Property rights and transaction costs in developing countries: A political settlement perspective

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Photo by Dennis Jarvis. Louisbourg Lighthouse.

Transaction costs due to distributional conflicts, political settlements, and weak enforcement capacity have important implications for the implementation of property rights in developing countries. While critical analysis of these factors is missing in the mainstream economics approach to property rights, it is obvious that incorporating such analysis will be crucial in designing policies to minimize transaction costs that hinder an efficient functioning of property rights. Specifically, there is a need for an alignment of interests among powerful political and economic interests if property rights are to be more efficient at reducing transaction costs. 

A fundamental limitation of contemporary property rights theory is its inability to incorporate factors that might reduce property rights from solving transaction costs, particularly in developing countries. This piece reviews the mainstream explanation of the relationship between property rights and transaction costs and then evaluates factors that can inhibit property rights from reducing relevant transaction costs, which include distributional conflicts, costly enforcement capacity, political settlement, and measurement problems. Major emphasis is placed on social conflicts and organization of power which are missing from the conventional analysis of property rights.

In this respect, the political settlements framework developed by SOAS economist Mushtaq Khan can enrich our understanding of the operations of property rights in developing countries. Khan (2018) defines political settlements as “social orders characterised by distributions of organizational power that together with specific formal and informal institutions effectively achieve at least the minimum requirements of political and economic sustainability for that society”. In short, political settlement means the distribution of power among different groups.Read More »

Economic development in Palestine and beyond

Palestine-blog-image-TSuccessful economic development in Palestine will require an adequate theory of development, industrial policy, and institutional reforms.

Recently, the Palestine Economic Policy Research Institute (MAS) published a comprehensive study on Palestinian economic development. In this report, co-authored by my colleagues Heiner Flassbeck, Michael Paetz, and I, we explore possible solutions as to how Palestine could sustainably finance its deficits. Now, after the Israeli elections, Jared Kushner, the US President’s son-in-law and senior advisor, is set to announce the details of the US Peace Plan for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Given that the Peace Plan is expected to include a large economic component to solve the conflict, it will be interesting to see to what extent it addresses the fundamental problems we identified in our research.

Our results suggest, succinctly, that under current conditions of excessive imbalances in the external sector (trade and current account), any issuance of debt securities requires fixing these imbalances first, for which, in turn, strategic public intervention is critical. This finding may come as a surprise to most policymakers, as orthodox economic theory suggests that the most efficient ways for countries to develop is through market led (as opposed to state led) policies. Historical evidence demonstrates that none of the advanced countries followed this path in their own development, yet the idea of ‘the market’ as the most efficient development tool is still widespread. Based on this belief, Western institutions wreaked havoc in developing countries during the 1980s and 1990s, and continue to do so (although some institutions, notably the IMF, show significant progress in learning from past experiences).Read More »

Revisiting the Battles and Cycles of Development

Cycles.jpegWalt Rostow (1959) infamously put forth a five-stage theory of economic development, extrapolating from the experiences of the great industrialized nations. However, as dependency theories strongly pointed out, the conditions under which those countries industrialized is significantly different from those that prevailed after decolonization. In addition to this, democratic capitalism experiences turbulence, which I argue makes development under this global system a struggle against powers and against what I call “Burawoyan Cycles”.Read More »

Free Trade Free for All: Market Romanticism Versus Reality

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The drama surrounding President Trump’s decision to impose import tariffs on steel and aluminum has roiled the Republican Party and wide swathes of the corporate elite. The tariff decision comes on the heels of political bluster about the US being treated “unfairly” by other countries. This accusation of “unfairness” when it comes to US trade deficits is well worn. In a previous era, Japan was the alleged culprit of “unfair” trade practices because of its persistent trade surpluses with the U.S.Read More »

Pitfalls of the Developmental State: The Fate of the Sudanese Economic Model

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I have lately been grappling with the question of how African states came into being, not just as political, but especially economic territorial units. Connected to this are questions of how experts, especially economists came to influence and account for what became national economies. At the center of the state, economy and society are critical question of development and welfare. How did independent African countries make sense of their inheritance and what mechanisms did they deploy to transform themselves into coherent nations of multiple but entangled identities with disparate circumstance but common material goals united by the logic of a national economy? As I grappled with these issues, a great new monograph informed by an impressive historiography has arrived. The author grounds his work in an archivally based history of the transformation of the Sudan into an economic unit between the 1940s and the 1960s. Alden Young’s new book: Transforming the Sudan: Decolonization, Economic Development, and State Formation (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2017) is centred on addressing these question using the history of a territory that transformed from being an Anglo-Egyptian Sudan condominium into the independent state of Sudan.Read More »

Towards a better understanding of convergence and divergence: or, how the present EU strategy – at the expense of the economic periphery – neglects the theories that once made Europe successful

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This new working paper attempts to address some of the main problems of the European Union today. The main thesis is that the Weltanschauung and the economic narrative on which the European project has been based have changed radically since the inception of the European Project, from one conducive to convergence and cohesion to another which is conducive to divergence and, in the last instance – I shall argue – to a form of internal colonialism towards the economic periphery.

The field of Science and Technology employs the term sociotechnical imaginary [1] about the collective narratives and visions of social futures and of the common good. I shall argue that the European Union has moved away from the sociotechnical imaginary, or narrative, that dominated after World War II. I shall argue that this post WW II Marshall Plan Narrative (MPN) gave way to an equilibrium-based Neo-Classical Economics Narrative with an added innovation rhetoric, which I shall argue is based on a fairly shallow understanding of innovation (which I shall call NC+I).Read More »

A Critical Review on the documentary “Poverty, Inc.”

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The documentary “Poverty, Inc.” has become so influential that it is now part of many courses at the university level. The good news is that at universities we apply critical thinking to the information we receive (or we are supposed to). As a development economist, I share here my views on this famous documentary.

On the positive side, the documentary does a good job in making some points for an audience unfamiliar with economic theory, such as the idea that dependency does not end poverty, or that current foreign aid (money flows between governments) has “unintended consequences that do more harm than good.” However, both ideas are not new in development studies. The much quoted “teach a human to fish” is an idea associated with many philosophers, including Maimonides (about 850 years ago). This criticism of the structure of current foreign aid is a relatively old idea in the development literature. Perhaps the best point made by the documentary is the argument that Non-governmental Organizations (NGOs) can do a better job if they base their strategies on effective communications with local entities, although this idea is not new either.

What are, then, the problems with this documentary? Many. Firstly, the development literature has two main perspectives; namely, the conservative and the progressive. A documentary that omits a whole branch of argumentation is not responsible and carries “unintended consequences,” such as misinforming that unfamiliar audience. Besides mentioning supranational entities, the documentary did not expose crucial structural problems: there is no serious analysis on geopolitics, global power relations, or class issues, among others. A class analysis would not, for instance, focus on stressing that “NGOs need the poor to exist” but that “the rich need the poor to exist”.Read More »

The Power of the Market

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“The ‘market’ is a bad master, but can be a good servant.”
S. Chakravarty (1993: 420)

In the world today, more and more interpersonal interactions are replaced by market transactions. The market system is both an economic and a cultural phenomenon, yet we seem to be hardly aware of the values that are bound up in it. This phenomenon is manifest at many levels: from the family, through the neighbourhood and the enterprise, to the nation and the globe. If there is such a thing as global ethics, I suggest, then they are – like it or not – the ethics of the market. My purpose here is to elaborate this claim, and to assess its implications. I shall distinguish between the market as a theoretical construct in economics, and the market as a social institution.

My main hypothesis can be briefly stated as follows: the most convincing ethical argument currently being made in favour of the market is its neutrality. Whether the market is in fact neutral may be disputed. But if one accepts this claim, it implies that the market is amoral, rather than immoral, and there remain, I suggest, two objections to allowing the market ethic to prevail. The first is that this is an abrogation of moral responsibility. It implies delegating decisions of major social and material significance to powers which are beyond our control, and whose outcome is uncertain. Second, the neutrality of the market comes at a cost in social and human terms; social relations between persons are replaced by contractual relations between economic agents.Read More »