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A Layman’s long-view of the economy

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by Kumar David

Experts rarely layout the longer view of Lanka’s impasse in simple words. Political manifestos are all boringly much the same except a difference in emphasis between the roles of state and market. I do not touch on a What Next Programme today; that will have to wait. I wish to take a step back and measure processes not persons. We need first to appreciate that both the consumer side and producer side have been transformed between Independence and now.

In previous times mass consumption needs were simpler; now even the less well-off classes and all but the lowest stratum in the village have more complex expectations; books and apparel for school kids, tuition-masters, consumer durables – fridge, microwave, gas-cooker, a motorbike or a scooter, and money to sometimes take a three-wheeler, better clothes, jeans, shoes, the list goes on. There is explosive growth not only in the amount but also range and variety of consumer demands across the social spectrum. And I must mention the quality of housing and furnishing. This is not the snotty elite; I refer to maybe 70 or 80 percent of people in towns and villages.

A simple agricultural economy as in colonial times cannot generate the surplus required to meet these expectations of a much-expanded population. In an agricultural economy the value of output minus costs of production (including farmers labour time) is too small to generate a net economic surplus to carry this burden. (The plantation sector of course produces a large surplus). This is transformation number one, the consumption side.

There have also been advances to a degree in the production side. Local industry in the broad sense that includes the capitalist sector, state enterprises after the mid-1950s and often forgotten but very important small and medium enterprises (SME) have expanded, somewhat. (The contribution of SMEs to the economy, in production, services – repair shops, computer services and trade – is significant). Still, the gross surplus generated in production is inadequate to (a) plough back for sector expansion and (b) satisfy growing consumer needs.

The extended nature of consumption and the somewhat muted progress in production together characterise Sri Lanka’s stifled transition to economic modernism. I speak here of the economic side, not of life-style, cultural, educational and political progress. Furthermore, alterations in the rural sector has created an excess labour pool that the agricultural economy cannot absorb. This together with population growth has led to a demand by the young for jobs in the modern sector which it cannot satisfy because this sector is struggling to expand.

Allow me to summarise what I have said. There has been a large if not explosive expansion in consumption but a by no means matching response in production. It is also vital to bear in mind that the surplus value (that is output-value net of all costs including labour) created in manufacturing, services, plantations and SMEs, must put aside a portion for expanded reproduction. In other words, a part of the profits in manufacturing must be ploughed back for expanded reproduction. But Sri Lanka is a democracy, every one of us jealously guards our democratic system. When you have growing mass consumption, inadequate surplus generated in production and also democracy, the outcome is inevitable; Political Populism!

Political parties, leaders and budgets have no option but to resort to theoretically off-radar methods not only to survive but also to maintain social stability. Otherwise you get strikes, unsustainable wage demands, hartal-1953, electoral avalanches (1956, 1970, 1977, 1994-Chandrika, 2019-20 Rajapaksa landslides) and now in 2022 an explosion on the streets. I do not gloss over corrupt leaders, rampant robbery by political classes and monumental policy blunders but these subjective elements have to be placed side by side with evolved economic imbalances. The failure of material conditions is more important than the robber barons, but let’s not pause here to argue about chickens and eggs.

You would have observed that I have so far assumed a closed or autarchic economy. That is, I have not said anything but cross-border influences – trade, export-import, foreign investment and indebtedness. In the case of a small dependent economy, in an age where globalisation is sweeping like wildfire across the world and bending even mighty China to its will, to ignore the ‘border’ is like talking about an unclothed emperor.

Take-off into modernism failed in Lanka because economic conditions for take-off did not come to fruition. And add another aspect, nationalism. Sinhala nationalist extremism and its child a Tamil nationalist civil-war undermined economic development. The counter example that is quoted frequently is Singapore. The thesis that basic material factors are interwoven with the independent actions of decision-making elites is not new, some people have a name for it, the dialectic, but never mind, no ideology today.

But there is no escaping that the political dimension influenced the consumption-production contradiction and had deep influence on how take-off into modernism took effect in countries whose economies modernised. The Singapore way curtailed racist-populism but satisfied consumption expectations (housing first), in South Korea the tool was harsh repression till the capitalist class expanded the economy, then the dictatorship was overthrown in the late 1980s releasing the nations democratic energies.

Taiwan’s is far too complicated a story of economic take-off and political democratisation to recount here. These are examples of take-off into economic modernity and democracy. Eastern Europe pulled off economic take-off under the Stalinist gun and democratisation after the Berlin Wall tumbled. Among smaller countries, Cuba, Nicaragua and Venezuela have failed the tests of both democratisation and economic take-off for reasons outside the scope of this essay.

The previous paragraph was something of a digression. I wish to return to the significance of turning away from the autarkic road (closed-economy) to economic modernisation and return to the theme of cross-border flows; that is globalisation, external economic relations and foreign investment. The chances of economic take-off in a closed economy (that is generating sufficient surplus in domestic industry and manufacturing alone to bridge the ever-widening consumption-production imbalance) is zero.

Sri Lanka is the classic example of that failure. We have fiscal deficit, money printing, balance of payment deficits and gigantic foreign debt. Even if Gautama Buddha, Jesus Christ and the Prophet were President, Prime Minister and Finance Minister (in any order) this outcome was inevitable in a country that has for 70 years been unable to raise production to match consumption. In truth Lanka is not a closed economy, but it has not been open enough to modernise production, trade, investment, technology and thinking.

Enter trade and investment

Investment from abroad whether the capitalist West or China is the lifeline if after these chaps take away their profits there is, first, expanding reproduction (growth in production), second a surplus injected in some form (goods, services or money) into local consumption and third employment creation. Employment is another way of saying injecting consumption into the domestic economy. Production has to expand and expand uninterruptedly to meet increasing and diversifying local consumption expectations.

This is where champions of shaving imports down to the bone, eliminating all “luxury” imports, introducing cooperative distribution of necessities and such like frugality, are careless. There is a large element of social justice motivating them; that’s ok but it’s not going to do much good for modernising and expanding production. It also calls for a licence regime; licence-raj as they call it in India.

Allow me to tell you a story about licence-raj. My late uncle Vernon Peries was Director of Family Planning in the 1970s. At one stage there was panic in all the clinics; the essential wherewithal had disappeared from pharmacy shelves. Vernon maama investigated, visited the Treasury and dug out files. Now this was the era when the import of sports goods was prohibited as a luxury. He found that an enterprising official had classified condoms as Sports Equipment and the Customs Department had withheld import licences. That’s a true story, and that’s licence-raj for you.

To get back; does encouragement of foreign investment spell the death of state engagement in the economy? No, in my scheme which envisages a different State from now, there will be directive principles about what investments are welcome bearing in mind the three criteria in the para before my sporting story. I envisage three categories; all-foreign, joint ventures where local and overseas capitalists participate, and in the case of the largest enterprises, joint ventures between the state and big investors.

Sure, investors have to take something away, but it has to be a win for the nation too; Deng Xiao Ping played it well. They left behind the capability of production facilities to survive on their own when it was time to say goodbye. This assumes a government with clear objectives and the ability to implement policy. Observe that I have not touched on technology and productivity enhancement – crucial, but too much for one essay.

What are the benefits? One is rent extraction. Taxes and duties will accrue to the state, that’s a sine qua non apart from the previously mentioned three points. This helps finance populist demands without recourse to deficit budgets. And export earnings will help buy motorbikes, cell-phones, refrigerators, books and blue jeans without falling off the debt cliff. It assumes intelligent political leadership and clear policy; well, if you don’t have that forget the whole discourse anyway.

My mind is on a future progressive regime, so in relation to state-foreign joint ventures what should the role of the state in enterprise management be? Managers of the best international companies are professionals whose loyalty is to the excellence of the company itself; they are rarely the big investor or representatives of share-holders. Similarly, our government and ministerial mutts should keep their grubby fingers out and let able managers get on with it. Younger readers will not know BD Rampala, Vere de Mel and ANS Kulasinghe. The role of the state is only laying out directive principles.

You might object that this is not socialism. Well which idiot said that socialism was possible in one country, and how bizarre to expect it in a tiny island or to expect it even in mighty China in this day and age? But I am not talking about bare-faced capitalism and extraction of surplus value by that class by simple exploitation either. What is the state form in Vietnam, or in China or such indeterminate cases? Not capitalism, but I don’t have a name for it either – a rose by any other name is good enough. As for party programmes everybody says the same thing; raising production and productivity, pruning handouts, cutting expenditure, export orientation and attracting foreign investment of the correct type. Aye there’s the rub; the dichotomy between inordinate market orientation and the directive function of the state. But that’s for another time.

END

(FDI Graphic below)



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Responding to our energy addiction

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by Ranil Senanayake

Sri Lanka today is in the throes of addiction withdrawal. Reliant on fossil fuels to maintain the economy and basic living comforts, the sudden withdrawal of oil, coal and gas deliveries has exposed the weakness and the danger of this path of ‘development’ driven by fossil energy. This was a result of some poorly educated aspirants to political power who became dazzled by the advancement of western industrial technology and equated it with ‘Development’. They continue with this blind faith even today.

Thus, on December 20th 1979, an official communiqué was issued by the Government and displayed in the nation’s newspapers stating, “No oil means no development, and less oil, less development. It is oil that keeps the wheels of development moving”. This defined with clarity what was to be considered development by the policy-makers of that time. This fateful decision cast a deadly policy framework for the nation. The energy source that was to drive the national economy would be fossil-based. Even today, that same policy framework and its adherents continue. Everything, from electricity to cooking fuel, was based on fossil energy.

The economics of development, allows externalizing all the negative effects of ‘development’ into the environment, this being justified because, “industrialisation alleviates poverty”. The argument, is that economies need to industrialise in order to reduce poverty; but industrialisation leads to ‘unavoidable emissions. Statements like, ‘reduction in poverty leads to an increase in emissions’ is often trotted out as dogma. Tragically, these views preclude a vision of development based on high tech, non-fossil fuel driven, low consumptive lifestyles. Indeed, one indicator of current ‘development’ is the per capita consumption of power, without addressing the source of that power.

A nation dependent on fossil fuel is very much like an addict dependent on drugs. The demand is small, at first, but grows swiftly, until all available resources are given. In the end, when there is nothing else left to pawn, even the future of their children will be pawned and finally the children themselves! Today, with power cuts and fuel shortages, the pain of addiction begins to manifest.

The creation of desire

This perspective of ‘development’, the extension of so-called ‘civilised living’ is not new to us in Sri Lanka, Farrer, writing in 1920, had this to say when visiting Colombo:

“Modern, indeed, is all this, civilised and refined to a notable degree. All the resources of modern culture are thick about you, and you feel that the world was only born yesterday, so far as right-thinking people are concerned.

And, up and down in the shade of glare, runs furiously the unresting tide of life. The main street is walled in by high, barrack like structures, fiercely western in the heart of the holy East, and the big hotels upon its frontage extend their uncompromising European facades. Within them there is a perpetual twilight, and meek puss-faced Sinhalese take perpetually the drink orders of prosperous planters and white-whiskered old fat gentlemen in sun hats lined with green. At night these places are visible realisation of earthly pleasure to the poor toiling souls from the farthest lonely heights of the mountains and the jungle.” The process goes on still …

Develop we must, but cautiously – with the full awareness of the long-term consequences of each process. Development must be determined by empowering the fundamental rights of the people and of the future generations. Clean air, clean water, access to food and freedom from intoxication, are some of these fundamental rights. Any process that claims to be part of a development process must address these, among other social and legal fundamental rights.

One problem has been that, the movement of a country with traditional non-consumptive values, into a consumerist society based on fossil energy tends to erode these values rapidly. Often, we are told that this is a necessary prerequisite to become a ‘developed country’, but this need not be so. We need to address that fundamental flaw stated in 1979. We need to wean ourselves away from the hydrocarbon-based economy to a carbohydrate-based economy. Which means moving from a fossil fuel-based economy to a renewable energy-based economy.

Fossil Fuels or fossil hydrocarbons are the repository of excess carbon dioxide that is constantly being injected into the atmosphere by volcanic action for over the last 200 million years. Hydrocarbons are substances that were created to lock up that excess Carbon Dioxide, sustaining the stable, Oxygen rich atmosphere we enjoy today. Burning this fossil stock of hydrocarbons is the principal driver of modern society as well as climate change. It is now very clear that the stability of planetary climate cycles is in jeopardy and a very large contributory factor to this crisis are the profligate activities of modern human society.

As a response to the growing public concern that fossil fuels are destroying our future, the fossil industry developed a ‘placating’ strategy. Plant a tree, they say, the tree will absorb the carbon we emit and take it out of the atmosphere, through this action we become Carbon neutral. When one considers that the Carbon which lay dormant for 200 million years was put into the atmosphere today, can never be locked up for an equal amount of time by planting a tree. A tree can hold the Carbon for 500 years at best and when it dies its Carbon will be released into the atmosphere again as Carbon Dioxide.

Carbon Dioxide is extracted from the atmosphere by plants and converted into a solid form through the action of photosynthesis. Photosynthetic biomass performs the act of primary production, the initial step in the manifestation of life. This material has the ability to increase in mass by the absorption of solar or other electromagnetic radiation, while releasing oxygen and water vapor into the atmosphere. It is only photosynthetic biomass that powers carbon sequestration, carbohydrate production, oxygen generation and water transformation, i.e., all actions essential for the sustainability of the life support system of the planet.

Yet currently, it is only one product of this photosynthetic biomass, sequestered carbon, usually represented by wood/timber, that is recognized as having commercial value in the market for mitigating climate change. The ephemeral part, the leaves, are generally ignored, yet the photosynthetic biomass in terrestrial ecosystems are largely composed of leaves, this component needs a value placed on it for its critical ‘environmental services’

With growth in photosynthetic biomass, we will see more Oxygen, Carbon sequestering and water cleansing, throughout the planet. As much of the biomass to be gained is in degraded ecosystems around the planet and as these areas are also home to the world’s rural poor, these degraded ecosystems have great growth potential for generating photosynthetic biomass of high value. If the restoration of these degraded ecosystems to achieve optimal photosynthetic biomass cover becomes a global goal, the amazing magic of photosynthesis could indeed help change our current dire course, create a new paradigm of growth and make the planet more benign for our children.

Instead of flogging the dead horse of fossil energy-based growth as ‘Economic Development’, instead of getting the population addicted to fossil energy, will we have the commonsense to appreciate the value of photosynthetic biomass and encourage businesses that obtain value for the nations Primary Ecosystem Services (PES)? The realization of which, will enrich not only our rural population but rural people the world over!

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Australia-Sri Lanka project in the news…Down Under

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The McNaMarr Project is the collaboration between Australian vocalist and blues guitarist, John McNamara, and Andrea Marr, who is a Sri Lankan-born blues and soul singer, songwriter and vocal coach.

Her family migrated to Australia when she was 14 and, today, Andrea is big news, Down Under.

For the record, Andrea has represented Australia, at the International Blues Challenge, in Memphis, Tennessee, three times, while John McNamara has also been there twice, representing Australia.

Between them, they have 10 albums and multiple Australian Blues awards.

Their second album, ‘Run With Me,’ as The McNaMarr Project, now available on all platforms, worldwide, has gone to No. 1 on the Australian Blues and Roots Sirplay charts, and No. 12 on the UK Blues charts.

Their debut album, ‘Holla And Moan,’ released in 2019, charted in Australia and the US Blues and Soul charts and received rave reviews from around the world.

Many referred to their style as “the true sound of soulful blues.”

= The Rocker (UK): “They’ve made a glorious album of blues-based soul. And when I say glorious, I really mean it. I’ve tried to pick out highlights, but as it’s one of the records of this year – 2019 – (or any other for that matter) it’s tricky. You have to own this.”

= Reflections in Blue (USA): “Ten original tunes that absolutely nail the sound and spirit of Memphis soul. Marr has been compared to Betty Lavette and Tina Turner and with good reason. She delivers vocals with power and soul and has a compelling stage presence. McNamara’s vocals are reminiscent of the likes of Sam & Dave or even Otis Redding. This is quality work that would be every bit as well received, in the late 1950s, as it is today. It is truly timeless.”

= La Hora Del Blues (Spain): “Andrea Marr’s voice gives us the same feeling as artistes, like Betty Lavette, Tina Turner or Sharon Jones, perfectly supported by John McNamara’s work, on vocals and guitar…in short words, GREAT!”

Yes, John McNamara has been described as an exceptional vocalist, guitarist and songwriter, whose voice has been compared to the late great Sam Cooke and Otis Redding, while Andrea Marr often gets compared to the likes of Tina Turner, Gladys Knight and Sharon Jones.

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Manju Robinson’s scene…

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Entertainer and frontline singer, Manju Robinson, is back, after performing at a leading tourist resort, in the Maldives, entertaining guests from many parts of the world, especially from Russia, Kazakhstan, Germany, Poland…and Maldivians, as well.

His playlist is made up of the golden oldies and the modern sounds, but done in different styles and versions.

While preparing for his next foreign assignment…in the Maldives again, and also Dubai, Manju says he has plans to do his thing in Colombo.

Manju has performed with several local bands, including 3Sixty, Shiksha (Derena Dreamstar band), Naaada, Eminents, Yaathra, Robinson Brothers, Odyssey, Hard Black and Mark.

He was the winner – Best Vocalist and the Best Duo performer – at the Battle of the Bands competition, in 2014, held at the Galadari Hotel.

In 2012, he won the LION’s International Best Vocalist 2012 award.

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