Ray and Edward wrote an interesting paper in 2006 trying to think about corruption with effects of social norms and that of legal enforcement being disentangled. Initially, I thought that it was merely an interesting paper, a great observation of a natural experiment and potentially a great example of the kind of thinking modern day economists should be acquainted with applying when going about their daily routines (even outside academia).
Yet when I saw figure 2, on page 32 of the linked file, something else struck me. For most countries with the exceptionally low corruption measures like that of Singapore, there is virtually no unpaid parking tickets. Yet Singapore presents itself as a rather stark outlier. Given what Ray and Edward was suggesting in their study about how corruption norms is deeply ingrained, can it mean to say that Singapore’s success is nothing but a result of extremely effective legal enforcement? And that we are merely law-abiding out of fear of punishment rather than our integrity?
What sort of culture have we created with our argument that officials need to be well-paid so that they would not corrupt? Does it implicitly suggest that lowly paid officials should be allowed to be corrupt? More importantly, what does justifying high ministerial pay by saying that these people are talented individuals who would earn the high pay in a market setting anyways mean about how much we value integrity?
Ray and Edward used Transparency International’s definition of corruption: “the abuse of entrusted power for private gain” when thinking about it. The definition by its spirit feels almost like a description of the very act of prescribing a high salary for oneself. So what do you think?
When I first borrowed ‘Chasing Goldman Sachs’ by Suzanne McGee, I didn’t expect to be finishing the rather thick tome. It turned out to be a pretty fine book with its ‘utility’ analogy of the function of the financial industry and tracing the evolution of the industry from a boring, administrative sort of place to one where brains were pit against brains with unintended (disastrous) consequences.
It was essentially a discussion on the problems in the system itself – culture, regulatory capture (to a certain degree) and incentive problems. There was the typical journalist sort of inconclusive discussion about where the industry to move towards in the coming future. I often write stuff like that to sound intelligent because saying nothing and facilitating viewpoints is the best way out when you find it too risky to take a stand on the issue.
And then I was watching Margin Call, which depicted the sort of culture as well as paradigm that people in the industry have about themselves and the rest of the world. Indeed, it was pointed out by Suzanne that the Wall Street approach towards a problem is vastly different from that of someone on Main Street:
On Wall Street, when you spot a problem, you figure out how to profit from it; not how to solve it.
So let’s say you know Enron cooked their books; you don’t blow the whistle! At least not until you’ve accumulated vast amounts of short position on their stock. If you know a war is going to break out in the Middle East before everyone else, you don’t call for peace or try and prevent it – you buy oil futures! And so the examples go. That’s the way they work, don’t expect them to try and prevent a crisis; tell them about it and they’ll shrug and go behind their cubicles to their spreadsheets and start computing potential cashflows in different states of the world.
Towards the end of the book Suzanne talks about the importance of learning Goldman Sachs’ strategy rather than trying to emulate their returns. I guess it applies to many aspects of life. You realise that when your friends do brilliantly in exams, and you hope to beat him at his game, you don’t just go all out to ramp up your studying hours and consult tutors for every other thing. You find out what he does, understand his motivations, find your own motivation and work out a niche for yourself. Don’t scramble for the solution only when trouble comes along or try and catch up only when you’re falling back – have a strategy, know what you want and then know what to do about it. Only then, you’ve a chance at getting close to ‘chasing Goldman Sachs’.
The report by the Ministerial Salary Review Committee is out, and there is actually quite a substantial bit of adjustments proposed. Balancing the principles and objectives of ministerial salary is not easy. The salary have to perform multiple roles that often may not necessarily be reconcilable. It first have to be high enough to attract the necessary talent; it should have a fixed component to satisfy basic needs and variable component to incentivize efforts that would translate into effective policies that improves the lives of the people; finally, it has to satisfy the scrutiny of the voters (ie. it must not be obscenely high by the judgment of the public).
Well, looking at the data on growth of GDP in Singapore, it is unlikely that the introduction of pegging ministerial pay to the private sector had any impact on performance of the economy though one could employ counterfactuals and suggest that we could have done worst without it. There comes a layer of complexity when we ask ourselves whether the motivation of these politicians/technocrats lies in serving the nation or earning a fat paycheck. There is no hard and fast rule about salary guidelines to prevent corruption of those in power though we do have management theorist who suggests that as long as we pay enough to get the issue of money off the table, workers would be able to concentrate on doing their job well. Perhaps the fact that people are in politics is supposed to shed light on alternative motivations?
A potential solution we should explore is for the ministers to bid their positions by making a wage offer to the public and providing their full personal histories and work experience details for the public to screen. The public could vote for the ministers; the top 5 voted candidates will be considered but the minister will be selected based on their salary bids. The lowest bidding candidate will be the minister, but his actual pay will be the higher of, either a 10% discount on the second lowest bid in the top 5, or his own bid. Given the intelligence of the candidates politics should draw forth, such a complex system should be able to attract only the brightest and best while allowing them to take a salary that they (and the public have ‘agreed’).
That is, of course, a joke. But the spirit of the mechanism is that we want the candidates to bare their motivations to the public and force them to give us a picture of what drives them. Then we’ll decide if it’s worth it to pay them that offer rate, based on their qualifications and the position in question. This also allows ministers taking on more difficult portfolios to receive a higher pay. Cabinet reshufflings will also be implicitly ‘approved’ by the public in this way. Best of all, opposition MPs are allowed to put themselves up for ministerial positions and the result would have taken into account public scrutiny of their qualifications, the salary they are going to be paid and also their personal incentives to take on the job – they gave the salary bid themselves so no reason they are going to say, now that’s not enough for me.
Knowing the incentives of our political leaders are important. Soon after the news about the salary review recommendations were out, Grace Fu’s facebook page status was:
“When I made the decision to join politics in 2006, pay was not a key factor. Loss of privacy, public scrutiny on myself and my family and loss of personal time were. The disruption to my career was also an important consideration. I had some ground to believe that my family would not suffer a drastic change in the standard of living even though I experienced a drop in my income. So it is with this recent pay cut. If the balance is tilted further in the future, it will make it harder for any one considering political office.”
It drew forth loads of comments. It reflects how little we know about the true motivations and incentives of our politicians or how unconcerned we are. I think Grace is being really frank and objective here; we should empathize with her position. It is something very human to say and we really shouldn’t think of our leaders as heroes who can make all the sacrifices in the world to lead our country. The whole pay issue is a tricky one, but we need to work towards making it less thorny.
Perhaps in a Singapore where our expectations for the future prospects of the country is not so dependent on the government; and that all the institutions are merely support and guiding structures for the private sector to take the lead, then we could relieve our leaders’ workload while simultaneously relieving the taxpayers’ burden of financing our leaders’ salary. And perhaps we should work towards that; and for our government to prevent a crisis where we fail to balance between the 3 principles of the minister pay I’ve defined earlier, we probably have to transit our political system to one that takes more of a backseat in determining the future of our nation.
A couple of months back, I was in Ghana to work on a Microfinance Project under Global Brigades. It was an amazing experience to be working in one of the communities in Ghana, so closely with the locals in such a short time. There were the stuff you expected – lack of access to clean water, or electricity (mostly because of the expense rather than the lack of infrastructure in the case of Ghana). But there were also things I didn’t quite expect – the widespread use of mobile phones, the fact that the young university students had Facebook accounts and how Akon and Rihanna were singers familiar to them.
It is also one of the first time I see so many kids at the same time, gathered together and so many young people around – this is when I realised that is what the first steps of development looks like. This is the point of time when access to medicine is improving, public health education more widespread and economic conditions were picking up following positive economic reforms. Indeed, it is when the population pyramid beginning to show marked effects of falling infant mortality (was 76 in 1990, fell to 47 in 2009) and child mortality (was 120 in 1990, fell to 69 in 2009) in the past 10 years. In Ghana, I actually felt what these statistics meant and saw for myself what it says about the lives of people.
Everyone I spoke to was optimistic about the future and the development of their country though some of the older ones were more skeptical about how much their lives would improve. The university students in particular were full of energy and ready to take the ideas they’ve picked up and use them out there at work if the opportunities come by. With so many youngsters and kids, teaching becomes an extremely important job and teachers are held in high esteem. The other important development statistics appear to be in favour of the country; literacy is climbing, and so is urban development. I can only hope that things continue to improve. Perhaps learning about the situation of countries through their statistics works only to the extent you can imagine the conditions of the people and the situation there. After a while, it just becomes something rather lifeless (just as I’ve experienced after researching through the key growth indicators of more than 10 European markets) – but be reminded of how those figures comes alive, and you’d probably appreciate them better.
As we all move forward in our personal development, we realise that including the citizens in policy decisions and complex issues that involves their personal welfare is important. I was really heartened to see Lui Tuck Yew takes his time to write Facebook notes that intelligently engages the public – the ones explaining the formula PTC used for manage the fares and also the issue on quality of service. It is important to show that while there may be some problems with the system, it can never be perfect and that we need to get together and work on it. Suggestions should come forth, without fear of being shot down even if they may be truly dull (I personally don’t agree with public transport nationalization).
As Tim Harford said, we should acknowledge the complexity of the world and stop suffering from the God Complex – leaders who have the courage to say, “I’ve no idea if this works but information I gathered point this way; there’s a chance we may fail but let’s work together to try something else if that really happens.”
Using moralistic arguments or trying too hard to stand by an action that have been taken usually produce flawed arguments that reduces a leader’s credibility. Bear in mind that there’s no end to issues of ‘fairness’. Lim Boon Heng’s statements cited in this article is such a grave disappointment. It’s amazing how the reporter arranged the quotes to stay perfectly objective while surfacing the flaws of the argument made. Given the education levels of Singaporeans today, it seemed somewhat embarrassing that our leaders are trying to bullshit us this way:
“You know raising bus fares is unpopular,” he said. “But if we cannot raise bus fares, how will that impact your fellow workers? I am sure you will understand that it is not fair if they cannot get wage increases.”
“But their wage increase will be funded by fare increases, which adversely impact the public.”
“But from the worker’s perspective, when there are millions in profits, they want the employer to pay them better wages,” Lim added.
“To them, millions of dollars in profits is a lot of money, and the commuting public feels fare increases are not justified.”
SMRT posted net earnings of S$161.1 million for the financial year that ended this March, while SBS Transit had a net profit ofS$54.3 million for last year.
And what’s wrong? There’s no way to argue that fare hikes are for the transport workers. We all know that financial accounting puts down wages and salaries of workers of the firm as expenses in the income statement. Millions of dollars of profits are basically fares/revenues that did not go to the transport workers. Of course, they went to the people who contributed the capital and own the firm. Who is to guarantee that a fare hike would mean money is directed to the workers? If we want the wages of the workers to rise, why can’t we reduce the profits of the owners instead? The last thing we need is the nationalization of public transport; what we need is perhaps better regulation. Perhaps PTC and NWC can work together, and negotiate both the fares and the wages?
I could do a deeper analysis of SMRT and SBS Transit’s patterns of cost and revenue and we could see profit margins have been constant or steadily increasing over the years. If it’s been increasing, we can conclude that either the owners have exercised good cost control but refused to share some of the profit gains with the workers, or that hikes in fare so far have mainly been used to raise profit margins rather than to defray costs.
Let’s use SMRT’s figures as a demonstration: In 2007, fares rose 1.1%, FY2007 profit margins was 10.5%; in 2008, fares rose 0.7%, FY2008 profit margins was 13.5%; in 2009, fares fell by 4.6%, profit margins soared to 18.5% and then finally in 2010, fares were raised 0.5% and profit margins dipped a little to 18.2%. I’m not sure if my simplistic comparison of the time series of these figures distorts reality but I leave intelligent readers to arrive at their own conclusions. But I do want to remind readers that it is possible for fare reduction to invite more commuters, improve the green-ness of our economy, while providing that very profit boost that can be poured into investing for more capacity to reduce the overcrowding – perhaps already demonstrated by some figures I’ve presented.
Tim Harford delivered a wonderful talk at TED, on an issue I’ve long wanted to discuss and talk about. This is something I first learnt about from Origins of Wealth by Eric D Beinhocker several years ago. It is amazing how timeless this idea of trial and error would be.
Perhaps the most important part of Tim’s talk was the last part, on the point of how obvious it is to us that trial and error underlies most of our important discoveries and approach to problem solving. Guided trials and learning from the error presents one of the most powerful means of design. We must, indeed come to this point of realisation that we should perhaps, no longer attempt – in our haste to simplify – to make kids believe that there’s only 1 right answer to questions they encounter. The kind of struggle that we experience as we mature to accept that there’s a need to hold multiple views and suspend judgment should have taught us that. But we wanted to shield our young ones from that suffering (and as a result, merely helped to postpone it) – one that turns out to be inevitable.
Moving on from Trade imbalances, I started work writing on prices around the world and was examining the Big Mac Index from The Economist when I discovered that some other geniuses at UBS has actually moved further to demonstrate differences in purchasing power of average wage-earners by calculating the time taken for them to earn a Big Mac in their country, which is totally cool! This is probably pushing my nerd reputation a little too far but anyways, it’s worth a look.
The latest edition was published in 2009. And there you can see glaring differences in the standard of living and welfare of workers (albeit assuming that Big Macs were what the people wanted). The average Nairobi worker had to work more than two and a half hour in order to enjoy a Big Mac while the dudes in Tokyo, Toronto and Chicago could enjoy a Big Mac every 12th minute they worked. That is a difference of more than 12 times! By the time the Nairobi worker sits down to enjoy his first Big Mac, these other dudes would have enough money to buy more than 5 Extra Value Meals in their markets respectively.
If we do a slight comparison with the situation in the 2006 report, you’d realise further that while the guy at Chicago spent the same time working for a single Big Mac but the guy in Nairobi worked less in 2006! He became worst off 3 years later. In fact, he only had to work one and a half hour for a Big Mac in 2006. Apparently prices have rose so much more than wages that the poor Kenyan now have to work an extra hour before getting to enjoy his Big Mac.
Of course, this also reflects productivity differences between countries and talking about that, it’s time for me to get back to work.
The UBS reports and updates are available on this page.
As I previously mentioned, I’m working on a piece on global imbalances once again (fact is that I feel like I’ve done countless stuff on this but then it is always just some other topic that obliquely references to it somehow). I guess I’m a little behind times on reading about this issue but the more I looked into Bernanke’s earlier arguments about the ‘Global Savings Glut (GSG)’ and his subsequent ‘revisions’, the more I find it difficult to swallow the notion that ‘it’s not just the US who is at fault’. Of course, he has softened his stand from a while back in 2005, when he actually believes that the current account deficits were hardly within the control of US and if you need someone to blame, you got to blame the rest of the world. There are many flaws in the speeches he delivered in 2005 (here and here), especially with the benefit of hindsight and additional data. Hence, I would not be launching an attack on those ideas.
In any case, as John Taylor suggested to anyone who would care to scrutinize the statistics (I actually bothered; macroeconomic data on the World Bank Database is particularly handy for looking up stuff that are two years old or earlier), there was no significant rise in world savings (in the recent years). World savings fell from 22.25% of world GDP in 2000 to 20.88% of world GDP in 2003. In that sense, there wasn’t really a savings ‘glut’ to push down interest rates at least during that time (I refer to the beginning of 2005 when the speeches were made). In fact, during that period US investments fell from 20.58% to 18.35% of GDP – a great chance for correcting the current account deficit. But no, the chance was wasted because savings in the US declined even more, from 16.72% to 13.80% of GDP, thus increasing their current account deficit from approximately 3.8% to 4.5% of GDP. Granted, I’m looking at a selective time period and being a bully but that is just a distraction from my main point that if the ‘GSG’ idea continues, US will forever think they are simply a victim of circumstances when they are clearly not.
Daniel Gross characterized the idea of a ‘savings glut’ as a meme on Slate when it was first introduced. And I think he can’t be more right. It is a matter of perspective but there is this notion of sacrificing current consumption when it comes to the idea of ‘savings’ but reality is that these ‘saving glut’ countries were pushed to purchase ‘safe’ investment products by none other than the deep, sophisticated financial system of the United States. In what WSJ terms as an expansion on his ‘saving glut’ research, Bernanke supposedly places the blame on US’ mismanagement of the capital inflow but, I quote the Luca from WSJ:
The paper’s main focus, however, is on the intense foreign investor demand for what seemed at the time like safe U.S. assets in the years before the crisis.
The paper appears to be suggesting that US is merely giving investors what appears to be products they wanted – the mortgage-backed securities (MBS), safe from the rating perspective, backed by the government somewhat, and also offering the returns. In fact, it goes on further to imply that financial engineers were being efficiently responding to market demands with innovations that would generate the supply to quell this demand. I quote from various segments of the paper:
“…we verify that the “GSG countries”—that is, emerging Asia and Middle Eastern exporters—did indeed evince a strong preference for the safest U.S. assets. On the margin, this preference most likely helped push down yields on MBS relative to other assets, as most MBS were either guaranteed by the Agencies or sold as tranches carrying AAA credit ratings.”
“In fact, the strong preference of the GSG countries for Treasuries and Agencies appears to have pushed Europeans and other advanced-economy investors, including U.S. investors, into apparently safe “private-label” MBS.”
“Finally, the demand for safe assets by investors, both domestic and foreign, appears to have engendered a strong supply response from U.S. financial firms. In particular, even though a large share of new U.S. mortgages during this period were of lower credit quality, such as subprime loans, Agency guarantees and financial engineering in the private financial services industry resulted in the overwhelming share of mortgage-related securities being rated AAA.”
I’m going to use a rather extreme analogy here and say that this is really no different from a doctor saying, “Wow, so many patients only trust me and they would only take medication I prescribe to them, so never mind if the drug is effective, I’ll prescribe as long as I get paid really good commission from the drug firms. In fact, let me just prescribe these pills I just found in the cabinet here though I don’t even know what they are.” Granted, the financial engineers probably really believe that they have managed to tuck risks away and that the instruments were really safe, how about those pushing NINJAs to take up loans they can ill-afford? John Cassidy’s How Market Fails is a collection of such stories. There appears to be a culture of absolute irresponsibility – the financial institutions couldn’t care less about the fate of clients on both sides (people who took out mortgages and investors who bought MBS).
I guess the ‘GSG countries’ are just too eager to save they didn’t practice their due diligence just like many of their counterparts in US and the finance system only mean all good and no harm. Maybe. But maybe, if the financial system was more responsible, if the culture was not all that screwed up and money was rejected on the basis that there was no more good quality investment opportunities in US and savings were allowed to ‘go home’ to these ‘GSG countries’, then things won’t be so bad. For goodness sake, if investment opportunities are dried up, then curb excesses. Leave the punchbowl and you get a bust. There you had it.
While researching for an article I’m working on about the global imbalances (yes, I’m writing on this topic again), I chanced upon John B Taylor’sGetting Off Track, which is a really short read for someone who wants to know more about the government intervention aspect of the financial crisis in United States. John does pretty data-oriented research and no doubt emphasize on the importance of empirics when it comes to studying the macroeconomy.
Too often in Economics, we seem to be too quick to classify stances at debates into a ‘more government’ or ‘less government’ issue as if the government always has only one course of action. As John pointed out in his book, the US government may have worsen the financial crisis and prolonged as a result of their erroneous diagnosis of the crisis as one of liquidity rather than counter-party risks. The fact is that the government has several course of actions when they are required to ‘do something’ and this thing they eventually decide to do may not always be effective or good. The question (at that time at least) was whether the contracting liquidity experienced at that time is a symptom or in itself the source of the problem. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, John confidently concludes that he has been right pretty early on that counter-party risk was the root of the problem.
Now, we turn back to the general question of government intervention. While we always ask ourselves if we should always trust the government to do the right thing, I think the more important point is that we all should be helping to the government arrive at the right course of action. It calls for a greater academic participation in governance and social policies. This, I believe, is something particularly important that Singapore should learn. I pointed out earlier that we need to make better use of data, and academic tools at our disposal. If you peer into the work of John through his book, you’d realise that is exactly the sort of thing our academia should be doing for the government. And this, will also require that the government be more open-minded to external ideas and tap on expertise beyond their numbers. That’s what I mean by pluralism in ideas for governance of a country.
I was looking through some of the rally speeches for the Singapore General Elections 2011 and listening to the criticisms of the current ruling party in Singapore. The opposition have clearly grown stronger in terms of their position to criticize the ruling party. As an economist, I tend to think of this strength as not derived from politics (the opposition parties in Singapore honestly have no political power to speak of) but from economics and development. I have little interest in engaging in speculation about the General Elections results but I like to talk about some policy inspirations I got from listening to these speeches. Other inspirations for this piece comes from the concept of ‘nudging‘ popularized by Richard Thaler, and Hans Rosling (see ‘Washing Machine‘ & ‘Joy of Stats‘), who have been thinking about how to change the world with statistics.
I like to think of economists as ‘meta-problem-solvers’; economist don’t think of solutions to specific problems – they engage in thinking out of specific problems and into what kind of system of incentives should be in place so that the problem would right itself or give rise to solutions. As I was telling a friend studying Physics at King’s College, after attending a talk on ‘Fuels of the Future’, “economists would tell you that fossil fuel would never run out”. The fact is that when you have too little supply of fossil fuels, their price simply skyrocket to a level that would make alternative energy sources much more attractive. And investment would be poured into these sectors rather than into more drilling or mining for fuels, and some day, fossil fuels would be history. Of course, the scientists are the ones who come up with ways to exploit the alternative energy sources. But the ‘meta-problem’, the question of ‘how will the problem be solved’ is answered by the market.
And because meta-problems are usually about trying to alter behaviours (eg. switching from fossil fuels to renewables, focusing research efforts on diseases that plague developing instead of developed countries, encouraging poor families to send their kids to school, etc), there is the concept of ‘nudge’. Traditional economics often consider only monetary incentives or implicit costs as carrot and sticks for behaviours. Nudging involves even the most subtle things that would alter behaviour such as manipulation of arrangements, structuring of an application form, design of a process, or posing of questions. It almost always suggests some sort of paternalism where there is an intellectual authority trying to guide actions.
When I was in the military, the captain in charge of our company told us, “When doing anything, ask yourself: Are you doing the right thing? If yes, ask, Are you doing it the right way? If the answer is yes to both questions, proceed. If not, go and think about it again.” In the beginning of Singapore’s economic development, there was little dispute about what is the right thing to do; we just had to follow the path taken by the developed countries and stick to the fundamentals they have adhered to. Governance of the economy thus boils down to whether we are doing things the right way. In this matter, Dr Goh Keng Swee has steered economic policy pretty much in the right direction, thinking hard about the key characteristics of our economy, our idiosyncrasies and how ideas of the west can be adapted successfully. It has always been a combination of trial and error, but the design of incentives been good for bringing the economy in the direction of the shortest path to growth and development. The society was a diverse group of people but everyone starts from more or less the same point, at similar levels of income. Free market economy and market incentives operate brilliantly under such circumstances; and often, the right thing to do for the entire economy serves everyone well (the rising tide lifts all boats analogy).
Today, the tasks of governing Singapore’s economy no longer rest solely on the second question, we need to think hard about whether the policies we implement are truly the ‘right things’. As I mentioned quite a while back from watching Michael Sander’s lectures, inequality poses a problem for free market allocation of resources. That means that policies no longer serve the needs of the entire society evenly. In the past, targeting GDP growth may be a simple useful guideline to improve the standards of living for the people. Now, we don’t need the rich to grow as fast as (or even faster than) the rest of the society – we might want to target economic growth of just the bottom half, or even bottom 20% of the economy. This is in line of the tradition of our nation’s governance not to be a welfare state. Essentially, targeting growth of this tier of the society is different from giving handouts or tax breaks. It is about providing the necessary community support, the right design of education infrastructure that provides them with the same opportunity for social mobility as the rest of the society.
Incentives for Governance
It has been mentioned that GDP of Singapore is used as a key performance indicator for the government. And so the salary of the cabinet are partly related to that. Given how their salaries have become a pretty controversial issue, the government cannot pretend that the big paychecks is not a problem anymore. Some people think it is a problem because it simply attracts ‘talents’ who are just keen about making money out of their work and perhaps not so concerned with the welfare of the typical man on the street. As an economist, I must say that I usually doubt anyone can be more interested in the welfare of others than that of his own. I’m not saying that utility cannot be intertwined, but it is rare to find such people. And while generally interested in the welfare and future of the typical man, leaders are usually a tad bit more concerned about their kids and their finances than your kids and your finances.
It would be wise, I believe, to structure incentives to socio-economic goals of the day and if it is to lift the people in the lower strata of the society, let the leader’s incentives be connected to that, perhaps to the income growth of the bottom 10% of society. And it should be gross income, lest reducing tax burden of the bottom 10% could easily help to boost their key performance indicator. Sure enough, the goals will always change as with that of any entity in a dynamic environment; in order for the decisions made to be relevant for achieving the goals, the incentives should be changed accordingly.
Of course, that’s just one way of thinking about ministerial compensation; there are many other ways to arrange it; you could benchmark it to the proportion of population living below certain income level, or tie it to some measure of social mobility. It is not about siding with specific segments of the economy or the electorate; it’s about incentivizing policy makers to provide equal opportunities for all the the economy. At the most basic level, it is important that we start focusing on GNP, Gross National Product rather than GDP because our GDP figures includes the income accrued by foreign capital that is going to end up in foreign hands anyways.
In a complex, multi-tiered economy like the one Singapore have today, statisticians need to work harder to slice and dice their data into more categories and segments so that the performance of the different sectors of the economy can be evaluated carefully and the government can tackle problems at the roots when they start budding and not when they have grown into a tree. Presenting the data in different ways allows us to look at the various social problems we face in different ways. The government will have to make use of that a lot in the future of governance; there is going to be a need to scrutinize ourselves rather than look abroad for ideas.
There can be surveys done on sentiments about migration and personal prospects for the future, putting up a time series that contrasts cost of living and real income of the bottom 20% of society. Singapore Statistics needs to start being creative about the data they collect and put them together in new, imaginative way that gives us an accurate picture of the different segments of the economy. It is currently way too boring (see this). There is endless ways of doing that so it will be good to open up the data to the public for people to start toying with them. And consequently, find out what are the ‘right things’ to do from the statistics.
Even from statistics, there might not be a ‘right thing’ but ‘right things’; when a single party crowds the parliament, there is no meaningful debate on what ‘right thing’ is selected as priority. This is a time when pluralism is necessary; where more approaches considered, more voices heard. Statistics is ‘never wrong’ (note that it is ‘never right’ either) because it it tries to account for pluralism. Nobody knows what’s best for everyone and no one should pretend he or she can be that way. Pluralism nudges us in the way evolution selects the fit traits to propagate. The robustness of democracy comes from pluralism and it is perhaps time to try and exploit a bit of that in our country.
What I have outlined in this entry is just a really random cluster of ideas I have about the meta-problem of governance in Singapore and the future direction the management of the economy can take. It is a collection of seeds ready to be sown; and it has to be done quickly because these are abstract ideas that suggests nothing particularly concrete that can be done immediately to the existing structure. They are concepts that takes time to seep in and eventually make a difference. And that, to me, is what nudging is usually about.