Why is Parliament violating PAIA?

In May 2018 the Parliament administration solicited bids for a forensic investigation into accusations of misconduct at the Parliamentary Budget Office. The forensic investigation commenced in June 2018 and was completed by the end of July (within the very limited time-frame given by Parliament). The Director of the Parliamentary Budget Office, Mohammed Jahed, resigned shortly thereafter accompanied by strenuous denials that the resignation related to the investigation into misconduct.

After some less formal requests for the report, in March 2019 I initiated an application under the Promotion of Access to Information Act. The Parliament administration first sought to extend the time period for reply and then stopped providing substantive replies – meaning it is now in violation of the PAIA Act. In my most recent letter to the Acting Secretary of Parliament (who is officially the Information Officer for Parliament) I lay out the details of the preceding correspondence and the legal implications.

The big question is: why is Parliament so desperate to hide the report it commissioned?

A note on the philosophy literature on external validity

Later this month (August 2019) I’ll be presenting a paper at the 14th conference of the International Network for Economic Method (INEM). The paper is titled, “From ‘data mining’ to ‘machine learning’: the role of randomised trials and the credibility revolution”. An apparent puzzle is that there’s a session on external validity – which was the subject of my economics PhD, a working paper and short publication – in which I’m not presenting. Surely if I am going to be presenting at conferences on the method or philosophy of economics I should be presenting my work on external validity? The short answer is: I already did in 2012. But I think the longer explanation is also worth giving.

First, the paper I will be presenting at INEM (and ENPOSS) builds explicitly on work I’ve done on external validity (henceforth ‘EV’).

Second, and more importantly, my contribution to the philosophy literature on EV was not just presented at the Evidence and Causality in the Sciences (ECitS) 2012 conference but subsequently finalised as a paper in 2012, revised in 2013. Unfortunately that paper was not published at the time, for reasons that were at best flimsy. Preoccupied with finishing my economics PhD and changing jobs, I delayed resubmitting the manuscript. When I returned to academia in 2016 I discovered that a paper on the subject had been published in Philosophy of Science. More surprising was that, apart from some differences in verbiage and references, the core arguments of the paper seem to be the same as about 30-40% of my own paper but with no reference to that or my work in economics. Then, earlier this year, another paper appeared in the Journal of Economic Methodology. The core arguments of this paper, too, are very similar to the other 30-40% of my paper (dealing with issues like causal process tracing and related matters). In the second instance, my economics work is cited by misunderstood or misrepresented: suggesting that my views are different to the author’s when in fact, as is clear from the 2012/13 paper, they are almost entirely the same.

Needless to say, this creates a rather awkward situation. Not least because I believe, for reasons I will not ventilate in detail at this point, that it is implausible that the two authors were unaware of, or uninfluenced by, my 2012/13 work. But it is now simply impossible to publish my own work, despite clearly having a claim to intellectual priority. These concerns have been taken-up in the relevant fora, but the wheels turn slowly. And it will be informative to test the extent to which academic philosophy is committed to principles of intellectual priority. In the interim it makes for an ‘interesting’ context for intellectual engagement…

Public finance oversight in Gauteng after the elections

Section 120(3) of the Constitution requires provinces to pass a law that guides how they deal with public finance proposals (spending, taxes, etc) from provincial governments. Until 2019 no province had done this. In April of this year, the Gauteng Provincial Legislature (GPL) passed such a law – the Gauteng Money Bills Amendment Procedure and Related Matters Act.

Having such a law is important, but unfortunately the GPL put together a Bill riddled with problems and errors which it then proceeded to rush through in a month without any serious consultation. Some of the problems with the Bill and the process are summarised in this article: https://www.businesslive.co.za/bd/opinion/2019-03-25-gauteng-legislatures-draft-money-bills-act-is-riddled-with-flaws/

A more detailed analysis of the strengths and weaknesses of the Bill is provided by the submission I made to the GPL, at very short notice, in March:
Gauteng Money Bills submission to GPL

With the recent provincial election results suggesting a very narrow numerical majority for the ANC, the problems with the GPL Act may have a profoundly disruptive effect on public finance oversight and decisions in Gauteng. That is concerning, not least for a province that is estimated to be responsible for about 35% of the country’s economic activity and 25% of the country’s population.

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.

The NDP: some thoughts from 2013

Now that Cyril Ramaphosa is president of the ANC and the country, it seems likely that the government will do more than pay lip-service to the National Development Plan finalised in 2012 but barely implemented in any substantive way by subsequent Zuma-led governments. However, the NDP is far from a perfect document, as I pointed out in comments I made in a piece published in 2013 – most of which remain as pertinent now as they did then. These comments cover the public service and education chapters of the NDP. Later this year I will write something about South African economic policy in general, which will address the (somewhat problematic) NDP chapter on that topic.

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.

Economics: scientists and plumbers, or bullshit and mathiness?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

My case against the Parliamentary Budget Office

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

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

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

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

1. Note on media access at the CCMA

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

2. Some of the issues

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

8.5 Storing, archiving and deleting e-mail messages

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

4. What constitutes acceptable assistance to MPs?

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

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

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

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

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

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

New paper: “Academics as rent seekers”

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

Abstract

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

 

Submission to Parliament on the Employment Tax Incentive

Further to my previous post, on comments submitted to National Treasury and SARS on the renewal of the Employment Tax Incentive, I also submitted comments to the Standing Committee on Finance. The main document is here.

The committee sat to consider this matter yesterday (9th November). Unfortunately I was not able to attend in person and make a presentation. It will be interesting to see what is decided on four dimensions:

  1. Whether the ETI will be extended at all
  2. If so, how long this will be for
  3. Whether conditions will be attached
  4. Whether a decision will be made about the total Rand value of claims (i.e. foregone tax revenue by government) that will be allowed over the period of the extension.