Beatnik development economics?

Looked at over the fifty-year span since the publication of W.W. Rostow’s The Stages of Economic Growth: A Non-Communist Manifesto, development economics as a field looks far more like literary criticism than like those natural sciences it emulates.

As we contemplate the series of enthusiasms that have characterized different moments in development theory and policy, it looks an awful lot like movements from romantic to symbolist to modernist to beatnik poetry. We may not yet have seen beatnik development economics, but we can still hope!

The difference between poets and economists, however, is that for poets, as for literary critics, there are rivalries and certainly individual claims to preeminence, but as a general rule, there is an acceptance that there are many ways to write a great poem, just as there are many enlightening ways to read any great poem. Bound as it is to the model of the natural sciences, economics cannot accept that there might be two incommensurable but equallyvaluable ways of explaining a given group of data points.

That is Mike McGovern, one of my favorite antropologists, reflecting on a year spent among the development economists in Oxford. More specifically, he is reviewing Paul Collier’s books in the latest Perspectives on Politics.

An excellent read, with many pointed lessons for the field.

At the same time, I think he takes a few works as representative of the whole. I think he’d get a very different feeling from reading Banerjee and Duflo’s Growth through the Lens of Development Economics or their new book, Poor Economics. Or, getting macro, Dani Rodrik’s latest book on globalization.

One area where I agree: economists often take their models too seriously, and too far. Unfortunately, no one else takes them seriously enough.

In social science, models are like maps; they are useful precisely because they don’t explain the world exactly as it is, in all its gory detail. Economic theory and statistical evidence doesn’t try to fit every case, but rather find systematic tendencies. We go wrong to ignore these regularities, but we also go wrong to ignore the other forces at work–especially the ones not so easily modeled with the mathematical tools at hand. I think that might be a better starting point for a critique of the discipline.

But that is a blog post for another day. Perhaps a post-tenure day.

Meanwhile, see Mike’s other work here, or his excellent new book, Making War in Cote d’Ivoire. My copy just shipped, and is awaiting me at home.