Higher education funding in South Africa

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The problem with IEJ

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

Background: the problematic dominance of conservative economic analysis

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

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

An introduction to the IEJ

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

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

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

 

Existing civil society spaces

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Revealing true colours

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Avoiding IEJ and initiatives it controls or has significant weight in

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

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

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

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

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

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

Recent developments and (non-)prospects for change

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

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

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

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

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

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

The PBO Director shortlist

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[1] This article incorrectly says one year.

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

A letter rejected by the South African Medical Journal

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

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

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

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

And:

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

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

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

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

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.

Disingenuous economics

Today a new paper in the World Bank Research Observer by Banerjee, Hanna, Kreindler and Olken announced that there is “no systematic evidence” to support the view that social transfers discourage work. Under different circumstances I might be pleased by this, since I have long believed that claims about welfare-induced voluntary unemployment are mostly ideology-driven garbage. But I am not happy about this paper.

The reason is that the way in which it is written implies that the ‘welfare-induced laziness’ thesis is something conjured up by policymakers and members of the public from thin air. To quote:

despite these proven gains, policy-makers and even the public at large often express concerns about whether transfer programs discourage work.

The authors position themselves, as economists rigorously assessing evidence, against the puzzlingly misguided ‘policymakers’ and ‘public at large’. From this, one would think that economists do not hold such beliefs and have not contributed to them. But you’d be wrong. In fact, a paper published in the World Bank Economic Review in 2003 by Bertrand, Mullainathan and Miller (BMM) claimed that the South African old age pension led young, black men in pension-receiving households to reduce their labour supply. This had a significant impact in South African policy circles, leading a number of local social scientists to challenge the findings of the paper.

Posel, Fairburn and Lund (2006) argued that BMM didn’t adequately account for migration, which changed the conclusions. When I was a Master’s student at UCT in 2006 I wrote a term paper – using data kindly provided by Posel – arguing, further, that BMM’s result using cross-sectional data couldn’t possibly be robust to household formation dynamics:

The primary aim of this paper is demonstrating that, based on existing evidence, one can make at least as strong a case that the pension influences household formation, as that it affects labour supply.

I referred to the BMM paper as a case of ‘perverse priors’. A different approach to the same point by Ranchod (2006) examined the effect of losing a pensioner and his findings called into question the conclusion about labour supply of young men. Ardington, Case and Hosegood (2009) later used panel data to show that differences between households along with migration could explain the finding, rather than an actual reduction in labour supply. To quote them:

Specifically, we quantify the labor supply responses of prime-aged individuals to changes in the presence of pensioners, using longitudinal data collected in KwaZulu-Natal. Our ability to compare households and individuals before and after pension receipt, and pension loss, allows us to control for a host of unobservable household and individual characteristics that may determine labor market behavior. We find that large cash transfers to elderly South Africans lead to increased employment among prime-aged members of their households, a result that is masked in cross-sectional analysis by differences between pension and non-pension households. Pension receipt also influences where this employment takes place. We find large, significant effects on labor migration upon pension arrival.

So, in the South African case, it was well-regarded, US-based economists publishing in a World Bank journal in 2003 who gave credence to the idea that grant receipt led to idleness. Much effort was expended debunking those claims and preventing them from having harmful effects on progressive social policy. It is, therefore, rather outrageous that in 2017 another set of well-regarded, US-based economists publishing in a World Bank journal can pretend as if this never happened.

In my view, this kind of behaviour is characteristic of the failure of critical self-reflection, and taking of responsibility, in economics as a discipline. And it should serve as a cautionary tale to non-economists and economists alike.

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.

Decolonising the South African economics curriculum

This week I attended the ‘Scholarship of Teaching and Learning (SOTL) in the South‘ conference hosted by the University of Johannesburg, where I presented a paper entitled: “What would an (South) African economics curriculum look like?”. (A project I have gestured at previously when commenting on discussions around UCT’s economics curriculum – here, here – and promised to do a follow-up on).

The paper can be found in the published conference proceedings here [pdf]. The short slide presentation can be downloaded from here [pdf].

The conference itself was interesting and included a number of different perspectives, and opinions, on the question of  ‘decolonisation’. The conclusion I came to was that there are two main aspects to this issue: institutional change and disciplinary change. And in both cases we need to start talking details, because that’s where the really hard work will start and become apparent. In this context, my paper aims to make a contribution in relation to the discipline of economics.

In the end, my discussion of what should go in the curriculum is very limited. One reason is because of the word limit for contributions, but the main reason is that I found there to be many preliminary issues that required fleshing-out first. Some of the more provocative, and important, assertions I make are that:

  • Demographic transformation of faculty is important in its own right, but should not be conflated or confused with substantive transformation of the curriculum
  • Changing content by introducing certain topics is important but need not lead to the imagined outcomes, it depends on the framing of those topics (e.g. North American economic history arguing that slavery was not such a bad thing)
  • The awkward reality that South African academic economics and its institutions is largely characterised by a weak attempt at imitating a lagged, conservative version of the neoclassical mainstream
  • A substantively ‘decolonised’ curriculum would be much more challenging than the standard mainstream curriculum – so concerns about ‘lowering of standards’ are misplaced in that context
  • Our biggest challenge is the massive gulf between what an ideal, decolonised curriculum looks like and what we (African economists) actually have the capacity to do.

Feedback on any and all aspects of the paper are very welcome.

I intend to get into much more detail regarding an ‘ideal curriculum’ in a second paper, hopefully with some collaborators.

 

Edit: here is the stand-alone version of my final paper submitted to the SOTL proceedings.