Monday, December 15, 2008

Interview with Prof. Paul Collier

Talking about Global Poverty and the Global Food Crisis, Prof. Collier talks about his book The Bottom Billion and his recent article The Politics of Hunger. Paul Collier is a Professor of Economics at Oxford University. ( )

In the comments section of this post, I publish an open letter to Professor William Easterly who wrote a recent review of The Bottom Billion, which can be found at


briskovich said...

Dear Professor Easterly:

I am a young lawyer who recently read Professor Collier's The Bottom Billion and interviewed the Prof. Collier on my radio show. In an effort to find out what others have been saying about the book, I listened to your appearance on Econtalk and read your reviews in the Lancet and the New York Review of Books (NYRB). While I found your critiques relating to causation/correlation problems and selection bias to be cogent, I think your analysis has been incomplete thus far as it eschews the merits of most of Professor Collier's policy prescriptions. Spending most of the NYRB review on perceived problems with military support, you do not directly address Professor Collier's proposals for international standards, his nuanced approach to aid (i.e.-independent service authorities and focus on exports informed by the agglomeration hypothesis) and his proposal of temporary trade advantages to help build domestic industry, labeling these arguments as "utopian/romantic social engineering", without ever addressing these proposals directly.

You know as well as anyone the terrible problems that there are in Africa and many other countries. Thus, I think it is only fair that each person's proposalsshould be addressed before being likened to 'communism' and written off as ineffectual.

I invite you to be a guest on my radio show (maybe in February or March?) after I have a chance to read one of your books, which I have heard are very interesting.

Very Truly Yours,


briskovich said...

Dear Mr. Briskman, thanks for this letter. I have now seen also the open letter you posted on your blog. You are welcome to post my response on your blog if you like. You also may want to consider sending your letter to the NYRB.

I very much welcome debate on the issues raised in the Collier book and my review. Indeed I have been disappointed that Professor Collier has so far not offered any response to my critique. Perhaps you should do another open letter to him?

Let me clarify first of all some issues you raised about the focus and the tone of the review. On the focus, book reviewers are not required to give a comprehensive summary of the book's contents (good thing, I can't imagine any formula for a more boring review). Reviewers often give disproportionate attention to one part of the book that they think is particularly novel, consequential, or controversial. If I reviewed a book on colors, and there was a general discussion of colors but also one or more chapters that claimed that red and green are indistinguishable, I would have a lot to say on the latter (especially considering its consequences for the effectiveness of stoplights). My focus on "aid going military" in the Collier book is similar. As I note in the review, this is part of a radical new departure in foreign aid that just a few years ago would have been unthinkable. It also is the area that is farthest away from economists' traditional areas of competence and spec
ialization. This doesn't make it atuomatically wrong, but it does make it attract a lot of attention and makes it deserve a serious debate, which given space limitations took up most of the review.

I am puzzled by your reference to how "each person's proposals should be addressed before being likened to communism and written off as ineffectual," especially in light of the terrible problems in Africa. I never likened Professor Collier's ideas to communism. Addressing his ideas is what I am doing, surely one allowable response is vigorous disagreement? There seems to be a feeling (I have noticed this on many other occasions besides your letter) that we should not critically debate well-intentioned ideas because of Africa's problems, but we should just all come together and reach a consensus. I have never understood this feeling. In rich country democracies and in academic and scientific fields, we vigorously debate public policy ideas and/or theories of the world. This debate is meant to induce a competition of ideas so that the best ideas win. You could make an argument that much scientific and political progress is based on such a debate process. Why should the poorest
people in the world be deprived of the same benefits of critical debate?

Respectfully yours, Bill Easterly

briskovich said...

Dear Prof. Easterly:

Thank you for the letter! I very much appreciate you taking the time to respond. I will definitely post your letter on the blog and consider writing an open letter to Prof. Collier mentioning your concerns with military aid.

With regard to your comments, thank you for clarifying the style in which book reviews are normally written, that definitely makes sense. Also, I think you make a great point when you mention how we must debate all well-intentioned ideas in order get a better idea whether the outcomes will be favorable. I agree that if someone truly hopes to help they should support critical discussion.
To this end, I wrote you the email, hoping to critically debate and give just due to all of Prof. Collier's ideas. I did not mean to say that your criticisms of military aid should not be heard and vigorously debated. Rather, what I meant to say was that your comments, not just in NYRB, have not addressed the merits of all of Prof. Collier's prescriptions. I think a debate about these prescriptions would definitely be beneficial to the poorest people in the world, just as your comments and review have already furthered the discussion on the merits of military aid. I can only imagine the effect that an Easterly/Collier consensus would have on the world of economic development.

Respectfully yours,

Jake Briskman