Did Anyone Listen to Bill?

2013-06-30 09:46

It was Bill Clinton, former US president who is on record as saying “it’s the economy, stupid!” in the strategy formulation phase of some election. Whether he did indeed say it at all is as irrelevant as it is true. The words still apply - and universally so.

That is because articulated political positions, promises of a better life for the downtrodden, greater equality, wider “social justice” and the warm fuzzy emotion of doing the proverbial right thing are devoid of meaning in the absence of a healthy economy. Promises come cheap - something most South Africans have yet to learn.

The economy of the New South Africa is a battleground of cognitions and ideologies ranging from a statist predisposition to confiscate and self enrich in the name of restitution, to free marketers keeping their heads above the rising tide of state ineptitude, regulation, sporadic threats of nationalisation and decreasing access to key factors of production like land and labour. Sadly it is the latter that create new wealth, add value, create sustainable employment – and ultimately pay the taxes.

The roots of these contradictions lie in reconciling the iron curtain ideologies our leaders inherited from the cold war, with the realities of the modern world. This leftist cancer permeates the entire ruling establishment from the ANC to the trade union movement and a growing body of anarchic unemployed youths who perceive economic freedom (that ultimate oxymoron!) as a confiscatory option akin to political influence and power, which in our democratic model is essentially majoritarian, requires scant merit, few qualifications, little accountability and obedience to an ideology articulated by a questionable leader figure. Economic success is something very different. It requires merit, accountability, initiative and individual flair.

Coming to grips with these incompatibilities is key to the nation’s survival – not that the patient will necessarily agree to take the prescribed medicines in time. For example, some of our political figures point to the ephemeral successes of Lula’s Brazil and Chavez’s Venezuela where economic hardships have reduced recently – the first having been made possible by fiscal discipline in a previous era (and by many accounts now starting to unravel) and the latter built on mortgaging the development of future human capital in exchange for short term populism and the exploitation of a wasting economic asset – oil.

Given the current trajectory of the South African economy – with a tanking currency, poor growth, rising unemployment and little prospect of smart people investing on a meaningful scale in our economy – it seems to me that Bill Clinton was right. The long term question is – do we have what it takes to learn from the experience and wisdom of others rather than remain enslaved by doctrines that resonate loudly because they are so hollow?

Could we be that stupid?

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