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Kaushik Basu's blog

Global Economic Outlook in One Thousand Words

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[All numbers cited in this essay are from the World Bank’s latest Global Economic Prospects. The analysis is mine.]

The economic prospect for the world in 2014 is best described as uneventful. It is a strange world we live in that this is the good news. After six years of turmoil marked by financial crises and long stretches of recession in several countries, it is indeed heartening that we are headed for uneventful times with a slow pick-up in global growth.

The world in 2013 grew by 2.4%. We are forecasting a growth of 3.2% in 2014. This is the point forecast. There is a lot that is happening around it, with some countries expected to make a strong recovery, some weak, and some actually slowing. And for each country there are bands of possibilities around their respective point forecasts.

Shared Prosperity, Poverty Mitigation and the Art of Reasoning

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The growth v. inequality debate attracts such widespread participation because, at entry level, it makes such minimal demands on the human intellect. But the debate can be conducted at many levels, leading us into some intricate and indeed treacherous terrain. The newly-declared goals of the World Bank Group—to end extreme poverty in the world by 2030 and to promote shared prosperity in all societies—take the Bank into this disputed terrain and compel it to join in this important policy debate. I have just published a paper to elaborate on the meaning of these goals, examine their strengths and weaknesses, and to initiate a discussion of what kinds of policies these goals push us towards.

Samoa Diary

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A discomfiting feature of going to places off the beaten track is the surprise shown by the natives themselves. I recall traveling to Dushanbe from Moscow by Somon Airways; the flight attendant--a young Tajik woman--on learning that I am an Indian living in Washington, looked puzzled and asked, enunciating each word, "Why, may I ask you, are you going to Tajikistan?" The slight sense of alarm caused by the query hinting at faulty decision making on my part was heightened by Aristomene Varoudakis, a gifted economist and one of my advisers at the World Bank, pronouncing, ten minutes into the flight: "So far, so good." Those words, meant to be comforting, were disquieting in their suggestion that this was a journey in which ten minutes without a mishap deserved a toast.

The same was true as I headed to Samoa. The flight was full of Samoans who could have walked out of a Paul Gauguin frieze, a few surfers and some missionaries. Jimmy Olazo and I from the World Bank did not fit into any of these categories and faced the inevitable interrogation on why we were going there. Samoa is indeed an unusual country to visit. It is impossibly small, with a population of less than 200,000. Its resources are meager, consisting of fish, some agricultural products and spectacular scenery. To an economist the viability of an economy like this is a conundrum. Where do you get the economies of scale from to produce your cars, hospitals, clothes? How much fish and tourism can you supply to the rest of the world to pay for these? Is it possible to help Samoans organize a steady flow of workers, skilled and unskilled, to other nations and rely on their remittances? How do you provide any insurance against the risks of natural disaster and calamity, a concern that, as I discovered over the next three days, dominated the lives of the Samoans? How do you conduct monetary policy in such an impossibly small nation?

India's Moral Churning -- Excerpts from August 16 Tata Lecture, Delhi

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Revised excerpts from the 16th JRD Tata lecture, delivered in New Delhi, 19 August 2013.

This is a difficult time for the Indian economy. Growth has slowed, with industry shrinking over the last two successive months, wholesale price inflation has risen to 5.8%, and the rupee has been losing value sharply. There is reason to be upset about this and to demand more from policy makers. Yet, as I argue in this lecture, this is not India's biggest problem. The nation's biggest challenge at this critical juncture is a moral and an ethical one. This, for India, is a moment of moral churning. Skullduggery and corruption, cutting across party lines, have been rampant, eating into the moral fabric of the nation, leaving ordinary people befuddled and in despair. This is breeding a corrosive cynicism, leading people to believe that maybe this is the only way to be, that petty corruption and harassment is simply the new normal, whereby we should complain when we are left out of the gravy train and merrily join in if and when we get a foothold on that train. Yes, the economy has not done well over the last year or two. But once we look beyond the proximate causes we will realize that one important factor for the economy not doing well is the corrosion of values like trust and trustworthiness and their concomitant, poor governance.

Through the smog, gently: Postcard from Malaysia

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PREAMBLE

My travels in Malaysia begin at the distant eastern edge of the country, in Sabah's capital, Kota Kinabalu, the strange name a reminder of the distance I have traveled from home. Meeting local folks, regional politicians, and masters of local arts and crafts, it quickly becomes evident that this ancient island, Borneo, symbolizes all the mysteries and romance of human movement through history. The people who seem settled here forever arrived one day after traveling great distances, braving the wilds and the seas. They were then the modern people who had come to an ancient land. They would soon be absorbed and become the natives in the eyes of the next wave of arrival and modern-day visitors like us.

Frederico, Vivian, Kup (a senior officer of the Ministry of Finance) and I are received at the airport at Kota Kinabalu by a charming young woman, Intan. She is tall and has a head-scarf carefully draped around her head covering her hair. Intan explains she is part Arab, part Chinese, and part Bajau, an ancient tribal people. She smiles and adds that she considers herself Bajau.

A Paean to Reason and Empathy

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The following blog post is an excerpt from my commencement address delivered at the Diploma Ceremony of Fordham University, held in New York on May 19, 2013

The first rule of reason is honesty. There are situations in life where kindness and concern for others make us hold back on certain kinds of speech. That is as it should be. Speech can hurt as much as physical violence. If the latter is wrong, so must be the former. But to ourselves, in our minds, we should practice the utmost honesty. Honesty in thought may be inconvenient but in the long-run it helps.

Consider what we are often told—that if there is a will, there is a way; with sufficient determination, we can achieve anything. But to believe in this you have to suspend reason. And my advice is don’t. There are things in life which through sufficient determination you can achieve; but there are also things which no matter how hard you try, you will never get. It is best to see this clearly and realistically and then make your own choices rationally. You will make better decisions.

Fragments from an Africa Diary: Johannesburg, Pretoria and Diepsloot

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I never thought I would descend to being the kind of person who read budget speeches for pleasure. I was therefore alarmed when, en route from Washington to Johannesburg, via Dakar last month, I found myself reaching out to Finance Minister Pravin Gordhan's Budget Speech that he had just delivered to the South African parliament. Worse, I soon found myself reading it with pleasure. The pleasure came from two sources: the eminent sensibility of the speech, and comfort from the realization that the problems we contend with, wherever we are, are fundamentally similar. South Africa is wrestling with keeping its fiscal deficit under control, its flagging growth rate up and yawning inequities in check. Musing about these problems I dozed off. When I woke up the cabin was dark. Curious about who was going to Dakar I looked around. Of the passengers in my cabin, around 30 percent were Black, 70 percent were White, and 80 percent were watching The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel.

The Business of Knowledge

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A large part of the task of economic development in the world can be achieved by carrying existing knowledge from where it is available to where it is not. The creation of new knowledge is of course important, but when one looks around at the large areas of unwarranted darkness in the world, it becomes evident that there is a lot to be gained simply by knowledge arbitrage. But the reason why this does not happen, large knowledge gaps persist, and we fail to deliver even when we have the knowhow is that knowledge arbitrage is not as easy as it may appear at first sight.

We have the knowledge needed to eradicate polio from the face of the earth. Years of research gave us the vaccine, first in injectable form and later as oral medicine. By 1962 this was licensed. Yet even now well over a thousand children contract polio each year. This is the reason why we are shocked when we get news of nurses and doctors participating in vaccination campaigns being killed. The most recent was the case of nine women killed in Nigeria by gunmen suspected to be part of a radical Islamist sect. Similar incidents have occurred in Pakistan and Afghanistan. And there is no getting away from the fact that, in many places, terrorists succeed in carrying out these attacks because of pre-existing local suspicion about the polio vaccine.

G20 gets under way on red letter day

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As Russia begins hosting the G20, I thought readers might be interested in my Reuters interview earlier this week making the case for proactive monetary and fiscal policy coordination. There has been a lot of talk of currency wars. I believe that what we are witnessing now are best described as currency skirmishes. The trouble is that a skirmish can easily segue into a war. That is what makes it imperative for nations to have conversations and coordination on monetary and fiscal policies. Skilled interventions are needed on multiple fronts, from managing government debt levels to financing long-term investment in developing countries. My hope is that leaders in Moscow will be attentive to these and might also turn their minds to interventions for the poor, whether they live in far corners of Russia’s great expanse, the townships of South Africa, the favelas of Brazil or the rural hinterlands of China and India.

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