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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.

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Don’t bet against the historians

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PikettyWEHC

Every three years, economic historians from across the globe gather in one place to discuss the latest research in our field. And so it was again this year that, in early August, more than 1400 of these interdisciplinary scholars convened at MIT in Boston for the latest rendition of the World Economic History Congress (WEHC). It was hot and humid outside, but inside the conference and classrooms, the discussions were no less heated.

Normally a friendly and somewhat reserved crowd, it is as if the political developments of the last three years has forced economic historians out of their slumber. That classic history cartoon – an old man sitting in his rocking chair saying ‘Those who don’t study history are doomed to repeat it. Yet those who do study history are doomed to stand by helplessly while everyone else repeats it’ – seems more apt than ever. As always, there were papers on esoteric topics such as occupational mobility in early-twentieth century Greenland, wine glasses in China during the eighteenth century, or what pollen data can tell us about market integration in Ancient Greece. But it seemed to me, now at my fourth WEHC, that this year the research questions were more aimed at the big questions of the present: How does globalisation lead to populist pushback? Why are inequalities increasing in rich countries, and what can be done about it? How do entrepreneurs use (abuse) networks to become successful? History offers clues (but no quick-fix answers) to all these questions.

Two plenary sessions exemplified this. On the last day of the conference, Jane Humphries and Claudia Goldin debated the missing role of women in economic history. While Humphries, professor of Economic History at Oxford University, discussed the importance of women to the Industrial Revolution, Goldin, a professor of Economics at Harvard, discussed the more recent transition of women into the labour market. She showed, by using extensive data from Harvard Business School graduates, how the gender wage gap can to a large extent be explained by women’s preferences for flexible work. This, she argued, what can be done to close the gap further: women prospered in teams where their skills are substitutable. Instead of operating as a single physician, for example, female doctors were much more likely to stay in the labour market and work more hours if they worked as part of a team of medical experts.

But the big event of the congress was undoubtedly Thomas Piketty’s plenary session. Piketty, who is professor of Economics at the Parish School and known for his best-seller Capital in the 21st Century, has now shifted his inequality work to the political realm. He made a compelling case that the expansion of higher education has altered the traditional alliances in politics. Using three case studies – of France, England and the US – he showed that support from the intellectual elite – those with university degrees – has increasingly shifted to the left in all three countries over the last three centuries. For example, in 1948, less than 20% of all voters with a Masters degree voted for the US democratic candidate; in 2016, it was 70%. Why? Remember that the Democratic Party in the US (or the Labour Party in the UK) is more in favour of redistribution than the Republican Party (or the Conservative Party). For that reason, they tend to get most of their support from the poor (or, at least, those that stand to benefit from redistribution). But the poor is not uneducated anymore. In 1948, slightly more than 20% of voters had a tertiary degree, while in 2016, it was more than 50%. By definition, of course, if 50% of voters have a university degree, they cannot all be in the richest 10%. This means that there has become a disconnect between the educated and the rich. That is why, according to Piketty, new political positions become possible; he identifies four groups of almost equal size that have now emerged in his native France: internationalist-egalitarian (pro-migrant, pro-poor), internationalist-inegalitarian (pro-migrant, pro-rich), nativist-inegalitarian (anti-migrant, pro-rich), and nativist-egalitarian (anti-migrant, pro-poor). The success of Emmanuel Macron was that he could appeal to multiple of these groups.

‘Politics has never been a simple poor vs rich conflict’, says Piketty. ‘One needs to look at the multi-dimensional content of political cleavages.’ We also see this play out in the South African context. The ANC is currently a broad church – from the rural poor to the urban sophisticate. But how long can they maintain this delicate balance, when issues such as globalisation, migration and automation will have decidedly negative effects on one part of their electorate while benefiting another? And these clashes may not be along the fault lines of yesteryear. Capital and labour, poor and rich, educated and uneducated are now in flux. As Piketty says, the US might be returning to the 19th century political alignment, with globalists (high-income, high-education) on one side and nativists (low-income, low-education) on the other. Or it could go the route of the Democratic Party in the US, whose pro-slavery/segregationists introduced poor white policies which also benefited poor blacks. Or we could instead see the re-emergence of a globalist-egalitarian elite like we did in the aftermath of World War II, a system that resulted in the end of colonialism and a global Golden Age of growth.

The high levels of inequality in South Africa would make the continuation of a single, unified ANC seem unlikely in the medium to long run. Rapid globalisation, automation and increasing pressure on immigration are fissures that even a great leader will be unlikely to control. If history (and economic historians) have anything to add, it is that the future is unlikely to be just a continuation of the present.

**An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 30 August edition of finweek.

Written by Johan Fourie

October 8, 2018 at 08:00

The Autshumao and Krotoa International Airport of Cape Town: My letter to ACSA

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AutshumaoKrotoa

Renaming of Cape Town International Airport: A proposal

I would hereby like to submit a nomination for Cape Town International Airport’s new name.

Cape Town is an international, cosmopolitan city, a ‘melting pot of cultures’. Many individuals from Cape Town’s rich history deserve to be celebrated in the renaming of Cape Town International Airport. Yet I often find that little attention is given, in place names, traditions, and heritage symbols, to the indigenous inhabitants of the region before the arrival of European settlers in the mid-seventeenth century.

I therefore feel it is appropriate that Cape Town’s international airport should celebrate the people who had lived in the region for several centuries before European arrival, who had contributed to the economic and social development of the Cape, often in subordinate positions of indentured labour, and whose descendants still reside here, now mixed with more recent immigrants from Europe, Asia and Africa, a city that is, indeed, a ‘melting pot of cultures’.

My proposal is therefore to rename Cape Town International Airport to the Autshumao and Krotoa International Airport of Cape Town.

Autshumao was the first inhabitant of South Africa to travel abroad. In 1630, Autshumao was picked up by a British ship – called ‘King Harry’ on board – and travelled to the East. There he learned Dutch and English, and when he returned to the Cape, he would become postmaster on Robben Island. He would also act as the first translator and trader when the Dutch East India Company settlers established a refreshment station in 1652. Autshumao later fell into disfavour as trading partner, and was banned to Robben Island. Nelson Mandela would later call him the ‘first freedom fighter’.

His niece, Krotoa, was a translator in the household of Jan van Riebeeck, the first VOC commander of the Cape. She would marry a Danish surgeon and her progeny would include several South Africans of note, including Paul Kruger, Jan Smuts and FW de Klerk.

Naming Cape Town International Airport the Autshumao and Krotoa International Airport of Cape Town would signal recognition of the first inhabitants of Cape Town, and the ‘melting pot of cultures’ that Cape Town has become.

Kind regards,

Johan Fourie

The unintended consequences of good intentions

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party

We all hope to live long, healthy lives. And we want that for other people too. So when we have medical breakthroughs that allow us to alleviate the suffering of others, almost all of us would agree that it should be rolled out to those needing it most.

Opioid abuse kills 42000 Americans annually. Opioids are a class of drugs usually prescribed to treat pain, but many patients develop addictions that result in the illegal use of prescription drugs or even cheaper alternatives, like herion. Opioid abuse has increased steadily over the last decade to now constitute more than two-thirds of all drug overdose deaths. How to stop and reverse this rising trend has been the subject of debate amongst public health officials and policymakers for some time.

One option, preferred by most US health experts, is Naloxone. Naloxone is a drug that can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose if administered quickly. In short: it can save many lives if it is easily accessible. With this knowledge, many US states began to pass laws that facilitated the widespread distribution and use of Naloxone. Surely this policy would save thousands of American lives?

Unfortunately and surprisingly, it had the opposite effect. This is the astounding conclusions of a new study by Jennifer Doleac of the University of Virginia and Anita Mukherjee of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. The two economists find that broadening Naloxone access had ‘no reduction in opioid-related mortality’.  Why? Because the availability of Naloxone encouraged riskier behaviour; access to Naloxone increased the use and abuse of opioids. Doleac and Mukherjee show, for example, that where Naloxone became available, it was followed by a clear increase in opioid-related emergency room visits and more opioid-related theft. In some places, like the Midwest, there was even an increase in opioid-related deaths, as abuse increased because people were comforted by the knowledge that there is a way out. A policy with fundamentally good intentions had perverse outcomes.

This is a classic example of the dilemma that policymakers face on a daily basis. Good intentions do not equate to good policy. Differently put, the road to hell is paved with good intentions. What is needed is an understanding that humans react to incentives, and that if the incentives change, so will their behaviour.

Sport is a great example of how policies can have undesired consequences. Increase the points awarded for a try to encourage more running rugby? Maybe it works, but it is more likely that it will encourage foul play because a penalty is now a relatively less expensive mistake. Design cricket helmets to make batsmen safe from bouncers? Possibly, but it is equally likely that fewer batsmen now learn to play the bouncer well, and are thus hit on the head more often (obviously with less severe consequences). Give three log points for a win in a soccer championship instead of two to encourage more attacking play? Expect more defensive home games and draws as teams want to avoid ‘losing three points at home’. These examples may be somewhat facetious, but they show just how difficult it is to regulate human behaviour.

One policy that is likely to have serious ramifications for South Africans is the proposed Liquor Amendment Bill, which will increase the minimum drinking age from 18 to 21 years. The goal, ostensibly, is to reduce the number of alcohol-related deaths of teenagers, both from overconsumption and from the associated violence and car accidents. There is no doubt of the good intentions here. Alcohol abuse can have deadly consequences. Limiting the drinking age to 21 seems like a rational way to reduce consumption amongst a group of young people that is most at risk. What could go wrong?

The answer is: we don’t really know. Would young adults be happy teetotallers for three years, or would they find alternative means of enjoying the products of Bacchus? Are the alternatives – hiding consumption from adult supervision, or consuming unregulated drinks bought on the black market – not potentially worse?

Perhaps we can find examples elsewhere. Empirical evidence in the US seems to suggest that increasing the minimum drinking age reduced car accidents by around five percent. That would be great, of course, although those results rely on strict enforcement capabilities and supporting institutions. Would violence, particularly against woman, cease? Perhaps it would, but the new bill might also shift drinking away from bars and public places and into the home, with even worse outcomes.

Any policy, regardless of its intentions, has consequences. Some are obvious to see, but often our good intentions have undesired or even perverse outcomes that nullify or even contradict the initial aims. We can avoid the worst of these by carefully considering the alternatives, through modelling behaviour and empirical testing (of similar policy experiments). But often the bad news is that, despite our best intentions, humans are best left to their own devices.

*An edited version of this article originally first appeared in the 29 March edition of finweek

Written by Johan Fourie

May 7, 2018 at 10:00

Thuma Mina

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Ramaphosa

Today is a good day to be South African. Cyril Ramaphosa, one day after being sworn in as South Africa’s fifth democratic president, delivered a State of the Nation address last night that reminded us who we can be. Over the last nine years, we had become conditioned to the mediocrity of Jacob Zuma, had set the bar so low that our optimism of a better tomorrow had withered away. With one speech, Ramaphosa allayed the melancholy. Rise, South Africa, he said, and rebuild the dream of a prosperous and just society.

It requires action, and he has many plans. A smaller and more efficient government, support for entrepreneurs, investment in innovation, welcoming tourists, broader ownership of agriculture. But success will not depend on him alone. It cannot. In what reminded me of Kennedy’s ‘ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country’, Ramaphosa told South Africans to take responsibility for the future they want: In the words of Hugh Masekela, thuma mina (Send Me).

We are at a moment in the history of our nation when the people, through their determination, have started to turn the country around.

We can envisage the triumph over poverty, we can see the end of the battle against AIDS.

Now is the time to lend a hand.

Now is the time for each of us to say ‘send me’.

Now is the time for all of us to work together, in honour of Nelson Mandela, to build a new, better South Africa for all.

Much work must be done. Not everything promised can surely be delivered. But the tide has turned. Today is a good day to be South African.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 17, 2018 at 10:01

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.

Policy uncertainty is killing investment in what matters

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microscope

Much has already been said about South Africa’s inefficient public sector. Not only has the public sector wage bill escalated beyond the realms of the sustainable, but this has come at almost zero public sector productivity growth. In other words, we are paying more for government to do less. Add to that the poor performances of state-owned enterprises like Eskom, the SABC and most notoriously, South African Airways, and it seems that there is little more that the South African government can do to hurt the prospects for economic growth.

But there is. A new NBER working paper, published by Jose Maria Barrero, Nicholas Bloom and Ian Wright, uses new data on about 4000 US firms to investigate the sources of uncertainty in the US economy. They first distinguish between short-term and long-term uncertainty, identifying the factors that cause each type of uncertainty. They then ask how each type of uncertainty affect firms’ behaviour.

Short-term uncertainty, they find, is caused by oil price volatility. In contrast, economic variables like the oil price has less of an effect on long-term uncertainty where political risk, like policy uncertainty, has a much larger effect. The important result is that short-term and long-term uncertainty have different consequences for firm behaviour. Short-term uncertainty affects employment; long-term uncertainty affects investment in research and development.

If we assume this is true for South Africa too, how would it play out? Volatility of several macroeconomic variables, like the oil price and exchange rate, cause higher short-term uncertainty. This would likely make firms unwilling to hire new workers, or make managers unwilling to offer higher wages. These are the consequences economic commentators typically cite when referring to an unstable macroeconomic environment.

But employment and wages are not the only variables affected by uncertainty. One of the key indicators of a thriving economy is businesses’ willingness to invest in research and development. Take R&D as a percentage of GDP, shown in the Figure below. There is large variation in the share that countries spend on research and development: Israel and South Korea, for example, spend more than 4% of their GDP on R&D. South Africa spend less than 0.8%. (This figure almost reached 0.9% in the 2006-2008 period, a period not surprisingly correlated with high growth rates.)

RDspending

There is a strong positive correlation between countries that grow fast and those that invest in research and development. South Africa, unfortunately, significantly lags those countries at the technological frontier. It is important, though, to understand why this is the case. It is not only government that invests in R&D; in fact, more than half of all R&D investment in South Africa comes from the private sector.

So what will encourage businesses to invest more in R&D? Well, according to Barrero, Bloom and Wright, political risk and policy uncertainty is the biggest determinant of private sector investment in R&D. In a political environment with little policy coherence, business are unlikely to make investments where the returns can only be realized in the long-run. Even if the possible returns are substantial, a rational investment response to a murky policy environment would be to sit back and see what happens. Lower investment in R&D means falling further behind international competitors.

There are some in the South African government who realise this. Minister of Science and Technology, Naledi Pandor, has committed to doubling R&D expenditure as a percentage of GDP by 2020. This is commendable, but in the current budgetary environment, unlikely to get the support from the Minister of Finance. Other initiatives to get the private sector investing in R&D, like a refundable tax credit that will benefit small businesses, have not been implemented.

These problems are not unique to South Africa. As the authors argue: ‘Our findings are significant in the wake of recent events like Britain’s vote to leave the European Union and Donald Trump’s assumption of the US Presidency, which have generated considerable uncertainty over future economic policy around the world. As we have shown, such policy uncertainty is particularly linked with long-run uncertainty and in turn with low rates of investment and R&D that can have significant consequences for the global economic outlook in years to come.’

R&D is the bedrock of future prosperity. Political risk that leads to policy uncertainty hurts not only economic growth and employment creation, but also deters firms from investing in the one thing that can create prosperity for all. If the ruling party is serious about its slogan, it better start by enacting more coherent economic policy.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 21 September 2017.