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Onwards and upwards

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_MG_7029

I turn 35 today. I’ve heard a theory that increments of seven are momentous birthdays. I can see that. 14. 21. 28. And now, 35. I don’t feel much older, except for the fact that my body still hurts after Saturday’s half-marathon. Recovery just takes a little longer.

It has been a busy month, as the low frequency of my blog posts will illustrate. LEAP hosted the 7th African Economic History Network meetings, from 25 to 27 October, with more than 80 participants. The LEAP page on Facebook has all the photos from the conference. Emmanuel Akyeampong delivered the second LEAP Lecture (which should be available as a working paper soon) to start the conference, and Trudi Makhaya the final keynote. As I noted in my welcoming address, the remarkable thing about the AEH network is the young average age of participants. I also thought the quality of the presentations were excellent: an increase not only of the quantity but also the quality of research.

LEAP hosted another workshop on Monday and Tuesday. The workshop, sponsored by Utrecht University’s Centre for Global Economic History, was on ‘Time preference and time horizon’. I delivered the final keynote. My argument was that, just as our future orientation affects our current decisions, so do our perspectives on the past. We live in the Age of Nostalgia, as some recent scholars have argued, constructing an often romanticized version of history, and such (biased) views can have political and economic consequences. Think Trump and Brexit.

Welcoming people to Stellenbosch is always nice. I enjoyed many fruitful discussions over good wine with great friends. Now, though, it is time for a return to research before I accompany a group of Stellenbosch students on our annual trip to Leuven – more on that later – and then present at Utrecht, Gothenberg, Lund and Bologna.

It’s raining in Stellenbosch; a surprising, unexpected rain. That can only be a good sign of things to come.

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Written by Johan Fourie

November 9, 2017 at 07:40

The politics of infrastructure

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Cape Town railway historic

What type of infrastructure would be best for South Africa’s future? The answer, of course, depends on your point of view. If you live and work in Gauteng, your answer might well be to expand the Gautrain network. Or if you reside in Cape Town, you might prefer investments in desalinization plants. Your occupation may also be relevant. If you’re a miner, you are unlikely to support the expansion of renewable energies. A trained software engineer? Well, you’re likely to support large investments in telecommunications infrastructure.

An important – but often underappreciated – role of government is to choose the type of infrastructure that is destined to shape the country’s future development path. This choice is never neutral though: for every decision, there are winners and losers. Choose to build a new coal-fired power plant? That will benefit coal mine owners and workers, while the users of electricity, were the costs of alternative sources to fall rapidly, will pay. Choose to build a high-speed train network across the country (a hyperloop, perhaps!), then users of this network, likely to be high- or middle-income South Africans, will benefit, while long-distance bus services, taxi operators and rental cars will pay. The government’s job, in theory at least, is to choose the projects that will maximize the benefits and minimize the costs.

But things are never that simple. A research paper that will soon appear in the European Review of Economic History, written by Alfonso Herranz-Loncan and myself, investigate the infrastructure in the Cape Colony built during the second half of the nineteenth century. Before the discovery of diamonds in 1867, the few railways that existed (in and around Cape Town) were privately-owned and largely unprofitable. But the discovery of diamonds and the rush to the mines meant the demand for fast, affordable inland transport increased exponentially. The Cape government had to react.

They did. They bought the few existing lines, and then began to the process of connecting Cape Town to Kimberley, finally achieved in 1885. The connection to the booming diamond region brought huge economic benefits: we estimate that the railway may account for 22-25 percent of the increase in income per capita in the Cape during the diamond-mining period (1873-1905). This is a massive share for a single investment and a clear indicator of the transformative power of railways during the first era of globalisation.

But these benefits were not equally shared by everyone. Surprisingly, the government itself earned a meager 3.7% average return on its capital. Had a private firm built the railways, far fewer branch lines would probably have been built. As Stellenbosch PhD student Abel Gwaindepi now shows, the government incurred huge debt to build this infrastructure, and although the government did benefit through customs duties and other tariffs, the main beneficiaries were the owners of the diamond fields. The railway link between Cape Town and Kimberley could now transport the machinery and foodstuffs required to feed the growing Kimberley population. Western Cape wheat farmers, who supplied the mines with food, was another group of beneficiaries. It is not entirely coincidental that it was also these two groups – mine owners and Western Cape farmers – who had formed a political alliance in Cape parliament.

Of course, it was not only mine owners and Cape farmers that benefited. As detailed reports of passengers show, Cape Colony residents from all walks of life used the railways. But, ultimately, it was tax payers who had to foot the debt that were incurred, and often these tax payers were spread across the entire colony (far from the direct benefits of the railways) – and after unification in 1910, the rest of the country. And the location of the railways meant that those with less political influence – like Basotho farmers, who were of course producing wheat much closer to the diamond fields – lost out. Here is one missionary report from 1886, the year after the railway line was completed: ‘Basutoland, we must admit, is a poor country… Last year’s abundant harvest has found no outlet for, since the building of the railway, colonial, and foreign wheat have competed disastrously with the local produce.’

The nineteenth-century Cape railways contributed significantly to economic growth, but it inadvertently also had distributional consequences: some benefited more than others, and some even suffered as a result of its construction.

The lessons for today? Politics shapes the type of infrastructure that’s built. And infrastructure shapes the direction of economic development. So the key question is this: Are we building the type of infrastructure that will put South Africa on a path of broad-based economic development, or is the choice of infrastructure determined by the self-interest of those with decision-making power, much like Cecil John Rhodes and his cronies during the late nineteenth-century?

Put differently, when we choose a new power-generating facility or national air carrier or telecommunications license, do we consider the benefits for society as a whole or the benefits for a specific interest group?

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 5 October 2017.

Writing a biography of an uncharted people

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Biography

Two weeks ago, early on the Tuesday morning while still in bed, I opened my laptop to start the day. I was staying in a guest house in Guelph, Canada, where I was on a short visit before heading off to the Economic History Association meetings in San José at the end of that week. Scanning through my mails, my eyes came to rest on an address I had expected – an email from our Development and Alumni Relations officer. It read only: ‘Geluk Johan!’ – ‘Congratulations Johan!’ Our Mellon application was successful. The Biography of an Uncharted People project had begun.

The idea for the Mellon project had started roughly a year earlier. South Africa’s individual-level census data for much of the period before 1948 has not been preserved, and economic history is increasingly moving towards understanding ‘history from below’, using large datasets to investigate the social, demographic and economic aspects of human behaviour in the past. Fortunately, large numbers of other types of individual-level records have been preserved in South Africa’s archives, and are increasingly being digitised by institutions such as FamilySearch.org. These records include things like marriage records, death notices, voters’ rolls, tax censuses and slave emancipation records. Using such source material, I believe, would have two main benefits: firstly, it would open many new avenues for historical inquiry and, secondly, it would help equip history students with the skills of the data revolution, something I’ve written about before.

Dyanti Ngcita

An example of a Cape province death certificate

But transcription is expensive. The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, however, is a generous supporter of research in the humanities, and after a rigorous internal and external application process, with many excellent competing project bids, we received, on that wonderful Tuesday morning, the happy news of success – starting in January 2018, the project will be funded for five years.

This will not only be a South African project. We have brought together an impressive team of scholars, with a wide range of expertise. Now we are scouting for academically dedicated and enthusiastic students to join us in writing this new biography. We offer bursaries from postdoc to Honours level. More information is available on the project website.

I am excited about what the newly transcribed information, currently hidden away in millions of unused documents, can reveal. I am excited about building a team of dedicated and brilliant young scholars, a team that can continue long after the five years funding term. And I am also excited to join a new faculty and department, encouraging inter-disciplinary research that will, hopefully, provide new insights into the lives of South Africans, present and past.

How do we build a prosperous, decolonized South Africa?

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boys-plowing

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 our emotional intelligence makes us productive

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Emotional-Intelligence-1

Economists spend a lot of time investigating the factors that make people more productive. This is because more productive people – producing more, with less – is the reason we can today afford a much higher standard of living than our ancestors – in Africa, India or Europe – two centuries ago.

Many things improve our productivity. Technological improvements like a computer can allow us to use the power of machines to substitute manual labour. Education allow us to build faster and stronger computers. Both technology and education are key if we are to continue building and sharing a prosperous future.

But it is not only technology and education that improve our living standards. There are formal and informal institutions – things like the criminal-justice system, property right regimes and the political system – that create the incentives for us to invest in technology and education. And there are the even less tangible things, like the way we make decisions (often referred to as ‘culture’), or our personalities. Economists are only now beginning to explore the roots of these ‘soft’ determinants.

Psychologists have known for long that our personality affect the way we make decisions. One example: Whether we apply for that senior position may depend on whether we exhibit the leadership qualities that is required to lead a large team. But what determines whether we have those leadership abilities? Is it nature or nurture?

One option is to look at siblings. If genetic traits (nature) were the only source of leadership qualities, then almost all the variation we find in society would be between families. In other words, there should be little variation between brothers, for example, as they have a lot of genetic overlap.

This is not the case, however, at least according to a recent NBER Working Paper written by three economists, Sandra Black, Björn Öckert and Erik Gröngqvist. Almost a third of total variation in personality traits, they note, are within the family. So, if it is not only nature that determine much of your personality, where do these within-family differences come from?

One possibility, they argue, is birth-order. Using a very rich Swedish dataset, the authors find that first-born children are ‘advantaged’ when measured on their ‘emotional stability, persistence, social outgoingness, willingness to assume responsibility and ability to take initiative’. Note: these are non-cognitive abilities, i.e. there is little difference in terms of a first-born and a third-born’s innate ability to do math, for example. It is on the softer abilities, instead, that first-borns clearly outperform their lower-ranked siblings: third-born children, for example, have non-cognitive abilities that are 0.2 standard deviations below first-born children.

These non-cognitive abilities matter. Controlling for many things, they show that first-born children are almost 30% more likely to be Top Managers compared to third-borns. This is because managerial positions, they argue, tend to require all Big Five domains of personality: openness to experience, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and emotional stability.

But why does birth-order matter? The authors argue for largely three possible reasons. First, biology. Successive children may have less of the stereotypical male behavioural traits due to the mother’s immunization to the H-Y antigen. But this seems unlikely to explain most of the variation, as the authors also find that birth order patterns vary depending on the sex composition of the older children: third-born sons perform worse on non-cognitive tests when their older siblings are male compared to when they are female.

This suggests that it has something to do with how parents allocate their time and resources, especially in the early years. ‘First-born children have the full attention of parents, but as families grow the family environment is diluted and parental resources become scarcer’, the authors argue. Parents may also have incentives for more strict parenting practices towards the first born to ensure a reputation for “toughness” necessary to induce effort among later born children.

Thirdly, children may also act strategically in competing for parental resources. Siblings compete for possession of property and access to the mother. Older siblings, research shows, tend to take a more dominant role in conflict and have more elaborate conflict strategies. To minimise conflict, parents tend to invest more in the dominant, older sibling.

Using a novel approach, the authors can identify which of these effects is largest. They find that biological factors only explain a small part, and may actually benefit later-born children. It is however in the behaviour of parents that there are distinct differences between first- and later-born children: they find that later-born children spend substantially less time on homework and more time watching TV. Parents are also less likely to discuss school work with later-born children, suggesting that it is the parents that lower their investment which explains the large gap in non-cognitive skills.

What the authors do not do is to link their results with the general improvement in living standards over the last two centuries. We are becoming ‘better angels of our nature’ because we grow up in smaller families with more parental attention and resources, improving our non-cognitive abilities.

It is not only the vast improvement in technology and education that has made us more productive, but also because we have become more conscientious, agreeable, responsible and willing to take the initiative. We are rich, in part, because we are more emotionally intelligent.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 1 June 2017.

Written by Johan Fourie

June 23, 2017 at 07:49

South Africa’s Great Leap Backward

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Great Leap Forward

Over the next few days, South Africa’s new Minister of Finance, Malusi Gigaba, will meet with representatives of the IMF, the World Bank, international investors, and ratings agencies in the US. His aim is to restore confidence, to steer the South African ship through the troubled waters of junk status.

This was a tough task a week ago, but his appointment of Chris Malikane, associate professor of Economics at Wits University, as adviser, has made this almost impossible. Malikane penned an 8-page manifesto early in April, which will apparently form the basis of his policy advice to Treasury. The document is available here: Chris Malikane – Concerning the Current Situation 2017. (Brace yourself: the phrase ‘white monopoly capital’ appears 58 times. The words ‘science’ or ‘innovation’, not once.)

I read the document just before I had to teach a class on China’s Great Leap Forward yesterday, and the similarities were startling. Malikane calls for the expropriation of ‘banks, insurance companies, mines and other monopoly industries, to industrialise the economy’. He wants to establish a state bank, nationalise the Reserve Bank, and ‘expropriate all land without compensation to the ownership of the state’. Oh, and he also wants ‘free, quality and decolonised education, free and quality healthcare, improved quality housing, community infrastructure, etc., affordable and safe public transport, and affordable and reliable basic services such as water, sanitation and electricity’.

An excellent Business Day editorial summed it up perfectly:

Malikane’s ideas are rooted in Marxist voodoo economics. For a finance minister to be taking advice from one with such outmoded and unorthodox ideas puts SA on the path towards such economic disasters as Zimbabwe and Venezuela. Doing so is an act of grotesque irresponsibility.

Just as we all borrow from banks to pay home loans, so South Africa borrows from international lenders to pay our expenses (which are more than our income, i.e. our budget deficit). If international investors do not believe we will be able to repay, they will make our loans more expensive by raising interest rates. It is not that these international investors want to exploit us – just as banks do not exploit us when we voluntarily go to them for loans – it is just that they want to make sure they get their money back. How an academic macroeconomist at one of South Africa’s top universities do not understand this, I do not know. One has to wonder what he teaches his students at Wits?

I hope the IMF, World Bank, investor and ratings agency representatives ask Gigaba about the economics of his new adviser. I hope they ask him what exactly Malikane will do in his capacity as adviser. I hope they ask him to state his own views about the market economy, about the interplay of fiscal and monetary policy, and, just for fun, about the role of Marxist economic thought in understanding international capital flows. And I hope they ask him whether he’s heard of China’s Great Leap Forward, and its consequences for the Chinese economy.*

*Spoiler alert: 43 million people died.

The economic stories we tell

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Economic stories

Story-telling is as old as civilization. Around the fire, in religious texts, and in children’s books, stories give us identity, teach us right from wrong, and inculcate us with the norms and values that help us make sense of the world around us.

Economists are beginning to understand that stories also shape our behaviour, and therefore our economic outcomes. In a new NBER paper, financial economist Robert Shiller, the 2013 Nobel-prize winner, calls for the study of what he calls ‘economic narratives’. He argues that the way we talk about certain events, the stories that were told during the Great Depression (of the 1930s) or the Great Recession (of 2007) or even the stories we tell of Trump’s economic policies today, affected (or will affect) the outcomes of these events. Business cycles, he explains, cannot only be explained by the rationality of numbers. The stories we tell, and how these stories spread, matter too.

Economic stories or narratives are simplified ways to help us understand the world. They can take many forms: from newspaper articles and books, to memes, anecdotes, and even jokes. They often appeal to us not because they account for all facts, but because they explain the world in a way that strengthens our existing biases and beliefs. And their success is unpredictable: consider how difficult it is to identify the next ‘hit’ on YouTube or cultural trend to go ‘viral’.

Shiller uses, well, a story to explain the impact of stories. One evening in 1974, at the Two Continents in Washington DC, economist Arthur Laffer had dinner with White House influentials Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfield. They discussed tax policy, and Laffer took a napkin and drew an inverted-u graph. On the left side, tax rates were 0%, which means tax income was also zero. On the right side, tax rates were 100%, which meant that no-one would work and tax income would also be zero. The point of the curve was to show that there is an optimal tax rate where tax income cannot increase further, whether you increase or decrease tax rates.

This meeting in 1974 would not have been remembered, was it not for the story-telling powers of Jude Wanniski, who wrote a colourful article in National Affairs about the dinner four years later. The story went viral (see image), and had a massive impact on Ronald Reagan’s election as US president in 1980 and his commitment to cutting taxes. (He argued that cutting taxes could increase tax revenue because America was on the wrong side of the Laffer curve). This story was so powerful that a napkin with a Laffer curve is today displayed in the National Museum of American History.

Laffercurve

Shiller is, of course, not the first to argue that stories matter. A few years ago, Barry Eichengreen, professor of Economics at UC Berkeley, explained in his presidential speech to the Economic History Association that, while scientists use deductive or inductive reasoning in their research, policy-makers often rely on analogical reasoning. He knows this from experience: when the severity of the Great Recession became known in 2007, policy-makers realised they had to act fast. Had they followed a deductive approach, they would have had to agree on the theoretical reasons for the crisis. Eichengreen argues that this was almost impossible given the deep divides in the field of macroeconomics. Had they followed an inductive approach, they would have had to rely on statistical evidence, much of which was not available immediately.

So instead they turned to an event that they had studied: the Great Depression of the 1930s. Ben Bernanke, who was a student of the Great Depression, used analogical reasoning to ensure that the same mistakes were not repeated. Expansionary monetary and fiscal policy followed. The analogy with the Great Depression also made it easier to communicate their policy response to the broader public. Instead of trying to explain theory or statistics, they could construct a narrative that helped people understand why quantitative easing or fiscal stimulus was necessary.

If stories matter in shaping our response to economic events or in persuading us of the validity of some economic policies, what should economists do about it? Shiller suggests that we should incorporate textual analysis into our research: “There should be more serious efforts at collecting further time series data on narratives, going beyond the passive collection of others’ words, towards experiments that reveal meaning and psychological significance.” But this is difficult: “The meanings of words depend on context and change through time. The real meaning of a story, which accounts for its virality, may also change through time and is hard to track in the long run.” New techniques in data science may help.

Eichengreen proposes more emphasis on the study of history. Consider the case of a bank failure in South Africa today. What will we use as policy response: theory, statistics, or earlier bank failures, like Saambou and African Bank? Probably the latter. The problem, Eichengreen warns, is that there is not a single version of history. We all have our ideological glasses through which we look at the past. This is especially true when the facts of what had happened during these past failures are not widely known. The recent Bankorp saga comes to mind.

Because ‘historical narratives are contested’, Eichengreen suggests, we should see ‘more explicit attention to the question of how such narratives are formed’. In other words, if we want to improve our understanding of the world and our ability to predict the future, it’s time economists learn how people tell stories, and how these stories persuade us to behave differently.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 23 February.