Pockets of California amid sub-Saharan Africa?

Rant and rave alert. 

As an undergrad at Yale I took several classes in which professors, TAs and fellow students would casually say things that insinuated that all of Africa (read sub-Saharan Africa) was a cross between a hospice, a giant slum and a war zone. Let’s just say that it all made me a little bit uncomfortable, and sometimes forced me to over-compensate in discussions and with papers and homework. I was particularly disappointed in my professors for not knowing any better. It probably also played a big role in my choice to pursue a career as an academic in the social sciences. 

The quote below reminded me of those episodes:

Despite considerable economic growth and increasing self-confidence as a major global player, modern India is a disaster zone in which millions of lives are wrecked by hunger and by pitiable investment in health and education services. Pockets of California amid sub-Saharan Africa, sum up Sen and Drèze.

It’s one thing when an ignoramus who imagines Kenya to be a town in South Africa that does a mean giraffe barbecue says something nasty about an entire region and its people. But it’s quite another when it comes from a college professor or from people that you expect to know better. 

For instance, when we say California, are we talking Palo Alto or East Palo Alto? I must add here that because it is Sen (my beloved author of The Idea of Justice), may be he meant the “median Californian experience” vs the “median African experience” as opposed to simply comparing Palo Alto with Kibera. May be.

I admire Prof. Sen. Very much.  But I would like to register my disappointment over this offending line. The full article in the Guardian is actually quite illuminating regarding inequality in India. 

If you ever teach a class or write a book or newspaper article or give a talk, please know that it is not kosher to use the word Africa as short hand for everything that you imagine to be wrong with this world. Always remember that part of your audience might include real flesh and blood Africans. Spare us the awkwardness. Please. 

The decline of Economic History at MIT

What is the cost of not having economic history at MIT? It can be seen in Acemoglu and Robinson, Why Nations Fail (2012). This is a deservedly successful popular book, making a simple and strong point that the authors made originally at the professional level over a decade before (Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson, 2001). They assert that countries can be “ruled by a narrow elite that have [sic] organized society for their own benefit at the expense of the vast mass of people” or can have “a revolution that transformed the politics and thus the economics of the nation … to expand their economic opportunities (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012, pp. 3-4).”

The book is not however good economic history. It is an example of Whig history in which good policies make for progress and bad policies preclude it. Only transitions from bad to good are considered in this colorful but still monotonic story. The clear implication is that if countries can copy the policies of English-speaking countries, they will prosper. No consideration is given to Britain’s economic problems over the past half-century or of Australia’s relative decline for a century.

That is Peter Temin writing about the story of Economic History at MIT in the 20th century. For more click here (H/T Greg Mankiw).

Also, to be honest, one of the reasons I am into development (and the politics around it) is because of my fascination with economic history. I wish more development practitioners and theorists alike cared a little bit more about economic history. At the very least, looking at how things really actually worked out in the past serves to temper the urge to completely fall for the latest fad within the development industry. 

Is Peer Review in Decline?

One more reason for academics to keep blogging….

Glenn Ellison in this paper notes the general decline in the need for academics from top institutions to publish in top journals because they can get citations [hopefully confirming that they were right] by other means – through sites like SSRN [and perhaps even by sharing their works in the blogosphere]

Over the past decade, there has been a decline in the fraction of papers in top economics journals written by economists from the highest-ranked economics departments. This paper documents this fact and uses additional data on publications and citations to assess various potential explanations. Several observations are consistent with the hypothesis that the Internet improves the ability of high-profile authors to disseminate their research without going through the traditional peer-review process.

The author further notes that:

I started this paper by pointing out two trends: economists in several highly regarded departments are publishing fewer papers in the top field journals; and Harvard’s economics department is also publishing fewer papers in the top general interest journals.

Several pieces of evidence bolster the view that one factor contributing to these trends is that the role of journals in disseminating research has been reduced. One is that the citation benefit to publishing in a top general interest journal now appears to be fairly small for top-department authors. Another is that Harvard authors appear to be quite successful in garnering citations to papers that are not published in top journals. The fact that the publication declines appear to be a top-department phenomenon (as opposed to a prolific-author phenomenon) suggests that a top-department affiliation may be an important determinant of an author’s ability to sidestep the traditional journal system.