Undergraduate Economist

Perspectives of an economics student

Archive for the 'Education' Category

Misunderstanding Economic Growth and Development

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 25th August 2013

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!

Tags: , , , , , , ,
Posted in Book reviews, Development Economics, Economic Growth, Economics, Education, Employment, GDP, Government, India, Labour Economics, Macroeconomics, Markets, Neoclassical Economics, Poverty, Unemployment | No Comments »

Paul Samuelson: The Father of 'Modern Economics' Dies

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 21st December 2009

All those who have studied economics for the past 50 years or so have heard about Samuelson – Foundations of Economic Analysis, Samuelson-Stopler theorem, Factor-price equalisation theorem, revealed preference theory, Bergson-Samuelson social welfare functions, non-substitution theorem, linear programming in economics, etc. The first one is his 1947 book which dominates economics teaching even today, directly or indirectly. Samuelson transformed economics into some sort of science (pseudo-science, as some call it)-social physics. [For more on this, go here]

Robert Lucas on Samuelson:

“Samuelson was the Julia Child of economics, somehow teaching you the basics and giving you the feeling of becoming an insider in a complex culture all at the same time. I loved the Foundations. Like so many others in my cohort, I internalized its view that if I couldn’t formulate a problem in economic theory mathematically, I didn’t know what I was doing. I came to the position that mathematical analysis is not one of many ways of doing economic theory: It is the only way. Economic theory is mathematical analysis. Everything else is just pictures and talk.” [Marginal Revolution and here]

SCARY!

In his Foundations, he is supposed to have popularised the views of Keynes. In fact, what he popularised is the neo-classical synthesis (IS-LM curves, which were created by Hicks). Hence, what we learn in most macroeconomics texts is not what Keynes said. Post-Keynesian economics is more closer to what Keynes said.

Despite his ‘ideas of good economics’, one needs to appreciate the works he carried out in different areas in economics – macroeconomics, public finance, international trade, consumer theory, capital theory and general equilibrium, etc.

In his initial editions of the Foundations, one could find a few pages devoted to the 1960 capital theory debates. However, with passage of time, the debate was relegated to footnotes. Now, in mainstream textbooks, capital theory is entirely omitted. In fact, Samuelson admitted the problems neoclassical microeconomics and general equilibrium run into because of their notion of capital. [More here]

I end with two questions.
Is mathematics the only way of studying economics and analysing economies? [We mostly use calculus and game theory. Should we employ other kinds of mathematics?]

How reliable are textbooks? It makes learning easy, but probably, a bit too easy.

Tags: ,
Posted in Consumer Theory, Economic Thought, Economics, Economics Education/Teaching, Education, Keynes, Neoclassical Economics, Nobel Prize, Paul Samuelson | 9 Comments »

On Malthusian Theory of Population

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 23rd May 2008

This post revisits ‘An Essay on the Principle of Population’ written by Thomas Malthus in 1798. In my last post I briefly touched upon his population theory. Unfortunately, mainstream economics textbooks mention Malthus only for his ‘bad’ population theory. His other significant contributions like Differential Theory of Rent, his theory of money, his questions about the validity of Say’s law, etc are conveniently suppressed.

First, I would like to discuss why his theory is ‘good’ and then I would like to show how Malthus is viewed, interpreted and treated by various economists and students of economics.

Economics as viewed earlier and as viewed now (by a few) was a discipline which tried to understand the society (now known an economy) and also to come up with solutions for the problems that persist. His Essay was the first serious economic study of the welfare of the lower classes” during his times. He was also a clergyman who wanted to make the society perfect.

His two postulates were that “food is necessary to man” and that “the passion between the sexes is necessary and will remain nearly in its present state”. [Malthus 1798] Now we know that the first is a true premise and the second one is believed to be a law of nature. So, there are no issues with both his postulates. He also refers to these postulates as ‘laws of nature’.

Ceteris paribus, population growth will outstrip food growth. He also gives additional insights as to how population growth will necessarily be checked. His thought experiment based on the ‘true’ premises is therefore valid. At this juncture, one needs to understand the underlying assumption of diminishing returns to agriculture. Once this is understood, there is no reason to call his theory ‘bad’.

How can such a theory be useful to the society? It brings to the fore the need for improvements in agriculture through technological advances, so that food production can be increased. (Assuming increased food production implies lesser hunger, but Amartya Sen proved otherwise. But it is necessary to have sufficient ‘food’ to feed society) Family planning is undertaken so that no child goes hungry apart from other reasons. Such checks are welcomed by all. Also, they indirectly draw from Malthus- the need for all people to consume food. However, checks like the Chinese one child policy create social problems on a massive scale.

It is amazing that even when his theory is viewed in isolation (from his other works), it still holds good! With progress in education (school children get introduced to a lot of theories and facts at an early age) theories like Malthus’ seem obvious and hence pointless. This also reflects the way theories are taught in schools and colleges. Very often, the context of the theory is left out. Corn Laws, the then predominant Ricardian theories, etc are very often not mentioned or discussed.

Now, I shall put forth two different views on Malthus, the economist.

1)

In this famous work, Malthus posited his hypothesis that (unchecked) population growth always exceeds the growth of means of subsistence. Actual (checked) population growth is kept in line with food supply growth by “positive checks” (starvation, disease and the like, elevating the death rate) and “preventive checks” (i.e. postponement of marriage, etc. that keep down the birth rate), both of which are characterized by “misery and vice”. [Source] (Note the mention of (unchecked))

2)

Malthus believed that population would increase at a geometric rate and the food supply at an arithmetic rate.

Malthusian population theory was eventually dismissed for its pessimism and failure to take into account technological advances in agriculture and food production. [Source]

Conclusion

How should theories be taught? By this post, I only intend to question the current teaching and understanding of Malthus’ theories. Also, I wish to stress the importance of understanding and studying the ‘context’ (historical, political, social, cultural,etc) of a theory.

Now, economists (positive economics) are busy using scientific methods so as to universalise theories rather than provide solutions to hunger, poverty, unemployment and other socio-economic problems.

To sum up, Malthus stressed on the need to keep population and food production in such a way that everyone would be fed. I believe that this still holds true across the globe as one of the main concerns of economics.

Further Reading

1) 1) 1) Darwin and Malthus

2) 2) 2) Is India falling into the Malthusian trap?, C. J. Punnathara, The Hindu Business Line, April 9, 2008.

3) 3) 3) Malthus, the false prophet, May 15th 2008, The Economist.

4) 4) 4) The International Society of Malthus (further links from the society)

5) On GM Food and GM Mosquitoes

Posted in Classical Political Economy, Economic history, Economic Thought, Economics, Economics Education/Teaching, Education, Political Economy, Thomas Malthus | 7 Comments »

Is any 'economics' being taught?

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 12th December 2007

Prices- how are they formed? Economics fundamentally is concerned with the theory of value; wherein prices play a crucial role. Does the mainstream or marginalist (neoclassical theory) explain the formation of prices? In equilibrium, the forces of demand and supply interact to give the equilibrium prices and quantity purchased and sold. But, in reality, is it so? Does this theory explain the actual working of any economy?

In school textbooks, I remember being taught the law of demand, factors affecting demand and the exceptions to demand. The law of demand conveniently takes into account only one factor, which is its own price. And economists like Veblen and Giffen who tried to discuss demand were sidelined as exceptions.

Thorstein Veblen talked of ‘social factors’ like status symbol, conspicuous consumption etc which affected demand. His book The Theory of the Leisure Class explains how interdependent individuals in an economy are, and how the individual is very much a part of the society unlike the ‘rationalist atomistic individual’ as assumed by the mainstream theory.

In Marshall’s Principles of Economics, he mentions Giffen effect- a rise in the price of bread results in a large drain of resources which force them to curtail the consumption of relatively expensive items like meat; and they consume more of bread as it is still the cheapest food they can get. In India, with more than 60% percent of the populace being poor [Guruswamy and Abraham], Giffen effect is the norm rather than the exception!

This post discusses some of the microeconomic concepts taught across schools and colleges.

Scarcity

I was taught that the central problems in economics were that of scarcity, of unlimited wants and how one chooses the best option. And here optimization (a mathematical apparatus) comes to the aid of economics- in finding the optimum. But are resources really scarce? If resources were really scarce, how could an economy grow? Land, of course is scarce; but the availability of land can be increased through reclamation, deforestation etc. Economics ought to be concerned about wants that are backed by purchasing power; otherwise the theory will be trying to reconcile dreams and scarce resources.

Equilibrium

Equilibrium is reached when the demand and supply curves intersect in the graph having quantity demanded and supplied on the x axis and price on the y axis. Joan Robinson (1973) wonders why one uses a metaphor based on space to explain a process which takes place in time.

This approach has for quite some time disturbed me. Why is it that we take ‘equilibrium’ to be favorable? Equilibrium is a thing very commonly found in Physics. One of the meanings is that ‘it is a state of rest’ and this is precisely the meaning economists provide. For, in equilibrium, the quantity demanded will be equal to quantity supplied and all is well. Coming to think of it more, why would a stagnant economy be favorable? What is more frightening is that, we are taught that it is what economic policies should aim at!

Prices

Prices, according to the mainstream neoclassical theory are determined based on the intersection of demand and supply; that too in a static set up. Prices, in today’s world is certainly not fixed in the before said manner. The producers decide the price based on the cost of raw materials and other items needed for production, wages and salaries of employees, advertising costs, existing taxes, etc. So this means, prices in an economy has more correspondence to the supply side than the demand side.

What is the significance of the demand side? One of the reasons could be to point out the importance consumers have in deciding the prices in a ‘perfectly competitive’ economy. It would signify consumer sovereignty in such an economy. Again, this belief of ‘consumer sovereignty’ is something one would like to have, but is absent totally.

Perfect Competition

No student of economics graduates without studying ‘perfect competition’. It is very much entrenched in economic theory as taught today. Why? The answer given is that it is the ideal state for an economy. Or rather, as the name suggests, it is ‘perfect’. Then we are taught about imperfect competitions keeping in mind what is good or ideal-perfect competition.

One of thoughts one could have is ‘why is it considered perfect’. The price is assumed to be given or it is said that the firm is the price taker. Another query would be- is perfect competition possible? The main driving force behind corporations and businesses is money or precisely speaking, profits. Would firms like an atmosphere where they are unable to fix prices and hence unable to earn more profits? It reeks of Orwell’s Animal Farm. Why would there be any competition at all? Aren’t differences that lead to competition? Would there be any incentive to produce or to diversify?

Conclusion

This post ends on a skeptical note. Is the current mainstream economics helping the economy by tailoring productive and progressive economic policies? Is they are not, why are they still being taught as compulsory topics? Is there an alternative approach?

I would like to put forth a question regarding the notion of prices.

50 years ago, one could buy a book for a rupee; but now, a book’s average cost would be about 100. This follows for all other goods and services too. What is that which accounts for this sustained rise in prices? Is it inflation alone?

Posted in BA Economics, Consumerism, Economics, Education, India, Institutes of economics, Market Theory, Neoclassical Economics, Perfect Competition | 25 Comments »