My contribution to renewable energy technology

From Facebook:

Subroto Roy wonders how much electricity could be produced inside a gym if a clever  engineer designed a generator that ran on all the tread mills, elliptical bikes, rowing machines etc powered by people…more than enough to charge everyone’s mobile phone and perhaps the lights too….

(yes, yes, a discontinuous function…)


New Media:Old Media, Parasite:Host? A Discussion Between Bruce Bartlett & Subroto Roy (Updated Sep 27)

From Facebook:

Bruce Bartlett: This is the best picture of the diminution of the formerly major media that I have seen.

Subroto Roy: The long run problem though is how does new media actually become profitable enough to supplant the old, not just supplement it as it does now.

BB: I think it’s a given that that will happen eventually. The problem is how to maintain quality control and accountability in the new media when editorial oversight has effectively disappeared.

SR: Editorial oversight is substituted for by mutual peer review and reputation protection (as well as a return perhaps to a pre-codification state of customary law). But still, small subscription or user charges for many millions of users may be the only long run way to sustain it, not old media advertising.

BB: I have doubts about peer review being a viable replacement for editorial control. It’s too easy to delete comments, links get broken, search engines only scan the surface etc. The virtue of traditional media is that they have systems in place that ensure a degree of responsibility at least in the hard news coverage. That simply diesn’t exist in the new media and probably won’t be created because such systems are costly and time-consuming.

SR: In that case new and old will coexist, with new continually lifting material for free from the old without recompense. (Arianna H. had a nice comparison/contrast some months ago.) The equilibrium outcome may be one of vertically integrated companies…. Come to think of it, where is Rupert Murdoch in the new media world?

BB: I am sympathetic to the idea of modifying the antitrust laws to allow newspapers to collude to create some sort of payment system that all papers could participate in. Congress created such an exemption for baseball and I think newspapers are at least as important.

SR: Well vertical would involve the Murdochs of the world buying up the Googles and the Facebooks (or perhaps being bought up by them instead).

BB: Murdoch tried that by buying MySpace, which hasn’t worked out so well.

SR: Vertical integration is not easy managerially but it may provide the only business model in the long run for new media to coexist parasitically with old media — old media does the basic research and earns the revenue, new media spreads the technology and earns the goodwill while living off the old.

BB: I don’t agree. I think some sort of horizonal integration among news providers may be viable. The new media are essentially parasitic, living off the reportage and infrastructure created by the old media. We all know that the old media need to charge for content. But they can’t without creating some sort of arrangement that would basically involve price fixing. This is where modification of the antitrust laws would help. The alternative, I fear, is government subsidies of some kind to preserve the basic news gathering function.

SR: Well there is agreement then that the parasite metaphor may be useful. Old media is the host where new media is the parasite. Good parasites tend to be in a symbiotic relationship with their host, feeding off it but also doing good to it. It would be a foolish parasite that kills off its host altogether. In case of media, someone (Publisher) pays someone else (Reporter) to witness/record Event A. That is Stage One. Then Publisher pays someone else again (Editor) to evaluate whether the report about A deserves or not to be published via the airwaves (radio, TV), cables (Internet) or dead trees (newsprint). That is Stage Two. Our new media parasite can do Stage Two well but relies on old media entirely for Stage One, and without Stage One there is no Stage Two. Vertical integration here would merely mean the host-parasite relationship becomes contractually acknowledged. I do think the dead-tree aspect will become reduced even further but radio and TV will survive.

BB: The biggest problem with my idea is the problem of leakage. One blogger like Drudge can subscribe to all the hard news web sites and just recycle their reportage for free. I don’t know what to do about that and it argues for your idea of vertical integration. But you have the same problem in that there is no way of controlling new entrants. It may be that the problem cannot be solved and we will have to muddle through somehow. In a column a while back I suggested that reporting will never pay for itself and will have to be subsidized through foundations, universities and the like.

SR: A point of yours on which I agree is this: consumers of the Internet are gaining a free good, namely the outcome of the parasitic process we discussed, and hence there is a prima facie argument for them to be taxed (by a license fee for example) and, say, newsprint or journalism schools subsidised with the earmarked proceeds.

BB: Insofar as news gathering is a public good there is a case for some sort of tax to subsize it. The problem is that I don’t see any practical way of taxing Internet access, which would be the logical tax base. Second, I don’t see any practical way of subsiding news gathering without the danger of government control. There are also first amendment problems. Perhaps there is some way that the major search engines like Google could finance a C-SPAN-type basic news gathering service.

SR: We simply do what the BBC did when it started 70+ years ago, namely, license fees for radio and then TV. So each Internet connection gets taxed or pays a one-time or annual license fee. It is the logical tax base for sure. Re. subsiding news gathering, that is why I said subsidise newsprint (expensive raw material common to all newspapers), and perhaps subsidise young journalists in training (left, right or centre). That’s about it. Yes the C-Span model is good too but will depend on largesse of very rich people.

BB: Per our discussion.

SR: Cool.

(That is where the conversation stands as of about Sep 27 2009. Feel free to join in or model better.)

My (armchair) experience of the 1999 Kargil war (Or, “Actionable Intelligence” in the Internet age: How the Kargil effort got a little help from a desktop)

My (armchair) experience of the 1999 Kargil war
(Or, “Actionable Intelligence” in the Internet age: How the Kargil effort got a little help from a desktop)

by Subroto Roy
First drafted July 20 1999,
revised and published January 5 2009

“The pilots who launched the strike and recce missions have caught the public eye but the backroom boys worked equally hard. Even in IAF stations far away from the action, the officers held brain-storming sessions and sent in their suggestions.” — Air Chief Marshall AY Tipnis, Indian Air Force press conference July 15 1999.

On the night of June 1/2 1999, I had been looking on the Internet for a good map of Jammu & Kashmir for use in a research paper.  I was in my office as a “full professor” at an “Institution of National Importance”.  A year earlier, on June  23 1998, I had been in the United States and given a talk at Washington DC’s Heritage Foundation titled “Towards an Economic Solution for Kashmir” based on my research originating in the late 1980s with the academic volume that WE James and I created, Foundations of Pakistan’s Political Economy: Towards an Agenda for the 1990s.  Now again there was a plan to talk and I needed a proper map.  We had lost two fighter aircraft and a helicopter in the Kargil fighting, and the Indian Army seemed to be facing reverses.  The country seemed despondent and tense yet in a trance too over the ongoing cricket World Cup.  Neither the Army nor the IAF seemed to quite know where the enemy had entrenched himself or in what strength. Television and newspapers were showing crude schoolboy sketches of the battlefield.  Could the Internet be of help in finding a better map, I asked myself?  I had been an early enthusiast of Google since its launch some months earlier and the Internet was still a wild and untutored place.

Imagine my surprise when before my eyes that night came to be unveiled the American CIA’s own detailed declassified contour maps, or “Tactical Pilotage Charts”, of  Kargil, Drass, Srinagar and the Line of Control; then to the west Muzaffarabad, Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Kahuta etc., and to the east, Ladakh, Aksai Chin and the Line of Actual Control with the Chinese.   Produced by the US Government’s Defense Intelligence Agency for the CIA, there they were now available to me at my desk thanks to the Internet!   The Pakistan map stated in bold letters that all aircraft planning to enter Pak airspace must request permission with at least 15 minutes notice.

Did our folks have these maps, was my first thought. Perhaps we didn’t, we had been caught unawares after all by the Pakistani attack, even if we had the maps somewhere perhaps they were unavailable right now, we had just lost aircraft and Squadron Leader Ahuja had been killed, our artillery fire at the time somehow seemed not as accurate as theirs; after years of close military collaboration with the West, Pakistan surely had all these maps in the original while we did not  —  that was an advantage that needed to be neutralized.   Such were the thoughts that rushed through as the maps downloaded slowly (very slowly, excruciatingly slowly) before me that night.

Yet here I was in my distant office just before midnight; how could these maps reach those they ought to reach?  I had not even a direct phone line outside campus or a phone directory.  Thinking aloud, I woke up the campus security chief who was a friend and a retired soldier; could he please phone the commander of a nearby IAF station, a Group Captain, and ask him to call me on campus straightaway because I had just downloaded American “Tactical Pilotage Charts” of Kargil and Drass onto my desktop computer?

The Group Captain knew me because he happened to be a distant cousin; he not only called back but responded to my plea to drive over at once to take a look at the maps.  He was a fighter pilot by training and I thought he, if anyone, would be able to assess their usefulness.  I did not wish to know from him if he thought we had them or did not but I was happy to give them to him anyway.  He taciturnly said these might be useful, so we printed out all the maps right then at 2 am, which he would send on first thing in the morning.

Campus bureaucrats later objected to Air Force officers having visited my office in the middle of the night and used computer-equipment (to print the maps) without higher bureaucratic authorization; I was told faculty-members ought not to meddle in such matters unless and until a formal inter-Ministry request had been received and approved.  This seemed to me bizarre if not absurd in the circumstances.  I replied that I was acting as a citizen and a professor in an area of my published research, and besides our government academic institution was supposedly “dedicated” to the national interest and, excuse me, but there just happened to be a war going on up north in Kargil right then!

Over the next several days, the Internet began to freely reveal all sorts of things which in years gone by would surely have been top secret – pure James Bond stuff.  Here from the Federation of American Scientists, maps included, were nuclear and missile facilities:  Chagai, Chashma, Dera Ghazi, Dera Nawab, Fateh Jung, Golra, Gujranwala, Isa, Islamabad, Jhang, Kahuta, Karachi, Kundian, Lahore, Lakki, Malute, Multan, Okara, Quetta, Rawalpindi, Sargodha, Sinhala, Wah.  Here was the Southern California supplier saying that Pakistan had gone about buying and manufacturing under license more than sixteen hundred armoured personnel carriers; why would you buy so many APCs?  Because you wanted a very large strike force in an attack on India.   Here were details of the latest submarine they had bought from France – a highly lethal machine that could play havoc.  Here too was information that their naval officers had been jailed for accepting bribes in the deal, on which the French Embassy in Islamabad had no comment to make.  Here was the yet-to-be-produced Chinese FC-1 fighter-bomber – which was going to be sold to Pakistan but whose production was stalled by apparent lack of funds.   Here were Pakistan’s own military providing news and propaganda — from whose mixed pronouncements it became clear Squadron Leader Ahuja had been captured alive by Pakistani border guards and then shot dead in cold blood as a surrendered POW.

Air HQ responded quickly enough, and on the evening of June 10th, with four young officers in my office, I sent on all this publicly available material by email.   In the meantime, on June 6, I released the contour map of Kargil to all faculty-members with a request to try to send it up to in any way they might know how to.  I figured that our adversary already had the map in the original, so it would only be to the good if every jawan and airman on our side did too. I also went to see a well-known computer science specialist on campus.  Connections had been established with the Air Force, I told him; now how do we get it to the Army?  He grasped the problem quickly and established a firm connection with an officer in the appropriate location who once had been a student of his.   On June 11, that officer wrote to me:

Dear Sir,
It is very heartening to note the kind of interest that you and Prof C are generating. I have done full justice to the info that you have sent me by sending them to the people to whom they matter. We really do appreciate your efforts in this regard. I am sure as a true patriot of our country, you will continue your valuable efforts and keep us posted… …(we) may lack a proper ‘actionable intelligence’ in terrains like Kargil and Dras simply because of the nature of the terrain and the inhospitable climatic conditions that prevail at such heights. And our countrymen are braving all these and fighting tooth and nail to give back a suitable reply to the infiltrators. What peps us is the solid backing that is given by the citizens of our country who come out in all forms to help assist us in overcoming such a crisis, such as your invaluable contribution. …. the quality of the maps that I had forwarded greatly help in interpreting things more clearly….

I wrote back on June 12:

Dear G,
.… We are very happy to know they are proving useful… It is all in the public domain…There is nothing clandestine about it. ……. there is definite if circumstantial evidence on the basis of Pakistani admissions that Squadron Leader Ahuja was captured alive by the Pakistan Army and then shot dead by them. This evidence consists of Pakistan admitting in the initial moments that they did not know his name but believed it to be UHJA of 6 Squadron out of Srinigar. Ask yourself, how did they make that mistake instead of AHUJA? They could not have made the mistake if they had read the name AHUJA from his flying suit after he had crashed dead, as they claim. The only way they can make that mistake is if they asked him personally what his name and squadron was; he told them, then they shot him. It is an international war crime which our government should take up immediately with the International War Crimes Tribunal. With regards

In creating the Foundations of Pakistan’s Political Economy book in the 1980s and 1990s while in America, I had been a most sympathetic student of Pakistan. Writing in Hawaii in 1989-1990, I had said in the Introduction to the book that “the arms race and elite rivalry has greatly impoverished the general budgets of both Pakistan and India. If it has benefited important sections of the political and military elites of both countries, it has done so only at the expense of the general welfare of the masses. So long as the arms-race continues, the economies of both countries are likely to remain severely distorted…” Some of this appeared too in my work for Rajiv Gandhi, as published in July 31-August 2 1991 of The Statesman‘s editorial pages. A few years later in 1993 in Washington DC, I articulated “An Economic Solution to Kashmir”.  About 1997 or 1998, the then-Pakistani envoy to India at a luncheon in Calcutta where I was not present, received a copy of the book gifted by me through a colleague who had been at the lunch. The book had been published in Karachi and Delhi in 1992-93, and had been quite intensely reviewed both in Pakistan and in India at the time.  But all my optimism about a peace process with Pakistan vanished during their Kargil aggression in the summer of 1999, and I was totally appalled and horrified by their sadistic torture and murder of Lt. Saurabh Kalia and his platoon, and their cold-blooded murder of Squadron Leader Ajay Ahuja while POWs.

In the July 1999 Kargil issue of New Delhi’s  Security and Political Risk Analysis Bulletin, I published an article titled “Was a Pakistani Grand Strategy Discerned in time by India?”.  A longer analysis and prescription dated June 11 1999 had been sent by me to the Vajpayee Government.  I began my analysis with the sentence: “When Pakistani military and political men make statements as they have done recently like (a)they can win a war against India (Pak COAS),(b)    they can hit any target in India and inflict unacceptable losses on us  (Pak nuclear and missile chief), (c) they are prepared to use any weapon (Pak foreign secretary), (d) a fourth war with India is imminent (“Prime Minister” POK),(e) Pakistan will be a responsible nuclear weapons’ country (Pak information minister), these should be taken seriously….” I ended my analysis with the sentence: “If the Pakistani military insists on plunging the entire subcontinent into an abyss of destruction and chaos for generations, then so be it.   There will be no Indian defeat in either Delhi or Kashmir because it will have been preceded by the end of Pakistan’s physical existence…. We must wake up immediately and go to battle-stations at once.  There is no time to lose.”

Now in 2009, as war clouds still linger after the Mumbai massacres, I am reminded of all this experience ten years ago.  If my proposal gets followed of a trial of the terrorist masterminds for piracy, murder and conspiracy, held by the Pakistan and Indian Navies jointly in international waters under maritime law, my hopes for civil government in Pakistan and peaceful cooperative relations may become restored.

Kolkata, January 2009

Neglecting technological progress was the basis of my pessimism about Chandrayaan

I have been very pessimistic about Chandrayaan-I’s prospects and I am delighted to hear ISRO say it has been successful in placing the spacecraft in lunar orbit.   I have had to wonder where, precisely, my pessimism was mistaken.  The answer is that I had completely left out in my thinking the vast technological progress that has taken place in telecommunications  and telemetry in the last 40 years.  I had surveyed the history of similar attempts by the USSR and USA in the 1960s and that was a history littered by failures of  many sorts.    Let aside rocket-launch failures, the other main sources of failure were in trajectories and in communications.  I have been deeply concerned that India was simply going to fall in the same pitfalls along the way.   But  what I neglected was that our attempt was being made forty years  later and the world has seen enormous technological progress during that time, especially in telecom.  The Soviet and American missions took place in the early 1960s when, for example, colour television hardly existed.  Today, in 2008, ISRO seems to have managed control and guidance systems that have been up to the (very complex) task of placing the spacecraft in lunar orbit.  Hats off to ISRO if it turns out they have succeeded, and cheers if they actually manage to get the scientific data they have wished to receive.

The same mistake that I made here in a  field not my own is what I have myself pointed out being made  in a different context regarding the current world financial crisis.  Viz., I said in my September 18 2008 Business Standard article “October 1929? Not!” that the world since the 1929 stock market crash had witnessed so much technological progress that the current crisis could not be compared to the one back then.

Subroto Roy,

Kolkata, November 9 2008

Growth & Government Delusion

Growth & Government Delusion:

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

By Subroto Roy

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


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

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

Per capita real GDP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Risk and enterprise

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

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

see also 12 June 2009

India’s Macroeconomics

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

India’s Macroeconomics

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


Subroto Roy

First published in The Sunday Statesman Editorial Page Special Article

January 20 2007

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Transparency and Economic Policy-Making

Transparency and Economic Policy-Making

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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