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The Classroom as IR Theory

19 Feb

I’ve been asked to think about who my students are for my pedagogy of teaching literature. Which of these crude IR theory/economic/comparative politics analogies about general education classrooms (at the college level) seems more apt:

  1. The neoclassical model: Students are all rational actors (but not perfectly rational) that maximize their utility, which is expressed via grades. They respond to incentives (such as quizzes) which will improve their grades, but won’t read as closely (or sometimes at all) if there is nothing at stake. Grades–and not the information or experiences imparted in the classroom–are the measure of utility.
  2. The Malamud-Goti experience: Students are the citizens of a post-authoritarian regime: in this case secondary (and likely public) education. They have been socialized to accept the teacher as the arbiter of What is Right and wait to be filled with knowledge. Given more freedom, they will default to rote learning–living an educational life of “oppression,” they will choose a “banking” approach to learning.
  3. The realist theory: The default condition of the classroom is anarchy. Students are self-interested and respond to grades rather than an ideology of educational enrichment. (You can substitute other IR theories here at will).

This isn’t only about college classrooms–it’s also about making tortured and entertaining connections between totally disparate disciplines. Comments welcome (including ones about classroom experience in general or high school pedagogy.)

Addendum: I freely admit these are cynical takes on the classroom experience, but that is part of the difficulty of a general education class; students with no real interest (at least not as part of their major) are asked to take classes that are unconnected to their discipline.  Of course, a college or university offers these classes as part of a “complete education” (however they conceive that) and many of the skills that make one a successful student in one area of study overlap with another.  But at bottom you’re teaching future engineers and MBAs how to read Robert Frost poem.

The Myth of ISI?

8 Aug

One of the important lessons of 1970s and 80s development policy that was repeated again and again in my undergrad Political Science classes was that structural adjustment (SA) was largely a failure–following the other failure of import substitution industrialization (ISI). So I was more than interested to read Dani Rodrik’s argument that ISI’s reputation is undeserved.
I don’t know enough about the Latin American domestic industrial sectors (or much past introductory microeconomics) to argue for or against implementing ISI as a development program, but as a historical matter, ISI did seem to be one of the major factors in the “lost decade” of Latin American debt and low productivity. The Economist’s Free Exchange blog sums it up:

Rodrik warns us not to confuse microeconomics with macroeconomics. He is right to say that a country’s build-up of foreign debt is a function of macroeconomics (national spending exceeding national output). But countries bounce back from foreign-debt crises by exporting their way out of them. That is much harder to do if a country’s skewed microeconomics has left a big share of its output unfit for foreign consumption.

From a political economy perspective, I can understand the appeal in the 1970s of self-sufficiency that ISI promised, especially since dependency theory was still fashionable. You can create jobs in your country and higher standards of living without having to play the games of the much more powerful developed nations, who are less concerned with your interests anyway. But much of the foreign debt crisis was predicated on international loans that Latin American countries gladly took on to continue investing in their developing sectors. Too many governments in Latin America either thought the favorable borrowing conditions would continue forever (but then again, who wants to bet on variable interest rates predicated on an a commodity [oil] surplus being stable?) or that they could grow their way out of the problem (have profitable enough sectors to service the debt and stop taking out new loans).

In the end, it seems like you’ll have to rely on exports to either spur further growth (if ISI is a success) or pay for debt (if the interest rates change). Perhaps it wasn’t ISI qua ISI that was the problem, but certainly many of the Latin American governments weren’t the best choices to implement such a program.

Development as Tyranny? or Why Tone Matters

12 Jul

ILLUSTRATION BY MIKE BENNY FOR FPWilliam Easterly has an essay about “Developmentalism” in the latest issue of Foreign Policy in which he ratchets up the rhetoric against Jeffrey Sachs and his institutional kin.  His argument is that IMF/World Bank third-world development policy has become it’s own top-down ideology, unresponsive to the needs or actual conditions of impoverished people in the countries it aims to rebuild.  At least, that’s the crux of his argument.  But much of the article is wrapped in an over-the-top rhetoric and tone, like this introduction:

A dark ideological specter is haunting the world. It is almost as deadly as the tired ideologies of the last century — communism, fascism, and socialism — that failed so miserably. It feeds some of the most dangerous trends of our time, including religious fundamentalism. It is the half-century-old ideology of Developmentalism. And it is thriving.

Comparing bad development projects, unaccountable policy wonks, and wasted funds to fascism and communism is an entertaining level of hyperbole that you can only find in general readership magazines, which I assume is because editors like to unleash this sort of public debate to boost sales (“almost as deadly” is a nice touch that is at once outrageous/open to broad interpretation).  Easterly has some good points to make about on-size-fits-all planning, like the disastrous structural adjustment policies that left a lot of countries worse off in the 1980s (and eventually defaulting on IMF and World Bank loans), but the ill-conceived “bad development policy = ideology” subverts his argument to his attack.  Amartya Sen said it best in his 2006 review of Easterly’s White Man’s Burden in Foreign Affairs:

Empirical evidence of the ineffectiveness of many grand development and poverty-alleviation schemes is undoubtedly worth discussing clearly and honestly, as Easterly does when he is not too busy looking for an aphorism so crushing that it will leave his targets gasping for breath.

I’m also confused by his continuing animosity directed at Jeffrey Sachs (whose The End of Poverty has been sitting on my shelf for months, and I swear I’ll get around to reading any day now).  I think Dan Drezner has it about right on the Sachs theory of political change; I have a hard time seeing Sachs’s “poverty trap” conception as less unbending ideology than cognitive bias born of Sachs’s political naivete and high IQ, which sees problems and their solutions as both equally apparent to everyone.  Easterly’s message would be better served if he didn’t think the way to hold people accountable was by impaling them on rhetorical pikes–or analogical flights of fancy.

ILLUSTRATION BY MIKE BENNY FOR FP