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Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty Versión Kindle
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The dominant school of thought is probably the supply-side theory, most visibly represented by Jeffrey Sachs (the authors call him a "supply wallah"). According to this theory, the poor are poor because they lack money and resources, and there is a "poverty trap" such that investment in productive technologies must be very large in order to have a positive and sustainable effect. Because poor individuals, and even poor countries, lack the capacity to finance such investments, they are trapped in a low-level economic equilibrium. For this reason, Sachs and the supply theorists advise that the rich countries transfer a large lump-sum amount of money to a poor country, so it can get over the poverty-trap hump.
A second salient school of thought is the demand-side theory, represented by William Easterly and many others. Demand-siders (the authors call them "demand wallahs") believes that the poor are poor because they do not want to undertake what would be necessary to move out of poverty and there is no poverty trap. Thus, if you throw money and resources to the poor, they consume it immediately rather than using it for long-term betterment.
The third school of thought is the corruption school, represented by Acemoglu and Robinson, as expounded in the book Why Nations Fail. According to this theory, countries remain poor because their governments are predatory, exploiting the citizenry by refusing to make investments in productive infrastructure, by direction all profits to cronies, and by permitting rampant corruption that renders creative entrepreneurship unprofitable. According to this school, to which I admit to being very favorable, the supply wallahs are wrong because the resources throw into the system will be appropriate by the rich and powerful, and the demand wallahs are wrong because the poor are actively maintained by the oligarchy in their position of servitude.
The authors are very insightful and balanced in presenting the views of these three schools and the evidence that supports these various positions. They also clearly explain their mutual critiques. For instance, the supply wallahs claim that states are predatory and corruption is rampant only because the country is so poor, and the demand wallahs claim that when the people want to move out of poverty, they will reform their governments. I find these defenses of supply and demand wallahs rather tendentious, leaving the corruptions school as the overall most plausible school.
I think it is fair to say that Banerjee and Duflo have little sympathy for demand and supply wallahs, but considerable respect for the corruption theory. Their own position is that there are virtually always ways to productively intervene to pull a significant fraction of people out of poverty. The authors, who have collected huge amounts of data and interviewed many poor people from around the world, make the following argument.
Most important, the poor in a poor country have about the same array of preferences and capacities as that of the human population as a whole, and humans are substantively rational in making decisions that affect their lives. However, the poor have a lot fewer resources than the well-off, they lack information and skills provided to the well-off, and lack access to such public goods as clean water and consumables subject to food and drug regulations.
The poor are therefore extremely heterogeneous. Microfinance organizations like the Grameen Bank therefore provide a general path to affluences, simply because only a fraction of the population has the will and ability to be successful entrepreneurs. On the other hand, entrepreneurs often fail several times before finally becoming successful, so the authors advise an expanded microfinance industry that is more tolerant of the sorts of behaviors that may involve short-term losses, but lead to long-run successes. The authors conclude that we must consider microfinance policies as extremely successful and worthy of following, even though it is not panacea for the abolition of poverty.
Because the poor lack access to social services freely available to the non-poor, the authors advocate such measures as providing clean water to poor villages and adding nutrients, such as iron, to staple foods. This, they argue, is not charity but simply the extension to poor of services already supplied to the rest of society.
Concerning education, the authors believe that poor parents are usually very eager to have their children educated, although they may lack the means of enrolling their children in schools or providing for their transportation to and from school. However, too often the content of schooling is determined by what is good for the more affluent classes, so poor children are led voluntarily to quit school. The authors advise that the content of education take into account the preferences and culture of the target population.
I cannot do justice to the beauty and intricacy of the argument developed in this book. The authors' main point is that we must look closely at the details of the lives of the poor in order to develop policies to help people to pull themselves out of poverty. This is neither demand or supply wallah-ism, and as they repeatedly stress, real progress can be made even in a society whose government provides a poor environment for economic development.
Why are people so interested in the issue of global poverty? Well, to list a few of the many aspects about poverty addressed in this book, every year about 9 million children die before they reach their fifth birthday, usually in the poorest countries. In the developed world, a woman has a one-in-5,000 chance of dying while giving birth, but in many sub-Saharan Africa countries the odds are one-in-30. There are at least 25 countries in the world with life expectancies of 55 years or less. If these sorts of situations capture your mind and lead it to ask what can be done, one of the first things you might consider doing is learning more about the conditions and circumstances that lead to these revealing statistics. That's where this book comes in.
So, is this book one you should buy? Presumably that's why you are reading this. Here are a few observations that may help you decide whether to buy this fine book: In the authors' own words, the book "is ultimately about what the lives and choices of the poor tell us about how to fight global poverty." That may not sound too sexy or exciting, but if you have an interest in facts, theories and observations about global poverty, then this is your book. On the other hand, if what you seek are simple theories and, especially, strong advocacy of a few preferred solutions, then you are probably barking up the wrong tree. Don't get me wrong; I like the book just as it is. There is so much information to consider and so many approaches to fighting poverty to contemplate. Just don't expect the authors to take a lot of your time championing pet solutions. Because the problem of poverty is itself rather complex, so are some of its solutions. Jack Webb (the "just the facts, ma'am" star of the "Dragnet" series) might have loved this fact-filled book. At least, he'd love it if he was an economist or someone interested in learning (a lot) about global poverty. Yet there's much more to the book that mere facts. Primarily, there is a pursuit of understanding the circumstances associated with poverty and the efforts to overcome it. That's where this book excels.
It's certainly early to judge, but this book could prove to be a classic in its field. It successfully challenges and encourages the reader to think in new ways about anti-poverty initiatives. Although its authors are probably unknown to the general public, they are well regarded in economics. They both have received a number of prestigious awards, including the John Bates Clark Medal (to Esther Duflo) for the best American economist under age 40. Previous winners of this award include a Who's Who of economists, such as Paul Samuelson, Milton Friedman, James Tobin, Kenneth Arrow, Gary Becker, Martin Feldstein, Lawrence Summers and Steven Levitt.
In short, this is a substantial book with a great deal of important content. There are some graphs, but less than you might expect from two economists. Importantly, it is readable and understandable by the interested lay reader. Frankly, I think it's a book you won't forget. If the issues of global poverty and economic development interest you, this is a book well worth your careful consideration.
In any case, Banerjee and Duflo start with the premise that, given the inaccuracy of past models, the best we can do is start on a micro level and see what works. They do this through randomized control trials (RCTs), in which groups are subjected to different treatments, such as subsidies for food, education campaigns, or reorganization of village committees. The groups are randomized, with some groups receiving the treatment (experiment group) and others not receiving anything (control group).
Using the results from numerous RCTs around the world, as well as hundreds of other experiments, surveys, case studies and more, "Poor Economics" is incredibly well researched. One thing the authors don't justify, however, is whether RCTs are good predictors of real life choices. For example, how similar are the treatments used in RCTs to the actual policies implemented in real life?
I won't summarize the contents of the book. But I can say that the conclusions within are indeed "radical" in the sense that they take very little for granted. They are based off of micro level data and offer very interesting insight into the incentives that shape the lives of the poor.
The policy recommendations at the end of the book are incontrovertible, but I don't know who realistic they may be in the face of macro-level constraints such as world trade policies that favor developed countries. I have my doubts as to how effective even the best policies and the best governments can have on the development of countries under the economic hegemony of the US and Europe. I wished the authors had addressed this.
The general picture one hopes when reading a book like this is a "silver bullet" that will solve the problems of every kind of poor people around the world. As the authors are quite upfront in saying, this is not realistic. Economies are complex and work in strange ways. Anyone familiar with systems dynamics will recognize the traps that "silver bullet" theories get into: one quick fix leads to some improvement, but causes side effects that might make matters worse in the long run.
This book examines how the predominant theories on poverty have played out. They cite Jeffrey Sachs' The End of Poverty, in which the idea is that aid will bring an end to a "poverty trap". And then regard William Easterly's The White Man's Burden, in which the idea is that aid tends to make people dependent on it and thus makes them less capable. With these plausible arguments as a backdrop, they delve into the examples and case studies to identify instances where one or both or neither are true.
Ultimately, the argument that is made is for a comprehensive understanding of the way poverty works in order to apply proper levels and composition of aid. Though, this isn't a grand theoretical survey of the way economies and systems in general function. I would recommend something like Juggernaut: Why the System Crushes the Only People Who Can Save It for that. It is still a penetrating survey of poverty and offers the reader the tools to do something about it.
Jeff Sachs is the best known _supply wallahs_. He has argued that small cheap interventions like free mosquito nets can have huge benefits. William Easterly is the best known _demand wallah_. He is a trenchant critic of top down interventions. The book criticizes both of these philosophies. They chide the _supply wallahs_ for not scientifically evaluating potential aid strategies. The author's evaluation tool of choice is the _Randomized Control Trial_ (RCT) (akin to the technique used to evaluate new drugs). They disagree with the _demand wallahs_ by pointing to successful aid strategies (success as measured by RCTs). The authors take the stance: We have no overarching theory of what aid strategy is likely to work. But we will evaluate individual strategies rigorously. And recommend whatever works.
The chapters all follow a pattern: First the authors present a puzzle (e.g. why don't the poor eat more when they earn more?). Then they (half-heartedly) try to explain the behavior by giving us more insight into the lives of the poor. These sections are the best part of each chapter. But the authors say that they are still unable to explain the seemingly irrational behavior. Now, they throw up their hands and appeal to something called _behavioral economics_. Humans are irrational and they need brilliant economists to design aid strategies that take their irrationality into account. And "nudge" them to do the "right" thing. We are told that citizens of rich countries have benevolent "nudgers". But who "nudged" Europe and America from poverty to wealth a few hundred years ago? That question is not tackled by the authors.
While RCTs sound very scientific, no mention is made of the problem of "data mining". i.e. the problem of finding "statistically significant" results simply by trying out a large number of strategies. Spurious results will not work "out of sample". How have the rigorously vetted strategies done when used "out of sample"? We are not told. The comparison to drug testing raises other questions: There are many critics who claim that that the FDA generates more costs than the benefits. RCTs only tell us if a drug works for the average person. But is that the right question? Since there is so much variation amongst people, might not some people benefit from a drug? Similarly for the aid strategy. A more general concern about the book is the astonishing degree of confidence that a "solution" to poverty exists. And that "solution" is amenable to the methods of science. Authors are no doubt familiar with Hayek's criticism of _scientism_. I wonder how they would react to it.
This is an ambitious book. The best parts of the book are the descriptions of the lives of the poor. For example, the description of the mechanics of micro credit is very interesting. But the book fails to tackle more important questions: What are the limitations of RCTs? What is the role of religion and culture? The technocratic and paternalistic tone of book jars. I leave the reader with the following excerpt. This is a rare reference to religion I was able to find in the book: "When the poor actually know what they want -- marrying their daughter to someone from the right caste or religion, to take an *unfortunate* but important example -- they are not at all easy to bribe".
After reading this sentence, I am forced to conclude that all the author's talk of respect for the choices of the poor is mere talk.
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