Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Paul Krugman on the Myth of Useless Bureaucrats

Have private contractors that take over government functions done such a great job? Krugman says "no", and from what I know, I agree. Think of the private juvenile detention center with the corrupt judges, Blackwater, etc. Come to think of it,are government workers any less skillful & efficient than private sector workers? One wonders.

Perhaps the most important point Krugman makes: the same proposition told over and over again becomes "true" regardless of any factual accuracy to support it. Remember: you must keep your crap detector on 24/7! (Thank you, Neil Postman.)

Easterly on Growth, Poverty & Aid

Nerd Alert!

Another podcast that I enjoy is Russ Roberts's EconTalk, which comes out weekly, and has done so since at least 2007. Roberts takes about 1 hour to discuss a topic of interest with economists, political scientists, and others with similar interests about topics in economics and public affairs. The discussion led by Roberts is always interesting, and even when Roberts disagrees with the perspective or contention offered by his guest, he doesn't get on a high horse or simply toot his own horn. He lets his guest talk. Roberts is a part of the blog-crazy economics department at George Mason University, which, I must say, as a group, probably does more to promote and stimulate thinking about economics and public affairs than any other group that I know. For instance, Tyler Cowan and Alex Tarrock's Marginal Revolution comes out of GMU.

Now the podcast: William Easterly of NYU is a major critic of the traditional development aid regime that includes the IMF, the World Bank, Jeffrey Sachs, Bono, and so on. Easterly worked at the World Bank, so he's seen things from the inside. His main contention: aid hasn't worked for several reasons. These reasons include a lack of feedback (market mechanism) to measure success and need; lack of standards, institutions and culture for economic development in the recipient countries; bureaucratic imperatives of the providers that trump the needs of recipients; and corruption among governments receiving or administering aid. Easterly doesn't want to cut billions loose just to fend for themselves or starve. He does recognize gains. He believes, however, that small scale, direct giving (to projects and not necessarily governments) works best.

It's a thought-provoking discussion, and I know that his books have attracted a lot of interest because they attack the reigning paradigm (of which Jeff Sachs is seen as the current intellectual champion). Having read Sachs, this provides another important perspective. The problems are real, and how we address them can prove a matter of life and death, not to mention poverty, disease, and limited life for millions around the world.

Phillip Pettit on Group Agency

First of all, I should ask you to take note of the podcast Philosophy Bites, a delightful podcast out of the UK. Two philosophers take turns hosting guest philosophers to discuss a wide range of topics. These podcasts are great while doing the dishes, mowing the loan, going for walks, etc. Each one is about 20 minutes long. You feel like your listening to a couple of philosophers discuss a subject, but they avoid (or explain) philosophical jargon, so the conversations are aimed a lay persons. It's quite often very high quality, indeed.

Nerd alert! (I'll post this for anyone who wants to avoid a really nerdy type subject.)

The linked podcast is a discussion with political philosopher Phillip Pettit on group agency. The idea that groups can form intentions and take actions. Plain, right? Well, not so easy. Such group powers were little known outside of the State in antiquity, but institutions in the Middle Ages, like guilds, the Church, monasteries, etc. gave rise to thinking about how groups may act. More recently, but only seriously since the 19th century, we developed the idea of corporations. Corporations: good or bad? Well, this is not so easy to answer. I'm having doubts about the power of such remote, single-purpose (pecuniary profit), long-lasting, and uber-rational agents. Do corporations do what no individual would do? Should corporations be held to criminal liability? Where's the "intent"? Can we have a group intent? Here's where we get into the other part of Pettit's talk: how can we decide a group intent? Although he doesn't mention it, I think that he's getting into issues of Condorcet's theorem, Arrow's theorem, and those of others who deal with the paradoxes of group choice. (Garry Wills addresses the issues in layman's terms in Confessions of a Conservative, if you want to check it out.) What this means is that groups have even more problems than individuals (to the extent that we are individuals--are we?) forming intent. The interview covers this topic all too briefly, but we can think of it as a teaser for Pettit's book! Really, it's an interesting problem.