"National resolve" alone will not awaken the economy
June 8, 1999
Marking the opening ceremony of an export promotion center, on June
2, 1999, President Khatami admitted that the country's economy is "ill"
and that it "needs a serious and fundamental restructuring."
"We need national resolve to boost exports," he prescribed.
Urged by his brother to take to swimming because it promoted strength,
a wise old man replied, "If swimming could build the kind of muscles
I need, the frog would be tearing chains."
While a serious and fundamental restructuring of the economy may well
increase exports, it is beyond ordinary comprehension what exactly "national
resolve" has to do with boosting exports. Micro- and macroeconomics
and some appreciation for the inevitable and unavoidable mega-economics,
meaning global in scale, would be much more productive in that regard than
appeals to national sentiment.
The Iranian economy is not the moral equivalent of digging the Kandavan
Tunnel, requiring sacrifice and resolve; the economy needs political resourcefulness
in order to make the best use of the nation's available factors of production,
much of which is languishing in the hands of a bloated public sector, a
small but connected group of influential people, and tax exempt foundations.
There is certainly something Kennedyesque about Khatami's appeal to
"national resolve" along the lines of "Ask not what your
country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country." One
supposes, if the public is complaining about the economy, then why not
blame the public for the state of the economy! It is the height of obfuscation
and disingenuity to dump the blame for lack of exports or low economic
activity on a nation which, as a whole, is at best a marginal player in
the economic life of the country.
Here is the Iranian government-owned, operated and dominated economy
in a nut shell: It is an economy made up of central planning, state ownership
of oil and other large enterprises, village agriculture and small-scale
private trading and service ventures. Central planning is neither central
nor planned. The bickering among the various personalities in charge of
economic and financial planning reflect in part the deep divisions in the
politics and theologies of the discussants. State ownership means also
government control of management. The label private is largely a euphemism
for the self-employed.
Khatami may believe the nation should tighten its collective belt, consume
less, produce more, so it can export, export, and export until it can export
no more, assuming there are takers for Iranian goods and services.
In some quarters, there is no more sacrifice to be made, there is no
belt to tighten; some have consumed it for the nutrition that leather provides,
some may have even used it to hang themselves. In some other quarters,
it is not fair to ask people to tighten anything when they are hanging
by the thread of their culottes. Ask the forty-year old college educated
who has three jobs and no family life, even though his rental hole in the
wall is crowded with a wife and three children and many more emotional
if not financial dependents, just making ends meet.
Here is Iran's foreign trade picture: $19 billion worth of exports,
of which 80% is attributed to petroleum and the rest to carpets, fruits,
nuts, hides, iron, and steel. Fortysomethings will note the same items
from their 7th grade geography book. Here is Iran's import picture: $15.6
billion paid for importation of machinery, military supplies, metal works,
foodstuffs, pharmaceutical, technical services, and refined oil products.
The country's export of equity, i.e., external debt, is $21.9 billion.
The country is in recession, which explains the unemployment and inflation.
The national currency, rial, is in a free-fall in relation to the U.S.
dollar, which trades at almost four times the "official" rate
in the illegal but very active black market. What is wrong with this picture?
This economy is not "ill," it is comatose, not lively but
not dead either, sleep-walking for years, much to the amazement of Western
educated economists but the perverse delight of those who think economics
is the art of scientific but meaningless indicators. Not to discount Khatami's
call to "national resolve" completely, it may be a wake up call,
a call-to-arms by the popular president, as he may seek to reduce and ultimately
eliminate the political constraints on national economic productivity.
Increasing productivity should be an objective in and of itself as a matter
of national priority and not solely to boost exports.
Implicit in any design to boost exports is the view that national salvation
comes from abroad and in the form of hard currency. That manner of thinking
is flawed and dysfunctional largely because it divides up and distorts
the national economy and its politico-economic institutions into a domestic
and an export sector, where often the lure of hard currency compels a greater
allocation of resources to the export sector. There should be one national
sector, focussed on itself with only its surplus exported, and with one
aim in mind, to permit the development and expansion of the private sector.
The concepts which permit readily the unquestioned bifurcation of the
national economy into domestic and export sectors are deeply rooted in
the Iranian culture. One need not dig any deeper than the message implicit
in the promotional label "export quality." By God, not only the
"export quality" pistachio were larger than anything I had seen
in the family parlor, but they uniformly carried a smile. In my household,
the family parlor, itself, was in a way an "export sector," the
quantity and quality of goodies found there where designated for consumption
of guests, foreigners to the house, really, who for some reason were said
to have the proverbial place on the crown of the host's head or whose steps
were welcome on the host's eye.
To reserve or give to others the better of one's own or oneself may
be rationalized by courtesy and nobility of spirit, yet exercised in its
extreme leads to servitude. The concept of master and servant in the Iranian
culture is not simply a matter of arrangement or contractual ordering of
private relations such as employment or institutionally defined hierarchies.
The type of servility referenced here is the proclivity to behave inferior
or deferential toward another, even if there is no such compulsion on the
basis of any perceptible difference in status.
One need not look any further than the profuse use even among friends,
on a daily basis, of the obsequious "I am your little one,"
"I am your servant," "I am your slave maiden," or the
like. One may see the same in the choreography of two equals clinking glasses,
as one slips his glass a little lower than the rim of the other's repeatedly
until they both spiralled down to the floor, stretched out on their belly,
each refusing to be stood down higher than the other.
Diminished self-esteem, by choice or circumstance, results in loss of
respect by others. Lessened self-worth leads to inability to define one's
self-interest. The failure to reason and act based on a heightened sense
of economic self-interest, be it an individual or a national context, does
not lead to profit maximization, cost reduction, productivity, or economic
development and prosperity. If anything, it leads to inefficiencies, debt
The public ought to stop looking to the government as its economic master,
while the government should lessen its arrogant treatment of the public
as its ward. The public should demand that the government get out of the
way of economic activity and allow the private sector to expand. On the
government's part, it should accept readily the inevitable shrinking of
the public sector and reduction in its size, role, and influence as an
economic actor, if economic developoment is what it has in mind. Here are
a few questions that the leaders and reformers of the "Resolute Nation"
may want to ponder:
First, is the present multi-layered and vertical political structure
willing to accept a streamlined system based on a horizontal constitutional
form of checks and balances among the three branches of government? No
other form will allow for the development of individual political and economic
rights of the citizen unfettered by governmental encumbrances. No other
form will eliminate the familiar and familial internecine warfare among
the various power centers and personalities in the ruling establishment,
which disagreements impede decision making. These differences should belong
to the realm of parliamentary debate not the ambiguous vagaries of this
council or another.
Second, is the government prepared to privatize its economic assets
and turn the management of state-owned enterprises to the private sector?
A private sector cannot develop if all the major industries are owned by
the government and are run for the benefit of the management? Any economic
area of endeavor and opportunity which is worth anything is in the hands
of government, dominated by government-connected persons, and protected
by regulations which prohibit or discourage competition.
Third, are state-owned industries willing to pay their fair share of
utility charges and taxes? Import duties? Decent wages to the workers?
Fourth, is the government prepared to repeal in fact and in deed all
forms of statutory and "by nod" monopolies and take away the
privileges of connected traders and businesses for the sake of promoting
a wider field and greater number of players?
Fifth, is the government prepared to spend only what it takes in domestic
taxes and a modest pre-established percentage of foreign receipts, even
if it means cutting expenditures, subsidies, and payroll?
Sixth, is the government prepared to put a moratorium on borrowing domestically
and internationally, even if the shortfall in revenue may generated political
Seventh, is the government prepared to deregulate the economy and demote
its role as a trader to a promoter of trade and business?
Eighth, is the government prepared to adopt a single investment code
instead of regulations favoring foreign investors or ad hoc mini investment
codes framed in individual agreements with investors?
Ninth, is the government prepared to strengthen the prosecutorial arm
of the state to deal with corruption, not motivated by political vengeance
but by prosecuting bone fide economic crimes?
Tenth, is the government prepared to privatize the cause of action in
bribery cases, in which the complainant private party may recover by proving
its competitor obtained or kept a government contract or license by bribery?
Eleventh, is the government prepared to abolish all foreign exchange
regulations? Presently, the government maintains different exchange rates
for different activities and its rate setting is so out of touch with market
realities that dollar trades at four times the rate of the official rate,
to the government's detriment!
Twelvth, is the government prepared not to use the national economy
to underwrite lousy foreign policy objectives?
Ultimately, is the government willing to take a pounding at the polls
in the next election but secure in the knowledge that its political and
economic reforms were necessary no matter what the price?
Khatami's call for economic restructuring is in essence a call for promotion
of individual economic self-determination. At some level, his reference
to "national resolve" is a call to political action by like-minded
individuals to demand political and legal reform of economic assumptions
Khatami should call for a national referendum to amend the Iranian constitution
and rid it of doctrines which do nothing but limit domestic and foreign
economic and financial activity, promote black-markets, and restrict opportunity
for ordinary Iranian citizens to engage in meaningful business activities.
For economic reform to take place, there is more a need for government
resolve than farther sacrifices by the public.
Guive Mirfendereski is an international lawyer and adjunct professor
of law at Brandeis University.
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