My Conversation with Nathan Nunn

Here is the transcript, audio, and video.  Here is part of the summary:

Nathan joined Tyler for a conversation about which African countries a theory of persistence would lead him to bet on, why so many Africans live in harder to settle areas, his predictions for the effects of Chinese development on East Africa, why genetic distance is a strong predictor of bilateral income differences and trade, the pleasant surprises of visiting the Democratic Republic of Congo, the role of the Catholic Church in the development of the West, why Canadian football is underrated, the unique commutes of Ottawans, the lack of Canadian brands, what’s missing from most economic graduate programs, the benefits of studying economics outside of the United States, how the plow shaped gender roles in the societies that used it, the cultural values behind South Korea’s success, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If you try to think, say, within Africa, what would be some places that you would be modestly more optimistic about than, say, a hedge fund manager who didn’t understand persistence? What would a few of those countries be? Again, recognizing enormous noise, variance, and so on, as with smoking and lung cancer.

NUNN: If I’m true to exactly what I was just saying, then southern Africa or places where you have a larger population of societies that historically were more developed. South Africa, you have the Afrikaans, and they have a different descent than others. That’s if I’m true to what I was saying. But that’s ignoring that, also within Africa, you had a very large number of successful, well-developed states, and that was prior to European colonialism and the slave trade. So one could look at those cases.

One area that I worked at, the Democratic Republic of Congo, where you had the great Congo Kingdom, the Kuba Kingdom, a large number of other kingdoms, the Luba for example — that would probably be one country. That country today is pretty much as low as — in terms of per capita income — as you can be, right at subsistence. But if we’re predicting just based purely on persistence and historical state formation, that would be one to pick.

COWEN: What do you find to be the most convincing account of Botswana’s relative economic success?

NUNN: A few things. One is, Botswana is pretty small in terms of population. Anytime you have smaller countries, you can have more extreme outcomes. That’s one, that it’s small. But then related to that, it’s, in general, ethnically homogenous, particularly compared to other countries within Africa. The Tswana are the predominant ethnicity. They also have a historical social structure, and I think that was pretty well maintained and left intact. That’s a big part of the explanation.

And:

COWEN: Is it fun to visit Democratic Republic of Congo?

NUNN: Yeah, it’s great. Yeah.

COWEN: Tell us what’s fun. I need to go once I can.

NUNN: Yeah, it’s really, really great. The first time we went as a team — this is James Robinson, Sara Lowes, Jonathan Weigel in 2013 — we were pretty apprehensive. You hear a lot of stories about the DRC. It sounds like a very unsafe place, et cetera. But one thing we didn’t realize or weren’t expecting was just how lovely and wonderful the people are.

And it turns out it’s not unsafe in general. It depends on different locations. In the east, definitely near Goma, it’s obviously much, much less safe. But I think what, for me, is wonderful is the sense of community. Because the places we go are places that haven’t been touched, to a large extent, by foreign aid or NGOs or tourism, I think we are treated just like any other individual within the community.

And:

COWEN: What’s your favorite movie and why?

NUNN: Oh, favorite movie. [laughs] That’s a good question. Favorite movie — in the past it was Dazed and Confused. I must have watched that in university about a hundred times.

COWEN: A wonderful film.

Recommended, interesting throughout.

Comments

I suppose in places where there are not a lot of foreign tourists, there's less of an infrastructure that has been built around scamming tourists.

In India, I definitely felt safer in areas that weren't super-popular tourist destinations: the people who make a living harassing and scamming tourists generally don't hang out there.

Definitely agree. Bali is also notorious for this (i.e. STAY AWAY from the temple at Besakih). That 'infrastructure' you talk about takes quite a bit of time to form (runners, diversions, people to fence stolen goods, mfg of useless trinkets to sell, etc.) and it isn't cost effective until you have a critical mass of 'rubes'.

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That's an interesting point and ties into the discussion about the massive inequality in Latin America driving the crime.

There are plenty of middle and high wealth people in Brazil, so a Rio de Janeiro pickpocket is just as happy to swipe a local's iphone as a tourist's.

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"I think we are treated just like any other individual within the community"

Disqualified from any serious discussion regarding observational ability.

Never underestimate the power of denial.

Quite possibly the most naive thing to ever pop up in one of TC’s otherwise pretty excellent interviews....just astounding.

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What do you mean? Please expand.

Also disqualified.

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"and that was prior to European colonialism and the slave trade. So one could look at those cases."

The slave trade in Africa pre-dated "colonialism" by at least 2000 years...

Yep. And unless he's going to adopt the common deceit of using "Africa" to mean all of Africa some of the time, and subsaharan Africa the rest of the time, he'd have to admit that knowledge of (subsaharan) African history two and a half thousand years ago is slim.

He means well, therefore we excuse his sloppy and/or deceptive rhetoric.

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The scale of the colonial-era slave trade was far greater than anything that came before. That’s why the Americas have large African slave-descended populations still today whereas other parts in the world that might have had some slaves from Africa at some point do not.

Is that true? I dug this up on the Arab slave trade:

The Arab slave trade was characterized by appalling violence, castration, and rape. The men were systematically castrated to prevent them from reproducing and becoming a stock. This inhumane practice resulted in a high death rate: six out of 10 people who were mutilated died from their wounds in castration centers. The Arab slave trade also targeted African women and girls, who were captured and deported for use as sex slaves.

According to the work of some historians, the Arab slave trade has affected more than 17 million people. In the Saharan region alone, more than nine million African captives were deported and two million died on the roads.

https://jcpa.org/article/the-arab-muslim-slave-trade-lifting-the-taboo/

One of the original colonists--John Smith--was a slave in Turkey. He killed his owner and spent several years getting back home.

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Zaua, that is wrong. Roughly 10M slaves were taken from Africa and survived the journey between 1522 and 1866. Of those, 388K went to the North America. The Caribbean (sugar plantations) and South America were the biggest destinations for the remaining 95%.

For those that assert the US built its dominance on the back of slaves, you got to wonder why other places that received more slaves aren't more dominate. The fact is that slavery was a lousy economic model. The factory innovations in the North crushed the economic output from the slave states. The North's economic output from hay alone surpassed the entire agricultural economic output from the south, including cotton.

https://www.pbs.org/wnet/african-americans-many-rivers-to-cross/history/how-many-slaves-landed-in-the-us

Brazil imported 2,000,000 slaves, hence the magnitude of their problems.

If slavery is such a poweful economic engine Brazil should be the dominant superpower.

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The North produced higher value products and had the larger population so of course they dominated. We don't need your cute little morality tale of how slavery is evil bad but I'm sure libertarians felt warm tinglies reading it.

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"The North's economic output from hay alone surpassed the entire agricultural economic output from the south, including cotton."

That's a laughable claim.

At the start of the War the South represented about 25% of the nations population (not counting slaves).

Output per capita (1879 prices)
North 1860 $75
South 1860 $78

IE the Northern economy was roughly 3x bigger than the Southern economy.

http://www.napavalley.edu/people/pallen/Documents/Economics%20120/Econ120_sp12_3_Reunification_1.pdf

Look for the readily available PDF of a book called The Impending Crises of the South. It was written by an abolitionist in 1859. So, he might have fabricated things to make his case. But the book is impressive. The book has amazing data and endless tables of data:

The author writes:

"We can prove, and we intend to prove, from facts in our possession, that the hay crop of the free States is worth considerably more in dollars and cents than all the cotton, tobacco, rice, hay and hemp produced in the fifteen slave States. This statement may strike some of our readers with amazement, and others may, for the moment, regard it as quite incredible; but it is true, nevertheless, and we shall soon proceed to confirm it. The single free State of New-York produces more than three times the quantity of hay that is produced in all the slave States. Ohio produces a larger number of tons than all the Southern and Southwestern States, and so does Pennsylvania. Vermont,

and

"We can prove that the North produces greater quantities of bread-stuffs than the South! Figures shall show the facts. Properly, the South has nothing left to boast of; the North has surpassed her in everything, and is going farther and farther ahead of her every day.

What do you make of the above excerpts?

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You can count slaves at 3/5, as per the original framework of the Constitution. But honestly, you are excluding the very people who actually picked the cotton from your calculation?

I feel the need to interject that it was the slaveholders who wanted to count slaves as full people for the purpose of political representation of their states, even though the slaves were not enfranchised (kind of like counting also illegals for district drawing, resulting in a much lower voting base). It was the anti-slavery or rather anti-South people who opposed this, not wanting to count them at all. So, the odious 3/5 compromise is an anti-slavery thing. Just goes to show how things can be misinterpreted in our endless morality plays.

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@ZAua. The Chadian historian Tidiane N’Diaye wrote a book on this topic ( “ le Genocide voilé “ , It’s in French). He considers the Arab-Muslim slave trade worse than the Atlantic slave trade. He calls it genocide unlike the second one

Here is what he says:
For 9 to 11 million deported during the transatlantic slave trade, there are today 70 million descendants. The Arab-Muslim slave trade deported 17 million people who had only 1 million descendants because of the massive castration practiced for nearly fourteen centuries.

Total castration, that of eunuchs, was an extremely dangerous operation. Performed on adults, it killed between 75% and 80% of patients. The death rate was lower in children than were routinely cast. Between 30% and 40% of the children did not survive total castration.

+1, population growth of slaves was more "constrained" in other regions. Import large numbers of male slaves and don't treat them very well and they make a low demographic impact. In the Americas, a productive margin allowed a population growth episode.

Sugar plantations were a big killer of slaves, but the U.S. didn't have many. Jim in "Huckleberry Finn" is always afraid of being sold down the river to the sugar plantations.

Tobacco was the nicest crop to work on, cotton in between.

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I like how you said "population growth episode" for 300k slaves in the US plus another 100k bought from the Caribeean (per Robert Louis Gates) turned into 40+ million today in the US. I wish my Eastern European country had such an episode (or genocide as the wokesters call it), we wouldn't be worried about the Russians at all anymore. Instead, with some emigration, we are back to where we were a hundred years ago, only with an inverted age pyramid to boot.

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Above an beyond basic considerations of decency and generosity there is a largely symbolic reason it would be great to see the DRC thrive. That's where Joseph Conrad's Heard of Darkness is set. That novella's (hellish) Central Station is now Kisangani. And that's the region designated by the phase, "darkest Africa".

I've got a post where I do an Ngram query on (1) "dark continent", (2) "darkest Africa" and (3) "Heart of Darkness". (1) peaks at roughly 1890, comes down a bit until 1980, where it's joined by (3) on the rise, with follow one another up to 2000. (2) starts at about 1890 peaks at 1940 and then descents to 2000.

FWIW, Porky Pig flies into the Congo in "Porky in Wackyland" (1938). There you'll see "Darkest Africa" literalized on a map. It's one of the most surreal cartoons ever made. It would not fly in today's world.

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Having been to east Congo myself. The city of Goma feels very unstable and north of there are some very potentially crazy spots, but the Virunga national park and the rangers there were amazing. I donate often and want to return sometime.

I can imagine. But Tyler's interviewee sounds naive "You hear a lot of stories about the DRC. It sounds like a very unsafe place, et cetera."

I think the stories we heard were of the brutal civil war that has killed over 5 million people, so, yeah.

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"It does measure some things, like your ability to jump through this hoop and learn this information which is pretty much useless, which is how to solve these tricky logic or math problems. And so that’s useful, but the problem is, in order to do that, you have to basically take a summer off and study for the GRE. And if you’re financially strapped or come from a disadvantaged background, that has a huge, huge cost. So I think there’s a bias, a socioeconomic bias that is much worse than the benefit."

What?? Fully 10% of test-takers get a perfect score on the math GRE. I didn't study at all and I got a perfect score. Do studies even show that taking a summer to study the GRE has any benefit?

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i wonder if the Congolese rain forest will disappear faster than the Amazon as it is converted into farm land to accommodate the 3 extra billion people that will be born in Africa in the next 80 years

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On Ethiopia, recent growth is probably mostly the peace dividend after the war with Eritrea ended & military spending didn't draw down the economy so much any more. That war was brutal. That doesn't make me optimistic on a prediction that Ethiopia will grow rich, though.

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On Latin America's crime rate, they're wrong too. It's mostly explained by persistence, which they don't realize even though they talk about that very topic earlier. Latin America simply had more crime in the past, which is why it has more crime today. And that's due to institution building - the Conquistadors were the criminals and riff-raff even before they left Spain.

So you mean they had more crime before the European colonisation of Latin America? Also, are you suggesting that most people there are descended from conquistadors?

Since the conquests. And they weren't a majority, but they just set the rules in a day and age that was more violent. Which were, you murder an indigenous person and nobody will care.

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Third count of wrong is on why there aren't more non top 5 professors in top 5 schools. That is because it's a lazy network of cronyists who suffer from very severe not invented here syndrome. Those professors don't put much thought into recruiting peers, and if they do, any other incentives they might have are overwhelmed by the urge of helping their own students and recommending them to their friends.

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Sorry, Tyler. I couldn't go beyond the first question. Why did you ask him about Ethiopia? Did you have any evidence that he knew her history or at least that he had any interesting theory that could be relevant to Ethiopia? BTW, from reading MR for many years, I have the impression you know little about Africa in general, and Ethiopia in particular.

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"What do you find to be the most convincing account of Botswana’s relative economic success?

...
A few things ..."

But nothing about diamonds. Amazing.

Botswana's Top Ten Exports:

Gems, precious metals: US$4.8 billion (91.4% of total exports)
Electrical machinery, equipment: $104.1 million (2%)
Meat: $61.2 million (1.2%)
Machinery including computers: $39.5 million (0.8%)
Inorganic chemicals: $33.6 million (0.6%)
Vehicles: $31 million (0.6%)
Salt, sulphur, stone, cement: $19.4 million (0.4%)
Plastics, plastic articles: $18.3 million (0.3%)
Mineral fuels including oil: $15.3 million (0.3%)
Iron, steel: $11.3 million (0.2%)

Basically Botswana is doing fine because they have kept the colonial economic model. They do not murder White people. They let them run the economy. The diamond companies import White people to do the jobs that matter. Locals have menial jobs. The government takes a reasonable cut.

Of course, only White people can do "proper" jobs according to you wankers right?

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"But then related to that, it’s, in general, ethnically homogenous, particularly compared to other countries within Africa."

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I grew up in Botswana and South Africa. At the time (late 90's), Botswana benefited from being the most politically stable country in the region, and attracted firms that wanted the South African markets, but without the potential turmoil. Relatively free trade agreements aided that access. Botswana has always been conscious that the diamond and tourism industries alone can't sustain long-term growth, and much like Tunisia, they've diversified industries. Lastly, it's easy to get people to move there. Most of the population lives within three hours of Johannesburg. Cato's Marian Tupy, who's from South Africa, has done probably the smartest writing on the region that I've read.

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Botswana was decolonized about a quarter of a century after most of the rest of Africa. I've always assumed that they learned from mistakes made elsewhere and strove to make better decisions.

Ghana was supposed to be the exemplar of decolonized West Africa, but it had a rocky first couple of decades. Lately it seems to be doing okay -- nothing great, but not bad.

Countries can learn from the past.

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Nigeria is like Bangladesh or the Low Countries of Europe -- it's where several big rivers form deltas of rich soil, and thus have long been densely populated.

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Cape Verde is about half-European by DNA:

https://tracingafricanroots.wordpress.com/2018/08/04/100-cape-verdean-ancestrydna-results/

It was uninhabited until discovery by the Portuguese, who used the islands as a major waystation for the slave trade. I don't fine the "about half-European" aspect to be surprising.

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Zanzibar had a big Black Power massacre of Asians around 1964. Freddie Mercury and his family barely got out in time, which may be why Freddie was so-unwoke. Bob Geldof wasn't going to let Queen play at his Ethiopian fundraiser because they defied the ban on playing at Sun City inside South Africa in the 1980s.

So, that's probably why Zanzibar isn't doing as well as Mauritius.

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I'd suggest to Professor Nunn that he give more examples of the places he is talking about in Africa.

For example, he talks about people fleeing slavers to the mountains, but I don't have a good picture in my head of where the mountains are in Africa other than the great Rift Valley of East Africa.

And it would be nice to know about how the various seemingly look-alike countries of West Africa are doing. All those little countries like Senegal, Togo, Gambia, Cameroon, Ghana etc would seem useful for testing theories. Are some doing better than others and why is that? Is it persistence of deep roots or is it recent policies?

A big question would seem to be: the slave trade was probably economically bad for Africans who got raided but good for the raiders. Are there any places that built up lasting wealth from the slave trade? Or did it tend to be that last year's slavers wound up this year slaves due to random reversals of fortune?

To give a European example, Constantinople has amazing buildings because it has been a capital city for most of the last 1700 years. Nearby Bulgaria has many fewer tourist attractions, in part because it was often ruled from Constantinople and had to pay taxes to the big city to build fancy buildings in Constantinople.

So, which are the Bulgarias and which are the Constantinoples of Europe?

(of Africa). Yes, maybe the Arabs just squandered their wealth?

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A lot of the Muslim states in the Sahel belt relied on slavery. The problem being that there was too much land so it was hard to build a state. That relies on peasants producing a surplus - but if there is lots of land, they will just move away from the government. So Islam gave the Muslims and excuse to enslave their peers en masse and so build large states.

The monuments are places like Timbuktu and the other cities on the edge of the Sahara.

This was eventually acknowledged by the British. They conquered Nigeria in part by freeing slaves and giving them guns. Slaves flocked to the British Army. But once in power they realized that freeing the slaves meant destroying the North of Nigeria's economy. So over the objections of London they refused to free the slaves of the Sokoto Caliphate. They insisted that they had to buy their freedom - forcing them to work and pay their owners and so keeping the local ruling class solvent and happy.

The Sokoto Caliphate probably had about as many slaves as the pre-War South - 3 or 4 million. But they may have been half the population.

Paul Lovejoy has written on this.

Thanks.

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I'm not convinced that historical claims of economic development ever achieve sufficient parametric identification to be taken seriously.

The number of variables is too great (even between very similar countries) and the total sample size is too small to be able to make any such causal claims as Nunn is making.

Yep ... basically"culture" is overrated... also how does past culture affect countries these days, with technology being the main driver of progress?

Why should past slave trade affect someone's productivity at using a machine except through culture?

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"But one thing we didn’t realize or weren’t expecting was just how lovely and wonderful the people are."

We can do a "shithole" country theory of lovely and wonderful people. Strong norms of hospitality and personal congeniality arise in places with high risk of random violence, both to maintain peace and lubricate social contacts. By all accounts, the Pashtun are also friendly, charismatic and hospitable people. And all those other peoples who give you three days of hospitality before you have to clear out.

In the West, societies with colder shoulders arise from stronger institutions and norms that mediate contact between strangers, so that there is a lower chance of violence. This is why excentrics and autistes also thrive in the West and now in the Far East.

I like how he glossed over Afrikaner descent. Someone who does not know of them would think that maybe they are some sort of weirder local ethnic group like the Jews in Europe or the Igbo in Nigeria. And the whole interview is riddled with eye-rolling hedging and crime-stops. The fact that one had a successful sort of medieval kingdom does not mean that you are also destined to be a competent (post)industrial state. It's not just the psychometrics of the population, but also the landscape, social organization, local resources etc.

He's a white guy who studies Africans. He's always on the verge of being cancelled, so I'll give him a break for being cautious.

+1 makes sense. Then again, if he is not subversive enough to the ruling orthodoxy, then he becomes an enabler so why care about whether he will be cancelled? Lots of people cheering for people being cancelled got cancelled themselves recently, like Bari Weiss. Why shed a tear over them. I do not know enough about Nathan Nunn to reach any conclusion, I am just thinking out loud.

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