What are your thoughts on the ongoing war in Ukraine?
How do you analyze it within your framework about war?
How far would they go to hang onto power
when push came to shove is I think the thing
that worries me the most and is plainly
what worries most people about the risk of nuclear war.
Like at what point does that unchecked leadership
decide that this is worth it?
Especially if they can emerge from the rubble still on top.
The following is a conversation with Chris Blattman,
professor at the University of Chicago,
studying the causes and consequences of violence and war.
This he explores in his new book called
Why We Fight, The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace.
The book comes out on April 19th,
so you should preorder it to support Chris and his work.
This is the Lux Friedman podcast.
To support it, please check out our sponsors
in the description.
And now, dear friends, here’s Chris Blattman.
In your new book titled Why We Fight,
The Roots of War and the Paths for Peace,
you write, quote, let me be clear what I mean
when I say war.
I don’t just mean countries duking it out.
I mean any kind of prolonged violence struggle
That includes villages, clans, gangs, ethnic groups,
religious sects, political factions, and nations.
Wildly different as these may be,
their origins have much in common.
We’ll see that the Northern Irish zealots,
Colombian cartels, European tyrants,
Liberian rebels, Greek oligarchs, Chicago gangs,
Indian mobs, Rwandan genociders,
a new word I learned, thank you to you.
Those are people who administer genocide.
English soccer hooligans and American invaders.
So first, let me ask, what is war?
In saying that war is a prolonged violence struggle
between groups, what do the words prolonged groups
and violent mean?
I sit at the sort of intersection of economics
and political science, and I also dwell a little bit
in psychology, but that’s partly because I’m married
to psychologists, sometimes do research with her.
All these things are really different.
So if you’re a political scientist,
you spend a lot of time just classifying
a really narrow kind of conflict, and studying that.
And that’s an important way to make progress
as a social scientist.
But I’m not trying to make progress,
I’m trying to sort of help everybody step back and say,
you know what, there’s like some common things
that we know from these disciplines
that relate to a really wide range of phenomena.
Basically, we can talk about them in a very similar way
and we can get really similar insights.
So I wanted to actually bring them together,
but I still had to like say,
let’s hold out individual violence,
which has a lot in common, but individuals choose
to engage in violence for more
and sometimes different reasons.
So let’s just put that aside so that we can focus a bit.
And let’s really put aside short incidents of violence,
because those might have the same kind
of things explaining them.
But actually, there’s a lot of other things
that can explain short violence.
Short violence can be really demonstrative.
Like you can just, I can use it to communicate information.
The thing that all of it has in common
is that it doesn’t generally make sense.
It’s not your best option most of the time.
And so I wanted to say, let’s take this thing
that should be puzzling.
We kind of think it’s normal,
we kind of think this is what all humans do.
But let’s point out that it’s not normal
and then figure out why and let’s talk about why.
And so I was trying to throw out the short violence,
I was trying to throw out the individual violence.
I was also trying to throw out all the competition
that happens that’s not violent.
That’s the normal, normal competition.
I was trying to say, let’s talk about violent competition,
because that’s kind of the puzzle.
So that’s really interesting,
because you said usually people try
to find a narrow definition and you said progress.
So you made progress by finding a narrow definition,
for example, of military conflict in a particular context.
And progress means, all right, well,
how do we prevent this particular kind of military conflict?
Or maybe if it’s already happening,
how do we deescalate it and how do we solve it,
sort of from a geopolitics perspective,
from an economics perspective?
And you’re looking for a definition of war
that is as broad as possible,
but not so broad that you cannot achieve
a deep level of understanding of why it happens
and how it can be avoided.
Right, and a common, basically like recognize
that common principles govern some kinds of behavior
that look pretty different.
Like an Indian ethnic riot is obviously pretty different
than invading a neighboring country, right?
But, and that’s pretty different than two villages,
or two gangs, a lot of what I work on
is studying organized criminals and gangs.
Two gangs going to war you’d think is really different,
and of course it is, but there are some common principles.
You can just think about conflict and the use of violence
and not learn everything, but just get a lot,
just get really, really far by sort of seeing
the commonalities rather than just focusing
on the differences.
So again, those words are prolonged, groups, and violent.
Can you maybe linger on each of those words?
What does prolonged mean?
Where’s the line between short and long?
What does groups mean, and what does violent mean?
So let me, you know, I have a friend who,
someone who’s become a friend through the process
of my work and writing this book also,
who was 20, 30 years ago, was a gang leader in Chicago.
So this guy named Napoleon English, or NAP.
And I remember one time he was saying,
well you know, when I was young I used to,
I was 15, 16, and he’d go to the neighboring
gang’s territory, he says I’d go gang banging,
and I said, well, I didn’t know what that meant.
I said, what does that mean?
And he said, oh, that just meant I’d shoot him up.
Like I’d shoot at buildings, I might shoot at people.
I wasn’t trying to kill, he wasn’t trying to kill them.
He was just trying to sort of send a signal
that he was a tough guy, and he was fearless,
and he was someone who they should be careful with.
And so I didn’t want to call that war, right?
That was, that’s something different.
That was, it was short, it was kind of sporadic,
and he wasn’t, and he was basically trying
to send them information.
And this is what countries do all the time, right?
We have military parades, and we might
have border skirmishes, and I wanted to sort of,
so what’s short is a three month border skirmish,
a war, I mean, I don’t try to get into those things.
I don’t want to, but I want to point out that like,
these long, grueling months and years of violence
are like the problem and the puzzle.
And I just, I didn’t want to spend a lot of time
talking about the international version of gang banging.
It’s a different phenomenon.
So what is it about Napoleon that doesn’t nap,
let’s call him, not to add confusion,
that doesn’t qualify for war?
Is it the individual aspect?
Is it that violence is not the thing that is sought,
but the communication of information is what is sought?
Or is it the shortness of it?
Is it all of those combined?
It’s a little bit, I mean, he was the head of a group,
or he’s becoming the head of a group at that point.
And that group eventually did go to war
with those neighboring gangs, which is to say
it was just long, drawn out conflict
over months and months and months.
But I think one of the big insights from my fields
is that you’re constantly negotiating over something, right?
Whether you’re officially negotiating
or you’re all posturing, you’re bargaining over something
and you should be able to figure out a way to split that pie.
And you could use violence.
But violence is, everybody’s miserable.
Like if you’re nap, like if you start a war,
one, there’s lots of risks.
You could get killed, that’s not good.
You could kill somebody else and go to jail,
which is what happened to him, that’s not good.
Your soldiers get killed, no one’s buying your drugs
in the middle of a gunfight, so it interrupts your business.
And so on and on, it’s really miserable.
This is what we’re seeing right now,
as we’re recording the Russian invasion of Ukraine
is now at the fourth or fifth week.
Everybody’s, if it didn’t dawn on them before,
it’s dawned on them now just how brutal and costly this is.
As you describe for everybody.
So everybody is losing in this war.
Yeah, I mean, that’s maybe the insight.
Everybody loses something from war.
And there was usually, not always,
but the point is there was usually a way
to get what you wanted or be better off
without having to fight over it.
So there’s this, fighting is just politics by other means.
And it’s just inefficient, costly, brutal, devastating means.
And so that’s like the deep insight.
And so I kind of wanted to say,
so I guess like what’s not war?
I mean, I don’t try to belabor the definitions
because there’s reams and reams of political science papers
written on like what’s a war, what’s not a war.
I just wanted to say,
war is the thing that we shouldn’t be doing.
Or war is the violence that doesn’t make sense.
There’s a whole bunch of other violence,
including gang banging and skirmishes
and things that might make sense,
precisely because they’re cheap ways of communicating
or they’re not particularly costly.
War is the thing that’s just so costly
we should be trying to avoid
is maybe like the meta way I think about it.
Nevertheless, definitions are interesting.
So outside of the academic bickering,
every time you try to define something,
I’m a big fan of it, the process illuminates.
So the destination doesn’t matter
because the moment you arrive at the definition,
you lose the power.
Yeah, one of the interesting thing,
I mean, so people, if you wanna do,
some of what I do is just quantitative analysis of conflict.
And if you wanna do that,
if you wanna sort of run statistics on war,
then you have to code it all up.
And then lots of people have done that.
There’s four or five major data sets
where people or teams of people have over time said,
we’re gonna code years of war between these groups
or within a country.
And what’s interesting is how difficult,
these data sets don’t often agree.
You have to make all of these,
the decision gets really complicated.
Like when does the war begin, right?
Does it begin when a certain number
of people have been killed?
Did it begin, what if there’s like lots of skirmishing
and sort of little terror attacks or a couple bombs lobbed
and then eventually turns into war?
Do we backdate it to like
when the first act of violence started?
And then what do we do with all the times
when there was like that low scale,
low intensity violence or bombs lobbed
and do we call those wars
or maybe only if they eventually get worse?
Like, so you get, it actually is really tricky.
And the defensive and the offensive aspect.
So everybody, Hitler in World War II,
it seems like he never attacked anybody.
He’s always defending against the unjust attack
of everybody else as he’s taken over the world.
So that’s like information propaganda
that every side is trying to communicate to the world.
So you can’t listen to necessarily information
like self report data.
You have to kind of look past that somehow.
Maybe look, especially in the modern world
as much as possible at the data.
How many bombs dropped?
How many people killed?
How the number of estimates of the number of troops moved
from one location to another and that kind of thing.
And the other interesting thing
is there’s quantitative analysis of war.
So for example, I was looking at just war index
or people trying to measure, trying to put a number
on what wars are seen as just and not.
Oh really, I’ve never seen that.
It’s, there’s numbers behind it.
So it’s great because again,
as you do an extensive quantification of justice,
you start to think what actually contributes
to our thought that for example, World War II is a just war
and other wars are not.
A lot of it is about intent
and some of the other factors like that you look at
which is prolonged, the degree of violence
that is necessary versus not necessary
given the greater good, some measure of the greater good
of people, all those kinds of things.
Then there’s reasons for war, you know,
looking to free people or to stop a genocide
versus conquering land, all those kinds of things.
And people try to put a number behind it.
And a lot of.
It’s based on, I mean, what I’m trying to imagine is,
I mean, suppose I wake up and, or whatever,
suppose I think my God tells me to do something
or my God thinks that, or my moral sense thinks
that something that another group is doing is repugnant.
I’m curious, are they evaluating the validity of that claim
or just the idea that like, well, you said it was repugnant,
you deeply believe that, therefore it’s just?
I think, and that could be corrected on a lot of this,
but I think this is always looking at wars
after they happened and trying to take a global perspective
from all sort of a general survey of how people perceive.
So you’re not weighing disproportionately the opinions
of the people who waged the war.
Yeah, I mean, I kind of ended up dodging that because,
I mean, one is to just point out that wars,
actually most wars aren’t necessary.
And so in the sense that there’s another way
to get what you wanted.
And so on one level, there’s no just war.
Now that’s not true because take an example
like the US invasion of Afghanistan.
The United States has been attacked.
There’s a culpable agent, reliable evidence
that this is Al Qaeda.
They’re being sheltered in Afghanistan by the Taliban.
And then the Taliban, this is a bit murky.
It seems that there was an attempt to say hand him over
or else and they said, no way.
Now you can make an argument that invading
and attacking is strategically the right thing to do
in terms of sending signals to your future enemies
or if you think it’s important to bring someone to justice,
in this case, Al Qaeda, then maybe that’s just war
or that’s a just invasion.
But it hinges on the fact that the other side
just didn’t do the seemingly sensible thing,
which is say, okay, we’ll give them up.
And so it was completely avoidable in one sense.
But if you believe, and I think it’s probably true,
if you believe that for their own ideological
and other reasons, you know, Mullah Omar in particular
and Taliban in general decided we’re not going to do this,
then now you’re not left with very many good choices.
And now, you know, I didn’t wanna talk about
is that a just war or is that, what’s justice or not?
I just wanted to point out that like one side’s
intransigence, if that’s indeed what happened,
one side’s intransigence sort of maybe compels you
to basically eliminates all of the reasonable bargains
that you could be satisfied with and now you’re left
with really no other strategic option but to invade.
I think that’s a slight oversimplification,
but I think that’s like one way to describe what happened.
So your book is fascinating and your perspective
on this is fascinating.
I’ll try to sort of play devil’s advocate at times
to try to get a clarity.
But the thesis is that war is costly,
usually costly for everybody.
So that’s what you mean when you say nobody wants war
because you’re going to,
from a game theoretic perspective, nobody wins.
And so war is essentially a breakdown of reason,
a breakdown of negotiation, of healthy communication
or healthy operation of the world, some kind of breakdown.
You list all kinds of ways in which it breaks down.
But there’s also human beings in this mix.
And there is ideas of justice.
So for example, I don’t want to,
my memory doesn’t serve me well on which wars
were seen as justice, very, very few in the 20th century
of the many that have been there.
The wars that were seen as just, first of all,
the most just war seen is World War II by far.
It’s actually the only one that goes above a threshold
that’s seen as just, everything that’s seen as unjust.
It’s less, it’s like degrees of unjustness.
And I think the ones that are seen as more just
are the ones that are fast,
that you have a very specific purpose,
you communicate that purpose honestly
with the global community, and you strike hard, fast,
and you pull out to do sort of, it’s like rescue missions.
It’s almost like policing work.
If there’s somebody suffering,
you go in and stop that suffering directly, and that’s it.
I think World War II is seen in that way,
that there’s an obvious aggressor
that is causing a lot of suffering in the world
and looking to expand the scale of that suffering.
And so you strike, I mean, given the scale,
you strike as hard and as fast as possible
to stop the expansion of the suffering.
So that’s kind of how they see.
I don’t know if you can kind of look with this framework
that you’ve presented and look at Hitler and think,
well, it’s not in his interest to attack Czechoslovakia,
Poland, Britain, France, Russia, the Soviet Union,
America, the United States of America, same with Japan.
Is it in their long term interest?
I don’t know.
So for me, who cares about alleviating
human suffering in the world, yes, it’s not.
It seems like almost no war is just.
But it also seems somehow deeply human to fight.
And I think your book makes the case, no, it’s not.
Can you try to get at that?
Because it seems that war, there is some,
that drama of war seems to beat in all human hearts.
Like it’s in there somewhere.
Maybe it’s, maybe that’s like a relic of the past
and we need to get rid of it.
It’s deeply irrational.
Okay, so obviously we go to war
and obviously there’s a lot of violence.
And so we have to explain something
and some of that’s going to be aspects of our humanness.
So I guess what I wanted us to sort of start with,
I think it was just useful to sort of start and point out,
actually, there’s really, really, really, really strong
incentives not to go to war
because it’s gonna be really costly.
And so all of these other human or strategic things,
all these things, the circumstantial things
that will eventually lead us to go to war
have to be pretty powerful before we go there.
And most of the time.
Sorry to interrupt.
And that’s why you also describe very importantly
that war throughout human history is actually rare.
We usually avoid it.
You know, most people don’t know about
the US invasion of Haiti in 1994.
I mean, a lot of people know about it,
but people just don’t pay attention to it.
We don’t, we’re gonna, you know,
the history books and school kids are gonna learn
about the invasion of Afghanistan for decades and decades,
and nobody’s going to put this one in the history books.
And it’s because it didn’t actually happen
because before the troops could land,
the person who’d taken power in a coup basically said fine.
There’s this famous story where Colin Powell goes to Haiti,
to this new dictator who’s refused
to let a Democratic president take power.
And tries to convince him to step down or else.
And he says, no, no, no.
And then he shows him a video,
and it’s basically troop planes
and all these things taking off.
And he’s like, this is not live.
This is two hours ago.
So it’s a, and basically he basically gives up right there.
So that was.
That’s a powerful move.
I think Powell might’ve been one of his teachers
in like a US military college,
because a lot of these military dictators
trained at some point.
So they had some, there was some personal relationships
at least between people in the US government
and this guy that they were trying to use.
The point is, and that’s like what should have happened.
That makes sense, right?
Like, yeah, maybe I could mount an insurgency
and yeah, I’m not gonna bear a lot of the cost of war
cause I’m the dictator.
And maybe he’s human and he just wants to fight
or gets angry or it’s just in his mind,
whatever he’s doing.
But at the end of the day, it’s like,
this does not make sense.
And that’s what happens most of the time,
but we don’t write so many books about it.
And now some political scientists go
and they count up all of the nations that could fight
cause they have some dispute
and they’re right next to one another,
or they look at the ethnic groups
that could fight with one another
cause there’s some tension
and they’re right next to one another.
And then whatever, some number like 999 out of 1000
don’t fight because they just find some other way.
They don’t like each other, but they just loathe in peace
because that’s the sensible thing to do.
And that’s what we all do, we loathe in peace.
And we loathed the Soviet Union in relative peace
for decades and India loathes Pakistan in peace.
I mean, two weeks into the Russian invasion of Ukraine,
again, it was in the newspapers,
but most people didn’t, I think, take note.
India accidentally launched a cruise missile at Pakistan
and common suit.
So they were like, yeah, this is,
we do not want to go to war.
This will be bad.
We’ll be angry, but we’ll accept your explanation
that this was an accident.
And so these things find to the radar.
And so we overestimate, I think,
how likely it is the sides are gonna fight.
But then of course, things do happen.
Like Russia did invade the Ukraine
and didn’t find some negotiated deal.
And so then the book is sort of about half the book
is just sort of laying out,
actually like there’s just different ways this breaks down.
And some of them are human.
Some of them are this,
I actually don’t think war beats in our heart.
It does a little bit, but we’re actually very cooperative.
As a species, we’re deeply, deeply cooperative.
We’re really, really good.
So the thing we’re not, we’re okay at violence
and we’re okay getting angry and vengeance
and we have principles that will sometimes lead us,
but we’re actually really, really,
really good at cooperation.
And so that’s, again, I’m not trying to write
some big optimistic book where everything’s gonna be great
and we’re all happy and we don’t really fight.
It’s more just to say, let’s start,
let’s be like a doctor.
As a doctor, we’re gonna focus on the sick, right?
I’m gonna try, I know there’s sick people,
but I’m gonna recognize that the normal state is health
and that most people are healthy.
And that’s gonna make me a better doctor.
And that’s, I’m kind of saying the same thing.
Let’s be better doctors of politics in the world
by recognizing that like normal state is health.
And then we’re gonna identify like what are the diseases
that are causing this warfare.
So yeah, the natural state of the human body
with the immune system and all the different parts
wants to be healthy and is really damn good
at being healthy, but sometimes it breaks down.
Let’s understand how it breaks down.
So what are the five ways that you list
that are the roots of war?
Yeah, so I mean, they’re kind of like buckets.
They’re sort of things that rhyme, right?
In the interview, because it’s not all the same.
There’s like lots of reasons to go to war.
There’s this great line,
there’s a reason for every war and a war for every reason.
And that’s true.
And it’s kind of overwhelming, right?
And it’s overwhelming for a lot of people.
It was overwhelming for me for a lot of time.
And I think one of the gifts of social science
is actually people have started to organize this for us.
And I just tried to organize it like a tiny bit better.
Buckets that rhyme.
Buckets with some economics.
Yeah, the terrible metaphor, right?
And bad at metaphors.
So the idea was that like that basic,
like something overrides these incentives.
And I guess I was saying there’s five ways
that they get overrided.
And three are, I’d call strategic.
Like they’re kind of logical.
There’s circumstances that,
and this is, they’re sort of,
where strategic is, strategy is like game theory.
You could use those two things interchangeably.
But game theory is sort of making it sound more complicated,
I think, than it is.
It’s basically saying that there’s times
when this is like the optimal choice
because of circumstances.
And one of them is when the people who are deciding
don’t bear those costs.
So that’s, or maybe even have a private incentive
that’s gonna, that’s, if they don’t,
if they’re ignoring the cost,
then maybe the costs of war are not so material.
That’s a contributing factor.
Another is just, there’s uncertainty,
and we could talk about that,
but there’s just the absence of information
means that it actually, there’s circumstances
where it’s your best choice to attack.
There’s this thing that political economists
call commitment problems,
which are basically saying there’s some big power shift
that you can avoid by attacking now.
So it’s like a dynamic incentive.
It’s sort of saying, well, in order to keep something
from happening in the future, I can attack now.
And because of the structure of incentives,
it actually makes sense for me,
even though war is, in theory, really costly,
or it is really costly nonetheless.
And then there’s these sort of human things.
One’s a little bit like just war.
One sort of thing, there’s like ideologies or principles
or things we value that weigh against those costs,
like exterminating the heretical idea
or standing up for a principle might be so valuable to me
that I’m willing to use violence, even if it’s costly.
And there’s nothing irrational about that.
And then the fifth bucket is all of the irrationalities,
all the passions and all of the most importantly,
I think, like misperceptions, the way we get,
like we basically make wrong calculations
about whether or not war is the right decision.
We misunderstand or misjudge our enemy
or misjudge ourselves.
So if you put all those things into buckets,
how much can it be modeled in a simple game theoretic way
and how much of it is a giant human mess?
So four of those five are really, on some level,
easy to think strategically and model in a simple way
in the sense that any of us can do it.
We do this all the time.
Think of bargaining in a market for a carpet or something
or whatever you bargained for, you’re thinking a few steps
ahead about what your opponent’s going to do.
And you stake out a high price, like a low price,
and the seller stakes out a high price.
And you might both say, oh, I refuse to,
I could never accept that.
And there’s all this sort of cheap talk,
but you kind of understand where you’re going
and it’s efficient to like find a deal
and buy the market, buy the carpet eventually.
So we all understand this game theory and the strategy,
I think intuitively.
Or maybe even a closer example is like, suppose,
I don’t know, you have a tenant you need to evict
or any normal kind of legal,
it’s not yet a legal dispute, right?
Like we just have a dispute with a neighbor
or somebody else.
Most of us don’t end up going to court.
Going to court is like the war option.
That’s the costly thing that we just ought to be able to avoid.
We ought to be able to find something between ourselves
that doesn’t require this hiring lawyers
and a long drawn out trial.
And most of the time we do, right?
And so we all understand that incentive.
And then for those five buckets,
so everything except all the irrational
and the misperceptions are really easy to model.
Then from a technical standpoint,
it’s actually pretty tricky to model the misperceptions.
And I’m not a game theorist.
And so I’m more channeling my colleagues
to do this and what I know, but it’s not rocket science.
I mean, I think that’s what I try to lay out in the book
is like there’s all these ideas out there
that can actually help us just make sense
of all these wars and just bring some order
to the morass of reasons.
Well, to push back a lot of things in one sentence.
So first of all, rocket science is actually pretty simple.
I’ll defer to you actually.
Well, I think it’s because unfortunately it’s very
like engineering, it’s very well defined.
The problem is well defined.
The problem with humanity is it’s actually complicated.
So it is true it’s not rocket science, but it is not true.
It’s easy because it’s not rocket science.
But the problem, the downside of game theory
is not that it helps us make sense of the world.
It projects a simple model of the world
that brings us comfort in thinking we understand.
And sometimes that simplification is actually getting
at the core first principles on understanding of something.
And sometimes it fools us into thinking we understand.
So for example, I mean, mutually shared destruction
is a very simple model and people argue all the time
whether that’s actually a good model or not,
but there’s empirical fact that we’re still alive
as a human civilization.
And also in the game theoretic sense,
do we model individual leaders and their relationships?
Do we, the staff, the generals,
or do we also have to model the culture, the people,
the suffering of the people, the economic frustration
or the anger or the distrust?
Do you have to model all those things?
Do they come into play?
And sometimes, I mean, again, we could be romanticizing
those things from a historical perspective,
but when you look at history
and you look at the way wars start,
it sometimes feels like a little bit of a misunderstanding
escalates, escalates, escalates,
and just builds on top of itself
and all of a sudden it’s an all out war.
It’s the escalation with nobody hitting the brakes.
So, I mean, you’re absolutely right in the sense
that it’s totally possible to oversimplify these things
and take the game theory too seriously.
And some, and people who study those things
and write those models and people like me who use them
can sometimes make that mistake.
I think that’s not the mistake
that most people make most often.
And what’s actually true is I think most people,
we’re actually really quick,
whether it’s the US invasion of Afghanistan or Iraq,
we’re really quick to blame that
on the humanness and the culture.
So we’re really quick to say,
oh, this was George W. Bush’s
either desire for revenge and vengeance
or some private agenda or blood for oil.
So we’re really quick to blame it on these things.
And then we’re really,
we tend to overlook the strategic incentives to attack,
which I think were probably dominant.
I think those things might’ve been true to a degree,
but I don’t think they were enough to ever
bring those wars about.
Just like, I think people are very quick to sort of,
in this current invasion to sort of talk about
Putin’s grand visions of being the next Catherine the Great
or nationalist ideals and the mistakes
and the miscalculations are really quick to sort of say,
oh, that must be, and then kind of pause or not pause,
but maybe even stop there
and not see some of the strategic incentives.
And so, I guess we have to do both,
but the strategic, I guess I would say like the war
is just such a big problem.
It’s just so costly that the strategic incentives
and the things that game theory has given us
are like really important in understanding
why there was so little room for negotiation and a bargain
that things like a leader’s mistakes start to matter
or a leader’s nationalist ideals or delusions
or vengeance actually matters.
Cause those do matter, but they only matter
when the capacity to find a deal is so narrow
because of the circumstances.
And so let’s not, it’s sort of like saying
like an elderly person who dies of pneumonia, right?
Pneumonia killed them, obviously,
but that’s not the reason pneumonia was able to kill them.
All of the fundamentals and the circumstances
were like made them very fragile.
And that’s how I think all the strategic forces
make that situation fragile.
And then the miscalculations
and all of these things you just said,
which are so important are kind of like the pneumonia.
And let’s sort of, let’s pay attention to both.
And you’re saying that people don’t disproportionately
pay attention to the leaders.
I mean, it wasn’t,
it took me a long time to learn to recognize them.
And it takes many people, you know,
it took and it took generations of social scientists
years and years to figure some of this out
and to sort of help people understand it
and clarify concepts.
So it’s not, it’s just not that easy.
No, it’s not hard.
I think it’s possible to,
just as I was taught a lot of the stuff I write in the book
in graduate school or from reading
and it’s possible to communicate and learn this stuff,
but it’s still really hard.
And so that’s kind of what I was trying to do
is like close that gap and just make it,
help people recognize these things in the wild.
Before we zoom back out,
let me at a high level first ask,
what are your thoughts on the ongoing war in Ukraine?
How do you analyze it within your framework about war?
A Russian colleague of mine,
Konstantin Sonin tells this story
about a visiting Ukrainian professor
who’s at the university.
And one night he’s walking down the street
and he’s talking on two cell phones at once for some reason
and a mugger stops him and demands the phones.
And it’s sort of like dead pan way, Konstantin says,
and because he was Ukrainian, he decided to fight.
And I think that’s a little bit like what happened.
Most of us in that situation would hand over cell phones.
And so in this situation, Putin’s like the mugger
and the Ukrainian people are being asked
to hand over this thing and they’re saying,
no, we’re not gonna hand this over.
And the fact is most people do.
Most people faced with a superpower or a tyrant
or an autocrat or a murderous warlord who says,
hand this over, they hand it over.
And that’s why there are so many unequal
imperial relationships in the world.
That’s what empire is.
Empire is success of people saying,
fine, we’ll give up our some degree of freedom
or sovereignty because you’re too powerful.
And the Ukrainian said, no way, this is just too precious.
And so I said, one of those buckets were that
there’s a set of values.
There’s sometimes there’s something that we value
that is so valuable to us and important.
Sometimes it’s terrible, sometimes it’s the extermination
of another people, but sometimes it’s something noble
like liberty or refusal to part with sovereignty.
And in those circumstances, people will decide
I will endure the costs.
They probably, I mean, I think they knew
what they were probably risking.
And so to me, that’s not to blame the Ukrainians
any more than I would blame Americans
for the American Revolution.
It’s actually a very similar story.
You had a tyrannical, militarily superior,
pretty non democratic entity come and say,
you’re gonna have partial sovereignty.
And Americans for ideological reasons said, no way.
And that people like Bernard Bailyn and other historians,
that’s like the dominant story of the American Revolution.
It was the ideological origins,
this attachment, this idea of liberty.
And so I start, now there’s lots of other reasons
I think why this happened, but I think for me,
it starts with Ukrainians failing to make that sensible
quote unquote rational deal that says we should relinquish
some of our sovereignty because Russia
is more powerful than we are.
So there’s a very clinical look at the war.
Meaning there is a man and a country,
Vladimir Putin, that makes a claim on a land,
builds up troops and invades.
The way to avoid suffering there and the way to avoid death
and a way to avoid war is to back down
and basically let, there’s a list of interests he provides
and you go along with that.
So that’s when the goal is to avoid war.
Let’s do some other calculus.
Let’s think about Britain.
So France fought Hitler but did not fight very hard.
Portugal, there’s a lot of stories of countries like this.
And there is Winston motherfucking Churchill.
He’s one of the rare humans in history
who had that we shall fight on the beaches.
It made no sense.
Hitler did not say he’s going to destroy Britain.
He seemed to show respect for Britain.
He wanted to keep the British Empire.
It made total sense.
It was obvious that Britain was going to lose
if Hitler goes all in on Britain
as it seemed like he was going to.
And yet Winston Churchill said a big F you.
Yeah, similar thing, Zelensky and the Ukrainian people
said F you in that same kind of way.
So I think we’re saying the same things.
I’m being more clinical about it.
Well, I’m trying to understand and we won’t know this
but which path minimizes human suffering in the long term?
Well, on the eve of the war,
Ukraine was poorer in the per person terms
than it was in 1990.
The economy is just completely stagnated.
And Russia, meanwhile, like many other parts of the region,
sort of has boomed to a degree.
I mean, certainly because of oil and gas
but also for a variety of other reasons
and Putin’s consolidated political control.
And from a very cold blooded and calculated point of view,
I think one way Putin and Russia could look at this is says,
look, we were temporarily weak
after the fall of the Iron Curtain
and the rest in the West basically took advantage
of that like Bravo, you pulled it off,
you basically crept democracy and capitalism,
all these things right up to our border.
And now we have regained some of our strength.
We’ve consolidated political control,
we’ve count our people, we have a stronger economy
and we somehow got Germany and other European nations
to give up energy independence and actually just,
we’ve got an enormous amount of leverage over you.
And now we wanna roll back some of your success
because we were powerful enough to demand it.
And you’ve been taking advantage of the situation
which is maybe a fair impartial analysis.
And in the West, but more specifically Ukraine said,
but that’s a price too high, which I totally respect.
Maybe I’d like to think I’d make that same decision
but that’s the answer.
If the answer is why would they fight if it’s so costly?
Why not find a deal?
It’s because they weren’t willing to give Russia the thing
that their power said they quote unquote deserve.
Just like Americans said to the Britain,
yeah, of course we ought to accept semi sovereignty
but we refuse and we’d rather endure a bloody fight
that we might lose than take this.
And so you need some of these other five buckets,
you need them to understand the situation,
you need to sort of, there are other things going on
but I do think it’s fundamental
that this noble intransigence is a big part of it.
Well, let me just say a few things if it’s okay.
So your analysis is clear and objective.
My analysis is neither clear nor objective.
First, I’ve been going through a lot.
I’m a different man over the past four or five weeks
than I was before.
I in general have come to, there’s anger.
I’ve come to despise leaders in general
because leaders wage war
and the people pay the price for that war.
Let me just say on this point of standing up to an invader
that I am half Ukrainian, half Russian,
that I’m proud of the Ukrainian people.
Whatever the sacrifice is, whatever the scale of pain,
standing up, there’s something in me that’s proud.
Maybe that’s whatever the fuck that is.
Maybe that blood runs in me.
I love the Ukrainian people, I love the Russian people.
And whatever that fight is, whatever that suffering is,
the millions of refugees, whatever this war is,
the dictators come to power and their power falls.
I just love that that spirit burns bright still.
And I do, maybe I’m wrong in this,
do see Ukrainian and Russian people as one people
in a way that’s not just cultural, geopolitical,
but just given the history.
I think about the same kind of fighting when Hitler
with all of his forces chose to invade the Soviet Union,
Operation Barbarossa, when he went in that Russian winter.
And a lot of people, and that pisses me off
because if you know your history,
it’s not the winter that stopped Hitler,
it’s the Red Army, it’s the people that refused
to back down, they fought proudly.
That pride, that’s something.
That’s the human spirit.
That’s in war, you know, war is hell,
but it really pushes people to stand
for the things they believe in.
It’s the William Wallace speech from Braveheart.
I think about this a lot.
That does not fit into your framework.
No, no, no, I’m gonna disagree.
I think it totally fits in and it’s this,
there’s nothing irrational about what we believe,
especially those principles which we hold the most dear.
I’m merely trying to say that there’s a calculus,
there’s one calculus over here that says
Russia’s more powerful than it was 20 years ago
and even 10 years ago and Ukraine is not.
And it’s asking for something
and there’s an incentive to give that up.
That’s obvious, like there’s an incentive to comply.
But my understanding is many of these post Soviet republics
have appeased, right, which is what we call compromise
when we disagree with it.
They’ve, all of these other peoples
in the Russians here of influence have not stood up.
And Russians, many Russians have tried to stand up
and they’ve been beaten down.
And now people have, we’ll see,
but people have not been standing up very much.
And so lots of people are cowed
and lots of people have appeased
and lots of people hear that speech
and think I would like to do that, but don’t.
And so, and my point is that sadly we live in a world
where a lot of people get stepped on
by tyrants and empire and whatnot and don’t rise up.
And so I think we could admire,
especially when they stand up for these reasons.
And I think we can admire Churchill for that reason.
I think we could, that’s why we admire
the leaders of the American Revolution and so on,
but it doesn’t always happen.
And I don’t actually know why,
but I don’t think it’s irrational.
I think it’s just, it’s something,
it’s about a set of values and it’s hard to predict.
And it was hard for,
Putin might not have been out of line
in thinking just like everybody else
in my sphere of influence, they’re gonna roll over too.
And I should mention because we haven’t,
that a lot of this calculation
from an objective point of view,
you have to include United States and NATO
into the pressure they apply into the region.
That said, I care little about leaders
that do cruel things onto the world.
They lead to a lot of suffering,
but I still believe that the Russian people
and the Ukrainian people are great people that stand up
and I admire people that stand up
and are willing to give their life.
And I think Russian people are very much that too,
especially when the enemy is coming
for your home over the hill.
Sometimes standing up to an authoritarian regime
is difficult because you don’t know.
It’s not a monster that’s attacking your home directly.
It’s kind of like the boiling of a lobster
or something like that.
It’s a slow control of your mind and the population.
And our minds get controlled even in the West
by the media, by the narratives.
It’s very difficult to wake up one day
and to realize sort of what people call red pilled,
is to see that maybe the thing I’ve been told
all my life is not true at every level.
That’s a thing very difficult to do in North Korea.
The more authoritarian the regime,
the more difficult it is to see.
Maybe this idea that I believe
that I was willing to die for is actually evil.
It’s very difficult to do for Americans,
for Russians, for Ukrainians, for Chinese,
for Indians, for Pakistanis, for everybody.
I think thinking about this Ukrainian,
whether you want to call it nobility or intransigence
or whatever is key.
I think the authoritarianness of Russia
and Putin’s control or the control of his cabal
is the other thing I would really point to
is what’s going on here.
And if you asked me like big picture,
what do I think is the fundamental cause
of most violence in the world?
I think it’s unaccountable power.
I think, in fact, for me an unaccountable power
is the source of underdevelopment.
It’s the source of pain and suffering.
It’s the source of warfare.
It’s basically the root source of most of our problems.
And in this particular case,
it’s also one of our buckets in the sense that like why,
what is it that, why did Russia ask these things?
Like, well, was democracy in Ukraine
a threat to an average Russian?
No, was capitalism, is NATO, is whatever,
is this a threat to average Russians?
No, it’s a threat to the apparatus of political control
and economic control that Putin and cronies
and this sort of group of people that rule,
this elite in Russia, it was a threat to them.
And so they had to ask the Ukraine to be neutral
or to give up NATO or to have a puppet government
or whatever they were seeking to achieve
and have been trying to achieve through other means
for decades, right?
They’ve been trying to undermine these things
And they’ve been doing that
because it threatens their interests.
And that’s like one of these other logics of war.
It’s not just that there’s something that I value so much
that I’m willing to endure the cost.
It’s that there are people not only do,
does this oligarchy or whatever elite group
that you wanna talk about in Russia,
not, first of all, they’re not bearing,
they’re bearing some costs of war, right?
They’re very, and they’re certainly bearing
the cost of sanctions, but they are, they don’t bear
all the costs of war, obviously.
And so they’re more, they’re quick to use it.
But more importantly, like in some sense,
I think there’s a strong argument
that they had a political incentive to invade
and, or at least to ask Ukraine,
this sort of impossible to give up thing,
and then invade despite Ukrainian nobility and transigence
because they were threatened.
And so that’s extremely important, I think.
And so that’s, those two things in concert
make this a very fragile situation.
That’s, I think, why we ended up is,
go not all the way, but a long way to understanding.
Now you could layer onto that these intangible incentives,
these other things that are valued,
that are valued on Putin’s side.
Maybe there’s a nationalist ideal.
Maybe he seeks status and glory.
Like maybe those things are all true.
And I’m sure they’re true to an extent.
And that’ll weigh against his cost of war as well.
But fundamentally, I think he just saw
his regime as threatened.
That’s what he cares about.
And so he asked, he made this cruelest of demands.
I mean, I would say I’m just one human, who the hell am I?
But I just have a lot of anger towards the elites in general,
towards leaders in general that fail the people.
I would love to hear and to celebrate
the beautiful Russian people, the Ukrainian people,
and anyone who silences that beautiful voice of the people,
anywhere in the world, is destroying the thing
that I value most about humanity.
Leaders don’t matter.
They’re supposed to serve the people.
This nationalist idea of a people, of a country,
is only makes any sense when you celebrate,
when you give people the freedom to show themselves,
to celebrate themselves.
The thing I care most about is science
and the silencing of voices in the scientific community,
the silencing of voices, period.
And fuck any leader that silences that human spirit.
There’s something about this.
Like, whenever I look at World War II,
whenever I look at wars,
it does seem very irrational to fight.
But man, does it seem somehow deeply human
when the people stand up and fight.
There’s something, you know, we talked about progress.
That feels like how progress is made,
the people that stand and fight.
But let me read the Churchill speech.
It’s such, I’m so proud that we humans
can stand up to evil when the time is right.
I guess here’s the thing, though.
Think of what’s happening in Xinjiang in China.
We have appeased China.
We’ve basically said, you can just do really, really,
really horrible things in this region,
and you’re too powerful for us to do anything about it,
and it’s not worth it.
And there’s nobody standing up and making a Churchill speech
or the Braveheart speech about standing up
for people of Xinjiang when what’s happening is,
you know, in that realm of what was happening in Europe.
And that’s happening in a lot of places.
And then when there is a willingness to stand up,
people, there’s a lot of opposition to those, you know.
So there were a lot of reasons for the invasion of Iraq.
For some, it was a humanitarian thing,
like Saddam Hussein was one of the worst tyrants
of the 20th century.
He was just doing some really horrible things.
You know, he’d invaded Kuwait.
He’d, you know, attempted domestic genocide
and all sorts of repression,
and it was probably a mistake to invade in spite.
So it’s important not just to select on the cases
where we stood up and to select on the cases
where that ended up working out in the sense of victory.
Right, it’s important to sort of try to judge,
not judge, but just try to understand these things
in the context of all the times we didn’t give that speech
or when we did, and then it just went sideways.
Well, that’s why it’s powerful
when you’re willing to give your life for your principles
because most of the time,
you get neither the principles nor the life.
You get, you die.
That’s what, but that’s why it’s powerful.
We shall go on to the end.
We shall fight in France.
We shall fight on the seas and the oceans.
We shall fight with growing confidence
and growing strength in the air.
We shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be.
We shall fight on the beaches.
We shall fight on the landing grounds.
We shall fight in the fields and in the streets.
We shall fight in the hills.
We shall never surrender.
This is before Hitler had any major loss to anybody.
That was a terrifying armada coming your way.
We shall never surrender.
I just wanna give props.
I wanna give my respect as a human being to Churchill,
to the British people for standing up,
to the Ukrainian people for standing up,
and to the Russian people.
These are great people that throughout history
have stood up to evil.
Let me ask you this because you quote Sun Tzu
in The Art of War.
There’s no instance of a country
having benefited from prolonged warfare.
This is the main thesis.
Can we just linger on this?
Since leaders wage war and people pay the price,
when we say that there’s no reason to do prolonged war,
is it possible to have a reason for the leaders
if they disregard the price?
Sort of like if they have a different objective function
or utility function that measures the price
that’s paid for war.
Is that one explanation of why war happens?
Is the leaders just have a different calculus
than other humans?
I mean, I think this links us back
to what we were talking about earlier about just war.
Is in some sense, just war is saying
that in spite of the costs,
that our enemy has done something,
our opponent has refused to compromise
on something that we find essential
and is demanding that we compromise
in a way that’s completely repugnant.
And therefore, we’re going to go to war
despite these material costs and these human costs.
So that, and that’s, and then that principle
that you go to war on is in the eye of the beholder.
And I mean, I think liberty and sovereignty,
I think we can understand and sympathize with,
and maybe that’s just a universal,
maybe that’s the greatest cause of just war,
but other people make that, could go to war
for something considerably less,
a principle that’s considerably less noble, right?
Which is what Hitler was doing.
So that’s an explanation.
So that’s a whole class of explanations
that helps us understand that the compromise
that was on the table, given the relative balance of power,
was just repugnant at least to one side, if not the other.
There’s something they’re unwilling to part with.
And then you get to the leaders.
Well, what happens when what the leaders want,
what happens when the leaders are detached
from the interests of their groups,
which has been true for basically most of human history.
There’s a narrow slice of societies
in the big scheme of things
that have been accountable to their people.
A lot of them exist today,
where to some degree,
they’re channeling the interests of their group, right?
So the Ukrainian politicians didn’t concede
to these cruel Russian demands,
because even if they had,
it would have been political suicide,
because it seemed, or I think,
it seems that the Ukrainians
would have just rejected this.
So they were in some sense channeling the values
of the broader population, even if they,
I don’t know what was going,
and if they didn’t share those principles,
they self interestedly followed them.
Probably they shared them,
but I’m just saying that even if they didn’t,
they wouldn’t compromise.
Occasionally you get the reverse,
which is where the leaders are not accountable.
And now they have some value, which could be glory.
I mean, this is the story of the kings,
and to some lesser extent, the queens of Europe,
for hundreds of years, was it was basically a contest,
and it was, war was the sport of kings,
and to some extent, they were just seeking status
through violent competition,
and they paid a lot, a big price out of the royal purse,
but they didn’t bear most of the suffering.
And so they were too quick to go to war.
And so that’s, I think that detachment of leaders,
combined with, you mingle it with this,
that one bucket, that uncheckedness,
and you mingle that with the fact
that leaders might have one of these values,
noble or otherwise, that carry them to war,
combined to explain a good number of conflicts as well.
And that’s a good illustration of why I think autocracy
and unaccountable power is,
I could make that story for all of the things,
all five buckets, they’re all,
we’re all more susceptible to these things,
to all five of these things,
when leaders are not accountable to the people
and their group.
And that’s what makes it like the meta,
for me, the meta cause of conflict
in all of human history, and sadly, today.
Does the will to power play into this,
the desire for power?
Like, that’s a human thing, again, in the calculation.
That, shall we put that in the misperceptions bucket?
Or is it, is misperceptions essentially
about interaction between humans,
and power is more about the thing you feel in your heart
when you’re alone as a leader?
You know, I said there were three strategic reasons,
like the unchecked leaders,
the commitment problems, uncertainty.
There are two sort of more psychological,
and I call them intangible incentives and misperceptions.
The way that like a game theorist,
or the way that a behavioral economist would think
about those two is just to say preferences,
and then erroneous beliefs and mistakes.
It’s like, so our preferences are our preferences, right?
And so utility functions, whatever we want to call it,
like there’s not, that’s why I wouldn’t call them
a misperception or rationality.
We want, we like what we like.
If we like power, if we like relative status,
if we like, if we like our racial purity,
if we like our liberty, if we like,
whatever it is that we have convinced ourselves we value.
Maybe you fell in love with a rival queen, a king.
When I said it was a big bucket full of stuff that rhymes,
like that’s a pretty messy bucket.
Like there’s a lot of different stuff in there.
And I’m just trying to say, like, let’s be clear
that just about the shared logic of these things
is maybe just, you know, they’re really dissimilar,
but let’s be clear about the shared logic.
And if it were true that deep down,
we were aggressive people who just liked violence
and enjoyed the blood, or some percentage of us do,
that would be there too.
And so I just want to say that’s,
but you know, we’re really quick to recognize those, right?
When we diagnose a war as an armchair analyst
or as a journalist or something, we really jump to those.
We don’t need a lot of help to like see those happening.
So we probably put a little bit too much emphasis on them
is maybe the only thing that I would caution
because the others are more subtle
and they’re often there and they contribute.
So just to link on something you said before,
would it be accurate to say when the leaders
become detached from the opinion of the people,
is that’s more likely to lead to war?
And mechanically, it’s just,
they’re gonna bear fewer costs.
So it’s gonna basically narrow the set of deals
that they’re gonna be willing to accept instead of violence.
At the same time, most of the time it’s not enough
because the leaders still bear a lot of costs of war.
You could be deposed, you could be killed,
you could be tried,
and the public purse is going to be empty.
That’s like the one story throughout history
is at the end of the day,
your regime is broke as a result of war.
And so you still internalize that a little bit.
If I had to say like, you know,
in my three buckets or through my buckets so far,
I sort of started with like Ukrainian intransigence,
and then I jumped, and then I said the essentially,
then you really have to understand Russian autocracy
just to understand why they would ask something so cruel.
But I mean, I think the uncertainty
is really important here as well.
Like if you think of it, like think of all of the things,
the way this has played out,
and just in some ways how many,
in how many ways we’ve been surprised.
We’ve been surprised by the unity
and the coherence of the West and the sanctions.
That’s sort of what’s happened
is it was in the realm of possibility,
but it was sort of like the best case scenario
from the perspective of the West
and the worst case scenario for the Russians.
The second thing is just the pluckiness
and the effectiveness and the intransigence
and the nobility of this Ukrainian resistance.
That’s again, was within the realm of possibility,
but wasn’t necessarily the likely thing, right?
It was again, maybe the worst realization for Russia,
the best realization in some sense
for in terms of revealed strength and resolve.
And then the other thing that’s been revealed
is just how like the corruption and ineptitude
and problems on the Russian military side.
Again, within the realm of possibility,
maybe people who really knew the Russian military
are less surprised than the rest of us,
but also one of the worst possible draws for Russia.
And so Putin asking this terrible price
and expecting Ukraine to roll over
or the West to roll over at least to a degree
was based on like a different set of,
was based on just expecting something
in the middle of the probability distribution
and not one of all these different tale events.
And so the fact that the world’s so uncertain
and the fact that Putin can come
with a different set of expectations
than the Ukrainians and the West
and all these players can just have a hard time agreeing
on just what the facts are
because we live in an uncertain world.
Everyone’s quick to say, oh, he miscalculated.
Well, I’m not, I don’t know if he miscalculated.
I think he just, he got a really bad draw
in terms of what the realized outcomes are here.
And so, I mean, good for everybody else in some sense,
except the fact that it’s involving a lot of violence
is the tragedy.
Well, there’s also economic pain,
not just for the Russian people and the Ukrainian people,
but the whole world.
So it, you know, you could talk about things
that we are surprised from an analysis perspective
of small victories here or there,
but I think it’s universally true
that everybody loses once again in this war.
Right, and so the question is just like,
when does it, you know, why did Russia choose to invade
when Ukraine didn’t give this up?
Well, Russia anticipated that it would be able to seize
what it wanted, the available bargain that it deserved,
quote unquote, based on its power in the world,
it wasn’t getting, and so it thought it could take that.
And the uncertainty around that made it
potentially more likely that he would choose to do this.
But in particular, one of the other things
that I think is probably less important in this context,
but still plays a role, but less important than many wars,
is the fact that it’s really hard to resolve
that uncertainty, right?
In theory, Ukraine should be able to say,
look, this is exactly how resolved we are,
we’re super resolved, and your military
is not as strong as you think it is.
You mean before the conflict even begins?
Everybody should be like, you know what?
You lay on the table, here’s my cards, here’s your cards.
Exactly, like that’s, as a competitor in this,
you can use that uncertainty to your advantage.
I can try to convince you, I can bluff, right?
And so anyone who’s ever played poker
and bluffed or called a bluff, that’s the inefficiency,
that’s the analogy in some ways to war.
It’s not the perfect analogy,
but the uncertainty and the circumstance,
you don’t have to miscalculate.
The fact that if you bluff and lose,
it doesn’t mean that you miscalculated.
You made an optimal choice, given the uncertainty
of the situation, to take a gamble.
And that was a wiser thing for you to do than to not bluff
and just to fold or to just not ping in that round.
And so the uncertainty of the situation
gives both sides incentives to bluff,
gives neither side an incentive to try to reveal the truth.
And then at some point, the other side says,
you know what, you say you’re resolved.
You say you’re gonna mount an insurgency.
Well, guess what?
Every other, you know, people on my border has folded
and you’re gonna fold too, the minute the tanks roll in
and the minute the Air Force comes in,
I’m gambling that you’re bluffing.
And so that inherent uncertainty of the situation
just causes a lot of short wars, actually,
because it’s this sort of bluff and call dynamic
that goes on.
And, you know, the thing that’s worth thinking
is we might end up at a place in a few months
where the thing that Ukraine concedes
is not so far from what Russia demanded in the first place.
Russia’s on it, I want a neutral,
I mean, who knows how,
it’s not the ambitious thing the Russians wanted.
But if we end up in a place where Ukraine
is effectively neutral, never joins NATO,
is not being militarily supplied by the West,
and where Russia has de facto control over the East
and Crimea, if not fully recognized,
probably, who knows if they’ll get ever internationally
and Ukrainian will recognize, but effectively controls,
Russia will have accomplished
what it asked for in the first place,
and both parties had to get there through violence
rather than through negotiation.
And you wouldn’t need misperceptions and mistakes,
and you wouldn’t need Putin’s delusions of glory
or whatever to get there,
you would just need the ingredients
I’ve given so far, which is like an unwillingness
to do that without fighting on the part of the Ukrainians,
an autocratic leadership in Russia
who would make those demands
because it’s in their self interest,
and then uncertainty leading them to fight.
And that sadly is like the best case,
that feels like the best case scenario right now,
which is the war is just five months and not five years.
Given the current situation.
Because the suffering has already happened,
and lost homes, people moving,
having to see their home in rubble,
and millions of people, refugees having to escape the country,
and hate flourishes versus the common humanity
as it does with war.
And on top of all of that,
if we talk from a geopolitical perspective,
the warmongers all over the world are sort of drooling.
They’ve now got narratives,
and they got that whatever narratives,
you can go shopping for the narratives.
The United States has its narratives
for whatever geopolitical thing it wants to do
in that part of the world.
That’s another little malevolent interaction
between two of these buckets,
like those unchecked leaders,
and those intangible incentives, those preferences,
is that unchecked leaders spend, autocrats, whatever,
spend enormous amounts of time trying to manipulate the values
and beliefs of their population, of their group.
Now, sometimes they do it nobly,
but that’s what Winston Churchill there was trying to,
it’s not clear that Britains were ready to stand up.
There were a lot of Americans and a lot of Britains
who were like, you know what?
Hitler, not such a bad guy.
His idea is not so terrible.
I never liked those Jews anyways.
Many were thinking.
We had political leaders in the US
who were basically not pro Nazi,
but were just not anti Nazi.
And Churchill was just trying to instill a different resolve.
He was trying to create that thing.
He was trying to create that value.
And in the American Revolution, it was as well.
The founding fathers, the leaders of the revolution,
it’s not that everybody just woke up one morning
in the United States
and had this ideology of liberty and freedom.
Some of that was true.
It was out there in the ether,
but they had to manufacture and create it
in a way that I think they believed and was noble,
but there’s a lot of manufacturing and creation
of these values and principles that is not noble,
and that is exactly what Hitler did so well.
The anti Semitism was present throughout the world,
but the more subtle thing that I feel like
may be more generally applicable
is this kind of pacifism
that I think people in the United States felt like.
It’s not my conflict.
Why do I need to get involved with it?
And I think Churchill was fighting that,
It’s the apathy of rational calculus,
like what are we going to gain if we fight back?
Hitler seems to be pretty reasonable.
He’s saying he’s going to stop the bombing,
that you’re still going to maintain your sovereignty
as the great people of Britain.
Like why are we fighting again?
And that’s the thing that’s hard to break
because you have to say, well,
you have to speak the principle,
you have to speak at some greater sort of
long term vision of history.
So like, yes, now it may seem like
it’s a way to avoid the fight,
but you’re actually just sort of
putting shackles on yourself.
You’re destroying the very greatness of our people
if we don’t fight back.
And to think about this with like the current case
with Russia, I mean,
some people look at Putin’s speeches
and papers he’s written on Ukraine
historically being a part of Russia
and trying to deny the…
basically create all these nationalist narratives
and they think, well, Putin really believes,
and he might, Putin really believes this
and that’s why he’s invading.
And that might also be true
and that would contribute to…
just make a peaceful bargain even harder to find.
But I suspect what’s at least a minimum true
is Putin’s trying to manufacture
support for an invasion in the population
And so he’s doing on some level
the same thing that Winston Churchill was doing
in mechanical terms,
which is to try to manipulate people’s references.
But doing it in a sinister, malevolent, evil,
self serving way because it’s really in his interest,
whereas this was anything but, right,
in the Churchill example.
The dark human thing is like
there’s moments in World War II
where Hitler’s propaganda,
he began to believe his own propaganda.
I think he probably always believed…
I think he was a sincere believer.
Well no, no, no, but there’s a lot of places
where there was uncertainty
and they decided to do propaganda
and that propaganda resolved the uncertainty
in his own mind.
So for example, he believed until very late
that America is a weakling,
militarily and as an economic power
and just the spirit of the people.
And that was part of the propaganda they were producing
and because of that propaganda when he became
the head of the army,
he was making military actions,
he like nonchalantly started war with America,
with the United States of America,
where he didn’t need to at all.
He could have avoided that completely,
but he thought, eh, whatever.
So I think that propaganda first, belief second.
And I think as a human being, as a dictator,
when you start to believe the lies
with which you’re controlling the populace,
you’re not able to,
you become detached from this person
that’s able to resolve in a very human way
the conflict in the world.
I mean, when I said the meta,
the big common factor that causes war
over and over and over again is unaccountable power.
It’s not just because it’s mechanically,
like one of my five explanations is saying,
well, if you’re unaccountable,
you don’t bear the costs of war,
you might have private incentives.
So yes, bargains are harder to find,
but it leads to all these nasty interactions.
So earlier I said there’s this interaction
between the values and the unchecked leaders
because those idiosyncratic values of your leader
become more important when they’re unchecked.
But the uncertainty point you just made
is like a deep point.
It’s to say actually that like the fundamental problem
that all autocrats have is an information problem
because nobody wants to give them
the right information.
And they have very few ways to aggregate information
if they’re not popular, right?
And so there’s a whole cottage industry
of political science sort of talking about
like why autocrats love fixed elections
and why they love Twitter
and why they actually like it in a controlled way.
It solves an information problem.
Like that’s your crucial,
if you’re like Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin,
you need to solve an information problem
just to avoid having rebellion on your hands
in your own country every day
because uncertainty kind of gets magnified
and you get all this distorted information
in this apparatus of control.
And so that’s like another nasty interaction
between uncertainty and unchecked leaders
is you end up in this situation
where you’re getting bad information.
And it’s not that you believe your own lies.
It’s just that you sort of believe,
you’re sort of averaging what you believe
over the available information
and you don’t realize that it’s such a distorted
and biased information source.
One of the other things about this time
that was a surprise to me in the fog of uncertainty,
how sort of seemingly likely nuclear war became.
Not likely, but how it.
Less unlikely than before.
Exactly, that’s a better way to say it.
It started to take a random stroll away
from zero percent probability into this kind of land
of maybe like, it’s hard to know,
but it’s like, oh wow, we’re actually normally
talking about this as if this is part of the calculus,
part of the options.
But before we talk about nuclear war,
because I’m going to need a drink,
do you need to go to the bathroom?
Sure, I’ll take a break.
So back to nuclear war.
What do you think about this?
That people were nonchalantly speaking about nuclear wars
if it doesn’t lead to the potential annihilation
of the human species.
What are the chances that our world
ascends into nuclear war?
Within your framework, you wear many hats.
One is sort of the analyst, right?
And then one is a human.
What do you think are the chances we get
to see nuclear war in the century?
Well, you know, the official doomsday clock
for nuclear warfare sits in the lobby of my building.
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists
sort of shares a building with us,
so it’s always there every day.
Can you describe what the doomsday clock is?
The Bulletin of Atomic Scientists,
it’s something that this group of physicists
sort of said to sort of mark just how close we are
to nuclear catastrophe, and they started it decades ago.
And it’s a clock, and it’s sort of how close
are we to midnight, where midnight is nuclear Armageddon
or the destruction of humanity.
And it’s been sitting, I mean, it’s actually,
it hasn’t moved as close to,
it hasn’t moved as close to midnight
in the last few weeks as it probably should have,
only because it was already so close.
There’s actually limited room for it to move
for a bunch of other reasons.
I think there’s a whole political thing
that once it’s really hard,
it’s really easy to move it closer.
And it’s really hard if you’re the person
in charge of that clock to move it away, right?
Because that’s always very controversial.
So it always sits there,
but it forces you to think about it
a little bit every day.
And I admit I was nonchalant about it until recently
in a way that many, many other people were.
I still think the risk is very low,
but kind of for the reasons we’ve talked,
it’s just so unimaginably costly
that nobody wants to go that route.
So it’s like the extreme version of my whole argument
was why we most of the time don’t fight
is because it’s just so damn costly.
And so that’s the incentive not to use this.
And if they do use it,
that’s the incentive to use it in a very restrained way.
But because we know we do go to war
and there’s all these things that interfere with it,
including miscalculation and all of these human foibles,
and several of those nuclear powers
are not accountable leaders,
I think we have to be a lot more worried
than many of us were very recently.
I pointed out earlier the whole reason we’re in this mess
is because the only people who have this private interest
in having Ukraine give up its freedom
is this Russian cabal and elite that gets their power
and is preserved and is threatened by Ukrainian democracy.
How far would they go to hang onto power
when push came to shove
is I think the thing that worries me the most.
And is plainly what worries most people
about the risk of nuclear war.
Like at what point does that unchecked leadership
decide that this is worth it?
Especially if they can emerge from the rubble still on top.
I don’t know.
And I don’t know that any of us
have really fully thought through
all of that calculus and what’s going on.
Very recently around the anniversary of January 6th
there were a lot of questions about
was the United States going to have another civil war?
On the one hand I think it’s almost unimaginable.
Sort of like in the same way I think that a nuclear war
and complete Armageddon is unimaginable.
But I remember something that
when both of those questions get asked
I remember something I was in the audience
of listening to some great economists speak about
20 years ago about the risk of an Argentina style
financial meltdown of the United States.
Like what’s the total financial collapse?
And they said you know what the risk is vanishingly small
but that’s terrifying because until recently
the answer was zero.
And so the fact that it’s not zero
should deeply, deeply scare us all
and we should devote a lot of energy
to making it zero again.
And that’s how I feel about the risk of a civil war
in the U.S. and that’s how I feel about the risk
of nuclear war is it’s higher than it used to be
and that should terrify us all.
To me what terrifies me is that all this kind of stuff
seems to happen like overnight like super quick
and it escalates super quick when it happens.
So it’s not like I don’t know what I imagine
but it just happens like if a nuclear war happened
it would be something like a plane like in this case
with Ukraine a NATO plane shut down
over some piece of land by the Russian forces
or so the narrative would go
but it doesn’t even matter what’s true or not
in order to spark the first moment of escalation
and then it just goes, goes, goes.
Well I think that happens sometimes.
I mean again it’s this thing that you know
what social scientists call it selection
on the dependent variable.
Like there’s all these times when that didn’t happen
when it stopped, when it escalated one step
and then people paused or escalated two steps
and people said whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa.
And so we remember the times when it went boom, boom, boom
boom, boom, boom, boom and then the really terrible
thing happened but that fortunately that’s not
you know I start off the book with an example
of a gang war that didn’t happen in Medellin, Colombia
which is my day job is actually studying conflict
and gangs and violence of these other kinds of groups
also very sinister and most of the time they don’t fight
and that escalation doesn’t happen.
So the escalation does happen quickly sometimes
except when it doesn’t which fortunately.
So we remember the ones when it does.
It’s really important to think about all that.
Like I remember talking to I think Elon Musk
on this podcast I was sort of like talking about
the horrors of war and so on and then he said
well you know like most of human history
because I think I said like most of human history
had been defined by these horrible wars.
He’s like no, most of human history is just peaceful
like farming life.
We kind of remember the wars but most of human history
is just you know is life.
Yeah and most of the competition between nations
was like blood, I would say bloodthirsty
without drinking that blood in the sense that
it was intense, it would loathsome and so a lot
of the rivalry and a lot of the competition
which is also can be problematic in its own ways
is not violent and most of human history is about
the oppression of the majority by a few
and there are moments when they rise up and revolt
and there’s a revolution we remember those
but most of the time they don’t.
And the story of political change and transformation
and freedom is there’s a few revolutions that are violent
but most of it is actually revolutions without
that kind of violent revolt.
Most of it is just the peaceful concession of power
by elites to a wider and wider group of people
in response to their increased economic
bargaining power, their threat that they’re going to march.
So even if we want to understand something like
the march of freedom over human history
I think we can draw the same insight that actually
we don’t, most of the time we don’t fight
we actually concede power, no you don’t
the elite doesn’t sort of give power to the masses
right away, they just co op the few merchants
who could threaten the whole thing and bring them
into the circle and then the circle gets a little bit
wider and a little bit wider until the circle
is ever widened, maybe not ever but encompasses
most if not all and that’s like a hopeful
and optimistic trend.
Yeah if you look at the plot, if you guys could pull it up
of the wars throughout history, so the rate of wars
throughout history does seem to be decreasing
significantly with a few spikes and the sort of
the expansion, it’s like half the world is under
authoritarian regimes but that’s been shrinking
and shrinking and shrinking.
Steven Pinker’s one person, one famous scholar
who brings up this hypothesis, I mean there’s sort of
two ways, there’s actually two separate kinds of violence
that one where I think he’s completely right
and one where I think we’re not sure, maybe not
where he’s completely right, sort of interpersonal violence
homicides, everyday violence has been going down
down down down down down down, that’s just unambiguously
and it’s mostly because we’ve created cultures
and states and rules and things that control
Now the warfare between groups, is that less frequent?
Well you know, it’s not clear that he’s right
that there’s fewer wars, you might say that there’s
wars are more rare because they’re more costly
because our weapons are so brutal.
The costs of war go up, as the costs of war go up
not entirely but for the most part that gives us
an incentive not to have them and but then when
they do happen they’re doozies.
So is Pinker right?
I hope he’s right but I don’t think that officially
that trend is there.
I think that we might have the same kind of levels
of intergroup violence because maybe those five fundamentals
that lead to war have not fundamentally changed
and thus made us, given us a more peaceful world
now than a couple hundred years ago.
That’s something to think about so obviously
looking at his hypothesis, looking at his data
and others like him but I have noticed one thing
which is the amount of pushback he gets.
That there is this, this is speaking to the general
point that you made which is like we overemphasize
the anecdotal like the and don’t look objectively
at the aggregate data as much.
There’s a general cynicism about the world
and not, I don’t even mean cynicism, it’s almost
like cynicism porn or something like that
where people just get, for some reason they get
a little bit excited to talk about the destruction
of human civilization in a weird way.
Like they don’t really mean it I think.
If I were to like psychoanalyze their geopolitical
analysis is I think it’s a kind of, I don’t know,
maybe it relieves the mind to think about death
at a global scale somehow and then you can go have
lunch with your kids afterwards and feel a little
better about the world, I don’t know what it is.
But that, it’s not very scientific, it’s very
kind of personal, emotional and so we shouldn’t,
we should be careful to look at the world in that way
because if you look broadly there is just like
how you highlight, there’s a will for peace
among people, yeah.
You mentioned Medellin, by the way how do you
pronounce it Medellin or Medellin?
Both are fine, I think there they say Medellin
because that’s kind of the accent is the zh on the double L.
But Medellin would be totally fine as well.
What lessons do you draw from the Medellin cartel
from the different gang wars in Colombia, Medellin?
What’s the economics of peace and war between drug cartels?
Here’s what was really insightful for me.
So I live in Chicago and people are aware that
there’s a violence problem in Chicago.
It’s actually not the worst American city by any stretch
of the imagination for shootings but it’s pretty bad.
And Medellin has these better, much many more
and probably many better organized gangs than Chicago.
And yet the homicide rate is maybe half.
And now, I mean there have been moments when these
gangs go to war in the last 30 years when Medellin
has become the most violent place on the planet
but for the most part right now they’re peaceful.
And so what’s going on there?
I mean one thing is there’s a hierarchy of organizations
so that above these reasonably well organized neighborhood gangs
there’s a set of sort of more shadowy organizations
that have different names.
Some people call them razones, some people would call them
bandas criminales, criminal bands.
You might just call them mafias.
And there’s about 17 of them depending on how you want to count.
And they themselves have a little operating board called,
sometimes they call it the office, la oficina,
sometimes they call it la mesa, the table.
Well each individual one or as a group?
As a group, as a group.
So they meet and they don’t meet personally all the time,
sometimes they meet, but they consult.
A lot of the leaders of these groups are actually in prison
and they’re in the same wings in prison.
They have represented, oh they meet in prison.
Well they’re, whatever, if I’m on a cell block with you
I’m meeting you anyways.
So actually imprisoning leaders and putting them in the same cell block
but not putting them, if you get arrested here in the United States
and you’re a criminal leader and you get put in a super max prison
you cannot run your criminal empire.
It’s just too difficult, it’s impossible.
There it’s possible and you might think, and they do,
they still run their empire.
And you might think that’s a bad idea, but actually
cutting off the head of a criminal organization,
leading it to a bunch of hot headed young guys who are disorganized
is not always the path to peace.
So having these guys all in the same prison patios is actually,
it reduces imperfect information and uncertainty.
It provides a place for them to bargain, they can talk.
And so La Oficina is like a lot of these informal meetings.
And they have these tools that they use to control the street gangs.
So instead of there being like 400 gangs all sort of
in this anarchic situation of competing for territory
and constantly at war, the Rezones are keeping them in line.
And they will use sanctions, they will, where the sanction might be
I will put a bullet in your head if you don’t.
It’s a little more honest than the sanctions between nations.
Exactly, but they will sit them down, they’ll provide,
they’ll help them negotiate, they will provide,
I said there are these things called commitment problems
where like there’s some dynamic, I have some incentive
to like exterminate you, but that’s going to be costly for everybody.
So I’m going to, what’s the solution?
Well, I’m going to provide commitment.
I’m going to like enforce this deal.
And yeah, you don’t like this deal now because you could
take advantage of your situation and wage war,
but I’m going to give you a counter incentives.
And so they keep the peace.
And so they’re a little bit like the UN Security Council
and peacekeeping forces and sanctions regimes.
It’s like the same kinds of tools, the same parallels.
And they’re imperfect, they don’t always work that well.
And they’re unequal, right?
Because it’s not like they’re pursuing this in the interests
of like democratic, blah, blah, blah.
But it kind of works.
Until it doesn’t, and 10 years ago in the mid 1990s,
there were wars and this breaks down.
And it kind of gave me this perspective on the international institutions
and all the tools we’ve built, that we do the same things, right?
Sanctions are designed to make unchecked leaders face the cost of war.
It’s a solution to one of the five problems, right?
And mediators are a solution to uncertainty.
And international institutions that can enforce a peace and agreement
are a solution to commitment problems.
And all of these things can be solutions to these intangible incentives,
like these preferences for whatever you value,
and miscalculations because they will punish you for your miscalculation,
or they will get a mediator to help you realize why you’re miscalculating.
So they’re doing all these things.
And it made me realize that the comparison to the UN Security Council
and all our tools is actually a pretty good one
because those are pretty unequal too.
And those are pretty imperfect.
We have five nations with a veto on the Security Council
and a lot of unequal power,
and they’re manipulating this in their own self interest
or their group’s interests.
So anyway, so it’s actually some of the things that work in Medellín
and why they work help give me a lot of perspective
on what works in the international arena
and why we have some of the problems we have.
So there’s not, in some deep way,
there’s not a fundamental difference between those 17 mafia groups and…
The UN Security Council.
We’re such funny descendant of apes.
We put on suits.
I’m sure they have different cultural garbs that they wear.
What are your thoughts?
I mean, that’s the sense I got from Pablo Escobar and Jorge Ochoa,
who founded the Medellín Cartel.
Having spoken with people on this podcast,
Dr. Roger Reeves, who was a drug transporter,
it seems like there, it seems like it was,
I don’t know the right term,
but it was very kind of professional and calm.
It didn’t have a sense of danger to it.
Like it’s negotiating.
So like the danger is always on the table as a threat,
as part of the calculation,
but you’re using that threat in order to deescalate,
in order to have peace.
Everybody is interested in peace.
So something that happened last year,
we were a little bit able to watch in real time
because we had a few contacts.
So we’ve been meeting and talking to a lot of these leaders in prison
and a bit outside of prison.
Many of them will talk to us.
And so the homicide rate,
I mentioned the homicide rate in Medellín,
maybe two thirds or half of the Chicago level,
it had been climbing.
Some of these street level gangs were starting to fight.
Maybe at sort of the, on some level,
it seems that like maybe some of those leaders were like saying,
well, you know, we’re actually not sure how strong these guys are.
Let’s let them fight just to test it out.
Let’s have these skirmishes, right?
It wasn’t prolonged warfare.
It was like, let’s just sort of feel out how strong everybody is
because then we’ll be able to reapportion the drug corners
and stuff accordingly.
So they were kind of feeling each other out through fighting
and the homicide rate doubled
and then it increased by the same amount again.
And so it was approaching something that might get out of control,
which wasn’t in anybody’s interest.
It wasn’t in the government’s interest.
It wasn’t in their interest.
And so then magically all these leaders on these patios, right,
different prisons, they’re spread out around a bunch of prisons.
Everybody gets transferred to a new prison on the same day,
which means they all get to be in the same holding area for three days
before they’re all moved elsewhere.
So the government had a role in this.
And then somebody who’s like a trusted mediator on the criminal side
gets himself arrested and happens to be put in the same spot.
And a week later, the homicide rate is 30% of what it was.
It’s back to its normal moderate, unfortunately not zero, right,
but it’s back to where it was because it didn’t make sense to have a war.
And everybody, government, mafia leaders, everybody sort of like,
they figured out a way to sort of bargain their way to peace.
Can I ask you something almost like a tangent?
But you mentioned you got a chance potentially to talk to a few folks,
some were in prison, some were not.
Is it productive?
Is it interesting?
Maybe by way of advice, do you have ideas about talking to people
who are actively criminals?
It really depends on the situation.
So like the first time I worked in a conflicted place was in Northern Uganda
in maybe the last couple of years of a long running war.
So this would have been 2004, 2005.
This is a small East African country.
And the north of the country had been engulfed in, think of it as like a 20 year
low level insurgency run by a self proclaimed messiah who wasn’t that popular
and no one joined his movement so he would kidnap kids.
And so the, I never, I could talk to people who’d come back from being there.
I never once, if I’d wanted to, and I was writing about that armed group,
I never talked to anybody who was an active member of that armed group.
It was quite rare.
It wouldn’t have been easy or safe.
And that’s sometimes true.
I’m starting to do some work in Mexico probably and I’m not going to be talking
to any criminal, they’ll kill people.
When you say you’re not going to talk to them and they’ll kill people, which people?
So, I mean, journalists are routinely killed for knowing too much in Mexico.
There’s no, there’s no compunctions about killing them and there’s no consequences.
Who kills a journalist?
It’s not the main people that you spoke with, it’s their, is it their lackeys
or is it rival gangs?
This is true of a Chicago gang and this is true of a Medellin gang.
It’s probably true of a Mexico gang.
It’s like you might have your group of 30 people.
One or two of them might be shooters.
Most people don’t shoot.
Most people don’t like to do that.
Or you don’t even have any of those people in your group because you’re trying
to run a business.
You don’t need any shooters.
You can just hire a killer when you need them on contract.
And so, if somebody’s asking questions and you don’t want them to ask questions
or you think they know too much in a way that threatens you and it’s cheap for you
and you have no personal compunctions, then you can put a contract out on them
and they’ll be killed.
That doesn’t happen in Columbia.
It doesn’t happen in Chicago.
I don’t know.
There’s lots of reasons for that.
I can’t say exactly why.
I think one reason is like they know what will happen is that there will be consequences,
that the government will crack down and make them pay and so they don’t do it.
And that is not what happened in Mexico.
They won’t kill like a DEA agent.
They know that the US has made it clear, you kill one of our agents, we will make you pay.
And so, they’re very careful to minimize death of an American.
But you kill journalists and nobody comes after them or is able to come after them.
And so, they’ve realized they can get away with this and that seems to be the equilibrium there.
That’s my initial sense.
But we spent a lot of time before we started talking to criminals.
We spent a year trying to figure out what was safe before we actually – and failing.
There are lots of safe things to do.
It was also really hard to figure out how to talk to people in these organizations.
We failed 40 times before we figured out a way to actually access people.
Is it worth it talking to them if you figure out – because it’s not never going to be safe.
It’s going to be when you estimate that there’s some low level of risk.
Like what’s the benefit as a researcher, as a scholar of humans?
So, I actually don’t think – let’s compare it to something.
Okay, I’m in Austin for the first time and I’m walking around
and there’s all these people buzzing around on these scooters without helmets.
We need to definitely interview them and say, what the hell is wrong with you?
So, nothing I have ever done in my entire career is as risky as that.
That’s a nice way to compare journalism in a war zone and scooters in Austin.
Some war zones – I worked in northern Uganda and I worked in Liberia and I work now in Medellin
and I’m starting to work in Mexico.
And both those particular places and then the things I did in those places
where I spent a lot of time making sure that what I was doing was not unduly risky.
Todd, could you pull up a picture of a person on a scooter in Austin
so we can just compare this absurd situation where I doubt it’s the riskiest thing
because now we have to look at the data.
I understand the point you’re making, but – wow.
So, I’m not trying to say there’s zero risk.
I think there’s like a calculated risk and I think you become good at –
you work at becoming good at being able to assess these risks
and know who can help you assess these risks.
Yeah. I think there’s another aspect to it too.
When you’re riding a scooter, once you’re done with the scooter, the risk has disappeared.
There’s something lingering when you have to look over your shoulder,
potential for the rest of your life as you accumulate all these conversations.
Yeah. I’ve chosen, but I’ve also advised my students
and I wouldn’t go and do this with an armed group that would think I knew too much and therefore –
some people do that.
Some journalists I think are very brave and take risks and do that
and good for them and I’m happy they do that.
I don’t personally – I don’t personally do that.
So, these guys are very – I mean, Medellín is a business.
They’re just – they’re selling local drugs and they are laundering money for the big cartels
and they are shaking down businesses for money or selling services in some cases
and they make a lot of money and it’s a business and they’re in prison.
So, they can talk about most of what they want to talk about because there’s no double jeopardy.
They’ve been incarcerated for it.
And you’re just talking shop.
And they’re just – so, it’s worth it I think because the risk is very low,
but if you actually want to weaken these organizations and they’re extremely powerful,
they’re extremely big facet of life in a lot of cities in the Americas in particular,
including some of the United – some American cities.
If you want to understand how to weaken these groups over time,
you have to understand how their business works.
And we’re – like, imagine you were made like the – whatever the oilses are of the United States.
Or maybe you’re in charge of the finance industry, right?
You’re the regulator for oil and energy or for finance and then you get in the job and someone says –
and then you’re like, well, how many firms are there and what do they sell and what are the prices?
And everyone is like, well, you know, we don’t really know.
You would not be a very good regulator, right?
And if you’re a policeman or you’re someone who’s in charge of counter organized crime,
you’re just a regulator.
You’re trying to regulate an illicit – you’re regulating an industry that happens to be illicit
and you have no information.
And so, that’s kind of what we do.
We figure out how the system works and like what are the economic incentives
and what are the political incentives.
Any interviews and conversations help with that?
They help a lot.
Yeah, yeah, yeah.
We do that – so, we have – I mean, I don’t do – I do some of those,
but I’m on the side – my Spanish is okay.
It’s not great and –
Do you have a translator usually if you ever go directly?
Well, if only because I can’t understand the street vernacular.
Like I’m just totally hopeless.
Nor could many people who speak Spanish as a second language.
It’s totally – you go to prison, you talk to these guys and they’re speaking in the local dialect and it’s tough.
But more importantly, like I just don’t need to be there and that’s not my – I’m a quantitative scholar.
I’m the guy who collects the data.
So, we have people on our team and colleagues and employees who are doing full time interviews.
And then I just sometimes go with them.
What about if we – you mentioned Uganda.
Joseph Kony, the Ugandan warlord.
I’m seeing here he kidnapped 591 children in three years between 2000 –
Oh, he probably – they must have kidnapped.
They probably kidnapped for at least a short time, like a few hours to a day, more than 50,000 kids.
As a terror tactic?
A little bit.
I mean, most of those people they just let go after they carried goods.
They held on to – they tried to hold on to thousands.
The short story – listen, if you’re not popular, if you’re running an armed movement and you need troops and nobody wants to fight for you,
you can either give up or you can have a small clandestine terror organization that tries a different set of tactics.
But if you want a conventional army and you don’t want to give up, then you have to conscript.
And if you want to conscript and you don’t – here we conscript and then we say if you run away, we’ll shoot you.
And we control the whole territory, so that’s a credible promise.
If you’re a small insurgency organization, people can run away and then you can’t promise to shoot them very easily
because you don’t control all the territory.
And so what these movements do is they try to brainwash you.
And I think what they figured out after years of abducting children, you know, you talk about evil.
They figured out that, you know, we have to – maybe like – I don’t know.
Say like maybe one in a hundred will like buy the rhetoric.
So we just have to conscript or abduct a large number of kids and then some small number of them will not run away.
And those will be our committed cadres.
And those people can become commanders.
Because they’ll buy the propaganda and they’ll buy the messianic messages.
But because most people wise up, we have – especially as they get older, we just have to abduct vast numbers of kids in order to have a committed cadre.
And so it has the other benefit of sort of being terrifying for the population and being a weapon in itself.
But I think for them it was just primarily a way to solve a recruitment problem when you’re a totally like hopeless and ideologically empty rebel movement.
So in some sense it’s – yeah.
So that’s maybe the short story.
It was a real tragedy.
I heard one interview of a dictator where the journalist was basically telling them like how could you be doing this, basically calling out all the atrocities the person is committing.
And the dictator was kind of laughing it off and walked away.
And like he cut off the interview.
That feel like a very unproductive thing to be doing.
You’re basically stating the thing that everyone knows to his face.
Maybe that’s pleasant to somebody.
But that feels unproductive.
It feels like the goal should be some level of understanding.
He’s been super elusive.
I mean why he’s been fighting – it’s Conan, yeah.
I mean why he’s fought this, I don’t know.
It’s not a great example of – the way I look at that situation is it’s a little bit particular to the way Uganda works.
But most of the political leadership for most of its post independence history came from the north of the country.
That was like the power base.
And it was dictatorial.
So you’ve heard of people like Idi Amin, but people have heard of like Milton Abote and all these people were all from the north.
And then you get the current president who came to power in 1986.
So he’s been around a long time, this guy, Museveni.
He was from the south.
And he was fighting against these dictators and he was fighting for a freer and better Uganda.
And in many ways – I mean he’s still a dictator himself, but he did create a freer and better Uganda.
So he’s a thug, but he was better than thugs before him.
And he came to power and he was like – and some of the northerners were like, we want to keep up the fight.
And he was like, you know what, you guys, I’m strong enough to continue to the north.
You guys go, you want to have a crazy insurgency up there?
And some kook believes he’s like speaking, you know, through the Holy Spirit, you know, speaking through him and he’s going to totally disrupt the north?
I don’t care.
You guys just fester and fight and that’s going to totally destabilize this power, this traditional power base.
And then that’s just going to help me consolidate control.
So he was an autocrat, he was an unchecked leader who allowed a lunatic to run around and cause mayhem because it was in his political interest to do so.
And there is no puzzle.
In some ways, it’s that simple and kind of tragic.
There’s little to understand.
Yeah, it took me a lot – well, you know what, it’s not so easy.
In the middle of it, I didn’t understand that.
I don’t think a lot of people did.
And I think I could persuade most people who study or work there now to see it that way.
I think people that would make sense to people, but it didn’t make sense in the moment.
In the moment, this is happening, it’s terrible, and you don’t realize how avoidable it was.
Basically, it was the absence of effective police actions that kept the lunatic from being contained.
And that lunatic would never – it’s not that skillful of our movement, right?
It could have been shut down, and there was just never any political will to shut it down.
That’s what I meant.
That unchecked leader, not only do you not bear the cost, but you might have a private incentive as an autocrat to see that violence happen.
And in this case, it was just keeping a troublesome part of the country busy.
If it’s okay to look at a few other wars, so we talked about drug wars in Medellin.
Are there other wars that stand out to you as full of lessons?
We can jump around a little bit.
Maybe if we can return briefly at World War II, from your framework, could World War II have been avoided?
This is one of the most traumatic wars, global wars.
One obvious driver of that war was the things that Hitler valued and then was able to use his autocratic power to either convince other people or to suppress them.
And so some people stop there and say that, and then in the West basically, and then of course they were able, because they were such an economic and political powerhouse, they were able to sort of make demands of the rest of Europe that you can kind of see the fold.
You know, letting Nazis march into Denmark without a fight or France folding very quickly, you can kind of see as like an appeasement or an acknowledgement of their superiority and their ability to bargain without much of a fight.
And then you can see the Western response as a principled stand.
I think that’s, and there’s a lot of truth to that.
You know, in terms of the strategic forces, a lot of political scientists see a version of a commitment problem, basically where Germany says, you know what, we’re strong now, we’re temporarily strong, we’re not going to be this strong forever.
If we can get this terrible bargain and get everyone to capitulate through violence, if we strike now and then solidify our power and keep these, in World War I it was prevent the rise of Russia and prevent the strengthening of Russian alliances as well.
And so we have an incentive to strike now and there’s a window of opportunity that’s closing and that they thought was closing as soon as 1917 in World War I.
And I don’t know that that story is as persuasive in World War II.
I think there was an element of a closing window.
Well, they kept talking about a closing window because they really thought there was a closing window. I think there’s a nature of that window is different in that there was a kind of pacifism and it seems like if war broke out, most nations in the vicinity would not be ready.
By the people, the leaders that are in power, they weren’t ready so the timing is really right now. But I wonder how often that is the case with leaders in war that feels like the timing is now.
The other commitment problem, the other shift that was happening that he wanted to avert that is kind of wrapped up with his ideology is this idea of like a cultural and a demographic window of opportunity that if he wanted, if conditional on having these views of a Germanic people and a pure race and that now is that he had to strike now before any opportunity to sort of establish that was possible.
I think that’s one, it’s an incentive that requires his ideology as well.
So to avoid it within this framework, would you say is there, you kind of provide an explanation, but is there a way to avoid it? Is violence the way to avoid it? Because people kind of tried rational, peaceful kind of usual negotiation and that led to this war. Is that unique to this particular war, let’s say World War I or World War II?
So there’s an extra pressure from Germany on both wars to act. Okay, so we’ve highlighted that. Is there a way to alleviate that extra pressure to act?
Let me use World War I as an example. Suppose, as many German generals said at that time, we have a window of opportunity before Russia where we might not win a war with Russia. So the probability that we can win a war is going to change a lot in the next decade or two, maybe even in the next few years. And so if we are in a much better bargaining position now, both to not use violence, but if necessarily use violence.
Because otherwise, Russia is going to be extremely powerful in the future and they’ll be able to use that power to change the bargaining with us and to keep us down. And the thing is, is in principle, Russia could say, look, we don’t wanna get invaded right now.
We know you could invade us. We know we’re weak. We know we’ll be strong in the future. We promise to not wield our and abuse our or just merely just sort of take what we can get in the future when we’re strong. We’re gonna restrain ourselves in future.
Or we’re gonna hand over something that makes us powerful because that’s the bargain that would make us all better off. And the reason political economists call it a commitment problem is because that’s a commitment that would solve the problem.
And they can’t make that commitment because there’s nobody who will hold them accountable. So anything, any international legal architecture, any set of enforceable agreements, any UN Security Council, any world government, anything that would help you make that commitment is a solution.
All right, if that’s the core problem. And so that’s why, you know, in Medellin, you know, the oficina can do that. They can say, listen, yes, combo that’s strong today is gonna be weak tomorrow. You have an incentive to eliminate this combo over here, because they’re gonna be strong.
But guess what? You’re not gonna do that. And we’re gonna make sure, we’re gonna promise that when these guys do get strong, we’re gonna restrain what they can do.
Most of our constitutions in most stable countries have done precisely that, right? There’s a lot of complaining right now in the United States about the way that the Constitution is apportioned power between states.
That was a deal. That was a commitment. The Constitution in the United States was a deal made to a bunch of states that knew they were going to be weak in future because of economic and demographic trends, or guess they might be.
And it said, listen, you cooperate and we’ll commit not to basically ignore your interests over the long run. And now, you know, 250 years later, we’re still honoring those commitments.
It was part of the deal that meant that there actually would be a union. And so we do this all the time. So a constitution is a good example of how every country’s constitution, especially a country who’s writing a constitution after a war, that constitution and all of the other institutions they’re building are an attempt to like provide commitment to groups who are worried about future shifts in power.
And does that help with avoid civil war? So could you speak to lessons you learned from civil wars, perhaps the American Civil War or any others?
So Lebanon, one of the ways Lebanon had tried for a long time to preserve the interests of minority groups, powerful minority groups who were powerful at the time and knew that the demographics were working against them, was to guarantee, you know, this ethnic religious group gets the presidency and this ethno religious group gets the prime ministership and this ethno.
And a lot of countries will apportion seats in the parliament to ethno religious groups. And that’s an attempt to like give a group that’s temporarily powerful some assurances that when they’re weak in the future that they’ll still have a say, right?
Just like we apportioned seats in the Senate in a way that’s not demographically representative but is like unequal, quote unquote, in a sense to help people be confident that there won’t be a tyranny of the majority.
And now that just happens to have been like a really unstable arrangement in Lebanon because eventually like the de facto power on the ground just gets so out of line with this really rigid system of the presidency goes to this ethno religious group and this prime ministership goes, that it didn’t last, right?
But you can think of every post conflict agreement and every constitution is like a little bit of humans best effort to find an agreement that’s going to protect the interests of a group that temporarily has an interest in violence in order to not be violent.
And so there’s a lot of ingenuity and it doesn’t always work, right?
Which actually from a perspective of the group, threatening violence or actually doing violence is one way to make progress for your group.
We’re talking about groups bargaining over stuff, right? We’re talking about Russians versus Ukraine or Russians versus the West or maybe it’s managing games versus one another.
Like a lot of their bargaining power comes from their ability to burn the house down, right? And so if I want to have more bargaining power, I can just arm a lot and I can threaten violence.
And so the strategically wise thing to do, I mean, it’s terrible, it’s a terrible equilibrium for us to be forced into, but the strategically wise thing to do is to build up lots of arms to threaten to use them, to credibly threaten to use them.
But then trust or hope that like your enemy is going to see reason and avoid this really terrible, inefficient thing, which is fighting.
But the thing that’s going on the whole time is both of you arming and spending like 20% of GDP or whatever on arms, that’s pretty inefficient.
That’s the tragedy. We don’t have war and that’s good, but we have really limited abilities to like incentivize our enemies not to arm and to keep ourselves from arming.
We’d love to agree to just like both disarm, but we can’t. And so the mess is that we have to arm and then we have to threaten all the time.
Yeah, so the threat of violence is costly nevertheless. You’ve actually pulled up that now disappeared a paper that said the big title called Civil War and your name is on it. What’s that about?
Well, that was, I mean, when I was finishing graduate school and this was a paper with my advisor at Ted Miguel at Berkeley.
Most nations, the paper opens, have experienced an internal armed conflict since 1960. Yet while they were, you still got school on this or no?
Maybe last year or just graduated, I think.
I wish I was in a discipline that wrote papers like this. This is pretty badass.
How is Civil War central to many nations development? It has stood at the periphery of economic research and teaching, so on and so forth. And this is looking at Civil War broadly throughout history or is it just particular civil wars?
We were mostly looking at like the late 20th century. I mean, I was trained as a what’s called development economist, which is somebody who studies why some places are poor and why some countries are rich.
And I, like a number of people around that time, stumbled into violence. I mean, people have been studying the wealth and poverty of nations basically since the invention of economics, but there was a big blind spot for violence.
Now there isn’t any more. It’s like a flourishing area of study in economics, but at the time it wasn’t. And so there were people like me and Ted who were sort of part political scientists, because political scientists obviously had been studying this for a long time,
who started bringing economic tools and expertise and partnerships with political scientists and adding to it.
And so we wrote this. So after like people have been doing this for five or 10 years in our field, we wrote like a review article telling economists like what was going on. And so this was like a summary for economists.
So the book in some ways is a lot in the same spirit of this article. This article, I mean, it’s designed to be not written as like a boring laundry list of studies, which is what, that’s the purpose this article was for.
It was for graduate students and professors who wanted to think about what to work on and what we knew. This book is like now trying to like not just say what economists are doing, but sort of say what economists, political scientists, psychologists, sociologists, anthropologists, like how do we bring some sense to this big project?
And policymakers, like what do we know? And what do we know about building peace? Because if you don’t know what the reason for wars are, you’re probably not going to design the right cure.
And so anyway, so that was the, but I started off studying civil wars because I stumbled into this place in Northern Uganda basically by accident. It was no intention of working in civil wars. I’d never thought about it. And then basically I followed a woman there.
Oh, we’ll talk about that. And for people who are just watching, we have an amazing team of folks helping out, pulling pictures and articles and so on, mostly so that I can pull up pictures on Instagram of animals fighting, which is what I do on my own time.
And then we could discuss, analyze, maybe with George St. Pierre. That’s what all he sends me for people who are curious.
But let me ask you, one of the most difficult things going on in the world today, Israel, Palestine. Will we ever see peace in this part of the world? And sort of your book title is The Roots of War and the Paths for Peace, or the subtitle, Why We Fight. What’s the path for peace? Will we ever see peace?
Yeah. If we think about this conflict in the sense of like this dispute, this sort of contest, this contest that’s been going on between Israelis and Palestinians, it’s been going on for a century. And there are really just 10 or 15 years of pretty serious violence in that span of time.
Most of it from 2000 to 2009 and stretching up to like 2014. There are like sporadic incidents, which are really terrible. I’m not trying to diminish the human cost of these, by the way. I’m just trying to point out that whatever’s happening, as unpleasant and challenging and difficult as it is, is actually not war.
And so it is at peace. There’s sort of an uneasy stalemate. The Israelis and Palestinians are actually pretty good at just sort of keeping this at a relatively low scale of violence.
There’s a whole bunch of like low scale sporadic violence that can be repression of civilians, it can be terror bombings and terror actions, it can be counter terror violence, it can be mass arrests, it can be repression, it can be denying people the vote, it can be rattling sabers, all these things that are happening, right?
And it can be sporadic three week wars or sporadic, you know, very brief episodes of intense violence before everybody sees sense and then settles down to this uneasy. We’re right not to think of that as like a peace and there’s certainly no stable agreement, right?
So a stable agreement and amity and any ability to move on from this extreme hostility, we’re not there yet and that’s maybe very far away. But this is a good example of two rivals who most of the time have avoided really intense violence.
So you talked about this, like most of the time, rivals just like avoiding violence and hating each other in peace. So is this what peace, to answer my question, is this what peace looks like?
Not always, but I mean, it’s kind of my worry. To go back to like the Russia Ukraine example, like I kind of, it’s really hard, it’s gonna be really hard to find an agreement that both sides can feel they can honor, that they can be explicit about, that they’ll hold to, that will enable them to move on.
Yeah, feels like a first step in a long journey towards a greatness for both nations and a peaceful time, flourishing, that kind of thing.
I mean, you can think of like what’s going on in Israel, Palestine, there’s a stalemate. Both of them are exhausted from the violence that has occurred. Neither one of them is quite willing to, for various reasons, to create this sort of stable agreement.
There’s a lot of really difficult issues to resolve. And maybe the sad thing, maybe we’ll end up in the same situation with Russia, Ukraine. This is where, you know, if they stop fighting one another, but Russia holds the east of the country and Crimea and nobody really acknowledges their right to that,
that might, within there’s just gonna be a lot of tension and skirmishing and violence, but that never really progresses to war for 30 years. That would be a sad, but maybe possible outcome.
So that’s kind of where Israel, Palestine looks to me. And so someone, if we’re gonna talk about why we fight, then the question we have to ask is like why, you know, like the Second Intifada, like that was the most violent episode.
Like why did that happen and why did that last several years? That would be like, we could analyze that and we could say, what was it about these periods of violence that led there to be prolonged intense violence? Because that was in nobody’s interest. That didn’t need to happen.
And partly I don’t talk about that in the book. I wanted to avoid really contemporary conflicts for two reasons. One is I, things could change really quickly. I didn’t want the book to be dated. I wanted this to be a book that had like longevity and that would be relevant still in 10 years or 20 years maybe before someone writes a better one.
Or before the human civilization ends.
Exactly. And circumstances can change really quickly. So I wanted it to be enduring and meant partly just avoiding changing things and changing these and avoiding these controversial ones. But I, of course I think about them. And so like a lot of my time, I decided actually last year to teach a class where I’d take all these contemporary conflicts I wasn’t working on the book and where I wasn’t really an expert, whether it’s India, Pakistan, China, Taiwan, Israel, Palestine, Mexican cartel state drug wars and a few others.
And then teach a class on them with students and we’d work through it. We’d read the book and then we’d say, all right, none of us are experts. How do we make sense of these places? And we focused in the Israel Palestine case of mostly trying to understand why it got so violent and spend a little bit of time on what the prospects are for something that’s more enduring.
It’s hard to know that stuff now. I mean, it’s easier to do the full analysis when looking back when it’s over.
Well, Israel is in like a tough place. They have this attachment to being part of the West. They have this attachment to liberal ideals. They have an attachment to democracy and they have an attachment to a Jewish state. And those things are not so easily compatible.
Because to recognize the rights of non Jewish citizens, right, or to have a one state solution to the current conflict undermines the long term ability to have a Jewish state.
And to do anything else and to deny that denies their liberal democratic ideals. And that’s a really hard contest of priorities to sort out.
Yeah, it’s complicated. Of course, everything you just said probably has multiple perspectives on it from other people that would phrase all the same things, but using different words.
Well, I try to analyze these things in like a dispassionate way.
But unfortunately, just having enough conversations, even your dispassionate description would be seen as one that’s already picked aside.
And I’ll say this because there’s holding these ideals. I’ll give you another example. The United States also has ideals of freedom and other like human rights.
So it has those ideals, and it also sees itself as a superpower and as a deployer of those, enforcer of those ideas in the world. And so the kind of actions from a perspective of a lot of people in that world, from children, they get to see drones, drop bombs on their house where their father is now, mother dead.
They have a very different view of this.
You’re beginning to see why I didn’t. I wanted to write about those things and think about those things, but I wanted this book to do something different.
I didn’t want it to fall on one of these polarizing… On a personal level, because I think I’m kind of a liberal democratic person at heart, my sympathies in that sense lie in many ways with the Palestinians, despite the way I…
I mean, just the fact that people are… They’re not representative, and they got a very raw, real politic kind of deal. Most people in history have gotten this raw, real politic kind of deal in their past, right? Where somebody took something from you.
It’s a good summary of history, by the way.
That’s it. History is just full of raw deals.
For regular people.
Right. And both sides are, in a principled way, refusing to make the compromise. And that’s not like a both sides are right kind of argument. I’m just sort of saying, it’s a factual statement that neither one wants to compromise on certain principles.
And they both can construct and in some ways have very reasonable… I don’t want to have self justifications for those principles, and that’s why I’m not very hopeful, is I don’t see a way for them to resolve those things.
Speaking of compromise and war, let me ask you about one last one, which may be in the future.
China and the United States.
How do we avoid an all out hot war with this other superpower in the next decade, 50 years, 100 years? Because sometimes when it’s quiet at night, I can hear in the long distance the drums of war beating.
In the second part of the book, I talk about what I think have been these persistent paths to peace, and one of them is increasing interdependence and interrelationships, and another one is more checks and balances on power.
I think there’s more, but those are two that are really fundamental here because I think those two things reduce the incentives for war in two ways.
One is, remember when we were talking about this really simple strategic game where whether I’m Russia or Ukraine or whatever, any two rivals, I want more of the pie than you get, and the costs of war are deterrents, but only the costs of war that I feel, right?
I don’t care.
I do not care about the costs of war to your side, my rival side.
I’m not even thinking of that.
That’s just worth zero to me.
I just don’t care in that simple game.
Now, in reality, many groups do care about the well being of the other group, at least a little bit, right?
In some sense, to the degree we, first of all, if our interests are intertwined, like our economies are intertwined, that’s not a surefire way for peace, and we shouldn’t get complacent because we have a globally integrated world, but that’s going to be a disincentive.
And if we’re socially entwined because we have great social relationships and linkages and family or we’re intermarriage or whatever, all these things will help.
And then if we’re ideologically intertwined, maybe we share notions of liberty or maybe we just share a common notion of humanity.
So, I think the fact that we’re more integrated than we’ve ever been on all three fronts in the world but with China is providing some insulation, which is good.
So, I would be more worried if we started to shed some of that insulation, which I think has been happening a little bit.
U.S. economic nationalism, whatever could be the fallout of these sanctions or a closer Chinese alliance with Russia, all those things could happen.
Those would make me more worried because I think we’ve got a lot of cushion that comes from all of this economic, social, cultural interdependence.
The social one with the Internet is a big one. So, basically, make friends with the people from different nations, fall in love.
You don’t have to fall in love. You can just have lots of sex with people from different nations, but also fall in love.
The thing that also should comfort me about China is that China is not as centralized or as personalized a regime as Russia, for example.
And neither one of them is as centralized or personalized as some tinpot, purely personalized dictatorship like you get in some countries.
The fact that China, the power is much more widely shared is a big insulation, I think, against this war, well, future war.
The attempts by Xi Jinping to personalize power over time and to make China a more centralized and personal ruled place, which he’s successfully moved in that direction, also worries me.
So, anything that moves China in the other direction, not necessarily being democratic, but just like a wider and wider group of people holding power,
like all of the business leaders and all the things that have been happening over the last few centuries have actually widened power.
But anything that’s moving in the other direction does worry me because it’s going to accentuate all these five risks.
I am worried about a little bit of the demonization. So, one of the things I see with China as a problem for Americans, maybe I’m projecting, maybe it’s just my own problem,
but there seems to be a bigger cultural gap than there is with other superpowers throughout history where it’s almost like this own world happening in China, its own world in the United States,
and there’s this gap of total cultural understanding. We’re not competing superpowers. They’re almost like doing their own thing.
There’s that feeling, and I think that means there’s a lack of understanding of culture of people, and we need to kind of bridge that understanding.
I mean, you know, the language barrier, but also cultural understanding, making movies that use both and explore both cultures and all that kind of stuff.
It’s okay to compete, you know, like Rocky, where Rocky Balboa fought the Russian. In fact, historically inaccurate because obviously the Russians win.
But, you know, we have to, I’m just kidding, as a Philly person, I was of course rooting for Rocky. But the thing is, those two superpowers are in the movies.
China is like its own out there thing. We need more Rocky 7.
I do think there’s a certain inscrutability to the politics there and an insularity to the politics such that it’s harder for Westerners, even if they know, even just to learn about it and understand what’s going on.
I think that’s a problem and vice versa. So I think that’s true. But at the same time, we could point to all sorts of things on the other side of the ledger, like the massive amounts of Chinese immigration into the United States and the massive number of people who are now.
Like how many, so many more Americans, business people, politicians understand so much more about China now than they did 34 years ago because we’re so intertwined.
So I don’t know where it balances out. I think it balances out on better understanding than ever before. But you’re right, there was like a big gulf there that we haven’t totally bridged.
And like I said, lots of inter Chinese in the United States, sexual intercourse, no, and love and marriage and all that kind of social cohesion. So once again, returning to love, I read in your acknowledgement, and as you mentioned earlier, the acknowledgement reads,
quote, I dedicate this book to a slow and all defunct internet cafe in Nairobi, because it set me on the path to meet, work with, and most importantly, marry Jenny Annan.
Jenny Annan. There’s a lot of beautiful letters in this beautiful name. This book have been impossible without her and that chance encounter. Tell me, Chris, how you found love and how that changed the direction of your life.
I was in that internet cafe, I think it was 2004. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. I was a good development economist and I cared about growth, economic growth, and I thought industrialization is like the solution to poverty in Africa, which I think is still true.
And therefore I need to go study firms and industry in Africa. And so I went and one of the most dynamic place for firms and industry at the time, still to some extent now was Kenya, and all these firms are on Nairobi.
And so I went and I got a job with the World Bank, they were running a firm survey and I convinced them to let me help run the firm survey.
And so now I’m in Nairobi and I’m wearing my suit and with the World Bank for the summer and my laptop gets stolen by two enterprising con artists, very charming. And so I find myself in an internet cafe.
With no laptop.
In a suit. Exactly. Kenya didn’t get connected to the big internet cables until maybe 10 years later. And so it was just glacially slow. So it would take 10 minutes for every email to load.
And so there’s this whole customer norm if you just chat to the next person beside you all the time. It was true all over anywhere I’d worked on the continent.
And so I strategically sat next to the attractive looking woman when I came in and it turned out she was a psychologist and a PhD student, but she was a humanitarian worker.
And she’d been working in South Sudan and Northern Uganda and this kids affected by this war. All these kids who were being conscripted were coming back because they’re all running away after a day or 10 years and needed help or to get back into school.
So she was working on things like that. And I think she talked to me in spite of the fact that I was wearing a suit, maybe because I knew a little bit about the war, which most people didn’t. Most people were totally ignorant.
And then we had a fling for that week. And then we didn’t really, actually then we met up a little short while later. And then it was kind of, then we kind of drifted apart.
I was living in Indiana and spending a lot of time in Uganda. And then one day I was chatting with someone I knew who worked on this, a young professor who was a friend of mine.
And I said, oh, you know, you work on similar issues, you should meet this woman. And I talked to her because you guys would have like, you know, professional research interests overlap.
There’s so few sort of people looking at armed groups in African Civil Wars, at least at the time. And he said, wow, that’s a fascinating research question.
And I walked into the building and I thought, that is a fascinating research question. And I phoned Jeanie and I said, remember me and, you know, tell me more. I was just talking to someone about this. Tell me more.
And like, I started asking her more questions about it. We ended up talking for two or three hours. And over the course of those three hours, we hatched a very ambitious, kind of crazy, like, plan.
We were going to like find the names and all the kids who were born like 20 or 30 years ago in the region, and we were going to track a thousand of them down. We were going to randomly sample them and then we were going to find them today and we were going to track them.
And then we were going to use like some variation and exposure to violence and where the rebel group was to actually like show what happens to people when they’re exposed to violence and conscription.
We were going to like tell, you know, psychologically, economically, we’re going to like answer questions and that, which would help you design better programs. Right. And so we hatched this plan, which is totally cockamamie.
It’s so cockamamie that when I pulled my previous dissertation proposal from my committee, like the next week and gave them a new one, they unanimously met without me to decide that this was totally bonkers and to advise me not to go.
And they coordinated to read my old proposal so that when I showed up for my defense, they said, you’re actually think you’re defending, but we were actually, we want you to only talk about this other thing that you were going to do because this is like, you should not go.
Oh, wow. I mean, it is incredibly ambitious. Super interesting though.
It actually worked exactly according to plans. The first and last time in my entire career.
You actually pulled off an ambition, like a gigantically crazy ambition.
That’s my work. That’s my shtick. Like my day to day research job is not writing books about why we fight. My thing is like, I go, I collect data on things that nobody else thought you could collect data on.
And so I always do pull it off, but it never turns out like I thought it was going to. Like it’s always, there’s so many twists and turns and always goes sideways in an interesting way.
It works, but it’s all, but this one actually we pulled off in spite of ourselves and as planned. And, and so Ted Miguel, who I wrote that paper with was actually the one person of my advisors who was like, well, you know what?
He’s, he was sympathetic to this. He was like, eh, why don’t you just go for a couple months and like check it out and then come back and work on the other thing.
And that’s, and so I followed Jeannie there and went there and then, but, and, and I don’t know, what’s this? I always remember, you know, this movie Speed, the Keanu Reeves and, and Sandra, whatever these people are.
And they have this relationship in these intense circumstances and they like, well, and I think at the end of the movie, they are sort of like, this will never work because these relationships in intense circumstances never matter, which is what we assumed.
And that turned out not to be true. So we’ve been married 15 years and we have two kids and yeah.
And that’s when you fell in love with psychology and learn to appreciate the power of psychology.
Exactly. So that’s the psychology in the book as well, because I, and so we ended up, we, for most of our work for the first five or 10 years was together actually.
What’s the hardest piece of data that you’ve been chasing that you’ve chased in your life? Like, what are some interesting things? Cause you mentioned like one of the things you, you kind of want to go somewhere in the world and find evidence and data for things that people just haven’t really looked to get, gain an understanding of human nature, maybe from an economics perspective.
What’s what, what, what kind of stuff either in your past or in your future you’ve been thinking about?
Well, I mean the hardest, there’s hard and two cents. The hardest emotionally was interviewing all those kids in Northern Uganda. That was just like a gut punch every day.
Um, and just hearing the stories like that was the hardest, but it wasn’t hard because it was, you could, the kids were everywhere and everybody would talk to you about it and they could talk about it.
No one had gone and interviewed kids that had gone through war in the middle of an active war zone. Nobody was going to displacement. All the things we did, no one had done that before. So now lots of people do it.
Could you actually speak to their, their stories? What’s like the shape of their suffering? What, what were common themes? What, how did that, those stories change you?
I remember I said you could like your dispassion itself and your passion itself. I think I had to learn to create the dispassion itself. I mean, we all have that capacity when we analyze something that’s far away and happens to people different than us, but you have to.
I think I discovered and developed an ability to like put those aside in order to be able to study this. So, um, you get maybe harder in a way that you have to be guard against. So you have to try to remember to put your human head on.
It’s really horrible. Like if I want to conscript you and I don’t want you to run away, then I want to make you think you can never go back to your village.
And the best way for me to do that is for, to make you, force you to do something really, really, really, really horrible that you could, you almost can credibly believe you can never really go back.
And it might be like killing a loved one. And so, and just having, hearing people tell you that story in all of the different shapes and forms.
To a point, what was horrible about it is they did this so routinely that you’d be sitting there in an interview with somebody and they’d be telling you the story and it’s like the most horrible thing that could happen to you or anyone else.
And, but there’s some voice in the back of your mind saying, okay, we really need to get to the other thing. You know, we know that I know how this goes. Like I’ve heard, you know, there’s this thing like, okay, okay, I’m not learning anything new here.
Like there’s some part, you know, deep evil, terrible part of you that’s like, yeah, yeah, yeah. Like, but let’s get onto the other thing, but I know I have to go through this.
But every day you have to go through that to get to the, cause you’re trying to actually understand how to help people. You’re trying to understand how that trauma has manifested, how they either, some people get stronger as a result of that.
Some people get weaker. And if you want to know how to help people, then you need to get to that. I wasn’t trying to get to something for my selfish purposes.
I was trying to figure out, okay, we need to know what your symptoms are now.
That’s such a dark thing about us. So if you’re surrounded by trauma, God, that voice in the back of your head that you just go, yeah, I know exactly how this conversation goes. Let’s skip ahead to the solutions to the next.
Yeah. So that was, that was, yeah. So that was because you then have to deal with yourself. So it’s very helpful if you like come home every night to someone who’s a gone through the same thing and B is a professional and very, very, very, very good counseling psychologist.
The hardest thing, I mean, the organized crime stuff has been the hardest. Just figuring out how to get that information took us years of just trial and error, mostly error of like just how to get people to talk to us or how to collect data in a way that’s safe for me and safe for my team and safe for people to answer a survey.
Like how do you get, how do you get the information on what gangs are doing in the community or how it’s hurting or helping people? Like you’ve got to run surveys and you’ve got to talk to gang members, all these things that nobody knows how to do that.
And so we had to sort of really slowly, not nobody, there’s a few other things. There’s other academics like me who are doing this, but it’s a pretty small group that’s trying to like collect systematic data.
And then there’s a slightly bigger and much more experienced group that’s been talking to different armed groups. But every time you go to a new city and there weren’t that many people working on this in Medellin, there were a few, you have to like discover a new, like it’s really unique to that city and place.
So there’s not, there’s not like a website for each of the 17 mafia groups. There’s no Facebook group. We have a, we’ve created like our own wiki. We have a private wiki where we document everything and it’s a collaborative enterprise between lots of researchers and journalists and things.
So they, they now have, they can’t see, you can’t go online and see this.
That’s individual research. It’s not, I mean, they’re hiding by design. Some of them have Facebook pages and things of this nature. So they, they do have public profiles a little bit, but not, not, not so explicitly. No. So they’re clandestine.
Here’s an example. So one of the things that’s really endemic in Medellin, it’s true in a lot of cities, it’s true in American prisons, is gangs govern everybody’s everyday life.
So if you have a, in an American prison, particularly Illinois or California, Texas is another big one, but also in a city in Medellin, if you have a problem, a debt to collect or dispute with a neighbor or something, you could go to the government and they do, and they can help you solve it.
You go to the police or you can go to the gang. And so, and that’s like a really everyday phenomenon. But then, then there’s a question of like, how do you actually, how do you actually figure out how, what services they’re offering?
And how much they pay for them? And do you actually like those services? And how do they, how do you comparison shop between the police and the gang? And what would get you to go from the gang to the police? And then how’s the gang strategically going to respond to that?
And what was the impact of previous policies to like make state governing better? And how did the gangs react? And so that’s, we had to sort of figure that out. And that, that was, so that was just hard in a different way.
But I don’t do the most, the mostly punishing stuff I couldn’t do any longer. So that’s much easier in that sense.
By the way, on, you know, Jorge Ochoa, some of these folks are out of prison. Have you gotten a chance to talk to them?
But also they were, they were there in a different era. The system was totally different. That’s super interesting. Maybe one day we’ll do that. Yeah, that was 30 years ago. And the system of, I mean, La Oficina, Pablo Escobar created La Oficina.
He integrated what’s, what all these 17 corazones and all these street gangs are the fragmented former remnants of his more unified empire, which he gave the name La Oficina. I mean, I think, you know, it’s a little bit apocryphal, but the idea is that, you know, I think he said, every doctor has an office, so should we.
I still can. I still love that there’s parallels between these mafia groups and the United Nations Security Council. This is just wonderful. So, so, so deeply human.
Let me ask you about yourself. So you’ve been thinking about war here in part dispassionately. Just analyze war and try to understand the path for peace. But you as a single individual that’s going to die one day, maybe talking to the people that have gone through suffering.
What do you think about your own mortality? Do you, how has your view of your own finiteness changed having thought about war?
Maybe the reason I can do this work is because I don’t think about it a lot.
Your own mortality or even like mortality?
Yeah, I mean, well, I have to think about death a lot, so.
But there’s a way to think about death, like numbers in a calculation when you’re doing geopolitical negotiations, and then there’s like a dying child or a dying mother.
Yeah, I guess I know I’m in a place where there’s risk. And so I think a lot about minimizing any risks such that I think about mortality enough that I just, because I’m kind of an anxious person. And so like, I’m kind of a worry ward, like in a way.
And so I’m really obsessive about making sure anything that I do is low risk.
So that gives you something to focus on. A number is the risk and you’re trying to minimize it. And yet there’s still the existential dread. Your risk minimization doesn’t matter.
Yeah, I’ve never been in a life threatening situation.
That’s somebody who, you know what you sound like? That’s Alex Honnold that does the free climbing. He doesn’t see that as like.
That sounds exactly the same. Because you just said, I’ve never done anything as dangerous as those people riding a scooter.
I’ve actually been a rock climber for like 25 years with a long break in between. But I’m the same way. You know, actually rock climbing is an extremely safe sport if you’re very careful.
But free climbing is the opposite of that. But I mean like, if you’ve got a rope that’s attached to you that goes up is like attached to 18 trees and comes back down, you’re fine.
You know, and you wear a helmet. You’re good. You’re totally fine.
Yeah, but this is super safe too.
It’s free climbing. No, no, no.
We’re watching free climbing, Alex Honnold.
I mean, because you’re only going to put your hands and feet on sturdy rock and then you know the path and. No, no, no.
Totally. I have some friends and colleagues, I’ve known people who do some of these totally wacky extreme sports and have paid the price.
So I think it’s totally, totally different. I think.
So even in that, by the way.
I can’t even watch those movies because those freak me out too much because it’s just too risky. Like I can’t. I don’t even. Yeah.
So those things, I’ve never watched like free solo or anything. There’s just too much.
Still not as dangerous as riding a scooter in Austin.
I’m not going to let that go.
But even in that, it’s just risk minimization in the work that you do versus the sort of philosophical existentialist view of your mortality. This thing just ends.
Like what the hell is that about?
Yeah. I have this amazing capacity not to think about it, which might just be a self defense mechanism.
My father in law, Jeannie’s father is an evangelical pastor, actually. He’s now retired. And this we would talk about when we were getting married.
They weren’t terribly thrilled that she was marrying an agnostic or atheist or something.
We love each other very much. It’s fine now. But I only started discussing this and some of the, because that was one of his questions for me.
Like, well, how can you possibly believe that there’s nothing afterwards? Because that’s just like too horrible to imagine.
And we really never saw eye to eye on this. And my view was like, listen, I can’t convince myself otherwise.
Anything else seems completely implausible to me. And for some reason, I can’t understand. I’m at peace with that.
Like, it’s never bothered me that one day it’s over. And the fact that people have angst about that and that they would seek answers makes total sense to me.
And I can’t explain why that doesn’t consume me or doesn’t bother me.
And yet you are at peace.
Yep. Maybe if I was worried, but if I was more worried about it, maybe I wouldn’t be able to do. I don’t know. I don’t know. But then again, I don’t take the risk. I’m still like, I don’t know. But I minimize all sorts of risks.
I’m like, yeah, I minimize, you know, I try to optimize like groceries in the fridge, too.
That’s a very economist way to live, I would say. That’s probably why you’re good at it.
That might be true. That might be there’s some selection into economics of these cold calculators.
The chicken or the egg, we’ll never know. Do you have advice for young people that want to do as ambitious, as crazy, as amazing of work as you have done in life?
So somebody who’s in high school, in college, either career advice on what to choose, how to execute on it, or just life advice, how to meet some random stranger.
Or maybe a dating advice.
That part’s easy. You have to fly coach and go to the internet cafes. All the development workers that I know that fly business class, I’m like, you’ll never meet somebody.
I actually spent a lot of time writing advice on my blog, and I’ve got like pages and pages of advice.
And one of the reasons is because I never got that. When I grew up, I went to a really good state school in Canada called Waterloo.
I loved it, but people didn’t go on the trajectory that I went on from there. And I had some good advisors there, but I never got the kind of advice I needed to pursue this career.
So it’s very concentrated in elite colleges, I think, sometimes, in elite high schools. So I tried to democratize that. That was one reason I started the blog.
But a lot of that’s really particular because every week I have students coming in my office wanting to know how to do international development work, and I just spend a lot of time giving them advice.
And that’s what a lot of the posts are about.
Do they have very specific questions? Is it like country by country kind of specific questions?
The thing that they’re all trying to do that I think is the right – I don’t have to give them a really basic piece of advice because they’re already doing it.
They’re trying to find a vocation. They’re really interested – and what I mean by that is it’s like a career where they find meaning, where the work is almost like superfluous because they would do it for free.
And they’re passionate about it, and they really find meaning in the work.
And then it becomes a little bit all consuming. So scientists do that in their own way. I think international development, humanitarian workers, people who are doctors and nurses.
We all do our careers for other reasons, right? But they find meaning in their career.
So I don’t have to tell them whatever you do find meaning and try to make it a vocation, something that you would do for free, amongst all of these many, many, many options.
That’s what I would tell – but that’s what I would tell high school students and young people in college.
Sometimes it’s hard to find a thing and hold onto it.
Well, that’s the other – it took me a long time. So I actually started off as an accountant. I was an accountant with Deloitte and Touche for a few years. So I did not –
But that – did you wake up in the morning excited to be alive?
I was miserable. I found it by accident, which is another different story, but I landed in this job and a degree where I was studying accounting, and I was miserable.
I was totally miserable, and I hated it, and I was becoming a miserable person. And so I eventually just quit, and I did something new.
But then I was working in the private sector, and I actually just needed trial and error.
I actually had to try on three or four or five careers before I found this mixture of academia and activism and research and international development.
And when did you know that this was love, when you found this kind of international development? This was the academic context, too?
The key lesson was just trial and error, which we all have to engage in until it feels right.
It’s okay. All right. Step one is trial and error, but until it feels right, because it often feels right but not perfect.
Yeah, if it’s true, right enough. I mean, I was really intellectually engaged. I just loved learning about it. I wanted to read more.
In some sense, I was doing – I was in account, but I was reading about world history and international development and poor countries in my spare time.
And so it was like this hobby, and I was like, wait a second. I could actually do that. I could research this and even write the neck of those books, and that’s kind of what I did 25 years later.
That didn’t occur to me right away. I didn’t even know it was possible. This is the other thing people do.
People do their nine to five job, and then they find meaning in everything else they do.
They’re volunteering, and they’re family, and they’re hobbies and things, and that was my social milieu. And that’s a great path, too.
Because not all of us can just have a vocation or we don’t find it, I think. And then you just circumscribe what you do in your work, and then you go find –
and that’s not entirely true because everyone in my family does like their job and get a lot of fulfillment out of it, but I think it’s not – that’s a different path in some ways.
So it’s good to take the leap and keep trying stuff, even when you’ve found a little local minima.
Yeah. The hardest part was it got easy after a while. It was quitting.
But now I take this to a lot of – and one of the people – I think one of the reasons I discovered your podcast or maybe Tyler Cowen –
Yeah, he’s amazing.
Tyler takes this approach to everything. He takes this approach to movie. He’s like, walk into the movie theater after half an hour if you don’t like the movie.
You know what kind of person he probably is? I don’t know, but now that you say this, he’s probably somebody that goes to a restaurant.
If the meals is not good, I could see him just walking away, like paying for it and just walking away.
Yeah, and just go eat something better. That’s exactly right.
And I thought that was kind of crazy, and I’d never – I was the person – I would never just put a book down halfway, and I would never stop watching a movie.
But then I convinced my wife – we lived in New York when we were single initially – sorry, not when we were single.
When we were childless, and we lived in New York, there’s all this culture and theater and stuff, and I just said, let’s go to more plays, but let’s just walk out after the first act if we don’t like it.
And she thought that was a bit crazy, and I was like, no, no, no, here’s the logic. Here’s what Tyler says.
And then we started doing it, and it was so freeing and glorious. We’d just go – we’d take so many more chances on things, and we would – and if we didn’t like it – and we were walking out of stuff all the time.
And so I think I did that – realizing that that’s how I – I just kept quitting my jobs and trying to find something else, like some risk.
Because that’s how wars start, without the commitment. You need the commitment. Otherwise, no.
That’s a different kind of commitment problem. That’s a different commitment problem.
Some of it – I’m sure there’s a balance, because the same thing is happening with dating and marriage and all those kinds of things, and there’s some value just sticking it out.
Because some of the – maybe don’t leave after the first act, because the good stuff might be coming later.
Yeah, that’s a good point.
Yeah. Well, I don’t know. So when I met Jeannie, she was very wary of a relationship with me, because as I explained to her, I hadn’t had a relationship longer than two or three months in 11 years.
And so she thought this person thought serious. And what I said to her – and she tells the story. This is how she tells the story.
She says, I didn’t believe him when he said that I just – after two or three months, you kind of have a good sense whether this is going somewhere, and I would just decide if it was over.
And I walk away. So I took this approach to dating, like as soon as I thought it wasn’t going to go somewhere. And then I decided with her that this was it, this was going to work.
And then I like – and then never – and she didn’t believe – now she believes me.
You finally got to be right.
Okay, so this is an incredible conversation. Your work is so fascinating, just in this big picture way, looking at human conflict and how we can achieve peace,
especially in this time of the Ukraine war. I really, really, really appreciate that you calmly speak to me about some of these difficult ideas and explain them.
And that you’ve sat down with me and have this amazing conversation. Thank you so much.
It was an amazing conversation. Thank you.
Thanks for listening to this conversation with Chris Blackman. To support this podcast, please check out our sponsors in the description.
And now, let me leave you with some well known, simple words from Albert Einstein. I know not with what weapons World War 3 will be fought, but World War 4 will be fought with sticks and stones.
Thank you for listening and hope to see you next time.