Atanu Dey On India's Development

OLPC — Rest in Peace — Part 2

Voltaire (1794-1778) had observed that the perfect is the enemy of the good. In response to my requiem on the “One Laptop Per Child” (OLPC), my friend Dr Aniruddha Banerjee from Boston, concluded his comments with that question in his email to me which I quote below.

As usual, you’re right on the money on this one. Up until your post, I didn’t see any that would fit an economist’s modus operandi, namely, one based on a full-blown cost benefit analysis (another way of stating your “opportuntiy cost” analysis). I’m surprised that such an evaluation is not already underway, quite independently of Negroponte’s initiative or proposal. Such an evaluation should be based, in my opinion, on some kind of pilot study (based, in turn, on a scientifically drawn stratified sample that accounts properly for demographic variation). I think it is just a matter of time before computers have to be introduced on a mass scale, particularly for the education and use of those that will make up the next generation (I don’t hold any particular brief for laptops over desktops, or individual versus community or small-group use of computer resources).

The issues you have raised with respect to, let’s call it euphemistically, “implementation,” and your concern about moral hazard are indeed all valid. These, in some sense, fall into the domain of moral imperatives — whose existence or importance I do acknowledge, but whose cost implications I do not know of any easy way to quantify. But, if we can agree that, even in pluralistic, humanistic, secular, and democratic societies, meritocracies do get created and to good purpose, then the larger issue of just who should be the (initial) beneficiaries of any OLPC-like initiative can be addressed. The IITs and IIMs are evidence enough that meritocracies exist on which progressive societies depend. However, I would hasten to add that meritocracies should, to the extent possible, be based on true proficiency and ability, rather than the selective denial of opportunity. Unfortunately, innate ability and talent tend to be discovered endogenously, i.e., they are more likely to be found in particular demographic and income groups precisely because they have had the opportunity and support to showcase them. Too bad, there isn’t an easy way to extend that discovery process to all segments of society in a resource-constrained and populous country like India. But, when it comes to advancing the computer-literacy of India’s citizens (and reaping the substantial follow-on benefits of that), should even patently selective and seemingly unfair educational programmes be eschewed until it could somehow be assured that literally not one child in that vast country — to borrow a hackneyed phrase — will be left behind? Should the “perfect” become the enemy of the “good”?

[Emphasis mine.]

An admission is apt here. Among economists I admire unconditionally, Aniruddha ranks way up on the list. His keen insights are matched by his facility with the written word. I wish I had that sort of brain power.

For now, I will leave you to ponder the issues he raises. I will post my thoughts in a bit.

[Continue on to part 3. Previous bit part 1. See also, "Formula for Milking the Digital Divide."]

  • Anurag

    My view, though am not an economist by a long way:),is that while cost benefit analysis can answer the “whether” part of the question, opportunity cost has to answer the either-or question. Either laptops for children, or strengthening the primary and secondary education. Whether to implement OLPC/ strengthening or not? Looking at it that way, I would say that it is not “good” against “perfect” but “good” against “better”….

  • Dweep

    If I understand correctly, Dr. Banerjee is rejecting your objection that the ‘implementation’ could not be equitable as a reasoning to reject the project – because that would be a perfect world? I would have to agree. If I’m correct, economics deals not with the normative but the positive :-) A good idea cannot be rejected because a better one exists, though is eminently unreachable. But that would be another set of choices.

    I would, however, comment on your requiem for the OLPC, and your idea of “opportunity cost”, which I thank you for articulating so well. My comments fall into two parts.

    First, I wonder if you are perhaps a little hasty in dismissing the Education Ministry’s statement that the OLPC may harm children’s creative facilities. As you point out, that cannot nor should be the only argument for rejecting the project. However, some caution is called for before moving to what is essentially a new paradigm in teaching – one that has not been tested and its impact understood elsewhere, even in the developing world.

    Second, and to extend my argument, you may add “risk” into your calculation of opportunity cost. It is a fair question to ask – what is the likelihood that the money spent on the OLPC would achieve the stated goals of better education?

    Education, unfortunately, is not an easy science so it is difficult to measure the returns on investment. Still, even if the OLPC is not ‘pedagogically suspect’ (of which I am not convinced), one must factor in that the $100 million will not necessarily return an ‘educational dividend’ – or in any case one not significantly higher than the same amount spent on more traditional teaching methods which are better understood (and thus perhaps less risky).

  • Alex Thomas

    I agree with Dweep and the economist.

    Well first of all it is irrational to compare the outcome returns vis-a-vis the costs. More over educational facilities should attain paramount importance concurrent with health facilities. Providing laptops to children who cant read even at the age of 10 will only prove to be futile. Instead the government must improve the teaching standards by improving the institutes that cater to teaching and also my increasing their remuneration. In India school teachers are paid less when compared to college teachers.

    And if at all the plan is implemented, the local self governments must be fully involved too.

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