Johan Fourie's blog

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Archive for January 2017

It’s five years!

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Five years ago, on a warm January day, I started a blog. I tend to forget detail easily, but I somehow vividly remember sitting at my desk, squeezed into a bedroom that was also a living room and home office space, and watching a hawk land on the small balcony. They say you have to write about what you see, so that is how I started my first post.

It’s five years later. Life is different. Helanya and I have moved twice since that day. We’ve travelled. I’ve graduated my first (soon to be two) student(s). But we’ve been fortunate, too, in that many things have not changed at all. We’ve attended many baby showers and few funerals. We’ve gained wonderful new friends through travelling. My students keep on inspiring me. And my colleagues and co-authors continue to have too much patience.

My blog has remained, too, although a long-time reader would recognise some change. As with most new things, I was productive initially, writing 10 posts in my first month. I soon realised I couldn’t keep up the pace, and the frequency declined to average between four and six posts. I blogged about many things that interested me, but Economics-related topics seemed to take precedence.

At the beginning of last year, I was offered a contract to write a bi-weekly column for Finweek magazine. Due to time and (more importantly) idea constraints, I began to post my columns as posts instead of writing altogether new posts. The result has been that the length of my posts has increased, but that the frequency has declined. It also means that the average number of visitors per day has declined somewhat. I would like to think that there is a quality-quantity trade-off, though. There is some evidence to support this claim: the number of permanently registered readers has continued to increase.

It’s strange to reread some of the posts that I wrote several years ago. They are recognisably me, but they are also different from how I would write about the same topic now. I guess that means that I’m learning. Or unlearning.

Or just growing older.

Blogging is a difficult business these days. What I had hoped to do when I started was to debate, to challenge, to offer a different, sometimes unpopular, perspective. But I have become less eager to do this, probably because I have lost some of my youthful big-eyed optimism, but mostly because of the uncritical social media platforms that now dominate public debate.

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I would like to think the blog has had some impact, though. My 258 (this will the the 259th) posts have attracted 295 659 visitors to my site, who’ve read my posts 417 095 times. That is an unfathomable number, and much more than I could have hoped for. The large number is largely the result of one post I wrote – Why and what to study in South Africa – which I wrote in May 2013 and has since received more than 156 000 views. It also has 251 comments. The most views in one day actually come from a book review about Ken Follett’s Century trilogy. He retweeted the blog post, and I was swamped by visitors. Most of them were there for the images of the characters, which I had borrowed from someone else (with due credit, fortunately.) My favourite post? There are many that I like (of course), but I think the one that stands out is my response to Zuma’s remarks at the beginning of 2015.

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This morning the Stellenbosch heavens finally opened up for some much-needed rain. I hear doves cooing, playing in the temporary ponds in our new flower bed. Perhaps they are descendants of the chicks that hatched five summers ago… (but then this will likely be the third or even fourth generation, as Google tells me that doves only have a 1.5-year lifespan in the wild.) It’s the start of a new year, a time when we tend to look to the future. And I wonder: Where will we be in another five years’ time?

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Written by Johan Fourie

January 27, 2017 at 10:28

The world is not a zero-sum game, but it matters if you think it is

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Question: A farmer in your neighbourhood has had an exceptionally productive 2016. He has managed to double wheat output, and his favourite cow – Daisy – was awarded first prize in the national competition. What is the reason for the farmer’s success? Is it: a) He has worked very hard, b) He was lucky, or c) he put a spell on the rest of the farmers in his village?

This is an example of the type of survey questions a team of Harvard economists have been asking to subsistence farmers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on several visits over the last few years. In contrast to what one might think, the answer to this question is almost always the same: C. Witchcraft and supernatural beliefs are widespread in Africa and throughout the developing world. One aim of the research group is to identify how these cultural traits affect economic decision-making. Clearly, if my answer to this question was that the farmer’s success was due to hard work, I would conclude that the way to excel is to work harder. But if my understanding is that this farmer somehow cheated – that his success was due to a spell he put on the rest of the community, and that his gain was our loss – then my takeaway is that I need to spend more of my surplus not on investing in my farm, but on bribing the local spiritual leader for favours.

The belief that the world is a zero-sum game is widespread. Like these Congolese farmers, many of us believe that the success of one member of our communities must be to the detriment of others. In some cases, this is, of course, true: when one bowler takes 7 wickets in an innings, it leaves only 3 scalps between the remaining bowlers. But, generally, the world is not zero-sum. China’s success is not a consequence of America’s decline, despite what the Trump propaganda machine says. Trade, as economists have known since David Ricardo, can be mutually beneficial, even if it means that the benefits and costs of growth are not shared by everyone equally. My neighbour’s financial success after she designed and marketed a new app is not the result of her ‘stealing’ my success.

But beliefs of a zero-sum world are widespread, and results in what has become known as the Tall Poppy Syndrome. I’ve seen this in action: students that excel sometimes draw the envy of their poorer-performing peers. And it has consequences: the envious ones believe that the good student must have achieved the high marks because of external factors, such as being the teachers’ favourite. They avoid taking responsibility for their own mediocre efforts. The star student, depending on the sanction of the envious ones, also reacts, either by withdrawing from social interaction or, worse, by putting in less effort in the next test to avoid standing out.

The Tall Poppy Syndrome is prevalent in all societies, but its density and effects are likely to vary. If TPS is more concentrated in poorer communities, for example, it will hamper social mobility, reinforcing both the poverty and the cultural beliefs itself. Development economists are therefore hoping to not only identify the causes of these beliefs but also how to change them.

This will not be easy: beliefs are difficult to measure accurately, and their origins may be deep in history. Nathan Nunn and Leonard Wantchekon’s work several years ago showed how the Atlantic slave trade still affects trust in African societies: people that today live in areas where most slaves were captured are more likely to distrust their neighbours and the government. In a new paper, Oded Galor and Ömer Özak show that people’s belief about time preference – whether you have a long-term horizon or not – were affected by what type of crops their ancestors grew. Both trust and time preferences are necessary ingredients for development. As Adam Smith already pointed out in the eighteenth century, trust is necessary for specialisation and exchange. A long-term horizon allows one to forego future income, invest in the present and earn the higher future returns. It affects our propensity to save, to adopt new technologies, and, as Galor and Özak show, even our likelihood to smoke.

If these cultural beliefs are so deeply rooted and have such a pervasive influence over our behaviour, what can be done to change them? This is difficult to answer and requires the interdisciplinary efforts of psychologists, economists, anthropologists and neuroscientists. The answers they provide may not only contribute to sustainable development and social mobility, but may have applications elsewhere. Marketers may have to design products that appeal to those with a zero-sum worldview, or managers may have to lead teams of people where some ascribe to this view. The incentives that motivate people who have Tall Poppy Syndrome, for example, are likely to be different to those who are less envious of their successful colleagues.

Our beliefs about the world shape our economic decision-making. We are only now beginning to understand how it does, and what to do to change it.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 1 December.

Written by Johan Fourie

January 16, 2017 at 08:16

The future is an unknown unknown

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Humans know how to adapt. We have populated the planet not because we found an agreeable environment everywhere, but because we were able to adapt to the diverse and often hostile environments we moved into. And so it is today. To survive and thrive, we need to adapt to the global forces of our times, from climate change to automation.

Those with the freedom and ability to adapt to these global forces will benefit most. Take automation. Artificial intelligence and robotics now allow most tasks that manual labourers perform to be done without human intervention. One of the most exciting technologies revealed at the end of 2016, from my perspective at least, is an automated washing and ironing machine. Dirty clothes go in on one side and the fully-ironed clothes, folded by tiny robotic hands inside the machine, come out on the other side. Finally those dreary Sunday afternoon ironing exercises will be a thing of the past! Collectively this technology will save millions of productive human hours, particularly for women who in almost every society are still responsible for most home labour.

And yet, this wonderful new technology won’t be welcomed by everyone. South Africans employ more than 1 million domestic workers (or more than 8% of the work force), most of whom are women from poor households. If the cost of this new machine falls considerably in the next decade (and minimum wages continue to rise), we might soon see a significant decline in demand for ironing services. Because poor South Africans do not have the freedom to adapt to these new technologies, unemployment and inequality will likely increase.

There are many other examples. Tesla and other car companies are working on self-driving cars (no need for taxi drivers) and, which is likely to have an even bigger effect, self-driving buses. Truck driving is America’s sixth most common occupation. Or consider McDonald’s most recent innovation: self-ordering counters. No need to employ more expensive and unreliable staff. How long until everything in a McDonald’s restaurant is automated, from food preparation to servicing and cleaning? Amazon has recently revealed its plan to open 2000 automated grocery stores across the US. And then there are the many disruptive digital technologies, which The Economist editor Ryan Avent writes about in his latest book The Wealth of Humans.

The political consequences of these supersonic changes are unknown. As Avent notes, we are the first generation to live through an industrial revolution. There is little in history that tells us how society will react to such rapid changes. He predicts social unrest, unless government or civil society can reform social welfare programs on a massive scale. We have already seen this in South Africa and elsewhere: the democratic process, for many, is too slow and cumbersome. Service delivery protests, the #MustFall-movement and the global shift towards a more nativist conservatism suggest that the voices of those at the bottom of the income distribution will be heard outside the ballot box.

More creative solutions to support those left behind by the benefits of technological innovation and globalisation must be found. One idea is to institute a basic income grant that would give every person in South Africa a monthly stipend. This is no novel idea – Thomas Paine proposed a similar idea in 1797 – but economists are increasingly willing to put the idea in practice: Utrecht, a beautiful Dutch city south of Amsterdam, will next year give several hundred of its inhabitants an annual monthly stipend of 960 euro.

The concern is that people opt out of productive labour if they receive money for free. The consensus, though, is that this is unlikely: the aspirational drive of humans to move up the income ladder will push them to work hard regardless. What a basic income grant does is to make sure the ladder is solidly grounded.

But even a basic income grant won’t do enough. The rapid change will bring about psychological and sociological consequences that are hard to predict. Which social policies to implement, from early-childhood development to adult retraining programmes, in order to combat the technological disruption will be important research questions in the next few years. Creative use of technology, ironically, might be one solution.

Donald Rumsfeld famously quipped that there are known knows (the things we know we know), unknown knows (the things we know we don’t know), and unknown unknowns (the things we don’t know we don’t know). The future used to be mostly unknown knows. With some degree of likelihood, we could analyse the past and make conjectures, following somewhat linear trends, about what the future might hold. Change was incremental; we had time to adapt.

The period of rapid change we have seen since the dawn of the Internet is only likely to accelerate. As a species, we have never been required to adapt this fast, and not everyone in society will have the freedom and ability to do so. This will lead to social conflict. To minimise the consequences of this social conflict, the greatest challenge of the next decade is to enable as many as possible to adapt to the inevitable unknown unknowns of our rapidly-changing world.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 29 December.

**As this is my first post of the year, I would like to wish all readers a productive and memorable 2017. Let’s hope this will be a good one.

Written by Johan Fourie

January 5, 2017 at 07:09