Intro. [Recording date: March 24, 2022.]
Russ Roberts: Today is March 24th, 2022, and my guest is economist and author, Chris Blattman of the University of Chicago. This is Chris's fourth appearance on EconTalk. He was last here in July of 2017, talking about Chickens, Cash, Development. Our topic for today is his book, Why We Fight: The Roots of War and the Paths to Peace. Chris, welcome back to EconTalk.
Chris Blattman: Thanks for having me.
Russ Roberts: How did this book come about? Why did you write a book, of all things, on war?
Chris Blattman: Well, I've been working on the subject for myself. I mean, it seems far from chickens and cash. Maybe it's worth saying: Chickens and cash was a little bit of a detour for me. I was working in conflict zones from about 2004 and initially working on how to relieve the worst effects of war on kids, on families--especially those who had been participating in the war. And so, that got me down a path, a part of my research, of just trying to figure out what works in terms of poverty alleviation in these extreme scenarios.
And, it turns out these post-conflict scenarios aren't that different than just a lot of other poor places. And so, that got me into this general--how do we relieve poverty?
But, all this time, one is--when you're in these places, you can't help but think or wonder all the time, what is going on? Why is this happening? Why did this even occur in the first place? And, I was an economist. I was also a political scientist.
And, slowly--pretty quickly really--but slowly, most of my research turned to understanding: Who participates? Why do people fight? Why are individuals violent? And, then more and more: Why are groups violent?
And, I just learned all these amazing things. There's just a lot out there. People have studied this. There's a lot of deep insights. It makes a lot of sense.
And, then slowly I realized, actually nobody else seems to know about this stuff. This is like, all these things that rotated my brain 90 degrees, and then 90 degrees again, until my brain was just spinning with information. And, no one had brought this to a general audience before, which seemed kind of a shame. And, that's something I liked to do with the blog. And so, I thought, 'Well, somebody has to do this. It's been 20, 30, 40 years, somebody has to do this.' So I decided to take a shot.
Russ Roberts: It's cool. I was recently talking to Dwayne Betts, the poet and author, about--we were talking about--it hasn't aired yet, but Primo Levi's book If This Is a Man, and followed by The Truce, and then also Ralph Ellison's book, Invisible Man, which is a novel--but both of those books inevitably deal with the cruelty that people can take out on each other, the violence that people use. And it's deeply troubling that there's something inside us. But, your book tries to go beyond that, so what are--
Chris Blattman: I want to jump in and--you know this, just because I told you about this very recently, but maybe the listeners don't know--is the reason I started writing it now, I was wondering about, 'Oh, well, I really should write this at some point.' And so, we were talking about chickens and cash; and you said, 'What are you doing next?' And, I thought, 'Oh, maybe I'll write a book about this bigger topic I've been working on.' And, you said something along the lines of, 'Well, I'm not that young, and I'll be dead if you wait too much longer.'
And so, we hung up the phone, or whatever we were on--because back then, I don't think we used Zoom. And, it was a June day in the University of Chicago, sitting in the [?] office. And, it's June, so that the semester's over, right? And, it's like, 'Well, you know, why don't I just try putting some words down a page? I've got to listen to Russ.' And, I started writing. And then I decided actually what I would do is I wanted it to be conversational. I wanted it to sound like I was talking to people.
So, I decided I'd walk around the Midway, which is this park over here, the long lengthy park next to the university. And, I'd just talk it out loud on my phone with Google, whatever--Google dictation or something. And, I wrote dozens and dozens of pages over the next few weeks.
Now, it was all garbage. That was complete garbage. The wrong way to write a book, but it got me started. And so, that's the long path to having the book come out a few weeks from today.
Russ Roberts: So, it's my fault, I'm really happy about that. Seriously, I'd love to--
Chris Blattman: So, thank you.
Russ Roberts: Yeah, it's like--it's too creepy. I was going to say I was, like, a surrogate dad, but--nevermind. It's something to do with the birthing of this book. I--
Chris Blattman: A muse, you're a muse.
Russ Roberts: I'll take that.
Russ Roberts: So, this book is in a tradition that I both love and am suspicious of, which is using the economist's toolkit to understand various forms of human behavior. Before we go into the specifics of how you frame the problem, I'd like you to talk about what we're going to call a meta-issue in this kind of work, which is that: When we talk about incentives--you and I face incentives all the time, financial incentives, psychological incentives--and that's the bread and butter of much of economics work.
Nations are a little more complicated because, although it's easy to say Ukraine is resisting the Russian invasion or Russia invaded Ukraine, it of course is not--a nation is not an actor, a single, unified, purposive creature. It could be productive to think of them--nations--that way. But, talk about how you think about that issue and how your book deals with that.
Chris Blattman: Yeah. First, just one comment on the economists' toolkit. I think that's true. I think there's a lot of that in there. But, I think a lot of political scientists pick up this book, and they say, 'Oh, this is our toolkit.' And, to a lesser extent, but because it's certainly there, I think sociologists and psychologists should pick up this book and think, 'Oh, we kind of know this.' My hope is that a lot of these people-- a lot of people would look at a single chapter from this discipline or that discipline and say, 'Oh, we know this. There's nothing new here.' Which is a little bit true for them; but then they'd look at this other chapter, and they'd say, 'Oh, what is that all about?' And, I think that's--so, in a lot of my research, in my own training, they sort of sat at this intersection, and so I'd like to think the book is at this intersection. And, some sort of political economist toolkit might be dominant, but I'd say it's not. Hopefully, everybody feels a little ownership of this--because that's kind of the goal. There's some originality in my synthesis, but Jim Scott, I think--who is one of my idols--in one of his books, I think he writes in the preface: There's no original: there's no single original idea in this book. There's just nothing.
And, I actually had that in my preface. I think my publishers persuaded me to take it out because they're, like, 'Listen--you could think that, but don't say it out loud.' So I say it in coded ways. But, anyway, so that's maybe one thought.
And, I think that leads us into why I think psychology, and sociology, and a lot of political sciences thought about bureaucratic decision-making, group decision-making. Economists do, too, right? We think about principal-agent problems--
Russ Roberts: Sure.
Chris Blattman: and I think principal-agent problem are really at the center of this book. I think there's two ways that I thought about this. One is I think you have to take--what do you call these? Let's call them principal-agent problems--the fact that a group can't really necessarily control its decision-maker, right? We see that going on with, say, autocrats today and Putin's invasion of Ukraine. This isn't the people of Russia invading Ukraine. This is a cronyistic elite with some popular support, but by no means all.
So, we have to think about that. But then there's also this question--and I think it's maybe under-researched, and I learned a lot reading this literature, but I still think there's huge gaps, which is to say--a lot of people are very quick to say, 'Oh, so-and-so miscalculated.' Right?
That's the classic explanation for World War I, which is, 'Oh, the foibles of these unaccountable leaders marched Europe into war. They sleptwalk into war. And, people are very--the narrative that Putin, for example, is the master strategist playing 400 dimensional chess has disappeared overnight, and it was just his foibles.
But, you know, the problem with these narratives is--there's a few problems. I give them some credence; I think there's a lot of behavioral, psychological miscalculations. Things that go on, and I talked about those. But they sort of personalize it too much.
We like to do this, right? We like to over-personalize groups by their leaders and over-attribute mistakes. And, that's not true, right? We have these big bureaucracies. Even if Putin runs a military state--sorry, a personalized state--there's a huge military and political bureaucracy instead of cronies. Like, there's a big coalition that has a say. And they can't all be stupid and making all the same mistakes all the time.
And so, this book, I think, forced me to think more about what are the mistakes we make in groups--in group thinking, in bureaucracies, and drawing on that literature.
And, I learned a lot; but yeah, this is maybe for me the biggest gap in probably political science and sociology, is lots of work's been done but there's lots we still don't know.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. The easiest explanation for anything that is puzzling is, 'Well, it's a mistake.'
Russ Roberts: Not a helpful explanation, although it could be true, of course. We understand people do miscalculate. They are overconfident. All of us make these kinds of mistakes all the time.
But, of course, there are often very strong forces working to make decisions that are maybe not mistakes. And, if we always assume everybody's crazy, we're not going to be very good at preventing future wars, for example. I don't think--
Chris Blattman: Yeah. Honestly, my view of--it's funny, there is this weird bifurcation. I think political economists and some realists, and a lot of international relations scholars, are really quick to over-weight a lot of these systematic, root, like strategic forces, which I think are really important. And then, they totally discount any of the psychological stuff. Whether it's mistakes or whether it's just what people have as principles or values.
And, then everybody else--you know, you picked up an account and there's just a mass--it's slightly exaggerating, mass ignorance of strategic forces; but just a lack of appreciation maybe how, of when they're there. And, a complete overestimation of how important these psychological forces are.
And, it's just been going on for so long and never the twain meet. And it's puzzling to me why. Everybody keeps making the same mistakes over and over again.
Russ Roberts: Well, those are scholars, not actors in the real world.
Chris Blattman: Well, but the actors in the real world, I think, are the ones who are making that. The journalists and the policy makers, and the armchair analysts. But, the people in the room, I think, are often overestimating these psychological forces. They're certainly important. I don't want to dismiss one or the other.
Russ Roberts: Well, I think it gets a--I'll say one more thing, and then we'll get into the book. But, it strikes me, in this current conflict, that--we're recording this a month, into the, four weeks, into the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
And, I think one of the common mistakes people make in trying to understand that is assuming that Vladimir Putin is something like them.
He's not. He's not like you. He's a Russian, which you don't--most people in the West literally don't understand. He's a former KGB [Komitet Gosudarstvennoy Bezopasnosti--foreign intelligence and domestic security agency of the Soviet Union] person that you don't understand. He is the member of a former Soviet Union set of actors who have all kinds of chips on their shoulders and baggage that you don't understand. So, when one opines about this man in any direction, you should do it carefully. Because, he's not like you.
And, I think so many people, when they confront a situation like this, think, 'Well, what would I--I wouldn't have done that.' And, I want to always say, 'Yeah. He's not you. He's not--'. I'll say one more thing, and then I'll let you react to this, and then we get into the book. But, I think it's really important to remember the words of the poet, Hilaire Belloc, who wrote, I think it's called "Pacifism." It's a very short poem,
Pale Ebenezer thought it wrong to fight
But Roaring Bill (who killed him) thought it right.
Some people have different attitudes toward violence, toward honor, toward territory, toward culture, toward their homeland, toward their nation, than you do--Mr. or Ms. Public Intellectual. And, it's easy to forget that. I think so many people, those armchair folks, just forget that all the time. Anyway.
Chris Blattman: Yeah. When we talk about these psychological roots, one of the sort-of big bucket that I think of is of these misperceptions, I think, which is termed into us by many great political psychologists, including Bob--Bob Jervis.
But, I think one of the things that really struck me as I read account after account after account--different conflicts of different levels, whether it's gang wars, or insurgencies, or international wars, is this thing that we're really bad at knowing what other people think. This is not a new insight from behavioral science. I sort of labeled it misperception--sorry, projection bias--which is: we tend to project our own preferences and project our own beliefs on other people in a way that's incredibly stubborn.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Chris Blattman: Right?
And, the time that brought that home to me--you know, I have a friend who had written several books on the Irish, the IRA [Irish Republican Army], the Provisional IRA in particular. This insurgent group--most people are at least passingly familiar with it. And so I went to Richard English--I went to visit him in Belfast for a few days. And I talked to him, and I talked to many people involved with conflict. I toured the city a little bit. And, my overall impression--this is I think when it really jumped out at me--was: How many people thought that their response to some act of violence was just?
Russ Roberts: Oh yeah.
Chris Blattman: That, they just assumed that, 'Oh, the other side would recognize that this punishment, that environment, the fact that I'm throwing a bomb at a police station seems like an appropriate response to the latest sort of challenge to me or the latest sort of injustice that was done to me. And, they'll surely understand that I'm not going to escalate things further.' And of course, that's not true.
And then, the other side thinks, 'Well, the appropriate thing--everyone will realize is that I can't find the person who threw that fire bomb, but I can go into this neighborhood and arrest, you know, the 30 or 40 suspects. Round them up, beat them up a little bit, put them in jail. Everybody will understand that this is reasonable--.' This is the normal response.
And, of course, there's many things going on there. But one of the major ones, I think, is just a stubborn--over decades--just an inability to sort of say, 'Oh, actually, you know, maybe that'll just piss them off more and incite further anger and vangeant actions.'
So, anyway, I wholeheartedly agree.
In theory, we're usually better at doing that in groups than we are as individuals. But I think this is one of these biases that does, time and time again, seem to persist in groups.
Russ Roberts: It's a major part of--I think, growing up and being a successful human being is realizing that not everyone is just like you. And, I also mentioned in passing a book by Roy Baumeister, a past EconTalk guest, called Evil. It is a fabulous book. I confess I have not finished it. I think I read the first 50 or 100 pages. It's now sitting in a warehouse in Maryland waiting to be shipped to my new Israeli address. But, I recommend that book, because it's exactly about this point: that people often think that something is totally reasonable, that other people think is totally evil. So, it's an educational experience to read some of the quotes in that book and the stories.
Russ Roberts: So, let's get to your book, though, in more detail, in actual detail. You give five reasons for war. What are they? And, we'll work through them.
Chris Blattman: Yeah.
Well, just, I mean, even to explain the five, I think you have to start with this insight. I mean, your starting point is just to recognize that war is costly. It's ruinous. We're seeing this now in Russia and Ukraine.
It's so ruinous that it very seldom makes sense to fight. This is a game-theoretic insight. It's also a common-sense insight. So, Sun Tzu and virtually every General that's written a book on conflict for centuries has, in some sense, said this: which is that it's better to bargain than fight. And, most of the time, people do.
And so, what we have to think about is, like, when is it that the people who are deciding whether that--you know, so basically, you have a set of objectives that you want to obtain on either side. You have a rifle. You have some sort of pie to split. You can decide, you can look at each other's relative strength and recognize that there's some split that's feasible, that makes both of you happy. And, you can take that, or you can destroy a slice of the pie and fight. And then see who gets it.
And so, the basic insight is that the war is so costly that most of the time, you just find that bargain split.
And, if you skirmish a little, you quickly sort of recognize that this is the wrong path, and you find another way to do this.
So, the question is--the idea is that war or sustained fighting happens when somehow people overlook that. This gravitational pull that peace has because of these costs--somehow something rips you out of that orbit.
And, it seemed like there are, like--there's a reason for every war and war for every reason. Russia and Ukraine is different than what happened in Syria or what happened in Afghanistan and so on.
But, I think what I realized, which is partly inherited from a bunch of other people who've researched this, but I think I had sort of tried to focus it a bit more is seemed to me that everything fits in all these explanations for why you would pull away--why these incentives would get hijacked and sort of fall into five buckets?
And so, one of them--sorry, two of them are really familiar to political economists and game theorists, who like to talk about imperfect information or maybe more broadly just a lot of uncertain situation.
And, they sort of make the point that if you genuinely don't know the strength of your opponent and they have, in addition, an incentive to bluff--to pretend they're strong in order to get the best deal--on occasion, strategically, your best incentive might be to attack to find out is one. And, anyone who's ever played poker and decided to bluff or call in the face of--I sort of understand this logic coming into [inaudible 00:21:55]. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose.
The second is what game-theorist political economists called the commitment problem, which is one of the worst terms in, I think, the discipline because it's just not very intuitive. One of the best examples is called a preventative war, and I think that's a lot more intuitive to people.
The idea is that if your opponent's going to be much stronger in the future, and you could do something to head that off right now--say, by invading them and stopping them from doing that--then you'll do so.
Now, if you all recognize this, your opponent could say, 'Whoa, whoa, whoa, whoa. Okay. Before you do that, why don't I promise not to--I'll give you a good deal in the future, don't worry, when I'm powerful. You will be fine,' or, 'I'll give up something that's going to make me powerful, just enough to make you not attack me now.'
And that sometimes happens. In fact, it happens a lot of the time. But, when they can't commit to do that, because it's inescapable or because there's maybe no international architecture to keep you from doing that, that's going to hinder that. And, then you have this quote-unquote "commitment problem".
So those are these two really deep, I think, important strategic insights that are hard to grasp, and I think one of the reasons people haven't advertised them and brought them out in a general audience is much as because they're hard to explain. I disagree[?]. I think they are hard; I think people can understand them and get them and start to recognize them.
Russ Roberts: So, can we talk about them for a minute before the others?
Russ Roberts: So, let's repeat them. We've got a miscalculation, maybe about the strength of your opponent--or your own strength, right? Imperfect information, uncertainty about the real relative strengths of each side, for sure. And, the second is that you might be able to strike a bargain now, but it requires some kind of deal, promise of the future, which can't be relied on. [?]
Chris Blattman: And both of these are--I mean, what they have in common, and what's so powerful about them, is it says the most rational--there's no mistakes. There's no--
Russ Roberts: Passion.
Chris Blattman: There's no passion. There's no autocratic Putin taking his group to war against their will. This is when well-intentioned, thoughtful, calculating, deeply--groups can find themselves at war because of these situational circumstances. One of them just being this fundamental uncertainty that's really hard to resolve. And, the second just being this--the key thing of this commitment problem is a large unavoidable power shift, where one of the sides can't promise to not abuse their power in the future or take advantage of their power in future.
And both of these--these are really dominant explanations for everything from World War I to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. There's a lot of relevance for understanding Russia and Ukraine: The power shifts there, the rise of Russia vis-a-vis Germany, the rapid rise of Russia vis-a-vis Germany in World War I. The possibility that Saddam Hussein could get a nuclear bomb or other weapons of mass destruction. And, in this case, the possibility that Ukraine could grow close to the West and be armed by the West to the point where maybe it has the long-range missiles to harm Russia.
All of these--none of them, I think, are perfect examples of commitment problem, where the commitment was so impossible, and the rise in power was so unavoidable: That's it; we're done; we can explain these three conflicts. But they were really powerful forces that really narrowed the set of--I don't know, the opportunities to find a deal between the two because those power shifts were happening.
And, then you layer on top the uncertainty, right? We can send in weapons inspectors to Iraq, and we can say, 'Well, maybe we can be mostly confident that the capability is not there.' But, are we a hundred percent confident? Are we a hundred percent confident not just now, but that it can't be restarted in six months or a year or five years? Are we pretty confident that Saddam Hussein would like to do this?
So, you layer in this uncertainty and this commitment problem on top of one another and I think suddenly, you have a set of impersonal situational forces that just make a peaceful agreement really hard to find. Not impossible. And then all the mistakes and the leader's foibles--which we tend to overestimate--come into play. They're really crucial, but they're only crucial because the space for finding the deal was actually quite small.
Russ Roberts: I just want to reiterate a couple of basic ideas here in the book, which I love. Most of the time, there isn't a war. Nations that don't get along don't fight all the time, because each side does realize that there's an enormous cost. Even when you win the war--
Chris Blattman: You know, there's a great recent example of this. Two weeks after Russia invaded Ukraine, India accidentally launched a cruise missile at Pakistan; and calm ensued. Right? None of us read about this. I mean, some people write--it did appear. Most people haven't heard this.
Now, if India and Pakistan gone to war, we'd all be talking about all of the mistakes and the leader foibles, but that didn't happen. Right? And, this has happened in neural times with India and Pakistan: which is that there's been lots of skirmishes. There have been some accidental missile strikes. But, for the most part, this has been pretty peaceful because they have no interest in launching a war. And this was true before they were both nuclear armed.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Chris Blattman: And, we forget that because we write millions and millions of blog posts and articles and TV coverage of the wars that happen. And, then, so these conflicts that didn't happen, we don't write books. No one is going to write a book about the cruise missile that landed in peace.
Russ Roberts: Well, there was--occasionally, you do get a book like that. I mean, there are some remarkable moments of near-war that--there was a time the Soviets thought they were being attacked, right? And, there was a--I don't know--computer glitch. Something went wrong, and someone was told to launch missiles, and that person just said, 'I can't do it.' Thank God. And, they didn't launch those missiles and--
Chris Blattman: There's at least two, I think, known instances of this. One, I talked about in the book, which I think is the computer glitch you're talking about. Another is the story I know less well, but it has to do with the nuclear submarine captain who gets bad information and then decides, 'I'm not going to do this.'
Russ Roberts: Not going to rely on this.
Talking about the first two reasons--
Chris Blattman: One thing about that, this is true for a lot of conflict. I mean, one of the examples I bring out in the book is: most of my work is working with a different level around groups. I studied rebel groups in Africa and different tensions there, but I spent the last five, six years working in Colombia around gangs; and in Chicago as well around gangs and gang violence. In many places, it's quite similar. Medellín has a relatively low homicide rate for a city that is filled to the brim with young men in gangs. And, this is because they've built a system and found a way to avoid costly conflict that keeps them from earning drug rents and whatever else they're trying to earn.
One of the political scientists who I think put all this strategic logic I've just talked about together, Jim Furin, has a terrific article with David Layton where they look at ethnic conflict in Africa. And, they look at all the ethnic groups, they sort of catalog the ethnic--and Eastern Europe, for that matter. So, they look at all the ethnic groups that, in the 1990s, in Eastern Europe could have potentially fought one another because they're adjacent and they're distinct. And, they did the same thing in Sub-Saharan Africa. We tend to think of these groups as sort of persistent conflict and just the perfect example of endemic violence. And they're, like: Actually, it's one in a thousand of these groups in a given year seem to have any violent conflict whatsoever. These dyads, these sort of pairs. The 999, totally fine. And, you could see that over and over and over again.
So, those are really important to pay attention to, right? Like, we want medics to be able to attend to the injured, and that's what medics do. And that's a really important job. But we want the larger medical profession to focus on the fact that 999 out of 1000 people are actually pretty healthy, and not to forget that those people exist. Which is, I think, what sometimes happens in this case of war.
Russ Roberts: Okay. So, we have miscalculation or uncertainty. We have commitment, or--
Chris Blattman: And, I don't want to call it 'miscalculation,' because we'll get to--
Russ Roberts: I'm sorry.
Chris Blattman: [?]--but, it's actually the correct calculation.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Chris Blattman: You can think of it as imperfect information. It's the correct calculation. It's like, there's nothing wrong with bluffing in poker, and there's nothing wrong with calling and potentially risking that you lose. That's your optimal strategy, right? So, it's the correct calculation, and it just happens to be a risky one that leads to some potential for violence. That, bluffing amidst these uncertain situations is--and you don't even need bluffing. It could just be that if you both start with very different priors about relative strength, but that if: If Russia starts with--just use this contemporary example--with a set of beliefs about Ukrainian strength, and Ukrainians have a very different starting set of beliefs, even if neither one's bluffing. Right? Even if both leaders don't even know their own capability, their own forces--which is often true--and they're just making a best guess, if their guess is different enough, that because of the inherent uncertainty, that itself is a risk factor.
And, then you add in the private information and the incentive to bluff and then the strategic calculation. So it's the correct calculation.
And, that's the beauty of these insights. And I think they're really important. And so, like I said, a political economist will pick this up and be like, 'Oh, nothing new here. Just telling that something we learned in the 1980s and 1990s.' And I'm going to be like, 'Exactly.' And nobody else knows. So, let's tell them about it.
And, then, there's three more chapters that you guys never talked about. There's three other classes. And, guess what? They're important, too.
Russ Roberts: Well, we'll get to those, but I got to ask you one more question.
Russ Roberts: Now, I think usually when you're in a decision-making position--I never thought about this until I was president of a college--you should worry about the worst-case scenario. Most of our lives, the worst-case scenario is not that different from the best-case scenario. Like, dinner. Or the movie you choose. Okay, you didn't pick the best movie. It's not--
But, if you think a war is going to go six weeks and it goes five years, or if you think a war is going to go a week and it lasts a month and counting, usually you'd want to hold somebody accountable, because you'd hope there'd be a meeting where the leader would say to the chief-of-staff, 'So, what's the worst-case scenario?' 'Oh, 10 days.'
And, if I were the leader, I'd want to say to them, 'So, if it's a month, I can execute you, right? Or [?]put your president for 25 years.' 'Oh, well, well, actually it could go six weeks. Yeah, yeah.' And, I wonder if that's--
Chris Blattman: But, that's exactly what happens. Yeah. But, think about the calculus of the U.S. government or the European Union right now. They are not entering this fight directly. They're using economic sanctions. They're taking some risks arming, more and more directly, but they can see that the worst-case scenario is pretty clear.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Chris Blattman: Right? And, it's the Third World War--
Russ Roberts: Correct.
Chris Blattman: which--what's that famous--that would mean the Fourth World War is fought with sticks and stones.
Russ Roberts: Exactly.
Chris Blattman: So, they do see that, and so they're actually not getting involved. And that's exactly what we should think, and they shouldn't get involved. Just as Russia shouldn't have invaded Ukraine. There were better ways to do with this because fighting is so damn costly. And so, that person is listening, and that's exactly what happened in [inaudible 00:35:15]--
Russ Roberts: Well, hang on. I got to challenge you there. One sec. So--
Russ Roberts: I want to go back to my earlier point about they're not like me--the other side sometimes or the side we're looking at.
I don't know if this war is costly to Putin or not, yet. There's a lot of deaths. I just saw a number of 7,000 Russian soldiers have died. I don't know if it's accurate; it doesn't matter. I listened to people reacting to a school being bombed by Putin, horror--reasonably, right? I don't know if he feels any harm. I don't know. I don't know, I don't think he goes to bed at night going, 'What have I gotten myself into?' Is it costly to him? It could be. It's very early days to make a conclusion like that. I have no idea what they went into this thinking.
What I do know is that the Russian people are really good at making very large sacrifices of human beings for war aims when they're led by an autocrat. Stalin thought nothing, it appears, of sacrificing millions of his citizens to the German war machine. It was his defense mechanism for victory. The cost to him--I don't know if there's any cost to him. I have no idea--it wasn't even a sleepless night.
So, I want to bring back this argument. First of all, they're not like you. And, secondly, the costs are borne not necessarily by the decision-makers. They have some skin in the game, for sure. They are at risk of a coup with their risk of assassination if things go super badly. But, I wouldn't say he's losing. It's not going particularly well, but I don't know if it's not going to be a success for him. It's way too early to tell.
Chris Blattman: A hundred percent, which brings us, maybe as you know, to reason number three, which is that: If the whole point, if war is to be avoided precisely because it's costly, if the decision-maker doesn't bear those costs, then, well--I mean, the decision-maker usually still has going to bear some cost--
Russ Roberts: Absolutely--
Chris Blattman: The finance minister or the chancellor or the advisor[?] is still whispering in that autocrat's or king's, or whatever's ear, saying, 'Sire, we do not have the funds to continue very long with this.' And, those realities are very stark.
And, so, even then, I would argue most tyrants and autocrats and dictators and other unchecked leaders, we still see the bargaining space. We still see that room--
Russ Roberts: For sure.
Chris Blattman: But it narrows.
And, again, if all of these things--right?--if the uncertainty is narrowing, and the commitment problem, the quasi-commitment problem is narrowing--and, then, it gets narrowed a little bit further and now you're down to this sliver. So I would say that's crucial.
We talk about the democratic peace[?] in political science, international relations, where that no democracy tends to be--this is generally fought, another democracy in war. And, one reason for that is because these leaders are more accountable. That's my interpretation.
I think that's a fair interpretation. You know: murky empirical literature. So, any interpretation is possible sometimes.
But the democracies do go to work: democracies don't only fight autocrats.
And, this is maybe a self-serving statement for democracies, but I think a lot of people have looked at the evidence and looked at the cases, say, 'Well, it's partly because the autocrats are not internalizing the costs, and so the democracies are sort of put in these difficult positions where it's optimal to go to war.
Now, that's not entirely true, but I think there's a lot of truth to that.
In a meta-comment, which maybe we'll come back to after we talked about the other lessons, is, I do think, like: It's not just--there's this thing that is bucket number three I call unchecked leaders, which is to say they're not internalizing costs; or they have their own private incentives to go to war. Right?
So, the fact that Putin has this apparatus of control that he's built, and his cabal, that--yeah. Think about what's the threat of NATO [North Atlantic Treaty Organization] to the average Russian? What is the threat of a democratic Ukraine to the average Russian? What is the threat of capitalist organization to the average Russian? Probably not that great; and, arguably, average Russians would all be improved by that.
On the other hand, this apparatus of control--that's what's threatened by the advance of democracy or capitalism or NATO. And so--this is true, I think, in a lot of cases--there's a private incentive there for the ruling cabal,to turn to violence. Because--not just because the costs of war are not ones that they bear entirely. But, actually, the private incentive overwhelms me to the cost of war that they personally bear.
And that could be enough.
But, I mentioned, there is this meta-comment which I want to come back to, which is that over-centralized--I think over-centralized power, is maybe the most fundamental root of all conflict and warfare.
And, it's partly because of this--obviously, this is mechanically the sort of ignoring the costs; the capacity for a private incentive to go to war is, in some ways, a mechanical implication of over-centralization of power.
But, I argue it accentuates uncertainty, it accentuates commitment problems, and it accentuates these psychological problems that I put in these next two buckets.
And, so, it might be worth--I won't jump the gun, but I do want to remember to talk about it because I think it's easy to think, 'Oh, over-centralization of power just this has this narrow[?] little effect of insulating leaders from costs.' And, that's true. But, I think it's a much deeper and more systematic problem and helps us understand where we're going to see conflict in the world, why we might see more, why we might see less over time.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. To quote Richard II, which we quoted recently on this program, 'Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown.' There are a lot of reasons for that.
Russ Roberts: And, one of them is that there are people who want to take the crown away and put it on their head, and there are people who want you dead. And, that's another aspect of centralization that complicates the calculus we're talking about.
Russ Roberts: Let's go on to the next--what are the next two reasons?
Chris Blattman: So, the next two, I think, are gifted to us by, I think, a mix of sociology and psychology and behavioral science. I won't say they've been ignored by the game theory and political economy by any means, but I think they get overlooked and understudied. And, you know, but the way I think about them, the way I sort of--and there's just sort of this whole mess of psychology and reasons in the minds of leaders and the minds of the populace that they would go to war. And, the way I sort of organize that, actually has something to do with the way that a lot of behavioral science kind of classifies how we think and what we've learned about decision-making and psychology.
And, one is to say that sometimes we have stable, arguably rational preferences--things that we--just things that we value. We have tastes, we have preferences, we have values, we have principles, and they're not all summed up by how much we value that material pie. We value other things. And, there's nothing rational about pursuing those. We can value status, we can value vengeance, we can value an ideal, we can value the extermination of a competing idea or identity, and pursuing those is potentially terrible but comprehensible.
And then, the second category is this whole world of misperceptions--all the human follies[?] in the state, which are innumerable. We can go on and on and on.
But, what I tried to do, and I think what was so important, is the kinds of biases. Like, if you talk to a management science person, you talk to behavioral economists, you talk to psychologists, we can come up with a million human foibles, and they're all relevant. And, economists like us tend to focus on the ones that change market behavior and lead to suboptimal, basically bad optimization.
But, we're not talking about optimization. We're talking about strategic interactions with other individuals and, importantly, groups.
And, so, I think you get into a whole other set of biases and misperceptions that are relevant in these strategic interactions that, frankly, I don't think we spend enough time as scholars focusing on.
And so that, to me, these are the two buckets, which we could, if you want, we can dive into: which is, one, is these sort of stable preferences that are just different than what's in the material pie; and then the mistakes and misperceptions we have.
Russ Roberts: So, the fourth one--this would be when I have an offer from someone who wants to buy my house, and he makes me an offer that's 25% higher than anybody else's, but he treats me dismissively and without respect, and he's obnoxious. And I just can't stand the idea of him living in my house; and so I don't take the highest bid. And, I think some economists would call that irrational, and you're pointing out, it's not irrational. We care about things other than how much money we have.
Russ Roberts: We don't just care about how many toys and vacations and shirts. We care about our dignity and our pride and our respect.
And, we also, by the way, can be a little bit vengeful. So, we might get a lot of pleasure from keeping that person from enjoying our house--which is sort of the flip side of what we might care about. But, it's a different thing we care about, with a negative sign.
Chris Blattman: Yeah. Maybe the biggest, most often-run behavioral game in human history is the ultimatum game, where you get $10, I get zero, and you have to decide how much to give me of that $10. And I can accept it or I can refuse. And, if I refuse, I give up whatever you've offered me, which might be one penny or $3; but then you also get zero. That's the game. And, we see that, in various cross societies, but most people will give $2, $3, $4 on the margin and anything less than that, most people will refuse. And so there's an equilibrium. That's why you offer more than one 1 cent.
And so, we know that this is a pretty stable, predictable preference. And, I think that's a nice little--I think there's some ties between that and vengeance and a desire for revenge and a desire for dignity.
But, you pick on something which--the thing that might be irrational is that first, that, that guy who is buying your home, who treats you like dirt. That might be a mistake, right? Or maybe it's chance or--so, it's hard to explain the--if you're going to turn to vengeance as a quote-unquote, "state of preference,"--a thing that could lead people to fight, which is extremely true. If you look at, like, James Scott's studies of Southeast Asian peasant uprisings or Libby Woods work on El Salvadorian insurgents, like, this is a major recent people join fights. And it may be a reason why entire societies go to war. Right? But, it's certainly a huge role in--we're talking about Northern Ireland, but you have to explain that first overbearing act, and that's--those can happen.
I think because of those misperceptions we were talking about in that projection bias is a good example. So there's an interaction there. But, because--I don't think that's the most common one, but this is one of those common things that the armchair analysts, or even I think like the casual--or the policy maker. It's one we lead to, right? You think about the current conflict. Like, Putin wants to be the next Catherine the Great. Russians or some segment of Russians want to return to nationalists' Soviet glory. Or they want status, or they want relative power. There's a dozen stories like this. And they may all be true.
I think we tend to overestimate them. But if they aren't true, this is something that--this is a reason to ignore at least some of the costs, and to narrow that bargaining range further, right? That's just a mechanical--like, 'Yes, it was costly, but I get this other ethereal thing that I can only get through violence.'
Russ Roberts: Yeah. And, the buyer of my house who treats me poorly is so used to treating people that way perhaps, he doesn't even think about that he might be losing the deal. He's not necessarily indulging in the thrill of demeaning someone. He could just be inept--
Russ Roberts: and unaware that he's doing this, which--
Chris Blattman: But, if you believe that some humans or most humans enjoy violence or enjoy dominance--now, I don't happen to believe that. I think it's true some--I don't think it's true, but some people do.
Again, this is a big bucket. This is a whole category of all these different values and preferences. And so, it's just a logic. The bucket is like--these all rhyme in the sense that they all have the same strategic logic, in that there's something that we value that we get through domination or through violence or through relative status or something that hijacks this normal incentive.
And, then the empirical question is: Well, which ones are common in lots of situations? Which ones are not, actually--and maybe we overestimate.
And then: Why do they come about sometimes and not others? Right? Because that's the thing: it's 999 times out of 1000 don't dominate. Then, what was it about this case, or any case out of cases, that led this to be dominant?
Russ Roberts: I want to bring that back to the personal level, again: you're the guy buying[?] my house, or the interaction you have with a colleague, or the grocery cashier. Sometimes people lash out, right?
Russ Roberts: And, one's visceral natural reaction is either fight or flight. Sometimes we want to, 'Okay. Is that the way you feel? I'll play, I'll fight,' or we just run away and say, 'Eh, that's not my thing. I don't want to--or I'm afraid,' whatever it is.
But, my point is, is that the one out of a thousand--the fact that it's one out of a thousand is interesting in and of itself. Then, if you want to explain why it's the one, it could be something you ate that morning or this person's spouse has cancer. I mean, there are a lot of reasons that people do things that are, on the outside as you're looking in, you say, 'Gee, that was selfish.' 'That was cruel.' 'That was--' whatever it is.
And, I always, I mean, when my life isn't at stake, my default is, 'They're having a bad day. Everyone's in a battle, so be kind.' That's where I start. Of course, when your life is at stake, different question[?], different kind of response. But, the fact that people occasionally, quote, "fly off the handle"--I don't think that proves that people have a taste for violence.
However, I do think we have some violence in our heart, many of us, and it's sitting there. You light, you ignite it, and it will come to life.
Chris Blattman: Well, and I agree. My day job is dealing with that in some sense, and whether it's ex-fighters in Liberia or gang members and Mafia members in Medellín, or street shooters in Chicago, some of the programs and things I work on is designed to sort of tackle with that category of human error, and the passions and the reactions. So, I think they're important in interpersonal violence. They're huge. They're massive. But, actually, I think they're not very important in this group violence.
Russ Roberts: Yeah.
Chris Blattman: So, in this fifth bucket, when I talked about misperceptions, I didn't call it--at first, I was going to call misperceptions and passions. And then, I decided I actually just don't think these passions, empirically speaking, are actually that crucial for understanding why large groups go to conflict. And, of course, they matter a little bit, right?
I think what really matters is when we form really persistent erroneous beliefs about the other side. That's what I would think about misperceptions and why it is sort of centered on that. I think the fundamental psychological error that individual leaders and groups make is they have these persistently wrong beliefs about the other side.
And so, now you think about the strategic interaction that we started with: which is that I've got to assess your strength. You've got to assess mine, including my resolve. And we've got to assess the costs of war. And, any reasonable assessment of relative strength and cost of war, even if we're off a bit, we can both see that we need to go to peace.
But, if we are way off--like, if I grossly overestimate--amidst the uncertainty, right? Because you need uncertainty to have a misperception, and so that's where the mistakes come in, right? It's like: amidst this uncertainty, I draw an inference about how strong or resolved you are, that's just way off.
And, maybe you do the same to me. I'm over-confident or I project my own values onto you or something.
This seems to be amazingly--that kind of error is just amazingly common. And it's amazingly common not just in--it's amazingly common in finance, high-stakes economic interactions, the decisions of CEOs [Chief Executive Officers]. There's just huge management literatures on overconfident CEOs, overconfident investors, fund managers. It's astonishing in its persistence.
Russ Roberts: But just--it's a variation of the you're-not-like-me challenge. I mean, I remember--a lot of people I hear talking about this West/Ukraine/Russia triad, say things like, 'Well, the West will never'--the fact that they're only doing sanctions. There's a lot of hawkishness among people who aren't really suited for combat in my experience in this conversation, but they like rattling a sabre that they've never touched or picked up or could imagine swinging. So, that they'll say, 'Oh, we got to do something, got to do something.' And then, they shrug their shoulders, and they opine that the West will never react. The West is soft, the West is this, the West is that.
I'm thinking: you know, that's the same mistake Hitler made. Hitler assumed Britain was soft. Of course, they were. They appeased left and right for a decade for a long time, certainly intensely for a couple years as Hitler gobbled up this and gobbled up that; and Britain said, 'Well, go ahead, go ahead, go ahead.' And, I think it misled him into thinking: They'll never fight. They're rich and tired, and they were beaten up in World War I. Certainly, France was. And, they're not going to fight. And, he was right: Until they did.
And, the same was true with the United States. I think he thought, 'Oh, the United States are soft. They're a democracy. They don't have a military tradition like us.'
And so, he would be a stupid--on the surface, he seemed stupid--to declare war against United States; and the aftermath of Pearl Harbor honoring his commitment to Japan--which basically ended his life and his dreams. And, because he underestimated, I think, wildly underestimated--I don't think he was an honorable man. I don't think he thought, Well, I signed a treaty. I better keep it.' He thought, 'This is a freebie. I'll tell Japan I'm in, and I'll declare war in the United States,' which gave Roosevelt the opportunity to rise into war.
Total misunderstanding of what the West was capable of, either in England or the United States. And I think that's a very common problem. It's a problem in--I think of it as sort of a--it's in finance, it's in debt, it's in war. It's like, 'Oh, this time's different. See nothing's changed. Nothing's happened.' It's free. Until it isn't. And, then it's like, 'Oh, my gosh, what were we thinking?' And, it's too late.
Chris Blattman: There's a couple things there. I mean, the word 'appeasement' is so interesting, right? It's what we call compromise when we're basically giving something away. It's what happens with a rise in power, right?
So, German--but it is the appeasement, if we'd call that, which is just giving the whole slice, if you will. Is what you do when, because of the strategic [inaudible 00:56:13], war is costly. But, if Nation X rises in wealth and influence dramatically and says, 'Guess what? We are claiming a sphere of influence,' you know, your best move is to sort of throw your hands up and say, 'Well, so be it'--
Russ Roberts: It's not worth it--
Chris Blattman: Well, I mean, it's not worth it. And it's actually not. It's not worth it, right? It's not worth fighting over it.
And that's, you know--here's the sense in which Russia appeased, quote-unquote, "the West." From 1919[?]--from a Russian point of view, I believe--now I'm going to be victim to the same projection bias, but I think this is a legitimate point of view--which is, 'Hey, listen, Russia was weak in the decade or decades following the collapse of the Iron Curtain. And, the United States took grand advantage of that to completely expand its sphere of influence, right up to the Russian border. Very quickly, right? With the entry of Baltics to NATO, and so forth.
And so, which is--and Russia just went, 'Well, what are we going to do?' They appeased the United States, right?
And then, Russia subsequently stabilized its economy, oil and gas, consolidated political control, dramatically grew its military and economic might while places like the Ukraine completely stagnated. Ukraine has an income per capita that's probably lower than it was in 1990. And then it went, 'Great. Now, it's our turn. We're going to push back. You guys have--Nicely done. Can respect this, but it's our time. It's our turn to sort of get our elbows out and get back our sphere of influence.' And, that that's, 'So, we're going to more or less dominate Belarus,' and 'We're going to send our quote-unquote "peacekeepers" into the Kazakhstan,' and 'We're going to mess around in Syria,' and 'We're going to support the dictator. And, you're not going to do it about it, anything about it. We're going to cross red lines in Syria, and guess what, you're still not going to do anything about it.'
And, so, it wasn't totally unreasonable in this sort of cold and calculating and somewhat evil sense for them to say, 'And, thank you very much, we'll take this weak little republic nextdoor called Ukraine, or at least demand that it's neutral.' And, was Putin wrong to expect that Ukraine and the West would stand up? I'm not sure. They crossed Obama's red line in Syria. Nothing was done. Steadily extended control elsewhere.
I think it was--amidst the uncertainty--it was a reasonable gamble to say, 'Hmm, we'll just do what we did in Crimea. You're just going to wake up one morning, and we're going to occupy these cities. And, everyone's going to throw up their hands.' Right?
Just like Hong Kong. I mean, look at Hong Kong. And there's a very different legal basis and "legitimacy," quote-unquote, for what happened in Hong Kong. But: We're just going to roll over. The people of Hong Kong rolled over, and the people of Ukraine will probably roll over, too.
Now, I think there's also some misperception there and surely some misperception on the Hitler side as well and underestimating. But, you know, it's very--the unity and the resolve of the West in sanctions and supports for Ukraine and the strength and the pluckiness of this resistance--I don't know; I'm sure somebody predicted this--but both of these things were kind of, I will call them the tails of the probability distribution, but neither one of these were likely realizations. And so we're all surprised, and Putin's surprised.
And now, you look at--I don't know if this will turn into a peace agreement in the next month, but the kinds of things they're sketching out, and the Turks and the Israelis say are being more or less agreed to by both sides, look kind of like a split in the pie where Russia has still has a substantial amount of what it wanted to obtain in the first place.
Russ Roberts: Yeah. Going back to your question about improbability, what movie studio would greenlight a former comedian, elevated to the Presidency, saying, 'I don't want a ride, I want weapons,' when he's got a chance to run. It's improbable.
Russ Roberts: Definitely improbable.
Russ Roberts: So, you're suggesting that the opportunity for both sides to avoid further damage and cost--which, I want to remind listeners that Russia, although they've done okay since 1990, and they do have some oil and gas revenue, they're not the wealthiest country in the world. And, this is a financially expensive war. Even if the deaths are relatively--I didn't mean to suggest they were irrelevant. They are not irrelevant.
As you point out, I think there will be, I think there's going to be political pressure on Putin even--he's not a dictator. Even if you call him a dictator, he has to respond. There are domestic forces that will array against him if it goes badly.
And, one of the ways it's going badly is it's going to cost a lot of money; and which means that people don't eat as well. The Russians are good at dealing with that. But, if they think there's no purpose to it or it's aggrandizing one person they're not in love with anymore, that will be hard to sustain.
So, are you suggesting that with those financial costs and potential human costs, that will redound onto Putin in some way, that they will find a way to end this without--in a relatively short period of time? You want to go make a prediction like that?
Chris Blattman: Well, I mean, the fact is most wars, when they happen, are short. So, if we're just talking about unconditional probability that this will end in the next month or two looking at the past, you have to say yes. Now there's lots of--of course what--except when they don't. Right. And of course, we remember those. Nobody talks about--very few people remember the U.S. invasion of Haiti in 1994. Very few people talk about U.K. and the U.S. invasion--
Russ Roberts: The quagmire of the Haiti invasion. Well, it didn't turn out to be a quagmire, is it? Yeah. Good point.
Chris Blattman: No. Before the planes even landed, the coup leader gave up. And, the troops actually had to go in in Sierra Leone and Liberia from the United Kingdom and the United States.
But, then, they gave up within a few months, and if not weeks. And there's just dozens of examples of this that we forget.
And so, most wars, when they get to this point, stop.
And, now, why wouldn't this one, I guess? And, I do see some risks that--so listen, the uncertainty is getting resolved, right? So, that's there. If there was any over--
Russ Roberts: By that, you mean the Russians have a much better idea of how much resistance they're going to face, and the Ukrainians have a much better idea of how damaging the Russians' attack is going to be.
Chris Blattman: Correct. And, everybody's downgraded to some extent: Russian military prowess, although everyone knows they still have--they still have an enormous army. The fact that they could dominate is not--maybe they could lose, but they're pretty strong--just less so than anyone thought before. And, the unity of the West and their ability to hold sanctions, even if it wanes--as it may--has been remarkably strong.
And so, all those uncertain variables are resolved. And so without that uncertainty, it's harder: To the extent that Putin was overconfident--which may have been through one of these misperceptions--that's presumably improved, as well.
So, all of these issues could point towards a peace agreement. And, the two things that tend to lead to long wars, I think, when we look at the long run--when we look at the historical cases--I'd say the big ones are these unchecked leaders and the private incentives that they had to fight may not have gone away, may grow--and I'll say what I mean in a minute--but also the commitment problems. There's a certain line of thinking, which I think is overdone, but a lot of political scientists would say that every long war was due to a commitment problem--something that just makes sense to keep fighting.
And so, let me take them in order. Listen, what's the private incentive? What if--okay, so Russians don't have an interest in continuing to fight. We all know that. They didn't really probably have an interest in their nation fighting in the first place. It was there to maintain this apparatus of control. And so, the question is, does Putin and his sort of cabal, wide or narrow as it is may be, think it's in their interest to keep fighting or not? And, if they think that giving up--rather, if they think that fighting will be more likely to preserve themselves in power, then it can keep going.
What's more, if they actually look at peace and say, 'Actually, peace looks pretty costly now. Number one, all these sanctions, I'm not sure if they're going to go away. Maybe the U.S. government would wipe this, but these decentralized--all these private companies, all these boycotts, all these--I'm actually not sure if any of that's going to go away. Maybe no one will buy our oil, and maybe we've lost this European customer for our oil and gas. So, peace might be less attractive if we're unable to unravel this.' Right?
Sanctions are form of conditional repression. They work when they're conditional, right? And so, I'm not sure if they're conditional anymore. At least some of them might not be.
And, then, if he looks at this and says, 'Oh, wait a second. The U.S. President just called me a war criminal. Now, they're formalizing proceedings, and that's going to make it hard for me to step down, because if I step down, eventually--even if I do it in 10 years--whatever apparatus of control I've built, I'm no longer going to be a retired statesman. There'll be some incentive for them to extradite me.' Or, there's an added incentive for a palace coup. So, does that make me more likely to settle or not?
Like, we don't know. It's really complicated. So, the West is doing some things that--it's not obviously making peace more attractive. Where, there's this famous quote from Sun Tzu, who says, 'You build your enemy a golden bridge to retreat along.' I wish we were doing it.
But, even if--absent all that, I think there's just a question about whether or not this--I don't even think that's first order. First order for Putin is, 'Do I think I can hold onto power by fighting or not?' And so, I worry about that, most of all, this private incentive to keep going.
And then, the commitment--I don't think the commitment problem is a fundamental route here, but if he says, 'Listen, if I stop now, there is going to be this inevitable tilt of the Ukraine towards democracy in the West, and I've pushed them even further.' You know: Is that a real, direct threat to his regime? I'm not sure. Right? People say it is. It's not so obvious. But let's say it is. If that's true--arming and pushing the Ukraine towards the West--then maybe it makes sense to keep on fighting.
And that's the sense in which--that's not such a persuasive story here. I think it's a persuasive story in a lot of other cases. And, that's what people make an argument for the length of World War I and World War II or whatever. And then, most of the time that's not true. Neither one of these things is true most of the time. Which is why in all these other cases that we don't talk about anymore, the war was actually quite short.
Russ Roberts: My guest today has been Chris Blattman. His book is called Why We Fight. Chris, thanks for being part of EconTalk.
Chris Blattman: Thank you.