India, Bangladesh, GDP. Sigh.

When I explain GDP to folks unfamiliar with the concept, I often use the analogy of marks.

“Do you”, I intone in the most professorial voice I can muster, “remember how many marks you scored in your math exam when you were in the 4th grade?”

The point behind asking that question is to help the class realize that there were many other things going on in their life in the 4th grade. The measurement of how well you did on the specific questions you were asked in that test on that day do very little to show you how much math you actually learnt that year. Leave alone, of course, the question of how little the math test had to do with all of what you learnt while you were in the 4th grade.

A similar point was made about GDP recently, in the Business Standard:

Take GDP first. In India, we don’t measure the output of 65 per cent of the economy and make only well-informed guesses about the remaining 35 per cent.

That’s exactly right, of course. You shouldn’t obsess over GDP numbers, much like you shouldn’t obsess over grades. But we do obsess over both!

And the analogy between marks and GDP works really well especially now, because when it comes to GDP, we now have a Sharmaji ka beta in the neighbourhood.

Hello, Bangladesh.

About two years ago, India’s Home Minister Amit Shah spoke of “infiltrators” who were hollowing out the country “like termites”. A Minister from Bangladesh retorted that Shah’s statement was “inappropriate”, “unwanted”, and “not based on information”. The IMF’s recent per capita GDP projections for South Asian countries show that the alleged ‘termite factory’ is shining — Bangladesh, which has been doing better than both India and Pakistan on social and human development indicators for several years now, is also beginning to march ahead on the economic front.

In much the same way that you shouldn’t compare marks obtained by students, you really shouldn’t compare GDP per capita between nations.

But (and you knew there was a but coming along, didn’t you), as I also say in my classes – what else you got, eh? It’s all well and good to say we shouldn’t, but it’s not like we have readymade alternatives. And if you take the GDP factory away from us economists, how do we fill our days?

TCA Srinavasa-Raghavan, in the same column cited above, has three answers:

Only three things: Food inflation, because it has a direct bearing on welfare; foreign exchange reserves, because they serve as a powerful signalling device to foreign investors and sellers of goods; and the revenue deficit. These are the only things the Centre has total control over. In determining all other indicators, the states play a big role.

Read the whole article (which, I’m sorry, may well be behind a paywall). I don’t necessarily agree with all of it, about which more below, but the point that GDP is overrated as a useful barometer for the state of the economy is a point I agree with wholeheartedly.

TCA’s suggestions about what is to be used instead (food inflation, the revenue deficit and forex reserves) are worth considering, but there is a long list of alternatives that have been suggested. Here is just one example:

Provincial officials have long been suspected of overstating growth. Adding their figures together suggests that China’s economy was $364 billion bigger in 2009 than the total in the national accounts. Mr Li preferred to track Liaoning’s economy by looking at other indicators: the cargo volume on the province’s railways, electricity consumption and loans disbursed by banks.

Other folks may come up with other things to use as a proxy for measuring the state of the economy, but really, it is the old story of the six blind men and the elephant all over again. Whatever you use will give you only a limited picture. That’s just the nature of the beast.

Worse! Whatever you agree to measure instead of GDP immediately becomes susceptible to Goodhart’s Law:

In a paper published in 1997, Anthropologist Marilyn Strathern generalized Goodhart’s law beyond statistics and control to evaluation more broadly. The phrase commonly referred to as Goodhart’s law comes from Strathern’s paper, not from any of Goodhart’s writings:

When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.

(Emphasis added)

So sure, you could ask that food inflation, revenue deficits and forex reserves be the target. But it’ll just be cobras or rat tails all over again.

So GDP, whether you like it or not, whether its measurement is favorable or not, is not going to go away anytime soon, whether in India or elsewhere.

Consider the concluding paragraph from a column in the Livemint yesterday by R Jagannathan:

This does not make GDP calculations worthless, but the real focus should be on sectors. More than macroeconomics, sectoral understanding and microeconomics ought to be central to policy-making. Future GDP will best be estimated as a sum of its parts, and not as a whole extrapolated from numbers in the more visible parts of the economy.

Yes, well, sure. Absolutely.

Now if only we could figure out the how.

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.

  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.
  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.


Ec101: Links for 21st November, 2019

  1. What is the Coase Theorem? Watch.
  2. Why does it matter? Listen.
  3. Where all is it applicable? Laugh.
  4. “Coasean solutions exist. But governments need to set up the relevant property rights and create an exchange, and then trust its prices to incentivize the appropriate action.”
    And here’s the first reason why  we learn about the Coase theorem today
  5. “Some also suggest that we create a market for the stubble. But how do you get it out in the first place? Indeed, that’s why it is burnt as the cheapest form of disposal.”
    And here’s the second!

India: Links for 26th August, 2019

Five more articles about Kashmir today.

  1. Shekhar Gupta on India’s first mover advantage.
  2. “Again, a counter-question: Who are the Kashmiris? The Right-Nationalists are missing nuance when they say just 10 districts of the Valley can’t speak for all of the state. Because these represent the state’s majority. The liberal argument is more flawed. If the majority view of Valley Muslims then subsumes the sizeable minorities of the state, what do we do for the view of the rest, about 99.5 per cent of India? Can you have the democratic logic of majority work in one place and not in the other?”
    No better paragraph, to my mind, than this to help you understand what democracy is, and what it’s limitations (by design) are.
  3. On cutting the Kashmiri knot.
  4. “So the idle thought is this: If religions and constitutions are both the product of the human brains devised in order to bring order to peoples’ lives and societies, why do some people prefer one over the other? As demand theory would say, they should be on an indifference curve.”
    Speaking of wonderfully written paragraphs
  5. In search of peace(?)