Economics, Literature and Scepticism

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I am a PhD student in Economics. I am originally from South Africa and plan to return there after my PhD. I completed my M. Comm in Economics and my MA In Creative Writing (Poetry) at the University of Cape Town, where I worked as a lecturer before starting my PhD.

Sunday, May 21, 2006


Posted by Simon Halliday | Sunday, May 21, 2006 | Category: |

Ok, so one of the guys that I tutor for, Ron Irwin, asked me to help him write an article on Affirmative Action (as this is a passion of mine, in a strange way). One of the adjuncts was that Men's Health also asked him to write on the 5 Biggest Myths on Affirmative Action and on Black Workers. I got 5 for Affirmative Action, but I didn't get further than 3 for Black Workers. I read an article by Fryer and Loury last year and a lot of what I wrote was influenced by what they wrote and my own thinking subsequent to that. Enjoy!

5 Biggest Myths about Affirmative Action

1. Affirmative Action isn’t about quotas it’s about a ‘goal of government’.

Regardless of whether you buy into Affirmative Action or not, it is about actual specific numerical goals, both in terms of Black Economic Empowerment (BEE) and in terms of the transformation of specific companies. Believing that you don’t have to fulfil a specific numerical quota is na├»ve. Companies need to fulfil quotas in order to be BEE compliant and in order to be in line with the transformation outcomes delineated in the employment equity act. It isn’t going to be anything fuzzy such as a ‘goal’, it’s a cold hard number that needs to be met by every single company to transform the economy, the workplace and the class structure of South Africa.

2. Affirmative Action Will Help the poor of South Africa

Sadly, in most cases this is a mythical ideal. Those people who are going to benefit are the people who are well-connected and well-educated. What does that mean? It’s most likely the black sons and daughters of black businessmen and politicians who are going to benefit the most from affirmative action policies. The poor and underprivileged may be overlooked because of the dramatic problems in the education system that are still prevalent throughout South Africa: the lack of throughput from Matric to technical tertiary education degrees such as Engineering, Maths and other applied sciences.

3. Race-neutral policies are more ethical and effective than race-specific ones

Again this is a myth based on a myopic view of ethics. In terms of equitable approaches to employment in the ideal world people would come from exactly the same backgrounds and be able to attend homogenous schools that rewarded hard work and intellectual pursuits. This isn’t the case. Sadly, in South Africa with a dramatic history of inequality in basic education levels and inequality in incomes (which means that if you are white your parents could pay for you to go to an even better school if they wanted), these inequalities in investment in infrastructure and institutions in specific areas are going to be felt for generations to come. In order to deal with them one of the only ways to intervene is to have ‘race-sighted’ rather than ‘race-blind’ policies. Moreover, race specific policies are one of the only ways to compensate and cater for the unethical historical treatment of specific race groups. In addition to this, Affirmative Action does not say that white people should not be employed, or that they are not allowed in specific jobs, what it says is that companies need to go about using their budgets to recruit qualified black individuals. This neither unethical nor ineffective, it is a dramatic attempt to reform the institutions in our society such that they become conducive to multiracial circumstances – an ethical and efficient outcome.

4. It should be about equal opportunities

Well, yes it should be. The problem however, as related above, is the fact that opportunities are seldom equal. In fact in most circumstances we see many situations in which the whites in this country because of the institutions that are available to them in still predominantly white areas, are at a distinct advantage in the ‘opportunities’ game. No one can honestly say that a child going to Sinethemba Secondary School (???) is given the same ‘opportunities’ as a child going to Rondebosch Boys High School. What does this mean? In many situations as a white individual in South Africa you have been given a multitude of opportunities that will increase the use of you as an individual relative to many of the black individuals in the country who are still victims of the multiple inferior institutions with which they interact on a daily basis. Government is trying to change things, but it takes time, and not just time but money and the expertise of individuals who are committed to change the system. The idea that you should then be given an ‘equal opportunity’ in terms of job availability is nigh on ludicrous, you are an overwhelmingly good candidate because of the number of opportunities that have been fed to you throughout your life, don’t claim that simply because there are suddenly Affirmative Action policies in this one area of your life that you are suddenly downtrodden and part of the exploited proletariat.

5. Affirmative Action always affects ‘me’

The short answer is ‘no’. Grow up. Every single job wasn’t a job reserved for you. Every single interview wasn’t an interview which was meant to result in a job for you. There are a number of jobs out there and the fact is that if you are a highly skilled individual you should get one regardless. Affirmative action is about getting people who haven’t been involved to be a part of the picture, and not only are they changing the look of the company photo, but hopefully they are changing the way the company itself is run; for the better. That job you didn’t get? Maybe you didn’t suit the profile. Maybe you weren’t qualified, experienced, confident, well-trained, or [fill this space] enough – all of these are reasons you would have thought that you didn’t get the job previously before affirmative action came about. These things still apply now, if not even more so than they ever did before. The reason being that previously, you or your buddy may have gotten the simply because you were white, maybe you weren’t qualified enough, but you still got the job. The tables have been turned. Go and get an honours degree, an MBA, or get involved in a project, some volunteer work, show that you are a worthwhile candidate. If you are you will be hired.

In terms of myths about black workers…

1. They aren’t as qualified

Wrong answer. They may not have been as qualified on average immediately after Apartheid, but right now there are more and more black graduates entering into the job market. Moreover, if they have been trained recently with more rigorous methods, the possibility is that they may even be trained better than you. What that means is that not only are they a black candidate, but they are a black candidate with a good qualification.

2. They don’t work as hard

Hate to say it, but wrong again. In order for a black individual to retain a high-end job they are most likely going to have to work as hard as anyone else. In fact, they are quite likely going to have to work harder than that for the simple reason that they may be in slightly over their heads. Don’t con yourself into thinking that you have a monopoly on the ability to work hard if you came out of white middle class suburbia.

3. They get paid too much

No, they don’t. This is basic economics. Currently, they are possibly being paid more than their white counterparts because of there being a high demand combined with a low supply of black professional workers. Low supply and high demand result in a high price. A high price in this instance is simply a higher wage to retain the services of a specific product – the product being the services of a black professional in a specific field. They are not being paid ‘too much’ they are being paid the price that the market has determined for them (the market incidentally which lib-dems such as most whites favour so hotly). If by ‘too much’ you mean more than you, then yes that may be true, but think of it in economic terms and it’s simply the result of basic market dynamics. Incidentally, what makes affirmative action even more important in this circumstance is that as it progresses these payment differentials will decrease because the necessity for them will have drastically diminished – the supply of qualifies black individuals will have increased lowering the price at which the market clears...

Currently have 3 comments:

  1. Hi Simon,

    Thanks for the posts on my site. This is the first time that I have visited your blog and its rather late in the day so I can only give it a cursory look. But it certainly seems to warrant a deeper appraisal at some future point. Perhaps you'd like to link to each others blogs?


  2. Oh also, I wrote on affirmative action, supporting it through:
    a) an argument that we society benefits by giving blacks the opportunities to occupy important positions in society e.g. a doctor.
    b) that the rights of whites are not violated in any case - although I wont go in to this argument here - as it is a little turgid.


  3. Hi Si.

    Regarding the affirmative action posting, I've often wondered about the fact that Affirmative Action isn't going to empower the man on the street. While not wanting to be so cynical as to believe that it only benefits the children of business persons and politicians, I'll concede that I don't know many "true" empowerment candidates.

    But what is a true empowerment candidate?

    Someone made a comment about me the other day which I didn't know how to interpret...essentially saying that I shouldn't be considered previously disadvantaged. It annoyed me a bit, to be honest.

    So I went to a better school than the average PDI...that's not true for the majority of my cousins (my benchmark), and neither of my parents have a university degree. I still live in the 'hood. The balancing act one experiences in this situation is very different to that experienced by categorically advantaged individuals, or extremely disadvantaged individuals. How do we improve social mobility of the most disadvantaged members of society? Patently, not through affirmative action alone.

    Where do we draw the line between previously and currently disadvantaged? It really disturbed me that all of the PDIs in my Honours class had attended Model C/private schools...but does this mean that they fail to qualify as affirmative action candidates? I did not arrive at university with the typical network my advantaged peers have. Nor do I have the business connections more advantaged individuals are likely to have.

    So I'm not sure that affirmative action achieves what it intends...but I don't think that a seperating equilibrium necessarily exists.

    What are your thoughts?