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.
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!