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Archive for the ‘India’ Category

One of my great frustrations (and there are many) is that the conventional wisdom about economic history oftentimes is wrong. It is very common for students to learn things that simply are not true.

Let’s add to that list by looking at the issue of child labor. The conventional wisdom is that child labor was a regular feature of an oppressive capitalist system and that children were eventually saved from abuse thanks to government intervention.

Hardly. Child labor was – and still is, in some places – a way for desperately poor people to stay alive and perhaps create a stepping stone for a better future. And capitalism-enabled prosperity is the best way to end the unfortunate practice.

I previously cited some World Bank research, in a postscript to a column on bureaucracy, showing that restrictions on child labor had negative long-run effects on income for poor people.

Let’s augment that research. Here are some passages from a very sobering study about the unintended consequences of restricting child labor (h/t: Dev Patel via Tyler Cowen).

While bans against child labor are a common policy tool, there is very little empirical evidence validating their effectiveness. In this paper, we examine the consequences of India’s landmark legislation against child labor, the Child Labor (Prohibition and Regulation) Act of 1986. Using data from employment surveys conducted before and after the ban, and using age restrictions that determined who the ban applied to, we show that child wages decrease and child labor increases after the ban.

Some basic economic analysis shows why this happens.

…families use child labor to reach subsistence constraints and where child wages decrease in response to bans, leading poor families to utilize more child labor.

And it’s worth noting that there are all sorts of harmful secondary effects.

The increase in child labor comes at the expense of reduced school enrollment. We also examine the effects of the ban at the household level. Using linked consumption and expenditure data, we find that along various margins of household expenditure, consumption, calorie intake and asset holdings, households are worse off after the ban.

The bottom line on this issue is that some children are born to very poor families in very poor nations. In those tragic situations, child labor is a matter of survival rather than a lifestyle choice.

I don’t think that the businesses employing children are noble. Indeed, I wouldn’t be surprised if some of them mistreat kids. And even the nice ones probably would seem horrifying to those of us lucky enough to live in rich western nations.

But I also don’t believe in putting good intentions above real-world results. Businesses that employ child labor are offering a better (or, to be more accurate, offering a less-worse) opportunity for people stuck in horrid poverty. Capitalism is the only effective escape from economic misery.

Let’s close with some libertarian satire. It’s focused more on sweatshops, but it also applies to child labor (and “neoliberal” refers to “classical liberal” rather than modern leftism).

For what it’s worth, child labor was ubiquitous in the western world prior to the explosive growth that was unleashed by free markets and limited government.

If we want poor children in poor families from poor nations to have a better life, we should urge the same policies in the developing world. Assuming we prefer good results over good intentions, of course.

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I wrote a four-part series about how governments are waging a war against cash, with the first two columns looking at why politicians are so interested in taking this radical step.

  • In Part I, I looked at the argument that cash should be banned or restricted so governments could more easily collect additional tax revenue.
  • In Part II, I reviewed the argument that cash should be curtailed so that governments could more easily impose Keynesian-style monetary policy.

Part III and Part IV are also worth reading, though I confess you’ll just get additional evidence to bolster what I wrote in the first two columns.

Today, let’s look at a real-world example of what happens when a government seeks to curtail cash. It happened in India last November, and I wrote about the disruption that was caused when the government banned certain notes.

But maybe the short-run costs were acceptable because there are long-run benefits. That’s certainly possible, but the evidence suggests that the Indian government is doing long-run damage.

Derek Scissors of the American Enterprise Institute has a new column on what’s happening with India’s economy. He is not impressed.

There is certainly a long-standing and extensive corruption problem. The discussion of “black money” has become so absurd, however, that it has little relation to corruption. …Taking currency notes out of circulation in a surprise move late last year was said to target black money inside the country. Seizure of cash was justified by a huge amount of hidden funds. …For political reasons, black money is being wildly exaggerated as an economic issue. …Directly related to hoping there is trillions in black money is wanting to tax those mythical trillions. All governments chase revenue but India’s pursuit seems especially misguided. …Good policy enhances competition and individual economic rights for the sake of greater productivity and personal income. Being obsessed with black money, tax revenue, and GDP growth does nothing to enhance competition or individual rights and leaves ordinary Indians worse off.

India’s central bank is even more critical, bluntly stating that the plan failed, as reported by the BBC.

Indians returned almost all of the high-currency notes banned in last year’s shock government crackdown on illegal cash, the central bank says. It said 15.28tn rupees ($242bn) – or 99% – of the money had made its way back into the banking system. Ministers had hoped the move would make it difficult for hoarders of undeclared wealth to exchange it for legal tender. The news that it did not will raise questions about the policy, which brought chaotic scenes across India. …Many low-income Indians, traders and ordinary savers who rely on the cash economy were badly hit. …As per the RBI data, it’s safe to say that demonetisation has been a failure of epic proportions. …Agriculture, the rural economy and property – which rely largely on cash transactions – were sectors hit by the ban. It also contributed to a slowdown in economic growth.

Indeed, the former head of the central bank warned the government ahead of time that the plan wouldn’t work. Here are some details from a Bloomberg story.

Raghuram Rajan was governor of the Reserve Bank of India in February 2016, when he was asked by the government for his views on demonetization… “Although there may be long-term benefits, I felt the likely short-term economic costs would outweigh them, and felt there were potentially better alternatives to achieve the main goals,” he wrote in the book. “I made these views known in no uncertain terms.” …speculation has raged over who thought up the policy, with the debate getting more divisive last week as a slew of data showed demonetization contributed to a growth slump without meeting its targets. …the cash ban devastated small businesses. More than 1.5 million jobs were said to be lost and newspapers reported deaths linked to the decision.

Rajan correctly observed that the best way to boost tax compliance is with low tax rates.

“It’s not that easy to flush out the black money,” Rajan had said, using the local term for cash stashed away illegally to avoid tax. He added that he’d rather focus on the incentives for black money, such as tax rates.

Amen. This is a point I’ve made over and over and over and over again.

Meanwhile, the Indian Express also has a column, written by a former Chief Economist at the World Bank, on how demonetization has been a failure.

…a wealth of analysis and data have become available. Demonetisation’s half-anniversary is a good time to take stock of this historic decision. The verdict is clear. It was a monetary policy blunder. It achieved next to nothing, and inflicted a large cost on the poor and the informal sector. …demonetisation took the wind out of India’s sails. My calculation is that around 1.5 percentage points of growth were lost to it.

A column in the Harvard Business Review pours cold water on the notion that demonetization is an effective way of reducing corruption.

The original reason given for the drastic demonetization action was to expose the so-called “black” market, fueled by money that is illegally gained and undeclared for tax purposes. …banks were estimated to have received 14.97 trillion rupees (around $220 billion) by the December 30 deadline, or 97% of the 15.4 trillion rupees’ worth of currency demonetized. …These rates of deposits defied expectations that vast troves of undeclared wealth would not find their way back to the banks and that black marketeers would lose this money since they would not be able to deposit their undeclared cash without being found out. This didn’t happen.

It probably “didn’t happen” because the government was wildly wrong when it claimed that cash was the problem.

…when corrupt people need places to park their ill-gotten gains, cash normally is not at the top of their list. Only a tiny proportion of undeclared wealth is held in cash. In an analysis of income-tax probes, the highest level of illegal money detection in India was found to be in 2015–2016, and the cash component was only about 6%. The remaining was invested in business, stocks, real estate, jewelry, or “benami” assets, which are bought in someone else’s name.

Indeed, the Washington Post reports that the new notes already are being used for illegal purposes.

For the first few weeks of demonetization, it was common to meet Indians who felt that their collective suffering and inconvenience was justified because it would ultimately usher in a less corrupt, more equal India. But as the initiative enters its second month, more and more reports are emerging of seizures of vast quantities of hoarded cash in the new notes. Like water reaching the sea, the corrupt, it seems, have found ways to navigate around the government’s new obstacles. …A sense is building that while millions of Indians languish in ATM lines, the old black money system is simply restarting itself with the new notes.

The real story is that the corruption is caused by government, not cash.

The biggest question is how people are getting their hands on such huge stashes of the new currency. …one way: visiting your local politician.

What’s especially disappointing is that the United States government took money from American taxpayers and used those funds to encourage India’s failed policy.

And here are some excerpts from a report by the Hindu.

The United States on Wednesday described India’s demonetisation drive as an “important and necessary” step to curb illicit cash and actions. “…this was, we believe, an important and necessary step to crack down on illegal actions,” Mark Toner, State Department spokesperson, said in response to a question. …Acknowledging that the move inconvenienced people, Mr. Toner said it was “a necessary one to address the corruption.”

It’s worth pointing out that the U.S. government was encouraging India’s bad policy during the waning days of the Obama Administration, so it’s possible that taxpayers no longer will be funding bad policy now that Trump is in the White House.

I hope there’s a change, but I won’t hold my breath. The permanent bureaucracy has a statist orientation and it takes a lot of work for political appointees to shift policy in a different direction. I hope I’m wrong, but I don’t think that will happen

P.S. The Indian government also is hurting the nation – and poor people – with a value-added tax. Bloomberg has a report on some of the misery.

Before Prime Minister Narendra Modi introduced the country’s new goods and services tax on July 1, Ansari said he was earning 6,000 rupees ($93) a day selling leather jackets, wallets, bags and belts. But India’s new tax classified leather products as luxury items and raised the rate to 28 percent — more than double the 13.5 percent tax levied until June 30. Since then, his business has collapsed. “My business is down nearly 75 percent,” Ansari said… India’s vast informal economy — which accounts for more than 90 percent of the workforce — is struggling under India’s new tax rates…broader pain being felt by many small-and-medium-sized businesses in India’s informal sector, said K.E. Raghunathan, president of the All India Manufacturers Organisation.

The bottom line is that India needs more economic liberty, building on some good reforms in the 1990s. Unfortunately, politicians today are delivering bigger government.

P.P.S. If you want to read about some symptoms of India’s bloated government, the country has a member in the Bureaucrat Hall of Fame, it also produced the most horrifying example of how handouts create bad incentives, and it mistreats private schools to compensate for the wretched failure of government schools.

P.P.P.S. Here’s a very powerful factoid. America has many immigrant populations that earn above-average incomes. But, by far, Indian-Americans are the most successful.

Just imagine, then, how fast India would grow and how rich the people would be with Hong Kong-style economic liberty?

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The welfare state is bad news for both taxpayers and recipients.

Pervasive handouts also are a mistake because they create incentives for very bad behavior.

And I’m not just talking about the incentive not to work. Welfare enables and encourages utterly horrifying examples of misbehavior.

But there’s a new example that probably would win the prize if there was a contest for the most sickening behavior enabled by governments giveaways.

People in India apparently are feeding their older relatives to tigers is order to get cash payments from the government.

I’m not joking. India Today has a story on the matter.

What if suddenly a lot of elderly folks start dying because of fatal tiger attacks? Either the tigers have targeted the old people especially or something is just not right. …Authorities surmise that people are sending older members of the family into the tiger reserve for them to become a prey. Once killed, their bodies are relocated to fields, and staged as victims of a tiger attack, so that the respective family can claim lakhs in compensation from the government.

Here are some added details from the Times of India.

Authorities suspect local families are sending older members into the forest as tiger prey, and their bodies then relocated to fields, to feign attacks and claim lakhs in compensation from the government. Villagers aren’t entitled to compensation if their kin die in the reserve. There has been a string of recent fatal tiger attacks on the elderly, with seven deaths reported in the proximity of the Mala forest range alone since February 16. …Locals, however, say family elders were willing participants in the whole affair. “They think that since they can’t get resources from the forest, this is the only way their families can escape poverty,” farmer Jarnail Singh, 60, told TOI.

And the U.K.-based Daily Mail also has a report on this bizarre situation.

Elderly relatives are being sent into tiger reserves to be killed so that families can claim compensation in a horrifying new trend in India. Younger family members appear to be targeting Pilibhit Tiger Reserve in Uttar Pradesh by sending their elders into the forest to be mauled to death before dumping their bodies in nearby fields. Villagers are not entitled to claim compensation if they die in the reserve, but if they are killed in a tiger attack outside the reserve, they can cash in on government money. …The revelation that this is a deliberate ploy to cash in on compensation money was triggered by Kalim Athar of the Wildlife Crime Control Bureau (WCCB).

Wow. I’m almost at a loss for words.

Imagine the conversation around the dinner table. “Good news, Granny, we’ve arranged an overnight trip for you to the nature preserve.”

It’s even more chilling if the old people are actually willing participants. “Son, make sure to make the scene look realistic after you move my body out of the preserve.”

In some sense, this is actually a broader story about bigger issues such as the degree to which the burden of government is reduced to enable more economic growth in India, including in rural areas. Or the proper balance between environmental stewardship and the needs of the surrounding community.

But it’s hard to focus on those big-picture issues when old people are being sacrificed to tigers to get loot from the government. Somebody – either the families or the willing old people – deserves induction in the Moocher Hall of Fame.

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As part of yesterday’s column about global growth, poverty, and inequality, I realized that I’ve written several columns about economic policy in China, but never once focused on overall policy in India.

Indeed, a quick look through the archives reveals only three columns that even addressed specific policies in India. And all of them were negative.

So it’s time to assess overall economic policy in India, which means this is an opportunity to point out that there are some positive developments in the world’s second-most populous nation.

One of my Cato colleagues, Swaminathan S. Anklesaria Aiyar, wrote an exhaustive study on India’s economy last year. The bottom line is that there’s been some progress, most of which took place in the 1990s.

India’s economic reforms over 25 years have transformed it from a low-income country to a middle-income one. But to become a high-income country, India must liberalize the economy much further.

At the risk of oversimplification, India has gone through three phases since its independence after World War II.

It began with a long period of statism and socialism.

Here are some additional excerpts from the study describing that grim period. And I’ve augmented those passages with India’s awful score from Economic Freedom of the World in 1975, when it only scored 4.33 on a 0-10 scale.

…until 1990, India was…hamstrung by a million controls, imposed in the holy name of socialism and then used by politicians to create patronage networks and line their pockets. …The public sector was supposed to gain the commanding heights of the economy. Nothing could be manufactured without an industrial license or imported without an import license, and those licenses were scarce and difficult to get. Any producers who exceeded their licensed capacity faced possible imprisonment for the sin of violating the government’s sacred plan targets. …Indian socialism reached its zenith in the 1970s, when the banks and several major industries were nationalized. The top income tax rate rose to 97.75 percent, and the wealth tax to 3.5 percent. …India’s poverty ratio did not improve at all between independence in 1947 and 1983; it remained a bit under 60 percent. Meanwhile, the population virtually doubled, meaning the absolute number of poor people doubled.

Now let’s look at some good news.

There was a small amount of reform in the 1980s, which became much more significant amount of reform in the 1990s.

In 1991 India embarked on major reforms to liberalize its economy after three decades of socialism… P. V. Narasimha Rao became prime minister in 1991. The Soviet Union was collapsing at the time, proving that more socialism could not be the solution for India’s ills. Meanwhile, Deng Xiaoping had revolutionized China with market-friendly reforms. And so Indian politicians turned in the direction of the market too. …After 1991 direct tax rates gradually came down substantially… The wealth tax on shares was abolished, making it possible to raise shareholder value without being penalized for it. …The corporate tax was cut from a maximum of 58 percent to 30 percent, yet corporate tax collections increased from 1 percent of GDP to almost 6 percent at one point. …Personal income tax rates also fell from 50 percent to 30 percent, but once again collections rose, from 1 percent of GDP to almost 2 percent.

Notice, by the way, that lower tax rates led to more tax receipts. Yet another piece of evidence for the Laffer Curve.

Though I’m much more interested in whether people benefited, not whether politicians collected more money.

And the paper reveals that the reform era generated significant dividends.

Twenty-five years later, the outcome has been an outstanding economic success. India has gone from being a poor, slow growing country to the fastest-growing major economy in the world in 2016. …Per capita income is up from $375 per year in 1991 to $1,700 today. India has long ceased to be a low-income country as defined by the World Bank, which uses a threshold of $1,045, and has become a middle-income country. …areas that were comprehensively liberalized saw the disappearance of corruption. Before 1991, bribes were needed for industrial licenses, import licenses, foreign exchange allotments, credit allotments, and much else. But economic reform ended industrial and import licensing, and foreign exchange became freely available. Lower import and excise duties ended most smuggling and excise tax evasion

There’s even been good news on poverty.

Now let’s shift to bad news. Simply stated, India needs a lot more reform, but it doesn’t seem to be happening.

As illustrated by this chart showing the country’s annual scores from Economic Freedom of the World, India is mired in a modern era of policy stagnation.

In other words, so much more is needed to help India become a rich nation. Yet the reform agenda has been spotty in the past two decades, or even nonexistent.

Here are some final excerpts, accompanied by India’s most-recent EFW scores.

Many old price and quantitative controls should be abolished, and yet more are being enacted. Extensive controls permeate the entire chain of agricultural inputs, outputs, and processed agricultural goods (notably sugar). New price controls have been clamped on seeds and even on royalties paid by seed companies to suppliers of technology. The tax regime is uncertain, and many cases of retrospective taxation have tarnished the investment climate. …Even as old controls have been liberalized, dozens of new regulations are issued every year relating to new areas like the environment, health and safety standards, forests, and tribal areas. As with the old controls, the new controls are issued in the name of the public good and are then used by politicians and inspectors to line their pockets. …The bureaucracy is notoriously corrupt and slow moving… Public-sector corporations remain large, wasteful, and unreformed. Government banks still control 70 percent of bank lending, have the worst record of bad loans and financial losses, and yet are such convenient cash cows for politicians that no party wants to privatize them. …To reach high-income status, India must become a much better governed country that opens markets much further.

The good news, if you compare the 1975 and 2014 EFW scores, is that India now enjoys much more freedom than it did at the peak of the socialist era.

That being said, there are 111 nations with more economic freedom, so there is a lot of room for improvement.

Let’s close with a very powerful factoid. America has many immigrant populations that earn above-average incomes. But, by far, Indian-Americans are the most successful.

Just imagine, then, how fast India would grow and how rich the people would be with Hong Kong-style economic liberty?

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