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Devolution of Power from Centre to State

By Ratish Srivastava (@socilia13)

States in India can play a bigger role in foreign policy formulation with active engagement in pursuing global economic opportunities, resource management, security issues and environmental issues. However, does that mean the centre will lose power to states as they push for greater autonomy?

The devolution of power from the centre to state need not translate to a lesser role for the centre. The centre could use this devolution to their advantage in a number of ways.

The current NDA government created the States Division in 2014 under the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) for efficient management of centre-state relations. However, this division only provides economic freedom to states by allowing them to engage in global economic opportunities.

The structure proposed by NDA only allows for economic development, investment promotion but not aspects of security. The central government needs to realise the role a state can play in security and improving ties with other nation-states. The best example would be India’s relation with Israel.

India has historically supported the Palestinian stance, and any major diplomatic move with Israel could upset India’s energy ties with Iran and the Gulf states. But, a number of chief ministers of states have gone to Israel, mostly for learning new agricultural practices, as agriculture in Israel is a highly developed industry. Visits from the then CM of Rajasthan Ashok Gehlot in 2013 and Maharashtra CM Devendra Fadnavis in 2015 show that states can help improve ties with other nation-states.

These low-key measures, which go under the radar are extremely important for India to build stronger ties with a nation-state as it allows greater manoeuvrability in formulating foreign policy. India, however, needs to tread carefully as a tilt towards Israel could be counter-productive to its move for a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. India requires strong support from the Arab states that form a large group in the General Assembly. The Modi government must be careful as it looks to preserve its strategic, economic and energy interests in West Asia.

The centre will also become effective in conducting neighbourhood diplomacy if it can coordinate with peripheral states, which share borders with other countries, for example, India’s relation with Bangladesh. The relation between the two countries was weakened over disputes over the Teesta River. The Manmohan Singh-led government in 2011 failed to reach an agreement with Bangladesh, which allowed an equal share of the river. This failure can be attributed to the CM of West Bengal, Mamata Banerjee, who pressured the centre to break the agreement.

The reason for the the move’s opposition lies with the fact that the centre did not involve West Bengal, which would be impacted the most by this deal.

On the other hand, India signed the Land Boundary Agreement (LBA) with Bangladesh in 2015. This agreement will rehabilitate people in their respective enclaves in India and Bangladesh. It will improve the domestic situation in both countries but more importantly, this move showed how involving West Bengal helped smoothen the deal.

The central government assured the government of West Bengal that it will be provided with adequate financial support to help rehabilitate people coming from the former Indian enclaves in Bangladesh. The state government has also taken a set of reasonable relief measures through its Cooch Behar district administration with financial assistance from the centre. The centre and the state in this situation worked together, and it resulted in a historic deal being signed between India and Bangladesh, which has been a concern since 1974.

The current central government has suggested the Centre-State Investment Agreement (CSIA), which could potentially help the central government implement a bilateral investment treaty with any foreign country. CSIA creates a platform for states to engage in the management of foreign direct investment flowing into the country.

In addition, with states focusing on improving their economic performance, it allows the centre to focus on other issues like acting in accordance to international law and set environmental goals while the states can help bring globalisation to India through its trade deals and by attracting FDI.

Ratish is a research intern (@socilia13) at Takshashila Institution

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When Popcorn Costs More than the Movie

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Image credit: PVR CInemas

Typical multiplex experience in Chennai – Popcorn: ₹180; Pepsi: ₹200. The all important movie ticket: only ₹120.

By Natarajan Ramalingam (@natrajdr)

While a cinema ticket in a multiplex costs ₹250 or more in other metros, the price caps set by the the state government in Chennai provides the same ticket at significantly lower costs. Sounds good, doesn’t it? Maybe, maybe not.

Tamil film industry has been entwined with the state politics for a long time – with prominent cine actors and writers becoming politicians on one hand and the use of movies as a medium for political messaging and image building on the other. Successive governments in the state have claimed cinema as “the primary medium of entertainment for the common man” . While the validity of the claim is difficult to prove due to the changing times and tastes of the public, the government however continues to make it.

This claim provides the legitimacy for the government to intervene and regulate the industry to make the medium of entertainment “affordable to the common public – especially the poor”.

The increase in popularity of vernacular cable TV during the early 2000s, led to a fall in occupancy rates in theatres. Faced with a consequent fall of the entertainment tax rate, the government allowed for variable pricing during the first two weeks of any movie’s release.

This variable pricing mechanism did not impact tax collection as much of the increase in pricing was in “black” and was pocketed by the cine distribution/exhibition industry. The politicians saw an opportunity in this space to show themselves as pro poor by regulating the prices – with minimal impact on revenue to the state.

On 1st Jan 2007, the State of Tamil Nadu, through an amendment to the Tamil Nadu Cinemas (Regulation) Rules, fixed the minimum and maximum prices that can be changed for cinema hall tickets. The fixed prices range from ₹4 for Non-AC cinema halls in municipalities and village panchayats to ₹120 in the AC multiplexes that are contained within shopping malls.

The implementation has helped keep the prices of cinema tickets quite low in the state – ticket prices at multiplexes in comparable metropolis such as Kochi and Bangalore range from ₹300 to ₹500. It is interesting to note that another state which has a strong connect between politics and the film industry, Andhra Pradesh, also have similar laws capping the price of cinema tickets.

But this has come with long term unintended consequences.

Cinema, by its inherent nature, is a very risky industry. Notwithstanding the risks of a movie being completed from the point of inception, there are huge risks on the success of the films that are released (people’s taste, popularity of the stars, novelty of the theme, etc). In such an industry, the model will be to capture increased profits in cases of increased demand (a “Hit” movie) – what finance terms as a “higher-risk-higher-reward” mechanism. The price cap prevents the industry from capturing a higher amount of reward except by way of having cinema on the halls for a longer duration. But video piracy has led to the reduction in the “shelf life” of a new movie.

Investments in developing new and upgrading existing cinema halls have fallen due to high costs of setup and the low returns therein. Moreover, the opportunity cost of land for smaller theatres have increased – due to the increase in land value and stagnation in ticket revenue. Theatres in small towns have put the land for other use – malls, apartments and such.

Most cinemas have looked for alternate sources of revenue – snack and parking fees in multiplexes cost more than the ticket prices themselves! While the cinema tickets themselves are cheap, the cost of the “transaction” of watching a movie is high.

No allowances for inflation-based increases were made in the regulation. While the labour and utility costs have increased with time, the price ceiling have remained constant even after 10 years. The cap has led to continued use of the practice of selling tickets in “black”.

In a separate but related move the government, to boost Tamil language, decided to waive off the entertainment tax for tamil movies with tamil titles. This has led to a situation where the government doesn’t have an interest in increasing the ticket price – as there will be minimal corresponding increase in the tax collection. This tax break and the price cap has meant that the exhibitors of other language movies make lesser revenue per ticket than their Tamil counterparts.

Contrast this with the neighboring state of Kerala. The state laws there do not provide the government with the ability to set prices – only decide on the taxation that can be applied. An open market – same entertainment tax rates regardless of language and content and the ability for the cinemas to be flexible on pricing – has enabled the cinema exhibition industry to grow. The number of screens in the state has increased from 408 in 2014 to 516 by late 2016.

The regulation from the state of Tamil Nadu has helped keep the prices low – much lower than what the consumers were willing to pay (if compared with similar consumers in other states). While consumers have been happy, in the long term this has squeezed the profitability of the cinema exhibition industry. The Madras High Court has recently directed the state government to take a “realistic and rational decision” on ticket pricing.

Is it time for the government to withdraw itself from regulating this industry to its peril?

Natarajan is a alumnus of the Takshashila GCPP, an engineer by education, manager by profession and an aspiring policy analyst out of curiosity (@natrajdr)

[This blogpost is part of an assignment of the Economic Reasoning coursework. For the assignments, students were asked to submit essays on identifying instances of price controls across the world; who the intended beneficiaries were; and what were the unintended consequences of the price control.]

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Smart Watches and Privacy Concerns

By Ganesh Chakravarthi (@crg_takshashila)

A buzz on my wrist wakes me. I open my smartphone and see the status of my smart band synchronising my sleep schedule. My first cup of coffee and breakfast, the smart band takes readings. I go for a run, my smart band goes on overdrive. My ride to work takes me through peak hour traffic and my bike manoeuvres spike up my adrenalin.

Few weeks of the same routine and I observe subtle changes that my body has undergone. All these data points that allow me to alter my lifestyle are recorded on my watch – on the cloud, to be precise. My smart band’s readings give me a fairly good idea of where things stand. I can access this data whenever I want, monitor my eating and update the same data on my smartphone. The question arises, am I the only one seeing this data? Do I have a say if someone wants to pry or sell this data?

Wearable technology has altered the way we interface with the world. With increasing demand, it is important for consumers to be aware of potential security and privacy breaches. With vague regulations and lack of enforcement, data gathered by smart wearables can be used without the consumer’s knowledge, and it wouldn’t even be illegal.

The issue is considerably more serious since consumer-grade wearables currently possess little to no patching. The devices interface with smartphones however they come with their own operating system and applications. Although there are some smartphone antivirus programs that pair with a smartwatch, the lack of timely updates or indigenous security features increases vulnerability.

Poor data management can be exploited by third parties and sold to unscrupulous corporations for gross misuse. The lack of strong encryption with wearables and data in transit before synchronisation leaves it vulnerable to hacks. Additionally, companies would be willing to pay a fortune to get their hands on such personalised inputs.

There is also a big issue of continuity with a company that chooses to comply with privacy regulations. Say you choose to share your data with a manufacturer, there is no guarantee that the company will still be in existence a few years from now on. What happens to a company that goes bankrupt? What happens to all the data if the company is bought by a bigger corporation? The rules of the parent company could allow them to use this data at their own discretion. Additionally, there could be a new law which could allow access to data that you chose to share willingly.

As wearables are slowly entering corporate networks, they bring with them a slew of cybersecurity challenges. At a time where companies are auctioning collected data, how can anyone prevent companies from redistributing it? Will consumers retain any right to restrict access to their own private information?

Part of the problem can be attributed to the stiff competition in the wearables market. Everyone wants to roll their products out first causing manufacturers to cut back on data security in favour of faster roll out. The increased demand is prompting the creation of new editions almost every quarter, a process by which older devices are not getting any upgrades.

Companies have a potential copout with data breach insurance however insurance companies have begun to resist this in recent times. Consider the case of Columbia Casualty, the first insurance company to challenge liability after its client, Cottage Health System, had a data breach which released confidential patient information on the internet. The company paid about $4 million to settle the client’s filing but has now filed to recoup the funds, citing misrepresentation of control.

Cases like these serve to prove that financial institutions are realising the problems of bad data management and shielding themselves from liabilities.

A significant part of the data security debate with wearables is whether manufacturers should regulate the flow of data themselves or whether there should be government intervention.

Consumers should be able to understand the risks they are exposed to for the mere benefit of wearing a trendy electronic cosmetic. For now, there haven’t been any major public data breaches, a fact that has resulted in very little public discussion. However, certain corporations will find that personal fitness and health data is much more valuable than credit cards and payment information.

Security solutions for wearables are still in their infancy. For now, most wearables are left to self-regulatory practices which conversely may ensure bare minimum of compliance with privacy regulations. There is a heightened need to put regulations in place either via private industry or government intervention, maybe a combination of the two. Until these are in place, privacy and data security will always remain an inherent risk.

Ganesh Chakravarthi is the Web Editor at Takshashila and tweets at (@crg_takshashila)

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Controlling Healthcare Costs in Japan

The Japanese story of achieving low-cost healthcare through price controls

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Japanese Superambulance/Ypy31

By Aneesh Mugulur (@mugulur)

Between 1980 and 1992, Japan’s price controls in the healthcare sector led to the decline of physician fees by 19%. In 1991, Japan’s infant mortality rate was just 0.45% of live births in comparison to the United States of America’s figure of 0.91%, placing it in the top rank amongst industrialised countries. The same year, the average life expectancy at birth was 76.13 years for males and 82.22 years for females, more than the world average.

What was the reason for such impressive status of Japan’s health?

The Japanese government provided universal healthcare to all its citizens and regulated the prices of all care (and continues to do so). The aim of this price control was to provide affordable healthcare and insulate them against the high cost of living due to inflation. In this period, more than 80% of hospitals and clinics were privately owned. However, for-profit hospitals were banned.

How did the price control mechanism work?

Health insurance was mandatory for every citizen. There were three important types of insurance based on sectors; for employees, the self-employed, pensioners and the elderly. The government also fixed the co-payment rate. Claims were supposed to be filed with providers and services were provided in kind. The Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare provided medical care under a nationally uniform fee schedule.  It is ‘uniform’ because the same fees are paid by all insurers to providers regardless of the experience of the doctor, or whether it is performed in a rural clinic or a multi-speciality hospital. The government strictly controlled the fees scheduled, and neither the insurers nor the providers had any say on it.

While there were marginal differences in rates amongst insurance plans, the physician fee was uniform. Charging more than the prescribed fees schedule had serious repercussions. Hence, there was no incentive for higher quality of service. As a result, doctors and medical practitioners focused more on quantity rather than quality.

Was the objective of low-cost met?

Nationally, uniform fee schedule played a vital role in maintaining equity. It also established both the scope and standard of services. There are further three structural factors that ensured low costs.

  1. The economic incentive embedded in the fee schedule was for testing pharmaceutical products and laboratories test which meant it was mainly for physicians in primary care who could conduct those tests.
  2. Clinics-based physicians did not have patient admitting privileges. Only hospitals could accept patients and their fees were regulated.
  3. Low administrative costs and secure claiming process

According to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), among the major industrialised nations, Japan’s personal health expenditures were the lowest.

However, there were several unintended consequences which remain unresolved even to this day. Due to the universal fees schedule, a doctor who sees more patients makes more money than a physician who performs long hours of surgery. As the price for each consultation is fixed, doctors make sure they consult more patients to increase their income. In Japan, doctors worked an average of 70.6 hours per week, compared with 51 hours per week in the U.S. Patients have to wait for three hours but their consultation time is just three minutes.

Even though Japan’s healthcare was cheaper compared to most industrialised countries, its quality was dismal. The rigid control did meet the objective of providing affordable healthcare to citizens irrespective of their income. But its unintended consequences were more.

Since Japan’s system provides more incentives to primary care physicians and pays equally to specialists, it has led to an acute shortage of specialists in tertiary care such as surgery, paediatrics, and obstetrics. According to Japan times, the number of maternity wards declined from 4200 in the year 1993 to 3000 in 2005, resulting in longer commutes for pregnant women. Another significant consequence of this government control is the increasing corruption in the system.  In 2004, the chairman of Japan Dental Association was arrested for bribing the members of the government in charge of setting medical care fees.

Will the new ‘Abenomics,’ which is making news globally, revamp the healthcare system of Japan? The question remains unanswered.

Aneesh Mugulur is an alumnus of the Takshashila GCPP15 and tweets at (@mugulur)

[This blogpost is part of an assignment of the Economic Reasoning coursework. For the assignments, students were asked to submit essays on identifying instances of price controls across the world; who the intended beneficiaries were; and what were the unintended consequences of the price control.]

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Shopping at Supermarkets in Argentina? No, Thanks!

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Image credit: Vauvau, flickr/The Argentina Independent

How the price freeze at supermarkets in Argentina left consumers in an unrelenting dilemma with regard to grocery shopping

By Sreetama Sen (@SenSreetama)

The Argentinian government, under the presidency of Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner in 2013, imposed a strict price control mechanism on necessary goods being sold at larger supermarkets across the country. This action of capping the price is a price freeze scenario, which is similar to a price ceiling, wherein the prices of goods are fixed in such a way that they can’t increase beyond the set limit.

This measure was introduced in the aftermath of the International Monetary Fund (“IMF”) censuring Argentina for providing inaccurate data. Also, we must keep in mind that Argentina’s inflation and hyperinflation woes date back to several years.

In 2013, the official records stated an inflation of around 10.9-11% in Argentina whereas, according to independent analysts, the actual figures were 25-28%. The price control mechanism was implemented by the government to bring down this double-digit inflation rate as well as to protect the interests of consumers by maintaining their standard of living in the short term. Additionally, the supermarkets utilised the already high inflation rates to sell the goods at an even higher rate to the final consumers while they themselves continued to pay six times lesser than the final price to the producers. Hence, this measure was aimed at ensuring that such producers were not at a disadvantage in addition to controlling the soaring inflation rates in the country. Even in recent days, there have been instances of protests by these producers for not being paid the adequate price.

In the initial stages, the government followed a two-pronged action plan – (i) identifying several goods which were daily necessities, including groceries (cooking oil, cereals, beer, etc.); and (ii) capping the prices at which such goods could be sold by large retailers for a period of two months. This period was subsequently extended in phases till Mauricio Macri took over as President in 2015.

By December 2013, the Argentinian government entered into an accord with the popular supermarkets operating in the country like Carrefour SA, Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Cencosud SA, etc. whereby the prices of these goods were frozen for one whole year. During the time when this mechanism operated in Argentina, the number of regulated goods, rose to as many as five hundred. Interestingly, the accord also included an understanding between the parties that such price fixation on goods should not result in shortage of supplies by the supermarkets.

The question that arises now, is whether the inflation rates were actually controlled? Well no, as of 2015, the inflation rate was at 23.5% as per data released by the World Bank. Secondly, the effect on consumers was also undesirable. This mainly happened because the supermarkets found a way to counter the fixed price by displaying lesser supply of those goods and in turn, the smaller sellers, due to a rise in demand also raised the prices of those goods – hence demand for the particular good kept increasing for the consumer and yet he/she was unable to purchase it because the supply was considerably reduced, artificially or by market forces. As a result, the producers were not getting paid for sales, and thus, were unable to produce any good due to lack of capital.

So, why is any of this still baffling, considering that the IMF has lifted the censure on the country in November, 2016? Here is why:

The first and foremost unintended consequence was a deficit in the supply of the goods – whole point of fixing the prices was because they were ‘necessary’ goods and yet consumers found it difficult to purchase the same items. The smaller vendors, taking advantage of the fact that supermarkets were unwilling to sell these items, further increased the prices of those items, leaving consumers in a limbo. It also resulted in black marketing of such goods, catering only to those consumers who could afford to pay higher costs to meet their demands.

The intended recipients did not receive the intended benefits of this price control mechanism. It most definitely did not achieve what it set out to achieve. But, what is even more surprising is that, three years and a government change later, the condition in Argentina is not very different. This is important because – it is one thing to know that a control mechanism did not work and it is another to see the same control being removed and yet the same issues still persisting. The recent proposal by the legislators in Argentina in relation to regulation of prices in supermarkets in Argentina to curb rising prices and inflation rates is that there needs to be a law that governs this sector and a law that is passed after due consultation with all stakeholders.

Thus, it remains to be seen whether the extremely high double digit inflation rates in the country is a consequence of continuous economic mismanagement by the authorities or misplaced causation by the stakeholders.

Sreetama Sen is an alumna of the Takshashila GCPP15 and tweets at @SenSreetama

[This blogpost is part of an assignment of the Economic Reasoning coursework. For the assignments, students were asked to submit essays on identifying instances of price controls in the world; who the intended beneficiaries were; and what were the unintended consequences of the price control.]

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When Economic Policy Saved India from the Mongols

By Anirudh Kanisetti

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Featured Image: coinindia.com

13th century, an era when the Mongols were considered the Scourge of God, had rulers from Hungary to China quaking in their boots at the mere thought of a Mongol attack. One potentate however was a notable exception: he was, in fact, in the habit of defeating Mongol raids and keeping his dominion, among the world’s most prosperous, conspicuously safe from pony-riding barbarians.

Sultan Alauddin Khilji of the Delhi Sultanate was one of the finest generals in the history of the Indian subcontinent. He came to the throne after a coup against his uncle, and his successful military expeditions against the Mongols required a large and efficient standing army. It would take one of history’s most innovative economic policies to maintain it.

The Sultan’s solution to the problem was as brutally efficient as his military campaigns. The larger the army, the higher its upkeep. However, if prices of essential commodities were lowered, he could assure the same quality of life for his soldiers at a lower cost to the treasury without compromising their fighting calibre.

If the prices of essential commodities were fixed to buy the support of the military, the prices of every other commodity would also have to be controlled to ensure a similar quality of life for cultivators and merchants. The controls, therefore, were extended to every commodity available in Delhi’s markets – ranging from fine cloth to ponies – in an ever-expanding bureaucratic maze.

Fundamental market rules haven’t really changed much from the 13th to the 21st century. Price controls inevitably led to black market trading as a new equilibrium is reached between buyers and sellers. In addition, famines inevitably led to hoarding and shortages.

A policy like this would be impossible to maintain in a state which had to adhere to human rights. Luckily for the Sultan, the Delhi Sultanate was famous for many things, but humanitarianism was not one of them.

Draconian punishments were applied to any merchant who dared to hoard and sell items on the black market. Peasants were forced to come to Delhi and sell only to government-approved merchants at government-approved prices. This is in addition to the land revenue they already paid – which the Sultan paid back to the merchants, allowing for a small profit margin.

An intricate spy network ensured that any violations to the system were reported and dealt with. In times of scarcity, the entire city of Delhi was put on rations and fed only from government granaries, which acquired grain at fixed prices.

Within a few years of Alauddin’s accession, Delhi became unrecognizable. A totalitarian state where the Big Sultan knew all, its markets boasted possibly the most elaborate system of price controls ever conceived, at relatively cheap prices compared to global standards. In times of famine, amazingly, every household in the city had something to eat. Contemporary travellers’ accounts describe the fixed prices, come hell or high water, as a wonder of the world. But the downsides of the policy are not difficult to comprehend.

First, the peasantry had absolutely no incentive to increase production, as they would earn the same regardless. The Sultan refused to lower the taxes they paid. The countryside was essentially bled dry so that Delhi could live as he ordained. Merchants, too, could not pursue profits beyond what the Sultan allowed. This led to the economy stagnating for the duration of Alauddin’s rule: nearly twenty years.

Second, in a stagnating economy, it became more and more difficult for non-military professions to lead a good life. The prices of goods did not change for years, but incomes inevitably rose and fell with the Sultan’s military campaigns. “The price of a camel is two coins,” laments a contemporary, “But where do I get the two coins?”

The policy was clearly meant to benefit the army first, and the average Delhiite second. On the first criterion, it was a success, on the second it was a disaster (except in times of famine). Its implementation required a massive, expanding bureaucracy and spy network to fix everything from trading licences to profit margins and to discover and punish violators. Finally, it led to a miserable existence for the non-military classes, who could only live as well as the Sultan permitted them, and thus had no incentive to increase production, leading to economic stagnation and a long-term weakening of the Sultanate.

Was the policy a success? In terms of Alauddin’s objectives, yes. Was it a success on other counts? The answer is a qualified no – in purely economic terms, it was a disaster. But the positive externalities of keeping the entire Subcontinent safe from the Mongols justified the massive transaction cost to the economy of Delhi: the ends justified the means.

Besides, the citizens of Delhi were still eating Alauddin’s cheap grain in 1334 (he died in 1316), so perhaps they didn’t mind all that much?

Anirudh Kanisetti is an alumnus of the Takshashila GCPP15.

[This blogpost is part of an assignment of the Economic Reasoning coursework. For the assignments, students were asked to submit essays on identifying instances of price controls in the world; who the intended beneficiaries were; and what were the unintended consequences of the price control.]

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Improving Greece’s Global Competitiveness

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EU’s directives on Energy and Environment put additional pressure on one of the most productive sectors of a weakened Greek economy.

By Ratish Srivastava (@socialia13)

Eight years since the Sub-Prime Mortgage crisis hit the world economy, Greece still seems to be on a downhill path. EU’s Directives on Energy and Environment are an encumbrance to one of its most productive sectors – refinery. Greece is losing its comparative advantage in the global economy, in turn hampering its ability to find a way out of trouble.

There are two major implications from this – one, the argument for the case of a Greece exit from the EU becomes stronger. Second, if Greece does have a choice to leave the EU then it will be choosing between long-term impact of its refinery sector on the environment or having more flexibility to improve the conditions of its citizens, at least through the refinery sector’s productivity.

The Greek economy has shrunk by a quarter in the past five years and unemployment is as high as 25%. Greece has received three bailouts from the IMF, the proceeds of which have been used to pay off their international debts. This crisis in the Greek economy and Europe’s debt crisis have combined to have a major impact on the refining sector in Greece.

A report by Foundation of Economic and Industrial Research in Greece, estimates that the refining sector has a strong impact on Greek economy. The research took into consideration the direct, indirect and induced effect of the sector on the overall economy. The report further estimated that the refining activity contributes € 3.8 billion and 40,000 jobs to the domestic economy, whereas its contribution to the tax and social security revenues is also significant. Another major contribution the refinery sector has is on reducing trade deficit, as the export of petroleum products amounted to 37.5% of all exports, most of which are going to non-EU countries who have the option to switch suppliers (86%).

In light of EU’s Directives on Energy and Environment, the refinery sector faces significant challenges as high financing and energy costs, lower margins, high cost of crude oil has reduced the competitiveness of Greek refineries in international markets. There is a dramatic shift in fundamental demand and supply trends of the world in refinery, as the refining capacity grew in Asia-Pacific (15%), West Asia (8%) and Russia (6%). The refineries in these economies have a high complexity index, implying that they can produce high value products in addition due to their size; they can achieve economies of scale.

The most complex refineries are able to produce petroleum products with high market value and process most types of crude oil, exploiting its price variations and availability. To achieve this complexity, significant investment needs to be made constantly. The refinery sector in Greece already invests in itself majorly, as the sector’s investment accounts for 26% of total investment in the manufacturing sector (€1.3 billion). This investment intensity comes as a surprise as Greece faces high rates on borrowing, making it expensive for them to borrow. However, this investment is seen as necessary to keep up with the international market for oil products in terms of increasing the complexity of the refinery.

The developing economies of Asia-Pacific, West Asia and Russia are export-oriented economies that are increasing the complexity of their refinery. With the domestic demand for oil products lesser than their capacity to produce them, with fewer compliance costs, lack of environmental regulations and low labour costs, these economies are able to price their goods competitively.

Greece will not be able to compete with these developing economies, due to additional costs imposed on them by the EU’s climate change policies. With the following directives in place – EU Emissions Trading System adopted in 2005 (EU ETS currently in its third phase 2013-2020), the Fuel Quality Directive in 2009 (FQD) and Industrial Emissions Directive (IED) in 2010, the refinery sector will not be able to compete in the international market and their products will face a competitive disadvantage compared to its rivals. These policies come at a time when the Greek economy needs more flexibility for the refinery sector to become competitive globally. However, the EU is hoping to achieve its ‘EU Energy Roadmap 2050’ which was launched in 2011 (which is, during the crisis period of Greece), as compliance with Best Available Technique (BAT) under IED is compulsory for an EU member state. BAT brings about high cost of emissions reduction for the refineries with little to no flexibility on meeting the emission targets. In a report by European Commission in 2014, the refining sector in EU has the highest energy cost worldwide with the cost for Greece the highest among EU member states.

The competitiveness of Greek refineries, which contributes significantly to the domestic economy, is not secured. Current legislations and policies of the EU create more problems and uncertainty for the refining sector in Greece as it is affected by a number of other exogenous factors (price fluctuation in crude oil prices, global economic crisis). The bailouts do not help Greek economy, as the money from them is not used to make necessary structural changes that the domestic economy requires. Yanis Varoufakis, the ex-Finance Minister of Greece resigned after his government accepted the third bailout package, maybe realising that the right steps towards a sound economic policy were not taken with the bailout.

One of the most productive sectors of the Greek economy faces uncertainty, reduced domestic demand, high costs, low margins and a comparative disadvantage in the international market. If Greece hopes to take the right steps to move towards a more stable economy, it needs its refinery sector to become more globally competitive. However, with strong pressure from the EU regarding its ‘Energy Roadmap 2050’, the chances for the Greece economy to improve its situation seem bleak as the potential of the refinery sector is being limited.

Ratish Srivastava (@socialia13) is a research intern at the Takshashila Institution

Featured image: Heiko Prigge/Monocle

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Of Ethics and Artificial Intelligence

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War has changed. It is no longer about nations, ideologies and ethnicities. It is an endless series of proxy battles fought by man and machine.[1]

The above is the opening line of Metal Gear Solid 4, one of the greatest pieces of virtual entertainment. It paints a grim picture of the future of warfare replete with references to autonomous artificial intelligence (AI) overrunning defence systems. Given recent advancements however, one has to wonder if these portrayals were right.

Science fiction involving AI generally depicts a utopian or dystopian future, a plot point that writers exploit and exaggerate to no end. However, AI application development has been ongoing for several decades and the impact of early systems raises many questions on its full-scale integration in defence systems.

What could possibly go wrong?

In simple terms if we fail to align the objectives of an AI system with our own, it could spell trouble for us. For machines, exercising firm judgment is still a significant challenge.

Recent advancements in robotic automation and autonomous weapon systems have brought military conflict to a whole new level. Unmanned helicopters and land vehicles are constantly being tested and upgraded. The surgical precision with which these automations can perform military operations is unparalleled.

Emerging weapons tech with deep learning systems can ‘correct’ mistakes and even learn from them, thereby maximising tactical efficiency. The high amount of security in their design make them near-impossible to hack and in some cases even ‘abort’ an operation. This could result in mass casualties despite a potentially controllable situation.

An obvious issue is that in wrong hands an AI could have catastrophic consequences. Although present systems do not have much ‘independence’, the growing levels of intelligence and autonomy indicate that a malfunctioning AI with disastrous consequences is a plausible scenario.

Who is accountable in case of a mistake?

Autonomous vehicles and weapon systems bring forth the issue of moral responsibility. Primary questions concern delegating the use of lethal force to AI systems.

An AI system that carries out operations autonomously; what consequences will it face in terms of criminal justice or war crimes? As machines, they cannot be charged with a crime. How will it play out in case a fully AI-integrated military operation goes awry?

Problems with commercialisation

Today’s wars are not entirely fought by a nation’s army. Private military/mercenary companies (PMC) play an active role in wars, supplementing armies, providing tactical support and much more. It won’t be long before autonomous technologies are commercialised and not restricted to government contracts.

There is no dearth of PMCs who would jump at the opportunity and grab a share of this technology. The very notion of private armies with commercial objectives wielding automations is a dangerous one. Armed with an exceedingly efficient force, they would play a pivotal role in tipping the balance of war in favour of the highest bidder.

The way forward

In September 1983, Stanislav Petrov, Lieutenant Colonel with the Soviet Air Defence Forces, was the duty officer stationed at the command centre for the Oko nuclear early-warning system. The system reported a missile launch from the United States, followed by as many as five more. Petrov judged them to be a false alarm and did not retaliate. This decision is credited for having prevented a full scale nuclear war.

The findings of subsequent investigations revealed a fault with the satellite warning systems. Petrov’s judgment in face of unprecedented danger shows extreme presence of mind. Can we trust a robot or an autonomous weapon system to exercise judgment and take such a split-second decision?

Stephen Hawking, Elon Musk and Bill Gates – some of the biggest names in the industry – have expressed concern about the risks of superintelligent AI systems. A standing argument voiced is that it is difficult to predict the future of AI by comparing them with technologies of the past since we have never created anything that can outsmart us.

Although current systems offer fewer ethical issues such as decisions taken by self-driving cars in accident prevention, there could be potential complications with AI systems supplementing human roles.

There is a heightened need to introduce strict regulations on AI integration with weapon systems. Steps should also be taken to introduce a legal framework which keeps people accountable for AI operations and any potential faults.

AI, as an industry, cannot be stopped. Some challenges may seem visionary, some even far-fetched however it is foreseeable that we will eventually encounter them; it would be wise to direct our present-day research in an ethical direction so as to avoid potential disasters. A probable scenario would be where AI systems operate more as a team-player rather than an independent system.

Nick Bostrom, in the paper titled Ethics of AI sums up the AI conundrum really well:

If we are serious about developing advanced AI, this is a challenge that we must meet. If machines are to be placed in a position of being stronger, faster, more trusted, or smarter than humans, then the discipline of machine ethics must commit itself to seeking human-superior (not just human-equivalent) niceness.[2]

Image credit: AP Photo/Massoud Hossaini

[1] http://www.goodreads.com/quotes/478060-war-has-changed-it-s-no-longer-about-nations-ideologies-or

[2] https://intelligence.org/files/EthicsofAI.pdf

Further Readings:

https://intelligence.org/files/EthicsofAI.pdf

Ganesh Chakravarthi is the Web Editor of The Takshashila Institution and tweets at @crg_takshashila.

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