03 January 2012

Bit of a snarky rant about Mike McGovern. Might have overdone it.

After all the cooing from Chris, MR, Bill, and Loomnie (yes I believe in Oxford commas) about McGovern's article on Collier, I had rather higher expectations than what seemed to me like a familiar basic misunderstanding of economics and academic hesitancy for policy recommendations.
What follows is thus my attempt at an ethnography of the world—imaginative, discursive, but also technical and action oriented—of Paul Collier and, by extension, of the broader genre of popular economics, from Freakonomics to Dead Aid.
What on earth is similar in any way between the economics of Paul Collier's cross-country regressions and sweeping claims, and the precisely identified but largely irrelevant trivia of Freakonomics?
My aim in this essay is not to demolish Collier’s important work, nor to call into question development economics or the use of statistics. Many others have done a better job of exploring the emergence and growing power of statistics in the “low sciences” than I could.5 But the rhetorical tics of Collier’s books deserve some attention.
Right - the books are popular science. They are not academic research.
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.
Really? There have never been theoretical disagreements in the natural sciences? Come on.
there is an inherent selection bias in work like Collier’s because the model is built from existing cases of warfare, and thus tends to render counterfactual cases invisible. Places like Guinea, Tanzania, Ghana, and Senegal consequently don’t come in for much discussion while Chad, Sudan, Afghanistan, CAR, and the DRC do.11
Umm, except the work is based on a global dataset including all of the countries that have conflict and that don't. The model predicts the countries where conflict occurs and where it doesn't. I'm pretty sure he even says this in the Bottom Billion.
These are, however, human beings. There are no true control groups, least of all in the context of war or the daily scramble for survival that characterizes the lives of the very poor.
Umm, not really true.
In Collier’s depiction, we end up with two groups only—young men with guns, and the elite older men who lead, organize, fund, and instrumentalize them. Women are virtually absent.
Its a model. Models simplify things. That is the point of a model.
Development economics as a discipline has been systematically unsuccessful in producing desired policy results, at least in the countries where the bottom billion reside. Moreover, those countries such as China and India that Collier hails as truly and rapidly developing have been characterized to a large extent by their rejection of the ministrations of such institutions as the World Bank.
Oh right, yeah, because poor nations have of course just blindly followed every World Bank diktat to the absolute letter right?
I wish Paul Collier had opened The Bottom Billion with a passage like “In this book, I will present some intriguing and counterintuitive correlations between poverty and a variety of social and political phenomena. I will add to these correlations some insights from thirty-five years of experience as a development economist that may begin to explain some of the correlations. Some day, we may have a good enough understanding of these causal links in specific countries to make useful policy interventions there.”
And in the meantime.... let's all just sit and watch?......? Thank god nobody did anything about the Rwanda genocide huh, we clearly didn't understand the precise causal mechanisms right?

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