The Rich and the Rest: Dr. Martí Mestieri Discusses Income Disparity

Dr. Martí Mestieri (Toulouse School of Economics) researches the dynamics of new technology adoption in developing countries in order to explore the patterns of convergence and divergence between rich and poor countries. The models he uses show that changes in the pattern of technology diffusion account for at least two thirds of the Great Income Divergence between rich and poor countries since 1800. During his visit to CERGE-EI in December, we sat down with him for a brief chat.

Tell us about the paper you are presenting at CERGE-EI

Before the industrial revolution, the income disparity between countries was not that high. The richest country was maybe twice as rich as the poorest. Now there are much great magnitudes of difference between rich and poor countries. With the industrial revolution, growth has become very uneven. Some countries have experienced sustained growth while others have stagnated. Economists of course have been puzzling with this question for a very long time.

What we do in this project is we try to isolate the channel of technology adoption. Even though there are methods of production that make labor much more productive, it seems that many countries are not adopting the best technologies that are out there. So we collect data for many technologies and many countries and we are trying to understand how much technology adoption (or lack thereof) explains the differences between growth performances in the last 200 years.

This is what they call the ‘Great Divergence’, right?

Exactly. Especially in the 19th century you observed a handful of western countries starting to take off, while others didn’t grow at all. So over 100 years, you develop a huge gap in income per capita.

So how much does this technology adoption channel explain differences?

I wouldn’t say ‘explain’, I would say ‘account’, because we don’t have a fundamental theory for why these differences in technology adoption exist. But we find it accounts for a lot, almost 70%. Indeed the question that lies ahead is what are the drivers of technology adoption. In order to explain this, you have to confront a couple of facts. The first is that adoption lags have been declining over time—poor countries are adopting new technologies relatively faster over time. This means the poor countries are relatively more productive because they are catching up.

But what we find as well is that the rate at which technology diffuses within poor countries is actually slower. So even though they are importing technology faster, they are not diffusing it well within their borders. I think this is a set of interesting facts, and if you want to have a big theory, you need to have a theory that predicts these two things, and this is not entirely obvious.

Can you try to explain some reasons why?

This is the most interesting question, and the one we are after. But just building a consistent methodology to assess differences in technology adoption has been keeping us busy. We have some theories that we are exploring. One idea is that some of the early technologies that were produced in the industrial revolution are important inputs for future technology. We see that emerging economies have been lagging behind because they lack this ‘infrastructure technology.’ We think that the diffusion of new technologies is actually being prevented in these emerging economies because perhaps they don’t have the stock of old technology infrastructure necessary for the new technology. So these lack of old technologies are a bottleneck for the new technologies to diffuse.

Another idea is that income inequality may play a role. This means that new technologies are only adopted by a small and elite fraction of the population, and this fraction is not enough to generate spillover to the wider public. But these are only partial explanations. To get more depth, we have to dig much deeper.

Interviewer: Liyousew G. Borga

7 December 2012

Talking Politics with Dr. Milan Svolík

CERGE-EI isn’t just for economists. Dr. Milan Svolík, a political scientist at the University of Illinois,  visited CERGE-EI recently to discuss his research on election outcomes. We sat down with him for a chat:

Tell us about what influenced your decision to become a political scientist.

When I applying for PhD programs, I got accepted to both economics and political science programs. At the time, I was so bored of interest rates and unemployment levels, I thought it would be much more interesting to know why people vote, why we fight wars, why we have some countries that are dictatorships and others that are democracies. So I intentionally decided that I wanted to study political science. That decision was primarily based on the idea that most mainstream economic topics are not as exciting as political topics. I didn’t know at the time that you can actually study most of these topics within the field of economics. Now I know it, but I didn’t at the time!

So what are your research interests?

I study what would be called political economics. I study several things.I’m interested in why some countries are dictatorships and others are democracies. I study transitions to and from democracy. I study the politics of new democracies, why some survive, while others are more or less corrupt or more or less functioning. I also study political accountability—why elections sometimes work as a way of keeping politicians in line, and why they sometimes don’t work.

Why does this research interest you?

I think it has to do with the fact that I’m from Eastern Europe. Because all of these things you can see here. Some countries are dictatorships, some are democracies. Some are more authoritarian, some are more democratic. Why is Russia governed by somebody who looks like a  new dictator, and Czech Republic is not? I think those are basic questions that we should be able to answer, and they have been around for quite a long time.

What insights do you think are the most influential in your work?

I am too young to have produced influential and important things yet (laughs). I don’t think I have any great answers, but I think some of the questions I ask are very very important. If you look at the 20th century, you see there are great economic questions: why and when do we have recessions, why do we have enormous growth in some places and not in others. But I think there are also incredibly interesting political questions. Why are some regimes ‘persistent democracies’ while others are changing from democracy to dictatorship. The changes you can observe in the 20th century provoke as many political questions as economic questions. And many of these questions are poorly understand but deeply fundamental. Why is China still a dictatorship, but managed to quadruple its GDP/cap in the last 20 years? We need to understand what will happen in North Africa. Is being a democracy important for economic growth, or is it ultimately irrelevant? There are so many questions.

How do you think your field will develop and change in the next 10 years?

It’s hard to say. Some of the big questions will remain the same. Even in the politics I’m interested in, the questions are as important today as they were 100 years ago, and we still don’t have completely satisfactory answers. One thing that is changing is the methodology. Very few economists and fewer political scientists were doing experiments even 20 years ago. And now field experiments are becoming very popular. In ten years we will see what we learn from the wave of experimental economics that is being produced right now. I am very interested to see how people digest evidence coming from these experiments.

What do you think of CERGE-EI?

I think it’s an incredible institution. It has an incredible collection of young economists, and these are some of the most talented people from the region. I hope CERGE-EI will be able to keep them here. It’s very hard to find such a number of high quality people in one place.

What advice do you have for new PhD students? 

I would give two types of advice. When I speak to political scientist grad students, I give them the absolute opposite advice as economics students. When I speak to them, I tell them to learn as much technical methodology as they can—to study econometrics, game theory, and formal theory. Because they don’t get enough of it. But for economics students, there is so much technical stuff already forced on you. So for economic students, I would advise them not to forget to always ask, ‘Why? What is the basic economic question here. What is the big question I want to understand?’

The second piece of advice is to be very cautious about ‘fashionable topics’ or ‘fashionable methodology’, because those change very quickly. If something is fashionable in year 1, it may not be fashionable five years later when the student is graduating. I think it’s important to follow gut-feelings about what is important, rather than any particular fashion.

Interviewer: Tamta Bakhtadze

3 December, 2012

A Brief Chat with Professor Andreas Ortmann

CERGE-EI discussed lab rats and experimental economics, among other things, with visiting senior lecturer Andreas Ortmann:

You are interested in experimental and behavioral economics. Why did you choose this field and who influenced your decision?

It’s a funny story. To earn my Ph.D., I went to Texas A&M University where one of the first and prominent experimentalists in the US was working. But I didn’t go there to study experimental economics, I went to study industrial organization and public finance. In fact, I never heard about experimental  economics. But …  I needed to earn money and so I started working for this professor called Ray Battalio – a brilliant guy and real mensch – who conducted experiments with animals (I was a rat-lab technician!) and humans. Even though I was very skeptical at first, experimental economics grew on me and I became interested in it as one way of understand economic problems.

But it’s only one way.  It’s not the only way. I also do theory, I do history of thought, and even empirical work if I have to.  I don’t believe in one method alone. You take what’s appropriate to understand and solve the problem .

Today a lot of people are doing these types of experiments. How do you see the field changing in the future?

There are lots of issues that experimental economists need to address. For example, there is always the question of external validity of experiments, i.e., the question to what extent laboratory results tell us anything about the real world.

There are also all kinds of issues of how to do the econometrics, and how to evaluate the evidence that is being produced in experiments. Experimental economists mostly talk about statistical significance, but this is really not that interesting if the effect size turns out to be miniscule. You want to talk about economic significance, which is a different concept. We may actually have the wrong tools for understanding these experiments, at least for some of the big issues which we need to address.

What are your current research interests?

Which of my 273 would you like me to talk about? (laughs) Well I’m working on, among other things, evidence production and evaluation. I’m working obviously on what I talked about in my seminar at CERGE-EI: social-impact bonds, which is a recent addition to  my  research agenda .  I’m also working on simple heuristics. Fast and frugal ways of making decisions which contradict some of the basic ideas that economists have on how we make decisions. We usually assume common and full knowledge and rationality when actors make decisions, and I think the evidence shows that under time-constraints and uncertainty we don’t have a lot of time to make decisions and we don’t have full information. We make decisions on incomplete information, and this is one of the big issues I am focusing on.

How do you get inspiration from your research?

It’s a difficult question because I think there is no algorithm for it. You just have to run through the world with open eyes. And sometimes you have to dive very deeply into a particular topic to understand what kind of open questions there are. Sometimes it just hits you—you say ‘why?’ and then you just go for it.

I think it is fair to say that it has to do, for the most part, with knowing a field well and reading thoroughly. Of course it helps if you read broadly and don’t just focus on one particular topic. And it always is useful to talk and work with different people with different experiences. There are various strategies to get inspirations and they can all be equally valuable.

Do you usually find unexpected results from your studies?

At my age, little surprises me (laughs). But of course, that’s why we do experiments. You do it because you have a theory and you do an experiment to understand if your theory predicts properly. And sometimes the evidence seems to reject the theory that you tested.

Much of laboratory research is being done precisely because theories didn’t predict properly, and then you try to understand what’s going on. You essentially give theorists more grist for the mill to come up with better theories to explain lab results. Of course there are often situations where a theory doesn’t predict well, and it’s a big surprise. Then you have to go on and try to do better. Write better theories, do new experiments. This is the cycle: theory, experiments, theory, evidence, theory, more evidence, more theory, and so on.

You have written many papers, so you may be the right person to ask the burning question of all young PhD students: where do you see the research gap?

You are asking for the low-hanging fruit, yes? (laughs). It’s an interesting question. It’s a little like the famous efficient market argument: there can’t be money on the street, because if there were, someone would already have picked it up. But that’s not true, because there is always new money being dropped, essentially.  There are always new research opportunities. The world is changing and there are always new ideas being generated. In order to understand what’s a new idea, typically it takes some experience and some feeling for what constitutes a good story.

But there are many situations where you come up with something new to the field because you are not caught in this paradigm. So you might see that something is interesting where mainstream economists would never see it. There are so many examples of this.

What is the competitive advantage of CERGE-EI students in choosing a research topic? Since most of the student body is from post-socialist regions, is this the area where they should focus their research?

There shouldn’t be a ‘should’ here. In the first place you must try to become a good economist. After that, if you want to go back to your country, I’m sure you will have plenty of questions and problems to deal with. Just become the best economist you can be, and there will be plenty of opportunities to apply your knowledge.

I can say that good economists are badly needed in the region. Many of the policy decisions are not informed properly by good economics, and that’s a real problem.

How do you perceive the evolution of CERGE-EI?

I think it’s a major success story. It has shown in the region that economics today is very different than the economics practiced here in the past. The way we do and apply economics, and in terms of our ambition, we set a very good example at CERGE-EI. If you look at the rankings of institutions in the Czech Republic, you find CERGE-EI always in the top. I think CERGE-EI has done a lot of good, in the Czech Republic and beyond. You need only look at the career paths of the graduates to see just how successful CERGE-EI has been.

Andreas Ortmann is a professor of experimental and behavioural economics at the Australian Business School at UNSW, Sydney, Australia. He was a professor and senior researcher at CERGE-EI until summer 2009, and he remains affiliated with the Economics Institute of the Academy of Sciences as a visiting senior researcher.

Interviewer: Sophio Khozrevanidz

9 November 2012