Oikonomia is Back, for Now

Plato and Aristotle, at The School of Athens. Photo by By Raphael – Web Gallery of Art.

The current pandemic is a human tragedy on an enormous scale, not only in terms of death and illness but also in loss of employment, disruption to education and increased anxiety. Perhaps of most concern to politicians, the various restrictions put in place to reduce the spread of COVID-19 have had large negative effects on national and regional economies. 

As a result, many leaders have opted to ‘re-open’ their economies prematurely, partly since economic performance affects electoral cycles. In some cases there have been disastrous consequences to such loosening of social distancing restrictions, with spikes in infections in various countries or states. This has led to a discussion of a false dichotomy – between protecting human life and reviving the economy. 

This dichotomy is false for several reasons. At the most basic level, if large parts of the population get infected and either die or are unable to work, this would not bode well for the economy either. But more fundamentally, what we think of as ‘the economy’ is really broader than just profits and asset values. Read More »

Misunderstanding the average impact of microcredit?

Photo: Peter Haden. Microfinance center leaders tally the week’s loan payments in India.

By Milford Bateman and Maren Duvendack

A recent article on the “average impact of microcredit” by Dr. Rachel Meager (LSE) has received much praise over the past few weeks. Meager deploys Bayesian hierarchical modelling to provide a new take on the argument in favour of a reformed system of microcredit. Her work builds on the data provided by six randomized control trials (RCTs) conducted by Abhijit Banerjee and colleagues (see Banerjee, Karlan and Zinman, 2015). Meager makes an attempt to exculpate the microcredit model from the awkward fact that its impact on the poor has been very much less than originally envisaged. She also claims to show that the critics have overstated the negative impact of microcredit. Microcredit should therefore continue to be a policy intervention, she goes on to say, but there need to be changes in the operating methodology for a more meaningful development impact to be possible in the future.

While seemingly a well-meaning attempt to explore the impact of microcredit, we were struck by the way that her overall argument appears to seriously misunderstand, and it definitely misrepresents, the existing research on microcredit as a development instrument. Read More »

Revisiting Hirschman’s Tunnel Effect and Its Relevance for China


As within-country inequality is on the rise worldwide, considering how people actually perceive inequality in their societies and how they respond to it is a question worth asking. In 1973 Albert Otto Hirschman proposed an explanation of changing tolerance for inequality associated with different ‘stages’ of the development process. In this post I’ll revisit Hirschman’s theory and link it to emerging studies of how inequality is perceived in China. The Chinese people generally seem to be satisfied with rising inequality, yet it is unclear how long this tolerance will last.Read More »

Unequal Inequalities Revisited


Any discussion of inequality includes an implicit normative or ethical comparison of distributions; a certain distribution of some good, or of gains in that good, is acceptable or not acceptable, is better or worse, is improving or stagnating. If discussions of inequality also inevitably involve rankings and comparisons of different distributions, then how inequality is defined and measured will affect these rankings and comparisons. The choice of measurement of inequality is therefore not value neutral.Read More »

Kicking Away the (Statistical) Ladder


Developed countries often lecture developing and emerging countries on the appropriate policies and institutions necessary for economic success. This is done either bilaterally or through multilateral organizations such as the World Bank, IMF, OECD or European Union. Cambridge economist Ha-Joon Chang exposed the hypocrisy of this approach in his provocative 2002 book Kicking Away the Ladder: Development Strategy in Historical Perspective. Chang suggests that when today’s rich countries were themselves developing, they used practices opposite to what they preach today, including industrial policies, high tariffs and infant industry protection. Therefore their current advice to poorer countries amounts to ‘kicking away the ladder’ of development.

A lesser-known but equally disturbing process has occurred in the realm of economic statistics, in particular national income accounts. The EU and OECD often criticize the national accounts of developing countries, and a recent example is a claim made in a blog by Robert Barro: “There are suspicions that China’s reported growth rates in recent decades have been boosted by manipulation of the national-accounts data.” While no statistical system is beyond doubt, the biggest manipulations of data in history, in fact, have benefited (and were supported by) rich countries.Read More »