Thursday, June 3, 2010

My roller-coaster relationship with Nicholas Kristof

If I put up a facebook relationship status about NYTimes columnist Nicholas Kristof, it would be "It's complicated."  Me and Kristof started out strong, when I was a naive college student-wannabe-journalist, and he was one of the few prominent columnists talking about the BIG issues.  Chief among these big issues was AFRICA, a place we all knew was afflicted with all the world's worst problems.  And Kristof was talking about it.

Now, after working in Africa (specifically: Zambia), getting to know numerous sub-Saharan Africans, and reading countless papers on economic development, I find that talking about it isn't quite enough anymore.  I find myself sympathizing more and more with bloggers like Texas in Africa, who has a special tag for Kristof screw-ups, "The Kristof Strikes Again," and Africa is a Country, who first made me notice Kristof's awkward, me-centric (condescending, privileged, and imperialist might work, too) approach to interactions with Africans.

Still, sometimes I'm elated just to hear him talk about things that deserve ink, such as when he addressed cruel misconceptions about Haitian culture after the devastating earthquake there.  I was entranced to read his essay on women's role in developing country economies, and was willing to forgive him some oversimplifications for the public service of bringing gender to the forefront of Times' readers' minds.  But for every one of those swoony moments, there's a piece like his recent misinformed one on birth control in Africa (where else) that ended with the line, "So she may just keep on producing babies."

Kristof really hit a nerve, though, when he wrote a column about the "ugly secret" of development, that poor people don't spend their money wisely:
It’s a blunt truth that is politically incorrect, heartbreaking, frustrating and ubiquitous: It’s that if the poorest families spent as much money educating their children as they do on wine, cigarettes and prostitutes, their children’s prospects would be transformed. Much suffering is caused not only by low incomes, but also by shortsighted private spending decisions by heads of households.
Sean Jacobs over at Africa is a Country had this to say about the piece:
Kristof then finds a Congolese child–it plays well with American readers to focus on children, he has argued somewhere else–whose parents cannot afford to pay his school fees but have cheap cellphones and occasionally have a drink. 
And then he brings up Bill Easterly’s favorite economist Esther Duflo to endorse his 19th century views in which Westerners, and particularly white Westerners, decide whats good for poor, third world, mostly black, particularly black people, and then he babbles on about microlending.  I am tired. 
And, while it's true that Kristof cites Esther Duflo (along with co-author Abhijit Banerjee), he doesn't cite her correctly, as Amanda Taub points out.  Basically, while it's true that African families (from the countries in the Banerjee/Duflo work) spend little on school fees compared to other expenditures, this is primarily because most schools are free or minimally expensive.  Sub-Saharan Africa has made great recent strides in reducing or eliminating school fees and promoting increased access.  For those children whose schools do charge fees, or who might benefit from going to a private school versus a free one, Taub also points out it's a mistake to attribute lack of parental expenditure to irresponsibility.  Rather, it could be that parents in developing countries simply do not perceive a large benefit from the added expense, due to the poor quality of available schools or lack of job opportunities for students who do get a strong education.

Bill Easterly and Laura Freschi really get to the heart of the problem with the column, which is that it expects the poor to act in ways that are different--more altruistic, more responsible, more correct--than people who happen to have a broader opportunity set because we live in a developed country.
It’s legitimate to consider that poor people could behave in counterproductive and irrational ways…just like rich people do.  ...A growing body of work, including the Duflo and Banerjee study and the recent book Portfolios of the Poor, contributes to understanding the complex economic lives of the poor and chips away at misconceptions about poor people having “nothing,” living hand-to mouth, and immediately spending every penny they receive on food and other absolute basic necessities.
Is it really such a big surprise that the poor also want recreation? That the poor have a life? Including some of the same vices that the rich have?
Although many people (cough, #1million shirts) envision Africans as huddling masses without a stitch of clothing or ounce of food to their names, thus ensuring every spare penny will be spent on bare necessities, that's simply not the case.  Most individuals in developing countries usually have enough money to feed their families and make do.  Yes, people do die from hunger when unexpected things happen such as droughts, and children may get limited nutrition due to the quality of food available.  But generally, people get by, and thus have a little money left over to spend how they wish.

Of course, how they wish and how we wish is different. Because we come from rich countries, and we know how things should be.  We think we know what's best for people "over there."  But, the truth is, it's simply not possible that we know better than them what's in their best interest.  The decisions people make are, by their nature, in their best interest.  That is how decisions work.  They're made in constrained environments, but, given these constraints, all individuals make decisions that maximize their utility.  That means, if a child's father is choosing a drink instead of a bednet, that is, for him, a utility maximizing choice, given his constraints.  And yet, that's not good enough for us.  We, in rich countries get to maximize our happiness, but we somehow think people in developing countries should be doing something different.  So, we criticize their choices, as Kristof has done, instead of looking at the constraints that shaped them.

If someone improved the quality of the schools nearby to Kristof's Congolese family, the father might make different decisions.  If economic development created jobs in the area, the father might find he'd rather work more and consumer more luxury goods than spend his evenings in the bar.  If someone developed savings products that could help the father commit to a larger future purchase, he might find the opportunity cost of his beer much higher.  If development workers want to help, they should focus on removing the constraints that are making these "poor decisions" the optimal choice for these families.  With fewer constraints, people will be happier, even though they still may not make decisions closer to the "socially acceptable" norm that people like Kristof seem to idolize.  But for me, happiness, a full range of options to achieve self-actualization, has always been the goal of development, just as I believe promoting and expanding women's choices, not making them for them, should be the goal of feminism.

I'll let Texas in Africa have the last word:
While of course there are poor parents with misplaced priorities who neglect their children in Africa, there are also neglectful parents in Paris and Tokyo and Lima and Bangalore and Des Moines and Oslo and even the Upper West Side. I daresay there might even be a big-time columnist or two who has gotten drunk rather than seen to a child's pressing needs.
For more, see The Atlantic's roundup of news on the column.

In other sub-Saharan Africa news, cassava, a staple food throughout much of the continent, is being threatened by a crop disease in south-east Africa, and Bill Easterly thinks African nations were set up to fail in the Millennium Development Goals.


  1. "The decisions people make are, by their nature, in their best interest. That is how decisions work. They're made in constrained environments, but, given these constraints, all individuals make decisions that maximize their utility."

    Not to nitpick, but I feel behavioral economics has really challenged these statements in the past decade. Dan Ariely's work, for example, challenges the idea that we are all rational utility-maximizers. Not that this invalidates your larger point, that Westerners are not 'better decision-makers' than Africans. Ariely's work uses American (and maybe Israeli?) students - but could probably be more broadly applied. I am all about expanding the choice set!

  2. I have to say that I agree with Mongoose6. I think economists too often take the utility-maximizing individual as a given truth, when to be honest, I don't even know what's my maximum utility. My utility depends on my mood, my possibilities, my upbringing, my health... there are so many factors that are all intertwined, so I don't think any one individual ever truly knows what their maximal utility is and how to make decisions to maximize it.

    That said, I completely agree that we should focus on eliminating constraints and expanding choice sets! Given that I don't believe most people know anything about their own (and therefore others') utilities, we should instead concentrate our efforts on easing the constraints people face.

  3. Aside--why are we the only people commenting on our posts? Where have all our commenters gone? Come back!

    Now, back to the point. I think you're both right, but I disagree. To me, saying that individuals make decisions to maximize their utility is a non-controversial statement, because where I depart from strict economic theory is in taking a very broad view of utility. So, for example, if we think people frequently make decisions using shortcuts, such as following what friends do, or choosing the default option, I say that using that shortcut is part of their utility, and so they made a bundle of choices (step 1, don't think too much about the choice, step 2, make a choice that might be sub-optimal had I really thought about the choice) that maximizes their utility. Similarly, if people are shortsighted and their future selves will be mad at them for not saving, they still at the time maximized their utility, just with a strong discount factor, or possible a hyperbolic one.

    I DEFINITELY think that tweaking small things can make big changes in decisions, but I see this as changing the incentives and constraints under which utility maximizing decisions are made. One blogger speculated that men drink in developing countries to form social bonds that act as a kind of insurance. If this is the case (about which I am unconvinced), then maybe having team sports available in a community could replace the need for drinking. Or, if we think people spend their money impulsively, when they'd rather buy important things, we could promote commitment savings products to turn six $1 bills that would be spent at the bar into the $6 needed for a bednet.

    The most important thing, to me, is that we look at the incentives that shape people's decisions instead of saying "they're making bad decisions, and that's the problem."

  4. I really liked this post. I agree that behavioral economics does not invalidate any of your argument against Kristof's column. The column implicitly argues poor people make bad decisions, because their choices don't match developed-country priors of optimal choices. That's awful, no matter what theory you have of behavior.

    But it's possible to argue that poor people do not spend their money wisely -- in the sense that they're poorly informed or myopic. So if Kristof had provided the family with accurate information about the benefits of education, and this information had changed the families spending habits, then Kristof would have some evidence. If Kristof had found a father who believed he drank too much for his own good and would benefit from some kind of commitment mechanism that's not available, then Kristof would have some evidence. As it stands now, the column is worthless.

  5. One more thought: I don't actually think male demand for alcohol or prostitution is driven by ignorance or myopia, and I don't at all buy into Banerjee's theory that these are "temptation goods" as he's defined them.

  6. Once again, I know I'm going to derail(for the record - Kristof, I feel he oversimplifies, but I am glad he uses his platform to bring awareness to important issues. I do not like that he mansplains them to the world. This would seem to be the problem: I, NK, privileged white man, am going to tell you what poverty and oppression is like!)

    Colo, I think your thoughts on utility maximizing are non-controversial because it is a tautology. If we say utility is whatever people are maximizing when they make decisions, then it is by definition true that people's decisions are utility-maximizing. Unfortunately, it has no meaning beyond that. I think we can make the case that Westerners shouldn't make decisions for Africans, without using economic theory. Like, it patronizing, and patriarchal, and colonial, so we shouldn't do it, because people have a right to autonomy.


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