Sri Lanka is facing an economic crisis, and too many of the solutions offered are economic mumbo-jumbo. Interest rates, ‘structural adjustments’, privatizations, tax changes, etc. All very complex, you couldn’t possibly understand, but you can.
If we don’t have power, build renewable power plants. If fuel is scarce, take the bus. If food is running low, grow some. If dollars are short, earn some. If people are suffering, offer rations. Our common problems have common-sense solutions, which are pooh-poohed by the people that got us into this mess. They offer incomprehensible monetary theory instead, when we have real problems. We have to talk about real solutions.
It’s like we’re fighting a fire and nobody wants to talk about water. It’s like the house has burnt down and nobody wants to talk about building a better one. We have real problems. We need to talk about real solutions.
Building Power Plants
When it rains we have hydro energy, but when it doesn’t we import fossil fuels. This is a recurring problem, and it won’t go away with any financial adjustment. The obvious solution, which a child could understand, is to build power plants that capture the energy we have. Like the sun.
Will this solve power cuts immediately? No, we need rationing, which we’ll talk about. But we’re talking about a long-term problem. We need to talk about long-term solutions. C’mon. We’re not children. We need to fix this for them, not just take out more loans and pass the problem on.
It is worth taking out loans (ideally bilateral, from other countries) to build a real asset of renewable power plants. Energy prices are only getting more unstable and the long-term value of fossil fuels is violently negative, especially for countries like us. Sri Lanka doesn’t even have fossil fuels, we have no choice. We have to become almost completely energy-independent.
Parakramabhu said, “not one drop of water shall reach the sea without first serving man.” We need a Parakramabhu Project to capture the sun.
Improving Public Transport
Sri Lanka doesn’t have fossil fuels, and we don’t make cars either. Yet we keep importing both. And investing in highways for them to drive on. When only maybe 15% of our population has access to this type of vehicle at all. We’ve gone the wrong way. We need to take a U-Turn and get back on public transport.
Most people still take public transit, or use more efficient vehicles like motorbikes or tuk-tuks. But these vehicles are scorned by rich people and public transport has gotten zero investment for decades now. We’re still using some of the same bus chassis my Achchi used to take me on. This has to change, and right now is an excellent time.
Right now in Sri Lanka you cannot import a new car. You have to queue for fuel. We have lots of pressure forcing people out of cars, but nowhere for them to go. If we build it they will come. Every crisis is an opportunity, and this is an opportunity to dramatically improve public transport.
Public transport is vastly more efficient than private vehicles. It can be electrified, but even running on diesel it’s still a better use of scarce resources. We can also then allocate precious fuel for moving freight, not two-ton living rooms around. The point is moving Sri Lankan people and goods, not moving imported metal around. Buses and trains are the most efficient way of getting that done.
Yes, expanding public transit is a long-term solution, but again, long-term problems require long-term solutions. If not now, when? What’s the alternative? Get a loan so rich people can sit in traffic for a few months, until there’s queues again? We simply can’t keep going the way we’re going. It’s just not sustainable.
We need to address the real problem of transporting humans and freight in Sri Lanka, not just take out loans to keep living in la-la-land. In short, we need to get on the bus.
In the same way, with food shortages, the simple solution is to grow food. To invest in and prioritize agriculture. Whatever the price is on the global market, we can’t afford it, we just don’t have dollars.
Sri Lankan has an ancient agrarian culture and modern irrigation systems. We have to support farmers, improve and better plan yields, and fundamentally feed ourselves. This is an investment in productive capacity that can also lead to exports. But in the short term, it can help us not starve.
Sri Lankans have long been told that agriculture is not profitable, that we should move into services, that too many people are farmers. But this only makes sense in some textbook globalization which has already fallen apart. There are food shortages everywhere, and no matter of financial jiggery-pokery offers a way out. If you want to eat food you need to grow it. It’s not the complicated.
We have to put seeds in the ground, water them, and make sure they get sun. In short, we have to get our hands dirty. It’s the only way out.
Earning Dollars (or something else)
One common element to all of the problems above, is that they all require some amount of dollars. We still need some coal, we still need some diesel, we still need to import food, and also the technology involved in building capacity of our own. And that’s all denominated in dollars. There’s two ways out of this problem.
One is to earn more dollars. That means investing in export-oriented industries, with technology transfer. In many ways we missed the boat that China, Vietnam, and Bangladesh took, but we don’t really have a choice. We have to invest in the long-term if we’re going to have one.
That means value-additition to the resources we have (like graphite, cinnamon, even tea), including big investments in agricultural production. It also means studying and plugging into global supply chains, doing whatever can be done. We did it before with garments, but there hasn’t been any protected push in any direction since. We need to make one.
The other way around this problem is to denominate transactions in something other than dollars. We have, in the past, traded tea for oil with Iran. We could work out similar deals with Russia. We can start denominating trade in yuan, or Indian Rupees, anything to reduce our single point of failure in not having dollars.
What’s common to both these solutions is that they are not merely restructuring the mess we are in. They are making big changes, to actually do something about the underlying balance of payments problem.
What about the short-term people will say. People are suffering and protesting right now. And they’re right. That’s why we have to ration.
Right now power is cut for almost everyone, indiscriminately. This is dumb. Power should be given to industry, and then rationed for everyone else above a certain number. If we have enough fuel to give everyone Rs. 3,000 a month worth, that’s what we get. People that want to run their three ACs and charge their Teslas will need to pay a HUGE premium. Then you suddenly have a progressive tax system as well, you get revenue generation.
In the same way fuel should be rationed. If you’ve got a bus or a tractor, fill ‘er up. You’re moving lots of people or helping in production. Same for bikes and tuk-tuks, those are efficient vehicles. If you’re driving a car or a jeep, however, fuck off. You should have to pay a HUGE premium, or just get on the bus. In that way we can conserve and productively use the scarce resources we have, not just cut them off in a panic everytime we run out.
And the same goes for food as well. Right now rich people are still eating cheese and steak and having fun. That’s got to get a lot more expensive or just disappear, because too many children are barely getting meal one. Everybody needs to be assured a basic caloric intake, which too many people are not getting now. Private rice mafias need to be broken and staple supplies need to be assured for everyone.
Economists complain about rationing being inefficient, but the alternative is worse. At this point if you let the market dictate, rich people will get their imported cheeses, while ordinary people will go without cooking oil. Markets are efficient at making money, not feeding people, and that’s the real problem. That’s why we need rationing until we can get the long-term solutions operational.
This is what I mean by water. All the blunt instruments the IMF uses take none of this into account. They call for reducing price controls, which means poor people can’t afford meals, all so the market ‘looks’ more efficient on paper. They call for reducing import controls, which makes our balance of payments problems worse. Then they call for cutting government jobs, which makes people destitute. They are just there to squeeze the last drop of blood out of this stone for creditors, they don’t give a fuck about us.
We can use IMF money as we could use bilateral money (better), but it has to be done within a strategy that relieves people in the short-term and solves the real problems in the long-run. But that has to start with putting aside this belief in economic incantations, which are about as effective as any court priests have ever been.
Monetary policy is not going to solve our problems. We need actual policy, of which monetary policy is just one. We need to build things. We need to work hard. We have to organize, prioritize, and sacrifice. We have to make mistakes and learn from them. We have to do stuff. We can’t just depend on magic economists to magic this away. We have real problems. We need to really fix them.
But the first step is a big one. You have believe that you can understand this. Because you can. The economy is far too important to be left to economists. Sri Lankans understand our problems and we can understand solutions. When the lights go out and the ships won’t dock, get energy from the sun. When the cars can’t move, get on the bus. If people are hungry, grow food. If dollars are scarce, export something, or use INR or yuan.
These are simple solutions made obscure by economic mumbo-jumbo, though getting them done is certainly complicated and hard. But the first step is just believing that doing something is possible, that it’s not a matter of waiting for the economic cavalry to come. Because believe me, there’s no one coming, except vultures to pick the bones. The whole global economy is going to shit, and we’re already on the bottom rung.
Sri Lanka is on fire. Whatever we built over the past forty years, it’s already burnt down. We’ve got to start talking about water to save what we can, and rebuilding something better from the ashes of what we’ve lost. This isn’t a bunch of obscure financial settings that you can’t possibly understand. There’s little point adjusting the thermostat on a house that’s burnt down. We have real problems in the real economy that a child can understand. For their sake, it’s real solutions that we have to plan.