Syed Bakhtiyar Kazmi
Unquestionably, when you import goods and services, you are exporting jobs and precious foreign exchange. The mantra of consumer choice, which seems to have alarmingly seeped into our economic policies, has a flip side. Workers are consumers, export enough jobs and there won’t be sufficient consumers for choice to matter. Obviously, there will always be a section of the society with the wherewithal to demand branded imports; however, for the nation collectively the cost of ever bloating trade deficit will be fatal.
Admittedly, workers’ remittance bonanza has averted or perhaps delayed the inevitable crunch, but in a world obsessing with anti-immigrant notions and simultaneously moving away from fossil fuel, things can quickly change for the worse with far more adverse consequences. Numerous workers are coming back home to find whatever jobs that existed have also been exported.
I confess to being one of those rare Pakistanis who is not afflicted by the cricket bug; perhaps the reason I can remain dispassionate about the related controversies. The infatuation with the game across the country is utterly remarkable, and frankly, it might be a useful study in human behaviour to determine the causes and correlation of this particular mania; as long as PSL goes on, the nation has no time for anything else. Nonetheless, hopefully, the final is successfully held in Lahore, and my fellow countrymen have a great time. But even in this case, I wonder whether PSL might have been as successful if jobs had not been exported to foreign players.
Irrespective of my other arguments against privatisation, fundamentally when you sell your national assets to foreigners, you are selling associated future jobs to them as well. Now that K-Electric has been acquired by the Chinese, which nationals are expected to hold the top jobs in the organisation? And in this case the risk is that even low-level jobs will go to Chinamen; management level salaries cost a pretty penny. In a nutshell, we seem to be not only exporting jobs; we are in the process of selling out jobs in Pakistan to foreigners as well. If we look around, we have sublet even road maintenance jobs to foreign companies, and I can only wonder whether Pakistanis cannot even do that?
Let me put it precisely if we cannot operate our national airline in a manner compatible with international standards, then that is what we deserve. If our cinema industry cannot produce great movies, then the solution is not to support jobs of actors residing in the nation’s biggest enemy on the globe. And for a country which once worked hard to achieve the goal of self-sufficiency in food, the bill for imported food items is growing year on year significantly. If we cannot grow our own food, then we should ration our consumption rather than exporting agriculture jobs. Finally, if we can’t even play the game ourselves, then perhaps we should look at cheering another sport; with due apologies to all my cricket loving brethren.
This column has for years supported protectionism and suggested monitoring and controlling imports. One has always wondered how in a democracy, policies supporting tax reductions for the rich, marginalising of labour unions, deregulation, privatisation and lopsided private-public partnership for public services could have come about. Where were the people when all that happened? The small answer is that they believed in the pundits. Even when I write this column, the majority will swiftly and loudly rise in opposition simply because they have been taught that capitalism is the best and that free trade is necessary for a nation to focus on a production where it has a comparative advantage. Rest assured that all these theories are based on absurd assumptions which have no linkage with the real world; comparative advantage is like Batman — too good to be true, or real. Interestingly, while following the ongoing debate between the finance team and a bunch of economists on the size of public debt, which is remarkably still a mystery, one solution put forward to manage external debt is to control imports. Nonetheless, perhaps as in the past, the big lies might have drowned this signal in all their noise, but thankfully, they stand trumped today.
“Among the many things that Donald Trump dislikes are big global firms. Faceless and rootless, they stand accused of unleashing “carnage” on ordinary Americans by shipping jobs and factories abroad. His answer is to domesticate these marauding multinationals. Lower taxes will draw their cash home, border charges will hobble their cross-border supply chains, and the trade deals that help them do business will be rewritten”, The Economist, February 2017.
While the think tanks are already busy making up theories why protectionism will not make a difference, even going to the extent of making up conspiracies on why and how Mr Trump got elected, the fact remains that globalisation is in retreat. And it is not America alone which wants its jobs back; in fact, Brexit was the game changer. The world is moving back to the future!
Some of these great domestic pundits who continuously espouse the benefits of free trade, which till now have remained invisible and nonexistent, should make an effort to prepare a list of industries which have disappeared in Pakistan and explain how that helped the nation. There was a time when we used to make our own shoes, and in fact, we did have a toy industry, to count a few. A naive person once said, if Pakistanis are good at making brooms only, that is what we should be making; I am not sure if he had figured out how we were paying for importing everything else.
I don’t deny that protectionist policies can also be abused and corrupted by greedy businesses, but since the risks of corrupt practices to extract monopoly rent exist in the free trade environment as well, the lesser of two evils, since we love the lesser of evils phraseology, is definitely protecting the family.