A friend in the finance industry who probably makes more than 150k annually repairs different stuff as a hobby. He volunteers to help people with repairing household appliances like electric fans, water kettle, and he also learnt how to fix bikes.
He has since fixed a few worn and old rusted bike by derusting them, replacing the broken components. And then he sells off the bike to cover the cost of replacement parts. He doesn’t get paid for his time. Yet he is satisfied because he knows he’s doing his part for the earth.
By market forces, his time would have been worth more and can be more productively spent. But he’s not valuing time the way the market does; and he is certainly not valuing the earth the way our market does. He is using the market to satisfy his needs while trying his best to “save his earth” by his individual efforts.
The market does not automatically align incentives for the best outcomes; and if the government doesn’t have the courage to do it. We have severely limited time left to be valued, if at all.
Insurance seemed like betting against your death or misfortune and some people don’t want to bet on your personal downfall so they don’t want to buy insurance. For years, the industry have been trying to change the story and they settled on the idea of protection, financial protection against those misfortune.
In principle, that works theoretically but the issue is that a lot of what you pay for is sales and distribution. The structure of the industry is such because insurance works well only when the risks are being pooled. That means having lots of people paying the premiums in order to support payouts during adverse events. As a business though, it means that the firm is ultimately a sales and marketing organisation. Costs will have to weigh disproportionately on the distribution side of the business.
This is a shame because the society needs insurance. Yet it is a market failure; the market system allocates resources poorly in this market. It can be better designed through a mix of regulation and making it mandatory to have certain amount of cover. The government should not think the market will help reduce cost of insurance through competition because the basis of competition in this market isn’t so much pricing. It is more sales, marketing and tactics.
But isn’t it just like many other products? For luxury products, yes. Basically for things people don’t actually need, you can allow the whims and fancies to be shaped by the market. But when it comes to insurance, you want the market to deliver an outcome so you need to design the boundaries and structure to make it work.
The story of insurance should be that of mandates, regulation, and basic necessity and right of people. We come together to live in highly urbanised environment and it should be a no brainer for us to risk-pool and mutually insure. There’s no excuse for this market to be hijacked to support high-flying salespeople.
If you were a parent and could only pick one trait to be taken on by your children, which one would you prefer? How about if you were a teacher and were deciding the principles by which you approach educating your students? Or if you were the government managing a citizenry?
As we get further away from an actual relationship at a one-to-one level, we tend to begin to favour good behaviour often at the expense of good intentions. Because intentions are not as quantifiable as behaviours, we choose to use the quantifiable trait as a proxy for the non-quantifiable one instead of recognizing they can be different. Yet if one was a parent, he/she knows and could probably tell the difference. So does that mean the background values/intents/principles are different in developing a child, education a person or moulding a nation?
While on the surface this might seem philosophical, there are huge policy implications and considerations when we uncover what we are prioritizing as part of our values. Carrots and sticks may make for good behaviour but that means that enforcement is external and it fosters good behaviour without encouraging good intentions. The strong ability of our government to focus on incentivization for behavioural change without addressing underlying values and intentions should not be seen positively under certain circumstances. As the country matures and people become more educated, we need to ask ourselves if it is still behaviours we are targeting – or intentions? Do we just want to stay at dealing with the hard stuff? The soft stuff are genuinely hard to handle but it must be done. We have more resources than ever to handle these – are we thinking enough about it? Or at we still obsessing over growth statistics?
In 1819, when Sir Stamford Raffles came to strike a deal that made Singapore a British colony, the population of Singapore is approximately 150. In 2 years, the population rose to 5000 mostly as a result of the establishment of the port providing ready access to population from other centers. By 1860 however, the resident population ballooned to around 80,800 comprising mainly of “temporary” immigrants coming from India, China as well as from the surrounding islands. This wasn’t purely luck or a matter of economic policy. Several things the British did was particularly important for encouraging the trade flows through Singapore and pushing the growth of Singapore into an important center for trade in the region.
Just 5 years after the establishment of Singapore as a free port under British rule, in 1824, the English and the Dutch brokered a deal to exchange Bencoolen (or Bengkulu in Sumatra) for Malacca. This was particularly important; the other port that was controlled by the British in the region was Penang, which the English established since 1790; the location was not that popular since ships from the east will still have to pass through the Straits of Malacca before reaching Penang.
With Penang and Singapore under the control of the British, the rivalry between the English and the Dutch in the region meant that Dutch control of the Straits of Malacca through possession of Malacca was a significant bottleneck. The Anglo-Dutch Treaty of 1824 resolved the rivalry (somewhat) by allocating spheres of influence, opening up the entire chain of territories – Penang, Malacca and Singapore to British control and thus greater incentive for the Royal Navy to maintain the safety of the trading ships passing through the Straits of Malacca. The Dutch Navy was given the same responsibility on the side of the straits closer to Indonesia. Before that, piracy was extremely rampant along that straits and the numerous islands around provided safe bays for pirate ships. Stepping up security in these waters gave way to higher flow of trading ships thus facilitating the boom of the port of Singapore.
By 1825, the population of Singapore went past the 10,000 mark. And in 1826, the British East India Company officially took on Singapore as a colony of the British Empire after John Crawfurd signed a second treaty with the Sultan of Johor and the Temenggong, which extended British control of Singapore over to the entire island instead of just the port. The formation of the Straits Settlement consisting of Penang, Malacca and Singapore happened in the same year with Penang designated as the capital. In 1830, the capital was shifted to Singapore, further entrenching the important institutions of British governance in Singapore.
The decisions made by British to build up and enhance the value of Singapore and the injection of top civil servants and managerial talents into Singapore due to its designation as capital of the Straits Settlements (and subsequent establishment of the Straits Settlements as a crown colony in 1867) played an extremely important role in shaping the economic, political and administrative environment which proved extremely favourable to Singapore. The strength of governance has always been an important quality our growth has been attributed to – and it seems to have dated back way before the country’s independence.
While reading about Bihar’s Recovery, it dawned on me the importance of basic government structures in an economy. This sort of realisation had come to me while I was reading about the Haiti crisis and I really think all students of Economics should remind ourselves of the government structures working in the background implied in what we call a ‘Free Market’.
As observed from the article on Bihar, which interestingly is where the Buddha gained enlightenment (according to historical records), the state’s investment in infrastructure, maintaining order, a culture that respect the rights of all citizens (that can only be created from top down) often influenced very much by the enforcement of laws, as well as giving people freedom to pursue the market activities.
When we argue about the importance of not having government interventions in markets, and that state presence should only emerge in the case of market failures, we often neglect the notion that a government is in place in the background to honour the legal tender and anarchy is not the ruling ideology of the day. Trust in the free market is also important and it is upheld by law and order, which once again, falls on the government. As we’ve seen from the earthquake in Haiti, more room for market and less state is not always a good thing. Yet after acknowledging the need for a state we want to combat its advancement into various aspects of society that are usually governed by culture or self-organizing.
Maybe working on the margins of that would help Bihar discover this balance of state and market spaces.
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