Johan Fourie's blog

I'd rather be a comma than a fullstop

Piketty in South Africa

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After missing his flight and his much-anticipated Cape Town lecture, Thomas Piketty, the French economist who published the widely-acclaimed and best-selling Capital in the Twenty-First Century last year, arrived in South Africa to deliver a lecture at Wits University yesterday. And he did not disappoint, calling for higher minimum wages, land redistribution and, echoing his call in Capital, a wealth tax. But his most stinging critique he reserved, it seems, for economists: “No such science as economics”, one conference attendee tweeted Piketty, “everyone can have an opinion. Applause from room full of social scientists & historians”.

I can understand the frustration with economists. They write in a language few other social scientists understand. They tend to support a system of wealth creation that is not very hipster. And Piketty is right: For a while in the previous century economists may have believed that economics is a science on par with physics, and that the economy can be manipulated much like a giant computer. But for the most part, economists have now realised (and incorporated into our models) the knowledge that people are not always rational agents, and that they make decisions within social settings where context and institutions matter as much as incentives. Witness the rise of behavioural economics and the renaissance of economic history.

Yet bashing economics is a favourite past-time of social scientists in South Africa. At the recent South Africa Historical Society conference in Stellenbosch, a historian and one of the organisers of yesterday’s Piketty event suggested to a room full of his colleagues and students that instead of studying economics, historians should just read more. I agree that we all should read more, but why deride economics in the process?

It is difficult to not attribute such ridicule from social scientists and historians to a fear of numbers. Because what economists – and certainly most South African economists – do, is measure. We measure the increase in prices in order to determine the most appropriate level for the interest rate. We measure the quality of schools to ascertain why kids drop out too early, or why many of our high-school graduates struggle to find jobs. We measure the international trade of goods and services to understand competitiveness and adjust tariffs. And yes, we measure income levels to say something about inequality and its historical evolution. Still, there is much we don’t yet measure, which is why we need more (historical) statistics, not less, much like Piketty called for yesterday: “We need data to have a better conversation about inequality in South Africa.”

More data allow us to test our hypotheses about how the world works. Because we believe, much like other (social) scientists do, that theories help us to explain and understand the world better than simply ‘having an opinion’. Astrologers have an opinion. Homeopaths have an opinion. But I don’t rely on them to tell me why I am ill. Social scientists (yes, all of them, even historians) construct theories about how the world works, and then use evidence (quantitative or qualitative) to test the relevance of these theories.

Which is why I find it surprising that very few of the commentators at yesterday’s Piketty lecture actually engaged with Piketty’s theory at all. I assume everyone actually read the book – or at least the first chapter that summarises the thesis quite nicely. But did any take the trouble to read at least some of the critiques? This paper is a good start, written by an economist and political scientist. It actually uses South Africa as a case study (in comparison to Sweden) to show why Piketty’s measurement of inequality misrepresents what actually happened in both countries during the twentieth century. Or there is this (rather long) response from Deirdre McCloskey, certainly no proponent of the mathematical direction economics took in the 80s but also not averse to fighting with numbers.

And why did no one – not even Piketty himself – make an effort to gather historical data on wealth inequality in South Africa? With little effort and using Reserve Bank data, a PhD student at Stellenbosch could calculate wealth and income rates for South Africa going back to 1975. Instead of finding the same U-shaped rebound in private accumulated wealth as Piketty did for rich countries, she found that in South Africa the wealth-to-income ratio has been relatively low and stable at about 250% for the past 40 years.

This is important not only because it shows that social context and institutions matter, but because it could have very real policy implications. The Davis Tax Committee’s recent recommendation on estate duties is partly motivated by extensive references to Piketty’s book. Acccording to the Financial Mail, the committee suggests that the rules should change so that tax revenue from estate duties increases by about 10 times. Here’s Stan du Plessis, dean of Economic and Management Sciences at Stellenbosch and PhD supervisor of the student, on the topic: “The Davis Tax Committee and everyone else in SA assumed that since inequality is so high in SA, what Piketty was saying must also hold true for SA. It does not.” That is what economists do.

Land expropriation is another policy of choice to reduce inequality. Piketty argues that because land redistribution have reduced inequality in Brazil, for example, it should work in South Africa too. Not quite: I don’t know much about farming, but I do know that most land in South Africa is not as fertile as in tropical Brazil. Here a farmer needs a lot of capital equipment to be productive, which in turn requires large scale farming to be profitable. It also requires management and technical expertise. Those things, in contrast to land, are difficult to expropriate and transfer. Why not, instead, give poor, black South Africans a choice: I am quite confident that not all would prefer to become farmers. Offer them shares (at massively discounted rates, perhaps subsidised with the income from the wealth tax) in companies listed on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange. To begin with, the SA government owns shares in several listed companies too: if these are transferred to poor South Africans, they have liquid capital which they can – if they so choose – either sell and buy land or hold on to earn dividends. This is what BEE is all about, and in the few cases where it was implemented correctly, like in Naspers selling discounted shares to black South Africans, it has created immense wealth. Giving someone land without the necessary scale, capital and skills to work it (especially someone living in a city, like most South Africans now do), dooms them to a live of subsistence farming.

Piketty’s other proposal of a higher minimum wage also fails to acknowledge the excellent work of South African economists over the last few years. Yes, a higher minimum wage in the United States might not increase unemployment (because it is off a low base and much lower than the median income level), but to recommend such a policy in a country with an unemployment rate above 30% is not only irresponsible but disastrous. New research by labour economists in my Department at Stellenbosch shows a stark rise in unemployment, 4.8% in the Western Cape of mostly temporary workers, following the increase in the Western Cape minimum wage on farms two years ago.

Because data allow us to test and improve our models, certain theories become generally accepted. One of them is the likely impact of a wealth tax. I am not necessarily against a limited wealth tax (for political economy reasons), but what Piketty and his commentators failed to do was spell out the likely effects of such a tax. So let me attempt to do so. A wealth tax favours the young and punishes the old. Young people, like me, have many debts. If the wealth tax is instituted on net wealth (which I think is what Piketty argues for), then it will have a limited impact on me but will tax my parents heavily, who have paid their debts during their lifetime. So here are my options: either I live frugally now, saving carefully and repaying my debts, only to be taxed by government when I’ve done so, or I stop saving and buy a fancy new car, because that’s better than giving it to government. Rather than growing my savings, I would instead find ways to consume all my earnings. (This is why Bill Gates suggests a progressive consumption tax instead. Piketty warns that consumption is difficult to measure, which is true. But it actually encourages saving, investment and accumulation, something a wealth tax does not do.)

Except, of course, one type of investment which cannot be (directly) taxed: education. So expect to see parents, because they cannot leave their children a large physical inheritance, spend even more on educating them. Surprisingly, this will likely increase inequality in South Africa even further. As economists know very well and as Kuben Naidoo, Deputy Governor of the South African Reserve Bank, so eloquently put it yesterday, “the major increase in inequality in South Africa is as a result of rising skills and not wealth accumulation”. Even if all the gains from the wealth tax is spent by government on education (unlikely to be the case), we will continue to have a schooling system that is horribly unfair. A lot of tax money so far has failed to fix the problem; South African economists that have measured these things clearly show that more school resources (like higher teacher salaries or buying more books) help little to improve education outcomes. Why is that likely to change if we add even more money to the mix?

Wealth taxes are most likely to reduce investment and social mobility, exactly the opposite of what is necessary to fix South Africa’s economy. Yes, we may get the richest billionaires to cough up some more of their wealth to government. But will it really matter to the kid from Soweto or Soshanguve whether Nicky Oppenheimer or Johann Rupert or Patrice Motsepe has R8 billion or R4 billion in wealth? Not a lot.

What will matter to that kid is whether he will get a fair chance in life. That is unlikely to happen if we don’t fix our education system first and make it easier for people to do business and create jobs. A wealth tax that discourages investment and raises the cost of education is not going to help, and might even have a perverse impact.

I agree that we need to address South Africa’s massive inequality. To correct this wrong is the reason many economists choose to study economics in the first place. And I also understand Piketty’s appeal: he proposes three policies that are relatively easy to implement and requires little more than political will. But, unfortunately, these policies are disconnected from the real world, the world which South African economists study. In a best case scenario these policies will reduce inequality marginally in the short run; a worst case scenario is that they inhibit investment and put further limits on social mobility by raising the returns to quality education.

I realise that I cannot convince everyone about the need to study economics. As an economic historian I’ve had my own gripes with the mathematisation of the discipline. But to ignore the theories of human behaviour that economists construct, theories that have been empirically shown to be worth keeping, is wrong. Opinions without facts are not worth listening to, as Hans Rosling perfectly explained. Let’s encourage our students to engage with Piketty’s theories, test them against the evidence, and keep them and use them if they apply to South Africa. Or improve them if they don’t.

3 Responses

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  1. In the paper you linked to, the Swedish comparison, the researchers posit Piketty’s formula as ” the gap between the interest rate and the growth rate”. Did he state this categorically? . Are they translating “return on capital” as “interest rate”?


    October 6, 2015 at 11:38

  2. How would a tax on wealth impede investment?


    October 6, 2015 at 11:12

  3. Well written Johan.

    Inequality is inevitably looked at from the economic eye of the beholder. Each view is dominated by the financial circumstances of the commentator. Most economists (Well the ones that get heard) are in the 1%, most sociologists are in the 10%. Piketty would have been in the 10% when he wrote the book. Even though his royalties will subsequently have pushed him into the1% his audience demands that he speaks for the 10%. And so he does …

    He speaks on behalf of the 10% of Europeans that have been out competed by Western Capitalists and Eastern Labour. The globalization of Capitalism may have sidelined European labor and made their incomes stagnant, but the lower labor of Asia and Africa has benefited substantially over the last 30 years. In my youth, T-shirts cost R 200 and poor people wore maize sacks. Today poor people have cellphones as strong as NASA used to get people to the moon.

    Piketty’s policies are crafted to help an aging European labor force get a handout from the more productive users of Capital.

    Philip Copeman

    October 2, 2015 at 11:05

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