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!

Tweets for 22nd June, 2019

 

 

 

 

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 25th March, 2019

  1. “The researchers discovered that commonly visited places, like coffee shops, can be within a few feet of each other but they can each primarily have visitors from completely different income brackets. This indicates that economic inequality isn’t just present at the neighborhood level, but it can also show up among the places people visit as part of their daily routines. It suggests that income inequality might impact not just where people live, but also where they go. ”
    A great article to help you think through the following: inequality, how to measure it, how to measure it using modern methods, what is the difference between class inequality and income inequality, sampling, the limitations of sampling, the Data For Good initiative, 100 Resilient Cities and the SmartCitiesDive program.
  2. “An experiment that the researchers arranged hinted at a possible explanation of the correlation they found. They asked participants to picture and describe what it would be like to have a certain amount of daily free time, and then report how they’d feel about that allotment. “What we find is that having too little time makes people feel stressed, and maybe that’s obvious,” says Holmes. “But interestingly, that effect goes away—the role of stress goes away—once you approach the optimal point.” After that point, Holmes says, the subjects started to say they felt less productive overall, which could explain why having a lot of free time can feel like having too much free time.”
    One of my favorite Calvin and Hobbes strips has the quote “there never is enough time to do all the nothing you want to”, or words to that effect. This article tells you that having more than 2.5 hours of “nothing” time may well be too much.
  3. “While India has 70-odd companies that are rated highest quality, only two companies in the US enjoy this distinction. No company in Germany and UK enjoys AAA rating. Among emerging countries, China has only 14 AAA-rated entities. This implies a gulf between credit standards in India and elsewhere. The exacting standards observed in other countries are missing among domestic agencies.”
    Via Gulzar Natarajan, this article points out a disturbing statistic – Indian firms might well be given ratings that don’t really indicate their reliability. Rating agencies the world over took a hit to their reputation post the 2008 crisis, but this story seems to be unique to India. The article does have some caveats, but I’d say the news is, even so, worrying.
  4. “We employ Comin et al.’s (2010) data on ancient and early modern levels of technology adoption in a spatial econometric analysis. Historical levels of technology adoption in a (present-day) country are related to its lagged level as well as those of its neighbors. We allow the spatial effects to differ depending on whether they diffuse East-West or North-South. Consistent with the continental orientation hypothesis, East-West spatial effects are generally positive and stronger than those running North-South.”
    Are you familiar with vertical vs horizontal business models? Apple is vertical (controls everything, end-to-end) and Netflix is horizontal (needs to be available across multiple verticals to succeed). I was strongly reminded of that when I read this.
  5. “He is maddening in ways they never anticipated, along vectors they’ve never seen; he is a tireless innovator in the craft of mass irritation. He can cause fans to go absolutely nuts whether he wins or loses. McEnroe himself has spent a good chunk of the past five years complaining about Kyrgios, and McEnroe is probably the greatest tennis player of all time at driving people wild. Being found intensely annoying by John McEnroe is a high honor for any exasperating person. It’s like Beethoven humming your melody.”
    In which Brian Philips makes the case for the upside to Kyrgios being, well, Kyrgios. The interesting question is where else might such a contrarian philosophy work, and why?