Political economy in the time of Corona

Posted in Uncategorized by jrahman on March 29, 2020

I had just come out of local pharmacy with half a dozen or so travel sized hand sanitisers when the text came — trip cancelled, call TA to arrange refund, let’s discuss what can be delivered remotely.  I was few hours from a long journey across the world, and the sanitisers were standard travel precaution to the tropics, not something that was needed at home.

How life has changed in a month!  Now the sanitisers, and toilet papers, are scarce commodities that might be available in the dark web or lawless alleys of the night, except of course, even criminals might be maintaining social distance.  Now we work from home unless absolutely needed.  And I don’t even live in a country that is under official lock down.

I have refrained from writing about the pandemic.  This is a subject on which I knew very little about a month ago.  And as a matter of habit, I try not to write about things of which I know little.  Partly related to the lack of knowledge was the fact that I had no clear thoughts on the matter that I wanted to share.

So I spent the month reading, and listening, partly out of professional necessity, but also, as they say in Bangladesh — bachtey holey jante hobey.  I wouldn’t presume to know much, however.  Definitely not enough to tell what people should do, individually or collectively, at home here in my small town, or back there in the Desi megacity.  Rather, inspired by Shafiqur Rahman, over the fold is, as Lalmohan Babu might tell Feluda — No questions, shudhui jiggasha.


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Phir bhi dil hai Hindustani

Posted in Bollywood, movies, music, Rights, South Asia by jrahman on March 9, 2020

It was one of the first Bollywood movies to play in a mainstream theatre in our small town, and it seemed that the Desi communities — note the plurals — in its teeming multitudes had showed up, including the bunch I hung out with at the university.  This was over a decade before smart phones and ubiquitous social media.  We had the internet though, and MTV, so some of my friends knew the songs, and someone told me that I might like it, because it’s very political.

I don’t remember why, but I was a bit late and this had already started:

Trying to sit down in the dark, I heard one of the less-Hindi savvy guys ask — Ei ta ki Nazma Salma gaitese (What is this Nazma-Salma they are singing?).  Na bhaiya, Nazma-Salma na, naghma-kalma, you know, he is saying, she is my music and kalima — the girl-next-seat helpfully explained.  As for me, I kept wondering well into the intermission when the hot train dancer would reappear!

Dil Se is on Netflix and happened to be playing during a recent wine-filled late night adda.  I didn’t exactly watch it, hard to do so under the circumstances as you might understand, but it did make me think about how the movie has aged over the years, and yet perhaps is relevant than ever.  It all made me depressed.


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Ekattur-er boiguli

Posted in 1971, books, history by jrahman on January 30, 2020

About a decade ago, upon hearing about an upcoming trip to Dhaka, a friend invited me to a party — Great, that’s about the same time Meherjaan will be released, and you must come to the premiere.  

Meherjaan? — I asked, not knowing anything about the big screen love story starring Jaya Bachchan and Victor Banerjee set in 1971.  As it happened, family commitments meant I couldn’t attend the party.  People who did attend, however, were probably not prepared for the backlash from the Bangla blogosphere.  You see, Rubaiyat Hossain had the audacity to display the ultimate effrontery: a Bengali girl falling in love with a Pakistani soldier, didn’t she — both the eponymous character and the director — know that there was a war?


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Posted in economics, politics by jrahman on January 12, 2020

It seemed to me last week that every man, woman, child, and their pet dog had an opinion about the US-Iran stand off.  But I have never seen anyone predict this October surprise — The Donald striking a deal with the Supreme Leader.  If that happens, then you hard it here first.

Meanwhile, let’s have a crack at some soothsaying.

  • Will Boris Johnson agree a trade deal with the EU?  Yes
  • Will Britain’s Labour party return to electability?  Yes
  • Will Angela Merkel’s grand coalition collapse?  No
  • Will Matteo Salvini come back to power in Italy?  Yes
  • Will Donald Trump win the popular vote in November’s election?  No
  • Will the US go into recession?  No
  • Will China become world leader in 5G telecoms?  No
  • Will India regain its status as the world’s fastest growing large economy?  No
  • Will there be a war with Iran?  No
  • Will South African debt hit junk status? Yes
  • Will the protests that have shaken Latin America continue?  No
  • Will France’s Emmanuel Macron engineer a “reset” with Vladimir Putin’s Russia? No
  • Will we see meaningful regulation of Big Tech? No
  • Will Disney+ change the game in streaming?  No
  • Will Uber become profitable in 2020? No
  • Will vaping be banned? No
  • Will global carbon dioxide emissions fall? No
  • Will Brent crude prices end the year above $65 a barrel? Yes
  • Will the three-decade bond rally finally come to an end? No
  • Will Europe’s banks keep slashing jobs? Yes


Update: Shafquat Rabbee speculated along these lines in 2019.

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The two-handed people

Posted in economics, macro by jrahman on January 9, 2020

বাংলাদেশের অর্থনীতিবিদেরা …. বলতেছে, ক্রাইসিস আছে আবার সম্ভাবনাও আছে। তাই যেই দিকেই অর্থনীতি যাক, ঊনারা বলতে পারবেন ।  আমি কিন্ত, আগেই বলছিলাম।  (Bangladeshi economists …. are saying there is crisis, but there is also potential.  So, whichever way the economy goes, they can claim — I told you so.)

A brilliant autodidact he may be, but if the renowned Facebook pundit / activist  Zia Hassan had any idea about economics, he probably wouldn’t have made the above statement.

For one thing, economists are notorious for not reaching unanimity on major questions.  Take the financial markets for example.  Just a few years ago, Eugene Fama and Robert Shiller jointly won the Bank of Sweden Prize (aka Economic Nobel) — except the former claimed that financial markets are efficient and things like bubbles can’t really exist, whereas the latter has shown why and how bubbles form quite frequently.

More fundamentally, economics is fundamentally about trade offs, choices, and opportunity costs.  And anyone trained in that discipline instinctively thinks about ‘on the other hand’.  This is a feature, not bug, of economists’ thinking.  Not for nothing that former American president Harry S Truman hankered for a one-handed economist!

Turning to Bangladesh, there is absolutely nothing contradictory about seeing potentials and risks — the two are not mutually exclusive.  Bangladesh has achieved remarkable economic progress in the last 30-40 years.  One can quibble about the exact magnitude, precise causes, and to whom the credit should accrue.  But progress has been made and there are potentials for more — to deny this is nonsense.

And yet, the realisation of that potential is not guaranteed.  There are many challenges that need to be overcome.  Specifically, and immediately, there are problems with non-performing loans in the state-owned banks.  This is clearly recognised by anyone who has looked at the data.  But is it crisis?  I am not aware of any economic model or tool that would allow one to accurately forecast a financial crisis.  Even in the advanced economies such a feat is not possible — the data is simply too infrequent and imprecise.  Beware of anyone making such a forecast — they are more likely to be a Facebook pundit than an economist.

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The grand ending

Posted in action, books, movies, sci-fi, sci-fi, TV by jrahman on January 8, 2020

Oh that ending was epic, right?

The nine-year-old exclaimed as we came out of the theatre one Saturday afternoon last antipodean autumn.  We had just finished watching what would eventually become the highest grossing film in history.

Couple of weeks ago, after watching the ending of another multi-movie (and in this case, multi-generational) saga, I asked him — Was that ending epic?

Yeah, I guess so.

The less than emphatic affirmation made me think — what makes an epic’s ending, well, epic?  Of course, I couldn’t but help throw in the biggest television series in history into the mix.

The Avengers, Star Wars, and Game of Thrones — three epics of our times — ended (well sort of, fine prints, see towards the end of the post) in 2019.  How do I judge these endings?  And here, let me stress that  I am particularly interested in the way the story ends, not necessarily on how the story is told (or shown).  That is, I am not going to get into arguments such as whether the Star Wars prequels were worse than the sequels (I change my mind on this all the time) or whether the last season was Game of Thrones poorer than the rest (yes, absolutely).

Now, we need some benchmark to judge these epics against, and what is better than the grandest epic of them all?


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2020 wishes

Posted in Uncategorized by jrahman on December 31, 2019

I write this under a blanket of thick smoke, as the country, no the continent, outside burns, literally.  Apocalyptic is the word to describe scenes across this red southern land, but the end of time it is not.  The fire will burn, consume all before it, but eventually a hard rain will fall.

No, that’s not just mindless optimism on my part.  The empirical evidence is quite clear.  Whether it is how to raise a child, how to look after our health, or manage the economy — we don’t really know much about how to make things better, we know a lot of ways to muck things up, and in most cases, problems actually resolve themselves.

In most cases, but not in all.  You get sick, then you get better, most of the time, except there is that one time when you don’t, and — Dust into Dust, and under Dust to lie / Sans Wine, sans Song, sans Singer, and–sans End!

Well, there is only one thing we say to death — not today!  And not this year.  And not this decade.  Wish for the 2020s is then to make the most of what we yet may spend / Before we too into the Dust descend….. 



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Perfomance anxiety

Posted in economics, institutions, macro, micro, political economy, Uncategorized by jrahman on December 21, 2019

Under Article IV of the IMF’s Articles of Agreement, a team of Fund staff visits each member country once a year, collects economic and financial information, and holds extensive discussions with officials on policy matters.  This is then published in its website.  The latest Article IV report for Bangladesh came out in September, stating that Failure to effectively address the problems in the banking system, including high non-performing loans pose a medium likelihood risk to the economy, with a medium-to-high impact in the near term if it hit — High and increasing non-performing loans and low capital adequacy would hamper the banking sector’s ability to finance business investment, add fiscal burden, and hamper growth.

Let’s unpack this.  In doing so, we are going to look at official data.  Yes, there is considerable scepticism about the veracity of official figures.  But official data is all there is to go on, and nihilism of trust nothing but one’s gut instincts is not analysis. As it happens, even official data tell a potentially scary story.


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London calling

Posted in politics by jrahman on December 15, 2019

Two friends in the woods see a wild bear, or a wolf, or some other fierce beast.  Seeing one ready to run, the other says — You can’t out run the beast!  The reply is — Of course not, but I can out run you!

I was reminded of that when the British election results came in.  Boris Johnson is a liar, has disregarded norms and institutions of democracy, and his signature policy platform — Brexit — is just stupid.  He deserves to be thrown in the dung heap of history.  It’s just that the other side was led by people — not just Jeremy Corbyn, but his entire leadership apparatus — whose world view seems to be straight from 1919!  Anyway, many have written about Corbyn, so I don’t need to belabour the point.  I do, however, wonder if Tarique Rahman was watching the election results and thinking of the prospects of facing the son of his mother’s nemesis……

Johnson can now preside over a soft Brexit and call it a victory, pump prime the economy to avoid a recession, and then call it a victory.  Whether he does that, or something more stupid, Scotland may well go its separate ways.  Seeing the prospects of a disunited Kingdom, I am reminded of how Brexit has traditionally been done:


And anyone who is crestfallen about the prospects of being governed by a craven knave should remember that BoJo is hardly the last mayor of Londonistan.  A jummah praying, Ramadan fasting, pork avoiding brother who is perfectly at ease with gender and sexual diversity and equality, and more importantly, someone who has the track record of competence in running a global city — isn’t Prime Minister Sadiq Khan something to look forward to?


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No place for street fighting

Posted in politics, Uncategorized, uprisings by jrahman on December 12, 2019

Everywhere I hear the sound of marching charging feet… Mick Jagger’s wailing has never been more true since protesters rocked the streets in Paris, Prague, Mexico City, Chicago, and closer to home in Lahore and Dacca fifty years ago.  In the past few months, cities around the world have witnessed street protests.  Causes have differed — ranging from metro prices and tax on whatsapp usage to draconian laws and rigged elections.  As have results so far — ranging from policy, if not regime, change to bloody suppression.  Frankly, it’s hard to keep track of the protesters who are rocking the free and unfree world.

Of course, the political junkies that we are, we can’t help but draw conclusions and inferences from these, including what it might mean for Bangladesh.  Unsurprisingly, our reactions reflect our political biases, conscious or otherwise.  That’s why I have seen some friends noting the coup in Bolivia after the previous regime tried to rig the election, while others shared articles about the supposed death of neoliberalism in Chile.

Can we do slightly better? Unconnected and spontaneous the protests maybe, but is there really no pattern to them?