India and the Promise of Productivity

In the comments to Anti Chain Store Policies in India and America, “Lark” posted a long “refutation” from Triple Crisis of the “neo-liberal” arguments for retail reform in India. I will focus on one remarkable argument:

…experience across the world makes it incontrovertible that large retail companies displace many more jobs of petty traders, than they create in the form of employees. This has been true of all countries that have opened up to such companies, from Turkey in the 1990s to South Africa. Large retail chains typically use much more capital intensive techniques, and have much more floor space, goods and sales turnover per worker.

One estimate suggests that for every job Walmart (the largest global retail chain) creates in India, it would displace 17 to 18 local small traders and their employees. In a country like India, this is of major significance, since around 44 million people are now involved in retail trade (26 million in urban areas) and they are overwhelmingly in small shops or self-employed.

Of course this is no refutation, fewer jobs are precisely the point. What India needs is fewer jobs; fewer jobs in retail, fewer jobs in apparel and, most of all, fewer jobs in farming. India cannot become even a middle income country if most of its workers, for example, are farmers. To improve its standard of living, India must use fewer people to produce more agricultural output.

Fewer workers in farming (or retail) means more workers producing more goods in other industries. The same basic lesson holds throughout an economy, it is the declining sectors that allow other sectors to advance. Instantaneously? Immediately? With higher wages for every worker? No. Transitions always involve some pain; creation always involves some destruction; growth always involves change. The alternative, however, is stagnation.

The politics of growth are difficult because those who lose from change are always present and are often more numerous and perhaps even more deserving than the present winners, the capitalists, the business people, the international mega corps; but today’s losses and gains are fleeting, the permanent winners are the workers and consumers of the future who will know only the benefits of productivity.


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