Join us as we talk to one of the world’s leading experts on violence and politics, Professor Chris Blattman, about preventing war as the Ukraine-Russia conflict has been dominating headlines over the past few months, with countless theories and hypotheses being touted to explain Russia’s aggression. We start the episode with an explanation of why Chris chose to write his latest book Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace, and how he can apply the logic within to explain Putin’s motivations and behavior. We learn why peace is a better driver for innovation and competition than war, and what Chris feels about the controversial observations made by John Mearsheimer about the Ukraine-Russia conflict. Tune in to learn what the George Washington example is, and the role of the COVID-19 pandemic in the rising levels of violence within the USA. We next move on to the role of CBT in reducing violence across the globe, with some insightful examples of Mr. Rogers-like personas across Africa who Chris has worked with. This episode is jam-packed with tons of fascinating insights into current affairs, how to best tackle poverty, theoretical debate and so much more. Join us today as we talk to a true role model and thought leader on another episode of the Charter Cities podcast.
Key Points From This Episode:
- An introduction to Chris Blattman, author, economist, political scientist, expert on violence, and seasoned peacebuilder.
- The inspiration behind why Chris wrote Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace.
- Chris’s response to John Mearsheimer’s observations on the Ukraine-Russia conflict.
- Why Chris is content that his book was published before Russia invaded Ukraine.
- The five logics of war applied to the Ukraine-Russia conflict: unchecked interests, intangible incentives, uncertainty, commitment problems, and misperceptions.
- Why Chris feels that peace drives competition and innovation better than war.
- The George Washington example: what it means and how it can be applied to other situations.
- Why Chris is interested in applying Machiavellian logic to his research and blogging.
- How the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted levels of violence within the USA, and why.
- Why the Mr. Rogers principle is so effective, and examples Chris has come across in other countries.
- CBT and how it can be applied to reduce poverty.
- The monetary values associated with CBT across different cultures.
- Why oversimplifying complex problems is bad for the solution, and why including locals in the solution is key to success.
- An example of one of Chris’ RCTs that failed!
- Why Chris feels that he might have had a larger impact on society if he had moved into consulting in Africa.
- The factors that helped to make the Harris School the success it is today.
- Why Chris thinks giving cash is more effective at reducing poverty than other interventions.
- How decentralizing power will be the ultimate solution to poverty.
- Chris’s thoughts on the Charter Cities Institute and goals.
- Where Chris is now, and the issues he will be researching in the next five years.
Mark: Hello and welcome to the Charter Cities Podcast. I’m your host, Mark Lutter, the Founder and Executive Director of the Charter Cities Institute. On the Charter Cities Podcast, we illuminate the various aspects of building a charter city, from governance to urban planning, politics to finance, we hope listeners to the Charter Cities Podcast will come away with a deep understanding of charter cities, as well as the steps necessary to build them.
You can subscribe and learn more about charter cities at chartercitiesinstitute.org. Follow us on social media, @cci.city on Twitter and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. Thank you for listening.
Kurtis: Today on the podcast, we have Chris Blattman. Chris is a professor at the University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy. He’s an economist and political scientist who is one of the world’s foremost experts on violence, conflict and war. He also studies issues related to global poverty and he’s conducted research in both sub-Saharan Africa and in Latin America.
In addition to his academic research, Chris is a prolific and popular blogger in the world of international development. He’s just written a great new book on crime and conflict called Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace. We talk about all this today and more. Enjoy the show.
Kurtis: Hi, Chris. Welcome to the show.
Chris: Thanks. Thanks for having me.
Kurtis: Okay, so you have a new book out, Why We Fight, about the causes of war and the paths to peace. Your premise is basically that wars shouldn’t happen, and most of the time, they don’t. It turns out, war and violence to a surprising degree have a lot to do with a pie and how that pie is shared. Can we begin here by you going over the thesis of the book and your framework for listeners?
Chris: Right. This is an idea that goes back a long ways in political science and economics. Labor strikes, it’s true. Court battles and it’s true war, which is that all of these things are really costly, that there’s usually a better way to get what you want, because you can negotiate or bargain without fighting, or you can fight, which is horrendously costly. Most adversaries look at that option or that set of options, and they say, “We’d rather find a deal.” We don’t pay attention to that very much, because it’s really easy to get drawn to — our attention gets sucked in by the events that are going on right now in Russia and Ukraine. We don’t write and we don’t talk about all of the wars that didn’t happen.
A good example is just two weeks into Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, India launched a cruise missile at Pakistan by accident and common suit. There was an article about that, but it got buried. You had to scroll through 18 pages of Ukraine news on your phone before you could get to it. All of these quiet moments of compromise tend to slip from our memories and our attention. Yet, it’s just that basic incentive is always present, and it’s why most of the time, we don’t fight.
Kurtis: Yeah. I mean, I guess since you brought up Ukraine and we have one of the world’s experts in war and violence on — we got to ask about it. You can see how Ukraine may transform into a new Kashmir situation. Can you talk about that a bit and how this war fits maybe into your five logics for war framework that you outline in the book?
Chris: Yeah. To just back up a bit. Obviously, we do fight. I wrote a book called — it wasn’t called Why We Don’t Fight. That might have sold fewer books. It’s certainly true. Of course, we really do care about why we do fight. The answer to why we do fight is pretty easy. Something overcame this powerful incentive for peace. The cost of war, which we can see right now, are just so dire and so horrific for everybody. Both sides. Nobody wins. Those are so dire that it’s a gravitational pull towards peace. Something equally powerful has to make you overlook, or ignore those costs and yank you into that orbit. I talk about in the book, how there’s five logic.
There’s a million ways you can get yanked through that orbit. They all fall into five categories based on the particular way in which we’re incentivized to overlook the costs. We can walk through those. In the context of Ukraine, I mean, all wars end eventually. Almost all wars end in a settlement, that sometimes an official settlement, but very often, it’s a stalemate. I think of Kashmir as a stalemate, as basically the two sides deciding that it’s — they’re exhausted. They don’t want to fight anymore. They don’t officially agree to carve up their territory, because that’s difficult for lots of reasons, but they de facto settle.
That’s the set of events, I imagine, eventually taking place. Eventually, Ukraine and Russia, the intense violence will stop. Probably, Russia at that point will occupy a substantial chunk of the country, and probably, no one will recognize the legitimacy of that. Therefore, we’re looking at a very long and hopefully, far less violent stalemate over these regions.
Kurtis: You’re at the University of Chicago. I wanted to ask to your colleague over there, John Mearsheimer has weighed in on this, and there’s been some commentary on what he said and his thoughts and stuff. Has that commentary been fair, unfair? What are your thoughts?
Chris: Mearsheimer has been — first of all, he’s been right about a lot of things over the years. I think, he was one of the very early voices to caution us about the strategic rivals with Russia and China, when America stopped paying attention to that for a long period of time, and so forth. In this case, he has been very focused on the role of NATO in arousing Putin’s ire and helping bring about the current crisis.
I think that’s partly true. Personally, I think this is really a fight between Russia and Ukraine and its Ukrainian political decisions and Ukrainian popular decisions and Russian political decisions that are primarily to blame here. I think, NATO in its role is secondary. I put it in my finger. We can talk about the five, we can talk about the thing. My general comment on John is just that where he and I differ is I just put a lot less emphasis. I think, what he’s talking about is a genuine pressure that certainly has not helped.
Kurtis: Yeah. I got to ask on the Ukraine thing. Were you annoyed that, I mean, this is maybe not the best way to phrase this question, but annoyed that this war happened after your final proofs were done and you weren’t able to include some commentary in your book? Or were you glad that whole added pressure of adding a whole new section right at the very end as you’re trying to get this thing done, you got to avoid that?
Chris: I actually tried to avoid talking about really, really contemporary conflicts in the book, partly because I want this book to be lasting. I didn’t want it to be out of date the day it was written in. Any prediction about Ukraine that people made before or after, any prediction I make now will probably be wrong. In that sense, I dodged a bullet.
In the other sense, you always want the book to be relevant. You finish writing a year before the book comes out. Or nine months at least. I always knew something would come up and I knew something would come up in a part of the world that probably, I would struggle to find on an unlabeled map. It would be fabulous from a book’s point of view, if I don’t know, if the Medellin cartels attacked United States right now. Of course, we don’t want that to happen. I certainly don’t want that to happen. That would make me the world expert. Or, if there was another major civil war in West Africa. I’m happy to say, these are all incredibly pacific places right now. Anyways, it was bound to happen.
Kurtis: We can maybe quickly go over the five logics first, and so people have a sense of what we’re talking about when we mean these five logics for war, because that is the infrastructure and the structure of the whole book. Just to summarize, first is unchecked interests. Second is intangible incentives. Third is uncertainty. Fourth is a commitment problem. Five is misperceptions. Why don’t we maybe start? We can explain what these mean, maybe perhaps, give a illustrative example or two. Why don’t we begin with unchecked interests? What do we mean by this?
Chris: Yeah. Why don’t we talk about Ukraine and Russia? Everyone’s received a crash course. It’s very fresh in our minds, and everyone’s asking. You can think about these five as they’re five different logics in their ways of sorting all the sorts of things you hear. Let me actually start with, what’s the big narrative right now? The big narrative right now is that Putin and his inner circle have a set of nationalistic, ideological objectives that they’re pursuing at any cost. Fundamentally, that’s a variety of what something I call an intangible incentive. The idea that, yes, war is incredibly costly, but there’s something you can obtain through war and maybe only through war that is so valuable to you that it overwhelms the costs.
Kurtis: You called these indivisibles, right?
Chris: Yeah. Every time you pick up an article, there’s another ideological objective, or another ethereal thing that Putin wants. Maybe it’s personal glory. To be the next Catherine the Great. Some people say, “Oh, we think maybe he has thyroid cancer,” because there’s all these cancer doctors, thyroid doctors that have been following around for so many years. This is on his bucket list. We just keep hearing this list of things that Putin, maybe delusionally wants. All of these are intangible chance. Sure, that’s true to some degree.
I think, we tend to overstate those. The intangible, where a lot of people are ignoring, I think, is on the Ukrainian side. The much nobler intangible that Ukrainians are seeking is essentially, liberty and self-determination. Russia is extremely strong. They’ve grown stronger in the last 20 years. Ukraine has stagnated, it’s poorer than it was 30 years ago. It has no military allies. It certainly didn’t at the outset. Russia said, “Listen, we want more of the pie. You’re going to give it to us, because we’re much stronger and we’re stronger than we were before. Time to renegotiate.”
That was, in some sense, I mean, evil, but a reasonable thing to request in the sense of expecting that they would comply. The Ukrainians said, “No way.” That compromise was simply repugnant. The idea that you would value your liberty over a compromise is again, an intangible. Most people don’t make that tradeoff. Most people, most of Russia’s neighbors and the Russian people themselves and most people throughout history, when confronted with an imperial power, or a repressive autocrat, has essentially not revolted. Sometimes they do, but mostly, they don’t.
Sometimes, these freedom fighters and revolutionaries and others like the Ukrainians say, “No way.” When you say, I think, intangible incentives are a big part of what’s going on there. There’s ethereal things that both sides want.
The other one you hear a lot is what political scientists and what I call misperceptions, which is the idea that Putin is actually maybe a little rational, but certainly misinformed, as you hear. Like many autocrats, he is insulated from information, which is probably true to an extent. He’s overconfident. He underestimated the Ukrainians and on and on and on. All of these are mistakes, and they’re systematic mistakes that leaders and even military bureaucracies can make.
That’s a whole bucket. Of course, we have 400 of those. The thing that makes me worry is neither one of these is particularly strategic. The other three are really strategic sources of war. The reasons that someone might optimally, without being irrational, without having these ethereal, intangible incentives go to war. We tend to leap very quickly, these psychological ones. They’re probably true to an extent. I think, we grossly overstate. We have a tendency to grossly overstate how true they are, and that’s been true for so many wars. The US invasion of Iraq, World War I, and so on.
Kurtis: You can continue to use the Ukraine example, or feel free to venture out. One of the main messages of the book is that so long as war is costly, there’s always a political deal that both sides prefer. Do you think the fact that modern war with drones and advanced technology, cyber warfare has gotten a lot more targeted, a lot less deadly, I guess, you could say, in a way to actual humans, but still hugely costly? Do you think that shift in the costs from sheer human death toll to just really large economic death toll, but still costly? How do you think this shifts the calculus of war?
Chris: That’s a good point. I mean, the less costly war is, maybe the more possible is for one of these five factors including the psychological ones to overcome those costs. I think, the general trend has been for war to become more destructive, because at the same time, we have drones, we have things like cluster bombs, and we have unparalleled abilities to mine. That’s to say nothing of nuclear warfare. It is true that the ability to have precision strikes might mean that leaders are more willing to use them if they think it can avoid escalation. A lot of those incidents that wouldn’t necessarily qualify as war, I qualify them as. Because they’re not prolonged. It’s not a prolonged mode of violence.
It’s a way to basically, punish an enemy in some other way. It could be so. I would say, it might enable rivals to have a bunch of punitive actions against one another that don’t escalate. When war does break out, I think the destructiveness of our weapons means more and more tends to just be a doozy.
Kurtis: Another, I guess, big name writer on violence is Steven Pinker, a fellow Canadian of both of ours. While Better Angels of our Nature is a massive book, the main tagline is that violence and war have declined significantly in recent decades and centuries. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on this paradox that declining war, some say could potentially bring in. I’m thinking of Peter Turchin’s work and Charles Tilley and others that sure, war with groups is horrible and costly and bad, but these authors contend that war had some benefits for collective action and cohesion within a group.
I guess, is what I’m asking is, yes, a more peaceful world with less war is great and much better. Do you see a potential byproduct of this more peaceful world is a declining ability to engage in collective action and cooperation with our in-group members? Does this help explain maybe the decline of social capital that people like Putnam and others, for example, write about?
Chris: I personally don’t think so. It’s true that war can create some degree of social capital, and it also destroys an enormous amount as well. I think, the idea that war is productive for political development is true for some periods of time in history. Early in modern Europe, Charles Tilley. It’s not clear it applies to most other places in periods of history. There might have been a very peculiar dynamic. Quite frankly, most of, I think, the benefits of this are actually coming from intense competition.
There’s a lot of advancement in cohesion and things that we engage in and state development, all these other things from what historians call defensive modernization. You don’t actually have to go to war to get a lot of the benefits. You can, in some sense, gain a lot of the social political benefits without that really costly part. Merely through intense competition. I quote the lengthy detail on this towards the end of the book, where that’s one of the myths I try to unpack a little bit. I think, that’s in some sense, one of the big myths in social science that leads people to be say, well, maybe we ought to have more war.
Seriously, some people will do that. Like, oh, maybe we ought to let Rwanda fight it out in eastern Congo, because that’ll be good for state development in Central Africa. I don’t think it’s completely without merit, but I think it’s about 80% nonsense.
Kurtis: Yeah. Is this somewhat aligned? I’m just thinking to my African politics, in Jeffrey Herbst.
Chris: I mean, I have Herbst in mind. I love Herbst and he’s what — I admire all of his work, and that’s the maybe his one thing he’s argued over the years that I strongly disagree with.
Kurtis: Yeah. That’s just because of the sheer potential for war to break out, if we start to talk about redrawing these international borders.
Chris: Yeah. Quite frankly, I think I wouldn’t necessarily have a problem with — If Africans wanted to redraw national borders in a specific way, I think that would be perfectly fine. In fact, I think a lot of more political integration across Africa would be one of the most promising things for development and political stability there. I think, the idea that fighting is somehow a path to development is maybe one of the more dangerous and wrong ideas in social science.
Kurtis: You covered intangible incentives, you covered misperceptions, and these are the two ones that you think loom large over this Ukraine-Russia war. The other three unchecked interest, uncertainty and commitment problem, do you want to speak to those a bit?
Chris: I think, they loom large in our popular imagination of the conflict that’s going on right now. I think, we ignore the strategic sources which are there to our detriment. The first one, which you mentioned, unchecked interest, is a pretty simple logic. If the leader of the group doesn’t bear those costs, because they’re not accountable for the costs, then they’re not going to take them into consideration. They’re going to be too ready to use violence. Furthermore, they might even have a private incentive for fighting. Because maybe, war is going to increase their share of the pie, or preserve their power.
If so, they’re going to take their group to war against the interests of the group. This is strategic, because this is what we call it an agency problem, between people and their leaders. It occurs in democracies.
Kurtis: Is this is the George Washington example you used, right?
Chris: George Washington was an unchecked leader. George W. Bush was in some ways, an unchecked leader. They’re voted into office in terms. They have a certain amount of executive authority. Not completely unchecked, but a little bit can be a little bit unchecked and pursue private interests. Any president of the United States, and in this case, Putin, is a completely personalized autocrat. He and his inner circle call all the shots. A lot of the decisions are made by him individually. That means that he doesn’t have to bear these costs of the conflict. There are some risks associated of a popular revolt and drew some costs of the sanctions and conflict, but not most of them.
Arguably, he has a private incentive to fight. I think for me, the thing that’s not talked about is Ukraine is the one place on the planet that Russians identify with more than any other people outside the country. In some ways, that’s part of the problem. They identify with them so much that some of them want to subsume them. They’ve had two colored revolutions, peaceful, popular revolutions, democratic movements in 10 years. That’s a tremendously dangerous example for Putin to have right there, because these things tend to be infectious and he knows it. He’s very fearful of this.
Exterminating that possibility is not in the interest of the Russian people. It’s in his interests and the interests of his cabal. That private incentive, that war bias that comes from being unchecked is fundamental here. We don’t talk about that enough about how the centralization and political power makes peace much, much, much, much more fragile, maybe far more so in my mind than any of these psychological, or even any other strategic factors.
The second strategic factor, we call them certainty. Think about our story about misperceptions, how wrong and overconfident people say Putin got it. Well, that tends to ignore the fact that these are fundamentally uncertain. In fact, the best military analysts in the United States and many other outside countries assumed that Russia would plow through Ukraine in three days, and this would just be over very, very quickly. All of these things were fundamentally uncertain, and people, including Putin, had to make guesses.
Exposed, do we say, “Oh, this is a mistake.” Ex ante, it’s not clear it was completely the wrong decision. I think there was some misperceptions, there was some underestimation, there was some overconfidence, there were some biases. Fundamentally, these were gambles, and that’s super common. The uncertainty of these situations lead to these gambles. In particular, it leads to a strategic interaction, because each side knows much better their abilities and their resolve and their strength. They have an incentive to bluff, to pretend they’re stronger than they are, to get a better deal at peace without fighting. You always know that. All of us get this strategic intuition from playing poker, for example.
You have this incentive to falsify your strength and hope your opponent will call by attacking. That’s a dangerous game. I think, the uncertainty surrounding this situation, as much and more than the misperceptions really led Putin to frankly, not believe any signals from the Ukraine about how resolved they were. We have to add that in. That’s a crucial strategic dynamic that exists in every rivalry.
Kurtis: Like you said, much more exacerbated probably in centralized regimes, because they’re getting a narrow slice of information.
Chris: Yeah. You can already see how all four of these things are interacting, because the personalized, insulated regime is going to be more subject to the tangible incentives of its personalized ruler. It’s going to be more subject to his or her misperceptions. It’s going to mean that it’s maybe harder to resolve uncertainty. Then the last is commonly called a commitment problem. A lot of people might think of it as the logical preventative war. This is the idea that — let’s think about the situation here. Russia had grown very strong. Economy boomed for 15 years from 2000 to 2015, 14, 15, roughly. Putin consolidated political control. Basically, Russia has stagnated since then.
Ukraine is growing more democratic and closer to the West by the day. There’s the possibility of —its economic growth is probably going to be greater than that of Russia’s, and there’s a good chance it’s going to be armed by the West in the future. All of these are expectations we have. From Putin’s point of view, this is his peak leverage versus Ukraine and Western Europe, I think is a fair way to look at it. There’s this window of opportunity that’s closing, because it’s only going to get harder.
Now, sometimes that growth in power of your enemy is going to be so imminent and so rapid that there’s nothing they can do to convince you that it’s not worth your salt to go and invade now. In this case, I don’t think it was so dominant, but I think it added to that incentive. We have these three strategic forces, the uncheckedness of Putin and his private incentives to exterminate this threat to his regime. The sheer uncertainty and this rising — the fact that he only expects to lose leverage over time. All of those, I think, narrow the range of options for a deal, to the point where these psychological factors can matter.
You always have delusional leaders. You always have these ideological objectives. You always have misperceptions. Fundamentally, they don’t carry countries to war, except when I think some of the more fundamental strategic forces have really made this peace very fragile.
Kurtis: That’s good. We got a summary of the five logics that lead to war, or make peace break down. I was going to ask, because I saw that after you returned to blogging, after long last of writing the book and whatnot, which I’m very happy for, you said during the writing of Why We Fight, you were appointed to read Machiavelli. I’m curious there, because I love Machiavelli. How does his thought play into your views on war and peace? Was it a revelation that you hadn’t expected to come from a guy like Machiavelli with his reputation?
Chris: I’m lucky to have a colleague here at University of Chicago named John McCormick, who’s Machiavelli scholar, and I heard him speak and we spoke more, and I read his book and I read several books, and it was — Many people I thought of Machiavelli as this person who’s writing a handbook for an autocratic ruler, like a Putin saying, here’s the spelling out this cold, cruel logic of saying, “Listen. If your enemy is rising in power, then you ought to invade them now, because this is in your self-interest.” It’s basically teaching a ruler how to be more self-interested.
One thing I didn’t appreciate is just how original this logical, dispassionate thinking towards politics was, in some sense invented and was the first modern political scientist, because up to that point, political actions were the subject of what was morally right, or what God told you to do. The fact that he was saying, let’s calculate and optimize, let’s basically be strategic, was a true revolution of thought. That’s one of the first things I learned, which so, just appreciate the cleverness. Of course, it seems quite evil and cold hearted, but especially, because he seemed to stray from the — the political scientists would have said, “Here’s how leaders make decisions.” He was saying, “Here’s how you should make decisions, or so it seems.”
This is, I think, where people like Mearsheimer sometimes get into trouble, is they sound — I don’t actually know how he feels, but they sound like, they’re saying, we should act in this realist way. Not that this is how nations act, which I think is a fair description. He’s saying, this is how we should do. We should disregard norms and ideals. I don’t think he actually believes that, but I think, this is the funny thing with — and Machiavelli isn’t that since the first realist, and he’s very much leaning in from not just the descriptive, but the prescriptive.
What I learned is that he’s actually a Republican, in the sense of being for the people in reality. The Prince was written for different reasons, maybe to curry favor, but partly, to maybe even tongue in cheek. He really spelled out, I think, this logic of unchecked leaders and why this is perilous. It sets the stage for his personal advocacy in his later writings on what’s essentially early forms of democracy. Anyways, that was a total awakening for me, and I really enjoyed reading it. To read a little bit more about the history of that period, and then to read it with this knowledge was, I think, just went from a boring old text to something that was really rich and exciting.
Kurtis: A completely different and more modern question here. Over the course of the COVID pandemic over the last two years, there’s been a pretty big significant spike in violence here in the U.S., I think especially so in cities. Maybe using your framework, we just went over of this bargaining pie and the five logics of war. How do you model this spike and how do you see this spike playing out, of course, in the next year and beyond?
Chris: Yeah. Here, we’re actually now getting closer to my day job, where I’m working on a lot of reduced interpersonal and small group violence, especially criminal gangs in Chicago, also abroad. There’s a lot of parallels. I mean, there’s especially close parallels when we’re talking about organized groups, such as gangs. That describes a lot of those shootings in at least some of the shootings in America. I think, it’s more of an interpersonal violence here. A lot of these shootings are targeted assassinations by individual rivals, who may have loose group affiliations with something that’s like a gang. That has a lot of similarities. I try not to talk about some of the more, let me say what’s similar and then what’s different.
What’s similar is that gangs, for example, do exist in a world of uncertainty vis-a-vis the strength of their rivals, and they have an incentive to bluff one another. Then, they have an incentive to sometimes call that bluff. A great deal of these short gang wars happen for that reason. They misperceive. They are also unchecked, because they don’t bear most of the costs of their violence. You get pretty far with basically, an insulated street gang member or leader who faces an uncertain world and is prone to misperceptions.
Then, you can get some perspective power shifts that you anticipate on this commitment problems, I think, that’s certainly happened. I think that’s more rare. Then, they may have intangible incentives of personal glory or something, but I think mostly, you can see a lot of gang warfare as this mix of uncertainty and some misperceptions and this uncheckness. The thing that happens, though, with these small groups, and especially once we get to more individual violence, is that there’s something I don’t talk about in group warfare very much, but that’s super important, which is individual passions and emotions.
Individual passions and emotions are not great explanations for war, because war is going for an extremely long time. That hot, reactive violence in the moment might explain the first few blows, but it doesn’t explain why you’re still fighting on day 493. Of course, it can matter more when you have a personalized leader, like Putin. For the most part, I think, individualized violence is obviously, that hot, reactive anger in response to a sleight is a really, really important thing. I think, that actually is probably dominates these more strategic motives among disorganized gangs, like we see in Chicago, like we see in a lot of American cities.
I’ve met dealers who will talk about their strategic incentives. A guy who told me, “Listen, the reason I have to kill so much is because, people are always looking to see if they can steal my corners, steal my stuff. I have to show them I’m strong. I have to kill to signal. I have to have a reputation.” That’s code for uncertainty. That was very calculating. That was just he says, because of the uncertainty and because I faced so many rivals, I have to establish reputation. I do so through violence. That’s very strategic.
At the same time, some of that killing is happening, because somebody looked at him the wrong way, or made a move on his girlfriend, and he feels — partly, he feels like, he has to respond to signal strength, but he’s also really angry in that moment. I think, both are true. As to why violence is spiking right now, because that’s — what if those five factors has changed in the last few years, such that we’ve seen a resurgence in gun violence? The short answer is, I’m not sure. I think, one persuasive answer is the people’s perceived likelihood of getting caught and being held accountable for this violence has gone down a lot, partly because there’s been changes in policing, and maybe a pullback in some cities. That’s one explanation, which is that people just don’t expect to get caught. They’re less checked, and so they’re more willing to succumb to these uncertainty and misperceptions and do the costly thing.
Then the second is that COVID has maybe raised the temperature. I don’t find either one of these totally satisfying, to be completely frank. I don’t think we’ve got the answer. Those are the two things you hear. I frankly don’t have a better explanation to offer.
Kurtis: Yeah. On the individual level, emotions and anger point you made, I think it was this morning, you tweeted out Mr. Rogers congressional testimony from 1969 was one of your favorite civil society government interactions. I watched it. I watched the statement this morning getting out of bed. I got to say, it was the calmest I have woken up and started my day in a long, long time. He’s just got this thing to calm kids down.
The question is, how does a figure, or an intervention like a Mr. Rogers’ early in life factor into your model of effective interventions to stem violence? You worked with former child soldiers. You’ve written a lot about cognitive behavioral therapy. Is there a Mr. Rogers of Uganda? I don’t think so.
Chris: It’s funny. There are these people. The reason I ended up setting CBT is I met Mr. Rogers of Liberia, and he developed this amazing program. There’s a lot of interventions. There’s Mr. Rogers, and there’s our preschool curriculum and social-emotional learning. There’s cognitive therapy, there’s alternative dispute resolution. One of the things all of these have in common is they teach us to how to basically control our passions better. These hot, reactive decisions that are mistakes, they’re not necessarily misperceptions. They’re just succumbing to our emotions. It’s more common with very small groups and individuals. They teach us to recognize those automatic and problematic thoughts, and they teach us strategies to deal with them. Counting to 10, walking away. These are very basic things you would learn.
In marriage counseling, you would learn treatments for this very serious, aggressive violence that my son learns in elementary school and my daughter learns in elementary school. Many people are on their grandmother’s name. We learned from Mr. Rogers. That’s super important. The other thing we tend to do automatically, and this is more closely related to what I think of as misperceptions and erroneous beliefs, is we tend to develop, when we have an adversary, we tend to develop really rigid, poisonous views about them. Then we interpret all information through this poisonous lens.
This is what people in marriage counseling often need. They’ve got this almost this poisonous, reactive relationship. It’s very difficult to even process information through a neutral lens and to even assume that person’s acting from goodwill. We need to learn to recognize that bias and misperception and walk it back and reprogram ourselves. That’s also what all of these methodologies try to do, including cognitive behavioral therapy. I think, they’re really effective at helping us prevent this from happening. Or when we do have those poisonous relationships, from helping us unwind that and normalizing it. Really important, but maybe not a strategy for intergroup warfare.
Kurtis: Yeah. You did write about your wife a bit in the book. She’s a PhD psychologist. I think, you said she’s at IRC. How much did your foray into cognitive behavioral therapy and that research, how much of that was influenced by her? Maybe, do you want to first sum up that research a bit in the findings around this?
Chris: Sure. I’ve had lots of forays into different areas of psychology. Jeannie and I have written lots of papers together. Not on this. She played a really crucial role at one moment, but this was when our research paths, our lives converged more and more and with kids, but our research paths diverged. Because she mostly looks at how to relieve the worst effects of conflict. I’m more interested in understanding why we fight and how to stop that. The way it came about, one way of answering it altogether is basically, I was in Liberia, I’d grown ill and I had to stay in the capital where I didn’t have any projects, while Jeannie ran off to the rural areas to run our projects.
Once I started to feel better, but I had to stay in town, I thought I’d ask somebody to show me around. I asked this guy Johnson Borr to show me around. I just wanted to understand how criminal markets and violence worked in the city. He could go anywhere, because he’d been working in an organization that basically, did outreach to the most violent people. Every time we go visit a drug corner, or mobile phone fencers, or whoever we were trying to understand better, somebody would come up to him and give him a big hug and be across the street. That’s how they know each other. They’d say, “Well, I used to be that guy,” and they’d point to the drug dealer, or the pickpocket and then see. Then I went to Johnson’s program.
After the fifth time this happened, we sat down in a bar and I said, “Johnson, we have to write this out.” We spent hours writing out what he did, on day one, day two. I showed it to Jeannie, and she looked and she said, “Oh, this looks like cognitive behavior therapy.” It was adapted into the local context and lots of things that emerge together with decades of trial and error by Johnson and his crew. It was about teaching people how to manage emotions. It was about teaching people how to get out of these rigid poisonous points of view. It was also teaching them to be more planful and future-oriented, and it was teaching them how to acquire a different social identity, how to basically act like a normal person, not be an outcast. They did all of these things by making people cognizant of their biases, but then also practicing, through baby steps, practicing better.
That’s the core element of cognitive behavioral therapy. It’s putting the biases up there on the table, but then also, learning by doing. Practicing ways to get better, baby steps at a time. We put it to the test. It’s been put to the test for a whole host of mental disorders, but never on a large scale for violence, and violence reduction with the hardened street criminals. We did that over a few years.
After a year of randomized controlled trial, after a year, we found that was an incredibly impactful way to reduce violence. Violence went down by about 50%, especially if we give people the economic opportunity. We’re about to release 10-year results. It’s completely sustained. The cognitive behavior therapy results in a really sustained, almost basically, half of the people who went through the program, basically turned off from criminal life.
We estimate, I think, that on average the program, which costs $500 each person who went through it, averaged fact was they did 26 fewer crimes a year. That’s after 10 years, that’s 260 fewer crimes. That’s $2 a crime. Pretty good deal.
Kurtis: This isn’t really violence related, but there’s been a few RCTs on this rack, targeting the ultra-poor program, where you transfer assets. With that asset, whether it’s a cow, or a goat, or some chickens or something. Also, it typically comes nominal cash transfer, as well as coaching. I think, what was found is when you remove the personal coaching element, it reduces the effect just dramatically. Do you have a sense with your work on CBT and then the findings of these rack things, I guess, why aren’t more development economists really focused on this coaching aspect of the intervention that seems so important?
Chris: I’ve tested the coaching aspect myself in some of my own cash transfer work, and which I did in a post-conflict context many years ago. I found the effects of this to be much more ambiguous and unclear. I’m not sure that’s a robust finding. We’ll find out. The real problem with coaching is even if it has an impact, it’s tremendously expensive to deliver. A lot of times, these organizations, well-meaning non-profits are giving somebody say, 200 bucks to buy a cow, or start a business, or just in cash. Then delivering the coaching might cost $300, because it involves professional staff and people driving out the administration. The cost benefit calculus is really stacked against it. It has to be really impactful, I think, to pass the cost benefit test, for something like poverty alleviation.
Maybe it will. I’m skeptical, but it’s totally possible, especially if it can be done in a cheap way, or cheaper way than currently. The difference with something violence reduction and CBT is that it’s super targeted at people who are having tremendous negative externalities on the rest of society. You could throw any number of resources into them and it will probably pay off if it works, which is not true for poverty alleviation, right? Because it’s actually really hard for these people to make money to micro-enterprise, or from a cow.
You throw another $300 at them in coaching and then that will somehow pay off over the next 10 years and their cows profit. It’s a hard hurdle. Someone’s less likely to kill a person. Someone is less likely to conduct an armed robbery. That’s just so harmful to society. That’s why the CBT component of this, which cost a few hundred dollars, I think sales through a cost benefit test. It’s why in Chicago, this model was so successful that we inspired Chicago’s main response to gun violence, where we also have results coming up very shortly. I’ve been evaluating this.
I’m just going to say, the program costs $65,000 per year, or per person. We’re seeing the treatment effects are such that the results will come out soon, but we’re sailing past that cost benefit test. Because the thing they’re doing, which is shooting so costly. Any other kind of program, especially poverty alleviation, you never want to throw that money at somebody, because it’ll never, never pay off.
Kurtis: Yeah. You mentioned on the state side, Chicago side of things, is this through the crime lab that you’re talking about, this work that you…
Chris: The Chicago work is through crime lab. The Liberia work was with Johnson’s organization, NEPA and Innovations for Poverty Action.
Kurtis: Okay. Do you want to maybe — because you brought it up in the last question, just talk briefly about the CBT therapy that was transferred over to the crime lab in Chicago and has since been, or is being scaled up. What other work is the crime lab doing that you’ve been a part of and have been seeing some really good results from?
Chris: Well, there’s a set of related labs that this is actually a part of its crime lab. Also, we have something called the Inclusive Economy Lab. Used to be called the Poverty Lab for Chicago. This is a joint venture. A lot of people internationally are familiar with Poverty Action Lab and Innovations for Poverty Action, which do the same rigorous evidence building internationally.
This is my sole project with crime lab right now. Being able to jump in an Uber to do field work and to also work in my own city is such an exciting thing, especially because most of the time, I have to be on a 20-hour flight. I love this mix and I’ve learned so much. There’s a lot of idea exchange that doesn’t happen from abroad to here, and here to abroad that I feel like, I bring this new perspective and I can also bring some ideas and be a bridge. It’s super exciting.
I’m not currently doing anything else. If I can do one thing in Chicago, I would love to study peace treaties between gangs. Super understudied, underappreciated, not pursued as a policy objective in most American cities. Meanwhile, they’re doing a 100 things with police, with NGOs, with housing, with all sorts of things, basically, to bring this rigorous evidence, to test out policies, to see which are working and which are cost effective and advance what we know about these important social goals in a troubled city like Chicago.
Kurtis: I think, the crime lab was actually mentioned in the last chapter. Let’s go there. Because the last chapter you write, you talk about some commandments of this type of work and development work more generally, and basically, outlined how a lot of development work is analogous to Karl Popper’s piecemeal engineers, tinkering and experimenting, used to talk about polycentric systems of governance and these trial and error, and which I think is spot on.
The commandment that struck a chord with me was thou shalt not forget that all policymaking is political. Where who you mentioned, I think, frequently is James Ferguson’s great book, Anti-Politics Machine. Can you tell us about that story and Lesotho?
Chris: Yeah. This was a really powerful book for me. Maybe when people ask me for a book recommendation and they work in international development, or just policy in general, this is one of the first one or two that I tell people to read. He was an anthropologist. He is an anthropologist. He’s Stanford now. In the early 80s I believe, he was an anthropologist and a grad student off to do his fieldwork and he went to Lesotho, which is this little country in the middle of South Africa.
Students at that time is pick a tribe, or village and study it intensely. He got there and he became fascinated by this other tribe, which wore suits and held meetings and had presentations and were engaged in this project called development. Dome of them were the state, and some of them were international development agencies, like Canada’s agency and the Swedes and US and the World Bank.
He ends up writing an anthropology of the state and international NGO and UN actors, which I just think is fabulous. The thing he points out, which I think is just broadly true for so many policymakers, is that when you’re in that planner position, whether you’re a foreigner not, you tend to oversimplify the problem. You tend to see it through the lens of your tools, that when I have a hammer, everything is a nail. You tend to think that you’re this dispassionate actor, just trying to do the best evidence-based thing and help relieve these problems.
You forget the problem is complex. You forget that you’re a political actor, that you’re strengthening actors in society. When projects fail, which many do, most do, because of these naivetes, you also forget that maybe the one thing you’ve done, if you accomplished nothing else, would extend the power of your bureaucracy and to coordinate and organize people’s lives and to insinuate yourself into the system. You’re a political actor, not just because you’re shifting the equilibrium, or whatever’s going on in that society, but because you’re extending your power into that society. I just think, that’s a general lesson of all policymaking that everyone should pay more attention to, rather than thinking there, “I’m just this dispassionate optimizer.”
Kurtis: There’s this specific story, though, about how these development workers didn’t understand the story of the bull and how it worked in this social system.
Chris: Right. I mean, there’s so many great stories in that book, including maybe the best deconstruction of World Bank report that I’ve ever seen, which doesn’t sound an interesting first chapter, but it’s fabulous. I mean, one of the examples he gives was these World Bank and these other development consults, and the government, they go to Lesotho. There’s an enormous amount of cattle ownership. The cattle raising. Occasionally, there’s a drought, and there’s no market for cattle. All of a sudden, everybody’s cattle are going to die. There’s this huge correlated shock, and they’ve got really very little way to protect about it. One way to protect it is to sell the cattle in an emergency, so that you can get money, stay liquid and then buy cattle again when the drought’s over.
There’s lots for the benefits of having a cattle market, being able to sell. Why not reduce transaction costs? This was a clear market inefficiency. They said, well, this is it. We’ll put in all of the things we need, infrastructure and da, da, da, da to establish this market. On one level, makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, totally misread the whole sociology of the situation. The men were only buying cattle, precisely because there was no market. Lesotho’s economy functions in a funny way, which is that all the men leave to go be migrant workers in South Africa, especially in the mines, and they send all their money back and they don’t want their wives to spend it.
The best strategy is to put it in an illiquid asset. If you suddenly create a market for cattle, well, there might be some good consequences. It’s going to undermine the entire system of social control, which might in itself be a good thing, assuming you were even aware that that would be the effect. Anyways, when nobody wants to participate in the system and it all fails, and you in retrospect are like, “Oh.” All planners make this mistake. People who are foreign, by foreign, I don’t mean from another country. Because the person from the capital and the person from the ministry who’s from that country is often just as foreign to that village, maybe more so and more out of touch than the foreigner, the true foreigner. Just as I’m a foreigner on the south side of Chicago when I go do my fieldwork there.
As soon as we’re out of our sphere and we’re doing policy to somebody else, this is one of these mistakes we make. That’s the sense, in which your anti-politics machines, will not only overestimate our own dispassionateness and neutrality, but we tend to ignore a lot of that rich social political fabric and things that are going on in our quest for some technocratic objective.
Kurtis: Let’s talk about RCTs a bit. You mentioned in the last chapter that Lant Pritchett is one of your mentors. I think, you called him the Mark Twain of Development, which I think is just great. I got to ask, what RCT would Lant Pritchett be most angry at you for running and why?
Chris: Lant’s bark is worse than his bite. I think, he will privately acknowledge that this system of knowledge creation makes sense. It’s just, I think what he gets frustrated at that and justifiably so, is people overestimating what it can deliver and underestimating other paths to knowledge, and so among other things. A good example is something I myself regard as a mistake in retrospect. All the work, it is cash transfers. My initial interpretation of results and those results where you give people cash, they tend to spend — you give the poorest people plenty of cash, they tend to spend it well, and then they have high returns to that cash. They earn a lot more money, and so potentially, a magic cheap solution to poverty.
That was probably too narrow and too short-term and to atheoretical. When we got more theoretical and when we went more long-term, we realized the effects tend to disappear and they might even disappear quickly, because the control group catches up. The people who didn’t kept the cash tend to save and accumulate and eventually, get to the same place, because they have high returns. The very poor generally have high returns to capital, which is great. If you give them capital, then they surge forward.
If you don’t give them capital, unless maybe in the most ultra-poor circumstances, they still surge forward, just at a slower pace. That one year or five years and certainly, 10 years later, a lot of the evidence is suggesting, there’s no sustained effect. This kickstart is tremendous. What we missed is that microeconomics, or maybe not 101, but 102. Unless, there’s something impeding these people from saving, or borrowing at all over the long-term, which would lead them to be trapped in poverty, we should expect them to spring forward.
Maybe it was our theoretical naivety, and our enthusiasm for a magic solution meant, I probably disappointed my inner Lant Pritchett, and my inner James Ferguson.
Kurtis: Yeah. I can’t remember when this was, but you talked about how you were doing this RCT and the whole thing unraveled or something, because the treatment and the control groups had prearranged to share the treatment ahead of time, or something like that?
Chris: This was the Liberia with these street criminals who are very savvy, as you would think. All my gray hair is probably due to that project. I mean, just working in Liberia in general. In a early pilot, when we first tested out cash transfers through randomized controlled trial, they completely and certainly, partially insured one another. They met before the draw and made deals to basically, undo the randomization, such that if they lost, the winners agreed to compensate the losers.
Now, contracting is hard, and so maybe the guys only got $20 instead of $50 out of that. Sorry, the cash grant was $200. It’s not like the control group got a $100. I think, they maybe got $20, or $30, or $40. At one hand, I plotted them, because I’m like, “Well done, guys. You got us.” On the other hand, it was like, “Crap. This is really important to know how we help these guys and stop this violence.” We quickly figured out a way to unravel their unraveling, which was basically, by offering a consultation prize. Everybody won something. It was a lottery for $200, or $10. That crippled this informal Liberian social insurance system that they created.
Kurtis: One RCT you worked on with Stefan Dercon was in Ethiopia. He’s a chief economist, or was chief economist.
Chris: He was chief economist at DFID. He’s now continuing, or what’s now the FCDO, the foreign office in UK. He has a book. He’d be a fabulous guest. He has a new book coming out in the summer called Gambling of Development, which is one of the best development books I’ve read in years. Yeah, we worked together for a little while in Ethiopia, trying to see whether sweatshops are good for poverty.
Kurtis: Yeah, the impact of industrial work, factory employment on livelihoods with workers. I listened to your — you had podcast on EconTalk with Russ Roberts, about the study. You came out of that study. You said, appreciating more than you’d gone into it appreciating is how these factory owners, or these entrepreneurs had this constant constraint of finding managerial talent, or middle managers. Just like administering and operating these large factories just made it measurably more difficult without the expertise. Nick Blum has done some work on this that’s really good.
It’d be great for you to speak about this revelation a bit first. Then also, I think you worked in Deloitte in management consulting before going in academia. Then, does that managerial experience make you better at running these large scale RCTs?
Chris: Absolutely. Because they’re just huge, complex enterprises. My first love as a research passion was industrialization in Africa, because that is the solution to poverty, period. The end. All the cash transfers in the world will not get anybody passed, just above subsistence, so I think, micro-enterprises. Before I started working on conflict, I was actually in Nairobi as a grad student studying firms. Then I got waylaid into studying violence and I loved it and had been really passionate about it. I was always had these ideas about industrialization. When I had a chance to run a randomized controlled trial of factory jobs, I leapt at it. That brought me into contact with all these managers. I should say, that’s just my hypothesis. I think, it’s in-line. I think we need to do a lot more work.
I guess, the one thing I drew, the one way to — and wrap it together with my Deloitte career is I left Deloitte and management consulting and things, because I thought, I wanted to be good in the world. I just was not that excited about helping old white rich man get older and whiter and richer. That was my job. It was interesting, but that was unmotivating for me. What I think I discovered in retrospect is that if I really wanted to make a place like Africa more economically vibrant and create development, I should have gone there as a management consultant and as a banker, or as a — I think, I could have gone and done as much, or maybe even more good than I could ever do in an NGO.
I think that we have this flood of skilled talent going there too, from other places and human capital into the non-profit sector, which is great. We have much relatively less. People are not going in there trying to say like, “I’m going to go do mergers and acquisitions. I’m going to try to actually just run a bunch of companies better and more efficiently.” There are people who go do that. One of the guys I worked with in Ethiopia was an Ethiopian-American who went back to do this. He’s created more development than any other person I’ve met in my lifetime, probably. I admire that. I encourage a lot of my students to consider that path. I realized, that was maybe the mistake. Maybe not the mistake. I think, I’m doing good now, too. Maybe I’m better at this than I was as a management consultant. I think I could’ve done a lot of good.
Kurtis: Then, a second question on this. Chris Blattman is manager putting on the hat of the Ethiopian factory owner. I’m assuming, as you’re a faculty director at Harris School for one of the programs, I’m assuming you played a big role in building out the Harris School’s new all-star faculty and this now all-star program around the political economy development. It’s quite literal to say, you’ve attracted the best, most talented people in this field from around the globe to Chicago. Michael Kremer and James Dobbins and yourself, others. What managerial, or administrative powers of persuasion helped you build out this really awesome, successful program in a relatively short period of time?
Chris: I learned a lot from a dean we have here at school, when I arrived here and then he became provost very quickly. He was on this rocket ship, and now he’s president of Vanderbilt, Daniel Diermeier, who’s a game theorist and a political economist, which is now running universities. When he became dean of the Harris School, first of all, the academic institutions are generally terribly managed. Chairs of departments aren’t under duress. They hate that job. They’re doing it, because it’s their turn. Every minute is often agony. That’s how I would feel, and I strenuously try to avoid any such duties. We’re not very good at. No one ever trains us to be good managers. If I bring managerial talent, it’s total accident.
Daniel just has had this amazing natural talent, and he was very strategic. He said, “Listen, we’re a 200-student school, and we’re not one of the great policy schools. I think, we want to be one of the great policy schools. We have to be, first of all, because we’re at the University of Chicago.” He thought big, which was important. He said, “We’re going to need to be bigger. We need to grow.” Of course, everybody’s happier in the growing world. We saw the revenue coming in from students. He was thinking in all these terms, but then he did something very thoughtful. He said, “I’m willing to grow in any direction that the faculty want, but you have to convince me that we can be one of the three best places in the world at that subfield.”
That turned into energy and environment, and that turned into a political economy and the political economy development in conflict turned into crime. Now, we’re pushing that direction, education. That to me was a really powerful strategic lesson for an academic institution, or maybe any institution is to aim for world-class from the beginning and carve out a niche. I think, that’s how we’ve been able to do this. Because now, there’s such a density of people in these different areas that other people who are, maybe at the best places in some sense, places that are better as an overall department who want to come here just to be part of the group and students come.
That’s not something I ever learned in — I’m not sure you learn that many management skills as the most junior person in Deloitte Consulting. I’ve learned all those deep lessons from people like Diermeier.
Kurtis: Talent attracts talent. Yeah. You wrote a New York Times article, basically, directly addressed to one of the richest men on the planet, Bill Gates, on why cash transfers are better than giving chickens. We just spoke about cash transfers, so the jury seems to be a bit out thus far. You’ve been supportive of organizations like GiveDirectly, do cash transfer work.
Maybe update us on the literature, because you did bring it up earlier about the longer-term effects had been less in your five, 10 long-term. Then second, you’re giving. Do you give to GiveDirectly, or do you have more targeted ways of giving, seeing as you go to these places, you have a lot of relationships? How does Chris Blattman give effectively?
Chris: I’ve been swimming in the violence literature so much that this thing that I did early in my career around cash transfers, which was related to conflict as I was doing it all in post-conflict scenarios, or giving to some very undesirable people. I’m a little out of touch with. I guess, I would say that if you give livestock or cash, they’re both good strategies. Then, it’s about what’s slightly more cost effective and what’s scalable and all these. I would just say like, I don’t care, actually. I actually give a lot of money to GiveDirectly. I love working with them. I would give money to chickens as well, whatever.
The thing I’ve been spending more time on is that I think the deepest problem on the planet is violence and political instability. I think, all underdevelopment stems from political instability and the potential for violence. When it happens, it’s the worst thing. Anything we can do to move the needle on that is going to have a huge return. The individualized stuff, like CBT. I spend a lot of time thinking about how we can do this on a larger scale.
The cash and chickens are the easy problem to solve. There are lots of easy problems and they’re not solved yet entirely, so great. Let’s just pour money into the deworming medicine and the malaria vaccine, and we could make a list. Great. Those are simple problems to solve. We should be solving them. Guess what? There’s some really hard problems. That’s where the book comes from. I struggle to find, we’re not there yet. I think, there needs to be more concerted effort, which means when I do give, there’s a lot of international human rights, like International Rescue Committee does amazing work. It’s not just, yes, my wife works here, but she went to work there because it was the best. Really, is one of the best organizations. I have immense respect for International Crisis Group, Human Rights Watch. There’s a whole host of these places that I — Médecins Sans Frontieres, they’re very effective in the field. They deliver a lot of good. They’re the best organizations out there doing what they do. We give monthly. Honestly, I don’t really think in an effective altruism, dollar for dollar way. Those places are creating the impact they could. There’s a big gaping hole.
Kurtis: Do you have a sense as to what interventions those would be to fill that hole?
Chris: I did an RCT of alternative dispute resolution, which is basically, a whole set of mechanisms to help people learn how to — and help leaders learn how to deal with disputes better and actually not succumb to some of these five courses. It was really impactful in Liberia and villages. I think, finding ways to cost effectively deliver and inculcate these as both social norms and a broad set of skills and practices and societies everywhere is a fabulous investment. It’s been done in the US court system. A lot of people learn in school. It’s embedded in a lot of our school curriculums in the United States, a lot of these skills. I would embed them more if I could.
I think, just large-scale education on how to manage competition in heated contests and disputes, just interpersonally, would be maybe the greatest single investment we could make in young people. We just have to scale up the capacity to teach those skills. It’s a totally scalable technology. Similar strategies and tools get used at international mediation levels. The more we’re inculcating these skills and just making it a part of our instinctual toolkit and social norms, the better. That would be number one on my list. Actually, that’s number two. Number one on my list, I just don’t know how to do it, or I do, but I can’t affect it individually. The number one problem is over-centralization of power.
Autocrats, but not just autocrats. The Democratic presidents who are not constrained by law, or by other institutions. There’s a lot of those in middle and low-income countries, where the president is still all-powerful, even once they’re elected. All of this, anything to move the needle on checks and balances on power is the single best investment we can make as humanity, anywhere in the world. Any organization, like the Bellingcats of the world in Russia, or dynamic journalists, or the International Republican Institute and the — what’s the other one? The National Democratic Institute. There are a whole set of organizations that are actually really effective at building capacity political parties. Anything that advocated and facilitated constitutional change.
Every margin that we can think of, of checking and balancing power, I think will lead to better development outcomes and will lead to more political stability and less fighting. That’s in some sense, the book I would like to write next. That is what I’m continuing on the search for is ways to move the needle on those things.
Kurtis: A lot of my reading and research is focused on political decentralization, but have you written on that before? I haven’t. I’m sure, I would have come across a Chris Blattman political decentralization paper.
Chris: It’s something I deeply believe, but I haven’t myself run research on. It’s not quite my level of analysis, or hasn’t been. I’m now messing around with some things. I would like to find ways to demonstrate this. It’s hard. I mean, it’s one thing to come up with models and actually do it and then try to research and demonstrate, provide evidence on something like that is even more difficult. In a few years maybe.
Kurtis: This is the Charter Cities Podcast and this is probably as good a moment as ever to talk about that, given we’re on political decentralization. You do have a few blog posts on charter cities. These are from way back when Roemer first proposed the idea in 2009. Obviously, at CC, we have a different model than Romer. He proposed this, he called it foreign guarantor model, where like that poorly governed Honduras would see this large chunk of land to a high-income country like Canada would come in and basically, import and governance and investment would flow and that would kickstart those. This is the basic logic.
Obviously, there was a bunch of critiques, which we were well aware of. Our model is a bit different in that it’s a public-private partnership between a host country and an urban real estate developer, ideally a local real estate developers that are more in tune with the context. Those countries would be given a stake in the city development company and the real estate development company. They would get some revenue raised each and every year. Then the developers, obviously incentivized to maximize land value. They want to attract as many new businesses and residents to the city as possible.
Again, this is the basic logic. Here’s the question. You blogged a while back about Romer’s model, and I think you made a good point. You basically just said that a trial-and-error process with this, it would produce dozens of successful charter cities around the world, but the error and the trial could have a heavy human cost. Do you want to just explain, extrapolate on that a bit?
Chris: I like the idea. I see the appeal. I can see why people want to try this. I think I’m in favor of being tried. It goes a little bit back to, and I think the way it’s been approached, whether it’s Romer’s model, or yours, there is a trial-and-error element, which is the only way you — you guys are again, you’re taking this huge complex problem, which is like, how do we actually develop better political institutions and governance and growth cities? Because that prosperity and development only good governance and all mostly happens in cities. It’s totally sensible. It’s this huge complex problem. It’s not like cash transfers, or malaria vaccines. We have to have people working and solving the complex problems.
Governments are running terrible experiments all the time, in the sense that some central American president is deciding to take his country in a more, or less autocratic direction in his term, for example. That’s an experiment that in trying to create development that can often go awry. There’s trial and error happening, having happen in a more transparent, accountable way with public-private interest is obviously a move in a good direction.
I do worry that it’s the thing where inevitably, some of these attempts are going to fail, and maybe people can vote with their feet and move out. That’s really hard. The one thing I’ve learned from working in conflicts is people don’t leave. We see all these refugees and displaced people from conflict, but that’s amazingly that’s off in the minority. An amazing number of people can’t really escape, or don’t leave, or they’ll stay in the slum even when it’s stagnant. There’s a whole bunch of very attractive gravitational pull, like social and other forces, and just the inertia that I think keep people in bad situations. That’s one of the things that makes me worry is I don’t really believe that everyone’s going to vote with their feet.
Kurtis: I totally hear you. My thing is, if we go with — Romer’s thing was have this thing on a greenfield site, so people have to opt into it. Presumably, if they’ve moved with their feet by opting in to the thing in the first place, they would logically be able to move with their feet in reverse if things seem to go the other way, right?
Chris: One would hope. I mean, that’s an empirical question. I’m just saying that my experience has now given me pause. I don’t know that we know, but it’s not a reason not to try. It’s more like, ways to be — Listen, there’s going to be unintended consequences and there are going to be ones that fail. I think, we just want to think through more carefully and then decide, is it possible, or at least have people go in with open minds.
One of the things I talk about at the end of the book and that’s partly James Ferguson, but partly some of the other people I talk about, all those is social science of public policy. The lesson over and over and over again is the fact that there are these simple and these complex problems, but we tend to fail to distinguish, especially when the solution to the complex problem has this powerful allure, this purity. The charter city is a really good example of that. You have to work really hard not to think that this is a magic solution to a simple problem. Even if you do as the leader of the Charter City Institute, and even if everyone running it, a lot of the supporters are not thinking of it in that way, and just recognize how difficult it is and how many ways it can fail.
That was also my initial reaction, is it’s one of these things where we can make the classic mistake of thinking complex problem is a simple one, and that’s why we fail. That’s James Ferguson, that’s Jim Scott. I actually end up teaching a whole class on these lessons. It has been one of those rewarding classes I’ve ever taught. That’s just something that we find happening all over the world all the time.
Kurtis: Yeah. You’re right, there are some, I think, people in this space and other spaces across international development that are a little pie-eyed and utopian in their sensibilities. Part of this space want to do these sea steads in the ocean and stuff like this. There are certain schemes that strike me as a little farfetched. One of the things that I’ve liked that we’ve done in the last year is open a local office, and begin to establish local relationships with ministries and permanent secretaries and bureaucrats on the ground, as well as the private sector and hire a team of Zambians that knows the context and can tell us things that we would never figure out. I totally agree. I think, that’s part and parcel to this process.
Chris: The other thing that I can imagine — have not thought it through deeply. This morning, for example, I blogged about the tow truck mafia in Toronto. There’s a really fascinating story just about how this — in some sense, a set of incentives in the absence of a really — There’s basically a lot of money to be made and it’s poorly governed. There’s some returns to intimidation and coordination and collusion that generate criminal incentives. Then as soon as there’s money to be made and criminal groups doing it, there’s an incentive for someone to govern that, the state camp.
The thing is, what I might worry about with new experiments in governance and charter cities is like, at what point does a criminal actor get, or a coercive actor have an incentive to be born? Because we’re talking about Toronto, just the nicest place. I don’t know where — Where are you from?
Kurtis: I’m from outside Vancouver.
Chris: Okay. I’m from outside Ottawa. Even though we’re supposed to hate Toronto and think it’s this terrible violent, it’s actually a fabulous city.
Kurtis: It is. But that’s, okay. Yeah. No, you’re right. It’s fantastic.
Chris: It works as a city. The famously Jane Jacobs moved from New York to Toronto, because she wanted to live in a city that works. Yet, here you have in this true urban utopia on some level, this dark underbelly. I do think like, in these weakly institutionalized countries, when there’s experiments in governance, there’s somebody more ruthless with a higher powered incentive to basically, co-opt the system and use coercion to do what they want. That happens all the time. Happens a lot sorts of political experiments. Some people think of this — This is the birth of, I don’t know, Putin’s rise to power. Masha Gessen has this great book, which makes this argument that among other things, the former KGB’s control of St. Petersburg, almost like an organized criminal fashion presages the rise. These kinds of things happen all the time. I would be on the lookout for that.
Kurtis: The thing that I usually come back to, the final point that makes me do the work I do is what people don’t know is there are a lot of new city developments being built, constructed under planning right now, and I think there’s more than 200 under construction right now and there’s been thousands, most of them in Asia. Elsewhere as well, including Sub-Saharan Africa. Right now, these things are being built in the shadows, and billions are being allocated to them at the moment.
Chris: A lot of those are going to be criminally captured, too, because there’s a lot of money to be made in construction and it’s the natural — Yeah, that’s a good point.
Kurtis: Yeah. To me, this is the reason why researchers should be much more interested in this space, because it’s happening anyway. Let’s try and make these projects that are being constructed regardless of what we do, the best versions of themselves.
Chris: No. We can . I think it’s a great place. My criticisms were always not so much criticisms as saying — because, I think as soon as you’re going to take a positive action, in some sense, I think your moral responsibility for what happens next rises, especially if you’re an outsider to that society and there isn’t — the political accountability isn’t clear. Again, it goes back to my point of like, I just care about political accountability to the laterally, upwards and downwards in terms of say, democracy.
I think, the fundamental problem of all this planning and all of this development, all of these things, whether it’s the mayor, or the president, or the Charter City Institute or something, is that I worry that they’re not experimenting enough and they’re not being held accountable for their decisions. For me, it’s always been more of, okay, well, pay attention to this thing over here and pay attention to this thing over here. Because when you’re the top-down organization and you’re not downwardly accountable, then you have to be held laterally accountable.
Then, you guys have to police me in turn and you have to police everybody else. That lateral accountability among states and among development organizations and among intellectual institutes, I think, is building downward accountability, at least, to get better outcomes.
Kurtis: Well, if the next area you’re going into, Chris, is looking into different ways for political decentralization, there could be a conversation here. You mentioned Jane Jacobs, so queen of cities, moving to…
Chris: She was the person who inspired me to be interested in intellectual pursuits. It’s one of those first books I read in college that really opened my mind. She figures large in my intellectual birth.
Kurtis: That’s what I was going to ask. Reading the last chapter, it’s very clear how she fits into that frame of thinking as a piecemeal engineer. What specifically the things she spoke about, what’s struck you and struck a chord and got you on the path of this more academic, research-oriented life?
Chris: Well, the book that inspired me was more Cities and the Wealth of Nations than a lot of people have read. Most people know her work in American cities. In some ways, Cities and the Wealth of Nations is Jane Jacobs, at her least Jane Jacobs, because of this big sweeping argument, an oversimplification in some sense of history and development, that I think in retrospect is I learned a lot from. It’s still true, but it’s maybe also not true, and so was intellectually inspiring to me. I don’t think that’s her intellectual legacy, or the thing she was most correct about. I think, the thing she was most correct about is that life and death of great American cities insight, and the emphasis on the importance of this local variety and the perils of top-down planning. The virtues of bottom-up percolation and innovation in diversity and autonomy to solve a complex problem.
Lots and lots of local decentralized trial and error and autonomy as a way to approach complex problems, like prosperity and safety in the city. That resonates, I think, a lot with all of these other international development thinkers and political thinkers that I admire. Anyways, that’s what I think how she fits into this piecemeal engineering approach to, in this case, reducing violence.
Kurtis: Last actual question. What question didn’t I ask you that you think I should have?
Chris: We haven’t actually talked about, when you write a book, this is what I was doing for the last five years and actually not doing for the last year. Then we were talking about my research. Before that, I think, what am I doing now is always the fun thing to talk about. If you’d asked that question, every five years or so, I’ve decided, I’m going to try and work in a new place, because I still work in Uganda, still work in Liberia, still keep working in Colombia. I’ll learn a lot by devoting myself to a new place for five years. I’m dipping my toe into Mexico, because I think the violence and the organized crime there is understudied and fascinating and important.
This is a very deep problem that could have really bad externalities for everybody else in the whole region, including United States. Really deep national security problem, problems about national identity. Some of our deepest and hardest political debates in the United States come from having things that are sometimes close to a failed state. I think, that’s an exaggeration for Mexico. It’s not exaggeration for a lot of Central America right on the border. It’s funny, we’re not violence and conflict scholars and crime scholars are there, but not in maybe the numbers they ought to be. That might be my focus for the next five years.
Kurtis: Yeah. We have a researcher here at CCI, who is very strident in the fact that he believes the Mexican-US border and Mexican drug issues are going to be the top US national security threat in the next five to 10 years.
Chris: Absolutely. It’s a source of gun problems. There’s immigration problems, which screws the whole political equilibrium in the US. It’s a problem with their avocados, which are run by organized criminals as well. If you love avocados…
Kurtis: Hipsters everywhere will be…
Chris: Exactly. If we really wanted to build support, we needed to advertise the avocado problem this creates. Yeah, it just touches so many facets of our lives. The nice thing is you go to Liberia, and there’s a lot of really dynamic policymakers. The academic and the research here is, it’s just been gutted. There’s not a lot of local capacity, or capability, or time, or enough people. That’s not true in Mexico. Nonetheless, I think there’s still just not enough shoulders behind the boulder pushing. That’s what I’m excited about. We’ll see.
Kurtis: That’s awesome. I just wanted to close here by, at the end of the book, you wrote that one reason you wrote the book was for people like your younger self. You said, someone with a vague sense, they’d like to know more and do more and to give them a mix of ideas and inspiration. It’s rare that people get to meet some of their role models in person. Now, I have you here, I wanted to tell you that your blog actually served as that for me. Provided this source of inspiration and interesting ideas about slowly building a better world. I want to just say thank you very much for that and say that in person to you.
Chris: Thank you. Well, I mean, that’s why I blogged in many ways, and why is so much of it is about advice, because I, maybe like you, I didn’t have that advice in my circle, or my university. Anyways, it’s always nice to feel like that paid off. Even if it makes me feel old, especially when people who are tenured come up to me and are like, “Oh, when I was a graduate student, this was so helpful.” I think “Oh God.”
Kurtis: My main message then is, please don’t stop blogging again. That’s the main thing.
Chris: Yeah, we’ll see. I enjoy it. It’s hard to try and say something most days for a long period of time, but eventually, you get stale. Yeah, I might pause again, but only because I’ll be maybe writing another book. We’ll see.
Kurtis: Yeah, great. Well, that’s it for the podcast. Chris Blattman, thanks for coming on.
Chris: No, thanks for having me. This was fun.
Mark: Thank you for listening to the Charter Cities Podcast. For more information about this episode and our guest, to subscribe to the show, or to connect with the Charter Cities Institute, please visit chartercitiesinstitute.org. Follow us on social media, @cci.city on Twitter and Charter Cities Institute on Facebook. I’m your host, Mark Lutter and thank you for listening to the Charter Cities Podcast.
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