Monday, April 14, 2008

Economics Focus

Ethnic hatred, civil wars and genocides. There is much violence in the developing world, and this has been found to be one of the reasons for poverty and underdevelopment. However, the cause of such violence is not fully understood. Some blame it on hunger, others on religion, and some on deeper geographic reasons. One of them is Jared Diamond. As he explained in his awesome book, “Collapse”, it is how a society reacts to geographical constraints that determines its survival. Easter Island failed, Icelanders didn’t. But if the Rwanda genocide was due to a lack of food, does this mean any society would react the same way, killing each other?

It is impossible to know for sure, as they are so many event specific conditions that permitted this atrocity. But would Europeans react the same way in they were put in Rwanda, or are they relatively less violent? We could try this as a field experiment. We could send a group of Congolese on a small island with limited resources, and do the same with a group of French, a group of Chinese and a group of Paraguayans. We could then examine how the situations evolve and determine if, between these four cultures, some are more violent than others. All we need is four very similar isolated small islands, some sufficiently large and representative samples of people from these countries and wait 10 years.

Ted Miguel, from Berkeley, and his colleagues had a better idea, at least a less costly one. They found in the real world a “natural experiment” where many different cultures interplay in the same environment to examine if acts of violence can be explained by a society’s “culture”.

This natural experiment is offered by the presence of thousands of international soccer players in the European professional leagues. It offers acts of violence (think Zidane), for which data is gathered under the number of red and yellow cards, in a fixed setting: Europe. What the authors find is that a player’s home country’s history of violent civil conflict is strongly associated with violent behaviour on the soccer pitch. And this, of course, is when controlling for origin country characteristics (e.g., rule of law, per capita income), player characteristics (e.g., age, field position, quality, team). “The leading interpretation is that persistent national cultures of violence accompany these soccer players as they move to Europe.”

In a previous similar paper, also exploiting a natural experiment, they found that “corruption culture”, another impediment to development, was persistent. Diplomats from all around the world working at the UN in NYC had way more unpaid parking tickets if they were from more corrupt countries.

Reassuringly, they find no meaningful correlation between a player’s home country civil war history and his soccer performance!


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