Category Archives: Thought Experiment

On Disguised Unemployment: Some Issues

This post discusses some of the broad theoretical issues underlying the category of ‘disguised unemployment’. The discussion is made clear by closely examining the hypothesis that Indian agriculture is plagued by the presence of high disguised unemployment.

Let us take a glimpse at the Economics textbook for class XI published by the NCERT. (NCERT 2006, p 131, Indian Economic Development)

“Economists call unemployment prevailing in Indian farms as disguised unemployment. What is disguised unemployment? Suppose a farmer has four acres of land and he actually needs only two workers and himself to carry out various operations on his farm in a year, but if he employs five workers and his family members such as his wife and children, this situation is known as disguised unemployment. One study conducted in the late 1950s showed about one-third of agricultural workers in India as disguisedly unemployed.” (italics mine)

Is disguised unemployment unemployment?

A thought experiment. Suppose A and B are two similar countries – both are equally populated. Now, a study has estimated disguised unemployment in country A to be 30% and in country B to be 10%. This implies that employment in country A is more than that of country B. Should this be of concern? Must we try and reduce disguised unemployment in country A?

If so, what is the basis of ‘disguised unemployment’? Do we see the principle of allocative efficiency present in disguise? Disguised unemployment means that ‘labour’ is ‘inefficiently’ utilised. Attestation of this claim is done by showing the high share of workers employed in agriculture alongside the low contribution of agriculture to GDP.

The first draft of National Employment Policy (2008) reads thus: “Over half the workforce continues to depend on the agriculture even though it accounts for less than a fifth of the total GDP. This implies a vast gap in incomes and productivity between agriculture and non-agriculture sectors. This is mainly due to inadequate growth of productive employment opportunities outside agriculture.” Is employment the need of the hour or is it contribution to GDP? Which variable (employment or GDP) should be the criterion? Why not improve the quality of employment in agriculture? To attain quality, provision of infrastructural support is absolutely essential- credit facilities, good roads and increased railroad connectivity, storage houses, institutions so as to enable the farmers get a ‘decent’ price for their produce, etc.

In 1960-61, the share of agriculture, forestry and fishing in total GDP was 53% (at 1993-94 prices). This came down by around 30 percentage points to 22% in 2002-03. On the other hand, the share of agriculture, forestry and fishing in total employment was 75.9% in 1961; by 1999-2000, it had come down to 59.9%. [The Oxford Companion to Economics in India, ed Kaushik Basu, OUP: New Delhi, 2007, p. 11]

The above discussion attains significance when we view agricultural workers as those who are trying to make a livelihood out of various jobs – farm and non-farm employment and self-employed and casual labour. ‘Employment’ mainly refers to wage employment. In India, out of total employment, the share of self-employment is the highest. As Amit Bhaduri writes, the economic activities predominant in the agricultural sector (or rural or informal) can be called as ‘survival strategies’. [Bhaduri 2006, Employment and Livelihood, in Employment and Development: Essays from an Orthodox Perspective] He cautions the policy makers on the use of dual-sector models in framing development policies for India owing to the heterogeneity prevalent in rural India and also because of the specificities present in the unorganised agricultural sector. Hence, the notion of ‘surplus labour’ loses much of its weight. In turn, we need to carefully look at ‘disguised unemployment’ for it disguises a lot of specificities of rural India.

Economics Education: The Indian Context

Economics is viewed in most schools, colleges (Management institutes as well) and universities as a monolithic enterprise. It comprises mainly Microeconomics and Macroeconomics and uses Econometrics and Mathematical Economics as tools to understand the economy. Interestingly, tools like philosophy, history, sociology, anthropology lie forgotten. Or probably they are not viewed as tools anymore. Or they are not scientific enough!

This post deals with the dominant perception of Economics within India and how these perceptions adversely affect the spirit of economics in particular and of scientific inquiry in general.

Courses like History of Economic Thought are extended to include Classical Political Economy, Marxian Economics, etc. They are taught as outdated ideas and not as relevant approaches in understanding the economy. This is visible from the responses of students when works of Adam Smith, David Ricardo, Karl Marx etc are mentioned. I shall discuss Malthus in this post and in the next post, I shall discuss some of the theories of Marx.

Unfortunately, Malthus is known only for his ‘bad’ population theory. Interestingly enough, all that Malthus [1798] said was “that population, when unchecked, increased in a geometrical ratio, and subsistence for man in an arithmetical ratio.

Let us examine whether this position be just. I think it will be allowed, that no state has hitherto existed (at least that we have any account of) where the manners were so pure and simple, and the means of subsistence so abundant, that no check whatever has existed to early marriages, among the lower classes, from a fear of not providing well for their families, or among the higher classes, from a fear of lowering their condition in life. Consequently in no state that we have yet known has the power of population been left to exert itself with perfect freedom.” (Italics added)

Such an argument is what philosophers of science classify as a ‘thought experiment’. But mainstream economists classify this as a theory which has provided wrong predictions.

Thought experiments are devices of the imagination used to investigate the nature of things. And in our own time, the creation of quantum mechanics and relativity are almost unthinkable without the crucial role played by thought experiments. [Brown 2007] If one were to discredit and disregard Malthus’ theory, then there is no reason why the theory of perfect competition should be considered in Economics at all. The issue is that, there is hardly any work being done in methodological issues pertaining to economics and on the structure of a good economic theory, therefore one definitely needs to consider each and every theory in its own context. By context I refer to the historical background and the general argument that is being put forth.

Philosophical debates within Economics are very essential for the growth of both the disciplines, but more significant for economics. Methodological and epistemological issues are not commonly discussed in economics. This is very necessary because economics, economists and economies are ever growing in importance. Their policies have far reaching effects. And if they are not constructed in the right spirit, the objectives of the policy might not be fulfilled at all. The Indian budget 2008-09 is one such example. None of the Indian universities have a course pertaining to the Philosophy of Economics in its Masters’ courses. This shows the importance it has received vis-a-vis econometrics and game theory.

Also, economics claims to be a science and Professor Peter Englund, Secretary of the Economics (Nobel) Prize Committee thinks so as well when he says “In all relevant respects the committee understands and treats economics as a field of science.” I see it as a shirking away of economics from questioning itself- its methodology and its knowledge.

It is primarily this attainment of a scientific nature by mainstream neoclassical economics that is bringing doom to the people constituting the economy. The present analysis in mainstream economics is not only ahistorical but also asocial. Economics needs to understand its origins and its epistemology. It ought to be a pluralistic enterprise. And let theoretical anarchism prevail because “it is more humanitarian and more likely to encourage progress.” [Feyerabend 1975]