Archive for June 2nd, 2009

There’s more from Sachs and Easterly this week. See here for my roundup of last week’s tussle in HuffPo.

First, Sachs rebuts the idea of using Occam’s razor for development economics:

Bill Easterly takes a complex problem, African poverty, and tries to reduce it to a single factor: “the consensus among most academic economists is that destructive governments rather than destructive geography explain the poverty of nations.” This is a strange assertion. Geography and government policies both matter.

Easterly then steps up the data mining accusation and compares Sachs and his ilk to astrologists:

African poverty is complex, but our theories about it should not have so many complex Buts, Ors, and Excepts that they are impossible to disprove. Ignoring Occam’s Razor is how astrologists stay in business.

You know what, though? Why view my reporting of all this when Bill Easterly has constructed a handy chart detailing the whole thing? It’s pretty entertaining, and, in all honesty, cuts to the heart of their arguments.

Huffington Post Sensational attack Defense against previous round of attack Valid point
Sachs 5/24: Aid Ironies E got aid himself but opposes it for dying babies None Immunization works
Easterly 5/25: Why Critics are Better for Foreign Aid than Apologists S as bad as Cheney intimidating opponents with smears S previously quoted E accurately as in favor of what S now says E is against Aid needs critics to make sure it reaches poor people
Sachs 5/27: Moyo’s Confused Attack on Aid for Africa Aid critics don’t understand geography of Africa S: Don’t worry, I’m smearing Moyo too Malaria is bad
Easterly 5/29: Geography Lessons: Correcting Sachs on African Economic Development Convoluted S geography theory uses a lot of Ifs, Buts and Excepts to fit Africa, ignores bad government E: Bad government is more important than bad geography to explain Africa’s poverty Aid should not go to bad governments
Sachs 6/1: No Need to Oversimplify Poverty E has “pre-scientific” mono-causal, bad government explanation for poverty S admits Zimbabwe has a bad government; geography theory data mining is justified in “complex systems” Poverty is complicated
Easterly 6/2: Astrology, Despotism, and Africa S doesn’t understand data mining, which makes geography analysis = astrology; S calls despotisms besides Zim “potentially well governed” E: All science tests one thing at a time, such as bad government, not equivalent to believing only one thing matters People adapt to geography thru trade & technology (like bed nets from S!) & migration

More evidence that the blogosphere is a positive development for development economics, if only for the humor of bare-knuckle academic brouhahas.

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Matthew Yglesias doesn’t appreciate the “habit of distinguished economists using prestige acquired within their field to pass off sloppy work in other fields.”

Ezra Klein agrees:

It’s worth saying two things on this. The first is that it appears to be a special privilege of economists. You don’t see sociologists being asked to write op-eds on the Federal Reserve, or biologists being given a forum to talk about health-care policy.

The second is that it’s not just about commentary. Take the Obama administration. Brian Deese, the guy quarterbacking the auto restructuring, is a 31-year-old members of the economics team. Peter Orszag is probably the most powerful voice on health-care policy. Larry Summers, by most accounts, has a hand in literally everything. Economists, in other words, are the prime movers on not only the economy, but health care, climate change, housing policy and much else.

The argument for this, of course, is that these issues have heavy economic components. Cap and trade, for instance, is based around the construction of a new market for carbon. And it’s not as if there aren’t issue specialists — think climate czar Carol Browner — around the table. But these issues also have heavy political components, and there aren’t mega-powerful political scientists in the White House. And these issues have heavy behavioral components, but though the economists often bring behavioral studies to bear, there aren’t research psychologists wandering the West Wing. All these disciplines have skill sets that could be applied broadly, but only economists are given these massive portfolios.

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