Tag Archives: Jeffrey Sachs

Catch-up Reform vs. Innovation Reform…. What the United States Can Learn from Other Nations


I just read this Tyler Cowen interview of Jeffrey Sachs.

It is well worth reading, and I’m excited for the Cowen interview series to continue.

Sachs on Catch-up Reform, Innovation, and Differential Diagnosis 

Two excerpts from the interview.

First, Sachs covers the two drivers of international economic growth: innovation and catch-up.

…when you look at development, there are at least two fundamental drivers, not just one. The one that they talk about is innovation, and innovation as being a fundamental driver of growth. There’s a lot of truth to that in the history of the world.

But there’s a second fundamental aspect when we look out in the world and say, “Who’s doing well? Who’s doing badly? Why?” and so forth. That’s what is sometimes called “catching up.” The phenomenon of catching up is very different from the phenomenon of forging ahead at the front of the technology horizon.

When you take that simple distinction, it helps to explain a lot of the post-1960 question that you’re asking. The most successful countries in the world in the last 50 years have been basically the East Asian economies and Southeast Asian economies.

Sach’s main point is that growing when you’re at the head, middle, or back of the pack all require different strategies. Moreover, it’s not really helpful to compare growth rates of countries that are at the frontier of innovation and those that are simply executing catch-up growth.

Sach’s also presses hard on differential diagnosis of problems rather than one-size-fits-all solutions:

That’s what I mean by differential diagnosis. Why it’s so annoying to me, the one explanation fits all viewpoints. Because now I’ve seen a lot of places, a lot of crises, a lot of challenges. One of the things that I discovered was how poor our profession is at times in having that sense that the problem that you saw over there is not the same as the problem that you’re seeing here.

Education Reform: What Catch-Up Growth Can We Achieve? 

The United States is roughly in the middle of the pack when it comes to international rankings of educational attainment.

As such, there may be some catch-up growth we can undertake. However, when figuring out what best practices to adopt and which to avoid, we need to understand how our own situation may be different than other countries.

I view (1) implementing rigorous standards and assessments and (2) increasing incoming teacher quality to be the two highest potential catch-up strategies. Many (though not all) of the world’s top performing educational systems excel in these areas (admittedly, causation is difficult to prove).

In some form or another, we’ve begun to make headways in both these areas: assessment rigor is rising and incoming teachers are achieving at higher levels.

I’m less bullish on two other potential catch-up strategies: bureaucracy improvement and a culture of extremely hardwork.

The United States is an incredibly large nation; it consists of many levels of government; and it suffers from overly politicized and often ineffectual government bureaucracies. I don’t see us becoming Singapore anytime soon. Additionally, unlike some of the top-performing Asian nations (South Korea, Japan), we do not have a national culture that reveres education and long hours of studying.

Rather, our nation’s core strengths are more around entrepreneurship, problem solving, and (at least at one time) pragmatism. As such, I don’t think it makes sense to spend a lot of resources trying to optimize the thousands of school board / districts or attempting to change our national culture.

We Don’t Need to Limit Ourselves to Catch-up Growth

Given our nation’s resources and talent, we also don’t need to simply confine ourselves to catch-up growth strategies. We should innovate as well.

I think we’re well positioned to innovate in the following areas:

Governance: Given the low quality of our bureaucracies, and our national culture of entrepreneurship, I think we can be a leader in alternative governance structures. Charter schools, vouchers, course choice, Tiny Schools, etc. – many of these are delivering results, and others hold promise.

Technology: In many industries, the United States has been a world leader in technological advancement. Ideally, we will be able to translate this progress into gains in educational technology.

Non-Elite Higher Education: The United States has been an international leader in higher education for decades, but this is mostly driven by our top research universities. I think that a combination of governance and technology innovations can increase the quality of our non-elite  universities and vocational programs.

Of course, both governance and higher education face heavy regulations and strong incumbents. So innovation may be difficult to come by.

But, all things considered, I’m optimistic on these fronts.