April 27, 2011

A Billion Hungry?

Abhijit V. Banerjee and Esther Duflo direct the Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and are authors of Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty, from which this excerpt is adapted.

The excerpt in question is a fascinating look under the covers of world poverty and hunger. The authors dig deeper than the usual, "so-and-so is too poor to afford food." Sustaining nutrition is available to most of the world's poor.

Using price data from the Philippines, we calculated the cost of the cheapest diet sufficient to give 2,400 calories. It would cost only about 21 cents a day, very affordable even for the very poor (the worldwide poverty line is set at roughly a dollar per day). The catch is, it would involve eating only bananas and eggs, something no one would like to do day in, day out. But so long as people are prepared to eat bananas and eggs when they need to, we should find very few people stuck in poverty because they do not get enough to eat.

In a Posrelesque twist, many who eat below than the assumed minimum caloric intake are making rational choices. Saving for a dowry, festival, or consumer electronics can outweigh food.
We asked Oucha Mbarbk what he would do if he had more money. He said he would buy more food. Then we asked him what he would do if he had even more money. He said he would buy better-tasting food. We were starting to feel very bad for him and his family, when we noticed the TV and other high-tech gadgets. Why had he bought all these things if he felt the family did not have enough to eat? He laughed, and said, "Oh, but television is more important than food!"

I love it! It fear it is easy to read my short post and misconstrue it as a good summary of a longer, more thoughtful magazine article (it is not). Nor am I downplaying poverty or making value judgments (I hope I'd have the discipline to choose my TV and cell phone over the luxury of those second and third meals...).

A political/philosophical takeaway that I would assert is the existence of a Hayekian complexity, unlikely to be well addressed by a bunch of Mrs. Jellybys dictating what they should eat.

Hat-tip: Professor Mankiw

Posted by John Kranz at April 27, 2011 12:38 PM
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