Tuesday, 27 May 2014

The South African Opposition Challenge

Split of the vote since 1994: ANC is essentially at its
1994 level after increases in 1999 and 2004; the DA
has about the same share as the NP+DP in 1994.
When the dust has settled on the elections and the DA and EFF are over their triumph at a big swing in their direction (5.6% to the DA taking them to 22.2%, 6.4% from nothing to the EFF), we have to sit back and look at the big picture.

The total gains of these two parties are more than 3 times the swing of 3.75% from the ANC.

A remarkable thing about this election is how little the ANC was hurt by a string of scandals and blunders. While a swing of nearly 4% is pretty big, the ANC’s share of the vote in 2014 is only 0.5% below its level in the first democratic election in 1994 (illustrated, right).

Most of the DA and EFF increase has come from the collapse of other opposition party votes. Part of the DA swing is also accounted for by taking over Patricia de Lille’s Independent Democrats, who scored nearly 1% last time. COPE alone lost nearly 7%, and most minor parties lost votes.

While the DA has done well to increase its votes every election, chasing after votes of other minor parties has had the inevitable consequence of the DA losing coherence, with nasty infighting and selective leaks, some of which can only emanate from senior leadership. It was this selective leak culture that made the proposed deal with Agang very difficult to stitch together – leaks forced a premature announcement, leading to confusion.

Vote since 1994 including NP and NNP
Vote since 1994 including National Party 1994: the
opposition has essentially gone sideways and the ANC
has not really been punished for lack of performance.
The DA, to put things in perspective, in 2014 has about the same vote share as the combined Democratic Party (1.7%) and National Party (20.4%) vote in 1994 (total 22.1%). While this may be from a different demographic split (if you look at provincial votes, there are some big shifts), the DA has not significantly grown the opposition vote. In fact, given that they have picked up some support from black voters who would not have voted for the National Party, it is surprising that their vote share is no bigger than the combined DP-NP vote of 1994.

Look at the second picture: the dashed lines show that the conservative opposition vote has barely shifted since 1994, as has that of the ANC, while other opposition parties have been trading places rather than growing overall.

Another truly remarkable thing about this election is the way communities that have most reason to be upset about government failure still vote solidly ANC – sometimes with 80-90% of the vote. Ironically, where government has failed less, opposition parties score more votes. The DA has a real shot at winning a number of metros where the ANC vote has dropped to close to or even below 50%. These include Johannesburg, Nelson Mandela and Tshwane.

Despite all the complaints about potholes, e-tolls and the like, services in the metros are way better than in ANC-run small towns and deep rural areas. Where I live in Makana in the Eastern Cape, some township residents have been without water for months, some even years. Most rural schools are of a poor standard, and many rural communities have little or no cash economy besides social grants, with no prospect of jobs.

The ANC meanwhile is increasingly focused on pandering to the needs of a self-serving elite. The opposition made too much of Nkandla, allowing the ANC to paint a rosy picture of “good stories” – as if Nkandla was a glitch. Yet by the government’s own figures, R33-billion was lost to waste and corruption last financial year, an Nkandla every three days. No, not a glitch. This is the way the government usually does business.

 To resolve the mystery of why so many people who have cause for complaint vote ANC solidly, we have to look to history for why the excluded poor do not automatically rise up against a self-serving elite. In medieval times, a “good” lord ensured his serfs didn’t starve, since they were valuable as a pool of labour and as cannon fodder when a lord was called on to provide soldiers. Serfs were never allowed too much though – that would give them ideas above their station. Feudalism eventually ended when labour became scarce after Europe was depopulated by crusades, creating an opening for a working class with commercially valued labour.

As De Tocqueville observed, revolution broke out in France not because conditions were especially bad there, but because they were better than average in Europe – frustrated hope is a much bigger drive for change than utter hopelessness.

And that is the key to opposition politics in South Africa: very poor people on the edge of starvation are inherently conservative. They do not rebel against the existing order, not matter how unfair, if the existing order can instil in them the fear that they will do even worse if things change.

How unfair is the existing order? The worst off 20% of the population earn less than 3% of national income, and more than half of that is social grants. The best-off 10% account for over 50% of national income.

When out campaigning for Agang, one of the most incongruous sights was seeing a top of the line Merc festooned with ANC socks on its side mirrors cruising through a scene of extreme poverty. Why did those who had been left behind not bitterly resent the theft of public resources that went into that Merc? For the same reason a lord and retinue of knights in shining armour could parade through scenes of medieval poverty without risk of attack. Feudalism was such a complete trap that the victims could see no way out.

Here’s bad news for opposition parties: feudalism was an extremely enduring system. However, a key difference between the old kind and the new kind is we nominally live in a democracy. It is theoretically possible for a political movement to arise that challenges the system. It hasn’t happened yet, judging from the voting pattern of the last 20 years.

Why did Agang not do well this last election? Part of it was the difficulty of scaling up a new organization from nothing – the EFF for example had a large chunk of the ANC Youth League to build on. Another part was we were trying to address this dysfunction of the political system by addressing the left out voters – but the inherent conservatism of the victimized poor makes them a difficult constituency to win over. Much has been made of the failed DA deal – that was a setback, but cannot explain the whole problem.

I supported Agang because of Mamphela Ramphele’s history in Black Consciousness. What we badly need in this country is a revitalizing of hope, and the BC message of self-reliance, self-respect and rejection of externally-imposed limits is very much needed in South Africa today. It remains to be seen if the Agang project can survive the setback of a very low vote – but it is a worthwhile project and I intend to continue to pursue its goals.

Monday, 26 May 2014

What’s Wrong with Universities?

At my university (Rhodes University in South Africa), we have a policy of not outsourcing things a university traditionally does itself – even if that sometimes adds to our costs. We may be paid slightly lower than average, but we are also a happier campus than average.

Our outgoing Vice-Chancellor (president, in US terminology) Saleem Badat is rare among university leaders in understanding the character of a university and maintaining it against outside pressures. We are in a small town and account for a large fraction of the local economy – if we outsourced basic services to out of town companies, we may save a little money, but at what cost? Our local community is depressed as it is, and being an island of plenty in a sea of poverty is an unpleasant situation for those in both places.

You could argue this is no different from corporate social responsibility taken seriously. A mine, for example, could also source all its supplies as locally as possible.

But it goes further than that.

Universities around the world have made the same mistake: hiring expensive business consultants who tell them to run more like a business. Universities have been around a lot longer than the modern concept of a business, and have not caused major financial meltdowns, wars or corrupted the political system. At very modest cost to society, they have spearheaded curing disease, inventing revolutionary technologies and transforming society in more ways than I can think of.

Academics of  course, do sometimes cause major problems – but not operating as academics, where they have limited scope to do damage. Academic economists, for example, have at times spread highly dysfunctional ideas but, even there, it is not universities that have done the damage, but politicians who are ready to take bogus advice if it suits their agenda. On the whole, when ideas are kept within academia, the bad ones are eventually rooted out. And an academic who is not subject to commercial pressures is more likely to be honest about such mistakes.

Why is it that places that are supposed to be the home of the smartest people on the planet take advice from people who have no clue about how to run their institution, when the people who know most about how to run a university are those already there?

The only reason I can think of is that, having paid big money to corporate consultants, you would feel a right idiot if your didn’t take their advice.

What is wrong with all this?

A university has aims that are hard to quantify economically. Sometimes it is necessary to maintain a discipline that does not cover its costs because it is required for other subjects, or is at the core of research initiatives. Or maybe it is a discipline that no one else supports, and it has to exist somewhere. Achieving equity in the face of an unequal school system also has costs and a simple bottom-line based accounting system cannot adequately capture the value of that kind of redress.

The real difference though between a university and a business is the time horizon. A university aims to build for the long term. There may be no immediate return from a PhD or even a slightly better quality undergraduate curriculum. The value may only be seen years or decades later when a graduate cures a disease, invents a new technology or discovers a new way of economically empowering the poor.

We recently held a farewell for Dr Badat, who moves on to a major private funding agency. I hope Rhodes continues with his philosophy because that is one of the things that makes this place special – I have done the big city university trying to be a “business” too often to want to repeat the experiment.

Monday, 5 May 2014

Does the ANC want any votes?

The ANC, I am increasingly becoming convinced, is attempting to win an election while insulting and alienating the maximum number of people.

Here are some examples:

  • people who vote for the opposition and accept a social grant are stealing, says ANC KwaZulu-Natal agriculture MEC Meshack Radebe
  • Indians who complain about South Africa  should go back to India, says ANC Chatsworth branch chairperson Visvin Reddy (no doubt their ticket would be funded by the good kind of Indian, the Guptas)
  • Zuma says only clever people are offended by spending of a quarter of a billion rand on “security” upgrades of Nkandla
There you have it.

If you don’t believe the ruling party owns social grants, do believe that Indian South Africans are entitled to the same rights as anyone else including objecting to problems with the government and if you are reasonably bright, the ANC doesn’t want your vote.

Even without this, I have to wonder why anyone would support the ANC today.

When I stood with my students in the 1980s against rubber bullets and teargas, and saw them being viciously attacked with sjamboks, we saw the struggle as worth it because liberation was a great goal.

Now we have a tiny elite enriching themselves, living in mansions while ordinary people live in trash heaps.

Remember the slogan, “The people shall govern?” What’s this about a ruling party anyway? In a democracy the government works for the people, it doesn’t rule.

We didn’t fight for that kind of liberation.

That’s why I am with Agang this election.

Sunday, 4 May 2014

Ideology and counter-ideology of climate change

Climate science is not fundamentally about ideology – science stands or falls by evidence.

Nonetheless, when a scientific finding has economic ramifications, ideology kicks in. Logically, ideology should only apply to remedying the identified problem, not to evaluating the science. For example, if you are an absolutist free marketeer, you would look to the markets to solve the problem. If you are a hard-core socialist, you will expect the government to fix the problem. If you are a pragmatist, you will be happy with any mix of private sector and government initiatives – whatever works best.

The problem arises when you have a scientific finding that reveals a problem that cannot be fixed by either the markets or government alone. Then, the ideologue is driven to attacking the science.

As one example, in the Soviet Union and satellite states, the dominant ideology was that all people are fundamentally equal, there are no hereditary differences and that the state was the only agency for ensuring that such an equal society functioned. That some were in Orwell’s words more equal than others, we will leave aside. Outcomes of this ideology dominating science included:
  • Trofim Lysenko’s anti-Mendelian pseudo-science whereby biology was perverted to suit the dominant ideology; dissent from his theories was outlawed in 1948, and his dominance of Soviet agricultural research set that country back a long way
  • conductive education – a Hungarian theory that disability caused by brain damage can be overcome by training. Again this fitted the Soviet-era ideology that all inequality is induced, but has no basis in evidence; the movement persists to this day, offering false hope to families of the disabled
The Soviet Union is at one end of the scale; at the other is extreme market ideologues who attack science whenever fixing a problem it reveals appears to be impossible without state intervention. While some of these ideologues are fundamentalist libertarians who genuinely believe all government interference in the economy is bad, there is a good deal of inconsistency among such campaigners. The big threat is almost always government interference in unbridled profit-seeking. Very few take umbrage at government interventions that favour business – especially big business.

Aside from this inconsistency, the big flaw in libertarian thinking is a total focus on big government. Generalize this concept:
any organization big enough to overwhelm the individual is a threat to liberty
Then we see that we need to be wary of any organization that becomes too big.
Examples of organized opposition to government interventions arising from inconvenient science include tobacco, the ozone hole and climate change. The argument is almost always the same: the science is flawed because it cannot give an exact answer, personal attacks on the scientists, claims that contrarian science is suppressed.

None of these claims stand up to scrutiny.

No science modelling the real world is 100% accurate – once a risk is clear enough to be worth avoiding, you quantify the costs of various avoidance strategies against the risk, and develop a suitable strategy. Yet  the argument in these cases is almost always that the science must be 100% right – 90% is not good enough. In fact, even it the science only has a 1% chance of being right, if the catastrophe predicted is big enough, it is prudent to take action.

No one goes into science to get rich – not if they have any sense anyway. Research grants aren’t money in your pocket. They pay for things like graduate students, making more work for you.

In some fields of science, it is true that public alarm at the outcome can fuel more funding. Knowing what cancer is would alarm anyone. In cancer research, funding generated out of that sort of alarm not only fuels research into the cause but into the cure.

In many other fields of science that produce alarming findings, responding to those findings does not aid those making the discovery at all. If the tobacco industry slowed down promotion of its product as harmful effects became known, research on harmful effects would taper off as fewer people smoked. Research on causes of the ozone hole and climate change intensified as a result of industry push-back.

It is particularly obnoxious in ozone hole and climate science research to argue that scientists are producing alarming results just to get more research money. In both cases, had industry accepted early indications of cause for alarm and responded appropriately, the place to prioritize research funding would be to mitigation. In the case of the ozone hole, mitigation required finding alternatives to CFCs. In the case of climate change, rather than pinning predictions down more precisely, the logical place to direct research funding is towards clean energy.

So, what’s to be done?

First, we need to challenge the libertarian presumption that government is the source of all evil. Transnational corporations have a reach that exceeds that of most governments, and are not particularly accountable. If their shareholding is diffuse, there is no single point where pressure can be applied to correct faults.

It is also not true that the market is the single best mechanism to deal with every problem.

First, not all goals are economic.

Second, the market is highly distorted by the influence of very large corporations; not only can they use monopolistic practices to stifle competition, but they can buy off politics and create a regulatory environment that favours them over smaller competitors.

Third, some economic factors fall outside pricing controlled by the market. Negative externalities – costs to parties outside a transaction, like pollution, which is a cost to society as a whole – cannot be regulated purely by the market.

Finally, a purist socialist approach to everything has been tried in various forms, and hasn’t worked – so let us not kid ourselves that we can go back there to deal with an even harder problem.

We can ultimately only solve large-scale societal and muli-societal problems like climate change, universal access to health care and equitable access to basic services if we stop being bound by ideology and judge each issue on its merits.

So, going back to climate change: we need to remove ideological blinkers when considering the evidence. If the evidence says we should act, there is even more reason to remove ideological blinkers, because he best solution to a hard problem requires working on it from all angles.