What is development economics?

That was a question sent in by a student recently, and today’s essay is an attempt to answer the question.

Have you heard of the tsetse fly? Unless you are a student of biology, or from Africa, it is unlikely that you have. And there’s no reason for you to have heard of it, of course. On the other hand, if you were to be from Africa, and from a long time ago, you likely would not only have heard of the tsetse fly, but you would have dreaded it.

Why would you have dreaded it? Because the tsetse fly feeds on the blood of vertebrate animals, and in doing so, also manages to transmit diseases between species. And this fly was so very efficient at transmitting diseases that it actually prevented the emergence of animal husbandry in those parts of Africa where it was both present and dominant.

Worse: research has established that the existence of the tsetse fly in certain parts of Africa has at least partially contributed to those parts of Africa remaining relatively underdeveloped today.

Ethnic groups inhabiting TseTse-suitable areas were less likely to use domesticated animals and the plow, less likely to be politically centralized, and had a lower population density. These correlations are not found in the tropics outside of Africa, where the fly does not exist. The evidence suggests current economic performance is affected by the TseTse through the channel of precolonial political centralization.

https://www.aeaweb.org/articles?id=10.1257/aer.20130604

That’s what development economists do: they try and figure out which parts of the world are not doing well. Then they try and figure out why (imagine being able to identify a fly as a potential cause of underdevelopment!). And finally, they try to recommend policies that might make the situation better.

Three Big Questions

When I teach courses in development economics, I often introduce the subject by speaking about three “big picture” questions:

  1. What does the world look like?
  2. Why does it look the way it does?
  3. What can we do to make it better?

And honestly, that is really all you need to think about when you want to understand what development economists do. Let’s tackle each of these questions in turn.

What does the world look like?

Good development economists don’t begin with recommendations and policy measures. That’s a long way down the road. They begin by trying to paint for themselves a picture of the world.

My favorite way to paint for myself a picture of the world is by using a freely available online tool called Gapminder.

Click here to open Gapminder in your browser

What are we looking at? Hans Rosling, the Genius (I don’t use the word lightly, and the capitalized G is intentional) who came up with this tool, used to call this chart the “Health and Wealth” chart.

Inflation adjusted, purchasing power parity adjusted per capita income for each country is plotted against the life expectancy for the citizens of that country. The color coding shows you which part of the world that country is from, and the size of the bubble indicates the population in that country.

Well, ok – but what does it tell us?

Well, here’s what it tells me – see if you agree with my understanding. It tells me that the reason economists harp on so about increasing income (GDP) for all nations is not because getting rich is an end in and of itself. It is the means to an end – that end in this case being better health.

Two caveats: higher life expectancy doesn’t necessarily mean better health. But in this case, I think it is an acceptable proxy. Second, correlation is not necessarily causation! Higher wealth may not necessarily be causing better health. Maybe better health is causing higher wealth? Maybe some other variable is causing both of these things? Maybe it is all of these and more?

But all those caveats aside, at first glance, a basic fact emerges:

There is no country that is at the top left of this chart, and there is no country at the bottom right of this chart.

Poor countries tend to not do well in terms of life expectancy, and rich countries tend to do well in terms of life expectancy. If I want the members of my family to live longer, I would want my country to be towards the top right of this chart.

But back to the central question: what does the world look like? This is a generalization, of course, but most of the African nations tend to lie towards the bottom left. Most of the European nations tend to lie towards the top right. And Asian nations (and some South American nations) tend to lie somewhere in the middle.

That’s one answer to the question we were trying to answer in this section: what does the world look like?

But there are other answer possible! Here are just two to get you started:

  1. Read the excellent introductory chapter in Partha Dasgupta’s “A Very Short Introduction to Economics”
  2. Play around with the World Bank Atlas, a most excellent data repository.

Why does the world look the way it does?

The Magic That Happens When You Hit Play in Gapminder

I have been using Gapminder for over 12 years now, but I am yet to get tired of watching that video. In fact, as I often tell my students, you could do a lot worse than spending time with Gapminder open in one tab, and Wikipedia in the other.

(On a tangential note, take a look at what happened to the world between 1918 and 1921. That’s the Spanish flu at work.)

Why did I include this video in this blogpost?

Because it helps us begin to think about the answer to the second question: why does the world look the way it does?

The world looks the way it does today because some countries were able to steal a march on others about two hundred years ago. The United Kingdom, the United States of America, Japan, Germany and some other nations started moving towards the right top of the chart before other countries could. You could, in fact, make an argument these countries were able to move to the right top by making sure that the other countries stayed at the bottom left!

And when you make that argument, you begin to try and answer the second question – this argument is the anti-imperialist stance. The Asian and African colonies of the European powers of the 19th century lag behind as much as they do today because they were colonies: that’s one candidate for explaining why the world looks the way it does.

The tse-tse fly (remember?) is another candidate for a more localized answer to the second question. Politics, race, religion, geography, caste, gender, openness to innovation – there are so, so many candidate answers! People can (and do!) spend entire careers making their way through just one of these candidates.

By the way, if you would like to read books about this topic – why does the world look like the way it does – here are two absolute must-reads:

  1. Guns, Germs and Steel, by Jared Diamond
  2. Why Nations Fail, by Acemoglu and Robinson

What can we do to make it better?

Can chickens cure poverty in Africa?

I’m not joking! That was a genuine proposal, made by this guy who you may have heard of. Started a software firm, dabbled in philanthropy, and is now engaged in trying to literally save the world. Yes: Bill Gates. His master plan to save Africa involved giving everybody a chicken.

Our foundation is betting on chickens. Alongside partners throughout sub-Saharan Africa, we are working to create sustainable market systems for poultry. It’s especially important for these systems to make sure farmers can buy birds that have been properly vaccinated and are well suited to the local growing conditions. Our goal: to eventually help 30 percent of the rural families in sub-Saharan Africa raise improved breeds of vaccinated chickens, up from just 5 percent now.
When I was growing up, chickens weren’t something you studied, they were something you made silly jokes about. It has been eye-opening for me to learn what a difference they can make in the fight against poverty. It sounds funny, but I mean it when I say that I am excited about chickens.

https://www.gatesnotes.com/development/why-i-would-raise-chickens

Well, I exaggerate, of course. Not literally giving everybody in Africa a chicken – but something along those lines.

Development economists were less than impressed:

But first, let’s talk about poultry. I think we can agree that we can only give away so many chickens. You’ve said that a family that receives five hens could eventually earn $1,000 annually, assuming a per-bird price of $5. But would that still be true when a third of your neighbors are in the same business? As supply goes up, I’d expect the price and profits to come down. And moving to an economy in which 30 percent of rural Africans sell chickens is a humongous increase in supply.

https://www.vox.com/the-big-idea/2017/3/14/14914996/bill-gates-chickens-cash-africa-poor-development

And to make matters worse, other development economists were less than impressed with the development economists who were less than impressed with Bill Gates’ chickens:

I have friends/alumni/colleagues working around the world in many facets of the challenge of development. I have friends working for the Prime Minister of India. I have friends working for the President of Indonesia. I have friends working on the conflict in Yemen. I have friends working as civil society activists in Egypt. I have had policy discussions with policy makers all over the world. I worked for 15 years in the World Bank. I have taught development at Harvard for 15 years. In all of those conversations with friends, colleagues, policy makers, and students all kinds of difficult and pressing development questions have arisen that research could address. Never, ever, ever has “chickens versus cash” arisen as an issue at all, much less as the remotely possible “best investment” in research.

https://www.cgdev.org/blog/getting-kinky-chickens

By the way, that blog post that I quoted above? It has possibly my all time favorite title ever: Getting Kinky with Chickens.

Why am I telling you all this? Because allow me to let you in on a dirty little secret: there is zero consensus on what is the correct answer to the third question.

Well, OK, zero consensus is an exaggeration. But it ain’t a settled issue, no sir.

That is, nobody has come up with a definitive, one-size-fits-all answer to the question, “What can we do to make the world better?”

Let’s parse through the question. That might help us understand why it is such a controversial one.

What can we do to make the world better?

  1. Who, exactly, is “we”? That is, who is in charge of decision making when it comes to making things better? Do democracies work better? Or do autocracies? Or something in between?
    Remember, we are not asking which political system is the best from a moral, or political, perspective. We are asking which system is likely to give us the most rapid growth. Was Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew a true, participatory democracy, or was it a democracy with Asian characteristics? What about South Korea under General Park? And while we’re on the subject, an autocracy is not by itself a guarantee of rapid growth! Pakistan, Cambodia are two examples from our own neighborhood.
    Also remember: just because a system may give us more rapid economic growth doesn’t mean it is the best system to use. China is the obvious country to think about in this regard!
  2. Do we really need to “do” stuff, or is it more about just getting out of the way, and letting the economy work it’s magic?

3. Are we agreed on what “better” means? Lesser pollution comes at the cost of lesser industrialization, for example. Are we so sure that all seven billion of us can identify the exact point on the spectrum that works best? And if not, then we’re back to the first point: who is “we”?

And hey, even if you could imagine a world in which we somehow, magically get everybody to agree on “What can we do to make the world a better place?”, we’d begin a new round of battles, centered around a new question.

“How?” – and on this point, last year’s Nobel Prize winners have won accolades and received brickbats in equal measure.

Still, there is some good news. The unsettled nature of the debate means that this is extremely fertile ground to work upon, and you can count on development economics as a field remaining a fundamentally interesting one to work in for years, if not decades, to come.

And that, my friend(s), is what development economics is all about!

Five articles I found informative

Andy Mukherjee on debt funds, Franklin Templeton and the regulatory mess that is about to get a whole lot worse:

Back then, Franklin Templeton’s unit holders probably had no idea their fund manager was sitting on practically the entire stock of zero-coupon debentures issued by Yes Capital Ltd., one of Kapoor family’s private investment vehicles. That was long before Yes, a major deposit-taking institution, became a basket case that was eventually rescued by a consortium led by government-controlled State Bank of India. The five funds that were involved in lending to Kapoor are among the six that have been suspended, suggesting that nothing really changed between then and now

Kurzarbeit. My word for the day. (I really should learn German)

He said Germany’s “Kurzarbeit,” or “short-time work,” program during the current pandemic has similarly set an example as to how deal with this economic crisis.

Under Germany’s system workers are sent home or see their hours slashed but are paid around two-thirds of their salary by the state.

China, India: follow the money!

Since 2014, an influx of Chinese capital in India has transformed the structure of India’s trade and investment relations with China. Until that year, the net Chinese investment in India was US$1.6 billion, according to official figures. Most of the investment was in the infrastructure space, involving major Chinese players in this sector, predominantly state-owned enterprises (SOEs). In the next three years, total investment increased five-fold to at least US$8 billion, according to data from the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) in Beijing, with a noticeable shift from state-driven to market-driven investment from the Chinese private sector.

Bill Gates simplifies the development of the vaccine for all of us:

Safety and efficacy are the two most important goals for every vaccine. Safety is exactly what it sounds like: is the vaccine safe to give to people? Some minor side effects (like a mild fever or injection site pain) can be acceptable, but you don’t want to inoculate people with something that makes them sick.

Efficacy measures how well the vaccine protects you from getting sick. Although you’d ideally want a vaccine to have 100 percent efficacy, many don’t. For example, this year’s flu vaccine is around 45 percent effective.

TLTRO’s explained (this is a great read!)

A capital starved NBFC world will see churn, but sometimes the lack of capital itself will cause a company to fold, even if it has good credit. The RBI action for TLTRO may be good to create some liquidity for some NBFCs, but the system itself is weak and it may eventually need the RBI itself to step up and take some of the risk. A simple rule can be: We’ll fund you Rs. 100 as debt if you can raise Rs. 50 as additional equity capital from the market. But for now, we have TLTROs.

 

Assorted corona links for Monday, 13th April

  1. False negatives don’t matter as much as you might think.
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    “The simulated data here contrast policies that isolate people who test positive using four different assumptions about the quality of the test. Even a very bad test cuts the fraction of the population who are ultimately infected almost in half. And when I say bad, I mean bad – an 80% false negative rate, which means that 4 out of 5 of people who are truly infectious will get a negative test result – i.e. a result saying that they are not infectious.”
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  2. An interview with Bob Nelsen. Worth reading!
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    “I mean, I’m biased, but I think antibodies are probably the highest probability to work. I hope some mRNA works. I think if you ask scientists, they’re more skeptical. But I hope it works, especially in populations that tend to have weak immune systems. When you get skepticism about mRNA, it tends to be, ‘Yeah, it might work in a young person, but how is it going to work in the populations at risk?’ My own gut feeling is that mRNAt works a little and I hope it works a lot. And even then, there’s a role for all of the systems.If mRNA works, it bides us time to develop more potent, longer term vaccines. Antibodies will likely work and have the highest probability of working. There are multiple companies pursuing antibody therapy. So you hope that mRNA and antibiotic therapy start ramping up by the fall.”
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  3. What is mRNA? Here you go.
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  4. Doing it like Singapore.
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    “We try not to meet at all with the other teams as much as possible. We’ll just say hi from across the corridor. Meals are the same. All our cafeterias and everything have got social distancing spaced in already,” said Chia, who is also a member of parliament and chairs a shadow committee on health.”
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  5. The Bill Gates TED Talk about pandemics (from 2015!)

Two articles from Bill Gates about Covid19 that are worth reading

The first is an AMA:

A therapeutic could be available well before a vaccine. Ideally this would reduce the number of people who need intensive care including respirators. The Foundation has organized a Therapeutics Accelerator to look at all the most promising ideas and bring all the capabilities of industry into play. So I am hopeful something will come out of this. It could be an anti-viral or antibodies or something else.

One idea that is being explored is using the blood (plasma) from people who are recovered. This may have antibodies to protect people. If it works it would be the fastest way to protect health care workers and patients who have severe disease.

And speaking of convalescent blood therapy, this is also worth reading:

A simple and medically feasible strategy is available now for treating COVID-19 patients, transfuse blood plasma from recovered patients. The idea is that the antibodies from the recovered patients will help the infected patients. The idea is an old one and has been used before with some success.

And this is the second article by Bill Gates, worth reading in full, and so I will not provide an excerpt. Consistently applied restrictions on movement across the entire country, a clear strategy on how to prioritize testing, and a clear plan on developing a treatment and a vaccine are the key takeaways. Applicable mostly to America, or written with America in mind, but really works across the entire planet. India has applied the first of these as well as she could have.

 

Scott Sumner on Parasite, Paris as a 15 minute city, and then the Coronavirus!

Five articles that I enjoyed reading this week, and figured you might too:

I’d actually prefer they not allow foreign language films in the best picture category, as they’ll never be judged on a level playing field. Alternatively, have three Oscars; best high-brow film, determined by highbrow critics. best middlebrow film, determined much like the current Best Picture, and best popular film, determined by box office receipts. The same film would be allowed to compete in all three categories.

The Godfather would have won all three, but I’m not sure any other film would have (Birth of a Nation?, Lord of the Rings III?)

Rear Window would have won highbrow and popular, but it wasn’t even nominated for Best Picture. LOL. Middlebrow people are the worst.

Scott Sumner being provocative – but notice that this is kind of how Filmfare Awards work!

Paris, the 15 minute city:

Even in a dense city like Paris, which has more than 21,000 residents per square mile, the concept as laid out by the Hidalgo campaign group Paris en Commun is bold. Taken at a citywide level, it would require a sort of anti-zoning—“deconstructing the city” as Hidalgo adviser Carlos Moreno, a professor at Paris-Sorbonne University, puts it. “There are six things that make an urbanite happy” he told Liberation. “Dwelling in dignity, working in proper conditions, [being able to gain] provisions, well-being, education and leisure. To improve quality of life, you need to reduce the access radius for these functions.” That commitment to bringing all life’s essentials to each neighborhood means creating a more thoroughly integrated urban fabric, where stores mix with homes, bars mix with health centers, and schools with office buildings.

 

In any crisis, leaders have two equally important responsibilities: solve the immediate problem and keep it from happening again. The COVID-19 pandemic is an excellent case in point. The world needs to save lives now while also improving the way we respond to outbreaks in general. The first point is more pressing, but the second has crucial long-term consequences.

Bill Gates on not just how to contain the coronavirus, but how to build better capacity for the next one. Worth two excerpts:

Pandemic products are extraordinarily high-risk investments, and pharmaceutical companies will need public funding to de-risk their work and get them to jump in with both feet. In addition, governments and other donors will need to fund—as a global public good—manufacturing facilities that can generate a vaccine supply in a matter of weeks. These facilities can make vaccines for routine immunization programs in normal times and be quickly refitted for production during a pandemic. Finally, governments will need to finance the procurement and distribution of vaccines to the populations that need them.

Check the info graphic out in the article as well.

Goldman Sachs now forecasts (nowcasts) -6% q/q AR growth in Q1, down from -0.5%.

Hmmmmm.

Speaking of which

2020 @PredictIt recession prediction market probabilities are now above 40% amid #Coronavirus concerns.

Links for 31st May, 2019

  1. “For economists, the idea of “spending” time isn’t a metaphor. You can spend any resource, not just money. Among all the inequalities in our world, it remains true that every person is allocated precisely the same 24 hours in each day. In “Escaping the Rat Race: Why We Are Always Running Out of Time,” the Knowledge@Wharton website interviews Daniel Hamermesh, focusing on themes from his just-published book Spending Time: The Most Valuable Resource.”
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    Almost a cliche, but oh-so-true. The one non-renewable resource is time. A nice read, the entire set of excerpts within this link.
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  2. ““Bad writing makes slow reading,” McCloskey writes. Your reader has to stop and puzzle over what on earth you mean. She quotes Quintilian: “One ought to take care to write not merely so that the reader can understand, but so that he canot possibly misunderstand.” This is harder than it sounds. As the author of several books, I’ve learned that many readers take out of a book whatever thoughts they took into it. Still, what else is worth aiming for if you want to communicate your ideas?”
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    As the first comment below the fold says, she herself doesn’t follow her own advice all the time (and yes, that is putting it mildly), but the book that Diane Coyle reviews in this article is always worth your time. Multiple re-readings, in fact. Also, I am pretty good at writing bad prose myself, which is why I like reading this book so much.
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  3. “Popper acknowledged that one can never know if a prediction fails because the underlying theory is false or because one of the auxiliary assumptions required to make the prediction is false, or even because of an error in measurement. But that acknowledgment, Popper insisted, does not refute falsificationism, because falsificationism is not a scientific theory about how scientists do science; it is a normative theory about how scientists ought to do science. The normative implication of falsificationism is that scientists should not try to shield their theories by making just-so adjustments in their theories through ad hoc auxiliary assumptions, e.g., ceteris paribus assumptions, to shield their theories from empirical disproof. Rather they should accept the falsification of their theories when confronted by observations that conflict with the implications of their theories and then formulate new and better theories to replace the old ones.”
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    I wouldn’t blame you for thinking that the author of this essay should read the book reviewed above first – but if you aren’t familiar with falsification, you might want to begin by reading this essay.
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  4. “Upheaval, by Jared Diamond. I’m a big fan of everything Jared has written, and his latest is no exception. The book explores how societies react during moments of crisis. He uses a series of fascinating case studies to show how nations managed existential challenges like civil war, foreign threats, and general malaise. It sounds a bit depressing, but I finished the book even more optimistic about our ability to solve problems than I started.”
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    Bill Gates has this annual tradition of  recommending five books for the summer – and I haven’t read a single one of the five he has recommended this year. All of them seem interesting – Diamond’s book perhaps more so than others.
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  5. “Books don’t work for the same reason that lectures don’t work: neither medium has any explicit theory of how people actually learn things, and as a result, both mediums accidentally (and mostly invisibly) evolved around a theory that’s plainly false.”
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    To say that I am fascinated by this topic is an understatement – and I have a very real, very powerful personal incentive to read this especially attentively. That being said, I can’t imagine anybody not wanting to learn about how we learn, and why we learn so poorly.

Links for 17th April, 2019

  1. “Nearly half a million people are incarcerated on any given day without having been convicted of a crime. Add it all up, and over 10 million people during a given year year are locked up without being convicted of anything. Roughly one-quarter of all inmates in state and local jails have not been convicted. ”
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    Timothy Taylor explains the pros and cons of eliminating monetary bail. The issue is a complex one, as one might expect, and is a useful way to learn about cost benefit analysis.
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  2. “It’s a reminder that “growth” in cities isn’t always what it seems and that architecture can be an awfully poor proxy for the social structures to which it seems so closely tied. Neighborhoods that appear to be magnets for new people and more apartments may, behind every historic façade, be losing both.”
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    Opportunity costs, population density, gentrification, urbanization and reducing family size – all there in this information dense article.
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  3. “A lot of what you learn when you work at a firm is its organizational culture. Moving within a firm means you learn new subject matter, but you are largely staying within the same culture. The psychologically more challenging move to a different organization gives you an opportunity to experience a different culture, sort of like spending time abroad.”
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    Arnold Kling on culture and the organization. On a related note, the recent somewhat viral article about AirBnB and its culture is also worth reading.
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  4. “There’s a lot going on when you speak. The whole assembly process of how you string words together and form sentences is complicated. If you could use a computer to analyze how an Alzheimer’s patient speaks over the years, you might be able to pick up on subtle changes—and then look for those same patterns in younger patients who show no other signs of the disease. If you’re able to identify those changes early enough, you might even be able to stop someone from getting Alzheimer’s in the first place (although we’d also need advances in Alzheimer’s prevention to do that).”
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    Might how you talk be able to predict if you will get Alzheimer’s in the future? A complicated topic, and one that is sketchy on the details – but very interesting nonetheless.
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  5. “Chinese government statements indicate that 50 state-owned firms have invested or participated in almost 1,700 projects in countries along Belt and Road’s path over the past three years, according to Baker McKenzie. The wider the road, the more drivers are bound to crowd in.”
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    International finance meets the Belt and Road Initiative. Who will win, and in what shape, is what the article speaks about.