Thoughts of a Warrior-Scholar

I’ve started reading H. R. McMaster’s Dereliction of Duty.

As some of you may know, McMaster is the new national security advisor to U.S. President Donald Trump. I chose the title of this post because, besides sounding great, the term “warrior-scholar” pretty much describes the professors and cadets that I met on my one visit to West Point. The American system of government (including its national security apparatus) has its faults, but a good chunk of Americans certainly do try to engage in everyday performative expressions of the (admittedly still aspirational) ideals of their republic.

Here are two paragraphs in Dereliction of Duty that caught my eye:

McNamara’s Whiz Kids were like-minded men who shared their leader’s penchant for quantitative analysis and suspicion of proposals based solely on “military experience.” Many of them had worked in think tanks and research corporations, such as RAND, and they were eager to apply their techniques to the problems of the Defense Department. Taylor recalled that “cost-effectiveness charts appeared on all the walls, and a whole host of requests for information and advice flooded the JCS.” The two most important offices were Paul Nitze’s International Security Affairs (ISA) and Alain Enthoven’s Systems Analysis divisions.

Enthoven quickly became McNamara’s point man in establishing firm civilian control over the Defense Department. His flair for quantitative analysis was exceeded only by his arrogance.70 Enthoven held military experience in low regard and considered military men intellectually inferior. He likened leaving military decision making to the professional military to allowing welfare workers to develop national welfare programs. Enthoven suggested that military experience “can be a disadvantage because it discourages seeing the larger picture.” He and many of his colleagues believed that most people in the Department of Defense simply tried to “advance their particular project or their service or their department.” He was convinced that “there was little in the typical officer’s early career that qualifies him to be a better strategic planner than… a graduate of the Harvard Business School.” He used statistics to analyze defense programs and issues and then gave the secretary of defense and the president information needed to make decisions. Enthoven saw no limits to the applicability of his methods.

It’s almost as if McMaster had read William Easterly’s Tyranny of Experts. These two paragraphs highlight the dangers of privileging narrowly defined ways of “knowing”; especially when dealing with complex social systems as typically the case with policymaking. McNamara, for some reason, imagined that he could tame Vietnam solely by faithfully following the numbers.


What does it mean to be “tough on crime”?

This is from Alex Tabarrok over at MR:

Our focus on prisons over police may be crazy but it is consistent with what I called Gary Becker’s Greatest Mistake, the idea that an optimal punishment system combines a low probability of being punished with a harsh punishment if caught. That theory runs counter to what I have called the good parenting theory of punishment in which optimal punishments are quick, clear, and consistent and because of that, need not be harsh.

We need to change what it means to be “tough on crime.” Instead of longer sentences let’s make “tough on crime” mean increasing the probability of capture for those who commit crimes.

More on this here.

In my public policy class this semester we read the sad story of Thabo Mbeki’s capture by “dissident” scientists who sold him unconventional policy approaches to South Africa’s AIDS epidemic. The lesson was that we should always be wary of allowing experts too much leeway in deciding actual policy. This means more debate (both among experts and by the public) and routine rigorous evaluation to strengthen the quality of feedback after policy rollouts.

Social Science is awesome. And may the credibility revolution live on. But the world certainly needs more humble social scientists.

Working With the Grain in Development

I finally got to reading Brian Levy’s Working With the Grain. It is easily the most underestimated development book of 2014, and should be read alongside William Easterly’s Tyranny of Experts (which it both complements and pushes back against). Like Easterly, Levy worked at the Bank and has insightful case studies and anecdotes from South Korea, to Ethiopia, to Bangladesh, among other countries. The book’s main thrust is that approaches to interventionist development policy ought to internalize the fact that:

… Successful reforms need to be aligned with a country’s political and institutional realities. For any specific reform, an incentive compatible approach begins by asking, who might be the critical mass of actors who both have standing and a stake in the proposed arrangements – and so are in a position to support and protect them in the face of opposition? [p. 142-3]

From a policy perspective, Levy tackles the relationship between governance, regime types, and development head on. How do you deal with the Biyas, Kagames or Zenawis of this world if you deeply care about [both] the material aspects of human welfare – roads, hospitals, schools, electricity, etc., [and] political freedoms and inclusive institutions?

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Levy’s answer is that development experts should work with the grain, focusing on incrementally solidifying past gains in specific agencies and issue areas, instead of engaging in epic battles against ill-defined and equally poorly understood “bad institutions” and evils like “corruption.” He aptly points out that you do not need the full set of the “good governance” bundle in order to continue chugging along on the path to economic prosperity.

In other words, we don’t have to put everything else on pause until we get the institutions right (or topple the bad guys). It is not an all or nothing game. His argument is persuasive (“good governance” has failed as a prescriptive remedy for underdevelopment), albeit at the cost of casting the immense toll of living under autocratic regimes as somewhat ineluctable on the road to economic prosperity. But at least he dares to challenge conventional approaches to governance reform that have at best failed, and at worst distracted governing elites from initiatives that could have worked to improve human welfare in developing countries.

As I read the book I wondered what Levy might think of the current state of development research. We are lucky to live in an age of increasing appreciation for evidence-based policy development, implementation, and evaluation. However, the resulting aura of “objectivity” in development research often leaves little room for politics, and its inefficiencies and contextual nuances. Sometimes the quest for generalizability makes us get too much into the weeds and forget that what is good for journal reviewers seldom passes the politicians’ (or other influential actors’) incentive compatibility test, rendering our findings useless from their perspective.

It is obvious, but worth reiterating, that the outcomes we can quantify, and therefore study, do not always overlap with the most pressing issues in development or policies that are politically feasible.

Perhaps this is a call for greater investment in public policy schools (not two-day capacity building workshops) in the developing world that will train experts to bridge the gap between academic development research and actual policy formulation and implementation (talking to policymakers makes your realize that this gap is wider than you think). Linking research findings to actual policy may sound easy, but you only need to see a “policy recommendations” section of a report written by those of us in the academy to know that it is not.

In which I talk development with Bill Easterly and others on Al Jazeera

This afternoon I joined NYU’s William Easterly, Ingrid Kvangraven of the New School and Daniel Kaufmann of Revenue Watch to talk about Easterly’s new book, The Tyranny of Experts. You will notice that I am a huge fan of STATE CAPACITY.

(Apparently, graduate school prepares you not for TV appearances…)


Note: If you are in the US you have to VPN it since al jazeera doesn’t stream content in the US.

In preparation for the show I finally finished reading Easterly’s book. A review is coming soon (grad school permitting). 


Top posts of 2013

Borrowing from Jay Ulfelder here is a list (by total views) of the top ten posts on An Africanist Perspective in 2013. Incidentally, Jay was the inspiration behind four of the top ten posts of the year – he nudged me to stick my neck out and predict the outcome of the Kenyan election. Also, this month the blog turned six. Many thanks to Chris Blattman and other academic bloggers out there for inspiration back in the day when as an undergrad in New Haven I kept writing even though no one was reading the blog.

10. Who is the African child on the cover of William Easterly’s new book? (as I noted in the post below this one was a hit on twitter, and earned a spot on the top ten list even though I only posted it this month).

9. Sloppy reporting on the Kenyan elections (some of you might remember that Kenya had elections earlier in the year in which Kenyans, including yours truly, criticized some of the coverage by the international press).

8. What next for Kenya’s policy on Somalia? (this was a reflection on what Kenya might do in reaction to the Westgate terror attack that killed dozens of Kenyans and foreign nationals).

7. Corruption under apartheid South Africa, 1976-1994 (and its present institutional legacy) (this was my attempt to link present corrupt practices in the government of South Africa to their historical institutional basis – a running theme in my thinking and writing, you may have noticed, is that discontinuities are often a mirage; things only change marginally most of the time. INSTITUTIONS RULE!).

6. Kenyan Elections 2013 Polling Trends (Presidential Race) (Posts on the Kenyan election were a hit earlier in the year).

5. Why Raila Odinga Lost (For many observers the 2013 election was Raila Odinga’s to lose. So why did he lose?)

4. Who will win the Kenyan presidential election? A look at the numbers (Just for the record: (i) I got Kenyatta’s margin of victory right; (ii) I still do not think he got passed the constitutionally required 50%+1 votes; (iii) I was wrong in predicting an Odinga victory in round 2, Kenyatta would have won a round 2 easily because of Odinga’s woeful performance in the Rift Valley and failure to match Kenyatta’s turnout rates – see number 5 above).

3. KCSE results to be released monday (National exams at the end of secondary school are a big deal in Kenya – they determine one’s placement and major in the public universities; notice that the post is from 2011 but got hits from Google searches this year).

2. The Presidential Race in Kenya’s 4th of March 2013 Election (More on the Kenyan election; again I was wrong on the possibility of an Odinga victory in the second round).

1. Uhuru Kenyatta Emerges as 1st Round Favorite in Kenya’s March 4th Poll (Did the outcome of the presidential election reflect the will of the Kenyan people, i.e. the majority of voters? My answer is yes. I still think that there were shady tricks involved in pushing Kenyatta past 50% – he got a mere 9000 votes out of over 12 million votes cast past 50%. But he was on course to win the second round. I still wish the Supreme Court had ordered a runoff in order to give Mr. Kenyatta a cleaner mandate than he presently has and to dampen the feeling among the vast majority of Odinga supporters (and the wider left in Kenya) that the election was stolen by the conservative establishment).

If you ask me, this was my favorite post of the year.

Happy Holidays!