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Posts Tagged ‘future

The future is an unknown unknown

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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

South Africa’s long walk to economic freedom after apartheid

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Towering above  his successor: How long before Nelson Mandela's long walk to economic freedom will end?

Towering above his successor: How long before Nelson Mandela’s long walk to economic freedom will end?

South Africa’s economy is in trouble. In June, StatsSA announced that the South Africa’s gross domestic product had fallen 1.2% in the first quarter of 2016. We are on the verge of a recession, hanging on by our fingernails. Weak and weakening capacity within national government to enact the necessary economic reforms stipulated in its own policy programme (the excellent National Development Plan) is largely to blame. And it is becoming increasingly apparent that the weakening capacity is the result of appointments based more on political affiliation than competency.

Global events have contributed to the malaise. The self-inflicted Brexit wound will hurt for a long time, and may even leave a permanent scar. Austerity measures implemented in the post-Great Recession era may have reduced government debt somewhat but had the political consequences of the rise of nationalists and fascists. As an older generation of political economists would have known but many modern-day macroeconomists may have ignored in their models, economics doesn’t happen in a political vacuum. England may have been first, but right-wing groups across Europe will only be encouraged by the UK’s ‘independence’. It wasn’t only austerity, though. Demographics played its part. Again, much was said about the economics of an ageing population, but few predicted that it would have political consequences too. Old people voted for Brexit; young people, who will suffer its consequences for longer, wanted to Remain.

It is in this context that I recently wrote a short paper on the economic history of South Africa since apartheid, and the road ahead. The paper is now available as a working paper. I divide the post-apartheid in two: the first 14 years of Nelson Mandela and Thabo Mbeki, and the next eight following the Great Recession and Jacob Zuma. While there is much to commend about the first period when the country reached GDP growth rates above 5%, the sad reality is that the last 8 have been dismal. A bloating state salary burden, ideological conflict within the ANC, and state capture have pulled the South African economy – and the poor’s prospects to enjoy social mobility – down.

I then outline a tentative plan for what to do next. The utopian dreams of the NDP are now worth little more than the paper they are written on. What is needed is a list of priorities of ‘low-hanging fruit’, policies that are affordable, politically acceptable and would support those most in need. I outline five such policies, beginning with family planning, early childhood development, education (schools and universities), and affordable and widespread broadband. Much more is needed, of course, to take us back to the optimism of the mid-2000s. But even with just a start in the right direction, I argue, we can benefit from the opportunities that a rising Africa and technological innovation have to offer.

Sapiens and Naledi

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I finally read Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari. It is a provocative book, one that challenges many of our long-held beliefs. Religion, for example, is one topic that will upset many – one of the ‘myths’ or ‘fictions’ humans have, says Harari, like money or empire. But it is the discussion of how we have domesticated plants and animals and its implications for today – ‘We did not domesticate food. It domesticated us.’ – that is revealing, if sometimes leaning towards the sensationalist – ‘modern industrial agriculture might well be the greatest crime in history’.

The book sets out to explain the three most important revolutions in human history, the Cognitive Revolution (around 70 000 BCE), the Neolithic Revolution (around 10 000 BCE) and the Scientific Revolution (around 1500 CE). It is much better at the first and second than at the third. In fact, as with one of my favourite books, Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel, Harari unsuccessfully attempts to make the post-1500 and particularly the post-1800 period fit into the simple framework of the two earlier epochs. (For example: he attributes the Industrial Revolution to only two things – imperialism and science. If this was true, then China should have had an Industrial Revolution in the 15th century, when they were the most advanced scientifically and were discovering the world with their giant fleets. But they didn’t.) Read the book for the first half, not for the last.

The topic of humans and their evolution is a fascinating, and also fast-changing one. The October 2015 edition of National Geographic tells the tale of Lee Berger’s discoveries of Homo Naledi in a cave near Johannesburg. Homo Naledi fits somewhere between the apelike australopithecines like Lucy, a skeleton discovered in Ehtiopia in 1974, and Homo Habilis, the ‘first’ known human ancestor of us, Homo Sapiens, which was classified in Kenya in the 1970s. This evolution occurred maybe two to three million years ago. Homo Habilis (or the myriad of other forms of proto-humans that existed but are still undiscovered) evolved into Homo Erectus, and then Homo Sapiens. These sapiens left Africa in two waves. Almost all human DNA derive from the second ‘Out-of-Africa migration’ around 75 000 BCE. (The Neanderthals derive from the first out-migration, and new evidence suggests may have left a tiny DNA footprint in some modern Europeans.) The Cognitive Revolution, when we begin to see evidence of art and burials and other cultural traits, begin around 70 000. Homo sapiens – modern humans in all respects similar to us today – reached South Asia around 50 000 years ago, Australia around 46 000 years ago, 43 000 years ago, North America around 15 000 years ago, the Pacific islands around 1300 BCE and New Zealand only around 1280, about the same time as University College in Oxford was founded.

The cave Berger and his large team of archaeologists uncovered was a remarkable find, a possible link between our apelike ancestors and modern humans. It has also shifted attention back to South Africa and our rich archaeological history. This is one area of science where we clearly have a comparative advantage, and more can be done to promote this field of research.

But why care about the evolution of humans, you may ask. In Sapiens we find the answer: according to Harari, we are about to be replaced by a superior human. After the Scientific Revolution came the Information Revolution of the twentieth century. And now we are at the cusp of the Biotechnological Revolution. Soon we will be able to engineer humans to become amortal (not immortal, because we would still be able to die in car crashes and terrorist attacks). And these humans might be smarter, quicker, better than us. And once artificial intelligence reaches the singularity, who knows what they will do to humans, to us.

I am less pessimistic that we will soon be replaced by Homo Mechanica. Biotechnology, instead of replicating human brains, might allow us to fully exploit our extraordinary creativity. Much like love, it might help us to become better versions of ourselves, a new and improved Homo Sapiens.

Flocking to a new future

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Vuli Nyoni's Murmuration at the GUS Art Gallery in Dorp Street last year.

Part of Vuli Nyoni’s ‘Murmuration’ at the GUS Art Gallery in Dorp Street last year.

There is no doubt that the Rhodes statue should move from its current location. It should have moved a long time ago. The remarkable thing is not that there are students – black and white – that demand its removal. Instead, it is remarkable that a man that caused so much pain expropriating the lands of blacks across southern Africa and Boers in the Republics could escape the furies of so many for so long. Not anymore.

#RhodesMustFall is a no-brainer. But what should substitute Rhodes’ statue is the far more difficult question. Not only on the premises of UCT, but across South African campuses. Offensive names across the country – like the DF Malan centre at Stellenbosch University (despite my attempts last year to suggest that it can be seen as a victory over the past) – have changed. But, as far as I can see anyway, there is no discussion about forging a new, inclusive identity. This has to do with the unfortunate way the Rhodes statue has given rise to groups that want to score cheap political points; the poo-throwing, militaristic, nationalistic and even extremist sentiments expressed in many of the student meetings are an unhappy result of UCT dragging its feet. Now Rhodes’ statue will fall at the hands of opportunists instead of a progressive movement for change.

It’s necessary to recast the past, of course. It’s also easy. What is much more difficult is to define an inclusive vision of the future.

So let me try. On Thursday evening I attended the International Food Evening at Stellenbosch University. More than a thousand students descended on  Academia residence to taste the cuisine of our international  visitors; food from Belgium (who won first prize) to Zimbabwe (who came third) was on offer, as well as that of 23 other countries. It was fun and festive, delicious and diverse. These are not the pictures, unfortunately, the Cape Times report on their cover, because they don’t fit the stereotypical image of Stellenbosch as the last bastion of Afrikaner racism. Instead, Congolese and Canadian, Zulu and Zambian, Swazi and Swiss, Angolans and Afrikaners were conversing under the stars, tasting foreign foods and drinking beer. That image, to me at least, represents a future Stellenbosch, and a future South African society.

That is, a society that is not uniform (where we all look, think, act the same), but united in our purpose to build a prosperous society for all. For too long in our history, those in power had a vision of South Africa that excluded those who lived in it: Rhodes’ vision of a British Empire in Africa had no space for black or Boer. The Afrikaners’ vision of apartheid South Africa had no space black South Africans. And, in truth, the current regime seems to hell bent on disenfranchising amakwerekwere, Africans from countries outside South Africa. A recent estimate suggests that at least 5% of the people in this country are Zimbabweans, more than 3 million in total. What is happening to them is much the same as what happened to blacks during apartheid.

How do we build this inclusive, prosperous future? First we must step away from the strive toward uniformity. Nationalism is an idea that has been tried before and it has failed, again and again. When we flock, as Vuli Nyoni pointed out in an US/Leuven Thinktank seminar earlier on Thursday evening, we tend to lose track of our personal convictions, our personal identities. Perhaps our emphasis on ubuntu – I am who I am through other people – has made us (and here I include not only black South Africans because I think Afrikaners have this characteristic too) prone to groupthink, or flocking. Birds of a feather flock together is what we like to say, but instead of shared appearances we should be focusing on a shared purpose.

Second, we must grow. I don’t want to discuss economic policy here, but consider the collective entrepreneurial spirit of the Asian countries over the last three decades. Government, business and civil society shared a vision of a prosperous future, implementing pro-growth policies that allowed millions to escape poverty and thousands to become millionaires. India, China, and South Korea, despite their own legacies of colonialism, now have large middle classes that can enjoy the fruits of capitalism. South Africans, by focusing so much on the injustices of the past, should be wary of trying too hard to create a new past instead of a new future.

Which brings me back to Rhodes’ statue. What will replace it? Once we’ve (finally) destroyed the myth that we should all be English, or Afrikaans, or South African, what next? Que vadis young South Africa?

Written by Johan Fourie

March 21, 2015 at 11:47

Who would want to work three hours a day?

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Hard work: John McEnroe, Novak Djokovic and Richard Branson enjoying the lives of the leisure class

Hard work: John McEnroe, Novak Djokovic and Richard Branson enjoying the lives of the leisure class

I find holidays paradoxical. The thought of sitting on a beach, staring over the ocean and watching the sun set seems like a great way to spend a Friday evening after a productive week of work, but to do so for a week or two – or even a month – seems, to me at least, a frightening prospect. And do what? Listen to the waves. Oh okay, I’m listening. And then? No, listen. Switch off. Think of nothing but the waves. Hmm, okay. Tik tok. And now? As soon as I’m on holiday, there’s an urge to want to be productive.

I’m being unfair to beach holidays, of course. Every December I spend at least a few days on the beach, soaking in the southern sun, and reading my too long list of books. It is paradise. But I do sometimes wonder about the idea of leisure: what is its purpose and how to best use ‘free’ time, i.e. time not spent working? I’m not only thinking about it because I’ve just been on holiday (which made me think about the value of leisure time) but because I’m reading a book in which a couple of leading economists predict the future. Their predictions are fascinating and not all positive, but one of them, the idea of more leisure time, had me thinking: do we really want a 3-day work-week? What would we do with all our free time? Richard Branson, founder of Virgin, suggested the same thing in a post yesterday:

New innovations will drive industries forward, but they will also reduce our reliance on people power. Ideas such as driverless cars and drones are becoming a reality, and machines will be used for more and more jobs in the future. Who knows, maybe even pilot-less planes, could become reality one day! On the face of it, this sounds like bad news for people. However, if governments and businesses are clever, the advance of technology could actually be really positive for people all over the world. It could help accelerate the marketplace to much smarter working practices. The idea of working five days a week with two day weekends and a few weeks of annual holiday is just something people accept. For some reason, it is considered set in stone by most companies. There is no reason this can’t change. In fact, it would benefit everyone if it did.

The trade-off seems straightforward: More work means higher incomes, which in turn means a greater ability to consume. Better technologies would mean that we can do the same work faster, so instead of working five days a week, we can get the same work done in three days. More time for leisure, right? Well, not exactly. What if ‘work’ provides some utility? What if you have a job that you actually enjoy: not always, of course, but a job which brings success and a sense of self-worth. (Just consider someone that is unemployed. It is not only the fact that they do not have an income that matters; it is that their skills are unwanted by anyone else.) In addition, leisure – let’s think of travelling, for example – is costly. So having a long weekend every weekend may not sound so appetising if you think about what it might do to your wallet. More importantly, what if what we do is not about maximising our absolute utility – i.e. obtaining a certain level of income that would satisfy our basic needs – but instead maximising our relative utility, in other words, keeping up with the Joneses (or the Kardashians). In this case we would be forced to spend more hours working harder to reach the top of the status ladder.

It is for this reason that John Maynard Keynes’s prediction, made a century ago, has not been realised. While he correctly predicted that living standards would vastly improve, he believed that we would spend a considerable larger amount of our time on leisure. (In technical terms, he overestimated the backward-bending labour supply curve.)

Thus for the first time since his creation man will be faced with his real, his permanent problem – how to use his freedom from pressing economic cares, how to occupy the leisure, which science and compound interest will have won for him, to live wisely and agreeably and well.

The strenuous purposeful money-makers may carry all of us along with them into the lap of economic abundance. But it will be those peoples, who can keep alive, and cultivate into a fuller perfection, the art of life itself and do not sell themselves for the means of life, who will be able to enjoy the abundance when it comes.

Yet there is no country and no people, I think, who can look forward to the age of leisure and of abundance without a dread. For we have been trained too long to strive and not to enjoy. It is a fearful problem for the ordinary person, with no special talents, to occupy himself, especially if he no longer has roots in the soil or in custom or in the beloved conventions of a traditional society. To judge from the behaviour and the achievements of the wealthy classes today in any quarter of the world, the outlook is very depressing! For these are, so to speak, our advance guard-those who are spying out the promised land for the rest of us and pitching their camp there. For they have most of them failed disastrously, so it seems to me – those who have an independent income but no associations or duties or ties – to solve the problem which has been set them.

I feel sure that with a little more experience we shall use the new-found bounty of nature quite differently from the way in which the rich use it today, and will map out for ourselves a plan of life quite otherwise than theirs.

For many ages to come the old Adam will be so strong in us that everybody will need to do some work if he is to be contented. We shall do more things for ourselves than is usual with the rich today, only too glad to have small duties and tasks and routines. But beyond this, we shall endeavour to spread the bread thin on the butter – to make what work there is still to be done to be as widely shared as possible. Three-hour shifts or a fifteen-hour week may put off the problem for a great while. For three hours a day is quite enough to satisfy the old Adam in most of us!

The decision to switch to a more leisure-filled life would presumably have important consequences for society too. Richer individuals would substitute income for leisure, meaning that inequality would fall. The poorer part of society will work harder until they attain a certain level of wealth, and then also begin to substitute income for leisure. But I just don’t see this happening. Perhaps we’ll leave the dull, mind-numbing tasks for computers and robots, but we’ll certainly continue to work. Look at the richest individuals: do they work any less than us normal folk? Not really. Yes, they certainly enjoy a higher standard of living, with access to better medical services and larger houses and more travel and better education for their kids. But they don’t actually work less. The backward-bending supply curve only really kicks in once people reach retirement age.

The paradox of leisure is that we want to have the freedom to afford it, but when we do we choose more work instead. Even if we can ensure a minimum income to all citizens, either through something like a basic income grant or because a lot of things are now free as Michael Jordaan has argued, the truth is that ‘the old Adam in most of us’ (or is that Eve whispering in our ear?) will want us to work harder so that we can move up the social ladder (or at least avoid moving down). While we all need a holiday once in a while (or something besides doing what we normally do), I don’t see us working three hours a day and spending the rest sipping cocktails and watching the sunset over the horizon. Not even Richard Branson, who owns his own beach on his own island, does that.


Written by Johan Fourie

July 15, 2014 at 09:59

The past is the future we fear: notes from 1827

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One of the benefits of studying economics (and economic history) is that you’re a bit more resilient to the populist sentiments of politicians and policy-makers. Especially during election time, facts and fiction are often mixed together in one of those big, black pots, with a touch of fantasy added as special ingredient, and served to expectant ears. We all like to have our ideas about the world affirmed and politicians are good at exploiting this weakness. They tell us exactly what we want to hear. Never let the facts get in the way of a good story.


Lord Charles Somerset

Much has been said in the build-up to this South African elections, for example, about growing inequalities in South Africa. Whether you think severe and persistent inequality is only slightly bad or extremely bad, there is no denying that a highly unequal society, like South Africa’s population, is not only morally unjustifiable but also a barrier to higher rapid growth. And this is not peculiar to South Africa, of course. Mechanisation, globalisation, and various other trends seems to be driving a gap between those with wealth and those without. Even the IMF has acknowledged that this is an issue.

Many ascribe this growing inequality as an inevitable consequence of the capitalism machine. Like Marx predicted, it seems as though the social structures of our societies are crumbling under the corruption of commerce. And it’s not only the lefties that are having a field day: prominent economists, like Brad Delong, are struggling to come to grips with robots hijacking our jobs. But, as Delong notes, this is not the first time that we’ve encountered the problem of inequality. Sometimes the past is the future we fear. During the Great Depression, many in Europe thought that communism was the only way to escape the deprivation that permeated Western societies. The iron curtain, and its collapse, would later show communist claims to a utopian future to be false.

But even in our own history, we have telling reminders that the egalitarian past we so happily paint is all but true. I recently discovered a table in the Records of the Cape Colony (Theal, 1905) that listed wages paid to all government employees of the Cape Colony in 1827. Remember, this is a time before the discovery of minerals, before the abolishment of slavery, yes, even before the Great Trek. This was a society, presumably, without the upheavals and inequalities of modern capitalism, without the corruption and nihilism of the ‘neoliberal’, materialistic world we inhabit today. And yet, Lord Charles Somerset, then governor of the Cape (let’s call him the premier, or the president), earned £10 000 annually (p. 28). In contrast, a bookkeeper in the Office of Collector of Tithes and Transfer Duties (equivalent to someone working for SARS today), earned, on average, £45 (p. 43). That’s right, he (his names was TF Dreyer) earned 222 times less than the president. What does an auditor at SARS earn annually these days? Let’s say a conservative R300 000. Apply the same ratio, and Lord Charles Somerset earned the equivalent of R66 million. Jacob Zuma, officially at least, earns only R2,6  million. Or take Patrick Kelly, a messenger in the Office of Civil Engineering, who earned £9, less than 1000 times that of Lord Somerset. And, of course, these were all white government workers. Had you been black, you could at best wish for a job in the police, at £4 per annum, that is, 2500 times less than the president. (If a policeman today earns R100 000 annually, that would take the president’s salary to R250 million. Zuma could buy a Nkandla every year with that money.)

MilanovicCapitalism does not necessarily lead to higher inequality, especially not in the very long run. (In more thorough research, Dieter von Fintel and I showed that the eighteenth century Cape Colony was also severely unequal.) But even in the short run, capitalism isn’t always bad. An excellent example is South Africa’s own recent history: Branko Milanovic of the World Bank recently tweeted South Africa’s Gini coefficient for the last decade. While income inequality is slightly higher in 2010 than in 2000, the pattern is decidedly mixed over the decade. Our spending is less unequal in 2010 than in 2000. These changes in inequality also masks the rapid declines in poverty that the country has seen since 1994. A SALDRU report by Arden Finn, Murray Leibbrandt and Ingrid Woolard of UCT shows the incredible gains that a free market (with help from the state) has allowed: From 1993 to 2010, a multidimensional index of poverty has fallen by 29 percentage points from 37% to 8%. These are dramatic improvements, often unappreciated.

The past is a scary place. The future is brighter than we think. We still have problems to solve, but the we are in far better shape to do so. Let’s remind politicians of that this elections.

Written by Johan Fourie

April 3, 2014 at 15:00

Turning 31

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Trimming time: Gardeners at work in Geneva © Johan Fourie (2012)

It is another perfect day in the desert. It’s early still, six o’clock, and the day is pregnant with possibilities. I read my mails, scan Facebook. It is a more remarkable day than usual. Today I turn 31. Lots of messages of congratulations and well wishes. I really appreciate each of these, take time to think about each friend. When did we last speak, have a drink or dinner, laugh together?

31 is a special number for me. It happens to be a combination of my two favourite numbers, 3 and 1. Like most habits, I don’t know when it started. It happened to be my first-year room number in Eendrag. In the off chance that I play roulette, I always bet on 31. Mostly I lose, but I remember the one time it actually won me something. When the world was my oyster, it was also the name of my fictional company – Group31. I think the plan was to own 31 farms across South Africa and Africa. Yes, farms. A tourist-farm where visitors can enjoy the delights of rural living while the farms, each carefully selected for its diversity of produce and experiences, produce organic goods for the top-end of the retail market. Or Hotels31, with boutique hotels in my favourite university towns; Utrecht, Coimbra, Geneva (photo), Lund, Tuebingen. Or Books31, because, well, it’s books.

31 is also the division, for me at least, between young and old. It is complete fabrication, I know. I’m in no way more older from yesterday to today, than from two days ago to yesterday. But it does feel as if I’ve turned a corner. My body is less malleable; training and running will only make marginal differences from now on. My future is less malleable. At school, I used to play a game where I would imagine five different futures: Johan the jet-setting businessman, Johan the publisher, Johan the history teacher, Johan the architect, Johan the Protea cricketer (don’t laugh). Aside from the small issue of talent, those were all potential options for teenager Johan. Not any more (although I still harbour a faint hope that somehow I’ll discover a new variation of spin-bowling that will catapult me into cricketing stardom).

So what determined that I now teach, do research and write a weekly blog? I don’t know. It was never just one decision. I never decided to do this. It happened, but also not in a fatalistic, deterministic sense. It happened through the cumulative effects of millions of tiny, every-day decisions. Yes, some were bigger: my choice of university programme certainly influenced my future options, or my choice of where to apply for jobs, and whom to marry. But these bigger decisions, I would argue, were contingent on many smaller, earlier decisions. Take my PhD, for example. Had I not met Jan Luiten van Zanden at a Social Science History conference in Lisbon, where we happened to be at the same meeting for economists, and, if several months earlier, I had not come across a link to the conference website while browsing online, and a few months before that happened to find a dataset that intrigued me (a dataset I wasn’t searching for), Utrecht would have been nothing more than a pretty Dutch town. And so on, and so on.

Life is a happenstance of uncoordinated decisions. The bigger ones we tend to overthink: we try to analyse the costs and benefits much like an accountant balances books. I think these ‘decisions’ are overrated. The smaller ones, the ones we make without thinking about it, are sometimes vastly more important. The future, then, is the outcome of thousands of small decisions, each the result of an earlier one. Like sending that last-minute email – Drink jy koffie? – to the girl that would later become my wife. Or the smile, only visible for an instant, that made me send that email.

And yet, we don’t celebrate these little decisions. We often don’t even take notice. We tend to live from one special event to the next – birthdays, anniversaries, business targets, sport milestones – all the while forgetting that life is in the detail. We may have big plans, dreams, aspirations, and that is certainly not a bad thing. But, now that I’ve moved through my proverbial veil of ignorance, perhaps I understand better what Paul Cilliers meant when he urged us to ‘make every act in one’s daily life a quality act’. Note the difference between ‘Enjoy every moment’, the cliched phrase of Supersport commercials, and ‘Make every act a quality act’. Not all moments are enjoyable; I certainly don’t enjoy washing dishes. But the next time I watch cricket with buddies, talk to students, walk to work, or, as Cilliers recommends, eat an egg, I’ll try to rush it a little less, to occupy the moment a little more. Because, to quote another famous 20th century philosopher, you never know what you gonna get.

Being in Tucson, we don’t have big plans for today. I’ll miss watching the Boks play Wales. Instead, I’ll attend my first game of American Football; it is Homecoming weekend here and, thanks to Price Fishback, Helanya and I have tickets to the big game between UofA and UCLA tonight. I can’t see how this will help me reach the goals I’ve set myself. Or help me realise those disillusioned dreams.

Instead, it promises four hours of fun and laughter. Perfect.

Written by Johan Fourie

November 9, 2013 at 20:27