What Jeff Sachs thinks you should study

I was skeptical when I heard Tyler Cowen would interview Jeff Sachs. I’ve read a lot of Jeff’s work and figured I couldn’t learn much that is new. Plus I’m more interested in hearing Sachs’ nuanced views rather than the introductory ideas or (worse) sound bites.

But Tyler gave me hope, I listened to it on the plane from Denver the other day, and I thought it was a simply terrific interview. I think even the most well-read or jaded development economist will find much to enjoy.

Here’s the transcript and podcast.

Last week I mentioned Dani Rodrik’s plea for more context-dependent theory and policy. Sachs expressed a similar sentiment when asked how he’d change economics graduate education:

JEFFREY SACHS: Economics. We avoid that, I think, conceptually, because if you study anything too specific it’s out of date in 10 years. So we study general principles. I think that’s epistemologically the weakness of our field. We want to be the four underlying, natural forces of the social universe rather than studying specifics.

TYLER COWEN: More like the anthropologists.

JEFFREY SACHS: No, more like the biologists. If Watson and Crick had written their 1953 paper saying, “Assume n base pairs.” They can match by [n× (n − 1)] / 2 combinations. It wouldn’t be a very good model of DNA. They actually said there are four base pairs, and there are two natural matchings. It happens to be a double helix.

We’re going to study the detail out of that for the next 40 years. Yeah, it’s arbitrary. There could be other DNA, but we’re going to study this one. Economists don’t do that, because we have a harder job, in some sense, which is that we’re not studying a stable environment. We’re studying a changing environment. Whatever we study in depth will be out of date. We’re looking at a moving target.

To compensate for that by never getting into detail has been our approach, but we’re always behind the curve, then. We never have good answers when they’re needed. That’s what I would like us to study.

Another way to put it: given how much ink economists devote to general principles and methods, the marginal return to substantive, empirical work with a shorter shelf life or narrow audience should (in principle) be high. I buy this, but then I would.

Also related to last week’s discussion of Dani Rodrik: Sachs too would like to see more diagnosis before prescription in economics. But again I’m skeptical a reusable diagnostic tool could be developed, and think that trial and error gets us moving in the right direction faster.

17 thoughts on “What Jeff Sachs thinks you should study

  1. I find this rather hard to swallow from a man who is more often to be found saying “it’s easy, we know how to do this, we just need the money” – for example I recently heard him say that the solution to poverty in Africa is simple and known – flood the continent with subsided fertilizer.

  2. I agree. This was a refreshing interview. But how is differential diagnostics the view of a an who sets up Millennium Villages? Who advocated shock therapy–fix everything at once? Who argues for the big push in aid? This is a different person.

  3. @ChrisBlattman: Your last paragraph seems to indicate that we have to choose between reusable diagnostic in contradiction (a la R Hausmann and others) to reusable trial-n-error approaches (a la M Andrews, L Pritchett, M Woolcock, all radomistas). I have encountered that attitude a lot among academic development economist and it appears to run along the macro/micro divide (although I might misread you here).

    I don’t think one should view reusable diagnostic in contradiction to reusable trial-n-error methods. The latter might be preferable when plausible (i.e. in microeconomics questions) but you simply cannot experiment with one-shot nationwide policy decisions like trade liberalization. So reusable diagnostic framework have their place and cannot be fully substituted by trial-n-error experimentation (and vice versa).

  4. In my view we should study only what we feel is better for us. I work in Forex trading and for me it’s all about study things that are related to that. I am currently working with OctaFX broker, it has outstanding service that allows me to earn and learn at the same time with giving 8 USD no deposit bonus, it helps me trade with earning and also learning as well, so that allows me to study easily and be successful.