Chris Blattman on Development, Conflict, and Doing What’s Interesting (Ep. 36)

Chris Blattman’s made his career as a development economist by finding a place he likes and finding a reason to live there.

Chris Blattman’s made his career as a development economist by finding a place he likes and finding a reason to live there. Not a bad strategy considering the impact of the work he’s done in Liberia, Uganda, and most recently, Colombia. He joins Tyler to talk about what he’s learned from his work there, including the efficacy of cash transfers, the spread of violence and conflict, factory jobs as a social safety net, Botswana’s underappreciated growth miracle, Battlestar Galactica, standing desks, how to write papers with your spouse, and more.

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Recorded February 8th, 2018

Read the full transcript

TYLER COWEN: Today, I am with Chris Blattman, economist, and he is at the Harris Public Policy School in Chicago. Chris has worked on most of the central issues behind economic development. Thank you for coming, Chris.


On cash transfers

COWEN: I want to start first with your work on cash transfers. Say I have some extra money, and I want to do the world some good, and I’m thinking, “Should I just send money to some individuals in a poorer country, go to the Western Union office and send it off?” Is that the best thing that I can do with my money?

BLATTMAN: I think if you don’t know anybody deserving of help or that needs something, or if you don’t have a personal connection to a place, as an impersonal way to give effectively, it’s probably the best way we have.

I don’t do really any of that myself — or I do, but I’m sending cash transfers, in some sense, to very specific people. There’s very dynamic people I know who are getting through university or going through school, but I have this advantage of these personal connections.

COWEN: Say I have connections to developing economies. I know some people. I’m thinking of not only sending cash but packaging that with some kind of complementary benefit or intervention.

What’s the most effective thing I can package the cash with? Say I have some time, some resources, some expertise. What’s actually going to help?

BLATTMAN: That’s a good question. If you were a large organization — and you’re not — but if you were a large organization or a government, I would start pointing you in the direction of bigger public services or infrastructure-like things, or things that could deliver to groups. But that’s not really what you’re asking.

COWEN: I’m going to give a person cash and something. Should it be cash and a banana, cash and a book, cash and an Apple watch?

BLATTMAN: A lot of people — and this would be true even of a young person in this country — don’t have a good sense of what their paths and options are.

I think of the time that I’ve spent helping people think through what their options are, and reevaluating those opportunities suddenly changes all of their returns to investment. So that kind of advising and mentoring and connection is unusually powerful.

COWEN: What’s the last important thing you learned about cash transfers?

BLATTMAN: We recently went back to some cash transfers that were given almost 10 years ago, following up a randomized control trial in Uganda in the north, and we’re just, in some sense, putting out those results.

What we found is, the initial result after two and four years was like other places seeing big advances in incomes. People get cash. They’re poor. They couldn’t invest in some of their ideas, but they had good ideas, and so they take off.

Now what we’ve seen is, essentially, they’ve converged with the people who didn’t get the cash. The people who didn’t get the cash have caught up because they saved and accumulated slowly and got up to the point where they have the same levels of success.

They converged to a good level. But this means that cash transfers are much more of a temporary acceleration than they are some sort of permanent solution to poverty.

COWEN: So after 10 years, it might wash out?

BLATTMAN: This is just one place. There’s a lot of these things around the world.

But we’ve based a lot of our optimism, really, off of a handful of transfers in Kenya and Uganda. Looking back at those, we’re seeing convergence. That’s what we’d expect.

COWEN: To the extent there’s convergence — let’s say a 10-year horizon — what do you think is the mechanism? Is it the people who get the money, they work less hard, or they give it away to kin who expect a form of social insurance, or the people who don’t get the money become more ambitious? What’s your intuition?

BLATTMAN: One of the constraints that you see on people’s success is that these are incredibly volatile lives. If you ask someone to recount the last 10 years of their economic activity, you’ll get this incredible litany of terrible shocks and unexpected events that’s really quite amazing. It’s amazing that anybody succeeds at all after you hear this list.

A lot of people are failing, but for the most part, people are doing well. It’s the fact that a lot of these people getting cash transfers are young people who have a future, and it takes time to get there, especially if you have to slowly accumulate capital. It’s the fact that it takes a longer time for everyone else.

COWEN: Given your current income, based on tenure of course, how high a permanent basic income would you have to get from the world for your life to change?

BLATTMAN: Maybe you feel the same way. I’d probably do what I do practically for free.

COWEN: People say that, but if they had, say, a billion dollars a year, I’m not convinced it would be true. We work downwards from that, $200 million a year, $1 million a year.

BLATTMAN: Maybe if it was a million, at some point, I would quit my job and do what I do, but as a free agent. I would probably write books, do media, and try to produce ideas outside of the university, unencumbered by a lot of the administration, the teaching. The things that let me focus on the ideas and the reading, but I don’t know if that’s a big change.

COWEN: For you, it would accelerate your career path. It wouldn’t lead to convergence for you, or would it?

BLATTMAN: The question would be, would my output be any greater than in the counterfactual? I’m not sure if that’s true. It would be different in a nonmeasurable way.

On civil wars

COWEN: Chris also works on violence and war and conflicts. I have a whole host of questions for him on these topics. I’ll start with a real softball. There’s a survey article you did, and it showed in the data that civil wars seem to rise from 1960 to 1990, and then after that point, they fall dramatically. Why do they first go up so much in terms of their number and then go down?

BLATTMAN: I think especially in sub-Saharan Africa, but certainly all over the world, you saw this period after the First World War and after decolonization.

One of my favorite things ever written about this period is by Bob Bates and Jeff Williamson and John Coatsworth, who were these famous political and economic historians. They compare this period in Africa to the late 19th century and a period of war and instability and gradual political consolidation after a period of rapid and unexpected decolonization.

I think of Africa, which is the site of many of these wars, as undergoing a period of political instability followed by consolidation after a rapid and unexpected decolonization — at the same time that you’re having experimentation with economic systems and political organizations that turned out to be failures, which interacted with that to make it so much worse.

The end of these wars and the political consolidation that comes from essentially identifying an economic system and a political system that tends to work a little bit better explains a lot of the peace since then.

COWEN: It seems, though, if you look at Latin America, they’ve been independent quite a long time. There were many more civil wars in Latin America, say, when I was growing up than what we see now, or even the prospect thereof. Do you think there’s some notion to there being a general spirit of the world that’s either more peaceful or less peaceful?

BLATTMAN: Now versus then?

COWEN: Because you see independent regions, the number of civil wars seem to be declining, and whether there’s any specific theory that would account for that, or is there some global contagion possibility?

BLATTMAN: There’s always the chance of a global contagion. I usually think of the incentives as aligned for peace, so war is the puzzle to be explained. I don’t think of the . . . how would I say this? What happened in your childhood was a reaction to a series of political and economic shocks and a search for equilibrium after that.

It’s possible that we will see very dramatic political and economic shocks to destabilize that many countries again, but I don’t see them coming very soon.

COWEN: What does the median economist/global development thinker fail to appreciate regarding order and conflict and violence, someone who knows a lot about the topic, but you feel you have a key or core insight that they don’t?

BLATTMAN: If I think of two types, if there’s the academic economists or political scientists, they tend to ignore the human and the emotional and the erroneous aspects, the things that drive conflict out of mistakes.

At the same time that those passions and mistakes and greed are vastly overestimated by — I won’t even say the casual observer — I would say the very, very deep and experienced policymaker. They actually look at the problem.

They’re both right, they both have a piece of the puzzle, but they both only have one piece of the puzzle. One’s not looking at it with enough reason, and one is not looking at it with enough emotion.

COWEN: Why don’t economic risk factors matter more for predicting violence and civil war?

BLATTMAN: They do a good job of predicting how easy it is to mobilize somebody into a conflict.

If there’s been some drought, or there’s been some collapse in trade, or the one commodity that your country produces collapses in price and there’s a lot of people out of work, then it’s much easier to tempt people away from whatever middling economic opportunity they had to join a rebellion. And you can get more of them for your money — that’s a very basic intuition.

But that doesn’t tell you why war broke out in the first place. Just because the pie grows or shrinks because of economic growth or collapse doesn’t necessarily mean that you have more or less incentives to fight over that pie. You’re still trying to bargain over that pie.

COWEN: But wouldn’t it be like a standard model? There’s a country that sells a natural resource. The natural resource feeds the budget, makes it possible to buy off special interest groups. The price of the commodity falls. There are no longer the bribes for all the different interest groups.

Someone attempts a coup d’état or a civil war for what is partly an economic reason. That doesn’t show up very strongly in the data in your papers, as I understand it. What do you think that model is missing? What’s the intervening factor, or what is that model overestimating?

BLATTMAN: All of these models don’t really think about . . . The way that a lot of economists and political scientists think about conflict is that it’s a bargaining process. If the pie has shrunk, it’s true that there’s less transfers.

Then were you to capture that pie, one is, that pie is smaller. So perhaps it’s less attractive to capture in the first place. That’s going to be a countervailing force. If you’re thinking about the cost of war, these wars are so long and so costly that you have a strong incentive to try to find some kind of bargain. People typically find bargains.

This is why you see these broad coalition governments. You see lots of different ethnic groups included in a particular regime. Very stable regimes bring together lots of people and pay them off. All of that bribery is a way to keep a peaceful bargain.

When the pie shrinks, there’s a risk of conflict because it initiates a new round of bargaining. That’s hard, and things can happen, but most people still have incentives to try to find some kind of peaceful solution.

On the spread of conflict and violence

COWEN: As you may know, Moscona, Nunn, and Robinson have a recent paper. They argue that a big risk factor for conflict and violence is when people have many extended relations who need to be defended, or their honor needs to somehow be held up. And this makes it easier, in their opinion, for conflict or violence to spread. What’s your take on that?

BLATTMAN: All of this talk of — in this case, I think they talk about segmentary lineages — I’ve never seen it. It’s one of the things that resonates the least with me. Any description of African society, African culture, conflict, or politics that relies on this, I have to believe it’s there because so many people have written books.

But it doesn’t seem to be a first- or even second-order determinant of what’s going on when I think about the conflicts I know, the politicians I know, and the decisions that get made.

COWEN: Could it be a non-African or a Middle Eastern effect? If a lot of people have married their cousins, then family lineages are maybe tighter, and they also reach further, and there’s an honor culture of some kind?

BLATTMAN: My intuition would have said that the more horizontal ties you have to other parts of society, that the more you’re going to internalize some of the costs of conflict. In some sense, you’re going to be less likely to . . . If I weren’t presented with this empirical fact that those things seem to be related to more conflict, I would have actually predicted the opposite.

On northern Ugandan child soldiers

COWEN: Say I’m a child soldier in northern Uganda. What’s worse for me, being abducted or having to fight in a war?

BLATTMAN: You’re usually being abducted to fight in a war.

COWEN: Sure, but which of those two experiences is the one that does me the most harm?

BLATTMAN: I think it’s the transition period. It’s certainly different in every rebel organization. The one I worked with — or studied, actually — was one where it was the transition from abduction to becoming a fighter because the training usually tried to dehumanize and desensitize you into committing violence. You were often — not always — you were often asked to commit pretty heinous acts.

It wasn’t just to desensitize you, that it was to try to convince you that your outside option was really terrible. The idea was to convince you that there’s no way you can go home. “We’re going to make you do a set of terrible things right now that will mean that you can never really go back. Like it or not, your future is really with us.”

COWEN: And later on, my earnings will be lower?

BLATTMAN: There’s this famous paper on Vietnam veterans in the US where they find that being conscripted into fighting in Vietnam had positive effects on the wages of blacks and negative effects on the wages of whites. The reason was, it was really down to, what was your alternative labor market and training experience in the absence of this war?

We found something similar in Uganda, something eerily familiar, which is that the women economically weren’t so worse off. I wouldn’t say they were better off, but they weren’t necessarily affected adversely in an economic sense — they were adversely affected in other ways 5 or 10 or 15 years down the road — while the men were.

It spoke to just how terrible women’s options were. Being conscripted and abducted to be a rebel wife, to some degree, wasn’t that different than what your marriage opportunities looked like if there wasn’t a war.

For men, it just meant that you were out of the civilian labor market, getting a bunch of skills that had turned out not to be very useful. It was bad for them. A different war, a different context, and a different labor market, and that can switch.

COWEN: How many northern Ugandan child soldiers have you interviewed?

BLATTMAN: A few hundred. At least a couple hundred, maybe more. It depends if you count someone who’s involved for a month versus two years. Certainly, the long, long-term soldiers who were there for many, many years are few, maybe only a couple dozen.

COWEN: Those contacts, those conversations, how have they changed your outlook on life emotionally, intellectually, otherwise?

BLATTMAN: I’d never worked on conflict before I went to northern Uganda. I followed a woman there who later I would marry. I followed her because we had this idea for a research project. I’d been doing some work on children.

After that, I could never do normal economic development again. I’ve really only worked in violent contexts since then because it seemed so first-order important and just so neglected.

I’d never worked on conflict before I went to northern Uganda. I’d been doing some work on children. After that, I could never do normal economic development again. I’ve really only worked in violent contexts since then because it seemed so first-order important and just so neglected.

COWEN: Overall, your take, is it that children — you now see them as more resilient than you used to believe or less?

BLATTMAN: Certainly more. If you’re a psychologist, you know that people are subjected to horrible things, and most people are incredible resilient. This is a big, stylized fact, but I never knew that before doing this. You certainly see it firsthand over and over again.

So I updated since then. I think there’s a lot more nuance. I tend to think we’re maybe a bit glib about saying that people are resilient because there’s a lot of pain or problems that don’t necessarily show up in our data but turn out to be really important.

COWEN: The Stockholm syndrome — some people who are kidnapped or abducted start identifying with those who took them. How true is this in your experience?

BLATTMAN: It takes work. If I look at the example of the Lord’s Resistance Army in Uganda, or some of the organizations in Liberia that I know people who are a part of, this really happens when the organization really, really dedicates itself to trying to do that. It works better with children, too.

They were quite ingenious. The Lord’s Resistance Army spent a lot of mental energy coming up with . . . they had a lot of time to experiment and a lot of people to experiment with, trying to actually indoctrinate, and they were good at it.

On micro violence

COWEN: There’s now, as you know, a growing literature on what I call micro violence, studying scenes of crowds when a fight starts and using maybe video evidence to figure out why did the fight start?

I was chatting with Mark Levine, a researcher in this area, not that long ago. He told me in his research, it seems to be the case that crowds actually are a force for peace on that. That it’s not that the crowd eggs people on, that bystanders try to stop conflicts. They don’t always succeed.

This, to him, was a kind of revelation, how individual the violent act is. Your take on that?

BLATTMAN: It’s interesting. I don’t know this. You probably know this literature better than I do. What little I’ve read thinks of those reactions as very individual, instinctive reactions to a threat. They invoke the fight-or-flight mechanism.

I could imagine a set of circumstances where a nonhostile crowd reduces that sense of risk and personal danger. But I imagine a lot probably depends on the context: what that crowd is doing or who that crowd is, and whether or not you perceive that crowd as part of your in group, your out group, or part of the threat or not.

COWEN: True or false, most humans are bad at violence?

BLATTMAN: I think they learn quickly. Probably they’re bad at first.

COWEN: In the micro evidence on violence, and the more individual-level evidence, and then finally macro evidence — like will there be a civil war? — do you think there’s ultimately an overarching theory that ties these all together? Or are they just separate levels of investigation, where you have empirical results, and they stand somewhat separate, and they’ll always be distinct areas?

How optimistic are you about a grand unified theory of violence?

BLATTMAN: I think these individual, how I react in the moment, fight-or-flight-type mechanisms are quite distinct from the way that small groups or large groups or nations go to war. But once you get beyond that to the level of small groups and larger groups and nations, I see a lot of unity in the theory.

This combination of this more game theoretic view of bargaining, where we see conflict as arising from uncertainty, commitment problems, and melded with a set of more psychological issues around emotions, levels of self versus more social interest, and the mistakes people systematically make.

That framework, for me, explains an astonishing amount of violence. It continues to explain more phenomena, as I learn about more phenomena, be it drug gangs or urban disorder. I see it in more and more places, so I’m optimistic.

This combination of this more game theoretic view of bargaining, where we see conflict as arising from uncertainty, commitment problems, and melded with a set of more psychological issues around emotions, levels of self versus more social interest, and the mistakes people systematically make. That framework, for me, explains an astonishing amount of violence.

COWEN: René Girard, as you know, is one of the best-known theorists of violence. One of his hypotheses concerns the use of violence for purposes of ritual sacrifice, which he then traces throughout myths and literature. What’s your take on the René Girard worldview?

BLATTMAN: The only reason I’m aware of the René Girard worldview is because I glanced at the “What should I ask Chris Blattman?” questions. [laughs] I saw that name, and I thought, “Oh, I don’t know who that is.” My 10 minutes of investigation suggests that I find nothing about this idea resonates with my personal experience in particular wars.

This is the danger of you also blogging your potential questions. I didn’t go study so much that I have a coherent answer, other than to say it didn’t strike me as somebody who had spent a lot of time actually in or with people who commit violence.

COWEN: What do we know about the causes of the Peloponnesian Wars?

BLATTMAN: This is something that I’m brand new to. What you see is, a lot of political scientists like to write articles about grand theories of war, whatever theory that may be. And they like to cite Greek historians talking about things like the grand . . .

First of all, the Spartans and the Athenians — Hollywood couldn’t imagine two more ideal types to talk about, two more different worldviews. Then for them to embark on this war to end all wars for the period.

People use it to think about something that we think of as bargaining and the commitment problem, which is that massive power shifts can lead to war, partly because it becomes difficult for the temporarily powerful person to be paid off not to exercise their advantage and, through a first strike, eliminate. This becomes potentially a model of that, but then no one has ever gone beyond this and actually really tried to see how it works.

I’ve been reading it, and I’m more and more persuaded that it’s actually a good example of this, but it’s a little bit more complicated.

On new world violence

COWEN: I asked Charles C. Mann this same question: Why are so many parts of the New World, this hemisphere, so relatively violent compared to so many places in Asia — also in Africa, as you know — where you can walk around without any thought of violence whatsoever?

Really, in a pretty significant part of our hemisphere, that’s not the case. Canada, of course, is an exception. Nonetheless, I’m sure you’ve noticed this difference. What ultimately is your theory at the macro level?

BLATTMAN: I think you’re talking about personal security and crime.

COWEN: Personal security, crime, kidnapping, someone pulling a knife on me.

BLATTMAN: In cities.

COWEN: In cities.

BLATTMAN: A lot of that’s not particularly violent.

COWEN: But murder rates are fairly high in this hemisphere.

BLATTMAN: Murder rates are fairly high.

First, I’m a little skeptical of that. I don’t totally accept this as a stylized fact. I think there are other aspects of . . . probably the actual levels of violence in society are mostly going on in the home.

We’re talking about a very specific subset of violence that has more to do with rogues deciding that they can extract something from a stranger. So my instinct is to say that has a lot to do with policing. It has a lot to do with the level of policing and the concentration and the dissuasion from a very specific kind of violence.

COWEN: It still seems odd, there’s this commonality across so many countries.

BLATTMAN: Most of the cities where you see some of the highest murder rates — Latin American cities have very few police per capita when you compare them to American cities, and certainly if you compare them to Asian cities.

I don’t like to be that crude because I’m actually a little bit of a skeptic of this knee-jerk to policing: “We need more police, and we need more investment in security resources.” But as a first-order approximation, I think that’s a big part of it.

You also then have subcultures. Once you have cities and groups within cities that begin to do this — I’ve seen this in Uganda. It used to be that Nairobi was always a very violent place, but people would copy.

It became a thing you could do. They now had a model. This was a career or a vocation that existed in Nairobi, but it didn’t exist in Kampala, or it didn’t exist in Dar es Salaam. People just didn’t do it.

Then, once you had people prove that it could be done and it could be profitable, then you had this relatively small group who professionalize it and do it. And now it becomes a thing, and it’s entrenched. It’s sort of a multiple equilibria story.

COWEN: I’ve read that murder rates in New York City have fallen by a factor of about 20 from their peak, which was within my lifetime. Do you think the research you’ve done gives us any insight into that, or is that a fully separate phenomenon?

BLATTMAN: I think of it as a fully separate phenomenon. The stories that people tell when they have data, or when they tell something convincing, just sound very different from the kinds of stories that I’m used to thinking about for the kinds of violence I study.

Some of the stories that are plausible and have some good evidence, they’re successful efforts to get guns off the street, the police per capita, and then also going back to the old idea of many eyes and many people on the street in more neighborhoods.

None of that really helps me understand civil war violence or recruitment of child soldiers or any of the things that I’ve worked on in the past.

COWEN: Twenty or thirty years ago, the nation of Colombia was much more violent and dangerous than it seems to be now. What has changed there? I know there are superficial answers you could give. They’re fighting each other less. Civil war has wound down. But at the most fundamental level, how would you explain the significant decline in violence?

BLATTMAN: I’m still new to Colombia, and I spend most of my time in the cities, thinking about the kind of violence that frankly not even most Colombians think about, and less time thinking about the guerrilla violence and the paramilitary violence.

There was actually a relatively short period where the violence was very intense. You had a relatively well-organized guerrilla group, the FARC, mount a credible assault on the state with a reasonable belief that they were going to win and maybe take over, and a state that was slow to respond.

Eventually, under this existential threat, actually pulled it together, with some US support, and managed to counterattack, and managed to effectively defeat this force, or get it close enough to push them to the bargaining table.

COWEN: But it seems more deeply rooted in their history. There’s a period starting in 1948 where 300,000 people die by La Violencia in Colombian history. Nineteenth century, maybe we don’t have numbers. But it has a reputation for being a violent place.

BLATTMAN: I’m trying to draw a distinction between a situation where you have a lot of relatively low-level persistent violence that might have to go with an insurgency like that in Colombia, but you could have said the same thing about northern Uganda.

It’s not actually that violent in the large scheme of things. Draw a distinction between that and the much more high-death, high-intensity, much more violent conventional war that was fought for a period of time. Those aren’t distinct phenomena. One existed as a precursor to the other, though it didn’t have to. So I think of them distinctly in that case.

Medellin is a city I’ve spent a lot of time in. I don’t know that this is true, but in my head, the analogy is that in Medellin you had these elites. You had the Colombians and the city at the bottom of the valley with a very nice city. It was the industrial center.

And as people started to flood in from the countryside into the periphery of the city, and they built up these slums on the sides of the mountain slopes. The state essentially decided not to govern. In the absence of any kind of government, in the absence of public services, those communities started to govern themselves, and often that meant criminal groups.

It could have been paramilitaries or guerillas. Eventually, it’s street gangs and mafias grow up. They provide order, and they provide certain services, and there’s a lot of violence. Eventually, the elite wakes up and realizes that this is an existential threat and has to fight it.

That, in a microcosm, feels like the last hundred years of Colombian history, where you had elites in the cities essentially allowing the periphery to sort of be quasi-governed by fairly violent actors, and not being particularly concerned about it until it got so bad that it threatened them in their cities, and then they got serious about it and were fortunate to be able to eradicate it to some degree.

COWEN: You have a recent paper where you suggest that people being exposed to violence can make them in the longer run more cooperative because they’re somehow scarred or scared by the violence, and they want to set things right. They cooperate more.

Do you think, in general, there’s reversion to the mean when it comes to violence, and thus we should be optimistic about Honduras, El Salvador, and other places, and Colombia fits into that bigger story? Or no?

BLATTMAN: Exposure to a violent act for some reason . . . I think one reason might be a psychological reevaluation. It might be a set of interactions you have with people within your group that are cooperative, and that reinforces future cooperative behavior.

I think the evidence suggests — we don’t know the evidence suggests — that you’re much more cooperative with your in group, people who are like you. We have less evidence on cooperation with your out group, but the little we have suggests that you’re potentially less cooperative with your out group.

So if you’re talking about community government in a city or decisions that you have to make with people in your region, maybe you’re slightly more pro-social, but that doesn’t necessarily mean you’re more peaceful overall.

If you’re, on net, less pro-social at a larger political entity, where you’ve got to interact with other groups, it’s not clear that there’s reversion to any mean there.

COWEN: Is it possible that the fading of the memories of World War II, and also World War I, are a reason why previous levels of international cooperation can no longer be sustained, that reversion to the mean is kicking in again, but now against us?

And thus, we’re headed to a G-Zero world, and the World Bank, the IMF, international order, as we knew it will become progressively weaker because of this mechanism?

BLATTMAN: This mechanism that we are reverting to the mean and away from . . .

COWEN: We’re not scared anymore.

BLATTMAN: We’re not scared anymore.

COWEN: The Nazis come, Stalin. We do wonderful, heroic things. We cooperate with the British, the French, even the Soviets, actually with Stalin, and then that sticks for a while. We’re all committed to the UN, the World Bank, the IMF. But now, my goodness, things have been so good for so long and pretty peaceful; those are all going to decay.

BLATTMAN: The richer we are, which we’re much richer, and the more costly war is, and war is now much more costly — I think those stronger . . . the incentive we have not to have war. It makes it much less likely. If war happens, then it’s going to be that much more catastrophic, which is maybe a pattern we’ve seen over the past century.

But it comes back to this calculus of not feeling like there’s some equilibrium level of violence that just happens because violence happens, but that this is something that is often strenuously avoided because it just pulls people so far back.

On Botswana’s growth miracle

COWEN: Back to economic development. What, in your view, is the most underrated national development story that people should pay more attention to? Which country or region?

BLATTMAN: Including me, Botswana, in the sense that this is the growth miracle of the late 20th century. There’s a few explanations, but there’s really only a handful of people who’ve paid any attention to what happened there.

There’s a few pat stories that say, “Well, they idiosyncratically established a parliamentary government before they discovered their diamonds and, through some magical set of circumstances, maintained this good governance. And the diamonds fed growth and prosperity.”

But that doesn’t seem very persuasive. There’s another story that’s waiting to be told, and I don’t know the answer to it.

COWEN: Many people say that, for numerous parts of Africa, national borders are a problem, that they don’t correspond to ethnic groups or tribes in the right way.

If you look at the data, as I think Jeffrey Herbst just pointed out, among others, there are quite a few fairly small countries — Lesotho, Gambia, Guinea, Sao Tome. They’re not actually doing that well. It’s not clear they’re doing better than the big countries.

Does this refute the misdrawn borders story, or do you still think there’s something to that?

BLATTMAN: Going back to this question you had earlier about why was there so much instability in the years after the war, I think a set of misdrawn borders and trying to find a political equilibrium where all of these groups have to live together is one source of that political shock and instability.

That said — and maybe I’m not understanding your question correctly — but I think that a lot of countries have been very successful at building national identities in a short period of time.

Jeffrey Herbst is very fond of the idea that Rwanda, which is a very strong state and can exercise and project its power into the eastern Congo — maybe we should experiment . . . I don’t know if he’d advocate this now, but 10 years ago, he thought this was a useful idea to propose, that maybe Rwanda should be governing eastern Congo.

At the same time, I’m not sure there are many places in sub-Saharan Africa where you would go to a peripheral place and you would find a stronger national identity than eastern Congo, where they really think of themselves as Congolese.

There’s a bit of a paradox here. The national identity project has been very successful in a pretty short period of time in a lot of these countries, which makes me think that these borders are no longer so unnatural as they were, say, in 1950 or ’60.

COWEN: There’s a much longer historical continuity of the state in Ethiopia than in almost any other part, maybe any other part, of Africa. How much does this help Ethiopian development? And does this make you more bullish on Ethiopia than most other parts of Africa economically?

BLATTMAN: It helps a lot, and it makes me much bullish.

COWEN: How does it help?

BLATTMAN: If I had to pick one variable for a cross-country analysis — it’s interesting that nobody really does this cross-country analysis — but if you asked me, like I get to make just one bet, and to go back in 1800 or something — one bet about where you’re going to see development, I’d probably pick historical levels of state capacity.

First, my personal experience, whether it’s the little regression I get to run by working in places as diverse as Liberia and Uganda, in Ethiopia and Colombia, that correlation is more apparent than any other correlation.

Why do I think it’s there? I think it’s there because partly it’s a proxy for a general level of social organization that we, as a society, have figured out a way to solve certain collective action problems, that we’ve figured out a way to make certain types of collective decisions in a way that does not have to devolve into conflict. And as a result, we’re able to, on some sense, do everything more effectively — it’s like a general-purpose technology.

COWEN: Where else in Africa would you be especially bullish about, given what you just said?

BLATTMAN: You can look at Rwanda, and you can see one of the most long-standing and coherent kingdoms that its borders happen to match. Its borders today are somewhat close.

Part of Uganda’s success has been . . . even though it’s a collection. It’s many other things, but it includes a collection of these historical kingdoms that also had a continuous existence up until the colonial period. Part of its reasonably effective state is a fact of that.

I’m not sure how Uganda, or Rwanda for that matter, will manage their next political transitions. That, to me, is maybe the biggest difference between them and Ethiopia, is they don’t have political parties or political systems to manage these difficult political transitions, so they could fall apart. But if they manage those transitions, I’m very bullish.

COWEN: Former American slaves, as you know, settled Liberia in the 19th century with quite a utopian vision of what a wonderful place it will be. That experiment seems to go badly. What’s your account as to the fundamentals, as to why the evolution of Liberia as a modern nation-state failed?

BLATTMAN: Well, until the mid-1970s, it was an experiment that was going pretty well. It tended to be wealthier and better off and on a slightly healthier trajectory than other parts of Africa, not dramatically so.

COWEN: Let’s say compared to Sri Lanka, Ceylon, or the Philippines. It’s not obvious it was going that well.

BLATTMAN: Aha. No, I was thinking relative to other sub-Saharan African countries. If we just use the state and the strength and cohesion of society as an example, you’re comparing a place that had absolutely no central organization or coherency as a region to places that had hundreds of years of a civil service and incredibly developed social structures and integration with global markets.

Not to underplay the general integration or state development in Africa, but if you had to put your finger on a point on the continent where all of those things were least together, you could do worse than put your finger on Liberia in 1821 or whenever they first landed the ships.

I think it was just a very naive development project about what could be transferred and built in that kind of environment.

On things under- and overrated

COWEN: As you may know, in all of these conversations, there’s a segment in the middle, overrated versus underrated. I’ll toss out a few candidates. Of course, feel free to pass.

Religion as a development force. Overrated or underrated?

BLATTMAN: Probably overrated. I don’t think of it as having any real strong predictive or explanatory power for long-run differences in income.

COWEN: So if a region in Nigeria becomes either Christian or Muslim, you don’t feel that changes the long-run forecast of per capita income?

BLATTMAN: I don’t have a strong prior for the direction of that effect.

COWEN: Fair trade coffee.

BLATTMAN: Probably overrated, but I don’t really have a very strong opinion of fair trade coffee. It strikes me as one of these things that is more of a marketing device than really an effective and large-scale strategy for improving the welfare of people.

COWEN: The Canadian political system.

BLATTMAN: Overrated. In terms of the way the political institutions are set up, it strikes me as one of the most centralized in terms of power-advanced democracies.

The Senate, the upper house, is almost a rubber stamp, is relatively powerless. Not entirely, but it’s unelected. You have a prime minister who rules the lower house, and if he has a majority, essentially everybody needs to toe the line.

COWEN: But say you have a very open economy. Don’t you want more centralization because the openness of your country is itself the extra check and balance?

New Zealand is pretty centralized. They’re quite an open economy. The US, of course, is not so open, and we need all of these layers of nonsense.

BLATTMAN: For me, the check and balance there that probably makes this work isn’t the openness. It’s the fact that there’re extremely strong informal social norms that govern what the government can and can’t do.

This extremely centralized powerful political figure, the prime minister, or his cabinet, is very constrained by the larger populace, who have shown an ability to completely wipe out an entire party, if necessary, and within one election cycle if they really overstep.

That’s this magical, elusive, ill-defined thing that is protecting it.

COWEN: Overrated or underrated? United Nations peacekeeping.

BLATTMAN: I’d say underrated. A lot of people are either cynical about United Nations peacekeeping and its effectiveness or just genuinely unsure. And then you have certain incidents like what’s gone on in Haiti with the spread of . . . Now I’m forgetting the disease.

COWEN: Cholera.

BLATTMAN: Cholera, that have tarnished the name, and a lot of accurate assessments of the impact on the local sex work trade and women in places where there’s a lot of peacekeepers.

These are all problems, but if you look at the data, they’re overwhelmingly effective. And if I had to say the one thing that really made me a stronger believer in this whole bargaining approach to conflict and the kinds of problems that actually lead violence to break out, the peacekeepers . . .

In some sense, the everyday job of a peacekeeper is to solve all of these problems. It’s to create commitment. It’s to reduce uncertainty. It’s to temper emotions. And they do that very well. I’ve seen it.

I was in a northern town in Liberia trying to do work. And a murder of a girl in one little village led to Christian and Muslim hostilities in that village, which turned into Christian-Muslim riots in the entire district, to the point where we were holed up in a hotel. And the building down the street, which is where the vice president’s giving a talk, is being stoned by an angry mob.

A Pakistani battalion, which for some reason took an extra 24 hours to act, but nonetheless came in and made that all go away within about three or four hours.

The ability to do that over and over again — there’s a hundred stories like that in Liberia. We wouldn’t have peace there if it weren’t for those forces right now.

COWEN: Battlestar Galactica.

BLATTMAN: I guess underrated by anybody who hasn’t watched it.

COWEN: What have we learned about violent conflict from that show?

BLATTMAN: What I liked about it the most, actually, was less about what we learned about violent conflict than what we learned about authoritarian politics, mostly the fact that it got the average American reader to get on board with election stealing and terrorist violence by putting them in the position of either the elite or the subjugated group.

It depended on the season in terms of what they were willing to do, what sort of violent and nondemocratic acts they were willing to do to achieve their political objectives.

COWEN: The standing desk, over- or underrated?

BLATTMAN: Overrated by people who have standing desks and underrated by everyone else.

COWEN: Do you still do it?

BLATTMAN: I do both. Sometimes I sit, sometimes I stand. I probably would like to stand more than I do, but I don’t always sleep as well as I once did because of my children, so that I sit more often right now.

COWEN: Let’s say that I’m coming to you, and I’m a seasoned traveler. I’ve been to a lot of countries, but let’s say that I’ve never been to Africa before, and you’re giving me your two-, three-minute pitch on how to think about where to go in Africa, and how to do it. What’s your take?

BLATTMAN: If you can go and spend a long period of time, like a couple of months, which most people can’t, then I think trying to find an excuse to live in a village is an incredible experience. There’s more ways to do that than you’d think, than just voluntourism.

Barring that, I would say . . . How long do we have? Do we have a week or two weeks?

COWEN: Two or three weeks. Next trip, maybe there’ll be more if you give me good advice.

BLATTMAN: Exactly. I would say I would spend one week in Kenya and Tanzania seeing a mix of the large popular and small never-visited wildlife parks, partly because they’re amazingly well run, and they deserve to be rewarded with tourist dollars, but also because they’re incredible experiences.

But I wouldn’t spend more than a few days on that. Then I would probably send someone to see the thing I haven’t seen.

In spite of working in Ethiopia for many years, I never went and properly saw this 800-year-old state, as you’ve noticed. But seeing a state and its architecture and a culture that you’ve probably never thought about before and seeing that firsthand is not only spectacular, but I think you change some of your priors.

On factory jobs in Ethiopia

COWEN: Ethiopia. You have a famous paper on sweatshop jobs in Ethiopia, and one thing you found, I believe, is how often people quit these jobs, or they become unhappy with the jobs. Why are they unhappy with the jobs?

BLATTMAN: When I first started studying these jobs, I thought they were jobs that were a little bit like winning the lottery. I thought you got paid more than your alternatives, as miserable as that pay might be.

More importantly, I thought you got full employment more naturally than your alternatives, and I thought that there was upward trajectory. Maybe that was the most part, that it would lead you on this virtuous path towards more productive work and better pay.

Instead, I think they turned out to be more like McDonald’s or Walmart jobs.

COWEN: Why does anyone take them at all, then?

BLATTMAN: A large number of people in Ethiopia were taking these jobs. The factory jobs were their social safety net. They were able to make more money doing their own business or working for a firm or working even in temporary wage labor, but all of these things were risky and volatile.

So when that business went south, when the wage labor temporarily went away, with those three months of your life, you’d go work for the factory if you happen to need cash. Then you would go, and you would be looking for something better, and you would find it, and after a few months, you would leave. This was the social safety net — it was working in factories.

COWEN: The fieldwork I once did in Mexico, I also found that most people didn’t want these jobs. Two factors I found that drove some people to take them. The first was just extreme boredom with rural life.

The other was women being quite unhappy with all of their options where they were — in some cases, possibly even being hit or abused and just wanting a way out. This was one possible ticket. Are those possible motives for Ethiopians?

BLATTMAN: Those were possible motives. I wouldn’t say they were the most common motives in this group. Most of these firms weren’t in really rural areas. A lot of the women — it was 80 percent women in our sample — had a lot of other options.

The thing I updated on most of all was the high quality of people’s options. I had a very low opinion of their options. The thing that I learned as a result of this was mostly that the options for these young women were much better than I expected.

COWEN: In a lot of typical economic development stories, you industrialize, there’s manufacturing, then you export, and there’s some kind of virtuous cycle, maybe with increasing returns.

If an Ethiopian takes a factory job — though many of them won’t like it, as you say — do you think the social return to that decision is higher than the private return, or the other way around?

BLATTMAN: At their level of industrialization, I don’t think it matters very much. I would say that . . .

COWEN: It’s because you don’t buy into the virtuous cycle theory? You don’t think there are increasing returns? Something else?

BLATTMAN: At this point, it’s really quite a minor sector, and the missing ingredient that’s leading to any . . . Let’s suppose there are increasing returns to the existence of this sector. The mystery factor that needs to be there to make them successful has almost nothing to do with the availability of labor.

I’d say it’s actually the availability of management talent, the availability of high-quality financial services. Things that you need to buy and split and merge and grow businesses, like banking and accounting, these are binding constraints on industrial development. Going to Ethiopia to be an investment banker or an accountant would probably be a far more individual development strategy than sending somebody cash transfers.

On premature deindustrialization

COWEN: This idea of premature deindustrialization, the notion that because of automation, manufacturing now creates so few jobs that many parts of Africa perhaps can never build a middle class — because they could have factories maybe, but it would be done by machines, and there’s no wage-differential reason for pulling your factory out of China, bringing it to Africa the way, maybe, there had been in the past. What do you think of that?

BLATTMAN: Are we seeing premature deindustrialization . . . ? How many industrial workers are there in China, maybe 50 million or something?

COWEN: Data in China seem to be bad, but you look at Brazil, India, South Africa — they seem to have declining shares of manufacturing employment before they’re really fully developed nations the way Denmark, US, and Germany are.

BLATTMAN: You know, I come from Canada. If I cut up Canada into 20 independent parts, I would find 18 prematurely deindustrialized places, I think. Then I would find a couple of places, like southern Ontario, where you have a lot of industrial development.

So I don’t think the fate of every nation in Africa is to — absent premature deindustrialization, supposing it exists — actually be highly industrialized. I can see a lot of Africa ending up like Newfoundland and irrespective of any of these forces that . . .

COWEN: Minus the puffins.

BLATTMAN: Minus the puffins.


BLATTMAN: Yeah, I don’t think the technological change is the first-order thing.

I don’t know this very well, but I would have suspected that one thing that might be true is that there is a peculiar set of circumstances that exist in East Asia and Southeast Asia that have made it hypercompetitive in this particular sector.

You’ve seen whatever a lot of industrialization that existed elsewhere in the world, even if it’s from other developing countries, like the maquiladoras in Mexico, relocate there.

Until the rest of these countries catch up in terms of, I’d say, their state development, which will be a very long time and until real wages rise in China, that to me is the first-order explanation of why there is less industrialization in a place like Africa, and it’s not this other set of forces that’s talked about.

COWEN: Paul Romer’s charter cities, would you want to try them anywhere? Can they work?

BLATTMAN: Paul Romer and I had long debates — some in private, some in public — about this. I always worried about the fact that there was some risk, maybe a large risk, that these would be the Cabrini-Greens, like the housing projects of the 21st century.

There was some risk that they would go awry. I’m very suspicious of high-risk development strategies, especially when you’re playing with someone else’s life. It struck me there’s a lot of ways for that to go dramatically wrong. An attractive feature of a lot of development strategies is maybe low downside risk.

COWEN: As you know, if you think about Africa, parts of it are quite underpopulated. You could find an area that had not so many people in it, set up a charter city, let people choose to migrate inwards if they wanted to.

Other people could leave, but it wouldn’t cover that many people. And if continuity of rule is a binding constraint that makes you more bullish about Ethiopia than other places, why not import some of that? What’s the risk really?

BLATTMAN: Right. A depopulated coastal area close to trade networks that has the potential to be like a Singapore — as an experiment, that’s a fair point. The concrete things that they were looking to do looked less like that than actually trying to take much more established settlements and try to turn them into charter cities.

I wonder about the practical feasibility of redoing the Singapore experiment of building a city in a swamp because they didn’t ever seriously seem to have a lead on doing that.

COWEN: What’s it like coauthoring with your spouse? Passes are allowed, of course.

BLATTMAN: [laughs] No. I wish we could keep doing it, but we went off at certain points with slightly different interests. We were coauthors before we were spouses, so it’s a good selection mechanism. I’m not sure what we would do if we were both economists. I think it might’ve been too close.

COWEN: She’s a political scientist?

BLATTMAN: She’s a psychologist.

COWEN: Oh, psychologist, OK.

BLATTMAN: It’s very useful for that other person to be a complete expert in their domain. You can essentially defer on all of those decisions to them on that and vice versa. So you’re complementing — not competing — in the same space.

COWEN: You mentioned on your home page, when you were younger, you worked two years “cooking chicken at a vaguely militant KFC outlet.” What did you learn doing that?

BLATTMAN: I had a boss who literally ran the place like a drill sergeant. He was this hulking guy.

COWEN: This is in Canada now?

BLATTMAN: This is in Canada. The KFCs in Canada — they’re run by a different company. They’re a little cleaner and nicer. Not much, but a little cleaner and nicer than in the US. This big hulking guy with a Hulk Hogan–style mustache would do the white glove test in the kitchen, on the ceiling, under the machines.

I guess I’d look at that as taking this lazy teenager, who hadn’t worked really hard before, and getting them to do gruesome things, and realizing that you can grit your teeth and do some disgusting tasks and get through it. That was maybe a useful lesson. It demonstrated my perseverance to me or created my perseverance. I don’t know which one.

COWEN: What does the University of Chicago do right that’s especially important?

BLATTMAN: The number one reason I was excited to move to Chicago when my wife and I were deciding where we wanted to be, the one thing that was most appealing to it is that it has this intellectual atmosphere of . . . people are constantly talking about ideas.

You would think you could take this for granted at any university environment. But I was living in New Haven in the small community around Yale and in New York in the small community surrounding Columbia, which were tremendous places full of brilliant people.

But very seldom were people always pushing themselves intellectually and pushing you intellectually in conversation. How they’ve created that culture, I don’t know. I haven’t been there long enough to guess. The fact that they’ve created that and it persists is, to me, the most exciting thing about it. It’s what I thought every academic atmosphere was going to be before I started my PhD.

I was surprised that it doesn’t really seem to exist in many places. I think it survives here a little bit at George Mason, but maybe not too many other places.

COWEN: What’s your favorite Australian TV show?

BLATTMAN: [laughs] It’s a comedy called Please Like Me, which is a comedy about mental illness and struggle by a young gay comedian in Sydney. It doesn’t sound like the most promising premise for a television show, but it’s genius.

Maybe it just appeals to my . . . I do think those of us in the Commonwealth share a certain kind of sense of humor that’s different than the American sense of humor, but I think it travels well.

On the Chris Blattman production function

COWEN: Final question, and I ask this of many guests. It has to do with what I call the Chris Blattman production function. You’re still young. You’re at one of the very best schools in the world; some would say the best.

You’re famous. People ask me about you all the time. You’re very active on social media. You have a huge stack of very well-cited papers. You’re writing now a major book on war and violent conflict. If someone was asking you, what is the insight you have into how to do this, or how you did it, that maybe other people wouldn’t immediately see?

Other than just, “Well, I worked hard” or “I went to a good school,” what is in the Chris Blattman production function that maybe we don’t see?

BLATTMAN: There’s an answer to what I think my production function looks like, but the answer for most people — when I was in my maybe third year, and you do something, as you know, in academia called your third-year review, where your senior colleagues debate what you’re doing right or wrong, and then give you basically no feedback. [laughs]

I persistently, I plowed into a senior colleague, a guy named Ian Shapiro, who’s a normative political theorist at Yale, to give me the feedback. And he refused to tell me. He refused to tell me.

He said, “Well, you just need to do what you’re interested in. You’re clearly doing something you’re interested in. You’re excited by it, and I’m not going to tell you what other people think you should do because it’s different. That’s the secret to your happiness or to your success.”

So on some level, my production function was always doing the thing that really interested me, regardless of whether or not the people around me told me it was a good idea or not. In my case, that happens to have been deciding that I like going to a place and spending a lot of time there.

I’ve done it three times. First I did it in Uganda, then I did it in Liberia, and now I’m doing it in Colombia. Each time, I went somewhere, and I spent maybe six months, just hanging out and talking to people and figuring out how I think things work in a very qualitative way.

Then, usually, it was studying something where there was no data on it. That’s been my shtick. Most people look for existing data to analyze. I look for data I can create. Then I would go and I would find a way to create data.

Then, having created data, I would try to answer this question that interested me. In my case, it’s usually something that is the intersection of economics, political science, sociology, and public policy.

Then, often, I would try to find an experiment that I could run, just to have an excuse to be there. It usually wasn’t a very good experiment, but it was evaluating something that somebody was doing that was obviously common, it was useful to have some data on it.

Then my strategy in every place is to go around and try to find some community organization or bureaucrat or somebody who has a good idea, who’s a true believer, who really believes in whatever cockamamie thing they’re doing to make the world a better place.

Most people — least of all me — don’t really believe it should work, but then there seems to be something going on. And if it works, it challenges how we think about the world. The first time it was cash, just giving cash to poor people.

The second time, in Liberia, it was somebody doing something that turned out to be cognitive behavior therapy that was trying to take these criminal adults and totally turn their lives around.

In Colombia, we’ve stumbled upon this little group that’s basically trying to take back governance in their communities from the gangs nonviolently, by relentlessly organizing their community, connecting it to the city government, and then trying to scale that up, test it, and see if it actually works.

Then usually, as the result, I change how I think about not just that question, but the whole business of violence and development.

COWEN: I recommend that you all follow Chris Blattman on Twitter. Chris, thank you very much.

BLATTMAN: Thank you.