Comment on the Presentation:
"The Economics of Poverty and the Poverty of Economics,"
by Christopher Barrett, Ph.D.

H. William Batt



[Report from the Scranton University Henry George Spring Seminar. Reprint from GroundSwell, May-June 2005]


The Scranton University Department of Economics and Finance, along with the Economics student honor society XI Chapter of Omicron Delta Epsilon, presented the 14th Annual spring Henry George Program on May 5. The guest speaker was Dr. Christopher Barrett, International Professor of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University. Professor Barrett proved to be an engaging and knowledgeable speaker, fully up to the challenge of his title: "The Economics of Poverty and the Poverty of Economics," a topic approached from his openly Roman Catholic perspective.

Although it was clear that Dr. Barrett's convictions spring from a lifelong concern about poverty and injustice, they grew especially acute, he said, during his field work in Africa. With his own professional quality photos that he was able to insert into his powerpoint presentation, the clarity of his descriptions of African rural life took on a special luster. In fact the statistical foundations of so many of his arguments faded in the face of the more palpable personal realities that he was able to portray.

The idiom in which Dr. Barrett spoke was frankly religious, uncommon for economists normally steeped in statistical rigor, but it was appropriate for this audience at what is, after all, a Jesuit institution. This year's dinner attendance had many faculty and student members from other schools and departments of the university. The presentation was built around five Christian themes: hope, agency, discipleship, grace, and transformation; through these was built what he called an "etiology of poverty."

The first step in moving people out of poverty is overcoming fatalism, the realization that things could be otherwise. Fatalism has often been noted as a chronic and persistent orientation among those suffering from enduring poverty. Dr. Barrett noted that in many instances, particularly in the United States, poverty is a short-term phenomenon, whereas in Africa, and especially in Madagascar where he has done so much of his work, it is lasting and corrosive. It is therefore necessary to somehow inspire in people a hope that their condition can be overcome.

This led to his second point, that people must believe in their own capacity to change matters. It often also means that they must have the marginal wherewithal through which to lift themselves above stasis, that they somehow might accumulate an extra bit of capital resources that will allow them leverage to change their conditions. Dr. Barrett offered instances of how this happens -- by having an extra cow, a more efficient plow, a new clay stove, or even a bit of financial credit at rates that are not usurious. The Georgists among us attending --Heather Remoff, Ted Gwartney, Mark Sullivan, and myself, Bill Batt, were comforted to see that, unlike DeSoto, he did not include land titles in his examples. Not to exclude Dr. Hong Nguyen, professor of economics at Scranton and who is chair of the speaker selection committee.

To take advantage of what resources might be acquired depends yet again on the ability to learn, to follow the paths of others, and it is particularly the extension of schools, outreach services, appropriate learning materials, and so on that allows for these leaps. This dimension, Dr. Barrett termed discipleship, which in turn often depends upon the support of exogenous factors that provide the necessary support system to remote areas. Lacking developed infrastructure, rural villages are often beyond the reach of any services that governments and other agencies can provide, despite the willingness and concern of the outside world.

So much of any success along these dimensions was described as a matter of grace, or what this listener could better understand as luck. So many idiosyncratic elements intrude upon the lives of poor African peoples in remote villages that no security net is capable of insuring a stable minimal existence. Weather, disease, political turmoil, and other such factors are so endemic that no amount of intervention is all protective. Still, it may be possible to reduce the levels of risk that greater odds obtain.

Dr. Barrett's last providential idea was transformation, the notion that there might be a "tipping point" at which sufficient inertia propels change in directions so as to alter permanently the prospects of future well being for both individuals and communities. The instances offered were anecdotal and by no means suggest any grand strategies. But the examples indicate that any single factor may provide that impetus - a new road, more education, an extra animal, a new well, or perhaps just a visit to the larger world.

Having portrayed how change might happen, Professor Barrett continued to the second part of his presentation - a lament about how the discipline of economics has failed in its attempts at answering the question of poverty in rural African societies. Here he called for more attention to associated disciplines, arguing that economics as an academic field has become too insular. He concurred with the view that there has been too much reliance upon statistics and models. He lamented just as much the inclination of his colleagues to operate with a value-free perspective, and with too little concern for matters of justice. And it followed to his way of thinking that economists should be educated in a moral paradigm, a view certainly shared by the professors at Scranton University. The presentation made a strong impression on students and older faculty and guests alike. Although they were not presented here, all this offered a strong foundation for Georgist solutions. Those of us representing the Schalkenbach Foundation, the original means of support for this biennial series, were pleased to see the ample fruit of a gift long past.




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