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A couple days ago, Reihan Salam put forth the question of why the United States is so great. Which means how has the US economy performed so well over the last century? Karl answers with what he deemed a “conventional answer”, and FreeExchange grapples with the question, concluding a mix of market size and the influx of talent to America (read: immigration).

I agree that market size has a lot to do with the wealth that the US generates. The most important thing to note is that the US is a free trade area. Capital and labor are free to migrate easily and efficiently across the borders of states in the US. This advantage, the comparative advantage of trade, has allowed the US to innovate in ways that having trade barriers would not allow. The most striking example comes from (I believe) David Friedman, when he noted that there are two ways to make automobiles; you can erect a factory and build them with steel, or you can plant a field and build them with agriculture…or, presumably, you could erect a tower, and build them with finance. The easy with which this division of labor can manifest itself within the United States is definitely a key to the prosperity we enjoy. Although I believe that the advantage of market size has run its course, it has still been very important.

I want to touch on an element that fell out of favor among researchers in the 60’s, but has since seen a tepid renaissance. That is, culture matters.

Conveniently, that is the title of a book that was put out after a Harvard international studies conference headed by Lawrence Harrison and Samuel Huntington. To begin, I’d like to turn to Robert Putnam, from his book, Making Democracy Work, in which Putnam describes his visit to the government offices of the poor Puglia region of Italy:

In the dingy anteroom loll several indolent functionaries, though they are likely to be present on an hour or two each day and be unresponsive even then. The persistent visitor might discover that the offices beyond stand only ghostly rows of empty desks. One mayor, frustrated at his inability to get action from the region’s bureaucrats exploded to us, “They don’t answer the mail, they don’t even answer the telephone!”

Putnam then contrasts that experience with the experience of the government offices in the rich Emilia-Romangna region in the north:

Visiting the glass-walled regional headquarters is like entering a modern, high-tech firm. A brisk, courteous receptionist directs the visitors to the appropriate office, where as likely as not, the relevant official will call up a computerized database on regional problems and policies…A legislative pioneer in many fields, the Emilian government has progressed from words to deeds, its effectiveness measured by dozens of daycare centers and industrial parks, repertory theaters adn vocational training sites scattered throughout the region.

These two regions stand but 400 miles away from eachother, but they may well be worlds apart. The curious question is, why? They are both populated by Italian people who share the history of Italy. Putnam concludes that the source of this disparity is low trust leading to an inability to achieve large-scale cooperation. He argues that the differing histories is the source, tracing all the way back to medieval times. While the south was traditionally monarchist, hierarchical, closed, and dominated by the church; the north was more egalitarian, communal, and open to trade. Later, the north was influenced by the ideas of the enlightenment.

The idea is that while the south was discouraging networks from forming, as they presented challenges to the hierarchy (and especially the church), the north embraced the formation of social networks, which allowed it to form valuable human (and social) capital.

In their book, Harrison and Huntington present data regarding trust and economic performance (measured in PPP per capita GNP). Not surprisingly, there is a strong correlation between the percentage of people who “trust people in general”, and GNP per capita (sorry I don’t have a link, but if I find suitable data, I’ll reconstruct). The question is, why? Argentinean scholar Mariano Grondona has proposed typological rules. These rules fall into three broad categories.

  • The first category are norms related to individual behavior. These include norms that support a strong work ethic, individual accountability, and a belief that you are the protagonist of your own life and not at the whim of mystical powers or “powerful leaders”.
  • The second category are norms related to cooperative behavior. Foremost is a belief that life is a non-zero-sum game and that there are payoffs to cooperating in a larger group. Societies that believe in a fixed pie of wealth have a difficult time creating social capital, and are often characterized by looting and cheating.
  • The third category are norms related to innovation. Cultures that look to rational scientific explanations of the world tend to be more innovative. It is also very important that a culture be tolerant of heresy and experimentation. Orthodoxy stifles innovation. It is also important that a culture welcome competition and celebrate achievement. Overly egalitarian societies reduce the incentives for risk-taking.

Not surprisingly, those cultural traits are also the key to well-functioning organizations, including businesses, charities, and governments. A final norm, and one that is possibly the most important, is how people view time.[1] As Eric Bienhocker states:

Cultures that live for today (or, conversely, are mired in the past) have problems across the board, ranging from low work ethic, to inability to engage in complex coordination and low levels of investment in innovation. Why work hard, and invest in cooperation and innovation if tomorrow doesn’t matter? In contrast, cultures that have an ethic of investing for tomorrow tend to value work, have high intergeneration savings rates, demonstrate a willingness to sacrifice short-term pleasures for long-term gain, and enjoy high levels of cooperation.

Trust also affects the intangible wealth of nations. Bryan Caplan is fond of touting the fact that poor immigrants are extremely productive, as long as they work in America. The amount of physical capital (A, k, L in Cobb-Douglas) in the US certainly tells part of the story, but as the World Bank has pointed out, it can’t come anywhere near telling the whole story. In fact, our institutions contribute 80% to the US’ capital stock. Contrast that with the poorest nation on earth, the Democratic Republic of Congo, whose intangible capital actually depresses the total wealth of the country.

William Easterly has pointed out that in the last half-century, the developed world has provided more than $1 trillion in economic assistance to the developing world. Yet poverty in places like Africa and South America still persists. Africa even regressed[2] (until recently). The lesson? It is important not to ignore the cultural basis of economic growth.


[1]The Origin of Wealth, Eric Bienhocker. I’d like to thank Bienhocker as well, for providing a guide to much of my analysis of culture.
[2]Just wanted to let you know that that is one of my very favorite TED speeches. It is incredibly inspiring.

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  • @jamespoulos and you also don't see signs of accelerating inflation or wages in any areas of the country, even ones w/ very low unemployment 12 minutes ago
  • @jamespoulos no, food has fallen as a share of household budget significantly over time. Prices are more salient b/c we watch, but not huge 14 minutes ago
  • @jamespoulos this case is stronger now when we're comparing about raising interest rates or waiting, so conventional monetary policy 59 minutes ago
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