Saturday, May 26, 2007

"If We Knew How to Do That,
We Would Not Be Poor"

While others are sorting out the question whether neoclassic econ is a Mafia (link, link), allow me to share this anecdote copped from one of the most interesting and original microeconomics textbooks I’ve ever seen:

Like the overnight train that left me in an empty field some distance from the settlement, the process of economic development has for the most part bypassed the two hundred or so families that make up the village of Palanpur. They have remained poor, even by Indian standards: less than a third of the adults are literate, and most have endured the loss of a child to malnutrition or to illnesses that are long forgotten in other parts of the world. But for the occasional wristwatch, bicycle, or irrigation pump, Palanpur appears to be a timeless backwater, untouched by India’s cutting edge software industry and booming agricultural regions.

Seeking to understand why, I approached a sharecropper and his three daughters weeding a small plot. The conversation eventually turned to the fact that Palanpur farmers sow their winter crops several weeks after the date at which yields would be maximized. The farmers do not doubt that earlier planting would give them larger harvests, but no one the farmer explained, is willing to be the first to plant, as the seeds on any lone plot would be quickly eaten by birds. I asked if a large group of farmers, perhaps relatives, had ever agreed to sow earlier, all planting on the same day to minimize losses. “If we knew how to do that,” he said, looking up from his hoe at me, “we would not be poor.”

--Samuel Bowles, Microecnomics: Behavior, Institutions, and Evolution
24-25 (Princeton Paperback ed. 2004)

There must be 100 books entitled “Microeconomics”—a thousand? This one is so far out of the conventional mode that it might count as a violation of the British Trade Descriptions Act. It’s far closer to what might have passed as “Political Economy,”—Economics before the Mafia took over. Lots more attention to the structure of economies than you would expect in a standard Micro intro. Yet in detail (at the micro level?) it is actually fairly conventional stuff: all the individual items appear to come out of the standard toolbox. The unconventional ordering gives them a fresh and invigorating spin.

1 comment:

DavidLJ said...

See, the thing about economists is, is a whole lot of 'em have good irreverent thoughts about (fairly) good solid data.