Johan Fourie's blog

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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.

Will a new John Maynard Keynes please stand up?

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keynes

In his 1936 book that would give theoretical support to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal, the British economist John Maynard Keynes wrote the following: “The ideas of economists and political philosophers, both when they are right and when they are wrong, are more powerful than is commonly understood. Indeed the world is ruled by little else.”

There is little doubt that the ideas of economists – their models or theories or ideologies – have had a profound influence on our daily lives. To give just one example: when South Africa’s Monetary Policy Committee decides whether to lower or raise the interest rate, they do so based on a model that predicts the likely effects of the policy change.

But there is not one universal model. Macroeconomists, depending on their school of thought, have different beliefs about how the real world works. Some, like those that propound Real Business Cycle (RBC) theory, argue that business cycle fluctuations are the result of exogenous changes to an economy, and because wages and prices are flexible, there is little that governments can do through fiscal and monetary policy in a downswing. Others, like New Keynesians, see a greater role for government intervention because of things like sticky wages and prices.

Though these ideological disagreements in macroeconomics are nothing new, one would expect that the competition between these ideas would ultimately lead to a better way to explain what is happening in the world. This is, however, not the case, and one of the main reasons the World Bank’s new chief economist, Paul Romer, formerly professor at Stanford and New York University, recently wrote a stinging critique of macroeconomics. “I have observed more than three decades of intellectual regress”, he begins, explaining that macroeconomics has gone down a wrong path and have now reached a dead-end.

The basic premise is this: macroeconomists’ increasingly sophisticated models have ignored real-world evidence. Simon Wren-Lewis of Oxford University explains: “If we look at the rise of Real Business Cycle (RBC) research a few decades ago, that was only made possible because economists chose to ignore evidence about the nature of unemployment in recessions.”

Why would scholars willingly choose to ignore real-world evidence? “The obvious explanation is ideological” says Wren-Lewis. “I cannot prove it was ideological, but it is difficult to understand why – in an area which … suffers from a lack of data – you would choose to develop theories that ignore some of the evidence you have.” Ironically, this shift came at a time when the rest of the profession, fields like labour economics, development economics and international trade, shifted the other way: from theory to empirics.

To be fair, RBC models have become less popular, replaced by ‘New Keynesian’ models. These ones make more realistic assumptions of the real world, like adding sticky wages, but still share many of the same concerns. Because these new generation models, known as Dynamic Stochastic General Equilibrium models, are ‘built from the ground up’ (in other words, built on microeconomic foundations) they are far more appealing theoretically (and technically more difficult to construct) than the structural models of the previous generation, models which only considered the interlinkages of different macroeconomic variables. But in practice they turned out to be less than satisfactory: DSGE models require the modeller to make many assumptions about how individual agents behave, and it turns out that this behaviour is difficult to measure, making the assumptions rather subjective. The result is that, though theoretically plausible, the outcome is often far removed from the real-world evidence. And, most importantly, forecasts – that thing that most people think is an economist’s only job – are often far less accurate with DSGE models than with multiple-equation structural models. That is why most reserve banks, including our own, still mostly rely on structural models to help predict the future outcomes of their policy decisions.

So why continue with DSGE models? This is a consequence of the way scholarship works. In a blog post in response to Romer, Narayana Kocherlakota of the University of Rochester writes: “We tend to view research as being the process of posing a question and delivering a pretty precise answer to that question. In this process, machines that can be used by many scholars to generate answers to wide ranges of questions are highly prized. The King-Plosser-Rebelo real business cycle model was one such machine.  The New Keynesian three-equation model is another. And people who have the mathematical and computational skills to make machines even more powerful, so that they can answer even more questions, are naturally highly valued.”

Yet if these ‘answers’ increasingly abstract away from reality, we are not much better off than before. Keynes, who developed a new theory when the existing paradigm could not explain the real world anymore, knew this all too well: “Practical men, who believe themselves to be quite exempt from any intellectual influence, are usually the slaves of some defunct economist.”

For academic macroeconomics to regain its influence, it needs to be, as Kocherlakota writes, “a lot more flexible in our thinking about models and theory, so that they can be firmly grounded in an improved empirical understanding”. This won’t be easy. As Locherlakota says, it will be “hugely messy work”. Will this generation’s John Maynard Keynes please stand up?

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 9 February.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 26, 2017 at 18:24

Four high-growth scenarios for Africa

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africagrowth

Can African countries sustain the relatively high growth rates they attained since 2000? At the start of 2017, putting aside the newsworthy political shifts and the fear of many that the developing world has entered a ‘secular stagnation’, this remains the most vexing question for those of us on the African continent.

It is not a question with an easy answer. The stellar economic performance of several African countries has created an ‘Africa rising’ narrative where further progress – and catch-up to the developed world – seems inevitable. A more pessimistic counternarrative argues that this growth, from a low base, is largely the result of favourable commodity prices and Chinese investment. Both narratives had, unfortunately, made little use of either economic theory or history.

Enter Dani Rodrik, professor of International Political Economy at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, who tackles this question in a new paper in the Journal of African Economies. He first shows that many African economies have indeed improved since 2000, but that many, including Senegal, the DRC, the Ivory Coast and Zambia, remain on levels below those immediately following colonialism (around 1960). The second fact he establishes is that the rapid growth of the last dozen years has not lead to a large structural transformation of the economy. Whereas rapid growth in south-east Asian economies during the late twentieth century resulted in the growth of manufacturing, a more productive activity than subsistence farming, high growth rates in Africa have not had any effect on the relative size of manufacturing. In fact, in many countries, the size of the manufacturing sector has actually declined since 1975.

Rodrik attributes these changes not so much to factors unique to Africa – like a poor business climate or weak institutions or bad geography – but to a global trend of deindustrialisation. Even Vietnam, a country which has recently experienced rapid growth, has not seen much growth in manufacturing.  And Latin American countries, which have decidedly better institutions than three decades ago, have also not seen much growth in manufacturing. Technological change – the move to automation, for example – is one likely reason.

So despite high growth rates, African countries have not industrialised – and, in fact, may have even begun to deindustrialise. This is why Rodrik is pessimistic about Africa’s future growth prospects. He nevertheless concludes by considering potential scenarios in which Africa can indeed sustain high growth, and identifies four possibilities: 1) To revive manufacturing and industrialise, 2) To generate agricultural-led growth, 3) To generate service-led growth and 4) To generate natural resource-led growth.

Let’s start with agriculture. Although many African countries have a lot of potential to expand their agricultural sectors, productivity in the agricultural sector remains low. Many farmers are subsistence producers, with low economies of scale. Such a scenario will require a reversal in the current trend away from agriculture. A recent study by Diao, Harttgen and McMillan show clearly how the share of agriculture is falling, particularly as women older than 25 are moving to the cities and into manufacturing and services. This trend seems irreversible, even if changes to technology (like seed varieties or market access opportunities) or institutions (like private property) are made, which means that an agricultural-led high growth scenario seems highly unlikely.

A natural resource-led strategy also seems unlikely for most African countries. Yes, most countries on the continent are well-endowed with resources, but the problems of the Natural Resource Curse and Dutch Disease are well known. It may be an option for some small economies, like Botswana has shown, but one has to question to what extent it can be sustainable beyond a certain level of income.

A third option is to reverse the trend of deindustrialisation. Because a growing manufacturing base seems to be, at least if we consider past examples of industrialisation, the only way to increase labour productivity over a sustained period of time, this is the option preferred by many development agencies. Yet there are many obstacles in the way of a thriving manufacturing sector, including poor infrastructure (transport and power in particular), red tape and corruption, low levels of human capital, and political and legal risk. But as explained earlier, Rodrik believes that even if these (very difficult) barriers can be overcome, it is not clear that manufacturing will return. The Fourth Industrial Revolution may completely alter the nature of manufacturing away from absorbing unskilled labour to capital and knowledge-intensive production. As I’ve said before, it is dangerous to follow a twentieth-century blueprint when production technologies are so different.

That leaves us with one scenario: services-led growth. Services have traditionally not acted as an ‘escalator sector’ as Rodrik explains. The problem is that services typically require high-skilled labourers, one thing that is in short supply in a developing economy. Rodrik does acknowledge, though, that the past will not necessarily look like the future. “Perhaps Africa will be the breeding ground of new technologies that will revolutionise services for broad masses, and do so in a way that creates high-wage jobs for all. Perhaps; but it is too early to be confident about the likelihood of this scenario.”

I don’t see an alternative, though. Yes, some countries, like Mozambique or Tanzania, will be able to expand their agricultural sectors – but higher productivity will probably mean larger farms with fewer workers. A few small countries will be able to benefit from natural resources – from diamonds to rare minerals like tantalum (used in cellphones and laptops); oil-producing countries will struggle, though, as the cost of renewable energies keeps falling. And some coastal countries may even develop their manufacturing sectors, like Ethiopia and South Africa. But for most of Africa, services offer the only reprieve from low productivity, low-wage jobs. From semi-skilled jobs like call-centres and virtual au pairs (apparently the next big thing) to professional services like accountants and designers and programmers, digital technologies must help leapfrog the barriers of poor infrastructure, bad geography and weak institutions. If it cannot, Dani Rodrik’s pessimistic vision of Africa’s future is likely to come true.

*An edited version of this first appeared in Finweek magazine of 26 January.

It’s five years!

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blog

Five years ago, on a warm January day, I started a blog. I tend to forget detail easily, but I somehow vividly remember sitting at my desk, squeezed into a bedroom that was also a living room and home office space, and watching a hawk land on the small balcony. They say you have to write about what you see, so that is how I started my first post.

It’s five years later. Life is different. Helanya and I have moved twice since that day. We’ve travelled. I’ve graduated my first (soon to be two) student(s). But we’ve been fortunate, too, in that many things have not changed at all. We’ve attended many baby showers and few funerals. We’ve gained wonderful new friends through travelling. My students keep on inspiring me. And my colleagues and co-authors continue to have too much patience.

My blog has remained, too, although a long-time reader would recognise some change. As with most new things, I was productive initially, writing 10 posts in my first month. I soon realised I couldn’t keep up the pace, and the frequency declined to average between four and six posts. I blogged about many things that interested me, but Economics-related topics seemed to take precedence.

At the beginning of last year, I was offered a contract to write a bi-weekly column for Finweek magazine. Due to time and (more importantly) idea constraints, I began to post my columns as posts instead of writing altogether new posts. The result has been that the length of my posts has increased, but that the frequency has declined. It also means that the average number of visitors per day has declined somewhat. I would like to think that there is a quality-quantity trade-off, though. There is some evidence to support this claim: the number of permanently registered readers has continued to increase.

It’s strange to reread some of the posts that I wrote several years ago. They are recognisably me, but they are also different from how I would write about the same topic now. I guess that means that I’m learning. Or unlearning.

Or just growing older.

Blogging is a difficult business these days. What I had hoped to do when I started was to debate, to challenge, to offer a different, sometimes unpopular, perspective. But I have become less eager to do this, probably because I have lost some of my youthful big-eyed optimism, but mostly because of the uncritical social media platforms that now dominate public debate.

blog2017

I would like to think the blog has had some impact, though. My 258 (this will the the 259th) posts have attracted 295 659 visitors to my site, who’ve read my posts 417 095 times. That is an unfathomable number, and much more than I could have hoped for. The large number is largely the result of one post I wrote – Why and what to study in South Africa – which I wrote in May 2013 and has since received more than 156 000 views. It also has 251 comments. The most views in one day actually come from a book review about Ken Follett’s Century trilogy. He retweeted the blog post, and I was swamped by visitors. Most of them were there for the images of the characters, which I had borrowed from someone else (with due credit, fortunately.) My favourite post? There are many that I like (of course), but I think the one that stands out is my response to Zuma’s remarks at the beginning of 2015.

***

This morning the Stellenbosch heavens finally opened up for some much-needed rain. I hear doves cooing, playing in the temporary ponds in our new flower bed. Perhaps they are descendants of the chicks that hatched five summers ago… (but then this will likely be the third or even fourth generation, as Google tells me that doves only have a 1.5-year lifespan in the wild.) It’s the start of a new year, a time when we tend to look to the future. And I wonder: Where will we be in another five years’ time?

Written by Johan Fourie

January 27, 2017 at 10:28

The world is not a zero-sum game, but it matters if you think it is

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tall-poppy

Question: A farmer in your neighbourhood has had an exceptionally productive 2016. He has managed to double wheat output, and his favourite cow – Daisy – was awarded first prize in the national competition. What is the reason for the farmer’s success? Is it: a) He has worked very hard, b) He was lucky, or c) he put a spell on the rest of the farmers in his village?

This is an example of the type of survey questions a team of Harvard economists have been asking to subsistence farmers in the Democratic Republic of the Congo on several visits over the last few years. In contrast to what one might think, the answer to this question is almost always the same: C. Witchcraft and supernatural beliefs are widespread in Africa and throughout the developing world. One aim of the research group is to identify how these cultural traits affect economic decision-making. Clearly, if my answer to this question was that the farmer’s success was due to hard work, I would conclude that the way to excel is to work harder. But if my understanding is that this farmer somehow cheated – that his success was due to a spell he put on the rest of the community, and that his gain was our loss – then my takeaway is that I need to spend more of my surplus not on investing in my farm, but on bribing the local spiritual leader for favours.

The belief that the world is a zero-sum game is widespread. Like these Congolese farmers, many of us believe that the success of one member of our communities must be to the detriment of others. In some cases, this is, of course, true: when one bowler takes 7 wickets in an innings, it leaves only 3 scalps between the remaining bowlers. But, generally, the world is not zero-sum. China’s success is not a consequence of America’s decline, despite what the Trump propaganda machine says. Trade, as economists have known since David Ricardo, can be mutually beneficial, even if it means that the benefits and costs of growth are not shared by everyone equally. My neighbour’s financial success after she designed and marketed a new app is not the result of her ‘stealing’ my success.

But beliefs of a zero-sum world are widespread, and results in what has become known as the Tall Poppy Syndrome. I’ve seen this in action: students that excel sometimes draw the envy of their poorer-performing peers. And it has consequences: the envious ones believe that the good student must have achieved the high marks because of external factors, such as being the teachers’ favourite. They avoid taking responsibility for their own mediocre efforts. The star student, depending on the sanction of the envious ones, also reacts, either by withdrawing from social interaction or, worse, by putting in less effort in the next test to avoid standing out.

The Tall Poppy Syndrome is prevalent in all societies, but its density and effects are likely to vary. If TPS is more concentrated in poorer communities, for example, it will hamper social mobility, reinforcing both the poverty and the cultural beliefs itself. Development economists are therefore hoping to not only identify the causes of these beliefs but also how to change them.

This will not be easy: beliefs are difficult to measure accurately, and their origins may be deep in history. Nathan Nunn and Leonard Wantchekon’s work several years ago showed how the Atlantic slave trade still affects trust in African societies: people that today live in areas where most slaves were captured are more likely to distrust their neighbours and the government. In a new paper, Oded Galor and Ömer Özak show that people’s belief about time preference – whether you have a long-term horizon or not – were affected by what type of crops their ancestors grew. Both trust and time preferences are necessary ingredients for development. As Adam Smith already pointed out in the eighteenth century, trust is necessary for specialisation and exchange. A long-term horizon allows one to forego future income, invest in the present and earn the higher future returns. It affects our propensity to save, to adopt new technologies, and, as Galor and Özak show, even our likelihood to smoke.

If these cultural beliefs are so deeply rooted and have such a pervasive influence over our behaviour, what can be done to change them? This is difficult to answer and requires the interdisciplinary efforts of psychologists, economists, anthropologists and neuroscientists. The answers they provide may not only contribute to sustainable development and social mobility, but may have applications elsewhere. Marketers may have to design products that appeal to those with a zero-sum worldview, or managers may have to lead teams of people where some ascribe to this view. The incentives that motivate people who have Tall Poppy Syndrome, for example, are likely to be different to those who are less envious of their successful colleagues.

Our beliefs about the world shape our economic decision-making. We are only now beginning to understand how it does, and what to do to change it.

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

Written by Johan Fourie

January 16, 2017 at 08:16

The future is an unknown unknown

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amazon-go

Humans know how to adapt. We have populated the planet not because we found an agreeable environment everywhere, but because we were able to adapt to the diverse and often hostile environments we moved into. And so it is today. To survive and thrive, we need to adapt to the global forces of our times, from climate change to automation.

Those with the freedom and ability to adapt to these global forces will benefit most. Take automation. Artificial intelligence and robotics now allow most tasks that manual labourers perform to be done without human intervention. One of the most exciting technologies revealed at the end of 2016, from my perspective at least, is an automated washing and ironing machine. Dirty clothes go in on one side and the fully-ironed clothes, folded by tiny robotic hands inside the machine, come out on the other side. Finally those dreary Sunday afternoon ironing exercises will be a thing of the past! Collectively this technology will save millions of productive human hours, particularly for women who in almost every society are still responsible for most home labour.

And yet, this wonderful new technology won’t be welcomed by everyone. South Africans employ more than 1 million domestic workers (or more than 8% of the work force), most of whom are women from poor households. If the cost of this new machine falls considerably in the next decade (and minimum wages continue to rise), we might soon see a significant decline in demand for ironing services. Because poor South Africans do not have the freedom to adapt to these new technologies, unemployment and inequality will likely increase.

There are many other examples. Tesla and other car companies are working on self-driving cars (no need for taxi drivers) and, which is likely to have an even bigger effect, self-driving buses. Truck driving is America’s sixth most common occupation. Or consider McDonald’s most recent innovation: self-ordering counters. No need to employ more expensive and unreliable staff. How long until everything in a McDonald’s restaurant is automated, from food preparation to servicing and cleaning? Amazon has recently revealed its plan to open 2000 automated grocery stores across the US. And then there are the many disruptive digital technologies, which The Economist editor Ryan Avent writes about in his latest book The Wealth of Humans.

The political consequences of these supersonic changes are unknown. As Avent notes, we are the first generation to live through an industrial revolution. There is little in history that tells us how society will react to such rapid changes. He predicts social unrest, unless government or civil society can reform social welfare programs on a massive scale. We have already seen this in South Africa and elsewhere: the democratic process, for many, is too slow and cumbersome. Service delivery protests, the #MustFall-movement and the global shift towards a more nativist conservatism suggest that the voices of those at the bottom of the income distribution will be heard outside the ballot box.

More creative solutions to support those left behind by the benefits of technological innovation and globalisation must be found. One idea is to institute a basic income grant that would give every person in South Africa a monthly stipend. This is no novel idea – Thomas Paine proposed a similar idea in 1797 – but economists are increasingly willing to put the idea in practice: Utrecht, a beautiful Dutch city south of Amsterdam, will next year give several hundred of its inhabitants an annual monthly stipend of 960 euro.

The concern is that people opt out of productive labour if they receive money for free. The consensus, though, is that this is unlikely: the aspirational drive of humans to move up the income ladder will push them to work hard regardless. What a basic income grant does is to make sure the ladder is solidly grounded.

But even a basic income grant won’t do enough. The rapid change will bring about psychological and sociological consequences that are hard to predict. Which social policies to implement, from early-childhood development to adult retraining programmes, in order to combat the technological disruption will be important research questions in the next few years. Creative use of technology, ironically, might be one solution.

Donald Rumsfeld famously quipped that there are known knows (the things we know we know), unknown knows (the things we know we don’t know), and unknown unknowns (the things we don’t know we don’t know). The future used to be mostly unknown knows. With some degree of likelihood, we could analyse the past and make conjectures, following somewhat linear trends, about what the future might hold. Change was incremental; we had time to adapt.

The period of rapid change we have seen since the dawn of the Internet is only likely to accelerate. As a species, we have never been required to adapt this fast, and not everyone in society will have the freedom and ability to do so. This will lead to social conflict. To minimise the consequences of this social conflict, the greatest challenge of the next decade is to enable as many as possible to adapt to the inevitable unknown unknowns of our rapidly-changing world.

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

**As this is my first post of the year, I would like to wish all readers a productive and memorable 2017. Let’s hope this will be a good one.

Written by Johan Fourie

January 5, 2017 at 07:09

We are still on the way up

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time_trump_covers

I arrived in the USA a day after Donald Trump was announced as president-elect of the United States. I gave talks at Harvard, Mount Holyoke College and MIT, and met with several faculty and students over the four days of my visit. It was eerie. Some students were still in denial, not helped by the fact that they started drinking as soon as the results became evident. Others were in various stages of grief: angry at the nativism of a large chunk of Americans, bargaining in the hope that Hillary might still win, or depressed at how quickly the America of Obama – to whom many at these prestigious institutions look up to as an inspiring intellectual – has given way to the America of Trump – whom they consider to be a coarse, boastful buffoon.

Trump’s victory seems to have been another nail in the coffin of liberty and progress. In America, walls will replace bridges. Despite what Trump has said on the campaign trail, his tax cuts will likely benefit the wealthy elite. And his views on women, on LGBT rights, on climate change, on health care, on trade openness and on immigration is likely to reverse much of the gains in general freedoms the US has made over the last decade.

These trends are not limited to America. Earlier this year the Brexit result revealed the same nativist fear, an anti-open, anti-globalisation vote. Brexit was a vote for a return to the ‘good old times’, however unlikely that is to materialise. It was a vote against intellectualism; liberal London against the conservative hinterland. And in South Africa, the rise of nativist populism on both the extreme right and left reflect a similar frustration with the progressive Rainbow Nation of yesteryear and its liberal (sell-out!) constitution.

Across the globe, it seems, the extraordinary liberty and progress of the 1990s and 2000s are being rejected for a more insular, protectionist conservatism.

We should not be that surprised. Liberty and progress, as a historian at MIT reminded me on my recent visit, is never a foregone conclusion, never an obvious eventuality.  Liberty and Progress is not an Uber ride, taking the shortest, fastest route to a known destination. It is, as the Beatles knew, a long and winding road. Sometimes there are detours, and sometimes we get lost.

Take, for example, Martin Plaut’s latest book, Promise and Despair, the story of the delegation of black leaders that traveled to London in 1909 to fight for representation in the new Union of South Africa. Remember, since 1853, the Cape Colony had had a non-racial franchise, allowing men of all races who had sufficient income or property to vote. When the unification of South Africa began to be discussed following the Anglo-Boer War, many had assumed that the (Liberal) English government would extend the same franchise to all. In fact, this was the promise Lord Salisbury had made in 1899. But politics trumped morals. To secure the support of whites in South Africa in case of war, the English reneged on their promises and turned down the appeal of the delegation. Liberty and progress had to wait.

But to focus on the newsworthy failures of liberty and progress the last few months misses the much bigger story of the last few decades: the incredible improvement in living standards of most of humanity. Johan Norberg, in a new book simply titled Progress, concurs: ‘Despite what we hear on the news and from many authorities, the great story of our era is that we are witnessing the greatest improvement in global living standards ever to take place.’ Life expectancy has risen sharply, poverty and malnutrition have fallen. The risk of death in war or natural disaster is tiny in comparison to our parents or grandparents.

 

longruntrends

Reasons to be optimistic: Trends for important human welfare measures are all positive in the long run. Source: ourworldindata.org

 

But this does not mean we should be complacent. Says Norberg: ‘There is a real risk of a nativist backlash. When we don’t see the progress we have made, we begin to search for scapegoats for the problems that remain. Sometimes it seems that we are willing to try our luck with any demagogue who tells us that he or she has quick, simple solutions to make our nation great again, whether it be nationalizing the economy, blocking foreign imports or throwing the immigrants out. If we think we don’t have anything to lose in doing so, it’s because we have a bad memory.’

2016 has been a year of setbacks. It reminds us that liberty and progress are never fait accompli, never self-evident. We have to work hard at it, and even then it is not guaranteed. It requires patience and a long-term view. But don’t let 2016 shake your beliefs about humanity’s march forward: we are still on the way up, even if it will take us a little longer to get there.

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

Written by Johan Fourie

December 30, 2016 at 13:21