On technology, governance and development

By now many of you have perhaps seen the takedowns of TED talks (see here, highly recommended), which some think have become rather pedestrian (I still find most TED talks insightful, just for the record).

The pushback against the belief among some disciples of TED talks that technology is the answer to all of humanity’s problems (whether this depiction is accurate or not) also speaks to the issues of governance and development. As Shea, the Journal’s blogger points out:

……. Morozov also detects, besides superficiality, a distinctively TED-style attitude toward politics in which institutions and democratic debate are derided and technology is looked to as a deus ex machina that will solve such once-intractable problems as poverty and illiteracy—obviating those pesky voters and squabbling elected leaders.

The global “development sector” has recently seen a wave of tech-inspired attempts to accelerate development by bypassing politics and other socio-cultural inhibitors, with little success (development economists are also implicated here). The lesson that many have missed is that bad governance and underdevelopment are not primarily technical problems that can be fixed by experts. Many have fallen to the temptation of thinking that,

…. technology is an autonomous force with its own logic that does not bend under the wicked pressure of politics or capitalism or tribalism; all that we humans can do is find a way to harness its logic for our own purposes. Technology is the magic wand that lifts nations from poverty, cures diseases, redistributes power, and promises immortality to the human race.

The characterization of governance and development as purely technical risks abstracting too much away from the human beings that development is supposed to help. Think of how scientific communism worked out. Statements like the one below are a reminder that bad ideas die hard.

Using technology to deliberate on matters of national importance, deliver public services, and incorporate citizen feedback may ultimately be a truer form of direct participation than a system of indirect representation and infrequent elections. Democracy depends on the participation of crowds, but doesn’t guarantee their wisdom. We cannot be afraid of technocracy when the alternative is the futile populism of Argentines, Hungarians, and Thais masquerading as democracy. It is precisely these nonfunctional democracies that are prime candidates to be superseded by better-designed technocracies—likely delivering more benefits to their citizens…. To the extent that China provides guidance for governance that Western democracies don’t, it is in having “technocrats with term limits.”

The problem, of course, is that more often than not these “technocrats” in the poor countries of the world (read those with the most and biggest guns, a.k.a autocrats) are woefully incompetent (see here) and never observe their term limits (this classic on dictatorship comes to mind).

The question of what to do with the relatively more competent autocrats will be the subject of a future post.

H/T Ideas Market

So you want to be a bank robber?

Turns out being a bank robber is not as lucrative as it may sound.

“In what’s billed as the first cost-benefit analysis of such crimes, the authors note that Britain saw 106 attempted or successful robberies of 10,500 branch banks in 2007. The average haul was $31,600, including the one-third of attempts that came up empty. The average “successful” heist landed about $46,600 — but about 20% of those successes were later tarnished, to say the least, when the raiders were arrested. Each incident involved an average of 1.6 people, resulting in a per-person take of $19,750: a mere half-years’ worth of wages for the average Britisher. (In the U.S., the authors say, the average total bank-robbery take, per incident, is even smaller, just over $4,000.) Think a half-year’s salary isn’t bad for one day’s work, plus a little planning? A “career” bank robber would more likely than not be arrested after only four attempts” [Shea, WSJ Blog]

More on this here.

The Extramarital Origins of Poverty and dictatorship?

Polygyny is widespread across many human societies….

Yet in much of the world, particularly the wealthier parts, monogamy — albeit with cheating around the edges — has flourished. Why? The article says the answer lies in the “group selection” advantages conferred by the one-wife norm, which reduces the pool of men who can’t find any wife at all, making them less likely to become socially alienated and violent. And the practice helps the elite, too: “By shifting male efforts from seeking wives to paternal investment, normative monogamy increases savings, child investment and economic productivity.”

It is important to note that:

The authors stress that it is not only monogamy that causes cultures to flourish but any “polygyny-inhibiting” cultural practices. That would include Islam’s restrictions on the number of wives men can take (four, the authors say).

In conclusion the authors note that:

it is worth speculating that the spread of normative monogamy, which represents a form of egalitarianism, may have helped create the conditions for the emergence of democracy and political equality at all levels of government. Within the anthropological record, there is a statistical linkage between democratic institutions and normative monogamy. Pushing this point, these authors argue that dissipating the pool of unmarried males weakens despots, as it reduces their ability to find soldiers or henchman.

The entire paper (click here) has more nuance than this summary depicts. You may not agree with all the implications of the findings (I for one remain dubious, I couldn’t help but suspect potentially serious cases of omitted variable bias), but it is definitely worth a read.

HT WSJ Blog here.