How to fight government corruption whether on Earth or Mars

From Facebook:

Subroto Roy believes — partly from personal experience — that there is only one really sustainable way to fight government corruption whether in Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, the UK, the USA, Russia, China or Mars: tough and clean government accounting and audit processes allied with an uncorrupted press/media. And without clean government accounting, incidentally, all public finance and hence almost all monetary policy becomes meaningless.

The point is not about a PhD but deception about it

Not having a PhD in Economics is hardly a big thing. John Maynard Keynes did not have one. Nor did his disciples Nicholas Kaldor and Joan Robinson. Nor did Kaldor’s fellow-Hungarian critic, Peter Bauer. Yet all of them did path-breaking work in economics in their own time. There are a lot of ridiculous PhD theses being done around the world while a lot of demonstrably good economists have never had a PhD.

Not having a PhD is not the point. Lying about having one most definitely is.

The point is about mendacity and deception about one’s credentials and achievements. I feel nothing personal whatsoever against Suman Bery, have never met him, have exchanged a couple of cordial emails in years gone by, have heard his claim on TV that he considered himself a “liberal economist” and, since I am a liberal economist, found that to be of interest.

But any hint of deception in the public domain by public intellectuals is a bad thing.

India’s capital city, like perhaps many capital cities,  is full of mendacity and self-delusion of all sorts and this is a case that involves the name of a major American university. I find it all highly unpleasant. Suman Bery has no PhD in economics from Princeton University. This implies he has no earned postgraduate degree in economics since his masters degree is in a different field. Under rules of the Union and State Governments of India,  someone with such qualifications may teach economics at secondary school-level but  might well be disallowed from teaching economics courses at college-level let aside be allowed to supervise research or doctoral students. Yet since 2000-2001 he has been “Director General” of the most venerable of public research institutions in applied economics in New Delhi. He has over years allowed the impression to spread that he has an economics PhD from Princeton and deserves to be called Dr Bery. Perhaps he even began to believe this — Hannah Arendt once diagnosed self-deception in her eminent essay “Truth and Politics”. Here are a few examples from the Internet if you look for “Dr Suman Bery”. Judge for yourself.

Example 1:  Press-reports of the appointment in September 2000 “Suman Bery to head NCAER Business Line Financial Daily from THE HINDU group of publications Sunday, September 10, 2000 Our Bureau NEW DELHI, Sept. 9 DR Suman K. Bery, the World Bank Lead Economist for Brazil, will be the new Director-General of the National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER), an independent think tank on macro and micro economic policies. A statement from the Council said Dr Bery, who is succeeding Dr Rakesh Mohan, is likely to assume charge as the Director-General in December. Before joining the World Bank, Dr. Bery was Special Consultant to the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India between 1992 and 1994. Dr Bery’s publications include papers on Indian financial sector reform, reform of public sector banks, banking crises in Latin America and the political economy of economic reform in developing countries.”

QUESTION 1: As this was a mistaken report nine years ago about him in the Indian press prior to him taking up his appointment, did he seek to correct it or any similar press-reports e.g. by letters to the editor, or a public press communiqué on the NCAER website? Or, to the contrary, was the press and the appointing authority itself led to believe by him that he was in fact Dr Bery with a PhD from Princeton?

Example 2:  NCAER Golden Jubilee celebrations reported on the NCAER’s own website: “NCAER celebrated Golden Jubilee on Sunday December 17, 2006 at Vigyan Bhawan, New Delhi. The Hon’ble Prime Minister of India, Dr. Manmohan Singh, delivered the keynote address. The Prime Minister also released India Rural Infrastructure Report, a NCAER publication, on the occasion. The highlight of the celebration was an International Conference on Applied Economic Research in Independent India : Lessons for the Future….The Prime Minister released a copy of India’s Rural Infrastructure Report on the occasion. Dr. Bimal Jalan, Dr. Suman Bery, Dr. M.S. Verma, members of Governing body of NCAER and eminent economists participated in the function.” QUESTION 2: The Director-General of the NCAER is its Chief Executive Officer: did he promote the impression within the NCAER over the years that he was Dr Bery?

Example 3 Indian Banking Conference, Indian School of Business, Hyderabad, June 13 2008: “Suman Bery Dr Suman Bery is the current Director General of the National Council of Applied Economic Research, New Delhi, a position he has held since 2001. Earlier he was Lead Economist for Brazil at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., USA. Between 1992 and 1994, Dr Bery served as a Special Consultant to the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India during which he was actively involved in developing proposals for reform of the government debt markets, linkages between general financial sector deregulation and the development of the bond market, as well as issues of market structure, drawing upon the experience of other developing countries. Dr Bery’s publications include papers on Indian Financial Sector reforms; Reforms of Public Sector Banks; Banking Crises in Latin America and the Political Economy of Economic reforms in developing countries. He serves on the Central Board of the State Bank of India, India’s largest bank. He has been a member of several government committees and task forces. Dr Bery graduated from Magdalen College, Oxford and holds degrees from Princeton University – Master of Public and International Affairs and PhD in monetary policy instruments of the Reserve Bank of India.”

QUESTION 3: Why did he promote himself as Dr Bery with a Princeton PhD in this forum?

Example 4: Mumbai conference 17 November 2008 DRAFT PROGRAM Financial Sector Reforms and Economic Integration in Asia Venue: Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Gen. Vaidya Marg, Goregaon East, Mumbai.400065 17th November 2008 9:00 – 9.30 : Registration 9:30 – 10:00 : Welcome and Workshop Objectives Presenters: Prof Nachane (Director, IGIDR) and Prof. Drysdale (Emeritus Professor & Head, EABER) 10:00 – 11.00 : Special Lecture Chair: Prof. R. Radhakrishna (Honorary Professor, CESS and former Director, IGIDR) Dr. K. Kanagasabapathy, (Senior Consultant, Reserve Bank of India, Monetary Policy Department) Inflation and macroeconomic management in India 11.00 – 11.15 : Coffee Break 11.15 – 12.15 : Panel Session 1: Financial sector reforms in India Chair: Prof. Peter Drysdale (Emeritus Professor & Head, EABER) Lead Panelist: Dr. Suman Bery (Director-General, NCAER) Panelists: Prof U Sankar (Madras School of Economics), Dr. Prabhakar Patil (Director, Forward Markets Commission), Prof. Kaliappa Kalirajan (ANU) 12:15 – 13:45 : Lunch break 13:45-15:00 : Panel Session 2: Financial Sector Reforms in South Asia Chair : Dr. R. Barman (Former Executive Director, RBI) Lead Panelist: Dr Khondaker Moazzem (CPD, Bangladesh) Panelists: Dr. Selim Raihan (SANEM, Bangladesh), Dr Dushni Weerakoon (IPS, Sri Lanka), Mr Huw McKay (Australian Treasury) 15.00 – 16:15 : Panel Session 3: Inflation and Macroeconomic Management in South Asia Chair: Dr. Suman Bery Lead Panelist: Mrs. T M J Y P Fernando, Addl. Director, Supervision Department of Central Bank of Sri Lanka. Panelists: Dr Ashima Goyal (IGIDR), Mr Chris Ryan (Reserve Bank of Australia) 16:15 – 16: 30 : Coffee break 16:30 – 17:45 : Panel Session 4:Managing Capital Flows in India and South Asia Dr. R.H. Patil, Chairman, The Clearing Corporation of India Ltd. Lead Panelist: Dr. D. Nachane (Director, IGIDR) Panelists: Dr Ajit Ranade (Chief Economist, Aditya Birla Group) Mr. M.L. Soneji (CEO, Bombay Stock Exchange), Dr. B.K. Bhoi (RBI). 17:45-18:00 : Concluding Remarks Dr. Peter Drysdale and Dr. Dilip Nachane 8.00 p.m. : Dinner at Hotel Hyatt Regency QUESTION 4 Why did he promote himself as Dr Bery at this conference? Examples 5,6 etc: 2009 Yale School of Management South Asian Business Forum, Asian Development Bank 39th Meeting, etc “Suman K. Bery, Director-General, National Council for Applied Economic Research Mr.Bery is the current Director General of the National Council of Applied Economic Research, New Delhi. He assumed this position on January 1, 2001.After schooling in India and the U.K., Mr. Bery graduated from Magdalen College, Oxford with a first class degree in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE). His graduate work was at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University, from which he holds the degree of Master of Public and International Affairs. His Ph.D. dissertation research (also at Princeton) was on the monetary policy instruments of the Reserve Bank of India. Prior to this assignment, he was working at the World Bank in Washington, D.C., USA as the Lead Economist for Brazil. Other experience on Latin America included work on Argentina, Uruguay, Paraguay, Ecuador and Peru. Between 1992 and 1994 Mr. Bery held the position of Special Consultant to the Governor of the Reserve Bank of India, based in Mumbai. While at the RBI, he was actively involved in developing proposals for reform of the government debt markets, linkages between general financial sector deregulation and the development of the bond market, as well as issues of market structure, drawing upon the experience of other developing countries. Mr. Bery’s publications include papers on Indian Financial Sector reforms; Reforms of Public Sector Banks; Banking Crises in Latin America and the Political Economy of Economic reforms in developing countries. Mr. Bery serves on the Central Board of the State Bank of India, India’s largest bank. He has been a member of several government committees and task forces.” QUESTION 5: This description, the same as that on the NCAER website that he and I discussed, gives a clear impression he had done doctoral research at Princeton on the RBI’s policies – why leave it unsaid  that the quest for a doctoral degree was in fact unsuccessful?   And where if anywhere is this research available now? If an economist has been deceptive about his own credentials and achievements as an economist, the statements he makes about the economy or public policy lose credibility commensurately. Now that Mr Bery has become, as of today,  an adviser on economic policy to Dr Manmohan Singh himself, the Prime Minister may end up having to explain this too.

Subroto Roy August 2009

 

Protected: Why the Governing Body of India’s National Council of Applied Economic Research (NCAER) Must Resign In Toto And A Fresh Board Constituted: A Letter to Shri Bimal Jalan, MP, Rajya Sabha, et al

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Protected: The Case of the Missing Princeton PhD Thesis

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Parliament is supposed to control the Government, not be bullied or intimidated by it: Will Rahul Gandhi be able to lead the Backbenches in the 15th Lok Sabha?

Any Lok Sabha MP who neither sits with the Opposition nor is a sworn-in member of the Government is a Backbench MP of the Government party or its coalition.

Shrimati Sonia Gandhi is the most prominent of such Backbench MPs in the 15th Lok Sabha, just as she was of the 14th Lok Sabha, and has chosen to be in a most peculiar position from the point of view of parliamentary law. As the leader of the largest parliamentary party, she could have been not merely a member of the Government but its Prime Minister. She has in fact had a decisive role in determining the composition of the Manmohan Government as well as its policies. She in fact sits on the Frontbenches in the Lok Sabha along with the Manmohan Government. But she is not a member of the Government and is, formally speaking, a Backbench MP who is choosing to sit in the Frontbenches.

(Dr Manmohan Singh himself, not being a member of the Lok Sabha, may, formally speaking, sit or speak from among the Frontbenches of his own Government only by invitation of the Lok Sabha Speaker as a courtesy – such would have been the cardinal reason why Alec Douglas-Home resigned from being Lord Home and instead stood for a House of Commons seat when he was appointed British Prime Minister.)

Sonia Gandhi’s son, Mr Rahul Gandhi, is also a Backbench MP. From all accounts, including that of Dr Singh himself, he could have been a member of Dr Singh’s Government but has specifically chosen not to be. He has appeared to have had some much lesser role than Sonia Gandhi in determining the composition of the Government and its policies but he is not a member of it. He is, formally speaking, a Backbench MP, indeed the most prominent to actually sit in the Backbenches, as he had done in the 14th Lok Sabha, which, it is to be hoped, he does in the 15th Lok Sabha too.

Now Rahul Gandhi, Sonia Gandhi and their 541 other fellow 15th Lok Sabha MPs were declared winners by May 16 2009 having won the Indian people’s vote.

(Incidentally, I predicted the outcome here two hours before polls closed on May 13 – how I did so is simply by having done the necessary work of determining that some 103 million people had voted for Congress in 2004 against some 86 million for the BJP; in my assessment Congress had done more than enough by way of political rhetoric and political reality to maintain if not extend that difference in 2009, i.e., the BJP had not done nearly enough to even begin to get enough of a net drift in its favour. I expect when the data are out it shall be seen that the margin of the raw vote between them has been much enlarged from 2004.)

As I have pointed out here over the last fortnight, there was no legal or logical reason why the  whole 15th Lok Sabha could not have been sworn in latest by May 18 2009.

Instead, Dr Manmohan Singh on May 18 held a purported “Cabinet” meeting of the defunct 14th Lok Sabha – an institution that had been automatically dissolved when Elections had been first announced! The Government then went about forming itself over two weeks despite the 15th Lok Sabha, on whose confidence it depended for its political legitimacy, not having been allowed to meet. Everyone – the Congress Party’s Supreme Court advocates, the Lok Sabha Secretariat, the Election Commission, Rashtrapati Bhavan too –  seems to have gotten it awfully wrong by placing the cart before the horse.

In our system it is Parliament that is sovereign, not the Executive Government. In fact the Executive is accountable to Parliament, specifically the Lok Sabha, and is supposed to be guided by it as well as hold its confidence at all times.

What has happened instead this time is that Government ministers have been busy taking oaths and entering their offices and making policy-decisons days before they have taken their oaths and their seats as Lok Sabha MPs!  The Government has thus started off by diminishing Parliament’s sovereignty and this should not be allowed to happen again.

(Of course why it took place is because of the peculiarity of the victory relative to our experience in recent decades – nobody could remember parliamentary traditions from Nehru’s time in the 1950s.  Even so, someone, e.g. the former Speaker, should have known and insisted upon explaining the relevant aspect of parliamentary law and hence avoided this breach.)

A central question now is whether a Government which has such a large majority, and which is led by someone in and has numerous ministers from the Rajya Sabha, is going to be adequately controlled and feel itself accountable to the Lok Sabha.

Neither of the Lok Sabha’s most prominent Backbenchers, Sonia Gandhi and Rahul Gandhi, have thus far distinguished themselves as Parliamentarians on the floor of the Lok Sabha. In the 14th Lok Sabha, Sonia Gandhi, sitting in the Frontbenches, exercised the  enormous control that she did over the Government not on the floor of the House itself but  from outside it.

It would be best of all if she chose in the 15th Lok Sabha to actually physically sit in the Congress’s Backbenches because that would ensure best that the Government Party’s ministers in the Frontbenches will keep having to seek to be accountable to the  Backbenches!

But this seems unlikely to happen in view of the fact she herself seems to have personally influenced the choice of a Speaker for the 15th Lok Sabha and it may be instead expected that she continues to sit on the Frontbenches with the Government without being a member of it.

That leaves Rahul Gandhi. If he too comes to be persuaded by the sycophants to sit on the Frontbenches with the Government, that will not be a healthy sign.

On the other hand, if he continues to sit on the Backbenches, he may be able to have a salubrious influence on the 15th Lok Sabha fulfilling its responsibility of seeking to seriously control and hold accountable the Executive Government,  and not be bullied or intimidated by it. His paternal grandfather, Feroze Gandhi, after all, may have been India’s most eminent and effective Backbench MP yet.

Subroto Roy, Kolkata

On the general theory of expertise in democracy: reflections on what emerges from the American “torture memos” today

Twenty years ago, I wrote in Philosophy of Economics (Routledge, London & New York, 1989) quoting from Solzhenitsyn’s experience:

“….the received theory of economic policy… must be silent about the appropriate role of the expert not only under conditions of tyranny (Solzhenitsyn: “The prison doctor was the interrogator’s and executioner’s right-hand man. The beaten prisoner would come to on the floor only to hear the doctor’s voice: ‘You can continue, the pulse is normal’” ); but also where the duly elected government of an open and democratic society proceeded to do things patently wrong or tyrannical (the imprisonment of the Japanese Americans). Hence Popper’s “paradox of democracy” and “tyranny of the majority”..… A theory of economic policy which both assumes a free and open society and bases itself upon a moral scepticism cannot have anything to say ultimately about the objective reasons why a free and open society may be preferred to an unfree or closed society, or about the good or bad outcomes that may be produced by the working of democratic processes…”

Today’s Washington Post reports:

“When the CIA began what it called an “increased pressure phase” with captured terrorism suspect Abu Zubaida in the summer of 2002, its first step was to limit the detainee’s human contact to just two people. One was the CIA interrogator, the other a psychologist. During the extraordinary weeks that followed, it was the psychologist who apparently played the more critical role. According to newly released Justice Department documents, the psychologist provided ideas, practical advice and even legal justification for interrogation methods that would break Abu Zubaida, physically and mentally. Extreme sleep deprivation, waterboarding, the use of insects to provoke fear — all were deemed acceptable, in part because the psychologist said so. “No severe mental pain or suffering would have been inflicted,” a Justice Department lawyer said in a 2002 memo explaining why waterboarding, or simulated drowning, should not be considered torture. The role of health professionals as described in the documents has prompted a renewed outcry from ethicists who say the conduct of psychologists and supervising physicians violated basic standards of their professions. Their names are among the few details censored in the long-concealed Bush administration memos released Thursday, but the documents show a steady stream of psychologists, physicians and other health officials who both kept detainees alive and actively participated in designing the interrogation program and monitoring its implementation. Their presence also enabled the government to argue that the interrogations did not include torture. Most of the psychologists were contract employees of the CIA, according to intelligence officials familiar with the program. “The health professionals involved in the CIA program broke the law and shame the bedrock ethical traditions of medicine and psychology,” said Frank Donaghue, chief executive of Physicians for Human Rights, an international advocacy group made up of physicians opposed to torture. “All psychologists and physicians found to be involved in the torture of detainees must lose their license and never be allowed to practice again.” The CIA declined to comment yesterday on the role played by health professionals in the agency’s self-described “enhanced interrogation program,” which operated from 2002 to 2006 in various secret prisons overseas. “The fact remains that CIA’s detention and interrogation effort was authorized and approved by our government,” CIA Director Leon Panetta said Thursday in a statement to employees. The Obama administration and its top intelligence leaders have banned harsh interrogations while also strongly opposing investigations or penalties for employees who were following their government’s orders. The CIA dispatched personnel from its office of medical services to each secret prison and evaluated medical professionals involved in interrogations “to make sure they could stand up, psychologically handle it,” according to a former CIA official. The alleged actions of medical professionals in the secret prisons are viewed as particularly troubling by an array of groups, including the American Medical Association and the International Committee of the Red Cross. AMA policies state that physicians “must not be present when torture is used or threatened.” The guidelines allow doctors to treat detainees only “if doing so is in their [detainees’] best interest” and not merely to monitor their health “so that torture can begin or continue.” The American Psychological Association has condemned any participation by its members in interrogations involving torture, but critics of the organization faulted it for failing to censure members involved in harsh interrogations. The ICRC, which conducted the first independent interviews of CIA detainees in 2006, said the prisoners were told they would not be killed during interrogations, though one was warned that he would be brought to “the verge of death and back again,” according to a confidential ICRC report leaked to the New York Review of Books last month. “The interrogation process is contrary to international law and the participation of health personnel in such a process is contrary to international standards of medical ethics,” the ICRC report concluded….” (emphasis added)

Twenty-five years ago, the draft-manuscript that became the book Philosophy of Economics got me into much trouble in American academia. As I have said elsewhere, a gang of “inert game theorists”, similar to many (often unemployable ex-mathematicians) who had come to and still dominate what passes for academic economics in many American and European universities, did not like at all what I was saying. A handful of eminent senior economists – Frank Hahn, T W Schultz, Milton Friedman, James M Buchanan, Sidney Alexander – defended my work and but for their support over the decade 1979-1989, my book would not have seen light of day.  Eventually, I have had to battle over years in the US federal courts over it – only to find myself having to battle bribery of court officers and the suborning of perjury by government legal officers  too! (And speaking of government-paid psychologists, I was even required at one point by my corrupt opponent to undergo tests for having had the temerity of being in court at all! Fortunately for me that particular psychologist declined to participate in the nefariousness of his employer!).

I find all this poignant today as Philosophy of Economics may have, among other things, described the general theoretical problem that has been brought to light today.  I was delighted to hear from a friend in 1993 that my book had been prescribed for a course at Yale Law School and was strewn all over an alley in the bookshop.

Separately, I am also delighted to find that a person pioneering the current work is a daughter of our present PM. I have been sharply critical of Dr Singh’s economics and politics, but I have also said I have had high personal regard for him ever since 1973 when he, as a friend of my father’s, visited our then-home in Paris to advise me before I embarked on my study of economics. My salute to the ACLU’s work in this – may it be an example in defeating cases of State-tyranny in India too.

Subroto Roy,

Corporate Governance & the Principal-Agent Problem (a brief lecture dated 31 May 2006)

Corporate Governance & the Principal-Agent Problem
by

Subroto Roy
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:

PATIENT: DOCTOR
CLIENT: LAWYER
PUPIL: TEACHER
STUDENT: PROFESSOR
SHAREHOLDER: DIRECTORS & MANAGERS
CITIZEN: GOVERNMENT

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.

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.