Notes in Circulation # 3

Inflation data as rhetoric

In his February 28, 2022 speech, Prime Minister Imran Khan presented a curious table with inflation data which got me thinking. While the table looked crude and poorly put together, there might in fact have been some method to the seemingly haphazard way the information was presented. The key, I think, is to remember that the Prime Minister was giving a rhetoric-laden speech and not presenting a scientific argument. Just as the GDP can be used as “numerical rhetoric”, so could inflation. And this could potentially give some insight into why the information was presented the way it was.

First, I wanted to see if the data from the table corresponded, even if loosely, to an easily accessible and graphable source of inflation data. For that, I downloaded inflation (CPI) data from the World Bank website and plotted the speech data and the World Bank data together. In the figure below, the data from the speech is the darker dotted grey and the World Bank time series is the solid line in the lighter grey. I kept the red, yellow and green highlighting of the data from the Prime Minister’s presentation — since the colors themselves have important normative connotations, and it would be surprising if this choice of colors was not intentional.

As is evident, the speech data does largely correspond to the World Bank data. But the immediately obvious historical gaps in the Prime Minister’s presentation of the data become even more pronounced when the data is plotted. Looking at the graph, one can see why the prime minister might not want to show inflation visualized in this way. Rather than diverting attention to and comparing averages for the time-in-government of the PPP and the PML-N, what the Prime Minister would have ended up showing is the the falling trend over the two previous governments (not to mention the falling trend over the second PML-N term in the late 1990s), and then a rising trend under the PTI.

The exclusion of the Zia and Musharraf eras from the Prime Minister’s presentation is also important. It was a way of evading comment on the military. It framed the political battle in a way which identified other parties as the opponent rather than the military. It also achieved another purpose. By showing a selected succession of short runs, the Prime Minister conveniently avoided the difficulty of having to present a serious long run analysis of the historical trend of inflation, which is not an easy thing to do anyway, but is especially difficult in a rhetorical speech which had to cover a multitude of issues. (For example, it would have required that he consider the possibility of relating the early 1970s inflation spike to the global oil crisis. But external circumstances are a crutch which the Prime Minister of course wishes to reserve for himself but not for his opponents.) And again, it’s possible it was meant to cover a multitude of issues for a purpose. A relatively brief discussion as part of a long speech could work as an intentional tactic to overwhelm the listener with selectively presented information, arguments and emotions. In fact, having listened to a number of the Prime Minister’s speeches, it seems to me that this is a fairly consistent communications tactic.

The speech also got me thinking about the word commonly used to refer to inflation in Urdu (mehengai) and if there is a better term for it. To my ears, mehengai, in both its Urdu form and also if it was to be literally translated back into English (meaning something akin to ‘expensiveness’) suggests something negative. And it carries that negative connotation in public discourse. But inflation is not an unqualified negative phenomenon, after all. An economy needs steadily upward moving prices to encourage economic activity. And deflation, of course, can lead to a wage-price deflationary spiral: falling prices lead to falling revenues and profits, which in turn lead to a reduction in employment and wages. In turn, effective demand falls and pulls prices down further. But of course no one wants to tell the public that a bit of inflation can be a good thing when people are struggling to make ends meet. Nor should they because it’s not relevant to the day to day struggle of providing the means of sustenance for oneself. It would rub salt into the public’s wounds.

What all of this reinforces for me is that the attempt to do economics as an apolitical, technical, positive scientific exercise is very different from the complete enmeshing of economics into the political and lingual fabric of society. Economics should be, if it isn’t already, a shared and public practice rather than an exclusive and private one. If we make economics (and hence policy) exclusive, we take away from citizens the ability and freedom to break down economic arguments and to really see the political foundations and intended consequences and beneficiaries of policies. This ability and freedom is central to democracy and citizenship. It is good that the Prime Minister encourages the public to verify his claims. But it helps to remember that economics is about more than just facts. It is also an exercise in rhetoric and a means of persuasion.