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Sunday, August 6, 2017

Why Prime Minister should be Honest and Trustworthy?

IF voters wanted the same kind of scrutiny for electoral candidates that their would-be domestic help is subjected to, we would end up with honest and competent prime ministers.
What characteristics do we look for in a domestic helper? Honesty and competence. How do we assess their level? Some basic background checks work. Her credentials are established with the help of people for whom she might have worked. Thus we try to evaluate her integrity and experience, and then make a decision using this information.
Consider a household whose every member is away from home during the day. Also assume that there is a trade-off between honesty and competency. What quality would such a household value most in a domestic helper if she is expected to work at home while the family is away? The logical answer is honesty — especially if there are valuables at home.
Voters do not assess the honesty level of candidates.
The prime minister sits on taxpayers’, and therefore voters’, money. As voters cannot directly prevent the theft or misuse of their money they vote in a prime minister as the custodian of their money. Should the voters or taxpayers expect the custodian to be honest? Yes, they should. Should they expect the prime minister to be competent? Yes, they should, because he is paid a salary out of their money. Do the voters try to assess the honesty and competency level of the candidates to the National Assembly, one of whom will be the prime minister? No. Why? Do voters even expect the politicians to be honest, let alone try and figure out their honesty level? No. In fact, the voters knowingly vote for people with questionable reputations. Why?
If an elected politician can help a voter find a job, land a plot, a contract, a subsidy or a prized posting then the voter does not care how the politician handles the national exchequer. However, such beneficiaries are few.
The indifference of society in general to the integrity of politicians is better explained by what economists refer to as ‘tragedy of the commons’ ie the overuse or neglect of community resources leading to their depletion. The concept has been applied to water, pastures, parks and a number of community resources referred to as the ‘commons’. The national exchequer is also one such ‘common’ resource which is neglected by its joint owners — the taxpayers. Why?
A small fraction of voters know that it is their money that politicians or public officials siphon or misuse, but still they do not care. Again, why? Because the politicians siphon off the common pool called ‘national exchequer’ in which the share of an individual voter is minuscule, no matter how big a taxpayer he or she is. It is this smallness of an individual’s share in the common pool that makes the national exchequer similar to a ‘common’ to which the ‘tragedy of the commons’ applies.
On top of this, given the literacy level, a large majority of taxpayers do not even know that the national exchequer is composed of the money contributed by the entire community. Misleading numbers, like only ‘1.2 million taxpayers in the country’, or statements like ‘less than one per cent of Pakistanis pay taxes’ add to the dilemma. The common man does not realise that he or she as a consumer of goods and services ends up paying taxes collected as withholding taxes, corporate tax, custom duties etc. — there are over 100 million mobile phone users in Pakistan; and anybody who has ever paid money to buy a Sim is, in fact, a taxpayer.
It is not uncommon to see references being made to the use of taxpayers’ money in developed countries while debating one or the other government decision. Pakistanis who have won USAID grants for one or the other project would have noticed that their award letter says “from the people of America”. On the other hand, it is not uncommon for politicians at the helm in Pakistan to favour their hometowns in making use of development funds with little criticism from taxpayers.
To elect honest prime ministers, the first task then is to make people aware that the prime minister is sitting on their money, that it is extremely difficult to have good systems which tell people that their money is being put to good use and that the prime minister can potentially steal your money. Therefore, electing an honest prime minister is essential.
To push the ‘who pays’ reality into the public mind, let’s scribble ‘paid by Pakistanis’ on every public building, motorway, metro, hospital and school. Also let’s scribble on the office wall of every public servant ‘salary paid by Pakistanis’.
PM has your cash
by Idrees Khawaja, dawn.com, The writer is associated with Air University and the Pakistan Institute of Development Economics, Islamabad.   idreespide1@gmail.com  , Twitter: @khawajaidrees11
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