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.

Dr Reddy’s life-saving medicines

Independent institutions under independent individuals

Joe Nocera’s piece in the New York Times crediting Y V Reddy, former governor of the Reserve Bank of India, for pursuing policies that (relatively) insulated the Indian banking system from the global financial crisis, has some of India’s top bankers sounding like people looking back at their adolescence and thanking their strict parents or school principals for, well, being strict parents or school principals.

Now that those risks have been made painfully clear, every banker in India realizes that Mr Reddy did the right thing by limiting securitizations. “At times like this, you tend to appreciate what he did more than we did at the time,” said (Yes Bank founder Rana) Kapoor. “He saved us,” added (HDFC chief Deepak) Parekh. [NYT]

Now, a few experts, like V Anantha Nageswaran, have been arguing that Dr Reddy’s exemplary stewardship of the RBI was among the few bright spots in India’s economic management in the last five years. And as events proved, they were right.

Beyond individuals though, the underlying point is that independent institutions can deliver competent governance in their mandated areas even under bad governments. Of course, even independent institutions can be undermined over time, by packing them with less than independent-minded individuals. And that, unfortunately, might well be on the cards. The tenacious Dr Reddy is no more at the crease. The Election Commission could fall into the hands of Naveen Chawla, who the Shah Commission declared “unfit to hold any public office which demands an attitude of fair play and consideration for others.”