The wonders of the Internet continue to surprise (and yes Virginia, there was a world before SMS and before the Internet too). In early January, in context of India’s Satyam fraud (of a size of perhaps 1 or perhaps 2 billion dollars), I referred here to what seemed to me the likelihood of Satyam becoming a zombie company and I said “we in India have many such zombies walking around in the organised business sector”. I drew attention to Andrew Beattie’s astute definition of zombies and other such ghoulish phenomena in the financial world, and also referred to John Stepek’s excellent if brief November 2008 analysis “How zombie companies suck the life from an economy”. Today I find Ms Arianna Huffington has made reference to Mr Martin Wolf’s reference a couple of days ago to zombie companies and to his statement that President Obama needs to “Admit reality, restructure banks and, above all, slay zombie institutions at once.” Ms Huffington has agreed, though of course all this slaying may be easier said than done. (It is better that zombies not be created in the first place.)
Mr Wolf has pointedly asked a question that many around the world may have half-thought about but not articulated: “Has Barack Obama’s presidency already failed?” It would be a grave and appalling state of affairs if it has, within less than a month of entering office. I am grateful to find in Ms Huffington’s article a reference to an October 2008 Wall Stret Journal interview of Dr Anna Jacobson Schwartz, perhaps the most respected voice in monetary economics today. There have been numerous people claiming to have predicted America’s financial crisis but none may have as much credibility as Dr Schwartz. Six years ago, in a National Bureau of Economic Research study dated November 2002, “Asset Price Inflation and Monetary Policy”,Working Paper 9321 she had said with utmost clarity: “It is crucial that central banks and regulatory authorities be aware of effects of asset price inflation on the stability of the financial system. Lending activity based on asset collateral during the boom is hazardous to the health of lenders when the boom collapses. One way that authorities can curb the distortion of lenders’ portfolios during asset price booms is to have in place capital requirements that increase with the growth of credit extensions collateralized by assets whose prices have escalated. If financial institutions avoid this pitfall, their soundness will not be impaired when assets backing loans fall in value. Rather than trying to gauge the effects of asset prices on core inflation, central banks may be better advised to be alert to the weakening of financial balance sheets in the aftermath of a fall in value of asset collateral backing loans….”
Most poignantly too, Dr Schwartz was present when Ben Bernanke said in a 2002 speech honouring the late Milton Friedman “I would like to say to Milton and Anna: Regarding the Great Depression. You’re right, we did it. We’re very sorry. But thanks to you, we won’t do it again.” Dr Schwartz told the Wall Street Journal ‘”This was [his] claim to be worthy of running the Fed”. “He was ‘familiar with history. He knew what had been done.’ But perhaps this is actually Mr. Bernanke’s biggest problem. Today’s crisis isn’t a replay of the problem in the 1930s, but our central bankers have responded by using the tools they should have used then. They are fighting the last war. The result, she argues, has been failure. ‘I don’t see that they’ve achieved what they should have been trying to achieve. So my verdict on this present Fed leadership is that they have not really done their job.'”
President Obama’s economists need to urgently consult Anna J Schwartz.
Subroto Roy, Kolkata
Postscript: My own brief views on the subject are at “October 1929? Not!” dated September 18 2008, and “America’s divided economists” dated October 26 2008. The latter article suggested that playing the demographic card and inducing a wave of immigration into the United States may be the surest way to move the housing demand-curve firmly upwards.
President Barack Obama will be in all likelihood as worthy and competent a head of state and head of government as there has been anywhere, and, as he enters his high office, he deserves the good wishes of the world.
The beautiful State of Hawaii can proudly call him its most famous native son.
South Beretania where he apparently lived some years is a short walk from Punahou Towers at 1621 Dole where I once owned a condo, from which could be seen the school the new President attended for some time. He happens to be the first US President in my lifetime whom I find myself older than in age.
I expect President Obama may well find governance to be much different from the campaign: requiring more truth and less rhetoric, more circumspection and less dogmatism.
“Yes we can” will likely have to give way to something like “Yes we might be able to do that. Perhaps we ought to. But again, perhaps we ought not to. I think I’ll have to think about this one more time.”
Most important might be the words of Oliver Cromwell: “Think it possible you may be mistaken”.
Subroto Roy, Kolkata
January 20 2009
Transparency & history: India’s archives must be opened to world standards
by Claude Arpi & Subroto Roy
First published in Business Standard New Delhi December 31, 2008, 0:26 IST
The Government of India continues to hide India’s history from India’s people using specious excuses. An example is the Henderson-Brook report on the 1962 war, a single copy of which is said to exist locked away in the Defence Ministry. An anti-Indian author like Neville Maxwell is among the few ever given access to it; he has reiterated his factually incorrect theory (accepted by Henry Kissinger and Zhou Enlai and the US and Chinese establishments since) that the 1962 war was due to Nehru’s aggressive policy and China had no choice but launch a “pre-emptive attack”.
In Parliament not long ago, Defence Minister A K Antony said: “Considering the sensitivity of information contained in the report and its security implications, the report has not been recommended to be declassified in the National Security interest.” This is nonsense. Nothing from as far back as 1962 can possibly affect anything significant to India’s security today. In any case the Defence Ministry’s official history of the 1962 war, though officially unpublished, is openly available.
Even the 2005 Right to Information Act goes against transparency of research into India’s history. Article 8 (1) (a) says, “there shall be no obligation to give any citizen,— (a) information, disclosure of which would prejudicially affect the sovereignty and integrity of India, the security, strategic, scientific or economic interests of the State, relation with foreign State or lead to incitement of an offence.” This can cover all files of the MEA, Defence and Home; there seems to be no right to academic freedom for India’s people to research their own history.
China itself is more open with its archives. Since 2004, the Foreign Ministry in Beijing has begun a systematic process declassifying more than 40,000 items from its diplomatic records for the period 1949-1960. The Cold War International History Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center in Washington DC has recently published Inside China’s Cold War; the Project Director admits this has been possible due to China’s “archival thaw”.
In the USA, official documents are made available after 30 years or when a reasonable demand is made under the Freedom of Information Act. Numerous groups exist whose only work is to make sure the law is followed. The recently released Foreign Relations of the United States, Volume XVIII, China (1973-1976) published by the American foreign ministry reveals several interesting aspects of the India-USA-China relationship. Last year the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) posted some 320,000 declassified cables on-line. The text of once-secret diplomatic cables indexed is today retrievable from the NARA Website. It also includes withdrawal cards for documents still classified, so these can be requested under the Freedom of Information Act. Out of 119,356 documents for 1973 and 200,508 for 1974, some 7,484 were related to India. Indians scholars today have to rely on US documents for their own history!
In an open society, the ordinary citizen has reasonably easy access to any and all information relating to the public or social interest— whether the information is directly available to the citizen himself/herself, or is indirectly available to his/her elected representatives like MPs and MLAs. Different citizens will respond to the same factual information in different ways, and conflict and debate about the common good will result. But that would be part of the democratic process. In an open society, both good news and bad news is out there in the pubic domain— to be assessed, debated, rejoiced over, or wept about. Citizens are mature enough to cope with both— the experience causes a process of social maturation in formulating the common good as well as responses to problems or crises the community may face. People improve their civic capacities, becoming better-informed and more discerning voters and decision-makers, and so becoming better citizens.
The opposite of an open society is a closed society— in which a ruling political party or self-styled elite or ‘nomenclatura’ keep publicly important information to themselves, and do not allow the ordinary citizen easy or reasonably free access to it. The reason may be merely that they are intent on accumulating assets for themselves in the dark as quickly as possible while in office, or that they are afraid of public anger and want to save their own skins from demands for accountability. Or it may be they have the impression that the public is better off kept in the dark— that only the elite ‘nomenclatura’ is in a position to use the information to serve the national interest. Bad news comes to be suppressed and so good news gets exaggerated in significance. News of economic disasters, military defeats or domestic uprisings gets suppressed. News of victories or achievements or heroics gets exaggerated. If there are no real victories, achievements or heroics, fake ones have to be invented by government hacks— though the suppressed bad news tends to silently whisper all the way through the public consciousness in any case.
Such is the way of government propaganda everywhere. Closed society totalitarianism permitted the general masses to remain docile and unthinking while the ‘nomenclatura’ make the decisions. Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor said that is all that can be expected of the masses. Open society transparency was instead defined by Pericles for the Athenians: “Here each individual is interested not only in his own affairs but in the affairs of the state as well; even those who are mostly occupied with their own business are extremely well-informed on general politics— this is a peculiarity of ours: we do not say that a man who takes no interest in politics is a man who minds his own business; we say that he has no business here at all.”
The study of the subcontinent’s history using archival material is crucial to disentangle difficult problems like the Jammu & Kashmir issue or the border problem with China. Yet today nobody can access independent India’s primary sources locked in South Block and North Block in New Delhi. Most bizarrely, Jawaharlal Nehru’s papers are under control of his descendants like Priyanka Vadra and Sonia Gandhi, who claim copyright. Someone may need to tell them there is a universal principle that there can be no copyright on the public life-work of historical figures like presidents and prime ministers.