Is There Hope for Economics? Yes – At Last!

By Shlomo Maital

Kremer, Duflo, Banerjee

   Almost eight years ago, in November 2011, I wrote a blog about, among others, two MIT economists named Duflo and Banerjee, who FINALLY were asking the right question (why are so many people in the world so poor, and what can be done about it?) and FINALLY answering it, by doing field-based experiments with real money and real people, instead of building mathematical models of Alice in Wonderland. *

     Together with Harvard University Professor Mark Kremer, they have been awarded the 2019 Nobel Prize in Economics. Duflo is the youngest economist ever to win it (she’s 46) and only the 2nd woman. She and Banerjee are spouses. Banerjee is of Indian ancestry. Duflo is French. (President Trump: Still think all immigrants are drug dealers, murders and rapists?)

     I am an economist. And I was born too soon (in 1942). If I had been born in, say, 1982, I would have caught the wave of behavioral economics, which applied psychology to understanding how people really behave, instead of using abstract math. (My wife, a psychologist, and I published papers on behavioral economics as early as 1972 – but at that time, nobody was listening). If I had been born in, say, 1997, I might have done meaningful research in the field that helped build evidence-based policy.

   Here is an example of powerful field experiments that change millions of lives, that I wrote about in my 2011 blog (based on an NYT column by Nicholas Kristof):

     “Prof. Michael Kremer, a Harvard economist, helped pioneer randomized trials in antipoverty work. In the 1990s, Kremer began studying how to improve education in Kenya, Africa, trying different approaches in randomly selected batches of schools. One intervention he tried was deworming kids — and bingo! In much of the developing world, most kids have intestinal worms, leaving them sick, anemic and more likely to miss school. Deworming is very cheap (a pill costing a few pennies), and, in the experiment he did with Edward Miguel, it resulted in 25 percent less absenteeism. Even years later, the kids who had been randomly chosen to be dewormed were earning more money than other kids. Kremer estimates that the cost of keeping a kid in school for an additional year by building schools or by subsidizing school uniforms is more than $100, while by deworming kids, the cost drops to $3.50. (In a pinch, kids can usually go to “school” in a church or mosque without a uniform.)”

     p.s. The Government of Kenya, impressed by Kremer’s study, supplied deworming medicine to nearly all Kenyan children, vastly improving their lives.  It is incredible that in the West, we give deworming pills to our puppies and pet dogs regularly — but only Kremer thought to try giving it to African kids!

     In the 1880’s the Economics profession made a terrible mistake. Two leading economists, Alfred Marshall and William Stanley Jevons, were rivals. Marshall had a practical, behavioral evidence-based approach. He defined economics as the “study of people as they work and live in the ordinary business of life.” Jevons? Well, he was a failed mathematician and physicist. He slapped together a few equations, to create an abstract model of economics – and economists loved it! They swallowed it! They dumped Marshall.

     Why? Because the queen of science at the time was physics, and physics was highly mathematical. Maybe…economics could be as prestigious and ‘scientific’ as physics? Problem is – people are not electrons. You study them, not by quantum mechanics, but by observation and experiment. But it took economics 130 years to figure that out. And in the meantime, wrongheaded math-based pie-in-the-sky economics detached from reality did huge damage to the world – lately, in 2008, when we reaped what free-market greed-is-good economists had sowed..

     Banerjee was born in Calcutta, India, to Nirmala Banerjee, a professor of economics and Dipak Banerjee, a professor and the head of the Department of Economics. Duflo was born in 1972 in Paris. She is the daughter of Michel Duflo, a mathematics professor, and his wife Violaine, a pediatrician. According to Wikipedia, “during Duflo’s childhood, her mother often participated in medical humanitarian project”.

     In acknowledging her Nobel, Duflo noted that far too few women choose economics as a profession, and expressed the hope her Nobel would inspire more women to enter the field.   What will you do with the money? journalists asked. She responded that when Marie Curie won her Nobel, she used the money to buy one gram of radium. Duflo said she too hoped to use the resources to further field research on poverty.

     As Esther Duflo said herself, the importance of her Nobel, is that it will inspire other young economics students to follow in her footsteps, and ask real questions and find real field-based human answers on which effective policy can be built.

     I wish I could start my career again. You have to know when to be born.

       * Abhijit Banerjee & Esther Duflo, Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. PublicAffairs (2011). Their new book: Good Economics for Hard Times, will be published in November 2019.