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.

 

Economic growth a global trend……………

 

MS Swaminathan wrote an interesting article in the Times of India on 16/3/08. The article basically spoke about the high growth rates that India and many other countries experienced for about a year or so. He argues that the sudden high growth rate that we experienced is not only because of the government’s economic policies and efficiencies; it was actually a global trend which was originating from America. We know at the moment most Americans are living beyond their means, this is reflected in the sub prime crisis, the housing market slump and the mounting losses of financial companies due to increasing number of loan defaulters.  The demand for goods and services had tremendously increased for the past 2 years, which resulted in America having a trade deficit of $700 billion. China being the biggest exporter of electronic goods to America and India exporting various other goods and mainly services, thrived because of this one factor of excessive consumption in America. And because there was huge demand for goods there was automatically a huge demand for raw materials and semi finished goods which came from Africa and other less developed countries.  Hence even these countries immensely benefited. Therefore Swaminathan says that every country remotely associated with America enjoyed high economic growth, the African countries which were growing at 3% also started growing at 5%, similarly in India economic growth was 6% to 7% for many years it suddenly became 9%. If the above reasoning is true, then we have to ponder over a very important question, what is going to be the state of the Indian economy if there is a recession or slow down in the US economy which is very likely. There has already been a dip in the industrial production rate for the last 3 months. And the industrial production also determines the government’s collection of the excise duty. As it is as per the Union budget 2008 excise duty has been reduced from 18% to 16%, combine this with a fall in industrial production and it results in a loss of revenue for the government.   

 

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.

Retail sector in India and corporate houses

Entry of the corporate houses in the retail market or for that matter into any sector is popularly perceived to be a part of economic growth. The increasing participation of the private sector is considered as one of the instruments of economic growth and job creation. Economic growth by itself creates jobs says Lord Desai a professor of economics at the London school of economics. But this I reiterate is a popular perception, whether the entry of corporate houses into every market and field is justified or not is a different matter. In my view it is incorrect to make general statements about economic growth and job creation, one has to be very precise when dealing with this subject. Economic growth I agree does create jobs; it does push the economy to a more productive stage. As the economist Rosenstein Rodan has said in his theory the “Big push” that for a plane to take off it requires a certain minimum ground speed, anything less than that and the plane wont take off, similarly to pursue economic growth we need to mobilize a certain minimum amount of investment, anything less than that is inadequate. And investment mobilization happens through the corporate houses or the private sector. So Im not against the private sector per se, but for the government and people to jump to a conclusion that the corporate houses no matter what they do and where they go will bring beneficial results certainly comes under a cloud of suspicion. To prove that the entry of the corporate houses into the retail market is beneficial we would have to rely on the theory of trickle down effect, but the trickle down effect is simply another way of saying that what is good for the business houses is good for the country, which is obviously not true. Trickle down effect has been named the horse and sparrow theory by JK Galbraith “if you feed enough oats to the horse, some will pass through to feed the sparrows.” Unfortunately today the horse is the corporate sector and the sparrow is the working class.

When we speak of the retail market we are primarily dealing with a section of society where the people are not economically privileged. Retailers at the lower end, like the vegetable sellers, the fruit sellers basically are the underprivileged section of the society, and when the government permits the corporate houses to enter this field with their attractive pricing strategies the government is practically wiping these 4 crore middle men out. And the justification given is “growth will create jobs for them as well”. For people who say my question is can you give a guarantee that those very 4 crore people will get their jobs back. And they are 4 crore human beings not ants who can be trampled under the feet of men.

Entry of the corporate houses into the retail market is a part of the de licensing policy which was started in 70s. Before the 70s most of the industrial production was handled by the public sector. In the 70s it was realized that the participation of the corporate houses is also very essential if we have to be on par with the rest of the world in terms of technology and capital. For this reason the license policy was scrapped out. Only industries of national importance like defense, railways, atomic energy were to be kept in the control of the public sector. So the purpose of the de licensing policy was to increase productivity. Today in 2007 if we analyze the repercussions of this policy we find that the corporate houses have increased productivity no doubt, but have also increased the divide between rural areas and the urban areas, between the bourgeois and the proletariat. This divide has very unfavorable social consequences which need to be settled first than increasing productivity for only a certain class of society.