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.

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Responses – Why my Frustrations with Malan and other Random things

Posted by Simon Halliday | Thursday, November 16, 2006 | Category: | 2 comments

I’ve had all kinds of responses to my recent post on Rian Malan. It grew from a discussion that Seraj and I had on the original Malan article published in the Guardian over a month or so now the contents of which I found deeply offensive. This was strange for me – I don’t normally get offended that easily. What terrified me was how narrowly and blatantly ‘black-white’ culture Malan saw the world. It immediately made me ponder my own relationship with ‘black/white’, ‘culture’, etc. It also made me wonder about the necessary conditions for me to remain in South Africa vs. me leaving South Africa. That is something that warrants an entire post on its own, this post is more about what I’ve been thinking and doing and some of what fed into the Rian Malan article.

This is something which has been topical for me of late. I recently joined and am participating in a group called ‘un/common’ (name was my idea). The group burgeoned from individuals in Diversity Studies who wanted to take transformation, diversity, etc and talk to people about it. The then did a ‘protest’ (more a ‘we’ll wear challenging t-shirts and see who comes to talk to us’) on Jammie Steps. I spoke to them and started becoming involved. We discuss transformation, affirmative action, understanding diversity, the point being to talk about all of these things frankly and honestly, even if others find your opinions offensive. This is necessary in our young (and it is really young) democracy in order for us to be able to empathise with one another and for us to create an understanding that there are a myriad shades to how we share similar beliefs. The t-shirt that I wore to the next ‘protest’ had the following written on it: ‘oppress(or)ed’

This has all been in the light of another controversial issue in South Africa - the development of the Civil Unions Bill. The bill passed on Tuesday. It will constitute an act separate to the Marriage Act to provide anyone who wishes it with a Civil Union, be they a same sex couple or a heterosexual couple. However, the Marriage Act still exists in which it is only possible for heterosexual couples to be married. This is a very odd state of affairs. Religious interest groups and traditional leaders (such as The Reverend Napier, Kenneth Moshoe and several others) have all spoken out against the Civil Union Bill. Rights activists on the other hand are up in arms that there is, once more, a ‘separate but equal’ nature to some of South Africa’s laws. There isn’t true equality.

I tend to side with the rights activists in having beliefs around equality – however I acknowledge that the right to religious expression is also important. The question therefore is which right is more important – we all know that discrimination in any shape or form is unconstitutional. So what that means then is that we need to adopt policy which does not discriminate. Which narrows the question – to what extent can one individuals right be impinged upon for another’s right to be upheld? Sho! That’s a difficult one. There is so much taboo around homosexuality, so much of what I call ‘religious noise’ (i.e. some religionists say one thing, another group says another – it becomes quite confusing to find consensus) that it is difficult for us to say anything unilateral around this. Listening to SAFm this morning (yes that is a bit grandpa I admit), they were discussing this topic. The one thing which I think was incredibly important and which the host Nikiwe kept on bringing up was ‘How does it affect you personally?’ This question would give us some measure. If I am a religious person in a specific location and some random homosexual couple gets married somewhere, how does that affect me? Does it affect me at all if none of my friends are homosexual?

This question tries to give some measure of the actual instrumental difference it would make to a religious person, which is why I like it. In my mind it is something that seriously needs to be asked of many individuals. How does it affect you?

Simon Halliday: It affects me because I have homosexual friends. I really want them to be happy and happiness in many peoples’ lives is rooted in having a family. Hence, I want them to be able to have families, which is dramatically a function of marriage either under common law or under the auspices of some traditional or religious body. On a more personal level I want to have the pleasuring of seeing my children play with their children. I want us (my homosexual friends and I) to share experiences and joys in a non-discriminatory environment. The Civil Union Bill affects me directly.

Ok. Um… I need to work on my dissertation now and on Admin for ECO2003P Summer Term (I am now convening the course with Justine in a supervisory capacity). The above isn’t terribly well argued, but it was meant more as a sharing of perspective more than anything else.

For those of you who are interested, I sent the previous post I wrote to the Cape Argus. They printed the ‘Comment’ by Rian Malan so I am hoping that they print my letter. If not, I will send it to the M&G. I hate to say it but, to some extent, the aluta does continua.

(Incidentally, Bob Herbert (NY Times) wrote today on Civil Rights in the US – commenting on the documentary ‘Eyes on the Prize’ (1987 recently re-released). The film presents various images of the bigotry and hatred towards black people in the US and the struggle that individuals went through for equal rights. I sincerely hope that this level of struggle is not necessary to win the rights of sexual expression).

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

On Rian Malan

Posted by Simon Halliday | Wednesday, November 15, 2006 | Category: | 1 comments

Recently I have become more and more aware of Rian Malan's position in the media. He has often been a 'voice' of a white perspective, but what irritates me is that some believe he is the white perspective and should be accepted as such – those who support him and detract from him alike. I do not support Rian Malan, nor what he has written of late for either The Guardian in the UK, or The Cape Argus locally.

A few problems arise in the argument that Malan sets out in his most recent contribution from the Argus. He asserts that meritocratic values of excellence and effort will offer just rewards to those black people who pursue them. I contest that Malan has obviously not come into any contact with any of a) the mathematical models on the flawed nature of meritocracy or b) the sociological theories of social networks and network effects, else he would have a far more nuanced understanding of what the ideas of 'meritocracy' and what he labels as victimhood and entitlement mean.

So firstly, on meritocracy, there have been numerous researchers in the social sciences who have tried to understand whether a meritocratic system will work. Hypothetically, in a world where everyone has access to the same resources, monetary or otherwise, then meritocracy will simply be rewarding those with genetically preprogrammed ability. Because, if everything else is held completely equal then the only manifest differences could be genetic ones. This then begs the question of why we think it is morally and ethically responsible for us to benefit those individuals (i.e. pay them more) who are randomly allocated better genes than the rest of the population, but that is another question entirely.

However, this is a dream world. In fact it is a world which is so far departed from our own that most agree that mathematically and exponentially a world in which meritocracy is the mechanism by which individuals attain scholarships, acceptance to educational institutions and such is a world in which the rich will get richer and the poor will get poorer. As exemplars of this we can use the growing inequality in both the US and the UK over the past fifteen years. One of the few ways in which we can alter a world in which there is systematic inequality is through the implementation of interventions which can bootstrap individuals up from positions where they need not be, or in which they were placed by institutions such as apartheid. These institutions include land reform, include affirmative action and include the promotion of institutions that facilitate hard work and reward excellence in communities where these may not have been extant.

Which brings me to the second point, that of social networks. Values such as being hard-working, promoting excellence and such are non-randomly distributed through a population – you'll generally notice that they are more prevalent in those populations at the top of the income distribution. People then make the comment 'Look! People are rewarded for hard work and excellence!' Yes they are, but equally in a family that promotes hard work and excellence, in a community that does so, there are far greater possibilities that these communities, these families will promote individuals who have these values relative to communities that have far fewer numbers of these individuals relative to the total population of the community or family. One of the things that we therefore need to do is to ensure that these sociological and psychological factors become ubiquitous social factors, rather than values of the elite.

However, commentators like Malan seem to refuse to see these kinds of options. They believe that individuals are 'victims of entitlement'. I don't find this surprising, it requires economic, educational and social upliftment to alter attitudes that are prevalent in a community or social environment. These attitudes include cronyism, nepotism, corruption and graft. For communities and individuals that have struggled to eat, suddenly having a wealth of options for income and resources access can be overwhelming. Note, I am not saying that this is right, nor that it is acceptable, rather that a blas̩ acceptance of the idea that 'these blacks need to change their attitude' is the equivalent of barking up the wrong tree Рit is rather one branch of a much larger and more potent intervention one combined with land, social, educational and economic reform.

Research is being performed in the United States by individuals such as Roland Fryer and Glenn Loury. Glenn Loury is an interesting character. He's an African-American gentlemen who was the poster boy of the Republican anti-affirmative action movement. However, he subsequently changed his views. What changed for him was the mathematics of it – he's a social scientist, an economist, looking at phenomena such as affirmative action. What he realised, and what he and Roland Fryer have written about, is the fact that affirmative action is necessary in order for social and economic reform. It is necessary to bring those who were unable to access education into institutions where they have access to education, to social factors (such as a work ethic), to institutions of behaviour and social outlook which may not be prevalent in their own communities. Moreover, this needs to be done at an early age. However, in a second best world (such as the ones in which we live, both here in SA and in the US), it is often necessary to create second best solutions such as temporary affirmative action at the level of employment, at the level of tertiary education – concurrent with interventions at primary schools, with land reform and with access to property outside of the ghettos and townships.

Rian Malan may now respond to me saying that I live in a La La Land of immense proportions, but what needs to be understood regardless is that government has immense power to intervene in society. It needs to do so effectively and efficiently. Yes, the Department of Home Affairs is neither of these, but if we promote some of the above-mentioned factors, then it should improve soon. Moreover, if we only ran with ideas that Malan mentions not much would happen – incentives need to be put in place, policy needs to be effective. The social grant system, specifically the Old Age Pension, has so many benefits to the poor and uneducated individuals in our country (who form up approximately 75% of South Africa's unemployed). We cannot drop these systems and leave the poor and uneducated to die in poverty. Malan's world of puritanical virtue is a short-sighted one, and cannot evidently work.