A conservative criticism of the Great Currency Transfusion

On making big bold moves in uncharted territory

Over the past few weeks, many people have asked me (just as they’ve asked each other) what I think of the Modi government’s currency reform (popularly known as ‘demonetisation’).

To this day, my response has been that PM Modi has taken a very risky bet, and it’s too early to tell how things will turn out. It is unclear what the fundamental purpose of the exercise was—there are at least half-dozen of them—and hence it’s hard to say whether it met the policymakers’ objectives. I am not persuaded by the initial defence that it is a good policy, terribly implemented, because a policy is only as good as its implementation. I am not persuaded by the current short-term pain, long-term gain rationalisation, because it’s important to know what exactly the intended long-term gain is, before we can answer how much short-term pain is worth suffering for it.

What we do know is that the most damaging unintended consequences can be minimised by a combination of rapid take-up of electronic transactions by those who can, and a rapid re-injection of currency notes into the economy for the rest. To the extent that electronic transactions are substitutes for cash transactions, the re-injected cash can reach more of the people who lack bank accounts, smartphones and identity documents. If you use less cash, then at the margin, you ease the difficulties of cash-dependent persons. Even so, we do not know how long it’ll take to reflate the tyres of our complex economy. In the meantime, the economy will suffer losses, and these can be quite painful to ordinary citizens.

We should now hope that the long-term benefits will be worth all this pain. But hope, as George Shultz famously said, is not a policy.

Therein lies my principal criticism of Mr Modi’s big currency reform initiative: as an advocate of conservative policymaking, I believe that it is unwise to introduce sudden, big, pervasive, irreversible changes to large, diverse, complex, perhaps semi-chaotic systems like national economies. (If I’ve used too many adjectives in the previous sentence, it is because they are necessary.) I use the word “conservative” in the sense that it means cautiousness, tentativeness, lack of certitude; like how medical practitioners use it to denote their approach to treatment. I do not use it in the big-“C” Conservative ideological sense.

Prudence suggests that the greater the number of people affected, the costs involved, the irreversibility or the complexity of the system, the better it is to be cautious, tentative and have the ability to tune up or tune down the policy dials. Because we cannot predict the consequences to any degree of accuracy before-hand, it’s better to follow a trial-and-error method. The Modi government’s currency reform, unfortunately, leaves its policymakers with few policy dials that they can tune up or down. It is a big bang reform.

This was also my criticism when the UPA government decided to extend the rural employment guarantee scheme nationwide without waiting to see how the pilot projects turned out. What benefited some people in some districts, hurt other people in other districts. A conservative approach would have extended the rural employment guarantee to districts where it was necessary, and not to areas where it worsened labour shortages, hurt agricultural productivity and raised prices. The currency reform project is similar in this respect, but touches almost every citizen and in a much smaller amount of time.

Whatever we might think about the effectiveness of such ‘bold’ policies, we should prefer a conservative approach to policymaking. No, this is not a recipe for status quoism. There are lot of areas where there is plenty of empirical evidence to implement big changes. For instance, we know that sectoral deregulation and liberalisation has yielded positive results since 1992, so we can do more, even a whole lot more, of the same.

Currency transfusion and political cyni-, er, realism

Have Indians proved the cynics among them wrong?

A few years ago, a cynic postulated two laws of policy realism in India.

The first law of policy realism
A policy that relies on the Indian citizen to act in selfless public interest will not work. In fact, a policy that expects an Indian citizen to act in anything but self-interest and relative gain will not work.

The second law of policy realism
A policy that expects Indian citizens to adhere to a process—any process—will not work as intended, because people will ignore, work around or actively undermine the process. [Two laws of policy realism]

While these statements hold up almost in all cases, the Modi government’s currency transfusion (‘demonetisation’) appears to be different. Even considering that most people are conflating their personal opinion of Prime Minister Modi and of his currency policy, and despite almost every person undergoing inconvenience and hardship (to various extents), the policy is largely popular. So isn’t this a violation of the first law? Aren’t people acting in selfless public interest?

Not quite. First, the actions of the citizens are not voluntary, but enforced. They have no choice but to act in a manner prescribed by the government. Second, as I wrote in the explanation of the first law, “the citizen must feel s/he will get more out of it compared to others”. In this case, most citizens feel the cost they are incurring is a lot less than the cost others—those with unaccounted money—will incur. For the moment at least, intangible schadenfreude is outweighing tangible personal losses. The emotional support for the policy derives from the relatively higher value people are currently attaching to schadenfreude. This is consistent with the first law. If the inconvenience persists for longer than people’s endurance (which is different for different people), then it might begin to outweigh schadenfreude.

What of the second law? From the numerous announcements the Finance Ministry and the Reserve Bank of India are making with respect to the acceptance of old currency, conditions for exchange and withdrawal limits, it is clear that there is a cat-and-mouse game going one between those making rules and those finding loopholes. The second law holds too.

What did the currency reform intend to do?

Countering terrorism, counterfeit currency, unaccounted wealth, unaccounted income…?

Anupam Manur and I have a brief analysis of what the currency reform (popularly, and inaccurately, known as demonetisation) might have been intended to do, in the eight following slides.

India's Currency Reform 2016 from The Takshashila Institution Click on the slide to enlarge.

Why a Swachch Bharat cess is a bad idea

A tax break will work better

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s initiative to clean up the country showed that he was prepared to tackle the most difficult problems India faces—cleanliness, hygiene and sanitation are Mahatma Grade Problems, caused by a simultaneous combination of individual, social, market and government failures. The Swachch Bharat initiative has come about because he used both his popularity and power to try and change mindsets and attitudes. To succeed, it needs the government, business and social leaders to change peoples’ minds and moral incentives. If it becomes yet another government programme, it is bound to fail.

So the Modi government’s proposal to impose a cess on telecom services to finance the Swachch Bharat campaign should cause us disappointment and alarm. It is the wrong approach to the problem, using the wrong method. Here’s why.

Levying a cess dilutes the moral incentive that a borderline conscientious citizen faces. Instead of a gnawing feeling when she sees garbage in public places, the marginal citizen is likely to feel the same-old, “I’ve done my part but the government is not doing its job properly”. There is evidence that compliances rates (for tax payments and other rules) goes up when citizens see the government delivering honestly and effectively. Similarly, the perception that government is inefficient and corrupt reduces compliance. In other words, levying a cess on citizens is not only likely to cause them to outsource their guilt and responsibility, but also try and avoid having to pay the cess. Swachch Bharat should be about emphasising that hygiene and sanitation are about personal honour and dignity, not about pay-tax-and-forget.

That’s not all. A cess is a bad way to raise revenues. A cess on an unrelated activity is a terrible way to implement a bad way to raise revenues. As this blog commented on the previous government’s use of a cess on restaurant bills to finance education, there is no better way to signal that a government has confused public finance priorities than a cess. If a programme is important, it should be financed through the core budgetary revenues. Clearly, one of the prime minister’s most important priorities ought to be enough of a priority to be funded through the conventional budget.

If at all a cess has to levied, it should be on non-essential spending. Furthermore, a specific tax on an unrelated economic activity merely to raise revenues is a very bad idea. Telecommunication services are already subject to heavy price regulation, leading to very bad quality of services across the board. An additional tax on these services will burden consumers, impact telecom service provider revenues (and hence the license fees they pay the government) while doing nothing to improve service quality. Telecommunications services appear to have been chosen for the cess mainly because it is easy to collect from them, and people will have to make calls and access the internet anyway.

Why could the tax not have been levied on entities and industries that dirty public spaces? At least that would have attempted to recover the cost of the negative externalities.

But here’s an even better idea to implement Swachch Bharat: give a Swachch Bharat tax break to all income tax payers. When filing their taxes, let taxpayers tick a box saying “I have done my best to make India clean”. Of course, a lot of people will claim the tax exemption without changing their behaviour, but a some will. It is better to trust the citizens more to do the right thing, than to tax them more on the premise that they will do the wrong thing. That’s the only way Swachch Bharat can work–when the relationship between the citizen and the country changes into one of mutual trust and mutual concern. The campaign is about capturing hearts and minds, not more rupees.

The Modi government would do well to resist the temptation to use age-old sarkari methods to solve a nagging social problem.

How the government will keep its entitlement commitments

You won’t like any of them

No one really knows how much the Food Security Bill (or Act, if it becomes law) will cost the exchequer. Given the way the legislation is framed, it is impossible to make an accurate assessment of its costs. That doesn’t mean we are short of proponents who argue that it should be (or, worse, normatively must be) affordable. We also have a few opponents who argue that it’s more expensive that what the proponents suggest. We’re talking about numbers whose order of magnitude is in the range of single-digit percentages of GDP.

The scheme is open-ended: there’s no expiry date, no sunset clause. It covers around two-thirds of the population—even those who are not really needy. This means that the outlays will have to increase as the population grows.

Obviously, finding the money to keep this scheme going year after year will be a big problem. There’s worse news though—this programme is over and above other open-ended spending commitments like the NREGA, fuel and fertiliser subsidies which are in the vicinity of 2%-3% of GDP. These are the explicit subsidies. We will not even attempt to calculate the implicit subsidies and opportunity costs in this post.

Many of these schemes work such that the subsidy load will increase when growth slows down. In other words, at such times, subsidies as a fraction of GDP will increase—tightening the government’s budget constraints and reducing its fiscal space.

The nature of these schemes is such that governments will be scared to cut them during times of distress, forget ending them altogether. So how will the Indian government finance the gargantuan entitlement economy and what might be the consequences?

First, through new and higher taxes. This has already happened. Didn’t you notice the ‘education cess’? Didn’t you notice the higher marginal taxes on high income earners? Expect more of the ‘Good Cause Cesses/Surcharges’, a fiscal sleight of hand to raise new taxes by citing a plausible good cause. (See this post on education cess for more). As the economic and fiscal situation gets worse, expect higher tax rates lower down the income pyramid. Corporate profits are also an easy target—so they too will be taxed in increasingly creative and extortionary ways.

The consequence of higher taxes are lower investments and higher tax evasion. Lower investment means lower growth. Higher taxes when you are already in a low growth phase is a recipe to stay in the low growth phase longer than otherwise.

The second way for the government to raise resources is through borrowing. It can borrow money abroad (and incur foreign debt) and borrow money from the domestic market. The former puts the Indian government at the mercy of its foreign lenders to the extent of its borrowings. If you do not recall the days of the 1960s-80s, when India was mired in foreign debt, ask someone who does.

The Indian government can borrow from Indian citizens and corporates through the bond market and other instruments (a new -Vikas Patra can be invented quite easily). While it transfers money into the government’s budget, it crowds out the private sector. Interest rates will rise because of the large government demand for funds, making it harder for entrepreneurs and businesses to raise funds to expand their economic activity. This too puts the brakes on economic growth. Higher interest rates during an economic slowdown will prolong it.

The third way for the government to raise resources is to get the Reserve Bank of India to print more money. This has the effect of increasing inflation and depreciating the value of the rupee vis-a-vis other currencies. Higher inflation makes people poorer. It makes poorer people even more poorer (because they do not own assets like real estate, shares or foreign exchange that can weather inflation). A drop in the value of the rupee will make it tougher to service foreign debt, both for the government and for private firms. If the rise in exports on the account of a cheaper currency does not outpace the higher cost of imports, the current account deficit will grow. It could even result in a balance of payments crisis, like the one seen in 1991.

The fourth way is what is termed an “austerity drive”—for the government to cut expenses. Because politics will not allow cutting back on salaries, pensions, subsidies and entitlements, the government will cut two things: office expenses and capital expenditure. So you’ll probably get to see ministers photographed coming to work on bicycles and civil servants working without air-conditioning. Other than schadenfreude, these measures achieve nothing substantial. Cutting down on capital expenditure—roads, power plants, defence equipment—does create fiscal space, but at the cost of future growth.

Where does this leave us? Well, at the edge of a vicious cycle of low growth, high inflation, low investment, higher unemployment, higher taxes, greater evasion and higher out-migration of talented individuals and firms. We’ve been there before. It’s unconscionable that we are being taken there again.

The only way to avoid this vicious cycle is to suspend entitlements and rekindle growth. It is unlikely that growth can be rekindled without sustained pro-growth measures: greater liberalisation, simpler taxation and coherent economic governance. The Delhi Straitjacket must be dismantled.

Related: INI9 Conversation with V Anantha Nageswaran on the falling Indian Rupee.

Cash transfers will work, if…

…there are economic reforms, astute targeting and restructuring of government

Cash transfers are here. Okay, some cash transfers will be here in some districts for some people early next year, after which the programme will be implemented across the country. No one is in any doubt that this is a pre-election move by the Congress party—it was announced in the party headquarters and not a government office (See Soma Banerjee’s article in Economic Times). It is an election sop. However, unlike loan waivers and the national rural employment guarantee scheme, it is not a bad one. It can even be a good one provided certain important conditions are met.

But first, cash transfers are based on sound economic rationale. They are generally less inefficient than subsidies for goods and services. Also, because they put cash in the hands of the recipients, they are more respectful of individual freedoms and choices. Whether they are also effective in alleviating poverty is another question. Even so, to the extent that they are an improvement over the status quo—by reducing bureaucratic processes, lowering corruption and shortening delays—we should cautiously welcome the introduction of the cash transfer scheme.

There is some debate on why cash transfers work. In the case of conditional cash transfers—where the cash is allocated for specific purposes like education, food, fuel etc—there is debate as to whether it is the conditions that work or the cash. Abhijeet Banerjee and Esther Duflo, economists whose work this blogger respects, believe in the latter: that it’s the cash that makes the impact. (More at TechSangam)

It might sound heretical, but the best scheme might involve ending all subsidies in kind, closing down as many “welfare” ministries and departments, and using the funds to give unconditional cash transfers to the needy. Give the needy cash, respect their individual freedom and just let them spend it as they wish. (See this post for why the old, corrupt political economy of poverty alleviation resists this.)

We are, of course, far from this goal. Only “the benefits of 29 welfare schemes of the government would now be directly transferred to beneficiaries in 51 districts starting January in a pilot programme and then will be extended to 18 states from April.” A total of 42 schemes have been identified for the cash transfer programme. These exclude the big ticket ones—food and fertiliser subsidies—but might include some fuel subsidies. Whether this is intentional, compulsion or both, the impact will be limited. Despite the hoopla in the headlines, it’s not a game-changer. But it can be one, if accompanied by other policy changes.

First, as warned and subsequently noticed in the case of rural employment guarantee, merely putting more cash into the hands of people without doing anything to make the supply competitive will cause prices to rise. Inflation can eat into the higher incomes, especially if they are in the form of cash, undermining the effectiveness of cash transfers. So how does one make supply competitive? By liberalising land, labour and capital regulations. By completing roads, railways, airports. By breaking barriers to inter-state and intra-state commerce. By liberalising education and agriculture. In other words, we need Reforms 2.0 before we can expect cash transfers to have the desired effect. The UPA government’s commitment to the reform agenda is much weaker than its enthusiasm for entitlements and transfers.

Second, it is necessary to target the transfers correctly. In a diverse society where communities are sensitive to relative gains, this is particularly hard. Exercises to identify the recipients, include those who qualify and exclude those who don’t, and to keep this list updated are very expensive, riddled with inefficiencies and fraught with political controversy. With a degree of flippancy, we could argue that making the scheme universal might save a lot of these headaches. Let everyone from Mukeshbhai to the poorest person in the country receive the same cash amount from the government. Let the “inconvenience factor”—for instance, a requirement to physically queue up at a government office every three months to revalidate the cash transfer account—determine who avails of the facility. The Aadhaar UID could then be used as a tracking mechanism rather than a filtering one. We are far from this, and as Bibek Debroy points out on his ET blog, targeting will be a significant problem.

Third, and perhaps the most difficult one, is that the efficiencies realised through a programme like cash transfers must register in terms of lower government expenditure and, all else remaining the same, to lower taxes. This calls for a radical review of subsidies and transfer almost all of them into the cash transfer programme. It calls for the pruning of ministries and departments that currently administer subsidies. Few governments have the stomach for this kind of overhauling of government—the UPA government certainly doesn’t—but to not do this would be to abandon the real payoffs.

Finally, every spending programme must come with a sunset clause. Cash transfers must be reviewed every few years to assess whether they are still required, and automatically lapse if not renewed. Not doing so presumes that policymakers cannot conceive of a time when a substantial number of Indians will no longer be poor. This is defeatism.

So, for cash transfers to work in the national interest, they must be accompanied by broad economic reforms, astute targeting and restructuring the government. From what has been announced by the UPA government, there is little evidence that the scheme only aims for anything more than limited efficiency gains in welfare disbursements. The Congress party evidently believes that this is sufficient to attain its electoral objectives.

Tailpiece: The final examination of Takshashila’s GCPP programme‘s January 2012 term asked students to design a programme “to support the country’s needy” (more details in the question paper). A few students proposed cash transfer programmes. You’ll find summaries of two of the responses on Logos, Takshashila’s public policy network blog.

Shutting down Geelani’s Grievance Factory

Jammu & Kashmir needs a guerilla development plan

Excerpts from my DNA column:

The business of manufacturing grievances, operated by the likes of Syed Ali Shah Geelani, involves both FDI and FII. Provocateurs and hardcore separatists act as the focus of violent unrest, mobilising young people using old methods and new. Motivated or excitable sections of the media add tickers, employing terms like “intifada” and “Jasmine” (or heaven-forbid, “Gandhian”), to describe the proceedings.

The separatist game plan is to prevent the state, especially its Kashmir region, from returning to what we all like to call “normalcy”.

To halt this cycle, it is necessary to both raise the costs of protesting and the benefits of not protesting. While the political and security machinery —wiser from handling last year’s stone-pelting experience — can well reduce the attractions of a summer job as a street-protester, the state has been less successful in creating alternative occupations.

The main reason New Delhi’s outlays fail to generate outcomes is because there is a lack of capacity in the state and local administrations. Even if it didn’t make its way to the wrong pockets, it is difficult to spend that much money simply because the Jammu & Kashmir doesn’t have sufficient numbers of competent officials who can implement programmes. It takes years to raise these numbers in the best of circumstances. The problem is, young people have to be kept off the streets right now.

Kashmir needs a guerilla development plan, using unconventional tactics to quickly create an economy that engages its youthful population. According to the Economic Freedom of the States of India 2011 report Jammu and Kashmir stood 9th (out of the 20 states studied) in terms of economic freedom, moving up from 15th position in 2005. It scores better than even Maharashtra, Punjab and Karnataka. So a plan that exploits and enlarges economic freedom might do the trick.

It should create zones in urban areas where entrepreneurs can move in and start business in a matter of days. Instead of waiting for training institutes to be built, it should facilitate skills training in small batches. It should avoid handouts, and inject resources into microfinance institutions for them to lend more and to younger people.

Such a plan stands a good chance of strengthening social capital and cultivating a sense of individual responsibility. This spring’s narrative can be different if Geelani’s “Grievance Factory” is made to suffer a labour shortage. [Read the rest on DNA]

A million ironies now – salt tax edition

“Controlling and regulating all aspects of the Salt Industry”

Deep in the Union Budget for the financial year 2011, under Demand No. 12 for the Ministry of Commerce and Industry’s Department of Industrial Policy and Production, is an expenditure of Rs 30 crore for the Salt Commissioner. The explanatory note says:

Salt Commissioner: The Organisation is responsible for administration of the Salt Cess Act, 1953, and the Rules framed thereunder. It regulates the production and rational distribution of salt including iodised salt. It also regularly monitors the price and availability of salt. The budget provides for establishment charges of the organisation and for development/welfare works.

If your interest is piqued, you can look up the Salt Cess Act and visit the website of the Salt Department. The latter tells us that “The Central Government is responsible for controlling and regulating all aspects of Salt Industry.”

According to its latest annual report (for financial year 2008), the Salt Department spent over Rs 17 crore to collect around Rs 3 crore in Salt Cess.

What would the Mahatma say?

My op-ed in Outlook: The buck yes, but where’s the bang

Union Budget 2009 and what it means for foreign affairs and defence

In the July 20th issue of Outlook magazine I point out that the Budget has the good, the bad and the ugly for strategic affairs. An edited version of the following appeared in print.

First the good: the UPA government used the Union Budget to strengthen India’s leverage in Sri Lanka by setting aside Rs 500 crore for the rehabilitation of the Tamils displaced by war. It has increased the foreign aid outlay for Nepal to Rs 238 crore, set aside Rs 125 crores for Mongolia and increased outlays for African and Eurasian countries by various amounts. This is in addition to sustaining the massive assistance to Bhutan (Rs 961 crore) and Afghanistan (Rs 442 crore). The foreign ministry’s overall budget has been increase by 24%, which should help Indian missions raise the game in foreign capitals.

Similarly, the increased outlays in several areas under broad rubric of national security—including defence, police, paramilitary forces, space and atomic energy—should be useful in securing the nation in an increasingly volatile geopolitical environment. The allocation of between 2% to 3% of GDP (depending on how defence expenditure is defined) even while massively expanding social sector expenditure programmes assigns substantial resources for defence while sending a signal of the size and strength of the Indian economy.

India, in its own conservative way, appears to be strengthening its diplomatic and military capacity in line with its status as an emerging power.

But only partly, because there is the bad. Continue reading “My op-ed in Outlook: The buck yes, but where’s the bang”