gall and gumption

Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Econ for Lit Majors

My mother is helping me edit some materials for an immense and famous NGO, nameless here. They are in her field, economics, and she finds it amusing. She has worked in, or with, organizations like this one most of her life. She helps me with the logic of some of the really opaque bits, which aren't opaque because the reasoning is necessarily difficult. Just sometimes I can't find the little bit of sense -- and it only is a little -- that is dispersed thinly amidst all this redundant, long-winded, pretentious, turgid writing. My mother can find it. And she can fix it, too. She writes the way these people think they are writing. But she doesn't pad her prose; it's stripped-down, lean, formally correct, and lucid, and it moves. She is ruthless with jargon, empty pretentiousness, and the fashionable repurposing of words, and she sums up these labored exercises -- the entire paper -- in about two sentences.

She had a lot of fun with the comments feature of MS Word. So I find these sharp little observations just popping up like speech balloons all over the screen, and reading the whole thing, comments, edits, is like this portrait of my mother sitting at her computer totally absorbed and fiendishly entertained by fixing this guy's appalling prose and his weak grasp of his subject. I can't use everything she suggests because, as I explained to her, my job is only to make the writer seem passably literate, not to make a real economist out of him.

The second article is written by a writer for whom English may be a second language. But I'm not sure he has a first language. What he does have, though, is a subject, government finance in developing countries. Clearly he knows this subject well -- he lives in a developing country -- and what is funny, though it's not meant to be, is the disconnect between the language, which is almost impenetrable in places, and the simple reality that he is trying to describe in it. My mother knows this subject well, from her years at we'll just say Another Big Development NGO, working with the very people who are the subject of this article. She, however, is at liberty to call a spade a spade:

The developing country
section should be worth a few laughs, the one bright
bit was where he said finance ministers in
developing countries withheld info from parliament
etc. Pity he didn't add that any figures they provide
are largely figments of their imagination and budget
expenditure is decided on the basis of which regions
of the country voted for the govt., the work being
done by the company owned by the minister of whatever.

Reading this particular paper made me wonder if the purpose of it was intentionally to obscure the facts. The best of it is when the reality sort of gets near enough to the surface of the prose that you can actually glimpse it. What was funny about it was how in one long sentence he described how basically, governments in some developing countries cheerfully get with any new budgeting system or method, but since behind the scenes they go on doing exactly as they always have, the new system is "an additional layer of futility." I love to think of all those preceding layers of futility. Kind of like the Princess and the Pea.

Some of this obscurity is because of the quasi-academic writing style, in which the preference is for having the subject of a sentence be an abstraction rather than a person, and then burying the object somewhere out in the woods at the end of the sentence. I'm not a knee-jerk person about the passive voice, sometimes it sounds right, but it seems to me that when you can make your point more clear and forceful by putting it in terms of human agency, why wouldn't you go for it? Because you are in a muddle about that very thing and are just hoping not to be found out.

Economics is one of those fields of study, like literary theory, that's not supposed to work This Washington Post story is a bit of a revelation, not only about the successes and failures of one institution's development programs, but about their attitude to failure as well. According to the World Bank's own Independent Evaluation Group, 14 out of 25 World Bank projects to reduce poverty left people either worse off or with no improvement in their lives. The policies produced no economic growth, while in other places where they did produce economic growth, the rich got richer and the poor got poorer.

"For a sustained reduction in poverty over a period of time, it really
pays to worry about both growth and distribution," said Vinod Thomas,
director-general of the Independent Evaluation Group. "It has been a
mistaken notion that you can grow first and worry about the
distribution later."

Overall, between 1990 and 2002 the percentage of the world's people who
subsist on less than one dollar per day declined from 28 percent to 19
percent, according to World Bank research. But officials with the
evaluation group noted that much of the advance was registered in
China, which has rejected many of the tenets of the development model
advocated by the West while relying hardly at all on the largesse of
the World Bank.

"If you take out China, the numbers would be unfavorable," Thomas said.
"The sheer numbers of people living under the $1 a day definition of
poverty has been stubbornly high." By the Bank's reckoning, 1.1 billion
people were subsisting at that level in 2001.

When a policy fails, it turns out that either 1) It was meant to fail in just this way all along and that's just the market working its magic; 2) it is the fault of people being too poor/ignorant/corrupt/subject to hurricanes and really this theory would work if they tried it out on a better class of people or a better class of universe; 3) You don't get the subtlety of it, puny earthling; 4) Economics is really really hard, 5) Who are you to criticize me? Do you know who I am?; and 6) I am a deeply serious person.

Some of the report reads like an amalgam of the sorts of criticisms
that have been leveled against the World Bank for years by activists
who accuse it of an ideological bias toward market reforms and a
callous disregard for the people bearing the brunt of such policies.
The report chides the bank for failing to help cushion poor people
against price and currency liberalizations; for focusing on the fiscal
sustainability of pension systems to the deriment of the poor; for
promoting the privatization of power industries without thinking enough
about wiring up the indigent.

It criticizes the bank for failing to tailor projects to local
conditions, and for sometimes attempting to accomplish more than
national governments can handle. In the most striking example, the
report noted that in Uganda the bank assisted the government with an
ambitious effort to increase school enrollments, but failed to plan for
sufficient teacher hiring or classroom construction. By last year,
Uganda's schools had an average of 94 students per classroom, and each
book was being shared by three pupils.

World Bank administrators said it would be simplistic to view rising
poverty rates as a sign that their projects do not work
, noting that
the worst-off borrowing countries are grappling with war, famine and
natural catastrophes.

"There's a lot that has to go right for countrywide incomes to improve
other than just good projects financed by the World Bank," said Vikram
Nehru, director of the bank's economic policy and debt department.
"These countries are in very difficult circumstances."

Still, Nehru said the bank could benefit from greater consideration of
what is actually possible in any given country.

"We need to be much more sober in our assessments," he said.

That last line sounds like yer basic bureaucrat's promise to make life even harder for his clients, no? This is the tendency of the bureaucratic mind: to not ever be responsible for failure, and the best way not to fail is not to take the risk of failure. So bureaucracies sort of congeal. It gets harder and harder to do anything through the agency, it gets harder and harder to fix anything, it gets harder and harder to get anything (money, authorizations, information, service) out of them. Actually doing things could result in questions like "You gave them what? Who authorized it?" I don't imagine you get to be director of economic policy and debt by being cavalier and frivolous with the funds. You get it by being more and more sober in your assessments of the people who have made you look like an ass. That is, the bureaucratic reaction is to become even more close-fisted. Not, apparently, to use more informed judgment; to admit so much would imply that any other outcome among those hapless losers in Bangladesh or Ecuador, with their earthquakes and typhoons and famines, was possible.

Anyway one economist who you can read with profit (if you'll pardon the expression) is Joseph Stiglitz. But it's probably all even worse than he says.

Update: Fixed the link so it goes to the Washington Post article instead of that other site. Thenkyouveddymuch Tom.


At 9:19 PM, Anonymous tom said...

Better link for WaPo piece:

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