61 episodes

a podcast about ideas on growth, progress, and prosperity

www.ideasuntrapped.com

Ideas Untrapped Tobi Lawson

    • Social Sciences
    • 5.0 • 5 Ratings

a podcast about ideas on growth, progress, and prosperity

www.ideasuntrapped.com

    GAMBLING ON DEVELOPMENT

    GAMBLING ON DEVELOPMENT

    My guest on this episode is Stefan Dercon - author of the recently published and most excellent book ‘Gambling on Development: Why Some Countries Win and Others Lose’. Development scholars have produced many explanations for why some countries did better than others after the Second World War. Factors like geography, quality or type of institutions, foreign aid, and protective trade policies, have been argued as what explains this divergence in national prosperity between countries. Dercon's contribution will no doubt be plugged into this long-running debate - and in my opinion, he comes closest to having a ‘‘first principles’’ explanation than anyone I have read on the subject. Other theories leave you with nagging questions - Where do good institutions come from? Are countries condemned by their histories? Why do some countries use foreign aid better? Why are some countries with rich geographic endowments doing worse? Why does protective trade lead some countries toward becoming industrial exporting giants, and some others into a macroeconomic crisis?
    Dercon argues that countries that have done better do so by working out a ‘development bargain’. This comes about when the people with power and influence (elites) in a country find a cooperative agreement (bargain) to consciously pursue economic development and national enrichment. Development bargains are not simple, they are often messy. And elites are not a bunch of altruistic do-gooders. Rather, through many complicated networks of intra-elite competitions and cooperation, they decide to gamble on the future by betting that economic development will deliver the biggest win. Dercon does not claim to have found the holy grail of development - and there are still many questions to be answered. But his argument does lead to one inevitable conclusion. Countries and their people will have to figure out what works for them and how that delivers prosperity.
    Stefan Dercon is Professor of Economic Policy at the Blavatnik School of Government at Oxford University. He was the Chief Economist of the UK’s Department of International Development (DFID).

    Transcript
    Tobi;
    Was your experience really what inspired you to write the book?
    Stefan;
    Well, you know, what inspired me definitely is just the contrast that I've had in terms of things I do. Because I've been an academic for a long time, I have more than 30 years writing and studying and, you know, I was one of these academics who like to, as one sometimes puts it, you know, like, likes to get mud on their feet, you know, mud on their boots. I used to work mostly on rural households and in most countries, these are amongst the poorest people, and you just get to know what's going on there. I have a policy interest, and I was just lucky 10 years ago, a bit more than that, I got a job as a Chief Economist in the UK aid agency, and it's just that contrast of having had the chance and the opportunity to get involved on the policy side, on meeting all the more senior people...and it's just that contrast between still enjoying being surrounded by people and what they do and understands livelihoods of poorer people, combined with being in the policy space, I felt like, you know, I have a unique perspective that I wanted to communicate. And it was just a quest to communicate, actually. If anything, I wanted just to tell more of these stories because I think, from all sides, we tend to misunderstand a lot of what's going on and how things work in practice. And that's definitely the case on the academic side. We're so far sometimes from reality that I wanted to tell that story a bit more.
    Tobi;
    And I mean, after you wrote the book, and after publication, I presume from some of the feedback that your book is actually quite successful. I gave so many copies away, right, I can't even count. I think at some point, I temporarily bought out Roving Heights' entire stock. So how has the reception been generally?
    Stefan;
    I me

    • 1 hr 24 min
    TALKING CITIES WITH A LEGEND

    TALKING CITIES WITH A LEGEND

    I was thrilled to get a chance to talk about cities with Alain Bertaud - he has been one of the most important thinkers in urban planning for the past fifty years. His book Order Without Design is a must-read and an excellent summary of his research (conducted in collaboration with his wife Marie-Agnes, an urban planning scholar in her own right) project with aim of bridging the gap between urban planning and urban economics. Alain is a brilliant and generous teacher who has greatly influenced me - I hope my questions have done their bit to honour him.

    Transcript
    Tobi;
    Welcome to Ideas Untrapped podcast and my guest today is legendary urban planner, Alain Bertaud, welcome to the show, sir, it's an honour to speak to you.
    Alain;
    Thank you very much for inviting me, I'm quite honoured.
    Tobi;
    You are aware that some of the biggest cities into the future are going to be in the so-called low-income countries, because urbanization is exploding in cities like Lagos, Kinshasa, and these cities are a bit different from some of the cities in other places around the world, especially in the West, you know, in that they are lower-income, they are a bit congested, they don't have much density, and, it's a challenge for such cities having to host that many people. Now, if I may ask you, what would you say the problem has been in making some of these cities work? Are we seeing a failure of markets or planning or a bit of both?
    Alain;
    I think that there are sometimes market failures. But I think that there has been a neglect of infrastructure. For me, a city, and that's something common to all the cities of the world, whether they are, you know, in Europe, in America, in Africa, or Asia, the main things for cities are labour markets, that's why people go to cities to find a job. And that is why a big firm will go to Lagos. They will go to Lagos, rather than a small town somewhere. They will go to Lagos because they will find in Lagos people who are competent in whatever they want to do. They will find a large labour force, you will have a lot of choices. And so if I am a migrant living in a small village somewhere in Africa, and not necessarily Nigeria, I may want to go to Lagos because I know there are a lot of jobs there. So if we accept that a city is a labour market, the most important things are two things.
    First is transport. You should be able to move in this large city. Within an hour, you should be able, ideally, to go from one side to another side, in order to find the job you want and change jobs. You know, changing job also is very important. That's why company town, you know… sometimes you have a mining town or a town developed around a steel mill or something, and then everybody there is working for one employer - the mine or the steel mill, this is not very good, because you have no chance of changing jobs. I think the advantage of very large cities like Lagos or Abidjan or Dakar, is that there are so many employers that you can fill your way, you know, you can change jobs and learn things from other people, that's what's a city.
    Now, what should the planning be? Planning should be transport, you know, there should be a system of transport. And when I say transport, I don't mean necessarily a subway, I mean, subway sometimes is necessary, but not always. It could be informal transport, you know, the different minibuses, for instance, so things like that which are private. But the planners often consider them as a nuisance, you know, that they are a little messy, they stop everywhere. Sometimes they don't follow the rules very much. But if they are there, it's because there are people who prefer to take this informal thing rather than a regular bus. So we have to take them into account. And we have to make them more efficient, you know, by having specific stops where they can stop which is wide enough and things like that rather than eliminating them.
    So the first thing is transport. The goal is to allow people

    • 56 min
    UNDERSTANDING CHINA'S DEVELOPMENT

    UNDERSTANDING CHINA'S DEVELOPMENT

    It is difficult to overstate China's rise in terms of economic development in the four decades - growing from one of the poorest countries to becoming the world's second-largest economy. China has also become an important geopolitical partner to many developing countries, and it is quite common to encounter talk of the ‘‘China model’’ of development as being more suitable for many African countries that have struggled with economic transformation. Joining me on today's episode is political scientist Yuen Yuen Ang to unpack what China did during the reform years and the many ways that process is misunderstood. She has two excellent books (linked here) on China, and she is one of the most careful, thoughtful, and perceptive scholars I have read.

    Transcript
    Tobi;
    Welcome to Ideas Untrapped, and my guest today is Yuen Yuen Ang who is a professor of political science at the University of Michigan. She has written two very important books on China. And I want to talk to her today about the first book, How China Escaped the Poverty Trap. Welcome, Yuen.
    Yuen;
    Well, thank you very much, Tobi, thank you for having me. And I very much appreciate your support.
    Tobi;
    In global development today, it's almost impossible not to talk about China. China has become so important both economically and geopolitically, and we know that the picture or the situation was quite different 40 years ago. Another thing with what China has done in the last four decades, I mean, two-thirds of the global reduction in poverty is in China and so many other amazing things, is that there's a lot of, should I say, content on China and in my experience, it feels a bit like quantum physics and that Feynman quote, which is the more you read on China, the less we understand.
    But, reading your book for me as being quite illuminating. Again, I want to thank you for writing it. So the first question I'll ask you is, very early in your first book you made what I think was an important distinction, which is the difference between market-creating institutions and market-preserving institutions. Can you elaborate more on that? And how China was able to take advantage of the former?
    Yuen;
    Sure. Well, first of all, I really love the quote that you used. And before I jump into the question that you just asked, I think it's useful to respond to your comments, which I think it's very insightful, which is that everyone is very interested in China. There's a lot of talk about it, but it feels confusing.
    And so at the outset, when I write my books, I think one of the things that I wanted to set out to do was to provide an integrative account of China's development since its market opening in 1978. And I stress the word integrative, because I think one of the sources of confusion that you alluded to comes from the fact that there are many, many accounts about China's development, but they tend to focus on only one aspect.
    So some will talk about trade, others might talk about economic policy, so there are so many different topics about China. But what people need is an integrative account that puts all of these different elements and variables together.
    I really put them on a timeline to help people to understand, sort of, the different factors that were salient at different points in time. And this is important for correcting the misconception that there is one China model, like some kind of blueprint that was created at the outset and designed to help China take off.
    So that was the kind of broader backdrop that motivated the way that I write my book, in particular, the first one. Let me now come back to your original question, which is the concept of market-building and market-preserving institutions.
    And the important thing to understand about institutions is that economists have all agreed that good institutions, such as rule of law, such as formal accountability, such as modern courts, that all of these good institutions are essential for growth. And y

    • 47 min
    UNDERSTANDING INNOVATION

    UNDERSTANDING INNOVATION

    Innovation is the key ingredient to human material prosperity and an essential factor in economic development. But the importance of innovation is often misunderstood because of the common belief that poorer nations need not invent anything new and can always copy existing technologies from the richer nations - hence innovation policies are often missing from the development agenda of most developing countries. My guest today is social scientist and innovation policy expert Dan Breznitz - and he has made many significant contributions to changing the conversation and policy around innovation. We talked about the distinctions between innovation and invention, why the Silicon Valley model of innovation does not fit all contexts, and how innovation policies can be set in the long term.

    TRANSCRIPT
    Tobi;
    Where I will start, basically, is innovation as the engine of economic growth is a view that has been pretty much validated through economic history. But when we think of innovation, we still think of new things, invention, which is kinda like a distinction you made in the book. So briefly, just tell me what is the difference between innovation and inventing new things, which most people understand innovation to be.
    Dan;
    So there's a big difference between innovation (and that's what we should care about) and invention. We should also care about it but it does not necessarily lead to economic growth, especially not where it happens. So if you and I would go back to my lab or your lab in the university, or just a lab in the back room, and we come up with a new idea for a new product or service. Even if we move it to a level of a prototype or have a patent on it, that's great, that's invention but that's not innovation.
    Innovation is taking ideas and actualizing them in the real world. So taking the idea that we develop and actually make it into a product (if we talk about economic innovation) or service and sell it to people. It can be novel ideas, but it's across all the arrays of activities from coming up with novel ideas, to improving them, to recombining them with others, to innovation in their production, to even innovation in their assembly and after-sale. And innovation is important and creates welfare, not in the moment of invention but because it's continuous. So let me give you two examples that are very prominent because of Covid.
    The one which is the most simple, since I know you love new cars, right, Tobi, and you ordered at least three in the last year, right. And you can't get even one of them. And the reason you can get one of them is not because people cannot produce cars, but because there are not enough semiconductors. And the reason there are not enough semiconductors in the world is Silicon Valley, which is called Silicon Valley because it was in semiconductors [but now] no longer knows how to innovate in the production of semiconductors. There are actually only very few companies. two be exact, and they both come from Taiwan, that knows how to create semiconductors, and how to actually innovate in their production.
    But a much better example is COVID itself. I mean, it's great that we came up with new vaccines. But that was not enough, right, with the molecule. We had to innovate in their production, we had to innovate in material science creating a new glass vial, so we can move them around. We have to innovate in their distribution. But it's now very, very clear that that's not enough. True welfare for humanity and the ability to live with Corona would happen when we innovate to a level, which is now very clear, of producing billions of units of said vaccines and distributing them to every human on earth. Okay. That will probably allow us to put Corona behind us.
    So it's not the moment of invention. I mean, the moment of invention is great. But innovation is the actualization of ideas all across the [value chain], if you want to call it the supply or the production, network, and stages, in order to constan

    • 38 min
    INSECURITY IN NIGERIA

    INSECURITY IN NIGERIA

    If you ask any Nigerian today what the number one problem that they think political leadership should tackle - I am fairly certain security will be the overwhelming answer. In the last week alone there have been two deadly attacks in the Ondo state and Kaduna state with scores of people murdered in their homes and places of worship. Go back a week further, and the number of such murderous attacks would have risen to six. What many Nigerians depressing is that the problem is worsening and spreading to all parts of the country without any sign that it might abate anytime soon. Politicians seeking elective positions in next year's elections are making promises to end the crisis, but given how much it has gotten worse under the current administration despite similar promises leaves very little room for optimism. It is in the light of this that I speak to my guests on the podcast today James Barnett and Dr. Muritala Rufai. Our conversation is about what is now known as banditry in the Northwest of Nigeria. We talked about the origins of banditry, the nuances of the many factors at play, corruption, and the failure of local governance. Dr. Murtala Rufai is a professor of history at Usman Danfodiyo University in Sokoto.
    TRANSCRIPT
    Tobi;
    So I'll start right at the end, which is not the most recent attack, but the Kaduna train attack was heavy in people's memory, and mentality, and maybe because of the status of some of the people that were involved.
    And in the weeks after there has been suggestions that the banditry issue is sort of evolving into something rather different. Maybe something akin to Boko Haram or ISWAP tactics. And some have even suggested that there are some evidence that both groups are now working together.
    So I like to take it from there because in both your paper your article on this, you suggested that this is a problem that has the potential to evolve even more dangerously. So is this part of that evolution? And if so, what can you tell us about the background to that and where it's likely to go next?
    James;
    ...In terms of the kind of the relationship between the bandits and Boko Haram, you know, the term that we talk more generally about jihadist because, really, there're kind of at least three different primary factions of what was once Boko Haram in Nigeria, today. There's ISWAP, there's the original Boko Haram, which we use the acronym JAS, which was led by Abubakar Shekau until May of last year when he was killed.
    And then there's also the Ansaru splinter faction of Boko Haram. So when looking at relationships between bandits and jihadists, I think if anything, our study was maybe a bit more skeptical of some of the claims that, you know, by 2021 (by last year) there was already more speculation.
    You had more comments from government officials, commentators, journalists saying, you know, the bandits, they are being recruited by Boko Haram, they're working together. I think our study was, in some ways, a bit more skeptical of the degree of, I would say, co-optation.
    You know, we kind of pushed back to some extent against this idea that the jihadists were coming in and recruiting all the bandits and that they were kind of transforming the conflict. I think our argument was that the conflict in the Northwest for now is very much still one being driven by the bandits rather than by Boko Haram or the jihadists.
    We do note, as you say, I think there's definitely room for closer potential cooperation. I think that from what we're beginning to see of the Kaduna train attack, the evidence so far, the details I've heard so far, there are kind of concerning issues there. But I think that for now, you know, even recognizing that the Kaduna train attack is a notable attack, a very serious one and obviously, the situation is still ongoing in terms of the the situation with the hostages, negotiations. So I think it's good to kind of avoid commenting too much right now as the situation is rather uncertain.
    But

    • 1 hr 15 min
    RELIGION AND DEVELOPMENT

    RELIGION AND DEVELOPMENT

    How Religion shapes and influences the trajectory of a country's development path is a subject I have long been curious about - and I found persuasive answers in the work of Economic Historian Jared Rubin. Jared's book is a tour de force on how rulers and elites use religious legitimacy to propagate their rule - and the developmental implications of such equilibrium. The first part of our conversation is to get him to explain some of the fundamental concepts of his book and analysis. It is impossible to capture his work in a single conversation, so curious listeners can check out his book - and his excellent blog posts here, here, and here. He also has a new book out with previous podcast guest, Mark Koyama (episode here).
    You can also get the podcast on all the popular platforms like Spotify, Google Podcast, Apple Podcast, and the rest. The transcript of the conversation is available below. Thank you for listening and for your support.

    TRANSCRIPT
    Tobi;
    Welcome to Ideas Untrapped podcast my guest today is Jared Rubin. Jared is an economics professor at Chapman University in California. He's an economic historian, and he has written a wonderful book titled Rulers, Religion and Riches: Why the West Got Rich and the Middle East Did Not. Welcome to the show, Jared.
    Jared;
    Thank you. It's great to be here. It really is.
    Tobi;
    Kind of like [an] obvious first question is why religion, really? I mean, so religion has always been this largely accepted but not really systematically defined or studied aspect of the society, especially when it comes to its influence on institutions and economic development. So what motivated you along this line of research?
    Jared;
    Yeah, so this goes back a long way. Religion is something I've always been interested in. Not necessarily, for me, a personal conviction and I'll be fine if it were, but it's been something mainly because I've had a hard time understanding its impact. It's something that very obviously influences decision making.
    So from my undergraduate days, I was interested in economics, which I view as, kind of, how and why people make decisions. And I was also interested in religion for actually similar reasons because it clearly influenced the way that people made decisions.
    So I took a lot of courses on various religious topics in undergraduate, but it was something that when I went to get my PhD in economics I never really thought I would pursue. I didn't think that it was something that economists studied.
    And then in my second year of graduate school, I took a class from who would eventually become my advisor, [...] Wright, who has done work on religion in the past, particularly the role that Islamic and Christian cultural attributes fed into economic development in the medieval period and my mind was blown that you could do this, that some economists took religion seriously.
    So I went to him, this was probably 2003 and I told him that I wanted to do a dissertation on religion and economic development over time. And at the time, precisely the setup to your question, he told me - that's fine if that's what you want to do, and that's what you're interested in, but know that you're going to have a hard time getting a job?
    Because there were very few economists at the time that were interested in religion. I mean, you could probably count them on two hands, the economists seriously thought about religion... which in retrospect, is kind of mind-blowing.
    For me, especially, thinking about medieval Europe, say... I don't understand how you can think about European economic development in the medieval period without thinking of the role of the church.
    If you think about almost any aspect of Middle Eastern economic history since the spread of Islam, very hard to think through the mechanisms through which growth either happens or doesn't without thinking about the role of Islam, and particularly religious authorities.
    So I decided to go down this path anyway. I knew that it was

    • 51 min

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