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Crossing the chasm: Economics and economic policy

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Contemporary economists the world over are trained in textbooks that are overwhelmingly American in thought and methods.

The conclusions of standard textbooks are straightforward; the market must be free in order to achieve resource allocation efficiency, the political economy must be anchored in privatization, liberalization, globalization and the smaller the government the better.

And it’s almost a cardinal sin for any advocacy for state planning, state owned enterprises, industrial policy, regional development, export development, and foreign direct investment (FDI) development programming, etc.

And if these state interventions are not eliminated and free market institutions installed or restored, the economies involved will run the risk of collapsing under the weight of state intervention and inefficiency. If China has not collapsed yet then it is collapsing soon – just ask Gordon Chang! (He made the prediction in 2001 and has since been changing his expected timing of the coming collapse of China!)

These are the same advice that orthodox economists have doled out to countries in Africa, Latin America and China for that matter. Absence of adherence to these policy prescriptions, the economies involved are predicted to be leading to underdevelopment, or even if by chance economic development does take hold, the end results would still be the same: rampant corruption, inequality of income distribution, environmental degradation, and unhealthy economic speculations and bubbles of all sorts especially in real estates.

By this line of argument, it appears that liberal political economy is the cause that determines economic prosperity. In other words, if Western, or to be more precise, American style political economy is made to prevail then economic development will take off. But there is no evidence for that. In fact, the reverse is more likely. All present day developed countries have gone through periods of corruption, primitive socio-economic inequality, environmental degradation, unproductive speculations, protectionism and/or colonizing others in the case of European powers, on their path to sustainable economic development. Evidence for this latter hypothesis has been convincingly presented in two books by two distinguished economists; Brad DeLong of UC Berkeley in Concrete Economics and Ha-Joon Chang of the University of Cambridge in 23 Things They Don’t Tell You about Capitalism.

China is a classic case in point. The country is a one-party state and obviously not a liberal democracy, the government is heavily involved in the economy, state owned enterprises (SOE) account for about 30% to 40% of the country’s GDP and 20% of total employment, party cells are embedded in SOE’s and many institutions, and Marxism is still being promoted at least nominally. All these, from a Western liberal perspective, point to a scenario of the worst of all worlds as far as economic development is concerned.

But is it true?

Take the case of the Philippines, it was a colony of the US and has taken much heavier doses of liberal economic policy remedies longer than China, the same goes for many Latin American countries. And Ukraine and Russia both pursued liberalization of their economies way more thoroughly than China. But what happened to these economies compared to China is beyond dispute! In fact, the two most populous countries on earth – China and India – unlike others, have leveraged state economic planning for their mixed economies for economic growth with significant achievements. In the case of India,  state owned enterprises account for 45% of the manufacturing sector, followed by services (35%), energy (12%), and mining (8%).

I started this paper by questioning the conclusions of standard economics textbooks on economic development. But my argument in this essay is not to promote state owned enterprises either. I simply use the cases of China, India and others to highlight my main argument that economic development policy must be based on real life economics and not on ideological beliefs; be it left or right. Here’s what I think economic policy should be based on.

First of all, market does not dictate resource allocations but company management does. Corporations when faced with challenges and opportunities make their choices of what to avoid and what to pursue. This is the essence of the Nobel Laureate Ronald Coase’s well known “The Nature of the Firm” argument that if market is so efficient why you would need companies.

Economic theory concerns itself with modelling the relationship between inputs and outputs but has nothing to say about how inputs get grinded into outputs.This explains why the public sector has been the driving force in China’s early economic reforms. Because after a long period of absence from private enterprise operations (from 1949 to early 1980’s), the public sector was the only place where management talents could be found. Deng Xiaoping’s gradualism in market and ownership reforms colloquially termed “touching the stones to cross the river” in Chinese was the right call for China.

Secondly, “market” does not exist in a vacuum. Contrary to conventional wisdom, “market” is more a public good than a private good. An above-ground market exists because of government acting as the enforcer of rules and regulations. Similarly, an underground market exists because one or a group of gangsters acting as enforcers of underground rules and regulations.

Last but not least, market and government are not mutually exclusive and they affect and influence each other. Market does not come into being naturally. Market is created. The existence of market depends on political stability, societal trust and the availability and refinement of social and physical infrastructures. This latter point has been particularly documented in Mariana Mazzucato’s research that reveals that “every technology that makes the iPhone so ‘smart’ was government funded: the Internet, GPS, its touch-screen display and the voice-activated Siri.”

Academic economists enjoy the beauty of economic theories the same way that mathematicians enjoy the beauty of mathematics, or philosophers enjoy the beauty of logical arguments in their quest for “truth”. These are worthwhile pursuits because they are beautiful in and of themselves.

But we should not get carried away by extending too far economic theories into economic practice.

Professor of economics and strategy Conestoga College Institute of Technology and Advanced Learning, Ontario, Canada.

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Economy

Sustainable Agriculture in Modern Society

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Now everybody is seeing the world is changing fast in this 21st century and many industries and modern buildings are also developing all over the world. But the land areas for farming are becoming narrower and narrower. Moreover, the global population is increasing rapidly and the earth becomes a crowded planet. But the younger people who are interested in agriculture are becoming less and less. There might be some young people who even think that they get foods from grocery stores because the younger generation are used to buy many kinds of ready-made foods such as fruits and vegetables easily from supermarkets. Recently, in the developed countries, the average age of many farmers is over 50 years old and the numbers of young farmers are decreasing. The shortage of young farmers can become a crisis in the future of the developed world.

In modern days, most young adults cannot see the difficult lives of farmers beyond the curtain. The farmers have to pass their whole life through a tough living in farming and sell their products at very low profit to many profiteering companies because they don’t have much choices. It is a sad story for farmers but truly happening in these modern days.

Today I would like to point out that we should not forget the role of agriculture which is very fundamental and essential for building a nation. Farming is an age-old profession that supported the settlement of human beings for thousands of years to survive on this planet. Agriculture is very important for the development of a nation because it provides the trading and employment, supply the foods and textiles and that can lead to the rise in gross domestic product (GDP) of a nation. Agriculture plays a crucial role in economy of a developing nation where majority of population is in rural areas and agriculture is the main source of job in many underdeveloped areas. Many families in developing countries live depending on farming for their livelihood. So, it can be even said that developing agriculture is an important step to reduce poverty and hunger in many developing countries. Agriculture support nutrients rich foods that are essential requirements for our healthy life because nutrients rich foods provide energy for our body, essential nutrients for our vital organs such as brain and heart etc, and enhance our immune system. So, agriculture is necessary for a flourishing and joyful life of human being.

Especially let’s see my home country, as data from Food and agriculture organization (FAO) of the United Nations, “The agriculture supports 37.8 % of gross domestic product of Myanmar, contributed to 25-30% of total export earnings and employs 70 % of the labour force”. Humans cannot survive without agriculture. When there is no more agriculture, it will end with starvation and collapse in economy. It will cause a serious failure in modern civilization.

Nowadays, modern farming is largely evolved into industrial agriculture where many kinds of chemical fertilizers are being used to induce massive production. Industrial agriculture is beneficial to economic development because it can cause the crops growing faster than in the traditional agriculture. The industrial agriculture can provide more enough foods for growing population in modern civilization. However, it is not sustainable because it cannot protect the benefits of the society and our green planet in the long run. Chemicals used in agriculture are destroying the soil where is left with damaged soil fertility and this area can’t be reused in the future. This is a huge affect to sustainability of our green environment.

Modern agriculture has many issues related to water scarcity, soil erosion, climate changes and etc. To be sustainable in agriculture, we must focus on solutions of these issues. The sustainable agriculture will focus on three bottom lines that is environmental, economical and social.

The sustainable agriculture involves many practices such as using the organic fertilizers in farming, growing drought resistant crops, breeding biodiversity in farms, modified irrigation systems and others. Sustainable agriculture is more suitable to practice for the future of the green earth than industrial agriculture. It is very important to promote awareness of sustainable agriculture and issues related to environmentally toxic practices in agricultures among local farmers. And I believe that it can cause many advantages for economic development if farmers can work systematically with sustainable practices in their farming and the local authority can provide farmers with more technological skills and lending some funding to practice sustainable ways in agriculture. With the willingness to participate for environmental heath at the enough profit for incomes of daily living life, I hope famers will become socially responsible persons.

And another one more point, in this digitalization era, we should certainly apply digital technologies in sustainable agriculture. By developing digital farming, it will help farmers to get easier access to source of many information related to agricultural practices. Government in developing countries should support to develop digital farming as rapidly as possible for the poor farmers to get proper profits and to work in environmentally friendly practices. Since poor countries already have enough labour force, they just need many financial aid and technology supports to grow into sustainable agriculture.

I believe that it is a responsibility for our humans that we should not forget something that had supported our existence on this earth. We should work out for development of traditional agriculture into modern agriculture with the best sustainable ways. As being a part of this society, we must help each other, we must protect the sustainability of this green earth, Biodiversity and this is also beneficial for long-term existence of our human beings on this earth. Let me end this talk by suggesting everyone to promote sustainable agriculture in your surrounding local farming.

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Economy

The Blazing Revival of Bitcoin: BITO ETF Debuts as the Second-Highest Traded Fund

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It seems like bitcoin is as resilient as a relentless pandemic: persistent and refusing to stay down. Not long ago, the crypto-giant lost more than half of its valuation in the aftermath of a brutal crackdown by China. Coupled with pessimism reflected by influencers like Elon Musk, the bitcoin plummeted from the all-time high valuation of $64,888.99 to flirt around the $30,000 mark in mere weeks. However, over the course of the last four months, the behemoth of the crypto-market gradually climbed to reclaim its supremacy. Today, weaving through national acceptance to market recognition, bitcoin could be the gateway to normalizing the elusive crypto-world in the traditional global markets: particularly the United States.

The recent bullish development is the launch of the ProShares Bitcoin Strategy ETF – the first Bitcoin-linked exchange-traded fund – on the New York Stock Exchange. Trading under the ticker BITO, the Bitcoin ETF welcomed a robust trading day: rising 4.9% to $41.94. According to the data compiled by Bloomberg, BITO’s debut marked it as the second-highest traded fund, behind BlackRock’s Carbon fund, for the first day of trading. With a turnover of almost $1 billion, the listing of BITO highlighted the demand for reliable investment in bitcoin in the US market. According to estimates on Tuesday, More than 24 million shares changed hands while BITO was one of the most-bought assets on Fidelity’s platform with more than 8,800 buy orders.

The bitcoin continued to rally, cruising over the lucrative launch of BITO. The digital currency rose to $64,309.33 on Tuesday: less than 1% below the all-time high valuation. In hindsight, the recovery seems commendable. The growing acceptance, albeit, has far more consequential attributes. The cardinal benefit is apparent: evidence of gradual acceptance by regulators. “The launch of ProShares’ bitcoin ETF on the NYSE provides the validation that some investors need to consider adding BTC to their portfolio,” stated Hong Fang, CEO of Okcoin. In simpler terms, not only would the listing allow relief to the crypto loyalists (solidifying their belief in the currency), but it would also embolden investors on the sidelines who have long been deterred by regulatory uncertainty. Thus, bringing larger, more rooted institutional investors into the crypto market: along with a surge of capital.

However, the surging acceptance may be diluting the rudimentary phenomenon of bitcoin. While retail investors would continue to participate in the notorious game of speculation via trading bitcoin, the opportunity to gain indirect exposure to bitcoin could divert the risk-averse investors. It means many loyalists could retract and direct towards BITO and other imminent bitcoin-linked ETFs instead of setting up a digital custodianship. Ultimately, it boils down to Bitcoin ETFs being managed by third parties instead of the investor: relenting control to a centralized figure. Moreover, with growing scrutiny under the eye of SECP, the steps vaguely intimate a transition to harness the market instead of liberalizing it: quiet oxymoronic to the entire decentralized model of cryptocurrencies.

Nonetheless, the listing of BITO is an optimistic development that would draw skeptics to at least observe the rampant popularity of the asset class. While the options on BITO are expected to begin trading on the NYSE Arca Options and NYSE American Options exchanges on Wednesday, other futures-based Bitcoin ETFs are on the cards. The surging popularity (and reluctant acceptance) amid tightening regulation could prove a turn of an era for the US capital markets. However, as some critics have cited, BITO is not a spot-based ETF and is instead linked to futures contracts. Thus, the restrain is still present as the regulators do not want a repeat of the financial crisis. Nevertheless, bitcoin has proved its deterrence in the face of skepticism. And if the BITO launch is to be marveled at, then the regulations are bound to adapt to the revolution that is unraveling in the modern financial reality.

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Is Myanmar an ethical minefield for multinational corporations?

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Business at a crossroads

Political reforms in Myanmar started in November 2010 followed by the release of the opposition leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, and ended by the coup d’état in February 2021. Business empire run by the military generals thanks to the fruitful benefits of democratic transition during the last decade will come to an end with the return of trade and diplomatic sanctions from the western countries – United States (US) and members of European Union (EU).  US and EU align with other major international partners quickly responded and imposed sanctions over the military’s takeover and subsequent repression in Myanmar. These measures targeted not only the conglomerates of the military generals  but also the individuals who have been appointed in the authority positions and supporting the military regime.

However, the generals and their cronies own the majority of economic power both in strategic sectors ranging from telecommunication to oil & gas and in non-strategic commodity sectors such as food and beverages, construction materials, and the list goes on. It is a tall order for the investors to do business by avoiding this lucrative network of the military across the country. After the coup, it raises the most puzzling issue to investors and corporate giants in this natural resource-rich country, “Should I stay or Should I go?”

Crimes against humanity

For most of the people in the country, war crimes and atrocities committed by the military are nothing new. For instances, in 1988, student activists led a political movement and tried to bring an end to the military regime of the general Ne Win. This movement sparked a fire and grew into a nationwide uprising in a very short period but the military used lethal force and slaughtered thousands of civilian protestors including medical doctors, religious figures, student leaders, etc. A few months later, the public had no better options than being silenced under barbaric torture and lawless killings of the regime.

In 2007, there was another major protest called ‘Saffron Uprising’ against the military regime led by the Buddhist monks. It was actually the biggest pro-democracy movement since 1988 and the atmosphere of the demonstration was rather peaceful and non-violent before the military opened live ammunitions towards the crowd full of monks. Everything was in chaos for a couple of months but it ended as usual.

In 2017, the entire world witnessed one of the most tragic events in Myanmar – Again!. The reports published by the UN stated that hundreds of civilians were killed, dozens of villages were burnt down, and over 700,000 people including the majority of Rohingya were displaced to neighboring countries because of the atrocities committed by the military in the western border of the country. After four years passed, the repatriation process and the safety return of these refugees to their places of origin are yet unknown. Most importantly, there is no legal punishment for those who committed and there is no transitional justice for those who suffered in the aforementioned examples of brutalities.

The vicious circle repeated in 2021. With the economy in free fall and the deadliest virus at doorsteps, the people are still unbowed by the oppression of the junta and continue demanding the restoration of democracy and justice. To date, Assistant Association for Political Prisoner (AAPP) reported that due to practicing the rights to expression, 1178 civilians were killed and 7355 were arrested, charged or sentenced by the military junta. Unfortunately, the numbers are still increasing.

Call for economic disengagement

In 2019, the economic interests of the military were disclosed by the report of UN Fact-Finding Mission in which Myanmar Economic Corporation (MEC) and Myanmar Economic Holding Limited (MEHL) were described as the prominent entities controlled by the military profitable through the almost-monopoly market in real estate, insurance, health care, manufacturing, extractive industry and telecommunication. It also mentioned the list of foreign businesses in partnership with the military-linked activities which includes Adani (India), Kirin Holdings (Japan), Posco Steel (South Korea), Infosys (India) and Universal Apparel (Hong Kong).

Moreover, Justice for Myanmar, a non-profit watchdog organization, revealed the specific facts and figures on how the billions of revenues has been pouring into the pockets of the high-ranked officers in the military in 2021. Myanmar Oil & Gas Enterprise (MOGE), an another military-controlled authority body, is the key player handling the financial transactions, profit sharing, and contractual agreements with the international counterparts including Total (France), Chevron (US), PTTEP (Thailand), Petronas (Malaysia), and Posco (South Korea) in natural gas projects. It is also estimated that the military will enjoy 1.5 billion USD from these energy giants in 2022.

Additionally, data shows that the corporate businesses currently operating in Myanmar has been enriching the conglomerates of the generals and their cronies as a proof to the ongoing debate among the public and scholars, “Do sanctions actually work?” Some critics stressed that sanctions alone might be difficult to pressure the junta without any collaborative actions from Moscow and Beijing, the longstanding allies of the military. Recent bilateral visits and arm deals between Nay Pyi Taw and Moscow dimmed the hope of the people in Myanmar. It is now crystal clear that the Burmese military never had an intention to use the money from multinational corporations for benefits of its citizens, but instead for buying weapons, building up military academies, and sending scholars to Russia to learn about military technology. In March 2021, the International Fact Finding Mission to Myanmar reiterated its recommendation for the complete economic disengagement as a response to the coup, “No business enterprise active in Myanmar or trading with or investing in businesses in Myanmar should enter into an economic or financial relationship with the security forces of Myanmar, in particular the Tatmadaw [the military], or any enterprise owned or controlled by them or their individual members…”

Blood money and ethical dilemma

In the previous military regime until 2009, the US, UK and other democratic champion countries imposed strict economic and diplomatic sanctions on Myanmar while maintaining ‘carrot and stick’ approach against the geopolitical dominance of China. Even so, energy giants such as Total (France) and Chevron (US), and other ‘low-profile’ companies from ASEAN succeeded in running their operations in Myanmar, let alone the nakedly abuses of its natural resources by China. Doing business in this country at the time of injustice is an ethical question to corporate businesses but most of them seems to prefer maximizing the wealth of their shareholders to the freedom of its bottom millions in poverty.

But there are also companies not hesitating to do something right by showing their willingness not to be a part of human right violations of the regime. For example, Australian mining company, Woodside, decided not to proceed further operations, and ‘get off the fence’ on Myanmar by mentioning that the possibility of complete economical disengagement has been under review. A breaking news in July, 2021  that surprised everyone was the exit of Telenor Myanmar – one of four current telecom operators in the country. The CEO of the Norwegian company announced that the business had been sold to M1 Group, a Lebanese investment firm, due to the declining sales and ongoing political situations compromising its basic principles of human rights and workplace safety.

In fact, cutting off the economic ties with the junta and introducing a unified, complete economic disengagement become a matter of necessity to end the consistent suffering of the people of Myanmar. Otherwise, no one can blame the people for presuming that international community is just taking a moral high ground without any genuine desire to support the fight for freedom and pro-democracy movement.

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