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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!

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

Urbanization in India: What does it mean?

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 26th August 2011

 

In the recent past, there have been a lot of discussions and commentaries on the merits of urbanization in India. In addition to this, we also hear about the poor, rather pathetic, living conditions of migrants who work in urban spaces, there are pressing environmental concerns especially regarding air and water pollution, public transport is in a disarray, etc. The latter concern has led to the rise of ‘new’ areas of learning and research such as urban studies, urban economics, urban ecology, urban sociology and urban planning. These are extremely important areas of learning considering the fact that urban centers attract both labour and capital. This blog post tries to understand some economic issues relating to the process of urbanization that is taking place in India. In particular, we seek to understand the limits of urbanization and in the process we try to know what it means to achieve economic growth.

According to the World Bank, “Urbanization is not a side effect of economic growth; it is an integral part of the process.”  McKinsey states that “Urbanization is critical to India’s development.” Further, Ministry of Urban Development, Government of India notes that “It is important to note that the contribution of urban sector to GDP is currently expected to be in the range of 50-60 percent. In this context, enhancing the productivity of urban areas is now central to the policy pronouncements of the Ministry of Urban Development. Cities hold tremendous potential as engines of economic and social development, creating jobs and generating wealth through economies of scale. They need to be sustained and augmented through the high urban productivity for country’s economic growth. National economic growth and poverty reduction efforts will be increasingly determined by the productivity of these cities and towns.”

From the above excerpts, some important assumptions (or rationales) for promoting urbanization can be understood.

(1)    Economic growth is synonymous with urbanization.

(2)    India has to urbanize in order to attain economic growth and development.

(3)    Urban spaces need to be promoted because they generate about 50% of the Indian GDP.

(4)    Cities are potential engines of economic and social development.

 Economic growth

In a macro sense, economic growth refers to the sustained growth in national output – GDP. However, for policy purposes it is important to look at per capita GDP. This is a proxy for looking at how much on income an average person possesses. The objective of economic growth (and economics) is to ensure that all individuals are employed (who seek work), have adequate food, have access to drinking water, transport, etc. In no way should we consider the objective of increasing GDP to be our aim. It is a necessary means to an end- better life.

Urbanization is understood as an increase in the population of urban spaces. This also means that there is a growth in employment, capital inflow, infrastructure, etc. In turn, such large increases in population will result in an increased pressure on resources – water, space, housing, transportation, office space, air, etc. Communication seems to be the only one which has relatively negligible supply problems.

Given this, how can the Central Government or Planning Commission argue that urbanization is the way to go forward? This means – fatten urban spaces and neglect rural areas! Both, as we know, are not desirable. Fattened urban spaces will present a whole new set of issues to tackle with; neglecting rural areas will mean that agriculture and those dependent on agriculture (around 60% of India) will not be encouraged. Clearly, this does not increase the well being of majority of Indians. More importantly, it is illogical and unwise to argue that urbanization is (or leads to) economic growth. Yes, it leads to economic growth, but only in a very superficial manner and not in any substantive way.

India: Rural and Urban

As per Census 2011, 69 % of Indians live in rural areas and only 31 % in urban spaces. It seems to be the case that the policy makers are interested in improving the “urban spaces”. This does not necessarily include improving the living conditions of the majority of Indians. It is strange how language plays a dividing role too: urban habitats versus rural areas! It is true that the urban sector contributes roughly around 50% of India’s Net Domestic  Product (NDP). The remaining comes from rural India which comprises majority of the populace. As for agriculture, rural areas contribute 94% (for the year 2004-05) of total agricultural output. So, if urban areas are targeted at the cost of rural areas, those employed in agriculture, which is a very difficult occupation, are going bear the brunt.

It is strange that the Government and policy makers (including private think tanks) argue that cities are potential engines of economic growth, when 60% of Indians depend on agriculture for their livelihood which is mainly located in rural areas. This tendency of policy making to favour any method which just boosts the numerical value of GDP without any qualitative change must be stalled. By qualitative change, I refer to improvements in quality of life – food, shelter, education, water, health and so on.

According to a recent paper (July-August 2011) by Gilles Pison in Population & Societies, India is expected to become the most populous country by 2050 and will overtake China. Yes, we have heard that India has been blessed with the demographic dividend; but we must remember that it is no dividend unless there are employment opportunities, and they should not just be in urban spaces. This paper also notes that India records the highest number of deaths under age one – 13,96,000.

Hence, the Planning Commission has considered it imperative that the next 5 Year plan will include urbanization as a key challenge. This, however, is a myopic strategy and especially because of the neglect of agriculture. In addition, employment generation should be the key challenge. Jayati Ghosh also argues in a similar fashion in a recent article of hers. She points out that “The number of urban settlements has increased from 5161 in 2001 to 7935 in 2011, an increase of 54% that dwarfs the 32% growth in urban population.” This means that urban statistics have swelled up because of a reclassification and not mainly because of rural-urban migration. This key information poses further problems for policy makers; actually, it poses problems only for the ‘concerned’ policy makers!

Conclusion

To sum up, it would be disastrous to formulate policies which targeted the urban spaces at the cost of rural areas. The objective of economic policies must be to improve the well-being of the people and not to increase the percentage of GDP by a few points! In fact, even in France and Europe, when the process of urbanization began in the early 18th century, agriculture was neglected. However, a group of economists known as Physiocrats argued that agriculture cannot and should not be neglected as it will lead to a downfall of the economy (see more). It is time that we realized the interdependence present in the economy between rural and urban areas and also high time we acknowledged the significance of creating employment opportunities to the majority of the population.

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Posted in Agricultural sector, Demographic Dividend, Demography, Development Economics, Economic Growth, Economics, Employment, Francois Quesnay, GDP, India, Macroeconomics, Political Economy, Poverty, Richard Cantillon, Unemployment, Urbanisation | 10 Comments »

On Economics and Ethics

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 31st July 2011

Ever since political economy became economics, the role of ethics has continually diminished in the learning of economics. This is because economists want(ed) their discipline to be scientific. To serve this purpose, economics has been divided into normative economic and positive economics. Normative economics deals with questions such as “what ought to be the price configuration” whereas positive economics deals with questions such as “what is the configuration of process”. In other words, there is no room for debate in positive economics; at least, that is the impression one gets from reading the mainstream textbooks. Amartya Sen tried to remedy this situation by strengthening the area of welfare economics; however, methodologically, it still adopts a ‘positive economics’ framework. In any case, this development motivated economists to ask humane and ethical questions. This post raises some issues concerning the role of ethics in economics.

Adam Smith, the father of economics, did not only write Wealth of Nations; being a moral philosopher and an acute observer of society also published a book titled Theory of Moral Sentiments. This book talks of sympathy, passion, ambition, justice, duty, utility, custom, virtue, self-command, etc. Often, proponents who favour utility maximization cite Adam Smith as the first one to do so effectively. As much as one glance at the table of contents of Theory of Moral Sentiments will say otherwise.

This brings us to the following pertinent, yet very difficult questions. What is the objective of economic policies or economic engineering? What role does economic theory play in policy making? Does economic theory provide tools, methods and concepts that aid policy formulation? The final objectives of economic policy invariably happen to be poverty elimination, reduction of unemployment, inflation control and provision of a good standard of living to all the inhabitants. Hence, various kinds of policies are undertaken to achieve these broad objectives. Very often, economic theory aids such policy making exercise in a significant manner. Now, we come to a very startling observation. Economic theory (which is positive in nature) has no room for conflicts, ethics or values. Instead, the major criterion which dominates most economic theorization is that of economic efficiency – free markets achieve efficiency. So what? The goals of economic policies are not to make markets efficient or free; instead, it is to provide the inhabitants with a good standard of living. In India, how can markets take care of the diversity in caste, language, region, income, etc? Economists must do away with their arrogance and admit that policy making is a serious and complex matter, which cannot be solely guided by macroeconomic models of the general equilibrium variety!

For instance, the variables which the government tries to engineer affect people in different and often opposite ways. Alterations in interest rates affect lenders and borrowers differently. Also, movements in exchange rates affect exporters and importers in exactly opposite ways. More importantly, changes in prices of goods and services affect those who cannot afford it very adversely. Given such differential effects of policy variables, economics must incorporate ethical discussions into its fold. Perhaps, a reading of Theory of Moral Sentiments will be of great help!

 

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Posted in Adam Smith, Alfred Marshall, Economic Philosophy, Economics, Economics Education/Teaching, Government, India, Neoclassical Economics, Poverty | 1 Comment »

To Economists: please pay attention to the ‘real’ problems

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 1st September 2010

A talk by Arundhati Roy and watching Peepli Live has motivated the contents of this post largely. I have been forced to rethink what ‘economics’ as a discipline should do in a country like India. How can it contribute to economic growth and human development. It is often forgotten that, economics studies the big black box that transforms the labour of the labourers into commodities for consumption by the labourers. People or rather, people who work, appear at both the ends of the tunnel. The black box or the tunnel consists of varied actors, markets, institutions, laws, power groups, social classes, etc.

Some economists try to make sense of this complex interaction using tools such as game theory, which throws light of certain aspects of the interaction. This in turn is supposed to aid in the design of better institutions. A few study labour, the main actor in the whole economic process. Some look at institutions and how various legal arrangements affect the economic outcomes. It remains to be asked: outcomes for whom? In this manner, the entire profession of economics has been divided into various sub-disciplines, each specialising in a particular aspect of the economy. And it is evident that communication between the above mentioned sets of economists happen rarely. Very often, the larger picture is forgotten. Each group presents their results with a tremendous sense of certainty, which is entirely misplaced. And, the joke that economists love their ceteris paribus clause comes true here. Except that, the clause in this case, assumes as constant the remaining processes or aspects of the economy!

Who are the real producers in an economy? What role do farmers (small, marginal and large) play in our society? Do they live in dignity? When inflation occurs, do these farmers get more incomes? Or do the intermediaries pocket the increase? Are proper institutions in place to provide them with adequate credit? Can these formal institutions compete with the informal ones, such as money lenders and chitti funds?

It is accepted that farming is not a profitable enterprise any more. Policy makers are calling for industrialisation. They want the farmers to come away from their lands and work in industries. And so arises the slums in and around major cities, where their living conditions are perhaps worse than in the villages. Or, most of them are forced to become construction workers. Urbanisation implies buildings, which creates construction jobs in plenty. Once the space in big cities are exhausted, the urbanisation will take place in small cities. Workers will be in demand. In short, labour migration and increasing labour distress, owing to improper housing conditions will become even more intense. It is time, serious attention is paid to farmers and the role of farming in the development of India.

To conclude, it is time we paid more attention to the condition of India and not blindly follow academic fashions. It is the duty of the civil society and especially, the academicians to study the problems and issues thrown up by the society. When the problems of the majority of the population in India –those who live in the rural areas, those who work in the informal sector and those who are farmers– are forgotten and relegated as “deviations from the normal” or “problems of the Indian economy” and not as characteristics of the society we live in, it is indeed a pitiable situation.

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Posted in Agricultural sector, Development Economics, Economic Growth, Economics, Globalization, India, Industrial sector, Inflation, Informal Sector, Labour Economics, Macroeconomics, Poverty, Real economy, Uncategorized, Unorganised Sector, Urbanisation | 3 Comments »