My Conversation with Chris Blattman

The very very highly rated but still underrated Chris Blattman was in top form, here is the transcript and audio.  We had a chance to do this one when he was in town for a week.  We talked about the problem with cash transfers, violence, child soldiers, charter cities, Rene Girard, how to do an Africa trip, Battlestar Galactica, why Ethiopia is growing rapidly, why civil war has become less common, why Colombia and the New World have been so violent, the mysteries of Botswana, and Chris’s favorite Australian TV show, among other topics, including of course the Chris Blattman production function.  Here is one excerpt:

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?


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.

Do read or listen to the whole thing.  By the way, he says the Canadian political system is overrated.


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