Michael Porter as new pincushion

August 20, 2016

(This article was originally published at Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science, and syndicated at StatsBlogs.)

Some great comments on this post about Ted talk visionary Michael Porter. Most rewarding was this from Howard Edwards:

New Zealand seems to score well on his index so perhaps I shouldn’t complain, but Michael Porter was well known in this part of the world 25 years ago when our government commissioned him to write a report titled “Upgrading New Zealand’s Competitive Advantage” (but known colloquially as the Porter Project.) Back then (perhaps not quite so much now) our government departments were in thrall of any overseas “expert” who could tell us what to do, and especially so if their philosophy happened to align with that of the government of the day.

Anyway this critique written at the time by one of our leading political economists suggests that his presentation and analysis skills weren’t the greatest back then either.

I followed the link and read the article by Brian Easton, which starts out like this:

Flavour of the moment is Upgrading New Zealand’s Competitive Advantage, the report of the so-called Porter Project. Its 178 pages (plus appendices) are riddled with badly labelled graphs; portentous diagrams which, on reflection, say nothing; chummy references to “our country”, when two of the three authors are Americans; and platitudes dressed up as ‘deep and meaningful sentiments.

Toward the end of the review, Easton sums up:

It would be easy enough to explain this away as the usual shallowness of a visiting guru passing through; But New Zealand’s. Porter Project spent about $1.5 million (of taxpayers’ money) on a report which is, largely a recycling of conventional wisdom and material published elsewhere. Even if there were more and deeper case studies, the return on the money expended would still be low.

But that’s just leading up to the killer blow:

Particularly galling is the book’s claim that we should improve the efficiency of government spending. The funding of this report would have been a good place to start. It must be a candidate for the lowest productivity research publication ever funded by government.

In all seriousness, I expect that Michael Porter is so used to getting paid big bucks that he hardly noticed where the $1.5 million went. (I guess that’s 1.5 million New Zealand dollars, so something like $750,000 U.S.) Wasteful government spending on other people, sure, that’s horrible, but when the wasteful government spending goes directly to you, that’s another story.

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