RPP # 6

The readings from seminar seven concerning non-canonical and marginalized scholarship contained ideas with what I was certainly familiar, but had never before seen manifested in this way. I believe it is fair to say that the fundamental argument of the Decolonizing our Minds movement at SOAS can be boiled down to the common tropes of systemic racial inequality. What seems to make this movement unique is that it specifically critiques the academic world, which is typically thought of, and certainly sees itself as, more progressive. Ultimately I was underwhelmed by the arguments from the Decolonizing our Minds movement, not because I disagree with their critiques, but because they did not seem to offer, at least from the article, an innovative solution. Their initial argument seems to have been to remove the white scholars, or at least most of them, from the curriculum because they represent, by virtue of their identities, historic systems of oppression and marginalization. When professor Malik confronts the students however, they reportedly backdown and claim alternatively that traditional white scholars should be taught, just within a critical framework – one that makes aware their systemic privileges and personal failings, moral or otherwise. Whereas the first argument seemed like an over reaction, this compromise does not seem to be saying much at all. It seems to me that a critical approach should be – and more often than not is – applied to all scholars and ideas presented students, at least in higher education settings. So while I certainly do not disagree with the students claims, I fail to see how this argument is original, or how it particularly pertains to the white scholarship antagonists that the whole movement is founded on “decolonizing” themselves from.

Professor Morris, in my opinion, makes a much more interesting argument in his study of the historical account of American sociology, and particularly W.E.B Du Bois. While neither professor Morris, nor any rational person, denies that race almost certainly played a part in Du Bois’ marginalization, Morris argues that an equally important factor was the heterodox nature of Du Bois’ and his schools, claims. This argument highlights a flaw within the academic elite which has likely remains much more salient today than outright racism. I am in no way claiming that racism has entirely subsided from the academic world, rather that this paradigm of orthodoxy remains both more prevalent, and less understood than racism. I have been particularly exposed to this in my economics courses. Any findings which challenge commonly held beliefs have historically required mountains of data to support them, while findings which support the orthodoxy are overly inflated. The example of structural adjustment programs in development provides a clear example of this. It is because economics has historically been so reluctant to accept challenges to the orthodoxy that I will have to be cautious in the future to not fall into the same traps. While certainly not all critiques will be paradigm shifting, it will be important for me to keep myself open to the possibility.

Mentorship Log #5

Tuesday, March 27 2018

This meeting lasted just over an hour. Professor Robinson and I began to actually work through the coding for the regressions in Stata. I had tried to begin this process the week before with someone from the CTRL lab, but we ran into a few issues regarding the data sheet itself, and thus could not move forward, and there was nothing substantial to report. So between that last meeting and today’s meeting I have been fixing up those mistakes, which included converting all gross data into per capita numbers, changing the original indicators (Freedom House and PRIO) into bivariate. Once these changes were made I was able to actually work through the regressions with Professor Field. We quickly decided that I would also need to linearly interpolate the data for my dependent variables which only appear every 4-5 years at best (most likely from national censuses). The reason for this, even though it is in effect “making up data” is that without interpolating, given the limited availability of many of the other indicators, my cases drop from over 1200 to 68. The reason for this is that Stata will only run the regression if every line of data for a case is filled. While 68 is still enough cases to perform the statistical tests, I decided that it will still be beneficial to run the regressions on interpolated data also (I will certainly keep the original regressions with the 68 cases, if for no other reason than to compare). Because my DV’s (Gini index and Poverty percentages) change so little, and so linearly, I decided that linear interpolation will bring more validity to the project by way of adding hundreds of additional cases than it detracts from that validity by “making up data.” Regardless of this addition, the meeting went very well. I now understand all of what I need to to perform regressions in Stata with panel data, and a few other tests which can be useful, such as bivariate correlation for my DV’s.

After this meeting I feel confident moving forward that I can finish up the ‘meat’ of the project in the next week. I will interpolate the data and perform those same regressions that I did with my original data. Once this is done, all that is left is the interpret the results and write up the analysis – certainly not a small task, but one that I am familiar with and feel comfortable doing independently. Once this is done I will begin revising all of the sections we have been working on all year, and I will synthesize them into a complete paper.

RPP# 5

Nietzsche and Foucault’s critiques of the “separationist view” ultimately concerns the question of the existence of objective truth. Although the two differ in their conclusions, both contend that objective truth does not exist, or at least cannot be found by man, and that instead everything is the product of human agency. All of our understanding of ourselves and of the world has not been a systemic encroachment into the realm of objective truths waiting to be discovered, but rather an ever more nuanced perception of reality, constructed by human interpretation. Even the most seemingly objective methods of study carry intrinsically within them, an element of humanity. Where some may interpret this element of humanity as bias, as a flaw which makes all knowledge worthless because it is, at some level, interpretation, I would contend, and I believe the authors we read for today would agree, that far from debunking the relevance of all knowledge, this conclusion is actually a hopeful one. Just because there are no objective truths to be found, does not mean that science and the progression of knowledge have no purpose. After all humans themselves are not objective actors (a conclusion that has been increasingly popularized and understood the field of economics, which has historically been a staunch supporter of empirical truth and rationality). In this way, even if there were objective truth that existed somewhere, they would have no relevance to human life, because we are not ourselves objective actors. Therefore the conclusion that all knowledge is the construction of human interpretation is not pessimistic, but rather inherently positive as it is the only type of understanding that is relevant to human life.

I chose a statistical analysis precisely because I wanted to be able to say that I had found some objective truth. I thought that, especially as an undergraduate, the way to give the most validity to any argument that I wished to make was to base that argument on an incontrovertible empirical backing. However, as I have entered to final stages of my project I have begun to realize how much of my own personal influence has been exerted into the project. The most prolific form of this influence has been in the choices, and assumptions about those choices, that I have had to make in choosing indicators for my variables. Generally, these choices have been highly informed by previous research in relevant fields, and by conversations with a number of faculty mentors. Occasionally though, these decisions have had to be made largely based on the lack of available data, a reality which I am far less comfortable with. In both cases however, I am beginning to see how heavily influenced my supposedly ‘objective’ research design is by human agency, both my own and that of previous scholars. While I was initially discouraged by this realization, after the readings for todays class, I am more hopeful about the continuing relevance of this type of research, even if it is not purely objective.

RPP#4

Variation in the economic well-being among Sub-Saharan African countries is amidst the greatest of any region in the world. Despite the efforts of many economists, this variation cannot be explained in its entirety by the current literature, which is overly focused on international and domestic institutions. This project attempts to add to the conversation by further exploring the role of foreign capital inflows, specifically foreign aid, foreign direct investment, and migrant remittance payments. Economic well-being has hitherto often been conflated with economic growth. While this project does consider growth to be an important component of well-being, it will also incorporate poverty and inequality disparities. This study of the combination of foreign capital inflows on a more complete understanding of economic well-being is something that has not previously been explored for the Sub-Saharan region. While the study anticipates generating relevant data for both international and domestic policy decisions, it also has implications for a broader understanding of a more holistic definition of economic well-being.

RPP#3

I completely agree with Gorski’s claim that there are certain conditions under which “human beings flourish” and which are “open to empirical investigation through social sciences (pg 543).” I generally tend to come at this from an economic perspective, and through that lens, it is easy to see where this claim is true. The way in which societies structure their economies have specific measurable implications on the well being of the inhabitants of that society, and while we certainly do not have a complete understanding, we do have some knowledge about which institutions and practices yield better results. I almost feel as though this may be interpreted as a loophole for me. Gorski is thinking about morals, where as I tend to speak in terms of economic measurements, but the two are inherently intertwined. There is no free market system, or any economic system, that exists in the abstract. The construction of any economic system is inherently a reflection of the values of the society which constructs it. For example in our system, we have minimum age and wage laws, we have intellectual property rights, we have financial market regulation. All of these institutions arose directly as a result of moral issues. The example of intellectual property rights provides a fascinating example. A pharmaceutical company like Pfizer develops a pill which is 90% effective in treating some disease which before now was effectively a death sentence. Pfizer has the legal right to leverage its monopoly power granted by intellectual property rights for some period of time to keep prices artificially higher than they would be if the pill were made generic. People die because they cannot afford the medication, and who otherwise would have been able to afford it at market rates. We as a society say that this is ok because it is necessary for innovation. Without monopoly rights there would be no incentive to innovate, we would never get these pills in the first place and everyone who got this disease would die. Here we see a stark example of literally a decision about life and death of thousands of people manifested into institutional market constructs, and directly informed by morals, but orchestrated by an understanding of social science. 

The way I understand his philosophy is that Sam Harris is essentially Gorski to the furthest extreme. Whereas Gorski leaves room for human pursuits which may not be adequately or appropriately pursued through scientific methods, Sam Harris says that everything can be, and is, informed through strict scientific processes.

My research is directly relatable to normative claims, because at the end of the process I will be able to say to what extent remittance flows impact growth. That is something that has direct, not only policy implications, but moral ones, as growth is inherently associated with the standards of well-being which humanity has defined for itself. I would not say that my project has any implications for what is morally good, but it certainly has implications for how to conduct life in furtherance of ‘morally good’ ideals, in the form of standard of living and quality of life.

RPP # 2

For me, Plato’s argument is incapsulated in the idea that Democracy grants “equality to equals and unequals alike.” He goes on to argue that such a system also creates an “equality of pleasures,” meaning that in a Democracy all pursuits are valued equally. Plato’s critique ultimately comes down to the fact that in a Democratic society all men are valued equally, however, in reality,  some men will be superior to others, and some of their pursuits will nobler than others. This concern is raised again by Tocqueville over two millennia later, when he writes that “more and more it is opinion that rules the world” in his famous observation of 18th century America culture, Democracy In America. Tocqueville’s point is this: in a perfect Democracy, where all men are equal to each other, than whatever the majority opinion is about a topic, that idea must be correct. In other words “truth is found on the side with the greatest number.”  In summary, both Plato and Tocqueville argue that in a Democratic society, where each individual is viewed as perfectly equal to every other, there is a danger for ’empirical correctness’ to be cast aside in favor of popular opinion.

Immediately what jumps to mind for me is the creation, and original function of the electoral college. The presence of this institution in the country that is often considered the poster child for Democratic ideals, is a significant acknowledgement of the validity of these concerns. I would very much like to  reject the assertion that Democratic societies necessarily breed humans who are ontologically predisposed to reject the notion of normative ethical inquiry, though I cannot articulate any solid rebuttal. The rise of Trump and other populists in the Western world, generally to the chagrin of the highly educated, seems presents significant evidence in support of both Plato and Tocqueville’s arguments.

I certainly believe there are significant reasons to resist the impulse to reject normative ethics, even if it seems that Democratic societies are necessarily juxtaposed to such a concept. To me the core distinction for normative ethics is between what is perfect and what is best. For example, if the Federal Reserve decides to enact a more contractionary monetary policy in response to high inflation rates (and if it is responding to the data correctly), then some new business will not be created, but the economy as a whole is spared of a recession, or at least a recession is made less impactful. That decision is inherently to make a few people who would have gotten jobs, or gotten better jobs, in the new businesses that would have been created worse off, in favor of making everyone (including those who were deprived of those jobs) slightly better off. This, to me, is a correct decision as long as the population that benefits, represents a greater collective utility, than the population that is made worse off. That perfect equilibrium exists, and it can be found, even in Democratic societies.

RPP # 1

1) Over the past few years I have developed a strong academic interest in economics, particularly the macroeconomics of international development. During a Political Economy class the second semester of my freshman year, my professor, who had personal experience with sending remittance payments back to her family in South Africa, casually mentioned that she believed remittance payments were the most effective type of aid. This was a minor point in the lecture, but I found that the idea stuck with me. As I began researching the effects of remittances, I found that although the World Bank, and other organizations, recorded data on the payments, there was relatively little research on them. There was far more information available about other forms of capital inflows, particularly foreign direct investment (FDI) and foreign aid. I was surprised to discover that something that my professor had described as “the most effective” form of aid, had received so little scholarly attention. I would certainly consider my primary motivation for this research project to be to contribute to the understanding of this particular capital flow. Secondly, though closely tied to my primary motivation, is a genuine personal interest. As someone who is interested in a career in international development, I would certainly like to have the most complete understanding of what influences economic development, and in which ways.

2) Although any of the three methodologies presented to us in 206 could have been applicable the my project, I made the the decision that a statistical analysis would be most appropriate for exactly the type of interests I have. The economist in me is interested in how this capital flow affects countries on aggregate, and not in specific cases. I chose statistics because it is the most appropriate methodology for attempting to discern these possible patterns from large data pools. Because I am interested in expanding existing knowledge about international development, I am mostly the accepted measurements for variables within this academic discipline. For example, this means using GDP as the predominant measurement for growth.

3) The main normative assumption I am making in my project is that “growth” (as defined primarily by an increase in GDP) is a desirable outcome. I do intend to attempt to control for ways in which this variable can be misleading. For example I will also consider changes in domestic inequality over the 15 year period I am observing, to check to see if the benefits of growth are centralized at the top of the economic spectrum (suggesting corruption) or near the middle (suggesting an increase in general prosperity). One major way of doing this is to use median income within each country, as opposed to average income.