Carol Graham on William Easterly on migration

Carol Graham, a Brookings Senior Fellow, and Professor at the University of Maryland School of Public Policy, reviews William Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts (Basic Books, 2015).

Here is her take on Easterly’s views on the connection between migration and economic development (pp. 96-97 of the review article):

[Easterly] makes the case that the focus of development policy on nations rather than individuals has kept millions of people trapped in poverty. The tyranny of experts has focused on Zambia and Bolivia, for example …, rather than on Zambians and Bolivians. …. Zambians … have lower levels of per capita income than they did fifty years ago. Yet if they had had the flexibility of out-migration when their copper industry collapsed, as West Virginia did when its coal mining industry collapsed, the population of Zambia would be much smaller today. As a result, real wages would, at the least, not have been compressed and poverty would not have increased as much as it did. While not reversing the already high poverty rates in West Virginia, out-migration kept it from getting poorer. ….

I am very sympathetic to this argument. There are two unresolved problems, though. The first is that we still live in a world where nation-states matter and the political constraints to free labor movement across international borders remain insurmountable ….

The second is that there is selection bias in terms of who has the wherewithal to pick up and leave. My own work and that of my former students, based on intent to migrate data from Latin America, shows that respondents who intend to migrate in the next year are, on average, wealthier and more educated than the average, but also less satisfied with their lives and more critical of their economic situations. ….

I am left wondering what Zambia or Bolivia would look like if all of those with the most wherewithal just picked up and left. I agree with many others that more open borders would do more to reduce poverty than can ever be achieved via foreign aid; the big issue of course is whether such a proposal would ever be politically feasible. In addition, I do not think that we have a good answer to the question of what these places would look like if all of those with the ability to exercise their rights to exit did so ….

Carol Graham, “A Review of William Easterly’s The Tyranny of Experts: Economists, Dictators, and the Forgotten Rights of the Poor“, Journal of Economic Literature 53:1 (March 2015), pp. 92-101.

There is much more in the full review. I was unable to locate an ungated link, but here is a paragraph, from page 100, that caught my attention:

Easterly issues a justified strong critique of the World Bank and other international agencies for turning a blind eye to the issue of democracy and individual rights for strategic or self-serving reasons. The amount of foreign aid that has gone to nefarious regimes, cycled through the World Bank, in the Cold War and now the War on Terror, is indeed astounding. The problem, of course, is that with the current governance structure of the international financial institutions and even worse the UN, it is virtually impossible for these institutions to address governance issues explicitly. That problem is part and parcel of what Easterly identifies as the tyranny of experts, but he does not provide us with a way out. [Emphasis added.]

A little-known fact is the two main international financial institutions (IMF and World Bank) are part of the United Nations system, just as the UNDP, UNIDO, UNICEF, WHO and other agencies are. Regional development banks (such as the IDB and ADB) have no connection with the UN, however.

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