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Category Archives: World Poverty

I think that this story is much more important than this story.


I say these statistics are much more important than these statistics.

One purpose of this blog has been to question the way to think about problems.  I’m specifically interested in how philosophy of science, statistics, and rhetoric shape the way we think.  Another purpose has been to identify which world problems are most worthy of discussion, having received insufficient attention.

Today I followed Tyler Cowen’s link to Mike McGovern’s essay about development economics.  Development economics is a topic I don’t understand well but consider highly important and under-discussed.  It’s also a meta-analysis, exploring different ways to think about problems.  For instance:

The difference between poets and economists…there is an acceptance that there are many ways to write a great poem, just as there are many enlightening ways to read any great poem. Bound as it is to the model of the natural sciences, economics cannot accept that there might be two incommensurable but equally valuable ways of explaining a given group of data points…Paul Collier, William Easterly, and Jeffrey Sachs can all be tenured professors and heads of research institutes, despite the fact that on many points, if one of them were definitively right, one or both of their colleagues would have to be wrong. If economics really were like a natural science, this would not be the case.

I wasn’t expecting to find philosophy of science (or philosophy of poetry) in an essay about third world development, but I think this type of thinking is necessary to address the particulars of third world development.  It’s a slightly morbid point of view; most people who want to solve problems want to do something; instead I want to think about thinking.  But actions are driven by views, and views and driven by the way we think about the world; when we don’t analyze the ways we think, we’re more likely to hold misguided views and take misguided actions.

McGovern’s assessment of development economics is shaped by his philosophy of science; in the above paragraph, he first criticizes economists for trying to be scientists, and then criticizes economists for being bad scientists.  The two criticisms contradict, and don’t account for the fact that throughout history, hard science regularly maintains contradictory points of view, whether in cosmology or mathematics.

My concerns about McGovern’s philosophy of science should dismiss what’s he written; his concerns about development economists may have more to do with their rhetoric than their scientific thinking.  On the whole, his essay is a really interesting read, and I’ll continue to think about it throughout the day.

Happy July 4th.

I find myself highly troubled by the ongoing class wars is the United States, mostly because of the amount of effort and energy being wasted on it.  America is an enormously wealthy country by international or historic standards.  Neither the American middle class nor the American upper class are oppressed group, yet each frames its argument as if the fate of the world depends on their getting a larger piece of the pie.

Scott Sumner makes an interesting argument about means testing.  Union-workers make a compelling case to defend their negotiating power.  No one wants their taxes raised or benefits cut, and its fairly easy to argue persuasively that your case is special.

And all I can think is, stop whining.  Deal with it.  There are serious problems in the world.  There’s a large budget shortfall, and the only way to address it is to cut spending or raise taxes.  There are honest arguments to be had about how to do so, but any argument that can be accurately summarized as “Don’t take my shit” is going to get mocked.  Here on this blog.  By me.

I have a hypothesis that in 150 years, the problems facing the world will be very different than what we see today.  Not because of a technological singularity, but simply because humans will have solved today’s hardest problems: poverty, war, crime, disease, climate change.

Here Robin Hanson links to a post arguing that solar technology will be economically viable on a large scale within a fraction of that timeframe.

This should be fantastic news for folks worried about carbon emissions or running out of oil. After all, projecting that a thirty year trend will continue for another ten years seems pretty safe.

A while back, I argued in favor of a wait-and-see approach to Climate Change, a position that would be supported by this knowledge.  It’s hard to know whether this projection is realistic, but equally hard to accurately project the effects of Climate Change.

As the National Football League enters lockout due to team owners’ and players’ failure to agree upon a collective bargaining agreement, millionaires and billionaires  plead their case that they each deserve a larger share of the revenue generated by the league.  Considering that 40% of American households earn less than $40k per year–less than 1/8 of the NFL’s minimum salary, and less than 1/30 of the NFL’s average salary–and that NFL owners are far wealthier than NFL players, it’s really easy to write off both sides as selfish jerks whining about how rough they have it.

Meanwhile, across the U.S., unions are battling state governments over the value of their labor.  Considering that 40% of the world population earns less that $2 per day (my rough calculation, based on here and here)–less than 1/60 of the median union wage, it’s really easy to write off both sides as selfish jerks whining about how rough they have it.