Making a hero

Here’s an excerpt from my op-ed in The News on Miftah Ismail’s moment:

“The admiration and praise should be tempered with the knowledge that he was without question an unelected minister of finance with no public mandate other than belonging to the PML-N – which doesn’t say much. His party is only one part of the present governing coalition which has been shown up by the PTI with every by-election. It is a party which has allowed greater intervention in the process of appointment and promotions of public office holders; a party under which the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority is spreading its tentacles further, blocking YouTube on multiple occasions and cracking down on VPN use. A party which in many ways continues the legacy of the PTI, which itself was continuing the work of the PML-N when it came to the PECA law. And as I have written before, it is a significant and consequential problem to be unable or unwilling to reconcile any version of the national interest with any version of the party interest.”

Notes in Circulation # 8: my mental health journey

This year on World Mental Health Day (October 10), I was a day late tweeting that I’m renewing my commitment to my mental health, as I did last year. And I thought that I wanted to say a little bit more than just a few tweets. So I said that I was going to do a blogpost. This is that post. I was partly moved to say more about my mental health journey by Dr. Zoe Ayres’s twitter activity and projects. Do check out her work and profile. It has been a long mental health journey for me. The pillars of my mental health that are now in place took a long time to be put in place: therapy, physical health, Alexander Technique, journaling, self-education, hobbies/play, friendships. And there are quite a few. I’ll say something about them one by one.

Therapy: I’ve been in (talk) therapy off and on with multiple therapists since I first went to therapy in 2014. The academic year from 2018-2019 was especially important because I did a long run of regular therapy with a single therapist for the first time. Part of that coincided with some lessons in Alexander Technique, so I’ll say more about that below. Most recently I’ve been working with a therapist in Lahore for the past two years, with some break in between. This is now the longest run with a single therapist that I’ve done, and I think it’s going well for me. With this particular therapist, the primary goals were processing the trauma of my only sibling’s disappearance and death, and to make sure I had the support to finish my PhD. The PhD was completed this year in the summer, thought the trauma of my brother’s death continues to linger. Nevertheless, there are other goals now also for which therapy is helpful. I’m sometimes asked how long I’ll be in therapy, and how long it will be before I’m “ok”. I reply that I am already ok. I go about my daily life and go to therapy once a week and treat it like a mental and emotional exercise or a gym. I exert myself in that space or take a break as I feel like it. The therapist is flexible as well, in both the things we address in therapy and also when to meet or not, so that helps me out too.

Alexander Technique (AT): With AT, which I learnt with a teacher in NYC while I was doing therapy already, it felt like a big part of myself and my potential became unlocked within weeks. I experienced relaxation and ease which I did not think was possible. Everything seemed to become so much easier. AT practice become a big part of my mental health routine and care for quite some time. The AT lessons were also what led to a laptop stand and wireless keyboard + mouse purchase, to help out my posture. Sitting up straight to work at a desk was a massive positive change to my daily routine. In the past year and a half or so my AT practice has become very patchy and irregular. But I haven’t given it up long enough to forget the fundamentals of the practice. Having a consistent and regular AT practice is something that I really want to get back to. I know the wonders it has done for me in the past, and I don’t doubt that it can help me out even now. In a way, I never left AT because I never really stopped using my Roost laptop stand. But I need to get back to the constructive rest practice.

Physical health: This is a tough one. I’ve struggled with my weight for a very, very long time. The people who’ve known me the longest know very well how my weight has fluctuated over the years. I only started working out in a gym (or anywhere, for that matter) when I had an injury in my mid-20s which required rehab. Since then I’ve kept on learning about different kinds of training and exercise. Discovering kettle bells was a big light bulb moment. It was the first time I truly enjoyed working out with any kind of weights. Almost two years ago I bought weights to work out at home. Haven’t looked back since. While dealing with my weight it still a challenge, I still enjoy working out. I’ve slowly built up good muscle mass and feel good about my strength. It also feels good to not be paying for a gym. You wouldn’t rent a tv, would you?

Self-education: My mental health is a part of my own evolution as a person, and I’m trying to learn about life and about mental health however I can. So reading has helped me out a lot. Fiction as a means of escape and also as an indirect way of engaging with reality. Non-fiction is a more direct way to engage with reality. So for example, because managing and understanding my grief is such a big part of my mental health journey now, books like Will Buxton’s My Greatest Defeat really resonates with me. (Also because I’m a Formula 1 fan.) Similarly, Alex Skolnick’s autobiography gives me hope and affirmation that it is possible to learn, grow and change a lot as a person. The Body Keeps the Score is a really great book to learn about the technical side of trauma. Mike Brearley’s On Form was just a really good find at a time when I was interested in what it means to perform at a high level in your work and life. (I also listen to podcasts, or used to till a few months ago anyway. The list slowly dwindled. When the final push towards my PhD completion began in April this year, I dropped the podcasts and have really only listened to The Pakistan Experience since then. Do check it out. It’s excellent.)

Hobbies/play: When I was living in NYC, at some point I started play pool, first at a bar and then a pool hall. If there was someone who wanted to play with me that was great, but I was happy to play alone. I realized it was something I could do to let my mind relax and wander freely to wherever it wanted to go. Before my Post Keynesian economics qualifying exam, I spent an hour at the pool hall just practicing pool. Then I aced the exam. That was particularly satisfying because I had struggled with taking that exam: the academic year before, I had twice registered for it and not taken it. It wasn’t until I spoke to two friends who advised that I treat the exam like a learning opportunity and allow myself to prepare for it in an imperfect fashion, that I was able to sit for the exam.

When I moved to Lahore in March 2020 just before the first coronavirus related lockdown here, I immediately set up my PS4 and started re-playing Mortal Kombat X and Horizon Zero Dawn. Then my uncle gave me a bunch of his games. I got absolutely hooked to GT Sport. It was an absolute godsend. Again, like pool, I could focus on my braking points and lap times and my mind was free to do its own thing. The night before my brother’s funeral, when all the arrangements had been made and there was nothing else for me to do, I spent some time zooming around a virtual race track before going to bed.

Now I also dabble a bit in music. I have a small rig consisting of an electric guitar and an Orange Micro Crush amp that sits on my desk. I also go karting now and then here in Lahore. They’re just rental karts, but the feeling is liberating. The first time I went I was ecstatic. The vibrations and forces I can feel in my body are great fun and have the same effect pool did: letting my mind relax and wander. One unfortunate side effect is that playing GT Sport is no longer as much fun as it used to be. More recently I’ve been playing and exploring the world of Death Stranding. The game has immense therapeutic value to me.

These pillars have helped me bear the mental strain of graduate student life which was there anyway before March 2020. But then the strain grew exponentially and became compounded because of the pandemic and because my brother went missing. Those strains have not entirely disappeared, I think, but are only transformed. The trauma of a missing brother has became the grief of a sibling who is no longer alive. The mental strain of being PhD student is gone, and replaced by a great sense of accomplishment. But this new phase of life brings new challenges: finding employment in a tough economic environment while still adjusting to life in Pakistan (reverse culture shock is very real), slowly shedding the baggage of a graduate student identity, fully owning the success of the PhD, forming new relationships, learning new things, etc.

The journey forward then is to keep on refining these different practices and elements of my mental health self-care as I evolve and so does my ambition in life. I’d like to keep writing about my mental health journey. There should be at least a part 2 to this post because I didn’t end up writing about journalising and my friendships for now. Perhaps another time.

Notes in Circulation # 7: Comment on the proposal for an economic security council

The Sustainable Development Policy Institute (SDPI), an Islamabad based think-tank, has “suggested forming an economic council under NSC comprising the government, leaders of the opposition in the Parliament (National Assembly and Senate), all four chief ministers and the representatives from top military brass.” This may sound like a harmless proposal. After all, what Pakistani could fail to appreciate the need for a platform for coordination and cooperation among the political class of the country to secure the nation’s economic prospects? Should we all not embrace this proposal? We should think twice before supporting any such proposal, which is not as benign as it seems. Inclusion of representatives from the top military leadership should ring alarm bells. I argue that in making this recommendation, the SDPI is in fact giving technocratic cover to the military as it subsumes economic policy and management in Pakistan within its ambit. If the proposal is institutionalized, it will not only damage Pakistani democracy but also indirectly damage the economics profession in Pakistan.

Readers might recall that at the start of this calendar year, a national security policy document was published through the national security division of the Prime Minister’s Office. The national security advisor at the time, Mr. Mooed Yusuf, gave interviews explaining, defending and advocating for the document. While pretending to give precedence and pride of place to economic security, growth and distribution, that document was really about the military exercising control over the economic policies of Pakistan. While the document itself was vague enough to not arouse such suspicions, in an interview with Al-Jazeera English Mr. Yusuf pretended to be politically neutral despite being an official in the Prime Minister’s office. That distancing from the PTI, combined with his insistent and confident claim that it “is a document that no Pakistani government, I can guarantee you, will go back on”, gave the game away: future governments will have to abide by this vision because it comes straight from the military. The news that “Chief of the Army Staff General Qamar Javed Bajwa recently approached the US administration with the explicit permission of Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif for an early disbursement of funds from the International Monetary Fund (IMF)” seems to confirm that the present coalition government signed onto the vision of the national security policy before forming a government.

But let us give the proposal the benefit of doubt. Could this proposed council make a new contribution to the existing institutional framework for economic policy and management of the country? Article 156 of the Constitution already defines the role and composition of the National Economic Council (NEC), which gives enough flexibility for opposition leaders to be appointed to the NEC. The NEC can also coordinate with the Council of Common Interests (Article 153), whose composition has an overlap with the NEC anyway. In fact, the NEC was reconstituted by the President in early June. The key difference in the economic security council being proposed by the SDPI is the inclusion of “representatives from top military brass”. This proposal comes at an interesting time, as experts and non-experts alike discuss civil-military relations. The news of this proposal came days after Mr. Uzair Younus (director of the Pakistan Initiative at the Atlantic Council’s South Asia Center) wrote an article for Nikkei Asia. In this article, Mr. Younus notes that the military “operates a multibillion-dollar corporate empire across various sectors” and argues for a doubling down on the military’s role in the Pakistani economy: “It is time to accept that rather than trying to cut this empire down to size, it may be more fruitful to develop Military Inc. 2.0: a corporate empire that is globally competitive.” The SDPI’s proposal and Mr. Younus’s article are part of the continuing mainstreaming and legitimization of contracting democratic space in Pakistan in relation to the expanding role and influence of the military.

The SDPI’s proposed economic council, if it goes through as suggested, would be part of the formalization and actualization of the vision of the National Security Policy document, and in doing so would help the military further entrench its power. This would in turn tip the balance of power further away from democratic forces in the country. (Dawn’s editorial was an important criticism, and certainly not the only one, of the army chief’s intervention.) Furthermore, since the SDPI is a think tank, the fact that the proposal is originating there is extremely worrying. Democracy is not just about elections. Independent organizations and platforms which help bring forward and sift through ideas and proposals are important. The integrity and independence of scientific disciplines, including the integrity of economics as a social science and a source of policy ideas, is also crucial for a democratic society. As such, the formation of this council should be opposed, especially by economists who claim to espouse democratic values. This is important, both for the sake of Pakistan’s democracy but also for the sake of the economics profession in Pakistan, which may be at risk of becoming an instrument in service of the anti-democratic ambitions.

Notes in Circulation # 6: The exile of political economy from Pakistan

Politics in Pakistan has achieved something truly special. While economics and its practitioners have been taking a continuous beating the world over since the the Great Financial Crisis of 2007-08, Pakistani politics and its most prominent public faces have dragged themselves through so much mud that nobody wants anything to do with them. Politics is toxic, they say. So toxic, that while economists remain firmly within the crosshairs of anyone investigating social disorder, crisis and breakdown in many other countries of the world, people want more economics and less of politics in Pakistan. We’ll just have pure economics, thank you very much. No politics for us, please, and no political economy either.

Consider a few instances. Reza Baqir, former governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, argues in an op-ed in Dawn for a “non-partisan plan” to be prepared by a group of non-partisan (read apolitical) economists working out of a university providing a “neutral, non-partisan space”, while they are “chaperoned by a credible non-partisan leader to bring them all together.” Ariba Shahid, business journalist at Profit, tweeted her approval of this article: “The real enemy are the politicians, partisans- people that can’t think beyond political binaries.” Nadeem ul Haque, vice chancellor at the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, tweeted that “Student unions are for student events. Universities are places of learning not political vendetta clubs or for religious zealots. Let us keep politics and religion out of universities and focus on learning, Creating a work force for the future.” This rejection of politics at universities is not an equal or equitable proposition. It tips the scales of power further in the favor of people who will come to universities from social backgrounds where they don’t rely on student unions for their political capital, and whose networking will deepen their political agency regardless of student unions.

This is a specific manifestation of a more general problem: rejection of politics in any sphere of social life is in effect the rejection of the politics of the weak. It keeps the politics of the powerful hidden from view. Make no mistake: the politics of the powerful continues to exist and function, no matter how loud the anti-politics voices get. A rejection of politics by economists, vice chancellors, or by anyone else merely helps throw a veil over political processes. In doing so, it worsens the very problems which people are sick of, e.g. politicians using public office to line their own pockets.

The rejection of politics also comes from the commonly repeated view that political instability is bad for the economy. While not incorrect, this view ignores the flipside of the coin: that competing and conflicting claims on economic resources between different power centers need management and resolution. The easiest way of doing this is to acknowledge and abide by the constitution as the national-level rule-book for our political economy. Our inability to take this route directly leads to political instability. There are various complex connections and feedback loops going back and forth between the economy and polity. Economic crisis and impoverishment may be a consequence of political instability, but that instability is also shaped by powerful economic actors competing over resources.

It is important to keep in mind that the rejection of political economy and the yearning for a pure, technical economics which will lead us to prosperity is not neither new nor specific to Pakistan. The transformation of political economy to economics has a long history. Adam Smith was the first great exponent of the political economy of the “classical economists” in the late 18th century. Important contributions by Ricardo and Malthus followed, and 19th century political economy reached its zenith with Marx. The transformation towards a less political economics began in the late 19th century but was resisted by the work of economists like Veblen and Keynes. Veblen was one of the figureheads of institutional economics while Keynes is arguably the single most important economist of the 20th century and one of the founders of macroeconomics. The apolitical economics stream carried on moving in parallel with the evolution of Keynesianism with economists like Milton Friedman, whose 1953 essay on the methodology of positive economics was important in setting the tone for what would become the neo-classical economics of the second half of the 20th century: an economics more “pure” and “scientific” but far removed from old school political economy. Many of those ideas of a pure, apolitical economics continue today, and the idea that economies and economists left alone by politics and politicians can help secure growth and prosperity is commonplace. (Many of the great economists of the past would today not be considered legitimate economists if they were alive today.)

But many economists recognize that even an area of economic policy as seemingly apolitical as central banking is not really so. Just last week, Clara Mattei and Aditya Singh have written about the current politics of central banking and how the US Federal Reserve is practically undertaking class-biased monetary policy. Compare and contrast this with Reza Baqir’s op-ed. The rejection of politics and political economy is of course not unanimous in Pakistan either. There remain, thankfully, numerous voices which are attentive to politics, political culture, political process and the effects thereof. The people who turned up to vote in the by-elections in Punjab on Sunday to lend the PTI their support certainly care about politics — as they should. The small community of heterodox economists might also have something to say about the matter, and there are also progressive-left forces in the country which are attuned to the need for attention to politics and hence to political economy. But they have issues of their own which need attention.

The relationship between the political sphere and the functioning of the economy is deep and well established. Economic policy is shaped by political culture as well as state-society relations (See Peter Evans’ Embedded Autonomy (1995) and Frank Dobbin’s Forging Industrial Policy (1994)). The economy has a political basis. Private property, so central to a capitalist economy, is protected by a legal and judicial system (not to mention the threat of violence by the state) which in Pakistan’s case is guided by the constitution of Pakistan which is also a political document. Contracts which help quell uncertainty in the economy rely on the same legal, judicial and political factors. Furthermore, the twin problems of production and distribution don’t just constitute the economic problem when taken together; they are also issues of power. The central relationship in capitalism — the employment relation between the worker and capitalist — is a relationship of power in which the capitalist holds power over the worker by virtue of their ownership of private property; property which the worker does not own, hence the need to go seek employment with someone who does.

Political economy, like the constitution and like former prime ministers, has been sent packing. It is in exile from its proper place in the practice of citizenship in Pakistan and this is a problem. It’s time to bring it back. Without giving politics and its implications for the economy their proper due regard and consideration, we will continue to try to convince ourselves of the efficacy of dead end solutions. The idea that we will solve our problems by side-stepping politics and throwing our weight behind a pure apolitical economics is wrong. Societies and economies are messy. So are economics and economic policy. We may not like the muddied politicians, but we will have to muddle through anyway if we want to move forward.

Notes in Circulation # 5

Conflicting claims: the relationship between political instability and the economy

Many people are worried about how political instability is creating an inconducive environment for the Pakistani economy. Khaleeq Kiani writes in Dawn that “The prime minister has not been able to hold a meeting of the federal cabinet for almost a month against the normal weekly schedule. Among the lost list of items on the agenda of the scheduled but cancelled cabinet meeting on March 1 included a mid-year review of the federal budget 2021-22 and key economic indicators.” What’s missing here is the part of the story in which the political instability is actually endogenous to the economy. That is, it is a consequence of the interaction of economic actors (which are also power centers) which are making competing and conflicting claims on economic resources.

To understand this better, consider the idea that people and groups across the economy are trying to persuade others of something or the other: “Pay me more”, “give us better terms for this loan”, “increase the budget for this particular project”, etc. In doing so, people are essentially making conflicting claims on finite (but not necessarily scarce) economic resources. For example, disagreement about minimum wage is essentially capital and labor making conflicting claims on resources. But there are a variety of power centers in the economy making such claims: industrialists, landed elite, finance and banking sector players, small traders, workers, etc. Champions of different causes like education and health or different regions might try to promote policies which benefit their respective causes. In the Pakistani case, the military is another important power center which makes claims on economic resources.

The state of tension and relations among these various power centers constitutes the structure of the economy. Political instability arises out of the this structure. That is, it is a structural problem. Economic cycles also arise out of the structure of the economy. When Parkin and Bokhari write in the Financial Times that the Prime Minister was “trapped by the same economic cycles he had vowed to end”, what they are describing is the Prime Minister being trapped within the structure of the economy. It is important to understand why this is the case. Imran Khan’s election to the Prime Minister’s office did not fundamentally challenge let alone change the structure of the economy. It was in fact a consequence of the existing structure of the economy. This might seem like an odd idea, but there is little question about the way multiple power centers aligned themselves to bring Imran Khan into power. These power relations are the structure of the Pakistani economy. And so it should not surprise us if economic and political crises come hand in hand, because they have the same source and are grounded in the same dynamics.

The question then is how we want these relations to be managed and these tensions resolved. This can be done in a variety of ways. One of them is to not do anything about them, and leave them unmanaged. That can lead to a breakdown in relations and the tensions resolving themselves through social upheaval, large scale crises and socio-economic trauma. These are then usually followed by emergency measures. But it is also possible to deliberately manage and transform the structure. Various power centers can negotiate and agree to settlements which ease these tensions. The postwar welfare state in Europe was such a negotiation and settlement.

The implications for Pakistan are that we cannot and should not be surprised when economic and political cycles keep on repeating themselves. Of course they repeat themselves! Because the underlying relations and tensions between power centers (especially the government and the military) remain unsettled and unresolved. The underlying structural problems and puzzles are the same as before. It is only their manifestation which might be somewhat different than before, but the underlying dynamics are consistent. Thus what is needed is a new social contract. That is, an agreement among the power centers about how we wish to organize and govern our society — how we wish to govern ourselves. This is a tall order. But the reward is proportionate: a modicum of the economic and political stability which we long for.