal sector. Both these perceived benefits, according to the government, are expected to accelerate India’s economic growth by making it easier to do business and increasing public investment (financed through increased tax revenue).

The second volume of Economic Survey 2016-17 released earlier last month – another first for India – argues that the introduction of GST partly contributed to “optimism about the medium term”. One hopes that the optimism is well founded and not ‘irrational exuberance’, to borrow Robert Shiller’s phrase. Was the introduction of GST aimed at raising tax compliance by simplifying the indirect tax structure with the aid of information technology? Or, did it aim to structurally reform the Indian economy with a view of increasing employment and reducing inequalities? There is also another important question to pose: is a uniform tax a good policy move in an economy like India where the intra-state and inter-state differences are significant?

Amidst his discussion on inequality, Thomas Piketty rightly writes in Capital that “Taxation is not a technical matter. It is preeminently a political and philosophical issue, perhaps the most important of all political issues.” Hence, it is important that the political economy of GST is rendered transparent. After the introduction of GST, several Indian states have lost their autonomy in public policy owing to a reduction in their tax revenue because the GST subsumes state taxes such as the value added tax (VAT), sales tax, and luxury tax. [The service tax belonged to the centre.] In fact, as GST is a destination tax, Tamil Nadu, a manufacturing state, had opposed it because of a potential revenue loss of around Rs. 9,270 crore. Additional reforms are necessary to ensure that the state’s economic policies are not throttled.

If simplification of the tax structure was a central goal, the four tax slabs of 5%, 12%, 18%, and 28% do not make sense. However, if the government has an additional goal of influencing consumer choices, different tax slabs make sense. Yet, our current GST tax structure eludes easy interpretation. For instance, why should pens be taxed at 18% and now cost more? And why should sanitary napkins be taxed at 18% and now cost more? There appears to be no obvious economic or social logic behind this classification.

On looking closer, the GST classification for goods and services appears to be based on the ‘ability to pay’ principle and therefore progressive in spirit. Hence, non-AC train travel is GST exempt while AC train travel is taxed at 5%. Similarly, while non-AC hotel services are taxed at 12%, the services in AC hotels attract a tax of 18%. From the perspective of the consumer, it is indeed the case that those who consume ‘luxuries’ (e.g., services in Five-star hotels and restaurants) have to pay a higher GST than those who consume ‘necessaries’ such as education and health services. But how are the producers affected?

During the VAT regime, handmade products were tax exempt but they are now taxed at different rates in the GST regime. If one adopts the sole principle of ‘ability to pay’ in the matter of taxation, taxing handmade products might not seem to economically unjust. As a government official put it, “a machine-made shawl is priced at Rs 500 and a handmade one at Rs 5,000. If a person can shell out so much for a handmade item, they might as well pay a higher tax on it.” This is a good example of myopic thinking because we need to ask what happens to the handloom sector (employment and wages) once the market price rises.

As I write this, a meeting has been organised to protest the taxing of handmade products. The problem is aptly captured in this statement by one of its organisers: “Handmade products such as khadi saris are already expensive as compared to machine-made products. With imposition of GST, a khadi sari has become costlier.” It is elementary economics that this can lower demand for handmade goods and negatively affect employment in this sector. India’s recycling sector has also been adversely affected due to GST implementation.

Economic policies or reforms cannot afford to be short-sighted either intentionally or out of ignorance. The second volume of the Economic Survey proudly states that the GST regime has formalised the informal textile and clothing sector. But at what cost?

It is true that the big firms will benefit from lowered transaction costs and will be able to enjoy an increased volume of inter-state business. Small firms mostly buy their inputs and sell their output within their own state. In short, the lower transaction costs benefit big firms.

While around 160 countries have implemented GST, its effects have been varied. In Malaysia, household consumption reduced after the implementation of GST; in Australia, the burden of GST was more on the poor than the rich; whereas the weaker sections of the populace benefited from GST in Ethiopia, Pakistan, and Vietnam.

To conclude, while ‘one nation, one market, one tax’ sounds alluring, it presupposes an economically homogenous nation and a uniform market for commodities and labour. Is one tax justified in India, which has several many different labour markets, each with its own ‘equilibrium’ price? Or do our policy makers think that imposing ‘one tax’ can transform India into a single market? Just like demonetisation, the GST is yet another bad economic ‘reform’ with detrimental impacts on India’s poor and vulnerable.

Acknowledgement

This is a condensed version of a talk I gave at National Public School, Indira Nagar, Bengaluru on August 11th. I thank the students for posing interesting questions. 

The Broken Headlights of the Union Budget 2017

The union budget is an annual planning document of the central government, which lays bare its economic priorities for the upcoming year. Since it outlines expenditure plans and revenue expectations (from tax proceeds), it has a significant impact on everyone, directly or indirectly, in the Indian economy. The consensus on the current union budget is largely that it is a ‘positive and progressive’ budget. Although seemingly it looks like a good budget, it suffers from a deeper malaise – of lacking a robust economic vision.

A government that is committed to economic development cannot not focus on employment generation and reduction of income and wealth inequalities. Further, employment generation has to happen in conjunction with decent wages. The former is an outcome of (both private and public) investment. It needs to be noted that the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) is only an employment safety net and not an engine of employment; one must be very careful not to conflate the two. Decent wages call for worker-friendly labour laws and adequate minimum wages. The inequalities of wealth (notably land and financial assets) keep rising unless structural reforms are undertaken, such as land reforms, wealth tax, and capital tax. (To formulate such reforms, information on the personal ownership of assets as well as their social distribution is required. Hence, the publishing of the caste census becomes a socio-economic necessity.)

With respect to wage policy, the variable of socio-economic significance is the real wage and not the market wage. The real wage tells us how much goods and services that a unit of the market wage buys. The real wage is therefore dependent on inflation and the capacity of the worker to access transportation, health services, and a clean environment. The class of economists who ignored real variables at the expense of the apparent ones were labelled as ‘vulgar’ by the economist–philosopher Karl Marx.

In addition, a piecemeal reading of the budget, while appropriate from the standpoint of individuals and firms, is inappropriate from a macroeconomic perspective. This is because the economy is an interconnected system, and one sector’s gain can lead to another’s loss, and multiple sectors can gain simultaneously. More generally, both private and public economic actions have unintended consequences; for instance, while the increased budgetary allocation for physical infrastructure is welcome, what are its effects on the natural environment?

The Indian economy is facing aggregate demand deficiency because of damp rural incomes, stagnant manufacturing, self-imposed fiscal austerity, and weak external demand. Tax cuts (for low-income individuals and MSMEs) and increase in public expenditure (on railways, roads, and the small increase in NREGS allocation) positively affect the aggregate demand, whereas demonetization-induced low activity levels, fiscal consolidation, volatile external conditions, agricultural distress, low real wages, and stagnant manufacturing sector all negatively affect aggregate demand.

On the aggregate supply front, the Indian economy is constrained by low agricultural productivity, poor working conditions for the majority of the population, inadequate physical infrastructure (access to drinking water, electricity, and roads), and environmental degradation. In short, India fares badly in terms of both physical and human capital. While the current budget gives some importance to physical capital, the allocations to human capital are deplorable. Moreover, the negative consequences of physical infrastructure creation on the natural environment and on the displacement of people must be accounted for in the balance sheet of economic development. Therefore, the paltry allocations to improve aggregate supply give us nothing to cheer. And on balance, the current budget significantly falls short of its intended goal of economic development.

Lastly, in his budget speech, the Finance Minister Arun Jaitley repeats the rationale for the demonetisation move of November 2016. He states that post-demonetisation, ‘GDP would be bigger and cleaner’. Moreover, he asserts (without any argumentation) that the demonetisation-induced fall in economic activity is a ‘transient effect’ and that this ‘is not expected to spill over into next year’ (contradicting the more cautious prognosis contained in the current Economic Survey). It seems that the FM is unaware of the concept of hysteresis: the short-term equilibrium can permanently affect the long-term equilibrium. This is part of the reason why mature democracies are extremely intolerant of labour unemployment. However, it is highly unlikely that official data will reflect the long-run adverse effects of demonetisation, because of its inability to adequately capture the economics of the informal sector.

In sum, there is no cause for any celebration but many reasons to be very worried for the economic present and future of India.

English for Economists: Sowvendra’s ‘The Adivasi Will Not Dance’

hansdaEconomists spend time studying mathematics because it enables them to formulate questions in a precise manner and provides solutions to economic problems expressed mathematically. This blog post, the first one in the series, finds socioeconomic issues articulated clearly in the short story ‘The Adivasi Will Not Dance’ by Hansda Sowvendra Sekhar in his 2015 book with the same title. Likewise, subsequent posts in this series – English for Economists – will examine socioeconomic issues in the Indian context as found in novels and short stories (within the genre of Indian Writing in English).

Sowvendra’s story questions the current model of economic development which displaces adivasis from their home-land. The ensuing commentary follows the news about the setting up of a thermal power plant in Godda by a businessman.

The businessman, in fact, needed electricity for the iron and steel plants he was planning to set up in Jharkhand. The plant was to be set up for his own selfish needs; but if he were to be believed, the whole of Jharkhand would receive electricity from his plant. Whole towns would be lit up non-stop, factories would never stop working for lack of power. There would be development and jobs and happiness all over. (pp. 183-4)

The rhetoric of economic development rests on its supposed ability to create well-paying jobs. Displacement is seen as unavoidable within this rhetoric and is therefore compensated for in varying proportions. Of course, hardly is the compensation ever economically just.

All very happy with the progress, the development. The Santhal Pargana would now fly to the moon. The Santhal Pargana would now turn into Dilli and Bombay. The businessman was grinning widely. Patriotic songs in Hindi were playing from the loudspeakers placed at all corners of the field. ‘Bharat mahaan,’ someone was shouting from the stage, trying to rouse the audience, his voice amplified by numerous loudspeakers. What mahaan? I wondered. Which great nation displaces thousands of its people from their homes and livelihoods to produce electricity for cities and factories? And jobs? What jobs? An Adivasi farmer’s job is to farm. Which other job should he be made to do? Become a servant in some billionaire’s factory built on land that used to belong to that very Adivasi just a week earlier? (p. 185)

The above excerpt questions the current notion of development/progress. Who are the ones progressing? Who are the ones regressing? Mainstream economic theory is still obsessed with the fruit of ‘free’ markets – the trickle-down of incomes.

Land displacement happens in the name of economic ‘reforms’ and those who protest are seen as enemies of ‘development’. What is the state of the farmland?

Only a few of us still have farmland; most of it has been acquired by a mining company. It is a rich company. (p. 171)

The struggle to eke a livelihood is visible in the following passage. It is also a passage describing, what may be called, a class struggle (a la Marx).

This coal company and these quarry owners, they earn so much money from our land. They have built big houses for themselves in town; they wear nice clothes; they send their children to good schools in faraway places; when sick, they get themselves treated by the best doctors in Ranchi, Patna, Bhagalpur, Malda, Bardhaman, Kolkata. What do we Santhals get in return? Tatters to wear. Barely enough food. Such diseases that we can’t breathe properly, we cough blood and forever remain bare bones. (p. 172)

Socioeconomically, the current and previous owners of the land are highly unequal. The latter has lost a permanent means of livelihood and a physical asset, a provider of economic security. On the other hand, the former group – the current owners – live prosperously. Santhals are denied access to good education and health. Access to communication is difficult for the protagonist because the “big post office in Pakur [is] more than twenty kilometres away” (p. 180).

We come across two interesting passages on markets and pricing in this story.

Our music, our dance, our songs are sacred to us Santhals. But hunger and poverty has driven us to sell what is sacred to us. (p. 179)

Santhals don’t understand business. We get the coal easy yet we don’t charge much for it; only enough for food, clothes and drink. (p. 175)

Firstly, forcible commodification needs to be resisted. Secondly, the notion of value and prices varies in capitalistic and non-capitalistic societies.

The protagonist of the story asks: “What do we Santhals get? We Santhals can sing and dance, and we are good at our art. Yet, what has our art given us? Displacement, tuberculosis. (p. 178)” Indeed, one wonders what ‘development’ and ‘reforms’ really mean. Owing to poor economic conditions due to ‘development’ and ‘reforms’, many Santhals “have migrated, or migrate seasonally” (p. 178) – a form of distress migration. Economic distress is not an isolated event but has adverse moral and political consequences: “We are losing our Sarna faith, our identities, and our roots. We are becoming people from nowhere” (p. 173).

Sowvendra’s short story is a real story about real people who are economically, socially and politically disadvantaged. The disadvantages have exacerbated because of economic policies undertaken in the name of ‘development’ and ‘reforms’. I think that such ‘stories’ disseminate contemporary socioeconomic issues to a wide audience in a lucid yet poignant manner. Insofar as they do that, they add to the existing vault of socioeconomic data. Moreover, such short stories can be used in schools and universities while teaching economics.