Most helpful critical review
35 of 44 people found the following review helpful
Elusive Fantasies on Global Prosperity
on April 20, 2007
The persistence of poverty and underdevelopment in African countries after the independence of these countries might lead one to reevaluate the validity of the entire discipline of development studies. William Easterly does so from an institutional point of view. He argues that African countries' failure was partly a result of fictitious "panaceas". Albeit a bit more comprehensive, Easterly's method is not very different from the panaceas that failed, however: It is technology, stupid, not machines (p. 51).
Easterly argues that panaceas such as international aid, investment, education, and population control failed because they were not panaceas in the first place. He adamantly tries to show that there is no historical or statistical relationship between these "panaceas" and economic growth. His second argument as to why these methods failed to result in economic development is that they were not coupled with "right incentives". According to Easterly, governments, donors, and individuals respond to incentives; therefore, policies that do not create any incentives for either of these three are doomed to fail. Other than these policy issues, Easterly views technological advancement as the most concrete factor that determines the development of countries. Thus, rather than investment in machines, Easterly prescribes for poor countries investment in R & D. Given the absence of incentives for private parties to invest in R & D in poor countries, he suggests that the governments of poor countries should subsidize investment in new knowledge (p. 168).
Problems, Problems, Problems...
Putting the "people respond to incentives" motto aside, there are two primary problems in Easterly's evaluation of "panaceas". The first one is that he incorrectly discredits the crucial elements of development. To start with, Easterly believes that increases in investments -or machines- has no theoretical or empirical relationship with growth. However, we know no country that has developed without an increase in savings, investments, and machines. (Indeed, for Stiglitz, the East Asian "miracle" was simply a result of saving heavily and investing well). As such, the relationship between machines and economic growth needs a clarification: machines are necessary, though not sufficient, element of an economic growth. Yet Easterly does not think that machines are even a necessary component of growth. Testing this necessary argument, he finds that high rates of investments are not related to high rates of economic growth. The problem with Easterly's test, however, is that it is based on the assumption of a linear relationship between increases in the number of machines and economic growth. Yet no one would argue that "the more machines, the more growth" relationship holds forever. "Machinization" is not immune to the law of diminishing returns. The first couple machines increase the output enormously, later ones increase output less, and later ones more less, so much so that after a point increases in machines virtually decreases productivity because the return from investment in machines does not even matches its costs. Thus, in the absence of an improvement in technology, the relationship between the number of machines and growth is either log linear or curvilinear (`n' shape). (The classic case of high output growth without much productivity growth was that of the Soviet Union in the 1950s and early 1960s. Soviet economy was growing only because of massive mobilization of labor and huge rates of investment and total productivity was growing slowly, if at all. This implied that the growth had to slow down first, and die down later. This is indeed what happened.) For this reason, the relationship between machines and technology is a complementary one. Machines start economic growth and technological advancements maintain and further it. I do not understand therefore why Easterly mystifies the importance of technology for developing countries and downplays the equal importance of investment in machines for these countries. After al technology is applied on machines; or in other words, technological advancement means improvement of machines.
Education has long been treated as another "necessary but not sufficient" element of economic development. Easterly counters this argument as well. He argues that there is no empirical evidence for the positive relationship between investment in formal schooling and growth rates. His argument is based upon primary and secondary level education, however. I do not think that Easterly would still find a nonexistent relationship between post-high school education and growth. What is important here is that investment in technology, which Easterly views as the crucial element in growth, cannot take place without substantial investment in upper level education. In such a case, developing countries will continuously have to import their scientists and engineers from the developed world, which would perpetuate their dependence on rich countries. (Is it just a coincidence that the four Asian countries that have maintained astonishing levels of economic growth in the second half of the 20th century (Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China) are also the top four countries that send most students to American universities?)
Finally, Easterly's conclusion on the irrelevance of population growth to economic growth is based on his incorrect interpretation of the historical relationship between the two. He argues that historically population growth and economic growth followed the same pattern in industrialized nations: both were slow until the 19th century, and then both accelerated at the same time. Thus, "it is hard to reconcile this fact with the idea that population growth is disastrous to growth," (p. 92). But the parallel trends in population and economic growth in the 19th-century Europe was simply due to economic growth's positive impact on social health. Economic growth meant less infant deaths, less diseases, and more disease treatment. This is exactly the case in today's poor countries. Therefore, the reason why economic growth and population increase go hand in hand in poor nations is not that population increase helps economic growth, but rather that economic growth causes population growth by reducing deaths due to curable diseases. (Interestingly, in the introduction of the book Easterly articulates why economic growth is important for poor countries: "Poverty is not just low GDP; it is dying babies, starving children, and oppression of women and the downtrodden," (p. 15). I do not understand, therefore, why he fails to see that this is exactly why economic growth in poor societies has a population-increasing effect.) To me, population growth is detrimental to economic growth especially for countries that has low capital-to-labor and land-to-labor ratios. Population growth may not be harmful for nations who has high capital-to-labor ratio (e.g. Belgium) because they have enough resources to invest on each additional individual. Similarly, population growth might not be necessarily detrimental for countries with a relatively high land-to-labor ratio (e.g. Brazil), for they can employ new members at least in the agricultural sector. But for a country like Bangladesh, which has low capital-to-labor as well as low land-to-labor ratio, population growth harms growth in two ways. First, it increases the number of mouths that are to be fed with the scarce capital; second, it depresses the wage down by increasing demand for the already scarce jobs.
I agree with Easterly that none of these factors are "panaceas"; nevertheless, they are essential elements of growth policies in developing countries.
To me, the fundamental problem in Easterly's approach to economic development is his misreading of history and his failure to understand the dynamics of a capitalist growth. Easterly attributes rich countries' richness to their technological advancement and implementing right governmental policies. This approach has two inexcusable problems: first, it assumes that all countries can be rich if they employ right policies; second, it assumes that development is a national phenomenon. Like most economic liberals, Easterly shares Rostow's (1959) naïve belief that development has a path to be followed and "any and every" country that follows this path will become a rich country. This argument is simply against the scarcity of vital resources of the world. Today each inhabitant of the North consumes ten times as much energy, nineteen times as much aluminum, fourteen times as much paper, and thirteen times as much iron and steel as someone in the South. Thus, it would take ten planets the size of this one for poor countries to consume as much as rich ones do (Galeano 2000, p. 216). Given the scarcity of vital resources, what poor nations can achieve at most is to alleviate (or maybe eliminate) poverty, not to get rich. And even this cannot be done with their own efforts solely.
A related problem in Easterly's approach is its negligence of the relationship between economic and political power in the world (well, according to Gilpin, this is a common problem among economists). Thanks to its richness, the West (led by the US) enjoys economic, political, and military hegemony over the rest of the world. Any threat to this hegemony will preoccupy the Western countries. The US has already started to preoccupy with the Chinese economic growth, even though Chinese GDP per capita is still around $1000 only. How would be the power relations in a world in which Brazil, India, Nigeria, Indonesia, and China had GDP per capita levels above $10000? Would the powerful countries of the world welcome such a world? Interestingly, Easterly fails to apply his motto onto world politics: What "incentives" does G-7 have in the enrichment of poor countries?