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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 »

The 2012-13 Economic Survey of India (with Raghuram Rajan)

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 4th March 2013

The Economic Survey (ES hereafter) is a document which presents the macroeconomic situation of India during a given period. It is drafted by the Ministry of Finance (MoF), Government of India with the Chief Economic Advisor (CEA) playing a chief role. The current CEA is Raghuram Rajan. At the MoF website, detailed profiles of the people who drafted the Economic Survey 2012-13 are available.

This blog has analysed the previous three economic surveys (2009-10; 2010-11; 2011-12) undertaken under the guidance of Kaushik Basu, the predecessor to Rajan. The current analysis is broadly divided into two parts. The first part deals with the ES’s view of economic growth and employment and its theoretical underpinnings. Here, we discuss the gloomy industrial performance, issues surrounding productivity of labour and the role of government expenditure. The second part focuses on select policy proposals and examines it in brief; the debates surrounding oil subsidies, high current account deficit and attracting foreign capital fall under this section.

I

The underlying theory of growth outlined in the ES is what economists’ term supply-side growth theory. Growth in output per worker is determined by growth in the supply of factors – labour and capital (more precisely, produced means of production). Whatever be the growth in their supply, the demand will automatically adjust. In other words, aggregate demand adapts to aggregate supply and investment adjusts to saving. Thus, in equilibrium, there can be no unemployment of factors, including that of labour. It will presently be seen that it is such a framework which enables the ES to recommend a reduction of government expenditure which will apparently promote growth.

Rajan deserves praise for underscoring the importance of quality employment right in the beginning of the ES. In Chapter 2 entitled ‘Seizing the Demographic Dividend’, a case is made for improving labour productivity and for increasing both the quantity and quality of employment.

Policymakers are usually focused on short-run economic management issues. But the short run has to be a bridge to the long run. The central long-run question facing India is where will good jobs come from? Productive jobs are vital for growth. And a good job is the best form of inclusion. (p. 26)

‘Productive jobs’ refers to jobs where the productivity levels are high. Growth in per capita income is primarily determined by labour productivity, growth in the working population and growth in the working population who find jobs – the employment rate (p. 30). Labour productivity rises with greater investment in physical and human capital. The reason for low agricultural productivity is identified to be low investment and therefore the solution proposed is an increase in capital per worker (p. 32). Yes, technological advances are necessary but so are transformations in agrarian relations pertaining to caste and gender. Moreover, the presence of inter-linked markets makes agricultural markets very coercive, and less competitive.

Furthermore, low labour productivity is linked to rigid labour laws and excessive government regulations. It is of course necessary that the current labour laws be examined and improved upon whereby workers are provided decent wages, adequate sick and maternity leaves, indexation with inflation, etc. As the chapter rightly concludes, ‘We need to examine carefully whether regulations constrain businesses excessively and, if so, strip away the excess regulation while ensuring adequate protection and minimum safety nets for workers’ (p. 54).

But, the question remains: what is the mechanism by which employment rises? The answer provided is that saving generates investment and investment generates employment. ES points out that investment can be increased by increasing saving.

If India were to follow a similar path [like that of China], it would need to increase savings and investment, both of which will follow from the demographic transformation. But it will also have to increase the intrinsic productivity of jobs…. (p. 31)

But, why will aggregate investment increase without a corresponding rise in aggregate demand? And, where will this increase come from if all the individuals save more, based on the recommendation by the ES? (One only needs to recollect the ‘paradox of thrift’.) Investment is undertaken so that the commodities and services that are being produced can be sold. Only if they are sold can profits be realised.

The adherence to a supply side theory of growth is clearly visible in the chapter dealing with industrial performance (Chapter 9). Owing to this belief, the analysis carried out in that chapter mistakes correlation for causation and also gets the causal chain wrong.

The moderation in industrial growth, particularly in the manufacturing sector, is largely attributed to sluggish growth of investment, squeezed margins of the corporate sector, deceleration in the rate of growth of credit flows and the fragile global economic recovery.

Low investment is considered to be the primary cause of poor industrial performance with a slight mention of decline in foreign demand. Further, the authors’ of the ES maintain that a low investment has resulted in excess capacity (obviously!) and also a decline in capacity utilization. Yet, they fail to point out that it is a fall in demand for industrial products which has caused the fall in capacity utilization and to a reduction in investment! Although, unconnected to their narrative of industrial decline, they note a reduction in the rate of growth of sales of listed manufacturing companies. The rate of growth ‘declined from an average of 28.8 per cent in Q1 of 2010-11 to 11.4 per cent in Q2 of 2012-13, the latest quarter for which comparable set of data are available.’ Hence, in order to increase investment, the authors’ want to attract foreign direct investment (FDI). But, the problem is not a lack of investment but a deficiency of demand.

In a similar line of supply-side thinking, the ES argues that fiscal consolidation or a lowering of government expenditure will result in a ‘higher growth in real GDP.’ As the ES clearly states,

Staying on the indicated fiscal consolidation path is critical to sustaining the desirable macroeconomic outcomes not only in terms of higher growth in real GDP and lower inflation, but also in easing the financing of the widening current account deficit (CAD), for which India’s sovereign credit rating is important. (p. 56)

While it is unfortunately true that credit rating agencies and foreign capital considers government spending to be a threat, the claim that fiscal consolidation enables faster growth seems to lack any solid proof. Unless, we treat inflows of foreign capital to be a source of sustainable and high economic growth!

In sum, the theoretical framework underlying the current Economic Survey is problematic because of its inability to explain labour unemployment (or excess capacity) as a permanent feature of capitalist economies. This unemployment is primarily owing to a deficiency of aggregate demand. Furthermore, owing to the supply-side underpinnings, the recommendations are to increase savings. This is clearly stated as objectives in the ‘Press Statement on Release of Economic Survey: 2012-13’. (1) ‘Increase government savings, especially by reducing distortionary subsidies’ and (2) ‘increase opportunities for savers to get strong real returns on financial investment.’ Therefore, a deficiency in saving is identified as the main hurdle for the Indian economy.

II

In this part we briefly examine the reasons why fuel subsidies are harmful to India in the long run and the problems surrounding India’s current account deficit. Fuel is a basic commodity in the sense that it enters as an input into the production of all commodities. And, petroleum is an exhaustible resource. The price in the international market does reflect its scarcity. A high price indicates that demand is over stripping supply. Fuel subsidies are a short term solution which takes the burden of innovation from Indian oil companies and the responsibility of proper use from Indian consumers onto the shoulders of the Government. Yes, workers need to be insulated from high oil prices. One way to do this is by indexing wages to inflation. A high fuel price also quickens the search for alternative sources of energy and better agricultural and manufacturing machinery which uses less fuel. One final point. The argument that fuel subsidies need to be reduced so as to reduce budget deficit so that there is economic growth is, as pointed out earlier, based on the flawed economics of supply-side growth theory.

India’s current account deficit has reached worrisome levels. The value of imports has been rising mainly on account of higher international oil price. Exports have fallen due to a slowdown in foreign demand. India’s main imports are (1) petroleum, (2) pearls (for re-export) and (3) gold. Owing to the surplus in invisibles (services such as transport and software; and private investment income transfers) some of the deficit in the merchandise trade balance is absorbed. Apart from the surplus in invisible trade, the other avenue for meeting the merchandise trade deficit comes from the capital account. The major source of (net) capital inflow is foreign investment, which comprises foreign direct investment and portfolio investment. The other source of foreign exchange is loans. Given this situation, the Economic Survey proposes measures which attract foreign investors and by imposing duties which make gold imports costlier. Both these are extremely short-sighted measures and the former one makes economic growth to hinge crucially on foreign capital which is not advisable. The long term solution, as suggested in the case of oil subsidies, ought to be technological innovations in the export industries so that they are internationally competitive. Also, the propensity to imports should be reduced by promoting industries which can produce similar commodities. Moreover, there is a huge potential in the Indian tourism industry. And, as the ES also recognises, ‘the best way to reduce gold imports in a sustainable way will be to offer the public financial investment opportunities that generate attractive returns.’

Conclusion

The move to reduce government spending and measures which attract foreign capital are therefore based on the flawed supply-side theory of economic growth; we require an increase in employment and incomes and in aggregate demand. Moreover, the proposed measures to deal with structural problems of the Indian economy are not just short-term but short-sighted and unsustainable in the long-run. These measures also discourage technological innovations especially in the area of alternative energy sources.  Oligopolistic markets should be replaced with competitive markets with good labour laws which ensure that part of the productivity gains go to the workers.

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Posted in Demographic Dividend, Economic Growth, Economics, Employment, Foreign Exchange, GDP, Government, India, Industrial sector, Macroeconomics, Neoclassical Economics, Supply side economics, Unemployment, Wages | No Comments »

What Can Indian Economists Learn From Sismondi?

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 11th November 2011

Although J.-C.-L. Simonde de Sismondi (1773-1842) lived in Geneva and wrote on economics, history and public policy, his concerns about the role of political economy is valid even today, especially for India. Marx considered Sismondi to be the last classical economist. Sismondi engages with the economics of Adam Smith, David Ricardo and J B Say in his 1819 work New Principles of Political Economy: Of Wealth In Its Relation to Population. This work has been translated into English by Richard Hyse in 1991 (available at Google Books). According to Sismondi, the objective of Political Economy is to ensure that majority of the population live a happy life.

Indian realities

Sainath informs us that India has seen over a quarter of a million farmers’ suicides between 1995 and 2010. The total figure according to National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB) is 256,913. And, since 1998, at least 15,000 farmers have committed suicide very year. More unsettling is that fact that the total number of farmers have been declining significantly. In Andhra Pradesh, it is alleged that 90 farmers committed suicide, that too, in rain-fed areas, in the last few weeks.

The inflation of food articles has reached double digits. Food inflation doubly affects the actual cultivators. Since, the prices are fixed by the Government (minimum support prices), the price rise does not benefit the actual cultivators. Secondly, their ability to purchase their usual consumption basket also falls when price rise. It is in this context that M S Swaminathan’s reminders need to be understood. He rightly asserted: “If agriculture goes wrong, nothing else can go right for this country.”

Very recently, Dreze and Sen pointed out the nature of the asymmetrical growth that is driving India with a majority of the population living without access to basic amenities. They concluded their article in the Outlook by stating that one of the ways forward is to have a “radical broadening of public discussion in India to development-related matters—rather than keeping it confined to simple comparisons of the growth of the gnp, and naive admiration (implicit or explicit) of the high living standards of a relatively small part of the population. An exaggerated concentration on the lives of the minority of the better-off, fed strongly by media interest, gives an unreal picture of the rosiness of what is happening to Indians in general, and stifles public dialogue of other issues.” In other words, how much has the socio-economic condition of majority of the Indian populace (who happen to be farmers and weavers) improved?

Sismondi

In the hurry to build sophisticated DSGE models and while working out monetary and/or fiscal solutions to inflation and economic growth, it is often forgotten that actual human livelihood is at stake. How can Indian agriculture not be a necessary component of the curriculum in economics? Within economics, steep walls which cannot be crossed exist between agricultural economics, macroeconomics, monetary economics, labour economics, development economics, etc. The so-called specialization in these fields (to be understood as literature which is not easily accessible or comprehensible to an economist from another field) has reached alarming levels. Sismondi says the following on the nature of economic inquiry:

However, I believe I should protest against the manner, so often superficial, so often false, in which a work on the social sciences is judged in the world. The problem which they offer to resolve is tangled in quite another way than those that arise from the natural sciences; at the same time it appeals to the heart as well as to reason. The observer is called upon to recognize unjust sufferings that come from man, and of which man is the victim. We cannot consider them coldly and pass them over, without seeking some remedy (Sismondi 1819: 13).

Maybe, the idea of modern science does not allow investigators to be moved by the ‘object’ under study. Nevertheless, as Sismondi reminds us, economic problems and their solutions affect people (who are not ‘objects’) in a significant manner. The state of Indian farmers and weavers is certainly to be given attention, especially in terms of livelihood building, through providing employment and incomes in a dignified manner.

The following lines from Sismondi echoes what Dreze and Sen recently pointed out as regards Indian growth:

If they find a tremendous accumulation of riches, an improved agriculture, a prosperous business community, manufactures which multiply without end all products of human industry, and a government that disposes of almost inexhaustible coffers, as in England, they call the nation opulent that has all these things, without stopping to inquire whether all those who work with their hands, all those who create this wealth, are not reduced to mere subsistence; whether every tenth member among them must not apply each year to the public welfare; and whether three-fifths of all individuals, in a nation that is called rich, are not exposed to more privation than an equal proportion of individuals in a nation called poor (Sismondi 1819: 22).

In India, the wealth creators, the farmers, are forced to live below even ‘subsistence levels’ as Sainath’s commentary on farmer suicides indicate. Even though we have 53 agricultural universities in India, their contribution to the farming population is circumspect. Three to four decades before, working on agricultural economics and debating issues related to agriculture was fashionable and ‘important’. Today, it is even more important but, perhaps, not very attractive. In fact, the Government admits that the farm sector has been neglected.

Admitting that the government is neglecting research in the farm sector, the agriculture ministry has sought more funds in the next Five Year Plan (2012-2017) for significant jump in food grain production.

But, focussing on aggregate food grain production is clearly insufficient. One needs to look at the ‘production conditions in Indian agriculture’. As Sismondi points out very clearly

Commercial wealth is augmented and distributed by exchange; and even the produce of the ground, so soon as it is gathered in, belongs likewise to commerce. Territorial wealth, on the other hand, is created by means of permanent contracts. With regard to it, the economist’s attention should first be directed to the progress of cultivation; next to the mode in which the produce of the harvest is distributed among those who contribute to its growth; and lastly, to the nature of those rights which belong to the proprietors of land, and to the effects resulting from an alienation of their property (Sismondi 1819: 133).

In 1974, Krishna Bharadwaj published a book Production Conditions in Indian Agriculture. In the same period, economists such as Amit Bhaduri, Ashok Rudra, Amartya Sen, K N Raj, C H Hanumantha Rao, Pranab Bardhan, etc wrote extensively on various aspects of Indian agriculture. The issues Sismondi pointed out were discussed and debated. Bharadwaj points out the significance of examining property relations, technology, local patterns of power, etc. Moreover, she notes that non-economic variables such as tradition, customs, caste and religion determine the economic position of a farmer and thereby determines their income and asset levels. The rise in food inflation has prompted many commentators to hold employment guarantee schemes (NREGA) responsible. If agriculture generated adequate incomes (to maintain a decent and dignified life) employment guarantee would not be necessary. In other words, employment on and off farm cannot be treated as independent of each other. Further, in India, markets are interlocked through both price and non-price links (with the Government playing an ambiguous role). These interlocked markets are exploitative as it denies the following freedoms to the agricultural farmer, who is very much an entrepreneur.

(1)   What to produce?

(2)   How much to produce?

(3)   For whom to produce?

(4)   When to sell the produce?

Conclusion

As Sismondi reminds us, we cannot ignore the majority of the Indian population who do not have access to the basic necessaries of life. Agriculture provides livelihood to more than half the Indian workforce. A farmer is an entrepreneur who produces food, the most basic of all commodities. Although, it might not be academically fashionably and profitable to study Indian agriculture but as Sismondi notes: “We cannot consider them coldly and pass them over, without seeking some remedy.”

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Posted in Agricultural sector, Amit Bhaduri, Development Economics, Economics, Employment, Government, India, Inflation, Krishna Bharadwaj, Labour Economics, Macroeconomics, Political Economy, Unemployment | 1 Comment »

James Steuart, Strange(r) Economists and the Indian Economy

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 26th September 2011

 

Inflation has been portrayed as the biggest challenge faced by Indian policy makers and its Central Bank, Reserve Bank of India, in recent times. The Chief Economic Advisor to the Government of India and Professor of Economics at Cornell University, Kaushik Basu, recently presented his professional views on inflation – understanding and management, at the First Gautam Mathur Lecture on 18 May 2011. This is currently available for download as a working paper at the Ministry of Finance website. Various excerpts from this paper have made its way in some English newspapers and TV media. I will comment on this paper at length on a later date. Reading Basu’s paper makes me wonder whether monetary economists or other policy makers know what India is, who Indians are and what Indians actually do. In more abstract terms, do economists know the structure of the Indian economy? Do they know what motivates Indians? Is it primarily region, class, caste, religion, gender, education, self-interest, compassion, sympathy, fame, status? Although, to be fair to Kaushik Basu, he asks the RBI not to experiment and not to put up a façade of knowledge (which he frequently does). Without having a clear understanding of, what the 18th century economist James Steuart calls, “the spirit of a people”, it is impossible to formulate effective policies. Moreover, the focus on employment generation has completely given way to inflation stabilisation, using sophisticated econometric techniques. Therefore, this blog post revisits James Steuart’s views on how “the spirit of a people” influences economic engineering. In the Indian context, the consequences of monetary intervention might not be those which are depicted in conventional models of inflation.

Sir James Steuart (1713-1780) published An Inquiry into the Principles of Political Oeconomy in 1767 which was and has been overshadowed by Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations published in 1776. Steuart acknowledged the importance of devising context-specific economic policies. However, we must realise that context-specific economic policy is not antithetical to general economic theories. In other words, proposing economic theories and models of a general nature is not inherently a problem; but, when applied blindly, they cause havoc, which is often supressed in very clever ways. Steuart writes:

“Every operation of government should be calculated for the good of the people. . .that in order to make a people happy, they must be governed according to the spirit which prevails among them” (p. 21).

An ignorance or lack of understanding of this “spirit” can have disastrous consequences. We see some of them in the worsening urban-rural inequality, falling of inflation-adjusted per capita incomes in interior villages [EPW, 2011], agricultural distress and forced migration [P Sainath, The Hindu, 2011]. One of reasons why such skewed policies are implemented is because of the rationale provided by “pure economic theory”, which Basu seems to praise for its scientific rigor and [semblance of] truth. To be clear, “pure economic theory” is something which Steuart was against because it assumed a certain “spirit” and claimed to be universal thereby neglecting important specificities and characteristics pertaining to individual economies.

For Steuart, “the spirit of a people is formed upon a set of received opinions relative to three objects; morals, government and manners: these once generally adopted by any society, confirmed by long and constant habit, and never called in question, form the basis of all laws, regulate the form of every government, and determine what is commonly called the customs of a country” (p. 22). That is, education, religion, region, caste, gender, etc would significantly affect the “spirit” of India. Also, important characteristics such as the percentage of Indians employed in agriculture, in unorganised manufacture, in self-employment, in rural areas, using informal sources of finance, who are socially poor (less than 100 rupees a day), who actually invest in stock markets, who read English newspapers and so on affect the outcomes of economic engineering. Not paying heed to these significant characteristics is the same as formulating an inappropriate policy. Let me highlight once instance. The RBI conducts Inflation Expectations Survey to estimate how the expectations of the Indian populace change over time and this result forms an input into monetary policy making. Despite this, the RBI did not survey any Indian living in rural areas; they seem to neglect and forget the fact that the main producers live in rural areas and their chief occupation is agriculture! This certainly deserves to be questioned. Policies should not be formulated “at any point which regards the political oeconomy of a nation, without accompanying the example with some supposition relative to the spirit of the people” (p. 23). If the “spirit of the people” is not taken into account, as the example above indicated, such policies could prove to be harmful. This also calls for greater dialogue between economists and other social analysts (sociologists, cultural theorists, political scientists, anthropologists, social workers, etc) when engineering nation-wide socio-economic policies. Hence, Steuart writes that “in every step the spirit of the people should be first examined” (p. 25).

Often, the attitudes of policy makers indicate how much their academic knowledge is irrelevant for practical economic and social problems. The reliance on “pure economic theory” is nothing but an intellectual looking, mathematically replete and made-difficult-to-understand version of free markets, because efficiency and rationality are our new gods! As Keynes writes in his preface to The General Theory, “the difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping from the old ones, which ramify, for those brought up as most of us have been, into every corner of our minds.” Today, these “old ideas” are not only fashionable and ‘scientific’ (and often unsuited to India), but they are also communicated relentlessly to the new generations through schools and universities. In conclusion, it is scary to realise that India’s policy making is done by those who are “strangers” to the Indian realities. Steuart warns us that “when strangers are employed as statesmen, the disorder is still greater, unless there be extraordinary penetration, temper, and, above all, flexibility and discretion” (p. 27).

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Posted in Adam Smith, Agricultural sector, Classical Economics, Classical Political Economy, Economic Philosophy, Economics, Economics Education/Teaching, Employment, Government, History of Economic Thought, India, Inflation, Informal Sector, James Steuart, Keynes, Monetary Economics, Unemployment, Unorganised Sector, Urbanisation | 1 Comment »