Monday, January 12, 2015

Replacing the Search for a Beijing Consensus with a Toronto-Singapore-São Paulo Dialogue

I have learned a lot with this dialogue and was happily surprised to find out that Pessimo and I actually had a number of points of agreement, contrary to what we assumed when we started this exercise.

1)    We may have numerous disagreements about strategies to enhance efficiency on capturing wealth and thus generating economic growth. However, if we move beyond economic concepts of development (such as the GDP per capita indexes used by the World Bank) Pessimo's determinism seems to fade away and we are on common ground. While this is not of much utility here, as the Beijing Consensus seems to be primarily focused on economic growth, this may be a topic to be fruitfully explored in a future dialogue.

2)    The discussion about Ramo’s three theorems helped us define the terms of our debate. On the substance of the debate, we agree that a Beijing consensus does not need to show that China has done things right or has already succeeded. So, a discussion about the consensus should not be based on empirical disputes about what has happened in China. The question that we need to focus in whether the proposals inspired by China can serve as a model for other countries.

3)    The discussion about Ramo also helped us refine and agree on what do we mean by a “model for development”. We are both looking for sustainable and feasible guidance for action, with internal coherence, and grounded on some form of credible knowledge (theoretical or empirical). The only difference is that I may be more open to accept negative guidance (“do not follow the Washington Consensus”), while Pessimo seems to be looking for more concrete proposals.

4)    On the East Asian Model proposed by Randall Peremboom, the terms of the debate as stated earlier did not reveal much of a consensus. We debated the meaning of the term “gradualism” and simply disagreed on what it meant and whether the gradualism implemented by Asian countries could serve as a model for the rest of the world. I am more optimistic about seeing at least the semblance of a model in the ideas of sequencing and gradualism than Pessimo does partially because I am focusing on these two ideas as meta-principles. While Pessimo seems too attached to the idea that gradualism has only been used by centralized economies to transition to market systems, I am wondering if – acknowledging that – we can still transport the strategy to other contexts. Thus, the reason of my optimism is largely connected with the idea of meta-principles, which Pessimo did not seem to disagree with, at least in principle.

5)    Still regarding the East Asian model, there was one point of agreement that did not come across explicitly in our exchange. Pessimo response to Optimo indicated that he did not disagree with the normative argument presented by Amartya Sen, but he worried that neither Sen nor the supposed East Asian model offered strategies on how to promote political liberalization. Indeed, Pessimo indicated that without a concrete strategy, there was very little utility in such normative statement. This is certainly a point in which we agree.

6)    Then we turned to the third and last part of our debate: experimentalism. Here, I do not think that we have any point of agreement. At the same time, this seems to be the most elaborated and cited version of the idea of Beijing Consensus in the literature. Thus, it is worth flashing out our disagreement.

Pessimo has challenged the possibility of using experimentation as a model given the fact that it does not help us define what are the ends of development. This connects with Pessimo’s earlier claim (regarding the East Asian Model) that muddling through is what capitalist countries have been doing all along. It also connects with Pessimo’s conclusion indicating that muddling through is not a model, as we do not have a system to define the ends and therefore to assess successes.

I do not agree. I have proposed that a thin conception of experimentation could bracket that question while providing guidance for action. Perhaps what I called a “thin” conception of experimentation can be illustrated by what Cass Sustein calls “incompletely theorized agreements”. Actors do not need to agree on the ends in order to collaborate on the implementation of means, as long as these means are conducive to the different ends pursued by these actors. This seems to be perfectly feasible in the development field. As I stated at the beginning of the debate, development goals are not as antithetical to each other as we like to portray them. Indeed, promoting economic growth versus enhancing capabilities or eliminating abject poverty are often intertwined processes. Sometimes they are so entangled that it is not only hard to separate them analytically or empirically, but it may not be very productive to do so.

In sum, in the process of mapping points of disagreement, Optimo and Pessimo have surprisingly found a lot of common ground and arrived at a very promising starting point for something constructive. Indeed, if I were to extract any lessons from this academic exercise, this exchange illustrates that “Replacing the Search for Consensus with Open Dialogue” may be a far more productive strategy in the development field than the ones adopted so far.

I hope this blog will continue to serve as a space for this and other conversations to continue.

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