Sunday, June 29, 2008

Six and Eleven Thousands

One of our cafe regulars, Patris, once told me that in an FGD on public services reform she organized, those so-called experts refused to elaborate her question on the ratio of public officer to the economy (like GDP, or population, or size), in comparison to other countries --or so, I was told.

They deemed the ratio, those numbers, as irrelevant, because it all depends on, well.., something else. Of course, numbers might not give you complete answers, the wrong numbers can be disastrous too. But it does have some useful information.

Consider this:
a. The Ministry of Finance has surplus of incompetent officers but at the same time lacks of badly needed officers, such as tax inspectors.
b. The Ministry of Finance has surplus of six thousands incompetent officers but at the same time lacks of eleven thousands more badly-needed officers, such as tax inspectors.

Which one is more useful information? Alas, even the so called experts are too lazy reluctant to come up with figures, and often goes with type a explanation.

The first step to public reform, of course, to know how many people we need to hire --and scrap out--, given the needs in hand.

Sunday, June 22, 2008

A Lot of Corn

From McKenzie's Why Pop Corn Costs So Much at the Movies?
What is the basic problem with the corn and ethanol subsidies? To fill up an SUV with ethanol, it takes 450 pounds of corn, which contains enough calorie to feed a poor person for a year.
Four hundred and fifty pounds equals to 204 kilograms. And that's a lot of corn.

And about the book, it's an interesting reading that tells you how messing up the market price may lead to disastrous (unintended) impact. Recommended additional reading list for students of undergraduate's Microeconomics Theory (a.k.a price theory).

Saturday, June 21, 2008

(Perhaps the only) post on Euro 2008

If you wonder (I doubt you'd wonder) about the lack of post on Euro 2008, these are the reasons. Ujang is busy with the new wave of IFLS. The absence of England make me a neutral without much passion in analyzing the game. And, thanks to the MNC group (RCTI, TPI and GlobalTV) for still refusing to join Astro, and the quality of their signal in my neighborhood, I am unable to watch the games live so far. Forget Aco, Rizal and Sjamsu, they are hopeless when it comes about football.

But I try to do a different thing with my 'Euro 2008 from Huntington's Clash of Civilization perspective' series here.

A side note: having four Liverpool players in their side gives me a strong reason to support Spain. Second on my list is Holland (thanks to Dirk Kuyt's presence). Also, I have reason to cheer on Portugal defeat to Germany: because two MU and two Chelsea players are in the team.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Discussion: World Inequality

Kesenjangan Pendapatan di Dunia: Mengapa?

Sebagaimana yang telah menjadi diskusi serius, kita memang hidup di dunia yang tidak merata. Menurut Branko Milanovic (1999), 25% penduduk terkaya di dunia menikmati 75% pendapatan dunia. Dalam konteks antarnegara, rata-rata pendapatan per kapita 20 persen negara terkaya mencapai 25 kali pendapatan per kapita 20 persen negara termiskin di tahun 2000.

Namun sebuah potret yang diambil pada satu waktu tentu tidak bisa bicara banyak. Ada beberapa pertanyaan yang perlu diajukan: 1) Bagaimana kecenderungan kesenjangan pendapatan dari waktu ke waktu? 2) Mengapa terjadi kesenjangan? 3) Apakah kesenjangan pendapatan adalah sesuatu yang tidak terelakkan? 4) Apakah kita harus fokus pada menghilangkan kesenjangan, atau pada peningkatan kesejahteraan penduduk di bagian terbawah distribusi pendapatan?

Freedom Institute, Friedrich Naumann Stiftung, dan Café Salemba kembali akan mengadakan sebuah diskusi ekonomi, kali ini dengan topik di atas. Tempat di Freedom Institute, Jalan Irian No. 8, Menteng, Jakarta, hari Kamis 19 Juni 2008, 18.00 - 21.00, bersama Ari A. Perdana (FEUI, Café Salemba) dan Teguh Yudo Wicaksono (CSIS, Ruang 413) dan moderator Hamid Basyaib (Freedom Institute).

Bagi anda yang berminat untuk hadir dalam diskusi tersebut dapat menghubungi Freedom Institute, dengan kontak: Tata atau Imie pada nomor telp. 021 3190 9226.

Buzzwords and Waste

From Elisabeth Pisani's book, I learn that buzzwords without science (and a little bit common sense) can lead to stupid waste. No, I am not talking about Blue Energy. It's about AIDS (the buzzwords) and aid program on it.

For instance, the State Department and USAID gave the East Timor government two million USD for an HIV program. Sounds good? Hang on a sec. The problem is at the time the US came up with that number, only seven East Timorese had ever tested positive for HIV (page 275)

You do the math. And Pisani did. With the number of prostitutes in hand, she suggested a program to send all the prostitutes in the country to Harvard, while her colleague, Philippe, prefered a university in France --because it's cheaper so that the money can even cover all the gay party-boys too (page 278).

Indonesian, hold your laughter. We do share the guilt. Well not really us, but the one who gave us the money, The Global Fund.

Indonesia was really good in making up a proposal full of bullshit buzzwords such as 'scaled-up', 'best practice', 'multisectoral', and 'empowerment'. So good that we can scoop 7.8 million USD for proposal with anticipated result of peer outreach to just 400 of 160.000 drug injectors, antiretroviral treatment for eighty people, and small amount of contraceptives to prostitutes (page 296).

I've heard that the Global Fund initiative led to some internal scandals in MoH, too.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Growing Up in Wrong Times

In her work in progress, Growing Up in Bad Times: Macroeconomic Volatility and the Formation of Beliefs, Paola Giuliano of Harvard shows that individuals who are subject to macroeconomic volatility when he/she is 18-25 years old support more government redistribution but less confident on government institutions --and these beliefs will stay over his/her lifetime.

If it's true, then it partly tells me why our public discussion, which is now dominated by people aged 18-25 at the time the crisis hit in 1998-2000, is hostile to market based reform while at the same time, paradoxically, not confident with the government. And it will remain so until they are too old for public discussion, or the subsequent cohort coming up with differing views wins the debate.

It reminds me of an old joke: if you are below 30 and you are not marxist, you don't have a heart; but if you are above 30 and still marxist, you don't have a head.

Apparently, you are what you were at 18-25.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

On Fears for Free Trade

Tyler Cowen argued that:
What’s really happening is that many people, whether in the United States or abroad, are unduly suspicious about economic relations with foreigners. These complaints stem from basic human nature — namely, our tendency to divide people into “in groups” and “out groups” and to elevate one and to demonize the other. Americans fear that foreigners will rise at their expense or “control” some aspects of the economy.
Dani Rodrik retorted:
So the "us" and "them" characterization that Tyler attributes to irrational nativism perhaps has more to do with the absence of a common set of international rules on labor standards, environment, consumer safety, and so on.
Now, an anecdotal evidence from the English Premier League (I know Rodrik roots for ManU, and I Arsenal -- not that this fact's important though), on foreign players' impact on the three-lions national team performance, its Chairman said:
Does the Premier League hurt the national side? I think the answer to that has got to be yes.
What is more common than football's set of rules and standard? Yet, this Englishman prefers to blame those non-Britons players for the lousy performance of its national team that even doesn't qualify for Euro 2008 final round.

I can not imagine the EPL without foreign players.

Monday, June 09, 2008

Why (Not) I?

Aco could proudly claim that he's ahead of me by (dreaming) to write a novel about economics and politicians. But these guys, Ray Fisman of Columbia and Edward Miguel of Berkeley, seem (way) ahead both of us. They are about to publish a story (or stories) on how economics (with data) can reveal how the gangster's (read: dirty diplomats, politicians, dictators, bureaucrats) minds works. The title is Economic Gangsters: Corruption, Violence and the Poverty of Nations.

And more embarrassingly, they even devote a whole chapter on Soeharto --the man the two of us should know better.

Another embarassment comes from Elisabeth Pisani, who wrote about Taman Lawang and Lapangan Banteng --a book that now is recommended by Marginal Revolution. The title is The Wisdom of Whores: Bureaucrats, Brothels, and the Business of AIDS

Here's some excerpt:
Lenny, another doyenne of the city’s transgender hookers who was putting on her make-up while Nancy pontificated, laughed. Lenny is not thrilled that the Department of Social Affairs has tossed her, along with all waria, into a box marked “mentally disabled”. But she had to agree with “over the top”. Lenny had organised a group that was lobbying for equal rights for waria. She interrupted her face-paint rituals to tell of a recent meeting with a parliamentary sub-committee. “We’re in the national parliament asking to be taken seriously as a community, and I see that two of the girls are missing. I send someone off to look for them and guess what? They’re screwing the security guards in the bathroom.” She shook her head in disbelief and went back to her mascara.
I've ordered my copy. The book seems terribly fascinating --and more importantly, because it makes me enviously feel: "it should have been I who write books about those interesting things just under my nose with that kind of style". Oh, well.

Is it real or just bubble?

Many considers the recent oil price hike is driven by speculative motives, not a real phenomenon. You know, like what happened to the stock market, currency, housing, property and the '90s dotcom companies. This article (from The Economist) said it may not be the case.

Here's the argument:
[There is no] evidence that the growth of speculation in oil has caused the price to rise. Rising prices, after all, might have been stimulating the growing investment, rather than the other way around.
And that is because:
Investment can flood into the oil market without driving up prices because speculators are not buying any actual crude. Instead, they buy contracts for future delivery. When those contracts mature, they either settle them with a cash payment or sell them on to genuine consumers. Either way, no oil is hoarded or somehow kept off the market.
That makes it harder for a bubble to develop in oil than in the shares of internet firms, say, or in housing, where the supply of the asset is finite.
[t]here is, admittedly, a growing category of inherently bullish investment funds that seek to track commodity-price indices, in which oil is usually the biggest component.
... even index funds make unlikely suspects. For one thing, they too invest in futures, rather than in physical supplies of oil. So every month, they must trade contracts that are about to fall due for ones that will not mature for several months. That makes them big sellers of oil for prompt delivery.

What is more, their growth is not as impressive as it first appears. Paul Horsnell of Barclays Capital, an investment bank, puts the total value of index funds and other similar investments at $225 billion. That is less than half the market capitalisation of Exxon Mobil, he points out, and a tiny fraction of the $50 trillion-odd of transactions in the oil markets each year.
That means that:
... the oil price is still a function of supply and demand. For the past few years, the world's production capacity has grown only sluggishly. Meanwhile, demand, especially from the developing world, has been growing faster. So there is hardly any slack in the system. Only Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates are thought to be able to increase their output from today's levels, and even then, there are doubts, since Saudi Arabia, in particular, is secretive about the state of its oil industry.

That leaves the oil market at the mercy of even small disruptions to supply. Prices tend to jump each time militants sabotage an oil pipeline in Nigeria, bad weather threatens production in the Gulf of Mexico, or political clouds gather over the Persian Gulf.

The problem is exacerbated by a growing mismatch between the type of oil being produced and the refineries that must process it. The most common benchmark prices, including the one used in this article, refer to “light” crude, the least viscous sort, which produces the most petrol and diesel when refined. “Heavy” oil, by contrast, yields more fuel oil, which is used mainly for heating.

All of the above can be summarized in two words: demand, and supply.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

Dismal science, again

Constrained by work, I was unable to attend a roundtable discussion co-hosted by Kompas and Lingkar Muda Indonesia a few weeks ago. I forgot the exact topic -- it was something to celebrate the national awakening.

Through an old friend who attended the forum, I learned that my article three years ago was cited by another friend of mine. Not in a positive way, however, although neither did he directly criticize the facts I quoted in the article. Rather, he criticized the article for being too pessimistic (know what, education doesn't matter for growth!). Young people, he argued, aren't supposed to be that pessimistic. Well, this reminds me on how economist was tagged dismal science.

I wasn't there to clarify the main message of my article. These are what I would have said:
  1. If we define 'level of education' as 'share of population who complete a certain level of schooling (be it primary, secondary or tertiary), then, controlling for other factors, it couldn't explain the variations of growth across countries since the 1960. Some countries grew without big increases in education, but some countries failed to grow despite big increases in schooling rate.
  2. I didn't argue that education is not important (depends on how we define it). Nor did I argue that per capita economic growth is the only outcome variable we should see.
  3. We need to understand more on how education works in improving welfare. Increasing education level is not just about expanding the budget, but also how to make each Rupiah spent more effective.
  4. Also, be aware that increased level of education may increase inequality, at least in the short-run.
On being a 'pessimistic, young economist,' well, your honor and respectful jury, do you think I am guilty as charged?

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Hammering on the Hummer

If you are in Indonesia (and manage to stay rich), I suggest you to buy Hummer as soon as you can for two reasons: first, these gas-guzzling toys are on the verge of extinction, as the maker, hit by prolonged high gas price, is considering to stop producing it. So it may soon become a rare vintage.

And second, because, after all, many people in Indonesia are always willing to give you gas subsidy --and publicly defend it at all cost.

Hey, where are our friends environmentalists lately?

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Discussion: Capital and Power

This is the second in the series. More to come (upcoming events will also be informed via the cafe's group in the Facebook)
-- Manager
Relasi Modal dan Kekuasaan Pasca Soeharto

Majalah Tempo dan Globe Asia baru-baru ini memuat liputan tentang para pelaku bisnis di Indonesia. Globe Asia menunjukkan “ranking” termutakhir tentang siapa orang/keluarga terkaya, sementara Tempo lebih melihat siapa saja pemain lama yang bertahan dan pemain baru yang muncul setelah berakhirnya era Orde Baru. Kesimpulan kedua media itu cukup menarik: meski banyak wajah baru muncul, sejumlah pemain lama dalam peta bisnis Indonesia tetap bertahan.

Dalam perspektif yang lebih luas, kita bisa melihat fenomena ini dari kacamata relasi antara modal dan kekuasaan. Studi yang mencoba menjelaskan hubungan antara keduanya di era Orde Baru sudah cukup banyak. Ben Anderson melihatnya sebagai sebuah relasi patrimonial. Richard Robison menganggap negara sebagai kepanjangan tangan kepentingan modal global. William Liddle dan Andrew MacIntyre melihat adanya pola yang lebih kompleks. Sepuluh tahun setelah krisis dan tumbangnya Orde Baru, apa yang berubah dan apa yang tetap? Seberapa jauh teori-teori klasik tersebut bisa menjelaskan fenomena saat ini? Bagaimana desentralisasi dan pluralisme politik mengubah pola hubungan modal-kekuasaan?

Freedom Institute, bekerjasama dengan Friedrich Naumann Stiftung dan Café Salemba, akan mengadakan diskusi yang membahas topik menarik ini dengan Chatib Basri (FEUI, Diskusi Ekonomi), Rizal Mallarangeng (Freedom Institute) dan Ari A. Perdana (FEUI, Café Salemba) di Freedom Institute, Jalan Irian 8 Menteng, Jakarta, Kamis 5 Juni, pukul 19.00-21.00.

You're welcome to join.

Why econ is sexy

Libertarian Jeff Miron explains why in Harvard economics is the most popular major.

I heard economics is also becoming more and more popular in colleges and universities in Indonesia. If so, why? Here are some knee-jerk speculations:

  • Econ is easier gloomier than physics or pure math but sexy enough to outshine its fellow social sciences -- at least on the newspapers.
  • Econ allows you to become a "pengamat ekonomi" (economic commentator), the most respectable position in the media these days -- Wait, as a second thought, you don't even need training or certificate in econ to become a popular "pengamat ekonomi". Accounting and management science will do, any engineering will do, agriculture is alright.
  • Econ is flexible: you can teach its principles in the classroom and do the exact opposite in politics or in media. No one will sue you, you're still an economist. Just say: the assumption changes. People will forget.
What else?

Why Science Matters (and Conspiracy Theory Doesn't)

I like this heartwarming passage about science:
But here’s the thing. The reason science really matters runs deeper still. Science is a way of life. Science is a perspective. Science is the process that takes us from confusion to understanding in a manner that’s precise, predictive and reliable — a transformation, for those lucky enough to experience it, that is empowering and emotional. To be able to think through and grasp explanations — for everything from why the sky is blue to how life formed on earth — not because they are declared dogma but rather because they reveal patterns confirmed by experiment and observation, is one of the most precious of human experiences.
And the opposite of it is called, well, conspiracy theory ---the game of blaming everything to neo liberals, marxists, foreign power, own weaknesses, capitalism, socialism, infidels, (....insert whatever you want...).

Alas, it seems that even many of our educated class, self-declared scientist, and supposedly respectable media just love it.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Statement from the Cafe (2)

Café Salemba condems the brutal and criminal attack by FPI on AKKBB in the June 1st rally at Monas Square, Jakarta.

Jakarta, June 2, 2008

Sunday, June 01, 2008

Economic Growth As We Know It

Like Arya Gaduh, I also haven't yet got time to read a new report on growth by The Commission on Growth and Development. But it seems that problem of growth and development economics now resurface in public discussion, thanks to the books of Sachs, Easterly, and Collier.

After some years of detour to more exotic agendas and plans for the developing world such as Millenium Development Goals and Bono-type of Aid; economic growth, the most crucial element for developing countries, yet hard to understand, is back

It was an ambitious research, probably to the scale of another report on global warming by Nicholas Stern. So it is surely worth to read the whole report. But for the time being, let use the interview to its chief, Michael Spence, from the Foreign Policy, to catch a glimpse on what's inside the report.

He said that:
This report is really more about a framework. How do the growth dynamics work, and what kind of policies tend to support it? When you get to the country level, it has to get very specific and depends entirely on history and the initial conditions and things like that
I am actually rather surprised with this kind of stating-the-obvious argument. In an earlier posting, I wrote that we already pretty much had an idea what make a good espresso economic growth, and as the Report's summary for Asia says:
These nine high-growth countries all share common characteristics: engagement with the global economy, macroeconomic stability, high rates of saving and investment, the market allocation of resources, and credible and capable governments.
But each characteristic is, alas, minutely variable. And it is not really clear to me the degree of importance of each variable: say, the market allocation or capable government?

The better question, I guess, is not how to find recipes for sustainable growth, but how to get into a turnaround from a low growth trap to an accelerating pace of growth, the focal points in which a country then could orchestrate themselves into those desirable characteristics --hopefully without curtailing democracy.

Usually such turnaround doesn't come from much grandiose scheme, but a small but critical reform.

HT: Arya Gaduh