May 29 2009:
It is a quarter century precisely today since my monograph Pricing, Planning and Politics: A Study of Economic Distortions in India was first published in London by the Institute of Economic Affairs.
Now in May 1984, Indira Gandhi ruled in Delhi, and the ghost of Brezhnev was still fresh in Moscow. The era of Margaret Thatcher in Britain and Ronald Reagan in America was at its height. Pricing, Planning & Politics emerged from my 1976-1982 doctoral thesis at Cambridge though it came to be written in Blacksburg and Ithaca in 1982-1983. It was the first critique after BR Shenoy of India’s Sovietesque economics since Jawaharlal Nehru’s time.
The Times, London’s most eminent paper at the time, wrote its lead editorial comment about it on the day it was published, May 29 1984.
It used to take several days for the library at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg to receive its copy of The Times of London and other British newspapers. I had not been told of the date of publication and did not know of what had happened in London on May 29 until perhaps June 2 — when a friend, Vasant Dave of a children’s charity, who was on campus, phoned me and congratulated me for being featured in The Times which he had just read in the University Library. “You mean they’ve reviewed it?” I asked him, “No, it’s the lead editorial.” “What?” I exclaimed. There was worse. Vasant was very soft-spoken and said “Yes, it’s titled ‘India’s Bad Example'” — which I misheard on the phone as “India’s Mad Example” 😀
Drat! I thought (or words to that effect), they must have lambasted me, as I rushed down to the Library to take a look.
The Times had said
“When Mr. Dennis Healey in the Commons recently stated that Hongkong, with one per cent of the population of India has twice India’s trade, he was making an important point about Hongkong but an equally important point about India. If Hongkong with one per cent of its population and less than 0.03 per cert of India’s land area (without even water as a natural resource) can so outpace India, there must be something terribly wrong with the way Indian governments have managed their affairs, and there is. A paper by an Indian economist published today (Pricing, Planning and Politics: A Study of Economic Distortions in India by Subroto Roy, IEA £1.80) shows how Asia’s largest democracy is gradually being stifled by the imposition of economic policies whose woeful effect and rhetorical unreality find their echo all over the Third World. As with many of Britain’s former imperial possessions, the rot set in long before independence. But as with most of the other former dependencies, the instrument of economic regulation and bureaucratic control set up by the British has been used decisively and expansively to consolidate a statist regime which inhibits free enterprise, minimizes economic success and consolidates the power of government in all spheres of the economy. We hear little of this side of things when India rattles the borrowing bowl or denigrates her creditors for want of further munificence. How could Indian officials explain their poor performance relative to Hongkong? Dr Roy has the answers for them. He lists the causes as a large and heavily subsidized public sector, labyrinthine control over private enterprise, forcibly depressed agricultural prices, massive import substitution, government monopoly of foreign exchange transactions, artificially overvalued currency and the extensive politicization of the labour market, not to mention the corruption which is an inevitable side effect of an economy which depends on the arbitrament of bureaucrats. The first Indian government under Nehru took its cue from Nehru’s admiration of the Soviet economy, which led him to believe that the only policy for India was socialism in which there would be “no private property except in a restricted sense and the replacement of the private profit system by a higher ideal of cooperative service.” Consequently, the Indian government has now either a full monopoly or is one of a few oligipolists in banking, insurance, railways, airlines, cement, steel, chemicals, fertilizers, ship-building, breweries, telephones and wrist-watches. No businessman can expand his operation while there is any surplus capacity anywhere in that sector. He needs government approval to modernize, alter his price-structure, or change his labour shift. It is not surprising that a recent study of those developing countries which account for most manufactured exports from the Third World shows that India’s share fell from 65 percent in 1953 to 10 per cent in 1973; nor, with the numerous restrictions on inter-state movement of grains, that India has over the years suffered more from an inability to cope with famine than during the Raj when famine drill was centrally organized and skillfully executed without restriction. Nehru’s attraction for the Soviet model has been inherited by his daughter, Mrs. Gandhi. Her policies have clearly positioned India more towards the Soviet Union than the West. The consequences of this, as Dr Roy states, is that a bias can be seen in “the antipathy and pessimism towards market institutions found among the urban public, and sympathy and optimism to be found for collectivist or statist ones.” All that India has to show for it is the delivery of thousands of tanks in exchange for bartered goods, and the erection of steel mills and other heavy industry which help to perpetuate the unfortunate obsession with industrial performance at the expense of agricultural growth and the relief of rural poverty.”…..
I felt this may have been intended to be laudatory but it was also inaccurate and had to be corrected. I replied dated June 4 which The Times published in their edition of June 16 1984:
I was 29 when Pricing, Planning and Politics was published, I am 54 now. I do not agree with everything I said in it and find the tone a little puffed up as young men tend to be; it was also five years before my main “theoretical” work Philosophy of Economics would be published. My experience of life in the years since has also made me far less sanguine both about human nature and about America than I was then. But I am glad to find I am not embarrassed by what I said then, indeed I am pleased I said what I did in favour of classical liberalism and against statism and totalitarianism well before it became popular to do so after the Berlin Wall fell. (In India as elsewhere, former communist apparatchiks and fellow-travellers became pseudo-liberals overnight.)
The editorial itself may have been due to a conversation between Peter Bauer and William Rees-Mogg, so I later heard. The work sold 700 copies in its first month, a record for the publisher. The wife of one prominent Indian bureaucrat told me in Delhi in December 1988 it had affected her husband’s thinking drastically. A senior public finance economist told me he had been deputed at the Finance Ministry when the editorial appeared, and the Indian High Commission in London had urgently sent a copy of the editorial to the Ministry where it caused a stir. An IMF official told me years later that he saw the editorial on board a flight to India from the USA on the same day, and stopped in London to make a trip to the LSE’s bookshop to purchase a copy. Professor Jagdish Bhagwati of Columbia University had been a critic of aspects of Indian policy; he received a copy in draft just before it was published and was kind enough to write I had “done an excellent job of setting out the problems afflicting our economic policies, unfortunately government-made problems!”
Siddhartha Shankar Ray told me when we first met that he had been in London when the editorial appeared and had seen it there; it affected his decision to introduce me to Rajiv Gandhi as warmly as he came to do a half dozen years later.
Within a few months though, by the Fall of 1984, I was under attack by the “gang of inert game theorists” who had come to Blacksburg following the departure of James Buchanan. By mid 1985 I had moved to Provo, Utah, really rather wishing, as I recall, to have left my India-work behind me. But by late 1986, I was at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, where the perestroika-for-India and Pakistan projects that I and WE James led, had come to be sponsored by the University and the East West Center.
The unpublished results of the India-project reached Rajiv Gandhi by my hand on September 18 1990 as has been told elsewhere. A week later, on September 25 1990, Rajiv appointed a small group that included myself, to advise him. It was that encounter with Rajiv Gandhi that sparked the origins of the 1991 economic reform. Yet in 2007 one member of the group, declaring himself close to Sonia Gandhi, brazenly lied in public saying it was Manmohan Singh and not I who had been part of the group — a group of which I had been in fact the first member! Manmohan Singh himself has never claimed to have been present and in fact was not even in India at the time it was formed.
I have explained elsewhere here why I believe this specific lie came to be told by this specific liar who shared membership with me in the group that Rajiv had formed: because I had also pleaded with many and especially within this group that Rajiv had seemed, to my layman’s eyes, very vulnerable to assassination, and none of them had lifted a finger to do anything about it! Such is how duplicity, envy and greed for power make people mendacious and venal in politics!
As for Pricing, Planning and Politics, Dr Manmohan Singh received a personal copy from my father whom he had long known through the Kaul brothers, Brahma and Madan, both of whom were dear friends of my father since the War and Independence. From a letter Dr Singh wrote to my father, he would have received his copy in late 1986 when he was heading the Planning Commission in his penultimate appointment before retirement from the bureaucracy.
Readers of Pricing, Planning and Politics today, 25 years after it was published, may judge for themselves what if any part of it may be still relevant to the new government that Dr Singh is now prime minister of. The work was mostly one of applied microeconomics or the theory of value; in recent years I have written much also of applied macroeconomics or the theory of money as it relates to India. My great professor at Cambridge, Frank Hahn, was kind enough to say in 1985 that he thought my “critique of Development Economics was powerful not only on methodological but also on economic theory grounds”; that to me has been a special source of delight.
Subroto Roy, Kolkata
Subroto Roy thinks the Senlis Council’s advice on regulating and licensing Afghanistan’s poppy market may be more important than trying to ham-handedly fight “drug wars” there…. Poppy may be best-suited to grow in that arid country which may not be otherwise able to feed itself.
Postcript: This report on regulating India’s poppy market for phramaceutical uses seems a good model.
“AT a business meet on 12 January 2005, Dr Manmohan Singh showered fulsome praise on Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee as “dynamic”, “the Nation’s Best Chief Minister”, whose “wit and wisdom”, “qualities of head and heart”, “courage of conviction and passionate commitment to the cause of the working people of India” he admired, saying “with Buddhadeb Babu at the helm of affairs it appears Bengal is once again forging ahead… If today there is a meeting of minds between Delhi and Kolkata, it is because the ideas that I and Buddhadebji represent have captured the minds of the people of India. This is the idea of growth with equity and social justice, the idea that economic liberalization and modernization have to be mindful of the needs of the poor and the marginalized.” With such support of a Congress Prime Minister (as well as proximity to Pranab Mukherjee), Mr Bhattacharjee could hardly have feared the local Congress and Trinamul would pose any threat in the 2006 Assembly Elections despite having more potential voters between them than the CPI-M. Dr Singh returned to the “needs of the poor and the marginalized” at another business meet on 8 January 2007 promising to “unveil a new Rehabilitation Policy in three months to increase the pace of industrialisation” which would be “more progressive, humane and conducive to the long-term welfare of all stakeholders”, while his businessman host pointedly stated about Singur “land for industry must be made available to move the Indian manufacturing sector ahead”. The “meeting of minds between Delhi and Kolkata” seems to be that agriculture allegedly has become a relatively backward slow-growing sector deserving to yield in the purported larger national interest to industry and services: what the PM means by “long-term welfare of all stakeholders” is the same as the new CPI-M party-line that the sons of farmers should not remain farmers (but become automobile technicians or IT workers or restaurant waiters instead). It is a political viewpoint coinciding with interests of organised capital and industrial labour in India today, as represented by business lobbies like CII, FICCI and Assocham on one hand, and unions like CITU and INTUC on the other. Business Standard succinctly (and ominously) advocated this point of view in its lead editorial of 9 January as follows: “it has to be recognised that the world over capitalism has progressed only with the landed becoming landless and getting absorbed in the industrial/service sector labour force ~ indeed it is obvious that if people don’t get off the land, their incomes will rise only slowly”. “
I went on to say
“Land is the first and ultimate means of production, and the attack of the powerful on land-holdings or land-rights of the unorganised or powerless has been a worldwide phenomenon ~ across both capitalism and communism.”
It is interesting and amusing to see today’s newspapers report that the person who appointed Dr Manmohan Singh to be India’s PM, namely Sonia Gandhi, has taken a 180-degree turn on this subject while sitting beside Mamata Banerjee yesterday.
She apparently said: “I am happy so be sharing the dais with Mamata Banerjee once again….in Nandigram and Singur the State Government had unleashed dictatorship in the garb of democracy… . In the name of development (the CPI(M)) created terror in Nandigram and Singur. In the name of development, they snatched the land from the poor people there.”
Now what is the poor old CPI(M) to think after all this! Politics can be so entertaining. 😀
Subroto Roy, Kolkata
Aren’t there any Marxist MBAs?
First published in The Statesman, August 29 2007, Frontpage comment, http://www.thestatesman.net
The West Bengal Government and Tata Motors have come into what appears to be a most bizarre financial agreement regarding 645.67 acres of agricultural land in Singur. What we are told from court documents submitted on August 27 by Tata’s counsel Mr Samaraditya Pal to the Honourable Division Bench of the Chief Justice Mr SS Nijjar and Mr Justice Pinaki Chandra Ghose is that a complicated schedule of payments is being planned for 90 years.
First there is a plan for 30 years with changes occurring every five years, then there is a plan for another 30 years with changes occurring every ten years, and finally there is a plan for the last 30 years with no changes occurring at all. 90 years is a very long time. A child born today will likely not be alive when this agreement comes to end though his/her grandchildren could be.
Tata Motors itself is hardly today what it was ten years ago and is unlikely to be the same corporate body 50 or 90 years from now. The political entities known as West Bengal or for that matter the Republic of India itself may well be very different in 2047, one hundred years after Independence, let alone in 2097 when this purported agreement shall end. 90 years ago the Ford Motor Company was mass-producing its famous Model-T – any product that Tata Motors produces at Singur today is hardly going to be the same 90 years from now. Our great grand children may look back at all this when the agreement ends and say it all looks pretty ridiculous in retrospect.
Even so, the numbers that have been now released to the Honourable Court allow some simple calculations to take place. The first point is that a payment made in 2007 cannot be added directly to a payment made in 2008 or to one in 2009, etc. It is meaningless to do so. However, if, say, Rs 1000 is paid in each of these years, and the market interest-rate is, say, 10%, what we may do is add Rs. 1000 with Rs. 1000/(1.1) with Rs. 1000/(1.1) squared to obtain a summable stream of Rs. 1000+Rs.909+Rs826 = Rs. 2735.
That sum of Rs 2735 is the present-value of the stream of three payments of Rs 1000 in each of three years given a constant interest-rate of 10%. On such a basis, given the payment-structure stated to the Honourable Court by Tata Motors, and assuming a constant interest-rate of 8% per annum in each year for the next 90 years, the present-value of all the payments to be made by Tata to West Bengal for the 645.67 acres of Singur land comes to Rs. 274.13 million (Rs. 27.413 crore), or a price of about Rs. 0.4246 million (Rs. 4.246 lakh) per acre. That is the effective market price of the land as valued in the contract, assuming a constant interest-rate of, say, 8%. (If a variable market-determined interest-rate had been used e.g. some rate added to the London InterBank Offer Rate in a given year, we could not make such a calculation today.)
If we further assume that the value of paper-money relative to land and goods and services in general may itself deteriorate through inflation, this figure would change. If, for example, we assume a low rate of inflation of 4% per annum for each of 90 years, that would mean the relevant interest-rate to discount the stream of payments would have to be 8%+4% = 12%. On that assumption, the present value of the entire stream of payments proposed to be made by Tata to West Bengal comes to Rs. 140 million in current rupees, and the price per acre of land becomes Rs 0.217 million or Rs. 2.17 lakhs. If the rate of inflation was high, say 10% per annum, the present value becomes Rs. 81.7 million and the price per acre of land being paid by Tata Motors is Rs 0.126 million or Rs. 1.26 lakhs. In other words, the higher the rate of paper-money inflation that occurs in the future, the cheaper Tata has obtained the land (and, conversely, the worse off the original peasant owners of the land who have been left with paper money paid to them by the West Bengal Government).
The point is also clear that the higher the rate at which one discounts the future, the lower shall be the present-value of the land. And also the higher this discount-rate, the more irrelevant the future becomes to present decision-making.
It is astonishing that neither Tata Motors’ high-powered MBA embellished management cadre nor anyone entrenched in the Marxist academic or policy establishment of West Bengal seems to have made such obvious calculations for the Honourable Court to understand things easily. Instead they have “added” the total payments to be made “raw” and said that some Rs. 8.558 billion (Rs. 855.8 crores) is due to be paid over 90 years – a meaningless statement because no such addition over time makes any financial sense at all. Are there no Marxist MBAs, or are all MBAs being mistaught the basics in their finance-courses?