The Road to Unfreedom

The Road to Unfreedom, written by Timothy Snyder, a professor at Yale University in the United States,  is a persuasive, revealing but disturbing book that links the present political problems in Europe, Russia and the United States.

The central idea in the book is two ways of living in time, two ways of translating facts into stories.  Both notions are false and lead us towards authoritarianism, hence the title “road to unfreedom”.  The two stories are the Politics of Inevitability and the Politics of Eternity.

In the politics of inevitability, there is one fixed future without alternatives in which life will be better for everyone.  It is the “end of history” discourse.  History is moving towards a clear end. The problem is that it blinds societies for the inevitable unattractive alternatives.  For example, if you believe that the internet only brings enlightenment, you don’t see the negative influence the internet has on democracy and inequality.

In the American capitalist version of this story, nature brought the market, which brought democracy, which brought happiness. In the European version, history brought the nation, which learned from war that peace was good, and hence chose integration and prosperity.  Before the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, communism had its own politics of inevitability: nature permits technology; technology brings social change; social change causes revolution; revolution enacts utopia.

Accepting that the future is fixed is to deny individual responsibility for making change.  The main problem of the politics of inevitability is that it opens the door to something worse. Financial or economic shocks may shift countries from a politics of inevitability to a politics of eternity.

In the politics of eternity, there is no future, only a nostalgic loop back to a glorious past.  Time is not a line but a circle.

The natural successor of the veil of inevitability is the shroud of eternity, but there are alternatives that must be found before the shroud drops. If we accept eternity, we sacrifice individuality, and will no longer see possibility.

Russia has reached the stage of eternity first.  It went through the politics of inevitability during the 1990s to reach the politics of eternity with the rise to power of Vladimir Putin.  Hydrocarbons, oligarchy and a lack of succession mechanisms drove this fast evolution towards eternity.

Europe and the USA are in a politics of inevitability and risk moving to a politics of eternity. Russia actively intervenes in European and American politics to realize this move to eternity, but there are also internal factors both within Europe and the United States: inequality, mythical representations of the past, oligarchy, a reliance on hydrocarbons and the demise of an independent and critical press, the weakening of institutions and the disregard for facts and experts.

The West is vulnerable as it believes in the notion of a glorious nation state past, whereas, in fact, European countries moved to European integration after their empires collapsed.

The politics of eternity is attractive for despots as it offers a solution to the challenges of succession and the inequality of wealth.  In a politics of eternity, elections are just a ritual and the leader comes from outside the system.  By removing the succession question, the immediate future is taken away and replaced by an endless loop of outside leaders.  Secondly, each person has its fixed place within the society, like cells in a body.  Therefore, there is no space for personal advancement which is convenient for the extreme rich, in Russia or other regions with high inequality.

Rather than discuss reforms, eternity politicians designate external threats. Rather than presenting a future with possibilities and hopes, they offer an eternal present with defined enemies and artificial crises. For this to work, citizens have to meet eternity politicians halfway. Demoralized by their inability to change their life, they must accept that the meaning of politics lies not in institutional reform but in daily emotion. They must stop thinking about a better and prefer the constant invocation of a proud past.

In the politics of eternity, facts don’t matter.  Everything is a lie and in such a world, your lies are as much worth as someone else’s lies.  To end factuality is to begin eternity. If citizens doubt everything, they cannot see alternative models beyond the country’s borders, cannot have sensible discussions about reform, and cannot trust one another enough to organize political change.  Putin’s direct assault on factuality is called implausible deniability. By denying things that are obviously true, he moves the focus from reporting the facts to a reality show about the men in power. Russian media create a climate in which news is entertainment.

The politics of eternity requires and produces problems that are insoluble because they are fictional. For Russia in 2012, the fictional problem became the designs of the European Union and the United States to destroy Russia.  It was best not to speak of actual threats, since discussing actual enemies would reveal actual weaknesses.  Russia’s real geopolitical problem was China. The West was chosen as an enemy precisely because it represented no threat to Russia.

The EU was presented as an existential threat to Russia, because it enforced law and generated prosperity. Russia has been trying to define success in this war not in terms of prosperity and freedom but in terms of sexuality and culture, and that the European Union (and the United States) be defined as threats not because of anything they did but because of the values they supposedly represent.

The essence of Russia’s foreign policy is a strategic relativism: Russia cannot become stronger, so it must make others weaker.  Russia sees international politics as a negative-sum game, where a skillful player can win by losing less than everyone else. The simplest way to make others weaker is to make them more like Russia.

In 2013, Russia began to influence its European neighbors into abandoning their own institutions and histories. It did so by supporting the extreme Right within EU member states.  It stimulates a discourse that harks back to a glorious, but fictional past of a wise and prosperous nation state. They do this through cyberwarfare, supporting extremist organizations and foreign policy.

Useful idiots like Farage and Le Pen propose a return to a nonexistent past, when Europeans lived in nation-states without immigrants. They are eternity politicians. Both Great Britain and France had been maritime empires that, as their colonies won independence, joined a European integration project. The European Union was a necessity for crumbling empires that lost colonial wars. Because they had no modern history as nation-states, an exit from the European Union would be a step into the unknown rather than the homecoming promised by nationalism.

Cyberwarfare is the preferred instrument, using cyber-attacks and controlling the online conversation by armies of bots.  The same bots were used in Ukraine, Brexit, US elections and various European elections. Twitter accounts that posted on Brexit were linked to Russia’s Internet Research Agency—later, every single one of them would also post on behalf of Donald Trump’s presidential campaign.  About a third of the discussion of Brexit on Twitter was generated by bots—and more than 90% of the bots tweeting political material were not located in the United Kingdom.

Russia bombed Syria to generate refugees, then encouraged Europeans to panic in order to weaken the German government and help the AfD.  Russia supplied not just the refugees themselves, but also the image of them as terrorists and rapists.  Russian-backed social media in Germany the Alternatif fur Deutschland (AfD) as the savior of Germany.

The American politics of inevitability gave way to a politics of eternity with the election of Trump. As in Europe, there are the vulnerabilities of the United States created by a politics of inevitability that are exploited by an aggressive Russian foreign policy.

It was in the places where the American dream had died that Trump’s politics of eternity worked.  Also, after the financial crisis of 2008, the American local press collapsed, leaving Americans to the internet for their information.  Few anticipated that the internet would be used against them.

Trump is a perfect politician of eternity. He called for a return to the past, to a time when America was great.   He creates a fantasy of the innocent us and the guilty then with the fictional idea of the wall.  The fictional creation “Donald Trump, successful businessman” fills the public space with untruth.  He never apologizes for lies, since doing so would be to recognize that such a thing as truth exists.  His claims to be the eternal victim are characteristics of a politics of eternity.

Russia’s intervention in the 2016 U.S. election was not just an attempt to get a certain person elected. It was also the application of pressure to the democratic structure by making the system slightly less representative, tilting the system towards authoritarianism. The victory of a Russian-backed candidate could be less important, in the long run, than the erosion of democracy.

Is there a way off the road to unfreedom?  There is, but Snyder is pessimistic.  The conclusion of this tale lies in the acknowledgment that Putin’s strategy has been very successful in shaking our faith in the sanctity of fact and expert knowledge.  The way to leave the road to unfreedom is through a politics of responsibility:

If we see history as it is, we see our places in it, what we might change, and how we might do better. We halt our thoughtless journey from inevitability to eternity and exit the road to unfreedom. We begin a politics of responsibility.

What does it mean to be responsible?

The politics of inevitability takes responsibility for the future away. Responsibility means discussing political choices and possible futures, realizing that our individual choices matter. It means accepting that people have ideas that don’t fit our preconceptions and looking for compromise. It means realizing how important conventions and mutual respect are as a way of maintaining order and civility — and how easily and carelessly they can be smashed.

We must keep digging for the facts and exposing falsehoods.  We should mistrust one-sided accounts of the past or the present.

Learn history: not in order to predict the future, but to free yourself of the past and imagine alternative destinies.  Yuval Noah Harari, Homo deus

A politics of responsibility would have to be about the future, not about a non-existing past. It should be about an active production of facts, investigative journalism and promoting quality local media.  It is also about investing in high quality education and renewable energy and cherishing the institutions that make it possible for individuals to act responsibly.

Although the book is mainly about Russia, Europe and the United States, the ideas of the book are relevant for developing countries as well. Snyder also highlights the importance of a quality public education system to develop critical citizens.

The Globalization Paradox

Rodrik is a globalization skeptic in the line of Ha Joon Chang. He is not against globalization, but put the mantra of free markets into perspective. Rodrik spends a considerable part of his book on the history of globalization. He focuses on 2 periods of strong globalization.  The first one, between 1820 and the First World War, the increase in global trade was based on imperialist policies, thereby forcing other countries to open their markets and accept unfavorable trade treaties (globalization by gunboat), and on the gold standard, which works fine as long as you don’t have a democracy to prevent the painful internal devaluations that are needed from time to time.  The globalization drive after the second world war was based on the Bretton-Woods system and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) within a multilateral world order, guaranteed by the US (dollar-exchange standard).  These are the precursors to the World Trade Organisation (WTO), founded in 1995, but are based on different premises. Bretton-Woods and GATT respect the primacy of the nation-state limiting the reach of globalization where it creates conflicts with nation states.  In contrast, the WTO aims towards hyperglobalization, even when it has negative consequences for nation states (e.g,, agriculture, food regulations, financial services) or undermines democratic decision-making within nation states.  Recent economic success stories such as China and South Korea are due more to playing by the Bretton-Woods rules than WTO rules, relying on export subsidies, import tariffs and weak enforcement of intellectual property laws.

Rodrik sees a fundamental trilemma between globalization, nation states and democracy.  You can have two, any two, but not all three. If you want globalization and democracy, you need global institutions, undermining the nation-state.  If you want nation states and democracy, you can’t have deep globalization, as this requires global rules and creates the enormous capital flows that can undermine domestic economies.


Rodrik’s trilemma helps to gain insight in many current politics.  Globalisation causes a power shift to the supranational level, often to non-democratic institutions (IMF, ECB, multinational companies, WTO).  At the same time, many challenges remain deeply national, such as ageing populations, social safety, migration, inequality as a result of winner-takes-all markets.  International mobility of goods and finance makes that nations tend to engage in races to the bottom (lowering taxes, standards) to attract investment and capital. Currently, globalisation and nation states seem to have the upper hand, eroding democracy.  The power of electorates to significantly influence key economic and social decisions has become very limited, such is the disciplining force of international markets.  The rise of populist parties and Brexit are consequences of this democratic erosion.  Rodrik does not consider global democratic institutions realistic and therefore pleads for returning to nation states more power to set their economic and social policies within a set of global “traffic rules”, such as keeping trade imbalances in check. This would require scattering some sand in the wheels of international finance, like a financial transactions tax.

For developing countries, the situation is even more dire. Globalization has a tendency to “freeze” a country’s role in the international division of labor. In a globalized world, countries that live from exporting resources have little incentives to diversify and invest in representative institutions and education level of their population. Secondly, within the WTO system, many industrial policies that were used by developed countries are no longer allowed, such as protection of domestic industries, export subsidies, capital controls, currency devaluations and weak enforcement of intellectual property.  Rodrik reminds us of the fact that the USA and the UK were notable protectionists until their industries were strong enough to stand on their own feet.  Thirdly, manufacturing as a powerful driver of economic development for low-income countries may have run its course.

Manufacturing became a powerful driver of economic development for low-income countries for three reasons. First, it was relatively easy to absorb technology from abroad and generate high-productivity jobs. Second, manufacturing jobs did not require highly skill: farmers could be turned into production workers in factories with little investment in additional training. And, third, manufacturing demand was not constrained by low domestic incomes: production could expand through exports. But manufacturing has become increasingly skill-intensive which has made it very difficult for newcomers to break into world markets for manufacturing.

Exodus: Costs and Benefits of Mass Migration

exodusExodus discusses the costs and benefits of mass migration.  Paul Collier (author of “The Bottom Billion”) looks at migration from the viewpoint of the migrants, the population of the receiving country and the population of the country of origin.  Most people about migration argue either that it is good or bad. They address the wrong question, says Mr Collier. The right one is: how much more migration would be beneficial, and to whom?

Collier identifies 3 factors that determine the migration rate: the width of the income gap (which he sees as a temporay distortion during which prosperity is not yet globalised), the income level in the country of origin and the size of the diaspora (and the absorption rate).  The second factor implies that migration might increase when a country of origin becomes richer, as more people are able to afford the trip.  The absorption rate is the speed with which migrations adopt the norms of the host society.  The rate tends to decrease with the size of the migrant community in a country, as new arrivals have fewer incentives to adopt norms of the host country when there is already a large diaspora network.  Therefore, initiatives (language programmes, geographical spreading, apprenticeship programmes) that help to increase the absorption rate are useful, as they can sustain a higher migration rate.  Such policies explain why the US has a higher absorption rate than France.
Migration makes migrants better off. If it did not, they would go home. Those who move from poor countries to rich ones quickly start earning rich-country wages, which may be ten times more than they could have earned back home. “Their productivity rockets upwards,” says Mr Collier, because they are “escaping from countries with dysfunctional social models”.  This is crucial. Most rich countries are rich because they are well organised, and poor countries are poor because they are not. Nationalism has positive aspects as it enables people to cooperate beyond the family or clan level and to redistribute resources.  Cooperation requires trust and easily breaks down (e.g. free riders) .  As other did (Acemoglu and Robinson), he points to the importance of inclusive (rather than extractive) institutions and trust in the development of a country.  High-trust societies have the institutions and norms that enable development.  France is richer than Nigeria because its social model is superior.  A factory worker in Nigeria produces less than he would in France because the society around him is dysfunctional: the power keeps failing, spare parts do not arrive on time and managers “are busy battling bribe-hungry bureaucrats”. When a rich country lets in immigrants, it is extending to them the benefits of good governance and the rule of law.
What of the countries that receive immigrants? Mr Collier argues that they have benefited from past immigration, but will probably suffer if it continues unchecked.  Continued mass immigration threatens the cultural cohesion of rich countries.  There is a trade-off between positive effects of cultural variety (no real demographic positive effects) and negative effects on social cohesion, but these effects play with different groups in society.  The young, affluent middle classes are the big beneficiaries of variety. In contrast, those people on benefits like social housing or welfare, whether because they are unemployed or pensioners, experience most competition from immigrants and are the most vulnerable to the weakening of cohesion.  Collier refers to the work of Robert Putnam in the US who showed how immigration lead to a decrease of trust, not only between indigenous population and immigrants, but also among the indigenous population (“hunkering down”).  This has effects on people’s willingness to support welfare policies.  A shared sense of identity is a condition for social redistribution.  People need to see people who need state welfare as themselves minus the good luck.
Finally, Mr Collier looks at the effect of emigration on poor countries. Up to a point, it makes them better off, dispelling notions of “brain drains”. Emigrants send good ideas and hard currency home. The prospect of emigration prompts locals to study hard and learn useful skills; many then stay behind and enrich the domestic talent pool instead. But if too many educated people leave, poor countries are worse off. Big emerging markets such as China, India and Brazil benefit from emigration, but the smallest and poorest nations do not: Haiti, for example, has lost 85% of its educated people.

 Collier is quite pessimistic, but it is hard not to see the recent surge in populism and anti-immigration policies as a vindication of his warnings.  As Milanovic did, he suggests looking into ways to give immigrants a special statute (e.g. higher taxes, temporary residency, limited access to social welfare).  These policies might seem discriminatory or harsh, Collier writes, they might be better than the current situation, both for the countries of origin and for the countries of destination.

Global Inequality – Branko Milanovic

Global inequality is composed of inequality between countries and inequality within countries.  We can describe inequality within countries by “Kuznets waves”.  Inequality first rises as a country grows richer and when it has achieved a certain income level, inequality gradually decreases.  The theory fails to explain though why inequality has risen in developed countries since 1990, notably in the US, but also in Europe.  Milanovic introduces the concept of Kuznets cycles, rather than waves.  Benign and malign forces drive inequality up or down. High inequality is unsustainable and creates the seeds for destructive events that reduce it, but in their wake also destroy much else.
Forces that push inequality up are:
  • higher returns on capital than labour (Piketty factor)
  • high incomes from labour and capital are increasingly concentrated in the same peoplez
  • technological innovation that favours the rich (capital rents, higher wage dispersion)
  • decreasing power of unions (due to changing labour markets)
  • high availability of labour (opening up of China, India and USSR in 1990s)
  • increasing scalability and emergence of more winner-takes-all markets (e.g. education)
  • capture of political process (democracy) and media by the rich
  • monopolisation of sectors
Forces that reduce inequality are (malign or benign)
  • investment in public education
  • redistribution of wealth through progressive taxes or social programmes
  • wars, epidemics and natural disasters (World Wars or the Plague in medieval times)
  • scarcity of labour (can be reduced by immigration)
  • technological innovation that favours the poor (speculative)
Although inequality has been rising in developed countries, at the global level it has been decreasing for quite some time.  This is mainly due to the rise of China and, to a lesser extent, other Asian countries (India, Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand).  This has come mainly at the expense of the lower middle class in Western countries.  The figure below shows how the 99th percentile (global plutocrats) and 50th-60th percentile (upper middle class in Asia) has done well during the last 20 years, whereas the 80th-90th percentile saw its income stagnating.  He notes that, as China grows richer, it will in the near future contribute to global inequality, rather than being a reducing force.

Lower inequality between countries reduces the “citizenship rent”, the importance of where one is born for whether will be rich or not. This does not mean that the “lottery of birth” becomes less important, as social mobility within countries has been decreasing.  However, in our (Western) discourse about rising inequality, it is important to note that on a global level, inequality is actually going down.  The decrease is mainly due to the rise of Asia, Africa is not contributing at all.
Milanovic discusses some of the consequences of high inequality.  On migration, which he sees as an inevitable consequence of globalization, he advocates (as Collier does) for limited access to citizenship rights (temporary worker status, higher taxes) to compensate for their higher productivity as a result of migration and access to a superior social model.  On politics, he sees plutocracy (the US option) and populism (the EU option) as consequences of high inequality and the reduced size of the middle class. A smaller middle class results in lower support for public services such as health and education and more attention for internal security and defense.  The slide away from democracy is masked by shifting attention to issues such as nationalism and identity and by overestimating social mobility.  He refers to the work of Jan Tinbergen who showed how returns on education are highest in poor countries, where few people have access to higher education.  In developed countries, access to education is widespread, the return decreases, but connections and sheer luck determine who gets access to well-paying jobs.
Milanovic present an impressive range of data and charts to make his case.  It is not an optimistic book, as he doesn’t see many benign forces that are strong enough to reduce inequality, especially in the US.

Understandings and Misunderstandings about RCTs

angus-deatonPolicy makers and the media have shown a remarkable preference for Randomized Controlled Trials or RCTs in recent times. After their breakthrough in medicine, they are increasingly hailed as a way to bring human sciences into the realm of ‘evidence’-based policy. RCTs are believed to be accurate, objective and independent of the expert knowledge that is so widely distrusted these days. Policy makers are attracted by the seemingly ideology-free and theory-free focus on ‘what works’ in the RCT discourse.

Part of the appeal of RCTs lies in their simplicity.  Trials are easily explained along the lines that random selection generates two otherwise identical groups, one treated and one not. All we need is to compare two averages.  Unlike other methods, RCTs don’t require specialized understanding of the subject matter or prior knowledge. As such, it seems a truly general tool that works in the same way in agriculture, medicine, economics and education.

Deaton cautions against this view of RCTs as the magic bullet in social research. In a lengthy but well readable NBER paper he outlines a range of misunderstandings with RCTs. These broadly fall into two categories: problems with the running of RCTs and problems with their interpretation.

Firstly, RCTs require minimal assumptions, prior knowledge or insight in the context. They are non-parametric and no information is needed about the underlying nature of the data (no assumptions about covariates, heterogeneous treatment effects or shape of statistical distributions of the variables).  A crucial disadvantage of this simplicity is that precision is reduced, because no prior knowledge or theories can be used to design a more refined research hypothesis.  Precision is not the same as a lack of bias.  In RCTs treatment and control groups come from the same underlying distribution. Randomization guarantees that the net average balance of other causes (error term) is zero, but only when the RCT is repeated many times on the same population (which is rarely done). I hadn’t realized this before and it’s almost never mentioned in reports.  But it makes sense. In any one trial, the difference in means will be equal to the average treatment effect plus a term that reflects the imbalance in the net effects of the other causes. We do not know the size of this error term, but there is nothing in the randomization that limits its size.

RCTs are based on the fact that the difference in two means is the mean of the individual differences, i.e. the treatment effects.  This is not valid for medians. This focus on the mean makes them sensitive to outliers in the data and to asymmetrical distributions. Deaton shows how an RCT can yield completely different results depending on whether an outlier falls in the treatment or control group.  Many treatment effects are asymmetric, especially when money or health is involved. In a micro-financing scheme, a few talented, but credit-constrained entrepreneurs may experience a large and positive effect, while there is no effect for the majority of borrowers. Similarly, a health intervention may have no effect on the majority, but a large effect on a small group of people.

A key argument in favour of randomization is the ability to blind both those receiving the treatment and those administering it.  In social science, blinding is rarely possible though. Subjects usually know whether they are receiving the treatment or not and can react to their assignment in ways that can affect the outcome other than through the operation of the treatment. This is problematic, not only because of selection bias. Concerns about the placebo, Pygmalion, Hawthorne and John Henry effects are serious.

Deaton recognizes that RCTs have their use within social sciences. When combined with other methods, including conceptual and theoretical development, they can contribute to discovering not “what works,” but why things work.

Unless we are prepared to make assumptions, and to stand on what we know, making statements that will be incredible to some, all the credibility of RCTs is for naught.

Also in cases where there is good reason to doubt the good faith of experimenters, as in some pharmaceutical trials, randomization will be the appropriate response. However, ignoring the prior knowledge in the field should be resisted as a general prescription for scientific research.  Thirdly, an RCT may disprove a general theoretical proposition to which it provides a counterexample. Finally, an RCT, by demonstrating causality in some population can be thought of as proof of concept, that the treatment is capable of working somewhere.

Economists and other social scientists know a great deal, and there are many areas of theory and prior knowledge that are jointly endorsed by large numbers of knowledgeable researchers.  Such information needs to be built on and incorporated into new knowledge, not discarded in the face of aggressive know-nothing ignorance.

The conclusions of RTCs are often wrongly applied to other contexts. RCTs do not have external validity.  Establishing causality does nothing in and of itself to guarantee generalizability. Their results are not applicable outside the trial population. That doesn’t mean that RCTs are useless in other contexts. We can often learn much from coming to understand why replication failed and use that knowledge to make appropriate use of the original findings by looking for how the factors that caused the original result might be expected to operate differently in different settings. However, generalizability can only be obtained by thinking through the causal chain that has generated the RCT result, the underlying structures that support this causal chain, whether that causal chain might operate in a new setting and how it would do so with different joint distributions of the causal variables; we need to know why and whether that why will apply elsewhere.

Bertrand Russell’s chicken provides an excellent example of the limitations to straightforward extrapolation from repeated successful replication.

The bird infers, based on multiple repeated evidence, that when the farmer comes in the morning, he feeds her. The inference serves her well until Christmas morning, when he wrings her neck and serves her for Christmas dinner. Of course, our chicken did not base her inference on an RCT. But had we constructed one for her, we would have obtained exactly the same result.

The results of RCTs must be integrated with other knowledge, including the
practical wisdom of policy makers if they are to be usable outside the context in which they were constructed.

Another limitation of the results of RCTs relates to their scalability. As with other research methods, failure of trial results to replicate at a larger scale is likely to be the rule rather than the exception. Using RCT results is not the same as assuming the same results holds in all circumstances.  Giving one child a voucher to go to private school might improve her future, but doing so for everyone can decrease the quality of education for those children who are left in the public schools.

Knowing “what works” in a trial population is of limited value without understanding the political and institutional environment in which it is set. Jean Drèze notes, based on extensive experience in India, “when a foreign agency comes in with its heavy boots and suitcases of dollars to administer a `treatment,’ whether through a local NGO or government or whatever, there is a lot going on other than the treatment.” There is also the suspicion that a treatment that works does so because of the presence of the “treators,” often from abroad, rather than because of the people who will be called to work it in reality. Unfortunately, there are few RCTs which are replicated after the pilot on the scaled-up version of the experiment.

This readable paper from one of the foremost experts in development economics provides a valuable counterweight to the often unnuanced admiration for everything RCTs.  In a previous post, I discussed Poor Economics from “randomistas” Duflo and Banerjee. For those who want to know more, there is an excellent debate online between Abhijit Banerjee (J-PAL, MIT) and Angus Deaton on the merits of RCTs.

Kicking Away The Ladder

ladderDeveloped countries stimulate developing countries to adopt the “good” institutions and “good” policies which will bring them economic growth and prosperity.   These are promoted by institutions such as the WTO, the IMF and the World Bank.  Recipes such as abolishing trade tariffs, an independent central bank and adhering to intellectual property rights feature high on their agendas.

In his book “Kicking away the ladder” Ha-Joon Chang shows that these policies are not so beneficial for developing countries.  Through historical analysis he shows that developed countries actively pursued all types of interventionist policies to achieve economic growth, contradicting the recipes they are now prescribing.  A case of poachers turning into gatekeepers.

Policies that were intensively used by the USA and European countries include tariff protection, import and export bans, direct state involvement in key industries, refusal to adopt patent laws, R&D support, granting monopoly rights, smuggling and poaching expert workers.  Chang points out that alleged free trade champions, the UK and USA, were the most protective of all and only switched to liberalisation after World War II when and as long as their hegemony was safe (see table below).  Asian tigers such as South Korea and Taiwan did the same, which explains their success.  Ha-Joon Chang shows that, in comparison, current developing countries offer relatively limited protection to their economies.

chang_tariffs

What does it imply for development cooperation? Developed countries often expect developing countries to adopt world-class institutions and policies in a nick of time.  However, the path to these kinds of institutions for developed countries was a long and winding path, a slow process that took decades, with frequent reversals.  We sometimes forget that universal suffrage was only achieved as recently as 1970 (in Canada) or 1971 (Switzerland). It took the USA until 1938 to ban child labour. Switzerland was notoriously late to adopt patent laws (explaining its success with pharmaceutical companies).  Imposing world-class institutions or policies on developing countries can be harmful because they take a lot of human and financial resources, which may be better spent elsewhere.  In fact, adopting such institutions and policies mainly benefits the developed countries, not the developing ones.

Ha Joon-Chang calls this practice of using successful strategies for economic development and then preventing other countries from applying the same strategy “kicking away the ladder”.  The WTO negotiation rounds or regional trade agreements have a lot in common with the “unequal” treaties between colonisers and colonised countries.

Why is institutional development so slow? Are there no last-mover benefits?  Chang gives following reasons:

  1. Institutional development is firmly linked with the state’s capacity to collect taxes. This capacity is linked to its ability to command political legitimacy and its capacity to organize the state (see blog post on Thinking like a State).  That’s also another reason why tariffs are so important for developing countries: they are some of the taxes that are easiest to collect. Institutional development is linked to the development of human capacity within a country by its education system. Setting up “good” institutions in countries that don’t have the human capital for it will lead to undermining, bad functioning or draw away scarce resources from other sectors.
  2. Well-functioning institutions and policies need to fight initial resistance and prejudice. Chang points to the resistance to introducing an income tax at the beginning of the 20th century in western countries.  It can take years and gradual policy changes to overcome this. The struggle to raise the retirement age in western countries is another illustration of the sometimes double standards we use toward developing countries.
  3. Many institutions are more the result of economic development rather than a condition for it. This is contentious, but Chang points to democracy as an example.

Chang advocates for developing countries to pursue an active interventionist economic policy.  His thesis confirms the importance of supporting developing countries in the strengthening of their education systems.  However, it also illustrates that the financial harm to developing countries as a result of unequal trade policies can be much higher than the aid flows to these countries.

Piketty and Inequality in South Africa

Every month, hundreds of children are fleeing abject poverty in Zimbabwe and heading to South Africa. It’s a dangerous journey, but many take the risk in the hope of a better life. But once on the other side, there is help. With the support of UKaid from the Department for International Development, there is food, shelter and the chance to go to school. Find out more in our feature: www.dfid.gov.uk/musinaSouth Africa is a very unequal country.  It has one of the highest Gini coefficients in the world, in particularly since various Latin American countries managed to bring their coefficients down in recent years.  It should be noted that the Gini coefficient is an indicator of inequality in income, not in wealth.  However, given South Africa’s history of Apartheid and colonialism, including wealth into the equation is not likely to reduce inequality.  Conceded, the Gini coefficient also ignores progress that has been made in the provision of basic services to the poor in housing, electricity provision, healthcare delivery and education infrastructure.

Why does inequality matter? A certain degree of inequality may well be positive for society.  It stimulates people to find their talents and get the best out of them.  However, too much inequality poses various problems.   It’s morally indefensible that some people earn orders of magnitude more than others, whatever their skills. There’s also research that points to negative political effects of high inequality.  In unequal societies democracy tends to be hollowed out as decision processes are captured by a tiny elite, the masses are powerless and become disentangled and the social state is dismantled.  No longer “having skin in the game”, they vote for extremists.  Economically, high inequality reduces consumption, compared to a more even distribution of means.  High inequality also reduces social mobility, wasting talent.

Economists disagree on the evolution of inequality.  Kuznets argued that in the initial stages of development, a country becomes more unequal.  Some people move from poor to rich and compared to (almost) everyone being poor, this constitutes more inequality.  As more people grow rich, inequality would drop.  This view was challenged by Piketty in his book Capital.  Piketty’s central thesis is that inequality naturally rises within a capitalist system, because the rate of return on wealth exceeds that of income (or economic growth).  Rather than focusing only on equality of opportunity, Piketty shows that we should also worry about the inequality of outcomes.  Piketty’s thesis has drawn both praise and criticism.  Most critics acknowledge that inequality is rising, but dispute whether it’s an inherent characteristics of capitalism or whether they are other factors at play, such as globalisation and its tendency for delocalisation and winner-takes-all markets and automation, threatening many low-skilled and medium-skilled jobs.  Piketty favours the ‘utopian’ solution of a global, progressive wealth tax. Awaiting utopia, progressively taxing income and property may help.  Piketty argues that insufficiently progressive tax rates are at the basis of skyrocketing top wages.

How relevant is Piketty’s analysis of inequality for developing countries?  South Africa, with 1% of the population earning 15% of total labour income and with two thirds of the population living in poverty, seems like a good illustration of Piketty’s thesis.  Economic growth has been anaemic for years, whereas income from property and assets have been rising.  High youth unemployment and lack of unemployment benefits are one driver of inequality.  A second is the high wage gap within the workplace.  The low quality education system churns out too many unqualified people and too few qualified ones. For maths, only 3% of Grade 9 learners achieve a score higher than 50% at the latest Annual National Assessments (ANAs) and 90% remain stuck in the lowest category, which indicates a total lack of basic numeracy.  As a result, skilled people can command a premium and the former remain stuck in menial, poorly-paid jobs.  High inequality gradually erodes democratic institutions and public services are steadily privatized.

In other developing countries the situation is opposite. High inequality in countries such as Cambodia is rather the result than the cause of weak public institutions.  An effective administration to collect taxes, regulators to deal with monopolies and anti-corruption watchdogs, an impartial justice system are absent favouring a corrupt elite.  In this case, taxing the rich more will not help. Only building more effective institutions can address this.  This extends beyond nation states.

Solutions need to be found on a global scale.  Unfortunately, global governance institutions such as the WTO, WHO and the IMF provide global public goods, but suffer from a lack of democratic legitimacy, especially in developing countries.  Strengthening legitimate and global governance may help to address global inequalities.

Piketty’s book focuses on advanced countries, but the wealth of discussion it has triggered includes plenty of analysis of its relevance for developing countries.  Rising inequality within and between states is one of the defining themes of our times, partly causing and caused by Piketty’s work.

More information on the relevance of Piketty’s book for resp. developing countries and South Africa in particular can be found here and here.  Both articles are well recommended.

The picture at the top of this post is courtesy of DFID and is released under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 2.0 Generic license.

Income Inequality in the Developing World

Science recently published a theme issue on income inequality in the developing world (free access, with registration).  It includes contributions from, among others, Thomas Piketty, Martin Ravallion and Angus Deaton.

The main idea from Piketty’s bestseller, Capital, is that inequality has been rising since the 19th century because yields on wealth are higher than those on income.  This trend was only interrupted by the 2 world wars.  Piketty’s thesis rests on historical data from the US and Europe.  This theme issue looks whether the conclusions are valid for developing countries as well.

Has the strong economic growth in developing countries since 2000 resulted in falling levels of inequality?  And what has been the effect on poverty?  The main findings from the article of Ravallion:

Science 2014 May 344(6186) 851-5, Fig. 1

Science 2014 May 344(6186) 851-5, Fig. 4

 

 

 

 

 

 

Inequality has fallen between 1981 and 2010.  However, the period between 2005 and 2010 shows an increase.  The variance over time is mainly attributable to inequality between countries.  Again, most recent data indicate that the component between countries has fallen, whereas the component within countries has risen.

  • Economic growth has lead to increasing inequality between countries, but to falling inequality within countries (although the latter trend has weakened in recent years).
  • The effect of economic growth on poverty depends on the initial level of inequality.  The higher that level, the lower the share of economic growth that flows to the poor and the lower the poverty reduction resulting from that growth.
  • Even if inequality has not been rising overall, there are still worries about high levels on inequality in developing countries:
    • capital tends to have diminishing returns, implying it’s more ‘useful’ when more equally spread;
    • high inequality means that many poor, talented people cannot reach their full potential;
    • high inequality tends to erode democracy, as a small group of people may hijack the democratic process and turn ‘inclusive institutions’ into ‘extractive ones’ (see Acemoglu’s and Anderson’s work);
    • low inequality and a strong middle class tend to create a more diversified and robust economy, as a result of a stronger focus on consumption goods and support for pro-growth policies.
  • Three cautionary remarks on the data:
    • The data, using the Gini or related MLD indicators, represent relative inequality. This means that inequality is the same whether incomes are 1$ and 2$ or 1000$ and 2000$.  This implies that even with constant relative inequality, the absolute differences in income and wealth can grow much larger.
    • Data on inequality in developing countries are notoriously unreliable.  The main data sources are the national accounts (household consumption item) and household surveys.  In the latter, the rich either don’t participate or tend to under-report their income and wealth.
    • Developing countries are a mixed bag.  Countries with rising inequality from a low base (India, China), countries with rising inequalities from a high base (South Africa, with Gini = 0.7!!!) and countries with decreasing inequality (most countries in Latin America).
  • Falling inequality is not something which happens ‘automatically’ as countries grow rich, as was postulated by Simon Kuznets.  It’s the result of pro-equity policies, such as investments in health and education (Bolsa Familia in Brazil) and job creation.

 

Eradication of Poverty on Hold?

A long piece in The Economist recently on the evolution in purchasing power parity between economies of developed and emerging countries. Up until a few years ago, it looked as if convergence would be reached within 30 years, even if excluding Chinese growth.  Hundreds of millions of people were drawn out of poverty.  Voices have been calling for the post-2015 global development goals to include the eradication of poverty by 2030.

However, the pace of economic growth has been slowing in emerging economies, not just in China, which is managing a difficult transition from low-wage, export-based manufacturing towards an economy dominated by services and internal consumption.  However, at the current pace, it will take 150 years to catch up (using as indicator GDP/ person in PPP as % of US GDP).

em_cathcing up_1

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Convergence was foreseen by economists like Robert Solow.   As the main drivers he identified capital influx (as a result of higher interest rates offered by developing countries) and technological progress (enabling emerging economies to leapfrog development stages).  Pietra Rivoli saw a ‘race to the bottom’ by poor countries as a way to attract labour-intensive industries, allowing people to abandon agriculture, get access to better services, creating a virtuous spiral.

The main reasons why the convergence has grinded to a near standstill are:

  1. The peak of manufacturing in a country’s development occurs earlier and is lower than previously. Dani Rodrik attributes this to the growing role of technology, reducing demand for low-wage manufacturing jobs, lowering the incentive for companies to seek out regions with low wages and lowering the share of manufacturing in the total value chain of a product.
  2. The previous decade was a period of exceptional hyperglobalisation, spurred by strong demand for natural resources, China’s accession to the WTO and strong growth in trade (also outside China).

Rather than the optimistic scenario foreseeing income convergence within a generation, it looks we’re back at the slow grind towards convergence, driven by incremental progress in geography (infrastructure, see work of Jared Diamond), institutions (see work of Daren Acemoglu) and trade (e.g. regional agreements on trade in services).

The article is rather pessimistic in tone, as it considered the gains in poverty reduction as an exceptional feat not likely to be repeated soon. It raises critical questions for countries like India and Bangladesh which are looking to benefit from their demographic dividend and take over some of China’s low-wage industry.  It also underlines the need for investments in education.

#WorldSTE2013 Conference – Day 2: Peer instruction (E. Mazur) and Visible Learning (J.Hattie(

Day 2 of the WorldSTE conference centred on the keynote sessions of two educational ‘rock stars’, Prof. Eric Mazur and Prof. John Hattie.  Both delivered a polished, entertaining presentation, but with little new information for those already familiar with their work.  The conference organizers provided little time for discussion which was, certainly in Hattie’s keynote, a pity.

Mazur’s presentation was a shortened version of the ‘Confessions of a Lecturer’ talk which is available on YouTube in various lengths and colours (recent one).  Concept Tests combined with voting and peer discussion is a powerful way to activate students in lectures.  He referred to Pinker’s ‘curse of knowledge’ as one reason why fellow students are often better than explaining new stuff to each other than lecturers.We have introduced the methodology in Cambodia as well, using voting cards rather electronic clickers.   From my experience, the main challenge for teacher trainers is to get the questions right.  Questions should address a conceptual problem, should preferably relate it to an unfamiliar context and should neither be too easy nor too difficult.

Hattie’s keynote was based on the results of his meta-meta analysis to determine what makes good learning.  It is based on more than 800 meta-analyses into which more than 50 000 individual studies have been integrated.  Starting point are the falsely authoritative claims many teachers and educators make about what works in education, often in conflict with each other.   Extensive reviews of Hattie’s work have been written elsewhere (1, 2).  Here I just write down some personal reflections on his talk:

  1. Hattie likes to unsettle people by listing some of the factors that don’t make a difference, such as teachers’ content knowledge, teacher training, class size, school structures, ability grouping, inquiry-based methods and ICT.  However, I believe that many aspects of teaching quality are interrelated and strengthen or weaken each other.  Content knowledge as such doesn’t make a good teacher, but is a necessary condition for teachers to engage in class discussion or provide meaningful feedback, which are factors that do make a difference in Hattie’s study.  Similarly, class size doesn’t make a difference if  the teacher doesn’t adapt his/her teaching.  However, class size may affect the strategies and possibilities of teachers, as it affects factors such as class management, available space and time. In the same way school structures in itself don’t change teaching quality, but may affect the opportunities for teachers to engage in collaborative lesson preparation, which is strongly endorsed by Hattie.
  2. Similarly, Hattie seemed to admit that many relations are non-linear and that there are threshold effects.  Research on pedagogical content knowledge showed that teachers need to have a good understanding of the concepts they are teaching, but additional specialised subject courses don’t make additional difference.  In Cambodia, limited content knowledge does inhibit teachers to promote deep learning, which also makes a difference in Hattie’s research.

 Overview of effect sizes variables on learning outcomes

Overview of effect sizes variables on learning outcomes

3. This relates to the question how valid results are across countries and cultures.  Hattie’s research is mainly based on research from developed countries and Western cultures, and I wonder how applicable these effect sizes are in other countries and cultures.  The threshold effect size value of 0.4 is based on the typical progression of a student in a developed country.  In a developing country, an effect size of 0.4 may be actually quite high.  Hattie does recognize that the teacher factor is stronger in schools with low-economic status, implying that having a good teacher does matter more for them than for well-off kids.  Banerjee and Duflo have suggested that unlike disappointing results in developed countries ICT may have stronger benefits in developing countries:

“The current view of the use of technology in teaching in the education community is, however, not particularly positive. But this is based mainly on experience from rich countries, where the alternative to being taught by a computer is, to a large extent, being taught by a well-trained and motivated teacher.  This is not always the case in poor countries.  And the evidence from the developing world, though sparse, is quite positive.” (Duflo & Banarjee, Poor Economics,p. 100)

4. Hatie’s research doesn’t take into account factors that lie outside the influence of the school. However, many of the strongest factors in Hattie’s list, such as collaborative lesson preparation and evaluation, class discussions and setting student expectations are well-known for quite some time. Why haven’t they been applied more?  This question has been better addressed by researchers such as North and Konur, who focus on the institutional and organisational analysis of education quality.

5. The concept of effect sizes is statistically shaky.  In a recent paper, Angus Deaton Post writes about effect sizes:

The effect size—the average treatment effect expressed in numbers of standard deviations of the original outcome—though conveniently dimensionless, has little to recommend it. It removes any discipline on what is being compared. Apples and oranges become immediately comparable, as do treatments whose inclusion in a meta-analysis is limited only by the imagination of the analysts in claiming similarity. Beyond that, restrictions on the trial sample will reduce the baseline standard deviation and inflate the effect size. More generally, effect sizes are open to manipulation by exclusion rules. It makes no sense to claim replicability on the basis of effect sizes, let alone to use them to rank projects.

Hattie’s research is wildly ambitious, and therefore a great deal of scrutiny and criticism:

  • sole focus on quantitative research at the expense of qualitative studies (Terhart, 2011, login)
  • statistics underlying effect sizes controversial as well as the premise that effect sizes can be aggregated and compared (blog post on statistics used in Hattie’s research).
  • quality of the studies underlying the meta-analysis varies wildly and shouldn’t simply be aggregated due to publication bias (Higgins and Simpson, 2011, login: an extract

“VL [Visible Learning] seems to suffer from many of the criticisms levelled at meta-analyses and then adds more problems derived from the meta-meta-analysis level. It combines studies across some areas with little apparent conceptual connection; averages results from experimental, nonexperimental, manipulable and non-manipulable studies; effectively ignores subtleties such as implementation cost, additive effects, arbitrary signs and longevity, even when many of the meta-analyses it relies upon carefully highlight these issues. It then combines all the effect sizes by simply adding them together and dividing by the number of studies with no weighting. In this way it develops a simple figure, 0.40, above which, it argues, interventions are ‘worth having’ and below which interventions are not ‘educationally significant’. We argue that the process by which this number has been derived has rendered it effectively meaningless.” (Higgins and Simpson, 2011)

Despite the claim on Hattie’s website, I don’t believe Hattie has finally found the ‘holy grail’ of education research and settled the question of what makes qualitative education. Partly this is due to skepticism whether such a definitive generalized answer across cultures, education levels and economies is possible.  Partly it is due to methodological concerns about the reliability of aggregating aggregations of effect sizes and the validity of excluding qualitative research and all factors that lie outside the influence of the school.

Finally, the Hattie keynote made me nostalgic about the H809 course in MAODE during which papers would be turned inside out until you would be convinced that each constituted the worst kind of educational research ever conducted.  Hattie’s research would fit excellently in such a context.