How to think about the budget

This Saturday, I will be a part of a panel discussion about the budget.

This is happening at a college here in Pune, and today’s blog post is an answer to the question that I have been asking myself for the past couple of days: is there anything that has been left unsaid about the budget? For if not, I speaking at that panel discussion is a waste of everybody’s time, including myself.

Here are, very briefly, the three things hat I think are most noteworthy about this budget:

  1. In much the same way that we have the removal of exemptions, but not really, not just yet, we also have an admission of the real extent of the fiscal deficit: but not really, not just yet.

    To the credit of Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in this Budget, she has taken significant steps to improve transparency by presenting a statement on the vexed issue of extra-budgetary spending/borrowing (see Annex V of speech Part A and Statement 27 of the Expenditure Profile). That shows a total of about 0.85 per cent of GDP of such expenditures/borrowing in both 2019-20 RE and 2020-21 BE, excluding the footnoted reference to amounts for public sector bank capitalisation. Much of this is for financing the food subsidy through the Food Corporation of India. If added to the “shown” fiscal deficits (FD) for these years, it would raise the ratios to 4.6 and 4.4 per cent, respectively.
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  2. Revenue will be less than the government was hoping for, and as a consequence, it will not be able to spend as much as we would have hoped in an economic slowdown. We also remain dependent on disinvestments working out on a scale that has never before taken place. Read this article, by Vivek Kaul – especially the section titled “The Family Silver”. Note that this was written before the budget came out. This year’s budget is as optimistic, if not more, about income it hopes to earn through disinvestment.
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  3. We are, in the words of Shankar Acharya, lurching towards protectionism.

    For 25 years since 1991, successive Indian governments reformed our trade policies in favour of greater openness and engagement with world trade. Customs duties were greatly reduced and quantitative restrictions largely eliminated. As a result, our foreign trade — both exports and imports — expanded robustly, providing a significant boost to our economic growth and employment. Since 2017, we have reversed policy and retreated from engaging with the world economy. Our ministers and senior officials do not seem to appreciate that higher duties and restrictions on imports hurt our capacity to grow exports. No sizable, non-oil country has sustained high export growth while imposing significant duties and restrictions on imports. And no such country has sustained high overall economic growth without high export growth. We ourselves grew fastest when our exports expanded robustly (1992-97 and 2003-2012).

If you ask me, there really isn’t that much more to say about the budget, that is so noteworthy that it bears repetition and emphasis. In any case, I’d much rather think about the Economic Survey to reflect on that state of the economy, and what needs to be done about it. The budget, Andy Mukherjee says (and I agree), isn’t all that important.

But this past week, I read about Clayton Christensen and Andy Grove. Clayton Christensen, author of The Innovator’s Dilemma, and one of the most respected thinkers on strategy, passed away recently. I had been reading essays and blog posts written in his honor, and came across an essay written by Clayton Christensen himself about the distinction between the “what” and the “how”.

I’ve thought about that a million times since. If I had been suckered into telling Andy Grove what he should think about the microprocessor business, I’d have been killed. But instead of telling him what to think, I taught him how to think—and then he reached what I felt was the correct decision on his own.

The essay is much more than that, and you might want to read it. But that part truly resonated with me: the how over the what.

Now, you might be wondering about what this has to do with the talk on Saturday – or indeed about anything at all.

Well, reading this post by T N Ninan in the Business Standard is what brought the anecdote above to mind:

So it might be a good idea for the next Economic Survey to deal with not just the many “What” and “Why” questions in economics, but also the “How”. There is no other way to understand how the impossible becomes possible — as more than a campaign slogan. India struggles with budgets and procedures, and still has a major corruption problem that can send a project off the rails. China has corruption, for sure, but no other economy with a per capita income of $10,000 is able to grow at 6 per cent, or anywhere near that rate.

Of all the articles I have read about the budget and the economic survey (and there have been a fair few of them) this was the one that resonated the most. Maybe because I just finished reading (and thoroughly enjoyed) In The Service of The Republic, or maybe because of other reasons. But all of those other articles are, using Ninan’s framework, about the “what”. This needs to be done, that needs to be done, if only we had this, that or the other.

And all of those things are true, to be sure. We would be better if all of those many, many things were around. But a la Grove: how, dammit?

Here is Ninan’s solution:

“Is there a solution? Yes, railway engineers of old like the metro builder E Sreedharan, builders of government companies like D V Kapur and V Krishnamurthy, and agricultural scientists like M S Swaminathan have shown how they made a difference when given a free hand. Vineet Nayyar as head of Gas Authority of India was able to build a massive gas pipeline within cost and deadline in the 1980s. The officers who are in charge of Swachh Bharat and Ayushman Bharat, and the one who has cleaned up Indore, are others who, while they may not match China’s speed, can deliver. Perhaps all we have to do is to spot more like them and give them a free hand.”

But as any experienced HR professional will tell you, spotting them is very difficult, even in the corporate world. And as any corporate CEO will tell you, giving these talented folks a free hand is even more difficult. And as any student of government bureaucracy will tell you, achieving the intersection set of these two things in a governmental setup is all but impossible.

And so what we need to study and copy from China is not so much anything else, but lessons in achieving, and sustaining, excellence in government bureaucracy. Or, if you prefer, how to improve state capacity.

In short, quality of government, not size of government, is what matters for freedom and prosperity.

Because we could analyze the budget and its numbers all we like, but without the Grovesian “how”, the “what” is essentially theory without practice.

For just one extremely effective example of the “how”, see this.

So how did China get so very lucky?

Indeed, we may now be living at the peak of the influence of the so-called Class of 1977. A September press conference ahead of the celebration of the 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China gathered together three of China’s top economic technocrats: central bank governor Yi Gang, Finance minister Liu Kun, and National Bureau of Statistics director Ning Jizhe. In an unusually personal moment for such an event, they mentioned that all three of them had taken the college entrance exams in 1977.

That is from Andrew Batson’s blog post titled “A Very Fine Reallocation of Resources“. An opportunity for some of her best and brightest to learn, and therefore apply meaningful change to their society, is one important factor in China’s rise. Du Runsheng, whose write-up I linked to above,  is just one example. There are many, many more.

More important than the budget is the Economic Survey, and I think T N Ninan is right, the next Economic Survey ought to focus on the how, not so much the what.

All that being said, here is a list of articles I enjoyed reading about the Union Budget:

Lessons from 1966 and 1991 for this year’s budget.

Contrary to the received wisdom that she should take steps to increase demand, I think she should do what was done in 1966 for exactly the same reasons: being broke. No fiscal boosters to artificially increase demand.

That said she should also do what the 1991 budget did: free businesses from random, illogical and counter-productive controls.

In short, we need a sensible combination of the1966 and 1991 approaches, namely, deep fiscal prudence (1966) and a withdrawal from the economic stage (1991).

Spend less and increase non-tax revenue significantly – and that’s pretty much the best way to judge if this is a good budget or not, says T C A Srinivasa Raghavan.

Surjit Bhalla’s summary of the good, the bad and the ugly in this year’s budget. I am slightly confused about exactly what his idea of the “good” was. For me, personally, it is the government being clearer about it’s actual expenditure.

Vivek Kaul provides an excellent summary in four parts over on NewsLaundry.

Deepak Nayyar is less than impressed with the budget.

Rathin Roy remains worried about the artihmetic.

 

Row: Links for 18th December, 2019

  1. ““If a Chinese would come this road is done in a month,” explained Kenyan real estate entrepreneur George Hinga in a 2017 Vice China documentary. “With the Westerners,” he added, “the bureaucracy to get this approved would take a year, first of all, without any construction. I mean, why partner with the West?””
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    China full speed ahead in Africa.
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  2. A classic example of the seen and the unseen, from China and her implementation of the one child policy.
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  3. “In our prison example, for OPEC, and with the trade war, what is good for the group is not necessarily the individual’s “dominant strategy.” And that is why OPEC nations don’t necessarily listen to production quotas and the U.S. and China continue raising tariffs. Each one’s dominant strategy relates to their opponents rather than the benefits of cooperation.”
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    Elaine Schwartz on the USA, China and the prisoner’s dilemma.
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  4. “Xi sees that development economics as a discipline was largely created by Western economists using their own economies as a model, rather than being an indigenous creation of developing economies. “
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    Andrew Batson on a very early essay by Xi Jingping.
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  5. Speaking of unintended consequences…(with reference to number 2 above)

RoW: Links for 27 Nov 2019

  1. Via Mostly Economics, a short write-up on how Islamic Banking came to be in Pakistan. I have many more questions than I do answers, so more reading is required on my end.
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  2. “Neumann, according to the Vanity Fair article, believed that WeWork “was even capable of solving the world’s thorniest problems. Last summer, some WeWork executives were shocked to discover Neumann was working on Jared Kushner’s Mideast peace effort. According to two sources, Neumann assigned WeWork’s director of development, Roni Bahar, to hire an advertising firm to produce a slick video for Kushner that would showcase what an economically transformed West Bank and Gaza would look like.””
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    Via FT Alphaville, Adam Neumann, founder of WeWork on…uh… peace for the Middle East.
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  3. “The paper identifies actions China has taken to pursue its territorial and maritime claims and control around features, including encroaching on coastal states’ exclusive economic zones, increasing its military presence around features, seeking to deny the United States and other countries navigational and other freedoms of the seas, and escalating its militarization of features it occupies. These actions have allowed China to gain military advantages in the event of conflict and, significantly, non-military advantages in situations short of outright conflict, by deterring other claimants from putting up a strong resistance to Chinese incursions and undermining U.S. credibility in the region. The paper examines the responses of Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia.”
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    China in the South China Sea. That is all.
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  4. A short photo essay on Yongbyon. Let us hope as few people as possible are aware of this city, say, 20 years from now.
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  5. “This made me think of China, and its policy-driven booms and busts. Typically, money floods into a sector when it receives government favor and subsidies, leading to a surge in production, and later overcapacity, falling prices, and a shakeout as the government reconsiders subsidies (see: solar panels, wind power, electric vehicles). In terms of labor, the willingness of Chinese migrant workers to uproot themselves and their families also shows no shortage of capacity to transform, but perhaps at too high of a social cost. So while capacity to transform in the US may now be too low, China’s might be too high.”
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    The always eminently readable Andrew Batson on a lot of things, each of which worth pondering upon. Deliberately vague, this introduction: do read the post!

RoW: Links for 13th November, 2019

  1. From a while ago – Peter Baker on Trump’s pullout of troops:
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    “”The Taliban have wanted the United States to pull troops out of Afghanistan, Turkey has wanted the Americans out of northern Syria and North Korea has wanted them to at least stop military exercises with South Korea.

    President Trump has now to some extent at least obliged all three — but without getting much of anything in return. The self-styled dealmaker has given up the leverage of the United States’ military presence in multiple places around the world without negotiating concessions from those cheering for American forces to leave.”
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  2. “As a tribute to the bunnies who lived between the wall, in 1999 artist Karla Sachse installed 120 rabbit silhouettes near the area they once roamed so freely. Unfortunately, in the decades since, quite a few of the brass bunnies are now buried beneath new layers of asphalt. It’s unknown how many still exist, though you can spot some along Chausseestraße.”
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    On the bunnies of the Berlin wall.
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  3. “Young people, many of whom had seen their schooling opportunities delayed for more than a decade, hastily dusted off their textbooks and began studying to prepare for the college entrance exams. That year, 5.7 million entered their names for the exams, and 273,000 were enrolled. Because the number of applicants far exceeded the expected figure, for a time the authorities could not procure enough paper to print the exam papers. The problem was not resolved until the central authorities made the urgent decision to ship in all the paper previously allocated for the printing of the fifth volume of the Selected Works of Mao Zedong.”
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    Andrew Batson on the class of ’77. I cannot improve upon the title of his post, by the way.
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  4. “The upgrade of the China–Sri Lanka relationship to a “strategic cooperative partnership” in 2013 demonstrated the geopolitical consequences of China’s generous support to Sri Lanka. By 2015 Chinese companies had completed infrastructure projects there worth $ 10 billion. In 2016, China overtook India to become Sri Lanka’s biggest trading partner with its $ 4.43 billion trade pipping the $ 4.37 billion of India.”
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    About the upcoming elections in Sri Lanka, and the associated geopolitical factors.
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  5. “But there were signs of trouble from the start. In 2014, a mountainside glass walkway cracked under the weight of too many hikers. In 2015, a glass bridge fractured and had to be closed after a visitor dropped a thermos on it. A year later, the Zhangjiajie Bridge, a 1,400-foot span that hangs 1,000 feet over a gorge, had to be closed after it was mobbed by visitors far in excess of its designed capacity, a mere 13 days after opening. The next year, it was pummeled by falling rocks.”
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    On China’s bubble in building, uh, bridges made of glass.

RoW: Links for 2nd October, 2019

I thoroughly enjoyed reading each of the five links today, both for how informative they were, but also for how thought provoking they were. A rare treat, this selection.

  1. James Fallows, from 1993 (!) on How The World Works.
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  2. Adam Mintner on Asia’s haze problem.
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  3. Tyler Cowen on his recent visit to Karachi.
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  4. Housing and the middle class in China.
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  5. I’m cheating a little, but this qualifies as an essay, right?

ROW: Links for 31st July, 2019

  1. “There are things government could do if it were bold enough. How about a series of state-specific visas to foreigners, designed to encourage them to settle in Alaska and other underpopulated states? Alaska’s population could well rise to more than a million, and then the benefits of a good state university system would be more obvious, including for cultural assimilation. In fact, how about a plan to boost the population of Alaska to two or three million people? What would it take to get there?”
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    Especially read together with the last paragraph, this article is an excellent example of straight thinking – and one wonders where this might apply in India’s case?
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  2. I’m breaking one of my own rules (but hey, that’s kind of the point of owning this blog), but here’s a short video about a tyre scultpure out of Nigeria.
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  3. “Nonetheless, reading the testaments of people who’d come through a period of great uncertainty in the late 1920s and early 1930s, with the liberal order seemingly spent, it’s hard not to hear faint echoes in our current plight. As they do now, people then craved simple, emotional answers to complex economic and political problems.”
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    Learning more about the lives of ordinary people in the past is something I want to do more of. Germany and Germans when they realized the Russians were coming.
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  4. “The official history of China’s economic reforms is rather more sanitized, but the memoirs of Gu Mu (谷牧), who was vice premier in the 1980s and in charge of foreign trade, do help show how export discipline was applied in the Communist bureaucratic system (see this post for some more interesting tidbits from Gu’s memoir).”
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    If there is one book that I would want a student of modern Asia to read, it would be Joe Studwell’s “How Asia Works”. This article begins by tipping its hat to that book, and speaks about how China instilled a sense of export discipline.
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  5. A very long, mostly depressing article on an intellectual purge in Turkey.

Tech: Links for 9th July, 2019

  1. “In it, astronaut Sally Jansen has been working to come to grips with a Mars mission that went disastrously wrong, and NASA ended its crewed missions into space. But while she’s trying to move on, scientists detect an object designated 2I/2044 D1 entering our solar system, and when it begins to slow down, they realize that it’s an alien artifact. Jansen is called in to try and intercept the object and figure out what is behind it before it reaches Earth.”
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    Science Fiction is a great way to learn a lot and have a lot of fun while doing so, and for that reason, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the premise of this book. In similar vein, I recently (and finally) finished The Three Body Problem, and can heartily recommend it.
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  2. “The camera was loaded with machine vision algorithms trained by Hamm himself. They identified whether Metric was coming or going and whether he had prey in his mouth. If the answer was “yes,” the cat flap would lock for 15 minutes and Hamm would get a text. (In a nice flourish, the system also sends a donation, or “blood money” as Hamm calls it, to the National Audubon Society, which protects the birds cats love to kill.)”
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    There are many people who bandy about the word AI these days, but this very short read (and within it, a very entertaining video) helps you understand how it could by applied in myriad ways.
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  3. “LightSail 2 is more ambitious and will actually try to maneuver through space, and even boost itself into different orbits using sunlight. The new mission’s mission control website will let people around the world follow along, including the 23,331 people who contributed to the project’s Kickstarter campaign, which raised $1,241,615 for the spacecraft.”
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    A third link from the same website (either The Verge is on fire, or I am being lazy today), but the best of the lot, in my opinion. It is now possible to crowdfund a satellite launch that contains a sail – and you can now watch your investment in space as it flies above your head. What a time to be alive.
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  4. “But while Tufte’s concerns are not limited to charts, he has spent a lifetime thinking through what he called the “perennial” problem of how to represent a multidimensional world in the two dimensions of the page or screen. At the end of the day, he pulled out a first edition of Galileo Galilei to show how the great minds of the past had grappled with the same issues. He rhapsodized over Galileo’s tiny, in-line sketches of Saturn, which clearly inspired his own advocacy of “sparklines” (tiny charts embedded in text at the same size as the text), as well as some beautifully precise illustrations of sunspots.”
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    Data visualization, medical visits, Galileo and sparklines. As they say, self-recommending.
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  5. “And with 92 percent of future jobs globally requiring digital skills, there’s a focus on helping students develop skills for careers that don’t yet exist. Last year, Sweden declared coding a core subject to be taught from the first year of primary school. And there is an appetite for these skills among students, too, with 85 percent of Brazilians from 16-23 indicating that they want to work in the technology sector. ”
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    Well, there’s a thought – I refer to Sweden’s decision. One, complements, not substitutes. Two, the links are worth following in this link – this is a subject very close to my heart.

RoW: Links for 3rd July, 2019

 

Five articles to help you understand China today a little bit better (well, one is on North Korea, axshually)

  1. “There is truth in this linguistic yarn; Chinese does deserve its reputation for heartbreaking difficulty. Those who undertake to study the language for any other reason than the sheer joy of it will always be frustrated by the abysmal ratio of effort to effect. Those who are actually attracted to the language precisely because of its daunting complexity and difficulty will never be disappointed. Whatever the reason they started, every single person who has undertaken to study Chinese sooner or later asks themselves “Why in the world am I doing this?” Those who can still remember their original goals will wisely abandon the attempt then and there, since nothing could be worth all that tedious struggle. Those who merely say “I’ve come this far — I can’t stop now” will have some chance of succeeding, since they have the kind of mindless doggedness and lack of sensible overall perspective that it takes.”
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    A long, but fun read on how and why Chinese (both kinds) is so difficult to learn – and do think about what this might tell us about China.
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  2. “But that is the wrong way to approach the challenge. In the near term (1-4 years), the US certainly could inflict a lot of damage on China through tariffs, bans on technology purchases, and other trade-war policies. But it would also inflict a lot of damage on itself; and in the end, the Chinese would suffer less. Whereas the Chinese government can buy up Chinese-made products that previously would have been sold to the US, thereby preventing mass unemployment and social turmoil, the US government could scarcely do the same for American workers displaced by the loss of the Chinese market.”
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    Brad DeLong argues against the anti-China line that almost everyone in America seems to toe to these days (Biden almost excepted)
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  3. “Total food production figures, however, are not the end of the story. The important question is who gets access to food, rather than just how much is harvested. Theoretically, North Korea could produce 10 million tons of food, but if all of it ends up in Pyongyang, there would still be massive shortages in the countryside. Here is where markets matter. The WFP assessments are based on the assumption that most food consumed in North Korea is still handed out by the government through the public distribution system (PDS); they do not take account of the role of markets in the food distribution system.”
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    38North on how bad the food situation is in North Korea. Markets matter!
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  4. “This is a useful reminder that decentralization is not an immutable feature of the Chinese system, or something that happened automatically just because China is a very large country. Clearly Gu saw that in the 1970s the Chinese system was too centralized to be efficient, and that it needed to be more decentralized. (Jae-Ho Chung’s book Centrifugal Empire: Central-Local Relations in China also argues that the Maoist emphasis on local autonomy in the 1970s was largely rhetorical, with most localities compelled to follow the same political campaigns and economic priorities.)”
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    For a variety of reasons, decentralization really matters – here’s how China learnt this lesson.
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  5. “At the heart of China’s Going Out policy is a media offensive launched in March 2018, an initiative coordinated by the broadcast group Voice of China and carefully monitored by Communist Party censors. In addition, the state-run news agency Xinhua was expanded and now claims to be the largest news wire in the world.”
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    A fascinating read on how China is reshaping the media narrative in Africa.

Links for 5th June, 2019

  1. “But I think Guo is here engaging in a strategy that is common for those who want to nudge the Chinese system in a more market-oriented direction: they tend to describe things are being more competitive and market-driven than they actually are, so that marginal change in that direction seems unremarkable and logical. If you pound the table and call China’s state-owned enterprises a core interest of the nation, it becomes quite difficult to change them. If you say, China is mostly a market economy already, then gradually reducing the role of SOEs over time seems pretty unthreatening.”
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    Andrew Batson’s blog is entirely worth following (and for a variety of reasons!). In fact, the second link today will also be from his blog. But for the moment, let’s focus on how China might respond to America’s push against China’s State Owned Enterprises (SOE’s).
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  2. “Local governments discovered they could borrow basically without limit to fund infrastructure projects, and despite many predictions of doom, those debts have not yet collapsed. The lesson China has learned is that debt is free and that Western criticisms of excessive infrastructure investment are nonsense, so there is never any downside to borrowing to build more infrastructure. China’s infrastructure-building complex, facing diminishing returns domestically, is now applying that lesson to the whole world.”
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    Andrew Batson has a rather more optimistic take on the Belt and Road Initiative. Not as bad, as he mentions, as Brahma Chellaney makes it out to be. On the other hand, I still do think that Batson is far too optimistic about it – as usual, the truth lies somewhere in the middle!
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  3. “The strategy we have in mind would comprise three mutually reinforcing components: an increase in the skill level and productivity of existing jobs, by providing extension services to improve management or cooperative programs to advance technology; an increase in the number of good jobs by supporting the expansion of existing, local firms or attracting investment by outsiders; and active labor-market policies or workforce-development programs to help workers, especially from at-risk groups, master the skills required to obtain good jobs.”
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    Dani Rodrik writes about how to create “good jobs”, and lots of them. I don’t think what he suggests will likely work, especially in a country like India, for a variety of reasons – but the biggest is that the kind of top-down, bureaucratic approach he suggests simply hasn’t worked in the past.
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  4. “The overall trend was an incredible intensification of output. Splitters, one of the most skilled positions, provide a good example. The economist John Commons wrote that in 1884, “five splitters in a certain gang would get out 800 cattle in 10 hours, or 16 per hour for each man, the wages being 45 cents. In 1894 the speed had been increased so that four splitters got out 1,200 in 10 hours, or 30 per hour for each man – an increase of nearly 100% in 10 years.” Even as the pace increased, the process of de-skilling ensured that wages were constantly moving downward, forcing employees to work harder for less money.”
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    An extremely readable extract from a book called The Red Meat Republic, this article in the Guardian speaks to how America’s beef industry came to be what it is. A great read for students of Industrial Organization, labor economics, development, pricing, transport economics – and more besides.
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  5. “China has an industrial policy whose goal is to be competitive in these [branded goods] and other areas. Tariffs will limit profits for these companies and prevent Chinese products from achieving full economies of scale. So this preemptive tariff strike will hurt the Chinese economy in the future, even if it doesn’t yet show up in the numbers.”
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    Tyler Cowen often forces himself to write the viewpoint on the other side – or at least, that’s how I interpret this article. I’m sharing it partly because it is worth reading (that’s a given, right?), but more so because that trait is worth emulating: force yourself to argue from the other side’s viewpoint. Whether in writing, or just as a thought exercise.