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.
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.