A tenured MIT professor since age 29, winner of various top-notch economics prizes, co-author of a groundbreaking book on poverty (last year's Poor Economics) -- Esther Duflo, still just 40, is firmly cemented among the world's elite economists. Her place there is secured by a relentless (and prolific) dedication to the novel proposition that we should subject our wishful thinking about how to help poor people to cold, hard analyses of whether those ideas actually work.
She and her Poor Economics co-author, Abhijit Banerjee (her partner in life too -- they had a baby this year), are co-founders and directors of MIT's Abdul Latif Jameel Poverty Action Lab, where they have the radical idea of actually asking poor people about how they live and subjecting the various programs aimed at helping them to real, scientific, randomized controlled trials to evaluate their effectiveness. This year, for example, Duflo and two colleagues released a study debunking the oft-touted saving graces of Western-designed cookstoves. Contradicting previous laboratory results, a four-year trial in one Indian state found no evidence that families that received the stoves had improved lung function or reduced their fuel consumption. "More broadly," Duflo's team wrote in what could be read as her raison d'être, "this study underscores the need to test environmental and health technologies in real-world settings where behavior may temper impacts."
Despite results that often show good intentions aren't nearly good enough, Duflo insists her work should be seen as encouraging. "The fact that policies often fail for no good reason is annoying but less depressing than the view that it is a big conspiracy against the poor," she explained to the Financial Times this year. "Name your favorite enemy -- capitalism, corruption.… Our view is easier. You think hard about the problems and you can solve them."
On March 11, 2011, tsunami waves from the worst earthquake Japan had ever seen slammed the island country. Some 15,872 people died; 129,577 buildings collapsed; and three reactors at the Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Station in eastern Japan suffered a full meltdown, spewing radiation into the air and tainting a 50-mile radius of surrounding area. In the national debate that followed, the Japanese government commissioned three major reports to determine what happened. The most searing one was chaired by the outspoken Kiyoshi Kurokawa, a medical doctor and emeritus professor who blasted "collusion" between government regulators and Tokyo Electric Power Co., which runs the plant, for causing the disaster.
In Japan's opaque political system, Kurokawa's report amounted to a bombshell. Following a six-month investigation, including interviews with more than 1,100 people, he concluded not only that the Fukushima disaster was "man-made" but also that it resulted more fundamentally from the "ingrained conventions of Japanese culture: our reflexive obedience; our reluctance to question authority; our devotion to 'sticking with the program'; our groupism; and our insularity." Critics have argued that even Kurokawa didn't go far enough; the report names no names, and critical elements that appear in the English-language report didn't make it into the Japanese. But his rare willingness to point fingers is exactly what may be needed to shake the world's third-biggest economy out of its dangerous complacency.Best idea: Critical importance of human wisdom. Worst idea: Continuing greed. American decline or American renewal? Renewal. More Europe or less? Less. To tweet or not to tweet? To tweet.