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Archive for July 2017

How do we build a prosperous, decolonized South Africa?

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I recently attended an academic conference at the University of the Free State on the topic ‘Decolonizing Africa’. Much of the debate was, understandably, about the past: about the lingering effects of the (Atlantic) slave trade, European colonization that included the imposition of largely artificial borders, and the post-colonial failures of independent Africa. But at the final keynote, delivered by Prof Alois Mlambo of the University of Pretoria, the discussion turned to the future. How do we build a prosperous, decolonized South Africa?

One unescapably emotive topic is land reform. The expropriation and dispossession of land in South Africa is the root, many agreed, of the severe levels of inequality that plague the region. But how to correct this past injustice was not so easy; in the audience, too, were several Zimbabwean scholars quite critical of that country’s land reform programme. Over lunch, one Zimbabwean student told me the tragic story of his grandfather, a former farm worker on a white farm turned successful tobacco farmer after land reform, only to lose his land because he was considered ‘too successful’ by the ruling ZANU-PF party. The farm is now dormant.

Getting land reform right is fraught with difficulty. Not everyone that suffered land expropriation wants to return to farming – by far the largest number of recipients of successful land claims in South Africa choose the cash instead of the land. (This is often ignored by politicians and commentators when simply taking the hectares transferred as measure of land reform success.)  And even when recipients choose to return to the land, they often struggle to support themselves because of the small size of land allocated, or a lack of capital investment, or a lack of technical or management skills. There are also political consequences: because land recipients, like those in Zimbabwe, often do not receive title deed to the land they are given, they become ensnared by the political party that gave them the land. Why do people still vote for ZANU-PF despite the state of the economy? Because they worry a vote for the opposition means that they might lose their land. Most worryingly, it is often the original farm workers who lose the most, like the Zimbabwean student’s grandfather.

This is not to say that some form of wealth redistribution is not imperative. But whereas land (and the minerals it contained) was clearly the most productive resource when it was expropriated in the nineteenth century (which is the reason it was expropriated), a valid question is whether it still is the most productive. Of course, people value land not only for its economic uses: there are a myriad of historic, cultural and religious reasons why the land of your ancestors are treasured. But as a redistributive policy aimed at creating a more equitable society, is land reform the best way to create prosperity for those who suffered historical injustice?

Think of the fastest growing companies globally: which of them still rely predominantly on land ownership? AirBnB is a great example: it is the world’s largest accommodation service, without owning any property! For AirBnB and the myriad other unicorns that have created incredible wealth for their founders and shareholders, it is not land or physical property that creates wealth, but science and technology. (Even farmers know this: that is why they are investing in science to improve their crops and in technology to mechanize production.)

In the twenty-first century, land is what you buy with your wealth, and not the reason for your wealth. A quip about Stellenbosch wine farmers summarize this well: How do you make R1 million farming in Stellenbosch? You spend R2 million.

Prof Mlambo remarked that India and China, both with a history of colonisation, is not growing at above 5% because they have redistributed land. They have prospered because they embraced science and technology. Consider this: in the 2015/2016 academic year, 328,547 Chinese students studied in the United States; only 1,813 South African students did. (If you account for population size, 7 times more Chinese than South Africans students study in the US.) Take South Korea, a country with roughly the same population size as South Africa: 61,007 South Koreans traveled to study in the US in 2015/2016, 33 times more than South Africa.

So how would a redistribution policy look that takes science and technology seriously? I don’t have the answers, but here are some suggestions. Most of us would agree that education is key, but the South African education system has not made much progress in the last decade and it is unlikely to do so in the next. Redistribution must start at the first year of life. Publicly funded but privately run nurseries will remove the gap between the rich and poor that has already emerged when kids arrive at school. For primary and secondary education, a voucher system that incentivize private schools for the poor is an option. At tertiary level, we need more and better-funded universities, notably in science and technology. (It would help to send more of our smartest students abroad to study at the frontiers of science – they will return with new ideas and networks to propel our industries forward.) Visas for and recruitment of skilled immigrants can boost research and entrepreneurship. Improve free wifi access and invest in renewable energies. The private sector, because that is where most innovation occur, can be incentivized through appropriate legislation to offer shares to workers – or to those living in communities where they operate. There are a myriad of innovative possibilities.

If Zimbabwe has taught us anything, it is that politics may triumph over economic logic. Land reform in Zimbabwe was not an economic strategy in as much as it was a strategy to keep the ruling party in power. It has had severe economic consequences, as anyone visiting Zimbabwe today can attest. The real radical economic transformations of our age – just in my lifetime, the Chinese has managed to reduce the share of people living in absolute poverty from 88% to less than 2% – have not come from redistributing an unproductive twenty-first century resource. It has instead been the result of investments in science and technology. Any attempt to redistribute with the purpose of building a more prosperous society should take this as the point of departure.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 29 June 2017.

How social status drives our consumption – and inequality

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A couple of years ago I attended a focus group for Finweek. The magazine was rebranding and it had invited a diversity of people to comment on the content it should offer. The conversation turned to investment options for young professionals: should young people invest their monthly savings in a new property, or stocks, or something else? The facilitator asked the thoughts of a young woman that had been quiet for most of the meeting. Her answer, and its consequences for many young South Africans like her, stunned me: I invest in expensive clothes, because I have to signal to a potential husband that I am wealthy. In other words: I buy brand names, because I want to improve my social status.

Economists have known since Adam Smith already that people buy luxury goods not only for the value they derive from consuming it, but because these goods offer something else: social status. Conspicuous consumption, as economist Thorstein Veblen coined our affinity for status goods, has helped explain economic phenomenon like our excessive expenditure on weddings or the difference between black and white incomes in America.

However, so far economists have struggled to differentiate between our affinity for nice things (in economics jargon: our unobserved consumption utility) and our affinity for the status that those nice things signal. In other words, I might buy a Ferrari not only because I really like fast and furious cars (consumption utility), but also because I want to signal to the everyone else that I am rich (status).

A team of five economists, in a new NBER Working Paper, has now found a way to test the importance of social status. They worked with a large Indonesian bank that distribute credit cards to clients. (Indonesia is a great place for a test like this, because it is in developing economies, as Veblen theorized, where you are most likely to see conspicuous consumption. Also, Indonesia has 74 million middle-class consumers, expected to double by 2020.) They used platinum credit cards, which come with a number of benefits like a higher credit limit and discounts on luxury purchases and is typically sold to high-income individuals, in their experiment.

How do they show that social status matter? They randomly offered a fancy-looking platinum and standard-looking credit card to their customers at the same price and with the same benefits. If customers only cared about the utility of the new card (like the benefits on offer), there should be no difference in the take-up of the fancy-looking or standard-looking card. And yet, there is a 7 percentage point difference: 21% purchased the fancier card versus only 14% for the standard card. The mere fact that the fancy-looking card was associated with a higher status meant that people purchased it.

Perhaps it is not that surprising that people purchase something because it conveys an additional status element, but what is surprising about the experiment is that poorer individuals bought more of the fancy-looking card. The rich, in contrast, showed no difference in demand for the fancy or standard card. The authors ascribe this finding to the fact that “richer individuals already have ways to signal their income, while the platinum credit cards are a more powerful signaling tool for those with comparatively lower incomes”. This also explains the behaviour of the young woman in our focus group; she was more limited in her ability to show social status and thus had to resort to clothing.

In a second experiment, the authors then look at how the customers use their cards. Consistent with their theory, they find that the customers that bought the fancy-looking card (remember: it had the same privileges as the standard-looking card) used the card more often in social settings, such as spending in restaurants, bars and clubs, where the card is more visible to others. Here, too, there is somewhat of a surprise: the use of this card comes at a cost, because in 48% of the cases the customers have another card that would have given them discounts on those purchases. In other words, they chose to ignore the discount just so that they can use the fancy-looking card that gives them social status! If this is true for credit cards where there is a limited audience (only your buddies who joined you for dinner can see you paying with a fancy-looking card), imagine what people are willing to forego for luxury products with a larger audience, like clothes and cars.

The authors conduct several other experiments, all of which support the authors’ theory that social status matter in explaining our consumption behaviour. We do not only buy luxury goods because they provide us with utility; we buy them because they signal something about our social status. And because poorer individuals tend to have fewer ways of signaling social status than richer ones, they are the most eager to grasp at opportunities for showcasing their status. (That is why direct marketing is never aimed at the wealthiest individuals!)

Such findings have implications for the distribution of wealth. The choice for a young person between investing your meager savings in stocks or a new car may not only depend on the financial returns they can get, but also the psychological returns they might get from purchasing a luxury good. If poorer individuals tend to buy more luxury goods to earn social status, like the young woman in the Finweek focus group, while the rich invest in assets that yield positive financial returns (because they already have assets that give them social status), the only logical conclusion is a widening wealth gap. There is little any policy, like a purported wealth tax, can do to prevent that instinctive human yearning for status.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 15 June 2017.

Written by Johan Fourie

July 12, 2017 at 11:02