An immigrant’s plea – make America great again!

Hope, a vision of possibility,  is the beating heart of the American Dream. Like all immigrants, I came to the USA in search of my version of that dream, citizenship in ‘a more perfect union’. While I knew that the country would continue to fall short,  I could not have imagined  that it would risk being sucked into a vortex of nation-destroying challenges at the intersection of economics, politics and governance of a kind with which I have been pre-occupied for most of my professional life. If things go badly, the American dream could die on election day, November 3rd, 2020.

It sometimes is said that we cannot know our own country unless we see it in relation to somewhere else. There have been many excellent efforts to  use a comparative lens to understand the USA’s governance crisis (See HERE, HERE and HERE); I have been hesitant to add to what already is a crowded genre.  Indeed, I write this piece less as a specialist in comparative governance and more as an immigrant, hoping against hope that the better angels of America’s nature, which drew me to this country, may yet prevail.

In recent weeks, I have been engaging with people whose voices are very different from those of my usual professional and social bubble. What I have learned has evoked a sense of urgency. For those who have come from countries with more difficult histories, what currently is unfolding is a flashing red light, a wailing siren, a five-alarm fire.    So I have been startled by  a continuing belief among many that somehow America’s current distemper will magically disappear, that American exceptionalism will continue to shower the freedom, privileges, optimism and affluence which have brought so many (myself included) to its shores. The result is a continuing evasion among all-too-many of hard choices –  a siren song inviting  some on the left to abstain rather than voting for Joe Biden, and some on the center right to vote for their ‘team’, the Republicans, even it they don’t much like its current leader. If this siren song prevails, we will witness the American dream transmogrifying into the American nightmare. 

Two sets of entrenched habits of thought and action risk propelling the USA into an abyss. The first comprises a reckless propensity to polarize.  Integral to a thriving society is  a platform of shared commitment to the common benefit, to providing the myriad public goods which underpin a thriving society.  Views will vary  as to which public goods to provide, and how to provide them. With compromise, a society can thrive. But if protagonists adopt  ‘my-way-or-the-highway’ approaches to collective discourse,  social problems fester indefinitely.  (Aficionados of game theory will recognize this as a description of the game of ‘battle’.)   This has been the fate of many countries but not, I always assumed, of the USA. Yet currently the United States finds itself unable to achieve  sufficient consensus to make progress on any of a  myriad of pressing challenges: immigration reform, health care reform (including, as the covid19 pandemic has revealed, ongoing underinvestment in public health capability); investment in infrastructure; reforms to improve learning outcomes; protection of the environment;  support for basic research; social insurance; the list goes on and on…..

At the limit,  an unbounded, unconstrained willingness to  do what it takes to impose my-way-or-the-highway solutions –   to threaten and intimidate, including the threat of inflicting massive, mutual destruction – risks a slippery slope towards disaster. (Aficionados of game theory will recognize this as a description of the game of ‘chicken’.)   The absence of a coherent public domain is not laissez faire capitalism. It is the destruction of  the institutional platform which enables a market-economy  to function. It is the loss of the  predictability which provides the basis for thriving, vibrant human life. It is an accelerating destruction of  wealth; social capital; culture; knowledge; the institutional foundations of civilization. The specter of state collapse and a descent into violence comes into view.

The consequence of the second set of entrenched habits of thought is almost as bleak – a cluster of ideas and interests which demonize the public sphere, and  risk driving the USA into a made-in-America variant of state capture.  As an economist I take for granted the virtues of a mixed economy, with distinct public and private realms. So the depth of American distrust of government has come as a surprise   – though I’ve increasingly come to understand that it has roots both new and old: new in that it has been fueled by the billions of dollars spent by the Koch brothers propagating libertarian ideas (see HERE and HERE);  old in that distrust in government has long had a hold on the American psyche,  as Gary Wills has documented.

Libertarian world views offer no adequate response to changes in the economy in recent decades,  spurred by a combination of globalization and technological change (see HERE, HERE and HERE) which have put new pressures on middle class livelihoods.  Rather than work to construct a new vision,  what has emerged among the protagonists of limited government has been the collapse of any sense of shades of gray. Inclusive policies of a kind which are uncontroversial in all other high-income countries become demonized as slippery slopes on ‘the road to serfdom’. Dwight Eisenhower and Richard Nixon become left-wing fellow travelers. This would be farcical were it not for the consequences.  

A pre-occupation with keeping taxes low, at whatever price, has led to the political swamp –  an openness to policies and ideologies profoundly antithetical to what had seemed to be deeply-held national values.  What is unfolding resembles nothing so much as a made-in-America variant of state capture – a toxic hybrid of ethno-nationalism and a corrupt, praetorian politics.

Ethno-nationalism and praetorian politics draw on distinctive American legacies: Huey Long, Father Coughlin and the violent white supremacist Jim Crow South (plus more genteel variants of superiority, rooted in a culturally-narrow vision of American exceptionalism). But what currently is unfolding resembles political currents which are  distinctly non-American:  the European ethno-nationalist fascist movements of the first half of the twentieth century (which in Hungary, Poland and other countries are making their own comeback);  cults of personality of a kind which are all-too-familiar in Latin American or African ‘big man’ politics.  

Those of us who have lived and worked in such settings know that this generally ends badly.  Indeed, in what one hopes against hope are the death pangs of the Trump administration, what we  are witnessing is all too familiar:  the fueling of identity-driven anger and fear; an effort to militarize America’s cities;  an assault on  state institutions (ranging from the Department of Justice, to watchdog Inspectors General, to the United States Postal Service, and even the Center for Disease Control).  which stand in the way of Trump’s re-election.


Like most immigrants, I was drawn to America by  what seemed to be a happy combination of bold risk-taking and a pragmatic, can-do spirit, a sunny optimism. More than I knew when I came to these shores, darker impulses also festered beneath the surface; now they threaten to overwhelm.  It doesn’t have to be that way.

What drew me to America may have been an incomplete picture, but it was not false. Though currently in eclipse, the better angels of America’s nature could again be ascendant. Here is what I wish for: that the American center holds; that politicians of the center win a sweeping electoral victory, and renew the American polity, economy and society by learning from political practices which made America great in the 20th century:

  • The ‘bold, persistent, experimentation’ which characterized the far-reaching, inclusive reforms which comprised the New Deal of the 1930s – reforms which were vilified at the time by those on the right but which,  as Franklin Delano Roosevelt himself put it, “saved the system of private profit and free enterprise after it had been dragged to the brink of ruin.”
  • The non-violent activism of the 1950s and 1960s  civil rights movement, which offers an inspiring example of what can be achieved by embracing and universalizing,  rather than crashing through,  deeply-held (if imperfectly realized) American values of tolerance, respect for the individual, and the equal dignity of all people.
  • A civic-minded corporate culture,  part of a broader embrace of a mixed economy –  an embrace which Yale and Berkeley political scientists Jacob Hacker and Paul Pierson usefully remind us in their  book American Amnesia was a key pillar of mid-twentieth-century American prosperity  (with strong support from a variety of business organizations, including the  Committee for Economic Development the Business Advisory Council, and the American Chamber of Commerce).
  • Legislative compromise in pursuit of the collective good, including Republican Dwight Eisenhower’s National Interstate Highway Act, which authorized 41,000 miles of new road construction; white southern Democrat Lyndon Johnson’s championing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act; and  Republican Richard Nixon’s  creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and championing of an expanded, modernized welfare system (including early support for a variant of Universal Basic Income).

These practices made America great (for many, not all…..)  in the twentieth century. Inclusive 21st century variants could provide a platform for renewal, for building  a thriving, inclusive and environmentally sustainable society, one which offers equal dignity and opportunity for all – and, in so doing,  could make America great again.


Ideas as drivers of continuity and change: Big lessons from two small countries

Nothing matters more for a country’s long-run development than how it navigates cycles of hope, crisis and renewal. This piece explores these cycles, using the examples of  two small countries, Georgia and Benin.

The longstanding focus of my governance work has been on incremental with-the-grain approaches – and I continue to believe that they are useful for sustaining forward momentum in times of stability, when inclusive growth is rapid. However, over the longer-run, the crucial difference between countries which become affluent and those which remain poor is in the proportion of time they spend growing rather than mired in crisis.  Ideas turn out to be a crucial influence on how a country cycles from growth to crisis and back again.

The centrality of ideas has been highlighted by a variety of eminent economists, including John Maynard Keynes, Dani Rodrik, Douglass North and Albert Hirschman. [See this link for an overview.] Hirschman’s notion of an ideationally-driven cycle – which he framed in  a 1974 article in terms of  a changing tolerance for inequality in the course of economic development  – has proven to be especially helpful as  a framing device in my research and teaching.  Hirschman  introduced the cycle via an analogy with being stuck in intermittently moving traffic: 

“Suppose I run into a serious traffic jam in a two-lane tunnel. After a while the cars in the other lane begin to move. Naturally, my spirits lift considerably…. Even though I […may not gain…]…. I feel much better off than before because of the expectation that I shall soon be on the move….. 

“But this tolerance…. is like a credit that falls due….Advances of others supply information about a more benign external environment…. [which]  suspends envy…. [But]  non-realization of the expectation that my turn will soon come will at some point result in my ‘becoming furious’ that is, in my turning into an enemy of the established order.  No particular outward event sets off this dramatic turnaround.”

In recent years, I have encouraged  students in my masters-level Development Strategies course at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies  to write their term papers on how this  cycle has played out in specific countries.  This blog highlights two papers – Brittin Alfred’s paper on the central Caucasus country of Georgia and Luke Tyburski’s on the West African state of Benin. Both offer potent – but radically contrasting  – insights as to the role of ideas in the Hirschman cycle.

Georgia is an extraordinary example of the power of ideas in catalyzing institutional turnaround.  In 1991, it (re-) emerged as an independent country by seceding from the disintegrating Soviet Union. Following an initial period of political and economic turmoil, the country stabilized. Since the mid-1990s, economic growth has mostly been positive, averaging in the range of 5% per annum. In the latter 1990s, the country seemingly settled into an equilibrium of steady growth plus high corruption. But the early 2000s witnessed a transformation of governance  – a transformation which, from a comparative global perspective is unprecedentedly rapid and far-reaching.  In 2002 the Worldwide Governance Indicators scored the country as among the worst-performing 5 percent of countries in its control of corruption; by 2005, it was in the top half of performers; by 2012 it was in the top one-third.

Brittin’s paper explores how an orchestrated shift in social norms helps account for this renewal.  Drawing on the extensive literature on how social norms are shaped and changed (and, especially, the contributions of Elinor Ostrom), she argues that:  

peoples’ own preferences are constantly interacting with the preferences of others; given the opportunity to communicate and co-ordinate, people will often work together to find the most beneficial outcome – and these practices, once observed to be beneficial, will be ‘adopted’ more widely’ throughout a society.”

 What made the difference in the Georgian case was leadership, specifically the leadership provided by Mikheil Saakashvili.

Saakashvili, who become the country’s president in 2003 in the wake of the country’s Rose Revolution was, Brittin writes, “a passionate, charismatic and outrageously bold politician…. audacious enough to believe that [discontinuous] change was possible, charismatic enough to convince people of this belief, and tenacious enough to doggedly pursue converting this belief into reality”. The reform of Georgia’s traffic police illustrates how norm-shifting was achieved:

“Police would stop any motorist or pedestrian, and would shamelessly extort bribes….. Georgians would pay bribes to these police because they anticipated their fellow citizens would, and vice versa. Saakashvili launched a total assault on corruption within the police forces. Overnight, the entire 16,000 person-strong police force of Georgia was fired, and new police were brought on board. The new police were told there would be a zero-tolerance policy on corruption, and when the new force failed to adhere to this new, non-corrupt norm, they were fired again. After two rounds of firing and re-hiring, as well as drastically reducing the bloated rank numbers, police officers eventually began to get the message, and fall into line.” 

Things didn’t end well in Georgia for Saakashvili. His party lost parliamentary elections in 2012; he was forced to leave the country (and subsequently was charged with a variety of criminal offenses). But Georgia continues to be a beacon of the possibility of radical reversal of corruption. [More examples of how Saakashvili achieved this, plus a useful introduction to the  literature on norm shifts, can be found in Brittin’s paper.]

The role of ideas has been starkly different the West African country of Benin than in Georgia. The Georgian case illustrates how discontinuous changes in ideas and institutions can be mutually reinforcing. In Benin by contrast, as Luke Tyburski’s paper details,   ideas have been a source of continuity. The country has remained stable throughout the three decades since its 1990 transition to democracy  – notwithstanding moderate growth (about 4% per annum), mediocre institutions, and stubbornly persistent poverty for the bottom 70-80% of the population. To explore why this has been so, Luke reframes Hirschman’s tunnel effect in terms of three lanes:

  • a privileged lane for the upper elite, comprising maybe one percent of the population;
  • a lane for the salaried urban middle class, making up less than 20 percent of the population;
  • the vast majority of the population is left in a third lane, which has been static for too long to remember.

Luke suggests two ideationally-rooted explanations for the seeming passivity of people in the third lane.  The first of these is deeply rooted in Benin’s  legacy as a central locale for the slave trade. The Beninese port of Ouidah was West Africa’s largest slave port, a point of exit for over one million slaves. Slavery was abolished only in 1905; forced labor remained legal until 1946. As Luke details (and consistent with Paolo Freire’s classic book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed) internalized privilege and internalized oppression continue to shape the country’s polity and society.

“No consequential dismantling of the tribes and power structures involved has taken place. The Fon in the south are largely descendants of residents of Dahomey, while the widely enslaved Gando remain in the north…. Former identities, symbolism, and relations have proven incredibly resilient….Development has also proceeded unequally, with literacy rates in the northernmost district of 25 percent, compared to 87 percent in the coastal capital.”

Luke’s second explanation for Benin’s stability distinguishes among ‘tunnel effect’ interactions between the first and second lanes, and the second and third. As he puts it:   

“Benin’s tunnel effect is more [accurately] described as a pair of elite-middle class and middle class-masses relationships. Benin’s non-elites have their eye more on the ‘second lane’ than on the elites.”

He argues that Benin’s 1990 democratization was set in motion  by first-second lane interactions –  a turn from hope to anger on the part of the urban middle class vis-à-vis the upper elites. In addition, the democratization  moment sparked a benign tunnel effect for the third lane. Gains for this lane included some stirrings of political engagement in rural areas – new village associations, and some increased participation of historically-marginalized groups in producer organizations and local elections.  But expectations remained modest. As of 2019,  structural continuities appeared to continue to outweigh democratic gains among the non-elite – although it is noteworthy that, even though 73% of the population continued to prefer democracy, satisfaction with democracy declined from 69% in 2008 to 51% in 2017.


How to reconcile the seemingly opposite roles played by ideas in Georgia (as a force for change)  and  in Benin (as a buttress for the status quo)? One option is recourse to a Marxian dismissal of ideas as ‘superstructure’, concealing the deeper (class) forces at work. This is not my view. Focusing on ideas has helped me to see some hidden fault lines in development discourse.  Development concerns complex systems, and how they change. There can be long periods of stability, periods when (as I explored in depth in earlier work)  change is cumulative,  incremental. But sometimes complex systems  recalibrate discontinuously.  Tectonic plates shift; evolution makes a rapid leap. Complex social systems can have similar moments of discontinuity – and at such moments  the direction of change is shaped by contestation over ideas. We currently are in the throes of one of these discontinuous moments. It is at the level of ideas that the path ahead will be shaped, for good or ill.

The centrality of ideas – some important contributions

The role of ideas as drivers of change is becoming increasingly central in my teaching and writing on comparative governance. This post summarizes, for reference, six sets of contributions which have been important influences on my thinking in this area.

1: Dani Rodrik’s recent writing.After decades as an eminent exponent of the centrality of incentives and institutions in shaping development, in recent years Rodrik has shifted direction. As he put it in a 2014 article:

Any model of political economy in which organized interests do not figure prominently is likely to remain vacuous and incomplete….. But a mapping from interests to outcomes, depends on many unstated assumptions about the ideas of political agents”.

Rodrik’s recent work with Sharun Mukand (see here and, for a more technical version, here) is a powerful exploration of how the interaction between two  channels of ideational politics – a ‘worldview channel’ aimed at shaping citizens’ understanding of how the world works, and an ‘identity channel’  aimed at shaping citizens’ perceptions of who they are – comprises the basis for toxic populism.

2: John Maynard Keynes highlighted ideas – specifically our fluctuating expectations of what the future holds – as central to his classic analysis of the business cycle. Here’s how he put it:

“ Our theory of the future, being based on so flimsy a foundation, is subject to sudden and violent changes. The practice of calmness and immobility, of certainty and security, suddenly breaks down. New fears and hopes will, without warning, take charge of human conduct…..”

Click on this link for more detail.

3: Albert Hirschman identified shifts in ideas in relation to inequality as key to  Latin America’s turn from the hopeful times of the 1950s and early 1960s to  the angry 1960s and early 1970s. He argued  that:

“Tolerance for inequality is like a credit that falls due….It is extended because advances of others supply information about a more benign external environment….This produces gratification [which]  suspends envy…. [But]  non-realization of the expectation that my turn will soon come will at some point result in my ‘becoming furious’ that is, in my turning into an enemy of the established order.  No particular outward event sets off this dramatic turnaround.”

More detail via this link.

4: How the mind works. A rapidly expanding literature on how humans think explores the ubiquity of cognitive biases. The 2015 World Development Report, Mind, Society and Behavior usefully summarized these biases as resulting from our propensities to think automatically, to think socially, and to think with mental models. Key contributions which provide a basis for the WDR include Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind, Joshua Greene’s Moral Tribes.  Robert Sapolsky’s Behaveprovides a comprehensible, accessible review of the voluminous research.

5: Internalized privilege and oppression. A direct line links Paulo Freire’s classic 1970 book, Pedagogy of the Oppressed to Alice Evans 2018 World Development article, “Politicizing Inequality: the Power of Ideas”. I have long been inspired by South African Steve Biko’s vision that the end of apartheid would liberate whites as well as blacks, as whites “…realize that  they are only human, not superior. Same with Blacks. They must be made to realize that they are also human, not inferior.”

6: Douglass North. Late in his career, especially in his 2005 book, Understanding the Process of Economic Change,  North moved beyond his longstanding focus on institutions to explore also the role of ‘mental models’ in shaping long-run development. By contrast to Keynes and Hirschman, who focus on the changing, ephemeral nature of ideas,  North emphasizes the ways in which their ‘stickiness’ can inhibit a society’s capacity to adapt. He suggests (pp. 116-7) that:

“We are continually altering our environment in new ways, and there is no guarantee that we will understand correctly the changes in the environment, develop the appropriate institutions, and implement policies to solve the new problems we will face…..We tend to get it wrong when the accumulated experiences and beliefs derived from the past…… the set of mental models, categories and classifications of the neural networks through which the new evidence gets filtered….  do not provide a correct guide to future decision-making.”

As North reminds us, though, ideas don’t lock in only because of limits in the adaptive capability of neural networks:

 Dominant organizations (and their entrepreneurs) may view the necessary changes as a threat to their survival. To the degree that the entrepreneurs of such organizations control decision-making, they can thwart the necessary changes….”

How? Via the propagation of ideas –  for example, as per the recent work of Mukand and Rodrik, via a combination of identity and worldview memes which induce low-income voters to support policies which leave them worse off, and benefit the wealthy. 

Ideas matter, North tells us,. And, he also tells us, the intersection of ideas and power can be decisive.

[See the post linked here for an application of some of these ideas by two of my SAIS students to Benin and Georgia.]

Seven months. That’s all we have.

Greetings friends – from all over the world, most of us of a “certain age” (baby boomer & Covid19 vulnerable). I’m writing this post out of a deep sense of urgency. We have just seven months.
Over the course of our lives, many of us have been part of profound moral & political struggles – many of us have struggled from the center-left; some from further left; others from the center-right. But these nuances must now fall away. Especially for those of us living in the USA, the next seven months will be as crucial as any time we’ve lived through. A movement is (hopefully) coming together – even under the extraordinarily adverse conditions of Covid19 social distancing. Everything we’ve worked for is at stake.

For all of our lives, until now, enlightenment values have provided the taken-for-granted backdrop for our struggles. But a year from now these values could be irrevocably defeated in the USA – a country which has been their (uneven) champion through two world wars, through ongoing domestic civil rights struggles for both racial and gender equality, and (albeit weakly, for the past half-century…..) for economic justice. All of this could be swept away by the combination of a global pandemic and a toxic American president, whose vanity is overweening, whose understanding and appreciation of the values of constitutional democracy is non-existent, and who lacks any sense of restraint.

We have just seven months. To come together. To mobilize a united front from across the spectrum of those committed to constitutional democracy. To organize in the face of a pandemic. To resist efforts to block or steal the election. To turn around the toxicity that has been eating away at our life’s work. Elizabeth Warren’s powerful endorsement of Joe Biden is available via this link. Two days ago, Bernie Sanders gave him a ringing endorsement. Here’s Barack Obama’s strong endorsement, which communicates powerfully his sense of urgency. And Ezra Klein’s excellent piece (linked here) argues persuasively that Biden has important strengths as a leader, strengths which it is easy to underestimate. I’ve just made my first contribution to his campaign (at I will make more. And I will look for ways to do what I can to help him win this election – and, also, to help defeat other toxic politicians who have been poisoning the national (and indirectly global) civic space on which our collective well-being depends.

“Assume a can opener…..”

Technical Communication - Technical Communication in Economics

An economist, a physicist and a chemist are washed up, shipwrecked, on an uninhabited island. There’s plenty of water, but no food…….They wake up the next morning, and……..

“We’re saved!!” A crate has washed ashore, with the name of its contents – “food” – written on the outside.They open the crate; the food is all in cans.

The physicist immediately gets to work, looking for shards of glass in the river which he could perhaps use to concentrate light and ‘burn’ the cans open.The chemist immediately gets to work, seeking a chemical compound that can eat through the cans.

The economist sits quietly under a tree, smiling.Eventually, the others become furious: What are you doing? If we don’t find a way to open the cans, we’re all going to die!!!”.The economist is untroubled: “No, its not a hard problem.”

“The solution is straightforward.”

“Assume a can opener……”

This is what we do when we assume away the challenges of decision-making, of designing the details of a new policy, of organizational functioning, and of implementation………

Undone by anti-government ideas- not only DT’s leadership

More people have now died from the Covid19 virus in the USA than in either Italy or China. It isn’t just Donald Trump that has made for this catastrophic failure of public leadership – it’s a set of ideological blinders on the part of some of those around him. Responding effectively to the Covid crisis calls for pragmatism in three domains –  between the public and private domains, between centralized and decentralized government,  and between individual and the collective interest. On all three, ideological pre-occupations have tied the US federal government in knots.

Over the past two months, Donald Trump indeed has given us a master class in catastrophic leadership. But the ideological blinders which have crippled the US response have little to do with him.  Trump’s most important surrogates in this crisis have been his son-in-law Jared Kushner and vice president Mike Pence.  Pence, as a Republican ‘Tea Party’ congressperson and then governor of Indiana earned a well-deserved reputation as an ideological hard-liner. Kushner is a classic example of New York “master of the universe” hubris – the golden boy of two billionaire families, certain of his own brilliance, of the marvelousness of the private sector and of the mediocrity of those, less magnificent, who chose to devote their lives to working in the public sphere.

As a result of  Pence and Kushner’s (and their fellow-travellers’) ideological preoccupations, the US government has been hamstrung at precisely the moment when decisive national leadership has been called for. Ideological blinders make it impossible to separate function from form .  If an obvious solution doesn’t fit the ideological filter, it cannot be considered. Indeed, if the problem doesn’t lend itself to an ideologically acceptable response, then the problem itself must be deemed not to exist.  (OK; this is not the time to go on about climate change…….)

An effective response to the coronavirus crisis requires decisive national-level leadership on testing, on the provision of urgently-needed protective and medical equipment, and on a comprehensive set of stay-at-home policies. In each of these, ideological blinkers have crippled the federal response.

On testing for coronavirus infection: we still don’t fully know why the Centre for Disease Control was so hamstrung in the early months. (I, for one, expect that in time we will discover that the trail of dysfunction in scaling-up testing leads directly to efforts from the upper reaches of the administration to  suppress bad news.) But we do know that when the federal government began to act on testing (via Jared Kushner’s task force!) its first announcement was that Google and Walmart would take the lead – in drive-thru testing which never got off the ground. We also know that a comprehensive testing regime is the crucial condition for re-opening the economy – but that, as of the time of writing this piece, there are only grab-bags of state and local initiatives, with no comprehensive federal actions, strategies or guidelines.

On the provision of medical and protective equipment – another muddle, this time because of deference to the private sector.  The results include: lagging domestic production (in part as a result of delays in invoking the Defense Production Act),  state and local authorities finding themselves competing on the open market for resources (with poorer localities left out in the cold), and the absence of any national mechanism for directing resources to areas of the most urgent national need.

On the need for comprehensive stay-at-home policies –  where there is an unavoidable tension between individual liberty and the collective interest.  A person can be infected with COVID19 but asymptomatic for days, inadvertently becoming a super-spreader fueling an out-of-control wildfire. For this reason, the vast majority has embraced the necessity of  stay-at-home.  But in some parts of the USA the  reluctance of a number of hold-out Republican governors to accept the need for stay-at-home orders has kept the wildfire burning out of control, undercutting the efforts of everyone else.  One can leave it to Republican Senator Rand Paul (son and heir of Libertarian Party founder Ron Paul) to find the ideological reductio-ad-absurdem with his equation of a stay-at-home order to  “quarantining someone for being Christian on Easter Sunday”.

There’s a classic wartime notion that “there are no atheists in foxholes”. The secularized, pandemic equivalent might be “there are no ideological purists in the midst of crisis”.   But in this COVID19 crisis moment it turns out that there are.   

Over the past four decades, the Republican Party has moved progressively from a party of government to one driven by ideological purity. (There are, of course, powerful interests behind this shift – but that’s another subject for another time.) The result has been accelerating polarization – and a political discourse, leadership, and caricatured vision of the public sector which has left the USA singularly unprepared to respond, at the federal level, to a public health emergency.

With the number of COVID19 deaths in the USA surpassing Italy’s and continuing to accelerate, now especially in those so-called “conservative” parts of the country (though it isn’t only conservatives  who embrace a commitment to ideological purity above all)  – we’re “reaping the whirlwind” of the embrace by the Republican Party of ideological purity, and its abandonment of American pragmatism. Perhaps, come November, American pragmatism will reassert itself – and voters finally will put a stop to this travesty, this debased politics which, before our eyes, is turning the American dream into an American nightmare.

Combat fire not with fire, but non-violent, deliberative engagement

How to fight back against toxic populism? In the spirit of standing up against bullies, a natural tendency is to fight fire with fire. But is this the right response?

A few years ago, this question might have seemed to be largely of historical interest –  an exploration of, say, whether different tactics on the part of Germany’s left and center-left might have slowed the rise of the Nazi Party.  But rising political dissatisfaction and the mushrooming of an angry populism in country-after-country have given the question renewed, urgent salience. Hence this post, the third in a series which “wrestles with populism”.

In tackling difficult questions, I generally incline towards shades of gray, and uncover complexity rather than clear-cut black-and-white answers. To my surprise, that is not what happened here. I have become convinced that, when it comes to combating populists ready to tear down the guardrails of democracy, the inclination to fight fire with fire is unambiguously the wrong thing to do.  

A useful point of departure for making the case against fighting fire with fire is with  Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky’s classic distinction between system 1 and system 2 modes of thinking –  thinking ‘fast’ versus thinking ‘slow’,  responding to stimuli via  fast-intuitive system 1 reactions, or pausing and engaging system 2 slow-deliberative  thinking. In a confrontation with toxic populism, the logic of both system 1 and system 2 modes of thought inclines us to fight fire with fire – but both mislead.

That system 1 misleads is hardly surprising. As per my earlier discussion of  ‘us versus them’, a pre-disposition to co-operate among ‘us’, and to demonize ‘them’  is deeply rooted in our human psyche. In his book Moral Tribes Harvard psychology professor Joshua Greene draws on two inter-related metaphors to explore  how these us/them instincts are adaptive for some problems,  but maladaptive for others.

Greene’s first metaphor is the familiar ‘tragedy of the commons’.  The ‘commons’ is a shared, common-pool resource, potentially renewable, but only with careful stewardship;  absent the evolutionary adaptation of a propensity to co-operate among ‘us’, the destruction of the commons would be (even more) commonplace.  Greene suggests that for local-level common-pool-resource challenges,  we can safely think fast, trusting our evolutionarily-primed intuitions for co-operation among ‘us’. However, for problems which require co-operation between ‘us’ and ‘them’,  our predispositions to favor ‘us’ and to demonize ‘them’ can all-too-readily set in motion a downward spiral of  polarization and conflict between ‘our’ group and ‘them’, even if the returns to inter-group co-operation are high. Greene describes this as ‘the tragedy of commonsense morality.’

So here’s a first (and perhaps obvious) conclusion:  when it comes to navigating the polarized energies unleashed by populism, deliberative (system 2) decision-making is the way to go. No surprise there.  But here’s something perhaps more surprising: While for many complex interactions, a deliberative process points  towards selecting a strategy of fighting back, when it comes to combating toxic populism the standard logic does not hold.  

Game theory provides a classic rationale for fighting back – the tit-for-tat strategy. In ‘repeated play’ games, joint gains are highest when both players co-operate – but each player can increase his returns by ‘defecting’, as long as the other continues to co-operate. As has been rigorously shown, the optimal strategy for both players is to abide by the ‘co-operation’ rule. But if one player is confronted by rule-breaking, the preferred strategy is to respond in kind (that is to fight fire with fire) –  ready to revert to co-operative behavior immediately the other player does.

Populists, however, are likely to view a cascading sequence of rule-breaking  as a feature not a bug.  As ‘tribunes of the people’, they present themselves as uniquely manifesting the peoples’ will  –  and then target democracy’s guardrails as the mechanism through which the elite establishment frustrates the achievement of what the people need. Tit-for-tat – reciprocating in kind to a breach of the guardrails –  plays into their agenda, accelerating a downward spiral of polarization, thereby aiding  and abetting  their effort to break loose of institutional restraints.  

To be sure, a credible argument can be made (though the counter-argument is equally credible…..) that an electoral contest against toxic populism is more likely to be won by mobilizing enthusiasm and votes from the left than by trying to claim the center. But even if counter-polarization might be a winning strategy electorally, in countries with a functioning constitutional order  adding fuel to the fire is all-too-likely to  weaken the institutions and norms which underpin democracy – a case of winning the electoral battle, but losing the governance war.

Institutions, as Nobel Prize winners Douglass North and Oliver Williamson have explored in depth, are:

“…humanly devised constraints which govern human interaction…..Governance is an effort to craft order, thereby to mitigate conflict and realize mutual gains.”

In turn, institutions are underpinned by norms. Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt explain:  

“Even well-designed constitutions cannot, by themselves, guarantee democracy. Like any set of rules, they have countless gaps and ambiguities…. If the constitution written in Philadelphia in 1787 is not what secured American democracy for so long, then what did? We believe much of the answer lies in the development of strong democratic norms….Institutions are more than just the formal rules; they encompass the shared understandings of appropriate behavior that overlay them”.

To undermine the institutions and norms which underpin co-operation is to destroy the basis of a thriving society.

If not by fighting fire with fire, how then to combat toxic populism? Both content and process matter. Content-wise, as the second earlier post in this series explored, the key  is to  embrace hope, rather than anger –   an inclusive vision  of citizenship, underpinned by societal commitment to equal dignity and opportunity.  Process-wise, the crucial challenge is to work to foster (system 2) reflection and deliberative thought, rather than (system 1) automatic, angry reaction.

Toxic populism has  at its core a narrative of demonization; norms of discourse disciplined by facts get in the way. The populist’s preference is to ‘gaslight’ by redefining all facts as fake news, locking-in confirmation bias and expanding space for  attacks of  the ‘other’ – and pushing society in the direction of Joshua Greene’s ‘tragedy of commonsense morality’. In the closing pages of his book, Greene argues that a key ingredient in the antidote to this downward spiral is to:

 “,,, focus on the facts, and make others do the same… can’t know whether a proposal is good or bad without knowing how it’s supposed to work and what its effects are likely to be….We should provide – and demand evidence…… And when we don’t know how things work, in theory or practice, we should emulate the wisdom of Socrates and acknowledge our ignorance…”

Greene’s is an equal opportunity admonition; it applies both to the worst kind of ethno-populism, and to the  high-minded utopian visions offered from the opposite end of the political spectrum.

Populists bring into politics a much needed dimension of moral struggle.  But even as we can learn from populists, we also need to reflect carefully as to which lessons are worth taking to heart.  Contrary to populists’ approach, moral struggle and deliberative discourse can be mutually reinforcing, rather than opposites.

Learning from populism’s four moral struggles

Who are “the people”?exclusionary“We the people
FOR what are the people struggling?Affirmation via identityA thriving, inclusive society
AGAINST what are the people struggling?The ‘evil’ otherEntrenched power asymmetries  
HOW are the people struggling?Angry demagogyDeliberatively

While I’ve not become a born-again populist, a sea change in the tenor of political discourse has led me to explore some uncomfortable terrain: What might be usefully be learned for the task of democratic renewal from the resurgence of populism in country after country?

I have come to understand that the health of societies and polities depends on  modes of discourse which raise the stakes beyond what a narrowly pragmatic way of engaging with the world can offer. As Harvard economist Dani Rodrik put it:

Any model of political economy in which organized interests do not figure prominently is likely to remain vacuous and incomplete….. But a mapping from interests to outcomes, depends on many unstated assumptions about the ideas of political agents”.

The way populists use ideas is far more potent as a call to political action than  a narrowly pragmatic pre-occupation with material interests. Populists frame politics as:

 the people in a moral struggle against elites” .

Moral, emotionally-charged language fits uncomfortably with the (seemingly) reasoned discourse with which many of us are most comfortable. However, as Berkeley professor George Lakoff  has emphasized, “political thought begins with moral premises”. Rather than recoil,  the challenge for non-populists is to engage in ‘moral struggles’ in ways which can support democratic renewal, fostering hope rather than fueling rage.  

This post distills some ideas as to how this might be done, organized around  four questions suggested by the logic of populism:

  • Who are the ‘people’?
  • Against what do the people struggle?
  • For what do the people struggle?
  • How do the people struggle?

Who are the ‘people’? The notion of the ‘people’ is (as per a recent book by Columbia University’s Nadia Urbinati) a “stubborn ambiguity” at the heart of political discourse – one which populists are adept at exploiting. The ‘people’ can be characterized variously as those who enjoy legal standing (i.e. those in whose name laws are made and enforced); as the socio-historical body that lives in a specific territory (i.e. the ‘nation’); or as some subset of the broader legal or socio-historical entities. Populist leaders set themselves the task, as Urbinati puts it, of:

 “the extraction of the ‘true people’ from the empirical people… Their notion of the people corresponds to ‘the right people’: this is the only people they plan to speak for.”

Rather than separating out a sub-group (the ‘true people’) from everyone else,  a very different way of mobilizing  ‘the people’ for a moral struggle is to embrace  an inclusive vision of “we the people”, of an active citizenry.  South Africa’s ‘united democratic front‘ which mobilized against apartheid South Africa offers a powerful, recent example of a, “we the people” struggle by an inclusive, active citizenry.

‘Active’ entails more than voting in national elections; it includes engagement at local, state and national levels; in civic organizations; and, crucially, in political parties. ‘Citizen’ entails a sense of shared obligation, a willingness to play by rules shared with other fellow-citizens – and a clear, broadly accepted framework which lays out eligibility criteria and mechanisms for transitioning from non-citizen to citizen status. (yes: immigration policy….). A sense, as a synonym for active citizenship, of civic patriotism.

Against what do the people struggle? For populists, the moral struggle is against the peoples’ enemies – those who exploit the people, humiliate them, deprive them of their just patrimony. The fuel comes from anger: vanquish the enemy, and all will be well. But once an oppositional framing has been introduced, the demon of us-versus-them polarization lurks exceedingly close to the surface – and (as I explored in an earlier post in this series) the consequences of its unleashing can all-too-readily become a catastrophic downward spiral. 

Viewed from a non-populist perspective, the struggle ‘against’ need not be personalized, but could aim instead to combat entrenched asymmetries of power which undercut  equal rights and opportunities of citizens, both economically and politically.  The  World Bank’s  2017 World Development Report, Governance and the Lawlaid out some hard truths about power asymmetries and their consequences with surprising frankness. As the WDR put it:  

The unequal distribution of power—power asymmetry—can influence policy effectiveness….the negative manifestations of power asymmetries are reflected in capture, clientelism, and exclusion”.

For countries with a strong-enough institutional platform, a struggle ‘against’ could usefully focus on a revitalization of anti-monopoly policies,  and reform of the rules governing the financing of political campaigns (including limiting the role of ‘dark money’ in politics).

For what do the people struggle? For populists, the struggle ‘for’ generally is the mirror image of the struggle ‘against’ – fueled by a false promise that once the enemies of ‘the people’ are defeated,  all will be well.  By contrast, the struggle ‘for’ is central to a non-populist vision of a thriving  democracy. It is a struggle for equal opportunity and equal dignity as citizens – for a polity, economy and society within which all citizens can work to shape their own lives,  and participate peacefully in the shaping of their societies, according to their distinctive visions of freedom and justice.  It is a ‘moral struggle’, built not on resentment, but on a foundation of empathy and mutual obligation among citizens. 

Central to the non-populist struggle ‘for’ is the classic tension between markets and the public sphere. Markets offer economic freedom and a platform for accelerated economic growth –  but left unchecked are likely to be accompanied by rising inequalities and power asymmetries. An active public sphere not only sustains a level playing field, it also is the locus for economic and social policy reforms aimed at strengthening inclusion and opportunity for all citizens:

  • Strengthening ladders of opportunity, via additional public investment in early childhood development; primary, secondary and tertiary education;  technical and vocational education; and on-the-job learning.
  • Support to help those left behind to navigate change, including strengthened social insurance; a minimum safety net; and active labor market policies.
  • Pro-active efforts at redistribution, including capital endowment and income support policies, and tax reforms which expand fiscal revenues and enhance the progressivity of the tax system

There is ample scope to debate the details of each of these, to broaden (or contract) the list. Whatever the details, what is needed is an openness to far-reaching innovation, responsive to 21st century challenges to inclusion and equal dignity – globalization, accelerating technological change, the rise of network industries, information (and dis-information) abundance,  and ongoing climate crises.

How do the people struggle? Both for populists and for non-populists, ends and means are inseparable. All-too-often, populist leaders present themselves as ‘tribunes of the people’, who uniquely manifest the peoples’ will  –  and then target democracy’s guardrails as the mechanism through which the elite establishment frustrates the achievement of what the people need.  Compromise with the enemy establishment becomes betrayal.  Concentration of power in the leader’s hands becomes the natural way to realize their vision.  The erosion of norms and institutions of restraint is a feature, not a bug.

For non-populists, by contrast, both  ends and means point in the direction of institutional stewardship, fostering co-operation rather than fueling conflict. This is well-captured in how two Nobel Prize winners, Douglass North and Oliver Williamson, define institutions, namely as:

“…humanly devised constraints which govern human interaction….. an effort to craft order, thereby to mitigate conflict and realize mutual gains.”

As means, institutions provide the necessary foundation for an inclusive economy and society, capable of offering  equal opportunity and the prospect of a better life for all their citizens. As ends, commitment to equal dignity is inseparable from waging a moral struggle in ways which respect guardrails of restraint on the abuse of power.  

Insofar as respect for institutions is central to the way in which non-populists struggle, it seemingly poses a dilemma –  requiring them to struggle against toxic populism with one hand tied behind their back. Might it not be better to defeat toxic populism by fighting fire with fire? Perhaps surprisingly, as the last post in this series explores, the answer is an unequivocal “no”.

Us versus Them

Kent_State_massacreAre there some positive lessons to be learned from the current populist wave? Once I thought that gains in governance, economy and society happened incrementally and cumulatively. But recent years have witnessed a sea change in the tenor of political discourse. While my instinctive reaction has been to recoil,  a combination of curiosity and recognition that the rancid tenor of contemporary discourse pointed to a blind spot in narrowly-pragmatic ways of engaging with the world has led me to explore further.  Indeed, I’ve also been struck by the arguments of some well-known scholars (see HERE and HERE)  that anti-populist rhetoric can serve as a smokescreen for broader attacks on inclusive, progressive proposals for reform.

I’ve come away from an effort to learn from populism  with some sobering lessons about the limitations of framing  policy discourse narrowly around a search for with-the-grain options, and focusing narrowly on material interests.  But I also have become convinced that demons lurk exceedingly close to populism’s surface – so close as to undercut any effort to distinguish ‘good’ populism from  ‘bad’.   This post (the first of a series of three which “wrestle with populism”) explores the ‘us-them’ demon.

Before getting into demons, here’s one big thing that populists get right: They frame political engagement in explicitly moral terms –  as “the people in a moral struggle against elites” (to use a definition suggested by Harvard’s Jane Mansbridge and Princeton’s Stephen Macedo). A ‘moral struggle’ turns out to be key to transform a  transform a hitherto passive set of individuals into a collective “we”, organized for action. As Berkeley professor of cognitive science George Lakoff put it:

“Neoliberals’….argue from interests… The argument is: It is in our political interest to help others achieve their material interests….[But] political thought begins with moral premises….”.

The trouble, though, is that populism’s  ‘moral struggle’ does not play out in a vacuum: populists target an opponent. Does this inevitably conjure an us-versus-them demon into existence?

Political theorist Chantal Mouffe  (who together with her husband, Ernesto Laclau, has, for many decades,  been at the forefront of efforts to rehabilitate populism as a mode of political discourse) makes the case that, even with an opponent in the picture,  a downward spiral of polarization and disaster  need not be inevitable.  Indeed, she argues that politics is necessarily oppositional:

The political is from the outset concerned with collective forms of identification… Every identity is relational; the affirmation of a difference is a precondition for the existence of any identity…. Politics is about the constitution of a ‘we’ which requires as its very condition of possibility the demarcation of a ‘they’…..

“The crucial issue  is how to establish an us/them distinction in a way that is compatible with the recognition of pluralism? What is important is that conflict does not take the form of an ‘antagonism’ (struggle between enemies) but the form of an ‘agonism’ (struggle between adversaries)… An adversary is an opponent with whom one shares a common allegiance to the democratic principles of ‘liberty and equality for all’, while disagreeing about their interpretation.”

Mouffe’s framing does not, however, reckon with either the ways in which our brains are wired or with the ways in which populists can exploit this wiring.

Here’s the ‘wiring’ problem, as summarized by Stanford neuroscientist  Robert Sapolsky:

 “Our brains form us/them distinctions with stunning speed…. The core of us/them-ing is emotional and automatic…  Feelings about ‘us’ center on shared obligations, on willingness and expectation of mutuality… inflating the merits of ‘us’ concerning core values….. A consistent pattern is to view ‘them’ as threatening, angry and untrustworthy.”

The distance from ‘difference’ to demonization is uncomfortably narrow.

Populist politicians can all-too-readily exploit   our hard-wired propensity for ‘othering’. Sharun Mukand and Dani Rodrik model the mechanism (see HERE and HERE).  They distinguish between two channels of populists’ ideational politics  – a ‘worldview channel’ aimed at shaping citizens’ understanding of how the world works, and an ‘identity channel’  aimed at shaping citizens’ perceptions of who they are.  Toxic populism uses the two in tandem.

Take the example of an effort  by a subset of a society’s elite to  foster ethnic identification between itself and co-ethnic non-elites. With this ‘identity channel’ in place, populist-oriented elites can use the ‘worldview’ channel to persuade co-ethnics that non co-ethnics are the source of their difficult circumstances – with immigrants, Jews, Muslims and other vulnerable groups often featuring prominently in the purported conspiracy against the people.  Instances of this toxic combination are all-too-familiar, both in history and in the present. Here are some examples:

  • “Welfare parasites (minorities, recent immigrants, or whomever) who are undermining our economic system, and destroying your children’s future”;
  • “Globalists who are in league with foreigners to suck the lifeblood from our economy an society”;
  • “Immigrants are destroying our peoples’ moral fabric, with their alien culture”
  • “etc etc etc…..”

(Note that each of these can serve all-too-well as a mechanism for deflecting the attention of non-elites away from economic and social policies which, at some fiscal cost to elites, might support inclusion.)

At this point, another feature of our brains kicks in –  how we think politically and morally. New York University’s Jonathan Haidt summarizes, using the metaphor of the rider and the elephant:

“Intuition (the elephant) is the main cause of moral judgment; reasoning (the rider) typically follows that judgment……Reason is the servant of the intuitions……The rider is good at fabricating post hoc explanations for whatever the elephant has done, and is good at finding reasons to justify whatever the elephant wants to do next.”

The identity channel primes intuition. The worldview channel offers a confirmatory explanation. The threat of accelerating polarization looms large.

The erosion of norms and institutions which follows all-too-frequently from accelerating polarization (see HERE and HERE) –  is, for most of us, something to be avoided. As Nobel Prize winners Douglass North and Oliver Williamson have taught, humans devise institutions precisely for the purpose of setting restraints on human behavior, with the intent of mitigating conflict and realizing mutual gains. But here, again, what might seem to most of us to be undesirable is, for some populist leaders, a feature.

Guardrails of restraint – for example, a norm which anchors discourse in evidence, in a search for truth –  get in the way of narratives of demonization. Better to ‘gaslight’ by redefining all facts as fake news, thereby locking-in confirmation bias.

There also are broader reasons why self-aggrandizing populist leaders might embrace the loosening of restraints  on arbitrary action.  Charismatic, demagogic populist leaders present themselves as embodiments of the ‘people’, with the concentration of power in their hands becoming a way to realize the peoples’ will. Governance becomes inseparable from a permanent political campaign. Compromise with the enemy establishment becomes betrayal. Institutions of restraint become obstacles to acting on behalf of the people. The downward spiral accelerates.


Two clear, stark conclusions follow:

  • First, the effort to extract positive lessons from populism is not wholly misconceived. Populism does not emerge out of nowhere. As I have explored elsewhere, it is in part a response to festering discontents for which narrowly pragmatic discourses had been inadequate. These discontents cannot be ignored; the response to them needs to be framed in ‘moral’ terms – and a moral framing introduces an oppositional element into political discourse.
  • Second, once an oppositional framing has been introduced, the demon of us-versus-them polarization lurks exceedingly close to the surface – and the consequences of its unleashing can all-too-readily become catastrophic.

How to reconcile these seemingly opposites – to engage politically via a moral struggle which addresses the underlying causes which give rise to populism, but to do so in a way which counters rather than fuels populism’s propensity for polarization? The second post in this series suggests what kind of vision and strategy might support democratic renewal; the final post explores what kind of tactics might foster hope rather than fuel rage.

Bridging the governance-sectors divide – reflections on Lant Pritchett’s new essay

apple-no-equal-orangeDevelopment practice has long been characterized by dialogues of the deaf. The divide between governance and sector specialists is one example. How this divide could be bridged is the focus of a new review essay  by Lant Pritchett, currently the research director  of the ambitious and influential Research on Improving Systems of Education (RISE) program. Pritchett’s essay takes some of my work as its point of departure; this blog  post comments and elaborates on some aspects of his analysis.

In my experience, both governance and sectoral practitioners pay a price for their failure to communicate. On the sector side, a consequence has been that many specialists  occupy themselves with a search for the one-best-intervention capable of transforming sectoral outcomes, blithely ignoring the ways in which political and governance context can overwhelm their best efforts. (The massive randomized-control-trial industry is exhibit one – though, to be sure I’m not mis-understood, it’s perhaps worth affirming that RCTs have their uses, as a niche within a broader effort.)

For governance practitioners, the problem is a different one. As a plethora of new acronyms (PDIA, DDD, WWG, TWP)  signals, there has been plenty of movement away from an uncritical embrace of ‘good governance’ as the necessary and sufficient condition for development. Indeed, ‘context matters’ has become the new conventional wisdom.  However, as as a recent UNU-WIDER working paper underscores, the gap remains large between generalities and practically-useful insights.  The governance discourse too-rarely strays from an in-group conversation among the like-minded. All-too-often, governance practitioners are pre-occupied with Big-G governance (improving checks and balances; strengthening administrative systems; anti-corruption initiatives and the like),  and with Big-P Politics (‘political settlements’ etc) –  rather than the small-g and small-p concerns of how power and institutions manifest at the level of the design and implementation of actual development policies.

Unmoored from the measurable outcomes which sectors can provide, dictums along the lines that practitioners should ‘think and work politically’ all-too-easily become too open-ended (and too weakly anchored in robust empirical research)  to provide useful guidance.  As I explored in depth in my 2014 book, Working with the Grain (WWG), engagement at the sector level can be a powerful way both of reaching out beyond the circle of the like-minded, and of anchoring the governance discourse in clear-cut development challenges.

The ‘accountability triangle’ introduced in the 2004 World Development Report, Making Services Work for Poor People, was a pioneering effort to bridge the governance-sectors divide but it introduced some new blind spots of its own. Pritchett was one of the principal architects of the 2004 WDR; in the new essay, he explicitly aims to push the frontier of governance-in-sectors thinking beyond the WDR framework. He locates the 2004 WDR within the broader evolution of thinking about governance. The WDR, he argues,  comprised an important step beyond  one-right-way ‘institutional mono-cropping’: it incorporated politics into the analysis; shifted  focus from ‘form’ to ‘function’, and “tried to bring people and communities back into their own localized and particularized development story”.  However,  it did not look inside the politics ‘black box’; as a consequence its exploration of how politics and accountability interacted was limited.

His new essay uses my  recent, co-authored book on the politics and governance of basic education in South Africa as the basis for an extended exploration of the analytical and practical potential of opening up the black box.  As he notes, while the education book “is about South Africa and basic education, in a deep sense this country and sector are being used as a prototype attempt to apply a framework created to be general and understand the big development picture.”

The education book builds its analysis around three classification schemas:

  • A ‘political settlements’ schema, which has four ideal types, according to whether the settlement was dominant vs competitive, or ‘personalized’ vs ‘rule of law’.
  • A ‘public governance schema – for which the 2×2 axes are hierarchical vs negotiated and personalized vs impersonal.
  • An inclusion/exclusion schema – whether the ‘social foundation’ for governance is broad or narrow.

The intent, as Pritchett summarizes, is to explore  which types of political and governance schemas can work well together – “to create a positive (not normative) framework for describing and analyzing what types of policies  will be adopted, given the politics, and how effectively those policies will be implemented, conditional on their adoption and, hence, likely outcomes on various dimensions of service delivery outcomes”.  Indeed, this gets to the core of is what I had in mind. Thanks, Lant!

But frameworks can take us only so far.  In the remainder of this blog, I elaborate on two themes which go beyond the framework laid out in WWG – but which have become increasingly central in recent years to my teaching and research.

The first addresses what I  have come to think of as  the ‘dirty secret’ of development scholarship and practice – a misalignment between much of what we teach and the political and institutional realities of many developing countries.  For many countries, the wave of democratization of the 1990s did not give birth to  ‘mature’ democracies with strong checks and balances’ institution but to a ‘personalized competitive’ (or, as per Levitsky and Way, a ‘competitive authoritarian’) polity. Elections, yes (though not always free and fair).  But also fragmented power centers; deal-making, including the discretionary conferral and withdrawal of rents,  rather than impersonalized rules as the basis for stability; short time horizons. In such contexts, policymaking can be haphazard, and public bureaucracies work poorly –  conventional technocratic policy prescriptions are singularly unhelpful in offering guidance as to what is to be done. Something else is needed.

In both WWG and the education book I explore an alternative approach under the rubric of ‘islands of effectiveness’ (or ‘pockets’ which some prefer as a way of signaling that the ‘islands’  often are  embedded within a larger, mostly dysfunctional bureaucracy).  The 2004’s ‘short-route’ comprises one type of ‘island/pocket’. But they also can emerge in ‘intermediate’ spaces between the long-route & the short-route – where, as per a 2013 paper with Michael Walton, there is the potential for developmentally-oriented interactions between senior or mid-level government officials and non-governmental actors. (In laying out this approach, we were influenced by Daniel Carpenter’s analysis of “bureaucratic entrepreneurship”.)

To achieve positive outcomes, these islands need to navigate both Elinor Ostrom’s collective action challenges, and the challenge (finessed by Ostrom) of power – a developmental coalition (orchestrated around a specific, problem-driven challenge)  needs to be sufficiently strong to trump its predatory counterpart.  Multi-stakeholder coalition-building is thus key to cultivating effective islands.  The paradigmatic example of how such islands might work is Bangladesh – especially notably (but not only) its garment export sector: initiated as an island with institutional and policy work-arounds; and sustained via a cross-party coalition among garment exporters, with strong representation (via both parties) in parliament.

South Africa’s Eastern Cape province and its education system (explored in depth in chapters 5 and 9 of the education book) comprises a sustained example of how ‘personalized competitive’ (provincial-level) political settlements might function, and how this cascades down into the education sector to the school level. As one possible way forward in such settings, the book explores the extent to which  school governing bodies (which are given extensive power in the institutional architecture of South Africa’s education system)  can be value adding ‘institutional substitutes’ for the system’s weaknesses.  As Pritchett puts it in his review essay:

“ While one doesn’t want to make too much of this potential for the creation of “islands of effectiveness” in a sea of weak governance, one does not want to make too little either. One alternative is the counsel of despair,’ that with existing governance (politics and public administration) nothing’ can be done. The other alternative is the ‘business as usual’ practice of pretending to do the same set of bureaucratic reforms again and again in the hopes it might turn out differently this time (which is also a definition of crazy)….One does not want to rely too much on evidence that boils down to eight [case study] schools, but I think in many ways we need the conceptual to guide next generations of the empirical.”

My second extension concerns the inherent limitations of structural, typological approaches to development thinking and practice. Until quite recently I conceived of my work as trying to better understand the incentives and constraints which shape behavior – expanding the terrain of analysis beyond my disciplinary roots in a narrowly-conceived vision of economics to incorporate the political and institutional determinants of incentives. I now feel that even this expanded terrain gives too little attention to a central driver of development – the role of human agency.

The human factor emerged powerfully in the South Africa education research. It was directly evident at the school-level, where performance was shaped by the way in which agency was exercised by school principals – and by parents and school governing bodies who had a key role in their selection and, more broadly, in helping shape the ethos of the case study schools. But it also emerged through the ‘back door’ – as I puzzled over why the learning outcomes achieved by the Western Cape education bureaucracy (which by all accounts, including our research, functioned as a tightly-managed machine) were markedly inferior to those of Kenya (by all accounts a much more loosely-managed system). The answer, it turned out was agency: while the Western Cape system was pre-occupied with process compliance, Kenya’s education system was fueled by an ethos of civic participation and commitment to supporting learning across the range of stakeholders.

In exploring the question of what would it take to move South African learning outcomes out of the cellar of dismal performance , I increasingly found myself looking beyond the structural, technocratic fixes – whether of the governance, the sector, the economic, or the engineering variety – which dominate the current discourse To be sure, if the structures and incentives are wrong, there are stark limits as to what can be achieved. But transforming these systems calls for human agency. Human agency also is key to  achieving gains within difficult, though not disastrous systems (which is a reasonable characterization of the public sector in large swathes of the world).

As a way of underscoring the centrality of agency, I concluded my public presentations of the education book with the following four suggestions for action (discussed further in the freely downloadable chapter 10 of the book):

  • Embrace the power of a transformative idea – an “all for learning” political invitation for citizens to engage.
  • Create space for learning-oriented innovators – both within the bureaucracy and among parents, communities, NGOs
  • Foster entry points for engagement – including participatory governance and support for developmental actors at the local level
  • Measure – and make the measures public, so that stakeholders can assess the extent to which learning is taking place.

As Pritchett notes, these messages  “may not be complete, exactly right, or even clear how to map into concrete actions”.  On the other hand,  “they almost certainly hold more promise of leading to practical action that accelerates progress in learning in basic education than the dangers of complacency, that ‘we’ know what to do—and hence repeating, for a longer time and with more money, exactly what has not worked.”  Indeed, not a quest for certainty, but rather a contribution to uncovering a promising new direction, captures well my aspiration for my work. So, again, thanks, Lant!