Very good indeed awesome sentences about economic method

by on January 9, 2016 at 3:23 am in Economics, Education, Law, Political Science | Permalink

At the end of the day, the great benefit of field experiments to economics and political scientists is that it’s forced some of the best social scientists to try to get complicated things done in unfamiliar places, and deal with all the constraints, bureaucrats, logistics, and impediments to reform you can imagine.

Arguably, the tacit knowledge these academics have developed about development and reform will be more influential to their long run work and world view than the experiments themselves.

That is from Chris Blattman.  He concludes:

We are all Albert Hirschman now.

1 So Much For Subtlety January 9, 2016 at 6:30 am

I remember the good old days of Dependency Theory. I would think that China has simply blown this field apart. Or it should have, but I expect most people in the field are busy ignoring it.

China simply liberalized its markets. The Beijing Consensus is just the Washington Consensus but with more torture. Yet liberalization is not enough because a lot of people did that and it did not work for them. So development studies needs to be less about economics and more about comparative cultural studies. The problem with that is that what works in Ghana won’t work in Peru or be applicable in Baltimore.

Is he right that more people will move into political science? Given its near perfect record for being wrong or irrelevant, I would hope not. There are an infinite number of ways of being wrong when it comes to running an economy. Western academics seem determined to explore and support them all. But if each unhappy economy is wrong in its own way, does that mean that all happy economies are alike?

2 Gochujang January 9, 2016 at 10:03 am

He is talking about running experiments though, and certainly tests can be run, refined. You can repeat the Ghana experiment in Boston.

It is a huge improvement that, as he says, we are becoming more data driven and listening less to ideological stalwarts. Mankiw vs Krugman is so last century.

3 So Much For Subtlety January 9, 2016 at 3:37 pm

You could repeat the Ghana experiment in Boston but as culture clearly does matter, it would have little meaning. It will not work in Ghana the way it does in Boston because people, all other things being the same, are not the same.

I am unconvinced being data-driven is helpful. This is just physics envy again. Economics has been down this route of producing unreadable and irrelevant quasi-mathematics. Political Science is following them. I doubt a single econ book of any importance has ever been written with a reasonable number of equations in it. Hirschman wrote books worth reading. Not a lot of data. So did Adam Smith.

4 Gochujang January 9, 2016 at 4:02 pm

The point of experiment is to test our assumptions

5 China Cat January 10, 2016 at 10:57 am

Yes, yes, yes, SMFS.

6 Aaron J January 9, 2016 at 12:08 pm

His point is that economists and political scientists actually have to deal with bureaucracy to get their experiments done now, which itself could be beneficial. This first hand experience could affect their views/scholarship/

7 DaveTh January 9, 2016 at 10:33 am

“… forced some of the best social scientists to try to get complicated things done…”

Sounds more like an indictment of Ivory-Tower economists & political scientists– clueless academics meet the real world.

Can anyone cite one of these landmark “field experiments” that clearly produced “great benefits” to economics?

8 Gochujang January 9, 2016 at 10:40 am

Were the field experiments meant to benefit “economics?”

I think things like the Behavioral Insights Team have more modest and direct goals, and that is good.

(Possibly some direct giving experiments have confirmed some development economics, but that is secondary to the goal.)

9 rayward January 9, 2016 at 10:44 am

Blattman’s point is that “the big benefit to social science [from field experiments] is not the quality of the final research paper that results” or “the causal estimates themselves” but rather the experiences of the researchers; and he believes the likely outcome from the experiences will be “to grow the number of economists doing comparative politics”. In other words, it’s the knowledge gained from a combination (collaboration) of the social sciences including economics but also history, anthropology, political science, psychology, and sociology. Of course, Piketty’s criticism of many economists is that they ignore the other social sciences and, instead, focus only on “the causal estimates themselves”.

10 Hmmmmmmmm January 9, 2016 at 11:27 am

Out of lurk to thank you for the mention of Albert Hirschman. MR delivers another powerful idea to this non-economist.

11 Axolotl Jones January 9, 2016 at 12:21 pm

Albert Hirschman is always worth reading. I particularly recommend a skinny little book called “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.”

12 Skeptic January 9, 2016 at 11:39 am

If Blattman’s assertion is true, a year in the Peace Corps should provide a much cheaper and faster route to Albert Hirschman-hood than a multi million dollar experiment to nowhere. IShould economists be required to spend a year of service before they get a PhD, or better yet, before they choose a dissertation topic?

Tyler: “If you could make one change to help produce more Dani Rodriks for all the rest of us, what would that be?”

Rodrik: I think anything that would get them a little bit more cognizant of the problems of the real world. […] I don’t know. Maybe a gap year, spending a year in a developing country between your first and second year?”

13 Adrian Ratnapala January 10, 2016 at 2:32 am

Do people in the peace core really try get stuff done? I mean do they try to set up some charity/company/scheme and they then have to negotiate their way through the beneficiaries, government officials, suppliers etc? That sounds like work for grownups, not kids straight out of school.

14 Marcel watson January 10, 2016 at 8:50 am

Maybe we should think of the peace corps as a “model” of action in the real world, it does not need all the details, just the minimum necessary features to yield some potentially valuable results.

15 chrisare January 9, 2016 at 12:49 pm

So fieldwork’s greatest benefit is that it’s a field trip? Surely there’s better and more cost effective ways to get real world experience in development then managing a survey.

16 Faria January 9, 2016 at 1:08 pm

It’s not just the field trip, it’s about getting in touch with actual actors and actual policy making, dealing with practical problems, from bureaucracy to logistics to specific cultural, techincal and other features that a good RCT researcher will necessarely deal with when understanding data. Just spending a year abroad wouldn’t produce a remotely similar expecience than the actual research.

17 chrisare January 9, 2016 at 1:28 pm

But field experiments mostly involve survey work and not the kind of qualitative research that would regularly expose researchers to those meaningful interactions with policy makers.

It sounds like in fact Blattman is making the case that the greatest benefit of field experiments is ironically something that the researcher is exposed to much more in a non experimental setting.

18 Quien January 9, 2016 at 1:26 pm

Once again, relatively powerful individuals from rich countries go to the tropics to help the natives, and wnd up helping themselves.

Or, the most expensive education ever, which includes not only the $$$ to run the experiment, but the native’s time as well.

Colonialism: is history repeating itself as comedy yet?

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