What good is an economic charter?

This article was first published in The Friday Times.

There is something pointless – though not entirely pointless, as I hope to argue here – about an economic charter. As commentators like Mosharraf Zaidi and Uzair Younus have rightly pointed out, Pakistan’s constitution and parliament are already there as binding constraints to bring warring political parties together into a process of political engagement. Why reinvent the wheel in the form of a charter when you already have a constitution, why not bring the charter issue to parliament as well, and why would the charter be respected when the constitution isn’t? The question should embarrass anyone doing their political engagement from behind a table at a press conference rather than on the floor of parliament with the constitution firmly in their grasp (literally and metaphorically). The absurdity and hollowness of the idea that an economic charter may be a silver bullet which splits Pakistan’s many gordian knots with cinematic style worthy of a Tom Cruise movie is to be found in Tahir Ashrafi’s nonsensical call for a “charter of Pakistan”. An economic charter is sitting like an imaginary treasure at the end of a slippery slope along which we’re moving, an appropriate reward for taking a smokescreen to its logical conclusion.

Mustafa Bajwa’s point that an economic charter is a “truck ki batti” or a red herring is well taken. Nevertheless, the possibilities for an economic charter (how it may be created, what its substance would be, and what we would do with it) are many and varied. That is exactly why it has become a persistent part of economic and policy discourse in Pakistan and refuses to go away, despite having made no real contribution towards Pakistan’s intellectual or policy landscape. Do useless or irrelevant ideas persist? Of course. But it does warrant some investigation as to whether this particular idea is serving some function. I suspect that it persists as a blank screen or catch-all term on which people can project their imagination of a better Pakistan or at least a different Pakistan, and that can be a powerful instrument of discourse if not political settlement and economic policy making. As a vehicle in speculative imagination, it may very well be useful.

So there may be not one economic charter, but a plurality of charters. Some of them might indeed be red herrings or even completely delusional. Others might serve as vehicles for discussion and debate – and that can’t be a bad thing for a social order in need of remaking itself. And It really does need to remake itself because it is not prospering. In fact, besides the blank screen offered by politicians for people to project their visions on, at least three different publicly articulated and shared versions of an economic charter exist: the Pakistan Business Council’s, Dr. Hafiz Pasha’s, and the one most recently put forward by the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics. In a country with a democracy deficit, the existence of three different versions of a charter coming from three very different sources – a private sector business group, a public sector think tank, and one published by a German non-profit organization – is most welcome.

My own view is that as we think about cooperating with each other, we should not just think of arriving at an agreement, but of long run processes. As the work of sociologist and philosopher Prof. Richard Sennett suggests, cooperation is a skill and a craft which can be practiced and improved (Sennett 2012). We must commit to processes which helps us practice and improve our cooperation over long time horizons. Individuals may be dead in the long run, but societies and economies as a whole can continue to live in pain. And the larger ambition ought not to be to only thrive as individuals (the prosperity and liberty of the individual is key), but also to thrive as a collective. And to that end, we might want to consider taking a page out of Keynes’s The End of Laissez Faire. Published in 1926 as a pamphlet, it articulatedKeynes’s views at the end of an age of liberalism and how the world might move forward from that point. We might once again be at a similar juncture, hoping to give birth to something better after having witnessed the terrible failings and strains of neoliberalism. In the conclusion to the essay, Keynes wrote:

“For my part, I think that Capitalism, wisely managed, can probably be made more efficient for attaining economic ends than any alternative system yet in sight, but that in itself it is in many ways extremely objectionable. Our problem is to work out a social organisation which shall be as efficient as possible without offending our notions of a satisfactory way of life. … We need by an effort of the mind to elucidate our own feelings. At present our sympathy and our judgement are liable to be on different sides, which is a painful and paralysing state of mind. … We need a new set of convictions which spring naturally from a candid examination of our own inner feelings in relation to the outside facts.”

Now, our conditions in Pakistan are those of material poverty and a vulnerable political economy exposed to war, disease and environmental catastrophe. The state preys on the weak and the country’s sovereignty lies in tatters, the power of the government of Pakistan to issue the national currency having been surrendered in exchange for IMF money. And while those are our outside facts, our inner feelings are of fear and hurt and anger and grief and insecurity. The question then is, what new set of convictions will arise from a candid self-examination and how? Let us leave aside the “what” for now and focus on the “how”. Remember: long run processes. Do we possess the means of candid self-examination? A big problem Pakistan faces is that the means through which we could conduct any candid examination as a society – our institutions of cultural self-expression and reflection – are all eroded. Parliament and the constitution are major casualties but certainly not the only ones. What is the state of our public universities and public libraries? What is the state of our music? Is Coke Studio to be the artistic means of our self-reflection and self-examination? What is the state of cinema? What candid examination of ourselves do we hope to achieve while a commercial hit like Maula Jatt plays freely while a creative hit like Joyland remains banned in Punjab? This state of affairs partly explains why we have latched onto the idea of an economic charter; we have done so out of desperate hope that it might be a vehicle of self-examination and reflection for us. (This point about institutions of reflection arose in a conversation with my teacher Prof. Khalid Mir, to whom I am grateful for his friendship and everything he has taught me.)

What’s more, our fragile social order with its eroding and crumbling institutions must contend with economic pressures. No social contract is going to survive hyperinflation undermining the rupee. As the value of the national currency erodes with increasing pace, at some point trust in the government’s guarantee of the value of currency, a guarantee stated on the front face of our SBP-issued banknotes, will start eroding with stunning pace. Thus money as a social relationship between society and state will come under strain. It is possible for the relationship to break down altogether. People are afraid of the country defaulting on its debts, and rightly so. But an irreparable rupture in the state-society relationship caused by the destruction of the rupee as a store of value (or even a means of exchange!) will be far more consequential and have implications entirely unimagined and unanticipated. So we are brought back both by force of argument and outside facts to square one: the urgency of committing to the democratic political process, to parliament, and to the constitution.

”A healthy obsession, we could say, interrogates its own driving convictions” (Sennett 2008, pg. 261) In this article I have tried to interrogate some of the driving convictions behind the obsession with an economic charter, which might be available to us as an aid to our self-reflection and self-examination as a society and country. But it is not a silver bullet. It cannot replace the constitution of Pakistan, the laws by which this country is governed (or ought to be governed) or our institutional architecture. We must be careful not to slide into a place where we obsessively linger on an economic charter and chain our expectations to it to distract ourselves from the real work, to use Prof. Sennett’s phrase, of making a life in common (Sennett 2008, 6).

References

Sennett, Richard. 2008. The Craftsman. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

Sennett, Richard. 2012. Together: The Rituals, Pleasures and Politics of Cooperation. New Haven: Yale University Press, 2008.

The government of Pakistan can’t issue the rupee at will. This is a problem.

The State Bank of Pakistan (Amendment) Act, 2022 (Act No. VI of 2022) is a good case study to illustrate how the intersection of law, politics and institutions is of interest for anyone concerned about the governance of Pakistan. It illustrates how through legislation passed by elected political representatives of the people of Pakistan, the institutional architecture of policy is changed in the country, and how that in turn has an impact on the country’s governance. Section 9C of the SBP Act 1956 (as amended up to 28-01-2022) prohibits the Pakistani government from borrowing from the SBP. Since the government owns the SBP and hence its debts to the SBP are really debts to itself, it means that the government can no longer issue the rupee at will. The 2021 brief prepared by the Ministry of Finance and the SBP about misconceptions regarding the amendment acknowledges that SBP lending is the means through which the federal government may create money (“When the government borrows from the central bank, it is equivalent to printing money.”).

The Pakistani central bank is a public interest institution meant to “contribute to the stability of the financial system of Pakistan and supporting the general economic policies of the Federal Government to foster development and fuller utilization of the country’s productive resources;”.  The government of Pakistan and the people whom it represents are now stuck in an awkward position. The government which is entrusted with the governance of the country is unable to issue the national currency through a bank which is its own agent and which it fully owns and has fully owned since the SBP’s nationalization in 1974. When the SBP was formed, it served in part as an expression and symbol of the financial and monetary sovereignty of the country (Husain 1992, 56). In that sense, it served a nation building purpose, much like the First and Second Banks of the US following the US war of independence from the British (Knodell 2013). Today, the government of Pakistan has practically lost the ability to issue the Pakistani rupee at will. If this isn’t an issue of monetary and policy sovereignty, I don’t know what is.

The SBP’s position on this in the brief is the mainstream position: if the federal government continues to hold money creation power, it might exercise them imprudently, thereby leading to too much money which in turn will lead to inflation. This tells us that monetarist thinking is alive and well at the SBP. Whatever the demerits of monetarism, the issue is political, and politically the argument is as problematic as the view that the government should not be able to pass legislation because it might pass legislation with detrimental consequences. The government as the representative of the public must be able to exercise legislative powers as well as money creation powers. If there are negative consequences, let the people of Pakistan hold the government to account – through the exercise of free speech and criticism of the government’s policies, through the opposition in parliament, and at the ballot box. Holding the federal government accountable for its economic policy is not the proper social purpose of the SBP, much like holding the government accountable for defense and foreign policy is not the purpose of the military. That role belongs to the public, which could legitimately see this legislation as an encroachment on its role in the governance of the country. At present, the situation is akin to legislative powers being outsourced to a political consulting firm which is owned by the government and acts as an agent of the government. This needs to be changed.

What does the SBP stand for and what is the proper social purpose of the SBP? Dr Hafiz Pasha has written about SBP reform in his version of an economic charter. Dr. Pasha’s recommendations concern the improved distribution of credit across sectors, away from state owned enterprises, towards the “small borrower”, and a generally increased access to financial services. (I do not however, for the reasons outlined above, agree with him implied position that it is the job of the SBP to hold the ministry of finance accountable for its domestic bank borrowing.) This is all good and in the right direction, given what Dr. Pasha has already written about the distribution of credit in the UN Human Development report of 2020. But is this possible given the relationship between the SBP and the ministry of finance as established by the 2022 amendment?

Dr. Pasha’s suggestions presuppose institutional relations and intellectual approach very different from those presently in place. Credit planning and distribution are concerns of a politically and socially attentive approach to central banking, monetary policy and regulation of the financial system. That is not the economics which prevails at the SBP at the present moment. The SBP is independent but its governing legislation lacks a necessary mechanism to override its decisions, as required by Fischer (1994). Can Pakistan’s central bank once again accountable to the Pakistani public? It can, but that is conditional on parliament. Will the next elected government of Pakistan have the ability and political will to amend the SBP Act again, and in doing so, have an impact on how they as the representatives of the people of Pakistan hold the SBP accountable? All political parties should commit to amending the SBP Act in the lead up to the next elections to amend Section 9C. If we do end up with an economic charter, this commitment should be a part of the charter. This will, of course, not go down well with the IMF, or with any policy makers hoping to ease financial pressures by borrowing from the IMF again. From the public point of view, a reminder that international financial institutions have helped kick away the ladder for the now developing countries (Chang 2002) should help. We ought not to miss the IMF’s kiss of death too much.

Bibliography

Chang, Ha-Joon. 2002. Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective. Anthem Press: London.

Fischer, Stanley. 1994. “Modern central banking.” In Capie, Forrest, Charles Goodhart, Stanley Fisher, and Norbert Schnadt (Editors). The Future of Central Banking: The Tercentenary Symposium of the Bank of England, p. 262–308. Cambridge University Press: Cambridge.

Husain, Aijaz. History of the State Bank of Pakistan: 1948–1960. State Bank of Pakistan Press: Karachi, 1992.

Knodell, Jane. 2013. “The nation-building purposes of early US central banks.” Review of Keynesian Economics 1, no. 3, Autumn, pp. 288-299.

Sifting through Pandora’s Pakistani policy casket

Here’s an excerpt from my new blogpost for the Monetary Policy Institute, which you can read here:

The man-made political culture and institutional architecture of policy in Pakistan are fraught with difficulties. In this blogpost, I try to shed light on some of these difficulties. Earlier this year, the State Bank of Pakistan Act 1956 was amended to grant the Pakistani central bank (henceforth the SBP) near absolute independence. I consider this change in the institutional framework through the lens of my previous post for the Monetary Policy Institute, in which I argued that central banking needs a capitalist manifesto.

A state of dread

Here’s an excerpt from today’s op-ed in The News:

“Since the contest is taking place without ground rules, we should not be surprised or caught off guard if it brings the country to its knees. We are stuck in a crisis equilibrium since at least the start of the calendar year, if not longer. People who have little will consume what they can and what they must. But those who have much, the leisure class, continue to spend and consume in order to amuse themselves to the point of numbness as they watch the brawl. Investors hold on to their capital dearly and move around the brawl to avoid getting knocked over in the process. If they can find an escape route out of the room, even better.”

For Ryan Karazija (1982 – 2022)

At some point in the summer this year, I stumbled upon Gene Park’s article on Hideo Kojima, creator of Metal Gear Solid. It brought his game Death Stranding to my attention, which I started playing soon after. What I thought would be another cool and entertaining game turned out to be something else entirely: an aid, a journey, and a balm. Ryan Karazija’s music was – and will remain – central to it all. Ryan has passed away at the age of 40 according to his project Low Roar’s social media (see this video posted on Low Roar’s YouTube channel).

The game has been crucial in helping me process the grief of my brother’s disappearance and death. I have written already about my mental health journey. I am finding that grief is a continuous process which so far has not left me. As Mario Andretti has said, “there is no setback with the magnitude of a fatality.” (Will Buxton’s My Greatest Defeat p. 244) The game presented itself as an instrument to access feelings of loss which had begun to fall beneath the surface of my emotional life.

The beginning of the game, in which Sam Porter Bridges undertakes the first of many journeys to fulfil an order, makes such stunning and moving use of Ryan’s music (see the link to the track Bones below) that it had me hooked to the game as well as the music. The music combined with the vast, sweeping landscapes offered moments of beauty and refuge throughout the story. Moments of understanding and empathy. Of comfort, and a sense of movement rather than of dead ends.

The game’s philosophical bent and its Lovercraftian horror elements would also have endeared it to my brother, who was a student of philosophy. I desperately wish to share it with him every day, along with Low Roar’s music. For me, the game is very much a reminder about the importance of connection, helping strangers, accepting mortality as well as help. A reminder that even when the world seems to have fallen apart, as mine did with my brother’s death, we can put one foot in front of the other and “keep on keepin’ on”.

Rest easy, Ryan Karazija. I hope you run into my brother somewhere, wherever you two might be.

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.