Big business’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic highlights a problem of incentives in South Africa

The COVID-19 pandemic has swept across the global economy, causing havoc and leaving many economies teetering on the brink of economic and social collapse. Moreover, the arrival of a second and now third wave of infections and a further mutation of the virus is driving the economy further into peril and uncertainty. The announcement by Cyril Ramaphosa, back in March 2019, that two of South Africa’s wealthiest families and the pinnacle of big business, the Rupert and Oppenheimer families, would be donating R1 billion each was met with admiration from all corners of the country. These commitments have since been matched by the Motsepe group of companies and Naspers, donating R1.5 billion. To date, the fund has amassed over R3.22 billion in pledges from a wide array of private, public, and political donors.

Responses of this type are understandable when combining the already bleak outlook for the South African economy with a significant and potentially catastrophic supply shock. However, a question that may be playing on many South Africans minds is: why, given the fact that South Africa’s economy has long struggled with growth and several structural issues, is this response from big business only coming now in the face of a global pandemic? An easy answer may be that there has not yet been an event of this magnitude for big business to respond. However, a counter to this argument is that businesses should continuously be re-investing their profits regardless of the economy’s health.

South Africa has a long history of the inefficient use of profits, which favours hording cash and conducting unproductive investments such as mergers and acquisitions. These uses of profits are a direct result of the skewed incentives facing the agents of many large companies. For instance, many CEOs are incentivised through sizeable bonus packages to maximise the shareholders’ value rather than focusing on the long-term health and sustainability of the business. This short-term view causes CEOs to opt to retain earnings rather than embark on risky research, development, and innovation endeavours that often fail but may result in enormous payoffs if they succeed economically and socially. Short-termism is a result of a corruption of the idea of value creation where price is associated too closely with true value, nuturing an entrenched system of extraction that contributrs to worsening economic and social conditions. This is something the professor in the Economics of Innovation and Public Value at University College London, and director of the Institute for Innovation and Public Value, Mariana Mazzucato laments in her book The Value of Everything.

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Why Austerity is Not the Solution to the Policing Crisis

“Defund the Police” is a powerful slogan. It articulates a vision of a better world that so many of us on the left want to live in. A world free from the arbitrary state violence on display in the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Eric Garner. At the same time, either implicitly or explicitly, it also expresses a strong desire to address the problems that afflict American society with redistribution instead of violence through the provisioning of public goods such as education, health care, housing, and the like. To be sure, I want more than anything to live in this world, one without policing and with robust social democratic programs like universal single-payer health care and guaranteed housing. However, the politics of defund the police is not how we get from here to there.    

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Does India’s Gender Budget Need a Rethink?

India was a pioneering country when it first introduced a Gender Budget in 2001 as part of its annual Financial Year Budget. Gender Budgeting (GB) highlights the inherently different experiences in receiving financial and welfare support from the state due to their differing needs, priorities and access and serves to ameliorate the barriers to economic inclusion faced by women through a plethora of state financing. 

India’s Gender Budget Statement (GBS) has been released in two parts since 2005. Each ministry highlights allocations that are – women specific allocations where 100% of the budget for a specific scheme is assigned to women and a ‘pro-women’s’ allocation, where at least 30% of the budget for a specific scheme has been assigned to women to enhance affirmative action.

Figure 1: Proportion of women’s allocation in India’s Gender Budget

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What is a Developed Country?

Any discussion of economic development – either implicitly or explicitly – contains the distinction between developed countries and developing (or under-developed) countries. While there are many theories on what promotes development and how best to achieve it, in all cases the goal is for a country to eventually become ‘developed’.

This begs the question – what is a developed country? There are at least three common definitions, which are presented below. These definitions overlap in many cases, but in others they are at odds. This piece argues that a broader definition is needed in light of recent failures of several ‘developed’ countries to cope with shocks ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to natural disasters.

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The Use and Abuse of the Phrase “Global Public Good”

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Photo by Miroslav Petrasko

A flawed understanding of the concept of “public good” hampers the fight for equitable access to the upcoming COVID-19 vaccine

The term “global public good” has been used in very different ways by policy makers, economists and others. The term “global” is not particularly controversial, and in this context is generally understood to involve cases where the benefits of the service or good impact residents of more than one country, even if not necessarily the whole world. The term “public good” is subject to more diverse uses, often depending upon one’s educational or professional training.

For many people, perhaps most, the term “public good” is loosely defined to include cases where governments are willing to undertake measures to expand access, with universal access at least an aspirational goal. However, among the other influential definitions of “public good” is one that is exceptionally restrictive. A proposal by Paul Samuelson first published in 1954, meant at the time as an extreme and polar case, has found its way into countless articles, textbooks and academic courses, and has parameters that are rarely met in practice. At times, Samuelson’s 66-year-old paper is actually an obstacle to collective efforts to supply and distribute goods that have considerable impact on society.

The COVID-19 pandemic presents an astonishing global challenge regarding the control of the pandemic and the reduction of harm. The health impacts are large, particularly for older patients, and growing unpredictably, and the pandemic has had an enormous social and economic impact on everyone, with no obvious end in sight.Read More »

Pandemics and the State of Welfare

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In the midst of what might possibly be the worst recession since 2008, and staring down the barrel of overwhelming economic, social and human disaster, there is widespread recognition that increased welfare spending is critical not just to contain the fallout from the pandemic, but also to effectively combat it. By ensuring timely delivery of essentials and basic income support, one can minimise the chances of people venturing outside, and hence contain the spread of the COVID-19 virus.

There are valid concerns raised as to whether these measures go far enough in helping workers or whether institutional mechanisms will be able to convert announcements into genuine progress on the ground. This blog post analyses the arguments behind the justification of introducing welfare schemes in today’s times, and the underlying economic logic behind them. 

The increase in welfare provision is sorely needed in a catastrophic situation such as the one we face. But while the readiness to deploy instruments to achieve this is unprecedented, the measures themselves are not. Much of the welfare measures rolled out by governments are standard income support and welfare packages, larger in scale but with no fundamental changes in their basic design. Much of these measures, moreover, have been advocated by many to deal with fallouts from economic crises in the past, only to be met with middling levels of success and acceptance by the powers that be. The impact of the coronavirus has shown us how quickly governments can turn over the fundamental principles of austerity if they are pushed to do so. 

This post does not simply aim to criticise government policies of the past in light of current actions, but to outline a warning for the future. The problem of economic distress will not go away once the pandemic does, because then we will be dealing with battered economies, high unemployment, and weak to non-existent growth. In such times, when the threat of the virus has ebbed, there will be calls to roll back the welfare measures of the government. These calls will have to be countered stringently, on the grounds that the need to protect welfare and ensure government assistance is not contingent simply on the existence of a virus, but on the inability of the economic machine to provide for welfare.Read More »

COVID-19: A Bigger Challenge to the Indian Healthcare System

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Covid-19 has reached the community spread phase. Developed or underdeveloped, rich or poor, all countries are affected by this today. However, they are facing these challenges – shortages in medical supplies and difficulty stopping its spread – in different magnitudes. In an attempt to stop the spread to save lives, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a 21-day lockdown, starting from 25th of March. Developing countries across the globe are looking down quickly, after witnessing the helplessness of the US, UK and the rest of Europe – though these are the countries with much stronger healthcare systems and much better availability of doctors. In Italy, doctors are forced to prioritize whom to save and whom to leave untreated.

India’s healthcare infrastructure is incapable of dealing with this crisis today. Shortages in medical supplies and an inability to provide adequate testing are the major issues. However, the Prime Minister’s announcement to allocate 15,000 crore rupees (USD 2 billion) for building infrastructure can strengthen the fight against coronavirus. Also, state governments are trying to expand facilities to deal with this situation.

The majority of Indians finance their healthcare themselves. About 62 percent of households’ expenditure on healthcare in 2017 was made through out-of-pocket payments. In comparison, the equivalent figures for the European Union (excluding UK) is 22.29 percent and for the USA and UK it is 11 percent and 16 percent, respectively (Table 1). While many patients diagnosed with Covid-19 will need Intensive Care Unit (ICU), there is no clarity from the government regarding who will pay these expenses. Read More »

‘Climate Emergency’, COVID-19 and the Australian capitalist state

covid-19-4926456_1920Now is the hour of our collective discontent. In order to pursue the agenda set out for this blog post series, namely: ‘to precisely identify the strategic, structural/epochal, or more contingent factors involved in the emergence of particular state–capital hybrids, as well as the specific institutional, organizational, and legal forms that facilitate such emergence’ (Alami & Dixon, 2019) my contribution examines the Australian state over the summer of 2019-20, into the COVID-19 pandemic. I argue that the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the instability and amenability to capital of our present conjuncture in ways that the bushfire crisis did not. Further, the pandemic renders our present conjuncture potentially far less stable and amenable to capital than declaration of a national ‘climate emergency’ could have, and therefore the left should consider how to force deep reorientations of state-led action (and therefore form and function) while it can.

The need for an adequate state theory

Existing scholarship on neo-Marxian theories of the state are the foundations of an appropriate diagnosis of this moment, though in the heart of an historic conjuncture is not the time to attempt a full synthesis or unified theory. Instead we should begin by using our compounding crises to work through our existing analyses and critiques. In keeping with this research agenda, I will begin with a Poulantzean reading of the state – not the blunt Althusserian structuralism of his earlier work, but his later and more nuanced work on the state theorised as an ever-contingent social relation. The state is thus conceived of as a material condensate of the balance of class struggle, meaning it is possible to isolate points of rupture and work upon and through them to alter the balance of power.

Without a reconfiguration of political and economic power, the crises we face will not resolve, but escalate by orders of magnitude. A neo-Marxian theorisation of the state reframes this political moment with a materialist analysis of the issues confronting our societies. The points of possible rupture have now become more apparent and should guide leftist strategy into and through the COVID-19 pandemic.

From ‘climate emergency’ to global pandemic (from theory to praxis)

Over the 2019-20 summer, Australia burned. Vast swathes of the country were covered in marauding fires; communities were evacuated; homes were destroyed; irreplaceable heritage landscapes were lost forever and millions of animals perished. Those physically distant from the fires were nonetheless impacted by the resulting cloaks of particulate matter draped across the country at levels ‘unmatched in terms of severity, duration and extent’ in Australia’s recent memory.

Much of the resulting political jousting focused on whether or not funding had been cut for core services that would have ameliorated the situation. Over the course of the summer, communities mobilised to meet the relentless blazes, with numerous online fundraising campaigns set up to try and resource volunteer fire services. Rolling demonstrations and protests were held across the country, demanding action from state and federal governments.

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