Sunday, October 31, 2010

Values and Priorities

President Barack Obama will visit India at the end of this coming week.  What will he see there (or, perhaps more accurately, what will his hosts allow him top see)?  What conversations will he hold and with whom?  What is the significance of a relationship with India in his own vision of what he wants our own country to be, assuming that any trace of the inspiring visions of Obama-the-candidate remains?

Ravi Nessman has written a valuable background piece for The Associated Press, which has been included as a Yahoo! News selection.  He writes from the perspective of “political economy;”  and, while that phrase is too frequently associated with the writings of Karl Marx (even if it can be traced back to Adam Smith), it is appropriate for a variety of reasons.  For his American readers it is a recognition that our country has still not recovered from its economic crisis;  and, whatever the promising signs may be, the hard numbers indicate that more, rather than fewer people, are suffering from that lack of recovery.  Ironically, the current Prime Minister of India, Manmohan Singh, is himself an economist;  so it is hard to imagine that any discussion of economics will be absent from the meetings that Obama holds and the visits that have been arranged for him.

This seems appropriate enough in the context of India estimating an annual economic growth rate of 8.5 percent.  Among the rich and mighty of the World Economic Forum, this would probably amount to a Holy Grail;  and it is hard to imagine that the White House would not share this opinion.  However, what Wall Street prefers to ignore (and what Main Street has to live with, whether it wants to or not) is that everything comes with a price;  and the value of Nessman’s piece comes from his desire to seek out what that price has been for India.

One approach to that price comes from the usual rhetorical flourishes like “a bloated, corrupt government that has failed to deliver the barest of services.”  With more sober language he summarizes Singh’s approach to economic policy as follows:

Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, an economist credited with unleashing India's private sector by loosening government regulation, talks about growth that benefits the masses of poor people as well as a burgeoning middle class of about 300 million. He describes a roaring Maoist insurgency in the east — which feeds in large part on the poor's discontent — as the country's biggest internal security threat.

However, the critical question is whether or not the poor really do benefit from this growth.  Nessman legitimizes this question through a variety of arguments;  but the most striking may be one of those “sign of the times” statistics:

There were more than 670 million cell phone connections in India by the end of August, a number that has been growing by close to 20 million a month, according to government figures.

Yet U.N. figures show that only 366 million Indians have access to a private toilet or latrine, leaving 665 million to defecate in the open.

The point is that economic growth is measured in terms of financial transactions (“buying and selling stuff”).  Within that value system any statistics concerned with the well-being of the population never even enter the equations;  so no one has to worry about sweeping them under the carpet.

We must therefore seriously consider the hypothesis that one price of economic growth may be the growth of poverty.  We experienced such conditions in our own history during a period known as the Gilded Age.  Economic growth was prodigious enough to attract global attention;  but those who benefitted from that growth constituted a thin veneer (or “gilding”) of the overall population.  It took the Great Depression to shake our Government into recognizing that not all social values are economic values.  Now we see India experiencing that same confusion of values, and we see our President heading to India.  The thought that he may be heading there to learn from India (if not to try to grab a ride on their gravy train) is about as disconcerting as his recent aspiration to create “more Googles.”

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