Arnold Kling  

Feynman's Question

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Nick Schulz points to a lecture in 1963 by physicist Richard Feynman. The best web reference I can find for it is here.


Some time ago, in about 1949 or 1950, I went to Brazil to teach physics. There was a Point Four program in those days, which was very exciting – everyone was going to help the underdeveloped countries. What they needed, of course, was technical know-how.

In Brazil I lived in the city of Rio. In Rio there are hills on which are homes made with broken pieces of wood from old signs and so forth. The people are extremely poor. They have no sewers and no water. In order to get water they carry old gasoline cans on their heads down the hills. They go to a place where a new building is being built, because there they have water for mixing cement. The people fill their cans with water and carry them up the hills. And later you see the water dripping down the hill in dirty sewage. It is a pitiful thing.

And I said to my friends in the Point Four program, β€œIs this a problem of technical know-how? They don't know how to put a pipe up the hill?

He goes on,


They don't know how to put a pipe to the top of the hill so that the people can at least walk uphill with the empty cans and downhill with the full cans?”

So it is not a problem of technical know-how. Certainly not, because in the neighboring apartment buildings there are pipes, and there are pumps. We realize that now. Now we think it is a problem of economic assistance, and we do not know whether that really works or not. And the question of how much it costs to put a pipe and a pump to the top of each of the hills is not one that seems worth discussing, to me.

Although we do not know how to solve the problem, I would like to point out that we tried two things, technical know-how and economic assistance. We are discouraged with them both, and we are trying something else. As you will see later, I find this encouraging. I think that to keep trying new solutions is the way to do everything.


I do not think that development economists were asking these sorts of questions properly in 1983, much less in 1963. I am not sure that they are asking them properly today.


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The author at Tim Worstall in a related article titled Kling on Feynman writes:
    Arnold Kling reads a little Richard Feynman on the subject of economic development:Although we do not know how to solve the problem, I would like to point out that we tried two things, technical know-how and economic assistance. We are [Tracked on February 9, 2007 1:51 PM]
COMMENTS (7 to date)
Brad Hutchings writes:

Don't forget that Feynman was the one who ignored the politics on the Rogers Commission and brought the O-Ring problem with Challenger's reusable booster rockets to light. He didn't discover it -- he was a physicist, not a rocket engineer. He just asked enough questions of the right people until he unearthed an answer that NASA management buried. It's a real shame he wasn't around for the Columbia disaster, but perhaps a greater shame is that science could only produce one Richard Feynman in the last 50 years.

Sanders writes:

I do not think that development economists were asking these sorts of questions properly in 1983, much less in 1963. I am not sure that they are asking them properly today.

I do not think Arnold has been following the development literature well. You probably came to this conclusion from only reading Easterly's books.

j writes:

Of course Arnold is right. Feynman was genius, but he was too optimistic in implying that the scientific method was being applied in development policy. In fact, it took 50 years after Feynman's comment for the development establishment (the World Bank, the Interamerican Bank of Development, FAO, USAID, etc.) to take notice that their policies were not working, the technologies being transferred were not taking root and that their monies were being stolen. So they are now into institution building and promoting transparency. Of course no preliminary scientific testing was done to verify if it is actually working or workable. But then it would be necessary to recognize that there are no new ideas, that nothing seems to be working and close the shop.

R R Schweitzer writes:

Certainly Arnold Kling (via Cato) is aware of Peter Bauer. Does his work not bear mention?

Shakespeare's Fool writes:

In his book http://www.grameenfoundation.org/resource_center/books_and_publications/ Muhammad Yunus describes more methods than microfinance that have helped many desperately poor people raise themselves out of poverty.
He describes how he and his co-workers at the Grameen Bank have been unendingly experimental in developing and refining those methods.

(Yunus got his Ph.D. in economics from Vanderbilt University. He was a professor of economics at Chittagong University in Bangladesh when he began his field research and field trials.)

It's development economics that works. However, the Grameen Bank is not part of any government.

Shakespeare's Fool writes:

Sorry about that.
The book is Banker to the Poor

David Gillies writes:

There's two essential elements of the scientific method that are missing from almost all foreign aid efforts, whether governmental or NGO: measurement and feedback. No-one measures whether project A is having the desired (or any) effect, and even if they did, there is no mechanism for communicating that measurement back into the process. It's like doing an experiment in the lab over and over and not noting down the results. Another blind spot that the aid agencies have is their inability to cherry pick what worked from previous effort and apply it to new projects.

In short, even the alchemists had more of the scientific principle in their work than these guys.

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