the political methologist blog on high quality graphics
February 3, 2016
There are a number of problems with this Medium hit. (“The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems”)
1. The magnitude of the issue — sure it’s like, totally, unhip to naively want to help people. But how significant are the problems it causes? In the scheme of things (Syria, climate change, Ted Cruz…)? Really?
2. The counter factual — people caring about other people in dopey ways may be cringe-worthy, and ineffectual. But it still comes from one of the better, and fragile, sides of human nature (contrast, the couldn’t give a shit and hate that most people express towards Syrian refugees). I’m no ethicist but in the scheme of things, being a dope seems less bad than being bad or simply not caring.
3. The change process — if tut tutting on the internet achieves anything I suspect it’s most likely to stop people caring, than making them more practical.
4. Selecting on the dependent variable — Play Pump is a disaster, but it’s not the only case of people naively going to a developing country thinking they had the solution. I once went to a talk by a New Zealand midwife who’d gone to Vietnam and advised midwives there on the correct procedure for complicated births (my simplification), and saved many, many lives as a result. Quite probably Play Pump is a more representative case, but I wouldn’t draw too many conclusions from one side of the ledger alone.
5. Ignoring the evidence — Tom’s shoes. Sounds awful on the surface. But the best available evidence does not suggest the idea has had particularly bad impacts.
6. Orders of magnitude — The blog castigates people for wanting to solve problems overseas rather than in the United States (a proxy for the developed source country in general). But what’s wrong with this? The (cruelly low) US poverty line is somewhere in the vicinity of $12-16 PPP per day. Many (in the poorest countries, most) people in the developing world live off less than $2.50 PPP per day (these figures are consumption, not income so include subsistence income). The need is greater elsewhere. And this, unless you think, the moral worth of non-American lives is less than that of Americans, is pretty good reason to try and help where the need is greatest. It is true that you may be more effective helping at home, although my guess is that if you’re a white middle class kid in the US the problems of the ghetto are going to be every bit as foreign and complex for you as the problems of Mali. This shouldn’t stop you from doing important things in the US (or New Zealand, or Australia), especially casting your vote for the right political party. But it does mean that there’s no automatic case for prioritising helping at home over helping abroad. (To be fair this point is recognised in the piece, but to my read it’s recognised then ignored.)
The blog does make some good points. In particular:
“But don’t go because you’ve fallen in love with solvability. Go because you’ve fallen in love with complexity.
Don’t go because you want to do something virtuous. Go because you want to do something difficult.
Don’t go because you want to talk. Go because you want to listen.”
Here I agree, both with the specifics and the important point about complexity. Development is complex. But that is true on the donor side too. Few people participate with perfect motives. But is hip scold-blogging going to solve much?
January 4, 2016
A common pastime in the more self-righteous parts of the development chattersphere is tut-tutting about the way poor people are portrayed in NGO ads. It’s nice to feel holier than someone else. But, if you want to help, it is better to think about why things are the way they are, and what the alternatives are. From the New Yorker:
[W]hen we become swept up in powerful narrative, our reason often falls by the wayside. Paul Zak, a neuroeconomist at Claremont Graduate University and the director of its Center for Neuroeconomics Studies, studies the power of story in our daily interactions with friends, strangers, books, television, and other media. Repeatedly, he has found that nothing makes us receptive, emotionally and behaviorally, quite like narrative flow.
In one study, Zak and his colleagues asked people to watch a video in which a father talks about his child. “Ben’s dying,” the father tells the camera as it pans to a carefree two-year-old boy in the background. He goes on to say that Ben has a brain tumor that, in a matter of months, will end his life. The father says that he has resolved to stay strong, for the sake of his family, as painful as the coming weeks will be. The camera fades to black. Watching the film prompted about half of the viewers donate money to a cancer charity.
Zak didn’t just ask people to watch “Ben’s Story,” as he calls it. He had them watch it together, while his team monitored their neural activity, specifically the levels of certain hormones released from the brain into the blood. For the most part, the people who watched the video released oxytocin, a hormone that has been associated with empathy, bonding, and sensitivity to social cues. Those who released the hormone also reliably donated to charity, even though there was no pressure to do so.
Next, Zak switched the story around. Now Ben and his dad were at the zoo. Ben was bald. His dad called him “Miracle Boy.” But there was no real story arc, mention of cancer, or discussion of death. The people who watched Ben now drifted away from the story. Their arousal signs fell. They donated little or no money. They also felt less happy and empathetic than those who had seen the original story.
There’s no evidence NGOs are able to change this aspect of human nature. So the question is: do you really think the world would be a better place if they didn’t use the most effective advertising available?
January 1, 2016
Utopia or Bust is eloquent. I share Benjamin Kunkel’s despair with the world we live in. There has been some social improvement in some places, and a lot of technological progress. But we ought to be able to do much better than we do. We ought to live in a fairer world that parcels out the fruits of our technologies in ways that raises most people’s well-being to levels a lot higher than they are today. We ought to end discrimination. The trouble with Utopia or Bust is it provides no cause to believe we can. Instead there are Marxist literary critics (yawn), the contradictions of David Harvey, the confusions of Slavoj Žižek, and so on.
Meanwhile, history and theory give us very good cause to believe there are no utopias to be had. Look at those dreamed up to date:
(Setting aside racist lunacy that is clearly evil) the main right wing utopian doctrine is libertarianism, where the state is a ‘night watchman’ (or in some variants—which could only seem plausible after smoking something—non-existent, replaced by competing security firms). The state provides for private property rights, protects against invasion and does nothing else. Taxes are low, bludgers are gone, economic growth is spectacular. What’s not to like? A lot. There is no evidence that the main driver of economic growth is incentives born of low taxes. In reality much of the technological change that drives growth has come from government investment. And the individual genius that brings new ideas comes from being well and well-educated. Nothing suggests a libertarian utopia will maximise these attributes, except for a fortunate few. Being well and well-educated have non-instrumental worth too: they are part of the good life. And history has shown that some pubic provision is needed to extend such welfare to most people in a society. Then there’s the issue of the environment. How does a libertarian government take care of common pool resources? On the basis of my limited exposure, most libertarians simply deny the issues exist, although I’ve also heard of the idea of issuing private property rights for every known common pool resource, including the air we breathe. Can you imagine the bureaucracy? Ah freedom! The final hurdle for libertarianism is that could never be democratic—have a look at election results, libertarian parties never perform well, presumably because most voters sensibly like at least some of what their governments do. So if libertarianism were ever to come about it would be by imposition. Imposed freedom. Moving along…
Libertarianism’s distant relative (not on speaking terms) on the left is anarchism. Which, strictly speaking, means the absence of the state, and the absence of private property rights. Anarchist collective action is based around cooperation, anarchist production around non-excusive title to resources. (I say strictly speaking because quite often anarchism is defined by what it is against—i.e. ‘the state, when the state is unjust’ rather than what it’s for. Seeing as this blog is about alternatives, I will ignore such antagonistic definitions.) The big problem with anarchism (as defined) is that we aren’t a cooperative enough species to be able to engage in large scale collective action without some coercion and rules—in other words a state. One alternative would be a world of villages and bands. A world free of states! But it also wouldn’t be a utopia. It would, plus some legacy technologies from the bygone age of states, be most of human history. It would be bereft of the specialisation that trade allows. It wouldn’t be free of predation between groups. It’s also likely there would be coercion within groups too. We aren’t that nice a creature. Perhaps aware of all this, many anarchists spend more time decrying the evils of the state than they do talking about how their alternative would work. They’re right that many states are abysmal and even the best are far from perfect. But far from perfect is a lot better than a return to life in villages or hunter-gatherer bands.
Communism barely needs a mention any more. Nevertheless (with respect to how it actually existed, rather than Marx’s effectively anarchist end-stage): a state which is almost entirely the government brings with it a big risk of the over-concentration of power (Stalin, Mao, etc.) Perhaps this could be offset by coupling communism with robust democratic institutions. But communism usually has very strong internal opponents meaning it’s not clear that this could actually, practically, happen, prior to these opponents being crushed. And history suggests once states acquire a taste for crushing, it takes a long time for them to lose it. Radially remaking a society would also require more than one electoral term, so I would imagine that any genuinely communist government would be very tempted to do away with elections. Even if communism could deal with issues of power, there remains the problem of the inefficiencies of a state-planned economy. States aren’t able to aggregate information as adroitly as markets do. One option would be to couple communism (a very muscular state, collectively owned means of productions) with markets. I concede I don’t know how well this worked out for Tito (although I’m guessing not that well on the basis of the fact his vision, not to mention Yugoslavia, no longer exists), but on the basis of the present I think the most likely outcome of a muscular state and markets, would be accompanying concentrations of wealth—and, ultimately the end of popular control of the means of production. Something that looks a lot like today’s China, which is better than Mao’s China, but hardly a workers’ paradise.
This ought to be the point where I start clucking happily about social democracy as the best option we’ve found. But that’s hard to do too. Be it 1970s style muscular social democracy, or today’s third way, social democracy has never been able to muster quite enough tax revenue to provide social services that are as good as they could be, and its social safety net is always threadbare. It works quite well for the voting middle class, but not nearly as well for those on the periphery. It is also not that democratic. Economic inequality brings political inequality. And human failings to do with the way we see ‘others’ often see voters distracted by non-issues (from the perspective of their own welfare) such as refugees, rather than real issues (inequality, climate change). There are things we don’t talk about but should (raising taxes to provide for good health care into the future). There are things we talk far too much about but needn’t (should gays be allowed to get married; of course they should; it astounds me that opposition to this basic right exists). The only real defence of social democracy that it is (to paraphrase Paul Krugman, paraphrasing Churchill) the least worst system we’ve come up with.
For now, least-worst is a tolerable place. As Steven Radelet, Charles Kenny, and Steven Pinker show in recent books, in part because of the gifts technology has brought, in part because of genuine social change associated with the near miraculous, but frighteningly fragile, expansion of humans’ spheres of concern, and in part because of our ability to muddle through, life for most of the people on our planet is better than it has ever been.
Yet the big questions remain. Will this continue? (Only good luck prevented the cold war from becoming a nuclear war. We aren’t doing enough to prevent climate change The world’s sole superpower is a mess.) And can’t we do better? Make our countries more caring, our democracies more deliberative, our power more diluted?
And, if we can, how?
If there’s a left wing book that seriously, and non-dogmatically, asks that question, I would be a very eager reader.
December 14, 2015
Ian MacKaye, from the United States in the midst of the Iraq War, hitting the patriotism nail on the head:
And patriotism is a loathsome quality. Because to be a patriot means you have to support the kind of ugliness and violence that is being encouraged all over the world at this moment. Please count me an unpatriot forever.
December 2, 2015
Paul Krugman on Robert Reich. (p.s. didn’t Krugman once hate Reich?)
November 25, 2015
Following the Australian government’s cuts to aid earlier this year, a number of public opinion polls showed broad support for these cuts, including polls reported as showing even Greens voters were in favour of cutting aid. We weren’t convinced. And we wanted to see what would happen when people were asked about these cuts in possession of accurate information, while also confronted with policy trade-offs…
[Read the rest of this post at the Devpolicy blog.]
November 24, 2015
In analysis I conducted with colleagues last year on Australian’s support for aid we found something that surprised us. Contrary to what we’d expected, more religious parts of Australia were home to less support for aid (everything else being equal).
This year with new survey data I got to dig into matters more. On a first cut I found something similar: on average religious Australians supported aid less than non-religious Aussies. Yet when I broke religion down into categories based on frequency of attendance of service I ran into another surprise. Read about this surprise (as well as other attributes associated with support for Australian aid) here on the Devpolicy blog.
November 19, 2015
…does a nice job of summing up how parts of the Australian commentariat get the vile thing on real good.
November 18, 2015
This was going to be the first sentence of my most recent blog post on the Devpolicy blog:
Tony Abbot’s time as prime minister will be remembered by many for its folly (threats to ‘shirt front’ the leader of a nuclear-armed state, knighting a prince) and its failures (the budget that went nowhere, inaction on climate change). Amongst aid workers it will not be remembered fondly.
But cooler heads prevailed, and the post now starts in the following way:
Among aid supporters, Tony Abbott’s time as prime minister won’t be remembered fondly. First, there was the disintegration of AusAID for no good reason (not even those invented post-hoc). And then the largest ever cuts to Australian aid. Cuts that were extreme even by the turbulent standards of international aid flows. Cuts that weren’t justified by Australia’s deficit (aid is too small a share of federal spending to have a real impact). And cuts that were so sudden that nothing other than crude heuristics could guide where they fell. Different political parties have different beliefs, and it is fair enough that these influence policy choices, but governing well also means making major policy changes only when they are justified, and making them on the basis of evidence. Justification and evidence were notably absent from the Abbott government’s treatment of aid.
Now Tony’s tenure is behind us, the big question is whether Malcolm Turnbull’s government will be kinder. There are reasons to hope it will. Turnbull himself appears more capable and considered. And Foreign Minister Julie Bishop’s power has increased. She didn’t appear to support the last aid cuts and she’s shown that she cares about important development issues such as empowering women. Also, the appointment of Steven Ciobo as Minister for International Development and the Pacific is a good sign—a signal there will be more concern for aid.
Yet Ciobo’s appointment is only a signal. And there is a much more tangible act the government could take to show it cares about aid: [read the rest of the blog post on Devpolicy.]
October 31, 2015
Speaking as a mixed methods person (so not a smug quant guy) I think Gore Vidal nails the perils of qualitative research, and the art of getting it right:
“History is gossip, but the trick is determining which gossip is history”
October 29, 2015
The Huffington post has a handy list of the bible quotes Tony what’shisname forgot. Hopefully, someone’s also passed the list on to Viktor Orbán, the president who believes that the only way to preserve Europe’s Christian “heritage” is by abandoning Christian thought. What lovely blokes.
October 13, 2015
Just after 23 minutes into this Econtalk interview William MacAskill drops this bombshell on a sceptical Russ Roberts:
Well, supposing aid did no good at all, except insofar as it eradicated smallpox, a disease that killed 300 million people before we eradicated it in 1973 and saved the lives of 60-120 million people since then. That’s more lives than would have been saved than if we’d achieved world peace in that period.
The facts of the matter are a little more complicated. As this CGD briefing shows about 2/3rds of the funding for Small Pox eradication funding came from developing countries themselves. However, as a more detailed CGD case study shows, aid given through the Centre for Disease Control and the World Health Organisation not only funded vaccinations but also helped galvanise developing country efforts.
And smallpox is not the only instance in which aid has made an obvious contribution to disease reduction (Polio, for example; and helping stem the recent Ebola outbreak). Once you take this into account it is very hard not to conclude that aid has contributed a spectacular amount of good to our planet.
Of course, an aid sceptic might counter that this good has been more than outweighed by the harm aid has done in other areas, particularly economic development. However, the best available evidence suggests aid’s economic impact has, if anything, on average, been positive. You can argue that the best available evidence isn’t that good (which, in the case of studies looking at the relationship between aid and economic growth, is true); yet the available evidence is robust enough to severely undermine the claim that aid has substantially harmed economic growth.
A more thoughtful critic of aid might argue that while some aid has done a lot of good a lot of aid has done little good, and some aid has even done harm. This is a reasonable position, but it’s an argument for better aid, not against aid. And as the smallpox case shows, when aid is given well it can do astounding things.
(p.s. The entire Roberts/MacAskill interview is about effective altruism and is well worth listening too.)
An interesting new NBER working paper…
Pollution, Infectious Disease, and Mortality: Evidence from the 1918 Spanish Influenza Pandemic
Karen Clay, Joshua Lewis, Edson Severnini
This paper uses the 1918 influenza pandemic as a natural experiment to examine whether air pollution affects susceptibility to infectious disease…The findings suggest that air pollution exacerbated the impact of the pandemic. Proximity to World War I military bases and baseline city health conditions also contributed to pandemic severity. The effects of air pollution are quantitatively important. Had coal-fired capacity in above-median cities been reduced to the median level, 3,400-5,860 pandemic- related infant deaths and 15,575-23,686 pandemic-related all-age deaths would have been averted. These results highlight the complementarity between air pollution and infectious disease on health, and suggest that there may be large co-benefits associated with pollution abatement policies.
One of history’s enduring lessons is that men often do not run nation states well. Certainly no better than women. Given this, it’s reassuring that globally, slowly but surely, the number of elected women politicians is rising. Unfortunately, however, this trend is absent, or largely absent, in much of the Pacific. Read the rest of this blog post at Devpolicy…
August 24, 2015
Although I’m pro-choice, there are people I respect, from personal friends to the current head of the Catholic Church, who don’t share my views on abortion. Miranda Devine’s recent blog post linking Australian aid, abortion and foetal tissue, on the other hand, left me struggling to feel any respect for her journalism. The blog was written for the Daily Telegraph and it is apparently causing a kerfuffle amongst some Australian politicians. (If you can’t access the post on the Telegraph’s website you can read it here).
In the blog Devine links Australian aid given to the International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) to the selling of “livers, brains and hearts of aborted babies for $30 to $100 a pop.” [read the rest of this blog at Devpolcy here].
August 3, 2015
It’s a pity there aren’t more country and western songs about development. There are plenty of tales of woe to be had, and lessons learnt the hard way. Take the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for example: they are destined to break your heart. [Read the rest of this blog post here.]
July 27, 2015
Why we should stop banging on about neoliberalism, and bleating about innovation, and what we should say instead
Development doesn’t have a way with words. It scrunches names into acronyms. It potholes sentences with jargon. Its grey literature is drearier than grey. Words get their revenge too. They confuse, they strive for prominence, they rig the game. Or they hide shyly, letting themselves be avoided when they should be used more often.
Words shape our thinking — and here are two words the dialects of aid work and development thought would be better off without, as well as two words we ought to use more often. [read the rest here]
July 6, 2015
Is economic inequality important for aid work? This was the question I asked myself when I saw the name of this year’s ACFID University Network Conference: “Evidence and Practice in an Age of Inequality”. (The title didn’t specifically mention economic inequality, but conference material suggested it was the topic at hand.) It was an interesting theme; yet as I mulled it over I couldn’t convince myself that economic inequality ought to be high on the list of issues aid workers anguish about.
Read the rest of this blog post on Devpolicy.
July 1, 2015
The Dimpost has a handy summary of the insanity of it all here.
I think there’s a broader lesson for development economics too, along the lines of:
Either sheer fecklessness or (more often) underlying problems of political economy sometimes lead countries to acquire unsustainable levels of debt.
As a donor/multi-lateral you have surprisingly little ability to prevent this. Except during crisis points. Then it becomes very, very tempting to impose austerity.
However, this is, almost always a bad idea.
(a) it’s pro-cyclical and often makes deficit problems worse than they were.
(b) matters of domestic political economy usually mean austerity hits the least well off hardest.
(c) dropping the a bomb can have very counter-productive political consequences. (handy rule of thumb: if your policy prescription promotes riots something has gone wrong).
This doesn’t mean that the debtor country should be given a free pass. Or that there’s no need for reform. But it does mean its a mistake to think (as I once heard an aid agency staffer remark) that “this crisis will be too good to waste”.
Reform is a long run thing — and not often helped by short term detonations.
May 28, 2015
File under no brainers:
“Initial estimates from the Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN) suggest $1bn annually to
improve national statistical systems so they could measure the SDGs (Espey et al., 2015). Demombynes and
Sandefur estimate the cost to international donors of improving household surveys would be $300m a year
(Demombynes and Sandefur, 2014). In other words, costs are not likely to be substantial, and it is clear that these
are investments that deliver a significant degree of value for money immediately and in the longer term.”
From this ODI report.
In 2014 OECD DAC donors gave approximately US$135 billion dollars in aid. Let’s assume that SDSN have underestimated the SDG costs by a factor of two, and that the real cost would be $2B … 2/135 = 1.48% of total global aid flows.
That, I think, would be a very small price to pay for actually knowing about development progress, rather than fudging on the basis of sparse and poorly constructed statistics.
May 25, 2015
The slides and references associated with a talk I’m scheduled to give about this subject can be downloaded here. Note if you download the slides prior to 5 June, they may change if I tinker with them.
May 19, 2015
May 5, 2015
One of the clearest correlations in development is that between quality of governance and wealth. You can see the relationship in the chart below (from this excellent but paywalled article in the Annual Review of Political Science).
Wealthier countries are better governed countries — this is clear. What is less clear is whether wealth causes good governance, or whether good governance causes wealth, or whether some third factor (maybe education, for example) causes both.
Read the rest of this post at the Devpolicy blog.
April 23, 2015
It’s easy to see the appeal of microfinance. The idea of loaning small amounts of money to individuals or families in developing countries to help them overcome credit constraints makes sense. I always thought it was a good one. The trouble is, in aid, ideas that seem good can still be misplaced. And this has increasingly appeared to be the case with microfinance…read the rest of my blog post on this on the Devpolicy Blog.
March 26, 2015
…although, to be fair, I don’t often read Marxist blogs. Still a good, thought-provoking postat Stumbling and Mumbling on work and self actualisation. Does Stata help me self-actualise???
March 18, 2015
My wife and I often take development reading to bed. The end result is always the same: sleep within minutes. So I knew something was up recently when, hours after I’d dozed off, I woke to find her still reading. Curious, I levered my copy of Historicism and Contemporary Aid Discourses from where it had slumped onto my chest and turned in search of an explanation.
March 3, 2015
Let’s be clear from the start: there’s no good way to decide where to cut one billion dollars from a five billion dollar aid program in just six months. Indeed, there’s no good reason to make the cut. Aid is less than 1.5 per cent of Australian federal government spending: too small for changes to have any real impact on the country’s fiscal health. Yet the cut will hurt people in developing countries. And it may well hurt Australia too. Promises will have to be broken in the international arena, and international goodwill (of the sort that helped get Australia onto the UN Security Council, for example) may be eroded.
Read the rest of this post at Devpolicy.
February 24, 2015
from a brilliant article by Henry Farrell on why the woes of the hidden internet and online drug supermarket ‘the Silk Road’:
Would-be criminals on the hidden internet repeatedly complain that they have been ripped off. In the description of one commenter on the Hidden Wiki:
I have been scammed more than twice now by assholes who say they’re legit when I say I want to purchase stolen credit cards…
more generally the piece is an excellent argument as to why we need a state if we want markets — the guarantor of trust in exchange.
February 22, 2015
From a New Yorker article discussion whether Wisconsin governor, and presumed republication presidential candidate, Scott Walker, believes in evolution:
And yet, as the Times noted, after Walker’s London catechism, “none of the likely Republican candidates for 2016 seem to be convinced. Former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida said it should not be taught in schools. Former Gov. Mike Huckabee of Arkansas is an outright skeptic. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas will not talk about it. When asked, in 2001, what he thought of the theory, Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey said, ‘None of your business.’ ”