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.


'True or false, most humans are bad at violence?'

Drone pilots, especially those growing up playing video games, seem to do just fine playing at violence. Well, playing is probably the wrong word for the person who gets hit with a Hellfire missile from a Predator.

When it comes to building and marketing the means of violence, it is difficult to see any barriers to what people are capable of.

History is on your side.

Fight-or-flight mechanisms intrigue me, intrigue me because we don't understand enough about them at the individual level much less the group level. Readers of this blog are more inclined to view flight as either cowardice or appeasement (see the comments to Cowen's essay on the application of game theory to diplomacy with North Korea). Those who study the New Testament will recall the recurring theme of flight (or withdrawal) in the Gospel of Matthew whenever Jesus is confronted by enemies. Why? One explanation is that it's consistent with His message of peace and so Jesus can come back another day to teach and thus broaden His reach and His lessons. Another explanation is that Jesus was preserving his powder, so to speak, avoiding premature confrontation in anticipation of the ultimate confrontation which would have the greatest impact. Guess which of the two is the prevailing view.

Appeasement is the correct term. The benefit is you don't have to put up any resistance. The downside is that Hitler (or Assad, or Putin) will abuse this lack of backbone.

And then, Ho Chi Minh takes over Texas!

Rayward - "...we don't understand..."

Actually, we do. Read "Why We Snap" by R. Douglas Fields. We have a rage circuit because there was selection pressure for one. Now we are stuck with it.

>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.

Holy crap. File under "Statements that will get you crucified.... unless of course you are an approved lefty."

Why are the far-right guys illiterate? What comes first? Illiteracy or extremism?

"We found something similar in Uganda, something eerily familiar, which is that the women economically weren’t so worse off."

I think most women marrying rebels are not being taken from the VP track.

hey if you're teaching literacy, why did you need to rewrite the quote

Because he can't understand Blattman was talking about women's economic outcomes and lack of options, not about the domestic bliss of marrying a terorrist.

There's nothing in his statement that suggests he didn't understand that.

Yes, there is. I can assure you the idea women lack good economic options in Uganda is not revolutionary, but he has to pretend it is to pretend there is a vast left-wing conspiration pretending him to expose his fascist ideology.

Sorry but where is he talking about the economic options for women in Uganda? Even if he was talking about economic options I think that most people would agree the economic options of being married to a farmer in Uganda are higher than being the rape toy of a wanted terrorist who might die at any time.

As TPM points out, it is an amazingly tone deaf comment - to equate a freely entered into marriage with being kidnapped and raped by violent men. Especially in these MeToo times. But he is a liberal of good standing so no one will notice. If he had been running as a Republican he would have been crucified for that comment.

No surprise that a political system which elected a lounge lizard and his son is overrated.

'Cause America has a great electoral track.

You better believe it. Things are going great, really great. The best ever. You better believe it.

But are they greater than they have ever been? I mean, great, really great, as in awesome? There is great and then there is great, great. How much great is America's greatness? Is America the best or better than that?

Over the past 4 decades our Presidents have included a man who was governor and a major figure in entertainment, another former governor with a career in the oil industry, a former nuclear engineer, owner of a major agribusiness and governor. Our under cards have included a man who was a Rhodes scholar and spent time as a state governor, and a man who was director of the CIA. We have had only one dud in that time, our affirmative action president who's only talent was between his legs. None-the-less our record is nothing to be ashamed of.

"our affirmative action president who’s only talent was between his legs."
It may be, I am not as acquaintanced to his talents as you seem to be. So Carter and Bush I were unmitigated successes? Malaise has its fans, I guess. As for the director of the CIA who was VP/President, one does not choose a leesident with the lightness one chooses a Secretary of State.

I suppose Canada looks all the more better for having elected the serial grad-school drop-out son of a communist popinjay?

He was not a communist popinjay. And both of them are better than the Preseident who thought visiting a former Nazi concentration camp was too divisive, but visiting SS graves was not:

And yet Zoolander Senior wrote in his memoirs how he declined to serve in WW2 because he did not think it was a Just War. I fail to see how visiting a cemetery that happened to have some Waffen SS soldiers buried near by is as offensive as that.

As well as sucking up to every two bit mass murderer on the planet - as long as they were on the Left. If those dead Germans had fought for the Khmer Rouge no one would have batted an eyelid.

At least you have a system of division of powers. Politicians are all idiots and liars, some more than less.

Blattman tweeted that TC told him a few guests were “MAD” after their Conversation with Tyler. Wonder which ones? My guess is Margalit Fox who didn’t sound like she particularly enjoyed it.

Solche Spielchen sind kindisch - but then, one assumes that the fake posts are pretty obvious.

And then removed, in the main.

If the podcast is called "Conversations with Tyler" is the comment section of this blog referred to as "Conversations with Cuckolds"? Muhahaha!

> 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.

The first thing I started thinking of is Djibouti. Eritrea isn't doing that well. Somaliland is doing better than the rest of Somalia. Would there be a benefit to Ethiopia maintaining a port it controlled?

Let's all study highly relevant Botswana's growth miracle, population 2.25 million.

This is superficial of me, but I recognized Blattman's accent as soon as he started saying "about" and "resources".

He's Canadian like me, and he's of the age where he still has a recognizable Canadian raising (often caricatured as "aboot" but it's more complex than that). Younger Canadians for the most part have lost it.

Come to think of it, Tyler has kind of a Canadian raising too, even though he's American. It's fascinating. Most Canadians would mistake Tyler for one of our own from the way he speaks.

Great questions by Tyler, mediocre answers from Blattman.

The boldface "overrated" seems a bit overstated, bordering on impolite, even.

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