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Aid Watch Government Shutdown Edition

UPDATE 12 noon: Comments show today we are in one of those dysfunctional audience relationship posts: we assume you can read our minds, and you assume we are idiots (see end of post).

Here at Aid Watch we are definitely NOT interested in contributing to the partisan diatribe gaining force on BOTH sides of the aisle.  We do wonder if the prospect of the US government shut down (still looming at time of publication) provides an experiment in feedback and accountability.  Maybe the government could use the experience to get some much needed responses on what we citizens do and do not value, and then come up with very crude guidelines for future cuts and not-cuts:

UPDATE 12 noon: This is one of those days where we left unstated many assumptions and qualifications, which was conclusive proof that we are idiots. 

Notice that we used the word “notice” the shutdown on public services, not “are direct beneficiaries of that service who feel its impact instantaneously and observably.”  We believe voters and interest groups in their “noticing” can speak up about programs even if they are not direct beneficiaries (like aid) and they are also capable of looking forward to the long run.

A blog post makes one illustrative post, it’s not a Ph.D. dissertation. Our illustrative point is that the shutdown provides one kind of  (highly imperfect) feedback on what public services are essential and which ones people notice (in the broader sense just described). Government programs that nobody cares about except the providers and employees and contractors for that program MAY be considered to POSSIBLY be a candidate for spending cuts or elimination.


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  1. Paul C wrote:

    Just because nobody notices that a service has been shut down does not mean that service is not important. The effects of government withdrawal from large-scale infrastructure maintenance wouldn’t be immediately obvious to many people, since the negative effects are mainly long-term and O HAI KATRINA.

    Posted April 7, 2011 at 1:34 am | Permalink
  2. Julien wrote:

    I’m guessing this was yet another weak attempt at development snark, but it also shows a poor understanding of the pressures and threats currently being directed at any foreign affairs/development assistance in DC these days. I thought Bill was an old DC hand, but this is really tone-deaf.

    Posted April 7, 2011 at 8:48 am | Permalink
  3. Brendan wrote:

    Noticed by whom, Bill? Isn’t your assumption here that the only people that matter are those with the power to get their voice heard before a cut is made permanent?

    Posted April 7, 2011 at 9:16 am | Permalink
  4. Matt wrote:

    Let’s ignore all the political economy issues (i.e. let’s not cut anything that will upset the median voter) or information asymmetry problems (let’s cut things that people won’t notice for a long, time, like research funding!).

    Plus whether or not anyone notices doesn’t inform us about the need for increases or decreases – there might be thresholds before certain programs become effective or not (and I realize I’m sounding a little like Sachs).

    Posted April 7, 2011 at 9:36 am | Permalink
  5. Hannah wrote:

    I thought this was great. We’re slowly becoming a country who fundamentally believes that the government should run everything. Please, someone, tell me something that our government does better than the private sector?

    Private vs. Public Education?
    FedEx vs. USPS (this is laughable)
    Private vs. Gov’t supported aid
    this list could go on. Not only can we not afford a lot of these services, we don’t do them well when we throw money at them.


    Posted April 7, 2011 at 10:48 am | Permalink
  6. William Easterly wrote:

    Paul, Julien, Brendan, Matt, please see updated post as a response to your comments. Thanks. Bill

    Posted April 7, 2011 at 12:33 pm | Permalink
  7. AndyB wrote:

    Bill and Laura, I never quite understand your reactions to commenters. Yes, a blog post is not PhD thesis, but that’s the point. Blogs have commenters, blogs normally have rude commenters that don’t craft their arguments as you would for a “response” in an academic journal. Embrace the medium!

    Posted April 7, 2011 at 12:48 pm | Permalink
  8. William Easterly wrote:

    AndyB: thanks for the sage counsel. How old are you? Bill

    Posted April 7, 2011 at 1:33 pm | Permalink
  9. Jacob AG wrote:

    Bill, Laura, I think your idea is very clever.

    I like to use Google Trends to reach half-serious conclusions about the importance of issue X over time. I think it’s just as unscientific-yet-helpful-in-a-back-of-the-envelope-way as your idea, but it’s less clever.

    Hannah, I agree; there’s nothing the government does better than the free market. Let’s privatize everything! 😀

    Privatize the police, privatize national defense, privatize the environment, privatize education! Down with Uncle Sam!

    Posted April 7, 2011 at 2:43 pm | Permalink
  10. William Easterly wrote:

    I thought Defense already was privatized

    Posted April 7, 2011 at 2:49 pm | Permalink
  11. Quicksilversurfer wrote:

    Poor me! I thought AidWatch was a blog about skepticism, especially with regard to development issues and that comments would be along that line. However, Hannah and Jacob clearly are no skeptics but enthusiastic promoters of an extreme laisser-faire ideology, notwithstanding the abuses that it can lead to (as we have seen not too long ago). Of course, they can always try to argue that they were trying to be sarcastic (and not realize that they failed).

    Posted April 7, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Permalink
  12. James Moore wrote:

    I agree that voters and interest groups can “notice” the effects of a shutdown program, and can anticipate likely long term effects if it is cut, and therefore make rational decisions on what programs are suspect. The United States needs to take a hard look at the effect and efficiency of its spending, and actually start cutting or reforming those programs that are not up to acceptable standards. I feel as though so much time is spent trying to forecast the future, maybe some experimentation could provide more helpful evidence? Of course some analysis is necessary to determine what programs should be considered for being shutdown, but it is important not to get caught up in that step.

    Posted April 7, 2011 at 10:35 pm | Permalink
  13. Jacob AG wrote:

    @Quicksilver: I was joking… that was meant to be a refutation of Hannah’s point.

    @Bill: Haha

    Posted April 8, 2011 at 10:37 am | Permalink
  14. Pamela wrote:

    hey quick question – isn’t it funny how for aaaallll the promise of social media…it’s done nothing to galvanize serious public action against the budget cuts?

    Posted April 11, 2011 at 7:03 pm | Permalink
  15. Elliot Wright wrote:

    @James Moore: Sadly the GOP that’s so intent on dramatically cutting the size and reach of government has zero interest in means testing or benefit cost analysis of programs, hence the screaming about “death panels” during the health care debate.

    Posted April 12, 2011 at 3:38 am | Permalink

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  • About Aid Watch

    The Aid Watch blog is a project of New York University's Development Research Institute (DRI). This blog is principally written by William Easterly, author of "The Elusive Quest for Growth: Economists' Adventures and Misadventures in the Tropics" and "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good," and Professor of Economics at NYU. It is co-written by Laura Freschi and by occasional guest bloggers. Our work is based on the idea that more aid will reach the poor the more people are watching aid.

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