HARDtalk with Esther Duflo

11 Dec, 2019 at 12:03 | Posted in Economics | Comments Off on HARDtalk with Esther Duflo

This year’s ‘Nobel prize’ winners think that economics should be based on evidence from randomised experiments and field studies. Duflo et consortes want to give up on ‘big ideas’ like political economy and institutional reform and instead go for solving more manageable problems the way plumbers do. Yours truly is far from sure that is the right way to move economics forward and make it a relevant and realist science. A plumber can fix minor leaks in your system, but if the whole system is rotten, something more than good old fashion plumbing is needed. The big social and economic problems we face today are not going to be solved by plumbers performing RCTs.

Many ‘experimentalists’ claim that it is easy to replicate experiments under different conditions and therefore a fortiori easy to test the robustness of experimental results. But is it really that easy? Population selection is almost never simple. Had the problem of external validity only been about inference from sample to population, this would be no critical problem. But the really interesting inferences are those we try to make from specific labs/experiments/fields to specific real-world situations/institutions/ structures that we are interested in understanding or (causally) to explain. And then the population problem is more difficult to tackle.

Duflo sees development as the implementation and replication of expert-led fixes to provide basic goods for the poor who are often blinded by their exacting situation. It is a technical quest for certainty and optimal measures in a fairly static framework.

In Duflo’s science-based ‘benevolent paternalism’, the experimental technique works as an ‘anti-politics machine’ … social goals being predefined and RCT outcomes settling ideally ambiguities and conflicts. Real-world politics — disregarding or instrumentalising RCTs — and institutions — resulting from social compromises instead of evidence — are thus often perceived as external disturbances and constraints to economic science and evidence-based policy.

Agnès Labrousse

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