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

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My “Critique of Monetary Ideas of Manmohan & Modi: the Roy Model explaining to Bimal Jalan, Nirmala Sitharaman, RBI etc what it is they are doing” of 2019 is here.

 

 

My critical assessment dated 23 August 2013 of Professors Jagdish Bhagwati & Amartya Sen and Dr Manmohan Singh is here

 

 

My critique of PM Modi’s 8 November 2016 statement began on Twitter immediately, and is  summarized here “Modi & Monetary Theory: Economic Consequences of the Prime Minister of India”

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My critical assessment dated 19 August 2013 of Professor Raghuram Rajan is here and here.

My 3 Dec 2012 Delhi talk on India’s Money is now available at You-Tube in an audio version here

My July 2012 article “India’s Money” in the Caymans Financial Review is here and here https://independentindian.com/2012/07/21/my-article-indias-money-in-the-cayman-financial-review-july-2012/

My 5 December 2012 interview by Mr Paranjoy Guha Thakurta, on Lok Sabha TV, the channel of India’s Lower House of Parliament, broadcast for the first time on 9 December 2012 on Lok Sabha TV, is here and here  in two parts.

My interview by GDI Impuls banking quarterly of  Zürich  published on 6 Dec 2012 is here.

My interview by Ragini Bhuyan of Delhi’s Sunday Guardian published on 16 Dec 2012  is here.

 “Monetary Integrity and the Rupee” (2008)

https://independentindian.com/2008/09/28/monetary-integrity-and-the-rupee/

  “India’s Macroeconomics” (2007)

“Fiscal Instability” (2007)

 “Fallacious Finance” (2007)

https://independentindian.com/2007/03/05/fallacious-finance-the-congress-bjp-cpi-m-et-al-may-be-leading-india-to-hyperinflation/

 “Growth and Government Delusion” (2008)

https://independentindian.com/2008/02/22/growth-government-delusion/

 “Distribution of Govt of India Expenditure (Net of Operational Income) 1995”
https://independentindian.com/2008/07/27/distribution-of-govt-of-india-expenditure-net-of-operational-income-1995/

“India in World Trade & Payments” (2007)

https://independentindian.com/2007/02/12/india-in-world-trade-payments/

“Path of the Indian Rupee 1947-1993″ (1993)

https://independentindian.com/1993/06/01/path-of-the-indian-rupee-1947-1993/

“Our Policy Process” (2007)

https://independentindian.com/2007/02/20/our-policy-process-self-styled-planners-have-controlled-indias-paper-money-for-decades/

“Indian Money and Credit” (2006)

https://independentindian.com/2006/08/06/indian-money-and-credit/

“Indian Money and Banking” (2006)

https://independentindian.com/2006/04/23/indian-money-and-banking/

“Indian Inflation” (2008)

https://independentindian.com/2008/04/16/indian-inflation-upside-down-economics-from-new-delhis-establishment/

 How the Liabilities/Assets Ratio of Indian Banks Changed from 84% in 1970 to 108% in 1998 https://independentindian.com/2008/10/20/how-the-liabilitiesassets-ratio-of-indian-banks-changed-from-84-in-1970-to-108-in-1998/

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

https://independentindian.com/2008/07/28/growth-of-real-income-money-prices-in-india-1869-2004/

“How to Budget” (2008)

https://independentindian.com/2008/02/26/how-to-budget-thrift-not-theft-should-guide-our-public-finances/

“Waffle but No Models of Monetary Policy: The RBI and Financial Repression (2005)”

https://independentindian.com/2005/10/27/waffle-but-no-models-of-monetary-policy-the-rbi-and-financial-repression/

“The Dream Team: A Critique” (2006)

https://independentindian.com/2006/01/08/the-dream-team-a-critique/

 

“Against Quackery” (2007)

https://independentindian.com/2007/09/24/against-quackery/

“Mistaken Macroeconomics” (2009)

https://independentindian.com/2009/06/12/mistaken-macroeconomics-an-open-letter-to-prime-minister-dr-manmohan-singh/

Towards a Highly Transparent Fiscal & Monetary Framework for India’s Union & State Governments (RBI lecture 29 April 2000)

https://independentindian.com/2000/04/29/towards-a-highly-transparent-fiscal-monetary-framework-for-india%E2%80%99s-union-state-governments/

“The Indian Revolution (2008)”

https://independentindian.com/2008/12/08/the-indian-revolution/

Can India Become an Economic Superpower or Will There Be a Monetary Meltdown? (2005)

https://independentindian.com/2005/05/05/can-india-become-an-economic-superpower-or-will-there-be-a-monetary-meltdown-2005/

Memo to Kaushik Basu, 2010

Land, Liberty, & Value, 2006

https://independentindian.com/2006/12/31/land-liberty-value/

On Land-Grabbing, 2007

https://independentindian.com/2007/01/14/on-land-grabbing/

No Marxist MBAs? An amicus curiae brief for the Honourable High Court

https://independentindian.com/2007/08/29/no-marxist-mbasan-amicus-curae-brief-for-the-honourable-high-court/

Coverage in The *Asian Age*/*Deccan Herald* of 4 Dec 2012.

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Posted in Academic research, Amartya Sen, Arvind Panagariya, Bhagwati-Sen spat, Britain in India, China's macroeconomics, China's savings rate, Economic Policy, Economic quackery, Economic Theory, Economic Theory of Growth, Economic Theory of Interest, Economic Theory of Value, Economics of exchange controls, Economics of Public Finance, GDI Impuls Zurich, Government accounting, Government Budget Constraint, Government of India, India's Big Business, India's credit markets, India's Government economists, India's 1991 Economic Reform, India's balance of payments, India's Banking, India's Budget, India's Capital Markets, India's corporate governance, India's corruption, India's currency history, India's Economic History, India's Economy, India's Exports, India's Foreign Exchange Reserves, India's Foreign Trade, India's Government Budget Constraint, India's Government Expenditure, India's Macroeconomics, India's Military Defence, India's Monetary & Fiscal Policy, India's Money, India's nomenclatura, India's political lobbyists, India's Politics, India's pork-barrel politics, India's poverty, India's Public Finance, India's Reserve Bank, India's State Finances, Inflation, Institute of Economic Affairs, International economics, Jagdish Bhagwati, Jean Drèze, Lok Sabha TV, Macroeconomics, Manmohan Singh, Microeconomic foundations of macroeconomics, Milton Friedman, Raghuram Govind Rajan, Raghuram Rajan, Rajiv Gandhi, Reverse-Euro Model for India, Sen-Bhagwati spat, Sonia Gandhi. 1 Comment »

“I have a student called Suby Roy…”: Reflections on Frank Hahn (1925-2013), my master in economic theory

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1. “What was relatively weak at LSE was general economic theory. We were good at deriving the Best Linear Unbiased Estimator but left unsatisfied with our grasp of the theory of value that constituted the roots of our discipline. I managed a First and was admitted to Cambridge as a Research Student in 1976, where fortune had Frank Hahn choose me as a student. That at the outset was protection from the communist cabal that ran “development economics” with whom almost all the Indians ended up. I was wholly impecunious in my first year as a Research Student, and had to, for example, proof-read Arrow and Hahn’s General Competitive Analysis for its second edition to receive 50 pounds sterling from Hahn which kept me going for a short time. My exposure to Hahn’s subtle, refined and depthless thought as an economist of the first rank led to fascination and wonderment, and I read and re-read his “On the notion of equilibrium in economics”, “On the foundations of monetary theory”, “Keynesian economics and general equilibrium theory” and other clear-headed attempts to integrate the theory of value with the theory of money — a project Wicksell and Marshall had (perhaps wisely) not attempted and Keynes, Hicks and Patinkin had failed at.

 

 

Hahn insisted a central question was to ask how money, which is intrinsically worthless, can have any value, why anyone should want to hold it. The practical relevance of this question is manifest. India today in 2007 has an inconvertible currency, vast and growing public debt financed by money-creation, and more than two dozen fiscally irresponsible State governments without money-creating powers. While pondering, over the last decade, whether India’s governance could be made more responsible if States were given money-creating powers, I have constantly had Hahn’s seemingly abstruse question from decades ago in mind, as to why anyone will want to hold State currencies in India, as to whether the equilibrium price of those monies would be positive. (Lerner in fact gave an answer in 1945 when he suggested that any money would have value if its issuer agreed to collect liabilities in it — as a State collects taxes – and that may be the simplest road that bridges the real/monetary divide.)

 

 

Though we were never personal friends and I did not ingratiate myself with Hahn as did many others, my respect for him only grew when I saw how he had protected my inchoate classical liberal arguments for India from the most vicious attacks that they were open to from the communists. My doctoral thesis, initially titled “A monetary theory for India”, had to be altered due to paucity of monetary data at the time, as well as the fact India’s problems of political economy and allocation of real resources were more pressing, and so the thesis became “On liberty and economic growth: preface to a philosophy for India”. When no internal examiner could be found, the University of Cambridge, at Hahn’s insistence, showed its greatness by appointing two externals: C. J. Bliss at Oxford and T. W. Hutchison at Birmingham, former students of Hahn and Joan Robinson respectively. My thesis received the most rigorous and fairest imaginable evaluation from them…”

 

 

2. “Frank Hahn believed in throwing students in at the deep end — or so it seemed to me when, within weeks of my arrival at Cambridge as a 21 year old Research Student, he insisted I present my initial ideas on the foundations of monetary theory at his weekly seminar.

 

 

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I was petrified but somehow managed to give a half-decent lecture before a standing-room only audience in what used to be called the “Keynes Room” in the Cambridge Economics Department. (It helped that a few months earlier, as a final year undergraduate at the LSE, I had been required to give a lecture at ACL Day’s Seminar on international monetary economics. It is a practice I came to follow with my students in due course, as there may be no substitute in learning how to think while standing up.) I shall try to publish exactly what I said at my Hahn-seminar when I find the document; broadly, it had to do with the crucial problem Hahn had identified a dozen years earlier in Patinkin’s work by asking what was required for the price of money to be positive in a general equilibrium, i.e. why do people everywhere hold and use money when it is intrinsically worthless. Patinkin’s utility function had real money balances appearing along with other goods; Hahn’s “On Some Problems of Proving the Existence of an Equilibrium in a Monetary Economy” in Theory of Interest Rates (1965), was the decisive criticism of this, where he showed that Patinkin’s formulation could not ensure a non-zero price for money in equilibrium. Hence Patinkin’s was a model in which money might not be held and therefore failed a vital requirement of a monetary economy. The announcement of my seminar was scribbled by a young Cambridge lecturer named Oliver Hart, later a distinguished member of MIT and Harvard University.”

 

 

3.   Then there was Sraffa…I saw him many a time, in the Marshall Library… He would smile very broadly at me and without saying anything  indicate with his hand to invite me to his office.. I fled in some fear… It was very stupid of me of course… Joan Robinson cornered me once and took me into the office she shared with EAG… She came at me for an hour or so wishing to supervise me, I kept declining politely… saying I was with Frank Hahn and wished to work on money… “What does Frankie know about India?” she said… I said I did not know but he did know about monetary theory and that was what I needed for India;  I also said I did not think much about the Indian Marxists she had supervised… and mentioned a prominent name… she said about him, “Yes most of what he does can go straight into the dustbin”…

 

 

4.   “I had been attracted to Cambridge partly by its old reputation for philosophy, especially that of Wittgenstein. But I met no worthwhile philosophers there until a few months before I was to leave for the United States in 1980, when I chanced upon the work of Renford Bambrough. Hahn had challenged me with the question, “how are you so sure your value judgements promoting liberty blah-blah are better than those of Chenery and the development economists?” It was a question that led inevitably to ethics and its epistemology — when I chanced upon Bambrough’s work, and that of his philosophical master, John Wisdom, the immense expanse of metaphysics (or ontology) opened up as well. “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies, When a new planet swims into his ken; Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes, He star’d at the Pacific…””

 

 

5. “I went to Virginia because James M. Buchanan was there, and he, along with FA Hayek, were whom Hahn decided to write on my behalf. Hayek said he was too old to accept me but wrote me kind and generous letters praising and hence encouraging my inchoate liberal thoughts and arguments. Buchanan was welcoming and I learnt much from him and his colleagues about the realities of public finance and democratic politics, which I quickly applied in my work on India…” Hahn told me he did not know Buchanan but he did know Hayek well and that his wife Dorothy had been an original member of the Mont Pelerin Society in 1947 or 1948. Hence I am amused reading a prominent NYU “American Austrian” say about Frank’s passing “I do think economics would have been better off if the Arrow-Debreu-Hahn approach had not been taken so seriously by the profession. I think it turned out to be an intellectual straight-jacket that prevented the discussion of valuable outside-the-box ideas”, and am tempted to paraphrase the closing lines of Tractatus — “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent/About what one can not speak, one must remain silent” — to read “Of that of which we are ignorant, we should at least try not to gas about…” Hahn and Hayek were friends, from when Hayek taught at the London School of Economics in Robbins’ seminar, and Hahn was Robbins’ doctoral student.

 

 

6. “The Hawaii project manuscript contained inter alia a memorandum by Milton Friedman done at the request of the Government of India in November 1955, which had been suppressed for 34 years until I published it in May 1989. Milton and Rose Friedman refer to this in their memoirs Two Lucky People (Chicago 1998). Peter Bauer had told me of the existence of Friedman’s document during my doctoral work at Cambridge under Frank Hahn in the late 1970s, as did N. Georgescu-Roegen in America. Those were years in which Brezhnev still ruled in the Kremlin, Gorbachev was yet to emerge, Indira Gandhi and her pro-Moscow advisers were ensconced in New Delhi, and not even the CIA had imagined the Berlin Wall would fall and the Cold War would be over within a decade. It was academic suicide at the time to argue in favour of classical liberal economics even in the West. As a 22-year-old Visiting Assistant Professor at the Delhi School of Economics in 1977, I was greeted with uproarious laughter of senior professors when I spoke of a possible free market in foreign exchange. Cambridge was a place where Indian economists went to study the exploitation of peasants in Indian agriculture before returning to their friends in the well-known bastions of such matters in Delhi and Calcutta. It was not a place where Indian (let alone Bengali) doctoral students in economics mentioned the unmentionable names of Hayek or Friedman or Buchanan, and insisted upon giving their works a hearing. My original doctoral topic in 1976 “A monetary theory for India” had to be altered not only due to paucity of monetary data at the time but because the problems of India’s political economy and allocation of resources in the real economy were far more pressing. The thesis that emerged in 1982 “On liberty and economic growth: preface to a philosophy for India” was 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 protected my inchoate liberal arguments for India; and when no internal examiner could be found, Cambridge showed its greatness by appointing two externals, Bliss at Oxford and Hutchison at Birmingham, both Cambridge men.”

 

 

7. “I have a student called Suby Roy…”  Frank sends me to America in 1980 to work with Jim Buchanan… One letter from him was all it took…

 

 

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And then five years later in 1985 he calls me “probably the outstanding young Hayekian”, says I had brought “a good knowledge of economics and of philosophy to bear on the literature on economic planning”, had “a good knowledge of economic theory” and that my “critique of Development Economics was powerful not only on methodological but also on economic theory grounds” — all that to me has been a special source of delight.

 

 

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We did not meet often after I left Cambridge but he wrote very kindly always, and finally said, hearing of my travails and troubles and adventures, “well you are having an interesting life…”…

 

 

In America, I once met Robert M Solow in a hotel elevator as we were on a  panel at a conference together; I  introduced myself as Hahn’s student… “Aren’t you lucky?” said Solow with a smile…and he was right… I was lucky…

 

 

I said of Milton Friedman that he had been “the greatest economist after John Maynard Keynes”;  Milton’s critic, Frank Hahn, may have been the greatest economic theorist of modern times.

 

 

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                                                                      Frank Hahn (1925-2013)

Where are the Reserve Bank’s Macroeconomic Models?

“On the blissful innocence of the RBI” (2009) From Facebook:

Subroto Roy  can only sigh at the fact that while he has had to struggle for 35 years trying to grasp and then apply serious monetary economics to India’s circumstances, the RBI Governor & his four Deputy Governors appear blissfully innocent of all Hicks, Tobin, Friedman, Cagan et al yet exude confidence enough to “Waffle Away!”

see also A Small Challenge to the RBI’s Governor Subbarao

A Small Challenge to the RBI’s Governor Subbarao
April 21, 2010

The Hon’ble Gov of the Reserve Bank of India Shri D Subbarao

Dear Governor Subbarao,

You said yesterday, April 20 2010, that the Reserve Bank of India has a macroeconomic model which it uses but which you had personally not seen.

I have given two lectures at your august offices, one by invitation of Governor Jalan and Deputy Governor Reddy on April 29, 2000 to address the Conference of State Finance Secretaries, the other on May 5, 2005 to address the Chief Economist’s Monetary Economics Seminar. On both occasions, I had inquired of the RBI’s own models by which I could contrast my own but came to understand there were none.

If since then the RBI has now constructed a macroeconomic model of India’s economy, it is splendid news.

May I request the model be released publicly on the Internet at once, so its specifications of endogenous and exogenous variables, assumed coefficients, and sources of time-series data all may be seen by everyone in the country and abroad? Scientific scrutiny and replication of results would thus come to be permitted.

I would be especially interested to know the demand for money function that you have used. I well remember my meeting with the late great Sukhamoy Chakravarty on July 14 1987 at his Planning Commission offices, when he signed and gifted me his last personal copy of the famous Reserve Bank report by the committee he had chaired and of which he told me personally Dr Rangarajan had been the key author – that report may have contained the first official discussion of the demand for money function in India.

With cordial regards

Subroto Roy

Reflections on Mr Zoellick’s reported claim

From Facebook:

Subroto Roy says that there are no viable macroeconomic models or time series data in the possession of the World Bank, IMF, the Govt of India’s Finance Ministry, Planning Commission, Reserve Bank etc, or any professor from Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Harvard, Yale, MIT, Stanford to the University of Timbuctoo to justify the reported claim yesterday of World Bank President Robert Zoellick that India is headed to “8-9% growth”. Growth may be higher, may be lower or something else altogether, no one knows because national income measurements have yet to reach SNA standards (in any case it should be *per capita real GDP*… and *even then*, there is no adjustment for inequality...)…

What *is* clear though is that Indian public finance at Union and State level is a mess and paper money has been growing at more than 20% per annum…. (And if you happen to believe the Government of India’s apologists and propagandists about Indian inflation being in single digits, might I interest you in a marble structure in Agra, or a steel bridge over the Hooghly perhaps? Very nice, just like Brooklyn Bridge itself….)

Finance Minister Mukherjee deserves a cheer for connecting with economics (though half a cheer gets subtracted)

From Facebook today

Independent India’s Finance Ministers have never in 62 years referred to economic theory or the history of economic thought until Mr Mukherjee delivered the 4th Kadirgamar Memorial Lecture in Colombo yesterday, making the following academic claim:
“As students of economics would understand, economic theory is an evolutionary process and undergoes change with every major crisis. The classical theory gave way to Keynesian economics after the Great Depression of 1930s. Thereafter, there were post-Keynesian and monetarist approaches to economic problems during 1960s to 90s. The present crisis, which has also been called Great Recession, would be another watershed in the evolution of economics and is expected to bring about radical retooling of the theory. The crisis has, in the first place, conclusively established that the pursuit of individual goals do not necessarily lead to public good. Adam Smith’s ‘invisible hand’ cannot guarantee allocation of resources efficiently.”

I might rather count this as intellectual progress to the extent that it at least allows the Government of India’s economists the possibility of moving away from politically-induced dissimulation and instead begin to connect with where I was 25 years ago in my May 1984 monograph published by London’s Institute of Economic Affairs (leave aside my 1976-82 doctoral thesis under Professor Frank Hahn at Cambridge “On liberty and economic growth: preface to a philosophy for India”). As for the Finance Minister saying “The Indian economy has shown remarkable resilience to the crisis because the financial system had no exposure to the toxic assets”, I am afraid he has left unsaid that this is because (a) the rupee is not a hard currency; and (b) India’s banks hold plenty of domestic assets that are “toxic”.

Subroto Roy

Has business-cycle theory become easy for the dimwitted?

From Facebook:

Subroto Roy  is amazed that business-cycle theory and history — always a most difficult, subtle and confusing part of economics — has now become child’s play for everyone except himself, and even the most dimwitted commentator claims to know that China and India were down last month but now seem up and similar profound truths….

My choices dated Oct 11 for the 2009 “Economics Nobel Prize”

From Facebook:

Subroto Roy announces that if he was awarding the 2009 “Economics Nobel” it would go to Frank Horace Hahn and Anna Jacobson Schwartz: each for a lifetime of contributions to economic theory and monetary economics specifically relevant to the macroeconomic crises of recent years….Hahn’s Non-Walrasian theory provides a logic to what has happened; Schwartz predicted it and has diagnosed it better than anyone else.

Certainly the appalling state of academic economics is manifest in the self-written self-serving Wikipedia entries of the many Elmer & Mrs Fudd Professors of Gobbledygook at Ivy U…. all in the hope of getting noticed by the bookies in England quoting odds… and thereby considering themselves Nobel hopefuls…. (“has been mentioned as a possible winner…”)…

How tightly will organised Big Business be able to control economic policies this time?

The power of organised Big Business over New Delhi’s economic policies (whether Congress-led or BJP-led) was signalled by the presence in the audience at Rashtrapati Bhavan last week of several prominent lobbyists when Dr Manmohan Singh and his senior-most Cabinet colleagues were being sworn-in by the President of India. Why were such witnesses needed at such an auspicious national occasion?

Organised Big Business (both private sector and public sector) along with organised Big Labour (whose interests are represented most ably by New Delhi’s official communist parties like the CPI-M and CPI), are astutely aware of how best to advance their own economic interests; this usually gets assisted nicely enough through clever use of our comprador English-language TV, newspaper and magazine media. Shortly after the election results, lobbyists were all over commercial TV proposing things like FDI in insurance and airports etc– as if that was the meaning of the Sonia-Rahul mandate or were issues of high national priority. A typical piece of such “pretend-economics” appears in today’s business-press from a formerly Leftist Indian bureaucrat: “With its decisive victory, the new Manmohan Singh government should at last be able to implement the required second generation reforms. Their lineaments (sic) are well known and with the removal of the Left’s veto, many of those stalled in the legislature as well as those which were forestalled can now be implemented. These should be able to put India back on a 9-10 per cent per annum growth rate…”

Today’s business-press also reports that the new Government is planning to create a fresh “Disinvestment Ministry” and Dr Singh’s chief economic policy aide is “a frontrunner among the names short-listed to head the new ministry” with Cabinet rank.

Now if any enterprising doctoral student was to investigate the question, I think the evidence would show that I, and I alone – not even BR Shenoy or AD Shroff or Jagdish Bhagwati — may have been the first among Indian economists to have argued in favour of the privatisation of India’s public sector. I did so precisely 25 years ago in Pricing, Planning and Politics: A Study of Economic Distortions in India, which was so unusual for its time that it attracted the lead editorial of The Times of London on the day it was published May 29 1984, and had its due impact on Indian economic policy then and since, as has been described elsewhere here.  In 1990-1991 while with Rajiv Gandhi, I had floated an idea of literally giving away shares of the public sector to the public that owned it (as several other countries had been doing at that time), specifically perhaps giving them to the poorest panchayats in aid of their development.  In 2004-2005, upon returning to Britain after many years, I helped create the book Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution: How it Happened and What it Meant, and Margaret Thatcher if anyone was a paragon of privatisation.

That being said, I have to say I think a new Indian policy of creating a Ministry to privatise India’s public sector is probably a very BAD idea indeed in present circumstances — mainly because it will be driven by the interests of the organised Big Business lobbies that have so profoundly and subtly been able to control the New Delhi Government’s behaviour in recent decades.

Such lobbyist control is exercised often without the Government even realising or comprehending its parameters. For example, ask yourself: Is there any record anywhere of Dr Manmohan Singh, in his long career as a Government economist and then as a Rajya Sabha MP, having ever proposed before 2004-2005 that nuclear reactors were something vitally important to India’s future? And why do you suppose the most prominent Indian business lobby spent a million dollars and registered itself as an official lobbyist in Washington DC to promote the nuclear deal among American legislators? Because Big Business was feeling generous and altruistic towards the “energy security” of the ordinary people of India? Hardly.  Indian Big Business calculates and acts in its own interests, as is only to be expected under economic assumptions; those interests are frequently camouflaged by their lobbyist and media friends into seeming to be economic policy for the country as a whole.

Now our Government every year produces paper rupees and bank deposits in  practically unlimited amounts to pay for its practically unlimited deficit financing, and it has behaved thus over decades. Why we do not hear about this at all is because the most prominent Government economists themselves remain clueless — sometimes by choice, mostly by sheer ignorance — about the nature of the macroeconomic process that they are or have been part of.  (See my  “India’s Macroeconomics”, “The Dream Team: A Critique” etc elsewhere here). As for the Opposition’s economists, the less said about the CPI-M’s economists the better while the BJP, poor thing, has absolutely no economists at all!

Briefly speaking, Indian Big Business has acquired an acute sense of this long-term nominal/paper expansion of India’s economy, and as a result acts towards converting wherever possible its own hoards of paper rupees and rupee-denominated assets into more valuable portfolios for itself of real or durable assets, most conspicuously including hard-currency denominated assets, farm-land and urban real-estate, and, now, the physical assets of the Indian public sector. Such a path of trying to transform local domestic paper assets – produced unlimitedly by Government monetary and fiscal policy and naturally destined to depreciate — into real durable assets, is a privately rational course of action to follow in an inflationary economy.  It is not rocket-science  to realise the long-term path of the Indian rupee is downwards in comparison to the hard-currencies of the world – just compare our money supply growth and inflation rates with those of the rest of the world.

The Statesman of November 15 2006 had a lead editorial titled Government’s land-fraud: Cheating peasants in a hyperinflation-prone economy. It said:

“There is something fundamentally dishonourable about the way the Centre, the state of West Bengal and other state governments are treating the issue of expropriating peasants, farm-workers, petty shop-keepers etc of their small plots of land in the interests of promoters, industrialists and other businessmen. Singur may be but one example of a phenomenon being seen all over the country: Hyderabad, Karnataka, Kerala, Haryana, everywhere. So-called “Special Economic Zones” will merely exacerbate the problem many times over. India and its governments do not belong only to business and industrial lobbies, and what is good for private industrialists may or may not be good for India’s people as a whole. Economic development does not necessarily come to be defined by a few factories or high-rise housing complexes being built here or there on land that has been taken over by the Government, paying paper-money compensation to existing stakeholders, and then resold to promoters or industrialists backed by powerful political interest-groups on a promise that a few thousand new jobs will be created. One fundamental problem has to do with inadequate systems of land-description and definition, implementation and recording of property rights. An equally fundamental problem has to do with fair valuation of land owned by peasants etc. in terms of an inconvertible paper-money. Every serious economist knows that “land” is defined as that specific factor of production and real asset whose supply is fixed and does not increase in response to its price. Every serious economist also knows that paper-money is that nominal asset whose price can be made to catastrophically decline by a massive increase in its supply, i.e. by Government printing more of the paper it holds a monopoly to print. For Government to compensate people with paper-money it prints itself by valuing their land on the basis of an average of the price of the last few years, is for Government to cheat them of the fair present-value of the land. That present-value of land must be calculated in the way the present-value of any asset comes to be calculated, namely, by summing the likely discounted cash-flows of future values. And those future values should account for the likelihood of a massive future inflation causing decline in the value of paper-money in view of the fact we in India have a domestic public debt of some Rs. 30 trillion (Rs. 30 lakh crore) and counting, and money supply growth rates averaging 16-17% per annum. In fact, a responsible Government would, given the inconvertible nature of the rupee, have used foreign exchange or gold as the unit of account in calculating future-values of the land. India’s peasants are probably being cheated by their Government of real assets whose value is expected to rise, receiving nominal paper assets in compensation whose value is expected to fall.”

Mamata Banerjee started her famous protest fast-unto-death in Kolkata not long afterwards, riveting the nation’s attention in the winter of 2006-2007.

What goes for the government buying land on behalf of its businessman friends also goes, mutatis mutandis, for the public sector’s real assets being bought up by the private sector using domestic paper money in a potentially hyperinflationary economy.  If Dr Singh’s new Government wishes to see real public sector assets being sold, let the Government seek to value these assets not in inconvertible rupees which the Government itself has been producing in unlimited quantities but rather in forex or gold-units instead!

Today’s headline says “Short of cash, govt. plans to revive disinvestment ministry”. Big Business’s powerful lobbies will suggest  that real public assets must be sold  (to whom? to organised Big Business of course!) in order to solve the grave fiscal problems in an inflationary economy caused precisely by those grave  fiscal problems! What I said in 2002 at IndiaSeminar may still be found to apply: I said the BJP’s privatisation ideas “deserve to be condemned…because they have made themselves believe that the proceeds of selling the public sector should merely go into patching up the bleeding haemorrhage which is India’s fiscal and monetary situation… (w)hile…Congress were largely responsible for that haemorrhage to have occurred in the first place.”

If the new Government would like to know how to proceed more wisely, they need to read and grasp, in the book edited by myself and Professor John Clarke in 2004-2005, the chapter by Professor Patrick Minford on Margaret Thatcher’s fiscal and monetary policy (macroeconomics) before they read the chapter by Professor Martin Ricketts on Margaret Thatcher’s privatisation (microeconomics).  India’s fiscal and monetary or macroeconomic problems are far worse today than Britain’s were when Thatcher came in.

During the recent Election Campaign, I contrasted Dr Singh’s flattering praise in 2005 of the CPI-M’s Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee with Sonia Gandhi’s pro-Mamata line in 2009 saying the CPI-M had taken land away from the poor.  This may soon signal a new fault-line in the new Cabinet too on economic policy with respect to not only land but also public sector privatisation – with Dr Singh’s pro-Big Business acolytes on one side and Mamata Banerjee’s stance in favour of small-scale unorganised business and labour on the other.  Party heavyweights like Dr Singh himself and Sharad Pawar and Pranab Mukherjee will weigh in one side or the other with Sonia being asked in due course to referee.

I personally am delighted to see the New Rahul Gandhi deciding not to be in Government and to instead reflect further on the “common man” and “common woman” about whom I had described his father talking to me on September 18 1990 at his home. Certainly the “aam admi” is not someone to be found among India’s organised Big Business or organised Big Labour nor their paid lobbyists in the big cities.

Subroto Roy

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Can President Obama resist the financial zombies (let alone slay them)? His economists need to consult Dr Anna J Schwartz

The wonders of the Internet continue to surprise (and yes Virginia, there was a world before SMS and before the Internet too).  In early January, in context of India’s Satyam fraud (of a size of perhaps 1 or perhaps 2 billion dollars),  I referred here  to what seemed to me the likelihood of Satyam becoming a zombie company and I said “we in India have many such zombies walking around in the organised business sector”.    I drew attention to Andrew Beattie’s astute  definition of zombies and other such ghoulish phenomena in the financial world, and also referred to John Stepek’s excellent if brief November 2008 analysis “How zombie companies suck the life from an economy”.  Today I find Ms Arianna Huffington has made reference to Mr Martin Wolf’s reference a couple of days ago to zombie companies and to his statement that President Obama needs to “Admit reality, restructure banks and, above all, slay zombie institutions at once.”  Ms Huffington has agreed, though of course all this slaying may be easier said than done.  (It is better that zombies not be created in the first place.)

Mr Wolf has pointedly asked a question that many around the world may have half-thought about but not articulated: “Has Barack Obama’s presidency already failed?”   It would be  a grave and appalling  state of affairs if it has, within less than a month of entering office.   I am grateful to find in Ms Huffington’s article a reference to an October 2008  Wall Stret Journal interview of Dr Anna Jacobson Schwartz, perhaps the most respected voice in monetary economics today.  There have been numerous people claiming to have predicted America’s financial crisis but none may have as much credibility as Dr Schwartz.   Six years ago, in a National Bureau of Economic Research study dated November 2002, “Asset Price Inflation and Monetary Policy”,Working Paper 9321 she had said with utmost clarity: “It is crucial that central banks and regulatory authorities be aware of effects of asset price inflation on the stability of the financial system. Lending activity based on asset collateral during the boom is hazardous to the health of lenders when the boom collapses. One way that authorities can curb the distortion of lenders’ portfolios during asset price booms is to have in place capital requirements that increase with the growth of credit extensions collateralized by assets whose prices have escalated. If financial institutions avoid this pitfall, their soundness will not be impaired when assets backing loans fall in value. Rather than trying to gauge the effects of asset prices on core inflation, central banks may be better advised to be alert to the weakening of financial balance sheets in the aftermath of a fall in value of asset collateral backing loans….”

Most poignantly too, Dr Schwartz was present when Ben Bernanke said  in  a 2002 speech honouring the late Milton Friedman “I would like to say to Milton and Anna: Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.”   Dr Schwartz told the Wall Street Journal ‘”This was [his] claim to be worthy of running the Fed”.  “He was ‘familiar with history. He knew what had been done.’ But perhaps this is actually Mr. Bernanke’s biggest problem. Today’s crisis isn’t a replay of the problem in the 1930s, but our central bankers have responded by using the tools they should have used then. They are fighting the last war. The result, she argues, has been failure. ‘I don’t see that they’ve achieved what they should have been trying to achieve. So my verdict on this present Fed leadership is that they have not really done their job.'”

President Obama’s economists need to urgently consult Anna J Schwartz.

Subroto Roy, Kolkata

Postscript:  My own brief views on the subject are at “October 1929? Not!” dated September 18 2008, and “America’s divided economists” dated October 26 2008.  The latter article suggested that playing the demographic card and inducing a wave of immigration into the United States may be the surest way to move the housing demand-curve firmly upwards.

“A Dialogue in Macroeconomics” 1989 etc: sundry thoughts on US economic policy discourse

I have said here recently that some of the wisest advice President Obama or any leader anywhere can receive is that contained in Oliver Cromwell’s famous words “Think it possible you may be mistaken”.

This seems especially significant in context of new American macroeconomic and financial policies.  Mr Steve Clemons reports today there may be less intellectual diversity in the new President’s economic team than is possible or desirable; if so, conversation may become stifled and a greater propensity towards groupthink may arise, hence a greater likelihood of mistakes.

It is possible the directions that different people might like to see the conversation extended are different, and that would be a good sign of course!  For example, someone might think a Barro or a Mishkin could be the right addition of intellectual diversity, whereas others might suppose that to be the wrong direction towards more “market fundamentalism”.    But it would be a pity if the economic conversation within the new Administration came to be artificially or ideologically circumscribed in any direction.

Certainly I believe macroeconomic policy-discourse in the United States or elsewhere needs to proceed to a recognition of the existence of JM Keynes’s original concept of “involuntary unemployment” as well as to ask whether the actual unemployment happens to be or  not be of this sort.   (It may be “frictional” or “structural” or “voluntary” or “seasonal” etc, not the involuntary unemployment Keynes had meant.)  Furthermore, even if significant involuntary unemployment is identified, it needs to be asked whether government policy can be expected to improve or worsen outcomes.   The argument must be made either way, and, in John Wisdom’s phrase,  “Argument must be heard”.

“A Dialogue in Macroeconomics” which was Chapter 8 of my 1989 book Philosophy of Economics (Routledge,  Library of Congress HB 72.R69)  may provide some useful ballast.  The saga  that followed the  book’s publication left me unable to write about the US economy anymore, except briefly in 1992 and 1994-95 in Washington and New York, read only by a few friends.   Now in late 2008, I have published “October 1929? Not!” and “America’s divided economists” which may be of interest too, and which are republished below as well.

I have also added a couple of sundry points from an international perspective that I pointed to last September-October, namely

(i)  foreign central banks might have been left holding more bad US debt than might be remembered, and dollar depreciation and an American inflation seem to be inevitable over the next several years;

(ii) all those bad mortgages and foreclosures could vanish within a year or two by playing the demographic card and inviting in a few million new immigrants into the United States; restoring a worldwide idea of an American dream fueled by mass immigration may be the surest way for the American economy to restore itself.

Subroto Roy

I.

from Philosophy of Economics Routledge 1989

“Chapter 8.
A Dialogue in Macroeconomics

OUR next example is of quite a different sort, namely, the academic debate which has occurred in macroeconomics and monetary theory since Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. This has of course received a great amount of attention, with innumerable commentaries having been written by many scores of protagonists and moderators around the world. Only a brief and highly simplified summary of these many conversations can be attempted here, within our limited objective of illustrating once more how it may be possible for critical discussion to be seen to proceed freely and yet objectively in economics. In the previous chapter we were fortunate to have had an actual conversation to consider; here our method shall have to be one of constructing a model of a conversation. In honour of Plato, we might name our conversants Athenian and Stranger.

ATHENIAN Tell me, have you perhaps been following the discussions among macroeconomists? I shall be interested to know what you take their present state to be.

STRANGER Indeed I have, though of course it is not possible or worthwhile to follow all of what has been said. But yes I have followed some of it, and certainly we can make it a topic of conversation.

ATHENIAN Please begin.

STRANGER Very well. Shall we do so in ‘36 with the publication of Keynes’s book? Rightly or wrongly, this must be considered a watershed in the history of modern economics, if only because most economists since have had either to admit its arguments in some measure or define and explain their disagreement. You’ll remember at one time it was said by many that Keynes had fathered a revolution in economic science.

ATHENIAN Except Chicago and the Austrians.

STRANGER Quite so. Now more recently a renewal of neoclassical thought has been under way, and many doubts have been raised about the keynesian consensus, so much so that some of the main questions of the thirties seem in modern form to continue to be at issue today.

ATHENIAN The more things change, the more they stay the same! But when you say Keynes has been a central figure, I take it you mean only that he has been among the most influential and most discussed and nothing more. It is not to preclude judgement on the merits of his book, which is itself of very uneven clarity. Besides there has been too much idolatry and hagiography.

STRANGER Yes, there is so often a rush to belief and worship. There may have been less if Keynes had survived longer. Yet I should say the broad aim of the work is not hard to see. Keynes himself clearly believes that he is starting a revolution — going so far as to suggest a comparison with contemporary physics. The first chapter says the book aims to provide a “general” theory, which will explain the traditional model as a “limiting” case. The second chapter says the theory of value has been hitherto concerned with the allocation of given resources between competing ends; Keynes is going to explain how the actual level of employment comes to be what it is.

ATHENIAN And so begs the question?

STRANGER Or does traditional theory? That seems to be at the heart of it.

ATHENIAN Go on.

STRANGER The theory will be of the short run in Marshall’s sense of taking capital as a fixed factor. Traditional theory is said to postulate about the labour market (i) that the real wage equals the marginal product of labour, so there is an assumption of profit maximization by competitive producers giving rise to a short run demand curve for labour; and (ii) that the utility of the wage at a given level of employment equals the marginal disutility of that amount of employment; i.e., the real wage is just sufficient to induce the volume of labour which is actually forthcoming. So it can account for unemployment due to temporary miscalculations, or intermittent demand, or the refusal or inability of labour to accept a job at a given wage due to legislation or social practices or collective bargaining or obstinacy, or merely a rational choice of leisure — i.e., it can account for frictional and voluntary unemployment but not for what Keynes wants to call involuntary unemployment. What it can suggest is either such things as improvements in foresight, information, organization and productivity, or a lowering of the real wage. But Keynes’s critique will not have to do with such causes of the contemporary unemployment; instead the population is said to be seldom “doing as much work as it would like to do on the basis of the current wage…. More labour would, as a rule, be forthcoming at the existing money wage if it were demanded.” But it is not being demanded, and it is not being demanded because there has been a shortfall of “effective demand”. That is why there is as much unemployment as there is.

ATHENIAN Or so Keynes claims. And he would take it the neoclassical view would be that it must be the real wage is too high; it is only because the real wage has not fallen by enough that unemployment continues.

STRANGER Right. To which there are two observations. The first has to do with the actual attitude of workers towards the money wage and the real wage respectively. The traditional supply function of labour is a function of the latter; Keynes claims that at least within a certain range it must be workers are concerned more with the former.

ATHENIAN How so?

STRANGER By the interesting and perhaps plausible claim that workers are found to withdraw labour if the money wage falls but do not seem to do the same if the price level rises. A real wage reduction caused by a fall in the money wage and the same real wage reduction caused by an increase in prices seem to have different effects on labour supply. “Whether logical or illogical, experience shows that this is how labour in fact behaves.” And he cites U. S. data for ‘32 to say labour did not refuse reductions in the money wage nor did the physical productivity of labour fall yet the real wage fell and unemployment continued. “Labour is not more truculent in the depression than in the boom — far from it.”

ATHENIAN And the second observation?

STRANGER This may be of more interest. “Classical theory assumes that it is always open to labour to reduce its real wage by accepting a reduction in its money wage… [it] presumes that labour itself is in a position to decide the real wage for which it works…” Keynes does not find a traditional explanation why prices tend to follow wages, and suggests it could be because the price level is being supposed to be determined by the money supply according to the quantity theory. Keynes wants to dispute the proposition “that the general level of real wages is directly determined by the character of the wage bargain…. For there may be no method available to labour as a whole whereby…. [it] can reduce its real wage to a given figure by making revised money bargains with the entrepreneurs.” Hence he arrives at his central definition of involuntary unemployment: if the real wage falls marginally as a consequence of the price level rising with the money wage constant, and there is greater employment demanded and supplied in consequence, the initial state was one of involuntary unemployment.

ATHENIAN You are saying then that Keynes’s intent is to establish the existence of involuntary unemployment?

STRANGER At least a major part of the intent yes. To make the concept meaningful, to argue that it refers to a logical possibility, and also that much of the actual unemployment of the time may be falling under it, and is a result of lack of “effective demand”.

ATHENIAN The neoclassicals have been said to be cavalier about fluctuations in economic activity, when in fact Wicksell and Marshall and Thornton, let alone Hawtrey or Hayek as Keynes’s own critics, certainly had profound enough theories of the cycle. Before we go further, I think we should remind ourselves of what they actually said.

STRANGER Very well.

ATHENIAN Would you agree that can be summarized, then as now, as the quantity theory of money married to the theory of general equilibrium?

STRANGER Though it may be better to speak of divorce perhaps rather than marriage, in view of the dichotomy.

ATHENIAN From Smith to Mill, political economists broadly agree the role of government should extend and be restricted to such activities as defence, civil protection, the rule of law, the provision of public goods, education, the encouragement of competition, and so on. The traditional agenda does not as a rule include direct activity to restrain or otherwise change the natural course of trade, production, or consumption, and certainly no theory of what today is called macroeconomic policy. Underlying it is a broad belief that the competitive pursuit of private welfare within the necessary and minimal framework of the institutions of government, will result in tolerable social outcomes, and any further activity may be counterproductive. The State is after all endogenous to the economy, without any resources to its own name.

STRANGER The minimal state, though not so minimal perhaps as we sometimes think.

ATHENIAN The main function of money is seen to be that of facilitating real transactions. Hence the main component of the demand for money is the transactions demand, and the broad objective of monetary policy is the maintenance of the stability of the price of money. But this is recognized to be something elusive in practice, and fluctuations in economic activity are expected to occur in spite of the best intentions of the monetary authorities.

STRANGER How so?

ATHENIAN Well we might imagine two or three distinct but related markets: one for real investment and savings determined by intertemporal preferences, resources, and technologies; one a market for investment and savings defined in terms of money; one a short term credit market. The market for real investment and savings is, as it were, unobservable to the naked eye. Yet it drives the second and third markets for nominal savings and investment in which we actually participate. Monetary equilibrium requires the observable money rates of interest to equal the unobservable real rate of return on the market for physical capital. In particular, the real or natural rate of interest determined in the equilibrium of the first market is not, and perhaps ultimately cannot be, affected by nominal or monetary disturbances in the second or third markets.

STRANGER Why call it “natural”?

ATHENIAN In the sense it is a function of the real data of intertemporal preferences, resources, and technologies being what they are. If these data changed it should be expected to change too. But given these data, it would be the rate at which intertemporal constrained maximizations by individual agents resulted in planned present consumption equaling planned present production at the same time as planned future consumption equaled planned future production.

STRANGER In other words, real planned savings equal real planned investment.

ATHENIAN Exactly. It is the real interest rate, or rather the whole structure of own-rates and cross-rates at various terms, which is the key price signal for macroeconomic equilibrium.

STRANGER “Natural” seems to me to carry a physiocratic connotation. A better nomenclature would replace it with something else — perhaps “equilibrium real rate” or just “walrasian” rate.

ATHENIAN Very well, though I for one do not bias myself against the physiocrats! Now consider how a simple business cycle might occur on wicksellian lines. From a position of full real and monetary equilibrium, an expansion of credit has its first effect on the banks, increasing reserves and inducing more lending for reserve/deposit ratios to be restored, and so lowering the loan rate. But customers are only able to perceive a lowering of this nominal rate of interest and cannot know the equilibrium real rate has not changed. As far as households know, the relative price of present consumption has fallen and there is an incentive for greater consumption and lesser savings. As far as businesses know, the relative price of the future good has risen, and there is an incentive for greater investment. Inventories are run down, and markets for both consumer goods and capital goods are stimulated and show signs of excess demand. But if there was a walrasian equilibrium initially, then the economy will now show signs of inflation; with a gold standard, there would be increased demand for imports and an external drain of reserves, and even perhaps an internal drain if there was a panic and a run on the banks. The loan rate will have to rise once more to reign in reserves, but if the rate is now raised too high relative to the still unchanged real rate, there would be the makings of a recession.

STRANGER Your point being that economists before Keynes had recognized the decentralized economy may be fluctuating continually.

ATHENIAN Surely they had done so quite fully. A first set of causes such as wars, disasters, discoveries and migrations would change the real data of the economy, while a second set would be monetary disturbances like the failure of the authorities to adequately follow the dictates of the real data of the economy, i.e., failure to observe the equilibrium real rate of interest. It may even be intrinsic to the problem that they must fail in the attempt to observe, let aside compute, the equilibrium real rate warranted at a given time by the structure of the real data.

STRANGER Hence the conclusion that they cannot hope to do better than establish a climate of monetary and fiscal stability, such as by declaring a long term policy and staying with it.

ATHENIAN Exactly. Private economic agents already face endemic uncertainty with respect to changes in the real data, and must be assumed to not want more added by government policy. You appear to have seen my point nicely.

STRANGER Very well. But you have jumped ahead as this kind of a conclusion sounds very modern to me. You made me stop all the way back at Keynes’s notion of effective demand!

ATHENIAN As I said, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

STRANGER Let us go back a little. I think we may be able to rejoin our initial route at a point which may bring us close to where we seem to have come by the route you have taken. Specifically suppose we go back to the question of the money wage and the real wage, and of the real wage being “too high”.

ATHENIAN That has been interpreted a number of ways, has it not?

STRANGER Yes it has. One would be to say Keynes was merely simple minded and assumed money illusion on the part of workers. Another would be to say Keynes assumed a short run context of fixed prices, so it would not make a difference whether labour happened to be concerned with changes in the real or the money wage. Yet a third would be to say Keynes, whether he realized it or not, had come upon a recondite truth about the sort of complex monetary economy in which we live — namely, that when transactions are quoted and made in a monetary economy, it may become difficult ipso facto for the walrasian equilibrium to be achieved. Even workers might fully recognize the real wage to be too high and be prepared to work more at a lower wage, but be unable to signal this willingness to potential employers.

ATHENIAN So involuntary unemployment becomes another sort of equilibrium outcome.

STRANGER Exactly. Not only of labour but of machines too, along with the unintended holding of inventories. It is as if firms would have sold what they had planned to if only workers had the income to buy it, which they would have done if only they had been able to sell as much labour they had planned to, which they would have done if only there had been an effective demand for it, which there would have been if firms had not cut back on production because they found themselves unable to sell what they had planned to sell. A kind of vicious circle, due to pessimistic and self-fulfilling expectations all around.

ATHENIAN An unhappy solution to a non-cooperative game you might say.

STRANGER Quite so. Keynes does not deny there may be a monetary route out of the impasse. A wage deflation would eventually lead to price deflation, raising the real value of money holdings, so via liquidity preference lead to an increased demand for bonds, raising their price and lowering money interest rates, which through the investment function would lead eventually to increased effective demand. But the fiscal route may be more direct and quicker in its effect on expectations. Trying to deflate across the board in the face of what seem to be excess supplies of goods and labour might be counterproductive, causing unexpected transfers from debtors to creditors and precipitating bankruptcies. Instead: “Government investment will break the vicious circle. If you can do that for a couple of years, it will have the effect, if my diagnosis is right, of restoring business profits more nearly to normal, and if that can be achieved then private enterprise will be revived. I believe you have first of all to do something to restore profits and then rely on private enterprise to carry the thing along….”

ATHENIAN A shot in the arm for enterprise in the hope of breaking the pessimism. But Keynes was hardly alone in such thinking.

STRANGER Quite true.

ATHENIAN And he certainly seemed to treat the opinions of others without due respect, which is to say he may have exaggerated the significance of his own. Hinting that he was the Einstein of economics set an especially bad example. Only the other day one eminence was comparing himself to Newton, and another was calling his friend Shakespeare. It will be Joyce and Pasternak next!

STRANGER Flattery and nepotism are common weaknesses, my friend. Like the rush to belief and worship.

ATHENIAN Besides you would have to assume the government to be outside the game, and only so being able to see the problem which private agents could not from inside the game. That may be too large an assumption, don’t you think?

STRANGER Yes it may. Yet it seems to me pump-priming was a possible solution being offered to a temporary problem. Many of the controversies may have come about because it became institutionalized, because discretionary fiscal policy became a permanent part of the government agenda.

ATHENIAN And a more direct route out was available too, was it not? With wealth placed in the consumption function directly, a deflation would increase the real value and affect effective demand directly. We would not have to wait for the roundabout effects through so-called liquidity preference.

STRANGER Which in a way brings us back to a central pillar of traditional theory: with given real data and given velocity of circulation, desired holding of real money balances will roughly be constant. In particular the demand for real money balances should not be seen as a function of the interest rate.

ATHENIAN The real rate or the monetary rate?

STRANGER For neoclassicals certainly the real; Keynes does not seem clear.

ATHENIAN There may lie a problem.

STRANGER The title of the book says “Employment, Interest, and Money”. No question employment is real and money is money — interest is the bridge. If you ask me to bet I would say Keynes’s agents make real responses to signals expressed as they must be in a large economy in monetary terms.

ATHENIAN Perhaps we ought to move on. Tell me, if you think Keynes’s book rightly or wrongly ranks as the most influential document of the last fifty years, would you agree it is Friedman’s address on the role of monetary policy which must rank second to it if not on a par with it?

STRANGER Certainly there can be few competitors.

ATHENIAN Well then, it appears to me the net effect of Friedman’s critique has been a restoration of the wicksellian theory and a banishment of the keynesian theory.

STRANGER Friedman of course makes his approach via a critique of the Phillips’ Curve.

ATHENIAN Yes, but it is Wicksell whom he acknowledges in advancing the notion of a natural rate of unemployment, one which has been “ground out by the walrasian system of general equilibrium equations” — in other words, one which happens to be consistent with the structure of the real data of the economy at a particular time.

STRANGER Though again we may as well speak of walrasian instead of natural.

ATHENIAN A monetary policy which tried to peg unemployment at lower than such a rate (if such a rate could be determined, which it cannot) is likely to be counterproductive. The initial effect of an expansionary policy on a walrasian equilibrium may be to increase real output. Workers assume the increase to reflect an increase in the unobservable real demand for their services, and hence they expect a higher real wage. Businesses see the same and assume it to reflect an increase in the unobservable real demand for their goods. But given there was no real excess demand in the first place for either labour or goods, the effect outside anything but the short run will be a return to the initial structure of real wages, and the temporary decline in unemployment is reversed to the walrasian rate at higher prices. If the government tries to maintain unemployment at less than the walrasian rate, it will have to concede — indeed it will have caused — accelerating inflation without any real fall in unemployment.

STRANGER And vice versa perhaps, so there would be a kind of knife-edge.

ATHENIAN Now your remark about Friedman making his approach via the Phillips Curve seems to me interesting. We may have been too hasty to make a comparison with the debate in the thirties. For the world suffers a very real and severe shock between Keynes’s book and the keynesian consensus, which is the Second World War itself.

STRANGER I am not sure I follow.

ATHENIAN Well think of the consensus afterwards on the need for macroeconomic policy — it is actually Tinbergen’s notion of a “policy-maker” which is married to what seems to be Phillips’s finding of a trade-off between inflation and unemployment. It becomes the role of the macroeconomist to advise the politician on how to minimize social disutility from inflation and unemployment subject to the Phillips Curve. Macroeconomics becomes a so-called “policy science”. Give your expert economist your social utility function, and he will tell you where to slide to on your Phillips Curve.

STRANGER The available instruments being money supply and tax rates. That is what I meant in saying Keynes’s idea became institutionalized.

ATHENIAN It seems to me this consensus is born out of the War.

STRANGER How so?

ATHENIAN Well just think of the structural problems of the time: demobilization of large armies, reconstruction, all the displaced peoples, and so on. What are democratic governments to do? Say to their voters, right, thank you very much, now could you please go home quietly? What could have been expected except an Employment Act? Governments were going to help their returning citizens find work, or at least it would have seemed irresponsible if they had not said they were going to.

STRANGER You are saying then that Friedman may have been arguing against a new orthodoxy, grown out of what might have been a sensible idea.

ATHENIAN Exactly. The world is a very different place now than in 1945, in ‘45 than in ‘33, in ‘33 than in 1914. Real shocks every time. It may be a grave mistake for us to look for a unique and universal theory which is supposed to explain all particular circumstances, all of history.

STRANGER Reminds me of the historical school.

ATHENIAN Why not? Again I hold no prejudice against them! Anyhow, consider that Lucas and others have followed Friedman to argue it is a mistake to formulate the problem as Tinbergen had done, with unemployment as a target in a social utility function along with inflation. If it ought to be assumed that people will not continually make the same mistakes in predicting policy, then a systematic employment policy is going to be discovered quickly enough and rendered either ineffective or counterproductive. This idea too has its origins in Wicksell. Examining an opinion that inflation might stimulate enterprise and free debtors, Wicksell says: “It need only be said that if this fall in the value of money is the result of our own deliberate policy, or indeed can be anticipated and foreseen, then these supposed beneficial effects will never occur, since the approaching rise in prices will be taken into account in all transactions by reasonably intelligent people.”

STRANGER Wicksell said that?

ATHENIAN Precisely that.

STRANGER It does sound very modern.

ATHENIAN Now Lucas speaks of how the advice that economists give should be limited only to “the well understood and empirically substantiated propositions of monetary economics, discouragingly modest as these may be.” What can we take him to mean? It seems to me he is sharing Friedman’s scepticism of the possibilities which had been claimed for macroeconomics by the keynesian consensus. And that surely has been a healthy scepticism, befitting good economists.

STRANGER As I said, there is so often a rush to belief.

ATHENIAN Which is really disastrous when combined with the craving for power.

STRANGER But the question remains, does it not, as to which propositions of monetary economics are to be considered “well understood and empirically substantiated”. I cannot help think the propositions taken to be well understood and empirically substantiated in Chicago may be very different from those taken to be well understood and empirically substantiated in Cambridge, or for that matter, those in the U. S. from those in Europe.

ATHENIAN I don’t see any difficulty in this. For first, it would have been granted there are propositions in economics which can be well understood and empirically substantiated. And that must be counted as progress! For something cannot be well understood if it cannot be understood at all, and where there is the possibility of understanding there must be the possibility of objective knowledge as well. And second, why should we not say the most appropriate task of economic theory or analytical economics is simply one of clarification and elucidation of the conceptual basis of economic thinking and expression? All theory ultimately is, or ought to be, “Critique of Language”. When we are faced with a particular and concrete problematic situation, the theorist is to whom we turn for conceptual guidance and criticism. If instead you take the role of the theorist to be one of searching the universe for grand and general and absolute and abstract truths, which need to be discovered before we can say anything about some concrete set of particulars, then it seems to me you will be either struck dumb by a total and debilitating scepticism or become very shrill in your dogmatism or alternate wildly between the two. To me it seems unimportant ultimately to whose flag one shows allegiance, or indeed that allegiance to any flag must be shown.

STRANGER It seems again I will not disagree. But you have sketched the critique of Friedman and Lucas and indeed the ghost of Wicksell addressed to the dogmas of the keynesian orthodoxy. And I have agreed with you this has been a healthy criticism of the sort we should expect economists to provide. But there has been serious question too of the framework used by Friedman and Lucas, hasn’t there? I am thinking especially of Tobin and Hahn.

ATHENIAN Tobin has done much to add clear and reasonable thinking about Keynes — his suggestion that a certain amount of inflation may be the only way to bring down real wages towards their walrasian rates in complex monetary economics is especially interesting; it shows how wide the common ground can be upon which the debate may occur. But you will have to tell me what Hahn’s criticisms have been. I have always found them too abstract and too caustic.

STRANGER That they tend to be, but don’t let that deter you. As I see it, Hahn argues somewhat as follows. We should grant Friedman and Lucas two important points: first, the government is itself a large economic agent whose actions and announced plans enter the calculations of private agents; secondly, erratic changes in monetary policy away from a steady k% rule may have perverse effects “by confusing signals of relative scarcity with those that arose from the monetary policy”. Also, we may accept that the assumptions sufficient for a full walrasian equilibrium with rational expectations suffice for the absence of any persistent involuntary unemployment by Keynes’s definition. But Hahn would say this may not be the relevant empirical description.

ATHENIAN In what way?

STRANGER Well for one thing the pricing axiom or the recontracting assumption of stability theory remains unexplained. It is possible traders will face quantity constraints, and this often seems so in markets for labour and credit. We may simply find prices not moving in the direction of excess demand even when a quantity constraint happens to be binding. The structure of wages may be “neither fixed, nor arbritrary, nor inflexible; it is what it is because given conjectures, no agent finds it advantageous to change it.” Moreover, it may not be plausible to suppose there will be convergence after arbitrary displacements back towards a stable equilibrium, because the conditions for stability are very stringent and uniqueness of equilibrium may also need to be postulated. Furthermore, it may be quite unsatisfactory to treat money in models which are isomorphic to the Arrow-Debreu model, because in such a world there is no logical use for money, so there must be some essential features of reality which have failed to be features of the model.

ATHENIAN You don’t think Patinkin’s integration was adequate?

STRANGER For many practical purposes perhaps, but certainly not to full logical satisfaction. If you put real money balances into the utility function and treat money just about like any other good, you have to be prepared to accept a possible equilibrium in which the price of money is zero. Lastly, if there are internal debts denominated in money as there are in fact, you may not assume equiproportional changes in all prices will not have real effects, unless you are prepared to assume away redistributions between creditors and debtors, which you can do only under another assumption that all households have parallel and linear Engel curves through the origin. Hahn’s line of argument is admittedly abstract, but you will have to admit it raises some fundamental questions.

ATHENIAN Another example we might say of the healthy scepticism of the theorist. It seems my turn to agree with you. But we can imagine replies too can we not?

STRANGER What do you have in mind?

ATHENIAN Well to argue there can be unemployment which is involuntary is not to have argued that an employment policy can be expected to remove it. This seems a premise and conclusion too frequently confounded by both keynesians and their critics, with disastrous consequences. Then, Buchanan would argue that a more thorough characterization needs to be given of the making of government policy, especially when it is proposed to supplant the market outcome. Policies are after all proposed, enacted, and put into effect by actual people — all of whom may need to be assumed to be pursuing private rewards as well in the course of their public duties. The relevant description for the economist needs to be one including this further fact that actual proposals of public policy can embody the private interests of the proposers too.

STRANGER Making it that much more difficult to determine what is in the public interest in a given case.

ATHENIAN Exactly. And so reinforcing the case for predictability and an orderliness in the framework of government.

STRANGER But we have been talking now for quite long enough my friend. I seem to feel a fear too that we have not gained anything at all in our discussions.

ATHENIAN Don’t be so pessimistic! Surely the point of reconstructing such conversations as we have done is not to hold absolutely to the matters raised in them. You and I after all have been making summary and highly simplified and unauthorized interpretations. I take the point of it to have been clarifying our thoughts, and perhaps to show ourselves how discussion can proceed between economists of different schools of thought. Arguments might come to a halt for any of a number of reasons, but they needn’t be supposed to have any logical or necessary end. Too often we let people retreat into different dogmatic positions, fostering the belief that each is starting from some set of absolute axioms ultimately irreconcilable with those of the other. We may need to keep insisting instead that the pursuit of knowledge and understanding is an open-ended activity with potentially indefinite limits. It yields conclusive results but has no absolute end. You or I might call a halt and retire from it, but that will not mean it cannot or will not continue without us.

STRANGER Perhaps so. But you are younger than I, and I have become tired by all these thrusts and parries. Besides, there has been the enjoyment of conversation itself.”

II

October 1929? Not!  by Subroto Roy / First published in Business Standard September 18, 2008

“Lehman Brothers filing for bankruptcy protection, Merrill Lynch taken over by Bank of America, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and now AIG being nationalised by the US Government, Bear Stearns getting a government bailout, many thousands of low-quality loans going bad … Does it all add up to an American financial crisis in the autumn of 2008 comparable to that in the autumn of 1929? Even Alan Greenspan himself has gone on record on TV saying it might.

But there are overriding differences. Most important, the American economy and the world economy are both incomparably larger today in the value of their capital stock, and there has also been enormous technological progress over eight decades. Accordingly, it would take a much vaster event than the present turbulence — say, something like an exchange of multiple nuclear warheads with Russia causing Manhattan and the City of London to be destroyed — before there was a return to something comparable to the 1929 Crash and the Great Depression that followed.

Besides, the roots of the crises are different. What happened back then? In 1922, the Genoa Currency Conference wanted to correct the main defect of the pre-1914 gold standard, which was freezing the price of gold while failing to stabilise the purchasing power of money. From 1922 until about 1927, Benjamin Strong of the Federal Reserve Bank of New York adopted price-stabilisation as the new American policy-objective. Britain was off the gold standard and the USA remained on it. The USA, as a major creditor nation, saw massive gold inflows which, by traditional gold standard principles, would have caused a massive inflation. Governor Strong invented the process of “sterilisation” of those gold inflows instead and thwarted the rise in domestic dollar prices of goods and services.

Strong’s death in 1928 threw the Federal Reserve System into conflict and intellectual confusion. Dollar stabilisation ended as a policy. Surplus bank money was created on the release of gold that had been previously sterilised.

The traditional balance between bulls and bears in the stock-market was upset. Normally, every seller of stock is a bear and every buyer a bull. Now, amateur investors appeared as bulls attracted by the sudden stock price rises, while bears, who sold securities, failed to place their money into deposit and were instead lured into lending it as call money to brokerages who then fuelled these speculative bulls. As of October 22, 1929 about $4 billion was the extent of such speculative lending when Chase National Bank’s customers called in their money.

Chase National had to follow their instructions, as did other New York banks. New York’s Stock Exchange could hardly respond to a demand for $4 billion at a short notice and collapsed. Within a year, production had fallen by 26 per cent, prices by 14 per cent, personal income by 14 per cent, and the Greatest Depression of recorded history was in progress — involuntary unemployment levels in America reaching 25 per cent.

That is not, by any reading, what we have today. Yes, there has been plenty of bad lending, plenty of duping shareholders and workers and plenty of excessive managerial payoffs. It will all take a large toll, and affect markets across the world.

But it will be a toll relative to our plush comfortable modern standards, not those of 1929-1933. In fact, modern decisionmakers have the obvious advantage that they can look back at history and know what is not to be done. The US and the world economy are resilient enough to ride over even the extra uncertainty arising from the ongoing presidential campaign, and then some.”


III

America’s divided economists by Subroto Roy First published in Business Standard October 26, 2008

“Future doctoral theses about the Great Tremor of 2008 will ask how it was that the Fed chief, who was an academic economist, came to back so wholeheartedly the proposals of the investment banker heading the US Treasury. If Herbert Hoover and FDR in the 1930s started something called fiscal policy for the first time, George W Bush’s lameduck year has marked the total subjugation of monetary policy.

In his 1945 classic, History of Banking Theory, the University of Chicago’s Lloyd Mints said: “No reorganisation of the Federal Reserve System, while preserving its independence from the Treasury, can offer a satisfactory agency for the implementation of monetary policy. The Reserve banks and their branches should be made agencies of the Treasury and all monetary powers delegated by Congress should be given to the Secretary of the Treasury…. It is not at all certain that Treasury control of the stock of money would always be reasonable… but Treasury influence cannot be excluded by the creation of a speciously independent monetary agency that cannot have adequate powers for the performance of its task…” Years later, Milton Friedman himself took a similar position suggesting legislation “to end the independence of the Fed by converting it into a bureau of the Treasury Department…”(see, for example, Essence of Friedman, p 416).

Ben Bernanke’s Fed has now ended any pretence of the monetary policy’s independence from the whims and exigencies of executive power. Yet Dr Bernanke’s fellow academic economists have been unanimous in advising caution, patience and more information and reflection upon the facts. The famous letter of 122 economists to the US Congress was a rare statement of sense and practical wisdom. It agreed the situation was difficult and needed bold action. But it said the Paulson-Bernanke plan was an unfair “subsidy to investors at taxpayers’ expense. Investors who took risks to earn profits must also bear the losses. Not every business failure carries systemic risk. The government can ensure a well-functioning financial industry, able to make new loans to creditworthy borrowers, without bailing out particular investors and institutions whose choices proved unwise.”

Besides, the plan was unclear and too far-reaching. “Neither the mission of the new agency nor its oversight are clear. If taxpayers are to buy illiquid and opaque assets from troubled sellers, the terms, occasions, and methods of such purchases must be crystal clear ahead of time and carefully monitored afterwards…. If the plan is enacted, its effects will be with us for a generation. For all their recent troubles, America’s dynamic and innovative private capital markets have brought the nation unparalleled prosperity. Fundamentally weakening those markets in order to calm short-run disruptions is desperately short-sighted.”

The House’s initial bipartisan “backbench revolt” against “The Emergency Economic Stabilisation Act of 2008” (ESSA) followed this academic argument and rejected the Bernanke Fed’s advice. Is there an “emergency”, and if so what is its precise nature? Is this “economic stabilisation”, and if so, how is it going to work? The onus has been on Dr Bernanke and his staff to argue both, not merely to assert them. Even if the House “held its nose” and passed the measure for now, the American electorate is angry and it is anybody’s guess how a new President and Congress will alter all this in a few months.

Several academic economists have argued for specific price-stabilisation of the housing market being the keystone of any large, expensive and risky government intervention. (John McCain has also placed this in the political discussion now.) Roughly speaking, the housing supply-curve has shifted so far to the right that collapsed housing prices need to be dragged back upward by force. Columbia Business School economists Glenn Hubbard and Chris Mayer, both former Bush Administration officials, have proposed allowing “all residential mortgages on primary residences to be refinanced into 30-year fixed-rate mortgages at 5.25 per cent…. close to where mortgage rates would be today with normally functioning mortgage markets….Lower interest rates will mean higher overall house prices…” Yale’s Jonathan Koppell and William Goetzmann have argued very similarly the Treasury “could offer to refinance all mortgages issued in the past five years with a fixed-rate, 30-year mortgage at 6 per cent. No credit scores, no questions asked; just pay off the principal of the existing mortgage with a government check. If monthly payments are still too high, homeowners could reduce their indebtedness in exchange for a share of the future price appreciation of the house. That is, the government would take an ownership interest in the house just as it would take an ownership interest in the financial institutions that would be bailed out under the Treasury’s plan.”

Beyond the short run, the US may play the demographic card by inviting in a few million new immigrants (if nativist feelings hostile to the outsider or newcomer can be controlled, especially in employment). Bad mortgages and foreclosures would vanish as people from around the world who long to live in America buy up all those empty houses and apartments, even in the most desolate or dismal locations. If the US’s housing supply curve has moved so far to the right that the equilibrium price has gone to near zero, the surest way to raise the equilibrium price would be by causing a new wave of immigration leading to a new demand curve arising at a higher level.

Such proposals seek to address the problem at its source. They might have been expected from the Fed’s economists. Instead, ESSA speaks of massive government purchase and control of bad assets “downriver”, without any attempt to face the problem at its source. This makes it merely wishful to think such assets can be sold for a profit at a later date so taxpayers will eventually gain. It is as likely as not the bad assets remain bad assets.

Indeed the University of Chicago’s Casey Mulligan has argued there is a financial crisis involving the banking sector but not an economic one: “We’re not entering a second Great Depression.” The marginal product of capital remains high and increasing “far above the historical average. The third-quarter earnings reports from some companies already suggest that America’s non-financial companies are still making plenty of money…. So, if you are not employed by the financial industry (94 per cent of you are not), don’t worry. The current unemployment rate of 6.1 per cent is not alarming, and we should reconsider whether it is worth it to spend $700 billion to bring it down to 5.9 per cent.”

Dr Bernanke has been a close student of A Monetary History of the United States in which Milton Friedman and Anna J Schwartz argued that the Fed inadvertently worsened the Great Contraction of 1929-1933 by not responding to Congress. Let not future historians find that the Fed, at the behest of the Treasury Secretary, worsened the Great Tremor of 2008 by bamboozling Congress into hasty action.”

IV

Would not a few million new immigrants solve America’s mortgage crisis?
October 10, 2008 — drsubrotoroy | Edit

America was at its best when it was open to mass immigration, and America is at its worst when it treats immigrants with racism and worse (for seeming “uppity”).

All those bad mortgages and foreclosures could vanish within a year or two by playing the demographic card and inviting in a few million new immigrants into the United States.  They would pour in from China, Vietnam, Thailand, Philippines, Indonesia, Mexico, South America,  South Africa, Nigeria, Egypt, Israel, Poland, Romania, Hungary, Belarus, Ukraine, Russia, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan,  India, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and yes, Pakistan too, and more.  They would happily buy up all those empty houses and apartments, even in all those desolate  dismal locations.  If the USA’s housing supply curve has moved so far to the right that the equilibrium price has gone to near zero, the surest way to raise the equilibrium price would be by causing a  new wave of  immigration leading to a new demand curve arising at a higher level.   But yes, nativist feelings of racism towards the outsider or the newcomer would have to be controlled  especially in employment — racists after all are often rather “sub-prime” themselves and hence unable to accept characters who may be “prime” or at least less “sub-prime” from foreign immigrant communities.   Restoring a worldwide idea of an American dream fuelled by mass immigration may be the surest way for the American economy to restore itself.

V

122 Sensible American economists

September 26, 2008 — drsubrotoroy | Edit

“$700 billion comes to more than, uhhhm, $6,000 per income taxpayer in the USA.

I was glad to see the sensible letter of 122 American economists to US legislators regarding the Paulson-Bernanke plan to address America’s financial crisis.

Somehow, I have an inkling that foreign central banks have been left holding more bad US debt than might be remembered — which would explain the embarrassment of Messrs Paulson and Bernanke vis-a-vis their foreign counterparts… Dollar depreciation and an American inflation seem to be inevitable over the next several years.”

Could the Satyam/PwC fraud be the visible part of an iceberg? Where are India’s “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles”? Isn’t governance rather poor all over corporate India? Bad public finance may be a root cause

In a March 5 2007 article in The Statesman, I said:

“Our farmers are peaceful hardworking people who should be paying taxes and user-fees normally but should not be otherwise disturbed or needlessly provoked by outsiders. It is the businessmen wishing to attack our farm populations who need to look hard in the mirror – to improve their accounting, audit, corporate governance, to enforce anti-embezzlement and shareholder protection laws etc.”

In a September 23-24 2007 article in The Sunday Statesman I said:

“… Government, instead of hobnobbing with business chambers, needed to get Indian corporations to improve their accounting, audit and governance, and reduce managerial pilfering and embezzlement, which is possible only if Government first set an example.”

In a February 4 2007 article in The Statesman, I said:

“Financial control of India’s fiscal condition, and hence monetary expansion, vitally requires control of the growth of these kinds of dynamic processes and comprehension of their analytical underpinnings. Yet such understanding and control seem quite absent from all organs of our Government, including establishment economists and the docile financial press…. the actual difference between Government Expenditure and Income in India has been made to appear much smaller than it really is. Although neglected by the Cabinet, Finance Ministry, RBI and even (almost) the C&AG, the significance of this discrepancy in measurement will not be lost on anyone seriously concerned to address India’s fiscal and monetary problems.”

All three articles are available elsewhere here and are republished below together.  I have published elsewhere today my brief 2006 lecture on corporate governance.  (See also my “The Indian Revolution”, “Monetary Integrity & the Rupee”, “Indian Inflation”,  “The Dream Team: A Critique”, “India’s Macroeconomics”, “Growth & Government Delusion”, etc).

The fraud at Satyam amounts to it having been long bankrupt but not seemingly so.  The fact it was long bankrupt was apparently overlooked or condoned by its auditors Pricewaterhouse Coopers! This may be big news today but the response of corporate India and the Indian business media seems utterly insincere (and there has been a lot of fake pontificating on TV by some notorious frauds).  Remember the head of Satyam received awards with all the other honchos at those fake ceremonies that businessmen and the business media keep holding at this or that hotel.  (See my several articles here under the categories “Satyam corporate fraud”, “Corporate governance” etc.)

Government agencies, as enforcers of the law, must be seen in such circumstances to have greater credibility than the violators, but who can say that Government accounting and audit and corporate governance in India is not as bad as that of the private sector?    It may be in fact far, far worse.   Poor accounting, endless deficit finance, unlimited paper money creation, false convertibility of the rupee etc is what emerges from our supposedly wise economic policy-makers.

When was the last time some major businessman or top politician spoke publicly about the importance of “Generally Accepted Accounting Principles”?   The answer is never.   Government (of this party or that) has become well-oiled by political lobbyists and is hand-in-glove with organized business, especially in a few cities.  Until Government gets its own accounts straight, stops its endless deficit finance, reins in unlimited paper money-creation, creates an honest currency domestically and externally, there is no proper example or standard set for the private sector, and such scandals will erupt along with insincere responses from the cartels of corporate India.

What emerges from New Delhi’s economists seems often to have as much to do with economics as Bollywood has to do with cinema.

Subroto Roy

Fallacious Finance: Congress, BJP, CPI-M et al may be leading India to hyperinflation

by

Subroto Roy

First published in The Statesman, March 5 2007 Editorial Page Special Article http://www.thestatesman.net

It seems the Dream Team of the PM, Finance Minister, Mr. Montek Ahluwalia and their acolytes may take India on a magical mystery tour of economic hallucinations, fantasies and perhaps nightmares. I hasten to add the BJP and CPI-M have nothing better to say, and criticism of the Government or of Mr Chidambaram’s Budget does not at all imply any sympathy for their political adversaries. It may be best to outline a few of the main fallacies permeating the entire Governing Class in Delhi, and their media and businessman friends:

1. “India’s Savings Rate is near 32%”. This is factual nonsense. Savings is indeed normally measured by adding financial and non-financial savings. Financial savings include bank-deposits. But India is not a normal country in this. Nor is China. Both have seen massive exponential growth of bank-deposits in the last few decades. Does this mean Indians and Chinese are saving phenomenally high fractions of their incomes by assiduously putting money away into their shaky nationalized banks? Sadly, it does not. What has happened is government deficit-financing has grown explosively in both countries over decades. In a “fractional reserve” banking system (i.e. a system where your bank does not keep the money you deposited there but lends out almost all of it immediately), government expenditure causes bank-lending, and bank-lending causes bank-deposits to expand. Yes there has been massive expansion of bank-deposits in India but it is a nominal paper phenomenon and does not signify superhuman savings behaviour. Indians keep their assets mostly in metals, land, property, cattle, etc., and as cash, not as bank deposits.

2. “High economic growth in India is being caused by high savings and intelligently planned government investment”. This too is nonsense. Economic growth in India as elsewhere arises not because of what politicians and bureaucrats do in capital cities, but because of spontaneous technological progress, improved productivity and learning-by-doing on part of the general population. Technological progress is a very general notion, and applies to any and every production activity or commercial transaction that now can be accomplished more easily or using fewer inputs than before. New Delhi still believes in antiquated Soviet-era savings-investment models without technological progress, and some non-sycophant must tell our top Soviet-era bureaucrat that such growth models have been long superceded and need to be scrapped from India’s policy-making too. Can politicians and bureaucrats assist India’s progress? Indeed they can: the telecom revolution in recent years was something in which they participated. But the general presumption is against them. Progress, productivity gains and hence economic growth arise from enterprise and effort of ordinary people — mostly despite not because of an exploitative, parasitic State.

3. “Agriculture is a backward sector that has been retarding India’s recent economic growth”. This is not merely nonsense it is dangerous nonsense, because it has led to land-grabbing by India’s rulers at behest of their businessman friends in so-called “SEZ” schemes. The great farm economist Theodore W. Schultz once quoted Andre and Jean Mayer: “Few scientists think of agriculture as the chief, or the model science. Many, indeed, do not consider it a science at all. Yet it was the first science – Mother of all science; it remains the science which makes human life possible”. Centuries before Europe’s Industrial Revolution, there was an Agricultural Revolution led by monks and abbots who were the scientists of the day. Thanks partly to American help, India has witnessed a Green Revolution since the 1960s, and our agriculture has been generally a calm, mature, stable and productive industry. Our farmers are peaceful hardworking people who should be paying taxes and user-fees normally but should not be otherwise disturbed or needlessly provoked by outsiders. It is the businessmen wishing to attack our farm populations who need to look hard in the mirror – to improve their accounting, audit, corporate governance, to enforce anti-embezzlement and shareholder protection laws etc.

4. “India’s foreign exchange reserves may be used for ‘infrastructure’ financing”. Mr Ahluwalia promoted this idea and now the Budget Speech mentioned how Mr Deepak Parekh and American banks may be planning to get Indian businesses to “borrow” India’s forex reserves from the RBI so they can purchase foreign assets. It is a fallacy arising among those either innocent of all economics or who have quite forgotten the little they might have been mistaught in their youth. Forex reserves are a residual in a country’s balance of payments and are not akin to tax revenues, and thus are not available to be borrowed or spent by politicians, bureaucrats or their businessman friends — no matter how tricky and shady a way comes to be devised for doing so. If anything, the Government and RBI’s priority should have been to free the Rupee so any Indian could hold gold or forex at his/her local bank. India’s vast sterling balances after the Second World War vanished quickly within a few years, and the country plunged into decades of balance of payments crisis – that may now get repeated. The idea of “infrastructure” is in any case vague and inferior to the “public goods” Adam Smith knew to be vital. Serious economists recommend transparent cost-benefit analyses before spending any public resources on any project. E.g., analysis of airport/airline industry expansion would have found the vast bulk of domestic airline costs to be forex-denominated but revenues rupee-denominated – implying an obvious massive currency-risk to the industry and all its “infrastructure”. All the PM’s men tell us nothing of any of this.

5. “HIV-AIDS is a major Indian health problem”. Government doctors privately know the scare of an AIDS epidemic is based on false assumptions and analysis. Few if any of us have met, seen or heard of an actual incontrovertible AIDS victim in India (as opposed to someone infected by hepatitis-contaminated blood supplies). Syringe-exchange by intravenous drug users is not something widely prevalent in Indian society, while the practise that caused HIV to spread in California’s Bay Area in the 1980s is not something depicted even at Khajuraho. Numerous real diseases do afflict Indians – e.g. 11 children died from encephalitis in one UP hospital on a single day in July 2006, while thousands of children suffer from “cleft lip” deformity that can be solved surgically for 20,000 rupees, allowing the child a normal life. Without any objective survey being done of India’s real health needs, Mr Chidamabaram has promised more than Rs 9.6 Billion (Rs 960 crore) to the AIDS cottage industry.

6. “Fiscal consolidation & stabilization has been underway since 1991”. There is extremely little reason to believe this. If you or I borrow Rs. 100,000 for a year, and one year later repay the sum only to borrow the same again along with another Rs 40,000, we would be said to have today a debt of Rs. 140,000 at least. Our Government has been routinely “rolling over” its domestic debt in this manner (in the asset-portfolios of the nationalised banking system) but displaying and highlighting only its new additional borrowing in a year as the “ Fiscal Deficit” (see graph, also “Fiscal Instability”, The Sunday Statesman, 4 February 2007). More than two dozen State Governments have been doing the same though, unlike the Government of India, they have no money-creating powers and their liabilities ultimately accrue to the Union as well. The stock of public debt in India may be Rs 30 trillion (Rs 30 lakh crore) at least, and portends a hyperinflation in the future. Mr Chidambaram’s announcement of a “Debt Management Office” yet to be created is hardly going to suffice to avert macroeconomic turmoil and a possible monetary collapse. The Congress, BJP, CPI-M and all their friends shall be responsible.

Against Quackery

First published in two parts in The Sunday Statesman, September 23 2007, The Statesman September 24 2007, http://www.thestatesman.net

By Subroto Roy

Manmohan and Sonia have violated Rajiv Gandhi’s intended reforms; the Communists have been appeased or bought; the BJP is incompetent

WASTE, fraud and abuse are inevitable in the use and allocation of public property and resources in India as elsewhere, but Government is supposed to fight and resist such tendencies. The Sonia-Manmohan Government have done the opposite, aiding and abetting a wasteful anti-economics ~ i.e., an economic quackery. Vajpayee-Advani and other Governments, including Narasimha-Manmohan in 1991-1996, were just as complicit in the perverse policy-making. So have been State Governments of all regional parties like the CPI-M in West Bengal, DMK/ AIADMK in Tamil Nadu, Congress/NCP/ BJP/Sena in Maharashtra, TDP /Congress in Andhra Pradesh, SP/BJP/BSP in Uttar Pradesh etc. Our dismal politics merely has the pot calling the kettle black while national self-delusion and superstition reign in the absence of reason.

The general pattern is one of well-informed, moneyed, mostly city-based special interest groups (especially including organised capital and organised labour) dominating government agendas at the cost of ill-informed, diffused anonymous individual citizens ~ peasants, small businessmen, non-unionized workers, old people, housewives, medical students etc. The extremely expensive “nuclear deal” with the USA is merely one example of such interest group politics.

Nuclear power is and shall always remain of tiny significance as a source of India’s electricity (compared to e.g. coal and hydro); hence the deal has practically nothing to do with the purported (and mendacious) aim of improving the country’s “energy security” in the long run. It has mostly to do with big business lobbies and senior bureaucrats and politicians making a grab, as they always have done, for India’s public purse, especially access to foreign currency assets. Some $300 million of India’s public money had to be paid to GE and Bechtel Corporation before any nuclear talks could begin in 2004-2005 ~ the reason was the Dabhol fiasco of the 1990s, a sheer waste for India’s ordinary people. Who was responsible for that loss? Pawar-Mahajan-Munde-Thackeray certainly but also India’s Finance Minister at the time, Manmohan Singh, and his top Finance Ministry bureaucrat, Montek Ahluwalia ~ who should never have let the fiasco get off the ground but instead actively promoted and approved it.

Cost-benefit analysis prior to any public project is textbook operating procedure for economists, and any half-competent economist would have accounted for the scenario of possible currency-depreciation which made Dabhol instantly unviable. Dr Singh and Mr Ahluwalia failed that test badly and it cost India dearly. The purchase of foreign nuclear reactors on a turnkey basis upon their recommendation now reflects similar financial dangers for the country on a vastly larger scale over decades.

Our Government seems to function most expeditiously in purchasing foreign arms, aircraft etc ~ not in improving the courts, prisons, police, public utilities, public debt. When the purchase of 43 Airbus aircraft surfaced, accusations of impropriety were made by Boeing ~ until the local Airbus representative said on TV that Boeing need not complain because they were going to be rewarded too and soon 68 aircraft were ordered from Boeing!

India imports all passenger and most military aircraft, besides spare parts and high-octane jet fuel. Domestic aviation generates near zero forex revenues and incurs large forex costs ~ a debit in India’s balance of payments. Domestic airline passengers act as importers subsidised by our meagre exporters of textiles, leather, handicrafts, tea, etc. What a managerially-minded PM and Aviation Minister needed to do before yielding to temptations of buying new aircraft was to get tough with the pampered managements and unions of the nationalized airlines and stand up on behalf of ordinary citizens and taxpayers, who, after all, are mostly rail or road-travellers not jet-setters.

The same pattern of negligent policy-behaviour led Finance Minister P. Chidambaram in an unprecedented step to mention in his 2007 Union Budget Speech the private American companies Blackstone and GE ~ endorsing the Ahluwalia/Deepak Parekh idea that India’s forex reserves may be made available to be lent out to favoured private businesses for purported “infrastructure” development. We may now see chunks of India’s foreign exchange reserves being “borrowed” and never returned ~ a monumental scam in front of the CBI’s noses.

The Reserve Bank’s highest echelons may have become complicit in all this, permitting and encouraging a large capital flight to take place among the few million Indians who read the English newspapers and have family-members abroad. Resident Indians have been officially permitted to open bank accounts of US $100,000 abroad, as well as transfer gifts of $50,000 per annum to their adult children already exported abroad ~ converting their largely untaxed paper rupees at an artificially favourable exchange-rate.

In particular, Mr Ratan Tata (under a misapprehension he may do whatever Lakshmi Mittal does) has been allowed to convert Indian rupees into some US$13,000,000,000 to make a cash purchase of a European steel company. The same has been allowed of the Birlas, Wipro, Dr Reddy’s and numerous other Indian corporations in the organised sector ~ three hundred million dollars here, five hundred million dollars there, etc. Western businessmen now know all they have to do is flatter the egos of Indian boxwallahs enough and they might have found a buyer for their otherwise bankrupt or sick local enterprise. Many newcomers to New York City have been sold the Brooklyn Bridge before. “There’s a sucker born every minute” is the classic saying of American capitalism.

The Sonia-Manmohan Government, instead of hobnobbing with business chambers, needed to get Indian corporations to improve their accounting, audit and governance, and reduce managerial pilfering and embezzlement, which is possible only if Government first set an example.

Why have Indian foreign currency reserves zoomed up in recent years? Not mainly because we are exporting more textiles, tea, software engineers, call centre services or new products to the world, but because Indian corporations have been allowed to borrow abroad, converting their hoards of paper rupees into foreign debt. Forex reserves are a residual in a country’s international balance of payments and are not like tax-resources available to be spent by Government; India’s reserves largely constitute foreign liabilities of Indian residents. This may bear endless repetition as the PM and his key acolytes seem impervious to normal postgraduate-level economics textbooks.

Other official fallacies include thinking India’s savings rate is near 32 per cent and that clever bureaucratic use of it can cause high growth. In fact, real growth arises not because of what politicians and bureaucrats do but because of spontaneous technological progress, improved productivity and learning-by-doing of the general population ~ mostly despite not because of an exploitative parasitic State. What has been mismeasured as high savings is actually expansion of bank-deposits in a fractional reserve banking system caused by runaway government deficit-spending.

Another fallacy has been that agriculture retards growth, leading to nationwide politically-backed attempts at land-grabbing by wily city industrialists and real estate developers. In a hyperinflation-prone economy with wild deficit-spending and runaway money-printing, cheating poor unorganised peasants of their land, when that land is an asset that is due to appreciate in value, has seemed like child’s play.

What of the Opposition? The BJP/RSS have no economists who are not quacks though opportunists were happy to say what pleased them to hear when they were in power; they also have much implicit support among organised business lobbies and the anti-Muslim senior bureaucracy. The official Communists have been appeased or bought, sometimes so cheaply as with a few airline tickets here and there. The nonsensical “Rural Employment Guarantee” is descending into the wasteland of corruption it was always going to be. The “Domestic Violence Act” as expected has started to destroy India’s families the way Western families have been destroyed. The Arjun-DMK OBC quota corrodes higher education further from its already dismal state. All these were schemes that Congress and Communist cabals created or wholeheartedly backed, and which the BJP were too scared or ignorant to resist.

And then came Singur and Nandigram ~ where the sheer greed driving the alliance between the Sonia-Manmohan-Pranab Congress and the CPI-M mask that is Buddhadeb, came to be exposed by a handful of brave women like Mamata and Medha.

2. A Fiscal U-Turn is Needed For India to Go in The Right Economic Direction

Rajiv Gandhi had a sense of noblesse oblige out of remembrance of his father and maternal grandfather. After his assassination, the comprador business press credited Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh with having originated the 1991 economic reform. In May 2002, however, the Congress Party itself passed a resolution proposed by Digvijay Singh explicitly stating Rajiv and not either of them was to be so credited. The resolution was intended to flatter Sonia Gandhi but there was truth in it too. Rajiv, a pilot who knew no political economy, was a quick learner with intelligence to know a good idea when he saw one and enough grace to acknowledge it.

Rule of Law

The first time Dr Manmohan Singh’s name arose in contemporary post-Indira politics was on 22 March 1991 when M K Rasgotra challenged the present author to answer how Dr Singh would respond to proposals being drafted for a planned economic liberalisation that had been authorised by Rajiv, as Congress President and Opposition Leader, since September 1990. It was replied that Dr Singh’s response was unknown and he had been heading the “South-South Commission” for Tanzania’s Julius Nyerere, while what needed to be done urgently was make a clear forceful statement to restore India’s credit-worthiness and the confidence of international markets, showing that the Congress at least knew its economics and was planning to take bold new steps in the direction of progress.

There is no evidence Dr Singh or his acolytes were committed to any economic liberalism prior to 1991 as that term is understood worldwide, and scant evidence they have originated liberal economic ideas for India afterwards. Precisely because they represented the decrepit old intellectual order of statist ”Ma-Bap Sarkari” policy-making, they were not asked in the mid-1980s to be part of a “perestroika-for-India” project done at a foreign university ~ the results of which were received, thanks to Siddhartha Shankar Ray, by Rajiv Gandhi in hand at 10 Janpath on 18 September 1990 and specifically sparked the change in the direction of his economic thinking.

India is a large, populous country with hundreds of millions of materially poor citizens, a weak tax-base, a vast internal and external public debt (i.e. debt owed by the Government to domestic and foreign creditors), massive annual fiscal deficits, an inconvertible currency, and runaway printing of paper-money. It is unsurprising Pakistan’s economy is similar, since it is born of the same land and people. Certainly there have been real political problems between India and Pakistan since the chaotic demobilisation and disintegration of the old British Indian Army caused the subcontinent to plunge into war-like or “cold peace” conditions for six decades beginning with a bloody Partition and civil war in J&K. High military expenditures have been necessitated due to mutual and foreign tensions, but this cannot be a permanent state if India and Pakistan wish for genuine mass economic well-being.

Even with the continuing mutual antagonism, there is vast scope for a critical review of Indian military expenditures towards greatly improving the “teeth-to-tail” ratio of its fighting forces. The abuse of public property and privilege by senior echelons of the armed forces (some of whom have been keen most of all to export their children preferably to America) is also no great secret.

On the domestic front, Rajiv was entirely convinced when the suggestion was made to him in September 1990 that an enormous infusion of public resources was needed into the judicial system for promotion and improvement of the Rule of Law in the country, a pre-requisite almost for a new market orientation. Capitalism without the Rule of Law can quickly degenerate into an illiberal hell of cronyism and anarchy which is what has tended to happen since 1991.

The Madhava Menon Committee on criminal justice policy in July proposed a Hong Kong model of “a single high-tech integrated Criminal Justice complex in every district headquarters which may be a multi-storied structure, devoting the ground floor for the police station including a video-installed interrogation room; the first floor for the police-lockups/sub-jail and the Magistrate’s Court; the second floor for the prosecutor’s office, witness rooms, crime laboratories and legal aid services; the third floor for the Sessions Court and the fourth for the administrative offices etc…. (Government of India) should take steps to evolve such an efficient model… and not only recommend it to the States but subsidize its construction…” The question arises: Why is this being proposed for the first time in 2007 after sixty years of Independence? Why was it not something designed and implemented starting in the 1950s?

The resources put since Independence to the proper working of our judiciary from the Supreme Court and High Courts downwards have been abysmal, while the state of prisons, borstals, mental asylums and other institutions of involuntary detention is nothing short of pathetic. Only police forces, like the military, paramilitary and bureaucracies, have bloated in size.

Neither Sonia-Manmohan nor the BJP or Communists have thought promotion of the Rule of Law in India to be worth much serious thought ~ certainly less important than attending bogus international conclaves and summits to sign expensive deals for arms, aircraft, reactors etc. Yet Rajiv Gandhi, at a 10 Janpath meeting on 23 March 1991 when he received the liberalisation proposals he had authorized, explicitly avowed the importance of greater resources towards the Judiciary. Dr Singh and his acolytes were not in that loop, indeed they precisely represented the bureaucratic ancien regime intended to be changed, and hence have seemed quite uncomprehending of the roots of the intended reforms ever since 1991.

Similarly, Rajiv comprehended when it was said to him that the primary fiscal problem faced by India is the vast and uncontrolled public debt, interest payments on which suck dry all public budgets leaving no room for provision of public goods.

Government accounts
Government has been routinely “rolling over” its domestic debt in the asset-portfolios of the nationalised banks while displaying and highlighting only its new additional borrowing in a year as the “Fiscal Deficit”. More than two dozen States have been doing the same and their liabilities ultimately accrue to the Union too. The stock of public debt in India is Rs 30 trillion (Rs 30 lakh crore) at least, and portends a hyperinflation in the future.

There has been no serious recognition of this since it is political and bureaucratic actions that have been causing the problem. Proper recognition would entail systematically cleaning up the budgets and accounts of every single governmental entity in the country: the Union, every State, every district and municipality, every publicly funded entity or organisation, and at the same time improving public decision-making capacity so that once budgets and accounts recover from grave sickness over decades, functioning institutions exist for their proper future management. All this would also stop corruption in its tracks, and release resources for valuable public goods and services like the Judiciary, School Education and Basic Health. Institutions for improved political and administrative decision-making are needed throughout the country if public preferences with respect to raising and allocating common resources are to be elicited and then translated into actual delivery of public goods and services. Our dysfunctional legislatures will have to do at least a little of what they are supposed to. When public budgets and accounts are healthy and we have functioning public goods and services, macroeconomic conditions would have been created for the paper-rupee to once more become a money as good as gold ~ a convertible world currency for all of India’s people, not merely the metropolitan special interest groups that have been controlling our governments and their agendas.

Fiscal Instabilty

Interest payments quickly suck dry every year’s Budget. And rolling over old public debt means that Government Borrowing in fact much exceeds the Fiscal Deficit

by Subroto Roy

First published in The Sunday Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, February 4 2007, http://www.thestatesman.net

While releasing Mr Chidambaram’s book some days ago, our PM said that as Narasimha Rao’s Finance Minister in 1991 he had caused “fiscal stabilization” of the country. Unfortunately, Dr Manmohan Singh may have been believing the flattery of his sycophants, since the facts point differently.

The Fiscal Deficit is new borrowing by Government added for a given year. In 1994-1995 for example, the Union Government’s expenditure net of operational and other income was some Rs 1,295 billion (1 billion = 100 crore). Rs. 674 billion was generated for the Union Government by taxation that year (Rs 184 billion from direct taxes, Rs 653 billion from indirect and miscellaneous taxes, less Rs 163 billion as the States’ share). The difference between Rs 1,295 billion and Rs. 674 billion, that is Rs. 621 billion had to be borrowed by the Government of India in the name of future unborn generations of Indian citizens. That was the “Fiscal Deficit” that year. If the stock of Public Debt already accumulated has been B,this Fiscal Deficit, C, adds to the interest burden that will be faced next year since interest will have to be then paid on B + C.

Interest payments on Government debt have dominated all public finance in recent decades, quickly sucking dry the budgets every year both of the Union and each of our more than two dozen States. Some Rs. 440 billion was paid by the Union Government as interest in 1994-1995, and this had risen to some Rs. 1,281 billion by 2003-2004. As a percentage of tax revenue, interest expenditure by the Government of India on its own debt rose from 40% in 1991 to 68% in 2004 ~ through the Finance Ministerships of Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram, Yashwant Sinha and Jaswant Singh.

Financial control of India’s fiscal condition, and hence monetary expansion, vitally requires control of the growth of these kinds of dynamic processes and comprehension of their analytical underpinnings. Yet such understanding and control seem quite absent from all organs of our Government, including establishment economists and the docile financial press.

For example, contrary to the impression created by the Finance Ministry, RBI and Union Cabinet (whether of the UPA or NDA, while the Communists would only be worse), the Fiscal Deficit has been in fact very far from being all that the Government of India borrows from financial markets in a given year. The stock of Public Debt at any given moment consists of numerous debt-instruments of various sorts at different terms. Some fraction of these come to maturity every year and hence their principal amounts (not merely their interest) must be repaid by Government. What our Government has been doing routinely over decades is to roll over these debts, i.e. issue fresh public debt of the same amount as that being extinguished and more. For example, some Rs. 720 billion, Rs. 1,180 billion, Rs.1,330 billion and Rs. 1,390 billion were amounts spent in extinguishing maturing public debt in 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996 respectively. No special taxes were raised in those years specifically for that purpose. Instead the Government merely issued additional new debt or “rolled over” or “converted” the old debt in the same amounts and more in the portfolios of the captive nationalized banking system (see graph).

Plainly, the Government of India’s actual “Borrowing Requirement”, as the difference between its Income and Expenditure, when accounted for properly, will be the sum of this rolled over old debt and the Fiscal Deficit (which is merely the additional borrowing required by a single year’s Budget). In other words, the Government’s Borrowing Requirement is the Fiscal Deficit plus the much larger amount required to annually roll over maturing debt. Because the latter expenditure does not appear at all in calculation of the Fiscal Deficit by the subterfuge of having been routinely rolled over every year, the actual difference between Government Expenditure and Income in India has been made to appear much smaller than it really is. Although neglected by the Cabinet, Finance Ministry, RBI and even (almost) the C&AG, the significance of this discrepancy in measurement will not be lost on anyone seriously concerned to address India’s fiscal and monetary problems.

On the expenditure side, Current Expenditure (anachronistically named “Revenue Expenditure” in India as it is supposed to be met by current revenue) meets recurrent liabilities from one budget-date to the next, like salaries of school-staff or coupon payments on Government debt.

Investment Expenditure “of a capital nature” is supposed to increase “concrete assets of a material and permanent character” like spending on a new public library, or reducing “recurring liabilities” by setting aside a sinking fund to reduce Government debt. Some public resources need to be spent to yield benefits or reduce costs not immediately but in the future. Besides roads, bridges and libraries, these may include less tangible investments too like ensuring proper working of law-courts or training police-officers and school-teachers.

Also, there has been large outright direct lending by the Government of India bypassing normal capital markets on the pattern of old Soviet “central planning”, whereby “credit” is disbursed to chosen recipients.

“Current”, “Investment” and “Loan” expenditure decisions of this kind are made on the same activities. For example, in 1994-1995, the Government of India spent Rs. 2.7 billion as “Loans for Power Projects” in addition to Rs. 9.8 billion under Current Expenditure on “Power” and Rs. 15.5 billion as Investment Expenditure on “Power Projects”. By 2003-2004, these had grown to Rs. 50.94 billion, Rs. 31.02 billion, Rs. 28.5 billion respectively. Yet the opaqueness of Government accounts, finances and economic decision-making today is such that nowhere will such data be found in one table giving a full picture of public expenditure on the Power sector as a whole. On the revenue side, Government’s “Current Income” includes direct and indirect taxes, operational income from public utilities (like railways or the post office), and dividends and profits from public assets. There has been a small “Investment Income” too received from sale of public assets like Maruti. Also, since loans are made directly, there has to be a category for their recovery.

“One must not take from the real needs of the people for the imaginary needs of the state”, said Montesquieu; while De Marco in the same vein said “the greatest satisfaction of collective needs” has to be sought by “the least possible waste of private wealth”. Even Mao Zedong reportedly said: “Thrift should be the guiding principle of our government expenditure”. The C&AG requires Government determine “how little money it need take out of the pockets of the taxpayers in order to maintain its necessary activities at the proper standard of efficiency”.

Yet India’s top politicians and bureaucrats spend wildly ~ driven by the organised special interest groups on whom they depend, while ostentatiously consuming public time, space and resources themselves “quite uselessly in the pleasurable business of inflating the ego” (Veblen).

For Government to do what it need not or should not do contributes to its failure to do what it must. Thus we have armies of indolent soldiers, policemen and bureaucrats and piles of rotting supplies in government warehouses while there are queues outside hospitals, schools, courts etc.

Parliament and State Legislatures need to first ask of an annual budget whether it is efficient: “Is expenditure being allocated to enhance the public interest to the greatest extent possible, and if not, how may it be made to do so?” National welfare overall should increase the same whichever public good or service the final million of public rupees has been spent on.

Fundamentally, government finance requires scientific honesty, especially by way of clear rigorous accounting and audit of uses and origins of public resources. That scientific honesty is what we have not had at Union or State level for more than half a century.

Will the Government of India’s new macroeconomic policy dampen or worsen the business-cycle (if such a cycle exists at all)? No one knows! “Where ignorance is bliss, ‘Tis folly to be wise.”

I began a two part article published in The Statesman last year (September 23-24 2007) titled “Against Quackery” saying:

“WASTE, fraud and abuse are inevitable in the use and allocation of public property and resources in India as elsewhere, but Government is supposed to fight and resist such tendencies. The Sonia-Manmohan Government have done the opposite, aiding and abetting a wasteful anti-economics ~ i.e., an economic quackery. Vajpayee-Advani and other Governments, including Narasimha-Manmohan in 1991-1996, were just as complicit in the perverse policy-making. So have been State Governments of all regional parties…. Our dismal politics merely has the pot calling the kettle black while national self-delusion and superstition reign in the absence of reason.  The general pattern is one of well-informed, moneyed, mostly city-based special interest groups (especially including organised capital and organised labour) dominating government agendas at the cost of ill-informed, diffused anonymous individual citizens ~ peasants, small businessmen, non-unionized workers, old people, housewives, medical students etc….

The cheap money policy announced yesterday and now the so-called “fiscal stimulus” announced today may be a case in point.  Dr Manmohan Singh’s main economic policy aide said the aim was for Government to act in a “contra-cyclical”  manner,  presumably referring to an attempted “counter cyclical policy” to dampen the amplitude of a business-cycle.

But has anyone asked — let aside, does anyone know — where precisely, in terms of phase, period and amplitude, India’s macro-economy happens to be on its presumed business-cycle?  Of course not.   No one has the faintest clue.   There are no models of such a cycle existing and there are no data which have been fit to such non-existent models.   Not in Delhi, not in Mumbai, not with any international agency.

[Inspector Gregory (Scotland Yard detective): “Is there any other point to which you would wish to draw my attention?”
Sherlock  Holmes: “To the curious incident of the dog in the night-time.”
Inspector Gregory: “The dog did nothing in the night-time.”
Sherlock  Holmes: “That was the curious incident.”]

A cheap money policy and a so-called “fiscal stimulus” may in fact, for all that anyone in the Government of India or outside it really knows, exacerbate the amplitude of a business-cycle — making it worse, not better.

In such a  state of ignorance,  it is odd for policy-makers to go about glibly formulating and announcing so many policy-changes at once.   (It may all add up to be just incoherent waffle.)   Such has been the typical pattern to emerge from the process of political lobbying by “well-informed, moneyed, mostly city-based special interest groups”.   Organised capital and organised labour (as well as of course bureaucrats and politicians) will likely do very well from all this as usual, at the expense of  “ill-informed, diffused anonymous individual citizens” of India.


America’s divided economists


America’s divided economists

by

Subroto Roy

First published in

Business Standard 26 October 2008

Future doctoral theses about the Great Tremor of 2008 will ask how it was that the Fed chief, who was an academic economist, came to back so wholeheartedly the proposals of the investment banker heading the US Treasury. If Herbert Hoover and FDR in the 1930s started something called fiscal policy for the first time, George W Bush’s lameduck year has marked the total subjugation of monetary policy.

In his 1945 classic, History of Banking Theory, the University of Chicago’s Lloyd Mints said: “No reorganisation of the Federal Reserve System, while preserving its independence from the Treasury, can offer a satisfactory agency for the implementation of monetary policy. The Reserve banks and their branches should be made agencies of the Treasury and all monetary powers delegated by Congress should be given to the Secretary of the Treasury…. It is not at all certain that Treasury control of the stock of money would always be reasonable… but Treasury influence cannot be excluded by the creation of a speciously independent monetary agency that cannot have adequate powers for the performance of its task…” Years later, Milton Friedman himself took a similar position suggesting legislation “to end the independence of the Fed by converting it into a bureau of the Treasury Department…”(see, for example, Essence of Friedman, p 416).

Ben Bernanke’s Fed has now ended any pretence of monetary policy’s independence from the whims and exigencies of executive power. Yet Dr Bernanke’s fellow academic economists have been unanimous in advising caution, patience and more information and reflection upon the facts. The famous letter of 122 economists to the US Congress was a rare statement of sense and practical wisdom. It agreed the situation was difficult and needed bold action. But it said the Paulson-Bernanke plan was an unfair “subsidy to investors at taxpayers’ expense. Investors who took risks to earn profits must also bear the losses. Not every business failure carries systemic risk. The government can ensure a well-functioning financial industry, able to make new loans to creditworthy borrowers, without bailing out particular investors and institutions whose choices proved unwise.”

Besides, the plan was unclear and too far-reaching. “Neither the mission of the new agency nor its oversight are clear. If taxpayers are to buy illiquid and opaque assets from troubled sellers, the terms, occasions, and methods of such purchases must be crystal clear ahead of time and carefully monitored afterwards…. If the plan is enacted, its effects will be with us for a generation. For all their recent troubles, America’s dynamic and innovative private capital markets have brought the nation unparalleled prosperity. Fundamentally weakening those markets in order to calm short-run disruptions is desperately short-sighted.”

The House’s initial bipartisan “backbench revolt” against “The Emergency Economic Stabilisation Act of 2008” (ESSA) followed this academic argument and rejected the Bernanke Fed’s advice. Is there an “emergency”, and if so what is its precise nature? Is this “economic stabilisation”, and if so, how is it going to work? The onus has been on Dr Bernanke and his staff to argue both, not merely to assert them. Even if the House “held its nose” and passed the measure for now, the American electorate is angry and it is anybody’s guess how a new President and Congress will alter all this in a few months.

Several academic economists have argued for specific price-stabilisation of the housing market being the keystone of any large, expensive and risky government intervention. (John McCain has also placed this in the political discussion now.) Roughly speaking, the housing supply-curve has shifted so far to the right that collapsed housing prices need to be dragged back upward by force. Columbia Business School economists Glenn Hubbard and Chris Mayer, both former Bush Administration officials, have proposed allowing “all residential mortgages on primary residences to be refinanced into 30-year fixed-rate mortgages at 5.25 per cent…. close to where mortgage rates would be today with normally functioning mortgage markets….Lower interest rates will mean higher overall house prices…” Yale’s Jonathan Koppell and William Goetzmann have argued very similarly the Treasury “could offer to refinance all mortgages issued in the past five years with a fixed-rate, 30-year mortgage at 6 per cent. No credit scores, no questions asked; just pay off the principal of the existing mortgage with a government check. If monthly payments are still too high, homeowners could reduce their indebtedness in exchange for a share of the future price appreciation of the house. That is, the government would take an ownership interest in the house just as it would take an ownership interest in the financial institutions that would be bailed out under the Treasury’s plan.”

Beyond the short run, the US may play the demographic card by inviting in a few million new immigrants (if nativist feelings hostile to the outsider or newcomer can be controlled, especially in employment). Bad mortgages and foreclosures would vanish as people from around the world who long to live in America buy up all those empty houses and apartments, even in the most desolate or dismal locations. If the US’s housing supply curve has moved so far to the right that the equilibrium price has gone to near zero, the surest way to raise the equilibrium price would be by causing a new wave of immigration leading to a new demand curve arising at a higher level.

Such proposals seek to address the problem at its source. They might have been expected from the Fed’s economists. Instead, ESSA speaks of massive government purchase and control of bad assets “downriver”, without any attempt to face the problem at its source. This makes it merely wishful to think such assets can be sold for a profit at a later date so taxpayers will eventually gain. It is as likely as not the bad assets remain bad assets.

Indeed the University of Chicago’s Casey Mulligan has argued there is a financial crisis involving the banking sector but not an economic one: “We’re not entering a second Great Depression.” The marginal product of capital remains high and increasing “far above the historical average. The third-quarter earnings reports from some companies already suggest that America’s non-financial companies are still making plenty of money…. So, if you are not employed by the financial industry (94 per cent of you are not), don’t worry. The current unemployment rate of 6.1 per cent is not alarming, and we should reconsider whether it is worth it to spend $700 billion to bring it down to 5.9 per cent.”

Dr Bernanke has been a close student of A Monetary History of the United States in which Milton Friedman and Anna J Schwartz argued that the Fed inadvertently worsened the Great Contraction of 1929-1933 by not responding to Congress. Let not future historians find that the Fed, at the behest of the Treasury Secretary, worsened the Great Tremor of 2008 by bamboozling Congress into hasty action.

Monetary Integrity and the Rupee

 

Monetary Integrity and the Rupee: Three British Raj relics have dominated our macroeconomic policy-making

First published in Business Standard 28 September 2008

 

Taxation via inflation “does not require detailed legislation, and can be administered very simply. All that it requires is to spend newly created notes. The resulting inflation automatically imposes a tax on cash balances by depreciating the value of money”. Philip Cagan said this in a pioneering 1956 study of hyperinflations worldwide. Britain’s Hugh Dalton observed how government deficits could be met by “use of the printing press to manufacture legal tender paper money” to pay government creditors either directly “with new paper money specially printed for the purpose” or indirectly “out of loans to itself from the Central Bank”. Milton Friedman and Anna Schwartz pointed to America’s wartime resort to inflation.

 

Government debt held by a central bank quickly filters through to appear as an asset in balance-sheets of commercial banks, causing expansion of bank-lending and hence of bank-deposits and broad money. After the attack on Pearl Harbour, the US Treasury could get from the Federal Reserve or commercial banks “any funds that it needed beyond those secured by taxation and by borrowing from non-bank sources”. America’s wartime banking system became “a mechanism for providing funds to finance government expenditure” — deposits grew because “bank buying of government securities increases bank deposits”.

 

In RF Harrod’s words: “There is a well-known aphorism that ‘bank loans create deposits’…. if the central bank has an increase of assets, whether through a gold inflow or its own increase of ‘lending’ (including the purchase of bills or bonds), some commercial bank will have an increase of assets of equal amount, in the form of claims on the central bank (deposits at it or notes issued by it) and an increase of deposit liabilities of equal amount to its customers”.

 

India has followed in peacetime over six decades what the USA and Britain followed during war. Our vast growth of bank-deposits in recent decades has been mostly a paper (or nominal) phenomenon caused by unlimited deficit-finance in a fractional reserve banking system. Policy-makers have widely misinterpreted it as indicating a real phenomenon of incredibly high savings behaviour. In an inflationary environment, people save their wealth less as paper deposits than as real assets like land, cattle, buildings, machinery, food-stocks, jewellery etc.

 

Almost 50% of annual public revenues in real terms may have been arising from inflationary finance in recent decades. To take a specific example, during Dr Manmohan Singh’s tenure as Finance Minister, Union Government expenditure net of operational income was some Rs. 1.3 trillion (Rs 1.3 lakh crore) in 1994-1995. Some Rs. 675 billion (1 bn= 100 crore) was raised from all taxation that year, Rs 183 billion from direct taxes. The remaining Rs. 620.8 billion was borrowed on behalf of future generations of citizens using the Government of India’s credit. What is termed “Gross Fiscal Deficit” is this additional or marginal annual borrowing — it adds itself to the ongoing stock of public debt every year and has been continually monetised insofar as our mostly nationalized banking system annually comes to hold government securities to that additional amount.

 

India’s inflation-history shows a first phase from the 1870s until the Second World War when money prices fluctuated in response to real shocks, positive and negative, domestic and international. E.g., the US Civil War and First World War caused demand surges for Indian manufactures like cotton textiles and steel railway-tracks, while the Great Depression saw Indian prices crashing with world prices.

 

During the Second World War, money prices in India rose at their fastest rate ever, caused by deliberate British policy to pay for war expenditure by printing money. The British resort to inflationary wartime finance saw the highest money supply growth rates in India ever to occur to date. This pattern came to be adopted and institutionalised by independent India’s socialist authorities, so there has been a third phase of steady inflationary finance from the 1950s until today, along with negative shocks like military and civil conflicts, droughts and oil price-rises, as well as happier developments like technological progress leading to growth of real income (see graph).

 

Two more relics from the wartime British Raj continue to dominate Indian macroeconomic policy to this day. One is unlimited spending on vast standing armies — our supposed adversary itself being a political remnant of the Raj with similar macroeconomic problems to ourselves. India’s army has some 19 divisions facing Pakistan, Pakistan’s army has 19 divisions facing India!

 

The other relic has been the Indian rupee becoming inconvertible as a world money ever since import quotas were imposed across the Sterling Area in 1940-1942.  Lack of convertibility has made all government finance in India unlike that in modern Western economies. US government bonds are held freely in foreign portfolios so a Swiss household or Japanese bank may trade these as they please. Bond prices vary inversely with interest-rates, and yield curves would be attempted to be defined reflecting the maturity-structure and state of expectations. Competitive arbitrage in international capital markets may succeed in ensuring government debt is priced accurately.

 

A central bank with a convertible currency sells debt to raise monetary interest rates and attract capital flows, buys up its debt to lower rates and cause capital outflows. Money growth unwarranted by real growth depreciates the currency under floating exchange rates; a partial export of inflation occurs under fixed-rates. Debt instruments are liquid near-moneys, and it is because US Government debt has been liquid that debt instruments of its sub-sovereign divisions like States or municipalities are almost as liquid. If sovereign debt is not liquid, nor will be sub-sovereign debt.

 

In India, bank assets may be liquid domestically but are illiquid internationally. Government debt is not held by domestic households as voluntary savings nor has it been a liquid asset held worldwide in foreign portfolios. The same holds *a fortiori* for debt issued by more than two dozen State Governments. “Mutual funds” created in recent years do contain government debt on modern principles of portfolio-selection but amounts involved are small. The Rupee achieving monetary integrity after more than six decades of governmental misuse would be indicated only when any ordinary Indian resident can freely hold or trade India’s money for foreign moneys or precious metals as he/she pleases. India’s economy and money can begin to move towards coherence and integrity only when we put to rest the three relics from the wartime British Raj which we unthinkingly have allowed to dominate our macroeconomic policy-making ever since.

 

The Excel graphs built on my data were made into a nice picture by Business Standard but seem to have been removed from their website, and hence are reproduced here now for the first time today, Oct 2, 2011:

 

See also, more recently,

India’s Money, 2012,

Critical assessments of India’s economic policy, plus my 3 Dec 2012 Delhi talk on India’s money, Interview on Lok Sabha TV 2012, GDI Impuls Zürich Interview, Sunday Guardian Interview & Asian Age/Deccan Herald coverage

https://independentindian.com/2013/11/23/coverage-of-my-delhi-talk-on-3-dec-2012/

 

122 sensible American economists

$700 billion comes to more than, uhhhm, $6,000 per income taxpayer in the USA.

I was glad to see the sensible letter of 122 American economists to US legislators regarding the Paulson-Bernanke plan to address America’s financial crisis.

Somehow, I have an inkling that foreign central banks have been left holding more bad US debt than might be remembered — which would explain the embarrassment of Messrs Paulson and Bernanke vis-a-vis their foreign counterparts… Dollar depreciation and an American inflation seem to be inevitable over the next several years.

Subroto Roy

Reddy’s reckoning

Growth of Real Income, Money & Prices in India 1869-2008

I have warned against a “monetary meltdown” in India for more than a decade and a half now.  I said it to Rajiv Gandhi (who listened with care and respect) and after he was gone I have said it to Government economists in India, to IMF/World Bank bureaucrats in Washington, to academic audiences in India and the UK and to India’s general newspaper reading public.

Obviously I hope such a meltdown does not come about.   But inflation, or the decline in the value of money, presently is in double-digits even by the Government’s own admission.  (As a general rule, I think the decline in the value of money has been higher by several percent than what the Government says at any given time.)  Hence I am publishing again some results of my macroeconomic research on India over the years.   You are free to use them and communicate with me about them but please acknowledge them properly and do not steal.

The first graph of 1869-2004 data was published in print to accompany my Growth and Government Delusion in The Statesman February 22, 2008; it had also accompanied other similar articles, e.g. The Dream Team: A Critique in January 2006.  The second graph of 1935-2008 data was published in print to accompany my article Indian Inflation in The Statesman of  April 22 2008.

Subroto Roy

Assessing Manmohan: The Doctor of Deficit Finance should realise the currency is at stake

Assessing Manmohan:

The Doctor of Deficit Finance should realise the currency is at stake

by Subroto Roy

First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, April 25 2008,

The best thing that may be said of the Manmohan Singh premiership is that when it began in May 2004, it seemed, for a short while, refreshing in comparison to the dysfunctional arrogance and brutality displayed by its predecessor. By the last months of the Vajpayee-Advani Government, there were party appointees who had ended all pretence of purportedly Hindu values and were raking it in shamelessly. The Golden Rule of Democracy is “Throw the rascals out”, which is what Indian democracy upheld as it has done time and again. By 2009, India’s electorate will have the chance to decide whether the incumbent government deserves the same fate.

Lok Sabha

Manmohan Singh was seriously discussed as the Congress’s putative nominee for PM as early as 2001. The idea brewing at the time with the party’s next generation of wannabe leaders (in their 50s and 60s, where Manmohan was near 70) was that they needed to maintain good relations with the Great White Queen and wait out one term of an inevitable Singh premiership before having a shot at the top job themselves.

What is surprising is Dr Singh appeared never to feel it necessary to educate himself privately on how to retool himself for the necessary transformation from being the archetypal bureaucrat he had been in his working career to becoming the national statesman he wished to be after retirement. It is doubtful, for example, if he ever stood in front of a mirror and practised an extempore political speech in Hindi in preparation for the highest executive post in the country, let aside writing a clear-headed, original vision or mission statement of substance as to where he wished to lead it. As Narasimha Rao’s Finance Minister, he could meekly take orders from his PM; it seemed he wished to continue in the same mode even when PM himself.

Jawaharlal Nehru is supposed to have been a hero of Dr Singh’s ~ but Nehru was a thorough parliamentarian, among the finest anywhere, and someone who always respected the Lok Sabha immensely. Dr Singh, after he lost to VK Malhotra for the South Delhi seat in 1999, made not the slightest effort to enter the Lok Sabha again, even when the Akalis indicated they might not oppose him in a Punjab contest. When asked specifically at a large press conference about not entering the Lok Sabha, Dr Singh murmured words to the effect he had better uses of his time ~ a display, if anything, of the misplaced arrogance of many New Delhi academics and intellectuals. Dr Singh may be the first PM in any parliamentary democracy never to have won a seat in the lower house nor felt a need to do so.

Dr Singh’s bureaucratic expertise assisted him well in the first national crisis that came his way, which was the Tsunami of 26 December 2004. There appeared to be an air of efficiency about the Government’s response and he seemed in his element as commander of bureaucratic forces while working with Pranab Mukherjee in enlisting the military. George W. Bush (not a great geographer or historian) was apparently impressed to see on a map that India had naval forces deployed as far as the Andamans.

By 2005 though, Dr Singh’s bureaucratic mindset had its negative impact. Montek Ahluwalia had been his Finance Secretary when he was Finance Minister. Mr Ahluwalia’s spouse had been a main supporter of Dr Singh’s unsuccessful Lok Sabha attempt. During the Vajpayee Government, Mr Ahluwalia remained a Planning Commission Member for several years before moving to Washington. With Dr Singh as PM, Mr Ahluwalia returned from the USA in mid 2004 to become Deputy Chair at the Planning Commission. Simultaneously with his return, the idea that the American nuclear industry would like to sell “six to eight lightwater reactors” to India arose.

That is as much as is presently known in public. Dr Singh and Mr Ahluwalia may in the national interest want to frankly and precisely explain to the Indian people the full story of the sudden origins of this idea. Certainly, none of the lessons of the Dabhol fiasco a decade earlier seemed to have been learnt, and the Maharasthtra Government (and hence the Government of India) ended up paying some $300 million to General Electric and Bechtel Corporation for Dabhol before any nuclear talks with the USA could begin. Nor had any serious cost-benefit analysis been done or discussion taken place comparing nuclear energy with coal, hydro and other sources in the Indian case.

Indian foreign policy became frozen in its focus on nuclear negotiations with the USA, swirling around Dr Singh’s fife-and-drum welcome at the White House and President Bush’s return visit to India. At the same time arose the issue of Paul Volcker’s UN committee mentioning the name of India’s foreign minister. As The Statesman put it, regardless of the latter’s involvement, “the damage to India’s diplomatic reputation in the world” was done and it was inevitable a new foreign minister would be necessary. After dilly-dallying and much 10 Janpath to-and-fro, Dr Singh followed Nehru’s mistake of becoming his own foreign minister. The idea was that this would be temporary but it became almost a year.

Instead of transforming himself towards Indian political statesmanship, Dr Singh advanced other retired bureaucrats’ ambitions on similar career-paths. Foreign policy went out of the MEA’s control and seemingly into the control of the new “National Security Adviser”. Dr Singh, sometimes with MK Narayanan beside him, travelled a large number of countries from Brazil to Finland and Uzbekistan to South Africa and Japan. Dr Singh also found time and willingness to accept honorary degrees from British and Russian universities during these short months.

While Dr Singh seemed thus preoccupied, two of India’s main neighbours underwent massive democratic revolutions (leave aside magnificent Bhutan). Nepal’s people practically stormed their Bastille while Dr Singh and Mr Narayanan visited Germany to discuss BMWs. Pakistan’s democratic forces could hardly believe the cold indifference shown to them by a New Delhi merely following Bush’s support for Pervez Musharraf. While Pakistan and Nepal, and to lesser extent Bangladesh, saw movements towards better governance, Sri Lanka descended towards civil war ~ India’s PM remained obsessed with the magic wand that the nuclear deal was supposed to be.

Inflation

Then suddenly the magic vanished ~ Dr Singh seemed to finally come to a silent private recognition that the economics of the nuclear deal simply did not add up if it meant India importing “six to eight lightwater reactors” on a turnkey basis from the USA or anywhere else. Dr Singh seemed to come out of his self-imposed trance and return a little better to reality. By the time he visited China, although he was as deferential to Hu Jintao in his body language as he had been to Bush and Musharraf and even accepted an indoor guard of honour, he also seemed willing to stand up for India. The Arunachal visit was a reality-check.

Now there is inflation ~ and one year left in the UPA’s term. What the country needs is tough sensible macroeconomics and clean public finance. A pandering profligate budget in February was not a healthy sign. Instructing Mr Ahluwalia to close down the Planning Commission and make it a minor R&D wing of the Finance Ministry would be instead a good step. Instructing the RBI to clean up its bureaucratic wastefulness and prepare itself for institutional independence from the Finance Ministry would be even better. Getting proper financial control over every Union and State government entity spending public money and resources would be most important of all. Such major institutional changes in the policy-making process are what an economist might expect of an economist prime minister who wishes to lead India in the 21st Century. India’s currency is at stake.

(See also:  “The Politics of Dr Singh”, May 2006; “Mistaken Macroeconomics”, June 2009, etc.)

Indian Inflation: Upside Down Economics from New Delhi’s Establishment

Indian Inflation:

Upside Down Economics From The New Delhi Establishment

by

Subroto Roy

First published in two parts in

The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article,

April 15-16, 2008

Suppose there are only three real goods and services in the economy, and their prices per unit expressed in terms of money were Rs 3, Rs 2, Rs 6 respectively. If those money prices per unit doubled to Rs 6, Rs 4, Rs 12 respectively, we would say inflation of 100% occurred during the relevant time-period. If the prices had gone instead to Rs 4.50, Rs 3, Rs 9, we would say inflation was 50%, and so on. Notice the ratios between the three prices have remained the same in these examples; i.e., while the money prices of the items have changed, relative prices between them remained constant. In reality, there are many hundreds of millions of differentiated real goods and services in any economy though the logic stays the same.

Decline of money
It is well within living memory that the monthly salary of a Government of India Joint Secretary was Rs 3,000. Middle class parents would wed their daughters respectably to a groom earning such a figure. A Joint Secretary today makes 20 times as much and Rs 3,000 is made by his driver or children’s nanny whose equivalent back then made perhaps Rs 150 per month. The relative distance between the Joint Secretary and his driver has not decreased but the absolute amount of rupees made by each has been multiplied by a factor of 20. That indicates the fall in the value of rupees or rise in prices of goods and services relative to rupees during that period.

One reason this has happened is that the monopoly issuer of rupees, namely the Government of India, has vastly enlarged the stock of rupees present in the economy, both paper-notes and bank-deposits.  Inflation, strictly speaking, is uniform decline in the value of money or, what is the same thing, uniform increase in all rupee prices, including wages, with relative prices constant. The time-period could be a year or even a month; “hyperinflation” may start to be defined if the value of money falls at more than 10% per month.

The main problem with inflation is that rupee prices never expand uniformly and hence some classes of people gain unexpectedly while others suffer catastrophe. E.g., all those with debts expressed in rupee terms pay back less in real terms while their creditors go bankrupt. Those with fixed or slow-changing incomes (like old people, unorganised non-unionised workers etc) and those with paper assets (like currency rather than land or jewelry) are all made worse off by inflation. Unionized workers, like Government employees, do very well from inflation relative to others in society as their compensation is inflation-indexed. And the Government of India itself, as the largest debtor in the economy, gains massively from inflation; indeed, printing more paper is a standard way for all governments around the world to reduce their real debts by subterfuge.

The farmers at Singur or the SEZs who hand over their land for paper rupees from the Government will find the value of that paper declining and the value of that land rising over future years ~ which may help explain the recent keenness of city-people to take over rural India.

Rupee prices are one key variable that tend to expand via inflation with expansion of money stock. The other main change occurs in real income through growth. The Joint Secretary and his driver both use colour TVs for entertainment and gas-stoves for cooking these days; their earlier counterparts would have used transistor radios and coal-fired ovens.

To that extent, we have superior standards of living than we did in the past. There has been enormous technological progress, mostly through spontaneous learning and productivity increase, and that leads to vastly greater commerce and transactions between people, hence greater income and wealth through specialization. The vastly increased volume and value of commerce requires more money to expedite its turnover.

India’s money stock in recent decades has been growing at no less than 15% per annum, most recently reaching an all-time high of 22% per annum last year. Even if current Government estimates of growth of real income at some 9% are taken at face-value, that may mean growth in all rupee prices, i.e. inflation, near 22-9=13% per annum. TV economists parrot Government WPI inflation at 5% per annum, and now newspaper headlines are screaming WPI inflation is at 7.4% ~ more realistically, the decline in the value of India’s paper money has likely been in double-digits for years.

Paper money is a peculiar thing as it has no intrinsic value ~ even a hair pin or shirt-button has more usefulness as such. Paper money derives whatever value it has only because each of us in the economy believes everyone else will accept it in transactions in payment of wages or to purchase food and other items with.

Gold standard

The currency note in your pocket may carry the signature of the RBI Governor and his “promise to pay the bearer” the face-value ~ as if he is going to pay you its equivalent in gold held by the Government. But this is open humbug, a childish fiction. In 1931 the British pound, and the Indian rupee which linked to it at the time, went off the “gold standard” and there has been no backing of the Indian currency with gold ever since then.

In a pure gold standard, gold is money ~ interchangeable in the sense the central bank guarantees it will exchange gold for the paper it issues at an announced price. If that price changes up or down, there is devaluation or revaluation of the currency with respect to gold (depending on how you count it).

A gold exchange standard is similar except gold is not used as money and central banks of nations guarantee the announced prices of their paper moneys with respect to gold in transactions with one another. In the dollar exchange standard (or Bretton Woods system from 1944 to 1971), the US Government alone and uniquely undertook to guarantee the price of the dollar at $35 a troy oz of gold in transactions with all other central banks. That was the underpinning of the international financial system until Richard Nixon “closed the gold window” on 15 August 1971 because the US had largely financed the Vietnam War through money-creation, and other countries’ central banks (like France) had accumulated large dollar-balances.

The “gold standard”, “gold exchange standard”, and “dollar exchange standard” are all examples of “fixed” exchange rate systems which came to end in 1971-1972. The price of gold at $35 an oz was obviously unrealistically low, and it shot up at once, and has even reached $1000 an oz recently. Since 1972, the Western world has been on “floating exchange rates” where currencies find their own values and gold is merely one asset among many. Fixed exchange rate systems can lead to speculation, runs against currencies and the irresponsible international export of inflation which floating exchange rate systems tend to avoid because there will tend to be market-determined movement in the exchange-rate instead.

Elite capital flight

India today has neither a proper fixed nor a proper floating exchange-rate system but instead continues a system of highly discriminatory exchange controls. Twenty or thirty million people in our major cities know how to use the present system well enough to exchange their Indian rupees for as much as US $200,000 per annum to send their children and relatives settled abroad as foreign nationals. Plus Indian corporations have been allowed to convert rupees to buy sinking foreign companies. Foreign-currency reserves have vastly climbed too as domestic Indian companies have been allowed to incur foreign-currency denominated debt. Hence the thirty million special people are rather cleverly able to borrow foreign currency with one hand and then transmit it abroad with the other.

The net result is a clear policy of government-induced elite capital flight, unprecedented in its irresponsibility anywhere in world economic history ~ signed, sealed and delivered by the Montek-Manmohan-Chidambaram trio now just as Yashwant-Jaswant-KC Pant and friends had done a little earlier. The Communists would only be worse, as their JNU economists renounce all standard textbook microeconomics and macroeconomics in favour of street-shouting instead.

Outside the thirty million Indians with NRI connections, the average Indian today is disallowed from holding foreign exchange accounts at his/ her local bank or holding or trading in gold or other precious metals freely as he/she may please ~ the physical arrest of Mohun Bagan’s hapless Brazilian footballer by our inimitable Customs officers the other day reveals the ugliness of the situation most poignantly.

Every TV economist in Delhi, Bombay and Kolkata now seems to have a solution about India’s inflation and all sorts of fallacious reasoning is in the air. Some recommend the rupee appreciating or depreciating ~ as if anyone in the country has the faintest idea how elastic imports, exports and capital flows may be in fact to changes in the (controlled) exchange-rate. The Finance Minister and PM keep saying inflation is being “imported” because international commodity prices are high ~ someone should explain to them inflation is “imported” when fixed exchange rates allow transmission through the price-specie flow mechanism, and that is far from being India’s main problem. The extra-constitutional “Planning Commission” has, we may be thankful, remained silent about inflation, and seems to have abandoned earlier misconceptions about using forex reserves for “infrastructure”. The UPA Chair, we may be thankful, also has been silent and admits innocence of all economics, implicitly trusting her PM’s wisdom in all such matters instead.

What no one wants to talk about is the hippopotamus that is present in the room, namely, the chronically diseased state of accounts and public finances of the issuer of India’s paper-rupees, the Union Government, as well as the diseased accounts and finances of more than two dozen State Governments that are subservient to it. The macroeconomic and fiscal policy process that the Congress, BJP, Communists and everyone else in the political class in New Delhi and the State capitals have been presiding over for decades is one that turns normal economics upside down.

What happens in the West is that an estimate of technological progress and population growth is made by policy-makers, then an “acceptable” or “unavoidable” or “natural” rate of inflation is added (the figure of monetary change needed for efficiency in the real economy so relative prices adjust to equilibrium in response to demand and supply changes), then a monetary growth target is set, to which the fiscal authority ~ i.e. the legislature handling the Government’s budget ~ must adjust taxation and spending plans accordingly.

What has been happening in India every year for decades is that each of some two dozen state legislatures runs up a large deficit, which are all added up and passed on to the “Centre”; the “Centre” and its “Yojana Bhavan”, at the behest of every conceivable organised interest-group with access in Delhi especially government unions and the military, runs up its own vastly larger fiscal deficit, and then this grand total of fiscal-deficits is offered to the Reserve Bank at the end of a loaded pistol ~ to pay for one way or another via new public debt creation and money printing.  Subtract the WPI rate from the Money Supply Growth rate and government spokesmen and their businessmen friends then exclaim that the economy must try to reach the difference as its “warranted” growth rate! It is all economics upside down from people who have either learnt nothing significant in the subject or forgotten whatever little they once did.

Fragile financial state

The net result has been a banking system (mostly nationalized) in which the asset side of banks’ balance-sheets is made up almost entirely of rather dubious government debt, interest payments on which are received every year from fresh money-printing. The liability side of those balance-sheets consists of course of customer-deposits. In this fragile monetary and financial state, a government-induced capital flight has been allowed to continue under pretence of liberalization ~ with Indian companies being allowed to borrow from foreign markets many times their domestic rupee-denominated net worth by which to acquire ailing foreign companies and brands. Furthermore, there has been a massive fiscal effect as vast new Government spending programs ~ like buying foreign aircraft carriers, fighter-jets or passenger aircraft or writing off farm loans ~ come to be announced and absorbed into expectations of future inflation. A monetary meltdown is what the present author cautioned against in 1990-1995 and again, publicly, in 2000-2005. Economics, candidly treated, tells us not only that there is no such thing as a free lunch but also that chickens come home to roost.

Articles of related interest include “Against Quackery”, “India’s Macroeconomics”, “Fiscal Instability”, “Indian Money and Credit”, “Indian Money and Banking”, “The Dream Team: A Critique” etc. See https://independentindian.com/2013/11/23/coverage-of-my-delhi-talk-on-3-dec-2012/


India’s Budget Process (in Theory)

(This was a front-page signed editorial article in The Statesman on Budget Day 2008; it had been preceded by How to Budget: Thrift,Not Theft, Needs to Guide Our Public Finances, and by Growth & Government Delusion a few days earlier. Other related articles published over the last year in The Statesman include India’s Macroeconomics, Fiscal Instability, Fallacious Finance, Against Quackery, etc.)

Budget process, in theory

by Subroto Roy

First published in The Statesman, February 29, 2008, Front Page

India follows the British system of public finance ~ except it is very far from having followed or even being aware of numerous deep improvements the UK made in its system in recent decades.

Government accounts are divided between the “Consolidated Fund of India”, “Contingency Fund” and “Public Account”. The first is most important and credits all revenues received and all loans raised by issue of government debt, and all moneys received in repayment of loans. The second is for unforeseen expenditure pending subsequent authorisation by Parliament. The last includes “trust funds” and is where all transactions relating to debt, deposits, advances, remittances are made.

The annual financial statement of the Union government presented to Parliament is popularly known as “the Budget”. Parliament’s “Vote on Account” is to enable estimates to be considered more carefully.

There is a “Revenue” Budget referring to expenditures and receipts of an annually recurrent nature; for example, staff-salaries of a school is revenue expenditure. There is a “Capital Budget” referring to investment expenditure “incurred with the object either of increasing concrete assets of a material and permanent character or of reducing recurring liabilities”. Spending today on a new school-building or setting aside a sinking fund to reduce the stock of extant public debt is supposed to be what capital expenditure includes. Capital expenditure should be met “generally… from receipts of a capital, debt, deposit or banking character as distinguished from ordinary taxes, duties….” but the government is also allowed to meet it from ordinary current revenues when these are “sufficient”.

In addition there has been in the Indian case large outright direct annual lending undertaken by the government to chosen recipients, bypassing normal capital markets. All three types of expenditure, “Current”, “Investment” and “Loan”, are of spending decisions made at the same time about the same or a similar set of activities. Yet nowhere in the Government of India’s accounts today is to be found clear actionable data that public expenditures on e.g. the power sector in a given year happens to include “Loans for Power Projects” under Account Head 6801, current expenditure on “Power” under Account Head 2801 and capital expenditure on “Power Projects” under Account 4801. It is only when these are added can a picture emerge about total expenditure on the power sector. Government accounts remain on a cash and not accrual basis, unlike the best practices adopted internationally in recent decades.

The process includes preparation of the Budget by the Executive; its consideration and adoption by the Legislature; its implementation by the administration and government agencies; and post-evaluation of achievement and performance by the Public Accounts Committee, Estimates Committee, Committee of Public Undertakings etc of Parliament.

In addition, there is Audit. Where private sector audit systems show how much profit may be properly “put into the pockets of the proprietors”, government audit is supposed to find the least cost to taxpayers in providing necessary public goods and services “to enable Government to determine how little money it need take out of the pockets of the tax-payers in order to maintain its necessary activities at the proper standard of efficiency”. That maxim of India’s Auditor-General in 1930 captures part of the normative intent of public finance in any country at any time. The office of “Comptroller & Auditor General” is charged with independently assessing and evaluating the effectiveness of outcomes generated by the fiscal process, the “high independent statutory authority… who sees on behalf of the Legislature that… money expended was legally available for and applied to the purpose or purposes to which it has been applied….. Audit… is the main instrument to secure accountability of the Executive to the Legislature…. The fundamental object of audit is to secure real value for the taxpayer’s money”. That is the theory at least.

Similar processes on smaller scales are supposed to get carried out in our more than two dozen States, though there the role of the (extra-constitutional) “Planning Commission” has been prevailing while that of the (constitutional) Finance Commission has been diminished.

The crucial variable to look out for in Mr P Chidambaram’s speech will be how much interest expenditure the Government of India has to make on its debt already incurred. That may be nearing Rs 2 trillion (or Rs 2 lakhs of crores) – and could be more than 100% of the Gross Fiscal Deficit! It is an amount “charged” directly to the Consolidated Fund of India and not submitted to the vote of Parliament though Parliament has a right to discuss it. If you want to know who in Parliament is awake and aware of our nation’s economic and financial good, look for anyone who discusses or wants to discuss the size of that amount! It may be best to ignore all attempts at joking and poetry as distractions because the situation is grim ~ although of course there is such a thing as “gallows humour”.

How to Budget: Thrift, Not Theft, Needs to Guide Our Public Finances

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.

 

‘Seignorage’

 

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.

 

Corruption

 

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.

Growth & Government Delusion

Growth & Government Delusion:

Progress Comes From Learning, Enterprise, Exchange, Not The Parasitic State

By Subroto Roy

First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article,
February 22 2008

 

P Chidambaram, Montek Ahluwalia and Manmohan Singh, like their BJP predecessors, delude themselves and the country as a whole when they claim responsibility for phenomenal economic growth taking place. “My goal is to continue to maintain growth but at the same time the government reserves the right to make rapid adjustments depending upon the evolving international situation” is a typical piece of nonsensical waffle.

Honest Finance Ministers in any country cannot take personal responsibility for rates of economic growth nor is any government in the world nimble, well-informed and intelligent enough to respond to exogenous shocks in a timely manner. The UPA and NDA blaming one another for low growth or taking credit for high growth merely reveal the crude mis-education of their pretentious TV economists. There are far too many measurement and data problems as well as lead-and-lag problems for any credibility to attach to what is said.

Per capita real GDP

Indian businessmen and their politician/ bureaucratic friends seem to think “growth” refers to nominal earnings before tax for the corporate sector, or some such number that can be sold to visiting foreigners to induce them to park their money in India: “You will get a 10 per cent return if you invest in India” to which the visitor says “Oh that must mean India has 10 per cent growth going on”. Of such nonsense are expensive Davos and Delhi conferences made.

What is supposed to be measured when we speak of economic growth? It is annual growth of per capita inflation-adjusted Gross Domestic Product (National Income or Net National Product would be better if available). West Germany and Japan had the highest annual per capita real GDP growth-rates in the world starting from devastated post-War initial conditions. What were their rates? West Germany: 6.6 per cent in 1950-1960, falling to 3.5 per cent by 1960-1970, and 2.4 per cent by 1970-1978. Japan: 6.8 per cent in 1952-1960; 9.4 per cent in 1960-1970, 3.8 per cent in 1970-1978. Thus, only Japan in the 1960s measured more than 9 per cent annual growth of real per capita GDP.

Now India and China are said to be achieving 9 per cent plus routinely. Perhaps we are observing an incredible phenomenon of world economic history. Or perhaps we are just being fed something incredible, some humbug. India’s population is growing at 2 per cent so even if the Government’s number of 9 per cent is taken at face-value, we have to subtract 2 per cent population growth to get per capita figures. Typical official fallacies include thinking clever bureaucratic use of astronomically high savings rates causes growth. For example, Meghnad Desai of Britain’s Labour Party says: “China now has 10.4 per cent growth on a 44 per cent savings rate… ” Indian savings have been alleged near 32 per cent. What has been mismeasured as high savings is actually paper expansion of bank-deposits in a fractional reserve banking system induced by runaway government deficit-spending in both countries.

Real economic growth arises from spontaneous technological progress, improved productivity and learning-by-doing of the general population. World economic history suggests growth occurs in spite of, rather than due to, behaviour of an often parasitic State. Technological progress in a myriad of ways and discovery of new resources are important factors contributing to India’s growth today. But while the “real” economy does well, the “nominal” paper-money economy controlled by Government does not.

Continuous deficit financing for half a century has led to exponential growth of public debt and broad money. The vast growth of bank-deposits has been misinterpreted as indicating unusual savings behaviour when it in fact signals vast government debt being held by nationalised banks. What Messrs Chidambaram, Ahluwalia,Manmohan Singh, the BJP et al have been presiding over is annual paper-money supply growth of 22 per cent! That is what they should be taking honest responsibility for because it certainly implies double-digit inflation (i.e. decline in the value of paper-money) perhaps as high as 14 or 15 per cent. If you believe Government numbers that inflationis near 5 per cent you may believe anything.

The mainsprings of real growth in the wealth of the individual, and so of the nation, are greater practical learning, increases in capital resources and improvements in technology. Deeper skills and improved dexterity cause output produced with fewer inputs than before, i.e. greater productivity. Adam Smith said there is “invention of a great number of machines which facilitate and abridge labour, and enable one man to do the work of many”.

Consider a real life example. A fresh engineering graduate knows dynamometers are needed in testing and performance-certification of diesel engines. He strips open a meter, finds out how it works, asks engine manufacturers what design improvements they want to see, whether they will buy from him if he can make the improvement. He finds out prices and properties of machine tools needed and wages paid currently to skilled labour, calculates expected revenues and costs, and finally tries to persuade a bank of his production plans, promising to repay loans from his returns.

Overcoming restrictions of religion or caste, the secular agent is spurred by expectation of future gains to approach various others with offers of contract, and so organize their efforts into one. If all his offers ~ to creditors, labour, suppliers ~ are accepted he is, for the moment, in business. He may not be for long ~ but if he succeeds his actions will have caused an improvement in design of dynamometers and a reduction in the cost of diesel engines, as well as an increase in the economy’s produced means of production (its capital stock) and in the value of contracts made. His creditors are more confident of his ability to repay, his buyers of his product quality, he himself knows more of his workers’ skills, etc. If these people enter a second and then a third and fourth set of contracts, the increase in mutual trust in coming to agreement will quickly decline in relation to the increased output of capital goods. The first source of increasing returns to scale in production, and hence the mainspring of real economic growth, arises from the successful completion of exchange.

Risk and enterprise

Transforming inputs into outputs necessarily takes time, and it is for that time the innovator or entrepreneur or “capitalist” or “adventurer” must persuade his creditors to trust him, whether bankers who have lent him capital or workers who have lent him labour. The essence of the enterprise (or “firm”) he tries to get underway consists of no more than the set of contracts he has entered into with the various others, his position being unique because he is the only one to know who all the others happen to be at the same time. In terms introduced by Professor Frank Hahn, the entrepreneur transforms himself from being “anonymous” to being “named” in the eyes of others, while also finding out qualities attaching to the names of those encountered in commerce.

Profits earned are partly a measure of the entrepreneur’s success in this simultaneous process of discovery and advertisement. Another potential entrepreneur, fresh from engineering college, may soon pursue the pioneer’s success and start displacing his product in the market ~ eventually chasers become pioneers and then get chased themselves, and a process of dynamic competition would be underway. As it unfolds, anonymous and obscure graduates from engineering colleges become by dint of their efforts and a little luck, named and reputable firms and perhaps founders of industrial families. Multiply this simple story many times, with a few million different entrepreneurs and hundreds of thousands of different goods and services, and we shall be witnessing India’s actual Industrial Revolution, not the fake promise of it from self-seeking politicians and bureaucrats.

see also 12 June 2009 https://independentindian.com/2009/06/12/mistaken-macroeconomics-an-open-letter-to-prime-minister-dr-manmohan-singh/

Hutton and Desai: United in Error

Hutton and Desai: United in Error
Subroto Roy

In an engaging debate in Prospect Magazine about a year ago, republished at China Digital Times, Will Hutton and Meghnad Desai have made the same cardinal error: they have assumed (like almost everyone else who has considered China’s or India’s recent macroeconomics) that savings rates are some astronomical figure.

Typical official fallacies in both countries include thinking that clever bureaucratic use of such high savings rates can and does cause high growth. In fact, real growth arises not because of what politicians and bureaucrats do but because of spontaneous technological progress, improved productivity and learning-by-doing of the general population ~ mostly despite not because of an exploitative parasitic State.

Here is Hutton on this issue: “China’s economic growth is based on the state channelling vast under-priced savings into huge investment … How much longer can China’s state-owned banks carry on directing billions of dollars of savings into investments that produce tiny or even negative returns…” (italics added)

Here is Desai: “China has achieved rapid growth with a policy of under-consumption and over-saving… China… now has 10.4 per cent growth on a 44 per cent savings rate….” (italics added)

What has been mismeasured as high savings in China and India is actually the expansion of bank-deposits in a fractional reserve banking system induced by runaway government deficit-spending.

On the basis of Indian evidence, I said this in public for the first time at Patrick Minford’s seminar on monetary economics at Cardiff and a week later at the IEA London in the spring of 2005 in a lecture titled “Can India become a superpower or will there be a monetary meltdown?” My recent general articles in The Statesman “The Dream Team: A Critique”, “Fallacious Finance”, “Against Quackery” etc speak a little more of this in the Indian case. What little I have seen of Chinese evidence indicates a similar phenomenon at work.

I said in 2005:”New technological progress in a myriad of ways, as well as the discovery of new resources… are all important factors contributing to real economic growth in India today. While the real side of the economy does well, the “nominal” economy, within the Government’s control, displays disconcerting trends. Continual deficit financing for half a century has led to exponential growth of public debt and broad money. The vast growth of time-deposits in banks may have been misinterpreted as indicating a real phenomenon such as unusual savings behaviour when it is more likely to be a nominal phenomenon resulting from increasing amounts of government debt being held by the largely nationalised banking sector. (The same may be true of China).”

As for growth-rates, before anyone at all waffles on about China’s and India’s allegedly high growth-rates, it is best to bring to mind a little hard evidence from other countries eg Germany and Japan where growth was starting from devastated post-War initial conditions:

West Germany: 6.6% in 1950-1960, falling to 3.5% by 1960-1970, and 2.4% by 1970-1978. Japan: 6.8% in 1952-1960; 9.4% in 1960-1970, 3.8% in 1970-1978.

China and India sustaining 8%, 9%, 10% annual growth of per capita real GDP for years on end? Naaaaah. Or rather, if you believe that, you will believe anything.

 

see also https://independentindian.com/2009/06/12/mistaken-macroeconomics-an-open-letter-to-prime-minister-dr-manmohan-singh/

Mistaken Macroeconomics: An Open Letter to Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh 12 June 2009

India and Her Neighbours

We & Our Neighbours
Pakistanis And Bangladeshis Would Do Well To Learn From Sheikh Abdullah

by Subroto Roy

First published in The Statesman May 15 2007, Editorial Page Special Article, http://www.thestatesman.net

Pakistan and Bangladesh, unlike ourselves in India, have yet to properly establish elementary constitutional institutions. “Individuals may form communities, but it is institutions alone that can create a nation”, said Benjamin Disraeli. The continual political chaos on the streets of Pakistan and Bangladesh ~ not just in recent weeks but in recent years and decades ~ indicate such institutions are still lacking or stillborn there. Tear gas, water cannon and hordes of armed policemen to charge at enraged stone-throwing crowds are not part of any solution but part of the political problem itself.

One main purpose of constitutional institutions has to do with peaceful transfer of power from one political party to its adversary. Mulayam Singh Yadav has just transferred political power to Mayawati in Uttar Pradesh, an Indian State more populous than either Pakistan or Bangladesh. Not long ago Lalu Prasad Yadav did the same to Nitish Kumar in Bihar, and Atal Behari Vajpayee to an appointee of Sonia Gandhi for all India itself. Modern democratic institutions are precisely about such peaceful transfers of power after voters have acted periodically to try to “throw the rascals out”.

Honeymoon period
It would be foolish to suppose an incoming Government of UP, Bihar or all India itself will be very much better than the one it displaces. But certainly in its first few “honeymoon” months or weeks at least, it will not be any worse. The tail-end of any scheduled democratic government, whether in India, Britain, the USA or elsewhere, is quite a disgusting sight, as those in their last days of power grab whatever they can from office before departure without any pretence of shame or embarrassment. Serious decision-making in the public interest would have long ago ceased. Almost anything new would be better.

At the same time, among those coming into power there will be some earnest wish at least to make some small difference for the better ~ a wish that will surely disappear within weeks of entering office after which the old cynicism and corruption will take hold again, and it will be the same ugly business as usual. But certainly, voters can expect slightly fresh air for a brief time after they have thrown one party out of power and chosen to bring in another. That is as about as good as democracy gets in modern practice.

Of India’s dozen or more larger States, we have, in the sixth decade of our Constitution, quite a few in which bipartisan democratic processes have been taking shape. UP was not one of them, and it is to Mayawati’s credit that she has broken the pattern of hung assemblies and now heads a majority government. Bihar too had seemed in the monolithic grip of Lalu Yadav until Nitish Kumar broke it, though the latter’s honeymoon period is now long over and it is business quite as usual there. Madhya Pradesh, Punjab, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and even J&K each have a noticeable bipartisan nature developing with at least one “national” party present to be counted. Tamil Nadu has been bipartisan but in an unhealthy way based on the personality cults of antagonistic leaders rather than any political principles or class-interests ~ which is a pity as the old Madras once had seemed a source of some new rationality in Indian politics. West Bengal’s voters have been definitely bipartisan, the communist vote being no more than that of the Congress and Trinamul combined. But for decades the local Congress has been notoriously sold down the river to its communist adversary by the Congress “leadership” in Delhi, and that has allowed an entrenched and wholly corrupted communist cultural and political mindset to rule in Kolkata. The Basu-Bhattacharjee Government was palpably bewildered over the Singur and Nandigram events because of their self-induced delusion about the economic and political realities of the State.

Throughout India though, periodic elections have acquired enough legitimacy to be accepted as the means of peaceful change of government. And with bipartisan politics there is a tendency for the median voter to be wooed at election-time.

We have of course many other continuing problems in our political economy ~ most notorious of which is the rotten state of our public finances and the continuous massive deficit finance that has ruined our paper currency and banking system ever since Indira Gandhi’s rule, coinciding with the start of Manmohan Singh’s career as an economic bureaucrat and Pranab Mukherjee’s as a politician in the early 1970s. Our acceptance of the democratic way has to an extent depended on our notoriously irresponsible macroeconomic policies ~ since every State and Union Government entity has been allowed to face no effective binding financial budget-constraint, and all its perverse decision-making can flow eventually into the swamp that is our Public Debt which constitutes the asset-side of the domestic banking system. India’s cardinal problem then becomes one of how to improve our macroeconomics without losing our democracy ~ something the Sonia-Manmohan-Pranab Congress, the BJP/RSS and the Communists are all equally clueless about.

Across our borders, our Pakistani and Bangladeshi cousins were cut from the same constitutional cloth as ourselves, namely the 1935 Government of India Act and the Montague-Chelmsford reforms before that. But after Jinnah’s death they refused to admit this and instead embarked on trying to write and implement a Constitution for a new Caliphate. The initial demand was “That the sovereignty in Pakistan belongs to God Almighty alone and that the Government of Pakistan shall administer the country as His agent”. In Rashid Rida and Maulana Maududi’s words, Islam becomes “the very antithesis of secular Western democracy. The philosophical foundation of Western democracy is the sovereignty of the people. Lawmaking is their prerogative and legislation must correspond to the mood and temper of their opinion… Islam… altogether repudiates the philosophy of popular sovereignty and rears its polity on the foundations of the sovereignty of God and the viceregency (Khilafat) of man.” (Rosenthal, Islam & the Modern National State, Cambridge 1965). Pakistan’s constitutionalists thus have faced an impossible battle to overcome the ontological error of assuming that any mundane government can be in communication with God Almighty.

J&K’s Constitution
Now Sheikh Mohammad Abdullah was as pious a Muslim as any but was far more modern in his 5 November 1951 speech to J&K’s Constituent Assembly: “You are the sovereign authority in this State of Jammu & Kashmir; what you decide has the irrevocable force of law”. Referring to the American and French Constitutions, he said the “basic democratic principle” was of the “sovereignty of the nation”. “We should be clear about the responsibilities that this power invests us with. In front of us lie decisions of the highest national importance which we shall be called upon to take. Upon the correctness of our decisions depends not only the happiness of our land and people now, but the fate as well of generations to come.”

Can a modern conclave of Pervez Musharraf, Nawaz Sharif, Benazir Bhutto and Chaudhry Iftikhar Ahmed decide or declare any better for Pakistan today? Or one of Khaleda, Hasina and whichever cabal of generals and bureaucrats happens to head Bangladesh at present?

If Pakistan and Bangladesh each chose to restart with the modern-minded constitutional example Sheikh Abdullah set more than a half century ago in J&K, they may find their political problems less severe in due course. It is a long road ahead.

Swindling India

SWINDLING INDIA

by

Subroto Roy

First published in slightly abbreviated form as “A scam in the making” in The Sunday Statesman April 1 2007, Front page comment

A gigantic financial scheme is in the making. Will it come to be seen in future years as having been in fact a scam – indeed India’s scam of the 21st Century for which India’s unknowing masses will be made to pay for many generations? The scheme is mind-boggling in size as well as its sheer audacity. Bofors, Quattrochi etc amount to peanuts in comparison.

No less a personage than the Finance Minister of India, P Chidambaram, has openly praised the potential of this financial scheme. And he has done so in no less an open and transparent place than his latest Budget Speech to Parliament last February.

It is a scheme openly advocated and currently being developed by our Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh’s closest acolytes, Planning Commission head Mr Montek Singh Ahluwalia and HDFC head Mr Deepak Parekh, in collaboration with Reserve Bank Governor Dr YV Reddy and the Finance Ministry’s top bureaucrats. The PM himself has come close to endorsing it explicitly. And this PM is not an elected member of the Lok Sabha but holds office and acts as the executive agent of the UPA Chairperson and Lok Sabha Member from Rae Bareilly, Sonia Gandhi.

I hasten to add nobody in the BJP has objected to this financial scheme — in fact had the BJP been in power today instead of Congress, they would have been likely even more agreeable to the scheme given their close proximity to business lobbies and organized capital. As for the Communists, none of their JNU economics professors is technically competent enough to comprehend or recognize what is going on.

The scheme involves private companies “borrowing” India’s foreign exchange reserves from the Reserve Bank of India, allegedly for purpose of “infrastructure” creation — in collaboration with the American bank Citigroup, the American financial business, Blackstone Group, and possibly the American giant, GE Capital too. Mr Chidambaram took the unprecedented step of naming Mr Deepak Parekh as well as Citigroup and Blackstone in the text of his Budget Speech.

To begin to comprehend the nature of this scheme, we need to recall an earlier case.

Foreign exchange reserves of countries typically include foreign currency holdings as well as gold stocks. One of the biggest Wall Street scams of the 1980s-1990s involved private companies borrowing not countries’ foreign currency reserves but their gold reserves.

In that scam, it was not the Reserve Bank of India that was cheated but the Central Banks of Poland, Malaysia, Portugal and Yugoslavia. The New York financial company involved was a subsidiary of the Drexel Burnham Lambert Group. The Drexel parent went bankrupt on February 13 1990 and its subsidiary followed on May 9 1990.

A report on June 4 1990 by Leah J. Nathans (now Leah Nathans Spiro) in New York’s highly respected Business Week magazine said: “Central banks, those pillars of monetary virtue, lost $219 million ($21.9 crore) to an obscure commodities subsidiary called Drexel Burnham Lambert Trading Corporation”. The sum was small by American standards but it was “a big, big number” for the countries involved at the time.

What had these national central banks done? They had been lured into becoming greedy. They had been sitting on stocks of gold as part of their national reserves which they felt “just collect dust”. So they yielded to the temptation offered by the Drexel subsidiary of leasing the gold to private parties.

In Ms. Nathans’ words, “By leasing gold, a central bank earns a modest interest rate, ranging from less than 0.5% to 2.5%. Typically, the central bank consigns the gold to a dealer – say, for 90 days. The dealer can then lend the gold to a customer, at a higher interest rate. It may be a speculator, who hopes to repay the borrowed gold when the price falls, or a gold mine that wants to repay the broker with gold produced later.”

But the Drexel parent and subsidiary went bankrupt through bad financial decisions. Drexel’s Michael Milken went to jail. The Central Banks of Poland, Malaysia, Portugal and Yugoslavia were left empty-handed – and had to sue as creditors in New York’s courts trying desperately to get back the gold they had been lured into parting with. It would be unwise to take bets on how much of their gold they ever got back.

All the present PM’s men — Messrs Chidambaram, Ahluwalia, Parekh, Reddy et al in collaboration with one or two American financial companies – now have a scheme that will use not the RBI’s gold but its foreign currency reserves.

Mr Ahluwalia and Mr Parekh have made the outlandish claim that “India needs US$320 billion” (US 32,000 crore) by way of “investment for physical infrastructure” during the so-called “Eleventh Five-Year Plan”. (How many so-called “Five Year Plans” is India going to have incidentally? We had our “First Plan” when Manmohan Singh was a student at Punjab University. Stalin, who invented the “Five Year Plan”, died during that time, and even his old USSR has ceased to exist, let alone its “Five Year Plans”.)

That vast amount of “investment for physical infrastructure” is what Mr Ahluwalia says he knows India needs for his purported “9% growth rate” to be achieved. Where are the macroeconomic models and time-series data sets from him or his friends to back such assertions? There are none. None of the PM’s men, no one in the Finance Ministry or RBI or Planning Commission, nor any of their JNU economics professor friends or anyone else in Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata etc have any such models or data with which to back such assertions. Nor do the World Bank etc. It is all sheer humbug – all a lie. It is part of the mendacity and self-delusion that our capital city has been floating upon.

In any event, the RBI reportedly has “opposed the idea of deploying forex reserves for infrastructure development on the grounds that it will create monetary expansion”. But Mr Chidambaram’s Finance Ministry owns the RBI, and the Ministry has said “the RBI’s concerns had been taken care of, as the investments would be deployed only through a structured mechanism”. (Business Standard 23 March 2007, p. 3)

What is a “structured mechanism”? Mr Chidambaram, mentioning Citigroup and Blackstone Group specifically, said in his Budget Speech that Mr Deepak Parekh has “suggested the establishment of two wholly-owned overseas subsidiaries of India Infrastructure Finance Company Ltd with the following objectives: (i) to borrow funds from the RBI and lend to Indian companies implementing infrastructure projects in India, or to co-finance their External Commercial Borrowings for such projects, solely for capital expenditure outside India; and (ii) to borrow funds from the RBI, invest such funds in highly rated collateral securities, and provide ‘credit wrap’ insurance to infrastructure projects in India for raising resources in international markets. The loans by RBI to these two subsidiary companies will be guaranteed by the Government of India and the RBI will be assured of a return higher than the average rate of return on its incremental investment.”

You do not understand? Well, no one is supposed to. The most exquisite thievery occurs after all not in darkness but in broad daylight with everyone watching but no one able to see or comprehend anything. So let us return to elementary first principles.

What are foreign exchange reserves and why do countries hold them? It is quite simply answered. Consider the USA and Canada, each with its own dollar. Canadians want to purchase American goods and services, give gifts and make loans to American residents, and make investments in the USA. Americans want to do the same in Canada. Each has to use the domestic money of the other when it does so. If an American wishes to lend money to a Canadian or to purchase something from him, he receives Canadian dollar notes from the Canadian Government to make his Canadian transactions, handing over his American dollar notes instead. The American dollar notes he hands over become part of Canada’s foreign exchange reserves, held by its Central Bank. Roughly speaking, a country’s foreign exchange reserves are the residual foreign currency assets its central bank holds after all these transactions are carried out on both sides of the border.

In the US-Canada case, neither Government prevents its citizens from exchanging domestic money for foreign money. In India, our rupee has been inconvertible since about 1940. The average Indian cannot freely exchange his/her rupee-denominated assets for foreign exchange denominated ones even if he/she wished to. There has been some import-liberalisation in recent years but only someone with the political access of Mr Tata or Mr Birla can purchase foreign assets and foreign companies using their Indian money – because the rupee is inconvertible, any bad financial decisions they make in using their foreign assets will be implicitly paid for by the Indian public.

Now a country’s central bank, such as our Reserve Bank, is the custodian of its foreign exchange reserves. India’s reserves are supposed to have reached $195.96 Billion ($19,596 Crore) as of March 16 2007. Keep in mind we do not know why they have risen: they can rise merely because foreigners (including NRIs) have lent us more of their money, not because foreigners have bought more of our goods and services. In fact Business Standard yesterday 31 March 2007 said on its front page “external commercial borrowing” was “a major source of accretion” of India’s reserves.

Also keep in mind that the Reserve Bank has the duty to manage these foreign-denominated assets against which it has already issued Indian rupees. It might receive a small conservative income from the cash-management aspect of this but it may not risk them or place them in any jeopardy!

Yet the whole idea behind the Chidambaram-Ahluwalia-Parekh-Reddy scheme under discussion by the Sonia-Manmohan Government is that the RBI will “lend” some of the billions of Americans dollars in its custody to overseas subsidiaries of Indian companies – say, for example, to the Tatas who have now bought foreign “capital assets” of some US$ 12 Billion ($1200 Crore) from Corus without having anything near that kind of foreign income.

Such favoured Indian companies might then use these “borrowed” funds as collateral for other borrowings. In exchange, they will go about undertaking purported “infrastructure” projects in India. So much for the “structured mechanisms” being touted by Messrs Chidambaram, Ahluwalia, Parekh et al.

Before India’s public understands it, the schemers will shout (as they have done with the SEZ Act) that Parliament has passed it. The BJP will applaud with envy. The Communists might uncomprehendingly complain a little, and then be bought off with a sop or two that they do understand, like a little pro-China rhetoric or being let off lightly on Nandigram.

Now international institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the Bank of International Settlements officially exist to advise central banks to stay along the straight and narrow and to avoid all such mischief. Here is what the IMF explicitly warned about such schemes in its Guidelines for Foreign Exchange Reserve Management dated September 20 2001:

Liquidity risk. The pledging of reserves as collateral with foreign financial institutions as support for loans to either domestic entities, or foreign subsidiaries of the reserve management entity, has rendered reserves illiquid until the loans have been repaid. Liquidity risks have also arisen from the direct lending of reserves to such institutions when shocks to the domestic economy led to the borrowers’ inability to repay their liabilities, and impairment of the liquidity of the reserve assets.
Credit risk. Losses have arisen from the investment of reserves in high-yielding assets that were made without due regard to the credit risk associated with the issuer of the asset. Lending of reserves to domestic banks, and overseas subsidiaries of reserve management entities, has also exposed reserve management entities to credit risk.”

Dostoevsky believed man could have evil intent. Socrates was more generous and said man does not do wrong knowingly. It is not impossible our Indian schemers have innocent intent and do not even realize how close they are to becoming scamsters, or are already in the grip of scamsters. But at least we are now forewarned: India faces a clear risk of being swindled of its foreign exchange reserves. Prevention is better than cure.

Fallacious Finance: Congress, BJP, CPI-M et al may be leading India to hyperinflation (2007)

Fallacious Finance: Congress, BJP, CPI-M et al may be leading India to hyperinflation

by

Subroto Roy

first published in The Statesman, March 5 2007

Editorial Page Special Article

It seems the Dream Team of the PM, Finance Minister, Mr. Montek Ahluwalia and their acolytes may take India on a magical mystery tour of economic hallucinations, fantasies and perhaps nightmares. I hasten to add the BJP and CPI-M have nothing better to say, and criticism of the Government or of Mr Chidambaram’s Budget does not at all imply any sympathy for their political adversaries. It may be best to outline a few of the main fallacies permeating the entire Governing Class in Delhi, and their media and businessman friends:

1. “India’s Savings Rate is near 32%”. This is factual nonsense. Savings is indeed normally measured by adding financial and non-financial savings. Financial savings include bank-deposits. But India is not a normal country in this. Nor is China. Both have seen massive exponential growth of bank-deposits in the last few decades. Does this mean Indians and Chinese are saving phenomenally high fractions of their incomes by assiduously putting money away into their shaky nationalized banks? Sadly, it does not. What has happened is government deficit-financing has grown explosively in both countries over decades. In a “fractional reserve” banking system (i.e. a system where your bank does not keep the money you deposited there but lends out almost all of it immediately), government expenditure causes bank-lending, and bank-lending causes bank-deposits to expand. Yes there has been massive expansion of bank-deposits in India but it is a nominal paper phenomenon and does not signify superhuman savings behaviour. Indians keep their assets mostly in metals, land, property, cattle, etc., and as cash, not as bank deposits.

2. “High economic growth in India is being caused by high savings and intelligently planned government investment”. This too is nonsense. Economic growth in India as elsewhere arises not because of what politicians and bureaucrats do in capital cities, but because of spontaneous technological progress, improved productivity and learning-by-doing on part of the general population. Technological progress is a very general notion, and applies to any and every production activity or commercial transaction that now can be accomplished more easily or using fewer inputs than before. New Delhi still believes in antiquated Soviet-era savings-investment models without technological progress, and some non-sycophant must tell our top Soviet-era bureaucrat that such growth models have been long superceded and need to be scrapped from India’s policy-making too. Can politicians and bureaucrats assist India’s progress? Indeed they can: the telecom revolution in recent years was something in which they participated. But the general presumption is against them. Progress, productivity gains and hence economic growth arise from enterprise and effort of ordinary people — mostly despite not because of an exploitative, parasitic State.

3. “Agriculture is a backward sector that has been retarding India’s recent economic growth”. This is not merely nonsense it is dangerous nonsense, because it has led to land-grabbing by India’s rulers at behest of their businessman friends in so-called “SEZ” schemes. The great farm economist Theodore W. Schultz once quoted Andre and Jean Mayer: “Few scientists think of agriculture as the chief, or the model science. Many, indeed, do not consider it a science at all. Yet it was the first science – Mother of all science; it remains the science which makes human life possible”. Centuries before Europe’s Industrial Revolution, there was an Agricultural Revolution led by monks and abbots who were the scientists of the day. Thanks partly to American help, India has witnessed a Green Revolution since the 1960s, and our agriculture has been generally a calm, mature, stable and productive industry. Our farmers are peaceful hardworking people who should be paying taxes and user-fees normally but should not be otherwise disturbed or needlessly provoked by outsiders. It is the businessmen wishing to attack our farm populations who need to look hard in the mirror – to improve their accounting, audit, corporate governance, to enforce anti-embezzlement and shareholder protection laws etc.

4. “India’s foreign exchange reserves may be used for ‘infrastructure’ financing”. Mr Ahluwalia promoted this idea and now the Budget Speech mentioned how Mr Deepak Parekh and American banks may be planning to get Indian businesses to “borrow” India’s forex reserves from the RBI so they can purchase foreign assets. It is a fallacy arising among those either innocent of all economics or who have quite forgotten the little they might have been mistaught in their youth. Forex reserves are a residual in a country’s balance of payments and are not akin to tax revenues, and thus are not available to be borrowed or spent by politicians, bureaucrats or their businessman friends — no matter how tricky and shady a way comes to be devised for doing so. If anything, the Government and RBI’s priority should have been to free the Rupee so any Indian could hold gold or forex at his/her local bank. India’s vast sterling balances after the Second World War vanished quickly within a few years, and the country plunged into decades of balance of payments crisis – that may now get repeated. The idea of “infrastructure” is in any case vague and inferior to the “public goods” Adam Smith knew to be vital. Serious economists recommend transparent cost-benefit analyses before spending any public resources on any project. E.g., analysis of airport/airline industry expansion would have found the vast bulk of domestic airline costs to be forex-denominated but revenues rupee-denominated – implying an obvious massive currency-risk to the industry and all its “infrastructure”. All the PM’s men tell us nothing of any of this.

5. “HIV-AIDS is a major Indian health problem”. Government doctors privately know the scare of an AIDS epidemic is based on false assumptions and analysis. Few if any of us have met, seen or heard of an actual incontrovertible AIDS victim in India (as opposed to someone infected by hepatitis-contaminated blood supplies). Syringe-exchange by intravenous drug users is not something widely prevalent in Indian society, while the practise that caused HIV to spread in California’s Bay Area in the 1980s is not something depicted even at Khajuraho. Numerous real diseases do afflict Indians – e.g. 11 children died from encephalitis in one UP hospital on a single day in July 2006, while thousands of children suffer from “cleft lip” deformity that can be solved surgically for 20,000 rupees, allowing the child a normal life. Without any objective survey being done of India’s real health needs, Mr Chidamabaram has promised more than Rs 9.6 Billion (Rs 960 crore) to the AIDS cottage industry.

6. “Fiscal consolidation & stabilization has been underway since 1991”. There is extremely little reason to believe this. If you or I borrow Rs. 100,000 for a year, and one year later repay the sum only to borrow the same again along with another Rs 40,000, we would be said to have today a debt of Rs. 140,000 at least. Our Government has been routinely “rolling over” its domestic debt in this manner (in the asset-portfolios of the nationalised banking system) but displaying and highlighting only its new additional borrowing in a year as the “ Fiscal Deficit” (see graph, also “Fiscal Instability”, The Sunday Statesman, 4 February 2007). More than two dozen State Governments have been doing the same though, unlike the Government of India, they have no money-creating powers and their liabilities ultimately accrue to the Union as well. The stock of public debt in India may be Rs 30 trillion (Rs 30 lakh crore) at least, and portends a hyperinflation in the future. Mr Chidambaram’s announcement of a “Debt Management Office” yet to be created is hardly going to suffice to avert macroeconomic turmoil and a possible monetary collapse. The Congress, BJP, CPI-M and all their friends shall be responsible.

Of related interest: Mistaken Macroeconomics,
“The Indian Revolution”, “Against Quackery”, “The Dream Team: A Critique”, “India’s Macroeconomics”, “Indian Inflation”

Posted in Academic research, Banking, Big Business and Big Labour, BJP, China, China's macroeconomics, China's savings rate, China's Economy, Communists, Congress Party, Deposit multiplication, Economic Policy, Economic quackery, Economic Theory of Growth, Economics of exchange controls, Economics of Public Finance, Economics of real estate valuation, Finance, Financial Management, Financial markets, Financial Repression, Foreign exchange controls, Governance, Government accounting, Government Budget Constraint, Government of India, India's Big Business, India's credit markets, India's Government economists, India's interest rates, India's savings rate, India's stock and debt markets, India's agriculture, India's Agriculture & Food, India's balance of payments, India's Banking, India's Budget, India's bureaucracy, India's Capital Markets, India's corporate finance, India's corporate governance, India's currency history, India's Democracy, India's Economic History, India's Economy, India's Exports, India's farmers, India's Finance Commission, India's Foreign Exchange Reserves, India's Foreign Trade, India's Government Budget Constraint, India's Government Expenditure, India's grassroots activists, India's Health/Medicine, India's Industry, India's inflation, India's Labour Markets, India's Land, India's Macroeconomics, India's Monetary & Fiscal Policy, India's nomenclatura, India's peasants, India's political lobbyists, India's Polity, India's pork-barrel politics, India's poverty, India's Public Finance, India's Reserve Bank, India's State Finances, India's Union-State relations, Inflation, Interest group politics, Macroeconomics, Manmohan Singh, Mendacity in politics, Monetary Theory, Money and banking, Paper money and deposits, Political cynicism, Political Economy, Political mendacity, Public Choice/Public Finance, Redeposits, Unorganised capital markets. 3 Comments »

Bengal’s Finances

BENGAL’S FINANCES

First published in The Sunday Statesman February 25 2007, Editorial Page  Special Article, www.thestatesman.net

There is urgent need for calm, sober thought, not self-delusion. Foreign trade, world politics are not what State Governments are constitutionally permitted to do.

By SUBROTO ROY

Mr Buddhadeb Bhattacharjee is fond of saying his hoped for industrialization plans will lead to jobs for “thousands” of unemployed young men and women emerging from West Bengal’s many schools, colleges and universities.

Now ever since JM Keynes’s time, economists have understood the phenomenon of unemployment quite well. Some unemployment is voluntary: where someone declines to accept a job at the prevailing wage or chooses leisure instead, e.g. withdraws from the labour-force in order to go to college or care for children or family or be involved in search for a better job. Some unemployment is seasonal, as in agriculture ~ where there often is “overfull” employment at harvest-time. Some unemployment may be frictional or structural, depending on dynamic unpredictable industrial or technological changes. In none of these cases is any large role defined for government investment using public resources, though there can be smaller roles like providing job-information, advice and training.

Keynes himself was concerned with systematic “involuntary” unemployment, where masses of people are willing but unable to find work at the going wage because there has been a general collapse of the market economy, as arguably happened in the 1930s in the Western countries. There has been no such situation in independent India.

And it is important to remember our labour markets are mostly unrestricted by State boundaries: unlike totalitarian China, we do not have internal passports in the country, and Indians are mostly free to work anywhere they wish to. Talk from CPI-M, Congress, BJP or other politicians of alleged Keynesian “multiplier” effects arising from government expenditure is mostly talk. And as for Sonia Gandhi’s “National Rural Employment Guarantee”, to the extent it was argued for at all by Amartya Sen’s disciples like Jean Drèze, the argument was not on Keynesian grounds but of a purportedly more equitable distribution of government expenditure.

What then is the Bhattacharjee Government supposed to be doing?

Chandrababu Naidu started a trend among Chief Ministers flying off to exotic foreign vistas, addressing international conferences and signing memoranda with foreign businessmen. But world politics, international relations and foreign trade are not what Indian State Governments are permitted by our Constitution to be engaged in doing. Nelson Mandela is a great man of history but Jyoti Basu’s Government had no constitutional right or business to gift him five million American dollars of West Bengal public money after he was released from jail in South Africa in 1990 by De Klerk.

Our Constitution is crystal clear that the legitimate agenda of India’s State Governments is something very mundane and wholly unglamorous: State Governments are supposed to be managing Courts of Law; the Police, Civil Order, Prisons; Water, Sanitation, Health; State Debt Service; Intra-State Infrastructure & Communications; Local Government; Liquor & Other Public Sector Industry; Trade, Local Banking & Finance; Land, Agriculture, Animal Husbandry; Libraries, Museums, Monuments; State Civil Service & Administration. In addition, “concurrent” with the Union Government are Criminal, Civil & Family Law, Contracts & Torts; Forests & Environmental Protection; Unemployment & Refugee Relief; Electricity; Education. It is relative to that explicit agenda that State Government performances around the country must be evaluated.

The finances of the West Bengal Government and those of every other State of the Union appear in a condition of Byzantine confusion. Even so, it is not impossible for any citizen to understand them with a little serious effort. The State receives tax revenues, income from State operations (like bus fares, lottery tickets etc), and grants transferred from the Union. Of the State’s total revenues, more than 80% arise from taxation. Of those taxes, about 30% is collected by the Union on behalf of the State in accordance with the Finance Commission’s formulae; 70% is collected by the State itself, and about 60% of whhat the State collects is Sales Tax. On the expenditure side, more than 60% goes in repaying the State’s debts as well as interest owed on that debt. The remainder gets distributed as summarily shown in the table. (What would be revealed at a higher level of detail is that e.g. Rs. 2.63 Bn is spent in collecting Rs. 9.93 Bn of land revenue!) The wide difference between the State’s income from all sources and its expenditures implies the State must then issue new public debt. That typically has been a larger and larger sum every year, greater than the amount of maturing debt being amortised or extinguished. The potentially grave consequence of this will be obvious to any householder, and makes it imperative that calm, sober thought and objective analysis occur about the State’s financial condition and budget constraint. There is no room for self-delusion, especially on the part of the Bhattacharjee Government. We are still paying interest on the money we borrowed to make Nelson Mandela a gift seventeen years ago.

Govt. of W. Bengal’s Finances 2003-2004
Rs Billion (Hundred Crore)
EXPENDITURE ACTIVITIES:
government & local government 8.68 1.68%
judiciary 1.27 0.25%
police (including home guard etc.) 13.47 2.61%
prisons 0.62 0.12%
bureaucracy 5.69 1.10%
collecting land revenue & taxes 4.32 0.84%
government employee pensions 26.11 5.05%
schools, colleges, universities, institutes 45.06 8.72%
health, nutrition & family welfare 14.70 2.84%
water supply & sanitation 3.53 0.68%
roads, bridges, transport, etc. 8.29 1.60%
electricity (mostly loans to power sector) 31.18 6.03%
irrigation, flood control, environment, ecology 10.78 2.09%
agricultural subsidies, rural development, etc. 7.97 1.54%
industrial subsidies 2.56 0.50%
capital city development 7.29 1.41%
social security, SC, ST, OBC, labour welfare 9.87 1.91%
tourism 0.09 0.02%
arts, archaeology, libraries, museums 0.16 0.03%
miscellaneous 0.52 0.10%
debt amortization & debt servicing 314.77 60.89%
total expenditure 516.92

tax revenue 141.10
operational income 6.06
grants from Union 18.93
loans recovered 0.91
total income 167.00
INCOME SOURCES:

GOVT. BORROWING REQUIREMENT
(total expenditure
minus total income ) 349.93

financed by:
new public debt issued 339.48
use of Trust Funds etc 10.45
349.93
From the author’s research and based on latest available data published by the Comptroller & Auditor General of India

Our Policy Process: Self-Styled “Planners” Have Controlled India’s Paper Money For Decades

Our Policy Process:

 

Self-Styled “Planners” Have Controlled India’s Paper Money For Decades

 

by

Subroto Roy

 

First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, Feb 20 2007

 

 

Three agencies of the Executive Branch of our Government have controlled the country’s fiscal and monetary processes. The most glamorous is the Planning Commission, a nominated agency of the Government of the day without constitutional status but which has informally charged itself with articulating national and provincial preferences on public spending. It has overshadowed in impact and prestige the Finance Ministry or Treasury, which normally would design the budget, raise taxes, run the fiscal machinery and be accountable to Parliament (the Legislative Branch) via the person of the Finance Minister. In turn, the Finance Ministry owns and controls the Reserve Bank, effectively placing India’s paper money and bank deposits at the discretion of New Delhi’s purported “economic planners”.

 

 

In addition, the Finance Commission is charged with articulating a suitable allocation of public resources between the Union and States, setting some medium-term parameters of federal finance. And the Comptroller & Auditor General is supposed to assess effectiveness of Government behaviour: the “high independent statutory authority..… who sees on behalf of the Legislature that … money expended was legally available for and applied to the purpose or purposes to which it has been applied.” “Audit … is the main instrument to secure accountability of the Executive to the Legislature …. The fundamental object of audit is to secure real value for the taxpayer’s money” (Indian Government Accounts & Audit, 1930).

 

 

Weakness of Parliament

 

In parliamentary government, the whole Executive Branch is accountable to and the agent of the Legislative Branch. But the utter weakness of our Parliament over decades has led its institutions, including the C&AG, to be run roughshod over by the Government of the day. The Finance Commission, being a temporary and transient body, can hardly take on the entrenched bureaucracy the Planning Commission has become.

 

This unconstitutional subservience of policy-making to the Planning Commission began when the first planners said on December 7 1952: “The raison d’etre of a planned economy is the fullest mobilisation of available resources and their allocation so as to secure optimum results …. There is no doubt that the RBI, which is a nationalised institution, will play its appropriate part in furthering economic development along agreed lines”. When Jawaharlal Nehru as free India’s first prime minister chose to himself lead the “Second Plan”, the fate of India’s paper money was sealed. “Insofar as government expenditure is financed by central bank credit, there is a direct increase in currency in circulation”. That May 14 1956 statement marked the last mention for the next 43 years of India’s money during the process of articulating India’s public expenditure priorities.

 

The Reserve Bank has indeed behaved “along agreed lines”. While superficially presiding over currency, banking and foreign exchange, it has been legally and practically a department (with some 75,000 employees today) of the Finance Ministry. Since the vast bulk of customer deposits are held by nationalized banks owned and managed by the Finance Ministry, India has had practically a “one-tier” banking system on the old USSR model.

 

The “Ninth” and “Tenth” Planning Commissions included not only Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee but also his Finance and Foreign Ministers as members. It was not our Reserve Bank but such persons, including the prominent official (now in post-retirement service) Montek Singh Ahluwalia, who declared on April 5 1999 in the “Ninth Five Year Plan” that a “viable monetary posture” was “to accept an average inflation rate in the region of 7 per cent per annum, which would justify a growth rate of money supply (base money) of 16 per cent per annum”. Recent money supply growth rates under the Sonia-Manmohan Congress have been near 19%-21%, and inflation properly measured may be well above 10%.

 

In Western countries, it would be normal procedure for an acceptable level of inflation to be decided upon, followed by monetary and fiscal targets being set in view of what is statistically expected by way of real economic growth, since growth is mainly a result not of Government behaviour but of spontaneous technological progress and increase in productivity. By contrast, our “planning” process has allowed unconstrained fiscal expenditure to emerge out of chaotic and unconstrained nationwide politics on the sure-fire assumption that budget deficits are going to be “paid for” by money-printing (and hence by invisible taxation of the paper assets of an unknowing public).

 

For a PM and Finance Minister to sign off on fiscal-monetary targets during the “planning” process commits the entire Executive Branch to it. Reversing or even critically discussing such intentions would require nothing less than a Parliamentary Vote of No-Confidence, which itself would require public dissemination of economic models and data exclusively available to the Executive Branch, whether or not the Executive Branch is aware of it. Public exhortations and rhetoric then follow from politicians, bureaucrats and their businessman friends as to how much real growth needs to occur in order for inflation not to be above a given level!

 

The cart is thus squarely placed in front of and not behind the buffalo. If exhortations are not met by reality it is typically said ~ in bureaucrat-speak that avoids accountability ~ “slippages” occurred due to outside factors like rainfall, American business cycles or perhaps, now, global warming and AIDS.

 

Indeed because the upside-down nature of this process has likely not been grasped even by politicians, bureaucrats and establishment economists participating in it, let aside Parliament or the public, it hardly seems a conscious or deliberate “macroeconomic policy” at all, but rather an outcome of habitual, ritualistic routines taking place year after year for decades. And India’s financial press and TV media, instead of soberly seeking facts, have tended merely to flatter top politicians and bureaucrats, as is the wont of businessmen to do.

 

 

War finance, not peace

 

The structure of incentives and information has become such that no one in government, academia, international credit-rating agencies or elsewhere, is able to effectively point out that fiscal intentions expressed in a “Plan” may be infeasible, inflationary or generally unwise. This includes the IMF and World Bank who lead India’s creditors in Western financial markets, and whose staff are generally uninterested in the countries they work on except to make sure loans received are large and repayments timely (as their personal livelihoods depend on such factors). But a brave anonymous squeak can be found hidden in thousands of pages of “Tenth Plan” verbiage dated December 21 2002 ~ that it is all being “financed almost entirely by borrowing …. India’s public finance inherits the consequence of fiscal mismanagement in the past.” Efforts of one recent Governor to carve out a modern independent role for the Reserve Bank have apparently gone in vain, and he too has been co-opted as a Government spokesman in retirement.

 

 

The Bank of England could at one time “theoretically lend the full amount” the British Government was authorized to spend by the UK Parliament (Hirsch). For decades, the RBI has been required by our Government to do almost that in practice (see graph). During the Second World War, the US Government was assured its Central Bank “could and would see that the Treasury was supplied with all the money that it needed for war finance … beyond those secured by taxation and by borrowing from non-bank sources” (Chandler). India’s politicians and bureaucrats have given us macroeconomic processes that pretend our country has since Independence remained at war ~ when in fact we have been mostly at peace.

India in World Trade & Payments

Our Trade & Payments

by

SUBROTO ROY

First published in The Sunday Statesman, Feb 11 2007, The Statesman, Feb 12 2007

Editorial Page Special Article

 

 

TWO and a half millennia ago, the Greeks described how brightly coloured textiles imported from India were popular among the Persians. Five centuries later, the Roman historian Pliny complained that India every year “took from Italy a hundred million sesterces in return for spices, perfumes and ornaments”. Montesquieu observed in 1748: “All peoples who have traded with India have always taken metals there and brought back commodities. Indians need only our metals, which are the signs of value. In all times those who deal with India will take silver there and bring back none”.

During the British period, India remained a great trading nation. JM Keynes found Britain, the world’s largest exporter in 1913, exporting more to India than anywhere else, and Germany, the world’s fastest growing economy in 1913, receiving 5 percent of its imports from India and sending it 1.5 percent of exports, making India the sixth largest exporter to Germany (after the USA, Russia, Britain, Austria-Hungary, France) and eighth largest importer from it (after Britain, Austria-Hungary, Russia, France, the USA, Belgium, Italy). India’s share of world exports during 1870-1914 may have been about 3-4 per cent. As of 1917-1918, India’s balance of payments and fiscal budget appear idyllic: an export surplus of £61.42 million, official reserves of £66.53 million, total claims on the rest of the world of £127.5 million (or 32.85 million troy ozs of gold), and a 1916-1917 budget surplus of £6,594,885.

Even at mid-20th Century, India was still a trading power with 2 percent of world exports and a rank of 16 in the world economy after the USA, Britain, West Germany, France, Canada, Belgium, Holland, Japan, Italy, Australia, Sweden, Venezuela, Brazil, Malaya and Switzerland.

Yet during the second half of the 20th Century, the Indian subcontinent collapsed to near insignificance in world trade and payments. The traditional export surplus implied a high “treasure” demand for precious metals on capital account; this was reversed and the new India became a chronic trade-deficit country dependant on foreign borrowings and grants. Of world merchandise exports, the subcontinent’s share today is 0.8 of 1 per cent, and of Asia’s 6 percent (India accounting for two thirds); by contrast, Malaysia alone accounts for 0.9 of 1 percent of world exports and 6.5 percent of Asia’s. Most poignantly, among 11 major developing countries (Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Mexico, Israel, Yugoslavia), India’s share of manufactured exports to the world fell from 65 per cent in 1953 to 51 percent in 1960 to 31 per cent in 1966 to 10 per cent by 1973. Our legendary textiles lost ground steadily. As of 1962-1971, India held an average annual market-share of almost 20 percent of manufactured textile imports into the USA; this fell to 10 percent by 1972-1981 and less than 5 percent by 1982-1991. India’s share of Britain’s imports of textile manufactures fell from 16 per cent in the early 1960s to less than 4 per cent in the 1990s. India and Sri Lanka once dominated world tea exports but lost rapidly to Kenya, Indonesia and Malawi. Of total British tea imports, Sri Lanka’s market-share fell from 11 percent in 1980 to 7 per cent by 1991 while India’s fell from 33 percent in 1980 to 17 per cent by 1991. Today India may not be in the top thirty largest merchandise exporting countries of the world.

Several causes may be identified for our historical collapse in world trade and payments. These include Western protectionism e.g. of domestic textiles between 1965-2005, and emergence of new technologies like synthetic fibres, plastics, tea-bags etc as well as new competitors in the world marketplace willing to use these. Successful commerce depends on intangible quantities like trust, reliable information and contacts between individual contracting parties. Decline in our shares of world exports led to wastage of such informational capital and commercial trust. Foreign importers established new relations with India’s competitors, and for Indian entrepreneurs (now facing lessened foreign protectionism or newly liberalized domestic policies) to win new customers or win back old ones becomes doubly difficult.

But the most important cause of the decline was undoubtedly the political discord and trauma leading to economic disintegration of Old India into modern India, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh. Partly as a result of their conflict, independent India and Pakistan deepened government requisitioning and rationing of foreign exchange purportedly as part of pseudo-socialist “planning”.

Trade policy followed the British pattern of import quotas imposed to conserve hard currency and save shipping space during war. Discretionary controls were in place by 1942 on grounds of “essentiality” and non-availability from indigenous sources. War needs over-rode others, and consumer goods banned ~ favouring their production by domestic business houses. In 1945 consumer goods were placed on open general license, as “the pattern of post-war trade should not be dictated by perpetuation of controls set up for purely war-time purposes”, and in 1946 there was further liberalization in view of India’s enormous sterling balances. But by March 1947 this ended, and import of gold and 200 “luxury” goods were banned. Only a few “essential” goods remained on the open list.

After the British left, political/bureaucratic control of imports and foreign exchange were extended, not removed. Intricate restrictions, subsidies, barriers and import-licensing (based on obsolete war-time “essentiality” and “actual user” criteria) continued, now in name of “import-substitution” and “planning”. Major industries were nationalized, and these became leading consumers of imports obtained by administrative rationing of the foreign exchange earned by export sectors. As consumer goods’ imports were most restricted, Indian businesses predictably diverted to produce these in the large highly protected domestic markets that resulted, causing monopolistic profits and financing of a vast parallel or “black” economy with its thriving hawala sector. Restriction of consumer goods’ and gold imports also caused smuggling and open corruption in Customs. The international price of the rupee was viewed not as reflecting demand for foreign relative to domestic moneys but as just another administered price to be used by politicians and bureaucrats. Foreign exchange earnings of exporters were confiscated in exchange for rupees at the administered rate. Foreign currency thus requisitioned was (and still mostly is) disbursed by rationing in the following order of precedence: first to meet Government debt repayments to international organizations, and Government expenditures abroad like maintenance of embassies and purchase of military imports, plus politicians’ and bureaucrats’ foreign travel etc; secondly, for import of food, fertilizers, petroleum; thirdly, for imported inputs required by Government firms; fourthly, for import demands of those private firms successful in obtaining import licenses; lastly, to satisfy demands of the public at large for purposes like travel or study abroad.

After devaluing with sterling in 1949, the rupee was maintained at the same value for 17 years despite weakening reserve positions and numerous shocks to the economy like the 1962 war with China, 1965 war with Pakistan, and droughts and food crises. Devaluation on June 6 1966 to Rs. 7.50 per US dollar met political opposition and contributed to Congress Party losses in the 1967 elections. The rupee did not respond to sterling’s devaluation in November 1967 and was not adjusted downwards though the economy continued to suffer shocks like the rise in petroleum prices, refugees from the Pakistan civil war, and domestic strikes and political instability. In August 1971, India pegged to the dollar and devalued with the dollar’s depreciation but in December again linked to sterling at Rs 18.97. When sterling depreciated after floating in June 1972, the rupee effectively devalued with it, and until July 1975 there were three small devaluations against sterling. In September 1975, India pegged (within margins) to an undisclosed basket of hard currencies including the dollar, yen and deutschmark, and between 1981-1985, the rupee was slowly managed downwards, without political resistance. From September 1985-July 1991, it followed a more rapid downward course depreciating 40 per cent, while the dollar depreciated as well against major currencies, suggesting the dollar weighed heavily in the basket to which the rupee was pegged.

1991 reforms

Narasimha Rao, P Chidambaram and others received from Rajiv Gandhi in his last months the results of a “perestroika-for-India” project, and started a process of economic liberalisation. Chidambaram said at the time the reforms “were not miraculous” but based on rewriting the Congress manifesto: “We were ready when we came back to power in 1991”.

On July 1 1991, the rupee devalued 9 percent and on July 3 a further 11 percent. The new Government’s March 1 1992 Budget placed the rupee experimentally on a dual rate, implicitly taxing exporters who had to surrender 40 percent of their forex at an officially determined rate and could sell 60 percent in an open market. On March 1 1993, the rupee began to be made convertible for current account transactions, i.e. for import and export of goods and services. Trade reforms included removing many import quotas and some export subsidies. But grave fiscal and monetary problems were not (and have never been) addressed with any seriousness.

Balance of payments

The “balance of payments” sums a country’s current and capital accounts. In Western countries, the capital account consists of net trading in long and short-term securities like private stock and government debt ~ domestic securities being bought and sold freely by foreign residents and foreign securities by domestic residents. Prices determined by competitive trading are very sensitive to interest-rate differences. In India (and Pakistan etc) genuine capital account transactions have not existed since the 1930s, and do so only in highly distorted form even today. The traditional export surplus and positive current account, balanced by net inflow of precious metals, had been wiped out and current account deficits were coupled with overvalued currencies and closed capital markets – along with repressive financial policies causing capital flight of an elite nomenklatura. The inherent risk of unproductive use of funds by borrowers and consumers of forex (mostly Government) were shifted to export and other hard-currency earning sectors.

In particular, a severe trade-deficit had followed petroleum-price rises in the late 1970s, which continues today. There has been some exploration, discovery and extraction of domestic supplies of oil and gas, but no significant move to conserve or find economical alternatives to use of imported energy. (Indeed a coal-exporting petroleum-importing nation with the most heavily used railways in the world made an unprovoked decision to abolish steam-locomotives in favour of diesel and electric. And now, very expensive foreign nuclear plants are planned to be imported on a turnkey basis under a false assumption these will help India’s energy sector.)

India gained from exporting temporary workers to the Gulf since the 1970s but that could hardly finance the increased oil bill. Instead there has been large growth of foreign debt since the 1970s, mostly owed by the Government (and recently by large private businesses) to Western financial markets via brokerage of Western governments and organizations they control. India’s foreign debt amounts to more than $100 being owed by each of our one billion citizens, each of us having to earn five or six dollars every year on average just to meet interest payments due to foreign creditors.

This has been accompanied in the last few years by foreign exchange reserves (the residual in the balance of payments) seeming to grow rapidly, and rising reserves have been perceived as a sign of optimism. Just as bad luck came by way of large oil-price increases, we have seen windfall gains from spread of American “information technology” ~ causing an even larger surplus on services as Indian computer-workers are exported, or new foreign investment is lured by low costs of “business process outsourcing” using our “reserve army” of labour and seemingly cheap real estate.

Rising forex reserves may or may not indicate a better financial position just as rising debt may or may not indicate a weaker financial position. A cash-rich person or company or country may have enough liquid resources to meet an immediate payments’ crisis ~ but may have become cash-rich merely by having borrowed more. A country’s forex reserves may be rising because foreigners have lent it more or have been exploiting arbitrage opportunities presented by multiple exchange-rates or interest-rates or other capital market inefficiencies, or even because reserve-assets have appreciated in world markets due to currency movements.

Similarly, it is not the absolute size of a debt that matters but productivity of the use to which it has been put. At a conference on a “perestroika-for-India” in May 1989 at the University of Hawaii, the late Milton Friedman remarked that one man can be heavily indebted yet have used his debt for investment in capital and hence real growth, while another man can be less heavily indebted but have used borrowed money for debauchery or other wasteful consumption.

For countries too, it is the use to which debt has been put ~ the nature of assets that have been created with the debt ~ that is fundamental. If our foreign debt has been used by Government to create roads and bridges or improve agricultural productivity, fertile capital assets have been invested in, which lead to economic growth and well-being.

If borrowed foreign money has been mostly spent on fancy tanks and bombers (or even passenger aircraft, which mostly earn domestic and not foreign currency) or on foreign trips for politicians and bureaucrats, it has likely gone on sterile consumption goods for the elite. Since Pakistan and India are armed with foreign weapons intended to be used mainly against one another, the arms’ merchants on both sides have been laughing all the way to their Swiss banks for decades. Pakistan and India’s weapons’ imports have been effectively paid by their Governments having borrowed what now constitutes the bulk of their enormous sovereign debts. Requisitioning forex has permitted military generals, politicians, bureaucrats and other lobbies to spend as they wish foreign monies earned by relatively meagre export sectors under conditions of severe international competition.

False convertibility

The RBI is presently engaged in a false convertibility whereby the organised private sector can purchase foreign assets, and the elite can transfer $50,000 annually to their adult children already exported abroad. Truly freeing the rupee today would involve allowing, overnight, any Indian to hold gold, foreign currency and foreign exchange bank accounts freely at his/her local bank (just like those glamorous NRIs). But some 50% or more of public expenditure is being financed by debt compulsorily held by nationalized banks, and this would leave Government with the problem of finding real resources to pay interest and amortisation on the sovereign debt. Moving towards convertibility may induce severe inflation and instability caused by exposure of the weakness of the banks, as their assets (especially Government debt) come to be valued at international prices. Yet without a convertible rupee, proper valuation at world prices is not possible of any paper assets in India (including shares), nor is there any incentive for a responsible fiscal and monetary policy to emerge, even while the nomenklatura continue in capital flight, and India’s masses unknowingly inherit large accumulating rupee and dollar-denominated public debts.

Fiscal Instability

Fiscal Instabilty

Interest payments quickly suck dry every year’s Budget. And rolling over old public debt means that Government Borrowing in fact much exceeds the Fiscal Deficit

by Subroto Roy

First published in The Sunday Statesman,

Editorial Page Special Article, 4 February 2007

While releasing Mr Chidambaram’s book some days ago, our PM said that as Narasimha Rao’s Finance Minister in 1991 he had caused “fiscal stabilization” of the country. Unfortunately, Dr Manmohan Singh may have been believing the flattery of his sycophants, since the facts point differently.

The Fiscal Deficit is new borrowing by Government added for a given year. In 1994-1995 for example, the Union Government’s expenditure net of operational and other income was some Rs 1,295 billion (1 billion = 100 crore). Rs. 674 billion was generated for the Union Government by taxation that year (Rs 184 billion from direct taxes, Rs 653 billion from indirect and miscellaneous taxes, less Rs 163 billion as the States’ share). The difference between Rs 1,295 billion and Rs. 674 billion, that is Rs. 621 billion had to be borrowed by the Government of India in the name of future unborn generations of Indian citizens. That was the “Fiscal Deficit” that year. If the stock of Public Debt already accumulated has been B,this Fiscal Deficit, C, adds to the interest burden that will be faced next year since interest will have to be then paid on B + C.

Interest payments on Government debt have dominated all public finance in recent decades, quickly sucking dry the budgets every year both of the Union and each of our more than two dozen States. Some Rs. 440 billion was paid by the Union Government as interest in 1994-1995, and this had risen to some Rs. 1,281 billion by 2003-2004. As a percentage of tax revenue, interest expenditure by the Government of India on its own debt rose from 40% in 1991 to 68% in 2004 ~ through the Finance Ministerships of Manmohan Singh, P Chidambaram, Yashwant Sinha and Jaswant Singh.

Financial control of India’s fiscal condition, and hence monetary expansion, vitally requires control of the growth of these kinds of dynamic processes and comprehension of their analytical underpinnings. Yet such understanding and control seem quite absent from all organs of our Government, including establishment economists and the docile financial press.

For example, contrary to the impression created by the Finance Ministry, RBI and Union Cabinet (whether of the UPA or NDA, while the Communists would only be worse), the Fiscal Deficit has been in fact very far from being all that the Government of India borrows from financial markets in a given year. The stock of Public Debt at any given moment consists of numerous debt-instruments of various sorts at different terms. Some fraction of these come to maturity every year and hence their principal amounts (not merely their interest) must be repaid by Government. What our Government has been doing routinely over decades is to roll over these debts, i.e. issue fresh public debt of the same amount as that being extinguished and more. For example, some Rs. 720 billion, Rs. 1,180 billion, Rs.1,330 billion and Rs. 1,390 billion were amounts spent in extinguishing maturing public debt in 1993, 1994, 1995 and 1996 respectively. No special taxes were raised in those years specifically for that purpose. Instead the Government merely issued additional new debt or “rolled over” or “converted” the old debt in the same amounts and more in the portfolios of the captive nationalized banking system (see graph).

Plainly, the Government of India’s actual “Borrowing Requirement”, as the difference between its Income and Expenditure, when accounted for properly, will be the sum of this rolled over old debt and the Fiscal Deficit (which is merely the additional borrowing required by a single year’s Budget). In other words, the Government’s Borrowing Requirement is the Fiscal Deficit plus the much larger amount required to annually roll over maturing debt. Because the latter expenditure does not appear at all in calculation of the Fiscal Deficit by the subterfuge of having been routinely rolled over every year, the actual difference between Government Expenditure and Income in India has been made to appear much smaller than it really is. Although neglected by the Cabinet, Finance Ministry, RBI and even (almost) the C&AG, the significance of this discrepancy in measurement will not be lost on anyone seriously concerned to address India’s fiscal and monetary problems.

On the expenditure side, Current Expenditure (anachronistically named “Revenue Expenditure” in India as it is supposed to be met by current revenue) meets recurrent liabilities from one budget-date to the next, like salaries of school-staff or coupon payments on Government debt.

Investment Expenditure “of a capital nature” is supposed to increase “concrete assets of a material and permanent character” like spending on a new public library, or reducing “recurring liabilities” by setting aside a sinking fund to reduce Government debt. Some public resources need to be spent to yield benefits or reduce costs not immediately but in the future. Besides roads, bridges and libraries, these may include less tangible investments too like ensuring proper working of law-courts or training police-officers and school-teachers.

Also, there has been large outright direct lending by the Government of India bypassing normal capital markets on the pattern of old Soviet “central planning”, whereby “credit” is disbursed to chosen recipients.

“Current”, “Investment” and “Loan” expenditure decisions of this kind are made on the same activities. For example, in 1994-1995, the Government of India spent Rs. 2.7 billion as “Loans for Power Projects” in addition to Rs. 9.8 billion under Current Expenditure on “Power” and Rs. 15.5 billion as Investment Expenditure on “Power Projects”. By 2003-2004, these had grown to Rs. 50.94 billion, Rs. 31.02 billion, Rs. 28.5 billion respectively. Yet the opaqueness of Government accounts, finances and economic decision-making today is such that nowhere will such data be found in one table giving a full picture of public expenditure on the Power sector as a whole. On the revenue side, Government’s “Current Income” includes direct and indirect taxes, operational income from public utilities (like railways or the post office), and dividends and profits from public assets. There has been a small “Investment Income” too received from sale of public assets like Maruti. Also, since loans are made directly, there has to be a category for their recovery.

“One must not take from the real needs of the people for the imaginary needs of the state”, said Montesquieu; while De Marco in the same vein said “the greatest satisfaction of collective needs” has to be sought by “the least possible waste of private wealth”. Even Mao Zedong reportedly said: “Thrift should be the guiding principle of our government expenditure”. The C&AG requires Government determine “how little money it need take out of the pockets of the taxpayers in order to maintain its necessary activities at the proper standard of efficiency”.

Yet India’s top politicians and bureaucrats spend wildly ~ driven by the organised special interest groups on whom they depend, while ostentatiously consuming public time, space and resources themselves “quite uselessly in the pleasurable business of inflating the ego” (Veblen).

For Government to do what it need not or should not do contributes to its failure to do what it must. Thus we have armies of indolent soldiers, policemen and bureaucrats and piles of rotting supplies in government warehouses while there are queues outside hospitals, schools, courts etc.

Parliament and State Legislatures need to first ask of an annual budget whether it is efficient: “Is expenditure being allocated to enhance the public interest to the greatest extent possible, and if not, how may it be made to do so?” National welfare overall should increase the same whichever public good or service the final million of public rupees has been spent on.

Fundamentally, government finance requires scientific honesty, especially by way of clear rigorous accounting and audit of uses and origins of public resources. That scientific honesty is what we have not had at Union or State level for more than half a century.

India’s Macroeconomics

(NB This is one of a set of articles that include “India in World Trade & Payments”, “Fiscal Instability”, “Fallacious Finance”, “Indian Money & Credit”, “Indian Money & Banking”, “Against Quackery”, “Indian Inflation”, “Monetary Integrity and the Rupee”, “The Dream Team: A Critique” etc., as well as “Mistaken Macroeconomics” etc. See My Recent Works, Interviews etc on India’s Money, Public Finance, Banking, Trade, BoP, Land, etc (an incomplete list) )

India’s Macroeconomics

Real growth has steadily occurred because India has shared the world’s technological progress. But bad fiscal, monetary policies over decades have led to monetary weakness and capital flight

by

Subroto Roy

First published in The Sunday Statesman Editorial Page Special Article

January 20 2007

Anyone wishing to understand India’s macroeconomics today must seek to grasp how Government expenditure and taxing behaviour have become related over decades to Government’s rapid creation of paper-money and bank-deposits. Even those policy-makers who have caused this phenomenon (notably our present PM during his long career as the top economic bureaucrat, as well as his many acolytes and foreign and domestic flatterers) seem to have failed to grasp this. Thus they may be unlikely to identify let alone carry out the key political task facing India today, which is to transform the feeble existing state corroded by corruption and waste into a robust modern one with public institutions of a quality meeting or exceeding world standards.

Government expenditure in a democracy is supposed to be representative of real public needs. But democracy is everywhere imperfect, and spending tends to follow instead the pattern of special interest groups, i.e., who has how much organised lobbying power in the polity. “Whatever can be rescued from useless expenditure is urgently required for useful”, said JS Mill. How can public spending be made more productive (or less unproductive) by cutting waste, fraud and abuse, and instead better alleviate mass ignorance, poverty and destitution? And how can there be reduced chance of a collapse of confidence in public institutions, especially currency and the banks as has happened in other countries at different times? These are central questions for serious macroeconomic policy-making in India today. In fact, it is likely the Indian people are at present both over-taxed and under-taxed: we are over-taxed by the corroded, corrupt wasteful polity that has actually arisen, while we are under-taxed relative to the fiscal and monetary needs of a robust modern democratic polity yet to exist.

India has shared the technological progress the world economy witnessed in the 20th Century. Private ingenuity, enterprise and business acumen at all scales of operation are manifest in countless examples across the country every day. Real economic growth has taken place steadily as a result, and there is no doubt average levels of health, education, and material well-being have improved almost everywhere ~ often despite government action, sometimes thanks to it. Our legendary population has grown mainly due to lowering of mortality rates via better health, nutrition and awareness, causing longer life-spans than ever before. Our village festivals, market-towns and city-streets are filled with bustling shops with busy people and merchandise, while large concrete buildings are being built everywhere by invisible builders. There is no apparent lack of a potential basis for taxation of private resources for public uses in the country.

At the same time, monumental problems of absolute poverty, ignorance, destitution and inequality remain obvious to the naked eye everywhere in India, affecting hundreds of millions of citizens. A rare candid Government study said: “It does not require clever tools of measurement to demonstrate that there are millions of children in India who are totally deprived of any education worth the name. And it is not as if they are invisible, remote, and therefore unreached. They are everywhere in the cities: on the streets, wiping cars at traffic junctions, picking rags in mounds of waste; in the roadside eateries; in small factories, as cheap labour or domestic help; at ‘home’ completing household chores. In the villages again they are everywhere, responding to the contextual demands of family work as well as bonded labour.” (India Education Report, 2002, p. 47). Such and similar children, their parents and kith and kin constitute the hundreds of anonymous millions of India today.

Less than 30 million people are employed in the “organised” sector, about 18 by government and 12 by the “organised private sector”. Even if four dependents are assumed for each, that hardly makes 15% of the whole population of one billion people today. So while there may be some 150 million people in India who in one way or another engage with the “organised sector”, there may be 850 million who do not ~ reminiscent of Disraeli’s “Two Nations” of Dickensian England.

India’s tax-revenues are raised in proportion of about 30% direct to 70% indirect, where the same ratio for an advanced economy like the USA is about 90% direct to 10% indirect. A mere 10 million income-tax returns are received in a given year in all of India. The masses are being taxed, perhaps heavily, though they are mostly unaware of what is being indirectly extracted out of their household budgets through ubiquitous archaic systems of Customs and Excise. From long before the British arrived in India, there was a tax on salt via government monopoly, and long after MK Gandhi’s march to the Arabian Sea to produce salt freely, indirect taxes bear down invisibly upon the masses of democratic India today. Nicholas Kaldor approved the current system in 1956 but by 1959 had retracted and recommended widespread direct taxation instead, which has never happened. Kaldor’s best known Indian student is today PM of the country.

Also, everyone’s holdings of monetary assets in India have been taxed by inflation, without people realising it except for a continual feeling or memory of the dwindling value of the rupee and other paper assets. Government debt, the quantity of money and general price-level of real goods and services (the inverse of the price of money) have been on exponential growth paths, most conspicuously since the compulsory government take-over of banks in the early 1970s, though origins reach back to the start of pseudo-socialist “planning” in the 1950s (see graph).

When transparent visible taxation cannot be proposed and voted for in the “real” economy because it needs too much political effort or insight, governments resort to invisible, undemocratic means of taxing the public’s monetary resources by the subterfuge of inflating currency and bank deposits. Inflation has everywhere raised real resources for governments too weak to administer proper tax systems or resist the onslaught of organised pressure-groups in incurring public expenditure.

Taxation via inflation “does not require detailed legislation, and can be administered very simply. All that it requires is to spend newly created notes. The resulting inflation automatically imposes a tax on cash balances by depreciating the value of money” (Cagan). A routine means of meeting a government’s deficits can become “use of the printing press to manufacture legal tender paper money”, either directly by paying its creditors “with new paper money specially printed for the purpose”, or indirectly by paying its creditors “out of loans to itself from the Central Bank”, issuing money to that amount in exchange for government debt (Dalton). Because public memories are short and economic models and data unavailable to ordinary people, a large scope exists for governments to extract real resources by inflation before “money-illusion” comes to be dispelled. Briefly, such has been how India’s continuous budget-deficits have been financed ever since Independence – made possible with impunity because our rulers have also kept our currency from being internationally convertible (except for themselves).

These quite subtle facts remain practically unknown to the Indian public whose lives and those of future generations are deeply affected by them, though in recent decades elite elements like bureaucrats, academics, military officers, businessmen, politicians etc with better information and access to resources have sensed monetary weakness in the country and exported their adult children and savings abroad expeditiously. The sphere of knowledge and concerns of most people are so close to needs of their own survival that they make easy prey for the machinations of others with better information or access to resources. This may help explain why we, who for more than a century and a half have seen a vast political awakening take place and can take pride in having a free press and the world’s largest electorate, at the same time have had our political life and public institutions wracked by enormous corruption, fraud and venality, enfeebling the political economy by widespread cynicism and loss of confidence, and inducing capital flight abroad on the part of a vapid elite.

Milton Friedman: A Man of Reason, 1912-2006

A Man of Reason


Milton Friedman (1912-2006)

 

First published in The Statesman, Perspective Page Nov 22 2006

 

Milton Friedman, who died on 16 November 2006 in San Francisco, was without a doubt the greatest economist after John Maynard Keynes. Before Keynes, great 20th century economists included Alfred Marshall and Knut Wicksell, while Keynes’s contemporaries included Irving Fisher, AC Pigou and many others. Keynes was followed by his younger critic FA Hayek, but Hayek is remembered less for his technical economics as for his criticism of “socialist economics” and contributions to politics. Milton Friedman more than anyone else was Keynes’s successor in economics (and in applied macroeconomics in particular), in the same way David Ricardo had been the successor of Adam Smith. Ricardo disagreed with Smith and Friedman disagreed with Keynes, but the impact of each on the direction and course both of economics and of the world in which they lived was similar in size and scope.

 

Friedman’s impact on the contemporary world may have been largest through his design and advocacy as early as 1953 of the system of floating exchange-rates. In the early 1970s, when the Bretton Woods system of adjustable fixed exchange-rates collapsed and Friedman’s friend and colleague George P. Shultz was US Treasury Secretary in the Nixon Administration, the international monetary system started to become of the kind Friedman had described two decades earlier. Equally large was Friedman’s worldwide impact in re-establishing concern about the frequent cause of macroeconomic inflation being money supply growth rates well above real income growth rates. All contemporary talk of “inflation targeting” among macroeconomic policy-makers since the 1980s has its roots in Friedman’s December 1967 presidential address to the American Economic Association. His main empirical disagreement with Keynes and the Keynesians lay in his belief that people held the intrinsically worthless tokens known as “money” largely in order to expedite their transactions and not as a store of value – hence the “demand for money” was a function mostly of income and not of interest rates, contrary to what Keynes had suggested in his 1930s analysis of “Depression Economics”. It is in this sense that Friedman restored the traditional “quantity theory” as being a specific theory of the demand for money.

 

Friedman’s main descriptive work lay in the monumental Monetary History of the United States he co-authored with Anna J. Schwartz, which suggested drastic contractions of the money supply had contributed to the Great Depression in America. Friedman made innumerable smaller contributions too, the most prominent and foresighted of which had to do with advocating larger parental choice in the public finance of their children’s school education via the use of “vouchers”. The modern Friedman Foundation has that as its main focus of philanthropy. The emphasis on greater individual choice in school education exemplified Friedman’s commitments both to individual freedom and the notion of investment in human capital.

 

Friedman had significant influences upon several non-Western countries too, most prominently India and China, besides a grossly misreported episode in Chile. As described in his autobiography with his wife Rose, Two Lucky People (Chicago 1998), Friedman spent six months in India in 1955 at the Government of India’s invitation during the formulation of the Second Five Year Plan. His work done for the Government of India came to be suppressed for the next 34 years. Peter Bauer had told me during my doctoral work at Cambridge in the late 1970s of the existence of a Friedman memorandum, and N. Georgescu-Roegen told me the same in America in 1980, adding that Friedman had been almost insulted publicly by VKRV Rao at the time after giving a lecture to students on his analysis of India’s problems.

 

When Friedman and I met in 1984, I asked him for the memorandum and he sent me two documents. The main one dated November 1955 I published in Hawaii on 21 May 1989 during a project on a proposed Indian “perestroika” (which contributed to the origins of the 1991 reform through Rajiv Gandhi), and was later published in Delhi in Foundations of India’s Political Economy: Towards an Agenda for the 1990s, edited by myself and WE James.

 

The other document on Mahalanobis is published in The Statesman today for the first time, though there has been an Internet copy floating around for a few years. The Friedmans’ autobiography quoted what I said in 1989 about the 1955 memorandum and may be repeated: “The aims of economic policy (in India) were to create conditions for rapid increase in levels of income and consumption for the mass of the people, and these aims were shared by everyone from PC Mahalanobis to Milton Friedman. The means recommended were different. Mahalanobis advocated a leading role for the state and an emphasis on the growth of physical capital. Friedman advocated a necessary but clearly limited role for the state, and placed on the agenda large-scale investment in the stock of human capital, encouragement of domestic competition, steady and predictable monetary growth, and a flexible exchange rate for the rupee as a convertible hard currency, which would have entailed also an open competitive position in the world economy… If such an alternative had been more thoroughly discussed at the time, the optimal role of the state in India today, as well as the optimum complementarity between human capital and physical capital, may have been more easily determined.”

 

A few months before attending my Hawaii conference on India, Friedman had been in China, and his memorandum to Communist Party General Secretary Zhao Ziyang and two-hour dialogue of 19 September 1988 with him are now classics republished in the 1998 autobiography. Also republished there are all documents relating to Friedman’s six-day academic visit to Chile in March 1975 and his correspondence with General Pinochet, which speak for themselves and make clear Friedman had nothing to do with that regime other than offer his opinion when asked about how to reduce Chile’s hyperinflation at the time.

 

My association with Milton has been the zenith of my engagement with academic economics, with e-mails exchanged as recently as September. I was a doctoral student of his bitter enemy yet for over two decades he not only treated me with unfailing courtesy and affection, he supported me in lonely righteous battles: doing for me what he said he had never done before, which was to stand as an expert witness in a United States Federal Court. I will miss him much though I know that he, as a man of reason, would not have wished me to.

Subroto Roy

Indian Money and Credit

Indian Money & Credit
by
Subroto Roy
First published in The Sunday Statesman, August 6 2006, Editorial Page Special Article

One rural household may lend another rural household 10 kg or 100 kg of grain or seed for a short time. When it does, it expects to receive back a little more than the amount lent ~ even if that little amount is in services or in plain goodwill among friends or neighbours. That extra amount is “real interest”, and the percentage of its value relative to the whole is the “real rate of interest”. So if 10 kg of grain are lent for two weeks and 11 kg are returned, an implicit real rate of interest of 10 per cent has been paid over that short period. The future is always less valuable than the present in the sense that 10 kg of grain today is worth something more than the prospect of the same 10 kg of grain tomorrow.

But loans may be made in terms of money rather than real units of grain, thus the change in the value of money over the period of the loan becomes relevant. If a loan of Rs 100,000 is made by a bank to a borrower for one year at a simple interest rate of 13 per cent per annum, and the value of money then declines at 8 per cent over the year, the debtor is paying real interest of just about 13 per cent-8 per cent = 5 per cent. The Yale economist Irving Fisher described how this monetary rate of interest equals the real rate of interest plus the rate of monetary inflation, while the great Swedish economist Knut Wicksell predicted inflation if the monetary rate fell below the real rate, and vice versa.

And there is another consideration too. A new cycle-rickshaw costs about Rs 5,000. A rickshaw driver who does not own his own machine has to pay the owner of the rickshaw a fixed rental of about Rs 15 per day. Now a government policy may want to see more cycle-rickshaw drivers owning their own machines, and allocate bank-credit accordingly. But some fraction of the drivers are alcoholics and hence are bad credit-risks, while others are industrious, have strong family lives and are good credit-risks. If a creditor is unable to distinguish between who is an alcoholic and who is not, credit terms will tend towards subsidising the alcoholic and taxing the industrious.

On the other hand, a creditor who knows each debtor individually will also know their credit-risks, and price individual loans to them accordingly. India’s credit markets, both rural and urban, have been segmented always into “formal” and “informal”, and remain so despite (or perhaps because of) much government intervention in recent decades.

Banks and the Reserve Bank of India operate in formal financial markets, but the informal credit market is where the real action is. For example, a mosaic-machine used in the construction business costs Rs 15,000 brand new and gets to be rented out at the rate of Rs 150 per day.

Someone with access to formal sector bank loans at say 13 per cent per annum, might borrow the Rs 15,000, buy a machine, rent it out, break-even within a few months and make a whopping profit afterwards. Everyone would thus hunger after subsidised formal sector bank loans, and these would be rationed quickly and then come to be allocated to people known to bank officials (like their own friends and relatives).

Rates of return on capital, i.e. real profits, are and always have been massively high in India, and that is what is to be expected because capital, both machinery and finance, is relatively scarce as a factor of production. Rates of return on labour, i.e. real wages, are on the other hand relatively low in India thanks to our vast population. For these reasons we have had for three centuries foreigners coming to India to invest their capital in enterprise and make a profit, while Indians have emigrated all over the world from Fiji to Britain to America in search of higher wages.

Now all of this is very elementary reasoning well known to serious monetary economists, yet it seems to have always escaped India’s monetary and fiscal decision-makers. For example, just the other day, the Finance Minister said in Parliament that all rural banks had been instructed to lend farmers credit at a 7 per cent (monetary) rate of interest, and failure to do so would lead to  punishment. By the rickshaw example (in fact many cycle-rickshaw drivers are also marginal farmers), the FM did not wish to, and of course cannot in practice, distinguish between good and bad credit-risks among the recipients of such loans. If the value of money is declining by, say, 8 per cent per annum, a 7 per cent monetary rate is equivalent to a minus 1 per cent real rate. i.e., the FM would have done some Humpty Dumpty economics and caused the future prospect of holding Rs 1,000 tomorrow to be more and not less valuable than the certainty of holding Rs 1,000 today. It is inevitable there will be credit-rationing when credit is so massively subsidised, so the typical borrowing farmer will get some little fraction of his credit-needs at the official government price of 7 per cent per annum and then have to get the bulk of his credit-needs fulfilled in the informal market ~ at a price perhaps of 1 per cent-5 per cent PER DAY! The FM promising in his Budget to subsidise farm credit sounds nice on TV but may be wholly futile as a way of stopping farmers’ suicides.

The same kind of Humpty Dumpty monetary economics has been religiously pursued by the Reserve Bank of India for decades upon directions from its owner and master, the Finance Ministry ~ which in turn has always meekly followed the dictates of India’s unreasonable politicians of all parties. Formal sector interest rates in India have been for decades so artificially lowered that even if we use official figures measuring inflation, this leads to real interest rates being lower in capital-scarce India than in the capital-rich West! (See graphs).  Negative or near-zero real interest rates in India’s formal financial sector coexisting with massively high profit rates in informal credit markets point to continuous processes of low risk profits being made by arbitrage between the two. That is why the organised private and public sectors seem so pleased with official credit policies ~ while every borrower in the informal credit markets always has suicide not far from his/her mind.

Other than Dr Rangarajan who once mentioned it, we have never had an RBI Governor who has wished to see the Reserve Bank of India constitutionally independent of the Government of the day, and hence dedicated to restoring the integrity of India’s money. Playing with the repo rate or other short term monetary rates is fun and makes the RBI think it is doing something as important as the US or UK central banks. Certainly the upward trend in such short term rates over the last few months is better than the nonsensical flip-flops previously. But it is small potatoes compared to the really giant variables which are all fiscal and not monetary in India. For example, Sonia Gandhi (as advised by another naturalized Indian, Jean Drèze, disciple of the Non-Resident Amartya Sen) insisted on a massive “Rural Employment Guarantee”; Manmohan Singh and Pranab Mukherjee have insisted on massive foreign weapons’ purchases and government wage increases; Praful Patel on massive foreign aircraft purchases; Arjun Sengupta on Scandinavian welfare benefits; Montek Ahluwalia on nuclear reactor purchases (so South Delhi will be able at least to run its ACs in 20 years’ time). All this adds endlessly to the stock of government paper being held as bank-assets, while the currency remains inconvertible (See e.g. The Statesman 30 October 2005, 6-8 January, 23 April 2006).The RSS/BJP and JNU/Left have been equally bereft of serious thought.

Tell any suicidal farmer that the Government of India has been borrowing larger and larger amounts every year just to pay interest on previously incurred debts; it may make him realise there are famous and powerful people who are even more unwise than himself and amount to effective suicide-prevention therapy. But do not tell him that they unlike himself have been playing with public money ~ or you may have the opposite effect.

Indian Money and Banking

ON MONEY & BANKING

 

The deficit-finance of all public institutions flow like rivulets into the swamp that is our Public Debt, managed by the RBI

 

by

 

SUBROTO ROY

 

First published in The Sunday Statesman, Editorial Page, Special Article

April 23 2006

 

THE Reserve Bank of India, like all other public institutions, belongs to all of India’s people. There has been a tendency with every national institution, whether the ONGC or nationalised banks like SBI, or the IITs and IIMs or Air India and Indian Airlines or the Railways, Army, Navy, Air Force, IAS, IFS, Central Secretariat etc, even Parliament and State legislatures, to think that its assets, both tangible and intangible, are to serve the interests mainly of its employees, whether of Class 1, 2, 3, or 4. In fact, the assets of all such national institutions belong to all Indians: all one thousand million of us, from nameless street children and rural mendicants onwards. The body of our whole Indian citizenry own any and all such public institutions, and their employees are merely our “agents”, literally “public servants” who get paid salaries and perquisites out of public revenues. The task of managing and controlling these vast cohorts of public servants is a stupendous one of democratic politics and public administration. As a country we have never been very adept at it, indeed we often have been hopelessly incompetent. Without proper control and management, employees of national institutions have naturally tended to take over control of these assets, shifting liabilities onto the shoulders and budgets of the anonymous diffused body of citizenry who are supposed to be their masters. The public’s servants have tended to become the masters of the public’s assets and resources.

 

The RBI, as the nation’s Central Bank, has a unique position because its principal task is to establish and maintain the integrity of our money and banking system. The deficit-finance of all public institutions flow like rivulets into the swamp that is our Public Debt, managed by the RBI.

 

Money as such has no “intrinsic” worth. All the paper rupees, dollars, pounds, euros, yen in the world have less “intrinsic” usefulness than a hairpin or a button or a pair of shoelaces. Hairpins, buttons and shoelaces at least keep your hair, your shirt or your shoes together ~ the paper of paper money can be at best used to roll cigarettes perhaps. Yet paper money comes to be needed and is valued by everyone in every country ~ from street children upwards to Mr Premji, Mr Gates and Mr Mittal. Everyone accepts paper money as wages in exchange for his/her work, and then plans to use that same paper to buy food, shelter, clothing and other necessities with. I.e., we accept paper money for a short time believing we can use it to acquire useful things with. It has no intrinsic worth yet it is universally valued because everyone believes it will be accepted by everyone else in exchange for real goods and services which are in fact useful and conducive to life. The use of paper money depends on a fine and invisible web of collective trust permeating throughout the economy.

 

Banks arose due to the increasing complexity of modern economies in the last six hundred years. Paper currency was then supplemented in commerce by “deposits”, so that a transaction between two persons need not involve turnover of cash but can come to be accomplished by adjustment in their respective deposits with their banks. This vastly increased the quantum of trust ordinary people placed in the system of normal transactions, since they had to now believe not just in the exchangeability of paper money but also in the viability of the banks where they had placed their deposits. Currency plus Bank Deposits constitute what is called the “Money Supply”, and its controller is the RBI.

 

Our collective trust in money and banking is in and of itself something with economic value, which commercial banks are in a unique position to exploit. Banks can usually bet that all their customers will not demand their deposits at the same time, and so they are able to lend out as loans a very large fraction of what they have received as deposits from the public. Making such loans in turn causes the recipients of the loans to make new deposits (of what they have borrowed) in yet other banks, and this in turn acts as a signal to the receiving banks to make even more loans. Hence a process of “redeposit” or “deposit multiplication” occurs in any banking system where only a fraction of deposits is legally required to be kept as reserves by the bank. A Central Bank like the RBI then has the duty to see none of this gets out of hand: that while individual banks are acting to make profitable investments on the capital risked by a bank’s owners, they are, as a collective body, creating enough but not excessive credit to meet the needs of business.

 

In India, most banks came to be nationalised decades ago by Indira Gandhi on advice of P. N. Haksar, the mentor of Dr Manmohan Singh in his career as an economic bureaucrat. Whatever original capital they have had also arises from the public exchequer, and all their employees are effectively “public servants” under the Ministry of Finance. We have not been hearing from the RBI anything about the deleterious effects of this continuing state of affairs.

 

The RBI’s functions include managing the “Public Debt”, which stands today at perhaps Rs. 30 trillion (1 trillion= 1 lakh crore), on which interest of perhaps Rs 2-3 trillion must be paid by the Union and State Governments every year to those holding the debt (mostly the nationalised banking system under duress from the RBI). Why the stock-market has been doing so “well” is because it has been like an athlete on steroids. A stock market is supposed to be risky while a debt market is supposed to be safe. Our Government’s fiscal and monetary behaviour over decades has caused the formal debt market to yield negative returns, and so the stock-market has become relatively lucrative despite its risky nature.

 

It is also the RBI’s task to manage the country’s foreign exchange “reserves”, i.e. the residual balance left after all forex outgoings from purchases of imports (like petroleum or weapons) and payments of interest on or repayment of foreign loans have been subtracted from flows of incoming forex arising from export revenues, emigrants’ remittances, and new foreign loans and investments. These “reserves” do not belong to the Government or the nation in the same way tax-revenues belong to the Consolidated Fund of India. It was a shocking conceptual error of the Manmohan Singh Government’s most prominent economic bureaucrat to fail to see this and to suggest forex reserves could be used for “infrastructure” development. For the business press to get excited about forex reserves being at this or that level is also misleading, since high reserves may or may not indicate a better financial position just as a heavily indebted man may or may not be in a bad position depending on what kind of use he has made of his debts.

 

We have not been hearing of any of these matters from the RBI under Dr Y. V. Reddy. Instead, the one definite number we have received last week is that the RBI, under behest of its master, the Ministry of Finance, has been causing the Money Supply to grow at something like 15%. The Government’s apologists would like us to believe that this gets distributed between real economic growth in the region of 10% and inflation in the region of 5%. But for all that anybody really knows, it may be that real growth is at 5% and inflation is at 10%! Ask yourself if what you bought last year for Rs 1000 costs Rs 1050 or Rs. 1100 this year. Your guess may be as good as the Government’s.

The Dream Team: A Critique

The Dream Team: A Critique

by Subroto Roy

First published in The Statesman and The Sunday Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, January 6,7,8, 2006

(Author’s Note: Within a few weeks of this article appearing, the Dream Team’s leaders appointed the so-called Tarapore 2 committee to look into convertibility — which ended up recommending what I have since called the “false convertibility” the RBI is presently engaged in. This article may be most profitably read along with other work republished here: “Rajiv Gandhi and the Origins of India’s 1991 Economic Reform”, “Three Memoranda to Rajiv Gandhi”, “”Indian Money & Banking”, “Indian Money & Credit” , “India’s Macroeconomics”, “Fiscal Instability”, “Fallacious Finance”, “India’s Trade and Payments”, “Our Policy Process”, “Against Quackery”, “Indian Inflation”, etc)

1. New Delhi’s Consensus: Manmohantekidambaromics

Dr Manmohan Singh has spoken of how pleasantly surprised he was to be made Finance Minister in July 1991 by PV Narasimha Rao. Dr Singh was an academic before becoming a government economic official in the late 1960s, rising to the high office of Reserve Bank Governor in the 1980s. Mr Montek Singh Ahluwalia now refers to him as “my boss” and had been his Finance Secretary earlier. Mr Ahluwalia was a notable official in the MacNamara World Bank before being inducted a senior government official in 1984. Mr P Chidambaram was PVNR’s Commerce Minister, and later became Finance Minister in the Deve Gowda and Gujral Governments. Mr Chidamabaram is a Supreme Court advocate with an MBA from Harvard’s Business School. During 1998-2004, Dr Singh and Mr Chidambaram were in Opposition but Mr Ahluwalia was Member-Secretary of the Vajpayee Planning Commission. Since coming together again in Sonia Gandhi’s United Progressive Alliance, they have been flatteringly named the “Dream Team” by India’s pink business newspapers, a term originally referring to some top American basketball players.

Based on pronouncements, publications and positions held, other members or associates of the “Dream Team” include Reserve Bank Governor Dr YV Reddy; his predecessor Dr Bimal Jalan; former PMO official Mr NK Singh, IAS; Chief Economic Advisers Dr Shankar Acharya and Dr Ashok Lahiri; RBI Deputy Governor Dr Rakesh Mohan; and others like Dr Arvind Virmani, Dr Isher Ahluwalia, Dr Parthasarathi Shome, Dr Vijay Khelkar, Dr Ashok Desai, Dr Suman Bery, Dr Surjit Bhalla, Dr Amaresh Bagchi, Dr Govind Rao. Honorary members include Mr Jaswant Singh, Mr Yashwant Sinha, Mr KC Pant and Dr Arun Shourie, all economic ministers during the Vajpayee premiership. Institutional members include industry chambers like CII and FICCI representing “Big Business”, and unionised “Big Labour” represented by the CPI, CPI(M) and prominent academics of JNU. Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar joins the Dream Team with his opinion that a gas pipeline is “necessary for the eradication of poverty in India”. Mr Jairam Ramesh explicitly claimed authoring the 1991 reform with Mr Pranab Mukherjee and both must be members (indeed the latter as Finance Minister once had been Dr Singh’s boss). Dr Arjun Sengupta has claimed Indira Gandhi started the reforms, and he may be a member too. External members include Dr Jagdish Bhagwati, Dr. TN Srinivasan, Dr Meghnad Desai, Dr Vijay Joshi, Mr Ian Little, Dr Anne O. Krueger, Dr John Williamson, IMF Head Dr R Rato, and many foreign bank analysts who deal in Bombay’s markets. Harvard’s Dr Larry Summers joins with his statement while US Treasury Secretary in January 2000 that a 10% economic growth rate for India was feasible. His Harvard colleague Dr Amartya Sen — through disciples like Dr Jean Dreze (adviser to Sonia Gandhi on rural employment) — must be an ex officio member; as an old friend, the Prime Minister launched Dr Sen’s recent book while the latter has marked Dr Singh at 80% as PM. Media associates of the Dream Team include editors like Mr Aroon Purie, Mr Vinod Mehta, Dr Prannoy Roy, Mr TN Ninan, Mr Vir Sanghvi and Mr Shekhar Gupta, as well as the giddy young anchors of what passes for news and financial analysis on cable TV.

This illustrious set of politicians, government officials, economists, journalists and many others have come to define what may be called the “New Delhi Consensus” on contemporary India’s economic policy. While it is unnecessary everyone agree to the same extent on every aspect — indeed on economic policy the differences between the Sonia UPA and Vajpayee NDA have had to do with emphasis on different aspects, each side urging “consensus” upon the other — the main factual and evaluative claims and policy-prescriptions of the New Delhi Consensus may be summarised as follows:

A: “The Narasimha Rao Government in July 1991 found India facing a grave balance of payments crisis with foreign exchange reserves being very low.”

B: “A major cause was the 1990-1991 Gulf War, in its impact as an exogenous shock on Indian migrant workers and oil prices.”

C: “The Dream Team averted a macroeconomic crisis through “structural adjustment” carried out with help of the IMF and World Bank; hence too, India was unaffected by the 1997 ‘Asian crisis'”.

D: “The PVNR, Deve Gowda, Gujral and Vajpayee Governments removed the notorious license-quota-permit Raj.”

E: “India’s measurable real economic growth per capita has been raised from 3% or lower to 7% or more.”

F: “Foreign direct investment has been, relative to earlier times, flooding into India, attracted by lower wages and rents, especially in new industries using information technology.”

G: “Foreign financial investment has been flooding into India too, attracted by India’s increasingly liberalised capital markets, especially a liberalised current account of the balance of payments.”

H: “The apparent boom in Bombay’s stock market and relatively large foreign exchange reserves bear witness to the confidence foreign and domestic investors place in India’s prospects.”

I: “The critical constraint to India’s future prosperity is its “infrastructure” which is far below what foreign investors are used to in other countries elsewhere in Asia.”

J: “It follows that massive, indeed gargantuan, investments in highways, ports, airports, aircraft, city-flyovers, housing-estates, power-projects, energy exploration, gas pipelines, etc, out of government and private resources, domestic and foreign, is necessary to remove remaining “bottlenecks” to further prosperity for India’s masses, and these physical constructions will cause India’s economy to finally ‘take off’.”

K: “India’s savings rate (like China’s) is exceptionally high as is observable from vast expansion of bank-deposits, and these high (presumed) savings, along with foreign savings, will absorb the gargantuan investment in “infrastructure” without inflation.”

L: “Before the gargantuan macroeconomic investments bear the fruits of prosperity, equally large direct transfer payments also must be made from the Government to prevent mass hunger and/or raise nominal incomes across rural India, while existing input or other subsidies to producers, especially farmers, also must continue.”

M: “While private sector participants may increasingly compete via imports or as new entrants in industries where the public sector has been dominant, no bankruptcy or privatisation must be allowed to occur or be seen to occur which does not provide public sector workers and officials with golden parachutes.”

Overall, the New Delhi Consensus paints a picture of India’s economy on an immensely productive trajectory as led by Government partnered by Big Business and Big Labour, with the English-speaking intellectuals of the Dream Team in the vanguard as they fly between exotic conferences and international commercial deals. An endless flow of foreign businessmen and politicians streaming through Bangalore, Hyderabad, five-star hotels or photo-opportunities with the PM, followed by official visits abroad to sign big-ticket purchases like arms or aircraft, reinforce an impression that all is fine economically, and modern India is on the move. Previously rare foreign products have become commonplace in India’s markets, streets and television-channels, and a new materialist spirit, supposedly of capitalism, is captured by the smug slogan yeh dil mange more (this heart craves more) as well as the more plaintive cry pardesi jana nahin, mujhe chhorke (foreigner, please don’t leave me).

2. Money, Convertibility, Inflationary Deficit Financing

India’s Rupee became inconvertible in 1942 when the British imposed exchange controls over the Sterling-Area. After 1947 independent India and Pakistan, in name of “planned” economic development, greatly widened this war-time regime – despite the fact they were at war now only with one another over Jammu & Kashmir and, oddly enough, formed an economic union until 1951 with their currencies remaining freely convertible with each other.

On May 29 1984, the present author’s Pricing, Planning and Politics: A Study of Economic Distortions in India proposed in London that the Indian Rupee become a convertible hard currency again — the first time liberal economics had been suggested for India since BR Shenoy’s critique of the Second Five Year Plan (a fact attracting an editorial of The Times). The simple litmus test whether believers in the New Delhi Consensus have or have not the courage of their stated convictions – i.e., whether what they have been saying is, in its empirical fundamentals, more signal or noise, more reality or rhetorical propaganda – would be to carry through that proposal made 21 years ago. The Dream Team have had more than enough political power to undertake this, and it remains the one measure necessary for them to demonstrate to India’s people and the world that the exuberant confidence they have been promoting in their model of India’s economy and its prospects is not spurious.

What does convertibility entail?  For a decade now, India has had limited ease of availability of foreign exchange for traders, students and tourists. Indeed some senior Government monetary economists believe there is convertibility already except forex dealers are being allowed “one-way” and not “two-way” quotes! That is wrong. The Government since 1942 has requisitioned at the border all foreign exchange earned by exporters or received as loans or investment — allocating these first to pay interest and amortisation on the country’s foreign debt, then to make its own weapons and other purchases abroad, then to release by ration what remains to private traders, students, tourists et al. Current account liberalisation has meant the last of these categories has been relaxed, especially by removal of some import quotas. What a convertible Rupee would mean is far more profound. It would allow any citizen to hold and save an Indian money that was exchangeable freely (i.e. without Government hindrance) into moneys of other countries. Full convertibility would mean all the paper money, bank deposits and rupee-denominated nominal assets held by ordinary people in India becomes, overnight, exchangeable without hindrance into dollars, yens, pounds or euros held anywhere (although not of course at the “one-way” rates quoted today).

Now money is a most peculiar human institution. Paper money is intrinsically worthless but all of India’s 1,000 million people (from street children onwards) have need to hold it temporarily to expedite their individual transactions of buying and selling real goods and services. Money also acts as a repository of value over time and unit of account or measure of economic value. While demand to hold such intrinsically worthless paper is universal, its supply is a Government monopoly. Because Government accepts obligations owed to it in terms of the fiat money it has itself issued, the otherwise worthless paper comes to possess value in exchange. Because Government controls its supply, money also can be abused easily enough as a technique of invisible taxation via inflation.

With convertibility in India, the quantity of currency and other paper assets like public debt instruments representing fiscal decisions of India’s Union and State Governments, will have to start to compete with those produced by other governments. Just as India’s long-jumpers and tennis-players must compete with the world’s best if they are to establish and sustain their athletic reputations, so India’s fiscal and monetary decisions (i.e. about government spending and revenues, interest-rates and money supply growth) will have to start competing in the world’s financial markets with those of the EU, USA, Japan, Switzerland, ASEAN etc.

The average family in rural Madhya Pradesh who may wish, for whatever personal reason, to liquidate rupee-denominated assets and buy instead Canadian, Swiss or Japanese Government debt, or mutual fund shares in New York, Frankfurt or Singapore, would not be hindered by India’s Government from doing so. They would become as free as the swankiest NRI jet-setters have been for years (like many members of the New Delhi Consensus and their grown children abroad).  Scores of millions of ordinary Indians unconnected with Big Business or Big Labour, neither among the 18 million people in government nor the 12 million in the organised private sector, would become free to hold any portfolio of assets they chose in global markets (small as any given individual portfolio may be in value). Like all those glamorous NRIs, every Indian would be able to hold dollar or Swiss Franc deposit accounts at the local neighbourhood bank. Hawala operators worldwide would become redundant. Ordinary citizens could choose to hold foreign shares, real-estate or travellers’ cheques as assets just as they now choose jewellery before a wedding. The Indian Rupee, after more than 65 years, would once again become as good as all the proverbial gold in Fort Knox.

When added up, the new demand of India’s anonymous masses to hold foreign rather than Rupee-denominated assets will certainly make the Rupee decline in price in world markets. But — if the implicit model of India’s economy promoted by the Dream Team is based on correctly ascertained empirical facts — foreign and domestic investor confidence should suffice for countervailing tendencies to keep India’s financial and banking system stable under convertibility. Not only would India’s people be able to use and save a currency of integrity, the allocation of real resources would also improve in efficiency as distortions would be reduced in the signalling function of domestic relative prices compared to world relative prices. An honest Rupee freely priced in world markets at, say, 90 per dollar, would cause very different real microeconomic decisions of Government and private producers and consumers (e.g., with respect to weapons’ purchases or domestic transportation, given petroleum and jet fuel imports) than a semi-artificial Rupee at 45 per dollar which forcibly an inconvertible asset in global markets. A fully convertible Rupee will cause economic and political decisions in the country more consistent with word realities.

Why the Rupee is not going to be made convertible in the foreseeable future – or why, in India’s present fiscal circumstances if it was, it would be imprudent to do so – is because, contrary to the immense optimism promoted by the Dream Team about their own deeds since 1991, they have in fact been causing India’s monetary economy to skate on the thinnest of thin ice. Put another way, a house of cards has been constructed whose cornerstone constitutes that most unscientific anti-economic of assumptions, the “free lunch”: that something can be had for nothing, that real growth in average consumption levels of the masses of ordinary households of rural and urban India can meaningfully come about by nominal paper-money creation accompanied by verbal exhortation, hocus-pocus or abracadabra from policy-makers and their friends in Big Business, Big Labour and the media. (Lest half-remembered inanities about “orthodox economics” come to be mouthed, Maynard Keynes’s 1936 book was about specific circumstances in Western economies during the Depression and it is unwise to extend its presumptions to unintended situations.)

3. Rajiv Gandhi and Perestroika Project

On 25 May 2002, India’s newspapers reported “PV Narasimha Rao and Manmohan Singh lost their place in Congress history as architects of economic reforms as the Congress High Command sponsored an amendment to a resolution that had laid credit at the duo’s door. The motion was moved by…. Digvijay Singh asserting that the reforms were a brainchild of the late Rajiv Gandhi and that the Rao-Singh combine had simply nudged the process forward.”

Now Rajiv Gandhi was an airline-pilot and knew no economics. But the origins of the 1991 reform did come about because of an encounter he had, as Opposition Leader and Congress President from September 1990 onwards, with a “perestroika” project for India’s political economy occurring at an American university since 1986 (viz., The Statesman Editorial Page July 31-August 2 1991, now republished here; Freedom First October 2001). In being less than candid in acknowledging the origins of the reform, the Dream Team may have failed to describe accurately the main symptoms of illness that afflicted India before 1991, and have consequently failed to diagnose and prescribe for it correctly ever since.

The Government of India, like many others, has been sorely tempted to finance its extravagant expenditures by abusing its monopoly over paper-money creation. The British taught us how to do this, and in 1941-43 caused the highest inflation rates ever seen in India as a result. Fig. 1 shows this, and also that real growth in India follows as expected the trend-rate of technological progress (having little to do with government policy). Independent India has continually financed budget- deficits by money creation in a process similar to what the British and Americans did in wartime. This became most conspicuous after Indira Gandhi’s bank and insurance nationalisations of 1969-1970. Indeed, among current policy-makers, Pranab Mukherjee, Manmohan Singh, Arjun Sengupta, Montek Singh Ahluwalia, Bimal Jalan, NK Singh, Amaresh Bagchi and Shankar Acharya, were among those governing such macroeconomic processes before 1991 — albeit in absence of the equations that illustrate their nature. Why the Rupee cannot be made an honest, internationally convertible, stable money held with confidence by all Indians today, is because the Dream Team have continued with the same macroeconomics ever since. The personal and political ambitions of the tiniest super-elite that the New Delhi Consensus represent (both personal and political) have depended precisely on gargantuan unending deficit-financing backed by unlimited printing of paper-money, and hence the continuing destruction of the integrity of India’s banking system. A convertible Rupee would allow India’s ordinary people to choose to hold other stores of value available in the world today, like gold or monies issued by foreign governments, and thus force an end to such processes.

Two recent articles in The Statesman (Perspective Page 30 October 2005, Front Page 29 November 2005) outlined India’s financial repression and negative real interest rates (which suffice to explain the present stock market boom the way athletes perform better on steroids), and also how deficits get financed by money creation accompanied by wishful projections of economic growth in an upside down imitation of how macroeconomic policy gets done in the West.

“Narrow Money” consists mostly of hand-to-hand currency. “Broad Money” consists of Narrow Money plus bank-deposits. Modern banking is built on “fractional reserves”, i.e. a system of trust where your bank does not literally hold onto deposits you place there but lends these out again – which causes further deposit expansion because no individual banker can tell whether a new deposit received by it is being caused by the depositor having himself borrowed. As a general rule, bank lending causes further deposit expansion. Why India’s (and China’s) bank deposits have been expanding is not because Indians (or Chinese) are superhuman savers of financial assets in banks but because the Government of India (and China) has for decades compelled (the mostly nationalised) banks to hold vast sums of Government debt on the asset side of their balance-sheets. Thus there has been humongous lending by the banking system to pay for Government expenditures. The Dream Team’s macroeconomics relies entirely on this kind of unending recourse to deficit finance and money creation, causing dry rot to set into banks’ balance sheets (Figs. 2,3, 4).   If the Rupee became convertible, those vast holdings of Government debt by banks would become valued at world prices. The crucial question would be how heavily New York, London and Hong Kong financial markets discounted Indian sovereign debt. If upon convertibility, the asset sides of domestic Indian banks get discounted very heavily by world financial markets, their insolvency upon being valued at international prices could trigger catastrophic repercussions throughout India’s economy. Hence the Rupee cannot be made convertible — and all our present inefficiencies and inequities will continue for ever with New Delhi’s rhetorical propaganda alongside. The capital flight of 10 out of 1000 million Indians will continue, leaving everyone else with the internal and foreign public debts to pay.

4. A Different Strategy had Rajiv Not Been Assassinated

Had Rajiv Gandhi not been assassinated and the perestroika project allowed to take its course, a different strategy would have been chosen. Honest money first demands honest Government and political leadership. It would at the outset have been recognised by Government (and through Government by all India’s people) that the asset-liability, income-expenditure and cash-flow positions of every public entity in the country without exception — of the Union Government, every State and local Government, every public undertaking and project – is abysmal.  Due to entanglement with government financial loans, labour regulations, subsidies, price controls, protection and favouritism, the same holds for the financial positions of vast numbers of firms in the organised private sector. Superimpose on this dismal scene, the bleak situation of the Rule of Law in the country today – where Courts of Justice from highest to lowest suffer terrible abuse receiving pitiable amounts of public resources despite constituting a third and independent branch of India’s Government (while police forces, despite massive expenditure, remain incompetent, high-handed and brutal). What India has needed ever since 1991 is the Rule of Law, total transparency of public information, and the fiercest enforcement of rigorous accounting and audit standards in every government entity and public institution. It is only when budgets and financial positions become sound that ambitious goals can be achieved.

The Dream Team have instead made a fetish of physical construction of “infrastructure”, in some grandiose make-believe dreamworld which says the people of India wish the country to be a superpower. The Dream Team have failed to properly redefine for India’s masses the appropriate fiscal and monetary relationship between State and citizen – i.e. to demarcate public from private domains, and so enhance citizens’ sense of individual responsibility for their own futures, as well as explain and define what government and public institutions can and cannot do to help people’s lives. Grotesque corruption and inefficiency have thus continued to corrode practically all organs, institutions and undertakings of government. Corruption is the transmutation of publicly owned things into private property, while its mirror image, pollution, is the disposal of private wastes into the public domain. Both become vastly more prevalent where property rights between private and public domains remain ill demarcated. What belongs to the individual citizen and what to sovereign India –their rights and obligations to one another – remains fuzzy. Hence corruption and pollution run amuck. The irrational obsession with “infrastructure” is based on bad economics, and has led to profoundly wrong political and financial directions. The Rupee cannot be made an honest stable money because India’s fiscal and monetary situation remains not merely out of control but beyond New Delhi’s proper comprehension and grasp. If and when the Dream Team choose to wake up to India’s macroeconomic realities, a great deal of serious work will need to be done.

 

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Waffle but No Models of Monetary Policy: The RBI and Financial Repression

Waffle but No Models of Monetary Policy:

The RBI and Financial Repression (A Stock Market on Steroids)

by

Subroto Roy
First published in The Statesman, Perspective Page, October 27 2005

If the average Indian citizen feels flummoxed at hearing all the fancy words from official spokesmen and the talking heads on TV and the expensive pink business newspapers — words like “credit offtake”, “liquidity”, “reverse repo rate” “medium term”, “inflation mandate” etc — there is help at hand. It is as likely as not that the purveyors are as flummoxed themselves even while they bandy these terms about in what has been passing for monetary policy in India in recent years. No one has any reliable economic models backed by time-series data to support all the waffle.

Here is an example.

The Government (and specifically the department of the Finance Ministry known as the RBI) will have us believe that the decline in the value of money that has been occurring in India has been at less than 5% per annum.  According to official figures, the average Indian’s purchase of consumable goods and services (food, housing, clothing, transport etc) has been costing more every year by merely 5% at the very most. “What you can buy for Rs. 1000 in one year, you have to pay just Rs 1050 to buy the next year” is what the Government will have us believe. But is anyone’s personal experience of the diminishing value of the domestic currency in India consonant with what official spokesmen say inflation happens to be?

You may well reply that you cannot quite recall what Rs. 1000 bought for you last year. Precisely so. Nor really can anyone else — and that mutual collective loss of memory on the part of the public is something that India’s Government (like many other governments across time and space) has been literally banking on!

Consider a few very simple calculations. Suppose a citizen earns an annual income of Rs. 100,000, and an honest Government told him/her to pay total taxes (from both income and expenditure) of 10%. Clearly Rs. 90,000 would be left for the citizen to spend on his/her various choices of consumption or saving afterwards. If the citizen could assume the value of money was constant (inflation was 0%) then this Rs. 90,000 in one year would buy the same amount of goods and services the next year. But instead we may be living in a political system where the Government officially taxes very lightly, and then dishonestly taxes very heavily by reducing the value of money invisibly, i.e. by inflation. The Government may make the official tax-rate 8% and the actual inflation-rate 15%. The citizen who has Rs. 100,000 will then pay Rs. 8,000 in nominal taxes, but the Rs. 92,000 that is nominally left over for his own consumption and savings, will be made to decline by a further 15% every year.

I.e., a further value of Rs.13,800 (15% of Rs. 92,000) would effectively disappear as an invisible tax from the household budget due to the decline in the value of money, without the household being any wiser. In real terms, the household would have only Rs. 78,200 left.

Where would that extra value disappear to? Clearly, the beneficiary of this invisible extraction of real resources from household budgets would be the only entity that is able to compel the decline in the value of money, namely, the Government, which holds monopoly power to print the pieces of paper (at zero cost) that we call “money” and which we are forced by circumstances to use to expedite our real transactions of goods and services. Roughly speaking, that is how the Government’s own budget deficit gets financed in India.

I.e., the Government of India has its own (massive) expenditures — not merely on things like roads and bridges and military tanks and submarines, but also on ministers and bureaucrats’ wages etc., besides enormous interest payments on past debts incurred by the Government. If the expenditures exceed the visible revenues raised from taxation, as they have done by perhaps 40-50% or more every year for several decades, then the difference gets bridged by printing more paper money over which the Government has had a monopoly.

In India, a total of perhaps 18 million people work in all branches of government and a total of perhaps 12 million people work in the entire organised private sector. That makes 30 million people — with 4 dependants each, that accounts for perhaps 150 million people in the country. That leaves another 850 million people in our population of 1,000 million. Everyone, whether in the 150 million or the 850 million, rich and named or poor and anonymous, has had to use for his/her real transactions of goods and services the paper that the Government produces as money. By causing a decline in the value of this paper every year by x%, everyone who holds this paper, as well as assets denominated in this paper, suffers an invisible taxation of x% without quite realising it. The real revenue the Government of India extracts in this way is what has allowed it to balance its own books.

Furthermore, in the Indian case, what is said to be the inflation-rate and the actual inflation-rate experienced by ordinary people, may well be two different things. The wage-bill of those 18 million people employed by government agencies are linked directly to what official spokesmen say the inflation-rate is, so if the actual rate being experienced was higher and was announced as such, so would have to be that wage-bill and public expenditure! Official spokesmen may tell us the decline in the value of money has been merely 5% or less a year, so what cost Rs. 1000 last year costs Rs. 1050 this year, but as a matter of plain fact, the average citizen’s experience (and memory) may well tell him/her something different – e.g. that what cost Rs. 1000 last year, is in fact costing Rs. 1100 or Rs 1150 or Rs 1200 this year.

So much for the value of money. Now turn to interest-rates.

Here too, the average citizen need not be a rocket-scientist to know that relative to the Western countries, India is labour abundant and is capital scarce. Roughly speaking, that means we have relatively more people and fewer high-rise concrete buildings than the West does. Where then would you expect wages (the price of labour) to be higher, in the West or in India? Clearly in the place where labour is more scarce, namely, the West. And where would you expect interest-rates (the price of capital) to be higher? Clearly, where capital is relatively more scarce, namely India. Such was clearly the case between 1864 and 1926 (Fig. 1). Calcutta bank interest-rates were uniformly higher by about 2-3% than London bank interest-rates (in an era of zero inflation). But something wholly different occurred in the pseudo-socialist India after Independence. E.g., for the years 1975-1992 official Indian interest-rates (adjusted for inflation) were uniformly lower than those in world capital markets represented by the USA (Fig. 2). That remains true today. Not only have the higher wages of the West been attractive to Indians, so seems to be the higher real rates of return on capital! Hence everyone who could fled India – exporting their adult children and their savings abroad , leaving future generations of the anonymous masses with larger public debts to pay the bills in due course. There has been a flight of skilled labour and as well as capital flight from India — are foreigners going to come when they can see the Indian “elite” has fled? Official real interest-rates in India today may well be negative if inflation is  properly measured, which would explain the Bombay stock-market boom the same way an athlete can perform better when on steroids.

Of course in the unorganised capital markets, actual real rates of return have always been higher in India than in the West and remain so. Just ask anyone in the unorganised capital markets how much he has to pay to rent machinery on a daily basis e.g. in the building or construction trade in an Indian city or small town or village. He will quote you rates of 2% or 5% or 10% — per day. Hence there is a massive distortion between what is happening in the unorganised capital markets all over the country and the official money markets the RBI believes itself to be presiding over in Bombay. Until the RBI starts to tell us frankly about this phenomenon, which is known to economists as “financial repression” and which has been caused by runaway Government spending programmes in India for decades, the average citizen may discount all the talk about a few basis points changing here and there on this or that nominal rate, in our pale imitation of what we think the US Fed or the European or British central banks do as policy. The truth is the RBI has never been allowed to model itself after those institutions. Instead, India has had nationalised commercial banking whose pampered inefficient management and staff have allowed the holding of massive amounts of government debt as assets in their balance-sheets, all denominated in an inconvertible controlled currency, and all presided over by a “one-tier” central bank patterned on the old Gosbank of the former Soviet Union, completely subservient to the dictates of the runaway spending that this or that particular set of politicians in power may demand. If there are dreams to be dreamt by honest economists in India, it would be for all that to be made to change.

Can India Become an Economic Superpower or Will There Be a Monetary Meltdown? (2005)

In 2005, I returned to Britain thanks to an invitation from Professor Patrick Minford of the Cardiff Business School, Cardiff University, to deliver a lecture on India’s Money at his Economics Seminar. http://www.cardiff.ac.uk/carbs/research/seminars.html
“Wednesday 13 April 2005 Dr Subroto Roy /India’s Money/ 4.30pm, Room S01 (Economics Seminar Series)

The same lecture was delivered at the Institute of Economic Affairs, London, a fortnight later under the title “Can India Become an Economic Superpower or Will There Be a Monetary Meltdown?”. The IEA’s summary of the lecture was as follows
http://www.iea.org.uk/record.jsp?type=news&ID=263
27 April 2005

“Leading Indian economist, Dr. Subroto Roy discusses the prospects of the Indian economy and warns of dangers ahead.

Can India become an economic superpower or will there be a monetary meltdown?

Dr. Roy discussed the prospects for the Indian economy at a lecture at the IEA on 27th April. Below is a synopsis of his lecture, outlining his hopes and concerns.

New technological progress in a myriad of ways, as well as the discovery of new resources, plus a possible peace-dividend arising from reduced regional tensions and conflict, are all important factors contributing to real economic growth in India today.

While the real side of the economy does well, the “nominal” economy, within the Government’s control, displays disconcerting trends. Continual deficit financing for half a century has led to exponential growth of public debt and broad money. The vast growth of time-deposits in banks may have been misinterpreted as indicating a real phenomenon such as unusual savings behaviour when it is more likely to be a nominal phenomenon resulting from increasing amounts of government debt being held by the largely nationalised banking sector. (The same may be true of China).

Twenty-one years ago, the author’s IEA Occasional Paper No. 69, Pricing, planning and politics: a study of economic distortions in India, proposed microeconomic reforms provoking the Times‘ lead editorial of May 29 1984. Some of these came to be implemented following the author’s role as a senior adviser to Rajiv Gandhi in 1990-1991. Now, monetary and fiscal reforms of a classical liberal nature are vitally necessary if a macroeconomic meltdown is to be prevented. Important among these are complete budgetary transparency, fiscal discipline improving the social productivity of all public expenditure, and monetary and financial policies to restore the integrity of the currency at home and abroad. Dr. Roy was Wincott Professor at the Department of Economics at the University of Buckingham last year. He is editor of Margaret Thatcher’s Revolution available from the recommended books page of the IEA’s website.”

When I returned to India, I was invited to give the same lecture on May 5 2005 to the Reserve Bank of India’s Monetary Economics Seminar, chaired by Chief Economist Dr Narendra Jadav; the invitation came thanks to the intervention of Dr S. S. Tarapore. I subsequently informed a few of India’s key monetary policy decision-makers of these lectures, and I was happy to see policy talk emanating from Delhi and Bombay becoming a little less drunken and disorderly than it had been before.

Subroto Roy, April 14 2007

Towards a Highly Transparent Fiscal & Monetary Framework for India’s Union & State Governments (29 April 2000)

Towards a Highly Transparent Fiscal & Monetary Framework for India’s Union & State Governments

An address by Dr Subroto Roy to

the Conference of State Finance Secretaries, Reserve Bank of India,  Mumbai, 29 April 2000.

It is a great privilege to speak to this distinguished gathering of Finance Secretaries and economic policy-makers here at the Reserve Bank today. I should like to begin by thanking the Hon’ble Governor Dr Bimal Jalan and the Hon’ble Deputy Governor Dr YV Reddy for their kind invitation for me to do so. I should also like to record here my gratitude to their eminent predecessor, the Hon’ble Governor of Andhra Pradesh, Dr C Rangarajan, for his encouragement of my thinking on these subjects over several years.

My aim will be to share with you and seek your help with my continuing and very incomplete efforts at trying to comprehend as clearly as possible the major public financial flows taking place between the Union of India and each of its constituent States. I plan to show you by the end of this discussion how all the information presently contained in the budgets of the Union and State Governments of India, may be usefully transformed one-to-one into a fresh modern format consistent with the best international practices of government accounting and public budgeting.

I do not use the term “Central Government”, because it is a somewhat sinister anachronism left over from British times. When we were not a free nation, there was indeed a Central Government in New Delhi which took its orders from London and gave orders to its peripheral Provinces as well as to the British “Residents” parked beside the thrones of those who were called “Indian Princes”.

Free India has been a Union of States. There is a Government of the whole Union and there is a Government of each State. The Union is the sovereign and the sole international power, while the States, as political subdivisions of the Union, also possess certain sub-sovereign powers; as indeed do their own subdivisions like zilla parishads, municipalities and other local bodies in smaller measure.

Our 15 large States, which account for 97% of the population of the country, have an average of something like 61 million citizens each, which is vastly more than most countries of the world. In size of population at least, we are like 15 Frances or 15 Britains put together. The Indian Republic is unique or sui generis in that there has never been in history any attempt at federalism or democracy with such sheer large numbers of people involved.

In such a framework the citizen is supposed to feel a voter and a taxpayer at different levels, owing loyalty and taxes to both the national unit and the subdivisions in which he or she resides. In exchange, government at different levels is expected to provide citizens with public goods and services in appropriate measure. The problem of optimal fiscal decentralisation in India as elsewhere is one of allocating to each level of government the power to tax and responsibility to provide, public goods and services most appropriate to that level of government given the availability of information of resources and citizens’ preferences.

In parallel, a problem of optimal monetary decentralisation may be identified as that of allocating between an autonomous Central Bank and its regional or even State-level affiliates or subsidiaries, the power to finance through money-creation the deficits, if any, of the Union and State Governments respectively. It is not impossible to imagine a world in which individual State deficits did not flow into the Union deficit as a matter of course, but instead were intended to be financed more or less independently of the Union budget from a single-window source. There would be a clear conceptual independence between the Union and State levels of public action in the country. In such a world, the Union Government might approach a constitutionally autonomous national-level Central Bank to finance its deficit, while individual State Governments did something analogous with respect to autonomous regional or even State-level Central Banks which would be affiliates or subsidiaries of the national Central Bank.

This is similar to the intended model of the United States Federal Reserve System when it started 90 years ago, though it has not worked like that, in part because of the rapid rise to domination by the New York Federal Reserve relative to the other 11 regional Federal Reserve Banks.

A more radical monetary step would be to contemplate a “Reverse Euro” model by which a national currency issued by the national-level Central Bank acts in parallel with a number of regional or State-level currencies with full convertibility and floating exchange-rates guaranteed between all of them in a world of unhindered mobility of goods and factors.

However, these are very incomplete and theoretical thoughts which perhaps deserve to be shelved for the time being.[1] What necessitates this kind of discussion is after all not something theoretical but rather the practical ground realities of our country’s fiscal and monetary position, something of which this audience will be far better aware than am I.

Economic and political analysis suggests that managing a process of public financial decision-making requires a coincidence of the people who have the best information with the people who have the authority to act. In other words, decision-makers need to have relevant, reliable and timely information made available to them, and then they need to be considered accountable for the decisions made on that basis.

In a democracy like ours, the locus of economic policy decision-making must be Parliament and the State legislatures. Academics, civil servants, journalists, special interest groups, this or that business or industrial lobbyist or foreign management consultant can all have their say — but consensus on the direction and nature of economic policy, if it is to be genuine, has to ultimately emerge out of the legislative process on the basis of reasonable, well-informed discussion and debate, given full relevant timely information. The proper source of all economic policy decisions and initiatives is Parliament, the State legislatures and local government bodies — not this or that lobby or interest-group which may be vocal or powerful enough to be heard at a given time in New Delhi or some State capital-city.

Our 1950 Constitution was a marvellous document in its time and it has worked tolerably well. It defined the functions of government in India in accordance with the main parameters of normative public finance.

Economics ascribed a quite extensive traditional role to Government, the most important functions being collective and individual security, followed by all activities which in the words of Adam Smith,

 “though they may be in the highest degree advantageous to a great society, are, however, of such a nature that the profit could never repay the expence to any individual or small number of individuals, and which it, therefore, cannot be expected that any individual or small number of individuals should erect or maintain.” (Wealth of Nations, V.i.c., 1776)

Our 1950 Constitution defined the Union’s responsibilities to be

External Security;

Foreign Relations & Trade;

Supreme Court & Domestic Security;

Debt Service, Foreign & Domestic;

National Infrastructure;

Communications & Broadcasting;

Atomic Energy;

Public Sector Industries;

Banking; Currency & Finance;

Archives; Surveys & National Institutions;

National Universities;

National Civil Services & Administration.

Each State’s responsibilities were

High Courts & Lower Judiciary;

Police; Civil Order; Prisons;

Water; Sanitation; Health;

State Debt Service;

Intra-State Infrastructure & Communications;

Local Government;

Liquor & Other Public Sector Industries; Trade; Local Banking & Finance;

Land; Agriculture; Animal Husbandry;

Libraries, Museums, Monuments;

State Civil Service & Administration.

Some duties were supposed to be shared by the Union with each State, including

Criminal Law;

Civil & Family Law, Contracts & Torts;

Forests & Environmental Protection;

Unemployment & Refugee Relief;

Electricity;

Education.

But the authors of the 1950 Constitution could not have envisaged the nature of present problems, or foreseen in those early years what we would have become like today. Our fiscal system has become such that a few clauses may have led to an impossibly complex centralization of fiscal power and information. Not only did the 1950 Constitution identify agendas of the Union and State Governments, it also dictated the procedure of decision-making and it is this which may have become intractable over 50 years. Under Article 280, a Finance Commission is appointed every five years whose task is to try to efficiently and equitably allot tax revenues collected by the Union downwards to the States and laterally between the States. Members of Finance Commissions have been elder statesmen of high reputation and integrity, yet the practical impossibility of their task has made their actions seem to all observers to be clouded in mystery and perhaps muddle. As one recent member, Justice Qureshi, has candidly stated

 “it is humanly impossible for a person to understand the problems of the Centre and the 25 States and take a decision thereon within such a short time” (Ninth Finance Commission, Issues and Recommendations, p.350).

No matter how competent or well-meaning a Finance Commission’s members may be, their purpose may be stymied by the overload of information and overcentralisation of authority that has come to take place. As a result, it may have been inevitable that Government has ended up doing what it need not have done at the expense concomitantly of failing to do what only Government could or must have done.

The present situation is such that, despite the best efforts of the Reserve Bank and other Government agencies, there may be a gross lack of timely, relevant and reliable information reaching all decision-makers including the ordinary citizen, who as voter and taxpayer is the cornerstone of the fiscal system. My own inquiry started when Mr. Hubert Neiss, then Central Asia Director at the IMF, hired me as a consultant in December 1992. He told me the IMF was naturally concerned about India’s national budget deficit, but no one seemed to quite know how this related precisely to the budgets of the different States whose deficits seemed to be flowing into it. By its terms of reference, the IMF could not inquire into India’s States’ budgets and I did not do so in my work with them, but the import of his question remained in my thinking. Later I found similar questions being asked at the World Bank. I do not think it a great secret to state that there may be a great deal of simple puzzlement about the workings of our fiscal and monetary system on the part of observers and decision-makers who may be concerned about India’s fiscal position.

Among both public decision-makers and ordinary citizens right across the length and breadth of our country, a severe and widespread lack of information about and comprehension of India’s basic fiscal and monetary facts seems to exist. This in itself may be a cause of fiscal problems as citizens may not be adequately aware of the link between making their demands for public goods and services on the one hand, and the necessity of finding the resources to fund these goods and services on the other.

In any ultimate analysis, resources for public goods and services in an economy can be found only by diverting the real resources of individual citizens towards public uses. Other than printing fiat money, a national Government can only either tax those citizens who are present today in the population, or, borrow from the capital stock on behalf of unborn generations of future citizens.

West Europe and America are heirs to a long history of political development; yet even there, as Professor James Buchanan has often observed, the idea until has not been grasped until recently that benefits from use of public goods and services are supposed to accrue to citizens from whom resources have been raised. Until the 19th Century,

 “government outlay was frequently considered “unproductive”, and there was, by implicit assumption, no return of services to the citizens who were taxed. In a political regime that devotes the bulk of government outlay to the maintenance expenses of a single sovereign, or even of an elite, there is no demonstrable return flow of services to the taxpayers…. Tax principles were discussed as if, once collected, revenues were removed forever from the economy; taxpayers, both individually and in the aggregate, were held to suffer real income loss” (James M. Buchanan, The Demand and Supply of Public Goods, Rand 1968, p. 167).

According to Buchanan, such an undemocratic fiscal model was transformed in the work of the great Swedish economist Knut Wicksell and others by introducing the key assumption of fiscal democracy, namely, that

 “those who bear the costs of public services are also the beneficiaries in democratic structures”

Conversely, we may say those who demand public goods and services in a fiscal democracy should also expect to pay for them in real resources. If citizens are aware of taxes only as a burden and come to feel they receive little or nothing from Governments in return, there is a loss of incentive to pay taxes or to stand up and be counted as proud citizens of the country. There is an incentive instead to evade taxes or to flee the country or to cynically believe everything to be corrupt. On the other hand, if citizens demand public goods and services without expecting to contribute resources for their production, this amounts to being no more than a demand to be a free-rider on the general budget.

In our country, we may have been seeing both phenomena. On one hand, there is, rightly or wrongly, a tremendous public cynicism present almost everywhere with respect to expecting effective provision of public goods and services. On the other hand, the idea that the beneficiaries of public goods and services must also, sooner or later, come to bear the costs in terms of taxed resources is far from established so our politics come to often be unreasonable and irresponsible.

Reliable and comprehensible information about the system as a whole and about the contents of public budgets is thus vital for a fiscal democracy to function. In ancient Athens it was said:

 “Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the State as well; even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics — this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who has no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.” Pericles (Funeral Oration, Thucydides, The Pelopennesian War)

That was the criterion that Pericles defined for ancient Athenian democracy, and I see no reason why in the 21st Century it cannot be met in modern India’s democracy.

This finally brings me to the positive contribution I have promised to make. The aim my attempt to redesign the Union and State’s budgets utilising precisely the same data as available has been to make the fiscal position of all public entities accessible to any interested citizen.

We do not have to say that every Indian citizen, or even every literate and numerate citizen of our country, has to be able to understand the intricacies of the public budgets of his or her State and the Union. But if information is available such that anyone who understands the finances of his own family or his own business enterprise is also reasonably able to understand the public budget then a standard of maximum feasible transparency would have been defined and met.

I have relied on the international normative model developed by our own countryman, Mr. A. Premchand, who retired from the IMF a few years ago, as described in his outstanding book Effective Government Accounting (IMF 1995), where he showed applications for e.g. the USA, New Zealand and Switzerland. What I have done – or rather did in 1997/1998, with the help of a research assistant and a student – is apply that to all of our States and the Union too.[2] What will be seen by way of differences with the present methodology is that there is essentially an Operating Statement, a Financial Statement and a Cash Flow Statement offered for each State and the Union. The financial position and gross fiscal deficit definition emerge rather neatly from this – while there the rather confusing “Development/Non-development” and “Planning/Non-Planning” distinctions have been done away with.

The exercise points to the foundations of a new and fresh federal framework for our Republic. A central new fact of modern India is that many, perhaps most, of our States have developed what is effectively a bipolar division in their legislatures. Voters have also increasingly started to judge Governments not by the personalities they contain but rather by their performance on the job, and, at election-time, have begun to frequently enough shown one side the door in the hope the other side may do better. In such circumstances, there seems no reason in principle why an entity as large as the average State of modern India today cannot be entrusted to legislate and administer a modern tax-system, based especially on the income-tax, and especially taxing income from all sources including agriculture. In a fresh and modern federalism, an elected State Government would have appropriate economic powers to run its own affairs, and be mainly accountable to the legislature whose confidence it requires, and ultimately to voters below.

From an efficiency standpoint, we should want a framework in which repercussions of political turmoil or bad financial management by a State Government to not spill into other States or flow into the Union Government’s own problems of deficit financing. With free mobility of goods and factors throughout the Union, citizens faced with a poorly performing State Government could seek to vote it out of office, or may of course “vote with their feet” by moving their capital or resources to another part of the country. In short, State Governments will be held responsible by their electorates for their expenditures on public goods and services, while having the main powers of domestic taxation in the economy, especially taxes on income from all sources including agriculture.

At the same time, diverse as India is, we are not 15 or 25 separate republics federated together but rather one country all of whose peoples are united by a common geography and a common experience of history. From an equity and indeed national standpoint, we may also want a system which also firmly established that the National Parliament would have to determine how much each citizen should be taxed for the Union to provide public goods and services for the country as a whole, as well as what transfers ought to be made between the States via the Union in the interests of equity given differences in initial resource-endowments between them.

Here again an American example may be useful. As is well-known, the 50 United States each have their own Constitutions governing most intra-State political matters, yet all being inferior in authority to the 1789 Constitution of the United States as duly amended. In India, an author as early as 1888 recommended popular Constitutions for India’s States on the grounds

“where there are no popular constitutions, the personal character of the ruler becomes a most important factor in the government… evils are inherent in every government where autocracy is not tempered by a free constitution.”[3]

We could ask if a better institutional arrangement may occur by each State of India electing its own Constitutional Convention subject naturally to the supervision of the National Parliament and the obvious provision that all State Constitutions be inferior in authority to the Constitution of the Union of India.[4] These documents would then furnish the major sets of rules to govern intra-State political and fiscal decision-making more efficiently. An additional modern reason can be given from the work of Professor James M. Buchanan, namely, that fiscal constitutionalism, and perhaps only fiscal constitutionalism, allows over-riding to take place of the interests of competing power-groups.[5]

State-level Constitutional Conventions in India would provide an opportunity for a realistic assessment to be made by State-level legislators and citizens of the fiscal positions of their own States. Greater recognition and understanding of the plain facts and the desired relationships between income and expenditures, public benefits and public costs, would likely improve the quality of public decision-making at State-levels, sending public resources from destinations which are socially worthless towards destinations which are socially worthwhile. It bears repeating the average size of a large State of India is 61 million people, and almost all existing political Constitutions around the globe furnish rules for far smaller populations than that.

Thank you for your patience. Jai Hind.

[1] Monetary Federalism at Work: F. A. Hayek more than anyone else taught us that relative prices are signals or guides to economic activity — summarizing in a single statistic information about the resources, constraints, expectations and ambitions of market participants. An exchange-rate between two currencies is also a relative price, conveying information about relative market opinions regarding the issuers of the two currencies. Suppose we had two States of India in the fresh kind of federal framework outlined above, which were identical in all respects except one had a larger deficit and so a larger nominal money supply growth. Would that mean the first currency must depreciate relative to the second? Not necessarily; it is not the size of indebtedness that matters but rather the quality of public investment decisions, to which borrowed money has been put. Thus we come to the crux: Suppose we have two States which are identical in all respects except one: State X is found to have an efficient Government, i.e. one which has made relatively good quality public investment decisions, and State Y is found to have one which has made relatively bad quality public investment decisions. In the present amalgamated model of Indian federal finance, no objective distinction can be made between the two, and efficient State Governments are surreptitiously compelled to end up subsidising inefficient ones. In a differentiated federal framework for India, as the different information about the two State Governments comes to be discovered, the X currency will tend to appreciate as resources move towards it while the Y will tend to depreciate as resources move away from it. In an amalgamated model, efficient State Governments lose incentives to remain efficient, while in a differentiated model, inefficient State Governments will gain an incentive not to be inefficient. The present amalgamated situation is such that inefficient States – and this may include not only the State Government but also the State Legislature and the State electorate itself – receive no fiscal incentive to improve themselves. In a differentiated framework, the same inefficient State would face a tangible, visible loss of reserves or depreciation of its currency relative to other States on account of its inefficiency, and thereby have some incentive to mend its ways. I call the proposal given here a “Reverse Euro” model because Europe appears to be moving from differentiated currencies and money supplies to an amalgamated currency and money supply, while the argument given here for India is in the opposite direction. Professor Milton Friedman of the Hoover Institution at Stanford, has had the kindness, at the age of 88, to send me a brilliant and forceful critique of my Reverse Euro idea for India when I requested his comment. Since he is the founder of the flexible exchange-rate system and he has found it too radical, I have shelved it for the time being.

[2] The assistance of Dola Dasgupta and K. Shanmugam is recorded with gratitude.

[3] Surendranath Roy, A History of the Native States of India, Vol I. Gwalior, Calcutta & London: Thacker 1888.

[4] Large amounts of legal and constitutional precedent have built up on issues of a regional or local nature: whether a State legislature should be unicameral or bicameral, what should be its procedures, what days should be State holidays but need not be national holidays, on tenancy, rent control, school standards, health standards and so on ad infinitum. All this body of explicit and implicit local rules and conventions may be duly collected and placed in State-level Constitutions.

[5] James M. Buchanan, Limits to Liberty, Texas, 1978.

A major expansion and reorganization of the judiciary would have to accompany the sort of basic constitutional reform outlined above. Union and State judiciaries would need to be more clearly demarcated, and rules established for review of State-level decisions by Union courts of law. It is common knowledge the judiciary in India is in a state of organizational overload at the point of collapse and dysfunction. An expansion and reorganization of the judiciary to match new Union-State constitutional relations will likely improve efficiency, and therefore welfare levels of citizens.

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Transparency and Economic Policy-Making

Transparency and Economic Policy-Making

An address by Professor Subroto Roy to the Asia-Pacific Public Relations Conference, (panel on Transparency chaired by C. R. Irani) January 30 1998.

This talk is dedicated to the memory of my sister Suchandra Bhattacharjee (14.02.1943-10.01.1998).
1. I would like to talk about transparency and economic policy-making in our country. For something to be transparent is, in plain language, for it to be able to be openly seen through, for it to not to be opaque, obscure or muddy, for it to be clear to the naked eye or to the reasonable mind. A clear glass of water is a transparent glass of water. Similarly, an open and easily comprehensible set of economic policies is a transparent set of economic policies.

The philosopher Karl Popper wrote a famous book after the Second World War titled The Open Society and its Enemies. It contained a passionate defence of liberal institutions and democratic freedoms and a bitter attack on totalitarian doctrines of all kinds. It generated a lot of controversy, especially over its likely misreading of the best known work of political philosophy since the 4th Century BC, namely, Plato’s Republic .[1] I shall borrow Popper’s terms ‘open society’ and ‘closed society’ and will first try to make this a useful distinction for modern times, and then apply it to the process of economic policy-making in India today.

2. An open society is one in which the ordinary citizen has reasonably easy access to any and all information relating to the public or social interest — whether the information is directly available to the citizen himself or herself, or is indirectly available to his or her elected representatives like MP’s and MLA’s. Different citizens will respond to the same factual information in different ways, and conflict and debate about the common good will result. But that would be part of the democratic process.

The assessment that any public makes about the government of the day depends on both good and bad news about the fate of the country at any given time. In an open society, both good news and bad news is out there in the pubic domain — open to be assessed, debated, rejoiced over, or wept about. If we win a cricket match or send a woman into space we rejoice. If we lose a child in a manhole or a busload of children in a river, we weep. If some tremendous fraud on the public exchequer comes to be exposed, we are appalled. And so on.

It is the hallmark of an open society that its citizens are mature enough to cope with both the good and the bad news about their country that comes to be daily placed before them. Or, perhaps more accurately, the experience of having to handle both good and bad news daily about their world causes the citizens in an open society to undergo a process of social maturation in formulating their understanding of the common good as well as their responses to problems or crises that the community may come to face. They might be thereby thought of as improving their civic capacities, as becoming better-informed and more discerning voters and decision-makers, and so becoming better citizens of the country in which they live.

The opposite of an open society is a closed society — one in which a ruling political party or a self-styled elite or nomenclatura keep publicly important information to themselves, and do not allow the ordinary citizen easy or reasonably free access to it. The reason may be merely that they are intent on accumulating assets for themselves as quickly as they can while in office, or that they are afraid of public anger and want to save their own skins from demands for accountability. Or it may be that they have the impression that the public is better off kept in the dark — that only the elite nomenclatura is in position to use the information to serve the national interest.

In a closed society it is inevitable that bad news comes to be censored or suppressed by the nomenclatura, and so the good news gets exaggerated in significance. News of economic disasters, military defeats or domestic uprisings gets suppressed. News of victories or achievements or heroics gets exaggerated. If there are no real victories, achievements or heroics, fake ones have to be invented by government hacks — although the suppressed bad news tends to silently whisper all the way through the public consciousness in any case.

Such is the way of government propaganda in almost every country, even those that pride themselves on being free and democratic societies. Dostoevsky’s cardinal advice in Brothers Karamasov was: “Above all, never lie to yourself”. Yet people in power tend to become so adept at propaganda that they start to deceive themselves and forget what is true and what is false, or worse still, cannot remember how to distinguish between true and false in the first place. In an essay thirty years ago titled Truth and Politics, the American scholar Hannah Arendt put it like this:

“Insofar as man carries within himself a partner from whom he can never win release, he will be better off not to live with a murderer or a liar; or: since thought is the silent dialogue carried out between me and myself, I must be careful to keep the integrity of this partner intact, for otherwise I shall surely lose the capacity for thought altogether.”[2]

3. Closed societies may have been the rule and open societies the exception for most of human history. The good news at the end of the 20th Century is surely that since November 7 1989, when the Berlin Wall fell, the closed society has officially ceased to be a respectable form of human social organization. The age of mass access to television and telecommunications at the end of the 20th Century may be spelling the permanent end of totalitarianism and closed societies in general. The Berlin Wall was perhaps doomed to fall the first day East Germans were able to watch West German television programs.

Other than our large and powerful neighbour China, plus perhaps North Korea, Myanmar, and some Islamic countries, declared closed societies are becoming hard to find, and China remains in two minds whether to be open or closed. No longer is Russia or Romania or Albania or South Africa closed in the way each once was for many years. There may be all sorts of problems and confusions in these countries but they are or trying to become open societies.

Under the glare of TV cameras in the 21st Century, horrors like the Holocaust or the Gulag or even an atrocity like Jalianwalla Bag or the Mai Lai massacre will simply not be able to take place anywhere in the world. Such things are not going to happen, or if they do happen, it will be random terrorism and not systematic, large scale genocide of the sort the 20th Century has experienced. The good news is that somehow, through the growth of human ingenuity that we call technical progress, we may have made some moral progress as a species as well.

4. My hypothesis, then, is that while every country finds its place on a spectrum of openness and closedness with respect to its political institutions and availability of information, a broad and permanent drift has been taking place as the 20th Century comes to an end in the direction of openness.

With this greater openness we should expect bad news not to come to be suppressed or good news not to come to be exaggerated in the old ways of propaganda. Instead we should expect more objectively accurate information to come about in the public domain — i.e., better quality and more reliable information, in other words, more truthful information. This in turn commensurately requires more candour and maturity on the part of citizens in discussions about the national or social interest. Closed society totalitarianism permitted the general masses to remain docile and unthinking while the nomenclatura make the decisions. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor said that is all that can be expected of the masses. Open society transparency and democracy defines the concept of an ordinary citizen and requires from that citizen individual rationality and individual responsibility. It is the requirement Pericles made of the Athenians:

“Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well; even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics – this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.”[3]

5. All this being said, I am at last in a position to turn to economic policy in India today. I am sorry to have been so long-winded and pedantic but now I can state my main substantive point bluntly: in India today, there is almost zero transparency in the information needed for effective macroeconomic policy-making whether at the Union or State levels. To illustrate by some examples.

(A) Macroeconomic policy-making in any large country requires the presence of half a dozen or a dozen well-defined competing models produced by the government and private agencies, specifying plausible causal links between major economic variables, and made testable against time-series data of reasonably long duration. In India we seem to have almost none. The University Economics Departments are all owned by some government or other and can hardly speak out with any academic freedom. When the Ministry of Finance or RBI or Planning Commission, or the India teams of the World Bank or IMF, make their periodic statements they do not appear to be based on any such models or any such data-base. If any such models exist, these need to be published and placed in the public domain for thorough discussion as to their specification and their data. Otherwise, whatever is being predicted cannot be assessed as being very much more reliable than the predictions obtained from the Finance Minister’s astrologer or palmist. (NB: Horse-Manure is a polite word used in the American South for what elsewhere goes by the initials of B. S.). Furthermore, there is no follow-up or critical review to see whether what the Government said was going to happen a year ago has in fact happened, and if not, why not.

(B) The Constitution of India defines many States yet no one seems to be quite certain how many States really constitute the Union of India at any given time. We began with a dozen. Some 565 petty monarchs were successfully integrated into a unitary Republic of India, and for some years we had sixteen States. But today, do we really have 26 States? Is Delhi a State? UP with 150 million people would be the fifth or sixth largest country in the world on its own; is it really merely one State of India? Are 11 Small States de facto Union Territories in view of their heavy dependence on the Union? Suppose we agreed there are fifteen Major States of India based on sheer population size: namely, Andhra, Assam, Bihar, Gujarat, Haryana, Karnataka, Kerala, MP, Maharashtra, Orissa, Punjab, Rajasthan, Tamil Nadu, UP and West Bengal. These States account for 93% of the population of India. The average population of these 15 Major States is 58 million people each. That is the size of a major country like France or Britain. In other words, the 870 million people in India’s Major States are numerically 15 Frances or 15 Britains put together.

Yet no reliable, uniformly collected GDP figures exist for these 15 States. The RBI has the best data, and these are at least two years old, and the RBI will tell you without further explanation that the data across States are not comparable. If that is the case at State-level, I do not see how the national-level Gross Domestic Product can possibly be estimated with any meaningfulness at all.

(C) Then we hear about the Government Budget deficit as a percentage of GDP. Now any national government is able to pay for its activities only by taxation or borrowing or by using its monopoly over the domestic medium of exchange to print new money. In India today, universal money-illusion seems to prevail. It would not be widely recognised by citizens, journalists or policy-makers that, say, 100,000 Rupees nominally taxed at 10% under 20% inflation leaves less real disposable income than the same taxed at 20% with 5% inflation. This is in part because inflation figures are unknown or suspect. There is no reliable all-India or State-level consumer price index. The wholesale price index on the basis of which the Government of India makes its inflation statements, may not accurately reflect the actual decline in the purchasing power of money, as measured, say, by rises in prices of alternative stores of value like land. The index includes artificially low administered or subsidized prices for petroleum, cereals, and electricity. To the extent these prices may be expected to move towards international equilibrium prices, the index contains a strong element of deferred inflation. One urgent task for all macroeconomic research in India is construction of reliable price-data indices at both Union and State levels, or at a minimum, the testing for reliability by international standards of series currently produced by Government agencies.

Without reliable macroeconomic information being spread widely through a reasonably well-informed electorate, the Government of India has been able to wash away fiscal budget constraints by monetization and inflation without significant response from voters. The routine method of meeting deficits has become “the use of the printing press to manufacture legal tender paper money”, either directly by paying Government creditors “with new paper money specially printed for the purpose” or indirectly by paying creditors “out of loans to itself from the Central Bank”, issuing paper money to that amount. Every Budget of the Government of India, including the most recent ones of 1996 and 1997, comes to be attended by detailed Press discussion with regard to the minutae of changes in tax rates or tax-collection — yet the enormous phenomena of the automatic monetization of the Government’s deficit is ill-understood and effectively ignored. Historically, a policy of monetization started with the British Government in India during the Second World War, with a more than five-fold increase in money supply occurring between 1939 and 1945. Inflation rates never seen in India before or since were the result (Charts 0000), attended by the Great Famine of 1942/43. Though these were brought down after succession of C. D. Deshmukh as Governor of the Reserve Bank, the policy of automatic monetization did not cease and continues until the present day. Inflation “sooner or later destroys the confidence, not only of businessmen, but of the whole community, in the future value of the currency. Then comes the stage known as “the flight from the currency.” Had the Rupee been convertible during the Bretton Woods period, depreciation would have signalled and helped to adjust for disequilibrium. But exchange-controls imposed during the War were enlarged by the new Governments of India and Pakistan after the British departure to exclude convertible Sterling Area currencies as well. With the Rupee no longer convertible, internal monetization of deficits could continue without commensurate exchange-rate depreciation.

The Reserve Bank was originally supposed to be a monetary authority independent of the Government’s fiscal compulsions. It has been prevented from developing into anything more than a department of the Ministry of Finance, and as such, has become the captive creditor of the Government. The RBI in turn has utilized its supervisory role over banking to hold captive creditors, especially nationalized banks whose liabilities account for 90% of commercial bank deposits in the country. Also captive are nationalized insurance companies and pension funds. Government debt instruments show on the asset side of these balance-sheets. To the extent these may not have been held had banks been allowed to act in the interests of proper management of depositors’ liabilities and share-capital according to normal principles, these are pseudo-assets worth small fractions of their nominal values. Chart 0000 shows that in the last five years the average term structure of Government debt has been shortening rapidly, suggesting the Government is finding it increasingly difficult to find creditors, and portending higher interest rates.

General recognition of these business facts, as may be expected to come about with increasing transparency, would be a recipe for a crisis of confidence in the banking and financial system if appropriate policies were not in place beforehand.

(D) As two last examples, I offer two charts. The first shows the domestic interest burden of the Government of India growing at an alarming rate, even after it has been deflated to real terms. The second tries to show India’s foreign assets and liabilities together – we always come to know what is happening to the RBI’s reserve levels, what is less known or less understood is the structure of foreign liabilities being accumulated by the country. Very roughly speaking, in terms that everyone can understand, every man, woman and child in India today owes something like 100 US dollars to the outside world. The Ministry of Finance will tell you that this is not to be worried about because it is long-term debt and not short-term debt. Even if we take them at their word, interest payments still have to be paid on long-term debt, say at 3% per annum. That means for the stock of debt merely to be financed, every man, woman and child in India must be earning $3 every year in foreign exchange via the sale of real goods and services abroad. I.e., something like $3 billion must be newly earned every year in foreign exchange merely to finance the existing stock of debt. Quite clearly, that is not happening and it would stretch the imagination to see how it can be made to happen.

In sum, then, India, blessed with democratic political traditions which we had to take from the British against their will — remember Tilak, “Freedom is my birthright, and I shall have it” — may still be stuck with a closed society mentality when it comes to the all-important issue of economic policy. There is simply an absence in Indian public discourse of vigourous discussion of economic models and facts, whether at Union or State levels. A friendly foreign ambassador pointedly observed an absence in India of political philosophy. It may be more accurate to say that without adequate experience of a normal agenda of government being seen to be practised, widespread ignorance regarding fiscal and monetary causalities and inexperience of the technology of governance remains in the Indian electorate, as well as among public decision-makers at all levels. Our politicians seem to spend an inordinate amount of their time either garlanding one another with flowers or garlanding statues and photographs of the glorious dead. It is high time they stopped to think about the living and the future.

[1] Renford Bambrough (ed.) Plato, Popper and Politics: Some Contributions to a Modern Controversy, 1967.

[2] Philosophy, Politics and Society, 2nd Series, Peter Laslett & W. G. Runciman (eds.), 1967.

[3] Thucydides, History of the Pelopennesian War, II.40.

Philosophy of Economics: On the Scope of Reason in Economic Inquiry (1989)

Apropos *Philosophy of Economics*

“Dr. Roy’s book, Philosophy of Economics, which I have read in galleys, I regard as a masterpiece, not only in economic analysis but in philosophic analysis as well.  Sidney Hook 1989

“I shall have to ponder your rejection of the Humean position which has, I suppose, been central in not only my thought but that of most economists. Candidly, I have never understood what late Wittgenstein was saying, but I have not worked very hard at his work, and perhaps your book will give guidance.” Kenneth J. Arrow, letter to the author, 1989

“I was grateful for the reminder of the passage of Aristotle at which I had not looked for many years and found the criticism of Arrow well justified and important.”  FA Hayek, letter to the author, 1981

“It is an extraordinarily well-written and well-thought through book that shows a wide-ranging capacity and understanding of economics as a discipline in both its macro and micro aspects.” Milton Friedman 1991, Evidence in the US District Court for the District of Hawaii.

“There is no doubt whatsoever that he has a thorough and deep understanding of the major issues that have occupied macroeconomics over the past fifty years…. It is a sign of real understanding that Roy can state these ideas not in terms of jargon, not in terms of equations or technical terms, but in straightforward English using only a minimum of specifically economic terminology. All in all, it is a very knowledgeable and sophisticated performance.”Milton Friedman, 1989

“I had the privilege of reading early drafts of this book. I saw it emerge as an in-depth analysis of the philosophical foundations of economics. It is scholarship of a high order. It is an original contribution of major importance to economic thought.”  Theodore W. Schultz 1989

“The core of Roy’s study is devoted to the nature and grounds of economics as knowledge; it examines the basic intellectual roots of economics. It is cogent and, what is exceedingly rare these days, it is refreshingly lucid…. Roy’s book is in several important respects an original contribution, the most important being his treatment of the philosophical foundations of economics as knowledge. He is all too modest in assessing the importance of his contribution.” Theodore W. Schultz, 1983

“(This) is a very ambitious work directed at the foundations of normative judgements in economics. The author arrives at some conclusions very closely matching those I arrived at some years ago. It is clear, however, that Dr. Roy arrived at his conclusions completely independently. That is all the more piquant to me in that the philosophical underpinning of his work is the development of philosophy in England  from the later Wittgenstein, while mine derives principally from earlier work in the United States by the pragmatists… Dr. Roy reveals a clear understanding of the methodological positivism that invaded economic policy analysis in the thirties and still dominates the literature of economics…. Following Renford Bambrough….he arrives at a position equivalent to that of the American pragmatists, especially Dewey, who insist that the problematic situation provides the starting point for the analysis of a problem even though there are no ultimate starting points. The methodological implication is the support of inquiry as fundamental, avoiding both scepticism and dogmatism. Roy develops his position with a great deal of attention to the ramifications of the problem both in philosophy and in economics. While his treatment of economic questions is ‘from the top down’ so to speak, it reveals a strong command of conventional economic analysis. He writes very well and thinks very clearly. He is certainly not afraid to tackle the big questions. His book reveals a keen mind, ready to pay almost undue respect to his forerunners, but anxious also to achieve originality….”Sidney Stuart Alexander, 1985

“I know that I have to continue to bear the responsibility for things that I wrote nearly fifty years ago.  I am however glad that your attention has been drawn to that passage written much more recently…. building up to what I think is  a coherent point of view very different from that which I took in ’34 and ’39…. concerned with a field not far removed from that you  reach…”   John R Hicks, letter to the author, 1984

“A work altogether well written and admirably clear.”Renford Bambrough, 1985

“I like very much the courage in trying to produce a genuine philosophy of economics. Such a book is badly needed and could be very useful to economists. The fine use made of extensive readings in older as well as contemporary theorists and the splendid choice of quotations would themselves be worth the price of admission. The style maintains a fine level of clarity and emphasis.” Max Black 1985

“The discussion of Arrow’s theorem under unintended interpretations focuses our understanding on what is really fundamental to this famous result…. Roy has obviously thought much harder about the foundational and methodological problems in economics than most of his fellow-economists.” Anonymous

“Roy’s platonist view of what is the purpose of government is very odd at this stage of history. He seems to suppose that there is an objectively best state of affairs which we must simply discover. The more urgent issue in politics is generally not that of knowing what is the best thing to do but of dealing with conflicting interests. Conflict of interests is not merely disagreement over facts.” Anonymous

“The author has performed a very valuable service for economists interested in the philosophical problems and positions discussed. He has not misrepresented the positions he discusses and his account of various issues and different positions on those issues is philosophically adequate. Many economists will be stimulated as a result of reading this work to reconsider their own positions on the issues Roy addresses.” Anonymous

“The work has many strengths. It is wide in its references and its outlook. Its endorsement of objectivism is both right and timely. The chapter on mathematics in economics is particularly fine.” Anonymous

KGZ
“The author intends to discuss some of the central philosophical questions facing modern economic theory. In the foreground is a disposition of the conventional problem of value-independence. Roy sees the value-independence postulate as “Hume’s Scepticism”. He defines Hume’s First and Second Laws on the basis of two signified propositions taken from R. M. Hare. (1) From positive empirical premises, no normative postulate can be derived; in order to establish obligatory propositions, at least one normative proposition is needed. (2) In a specified economic context, after all empirical and formal/logical matters are resolved, little scope exists for further intersubjectively valid answers. Valuations beyond this limit are based on the subjective feelings of the economist to the concerned problem. The scientific/theoretical attitude representative of most economists of the 20th century has been based on this characteristic Humean scepticism. To show this, the author reviews short representative quotations from some of the known names of recent economic theory: Friedman, Myrdal, Lionel Robbins, P. A. Samuelson, Hicks, Joan Robinson, Hayek, Oskar Lange, Schumpeter, Arrow, Blaug, Frank Hahn. Subsequently, the author raises the point as to what explains this scientific-theoretical approval. A cursory survey of important real and virtual historical developments since antiquity confirms that the essential reason for the reported wide acceptance of a humean position by the economic scientist indeed could have been as a defensive posture against dogmatism and political dictatorship (“It is part of the democratic reaction against medieval authoritarianism” p.45). Conditioned by their “disgust with the tyrannies and ideologies of the twentieth century”, these authorities tried to protect economic science and guarantee the objectivity of research by resort to moral scepticism. Hence the author arrives at the starting position of his actual subject: After using Hume to escape from dependence on Plato e tutti quanti, has not value-free economics gotten into a fresh dependence, namely, moral scepticism and its philosophical consequence, moral indifference? Here too a contradiction is shown to arise, namely, that each argumentation against the normative can stand its ground only through normative premises. Thus ultimately something like correct standards become necessary. This however is only a marginal problem compared to a very much more important point: whether the moral scepticism permeating the strict scientific-theoretical position, is not just part of a very much more comprehensive scepticism, which includes Hume’s own criticism of induction as well. But then the same scepticism makes positive theory dubious as well: “Either all of positive economics is attacked with just as much scepticism as anything in normative economics, or we accept one and reject the other when instead there are reasons to think they share the same ultimate grounds and must be accepted or rejected together”(p.47). The author illustrates the difficulties with radical scepticism in a continental traversal of economic theory: micro and macroeconomics, mathematical economic theory and welfare theory are stations on this tour. A solution of the problem in the strict sense is not given nor could have been expected. But Roy delivers a methodical rule which permits a more exact definition of the limits to which normative discussion can take place precisely and objectively: first, to distinguish always whether an objective answer is at all possible to certain questions, and secondly, to ask who is competent or in the best position to give an answer. For readers interested in a new, thoroughly subtle discussion of a basic yet customary problem, this book will be profitable reading. However, the author could have argued some matters slightly more elaborately and others less redundantly, and set forth the central idea more clearly through appropriate summaries.” Karl Georg Zinn, in Jahrbücher für Nationalökonomie und Statistik / Zeitschrift für Wirtschaft und Statistik. Vol. 209, Nr. 5/6 (May 1992), p 573-574, translated from the German by Nahar Bhattacharya. 

“Effectively demonstrates the direct and significant links between the basic philosophical beliefs held by economists and their fundamental disagreements” Kyklos (Switzerland).

“Every rule of good argument is flouted. Does little to grapple with the large issues to which he rightly urges us to attend.” Times Literary Supplement (UK).

“Not the book to set off the revolution in economic epistemology and it is not even a reliable introduction to the field for undergraduates.” Journal of Applied Philosophy (UK).

“Subroto Roy’s Philosophy of Economics is a formidable contribution…. The author’s aim is to steer a middle course between scepticism and dogmatism in his account of the knowledge we can have of economic phenomena, and in this he largely succeeds. The result is a most distinguished and valuable exploration of the nature of economic inquiry.” John Gray, Economic Affairs (UK).

“Interesting and well-written. Definitely worthwhile being read by any economist interested in the philosophical foundations of his subject and profession.”
Journal of Institutional & Theoretical Economics (Germany).

“Roy’s basic argument is that the theory of economic knowledge underlying the work of most economists is logically inconsistent… The inconsistency lies in not permitting the skepticism that undermines the analysis of normative problems to destroy the logical foundation underlying positive analysis….. This well-documented study is a worthwhile contribution to the burgeoning literature on the philosophy of economics.” Choice

“The central argument of the book shows that the skepticism/dogmatism choice is a false dichotomy, that one need not embrace dogmatism in order to have objectivity or give up objectivity for freedom…. In the final section of the book Roy applies his critique… to several debates in economics. Chapter 8 presents the development of macroeconomics from John Maynard Keynes to the present through a dialogue between economists of opposing schools… Chapter 9 is a rich, wide-ranging discussion of mathematical models in economics…. Chapter 10 discusses the foundations of welfare economics… Roy shows how philosophical mistakes can lead economic thought astray, even though some of his arguments are also unsound. As a philosopher I find it encouraging to see an economist apply recent developments in epistemology to economic debates.” Journal of Economic History

“Accomplished, interesting and ambitious.” Mary Farmer, Manchester School (UK) 

“Perfectly sensible.” De Economist (Netherlands).

“Engaging and illuminating study. His seamless style may lull the reader into underestimating the extent and difficulty of the philosophical ground covered.” Research in History & Methodology of Economics (USA).

“(Roy’s) message is for his fellow economists, urging them not to shy away from the treatment of normative issues in their discipline.” – Economics and Philosophy

“When Roy refers to the present received theory of economics, he means that this is the view not only of Chicago, but also of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Cambridge, England, of Friedman, Samuelson, Myrdal, Hayek, and Joan Robinson. His coverage is broad…. In one place he states that it is precisely because it is possible for even a unanimous group of experts to be wrong that we have a reason, an objective reason, why freedom is to be valued. ‘Freedom is necessary for objectivity.’…. Whether one agrees or disagrees, one has to be impressed by the knowledge and sophistication involved in Roy’s presentation. Involved here is no run-of-the-mill carping at the economics establishment. This is a serious thoughtful work.” Social Science Quarterly

https://independentindian.com/thoughts-words-deeds-my-work-1973-2010/philosophy-of-economics-on-the-scope-of-reason-in-economic-inquiry-1989/

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First published by Routledge of London & New York , 1989, in the International Library of Philosophy

Library of Congress HB72.R69 1989

British Library 330’.01-dc19
Economics – philosophical perspectives
ISBN 0-415-03592-9

Reprinted in paperback, 1991
Library of Congress HB72.R69.1991
British Library 330’.01-dc20
ISBN0-415-06028-1

Postscript Twitter 8 July 2016

 pabeypabe

Philosophy of Economics

On the Scope of Reason in Economic Inquiry

Subroto Roy
© 1989, 1991, 2007 Subroto Roy

First published by Routledge of London & New York , 1989, in the International Library of Philosophy,

Library of Congress HB72.R69 1989

British Library 330’.01-dc19
Economics – philosophical perspectives
ISBN 0-415-03592-9

Reprinted in paperback, 1991
Library of Congress HB72.R69.1991
British Library 330’.01-dc20
ISBN0-415-06028-1

Preface to 2007 WordPress.com Republication

This book germinated when I was 18 or 19 years of age in Paris, Helsinki and London, and it was first published when I was 34 in Honolulu. I came to economics from natural science (biology, chemistry, physics), not mathematics. It was inevitable I would be drawn to the beauty of philosophy as a theoretical discipline while being driven, as a post-Independence Indian, to economics as the practical discipline that might unlock secrets to India’s prosperity and progress. I belonged to an ancient family of political men, and my father, who had joined India’s new foreign service the year before I was born, inculcated in me as a boy an idea that I had “a mission” (though he later forgot he had done so).

I was fortunate to fail to enter Oxford’s PPE and instead go to the London School of Economics. LSE was at an intellectual peak in the early 1970s. DHN Johnson in international law, ACL Day in international monetary economics, Brian Griffiths vs Marcus Miller in monetary economics with everyone still in awe of Harry Johnson’s graduate lectures in macroeconomics, Ken Wallis, Graham Mizon, JJ Thomas, David Hendry in econometrics with the odd lecture by Durbin himself – I was exposed to a fully grown up intellectual seriousness from the day I arrived as an 18 year old. Michio Morishima as my professorial tutor told me frankly that, as an Indian, I would face less prejudice in Western academia than in the private sector, and said he was speaking from experience as a fellow-Asian. He turned out to be wrong but it was wise advice nevertheless, just as wise as his requiring pupils to read Hicks’ Value and Capital (which, in our undergraduate mythology, he himself had read inside a Japanese gunboat during war).

What was relatively weak at LSE was general economic theory. We were good at deriving the Best Linear Unbiased Estimator but left unsatisfied with our grasp of the theory of value that constituted the roots of our discipline. I managed a First and was admitted to Cambridge as a Research Student in 1976, where fortune had Frank Hahn choose me as a student. That at the outset was protection from the communist cabal that ran “development economics” with whom almost all the Indians ended up. I was wholly impecunious in my first year as a Research Student, and had to, for example, proof-read Arrow and Hahn’s General Competitive Analysis for its second edition to receive 50 pounds sterling from Hahn which kept me going for a short time. My exposure to Hahn’s subtle, refined and depthless thought as an economist of the first rank led to fascination and wonderment, and I read and re-read his “On the notion of equilibrium in economics”, “On the foundations of monetary theory”, “Keynesian economics and general equilibrium theory” and other clear-headed attempts to integrate the theory of value with the theory of money — a project Wicksell and Marshall had (perhaps wisely) not attempted and Keynes, Hicks and Patinkin had failed at.

Hahn insisted a central question was to ask how money, which is intrinsically worthless, can have any value, why anyone should want to hold it. The practical relevance of this question is manifest. India today in 2007 has an inconvertible currency, vast and growing public debt financed by money-creation, and more than two dozen fiscally irresponsible State governments without money-creating powers. While pondering, over the last decade, whether India’s governance could be made more responsible if States were given money-creating powers, I have constantly had Hahn’s seemingly abstruse question from decades ago in mind, as to why anyone will want to hold State currencies in India, as to whether the equilibrium price of those monies would be positive. (Lerner in fact gave an answer in 1945 when he suggested that any money would have value if its issuer agreed to collect liabilities in it — as a State collects taxes – and that may be the simplest road that bridges the real/monetary divide.)

Though we were never personal friends and I did not ingratiate myself with Hahn as did many others, my respect for him only grew when I saw how he had protected my inchoate classical liberal arguments for India from the most vicious attacks that they were open to from the communists. My doctoral thesis, initially titled “A monetary theory for India”, had to be altered due to paucity of monetary data at the time, as well as the fact India’s problems of political economy and allocation of real resources were more pressing, and so the thesis became “On liberty and economic growth: preface to a philosophy for India”. When no internal examiner could be found, the University of Cambridge, at Hahn’s insistence, showed its greatness by appointing two externals: C. J. Bliss at Oxford and T. W. Hutchison at Birmingham, former students of Hahn and Joan Robinson respectively. My thesis received the most rigorous and fairest imaginable evaluation from them.

I had been attracted to Cambridge partly by its old reputation for philosophy, especially that of Wittgenstein. But I met no worthwhile philosophers there until a few months before I was to leave for the United States in 1980, when I chanced upon the work of Renford Bambrough. Hahn had challenged me with the question, “how are you so sure your value judgements promoting liberty blah-blah are better than those of Chenery and the development economists?” It was a question that led inevitably to ethics and its epistemology — when I chanced upon Bambrough’s work, and that of his philosophical master, John Wisdom, the immense expanse of metaphysics (or ontology) opened up as well. “Then felt I like some watcher of the skies, When a new planet swims into his ken; Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes, He star’d at the Pacific…”

It has taken me more than a quarter century to traverse some of that expanse; when I returned to Britain in 2004 as the Wincott Visiting Professor of Economics at the University of Buckingham, I was very kindly allowed to deliver a public lecture, “Science, Religion, Art and the Necessity of Freedom”, wherein I repaid a few of my debts to the forgotten work of Bambrough and Wisdom — whom I extravagantly compared with the Bodhisattvas of Mahayana Buddhism, also saying that the trio of Wittgenstein, Wisdom and Bambrough were reminiscent of what Socrates, Plato and Aristotle might have been like.

I had written to Bambrough from within Cambridge expressing my delight at finding his works and saying these were immensely important to economics; he had invited me to his weekly discussion groups at St John’s College but I could not attend. Between 1979 and 1989 we corresponded while I worked in America on my application of his and Wisdom’s work to problems in economics. We met only once when I returned to Cambridge from Blacksburg for my doctoral viva voce examination in January 1982. Six years later in 1988 he said of my Philosophy of Economics, “The work is altogether well-written and admirably clear”, and on another occasion he said he was “extremely pleased” at the interest I had taken in his work. The original preface of Philosophy of Economics said he was not responsible for the use I had made of his writings, which I reiterated in the 2004 lecture. At our meeting, he offered to introduce me to Wisdom who had returned to Cambridge from Oregon but I was too scared and declined, something I have always regretted since. It is only in the last few years that I have begun to grasp the immensity of Wisdom’s achievement in comprehending, explaining and extending the work of both Wittgenstein and Freud. His famous “Virginia Lectures” of 1957 were finally published by his admirers with his consent as Proof and Explanation just before his death in 1993. As for Bambrough, I believe he may have been or become the single greatest philosopher since Aristotle; he told me in correspondence there was an unfinished manuscript Principia Metaphysica (the prospectus of which appeared in Philosophy 1964), which unfortunately his family and successors knew nothing about; the fact he died almost in obscurity and was soon forgotten by his University speaks more about the contemporary state of academic philosophy than about him. (Similarly, the fact Hahn, Morishima and like others did not receive the so-called Economics “Nobel” says more about the award than it does about them.)

All I needed in 1980 was time and freedom to develop the contents of this book, and that I found in America — which I could not have done in either Britain or India. It would take eight or nine very strenuous years before the book could be written and published, mostly spent at Virginia Polytechnic Institute (1980-1985) and the University of Hawaii (1986-1990) Economics Departments, with short interludes at Cornell (Fall 1983) and Brigham Young (1985-86). I went to Virginia because James M. Buchanan was there, and he, along with FA Hayek, were whom Hahn decided to write on my behalf. Hayek said he was too old to accept me but wrote me kind and generous letters praising and hence encouraging my inchoate liberal thoughts and arguments. Buchanan was welcoming and I learnt much from him and his colleagues about the realities of public finance and democratic politics, which I quickly applied in my work on India, published in 1984 in London as Pricing, Planning & Politics: A Study of Economic Distortions in India and republished elsewhere here. The visit to the Cornell Economics Department was really so I could talk to Max Black the philosopher, who represented a different line of Wittgenstein’s students, and Max and I became friends until his death in 1988.

Buchanan’s departure from Blacksburg led to a gang of inert “game theorists” to arrive, and I was immediately under attack – one senior man telling me I was free to criticise the “social choice” work of Amartya Sen (since he was Indian too) but I was definitely unfree to do the same of Sen’s mentor, Kenneth Arrow, who was Jewish! (Arrow was infinitely more gracious when he himself responded to my criticism.) On top of that arose a matter of a woman, fresh off the aeroplane from India, being assaulted by a senior professor, and when I stood for her against her assailant, my time in Blacksburg was definitely up.

The manuscript of this book was at the time under contract with University of Chicago Press, and, thanks to Mrs Harry Johnson there, I had come in contact with that great American, Theodore W. Schultz. Schultz, at age 81, told me better to my face what the book was about than I had realised myself, namely, it was about economics as knowledge — its subject-matter was the epistemology of economics. Schultz wrote letters all over America on my behalf (as did Milton Friedman at Stanford and Sidney Alexander of MIT, whom I had also met and become friends with), and I was able to first spend a happy year among the Mormons at Brigham Young, and then end up at the University of Hawaii where I was given responsibility for the main graduate course in macroeconomics. I taught Harry Johnson-level IS-LM theory and Friedman-Tobin macroeconomics and then the new “rational expectations” vs Keynesian material.

I was also offered a large University grant to work on “South Asia”, which led to the books Foundations of India’s Political Economy: Towards an Agenda for the 1990s, and Foundations of Pakistan’s Political Economy: Towards an Agenda for the 1990s, both created by myself and WE James, and which led to the origins of India’s 1991 economic reform and the India-Pakistan peace process as told elsewhere. Also, this book came to be accepted for publication by Routledge, as the first economics book in its famed International Library of Philosophy.

Just as I was set to be evaluated for promotion and tenure at the University of Hawaii, I became the victim of a most vicious racist defamation (and there was some connection with Blacksburg). Quite fed up with the sordidness of American academia as I had experienced it, I sued in the federal court, which consumed much of the next half dozen years as the case worked its way through the United States Supreme Court twice. Milton Friedman and Theodore W. Schultz stood as expert witnesses on my behalf but you would not have known it from the judge’s ruling. There had been not only demonstrable perjury and suborning of perjury by the State of Hawaii’s officers, there was also “after-discovered” evidence of bribery of court-officers in the US District Court for the District of Hawaii, and I had to return to India in 1996 quite exhausted to recuperate from the experience. “Solicitation of counsel, clerks or judges” is “embracery curialis”, recognized as extrinsic fraud and subversion of justice since Jepps 72 E R 924 (1611), “firmly established in English practice long before the foundation” of the USA, Hazel Atlas, 322 US 238 (1943). “Embracery is an offense striking at the very foundation of civil society” says Corpus Juris 20, 496. A court of equity has inherent power to investigate if a judgement has been obtained by fraud, and that is a power to unearth it effectively, since no fraud is more odious than one to subvert justice. Cases include when “by reason of something done by the successful party… there was in fact no adversary trial or decision of the issue in the case. Where the unsuccessful party has been prevented from exhibiting fully his case, by fraud or deception practised on him by his opponent, as…where an attorney fraudulently or without authority assumes to represent a party and connives at his defeat; or where the attorney regularly employed corruptly sells out his client’s interest to the other side ~ these, and similar cases which show that there has never been a real contest in the trial or hearing of the case, are reasons for which a new suit may be sustained to set aside and annul the former judgment or decree, and open the case for a new and a fair hearing….” (Hazel Atlas). There is no time-limit in United States federal law for rectification of fraud on the court of this sort, and I remain fully hopeful today of the working of American justice in the case.

The practical result was that this book was never able to be properly publicized among economists as it would have been had I become Professor of Economics at the University of Hawaii by 1992 as expected. The hardback sold out quickly on its own steam and went into paperback by 1991, and a friend told me it was being used for a course at Yale Law School. The reviews were mostly intelligent. Upon returning to Britain as the Wincott Visiting Professor in 2004, I found times had changed and so had Routledge who would not keep it in print let alone permit a second revised edition. But I am now free to republish the book as I please, and today in 2007, with the Internet growing to a maturity which allows the young geeks at WordPress.com to want to encourage blogging worldwide, I can think of no more apt place to reproduce the first edition of this book than here at my own blog http://www.independentindian.com.

This is not a second or revised edition, and it is unchanged in content except for this lengthy new preface made necessary by the adventures and dramas the book’s author found himself unwittingly part of since its first publication. I am 52 now and happy to say I endorse the book just as I had published it at 34, though I do find it a little impatient and too terse in a few places. The 1991 paperback corrected a few slight errors in the 1989 hardback, and has been used. I am planning an entirely new book which shall have its roots in this one though it will be mostly in philosophy and not economics — the outlines it may take may be seen in the 2004 public lecture I gave on the work of Bambrough and Wisdom mentioned above and published elsewhere; its main aim will be to uncover for new generations the immense worth there is in their work which is in danger of being lost.

At least two names failed to appear in the original list of acknowledgements. G. Bruce Chapman, now of the University of Toronto, and I talked much of serious ethics and political philosophy when I first arrived at Cambridge in 1976. And in 1980 in Blacksburg, Anil Lal, then a graduate student and house-painter, borrowed my copy of Bambrough’s work, read it, and later made a comment on the metaphysics of John Wisdom which allowed me to see things more clearly.

Ballygunge, Kolkata,
April 7 2007

TO: R.A.R.

Contents

Preface

1. Introduction

Part I

2. Hume and the Economists

3. Understanding the Consensus

4. Difficulties with Moral Scepticism

Part II

5. Objectivity and Freedom

6. Expertise and Democracy

Part III

7. An Example from Microeconomics

8. A Dialogue in Macroeconomics

9. Mathematical Economics and Reality

10. Remarks on the Foundations of Welfare Economics

Envoi

Notes and References

Select Bibliography

Preface to First Edition
The publication of this work marks the end of an adventure of more than a decade and a half, most of the writing being done between 17 December 1980 and 22 May 1987. It has been quite perilous at times, especially as a foreigner in the West, and over the years many teachers, colleagues, friends and members of family have contributed to the author’s learning with their thoughts and actions. A number of senior scholars in economics and philosophy — especially Professor Frank Hahn, Professor James Buchanan, Professor Sidney Alexander, Professor Milton Friedman, Professor Max Black, Professor Sidney Alexander, Professor Amartya Sen, Professor Peter Bauer, Professor T. W. Hutchison and Dr C. J. Bliss, have lent their support to the work as it developed, even when they may have not known of its final form, or disagreed with its content, or been themselves a subject of its criticism. Most especially, the work has been honoured in the last six years with the unwavering encouragement of Professor T. W. Schultz of the University of Chicago. And Professor Ted Honderich of University College London has shown it the kindest consideration, without which publication would have been much delayed. Finally, a large philosophical debt will be seen to be owed to the work of Mr. Renford Bambrough of St. John’s College, Cambridge; however he should not be considered responsible for the use that has been made here of his writings.
HONOLULU
15 AUGUST 1988.

1. Introduction

1. IN this book, some of the central philosophical questions facing the modern economist will be raised. Most attention will be given to the question of the appropriate relationship between the positive and the normative, as well as to its parent question of the appropriate scope of objective reasoning in the making of evaluative judgements. Closely related is the question of the appropriate role of the economic expert in society, while slightly more distant questions have to do with the significance of interpersonal comparisons of utility, with the philosophical status of the concepts and theorems of mathematical economics, and with how judgements of probability should be understood. It is this family of questions which will be the concern of the present work.

Economics is a science with potentially important practical bearing upon the lives of men and nations. The state of the modern world may have been affected more profoundly and subtly by the use or misuse of economic knowledge than by many another science. Yet anyone familiar with the intellectual history of the field will know it to have seen more conflicts, and often conflicts of a more destructive kind, than may be reasonably expected or tolerated in the development of a scholarly discipline. The reader will be familiar with the many explicit and implicit divisions of opinion that have occurred upon theories and methods and evidence and policies, which have sometimes torn apart individual university departments and even threatened the integrity of the science itself. Indeed the modern economist in a despondent mood might be inclined to say of the state of his discipline as David Hume once said of philosophy: “There is nothing which is not the subject of debate, and in which men of learning are not of contrary opinions. The most trivial question escapes not our controversy, and in the most momentous we are not able to give any certain decision. Disputes are multiplied, as if everything was uncertain, and they are settled with the utmost warmth, as if everything was certain.”
At the same time as there have been deep and persistent divisions on substantive questions of economic theory and method and evidence and policy, there has been a deliberate or inadvertent consensus about the answer to an important question in the theory of knowledge. Modern economists happen to have been practically unanimous in their opinion on the possible scope of objective reasoning in the making of judgements, and thus in their opinion on the appropriate relationship between the positive and the normative. A broad consensus has developed to the effect that while common reasoning can have some scope in evaluative discussion, it is quite possible in practice and in principle for this scope to become exhausted. At such a point of the exhaustion of reason, only sheer and unadulterated subjective differences will be found to remain between people. Put another way, it has been believed possible for judgements ultimately to become immune to rational question and criticism.

Many of the pioneers of twentieth century economic thought, Kenneth J. Arrow, Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek, Sir John Hicks, Oskar Lange, Gunnar Myrdal, Lionel Robbins, Joan Robinson, Paul Samuelson, Joseph Schumpeter, Jan Tinbergen, to name but a few, who between themselves would represent all of the main schools of contemporary economics, may be found to have shared such a thesis in the theory of knowledge, differing amongst themselves only upon the relatively minor question of the precise amount of room reasoning should be considered to have: some saying a great amount, others saying almost none, but all agreeing that whatever the exact amount it is a finite amount, both actually and potentially. The theory of demand, the theory of macroeconomic policy, the theory of welfare economics, the theory of social choice — each has in whole or in part rested upon an epistemological premise of this kind. If such a consensus can be shown to have existed, the reader may agree it to be something of a remarkable fact, since it would be difficult indeed to find a single substantive proposition of theory or method or evidence or policy to which a similar measure of consensus among modern economists might obtain.
One of the objects of the present work will be to argue that the fact there have been tremendous disharmonies on substantive economic questions, may not be independent of the fact there has been this kind of harmony in the theory of knowledge among many of the pioneers of twentieth century economics as well as the many more who have followed them. If the epistemological point hitherto accepted as true happens in fact to be false, it becomes possible that the scope of objective reasoning on substantive questions has been artificially prevented from being extended as far as it could have and should have been. Evaluative judgements are clearly of indefinite variety: attitudes towards goods or people, expectations of the future, recommendations to buy or sell, advice to a friend or a student or a government, etc. — roughly, all judgements taken by an individual or social agent about a right or optimal course of action in given circumstances. We shall find the consensus has been that it is possible for reasoning to come to a necessary halt in the process of coming to such judgements, whether the maker of the judgement is a public body or a private individual acting in the capacity of consumer or voter. A large amount (and possibly the whole amount) of what may deserve to be within the domain of common and objective reasoning comes to be placed instead under the rule of subjective will and caprice. Not only must we live with the fact that discussions between citizens or economists or politicians or spouses or states do frequently come to end without resolution, because there happens to be a lack of patience or tolerance or perseverance or good humour or whatever, but also that such outcomes may be written into the script from the start. In any normative discussion, we are to be permitted to call a unilateral halt merely by declaring “Well that is a value judgement of mine” or “That is a personal opinion of mine”, with the implication that any further questioning is out of bounds and unacceptable. Given a theory which allows us in this way to declare as we please what to call objective science and what to call subjective opinion, and given that it may be but human nature to be sceptical of the other fellow’s dogma while being oblivious to one’s own, we may have some explanation of how the consensus among economists in the theory of knowledge may have caused and preserved a state of affairs in which rival substantive dogmas can thrive — because the processes of common reasoning and even communication itself may have been allowed too often to come to a virtual standstill. (Or move at a snail’s pace.) “Disputes are multiplied, as if everything was uncertain, and they are settled with the utmost warmth, as if everything was certain.”

The gist of the present work will be that the present consensus in the theory of economic knowledge is logically inconsistent. It is therefore untenable and deserves to be abandoned. Men can aspire to, and in fact do attain and possess, certain and objective knowledge in an indefinite number of contexts. At the same time, there is no proposition of any kind held by anyone which must be thought of as necessarily closed to further question on grounds of reason or evidence. This simple maxim is something that may be found to hold in any field of human inquiry or endeavour one cares to mention — mathematics or medicine, ethics or physics, history or probability, logic or theology — and it will be our purpose in this work to examine its consequences in the context of economics in particular.

§2. Our study is one in what may be called theory of economic knowledge, and it may be worth a moment to consider what may be meant by this.

Bertrand Russell said of pure mathematics that it was a subject “in which we do not know what we are talking about” — meaning that the pure mathematician does not normally intend to refer in his theorems to substantive factual truths about the world. The epistemology or theory of knowledge of a discipline may be thought of similarly as being not concerned with either affirming or denying, corroborating or refuting the substantive propositions that happen to be made within the discipline. The study of the theory of economic knowledge may be thought of as not making any commitment one way or another to the substantive propositions which are to be found within the department of economics itself. Instead it is a more abstract undertaking, which seeks to examine certain kinds of questions from outside the department in the practical hope of dissolving or at least clarifying the character of substantive questions and controversies that may be occurring within. For example, to ask whether a criterion of truth and falsity can be applied to economic propositions, or whether objective knowledge is possible in the field, or how the kinds of propositions made in economics are to be justified, or how they compare and contrast with propositions made in other departments of inquiry — these would be the kinds of question we might see asked in the theory of economic knowledge; from which too the importance can be seen of generally abstaining from making substantive commitments in the process.

Much of the present work, especially Parts I and II, may be understood to be an attempt to provide a theory of economic knowledge of this kind. Thus the reader will not find in it commitments made to any substantive economic propositions. There is no theorem reported of the existence or efficiency of some new kind of economic equilibrium, no new model or evidence offered of the influence of the supply of money on prices, no new theory of how the expectations of economic agents may be formed or fulfilled or disappointed, no new evidence or explanation of why some country may be experiencing rapid growth or high inflation or increasing unemployment. No new result within economic science; one might almost say, nothing substantive! The present work will offer no more than “a machine to think with” on certain philosophical aspects of economics; it intends to leave economics as it is — and yet in so doing to have shown the way out of some of the philosophical difficulties that are encountered in its study. “For the clarity that we are aiming at is indeed complete clarity. But this simply means that the philosophical problems should completely disappear.”

Yet the practical purpose to making an investigation of this kind may be stated quite readily. For suppose, for sake of argument, we granted the truth of our simple maxim and assumed the epistemological concepts ‘knowledge’ and ‘doubt’, and their allied concepts ‘objectivity’ and ‘freedom’, should not be seen as incompatible in the project of inquiry. What consequences would follow from accepting such a viewpoint? Clearly first of all, we would be placed in a happy position of being able to say that no matter how deep or persistent the actual disagreements between economists or between citizens on economic questions happened to be, there is knowledge to be had in the study of economics. Not just high sophistry or rhetoric or political posturing or the opinions and prejudices of different people — but certain and objective knowledge about those actions, events, and phenomena that are part of the economic context. We would be able to say, in other words, there are at least some propositions in economics which are true, and which moreover can be known to be true.

An important ambiguity is possible here in asking whether there is knowledge about a given matter, insofar as such a question can be taken either as asking whether it is possible for there to be any knowledge about the matter, or as asking whether it is known that someone actually possesses such knowledge and how that has been determined. Defining as an expert someone who has the most reasonable and justifiable answer to give to a question, we need to distinguish, in other words, the relatively cool logical question of whether here can be any such thing as expert knowledge from the more heated political question of who is supposed to be such an expert and how we are supposed to know that. For instance, a question like “Is there a proof to Fermat’s last theorem?” can be understood either in the manner of the pure mathematician, as asking whether there can be a proof to the proposition it is impossible xn + yn = zn for positive integers x, y, z, n, and n > 2; or in the manner of the historian of mathematics, as asking whether any human being has come up with such a proof, as Fermat himself claimed to have done but of which no record exists. Among the great thinkers, Plato is the most influential to have crossed these wires in suggesting it possible not only for there to be objective knowledge about mathematics and ethics and statesmanship, but also for a special and closed set of experts to come to be identified to whom such knowledge should be thought of as being exclusively given. Plato’s theory can be and has been interpreted as giving license to elitism and dictatorship, yet the natural protest which the ideas of these would evoke in most of us may lead to an equal and opposite error of denying the very possibility of knowledge because we feared or wished to reject the idea of being ruled by a closed set of self-described experts. Once these wires are uncrossed, we may see it to be quite possible to maintain there can be objective knowledge and expertise in economics, without making any commitments toward specifying who should be considered an expert on some economic issue, or how we are supposed to determine that, or for that matter claiming any such knowledge or expertise for ourselves.

A second consequence of our simple maxim may seem more troubling. For by its second part, we should also have to say that even while there is objective knowledge in economics, there is nevertheless no proposition in the field which must be thought of as being necessarily closed to further question. Not the proposition that every human act is a rational act, nor the proposition that economic agents continually maximize utility, or are well modelled as doing so, nor the proposition that the market economy cannot be expected to reach full employment and needs to be and can be actively supplemented by macroeconomic policy, nor the proposition that the growth of money is necessary and sufficient for inflation, nor the proposition that free trade will maximize world output given factor immobility, nor the proposition that externalities imply a possible scope for taxes and subsidies, nor the proposition that the histories of nations is a history of class struggle.

By the second part of the maxim, there is no axiom or theorem of economic theory, no finding of economic history, no estimate of the value of an economic coefficient, no prediction of the course of an economic variable, no proposal of economic policy, which must be thought of as being closed to further question. None whatsoever. “No statement is immune to revision” (Quine).

Taken together, then, the net consequence of supposing objectivity and freedom, knowledge and doubt, to be compatible concepts deserving of equal respect, is that we shall be able to chart a course which steers us clear of two perennial and opposing hazards besetting all projects of human inquiry, viz., Scepticism and Dogmatism — the modern origins of which were traced by the American philosopher Charles Sanders Peirce to the cartesian proposal that philosophy “must begin with universal doubt, whereas scholasticism had never questioned fundamentals.” In the pages to follow, we will be denying universal doubt and we shall be free to question fundamentals. In an indefinite number of contexts, there is certain and objective knowledge to be had. Scepticism, understood technically as a logical thesis denying that we can possibly have or know that we have certain knowledge, is therefore a false thesis. At the same time, there is no proposition which is necessarily closed to question. Dogmatism, understood technically as a logical thesis implying there can be or must be some propositions which are absolutely and incorrigibly true, is therefore an equally false thesis. In place of a theory of knowledge restricting the scope of common reasoning to the finite or even the potentially finite, it is possible to have a theory of knowledge extending this scope to the potentially infinite. In particular, while normative proposals in economics or elsewhere may be supposed to be objectively better or worse depending on the soundness of the positive grounds given in their support, there are no unquestionable normative proposals — because there are no unquestionable positive grounds. The simple practical result of making the present investigation is that it will permit a sure and safe course to be found between Scepticism and Dogmatism for any project of economic inquiry.

§3. Would such a simple and straightforward thesis be new to economics in any way? To what extent would the argument which has been summarized above and which will be developed in the chapters to follow not been expressed before? The reader may wish an answer to such a question, and the author presently takes this to be as follows. With respect to the general debate which has occurred about knowledge and scepticism especially in moral philosophy, there will be little if anything in the present work which is a direct or novel contribution to it. While the philosophers have not been concerned with political economy at all, we shall be passive participants to their discussions, listening in to see what can be learned for our purposes and not intending to add to them directly. It may be remembered of course that it has not been long since economics formally broke away from philosophy to become a specialized discipline in its own right, in the belief the concerns of economics are of a more concrete and practical kind than those of philosophy. Since then we have made many highly abstract and theoretical claims, while also becoming scornful of philosophical thinking and believing ourselves to be exempt from its influences. Yet serious philosophical thought constitutes a mature and magnificent conversation which it would be foolish for any serious science to be deaf to. Moreover, it has been quite widely believed that there have been significant advances in philosophical understanding in the present century, and we are responsible to take such a claim seriously. It will be one of the aims of the present work to apply what may be learned from these discussions towards resolving, or at least clarifying, some of the main substantive disputations in modern economic science.

These are two broad traditions of moral philosophy relevant to our subject-matter, one deriving from Aristotle, the other from Hume (and a line of sceptics before him). Even though it would be unwise to expect agreement within either tradition, we may for convenience speak of an aristotelian and a humean tradition respectively. With respect to the discussions among economists on the relationship of the positive to the normative, we shall find an eminent consensus to have appeared on the humean side. This work will declare for the other side, and in so doing shall have to dissent from the humean consensus upon which all of the theory of social choice and much of the theory of welfare economics and theory of economic policy have appeared to rest. As far as is known by the author, there seem to have been but two published dissents on similar lines among economists in recent decades: those of Sidney Alexander and Amartya Sen. Of these, Professor Sen’s dissent has been very short and hesitant, and he would seem to have withdrawn it in other writings. Professor Alexander’s dissent has been clear and vigourous, but unlike his work on the balance of payments, his philosophical work has not received attention, and the present work was mostly developed in complete ignorance of its existence.

By the end of this work however, a clear choice should have been set out for the reader on the question of the relationship of the positive to the normative — between the consequences of accepting the humean consensus among economists and the consequences of the position of Professor Alexander and the author and possibly Professor Sen. The simple maxim “Objective knowledge is possible and yet there is no proposition which is closed to question” should not undermine its own content by being closed to question itself — instead it is supposed to refer and apply to itself as well. It may be true and deserving of our belief but it is not self evidently so, and will have to earn its credentials at the common bar of reason. Ultimately it will have to be the reader’s individual judgement whether it has been successfully shown that, contrary to what has been supposed by many of the pioneers of twentieth century economics, no conflict must arise between knowledge and doubt, objectivity and freedom. The history of the discussion may accord to our side the advantage J. S. Mill had seen to be enjoyed by all minority opinions: if the opinion of one or a few is false then not much will be lost by believing in it, while if it proves better able to stand the tests of time then much may be gained by allowing it to replace error. Put differently, it may seem quite risky that the pioneers of modern economic science have placed all their philosophical eggs in the humean basket — just in case it is Hume himself who happens to be mistaken.

§4. In Part I of the work will be found described the received theory of economic knowledge and its possible justification, as well as an account of the logical difficulties that arise with it. Chapter 2 has the task of documenting as fully as possible the existence of a humean consensus among economists in recent decades. Chapter 3 then examines the kinds of reasons that may incline us to be persuaded to such a view, and which may go to explaining how it has seemed to be an attractive theory to so many economists. These reasons appear to have been of two different but related sorts.

First the concept of value as used in ordinary life and ethics may have become confounded with the concept of economic value or scarcity or rareté in Walras’s term. Where economists have referred to a theory of value, they may have meant to refer more accurately to a theory of relative prices as determined by conditions of scarcity. The advance of the original neoclassicals in the late nineteenth century was to establish the importance of subjective estimations of economic agents to the determination of the relative prices of goods — as opposed to say how much labour went into different production processes as the classical economists might have said, or how much intrinsic value God had placed in the goods as the scholastics might have said. While it is clear by now that such an observation is broadly correct, it would be a mistake to go from a premise that market prices are determined in part by subjective estimations to a conclusion that the relative prices thus determined in any sense establish an order of how goods deserve to be valued or not. Goods are indeed valued the way they are because people happen to value them. Yet equally, in most cases, people seem to value goods in the way they do because the goods deserve to be thus valued — for example, because, like food or clothing or shelter, the goods are conducive to some valuable human purpose.
Secondly, it is possible the consensus has been motivated by a desire to find an effective shield against dogmatism and tyranny. For example, the context of an open parliamentary democracy presupposed by the modern theory of economic policy may have derived out of the experience of the great tyrannies of twentieth century history. There may have been a natural and understandable desire that the choices and decisions of citizens in the capacity of voters or consumers should be treated with the fullest due respect, and a humean scepticism may have been adopted because it has been believed to be something which is necessary and sufficient for this kind of respect to be shown. This would be an outstanding reason for adopting a humean point of view, and one which any critic must be required to account for. Yet it also places in relief the fatal self-contradiction that is present within the humean theory. For example, a theory of economic policy which has to rely upon an assumption of the polity being open and democratic would have to be silent about the conduct of economic policy in societies which were demonstrably not open or democratic, making it a theory very special and contingent in its range of application. Moreover, to give the defence of political or economic or religious freedom as a reason for holding a subjectivist epistemology would be to have left freedom entirely defenceless and toothless from those who would attack it from within precisely the same subjectivist framework. For example, if we conflated a general right to express an opinion freely with an idea that what such an opinion expresses is itself a matter of subjective opinion, then clearly, by the same token, an opinion that opinions should be freely expressed might also be considered merely subjective, and therefore no better or worse than its contrary. Within a subjectivist theory of knowledge, there ultimately can be nothing to choose between freedom and tyranny.

Chapter 4 is a survey of these kinds of logical difficulties with the humean position stated in Chapters 2 and 3. Its main result will be that the anti dogmatic campaign of the humean cannot succeed, and in fact comes to make the Sceptic resemble the Dogmatist more than anything else. It is possible this happens because both Sceptic and Dogmatist are sharing the same deductivist model of justification, to the effect that we cannot know a proposition to be true or right unless we have deduced it as the conclusion of a set of premises of whose truth or rightness we are certain. The Sceptic sees the threat of infinite regress that is implicit in such a model, and then denies we can be certain of anything. The Dogmatist sees the potential regress too, but responds to it by calling a halt at some arbitrary point, denying the need or possibility of going any further. In Part II a fresh picture will be given which attempts to preserve the truths the Sceptic and Dogmatist would each like us to take notice of, while correcting for the distortions both would force upon us by their unequivocal adoption of a deductivist model of justification. Chapter 5 reframes the main philosophical problems of Part I in the terms of the ancient dualism between Nominalism and Realism, and brings to light a possible resolution of this which has been advanced by a number of modern philosophers. Chapter 6 develops the argument further and applies it to the question of the appropriate role of expertise in a democracy. Taken together, Part II contains the main outlines of a fresh theory of economic knowledge with which to replace the flawed and inconsistent theory to which so many economists have thus far subscribed.

Part III of the work consists of a series of diverse illustrations and possible applications of the theory of knowledge developed in Part II. Chapters 7-10 all give examples of how inquiry and criticism can be seen to proceed in economics without sacrifice of either objectivity or freedom. Chapter 7 examines an actual debate on a concrete question of microeconomic policy, which may be compared and contrasted with the more academic examples of later chapters. Chapter 8 examines aspects of the division in macroeconomics and monetary theory since J. M. Keynes’s General Theory of Employment, Interest and Money. Chapter 9 considers a question with wide and general reference to economic theory: how the relationship between mathematical economics and real economic phenomena might be best understood. This has been the subject of long and bitter disputation, and some light is attempted to be shed on it from the vantage point of the philosophy of mathematics. It is possible that certain views in the philosophy of mathematics have been presupposed in modern mathematical economics; once these are exposed and aired, some of the conceptual problems which have been faced in this discussion may come to be dissolved. The theory of probability and expected utility and the theory of general equilibrium will be used as brief illustrations. Finally, in Chapter 10, the possible philosophical sources of the controversy surrounding the question of interpersonal comparisons of utility will be described, and a possible resolution suggested. This will be argued to have bearing on received understanding of the foundations of welfare economics.

§5. It will be found in the present work, then, that we shall be denying universal doubt on the one hand, while yet being free to question fundamentals on the other. Such a project will entail a critical examination of the philosophical premises and assumptions advanced by some of the most distinguished contemporary scholars in our field, and it is to be hoped the spirit in which the present criticism is offered will not be misunderstood. Every generation holds a peculiar advantage over preceding generations in having available to it what has gone before, while not being able to anticipate the criticisms of its own beliefs that will certainly come in the future. This kind of advantage that the present holds over the past may be thought of as being quite arbitrary, and we can expect it to carry with it a responsibility of taking what has gone before into serious account. Since no individual is able to do so on his own, we find every generation as a whole attempting to provide itself with critical discussions, which, when integrated over time, constitute the grand and unending conversation we call the history of human thought. It is with such a model in mind of a continuing and self-critical tradition of scholarship that we shall seek to address the questions raised at the beginning about the foundations of economic knowledge, while not making any pretence whatsoever to finality, and instead leaving the entire treatment as open as it can be made to the examination and criticism of others.

PART I

2. Hume and the Economists
THERE has been a broad and long standing consensus among economists about the character of the relationship between positive and normative propositions, as well as about the related question of the appropriate scope and limits of economic expertise in society. Joining in this consensus have been many of the pioneers of twentieth century economic thought: Kenneth J. Arrow, Milton Friedman, F. A. Hayek, Sir John Hicks, Oskar Lange, Gunnar Myrdal, Lionel Robbins, Joan Robinson, Paul A. Samuelson, Joseph Schumpeter, Jan Tinbergen, to name but a few. Many others are likely to be found in explicit or implicit agreement, while a survey by Professor T. W. Hutchison suggests that some of the most renowned figures of nineteenth century economics should probably be included as well. The main purpose of this chapter will be to provide enough documentary evidence to show that such a consensus has in fact existed. When we think of how many deep and wide differences there have been over the years in the field that was once called political economy and is now called economic science, differences on questions of method and theory and evidence and recommendations of policy, the existence of such a consensus may seem quite a remarkable fact.

Very briefly, what appears to have been accepted is that it is possible to identify a body of progressively changing knowledge called ‘positive economics’, which is the main contribution of economists to human knowledge and understanding in general. It consists of such things as the microeconomic and macroeconomic descriptions of present and past states of an economy, conditional predictions of such states in the future, hypothetical or substantive explanations of what economic causes may have what economic effects, the deduction and analysis of theorems of economic significance, and so on. That is to say, positive economics has been supposed to consist of the domain of propositions in an economic context which have to do in one way or another with questions of what is the case, or with what has been the case in the past or may be expected to be the case in the future. In contrast, evaluative or prescriptive or ‘normative’ propositions, having in one way or another to do with what ought to be done or not done by a government or a private economic agent, have been believed to fall into quite a different category. These have been believed to amount sooner or later to being expressions of subjective personal opinion, either on the part of the individual economist himself or of those whom he may happen to be advising.

Most economists who have considered the matter have allowed that there is usually at least some scope, and sometimes much scope, for common reasoning on logical and empirical grounds to be brought to bear in normative discussion; making it possible that at least some of the disagreements between economists or citizens or politicians on normative questions can come to be objectively resolved. But it has been believed possible also for the processes of common reasoning to become exhausted in discussions of normative questions like those of economic policy or ethics or jurisprudence, in a way they are not supposed to become exhausted in discussions of positive questions like those of economic theory or econometrics or natural science or mathematics. Once such a point of the exhaustion of reason has been reached, any residual conflict which remains is to be considered necessarily irreconcilable and of a sheer normative kind. And such sheer normative opinions, upon which it is not possible to bring to bear any further objective consideration, are to be supposed to express the purely subjective attitudes and feelings of the individual person, opinions which might happen to be shared by others too, but which are certainly closed to further argumentation, whether in public or in the person’s own mind. Put a little differently, the theory of knowledge and policy which we shall see to have been widely accepted by many economists in the twentieth century, has made an assumption that while all questions of analysis and evidence can have objectively true or false answers, only some and not all questions of evaluation and prescription can have objectively right or wrong answers.

§2. Underlying the consensus among economists has been a more general thesis in the theory of knowledge or epistemology. It is a thesis which may be called ‘moral scepticism’, and its most brilliant and influential exponent in the modern period has been David Hume (1711-1776). Among those to have advanced influential and persuasive points of view of a similar kind in twentieth century moral and political philosophy have been C. L. Stevenson, R. M. Hare, A. J. Ayer, and Karl Popper.

In the course of a critique of dogmatic religion and ethics, the young Hume was to attack with a sceptical scalpel what he took to be the illogic of trying to deduce evaluation and prescription from analysis and description: “In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with… the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning… when of a sudden I am surpriz’d to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is, however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses a new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it shou’d be observ’d and explain’d; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it.” While the precise context and implications of this passage continue to divide philosophers, it will be adequate for our present purpose to follow the sympathetic and influential modern interpretation given by the Oxford moral philosopher R. M. Hare, and obtain for an economic context what may be called Hume’s First Law: No normative conclusion, for example, about what a private economic agent or a government ought to do or not do, can be validly deduced from a set of solely positive premises, i.e., from premises which only describe what is the case. No normative conclusion can be deduced without at least one normative premise having been made. A dualism of this kind between the ‘is’ and the ‘ought’ has been frequently supposed to separate science from ethics, the objective from the subjective, the rational from the irrational, public knowledge from private opinion.

Hume was to reinforce this opinion a decade later in a more recondite form of words: “[A]fter every circumstance and every relation is known, the understanding has no further room to operate, nor any object on which it could employ itself. The approbation or blame which then ensues cannot be the work of the judgement, but of the heart; and is not a speculative proposition or affirmation, but an active feeling or sentiment.” This passage too continues to divide philosophers, but for our present purpose R. M. Hare’s recent writing is once more helpful in obtaining a modern interpretation. Hare asks whether, in addition to logical questions and factual questions about how the world is, there can be “irreducibly evaluative or prescriptive questions” as well; once we have “done all we can” by way of reasoning and adducing evidence, “will there remain something to be done which is neither logic nor fact finding but pure evaluation or prescription?” Hare answers yes it is possible, and in the same vein we may restate the idea to obtain for an economic context what may be called Hume’s Second Law: After every empirical question and every logical and mathematical question has been answered in an economic problem, there is no further scope for common reasoning to work. If an evaluative statement is made at such a point, then it can express no more than a subjective attitude or feeling of the individual economist towards the subject.

This is a maxim which does grant that a measure of common reasoning and evidence can be brought to bear upon particular normative questions, and so some normative disagreements may come to be objectively resolved. But it also allows for the potential for such reasoning to become exhausted, leaving merely a subjective residue of personal sentiment or feeling which people might or might not happen to share with one another but which would be beyond further question and discussion. In the pages to follow, a position will be referred to as ‘humean’ if it implicitly or explicitly endorses one or both of Hume’s Laws as stated above. The small h is used to suggest that a close examination of Hume’s works may show him to have been not entirely clear in his own meaning, as well as to suggest that the question of what Hume himself may have actually or fully meant is not of as direct importance for the present purpose as the question of what he has been taken to mean by contemporary economists.

The remainder of this chapter is given to documenting at fair length the fact that a number of the pioneers of twentieth century economics have quite unambiguously seemed to endorse a humean point of view in the theory of knowledge. Chapter 3 will be given to placing this fact in an appropriate historical context. This needs to be done not only in order to understand the nature of the consensus as fully as possible, but also to realize how close economists have been to one another on a central question in the theory of knowledge, even while being engaged in any number of deep and well known and seemingly interminable disputes on substantive matters. The reader who may be impatient with a detailed record of this kind, or who is prepared for the present to take its existence for granted, may wish to move on directly to Chapter 3 without losing the main threads of the argument.

§3. Friedman. Following Neville Keynes, Professor Milton Friedman has clearly and emphatically argued the importance of extending the scope of common reasoning in economics: “Positive economics is in principle independent of any particular ethical position or normative judgments…. [it] is, or can be, an ‘objective’ science, in precisely the same sense as any of the physical sciences…. Normative economics and the art of economics, on the other hand, cannot be independent of positive economics…. differences about economic policy among disinterested citizens derive predominantly from different predictions about the economic consequences of taking action — differences that in principle can be eliminated by the progress of positive economics — rather than from fundamental differences in basic values, differences about which men can ultimately only fight.” It is well known that in this and other works, Friedman has argued for the extension of common reasoning and evidence, or positive economics, as the surest means to resolving normative disputations. Yet from the passage quoted, it is clear that Friedman has also accepted something like Hume’s Second Law, to the effect that while common reasoning can have some and indeed much scope, a point of ultimate and sheer normative disagreement can still be reached, distant though it might be, where reasoning must be considered to have become exhausted and “men can ultimately only fight”. In the same essay, Friedman added that it was the practical importance of economics which impeded objectivity and promoted confusion between “scientific analysis and normative judgment”, suggesting an endorsement of Hume’s First Law as well.

Myrdal. Gunnar Myrdal argued for many years that a number of economic concepts purporting to be analytical or descriptive in character in fact had evaluative or prescriptive overtones. Myrdal and his editor and translator, Professor Paul Streeten, argued that a view that there is no place for normative judgments in economic science has been a guise for the advocacy of a specifically liberal political economy, a thesis which might well be endorsed by many marxian and keynesian economists. While postponing an assessment of this claim to a later chapter, we may note that Myrdal also happened to endorse the extension of the scope of positive economics, with as much emphasis as Friedman would do after him: “By subjecting to impartial criticism those arguments in political controversies which concern the facts and the causal relations between them, economic science can make an important contribution to the political sphere. As often as not, conflicting political opinions spring not so much from divergent valuations about the best possible future state of society and the proper policy for securing it, as from subjectively coloured and therefore distorted beliefs regarding actual social conditions.” Myrdal went on to endorse Hume’s First Law in recommending that the economist leave the supply of evaluative premises to the politician. While the economist can provide descriptions, explanations and conditional predictions, “the scientist must not venture beyond this. If he wishes to go further he needs another set of premises, which is not available to science: an evaluation to guide him in his choice of the effects which are politically desirable and the means permissible for achieving them.” Finally, Myrdal reached the humean conclusion that the normative differences between economists are ultimately beyond objective resolution: “[E]conomic reasoning is often obscured by the fact that normative principles are not introduced explicitly, but in the shape of general ‘concepts’. The discussion is thus shifted from the normative to the logical plane. On the former there is either harmony or conflict; conflict can only be stated, not solved by discussion. On the logical plane we should define our concepts clearly and then operate with them in a logically correct manner. What is ‘correct’ and what ‘false’ can be discussed with the methods of logic, whereas conflicting interests can be recognized, never solved scientifically.”

Robbins. In his influential writings over many years, Lionel Robbins made a distinction between ‘economic science’, having to do with such questions as how best to allocate scarce resources between alternative ends, and ‘political economy’ or normative theories of economic policy, prescribing the ends themselves and the weights to be attached to them. In his well known methodological work we read as clear a statement of Hume’s First Law as might be found in economics: “Propositions involving ‘ought’ are on an entirely different plane from propositions involving ‘is’…. Economics is neutral as between ends. Economics cannot pronounce on the validity of ultimate judgements of value…. Economics deals with ascertainable facts; ethics with values and obligations. The two fields of inquiry are not on the same plane of discourse. Between the generalizations of positive and normative studies there is a logical gulf fixed which no ingenuity can disguise and no juxtaposition in space or time can bridge over.” Robbins’s endorsement of the Second Law was equally emphatic. While positive economics extends the scope of common reasoning, it is still possible to find normative differences which are rationally irresoluble: “If we disagree about ends it is a case of thy blood or mine — or live and let live according to the importance of the difference or the relative strength of our opponents. But if we disagree on means, then scientific analysis can often help us to resolve our differences. If we disagree about the morality of the taking of interest (and we understand what we are talking about), then there is no room for argument.”
Samuelson. Professor Paul Samuelson has seemed to feel a tension in the humean position, but also that its logic compelled him to follow closely in Robbins’s path: “It is fashionable for the modern economist to insist that ethical value judgments have no place in scientific analysis. Professor Robbins in particular has insisted upon this point, and today it is customary to make a distinction between the pure analysis of Robbins qua economist and his propaganda, condemnations and policy recommendations qua citizen. In practice, if pushed to extremes, this somewhat schizophrenic rule becomes difficult to adhere to, and it leads to rather tedious cicumlocutions. But in essence Robbins is undoubtedly correct. Wishful thinking is a powerful deterrent of good analysis and description, and ethical conclusions cannot be verified in the same way that scientific hypotheses are inferred or verified.”

Hicks. Like Samuelson, Professor Sir John Hicks has seemed to feel a tension in the humean position, yet he too must be considered as having endorsed at least an important version of it. On the one hand, Hicks has seemed critical of mid-century positivism and emotivism, and claimed the main rationale of the “new welfare economics” to be that it allowed a route of escape from them. “During the nineteenth century, it was generally considered to be the business of an economist, not only to explain the economic world as it is and as it has been, not only to make prognostications (so far as he was able) about the future course of economic events, but also to lay down principles of economic policy, to say what policies are likely to be conducive to social welfare, and what policies are likely to lead to waste and impoverishment.” Since then positivism had declared that explanation and only explanation may be part of scientific economics, and any move to prescribe “must depend upon the scale of social values held by the particular investigator. Such conclusions can possess no validity for anyone who lives outside the circle in which these values find acceptance. Positive economics can be, and ought to be, the same for all men; one’s welfare economics will inevitably be different according as one is a liberal or a socialist, a nationalist or an internationalist, a christian or a pagan.” But such a position is “rather a dreadful thing to have to accept”, one which might “become an excuse for the shirking of live issues, very conducive to the euthanasia of our science.” Fortunately we are not compelled to accept it, since the new welfare economics advanced by Kaldor, Hotelling and Hicks himself was a viable alternative, not open to the objections the positivists had raised to the utilitarianism of Pigou and others.

Yet we may ask, what had the new welfare economics been about? And did it in fact make a break with the positivism which seemed to be troubling Hicks, or had it not been prompted precisely by humean doubts? As is well known, the new welfare economics had to do with questions such as whether the potential gainers from a change in policy could possibly compensate the potential losers from the change by enough so as to get them to go along with it, or conversely for the losers from a change to compensate the gainers from the change by enough so as to get them to go along without it, and so on. As Hicks himself makes clear, it was a discussion very much motivated by the belief that while the Pareto criterion was not a wholly adequate substitute for the utilitarianism of Pigou, any emendation of the paretian theory must leave untouched its basic positivistic premise, viz., that interpersonal comparisons cannot be conceived of as anything but purely subjective judgements, outside the scope of objective reasoning. Hicks claimed it was because the new welfare economics avoided making interpersonal comparisons that it should be considered a positive advance, a scientific advance. And Hicks has emphasized that he, like Robbins, has not wanted any truck with interpersonal comparisons. The old welfare economics of Pigou required one “to admit the possibility of comparing the satisfactions derived from their wealth by different individuals. This is where Professor Robbins parts company; for my part, I go with him.” More recently: “A single individual… shows by his choices that he prefers one thing to another; we may put this, if we like, in the form of saying that he derives (or thinks he derives) greater satisfaction from the one than from the other. But there is no similar way in which we can see that the satisfaction derived by one individual from one good is greater than the satisfaction derived by another individual from another good; these satisfactions are not compared in any actual choice, so that for the comparison between them there is not the same evidence.”
While we shall be returning to these questions in Chapter 10, what we may note here is that since interpersonal comparisons certainly amount to being a particular species of evaluative judgement, Hicks’s scepticism with respect to the possibility of making them objectively must be considered to amount to an endorsement of at least a species of moral scepticism. If so, it would seem to sit uncomfortably with Hicks’s opinion that he had not cared much for the positivist dichotomy between explanatory science and subjective prescriptions, which was said to have prompted the search for the new welfare economics in the first place.

Robinson. Writing on the theory of employment, Joan Robinson was to give a superbly clear account of the humean position at its best, which requires no commentary: “[All economic] controversies should be capable of resolution. The rules of logic and the laws of evidence are the same for everyone, and in the nature of the case there can be nothing to dispute about. Controversies arise for five main reasons. First, they occur when the two parties fail to understand each other. Here patience and toleration should provide a cure. Second, controversies occur in which one (or both) of the parties have made an error of logic. Here the spectators at least should be able to decide on which side reason lies. Third, two parties may be making, unwittingly, different assumptions, and each maintaining something which is correct on the appropriate assumptions…. Here the remedy is to discover the assumptions and to set each argument out in a manner which makes clear that it is not inconsistent with the other. Fourth, there may not be sufficient evidence to settle a question of fact conclusively one way or the other. Here the remedy is for each party to preserve an open mind and to assist in the search for further evidence. Fifth, there may be differences of opinion as to what is a desirable state of affairs. Here no resolution is possible, since judgements of ultimate values cannot be settled by any purely intellectual process…. argument in the nature of the case can make no difference to ultimate judgements based on interest or moral feeling. The ideal is to set out all the arguments fairly on their merits, and agree to differ about ultimate values. On questions of policy, the differences can never be resolved.”

Hayek. Professor F. A. Hayek has stated an unambiguous commitment to Hume’s First Law, as when he wrote recently: “Our starting point must be the logical truism that from premises containing only statements about cause and effect, we can derive no conclusions about what ought to be.” In his earlier discussion of the economics of socialism, Hayek had hinted at the Second Law as well, saying that “problems of ethics, or rather of individual judgements of value… [are]… ones on which different people might agree or disagree, but on which no reasoned arguments would be possible.” If the questions about socialist planning are ethical by this definition then “no scientist, least of all the economist” would have anything to say about them. Positive argument presumes there to be some common values between the participants: “Meaningful discussion about public affairs is clearly possible only with persons with whom we share at least some values. I doubt if we could even fully understand what someone says if we had no values whatever in common with him. This means, however, that in practically any discussion it will be in principle possible to show that some of the policies one person advocates are inconsistent or irreconcilable with some other beliefs he holds.” In particular, the argument over socialist planning should be seen to be one on positive grounds: “[E]veryone desires, of course, that we should handle our common problems as rationally as possible and that, in so doing, we should use as much foresight as we can command. In this sense, everybody who is not a complete fatalist is a planner, every political act is (or ought to be) an act of planning, and there can be differences only between good and bad, between wise and foresighted and foolish and shortsighted planning. An economist, whose whole task is to study how men actually do and how they might plan their affairs is the last person who could object to planning in this general sense.” The dispute between socialists and their critics is “not a dispute about whether planning is to be done or not. It is a dispute as to whether planning is to be done centrally, by one authority for the whole economic system, or is to be divided among many individuals.”

Lange. Oskar Lange, the famous adversary of Hayek and Robbins on the question of socialist planning, was agreed with them that the only task within the scope of scientific economics was the determination of the best means, with economic ends having been decided politically. He gave this infelicitous analogy to the economist’s role: “The situation may be compared with that of two physicians treating a patient. There is no necessity of interpersonal agreement about the objective of the treatment. One physician may want to heal the patient, the other may want to kill him (e.g., the patient may be a Jew in a Nazi concentration camp; one physician may be a fellow prisoner who wants to help him, the other may be a Nazi acting under orders to exterminate Jews). But once the objective is set for the purposes under discussion (either of the two physicians may, of course, refuse to act upon it), their statements as to whether a given treatment is conducive to the end under consideration have interpersonal validity. Any disagreement between them can be settled by appeal to fact and to the rules of scientific procedure.”

Schumpeter. In discussing the wertfrei controversy between Carl Menger and the German historical school, Joseph Schumpeter was to suggest that the epistemological matters involved were neither difficult nor interesting and could be disposed of shortly. The distinction between ‘is’ and ‘ought’ had been correctly and adequately drawn already, so it only needed to be accepted that an ‘ought’ statement “that is to say, a precept or advice, can for our purpose be reduced to a statement about preference or ‘desirability’.” Schumpeter went on to endorse Hume’s First Law, saying that an acceptance of one value judgement always requires the acceptance of others. This “is of little moment when the ‘ultimate’ value judgments to which we are led up as we go on asking why an individual evaluates as he does, are common to all normal men in our cultural environment.” Unlike Lange, Schumpeter gave the physician as a negative analogy: “[T]here is no harm in the physician’s contention that the advice he gives follows from scientific premises, because the — strictly speaking extra-scientific — value judgment involved is common to all normal men in our cultural environment. We all mean pretty much the same thing when we speak of health and find it desirable to enjoy good health. But we do not mean the same thing when we speak of the Common Good, simply because we hopelessly differ in those cultural visions with reference to which the common good has to be defined in any particular case.” I.e., common reasoning can proceed in normative discussion but only so long as we find common values among “all normal men in our cultural environment”, which is to suggest reasoning may be helpless with abnormal men or those who are outside our cultural environment. Further, siding with Menger, Schumpeter suggested that the bitterness of the wertfrei controversy could be explained because it had been not so much a logical dispute as one between those who were practising and those who were protesting a kind of scholarly deceit, viz., the propagation of personal dogmas within an ostensible pursuit of objective knowledge: “Those who profess to be engaged in the task of widening, deepening, and ‘tooling’ humanity’s stock of knowledge and who claim the privilege that civilized societies are in the habit of granting to the votaries of this particular pursuit, fail to fulfil their contract if, in the sheltering garb of the scientist, they devote themselves to what really is a kind of political propaganda.”

Arrow. In opening his famous paper on the theory of social choice, Professor Kenneth J. Arrow was to refer explicitly to the ancient ontological dualism between Nominalism and Realism. To take aggregate rankings of “social states” as independent of individual rankings “is to assume, with traditional social philosophy of the Platonic realist variety, that there exists an objective social good defined independently of individual desires. This social good, it was frequently held, could be best apprehended by the methods of philosophic inquiry. Such a philosophy could be and was used to justify government by elite, secular or religious, although the connection is not a necessary one. To the nominalist temperament of the modern period the assumption of the existence of the social ideal in some Platonic realm of being was meaningless.” Nineteenth century utilitarianism had “sought instead to ground the social good on the good of individuals”, which, when combined with a hedonistic psychology, implied “each individual’s good was identical with his desires” and “the social good was in some sense to be a composite of the desires of individuals.” Such a view “serves as a justification of both political democracy and laissez faire economics, or at least an economic system involving free choice of goods by consumers and of occupations by workers.”
While Arrow found it necessary to remark that a connection between elitist rule and a Realist ontology was “not a necessary one”, he did not also remark upon whether he took a connection between democratic rule and a Nominalist ontology to be logically necessary. If not, then we might of course entertain other cases equally well, such as Nominalism being associated with elitist rule, or Realism with democratic rule, or perhaps more subtle cases which may arise from a denial of the dualism altogether — matters to which we shall return more explicitly in Part II. In any case, it would seem evident Arrow’s sympathy has been with the humean thesis, which he endorses strongly in suggesting, like Schumpeter, that no distinction can be made between a personal preference and a judgement of value: “One might want to reserve the term ‘values’ for a specially elevated or noble set of choices. Perhaps choices in general might be referred to as ‘tastes’. We do not ordinarily think of the preference for additional bread over additional beer as being a value worthy of philosophical inquiry. I believe, though, that the distinction cannot be made logically, and certainly not in dealing with the single isolated individual. If there is any distinction between values and tastes it must lie in the realm of interpersonal relations.” That Arrow believes normative questions to be only personally and subjectively answerable is further suggested by his remarks that “[t]he only rational defense of what may be termed a liberal position… is that it is itself a value judgment”; that his own values are such he is willing “to go very far indeed in the direction of respect for the means by which others choose to derive their satisfactions”; that he personally shares “a strongly affirmed egalitarianism, to be departed from only when it is in the interest of all to do so”; that he is personally “in favor of very wide toleration”; and so on. In Chapters 9 and 10, we shall return to examine certain aspects of the theories of general equilibrium and social choice which Professor Arrow has helped pioneer.

Blaug. In his influential writings in the history and methodology of economics, Professor Mark Blaug has appealed directly to Hume, declaring that the “orthodox Weberian position on wertfrei social science is essentially a matter of logic: as David Hume taught us, ‘you can’t deduce ought from is’.” Blaug grants that scientific practice does continually call for the exercise of judgement, but he wishes to distinguish “methodological” judgements, having to do with such questions as “the levels of statistical significance, selection of data, assessment of their reliability, and adherence to the canons of formal logic”, from “normative” or “appraising” judgements, which “refer to evaluative assertions about states of the world, including the desirability of certain kinds of behavior and the social outcomes that are produced by that behavior; thus all statements of the ‘good society’ are appraising value judgments.” It is judgements of this latter sort which are “incapable of being eliminated in positive science”. In support of such a dualism Blaug claims “there are long established, well tried methods for reconciling different methodological judgments” but none “for reconciling different normative value judgments — other than political elections and shooting it out at the barricades.” Blaug’s acceptance of Hume’s Second Law is as explicit as may be found in contemporary economics. There sometimes can be rational discussion over normative differences “and that is all to the good because there is a firmer tradition for settling disputes about facts than for settling disputes about values. It is only when we distill a pure value judgment… that we have exhausted the possibilities of rational analysis and discussion.” Echoing Robbins, Blaug suggests that at such a terminal point we are left with “factual statements and pure value judgments between which there is indeed an irreconcilable gulf on anyone’s interpretation.” Like Arrow, Blaug also makes reference to an ontological division between Realism (or “essentialism”) and Nominalism, and hints at a necessary link between a Realist ontology and dogmatism and tyranny. From Plato and Aristotle up through the nineteenth century, Western thought had been under the malign and mistaken impression that “it is the aim of science to discover the true nature or essence of things”. Such a view “raises its ugly head” even today, and Blaug charges the authors of a recent marxian thesis as being one such recent manifestation: “Adherents of essentialism are inclined to settle substantive questions by reaching for a dictionary of their own making, and Hollis and Nell exemplify this tendency to perfection: reproduction is the ‘essence’ of economic systems because we tell you so!”

Hahn. Professor Frank Hahn reports that contemporary economists “in keeping with the Positivist perspective” make “a thorough distinction of ‘is’ from ‘ought’ (positive from normative).” While Hahn has been mostly guarded in his own opinion as to the precise relationship between positive and normative, he has suggested recently that while normative questions are subject to reasonable argument, and economic theory is intended to widen this scope of common reasoning, “the intention is to take a small step in distilling what are genuinely questions of values.” Such a remark would seem to place Hahn among the moderate humeans like Joan Robinson and Milton Friedman — which in turn would make it an interesting fact that while Hahn has had long and well known disputes on substantive matters with both Friedman and Robinson, he would appear closely agreed with them on a point in the theory of knowledge, viz., that while there is much room for objective discussion to take place, it is possible for sheer differences of a normative kind to exist and come to be identified.

A few others. To take some final examples, Professor Robert Sugden affirms “Hume’s Law reflects a liberal view of the universe”; Professor William Baumol and Professor Allan Blinder write in their textbook that the economist defines rational decisions as those “that are most effective in helping the decision maker achieve his own objectives, whatever they may be”; Professor James Quirk writes in his textbook that “normative economics is based on a system of axioms, but these axioms concern ethics” and because these and any propositions derived from them are not “verifiable through empirical observation”, a person is “free to accept or reject the conclusions of normative economics as he wishes, simply by accepting or rejecting the axiom system — there are no scientific issues involved.” And Professor Jack Hirschleifer wrote in his textbook that “if one economist prefers Maoism and another capitalism, or if one prefers to exterminate and the other to tolerate an inconvenient minority group, the fundamental sources of contention are almost surely divergences in ethical values… [which] will not be eliminated by advances in scientific economics.”

3. Understanding the Consensus
THE great German philosopher and mathematician Gottlob Frege suggested at one place that we should not “ask for the meaning of a word in isolation, but only in the context of a proposition.” In the same vein, it may be said the meaning of a proposition or a hypothesis should not be asked for except in relation to the particular context in which it has been advanced. And we can maintain this without requiring the description of such a context to be fully explicit or even one which can be easily expressed in words. A proposition needs to be understood in relation to the fullest possible description of its implicit and explicit context — which may be a good sense too in which to understand the reference by Wittgenstein to the concept of a “language game” .

In the previous chapter, we have marshalled considerable evidence for our initial thesis that there has been a broad measure of consensus among many of the pioneers of modern economics about the appropriate relationship of the positive to the normative. Irrespective of their many and well known substantive differences, they have seemed all to share an affinity with a humean thesis of moral scepticism, whether in a radical way like Schumpeter and Professor Arrow when they say there can be no difference in kind between personal preferences and value judgements, or in a more moderate way like Joan Robinson and Professor Friedman and Professor Hahn, when they say there can be a great amount of room for objective argumentation to take place about normative questions before a naked and irreconcilable difference will be found to appear. The first question that needs now to be addressed is how this consensus should be understood, and this will require as full a description as can be attempted in this work of the context in which it has occurred. The second question would be whether or not the consensus is correct and justified — whether or not there are firm and adequate grounds for us to think we should join it, and so take the is ought dualism to be a barrier which it is neither possible nor necessary to surmount. The reader will have known from the Introduction that it is a main purpose of this study to make the argument that such grounds are not in fact available, that a humean position is ultimately untenable and misleading, and deserves to give way to a theory of economic knowledge and policy which treated objectivity and freedom as compatible concepts deserving of equal respect. Nevertheless we are first obliged to identify the strengths and motivations of a humean point of view, if only so that we might explain how it has come to command the kind of assent it has done among many of the most eminent of twentieth century economists as well as the many more who have followed them. When expressed as thoroughly as it has been by some, a humean point of view is certainly a respectable and recondite one to hold in the theory of knowledge; there seems nothing obvious that is wrong with it; to the contrary, it may seem foolhardy to try to refute it or even place its merits under scrutiny. In other words, a well thought-out moral scepticism deserves the respect of its critics, and any difficulties with it may be expected to be of a relatively subtle and not self evident kind.
The purpose of this chapter will be then to give as full a description as possible of the historical and political context — of the “language game” or the civilization — within which it is possible for the humean consensus in modern economics to be understood. The economists quoted in Chapter 2 do not appear to have attempted such descriptions themselves, and may even have assumed a humean point of view on the positive and normative to be self-evidently justified, for little thought seems to have been given as to why we should want to endorse it. Thus it will be fair to caution the reader that while a possible justification and explanation of a humean point of view will be given here, it will be one which has been constructed by a critic. Furthermore, the discussion will refer first to a more distant and then a more proximate context, and the discussion of the former will have to be speculative and greatly simplified — a mere thumbnail sketch of an actual drama of indefinite proportions.

§2. The adoption of moral scepticism in twentieth century economics may be most briefly explained as having been motivated by a genuine desire to shield against dogmatism and tyranny, whether in political, economic, scientific, or religious contexts. As scientist and scholar, the economist has been naturally concerned to extend the scope of common reasoning, as well as to protect the objectivity of the findings of his science from the imposition of personal or political dogma. Equally, it has been felt that the choices of the individual agent who is studied by economists, whether as consumer or voter, deserve to be treated with the fullest respect. A humean scepticism may have been adopted because it has been believed to be necessary and possibly sufficient for this kind of respect to be shown to the results of popular choice, whether in parliament, the market place, or in private life. This is summarized in for instance Sugden’s remark “Hume’s Law reflects a liberal view of the universe”, as well as in Schumpeter’s suggestion that the wertfrei controversy had been merely one between those who practised and those who protested a kind of scholarly deceit, namely, the propagation of personal dogma in the guise of a pursuit of knowledge. In other words, someone might become a moral sceptic because he wishes to defend, and wishes perhaps to be seen as defending, the freedom of the individual person to form and hold his or her own normative beliefs, as well as the objectivity of science from being compromised by the forced imposition of the beliefs of any one or a few people. In particular, the modern humean economist is likely to wish to contrast his theory as sharply as possible with the famous theory given by Plato, both directly with the political philosophy which is to be found in Plato’s writings, as well as indirectly, with the medieval scholasticism which came to be deeply influenced by the rediscovered works of Plato and Aristotle and to which the origins of modern economic and political thought can be traced.

Now the question of whether there is any objective knowledge in a field of inquiry is open to be understood either as asking whether there possibly can be any knowledge in the field, or as asking who should be thought of as possessing such knowledge and how they may have been identified. The first of these senses can be thought of as epistemological and the second as political in character. In Republic, Plato offered answers to both questions with respect to the knowledge of the statesman, and the answers he gave were yes — not only is it logically possible for there to be objective knowledge of use to the statesman, but it is practically possible to identify certain men and women in society as actually possessing or being considered fit to possess such knowledge. It is these special people who are the only true lovers of wisdom in society, and since we surely should want the policies of a state in which we lived to be the wisest and most prudent possible, informed by the best available knowledge, it appears to follow at once that what needs to be done is unite knowledge with authority and make these special people our guardians and rulers.

Plato’s ideal city-state is a place where individual freedom is conspicuous by its absence. Its rulers are to be imagined as being about as perfect rulers as there can be: the single and genuine source of all true wisdom and justice, and deserving therefore to be granted absolute authority on all significant questions of private and political conduct, including the right to suppress dissent, since any dissent would be misguided by definition. This is not to say the philosopher-kings would be entitled to a life of luxury or even ordinary comforts. To the contrary, since those who deserve to be philosopher-kings may well be disinclined to seek power and privilege for themselves in the normal course of politics, they may have to be first discovered and then forcibly drafted to take the office which rightfully should be theirs. In preparation for the serious business of piloting the ship of state, they will be placed in seclusion and rigourously educated in such disciplines as aesthetics and gymnastics and mathematics and music, their lives certainly without any of the signs of corruption that we would frequently associate with the exercise of power. At the end of the tenure of one generation of such rulers, they will be retired and replaced by a new generation, bred and educated through a similar and careful programme of eugenics and training in the arts and sciences of statesmanship. Finding actual examples of such extraordinary beings may be quite impossible; perhaps some appropriate mixture of the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Attaturk and Mozart’s Sarastro might help our modern imagination.
A number of modern political thinkers have roundly condemned Plato for having written a theory hostile to democratic political institutions, and even for having provided the blueprints for the tyrannies of modern history. Yet while there is no question that Plato was no friend of democracy, or at least of the kind of democracy which had brought about the judicial murder of his friend and teacher Socrates, a fair-minded reader of Republic is unlikely to find in it any justification of tyranny at all. If we were to define tyranny in the way Plato and his contemporaries would have done as the rule of the ignorant and capricious, it would be a state of affairs Plato found abhorrent, the complete antithesis of his own ideal of a full union between knowledge and authority, of rule by the genuinely wise and the genuinely good; even the faulted system of democracy would be preferable to it. Moreover, Plato was to discuss at length the dynamics of how even his ideal city-state would be likely to degenerate into a tyranny; and besides, his single attempt to put theory into practice ended in pathetic failure, when he accepted an invitation to train a fatuous prince, who was incapable of and soon became bored with the rigorous education Plato had in mind for him, and who eventually became the worst of tyrants, much to Plato’s disgust. In fact Kant, the modern lover of freedom, was led to come to the defence of Plato, the ancient authoritarian, precisely because the logical possibility of a utopia is suggested to the reader of Republic — a state of affairs in which everyone is a genuine lover of wisdom, everyone a philosopher-king, and therefore all external government made redundant. Republic is a masterpiece of philosophy and mathematics and literature and political economy as well, and it would be a mistake to suppose its author to have been so inexperienced of human nature and society as to provide it as a textbook for grand or petty tyrannies, whether of his own time or of ours.

What is true however what is true is that the theological culture of medieval Europe would come to be deeply influenced by the rediscovered works of Plato and Aristotle, with which a synthesis of medieval Christianity was sought to be made. And it may also be fair to say that regardless of Plato’s intentions, Republic came to provide something of a model for the tyrannies to be experienced in subsequent European history.
Social and economic life in medieval Europe is marked by a four-fold division of society into the nobility, the clergy, free artisans and tradesmen self governed within a system of guilds and corporations, and the peasantry. The medieval church is seen as an eternal institution representing divine will on earth, deserving to be endowed with final and absolute authority on all significant questions of right conduct, somewhat perhaps in the manner of Plato’s philosopher-kings. Specific duties and rights belong to the members of different occupations, and it is within one’s calling that one is expected to lead one’s life in accordance with the divine law as interpreted by the church and the natural law as discovered by the temporal authorities. In particular, there is a notion that economic activities may be licit or illicit in nature, and since the general moral question of what ought to be done is closely identified with whether there is the sanction of the church for it to be done, whether a particular economic activity is to be approved of or not comes to depend on whether or not it has such a sanction. There is an idea too of economic goods having a ‘true’ or ‘intrinsic’ or ‘natural’ value endowed in them by God — an idea which will become perhaps a precursor of the labour theory of value of classical economics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Determining this intrinsic value establishes the ‘just’ price of a good or service, i.e., the price at which it ought to be traded, even if the actual market price as determined by the subjective estimates and actions of traders happens to contingently differ from this. There is a related concept of ‘equivalence’ in transactions, with a suggestion that one party to a trade can gain from it only at the expense of the other. Merchants and middlemen thus come to be treated with some disdain, since it does not seem apparent they are adding anything to the intrinsic values of goods, making the just price of their services seem hard to determine. Indeed the unabashed pursuit of wealth by anyone is probably the object of some considerable social and religious disapproval. Similar thinking may underlie the condemnation of usury, since, given a premise of money having no intrinsic worth, what is perceived to be the lending out of money should seem to have a just price of nought.

The common medieval culture and economy was to be transformed drastically though differently across Europe between the fourteenth and eighteenth centuries. The sea routes are discovered, nation states emerge competing with one another in trade and war, the age of modern science begins, a long and rapid succession of scientific discoveries and technological inventions takes place, there is a vast expansion of commerce and population and the settlement of European colonies in other continents. Accompanying these transformations in some places are intellectual rebellions against the medieval church, and almost everywhere in Europe a decline in the influence of formal faith. The assertion of individual will and conscience as the principal guides of human conduct is a challenge directed at church doctrine and dogma; but given that the medieval concept of reasoning is one of reason ultimately bounded by the doctrines and dogmas of faith, the assertion of a subjective individual will may have been assumed to amount to being a challenge to the full possibilities of objective reasoning itself.

In this new mercantilist age, the pursuit of material gain must come to be freed of the sanction of the church, and once more, since right and wrong are closely identified with such sanction and prohibition, a declaration of the independence of economic activity from the sanction of the church amounts virtually to a declaration of its independence from ethics as well. In particular, the medieval notion of ‘equivalence’ in the intrinsic value of goods in a transaction is transformed with the aid of mechanistic analogies at hand into a concept of ‘equilibrium’ in trade, such that each party to a trade is conceived of as gaining from it as an individual and continuing to transact until the prospect of such gain has come to be exhausted. It is understandable perhaps that England and Holland will be in the vanguard of the mercantilist revolution, given their theological distance from Rome as well as their growing commercial interests and naval power. Nor does it seem obviously foolish, at least in the early mercantilist years, for the wealth of a nation to be identified with its ability to export and its holdings of precious metals, when the circumstances of the time make it a first priority of the business of government to have liquid payment available for navies and armies. In France there comes to be the liberal protest of the physiocrats against the iniquities upon the peasantry, a protest which serves to rehabilitate a more secular version of the natural law of the scholastics. But the calls of men like Quesnay and Turgot for reform are too late, and the system of physiocracy is itself swept away with the onset of the French Revolution.

Adam Smith however has admired and learned from the physiocrats, while observing at first hand the dismal effects of a staling British mercantilism. This he rises to condemn in The Wealth of Nations, thereby starting an intellectual revolution of his own, ringing in a new century of free enterprise and imperial expansion, and establishing the concern of the economist with the workings of individual interest and the market economy which continues to this day. Forty years later it is David Ricardo who introduces to political economy the practice of an abstract hypothetical method, by which it is a body of abstract and general principles that the economist’s speculations and ratiocinations are intended to discover, detached from the rush of concrete economic realities. And Ricardo and his immediate followers exemplify the application of the new method to a main subject of Smith’s preoccupation, namely, the workings of individual self interest and the market economy.

In the musty passage-ways of Victorian thought, the new methods of abstraction in political economy must have been felt to be as invigorating as fresh air. Jevons, Walras, Menger and the other original neoclassicals firmly insist upon making the plain and simple observation that in the case of many and perhaps most goods, the prime determinant of relative value is not how much labour went into the different production processes, nor how much intrinsic value God might have placed in the goods, but rather the subjective estimations of economic agents in the market place. The victory seems complete. Out of the medieval notion of the scope of reasoning being limited by the dictates of doctrine and dogma, is eventually born the neoclassicals’ notion of the concept of value as fully and exactly synonymous with the concept of scarcity or market value, or rareté in Walras’s term. Economists are seemingly freed to speak of ‘a theory of value’ when meaning to refer more specifically to a theory of scarcity-determined relative prices, determined by conditions of supply and demand in the marketplace. From an idea that something is or is not a good only and merely because the church happens to say so, the wheel comes full circle to an idea that something is or is not a good only and merely because of the price it happens to command in the marketplace. The moral absolutism of the platonist and the scholastic gives way to the moral scepticism of the humean, and we reach the threshold of the modern period of economics in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

§3. Briefly then, the development of the kind of sceptical and subjectivist point of view represented by Hume and the humean economists may be seen as the democratic reaction which occurs to medieval and platonist authoritarianism. And in parallel with these democratic developments occurring in the marketplace and economic thought, there occurs between the medieval and the modern period an emancipation of the political mind as well. No more will it be for clergy and aristocracy to dictate divine and temporal laws respectively. Men are born equal — which is to say there are not grounds ex ante why one human being should be supposed to deserve more or less authority or dignity than another merely in virtue of his or her humanity. The political process must reflect this new emancipation, and displace the hierarchies of the past with the equalitarian notion that every man’s vote should count the same, and the most popular choice be established to rule.

The modern institutional context of a parliamentary democracy, bound by formal or informal constitutional principles and precedents, may be roughly sketched somewhat as follows. From among the body of citizens, some will choose to run for elected office. While reasonable restrictions may be placed on who can so choose (e.g., they must be adult nationals) any citizen normally will be free to be a candidate. Before a vote is conducted, a reasonable time will be allowed for candidates to put their respective cases to the public. There will be some constitutional rule, like first-past-the-post or proportional representation, agreed upon more or less unanimously in advance of the vote, which will map how the actual balloting will induce particular outcomes as to the composition of the parliament. The individual voter casts his or her ballot, reflecting some private mixture of interest, prejudice, caprice or good sense about the common welfare. The rule is applied, and the largest coalition of winning candidates come to constitute the new government, with smaller coalitions constituting the loyal opposition. Once elected, a government will be expected prima facie to carry out the agenda it had proposed to the public before the election and not something different. What it actually does will be the subject of constant scrutiny and criticism by the opposition, the press, and the public at large, but the laws finally enacted will have jurisdiction over all. After a certain maximum time, elections must be held again and the process repeated, with an incoming government either maintaining or changing the policies of its predecessor in large or small measure. The system may be considered indirectly democratic insofar as that at any given time citizens shall have given themselves, via their elected representatives, the policies and laws under which they are themselves to live.

While a government would be expected to implement the agenda chosen indirectly in this way by the public, it will be expected also to elicit expert advice upon the best means to be employed towards achieving the chosen ends. Yet the expert must be appropriately humbled, brought down from the high altar where Plato had placed him to being the modest and self-effacing servant of the popular will. The scientist in government is to take as given the ends of his political masters, under a presumption that these reflect the democratic choice and any interference or criticism would be impertinent. More generally, the competence of the expert in a democratic society is not to extend to questioning the uses to which his expertise may be put. Thus Popper was to write: “No amount of physics will tell a scientist that it is the right thing for him to construct a plough, or an aeroplane, or an atomic bomb. Ends must be adopted by him, or given to him; and what he does qua scientist is only to construct means by which these ends can be realised.” Or as Myrdal put it in the passage quoted in the previous chapter, the expert must not go beyond advising on the means, for he would otherwise require premises of a normative kind which have not been given to science, but which are to be presumed available instead to the elected politican. And Robbins wrote of how economists ought not to judge the ends to which economics is put, indeed that ultimately “there is no room for argument” about ends, but rather how the quintessence of economics is the study of the optimal allocation of scarce resources between competing ends. It is only the question of the best or optimal means towards such an allocation that is within the scope of rational inquiry, and therefore within the competence of the economist qua scientist; it is not for the economist to question the ends given to him by the representatives of the public.

Now the widespread view since that there is a unique and quintessential economic problem, and that in particular it is the problem of the allocation of scarce resources between competing ends, is of course one initially advanced in the course of the neoclassical revolution. As Marshall put it: “if a person has a thing which he can put to several uses, he will distribute it among these uses in such a way that it has the same marginal utility in all. For if it had a greater marginal utility in one use than another, he would gain by taking some of it from the second use, and applying it to the first.” The housewife must decide how much yarn should be put to making socks and how much to making vests so “as to contribute as much as possible to family well-being”; she will have allocated the yarn efficiently if the marginal increase in family well-being is the same whether she puts the last ball of yarn to making an extra pa