The Use and Abuse of the Phrase “Global Public Good”

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Photo by Miroslav Petrasko

A flawed understanding of the concept of “public good” hampers the fight for equitable access to the upcoming COVID-19 vaccine

The term “global public good” has been used in very different ways by policy makers, economists and others. The term “global” is not particularly controversial, and in this context is generally understood to involve cases where the benefits of the service or good impact residents of more than one country, even if not necessarily the whole world. The term “public good” is subject to more diverse uses, often depending upon one’s educational or professional training.

For many people, perhaps most, the term “public good” is loosely defined to include cases where governments are willing to undertake measures to expand access, with universal access at least an aspirational goal. However, among the other influential definitions of “public good” is one that is exceptionally restrictive. A proposal by Paul Samuelson first published in 1954, meant at the time as an extreme and polar case, has found its way into countless articles, textbooks and academic courses, and has parameters that are rarely met in practice. At times, Samuelson’s 66-year-old paper is actually an obstacle to collective efforts to supply and distribute goods that have considerable impact on society.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents an astonishing global challenge regarding the control of the pandemic and the reduction of harm. The health impacts are large, particularly for older patients, and growing unpredictably, and the pandemic has had an enormous social and economic impact on everyone, with no obvious end in sight.Read More »

Problems with a bottom-up approach to governance reform: Evidence from India

There is a neoliberal consensus pioneered by Hayek and Tiebout in the 1940s and 1950s in the idea that a market economy-like organisation of sub-national units in a federation will result in overall gains in institutional performance. Literature has focused on the efficiency gains to be derived from making sub-national units competitive guided by the principle that devolved government is better able to respond to voters’ choices. This rests on the assumption that local and national needs vary significantly. In this article, I ask whether the prioritisation of service delivery in healthcare and education sectors is indeed something that varies across states in India. The Indian federal system has been increasingly under pressure to devolve power to the states since the economy was set on a path to liberalisation. Initially, this pressure came from the outside, through international institutions (Bretton Woods, largely) but this opportunity was instantaneously accepted by sub-national politicians who promoted, rightly, the cause of their constituencies. This has taken shape in the form of reduced centralised monitoring of service delivery, and the funds previously allocated to this end are now being directly transferred to states who have unconditional leeway to allocate it to various uses. This occurred too suddenly without a mechanism in place to safeguard and ensure the equitable delivery of essential services in healthcare and education, and an ever widening gap among states.

fig1Source: Data from CMIE States of India, RBI

Building on to this, we also have inter-regional issues due to clustering economies. Some states benefit whilst others (often, the poorer ones) lose out by disgraceful margins. There is a race to the bottom on regulatory easing for corporations, and inter-state bargaining for central resources is competitive, rather than cooperative. Transplantation of a European approach to governance and institutions in the Indian context has meant that natural resources are being plundered by sub-national governments to promote corporate interests, as their citizens remain deprived. Public hospitals and primary healthcare infrastructure are slowly decaying into obscurity as shiny, private health players enter the market. This is the same case within the education sector, cheap, private schools largely targeting the middle class are driving away resources and interest away from the public school system, which in its crippled state cannot justify a case to be the recipient of sub-national governments’ interest. Read More »

Neoliberalism’s many deaths and strange non-deaths 

neoliberalismBy Jack Copley and Alexis Moraitis

The coronavirus pandemic has required states to take unprecedented steps to backstop the world capitalist economy. This has included enormous liquidity injections into financial markets, guaranteeing the wages of furloughed workers, and temporarily requisitioning and coordinating parts of the private sector. Yet last year a different threat – not epidemiological but proletarian – similarly forced states to adopt redistributive policies against their wills, albeit on a smaller scale. 

From the vantage point of the current uprisings against racist police violence, the empty streets of the early 2020 lockdown appear as a brief exception to the broader trend of mass unrest. In 2019, streets, avenues, and squares in different parts of the world flooded with protestors decrying the pro-rich policies of their respective governments. The scale, endurance, and spectacular disruptiveness of these popular explosions pressed governments from Western Asia to Europe to Latin America to abandon so-called neoliberal fiscal rectitude and reluctantly embrace Keynesian stimulus policies.

In Chile, on the eve of the autumn 2019 revolt, billionaire austerian president Sebastián Piñera invoked a classic metaphor of neoliberal stoicism to explain how he would resist popular opposition to his painful reform programme: ‘Ulysses tied himself to a ship’s mast and put pieces of wax in his ears to avoid falling for the … siren calls’. Less than one month later, this modern Ulysses had broken free from his tethers, announcing increases in the minimum wage, healthcare benefits, pensions, electricity subsidies, and the reform of Chile’s very constitution. There are clear parallels with France’s Emmanuel Macron, a former investment banker who assumed power in 2017 on a platform of market discipline, only to buckle under the weight of the relentless Gilet Jaunes movement and announce a €17 billion package of concessions.

How are we to grasp the jarring Keynesian U-turns of such cartoonish neoliberal governments in the face of mass protest and pandemic? It is commonly assumed that the neoliberal project represented the shrinking of the state sphere and its replacement by the cold logic of the marketplace. The 2008 bank bailouts appeared to buck this trend, as states were called upon to undertake drastic interventions. But this turned out to be a hiccup in neoliberalism’s larger narrative arc, as austerity quickly took hold. Yet perhaps this latest accumulation of crises will at last force states to reclaim the territory they had ceded to the market. After its ‘strange non-death’, is neoliberalism finally dying?Read More »

The return of State planning

brasilia-2448030_1280Conventional economics is notorious for having created a highly persuasive analytical toolbox. The challenge of this stream of the profession until the 1960s was to prove the logical possibility that the market could not only coordinate the entire economy, but also keep it stable at that single point of optimum equilibrium. In order to boast the wonders of decentralized market exchange, the theory paradoxically invoked the metaphor of a “benevolent social planner”.

A growing list of circumstances in which markets fail to generate the optimal societal outcome (externalities, coordination failures, and so on) raised the academic premium for sound justifications for avoiding State interventions in the economy. Government failures – it was, and still is, claimed – could be even worse than those of the market.

The theoretical vilification of the State’s performance matched the emerging political philosophy in the early 1980s. Despite the enormous State apparatus created after the Second World War, from 1980s onwards, government functions were gradually reduced to the subordinate role of supporting the private sector. To paraphrase Keynes: neoliberalism won over the West as the Holy Inquisition conquered Spain. Western society surrendered to market dominance, shrinking State capacity despite the achievements of the three decades of postwar Keynesian policies, which generated the highest world growth rates in modern history. 

One of the blindsides of the drastic downsizing of the State observed after 1980s is severely limiting its capacity to respond whenever needed. The COVID-19 epidemic made this very clear. Countries that fell for the neoliberal spell faced a flagrant difficulty in organizing an efficient response to a looming healthcare crisis, thus rekindling a debate about the way in which the State operates in society. Read More »

COVID-19: how to transform the industrial policy toolkit in developing nations

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COVID-19 presents some leeway for countries to pursue industrial policy on their own terms. However, as crisis conditions dissipate, current economic theory is of little help. Current perspectives range from the almost theological to the overly positivistic. Mainstream economists who have tried to ‘mainstream’ industrial policy in recent times offer simple econometric-centred reasoning that seeks to find cross-country regularities instead of nuanced and real-world application based on a country’s economic history. They apply highly positivistic and proscriptive worldviews claiming industrial policy should reveal latent ‘comparative advantage’. On the other hand, and perhaps equally misguided, heterodox scholars who reclaim the structural roots of industrial policy have anchored it in increasingly irrelevant empirical foundations that would only be useful for countries with already existing manufacturing bases. The latter have opted for the more theological approach that presupposes classical growth as an end of any industrial policy as a positive development. I hope that we seize the chance to encourage a new paradigm for industrial policy beyond narrow prescriptions and dominant worldviews.Read More »

Indonesia’s State-Led Development: Custodian of the National Interest, or Boondoggle?

industry-4612432_1920Nobel Laureate Esther Duflo once likened the work of economists to that of plumbers – tinkering and adjusting as necessary as they engage with the details of economic policy-making. The implication in this comparison is that economists generally understand economic systems and behaviour how the pipes come together – and that the main work of the discipline is to fiddle with these components – adjusting the pressure, replacing valves – to see what works and what doesn’t.

A critique of this approach was compiled by Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven here. The primary criticism is that the basic premise is flawed – we do not, in fact, have a very complete understanding of how the pipes come together. Often, we don’t even know where they are. The institutional architecture that determines economic outcomes can vary widely from one country to the next. With so much variation at the systemic-level the utility of “tinkering” at the margins is questionable.

This blog series will interrogate some of the prevailing assumptions about the relationship between state and capital and look at why and in what ways some economies are deeply intertwined with the state. The structural conditions that actually exist in developing economies are often ignored in mainstream economic analyses – the prescription for countries with large state-owned sectors is usually some combination of more market liberalization, less protectionism, better enforcement of property rights. This ignores why the economy is structured that way in the first place, and therefore such prescriptions risk being disconnected from the reality on the ground, and thus ineffective.

Indonesia’s economic trajectory helps to illustrate this point. Despite a long history of sometimes violent anti-communist sentiment, massive portions of the economy are either partially or directly controlled by state-owned enterprises. According to Kyunghoon Kim in 2016 there were148 SOEs in Indonesia, and their total assets were equivalent to 56.9% of the country’s GDP.This includes the state-owned oil and gas company Pertamina, three of the four largest banks, the state-owned electric utility PLN which owns the entire national grid, airport operators Angkasa Pura I and II which operate every major commercial airport, the telecom giant PT Telekomunikasi Indonesia and the largest toll road operator Jasa Marga, to name just a few. Read More »

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 »

Rethinking the Failures of Mining Industrialisation in the African Periphery

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The remains of one of SOMINKI’s industrial gold mines (author photo).

The World Bank interpreted the failure of mineral extraction to drive structural transformation in the early decades of African Independence as due to badly managed state-owned enterprises (SOEs), excessive state intervention in the economy, and government corruption. To right these wrongs, since the 1980s, the Bank has loaned hundreds of millions of dollars to the governments of mineral-rich (and mostly low-income) African countries to privatise and liberalise their mining sectors. Spurred on by the most recent commodity super-cycle beginning in the late 1990s, foreign direct investment poured in, and for many low-income African countries today, “the mining sector represents one of the most crucial sources of investment and income in their economies” (Farole and Winkler 2014: 177). A major theoretical assumption underpinning this process has been a belief in the superior expertise and efficiency of experienced transnational corporations (TNCs) compared to corrupt and mismanaged SOEs. In this post, I unpack and question the validity of this assumption, by drawing on some of the findings from my doctoral thesis on mining reindustrialisation in South Kivu Province of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC).     Read More »