What should I ask Nathan Nunn?

I will be doing a Conversation with him, he is an economist at Harvard, you could call much of his work economic history and economic development.  Wikipedia notes:

A recurrent theme in Nunn’s research is the long-term impact of historical processes on economic development, often mediated through institutions, culture, knowledge and technology.

Key findings of his research include the following:

  • Countries’ ability to enforce contracts is possibly a more important determinant of their comparative advantage than skilled labour and physical capital combined.
  • A substantial part of Africa’s current underdevelopment appears to be caused by the long-term effects of the Atlantic and Arab slave trades.
  • Current differences in trust levels within Africa are attributable to the impact of the Atlantic and Arab slave trades, which have caused the emergence of low-trust cultural norms, beliefs, and values in ethnic groups heavily affected by slavery (with Leonard Wantchekon).
  • By impeding not only trade and technological diffusion but also the depredations of slave traders, the ruggedness of certain African regions’ terrain had a significant positive impact on these regions’ development (with Diego Puga).
  • The introduction of the potato within the Columbian exchange may have been responsible for at least a quarter of the population and urbanisation growth observed in the Old World between 1700 and 1900 (with Nancy Qian).
  • In line with Boserup’s hypothesis, the introduction and historical use of plough agriculture appears to have given men a comparative advantage and made gender norms less equal, with historical differences in the plough use of immigrants’ ancestral communities predicting their attitudes regarding gender equality (with Alberto Alesina and Paolo Giuliano).
  • U.S. Food Aid is driven by U.S. objectives and can lead to increased conflict in recipient countries (with Nancy Qian).

So what should I ask him?

Comments

Any relation to GM John Nunn? That would be my leadoff question.

Africa's problem is their culture/tribalism. They literally cannot embrace capitalism or choose to succeed because of this culture. A smart hard working African who might start a business and succeed would be forced by his tribe and cultural beliefs to give his assets and wealth to his family, his tribe and everyone in his larger tribe. That is their culture and it is enforced. Success is not allowed simply because if you have anything you must share it. The leaders will demand it, your family and tribal members will ask for it and even demand it and if you do not comply the least that will happen is you will be "excommunicated" from your tribe.

Theodore Dalrymple explained how being a Big Man in Africa is a treadmill of ever-expanding demands on you by your female relatives to provide for their lay-about menfolk:

"The young black doctors who earned the same salary as we whites could not achieve the same standard of living for a very simple reason: they had an immense number of social obligations to fulfill. They were expected to provide for an ever expanding circle of family members (some of whom may have invested in their education) and people from their village, tribe and province. An income that allowed a white to live like a lord because of a lack of such obligations scarcely raised a black above the level of his family. […]

"It is easy to see why a civil service, controlled and manned in its upper reaches by whites could remain efficient and uncorrupt but could not long do so when manned by Africans who were suppose to follow the same rules and procedures. The same is true, of course, of every other administrative activity, public or private. The thick network of social obligations explains why, while it would have been out of the question to bribe most Rhodesian bureaucrats, yet in only a few years it would have been out of the question not to try to bribe most Zimbabwean ones, whose relatives would have condemned them for failing to obtain on their behalf all the advantages their official opportunities might provide. Thus do they very same tasks in the very same offices carried out by people of different cultural and social backgrounds result in very different outcomes.

"Viewed in this light, African nationalism was a struggle for power and privilege as it was for freedom, though it co-opted the language of freedom for obvious political advantage."

I conceive this web site has some very good information for everyone :D.

Respond

Add Comment

Respond

Add Comment

Respond

Add Comment

It looks like Dr. Nunn has taken much of his research agenda either from John Reader's late 1990s book "Africa: Biography of a Continent" or from the academics that Reader was influenced by such as, IIRC, anthropologist Jack Goody.

Please ask him if what parts of Reader's model of how Africa works have held up and what have not.

Here's my summary of Reader's model:

https://www.takimag.com/article/africa_on_the_brink_steve_sailer/

Respond

Add Comment

Respond

Add Comment

"Countries’ ability to enforce contracts..." - This is one of Niall Ferguson's 'killer apps' of Western Civilization and it is absolutely vital for a functioning society.

"A substantial part of Africa’s current underdevelopment appears to be caused by the long-term effects of the Atlantic and Arab slave trades." - Absolute, total, and complete hogwash. If you want anyone to tell you why Africa remains underdeveloped, ask the Chinese.

"low-trust cultural norms, beliefs, and values in ethnic groups heavily affected by slavery (with Leonard Wantchekon)" - Is this real? Are you kidding us? What do you think they had before and during the African slave trade? Who do you think was enslaving who in the interior to sell on the coast? What are you smoking?

"What do you think they had before and during the African slave trade? Who do you think was enslaving who in the interior to sell on the coast?" is precisely the point.

Precisely. Other African tribes. Talk about 'low-trust'.

Respond

Add Comment

I'm specifically talking about the West Coast though. I should have clarified. On the East Coast the trade was much more micro-focused...and mostly Arab (look up Zanj). Btw, for anyone interested, the Saudi Arabians didn't constitutionally ban actual friggin slavery until the mid 70s....1970s I mean (look it up).

Mauritania only allowed prosecution of slaveholders in 2007...

...If you...if anyone really....told me there was actual, legit, chattel slavery still going on today somewhere in Africa my Bayesian predictability model - biased to existing educational inputs - would absolutely hypothesize that statement as true.

The scientist in my would then attempt to find evidence. And I've very little hypothetical doubt I wouldn't find it.

Respond

Add Comment

Respond

Add Comment

Respond

Add Comment

Part of John Reader's model of Africa is that without intercontinental export opportunities, such as gold, ivory or, pre-eminently, the Arab and Atlantic slave trades, Africa didn't have much economic activity above the barest subsistence level. So, Reader believes that the Arab and Atlantic slave trades motivated Africans to predate more on each other than they would have gotten around to doing if left on their own. It's not that they would have been Noble Savages if left alone, but that slave export opportunities inspired them to a more dynamic level of economic and military activity than they would have come up with by themselves.

You should ask Nunn what he thinks of this interpretation of his findings.

For example, I would think the Zulu military revolution of the early 19th Century, popularly associated with Shaka Zulu, which created an army that Europeans were proud to defeat, would be good evidence of indigenous cultural dynamism deep within sub-Saharan Africa. But in Reader's model of Africa, African culture seldom changes except in reaction to outside forces, so he postulates that the rise of the Zulu was set off by Portuguese slave-trading at Delgado Bay.

It would be interesting to ask Nunn if his research into the importance of the intercontinental slave trade upholds or undermines Reader's view of a lack of development within Africa except in reaction to non-African stimuli.

Respond

Add Comment

Respond

Add Comment

Respond

Add Comment

Respond

Add Comment

His first finding about contract enforcement is fascinating but begs the question why certain countries are better able to enforce contracts.

"...but begs the question why certain countries are better able to enforce contracts."

In Asia, but especially in the Middle East, you'll find variations of 'rent-seeking' behavior. Now this is not isolated, and there are variations in Europe and the United States. The difference lies in the perception of the shared value of the contract. Shared value is fundamentally a kind of honor code, where two or more parties involved in entering it understand the liabilities and benefits of the code, and realize that the code penalizes the dishonorable as much as it protects them, and more importantly that all parties involved are completely equal partners. The 'equality' and the 'mutual risk & reward' aspects are what is lacking in contractual obligations you find in other parts of the world. The idea that a contract with 'the prince' (for instance, the house of Saud) makes him equal to you in terms of obeisance and risk to you - the commoner - is anathema. Furthermore the idea that his risk or potential for reward is the same as your risk and reward.

That is the difference. That's the reason why people worth billions buying million dollar houses on Sanibel Island continually lose to the Home Owners Association (HOA). They entered a contract, and to dispose of that contract they must show 'great effort' (from case law) to have their obligation to the contract expunged. No where else in the world would such a situation exist.

Respond

Add Comment

One more question...Thomas Sowell observed that development lags in geographically isolated cultures. Most of African rivers are notoriously difficult to navigate and Africa has few natural harbors. While there's no arguing that slavery did horrible damage to the African people, isn't it possible that slavery was the secondary cause of Africa's underdevelopment and unfortunate geography the primary cause?

+1
ignore Dr. Thomas Sowell and Justice Clarence Thomas at your own peril

Respond

Add Comment

An interesting question is how the parts of Africa that were more accessible to slave traders from the outside due to ports, rivers, and so forth differ today from the parts that were less accessible due to mountains, deserts, or whatever.

And exactly which of today's countries were more or less plagued by intercontinental slave trading?

Respond

Add Comment

Respond

Add Comment

Respond

Add Comment

What can Africa do to overcome the effects of the slave trade?

ask him to explain the difference between correlation & causation

Respond

Add Comment

Complain day and night about it

Respond

Add Comment

(1) First actually stop it. Child bondage in particular is still rampant in many African countries and some ethnic groups are still frequentely enslaved by other (the Bella and Malebe to the Tuareg and Arabs in the Niger area, etc.).
(2) Correct some of the imbalances between ex-slavers and ex-slaves, for instance confiscating and redistributing land from Ethiopian orthodox monasteries (as they are a major landowner in Ethiopia while only stopping using slave labour from the southern tribes thanks to the Italians seeing an opportunity to their colonial ambitions), herds from the Tuareg, etc.

Respond

Add Comment

Respond

Add Comment

Enforcing contracts.

This is nonsense. If you need a lawyer to collect payment for services, you are bankrupt no matter where you are.

This is a cultural and societal characteristic, not some imaginary rule of law. In real life it costs more to use the legal system to collect. You don't do it for that reason; you do it pour les autres.

If you want to prevent losses from theft, you have store detectives and loss control initiatives (they work by the way). You go about things in a way that limits losses, or structure your business so that losses are a small percentage.

There seems to be some cultural acceptance of looting right now. Contract law is utterly useless, even to bring it up is ridiculous. If the cultural consensus is that there is no reason to pay for services or goods, some building with columns isn't going to fix it.

Respond

Add Comment

Ask him what he thinks of Joseph Henrich's WEIRD book.

Respond

Add Comment

How much might rates of literacy, sub-literacy, and illiteracy affect (not economic development, or not that alone, but) social development and political participation?

Is any kind of "linguistic consolidation" occurring across sub-Saharan Africa?

Which linguistic groups across the continent derive the most (culturally, politically, economically) from the strength of their respective literary traditions (or, from their oral traditions)?

Han-shan (Cold Mountain, China, 7th/8th/9th? cent. CE, my paraphrase):

reading books does not save you from death
nor does it keep poverty away:
what explains literacy's appeal?
reading books equips us to engage.
you cannot engage if you can't read,
you'll go not far in this world today.
(dose bitter medicine with garlic,
the bitterness will soon be forgot.)

Respond

Add Comment

"Countries’ ability to enforce contracts is possibly a more important determinant of their comparative advantage than skilled labour and physical capital combined." Of course, mandatory arbitration provisions in contracts have become common, the party with the greater bargaining power insisting on arbitration out of fear of out of control juries that just don't understand how business works. Crazy juries. What about crazy voters. In 2016 crazy voters elected an ignoramus as president. Maybe we need mandatory arbitration for the election of presidents. My question: If America can't enforce contracts or elect a stable and intelligent president, what is America's comparative advantage?

Respond

Add Comment

Was there anywhere in Africa that did not have slavery? Why is killing all the men and selling the women and children to foreigners worse for trust than killing all the men and keeping the women and children?

the introduction and historical use of plough agriculture appears to have given men a comparative advantage and made gender norms less equal, with historical differences in the plough use of immigrants’ ancestral communities predicting their attitudes regarding gender equality (with Alberto Alesina and Paolo Giuliano).

It is a belief on the, ummm, more biologically focused community that modern African American life is a reversion to an African norm of female centered families with largely absent fathers. Is this what he arguing?

I like the idea that forcing men to work hard in the fields all day was somehow a benefit.

Situations of very large persistent male surplus through preferential male migration (effectively, forced migration) probably didn't do too much good when it came to promoting stable family structures with nuclear families of one man and one woman. Probably did the opposite of good.

But the slave trade was sustainable over centuries because Sub-Saharan men didn't do all that much work at home. In most other parts of the world, if large fractions of the males were sold into slavery abroad, the women and children at home would starve without their labor and the whole population would decline down to the new lower Malthusian ceiling. In Africa, on the other hand, women and children got along okay without quite so many men around because women did most of the work anyway. You didn't need men to work heavy plows because women with light hoes could do most of the weeding in the light tropical soil.

Similarly, when welfare for single mothers went up in the 1960s and 1970s, black male employment rates dropped sharply as the traditional sub-Saharan culture re-emerged.

Respond

Add Comment

Respond

Add Comment

Respond

Add Comment

Spelling correction: PaolA Giuliano, woman economist!

Respond

Add Comment

Observations/conclusion on transportation infrastructure, eg

Roman roads
Inca "high speed" foot paths
Chinese river/canal network
Hitler's autobahn
Silk road infrastructure
US northern railroads
Transcontinental railroad spurring California railroad building boom
US highway building in "Good roads" and RFD Parcel Post universal service boom
Interstate highway building boom

Seems to me, the difference between many states of similar geography, climate, cultures is transportation infrastructure.

A good example is Afghanistan surrounded by states with mediocre to ok railroads is stuck with low economic development even when natural resources are rich and are normally associated with US, Germany, Iran development, or colonial pillage/plunder of India/Pakistan and the "stans".

Respond

Add Comment

What is his opinion about long-term effects of anti-science (anti-GMO, anti-vax, etc.). A significant thing or a short term fad?

Respond

Add Comment

Tyler,

Please ask him about his work with Leonard Wantchekon, specifically if he is involved with Leonard Wantchekon's new African School of Economics.

Please consider doing an episode with Leonard Wantchekon directly.

Thanks.

Respond

Add Comment

So defined, how do you even find parts of Africa not affected by slave trades to use as controls and to estimate effects? The Arab takes the whole east and the Atlantic the whole west.

Respond

Add Comment

"Current differences in trust levels within Africa are attributable to the impact of the Atlantic and Arab slave trades, which have caused the emergence of low-trust cultural norms, beliefs, and values in ethnic groups heavily affected by slavery"

I am wondering if we are confusing the effect for the cause. Maybe low trust was the reason Africans were willing to capture their fellow villagers and people from their tribes and neighboring ones and sell them to the slave traders. Large scale inter-tribe slavery existed just before significant European contact and was significantly higher than in Europe at that time.

Respond

Add Comment

Re: the introduction and historical use of plough agriculture appears to have given men a comparative advantage and made gender norms less equal, with historical differences in the plough use of immigrants’ ancestral communities predicting their attitudes regarding gender equality, this "plough thesis" is often viewed in terms of 'power'. The plough made women supplicants.

But actually don't we find in anthropology that where male investment in food production is historically greater, women specialize into social status activities and other forms of "within camp" work, like childcare?

That might be expected to reflect less "equality" (genders are the same) and gender independence (less "I'm a strong independent woman that don't need no cheatin' man!") in historically downstream communities, but not necessarily more patriarchy affirmation (males should have more relative power).

Related, I've seen a contention put about that hoe agriculture leads to greater female power in politics and the mating market in general, and that men in these societies engage in more mating competition, sort of as if they meekly line up to fight with each other and look impressive for the benefits of women who then choose the "best" men ("hypergamy").

But that seems pretty contrary to what The Excellent Evolving Moloch finds in his surveys of the anthropological literature. Hoe agriculture leads to exactly the same degree of male political dominance as the plough, and rather than males in hoe cultures meekly submitting to the judgement of women, they indulge in lots of rather patriarchal strategies to co-ordinate together and manage mating to benefit their male kin (sons/nephews) and allies.

That seems to accord a bit more with the reality we see, where "hoe cultures" tend to be possibly more open to female breadwinners (and more open to fathers who indulge in personal projects rather than on bringin' home the bacon), but not really any more or less open to female participation in politics, with about as much domination by the local "Big Man", or really any more gender egalitarian about female participation in religion or not food production activities at all, really.

Plow agriculture tends to lead toward de facto monogamy with men working hard to bring home the bacon to one or a few wives. Hoe agriculture leads to women doing most of the work with a few Big Men having most of the wives (although who exactly are the fathers of the Big Man's 100+ kids seems a little unclear).

I'm not sure y chromosome effective population size for respective populations is consistent with that idea. At all.

A bit more polygyny for sure but African whole genomes show star burst explosions of a particular male lineage. Not compressed male size over time, indicating restricted male population size. Africans largely have one "Bronze Age" (anachronistic for them) super father, but then expansion. A few men probably did not tend to have the most kids.

Few different how populations to check. Western SSA main one but not only. Ask your geneticist pals who know about this (not that bonkers joke Cochran of course, but the sane ones).

Africa is the main place where you find old men with 100+ wives. I've always wondered what percentage of their wives' children are genetically their own.

In most other parts of the world, men tend to be jealous about the possibility that their nominal children are not really their own. But in Africa, the husband is seldom expected to work hard for his wives' children, so he often isn't that jealous.

We now have the technology to answer this interesting question. But not the will.

Respond

Add Comment

Respond

Add Comment

(Above not to imply that Cochran is a geneticist, rather than an engineer who simply LARPs at knowing about everything)

Respond

Add Comment

Respond

Add Comment

Respond

Add Comment

Respond

Add Comment

wow, we should really end slavery

Respond

Add Comment

Questions - not for Nathan Nunn.

(((((In line with Boserup’s hypothesis, the introduction and historical use of plough agriculture appears to have given men a comparative advantage and made gender norms less equal, with historical differences in the plough use of immigrants’ ancestral communities predicting their attitudes regarding gender equality (with Alberto Alesina and Paolo Giuliano).)))))

Was / Is there any female economist (dead or alive) who definitely does not work on gender (equality) issues ? Or does not have ANY views whatsoever on the gender equality issues ?

Is there any woman economist who does not blame capitalism for the gender inequality (and blames democracy instead) ?

Respond

Add Comment

I would be curious as to his perspectives on the historical context of what seems to be a unique culture in Silicon Valley, and the cultural/institutional vehicles by which it was formed and continues to be transmitted? How should I think about the relative roles of, e.g., the Grateful Dead and Lockheed in the creation and perpetuation of Sand Hill Road?

+1

Grateful Dead were Jobs/Wozniak's early funders. But, not being worried/knowledgeable enough, GD did not think of taking equity, just gave a grant.

Every CS person I knew at CalTech was a Deadhead.

Respond

Add Comment

Respond

Add Comment

Please ask him how he estimates the long-run effects on trust based on events that occurred prior to our having data on trust levels. And does he focus on social or political trust or both?

Respond

Add Comment

You can get a PhD in development economics without ever having taken a history course. What (if anything) would he change about the entry requirements or design of economics programs to make economists better historically informed?

Respond

Add Comment

knowledge and technology???
----
I narrow that down. It has been writing technology itself the major driver. The iron age was the second driver.

Two things made European civilization. Phoenicians unfolded the square hieroglyph to create a modern linear grammar. And they spread that around by using iron tools in massive shipyards in Carthage. Thus the international trade of massive proportion born. These ships could carry as much as 400 tons of cargo.

Respond

Add Comment

What does he think of Greg Clark’s and deidre mccloskey’s claims especially on the industrial revolution?

Why does trust get transferred interrgenerationally? Is it stories we pass on or something like Clarkian story where the trust worthy people are taken or killed?

Why does trust get transferred interrgenerationally?

Genetics. We can select for behavioral traits in dogs, we can select for them in humans.

Really? This is nonsense. Trust has to be constantly maintained, built, rebuilt, and reevaluated. In general we have reasons as a species both to be trustworthy and reflective and skeptical but I certainly think that nurture, society, and culture shape trust.

Respond

Add Comment

Respond

Add Comment

Respond

Add Comment

Do you think a young scholar interested in becoming and economic historian should pursue a PhD in an economics or a history department?

What do history departments get wrong when training new economic historians?

Respond

Add Comment

What small/marginal changes can we realistically make to food aid process, in order to help target regions rather than just serve our own interests and increase conflict?

How does he see trust levels in the USA? Have they increased or decreased and why?

Respond

Add Comment

Does Morgan Kelly's finding in "The Standard Errors of Persistence" undermine large parts of recent work in economic history including his own?

What's his response to Kelly?

https://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=3398303

Respond

Add Comment

Which textbooks would he recommend for someone learning economic history for the first time?
What would have been the development experience of Africa if there was no western colonial rule and no slave trade? Peter Bauer argues that the west introduced Africans to modern technology and the institutions which promote growth

Respond

Add Comment

Maybe the best kind of economic aid the USA could give to poverty-stricken African countries would be to send over a myriad of contract lawyers.

Respond

Add Comment

Ask him if he has a view about Botswana's success. Also, how should we combat stereotypes about Africa and its history?

Respond

Add Comment

Do you believe that some western countries are becoming low-trust societies?

Respond

Add Comment

Please ask what he thinks about the historical importance of common law vs. civil law in countries' ability to enforce contracts.

Respond

Add Comment

Ask him if a paper with the opposite conclusion would get published. If the answer is no, ask why we even bother with the charade. If only one conclusion is allowed to be published, no true research is being conducted.

Respond

Add Comment

Is contract enforcement - which I assume is a sign of trust - due to cultural, historical or other ethnic factors? If it is a combination of these multiple factors, which one is more or less important? I may discount culture to a certain degree, because many different cultures have experienced high levels of growth and wealth. History has long lasting effects but when I look at the different growth trajectories of post communist economies, I wonder what is more important.

Respond

Add Comment

I realise I am somewhat late, but I would be interested to hear his thoughts on how witchdoctors maintain enough social credibility in the modern era to be able to implement effective social change through gri-gri (a magic potion that makes you bulletproof, but not in the way you think).

Required reading: https://samzdat.com/2017/06/19/the-use-and-abuse-of-witchdoctors-for-life/

Respond

Add Comment

Three lines of questioning: 1) Is the line between Northian "formal" and "informal" institutions (or between "Culture and Institutions" per Alesina and Giuliano, 2015, JEL) as bright as much of the literature seems to take it? Where does Nunn draw the line? 2) Are formal and informal (or culture & institutions) so endogenous that empirical analysis won't be able to distinguish the two? Or are projects in the spirit of Helmke & Levitsky (2006) *Informal Institutions & Democracy: Lessons from Latin America* worth exploring with econometric tools? 2) What possibly could be the meta-enforcer of institutions (or constitutions) if not norms (i.e., culture)? How can economics delve fruitfully into the mechanisms of constitutional meta-enforcement? 3) What's his review of Davidson (1992) *The Black Man's Burden: Africa and the Curse of the Nation-State*? Does he recommend other work that takes up the question of culture and institutions in Africa? 4) Who are the most exciting African economists working today?

Respond

Add Comment

1. Given the lower empirical bar to prove causality for studies in economic history, should they be pursued at all? Isn't it like the old studies in economics which ran a simple regression to try to tease out causality, and reached results not correlated with reality? Are we getting a false sense of security in these?

2. Is it his sense that some potential results of the roots of poverty would be rejected because they disagree with the current left wing consensus?

Respond

Add Comment

Respond

Add Comment