Location: Providence, RI, U.S.A. Both BIARIs today focused on economics in the morning sessions. Over in Kassar House, the Development & Inequality morning session addressed how to use economic and sociological tools to measure inequality. I opted to attend the concurrent presentation in Hillel, where Sanjay Reddy made an encore appearance to yesterday's impressive showing. Reddy's presentation concerned the relationship between economics and the humanities--a topic framed by his up-front acknowledgement that most economists don't think such a relationship exists in the first place. "It's a nonsense question," he said while paraphrasing the majority opinion. "It's like asking, 'What's the relation between oranges and motor oil?'" However, Reddy made a strong rebuttal to this hypothetical dismissal. In his view, economists can't make declarations about how "well-off" an area is, for instance, without engaging that area and its surroundings through a multi-step process of humanities-style analysis. Echoing a similar gesture at yesterday's lunch by Robert Wade, Reddy turned a quote from former Harvard University president Larry Summers against itself.
"Everybody knows that physicists are smarter than economists and economists are smarter than sociologists," Reddy quoted Summers as saying. He then asserted that description - often considered the domain of the humanities - "is a nontrivial task" with real-world implications that should matter for anyone paying attention to the economy. From his seat at the roundtable, Wade jumped in to offer an illuminating example: revised economic statistics for 2005 shifted the official description of China into a category characterized by a lower state of living. This description gave the country's leaders the political leverage to say they should not be responsible for the same level of emissions reductions as the United States. Reddy made clear that he saw the value of description, along with understanding, evaluation and prescription. He said these concepts are key to the humanities, but also economics, even though "their methods can be and often are different." "We are the kind of beings who want to evaluate the world, even when there's not much we can do about it," he added. Although Reddy left it ambiguous as to whether he thinks academia can "create a better society" from these ideas, he made it clear that something needs to change. He suggested a stubbornness among most economists who won't acknowledge the gap between the stated purpose of their predictions (to describe the world) and their real intent (to achieve various directed goals or tasks). Once again, Wade elaborated upon this point, noting that organizations like the IMF and World Bank watch each other's predictions. The reason? They "don't do very much better than random at predicting macroeconomics," in Reddy's words, but it's better to be wrong together than to be drastically wronger than others in your field, Wade said. After a short break, Balakrishnan Rajagopal from MIT was next to present. He outlined the links between economics and the study of development in the context of the Global Economic Crisis. Indeed, "development itself is a field of crisis," he said. The traditional binary in the field is between 'development as growth' and 'growth as a negative.' However, Rajagopal insinuated that this dichotomy is no longer the only game in town, now complicated by new theories about the legacy of colonialism in developing countries and the realization of the political limits inherent to development efforts. Although development in theory represents a distancing from the top-down mandates of colonialism, its embrace is molded and constrained by the legacy of the latter in formerly colonized countries, Rajagopal said. Aiming for ambitious goals of modernization entails enormous and often under-recognized risks; these dangers have undermined peoples' faith in the process in general, he said. In brief, utopia is not a guaranteed end to developing/transitional countries' precarious means. Development is supposed to be about progress, Rajagopal said. "But it's not clear that we're doing that...every move forward seems to warrant a move backwards." After lunch, the Global Humanities attendees were done with their formal presentations for the day, so I returned to Kassar House for the Development & Inequality plenary session. The lecturer was Ben Jones from the University of East Anglia (U.K.), presenting on "Development and Inequality Beyond the Reach of the State." That title is pretty self-explanatory, although Jones' presentation predictably raised more questions than it explained. One of his early points that piqued my interest was a rebuttal of the popular myth that a states were only absent from the lives of "undeveloped" peoples. In fact, Jones said, the intersections of colonialism and capitalism have been a driving force in isolating many rural villages from political elites who consider themselves accountable only to those "above" them rather than below (i.e., out in the countryside). Just as Reddy, et al., have deconstructed the myths of the economics profession over the past few days, Jones confronted some of the internal contradictions in development agencies. He said they "construct the way in the world in which they can operate," trying to build a world that justifies their goals and existence. Jones also discouraged the BIARI scholars at Kassar House from focusing only on one bureaucracy or how the countryside reacts to governmental reform, as is often the norm in development studies. He recommended instead that they look for the bigger picture, not to mention the ideological factors that are constantly at play. The big question hanging over Jones' talk concerned the specifics of why development agencies are interested in inequality in the first place. We've started to put together the pieces of the inequality puzzle, but I imagine the answer will become clearer as the BIARI continues through next week. Speaking of next week: on Monday, two more BIARIs begin! You'll notice posts related to "Climate Change and its Impacts" and "Technology Entrepreneurship Management" beginning to pop up on this blog, so stay tuned for those.