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Opinions of Monday, 4 April 2011

Columnist: Abugri, George Sydney

Landsburg’s guide to Ananse economics

By George Sydney Abugri

Steven Landsburg’s book “More sex is safer sex” is not about sex. At least, not in the literal sense. No, wait. I have made a false start, Jomo. It is about sex after all, but in a rather very strange and scandalous context.

Common sense tells us that HIV/AIDS is spread by promiscuous sexual behaviour, right? Now, enter Landsburg with the argument that HIV and other sexually transmitted diseases are spread NOT by promiscuous sexual begaviour but by avoiding casual sex!

Landsburg provides proof that the chief culprits behind the spread of HIV/AIDS and other sexually transmitted diseases are monogamy, chastity and other forms of extreme sexual conservatism. Hold your horses, old chap; I am merely a messenger and not the one making the claims.

We have known all along, that unchecked population growth threatens the prosperity of nations but Landsburg argues that nations must be fruitful and multiple if they want to see prosperity!

Wild life conservationists engaged in the crusade to protect what is left of the world’s population of elephants will probably strangle Landsburg if they ever set eyes on the chap: Landsburg is able to explain why banning elephant hunting will be bad news for the elephants themselves!

He also advances sound arguments to back such outrageous postulates as “writing books is socially irresponsible but pushing and elbowing your way to the front of a queue is not”, “misers make good neighbours” and “it is better to thirst for revenge than to thirst for gold.”

He is even able to explain why it makes economic sense to allow firemen to keep property they rescue from fires, why disaster assistance is bad for the people of disaster-stricken areas and why members of court juries which acquit criminals, should be themselves be put in the dock.

Landsburg himself concedes that his arguments go against common sense, but then, he also reminds us that common sense tells us that the earth is flat, but is it?

He applies the logic of economics and uses statistics, mathematics and appropriate fictional scenarios to gallantly back all his apparently ludicrous arguments.

This is one of the most brilliant attempts ever to demystify and make economics interesting and great fun for lay people constantly bamboozled by arm-chair economists.

What we see and experience around us and what our economists and statisticians are telling us, make it impossible for us to determine the precise state of our national economy and we need a few Landsburg types to try and help us make some sense of what is going on.

In November 2010 for example, Government Statistician Dr. Grace Bediako made an announcement that took everyone by surprise: Ghana had attained a middle income status. Oh yeah? Yes sir! The GS had suddenly discovered to her dismay, that our economy had all along been undervalued by an unbelievable 60 percent.

What?! How did that come about? All along, 1993 had been used as the base year in compiling constant price estimates in Ghana, see? The base year for calculations was therefore shifted from 1993 to 2006 and holala, our GNP was revalued at US$ 31 billion.

With the rebasing of Ghana’s economy, our per capita income rose dramatically from US$ 753 to US$ 1318!

I have always assumed from a layman’s perspective that dramatic growth in a national economy would show in dramatically improved socio-economic infrastructure and a visibly improved quality of life of the people.

Yet as I walked from the office to buy an item down the road this morning, I saw a well dressed and distinguished looking gentlemen who had whipped out Long John Thomas and was shooting jets of liquid ammonia waste into the open spaces on the edge of a busy street. Is this typical of a middle income country?

The outbreak of cholera, a disease associated with poor sanitation and hygiene, is as embarrassing as it is incompatible with the status of a middle income country. Sixty-one dead and more than 520 hospitalized across the country at the last count.

The Tema Port handles more than 80 percent of Ghana’s export and import cargo. Most of the transit cargo bound for countries in West Africa pass through the port. The city is also home to more than 70 percent of the country’s manufacturing industries but to say that road infrastructure in this economically strategic city is in a very terrible mess, is a gross under statement.

In Tema these days, it is only mad men and those feeling suicidal who drive according to road traffic regulations. You don’t keep to your lane unless you are looking for an easy way to collide head-on with another vehicle and fall into one of the gaping chasms on the streets of Tema which some people call “pot holes.”

In Tema, you soon learn like everyone else, to dance your motor car across the road in the manner of a drunken crab.

Could it be that corruption has been firmly planted like a sphinx, between economic growth on the one hand and corresponding improvements in socio-economic infrastructure and the quality of living of the people on the other?

Let me explain the Landsburgian economics of potholes to you: Some folks are apparently deriving some economic benefit from potholes: Who wants the kind of contractor with the expertise to build the kind of roads with the potential to last a lifetime?

Good roads of durable riding quality mean no road contracts for a long time. That will make the “ways and means” and the “connection” gangs broke and starved of the good things of life.

It certainly won’t be a bad idea if the Mills administration commissions experts to undertake an audit of road projects in progress across the country.

The key concerns would be to establish the rate of compliance with project completion deadlines and adherence to technical specifications.

I am referring to specifications with regard to such features as the thickness of road asphalt, quality of materials used, road width and width and depth of drains and gutters. It would be useful to determine the qualification of contractors working on all road projects across the country as well.

It is not right that a fellow with two buckets, one shovel, a broom and a wheel barrow, should be awarded a government road contract which he takes more than a millennium and three ages to begin work on and an eternity to complete if he ever does.

The road construction industry is so opaque that the tax payer is left speculating about what is really going on in the industry. Some contractors who stop working on road contracts awarded to them often grumble that no funds for the projects have been provided by the central government and/or District, Municipal and Metropolitan Assemblies.

My poor head can’t crack this one, old chap: The implied statement that it is the responsibility of administrative authorities to provide road contractors with the money they need for materials and equipment is a strange one.

Some contractors also often complain that they have not been paid for completed projects but a contrary if also unsubstantiated claim, is that some contractors receive a percentage of the contract sum up front and run off to buy flashy cars and build mansions for themselves!

Methinks the time has come for the Minister of Roads and Highways to give the nation “A State of the Roads Address”, during which all the confusion and speculative assumptions about the industry and the state of our roads might be addressed!