What should I ask Melissa Dell?

She is a professor of economics at Harvard, and winner of the most recent John Bates Clark medal.  I would describe her as a both a rising star and an already-risen star.  From Wikipedia:

Melissa Dell’s research interests include development economics, economic history and political economy. Her work has mainly focused on explaining economic development through the persistence of historical institutions and climate. She has also investigated the effect of conflict on labor market and political outcomes and vice versa. Much of her research has focused on Latin America and Southeast Asia. She was one of the first economists to use a spatial regression discontinuity design, in her paper on the long-term effects of Peru’s Mining Mita.

Her broader biography is interesting as well (see Wikipedia).  Here is previous MR coverage of Melissa Dell, and here is the very good Clark medal summary of her research.

So what should I ask her?


Ask her about stardom, and what it feels like to be replacing boomer faculty as they wander out to pasture.

I would love to know how many times she didn't see an historical connection between something in the past and something happening now, and why she hasn't published any of those.

Excellent comment. But I think it will go over the heads of many.

> “Her work has mainly focused on explaining economic development through the persistence of historical institutions and climate.” - Wikipedia

Much of development economics seems long on explanatory power but short on predictive power. This may be one reason why they aren’t the best investors even though they study why some nations got rich. But the real test of any model is whether it can predict new data, not explain old data. So which countries does she think will increase their GDP most in the next 20 years, and do her investments reflect that? What is the implicit model of her portfolio?

Investment returns aren’t really that correlated with GDP. Emerging markets have had much better GDP growth than the United States over the last ten years, but returns on United States stocks have been much higher than on emerging markets stocks.

> Investment returns aren’t really that correlated with GDP.

Yeah, I think I was conflating emerging countries’ r and g.

If, somewhere in the back of your mind, you have as-yet not fully formed plans for a big sweeping pop econ book, what would it be about? No pressure!

A very good question!

Ask her about the recent SJW stuff in the field.

Also ask her about the overuse of math in economics.

Personally, I would like to see many of the economists pushed harder on issues related to freedom. I had a very hard time stomaching Paul Romer. Many of his comments were premised on statist ideas and (amazingly for someone of his reputation) non-sequiteurs. His advocacy for, if I recall, a five-percent annual inflation rate sticks in my mind of just one of many examples. Such a rate really amounts to slow motion theft (why not 20, 40, or 60%?), and I'm not even speaking about creating massive distortions investment markets, destroying pension funds, and turning prudent investors, of necessity, into gamblers. Anyway, this is simply an example of something that I would like Tyler to push back on more. That said, I realize he is trying to provide and open and welcoming platform for a variety of views. Still, I believe that moral issues need to be asserted -- perhaps gently and respectully -- but with some persistence.

I’d like you to ask her what she sees happening if we continue to legalize drugs in the USA. Does it matter if we do it drug-by-drug vs. many (or all) at once? What about state-by-state as opposed to nationally?

I’d also be curious what she thinks is going to be the result of the “defund” (i.e., whatever it ends up allegedly having meant all along) the police movement.

Her research is indeed interesting. Does she plan to write any books to make her research available to a wider public for example focusing on “long shadow” of historical events on developing countries ? I think this could generate broad interest

Does she know the year she was born (it's listed as 1983 or 1984 in Wikipedia)? Is her religious upbringing Christian fundamentalist (she attended Oklahoma Bible Academy)? If so, does that influence her work in the study of economic development? Has she met Harvard law professor Adrian Vermeule? If so, would his ideas if implemented promote economic development?

For a cogent response to Taleb.

What steps should CHAZ take to jump start its nascent economy?

1. Is there a link between strong federalism both in the US and Switzerland (strong compared to Austria or Germany, for example) and the positive economic development in both countries?

2. Has the persistent influence of Oxbridge on the UK government helped or hurt its economy (contrast with the German system that has no institutions with such a strong grip on education the future leadership)?

Ask her whether people who are insufficiently supportive of BLM should be banned from the profession. Also (I know this is a big concern of Tyler's), what about people with transgender-insensitive footnotes? Is there any room for them?

Aside from her work on machine extraction of text from difficult sources, does her research lead to any practical conclusions, for instance about what economic policy should or should not do?

What can we learn from Mexico’s experience with AMLO’s “hugs not bullets” cartel policies?

Will the massive amounts of cash with which US corporations are rewarding anarchists and rioters incentivize more murder and mayhem?

What was the main thing McNamara got wrong about Vietnam? And why do you think he came to this conclusion?

The main thing he got wrong was losing.

The economics and political economy of the South China Sea disputes.

A big fan of Professor Dell here!

One of her 2017 papers (https://scholar.harvard.edu/files/dell/files/vietnam_war.pdf) finds that, in the Vietnam War, “strategy emphasizing overwhelming firepower plausibly increased insurgent attacks and worsened attitudes towards the U.S. and South Vietnamese government, relative to a more hearts and minds oriented approach.”

I’m curious what this implies for counterterrorism policy. Per my (extremely limited) understanding, whether aggressive counterterrorism causes “blowback” is a source of significant debate among some scholars, and there’s been some research suggesting that drone strikes and similar offensive counterterrorism operations don’t cause significant blowback/radicalization. One paper in economics with such a result is by Jaeger et al (2011), who say: “Using data on the daily number of deaths on both sides of the conflict from September 2000 to January 2005, we find that there is little evidence to suggest that both sides of the conflict react in a regular and predictable way to violence against them.”

So some things I’d be interested to learn about are: What are the differences between blowback in active conflict and in modern counterterrorism policy? How was the context of the Vietnam War different? What can the findings of the 2017 paper teach us about terrorism today?

Really excited to listen to this interview. :)

1. What are the most best examples of a society whose historical institutions went from being completely unsuitable for economic development to being very suitable for economic development? That is, what are the successful "institutional makeover" stories out there?

2. What does she think about Turchin-style cliodynamics? Should economic historians be more cross-cultural, and try to make precise predictions instead of just explaining past trends?

3. Why are so many historians---outside of economic history---so resistant to quantitative methods?

4. Which countries is she bullish on? Bearish? Long? Short?

5. Given that average global temperature is rising, and rising fast, what does her study of temperature-dependence of growth tell us?

Second the cliodynamics question. Would also ask for thoughts on the question of Gregory Clark's work, who claimed that development was driven by general population trends throughout history. Does that conflict with that developmental economics purports to do, which is to prescribe policy solutions in the sort term to have long term effects?

In short, is the argument that many nations are stuck in the Malthusian trap and cannot escape using short term policymaking, is that correct?

Poorness lab with so many passports !

Always ready to 'help'

Does she think international trade is over-emphasized - relative to internal policies like property rights and contract enforcement - in encouraging development? Should the IMF and world bank focus more on promoting good internal policies among developing countries?

Or is there a political economy problem there? Is it that a third world country will grudgingly let the IMF tell them what trade policy it should adopt, while telling them what domestic policies to do seems more like a usurpation of sovereignty?

Great interviewee choice.

Question: Was the system of (quasi) democracy colonizers left the colonized nations propitious to their economic growth? Was it, overall, a boon or a bane? I suspect she will opine it had positive effects but is that true for all the colonized nations or only some, like India.

The connection between running and her personal productivity function, both in relation to her history as a champion and now (assuming she still runs).

I see many good questions in comments above. Here are mine.

1) What is the most efficient way to reduce corruption in Latin America?

2) If things done 300 years ago have persistent effects, it suggests that the people affected adopted a culture that persists today. Culture is full of assumptions and incentives, some of which are harmful. Do they need to improve their culture to modernize?

Ask about the most successful small scale developments that HAVE scaled up. What has she seen that seems to have worked in the real world?

Similarly, what development projects have been tried multiple times with the highest success rates?

Do you plan on making research on Brazil as a center of economic inequality and incredibly racial disparities even though it is a country predominantly of black people?

do you plan on making research on Brazil as a focus of persistent economic inequalities and racial disparities even though it is predominantly a country of black people?

Check "Tordesillas, Slavery and the Origins of Brazilian Inequality” for that.

Thanks Tyler.

If I understand correctly, spatial regression discontinuity establishes a geographic border of interest - and then detects how policy differences vary along that border. This is beautiful, particularly in Dell's Java application.

I wonder if this methodology can shed more light on the varying long-run economic impacts of slavery in the U.S. - were there (a) differing economic practices put in place that varied WITHIN states (along a border) where slavery was legal, or, more obviously maybe, (b) is it possible to look at the borders along free and slave states and see how economies differed as a result on being on either side of that border.

Curious especially given the central critique associated w/ reparations is "how would you calculate it." Dell's work suggests that some rational progress towards calculation is possible.

1. Given the importance of history and institutions in shaping a country's economic development, what should be the priorities/scope of work of international development actors compared to in-country actors, including their policies and institutions? What is your view on the efficacy of IGOs, development agencies (and their contractors), and international NGOs in promoting positive development outcomes?

2. To what specific regions and economic sectors should developed countries deliver aid? Would a certain type of aid be more impactful in changing institutions that undermine economic growth in this region or sector?

In 2007, while a Rhodes scholar, she argued that Oxford wasn't all it was cracked up to be. https://www.thecrimson.com/article/2007/2/25/oxford-blues-to-all-juniors-out/

Does she think Oxbridge is overrated? What are top American universities doing right that top British ones could learn from?

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