Hey, fellow committee member, are you the weakest link?

UPDATE: 12:18 PM SEE END OF POST I was just on a committee that selected a small number of papers from a large number of submissions for a conference.  We each graded each paper and then we had to come up with a rule to go from our individual grades to a ranking of the papers to decide which ones got into the conference. So here are some possible rules:

(1) one veto kills the paper

So the overall grade for the paper equals the minimum of all of our grades, so if even just one of us flunks the paper, the paper flunks. You need to satisfy all of us. In econ lingo, you can't SUBSTITUTE one of us with a positive opinion for another one of us with a negative opinion.

ANALOGY: the "weakest link" production function, in which whatever input the economy has least constrains the whole output. Note that zero substitution means that all inputs/committee members are perfect complements. This is the world view of those who like Big Pushes to increase all the development  inputs at once.

(2) simple average

Averaging our grades goes to the other extreme of perfect SUBSTITUTION between us. One of us with a positive opinion cancels out (i.e. substitutes for) another one of us with a negative opinion. We committee members are not complements at all: the value of my grade is not influenced by your grade.

ANALOGY: the old Human Development Index.

Also in production functions relating Development to inputs, this rule  implies extreme flexibility. Rich economies feature this selectively to compensate for weakest links -- if the whole system is going to fail because of one input, then have a backup input that is a perfect substitute.

(3) geometric averages

This exotic animal  (cube root of the 3 grades multiplied together) is in between (1) and (2). You can partially but not completely substitute for one of us with another one of us. So for example if we were just grading A,B,C (numerically 3,2,1), then a paper with the score (2,2,2) has a higher geometric average than a paper with the grades (3,1,2) although they both had the same simple average under 2. We are also partial complements -- the higher is your grade, the stronger is the effect of my grade.

ANALOGY: the new Human Development Index, which an Aid Watch post criticized for TOO MUCH complementarity. The higher was committee member Per Capita Income, the stronger was the effect of another committee member Life Expectancy, which has the unappealing property that we value lives of rich people far more than those of poor people. Makes more sense for production functions than for HDI.

The ending of the actual committee story-- qualitative discussions were necessary for choosing the final papers in the end after constructing the mechanical indexes. Let me see what is the analogy here...

UPDATE: thanks to both of you for reading this wonky post all the way to the end. Do you think I have atoned for that Swimsuit Edition post now? and even the followup Swimsuit Edition post also?

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Why is nobody worried about the Asian brain drain?

Aid-financed scholarships for African students to study in the US or Europe would be worth a lot more than a million "capacity-building" projects. The usual argument against such scholarships is fear of brain drain -- that the African students would not return home. So why is nobody worried about brain drain of the gigantic numbers of Asian students studying in the US?

Source: Institute of International Education

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David Brooks illustrates how clueless Easterners can be without local knowledge about My Midwest

A frequent theme in this blog is the importance of local knowledge for development. David Brooks helpfully illustrated in his column today on my home region the Midwest. He brilliantly demonstrates how outsiders can get lost in the jungle in a region not their own. Brooks' Midwest is:

that region of America that starts in central New York and Pennsylvania and then stretches out through Ohio and Indiana before spreading out to include Wisconsin and Arkansas.

Mr. Brooks is apparently unaware from his vantage point on the Far Eastern Coastal Rim that central New York is still in the East, not the Midwest. And there has never been a single Midwesterner in two centuries who ever thought they were in the same  region as Arkansas.

The Midwest has lost a manufacturing empire but hasn’t yet found a role.

Um, Mr. Brooks, were you aware that the Midwest has a few farms? Actually some of the best farmland in the world? and that it produces gigantic agricultural exports for the whole world?

Describing the electoral losses of the Democrats, he says:

The old industry towns in the Midwest were the epicenter of the disaster.

Great insight, except for the fact that the only places Democrats won in the Midwest were in the old industry towns.  Mr. Brooks, you have just earned a one-month scenic tour to chat with the nonexistent Republican House members in Cleveland, Youngstown, Akron, and Toledo, Ohio; Detroit and Flint, Michigan; South Bend and beautiful Gary, Indiana.

So just to sum up how far a columnist can get without local knowledge, Mr. Brooks has produced some interesting facts that were not facts about a Midwest that was not the Midwest.

If you need a local guide through those remote wastelands, Mr. Brooks,  I am at your service. I'd like to talk to you about some of your other columns I really like about things you know about.

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Succeed in Kindergarten, and You're Set for Life

UPDATE: links to studies on pre-school in developing countries (end of post)

This blog has discussed how ancient history of countries and peoples affects development today. Now a new paper shows that your own ancient history also matters: your scores on Kindergarten tests are a good predictor of your earnings as an adult, along with other good adult outcomes.

Raj Chetty presented this paper at NYU on Tuesday: How Does Your Kindergarten Classroom Affect Your Earnings? Evidence from Project Star, written with John N. Friedman, Nathaniel Hilger, Emmanuel Saez, Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, and Danny Yagan.

Under the project studied, there were random assignments of teachers and students to classes. The striking thing in the findings is the identification of  "Good" and "Bad" kindergarten classes, as shown by more variation in the Kindergarten test scores than would occur with random variation. The "Goodness" of  the classes then have significant effects on their members for all those later life outcomes.

This finding was intrinsically fascinating in itself.  It reinforces a lot of other research about the importance of early childhood for later outcomes, which deserves a lot more attention in development.

The paper has gotten a lot of media attention for something a little different: as showing that "A Good Kindergarten Teacher is worth $320,000."

Actually, Professor Chetty was very careful in the seminar to say that there was no decisive evidence that it was the teacher who was the cause of the "Good" classes (and he never actually presented the $320,000 figure that the media has publicized).

It is certainly plausible that the teacher contributed to good kindergarten outcomes (and Professor Chetty  had some indirect but far from decisive evidence that contributed to the plausibility a little). But as with other groups of individuals: firms, cities, sports teams, book groups, societies ... and now Kindergarten classes ... some of the success and failure is just a mystery. Attributing it all to the "leader" (like the teacher) could be suspiciously close to one of those Fundamental Attribution Errors -- we want to identify group success with one Brilliant Good Person -- but sometimes it just ain't so. So the policy implications of this finding are ................................................. still a bit unclear.

UPDATE: An alert reader sent links to two more papers about early childhood and later outcomes. The sender happened to be the author, but that's OK, please feel free to send links to your own work when it relates to a post! The effect of pre-primary education on primary school performance

(ungated here)

Giving children a better start: Preschool attendance and school-age profiles


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In politics as in development, success is fleetingly fleeting

This blog has frequently pointed out that economic growth successes don't last -- rapid growth is fleeting. After last night's election, we are reminded that political success doesn't last either. An action in one direction is followed by an equal and opposite reaction in the other.

The situation of one party having both the Presidency and a majority in the House has been rare in the postwar era, and when it happens, it doesn't last very long.

We often point out that analysis of rapid growth "miracles" is faulty because it fails to notice that the miracles will likely disappear very soon.

Likewise, would behavior of political actors be different -- such as giving moderates in each party much more say -- if both sides fully realized that an electoral "mandate" is a very frail and short-lived creature?

Postscript: this hereby ends the Aid Watch obsession with the elections, we will resume our reguarly scheduled programming tomorrow.

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We now return to our regularly scheduled Hayek

Universidad Francisco Marroquin recently made available both the video and transcripts of a series of interviews with F.A. Hayek from the mid-1970's. Not only do they furnish an in depth look into the ideas of one of the past century's most influential thinkers, and pair him with some of the other great economists of the past half-century, they do so with a level of style that only the 1970's could provide.

Can you dig it?

Aid Watch readers might find this part* worth listening to. Hayek lambasts the "intellectuals" for their susceptibility to fads. By "intellectuals" he does not mean primarily academics, but rather "secondhand dealers in ideas" who specialize in conveying ideas to the general public: reporters, teachers, writers, artists, etc. Even though the ideas they propagate are frequently more trendy than well-founded, Hayek claims they end up serving as the public rationale for potentially grave policy decisions, such as interference in the internal governance of other nations.

And in this case, the example Hayek uses as a trendy idea has stuck around, especially in the development and aid world. Is Hayek ahead of the curve or behind the times in his prognosis?

*Those unable to view the video can read the transcript under the fold.

You see, my problem with all this is the whole role of what I commonly call the intellectuals, which I have long ago defined as the secondhand dealers in ideas.  For some reason or other, they are probably more subject to waves of fashion in ideas and more influential in the United States than they are elsewhere.  Certain main concerns can spread here with an incredible speed.  Take the conception of human rights.  I'm not sure whether it's an invention of the present administration or whether it's of an older date, but I suppose if you told an eighteen year old that human rights is a new discovery he wouldn't believe it.  He would have thought the United States for 200 years has been committed to human rights, which of course would be absurd.

The United States discovered human rights two years ago or five years ago.  Suddenly it's the main object and leads to a degree of interference with the policy of other countries which, even if I sympathized with the general aim, I don't think it's in the least justified.  People in South Africa have to deal with their own problems, and the idea that you can use external pressure to change people, who after all have built up a civilization of a kind, seems to me morally a very doubtful belief.  But it's a dominating belief in the United States now.

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The Ground Zero mosque and cognitive biases

Among the many other things involved in this controversy, stereotypes of Muslims are not exactly helping. As this blog is (excessively)  fond of arguing, ethnic stereotypes are partly fueled by an obscure cognitive bias known as Reversing Conditional Probabilities. As a long ago Aid Watch post argued (sorry for indulging in self-quotation, but hey it's August, time for reruns):

{People perceive} from media coverage that the probability that IF you are a terrorist, THEN you are a Muslim is high. Unfortunately...{we are confusing} this with the relevant probability, which is the chance that IF you are a Muslim, THEN you are a terrorist (which is extremely low even if the first probability really is high, because terrorists are very rare).

This blog is so obsessed with Reversing Conditional Probabilities (RCP) that we have also linked it to exaggerating the effect of Affirmative Action on women's careers and why Dani Rodrik likes industrial policy.

Of course, there could be the same cognitive bias about Christians from the Muslim side (which will no doubt be exacerbated by the Ground Zero mosque controversy). The probability that IF you are an anti-Muslim bigot, THEN you are Christian could be reasonably high. But since explicit bigotry is still pretty rare, the correct probability -- IF Christian, THEN anti-Muslim bigot -- is far lower.

Most of our readers don't seem to share our enthusiasm for RCP, the most boring, wonkiest topic of all time. But the obstinate educator never gives up hope that teaching probability theory could promote world peace.

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Poor People Behaving Badly?

NYT columnist Nick Kristof had an uber-provocative Sunday column:

…if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.

The Obamzas, a Congolese family from the village of Mont-Belo that Kristof met, say they can’t afford $2.50 per month in fees required to keep their kids in school, or a $6 malaria net to protect them from disease. But mom and dad do use cell phones, which cost them $10 per month, and the Mr. Obamza admits to frequenting the local bars, spending around $12 every month on liquor.

Kristof cites a famous study by Esther Duflo and Abhijit Banerjee called The Economic Lives of the Poor: “the world’s poor typically spend about 2 percent of their income educating their children, and often larger percentages on alcohol and tobacco….The indigent also spend significant sums on soft drinks, prostitution and extravagant festivals.”

Kristof is treading into some very emotional territory here, and has stirred up anger among a few bloggers for playing into harmful stereotypes. We definitely condemn any stereotype of all poor African men as deadbeat dads and drunks, but think it’s legitimate to consider that poor people could behave in counterproductive and irrational ways...just like rich people do.

Imagine another columnist writing about a rich white dad driving while talking on his cell-phone after having a few beers, risking the lives of his children in the car. For that matter, who among us makes perfect, rational decisions about our health all the time?

A growing body of work, including the Duflo and Banerjee study and the recent book Portfolios of the Poor, contributes to understanding the complex economic lives of the poor and chips away at misconceptions about poor people having “nothing,” living hand-to mouth, and immediately spending every penny they receive on food and other absolute basic necessities.

Is it really such a big surprise that the poor also want recreation? That the poor have a life? Including some of the same vices that the rich have?

The larger issue is explaining the seeming irrationality of, for example, Mr. Obamza’s decision to spend his evenings in a bar while his children sleep without a mosquito net. Could it be that outsiders make simplistic assumptions about the perceived value of bed nets to people like Mr. Obamza?

For example, a chapter by Michael Kremer and Alaka Holla in the book What Works in Development shows that demand for bed nets (and other life saving technologies like de-worming drugs or water disinfectants) collapses once you change from giving them away for free to charging even a tiny amount. Does this show that some parents don’t think saving their child’s life is worth spending even a very small amount of money? Maybe, but more likely it indicates that there is something wrong with our assumptions, as Kremer and Holla explore.

Perhaps it is that parents do not really believe in the efficacy of nets, drugs, or water purification tablets. Going even further than Kremer and Holla, we speculate that belief in the scientific theories underlying all these products is not so easy to achieve in a poor society. Rich people believe in scientific medicine not only based on their education, but also because they see it working for themselves and everyone around them. Scientific medicine is a harder sell in a society that has never had a well-functioning health system to demonstrate its benefits.

Researchers are testing these and many other possible explanations (here the randomized controlled trials are actually more useful, compared to blanket statements like “nets work”). We are just as worried about stereotyping the poor as anyone else, but we’re also glad the previous taboo is falling. The efficacy of aid interventions depends very much on understanding the behavior of the poor.

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Poor/ Not Poor

How many times have you looked at a picture of a forlorn or sick person in tattered clothing accompanying a news story or plea for aid funds, and wondered about the circumstances surrounding that particular shot? For me, these pictures often create a momentary feeling of intimacy—a privileged view into the most private details of someone’s life—that makes me wonder: What was this person doing a few moments before the photographer arrived? Or an hour later? Did the photographer exchange a few words with her subject, or just snap the shot on her way to somewhere else? A fledgling photography project from Duncan McNicholl, an aid worker with Engineers without Borders Canada working on water and sanitation in Malawi, probes the familiar conventions of poverty porn. In the project he’s calling “Perspectives on Poverty,” Duncan presents two photos of the same subject side by side, “to show how an image can be carefully constructed to present the same person in very different ways.”

From Duncan’s blog post:

Edward [pictured above] is quite successful, both as an area mechanic and through other business initiatives. He grows tobacco, works with a basket weaving business, collects rent from a shop he rents out in the market, and services over 60 water points in his area. Next year, he is thinking of investing in a truck to start a transportation business. He is a great example of how little a thatched roof says about someone’s livelihood.

Edward was pretty excited about the project, but he had a pretty hard time keeping a straight face for the photos of him trying to look "poor." He looked so ridiculous that I’ve included one of the photos in the set. The photos of Bauleni Banda [not pictured here] had the same kind of hilarity, with community members shouting out helpful hints on how to "look more poor." Neither had any trouble putting on their best and looking sharp.

Read his post for more context and check out other pictures here. Looking forward to more as the project progresses.

Hat tip to Owen (whom we’ve cited before for his posts on how PlayPumps are really being used in Malawi), blogging at Barefoot Economics.

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Misunderstandings of Affirmative Action: Supreme Court Edition

I'm poorly qualified to pronounce on Affirmative Action as a general topic. But I do see misunderstandings that overlap with one of my favorite topics: errors in perceiving probabilities. Before you say BORING, let me try to convince you that this is at the heart of the AA debate.

The #1 question about Elena Kagan is "did she get nominated because she's a woman?" There is no way to answer this for one unique case, but we can ask for women in general, do they benefit a lot from AA?

As usual there are two probabilities that are often confused with each other. The first is that IF there is a big promotion because of AA for women, THEN the beneficiary will be a woman. This probability is 100% by definition.

The second probability is that IF you are a woman, THEN you benefit a lot from AA. I leave it to the experts to figure out this exactly, but you don't have to be an expert to know this is a lot lower than 100%. If we are talking about AA primarily affecting promotions to a high position, then this is intrinsically rare for both men and women. It follows that this 2nd probability would be very low, because few women are affected by promotions to highly selective positions.

Yet because we often confuse reverse conditional probabilities (i.e. the two probabilities above), as discussed in many previous posts, we think a lot more women are benefiting from AA (which is perceived to be unfair by many) than really are. Conversely, very few men are really being affected by reverse discrimination (again because highly selective promotions are rare to begin with).

So bottom line of this post: I get really annoyed to see the accomplishments of my female professional friends and colleagues stigmatized because they are seen, most of the time incorrectly, as Affirmative Action babies.

PS One interesting aside relevant for today's previous post. If Kagan is confirmed, the Supreme Court will consist of 6 Catholics and 3 Jews, none of whom would have been considered to fit the core definition of "white" before the mid-19th century in America.

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Before I was white

Nell Irvin Painter is an African-American historian at Princeton. I just finished her fascinating History of White People. The big story is what a slippery category "White" is, and how many today considered "White" used not to be. My German and Scots-Irish ancestors, some of whom probably arrived as indentured servants (i.e. temporary slaves),  were called "guano" (birdsh*t) by Ralph Waldo Emerson in 1851. Emerson of course placed Anglo-Saxon English at the top of the racial hierarchy.

But my ancestors later made it into the top in solidarity against new waves of "black" Irish Catholic immigrants in the mid-19th century, considered to belong to the inferior Celtic race.

Irish Catholics in turn were moved up into whiteness when the "swarthy" southern Europeans and eastern European Jews arrived in the late 19th century and early 20th century. These latter would become "white" in the 20th century, but not before racist hysteria slammed the American immigration door shut just before Jews and others desperately needed to escape from fascism in Europe.

Painter ranges far and wide, detailing efforts to define the poor as a separate race, and poverty a hereditable condition. Not to mention nonsense about skull measurements, and mythical histories of mythical peoples like Saxons, Nordics, and Aryans, all in a desperate attempt to have a bright line between White and non-White.

Now we know that no such line exists, but not before "race experts" spent a couple generations in power in the academic establishment. Good cautionary tale for being careful and modest when we attempt to talk about ethnicity and development today.

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2010 is the International Year of the First World in Need

Threatened by obesity, overconsumption of environmentally unsound mass-produced goods, an aging population with a low birth rate, and socially disruptive clashes between immigrants and existing populations, Western countries have failed to control their problems and desperately need outside intervention. Or at least that’s the partly tongue-in-cheek idea behind Design for the First World (Dx1W), a competition that seeks solutions to the rich world’s most pressing problems from designers and thinkers in the third world. Why? Because “the First World problems demand Simple Third World solutions.” The website elaborates:

We have been focusing our energy and resources on trying to solve our Developing World problems to become more like the First World. But perhaps it is time that we, the so-called Third World minds, focused our energy and creativity on solving some of the First World problems. We will have a brighter future to look forward to, and perhaps this can help us rethink and approach our current problems from a different perspective.

Contest entrants have to choose one of four program areas: “reducing obesity; addressing aging population and low birth rate; reducing consumption rate of mass produced goods; and integrating the immigrant population.” Only people born and currently living in the developing world (the website provides a list, cribbed from the IMF, of countries that qualify) can apply. Entries will be judged by an international panel, and the winner gets a cash prize and space in a New York gallery exhibition.

The contest, created by Carolina Vallejo, a Colombia native and graduate student in NYU’s Interactive Technologies Program, is meant to propose subversive answers to some very familiar and fundamental development-related questions. What does it really mean to be developed? If developed countries have so many problems, are we (developing countries) sure that’s where we want to be heading? Why does the West think they have a monopoly on innovative development solutions?

But the idea that the rest should be saving the West is vulnerable to the same critiques as its inverse. Isn’t it just as easy to misunderstand rich country problems as poor country problems? Should you really lump together Iowa, Iceland, and Italy into one category called “First World”? Contest entrants are born abroad and live abroad, possibly just as removed from and ignorant of the problems they’re designing for as a misguided Idaho missionary is from the “orphans” of post-earthquake Haiti. Does the developing world think we’re just some monolithic mass of non-baby producing, over-consuming, immigrant-hating old people? And hey, are you calling us fat?

One final question: is Dx1W a spoof, or a real contest? Is it supposed to produce real solutions, or just give the West a taste of its own medicine? Ms. Vallejo manages to suggest it’s somehow both at the same time.

Perhaps Dx1W will generate some brilliant ideas. And if not? Well, at least we in the rich West will know what it feels like to be stereotyped and misunderstood.

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Here's one kind of racism you can still enjoy

UPDATE 2, 4/30 4:58pm see end of post for Response to "Glen Beck" comment et al. UPDATE 4/30 4:09PM: see end of post for a GREAT comment on this post from a very knowledgeable person

Most kinds of racism are now thankfully no longer tolerated. However, this doesn’t change the part of human nature that enjoys racism – it allows you to blame all your problems on some despised ethnic minority. So racism may have just gone underground to pop up in unexpected places. The old templates are still around -- an ethnic minority that has sinister intentions to harm everyone else, complete with conspiracy theories of hidden plots to consolidate their own secret control of society.

 One example is virulent prejudice against a group I will call “the X’s”. There is a website with a game called “Shoot the X’s”.  The X’s are trying to “suck the last bits of meat from the carcass” of society, but they are “running out of things to steal.” The X’s rig everything in their own interest: they “simply cannot lose.” Their “barefaced greed” simply “beggars belief.” They commit “blasphemy” that is “worthy of the 7th circle of hell.”

“Power is concentrated in the hands of a few key” X’s, the group of which “has also proved itself brilliantly capable of enlisting the power of the state to help along the process of concentrating economic might.” At a meeting “never announced publicly,” which “included virtually everyone who was anyone” among the X’s, they achieved a further “monstrous consolidation of financial and political power.” The “burglar” X’s ethnic group “now rules the national economy.”

It is now time to strike back: “put the greedy X’s in stocks.” "If you pressed a rifle into the hand of the man in the street,” he would surely choose to shoot the X’s.

Who are the X’s? If the X’s were Jews, this would all sound like quotes from the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In fact these quotes seem uncannily similar in general to the virulent anti-Semitism that flourished in Europe before World War II (and still flourishes in some places around the world).  

Some of you have probably already guessed the identity of the X’s. The  X’s in the above quotes are the "race" of  financiers/bankers.  You can feel prejudice against an occupationally-defined race just as much as against an ethnically-defined race (and the two often overlap because some ethnic minorities are overrepresented in some occupations). Let’s call this form of racism “bankism.” As the previous post pointed out, bankism has a long and not very attractive history.

(The original sources for the above quotes are articles in Rolling Stone, Mother Jones, the Telegraph (UK), and the Times (UK)  -- the lastquoting others, not the author speaking . The web site is "Shoot the Banker").

No, I am not predicting genocide against bankers any time soon (although a joke wishing for such genocide would probably get an appreciative laugh). Bankism is destructive for many other reasons. Like other forms of racism, bankism feeds hatred towards the whole group because of the misdeeds of a few of its members. We are seeing the equivalent of Willie Horton ads to feed bankism. Most financiers are honest individuals performing socially useful services; promoting hatred of them is not a good thing.

Politically, bankism creates a distorted narrative where an economic disaster is blamed on the malevolence of a few specific individuals, rather than defects in the systemic incentives in which myriads of individuals interact. This fuels political responses that are irrationally punitive, rather than a rational attempt to correct perverse incentives. So crisis prevention will be unsuccessful, the next crisis will feed bankism further, and where will it all end?

Better to face up to the latest form of racism now, and stigmatize it just as much as the old forms of racism.

UPDATE 4/30 4:09pm

Great comment from a very knowledgeable finance professional:

The “shoot the bankers” strategy is a diversionary tactic that avoids dealing with who allowed this to happen … the FED and SEC, who are being given MORE power and MORE discretion and LESS oversight, and Congress … who were bought off by bankers and the GSEs.  If I were a banker, I would say fine … have a good shout, satisfy the public, but don’t really change the rules that allow me to make lots of money while gambling with other people’s money and while enjoying a government guarantee.

UPDATE 2 4/30, 4:59pm. Wow, today I seemed to have a Gordon Brown moment in this post. Kind of bewildered and surprised to have set off so many land mines and wind up next to Glenn Beck.  

Me the cloistered intellectual reading my history of economic and political thought books can unintentionally mumble some code words that cause immediate classification into some extreme ideological box that I didn't even know existed.

I had actually never watched Glenn Beck before being called a Glenn Beck. I went and checked out a few video clips and saw that he apparently likes to call lots of people racists and Nazis and so on. Sorry, didn't know that.

The point of this post and in the previous post was the historical continuity over many centuries in demonizing the group of financiers as malevolent individuals, and the parallels and sometime overlap with racist speech.

Apparently this came across as really insensitive and unfair to two groups: (1) the victims of racism, and (2) people who have a genuine beef with a screwed up financial system (which is basically all of us). Sorry for being insensitive -- I am not implying bankers are the equivalent of lynching victims or Holocaust victims, and I am not implying that all critics of finance are the equivalent of racists.

On (2), I tried already to say, but let me try again to say, that antipathy to finance is a mixture of irrational and rational anger, and I am just trying to point out the historically venerable and important irrational component.

Another part of the problem is my weakness for provocative titles and Tweets, and then people react only to those and not to the nuances in the actual post.

So, sorry, Aid Watchers, I didn't get it quite right today, and I appreciate the feedback. Be sure to check out the Seinfeld "anti-dentite" clip in one of the comments.

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How early 20th century African artists did mockingly stereotypical images of whites

At a time when Europeans and Americans were trafficking in lots of racist stereotypes of Africans, it's nice to know some Africans were returning the favor. This picture is of a drum from Congo. The stereotype: white men wear hats and drink a lot. The irony: making out a drum out of a severely rhythm-challenged white man.

From Chris Blattman's Blog.

This by a Yoruba  mocks whites for public displays of affection and keeping a dog as a pet, both of which seemed ridiculous to Yorubas.

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Another blog criticizes a video by a certain famous economist

Update 4/13/10: see Aid Watch post above From ICTWorks.org post:

Sachs has a new video out about ending global poverty, and I find it very disturbing.....Sachs (and all the white people) sitting in very nice, even posh settings, but black people are filmed from a car in poverty settings. Does that mean we can take time and get face-to-face with whites, but best to stay in the car and drive by black people quickly?

Speaking of animals, what's up with the cameos of wild animals? Are they counted in global poverty numbers? Or does Sachs feel all of Africa is zebras and giraffes?

While his narration is palatable, I am really disappointed in the video work - too many stereotypes he should know better than to promote.

The video is on the blog site.

Needless to say, any opinions expressed here are those of another blog and do not necessarily represent the opinions of Aid Watch,  its bloggers, its sponsors, or any blood relative or social acquaintance of any of the above.

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Famine Africa stereotype porn shows no letup

The UN takes the photographer to the "hungriest place on earth", Akobo, South Sudan (HT Wronging Rights). Then

The aid groups Save the Children and Medair have canvassed the Akobo community over the last week, searching for the hungriest children.

And surprise: you get the most horrific images possible of starving children, to be featured prominently on the Huffington Post, which reinforces the Western stereotype of "famine Africa."

An equivalent procedure would represent New Yorkers by the most horrific images possible of the homeless. But we don't do that because we don't have the stereotype that typical New Yorkers are homeless.

At least now I can update my references for my Africa class on disaster porn, which had relied on an old quote from Alex de Waal's classic book, Famine Crimes:

{Television producer in Somalia in 1992-93 said to Somali doctor}: “pick the children who are most severely malnourished” {to be photographed}

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Is it OK to make ethnic slurs about some groups of white people?

For tonight's NCAA basketball showdown between U of Kentucky and West Virginia U, I bet the Kentuckians Dennis Whittle and April Harding some West Virginia maple syrup against Dennis' bet of a country ham and April's bet of a Derby pie. Of course, some of  you are thinking why didn't you bet {insert insulting Appalachian stereotype here}?

Both Kentucky and West Virginia suffer from frequent ethnic jokes involving some combination of:

  • incest
  • feuds
  • moonshine
  • reference to movie Deliverance (which actually takes place in Georgia)

Which makes me wonder, why is still OK to make ethnic slurs against some groups of people as long as they are white? Perhaps it reflects this furious pent up demand by white people for  ethnic slurs, cruelly thwarted by the civil rights movement (also known as "political correctness" if you  were not a big fan of the civil rights movement).  I've had people tell me insulting jokes about West Virginians even AFTER they know I was born in West Virginia.

Of course,  ethnic slurs are pretty universal around the world. Latin American soccer games are famous for having fans taunt the visiting team with ethnic slurs.

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The leader bias – for example, this blog

One of our many cognitive biases is to give too much credit for a group undertaking to the leader (or most visible member) of the group. I could illustrate that with how country leaders get too much credit for development success, how firm CEOs get too much credit, how soloists and conductors get too much credit relative to the orchestra … but I want to use the example of ME getting too much credit … for this blog. This is of course assuming that you like this blog (if you don’t, then I DO deserve all the blame).

What I really want to do here is to give well-deserved and long overdue credit to my fellow blogger, Development Research Institute Associate Director Laura Freschi. She has sole-authored many of the biggest hits here on the blog, including pieces on Do Millennium Villages Work? and History Matters.  The piece on Haiti Earthquake Relief was our 3rd most popular ever, and it was done while I was on vacation. She has co-authored many pieces with me in which she more than carried her share of the load. Behind the scenes, she manages the blog, ran the Best and Worst contest, does a lot of research, finds great guest contributors, and exerts her street smarts and good judgment to restrain Yours Truly from some ill-considered posts.

Yet despite all this, I have often gotten comments (usually favorable) on her posts that are attributed to ME as if I had written them. During the big critical discussion on the Aid Watch blog that we had last week, all the praise and blame was aimed at me alone (again the attribution of blame was correct, but not the praise). Admittedly, this discussion was partly about my personal tone, but Laura’s important role in the Aid Watch blog overall was overlooked. (And even on my personal tone, I would have been in even more trouble with some of you critics if she had not been a restraining and balancing influence).

Maybe I have been acting in some way that hogs all the attention, but if so, I want to correct that now. Please get over the leader bias on this blog, this blog too is a small spontaneous order in which everyone is contributing – and so here I say, thank you, Laura.

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Defending my homeboy Hayek from Freakonomics

Justin Wolfers has an amusing Freakonomics piece describing how anti-government conservatives are trying to use state intervention to get the anti-statist Friedrich Hayek taught in high school economics classes. Wolfers is completely right that this episode exposes the hypocrisy of these intellectual censors. (My favorite Mark Twain quote: “In the first place God made idiots. This was for practice. Then he made School Boards.”)

But after that Wolfers goes astray, piling on Hayek as just intellectually unworthy in general. Wolfers uses shaky exercises like number of citations in electronic academic journal archives. He says Larry Summers has as many citations as Hayek, so why not teach Larry Summers to high-schoolers? (not such a bad idea, actually).

Young Wolfers may not know the history of censorship of Hayek in the other direction. When I was in graduate school in The Middle Ages, Hayek was seen as so Far Right that you would be considered a nut to read him.

Since then, many more economists have realized that was extremely unfair to Hayek, including guess who, Larry Summers:

What's the single most important thing to learn from an economics course today? What I tried to leave my students with is the view that the invisible hand is more powerful than the [un]hidden hand. Things will happen in well-organized efforts without direction, controls, plans. That's the consensus among economists. That's the Hayek legacy.{{1}}

Hayek, who once wrote an essay called “Why I am not a conservative” was prescient in appreciating something that is much more trendy today, the idea of “spontaneous order” (Silicon Valley geeks write about a book a week on some aspect of the Internet being a spontaneous order.) My favorite Hayek quote gives a lot of insight into why development has been so hard to engineer from the top down:

It is because every individual knows so little and… because we rarely know which of us knows best that we trust the independent and competitive efforts of many to induce the emergence of what we shall want when we see it.

This reliance on individual spontaneity and creativity (and here we could include political entrepreneurs who achieve new and better ways to deliver public goods) is threatening to two very specific political factions:

  • the Right
  • the Left

Hayek knew that the Right was hypocritical about individual rights as much as the Left. The latter dictates what you can’t do in the market, the former wants to dictate almost everything else.

Although Wolfers doesn’t do this, many readers of his blog will fall for that classic trick, the Reverse Ideological Rejection: because ideologues like Hayek, therefore I should (ideologically) reject Hayek. This is in the same class as “Hitler liked Wagner’s Ring, therefore I should hate Wagner’s Ring.”

It’s sad that Hayek has been the victim of so many violations of the intellectual freedom for which he was one of the most eloquent and courageous spokesmen ever.

[[1]]quoted in The Commanding Heights: The Battle Between Government and the Marketplace that Is Remaking the Modern World, by Daniel Yergin and Joseph Stanislaw. New York: Simon & Schuster. 1998, pp. 150–151. (Thank you Wikipedia!)[[1]]

UPDATE:  my hometown newspaper The Village Voice has a blog post on how the Texas school board caused the "right-wing blogosphere" to light up. (HT to HayekCenter.org) It includes the Hayek controversy:

{The blog response} bodes well for conservative attempts to keep libertarians on board: Apparently all you have to do is give props to their favorite economists, and they'll go along with anything you want.

I am deservedly too obscure to be quoted in this story, but I guess the Voice hasn't heard about the whole "Hayek: I am not a conservative" thing. Also I'm not sure anyone at the Voice has never met a real libertarian, a group that is NOT disposed to "going along with anything you want."

UPDATE 2: Jacob T. Levy's blog takes on Wolfers on measuring Hayek's citation count versus other economists.  To make a long story short, there was a problem counting Hayek's because of the many variations on his first name(s), and once you correct for this he is in the same league as Milton Friedman and beyond Larry Summers.

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Debating Sachs: the Next Generation

I am reluctant these days to post any criticisms of Jeff Sachs, since I know many people are tired of this never-ending back and forth. But I make an exception when my own daughter asks me to take him on. I want to protect her privacy and not involve her directly in what is at times a nasty debate, so let me just says she is a college junior who has studied and thought a lot about the environment. I have listened to her and learned a lot from her, but anything I say here is my own opinion and I don't want to or claim to represent her opinion.

Sachs' opinion column that provoked her was in the March 2010 issue of Scientific American. Sachs is impatient with the political process in the US on Climate Change and invokes the neutral technocratic solution:

Let’s hear more from the president’s science adviser, John P. Holdren, Nobel laureate energy secretary Steven Chu, the National Academy of Sciences and other authorities. The public will learn to appreciate that the scientific community is working urgently, rigorously and ingeniously to better understand the complex climate system, for our shared safety and well-being.

Except, just as in Sachs' approach to ending global poverty, there is no such thing as a neutral technocratic solution. Sachs' solution sounds instead patronizing and top-down.  Any such solution has winners and losers, and the politically powerless poor at the bottom are more likely to be among the losers  ( What about the poor in West Virginia who see their streams polluted and their mountaintops removed to get "clean coal"?)

More generally, and closer to my usual debate with Sachs: Why should the solution to global warming be decided by rich country technocrats? Is this an environmental version of the White Man's Burden, that rich country environmentalists patronizingly impose their solutions on the rest of the world?

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