One data point is not a narrative

Or at least, not a terribly compelling one:

I’ve mentioned before my beef with the so-called puzzle that “[insert African nation here] and [insert Asian nation here] had the same income per person in 1950, and yet look at the difference now.”

Income levels in 1950 were not, it seems, the best guide to why some countries became rich and why some stayed poor. The understudied field of development history has much to teach us.

via The historical roots of East Asia’s growth miracle | Chris Blattman.

I think a lot about the problems of descriptive versus predictive data, and this comparison exemplifies that tension. Michael Spence’s The Next Convergence relies on a well-meaning optimism, indicating frequently that Asian growth is a test case for African development. This is probably an imperfect analogue; institutions matter, history matters, geography matters. There are a lot of factors that aren’t captured in GDP or per capita income.

Maybe Asian nations which have exhibited rigorous growth have better transportation networks, or closer trading partners, or superior soil types, or a more educated labor pool than their equivalent-GDP cohort in 1950. Saying Singapore started in the same position as Equatorial Guinea ignores the successes of one and the problems of the other.


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