Imports and GDP: This Stuff Matters!

I’ve done an earlier version of this post, but have tried to simplify it even further in what follows.

Let’s go back and take a look at a concept that most of us are familiar with, but perhaps don’t know well enough (myself included!): GDP.

What is GDP?

That’s an easy question to answer, and one that every student of Econ101 more or less memorizes:

The final value of all goods and services produced in an economy in one accounting period.

Check out this definition from Wikipedia, this one from the OECD, this one from the IMF,  or run a search yourself – they’ll all be more or less the same.

Now, you can measure GDP in more than a couple of ways, but the version that most students of economics are definitely familiar with is the expenditure approach. It says that GDP is measured by tallying up the total expenditure used to buy final goods and services.

You might be familiar with this equation, for example:

GDP = Consumption + Investment + Government Spending + Exports – Imports

Or, to give this equation its abbreviated version:

GDP = C + I + G + X – M

Now, this is where things begin to get a little tricky.

This equation, and the way it is written out, leaves a lot of people under the impression that a country’s income will go up, if only we imported less as a country. 

And it is an understandable position to take! If we imagine that M has a value of, say, 100, then GDP goes down by 100. If M were to be zero instead, GDP would be higher by hundred in this alternate scenario.

But this is wrong! I’m going to use two different ways to show you why this is wrong.

Here’s the first one: go back to the definition of GDP, at the top of this piece. Now that you’ve read it, answer this question: where are imports produced? Are they produced in our country, or are they produced in another country?

And if they’re produced in another country, should they be included in our GDP?

The reason the equation says minus M is because we shouldn’t be counting it in GDP in the first place. Once we remove imports, we’re left with the very definition of GDP: goods and services produced in an economy in a given time period. 

Subtracting imports doesn’t make GDP higher. Adding it is completely wrong accounting.

All right, fine, you might grudgingly say. But then why is it in the equation at all in the first place?

Fair question! 

If you are an American, living in America, and you buy a smartphone manufactured in China, that would count as an import (M). 

But here’s the thing: it would also count as consumption ( C ). 

Think about it: if you are using the expenditure approach to measure GDP, your purchase of a Chinese manufactured smartphone is consumption, and it is also an import.

If the American government were to import binoculars manufactured in Israel, it would be government expenditure (G). But it would also be imports (M). You could make similar arguments for investment (I) as well, but you get the idea now.

So, a longer, but more accurate and understandable way of writing out the expenditure method of GDP is as follows (hat-tip to Noah Smith for this version):

GDP = Domestically produced consumption + Imported consumption + Domestically produced investment + Imported investment + Government spending on domestically produced stuff + Government spending on imported stuff + Exports – Imports

Now, some simple crossing out of terms…

Gross Domestic Product = Domestically produced consumption + Imported consumption + Domestically produced investment + Imported investment + Government spending on domestically produced stuff + Government spending on imported stuff + Exports – Imports

…leaves you with this:

Gross Domestic Product = Domestically produced  consumption + domestically produced investment + Government spending on domestically produced stuff + Exports

That first version, with all the crossed out terms, is how we should really be writing it out all the time, because that is what economists really mean. But we don’t do that, unfortunately, leaving folks with the entirely understandable impression that reducing imports makes us richer.

But hey, now you know! GDP, by definition, has nothing to do with imports, and the reason we subtract imports out is because we’re adding them in while counting consumption, investment and government expenditure.

TN Ninan on The Misery Index

More often than not, inflation and unemployment move in opposite directions. Why this should be so, and whether this actually is so, are questions that can get a lot of economists very hot under the collar very quickly! 

But every now and then, this relationship breaks down very quickly, and we’re then staring at a problem that economists refer to as stagflation. That, in effect, is when inflation is stubbornly high, but unemployment is also stubbornly high. TN Ninan, a columnist for the Business Standard, riffs on this and related concepts in an excellent recent column

In particular, he drags up an idea that most of us haven’t heard about lately, the misery index. Given what’s around us these days, though, you might want to construct such an index for the months to come! What is the misery index, you ask? Well, simply add up the rate of unemployment and the rate of inflation for any given economy! It’s a simple enough index to create, and you can learn a fair bit by taking a look at which countries are doing well (low on the misery index), and which countries are the unfortunate table-toppers. 

As the column points out, Turkey, Argentina and South Africa top these charts, and Brazil and Russia round off the current top five. But most major economies are inching up this particular chart, and this is something you want to keep an eye on in the days to come. Here is more information, if you’re interested in learning more about the misery index.

Now, as with ice-cream flavors, so also with indices such as these. You can add in different flavors and come up with many different variations. So it was only a matter of time before somebody thought of adding in interest rates to create a new version of the misery index. Imagine living in an economy with high inflation, high unemployment and high interest rates! And if you want a little-bit-of-everything-when-it-comes-to-macro index, well, throw in per capita growth rates too. Note that this last addition actually makes it rather less of a misery index, since high per capita growth is a good thing.

And finally, TN Ninan’s column also mentions another interesting, relatively recent idea that you might want to explore yourself: The Great Gatsby curve. Take a look at what it means, and reflect on how appropriate the name is.

Literature and economic theory – who’d have thunk it, eh?

What is a Doom Loop?

Is a global recession imminent?

Probably. Macroeconomic forecasting is the stupidest of sports, but it is looking quite likely, yes.

How will recession start, how will it play out, and how long will it last? I don’t have the faintest idea, and trust me, nobody knows for sure.

But certain channels of both cause and effect (and sometimes both at the same time, because macro is hard) can be readily identified. And one such channel in today’s day and age is that of a ‘doom loop’.

A country is at risk of a doom loop when a shock to one part of its economic system is amplified by its effect on another. In rich countries, central banks should have the power to halt such a vicious cycle by standing behind government debt, stabilising financial markets or cutting interest rates to support the economy. But in the euro zone, the ECB can only do this to a degree for individual countries.

https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2022/06/22/what-is-the-doom-loop-in-the-euro-zone

I haven’t taught international macro for a while now, but when I used to, I would explain this to my students by calling it the Mamata Banerjee/Narendra Modi/Raj Thackeray problem. I hope your curiosity is piqued!

For an economic union of political entities to work, there are (very broadly speaking) four things that must be present:

  1. A monetary union (which the EU has)
  2. A fiscal union (this is the Mamata Banerjee angle, explained below)
  3. Capital mobility (Narendra Modi)
  4. Labor mobility (Raj Thackeray)

Now, bear in mind that my examples are from a while back. I am referring to Mamata Banerjee’s first stint as Chief Minister, and the version of Narendra Modi I have in mind is the Chief Minister of Gujarat.

But back when Mamata Banerjee became Chief Minister of Bengal for the first time, one of the first things she did was to ask the Centre for help given West Bengal’s precarious finances. The point is not about whether it was given or not (as far as this blogpost is concerned), the point is that states routinely ask for, and sometimes get, aid from the centre. This may be because of natural disasters, or man made ones, financial ones or otherwise. The point is that the central government has the ability to ‘help’ out states if necessary. It is, of course, more complicated than that, and a fiscal union also implies the ability to raise and share taxes, but the central point is the fact there is help available, if needed.

But the ability of the European Union to do so is severely constrained, because you will need a lot of good luck to convince, for example, German voters that their taxes might be used to help the Spanish economy in its time of need. And for somewhat similar reasons, you can make more or less the same argument for the inability of the European Central Bank to chip in when necessary.

Or consider Narendra Modi’s invitation to Ratan Tata, to have his Tata Nano factory be relocated from West Bengal to Sanand in Gujarat. That’s an example of capital mobility, and again, this is much easier to achieve within a country.

And finally, Raj Thackeray, and his opposition to workers from outside Maharashtra ‘taking’ jobs within the state – that is a great way to understand what (lack of) labor mobility means.


The point is that an economic union must necessarily have these four things in place for it to be a meaningful, stable and well-functioning European Union. The idea isn’t new, of course – Robert Mundell‘s idea has been around since the late 1950’s, and there have been others who have worked on related ideas. Also read Paul Krugman on the topic.

But the point is that if a crisis strikes the EU, they have a limited range of weaponry that they can deploy.

Please read the rest of the article to get a sense of how linkages between European governments and its banks, the banks and the broader economy, and the broader economy and the European governments can both cause and exacerbate a crisis.

And as usual, the concluding paragraph for your perusal:

The euro zone is at less risk from doom loops than it was ten years ago, thanks to reforms to the banking system, the ECB’s commitment to preserve the euro and some embryonic fiscal integration. But the danger has not disappeared. And reforms to the euro zone’s architecture that would further reduce the risk have stalled⁠—in part because in 2012 the ECB boldly stepped in, easing the pressure on governments to make difficult decisions. As the ECB once again intervenes, the prospects for deep euro-zone reform look increasingly remote.

https://www.economist.com/the-economist-explains/2022/06/22/what-is-the-doom-loop-in-the-euro-zone

Imports, Exports and GDP

“The key is to understand that imports are also included in consumption, investment, and government spending. The real GDP breakdown looks like this:

  • GDP = Domestically produced consumption + Imported consumption + Domestically produced investment + Imported investment + Government spending on domestically produced stuff + Government spending on imported stuff + Exports – Imports

So you can see that while imports are subtracted from GDP at the end of this equation, they’re also added to the earlier parts of the equation. In other words, imports are first added to GDP and then subtracted out again. So the total contribution of imports on GDP is zero.”

That is an excerpt from a lovely little write-up by Noah Smith on his Substack, and one that I’ll be using whenever I teach macro. It’s lovely for many reasons, but most of all for the reason that the bullet point goes a very long way towards making the point that a lot of folks miss: you don’t get rich by importing less.

When I say “you”, I mean the country in question – and this equation, written out this way, helps us understand why. If you’re a student of macro, and are under the impression that India will get richer if only we imported lesser, think about the definition of GDP:

Gross domestic product (GDP) is the total monetary or market value of all the finished goods and services produced within a country’s borders in a specific time period.

https://www.investopedia.com/terms/g/gdp.asp

If you think about it, how can imports possibly qualify as being produced within a country’s borders? As Noah says, the equation can also be written like this:

GDP = Domestically produced consumption + Domestically produced investment + Government spending on domestically produced stuff + Exports

https://noahpinion.substack.com/p/imports-do-not-subtract-from-gdp?s=r

Read the rest of Noah’s post, especially if you are a student of macroeconomics. It should help clear up a lot of basic, but important and often misunderstood ideas about GDP calculations.


https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2022/05/13/russia-is-on-track-for-a-record-trade-surplus

Russia has stopped publishing detailed monthly trade statistics. But figures from its trading partners can be used to work out what is going on. They suggest that, as imports slide and exports hold up, Russia is running a record trade surplus.
On May 9th China reported that its goods exports to Russia fell by over a quarter in April, compared with a year earlier, while its imports from Russia rose by more than 56%. Germany reported a 62% monthly drop in exports to Russia in March, and its imports fell by 3%. Adding up such flows across eight of Russia’s biggest trading partners, we estimate that Russian imports have fallen by about 44% since the invasion of Ukraine, while its exports have risen by roughly 8%.

https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2022/05/13/russia-is-on-track-for-a-record-trade-surplus

Think about the previous section, and try and answer this question: is Russia poorer or richer or unchanged because Russia isn’t importing as much, as measured by GDP and changes in GDP?

Well, Russia may be worse off, and Russians may be worse off. It’s leader?

As a result, analysts expect Russia’s trade surplus to hit record highs in the coming months. The iif reckons that in 2022 the current-account surplus, which includes trade and some financial flows, could come in at $250bn (15% of last year’s gdp), more than double the $120bn recorded in 2021. That sanctions have boosted Russia’s trade surplus, and thus helped finance the war, is disappointing, says Mr Vistesen. Ms Ribakova reckons that the efficacy of financial sanctions may have reached its limits. A decision to tighten trade sanctions must come next.
But such measures could take time to take effect. Even if the eu enacts its proposal to ban Russian oil, the embargo would be phased in so slowly that the bloc’s oil imports from Russia would fall by just 19% this year, says Liam Peach of Capital Economics, a consultancy. The full impact of these sanctions would be felt only at the start of 2023—by which point Mr Putin will have amassed billions to fund his war.

https://www.economist.com/finance-and-economics/2022/05/13/russia-is-on-track-for-a-record-trade-surplus (Emphasis added)

Macro is hard! But it also matters, especially at times such as these.

India and China’s GDP Components Over Time

This should go without saying, but ask yourself if you are able to recreate these charts given the data sources mentioned in the tweet. You needn’t use DataWrapper necessarily (although if you’re considering journalism or a related field, learning it will help) – but do see if you can create the chart!

A Review of Macroeconomics: An Introduction, by Alex M Thomas

I’m not a fan of recommending a particular textbook to my students in any course that I teach. I’m not a fan of textbooks in general, but that’s a story for another day.

The reason I am against the idea that you should read “a” textbook for a course is because I find the idea that you can learn a subject by reading just one book to be a deeply repugnant one. I’m happy to recommend ten, or more. And students should learn by dipping into all of them!


But if you were to put a gun to my head and tell me that I must absolutely recommend just one macro text for Indian students who are learning macro for the first time, A Review of Macroeconomics: An Introduction, by Alex M Thomas would be it.

Why? For the following reasons:

Rare is the textbook that begins with a disclaimer to the effect that the author did not want to write a textbook. Rarer still is the preface that goes on to say that other textbooks (and more besides!) should also be read. If you are an econ prof, you must have read multiple prefaces by now that dispense advice about how chapters such-to-such, followed by chapters these-to-those ought to be included in an introductory course, but on the other hand chapters extra-but-still-necessary only need be included in an intermediate course.

The preface to this book does no such thing. Read the whole book, it says, and read more besides.

But the second most important part of the preface, and the part that got me hooked to the whole book is that includes a reference to a novel. That in itself is, well, novel. Second, it is an Indian novel. Third, it is a novel that has nothing to do with macroeconomic theory. This is a book that teaches you that macroeconomic theory – that after all, is the job of a textbook – but it is also a book that teaches you what to do with that theory. It teaches you to apply that theory to get a handle on the society that you need to study, and it helps you understand that this society is so much more than the abstractions of economic theory. Use this book to appreciate life better, it seems to say. Or, in the language of us economists, Alex Thomas has written the book as a complement to everything else that you will read and learn about Indian society. Not as a substitute. That is a rare old achievement, and one well worth celebrating.

The most important part?

Finally, this book adopts a problem-setting approach rather than a problem-solving one, as is the case with most economics textbooks. To put it more clearly, this text helps you to identify, conceptualize and discipline a macroeconomic problem. Therefore, this book does not contain exercises in problem solving, but it contains discussions and questions that make you think about the nature of assumptions, the logic of the theory, the limits of the theory, the interface between theory and policy, a little about the gaps between theory and data, and occasionally, the nature of past and present economic thought.

Preface, pp xvi, Macroeconomics An Introduction

There are nine chapters in the book, and I hope Alex Thomas won’t mind me listing them out over here:

  1. What is economics?
  2. Conceptualising the macroeconomy
  3. Money and interest rates
  4. Output and employment levels
  5. Economic growth
  6. Why economic theory matters
  7. The policy objectives of full employment
  8. The policy objective of low inflation
  9. Towards good economics

Say you want to teach a course in macroeconomics to students who have not studied the subject before. Conceptually speaking, here are the questions I would want to answer as an instructor:

What are we studying here, exactly? What are we abstracting from all of reality and of those abstractions, which features matter more than the others? Why are we studying whatever it is that we’re studying? If we (students and the prof) agree on the answers to the first few questions, how do we go about defining and measuring “success”? Why put the word success in inverted quotes?

Chapter 1 | Chapters 2,3,4 | Chapters 5 and 6 | Chapters 7 and 8 | Chapter 9 is how I interpret the layout of the book, in line with the questions above. Personally, I would have wanted to put chapters 5 and 6 right after chapter 1, but after having read the book, I can understand why the book was structured the way it has been. In particular, the four sections of the sixth chapter can only become truly comprehensible after you’ve gone through chapters 2,3,4. If I were to be teaching a course on macro, I would still be tempted to jump from 1 to at least the spirit of chapters 5 and 6, but that’s just my personal preference at play. Growth matters, and helping students appreciate why growth matters can be hugely motivating.


This book deserves a separate section of the review dedicated exclusively to the richness of the text. I challenge you to find me another textbook, from anywhere in the world that can go from talking about Tony Aspromourgo’s chapter on Piero Sraffa on pp 100, to talking about a Telugu novella on pp 102 (Kesava Reddy’s Moogavani Pillanagrovi: Ballad of Ontillu, 2013) to talking about Shrilal Shukla’s Raag Darbari on pp 103! To be clear, the challenge isn’t finding another textbook that talks of these three sources specifically (I can guarantee you that there isn’t another one!), but one that manages to traverse such breadth. Breathtaking stuff, and I never imagined I would use that phrase while reviewing a macro text.

But it’s not just that one series of excerpts. Every chapter is liberally sprinkled with a list of reading recommendations that stand out for their sheer breadth. All of them have been listed out between pages 200-208 in the text, and just these eight pages alone are worth the price of admission. Well, these eight pages and the two that precede it. In those two pages, Alex Thomas lists out all the data sources that have been used in the case of each table from each chapter.

In particular, this book deserves to be praised for raising repeatedly issues of caste, gender and ecology at various points through the text. Growth, but at what cost? Land as a factor of production, sure, but rooted in which society, and with therefore what consequences?

Consider this excerpt from pp 128, for example:

A village economy cannot be understood as a simple departure from the competitive macroeconomy we have discussed thus far. It requires us to understand how village space is divided and demarcated (typically on the basis of caste). The spatial inequality present in a village economy is captured very well by Kota Neelima in her depiction of a poor and indebted farmer’s house in Death of a Moneylender (2016).

The very next paragraph touches upon aspects of religion and its linkages to labor mobility. As always reasonable people can and should argue about how much of an impact these aspects (and other aspects of Indian society) have on the cold austere ivory tower approach that most macroeconomic textbooks adopt. I think it is a very significant impact, and you may not – and that is, of course, absolutely fine. But we are debating the quantum of significance and relevance, not questioning its very existence – and that is very, very welcome indeed.

Indeed, this is a book that ends with an exhortation: if you take one thing away from this book, Alex Thomas seems to be saying, take away an appreciation for the pluralistic approach (pp 196):

If you are a student of economics, you will soon study “statistics for economists’ and ‘mathematics for economists’. In both these methods of economics, there exist multiple concepts, theories and approaches, just like in macroeconomics and microeconomics; pay attention to the fact that these ‘methods of economics themselves both originated and are used within a social context. Moreover, a pluralistic approach to economics by itself is not sufficient when employing economics in the service of public policy; it is important to keep in mind the collective wishes of people as Xaxa’s poem in Section 1.4 pointed out.
I end this book with the hope that you take pluralism as a friend, sometimes a difficult one, in your journey of learning.


The pluralistic approach isn’t just restricted to moving across (and beyond) the social sciences. Even within the domain of macroeconomic theory, Alex Thomas takes the time and trouble to make sure that all views about the macroeconomy are fairly represented. The fifth chapter in particular is notable for this, but that should be taken to be especial praise for that chapter, not a faint damning of the others!

What could have been done better? If this book is intended for people learning about macroeconomics for the first time, I think this books errs on the side of doing a little bit too much. Some sections might be a little bit too involved for a reader who still has to cultivate a taste for macroeconomic theory (and god knows it is very much an acquired taste). And some first time readers might also not appreciate some of the macroeconomic controversies and the role they have played in pushing the field further.

This should beg the obvious question: well, what, exactly, should be cut? Well, not cut exactly, but some of the more involved explanations can be turned into, say, accompanying YouTube explainers (about which more below).

There are also some notable names missing from an introductory text of macroeconomics, but I’m all but certain that this is a case of conscious choice rather than inadvertent omission.

A tip to the students reading this review: help Alex out by coming up with videos that will act as accompaniments to the text. That is, if you are doing the hard work of reading through the text and understanding it, help others by creating content that will act as a complement to the reading of the text. Many students should do this, and in many languages! As Alex says, embrace plurality, both in terms of approach and understanding, but also linguistically speaking.


My biggest problem with the book is a bit of a meta-problem, and I hope I turn out to be wrong in what I am about to say. The biggest requirement, I think, of this book is a teacher who will do it justice. I honestly do not think that this book can be read by a first-time student of macroeconomics without some sort of mentoring and guidance. To be clear, this is not about the book being difficult or inaccessible – I am of the opinion that macroeconomics just is that hard.

But if what I’m saying is correct, then the success of the book is as dependent on the guide/mentor/professor as it is upon both the book and the reader. And that brings me to my answer to whether or not I would recommend that you read this book. It is not, I think, for everybody. But that’s not a criticism of the book, or its contents or the author. It is an acknowledgment of just how hard macroeconomics really is. In fact, Alex Thomas himself says that a year of undergrad studies in economics is recommended before you tackle this book.

But hey, hopefully I turn out to be wrong! Hopefully you can and will read this book and understand it.

And if you are already a serious student of economics (whether formally enrolled in a university or otherwise), then I absolutely and unreservedly recommend this book to you. As a student of Indian macroeconomics, you simply couldn’t do better. Period.


P.S. Alex Thomas will be speaking about his book to the students from the Gokhale Institute on the 17th of September. I don’t think livestreaming is possible, alas, but we will be putting up the recording on our YouTube channel for sure. If you have questions you’d like to ask Alex Thomas, pass them along here in the comments. We’ll try to work them in!

Meanwhile, In India…

Yesterday’s post was about taxation (or the lack of it) in the United States of America. Today’s post is about the composition of tax revenues in India (along with some questions to which I would love some answers).

So the Hindu came up with a very interesting analysis on the composition of India’s taxation revenues over the past couple of years:

In FY21, despite a stringent lockdown and a raging COVID-19 first wave, the gross tax revenue collected by the Centre increased over FY20. However, the increase was made possible by a sharp rise in contributions from union excise duties. This compensated for the sharp drop in the share of corporate tax collection. The shift in tax burden from the corporates to the masses has come at a time when the pandemic has led to many job losses and reduced income levels thereby pushing more people into poverty.

https://www.thehindu.com/data/data-centres-tax-revenues-grew-despite-stringent-lockdown-on-the-back-of-excise-duties/article34850754.ece

This is the first chart in their article:

Source: https://www.thehindu.com/data/data-centres-tax-revenues-grew-despite-stringent-lockdown-on-the-back-of-excise-duties/article34850754.ece

I tend to take chart design a little seriously, so before we proceed, a laundry list of ways in which I wish this chart was better:

  • Source! What is the source of your data? As we will see later on in this blogpost, that really matters
  • Dump the y-axes (or at least one of them) and label the series instead. I’d prefer to do this for both series
  • This is especially important because you’ve got “base” numbers on the LHS y-axis and percentage change on the right, and visually, it is very non-intuitive. Especially because the RHS y-axis has zero at a different level when compared to the LHS.
  • A horizontal line next to 0% on the RHS would help provide clarity.
  • Any charting ninjas out there, please let me know where I’m wrong, and what you would do instead 🙂

Now, about the source of the data:

The article mentions that about “about 20.24 lakh crore was collected in FY21”. Since I don’t know which source was used, I’ve gone with the receipts statement from the Budget at a Glance section of the Union Budget website.

https://www.indiabudget.gov.in/doc/Budget_at_Glance/bag5.pdf

Gross tax revenue for 2020-21 (Revised Estimates) is Rs. 1900280. That’s… close enough, I suppose, to 20.24 lakh crores? Not really, if you ask me, but we’ll make do. By the way, to be clear, none of this is intended as a “hah, gotcha!” exercise. If there is a better data source that I should be using, please do let me know.

The excerpt above notes that gross tax revenue went up in FY 21 compared to FY 20. That’s not what this table shows, and I would love to learn more about which data source was used by The Hindu’s data team. That being said, their larger point is valid, and worth thinking about: in a year in which India’s GDP contracted, by around 7% or so, tax collections have been remarkably resilient. Going by the dataset I am using, they haven’t actually increased, but it is a close run thing, and that is remarkable.

[Professor Sabyasachi Kar was kind enough to point out a rather elementary error on my part: what matters is nominal GDP growth rate, not the real GDP growth rate. And nominal GDP contracted by around 3%, not 7% – that does explain a lot about the change in gross tax revenue we are seeing in this blogpost. Thank you, Professor 🙂 ]


Which means, of course, that we should be taking a look at which specific line items are responsible for this increase. And even a cursory glance at the table tells us that the impressive performance is almost single-handedly due to excise taxes. They’ve gone up from a base of Rs. 240615 crores in 2019-2020 to Rs. 361000 crores in 2020-21. That’s some growth!

If you are a student of the Indian economy, you might want to read this article, an excerpt from which is below:

The interesting thing is that the excise duty earned from the petroleum sector has jumped from Rs 99,068 crore in 2014-15 to Rs 2.23 lakh crore in 2019-20. The government has become addicted to easy revenue from taxing petrol and diesel. This year its earnings will be even higher than in 2019-20.

https://vivekkaul.com/2021/02/22/why-the-price-of-petrol-is-racing-towards-rs-100-per-litre/

As a student, never take numbers you read in an article as given. Not, to be clear, because you don’t trust the author, but because you should always go to the source of the data. Here’s one potential answer:

Source: https://www.indiabudget.gov.in/receipt_budget.php

I personally want to learn more about 5.02, 5.03, 5.05, 5.07.10 and the “total” row. That’d be a great masterclass, if you ask me


The bottomline: it is a great time to be a student of the Indian economy. All of what your textbooks tell you, both in terms of theory and in terms of data, is being stress-tested in ways that really test your knowledge of the Indian economy – so long as you look hard enough, and don’t stop asking the right questions.

So please: look, and ask. 🙂

Macroeconomics: An Introduction, by Alex Thomas (Pt. 1)

About five years ago, I went on a rant on my other blog:

I have developed, over the last seven years or so, a visceral hatred for textbooks. Its not that textbooks are all that bad – they’re limited, they’re expensive and they’re straitjacketed in terms of content and structure, but all of this together isn’t why I hate textbooks.
Its because we have students who demand a textbook in every single course. Over time, we have reached a mentality that says that a course must have a recommended textbook. Instructor must assign chapters from said textbook. Students must read chapters and solve end-of-chapter problems. Instructor will design paper on basis of said textbooks, students will write exam having prepared accordingly, and all is right with the world.

https://thepuneri.wordpress.com/2016/03/28/textbooks-have-become-mostly-pointless/

I’m not going to excerpt the entire rant, but on reflection, it is certainly true that I was on a roll:

And it gets even worse with the “end of chapter problems”. The expectation that the examination will have the same “type” of problems as does the textbook might be convenient in the short run, but it doesn’t teach you how to adapt to problems as you might encounter them in real life. Worse, and this is a point I’m going to write about at length in my next post, this approach simply helps you solve problems, not identify them. And in my opinion, identifying problems is a far more important skill today than having the ability to solve them – but more about that in a later post.
In short, then: textbooks are static, limited and structured ways to learn about a subject, and it is entirely possible, and desirable, that we enrich students knowledge about subjects by giving them much, much more to learn than just a textbook.

https://thepuneri.wordpress.com/2016/03/28/textbooks-have-become-mostly-pointless/

Five years down the line, my opinion on textbooks haven’t changed all that much. I still cringe when students in courses I am teaching ask me for “a” recommended textbook to “prepare for the examination”.

They’re being quite rational from their perspective: they want to maximize marks while minimizing effort. Their microeconomics professor would be proud. My problem lies beyond their request, and beyond their rationality in having framed their request the way they have. They are simply responding to the environment we’ve placed them in, and it is the environment that I have (serious) issues with.

And the textbook authors are responding to their incentives, in turn. If we accept the educational system as it currently exists, then of course we should have chapters, and end-of-chapter problems, and question banks, and answer keys supplied to accredited professors. It has become an industrial complex, for all the participants respond, rationally, to the incentives the educational system has set up for them.

And so it goes, year after dreary year.


And then you see something like this in the introduction of a text:

I strongly recommend and encourage the use of various texts (books, journal articles, government reports, fiction, newspaper articles and textbooks) in the teaching of any course in economics. This stems from my rather modest experience of just over 15 years as a student and teacher of economics. While the use of varied texts is challenging for both the teacher and the student, I firmly believe that the long-term benefits far outweigh the short-term costs, and that it truly contributes to good learning as it enables the students to become better arbiters of knowledge. After all, we live in the age of information abundance, and perhaps the most valuable skills are the ability to identify credible sources of information and the ability to evaluate, with sufficient confidence, contending arguments, perspectives and standpoints.

Preface, Macroeconomics: An Introduction, by Alex M. Thomas

In other words, this is a textbook that is not looking to minimize the efforts of either the teacher or the student. The very opposite, in fact. As Alex says, he is looking to maximize the long term benefits (one might call this “learning”). Not the short term benefits, note (one might call this “marks”).

And it gets better!

Finally, this book adopts a problem-setting approach rather than a problem-solving one, as is the case with most economics textbooks. To put it more clearly, this text helps you to identify, conceptualise and discipline a macroeconomic problem. Therefore, this book does not contain exercises in problem solving, but it contains discussions and questions that make you think about the nature of assumptions, the logic of the theory, the limits of the theory, the interface between theory and policy, a little bit about the gaps between theory and data, and, occasionally, the nature of past and present economic thought. Therefore, this book aims to provide you with an introductory) immersive experience in macroeconomics.

Preface, Macroeconomics: An Introduction, by Alex M. Thomas

Why do I say it gets better? From another of my blogposts, also written five years ago:

In examinations, teachers frame the questions, and students answer them.
So obvious, so matter of course, so banal is this statement that it takes a little time to realize how horrible a system this is. All we’re doing, when we ask students to do this, is learn the subject well enough to be able to answer whatever question we throw at them. And therefore, when they get out there in, y’know, the real world, they ask for a problem, so that they may solve it.
But in the real world, more often than not, you’re paid to frame the question.

https://thepuneri.wordpress.com/2016/03/30/the-growing-irrelevance-of-examinations/

I’m happy to spell this out as many times as it takes: you attend a course in order to learn. A way to check how much you’ve learnt is to write an examination.

Somewhere along the way, this has mutated into: you attend a course in order to score marks in an examination so that you get a job/get into a better college.

Jo kuch ratta maara tha, sab saala pel ke aa gaya, aur doosre din bhool gaya” is funny because it’s true.

So, in a standardized, run of the mill course, this textbook is a nightmare. No end of chapter problems, no question bank, and (the horror!) literary references and (shudder!) poems instead.


Which, of course, is exactly why I can’t wait to read it. I’m done with the first chapter, and will put up my thoughts about it soon. There’s a lot that I love about it, some things that I have questions about, and some areas of disagreements.

But if I’ve understood the spirit in which the book has been written, I think Alex M. Thomas will count my experience thus far as a success.

Understanding Fiscal Policy (2/3)

This post should be read as a continuation of yesterday’s post.

What are the things to keep in mind when talking about fiscal policy for India in 2021? Sajjid Chinoy mentions two, and we’ll deal with the first of these in today’s post. It is called “Recalibrating To New Realities


  1. Sajjid Chinoy first points out the fiscal deficit situation. Please, whether you are an economics student or otherwise, familiarize yourself with the budget at a glance document. My take on the fiscal deficit for the FY21-22 is that there is no way on earth we’re going to be able to stick to the budgeted 6.8%. Tax revenues will be lower, borrowing will be higher, and I’m not buying the INR 1,75,000 crores disinvestment target. I hope I am wrong!
  2. He recommends not cutting expenditures even if budgeted revenues don’t materialize, and expanding MNREGA funding – and I completely agree.
    We’re getting into the weeds a little bit, but he also speaks about cash transfers instead of MNREGA given the pandemic, and I agree there too. Effectively, he is saying that people might not choose to apply for work because of the fear of getting infected, so drop the cash for work requirement: just transfer.
  3. “Double down on achieving budgeted asset sales targets, because this will provide space for more debt-free spending.” is one of his recommendations. I agree with the message, but find myself to be (very) cynical about the likelihood of this happening. We haven’t managed to meet these targets even once, and were off by an impossibly large magnitude this year, so I don’t see this happening. Again, I hope I am wrong.
  4. I’m paraphrasing over here, but the implicit request by the author is to keep capital expenditure sacrosanct (because of the multiplier effect). The implicit bit is the corollary: if sacrifices must be made, it is in revenue expenditure. The cynic in me needs to be reined in, but I’ll say it anyway: good luck with that.1
  5. Finally, he makes a request of monetary policy, that is acts as a complement to what is written above. That is, monetary policy should not worry about inflation too much this year. It is more complicated than that, of course, but that’s a separate blogpost in it’s own right.
  1. Let me be clear, I agree! I just don’t see it happening, that’s all[]

Understanding Fiscal Policy (1/3)

I wrote this last week on the basis of this write-up by Sajjid Chinoy. The sequel came out last week, so let’s read through it together.

First things first:

  1. During times of a crisis, such as the one we are going through, it may be helpful to think of the economy as a sick person. That would make us economists and policymakers the diagnosticians and doctors respectively.
  2. Us diagnosticians often like to think about why the person got sick. Was it because of some previously administered medicine? Was it because of some external factor? Maybe both? That is, we identify the disease, and the cause of the disease.
    In this case, the economy is struggling because of the lockdowns and the uncertainty about (at least) the near future. Those are the symptoms. The cause is, of course, the virus.
  3. The doctors – that is, the policymakers – will want to remove the cause behind the economy’s illness first. That is what Sajjid Chinoy means when he says: “With a health crisis at the genesis of the current situation, it’s tautological to say that ramping up vaccinations is the “first-best” solution to tackling the crisis.” That is the cause of the crisis, and removing the thing that causes the crisis is of paramount importance.
    The “how to do this best” question has troubled all of us, and continues to trouble us, and it is worth your time to keep tracking this issue. And it is a great way to learn about how to think about public policy.
  4. But treating the symptoms (and the manifestations) of the cause is equally important. Job losses, reduced investment, reverse migration, subdued demand, rising inequality, reduced incomes, the exacerbated lack of social safety nets are all symptoms and manifestations of the crisis. How to treat the symptoms? That is where Sajjid Chinoy’s second article comes into play.

There are two courses of treatments available to us diagnosticians and doctors: fiscal policy and monetary policy. Sajjid Chinoy argues (and in my opinion, does so convincingly) that monetary policy has done all the heavy lifting it could in 2020, and there’s not much left in the RBI’s arsenal.

Monetary policy was the prime mover last year and markets will inevitably clamour for that pedal to be pressed even harder. But quite apart from the fact that monetary conditions are already very accommodative and core inflation has averaged 5 per cent since the start of 2020, what’s less appreciated is the reduced efficacy of monetary policy in periods of elevated uncertainty. That’s because monetary policy ultimately relies on economic agents (households, businesses, banks) to act on the impulses it imparts. But when agents are faced with acute health, income and macroeconomic uncertainty, they often freeze into inaction (“the paradox of thrift”). So households don’t borrow, businesses don’t invest and banks don’t lend. This is evident in the evolution of bank credit over the last year in India. Despite negative real policy rates and falling real bank lending rates, credit growth has continued to slow all year long, likely reflecting these uncertainties.

https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/fiscal-vs-monetary-policy-under-uncertainty-121052401432_1.html

Homework: What is core inflation? Where is this data to be gotten from? Where do we get data on the evolution of bank credit from? What are negative real policy rates? What are falling real bank lending rates? Where do we get that data from? What is credit growth? Where do we get that data from?1


Which means we must now think about how to best deploy fiscal policy.

The baton must, therefore, pass to fiscal policy. While fiscal policy cannot mitigate the health uncertainties it can help alleviate income and macroeconomic uncertainties. Stronger spending will not only boost activity but, in so doing, will reduce demand uncertainties for firms. Furthermore, income support (in cash or kind) along with public-investment-indu­ced-job-creation can alleviate income uncertainties for households and thereby help catalyse the private sector.

https://www.business-standard.com/article/opinion/fiscal-vs-monetary-policy-under-uncertainty-121052401432_1.html

Sajjid Chinoy highlights two broad areas to think about in his article:

  1. Recalibrating To New Realities
  2. Making Space While The Sun Shines

There is much to agree with (and add to) in each of these cases, and I’ll do so in the next two blogposts.


But the bottomline across both articles, for students of macroeconomics, is this:

  1. Think of the economy as a human body. Like the human body, the economy is impossibly complex, and all of its underlying connections, mechanisms and responses aren’t entirely clear.
  2. Like a good diagnostician, it is important to keep tabs on a variety of different metrics on an ongoing basis. That’s what Sajjid Chinoy’s first article should mean to you – and therefore this blogpost is homework you really should do.
  3. Once you have enough data about the patient, a good doctor should be able to recommend potential cures. As with the human body, so with the economy: different doctors will recommend different treatments, and for many (mostly good) reasons. This is the part that gets really tricky.
  4. Sajjid Chinoy’s recommended course of treatment is his second article. As a student, you must try and understand why he recommends this course of treatment and no other, and ask yourself to what extent you agree with him. If you disagree with him (which is fine!), you should be able to tell yourself why – from a theoretical viewpoint.
  5. For example, you may disagree with him and say that India can still effectively deploy monetary policy. Maybe so, but you must have theoretically valid reasons for saying so.
  6. In fact, as a student, my advice to you would be to read an article willing yourself to disagree with the author. “How might this person be wrong?” is a great way to learn while reading. It is also a great way to keep yourself awake in class, trust me.
  1. Not all of the links will give you the exact answers, and that is deliberate. The last two questions being “unlinked” is also deliberate. If you are a student looking to work or study further in areas relating to macroeconomics, start building out a file with your answers to these questions (and many more!), and update the data on a regular basis.[]