My case against the Parliamentary Budget Office: part II

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

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

Media presence

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

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

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


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

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

A long road ahead

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

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

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

The predictable, but necessary, drama at UCT

I have been a little slow in picking-up on recent events at UCT this week regarding the economics curriculum. One of the non-permanent lecturers on the history of economic thought (HET) course, Kenneth Hughes, has had to stop teaching in person after some students took exception to a piece he wrote about aspects of the Rhodes Must Fall movement and UCT management’s response to RMF. [Subsequently an appropriately punchy response has been published from Russell Ally, Executive Director for Alumni and Development at UCT]

This is really all too predictable, and I have little sympathy for the department or university management: they are reaping the consequences of myopic and unprofessional decisions made in the past (albeit maybe not always by the same protagonists). As I noted in a footnote to a previous piece, when the core staff for the HET course were unavailable, the then-HoD (not the current one) just pulled-in whoever they could with little regard for academic status, qualifications, what they actually taught and so forth.

Continue reading “The predictable, but necessary, drama at UCT”

The Undergraduate Economics Curriculum at the University of Cape Town: Part II

At the end of Part I of this comment on the UCT economics curriculum, I identified two further issues for immediate consideration: the nature of textbooks, and problems arising from academic incentives. The textbook issue also raises the important role of history of economic thought and economic history courses.

Continue reading “The Undergraduate Economics Curriculum at the University of Cape Town: Part II”

The economics curriculum at UCT: Part I

It would be no exaggeration to say that I have taken a critical interest in UCT’s economics curriculum for over fifteen years, and some of the associated dissatisfaction has shaped my career and approach to the discipline as a whole. As an undergraduate majoring in economics I was bored stiff for the first two years by being taught how to regurgitate graphs and solve equations from American textbooks. I seriously thought of quitting – this was not what I had signed-up for. There were some useful ideas about the functioning of markets and individual behaviour, but they were so obviously crude, decontextualised and evidently infused with free-market, anti-poor (pro-rich) ideology that as a student it was not possible to separate what was useful from what was irrelevant, implausible or ideological.

For example, minimum wages were stated as definitively reducing employment (with no reference to possible effects on effort or aggregate demand), but higher taxes on the rich were stated as negatively affecting economic activity (without any reference to benefits from public expenditure or reduced inequality).

Economist readers might want to note that this was 10 years after publication of Akerlof and Yellen’s paper on efficiency wages. It was 5 years after publication of Card and Krueger’s landmark book on minimum wages, challenging the ‘conventional wisdom’ on the minimum wage in economics with empirical evidence. I had to find that book in the library on my own to get an alternative view. Scanning library shelves also led me to Thorstein Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, which introduces the notion of conspicuous consumption, and JK Galbraith’s History of Economic Thought.

Our lecturers did little to assist: they were mostly graduate students, rushing to get through material that they did not have the incentive, inclination, or intellectual foundations, to critically evaluate or present differently. Only in the third year electives did I finally find a reasonable amount of intellectual stimulation, evidence of alternative views and explicit reference to the South African context.

For this reason, I am sympathetic to the recent criticism of UCT’s curriculum by Ihsaan Bassier. He notes, among other things, that:

“I find myself at the end of my undergraduate degree without the tools to interrogate the economic situation surrounding me”.

“Critical economic thinking is simply not taught during an economics undergraduate degree. The department attempts to push mathematical concepts, but only succeeds in promoting rote learning, characteristic of a production centre for ideology.”

Such concerns can be located in broader, international student movements to change the undergraduate curriculum. In general, I support those movements as well. However, they have a tendency of conflating a number of important issues: ideology, academic incentives, bureaucratic obstacles, fetishisation of quantitative methods and the problematic status of economics as a ‘science’.

Students are driven by a well-founded instinct that something is wrong, but they struggle to decipher what the causes are. In my view this is entirely understandable given that undergraduates cannot be expected to have a uniformly better understanding of the discipline than those teaching them! But muddling of issues is often used by those favouring the status quo to deflect otherwise legitimate criticism. The points I make below can be applied as much at Harvard or Oxford as at UCT, because they pertain to deep problems with economics as a discipline and universities as institutions, but I will use UCT as my working example – having studied and lectured there.

Continue reading “The economics curriculum at UCT: Part I”

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

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

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

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

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

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