By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji, @macroafrica
The main idea in IE Business School global economy professor and fund manager Daniel Lacalle’s 2020 book “Freedom or Equality: The key to prosperity through social capitalism” is the “need to apply the power of free markets to solve society’s greatest problems.” In his assertion, “there are market-based solutions to all of our social problems.” Thus, Lacalle defines “social capitalism” as the application of “free market ingenuity toward solving social problems.”
Simply put, “the private sector, not the government, makes direct investments in social welfare.” It is not suggested that firms become charities. Not at all. Social welfare is simply good business. There is money to be made. Plenty of it. But you also add value to society in tandem. A so-called “win-win”.
The idea might not easily appeal to people in places where things already work, where governments deliver public services efficiently and do so quite optimally. In fact, social capitalism could easily be confused with “socialism” if the distinction is properly delineated. In a socialist system, the “community”, proxied by the state, owns “the means of production, distribution, and exchange”. For social capitalism, however, the “individual” remains at the core. Simply put, social capitalism is not collectivism.
And unlike socialism or communism, social capitalism evolves with the times. It is dynamic. It relies on an incentive system that recognises the motivations and weaknesses of human nature. Public goods are likely to be delivered efficiently if there is a profit motive. And the desire to ensure the money wheel keeps spinning motivates adherence to the rules.
So what would be the role of governments then? Their guiding philosophy should certainly be to help businesses in anyway they can. This is not as simple as it seems. When governments look at firms, they see taxes and how their budgets would be financed. In the system being proposed, governments engage businesses before the money-making begins.
In other words, they ask firms how they can help them achieve their targets. They engage the business community on a regular basis. If done right, the relationship becomes a symbiotic one, whereby concessions here and there translate into gains in social welfare. In Lacalle’s exposition, “the government [would] be a facilitator, not the executor, of social welfare.”
Naturally, you may wonder if such an approach might not create a system whereby there is ample but expensive pipe-borne water, power supply, and other social services. And there is always the risk of monopolistic or cartel behaviour, whereby a firm or group of firms dominate an industry so much that they cannot be controlled. There is also the risk that the owners of such dominant firms extend their influence into politics and government.
These are not unfounded. But is it not already the case that the rich influence politics and governments in most countries? And it has nothing to do with whether the country is wealthy or not. American lobbyists literally dictate key legislations and orders of the executive branch; albeit with some finesse. In poor countries, the rich are much more brazen. They have no qualms with parading the extent of their influence in government. And in some cases, they become the government themselves.
In other words, the potential risks of a private sector-led social welfare system are already there. What social capitalism ensures is that firms make money and engender social welfare in tandem. Privately-financed roads rarely have potholes. Consumers of commercially-priced electricity make sure to switch off the lights when going to bed. Needless showers are usually rare if water supply is metered. Our governments would certainly have less debt on their books consequently. We may not have as much corruption. And firms would certainly be interested in sustaining the political system that puts them first.
But should the priority of governments not be the people? Of course, it should. People want jobs. They want to live in a functioning society, where the roads are smooth, and electricity and clean water are taken for granted. The record of governments trying to do these on their own is very poor, however. Capitalism without a leash is similarly terrible, as the rising inequality and populist backlash in rich countries show.
Winston Churchill once described the dilemma succinctly: “The inherent vice of capitalism is the unequal sharing of blessings; the inherent virtue of socialism is the equal sharing of miseries.” With the right incentives and safeguards, firms could do for development what they do for themselves.
By Rafiq Raji, PhD
What is capitalism? This is the question Harvard University professor Rebecca Henderson starts with in her 2020 book “Reimagining capitalism: How business can save the world “. Capitalism is certainly “the greatest source of prosperity the world has ever seen”. But it is also on “the verge of destroying the planet and destabilizing society”. Capitalism has been a huge success and a disastrous failure. Henderson’s thesis is that a rethinking may enable us enjoy more of the good and prevent or mitigate the bad.
According to Henderson, “the three greatest problems of our time” are “massive environmental degradation, economic inequality, and institutional collapse.” Fossil fuels, which drive our industries, are destroying the earth’s climate. Our oceans are becoming acidic, with sea levels rising in tandem. There is increasingly less arable land. And we no longer have enough fresh water to meet our needs. If we do not change the way we do things, there would be deeper economic recessions, more flooding, and hunger in the nearer future.
In Africa, we know a lot about environmental degradation. Foreign firms extract mineral resources from our lands with scant regard for sustainability. But are they entirely to blame if they do so in the full glare of the authorities with relative impunity? We also know about hunger, drought, and increasingly now, flooding. Imagine the bizarre contrast. One moment, we worry about little or no rainfall. Then it pours, and our worry turns to the harvest, as a big part is washed away.
We also know a bit about the value of fresh water. With dysfunctional or no water infrastructure in most of our cities, we find solace in water drawn from boreholes and wells, which we are barely able to purify enough to avoid falling ill. But even that is becoming scarce in fast-drying northern lands owing to climate change. Such is the value now placed on the resource that one African government is mulling the enactment of a law to regulate water as a resource like it does crude oil and other extractives. Talk about an example of capitalism gone too far or governance gone awry.
But our type of capitalism is not the free-market kind. Ours is crony capitalism, which Henderson defines as “a political system in which the rich and the powerful get together to run the state – and the market – for their benefit.” “Extractive elites monopolize economic activity and systematically underinvest (when they invest at all) in public goods such as roads, hospitals, and schools (Henderson, 2020).” Our elites are extractive. So even when they mean well – they rarely do – we find it hard to believe them.
Thus, if you wonder why there are uproars when supposedly development-oriented policies are announced, this is why. The people do not believe that they would be the ultimate beneficiaries. So when electricity tariffs are raised, petroleum pricing liberalised, and water about to be regulated, there is hardly any explanation by a government that would be convincing enough to its majority poor, whose already meagre earnings would afford them even less.
What is the role of business in all these? Whether our type of capitalism is underpinned by cronies or the vagaries of the markets or both, their shareholders are the main beneficiaries. So in order to keep their spoils, they have to be mindful of the gaps in public governance in their respective jurisdictions.
Our power companies should abide by the deliberate price discrimination mechanism in the regulations to ensure the poor are able to afford enough electricity for their needs. Oil and mining companies should extract resources in our lands with as much care as they do back home. And our governments should certainly not regulate the very basic amenities they have failed to provide.
By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Unsurprisingly, the Madagascar covid-19 “magic” potion turned out to be a faux cure, it has been found. Yes, the potion does cure something, malaria, no less, but it is not a cure for covid-19. I happened on the news while reading Michael Hunter’s 2020 book “The decline of magic: Britain in the enlightenment”. One could not help being amused by the uncanny parallels. Such is the nature of conjuring tricks. They are usually clothed in known or verifiable truths. To the undiscerning, they look “true” on face value, and unless you dig deeper, you would drink the kool aid and probably belch with satisfaction at your fallacious “wisdom” afterwards. Conjurors only thrive with the ignorant. Make informed choices. Focus on your goals and leave conjurors to their magic tricks. That is the advocacy and perhaps also the purpose of knowledge.
Appearances can be deceptive
The groundnut pyramids in the northern Nigerian city of Kano used to be a thing of wonder. A symbol of the old city’s wealth and progress. Then suddenly, they disappeared. To this day, there is a perception that the diminution of those towering heights were due to some failure or mismanagement. However, not many Nigerians know that their disappearance were actually due to progress and not misfortune. And there would not be many as ignorant if care was taken to check the data. In fact, the quantity of groundnuts produced in Nigeria more than doubled to 3.6 million tonnes in 2016 from 1.6 million in 1961.
The groundnut pyramids disappeared. But production continued and increased in fact. True, there was a significant lull in output to about half a million tonnes in the late 1970s and early 1980s. But by 1988, production was back to at least a million tonnes per year. Conjuring tricks are like that. The disappearance of the “pyramids” created the perception of a failed industry when in fact they were simply casualties of innovation and progress.
Knowledge is the key
As we are a very superstitious people, we fall victim to conjurors too easily. Why don’t we ever ask the self-acclaimed rainmaker to conjure up rain during the dry season or when there is a drought. Our fatalistic beliefs do not help either. It is astonishing how many still go up and about on our streets with careless disregard for recommended covid-19 precautions. In a few interactions, the refrain has typically been that “It is God that protects.” And that if one is destined to contract covid-19, there is not much one could do. Really? Yes, we should believe in God. But surely, we wouldn’t or shouldn’t go into the rain without an umbrella nor stand in front of a hungry lion or a speeding car just because we supposedly “have annointing”.
True, some deliberate foolishness have manageable consequences. But surely, not these. If you are a medical doctor that enjoys a nice cigar but ends up with damaged lungs or someone with the knowledge of his or her lactose intolerance but indulges in the sweet delight of milk & dairy and farts on end, surely you could not blame anyone for the consequences of your pleasures. Still, you may very well live a long and comfortable life in spite of your foolishness. But with covid-19? Certainly not. Not until a vaccine is found, at least.
With the coronavirus evolving, even as a viable vaccine is being sought for what it was thought to be just months before, a successful vaccine would probably take at least two years to develop. And there is no such thing as it is a “rich man’s disease” or that Africans are immune from the virus. Because even as we are very diverse, we share a lot of commonalities. Your race is not a consideration when you need a new kidney or liver. The foods we eat, whether pounded yam, pap, starch, eba, rice, or pasta, varied as they are, can all be classified based on the nutrients they provide the body and based on these are all the same.
A knowledgeable person could not have been fooled by the Madagascar potion. But to the extent that the possibility of its utility was widely entertained speaks to the human inclination for easy solutions. In his 2010 book “A New History of Western Philosophy”, English philosopher Sir Anthony Kenny wonders in the chapter about knowledge and its limits, the field of philosophy called epistemology, what the mark of genuine knowledge is and how it differs from mere belief. “Is there a reliable way to acquire knowledge of the truth and to eliminate false beliefs that are mere seemings?”, he ponders. These are questions that have occupied the thoughts of thinkers from antiquity.
A proper delineation of epistemological questions and varied answers over the years by philosophers in the field is broad and deep and would thus be diversionary for our purpose. But let us take an instance or two from Kenny’s highlights from one of Plato’s dialogues “Theaetetus” on the question of “What is knowledge?” to bring home the complexity of the subject.
“There are cases where people have true thoughts, and form true opinons, without having actual knowledge.” For instance, “if a jury is persuaded by a clever attorney to bring in a certain verdict, then if the verdict accords with the facts, the jurors will have formed a true opinion. But do their true thoughts amount to knowledge?” Socrates, who Plato was purportedly writing about had an answer to the question. But it is not of interest here. The goal here is to highlight how what may be deemed to be knowledge or truth may in fact be something else or simply just falsehood.
An excerpt from Sir Kenny’s exposition is simple enough to get some grasp of what knowledge could be. “Knowledge can only be of what is true; knowledge is only knowledge if it can appeal implicity or explicitly to some kind of support, whether from experience, reasoning, or some other source; and one who claims knowledge must be resolute, excluding the possibility of being rightly converted, at a later stage, to a different view.” After numerous deaths, Madagascar has asked for help to deal with covid-19. “If we know something,…we know that we know it, and know that we know that we know it (Kenny, 2010).”
Challenge the prevailing narrative
In my column of 7th April 2020, I discussed “The power of narratives” using insights from Nobel laureate Robert Shiller’s 2019 book “Narrative Economics: How stories go viral & drive major economic events” and how to manage them. In the pursuit of knowledge, you find repeatedly that what is deemed to be conventional wisdom is often not wise at all. In their 2020 book “Radical Uncertainty: Decision-making for an unknowable future”, former Bank of England governor Mervyn King and first dean of Oxford’s Said Business School John Kay highlight a resonant example to make the point.
It used to be the conventional wisdom that the build-up of acid in the stomach that supposedly caused ulcers were due to stress and a bad lifestyle. Australian pathologist Robin Warren thought different, asserting they were caused by bacteria instead. Teaming up with like-minded Barry Marshall, he found that “almost all gastric inflamations and duodenal and gastric ulcers” had one commonality: a bacterium they would call “Helicobacter pylori”. “Eureka!”, yes? You wish. What was a source of humongous profits for big pharma was now to be cured with antibiotics that could be procured for pittance? Warren & Marshall were rebuffed. But they did not relent. “It is now accepted that most gastric ulcers are caused by H. pylori, often acquired in early childhood.” The pair won the 2005 Nobel Prize in Medicine.
So, what is the purpose of knowledge? It is a rhetorial question at this point. But at the very least, you know enough not to accept the conventional wisdom without doing your own investigations. From the African perspective, using the stomach ulcer ailment as an allegory, there are many who have lost their way in the pursuit of solutions owing to superstitions and bizarre cultural beliefs. But even if you were one swayed by science, you clearly would have been at your wits end following medical advice considering they did not know any better before the dogged pursuit of truth by Warren & Marshall. Beware of the dominant narrative.
I also use the faux “Madagascar covid potion” as an allegory of a broader malaise in our cultures. We rely overly much on untested superstitions and herbalism. These beliefs continue to hamper our progress. In days of yore, we believed flights could only be experienced quite literally in our dreams, with our butt cheeks atwixt the long handle of a broom. Not until such silly beliefs were relegated as fodder for relaxing fiction did the idea of mechanical flight blossom and eventually triumphed. Now if you want to experience the joy of flight, you do not need to conjure up one in your sleep. You simply buy a plane ticket. And yet, we continue to hold dear many fictions as “culture.”
You do not need to wear a leopard skin, with a beaded gourd in hand, and shouting out loud incantations in some deep forest to engineer ostracism, stigma or slander. These are human phenomena that have existed and been used for millenia in war and peace times to various ends. Instead of falling victim to the “if you can’t beat them, join them” faux “wisdom”, we should resort to diligence, focus and hard work. And patience.
The key insight from Michael Hunter’s 2020 book “The decline of magic: Britain in the enlightenment” is its description of how science prevailed over superstitions. While the details might not be ideal for this page, the long and short of it is that science prevailed over magic because it made clear truth from error. And as Kay & King’s 2020 book “Radical Uncertainty” shows, even science has its biases and constraints owing to the human constant and its proclivities for stories and fantasticism, a dimension amply explored in Shiller’s 2019 book “Narrative Economics”.
We have to give up many of our silly beliefs if we desire progress. Evidence of the progress that is possible in the aftermath can be seen in the modern comforts we enjoy today. And not until the people who invented these things jettisoned these fantastic fallacies were they able to concentrate their thoughts towards true magic: aeroplanes, automobiles, mobile phones, satellites, and so on. Things that actually work wonders in the real world and in our lives. Things that do not exist only in our dreamy sleeps.
By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji, macroafrica
In his 2019 book “Narrative Economics: How stories go viral & drive major economic events”, Nobel laureate Robert Shiller highlights the two elements of what he means by narrative economics viz. “(1) the word-of-mouth contagion of ideas in the form of stories and (2) the efforts that people make to generate new contagious stories or to make stories more contagious.”
Put another way, narrative economics is the study of “how narrative contagion affects economic events.” Public beliefs affect major economic events. Economists are however reluctant to incorporate narratives in their studies because they are difficult to measure, sources can be hard to trace robustly, and so on. Shiller’s argument is that “economists can best advance their science by developing and incorporating into it the art of narrative economics.”
“Narrative economics, the study of the viral spread of popular narratives that affect economic behaviour, can improve our ability to anticipate and prepare for economic events”, he asserts.” This makes sense. Most would agree that “contagious popular stories that spread through word of mouth, the news media, and social media,” increasingly drive the economy.
“An economic narrative is a contagious story that has the potential to change how people make economic decisions” like hiring a worker, launching a business venture, or investing in a “volatile speculative asset.” Sport events have been found to affect the economic confidence of the locales or countries where they are being held, for instance. Similarly, it has been found that “shark attacks at local beaches can affect votes for local incumbents, and background music in advertisements can have a strong effect on consumers.”
There is much that we can relate with from this background by Shiller, especially in light of the deluge of information – most of which are predominantly false and increasingly hard to detect as such – we are constantly being bombarded with in regard of the ravaging and ongoing Covid-19 pandemic.
Boring truths, fantastic lies
Truth is boring. As human beings, we are more easily drawn to magical stories; even when we know they are false. It is one of the reason why even when a retraction or correction of a false publication is made, it tends not to have as much resonance as the lie it seeks to refute. The costs of false popular narratives on lives and livelihoods are real and lasting.
What you choose to do about them depends on your station and the costs to you, however. If you are a celebrity, any popular narrative, whether negative or positive, can be economically rewarding. If you are a politician or a government, false narratives matter a great deal. And thus, you must do your utmost to change them to your truth; albeit you never quite succeed in doing so entirely.
As an individual, the knowledge about the potency of narratives might make you a little bit more relaxed. Because just like we are wired to connect with stories, we also desire new ones. Thus, every narrative is necessarily the casualty of time.
Take the case of the recent and still ongoing bizarre narrative about fifth generation mobile networks (5G) being the cause of Covid-19. There have been a number of fires at cellphone towers in the United Kingdom on the back of this popular view already. Such is the potency of the narrative that the Nigerian ministry of communications was forced to issue a press statement insisting it had not issued a 5G licence to any firm as feared by some after the narrative went “viral”.
But surely, when the circumstances and our infrastructural needs require 5G, there should not be any hesitation in doing so. Still, it is abundantly clear that in that event, a great deal of effort would be required to convince people it poses no real danger to their lives.
Beware of the dominant narrative
David Katz, founding director of the Yale-Griffin Prevention Research Centre in America, has been suffering a great deal of grief lately. To my mind, it is not justified. He is being criticized for daring to suggest another way to manage the Covid-19 pandemic; with less of the increasingly mounting economic costs of the current consensus containment measure of lockdowns.
The goal here is not to prove that he has a point or not; albeit considering how poor countries are probably ill-advisedly copying their rich counterparts without properly considering their own unique limitations, some of his suggestions resonate with me somewhat. Instead, what one seeks is to point out the importance of not being unduly swayed by the consensus or dominant narrative.
What Katz suggests is a middle course of sorts; a balancing of the health and economic costs of the measures to contain the pandemic. It does not matter whether he is right or wrong. The key point is that there is a danger that a narrative dominates at the expense of other potentially good or better ideas. We must keep questioning our decisions and ideas, reviewing them when there is new information, and if need be, changing them if the benefits of doing so outweigh the costs.
Take the case of the media coverage of the Covid-19 pandemic. If you ask a random person anywhere in the world today about the number of cases in his or her locale or country, he or she would probably quite easily tell you what the figure is. Try asking about the number of recoveries, I would be hugely surprised if the individual is able to say it without some thought. Actually, I could not readily tell you what the figure is myself; that is, even as I make a deliberate effort to track the number of recoveries.
Yes, transparency is crucial. But if anyone wants the data, they could go to a well-advertised portal for the information. What government officials and the media should focus more on should be recoveries. As human beings are wired for sensational stories, a fact the media is well aware of, it would take a deliberate effort to focus on more positive stories. Still, the authorities could definitely make the change.
By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji, @macroafrica
“Growth is hard to measure. It is even harder to know what drives it, and therefore to make policy to make it happen” (Banerjee & Duflo, 2019).
The obsession of the rich world’s economists with growth is understandable: growth has been anaemic in those parts for decades. And even with all sorts of unorthodox interventions, from quantitative easing to yield curve control, the needle has barely moved.
The conventional wisdom is that technological innovation and population growth should engender economic growth. While the latter has almost certainly been slowing – negative even – in the rich world over time, the same cannot be said of the former.
Still, the internet, artificial intelligence and many other productivity-enhancing technological feats of our time have surprisingly not been as revolutionary for growth like better and more education, electricity, the internal combustion engine, and others, were in the past.
There is a school of thought that believes trying to determine why this is the case is needless. This is because the answer may be more a child of time than effort; a sentiment echoed by Banerjee & Duflo: “Mostly, what is clear is that we don’t know and have no way to find out other than by waiting”.
Thus, as the duo also reckon, “the most important question we can usefully answer in rich countries [at this time] is not how to make them grow even richer, but how to improve the quality of life of their average citizen.”
African countries are not in the same boat with their rich counterparts in this regard; albeit 1-2% growth by its two largest economies in recent years makes you wonder aloud about that a little bit. Still, the authors agree: “It is in the developing world, where growth is sometimes held back by an egregious abuse of economic logic, that we may have something useful to say, though, as we will see, even that is very limited.”
No set path to growth
Economic growth is driven by skilled labour and capital; both of which are abundant in rich countries but scarce for the latter or imbalanced in poor countries. Adjustments to these variables can still result in significant shifts in growth and development for developing countries. For rich ones, however, what would be similarly impacting would have to be the kind of technological progress that makes already abundant skilled labour and capital even more productive. And while technological innovation is seemingly abundant, it has surprisingly not been as growth-enhancing as imagined. There are arguments about whether this is the case because we are measuring growth wrongly. That is not our focus here, however.
Industrial policy was hitherto frowned upon by conventional economists and policymakers. And yet East Asia’s success on the back of it is hard to ignore. This is a point Reda Cherif and Fuad Hasanov of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) make in their March 2019 working paper aptly titled “The Return of the Policy That shall not be named: Principles of industrial policy”.
They highlight how “True Industrial Policy” or “Technology and Innovation Policy” is a formula for growth when it abides by the following three key principles: (i) state intervention to fix market failures (ii) export orientation and (iii) the pursuit of fierce domestic and international competition.
I do not agree or disagree with their thesis. Instead, my goal is to show how what may be considered crude, ill-informed, or voodoo economics at the outset could later be celebrated by the same ex ante detractors. More fundamentally, it is evidence, like Banerjee & Duflo suggest, and as has been well-known in academic circles for ages, there is no one strategy for growth.
Banerjee & Duflo have a view on the East Asian example: “Those who herald the experience of the East Asian countries to prove the virtue of one approach or the other are dreaming; there is no way to prove any such thing. The bottomline is that, much as in rich countries, we have no accepted recipe for how to make growth happen in poor countries.”
The appropriate lessons from all these is not so much that because some form of state-driven economic development is now acceptable to the IMF, African countries should suddenly now see this as appropriate for their own development.
Instead, the lesson is that an economy must decide for itself what it needs to do to achieve sustainable development. Ponder this for a minute. Had the Asian countries now being celebrated taken the advice of the IMF and others to liberalise their economies and jettison state intervention, would they be the ‘miracle’ they are today? It is a rhetorical question.
As Banerjee & Duflo assert, “the bottomline is that despite the best efforts of generations of economists, the deep mechanisms of persistent eocnomic growth remain elusive.” Thus, my advice to African countries is to think independently about their respective situations and doggedly pursue the strategies they decide on.
By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji, @macroafrica
“Be vigilant, resist the seduction of the ‘obvious,’ be skeptical of promised miracles, question the evidence, be patient with complexity and honest about what we know and what we can know” (Banerjee & Duflo, 2019).
The field of economics would probably provide better answers to the world’s many puzzles if the above statement by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo – MIT economics professors, couple and Nobel laureates, highly distinguished and controversial in almost equal measure – in their 2019 book “Good Economics for Hard Times: Better Answers to Our Biggest Problems” is imbibed by all of its academics and practitioners. Alas, this is not always the case.
Like you probably discerned already, Banerjee & Duflo’s approach to economics is unorthodox and – quite understandably – tends to rub off on some of their still mostly conservative contemporaries the wrong way. That they are mavericks is what appeals to me. That, and the likelihood that their success would embolden many more in the profession who remain shackled by orthodoxy.
What they espouse – vigilance, scepticism, patience, and honesty – does not come easily to fellow economists. Ordinarily, they should. But they do not. Because if they did, we should have more answers than doubts about the many questions that remain unanswered in the affairs of men.
“Economics is too important to be left to economists”
Many an economist would swear by his or her rigour, objective scepticism, transparency and openness to new ideas. The evidence suggests otherwise. If you want to know how entrenched the mainstream types are, observe their reactions when some little known colleague proposes something very “brave” or “courageous”.
Of course, the same novel idea could very well find acceptance if a more accomplished type proposes it; usually with a few tweaks here and there and a new fancy name. The more recent case of Modern Monetary Theory (MMT), the backlash it has received from mainstream economists, and the increasing likelihood it may become “orthodox” in due course, is a good example.
Banerjee & Duflo (2019) highlight how economists are not as trusted as they once were; ranked almost the same as politicians in a poll conducted by YouGov in the United Kingdom, for instance. Why is this the case? Economists have not been “modest and honest about what [they] know and understand” and have not shown a willingness to try new ideas and solutions and be wrong.
Economists’ predictions have been wrong most times than they have been right. But we continue to make forecasts anyway. (They are useful in other ways.) And continue to be wrong most of the time. For example, we know now for sure that markets are not efficient and that humans do not always behave rationally. And yet these are key pillars upon which much of conventional economics rest on. There is certainly a realisation in the profession of a need for a radical rethink of our ways.
Change is slow and difficult, however. This is understandable. After all, it would be irrational for people who built their stellar careers on these fallacies over many decades to simply just do a turnaround, wouldn’t it? Still, by digging their heels in on these proven untruths, economists prove the point of human beings not being always rational. Yes, behavioural economics now blossoms. But it took a while.
Self-preservation is rational, not correcting errors is not. The clearly rational irrationality of some mainstream economists in holding on to proven fallacious orthodoxies, as if they need them to breathe, is evidence enough that what is currently accepted knowledge should be queried. And this should apply to all intelligent endeavours. In other words, learn the orthodoxy, but do not accept it as gospel. It is not religion.
Banerjee & Duflo are exemplars of this ethos. Their 2019 book does not purport to have all the answers as much as it suggests a more sceptical and open approach to unraveling the still many mysteries in the so-called dismal science and the world at large. Is free trade always a positive? Is there a formula for growth? The duo did not provide straight answers to these and other pertinent questions. That is all very well. Africa must find its own answers.
By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji, @macroafrica
“Why are there so few cash transfer programs, anywhere in the world, that are universal and come without strings attached? One simple reason is money. Universal programs in which no one is excluded are expensive…Initially, most of the money will have to come from shutting down other programs…” (Banerjee & Duflo, 2019).
Nothing short of cash transfers will do
With a significant reduction in economic activity due to COVID-19 restrictions, there is likely a substantial reduction in money supply in tandem. Many companies would probably lay off staff, cut salaries and even close shop. Participants in the informal economy, forced to stay at home, and deprived of an income, would have no new money to spend. A central bank could fill that gap by printing money equivalent to the shortfall for the purpose of unconditional cash transfers.
This is not theory. The United States has passed into law a $2 trillion stimulus package to deal with the negative economic effects of the COVID-19 crisis. It includes a direct payment of $1,200 to each American citizen and $500 per child. Small and medium-sized enterprises would also be able to tap $350 billion in loans. Big companies would similarly have access to $500 billion in loans.
How would it be funded? Money printing, of course. And are there not worries about inflation and a ballooning of the fiscal deficit? In an emergency, these concerns are insignificant. Is this a solution available to other countries? If the medium of exchange in a country is a currency issued by its central bank, yes, of course.
Besides, the consequent increase in the money supply could simply amount to bringing the overall level back to normal, after likely falling off due to the restrictions, with a likely non-differential inflationary impact. But even if that turns out to not be the case, that is, an above-normal increase in the money supply with a resultant inflationary impact of similar magnitude, the increase in the price level might not be as significant as some fear.
This is because ordinarily, sellers of essential goods like food and others, would likely hike prices on the back of hoarding behaviour regardless. That is, even before demand and supply dynamics dictate a need for one. What giving money to everyone to buy essentials does is ensure that it is not only the rich that are able to buy whatever limited stock of goods that are available.
But if there is more money chasing fewer goods, would that not stoke inflation? In the absence of controls, yes it would. Rationing, which is already being done in some countries, would be necessary, clearly. And some countries have already started banning the export of food and crucial medicines.
Besides, the global lockdown has already started to create international trade-related logistical challenges: transporting imported goods is increasingly now with some great difficulty. Available food for sale in many countries now is probably just those imported and stored in silos long before restrictions took effect; and of course, those produced locally.
The other concern could be that the cash transfers may be diverted to other purposes by recipients? Yes, they could. But if well managed, the proportion diverted might not be differential. Besides, research suggests most of the money from cash transfers tend to used for the desired purposes by recipients.
What about those without a bank account and/or debit card? There would need to be a tailor-made solution for those. The authorities already have a database of the very poor for its social programmes and an existing system for transfering cash to them.
Besides, the authorities could simply announce that those without bank accounts come to designated government centres to receive cash or the equivalent in food supplies and also get registered with one of the public social programmes in tandem.
How much would it cost Nigeria to pay the 30,000 naira minimum wage to its 40 million individual bank account holders for 3 months, say? 3.6 trillion naira; about a third of the 11 trillion naira 2020 budget.
With people staying at home and the world on holiday, who would work on any of the planned capital projects of the government for the remainder of the year? As there might clearly not even be projects for the government to spend money on, it could as well get the money into the pockets of citizens to spend. Printing money might not even be necessary for the task. Reallocations and cuts could simply be made to the 2020 budget to accommodate it.
Besides, there is already elite and political support for an unconditional cash transfer programme. Senior leaders in the ruling All Progressives Congress (APC) and main opposition People’s Democratic Party (PDP) have already come out in support of one. A taciturn President Muhammadu Buhari thus far probably now has an opportunity to speak to his people about some really good news in this time of general despair. And no, it is not populism. It is common sense.
By Rafiq Raji, PhD
When I woke up to the news in late February of a confirmed case of COVID-19 in Nigeria, quite frankly, I was not surprised. It was inevitable; after cases started emerging in Europe, at least. With the benefit of hindsight, it is probably a good thing that our land borders had been closed a long while before the outbreak reached our shores. The border closure did not make sense economically at the time. But bizarrely and even paradoxically, it has turned out to be a blessing in disguise.
I am not really interested in what it is, COVID-19 or coronavirus; such fancy names, they give these viruses. As an individual, the best you can do is what you should ordinarily do in normal times: maintain good hygiene, eat healthy, exercise regularly, and so on. There are additional measures, of course. In figuring these out, I have been doing some reading. Yes, one follows the regular updates by the federal and state governments, World Health Organisation and others. But it is also important to understand what underpins the measures they announce and the advice they give.
In Nigeria, based on my own observations, our best shot at dealing with the crisis is finding and isolating whoever is infected before he or she mixes with the general population. This is because even as the majority of Nigerians desire to live clean and healthy lives, the poor circumstances of the majority of us suggest this remains a desire than reality for most. Thus, an outbreak of Chinese or Iranian proportions would almost certainly be devastating. We must not allow that to happen. And it is in our power to do so. How so?
The Chinese and Iranians made a couple of mistakes. There is a natural tendency to hide the undesirable for sometimes justifiable reasons like avoiding a panic, bad press and so on. But there are exceptions. It is widely known that a disease outbreak with the potential to become an epidemic or pandemic, must be quickly contained and communicated. The natural tendency is to hope that a full containment would make the latter needless. Time and time again, this has proven not to be the case.
Health epidemics are eventually revealed, no matter how hard a government tries to hide the facts initially. And the very measures, which if taken much earlier, would have prevented a worsening of the situation, tend to be implemented eventually. To find answers and put my observations in context, I read London School of Hygiene & Tropical Medicine associate professor Adam Kucharski’s 2020 book “The Rules of Contagion: Why things spread – and why they stop”. It was one of a couple of books recommended by the Financial Times for readers who might be interested in understanding epidemics – or pandemics if global – as we all grapple with the current one. I found some of Kucharski’s insights to be very instructive and shall share them forthwith.
A disease outbreak typically has four main stages: spark, growth, peak and decline. And in some cases, it is a cycle, repeating the four stages continously until the end. In my view, the individual can take the most effective precautions at the spark and early growth stages. If you do nothing then, there is little else you would be able to do as an individual that would likely really matter. Coercive measures, like quarantines, curfews, school closures, restrictions on public gatherings, and so on tend to be implemented by the authorities at the high growth stage. That is, when it is abundantly clear that an outbreak has reached epidemic proportions. But the individual who has not done the needful, like stocking up (not hoarding) on essentials, etc. would be greatly inconvenienced at this stage. Because at this time, it would take longer to procure these things and you would probably not get everything you seek. Thankfully, our situation in Nigeria has not reached that level yet.
By my reckoning, we are still at the spark stage. And thankfully, a very small spark at that; considering there is only one confirmed case of COVID-19 in Nigeria (at the time of this writing). By about a month from when that case was confirmed, in early April, say, our situation would probably be clearer. That is, we would then know for sure if there is going to be a growth stage, with more cases confirmed, or if as was previously the case for Ebola, we have successfully nipped the outbreak in the bud.
But what is the individual to do? In Kucharski’s narration, Andy Haldane, chief economist of the Bank of England identifies two typical responses by the public in past epidemics: flight or hide. The former is irresponsible, of course; and increasingly not feasible even for the well-heeled. Hiding behaviour is more ideal. This entails “dodging situations” that could lead to infection, washing hands, avoiding public gatherings and so on. Put more systematically, “outbreaks need three things to take off: a sufficiently infectious pathogen, plenty of interactions between different people, and enough of the population who are susceptible.” Which one of these three can the individual manage? Social interactions.
But are you going to just isolate yourself wherever you are? Certainly not. You could, if you could. But you would still need to go out from time to time. Still, it is generally accepted wisdom that large public gatherings should be avoided. And yes, Friday Muslim prayers and Sunday Christian services qualify as large public gatherings. You do not have to attend that party. A foreign trip can be postponed. An upcoming sports festival in one of the states should probably be postponed. As research finds that children have by far the most social contacts, especially in “intensely social environments” like schools, it may be wise for schools to be closed for a period of two weeks or more. (Kucharski highlights how schools are “potential mixing pot[s] of infection.”)
High-capacity mosques and churches are intensely social environments as well, and should probably be closed to the public for the same period. Our famed religiosity could be an inhibitor. Telling Nigerian Imams and Pastors to suspend their prayer events for a period, when many are likely to become even more religious, is not likely to sit well with many. This is not surprising. As I recall, at some point during the 2014-16 West African Ebola epidemic, it became increasingly astonishing that Liberia was recording greater success with managing the crisis than neighbouring Sierra Leone. The reason why became obvious soon enough. The large Muslim population in Sierra Leone continued to wash the bodies of their infected dead in the Islamic way, increasing transmission.
As a Muslim, I understand quite well the difficulty in subscribing to the more effective solution of burning the infected bodies instead. While in the end, that is an individual choice, the reason for the different outcomes are glaringly obvious. And for the current oubreak, Iran eventually closed its religious shrines and has stopped Friday prayers for the time being and Saudi Arabia has banned all pilgrimages to Mecca this year. These are sensible moves.
Precautionary measures are most effective when things are relatively okay. But naturally, there is a tendency to wait until the risks are writ large. And probably rightly so. Later certainty makes hindsight biting, however. Could the already more than 100,000 COVID-19 cases around the world have been lower had precautionary measures been taken earlier; that is, even as the current global response has been relatively swift? Maybe. Maybe not. And yes, it has probably not come to the point where we need to take such extraordinary measures in Nigeria. And hopefully, there would not be a need to. Still, why take the risk?
By Rafiq Raji, PhD
Twitter: @DrRafiqRaji, @macroafrica
It is probably true that African elections are not won on social media. Still, the same cannot be said of public opinion. There is evidence the dominant narrative on social media is influential. Sometimes, and increasingly so, the first anyone knows about a government policy is when it is announced on social media. American president Donald Trump is the archetypal example of this practice. Of course, and unfortunately so, what ‘trends’ on social media could also be false. Recently, for instance, it was falsely reported that Nigeria’s president, Muhammadu Buhari, married two of his female cabinet minsters. And even now, despite the country’s secret service bringing the culprit to book, the false report is still widely believed.
Little wonder, African governments are increasingly concerned about social media and the influence it wields. Put another way, African governments are finding that they cannot easily control the media narrative as much as they would like or used to be able to. They are not taking the assault lying down. In Nigeria, a social media bill is in the works. It certainly does not help that Singapore, a paragon of development, has one already. In fact, in the Nigerian case, the draft social media bill reportedly takes a cue from the Singaporean law. To be sure, one is not suggesting that mischief-makers, and there are plenty of those on social media, should be given a carte blanche. But the risk of stifling free speech in the process is real and significant. What is to be done then?
Fake news predates social media
“Disinformation is as old as humanity. When the serpent told Eve that nothing would happen if she ate the apple, that was disinformation. But today, spreading lies has never been easier. On social media, there are no barriers to entry and there are no gatekeepers.” This exposition by former Time magazine managing editor & one-time American under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs, Richard Stengel, in his 2019 book, Information Wars: How we lost the global battle against disinformation & what we can do about it, highlights the longstanding use of disinformation or fake news for mischievous ends.
2019 Nobel prize joint-winners in economics and couple Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo’s Good Economics for Hard Times: Better answers to our biggest problems highlights the issue rather succinctly. Social media is not the problem. But social media magnifies the problem with relative ease. For instance, old media, not new or social media, motivated the genocide in Rwanda. Banerjee & Duflo assert “altogether, Radio Television Libre des Mille Collines (RTLM) propaganda is estimated to be responsible for 10 percent of the violence, or about fifty thousand Tutsi deaths.” The point is that propaganda & fake news predated social media with perhaps even more fatal consequences.
One concedes, however, that social media has made it easier for mischief-makers to practice their ugly art. Unsurprisingly, fake news and rumours are increasingly first planted on social media before germinating to old media. Fact-based journalism is undoubtedly under attack. Even when news is genuine, the brief format of many a social media platform and the seemingly unquenchable thirst of enthusiasts often means not much is read after the headlining tweet or Facebook/Instagram post. And once a tweet or other social media post goes viral, whether true or not, it is usually difficult for the original author to control the message thereafter.
Better information war strategies needed
Clearly nowadays, it does not take much to plant fake news and get it to permeate through social media with relative ease. Understandably, there is a growing call for regulation. Still, as it is very difficult to discern what is fake news or disinformation, regulation would hardly be a solution. Not without some creativity, at least. Because even when effective, regulating social media would almost certainly stifle free speech. Stengel acknowledges as much. Democracies, by their very nature, being as they thrive on openness to ideas, are not well-equipped to fight disinformation.
Put another way, fighting disinformation through classical regulation, which would probably require full censorship, would almost certainly push a government towards autocracy. And true to type, countries like China and Russia that have a relatively tight lid on disinformation today are autocracies. Incidentally, they are also the leading purveyors of disinformation towards geopolitical ends around the world. Simply put, as Stengel highlights, “in a democracy, government is singularly bad at combating disinformation.” So, should purveyors of falsehoods be allowed to continue going haywire, leaving immeasurable damage in their wake?
One of the first ideas Stengel mulled – to funnily much turf war-type resistance initially – at the American foreign ministry is already being implemented by many governments. But back then, it was a novelty; even for the United States. He suggested a digital hub of sorts, not as originator or author of content but an aggregator to “share, amplify and coordinate” American foreign policy and actions; which essentially involved retweeting and reposting news about the US state department’s activities each day. African governments, which already do this in one form or another, clearly do not think this is enough; in light of their quest for more stringent social media regulation. They are probably right about the limited reach of their current strategies. Even so, they would probably be more effective if they ascribed as much seriousness to the task as they do for old media institutions.
Stengel’s description of how Russia’s Internet Research Agency (IRA) works provides insights into alternative but likely more effective strategies. “Every day, in two shifts, a few hundred young people spend their time writing blog posts, tweets, Facebook posts, Vkontakte posts and much more…it is indeed a factory; they manufacture thousands upon thousands of pieces of pro-Russian, anti-American content a day.” Although the Russian IRA is owned by a businessman allied to the Russian government, every government should probably have an IRA-type outfit; much like most governments have their own news agencies and broadcasters.
The suggestion is not that a government-owned social media agency should engage in some of the negative activities Russia’s IRA is accused of. Still, such an agency would probably be the more appropriate public bulwark against the purveyors of fake news and disinformation on social media. It is certainly a better proposition than the potentially free-speech stifling social media regulations being proposed by some African governments and in fact already in practice in Singapore and elsewhere. That said, some regulation of social media has clearly become necessary. The key would be for any regulation to be geared towards incentivizing accurate news reportage. In other words, new media practitioners should be made to have as much fear of punishment as their counterparts in old media. To succeed, the active cooperation of big tech would be required. But would they choose to be part of the solution?
Make platforms liable for their content
Social media platforms are probably conflicted. That is, if you infer correctly from Harvard professor Shoshana Zuboff’s 2019 book The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The fight for a human future at the new frontier of power, where she asserts “fake news and and other forms of information corruption have been perennial features of Google and Facebook’s online environments…[with]…countless examples of disinformation that survived and even thrived because it fulfilled economic imperatives”. Stengel corroborates this view: “The players in this conflict are assisted by the big social media platforms, which benefit just as much from the sharing of content that is false as content that is true.” Even more bluntly, Stengel asserts “popularity is the measure [social media platforms] care about, not accuracy or truthfulness.” Still, as Zuboff adds, “they [Facebook & others] absolutely have the tools to shut down fake news”. But they have to be willed to do so conscientiously. And there is evidence they do so when prompted by governments.
Still, in America, where most of the top global social media platforms are headquartered, there is limited incentive for them to combat disinformation. Their complacency stems from the United States’ Communications Decency Act (CDA) of 1996 which provides immunity to social media platforms from being liable for published content. The part of particular interest in that American legislation reads thus: “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.” Were this part of the legislation to be modified, it is well-known these platforms are perfectly capable of policing mischievous content with super efficiency. Thus, incentivising them via liability for disinformation might be ideal.
In practice, considering the robust political lobbying apparatus of American big tech firms, this would be a herculean task. But if African governments and others truly desire a curb on disinformation, it would not be untoward for them to be part of a global effort towards forcing the US Congress’ hand, via the United Nations perhaps – not that that has ever successfully forced the Americans to do anything they didn’t want to do – towards such a modification. Even so, Stengel sees a way to make changes to the legislation that may likely be acceptable to social media platforms: “One way to do this is to revise the language of the CDA to say that no platform that makes a good faith effort to fulfill its responsibility to delete harmful content and provide information to users about that content can be liable for the damage that it does.” Still, Stengel adds, “for all this to work, we need global privacy regulations, a universal definition of disinformation and legal consequences for purveying it.”
In any case, Singapore is pushing ahead with fighting fake news on its own; albeit it could be argued its intentions are not entirely altruistic. In November 2019, for instance, the Singaporean government ordered Facebook to issue a disclaimer (“Facebook is legally required to tell you that the Singapore government says this post has false information”) on a post by a local newspaper that it considered inaccurate. But how many of these orders can it issue? Its progress in this regard is likely to be incremental. A global effort, with America in the lead, under the auspices of the United Nations, would likely be more effective. In the absence of such a global coalition, hard-fought democratic gains around the world would be increasingly eroded; especially in the poor parts of the world, like Africa, where they are mostly needed.