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/

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.

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”

Moralising hullaballoo around circulation of The President’s Keepers is misplaced

There was an outcry on South African social media on Saturday the 4th of November, when a PDF version of investigative journalist Jacques Pauw’s book The Presidents Keepers began being circulated online and via the WhatsApp messaging service. A number of prominent media, academic and other South African personalities took to social media to criticise the sharing of this file as ‘theft’, ‘stealing’, ‘immoral’ and ‘pirating’. At best, none of those assertions reflect the nuanced complexities around copyright and the public good. At worst, they merely illustrate misinformed armchair moralising.

There appear to be three different, but often overlapping, premises for these arguments. First, that copyright infringement is illegal. Second, that circulating the book as an electronic file will reduce sales and harm profits for the author and publisher. Finally, that there is something inherently morally wrong in circulating a book in a way that allows people who haven’t paid to read it. I want to argue that only the first argument may be correct and that, even then, it doesn’t follow that it is immoral to distribute the book this way.

Illegality

Whether distributing a PDF version of a book you have purchased or received, without any expectation of private gain, is illegal is a question for copyright experts. The illegality could arise in relation to the converting of the original ebook into an electronic form that could be distributed, and the actual distribution itself. To my knowledge, no-one has been attempting to profit from distributing the PDF file and that has legal as well as moral significance.

Even if such distribution is illegal under copyright law, that does not make it inherently immoral: laws inform moral reasoning, are also informed by it, but need not coincide with it. Pauw’s book provides a great example. It is clear that someone would probably have had to break a law in order to give Pauw some of the information he uses, but from a moral standpoint that can be justified by an appeal to the broader public interest. If, for example, the president was letting cigarette distributors make cabinet appointments in return for cash – arguably a treasonous offence – then breaking tax or intelligence laws to reveal this is surely the morally right thing to do. (As a result, in some instances such actions are protected by other laws, in the form of whistleblowing legislation).

A more complex perspective from economics

The more interesting issues relate to the overall impact on the public good of distributing the electronic version of the book. The moralising critiques expressed above appear to be entirely unaware of a large literature, in economics and other disciplines, on the ‘social welfare’ effects of copyright, and copyright infringement.

In economics the fundamental starting point of the literature is that constraints on the distribution of knowledge and information – defined to include everything from the computer code for spreadsheet software to fiction novels – are bad. The reason is simple: in the modern world it is almost costless to reproduce and transmit information, so if that information yields meaningful benefit to a significant number of people then it is socially inefficient for them not to be able to access it. The critical counterweight to this, is that in order to encourage people and institutions to produce such information they need to be able to collect a reasonable return: if people know that information is freely distributed after it has been produced, the producers may realise they will not get a reasonable return and therefore not produce it in the first place.

In recent times, a third dimension has been added to the literature: the role of behavioural and institutional norms. Specifically, the second dimension above is based on a narrow notion of market interaction in which people only pay for something if they are forced to. But it is well-established across a variety of disciplines that human beings often behave in other ways, reciprocating when they don’t have to. The implications of this for markets can be seen from the rise in online organisations, such as Wikipedia, that create and distribute information freely on the basis of a model under which people voluntarily contribute.

Different groups with different consequences

It should be fairly obvious in applying these three perspectives to the case of Pauw’s book, that simplistic moralising is misplaced. If we want to think through the issue systematically, it is useful to distinguish four groups:

  1. People who already have bought the book
  2. People who were going to buy the book (i.e. they want to and can afford to) but have not yet done so
  3. People who would like to read the book but cannot afford to read it
  4. People who were not going to read the book, whether or not they could afford it.

Initially we can ignore the fourth group: receiving the file makes no difference to them.

One of the strange things about modern publishing is that having the (more expensive) hard copy of a book often doesn’t entitle you to a searchable electronic version. So some people in the first group might benefit if they would later use an electronic version as well, and it would be hard to argue that this is morally or legally illegitimate.

The main interest, however, is in groups two and three: in a basic economic model, the ‘net effect on social welfare’ of distributing the file will depend on the relative numbers of people in these groups, as well as the behaviour of those in group two on receiving the PDF. The well-being of those in group three increases because they can now read the book, whereas cost had prevented them from doing so. What happens to the well-being of those in group two depends on their behaviour, but it certainly will not decrease. The future profits of the publishers and author, on the other hand, depend only on the number of people in group 2 and their behaviour.

As regards group three, it is useful to be reminded of the role that Jacques Pauw is playing. He is an investigative journalist who has a long track record of reporting matters in the public interest. The people who gave him the information used in his book almost certainly did so to bring it to the attention of the South African public, not to make the author or his publishers rich. In other words, the standard concern in the economics literature applies: we want the producers of knowledge to earn a fair due, but we also want the broader social good to be well-served. Given the nature of Pauw’s book, it is not a stretch to argue that it should be disseminated as widely as possible – those who cannot afford the book, the vast majority of South Africans, should not be excluded from reading it.

My own view is that the vast majority of people who were going to buy the book anyway (group two) are unlikely to change their minds just because they received the PDF. One reason is that many people, such as myself, still prefer to read hard copy versions. Another is the principle of reciprocity I noted above: assuming people won’t pay simply because they do not need to ignores vast literatures in psychology, experimental economics and real-world institutions that survive and thrive on the opposite assumption. Furthermore, the hype associated with the distribution of the file could even cause people in group four (who weren’t going to buy the book) to now either read it or buy it.

Some concluding thoughts

In conclusion, let me make a few final points.

First, since we don’t know how different people will react to receiving the ‘pirated’ version of the book, we simply cannot say whether it will increase or decrease sales and profits for the author and publisher. It seems at least as likely that they will increase as decrease, given the arguments I have made above.

Second, given the threats from both the South African Revenue Services and the State Security Agency, it seems reasonable to infer that the PDF file was circulated primarily in anticipation of a possible withdrawal of the book. A second motive may have been to get as many people reading it as possible, because of the serious implications its revelations have for our democracy. In that context, it is hard to understand assertions about ‘theft’.

Third, it is ironic that moralisers implicitly reject the possibility that people might buy the book anyway, out of a spirit of reciprocity, while appealing to recipients to delete the file and buy the book. Essentially, they are presuming, in rather patronising fashion, that only their moral incantations will get people to behave in this way.

Finally, it is important to remember the role that investigative journalists play as conduits of information in the public interest. It is perverse to argue that the first priority in this kind of case is profit when what makes it worthy of such strident commentary is precisely its relevant to matters of national interest.

Fortunately, the author of the book seems to have a more nuanced appreciation of these issues than those ostensibly defending his interest.

There will surely be more such incidents and hopefully we will be able to have a more informed, and less moralising, public exchanges in future.

 

Declaration: I received two, unsolicited copies of the PDF file containing the book. I didn’t distribute these further, but have filed a copy away: either in the event that I cannot get a hard copy version, or so that once I have done so I can easily search the electronic copy for reference purposes.

Submission to Parliament on Money Bills Act amendments

The Money Bills Act is the legislation that guides Parliament’s oversight of South Africa’s budget and related legislation. I have written previously on that process. The Act has been up for review for some time, and the finance and appropriations committees have had a number of meetings recently to finalise that process. The result is a draft amendment Bill, which I have attempted to explain in an accessible way.

Further to that article, I submitted written comments and made a presentation based on those this week. The audio, relevant documents and meeting report will appear on the relevant Parliamentary Monitoring Group (PMG) website in due course. Access is restricted though, so here are the slides and written submission.

Unfortunately the very limited time available between the call for comments and the deadline for submission (two weeks) also placed some limits on the depth of the analysis. One issue I neglected to address, which was raised by the opposition in the meeting, is that the current Act emphasises – in clause 15(2) – that the PBO should take its work from committees. That is potentially problematic where committee decisions are ultimately determined by a majority party.

Unfortunately, this point became politicised due to disagreements about whether the current committees had allowed partisan considerations to determine what work requests were sent to the PBO. My view is that regardless of what one thinks about the current situation, it is certainly not hard to envisage a situation in which a hypothetical majority party uses its weight on committees to ensure that potentially inconvenient work is not sent the PBO’s way. That could significantly reduce the usefulness of the Office. The broad point I made in my presentation is that our institutions should be designed to be robust to such scenarios. It is for that reason that I agreed with the suggestion that this clause should be amended, or that the clause allowing work to be taken from individual MPs “subject to capacity” – clause 15(3) – be amended to allow the Director discretion based on importance of the request.

It will be interesting to see the final conclusions reached by MPs in relation to these issues and proposals. Given the calibre of MPs on both the majority party and opposition benches on these committees, I am cautiously optimistic that decisions will be taken in the long-term national interest.

Recent commentary and analysis: nuclear, Eskom and Molefe

I’ve recently provided commentary and analysis on the somewhat related issues of Brian Molefe’s reappointment as CEO of (South Africa’s national power utility) Eskom, as well as the case against procurement of nuclear energy. An argument that has emerged from Molefe’s backers is that he ‘turned-around’ Eskom during his tenure, while allegations against him remain unproven. Leaving aside the latter claim, in a recent op-ed I argue the credit given to Molefe for the end of load shedding and improvements in certain financial ratios is misplaced. A number of analysts had noted the role of falling demand in ending load shedding, but less attention has been given to the scale and significance of the financial support Eskom received from national government in 2015.

While my preference is to focus on the public finance and public economics dimensions, in the current context one cannot ignore political economy issues. I note here that Molefe’s reappointment is not just concerning for given his alleged improprieties, but more so because of what it implies about the failure of a much wider range of accountability mechanisms that should be keeping dysfunction at Eskom in check.

The failure of those mechanisms has been linked to various vested interests and the push to procure a fleet of nuclear power stations. I’ve previously written on why the current case for nuclear procurement is weak, as are previous, vague claims from Eskom that it can finance the project itself. So I was glad to be invited to debate some of these issues at the recent Nuclear Power Africa stream at Africa Utility Week. (Unfortunately, at the last minute Molefe and Minister Lynne Brown cancelled their scheduled attendance at the conference). As far as I could tell, I was the only panel member who argued that the case for nuclear was weak; given that I was also one of the few who did not have a direct vested interest in nuclear procurement proceeding, this is perhaps not surprising. The range of vested interests – some explicit, others concealed – keeps growing, and that presents its own challenges.

This is the one-page summary I used for my presentation:

Nuclear_AUW2017_SMM(There’s some fun to be had adding more arrows, linking the various issues).

What was clear from the sessions across the day is that, as captured by one report, after a number of setbacks the various nuclear interests (politicians, bureaucrats, academics, utilities and consultants) are ‘regrouping’. The dominant tenor of the talks was that ‘we need to get the broader public to understand why nuclear is good for them’, and that critics – whether energy experts or economists – are simply misguided.

Suffice to say that while the various arguments for immediate nuclear procurement continue to shift and evolve, having listened carefully to them my own view is that they remain unconvincing. I’ll summarise some of the more important areas of contention in my next post, along with some interesting new arguments and why they are flawed.

Statement regarding the Parliamentary Budget Office and recent CCMA award

The Parliamentary Budget Office (PBO) was established to provide Parliament with independent technical advice to support it in exercising oversight of public finances. The importance of this role should be evident given the recent Cabinet reshuffle and ratings agency downgrades, which have raised concerns about public debt, public service pension funds, a prospective nuclear deal and the finances of state-owned enterprises amongst others. These are all matters about which a functioning PBO would be expected to provide credible insight and guidance to Parliamentarians.

There are, however, serious concerns regarding the functioning of the Office. These relate to the content and objectivity of its advice. This became apparent to me shortly after I joined the PBO in 2014. The resulting dynamics in the office led me to resign in 2016, and were also the basis for an unfair labour practice complaint brought against the PBO at the CCMA.

On the 26th of April 2017 the CCMA issued the commissioner’s award, which did not find in my favour on the narrow labour issues raised. While I am disappointed with this outcome, it is important to place the case in the broader context of the need for a competent, functional and credible PBO that is beyond reproach. In this regard, the Commissioner held that – as I had testified – the Director of the PBO had indeed offered to provide me with the interview questions for the position, I had declined the offer, and he had lied about this in his testimony (i.e. under oath). This example was only one of a number of issues raised in the process, but on its own raises very serious questions about the functioning and management of the office.

The Act governing the PBO is expected to be reviewed and amended later this year. In that process, the end goal must remain paramount: to build an independent, technically and ethically credible institution that the public and Members of Parliament can rely on for non-partisan analysis of public finance issues that is conducted without fear or favour.

Internationally, similar institutions are expected to maintain the highest standards of objectivity and political neutrality; standards that the South African PBO has failed to demonstrate. Perhaps the most famous international example is the Canadian PBO, which in 2011 produced a costing for parliamentarians of the government’s fighter jet procurement plan that was significantly higher than the estimates the government had published. The Office was attacked by the Prime Minister at the time, but supported by society at large and subsequently vindicated: government eventually acknowledged that the costs were higher than originally stated and the procurement remains on hold. The Canadian example is in marked contrast to the South African PBO’s analysis of the desirability and feasibility of the proposed nuclear energy procurement. The PBO’s report failed to cost the project, or assess its implications for public finances. In a more recent example from Kenya, the country’s PBO raised concerns about omission of a large increase in debt repayments from budget documents.

Since some of the issues raised at the CCMA go to the heart of these expectations, and it is my view that the basis for its finding is deeply and materially flawed, I am considering taking the award on review to the Labour Court. This is an expensive option – the estimated cost is R500,000 or more, and is prohibitive for an individual. However, the basis on which staff are appointed to, and promoted in, PBOs is one of the most critical factors in their success. Combined with the importance of the PBO and the upcoming amendment of its governing legislation, public interest organisations may find this case to be an appropriate mechanism through which to contribute to the establishment of the kind of PBO the country deserves.

Some thoughts on the Finance Minister’s adviser and his critics

The debate around the new Finance Minister Malusi Gigaba’s new adviser, Chris Malikane, has gone beyond the deeply flawed proposals he has made, to claims about his academic credentials and integrity. I want to agree that the proposals are flawed, but that some of the attacks on Malikane are as well. Furthermore, they draw attention to some serious issues in South African academic economics that require mature discussion.

Most of the 8-page ‘manifesto’ published, and extensively publicised in various articles and interviews by Malikane, is not worthy of serious analysis. (Although one effort to take it seriously, by Charles Simkins, is worth reading – as is the more acerbic piece by Richard Poplak). It is primarily a political document and contains no substantive content relating to economic policy and public finance. There’s a crude Marxist analysis of class, and a shopping list of things that should be nationalised and services that should be provided. The only interesting assertion is that the working class should throw their weight behind those black South Africans who have become an elite through corrupt government tenders, rather than through credit-based black empowerment schemes. Like the other assertions, no serious justification is provided. But it certainly explains why Malikane’s radicalism has found favour with Gigaba, whose predecessor appeared to be successfully blocking a range of efforts at tender-related corruption by individuals associated either with the President or the Gupta family. The thinking from Gigaba – a man better known by some for tabloid stories, tailored suits, expensive ties and appearances on Top Billing – may have been that Malikane would provide some solidity to the fig leaf of ‘radical economic transformation’, while Malikane – who has otherwise been quietly exerting influence in left-wing, or trade union movements for some time – clearly thought that his revolutionary moment had arrived.

Some have attempted to defend Malikane on the basis of his academic credentials – to the point of also insisting that his evidently wrong-headed proposals (such as ‘expropriating banks’) cannot be criticised except through detailed academic analysis. At which point it is useful to invoke a phrase attributed to the Italian computer programmer Alberto Brandolini: “The amount of energy needed to refute bullshit is an order of magnitude bigger than to produce it”. Just because the minister’s adviser has published some academic papers on other subjects does not mean we must presume that his manifesto carries additional weight. Indeed, the primary disappointment for many who had  reasonably high opinion of Malikane up to this point is quite how threadbare his analysis and proposals are.

Where things are getting messy, however, is in attacks on Malikane’s academic credentials. These in fact open-up a big can of worms regarding the state of South African academic economics. (One reason I have been delayed in writing a comment on the Malikane’s saga is that I had been drafting a conference paper on what ‘decolonisation of the curriculum’ might mean for South African economics).

Understanding Peer Review in Economics

It turns out that the issue of decolonising economics is closely related to some of the misguided aspects of attacks on Malikane. The first, by Stuart Theobald, starts off well enough by noting that Malikane’s published, peer-reviewed work either has relatively little relation to his recent arguments or even – in some cases – seems to contradict those arguments. This is a particularly useful point to make for those who, naively, argue that Malikane’s arguments must be substantive because he has published some academic papers. Where Theobald strays into dangerous territory is in his inferences about Malikane’s integrity and assertions about the wonders of academic peer review.

Theobald’s characterisation of peer review in economics makes me suspect that he has never published anything in the discipline. Very few academics I have come across or read, including Nobel prize winners, have such a rosy view of the peer review process; in practice it is far from the notional ideal of a meritocratic system in which originality and quality are what determine publication. And any problems – of cronyism, bias toward researchers in certain institutions, ideological influences and so forth – are amplified if the basic thrust of your work is critical of, or very different to, the dominant narrative. It does not surprise me that Theobald, given his demographic, views on economic policy and his area of work (banking and finance), might not be able to appreciate this.

Which brings us to the issue of whether Malikane is dishonest for publishing work with conclusions he does not agree with. My short answer: no. It might be inadvisable, and it is something I personally try to avoid doing (at some cost), but the system is structured in such a way that it can self-sabotaging to only publish what you believe rather than what you can do. (Some have suggested that there should be betting markets in which economists show their confidence in their empirical claims by putting money on it). Either you will publish in journals not recognised by your peers, or your career will stall at a junior level – and the associated administration and teaching burdens limiting the very time you need for that ‘against the current’ research that is so good it breaks into the mainstream. When co-authors are involved this is even more difficult. These challenges are essentially what Malikane is gesturing at when he says, quoted by Theobald:

Don’t confuse my academic writing and what I believe to be true…you know the business of publishing is so ideologically poisoned that what is published is not necessarily scientific…we sometimes write in order to simply play in the publishing game…not necessarily because we think what we publish is correct…there is heavy ideological repression in academia…

Theobald paints this as sinister and possibly an “act of intellectual dishonesty”. He softens that with a few acknowledgements that Malikane is basically right, but then returns to a naive notion of academic publishing.

Finally, Theobald makes the important point that we should not try and judge Malikane the person but rather “whether he has good evidence and reasoning for his claims”. Unfortunately, he then goes completely off the rails by saying that: “until [Malikane] publishes them in a way that involves assessment by his peers, we must assume he does not”. Which peers? In what journal? I doubt Malikane would have trouble publishing in the Review of African Political Economy, but would Theobald accept that as adequate? (Leaving aside that he is not an academic economist, so it’s not clear what basis he would use).

Regardless, as an academic economist who has also worked in the public sector, I would never accept a policy claim just because someone had managed to publish a paper on it; the idea that successful peer review in economics shows that a claim is ’right’ is completely misguided, and any economist who advised a minister on that basis should also be fired.

There Are Many Flavours of ‘Bogus Economist’

This usefully brings us to the even more problematic contribution by Co-Pierre Georg. Let me start by saying that I was interested, albeit surprised to see – in Georg’s somewhat crudely-stated concern about ‘white male patriarchs’ – channelling critiques I myself have made in the past of untransformed gerontocracies and academics behaving like rent seekers. I have, also, for some time been politely raising concerns with various role players about such dynamics at an organisation where Georg has been an associate for some time; I hope Georg is as vocal on such matters of principle within his institutions, and even when it is personally inconvenient.

The basic assertion of Georg’s article is that people should not trust ‘bogus economists’. Hard to disagree with, but the devil is in the detail. In my draft conference paper on decolonisation, I made some similar critiques of the quality of the local academic economics to those discussed by Georg. Beyond that, though, we are again in swampy terrain. Georg’s assertion basically translates as: ‘people should not trust economists I think are bogus, which obviously doesn’t include me, my co-authors, patrons, friends, etc’. It’s not a new trick, including for fake radicals in economics. In a recent comment an otherwise respected senior scholar in macroeconomics (Paul Romer) published a rather disgraceful attack on various other economists for what he calls ‘mathiness’. Among these was one of the most famous female economists of the 20th century, Joan Robinson, who by virtue of her gender, left-wing views, and being dead, was perhaps an obvious target for Romer. Critiques of excessive or inappropriate use of mathematics in economics are as old as the modern version of the discipline itself. But a close reading of Romer’s critique reveals a petty, self-serving definition of the crime: when economists he doesn’t like use mathematics they are guilty of mathiness, whereas when economists he does like (obviously including himself) use mathematics then it’s done properly. Georg’s argument boils down to a similarly crude skeleton. (Romer, incidentally, was then appointed chief economist at the World Bank – illustrating how dysfunctional economics can be in other places).

Furthermore, Georg peddles a version of how economics can inform policy that is popular with certain types of academic economists, but bears little relation to reality. In this model, people who can write the most complex mathematical equations, estimate the most complex econometric models and get published in high-ranked journals are best-positioned to advise on policy. This might be funny if it were not so misguided and, in its own way, dangerous. There are some individuals who have managed to make the transition from producing cutting-edge academic work (by mainstream standards) to giving good policy advice, but it is the exception rather than the norm. The last thing a finance minister needs is some social incompetent who thinks he can figure-out a policy solution by writing down an equation, running a model or looking for a ‘peer-reviewed solution’. If you need an academic perspective, your adviser talks to a deputy director general who gets someone in the research cluster to do it, or outsources it to an academic like Georg.

Yet Georg goes even further, offering to define for us what a ‘proper academic’ is. But the best he can do in this regard, like Theobald, is to refer to ‘peer review’. I have already made clear that this is a naïve, and in Georg’s case arguably self-serving, use of the notion of peer review. One can tell that Georg, like Theobald, is not exactly familiar with the challenges of swimming against the current. Or, in fact, advising on broad economic policy in the complex South African terrain.

A Necessary Debate

 In some ways, the great tragedy of the Malikane saga is that, in principle, he should have been in a position to be a very good adviser – albeit one with strong left-wing views. While the likes of Theobald and Georg might be good advisors at lower levels of the hierarchy on specific issues relating to banking and finance, Malikane’s broad credentials should have made him a better choice for a general adviser to a minister. Given that, fortunately, it looks like his manifesto will have no impact whatsoever – with various politicians suddenly realising that talking-up radical economic transformation is a bad idea if it means emptying the fiscus you had planned on appropriating – the most harm done is to Malikane himself. But he has also damaged the possibility of more open discussions about economic and fiscal policy, which means that in fact those who should be most angry with him are economists (including myself) who believe such a conversation is sorely needed.

The bigger picture that Theobald and Georg’s misplaced attacks draw attention to is the state of South African academic economics. Some time ago as a student I witnessed the destructive consequences of the failure by some, otherwise very respectable, academics to reconcile tensions within the local discipline. The result, I think, has been for many to bury their heads in the sand and hope for the best. Or, less innocently, to set-up fiefdoms in which they can propagate their own views and agendas without the inconvenience of differing views.

To be fair to economists, similar behaviour happens in a range of other South African academic disciplines. However, besides the fact that this is an unhealthy state of affairs, legitimate calls for transformation and decolonisation (appropriately defined) will only ratchet-up these tensions and it would be best to address them openly and as maturely as we can. The position I have come to is in some ways rather obvious: we need to raise standards, but we also need a wide diversity of views and therefore should be pluralist in our approach to defining who is a competent economist (academic or otherwise). In that context, we would be advised to avoid doing things like accusing a fellow academic of not being a ‘proper economist’ or being ‘intellectually dishonest’, when they have a PhD from a very reputable North American institution, some competent publications, and extensive engagement and knowledge of South African civil society. When the institutional winds change, you may find that the knives are in your own back. These are surely not the kind of dynamics we want to encourage.