Sunday, March 20, 2011

Look Matt Yglesias is *not* half my age, he is almost 60% as old as I am, so the fact that most of my random thoughts are responses to his posts is ... really pathetic. But facts are facts.

He reviewed a book -- Getting Better by Charles Kenny also on Kindle-- that notes that things have gotten better this century even in Africa, at least compared to the other 20,000 centuries of human existence in Africa.

He notes a semi-relevant aside

One section close to my heart (though somewhat distant from the core point of the argument) wonders why it is that mustering some optimism about the trajectory of human history is considered a “right-wing” view when “a century of unprecedented global improvement in quality of life was also one of unprecedented growth in the size of government.”

So why is optimism considered right wing ? I have three explanations

1) "It's a terrible problem and it's getting better" just doesn't work psychologically. People don't feel the difference between "bad" and "getting worse," so advocates for doing something about a problem feel the need to claim it is as least as bad as it ever was.

Thiis caused the most outspoken advocates for racial equality to deny that the 64 civil rights act had an effect on Black/White wage differentials and agreed on that point with the Chicago type economists who claimed that, like all regulation, the act had not had the intended effect (so I was taught by Richard Freeman who was the principal author whose work was cited by those who noted the overwhelming evidence of a dramatic effect) . It is a crazy rhetorical strategy. In fact, one of hte reasons people in the USA hate foreign aid is that they are sure it hasn't worked (MY's last and very key point).

2) The world economy is basically capitalist with state intervention on the side. One would be surprised if it turned out that Marx were still alive (he'd be getting on and who was that guy with a beard they buried in London). One would not be surprised if he were inclined to deny the evidence that things are getting better. His policy proposal (in case the kids here never heard of it, it was public ownership of the means of production) is not important to the non-right anymore. But habits of special pleading die hard and the idea that the current system is basically right wing (since most factories are privately owned) influences people who haven't thought of eliminating capitalism in decades *and* their children.

3) The environment. There is an insanely right wing and also optimistic view of global warming, that it isn't happening, that if it were happening it wouldn't be due to human activity, that if it were happening and were due to human activity it would be good for Montana, and that there's nothing we can do about the human activities causing global warming. This gives optimism a bad name among the non Tea partying set.

Now the serious issue. The fact that "even in the parts of Africa where people haven’t gotten richer, quality of life has improved. Child mortality rates have plummeted, education is more widespread, political systems are freer, there’s less violence, diseases have been cured, etc." should "bolster morale about the fact that foreign aid has been successful at promoting public health in the past and can continue to make even more progress in the future."

Since the stingy US foreign aid program is under assault again, that seems to me to be a very pressing issue. But I think another book would be useful. The question is whether there are foreign aid programs systematically associated with those improvements in health ? That requires looking closer at when and where such programs are large. George Bush's good deed, Pepfar, is also a natural experiment. AID has a geographic distribution based on colonial history. It is possible to make a convincing case that up until about 10 years ago aid in general historically had been partially correlated with government consumption and not with private investment (as Peter Boone). This helps explain why it was not significantly partially correlated with rapid growth.

It is very true that government spending on health is partially correlated with good health (you can ask my student Tilman Tacke (honest search result -- he's the one to the right) but he's out of your price range since he works for McKinsey like all of my students named Tilman). So ? Shouldn't be that hard.

It won't change public opinion. If people in the US are stubbornly convinced that foreign aid is 26% of the Federal budget, they won't be swayed by mere facts. But policy elites might at least feel guilty about surrendering to public ignorance and/or indifference to the interests of foreigners.

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