That's What She Said

No, I am not talking about TV catchphrases, from The Office or elsewhere.

I had the good fortune this morning to appear on The Takeway (talking about financial illiteracy) beside Mary Robinson, the former President of Ireland and U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights. She was speaking about surging food prices around the world and the very real threat of famine.

Her entire segment is well worth a listen. The piece that caught my ear was her readiness to acknowledge that, in much of Africa, the root problem is bad government and bad agricultural policy. She also acknowledged rising demand from India and China, especially for resource-intensive meat. It was good to hear someone so well-versed in the problem speak so sensibly (if worriedly) about a problem that too often turns sensible people so emotional that they lose sense of reason.

But it was something President Robinson said after the program that I’ll truly remember. I asked her if, say, a well-regarded development economist from, say, Harvard or M.I.T. were to issue a paper on some important aspect of food supply or famine (like some of these, perhaps): would the folks in Robinson’s circle pay attention?

She smiled kindly as she said “I’m afraid not.” Which only further reinforced my belief that at the very least this is one person who truly does tell the truth.

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  1. Jason says:

    “She also acknowledged rising demand … for resource-intensive meat.”

    THAT’s what she said.

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  2. Frank says:

    She smiled kindly as she said “I’m afraid not.”

    That’s what she said.

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  3. doug says:

    If your paper explained how people in ‘her circles’ may benefit financially, they would probably listen.

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  4. julian says:

    Journalist: “Do you ever listen to people who have studied these issues in depth and know what they’re talking about?”

    Politician: “No, of course not.”

    Journalist: “Cool.”

    Apologies if I’m misinterpreting your final words — I realize that you (and she) are only saying that it’s reality, hopefully not that it’s a good thing. But it’s pretty clear why we have so many problems if people refuse to even consider the solutions.

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  5. Sandi Mays says:

    #4 – Julian – right on!

    Did she really say “I’m afraid not?” Don’t confuse “kindly” with being patronized.

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  6. Omair says:

    I’m curious about that last bit as well – surely you’re not saying that people like Esther Duflo and Chris Udry aren’t concerned with reality? Is there anything in economics closer to the real world than a field experiment?

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  7. Inflating Irishman says:

    I am an Irishman by birth and can assure you the former president and family friend Mrs Robinson was not being patronizing (spelt with an s in Europe). I am very glad that you got to meet such an eminent Irish figure. She is held in extremely high regard having championed human rights causes all around the world. The position of president in Ireland unlike in America is a mostly decorative position but can be used to great effect to speak on behalf of many causes. Especially her post presidency work was outstanding in the human rights field, not content to fit into the Irish rich list culture Mrs Robinson worked and is still working tirelessly to give a voice to many great and worthy causes. I think it is true that her circle would not read the papers but it should be taken as given that all the advisors below her would most definitely be up to date on current research.

    All the best

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  8. Conor - Ireland says:

    As a regular poster on the Freakonomics blog it’s a nice surprise for see someone mentioned who I’ve had the pleasure of meeting. I met Mary Robinson during her time as President of Ireland, I was only 10 or 11 years old (c. 1994) and I was accompanying my Mother to work that day (school was out for some reason?). After speaking to my Mother, President Robinson took the time to actually speak to me, asked me what year (grade) I was in and what I wanted to be when I ‘grew up’.

    Later that day I heard her speak about the challenges facing Ireland’s economy (remember this was 1994 – unemployment was in the high teens percentage-wise). Her speech ignited an interest in Economics in me that has never been whetted and I begin my PhD work later this year. I owe her a lot… maybe I should write to her and tell her that?

    Anyways, my point is, she was definitely NOT being patronising, she is a kind, wise, and warm-hearted woman, and commonly regarded as the finest President Ireland has ever had.

    PS, Stephen, did you notice she nods her head while speaking? She earned the nickname ‘Noddy’ while in office :-)

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