Acton Institute Powerblog

A Nobel for a technocratic approach to poverty

In this week’s Acton Commentary, Victor Claar looks at the work of the three economists awarded the 2019 Sveriges Riksbank Prize in Economic Sciences. Claar, associate professor of economics at Florida Gulf Coast University and an Acton affiliate scholar, says “economists are quite divided on this year’s prize” given to Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer.

As an economist I can tell you that we adore unexpected, counterintuitive results like the ones for textbooks and meals. And researchers like Banerjee, Duflo, and Kremer identify the source of such outcomes: We make the mistake of treating all the students the same, and we expect the average student to respond positively to treatments like more books and meals.

But students are individuals.

And while more books and more food didn’t improve learning, more individualized instruction did – especially with the students who were furthest behind, whereas more books seemed to matter most to the students who were already doing well.

But I can also tell you that economists are quite divided on this year’s prize.

The more free-market-minded ones are frustrated that economists are again celebrating the economist-as-technocrat. And the others, the technocrats, think this work represents one more step toward “solving poverty.” But it seems we are always about to solve poverty.

I think the truth lies somewhere in between. To the extent that flourishing economies burst forth from fertile soil, it’s worth asking whether economic experiments like these can aid us in understanding how soil that is currently infertile might be enriched. But we should also ask whether some of our current efforts are poisonous rather than enriching.

Read “Experimenting with the poor: The 2019 Nobel celebrates the economist as technocrat” by Victor Claar.

Image: Abhijit Banerjee, Esther Duflo and Michael Kremer, 2019 Laureates in Economic Sciences. Copyright © Nobel Media 2019. Illustration: Niklas Elmehed.

John Couretas

is a writer and editor based in Grand Rapids, Michigan.