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.

Wednesday, November 15, 2006

On Rian Malan

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

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.

Currently have 1 comments:

  1. Government does have immense power to intervene in society. As South africans we know this. In the 30's more ethan a third of Afrikaners lived under the bread line. Massive government intervention insured that by 1990 they earned about 70% of what english speaking South Africans did. The question is, why does the current government seem unable to make these kinds of massive social interventions?