Category: Economic Growth

Enrolment Rates Are Climbing. So What Explains the Sorry State of India’s Education Sector?

[This article was published by on 21st December 2017. It was written in collaboration with Aniruddha Ghosh, a classmate from LSE. To read the article on, please click here . The article has also been posted on the LSE South Asia Blog and has been featured at Qrius]

Economic research shows that interventions aimed at improving cognitive skills rather than mere enrolment rates are required to boost economic growth.

Despite high enrolment ratios of over 96% in the last eight years, improvement in reading outcomes and arithmetic ability continues to be low. Credit: World Bank/Curt Carnemark/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Despite high enrolment ratios of over 96% in the last eight years, improvement in reading outcomes and arithmetic ability continues to be low. Credit: World Bank/Curt Carnemark/Flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Come January 2018, the Annual Status of Education Report (ASER) 2017 will be up for discussion among policy experts. Based on household-based surveys that cover children in the age group 3-16 across almost all rural districts of India, ASER provides estimates of children’s schooling status and their ability to do basic reading and arithmetic tasks.

ASER’s 2016 report observed that despite high enrolment ratios of over 96% in the last eight years, improvement in reading outcomes and arithmetic ability continues to be low. Moreover, a large proportion of students in both government and private schools continue to be below ‘grade level’. Grade level means that a student can deal with what is expected of her in that grade.

The ASER 2017 is targeted to look ‘beyond basics’: the age group between 14-18, primarily those outside the Right to Education ambit. There is a significant dearth of information in this regard and therefore, ASER 2017 will be a critical information asset to assess India’s madhyamik shiksha scenario. The government’s flagship Rashtriya Madhyamik Shiksha Abhiyan (RMSA) launched in 2009 and re-booted in 2013 as RMSA-Integrated has not been much of a success in India’s secondary education scene. In light of these observations, it is likely that ASER 2017 will throw up systematic issues that have continued to plague our secondary education.

ASER 2016 and other previous reports

Let’s take a step back and illustrate how our performance has been in the age group 3-16. Here is a snapshot of ASER’s previous reports on the state of India’s early grade development.

Figure 1: Percentage of children not enrolled in school. The trend for enrollment has been on the rise. Source: ASER 2016 Report

Figure 1: Percentage of children not enrolled in school. The trend for enrolment has been on the rise. Source: ASER 2016

Figure 2: Children in class III who are at ‘Grade Level’ 2008-2016. The lack of commensurate ability with grade level is evident. Source: ASER 2016

Figure 2: Children in class III who are at ‘Grade Level’ 2008-2016. The lack of commensurate ability with grade level is evident. Source: ASER 2016

Fig 3: Percentage of students who can at least do subtraction in Grade III. Large variation across states. In 2016, the number of children at grade level ranged from 50% in Himachal Pradesh to 10% in Uttar Pradesh. Source: ASER 2016 Report

Enrolment levels have been high for the 6-14 age group, and around 96% since 2009 onwards.

The percentage of children in grade 3 who are able to read at least a grade 1 level text has improved marginally – from 40% in 2014 to 42.5% in 2016.

Percentage of grade 3 children who could do two digit subtraction has marginally improved from 25% in 2014 to 27% in 2016. This has been the first year since 2010 when there has been an upward trend observed in arithmetic ability.

However, trends over time point to a dismal outlook. Figure 4 demonstrates the ability of grade 4 children in successive cohorts to read and do basic arithmetic. One can see a downward trend in the ability of successive cohorts.

Figure 4: The graphs show the performance of three cohorts from class IV to class VIII. The graph on the left shows the percentage of students who can do division; the graph on the right shows the percentage of students who can read a class II 2 level text. Source: ASER 2016

Figure 4: The graphs show the performance of three cohorts from class IV to class VIII. The graph on the left shows the percentage of students who can do division; the graph on the right shows the percentage of students who can read a class II 2 level text. Source: ASER 2016

Economics, enrolment rates and cognitive ability

One of the most influential studies to look at the relationship between education and economic growth was professor Lance Pritchett’s  Where has all the Education Gone? His 2001 study found no significant positive relationship between educational attainment and economic growth.

He wrote:

“In the decades since 1960, nearly all developing economies have already seen education attainment grow rapidly. The cross-national data show, however, that on average, education attainment contributed much less to growth than would have been expected in the standard augmented Solow model.”

He proposed several possible explanations for this phenomenon, the most important of which being the classic quantity-quality argument: Quality of educational attainment was so low that despite high educational attainment there wasn’t a significant increase in cognitive skills and human capital.

As outlined above, the very idea that improved schooling (through the lens of school attainment rates) – which has often been a cornerstone of most interventionist strategies – will raise economic well-being has often been discounted by economists. Eric Hanushek and Ludger Woessmann in their authoritative paper, ‘The Role of Cognitive Skills in Economic Development (2008)‘ find strong evidence that the cognitive skills of the population – rather than school attainment rates – are powerful determinants of earnings, economic growth and income distribution.

Their work premises itself on a rather simple question: whether education is the steering force or merely one of the several factors that are correlated with more fundamental development forces, say cognitive skills when it comes to economic growth. Hanushek-Woessmann armed with strong econometric evidence argue that cognitive skills overwhelmingly outnumbers schooling attainment rates when it comes to influencing economic growth. Moreover, the effect of cognitive skills on economic growth is larger in developing countries than in the developed ones.


Building on the works of Pritchett, and Hanushek and Woessmann, a recent research paper titled Does One Size Fit? The Impact of Cognitive Skills of Economic Growth by professor Nadir Altinok of the University of Lorraine and professor Abdurrahman Aydemir of Sabanci University studies the difference in the impact of cognitive skills on economic growth between developing and developed economies.

In addition to the findings mentioned above, the heterogeneous effects of cognitive skills vis-a-vis the income levels of the economies is rather stark: the magnitude of the effect of cognitive skills is about 60% higher for low-income countries compared to high-income countries, and this more than doubles when low total-factor productivity (TFP) countries are compared to high TFP countries. From a policy perspective, this encourages the view that the promotion of education policies that focus on the quality of education has especially larger payoffs in the least developed regions through the productivity channel. To sum it up, economic research overwhelmingly supports the idea of interventions aimed at improving cognitive skills rather than mere enrolment rates.

To cite a success story, Colombia has made impressive progress towards universal enrolment in basic education and at the same time has raised learning outcomes. A lot of this accrues to the flexible ‘new school’ model, commonly known as Escuela Nueva.

Escuela Nueva accepts multigrade teaching as an unavoidable condition in small schools of rural areas. It encourages to develop special materials and teaching methods for multigrade teaching. The academic achievement of the students in Escuela Nueva has been consistently higher than in urban schools. There are plenty of cross-country experiences to learn from and we should actively explore and replicate them here.

India’s scenario

Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) was launched in 2000 to spread the availability of universal elementary education across India. Under SSA, commendable progress has been made in increasing enrolment rates; as well as providing basic infrastructures such as classrooms, water, toilets and boundary walls to all schools. Yet, what is the scenario when it comes to learning outcomes?

India made its debut in the Programme for International Student Aptitude (PISA) test in 2009 with 16,000 students from 400 schools across Himachal Pradesh and Tamil Nadu. While China – also a first-timer in 2009 – stormed into the number one position with Shanghai schools topping in math and science, India was at a paltry 72nd among the 74 participating countries. Since then, India has boycotted the PISA rankings citing ‘methodological differences’ but it plans to return to the rankings fold in 2021. Coupled with ASER’s findings over the years, this paints a sorry state of India’s primary education sector.

Now that enrolment rates are high, we would need to look for innovative interventions to improve learning-based outcomes in India. One of the recommendations of the ASER report, which the government has been focussing on in the last few years, has been early-childhood care and nurture, especially for children in the 0-3 age group. In fact, ASER’s study on three states (Andhra Pradesh, Assam and Rajasthan) found a positive and significant relationship between early childhood care and nurture and early grade learning outcomes. Although issues do remain in implementation, this avenue holds promise to further improve outcomes in India.

Additionally, in India, there are two interesting policy interventions that are in the process of being rolled out: same language subtitling (SLS) and outcomes fund for the education sector.

Conceived by Professor Brij Kothari of IIM Ahmedabad, SLS is the concept of subtitling existing Bollywood film songs on television. Kothari’s research estimates a 9% increase in the number of functional readers who watch TV programmes with SLS within a period of two years.

Similarly, a large outcome-based fund for education is all set to launch in India in early 2018. Touted as one of the first and largest funds for social enterprises, the fund would invest in education providers to work with government-run schools to deliver outcomes. There could be a variety of outcomes like early childhood interventions, retention of girl students, learning in primary schools and employability of students after high school. The fund is being launched by the Global Social Impact Investment Steering Group, an organisation comprising 13 member countries (including India), with a focus on channeling global social impact investment. Outcome fund based models are actively being employed by nations across the globe to fund social projects and has the potential to deliver the necessary outcomes.

While we wait for ASER’s 2017 findings, much of the theory and evidence that we have strongly suggests that raising enrolment rates hasn’t been enough to push our growth frontiers. The hope is that the required stakeholders will aim, plan and push for innovative interventions that encourage student achievements.

India’s Growth Slump: No Easy Answers

[This article was published by the Business Standard  on Tuesday, Oct 31, 2017. The article was written in collaboration with Anmol Agarwal, a classmate from LSE. To read the article on Business Standard, click here]


“We should be very careful lest fiscal actions undercut stability,” said Reserve Bank of (RBI) Governor, Urjit Patel, in response to a journalist’s query on fiscal stimulus packages during the monetary policy conference on October 2017. The Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council (PMEAC) has also recently expressed its reservations about a mid-term fiscal stimulus package by the government to revive India’s economic growth.


While critics of a fiscal stimulus cite stability — most notably upside risks — as a key reason against a fiscal stimulus, advocates routinely talk about the famed fiscal multiplier and how it would spur a much-needed economic revival.


Fiscal multipliers were first introduced to the world by John Maynard Keynes during the Great Depression of the 20th century. Keynes had argued that a recession could be curtailed by an increase in government expenditure, fuelling savings and capital formation. For instance, a rise in the government expenditure of $100 would raise the real GDP or gross domestic product of a country by more than $100 and bring it back on the path of economic growth.


Keynes and his policies began to be followed by policymakers all over the world until the advent of Milton Friedman, one of the most influential economic thinkers of the 20th century. Friedman challenged ‘naive Keynesianism’ (as he put it) and argued that a fiscal expansion is highly inflationary even as the neoclassical school argued that fiscal deficits brought about by an expansionary fiscal policy would result in rising interest rates, and a subsequent crowding out of private investment.


These ‘non-Keynesian’ effects of government spending were fist empirically documented in the 1990s in a series of researches published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER), a leading economic research organisation in the US. The authors – Francesco Giavazzi of the NBER and Marco Pagano of the University of Naples Frederico II – studiedthe impact of fiscal contractions and expansions in Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries, and analysed their impact of private investment, consumption, and economic growth. The OECD is an intergovernmental economic organisation with 35 member countries, most of whom are high income and can be considered as being developed.


Interestingly, they found that spending cuts in Denmark (1983-86) and Ireland (1987-89) actually lead to an increase in aggregate demand and private consumption, stimulating economic growth. On the other hand, the Swedish fiscal expansion — where Swedish Government Debt to GDP jumped from 25 per cent in 1990 to 67.8 per cent by 1994 — counterproductively led to a fall in private consumption and investment. The authors called the events in Denmark and Ireland as ‘expansionary fiscal contractions’, while the events in Sweden as ‘contractionary budget expansions’.


Simply put, the impact of the fiscal multiplier in these cases was negative. These events were not anomalies as further studies have gone on to show several such outcomes from budgetary changes.


In India, there have always been divergent views about the effectiveness of a fiscal stimulus. An important Keynesian argument to illustrate the effectiveness of the multiplier is that a fiscal stimulus should increase income and eventually spur private savings and investment. Does this hold good for Indian? A look at the chart below suggests otherwise. India’s fiscal deficit as percentage of GDP declined continuously from 5.98 per cent in 2001-02 to 2.54  per cent in 2007-08. But, contradictory to the Keynesian view, domestic savings as a percentage of GDP show a continuous rise, peaking at around 38 per cent in 2007-08 when the deficit was the lowest.


Subsequently, there was a sharp decline in savings in 2008-09 due to the onset of the financial crisis in a situation economists commonly refer to as ‘savings paradox’ — where individuals desire to save more due to increasing uncertainty in the economy, but end up saving less due to a decline in their incomes as brought about by a crisis. Focusing on years after the crisis, fiscal deficit rose continuously from 2010-11 until 2014-15, but savings have been on a downward trajectory, clearly suggesting an absence of a Keynes style deficit–income-savings correlation in 


In the Study of State Finances report of 2016-17, the RBI expressed concerns about how increased market borrowings by the states could lead to higher bond yields and costs associated with borrowing. Even a significant part of the central government’s borrowing requirement is taken care of by market borrowings – based on budget estimates net market borrowings for the year 2017-18 stand at Rs 3.48 trillion, or about 64% of the gross fiscal deficit. Since an increased fiscal deficit is likely to be financed with market borrowings, it is likely that bond yields would rise. Theoretically, this can crowd out private investment and have a detrimental effect on the economy, especially at a time when banks are not willing to lend fearing rise in bad debts and many companies have been raising money from the corporate bond market. There have been several studies, which corroborate the relationship between a fiscal stimulus and higher cost of borrowing, including a 2004 study published by Economic & Political Weekly, where an RBI Economist Rajan Goyal, established the relationship for 



After a sharp fall at the onset of the 2008 financial crisis, India’s benchmark 10-year bond yield had an upward trend until 2014-15 (Source: Authors’ Calculations and Bloomberg)

Even those who advocate a fiscal stimulus acknowledge that fiscal multipliers only lead to economic growth when the increased government expenditure is spent productively. A study by the National Institute of Public Finance and Policy, a New Delhi-based economic policy think tank, in 2012 had found that a capital expenditure multiplier was 2.45, while other revenue expenditure multipliers were less than one. However, if one looks at India’s government capital expenditure, the trend is puzzling. In the years when the fiscal deficit was higher, there was a drop in the government’s capital expenditure. This clearly suggests that the quality of expenditure in a fiscal stimulus may not necessarily lead to an economic revival.


A fiscal stimulus will also have a bearing on India’s sovereign rating. It has been stuck at a low level, being upgraded only once in the past 25 years. On 2nd November 2016, the credit rating agency S&P Global Ratings kept the credit rating for unchanged at the lowest investment grade (BBB-), only 1 grade higher than a junk bond rating, with a stable outlook, citing India’s low per capita income and weak public finances as the major reasons. Moody’s and Fitch Ratings followed the suit, expressing scepticism regarding upgrading India’s rating in the near future.


The issue of consistently low ratings baffles Indian economists. India’s chief economic advisor Arvind Subramanian blamed the agencies for their ‘poor standards’, while India’s Economic Affairs Secretary, Shaktikanta Das, had said that rating agencies were out of touch with India’s reality. Even the OECD threw its weight behind India, suggesting that deserves a credit rating upgrade.


performance, growth prospects, debt position and the state of public finances are some of the key criteria used by rating agencies. With the growth rate sagging, India’s only hope of expecting a better rating in the future is for the government to be fiscally prudent. An untimely fiscal stimulus will lead the government missing the 3.2 per cent fiscal deficit target in fiscal year 2018, dent credibility of the government and ruin chances of upgradation in our sovereign rating. The investment climate continues to be weak – gross fixed capital formation as a percentage of GDP has steadily declined from 34.3 per cent in 2011-12 to 29.5 per cent in 2016-17. In such a scenario, missing the fiscal deficit target may dent the confidence of investors, which in turn, could end up threatening capital inflows.


When a patient is sick, the doctor will always suggest medicines but some of the medicines have side effects and taking too much of them may end up causing more harm than good to the patient. It’s time India’s policymakers prescribed the right remedy for the ills that have been plaguing the economy. Fiscal stimulus is not the panacea.

1. Francesco Giavazzi and Marco Pagano (1990), National Bureau of Economic Research, Can Severe Fiscal Contractions be Expansionary? Tales of Two Small European Countries (
2. Francesco Giavazzi and Marco Pagano (1995), National Bureau of Economic Research, Non Keynesian Effects of Fiscal Policy Changes: International Evidence (
3. Reserve Bank of (2017), State Finances: A Study of Budgets 2016-17 (
4. Rajan Goyal (2004), Economic and Political Weekly, Does Higher Fiscal Deficit Lead to Rise in Interest Rates


Clues for India: Looking at the puzzle of Total Factor Productivity and Capital Flows

[This article was published by the the London School of Economics South Asia Centre Blog (South Asia @ LSE)  on Monday, Oct 30, 2017. The article was written in collaboration with Aniruddha Ghosh, a classmate from LSE. To read the article on South Asia @ LSE, click here. The article was also posted by Oxford India Policy Blog, you can read it here]


While examining previous trends and research on capital flows and total factor productivity, Aniruddha Ghosh and Sujan Bandyopadhyay write that India must be careful to continue to maintain the positive correlation between growth and net foreign capital flows.

“Among all the means of power subordinate to the regulation of the State, the power of money is the most reliable, and thus the States find themselves driven to further the noble interest of peace, although not directly from motives of morality”— Immanuel Kant, “Perpetual Peace: A Philosophical Sketch”,1795

While the Kantian view on increasing economic integration was primarily driven by considerations of war and peace, international capital flows and their management have become pivotal to the macroeconomic growth and stability of modern economies. Over the course of the last two decades, India’s net capital flows have surged from little over the US $500 million in the first quarter of 1990-91 to the US $25.38 billion in the first quarter of 2017-18.

In This Time is Different (2011), Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff flag an important historical insight: Periods of high international capital mobility have repeatedly produced international banking crises, not only famously as they did in the 1990s, but historically.

Figure 1: Periods of high capital mobility have often been associated with higher incidence of banking crises Source: Bordo (2001), Caprio (2005), Kaminsky and Reinhart (1999), Obstfeld and Taylor (2004), Reinhart and Rogoff (2008) 

The traditional neoclassical technology models tell us that net financial capital flows should move from richer to poorer countries. That is, it should flow from countries that are capital-abundant, and thus lower returns, to those that are capital-scarce (higher returns) and have greater investment opportunities.

Robert Lucas Jr . has pointed out an empirical paradox using the 1988 data: If the traditional neoclassical model were true, the rate of return on a unit of capital investment in India would be nearly 58 times more than the return one would get in the US, yet the level of capital flows to India from the US were modest and nowhere near the levels the traditional theory predicted. Hence, the traditional neoclassical theory fails to imbibe the assumptions of cross-country differences in productivity and capital market imperfections. After accounting for cross-country differences in the fundamentals and capital market frictions, the risk-adjusted returns to investment should govern capital flows and therefore, should resolve the paradox. However, the paradox remains as relevant today given that the poorer countries of the world tend to run current-account surpluses (thus exporting capital) and the richer ones (most notably the US) tend to run current-account deficits (thus importing capital).

The paradox gets rather perverse when we move from absolute levels of income to income growth. In 2006,  “Foreign Capital and Economic Growth,” written by Eswar Prasad, Raghuram Rajan and Arvind Subramanian and published by the International Monetary Fund, took the question of capital flows one step forward. The paper presented evidence to support the intensification of the Lucas Paradox, while observing that within developing countries, growth and foreign capital inflows were, in fact, negatively correlated. This meant that poorer countries which had higher amounts of net foreign capital inflows had lower economic growth than those that didn’t. Additionally, within the group of poorer nations, capital flows out of countries that grow faster. Interestingly, this relationship breaks down for developed nations, i.e. developed nations have a positive correlation between growth and foreign flows.

The authors of the IMF paper argue that there could be a number of reasons why we see this anomaly between growth rates of developing countries and their foreign capital flows.

Firstly, successful developing countries may have a limited ability to absorb foreign capital flows due to structural impediments in their financial sector. Secondly, it is possible that developing nations actively make the choice to avoid excess foreign flows to prevent overvaluation of assets. And the final conclusion is that nations develop, structural impediments in their financial sectors reduce and their ability to absorb foreign flows increases – such that it can become a driver of growth, like industrialized nations, in the long run.

Figure 2: The composition of capital exporting countries has changed from higher to lower income countries and the Lucas Paradox seems to reinforce over time. Source:  Prasad, Rajan and Subramanian (2006)

Figure 3: Countries with higher growth have attracted less net foreign capital than medium- and low-growth groups. Particularly, China and India have been exporters of capital despite high economic growth. Source:  Prasad, Rajan and Subramanian (2006)  

To explain these rather perverse findings presented in the IMF paper , Francisco J.Buera and Yongseok Shin in their 2017 paper, “Productivity Growth and Capital Flows: The Dynamics of Reforms”, focus on the relationship between growth accelerations in total factor productivity (TFP) and capital flows. They attribute the observational findings to the disparate dynamics of aggregate savings and investment behavior. For the readers, TFP accounts for the growth in output not accounted for by the growth in inputs used for its production and is often synonymous with improvements in the technological state of an economy. A rising TFP is necessary for a higher economic growth rate and therefore, investment in R&D is essential for sustained economic growth.

Figure 4: Panels A and C show, respectively, the average of saving minus investment rates and TFP over the 33 episodes of sustained accelerations before 1980. The pre-1980’s negligible savings and investment gap confirms our understanding of limited capital flows.  Panels B and D show the average over 22 such episodes after 1980. Source: Francisco J. Buera and Yongseok Shin (2017)

Buera and Shin present the following observations using data for 22 sustained growth acceleration episodes post-1980. First, in contradiction to the predictions of standard neoclassical models, capital flows out of countries experiencing fast growth in output and TFP. Second, this pattern is a lot more prominent in the early stages of these growth accelerations, where many of these nations undergo economic reforms. These first generation reforms are primarily concerned with the removal of idiosyncratic distortions (tax-cuts) in their economies. Finally, capital outflows reflect a surge in aggregate savings and a delayed rise in aggregate investment at the onset of sustained growth accelerations. Interestingly, when the reform is a far-reaching one – it removes goods market distortions as well as improves the health of financial institutions (second generation reforms) – capital flows into the countries experiencing faster TFP growth.

Figure 5: Net Capital Flows & Net Capital Flows as a percentage of GDP (RHS) for India since 1990. Note the peak of capital flows coincides with the Great Recession as ‘plata dulce’  moved around the world easily. Source: Authors’ Calculations and Bloomberg

Figure 6: Total Factor Productivity level growth in India, China, and the US. India has been on a rising TFP path. Source: Authors’ Calculations and The Conference Board

India has had a long and chequered history with foreign capital flows. The first few decades after independence were characterised by import substitution policies which placed severe restrictions on the flow of foreign goods and capital, and it is only in the last few decades that foreign flows to India have really picked up. In the last two decades, both net foreign capital flows and GDP have grown substantially indicating a positive correlation, though this positive correlation is not as strong as the traditional neoclassical models predict. In light of the fact that there have been rising TFP levels in recent years as well, India must be careful to continue to maintain this positive correlation between growth and net foreign capital flows. Rakesh Mohan, in a speech in 2008 in his capacity as the Deputy Governor of the Reserve Bank of India said, “A large surge in capital [in]flows over a short span of time in excess of domestic absorptive capacity of the economy can lead to upward pressure on the exchange rate, possible overheating of the economy and asset price bubbles. They can also pose the risk of an abrupt reversal, which may have potential negative real economic effects.” With far-reaching reforms in the goods and capital markets, it becomes imperative for the NDA government to keep these historical and policy insights in mind.

As Scaling Effects of Research Productivity Diminish, India Must Step up R&D Investment

[This article was published by The Wire on their website on Tuesday, Sep 27, 2017. The article was written in collaboration with Aniruddha Ghosh, a classmate from LSE. To read the article on The Wire website, click here]

[This article was also published by the LSE South Asia Centre on its blog]

Advanced economies may be facing declining returns on research effort. This makes it all the more imperative that the Modi government gets its house, with regard to R&D, in order.

An employee works inside a laboratory at Piramal's Research Centre in Mumbai August 11, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui/Files

An employee works inside a laboratory at Piramal’s Research Centre in Mumbai August 11, 2014. Credit: Reuters/Danish Siddiqui/Files

Demonetisation, the goods and services tax (GST), a structural slowdown, or some other unknown factor – the jury is still out on what has caused the Q1 GDP numbers of 2017 to slide in India. While shocks do impact GDP trajectories in the short term, it is the continuous generation of ideas and R&D that will help fuel long-term GDP growth.

In this regard, a new working paper at the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) – a leading economic research organisation based in the US – shows a worrying trend: Sliding research productivity across all major industries in the US despite exponential increases in research effort. What does this mean? More and more research is being required to maintain the same level of economic growth.

India, on the other hand, has been recently on a path of rising total factor productivity growth (TFP). This makes it extremely important for India to step up its R&D spending and improve its R&D infrastructure in order to provide a sustainable path to a long-run economic growth trajectory.

In a letter addressed to Isaac Mcpherson dated August 13, 1813, that eventually became famous in the world of digerati, Thomas Jefferson, founding father and the third president of the US, wrote:

“That ideas should freely spread from one to another over the globe, for the moral and mutual instruction of man, and improvement of his condition, seems to have been peculiarly and benevolently designed by nature, when she made them, like fire, expansible over all space, without lessening their density at any point.”

For economists, Jefferson perhaps characterises the most important feature that an idea possesses: its non-rivalrous nature. In public economics, a good is said to be non-rivalrous if one person’s usage of the good does not diminish simultaneous usage by other users. For example – consider the information contained in the blueprint of an iPhone. Once the display, processor type, recognition system along with a host of other specifications are finalised upon, that blueprint is replicated across all the Apple factories. Replication of the blueprint in an Apple factory in Shenzhen, China does not prevent its counterpart in Bengaluru, India from using it. The idea embodied in the blueprint is thus non-rivalrous.

The property of non-rivalrousness ensures increasing returns to scale for an economy’s production function. It is this non-rivalrousness nature that places ideas at the centre of the theory of economic growth. Amongst many other things, the invention in medicines, telecommunications, space science, digital space all represent ideas that have been, in part, responsible for economic growth over the last two centuries. Quantitatively, US per capita income today is nearly 17 times to that of 1870 levels. During 1870-2017, US GDP per capita has grown at a healthy average rate of nearly 2% per year. Moreover, this income growth has brought about an even higher transformation in living standards of people as reflected by the quality of life indicators vis-a-vis levels two centuries before.

The role of ideas in economic growth has long been a problem which economists have been intrigued with. It was in the 80’s and 90’s, however, that the literature on ideas and economic growth gained traction with a series of writings by Paul Romer, the current chief economist at the World Bank. In a series of papers, he argued on how public R&D spending and subsidies could positively influence the long-run rate of economic growth. Two results of his work are central to our understanding.

Firstly, the rate of economic growth is determined by the stock of human capital and knowledge the economy possesses. Secondly, public R&D is crucial to the development of ideas as private markets generate too little R&D in market equilibrium owing to their non-rivalrous nature. To sum it up, public provision of R&D is a crucial positive determinant of the rate of economic growth. To account for ideas and technological progress in growth models, economists are usually interested in the TFP.

TFP accounts for the growth in output not accounted for by the growth in inputs used for its production and is often synonymous with improvements in the technological state of an economy, and is an important concept in economic growth accounting.

The ‘scale effects’ of R&D spending

However, in his 1995 treatise ‘R&D Based Models of Economic Growth’, Charles I. Jones of Stanford University argued against the then prevailing theories predicting ‘scale effects’ of R&D spending. The ‘scale effects’ literature argues for a proportional relationship between the quantum of resources devoted to R&D and its effect on per capita output growth.

For example, if the number of engineers, researchers and scientists engaged in R&D is doubled, the per capita growth rate of output should also double. However, Jones’ empirical analysis showed how scientists engaged in the US R&D industry had increased from the 1950s to 1990s, but the TFP growth had remained largely constant and seemed to be uncorrelated. Not only in absolute numbers, even the share of labour engaged in R&D had tripled over the same time period despite a nearly constant TFP growth.

Source: R&D Based Models of Economic Growth (1995, C.I Jones)

Figure 1: Scientists and Engineers (S&E’ s) engaged in R&D and U.S TFP growth from 1950-1990. U.S TFP growth has virtually stayed constant but the number of S&E’ s employed has steadily increased.  Source: ‘R&D Based Models of Economic Growth’ (1995, C.I Jones)

Building on Jones’s 1995 work, a new working paper at the NBER looks into the productivity of research effort, that is, how research effort correlates with an increase in output. ‘Are Ideas Getting Harder to Find‘, authored by Nicholas Bloom and Michael Webb of Stanford University, John Van Reenen of Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Jones himself, tries to empirically calculate research productivity in the US both at the micro (industry) level and the aggregate US economy as a whole.

Their findings are worrisome: While the research effort (proxied by the number of effective researchers) is rising at a healthy rate, research productivity is declining sharply both at an aggregate level and in different industries. Moreover, they find a secular rate of decline in research productivity across all the industries and products they investigate across the primary, manufacturing and the service sector. (Figures 2 and 3 below show this)

The key implication, therefore, is that it takes more research effort today to produce the same level of output growth as it did yesterday. The quartet finds that the aggregate research productivity for the US falls at an average rate of 5.3% every year, implying a doubling of research efforts every 13 years in order to maintain the same level of economic growth.

These findings indicate that the US and other major economies of the world today would need to sustain their economic growth levels with even higher levels of research effort. Now, these claims may dampen the spirits of even those who are most optimistic about growth prospects of these countries. But it is important to put some context into the authors’ findings.

Source: Bloom, Jones 2017.

Figure 2. This shows aggregate data on growth and research effort.The idea output measure is Total Factor Productivity (TFP) growth. During the period 1930-2000, TFP growth has been relatively stable or even declining. The effective number of researchers has increased by a factor of more than 23. Source: Bloom, Jones (2017).


Figure 3: Aggregate data on research productivity and research effort. Research Productivity is the ratio of idea output, measured as TFP growth, to research effort. During the period 1930-2000, research productivity has fallen by a factor of 41 because of a) stable/declining TFP growth and b)rising research effort.

Figure 3: Aggregate data on research productivity and research effort. Research productivity is the ratio of idea output, measured as TFP growth, to research effort. During the period 1930-2000, research productivity has fallen by a factor of 41 because of a) stable/declining TFP growth and b)rising research effort. Source; Bloom, Jones (2017)

First, US real GDP was a little over $2 trillion in 1950, from which it has grown to over $17 trillion today. As a result, the same magnitude of economic growth today implies a much larger increase in income in absolute terms. Therefore, the fact that higher research effort is required to maintain the same level of economic growth can be explained by the large base the US economy possesses. In this sense, the paper just reaffirms our understanding that as an economy grows, an increasing amount of investments in R&D is needed to push the economy forward.

Second, what the authors measure here is not technically the difficulty of getting new ideas but rather the onerous task of developing them further as they mature. Third, the TFP measure is also a reflection of our measure of ignorance. This ignorance covers many components, some wanted (new technical innovations, higher R&D output), others unwanted (measurement errors, model misspecification). Therefore, to rely on TFP growth as a sole indicator of technological progress may very well be misleading.

Fourth, continuous innovations in technology, artificial intelligence, biotechnology etc may not have shown up on TFP yet but arguably have the potential to put an economy on an upward growth trajectory in the future. Present accounting standards for TFP may very well fall short in capturing the forward-looking dimension of R&D. Therefore, unqualified conclusions from this paper are certainly not recommended.

Is India stagnating?

On the domestic front, India’s public spending on research has been stagnant at around 0.8% of GDP for over a decade. As a major growing economy, we have been happy to piggyback on the innovations of the advanced economies and use them in an Indian setting, despite some exceptions. However, if the authors’ findings are true, then the advanced economies are definitely facing a problem of declining returns to research.

As a result, it is important for India to seize the initiative and start investing in R&D, and develop a robust R&D infrastructure if it wishes to maintain a sustainable and a high economic growth path. While the jury is still out on whether it was demonetisation or the introduction of GST that reflected in the dismal Q1 growth percentage of 5.7 %, it is important that we should not stray away from investing in R&D that will ultimately lead us to a higher long-run growth trajectory. The Modi government’s flagship schemes such as Impacting Research Innovation and Technology and Uchhatar Avishkar Yojana are pivotal to India’s R&D growth story.

The non-takeoff of the Vishwajeet scheme is certainly a setback to the research centres and universities that were seeking financial resources for research.

Figure 4: Total Factor Productivity levels of India, China relative to the United States. Note that these are levels, not growth rates. India’s TFP levels are below those of China and nearly two-fifth to that of U.S. Source: Authors calculations and Penn World Table 9.0

Figure 4: Total factor productivity levels of India, China relative to the United States. Note that these are levels, not growth rates. India’s TFP levels are below those of China and nearly two-fifth to that of U.S. Source: Authors calculations and Penn World Table 9.0

Figure 5: Total Factor Productivity growth of India, China and United States. It is encouraging to note that India has been on a rising TFP path and therefore, R&D merits even more serious attention. Source: Authors’ calculations and The Conference Board

Figure 5: Total factor productivity growth of India, China and United States. It is encouraging to note that India has been on a rising TFP path and therefore, R&D merits even more serious attention. Source: Authors’ calculations and The Conference Board

The present NDA government certainly needs to commit more budgetary increases to the R&D sector if we want our researchers and scientists to be doing more high-end research. Moreover, this spending must crowd-in private investments from the industry. These increases are pivotal to increasing India’s TFP level – though Indian TFP growth has been having an upward trajectory in the last few years, it continues to be only a fraction of the US TFP levels. (Figures 4 and 5 illuminate this above.)

While the nation celebrates the 86th birthday of one of its greatest citizens, A.P.J Abdul Kalam on October 15, it becomes important to recollect what he had to say for the policymakers, “When grand plans for scientific and defence technologies are made, do the people in power think about the sacrifices the people in the laboratories and fields have to make?”

It is essential that India respects these words more generously.


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