Russ Roberts

Postmortem on Sachs Episode

EconTalk Extra
by Russ Roberts
Going deeper...Sachs and Munk ... The seductiveness of beauty...

After the Nina Munk episode, I considered inviting Jeffrey Sachs to respond. But I decided against it--he has plenty of outlets to get himself heard and I didn't think an episode devoted to responding to another episode would be very interesting.

But shortly after the Munk episode, Sachs contacted me and asked if he could appear on the program. Despite my earlier decision, the fact that he asked made it hard for me to say no. My only condition was that he agree to discuss the Millennium Villages Project more generally. Along the way, I would ask him about the Munk episode and give him a chance to respond.

It ended up being a very challenging and rewarding interview as you can tell if you've listened. And the Munk episode came up early and often. Not my plan but that's the way these things work.

It should be obvious that Sachs and I have a different perspective on development and on his work. But this wasn't a debate. I asked my questions and he gave his answers. I occasionally pressed him with a follow-up. But the way the interview played out captured how I think about EconTalk and you, the audience. I respect you. I expect you to make your own judgments about the quality of the arguments that are made. EconTalk is a ridiculously long format by modern standards. But I still don't have time to make every point or ask every question. I often hear from listeners who complain that I let a guest "get away" with something. But I can't argue or challenge every "mistake" or better--every statement that a guest makes that I don't agree with. That's your job. That's where some of the learning takes place--you digesting the responses and thinking about them. I'm hoping some of these EconTalk Extras will help with that process.

Listener Scott Morgan writes in a comment:

Normally Russ is skeptical about the accuracy and meaning of measurements. At the end of the podcast he seems to insist that measurements should be the basis for evaluating this project. Sachs, in this case, is suggesting that results are difficult to measure, not least because of the lack of a control group.
Everyone should be skeptical about the accuracy and meaning of empirical claims. But that does not mean that evidence or facts are irrelevant. If there are no data at all (or no data that confirm Sachs's claims), Sachs has a problem. He's just a storyteller. Nina Munk has a similar problem. That's why I pressed her to explain why she thought the projects are a failure in the villages she saw. Her answer was that she saw no signs of a job market emerging--no employment, no industry. That is damning. But it is not decisive. Maybe that development will happen later. Maybe she missed it. But Sachs has the same problem. Sachs's claims that everything is going swimmingly has little content without something to back it up. Unfortunately, there are no controls. Some data of some kind are needed to understand whether Sachs's approach works.

Readers interested in these empirical challenges can find a nice summary of links here, compiled by Gabriel Demombynes. If you want to know more about the claims of Sachs's group about child mortality, and the finding about mortality falling more slowly in the Millennium Villages than in the countries where they are located, scroll down toward the bottom and you'll see material on articles in The Lancet, the one by Sachs's group that had to be corrected and the article that challenged it leading to the correction.

At the end of the interview, Sachs talked about how the project was passing the market test because various governments were interested in adopting the initiatives. This took me by surprise. I had assumed that a successful MVP would encourage additional private donations to help other villages. I wish I had asked Sachs why he thought government would be able to implement various initiatives effectively. This essay by Lant Pritchett gives some idea of the challenges governments have in implementing policy.

I had planned to ask Sachs the following: "What have you learned from the experience? What would you do differently?" Unfortunately we ran out of time. If he comes back in 2016, I'll still be interested in the answer.

Finally, a number of listeners feel I should apologize or be ashamed of my quote from the Munk interview about Sachs and his hubris smashing people's dreams. Commenter Jerm pointed out that smashing people's dreams isn't the "cruelest thing." I agree. I should have said "very cruel" not "cruelest." I got carried away.

Sachs did catch me flat-footed with his challenge for me to retract the claim. I shouldn't have tried to debate the conditionality of the statement but I had not remembered the context of my statement and went into debate mode which is usually not my style. I should have simply stood by the statement as I eventually did, pointing out that my statement was based on Nina Munk's research and book. Read the book (or listen to the EconTalk episode). Munk describes a tragedy. Maybe she is wrong. I gave Jeffrey Sachs the chance to give his own view. Listeners and readers must make their own call on who is more convincing.

Comments and Sharing

TWITTER: Follow Russ Roberts @EconTalker

COMMENTS (35 to date)
Scott Mayo writes:

I guess what shocked me was how different this episode was from most all others. Other guests with markedly different viewpoints have been on before and it never got vitriolic. It seems to me that if the last question could have been asked earlier - "Will there be an independent assessment?" we might have been spared some of the heat.

However, I don't believe this is just a measurement issue. Regardless of long term sustainability/scaling up, I think Sachs would say it's worth it ($60 per capita) to provide even a few years enjoyment of a dream. Part of his point (although not stated quite this way) was that for the majority of those in these situations, they had exactly zero dreams/prospects. Even the possibility of a path out would be worth something. The counter-factual for these folks probably wouldn't be pretty. Sachs did make the statement that the surrounding countryside isn't a control group. We're dealing with large groups of disparate people living in tough conditions. Isolating variables is going to be problematic.

The Sachs episode, and your efforts to improve EconTalk's discourse around it, are a wonderful example of why your program is so wonderful. In a complex world, with many perverse incentives for the media, we need not a just "long format" sources, but ones that are dedicated to understanding that world, and not advocacy.

I am very dedicated to an empirical & data centric approach to answering economic problems, but I found in this episode an example of how, as an individual, subjective methods can be useful.

Despite the long discussion, there's not enough data in the podcast to do much evaluation of how Sach's project performs. And Munk & Sachs each challenge each other's data. What then do I believe? Uncertainty is not a great option - the world moves on and we have to make choices - about where to put out charity money, for example.

I found it useful to evaluate the quality, tone and style of Sachs argument. He is clearly intelligent, eloquent, and passionate. I believe he is very motivated to help people. He has raised a ton of money, and is clearly an effective advocate & salesman. But none of this speaks to the effectiveness of his project.

Does he appear to be primarily rational and empirical, or emotional and defensive? I'd say the latter. He focused on Russ's quote excessively (though I'm sure I'd be similarly upset if my life's work had been thus evaluated). He also spent much time talking about the need of people in Africa, and general assertions of progress made (not just in the villages, but overall). He spent very little time addressing the claims of effectiveness made against his project. When challenged about how measurable his project was, and about how that could be improved in the future, I was not convinced this was something he was truly interested in.

I've spent a lot of my career evaluating entrepreneurs - people with grand ambition, skills, and dreams. They are great, and we are much better off with these people than without. But entrepreneurs are fundamentally salespeople. They want more of your resources, to do more of what they want. They are not going to evaluate themselves, or others, objectively.

Sachs falls into this mode to me. I'm sure we are lucky to have him. But in much shorter supply are the people and structures that allow us to decide more objectively how to allocate and employ our scarce resources (physical and mental). Like EconTalk itself, these are truly rare - and valuable.

Ken Simpson writes:

Nina Munk made a great case, and confirmed some of my own biases. My opinion of MVP was solidified. But, Sachs gave a very heartfelt, powerful, compelling rebuttal. Perhaps he is correct, and Munk's observations were dated or superficial. Perhaps she is correct, and Sachs needs to zoom out a bit to see the overall failure. I must say, though, that I was a bit skeptical of Munk's conclusions, as even dropping money out of helicopters would show SOME measurable benefit. And, the saving of lives via malaria programs is a clear benefit.

I look forward to the Russ-moderated debate of 2016, where we can hopefully come to a real conclusion. The facts are muddy today.

As a side note, I wanted to make a comment on the $60 per capita. While that seems a small amount to us westerners, it is the equivalent of many months' per capita income in the poorest of African countries. When, or if, the African governments pick up this spending in 2016, it is not an inexpensive campaign. It is the equivalent of the US dropping $20-30k per capita on its citizens. Oh, wait... Never mind. We already do that.

Craig writes:

This interview seemed to be two trains travelling on separate tracks. Sachs should listen more, and Russ should take a trip to Ghana, Kenya or Tanzania as a first timer to Africa so he can see with his own eyes what is working rather than relying on what others see and what theory suggests is true. Many things work differently in Africa, and it's important to experience this first hand.

Linda Greenberg writes:


In sum, I thought Sachs much bark but little bite. He was obdurate but not convincing. In fact, the surer he was the less sure I felt from his remarks. Sustainability is still a question mark. One area ignored was the politics of poverty. All of these people live in countries with political factions, etc. A most appropriate consideration is in today's -- March 22nd -- WSJ "Notable & Quotable." Angus Deaton describes the "aid illusion" as a barrier to better policies. He describes the simplistic beliefs of what is keeping people poor. He quotes Peter Bauer: "if the conditions for development are present except for money, money will soon be available, but if the conditions for development are not present, aid will be unproductive and ineffective." Sachs would argue that his project is not just money but teaching new ways to be productive. I think, however, the same prerequisite for changing conditions applies to poor countries. The people have to have the means to sustain both the idea and the work or what they receive is only a gift with a short life. Sachs -- and you -- made few references to what the political leaders were doing to change agricultural practices. Sure, they were cooperative -- they were receiving free goods. But what happens when the free goods end?

Tarun writes:

I have been an avid consumer of econtalk, having listened to all episodes since inception (I have to drive a lot, and I am hooked on econtalk). I would like to thank Prof Roberts for talking to time to put these together.

Having listened to both - Nina and Sachs, and to Prof Roberts over the years - it appears to me that both Nina and Roberts have very little experience in starting up any business ventures of development initiatives at grass-root level. Most development initiatives will go through an iterative process, where unintended consequences become apparent only after a period of time (and these can be both positive and negative externalities). These unintended consequences (like the rats incidence pointed by Nina, or organic / non-organic) are not signs of failure, but things that need and get corrected in the second season, so to say. It is premature to judge the impact of something like this in the first 3-4 years, as these are projects that show significant benefits after a few initial years of incubation where the quirks are ironed out.

Sachs too should have been more accepting of criticism, as accepting that not everything can be 'planned' is the nature of the beast in such initiatives. The point is not to rubbish Nina's evidence, but to explain that while in hindsight some of Nina's evidence looks simple to explain, but could not have been anticipated with the best of intentions, and how they have been corrected / addressed.

Joel Grover writes:

[Comment removed for rudeness. --Econlib Ed.]

David Gossett writes:

This episode was a gift to EconTalk, which gets better and better because it's host takes the time to really read the books and ask very thoughtful questions. I imagine a guest feels a session with Russ is one of his/her most satisfying conversations that reaches the public. It's why they keep coming back to his program.

I feel like a stakeholder in the podcast. Over the years, I think there have been two areas for improvement. 1) Not taking up the argument/position of a previous guest and 2) Not getting personally attached to a current guest's argument/position.

My favorite part of the Sach's podcast was when Russ said, "I'll let Nina Munk defend herself, which she has done." I think the next step in the evolution of already a brilliant podcast is to not take/share ownership of a guest's position during the conversation. It's not an issue of objectivity/reporting. It's about the fact that a host will never have the same level of knowledge that a guest has about his/her own life's work. They have to channel other experts who may not agree with the guest's conclusions.

Great job on a great podcast!

Mike Riddiford writes:

Long time listener of Econtalk, and admirer of Russ's interview style. I thought Russ did a good job with a somewhat testy Professor Sachs, and even tried valiantly to inject a touch of humour ("transcripts are a wonderful thing, aren't they?") If Sachs had have taken the gambit, it might have made for a different textured interview, but I guess he was already a bit upset about the smashing dreams thing. And I guess he had half a point here.

My guess is that, even come 2016, the evidence will be sufficiently ambiguous for both sides to claim victory. I don't have a dog in the race - knowing next to nothing about Africa, and reasonably content with that ignorance - but interested in it as a specific instance of Hayek's point on planning etc.

I also agree it would have been good to hear what Professor Sachs has learnt, or even "Which of the criticisms of the MVP do you believe have the most cogency?" Sach seemed too intent on defence, annd I think he missed an opportunity to disarm some of his critics with a more measured approach (although I acknowledge and appreciate his passion for development). Great stuff from Econtalk!

Dentzel writes:

I've had some time to think about both podcasts. Obviously Sachs and Munk had completely divergent opinions on the effectiveness of MVP. But both of them glossed over a point that Russ only slightly touched upon.

The point? Maybe there weren't any "problems" in any of these villages in the first place. Yes, their babies have a horrible mortality rate. Yes, the inhabitants don't live very long. Their crops are meager. They live in filth.

But all of those people surely know a lot of the world doesn't live like that. They know about the USA. They've seen enough UN vehicles pass through. They've seen helicopters and planes overhead. They've met do-gooders with clean clothes and fancy watches.

And these people still choose to live like they do . . .

Maybe they live like they do because they don't mind it. And if they're shown ways to improve their lives, and then go directly back to the way they were before Sachs came along, maybe it's because they aren't sure "wealth" is much of a deal in the first place?

As long as there isn't any Government money involved, I say they should be allowed to live the lives they choose. If Soros and others want to devote their private millions to MVP, fine by me . . . it's their money.

To bring people "out of poverty," the people themselves have to believe they're in poverty. Maybe how Sachs and others define it is different from how the village people do. This is also what leads me to believe this was a vanity project for Sachs--"Look at me, look at what I'm doing. Look at what I did!"

I believe these people will change/move/modernize when they believe it's in their best interests to do so. Until then, unless it's in Western Civilization's interest to protect them for some reason, I say stay out of their lives.

Kirk Logan writes:

What a pleasure it was listening to both the Munk and Sachs episodes, they were a real treat...I mean I actually laughed out loud on the subway. Partly, because I am a grad. student at Columbia and Jeffrey is well known and liked on campus despite the huge variety of opinions on his work.

I have one thought that has stuck with me since listening to the Sachs episode: Russ, you need to go to Africa and observe these MVP camps for yourself. I kept thinking Sachs was going to ask you to be one of the independent analyst, even if its just a qualitative analysis it would be fascinating to hear your honest critique. Please go and report back to us, we (your listeners) would love to hear how this plays out. Many of your listeners, like myself are biased and we "know" that programs like the Community Reinvest Act do not pull neighborhoods out of poverty. So, the fact that Jeffrey Sachs thinks he has discovered the formula to alleviated poverty is...well frankly a bit crazy. But I do understand his logic, what he is attempting to do is scale-up what Geoffrey Canada has done with the Harlem Children's Zone and as someone who currently lives in the Harlem area I can tell you it has become quite nice. How much of this should be attributed to Canada's Harlem Children's Zone is a separate issue. Nonetheless, I find Sachs view to be terribly myopic and self-serving but would love to be proven wrong.

Charles ARCHIVE writes:

Big fan of the show but didn't like the Sachs episode. Too much personal animosity and drama, it felt like I was listening to a soap opera rather than a conservation about economic policy between scholars. Sachs was mostly to blame of course, but overall very unpleasant.

Lee Jamison writes:

Whatever you do, Russ, don't think you must apologize for being an economist who thinks there ought to be some empiricism inherent in the process. The Sachs interview hinged fundamentally on what the proper way to tell the story ought to be.

We can't escape narrative in Economics. That is a given. But the style of the story and the shaping of the myth are not the central themes of Economics. We must watch for sources of value to which we are blind before we cure ills that bother us more than those we think are their victims.

Munk told a story in which the cure was perhaps more disruptive than the disease. We in the West need to be sensitive to the possibility we destroy really critical things when we bring our cures. The classic case of people taking steel axes into cultures that had built their sense of meaning and self-worth around the industry of creating stone tools- and thus destroying the culture in which people understood their place in the world- should always be before us.

I said last week I thought the interview was "a draw", because it came off as a contest where I don't think Russ was ready for a contest. But if I'm called on to choose between an Economics of quasi-religious fervor and an Economics seeking experiments in the most effective ways to do things, in widely varying cultures, and a sustainable future, I'll go for the sustainable future every time.

Warren writes:

Given the time constraints, I thought Russ did an excellent job interviewing Jeffery Sachs. While listening to this podcast it occurred to me that Russ Roberts would do a great job interviewing political candidates. Maybe it was all the references to helping children, but I couldn’t help but think how much Sachs sounded like a politician selling a social program. I tend to get suspicious when anyone tries to dominate a conversation, doesn’t directly answer questions and speaks in generalizations rather than specifics. I also hunger for facts that I can verify to spot check credibility.

I realize that measurement of effectiveness is difficult but it is hard to imagine anyone spending one hundred and twenty million dollars without having a statistical analysis of the effectiveness of the elements of the program. Waiting until the project is over, after the money is spent, seems like an odd time to assess what works and what doesn’t. Was he so sure of his approach that analysis along the way was unnecessary?

It was clear that he was quite familiar with the Nina Monk interview. Her main criticism was lack of sustainability after the program ended. It is odd that with that knowledge that Sachs didn’t come prepared with evidence to disprove her claim.

Sachs claims that the project isn’t top down as it is run by local African experts. I would like to know more about these experts. Where do they come from, where and how are they educated, exactly what do they do, where do they live, what is their compensation, and how are they supervised?

I will admit that I am probably not being fair, and to some extent I am reacting to how his message was delivered. But can anyone honestly answer the following two questions? Was this project an efficient use of those funds? Is Millennium Villages Project approach superior to other approaches? After hearing Sachs we still don’t know. Apparently even Jeffrey Sachs will not know until 2016.

I wanted to thank Russ Roberts for all of his efforts. EconTalk just gets better and better. You are changing the world, one mind at a time, through education.

Stephen writes:

I've seen a few comments defending the Millennium Village Project like so:

"So what would YOU do to help those unemployed? This is the question you seem to avoid. When we’re in a mess, would you have us just wait, doing nothing until markets equilibrate?"

And I'd just like to respond:

"I don’t wanna do nothing, there’s plenty to do. The question I ponder is who plans for whom. Do I plan for myself or I leave it to you. I want plans by the many, not by the few."

Russ Roberts writes:


I love seeing people make connections. It shows understanding. Bravo.

A note about the format and length.

I am also a podcaster on a very different topic as well as a fervent listener of EconTalk.

Podcasts are consumed in a very different way than other medium and the time pressure is not as high as you seem to imply Russ. In particular, people listen to it by chunk anyways.

I did settle for 80-90 mins long episodes as the natural length. It pleases people with long commutes and I no longer feel rushed to finish a topic.

So a 90 mins EconTalk episode would be perfectly fine by me even though my commute is literally 20 mins,

Scott Spicer writes:

I initially thought that you let Dr. Sachs "get away" with too many rambling, grasping defenses of himself and his work, but the most I listened the more I found the value in simply letting him speak. I ended thinking that Dr. Sachs sounded like Walter White defending his actions in the meth business. Not to say that Dr. Sachs is a sociopathic drug dealing murderer (at all) or that his venture is similar in design to a drug empire. But I found a certain why-can't-you-people-see-how-brilliant-this-is, or, worse, can't-you-people-see-how-important-I-am-to-this tone in his voice that was similar. Whether Nina or Dr. Sachs is correct in their assessment of the project and whether the project is or will be an ultimate success is unknown to me (and really, I believe, to anyone at this time), but Dr. Sachs' demeanor in the interview really struck me.

I'd also say that I enjoyed the confrontational tone of the interview. It's very rare today for people who disagree on fundamental issues to discuss them for any extended period of time (what you call ridiculously long format) without the conversation disintegrating into shouting past each other. To hear an hour+ discussion between you and Dr. Sachs was refreshing if only to break that mold. This isn't to say that I don't enjoy the typically amiable discussions on EconTalk, because I do. But the change of pace was certainly nice.

Rick Groves writes:

Prof Roberts,

Firstly, I would just like to thank you for the episode. It was clearly a challenging conversation, but I think those challenges serve to help uncover real differences. A few lingering critiques that I hope you will take with the due grain of salt:

- At times, it seemed that your preference for what that program should be (such that it would easily conform to your standard critique) seemed to get in the way of a fair consideration of the points being offered. Most notably, in the discussion about the selection of interventions, you were borderline dismissive of Sachs' claim that the communities themselves were heavily involved in needs assessment and in ongoing development and iteration of solutions, particularly as the MDV program matured. You acted as if Nina Monk's claim of top-down prescription was the established truth of the matter. In Monk's interview, you showed no hesitancy to run with her examples as a clear demonstration of your Hayekian views and with ID programs generally.

When Mr. Sachs pointed out that her cases came from the early stages of the program and from a very limited, non-representative set of communities, you were essentially dismissive. The idea that top-down identification of interventions was simply a starting point and that communities were heavily involved in conducting needs assessments, selecting interventions and developing those interventions seemed to carry no weight. It seemed, at least to this listener, that your desire for Monk's observations to be the norm, combined with your ideological preferences, set such a strong prior that you were unable or unwilling to fairly consider Sachs' description. It very much seemed, as you described, that you were in debate mode, defending an ideology rather than trying to developing a more clear understanding of the reality. And unfortunately, your patronizing tone on this front exacerbated the existing tension.

- The discussion of your "cruel" comment actually reveals what I believe to be the core differentiating factor in your world view and Mr. Sachs'. Mr. Sachs' sees the suffering across the less-developed world as a great tragedy. He knows the underlying factors are immensely complex and doesn't believe it is something that can be easily "fixed", but he does want to make a difference. And he believes that we have a set of promising ideas that might help. So he developed a strategy to making an attempt. The goals were clearly stated and involved a notion of sustainability. However, we would be remiss to not consider the potential to provide enormous short-term benefits, which while subject to questions of cost/benefit, should not be simply dismissed out of hand if they prove unsustainable. Is it cruel to treat a person's cancer, lessening their suffering and giving them hope it might be beaten, knowing full well that it might?

Secondly, even failure to achieve the stated goals is not necessarily utter failure in the objective humanitarian sense. An enormous amount of learning is happening as a result of the efforts. Many, perhaps most programs, won't work. But they will produce knowledge. And while his simplistic claim regarding governmental uptake did not articulate this value well, the value remains. Consider the example of any scientific research effort. Is a string of failed trials evidence of futility in the pursuit of a new medication or material? This is a point you appeared completely unwilling to consider at all, too happy to revel in the notion of the futility of design.

Particularly in the infinitely complex world of social science, what is the appropriate scale at which we can seek to design solutions? The Hayekian caution is well-taken, but where does it leave us in the face of persistent suffering? What moral imperative does it leave us? Do we let our fellow man suffer when we feel we have the ability to help, simply because our solution may be imperfect? Who do we count among those who deem worthy of our help? And when we help, should we simply provide money and nothing else?

Your critiques are usually fair, but in situations like this, they leave me empty. The alternative you provide (or fail to provide) is even less attracting the flawed solution. I find that when you interview somebody with a sympathetic viewpoint, you occasionally consider these questions. But when you have a guest who challenges you on these fronts, you sometimes slip in to a disconnected paternalism, giving only the slightest recognition to the vast space between the easy libertarian conjecture and the liberal fantasy. Your doubt of the "success", however defined, of the MDVs is perfectly reasonable. But the way in which you express it, the derision with which you approached the idea of the effort produce successes was evident.

It is one thing to doubt success. It is another to hope for failure. Unfortunately, despite your words to the contrary, the way in which you discussed the MDVs suggested strongly that you hold a preference for vindication of your worldview over the alleviation of suffering. That is why Mr. Sachs' was so appalled by your comment. I don't believe you consciously feel/think that way. Perhaps you came off that way because of the defensive nature of the conversation. But at least to me, particularly when considering the eagerness with which you helped Nina Monk elaborate on her critique, that is how your position "read". That you were willing to have Mr. Sachs' on the program is evidence that you truly are interested in objective truth of the matter. But I would encourage you to re-listen to both episodes and to consider how your personal biases may have affected the resulting conversations.

On that note, I would suggest that the program released yesterday, in which you mediated a conversation was a massive success. You did a great job at facilitating a fascinating conversation that explored points of agreement and disagreement. I would be very interested in hearing more of these types of discussions, in which you can leverage your skepticism more broadly, allowing different viewpoints to be explored more faithfully.

Jim Vandiver writes:

I'm disappointed no one identified themselves as having seen any projects and offered new observations. Hopefully these podcasts reach Africa and folks traveling or working there with the great smartphone penetration. Russ, can you determine how much coverage you have there?

Terrific interview and comments. Thank you, all.


Ron Crossland writes:

Thanks Russ for continuing to offer episodes that stir, ignite, and foster debate. Sometimes things get messy - ain't that wonderful? Individuals have difficulty seeing their own biases and sometimes it takes a jostle or two to help us at least see where our bias boundaries lie.

Personally, I don't find this format too long. I'm here because it is longer than a soundbite. I'm also here because I want to have my own preconceptions jostled so I can learn and maybe improve my world view rather than merely confirm I've been right all along. Kudos, Russ, on your continuing efforts to focus on learning.

In the microeconomic world of commercial innovation, there's a good body of evidence that solely relying on financial examination of innovation projects is the least effective way to determine which new ideas will likely succeed. Comparing this information to this much larger, much messier, macro-economics project makes me wonder if relying only on what can be easily measured in any way predicts what may happen.

Robert Swan writes:

Listened to the talk and have read all the comments in all the threads. It is a shame that Sachs was unable to rise above his hurt feelings and that he treated this talk as a "right of reply" rather than an interview.

Sachs says the right time to evaluate the project is in 2016, at its conclusion. A strange position as this top-down intervention plan surely requires continuous feedback.

But take him at his word: there will be a comprehensive evaluation of successes and failures in 2016. The MVP aims to achieve the UN Millennium Goals for a set of villages. Looking at those goals, they are high sounding, but also vague and sweeping. One person will be able to claim "glorious success" and another "abject failure" and both will be right. How will this advance our knowledge?

Looking forward to the 2016 follow-up interview.

d schilling writes:

This series of interviews seems very off kilter, being mostly accusatory, from what is routinely scholarly and exploratory. All the data and evidence is off somewhere else in a paper, or a book, or a village in Africa, or is anecdotal. Prof. Roberts hadn't read Munk's book. Munk's book seems ambiguous. Sachs is trying fiat and has a lot to answer for and the results aren't in. So what exactly are we talking about? Would Prof. Roberts let one of his students get away with a citation from a book review and not the source? Could a student get away with so much ambiguity?

This lecture series has always appealed to me because when the guests share 'ideas', the burden of proof, salient points, theoretical models, etc. are spoken of as such, and when empirical evidence is available the guests speak specifically about them. Prof. Roberts is best when he says, "so, does this mean..." and then references how Coase would talk about this, and Hayek would be dubious of that, and Friedman would remind us how he was taught this, etc. Great stuff. All of these great minds with their best (not worst, wrong, or mistaken) ideas, put in context, in a relevant way. This is what is appealing about social science.

Prof. Roberts is always reaffirming and reminding the listener of why Economics, Political Economy, data-driven research, and other topics which are just plain interesting, are so important because ideas and good research matter, and also why ideas and research have limitations and require 'grit'. We are reminded of confirmation bias, causation, correlation, scope, scale, the complexity and limits to what can be known, etc. This is what is exciting about social science in the era of Big Data.

And then we have Sachs on trial and Prof Robert's comment on trial, and Munk's book on trial... right or wrong or whatever, this did not seem scholarly. This could have been better.

Russ Roberts writes:

d schilling,

You may have misunderstood me. I did read Nina Munk's book.

There is some evidence out on the Millennium Villages Project. Sachs and his team have published at least two peer-reviewed articles making dramatic claims for results five years into the project. Both were seriously flawed. You can read about them in the Demombynes page cited in my post. "Wait until 2016" has become the fallback position. It is not clear whether anything will be clearer then given how the project was established.

Having said that, I agree that there was something very unsatisfying about this conversation relative to many others. But I learned something anyway. Just not what I expected to learn.

Andrew writes:

It is admittedly very hard to separate emotion from economic issues when confronting the incredible challenges of endemic poverty. Historical vestiges of racism, imperialism, and mercantilism can perhaps create a sense of personal culpability or promote an emotional "gut" response to poverty. Additionally, emotional factors play a huge role in supporting fundraising and charity efforts. Such efforts have their place of course, and I endorse charity wholeheartedly.

But developmental economics is not charity. That differentiation came through clearly in these interviews, and I think separating them is very critical in a click-bait world. I applaud Sach's efforts wholeheartedly, but his emotion and need to defend himself belie an emotional position rather than an economic argument. Again, that is not wrong; it is just different from what he is claiming.

Thank you for this series.

Don Coumbs writes:

Thank you Russ for the educational and enjoyable pod casts. I have listened for some years and always meant to come to the blog. I never got around to it until I really wanted to read some more about this episode.

I am shocked to find how many of the posters completely missed the nature of the exchange between Russ (sorry for the informality, but I feel I know you) and Sachs! While it was painful to hear him filibuster, the questions he dodged and the comments he made confirmed Nina Munk’s criticisms more thoroughly than anything I can imagine coming out in 2016.

Divakar Dhaveji writes:

I was not sure which side to support at the end of this discussion. On the one hand, if Sachs tries one integrated project with private contributions for ten years in the villages of ten countries of Africa, even though there is no independent end of project assessment yet (typically one generally finds a concurrent assessment, a mid term assessment and an end of project assessment vis a vis the baseline)of the effectiveness, efficiency and sustainability of this initiative, the fact that he atleast tried something in itself can not be undermined, even if it is not likely to be sustainable. If the host governments can take something from this experiences and incorporate the lessons in their own programmes, it should provide enough justification for the effort and resources spent. I am not sure that all development projects should or can be sustainable after the project completion; should that mean the projects are not worthwhile in a definitive sense? Sachs is well meaning and that is what counts. Don't the governments and multilateral agencies waste huge amounts on worthless projects all the time? Have they always been sustainable, effective and efficent? The answer is NO. The economist rationale in project review and analysis often discounts the ground level challenges and realities. If no one takes a risk, it is likely that there will be no mistakes and no failures or no means of making improvements in project formulation or implementation. Russ tried to be incisive and that is good; after all, it is a debate without rancour. Everyone learns in the process. I have enjoyed this podcast, even though it did not give me a definitive answer.

John writes:

I have to say, Russ, you come across as someone who would prefer to do nothing in the face of staggering poverty. I don't know if Sach's approach is the right approach, but I will say that at least he is doing something. The turn this conversation took makes you seem apathetic to poverty and cynical about all solutions. I know that's not how you feel, but if someone heard this program for the first time, that's what he/she would believe.

Russ Roberts writes:


I appreciate the feedback.

Doing something is preferable to doing nothing when the something helps achieve your goal.

Doing nothing is much better than doing something if the something works against your goal.

I believe that the trillion dollars or so that the West has sent the Rest over recent decades has enhanced the power and resources of some very bad leaders.

More on that coming soon.

But people who are eager to do something always have an advantage of appearing to be more concerned. If anything, that should require us to hold them to a higher standard because of our natural sentiments.

Richard Fulmer writes:

Sachs' proof that his program is working was essentially that some African governments are accepting it or parts of it, and he suggested that such acceptance constitutes "market" success. That seems a very weak argument to me (see public choice theory). Nor do I regard the rhetorical question "would you rather do nothing?" as evidence of anything.

Sri Hari writes:

The post podcast discussion seems even more interesting and informative than the podcast itself.

After having listened to numerous podcast by Russ Roberts my view of the world of economics and development can be summed up in a single statement -'chicken or the egg' -'human development (health care, housing, education etc) or sustainable business' which came first.

Should we provide development or a viable business that will pay for the human development?

Jeffery Sachs is of the view human development will promote entrepreneurship which will create the sustainable business. Russ believes human development is the benefit of a sustainable business.

So who is right ? Perhaps it is a mix of both. May be a venture fund at marginal interest rate could promote a viable business case in theses underdeveloped regions, with a certain amount spent as charity for human development. It should be done in such a way that once the business stabilises, it should pay for the human development activities

Joe Nunes writes:

One of the things I love most about Econtalk is that Russ genuinely wants to bring learning to listeners and doesn't start by assuming that he knows all the right answers.

The Munk podcast reaffirmed my fears about aid and the Sachs podcast reopened some questions and proved to me that we don't have enough evidence in either podcast to declare the MVP a failure, a success, or something in between.

The main thing I took away was that I believe that Sachs made the initial mistake of setting too short a time-frame. As an actuary, I know that a decade is a relatively short time when studying a human population. In addition, the time that it will take to collect and analyze a decade worth of data could easily be another year or three.

My guess is that the MVP is having some positive impact but measuring the "cost-benefit" of the program and comparing it to alternatives will take many more years. It might take 25 years to see measurable and sustainable benefits.

I hope Russ goes to Africa and reports back first hand his "observations" and I look forward to 2016 to see what we can learn even though I am already skeptical in advance that we will actually have conclusive data to support either Munk or Sachs.

Chris writes:

I am somebody who would usually place himself much more firmly in the Sachs camp than the Russ Roberts camp. I enjoy listening to Econtalk immensely but with the usual crowd (Munger, Kling, Eppstein etc.) I do so critically to detect the weaknesses and flaws in their arguments. Still, you have to give it to Russ that he decided this one fair and square in his favor. He kept calm and to the (economic) point throughout the episode, whereas I found J. Sachs immensely disappointing. He employed Filibuster tactics, never answered questions and did his cause a great disservice by this strategy. Chapeau to Russ. He should be employed to mediate bipartisan agreements in congress.

Tyler Wells writes:

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address and for policy violation. Please read our Comment Policies. Email the to request restoring your comment privileges. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.--Econlib Ed.]

Bill Egerer writes:

Russ Roberts episodes with Munk, and the Sach follow up, resulted in a home run for “ … illustrate economic principles. Exploring how economics emerges in practice is a primary theme”; the stated purpose of EconTalk. Who cares if the Sach’s program style was different than the normal program format – it worked to display Sach’s positions, opinions and his self evaluation. Roberts used the excellent Brian Lamb hosting technique of being a catalyst for making the time spent mostly on the guest’s self display i.e. a few questions prompting active and predominant guest responses. Sach avoided direct answers most of the time and instead, used the time for self-salesmanship. Fortunately, Roberts wasn’t able to get in a word with Sach’s grueling self-proclamations, rather than evaluating economic points, and that displayed the true colors of Sach’s motivations. I hope Prof. Roberts doesn’t shy away from trying this program approach in the future – it delivered listeners with a great opportunity of “illustrating economic principles” in action, even ones that are not working well. Thank you for the great learning opportunities offered in your programs.

Comments for this podcast episode have been closed
Return to top