Tower of Babble

Hillary Clinton’s speech about development was not all bad, but it still contained plenty of nonsense and overly political thinking.


Once upon a time, I believed in the theory that logic and evidence influenced public policy. After experience rudely contradicted this thesis, I switched to Theory No. 2: Political incentives cause public officials to say things inconsistent with logic and evidence — babble.

These thoughts were prompted by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s speech today on the U.S. government’s new approach to economic development. It was not ALL babble. Among other things, she had some good ideas about soap. However, there was evidence in speech for Theory No. 2. Let’s show some compassion for gifted individuals like Secretary Clinton, whom politics forces to babble.

Here are classic signs of babble, and the political incentives that cause them:

1. Announce in the speech that you are going to do one thing, and then spend the rest of the speech doing the opposite.

Babble: “The challenges we face are numerous.  So we must be selective and strategic about where and how we get involved.”

In the next sentence, this selective approach includes conflict, Afghanistan, Tanzania, poverty, human rights, community development, democracy, governance, global stability, U.S. security, U.S. values, and U.S. leadership.

A few more selective areas come up later: Yemen, Haiti, Pakistan, Peru, sound economic policies, natural resources, rule of law, inflation, girls’ education, marginalized populations, AIDS, women, refugees, female genital mutilation, energy, improved seeds, food riots, health systems, mobile banking, solar-powered laptops, advance market commitments, Mexico, narco-violence, microcredit, conditional cash transfers, infant mortality, hunger, everywhere from the Democratic Republic of the Congo to Bangladesh to Costa Rica to South Africa to Vietnam and dozens of countries in between, hurricanes, earthquakes, famines, floods, tsunamis, Darfur. Did I mention the soap?

Political incentives: “Selective” specialization by country and issue is the best thing that any aid agency could do. But every country and issue has its interest group (often very good-hearted humanitarian ones). Politicians need to satisfy as many interest groups as possible, so they are NOT “selective.” This problem has gotten WORSE in aid, not better.

2. Announce you are going to solve problems that have been insoluble for decades.


Hillary R. Clinton, 2010: “[W]e are working to improve the coordination of all the development work taking place across Washington … “engaging in partnerships with countries and organizations … the U.N. Development Program … private businesses.”

Harry S. Truman, 1949: “This should be a cooperative enterprise in which all nations work together through the United Nations and its specialized agencies … With the cooperation of business.”

“Coordination” and “partnership” are the equivalent in foreign aid of U.N. resolutions for world peace. Every different national donor, U.S. government bureaucracy, or private business has its own agenda, will not voluntarily sacrifice its own interests for some other organization, and there are no binding contracts to enforce any such sacrifices.

Political incentives: Admitting that coordination problems are insoluble could point in a more fruitful direction (such as specializing more – see Sign No. 1 — and then you won’t have to coordinate!) . Unfortunately, admitting that coordination is impossible is more likely to make voters think the politician heading an organization is just self-serving and lazy.

3. Mention obvious tradeoffs, then deny their existence.

Babble: Secretary Clinton’s big idea is the merger of the 3 Ds: development, diplomacy, and defense. These areas have nothing in common except for that nice poetic alliteration. Advancing a goal in one arena will at least SOMETIMES come at the expense of a different goal. The frequent contradiction between defense and development is obvious, despite much desperate rhetoric unlinked to evidence. For a less obvious example, what was good for diplomacy was for President Obama on Christmas Eve to punish the nondemocratic government of Madagascar by taking away trade access to U.S. markets. This same action was terrible for development — killing hundreds of thousand of Malagasy jobs made possible by textile exports to the United States under the African Growth and Opportunity Act (mentioned as a success story by Clinton).

Political incentives: Some voters care more about defense, others about development, a few nerds about diplomacy. Get all the voters by telling the different groups that their different goals are consistent! Hope they don’t read blogs about Madagascar.

4. When you say “THAT is not what we will do,” you mean it except for the “not.”

Babble: “There is a concern THAT integrating development means diluting it or politicizing it — giving up our long-term development goals to achieve short-term objectives or handing over more of the work of development to our diplomats or defense experts. THAT is not what we will do.”

Political incentives: THAT already happened. The war on terror is a much higher priority with U.S. voters than development; so development has become subordinate to that war (see Sign No. 3’s discussion of tradeoffs).

What to do about the strong political incentives to babble? Maybe a good politician like Secretary Clinton can babble and do occasional good things at the same time. Like maybe occasionally specialize a bit more in something that’s working — say, a few more resources for programs like that hand-washing program in India that prevented the spread of disease? You know, the one involving soap?

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