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Five young economists to listen to, and how their ideas might shape our future

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Es liegt an uns, wohin der weg fhrt !

Ideas, and the people that give birth to them, shape our future. The British economist John Maynard Keynes articulated it best: ‘The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed, the world is ruled by little else. Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influences, are usually slaves of some defunct economist.’ So, on this final day of 2018, let us look at five young economists, and their ideas at the frontiers of the field, that will shape our lives, consciously or otherwise, in 2019 and beyond.

One of the most vexing questions social scientists grapple with is how to build a society where everyone has an equal opportunity of reaching the top. Inequality is not in itself unfair: we all know that rare skills, like those possessed by Messi or Musk, should be rewarded more than the rest of us. But what we deem to be unfair is when someone with those skills or abilities cannot, for whatever reason, realise their potential.

In the US, as in South Africa, there are too many children without equal opportunities for success. How to give these children better chances of succeeding is, in short, the research programme of Raj Chetty, professor of Economics at Harvard University and Director of Opportunity Insights, a think tank that aims ‘to develop scalable policy solutions that will empower families throughout the United States to rise out of poverty and achieve better life outcomes’. Somewhat of a child prodigy, receiving his PhD from Harvard in 2003 at the age of only 23, his most recent project, together with several other colleagues, uses ‘big data’ to map the neighbourhoods in America that offer children the best chances of climbing the income ladder. Their freely available interactive mapping tool show how outcomes like poverty and incarceration can be traced back to the neighbourhoods in which children grew up. More importantly, it also helps to develop customised solutions that will improve the outcomes of children in those ‘bad’ neighbourhoods.

One of Chetty’s younger colleagues is Melissa Dell. Graduating with a PhD from MIT in 2012, Dell spent time at Harvard and Stanford before joining Harvard in 2018 as a tenured professor. Dell is fascinated by the factors that underpin long-run development. For her PhD, she investigated the Mita – a system of forced labour several hundred years ago – to assess its persistent effects on levels of Peruvian income today. She has since worked on the persistent differences between north and south Vietnam, the long-run effects of the Mexican revolution and the consequences of the Dutch cultivation system in colonial Java.

What makes Dell’s career even more impressive is that she has a severe visual impairment. And yet, this has not prevented her from, aside from asking fascinating research questions, starting a foundation in Peru or running ultra-long-distance races, including the Comrades!

Dell is one of three women on my list, a comforting sign in a field that is still mostly the domain of men. Claudia Olivetti, Professor of Economics at Boston College (with a PhD in 2001 from the University of Pennsylvania), is one of several scholars who wants to understand which factors prevent women from entering the labour market, and why they move up at the corporate ladder a slower pace. Olivetti’s latest research shows that the best thing the government can do is to spend more on early childhood care and education as this has the largest improvement in women’s employment rates, salaries and even fertility, decreasing the gender pay gap. The benefits of more parental leave and flexible schedules, she finds, are smaller. Why is this? Because access to good early childhood caretakers that makes it easier for young mothers to work allows women to return to the labour market quicker after childbirth, boosting their life-time earnings. In short: the policies that matter most to women are those that help mothers work – not those that help them take breaks from work.

This type of research aims to identify which policies are best in improving the outcomes we hope for. Another area where such policies are desperately needed, in South Africa and elsewhere, is the health sector. Marcella Alsan, who is an Associate Professor of Medicine at the Stanford School of Medicine with a PhD in Economics from Harvard in 2012, plans to do exactly that: use research to identify which health policies improves health outcomes most. One key concern in health, for example, is how to get clients to use their prescribed medicine. Alsan, in a new study, provides one tantalizing clue: pair the patients with doctors that share a similar ethnic background. She and her co-author runs an experiment where several hundred black patients are randomly allocated white and black physicians. They find that those patients that consulted a black physician are more likely to ask for preventative services, particularly if those services are invasive. They argue that this is because of better communication and trust. The implications are profound: they argue that more black doctors could reduce cardiovascular mortality by 16 deaths per 100 000 per year, leading to a 19% reduction in the black-white male gap in cardiovascular mortality.

It is not only human health that is the subject of economic research. The health of the planet is under threat, with climate change affecting our sustainable future. Solomon Hsiang, Professor of Public Policy at UC Berkeley and Principal Investigator of the Global Policy Laboratory (with a PhD in Sustainable Development from Columbia University in 2011) is one of the leading thinkers on the topic. In a recent Science letter, he weighed in on the ivory-ban discussion. But it is the interactions between the economy and the ecology that is at the heart of his research. In a 2018 Journal of Economic Perspectives overview paper, Hsiang urges his fellow economists to take the lead on climate change research: All climate change forecasts, he says, rely heavily and directly on economic forecasts for the world. ‘On timescales of a half-century or longer, the largest source of uncertainty in climate science is not physics, but economics.’ The lesson? It is not only us, but our children and grandchildren too, that are the slaves of some defunct economist!

*An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 6 December edition of finweek.

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Ramaphosa’s number one challenge: getting rid of patronage politics

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Ramaphosa Investment

President Ramaphosa is on an investment offensive. Because the South African economy is stalling, he is desperate to attract investors who will create jobs and boost incomes. One way to do that, he believes, is by hosting summits; a Jobs Summit in early October and an Investment Summit a few weeks later would just be the thing to invigorate investor appetite for South Africa.

It was a hard sell. Not only is global economic growth on the wane, but South African internal policies and politics are not creating the stable, low-risk environment that investors crave when the returns are unlikely to be double digits. Whatever the merits of land redistribution, calls for what seems to be an unnecessary constitutional change to allow expropriation create uncertainty. An inability to reduce crime, the one issue that affects all South Africans, makes our country less attractive as an investment destination; The Economist’s recent article on Cape Town’s high murder rate, for example, will undoubtedly hurt tourism. And though Tito Mboweni’s appointment seems to have satisfied markets, it is never a good sign to have a revolving door for the second most important office in government.

All of these ills are rooted in our public sector incompetence – the result of a bureaucracy built on patronage rather than the efficient provision of public services – that makes doing business an expensive and frustrating exercise.

This is the one thing Ramaphosa’s government must begin to address if we are to create the right conditions for growth. As Guo Xu of the Haas School of Business at the University of California, Berkeley notes in an upcoming American Economic Review paper: ‘State capacity is fundamental to development and growth. Bureaucrats are a key element of state capacity: they embody the human capital of the state and are responsible for the delivery of public services and the implementation of policies. Understanding how to promote and incentivize bureaucrats is central to improving organizational performance.’

For much of human history, bureaucrats were appointed through patronage. The way you moved up in society was mostly the result of who you knew rather than what you knew. Even in the United States today, more than 8000 federal positions are still allocated ‘at the pleasure of the president’ (if, of course, he is competent enough to do so). It is also not only in government that you find patronage; we often see family ties and personal connections play an important role in new board appointments.

Theoretically at least, patronage can be a good thing. Loyalty to the superior may incentivise subordinates to not shirk on their work. But patronage can also be bad for organisational performance, as favouritism may disincentivise subordinates to work at all because they have the protection of their superior.

For long, though, it was difficult to prove which of these two outcomes are most likely to occur. Xu, however, has found a novel approach to do just that. He transcribed thousands of personnel and public finance records of the British Colonial Office during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. He then measured how closely governors in the colonies are connected to the Secretary of State, the official in England who appointed them. He shows that governors connected to the Secretary – as family members, members of the same party, or even as school buddies – enjoy higher salaries through the promotion to higher paid and larger colonies. However, this is only true for the period before the Warren Fisher Reform, a policy that changed the appointment process from patronage to meritocratic.

It is not only that these appointments (before the Reform) earn higher salaries. They also perform worse. Xu finds that a colony’s public revenue performance declines in years when a governor with close ties to the Secretary of State rules. ‘This is consistent’, says Xu, ‘with the interpretation that patronage exerts a negative effect on the performance of socially connected governors. Consistent with the previous result, the fiscal performance gap disappears after the removal of patronage.’ The lesson? Patronage is bad for performance.

A new NBER study sheds some light about why this might be. The three economists use very detailed information, including firm-level balance sheet data, social security data, patent data and detailed data on local elections in Italy (between 1993 and 2014), to show that firms that are more connected to politicians are likely to be less productive. They identify a leadership paradox: ‘When compared to their competitors, market leaders are much more likely to be politically connected, but much less likely to innovate. In addition, political connections relate to a higher rate of survival, as well as growth in employment and revenue, but not in productivity’. It seems to work like this: when a firm has strong political connections, they use these connections, legally or illegally, to get preferential contracts, tariffs or other regulations that allows them to beat the competition. When a firm has few or no political connections, they are forced to innovate to be better than the competition. It is ultimately the more innovative firms that are more productive and dynamic.

Patronage, the evidence shows, is a terrible system. It has also become endemic in the South African state. Without attempts at addressing a patronage system that pervades all levels of government, no Investment Summit will push South Africa’s economic growth to where it needs to be.

*An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 8 November edition of finweek.

Written by Johan Fourie

December 10, 2018 at 08:00

The good, bad and ugly of state failure

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parliament

Even Adam Smith, the father of economics, believed that a strong state is a necessary if not sufficient precondition for a growing economy. As Smith wrote, the state must ‘administer justice, enforce private property rights, and defend the nation against aggression’. But many stop reading Smith there, believing him to be a proponent of limited government. This is not entirely fair. As Jacob Viner already pointed out in 1927, the Wealth of Nations also include references to the state’s obligation to regulate financial markets, educate youth, to protect temporary monopolies on patents, and ‘erecting and maintaining certain public works and public institutions intended to facilitate commerce’. It is therefore just not true, concludes Viner, that Smith was a doctrinaire advocate of laissez-faire.

But what happens when the state does not fulfill its duty? What happens when – despite the intention to do all of these things – the capacity of the state to deliver these services is weak or non-existent?

To some extent, this is exactly what has happened in South Africa. Our education system is a mess. Hundreds-of-thousands of South African kids attend a school each day where the teachers are unskilled, demotivated and often absent, where the facilities are dilapidated and textbooks missing, where school principles battle a limited budget, poor information management, almost no parental support and work in unsafe conditions.

Our public health system, as one June report coined it, ‘teeters on the verge of collapse’. It is estimated that there are 37 000 vacant positions, despite the fact that medical professionals struggle to find employment.

Crime is a major issue our police force cannot seem to bring under control. Prison cells are often filled beyond capacity. We have become used to power outages the last decade, and increasingly we find our taps dry. A lack of government service delivery is one of the major reasons for protests across the country.

What to do? One option is to sit back and wait that the government fixes itself. True, the democratic process allows each of us to vote every five years for a party we hope will represent our interests better. If the incumbent party does not deliver the services we expect to see, we should choose new leadership. But it is a slow and fuzzy process. Humans are not, in contrast to what economists believed for a long time, perfectly rational beings, making decisions that optimise their own self-interest. We are emotional. We trust charismatic politicians, especially the ones that lie often. We are waiting for Godot if we rely only on the political process.

An alternative is to vote with our feet and move to greener pastures. This has happened internally in South Africa already, as thousands of migrants move from the former homelands to the metropoles of Johannesburg, Pretoria and Cape Town. Urbanisation is a phenomenon that will only speed up as the disparity between the urban opportunities and rural doldrum grows.

It’s not only local migration anymore. More and more South Africans, as The Economist alluded to last month, are emigrating. But for most of us without a second passport or a thick wallet, that option is not even on the table.

So, what are our options? One alternative is the market, flaws and all. We see this happening already. Private firms like Curro are quickly filling the void left by the failing school system to service middle and higher income clients. Those who can afford it use excellent private medical facilities offered by the likes of Medi-Clinic, a private firm which has successfully copied its model to countries as diverse as Switzerland and the United Arab Emirates. Many of South Africa’s prisons are privately run. The number of active private security officers in South Africa is nearly double the size of the South African Police Service and South African National Defense Force combined, a R45 billion industry.

The good news is that improved technologies will see more of this happen. For long, the state could be the only provider of most types of infrastructure. This is because such infrastructure (also known as public goods) have two properties that make its private provision difficult: it is non-rival and non-excludable. But better technology makes older forms of infrastructure redundant. Natural monopolies – like electricity generation – has also given way to competition from alternative sources of energy. Now we can each use solar panels on our private homes instead of having to rely on a national source of electricity generation. This allows the private sector to compete in industries that was formerly only the domain of the state.

That is great. It creates opportunities for bright-eyed entrepreneurs to service clients unsatisfied by government services. But it does not, as many fans of the free market would argue, mean that government should simply get out of the way. No, because the market – especially in industries which are prone to the formation of oligopolies and monopolies (in other words, low levels of competition) – can also fail. Here, failure would mean higher prices and poor quality in the name of efficiency. Think of prisons: they are not just places where sentenced individuals’ liberties are removed. They are places where remediation can (should!) occur – but such practices are costly, and unlikely to be encouraged in a private prison that wants to maximise profit.

A thriving economy requires a creative and competitive private sector, one where new technologies can help entrepreneurs to enter industries where the state used to play a dominant role. But government must come to the party too, ensuring, through regulation, a competitive and fair business environment to prevent market failure.

A small but highly competent government is the ideal. South Africa, at the moment, has exactly the opposite.

*An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 28 October edition of finweek.

Written by Johan Fourie

November 27, 2018 at 09:00

Why are there so many single mothers?

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Family

Here is a statistic to get your head around: Of the 989 318 babies born last year in South Africa, 61.7% have no information about their father included on their birth certificate. We don’t precisely know why the women who register these babies do not record the father’s information, but it is highly likely that it is because the father would not want to be involved in the raising of the child. They are, in fact, single mothers. This conjecture seems to be supported by other evidence: the HSRC estimates that 60% of South African children have an absent father, and that 40% of mothers are single parents.

Explaining why these mothers are single is not easy. One argument is historical. Throughout the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries, young men would move to the mines, away from structured family life in the countryside. This migrant labour system, it is said, would explain the large number of single women. While plausible theoretically, this explanation neglects a key empirical reality: that the share of single mothers is on the increase. The migrant labour system, owing to the apartheid-era homeland system, was arguably most intense during the twentieth century. And yet this is also the period where the share of single mothers was much lower. The number of migrant workers fell after the dismantling of apartheid settlement policies and, since the 1990s, the decline of the mining industry. Yet it is exactly then that we see a significant rise in the share of single mothers.

If the migrant labour cannot explain the large numbers of single mothers, what else could? Dorrit Posel and Stephanie Rudwick, in a paper published in 2014 by the African Studies Association, show that the Zulu, in particular, have very low marriage rates, as low as 30%. Perhaps, you might argue, it is just that women prefer to be single – that an unmarried life is better than a married one. Well, the evidence does not support this theory. Using survey data, Posel and Rudwick find that this is not a preference: more than 80% of unmarried Zulu women report that they would like to get married (as do the men, incidentally). The reason they attribute to women remaining unmarried despite their wish to be married is lobola, or bride wealth: ‘Our qualitative data demonstrate that frequently the way ilobolo is practiced, and particularly the amount that is requested relative to men’s opportunities in the South African labour market, can contribute to delayed marriage and nonmarriage.’

Both the migrant labour and lobola systems are unique to southern Africa. But the share of single mothers has been rising almost everywhere. In fact, 62% of all births to non-college educated mothers in the United States in 2014 were to unmarried women, very similar to the South African figure. Something more universal seems to be behind these trends.

One possibility is that men’s poor economic conditions contribute to them delaying or eschewing marriage. This is the argument Posel and Rudwick put forward, but one that is also found for the United States, where non-college educated men’s relative incomes have declined over the last three years. A new paper, soon to be published in the Review of Economics and Statistics, tests whether it is, in fact, men’s poverty that prevents them from marrying. The two authors, Melissa Kearney and Riley Wilson, link the fracking of shale gas in the 2000s to marriage rates. The idea is that, if the hypothesis is true that men do not marry because of poor economic conditions, then a fracking boom, which would create more employment and lead to higher incomes, should result in larger numbers of men being willing and able to marry. Kearney and Wilson use a sophisticated statistical analysis to show that 1) there is no impact on higher incomes of non-college educated men on the likelihood of getting married, 2) there is a boost to fertility rates after their income improves, but this increase is similar for both married and unmarried men. They conclude: ‘We find no evidence from the fracking context to support the proposition that as the economic prospects of less educated men improve, couples are more likely to marry before having children.’ In short: it’s not poverty that prevents marriage.

So what is it then? One possibility is that it might be higher female incomes. Not only have women entered the labour market at historic levels since the 1960s, but social transfers to support children has also increased. Both sources of income would give women more agency (or bargaining power) within the household, and reduce the need to live with an income earning partner. While much evidence shows that giving women more household resources improves the outcomes for children, it may have the unintended consequences of absolving men from their child-rearing responsibilities. Thomas Sowell, a US libertarian economist, notes that in 1960, almost a hundred years after the end of slavery in the US, 22% of African Americans grew up in households with only one parent. ‘Thirty years later, after the liberal welfare state, that number had more than tripled. We can speculate as to how much of that 22% was due to slavery, but we know that that tripling was not due to the legacy of slavery. It was due to the legacy of a whole different set of policies.’

But it is also not that easy. The rise in single mothers, although it has increased in the last two decades, began before the child support grant was introduced in South Africa. Pensions may play a role, but it is unclear to what extent they alone can explain the rise in single motherhood.

Family structure is rapidly changing. More children are now growing up with one rather than two parents. Even if the causes remain fuzzy, one thing is certain: the consequences are likely to be profound.

*An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 26 September edition of finweek.

Written by Johan Fourie

October 26, 2018 at 08:00

A radical solution to land ownership

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Farmland

What if I could offer you the following three outcomes – 1) an increase in government revenue to the extent that a Basic Income Grant (BIG) can be afforded, 2) a substantial decline in wealth inequality, and 3) a sustainable solution to the land crisis – with just one policy intervention? Fantastic, you’d say, but naïve and, frankly, absurd. There is no policy that we know of that can tackle these immense societal challenges, all in one go.

Wait, I’m not done yet, I’d answer. This policy would make it much easier to build infrastructure, get rid of derelict buildings, would ramp up GDP per capita significantly, and would foster social cohesion.

Seriously? Don’t be ridiculous, you’re dreaming, you’d respond. And to do this, I’d continue, we’d need to do two things that seem almost directly opposed to one another. We need to expand markets. You might nod in agreement, something sensible for the first time. Oh, and we must abolish private property altogether.

This, in short, is the recommendation by two economists, Erik Posner and Glen Weyl, in their new book Radical Markets. Critics seem to agree that this is something worth discussing; Kenneth Rogoff calls this ‘perhaps the most ambitious attempt to rethink democracy and markets since Milton Friedman’.

Although their ideas have huge implications for democracy and immigration too, I will focus here on their first chapter, and probably the one most relevant to South Africa currently: property. They propose a Common Ownership Self-Assessed Tax (COST) on wealth. Property, they argue (like many economists before them), are inevitably monopolistic, and monopolies create inefficiencies in the market. Their COST aims to remove these allocative and investment inefficiencies by introducing a live auction for every asset in society.

So, how does it work? Let’s take Khulekani. His young family has just expanded, and so he wants to buy a new house. He would go to a website – let’s call it UmhlabaWethu.co.za – and open a sort-of Google Maps that will allow him to see every property in South Africa, valued by the owner of the property. He can then decide to buy any property, by just clicking on the property, at the price the owner has listed. The ‘right to exclude’, one of the central tenets of private ownership, is therefore waived in this new system. Every property owned by a company or individual (or government!) must be valued and listed.

So, what prevents owners from just making excessively high valuations, making Khulekani’s attempt at buying a house impossible? Tax. In this system, each owner will pay an annual tax on the self-assessed value of their property, thereby waiving the ‘right to use’, the second central tenet of private ownership. The authors explain: ‘In the popular image of private property, all benefits from use accrue to the owner. Under a COST, on the other hand, a fraction of this use value is revealed and transferred to the public through the tax; the higher the tax, the greater the fraction of use value transferred.’

In other words, all property in South Africa would be on a permanent auction, where the current user of the property determines the price (but pay for that price in tax). It’s almost like Uber, for property.

Imagine a private investor wants to build a high-speed monorail in Cape Town. To do this at present would be almost impossible, as owners of properties on the intended route would hold out for a high price, knowing that they have monopoly bargaining power. A COST would allow an investor to go online and buy up all the properties at the listed price, combine them, and start building the monorail. (Of course, they must also value that property, and pay tax. If another investor believes they can build a more profitable monorail, they might just buy-out the original investor’s right of use.)

Or imagine that the property tax is returned to citizens as a Basic Income Grant. By the authors’ rough calculations, every US citizen from a similar system could receive $20000 annually, which for most would be far less than they would be paying in tax. By their estimates, it would only be the richest 1% property owners that would be paying more than they receive – and often a lot more. This not only reduces inequality (by 4 Gini points, according to their estimates), but it also acts as a subsidy for the poorest.

In South Africa, COST tied to a BIG could do far more to alleviate poverty and address inequality than a policy like expropriation. Unproductive land would be a direct cost to all society: higher property values paying more tax mean that more can be redistributed to everyone. As the authors note, ‘a world in which everyone benefits from the prosperity of others would likely foster higher social trust, a factor essential to the smooth operation of the market economy’.

‘The sharing of wealth would be in accord with many commonsense notions of justice. Wealth is rarely created solely by the actions of the people who are paid for it under capitalism. They normally benefit from the help of friends, colleagues, neighbours, teachers, and many other people who are not fully compensated for their contributions. A COST would better proportion the distribution of wealth o the labour that created it.’

This is a radical proposal. It might have unintended consequences that we cannot currently imagine. That’s why the authors propose a piecemeal adoption of these policies. That is a sensible approach. Experimentation will be needed, perhaps even within one municipality first.

But the radical economic transformation that COST can accomplish is a lesson in how creative thinking – and perhaps a willingness to put away our ideological differences – can help find solutions to a problem that we had thought to be insurmountable.

*An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 13 September edition of finweek.

The cost of crime

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South Africa Gang Violence

It is almost something that defines South Africans: having lived through the traumatic experience of a violent crime or, at the very least, know someone that have. 19016 murders were committed in the country in 2016/2017, according to the South African Police Service, or 34.1 murders for every 100 000 people. (Contrast Afghanistan at less than 7 murders per 100 000 people, Argentina at less than 6, Kenya at less than 5, India at less than 4, Iran at less than 3, and Ghana at less than 2.) Almost the same number of attempted murders as murders were reported to the police. On average, 109 men and women were raped each day. In 2016/17, there were 22,343 incidents of house robbery recorded, or 61.2 each day.

These statistics are nothing less than shocking. They explain why most South Africans list crime as their number one concern, far above access to land or inequality, and why those that decide to emigrate list ‘improved safety and security’ as the top reason for leaving. Given the widespread concern, one would expect that safety and security would be a top research priority at South African universities. It is not. A 2017 World Bank study by leading social scientists reports: ‘There is a dearth of research on crime in South Africa, which is particularly problematic in this country given the extraordinary high crime rates reported here.’ The study begins to fill the gap, but the results show why understanding the causes of criminal behaviour is so difficult.

Surely poverty is the most obvious explanation for crime? Well, consider that the province with the second highest murder rate in the country is the Western Cape (with 51 murders per 100 000 people), and the province with the lowest murder rate is Limpopo (with 14 murders per 100 000 people). The Western Cape is, of course, much more affluent than Limpopo. This suggests that poverty is not the main reason for crime. Perhaps, then, inequality is what matters. The authors of the World Bank study answer this emphatically. Using a sophisticated regression analysis, they conclude that ‘we did not detect any relationship between inequality and violent crime, nor between unemployment and any crime type.’ If it is not poverty and inequality, then what?

We know, for example, that the victims of most violent crime often know the perpetrator. The 2016 Demographic and Health Survey reveals that 17% of women aged 18 to 24 had experienced violence from a partner in the 12 months before the survey. Economists in the US have developed sophisticated household bargaining models to explain this form of violence, but more could be done to test these models in the South African context.

If there is a dearth of research on the causes of crime, there is even less known about the consequences. The costs of a traumatic experience can be multifaceted for the victim, from the direct medical costs to the life-long psychological and emotional pain. And the effects on family and friends, their relationships and interactions, their productivity and future plans, are enormously difficult to quantify.

A new NBER working paper attempts to measure one, often forgotten, cost of domestic violence: the effect on children in utero. Because crime statistics is difficult to get past university ethics committees, it is difficult to track the victims of crime over time in order to measure the effect of the traumatic experience on later-life outcomes. The three authors of this study, Janet Currie, Michael Mueller-Smith and Maya Rossin-Slater, use a unique source of linked administrative data from New York City. They combine birth records with information on maternal residential addresses with the exact locations and dates of reported crimes to compare the outcomes of women who have a reported assault in their home in months 0 through 9 postconception to those who experience an assault 1 to 10 months after the estimated due date.

Their results are startling. Women who suffer from domestic violence during pregnancy, especially during the third trimester, have as much as 50% higher rates of births that are very low birth weight (less than 1,500 grams) and are very pre-term (less than 34 weeks gestation). The likelihood of induced labour also increases for these women.

The authors then do a back-of-the-envelope calculation of the costs of US domestic violence. ‘We calculate an average social cost of $41,771 per assault during pregnancy. Assuming that 2.6 percent of pregnant women experience an assault—the national victimization rate estimated from survey data—this figure translates into a total annual social cost in excess of $4.25 billion.’

Many might groan at trying to put a number on these tragic experiences, but quantifying the social costs – in other words, the costs for society – of domestic violence is one way to help governments prioritise preventative and remedial expenditures. The high rates of domestic violence and abuse in South Africa, particularly of women during their most fertile years, suggests that the costs of domestic violence would be significantly higher here compared to the US. And because domestic violence is more likely to be suffered by women from poor households, this may suggest, according to the authors, ‘an important and previously understudied mechanism by which early-life health disparities perpetuate persistent economic inequality across generations’.

Violence, in all its manifestations, is costly for society, which is why we should invest more resources into understanding its causes and consequences. Domestic abuse, in particular, seems to carry not only a cost for the current generation, but is likely to affect the next generation through its intergenerational effect on children in utero. Understanding and preventing it may be one of the key ways to fight deepening inequality and poverty persistence.

**An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 16 August edition of finweek.

Written by Johan Fourie

September 19, 2018 at 08:00

Making South Africans more productive

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Drone

Economic growth is defined, in its most basic form, as doing more with less. Economists often overcomplicate things. We talk about ‘an increase in gross domestic product (GDP) per capita of 2%’ when in fact we could simply say ‘the average South African produced 2% more than last year’. More production translates into greater incomes. Take India and China. At an average growth rate of 7%, these countries will double their production/output/income in 10 years. In contrast, if South Africa continues to grow at 2% it will take 36 years to double our income. That is why South Africans are so upset: we see millions of Indians and Chinese growing wealthier, transforming their countries from subsistence breadbaskets to industrial and ICT powerhouses, while we are frustrated by the meagre increases in our living standards.

The Indians and Chinese also show that it is only economic growth that will allow us to escape poverty. We cannot redistribute ourselves rich. Even if incomes were equalised in South Africa, we would still be poorer than those Americans who live below the poverty line. The unescapable truth is that if we want to prosper, we need to make South Africans, all of us, more productive; we need to get South Africans to produce more than they do at the moment.

With an unemployment rate upwards of 30%, this would not seem to be too difficult a task. A lot of people are able and willing to work – to produce stuff – but they currently cannot find employment at the price they are willing to work for. How we address this mismatch is a question that should occupy the minds of the smartest people in our society. Perhaps we need more students to study growth theory, industrial organisation, labour economics and economic history – compared to India and China, for example, too few South Africans take up graduate studies in Economics. But perhaps we also need more scientists, entrepreneurs, tinkerers, coders, designers, educators and experimenters with the vision and ability to make their fellow citizens more productive. In short: we need more people like Norman Borlaug.

An agronomist who completed his PhD in plant pathology, Borlaug became fascinated as a student with the productivity of crop farming. In the 1940s, he moved to a research unit in Mexico where he began developing high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties. His wheat varieties, combined with modern agricultural production techniques, soon improved Mexican farmers’ incomes, and then spread to other countries. By 1963, Mexico became a net exporter of wheat. Between 1965 and 1970, wheat yields nearly doubled in Pakistan and India. In 1970, Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for leading the ‘Green Revolution’, a massive transformation of agricultural productivity in mostly Latin America and Asia.

A new NBER Working Paper by three economists spell out just how consequential this revolution was. They use variation in geography combined with the exogenous timing of agricultural research successes in high-yielding crops to measure the effect of the high-yielding crops on output. The results are startling: they find that a 10-percentage point increase in the share of area under high-yielding varieties in 2000 is associated with a massive 10-15 percentage point increase in per capita GDP. To put that differently, if a country moves from having no high-yielding crops to having half its crops of the high-yielding type, then income will almost double. That is why Borlaug is considered to have saved almost a billion people from starvation.

Higher agricultural output, in a Malthusian world, usually results in fertility increases as food becomes more abundant. But the authors also show that this was not the case with the Green Revolution. Higher agricultural yields actually reduced population size, as parents chose quality over quantity.

The paper also shows that the new high-yielding crop varieties, in contrast to what many environmentalists believe, actually benefited the environment. Increases in the area under high-yielding varieties has, the authors find, tended to reduce the amount of land devoted to agriculture – ‘improvements in the productivity of food crops actually lead to intensification of agriculture on a smaller land area, preventing expansion on the extensive margin’.

Their results suggest at least three lessons. First, there is huge potential for improving living standards in developing countries through new crop varieties remains. This is especially true in many African countries, where adoption is far from universal, and agriculture is still an important sector. Second, new biological technologies are available to increase productivity of some crops, both by increasing yields and by reducing costs – for example, disease-resistant varieties that minimise the need for spraying with costly pesticides. Third, ‘technology continues to have a huge potential for improving incomes in the poorest places on our planet’. Indeed, the authors’ results suggest that the investments in the development of high-yielding crops have been ‘the most successful form of foreign aid to developing countries in the past half century’.

By itself, land reform in South Africa will not be enough to improve living standards, as the rest of the continent’s poor agricultural productivity attest to. What is needed is large investments in developing new technologies – universities, research institutes and the research capacity of state-owned enterprises, with the help of foreign donors like the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – to improve the productivity of our farms and factories and fibre-optic networks.

‘Whoever makes two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before,’ writes Jonathan Swift in Gulliver’s Travels, ‘would deserve better of mankind, and do more essential service to his country, than the whole race of politicians put together.’

Technology and scientific advancement is often last in line when the menu of economic policies are discussed in South Africa and on the rest of the continent. But technology that can ‘make two blades of grass to grow upon a spot of ground where only one grew before’ – or, in a more general sense, can make South Africans produce more with less – is the only way we can escape the stasis of the last decade, regardless of what South African politicians repeatedly promise.

**An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 19 July edition of finweek.

Written by Johan Fourie

August 27, 2018 at 08:00