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The formula for success

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The world of work is changing. Skills that were valuable only a decade or two ago seem less valuable nowadays, displaced by newer trends and technologies. Every few weeks a news article report on the threat of automation, and how it will destroy millions of jobs, including yours. A YouTube video of a robot jumping over obstacles confirms that the inevitable is only a few months away.

The answer, many seem to think, is to become like computers. Students, in South Africa and elsewhere, are encouraged to pursue STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – careers. Humanities degrees or those in the social sciences, in contrast, are often considered less prestigious. We know that the best-paying jobs are still those where a decent amount of math is required. In South Africa, this is of particular concern, as the gender and racial composition of those enrolling for STEM degrees differ significantly from those enrolling for degrees in the humanities, exacerbating inequality.


But the story is more complicated than that. A new paper by David Deming, published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics (QJE), suggests that, at least in the United States, STEM graduates are not doing very well. In fact, between 2000 and 2012, STEM jobs shrank by 0.1 percentage points, after growing by 1.3 percentage points in the previous two decades. In contrast, all other ‘cognitive occupations’, jobs like managers, teachers, nurses, physicians, lawyers and economists , grew by 2.9 percentage points between 2000 and 2012, faster than the 2 percentage points in the previous decade. The figure below demonstrates this clearly: only 36% of STEM occupational categories had positive growth, compared to 85% of other professional occupations.

The reason for this, Deming argues, is that managers, teachers and physicians all require significant interpersonal skills. And because of the technological change – the same technological change we all fear! – these social skills are increasingly in demand. Deming explains: ‘The skills and tasks that cannot be substituted away by automation are generally complemented by it, and social interaction has, at least so far, proven difficult to automate. Our ability to read and react to others is based on tacit knowledge, and computers are still very poor substitutes for tasks where programmers don’t know “the rules”.’

Using a wide variety of sources, Deming finds that jobs that require high levels of both cognitive and social skills have fared particularly well, while high math, low social skill jobs (including many STEM occupations) have fared especially poorly. ‘Social skills were a much stronger predictor of employment and wages for young adults age 25 to 33 in the mid-2000s, compared to the 1980s and the 1990s.’ There is a revolution in the job market underway that no-one is talking about.


Where do these social skills come from? Deming speculates that much of it is formed during early childhood development, although this is difficult to prove. The latest research that have followed children from a young age into adulthood have found strong correlations between kids’ socioemotional skills in kindergarten and adult outcomes such as employment and earnings.

The demand for social skills may also have implications for gender imbalances in the workplace. Women often choose careers that require more social interaction. If these jobs are in greater demand, with faster earnings increases, the gender gap may close quicker.

The optimism about the closing of the gender gap, though, is pegged by another study published in the same journal, by authors Matthew Wiswall and Basit Zafar. They test a group of New York University students about their preferences for flexible hours when they enter the job market, and find that students are willing to give up 2.8% of their annual earnings for a job with a centage point lower probability of job dismissal. They also find that students are willing to give up 5.1% of their salary to have a job that offers the option of working part-time hours. But there is a large gender difference: female students have a much higher average preference for flexible hours – 7.3% – compared to men – 1.1%. What the authors then do is to track the students after they graduate, and record their actual earnings four years later. Wiswall and Zafar find that those students with a high preference for work flexibility do actually end up in occupations with greater flexibility. But because women already prefer more flexible work even before they’ve started working, they also tend to earn less once they’ve entered the labour market, choosing jobs with lower pay and greater flexibility. At least a quarter of the gender gap in the labour market, the authors argue, can be explained by just these differences in preference.

These studies show how our social skills and preferences affect our labour market outcomes. Policies that aim to address labour market distortions, like race or gender gaps, should know that the roots of the problem may lie in preferences and skills moulded in the early years of development.

That is not to say that nothing can be done: for those going to university this year, perhaps one thing to keep in mind is that your future earnings depend not only on attending math class, but also on developing your social skills. Here’s one formula to remember: Math + beer = success.

>>> An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 1 February 2018 edition of finweek.


Written by Johan Fourie

March 13, 2018 at 08:00

Patience is not only a virtue

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Cologne Cathedral. Painting by Josef Langl

Patience is not only a virtue. It might also be the root of economic prosperity.

On 15 August 1248, the Archbishop of Cologne laid the foundation stone of a cathedral that would take 632 years to complete. One of the remarkable things about the cathedral, apart from the mesmerizing Gothic architecture of its twin spires that stand 157m tall, is that it was largely funded by civil society. How is it possible, one wonders, that a community can fund the construction of a building that they, nor their children, nor even their children’s children, would never see completed?

Patience is a virtue, says a fifth-century poem, but economists are increasingly confident that is a key building block of economic prosperity too. Two concepts are of relevance. The first is to what degree do you consider the future in your decision-making – your time preference. The second concept is the period of time that is relevant for you current decision-making – your time horizon. Patient people tend to have a high time preference and a long time horizon. And as more and more experimental evidence now show, so do successful people.

The study of patience was made famous by the Stanford marshmallow experiment. In the late 1960s, Walter Mischel offered children, in a controlled experimental environment, a choice between a small reward like a marshmallow immediately or a larger award (two marshmallows) if they waited 15 minutes. Some children immediately grabbed the marshmallow and swallowed it down. Others waited a while, and then had a bite. But several waited diligently until the fifteen minutes had passed for their second marshmallow. To their surprise, the researchers found in follow-up studies that children who were able to wait for the higher pay-off were also more likely to have better school outcomes, BMI and other life measures.

The question, of course, is whether patience is the result of genetic inheritance or environmental influence. In a 2007 Journal of Public Economics paper, Eric Bettinger and Robert Slonim found that parent’s patience are uncorrelated with their children’s patience, questioning the belief that it’s only nature at work. They also found, however, that mathematics scores and whether a child has attended a private school was also uncorrelated, suggesting that nurture’s influence is also limited.

The one result that most studies find is that girls tend to be more patient than boys. This has important implications for motiving children. Girls are more likely, for example, to respond to student performance incentives. A study that paid Israeli students conditional on their performance on university exams had a greater effect on girls. Knowing what determines patience can go a long way in helping kids perform better at school, and achieve better life outcomes.

While most research focus on individual-level outcomes, the question is whether patience also matters at the societal level? Global surveys now ask questions that allow us to deduce some measure of time preference or time horizon. The results suggest that while these generally correlate positively with GDP per capita, it is not always the case. Citizens of Botswana and Kenya, for example, are more patient, on average, than those of Japan and France. (South Africa, by the way, is very close to the world average.)

Patience does not only vary across space, but also across time. At a conference at Stellenbosch University during November last year, Jan Luiten van Zanden and Gerarda Westerhuis of Utrecht University presented a paper on how time preference has changed across the last few centuries. They argue that, during the Middle Ages in Europe, the ‘future’ became more important, in other words, people’s time preference increased. The consequence was that saving and investment increase, and that people started to accumulate capital with long time horizons. The construction of the Cologne Cathedral is one example of this. Why that is remains somewhat of a mystery, but there are clues in the changing (religious) beliefs and institutions of the time. Consider, for example, the emergence of corporations, initially religious institutions and guilds but later companies, notably the limited liability company, which would transcend the life of shareholders. The rise of big business would follow in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, where salaried managers now focused on long-term value creation.

Van Zanden and Westerhuis argue, however, that this trend has reversed in the last few decades. Since the 1970s, ‘short-terminism’ is on the increase, reflected in the focus of short-term value for shareholders (and performance-related pay for managers). One of the factors that might explain this is the shift from modernism to post-modernism. Modernists believed that the future could be changed, for example, through strategic planning in a business environment or (in the case of the Soviet Union) even an economy. The rise of post-modernist beliefs – the belief that reality cannot be known and the future cannot be predicted or changed – has shifted our long-term gaze to the present. Instant gratification, exacerbated by social media, is now the order of the day.

There are valid reasons to question these preliminary findings. Companies like Alphabet (Google’s parent company), Apple and Facebook seem to be able to invest in new technologies where the pay-offs are only likely to be in the medium- to long-run. But it is difficult to imagine that we invest in something that we won’t see the end of: perhaps that is why tackling climate change is so difficult!

Time preference and time horizon remains vastly understudied topics. We know that time preference (roughly proxied for by people’s patience) matters at the individual level; more patient people are more ‘successful’ later in life. What we don’t know is why they are patient, and how to improve our impatient natures.

Similarly, we know that some societies, at certain times in history, had a longer time horizon. Those societies were then able to invest and accumulate, improving the prosperity of the generations to follow.

Consider this: children born in 2018 are likely to live to the year 2100. Are our political and business leaders factoring the year 2100 into their long-term strategies? Unlikely. Perhaps we need a bit more of the long-term horizon the inhabitants of Cologne had when they decided to build a cathedral 632 years before it was completed.

>>> An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 14 December 2017 edition of finweek.

The compelling case for technological optimism

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In September last year, I visited the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, California. The museum is dedicated to preserving and presenting all aspects of the computer revolution, from its roots in the twentieth century to self-driving cars today. What is remarkable is to observe, while walking through the more than 90000 objects on display, the profound change in technology over the last three decades. The mobile computing display, I thought, summarised this change best, showing the first laptop computers of the 1980s (see image above) to a modern-day iPhone. But what also became clear from the exhibitions was that those ‘in the know’ at the start of the revolution were right about the transformational impact of computers, but almost certainly wrong about the way it would affect us.

We are now at the cusp of another revolution. Artificial intelligence, led by remarkable innovations in machine learning technology, is making rapid progress. It is already all around us. The image-recognition software of Facebook, the voice recognition of Apple’s Siri and, probably most ambitiously, the self-driving ability of Tesla’s electric cars all rely on machine learning. And computer scientists are finding more applications every day, from financial markets – Michael Jordaan recently announced a machine learning unit trust – to court judgements – a team of economists and computer scientists have shown that the quality of New York verdicts can be significantly improved with machine learning technology.  Ask any technology optimist, and they will tell you the next few years will see the release of new applications that we currently cannot even imagine.

But there is a paradox. Just as machine learning technology is taking off, a new NBER Working Paper by three economists, Erik Brynjolfsson, Chad Syverson and Daniel Rock affiliated to MIT and Chicago, show something peculiar: a decline in labour productivity over the last decade. Across both the developed and developing world, growth in labour productivity, meaning the amount of output per worker, is falling. Whereas one would expect that rapid improvements in technology would boost total factor productivity, boosting investment and raising the ability of workers to build more stuff faster, we observe slower growth, and in some countries even stagnation.


This has led some to be more pessimistic about the prospects of artificial intelligence, and in technological innovation more generally. Robert Gordon, in his ‘The Rise and Fall of American Growth’, argue that, despite an upward shift in productivity between 1995 and 2004, American productivity is on a long-run decline. Other notable economists, including Nicholas Bloom and William Nordhaus, are somewhat pessimistic about the ability of long-run productivity growth to return to earlier levels. Even the Congressional Budget Office in the US has reduced its 110-year labour productivity forecast, from 1.8 to 1.5%. On 10 years, that is equivalent to a decline of $600 billion in 2017.

How is it possible, to paraphrase Robert Solow in 1987, that we see machine learning applications everywhere but in the productivity statistics? The simplest explanation, of course, is that our optimism is misplaced. Has Siri or Facebook’s image recognition software really made us that more productive? Some technologies never live up to the hype. Peter Thiel famously quipped: ‘We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters’.

Brynjolfsson and co-authors, though, make a compelling case for technological optimism, offering three reasons for why ‘even a modest number of currently existing technologies could combine to substantially raise productivity growth and societal welfare’. One reason for the apparent paradox, the authors argue, is the mismeasurement of output and productivity. The slowdown in productivity of productivity in the last decade may simply be an illusion, as most new technologies – think of Google Maps’ accuracy in estimating our arrival time – involve no monetary cost. Even though these ‘free’ technologies significantly improve our living standards, they are not picked up by traditional estimates of GDP and productivity. A second reason is that the benefits of the AI revolution are concentrated, with little improvement in productivity for the median worker. Google (now Alphabet), Apple, and Facebook have seen their market share increase rapidly in comparison to other large industries. Where AI was adopted outside ICT, these were often in zero-sum industries, like finance or advertising. A third, and perhaps most likely, reason is that it takes a considerable time to be able to sufficiently harness new technologies. This is especially true, the authors argue, ‘for those major new technologies that ultimately have an important effect on aggregate statistics and welfare’, also known as general purpose technologies (GPT).

There are two reasons why it takes long for GPTs to be seen in the statistics. It takes time to build up the stock necessary to have an impact on the aggregate statistics. While mobile phones are everywhere, the applications that benefit from machine learning are still only a small part of our daily lives. Second, it takes time to identify the complementary technologies and make these investments. ‘While the fundamental importance of the core invention and its potential for society might be clearly recognizable at the outset, the myriad necessary co-inventions, obstacles and adjustments needed along the way await discovery over time, and the required path may be lengthy and arduous. Never mistake a clear view for a short distance.’

As Brynjolfsson and friends argue, even if we do not see AI technology in the productivity statistics yet, it is too early to be pessimistic. The high valuations of AI companies suggest that investors believe there is real value in those companies, and it is likely that the effects on living standards may be even larger than the benefits that investors hope to capture.

Machine learning technology, in particular, will shape our lives in many ways. But much like those looking towards the future in the early 1990s and wondering how computers may affect our lives, we have little idea of the applications and complementary innovations that will determine the Googles and Facebooks of the next decade. Let the Machine (Learning) Age begin!

An edited version of this article originally appeared in the 30 November 2017 edition of finweek.


How religion shapes an economy

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Harare billboard

Source: Her Zimbabwe

Drive around Harare and you will notice something very peculiar. Billboards across the city do not advertise the latest car model or data bundle or washing powder. In Harare, by contrast, almost every billboard advertises church services. They all follow a precise formula: next to the photo of the charismatic spiritual leader is the date of the event and a promise, best summarised in this example: ‘Freedom from poverty/freedom from disease/freedom from barrenness.’ The implication: join us to improve your material welfare.

On my visit last year, I spoke to several university students who attend these services. One told the incredible story of a pastor who arrived one Sunday morning at his church with a truck full of bricks. These were ‘blessed bricks’, he proclaimed; one of them built into your house would, according to the good pastor, alleviate you from material want. According to the student, he sold each of the 10 000 bricks on the truck for $10. The last few ones even fetched as high as $50. Do the math. It would seem that at least one person’s material welfare did improve significantly.

This and similar stories by the students reminded me of something that had happened five centuries ago. By the 16th century, the abuse of indulgences – a payment to reduce the punishment for sins – had become a serious problem that the Catholic Church in Europe recognized but was unable to restrain effectively. A young German professor of theology, Martin Luther, rejected the belief that freedom from God’s punishment for sin could be purchased with money, and penned his Ninety-Five Theses to the door of All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517, a date now considered the start of the Protestant Reformation.

Luther’s movement, and the ones it would kindle elsewhere, heralded an era of prosperity across Northern Europe. The Catholic city-states of Southern Europe – think Venice – were some of the wealthiest in 14th and 15th century Europe. But by the 17th and 18th centuries, these had been supplanted by cities in the Protestant North, notably in Holland and then England.

Many scholars have linked the Protestant Reformation – at least indirectly – to this reversal of fortunes. German sociologist Max Weber, for example, argued that the Reformation encouraged the ethics of hard work, thrift and efficiency, and that this resulted in a change in savings behaviour by the followers of the new religion, with consequences for investment and growth. Others highlighted the impact the new religion had on literacy and education, as it emphasized adherent’s ability to read and write, and that this channel of causation was what propelled the North forward. But proving these theories empirically was difficult.

A new NBER Working Paper by Davide Cantoni, Jeremiah Dittmar and Noam Yuchtman posit another channel and finds empirical support for it. The authors assemble a new, highly disaggregated dataset on the degrees received by German university graduates for more than 2000 German towns in the period following the Reformation. They then split the sample in two: those students that qualify with religious degrees, and those with secular degrees. The authors are also able to identify the occupations of these German graduates, and split the occupational sample in two: those who find work as monks and priests, and those who find work in administration and the private sector.

The results are remarkable. In those areas that experienced the Reformation, two things happen. First, the Protestant university students increasingly studied secular subjects, especially degrees that prepared students for public sector jobs, rather than church sector-specific theology. Graduates of Protestant universities, in contrast to universities that remained Catholic, also increasingly took secular, especially administrative, occupations.

Second, the Reformation affected the sectoral composition of fixed investment. In Protestant regions, new construction shifted from religious toward secular purposes, especially the building of palaces and administrative buildings, which reflected the increased wealth and power of secular lords.

In short, the Protestant Reformation changed the preference for physical and human capital investment from unproductive to more productive activities. Importantly, this reallocation was not caused by preexisting economic or cultural differences. The interpretation is therefore that it was the Reformation, and not some other underlying factor, that resulted in this shift to the secularization of graduate degrees and the workforce.

This had profound long-run consequences. With more students studying secular subjects and more of them finding jobs in the public or private sector (instead of the religious sector), a process of cultural and intellectual change was set in motion that culminated, ultimately, in the enlightenment, the scientific revolution and modern economic growth.

Which brings us back to the pastors of Zimbabwe. In a country devoid of private sector opportunities, religious entrepreneurship is a popular calling for charismatic individuals. But if the brightest young minds choose professions in the religious sector – and the little surplus capital that there is, are used to fund mega-church buildings (as you will find when you drive around Harare) – then Zimbabwe is experiencing exactly the opposite of the Protestant Reformation. Selling ‘blessed bricks’ is the modern equivalent of the sixteenth-century indulgences sold for salvation.

The result? Productive investments in human and physical capital becomes investments in unproductive activities. The circle of poverty is strengthened, exploited by religious entrepreneurs who themselves profit from others’ hardship. Are we returning to the Middle Ages, or will our generation’s Martin Luther rise up?

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine on 16 November 2017.


Written by Johan Fourie

January 4, 2018 at 10:57

How competition cracks down on corruption

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For all the flack the private sector gets from both the left and the right, it has one redeeming feature that critics find difficult to avoid: competition. Take KPMG, the global auditing firm that has been at the center of the Gupta family scandal, in which South African taxpayers’ money was used to fund a wedding at Sun City in 2013. Upon the release of an internal report on the matter, KPMG CEO Trevor Hoole quit, as did the chair of the board and six other top staff. And in the weeks that followed, companies began to ditch KPMG as auditors, led by Magda Wierzycka’s Sygnia and followed by Hulisani, Munich Re, Sasfin, AVI, Telkom, and many others. Even that slowest moving of institutions – universities! – joined the KPMG culling. Sources within KMPG suggest that the mood is bleak.

KPMG is just one example. Bell Pottinger, the British public relations and reputations management firm, went into administration on 12 September after its Gupta-sponsored campaign to inflame racial discord in South Africa was exposed. And global consultancy McKinsey may be in even more trouble as the extent of its relations with Eskom and black-owned supplier Trillian (which was neither black-owned nor a legal supplier) becomes evident.

Market forces are at work. When companies built on trust and reputation lose it, clients will (and should) jump ship. It’s not personal, it’s business. Deloitte and PwC will benefit from their competitor’s indiscretion. But more than that, they would want to make sure that their own house is in order. Expect the quality of audits to increase significantly in future.

In contrast, those at the root of the problem are ensconced by the uncompetitiveness of government. The Gupta tentacles reach almost everywhere in the public sector, most notably in Treasury where minister Malusi Gigaba has suggested the Public Investment Corporation uses its considerable assets to support flailing state-owned enterprises like SAA. In wonderful irony, Cosatu threatening to replace the PIC with privately owned fund managers to oversee its members’ pension funds. Competition discourages bad behaviour.

Politics, of course, is competitive. Elections pit politicians and their parties against each other, with voters, presumably, electing that party which would serve their interests best. But elections are fuzzy reflections of voter preferences. (Brexit and the recent US elections are good examples.) And, most importantly, they only occur every five years. Had KPMG been subject to the same slow process of five-year elections, would anyone have remembered their misdemeanour two years from now?

Corruption, though, is a crime, and any politician found guilty should be punished accordingly. But as we have seen in South Africa, the rot can be so deep that those with the power to act against the rampant corruption – the National Prosecuting Authority, the Hawks, the Public Protector – can choose to stay quiet. And when the media lose their ability to fairly report on these matters – exactly what Bell Pottinger’s campaign against white monopoly capital tried to do – the corrupt actions of politicians will go uncensored by an oblivious public.

That is why impartial government audits are so important. Critics often claim government officials pay too much attention to ‘clean audits’, that it takes the focus away from what politicians should be doing. Helen Zille, Western Cape premier, admitted as much in 2015: ‘Trying to achieve a “clean audit” can actually become a stumbling block to service delivery. It also puts a brake on innovation in government.’

But audits matter because they change behaviour. A 2016 NBER Working Paper Eric Avis, Claudio Ferraz and Frederico Finan examined the extent to which government audits in Brazil reduced corruption. Brazil’s anti-corruption programme randomly audits municipalities for their use of federal funds, and this randomness allows the authors to test whether audits have a causal impact on corruption. They find that being audited in the past reduces future corruption by 8 percent, while also increasing the likelihood of experiencing a subsequent legal action by 20 percent. The reduction in corruption comes mostly from the ‘audits increasing the perceived threat of the non-electoral costs of engaging in corruption’. In other words, audits make politicians less likely to award government contracts to friends at inflated prices, which saves public resources and improves service delivery.

This is why KMPG’s actions are so despicable, and why it should be punished in the market place. It was the last line of defence, and it failed in its duty to uncover the misuse of public funds. If guilty, the same fate will hopefully befall McKinsey too.

But it might not be that easy. Many South African industries are concentrated, and the oligopolies in them are often deeply entwined. KPMG remains the auditors of Standard Bank and Investec. The fall of KMPG will also strengthen the dominance of Deloitte and PwC, which may render them, if a scandal was to hit them, too big to fail. With few obvious competitor, McKinsey has, so far, remained largely unscathed.

More competition, in both oligopolistic industries and the public sector, is how you ensure that corruption is identified and punished.

*An edited version of this essay appeared on 2 November in Finweek magazine. Note that this essay was written before the Steinhoff debacle of the last week. My point stands, though. As details emerge of who is responsible for the Steinhoff mess, one thing remains clear: several members of the executive, including Marcus Jooste, CEO of Steinhoff, and Ben la Grange, chief executive of Steinhoff Africa Retail, have already lost their jobs. Where illegal actions have occurred, shareholders will make sure prosecutions follow. Compare Dudu Myeni, former boss of South African Airways, who, after finally being fired after years of mismanagement at SAA, landed a nice job as special adviser to the Minister of Transport.


Written by Johan Fourie

December 11, 2017 at 09:53

Should South Africa host the 2023 Rugby World Cup?

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South Africa 2023

Tomorrow (Wednesday) we will know whether South Africa will host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. Here are my thoughts on hosting mega-events:

One of my aspirations when I was in high school was to bring the Olympic Games to Cape Town. Imagine a brand new athletics stadium and athlete village at Ysterplaat. Athlone Stadium could play host to sevens rugby, while the breathtaking Cape Town Stadium would host all football games. Newlands Rugby Stadium could be converted into a 20 000-seater indoor gymnastics stadium, Bellville velodrome would play host to cycling, Hartleyvale could host hockey, Camps Bay beach volleyball, Muizenberg surfing, the Waterfront sailing, and Langa could get a brand new boxing venue and swimming pool that could serve the community long after the Olympics is gone. And what better venue to launch the new Olympic code of T20 cricket than Newlands cricket stadium?

The sports stadia would, of course, be just one element of a much bigger infrastructure drive. The largest innovation will be in transportation: a new, world-class international airport, built on the N7 to Malmesbury, would allow Cape Town to lift international arrivals from 2 to 10 million. A new CapeRocket mass rapid rail network would connect the new airport with the city and neighbouring towns of Paarl, Stellenbosch, Somerset West and Simon’s Town, perhaps even Worcester through the Huguenot Tunnel. If a train could take you from Worcester to Cape Town City Center in less than an hour, imagine what that would do to the daily commute – and property prices in rural areas! (That is radical economic transformation, I can hear Cape politicians say.) And an Uber-like app for all city transport, including taxis, now electric, would allow spectators to seemingly move between the different transport modes.

In moments of weakness, these dreams return. But then reality kicks in, informed by several years of research on the impact of mega-events. The picture is not a positive one. In short, the Olympic Games is an expensive undertaking which rarely delivers on the promises of spectacular economic growth. Robert Baade and Victor Matheson, two experts in the field, summarises it best: ‘In most cases the Olympics are a money-losing proposition for host cities; they result in positive net benefits only under very specific and unusual circumstances.’ There are exceptions, of course. Los Angeles in 1984 was a financial success for two reasons: it built very few new stadia, and the costs that were incurred were mostly funded by the private sector. Barcelona in 1992, too, is considered a success, uplifting a city to global tourism status to the extent that Catalonians are now trying to curb tourism.

But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. Most cities that host the Summer Olympic Games continue paying for the event long after the closing ceremony. Montreal hosted the 1976 Olympic Games; Canadians finally repaid all of the debt in 2006, 30 years later. Many even argue that Greece’s economic woes of the last decade was a direct consequence of its 2004 Olympic Games expenditure. Most Olympic venues, built specifically for the event, are, at best, used for occasional events, much like the Cape Town stadium that was built for the 2010 World Cup. At worst, these venues fall into disrepair, and become a huge fiscal burden on the local government. Consider, as example, Rio’s Olympic venues only one year after the event!

Ex post studies of mega-events confirm the visual evidence. In a paper I co-wrote with Maria Santana-Gallego in 2011, we found that mega-events like the Olympic Games and Soccer World Cup boost a host country’s tourism by about 7%. This varies depending on whether the event was held during the off-season (like the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, and unlike the Olympics in Athens), the type of event (the Olympics is held within one city, the Soccer World Cup in several cities) and even who participates in the event.

Even if tourism increases substantially, as it did for South Africa before, during and after the 2010 World Cup, these advantages can easily be undone. In a back-of-the-envelope calculation, I have shown that all the tourism benefits South Africa derived from hosting the FIFA World Cup were undone by our ridiculous visa rules in 2015, a classic case of the negative unintended consequences of good intentions without sound analysis.

Despite the evidence against mega-events, cities and countries still line up to bid for them. It seems like an irrational thing to do, but there are very rational reasons cities and countries do so. These reasons are mostly political. The politician who hosts the event, will often not be the one who pays for it. There is an immense feel-good factor associated with hosting mega-events; having watched 8 games of the 2010 World Cup around South Africa, I know these emotions very well. And voters often vote for politicians not based on calculated policy statements, but on how they make them feel. A second reason is that cities can use a mega-event to get a larger share of the national budget.

South Africa 2023 stadiums.png

South Africa wants to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. There are reasons for and against doing this. On the positive side, no new large infrastructure will be required. The event will also be held during the tourism ‘off-season’, meaning that rugby supporters would likely not displace other tourists. Its bid document projects an economic impact of R27 billion, with R5.7 billion to low-income households. A total of 39 000 temporary and permanent jobs is expected to be created. Sounds like a no-brainer.

But it’s not that simple; there are few things in life that are certain, but that these numbers are inflated is one of them. Cabinet has already approved a guarantee of R2.7 billion which was required World Rugby. The event will require public resources in an era when budgets are already under considerable stress. On the tourist side, South Africa have strong existing links with rugby-playing countries; tourism is therefore unlikely to see much of an increase before and after the event. And the feel-good factor of a tournament the size of the Rugby World Cup is limited if your team don’t win the finals; as a thought experiment, would 1995 have had such treasured memories were it not for Joel Stransky’s final drop goal?

Despite my childhood dreams, we were fortunate to escape the 2004 Cape Town Olympic bid, and even more fortunate to escape Durban’s Commonwealth Games disaster of 2022. Hosting mega-events are expensive parties, with inflated benefits and underestimated costs. (I should add: this is not only true for South Africa, but for Ireland and France, our competitors for the 2023 bid, as well.)

My heart wants us to win the bid; my head says it’s probably not the worst thing if we don’t. Let’s see what happens tomorrow!

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 19 October 2017.


Written by Johan Fourie

November 14, 2017 at 07:05

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.