How to Budget:
Thrift, Not Theft, Needs to Guide Our Public Finances
By Subroto Roy
First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, http://www.thestatesman.net, February 26 2008
For most family households in India as elsewhere, the time for weekly or monthly budgeting and accounting is a time of sobriety ~ when reality must be faced about which goals and desires can be achieved and which cannot, about how incomings and outgoings of family resources are going to be matched. The same holds for corporations when their managements must face their boards, shareholders or workers, though individual stakeholders in large corporations may be so ignorant of the facts or so small and insignificant in size that top management can get away with a lot of bluff.
When it comes to entities the size of countries, the scope for feeding illusions to the general public becomes enormously large; hence there is need for scientific honesty in government accounting and finance, and when that is lacking as it often is in any country, there is need for intense public awareness and vigorous criticism of what the government of the day may be up to with the public purse.
Mao Zedong once said “Thrift should be the guiding principle of our government expenditure”. Those who govern fiscal and monetary processes, whether autocratically or democratically, have a general duty to be frugal or economic in using resources that have been forcibly raised from the public and which could have been spent privately in other welfare-enhancing directions.
“One must not take from the real needs of the people for the imaginary needs of the state” said Montesquieu. National Governments “take” from the people not only via direct taxation (e.g. of income) and indirect taxation (e.g. of expenditure) but also via inflation ~ invisibly reducing the purchasing power or value of paper money and other paper assets by exploiting the government’s monopoly over currency-printing (a process that economists traditionally termed “seignorage” from the debasing of metal coins that kings historically indulged in to pay for wars).
In providing public goods and services, if a government does what it need not do it may end up failing to do what it must and which only it can do. “That part of the public expenditure, which is devoted to the maintenance of civil and military establishments (i.e., all except the interest of the national debt), affords, in many of its details, ample scope for retrenchment. But while much of the revenue is wasted under the mere pretence of public service, so much of the most important business of government is left undone, that whatever can be rescued from useless expenditure is urgently required for useful” (JS Mill).
Such an idea that “whatever can be rescued from useless expenditure is urgently required for useful” was used in Gordon Brown’s 2004 rhetoric as Britain’s Finance Minister when, for example, he said 40,000 jobs would be reduced in the UK civil services to release resources to enhance “frontline” public services like schools and hospitals.
From such a practical point of view, three questions must be typically addressed by any Parliament or Government trying to optimally align public expenditure and income in a budget placed before it:
(1) Is public expenditure allocated efficiently in given circumstances, in a manner that enhances the public interest to the greatest degree possible? If not, how may it be made to do so?
(2) Can income from government operations be enhanced in given circumstances? What taxation should be imposed, raised, lowered or abolished, why so, and at what least cost to the population?
(3) If government expenditure exceeds income from taxation and operations, how should the borrowing be financed at least cost? Is the government’s existing portfolio of assets and liabilities of different liquidity and term-structure efficient, or can it be improved?
Unfortunately, we do none of this in India and have not done so for decades. Indeed New Delhi’s establishment economists and the media have not ever even been thinking on such practical lines. Instead, each bureaucratic department tries to maintain or enlarge its own size and claims on public funds every year. What New Delhi does, in a nutshell, is to allow every Ministry (especially the military) to add a 10-20% inflation-premium to its previous year’s expenditures and assert a new claim during the Budget season. (The most accurate measure of inflation in India may be that involved in growth of nominal expenditure on Government’s bureaucracy). Organised business, organised labour, exporters, importers, farmers, women, and every sundry political lobbyist then assert their claims to subsidies and concessions as well ~ and some gargantuan number comes to be added up.
To that number must be added the vast annual expenditure on interest payments by Government on the public debt accumulated from previous years and decades ~ payments which keep afloat the entire banking system in India because our nationalized banks hold such debt-instruments as their main assets where customer-deposits are their main liabilities.
A crucial question in relation to the convertibility of the rupee has to do with international valuation of that vast public debt (hence valuation of the asset side of our banking system) in the event the rupee became freely exchangeable into gold and foreign exchange for the general public, not merely city-based super-elites and NRIs.
Once interest payments have been added to other government expenditures, some humongous number comes to be reached. That number, and how it breaks down between interest expenditures, military expenditures and other expenditures, is among the key variables to look out for in Mr Chidambaram’s forthcoming Budget-Speech. From it will be subtracted the total taxation and non-tax revenues of the Government ~ each after it has been subjected to its own political lobbying process by different interest groups who have managed to obtain access to the Finance Minister. The residual (government expenditure minus government income) is the “Gross Fiscal Deficit” which is how much the Government of India says it plans to newly borrow from the (mostly captive) domestic financial markets. That residual in turn will add itself to next year’s accumulating public debt on which interest payments will have to be then made. The Finance Minister and his spokesmen typically quote the Gross Fiscal Deficit as some percentage of GDP figures; a better ratio to look for may be the size of Government interest payments per head as a percentage of tax revenues per head.
The Union Finance Ministry no longer appears to exercise effective managerial control over the budgets and accounts of the innumerable publicly funded institutions, entities and projects in the country, nor even remembers how to do so. Everyone knows that the eventual aggregate result of public financial processes will be more deficit-finance paid for by silent and unlimited money-printing. Thus, for example, we see enormous building and construction plans being requested and granted for public institutions and agencies to indulge in ~ if the private builders and developers involved in such public contracts throw in an urban apartment or two for the heads of such institutions, who are powerful enough to be making the spending decisions with their friends, what does it really matter? Deficit-finance, arising from an abysmal state of government and public sector accounting, makes government corruption quite simple and straightforward if one thinks about it.
It is sad to say that the principle guiding our public finances may have become theft, not thrift, because political and administrative decision-makers throughout the system, instead of being sober, remain drunk when it comes to spending India’s public resources.