Causal inference, alcohol bans and Covid-19 in South Africa: a short comment

As in other countries, South Africa has used various forms of restrictions on societal activity in an attempt to slow or prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2 (‘Covid’). One measure that is relatively unusual is the limit on alcohol sales, which has varied in severity from a complete ban on any sales or transporting of alcohol to less severe variations on that such as banning only sales for off-site consumption, or limiting such sales to particular days and hours.

Such measures have drawn some vehement criticism, not least from the alcohol industry itself. One large player in that industry, Distell, commissioned a piece of research which argued that there was no defensible basis for these measures. That in turn was widely cited in the media, and at least one editor claimed that it showed: “There’s no way the alcohol bans in SA have been based on credible science. They’re based on prejudice.”

In the same month (April 2021) I was contacted by a civil society organisation for an expert opinion on that report. I wrote a short assessment, which takes a dim view of the approach and claims of the report – with corresponding implications for associated assertions that use it as a ‘scientific’ basis for opposing alcohol restrictions.

Alcohol_trauma_SMM_FINAL

As I indicate in my comments, this is ultimately an empirical question on which I have no prior views. The claim that a reduction in access to alcohol does significantly reduce the demand for hospital resources that are needed for critical Covid-19 cases is plausible. Whether it is true remains to be seen. A number of papers have been published on the subject, see:

https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1111/dar.13310

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S2211419X20301464

https://journals.co.za/doi/abs/10.4102/phcfm.v12i1.2528

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7719204/

I leave thoughts on those, and others which are likely to be out soon, for later work.

On the issue of economic impact, which the alcohol industry emphasises, there are certainly also concerns. However, it is useful to remember that industry estimates of economic harm from limiting their activities are often exaggerations of the net economic impact. Reductions in consumption also have a significant negative impact on government revenue from excise duties, though these are arguably quite small when compared to the broader economic and fiscal harm of ‘lockdown’ measures.

Elsewhere I have outlined in detail my views on the balancing act required of decision-makers, especially for less wealthy countries, in dealing with the pandemic. I argued that contrary to the conventional wisdom in 2020, South Africa’s response was deeply flawed and caused social and economic harm without adequate benefits in terms of long-term health outcomes. That remains my view, but it does not follow that every decision is flawed: in my assessment, the restrictions on alcohol sales/consumption, even if unnecessary or ineffective, are amongst the least of the government’s failures.

Higher education funding in South Africa

Recently, student protests have again erupted at higher education institutions in South Africa. When the original #FeesMustFall protests began in 2015 I was working at the Parliamentary Budget Office and trying to advise members of the finance and appropriations committees as best I could on the proposals being hurriedly drafted by the government. Subsequently, after moving back into academia, I wrote a number of pieces on the issues raised both by the students, the associated public debate, and actual or proposed policy decisions:

“Free higher education in South Africa: cutting through the lies and statistics” https://theconversation.com/free-higher-education-in-south-africa-cutting-through-the-lies-and-statistics-90474

Options on the table as South Africa wrestles with funding higher educationhttps://theconversation.com/options-on-the-table-as-south-africa-wrestles-with-funding-higher-education-87688

On the recent protests and apparent policy decisions, these two interviews (radio and television) provide my initial assessment:

Radio: https://iono.fm/e/1008788

Television: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CcoOAS03zuY

At present, I am conducting research on some related matters with colleagues from UCT and we hope through that to contribute to deeper understanding of the issues. Our report should be completed by the end of 2021.

The problem with IEJ

Since early 2018, I have expressed – mostly privately and sometimes publicly – criticisms of and reservations about the newly established Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ). Some people appear to be under the impression, so they’ve told me, that this is ‘personal’. Not at all; no more than it would be ‘personal’ if I was critical of Person W because as a bystander I saw them pickpocket Person B. But these and other reactions/narratives indicate that I should clearly state what I believe the problem with IEJ is; that is the purpose of this piece. The purpose is not to persuade anyone either way but simply to put across my experiences and reasons for my position. If I get around to it, I may say more at a later date about what I think the IEJ reveals about parts of South African ‘left-wing’ civil society more broadly.

Background: the problematic dominance of conservative economic analysis

In the last couple of decades, the South African economic analysis and policy space has largely been dominated by conservatives, who have consequently also gotten away with low quality analysis and dubious policy proposals. Much of this has happened under the banner of shallow rhetoric and tired tropes. Many individuals (including myself) and some organisations, with varying political views, have criticised examples of this bad conservative analysis year in and year out. But it has persisted and for whatever reasons, institutions that ought to have provided credible, consistent alternative analysis and commentary of better quality have failed to do so, or failed to gain traction. The result being a tedious succession of exchanges between arrogantly mediocre conservative economists, strongly aided and abetted by the business and mainstream press, and loud but equally empty rhetoric from left-wing organisations such as trade unions and political parties. Key public institutions like the National Treasury and Reserve Bank have developed post-apartheid institutional cultures most closely aligned to the conservative end of the spectrum. Resulting in a neat conflation of conservativeness with credible economic policy by these institutions and most of the media – who at best do not know enough to judge either way, and at worst suffer from the arrogant conservatism of the poorly trained and poorly informed.

For these and other reasons, there has been a long-standing need for some kind(s) of counterweight to this problematic culture that enables what are arguably sub-optimal economic, and other, policies. What has been evident to me at least since my undergraduate studies in economics in the early 2000s is that a shift requires left-wing analysis and research that can match, or exceed, the quantitative sophistication of the analyses produced by SARB, Treasury and their stablemates in academia. For that reason, in the past I encouraged a number of my left-wing students and ‘activists’ I came across not to turn their backs on quantitative methods; if they had the intention of further study in economics, I recommended getting some substantive training in these methods – whatever those methods’ actual usefulness for answering economic questions.

An introduction to the IEJ

With this background, it should not be surprising that when I was told about the idea of a research institute aimed at providing relatively sophisticated research and analysis in support of left-wing/progressive agendas, I welcomed it. That was the case when, by a chance meeting via a mutual acquaintance, I spent a few hours (in 2017 as I recall) with one of the initiators of the Institute for Economic Justice (IEJ). And in that discussion, I was forthcoming in sharing a number of ideas I’d had over the years for a range of specific initiatives required. In doing so, I made – with hindsight – a number of mistakes:

  1. I assumed that the initiative, and its initiators, had a certain respect for the intellectual separation between academic work/research and advocacy
  2. I assumed that the initiators recognised the importance of what’s often referred to as ‘positionality’ – in general and especially in an area which ultimately concerns policymaking in the interests of the majority of South Africans who are black and women
  3. I assumed that the white male initiators were doing this as a part-time or extramural activity, that a much broader, demographically representative group would be involved, and that the initiators would not be the final directors of the organisation
  4. And finally, I assumed that the institution would play a supporting role to actual civil society organisations that could lay some credible claim to representing at least a subset of black South Africans who would speak for themselves.

These assumptions were based on my own views about how it might be appropriate to work in this kind of area, but it was naïve at best to assume these views were shared. Such assumptions partly followed from a deliberate decision to give the founders the benefit of the doubt, despite some reservations about their respective familial and professional associations with men in civil society who had been involved in some arguably rather revealing scandals. It seemed unfair to damn the IEJ founders by association…and perhaps that remains true even if it turns out, after the fact, that it would have been the right decision.

 

Existing civil society spaces

I continued with this approach of giving the founders of IEJ the benefit of the doubt as they began to involve themselves in long-standing civil society spaces I was working in – most particularly, the public finance space. The main such space had evolved in name, participation and structure, but in recent times was largely the initiative of a number of (mostly black) women who had been working in related spaces (public finance and civil society) for some time. It is now called the Budget Justice Coalition. There were very clear statements about what the purpose of the space was and how it operated:

  • The purpose was to build capacity amongst CSOs on public finance oversight and thereby also develop the basis for collaborations to lobby and influence policymakers
  • Conduct needed to be respectful, non-hierarchical and democratic, aware of positionality and ultimately in line with the purpose of the spaces created.

You can find a full statement of these principles at the bottom of this webpage: https://budgetjusticesa.org/about/.

These fundamental principles aligned nicely with my own view of an appropriate role for myself in these spaces: sharing the academic and policy expertise I had (from my training, government experience and recent work at the Parliamentary Budget Office) to the extent that it was useful for the people and organisations involved. I had/have clear views on many public finance issues in terms of what I think is likely to be in the interest of South Africans at large, but it was absolutely clear to me that these should not be imposed on these spaces, nor should I seek greater influence or authority for my views from getting endorsements.

Indeed, there were a number of occasions where I had to state explicitly that it would not be appropriate for me to take leadership positions in advocacy, nor would it be appropriate to have my individual submissions (e.g. to Parliament) endorsed by CSOs – as much as I welcomed the implicit support the desire to do so implied. I should perhaps have paid more attention to the fact that this was more often interpreted as rebuffing attempts for collaboration, than it was seen as being in keeping with the principles stated above.

Anyway, it was in this space that it became evident how inaccurate, and far too generous, my assumptions about the IEJ founders were.

 

Revealing true colours

At the beginning of 2018, which seems something of an age ago now, a number of CSOs involved in the initiative mentioned above organised pre-Budget workshops to prepare representatives of various left-wing CSOs for analysis of the forthcoming national Budget. I was involved in the organising, partly based on prior participation in such efforts and partly through a new, formalised project funded by the EU to improve CSO engagement with legislatures. IEJ were the newest on the scene but it made obvious sense (including to me) to have them involved in some way.

It is worth noting, though, that as I remember it their participation was proposed by an individual at another CSO – let’s call him ‘John’. Neither at that time, nor later, did John indicate that he had any personal relationship with the founders of IEJ.

Let me fast forward here to save some time. Overall the workshops went well, but afterwards I was sufficiently bothered about something I had seen that I sent a message to the IEJ co-founder I’d originally spoken to, confronting him about his conduct, that of his co-founder and John. Specifically, prior to a consultative session in which the group was intending to make decisions about the way forward, this individual surreptitiously called his co-founder and John outside to have a strategic discussion – unaware that I had noticed them doing this. (Bear in mind the background to this CSO group above and the fact that these three were all white men). On returning to the session, they began to raise points from the floor.

The principle for making contributions in that concluding session was that only one representative from each organisation could speak for a fixed period of time. The first dishonesty was that the two IEJ co-founders insisted on being allowed to speak separately on the grounds that IEJ, supposedly, was not up and running (contradicting statements made elsewhere).

The second, was that – with the benefit of what I had seen – all three made contributions that pushed in one particular direction but while giving the impression that they were independent. That direction, I suddenly realised, resonated closely with what one of these IEJ co-founders had told me individually: their first priority was to elevate IEJ’s profile in order to secure its status and more donor funding. After the workshops a similar dynamic emerged in email exchanges. The IEJ had no interest in the slow, painstaking process of putting together a group submission and instead went ahead and drafted its own (which really meant one person’s document) which it then put to the group. And John was the first to enthusiastically endorse the IEJ submission and role. These were additional dishonesties, because the IEJ representatives said nothing about the desire to use this pre-existing initiative and substantive public interest issues to raise their profile, and John neglected to mention – as I later discovered – that he was the best friend of the person whose organisation and submission he kept endorsing.

Given the heavy workloads and limited time of the organisers, the prospect of someone taking responsibility for the submission was gladly accepted with an apparently naïve good faith. (I cannot be too harsh here because after all I was also guilty of giving the relevant individuals the benefit of the doubt at the outset). So it was that one, not especially well-qualified or experienced individual in the public finance-legislature space, made himself the figurehead for left-wing civil society opposition to the government’s proposed VAT increase in 2018. Not only did he draft the submission with little input, but also presented it to Parliament on behalf of these CSOs – clearly with no qualms about his own positionality despite ‘wearing multiple hats’ (as he acknowledged in the relevant presentation to Parliament) and being a white man from a privileged background who had no legitimate claim to represent any South African besides himself.

Because of my original lengthy conversation with him about the IEJ and what I had seen, I decided – as mentioned already – to confront him privately rather than publicly after the workshops. He all but admitted the self-interested agenda I put to him, but aggressively denied that issues of positionality in this carefully created space should impede him and the ambitions of his two collaborators. The conduct I observed violated many principles of the space in which these individuals were operating. Among those one can find on the BJC site are those requiring that participants “are open and honest with each other”, “are characterised by integrity”, “are committed to emulating equality and inclusion in our processes”, “have humility”, “respect the multiplicity of organisational approaches to achieving social change”, and so on.

There are two other instances of problematic conduct by the IEJ founders that I have heard about from others. One concerned using contacts in civil society to pre-emptively attempt to discredit individuals making allegations of sexual harassment. Another concerned rude and abrasive behaviour in a civil society workshop to the point that the professional facilitator complained about the conduct. Reportedly, the culpable individuals were taken to task by their peers on both. Yet that appears to have done little to materially affect their power or status in the organisation or the organisation’s credibility. It is unclear whether the Board was ever informed about such matters.

Avoiding IEJ and initiatives it controls or has significant weight in

Having confirmed my own suspicions by engaging directly with one of the individuals concerned, I have since sought to avoid any interaction with IEJ, initiatives it controls or initiatives where it has any significant weight. Sadly, that means I had to largely sever any involvement with the Budget Justice Coalition. There is an obvious irony in this, but personally the only consequence of no longer being involved is: less work on public interest issues and more time for my career-enhancing academic work.

I summarised my stance as follows when I was approached more than 12 months later (in early 2019) to be involved in one aspect of the Rethinking Economics for Africa (REFA) initiative:

I am not really comfortable with IEJ as an organisation. I know there are good people internally and on the board, but in my view (and that of others) it replicates a problematic CSO model in South Africa that should be left in the past. Some categories of problems were exposed with the Equal Education saga last year. Given this, while I think initiatives like IEJ and REFA are needed in SA, I do not want to be involved with IEJ as it is currently led.

I should add that I also don’t really think it’s appropriate for REFA to be controlled by one institution, not least a problematic one. There is also the matter of how the REFA festival was handled last year, with the effect that a very clear message was sent (in my view) by the way involvement appeared to be determined – reflecting the interests, cliques, positioning and prejudices of the organisers; not primarily expertise on the supposed issues at hand.

While I appreciate that none of the issues I raise (past or present) may be within your control, they are important. To put it bluntly: I can’t involve myself even with ostensibly worthwhile initiatives and good people if I know that ultimately the final strings can still be pulled by people who I believe to be problematic. If/when the top leadership of the IEJ changes, feel free to get in touch again.

REFA, as part of the broader Rethinking Economics movement, is also a great idea in principle. But the fact that it is ultimately controlled by the same people controlling IEJ is deeply problematic.

Recent developments and (non-)prospects for change

As far as I can see, the founders of the IEJ have continued in precisely the vein they started in: pathological self-promotion that seeks to take over other initiatives and control people who’ve been involved in such work for longer periods, under the justification of promoting ‘economic justice’. And one must give them credit: they have been very successful. Helped to no small degree, like similar predecessors in South African civil society, by the power that accrues in resource-starved spaces from donor money. Unlike in the United States where one might need to pretend to be a black woman in order to profit from work supposedly of benefit to marginalised communities, in South African left-wing civil society it turns out that it’s entirely possible for a few, not especially accomplished or insightful, white men to make a comfortable living and dramatically increase their professional profiles by anointing themselves representatives of the pursuit of economic justice for black South Africans. And then receive significant donor funds, along with endorsements from supposedly credible individuals and organisations, for this act of non-benevolence.

In the last year or so there appears to have been a slight shift in strategy by IEJ, with the problematic individuals reducing their self-promotion a little and putting others in public fora. I suspect this is in response to awareness of the above concerns from a number of individuals. They nevertheless appear to retain final control of all aspects, directly or indirectly, of IEJ. And REFA is correspondingly still controlled by these individuals. For myself, I have no interest in any association with people of this kind or those who endorse them.

An obvious source for change ought to be the IEJ board, the members of which purportedly subscribe to progressive notions of leadership elsewhere. To my knowledge, however, the board was created by the founders rather than the founders being appointed by the board. Furthermore, some board members have long-standing reciprocal/mutually beneficial relationships with the founders and therefore do not have an interest in appointing individuals to manage the organisation who would be more consistent with the principles they espouse.

More broadly, there are certain power-brokers in civil society who have for a long time participated in such dynamics themselves and work hard to use their roles – including in the media – to secure the legitimacy of such individuals. Ironically, the author of the article linked to calls for ‘economic democracy’ but fails to mention that the initiatives he endorses are led by unelected white men; what kind of economic democracy is that, one might ask? Furthermore, though he bemoans alleged dismissive treatment of those he endorses by the business press this is largely false: whereas the media almost entirely ignored the black women-led initiative that preceded the IEJ by many years, within the 18months of IEJ’s launch, one of its co-founders was widely personally profiled in the business press, invited to participate in policy discussions led by conservative organisations, and both co-founders were widely cited and invited to speak as authorities on left-wing positions on economic matters. In an astounding case, one columnist and former editor of Business Day represented a document by one of the IEJ co-founders as representing the views of left-wing civil society as a whole. (I might note that the document contained a few glaring technical errors: confirming that the author’s status cannot be justified even putting positionality issues aside). The claim thus holds little water. Indeed, if one looks at the evidence it is hard to separate these individuals’ self-interest from their purported activism…

As I have alluded to above, it seems this kind of conduct – hypocritical as it is – has become normalised in left-wing South African civil society. Almost thirty years into the country’s democracy, the position of those who have endorsed IEJ is implicitly that black South Africans need to be led to economic justice by white men substituting an actual mandate with merely their unapologetic self-promotion. This is grossly hypocritical. I do not hold the view that white people – men or otherwise – should not have any involvement in these discussions. Evidently not, since I remain actively engaged with these areas myself.  But I really cannot see any defensible basis for white people of any background leading these initiatives and even less so when on multiple occasions they have violated basic principles of conduct on which such activity is supposedly premised. And I have little tolerance for those who endorse or enable this and yet still want to shout about representation or demographic injustice issues in other parts of society.

Update (22 March 2021):
#1 Since the original post was written, the IEJ has changed its Board (or at least changed the details of Board members provided on the website) – only 2 members of the original board seem to remain but despite that the issue of beneficially reciprocal relations does too. How Board members are appointed, and by whom, remains unclear. One of the co-directors is now referred to as a ‘senior policy specialist’ – leaving it unclear who the other ‘co-director’ now is.
#2 I notice that the IEJ website claims that “The IEJ was launched…in September 2018”
. It is easy to find public information indicating that the IEJ was operating long before that, as per my remarks in the post. For example, see these minutes from a presentation to Parliament in February 2018: https://pmg.org.za/committee-meeting/25892/

The PBO Director shortlist

The post of Director of the South African Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) has now been vacant for almost two years after the previous Director resigned under a cloud.[1] That means two Parliaments (the 5th and 6th) have been in violation of their own legislation – the Money Bills Amendment Procedure and Related Matters Act (2009, amended 2018).[2]

I worked for two years at the PBO, leading some of its most important projects at the time, and have written at length in the past about its failures (e.g. on nuclear procurement), its importance, why the filling of the Director position is crucial and my own role in trying to remedy the institutional rot/dysfunction. Some of that accountability work is ongoing.

It took over a year for MPs to agree that the post should be advertised and almost a year has elapsed since then before the shortlisted candidates were finally decided on in a meeting on 4 September 2020. While it is possible that the Covid-19 pandemic delayed the process, it was already glacial prior to that and there was little impediment to finalising the list via a virtual meeting of the kind that eventually took place. The previous meeting of the committee took place in December 2019.

Given the broader political dynamics in the country, it seems likely that the delay has been the result of:

  1. Political lobbying as to who should be deployed to this post (paid at the level of a Director General but with only a small staff complement)
  2. Lack of prioritisation of the issue given widespread institutional challenges across all three arms of state and the relative disregard of the role of legislatures.

As reflected in the minutes of the Parliamentary Monitoring Group, there are 9 candidates on the shortlist. These include: the current chairperson of the Financial and Fiscal Commission (FFC), a former CEO and acting chairperson of the FFC, the current acting deputy director general of the Budget Office in the National Treasury, and all three current deputy directors of the PBO. Originally the committee staff had shortlisted 8 candidates but one further candidate (the Treasury official) was added during the meeting. The minutes of the meeting suggest some inconsistency in the application of the experience requirement, with candidates having 10 – 12 years experience being shortlisted and others with more years not being shortlisted. (This may be because of different notions of what constitutes experience for this purpose but it is not clear).

Candidates will need to go through a clearance process by the State Security Agency at the highest clearance category (‘Top Secret’). The discussion in the committee reflected the lack of knowledge of the PBO’s functioning among both the Parliament officials informing the process and MPs themselves. All parties appeared to be of the view that a PBO Director likely would not need to handle classified information. As the first staff member of the PBO to have received classified information through formal channels on behalf of the Office, I can attest to the fact that this is incorrect. What role the SSA should play in relation to this kind of process is of course another matter, since in principle it presents an opportunity for the Executive to interfere in an undesirable fashion (albeit that seems less likely under the current administration).

In principle, candidates should also meet the requirement of being ‘fit and proper persons’. [Declaration: this requirement followed from an amendment to section 15 of the Act which I proposed as part of a public submission in 2018 and was accepted by MPs]. In practice it is unclear at this point how this requirement will be checked. And whether information from the public will be solicited for this purpose. My view is that it should be: if you have any such information on any of the candidates, I suggest sending it to the secretary of the committee.

The nature of PBOs is such that it should be protected from political influence and partisanship of all kinds, not least in the appointment of its staff. Furthermore, whoever is appointed should be able to put whatever personal and institutional views they may hold, or have held, aside and conduct their analysis and research in a competent, fully public interested, non-ideological and non-partisan way. Unfortunately, this seems highly unlikely in the South African case. Instead, what is likely to happen is that the appointed candidate will be the one who is seen as most amenable to whatever the agenda is of the grouping(s) that holds the greatest sway over the appointment.

 A faction within the governing ANC along with some opposition MPs and civil society organisations will favour a ‘Treasury-aligned candidate’. (Note: this need not necessarily by a candidate from Treasury, though such candidates may well fit the bill). An alternative faction in the ANC along with other opposition MPs and different civil society groupings may favour a more ‘anti-Treasury’ view. There are 4-5 candidates who, in my view, can be reasonably located in one of these two categories. But one should also not rule out the possibility of an opportunist whose objective is really just to secure the post and sells themselves to one or both parties as necessary. As the reader will see, I am not convinced that any candidate is likely to be appointed who is squarely committed to what the role truly requires.

I will refrain from publicly speculating about how I think the process will, or should, play out in terms of the candidate who is ultimately selected. However, in the past I have indicated that given the historical dysfunction of, and misconduct in, the institution an outside candidate is likely to be preferable. And I continue to hold that view. Parliament partially sabotaged any such candidate by allowing staff renewals and appointments under a brief reappointment by the previous Director, thereby leaving any new Director with some staff who may be a liability. However, a suitably motivated and strategic new Director should be able to improve conduct and culture – as well as remove staff who resist that process.

The PBO is an institution with great potential to serve the public good. One can only hope that the current Parliament makes an appointment that puts it back on the right path, rather than consigning it to further stagnation and membership of a list of institutions with highly paid staff that do little for the public good. It is welcome that much/all of the process will be in the public domain. But as we saw with the appointment of the current Public Protector, transparency of that sort does not mean substantive transparency or guarantee a good outcome.

Note: I did not apply for the position in question and have no material or other interest in the outcome except to the extent that I am invested in the public interest role the PBO is supposed to play.

[1] This article incorrectly says one year.

[2] For those who don’t know: most legislation is introduced by the Executive and then approved by Parliament, but in special cases Parliament may draft legislation itself – most notably in relation to the conduct of its own affairs. The Money Bills Act is one of the few such pieces of legislation.

A letter rejected by the South African Medical Journal

Throughout South Africa’s Covid-19 pandemic response, I have been raising concerns about the basis for the government’s decisions – starting with an op-ed when the lockdown was announced. It has been particularly concerning how uncritical academics and journalists were at the outset. I am still in the process of writing a number of academic pieces on this, but unfortunately these will only come out later in this year or next year. One effort I made in the interim was to write a cautionary letter to the South African Medical Journal, which has been responsible for publishing some concerning editorials that contribute to the problematic stance of the South African academy. Today I received notification that my correspondence was rejected as “The editors have determined that this submission is not appropriate for this journal and will not be considered for publication.” Given that the pieces criticised were journal editorials, this is perhaps not very surprising. Decide for yourself.

Unmitigated praise of government’s Covid-19 response is premature and inconsistent with available evidence

A recent editorial[1] expresses concern with statements by the Minister and Department of Health[2,3] and Medical Research Council (MRC)[4] in response to remarks attributed to Dr Glenda Gray[5,6] relating to the government’s approach to lockdown regulations and public health consequences of the lockdown. I concur with the authors on the primacy of Constitutional principles of free speech and academic freedom for members of the Ministerial Advisory Committee (MAC) on Covid-19, and the institutional independence of the MRC (which has now found no transgression[7]). However, premature, unsubstantiated statements about government’s response to Covid-19 contribute to an environment of uncritical praise that preceded, and arguably contributed to, the controversy in question.
The theoretically optimal policy response to Covid-19 remains unknown under the usual standards of academic and scientific justification, given extensive uncertainty about characteristics of the virus itself along with the dynamics of contagion, morbidity and mortality in different populations and contexts. Furthermore, thorough assessment of the efficacy and optimality of government responses can only be made on evidence that will become available after the pandemic is over. Only preliminary assessments are possible at present and cannot be exempt from basic standards of justification and evidence. The authors’ statements[1], as with others elsewhere[8], do not meet such standards and thereby undermine impartial, evidence-based criticism. For example:

Notwithstanding the concerns raised above, the Minister of Health’s management of the country’s COVID-19 pandemic, to date, is laudable

And:

SA’s response to COVID-19 has been swift and science based, and merits praise

The apparent premise, that “other governments around the world have not grounded their response to the pandemic in science and evidence”[1], is too low a bar. The British government, for example, has rightly been criticised not for failing to use science and evidence, but for doing so selectively and secretively[9]. Yet the authors fail to critically examine the composition and conduct of the MAC, asking only for “involvement of experts from academia outside of the biomedical sciences, and statutory bodies”[1].
There is evidence that contradicts this stance. As noted by others[10], and reflected in international open Covid-19 databases[11], South Africa has not been forthcoming in publishing detailed data on testing, screening, contact tracing and patient characteristics – despite international calls for transparency[9,12]. Even more concerning, while the original lockdown decision was premised on modelling[13], only limited details of the strategy and basis were provided much later[14] while current projections and model details have only recently been made public[15].

Good intent along with science- and evidence-based decision-making are not sufficient to ensure the best policy decisions are taken. Transparency in evidence, modelling, decision-making, use of expertise and balancing of societal priorities is paramount. The South African government has performed badly on some of these dimensions. Rhetoric of “unity and solidarity” in that context potentially undermines the role of dissent, rather than deference, in contributing to the public good. Unsubstantiated and premature praise may contribute to a sub-optimal response to the pandemic.

1. Singh JA. Freedom of speech and public interest, not allegiance, should underpin science advisement to government. S Afr Med J. 2020 May 26;
2. Mkhize Z. Health Minister’s statement on Prof Glenda Gray’s public attack of government based on inaccurate information [Internet]. National Department of Health; [accessed 26 May 2020]. Available from: http://www.health.gov.za/index.php/2014-03-17-09-48-36/2014-03-17-09-49-50?download=4247:statement-by-minister-mkhize-prof-glenda-gray-public-attack-of-government-20-may-2020
3. Human L, Geffen N. Health department boss calls for investigation into Glenda Gray. GroundUp [Internet]. 22 May 2020 [accessed 26 May 2020]; Available from: https://www.groundup.org.za/article/health-department-boss-calls-investigation-glenda-gray/
4. Herman P. SAMRC board apologises for Prof Gray’s comments, bars staff from speaking to media. News24 [Internet]. 25 May 2020; Available from: https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/breaking-samrc-board-apologises-for-glenda-grays-comments-bars-staff-from-speaking-to-media-20200525
5. Karrim A, Evans S. Unscientific and nonsensical: Top scientist slams government’s lockdown strategy. News24 [Internet]. 16 May 2020 [accessed 16 May 2020]; Available from: https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/unscientific-and-nonsensical-top-scientific-adviser-slams-governments-lockdown-strategy-20200516
6. Karrim A. I didn’t criticise the lockdown, but the regulations ‒ Prof Glenda Gray after Mkhize slams criticism. News24. 21 May 2020
7. SAMRC. Media statement from the SAMRC Board [Internet]. 26 May 2020 [accessed 26 May 2020]. Available from: https://www.samrc.ac.za/media-release/media-statement-samrc-board
8. Academy of Science of South Africa (ASSAf). Public Statement on COVID-19. 18 May 2020.
9. Alwan NA, Bhopal R, Burgess RA, Colburn T, Cuevas LE, Smith GD, et al. Evidence informing the UK’s COVID-19 public health response must be transparent. Lancet. 2020 Mar;395(10229):1036–7.
10. Marivate V, Combrink HM. Use of Available Data To Inform The COVID-19 Outbreak in South Africa: A Case Study. Data Science Journal. 6 May 2020; 19(1):19.
11. Xu B, Kraemer MUG, Xu B, Gutierrez B, Mekaru S, Sewalk K, et al. Open access epidemiological data from the COVID-19 outbreak. The Lancet Infectious Diseases. 2020; 20(5):534.
12. Barton CM, Alberti M, Ames D, Atkinson J-A, Bales J, Burke E, et al. Call for transparency of COVID-19 models. Sills J, editor. Science. 2020; 368(6490):482.2-483.
13. Republic of South Africa. President Cyril Ramaphosa: Escalation of measures to combat Coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic [Internet]. 23 March 2020 [accessed 25 May 2020]. Available from: https://www.gov.za/speeches/president-cyril-ramaphosa-escalation-measures-combat-coronavirus-covid-19-pandemic-23-mar
14. Abdool Karim SS. SA’s Covid-19 epidemic: Trends & Next steps. Presentation for the Minister of Health; 13 April 2020. [accessed 16 May 2020].
15. Silal S, Pulliam J, Meyer-Rath G, Nichols B, Jamieson L, Moultrie H. Estimating cases for COVID-19 in South Africa Update: 19 May 2020. South African COVID-19 Modelling Consortium; 19 May 2020.

Why is Parliament violating PAIA?

In May 2018 the Parliament administration solicited bids for a forensic investigation into accusations of misconduct at the Parliamentary Budget Office. The forensic investigation commenced in June 2018 and was completed by the end of July (within the very limited time-frame given by Parliament). The Director of the Parliamentary Budget Office, Mohammed Jahed, resigned shortly thereafter accompanied by strenuous denials that the resignation related to the investigation into misconduct.

After some less formal requests for the report, in March 2019 I initiated an application under the Promotion of Access to Information Act. The Parliament administration first sought to extend the time period for reply and then stopped providing substantive replies – meaning it is now in violation of the PAIA Act. In my most recent letter to the Acting Secretary of Parliament (who is officially the Information Officer for Parliament) I lay out the details of the preceding correspondence and the legal implications.

The big question is: why is Parliament so desperate to hide the report it commissioned?

A note on the philosophy literature on external validity

Later this month (August 2019) I’ll be presenting a paper at the 14th conference of the International Network for Economic Method (INEM). The paper is titled, “From ‘data mining’ to ‘machine learning’: the role of randomised trials and the credibility revolution”. An apparent puzzle is that there’s a session on external validity – which was the subject of my economics PhD, a working paper and short publication – in which I’m not presenting. Surely if I am going to be presenting at conferences on the method or philosophy of economics I should be presenting my work on external validity? The short answer is: I already did in 2012. But I think the longer explanation is also worth giving.

First, the paper I will be presenting at INEM (and ENPOSS) builds explicitly on work I’ve done on external validity (henceforth ‘EV’).

Second, and more importantly, my contribution to the philosophy literature on EV was not just presented at the Evidence and Causality in the Sciences (ECitS) 2012 conference but subsequently finalised as a paper in 2012, revised in 2013. Unfortunately that paper was not published at the time, for reasons that were at best flimsy. Preoccupied with finishing my economics PhD and changing jobs, I delayed resubmitting the manuscript. When I returned to academia in 2016 I discovered that a paper on the subject had been published in Philosophy of Science. More surprising was that, apart from some differences in verbiage and references, the core arguments of the paper seem to be the same as about 30-40% of my own paper but with no reference to that or my work in economics. Then, earlier this year, another paper appeared in the Journal of Economic Methodology. The core arguments of this paper, too, are very similar to the other 30-40% of my paper (dealing with issues like causal process tracing and related matters). In the second instance, my economics work is cited by misunderstood or misrepresented: suggesting that my views are different to the author’s when in fact, as is clear from the 2012/13 paper, they are almost entirely the same.

Needless to say, this creates a rather awkward situation. Not least because I believe, for reasons I will not ventilate in detail at this point, that it is implausible that the two authors were unaware of, or uninfluenced by, my 2012/13 work. But it is now simply impossible to publish my own work, despite clearly having a claim to intellectual priority. These concerns have been taken-up in the relevant fora, but the wheels turn slowly. And it will be informative to test the extent to which academic philosophy is committed to principles of intellectual priority. In the interim it makes for an ‘interesting’ context for intellectual engagement…

Public finance oversight in Gauteng after the elections

Section 120(3) of the Constitution requires provinces to pass a law that guides how they deal with public finance proposals (spending, taxes, etc) from provincial governments. Until 2019 no province had done this. In April of this year, the Gauteng Provincial Legislature (GPL) passed such a law – the Gauteng Money Bills Amendment Procedure and Related Matters Act.

Having such a law is important, but unfortunately the GPL put together a Bill riddled with problems and errors which it then proceeded to rush through in a month without any serious consultation. Some of the problems with the Bill and the process are summarised in this article: https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/2019-03-25-gauteng-legislatures-draft-money-bills-act-is-riddled-with-flaws/

A more detailed analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the Bill is provided by the submission I made to the GPL, at very short notice, in March:
Gauteng Money Bills submission to GPL

With the recent provincial election results suggesting a very narrow numerical majority for the ANC, the problems with the GPL Act may have a profoundly disruptive effect on public finance oversight and decisions in Gauteng. That is concerning, not least for a province that is estimated to be responsible for about 35% of the country’s economic activity and 25% of the country’s population.

Economic justice will not be televised

(Riffing on Gil Scott-Heron: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qGaoXAwl9kw)

Economic justice
Will not be televised
It will not be delivered
Like a fast food dinner
By white men
Using black economists
To front for them.

Economic justice
Will not be televised
It will not be delivered
By VAT zero-ratings
That benefit the rich
More than the poor.

Economic justice
Will not be televised
It will not be delivered
Like fast food transported by exploited workers
By commissioned research
Elevating the status of a few white men
Using black economists
To front for them.

Economic justice
Will not be televised
It will not be brought to you
Like a hot take
By the tentacles of institutes
Wrapped around civil society initiatives
To promote themselves.

Economic justice
Will not be televised
It will not be delivered
Cold
Like emailed interventions
To protect sexual harassers.

Economic justice
Will not be televised
It will not be brought to you
By men
Defending sex ‘not consensual’.

Economic justice
Will not be televised
It will not be delivered
By the festivities
Of ideological cliques
Shouting about reform.

Economic justice
Will not be televised.

Commentary on VAT zero-rating

Since early 2017 I have been engaging with, and advising, some South African civil society organisations on public finance matters. While I naturally have my own views about many issues, the purpose of this engagement is really to help individuals in these organisations understand the issues well enough to make up their own minds. (Some other economists have the more specific agenda of influencing civil society organisations to support their – the economists’ – positions; an approach which I think is evidently dubious).

One important issue that arose with the tabling of the 2018 Budget was the increase in value-added tax (VAT) by one percentage point to 15%. My view on this matter was that there were major procedural and legal problems with how the increase has been brought into effect and that the National Treasury could have done more to protect poor South Africans from the incidence of new revenue measures. The position of civil society has subsequently honed in on the prospect of expanding VAT zero-rating and increasing various forms of social expenditure.

Some of the demands relating to social expenditure that I have seen seem loosely related to the actual VAT incidence claimed by Treasury, but that is a separate issue. More specifically, I recently argued -in an op-ed in Daily Maverick – that zero-rating itself could be of limited value or even counterproductive. A version of that piece with hyperlinks is provided below for anyone interested in reading some of the background references.

Unfortunately, it appears that no-one currently has the appetite to challenge/query the constitutionality of the VAT Act.

Continue reading “Commentary on VAT zero-rating”