Undergraduate Economist

Perspectives of an economics student

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 »

Economic Survey of India 2010-11: A Critical Look

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 28th February 2011

The Union Budget is presented based on the Economic Survey conclusions and recommendations. Therefore, the Economic Survey becomes a crucial document to examine and interpret. This time as well, the hands of its architect remain quite visible. Like the previous attempt, there is an increased use of economic theory – game theory, mechanism design, rational choice theories, etc – which provide support to various policy recommendations. According to this economic architect, all solutions are to be found in incentives. If the right incentives are provided, then economic and political governance will be smooth like that of the most competitive market. Agreed! What commonsense and insights from various social processes tell us is that individuals have heterogeneous preferences and what is an incentive for one might be poison for another. This blog post will examine some of these suggestions in detail (from Chapters 1 and 2 of Economic Survey 2010-11). In particular, the suggestions examined below will be those which have been favoured or disregarded based on arguments drawn from (neoclassical) economic theory.

Fiscal policy

Economic Survey 2010-11 assures the reader that India has recovered from the global financial crisis because of the high growth rates. For all practical purposes, this information indicates that we can now call for fiscal consolidation or lowering of the fiscal deficit. The usefulness of the government is over; let market forces function peacefully now without any government intervention!

“With clear evidence of economic recovery in 2009-10 as indicated by the Advance Estimates of the GDP, the Budget for 2010-11 resumed the path of fiscal consolidation with a partial exit from the stimulus measures.”

It is at the same time interesting and worrying to see this sort of rhetoric. Such rhetoric rests on the following premise: the opportunities for investment are limited (read: scarce) and the entry of the government will crowd out private investment. Surprisingly, this neoclassical idea, which is much promoted in our academic textbooks, fail to point out the fallacy of composition on which this argument is based. This argument does not recognise the interdependence in an economy. Wages generated from government jobs are not only used to purchase goods and services from the government sector. In fact, the wages and salaries generated by the government sector are spent in consuming goods and services produced by the private sector. It is certainly time policy makers understood the benefits of crowding in effects of government intervention. The expenditure, one should look for, is mainly in social services – education, health and employment.


Agriculture has been identified to be critical for macroeconomic stability and growth; although services sector is our potential growth engine. This can be read as: agriculture needs to grow at a level which will enable (the favourite word of the economic architect) the service sector to grow. Agriculture is carried out by majority of our fellow Indians (around 60 %) and it provides us food and raw materials. Our economic architect argues:

“The rise in prices of agricultural produce would in part help incentivize production; the moot question remains what proportion of the rise accrues to the producer and what proportion gets appropriated by middlemen. The creation of more direct farm-to-fork supply chains in food items across the country would be critical in incentivizing the farmer with higher producer prices and at the same time would lower the prices for end-consumers.”

Why are middlemen always blamed? Are they not the ones who aid production? Who exactly are these middlemen? Be that as it may, what is clear is that the middlemen have often more power (economic and social) than the actual producers. Majority of the farmers are forced to sell their product immediately after harvest owing to debt obligations. In addition, the (small) farmers do not benefit from the price rise because they do not have adequate storage facilities. As a matter of fact, even the Government only stores certain food grains in its godowns. Vegetable and fruits are not procured by the government. The undue emphasis placed on incentives by our economic architect is of concern. For one, production can only be carried out if the farmers have sufficient capital to purchase inputs. In India, the phenomenon of inter-linked markets is common in agriculture. That is, the same person provides credit as well as inputs to the farmers, thereby enjoying a very strong bargaining position over the farmer. Now, when our economic architect recommends FDI in retail food because they incentivise production, he is being blind to the production conditions of Indian agriculture. This can exacerbate the plight of the Indian farmer by making him/her subject to the contracts of the foreign firms. In this scenario as well, the farmer, owing to his/her weak bargaining power will never be able to enjoy higher prices. But yes, this could mean a lowering of prices for our urban consumers!

Inflation & employment

The subject of inflation has been dealt with in great detail in Chapter 2 of the Economic Survey 2010-11. In recent times, inflation has affected both the rural and urban consumers. However, as we know, the effect of inflation on the consumers are not equal in magnitude. Consumers who have very less income will be deeply affected by inflation. For instance, the small and marginal farmers are severely impacted when prices rise. Given this plight, the following statement by our economic architect is indeed baffling:

“It may be mentioned that food price inflation during the last financial year was mainly driven by high inflation in pulses, cereals, and sugar due to bad monsoon. The rise in the purchasing power owing to the rapid growth of the economy and inclusive programmes like the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA) partly might have contributed to the upward trend in inflation.”

First of all, the above statement indicates an inadequate understanding of inflation. Secondly, what about the rising purchasing power of the urban consumers or the employees of BPOs. What makes our economic architect point fingers at those who barely manage a living? If the beneficiaries of NREGA were surviving by barely subsisting before NREGA, their purchasing power would not have risen so much post-NREGA to contrbute, as our economic architect suggests, to inflation. In fact, such statements indicate a gross misunderstanding of inflation, a lack of knowledge of how rural India operates and a insensitivity towards subsistence and livelihood in general.


It is high time that we seriously examined some of the tenets of conventional (neoclassical) economic theory. Today, a lot of students and professors of economics world over are questioning the premises and logic of neoclassical economics. However, we find neoclassical economics still domination in various forms, such as new institutional economics, mechanism design, law and economics, microeconomics etc. Given that some of the foundations of economic theory are in question, it is surprising to see how much our economic architect bases the policy recommendations on such apparent scientific and objective truths!

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Posted in Agricultural sector, Economics, India, Inflation, Macroeconomics, Neoclassical Economics, Political Economy, Unemployment | 2 Comments »

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 »

On Disguised Unemployment: Some Issues

Posted by Alex M Thomas on 30th October 2009

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.

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Posted in Agricultural sector, Amit Bhaduri, Development Economics, Economic Growth, Economics, India, Informal Sector, Neoclassical Economics, Thought Experiment, Unemployment | No Comments »