Johan Fourie's blog

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Posts Tagged ‘agriculture

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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Making South Africans more productive

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Drone

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Written by Johan Fourie

August 27, 2018 at 08:00

Land expropriation: learning from the Chinese

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GreatLeapForward.jpg

The complexity of the debate about land expropriation without compensation can ultimately be summarized into two questions: Should land be expropriated without compensation? And, if so, who should own the expropriated land? While much media attention has focused on the first, with the focus often on how such a policy will scare off foreign investment, it is the answer to the second, ultimately, that will determine the success of any attempt at redress and wealth creation.

The two proponents of a policy of land expropriation without compensation in South Africa – the ANC and the EFF – stand on very different sides with regards to answering the second question: the ANC has made it clear that ownership should be in private hands, while the EFF has forcefully and repeatedly made the case that the state should be the custodian of all land. Their policy would see the state expropriate all private farm land and lease the land ‘equally’ to the people of South Africa. Dali Mpofu, National Chairperson of the EFF and a respected advocate, has defended this stance by referring to China in a 2017 tweet: ‘Chinese land is owned … by the state and it has registered the highest consistent economic growth in the world!’

Mpofu’s example is an interesting one, and worth exploring. Indeed, Chinese economic growth over the last four decades has been a historically unprecedented 8% per year. But Mpofu would do well to note that this growth was not a consequence of agriculture. Between 1990 and 2016, the share of agriculture in GDP has fallen dramatically from 26.5% to 8.5%. This was associated with massive urbanization; in 2016, 57.4% of the total population lived in urban areas, a dramatic increase from 26% in 1990. Far fewer people now live off the land, and those that have moved to the (often new) cities, are remarkably better off.

This is because land is not the valuable commodity it once was in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. As a way to empower people, land is probably the least useful asset nowadays, because it requires significant investment in physical and human capital to make it productive. Even then, the most valuable assets today are intangible – skills, intellectual property rights, data. In the twentieth century, agriculture could only thrive with significant state intervention in the form of marketing councils, favourable tariffs and other measures, measures that came at the cost of the South African consumer. In the 21st century economy, living off the land – without significant capital investment – will limit the ability of those that most need access to good education and health services and opportunities for social mobility that are found in cities.

This is even more true if the expropriated land is owned by the state. Let us return to Mpofu’s country of choice: China. Between 1955 and 1957, 96% of China’s 550 million peasants were dispossessed of their private property rights. This was the largest movement from private to communal property rights in history. As Shuo Chen and Xiaohuan Lan show in a 2017 paper published in the American Economic Journal: Applied Economics, the results of this process of land dispossession was devastating for the peasants, and the Chinese economy. The authors use data of 1600 counties that launched the movement in different years, and find that in the year of the dispossession, the number of cattle declined by 12 to 15%. In total, this was a loss of almost 10 million head of cattle. Why? Because people started killing their own animals to keep the meat and hides as soon as they released that they will lose the property rights to the use of those animals, and they did not trust the state to be able to safeguard what used to be theirs. This loss also affected grain output, which fell by 7%. We now know that Mao was not discouraged by this initial production shock. No, he doubled down. This initial process of land dispossession set the stage for the Great Leap Forward movement of 1958, which led to the worst famine in human history that killed an estimated 30 million people.

China’s process of collectivization should be the example that Mpofu and the EFF leadership study. If they want more evidence of how collectivization collapses an economy, they need look no further than Tanzania’s Ujamaa and Operation Vijiji, a much understudied but enlightening experience. Or ask our Zimbabwean neighbours about their land reform programme. As Tawanda Chingozha, a PhD student in the Department of Economics at Stellenbosch University, shows using sophisticated satellite imaging technology, Zimbabwe’s land reform programme caused a significant reduction in both the quantity and quality of crops harvested, and not only on formerly white commercial farms. The empirical evidence against state-owned land ownership is unequivocal.

Land is an emotive issue because the memories of dispossession, forced removals, and apartheid segregation remain vivid for many. Others are simply unhappy with the slow process of economic progress in the last decade, and see in land a source of safety and security.

But if land is expropriated and private property removed, the hope of economic progress will be nothing more than a mirage. We have smart people in South Africa. Surely we can find a way of redress that actually empowers people – and won’t replicate our disastrous past policies that subjugated the poorest to a life of poverty on the periphery of progress?

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

South Africans need higher EQON

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BrainScang

The much maligned measure of intelligence – IQ – has an equivalent that measures emotional intelligence – EQ. I vaguely remember studying this in industrial psychology, but, as with most things I’ve studied, I had to go to Wikipedia to get the exact definition: “EQ is the ability to monitor one’s own and other people’s emotions, to discriminate between different emotions and label them appropriately, and to use emotional information to guide thinking and behavior.”

But this is not a post about South Africans’ emotional intelligence. Instead, I want to propose another measure: Economic intelligence, or EQON (pronounced with a click to sound hipster). What is economic intelligence? I’ve borrowed from the other EQ: It is the ability to monitor one’s own and other people’s economic behaviour, to discriminate between different economic actions and label them appropriately, and to use economic information to guide thinking and behaviour.

Reading the press, and especially the comments on a news site like News24, is a nightmare for anyone with a basic understanding of economics. See, economists disagree a lot. If you ask ten economists what will happen to the economy, you will get eleven different answers. (Forecasting is a game only the brave or ignorant play, and it is actually a very small part of what economists do.) But even though economists debate many things, this is not to say that they don’t also agree on many things. We all study the same laws and theories that guide our thinking. We know that if demand increase, prices will tend to increase too. Of course there are assumptions, and we can debate those assumptions. But the theories hold, most of the time.

Which is why it is often excruciating to read comments on news or business sites which report about issues that impact the economy. Take the recent ban on chicken imports from Europe. Because of bird flu, South Africa has closed imports from several European countries to ensure that bird flu doesn’t spread into our borders. How will this policy impact us? It is indeed necessary to protect consumers of chicken to the harmful effects of chicken, but there should be no doubt that consumers will lose because a ban on imports will inevitably push prices higher. This is indeed what has happened after the tariffs on chicken imports increased. But there are winners too: South African producers – mostly oligopolists like Rainbow Chicken and County Fair – will benefit through higher prices and a larger market share. One commentator saw this as a positive step: “Thank God”, he said. “Let’s grow our own industry.”

It would indeed be great to grow our own industry, but at what cost? Should all South Africans pay double for their largest source of protein so that we can create a couple of hundred additional jobs? Do the math: if 50 million South Africans pay only R1 more per month for chicken, we would ‘lose’ R600 million a year. Are producers really going to create 6000 new jobs at R100 000 a job? No, they’re not. The bird flu epidemic is bad, not only for European producers but also for the South African economy too, and especially the poorest South African consumers, who now will be forced to either switch to more expensive proteins are to go without it. That’s why nearly all economists would agree that trade is beneficial for a country, because it allows consumers to improve their living standard much higher than if they had to only bought locally produced goods.

Another thing that most economists would agree on, is that immigration is a good thing. Last month News24 reported that close to 200 000 Zimbabweans are applying for a special extension of their visas. The comments all reflected the following sentiment: “Send the f#ckers back. That’s why there’s no jobs for our guys (sic).” But economists know that immigration is not a zero-sum game. When 10 people immigrate to South Africa, the don’t steal the 10 jobs of South Africans. Many immigrants become entrepreneurs, employing locals. Many work very productively in existing firms, allowing those firms to expand and employ more people. Immigration, especially of well-qualified individuals like the ones moving to South Africa, is a boon not a bane to the economy. We should welcome them with open arms, give them citizenship and let them contribute to the economy to the benefit of everyone else.

Let me give a third example. Economics 101 teaches us that a price floor such as a minimum wage creates a disconnect between the amount of labour supplied and the amount of labour demanded. We call this unemployment. If the minimum wage increases, this disconnect will become larger still, meaning unemployment will increase further. There are exceptions, of course. Sometimes the markets are not competitive, or there are information asymmetries, or there are counterveiling shocks in the rest of the economy that mitigates against the rise in minimum wages. But, in general, a higher minimum wage leads to higher unemployment.

Which is exactly what I predicted two years ago when, after the labour unrest in November 2012 on Western Cape wine farms, the government implemented a higher minimum wage for farm workers. What has happened since? Well, according to Carmen Louw of Women on Farms, “more than 73,000 jobs were lost in the Western Cape farm sector after the statutory minimum wage was raised by more than half in the wake of the violent farm worker strikes of 2012.” Seventy-three thousand! That is nothing less than tragic.

Of course, even in the face of such glaringly obvious evidence that higher minimum wages hurt poor farm workers, some are still not willing to accept that it’s the most basic economic law that explains the higher unemployment. As Dave Marrs points out in yesterday‘s Business Day, Women on Farms and Cosatu believe it is “a matter of racist and misogynist white farmers taking revenge for the strike by victimising black women, rather than simple economics”. Not a lot of EQON there.

Fortunately, in contrast to IQ and EQ, there is actually hope for those with a low EQON. It helps to remove the ideological blinkers, and focus on the evidence. (This is true for economists too. Again, not all economists agree on everything, and much of the disagreement is an unwillingness to accept the evidence of the opposite school of thought.) But people struggle to understand what evidence is. Is one anecdotal account of a woman losing her job because her chicken farm is struggling to compete against cheap Brazilian imports enough evidence to tell us that chicken imports are bad? No, it is not. Because what of the millions of other stories of consumers, unknowingly, buying more chicken products because of cheap prices. Unfortunately the story of the woman – usually accompanied with a photo of her family – appeals to our emotions much more than the story of cheap food.

Economists can also help to remove the blinkers by doing better research: if we can convincingly show with numbers how immigration improves an economy, or that higher chicken prices hurt consumers, or that higher minimum wages cause people to lose their jobs, and if we can convincingly communicate our results to a public often unwilling or unable to see both sides of a story, then it will be easier to convince people of the merits of our case.

Let the quest for a higher national EQON begin!

Written by Johan Fourie

December 12, 2014 at 09:19

Land reform: a political not economic problem

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Two sides of land reform? Photo by Robin Hammond, National Geographic.

Commercial or subsistence depends on political and not economic objectives. Photo by Robin Hammond, National Geographic.

Minister of Rural Development and Land Reform Gugile Nkwinti kicked off the Land Tenure Summit yesterday by making several statements about land reform that has left me perplexed. Reported here, the minister said that “privately-owned land is a serious problem”, that “we want to correct a particular South African historical problem”, that “it cannot be that the worker will work forever and at the end of their time on earth, have nothing to show for it. It is not right, it cannot be right” and again promoted the department’s radical plan to give half of each farm to the labourers working on it.

The distribution and productivity of land is the most serious political issue facing South Africa. The alienation of Khoesan lands by European settlers had already started soon after Van Riebeeck arrived in South Africa, but it was really the expropriation of land in the nineteenth century (as British settlers arrived in the Eastern Cape and the Voortrekkers moved into the interior of the country) that has created a legacy of injustice. By 1913 when the Land Act was signed, black South Africans (and those living in neighbouring colonies like Basotholand, Bechuanaland and Southern Rhodesia) had lost large territories of their most fertile land. The Land Act consolidated this expropriation, and even may have prevented further expropriation (see my earlier post on this).

There is no doubt that redress is needed. The question, really, is how to affect this redress. The reason Julius Malema and his Economic Freedom Fighters did so well in the recent elections was because he pushed the land reform agenda to priority number one, and he had a plan. The EFF wants “expropriation of land without compensation for equitable redistribution” and propose a system whereby the “State should, through its legislative capacity transfer all land to the state, which will administer and use land for sustainable-development purposes. This transfer should happen without compensation, and should apply to all South Africans, black and white.” The State will then lease the land for 25 years.

My suspicion is that performance of the EFF in the recent elections has forced the ANC’s hand, and they’ve come up with their own plan for land redistribution. The plan will force commercial farmers to cede 50% of their farms to their workers. This is not the forum to critique these plans in detail, but I can point to others who have done so. Read this, and this. My field of expertise is economic history, not agriculture, and so my only recourse is to look at land expropriation in history. It is not a story to smile about: during the process of collectivisation in the Soviet Union, at least 4 million people died of starvation alone, and the recent land reform in Zimbabwe has resulted in large declines in production, malnourishment and close to 4 million Zimbabweans emigrating to other countries, notably South Africa.

Yet knowing that something has failed in the past – and even knowing that it will fail again – is usually not enough reason for politicians not to attempt it again. In the absence of alternatives, my sense is that black voters will be happy to go along with any plan to redress land, because it will by implication by more fair than the counterfactual, which is to continue the status quo. (This reminds me of why the National Party won the 1948 elections. The ‘racial issue’ had come to dominate the national agenda after the Second World War but the United Party under Jan Smuts had not articulated a clear plan to tackle this issue. Instead, DF Malan proposed a clear plan of separation, of apartheid. Sometimes all you need to win is a plan, even if it is a bad one.)

So what are the alternatives to the Minister’s proposed plan? It depends on your objectives. If the only criterion is to redress past injustice, land expropriation, either fully or, as the Minister suggests, partially, seems like a solution, right? But what are the consequences of such a policy? One can only speculate, but it is likely that commercial farms will see large-scale disinvestment. Farm prices will collapse, forcing other farmers, who have used their land as collateral for loans, to also sell their properties. Movable assets will be sold to provide some capital for a new life in the city. (Other perverse outcomes: expect more golf courses, light industry parks, gated communities and rural retirement villages, and conservation parks and holiday resorts as farmers shift into other industries not affected by the policies.)

Little of this will benefit the new owners. Land is only as useful as the capital investments on it, and without capital (or, at least, new investment in the farm), many of the new owners will find it increasingly difficult to continue the earlier outputs. The state can help, of course, but the state is not a bank who can easily make decisions about which risks to take and which to avoid. (See my earlier post on Tito Mboweni’s plans for a state bank.) Where the new owners are not former workers, an even more serious issue arises: skills and experience. Farming is an increasingly scientific industry. Our agricultural colleges are simply not producing enough graduates nor would they have the experience to take over the immediate operation of large-scale commercial farms producing for the export market. Learning-by-doing is really the only option, which is why this opinion piece by Peter Curle is a useful read. He suggests that the principles of successful BEE transactions could easily be applied to the agricultural sector. This would mean that farmers are able to choose their black shareholders, train them, and be partly responsible for – and benefit from – their success. That is a system that gets incentives right.

The government could, of course, also take another approach. Given that the agricultural sector employs large numbers of unskilled labour (and has the potential to employ more), it could focus on improving the productivity of existing farmers. To do this, the most obvious thing is to identify the currently most unproductive land. That turns out to be communal and state land, not privately-owned land. (And certainly not foreign-owned land, which seems to get all the blame, but is in fact a tiny share of land owned in South Africa.) The power of traditional leaders, however, prevent such communal or traditional lands from being used more productively. In a recent working paper, Daniel de Kadt, PhD-student at MIT, explains why these traditional leaders continue to have such a powerful hold on the ANC:

We argue that traditional leaders, whose power depends on the state, may be incentivized to strategically support political parties who can guarantee their survival and provide them with rents. We study this quid pro quo in the Apartheid-era Bantustans of South Africa. We show that an alignment between the state party and the chiefs maps to increased political support for the party. Further, we provide quantitative evidence consistent with chiefs acting as clientelistic brokers. Our results suggest that chiefs boost African National Congress (ANC) vote-share by 8.2 percentage points in the Bantustans. This translates into roughly 4.5% of the ANC’s total vote-share, and a distortion in the national vote of 2.5 percentage points. This distortion is pivotal in determining whether the ANC is able to alter South Africa’s constitution.

You could also translate it thus: The poorest of the poor South Africans live in Bantustans on communal lands. They, however, are being held ransom by their chiefs who are in cahoots with the ANC, who rely on their support for 2.5 percentage points in each election.

To eradicate the legacy of colonial land expropriation, a thriving agricultural sector is key. The problem is not “privately-owned land”, as the Minister seems to think. Policies that affect commercial farms will only hurt workers and the consumers of cheap food, exactly those people that suffered because of the initial land expropriation. The solution lies in tackling the unproductive, communal lands that is currently held by chiefs or the state. If these areas can prosper, not only will it pull millions of poor South Africans out of poverty, but it will create the necessary skills and capital to allow faster land reform elsewhere. Yet this most important step is unlikely to occur any time soon. That is because poverty alleviation and real redress is not an economic problem, but a political one.

Food for all?

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Recipe to disaster? Higher chicken prices will hurt the poorest. Photo: Homegrown.org

Recipe for disaster? Higher chicken prices will hurt South Africa’s poorest. Photo: Homegrown.org

On 30 September South Africa imposed higher tariffs on chicken imports. One important reason for the imposition of tariffs, according to Minister Rob Davies, was that South Africa needs to ensure its own food security. We cannot allow international food producers, the argument goes, to dictate the prices we pay for our food.

I’ve written about the higher chicken tariffs before, and the negative consequences it’s imposition would have for South Africa’s poorest consumers. Other economists agreed. (Economic consultancy Econex contributed this excellent summary. Full disclosure: it was written by my wife.) Nevertheless Mr Davies imposed the tariffs. The government has been so kind as to post a YouTube clip of the full press conference. Three questions: 1) Are we really employing 48 000 workers in the chicken industry? Really? 2) If chicken producers suffered injury because of foreign competition, we would expect to see it in a drop in earnings, right? So what happened to chicken producers’ share prices over the last two years? Any signs of serious injury? Here’s a clue, and 3) Can the journalists at the press conference look like they care any less?

So the predictable has happened. The sugar industry has asked for higher protection, claiming they can’t compete against cheap imports and that South Africa will suffer because of lower food security. And what prevents the dairy or wheat industries from filing their own applications in the near future?

The reason the government gets away with this is because, as I’ve said before, food security is misunderstood by the general public (as reflected in a recent debate on the topic on Afrikaans radio station RSG). Food security is not about producing your own food, but about consuming it at the lowest price. We do not need to produce all of South Africa’s food in South Africa. The richest countries in the world don’t do it, so why should we? Instead, what we should aim for is to provide South Africans with the cheapest food we can find. Perhaps some of it is grown locally, but most of it will come from countries that are really good at growing food, like Brazil (where they can harvest twice a year and where rainfall reduces the need to irrigate). Or it will come from countries that subsidise their farmers which, in other words, mean that their tax payers are willing to pay parts of their salary so that we in South Africa can buy cheap food. This is a pretty sweet deal, except that our government is hell-bent on restricting these benefits.

Here is some more evidence to support my claim that that food security is not about producing your own food. The International Food Policy Research Institute has published a new Global Hunger Index, which measures the degree to which people go hungry across the world. I’ve correlated this measure with the share of agriculture in GDP for each of these countries. In short: countries with a high Agriculture/GDP ratio should, if food security is about producers, result in low rates of hunger. Surely a country that produces a larger share of its GDP as food should be able feed its citizens to a greater degree in comparison to countries where agriculture is only a tiny share of GDP? Well, no. In fact, I find a correlation coefficient of 0.6 for 1990, meaning that countries with a higher Agric/GDP ratio also has a much higher likelihood of going hungry. This correlation increases to 0.65 for 2010. (Both sets of data are available online, here and here.) Incidentally, The Economist also shows that South Africa is one of the countries where hunger has increased the most since 1990, meaning that all our ‘food security’ has had little effect for the poorest.

Keeping people well-fed is not only a humanitarian goal; there are also good economic reasons to do so. As Agnes Binagwaho, Minister of Health of Rwanda (and Senior Lecturer at Harvard Medical School) argues, one in three preventable deaths among young children worldwide – up to 2.5 million each year – are the result of inadequate nutrition. Malnutrition limits children’s ability to learn in school, reducing the returns on education and GDP growth. Last year, Minister Binagwaho notes, “the Copenhagen Consensus – an esteemed panel of economists including several Nobel Laureates – ranked child nutrition as the top priority on its list of cost-effective investments that would improve global welfare”.

Min Davies’ higher chicken tariffs impose, I believe, what will be one of South Africa’s most harmful economic policies since the turn of the century, not only for its direct impact on consumers but for the door it opens for other industries to ask for similar protectionist benefits. More shockingly, it’s a policy largely ignored by the media. Of course we can produce our own food. Of course there is a need to make farmers more efficient global competitors. With a rising Africa on our doorstep, with better infrastructure that connects our farmers to this growing market, and farmers’ willingness to invest in new technologies, this will happen.

But if we want to reduce the poorest South Africans’ vulnerability to hunger and malnutrition – if we want food for all – we should eliminate efforts to build walls against imports. Given the government’s recent policy decisions, however, it is highly probable that the hunger pains will further intensify for South Africa’s poorest over the next few years, with incalculably dire consequences for our society and economy.

Written by Johan Fourie

October 24, 2013 at 17:12

Spending priorities

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SKAIt is difficult to find fault with the 2013 National Budget Speech of yesterday. Min Pravin Gordhan delivered what is certainly a sound and realistic attempt at what he calls “ensuring value for money”. There was tough talk on corruption (“Let me be frank. This is a difficult task with too many points of resistance! … There are too many people who have a stake in keeping the system the way it is. Our solutions, hitherto, have not matched the size and complexity of the challenge. As much as I want, I cannot simply wave a magic wand to make these problems disappear.”) and a new Chief Procurement Office has been set up to reduce these inefficiencies. There is an attempt to reduce the budget deficit to keep government debt below or on the 40% debt to GDP ratio. And there was renewed emphasis on achieving the long-run goals of the excellent National Development Plan.

But there is also much to learn from what is not said. For the first time in five years, there was not a single mention of land reform or redistribution. Min Gordhan does well to acknowledge that growth opportunities are in cities and that spending should be targeted to improve urban areas, although his spending projections does not reflect these sentiments: The Department of Rural Development and Land Reform (R8.9 billion) still receives a greater share of the pie than the Department of Tourism (R1.3 billion), which is responsible for a growing industry and contributes more to GDP than agriculture, the Department of Energy (R6.7 billion), the Department of Public Works (R7.7 billion) and the Department of Science and Technology (R5 billion). This allocation is in addition to the R5.7 billion for the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries, even though, as the Department for Rural Development acknowledges, “agriculture is the primary economic activity in rural areas” (page 787). It is clear that rural areas still receive proportionately more than they contribute to GDP or are likely to contribute in future.

Instead, if Min Gordhan is serious about improving competitiveness and productivity, there are more obvious spending priorities. While enough has been written about education, another source of competitiveness that receives scant attention in the Speech – actually, only one reference – is spending on Science and Technology. As history shows us (read Joel Mokyr’s The Gifts of Athena, for example), it’s through scientific innovations that improve both labour productivity and total factor productivity, in other words, that allows us to produce more things with fewer inputs. Adaptation is especially important: Japan and South Korea’s success was first due to successful adaptation of American technology. This allowed them to move to the technology frontier and only then would they begin to innovate and expand the frontier. This process is however not decoupled from education: as James Bessen shows in a recent paper in the  Journal of Economic History, the massive productivity gains in the late nineteenth century weaving industry in England was not only due to more machines, or better machines, but also because workers became more adept at using the new technologies. High-tech tractors on large, commercial farms don’t require the traditional skills of tractor drivers anymore, but rather the skills of someone that can read GPS coordinates and monitor computer screens. Such technological shifts necessitates investment in scientific infrastructure that can help with broad based technical education, and not just pockets of excellence. If South African labour is to be more competitive, we must learn to adapt these new technologies.

Unfortunately, Science and Technology is at the back of the spending queue. A commendable R1.9 billion has been allocated to the Square Kilometre Array Project, a flagship project showcasing South Africa’s astronomy and engineering skills that has been lauded by the South African media. But this leaves little room for any other investment in science infrastructure. In fact, “over the medium term, R279.5 million has been allocated for infrastructure required to provide the scientific community with research and development facilities that are state of the art to ensure the country’s global competitiveness in research, development and innovation” (page 811 of the ENE). To put that into perspective, that is marginally more than the state spent on the president’s retirement home in Nkandla.

A competitive economy requires large-scale investments in science and technology infrastructure that will allow South Africans to adopt and adapt new technologies. The Budget of 2013 does not reflect this reality.

Written by Johan Fourie

February 28, 2013 at 14:48