Sunday, January 17, 2010

David Brooks not getting it

In Thursday's New York Times, David Brooks opines on underdevelopment in Haiti and elsewhere:

The countries that have not received much aid, like China, have seen
tremendous growth and tremendous poverty reductions. The countries that have
received aid, like Haiti, have not.
In the recent anthology “What Works in
Development?,” a group of economists try to sort out what we’ve learned. The
picture is grim. There are no policy levers that consistently correlate to
increased growth. There is nearly zero correlation between how a developing
economy does one decade and how it does the next. There is no consistently
proven way to reduce corruption. Even improving governing institutions doesn’t
seem to produce the expected results.

The chastened tone of these essays is captured by the economist Abhijit
Banerjee: “It is not clear to us that the best way to get growth is to do growth
policy of any form. Perhaps making growth happen is ultimately beyond our

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some
cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was
just exacerbated by one of them... it’s time to promote locally led paternalism.
In this country, we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just
as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad.
But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.
programs... replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly
intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing
practices to stricter schools to better job performance.

It’s time to take that approach abroad, too. It’s time to find
self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in
places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school
— with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable

Does culture impact development? Of course it does. But the problem with this and so many other theories about development is that when you look at the reality of how developing countries have fared, you get a very wide range of outcomes. Some initially poor countries have done very well (South Korea, Botswana) and others have not (Mali, Haiti), and there is no obvious distinction that seperates them. What we learn from this as well as the "What Works in Development" findings that Brooks cites is that there is no single reason or one-sentence explanation- like "they have bad culture!"- that can tell us why some countries remain poor. Because we always need to think about why that explanation applies to some countries and not others. Did China used to have bad culture, and then it became good? What about Brazil's performance over the last half century ? Good culture, that turned bad, that then turned good again?

Not to mention, Brooks is also guilty of drawing a false analogy between poor people in the US and poor countries in the world. Both involve people being poor, but really there is absoultely no good reason why these things would have anything to do with each other. The problem of why certain people seem stuck at the bottom of the income distribution in the US has nothing to do with the problem of why whole countries fail to grow, and there's no reason to extrapolate an explanation of one to the other. It's similar to when people worry about the national debt because it makes them think about someone racking up a huge credit card bill, which is irresponsible and short-sighted. There may be reasons to worry about the national debt, but drawing the analogy between households and countries doesn't tell us why.

What's depressing is that Brooks' editorial will undoubtedly ultimately have more influence on the way people think about development than the thousands of other more intelligent and informed perspectives out there. If there's a silver lining I guess it's that the internet means at least it easier to find those perspectives than it used to be.

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