March 20, 2006

My new column: "Undercover Economist Underperforms On Why Poor Countries Are Poor."

"Undercover Economist Underperforms On Why Poor Countries Are Poor." An excerpt:

Tim Harford has a new book out called The Undercover Economist that offers a fairly good introduction to economics. (I reviewed it in the New York Post.) Now, Reason magazine's website is running a chapter from the book describing Harford's visit to Cameroon in West Africa under the headline "Why Poor Countries Are Poor." Harford begins:

"They call Douala the 'armpit of Africa.' Lodged beneath the bulging shoulder of West Africa, this malaria-infested city in southwestern Cameroon is humid, unattractive, and smelly."

That reminds me of an old friend from Douala, the largest city in Cameroon, who was getting his Ph.D. at UCLA a quarter of a century ago. On the rare occasions when the July temperature in Westwood reached 90 degrees, he'd complain bitterly about how hot it was. When I'd point out that his hometown was just north of the equator and it had to be 90 degrees there every day, he'd respond:

"Ah, but, Steven, you don't understand. That is the soooooothing African heat."

So, while Cameroon might seem like an armpit to you, me, or Tim Harford, to 16 million Cameroonians, it's home. And I wish them well.

Harford's explanation for Why Poor Countries Are Poor is corrupt and predatory government and other institutions, which he documents with many depressing examples from his visit.

He goes on to make the ambitious claim:

"It is not news that corruption and perverse incentives matter. But perhaps it is news that the problem of twisted rules and institutions explains not just a little bit of the gap between Cameroon and rich countries but almost all of the gap."

Well, yes, that is indeed news to me. For one thing, there are obvious noninstitutional problems with trying to get work done in Cameroon, such as endemic malaria and all that soothing African heat that just makes you want to lie down and take a nap.

But Harford's assertion raises an obvious question: how can he know "why poor countries are poor" from inspecting just one of them? Wouldn't it also be useful to compare countries?

Surely, a few of the dozens of sub-Saharan African countries must have better policies and institutions than Cameroon and thus must have closed "almost all of the gap"?

My published articles are archived at -- Steve Sailer

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