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 # 4

Mearsheimer and the character of Pakistan’s political economy

Political scientist John Mearsheimer has been getting a lot of attention following the Russian invasion of Ukraine. While his realist view (in the social scientific sense rather than the literal sense) has been picked apart by Smolenski and Dutkiewicz, it is understandable why it might be popular right now with any one who has a bone to pick with the US and NATO. Blaming the US and NATO for the Russian invasion of Ukraine, as Mearsheimer does in a recent interview, sits well with the Government of Pakistan’s story that it has adopted an “independent” foreign policy, refused to bow to the US or broadly speaking Western pressure, and is hence maintaining a neutral stance over on the matter of the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

But there is another idea in the Mearsheimer interview which stood out to me as relevant to developments in Pakistan: “Military might is built on economic might. You need an economic foundation to build a really powerful military.” This idea, on the face of it, does not seem very problematic or controversial. But it is not self-evident, and it should be questioned and cannot be taken for granted. Its opposite — that there are economic gains to be found in the capture and control of external markets using military might — is not just a well known theory (see Rosa Luxemberg on “Militarism as a Province of Accumulation”) but arguably an important historical fact (hint: colonialism). Military might may very well be built on, among other things, economic might (although it remains a problem for champions of Pakistan’s nuclear capabilities to explain how this particular case of military might is possible even though the country is economically impoverished). But that is almost besides the point. The issue is that it is a tempting jump from “military might is built on economic might” to “therefore a military should concern itself with the economic management of a country”. This leap is even more problematic than the proposition that economic might is the sole foundation stone of military might. This is the leap or jump which the traditional security apparatus in Pakistan has made in the NSP document. It appears to be at the foundation of the subsuming of Pakistan’s economic management by the traditional security apparatus.

But this leap is in fact counter-productive for the evolution of the economy. An economy needs breathing room and room to expand. Control (military or otherwise, but especially by militaries) can lead to anxiety and can quickly turn into a chokehold on the free spirit of enterprise as society becomes less free and open. This is a problem because open societies are better for innovation and business. The entrepreneurial spirit – which is central to the flourishing of economies and to which so many pay lip service today – is incredibly averse to being controlled. Economist Joseph Schumpeter, who gave us a very good description of the character of the entrepreneur in his Theory of Economic Development ([1934] 1983), helps us understand why. It is because the entrepreneur has “the dream and the will to found a private kingdom, usually, though not necessarily, also a dynasty.” Second, they have “the will to conquer: the impulse to fight, to prove oneself superior to others, to succeed for the sake, not of the fruits of success, but of success itself.” Third, they are motivated by “the joy of creating, of getting things done, or simply of exercising ones energy and ingenuity.”

To understand the relevance of Schumpeter’s characterization of the entrepreneur, we have to consider another important work of social science. Sociologist Peter Evans has argued in Embedded Autonomy: States and Industrial Transformation (1995) that the autonomy of a state to create and implement industrial policy is embedded in (1) state’s external relations with society, and (2) the state’s internal coherence. (For my present argument I will disregard the second). State-society relations can be characterized on a spectrum of types, with the two poles being developmental and predatory. Now, given the non-controversial claim that the citizen’s levels of confidence and trust in the Pakistani state are low, I would conjecture that — and I am yet to talk to someone who disagrees with me on this — state-society relations in Pakistan cannot be characterized as developmental. If state-society relations in Pakistan are predatory, it would help explain why the entrepreneurial spirit has not flourished a great deal. But it would also tell us why in such a context the cause of the entrepreneur ought to be championed: in the face of a state which is clearly not developmental, entrepreneurs are radicals. [“Startups are brave to operate in Pakistan — because the govt really doesn’t get them”]

But regardless of the need for room to breathe, you do need control and management in an economy as well, without which you cannot protect capitalism from its inherent, self-destructive tendencies. This is also the problem about which Keynes was writing in the early twentieth century: how do we exercise control and manage an economy on the one hand without letting it capitalism run completely free and wild, and on the other without succumbing to authoritarianism? This gets us into the specific form of control. Authoritarian control is not the only kind. There is such a thing as democratic control, and this brings us back to the character of Pakistani democracy, which is on display today for all to see with a political crisis threatening to become a constitutional one as the Prime Minister struggles to remain in office.

Encouragement of entrepreneurs and tech start-ups is necessary but insufficient. Anyone interested in anticipating Pakistan’s economic future must figure out what the character of Pakistan’s political sphere is. In particular, where do power and sovereignty lie in the national political sphere? This is the key, because political culture and the location of sovereignty are crucial in shaping the evolutionary path of the economic sphere. (See Frank Dobbin’s Forging Industrial Policy (1994).) Observers of Pakistan’s political economy should expect, I think, Pakistan’s economic evolution in the foreseeable future to be consistent with the effectiveness (or lack thereof) of ideas and vision articulated in the NSP document.

[The quotes from the Schumpeter book are from the end of Chapter II: The Fundamental Phenomenon of Economic Development.]

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.