Tamoghna Halder criticized one of my writings on nineteenth-century Indian famines. Halder distorts my views and wrongly implies that I suppressed data. He misreads the very nature of the Indian famine debate, thinking it is about facts. It is not. It is about method, about how economic historians and development scholars should read the history of climatic shocks. The piece demands a response and a clarification of the issues involved.Read More »
Colonialism and the Indian Famines: A response to Tirthankar Roy
Responding to Sullivan and Hickel’s recently published research article (in World Development) and an opinion article (in Al Jazeera), Tirthankar Roy, points out how the authors are wrong in claiming that British colonial policies caused several famines in India. All that is fine, except that these articles neither investigate nor come up with any original claim regarding the causes of famines in colonial India. The central claim in their research article is that capitalism did not necessarily result in an improvement of human welfare in the 19th century – contrary to the relatively popular belief that it did. In the opinion piece, they argue the same, but solely with a focus on the negative impact of British colonial policies in India in terms of excess deaths, decline in wages and living conditions. In order to support this distinct set of claims, among other supporting evidence and quantitative techniques, Sullivan and Hickel cite one existing claim (from prior literature) that colonial policies induced multiple famines in India. And yet, as the term colonialism has become a triggering point for Roy in recent years, he titles his shadow boxing exercise as “Colonialism did not cause the Indian famines”. If the intention of Roy is to refute Sullivan and Hickel’s original claim, he fails at it miserably. If the intention of Roy is to weaken Sullivan and Hickel’s set of supporting evidence, one may argue that he does so at least partially, but that’s true only for the opinion piece (and not the research article). However, I will argue in this response why Roy fails to achieve even that! This leaves one to speculate Sir Tirthankar Roy’s real intentions, which is not the task of the current article.Read More »
On the perils of embedded experiments
There is growing interest in ‘embedded experiments’, conducted by researchers and policymakers as a team. Aside from their potential scale, the main attraction of these experiments is that they seem to facilitate speedy translation of research into policy. Discussing a case study from Bihar, Jean Drèze argues that this approach carries a danger of distorting both policy and research.
Evidence-based policy is the rage, to the extent that even village folk in Jharkhand (where I live) sometimes hold forth about the importance of ‘ebhidens’, as they call it. No one, of course, would deny the value of bringing evidence to bear on public policy, as long as evidence is understood in a broad sense and does not become the sole arbiter of decision-making. However, sometimes evidence-based policy gets reduced to an odd method that consists of using randomised controlled trials (RCTs) to find out ‘what works’, and then ‘scale up’ whatever works. That makes short shrift of the long bridge that separates evidence from policy. Sound policy requires not only evidence – broadly understood – but also a good understanding of the issues, considered value judgements, and inclusive deliberation (Drèze 2018a, 2020a).
Enormous energy has been spent on the quest for rigorous evidence, much less on the integrity of the process that leads from evidence to policy. As illustrated in an earlier contribution to Ideas for India (Drèze et al. 2020), it is not uncommon for the scientific findings of an RCT to be embellished in the process. This follow-up post presents another case study that may help to convey the problem. It also illustrates a related danger – casual jumps from evidence to policy advice. The risk of a short-circuit is particularly serious in ‘embedded experiments’, where the research team works ‘from within’ a partner government in direct collaboration with policymakers.
The case study pertains to an experiment conducted in Bihar in 2012-2013 and reported in Banerjee, Duflo, Imbert, Mathew and Pande (2020)1. This is a large-scale, influential experiment by some of the leading lights of the RCT movement – indeed, a formidable quartet of first-rate economists reinforced by one of India’s brightest civil servants, Santhosh Mathew. The high technical standards of the study are not in doubt, and nor is the integrity of the authors. And yet, I would argue that something is amiss in their accounts of the findings and policy implications of this study.Read More »
Challenging the Orthodoxy: Race, Racism and the Reconfiguration of Economics
Books abound on what is wrong with economics (Chang 2014; Keen 2011; Nelson 2018, Mazzucato 2018, Raworth 2018, Stanford 2015), and what we would have to do to change it. Given the little change we have seen in economics training and policy-effective economic thinking since the global finance crisis of 2007/08, and in light of the global environmental, inequality and health crises, it is to be seen whether these interventions can make any meaningful impact. What is good though: Half of these impactful books were written by female economists. Despite this ‘wind of change’ in an overtly male discipline, it is striking that these books still offer a glaring lacuna: the issues of race and racism (except for brief mentions in Nelson 2018 and Stanford 2015). For many people around the world, these are no mere ‘issues’, but integral to their daily struggles and experiences in White majority countries. These are part of a differentiated life– a life differentiated so much that it can be full of unrealized potentials, suffering and trauma, physical harm and violence, and premature death in the worst of cases. Therefore, while we could move on, building on these interventions and many others (e.g., Obeng-Odoom 2020; Sarr 2019 or here), to discuss what would have to change in economic thinking (which includes economics training), policy and praxis to help achieve a “safe and just operating space for humanity” (Raworth 2018), the goal of this blog entry is more firmly tied to the question of how economic thinking would change if race and racism were taken seriously as structural-relational problems?
Much of economic thinking happens via economics. Therefore, my entry will often refer to economics as an institutionalized field. That said, expertise about the economy is not just rooted in economics. In fact, economists should not hold an intellectual monopoly over explaining how the economy works and should work (even though many of them, ironically, seem to appreciate that monopoly). That is why I as an economic geographer dare write this post. Pluralizing the economy, economics and economic thinking are separate but still interconnected projects. Some of the arguments that follow apply to other disciplines, too. Nevertheless, economics is singular among the social sciences in terms of its socio-demographic homogeneity (at least in countries of the Global North), prestige, student intake volumes, policy influence and partial self-isolation from other disciplines. It thus deserves particular scrutiny.
So what would an economics that takes race and racism seriously as structural-relational problems have to look like? To what kind of epistemic and institutional practices would it have to commit itself in an effort to effectively engage with these lived realities? A partial answer is already provided by economists who do study race and racism in a field called stratification economics, not to be mixed up with the so-called economics of discrimination that is largely rooted in a neoclassical economics framework. Building on some the insights of the former, and adding a few more perspectives, we can call for at least 10 ways of how to challenge the broader field of economics (i.e. variants of neoclassical and behavioural economics, but much more than that, as we saw above!) via race and racism.Read More »
Philosophy as if the world mattered: critical development studies and the work of Tony Lawson
No reader of this blog needs reminding that positivism retains a powerful grip on development studies. Not because every theorist, researcher and department carries a card or flies a flag self-identifying as positivist, but because positivist concepts of what knowledge is and how it is assessed continue to dominate, in so far as these have captured the concept of ‘science’. As Ingrid Kvangraven’s critique establishes, one need look no further than the dominance of random control trials (RCTs) for evidence of this. While there are many specific problems one might identify with RCTs, such as the capture of policy by what can be researched using RCTs rather than by what may be more significant as structural causes of poverty, perhaps the fundamental one is the model form, which stands behind RCTs. It is this that lends authority to RCTs, as it does to many other branches of economics.
Tony Lawson is probably the best known critic of mainstream mathematical modelling and in a recent interview he reprises his argument. Lawson is a ‘critical realist’ and ‘social ontologist’ and his, and other critical realists’ argument, is deceptively simple. All knowledge claims involve assumptions about the nature of the world, what and how it might appropriately be investigated. Whether this is acknowledged or not this presupposes a theory of reality or being (an ontology) and an orientation to knowledge (an epistemology). Philosophy thus has an important role in making these assumptions explicit and in exposing them to critical scrutiny to address their plausibility, consistency etc. Such philosophy does not replace the sciences or social sciences, but rather ‘under-labours’ for or supports their endeavours and is itself subject to critique in this context.Read More »
The Washington Counterfactual: don’t believe the Washington Consensus resurrection
By Carolina Alves, Daniela Gabor and Ingrid Harvold Kvangraven
Decades of research have documented the devastating impacts of the Washington Consensus in the developing world. Yet revisionist accounts of this story have emerged in recent years. Remarkable amongst these, a recent blog post by the Peterson Institute for International Economics – “Washington Consensus stands the test of time better than populist policies” – draws on research that is jaw-droppingly ideological and flawed.Read More »
Pluralism in economics – its critiques and their lessons
By Claudius Gräbner and Birte Strunk
In a recent paper we engaged with common critiques of the concept and the movement for more pluralism in economics. We found that while the majority of the critiques are either unfounded, easy to dismiss or address strawmen, others do highlight challenges the pluralist movement should address.
In 2017, we were spending a week at the Summer Academy for Pluralist Economics, when the German economist Johannes Becker published a blog article on Makronom entitled “The Movement for Pluralist Economics risks its success” (translated from German). He argues that the movement for pluralist economics faces a decision: it could continue to be a movement of fundamental opposition against the ‘economic mainstream’, or it could start striving for ‘real change’. Economics professors, at least in Germany, Becker argued, were highly perceptive and open-minded towards alternative perspectives in economics. If the movement would focus more on constructive engagement with economics faculties rather than on fundamental critique, then there would be a greater amount of pluralist seminars and lectures.
Being surrounded by around 100 fellow pluralists who dedicated a week of their summer to study different approaches to economics, the accusation of simply being a movement of unconstructive opposition seemed alienating to us. So we drafted a response, arguing that pluralist economics is about both critique and the construction of alternative practices. Based on this response, we wrote an article evaluating the critiques posed toward pluralist economics, drawing from philosophy of science, philosophy of economics, and philosophy of interdisciplinarity. When writing the paper, which has recently been published in the Journal of Economic Methodology, we indeed found many critiques of pluralism to be unconvincing, yet we also discovered that some critiques of pluralism are not easily dismissed. They should be taken seriously by pluralists because an honest engagement with these critiques rather than the neglect of their relevance could, we believe, make the movement for pluralism in economics more convincing and successful.Read More »
What is a Developed Country?
Any discussion of economic development – either implicitly or explicitly – contains the distinction between developed countries and developing (or under-developed) countries. While there are many theories on what promotes development and how best to achieve it, in all cases the goal is for a country to eventually become ‘developed’.
This begs the question – what is a developed country? There are at least three common definitions, which are presented below. These definitions overlap in many cases, but in others they are at odds. This piece argues that a broader definition is needed in light of recent failures of several ‘developed’ countries to cope with shocks ranging from the COVID-19 pandemic to natural disasters.Read More »