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.

Parliament has the final say on the Budget

Ahead of the Minister of Finance’s Budget Speech tomorrow, I’ve just published a piece in The Conversation, explaining the core components of South Africa’s annual Budget and the fact that Parliament ultimately has the final say on each of these – subject to a public consultation process. The full process is guided by the Money Bills Amendment Procedure and Related Matters Act (2009), which I worked with extensively when I was at the Parliamentary Budget Office.

The conclusion of the article, that Parliament’s oversight may provide some reassurance in the current political context, is less comforting in light of an article published today which reveals that a vacancy has suddenly been created on the standing committee of finance. The last time that happened was when the then ANC whip of the committee, Des Van Rooyen, was notoriously made Minister of Finance for a weekend. It appears likely that Brian Molefe, former CEO of Eskom who is named dozens of times in the Public Protector’s ‘State of Capture’ Report, will be appointed to this vacancy – having been surreptitiously added to the ANC’s list of MPs. And this in turn may be a stepping stone to his appointment to cabinet in a last ditch attempt, by a faction close to the president, to take control of public finances for nefarious ends.

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

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

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

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

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

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