Friday, June 26, 2009

More on the Yossarian Principle

Far better to be broadly right than exactly wrong goes the maxim. For economists of a reflective bent it is clear that the dismal science has failed, dismally, to the see the wood for the trees. Some of us think that the root of this failure might lie with the obsessive focus on modelling, which undoubtedly has a place in economics but becomes something of a distraction when data simply doesn't exist. In the absence of data, there tends to be a default towards assuming that something that cannot be quantified (and therefore cannot be modelled) cannot be proved one way or the other.

Its a bit of a no-brainer really that research into the operations of secrecy jurisdictions (which patently do exist and operate on an awesomle scale) is likely to be hampered by, well, secrecy. This has hindered analysis for decades. In 1982 I made a modest research proposal to a major development agency to examine the links between secrecy jurisdictions and development processes in poorer countries. The proposal was turned down precisely due to the lack of data from conventional sources (World Bank, IMF, OECD, etc). The board considering my proposal agreed there was an issue worth exploring, but concluded that no-one would take the issue seriously unless we could could come up with evidence based data from reliable sources.

This is the Catch-22 situation around which we have had to mould our research and advocacy activities: Secrecy jurisdictions create huge gaps in global capital market datasets, but the absence of data means that we cannot accurately prove the extent of these dataset gaps and therefore the issue is a non-issue. Even on those extraordinary occasions when data is published by independent organisations which all reasonable people would regard as reliable, we find that critics dismiss this data as "low quality".

The situation is not helped by the fact that secrecy jurisdictions act on behalf of the most powerful elites on the planet. The majority of these places fall under the protection of influential nations (Switzerland, United Kingdom, USA, to name just a few), well placed to block any pressure upon those who should be collecting reliable primary data (IMF, OECD, BIS, etc) to actually do their job.

More insidiously, however, too many of the world's supposedly independent academic research institutes, which might reasonably be expected to carry out their own data collection, have been captured by the same elites. Time and again I come across a highly placed professor of this that or the other who slyly fails to publicly declare that his/her post at such and such a reputed university receives significant funding from commercial sources, or makes implausible claims that their department will in no way be influenced by the fact that they receive truckloads of cash from big business. Conflicted? Nous?

Just prior to a meeting at the World Bank in 2005, I asked my colleague Raymond Baker what would be the best possible outcome from what I feared might be a dialogue of the deaf. His answer was perfectly straightforward: "John, I have only ever had one ask of the World Bank: go ahead and prove our estimates wrong by producing some of your own." Raymond has steadfastly ploughed this furrow for years, and time and time again the World Bank point blank refuses. Behind the scenes, of course, through quiet and sometimes not-so-quiet whispers, WB officials pooh-pooh our concerns (they're not alone in this) but despite being unable to come up with anything to plausibly refute our independent findings they still refuse to budge.

Yossarian would find this familiar territory.

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