Chris Blattman

Haiti and economics

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Why is Haiti so poor?

Tyler Cowen asks this question on his blog, and thinks through many possible answers. He concludes:

Overall I don’t find this set of possible factors very satisfactory.  Is it asking too much to wish for an economics profession that is obsessed with such a question?

The Haiti question would be very difficult to answer, or answer well, with the standard set of tools now taught in grad school. You could argue the profession is moving in the opposite direction. Indeed, I’m willing to bet that mentioning the Haiti question on a grad school application at a top 5 program would alienate or disappoint a majority of faculty. “Not serious” would be the verdict.

That is not an indictment of the direction of economics, simply disappointment that the direction seems one-way. One might argue a healthy field is one expanding in many interesting directions, with a growing rather than a narrowing toolkit.

I am overstating the point a little, of course. But consider this the rounding out of my recent defense of development economics.

As for the Haiti question, I know too little to say. But when studying development in the Americas, one can seldom do better than reading Engerman and Sokoloff.

3 Responses

  1. As a grad student, I found the field was narrow-(mind)-ing. And eventually that was one of the factors that turned me away from academia. In retrospect, I’m extremely saddened that the “core” disciplines (micro, macro, and partly even econometrics) were in such tall ivory towers, and that the only ones with real world applicability were the optional courses (economic development, empirical microeconomics, partly econometrics and a reading course on climate change).

  2. Douglas North’s intellectual point of departure was thinking about the wealth and poverty of nations. Robert Lucas has the famous line that “once you start thinking about [economic growth], it’s hard to think about anything else.” Paul Romer’s work is ultimately all about this, too. The list could go on, I think. I wonder how far from Cowen’s ideal economics really is.

  3. I don’t think the grad school application process is the best place to indict the profession. All evidence suggests that admissions committee’s barely read the statement of purpose. I expect a student with enough technical preparation and independent research experience who mentioned Haiti would do just fine in an application process — even if it’s not quite clear exactly how to apply those tools to Haiti . Leave that for the student to figure out in grad school. I think economists are generally encouraging of students who seek to expand the range of interesting questions that can be addressed by the standard toolkit.

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