Mukti

What to expect if you are expecting?

Posted in economics, elections, institutions, politics by jrahman on December 23, 2018

In just a few days, Bangladeshis might have a chance to vote.  I have no idea whether the election will be free and fair.  Nor can I venture a guess about the winner.  For all we know, the government will follow the path of Pakistan over India — that is, it will rig the election following ZA Bhutto’s 1977 example, and not accept defeat in a free and fair election like Indira Gandhi did the same summer.  However, one can always hope, and expect.  If you were to expect a Jatiya Oikya Front victory on 30 December, what should you expect for the economy for the next five years?

As with anything to do with economy, the answer is mixed.

On the one hand, even if Mrs Hasina Wajed allows a free and fair election, accepts defeat, and peacefully hands over power, there is a significant risk that she will still have left the new government with a Pakistan-like situation.

Pakistan too had an election earlier this year.  The previous government claimed, with some justification, to have tackled the country’s electricity and other infrastructure problems.  Pakistan economy seemed to have turned a corner.  However, the government’s books were a mess, and there was a risk that the country couldn’t meet its external liabilities.  The incoming government had won the election promising good governance on a whole raft of fronts.  But the new prime minister Imran Khan and his finance minister have spent most of their time travelling the Washington DC, Beijing and Riyadh with a begging bowl.  And all the grand promises seem to be melting into thin air.  If you are expecting a triumph of democracy on 30 December, you would do well prepare for a Pakistan-style crisis in 2019.

On the other hand, if they can avoid a crisis that would be Mrs Wajed’s parting gift, there is much to look forward to a Oikya Front government for.  And a crisis is not a fait accompli.  A train wreck can be avoided if you see the locomotive rushing towards you.  The thing about expectations is, if you know what to expect, you could adjust your actions to avoid the worst possible outcome, and temper your expectations to face the situation in a stoic manner.  I suspect the would be econocrats of the Oikya Front are well aware of the mess they might inherit.  They will need to take a few steps to diffuse any looming disaster before launching their longer term tasks.  And if they can get to it, judging by its manifesto, and BNP’s Vision 2030, a new government will attempt an ambitious but realistic programme.

Let’s unpack these step by step.

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Basu’s bizarre bakwas

Posted in development, economics, macro, political economy by jrahman on May 6, 2018
Rubbish, Worthless, Nonsense, Silliness
(Urban Dictionary)

Upon being asked by a friend whether I had read Kaushik Basu’s recent piece on Bangladesh, my first reaction was — is that the rather lazy piece on why Bangladesh is doing well?

Let me note my gratitude to the friend for pushing me to read the piece. It is, to use the favourite adjective of Bangladesh’s Finance Minister, just bogus.  Out of respect for my personal interactions with the author, I will refrain from using that term.  But this bizarre article should still be debunked.

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Jammin until the break of dawn

Posted in army, books, democracy, economics, history, political economy, politics, uprisings by jrahman on December 2, 2017

What do you do during the evenings, after the day’s tasks are done, of work trips?  You might be tired of being up in the air, or just simply tired.  But depending on the jet lag, you might not find much sleep.  I certainly don’t, even when there is no jet lag — I hate hotel beds.  If you find yourself in a hotel that used to be one of Idi Amin’s torture chambers palaces, and your colleagues are fellow political junkies, you will likely talk about politics over a nightcap.  So did we that rain-soaked Kampala evening.  We talked about, among other things, Zimbabwe.

Why didn’t they get rid of him the old fashioned way, you know, APCs on the streets, tanks in front of the presidential palace, radio or TV broadcast by some unknown major…..

An old Africa hand explained why Robert Mugabe wasn’t toppled in a coup.  No, it wasn’t because of his liberation cred.  Kwame Nkrumah or Milton Obote were no less of independence heroes to their respective countries.  Both were ingloriously booted out, not just of their presidential palaces, but also the countries they led to existence.  At least they lived, unlike say Patrice Lumumba.  Clearly being a national liberator figure didn’t make one coup-proof, particularly if one had turned his (can’t think of a mother of the nation top of my head!) country into a basket case, and had faced concerted political pressure from home and abroad.  According to my colleague with years of experience in the continent, the key to Mugabe’s survival was in relative ‘latecomer’ status.

Mugabe came to power much later than was the case for other African founding fathers.  And the disastrous denouement of his rule happened during a period when the great powers saw little strategic importance in regime change in an obscure corner of the world.  The second factor meant there was no foreign sponsor to any coup.  The former meant that any would be coupmaker, and their domestic supporters, knew from the experiences elsewhere in the continent about what could happen when a game of coups went wrong.

Mugabe gave them hyperinflation.  Getting rid of him could lead to inter-ethnic war.  Easier to do currency reform than deal with refugees fleeing genocide….. 

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The middle

Posted in democracy, economics, elections, governance, political economy, politics by jrahman on November 3, 2017

The Middle is an American sitcom about a middle class family’s struggle in the wake of the Great Recession.  I never watched the show beyond the first episode in 2009.  At that time, it seemed to me to be a poor derivative of Malcolm in the Middle and Roseanne.  Facebook tells me that this will be the final season of The Middle.  Maybe I should watch the show.  Set in the mid-western state of Indiana, the protagonist white family might have been just the type that put Donald Trump where he is.  Aristotle wrote that …those states are likely to be well-administered in which the middle class is large.  Some argue that stagnation of the American middle class lies behind the rise of Trump.  I am not so sure — perhaps tribes matter more than class.

I don’t want to spend precious time and energy pondering about the plight of the white American middle class.  Instead, let me talk about the role of the middle class in Bangladeshi politics.  The term Bangladesh paradox is now at least half a decade old, and refers to the idea that Bangladesh has been surprisingly good at improving the lives of its poor despite dysfunctional politics and a stunted private sector — that’s from the Economist.  William B Milam, former American envoy to Dhaka and Islamabad and a keen observer of both countries, often talks about another Bangladesh paradox:

….Bangladesh should have become, over the past 25 years, a modernized democracy, knocking on the door of entry into the middle income category of developing countries. Its economy has grown for most of the last two decades around 5-6 % per year, and its social development indices have improved rapidly and now are generally better than most other South Asian countries except Sri Lanka. Instead, over those same two decades, Bangladesh has regressed along the democracy/authoritarian axis no matter which of the two major parties was in power.

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The transition blues

Posted in democracy, development, economics, governance, institutions, politics by jrahman on October 24, 2017

….nearly every country that experienced a large democratic transition after a period of above-average growth  ….  experienced a sharp deceleration in growth in the 10 years following the democratizing transition.

That’s from the Pritchett-Summers paper covered in the last post.  Let the sentence sink in.  Then, if you’re interested in Bangladesh, read on.

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Apocalypse later, maybe

Posted in development, economics, macro by jrahman on October 21, 2017

As I read about the 19th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party, it occurred to me that throughout my professional career, for some reason or other, I have had to think about the consequences of a hard landing in the Chinese economy.  It also occurs to me that I first started thinking about Bangladesh towards the end of graduate school — that is, I first fretted about an economic crisis in our People’s Republic before I ever thought about the other one.  Then I remembered this cautionary note about China (and India), which apply just as well to Bangladesh.

In its just released World Economic Outlook, the IMF forecasts Bangladesh economy to grow by 7% a year over the next few years.  It has been a while since I looked at the detailed data, so I am not in a position to comment on whether the IMF is too optimistic.  Look at the chart below, and think about whether 7% growth would be too optimistic?

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Political impact of remittances

Posted in democracy, elections, labour, political economy, politics by jrahman on July 12, 2017

Along with the garments industry and the NGOs, there is a broad consensus that remittances have played a key role in Bangladesh’s economic development over the past decades.  Notwithstanding that broad consensus, the economic impact of remittances may be more nuanced than one might think, as I conjectured a long time ago:

Well, how about a stylised, and very speculative, story along this line — while RMG has meant women entering the formal workforce, migrant worker boom has sent a lot of risk-taking men overseas; aided by the NGOs and microcredit, households have smoothed consumption and invested in human capital of their children; but they have not invested in physical capital, avoided entrepreneurial activities, and have not pushed for a more investment-friendly polity.

We would want to explore this story further. We would also want to explore the income side of GDP, and tie it into a political economy analysis.

The remittance boom, for example, should see the labour share of the economy rise. Of course, the question is, what happens to the money that is remitted back? It’s reasonable to assume that unskilled labourers are from the poorer parts of the society. So, in the first instance, any remittance back to the villages is a good thing in that it reduces the direst type of poverty — that is it stops things like famine or malnutrition. But what happens after that? My tentative hunch is that a lot of remittance has been saved but not invested in a productive way, rather they ended up fuelling land/stock prices —this is an area that needs to be explored in detail.

Needless to say, I have not followed up on these questions.  But at least the economic impact of remittances is something people have thought about.  What about the political impacts?  That’s the question Shafiqur Rahman of Oregon University explores.*

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Economic herstory

Posted in development, economics by jrahman on July 5, 2017

I have been trying to get back into the habit of writing.  Nothing fancy or ambitious.  Around a thousand or so words a week.  I asked a close friend on what I should be writing about.  He advised:

Rotate between three big buckets: politics/history, pop culture, and economics. When writing about the first topic, make sure it won’t sound ridiculous in six months. And avoid talking about people and focus more on theory and data.

My friend reminded me of this passage from a three-decade old paper on economic growth.

The consequences for human welfare involved in questions like these are simply staggering: Once one starts to think about them, it is hard to think about anything else.

I wonder what Nancy Stokey feels about that!  My partner will for sure not be happy if I spend all my time thinking about economics.  But when not thinking about strange stuff, it is indeed harder to come up with a bigger question than why some societies have so much higher living standards than others.

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Ramadanomics

Posted in economics, labour, macro, society by jrahman on June 19, 2016

Ramadan fasting is like no other Islamic ritual.  In the month of Ramadan, those who never perform the pre-dawn Fajr prayer get up even earlier to eat, only to abstain until dusk.  And after a month of that, even those who would otherwise never set foot in a mosque line up in unison to kneel towards Mecca.   For an entire month, from cooking, attire, TV to intimacy — the very lifestyle of a billion plus people change.  Except perhaps the aversion to pork, observance of, or at least respect to, the Ramadan fasting is arguably the most ubiquitous characteristic of Muslims.

Given its prevalence and ubiquity, Ramadan must have observable economic impacts.  Exactly what might they be?  In a fascinating paper, Filipe Campanile and David Yanagizawa-Drott of Harvard’s Kennedy School provide us with some answers.*  Summary — fasting makes us happier, if poorer.

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Khichuri index

Posted in economics, labour, macro by jrahman on December 24, 2015

A staple of political rhetoric in Bangladesh is to ensure affordability of rice, lentil, oil and salt.  Throw in a kilogram of coarse rice, 250 grams of red lentil, 40 ml soya bean oil and 10 mg salt and we get a rather bland plate of khichuri.  CEIC Asia database provides monthly retail prices of these essentials in Dhaka with a lag.  Currently, the latest data point is August 2014.  Still, using the bland recipe and prices (and smoothing the data by taking a 12-month moving average), we can get a sense of how the price of our plate of khichuri has evolved over time — for example, when BNP was turfed out in January 2007, such a plate cost around 35 taka, which rose to around 60 taka when the Awami League returned to power in January 2009, and was around 70 taka when its five year term expired.

Of course, to say anything sensible about prices, we need to have a sense of income.  From the same source, we can get daily wage of a skilled factory worker.  Her wages went from around130 taka a day in January 2007 to over 210 taka two years later to over 300 taka further five years on.

Putting the two together, we can get what I am going to call the Khichuri Index — plates of khichuri an average industrial worker can buy in Dhaka.  The chart below shows how the index has evolved between January 2000 and August 2014 (the period I have data for).

khichuri

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