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Archive for December 2012

Unapologetic

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December’s festive mood usually allows for some wider reading, and this year I was lucky: Unapologetic: Why, despite everything, Christianity can still make surprising emotional sense is without doubt my favourite book of the year. Written by Francis Spufford, a word guru who teaches writing in London, Unapologetic is many things: a crusade, a pilgrimage, a meditation, and its one of the best books on religion I’ve read.

Spufford makes the case for why he believes in a god, why that God is the Christian God and, to a lesser extent, why he is a member of a Protestant church. The book is not a scientific response to the popular work of Richard Dawkins and others that claim there is no God (“because how could anyone know that – or indeed its opposite”); it’s what Spufford calls an emotional one:

Starting to believe in God is a lot like falling in love, and there is certainly a biochemical basis for that. Cocktails of happy hormones make you gooey and trusting; floods of neurotransmitters make your thoughts skip elatedly along. Does this prove that the person you love is imaginary? It does not. The most the physical accounts demonstrate, where God is concerned, is that He isn’t necessary as an explanation. Which I feel does not really amount to news. I kind of knew that anyway, my philosophical starting-point for all this being that we don’t need God to explain any material aspect of the universe, including our mental states; while conversely, no material fact about the universe is ever going to decide for us whether He exists. God’s non-necessity in explanations is a given, for me. For me, it means that I’m only ever going to get to faith by some process quite separate from proof and disproof; that I’m only going to arrive at it because, in some way that it is not in the power of evidence to rebut, it feels right.

It is a very different argument to Dawkins and his disciples. It’s also, probably, not new (what ever is?), but what makes this book a treat is that it’s not written by the classic Christian crusader: a virtues priest, preacher, or philosopher. It’s written by someone with a self-declared “human propensity to fuck things up”. Actually, as Spufford notes, “human beings all exhibit different varieties of fuck-up”, which is at the core of his message that Christianity is for everyone: “Christianity isn’t supposed to be about gathering up the good people (shiny! happy! squeaky clean!) and excluding the bad people (frightening! alien! repulsive!) for the very simple reason that there aren’t any good people.” We are all losers, he says, but we “are engaged in the impossible experiment of trying to see each other the way God sees us”. Thus, Christians are realistic optimists (or “kind pessimists”), hopeful that things will go better, but with the knowledge, too, that we will – inevitably and repeatedly – fuck up and fail in our attempts for perfection. Which is very different from the superficial way the Christian life is often portrayed:

Take the famous slogan on the atheist bus in London. I know, I know, that’s an utterance by the hardcore hobbyists of unbelief, the people who care enough to be in a state of negative excitement about religion, but in this particular case they’re pretty much stating the ordinary wisdom of everyday belief. The atheist bus says, ‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ All right then: which word here is the questionable one, the aggressive one, the one that parts company with actual recognisable human experience so fast it does’t even have time to wave goodbye? It isn’t ‘probably’. New Atheists aren’t claiming anything outrageous when they say that there probably isn’t a God. In fact they aren’t claiming anything substantial at all, because really, how the fuck would they know? It’s as much of a guess for them as it is for me. No, the word that offends against realism here is ‘enjoy’. I’m sorry – enjoy your life? Enjoy your life? I’m not making some kind of neo-puritan objection to enjoyment. Enjoyment is lovely. Enjoyment is great. The more enjoyment the better. But enjoyment is one emotion. It makes no more sense to say that you should feel the single emotion of enjoyment about your life than to say that you should spend it entirely in a state of fear, or of hopping-from-foot-to-foot anticipation. Life just isn’t unanimous like that.

Unapologetic

Human emotion is varied, and Spufford shows why Christianity’s appeal may by so strong: it nurtures our emotions rather than simply our thoughts. (In 2004, Alistair McGrath published The Twilight of Atheism, arguing that contrary to the popular opinion, Christianity is on the rise across the globe.) Even if you don’t take religion seriously, you’ll enjoy this book. (I wish I could just quote the first 10 or so pages, which is brilliant and entertaining.) The book is surprisingly funny (like laugh-out-loud funny), but there’s also irritation in his voice, as the frequent but accurate use of ‘fuck’ attests to. (By the way, it’s not often that you would find references to blow jobs and Viagra in a text on religion, or references to God as a sky pixie or the Spaghetti Monster). Unapologetic is light reading, but it is filled with deep insight and profound one-liners. Prediction: Spufford will soon replace Henry Nowen as the quintessential sermon quote – bar the one-liners with ‘fuck’, of course.

What Spufford does best is to show that Christianity is not, firstly, loony (the belief that “our fingers must be in our ears all the time – lalalala, I can’t hear you – just to keep out the plain sound of the real world”) and, secondly, embarrassing. Christianity is not awkward church society meetings or handing out pamphlets when everyone else is partying. It’s not talking in strange languages or singing centuries-old songs or drinking wine and eating bread or pouring water over one’s head. It’s not conservative right or liberal left. It’s not anti-evolution, anti-abortion or antipathy towards anyone. In fact:

…there may well not [be a God]. I don’t know whether there is. And neither do you, and neither does Richard bloody Dawkins, and neither does anyone. It not being, as mentioned before, a knowable item. What I do know is that, when I am lucky, when I have managed to pay attention, when for once I have hushed my noise for a little while, it can feel as if there is one. And so it makes emotional sense to proceed as if He’s there; to dare the conditional. And not timid death-fearing emotional sense, or cowering craven master-seeking sense, or censorious holier-than-thou sense, either. Hopeful sense. Realistic sense. Battered-about-but-still-trying sense. The sense recommended by our awkward sky fairy, who says: don’t be careful. Don’t be surprised by any human cruelty. But don’t be afraid. Far more can be mended than you know.

Amen.

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Written by Johan Fourie

December 31, 2012 at 14:36

A black and white Christmas reading list

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BlackCountI’ve been a Alexandre Dumas fan ever since I first read The Three Musketeers, and it is still my favourite novel. It’s true that it doesn’t match the standards of today’s fiction: there’s absolutely no character development and most of it is just a little too good to be true. But it’s a fantastic tale of camaraderie, bravery and passion that has taught generations of boys that drinking before fighting is a good idea and girls (Lady De Winter) are never to be trusted. In The Black Count, Tom Reiss finds the true inspiration for Alexandre’s novels – his father. Born to a French father (Alexandre Antoine Davy de la Pailleterie) and slave mother in the Caribbean, Alex Dumas (the father of Alexandre Dumas the novelist) moved to France during his teenage years (1776) and spent the next few years frequenting the salons of Paris. He was an imposing figure, received the best education in the academies to become an excellent swordsman and horsemen, but could also spend and dress lavishly. Can one get any more French than that? Except, in a France that still had to abolish slavery, he stood out for another reason: he was black.

The Black Count tells the amazing story of Alex Dumas (the name he adopts after he enrols in the army, the surname belonging to his slave mother), the inspiration for many of the events in his son’s books. Alex Dumas rises quickly in the military, leads several successful battles (his muscularity, skill and braveness the stuff of legends), and becomes the head of the cavalry of Napoleon’s disastrous campaign in Egypt. Alex Dumas’ imposing figure would cause Napoleon intense jealousy, and would ultimately result in the fall and death of Dumas. Think The Count of Monte Cristo (being jailed with no reason) without the Count ever escaping. While the story of Alex Dumas (the soldier and archetypal Republican Frenchman) disappeared from history books, his son managed to turn the stories he heard of his father into novels that’s been enjoyed through the ages. By piecing together these stories and new sources from what seems to be an extremely rich and unexplored archive, Tom Reiss has managed to write a biography of a man that inspires the same virtue as the characters in his son’s novels. The only difference is that this time we know it to be true.

PoorWhitePoor White by Edward-John Bottomley investigates the rise, fall and reemergence of the poor white phenomenon in South Africa. There are few more qualified writers for such a book – it was the topic of Edward-John’s Masters dissertation at Cambridge and his father published his PhD on early white poverty in 1990 – and the book bears testament to that: amidst the many poor white inquiries and congresses and policies (which can easily turn into a one-damn-fact-after-another history book), Bottomley keeps the narrative fast but eloquent, for this reader, even sometimes a bit too eloquent. Bottomley is often guilty of using one too many adjectives, which gives the book a poetic rather than prosaic feel. (The first chapter is especially guilty of this charge, but also elsewhere. Here’s page 20: “Let us talk of empire – of the age of British expansion into the wild countries beyond their island fortress, when red masses were seen marching in the hills of Natal and the backstreets of Delhi. When great ships too to the waves, bearing the message of civilisation to the corners of the world. Where they docked the air trembled of the sound of thousands of polished boots marching in a murderous quickstep.” Beautiful but excessive.)

The best parts of the book is when Bottomley gets down to the nitty-gritty of how government policy helped to eradicate white poverty: the building of the nationalist machine to “perform the greatest magic trick in history” (too much?). An economic historian may argue that too little emphasis is given to the rapid economic growth of the forty years between 1930 and 1970 (averaging about 5% per annum over the period), and its role in filling state coffers and increasing incomes. Bottomley’s argument is that white poverty never really disappeared; it was simply hidden from public view. I don’t agree entirely: The fact that the Apartheid government could “hide” the poorest of the white poor by the 1970s is evidence of the remarkable improvement in the living standards of a large part of the white population (given that nearly a third of whites were considered poor in the 1930s). The burden of this improvement in white incomes, of course, were carried by black South African workers, but understanding this rapid turnaround in white incomes remains an important challenge for economic historians.

Instead, Bottomley focuses on the human story, and the final chapter traces the  reemergence of white poverty in urban slums today. These are stories seldom told; here they are written with a sympathetic ear and they certainly abolish the notion that all whites are wealthy. But the fact that these stories are surprising, even shocking, should alert us to the fact that white poverty is still only a tiny fraction of overall South African poverty.

MakersJust as the earliest black and white printer revolutionised the home office, so too will 3D printers create a new industry: the home manufacturer. This is the argument by Chris Anderson, author of Makers: The New Industrial Revolution. 3D printers allow anyone with (free) software to design products on their desktop and print it immediately. Here’s an example: need a gift for your daughter? Why not let her build her dream house on Sims 3, and then print it with your 3D printer for her to play with the characters in real life? (Let’s take it one step further: why not get a 3D scanner as well, and then print the dolls to look like your daughter and her friends?) And it’s relatively inexpensive: you can now get a home 3D printer for about R20000.

Anderson argues that 3D printers (and related technologies) will reverse the trend of outsourcing production to lower income countries. Instead of mass production, mass customisation is now necessary to not only maintain low cost, but also to cater to the individual needs of consumers, which requires being close to the consumer. To cater to those needs, Anderson argues that the manufacturing industry is now beginning to adopt the tools of the web:

The world’s factories are opening up, offering Web-based manufacturing as an on-demand service to anyone with a digital design and credit card. They allow a whole new class of creators to go into production, turning their prototype into a product, without having to build their own factories or even have companies themselves. Manufacturing has now become just another “cloud service” that you can access from Web browsers, using a tiny amount of vast industrial infrastructure as and when you need it. Somebody else runs these factories; we just access them when we need them, much as we can access the huge server farms of Google or Apple to store our photos or process our e-mail.

While Anderson notes the important (beneficial) economic shifts this may entail for the US (bringing jobs back), he is (unsurprisingly) less interested in what the impact will be in countries that now benefit from outsourcing – or more specifically, countries that hope to benefit in the future. China and other Asian countries may benefit now, but several commentators have argued that because of cheap energy, low labour costs and improved infrastructure, Africa presents the next frontier in the low-cost production supply chain. Many see the growth of a strong manufacturing industry in African countries as the key to long-run development and job creation. But what if the Third World is simply replaced by 3D printers? Will Africa continue to produce the raw materials (printer plastic) for the machines of the West?

It may all seem a little far-fetched. Printing your own shoes? Really? But the technology is developing fast, to the extent that it is already possible to print anything from clothes to computer chip circuits. If Africa – and South Africa in particular – wants to take advantage of this revolution, it will require, firstly, that we plug ourselves even more quickly and deeply into the global network (i.e. fasten the roll-out of broadband access) and, secondly, that we cultivate a nation of innovators, designers, entrepreneurs, and not a country where the best our citizens can hope for is a job in a factory without a future.

Written by Johan Fourie

December 27, 2012 at 09:07

Mangaung memories

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ANC delegates show their support. Photo: Daniel Born (TimesLive)

ANC delegates show their support. Photo: Daniel Born (TimesLive)

News from the ANC’s national conference at Mangaung in mid-December focused almost entirely on the leadership battle within the ruling party. Most of the reports that I’ve read, view Jacob Zuma’s victory over Kgalema Mothlanthe as a step backwards for the ANC and for future South Africa or, at least, a directionless step to nowhere (see also my previous post). But a recent Facebook update from a journalism friend who attended the conference, paints a slightly more optimistic picture. TJ Strydom of The Times chatted to dozens of delegates during the conference. “The overwhelming majority of them were smart people with a true passion for South Africa. They laugh deeply and are friendly, hospitable, well-informed, and interested in the world around them.” These are his reasons why South African should be optimistic about Mangaung:

  • nationalisation (in the way the ANC Youth League wanted it) is off the agenda;
  • some the worst opportunists the ANC has produced over the last century is on their way out: cheers Mbalula, Mathale, and Phosa;
  • those crazy populists – you know who – are not allowed to join the organisation again;
  • land reform will be less severe than many expected and will certainly not emulate our northern neighbour;
  • the most inclusive development plan that the country has ever had – the NDP – was accepted and its implementation is now being fast-tracked;
  • ANC members that are accused of corruption (and other such crimes) will be suspended from public office;
  • South Africa will have its best ever vice-president by 2014 (Cyril Ramaphosa)

“The focus has shifted from a simple redistribution agenda to a development agenda. This is not the vague concept of the ‘development state’, though. There is a plan. Many pundits suggested that the NDP will be torpedoed at the conference. It wasn’t. In fact, it was approved with no significant changes at the highest level as a blueprint for the next 20 years. More importantly, the NDP was ranked higher than the short-term growth plans such as the New Growth Path and the Industrial Action Plan.”

“Of course there are blind spots. We don’t know what the new tax on mines will be like. Perhaps Kgalema Mothlathe will resign soon. The ANC still has a deep mistrust of the media. But for the first time in many years the ANC is willing to accept its own faults. Every organisation has them. It’s in all South Africans interest that they sort them out. And I think they will.”

Written by Johan Fourie

December 24, 2012 at 07:27

The road from Mangaung

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Econ3x3The ANC’s Mangaung Conference won’t be remembered for its policy debates. Indeed, the greatest triumph of Jacob Zuma, the re-elected leader, has been to steer away from policy debates and shift the focus to the personality traits of its leaders. Zuma’s speeches have been filled with promises to satisfy all constituents. So, too, has the composition of the NEC.

This is, of course, not new. The left-wing win at Polokwane in 2007 resulted in large political shifts in the ANC culminating in the forced resignation of then-president Thabo Mbeki. But for all its political revolutions, very little changed in terms of economic policy. Yes, there was an (internal ANC) investigation about the nationalisation of the mines. Land redistribution remains on the agenda. But Mbeki, Manuel and Mboweni’s policies persisted, even though all three were redeployed.

That these policies were maintained is not the issue; in fact, they are still considered to be the cause for the rapid poverty reduction of the late 2000s and a contributor to macroeconomic stability. What is problematic is that the demand for policy dialogue on microeconomic issues has diminished. New ideas such as a labour subsidy, export taxes, national health insurance, and measuring teacher competency have all been recently touted by various government officials as ways to speed South Africa’s economic growth or improve the country’s highly unequal income distribution. But a forum to discuss these ideas outside the corridors of Luthuli House have remained absent.

This is, of course, not only a demand-side problem, i.e. the fault of government or the electorate. Academic economists in South Africa have largely avoided engaging with policy debates on these national issues. Sure, there is some interaction with National Treasury and the South African Reserve Bank. But any attempt to find an informed discussion by leading South African economists about the causes of unemployment and the ways to solve it would be fruitless. Or an estimate of the economic impact of immigration into South Africa. Or the impact of child nutrition programmes at school. Or the role of Special Economic Development Zones. There are good reasons for this: the incentives for academic economists are highly skewed towards publishing, and publishing requires expanding the frontiers of science, not debating topics discussed in Econ 101 courses. As one example, Stan du Plessis delivered his 2011 Presidential Speech at the Economics Society of South Africa conference on the topic of nationalisation. It’s an excellent read, but as far as I know, it has not been accepted for publication.

What is needed, then, is a forum where economists are encouraged to discuss economic policies, and where these ideas can feed into policy debates in government and the media. Frederick Fourie (no relation), former vice-chancellor of the University of the Free State (and with a PhD in Economics at Harvard), has taken up the challenge. He – and his excellent team – has created Econ3x3.org where they hope to offer regular contributions from South Africa’s foremost economists on relevant economic issues. The screenshot above, with contributions by Haroon Bhorat on labour markets, Fourie on unemployment and Anthony Black on industrial policy, shows why this is long overdue: these contributions distil the essence of these important issues in non-technical language that should be accessible to a wide audience.

At Mangaung, Trevor Manuel said that a lack of understanding of economic fundamentals by ANC members sidetracked important debates. Let’s hope that Econ3x3 can begin the conversation.

Written by Johan Fourie

December 22, 2012 at 07:57

Christmas shopping and currency unions

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Christmas markets in BudapestI’m travelling through Central Europe, visiting the capitals of Austria, Hungary and Czech Republic. Except for the cold weather and short days (which South Africans like me aren’t used to), Vienna, Budapest and Prague are fairytale winter destinations with magical Christmas markets that sell everything from sauerkraut, Christmas decorations, and home-made gluhwein, to kitchen utensils, leather, glass and iron goods, and anything that would help tourists fight the cold.

But the zealous Christmas shopper would also find that each of these countries still have their own currency. Austria uses euros, Hungary forints, and crowns are used in the Czech Republic, which leaves visitors with a conundrum: how much cash do I need? While credit cards are ubiquitous, they are of little use for buying metro tickets or shopping at Christmas markets. So on arrival, visitors must guess their expected expenditures for the length of their stay. (My suspicion is that they tend to underestimate the amount they need especially before having seen the Christmas markets.)  Or they can incur the (often high) bank fees and time costs of visiting the ATM more regularly, but then they have to incur the (often exorbitant) bank fees and other opportunity costs, like searching for an ATM. And because these currencies are valued quite differently, transactions take time and effort: converting from forint to South African rand requires one to divide by 25. Try 4600, the price of a quality Budapest steak. Such costs reduce the frequency of transactions (and probably its size, too).

With the growing clamour for separate European currencies, we forget the benefits of a single currency for trade and transacting. I realise there are disadvantages too: the loss of monetary policy may dwarf any benefits, especially where countries are at very different stages of development, and the psychological costs of having to give up the national currency (which may require more political capital than abandoning the national monetary policy committee). But the trade gains are large, as a famous paper by Rose (2000) has demonstrated. (Also the tourism gains, see Santana-Gallego et al. (2010). And even in disparate countries like those of Southern Africa, a single currency (the Afro!) could realise large trade and tourism gains, as Maria Santana-Gallego and I calculated.

Low transaction costs remain the bedrock of trade, and trade remains essential for growth. A single currency can significantly reduce transaction costs across borders. And it would make my Christmas shopping in Central Europe so much easier.

Written by Johan Fourie

December 15, 2012 at 10:38