My Conversation with Melissa Dell

Interesting throughout, here is the transcript and video and audio, here is part of the summary:

From the impact of the Mexican Revolution to the different development paths of northern and southern Vietnam, her work exploits what are often accidents of history — whether a Peruvian village was just inside or outside a mine’s catchment area, for example — to explain persistent differences in outcomes. Her work has earned numerous plaudits, including the John Bates Clark Medal earlier this year.

On the 100th episode of Conversations with Tyler, Melissa joined Tyler to discuss what’s behind Vietnam’s economic performance, why persistence isn’t predictive, the benefits and drawbacks of state capacity, the differing economic legacies of forced labor in Indonesia and Peru, whether people like her should still be called a Rhodes scholar, if SATs are useful, the joys of long-distance running, why higher temps are bad for economic growth, how her grandmother cultivated her curiosity, her next project looking to unlock huge historical datasets, and more.

And here is one excerpt:

DELL: Yeah, I’ve done some work looking at the persistence of economic development in Vietnam. The work I did, actually, was limited to what was South Vietnam because there’s also been huge events, obviously, that have happened in the past hundred years in North Vietnam, with a war that destroyed much of the country and was fought over an extended period of time.

But when you look, in general, at places in Vietnam that have a similar recent history, but going back in time, one of them was part of a much stronger, more centralized state. The other one was part of what is today Cambodia, a much weaker state, generally ruled by local lords instead of by a strong centralized state.

You see the towns that were part of the stronger, centralized state going back before colonialism, so several hundred years ago. More recently, they have better-functioning local governments. They’re richer. They’re better off, which shows that places that have a long history of governance seem better able to do that more recently.

So places going back a long time ago — they were part of the central state. They had to collect taxes locally to send up to the central state. They had to organize military conscripts. The central state mandated that they had certain laws.

More recently, those places also have more functional local governments and are also better off economically, whereas the places that never had that structure that comes from a state — it was, essentially, if you were living in that area, there’d be a warlord that you sent tribute to. But there was never any regular taxation, never any organized local government under a central state. Those places much more recently — when there were constitutional reforms in Vietnam that gave them a degree of self-government — they weren’t able to do that very effectively.

They weren’t able to keep the positions on their local city council filled. They weren’t able to provide, as effectively, local public goods, like education or health services. So really, having this long history of governance makes places more able to do that today. That’s relevant because there’s been a big push to have local governments provide an important role in providing public goods, et cetera.

If places don’t have a history of doing that, perhaps not surprisingly, they tend to have a much harder time. When the World Bank says, “Well, we want to give local autonomy to let local governments decide how to provide schools in the way that works best for them,” that’s going to work in places that have a long history of providing education. In places that don’t, they’re more likely to have a hard time.

COWEN: But if you select your cases on the basis of having similar histories, aren’t you selecting for persistence because the locales that have reversals of fortune — a big war in North Vietnam, Communism coming to North Vietnam — that’s a kind of mean reversion. It deliberately gives them a not-similar history. Do you then not overrate the degree of persistence in the dataset by just taking the sliver that is indeed continuous with its own history?

DELL: I think that you could imagine writing papers about different things. Our motivation was, we wanted to think about if the historical state could have a role at all. In order to do that, you don’t really want to compare South Korea to the Philippines — which is what most of the historical literature on this does — because they’re different in so many ways. We know that South Korea looks really different from the Philippines, but there’s so many ways that they can be different.

By looking within South Vietnam, we wanted to say, “Okay, these are places that had a much more recent modern history. Can their past history still matter?” But we’re not saying that that begins to explain everything. There’s other forces that happened more recently that we think are also important.

Certainly, there can be mean reversions, and the argument is not that things are always persistent. I think part of the literature is about understanding why sometimes things persist and sometimes they don’t. Certainly, more recent events can matter, and we’re not claiming that there’s an R-squared of one that a place’s history is its destiny, but that there are these forces.

Next up will be Nathan Nunn, and I asked him a series of related questions about persistence…

Comments

How old is she actually (born in 1983 or 1984)? I am partial to economic historians; indeed, I am partial to historians. Why economists refuse to look at history is both baffling and troublesome. I know, if it ain't data, it ain't economics. I should mention that the new chair of the CEA, Tyler Goodspeed, is a historian. I look forward to reading the transcript of the discussion with Dell.

So someone who is 36 isn't old enough to have a valid opinion? I expect you felt differently when you were 36.

Not sure what you mean. Wikipedia says Dell was born in either 1983 or 1984. Doesn't somebody know? Same with Tyler Goodspeed (born in either 1984 or 1985). What's with the mystery about their ages? Anyway, I have praised the appointment of Goodspeed, and I have praised economic historians (including these two). Maybe what we need are youthful economists, who ironically (?) appreciate history.

My bad, I thought you were criticizing for being too young.

Does that make you a nicer person than me or not? Because I assumed he was angling for a date.

Very brave of him to notice anything about a person of the general female persuasion on the internet. Or any minute CancelRay might be trending!

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Presumably, some news article referred to her age at some point so it is possible to deduce year of birth within two years but there is no public source with exact date of birth listed.

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My view on this is not that it is not because economists "refuse" to do it, but because it is really hard. Those that do it well and are able to make progress against important questions, and there is no more important question in economics than growth, are rewarded by the profession, e.g., Ms. Dell, Daron Acemoglu, etc. Admittedly I am personally very partial to this strand of research (both the theoretical and empirical variants) so I am biased, but I think this is shared by many, if not most, in the profession, even those who choose to do other things ......

But that clique determines which methods can be used to make progress. So if you use less state of the art technique No insight is deemed worthy, while specious findings and weak claims get held up as progress. Only the elite get to decide what is publishable and worthy of praise.

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"people like her": like her in what ways?

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"Our motivation was, we wanted to ...": is that the Royal/Hollywood 'we' or did she have a co-author?

What is the real point of your question?

To elicit its answer.

Ah, I was being too Straussian perhaps (did I use that term right?)

The paper has Dell and two co-authors.

Thank you.

(I don't do Straussian because I have yet to grasp its meaning. Does it differ from casuistic or Jesuitical?)

I do hope someone will explain, once again, what Straussian means because I just don't get it, either. I think it does differ, but I don't know those either...

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Huge fan of Dell, great interview. Really cranked the Strauss up to 11.

Historical state capacity predicts future state capacity.....paging Garrett Jones to the reception desk?

This area is well known, so neither Grant nor Dell are pioneers. I have an economics book from 1999 I think that shows the persistence of poverty in and around Bolivian and Peruvian sillver mines going back to the 16th century, and then you have historians like Fernand Braudel founder of the French Annales school of the 1940s which paints with broad brush strokes ("the heavy hand of history" is his catch phrase, and BTW the American/UK schools are opposite, preferring a more evidence based approach more like Legal Positivism)

A true pioneer? Me actually. The mention of the beneficial role of patents in an economy is vastly underrated. The closest you get is TC's mention of the beneficial role of a limited monopoly (in praise of big business).

Bonus trivia: stationery bandits better than roving bandits, and colonialism better than no tech transfer, explains Vietnam, and arguably north India vs south India and Manila vs the rest of the Philippines. Same for Nigeria?

But who uses stationery any more?

The bandits, I guess.

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The question about "ethnic" Chinese confuses me. These are adjacent countries, each large enough to hold a lot of local ethnicities and cultures, and they have been exchanging people and ideas for .. what, 50000 years?

It strikes me that to imply one Vietnamese heritage/culture and one Chinese heritage/culture rather misses the forest (or jungle).

(Comment run past my Vietnamese friend and accepted.)

(My friend did accept the kingdom / warlord effect.)

Appeal to authority noted ;)

I think she would approve this message.

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Someone did a cute little animation:

https://youtu.be/dVITTpIiXyE

Awesome

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Whose father was kicked out of Vietnam because he was considered Chinese. (Not sure if that was before or after the war with China.)

The two groups consider themselves very, very distinct as groups. Much like Chinese in Malaysia and Malays are considered very, very distinct.

However, the cultural similarities are much closer between Yunnan and Vietnam.

Vietnam was basically a province of China for over a thousand years. They never forgot that. Their recorded history in a nutshell is how do I gain independence from these foreign rulers (China, Mongolia, France, USA)? They have a sizable ethnic Chinese population that proudly consider themselves Vietnamese as they have roots that go way back.

If you watch the Saigon region in the animation, it was attached to various southern empires much of the time.

It's also amazing to me how often the current northern border "held" in the last 2000 years.

There's a big mountain range there so that helps.

Natural features tend to make natural borders.

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'They have a sizable ethnic Chinese population that proudly consider themselves Vietnamese as they have roots that go way back.'

It isn't a question of what those ethnic Chinese think, it is a question what the Vietnamese think. And in this particular case, they kicked someone they consider Chinese, not Vietnamese, out. I know the daughter, but her perspective is basically that she has a Chinese father from Vietnam, a mother that is Vietnamese (she left with her husband), and that she does not particularly consider herself either at this point. She most certainly does not have Vietnamese citizenship.

Yeah, like you said earlier may be it had something to do with the war in '79. The Sino-Soviet split made things worse between China and Vietnam. China sided with the US and Cambodia, Vietnam went with the Soviets. War and politics can be deeply unfair to the little guy.

Some famous Viet Hoa (Chinese-Vietnamese) that became American are Priscilla Chan (Mark Zuckerberg's wife) and David Tran (the Sriricha hot sauce guy). Both refugees from the war.

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Agreed. The idea of “ethnic Chinese” doesn’t really apply until 1911 at the earliest or arguably not until the late 20th century. Even a generation ago, most Chinese people spoke languages that were not mutually intelligible, thus lacking one of the foundational markers of an ethnic group. Different parts of China have historically had very different language, cultures, and economies. It would be good to try to pin down what specific aspects of Chinese immigration improved the economies of Southeast Asian countries rather than rely on the ethnic essentialism of being “Chinese.”

I think so.

I think in Malaysia there is a clearer distinction, with Chinese culture/Buddhism and Maylay cultureI/Islam. Perhaps also in Singapore and places further afield.

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I don't know about Vietnam's "Chinese" community but Philippines, Thailand, Indonesia and, I think, Malaysia and Singapore have centuries' old communities of migrants who trace their roots to Fujian province.

Bangkok's Chinese community strike me as like Jews in New York -- they exist as a distinct group but have started intermarrying in the past few generations and people don't think about them as all that different from anyone else.

In the Philippines, I know members of the Fujian community still speak their language at home and, until fairly recently anyway, tended to marry within the community.

The Chinese diaspora in Thailand and Vietnam trace their roots back to Guangdong and most are Cantonese with some Teochew, Hoklo, and Hakka. Of course these groups along with those from Fujian province seeded the Chinatowns the world over. The West Coast of North America including SF, LA, Seattle, and Vancouver historically also pooled from these same groups.

No matter how you slice it, it's mostly Southern Chinese that did the risky work of immigration and entrepreneurship up until recently. These groups arbitraged global trade like the British did. You can build a lot of wealth by just connecting your new home to your old homeland and middleman that. Teach your new neighbors the joys of soy sauce and instant noodles, then move up to plastic goods and textiles, then onto networking equipment, smartphones, and then finally social media and consumer drones. As long as times are peaceful, profit the whole way.

The founder of the Ly dynasty had some Fujian background from his father's side. That dynasty was famous in Vietnam for starting the first university program and starting the civil service exams a la Confucianism.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/L%C3%BD_dynasty#Founding

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Burma too.

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They do basically share a common written language though.

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The idea of “ethnic Chinese” doesn’t really apply until 1911 at the earliest or arguably not until the late 20th century.

Which is interesting because Vietnam had no problem discriminating in law between Chinese people and Vietnamese people. Actually it was more complicated with them discriminating between refugees from the collapse of the Ming - who were allowed to settle among the Vietnamese - and more recent incomers who were, in the best East Asian tradition, were kept in ghettos.

Even a generation ago, most Chinese people spoke languages that were not mutually intelligible, thus lacking one of the foundational markers of an ethnic group.

So the Jews do not exist. Interesting. You're White, right? Have you asked any Chinese people if they exist or not?

Different parts of China have historically had very different language, cultures, and economies.

Evidence being somewhat lacking I notice.

It would be good to try to pin down what specific aspects of Chinese immigration improved the economies of Southeast Asian countries rather than rely on the ethnic essentialism of being “Chinese.”

And yet it moves.

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Very interesting conversation and research. Learning about how much the huge differences in living standards and opportunities (at least between different countries) today depends on stuff a small number of our ancestors (relative to current populations) did hundreds of years ago has really shifted my moral beliefs on inequality, justice, and free will.

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It’s not really places (no magic dirt).

I understand that’s shorthand for some set of cultural traits associated with a fairly stable population (e.g. “that’s the way we have always done things here in Vermont. Gramps always said those New Hampshire people were odd.”).

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There is a reason the Mongols are not known as rice farmers, and the Vietnamese are not famous for their horse riding skills.

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It's not surprising that Americans are ignorant of Chinese history, Americans are ignorant of American history. Today's Chinese are very much aware of China's history, a history marked by periods of a unified China and independence, followed by periods of a divided China and subjugation. Independence or subjugation, which would you choose? Criticizing China's government for its obsession with maintaining a unified China may be promoting what's in the best interest of Americans, but not in the best interest of Chinese. At least that's the case if history is a guide.

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Somewhere Albert Hirschman smiles

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"Part of what it does is to proxy for socioeconomic status because, ultimately, the SAT is a test that can be prepared for very well."

This person is a liar. Red flag.

Is that really wrong? I don't think it is all that controversial to say that exposure to specialized training can raise expected SAT score by a decent amount on average.

It doesn't. Read Steve Hsu. He may be hung up on genetic engineering nonsense stuff but the test data is real.

SHsu does not say preparation cannot raise scores. He just says the claim it is "only" a preparation related score is wrong, and that the positive effects of preparation appear to be small, though existent.
There is likely a 'new to test/used to test' effect that raises scores, and one good way to get that jitters-deleting experience is through preparation. Again, small.

SHsu also does not deny a lifetime of study/preparation can positively effect scores; he just says it is not "preparation". I would expect a lifetime spent studying tilts toward certain socioeconomic environments on average.

So, we are in an argument about degrees; hardly lying.

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A quick googling led me to one post summarizing some findings that show a small but discernible increase in expected score (https://infoproc.blogspot.com/2012/02/test-preparation-and-sat-scores.html?m=1). Surely we have more recent data than 20 years ago though, right? Training has improved substantially in virtually every area. This is why we have better 3 point shooters and more pitchers throwing over 80 MPH. I don't see why SAT performance would be any different.

Training won't turn an innumerate person into a SAT star but I'd expect updated increases to be somewhere in the 40-50 point range.

Also there is a confounding pre treatment effect: kids get specialized tutoring before PSAT time. Meaning high performers have already had coaching, and that coaching will artificially deflate the perceived overall effect of coaching by having already raised the expected score.

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I enjoyed this interview and her work also seems to touch on your ideas in Stubborn Attachments. Congratulations on 100 episodes! That's a great achievement, and I think the podcast has improved. One lesson that comes through in these conversations is that much can be learned by resisting the urge to immediately push back. Take care.

+100 on that, and I'm embarrassed that I didn't mention it earlier.

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The SAT answer was kind of weak.

Dr Dell souinding like a valley girl made many of her answers weak.

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Haven't listened yet so this may be covered but it is worth noting that Stelios Michalopoulos has done similar (and very good) work related to Africa re developmental trajectories related to historical leadership structures

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Dude, you're getting a Dell!

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She didn't answer most of Tyler's questions, constantly repeated herself, didn't take strong or clear positions, and sounded like she was reciting the Wikipedia history of a country.

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Dell: "There’s been these huge disruptions from being colonized by the Japanese. They caused a massive famine in Vietnam that killed millions of people."

This stunned me so of course I had to look up reality:

Wiki: "According to a 2018 study, the primary cause of the famine were typhoons that reduced the availability of food, Japan's occupation, American attacks on the Vietnamese transport system, and French colonial administration hindered an effective famine alleviation response."

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