Explanations of development that make me uneasy

Enrico Spolaore & Romain Wacziarg have a new NBER Working Paper called “Long-Term Barriers to Economic Development.”  In it they explore the barriers to technology adoption.  As they write in the abstract, “What obstacles prevent the most productive technologies from spreading to less developed economies from the world’s technological frontier?”

The answer, they argue, has to do with culturally transmitted traits. Empirically, they look at neutral genes (ones that don’t confer any competitive advantage) across populations, which indicate how long certain populations diverged from one another.  This genetic distance is a proxy for “all divergence in traits that are transmitted with variation from one generation to the next over the long run, including divergence in cultural traits.”

So what’s the argument?  Namely that populations that are genetically distinct also have quite different cultural traits.  These traits, in turn, determine how easily societies can adopt innovations on the technological frontier.

This is an interesting argument and I need to read their paper carefully, but I have to admit that explaining differential development with culture makes me uncomfortable and doing so with genetic differences (even if they are “neutral”) makes me even more so.

Mexico in transition

I am currently enjoying Jo Tuckman’s excellent Mexico: Democracy Interrupted.  The book is an important reminder that even though Mexico’s one party rule ended almost 15 years ago, the country is still in a period of transition, and a lot of what worked under the monopoly of the PRI is no longer possible.

For instance, here’s an interesting example of the age-old Mexican corporatism in current times (word of warning: acronyms abound in Mexico)

The Secretariat of Government Relations [SEGOB] recently called a meeting with a number of institutions to talk over a new agricultural development plan.  One of the groups, UNTA (the national union of agricultural workers and campesinos (peasants)), was angry that the National Council of Rural and Fisheries Organizations [CONOR] and the National Council of Campesino Organizations [CONOC] and the National Campesino Confederacy were also invited to the meeting. [question: how many campesino unions are there in Mexico?]

When I saw that the group was angry, however, I am unfortunately not exaggerating.  Members stormed out of the meeting and “tore down fences that protect the streets General Prim and Abraham González with the intention of demonstrating at the main entrance of the Secretariat. The police commander [who identified himself as] Spartacus, a negotiator for the police, tried to reach an agreement with some members of the UNTA, but he was ignored and they continued to beat at the police with sticks and stones.”

The protest, which lasted about 20 minutes, injured 6 police offers and 19 UNTA representatives (according to the group).

Perhaps the most amazing part of this story is that after these attacks, the government relented, allowing them to enter the Secretariat offices and begin negotiating again.

h/t Mexico Voices

How to change a culture

This article from the Boston Globe called “How to Change a Culture” really rang true to me from what I’ve seen in the classroom.  The author asks how policymakers might influence culture in a positive way, say by reducing corruption or getting people to vote?  Somewhat surprisingly, it’s not by trying to convince them what they are doing is wrong.  Instead, the best way is to convince them that other people don’t share their beliefs (i.e. apply peer pressure).

”The inner conformist is stronger than the inner activist,’ said Michael Morris, a psychologist at Columbia University who studies the role of culture in decision-making.”

So if you want people to vote, don’t scold them about how disappointing it is that people aren’t voting.  That will probably have the opposite effect. If no one else is voting, why should I bother?  A 2009 Journal of Politics article fond that it’s way better to “tell people that turnout had been higher in the previous election than at any in history. In other words, more people were voting — so if they wanted to be normal, they should vote.”

The author uses the example of Prohibition to demonstrate how quickly culture can change under the right circumstances:

“According to a paper coauthored by Michael Morris, most Americans supported [Prohibition] ‘because it was socially undesirable to publicly defend alcohol, and few people did.’ But when polls revealed that a majority of Americans actually wanted to be allowed to drink — and in fact large numbers of them were drinking, out of public view — more people were emboldened to speak their minds on the subject, and the tide quickly turned against the 18th Amendment.”

The reason this reminds me of my classroom experience is that sometimes you can try so hard to get students to engage in class but they refuse.  You can offer extra credit (carrot) for participation, you can dock them points if they don’t (stick), but they stubbornly stay silent.  Thankfully, I haven’t had this experience in years, but it is tough to deal with.  In my opinion, if students think that no one else cares about the class, no one else speaks up, and no one else does the reading, then they don’t need to either.  And of course the more you chide the students on not engaging, the more it reinforces that this is a “loser class” (that’s what I call it, I’m not sure exactly how to explain it, just an attitude of “this class sucks”).  And to top things off, teaching such a class is no fun, which makes professors start to dread coming and hitting their head against a wall.  All of this is immediately picked up on by the students, further reinforcing the loser class status.  If the professor doesn’t even care and doesn’t like us, why should I try harder?

I have since worked hard to find fun ways to get them to engage so they feel peer pressure to participate and rise to the challenge rather than the opposite.  It isn’t always easy but if you can change the perception of what students think their classmates believe about the class, then you have a chance.