A Case for Pluralism in ‘Microeconomics’

[My return to blogging is motivated by the extremely warm response I’ve received in person – in the last 6 months – from several people who have been readers of this blog. I’m also happy to announce the publication of my co-edited book on the history of economic thought.]

The subject matter of microeconomics is enshrined in the economics curriculum at all levels – school, undergraduate, postgraduate, and doctoral. The central objective of microeconomic theory is to provide a solution for equilibrium price and quantity in both the commodity (say, apples or coconuts) and factor (wage and ‘capital’) markets. Indeed, questions of what is the source of value and what is the exchange value of two commodities have been posed much earlier. You can find answers in Kautilya, Aquinas, Petty, and Cantillon – all of them writing prior to Adam Smith’s foundational treatise on political economy.


Kautilya’s Arthashastra contains discussions of a fair price. Aquinas, drawing inspiration from Aristotle and Christianity, tries to arrive at the notion of a just price. One of the founders of political economy, William Petty, derives the distinction between necessary price and political price and possesses a rudimentary labour theory of value. Following Petty, Cantillon distinguishes between ‘intrinsic value’ and ‘market price’ based on a land-cum-labour theory of value. The contributions of Smith, Ricardo, Marx, and Sraffa to value theory follow this tradition of objectively determining value.


The dominant theory of value in contemporary economics is not the objective theories of value found in Ricardo, Marx, or Sraffa but the subjective theories of value whose pioneers are Jeremy Bentham, William Stanley Jevons (whose son taught at Allahabad University), Alfred Marshall, AC Pigou, and Paul Samuelson. The value theory (or microeconomic theory, as it is now called more fashionably) found in the textbooks of Hal Varian or Gregory Mankiw take the following as data when solving for equilibrium prices and quantity: (i) preferences, (ii) technology, and (iii) endowments. On the other hand, Piero Sraffa’s value theory, found in his Production of Commodities by Means of Commodities (1960), takes the following as given when arriving at a solution for prices and one distributive variable: (i) size and composition of output, (ii) technology, (iii) the real wage or rate of profit.


How do you measure the data listed above’ While technology, endowments, and real wage can be measured in terms of the commodity-mix, the rate of profit is a pure number. However, how are preferences measured (or ordered)’ They are measured in a subjective manner. This is one of the core differences between the dominant marginalist theory of value and the Classical/Sraffian objective theory of value. Given this core difference, it is incorrect to treat the objective theory of value found in Ricardo or Marx as a precursor or rudimentary version of modern subjective theory of value. And therefore, it is important that students of economics learn about different value theories in microeconomics.


I shall end by drawing your attention to the practical implications of believing in the marginalist conception of the labour market vis-a-vis that of the classical economists (see an earlier post on wages). Under conditions of perfect competition, the equilibrium real wage is determined by the marginal product of labour. Any intervention, such as a minimum wage legislation or collective bargaining by the workers, results in imperfections and consequently leads to unemployment. However, in classical economics, real wage is exogenously determined though historical and social factors. If you believe in the marginalist conception, the logical policy recommendation is to eliminate any intervention/imperfection (such as minimum wage legislation or collective wage bargaining) whereas if you believe in the classical conception, you would treat collective wage bargaining and minimum legislation as legitimate ways of improving workers’ conditions.


This post argues that value theory matters for both contemporary politics and policy. And consequently, the teaching of microeconomics needs to become pluralistic. Moreover, as pointed out earlier, the politics of microeconomics ought to be made explicit. It is, as Keynes, said that we are the ‘usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”


The Union Budget 2018-19 in 5 charts

The Union Budget is a key document which informs the public about the Government’s socio-economic plans and priorities. It is important to critically evaluate this document because of our collective ‘failure to provide for full employment’ and the ‘arbitrary and inequitable distribution of wealth and incomes’; Keynes wrote this in 1936 and it continues to remain the same. Moreover, it is our collective right and responsibility to decide how the government should obtain its revenue and how it must be spent. No formula or algorithm exists for this. As Piketty wrote in his Capital in the Twenty-First Century, ‘Taxation is not a technical matter. It is preeminently a political and philosophical issue, perhaps the most important of all political issues. Without taxes, society has no common destiny, and collective action is impossible.

This blog post aims to outline the priorities of the current central government by examining the expenditure on physical and social infrastructure and the nature of taxes. This is done in 5 charts.

(1) Physical Infrastructure

Defence is significantly more important than roads, housing, food, and farmers’ welfare.


Capital Expenditure of Select Central Ministries (in Rs. Crore)
Source: Expenditure Budget Vol. 1, 2016-17, Statement 2, pp 4-9
All values are rounded off to the nearest crore.


(2) Social Infrastructure

Physical infrastructure creation is more important than social infrastructure creation.

Have the negative effects of physical infrastructure creation been accounted for’


‘Total Allocations of Select Ministries (Rs. 112753 Crore)
Source: BS, p 36, Annex No. III-A to Part A
RE refers to revised estimates which include supplementary demands for funds made by the ministries during the financial year.
BE refers to budget estimates.


(3) Direct & Indirect Taxes

Our taxation policy is regressive due to the high proportion of indirect taxes.


Select Direct and Indirect Taxes (in Rs. Crore)
Source: Receipts Budget, 2018-2019, pp. 2-4


(4) Corporate Tax Concessions

Our tax concessions could approximately fund 75% of the social infrastructure spending estimate.



(5) Corporate Tax Structure

Our corporate taxes are regressive.


Effective tax rate paid by sample companies across range of PBT (FY 2016-17)
Source: Statement of Revenue Impact of Tax Incentives under the Central Tax System: Financial Years 2014-15 and 2015-16, p 30 of the Receipts Budget, 2016-2017, Annex-15.
1 Values rounded off to the nearest integer; hence the total adds up to 101 and not 100. Financial year 2012-13. The number of companies whose PBT is zero is 17,912 and their share in total income is around 9 per cent.


Concluding comments

Our government prioritises defence over agriculture. Our government prioritises physical infrastructure over social infrastructure and does not take into account ecological damage and the displacement caused due to physical infrastructure creation. And our taxation policy is regressive. We must use our collective rights and responsibilities to decide how the government should obtain its revenue and how it must be spent.

I thank Rahul Lahoti for inviting me to be a part of the panel which discussed the Union Budget at Azim Premji University-Undergraduate Campus on 14th February 2018, from which this post originated.

The Political Economy of GST

India welcomed the Goods and Services Tax (GST) on 1st July 2017, sixty-three years after France first adopted it. In his parliament speech, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said that ‘GST marks the economic integration of India.’ It is expected to unify India through the creation of a single market for goods and services as the GST slogan aptly captures: ‘one nation, one market, one tax’. Moreover, it is expected to increase the tax base in India where less than 1 per cent of people pay income tax and close to 90 per cent of the workers are in the informal sector. Both these perceived benefits, according to the government, are expected to accelerate India’s economic growth by making it easier to do business and increasing public investment (financed through increased tax revenue).

The second volume of Economic Survey 2016-17 released earlier last month ‘ another first for India ‘ argues that the introduction of GST partly contributed to ‘optimism about the medium term’. One hopes that the optimism is well founded and not ‘irrational exuberance’, to borrow Robert Shiller’s phrase. Was the introduction of GST aimed at raising tax compliance by simplifying the indirect tax structure with the aid of information technology’ Or, did it aim to structurally reform the Indian economy with a view of increasing employment and reducing inequalities’ There is also another important question to pose: is a uniform tax a good policy move in an economy like India where the intra-state and inter-state differences are significant’

Amidst his discussion on inequality, Thomas Piketty rightly writes in Capital that ‘Taxation is not a technical matter. It is preeminently a political and philosophical issue, perhaps the most important of all political issues.’ Hence, it is important that the political economy of GST is rendered transparent. After the introduction of GST, several Indian states have lost their autonomy in public policy owing to a reduction in their tax revenue because the GST subsumes state taxes such as the value added tax (VAT), sales tax, and luxury tax. [The service tax belonged to the centre.] In fact, as GST is a destination tax, Tamil Nadu, a manufacturing state, had opposed it because of a potential revenue loss of around Rs. 9,270 crore. Additional reforms are necessary to ensure that the state’s economic policies are not throttled.

If simplification of the tax structure was a central goal, the four tax slabs of 5%, 12%, 18%, and 28% do not make sense. However, if the government has an additional goal of influencing consumer choices, different tax slabs make sense. Yet, our current GST tax structure eludes easy interpretation. For instance, why should pens be taxed at 18% and now cost more’ And why should sanitary napkins be taxed at 18% and now cost more’ There appears to be no obvious economic or social logic behind this classification.

On looking closer, the GST classification for goods and services appears to be based on the ‘ability to pay’ principle and therefore progressive in spirit. Hence, non-AC train travel is GST exempt while AC train travel is taxed at 5%. Similarly, while non-AC hotel services are taxed at 12%, the services in AC hotels attract a tax of 18%. From the perspective of the consumer, it is indeed the case that those who consume ‘luxuries’ (e.g., services in Five-star hotels and restaurants) have to pay a higher GST than those who consume ‘necessaries’ such as education and health services. But how are the producers affected’

During the VAT regime, handmade products were tax exempt but they are now taxed at different rates in the GST regime. If one adopts the sole principle of ‘ability to pay’ in the matter of taxation, taxing handmade products might not seem to economically unjust. As a government official put it, ‘a machine-made shawl is priced at Rs 500 and a handmade one at Rs 5,000. If a person can shell out so much for a handmade item, they might as well pay a higher’tax’on it.’ This is a good example of myopic thinking because we need to ask what happens to the handloom sector (employment and wages) once the market price rises.

As I write this, a meeting has been organised to protest the taxing of handmade products. The problem is aptly captured in this statement by one of its organisers:”Handmade products such as khadi saris are already expensive as compared to machine-made products. With imposition of GST, a khadi sari has become costlier.”It is elementary economics that this can lower demand for handmade goods and negatively affect employment in this sector. India’s recycling sector has also been adversely affected due to GST implementation.

Economic policies or reforms cannot afford to be short-sighted either intentionally or out of ignorance. The second volume of the Economic Survey proudly states that the GST regime has formalised the informal textile and clothing sector. But at what cost’

It is true that the big firms will benefit from lowered transaction costs and will be able to enjoy an increased volume of inter-state business. Small firms mostly buy their inputs and sell their output within their own state. In short, the lower transaction costs benefit big firms.

While around 160 countries have implemented GST, its effects have been varied. In Malaysia, household consumption reduced after the implementation of GST; in Australia, the burden of GST was more on the poor than the rich; whereas the weaker sections of the populace benefited from GST in Ethiopia, Pakistan, and Vietnam.

To conclude, while ‘one nation, one market, one tax’ sounds alluring, it presupposes an economically homogenous nation and a uniform market for commodities and labour. Is one tax justified in India, which has several many different labour markets, each with its own ‘equilibrium’ price’ Or do our policy makers think that imposing ‘one tax’ can transform India into a single market’ Just like demonetisation, the GST is yet another bad economic ‘reform’ with detrimental impacts on India’s poor and vulnerable.


This is a condensed version of a talk I gave at National Public School, Indira Nagar, Bengaluru on August 11th. I thank the students for posing interesting questions.’