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.

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.

Some thoughts on Taylor and Watson’s (2015) RCT on the impact of study guides on school-leaving results in South Africa

Since 2010 most of my time spent on academic research has focused on two particular areas:

  1. The use of randomised control trials (RCTs) to support inappropriate, or overly strong, policy claims or recommendations
  2. Empirical examples of how this has manifested in the economics of education.

I was therefore somewhat frustrated when I attended a presentation at the Economic Society of South Africa conference in 2013 to find some rather strong policy claims being made on the basis of what is very weak evidence (even by the standards of practitioners favouring RCTs). I raised my concerns with the relevant author, but I see that the recently-published working paper contains the same problems.

It therefore seems appropriate to summarise my concerns with this work: partly so that interested parties can understand its flaws, but mainly to provide an illustration of how the new fad for RCT-based policy is often oversold.[1] That’s important, because despite seemingly ample evidence I often get economists saying: “Oh but no-one really uses RCT results in that way”.

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