The 2019 Swedish Riksbank prize for three economists who have done extensive work on poverty and how to deliver poor out of poverty has attracted a lot of attention, pride and noise in India because one of them is an Indian-American. One understands from newspaper reports that he is an American citizen.
This blog has never really commented on the annual prizes awarded to economists every year. It is not mandatory. The only time I had a strong feeling against the award was when Eugene Fama was given the prize in 2013 for his work on (financial) market efficiency.
These prizes are judgements of people in a committee. So, disagreements of outsiders with the committee’s judgement, on occasions, should not be a big surprise nor a source of disappointment or anger on the part of those who happen to agree with the Committee’s decisions.
Those who disagree have no reason, however, to conclude that the committee made incompetent decisions because the committee, arguably, pores over far greater information and spends a lot more time deliberating than those who take to twitter to vent their disagreement and even anger at the choices. That is unhelpful.
Much of the anger stems from the political stances taken by some of the recipients. But, the Riksbank Committee does not give them awards or deny them awards for their political views. So, questioning the decision because the recipients hold different political views is unreasonable.
Some of the past awardees, on their part, have ‘monetised’ their award by espousing strong political views. The moment they enter the political boxing ring (or, the cesspool), then they should be willing to trade blows The discourse is not often civil in such spaces. But, they cannot complain because they chose to enter that arena.
As for the awardees this year, I have not followed their work that closely to make rigorous observations. Interested readers should refer to the ‘Urbanomics’ blog of my coauthor Gulzar Natarajan. You can sample this blog post of his.
The quote attributed to Arvind Subramanian by Devesh Kapur (ht: Gulzar’s post above) in this article is worth recalling:
When asked how many of these expensive RCTs had moved the policy needle in India, Arvind Subramanian, Chief Economic Advisor, GOI, was hard pressed to find a single one that had been helpful to him in addressing the dozens of pressing policy questions that came across his table. By contrast, the compiling of just some key facts on learning outcomes by Indian NGO, Pratham, has had a big impact on policy discussions in education, because it is backed by a degree of specific knowledge and engagement that is more credible and persuasive. [Link]
On my part, I will simply use the occasion to highlight some other related issues which may or may not be directly relevant to their work.
At the core of the Randomised Controlled Trials (RCT) is the belief that, somehow, it is possible to make Economics a physical science by following the controlled experiments that are eminently doable in physical sciences. But, facts and behaviour in social science are embedded in contexts. They are inherently not falsifiable. Hence, not sure if RCT could capture all the nuances. Consequently, the reliability of the conclusions drawn from such experiments might be suspect.
The second point is that most economists do not keep in mind the asymmetric and non-linear nature of the relationships between economic variables and between causes and effects are asymmetric. That gives rise to the law of unintended consequences (=road to hell being paved with good intentions). For example, see this story on microlending in Sri Lanka gone awry.
While the story of microlending in Sri Lanka need not be a case of the law of unintended consequences, it is a case of the gap that exists between goals/intentions and real-life outcomes.
It is useful to ask why economic relationships are asymmetric and non-linear? Because, humans are. Loss aversion is a classic example. We value what we don’t have and once we have it, its value goes down. That is asymmetry. This has implications for policymaking.
When folks tell surveyors that they value something and would be happy and better-off if provided, one can never be sure that they would value it as much if given and, hence, the effect may not be what policymakers expected.
Reason why economic relationships are asymmetric and non-linear is that there are only few positive factors but several hygiene factors that influence human behaviour. Hygiene factors matter only in one direction. Positive factors do in both directions. But, hygiene factors far outnumber positive factors in our lives.
However, on balance, any research or methodology that challenges conventional wisdom on an important topic such as human impoverishment and raises fresh set of question must be deemed useful. The work of the three winners of the Swedish Riksbank prize for economics in 2019 passes that test.
Postscript: The World Bank published a report called ‘Voices of the Poor’ in 1999-2000 that simply listened to them. You can find it here.