With the Fiscal Responsibility Bill stalled, the pre-budget time is apposite for taking another look at this issue. Fiscal sustainability has three aspects. One is the trend in the debt GDP ratio as determined by the primary surplus/deficit and the growth rate relative to the real interest rate, second the quality of government expenditure and third the efficiency of the tax system. In this article we focus on the quality of government expenditure. One of the most important implications of the fiscal problem in India is that the government has no money to spend on essentials. The basic problem is therefore of identifying and eliminating wasteful and unproductive expenditures so that the fiscal deficit can be eliminated and more money spent on essential government functions.
Interest payments are a major item of expenditure, with about half of total Central government revenue spent on interest payments. They thus “crowd out” other potentially more productive items of government expenditure.
In drawing implications for the present and future it is important to look back into the past. Interest on accumulated debt is the embodiment, as it were, of past sins. That is borrowing to finance past government expenditure. In the past few decades such expenditures consisted of both government consumption (or revenue expenditure) and unproductive investment (or capital expenditure). Thus concern about interest payments is implicitly a concern about the volume and/or quality of expenditures in the past. Some of these past government consumption and unproductive government investments are rightly viewed as crowding out present government expenditures.
One implication of this line of reasoning is that to the extent that this debt was incurred in financing investment or capital it should be allocated and assigned to these investments and the concerned organizations (e.g. PSUs, PSBs, DPEs or administrative departments). A substantial part of the indirect subsidies are the cost to the government of servicing the debt assigned to each of these organizations (organized by sub-sectors & budget heads instead of by organisations). The rest is the depreciation of these assets and their quality because of lack of replacement investment. The net value of these organizations to the government (family silver or copper as it may turn out to be) is therefore the gross value of assets or equity owned by the government in each organization minus the debt incurred by government in setting them up.
The major policy implication is that, if we are concerned about government debt and interest payments, we should sell all units producing “private goods & services” and use the proceeds to repay the debt. Operationally this could be done by creating an independent dis-investment organization and assigning to it both the ownership of the equity and an equivalent amount of debt obligation and giving it the mandate to eliminate both in an efficient way over a fixed period of time. This would reduce government interest payments over time, eliminate the crowding out of current expenditures by interest payment and allow government to focus on essential expenditures.
The next question that arises is what are these “essential” government expenditures that have a higher claim on government revenues? One important category consists of Public Goods & Services. Public goods are characterized by an element of non-excludability (e.g. defence, police) or very high transaction costs for pricing (e.g. local roads) so that they cannot be charged for on an individual basis. They (public goods & services) are almost by definition items that must be paid for out of tax revenues.
i) Roads [excluding major, high density highways] & Water ways [river navigability, drainage systems, flood control]
ii) Legal System [laws, courts, judges]
iii) Public security system [police, prosecutors, jails]
iv) Public Health systems [Communicable diseases, epidemic monitoring & control, Public drinking water, sewerage & sanitation systems]
v) R&D on socially beneficial areas, including tropical diseases, agriculture (e.g. appropriate crops & rotation patterns for different agro-climatic regions), pollution.
vi) Public Education [rights, responsibilities, civic & democratic virtues, public morality, productive knowledge (e.g. agricultural extension), preventive health & population restraint, pollution abatement, water conservation]
vii) Environment & Pollution, forests, parks.
Central and state governments have spread their limited resources too thinly over too many areas and items of expenditure. As a result many of these essentials have suffered from a lack of resources and attention, and the availability and quality of these public goods has deteriorated dramatically. The time taken in court cases is legendary. Those of us who believe that Bihar and Eastern UP is hundreds of miles away may be surprised to know how badly the local/ground level police systems have deteriorated in the heart of the capital of Delhi. In this era of severe fiscal problems it is in my view essential for government to go, “Back to Basics” and refocus its attention on public goods & services.
As most of these public goods will continue to be produced or supplied by government to large extent for quite some time it is essential to improve the efficiency of production in terms of cost & quality. This is considered below
EXTERNALITIES & SUBSIDIES
Degree of Externality
The second essential area of government expenditure is on subsidies for those goods and services that have large externalities. In principle all private (non-public) goods & services can be assigned to three categories: Those with high, medium and low or no externalities. Elementary education, rural water supply, adult literacy, rural secondary education and development of markets in remote, hilly & backward areas have high externalities.
Two policy implications follow:
a) Phase out subsidies on goods & services with low or no externality such as Industry, power, shipping, road transport, other transport, coal & lignite.
The phase-out schedule must however give sufficient time for,
(i) Developing a clear, transparent and positive framework for private production & supply,
(ii) An independent regulatory framework for natural monopoly segments and
(iii) Consumers to adjust to higher cost-based prices (excluding X-inefficiency costs of monopoly & corruption).
b) Align the actual subsidy ordering with the ordering of degree of externality.
This is implicit in the calculation of financial gains of phasing out subsidy.
Relative Inefficiency of Public Production & Supply
Even if there is a need for government subsidy, it does not follow that the good or service must be produced and/or supplied by the government. Government should only produce and supply such a good or service if its efficiency is higher than that of the private (individual, co-operative or corporate) sector and non-profit organisations (NPOs).
There are inherent problems in government production and supply of private goods & services. The CAG & other government auditing procedures are not conducive to commercial production and supply, particularly in a highly complex economy subject to myriad risks and shocks. The principle agent problem means that public employees and their overlords have a strong incentive to first create rents & then appropriate these rents for themselves. As a result corruption has gradually become endemic and there is much evidence that government production is less efficient than private. The only profitable government entities are either ones in which resource rents (the difference between world price and the full cost of extraction) can be disguised as profits, or government created monopolies (created by banning private production or investment for decades) with no private benchmarks for comparison.
The production, supply & maintenance of most of the subsidized goods produced by the public sector can and should be progressively opened to the non-profit organisations, co-operatives and private providers. The first step would be to develop a supportive policy framework for private entry. A modern regulatory framework must also be created for social sectors where quality is difficult to judge before purchase but is critical to the future of individuals.
There are many detailed issues involved in improving the efficiency of government programs. From a broad (macro) perspective, this requires improvement in two areas through dramatic changes:
The key to public accountability of government agencies supplying goods & services and government servants and political masters overseeing them is the citizens’ right to information. A “Right to Information Act” must be enacted to return this right to the public. The poor in whose name all expenditures are justified must have the right to know all the facts relating to expenditures made/justified in their name. The information needed to be made publicly available includes the names of those who have authorized or spent the money, the purpose for which the money was spent, the names of the companies or individuals who received this money and what they have produced/done for receiving this money.
Issue specific user groups must be empowered to share with Panchayti raj & other government institutions the responsibility for monitoring public activity at the village and local level. For instance, all parents of school age children in the village (or set of villages) must be part of a user group for monitoring the activities of the village primary school, its teacher and the government supplies allocated to it. Similar user groups should be set up for all local public goods and services provided by the government.
Modern Management Practices
A complete and thorough modernization of the systems and procedures for production, supply and procurement of goods & services is needed. Perhaps not more than 25% of government projects use PERT/CPM a technique of project management, a technique that was developed in World War II and taught in US engineering colleges since the sixties. According to an informal survey only a few progressive organisations like NTPC use these techniques. Modern inventory control is a subject I recall discussing with the Navy chief over a decade ago, only to read in the newspaper recently that the armed forces still do not have modern inventory management systems.
Many government expenditure programs are hypothetically directed at the transfer of income to the poor, while several subsidies are justified by such reasons even if the externality is low. An additional consideration enters the picture in this case: The (transaction) cost of direct vs. indirect transfers. Indirect transfers have some self–selecting features but higher transaction costs. We must start experimenting with the use of new smart card technology for providing income transfers to the poor, in place of the plethora of poverty alleviation programs with enormous administrative cost and notorious leakages.