Friday, April 27, 2012

Poor Economics

In Poor Economics (2011), Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo claim to have discovered a radical new way to fight global poverty. Given the magnitude of the problem and the dismal failure of many previous "solutions", this is a significant claim. But does it have any merit?

Well, Banerjee and Duflo's fundamental idea of using randomised field trials to test various public policy alternatives is far as it goes. Unfortunately, it doesn't go very far. It basically looks at lots of small-scale public policy problems and questions and investigates them rigorously, from the scientific perspective. Which is fine. I can't argue with good science. The trouble is this: Is this small-scale, bottom-up, micro-level approach really THE answer to global poverty? I don't think so. All the existing evidence from all the countries that have ever "developed" indicates that the answer must involve large-scale, top-down, macro-level policy solutions. Micro-level solutions are little more than palliatives.

Banerjee and Duflo neatly (and self-servingly) portray all existing thinking on economic development as falling into two opposing camps, pro-aid and anti-aid, and then claim that there is currently no definitive evidence to prove or disprove either of these camps. A rather convenient characterisation. Naturally, their work on randomised evaluations provides the brave new third way. Evidence-based, of course.

I understand their argument about a lack of evidence. The only problem is it happens to be factually and historically incorrect. Consider the case of Germany, East and West. Or Korea, North and South. Or even Zambia, pre-1991 and post-1991. These cases (and numerous others) provide ample controlled evidence of what really works and doesn't work in economic development.

But perhaps what's most disturbing about Banerjee and Duflo's work are its implicitly (and no doubt unintentional) racist assumptions. How come other countries (from the West, East and increasingly the global South) have been able to develop without the interventions of external do-gooders like Banerjee and Duflo? Why does the world suddenly need a different formula without which the countries of Africa and other underdeveloped parts of the world will be doomed to perpetual poverty?

Poor economics indeed.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Strategy Vs. Tactics from a Venture Capitalist

A classic article by the legendary Silicon Valley venture capitalist Arthur Rock on what makes entrepreneurial ventures succeed: Is it strategy or tactics?

Friday, April 13, 2012

The Ministry of Martyn Lloyd-Jones

"The words to which I should like to call your attention are to be found in..."

D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones (20 December 1899 – 1 March 1981) frequently began his sermons with these words, as he would draw his audience's attention to a specfic passage of Scripture. Lloyd-Jones was not only one of the greatest preachers of the 20th Century, he was one of the greatest preachers in history. This is what he is best known for today and will be best known for as a historical figure. Less well known is the fact that earlier in his career, Lloyd-Jones was a brilliant physician and scientist. He graduated with distinction in medicine in 1921 at St Bartholomew's Hospital, London, earning his MD two years later. He served as chief clinical assistant to Sir Thomas Horder (the King's physician) and carried out research on bacterial endocarditis. His research is still cited by scientists today.

From 12 April 2012, over 1,600 recorded sermons by Lloyd-Jones will available to download FREE of charge from the Martyn-Lloyd Jones Recordings Trust website. Only a once-off registration is required.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Crossing the River

The compelling first three sentences of Crossing The River, Caryll Phillips's 1993 novel set in the 18th century Trans-Atlantic slave trade:
A desperate foolishness. The crops failed. I sold my children.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Great it is to dream the dream...

Great it is to dream the dream
when you stand in youth by the starry stream.
But a greater thing is to fight life through
and say at the end, "The dream is true!"
John Osteen

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Arthur C. Clarke's Epitaph

Arthur C. Clarke (16 December 1917 - 19 March 2008) is one of my favourite scientists and science fiction authors. He died and is buried in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where the epitaph on his gravestone reads:

Here rests 
Sir Arthur Charles Clarke

He never grew up,
but he never stopped growing

Monday, April 09, 2012

The Gates are mine to open, As the Gates are mine to close

Bill Gates shared his thoughts about Africa with Stanford students on 4 April 2012 followed by a Q&A session. I admire Gates's business achievements and his foundation's humanitarian work, but his ideas about aid policy, however well-intentioned, are seriously misguided. I co-authored a 2009 FrontPage Magazine article explaining why.

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Dramatic Tension

On 11 September 1888, Anton Chekhov wrote to his publisher and friend A. S. Survorin about the tension between his medical and literary work:

[...] You advise me not to hunt after two hares, and not to think of medical work. I do not know why one should not hunt two hares even in the literal sense [...] I feel more confident and more satisfied with myself when I reflect that I have two professions and not one. Medicine is my lawful wife and literature is my mistress. When I get tired of one I spend the night with the other. Though it's disorderly, it's not so dull, and besides neither of them loses anything from my infidelity. If I did not have my medical work I doubt if I could have given my leisure and my spare thoughts to literature. There is no discipline in me.

Saturday, April 07, 2012

The purpose of a team

The purpose of an organization [or a team] is to make the strengths of people productive and their weaknesses irrelevant.

- Peter F. Drucker

Friday, April 06, 2012

A life of significance

Edward Kennedy's deeply moving funeral oration for his brother Robert F. Kennedy:

Thursday, April 05, 2012

Knowing where to tap

Good one (author unknown):

The engine of a giant ship failed. The ship's owners tried one expert after another, but none of them could figure how to fix the engine. Then they brought in an old man who had been fixing ships since he was a youngster. He carried a large bag of tools with him, and when he arrived, he immediately went to work. He inspected the engine very carefully, from top to bottom.

Two of the ship's owners were there, watching this man, hoping he would know what to do. After looking things over, the old man reached into his bag and pulled out a small hammer. He gently tapped something. Instantly, the engine lurched into life. He carefully put his hammer away. The engine was fixed! A week later, the owners received a bill from the old man for ten thousand dollars.

"What?!" the owners exclaimed. "He hardly did anything!"

So they wrote the old man a note saying, "Please send us an itemized bill."

The man sent a bill that read:

Tapping with a hammer ......................... $ 2.00
Knowing where to tap .....................$ 9,998.00

Tuesday, April 03, 2012

Writing and Speaking

Paul Graham's latest essay is on the theme "Writing and Speaking". He extols the virtue of text and disparages the value of speech. He says that the spoken word, or "talks" as he dismissively calls it, is "certainly inferior to the written word as a source of ideas". Perhaps this is to be expected since Graham is an excellent writer (in my opinion) and "not a very good speaker" (in his own opinion). Graham unfairly and inaccurately diminishes the value of the spoken work as a source of ideas. To address just one of Graham's arguments: he constrasts skillfully written texts full of ideas (of his own variety presumably) with extremely well delivered speeches that are very light on substance. This is a classic false dichotomy. There are plenty of examples of insubstantial but well written texts and substantial and well delivered speeches (and not just the "academic talks" Graham mentions in endnote [1]). And indeed examples of various other permutations exist e.g. poorly written insubstantial texts and poorly delivered substantial speeches. It's certainly not a case of: either a well written substantial text, or a well delivered insubstantial speech, with a few exceptions thrown in. In any case, in my view, it's fundamentally impossible to really separate the spoken word and the written word. But Graham's essay served the purpose that all good essays should: it stimulated the thoughts of the reader. Or at least this reader.

Sunday, April 01, 2012

Do Hugh take this woman...?

On my hit list (to buy): Bra Hugh's (otherwise known as Hugh Masekela) latest album (Amazon, iTunes, Youtube sample). It's a collection of wedding(-related) songs.