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PM’s learning curve

THIS does not singularly apply to Prime Minister Imran Khan, but to his cabinet and the wider team he has gathered around himself. Particularly, the finance, commerce, and defence head honchos — the last being a proxy for you know who.

That this team learns quickly is of immense importance because what happens to the 200 million-plus people of this country and the region it is located in depends on what has informed their worldview. Their approach so far to the myriad challenges, both of immediate and more long-term in nature, has not been really inspired confidence.

Playing a guessing game about how much ill-gotten money has been stashed away in foreign accounts, or how much is flying out of the country via money laundering will not in itself switch the state’s mindset from security to welfare, or to becoming a learning society.

Remember what you get when you pay peanuts? Monkeys.

The prime minister has been advised to earmark some personal time every day to reflect and read. Let us assume that by now he has had his fill of Ibn al-Arabi and some such stuff in the mystical realm and can turn his attention to more mundane issues of political economy.

No need to trot out a list of books on statecraft or even to name the apps that turn tomes into a one-page brief for those too busy to read. The prime minister should start his quest for knowledge by asking every member of his team who has been part of previous regimes — whether of his immediate predecessor, the PML-N, or teams put together by the PPP, or the Musharraf and Zia military dictatorships — to give him one reason why the IMF programmes did not yield results in the past, and how they propose to address that one weakness this time around. If they cannot come up with an answer, show them the door. If they have an answer, hold them accountable, and never let them near you if they fail because they are riding your wave. You are the Pied Piper, they are just crawling to the tune.

Life at the top tends to be very lonely, so don’t be afraid of eventually having to push the ‘usual suspects’ aside because hardly anyone among them would pass the test being proposed here. Loneliness is the eventual fruit or fate of power. Ask Nawaz Sharif or Asif Zardari — they have both tasted it. Better the solitude of leafy Banigala than the claustrophobic confines of a cell.

To Messrs Asad Umar, Razak Dawood and the proxy’s principal, whose responsibility do you think it is to maintain the economy at full employment? Is it a function of the monetary and fiscal policy or trade? Let us simplify it for you: should it be the purview of State Bank of Pakistan and the fiscal policy, or the trade agreements we sign? Joseph Stiglitz, the Nobel Prize-winning economist, thinks it is the domain of the former.

The prime minister may also like to ponder what is more important in terms of getting stuff done. The right person for the right job at market wages, or an unqualified person willing to work for a pittance? Remember what you get when you pay peanuts? Monkeys. Before there is an uproar as to what a self-proclaimed poet knows about statecraft, this is what Thomas Piketty, the author of that renowned book, Capital in the Twenty-First Century, has to say on the subject: “Historical evidence suggests that with only 10-15 per cent of national income in tax receipts, it is impossible for a state to pay for education and health after paying for a proper police force and judicial system.” In our case, there is also that elephant in the room called ‘defence expenditure’. Another possible choice that Piketty has to offer the PTI team is to pay everyone poorly and run the risk of the public services not functioning well and undermine the confidence in government, which would make it even more difficult to increase tax collection significantly.

While Shahbaz Sharif is under fire for hiring specialists from the market or giving market salaries to government employees assigned to target-oriented tasks, the federal information minister, Fawad Chaudhry, has himself publicly rued the fact that his cabinet post pays too little, compared to his job as TV anchor, for which he is equally unqualified.

Since we are discussing the economy and that ‘lender of last resort’ IMF has very much taken centre stage, it is interesting to note that Gita Gopinath, an Indian-origin American, has been appointed as the next chief economist of the Fund. In Pakistan, if we produce someone qualified once every 50 years, we spare no effort to find a belief-oriented disqualification. The Nobel Prize committee has just announced the winners of the economics category this year. Both are Americans. One hopes Dr Atif Mian catches the committees’ eye soon. That should be our real comeuppance.

The writer is a poet and analyst.

E-mail: Shahzadsharjeel1@gmail.com

Shahzad Sharjeel, "PM’s learning curve," Dawn. 2018-10-29.
Keywords: Political economy-- Mundane issues , Myriad challenges , Musharraf and Zia military dictatorships , IMF programmes , Monetary--fiscal policy , Nobel Prize committee