March 20, 2009 — drsubrotoroy
Some months ago India’s inflation rate was said to be the highest it has been for decades and now today, right on cue, it is said to be the lowest it has been for decades! Today’s business press says Dr Manmohan Singh’s chief economic policy aide has apparently immediately expressed his keenness to see an even further purported “fiscal stimulus package” (aka pork-barrel politics prior to an election).
For myself, I have long given up on the credibility of such stuff emanating from our capital’s supposed policy-makers — putting it down, generally speaking, to what I consider and what I have called “New Delhi’s intellectual and moral bankruptcy”.
Here are two simple crude alternative ways to measure India’s (long-term trend) inflation-rate:
1. Take the Money-Supply Growth Rate, say 22% per annum, subtract from it the Growth of Real National Income, say 7%, get, hmmmm, 15%.
2. Find C&AG data for a series of several years; read off nominal expenditure on a dozen major heads of government bureaucracy (like “Central Secretariat”); calculate an average rate of growth of nominal expenditure on bureaucratic departments. On an assumption that Government of India bureaucracies, especially useless unproductive ones in New Delhi, seek to maintain their real consumption-levels, that growth of nominal expenditure reflects their beliefs about the actual change in the cost of living or decline in the value of money. Oddly enough, quick calculations of that amount to, hmmmm, 15% again!
For those who prefer to believe what emanates from New Delhi’s pretentious economists wallowing in their own ignorance, I wonder, as I said a couple of years ago on The Statesman’s frontpage, might I interest you in a marble structure in Agra, or perhaps a steel bridge over the Hooghly River, very famous, like Brooklyn Bridge itself….?
January 8, 2009 — drsubrotoroy
Corporate Governance & the Principal-Agent Problem
for a conference on corporate governance
I am most grateful for this opportunity to speak at this distinguished gathering. I have to say I have had just a day to collect my thoughts on the subject of our discussion, so I may be less precise than I would wish to be. But I am delighted I have a mere 7 minutes to speak, and I will not plan to speak for a second more!
I would like to ask you to consider the following pairings:
SHAREHOLDER: DIRECTORS & MANAGERS
You will recognize something in common to all of these pairings I am sure. A patient goes to a doctor with a problem, like a swelling or a stomach ache or a fever, and expects the doctor to do his/her best to treat it successfully. A client goes to a lawyer with a problem, of a contract or a tort or a criminal charge, and expects the lawyer to represent him to the best of his ability. A student attends a University or higher educational Institute, and expects the professors there to impart some necessary knowledge, to explain some difficult or complex natural or social phenomena, to share some well-defined expertise, so the student too may aspire to becoming an expert.
In each case, there is a Principal – namely the patient, the client, the student, — and there is an Agent, namely, the doctor, the lawyer, the professor. The Agent is not acting out of charity but is someone who receives payment from the Principal either directly through fees or indirectly through taxes.
The Agent is also someone who necessarily knows more than the Principal about the answer to the Principal’s problem. I.e. there is an asymmetry in the information between the two sides. The Agent has the relevant information or expertise — the Principal needs this information or expertise and wishes to purchase it from him one way or another.
A company’s Board of Directors and the management that reports to it, may be similarly assumed to have far greater specific knowledge than the company’s shareholders (and other stakeholders) about the state of a company’s operations, its finances, its organisation, its position in various input and output markets, its potential for growth in the industry it is a part of, and so on. Yet the shareholders are the Principal and the directors and managers are their Agents.
And indeed the Government of a country, i.e. its political leadership and the bureaucracy and military that are reporting to it, also have much more relevant decision-making information available to them than does the individual citizen as to the economic and political direction the country should be taking and why, and again the body of the ordinary citizenry of any country may have a reasonable expectation that politicians, bureaucrats and military generals are acting on their behalf.
In each of these cases, the Principal, having less information than the Agent, must necessarily trust that the Agent is going to be acting in good faith on the Principal’s behalf. There is a corporate governance problem in each case simply because the Agent can abuse this derived power that he acquires over the Principal, and breach the contract he has entered into with the Principal. Doctors or lawyers can practise improperly, professors can cheat their students of their money and teach them nothing or less than nothing, boards of directors and managers can cheat their shareholders and other “stakeholders” (including their workers who have expectations about the company) of value that should be rightfully theirs — and of course politicians, bureaucrats and military men are all too easily able to misuse the public purse in a way that the public will not even begin to know how to rectify.
In such situations, the only real checks against abuse can come from within the professions themselves. It is only doctors who can control medical malpractice, and only a doctor can certify that another doctor has behaved badly. It is only lawyers who can control legal malpractice, and testify that yes a client has been cheated of his money by some unscrupulous attorney. It is only good professors and good teachers who can do what they can to stand out as contrasting examples against corrupt professors or incompetent teachers.
In case of managerial malpractice, it is only fellow-managers who may be able to comprehend the scam that a particular CEO has been part of, in stealing money from his shareholders. And in case of political malpractice, similarly, it is only rival political parties and when even those fail, rival political institutions like the courts or the press and media, who can expose the shenanigans of a Government, and tell an electorate to throw the rascals out in the next election.
In other words, self-policing, and professional self-discipline are the only ultimate checks and balances that any society has. The ancient Greeks asked the question “Who guards the guardians”, and the answer has to be that the guardians themselves have to guard themselves. We ultimately must police ourselves . I think it was William Humboldt who said that a people get the government they deserve.
In India today, indeed in India in the last thirty or forty years, perhaps ever since 1966 after the passing away of Lal Bahadur Shastri, we may be facing a universal problem of the breach of good faith especially so perhaps in the Government and the organised corporate sector. Such breaches occur in other countries too, but when an American court sends the top management of Enron to jail for many years or a Korean court sends the top management of Daewoo to jail for many years, we know that there are processes in these countries which are at least making a show of trying to rectify the breaches of good faith that may have occurred there. That is regrettably not the situation in India. And the main responsibility for that rests with our Government simply because our Government is by far the largest organised entity in the country and dwarfs everyone else.
As an economist, I have been personally intrigued to realise that Government corruption is closely caused by the complete absence of serious accounting and audit norms being followed in Government organisations and institutions. Get control of as big a budget as you can, is the aim of every Government department, then spend as little of it as is absolutely necessary on the publicly declared social or national aim that the department is supposed to have, and instead spend as much as possible on the travel or personal lifestyles of those in charge, or better still transform as much as possible into the personal property of those in charge – for example, through kickbacks on equipment purchases or building contracts. For example, it is not unknown for the head of some or other government institution to receive an apartment off-site from a builder who may have been chosen for a major construction project on site. This kind of thing has unfortunately become the implicit goal of almost all departments of the Government of India as well as the Governments of our more than two dozen States. I have no doubt it is a state of affairs ultimately being caused by the macroeconomic processes of continuous deficit-financing and unlimited printing of paper-money over decades. For the first two decades or so after Independence, our institutions still had enough self-discipline, integrity, competence and optimism to correct for the natural human instincts of greed and domination. The next four decades — roughly, as I have said, from the death of Shastriji — there has been increasing social and political rot. I have to wonder if and when a monetary collapse will follow.
January 1, 2009 — drsubrotoroy
Transparency & history: India’s archives must be opened to world standards
by Claude Arpi & Subroto Roy
First published in Business Standard New Delhi December 31, 2008, 0:26 IST
The Government of India continues to hide India’s history from India’s people using specious excuses. An example is the Henderson-Brook report on the 1962 war, a single copy of which is said to exist locked away in the Defence Ministry. An anti-Indian author like Neville Maxwell is among the few ever given access to it; he has reiterated his factually incorrect theory (accepted by Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai and the US and Chinese establishments since) that the 1962 war was due to Nehru’s aggressive policy and China had no choice but launch a “pre-emptive attack”.
In Parliament not long ago, Defence Minister A K Antony said: “Considering the sensitivity of information contained in the report and its security implications, the report has not been recommended to be declassified in the National Security interest.” This is nonsense. Nothing from as far back as 1962 can possibly affect anything significant to India’s security today. In any case the Defence Ministry’s official history of the 1962 war, though officially unpublished, is openly available.
Even the 2005 Right to Information Act goes against transparency of research into India’s history. Article 8 (1) (a) says, “there shall be no obligation to give any citizen,— (a) information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offence.” This can cover all files of the MEA, Defence and Home; there seems to be no right to academic freedom for India’s people to research their own history.
China itself is more open with its archives. Since 2004, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing has begun a systematic process declassifying more than 40,000 items from its diplomatic records for the period 1949-1960. The Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington DC has recently published Inside China’s Cold War; the Project Director admits this has been possible due to China’s “archival thaw”.
In the USA, official documents are made available after 30 years or when a reasonable demand is made under the Freedom of Information Act. Numerous groups exist whose only work is to make sure the law is followed. The recently released Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume XVIII, China (1973-1976) published by the American foreign ministry reveals several interesting aspects of the India-USA-China relationship. Last year the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) posted some 320,000 declassified cables on-line. The text of once-secret diplomatic cables indexed is today retrievable from the NARA Website. It also includes withdrawal cards for documents still classified, so these can be requested under the Freedom of Information Act. Out of 119,356 documents for 1973 and 200,508 for 1974, some 7,484 were related to India. Indians scholars today have to rely on US documents for their own history!
In an open society, 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/herself, or is indirectly available to his/her elected representatives like MPs and MLAs. 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. In an open society, both good news and bad news is out there in the pubic domain— to be assessed, debated, rejoiced over, or wept about. Citizens are mature enough to cope with both— the experience causes a process of social maturation in formulating the common good as well as responses to problems or crises the community may face. People improve their civic capacities, becoming better-informed and more discerning voters and decision-makers, and so becoming better citizens.
The opposite of an open society is a closed society— in which a ruling political party or 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 in the dark as quickly as possible 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 they have the impression that the public is better off kept in the dark— that only the elite ‘nomenclatura’ is in a position to use the information to serve the national interest. Bad news comes to be suppressed and so 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— though 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 everywhere. 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 was instead defined by Pericles for 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.”
The study of the subcontinent’s history using archival material is crucial to disentangle difficult problems like the Jammu & Kashmir issue or the border problem with China. Yet today nobody can access independent India’s primary sources locked in South Block and North Block in New Delhi. Most bizarrely, Jawaharlal Nehru’s papers are under control of his descendants like Priyanka Vadra and Sonia Gandhi, who claim copyright. Someone may need to tell them there is a universal principle that there can be no copyright on the public life-work of historical figures like presidents and prime ministers.
December 7, 2008 — drsubrotoroy
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.
June 24, 2007 — drsubrotoroy
India has yet to develop normal conservative, liberal and socialist parties. The Nice-Housing-Effect and a little game-theory may explain the current stagnation
By SUBROTO ROY
First published in The Sunday Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, June 24 2007, http://www.thestatesman.net
THE theatrics surrounding the choice of presidential candidates refer to the highest and most dignified office of the land. Otherwise, India’s public would have been justified to think we were watching an absurd farce. Even so, lessons may be learnt about the nature of our polity, especially our purported Government and its purported Opposition.
Consider first how the name of the Congress’s candidate apparently arose. “Why don’t you think of Pratibha Patil?” was the rhetorical suggestion apparently made by Manmohan Singh to Sonia Gandhi at a joint meeting of the UPA and Left where no other person could be agreed upon. What could have been the emotional state of the Prime Minister of India in addressing such a question to its specific addressee? It had to be the same unconscious perplexity and mental contradiction he has experienced throughout the UPA Government, saying to himself: “I am the Prime Minister but I am not the Prime Minister, I am the Head of India’s Government but I am not the Head of India’s Government”.
Instead of leading the country as he was chosen to do in the belief he possessed some superior wisdom and capability for the job, Dr Singh has constantly deferred to and followed the person who chose him to lead. The Head of Government in our system recommends an appropriate Head of State. If Dr Singh truly felt himself India’s leader, not merely someone permitted for some time to enjoy the office and perquisites of India’s Prime Minister and being nominally referred to as such, he could have said: “I think we should consider Pratibha Patil, what say all of you?”
Such words would have displayed too much assertiveness in the presence of Sonia Gandhi, too much leadership from someone flatteringly described as mild and gentle but unflatteringly described as obsequious in the face of power. It is the same excess of deference displayed when he allows himself to be bullied or insulted by the DMK or receive the open contempt of his own Cabinet ministers. Dr Singh has just returned from the so-called “G-8 summit” where he was an invitee. In a group photo standing above and behind the American President, Dr Singh was seen gently touching George Bush on the shoulder as if Bush was a rich younger brother who needed a lift in spirits. Afterwards Dr Singh reportedly said the summit was useless ~ from his long bureaucratic experience he should have known that long beforehand, and declined to waste India’s time there. But then Europe is nice this time of year when Delhi is so hot. China is next on his itinerary, and he will surely not want to miss the Great Wall despite China’s continuing insults.
What the Pratibha episode reveals about Sonia Gandhi is her continuing bewilderment and confusion about the parameters of her life since her husband’s assassination sixteen years ago. There is a very simple candid explanation why, after her years in mourning, she entered politics following the Sitaram Kesri period: she and her children could not financially sustain a lifestyle to which they had become accustomed at 10 Janpath except as part of India’s politics via the Congress Party. Running the Rajiv Gandhi Foundation was not enough, and Rahul Gandhi’s income in a normal private sector career would have been unexceptional. Hence the lure of power has remained strong and cannot be walked away from even if walking away would be the right thing to do for sake of the political health of the Congress Party ~ which would finally have to grow up, find some political principles, and develop some normal processes of internal competition.
When Pratibha Patil’s name was mentioned for the first time in this manner, the rational course of action for the UPA Chair would have been to say, wait, if we are now thinking about a woman definitely, may we please have two or three such names to consider for a few days? But it was Dr Singh mentioning the name, and his supposed wisdom is what Sonia Gandhi believes, in her bewilderment, she should defer to, so she agreed at once in a parallel state of mental confusion as his: “I am India’s Leader but I am not India’s Leader”. Hence Pratibha Patil becomes the nominee. A little “game-theory” may help to explain the outcome (see table).
The paralysis and/or sclerosis of the Congress’s thinking processes is matched by the BJP and Communists. If Sonia Gandhi could bring herself to walk away from Indian politics, a genuine leadership contest in the Congress would have to occur for the first time in decades. Similarly, if Atal Behari Vajpayee and Lal Krishna Advani could bring themselves to honestly walk away from BJP politics, there would have to be a genuine leadership contest and some new principles emerging in their party. There is an excellent and very simple political reason for Vajpayee and Advani to go, which is not that they are too old (which they are) but that they led their party to electoral defeat. Had they walked away in May 2004, there might have been by now some viable conservative political philosophy in India and some recognisable new alternative leadership for 2009. Instead there is none and the BJP has not only failed very badly at being a responsible Opposition, it will go into the 2009 General Election looking exceptionally decrepit and incompetent.
Indeed, Vajpayee and Advani may not have walked away for the same reason as Sonia Gandhi, namely, the “10 Janpath Effect” or what may be generalised to the “Nice-New Delhi-Government-Housing-Effect”. Besides, like our ageing cricketers, cinema stars, playback singers and tons of ageing bureaucrats and corporate executives, where would they go, what would they do, how would they live, what do they know how to do if they were not doing what they have been doing for so long? Golf and grandchildren is the usual American formula.
In case of the Communists, it is not electoral but ideological defeat, indeed ideological annihilation, that their leaders have led them into. When was the last time we heard our Communist leaders extolling Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, Mao, Zhou or even Fidel Castro? Not for a long time. The bankruptcy of official communism is obvious even to them, at least in their candid moments in front of the mirror every morning. Even for the CPI and CPI(M) to merge into a genuine modern socialist party is too creative and productive an outcome to be handled since top and middle management retrenchments would be inevitable. Also, the Cannot-Leave-Nice-Housing-Effect applies here too, and so the most we find by way of communist transformation is a perverse alliance with organised big business in trying to cheat very poor and unorganised peasants of their land in an economy where runaway paper money printing threatens a hyperinflation.
Nobody in power wants to address the rotten state of our public finances, since all of them have contributed to causing the stench. Our Finance Minister finds time to attend posh parties and publish books while presiding over an RBI-supported capital flight of India’s super-rich: “ultrahigh networth individuals are looking forward to buy overseas equities and real estate” Business Standard (25 April 2007) blithely said. The Finance Minister should have been instead burning the midnight candle getting public budgets and government accounting cleaned and healthy nationwide.
We in India have had more than enough time and democratic experience to have developed by now a set of normal conservative, liberal democrat, social democrat and socialist parties. That we have nothing of the kind speaks to the rot in the political culture we are witnessing in our capital and other major cities. Politically, we may be in for an especially ugly, unpleasant and incoherent few years starting with the presidential election currently underway.
June 11, 2007 — drsubrotoroy
When will normal political philosophy replace personality cults?
by Subroto Roy
First published in The Statesman, Editorial Page Special Article, June 11 2007,
A decade after Solzhenitsyn’s classic 1962 memoir One day in the life of Ivan Denisovitch, an ambitious young Delhi photographer published a hagiography called A life in the day of Indira Gandhi. Indira was shown gambolling with her little grandchildren, guiding her dutiful daughter-in-law, weeping for her father, greeting her loyal subjects from around India, reprimanding her ingratiating sycophants, imperiously silent during political meetings, smiling and scolding alternately at press conferences, and of course standing in victory at Shimla beside the defeated Bhutto. “Indira is India” the sycophantic slogan went, and the cult of her personality was one of showing her as omniscient and omnipotent in all earthly matters of Indian politics.
She had indeed fought that rarest of things in international law: the just war. Supported by the world’s strongest military, an evil enemy had made victims of his own people. Indira tried patiently on the international stage to avert war, but also chose her military generals well and took their professional judgement seriously as to when to fight if it was inevitable and how to win. Finally she was magnanimous (to a fault) towards the enemy ~ who was not some stranger to us but our own estranged brother and cousin.
It seemed to be her and independent India’s finest hour. A fevered nation was thus ready to forgive and forget her catastrophic misdeeds until that time, like bank-nationalization and the start of endless deficit-finance and unlimited money-printing, a possible cause of monetary collapse today four decades later under Manmohan Singh whose career as an economic bureaucrat began at that time.
Hitler, Stalin, Mao
Modern personality cults usually have had some basis in national heroism. In Indira’s case it was the 1971 war. Hitler, Stalin and Mao were seen or portrayed as war heroes too. Because there has been leadership in time of war or national crisis, nervous anxious masses extend their hopes and delusions to believe such a leader has answers to everything. The propaganda machinery available as part of modern state apparatus then takes over, and when it is met on behalf of the citizenry with no more than a compliant docile ingratiating mass media, the public image comes to be formed of a parental god-like figure who will protect and guide the community to its destiny.
Beneath this public image, the cunning play of self-interest by anonymous underlings in the allocation of public resources continues unabated, and so it is possible some truth attaches to the idea that an individual leader is not as responsible for evil misdeeds or depredations done by “the party” in his/her name.
In the Indian case, hero-worship and ancestor-worship are part of the culture of all our major religions. Hence we have parades of parliamentarians garlanding or throwing flowers and paying obeisance at this or that statue or oil-painting or photograph regularly ~ though as a people we have yet to produce rigorous intellectual biographies of any major figures of our own modern history, comparable to, say, Judith Brown’s work on Gandhi or Ayesha Jalal’s on Jinnah.
Indira continued to dominate our political culture until her assassination more than a decade later, but there was hardly a shred of political or economic good in what she left the country. Her elder son (leaving aside his blunders in Sri Lanka, J&K etc.) did have the sense to initiate fundamental change in his party’s economic thinking when he found a chance to do so in the months before his own assassination.
Rajiv was the son of Feroze Gandhi too and a happy family man; he seemed not to have psychological need for as much of the kind of personality cult his mother clearly loved to indulge in. It is not clear if his widow is today trying to follow his example or his mother’s ~ certainly, the party that goes by the name of Indian National Congress would like to relive for a second time the worst of the Indira personality cult around Sonia Gandhi. And Rahul Gandhi, instead of seeking to develop or display any talent as befits a young man, has shown disconcerting signs of longing for the days of his grandmother’s personality cult to return. He may have been more effective pursuing a normal career in the private sector.
The Congress’s perpetual tendency towards personality cults has extended by imitation to other political parties in New Delhi and the States. Atal Behari Vajpayee at his peak as PM did not find it at all uncomfortable to be portrayed by his sycophants as a wise, heroic and loving father-figure of the nation ~ an image shattered when, immediately after perfunctorily commiserating the Godhra and post-Godhra horrors, he was pictured fashionably on a Singapore golf-cart sporting designer sunglasses.
India’s organised communists make a great show of collective decision-making since they most intimately followed the details of Kruschev’s denunciation of Stalin’s personality cult. It has not stopped them routinely genuflecting to China’s communists. There also has been a communist tendency to deny individual merit and creativity at junior levels and instead appropriate all good things for the party bosses. New brilliant faces will never arise in the Left and we may be condemned to see the usual characters in perpetuity. If personality cults around Jyoti Basu or Buddhadeb Bhattacharya have failed to thrive it has not been through lack of trying on part of the publicly paid communist intelligentsia and their docile artists, but rather because of resistance from Bengal’s newspapers and a few clear-headed journalists and well known opposition politicians.
Tamil Nadu has seen grotesque rivalry between Karunanidhi and Jayalalitha as to whose personality cult can alternately outdo the other, supplanting all normal political economy or attempts at discovery of the public interest. In Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, J&K, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh (but not Gujarat or Rajasthan lately), two-party democratic politics has succeeded in limiting tendencies for personality cults to develop. The North Eastern States have had inadequate coverage by modern media, which, fortuitously, along with tribal traditions, may have restrained personality cults from developing.
Facts explode cults
Facts are the most reliable means by which to explode personality cults. It is not a coincidence that facts are also the source by which to develop modern political philosophies, whether conservative, classical liberal/ libertarian, or socialist. Facts have to be discovered, ferreted out, analysed, studied and reflected upon by those civil institutions that are supposed to be doing so, namely university social science, economics and related departments, as well as responsible newspapers, radio and other mass media. Julian Benda once titled a book The Treason of the Intellectuals. India will begin to have a normal political philosophy when the treason of its modern intellectual classes begins to be corrected.
It is not a treason in which the state has been betrayed to an enemy. Rather it is one in which the very purposes of public conversation, such as the discovery of the public interest, have been betrayed in the interests of immediate private gain. This may help to explain why there is so little coherent public discussion in India today, and certainly almost nothing on television, or in the business papers or what passes for academia.
January 8, 2006 — drsubrotoroy
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.