Case against privatisation in Pakistan

Feisal Naqvi concluded in The News that state-owned enterprises (SOEs) fail primarily because of speed and accountability. If this argument is applied to our SOEs, then almost all of them – given their performance – should be privatised to increase speed and accountability, but this would not be very realistic.

Also, the case is weak for a new private buyer to purchase a public asset, because that buyer would have to deal with public departments that are slow and rarely held accountable, which would impede growth.

SOEs have thrived in some economies; one cannot dismiss SOEs altogether. According to a report by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the share of SOEs among the Fortune Global 500 has grown from 9 percent in 2005 to 23 percent in 2014. Furthermore, the top eight countries with the highest SOE shares accounted for more than 20 percent of the world’s trade.

A major proportion of the SOE growth worldwide is due to the Chinese SOEs. Three Chinese SOEs consistently made the top ten since 2010. Chinese SOEs have roughly $17 trillion in assets and employ more than 35 million people. Factors like attracting top talent, foreign investment, linking executive’s compensation to performance, globalisation and choosing a hybrid structure of corporate governance contributed to their success.

Chinese SOEs have established a hybrid structure through independent management akin to a private corporations, while deriving their financial power from the government. Like the SOEs here, Chinese SOEs face challenges from both the bureaucracy and political interference. The Financial Times reported that in 2004, the CEOs of several Chinese telecom companies were shifted overnight without any prior notice. Even in face of these challenges, Chinese SOEs have posted amazing results.

Another amazing example can be found in Singapore. Singapore manages a portfolio of SOEs through an investment company called Temasek Holdings, whose sole shareholder is Singapore’s Ministry of Finance. Temasek has managed a net portfolio of $177 billion, as of March 2015. Temasek’s companies are managed without government involvement; instead, Temasek provides flexibility by allowing each board to dictate its own terms for each portfolio company. This method of management has proven so successful that even China wants to imitate Singapore’s strategy on a larger scale by 2020.

Both Chinese and Singapore SOEs have handled the issues of incentive and reinvention. Though privatisation is a prudent way to eliminate budget deficit, reduce the size of government and increase public service delivery, it has not worked everywhere. PTCL’s example supports this assertion, because its profits and service delivery did not significantly improve after privatisation. Many academics have provided helpful critiques of privatisation. Some of the issues that Paul Starr, professor of sociology and public affairs at Princeton, has raised should be considered.

First, the message that privatisation sends is demoralising. This message is that whenever we face a problem, we should sell an asset instead of fixing it with good intent. This tends to discourage citizens by showing them that the government is either incompetent and cannot fix its own institutions or lacks the initiative to fix them. Moreover, when the government consistently chooses to sell its assets to the private sector, it is essentially making a ‘buy vs make’ decision. If buying were the way to go in the face of trouble, then no large corporations would exist.

Additionally, the continuous sale of our assets may make us less of a nation. Starr has argued that the sale of SOEs would decrease accountability and reduce public debate, ultimately reducing the public’s interest in the country’s businesses. Starr compares the suggested treatment of the government’s assets to a family’s consideration of their food as the nourishment necessary for survival; in other words, instead of thinking about its institutions as a subsidy, the government should consider the success of its institutions as integral to the country’s survival.

Some supporters of privatisation argue that it will decrease the size of the government. However, lobbyists in the private sector aggressively lobby for increased public spending because that is how they make money. With more resources, private companies use their influence to secure government contracts. With increased public spending still an issue, the size of the government is unlikely to be reduced.

Furthermore, there is a cost to the citizens when the government does not fix the issues with its institutions. Both our education and health systems are examples of the government’s lackadaisical attitude toward problems in the public sector. Instead, the private sector has created a wealth gap. Since the private sector can charge whatever it wants for the services it provides, only the wealthy are able to benefit from them and those who do not have sufficient income cannot obtain quality care. This gap has diminished the access of the poor to quality services. The focus cannot merely be on privatisation; we must focus efforts on improving public services in order to increase public access to quality services.

Proponents of privatisation also argue that converting public sector services to private ownership will give the private sector the freedom to perform more efficiently and force companies to provide better customer service. Despite the benefits, it is important to note that the private sector is driven by its own interests and may not consider public interest when making decisions.

Moreover, it is assumed that buyers will pay more for an entity than what it is actually worth because the private sector buyer expects greater revenues from the sale. We should remember that potential buyers usually pay less than the asking price, when the entity needs restructuring. At times, it makes more sense to sell an entity after doing some restructuring than it does to sell it haphazardly.

We must make an attempt, with good intent, to improve an organisation before throwing in the towel. As business author Guy Kawasaki said in ‘Rules for Revolutionaries’, “create like a god, command like a king and work like a slave.” It seems we believe in the first two, but we fall short of the third. In order to truly improve our institutions, we need to put in the work. If we put in the necessary work, we wouldn’t need the private sector to rescue our institutions; we could rescue them on our own.

This opinion was published in The News on 13th March, 2016. 

Real cost of car-centric cities (in Pakistan and elsewhere)

(co-authored with Dr. Nadeem Ul Haque)


DRIVING a car takes a personal, societal, financial and environmental toll. Since the cost of cars is high, we should not support development projects (roads, flyovers and bypasses) and policies (misuse of urban land and poor zoning) that subsidise and necessitate their use. Too many automobiles make us unsafe, unhealthy, unhappy, unfriendly, and, in general, miserable as a society.

Among the costs that cars exact is that on our personal health and safety. Excessive driving causes stress and ill health. Gallup and Healthways surveys have determined that longer commutes lead to more chronic pain, higher cholesterol and general unhappiness in drivers. Moreover, driving everywhere leads to obesity; in the US alone, the cost of obesity in 2008 was $147 billion.

Secondly, cars have a societal cost: increased traffic decreases social capital. Donald Appleyard, in his now famous 1972 study, found that residents of high-traffic areas have fewer friends and acquaintances than residents of light-traffic locations. Traffic also causes noise pollution, which makes us more intolerant of each other.

Thirdly, cars cost us a great deal financially. There is the initial, upfront payment. Then we have to pay for financing (and hidden fees), car maintenance, parking, and fuel. According to some back-of-the-envelope calculations, people in Lahore pay Rs24bn per year for fuel and oil changes. In addition, there is the expected cost of treating accidents and injuries that inevitably occur when we drive.

There is what we would call an opportunity cost as well. That is, with the money tied up in their cars, individuals could instead have invested in activities with greater returns or of higher value to their families (like holidays). Also, the overuse of cars costs us in terms of productivity when we are injured and cannot work, or are stuck in traffic.

Fourthly, an excess of cars adversely affects the environment. According to an online environment-cost calculator, we emit 1.2 pounds (0.54kg) of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide by driving 1.5 miles (2.4km). Cars in Karachi alone are releasing roughly one million pounds of carbon every day, and 126m pounds of carbon every month.

Current policies enabling sprawl and subsidising high-speed traffic mean that people must own and use cars excessively. So what can we do?

As a guiding principle, we should keep everyone, not just the rich or people with higher incomes, in mind when we plan and zone our cities. As Mayor Enrique Peñalosa of Bogota noted, “Mobility is a right for all”. Peñalosa also noted that the modes of transport of the poor —walking, bicycling, and public transportation — need to be prioritised, as the bulk of the population uses them. We thus need to create more space for these modes.

First, we need to slow down cars and create more spaces for people. After the Second World War, Copenhagen had so many cars it came to a standstill. They prohibited cars in some areas, and the city thrived. Restricting the use of the car and slowing down the speed of vehicles is required to create space for people.

We can also charge a congestion tax, like Singapore and London, during peak hours in busier areas of cities. In addition, we can tax high-speed lanes and charge parking fees on a per-hour basis. These taxes can help reduce congestion. We also need to re-evaluate our zoning policies to discourage sprawl, and build mixed-use development, creating combined residential, office, commercial, and entertainment spaces within walking distance of each other.

Next we need to make more room for biking and walking, both currently hazardous activities. In cities around the world, separate bike lanes are being created; bike-sharing programmes are encouraged and sponsored by the corporate sector. We should also hold events to celebrate walking and biking like Ciclovía. Held in cities like Bogota and Medellin, Ciclovía is an event in which main roads are blocked on Sundays and public holidays and reserved for pedestrians and bicyclists.

Finally, we need to improve public transportation. Thanks to the emphasis our cities place on the use of cars, our public transport system has been allowed to erode. If we tax and regulate cars, we will have the funds and space required for public transport.

The famous Danish architect Jan Gehl said that if we make more roads, we get more cars; and if we make more space for people, we get more people, which in turn give us more vital and productive cities. When planning new development projects and designing urban policies, we should factor in the real cost of cars to an average citizen’s personal, social, and financial well-being, and to our environment. We should not repeat the mistakes that developed countries made in the last century in building their cities around cars.


This opinion was published in The Dawn on 16th May, 2016. 

Unreliable numbers in Pakistan's health-care data

FINALLY, after some ado, we have a document in the form of the National Health Vision (NHV), which identifies major problems in, and challenges to, our healthcare system. It also outlines our vision of how we plan to address those issues and challenges. One thing that will hamper, even damage, its execution is the unavailability of critical and reliable data. It is hard to believe that we will be able to do any serious planning or resource allocation to fix our healthcare issues without access to the correct data.

During an analysis, this author found data discrepancies in major government publications for healthcare data, namely the Pakistan Social and Living Standard Measurement (PSLM), the Pakistan Demographic and Health Survey (PDHS) and the Multiple Indicator Cluster Survey (MICS). It was found that, for certain healthcare indicators, data in one government publication differed for the same indicator in the same year from the data in another publication.

First, I found data discrepancies for an indicator named “deliveries with skilled birth attendants” between the PSLM and PDHS for the year 2012-2013. As per the PSLM, the deliveries with skilled birth attendants were 53pc in Sindh; as per the PDHS, however, they totalled 61pc in that province. In Balochistan, as per the PSLM, the proportion of births with skilled birth attendants was 35pc, but according to the PDHS it was 18pc in the same province.

According to a study by Jhpiego (an international non-profit health organisation affiliated with the Johns Hopkins University), skilled birth attendants can reduce newborn deaths by 43pc and prevent two-thirds of all maternal deaths. We can save more mothers and children if we allocate skilled birth attendants efficiently (which becomes even more important when resources are already scarce) based on correct and updated data.

Second, for the indicator “children (aged 12-23 months) fully immunised”, we again found discrepancies between the PSLM and PDHS, this time for the year 2006-2007 and for almost all provinces. For Sindh, the PSLM states that 65pc children were fully immunised, whereas the PDHS reports only 37pc children were fully immunised there. For Balochistan, as per the PSLM, the same indicator was 54pc, while the PDHS records it as being 35pc. According to the PSLM, 76pc of children in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa were fully immunised, while in the PDHS the figure was 47pc.

These differences are huge and baffling. It is inevitably low-income groups that suffer most when policymakers have inaccurate data for such important performance indicators. How can we ensure that our child immunisation rate is high in all provinces, in both rural and urban areas, when the data in major surveys does not match?

Third, for the indicator named “postnatal consultation”, for KP we found a discrepancy between the PSLM and MICS for 2008-2009. In MICS, the percentage of births followed by postnatal consultation was reported as 13, whereas in the PSLM survey, the figure was given as 23pc. Again, the difference is not small.

In our society, postnatal care is usually provided at home, and the idea of postnatal consultation is to ensure that new parents are given guidance according to evidence-based healthcare practices. The lack of good postnatal consultation can result in a higher mortality rate for both mother and child. The risk decreases as time passes, but it is imperative to receive timely consultation. Ineffective postnatal consultation may not promote, or may even discourage, breastfeeding, the absence of which can contribute to infections and malnutrition. It is unclear how any meaningful planning can be done to improve this indicator without access to the correct data.

These discrepancies are alarming. First, inconsistent data perpetuates confusion — which figure do we believe? This confusion can result in a misplanned policy, and even that one misplanned policy may have an undesired effect. The collectively dismal result of several such policies can take us many steps backward.

Second, these inconsistencies reflect a lack of rigour on the part of our government. If it is not careful about data acquisition, one is forced to infer that it is not serious about data-driven and evidence-based decision-making.

Third, incorrect data in government publications shows we still have a long way to go when it comes to competent data acquisition, so, sadly, we cannot yet turn our focus to the ‘analysis’ part and proceed to policy.

Fourth, most of the tall performance claims by the government are rendered insignificant when the underlying data is unreliable.

Such important healthcare indicators should not vary so much. Any researcher or policymaker who intends to carry out research or planning will use these government publications. Even the NHV cites the PSLM. Our expenditure on healthcare is already depressingly small, and it is going to hurt us if that small expenditure is used to plan and allocate resources using unreliable data.

This opinion was published in The Dawn on 29th September, 2016. 

Closer look at the Corruption Perception Index (CPI)

Few weeks back I published an OpEd in the Express Tribune. Transparency International publishes a corruption index named "Corruption Perception Index" and I just tried to highlight how it is calculated and what should people keep in mind before taking it into account. 

An excerpt:


In recent times, numerous corruption indices have been developed to measure corruption. One of the most widely used indices is the Corruption Perception Index (CPI) developed by Transparency International (TI). It recently reported that Pakistan has performed well in its CPI rankings. This certainly is good news and we must congratulate the people in power. But we need to question whether the CPI is a truly credible measure. Does it measure corruption correctly? We need to understand how such indices work.


Complete article can be read at http://tribune.com.pk/story/1048824/a-closer-look-at-perceptions-of-corruption/.

Deriving Y-Combinator in Scheme

Few weeks back I finished an amazing book called "Little Schemer". It is a very short book but it probably has the most profound effect on me when it comes to programming.

The authors took the Socratic style question/answer approach. It starts from the basics and slowly gears up to concepts like Y-Combinator and even the last chapter is about writing an interpreter.

Honestly, I had to go back and forth on understanding the Y-Combinator derivation but I really had an "Aha" moment when I finally got it. After reading up this book, I also read and understood Lambda Calculus e.g. the idea of using functions to represent arithmetic operations is really cool. 

Let's say we are using a programming language that doesn't support numbers or booleans. All that language provides is lambda. Because of church numerals, we can count, add, subtract, divide and even multiply just by using lambdas. Cool, no? Here is a paper in case you are interested in learning more about Church numerals.

So after reading the "Little Schemer", I set out on deriving Y-Combinator in Scheme and I made a PDF which is available below. I hope you enjoy it. Please feel free to let me know corrections or comments.


What causes violence?

I have been interested in economics and I read few papers on what causes mass violence. Recently, I wrote an Op-Ed in an English daily which can be read here: http://www.thenews.com.pk/print/97927-What-causes-terrorism.

Property Descriptor in JavaScript

JavaScript gives us control to define, modify, and configure properties. This is made possible using a property descriptor object, which has the following attributes:

- value 

- writable 

- configurable 

- enumerable 

When we define a property on an object as follows:

var car = {

_doors: 4

};

The property descriptor's value attribute is set to 4, writable (which controls if we can write values to an object property) is set to true, configurable (which controls if we can delete a property) is set to true, and enumerable (which controls if property can be enumerated) is also set to true. We can check these attributes as follows:

var desc = Object.getOwnPropertyDescriptor (car, '_doors');

alert(desc.writable); // true

alert(desc.configurable); // true

alert(desc.value); // 4

alert(desc.enumerable); // true

Another important thing to keep in mind that Object.getOwnPropertyDescriptor works only on 'own' properties and not on 'prototype' properties. Furthermore, we can set all these property descriptor attributes using the Object.defineProperty() as follows:

Object.defineProperty (car, 'name', {

value: 'Audi',

writable: true

});

var desc = Object.getOwnPropertyDescriptor (car, 'name');

alert(car.name);

alert(desc.writable);

alert(desc.enumerable); // If you don't specify it, it defaults to false

alert(desc.configurable); // Didn't specify, so defaults to false

If we don't specify the value of attributes in Object.defineProperty(), they default to false, and that's one important thing to keep in mind. Complete code is given below:

Getter and Setter in JavaScript

We can define properties on an object as follows:

var car = {

_name: 'Audi'

};

We can also configure those properties. I will soon write about how to configure the properties (e.g., whether the property should be writable or if it should be configurable, and etc.), but we can also define "getter" and "setter" on object's properties. For example, "setter" could be useful in a scenario where we would want to do some processing on the property before setting its value to something and same goes for the "getter". So, there are two ways to go about it. One way is to define "getter" and "setter" in an object itself, e.g.

Another way is to define "getter" and "setter" by using/calling the built-in Object.defineProperty (object, property, descriptor_object). Object.defineProperty method takes three parameters:

  • Object: The object whose property we want to define or configure. 
  • Property: The property on the object that we want to define or change. 
  • Descriptor object: Descriptor object allows us to configure the property and it has following attributes, namely; writable, value, get, set, configurable, and enumerable. I am going to write more about it a little later. 


 So, we can define both "getter" and "setter" using Object.defineProperty like the following:

So that's about it, for now. Let me know what do you think. Please let me know if there are any other ways to achieve the above (or, even, please feel free to suggest corrections in this post--thanks in advance).


Defining and Configuring Object Properties in JavaScript

So JavaScript has made it possible for us to interact with property attributes. Now we can make an object property enumerable, set it to read only and even make it configurable. This is possible because of property attributes. 

Object properties and property descriptor

So object has properties and we can set the state of those properties using fields (e.g. value, writable, enumerable, get, set, and configurable) of property descriptor object. We can see how we can access fields of property descriptor object below:

So here is an object:

Let's say we wouldn't anyone to delete the chasis_no property or may be we would want engine_no as just a read-only property. By the way, all properties of an object are both enumerable and configurable by default. JavaScript allows us to interact with object properties and we can do that by calling Object.defineProperty method which takes an object, property name we want to interact with and property descriptor object as parameters. 

Data and accessor properties

There are data properties and accessor properties. Data property is a value which can be read, written to, configured and and even enumerated. Whereas accessor properties define get and set functions that are called when property is read or written to, respectively. If we look at the following code:

'wife_enabled' is the data property whereas 'name' is being used as the accessor property. 

So there are two kinds of property attributes, namely; data properties and accessor property attributes. JavaScript allows us to configure properties, let's consider few scenarios:

  • A JavaScript programmer may want to control whether a property of a certain object should be deleted or not. For example, he may not want to allow deletion of a certain property. 
  • Let's say a User class is defined with two properties; username and password. Furthermore, let's say I don't want to make the password property enumerable, that is, I don't want the password property to appear when someone is enumerating User properties.
  • Let's say a Car class has a property named chassis number and we want to make it a read only property, i.e., no one can write it. How do we go about it?

Using property attributes to change state of properties

We can make all this happen using property attributes (and they can be set using property descriptor object and we will shortly see an example), and those are:

  • [[Enumerable]]: Allows us to make a property enumerable, i.e., if it's false, then this property won't show up when the object's properties are enumerated using a for-in loop. Its default value is set to false.
  • [[Configurable]]: It defines whether the property can be deleted or if it can be changed to accessor property . If it's set to false, then property cannot be deleted and it cannot be changed to accessor property. Default value of this attribute is set to false.
  • [[Value]]: The actual value of property is stored in this. Default value of this attribute is set to undefined.
  • [[Writable]]: Allows us to configure whether we can write to a property. If it's set to false we cannot alter the property's [[Value]] attribute. So, for example, if we want to create a read only property we should set writable attribute to false. Default value of this attribute is false.
  • [[Get]]: This contains the Getter function which you can define to do some processing while reading the value. [[Get]] is exclusively used for accessor properties. Default value of this attribute is undefined.
  • [[Set]]: As the name suggests, this contains the Setter function which you can define to do some processing while setting the value. [[Set]] is exclusively used for accessor properties. Default value of this attribute is undefined.

So, both [[Enumerable]] and [[Configurable]] are common to both data and accessor properties, whereas, data properties have two additional attributes, namely; [[Value]] and [[Writable]]. Accessor properties have two more attributes and those are [[Get]] and [[Set]].

Interesting, JavaScript allows us to configure all these property attributes using a method named Object.definedProperty(object, property_name, property_descriptor). So the first parameter is the object, second is the name of the property we want to configure and third is the property descriptor that contains the values of enumerable (configures the internal property [[Enumerable]]), configurable (configures the internal property [[Configurable]]), value (configures the internal property [[Value]]), writable (configures the internal property [[Writable]]), get (configures the internal property [[Get]]) and set (configures the internal property [[Set]]) as shown below.

Hopefully, the following code will clear things up:

There, however, is one caveat we should keep in mind. If we don't specify the value of property attributes when we are trying to configure a property then they default to false. So let's look at some code.

In the above example, we have not given the values of writable, and configurable attributes when we called Object.defineProperty() so they will default to false. So this is something important which needs to be kept in mind while configuring property attributes.

References:


    Specifying prototypes using object literals in JavaScript

    In JavaScript, there are different ways to create an object. Once the object is created we can check its type by:

    our_inst instanceof InstType


    If we want to know about the function that created the instance we can do following:

    our_inst.constructor == FunctionThatCreatedIt

    So "constructor" is a property defined on the Property object and it always points back to the function that created the instance. If the object is created using object literal then following will return true because the literals (i.e. var our_inst = {}; ) point back to Object.

    our_inst.constructor == Object; 

    If the object is created using a constructor function e.g.

    function Browser(name, version){
      this.name = name;
      this.version = version;

    }

    Then following will return true (as chrome.constructor should point back to the Browser):

    var chrome = new Browser("Chrome", "1.0.3");

    alert(chrome.constructor==Browser);


    So far so good. Now inheritance in JavaScript works using a "prototype" property, which in itself is an interesting topic. If you add properties to the "prototype" then it will be accessible to all instances of that type. We can add multiple "prototypes" to our type like following (and whatever we add to the prototype, it will be available to all instances of Browser type):


    Browser.prototype = {

      renderText: function(){

        return alert('Rendering Text...');

      },

      renderCSS:function(){

        return alert("Rendering CSS...");

      }

    }; 


    But now if I do the following, it will return 'false':

    alert(chrome.constructor==Browser);


    Which looks quite strange, no? When I came across this I was not sure what happened there. So there are few things at play here, let's look at them one by one.


    1- Every function in JavaScript has a property named 'prototype' which points to the Prototype object. The Prototype object has a property named "constructor" which always points back to the constructor function that created the instance. 

    2- Now if you try to define the prototype like 

    Browser.prototype = {};

    Then, what happens is that we have assigned an object literal to Browser's prototype. So the "constructor" is defined on the Prototype object but now we have assigned an object literal to Browser's prototype and object literal's "constructor" point backs to "Object". Since the object literal we assigned doesn't have any 'constructor' property so it defaults back to the Object. So that's why following outputs "Object" as opposed to "Browser".


    alert(chrome.constructor==Browser);


    To remedy this situation we can explicitly set the 'constructor' property inside the object literal like:

    Browser.prototype = {

      constructor: Browser,

      renderText: function(){

        return alert('Rendering Text...');

      },

      renderCSS:function(){

        return alert("Rendering CSS...");

      }

    }; 

    I am no JavaScript czar, I just love learning about it. If you find any mistakes or errors, please reach out to me so I can correct those. Following Gist contains all the corrected code.