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Archive for December 2016

We are still on the way up

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I arrived in the USA a day after Donald Trump was announced as president-elect of the United States. I gave talks at Harvard, Mount Holyoke College and MIT, and met with several faculty and students over the four days of my visit. It was eerie. Some students were still in denial, not helped by the fact that they started drinking as soon as the results became evident. Others were in various stages of grief: angry at the nativism of a large chunk of Americans, bargaining in the hope that Hillary might still win, or depressed at how quickly the America of Obama – to whom many at these prestigious institutions look up to as an inspiring intellectual – has given way to the America of Trump – whom they consider to be a coarse, boastful buffoon.

Trump’s victory seems to have been another nail in the coffin of liberty and progress. In America, walls will replace bridges. Despite what Trump has said on the campaign trail, his tax cuts will likely benefit the wealthy elite. And his views on women, on LGBT rights, on climate change, on health care, on trade openness and on immigration is likely to reverse much of the gains in general freedoms the US has made over the last decade.

These trends are not limited to America. Earlier this year the Brexit result revealed the same nativist fear, an anti-open, anti-globalisation vote. Brexit was a vote for a return to the ‘good old times’, however unlikely that is to materialise. It was a vote against intellectualism; liberal London against the conservative hinterland. And in South Africa, the rise of nativist populism on both the extreme right and left reflect a similar frustration with the progressive Rainbow Nation of yesteryear and its liberal (sell-out!) constitution.

Across the globe, it seems, the extraordinary liberty and progress of the 1990s and 2000s are being rejected for a more insular, protectionist conservatism.

We should not be that surprised. Liberty and progress, as a historian at MIT reminded me on my recent visit, is never a foregone conclusion, never an obvious eventuality.  Liberty and Progress is not an Uber ride, taking the shortest, fastest route to a known destination. It is, as the Beatles knew, a long and winding road. Sometimes there are detours, and sometimes we get lost.

Take, for example, Martin Plaut’s latest book, Promise and Despair, the story of the delegation of black leaders that traveled to London in 1909 to fight for representation in the new Union of South Africa. Remember, since 1853, the Cape Colony had had a non-racial franchise, allowing men of all races who had sufficient income or property to vote. When the unification of South Africa began to be discussed following the Anglo-Boer War, many had assumed that the (Liberal) English government would extend the same franchise to all. In fact, this was the promise Lord Salisbury had made in 1899. But politics trumped morals. To secure the support of whites in South Africa in case of war, the English reneged on their promises and turned down the appeal of the delegation. Liberty and progress had to wait.

But to focus on the newsworthy failures of liberty and progress the last few months misses the much bigger story of the last few decades: the incredible improvement in living standards of most of humanity. Johan Norberg, in a new book simply titled Progress, concurs: ‘Despite what we hear on the news and from many authorities, the great story of our era is that we are witnessing the greatest improvement in global living standards ever to take place.’ Life expectancy has risen sharply, poverty and malnutrition have fallen. The risk of death in war or natural disaster is tiny in comparison to our parents or grandparents.



Reasons to be optimistic: Trends for important human welfare measures are all positive in the long run. Source:


But this does not mean we should be complacent. Says Norberg: ‘There is a real risk of a nativist backlash. When we don’t see the progress we have made, we begin to search for scapegoats for the problems that remain. Sometimes it seems that we are willing to try our luck with any demagogue who tells us that he or she has quick, simple solutions to make our nation great again, whether it be nationalizing the economy, blocking foreign imports or throwing the immigrants out. If we think we don’t have anything to lose in doing so, it’s because we have a bad memory.’

2016 has been a year of setbacks. It reminds us that liberty and progress are never fait accompli, never self-evident. We have to work hard at it, and even then it is not guaranteed. It requires patience and a long-term view. But don’t let 2016 shake your beliefs about humanity’s march forward: we are still on the way up, even if it will take us a little longer to get there.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 15 December.

Written by Johan Fourie

December 30, 2016 at 13:21

The invisible barriers of international trade

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One of the biggest barriers to deeper economic integration in Africa is the excessive trade costs that prevent regional trade. Import tariffs have traditionally been an important source of revenue for poorer countries, and it has taken several spaghetti-like agreements to reduce these. Although an agreement has been signed to create a Free Trade Area from the Cape to Cairo, none of the 26 countries have ratified it. Import duties remain between most African countries.

But tariffs are only of the costs of trade. It takes time to move a container from Johannesburg to Kinshasa, and the journey by land is often filled with tales of unscheduled delays and red tape. I remember traveling through the Victoria Falls border post between Zimbabwe and Zambia a few years ago and asking the truck drivers how long they had to wait to cross into Zambia. Their response: ‘A couple of days, if we are lucky’. This is no way to encourage regional trade.

Poor infrastructure is another significant barrier. The massive distances between major economic centres means that the unit cost of transport is high. A new paper in the Review of Economic Studies by Tufts University economist Adam Storeygard confirms this. Storeygard measures the impact of the oil price increases between 2002 and 2008 on the incomes of African cities. He compares two types of cities: those with a port on the coastline, and those of similar type but 500 kilometers inland. Using satellite imagery over the period, he finds that the oil price shocks increased the size of port cities by 7% more than in cities in the hinterland. The take-away: high transport costs retard growth. And because many African cities are located far from the coast, the high transport costs of poor transport infrastructure explains why African manufacturers find it difficult to compete with manufacturers in Asia and Europe. Just think of the difficulty manufacturers in landlocked countries like Malawi or Zambia face.

But even where better physical infrastructure reduces transport costs, other, ‘softer’ trade barriers often remain. Corruption, for example. Traveling into Malawi on my trip of a few years ago, we were pulled off the road a few kilometres after the border post by an armed man, and then required to return to the border post because we needed ‘additional insurance’. That was a $50 payment that went straight into the friend of the armed man’s pocket.

The effects of these ‘invisible’ trade barriers on trade and consequently economic performance have been hard to quantify, though, until now. In a new American Economic Review paper – ‘Corruption, Trade Costs, and Gains from Tariff Liberalization: Evidence from Southern Africa’ – Sandra Sequeira of the London School of Economics and Political Science finds that a reduction in tariffs between South Africa and Mozambique in 2006 had a very limited effect on trade. This is surprising: one would expect that lower tariffs would lead to higher levels of trade. And yet, the sharp decrease in tariffs had basically no effect (in technical terms, the elasticity of imports to tariff changes was very low).

mozambique-and-malawi-border-postWhat explains this surprising result? Sequeira uses a novel dataset of exporters’ bribe payments between South Africa and Mozambique to show that the decline in tariff rates at the border resulted in a 30% decline in the probability of bribe payments and a 20% decline in the average bribe amount paid. In other words, the lower tariffs did not actually reduce firms’ trade costs, it just shifted paying corrupt border officials to actually paying the tariffs as required by law, boosting government revenue. That is also why the elasticity of imports was so low: because costs did not fall in practice, there was no concomitant increase in trade.

Sequeira’s innovative study shows that high tariffs explain why corruption thrives. Remove the tariffs and the ability to solicit bribes vanishes. But don’t think that trade will suddenly blossom. Bribes keep trade costs lower than what they would be if tariffs were fully paid; lowering tariffs only lower the amount corrupt officials receive.

This has important implications for policy-makers: first, lower tariffs may actually result in an increase in tariff revenue as traders switch from paying bribes to paying the now more reasonable official tariffs. Free trade agreements  (with zero tariffs) may not result in a significant fall in revenue either, because much of the revenue goes into the pockets of corrupt officials in any case, and will likely lead to greater transparency; Sequeira finds, for example, that trade statistics also improve when corruption practices decline.

But don’t expect free trade agreements like the one being discussed at the moment to result in a large increase in regional trade. As long as other barriers, like delays, severe red tape and poor infrastructure, remain, regional trade in Africa is likely to remain too weak to foster the economic development it promises to deliver.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 17 November.

Written by Johan Fourie

December 8, 2016 at 21:17

High-skilled migrants matter – and we’re not winning

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One of the baffling things in explaining the Industrial Revolution is that education, that pillar most economists believe to be critical for economic growth, seems to have played a relatively minor role. Universal public education was a consequence rather than a cause of the Industrial Revolution. Eighteenth-century England did not first have a skilled population before they had an economic transformation; the uncomfortable truth is that it was the other way round.

This uncomfortable truth does not suggest that formal education was completely unimportant. It suggests, instead, that much of what caused the Industrial Revolution was the scientific knowledge obtained by an elite group of highly skilled artisans, inventors and entrepreneurs. It was not the average level of education of every Brit that mattered. Most of the breakthrough technologies of the era – the Spinning Jenny, the steam engine – came instead from upper-tail tinkerers who had hoped to make a profit from their innovations.

A wonderful new research paper by economists Mara Squicciarini and Nico Voigtländer in the Quarterly Journal of Economics confirm this. They use the subscriber list to the mid-eighteenth century French magazine Encyclopédie to show that knowledge elites mattered in explaining the first Industrial Revolution: in those French towns and cities where subscriber density to the magazine was high, cities grew much faster in the following century, even when controlling for a variety of other things, like wealth and general levels of literacy. Their explanation? Knowledge elites (engineers, scientists, inventors) raise the productivity at the local level through their piecemeal innovations, with large positive spill-overs for everyone around them.

Fast-forward to the twenty-first century. High-skilled workers are the stars of today’s knowledge economy. Their innovations and scientific discoveries spur productivity gains and economic growth. Think, for example, of the immense contributions of Sergey Brin’s Google, or Elon Musk’s Tesla, or even Jan Koum’s WhatsApp. It is for this reason that the mobility of such highly talented individuals has become such an important topic – consider that all three individuals mentioned above are immigrants to the United States. There is little doubt that the most prosperous economies of the future will be the ones to attract the most skilled talent.

Which is why understanding the push-and-pull factors of current global talent flows are so important, and the subject of an important new article in the Journal of Economic Perspectives. The four authors begin with the facts.  High-skilled elites are more mobile: between 1990 and 2010, the number of migrants with a tertiary degree increased by 130%; those with only primary education increased by only 40%. More of these high-skilled migrants depart from a broader range of countries and head to a narrower range. While OECD countries constitute less than a fifth of the world’s population, they host two-thirds of high-skilled migrants. 70% of these are located in only four countries: the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada and Australia.

The United States, unsurprisingly, dominates all rankings. Since the 1980s, of all the Nobel Prizes awarded for Physics, Chemistry, Medicine and Economics, academics associated with American institutions have won over 65%, yet only 46% of this group was born in the United States.


One fascinating and underappreciated fact of global migrant flows is the role of highly educated women. Between 1990 and 2010, high-skilled women immigrants to OECD countries increased from 5.7 to 14.4 million; in fact, by 2010, the stock of highly skilled women migrants exceeded male migrants! As the authors note, ‘Africa and Asia experienced the largest growth of high-skilled female emigration, indicating the potential role of gender inequalities and labour market challenges in origin countries as push factors.’

And what about South Africa? The authors calculate the emigration rates of high-skilled individuals by country for 2010, and plot these on a graph. South Africa is a clear outlier: emigration of high-skilled individuals is the sixth highest of the countries included, and by far the highest for countries with more than 10 million people. This is worrisome. True, some of this emigration is made up by high-skilled immigrants from our African neighbours, like Zambia and Zimbabwe, who also have high emigration rates. But the fact remains: our economic outlook will remain precarious if we continue to shed high-skilled individuals at these exorbitant rates.

Is there something to do? The authors mention various push and pull factors that affect the decision to migrate, from gatekeepers that pull the best talent by giving citizenship based on a points system to repressive political systems that suppress freedom of speech and scientific discovery and push the best and brightest to emigrate. If South Africa is to prosper, high-skilled individuals should be recruited and retained – not pushed to find opportunities elsewhere. Protests at universities do not help; providing residency to graduates, as the South African government has proposed, will.

In the knowledge economy, knowledge elites are the bedrock of success. If we are to learn from history, cultivating them should be our number one priority.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 3 November.