Wednesday, 21 August 2019

Pakistan’s Crocodile Tears for Muslims – Global, Indian or Kashmiri


By Girish Menon

It is two weeks since the Indian Parliament de-operationalised Art. 370 and used the armed forces to crush any dissent in the few Muslim majority districts of the erstwhile Jammu and Kashmir. It is well known that when any army administers an area there will be human rights violations; and I don’t expect anything different in the Kashmir valley. But does Pakistan’s rhetoric in this matter inspire confidence among embittered Kashmiri Muslims on the Indian side?

Image result for crocodile tears

Pakistan (the land of the Pure Muslim) was founded on the principle of the Two Nation Theory for Muslims from the Indian subcontinent who were afraid of being persecuted in a post-British, Hindu majority India. From its inception, Pakistan persecuted its own Hindu, Sikh, Ahmadiya, Shia and Christian populations. It also persecuted Sindhis, Balochs, Pashtuns etc. and ended up as the land only for the Punjabi Sunni. It acquired the epithet Bakistan (leftover land) after its Bengali Muslims left to form Bangla Desh.

Pakistan initiated four formal wars against India viz. 1948, 1965, 1971 and1999. It launched proxy wars in the Punjab in the early 1980s and in Kashmir from 1989 onwards which resulted in the displacement of a large number of Hindus who were resident in the Kashmir valley. It did not adhere to the UN resolution of 1948, the Simla agreement of 1972 and its miltablishment jeopardised peace initiatives between civilian governments including Modi’s by attacking the Indian Parliament, Mumbai, Pathankot and Pulwama.

Internationally, the pious Pakistan general Zia ul Haq earned his spurs by firing on Muslim Palestinians even before he came to power illegally. The Pakistan state persecuted its Mohajirs who fled India after the 1947 partition. Recently too, it did not step in to help Syrian refugees, the Rohingyas or the Uighurs (all Muslims) who suffered in large numbers.

Now the Pakistan media alleges that India is using genocidal policies to subjugate Kashmir. However, I don’t see any counter relief policy by Pakistan welcoming aggrieved Indian Muslims in general and Kashmiri Muslims in particular to cross the border and to settle in the Sunni Islamic paradise called Pakistan. After all, the other famous land of the faithful, Israel, is an open haven to Jews from all over the world.

Pakistan’s support for Indian Muslims is part of the Ghazwa-e-Hind rhetoric. They hope that Indian Muslims will take up arms (which they have supplied) to create a fifth column so that the armies of the faithful can wander in and establish Imran Khan’s Riyasat-e-Medina.

Unsurprisingly, Pakistan’s friends and members of the Islamic ummah viz. the UAE and Saudi Arabia have not supported it’s rhetoric. Also, most Indian Muslims have decided to follow their self interest and ignored the calls from across the border. Now, it is up to the Indian government to ensure they win the hearts and minds of the doubters in the Kashmir Valley.

More importantly, the Indian government should focus on the dire economic situation in the country which affects people from all denominations. Success in this area will ensure that Kashmiri Muslims will wish to stay with India and not raise the call for Azaadi (freedom from both India and Pakistan).


---Prognosis for the Future (in Urdu)



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Monday, 19 August 2019

Ten Best Jokes from Edinburgh

"I keep randomly shouting out 'Broccoli' and 'Cauliflower' - I think I might have Florets" - Olaf Falafel

"Someone stole my antidepressants. Whoever they are, I hope they're happy" - Richard Stott

"What's driving Brexit? From here it looks like it's probably the Duke of Edinburgh" - Milton Jones

"A cowboy asked me if I could help him round up 18 cows. I said, 'Yes, of course. - That's 20 cows'" - Jake Lambert

"A thesaurus is great. There's no other word for it" - Ross Smith

"Sleep is my favourite thing in the world. It's the reason I get up in the morning" - Ross Smith

"I accidentally booked myself onto an escapology course; I'm really struggling to get out of it" - Adele Cliff

"After learning six hours of basic semaphore, I was flagging - Richard Pulsford

"To be or not to be a horse rider, that is Equestrian" - Mark Simmons

"I've got an Eton-themed advent calendar, where all the doors are opened for me by my dad's contacts" - Ivo Graham

Saturday, 17 August 2019

You’ll Find an Unicorn Before You Find a Free Market

Syed Bakhtiyar Kazmi in The Dawn

THE realisation that conventional economic wisdom, seeped in the myth of the free market, will be extremely antagonistic towards any solution based on protectionism and planned industrialisation, stipulates a bit of digression.

Scope limitation: the discussion here under is based on pure common sense sans any political bearing, with the simple objective of discussing alternative options for economic growth; those who know it all already need not read any further.

Whilst conspiracy theories may explain the ‘why’, it is indeed mind-boggling ‘how’ the world was sold an idea, ie free markets, which has nothing to do with reality. Essentially, you need the long arm of the government to even enforce the rules of the market, including breaking cartels for countering undesirable social outcomes.

My personal favourite from the net is, “You’ll find a unicorn before you find a free market”!

Perfect competition in free markets, even in theory, inevitably eventually results in an oligopoly or monopoly, as in the case of Coke and Pepsi.

More to the point, how many genuinely believe that any domestic cola manufacturer has any chance of ever taking market share from Coke and Pepsi in Pakistan; and this has nothing to do with quality or free markets!

Capturing the market for coloured aerated water has only to do with deep pockets!

This example is easily applicable to our case study, the imported can opener. To recap my observations in another article, because of free markets, Pakistan had started importing can openers which were cheaper and shinier than the domestically manufactured can opener. However, with the rupee depreciating, the Pakistani can opener might have become cheaper, but the domestic facilities have closed down and we probably have lost the skills to manufacture a can opener during this time.

At this point, foreign manufacturers will go to any lengths to scuttle any new initiative for the domestic manufacturing of can openers; dumping and price war are just the tip of the iceberg. The home country of our foreign manufacturer of can openers may probably even oppose Pakistan in the UN Security Council, just to apply pressure to protect their manufacturer’s interests!

Is that voluntary trade?

Here the free market proponents argue that voluntary trade is beneficial for both parties. They argue that purchasing, say, a Coke, demonstrates that the purchaser values a fizzy drink more than the money in his pocket, and hence should have the right, and the choice, to spend his money as he wants.

There is nothing wrong with that statement. However, no person, with even a tiny bit of common sense, is expected to borrow every day to drink a Coke, if he cannot afford to pay back that debt.

In the case of a nation, government is the repository of common sense of the populace; so how does borrowing in dollars to pay for Cokes every day for 207 million people make any sense? How is getting burdened with external debt mutually beneficial trade?

And here we come to comparative advantage theory which basically argues that nations should only produce and export items where they have a comparative advantage. Notwithstanding that most developing nations can only have a comparative advantage in raw materials or basic manufacture, let us for a minute be practical.

Under this fantastic ‘all else being held constant two-nation-two-products comparative advantage’ theory, Portuguese winemakers would be re­­quired to stop making wine, since London’s winemakers have some sort of advantage over them. But why would Portuguese winemakers, who can still make cheaper wine, and perhaps better tasting wine, stop producing wine, which they can easily sell in Portugal, and start making cloth when they are clueless about the cloth trade ab initio?

The Portuguese government could force them out of the wine business, but then we really are not talking about a free market, are we? And where is the guarantee that after a few years, when the last of the Portuguese winemaker has passed away, London winemakers will not suddenly start charging double? After all it is a free market. Portugal both now pays double and borrows to drink wine, or it does not drink wine since it cannot afford it. What in your opinion should Portugal do?

Here the free trade theory argues that free floating currency will increase the competitiveness of Portuguese wine; but the last winemaker is already dead!

As in our can opener example, we have forgotten how to make can openers; the problem is that if all our food is in cans, then we will be forced to borrow and buy more expensive can openers.

But the music will eventually stop! It always does. So where do we get the can openers from?

Friday, 16 August 2019

Hawala explained


By Shahid Mehmood in The Friday Times
Hawala and Hundi are two of the most familiar terms in Pakistan’s economic landscape. Put simply, these are synonymous with informal channels through which money flows in or out of the country. It has been on the policymakers’ radar for a long time but there has not been any significant success in terms of curbing its workings. These days, there is a new urgency to tackle it as Pakistan finds itself on the Financial Action Task Force’s (FATF) Grey List.

It is a good time to peek into the nature, history and workings of this system in order to understand its continued sway and why it became popular in the first place. Hawala basically denotes a system made up of money lenders and businessmen around the globe. What distinguishes it from the formal exchange channels (like banking) is that it works largely on repute and trust rather than formal contracts. It comes with its advantages, anonymity being the primary one. The other primary advantage comes in the form of avoiding expensive formal channels of finance and exchange. Anonymity, however, comes with a heavy price tag for countries like Pakistan as this particular characteristic has been mercilessly exploited by smugglers, drug peddlers and terrorism financiers. No wonder Pakistan finds itself on the FATF radar.

Transfer of financial resources using a Hawala type system, based on trust, is a very old practice. Robert Sobel, in his magisterial The Pursuit of Wealth, has traced the system back to the dawn of commerce and trade (he does not explicitly mention Hawala, though). Babylonian and Sumerian merchants, for example, relied heavily on people of reputation (including priests) for acting as clearing houses and money transfer intermediaries/channels providing a valuable service to citizens. Instead of taking the substantial risk of carrying money and valuables themselves, they were deposited with these individuals who in return would give them an acknowledgment receipt (with their particular stamp or insignia). When merchants would reach their destination, they would redeem the amount by presenting the receipt to the Hawala dealers of that particular place. Thus, a transaction was settled with minimum of fee and administrative requirements. Moreover, the existence of such a valuable service oiled the wheels of commerce as it took away the many risks that merchants faced while carrying money themselves.

If looked at in modern parlance, Hawala is a decentralised system based on competition. There is little requirement for meeting statutory obligations and cumbersome procedures that exist under a modern, centralised banking system. Historically, money lenders under Hawala have charged just a fraction of what formal transfer channels charge from consumers. A question may arise as to the profitability of such a service when the charged fees are low. But that aspect has, historically, been taken care of by realising economies of scale: lower charges on transfers have attracted enough customers to ensure a healthy return.

Since the dawn of commerce and trade, this system has persisted despite challenges. It was quite common in the Middle Ages, as has been documented extensively by the economist Avner Grief’s research. For example, 8th century China under the Tang dynasty had a similar system called fei-ch’ien (flying money). The need for such a system arose due to the dangers encountered in physically transferring tax money and valuables to the empire’s capital. The operation of that particular system ameliorated that risk to a large extent. Formidable challenges to this informal, decentralised authority rose with the rise of nation states, powerful central governments and central banking authority. Yet, the system refuses to vanish.

What, then, are we to make of global efforts to clamp down and curb Hawala type transactions? Specifically, one has to look at the social and economic benefits of doing away with such a system. In hindsight, this may seem odd since the official version foisted upon our imaginations is one of a system that causes substantial damage to the economy. This version stands vindicated if we were to limit the system’s workings to facilitating money borne out of drug peddling, terrorism financing and other such harmful activities.

But one has to be careful in limiting their imagination to only these activities. The fact of the matter is that a Hawala like system offers many socially beneficial incentives that tend to get lost in the fog of official versions. It tends to discount the benefits accrued to consumers. I have already narrated its extremely beneficial role in facilitating trade and commerce in the earliest known civilizations. Aside from this facilitation, there are other advantages that such a system confers upon the society. Specifically, its presence ensures lower transaction costs to its subscribers.
Banks illustrate this point. They charge various types of fees from customers under the garb of different heads and make a healthy profit based on the deposits of customers. On net, the benefits accrued to customers are either cancelled or are inferior to what they are charged for the service. But when these kinds of institutions fail (largely based on their actions), they are usually bailed out using taxpayer money (the ‘too big to fail’ phenomenon). If you think about it, it is akin to a heist! And the only remedy available against such excesses are courts, which again exact a heavy cost from society due to the time, duration and financials involved. In a country like Pakistan, given the state of affairs of courts, it is advisable to stay away from them and save time plus money.

Consumers are usually saved that predicament in an informal, decentralised system like Hawala. Once a reputation of operator is tarred, its curtains for that business and no amount of running around can recoup the lost repute. More importantly, there is little possibility of ‘too big to fail’ phenomenon, to be bailed out using taxpayer money. Thus society not only benefits in terms of saving money (very low transaction fees), but also in terms of a decentralised system that weeds out inefficient, unproductive and corrupt operators without the need for a central authority or courts.

The lesson from all of this discussion, at least for policymakers, is that efforts to curb hawala type system needs an understanding of the nature and forces that propel it. If informal systems of financial transactions have endured for centuries, there are good reasons for that, some of them outlined above. A society and its inhabitants have the capacity to compare transaction costs of having a formal system against an informal system. If the former confers a lower cost, the latter would disappear without the need for state intervention (and vice versa). If this point can be grasped, then it is clear that Pakistan’s policymakers should first review the predatory nature of its functioning (specifically its taxation) plus that of its financial system, and what cost it inflicts upon the society. It also does not help that the government strongly incentivised use of such channels when it was in its interest (to finance Afghan Jihadi groups, for example), helped entrench it, and now wants to get rid of it when faced with external pressure.

Historical evidence, though, suggests that such administrative exercises are usually futile in the end since an alternative tends to rise. The rise of crypto-currencies, like Bitcoin, is an apt reflection of this fact. At its core, crypto currencies reflect the working of a decentralised exchange with meagre transaction costs, just like Hawala. How would the world curb this system? Ban computers? I don’t think so.

A Factory or an Ashram?



By Girish Menon

In the Malayalam cult classic Chintavishtayaya Shyamala, Mukundan the protagonist wishes for a carefree life playing and hanging out with friends despite having a wife and two school going daughters. As the pressure grows, from his wife and other members of his extended family, to change his ways Mukundan runs away to an ashram where the sadhus are known to meditate for moksha (release from worldly cares). After 6-7 months at the ashram, the head sadhu (note the hierarchical corporate structure) invites Mukundan for an interview (6.17). The head sadhu mentions that Mukundan had not yet volunteered to either teach at an ashram school or offer to take care of the ashram cattle. In the following scene Mukundan mentions to a fellow sadhu, ‘I did not know this was a factory. If I had to work, I could have stayed in town and not come this far’.

Today, in an increasingly religious India, such ashrams seem to burgeon all over the land. Amazingly, these ashrams seem to be run by unpaid volunteers who work from 5 in the morning to 9 in the evening, seven days a week. Many of these volunteers are retired from corporate jobs and have chosen to spend the rest of their lives obeying the diktats of a saffron clad guru and his managers. More importantly, these volunteers claim that their minds are at peace doing seva (service) for the guru.

There might be some inner need which the ashram job seems to fulfil and which the modern corporations are unable to do so with their workforce. I have seen some of these ashram volunteers complain incessantly when they were working at their corporate jobs. Today, the same person uses all her waking hours advancing the cause of the ashram without any material gain. Some of them have been known to give up their personal homes and even pay rent to the ashram for an opportunity to provide seva.

Of course, there is a difference in the profile of the volunteer as compared to the corporate worker. The volunteers are usually retired, have an empty nest and are at a loss to spend their waking hours. The corporate workers are younger, aspirational, have demanding partners and kids and are perennially short of time.

David Cameron, the former British Prime Minister, made a good point that volunteers need to be encouraged to take over large sections of society. This has increased the number of volunteers running sports clubs, charities etc. in the UK.  Usually, some of the older volunteers bring a lot of worldly experience which could enable their voluntary organisations to perform better than with younger paid employees. In India, the saffron clad gurus have shown their smartness by recruiting such zero-cost volunteers to enhance their corporate goals. However, this begs the bigger question i.e. is India forcibly retiring its experienced workforce too soon?

Monday, 12 August 2019

Do and be damned; don’t and still be damned

Girish Menon

It’s been a week since the BJP government abrogated Article 370 and included Jammu and Kashmir as an integral part of India. Most of the reaction to this move has been positive within the provinces of Jammu and Ladakh. It is difficult to gauge the views of the population in the Muslim majority Kashmir valley because of the news blackout. I’d guess there should be a significant number of people who may be upset by this decision. In mainland India, the move has been welcomed by most of the people and a majority of MPs in both houses of the Indian Parliament.

Outside India, Pakistan politicians including their selected Prime Minister have been venting their spleen on this surprise move by India. Opinion in the rest of the world has been muted much to the chagrin of Pakistan. It is rumoured that the US President was forewarned by India of its plans.

So what next for the protesting Kashmiris? The Kashmiris living in the valley could be divided into the ruling elites, those families directly affected by the violence since 1989, and other citizens living in the region.

As far as the ruling elites are concerned, they must admit that it is their actions since the 1950s that has enabled the Indian government to get the support of the rest of India for such a move.

As far as Kashmir residents who have lost their family members in the intermittent 70 year old war with Pakistan there is no likelihood of an immediate peace in the region. Pakistan’s proxies, along with some local politicians will make it difficult for the Modi government to boast that they have solved this perennial problem with a piece of legislation. This means that in the short term there could be more deaths in the valley.

Those valley residents who have only been indirectly affected by the war so far, in the short term some of them may be unlucky to get caught up in the fire exchanged by the warring forces. I hope that their bad luck will run out soon and they will be able to experience a ‘normal’ way of life soon.

The Indian government appears intent on a hard stance on law and order matters while being liberal on incentivising industry to start productive activity and employment in these parts. Both parts of this strategy needs to succeed to convince the Kashmiris that their interests are better served with India. This could lead to the chants of ‘azaadi’  (freedom from both India and Pakistan) to die down.

The current Indian government has five years to get this brave decision right. If the situation deteriorates then they further jeopardise their dreams of continuous power for the next decade and beyond. Already the weakness in their handling of the economy is manifesting itself in the Hindu rate of growth with deleterious consequences for employment. If they fail on Kashmir as well, there will be a rising number of citizens who will soon call Modi’s Article 370 decision the second time when he has been foolhardy.

Just wait and watch.

Wednesday, 7 August 2019

Imran Khan in Pakistan Parliament


Pakistan, Abdullah, Mufti...should apologise to Kashmiris

Adv Hamid Bashani

Are Indian businessmen being unfairly targeted?

By Girish Menon

Following revelations in the suicide note of V G Siddhartha - the founder of Cafe Coffee Day, the corporate world has started a whispering campaign that Indian businessmen are being unfairly targeted by government bureaucracies. This piece will try to examine the elephant in the room.

Indian businessmen are not one cohesive group. There are many sub groups varying in size and population; from the one man tea vendor to Ambani who aspires to be the biggest tycoon in the world. Not all business-persons receive the same treatment from the governments they have to encounter in their daily endeavour.

As far as the Ambanis are concerned, it was rumoured that his office would receive a copy of any government initiative even before it was announced in parliament. Some even suggest that policies are often drafted in their offices. Clearly, such businessmen are like the Goldman Sachs of the USA i.e. too big to fail. Rivals of Ambani envy the unfair distribution of advantages to this group. However, they don’t want it to be stopped but wish they could replace him instead. This group is large and growing.

If the free market mantra is to be applied then governments should not be indulging in such behaviour. This logic states that governments should recognise property rights, make necessary rules and let citizens pursue their self interest. They should not favour any businessperson.

Economist Ha Joon Chang attributes the growth of Toyota, Samsung and many other global MNCs due to the nexus between governments and businesses. He suggests that developing countries follow this strategy else their domestic firms will lose out to already existing western MNCs. Others term this government corporate nexus as crony capitalism.

The Indian corporate world has enjoyed the benefits of crony capitalism since 1947. Under the socialist policies till 1990s the Tatas, Birlas and Bajajs were among the few recipients of licences to do business. In the 40 years of their protected status they did not produce any world beaters. They even formed ‘The Bombay Club’ to lobby against the opening up of the Indian economy.

Even after the Indian economy opened up corporates lobbied the government to make arbitrary rules that gave them an advantage over their rivals. These corporates received loans from government banks and even more loans to avoid loan defaults. It is almost thirty years since the opening up of the economy and yet there are no world class products that have emerged from these corporates. Often, such corporates have only aspired to the takeover of monopoly public sector firms so that social profit can be converted to private profit.

However, the above group do not represent Indian business-persons. The largest group of Indian business-persons run small and medium enterprises. They definitely have a rightful claim to harassment by the government. They are victimised by the government’s bureaucracy in so many ways that I am surprised they still continue to do business. S Gurumurthy, the RSS ideologue on the board of the Reserve Bank of India, is right when he advocates that the Indian government should ease the conditions of doing business for this large group. Demonetisation was a recent  tsunami that further overwhelmed this group of drowning businesspersons. Often, their only plea is that their outfits should be outside the scope of government bureaucrats. And there is some merit in their argument.

It is an irony that the pleas of persecution by large Indian corporates are being aired when the real victims of government harassment, i.e. the small and medium enterprises, die a silent death. It used to be said of the Christian church,’The church complains of persecution whenever it is not allowed to persecute’. The cries of India’s large business houses seem to echo the Christian church.

Tuesday, 6 August 2019

Afghanistan may hold the key to Kashmir

By Girish Menon

When Pakistan annexed regions like Gilgit-Baltistan, hitherto part of Raja Hari Singh’s kingdom, there wasn’t the kind of shrill shouting in India as witnessed now in Pakistan after India abrogated the temporary Art 370 from its constitution yesterday. What does this act mean for some of the constituents involved in the dispute?

The UN resolution which Pakistan quotes as the basis of dispute resolution states that Pakistan should pull back its troops to the position prior to its invasion of Raja Hari Singh’s territory and then India would conduct a plebiscite in the whole of Jammu and Kashmir. Pakistan never adhered to the first part of the UN resolution and therefore the plebiscite part of the resolution never came into question despite Pakistan continuously harping on it.

For the Modi government the timing of this move appears helpful because it distracts the public from raising serious questions about the poorly performing economy. The narrative (fickle at most times) had begun to portray the Modi government as socialist, a label which the corporate/electoral bond funded party wishes to avoid by a mile.

For the military regime in Pakistan this Indian action poses a dilemma and an opportunity. The military has been shouting from rooftops that it has shut down the funding of its jihadi outfits in Kashmir. It was this statement that enabled Pakistan to receive the IMF bailout. Will the military now once again release the Hafiz Saeeds to act with impunity while risking a stoppage of the IMF bailout? 

The Pakistan military has promised Donald Trump an ‘honourable’ exit from Afghanistan well before the US presidential elections. The military would facilitate a peace agreement with the Taliban which will enable Trump to deliver on his manifesto promise. In return for this the Pakistan military will receive US funding equivalent to its current spending levels in Afghanistan. This will enable the Pakistan military to avoid the conditionalities of the IMF deal and start funding the jihadi outfits in Kashmir. The risk is the failure of the Pakistan military to deliver an exit strategy congenial to Trump.

So it is up to all those countries opposed to Trump (not the USA) to ensure that the regressive Taliban militants do not come to power in Kabul and enable the Americans to run away just like they did from Vietnam. India may have to take a lead in this matter with Iran, if it does not want hostilities to rise in Kashmir.

In the short term, India may have to deploy more security forces in Kashmir. This will mean larger unplanned expenditure. This will be a big injection of government money into the demand deprived Indian economy and could give a fillip to growth. While the lot of the Indian consumer may not change radically, at least the government can claim that the economy is on the path to reaching the $5 trillion mark.

As for the people of Kashmir they may have to face some more difficult times unless they join the Pandits in an exodus from the valley. The Indian government can ensure that the property rights of all displaced personnel is respected when such people decide to return back to the valley. The government could also open safe havens to these new refugees.

Of course, most conflicts develop a life of their own and these new refugees may find themselves in government camps for a much longer time.

In the rest of India, there is no mood for any settlement with a military dispensation in Pakistan. Moreover, the BJP agenda is to recover the Gilgit-Baltistan regions which was illegally grabbed by the Pakistan militia. 

Currently, a war-like situation suits the rulers in both countries. What the people of Kashmir want is not on the agenda.

Thursday, 1 August 2019

Why Marry?

by Girish Menon

In response to my piece Modern Marriages - For Better or For Worse, an erudite reader asked ‘Why Marry?’ This person also asked whether one could lead a better productive life without marrying? In this piece, this writer will give some views on the matter.

In India, despite all the modernity, sex before marriage and outside marriage is still frowned upon. Until consensual sex becomes as common place as meeting a friend for coffee, there will always be some supporters of marriage.

This also begs the question whether both individuals in a marriage are content with the quantity and quality of sex available?

Another question that arises is whether the absence of sex reduces the productive potential of an individual. I will plead ignorance on this matter too.

The economic rationale for marriage used to be property inheritance. Much has been written about it which I will not revisit. However, in these days of ‘reliable’ paternity tests, the need for marriage to ensure that property goes to the sperm donor’s offspring is obsolete.

Of course, I am of the view that no child should inherit their parents’ property. But there needs a lot of change in societal arrangements for this to happen; something which I don’t think will happen in my lifetime.

What of the children born of a sexual union, whether consensual or accidental? If it is consensual, then the couple should have a plan for raising their child. As for ‘accidental’ children - there shouldn’t be too many due to the availability of many pregnancy termination choices available for women in the market place.

What impact will this have on the population of a society? If trends are to be believed, all over the world where women have shown an upward trajectory in economic independence the rate of population growth has declined significantly. This augurs well even from a climate change perspective as the demand for resources could dwindle with a rapidly declining population.

Could there ever be a time when one would have to exhort women to produce more children? I don’t think that will be ever be necessary in the future, because by the time we reach this Utopia medical technology may enable production of full grown adults. This will also take away the burden of child care from either cohabiting partner leaving them free to pursue their potential.

Wednesday, 31 July 2019

Modern Marriages - For Better or For Worse



By Girish Menon

Recently, I heard the story of somebody who was married for over 30 years and had a hostile spouse for an equivalent time period. This person it was revealed had no moments of intimacy from the outset but they performed the sexual act in a spirit of mutual need. The couple still retain their marital status and one of the partners told the other, ‘I will destroy you but not give you a divorce”.

On the other hand the courts in Mumbai receive over 3000 cases each month. The traditional Indian idea of a family is metamorphosing quickly and even rapidly catching up with the western world. My cousin has this quip,‘ While the Indian woman has changed the Indian male has failed to adapt to this change’.

From an economic point of view this increasing divorce rate is a good development. In this era when GDP growth is the altar that we are duty bound to worship, then more divorces mean an increased contribution to GDP growth. Every splitting couple will employ a minimum of two lawyers, they will need separate houses and their children will need some childcare. All of this creates economic opportunities and contributes to the GDP counter. Second marriages and divorces also further contribute to economic growth.

Among Malayalees the absence of ‘yogam’ is the catchall phrase used to explain away any failed marriage. In simple terms, it means the couple were not meant to be successful in marriage. This is a post hoc rationalisation akin to the use of the term destiny.

But is there a good predictive method for choosing a partner of longevity?

In economics, the process of mate selection could be looked at as an imperfect information problem. Horoscope matching, family compatibility, cultural similarity and many other factors have been used to establish the suitability of a partner. Unfortunately, none of them have proved sufficiently reliable. In true rational spirit modern couples have experimented with living together for long periods of time to overcome the imperfect information problem. However, anecdotal evidence seems to reveal marriage dissolution even among such couples. The reason could be the inability to predict and cope with unforeseen future events that hit every marital boat.

Fortunately, I have no advice to give in this matter. All that I have noted is the failure to observe Christian marriage vows ‘for better or for worse’ by many separating couples. However, even such vows are put to the test among long surviving couples; as an aunt remarked when my uncle retired, ‘I married him for better or for worse but not for lunch’.

Tuesday, 30 July 2019

Is Migration Inevitable?

By Girish Menon


In Mumbai, it appears that the taxis and autorickshaws are predominantly driven by migrants from Uttar Pradesh. In Kerala, as captured in the film Njan Prakashan, most of the physical labour is provided by migrants from the Bengal region. In the UK the nursing profession is dominated by migrants from Kerala and I don’t have to mention the Gulf where it is rumoured that one can get by with speaking Malayalam. These anecdotes do not adequately capture the migration of people all over the world.

This has led to resentment among the sons of the soil living in their ancestral lands. One of them speaking about Polish migrants felt ‘The Pole should get up every morning in Krakow, take a flight to the UK, pick fruit from the farms, collect the high wage and take a late flight back to Krakow’.

This shows that some sons of the soil admit that migrants fill a void in their labour markets and are a necessary evil to be tolerated.

On the other hand: the Brexit vote, the clampdown on the Mexican border, the identification of aliens in Assam show that political authorities are responding to their protests against uncontrolled migration.

So, why does this problem arise? Why do migrants leave their familiar surroundings to go to unfamiliar places and insist on working in increasingly hostile circumstances?

For starters, it could be that despite all the hardships faced in an alien land the migrant feels that his lot is still better than by continuing in his homeland. The film Peepli Live captures the distress in Indian agriculture, where despite all the government initiatives the protagonist finds himself leaving the village to work on a dangerous construction site in a big city. It is natural to assume that such a migrant would end up living in an illegal slum in that city.

Along with this group of desperate migrants there is also a group of economic migrants, this writer included, who seem to arbitrage the global shortage of skilled labour.

In the film Thackeray, Bal Thackeray the founder of the Shiv Sena alleged that South Indians, especially Malayalees, monopolised jobs in Mumbai and with their ‘clannish mentality’ would block opportunities for the sons of the soil. This sentiment has been echoed by similar politicians all over the world.

There is definitely some merit in their arguments too. 

In the UK around 2004 Tony Blair allowed free labour market access to newly joined  East European citizens. At the time there were no protests; the ruling Labour Party had ‘abolished boom and bust’ and the labour market was booming with wage hikes. The migrants were doing jobs that Britons did not want to do.

The feeling of anger only began following the 2008 financial crisis. The EU imposed strict austerity on the Euro member countries creating high levels of unemployment in their member states. The UK’s high minimum wage then acted as a magnet for migrants from the EU.

At the same time, in 2010 David Cameron’s UK government was ideologically committed to austerity and ‘balancing the budget’. They introduced severe funding cuts for schools, healthcare and welfare benefits. Thus, if you were an unemployed Briton living in Stevenage you suddenly discovered that the unemployment benefits were cut forcing you to look for a job while UK employers preferred foreigners for their higher productivity. This Stevenager’s family members also had to compete with Spaniards for reduced school places and Poles for access to the highly restricted health service. 

Thus the revulsion to the foreigner may not have arisen without the deliberate and untimely austerity imposed by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat government.

So, is migration inevitable? Yes and no.

From a theoretical perspective, only having free movement of capital but not permitting free movement of labour goes against free market logic and globalisation. This is also a violation of Ricardo, because labour rich countries are being prevented from benefiting from their comparative advantage. So, if there is free movement of capital, goods and services then, unlike Boris Johnson’s argument, it is incumbent on labour rich countries to demand free movement of labour.

Nonetheless, there will always be some economic migrants who will arbitrage the wage differentials in the world. Also, there will be others who are fleeing political persecution in their respective countries.

However, some of the migration can be controlled. There could be a universal basic income available to all the inhabitants of a common market. This basic income could be determined on the basis of the minimum income required to live in the most prosperous province in a common market. Such an income will enable the prospective migrant to live a luxurious life in his depressed province and act as a deterrent to migration.

In the UK, some Conservative party members who colluded in imposing austerity and who lauded the growth of food banks have convinced Stevenagers that their economic woes are solely due to foreigners. This fear was fortified enough to win the Brexit referendum. Now the question remains if the EU elite will accept their demands for a free movement of goods and services and end the free movement of labour.

Since the interest of the EU elite are not the same as its peripheral members I will not be surprised if they collude with Johnson’s cohorts. Will this lead to peripheral members of the EU asking for an exit as well? I will not be surprised.

Monday, 29 July 2019

On Shekar Gupta - An Indian supporter of Arthur Laffer

By Girish Menon

Arthur Laffer found his two minutes of fame first under Ronald Reagan and now under Donald Trump. He is famous for his statement that government revenues will be zero if the tax rate is either 0 or 100 %. He further prescribed that for government revenues to maximise it should be low enough to provide incentives for citizens to want to pay tax.

Sounds right doesn’t it?

I have some difficulties with Laffer’s proposition especially with the part that the tax regime should ‘provide incentives for citizens to want to pay tax’. Isn’t it the job of every citizen to pay the taxes levied by their elected government? And in the case of the rich isn’t this your preferred government? So why not pay your share of taxes to keep your side a winner?

Laffer, however, is pragmatic to realise that tax evaders (no matter their patriotic image) usually carry out a cost benefit analysis on the costs involved in avoiding taxes and the benefits that follow from it. If the benefits are higher than the costs then they make a rational choice to evade taxes either legally or even illegally.

And there is a big global economy involving tax havens, accountants and lawyers who have successfully convinced the rich that the benefits of tax evasion far exceed the costs.

Economists who support Laffer argue that money in the pockets of the wealthy is better off for the economy because they will re-invest in new businesses thus boosting the economy and will reduce unemployment and put the economy on the virtuous cycle of growth and prosperity for all.

However, historical data does not bother such economists and their followers. The period following World War II saw the highest rate of taxation.  In the bastion of free markets viz. the USA it was as high as 80% or more. Tax rates in welfare state European economies was similarly high too. This coincided with the best economic growth and employment rates in these economies till it was shattered by the oil price shock.

After Reagan followed Laffer’s advice in the 1980s European economies also followed suit but at no time has economic growth nor investment rates exceeded the 1950-60s. Despite the evidence to the contrary, these economies continued to cut tax rates even further; yet growth and investment rates have failed to match post World War II levels.

Shekar Gupta is one Indian journalist who appears to be a fan of Laffer’s tax cuts. On the one hand he argues that the rich will not be affected by the tax rate hike in the latest Indian government budget. In the same breath he also argues that the tax hike will affect investment in the Indian economy.

The Indian economy’s growth rate has been stalling for some time even before the current budget. Unemployment has been high and rising. Investment levels were low pre-budget, with many firms filing for bankruptcy. So does India need more investment or more consumption to utilise the already existing production capacity? 

Also, won’t the tax cuts if proffered by the Indian government find its way into tax havens and join the tranches of hot money circulating the global economy?

India in my opinion, needs a rise in consumption by the poorer and lower middle classes to boost demand within the economy. Now may be the time for PM Modi to redeem his promise made before the 2014 elections and give each countrymen the promised sum of Rs. 15 lacs in vouchers which they have to spend within a certain time period. This could help revive the economy.

What effect it will have on the environment is unimportant since climate change deniers seem to rule the world.

Sunday, 28 July 2019

What if NaMo was India’s PM in 1947?

By Girish Menon

Pervez Hoodbhoy, one of few famed Pakistan scientists, asked whether India could have launched Chandrayaan2 if Modi was India’s Prime Minister in 1947? I thought this was an extremely important question in an era when all things Nehruvian and Indirayian are being rubbished without any concern for facts.

Meghnad Desai, an economist of renown, in his latest piece in the Indian Express provides a stark example. Desai tries to create the impression that it was the private sector that was responsible for India’s lead in the space programme. Desai states that despite Nehru’s inclinations towards the public sector he listened to Sarabhai, who came from an industrialist family and had a market orientation, and this resulted in the successful space programme.

What Desai ignores is that ISRO has always been a public sector organisation. It was not started by the Sarabhai family and subsequently nationalised by a socialist Nehru or Indira.

A recent edition of the Guardian (How the state runs business in China) talked about how members of China’s Communist Party are involved in the management of all large companies operating in China. This includes western multinationals as well. And China is poised to be the world’s largest economy with its firms ready to compete with global corporates. Free market ideologues deliberately ignore such facts.

In India’s case, the spokespersons of the ruling corporatocracy fail to admit that the industrialists post independence viz. Tatas and Birlas did not have the capital nor the knowhow to launch the industrial revolution and it was left to Nehru to use tax payer money to launch the education and scientific revolution whose benefits India is now reaping.

The case I am making is that there are good public sector organisations as well as bad ones. The bad ones could be shut down due to their continuous reliance on government subsidies. But as the so far botched privatisation of Air-India has shown, India’s private sector enthusiasts have not shown any enthusiasm to take over and turn around such firms. Instead, they would like instant money spinners or public sector firms which can be cannibalised for instant profit.

Even in the case of bad public sector firms, if a systematic analysis of their sickness is carried out many will reveal that their problems often are not within the firm but lie outside with their political masters. In Air-India’s case the decisions by Praful Patel to favour Jet Airways and to destroy the public sector firm have led to its current state.

On the other hand, it is worthwhile to study the case of Jet Airways the private sector darling of free market India. It is now bankrupt despite all the favours given to it including flying rights and free aviation fuel.

There are so many instances of India’s preferred industrialists being given favourable loans, government lands and other subsidies and yet not contributing to reducing the burgeoning unemployment question. All of this is swept under the carpet as the current administration prepares to make a distress sale of the public sector.

India’s private sector has not provided global leadership in any area. While we await to see what Anil Ambani’s defence company will do, Indians must rejoice Chandrayaan2 while not forgetting that it is a public sector firm that is a world leader in rockets and satellite technology.

Monday, 8 July 2019

Why a leader’s past record is no guide to future success

Successful leadership depends on context, collaboration and character writes Andrew Hill in The FT

“There goes that queer-looking fish with the ginger beard again. Do you know who he is? I keep seeing him creep about this place like a lost soul with nothing better to do.”
That was the verdict of the then Bank of England governor on Montagu Norman, who, five years later, was to take over the top job. “Nothing in his background suggested that he would be well suited to the work of a central banker,” Liaquat Ahamed wrote in his prizewinning book Lords of Finance.

Plenty in Christine Lagarde’s background suggests she will be much better suited to run the European Central Bank: her political nous, her communication skills, her leadership of the International Monetary Fund through turbulent financial times.

Critics, though, have focused on the former corporate lawyer and finance minister’s lack of deep academic economic training, and her dearth of experience with the technicalities of monetary policy.

But how much should the past record of a candidate be a guide for how they will handle their next job? Not as much as we might think.

The truth is that successful leadership depends on context, collaboration and character as much as qualifications. For all the efforts to codify and computerise the specifications of important jobs, the optimal chemistry of experience, aptitude, potential, and mindset remains hard to define. Throw in the imponderable future in which such leaders are bound to operate and it is no wonder that sometimes the seemingly best-qualified stumble, while the qualification-free thrive.

For one thing, even if the challenge confronting a leader looks the same as one they handled in the past, it is very rarely identical — and nor is the leader. That is one reason big companies offer their most promising executives experience across countries, cultures and operations, from finance to the front line, and why some recruiters emphasise potential as much as the formal résumé of their candidates.

Curiosity is a big predictor of potential — and of success — according to Egon Zehnder, the executive search company. It asks referees what the candidate they have backed is really curious about. “It is a question that takes people aback, so they have to think anew about that person,” Jill Ader, chairwoman, told me recently.

I think there are strong reasons to back master generalists for senior roles. Polymathic leaders offer alternative perspectives and may even be better at fostering innovation, according to one study. In his new book Range, David Epstein offers this warning against over-specialisation: “Everyone is digging deeper into their own trench and rarely standing up to look in the next trench over.”

Take this to the other extreme of ignoring specialist qualifications, however, and you are suddenly in the world of blaggers, blowhards and blackguards, who bluff their way up the leadership ladder until the Peter Principle applies, and a further rise is prohibited by their own incompetence.

The financial crisis exposed the weaknesses of large banks, such as HBOS and Royal Bank of Scotland in the UK, chaired by non-bankers. Some of the same concerns about a dearth of deep financial qualifications now nag at the leaders of fintech companies, whose promise is based in part on their boast that they will be “different” from longer established incumbents.

In a flailing search for the reasons for its current political mess, the UK has blamed the self-confident dilettantism of some Oxford university graduates, while the US bemoans the superficial attractions of stars of television reality shows. These parallel weaknesses for pure bluster over proven expertise have brought us Boris Johnson and Donald Trump, respectively.

A plausible defence of both Mr Johnson and Mr Trump is that they should be able to play to their specific strengths, while surrounding themselves with experts who can handle the technical work.

Ms Lagarde, too, will want to draw on the team of experts around her. She is wise enough to know she cannot rely on silky political skills and neglect the plumbing of monetary policy.

At the same time, history suggests she should not assume her paper credentials or wide experience will be enough to guarantee success in Frankfurt. The Bank of England’s Norman was eccentric and neurotic, and his counterpart at the Banque de France, Émile Moreau, had a “quite rudimentary and at times confused” understanding of monetary economics, whereas Benjamin Strong at the New York Federal Reserve, was a born leader, and Hjalmar Schacht of Germany’s Reichsbank “came to the job with an array of qualifications”.

Yet together this quartet of the under- and overqualified made a series of mistakes that pitched the world into the Great Depression.