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Prices, Competition and Markets

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 31st March 2014

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.

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Posted in Agricultural sector, Development Economics, Economics, Government, India, Inflation, Markets, Prices | No Comments »

A Review of Dipankar Gupta’s Revolution From Above: India’s Future and the Citizen Elite

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 28th December 2013

The year 2013 has seen a number of books on India by several intellectuals. Out of a total eleven chapters, Gupta devotes the first five and the last two in developing his thesis of the citizen elite. The four chapters in the middle deal with the economic contributions of the informal sector, universal health, universal education and the need to have planned urbanization respectively. Gupta’s central thesis is that India, and other democracies, require an ‘elite of calling to dig deep and bring out democracy’s many potentials’ (p. xi). This thesis is not well substantiated in the book and also is problematic in the working of a democracy.

First, we briefly engage with Gupta’s ‘citizen elite’. Their views, writes Gupta, may ‘appear utopian’ and they are willing to ‘forsake their immediate class interests’. Gupta’s causal story runs like this: citizen elites do not ‘maximize the given’, instead, it is their active interventions which render a country democratic. They have a ‘vision’ which goes beyond the short term (p. 37). Moreover, they are interested in furthering the society as a whole and not keen on specific interests – be it class, religion, caste or gender (p. 96ff). ‘Utopia is … about making a better future possible by deliberate interventions in democracy’ (p. 42). He considers them to be ‘leaders’ distinct from the voters. His summary of the first chapter on the first page reads: ‘democracy is meant to change reality and not submit to it. … Thus, while the general belief is that people make democracy, the fact is that a select few actually contribute much more’. Fraternity ‘is the single most important tenet of democracy’ (p. 4). ‘Real democrats are answering to a higher call, for they are fired by the ideal of citizenship whose core attribute is that of fraternity’ (p. 10). ‘Democracy is fragile and requires eternal vigilance’ (p. 10). ‘Democracy can be best understood as an art that has scientific possibilities’ (p. 11). The elites think in terms of ‘aspirations’ and how they can be met. He writes: ‘democracy needs leaders to show the way, even as it needs the people to evaluate them’ (p. 19). The elite, according to Gupta, are the ‘vanguards of democracy’ (p. 21). They are responsible for ‘establishing the foundations and principles of a democracy’ (p. 196). Moreover, ‘they force the state to deliver public services like health, education and energy, at quality levels, to every citizen regardless of class’ (p. 24). He places Lois Bonaparte, Otto von Bismarck and Mao Zedong under the group citizen elite; other citizen elites include Earl Grey (Factory Act in Britain), Robert Peel (who discontinued the Corn Law), Richard Cross (Public Health Bill) and Henry Brougham (Education Bill). They have a ‘calling’ and they ‘were answering to a higher voice’ (p. 26). Such claims as to their higher nature are difficult to justify and more so when Gupta denies any agency or role to working-class movements (p. 27). And Gupta concludes that the present ‘welfare state in Europe is an outcome of such elite interventions’ (p. 31). Gandhi and Nehru, according to Gupta, belong to this class of elite citizens. Despite finding Gupta’s thesis of a ‘revolution from above’ unconvincing, his observations about the current state of the Indian economy and society are astute. It to these observations we turn to below.

In India, 76 per cent of health costs are borne by individuals (p. 39, also p. 146). This is of concern in a country where only about 10 per cent people have some kind of health insurance (p. 146). Furthermore, only 35 per cent of Indians have access to essential drugs. India has only 0.9 hospital beds per 1000 population (p. 149). As for human capital, the Manpower Profile of India 2005 informs us that the skill level of the working class is low (p. 39). Only ‘5 per cent of the total workforce, in India has had the benefit of a vocational training’ (p. 123). Gupta favours ‘universal’ policies in health and education as opposed to the currently existing ‘targeted’ ones. As Gupta rightly notes, ‘[t]argeted policies make sense only when the population concerned in but a fragment of the total’ (p. 137). India spends less that 1 per cent of its GDP on health (p. 141), which Gupta finds ‘inexcusable’. The US spends about 6.8 per cent of its GDP on public health. Gupta reiterates that ‘[u]niversal health does not mean average health, or only health for the poor’ (p. 148). Similar to health, public investment in education is about 3 per cent of our GDP (p. 158). And, Gupta reminds us that ‘Sweden and Denmark allocate over 30 per cent of their GDP to public goods delivery’ (p. 163).

Gupta is disappointed that ‘India’s elite [of] today have committed themselves to commonplace economics and have no patience for the principles of the solar economy’ (p. 40). By commonplace economics, Gupta refers to ad-hoc policies which do not make fundamental improvements in the well-being of people. In contrast, the solar economy, refers ‘to a source of wealth creation that, like the sun, gave without thinking of what it could get in return’ (p. 38). This distinction is borrowed from Georges Bataille, a famous French intellectual and literary figure. Gupta further claims: ‘When the solar economy is in full force its glare makes us colour-blind, race-blind and ethnically blind’ (p. 41). It is not clear how to interpret the ‘solar economy’.

Gupta provides statistics which are indicative of the deep fissures characterising the Indian economy. 93 per cent of the Indian workforce is in the informal sector (p. 119). It contributed 59 per cent off India’s Net Domestic Product when India grew at about 9 per cent (p. 121). Moreover, the informal work in textiles, gems and jewellery, carpets contribute about 32 per cent of our export revenues (p. 121). ‘India’s growth story thus requires a full acknowledgement of the contributions of the small-scale sector and informal labour’ (p. 123). ‘Employing cheap labour is the Indian way of edging out international competition’ (p. 124). The IT sector employs less than 2 million people, contributes about 7 per cent to the GDP and approximately forms 25 per cent of our exports (p. 129). In 2009, 20.82 per cent of FDI went into real estate and construction and it withdrew itself from manufacturing and IT (p. 130). Gupta asks: ‘In 1990 there were 1825 strikes nationwide, but by 2006 the number had dwindled to 192. Why then should entrepreneurs fear strikes today? (p. 135). According to the 2011 census, the rural population in India is little above 69 per cent (p. 185). ‘[U]rbanization cannot be left to happen spontaneously and sporadically, but needs to be engineered keeping in mind the welfare of citizens’ (p. 165). The areas around the State capitals are growing – the Class-I cities such as Raipur, Nagpur, Surat, Pune, Aurangabad. Tirrupur accounts for 23 per cent of India’s garment exports (p. 171). And yes, we should be ‘paying greater attention to the quality of economic growth and not just to quantitative figures’ (p. 168). 45.5 per cent of rural NDP in India is non-agricultural (p. 169). 51 per cent of Mumbai’s population live in slums (p. 178) and the corresponding figure for Ludhiana, a manufacturing industry town, is 50 per cent (p. 183).

On public debt, Gupta is closer to the truth than many mainstream economists in India and across the world. He does not consider high public debt to be bad for the economy as long as investments rise and there is faster economic growth (p. 119). ‘The big paradox of India’s democracy is that free elections and mass hunger go side by side’ (p. 108). In addition, the existence of a ‘patron-client democracy’ implies the ‘lack of public support structures for citizens’ (p. 109). As Gupta rightly observes: ‘failing a proper universal delivery system, patrons are the best way out’ (p. 109) and thus reinforces the need for proper universal delivery systems.

To sum up, Gupta’s observations on the Indian economy are sharp and discerning. But, his thesis of the citizen elite suffers from too many pitfalls and so does his use of the ‘solar economy’ concept. Finally, it is strange that B. R Ambedkar gets only a passing mention (p. 4). Still, the middle four chapters of his book make a valuable addition to our understanding of contemporary India.

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Posted in Book reviews, Economic Growth, Economics, GDP, India | 1 Comment »

Towards an Objective Understanding of Scarcity

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 26th November 2013

When Henry Holt & Co. sent me an advance edition of Sendhil Mullainathan and Eldar Shafir’s Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much to review, I had presumed it to be another book on the ubiquitous nature of scarcity. However, their book, while acknowledging the phenomenon of scarcity to be omnipresent, argues, in a novel manner, the adverse effects scarcity has on the cognitive resources of individuals. In other words, scarcity (of money, time, etc.) forces people into a scarcity-trap: the poor stays poor; the busy remain busy; and the lonely remain lonely. For, ‘[s]carcity creates a mind-set that perpetuates scarcity.’ The aim of their book, writes Mullainathan and Shafir, is ‘to unravel the scientific underpinnings of scarcity’ in order to make more sense of ‘social and behavioral phenomena’ and is targeted at a ‘wide audience’. Their book is an attempt to present ‘the logic and consequences of scarcity.’

‘Scarcity captures our mind. … It changes how we think. It imposes itself on our minds.’ And, ‘scarcity’s capture of attention affects not only what we see or how fast we see it but also how we interpret the world.’ Hence the authors argue that scarcity ‘is not just a physical constraint. It is also a mind-set.’ The consequence of scarcity, according to Mullainathan and Shafir, is that it makes ‘us less insightful, less forward-thinking, less controlled.’ It reduces our ‘bandwidth’ – our cognitive ability. There is however a positive outcome of scarcity, the ‘focus dividend,’ which makes us more effective in the immediate period but ‘scarcity eventually ends in failure.’ They label the mechanism which reduces our cognitive resources ‘tunneling’. ‘Sometimes when we tunnel, we neglect other things completely.’ ‘Focus dividend’ is a short-term positive outcome of scarcity whereas ‘tunneling’ is a long-term adverse consequence arising from the tax scarcity imposes on our bandwidth. They are, in fact, interdependent phenomena. Based on their experiments, they observe that poor people ‘tunnel’ and therefore do not purchase insurance which would have helped them in the future. For, ‘scarcity taxes bandwidth’ and ‘generates internal disruption’ by lowering ‘fluid intelligence and executive control’. The authors acknowledge the role ‘self-control’ could play in overcoming scarcity, but they note that ‘will-power’ is something which is not yet fully understood. To summarise: ‘[t]he problem is not the person but the context of scarcity.’

Opposite of scarcity is ‘slack’ or ‘abundance’. ‘Slack’, writes the authors, ‘is a consequence of not having the scarcity mind-set.’ Those who have an abundance of resources (money or time) have the luxury not to make trade-offs. Additionally, ‘[s]lack gives us room to fail.’ Scarcity therefore not only leads to ‘greater errors’ due to the bandwidth tax, but also implies that there is ‘less room to fail.’ Marginalist economics treats any unused or underutilised resource as wasteful and inefficient and the authors follow this logic. Although, in the later part of the book, they distinguish between useful and useful slack. Of course, what is useful or wasteful depends on the goals or aims of the individual, organisation or government. The subjective assessment of physical/objective scarcity is also dependent on the goals, and the process of tunneling depends on this subjective measurement of scarcity and the goals. Therefore, the experience of scarcity is in itself conditioned by the goals and they affect each other in a dynamic fashion – reasoning is not limited to the means to achieve the ends, but it also can modify the ends. In the initial chapters, the authors, using results from experiments, quite convincingly argue that the subjective feeling of scarcity generates an objective result – it taxes the bandwidth and lowers the cognitive ability. In fact, the entire book can be seen as an attempt to provide an objective understanding of scarcity (which can be real or imagined or both).

Scarcity leads to borrowing. Borrowing, according to the authors, is a ‘simple consequence of tunneling.’ Although, it is conceivable that scarcity can lead to borrowing, it certainly cannot be maintained that all borrowing is because of tunneling. The phenomenon of a debt-trap is nothing new. ‘Scarcity leads us to borrow and pushes us deeper into poverty.’ Scarcity, writes the authors, causes the poor to focus more on immediate (short-term) goals and they overlook long-term goals. The focus on several short-term goals is termed juggling, and is a ‘logical consequence of tunneling.’That is, the poor resort to ‘short-term fixes.’ Can one get out of scarcity? Without some external intervention, the authors argue, it is highly unlikely. For, getting out of the scarcity-trap requires a (long-term) plan but since the goal is not immediate, the scarcity mind-set does not accommodate it. ‘Planning requires stepping back, yet juggling keeps us locked into the current situation.’ Also, ‘future planning requires bandwidth, which scarcity taxes heavily.’ To state the obvious, the authors note that ‘[a]ll this is complicated by the lack of slack.’ Scarcity implies a lack of slack. Similarly, slack implies a lack of scarcity. Owing to the objective effects of scarcity on cognitive resources, getting out of a scarcity-trap is extremely difficult, be it those who lack money or time.

Chapters 7 and 8 are devoted to understanding (income) poverty and some suggestions are offered for improving the lives of the poor. The authors rightly argue that the extant explanation of poverty is largely ‘piecemeal.’ Their major contribution, I think, to studies on poverty is that the poor ‘lack not only money but also bandwidth’ as a consequence of their income poverty. As they ask: ‘Why not look at the structure of the programs rather than the failings of the clients?’ This bandwidth tax is something the designers of social programmes ignore. Therefore, ‘strong incentives’ do not often function well. The authors call for social programmes which are ‘fault tolerant’ given the already taxed bandwidth of the poor. A limit ‘penalises but fails to motivate’ the poor and according to the authors such limits/penalties on incentives are flawed because they do not take into account the cognitive effects of scarcity. ‘Limits create scarcity, the logic goes, which might lead to better management of how the resource is “used.” This almost relies on the psychology of scarcity. But it is flawed.’ A better solution, according to Mullainathan and Shafir, would be ‘to create smaller but more frequent limits.’

A greater focus on the creation of dependable jobs and stable incomes for the poor across the world could be psychologically transformative.

All this is a radical reconceptualization of poverty policy. … Now, rather than looking at education, health, finance, and child care as separate problems, we must recognize that they all form part of a person’s bandwidth capacity.

A powerful and political conclusion emerges from the authors: social engineering should be built on better foundations, in this case, that of the psychology of scarcity.

Chapter 9 is titled ‘Managing Scarcity in Organizations’ wherein the importance of slack is stressed, in contrast to the views espoused by the ‘efficiency experts.’ Organizations should ‘explicitly manage and ensure the availability of slack.’ In other words, the quality of the workplace must be improved – less surveillance, adequate leaves, reduced working hours, etc. For, as the authors note:

Increasing work hours, working people harder, foregoing vacations and so on are all tunneling responses, like borrowing at high interest. They ignore the long-term consequences.

In line with the optimizing story told by marginalist economics, Mullainathan and Shafir emphasise the need to ‘maximize our limited cognitive capacity.’ They call for a greater focus on the ‘cognitive side of the economy’ and even go as far as to suggest the creation of a ‘Gross National Bandwidth’ index!

Despite the authors adopting some static concepts employed in marginalist economics of a very subjective nature, their research points towards a very dynamic and objective understanding of scarcity. Moreover, the adverse consequences of scarcity on cognitive resources highlight the extreme importance of careful social engineering, especially in the reduction of poverty.

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Posted in Behavioral Economics, Book reviews, Economics, Marginalist economics | No Comments »

Two Fundamental Objections to Marginalist Economics

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 31st October 2013

In the past, several posts on this blog have raised dissatisfactions and have expressed discontent with the prevalent orthodoxy in economics – neoclassical economics (more accurately, marginalist economics). This post is similar in intent as the previous posts, but it chooses to focus on, what I deem to be, the two most theoretically and empirically inadequate tenets of marginalist economics: (1) the marginal productivity theory of (income) distribution and (2) the supply-side growth theory.

Equilibrium prices and quantities of commodities and factors of production (such as labour and ‘capital’) are determined simultaneously in marginalist economics. Distribution is endogenously determined according to the relative scarcity of factors, i.e., based on the demand and supply of factors. Under conditions of perfect competition, in equilibrium, the wage rate equals the marginal product of labour and the profit rate equals the marginal product of ‘capital’. That is, there is no surplus in the marginalist theory of value and distribution. The origin of the marginal principle is to be found in Ricardo’s discussion of intensive rents. This principle has been illegitimately extended to labour and to ‘capital’. In marginalist production theory, labour is freely substitutable with ‘capital’. The famous Cobb-Douglas production function is based on the substitutability of the two factors of production. The use of the aggregate production function has been shown to be logically unsound (due to problems of not just measurement but also aggregation of ‘capital’) and therefore its applicability in empirical analysis is severely undermined. But, this logical critique, famously known as the Cambridge Capital Controversies, remains ignored.

Underlying the supply-side theory of growth is the marginal productivity theory of distribution. Relative scarcities of the factors induce changes in their prices such that the demand for factors equals their supply. This implies that, in equilibrium, all factors are employed. The real wages are assumed to be sufficiently sensitive to disequilibrium in the labour market such that they adjust in order to render the labour demand equal to its supply. And, the aggregate production function states that a growth in the factors will lead to a growth in output. In other words, if the labour and ‘capital’ endowments are increased, there will be higher growth. Aggregate demand adapts to aggregate supply and the possibility of an aggregate demand deficiency is ruled out. Slight modifications have been made to this theory in order to explain the presence of unemployment. These modifications take the form of rigidities of the real wage, which cause labour unemployment. In marginalist theory, one of the explanations for the presence of unemployment is labour market rigidities. If these rigidities are absent, labour will tend to be fully employed. Such theories have come under severe criticism and rightly so.

To conclude, marginalist economics is unsatisfactory on logical grounds. Moreover, it does not perceive the possibility of an aggregate demand deficiency. Lastly, unemployment is seen to be a consequence of imperfections or rigidities and not as permanent feature of competitive economies.

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Posted in Economic Growth, Economics, Marginalist economics, Neoclassical Economics | 1 Comment »