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.

Notes in Circulation # 2

Between a capitalist rock and a democratic hard place

Capitalism and democracy, for all their beauty, are also brutal systems, subject to the volatility and absurdities of human decision making. Guided by the profit motive and the exclusionary power of capital, capitalism is a powerful but difficult beast to tame and put to work for the well-being of the general populace. It is a web which hangs together as a complex whole, where a disturbance to one part will send the whole thing moving, sometimes gently and sometimes violently. Democracy, for all its promises of inclusion and collective decision making, is tough work. Democracy done poorly ends with Trump and Johnson at the helm of affairs. But it is important work, for democracy not done at all ends with military dictators and Putin.

And right now, the PTI and the Prime Minister are stuck between a capitalist rock and a democratic hard place. They are feeling the heavy burdens of democratic governance and managing a capitalist economy. They are learning that democracy and capitalism are both works in progress, and both require that people be persuaded, because we cannot force people — whether to invest or to agree with our point view. People forget that the big shift in Keynesian thinking about the economy is not just about the role of government, but thinking about decision making under conditions of uncertainty rather than scarcity. (For example, inflation is not just a problem because of how it eats into buying power, but also because it triggers uncertainty about the future. It puts people in a position where they don’t know what to do, because they don’t know what the future will bring, and how they will cope with it.) None of what the government is doing is going to help settle fears about tomorrow. Both in its words and actions, it is not being very persuasive.

And the Prime Minister knows people must be persuaded. Hence the desperate speeches and subsidies (“Stung by criticism, Khan rolls out massive subsidy plan”). Hence an “industrial policy” was promised in the February 28 speech. What was on offer in the March 1 speech however was an industrial “package” which seems to be little more than an amnesty scheme for now. (Industrial “package”, as if it was a pay-as-you-go phone data bundle.) I’m no fan of the National Security Policy document, but at least a similar effort to articulate an industrial policy could have been undertaken. The government knows that for all this talk of neutrality and not taking sides in foreign policy, the public will not stand neutral come election time. They will take sides. There is no facade of neutrality at the voting booth.

Even faithful supporters must be kept on side. Following the February 28 speech, a PTI and Imran Khan supporter admitted to me his frustration that the Prime Minister’s message is not clear, that everything is jumbled up. Recall that the PTI once used to be all about young people. Then it was all about the overseas Pakistani. And now the business community. Imran Khan is pro-profit, admitting in yesterday’s speech that support for the business community should have become the focus earlier. He is also pro-capitalism. Welfare state type capitalism, but capitalism still. And you cannot tell people what to do in capitalism, as much as the Prime Minister might want to. And this is why he and his party are feeling the full force of the difficulties of democracy and capitalism, wanting to make things better but without having to deal with the inconvenience of facing political opposition and persuading the public. They are also trying to keep everyone happy without appearing to pick sides.

While I agree with many of the insights of Marxian political economy and do not deny the sharp analytical edge from which those insights are yielded, for me the more relevant writer for our time is not Marx but Keynes (the godfather of managed capitalism), who himself lived through a time of economic crisis, war and authoritarian strongmen (or “madmen in authority”, as he put it in the concluding chapter of The General Theory). One of my key take-aways from my reading of Keynes is that in modern capitalist economy and politics, one should pick a side. (See his essay Am I a Liberal?.) Amidst all the NATO whataboutery, neutral foreign policy and whether or not the Prime Minister’s visit to Russia was a success, one image was crystal clear. At the center of this image was our prime minister. One would have thought that Imran Khan — with his legendary status as leader of cornered tigers — would love, admire and champion the cause and fighting spirit of the Ukranians at this time, just as he was championing the breaking of “shackles of slavery” in Afghanistan last year. Instead he was reduced to a man beside himself with joy at having landed in Moscow to meet Putin. So much for democracy and capitalism.

Notes in Circulation # 1

This is the first entry in a series of experimental posts which could evolve into a brief newsletter. These posts, and perhaps the newsletter, will be called ‘Notes in Circulation’ – i.e. my notes on what I’m seeing, hearing, reading and on whatever is in circulation. It is also a reference to the circulation of promissory notes.

Pakistan: security, media, leadership

The news that senior officials in the Pakistani government, including a senior federal government minister, have been paying extortion money to the Pakistani Taliban (TTP) is alarming. If the TTP can extract money using the threat of violence, it is not a far cry to consider the very real possibility that they may also extract information, if they are not doing so already. This needs serious investigation from the Pakistani security and law enforcement agencies (SALEAs). It tells us of the troubled and alarming state of affairs where even officials and ministers in power, with greater access to security resources and personnel than your average Pakistani citizen, are not safe. That they would rather pay the money than report these threats to the SALEAs tells us how little confidence they have in the SALEAs. It tells us how little trust and confidence there is in the capacity of the state and government as a whole.

In light of this, the statements coming from the the public relations messaging, specifically through the ISPR, reads like something out of dystopian fiction, reminding us to not worry, to remember that everything is ok. People are being told that “the country has transitioned from uncertainty to peace”. This is obviously problematic because it is simply untrue. I do not see how this messaging fits with the furthering of a democratic spirit and culture in the country. Lynne O’Donnell has written in Foreign Policy that “[t]he Pakistan Army is entrenching its control over the civilian administration, courts, media, and civil society, justifying its actions with traditional anti-India rhetoric as well as the uptick in homegrown terrorism.” See my previous blogpost about Pakistan’s recently published National Security Policy document being about power and subsuming the economic management of the country within the traditional security apparatus of the country.

And media freedom is being certainly being curtailed. As Madiha Afzal of Brookings has noted, “the only reporting on Balochistan is based on ISPR releases.” But the present government with the PTI in power is also playing its part. The PECA amendment ordinance, widely being condemned as an effort to stamp out dissent, criticism and free-speech, is also being challenged. The irony is, of course, that it was the PML-N — the boogeyman in the PTI’s worldview — which had passed this legislation in the first place when it was in government which is now being amended by the current government. The PML-N is now calling these changes “draconian”. What goes around certainly comes around. But none of it bodes well for democracy in Pakistan. And it all comes right at the time when a general close to Zia ul Haq has been named in the Suisse Secrets. It further brings into question the statement repeated commonly and lazily in Pakistan that the military is the only professional, meritocratic, competent institution in the country untainted by corruption.

Complementing the put-on-your-blinders messaging from the ISPR and the present governments efforts to hurt freedom of expression, there is of course the consistent toxic positivity of the PTI’s influencer-like style of communication. That style comes from the top of the party from the Prime Minister himself, who landed in Moscow on the eve of war in Europe, smiling and expressing his excitement about being in Russia. He had earlier been interviewed by a Russian journalist who had done her homework very well and fully encouraged the Prime Minister to express himself, at one point even agreeing emphatically with his claim that nobody knows India better than him. This was the same interview in which, referring to “this Ukraine conflict”, he stated that “I cannot really believe that there is any chance, any possibility of a conflict.” Head. Sand.

About neoliberalism

Rana Foroohar has written in the FT that: “We’ve left the age of neoliberalism behind. We know now that markets are not perfect and that consumers and large multinational companies aren’t the only economic stakeholders.” Heterodox economists and historians knew this all along. Even Adam Smith knew it, with his model of three classes of income earners and suspicion of the capitalist class. But it is still not clear to me that we’ve left the age of neoliberalism behind. It will not be left behind until the ideas orthodox neoclassical economics have been left behind. And we are nowhere close to putting those ideas to bed. To consider only one example, Aqdas Afzal has written recently about the endorsement of neoliberal ideas in the National Security Policy document. Foroohar concludes by saying “What comes after neoliberalism? This is, after all, a political economy, stupid.” A political economy indeed. And the question is excellent.

Pakistan’s National Security Policy document is more about power than security

I had penned the following on Saturday, January 22, 2022. The day after, the prime minister began a surreal broadcast by complaining about not being able to speak in parliament.

The recently published National Security Policy of Pakistan (along with its summary) pretends to be technical and apolitical in claiming to put economic resources and their re-distribution at the center of its framework. The reality is that this document’s political character and not-so-trivial implications are better understood if we take into account recent remarks made in two interviews by Mr. Moeed Yusuf, currently national security adviser to Prime Minister Imran Khan.

First, consider the following from the interview with Saleem Safi on Geo News: “We cannot have national security until we have sustained economic growth in the medium and long term. To that end, there are some things… it’s not a matter of this government or that government. This is not a political document.” Consider the connection being made between security and growth. It is very admirable that the document focuses on the security of vulnerable citizens. But the fact of the matter is that insecurity – financial, physical, legal, psychological – is rife in Pakistan. There is a persistent threat of the outbreak of violence anywhere and everywhere. There is very little trustworthy protection and security against those threats, and even lesser recourse to law after the security of citizens has already been violated. The idea that security on the street and in our homes will be improved when we have growth and when we redistribute the gains from that growth is laughable. The lack of security for citizens on the street or in the home is not because we are not rich enough as a country. It is because we as a country are suffering from deep seated socio-political and institutional pathologies.

Also consider the supposedly apolitical character of the document. The fact is that all matters of the economy and policy are political, because they are concerned with the fundamental questions of production, distribution and allocation (especially allocation of human energy or human “resource” as a lot of people are fond of calling it) which are inherently issues of power and hence of politics. What is going to be made, how much and by whom, and to whom is it going to be distributed and how much – these economic questions are really about who wields how much power. And even if Pakistan were to somehow set itself upon a stable growth path, it is not clear why the beneficiaries of growth would give up their advantages in the name of some lofty national agenda unless persuaded to do so. Growth can entrench the status quo as much as it can change it.

Second, consider the following statement from the interview with Peter Dobbie of Al Jazeera English: “Politics is politics. I don’t belong to that world. The opposition will say what it says. This is a document that no Pakistani government, I can guarantee you, will go back on.” This claim was made with supreme confidence. The implication is that this is the agenda set by the country’s traditional security apparatus for anyone who might want to be in government – take it or leave it. No Pakistani government will go back on it because if they have objections, they will not be in government in the first place. If it has a change of heart afterwards, it will not be in government for very long. And the fact that this document was kept partially classified does suggest that this is more a secret agenda and less a public policy document presented by the government of the day in a democratic society.

People who profess to be apolitical or lacking an ideological orientation are either mistakenly fooling themselves or purposefully fooling others. Mr. Yusuf is smart enough to know that this is in fact a political document and that he very much belongs to the world of politics: he is closely tied to the governing party, the Pakistan Tehreek-i Insaaf (PTI), now that he is advising the current prime minister and also speaking on his behalf in public regularly. This document is not so much about a national security dialogue or focusing on the security and welfare of the citizens. It is more about the economic policy and management of the country being subsumed within the traditional security apparatus of the country. That is, it is about who holds power in Pakistan. If this document were really about the welfare and security of the most vulnerable Pakistanis, there would be no need for part of it to be classified. If the current government wishes to bolster its democratic credentials ahead of next year’s general elections, it should share the classified parts of the document with the public. Given the poor track record of this government so far, this is unlikely to happen.

Governments must now make the case for capitalism

Capitalism is on trial — again. Critics of capitalism have at least in part been vindicated. Governments have their work cut out for them at this time of crisis. How governments and policy makers frame their work will be of crucial importance. They will now have to make the case for capitalism even as the critics circle round and close in. This post suggests a few things which should inform the framing of policy and governance.

First, governments must remember that this global crisis follows at least two other major crises of capitalism in the twenty first century. The great financial crisis, and then the crisis of the legitimacy of global capitalism which can be seen in the rise of right-wing nationalism. In particular, (1) the election of Donald Trump, (2) the Brexit refferedum, and (3) the infighting among the left and the move of conservatives away from traditional conservatism in both the US and the UK, are especially significant. Capitalism’s good health relies on the good health of progressives and conservatives. That both have been in a crisis of sorts in the US and UK suggests that there may be a general crisis of the legitimacy of global capitalism.

Second, governments must remember that the world economy and as well as national economies will require relief, recovery and reform. These tasks are distinct but related. It will be a tricky balancing act and governments will need to manage their political capital (domestically as well as internationally) wisely as they try to accomplish all three goals. This balance will depend a great deal on the political cultures of particular countries. India is not the United States, the United States is not Japan, and Japan is not Pakistan.

In order to accomplish reform and recovery, governments and policy makers will ultimately have to be advocates of capitalism, because a case for reform or recovery is a case for the reform or recovery of a capitalist economy. That a case for reform and recovery is a case for capitalism ought not to be left as an inference. Governments should and will have to present the argument. They will have to persuade the public that this beast can be put to work for the good of the general population. This needs spelling out because it is not obvious and cannot be taken for granted. Governments, policy makers and central bankers who have been cultivating trust and goodwill with their publics for some time will be able to do this much better than others. For the rest, now would be a good time to start cultivating trust and goodwill rather than squandering whatever little reserves they have. This will require picking and choosing which battles to fight and which to let go. Trump’s tussle with and then suspension of funding to the WHO is helping nobody.

Making this case will require good judgement, diplomacy and leadership. As someone pointed out to me once, there is a world of difference between leaders and people who find themselves in positions of leadership. The two groups might not overlap. Leaders listen and truly care about those under their care. Even people who find themselves in positions of leadership but had pursued those positions out of personal ambition rather than the desire to serve the public will find that listening will take them a long way, even if they can’t bring themselves to truly care about the public. They can also look around themselves for plenty of examples of decent leadership, as in New York state with Andrew Cuomo, Jacinda Ardern in New Zealand, and Antonio Guterres at the UN.

A failure to make the case will undermine the ability of governments, political leaders, central bankers and policy makers to ensure recovery and achieve reform. Intelligence, fancy models (however good at forecasting), personality, threat of force and violence, social and technical means of control – all will be undermined. The case must be made, repeatedly if necessary. Arguments must be put forth and debate must continue. The case will become sharper in the process. Governments, like anyone trying to make a case in front of an audience, must not ask too much of their public and must at the same time refrain from asking too little. They must, as Keynes put it, go for “reasoned experiment within the framework of the existing social system.” Governments must experiment, persuade with confidence, and fully commit to the process and practice of “feeling your way by trial and error.”

The challenge is of a fundamental nature: solving the economic problem, or the problem of material provisioning, and its sub-problems of mobilizing human energy, production and distribution — all at a time when the sort of mobility to which we are accustomed is compromised. In the final analysis, governments which will be able bring together warring parties to focus productive and allocative energies in the system, will be governments which will have made the case for capitalism reasonably successfully. In turn governments which will have made the case for capitalism will be governments which will have employed an economics up to the task at hand.

Such an economics would be an effective means of persuasion by virtue of being deadly honest, without pretensions of foreknowledge. It would see policy as an improvisational, open ended, exploratory, imaginative and creative exercise rather than as levers on a machine. At the same time, there must be acceptance of the limits of social science, namely that “social science can do little, if anything, to help resolve the structural tensions and contradictions underlying the economic and social disorders of the day”. Yet, this acceptance is exactly what will make economics more ambitious and powerful.

For all of capitalism’s failures, governments will have to be the devil’s advocate without shying away from the reality of its repulsive underbelly, whether they like it or not. They will have to acknowledge both the beauty and brutality of capitalism. And they will have to employ an economics which is without sentimentality but not without sentiment, and certainly not without humanity.

(The two quotes are from Keynes’s letter to FDR from 1933. Collected Writings, Vol. 21, pages 289 and 295. The point made in the third paragraph of this post also relies heavily on the points made by Keynes in the same letter.)