Reshuffles, downgrades and South Africa’s public finance drama

The last week has been tumultuous for many South Africans, not least if you are an economist concerned with public finances and the associated political economy dynamics. I had predicted that the President would make another attempt at a finance ministry-targeted reshuffle some time from the end of March onwards. The basis for that prediction was the timing of Parliament’s recess period, as I discuss in greater detail in this article.

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Zapiro: “Shift happens”

The new Minister has been brought in on the back of the President’s (empty) rhetoric about ‘radical economic transformation’ to benefit the majority of poor, black South Africans, but he is known more for his snappy dressing than radicalism; if the FT is correct about his favoured brand, then two of his many ties would equate to the proposed new monthly minimum wage. The combination of supposedly radical rhetoric with personal profligacy is on its own questionable, but there are many more reasons to be concerned.

It was therefore not a great surprise to many analysts when S&P downgraded South Africa’s foreign currency sovereign debt rating to sub-investment grade (‘junk’). After the downgrade by S&P, which I had also expected having paid close attention to presentations at their one-day conference in Johannesburg only a couple of weeks earlier, I provided some commentary with an emphasis on the reasons for the downgrade and possible economics and public finance implications. One of these interviews, with Ayabonga Cawe at PowerFM, is available here. In the first interview I did, on KayaFM, I made a deliberate point of stating that we should not allow anyone to mystify the obvious: that Gordhan has been removed for similar reasons to Nene, implying ‘capture of the state’ (as per the Public Protector’s report). In that context, the new finance minister simply lacks credibility and any statements made about continuity and protecting the fiscus will likely be taken with a pinch of salt.

With the inconvenient oversight of Minister Gordhan removed, the South African Revenue Services announced its final revenue collection figures for 2016/17 in a chummy press conference with the new Minister. This attempted to paint a R30bn revenue undercollection (relative to the revenue forecast in the 2016 Budget) as a success, because it exceeded the 2017 Budget forecast (i.e. the one revised down by R30bn) by R0.0003bn… Unfortunately, many journalists reporting on that event were taken in by the claims of success. I had already dealt with much of this in an article in the Finance Mail. In fact, given concerns about SARS delaying refunds to inflate collection figures, and given inadequate data submitted to Parliament, I have submitted a formal request for more detailed data to SARS and hope to follow-up on that in due course.

Needless to say, the capture of the Finance Ministry makes Parliament’s oversight role even more critical. But as I have argued in some detail (here and here), and ventilated in my CCMA case, the Parliamentary Budget Office is neither equipped, nor inclined, to provide the robust analytical support expected of it under the Money Bills Act (2009). I will have more to say about this in due course.

After the decision by S&P, Fitch has now also downgraded South Africa’s foreign and local currency sovereign debt rating: setting the stage for more dramatic consequences if another agency also downgrades local currency debt to ‘junk’.

These are dangerous times for the South African fiscus, economy and society at large.

Presentation to Parliament’s finance committees

I am now affiliated to the new Public and Environmental Economics Research Centre (PEERC) at the University of Johannesburg, within which I intend to continue putting my public finance and public economics knowledge to good use.

As already noted, I recently published an article on the legislative process that guides the adoption of Budget proposals by Parliament.

And this week, along with my colleague Jugal Mahabir (who has experience at National Treasury and the Financial and Fiscal Commission), we made a short presentation to the finance committees on the fiscal framework and revenue proposals.

The time available (4-5 days between the tabling of the Budget and the submission of public comment) limits the depth and sophistication of the analysis, but with greater preparation this is something I hope to improve on at each successive iteration.

Parliament has the final say on the Budget

Ahead of the Minister of Finance’s Budget Speech tomorrow, I’ve just published a piece in The Conversation, explaining the core components of South Africa’s annual Budget and the fact that Parliament ultimately has the final say on each of these – subject to a public consultation process. The full process is guided by the Money Bills Amendment Procedure and Related Matters Act (2009), which I worked with extensively when I was at the Parliamentary Budget Office.

The conclusion of the article, that Parliament’s oversight may provide some reassurance in the current political context, is less comforting in light of an article published today which reveals that a vacancy has suddenly been created on the standing committee of finance. The last time that happened was when the then ANC whip of the committee, Des Van Rooyen, was notoriously made Minister of Finance for a weekend. It appears likely that Brian Molefe, former CEO of Eskom who is named dozens of times in the Public Protector’s ‘State of Capture’ Report, will be appointed to this vacancy – having been surreptitiously added to the ANC’s list of MPs. And this in turn may be a stepping stone to his appointment to cabinet in a last ditch attempt, by a faction close to the president, to take control of public finances for nefarious ends.

Jacob Zuma, Stratfor and Naspers

I just had a piece published by Pambazuka, in which I critically assess claims that President Jacob Zuma is a victim of ‘white monopoly capital’ and ‘Western intelligence agencies’; the evidence suggests a very different conclusion.

A few investigative newspaper articles, combined with Stratfor emails leaked by Wikileaks suggest a relatively close relationship between Zuma and Stratfor (an infamous, private agency closely linked to US intelligence agencies). Furthermore, Zuma has continually taken actions – even against his own party’s policies – that have significantly benefitted Naspers (an oligopolistic operator, originating in apartheid, in the media space, with a virtual monopoly in paid TV in South Africa). Finally, Zuma has made a number of statements himself that appear to demonise poor South Africans: depicting them as lazy and entitled. This last point also contradicts the resurrected narrative of ‘radical economic transformation’, on which I will publish a separate piece soon.

The Wikileaks cables are a treasure trove on the Zuma-Stratfor link and it seems appropriate to ask why there has been so little reporting on that. Similar issues arise around the Naspers link.

I copy-in below a version of the Pambazuka article with hyperlinks for those who are interested in sources and reading further.

Continue reading “Jacob Zuma, Stratfor and Naspers”

Placeholder: A South African economics curriculum

In some previous posts [here and here] I discussed my experience of, and thoughts about, the University of Cape Town (UCT)’s undergraduate economics curriculum. I committed to writing a final, constructive post on what I think a South African economics curriculum (not particularly limited to UCT, or undergraduates) should look like.

That intention was partly overtaken by events and time constraints, but mainly I decided that the question deserved more lengthy treatment than just a blog post. So I am drafting a paper, which I hope to present at a few, relevant conferences/workshops, and once that draft is completed I will post a summary here.

My case against the Parliamentary Budget Office: part II

As noted in a previous post, I am pursuing a case against the Parliamentary Budget Office at the CCMA.  And as also indicated in that post, I am not going to comment on any specific issues relating to the merits of the case, or the process, until the latter is completed. Nevertheless, given that the reporting of the matter has been intermittent and only partially informed, it is useful to recount some further, basic information here.

The most recent component of the hearing (day 5 and 6) took place on the 19th and 20th January, with the intention that the matter be completed on the 20th. Unfortunately that was not possible, for reasons which will become known in due course.

Media presence

More importantly, while the media were initially granted access, the two journalists present were requested to leave shortly after I started my cross-examination of the Director of the Office. The result is that the first two reports (News24 and Business Day) that did appear could effectively only report on 75% of the 5th day of the process and did not report any of the content of the Director’s cross-examination. One article reported the Director’s assertions, but not the testing of these assertions and more substantive issues; resulting in somewhat one-sided coverage.

While the media can only report what they observe, one might expect that the media’s (gentle) ejection from the process would be reported to at least provide readers with some context for the sudden cessation of coverage.

Meanwhile, in another case at the CCMA, the media have continued to be present despite the applicant (Mr Adrian Lackay) testifying to fairly sensitive matters, such as the alleged ‘rogue unit’ at the South African Revenue Services (SARS). Of course, every case is different and commissioners use their discretion to make such determinations. It is worth noting, though, that Lackay’s case led to the breaking of new ground on media access to CCMA arbitration thanks to work by Media24 and amaBhungane. Apparently the Commission has subsequently published rules and guidelines that formalised the position that public access, including media access, is the default. (Though many people, including legal practitioners, remain unaware of this).

Credibility

Naturally, when one raises matters like those that have emerged in this process, attacks on one’s credibility are par for the course. Exposing, directly or indirectly, the abuse of public resources and compromising of appointment processes to positions in public institutions is a sure way of engendering some hostility. In this instance, such attacks have come in blustered form within the process from Parliament’s representatives, statements by the Director (to the media and in testimony) and comments by one former colleague in testimony.

While such behaviour is to be expected, it remains very ill-advised to attack the credibility of someone who is, substantively, more credible than you are… In due course most of the truth about who acted professionally and ethically at the PBO, and who did not, will become known. It will then also become clear that serious action will be required to salvage some credibility for the institution.

A long road ahead

It is widely-accepted that independent fiscal institutions like parliamentary budget offices need to be beyond reproach:

the core values that IFIs both promote and operate under – independence, non-partisanship, transparency, and accountability – while demonstrating technical competence and producing relevant work of the highest quality that stands up to public scrutiny and informs the public debate (OECD Principles)

Unfortunately, it would appear that there is a long, difficult road ahead to achieve this in South Africa.

Economics: scientists and plumbers, or bullshit and mathiness?

On the 6th of January 2017 the Annual American Economic Association conference is scheduled to host a plenary address entitled The Economist as Plumber: Large Scale Experiments to Inform the Details of Policy Making. The speaker is the academic economist Esther Duflo, widely-acclaimed for popularising the use of randomised control trials (RCTs).

Given my PhD work in economics on external validity of RCTs and implications for policy, and parallel work in philosophy, I have a few thoughts on this subject. In a draft paper (first presented in 2015) entitled When is Economics Bullshit? I argue that practitioners promoting RCTs have systematically overstated the policy-relevance of results and thereby produced ‘bullshit’ (as defined in the famous essay by philosopher Harry Frankfurt).

A consistent problem in critiquing so-called ‘randomistas’ is that the goalposts have been constantly shifted. Early advocacy for RCTs within economics reflected a ‘missionary zeal’ (Bardhan). It has been suggested that experimental methods have led to a ‘credibility revolution‘: giving credibility to applied microeconomic work that apparently did not exist before. One recipient of the Bates Clarke medal argued that the introduction of RCTs indisputably rendered economics ‘a science’. In the policy domain I, along with other economists, have come across much grander and/or more extreme claims. But when challenged, proselytisers scale back the claims and deny ever overclaiming. So from missionary zeal, revolution and science we now have plumbing….

I look forward to reading Duflo’s speech/paper, but my own view of the methodology and philosophy of economics and RCTs suggests that plumbing is a very poor analogy.

In my own paper, motivated in part by claims that RCTs render economics ‘a science’, I tackle the question of scientific status head on. Using a revival of the so-called demarcation question (basically: how do we demarcate science from non-science or pseudoscience?) in philosophy, I argue that economics cannot (yet) be classified as a science, may never be classifiable as such and in the way it is used by some economists too-often verges on pseudoscience and/or bullshit.

The similarities between this very critical view and that of Romer’s recent critique of macroeconomics (which was made public later) are interesting. Romer focuses more on the use of mathematical modelling whereas my focus is on empirical methods. I will write a detailed comment on Romer’s piece later this year; I agree with some aspects but strongly disagree with others.

In its two presentations so far, my paper on bullshit has been relatively well-received by philosophers of science but not so well-received by philosophers of economics. There is good reason for this: the paper is even more an indictment of the current trend in philosophy of economics than it is of economics itself. The paper notes that in the absence of sufficient technical training and understanding of economics, philosophers in this area have increasingly taken the safer route of becoming apologists for the discipline. In effect, they compete to provide explanations of why economists are correct in their approach. (Exceptions to this, such as Nancy Cartwright – who has collaborated with Angus Deaton in providing important and influential critiques of RCTs – arguably prove the rule: Cartwright’s reputation was already established in philosophy of physics, causality and metaphysics).

The result, unfortunately, is that philosophy of economics currently has very little to add to economists’ critical understanding of their own discipline. Some critics, such as Skidelsky, argue that economists should read more philosophy, but while I am sympathetic to his overall stance I do not think economists would find much worth reading at present. Combining the abject failure of the ‘mainstream’ of philosophy of economics with the low quality of most economists’ reflections on methodological issues leaves us with few critical insights that could move the discipline beyond parochial or self-interested debates.

Updated reference list on external validity

My review of the external validity literature is slowly working its way through the peer review process. Parts were presented from 2011 onwards, but it was first published as a full working paper here and then updated for the Annual Bank Conference in Development Economics in 2014. A short version of one key contribution from that work has been published here.

Since these pieces, however, the reference list has been expanded in two important ways.

First, I became aware of a number of references and parallel literatures outside of economics that had either been missed in the original review, or published subsequent to the first version. Notably: in biostatistics (Elizabeth Stuart and co-authors), educational statistics (Elizabeth Tipton) and causal graphs (Elias Bareinboim and Judea Pearl).

Second, feedback through peer review questioned the omission of structural contributions to the topic – suggesting that this favoured the ‘design-based’ literature most closely associated with randomised control trials (RCTs). That was certainly not the intention. The rationale of the original review was to focus on the problem of external validity within the theoretical framework used by most RCT studies, in order to clearly delineate structuralist critiques from more fundamental external validity challenges.

I still think that it is absolutely critical to emphasise this distinction. However, there are contributions from the structural literature that propose something of a middle ground. Notably, work by Heckman, Vytlacil and co-authors argues for the merits of using the theoretical framework of Marginal Treatment Effects (MTEs). And one interesting recent, empirical contribution (by Amanda Kowalski) which has done so is forthcoming in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. Given this, I have added a number of references from that literature and expanded the review to cover this middle-ground between structural and design-based contributions.

While the paper proceeds through the publication process, I thought it would be useful to post the most recently submitted (May 2016) version of the reference list for those who may be interested. It can be found here.

My case against the Parliamentary Budget Office

It is now (as of this week) a matter of public record that I am pursuing a public interest-related labour law case against the Parliamentary Budget Office. The arbitration hearing at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA) began, in fact, on the 19th of September. Unfortunately, no media were present to hear the beginning of the case. That included my introductory statements and extensive arguments on the legislated independence of the Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) from the Parliament administration, as well as the labour law and public interest aspects of the case (first day), and my testimony under oath (second day).

The matter then continued for a further two days on the 14th and 15th November. This began with my cross-examination by the PBO’s representative, and then continued with my calling of witnesses.

As I indicated in the hearing, I expected that the witnesses I called would be hostile but was guided by a CCMA award in which the commissioner noted that a party cannot fail to subpoena a relevant witness merely because they expect the witness to be hostile “as this can only be determined when the witness is giving testimony”. Unfortunately, despite the apparently hostile statements by witnesses referred to in various of the articles below, not one of the witnesses was declared hostile and I was therefore unable to cross-examine them.

I will refrain from commenting on the substantive details of the case at this stage, though I will certainly do so at some point after it is completed. For now I would just note a few interesting snippets from the articles produced by the Media24 journalist in attendance. (There are some important legal points that were not reported, and some errors in the articles, but I will not comment on those either at this stage).

1. Note on media access at the CCMA

Media24 requested access to the hearing. Parliament’s representative objected and I argued in favour. I specifically argued that the recent ruling in the KZN High Court allowing media into the Nkandla disciplinary cases indicated the extent to which public interest must inform such decisions. CCMA arbitration hearings must surely be more open than internal disciplinary hearings. As it transpired, the CCMA takes the view that arbitration hearings are open by default unless there are reasons to decide otherwise.

2. Some of the issues

Muller told the commission that while no one had ever approached him to do academic work, others were asked.

Others in the office were favoured because they had helped do political work, including write speeches, which were not part of the office’s mandate.

He accused the unit’s director, Mohammed Jahed, of instructing staff to do such work and even boasting about it. If Jahed denied it, he would be lying under oath, Muller said.

3. How do emails go missing in an institution like Parliament?

All emails from 2015 had been deleted, she said. This would be because her mailbox was full, she said, as other colleagues could also not find old emails.

She did not know if they were deleted because of Muller’s case, she told CCMA commissioner Madeleine Loyson.

[It was noted in the hearing, however, that Parliament’s email policy states that:

8.5 Storing, archiving and deleting e-mail messages

a) Official email messages must be archived after 30 days of receipt and all other e-mail must be deleted from the inbox/outbox after 24 days of receipt.]

4. What constitutes acceptable assistance to MPs?

Ellse explained that all he had done was give tutelage to some MPs in issues relating to tax and other areas in which he was interested.

He had been asked by the PBO’s director to have a look at questions from Van Rooyen and provide guidance if he had time.

After reading the questions, he said, he had then decided to explain a related concept to Van Rooyen.

5. Is considering the performance of internal candidates unfair when making appointments to senior technical positions in the public service?

Gabier told the commission that including internal candidates’ performance scores would have prejudiced external applicants.

As things stand, the hearing will proceed on the 19th of January 2017. The cross-examination of Ms Gabier will continue, followed by the testimony of the Director of the PBO and his cross-examination.

New paper: “Academics as rent seekers”

I have a new paper out online: “Academics as rent seekers: distorted incentives in higher education, with reference to the South African case”. The first draft of this was prompted by a 2013 call for papers linked to the Council on Higher Education’s 20 Year Review of Higher Education.

Abstract

The behavior of academics and academic institutions is examined through the concept of rent seeking, in which organizations or individuals expend resources to obtain ‘artificially contrived transfers’. International ranking systems, publication-based incentives, and grant awarding processes, all encourage and reward rent seeking behavior: participants engage in distorted, costly behavior to obtain rewards, including public funds, without regard to the social value of these activities. This may be especially damaging in developing countries. Detailed examples from South Africa’s higher education system illustrate such behavior and its relation to policy. The paper concludes by sketching an outline of some possible solutions.