Friday, June 5, 2015

Upstart nation

Jason Zweig, in the WSJ, has the temerity to mention the only war lost by the U.S. generals who declared it;
The U.S. and other wealthy nations have spent trillions of dollars over the past half-century trying to lift the world’s poorest people out of penury, with largely disappointing results. In 1966, shortly after President Lyndon B. Johnson declared war on poverty, 14.7% of Americans were poor, under the official definition of the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2013, 14.5% of Americans were poor.
What he doesn't mention is that 'poverty' had been steadily declining in the U.S.A. in the prior two decades. I.e., we were winning the war, until LBJ announced his Great Society/War on Poverty initiatives. Which progress not only came to an end shortly thereafter, it actually reversed; poverty increased in the 1970s.

Finally, even the intellectuals noticed (In his book Knowledge and Decisions, the economist Thomas Sowell points out that the standards for being able to say one knows something are actually are higher, the lower the status of your position in life. That is, a farm boy can't say he knows how to milk a cow unless he can go out to the barn with an empty pail and return with one filled with milk.While a college professor only has to get a paper published in an academic journal, claiming to know, whatever his specialty is.) And today, they're discovering trial and error;
... bands of upstarts in the world of anti-poverty policy are applying the scientific method to their own work.

Many of these poverty fighters call themselves “randomistas,” after the randomized controlled trials that are at the heart of their methods. In such field experiments, people are randomly assigned either to a treatment group that receives an “intervention” or to a control group that does not. The experimenters meticulously collect and analyze data, then try to replicate the results elsewhere to see if they hold up.
Round up the usual suspect to object;
Development economist Jeffrey Sachs, director of the Earth Institute at Columbia University and a creator, with the United Nations Development Program, of the Millennium Villages Project, has long contended that impoverished nations are locked in a “poverty trap,” in which meager agricultural production and widespread disease make it all but impossible for people to amass the savings that are essential for economic growth. The solution, he argues, is a “big push” in foreign aid targeted at such specific goals as making farmers more productive, improving schools and providing better health care.

Prof. Sachs says that “many, almost surely most, of the cutting-edge breakthroughs in actual development in recent years did not result from [randomized controlled trials].”
Which seems to suggest that Sachs' own ideas led to success in alleviating poverty. Nina Munk famously disagreed. What an upstart!

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