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Posts Tagged ‘sweden

How to get good politicians

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South African President Jacob Zuma visit Berlin

Politicians can shape the fortunes of countries. Presidents, in particular, set the tone: balancing many stakeholder interests, their job is to create a unifying vision that should guide policy-making. Members of parliament act upon this vision, designing and implementing policies that affect the lives of millions of people. One would imagine, then, that those with the best aptitude for leadership get elected.

That is the theory. But in practice politics is a messy business. For many reasons, it is often not the smartest candidate who gets elected, or the most effective member who gets selected for higher honours. Some economic models even explain why it is not the most capable that move up: Someone without a proper education (but a charismatic personality) has a much higher chance to see greater returns in politics than in the private sector. (In technical terms, lower opportunity costs give the less able a comparative advantage at entering public life.) These selection effects are compounded by the free-rider problem in politics, where work effort is not directly correlated to political outcomes. In other words, according to this model, it is society’s ‘chancers’ that are more likely to end up in politics – and the hard-working, smart ones will tend to end up in the private sector.

Competency in public office is, of course, is not the only goal of a parliamentary system. Representation – having politicians that reflect the demographic and geographic make-up of society-at-large – is also a key concern. But competency and representation, at least theoretically, do not always correlate. Take the following example: a proportional representation system, like we have in South Africa, would require members of all districts to be represented. But what if one region – let’s call it Farmville – has few university-trained citizens, whereas another region – Science City – has many citizens with university degrees? A proportional representation system will necessitate some Farmville politicians also be elected to parliament, even though the Science City politicians will probably be best qualified for the job. In contrast, in a plurality rule system – where the candidate with the most votes gets the job – competency often trumps representation.

A new NBER Working paper – Who Becomes a Politician? – by five Swedish social scientists, casts doubt on this trade-off. Using an extraordinarily rich dataset on the social background and competence levels of Swedish politicians and the general public, they show that an ‘inclusive meritocracy’ is an achievable goal, i.e. a society where competency and representation correlate in public office. They find that Swedish politicians are, on average, significantly smarter and better leaders than the population they represent. This, they find, is not because Swedish politicians are only drawn from the elite of society; in fact, the representation of politicians in Swedish municipalities, as measured by parental income or occupational class, is remarkably even. They conclude that there is at best a weak trade-off between competency and representation, mostly because there is ‘strong positive selection of politicians of low (parental) socioeconomic status.

These results are valid for Sweden, of course, which is a country unlike South Africa. Yet there are lessons that we can learn. First, what seems to matter is a combination of ‘well-paid full-time positions and a strong intrinsic motivation to serve in uncompensated ones’. In other words, a political party in South Africa that rewards hard work for those who serve in uncompensated positions, are likely to see the best leaders rise to the top, where they should be rewarded with market-related salaries. Second, an electoral system which allows parties to ‘represent various segments of society’. Political competition is good. Third, the ‘availability of talent across social classes’. This, they argue, is perhaps unique to Sweden, known for its universal high-quality education.

This reminded me of our State of the Nation red carpet event, where the cameras fixated on the gowns and glamour of South Africa’s political elite. How do the levels of competency in our parliament, I wondered, compare to Sweden and other countries?

Let’s just look at the top of the pyramid. The president of Brazil, Michel Temer, completed a doctorate in public law in 1974. He has published four major books in constitutional law. The Chinese president, Xi Jinping, also has a PhD in Law, although his initial field of study was chemical engineering. Narendra Modi, prime minister of India, has a Master’s degree in Political Science. Former US president Barack Obama graduated with a Doctor of Jurisprudence-degree magna cum laude from Harvard University. Angela Merkel, chancellor of Germany, has a PhD in quantum chemistry. Most of these widely respected leaders gave up a top job in the private sector or academe to pursue a political career.

Politics is messy, but given the right conditions, it can still attract high-quality leaders. For that to happen, though, aspiring politicians must put in the hard yards, even if initially uncompensated, supported by a competitive political party system and broad access to quality education. South Africa, unfortunately, is still a long way from meeting these criteria.

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


Written by Johan Fourie

March 24, 2017 at 07:35

Lovely Lund

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Helanya and I spent the last three weeks in Lund, a university town in the south of Sweden. I’m here on a research visit, working on collaborative projects with Erik Green and Ellen Hillbom who head the Africa group in their Department of Economic History, the largest economic history department in the world.

And it’s been fun and fruitful: Sweden in summer is sunny and soothing, especially if you stay away from the popular holiday destinations. There’s not much to do in Lund itself: the cathedral is impressive and ruggedly beautiful (picture). It includes an astronomical clock and a basement that would be the ideal setting for a crime fiction novel. There is also Kulturen, the second largest open air museum in the world. It’s a nice way to familiarise yourself with Swedish and Danish culture (until 1658, the southern part of Sweden – Götaland – was still part of Denmark). And if you’re after more action then Malmo, the largest city in the south of Sweden and a cultural melting pot, is just ten minutes by train. There’s a fantastic science and technology museum, especially if you have kids. And Denmark’s capital Copenhagen, across the spectacular Øresund bridge, is about 40 minutes away. Here you can enjoy – as we did – a visit to the oldest amusement park in the world, Bakken, a visit to a 100 year-old mermaid statue (the European version of the Kardashians: it’s famous because it’s famous) and a stroll through Nyhavn, the quaint and trendy dock-area lined with bars and hundreds of beer-drinking Danes. (You could also enjoy dinner at the world’s second-best and much-raved about restaurant noma. I suspect it’s an acquired taste.)

But summer in Sweden is best for putting your feet up. We spent a weekend cycling in the surrounding country-side, passing through farms, villages and forests. The beach is only 7km away, so cycling there is on the agenda for the coming weekend. And if you’re lucky, you’ll be invited to a Kräftskiva, a traditional crayfish party. (At least, it’s officially about the crayfish; it’s actually about the schnapps.)

We settled into Lund surprisingly easily. While most grocery labels, television programmes, bus signs and restaurant menus (and washing machine instructions) are in Swedish, most people speak fluent English, and are happy to help. Apart from a greater selection of fish (try the smoked herring), supermarkets would look very familiar to South Africans. (Oddly, chicken is not very popular.) Drinking is a favourite past-time, especially now that the students have returned. (Stellenbosch students would feel right at home: all first-years wear pretpakkies during their introductory week.)  And somehow the Swedes remind me of South Africa in the early 1990s: I can’t exactly put my finger on it, but this ad which currently airs on Swedish TV provides a clue.

Of course, there are also differences. As one of the ten safest countries in the world, security is less of a worry. Sweden hopes to move to a cashless society so credit cards are preferred everywhere; don’t expect to buy tickets on the bus, for example. Bicycles are ubiquitous and there is an excellent cycling infrastructure, which means you can find your way easily across town. This also means that there are nearly no cars in the centre of town and there’s a general unwillingness to use vehicles when other modes of transport are available. (A vision of a future Stellenbosch?) And because wages are so high, any labour that can be substituted by technology is: supermarkets have self check-out lanes, there are no petrol attendants and don’t expect to be frequently interrupted by attentive restaurant waiters. You’ll also pay for that beer, sir: the average bar charges about five times what you would pay for a Heineken in South Africa. (But you can buy good-quality South African wine at a relatively inexpensive price at Systembolaget, which feels more like an upmarket pharmacy than a liquor shop. I’ve been asked for my passport twice: I don’t yet know if it’s a compliment or xenophobia.)

There are many other interesting Swedish cultural traits of which this video is an excellent guide. (For those who don’t know, the actor playing the Prime Minister was actually the Prime Minister at the time.) Swedes really are egalitarian, and loathe anything that may exclude or injure anyone. They’re also very proud of Zlatan. (By the way, if you’re South African, you should know who Tokelo Rantie and May Mahlangu are. They’re big in Sweden.) But the most unique feature of Swedish culture is the massive investment they make in their children, perhaps more in terms of time and effort than actual money  (see my earlier post on parental leave). Education is free, even though the education system is highly liberalised and open to private sector competition (it is not uncommon for schools to go bankrupt). Spanking as a form of corporal punishment is disallowed; many Swedes believe this is explains the low levels of crime in the country. And nearly all the tourist destinations we visited were not only kid-friendly, but seemed designed specifically for them.

Sweden today understands that future success depends on their investment in the next generation. Even as the last few days of summer dwindle away in lovely Lund, the future of Sweden seems bright.

Written by Johan Fourie

August 29, 2013 at 08:53

Women’s work

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Today we celebrate Women’s Day in South Africa, commemorating a national march of women in 1956 to petition against legislation that required black South Africans to carry a special identification document. South Africa has moved far since 1956 in terms of women’s rights: we now have a constitution that instils gender equality, and in politics we see more women in leadership positions. Although South Africa has not yet had a female president, Nkosazama Ndlamini-Zuma is chairperson of the African Union Commission and three women, Helen Zille, Lindiwe Mazibuko and Patricia de Lille lead the largest opposition party.

WomensliberationYet gender inequality persists, not only in South Africa but across the globe. Sheryl Sandberg, who served as Chief Operating Officer of Facebook, recently authored a popular book on women in the workplace, Lean In. It won’t be the best book you’ve read, but it suggests some interesting reasons why women still only fill a small proportion of the top leadership roles in business. (The main thesis summarised: She asks women to not step back when making decisions about their career with the expectation that they will have to scale down when children arrives. Go for that leadership position you would love, and then deal with the demands of pregnancy and parental care when it arrives.) On the whole, though, she fails to address the most obvious concern from the demand-side: that shareholders care only about profits, and if child-birth means lower levels of efficiency for women than for men, then appointing men, ceteris paribus, may be a rational decision.

In academia, however, where the demands of profitability are less pervasive, one would expect that the gender gap has closed. Not so. As a recent article in Slate argues: for men, having children is a career advantage, while for women a child can be a ‘career killer’.

The pressure cooker years as an assistant professor leading up to tenure usually number four to seven years. At the end of this trial, the university decides “up or out”—tenure for life or dismissal. It is well established that women are less likely to be awarded tenure than men. There is a baby penalty, especially strong in the sciences—but women without children also receive tenure at a lower rate than men. There are other factors than children that cause women to fail at this critical juncture. The women who do make it often do so alone. Women professors have higher divorce rates, lower marriage rates, and fewer children than male professors. Among tenured faculty, 70 percent of men are married with children compared with 44 percent of women.

What can be done to combat this?

Sweden offers one alternative. Swedish parents are entitled to 480 days of parental leave for each child, but more importantly, they are encouraged to split these days equally between both parents. If this is done, there is an additional ‘equality’ bonus of extra leave. This equality is not forced, though, as one parent can take up to 420 of the 480 days. And it’s fully funded by the State: 420 of these days are paid at 80% of your normal wage.

The important tenet here is not the length of time, but the fact that it is shared equally between husband and wife. There is no reason to discriminate in appointments for reasons of profitability or efficiency if both men and women pay an equal ‘cost’ at childbirth. Three Swedish researchers in the Journal of Public Economics (Jan 2013) exploit a Swedish policy change in 1995 to show that one month extra parental leave for fathers have no effect on their lifelong earnings, but have a positive (but small) effect for mothers, suggesting that women gain from greater equality with men.  I would go so far as to say that an equal share of parental leave should be legislated; that men and women’s share of leave are not allowed to differ. This is because men (yes, even Swedish men!) more easily shirk their parental leave duties, as recent research shows. Only when men and women are forced to share equally in the duties of parental leave will businesses have no reason to discriminate against women.

We associate gender inequality with uplifting women. But perhaps our focus is on the wrong gender. In South Africa, most companies offer three months of paid parental leave for women, but only three days for men. If we are to combat gender inequality, on this Women’s Day, women country-wide should be marching for men’s rights to more paternity leave.

Written by Johan Fourie

August 9, 2013 at 10:21