Memo to Kaushik 

Dr Kaushik Basu, Chief Economic Adviser, Ministry of Finance

Hello Kaushik,

Long time no see.  Happy Holi 2010.

I was glad to see the phrase “the relatively neglected subject of the micro-foundations of macroeconomic policy” mentioned in Chapter 2 of your document for the GoI a few days ago.

But I am unable to see what you could mean by it  because your chapter  seems devoid of any reference  or   allusion to the vast  discussion over decades of the  subject known as the “microeconomic foundations of macroeconomics”. Namely, the attempt to integrate the theory of value (microeconomics) with the theory of money (macroeconomics); or alternatively, the attempt to comprehend aggregate variables like Consumption, Savings, Investment, the Demand for & Supply of Money etc in conceptual terms rooted in theories of constrained optimization by masses of individual people.

It is not an easy task.  Keynes made no explicit attempt at it (recall Joan Robinson’s famous quip) and probably did not have time or patience to try.  Hicks and Patinkin failed, though after valiant efforts.  The modern period on this work began with Clower and Leijonhufvud, followed by the French (like Grandmont), and especially Frank Hahn.   Hahn’s 1976 IMSSS paper “Keynesian Economics and General Equilibrium Theory” is the survey to read, viz., Equilibrium and Macroeconomics and Money, Stability and Growth as well as of course Arrow & Hahn’s General Competitive Analysis.  You may agree that the general theory of value culminated in an important sense in the Arrow-Debreu model of the 1950s — yet that is something in which no money, and hence no macroeconomics, needs to or can really appear.  The hard part is to develop macroeconomic models for policy-discussion which allow for money and public finance while still making some pretence of being rooted in a theory of constrained optimization by individuals, i.e., in microeconomic behaviour.  (E  Roy Weintraub wrote a textbook with “Microfoundations” in its title.)

In the Indian case, I tried to do a little in my Cambridge PhD thesis thirty years ago: “a full frontal assault from the point of view of microeconomic theory on the ‘development planning’ to which everyone routinely declared their fidelity, from New Delhi’s bureaucrats and Oxford’s ‘development’ school to McNamara’s World Bank with its Indian staffers”.    Frank Hahn was very kind to say he thought my “critique of Development Economics was powerful not only on methodological but also on economic theory grounds”.  Some of the results appeared in my December 1982 talk to the AEA’s NYC meetings “Economic Theory & Development Economics” (World Development 1983), and in my 1984 monograph with London’s IEA.  Dr Manmohan Singh received a copy of the latter work in 1986, as well as, in 1993, a published copy of a work presented to Rajiv Gandhi in 1990, Foundations of India’s Political  Economy: Towards an Agenda for the 1990s.

I am glad to see from your Chapter 2 that the GoI now seems to agree with what I had said in 1984 of the need for systems that “locally include direct subsidies to those (whether in rural or urban areas) who are unable to provide any income for themselves…” Your material on the “enabling State” would also find much support in what I said there about the functions of civil government and the need for better, not necessarily more, government. On the other hand, your reliance on the very expensive (Rs.19 billion this year!)  Nandan Nilekani Numbering idea is odd as there seem to me to be insurmountable “incentive-compatibility” problems with that project no matter how much gets spent on it.

Returning to possible “microfoundations of macroeconomics” relevant to the Indian case, you may find of interest

“India’s Macroeconomics” (2007)

“Fiscal Instability” (2007)

“Fallacious Finance” (2007)

“Monetary Integrity and the Rupee” (2008)

“Growth and Government Delusion” (2008)

“India in World Trade & Payments” (2007)

“Our Policy Process” (2007)

“Indian Money and Credit” (2006)

“Indian Money and Banking” (2006)

“Indian Inflation” (2008)

“Growth of Real Income, Money & Prices in India 1869-2004” (2005)

“How to Budget” (2008)

“The Dream Team: A Critique” (2006)

“Against Quackery” (2007)

“Mistaken Macroeconomics” (2009)

These together outline an idea that the link between macroeconomic policy in India and  individual microeconomic budgets of our one billion citizens arises via the “Government Budget Constraint”.  More specifically, the continual deficit-finance indulged in by the GoI for decades has been paid for by invisible taxation of nominal assets, causing the general money-price of real goods and services to rise.  I.e., the GoI’s wild deficit spending over the decades has been paid for by debauching money through inflation.

(The  unrecorded untaxed “black economy” needs a separate chapter altogether, and it seems to me possible it provides enough real income and transactions to be absorbing some of the wilder money supply growth into its hoards.)

India cannot be a major economy of the world until and unless the Rupee  some day becomes a hard currency — for the first time in many decades, indeed perhaps for the first time since the start of fiat money.   It is going to take much more than the GoI inventing a trading symbol for the Rupee!   The appalling state of our government accounting, public finance and monetary policy, caused by the GoI over decades, disallows this from happening any time soon as domestic bank assets (mostly GoI debt, and mostly held by government banks) would inevitably be re-evaluated at world prices foreshadowing a monetary crisis.   Perhaps you will help slow the rot — I trust you will not add to it.

Cordially yours

Suby Roy

Postscript  March 1 2010:   I recalled it as Joan Robinson’s quip, had forgotten it was in fact her quoting Gerald Shove’s quip: “Keynes was not interested in the theory of relative prices. Gerald Shove used to say that Maynard had never spent the twenty minutes necessary to understand the theory of value.” (1963)

see also

My Recent Works, Interviews etc on India’s Money, Public Finance, Banking, Trade, BoP, etc (an incomplete list)

“But he has nothing on at all,” said a little child at last.

From Facebook:

Subroto Roy  is hurt that Christopher Booker says “Not for nothing was Copenhagen the city in which Hans Andersen wrote his story about the Emperor whose people were brainwashed into believing that he was wearing a beautiful suit of clothes” because he always thought Hans Andersen meant it for modern New Delhi.

Question for the Sonia-Manmohan Govt: is a little polo in Washington expected to benefit India’s “aam admi”?

From Facebook:

Subroto Roy must ask Dr Manmohan Singh’s Government how it sees India’s “aam admi” coming to benefit by the United States Polo Team welcoming India in 2010 in the world championship polo matches on the DC National Mall, as has been very kindly reported by Mr and Mrs Tareq Salahi following the “Sensational Night honoring India”.

New compradors in old bottles? Old compradors in new bottles?

From Facebook:

Subroto Roy is amused to read in today’s business press in India that the most prominent declared lobbyist in the country wishes to be credited with having promoted economic liberalisation. The mendacity & self-delusion that capital cities are capable of seem boundless.

Gopi Arora (1933-2009)

From Facebook June 10 2011:

Subroto Roy remembers Gopi with respect and affection.

We met first at his IMF office in Nov 1992 when I had been briefly at the World Bank; hearing of my 1990-91 encounter with Rajiv Gandhi which sparked the 1991 economic reform, he immediately insisted I come to the Fund and it was due to him I became a consultant there in early 1993 (working on exports and exchange-rates of India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh seen together for the first time as requested for by the Saudi Exec Dir M Al-Jasser).

I had phoned him from Bombay when I arrived from the USA in June 1996 and he  immediately sent out three names and contacts of senior business figures he wanted me to meet.  But I became a Professor instead.  When we met again at his Grindlays office in Delhi later that year, he was just as keen to push me forward saying “You should be in the PMO”.  But there was uncertainty in Delhi at the time with the new Deve Gowda Government.

We last met about October 2003 when he treated me to lunch at the IIC Delhi and we then flew together to Calcutta; he told me then the Finance Ministry had become a complete and total *mess* —  it was remembering that today that I decided to write this. I had said to him I could not point to any serious macro economists in Delhi who really comprehended the gravity of the problem; he laid great store by one (unobvious) name but came to be disappointed there too.

On September 5 2009, he wrote on my blog “This short piece by Dr Roy on Jinnah is a gem. It puts paid to the theories peddled by all those who have not been introduced to geo-politics”. I was very sorry to hear just two months later that he had died. He embodied a clear-headed and intelligent Nehruvian nationalism which has become vanishingly rare in New Delhi today.  “He was my friend, faithful and just to me”.

Crunch-time: Do New Delhi’s bureaucrats have guts enough to walk away from the ADB, World Bank etc? (And does India have a Plan B, or for that matter a Plan A, in dealing with Communist China?)

I have had slight experience with the so-called multilateral financial institutions — attending a conference and helping to produce a book on Asia & Latin America with the ADB back in Hawaii in the 1980s, and being a consultant for some months at the World Bank and the IMF in Washington DC in the 1990s. The institutions seemed to me gluttonous and incompetent though I did meet a dozen good economic bureaucrats and two or three who were excellent in Washington. The “Asian Development Bank” (under Japan’s sway as the Word Bank is under American sway and the IMF under European sway) was reputedly worst of the three, though the Big Daddy of wasteful intellectually corrupt international bureaucracies must be the UN itself, especially certain notorious UN-affiliates around the world.

Now there are newspapers reports the ADB has apparently voted, under Communist Chinese pressure, to prevent itself from

“formally acknowledging Arunachal Pradesh as part of India”.

This should be enough for any self-respecting Government of India to want to give notice to the ADB’s President that the Republic of India is moving out of its membership. Ongoing projects and any in the pipeline need not be affected as we would meet our debt obligations.  There is no reason after all why a treaty-defined entity may not conclude deals with non-members or former members and vice versa.

But New Delhi’s bureaucrats may not find the guts to think on these lines as they would have to overcome their personal interests involved in taking up the highly lucrative non-jobs that these places offer. They will need some political kicking from the top. Thus in 1990-91 I had said to Rajiv Gandhi that “on foreign policy we should ‘go bilateral’ with good strong ties with individual countries, and drop all the multilateral hogwash”… “We do not ask for or accept public foreign aid from foreign Governments or international organizations at “concessional” terms. Requiring annual foreign aid is an indication of economic maladjustment, having to do with the structure of imports and exports and the international price of the Indian rupee. Receiving the so-called aid of others, e.g. the so-called Aid-India Consortium or the soft-loans of the World Bank, diminishes us drastically in the eyes of the donors, who naturally push their own agendas and gain leverage in the country in various ways in return. Self-reliance from so-called foreign aid would require making certain economic adjustments in commercial and exchange-rate policies, as well as austerity in foreign-exchange spending by the Government….”

Today, nineteen years later, I would say the problem has to do less with the structure of India’s balance of payments than with trying to normalise away from the rotten state of our government accounts and public finances. I have thus said “getting on properly with the mundane business of ordinary government and commerce… may call for a gradual withdrawal of India from all or most of the fancy, corrupt international bureaucracies in New York, Washington, Geneva etc, focussing calmly but determinedly instead on improved administration and governance at home.” We need those talented and well-experienced Indian staff-members in these international bureaucracies to return to work to improve our own civil services and public finances of the Union and our more than two dozen States.

As for India developing a Plan B (or a Plan A) in dealing with Communist China, my ten articles republished here yesterday provide an outline of both.

A Discussion Regarding Mr Nilekani’s Public Project

In response to my “Nandan Nilekani’s Nonsensical Numbering”,

Friendly Critic says:

I don’t think registering everyone in the country is such a bad idea. It may be difficult. But the post office reaches letters to anyone in the country, even the homeless. I don’t think it is doing anything wrong.

I replied:

The post office reaches letters to those with an address.

Friendly Critic replied:

You are mistaken. It reaches letters to beggars, addressed to the nearest pan shop. To repeat, I do not think it is wrong to register all residents; there are some good uses for it. If it is all right to enumerate residents once every ten years, there is nothing wrong in maintaining a continuous inventory. Only the British have an aversion to doing so, on grounds of piracy. But even their electoral registers are based on enumeration. And to attack Nilekani simply because he has taken on a job offered seems excessive to me.

I replied:

Thanks for this correspondence.  We may be slightly at cross-purposes and there may be some miscomprehension.  Of course if a beggar has a pan-shop as an address, that is an address.   But we are not talking about the efficiency or lack thereof of our postal services.

We are talking about the viability and utility of trying to attach a number, as an identification tag, to every Indian — for the declared purposes of (a) battling absolute poverty (of the worst kind); and(b) battling terrorism and crime.

Many Indians have passports, driving licenses, Voter cards,  PAN numbers, mobile numbers etc.    I am sure giving them a Nandan Nilekani Number will be easy.  It will be, incidentally, lucrative for the IT industry.

It will also be pointless to the extent that these people, who may number into the hundreds of millions, are already adequately identifiable by one or two other forms of photo id-cards.   (By way of analogy incidentally, Americans used to cash cheques at supermarkets using one or two photo ids — but the Social Security Card or number was not allowed to be one of them as it had no photo.)

Neither of the two declared objectives will have been explicitly served by giving Nandan Nilekani Numbers to those already adequately identifiable.

My point about incentive-compatibility is that the intended beneficiaries in any program of this kind (namely the anonymous absolute poor) need to have clear natural incentives to participate in order to make it work.  Here there are none.  Taking the very poorest people off the streets or out of their hamlets to be interrogated, photographed, fingerprinted and enumerated against their will, when they may have many more valuable things to be doing with their time in order to survive, is a violation of their freedom, privacy and dignity.   Even if they submit to all this voluntarily, there are no obvious tangible benefits accruing to them as individuals as a result of this number (that many will not be able to read).

If those already adequately identifiable easily get an NNN (at low cost and without violation of indvidual freedom or dignity), while those who are the intended beneficiaries do not do so (except at high cost and with violations of individual freedom and dignity), that would enhance inequality.

Because such obvious points have failed to be accounted ab initio in this Big Business scheme paid for by public money, I have had to call it nonsensical.