An anthropologist views popular development economics

by on July 4, 2011 at 7:14 am in Economics | Permalink

By Mike McGovern, via Chris Blattman, this was an excellent piece (pdf), mostly on Paul Collier, excerpt:

What is striking to me as an anthropologist, however, is that much of the fundamental intellectual work in Collier’s analyses is, in fact, ethnographic. Because it is not done very self-consciously and takes place within a larger econometric rhetoric in which such forms of knowledge are dismissed as “subjective” or worse still biased by the political (read “leftist”) agendas of the academics who create them, it is often ethnography of a low quality.

…However, it is precisely the epistemological solipsism of his morality tale that exposes its greatest analytical weaknesses at the same time that it best explains why it appeals to a broad audience that has genuine interest in understanding suffering in poor countries even while it has little interest in having its sense of its own well-merited success questioned.

Read the whole thing, many of the best parts resist short excerpts.

1 Millian July 4, 2011 at 9:48 am

“Excellent” is over-stating the quality.

“Bound as it is to the model of the natural sciences, economics cannot accept that there might be two incommensurable but equally valuable ways of explaining a given group of data points. … Paul Collier, William Easterly, and Jeffrey Sachs can all be tenured professors and heads of research institutes, despite the fact that on many points, if one of them were definitively right, one or both of their colleagues would have to be wrong. If economics really were like a natural science, this would not be the case.”

Isn’t this passage a contradiction in terms? It is more like a list of contradictory criticisms of economics, the kind we are all familiar with from people like anthropologists, than an “excellent” critique.

2 Sebastian July 4, 2011 at 12:16 pm

Millian – you cut out a key phrase and thus misunderstand the point.
“Objectively speaking, this is what happens.”

McGovern’s point is that economists act as if they’re an exact science, but there really is a lot of other stuff going on that resembles less exact disciplines – and the problem is that they’re not aware of it and they’re doing it in a black box, so they’re doing it badly (the low quality ethnography in Tyler’s excerpt).
Anthropology spent a lot of time obsessing over these aspects in the past and I still feel that anthropologists are frequently way to self-referential in their writing – but I think McGovern is dead right that economists would benefit from some more self-awareness and humility.

3 Millian July 4, 2011 at 4:39 pm

Um, no. He first says that economists can’t accept the existence of multiple, different views. Then he notes the existence of multiple economists with different views. Apologies for my lack of humility, but I suggest that means his first claim about economists is dead wrong.

4 Sebastian July 4, 2011 at 4:55 pm

you’re just not reading thoroughly enough – he says that there is a contradiction between economics as a discipline modeled after natural science and the existence of multiple, successful economists with incommensurable views. He’s clearly not saying that there aren’t economists with incommensurable views – he can’t be saying that because he shows that he knows that those economists exist.

5 Thomas July 4, 2011 at 12:40 pm

The main problem with this essay is that it picks the worst that development economics has to offer, namely cross-country studies, and claims it to be representative of the whole discipline. The author’s main criticism is that Collier’s work confuses correlation with causation. Most modern development economists would agree. Proving causation has been the number one obsession of empirical (development) economics for more than a decade and great progress has been made. It would have been much more interesting if the author had chosen to pick on work which is not already 20 years past its sell-by date.

6 Sebastian July 4, 2011 at 7:51 pm

It’s kind of hard to deny, though, that Collier has enormous influence, especially in policy circles. And since most of the work by the RCT crowd addresses more micro issues, they have little to say on the types of policies that Collier advances – there haven’t been any RCTs on peace keeping missions I’m aware of, for example.
Given that it seems perfect legit to look at Colliers work – McGovern may go a little far in some places in talking about “development economists” instead of “some development economists,” but that really doesn’t take away from his points about Collier.

7 Thomas July 5, 2011 at 9:16 am

I completely agree with your points. I actually think the essay is quite good and mostly spot on. I just think it would be interesting to see what a good anthropologist would make of good development economics as opposed to the sloppy (but, as you say, influential) kind. Also, i got the feeling that the author is completely unaware that there are other branches of empirical economics which take causation very seriously as he seems to think his criticisms apply to “development economics” in general and at some point even claims they apply to other popular economics books such as Freakonomics (whose authors are pretty serious about causation too).

8 Keith July 4, 2011 at 3:54 pm

Seconding Thomas, one wonders if McGovern has ever even heard of Esther Duflo. He certain doesn’t seem to mention parts of Collier’s books that go into certain natural and quasi-experiments that more finely nail down causation.

9 finzent July 4, 2011 at 4:32 pm

“The author’s main criticism is that Collier’s work confuses correlation with causation.”

I don’t think that’s true. I took his main criticism to be that Collier presents a lot of interesting correlations, but a) often takes them to just imply causation in a way which fits his model without backing it up or b) presents plausible, but fragile explanations about why the causation holds, which are backed up by intuitive whims or terrible anthropology. Even if there is causation in the direction that Collier takes for granted, the criticism is that Collier messes up the explanation for why the causation holds. The point is that this explanation is the more important part of the story, especially when Collier wants to derive policy recommendations from his work.

10 k July 5, 2011 at 8:19 am

And this is different from other empirical work in economics how?

Even the RCTs leave the mechanism underpinning the working of the “model” within a black box.

11 finzent July 5, 2011 at 10:01 am

“And this is different from other empirical work in economics how?”

Why is this relevant?

If there’s, say, a link between slow growth and violent conflict, you’ve got to have a decent theory of why that link holds. Otherwise the only prescription derived from that insight becomes “grow more!”, which is recommended anyway, pretty hard to administer and might even miss the real cause of conflict. McGovern gives a lot of very convincing reasons for why Colliers explanations are extremely questionable.

12 TGGP July 4, 2011 at 10:14 pm

My guess is that Easterly would be somewhat less vulnerable to McGovern’s critique, if only because he spends so much time criticizing the “fatal conceit” of knowledge among economists like Collier rather than presenting many vulnerable claims of his own. And despite the way that might sound, I should note that I preferred “The White Man’s Burden” to “The Bottom Billion” even as I found that the two weren’t as far apart as I initially expected reading Easterly.

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