Populism and America

Populism is one tool which is expensive for every government. Not every government in the world can afford it, but many indulge in it without realizing the dangers and hazards that will surface in the future because of exploiting this tool. The picture of every government with a huge fiscal deficit is similar to that of a farmer who is caught in a quagmire of debt. The obvious difference is that unlike the government which is bailed out by the IMF and World Bank and other such “kind” and “noble” organisations, nobody bails out the farmer.  The farmer is left to fend for himself and eventually he commits suicide. After the IMF bails out the government, despite being bailed out, the government still commits suicide, guess why? Because after the bailout package the government is forced (by IMF) to reduce expenditure and increase taxation, and this is political suicide isn’t it, because that almost ensures that the present government might not come back to power.

It’s interesting to note that in the last 30 years, if there has been one factor which has been largely responsible for major economic restructuring and introspection by democratic governments; it has been a rising fiscal deficit. This is what we saw in the 1980’s in the Latin American countries, who wanted to adopt an import substitution industrialisation program, which needed them to develop their domestic manufacturing and industrial capacities. Around  the same time oil prices had sky rocketed, the petroleum exporting countries were making huge money and all this money was deposited with the international banks. These banks recycled this money to the Latin American countries in the form of loans for their industrialisation program. Soon Mexico declared that it couldn’t pay back the loans, and had a huge current account deficit, because the foreign money was flowing in the country and now they couldn’t pay it back. The other Latin American Countries soon followed in similar fashion. IMF typically intervened, gave a bailout package and made the government change its plans from an import substitution industrialisation program to export oriented industrialisation. A complete change in policy, also not to mention that the governments had to reduce expenditure and raise tax collection.

Similarly the Indonesian countries in the late 1990’s went through a similar crisis. Thailand, Malaysia had huge deficits, which they were unable to pay back. These were countries that had a growth rate of more than 8% for about a decade and they enjoyed the confidence of most foreign investors, this phenomenon was called by the IMF as an “Asian miracle”. It dint take time for the miracle to become a mess, and soon these countries were unable to return the money which was flowing in from abroad, all that money had come in with a short term profit in the mind of the investors. Once again the Noble IMF intervened and bailed out the country with austerity measures as the condition and that lead to change in policy.

Similar story in India, in 1991 when the fiscal deficit was high and the current account deficit was high, and the country had foreign reserves which could barely take care of the expenditures of the next few weeks. The then Finance Minister and Prime Minister decided to take the help of the IMF before they offered it themselves. And the result of that help is what we see today, the liberalization of the economy and the removal of the license raj system.

Therefore it is very clear that if there is one major factor which leads to restructuring of the economic policy, it is a rising fiscal deficit. Currently the US and Europe is faced with the same crisis.

The Debt/GDP ratio of many of the western countries has gone above 100%. It is but obvious that the US government has to reduce its debt. Let’s look at their possible options: (A) They raise the taxation, but for that to happen effectively the GDP has to rise which seems difficult in the near future. (B) Reduce expenditure, which seems to be the most sensible thing to do. Currently 40% of the expenditure of the government is from borrowed money. And (C) is to print so much money that they blow the debt away, at the cost of huge inflation and the reduction of the value of the dollar. The option of reducing expenditure seems to the most viable.

It’s very clear that US can no longer afford to keep low taxes while giving high social security benefits and wage wars on foreign soils.

 

Access to justice

There is currently an interesting debate on in the Supreme Court about establishing more number of regional courts which would be the final court for appeal. One proposal says that the Supreme Court should establish more number of branches so that even people coming from far off need not worry about access to justice. The second proposal is, the Supreme Court cannot be split into various branches but we can have more regional courts which will be the final courts of appeal.

This comes in view of the high number of pending cases in the Supreme Court, in 1950 the pending cases before the Supreme Court were 680, as of September 2010 are 53,221. It is argued that one of the reasons behind this is that the appellate jurisdiction of the Supreme Court has been stretched too far. Whereas the constitution wanted the Supreme Court to be the apex court to decide matters of national importance and concerning public good. But it is believed by many that the Supreme Court has entertained too many appeals which should have been decided by the High Court itself.

But the flip side of these proposals are that if the Supreme Court only confines itself to issues of national importance then the injustice done to the citizens and which should rightly be placed before the Supreme Court if the High Court has mislead itself is necessary.

Access to Supreme Court is in a way is access to justice and if these doors are closed on the grounds that the issue at stake is not of national importance then it is a violation of the very principles of justice. Injustice done is injustice done whether at the local level or at a national level and it has to be given its due importance.

Underdeveloped-Developing-Transforming-Third World-New South

In an article in the ‘Hindu’ by Jorge Heine from the Balsille School of International Affairs, the subject is very interesting, the author speaks of the World Bank President Robert Zoellick now officially stating that the term “Third World” is now made redundant. This term was coined by Peter Worsely  in his book “The Third World: A vital force in International affairs”. The author of this book had spent many years after World War 2 in Africa and India, he had the first hand experience of how these post colonial countries were emerging. The author was particularly impressed by seeing how Nehru, Castro, Nkruhma, Nyere left behind the debris created due to colonialism and started the work of nation building.

Going by this perception of Mr. Worsely the term Third World seemed appropriate at that time, many other people at that time gave other terms like Underdeveloped, Developing, lower income each more disappointing than the other. These terms only tried to suggest that these Post Colonial countries only were a mere footnote to the real history.

In the sixties and seventies many nations in Asia, Africa and the Carrribbean were economically weak and were dependent on trade from the north, hence they created groups like Non Aligned Movement (NAM), UNCTAD, and forwarded proposals in the U.N  like New International Economic Order, sometimes these proposals got passed but very often they were not backed by any concrete reasons, they had little power apart from the voting rights in the U.N.

But over the last 10 years this scenario has changed substantially, countries like India, China, Brazil who are some of the fastest growing economies now “speak from strength not weakness”, they do not ask for aid but they want to trade. They expect a stronger say at the IFI, high table of global economic governance. Also another trend that has been observed is that these countries are not dependent only on the north countries for trade, they also trade among themselves.

Noted historian Ram Chandra Guha in a recent lecture spoke about why India is not and should not be a super power. The lecture was a kind of refutation to the media’s favourite headline “The Global Indian take over”, when there exists so much tension, conflict and disparity in our own society the take over in the world is “premature”. India’s domestic challenges and the situation with the immediate neighborhood demands more of settling immediate issues than any take over.

Therefore concludes the author the New South in the new century is going to be a strong force to reckon with. And the term Third World has been done away with.

Inflation, government and the people

The current phase of inflation seems to have undone much of the good that the UPA government created for itself through a “revolutionary budget” as Sonia Gandhi put it. The ‘Times of India’ describes this whole process as ‘pollonomics’. The government obviously wanted to showcase itself as a magnanimous organizing body which was compassionate enough to call of all the money which was due from the farmers, which was actually anyway lost, but calling it of at the most propitious time when elections are due would have resulted in electoral and political gain for the government. But now all that ‘good work’ (of a few weeks!!) may not ultimately give the government the edge that it needed for the next election. The BJP and CPI (M) are already threatening a nation wide agitation in second week of April if prices are not under control by then.

Whether the government will still win the election or not is a different matter, let us look at the phenomena of inflation that we are facing at the moment. First of all it is a global phenomenon; there is a jump in the food prices in the world market. Let us compare our inflation rate with the country we always like getting compared with for every reason, China. Currently China is growing at 11.4% and the inflation has hit a 12 year high of 8.7%, now that’s something to scream about, “inflation nearing 9%” almost sounds like “I have put on 20 kgs in one month and I have to lose the same in 15 days!” There is no doubt that bringing down the inflation rate from such a high rate not only takes a little time but it also affects the growth rate. We have already seen a drop in our economic growth rate to 8.7% from the high of 9.4% in 2007. Basically there is a clash between these two objectives of growth and maintaining price stability, but with both these figures going to their worse end we might have to face stagflation. Stagflation was a term employed by the supply side economists in the 70s, to describe the then existing economic crisis, and moreover they(supply side economists) held that these crisis had resulted because of neglecting aggregate supply in the economy and only focusing and framing demand managed polices which were advocated by Keynes. However, stagflation is not a properly defined term in economics, we know that when there is negative growth in two quarters continuously it is called recession, but there is no so such barometer which you plan plug in an economy and determine whether stagflation exists or not.

Now let’s look at the measures taken by the government to tackle the problem of inflation. First and foremost it must be mentioned that this problem will not be short-lived, as the latest report of the Asian Development Bank says that inflation will be a regular problem with the Asian countries. But the government undoubtedly has to do something for two reasons:

a) To ensure the welfare of the people

b) To win the next election (I can’t stop talking about it!)

So lets see what the government has done, first it has banned the exports of various commodities including rice, next it has abolished import duties to increase imports and increase supply of goods in the domestic market, then it has banned forward trading and recently it was reported that it is also taking measures to control prices of cement along with food articles by importing cement from Pakistan at Rs150-175 for a bag of 50 kg (it is sold at 225-240 in the northern states). Now all of these measures consist the supply side polices, along with that there are some monetary and fiscal polices also that he government might undertake, like increasing interest rates (it’s actually done by the RBI) tight money supply to prevent demand pull inflation and appropriate fiscal management. Apart from this the government also considers increasing food subsidies to bring about temporary stability in prices. However, while all these policies are being implement it is interesting to note that currently many countries are facing the problem of inflation, therefore they are also implementing similar such policies if not identical, what happens then?? If our government decides to ban exports and abolish import duties to increase supply, it can happen that other countries are doing a similar thing; Saudi Arabia is already implementing these policies. So how then does the government proceed with this problem? Im not saying this is happening per se at the moment, but currently with many countries facing a similar problem this is a theoretical possibility.

It is needless to say that the above policies will affect growth and in turn the stock market but this is inevitable, controlling inflation at the moment is of utmost importance, all the national newspapers can wait for a few months to write their favorite headline “Growth back on track” and “Sensex like never before”.

 

Union Budget and the Common man

I recently read a quote about the union budget, “The common man can’t understand the union budget, and the union budget can’t understand the common man!!” Although our current finance minister would like to contest the second part of the phrase, there is still no doubt that the common man can’t understand the budget. First of all the budget is prepared in complete isolation and secrecy. It is kept a big secret until ‘budget day’ for mysterious reasons. When every issue of national importance is discussed in a transparent and open manner in the parliament, why should the budget be an exception? Why is it that the finance minister straight away comes to parliament and reads out his speech and how he and his assistants have planned things for the entire year. The point that Im pressing here is that of transparency in the budget making process. Now let us see why the common man can’t understand the budget or why is it that he is not much interested in it, which in my view is the real reason behind his not understanding it. It is lack of interest not intellect which determines this. When Nani Palkhivala eminent jurist and economist delivered a lecture on the budget in brebourne stadium in Bombay, thousands of people used to come to attend the program, and were interested in knowing what is in store for them in this budget. Palkhivala could actually make a dry and boring subject like the budget interesting and enjoyable and moreover could simplify it from the technical economic language, which drove people to listen to him. His budget speeches finally ended in 1994. Today there are many people who deliver a similar lecture on the budget, lawyers, Charted Accountants, tax consultants; financial experts all express their opinions and views about the budget and its implications for the various segments of the population. But these people cater to a very niche audience. These are lectures where, businessmen, management experts, industrialists go and attend. It is difficult to find the common man here, who once sat in brebourne stadium and intently listened. After interest comes knowledge of economics or atleast elementary economics. Arindham Chaudhuri says “Economics is complex, mathematised, pseudo intellectual, quite unfit for the common man, around whom economics should actually revolve”. Reading and understanding the budget definitely requires good understanding of simple macro economics nothing more. And finally comes the role of the media in spreading the analysis of the budget far and wide. The print media does a very good job in analyzing the budget. ‘The Times Of India’ made a good presentation of the budget, simplified most of the provisions, especially the ones related to income tax and other taxes. They even showed how various sectors are affected by the budget. But the problem is with the electronic media. On the day of the budget, I saw 4 programs on television, on CNN IBN, TIMES NOW, NDTV and CNBC. All these programs were good but the problem is that they were only and only in english, the hindi news channels dint seem to cover the budget as extensively as the english channels did. This straightaway means that only the english speaking urban people will be able to understand what the panelists are saying. The panel members were almost the same in all the programs. Why dint some of the eminent panel members like Sitaram Yechury, Kapil Sibal and other financial gurus go on to atleast one hindi channel where they can explain the details to a much larger audience.

Zone family……Education and Health

There has been an addition to the “zone” family in our country, now along with SEZ (special economic zone) EPZ (Export processing zone) the intended SAZ (Special agricultural zone, we will now have SDZ (Social development zone. The setting up of this zone comes as a response to the increasing questions and concerns about our educational and health systems. On the educational front, problems are present at every junction right from funding to quality of teachers to receptivity of students to infrastructure and many other things. Institutes of Higher learning have their own problems as well, as we recently read that IIT Bombay doesn’t have enough money to pay regular salaries to its professors and non teaching staff, they have requested for grants from the Central government of about 20 crores to meet all these expenses.

Apart from the IIT’s several other institutes for engineering also come under criticism from the HR managers of various firms, for example Infosys claims that till two years back they had to interview only 3 or 4 candidates everyday to find the correct profile for the job, today they have to interview nearly 14 to 15 people everyday. We all know that there has been a gap between the classroom and the industry, what is worrying is that this gap is now increasing at a faster pace.

Then comes the health sector, there are main parameters to judge the performance of this sector in our society. First, equitable access, low cost and good quality. The third factor is a requirement all over the world, but the first two are much more important in our country due to the increasing inequalities between people. Even in this case the problems exists in much severity at two different levels, the rural poor or for that matter even the urban poor have very little access to any proper medical treatment, infact their living conditions are so deplorable that they are duped by people who conduct the illegal business of selling kidneys by promising the donor a good amount of money in return.

At the higher level, it is estimated that in India all offices loose almost 14% of their working days on account of poor health of their employees. It was estimated by Indian council for research on International economic relations(ICRIER) that in 2006 India’s loss in GDP due to health hazards was almost $8.7 billion and if the existing situation persists then this loss can go up to $54 billion in 2015. Hence on recognizing these two major problems of education and health the government has come up with the SDZ as a tool to minimize this problem if not completely eliminate it. The details of this zone are not yet officially declared, let us wait and watch whether there is something in store for everybody!!

Roaring corporate sector and a booming economy!! But what about the last man standing on the street??

“20000 points on the sensex, the economy growing at 9% have a good weekend” wrote economic times on one Saturday. It is indeed great to have a booming sensex and it’s equally good to know that we are one of the fastest growing economies of the world. But does it end there?? Is a booming sensex and a roaring corporate sector all we want for our country, where millions of people still sleep on the road. In the history of our country this is truly one of the most important eras because on one hand we are the front runners in economic growth and global investments. In fact in the Presidential debate of 2004 between President Bush and Senator Kerry, Senator Kerry assured the people of America that if he becomes President then he will prevent American jobs from being “Bangalored” and sent to India where a booming IT sector awaits the best talent on the globe. On the other hand we are also known to be the front runners in mal nutrition and poverty and illiteracy. Do these people who are mal nourished and illiterate even know why their country is respected globally? They don’t, and why should they?? When the hyped growth and the boom that Economic Times raves about has not gone even remotely close to them.

Therefore the time has come when we need to make economic growth more inclusive. The current pattern of economic growth is only favoring specific sectors of the economy. And therefore people associated with those sectors are also benefiting. But the people who do not come under the purview of those sectors are experiencing stagnant growth. An article recently published in the Navbharat Times pointed out that the present government or for that matter any government has a tendency to start worrying about things only when a worrisome situation gets created. While the situation is gradually going from bad to worse they are indifferent. The economic policies being followed by the current government have undoubtedly increased foreign investment, boosted economic growth and made India one of the preferred destinations on the globe for any kind of business and financial activities. But at the same time as a result of all of this, the government is forced to reduce the fiscal deficit as per the terms and conditions of IMF and WTO. Reduction in fiscal deficit results in declining expenditure for essential services like health and education. According to the Kothari commission led by Dr Vijay Kothari in 1966 expenditure on education has to be minimum 6% of the GDP but for the last several years it has remained between 2.5% to 3.5%. In the eleventh plan it is estimated to be at around 4%. Recently it was reported the IITs don’t have enough funds to pay proper salaries to its professors. IIT Bombay made a request to the government to give a grant of 20000 crores, so it can look after its basic expenditure. This is one of the implications of reducing the fiscal deficit that even the premier institutes are down in the dumps. IMF tells our government to reduce the fiscal deficit to control inflation. According to an article on the Indian economy, when the government borrows money from the RBI it tends to increase the quantity of money and hence it results in inflation. This argument has two flaws one that the new quantity of money doesn’t chase the same goods conventionally perceived. While the quantity of money circulating in the economy increases the production and output also increases. But apart from these technical details and principles, it is important to note that if the government reduces its expenditures on health and education then any significant development for the masses is not achievable, and then it’s meaningless to merely float on the fact that sensex is on 20000 and economy is growing at whatever percent when it is of no consequence to majority of the population.