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.

Two laws of policy realism

A cynic’s perspective on robust policy design

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.

Implications of the above:

1. Policies must be designed to appeal to self-interest and maximise relative gains (in other words, the citizen must feel s/he will get more out of it compared to others).

2. Policy design must incorporate processes that are consistent with people’s mindsets and are resistant to being undermined.

On NDTV: The consequences of Hazaremania

A crossroads, not a victory

(You can also view it on NDTV’s website)

The points I made (or wanted to):

1. The conclusion of Anna Hazare’s fast after a compromise is not a victory for anyone. It’s a crossroads. In fact, there are two crossroads here. First, whether we will pursue political agenda by restoring and strengthening faith in constitutional methods or by taking recourse to street protests. Second, whether we will proceed along the path of economic freedom, openness and reform, or retreat into a new form of socialism that has so utterly failed us.

2. Parliamentarians behave the way they do not because they are idiots but because of incentives. The anti-defection law has made them automatons controlled by the party leadership. When they can’t debate substantive issues they choose to raise their volume or engage in disruptive behaviour.

3. Anna Hazare and his colleagues managed to galvanise the disappointment, outrage and exasperation that has built over the last 8 years. The fundamental cause of this is the stalling of the economic reform process. Political parties failed to understand and capitalise on Middle India’s growing but silent dissatisfaction with the state of affairs. We must not conflate Middle India’s sentiment with an endorsement of Lok Pal or indeed of Anna Hazare and his colleagues. The latter are at best trustees and custodians of public sentiment—they must not see this as license to pursue their own ideological and political agenda.

4. Because the moment is so extraordinary, it behoves Anna Hazare and the leaders of the India Against Corruption movement to act with humility, responsibility and good sense. Here they have fallen short.

5. The second freedom struggle is not about a bill. It’s not about a Lok Pal. It’s not even about making India corruption-free. It is about a quest for economic freedom to be pursued using constitutional methods.

Announcing the Takshashila Hyderabad Roundtable 2011

March 6th, 2011, Hyderabad

After the successful launch of the Takshashila Roundtable Conclave programme in Bangalore in December 2010 (see event report), the next stop in our nationwide rollout is Hyderabad. Here’s the blurb:

The Takshashila Roundtable conclave programme aims to create a shared understanding of India’s national interests that can serve as the intellectual bases for public policy. The programme will bring high-quality, cutting-edge discussions on strategic affairs, national security and governance to cities and towns across India, creating a platform for dynamic individuals to connect with each other and to the wider policy-making circles.

The Roundtable will have two parts. In the first segment, it will have focussed discussion sessions on emerging policy issues: from geopolitics to geoeconomics, from national security to social capital. Takshashila Fellows will be present to share their research and insights. The second segment moves beyond discussion: participants will brainstorm, develop and commit to their own personal action plans on how they will engage in public affairs in the year ahead.

Among the distinguished guests expected to join us at Hyderabad are B Raman, one of India’s most perspicacious commentators on national security, Bibek Debroy, professor at Centre for Policy Research and Ajit Ranade, chief economist at Aditya Birla Group. Takshashila Fellows expected are Sushant K Singh, Rohit Pradhan and Jhelum Chowdhury. This is a tentative list as we expect a few more distinguished guests & fellows to confirm their attendance over the next few days.

We will also be making an important announcement in the run-up to the Roundtable.

If you would like to participate, please express your interest at Takshashila’s event page.

Three thoughts for the Republic

Organising our republic, keeping it united and improving its lot

For reflection on Republic day: Pragati’s inaugural editorial; on the grand strategy of uniting India and why we urgently need Reforms 2.0.

The three thought archive:
Three thoughts on on Republic Day 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005;
and on Independence Day 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

Three thoughts on Independence Day

On engagement in public affairs and on happiness

For contemplation in Independence Day—So where are you? Where are you? And should the government make you happy?

The three thought archive: Three thoughts on on Republic Day 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005 and Independence Day 2009, 2008, 2007, 2006, 2005, 2004.

Cultivating authority, evading responsibility

“Those who are politically strong are constantly running away from political responsibility,” writes Pratap Bhanu Mehta

You should read his piece in the Indian Express in full. Excerpts:

The prime minister will take you only up to a point. The Centre does not carry any credibility, because there it has no genuine interlocutors. There is no other leader who can carry the imprimatur that they are acting on behalf of the nation, who can provide a healing touch when needed. More and more of our conflicts will require this kind of constant political engagement. Rahul and Sonia Gandhi, in political terms, carry that mantle as much as anyone does; but they steadfastly refuse to risk it on anything other than politically easy welfare schemes. The scandal of Indian politics is not simply that the prime minister is politically weak; it is that those who are politically strong are constantly running away from political responsibility.

And it has sent a message: the purpose of politics is not solving problems; it is the evasion of responsibility. [IE]

Pragati January 2010: Stepping up in Afghanistan

The January 2010 issue of Pragati discusses India’s options in Afghanistan. While there are a number of options ranging from scaling up training of Afghan national security forces to actually scaling down development projects if the United States quits prematurely, editorially, we argue that it is in India’s interests to send combat-ready troops to Afghanistan.

In domestic affairs, we present two perspectives on the demand for the new Telangana state; the challenges before the chief minister of Jammu & Kashmir; and the need for an urgent reform of the laws governing political parties.

We’re piloting a new section that presents a synopsis of commentary in the international non-English language media: this month, “alif” has coverage of the Urdu & Arabic press.

There’s a lot more, for you to Read & Share!

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Sunday Levity: Babes, do your patriotic duty

What attracts women?

INI’s resident military affairs expert (no, no pun intended) sends in an article with the following bit highlighted:

Young women who don’t join the army have another important role to play. They may opt to marry army officers and encourage their female friends to follow suit. If pretty young women in large numbers come forward to marry army officers, the stock of army officers in social circles goes up. This in turn provides indirect motivation to other young men to join the corps of officers and serve the nation. [Chitranjan Sawant/Merinews]

Now, Mr Sawant—like the Ukrainian army recruitment department—is not entirely wrong: if army officers get all the babes, then more young men will want to be army officers. But it is wrong to presume that getting women to marry army officers—out of a sense of patriotic duty—will lengthen the list of applicants to military academies.

That’s because of the OMIPP, the Oldest Mistake In Public Policy, which mistakes correlation for causation. In this case, attractive young women of marriageable age might be attracted to young men from a certain industry for the same reason as other young men want to get into that industry. Maybe because that industry pays well, offers a relatively better quality of life, a higher social status or all of the above.

So whether you are recruiting for the army or for the public sanitation department, you are better off making the job profile more attractive. The babes will follow.

Related post: If you don’t think such a grave issue as shortage of army officers ought to be treated with such levity, you can read what we think is the real solution to the problem.