Development / 09.11.2020

By Anjum Altaf https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tngL299v5jo&feature=emb_imp_woyt The global economy has been brought to a halt by the lockdowns necessitated by the spread of the COVID pandemic. Governments have pledged billions of dollars to reopen and restore their economies. The big question facing progressive activists is whether they wish a return to the economy as it existed before the pandemic. This would be a contradiction because progressives have all along been critiquing the neoliberal economic structure for its many flaws. The pandemic has also laid bare its grievous unjustness and inequalities most dramatically by the plight of the migrant workers in India. Do we wish to return to an economy where workers would be treated exactly as before?  The pandemic provides a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to reform the economic structure in favour of labour. This could be via changes in the process of production or through enhanced welfare arrangements.  In order to leverage this...

Development / 06.03.2017

By Anjum Altaf A lovely little book came out in 2005 titled On Bullshit. Written by a professor of philosophy at Princeton, it remained a bestseller for months. Its principal message was that “bullshit is a greater enemy of the truth than lies” because “Liars at least acknowledge that it matters what is true.” Bullshitters, on the other hand, convey impressions “without being concerned about whether anything at all is true. They quietly change the rules governing their end of the conversation so that claims about truth and falsity are irrelevant.” I recalled the book after reading two articles within a week talking up the Pakistani economy in the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. Both employed the classic bullshitter’s gambit of throwing out random facts to convey a favorable impression without caring in the least whether the inferences were in any way supported by...

Development / 18.01.2017

By Anjum Altaf How does one get a grip on the proposed China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and its associated investments without any hard information except for the hype? In the absence of any mechanism for credible evaluation I suggest we hold it up against a historical parallel and see what emerges by way of tentative conclusions. Some discussion grounded in real experience may be better than taking sides in the dark. Around the turn of the twentieth century the British invested vast sums of money in the part of the subcontinent that now comprises Pakistan. Amongst these investments were the network of canals and barrages, the post and telegraph, and roads and railways. All included it would have likely added up in real terms to be bigger than the $56 billion associated with the CPEC. What came of all that investment and what economic transformations did it sustain?...

Cities/Urban / 04.09.2015

By Anjum Altaf Anyone wanting to understand urbanization needs to get past two major misunderstandings. First, urbanization is not about individual cities – neither solving their problems nor enhancing their potential for growth. The end result of urbanization is indeed an increase in the population of cities but the term itself refers to the movement of people from rural to urban locations. But which urban locations do (or should) people move to? That is a more important question.  What are the choices that exist and what determines the attractiveness of one location over another? Should public policy attempt to influence the spatial distribution of population by altering the attractiveness of different types of locations? Second, the pattern of urbanization is not predetermined. People move primarily to seek work and therefore any change in the distribution of employment opportunities should alter the pattern of migration. Different industrial or economic policies...

Development / 05.02.2015

By Anjum Altaf It may seem counter-intuitive but if we wish to spur economic growth in Pakistan both government and citizens would have to step in to help labour. This is the surprising conclusion of a study of the local economy carried out by students from the Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS) under my supervision. Initial discussions with representatives of several small cities around Lahore identified violations of labor laws as having a significant impact on both the welfare and productivity of industrial workers. As a result, the interactions between labor laws and economic growth were studied in Sheikhupura, a half-million sized industrial city about 30 miles from Lahore. Observations of small scale industry, employing the majority of the industrial labor force, revealed desperate, survival level, working conditions at compensations below the minimum wage. Workers had little or no protection from various forms of exploitation and exposure...

South Asia / 22.10.2014

By Anjum Altaf I doubt anyone would guess right if a quiz master were to ask what Britain's leading export was in 1997. The surprising answer: The Spice Girls, through sales of their music, attendance at their film, and related merchandising. This confirms that culture is big business. In the same year, the US economy produced over $400 billion worth of books, films, music, TV programmes and other copyrighted products and this category emerged as the leading export for the US as well. Not only that, the sector is growing rapidly, between two to three times as fast as the overall economies in developed countries. East Asian countries which grew by leaps and bounds during the last quarter century on the strength of low-cost manufacturing have noticed this phenomenon in their search for diversification. Almost all of them are investing heavily in promoting their own cultural output as...

Politics / 28.08.2013

By Anjum Altaf A seminal book of the 20th century, at least for academics, was An Economic Theory of Democracy, published in 1957. In it, Anthony Downs applied economic theory to the study of politics and, among other things, inferred what a rational government would do given its incentives. At its simplest, the theory claims that a government aims to stay in power and therefore, if it is democratic, adapts its policies and actions to appeal to a majority of the electorate. For example, in the current run up to the elections in India, the general wisdom is that the ruling party would spend extensively in rural areas to negate a likely swing to the opposition in urban ones. (Contrary to Downs’ prototype, though, it seems it is not the effectiveness of expenditures that matters most to voter sentiment in India – it is the courting that...

Development / 01.07.2013

By Anjum Altaf I learnt there is just one flight per week from Lahore to Peshawar and it returns three days later. This prompted an investigation of how the city is connected to the outside. Here is some quick information on the flights per week to Peshawar and their origins: None from Central Asia; 1 from East Asia; 1 from Afghanistan; 1 from the Punjab; 2 from Balochistan; 4 from within KPK; 4 from Islamabad; 10 from Sindh; and 56 from the Middle East. While KPK is part of Pakistan, it seems reasonable to infer that its economic engine is in the Middle East. One might post oneself outside Peshawar airport to determine the nature of the economic engine. I doubt one would see investors armed with briefcases and laptops. Much more likely that the vast majority would comprise migrant workers returning home for a break with the...

Cities/Urban / 20.05.2013

By Anjum Altaf The politics of urbanization could be less or more important than its economics. It depends on the context. In relatively stable societies, economics shapes politics – these are places where one can meaningfully say “it’s the economy, stupid.” Even seemingly bizarre foreign policies can be related to economics as one might infer from the title of Lenin’s classic text Imperialism, the Highest Stage of Capitalism. In less stable societies, the economy is hostage to politics. Think of Pakistan’s quixotic foreign policy adventures that have no conceivable relationship to national considerations and have driven the economy into the ground. The politics, in turn, is orchestrated by narrow, parochial and privileged economic interests as those who can discern can readily make out. It is in this framework that the politics of urbanization in Pakistan is more fascinating than its economics. Almost every news report in the election season makes...

Cities/Urban / 07.05.2013

By Anjum Altaf We ought to care about urbanization because it will shape our lives, for better or for worse, and often in surprising ways. An obvious starter is that all developed countries are predominantly urban. Of course one can ask whether it was development that led to urbanization or the other way around. The historical evidence is clear: cities produced jobs that pulled less productive labor from rural areas. That, in a nutshell, was the story of the Industrial Revolution. The most unremarked replication in recent times has been in South Korea, going from 5 percent urban in 1925 to 80 percent by 2000. At the same time the country transitioned from an aid recipient to a member of the industrialized world, a donor in its own right. The implication is not that moving all villagers to cities would yield a development miracle. Cities have to produce jobs...