book review: Economic Gangsters, by Ray Fisman and Ted Miguel

I just read this during my trip to West Africa (Sierra Leone and the Gambia).  I enjoyed it, and I would have even more if I hadn’t been familiar with much of the research already: I teach at least two of my papers in my graduate economic development class.  My thoughts:

witty, clever, upbeat, all while tackling some of international development’s most difficult issues

Eight years ago, as I crossed the Uganda-Kenya border, I was sequestered in a shack, interrogated, threatened with prison, and ultimately required to pay a bribe by border guards. After that harrowing experience, I returned to my hotel and recounted the story to the first friendly face I saw: my sympathetic colleague Ted Miguel. Ted and his colleague Ray spent the succeeding years studying violence and corruption in poor countries; and this sweet book is the latest fruit of those labors.

What can economics tell us about corruption and violence around the world? More, perhaps, than you’d expect. Ray and Ted use surprise changes in a dictator’s health to measure the value of political connections in Indonesia, rainfall to capture the effect of recessions on violence in Africa, and tricks in the trade data to reveal smuggling. (That’s not to mention the parking tickets – Chapter Four.) They present their clever research in surprisingly clear English, and they draw on the related research of other economists as well. They really know how to tell a story: I was captivated by the opening recounting of Kenyan author Ngugi’s woes and delighted by the creative policy making of Antanas Mockus, mayor of Bogota.

It’s hard not to compare popular economics books today to Freakonomics: Gangsters has the advantages of Ted and Ray’s witty, pleasant voice, more of a thematic focus, and none of the self-adulation that took away some Freakonomics’ shine.

Despite the focus on corruption and violence, ultimately the book is presenting a miscellany of work that is related but isn’t (and perhaps cannot be) circumscribed into a larger theory. Occasionally I found myself wishing a central theory like you find in Malcolm Gladwell’s books. But then again, those theories usually aren’t convincing for exactly the reason that Ted and Ray don’t have one: they are careful and big, broad theories are not. I really enjoyed the clear policy recommendation of Rapid Conflict Prevention Support in Chapter 6, and I look forward to more clear recommendations in the next book. Again, Ted and Ray are careful and tend not to recommend policies that don’t have clear evidence to stand on. Not all scholars are comfortable laying out strong recommendations on limited evidence; two books by scholars who are more comfortable are The Bottom Billion and The End of Poverty. (As I recall, that’s also the self-definition given by an economic hit man!) The main policy recommendation, ultimately, is more evidence-based policy making, particularly randomized trials of development programs (but with a healthy view of the realistic scope for these kinds of trials).

This book won’t just show you that economists can be clever (although it will show you that): It shows that economics, cleverly applied, can illuminate some of the most intractable development problems of our time. I strongly recommend it. And if you don’t trust me, Publishers Weekly said that in this “surprisingly spry” read, “fascinating insights abound” [1]. Take it from both of us and learn something.

[1] Publishers Weekly, 6 October 2008.

1 thought on “book review: Economic Gangsters, by Ray Fisman and Ted Miguel”

  1. […] cool bloggers have picked up on Economic Gangsters, including Tukopamoja, Prof. Michael Veseth (of the University of Puget Sound), and filmmaker Ted Hope. They have some […]

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