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guarantee; food security; corporate power; war and peace; and a set of miscellaneous essays (of which only one was unpublished, but this has now been published in The Wire).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.  

60 Years after the 2nd Five-Year Plan: On Economic Theory, Planning & Policy

Picking up Ajit Dasgupta’s A History of Indian Economic Thought (1993) motivated me to revisit India’s 2nd Five Year plan (1956-61) and the Mahalanobis model in light of the structural changes in India’s economy and developments in economic theory, particularly of demand-led growth theory. Although 60 years have passed since the inception of the 2nd Five Year plan, the ‘Approach to the Second Five Year Plan’ contains ideas which are particularly important today, especially after the closure of the Planning Commission. In its place, we now have the NITI (National Institution for Transforming India) Aayog which assumes that Indian manufacturing and service sectors are currently operating ‘on a global scale’ and what is now needed is ‘an administration paradigm in which the government is an “enabler” rather than a “provider of first and last resort”’ (see Cabinet Secretariat resolution, 1 January 2015).

Why economics?

Economics is the study of commodities – its production, distribution and consumption. Economics provides us with the determinants of aggregate production (GDP), employment, and income distribution. This allows us to understand our economic surroundings better and consequently enables us to improve existing economic conditions. This may be carried out through general economic policies (for example, progressive taxation to reduce income and wealth inequalities and monetary policy to combat inflation) or through targeted economic policies (for example, fertilizer subsidies to improve agricultural productivity and tax concessions to foreign investors). Ultimately, economic interventions are made based on an assumption and several aims. The assumption is that economic theory tells us how economies function. The interventions are carried out to satisfy certain normative aims (for example, equity and freedom). This distinction is made in textbooks by distinguishing between positive and normative economics. For instance, if a particular society is not uncomfortable with unemployment its economic policies would not be aimed at reducing unemployment.

Objectives of the 2nd Five Year Plan

In this section, the economic objectives of the 2nd Five Year Plan are presented. All excerpts from the 2nd Five Year Plan are taken from here.

“The current levels of living in India are very low. Production is insufficient even for satisfying the minimum essential needs of the population….” Therefore, it was imperative to increase aggregate production. But, the economic architects of the plan did not visualize money as an end in itself.

“A rising standard of life, or material welfare as it is sometimes called, is of course not an end in itself. Essentially, it is a means to a better intellectual and cultural life. A society which has to devote the bulk of its working force or its working hours to the production of the bare wherewithals of life is to that extent limited in its pursuit of higher ends.”

Moreover, economic policy was aimed at an increase in activity levels and “also in greater equality in incomes and wealth.”

The Plan Document clearly favours social gain over private gain. In other words, private enterprise was regulated such that the economic yields benefitted all. To put it differently, a recognition of negative externalities was present.

“The private sector has to play its part within the framework of the comprehensive plan accepted by the community. … Private enterprise, free pricing, private management are all devices to further what are truly social ends; they can only be justified in terms of social results.”

More clearly,

“Economic objectives cannot be divorced from social objectives and means and objectives go together. It is only in the context of a plan which satisfies the legitimate urges of the people that a democratic society can put forward its best effort.”

The Plan Document also recognized the dual nature of urbanization – that economies of scale have both positive economic externalities and negative environmental externalities.

The 2nd Five Year Plan on economic inequality

The 2nd Five Year Plan clearly recognized that the gains from economic development are skewed and trickle down is not automatic. For the gains from economic development to be inclusive, two institutions have to be strong: trade unions and the democratic state.

“The gains of development accrue in the early stages to a small class of businessmen and manufacturers, whereas the immediate impact of the application of new techniques in agriculture and in traditional industry has often meant growing unemployment or under-employment among large numbers of people. In course of time this trend gets corrected partly through the development of countervailing power of trade unions and partly through state action undertaken in response to the growth of democratic ideas.”

There is a passage similar to Thomas Piketty’s view on wealth inequalities and the role of progressive taxation in reducing such inequalities in the document.

“The most important single factor responsible for inequalities of income and wealth is the ownership of property. Incomes from work are by no means equal, but in part at any rate, they have some justification in terms of productivity or relative scarcity. Some types of work are, however, remunerated more liberally than others for reasons which are not directly connected with productivity. Differential monetary rewards are often a matter of tradition an existing psychological or social rigidities. It has also to be borne in mind that capacity to work effectively at higher levels depends on a person’s education and training, and these are a matter of the accident of birth or circumstances. A large expansion of general and technical education for all classes of people irrespective of their paying capacity is over a period a potent equaliser. The point is that while inequalities in incomes from work have to be corrected, the case for taxation based specifically on wealth or property needs to be carefully examined.”

India needs to seriously consider a tax on wealth given the wide disparities of income and wealth. The connection between ‘productivity’ and ‘social rigidities’ is noteworthy and requires to be addressed through labour laws, education policy, food policy, employment policy and so on.

The core of the 2nd Five Year Plan: the Mahalanobis model

From the previous paragraphs, we can state the following as the normative economic aims of the 2nd Five Year Plan: (1) expansion of output and employment opportunities, (2) reduction of income inequalities, and (3) inclusive economic growth and development. The economic core of the 2nd Five Year Plan is constituted by the Mahalanobis model. As Ajit Dasgupta writes in A History of Indian Economic Thought, “The purpose of the model was to determine the optimal allocation of investment between different productive sectors so as to maximise long-run economic growth in India” (p. 164). In other words, the aim of this model is to increase the pace of aggregate economic activity in India.

The Mahalanobis model is a two-sector model with a capital goods and a consumption goods sector. The model tells us how the resources are to be distributed between these two sectors such that maximum economic growth is achieved. Note that the then production was insufficient to meet the basic needs of the Indian populace. There are inter-sectoral relations due to which one sector cannot exist (or grow) without the other. To produce consumption goods, capital goods are required. For the workers and capitalists in both sectors, consumption goods are needed. Employing the Mahalanobis model is to some extent vindicated because the model assumes “capital to be the effective constraint on output” and India lacked good physical infrastructure.

Note also that this model assumes that there are no demand constraints. As Dasgupta writes, “The higher the proportion of investment (i.e. of the current output of capital goods) that is allocated to the further production of capital goods, the higher the long-run growth rate of output” (p. 165). The dual character of investment is not clearly understood for investment creates productive capacity and is a component of aggregate demand. Logically, a solution can be found such that the addition to capacity is validated by the demand generated but it is a knife-edge equilibrium as in Harrod.

Dasgupta points out that the Mahalanobis model has been criticized “for being concerned exclusively with investment and for identifying investment with the production of capital goods” (p. 165). Yes, demand constraints and human capital investment are ignored. Another criticism of the model has been its neglect of foreign trade (p. 166). However, the model could be modified easily to account for foreign investment and consumption whereas the incorporation of demand constrains and human capital would not be easy.

Conclusion: the relevance of economic planning

Since the 2nd Five Year Plan, much time has passed and the Indian economy has undergone several changes. Developments have taken place in economic theory too, particularly in the areas of economic growth and development. While the Mahalanobis model has its limitations, the normative aims of the 2nd Five Year Plan are still valuable today. The expansion of employment opportunities needs to be at the forefront of any macroeconomic or growth strategy. As written in the 2nd Five Year Plan, “From the economic as well as from the larger social view point, expansion of employment opportunities is an objective which claims high priority”. However, NITI Aayog, the successor to the Planning Commission works within ‘an administration paradigm in which the government is an “enabler” rather than a “provider of first and last resort”’. The market cannot be expected to provide accessible and good quality education, health, housing and living environments to all. With existing economic and social inequalities, the need for economic planning is even more. Social costs require to be assessed and not ignored in the name of economic efficiency and economic growth.

An economic planner ought to know the implicit assumptions and scope of economic theories and be knowledgeable about legal and institutional constraints of policy implementation. The economic planner must therefore be an excellent economist and an experienced bureaucrat.

Prices, Competition and Markets

It has become commonplace in India to point fingers at the central government when prices of essential commodities such as onion or fuel rise. The underlying arguments behind this accusation could be that: (1) the government is expected to maintain price stability and/or (2) the government should socially engineer agricultural markets in a ‘fair’ manner. But, is the pursuit of price stability not the job of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI)? It is true that the RBI cannot do anything to combat inflation when it is caused by a supply-and-demand mismatch in the domestic vegetable market or the international oil market. What the RBI can do is manage inflation expectations, and that is for another post. The present post is motivated by the insightful analyses of Kannan Kasturi on the Indian vegetable market, published in the Economic & Political Weekly and other places. That is, this post takes up the second of the reasons mentioned earlier.

The price mechanism – adjustments made by producers to the selling prices and consumers to the purchasing prices – is expected to allocate the commodities brought to the market amongst the consumers, in accordance with their needs, reflected in their willingness to pay. The prices therefore act as signals for the producers especially. Sellers can adjust quantity in order to affect prices; hoarding commodities is one such strategy. At equilibrium, producers earn a normal rate of profit, which contains a pure rate of return on capital advanced and a return for risk and entrepreneurship. If producers do not make normal profits in time t, they will cut down production in time t+1. During the equilibration process, producers who are unable to earn a normal rate of profit will exit the market. If entry costs are low, new producers will enter the market. Producers who have large financial resources (or access to easy credit) at their disposal are insulated from temporary alterations in demand. Producers who have enough accumulated earnings can shield themselves from such market volatility. In short, a competitive market is one where prices are not distorted (by the producers or by external intervention), no (especially, cultural and social) barriers to enter the market exist and workers are mobile within and across markets.

Of course, the agricultural markets in India are far from competitive. Since more than 50% of Indians derive their income from agriculture, and particularly because of the poverty of the farmers, these markets require government intervention. This is not to say that any form of government intervention will better the situation. Kasturi quite convincingly shows that the fault lies with the supply-side – the agricultural supply chain. This post will not discuss minimum support prices or other input subsidies, such as for electricity, irrigation and fertilizers. Also to be noted is the specific manner in which the agricultural input markets are inter-linked in India, which has been of an exploitative nature. Finally, social and cultural factors (pertaining to caste and gender) are seen to hinder competitiveness in Indian markets, not just in agriculture.

What are the problems with the agricultural supply chain? Kasturi points out the following: (1) Small farmers lack storage facilities in order to gain from the high market prices. (2) The middlemen (those who intermediate between farmers and final consumers), i.e. the wholesale traders and commission agents have the ability to hoard vegetables and consequently they reap the benefits of the high prices they themselves engineer; the Agricultural Produce Marketing Act governs the agricultural markets (mandis) and it is here where all the proceeds from higher prices are absorbed with nothing reaching the farmers. These traders and commission agents are ‘well entrenched in the mandis, having been in the business on average for 20 years’ (3) Agricultural pricing is not at all transparent and the mandi records are of no assistance in this regard.

To sum up, the nature of government intervention has to change, in such a way that is beneficial to farmers. Proper laws are of utmost importance, not just in protecting the interests of the small farmers, but also that of the consumers.  Moreover, intermediaries in any market perform useful functions but laws should be in place which ensures that they do not become monopolistic and exploitative. Agricultural infrastructure such as storage facilities is paramount in this context. A very detailed study of how these supply-chains operate will be of much help in our attempts to combat inflation.

Misunderstanding Economic Growth and Development

If two previous posts dealt with trying to understand how economic growth may or may not translate into development, this post goes a step behind and discusses what economic growth means. More importantly, this post examines what economic growth does not mean. The motivation for this blog post comes from Jagdish Bhagwati and Arvind Panagariya’s 2013 book titled Why Growth Matters: How Economic Growth in India Reduced Poverty and the Lessons for Other Developing Countries. Note that the following paragraphs are not intended to be a detailed review of the book; only their central premise – ‘the centrality of growth in reducing poverty’ (p. 4) – will be engaged with. The blog post, however, ends with a critical commentary on the authors’ methodology (focusing on authors’ engagement with opposing views, presentation of authors’ own arguments and referencing), as contained in the Preface, Introduction and the first three chapters. Also, no comments are offered on the data analysis present in their book.

A premise is ‘a statement or proposition from which another is inferred or follows as a conclusion.’ Bhagwati and Panagariya start with the premise that economic growth entails increase in employment opportunities and an improvement in income per person. This is also their conclusion, and forms the title of their book. They write:

Bhagwati argued nearly a quarter century ago that growth would create more jobs and opportunities for gainful improvement in income, directly pulling more of the poor above the poverty line and additionally would allow the government to pull in more revenues, which would enable the government to spend more on health-care, education, and other programs to further help the poor. Growth therefore would be a double-barrelled assault on poverty. (p. xix)

Further, they write: ‘growth helps by drawing the poor into gainful employment’ (p. 23). A simple question is sufficient to negate this view. Does the market create jobs after taking into account the abilities and skills of the poor? Of course not! If so, there would not be any unemployment or underemployment. A well-educated (and healthy) workforce is necessary so as to actually ‘gain’ from the newly created employment opportunities. [Not to forget the hardships involved in deskilling and reskilling.] And, it is not logically necessary for employment opportunities to increase when the economy grows. Jobless growth is a possibility where the surplus is not used to create further jobs; more often, it is a question of whether jobs are being created at the same pace as at which the economy grows.

By definition, economic growth entails a rise in income. But whose income? Economic growth can co-exist with the rich getting richer. Or, economic growth can give rise to stagnant wage shares amidst productivity rises. Growth can be export-led. It can be service-led. It might favour capital-intensive over that of labour-intensive technology. A rise in real GDP can happen because of a variety of reasons. It is these ‘reasons’ that one must investigate. For, it is here that we will find answers as to who the beneficiaries of economic growth are. It is to the mechanisms or processes which generate economic growth that we must attend to in order to comprehend which sector/classes/groups are losing out. For example, the nature and consequences of service-led growth will be very different from that of growth that is manufacturing-led. Bhagwati and Panagariya repeat the same fallacy, pointed out in the previous paragraph, in the following passage.

Conceptually, in an economy with widespread poverty, labor is cheap. Therefore, it has a comparative advantage in producing labor-intensive goods. Under pro-growth policies that include openness to trade (usually in tandem with other pro-growth policies), a growing economy will specialize in producing and exporting these goods and should create employment opportunities and (as growing demand for labor begins to cut into “surplus” or “underemployed” labor) higher wages for the masses, with a concomitant decline in poverty. (p. 23; see p. 43 as well)

Conceptually, in an economy with excess labour supply, labour is cheap. Bhagwati and Panagariya argue that a growing economy with cheap labour will adopt labour-intensive techniques. This reasoning assumes that an unemployed farmer or school teacher can easily and naturally be employed in a firm which exports computer parts. The authors’ views seem to indicate a gross misunderstanding of the actual economic dynamics of any society (see below as well). Moreover, one is not just concerned with mere employment, but with employment that provides good working conditions – including sick leave, maternity leave, overtime wages, etc.

‘The pie has to grow; growth is a necessity’ (p. xx). Yes, a larger surplus makes it feasible for each claimant to get a greater share, including the government. The contention is with respect to the feasibility and who these claimants are. According to Bhagwati and Panagariya, growth automatically and naturally generates higher incomes per person thereby ‘directly pulling more of the poor above the poverty line.’ Growth is not manna from heaven which everyone gets in equal amounts. It is based on definite political, economic and social institutions/processes – wage bargaining, possibilities of reskilling, mobility of labour, gender, caste, family structure, social security nets (family based or from the government) and so on. In this context, the authors rightly note the negative effects excessive licensing, government monopolies and protectionism can have on the growth of an economy (p. xii).

Given the authors’ belief in a strict one-way causation running from economic growth to development, they argue for carrying out growth-enhancing reforms first, which they refer to as Track I reforms. Subsequently, the surplus can be redistributed by the government to achieve development; this can be through transfer payments of various kinds. These are known as Track II reforms. They argue:

Track II reforms can only stand on the shoulders of Track I reforms; without the latter, the former cannot be financed. (p. xxi)

Of course, they can be financed through government borrowing and there is ample literature on the issues surrounding debt-sustainability in relation to achieving full employment. One wishes to see a more nuanced understanding of such matters.

This separation of growth from development is not just illogical and untrue, but also dangerous to public policy. Often, for purposes of economic theorising, in order to carefully study the causal relations between variables, some boundaries are drawn and certain assumptions are made. But, an import of this technique into the domain of public policy is methodologically flawed, where the abilities of individuals to seek jobs and actually work and earn (higher) incomes crucially depend on their social, cultural and economic backgrounds. In other words, while the distinction between economic growth and development might be reasonable for some purposes, in practical politics, they go together. Moreover, if the policy objective is to ensure good quality of life for all, then it must be the case that, to use the authors’ terminology, both Track I and II should be undertaken at the same time, with perhaps a greater emphasis on Track II reforms.

A fundamental error underlies the authors’ belief that ‘growth’ is an automatic process which takes place when the government lets the private players have a completely free hand, international trade is free, and capital can freely flow in and out of the country. It is this notion which makes the authors’ note that ‘Track II reforms involve social engineering…’ (p. xxi). That is, in their view, Track I reforms require no ‘social engineering’. Nothing could be farther from the truth! A ‘market’ is an engineered institution. The belief that ‘free markets’ will deliver both economic and social justice is quite easily discernible from their statements. Making commodity markets free (from both government and private monopolies) is certainly beneficial for economic growth as well as for wider socio-economic development. But, given the (historical or otherwise) arbitrariness (as opposed to ‘merit’) involved in the ownership of various forms of assets, and the tendency of markets to favour the powerful, there is always a crucial role for the government and civil society to intervene in order to ensure social justice (especially in the arenas of education and health). After all, is this not what we mean by participatory democracy?

The preceding commentary is based on a partial reading of Bhagwati and Panagariya’s book, as noted in the introductory paragraph. Their conception of growth, at best, seems superficial and at worst, they misunderstand the dynamics of economics growth as well as development. The view of ‘free markets’ generating growth with rising incomes per person is never an automatic process. It requires visible hands and is indeed social engineering. We end with a few observations on their methodology. For them, all that their critics say are myths; Part I of their book is titled ‘Debunking the myths.’ On one occasion, some of the critics, who are hardly ever named (and therefore not cited), are accused of being ‘intellectually lazy’ (p. 25; also see p. 32, p. 34, p. 35 for the unnamed critics). On the other hand, the following phrases are used for arguments in their own support: ‘state-of-the-art techniques’ (p. 31), ‘detailed state- and industry-level data’ (p. 31), ‘compelling nature of evidence on the decline of poverty under reforms and accelerated growth’ (p. 33), ‘irrefutable evidence’ (p. 37), ‘evidence…is unequivocal’ (p. 38) and ‘these authors’ superior methodology’ (p. 43). Out of the total number of references excluding data sources and reports (around 125 in number), about 37% (around 47 in number) are references to the authors’ work, either as a sole author, a co-author or as the editor of the volume. This is very striking. And, out of citations to Panagariya’s work (about 27 in number), 14 of them are newspaper articles published in the Times of India or Economic Times. It is indeed unfortunate to come across so many fundamental errors in a book like this, because growth does matter, although not at all in the way Bhagwati and Panagariya expound in their book!