Friday, May 7, 2010

The Smartest People in the Room

I'm a person of simple pleasures. For instance, I count any day a success when I have the opportunity to use the word "eviscerate." Take Thursday. That was the day when I wrote this blog post about Presidential Study Directive 7 (PSD-7). In additional to employing the word "eviscerate," the post expresses considerable enthusiasm for the direction of the global development rethink currently going on at the White House.

Yesterday NYU development luminary Bill Easterly had the kindness to not only take notice of the post but also to point out to me that I managed to misrepresent a blog post by Aid Watch staffer Laura Freschi as one by the Maestro himself. (Arrghh. Guilty! Though, in my defense, how was I to know that anyone under the age of 50 could so persuasively convey the jaded air of a veteran development insider? Easterly trains his people well!)

It turns out that Easterly is considerably less sanguine than I am about the potentially transformative potential of PSD-7:
Professor Auerswald (sorry for my teasing you in this post), you do seem to have a theory of social change in which promises about government intentions to someday change priorities are a major force. My experience of many years of observing such statements is that they are more like New Year’s resolutions that are repeated every year.
My rebuttal to this? My counter-attack? None whatsoever. Easterly is right. My last post is probably mostly wishful thinking. What is the likelihood that awareness of the exigencies and opportunities of the moment will be enough displace entrenched bureaucracies and transform decades-old habits of thinking? What is the likelihood that an esoteric administrative exercise like PSD-7 will turn out to have made a difference in the lives of actual human beings? Even people like me who were actually born in Washington DC (yes, some of us exist) recognize the obstacles that stand in the way of such outcomes.

As Easterly is, I believe, aware from any one of my six previous posts calling into question the coherence--indeed the very existence--of his own theory of social change (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6), I do not in fact hold the view that the United States government (USG) is likely to be a "major force" in global development. If anything, I would say that the causality is reversed: the point of my post, and a core point of this blog, is that global development will almost certainly be the major force affecting the United States in the next quarter century, whether the USG plans effectively for this eventuality or not.

So what was it about Freschi's post that motivated me to drop deadlines on that particular day and go on the offensive? It's pretty simple: I find it more than a bit depressing when The Smartest People in the Room refuse to leave the room in which they are the Smartest People. For instance, from Easterly:
I vaguely remember that I was invited to a meeting with a US government big shot on development whose name I’ve forgotten, to take place in Washington. I failed to do my patriotic duty, using the lame excuse that the meeting was two days before Christmas, and I unreasonably treat the days around Christmas as belonging to Family Zone.
After a lifetime working on development, might not Easterly have made it a priority to influence the most sweeping review of priorities in global development undertaken by his country's government in a decade, if not longer? After all, the government of the United States may not be much to Bill Easterly, but it's got more resources at its disposal than he does. No way to find an alternate time? Schedule a call? Write an email? Post a direct Tweet? Undertake a pinkie lift?

No. None of the above. Just not worth the time.

(Note: Bureaucrat appears to have been working two days before Christmas. Not everyone has the benefit, as Easterly and I do, of living by the academic calendar.)

In any process that involves difficult decisions with uncertain outcomes, those seeking solutions should welcome, even celebrate, the views of astute critics (in this case, Easterly). But when critics hold themselves apart from engagement in anything that might resemble positive action, one is sorely tempted to make sausage of their studied detachment.

Step 1: Eviscerate...

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