I'm now an Emergent Ventures Fellow! I've received a generous grant from the Mercatus Center at George Mason University. The grant will be used to develop this podcast and create more China-Caribbean relations content (newsletter coming soon)! This is all thanks to this episode's guest - Tyler Cowen. He is the Director of the Mercatus Center and an Economics Professor at George Mason University. Tyler is also the coauthor (along with Alex Tabarrok of the Marginal Revolution blog) and host of the Conversations with Tyler Podcast.
Message/Follow me on Twitter: @rasheedguo (for more info on China-Caribbean topics)
Email me: [email protected]
Chilout/Slum by Gregory Isaacs (Jamaican dub genre)
Sé pa pou dat by Alan Cavé (Haitian Kompa genre)
Rasheed Griffith: Hi, Tyler, welcome. And thanks for doing this conversion.
Tyler Cowen: Yes, very happy to be here. I enjoy what I've heard of your podcast. And delighted to have you as an Emergent Venture winner.
Rasheed Griffith: Thank you. And I'm very happy to be chosen as well. And I'm going to just jump into the first question. Do you think there's a common thread that goes through the works of Sir. Arthur Lewis, King Tubby, and Hector Hyppolite?
Tyler Cowen: I believe there is. So, in my general view as an outsider, there's such a thing as a Caribbean Cultural Renaissance. That happened basically after World War Two. You had this part of the world that was economically really quite central in the 18th century. And often very wealthy, though, in skewed ways. And with plenty of slavery, of course, but as a share of the world economy it was a big deal. And then all of a sudden, there is this new, peaceful age where world trade is resuming. Cruise ships are being sent around, North American tourists start flying to the Caribbean in fairly large numbers.
And there's a relative degree of peace, and slavery's at least more in the past than it had been earlier. And I think all of those conditions together, you have this incredible globalization, where Caribbean creators are selling to outside markets, or sometimes migrating or borrowing ideas from outside, but still doing something very fundamentally Caribbean. And the sources you mentioned, among many others, you can think of is very broadly all belonging to that movement. From my point of view that blossoming in the Caribbean, it's a bit like ancient Athens actually, but not usually thought of as such, the numbers of people are not so enormously large. But if you think of what comes out of that time, from a pretty small area to me, it's quite remarkable.
Rasheed Griffith: A few years ago, I was in Kiasma, the Contemporary Art Museum in Helsinki, Finland. And there was a really fun exhibit with the culture of the Sami people. That's the indigenous people in Finland and other Nordic countries. And it was conflated with Jamaican dancehall music and dance. I wonder if you have any thoughts on what accounts for the persistence of the popularity of Jamaican culture globally?
Tyler Cowen: I think Jamaican culture globally has been most successful in the arena of music, though Jamaican culture is notable more generally. And there's something about Jamaican music, arguably some West African music, and North American black music that is remarkably global, and universal. And I'm not sure anyone has ever quite put their finger on what those features are. The kinds of melodies and rhythms seem catchy. When presented to a lot of different musical cultures in many places. Jamaican English is English, which of course is the world's number one language, but it's not American English.
So, it's a way of partaking in English-speaking communities without being in the USA. It communicates a sense of rebellion, a sense of relaxing, a sense of pulsating energy; dancehall in particular. And I think the world just stood up and realized Jamaican music is this miraculous thing. And it's inspired creators around the globe. It was an early source for rap music in the United States. A major influence on most African popular music and many other places. There are groups, from Sweden, Western Europe that have copied reggae influences in different ways. Paul Simon, Paul McCartney, both strongly influenced by reggae, did their own versions of reggae songs. Dub itself is a seminal influence behind techno and the later development of electronic music. So, it gets back to just how deeply influential and important these Caribbean cultural roots have been.
Rasheed Griffith: In the USA, why do you think that Bob Marley is more popular than Lee Perry?
Tyler Cowen: I much prefer Lee Perry to Bob Marley; the music to me is more complex. Lee Perry is one of the greatest producers of all time, but also his songs. They're iconic, he worked with class, he worked like a mad professor.
I saw Lee Perry in concert twice - two of the best concerts of my life. I was deeply honored to be able to go. I was just entranced, blown away and both times Perry was at advanced stages and looked pretty decrepit, but he got out on stage and completely delivered. But I think the complexity of musical language is the problem. He is a deconstructor of sound, it requires a lot of cultural background about what he is doing. The lyrics are very often not so intelligible. He is connected to the least accessible part of the class.
Where is Bob Marley? You know, if you think of that John Lennon Beatles song All You Need is Love, classic example. The thing that Lennon and the Beatles captured in that song is what Marley in his own very different way captured in his later music coming out of Jamaica: iconic lyrics, super clear images, intelligible words, the beautiful melody just hits you - straight in the gut. Everyone relates to it. Sort of simple, but wonderful ideas. But early Marley's a very different story.
That's why I think Marley has been by far the number one Jamaican creator and maybe for two decades was the most famous musician around the whole world, arguably, with the possible exception of the Beatles, even there, I'm not sure. So, he had a lot of features that Lee Perry didn't. But I don't put on Bob Marley to listen to it. I enjoy it, but you hear it randomly enough.
Lee Perry, I still put on all the time.
Rasheed Griffith: I think that people are surprised when I say that I don't hear Bob Marley that much at home in the Caribbean. I hear Bob Marley way more when I'm in the Philippines or China.
Tyler Cowen: And I think I hear it more in the United States than I hear it in the Caribbean when I go. Or Africa you hear it quite a bit there.
Rasheed Griffith: Camille Paglia. She said that “Rihanna is virtually the only performer today that consistently intrigues and fascinates me”. So, what current Caribbean artists fascinate you?
Tyler Cowen: I've got a bunch of YouTube bookmarks to music from Haiti, whose names I don't always remember. I think music from Haiti is much underrated. It doesn't typically work, on disk or streaming. But when you hear it live, it's good. When you watch it on YouTube with a music video, it's quite good. So, I've been enjoying that lately. I tend to think of dancehall as having peaked in the 90s. I could be under-informed on that.
But if you think of Shabba Ranks or even stuff by Luciano it's quite good but that's some time ago now. Buju Banton got out of prison not so long ago. I follow what he's up to. I don't know if he will create anything important again. But I would say I'm not aware right now what is the best creation in Jamaican music. I am waiting for someone to tell me and anyone listening I would urge you to email me. I will check it out. And that of course includes you, Rasheed.
Rasheed Griffith: For sure. But when you say Haitian music are you referring to Kompa or some other genre?
Tyler Cowen: There's a lot of different forms of Haitian music as you know. What I like seeing live the most is kompa with Haitian dancing to it. So, the kind of thing Sweet Mickey used to do before he got ruined by politics [Michel ‘Sweet Mickey’ Martelly became the President of Haiti]. But also the old-style group Tropicana, which also had a lot of Cuban influences, but just standard ballads often sung by women I think are quite beautiful. Those are well represented on YouTube. And to the Voodoo music like Richard Morrison Ram. I've seen them live, four or five times. And they put on a tremendous act.
Probably my favorite Haitian music, which I have not seen in its proper setting, anytime ever, but it's on my list of things to do. That's Rara music, you have to go near or before the time of Carnival, there's the only sort of six weeks when you can see it at all. But I have a bunch of good disks of Rara music and the discord and complexity and dissonance of that, and rhythms and punctuations - to me, that's a kind of highlight. And I strongly suspect it would be much better in person with the whole visual element laid out at the same time. So, I'm a fan of Rara music.
Rasheed Griffith: That's similar to what to think about Steel band music because when you hear a steel band live it is magnitudes better than hearing the recording.
Tyler Cowen: I don't think listening to steel band music on a recording makes any sense at all. There's something about the timbre of it that just isn't captured. The same is true with some parts of Chinese music oddly enough. They just sound like noise or a cat screaming when you hear it recorded. But there are these very delicate sensitive timbers when you're there that is remarkable.
Even if you hear a Chinese opera, if it's amplified, electrified, it somewhat ruins those timbers and steel pan music is the same. It's one of the few truly original instruments in the post-World War Two era to have caught on in a significant way. And it's remarkably versatile and beautiful, but just hard to consume unless you get there.
Rasheed Griffith: You remarked once in a blog post, where you said that Trinidad seems to be the last place where classical music is part of popular culture. Do you have any idea why that could be the case?
Tyler Cowen: I've only been to Trinidad once. And I had the sense that was a very kind of classical and conservative society, with a lot of family values, a lot of music-making still at home, which, oddly, was a feature of the 18th-century Germanic world. And sort of learning how to play the piano playing at home. Family doing it together. And maybe that's helped preserve various classical traditions. They're just speculations. I genuinely don't know.
Rasheed Griffith: And have you given up on Eddie Cumberbatch?
Tyler Cowen: The backstory here. He's a singer from Trinidad, and I went to hear him sing, I believe in 1997. And he's quite obscure though well-known in Trinidad. And he simply decided not to pursue a musical career; he rejected the notion of fame. But he had one of the most incredible voices I've ever heard. I would say better than almost any professional opera singer I've heard. And I feel I've heard the very great ones.
He gave a recital in Port of Spain for two hours and I was transfixed. And there's some of him on disk where he's pretty good. You can hear the talent. But it's typically in an opera or with an orchestra or a setting where he's somewhat drowned out.
But just to get the pure version of Eddie Cumberbatch, on disk, I would still be willing to fly down there, pay for the recording and do whatever would be needed to be done to organize it. But I wrote to him a few times and never heard back. I think he's not that interested. To me, it's a puzzle.
He's one of the world's great musical talents. And he turned his back on doing anything other than local performance; often for his church. And then these few strange compact discs. Were again, he's quite good, but you're not getting the real talent.
Rasheed Griffith: You wrote a paper with Alex Tabarrok about Avant-garde Art and market pricing. So, I wonder what non-pecuniary benefits do you suppose drive someone like Jose Beidia [Cuban artist]?
Tyler Cowen: Well, if you're well known as a creator, there's high social status and you have opportunities to travel. The act of creation, however frustrating it may be, it's enthralling and fun. If your goal is to attract partners, it's a very good way to do that. There's something about being a creator, music, visual arts, whatever, that attracts other people romantically or sexually.
I think that's a big part of the draw for many creators. You look at early Paul McCartney, the number of women he slept with is off the charts. And for him, that was an incentive. So, especially in societies where opportunities can be limited if you have musical talent, once you manage to record at all, the people who might buy you in larger numbers, they're not asking about your family background or your class standing.
Rasheed Griffith: It seems to me in the Caribbean, Avant-garde Art has this macro theme of Religion. I don't mean the European version of that. I mean, the Americas. So, you have the Palo Monte in Cuba, Voodoo in Haiti, you have Peruvian Shamanism. You have the Lakota mystics. So, I wonder if you've also picked up on this macro theme of religion in Caribbean avant-garde art.
Tyler Cowen: For my tastes, the Caribbean creations I like the best tend not to be Avant-garde. They tend to be fairly accessible, drawing from popular cultures, drawing from religious inspirations. And one of the neat features of the Caribbean is just how intensely you have so many different religions in that space. And it's going to depend on the country. But you'll have offshoots of earlier West African religions typically, sometimes voodoo religions are offshoots of Yoruba religions. You'll have different forms of Christianity, Catholicism or Pentecostal or influence of gospel through various kinds of churches, you now much more recently, have, Seventh Day Adventist, Jehovah's Witness Mormon, other influences, more recent than a lot of these creations, but still now part of the mix.
And just the notion, from religious ideas of what is at stake that Caribbean culture is so historically informed and rooted in the history of black migration, slavery, colonialism, but also globalization and joy and family, and self-realization and tragedy, all that at the same time. What other parts of the world can match that sort of thing cooked up in these super intense, semi-isolated laboratories of creativity?
Rasheed Griffith: And what about Caribbean literature. How does that pull your interest?
Tyler Cowen: Well, I mean, an interesting question would be, what does one thing of Derek Walcott, who rewrote sort of Greek classics and draws on themes of Homer? I think it's pretty good. I like it, I enjoy it. But It's not the work from the Caribbean, I get ecstatic over. It feels a bit artificially done for the West or even done for literary critics. But I do think he is genuinely good and talented. But of the different cultures from the Caribbean, it's not literary that draws me in the most. It's music and the visual arts.
And I suspect that stems from history and the highly mixed history of education and literacy in many of these countries. Cuba is a case in point. Literacy in Cuba, even before Castro, has been relatively high compared to a lot of the Caribbean. So, I think there you have a mix. Carpentier is a great author and he's Cuban. His best novel written in Spanish is about Haiti. But that, to me, is unusual. But that would be the Caribbean masterwork in terms of a novel.
Rasheed Griffith: What do you think about V.S. Naipaul?
Tyler Cowen: Well, that's a complex question. I love his book, [Sir Vidia’s Shadow]. Well, rather, thaat Paul Theroux's book, Sir Vidia about a Naipaul. So, the best Naipaul is about him, not by him.
I think he was a bastard. I think he was brilliant. ‘A House for Mr. Biswas’ is a grand novel. I then think he gets worse and worse. And he writes books about Islam; about the American South, which maybe are entertaining but they're ultimately a kind of intolerance. And he becomes closed and you see more that he's a bastard. And that's what kind of sorrow captured in Sir Vidia. So, I think he's an immense talent, who wrote many important books, only one of them is great and likable.
And then he's in some ways a case study of decline, but brilliant decline, where there's still substance, but there's something in it that I find unlikable and intolerant.
Rasheed Griffith: On to suicide. The Caribbean has both the world's highest and lowest suicide rate. Guyana has the highest rate of 30.2 per 100,000 and Barbados has the lowest rate of 0.4 per 100,000. Do you have any idea why the Caribbean has both the highest and the lowest suicide rate on earth?
Tyler Cowen: I'm not informed on this matter at all. But I would make the general point that when you have many small countries, as a general property of small systems, you're likely to have a lot of variances across a variety of different metrics. That might be a reason. It's not a causal reason, it's just a sort of property of these kinds of statistical systems.
Barbados is pretty well-governed, I'm not sure that lowers suicide rates. It's not maybe what you see in Hungary or Finland but it has been well-governed. So, I don't think we understand very well, what causes suicide rates to be high or low anywhere. I wouldn't have any kind of particular explanation for parts of the Caribbean.
Rasheed Griffith: Why do you think that Jamaica ranks number one in the world for Olympic medals per capita?
Tyler Cowen: I've never looked at the data, my offhand impression is they get a lot of this from track and field events. And I know some people have different hypotheses about somehow Jamaicans being better intrinsically at these events. Again, it's not something I've ever studied. But there seem to be a lot of places with West African backgrounds that don't do nearly as well. So, I tend to think it's regimens of training and role models, and cultural commitment. And that it's a self-perpetuating tendency is my sense. But again, I would want to look at the numbers exactly where they've won all the medals and compare it to other countries. So, people who were slaves in Jamaica, what parts of West Africa, did they come from? But I think you find these examples of excellence tend to be cultural, not genetic.
What's your take on the suicide rate in Barbados, by the way? You live in Barbados, you look pretty happy.
Rasheed Griffith: Well. Perhaps Barbados has a more stable, social family structure. Perhaps people in Barbados are less ambitious, so they have less stress. Maybe Barbados has a healthier approach to shame and embarrassment than Guyana, for example. It could be that because the homogenous aspect of the ethnic makeup of Barbados is pretty much one way. Coupled with the very strong conservative, Protestant religious aspects of the country. Maybe all these things could have some confluence to have low suicide rates. I think that the five countries with the least suicide, I think they're all in the Caribbean. So, it is one of those things that is understudied. Maybe the answer to get lower suicide rates is live next to a beach with salty air. But I don’t know.
Tyler Cowen: And what do you think is the greatest Caribbean novel? I mean, most people would say A House for Mr. Biswas. Or I think Carpentier from Cuba.
Rasheed Griffith: I'd have to say Naipaul's House for Mr. Biswas as well. But I say that with some reluctance because when I first read that book, I was already propagandized with the anti-Naipaul sentiment. I did not want to like it. Then you read it and realise, ah, that's why you have to love it. It is just fantastic.
Tyler Cowen: Yes, that's a natural thing. And in music, what's the greatest creation from the Caribbean? For me, I think it would be Jamaican dub, Lee Perry, the complex production, King Tabby, a lot of different dub artists...
Rasheed Griffith: Yes. I would put dub in the same class of 20th-century art as something by Schoenberg or Stockhausen or Andriessen or Steve Reich. Where the deconstruction of music is the real innovation. And I do wonder, someday maybe in a high art concert in America, or England, or some Nordic country, you can have a concert where you have Lee Perry or Gregory Isaac, and Stockhausen, or some Philip Glass in the same set because it really should be in that category.
Tyler Cowen: I find I never get sick of listening to dub. I can take a good dub CD and listen to it for over 20 years or more and I always hear new things in it. But also, Jamaican sort of popular music, the bridge between Ska and reggae the intermediate works which would maybe be like 1963 to 1972; Desmond Dekker being a clear example. I think that's another peak, just the general popular songs that were produced often have wonderful songs by artists who would then just disappear.. It's not always by famous people. But that to me is a remarkable period.
Rasheed Griffith: One of the saddest things is that even now in the Caribbean, you don't hear that kind of dub anymore. You will hear, for example, some Beenie Man or Buju Banton, but not the complex music of Lee Perry and so on. You don't hear it anymore.
Tyler Cowen: Early Beenie Man, I think is phenomenal. In the hardcore dancehall, with just rhythms bouncing off each other where he's not trying to make it accessible. And you're like, what are these words even - is that English? And you can't even tell - is that Jamaican patois? Is it something in between? Who knows, who cares? Do you understand what he's saying?
Rasheed Griffith: I do.
Tyler Cowen: Is it interesting? Is it hostile? Does he get cancelled? [Laughs]
Rasheed Griffith: Ah, cancelled. I don't think there's a “cancel culture” in the Caribbean. Because one of the glorious things about Caribbean culture is the bare-metal vulgarity of it. You can say what you want, when you want it, how you want it. And you don't get cancelled. People are going to be upset but that's all it is. So, when I see that this canceled culture is in the US, or London, and so on, I can't help but think it is - a very weak cultural trait that there is. That's one reason why it’s kind of hard for me to wrap my head around “cancel culture” in the US. But I can say that the lyrics are just very vulgar.
Tyler Cowen: That was my suspicion. [Laughs] I never would have known.
Rasheed Griffith: So, at this point, I'd like to do a round of overrated and underrated.
Tyler Cowen: [Laughs] Okay. Sure.
Rasheed Griffith: John Cage 4’33.
Tyler Cowen: I think it's properly rated. So, it's a work of silence as you know, it's become so famous. It's cited so often. I don't think you can call it underrated. But like the best of Duchamp, it was a startling statement. And it raises the question, what is music anyway? And a lot of Caribbean music, including Rara music, and they, raised that question in their ways. Cage was path breaking even for a lot of popular music so maybe it's still a little underrated. But mostly properly rated.
Rasheed Griffith: Historical Performance Practice, HPP, as applied to Bach.
Tyler Cowen: I started a long time ago being very skeptical of Historical Performance Practice as applied to Bach or other Baroque music. Otto Klemperer doing St. Matthew's passion and it was big and grand and romantic. And I've listened to that and I've listened to Beethoven. It all fit together. And then this kind of wimpy recording came along where the pitches are off. The voices are weird, there aren't enough voices, the conductor does everything too fast. But I'll tell you: after decades, I kept on listening to both. And the Historical Performance Practices got a lot better. I think many of the early ones are not that good.
But you listen, more recently to John Eliot Gardiner, I think it's better than the earlier romantic approach. So, I've been converted for choral works. But if it's like Bach’s keyboard work still by far I prefer it on the piano to the harpsichord. I don't feel the harpsichord records very well. You could argue it works better in live performance, but 99% of my consumption of Bach keyboard is at home. And Glenn Gould and Angela Hewitt do for me. It works on the piano. But on the harpsichord it sounds muffled to me. I think it's wrong.
Rasheed Griffith: I think I became an HPP convert after I read ‘Music in the Castle of Heaven’ by Gardiner.
Tyler Cowen: I love that book. Yes. Now, you like Finnish classical music, correct?
Rasheed Griffith: That's right.
Tyler Cowen: What is it that appeals to you the most in that tradition?
Rasheed Griffith: That's one good question. I don't think I've ever thought about that. I think the best I can do is say I have a better cultural awareness of Finland and Finnish culture that would be expected. I have a close friend who is from Finland. He's also quite into classical music also. So, I know of the Kalevala, the underlying myths, cultural myths of Finland. I can somewhat understand the political history; the tug of war between Finland and Russia. And the sentiments this brings up. I have a general awareness of the various religious movements in Finland, including Laestadianism. So, I guess when I approach Sibelius, for example, I come to it with a more layered understanding of the culture in which he's writing. And these pieces do build culture into music. As they sometimes say in Finland, Finland is based on "Sauna, Sisu and Sibelius". So, I guess that could be it.
Tyler Cowen: What's your favorite Sibelius, then?
Rasheed Griffith: The Violin concerto.
Tyler Cowen: I think I would say the same. I heard it live about two years ago for the first time. I heard it on disk for decades - blew me away, just fantastic. The symphonies, four through seven, and the tone poems, I also love. I don't like all of Sibelius though, like the piano music to me is a bore. There's some hit or miss in the end. Again, I can just keep on listening to them. Every time I hear new things, there are so many wonderful yet different recordings of them.
Rasheed Griffith: Okay, the next one is the ‘Oumuamua.
Tyler Cowen: That object from space. Well, was it sent out as some kind of alien probe as Avi Loeb from Harvard has claimed? I've read the different sides in the debate. I read some critiques of Loeb that struck me as maybe too grumpy and not taking him seriously enough. I would give it 1% to 5% that it's an alien probe, which for me, is pretty high and worth taking seriously! Probably, it's just some kind of natural phenomenon that we don't understand.
And so, it's puzzling, so elongated and thin that it maybe seems to move like a sail or something. I get his argument. I'm not sure I can evaluate it, but I don't feel he's been crushed by any of his critics, and I've read a few of them. So, it has a small chance. Let's keep on at it! Let's keep on looking!
Rasheed Griffith: Deirdre McCloskey’s Bourgeois Virtues.
Tyler Cowen: Well, there's Deirdre's writings on Bourgeois Virtues and there are Deirdre's Bourgeois Virtues. It's two different questions.
Rasheed Griffith: [Laughs] Her writings on Bourgeois Virtues.
Tyler Cowen: Deirdre is super well informed and has one of the deepest integrated knowledge of Economics, British History, and the History of Ideas in the Western world. And that is impressive. That comes through in her writings.
That said, my interpretation of the Industrial Revolution puts a heavier roll-on coal in Britain than Deirdre would agree with. And military factors and State Building rather than just ideas of liberty and bourgeois virtue. So, I disagree somewhat. I buy most of the importance of what she's saying. I would say to the world as a whole Deirdre is still definitely highly underrated.
Rasheed Griffith: Hmong cuisine in French Guiana.
Tyler Cowen: I've never been to French Guiana. So, that means it has to be underrated. Because it's not famous enough to have drawn me. But pre-COVID it was on my list to go to Guyana or Surinam. And I still want to do it pretty soon. I don't know when it will be possible. In general, I think food in Latin America is the most underrated food in the world. Can't speak to French Guiana. But French Colonies typically have superb food.
In the Caribbean, it's sort of a bimodal distribution. There's a lot of places where the food is just boring. It's good seafood. Or it's great jerk chicken, but not that much variety. And a lot of the dishes aren't that good. Or you have Haiti, which I think has phenomenal food. Trinidad has some good food. A lot of the places you don't look forward to eating there. Jamaica can have excellent food, but a lot of what's there for tourists isn't very good. So, it's hit or miss.
Rasheed Griffith: What's your favorite Haitian dish?
Tyler Cowen: There's that rice they cook in the juice of the mushroom - it is great. I love how Haitians do Haitian Turkey. It's a revelation if you've only had the USA turkey. Unbelievable. It's like you've never experienced turkey. Plantains there I love. All their forms of rice and beans. All their goat dishes; their fried pork.
And then just the French restaurants there are a phenomenal sort of mix of French and Caribbean; each chef kind of creating their dishes. I don't even know what to call them. But to eat in Port-au-Prince you could just keep on doing that and never get bored. To me it's amazing and highly underrated because everyone's been terrified to go there.
Rasheed Griffith: Getting an MBA.
Tyler Cowen: Getting an MBA. Well, that depends on who you are. I think if you get an MBA from the top 20 or 25 schools, the networking, and certification value is very high in North America. If you're getting an MBA from a lesser tiered school, it seems to me for a lot of people, it is now a mistake. You have other better ways to certify yourself. In an MBA program you either don't learn that much or a lot of what you learn, you have to unlearn.
It's a fair amount of mumbo jumbo and PowerPoint-kind-of-thinking. In other countries, it's going to vary. So, if you get a really good French MBA, I have the sense to a great distance, that can be pretty valuable. But I'm not sure I'm in a position to judge it. But it's in overall decline in importance. And the tech sector, which is a huge engine of growth: it doesn't value MBA as much for the most part.
Rasheed Griffith: Titus Andronicus.
Tyler Cowen: The Shakespeare play, or you mean the movie produced by Steven Bannon?
Rasheed Griffith: [Laughs] The play.
Tyler Cowen: To me it's unintelligible. I've tried reading it three times. I've looked at every page, I've looked at every word. I don't feel I've read it properly. It's not my favorite Shakespeare. I feel the fault is mine. Not Shakespeare's. So that makes me as a reader overrated. And Titus Andronicus underrated? But maybe it is just nonsense. I don't know. It's sort of violent and Herkie jerky to me, and I don't enjoy it. Blame it on me or him? I don't know yet. What do you think?
Rasheed Griffith: I like it. I don't think it could be mined for themes like the Tempest. But I saw the production of it from a Seoul theatre company in South Korea. And it was fun to watch. What you see is what you get. It is very bashful; somewhat vulgar. But it was fun.
Tyler Cowen: And it could be it doesn't work on the page. I've never seen it. Most of Shakespeare works wonderfully on the printed page. But the works can be great in the theater without working on the page. That's another possibility. And you referenced the version of it you saw not that you read it.
Rasheed Griffith: Yes, that's true. So, that was the last one. And I'm going to go back to the longer questions now. Perhaps my favorite public policy essay was written by Junot Diaz, about the 2010 Haitian earthquake and its aftermath. He argues there is no such thing as a natural disaster. There are only social disasters caused by the lack of infrastructure. This is the most important thing for the Caribbean. Thomas Schelling in the latter part of his life also argued for the need for massive, massive infrastructure, much bigger than most people even consider in the US. So, I just wonder, why do you suppose the US stopped funding infrastructure overseas? And then secondarily, why has the US also slowed down on improving and building its own new infrastructure?
Tyler Cowen: The Caribbean has become systematically less important to the United States. In my view, that's a big mistake. I'll get back to that. But if you think about American tourism, the Caribbean has been in decline. Cancun and other parts of Mexico have drawn away people, relative to the Caribbean. In terms of national security, the fear of needing to keep your part of the Caribbean is long gone. But it was a major motive for our involvement. And then we had imperialist motives. So, for taking over Puerto Rico, that was to take a prize from the Spanish and also help the American Navy. That's not important anymore in military terms. So, we took over Haiti from 1915 to 1934. I don't know if we had any good reason for doing that. It was mostly a disaster. We did build the main Haitian road running up and down the island, probably just so American troops could get around more easily.
But as those motives fade, America is a naturally large, inward-looking selfish country. And we just haven't done much for the Caribbean. And it's possible.
Now I know you work on the influence of China in the Caribbean. But China’s wanting to be more active in the Caribbean, maybe I hope will encourage more US interest, if only for reasons of rivalry just as the Soviet Union being involved in Cuba got the US then more interested in the Caribbean - again, for selfish reasons. But to be interested in doing good things for selfish reasons, I'm fine with that. And I hope we see a new era of that. But a lack of US interest is the default. And as an imperialist prize the Caribbean is no longer worth much to my country. What do you think?
Rasheed Griffith: Well as the saying goes: the Caribbean is too democratic and not poor enough for US attention. So, I think that in the calculus of US security interest, the Caribbean is very low risk. I think that one of the good things about China’s engagement in the Caribbean is that it will force the US to also re-engage in the Caribbean as well. Of course, that has trade-offs. But I think, on net, if it is managed properly, it could be a boon for Caribbean economies.
Tyler Cowen: And again, you should comment on this too. But I view most Caribbean societies as highly conservative in the literal sense of that term, not the US political sense. So, they're not that threatened by being taken over by outside forces. And in this regard, Cuba has long been a puzzle to me, because Cuba did truly go Marxist and communist in some way. And has stayed as such, even well after the death of Fidel Castro. And the system failed and the Soviet Union doesn't subsidize them anymore but it's still largely a planned economy. So, why is Cuba such an outlier in the Caribbean in terms of its political science? And where does that come from? I guess that's one of my questions for you. Because I don't know. I've been to Cuba.
Rasheed Griffith: I think if you run the counterfactual of the Caribbean from the 1970s it could have gone a different way. In some sense, the reality now of the Caribbean is a fluke, perhaps. The two points of pivot are Guyana and Grenada. So, in Guyana in the 1970s, president at the time Forbes Burnham was a huge supporter of Kim Il-Sung in North Korea to the point where he would send Guyanese there. He went himself many times. To do mass games, a lot of North Koreans came to Guyana. Also to trade and aid and there was an embassy. He was a believer in Juche ideology and wanted to implement that in Guyana.
But he died abruptly in a hospital because it was a heart problem I believe. That could have easily gone another way.
And then you have the New Jewel Movement in Grenada which was led by Maurice Bishop. It was a Marxist-Leninist party that overthrew the government of Grenada and became the government. The population supported it quite a lot. But then there was some infighting in the new jewel, the People's Revolutionary Party. And Maurice Bishop, who was the leader of the Party at that time, along with some senior members of the party, was executed by some other members of the party.
And then after that happened, the General of the Army took over the government and became Chairman of Grenada. The population was not fond of that. And that's when the US invaded and took control and returned democracy. But these things could have gone a different way. So, the current reality of the Caribbean, I think, is a lot less deterministic that it appears to be. Other Caribbean countries, if these two and a plus Cuba had stabilized, could have started to form some bloc in the Caribbean. Other Marxist-Leninist governments could have followed as well. It is an easy path towards that. And the intellectuals at the time, they've pretty much-supported socialism, Marxism. That was in the academic year as it were.
Tyler Cowen: Putting aside some of the very small financial centers, like Grand Cayman. Where in the Caribbean are you most optimistic about economically speaking?
Rasheed Griffith: [Pause] Probably Barbados.
Tyler Cowen: Barbados. And what about Jamaica?
Rasheed Griffith: I think that Jamaica has these structural problems that have not been addressed for decades. And it is just getting worse and worse unless you could fix those. I don't see a way to be optimistic about the country.
The garrison politics. These are the districts controlled by drug lords in Jamaica. Paul Romer had a good essay about this years ago. He suggested the Jamaican government should allow the Diaspora Jamaicans to vote for elections in these districts that are very much drug lord controlled. This will enable the elections to be a lot fairer because the voters cannot be intimidated by the drug lords. I thought it was pretty cool, but a bit too radical for the country, of course. And the other issue is the currency and monetary policy. So, the Central Bank of Jamaica (BOJ) has a record of total failure. This cannot be fixed without Dollarization. Caribbean Economists, Dr. Worrell; American economists, like Stephen Hanke have been suggesting this for decades. Jamaica should dollarize like El Salvador, like Ecuador, kind of like Panama, like Cambodia. This would help a lot. But again, if these underlying things aren't fixed, I don't know how you could be optimistic about Jamaica's economic prospects.
Tyler Cowen: Trinidad? It seems to me to have a reasonable education system for many of the citizens. Maybe I would bet on Trinidad. I fully get the recent troubles and drug trade and over reliance on fossil fuels. But I think I would say Trinidad. It just has a bit more scale than Barbados. I think per capita Barbados is a clear winner looking forward but in terms of dynamism. Trinidad, no? What do you say?
Rasheed Griffith: So, I think that's going to be a no for me again because Trinidad also has these structural institutional problems, you know, like Jamaica. In Trinidad, there's a very big problem with drug trafficking. You could call it a narcostate by some metrics. There is a very high crime rate. Actually, I forgot to mention, I think Jamaica has the number three highest murder rate in the world. If I'm correct and Trinidad also is in the top 15.
And then you have a debt problem and a monetary problem. They have oil but the oil was not really properly productive. I think the most damning part is when you speak to young, high human capital Trinis, their biggest talking point is, “How do I leave”? How do I immigrate from Trinidad? When you have those dynamics going on, I'm not sure how you could again be optimistic. But there is then the whole Venezuela concern. By some estimates, the Venezuelan population is now maybe 5% of the Trinidad total population because, you know, they're all fleeing the chaos in Venezuela. That might go either way. That might be good as in more vigor to the economy or it could go a bad way, as in it causes more ethnic tension. So, it's a wait and see, but I suppose I would not bet my last dollar on Trinidad.
Tyler Cowen: What do you think is the future of Chinese immigration to the Caribbean? In the history of Jamaican music Leslie Kong is a major figure, right? There's other Chinese entrepreneurs, not typically singers or songwriters, but figures who, you know, who owned or created record companies or produced music. What will that look like going forward? Will that just dwindle or does it have, you know, a second or third run to go?
Rasheed Griffith: Oh, there's no dwindling. I think this last decade could be considered as the very first decade of China and Caribbean engagement, you know, in a tangible way. On policy, China released the first policy paper on the Caribbean and Latin American 2008. It did the second one, 2016. Before 2008, there was pretty much no policy on the Americas besides the USA and Canada. And China also started the Latin America and the Caribbean-China forum, a high-level minister forum. China even joined the Caribbean Development Bank as a non-borrowing donation member. The large Chinese construction companies are based in the Caribbean. China Harbor is based in Jamaica, the headquarters, they build many, many projects all throughout the Caribbean. Every large Chinese tech firm is based in the Cayman Islands or BVI that goes into North America. So, I was not trying to be hyperbolic when I said this is, you know, that this Decade #1, when it comes to China-Caribbean engagement.
And so, the narrative regarding the Caribbean, mostly in European eyes or the American eyes has to evolve because now China is a Caribbean player. That's why I started this podcast in the first place. There's so many new things to look at and to think about when it comes to China. It's only now getting more and more active.
Tyler Cowen: And how about a new wave of Lebanese migration to the Caribbean and other parts of the new world? Clearly Lebanon has its problems.
Rasheed Griffith: I have not seen a non-trivial increase in Lebanese migration in the Caribbean recently. However, of course I think the Caribbean governments should encourage it. The Caribbean should very much welcome new immigrants. The countries are pretty much empty. The fertility rates are very low and the immigration has to go up.
Tyler Cowen: Definitional question. If you take Eastern Honduras, Eastern Panama, Eastern Costa Rica, for you, is that the Caribbean? Puerto Limon in Costa Rica? I would say it is. It feels to me like the Caribbean, but...?
Rasheed Griffith: For me, yes, it would count. But I've asked the same question to a lot of people in the Caribbean - from different islands. And pretty much everyone says, no, they don't consider that part of Caribbean.
Tyler Cowen: Let me put the question in a different way. Take a part of Mexico facing toward the Caribbean, such as Veracruz, which historically had close Caribbean ties. But if you go to it today, no one would say it's the Caribbean; it's simply Mexico. It's been Latinized. Is it possible a lot of what we now think of as the Caribbean actually will be overwhelmed by migration from Latin America? You mentioned Venezuelans going to Trinidad but if you just look at the weight of the numbers, could you imagine a hundred years from now, the Caribbean proper is smaller and there's more Latin American, Spanish spoken.
Rasheed Griffith: Hmm. Yeah, I think a hundred years from now, it could be the case that the Caribbean would be just a Latin American like or the extension of central America. It’s kind of seems to me, this is a similar question you asked to Edwidge Danticat on your podcast, where you mentioned that Haitian culture is technically Haitian diaspora culture, you know, in some cases. I think that would be the case for the Caribbean as well where let's say prime Caribbean culture is from the geography of North America or Western Europe where the geography of the Caribbean proper is Latino, Latin American. So, I'm not exactly sure. I would not say it's my model prediction but there's definitely some fat tail risk in there. Hmm. In some ways I'm surprised it lasted this long.
Tyler Cowen: I think I'm more optimistic about the English-speaking Caribbean than you are. I think it will remain intact. It's incredibly harty. All the problems reality might throw at it It's already been facing for centuries, which gives it a certain robustness or durability. And I'm not sure those lands are that valuable. Other than, I mean, beach land is valuable, but I'm not sure like people in El Salvador will be sitting around plotting: “well, if we can only take over the land and St. Martin, we can do some wonderful things that we can't do now”. I don't think that will make economic sense for them. So, I think Mexico may considerably economically colonize some current Spanish speaking parts of the Caribbean, but the overall setup I actually think will be not so different from how it is now. But I agree that diaspora Caribbean culture will in relative terms become more and more important as it already has for Haiti, as you know, Edwidge Danticat and I discussed.
Rasheed Griffith: Yeah, I get that. There is still some endurance quality about the Caribbean culture. Yeah. I can take that argument too.
Tyler Cowen: What do you expect for Cuba? That, to me is the huge mystery, the long-term leader of the region, but it's been massively crippled for many decades. If you could imagine Cuba getting its act together, which is not my prediction, but that could change many things in a positive way. And they would be natural leader of the region. And it's fairly populous.
Rasheed Griffith: There's the fairytale of Cuban liberation, which is, you know, eventually when America ends, the embargo, Cuba is going to liberalize. It will have some free markets and it will grow very rapidly and be the center of gravity in the Caribbean. People think, you know, Cuba will become another Puerto Rico or even a better Puerto Rico. I don't see that happening. I think the institutions in Cuba are a bit too weak to house that kind of growth pattern. I think a lot about Cambodia on this theme. In Cambodia, they don't really have any institutions per se. It's only one patrimonial system where the Hun Sen guides everything. But at the same time, Cambodia is growing pretty fast. You know, 90% of that comes from the inflow of money from China, not only Chinese aid, but also Chinese trade as well. So, there could be an argument that there could be a lot of Chinese money being invested in Cuba to help it grow. I don't mean prop up, I mean, they actually grow. You kind of see some glimmers of that this year where China launches their new white paper for helping countries develop. I think there could be a black Swan event where China really helps Cuba to build institutions and so it is liberalized in a very material way. And that could happen. Though that would not be my prediction.
Tyler Cowen: They're commodity dependent in my view. So even if China invests in Cuba, which clearly, I would favor, I don't think it will do that well, and they're not doing anything where the scale they have will help them enough to get it off the ground. Obviously, an open Cuba could do much better in terms of tourism. They have incredible beaches, other amenities, but I don't know that will boost per capita income at the median so much.
Rasheed Griffith: Yeah, exactly. Next question. Should Guyana have a Paul Romer style Charter City built?
Tyler Cowen: There's two questions in there. At least one is Charter Cities in general and the other is about Guyana. My view of charter cities is they work best when there is a hegemon devoted to defending and developing the charter city. So, Puerto Rico; the wealthiest part of the Caribbean, obviously the US has been the protector. That has worked. It led to a higher standard of living, but without the involvement of the US would not have been the case. Panama Canal zone, not quite a charter city but it has many features of a charter city. Again, the US is involved. Hong Kong, Singapore. It was the British, they were like charter cities. So, when it's Guyana I just don't quite see that the US wants to would or could take on that role.
So, I would think if you set up a Charter City in a lot of different places, not just Guyana it would either just end or would end up being run by Drug Lords. And you can think of Drug Lord enclaves as a kind of charter city now, they're just not good charter cities. So, the preconditions of the hegemon I don't see as being there for Guyana, if they were to be anywhere.
I'm not sure they are anywhere, but it would have to be somewhere much closer to the actual territory of the US. Could China play that role in Guyana? I don't feel so. I know much about that, but it hardly seems like an obvious thing to happen to me. So, when you ask, like where in the Caribbean, well the British still in a funny way, kind of play that role with Grand Cayman, right? And the Cayman Islands have gone pretty well. It's tiny, but still it's gone pretty well. Bermuda also but the British will lose interest and I would think over time there'll be complete independence. So, I don't really get what a charter city can accomplish that either doesn't beg the question culturally or rely on the outside power.
Rasheed Griffith: Why is Haiti so poor? Is it because of the early geopolitical isolation? Is it because of Duvalier? Is it because Hegel knew something we don't know?
Tyler Cowen: I've asked many people this question, including many Haitians. Why is Haiti so poor? I think when you look overall at the history of colonialism, it has been more bad than good. But there are many colonial regimes, Barbados one of the better examples, where the colonial regime did help them enter the modern world in some ways. And Haiti having had a revolution and slave revolt very early didn't have much of that. And the notion that you move from a society of largely slaves to an attempt to build a stable political equilibrium, it just seems that's very difficult.
There were not any outside stabilizing forces, whether it would be colonialism or not. And if you simply stay stuck in that bad equilibrium of not having any natural power groups where you can build up a concordance of economic, cultural, political that stand in some kind of equilibrium with respect to each other and get some partial stability, then I don't think you're going to develop. That would be how I explain Haiti. And it's very striking to me today. You look at like the six richest families in Haiti, they're mostly Lebanese, ethnic Lebanese, and that's a sign that there's always, or at least since the slave rebellion been a kind of political vacuum, because you moved from a totally evil screwed up system to kind of no well-functioning institutions. And the revolutionaries themselves like Toussaint Louverture, I mean, he was also a slave owner! What kind of slave revolt is that where your hero ends up owning slaves?
So, I think that once you're starting in a political vacuum and you don't have stabilizing forces, you can just stay there for a long time and then you're losing your commodities income. Haiti in the 1840s was in some ways for some people still somewhat prosperous, right. But the things they had over time, rum, molasses, sugar cane all have gone away or been out competed elsewhere. And then it was never good for manufacturing. Electricity has never been a stable supply. What's your view?
Rasheed Griffith: I mean, it has to come down to institutions, right? Haiti never had any, any real ones that had any credibility or robustness and I don't know how you can fix that at this point. And I'll say because of this lack of institutional credibility, you have people like Duvalier. You have the constant coups in Haiti that obviously go ahead to compound the ruin. So, I guess that one of the sad questions you have to ask is: "Did freedom come too early in Haiti?" Very few people actually want to ask that question. So, it's tricky. And I guess at this point, you know, 2021, is there a way for Haiti to reverse course and actually get these credible institutions to fix the structural problems and actually start growing? I don't know. Do you have any examples of countries that have these really, really poor institutions and were able to reverse course?
Tyler Cowen: Well, some people would say Korea, Japan, but how bad their institutions were to begin with can be debated. But maybe the natural points of comparison are Martinique and Guadalupe, which are heavily, heavily dependent on French transfers. They have higher living standards. A lot of that is coming from France, but they are stable because of continuing ties with France. You wouldn't call them wealthy places but maybe there's some alternate history for Haiti where there is a somewhat larger version of that, but it would cost France a lot more to do that for so many Haitians. I don't know if that's feasible.
I think Curacao is an interesting place to think about. Because they have an actual middle-class; hardly going to call it rich, but there's a real city there. There's a real port. It's not mainly driven by tourism. You go there, you feel they've gotten something right. And it's not that all these other former Dutch colonies have done so great: Suriname, you know parts of Indonesia, relative to the region, you wouldn't say they've done well. But Curacao is okay and I don't know historically why that is, but that would be one place I would study more to get at some of these questions. And I've never been to Bonaire and I believe they're also doing okay. So why those places come in way above average? I think it is worth a lot more study.
Rasheed Griffith: Yeah. There is no book that takes a very systematic and rigorous approach to studying Caribbean institutions. We have the Dutch Caribbean, the Spanish Caribbean, the French Caribbean, the English Caribbean. Within that you have these really different subgroups, all having these very lush histories. And if you take the Caribbean as a research vehicle, you can do comparative political economy, comparative politics, comparative economics, comparative law, comparative so many other things. And within that, you can learn perhaps quite a lot about how and why institutions actually develop in these laboratories. So, it's really a shame that it is so under-theorized.
Tyler Cowen: I agree. That's a great shame. And the nice thing about it: so many of the countries are small enough you feel you can wrap your hands around the thing. You can have gone to every place in the country multiple times. The languages are major languages for the most part. They're not far from the United States. There's typically plenty of flights and yet the world just doesn't care enough.
Rasheed Griffith: If Wong Kar-Wai were to direct a film based in the Caribbean, what do you think will be the major theme or plot device?
Tyler Cowen: Tragic, lost love and sadness and elegy. I think that the starting point would be like ‘In the Mood for Love’. And maybe there would be people from Hong Kong doing business in the Caribbean. And it would end tragically.
Rasheed Griffith: What have you learned about food from Surinamese cuisine?
Tyler Cowen: I've only had Surinamese cuisine about five times and each time it was in the Netherlands. It was spicy. It was delicious. So, I assume the real thing and Suriname is quite good. I kept on trying to seek it out but even most parts of Amsterdam are too gentrified for you to get it. So, you have to find it in parts of Amsterdam where you wouldn't normally be. I'd eat it in Amsterdam every day if I could because it's better than Dutch food by quite a bit.
It strikes me as highly creolized, at least the version of it you get in the Netherlands. And no one has figured out how to dumb it down, which is a sign of a cuisine that's going to be tasty. And people when they go to the Netherlands they think “I'll do Indonesian,” you know, Rijsttafel and that's become a bit touristy. But the Suriname stuff there seems still fresh and vital and not ruined.
Rasheed Griffith: You once wrote a throwaway comment on Marginal Revolution about the album ‘Bahamas Gumby in 1951-59’ and you said it has economic themes throughout. What were those themes that you were referring to?
Tyler Cowen: I don't remember. I'm sorry to say. Can you give me any clues?
Rasheed Griffith: [Laughs]I don't know. All you did was to say it has economic themes throughout. Done. As you often do sometimes with very short comments. I was like, what does he mean by that? [Laughs]
Tyler Cowen: I liked very much the earlier acoustic guitar music from The Bahamas. They have gospel incorporated into a lot of Bahamian music. But what I meant about that particular album; I genuinely do not know. I apologize. [Laughs]
Rasheed Griffith: You're interviewed quite a lot but what do you wish people asked you more about?
Tyler Cowen: About the Caribbean. So, I'm a happy man tonight [Laughs] and not only the Caribbean - just different stuff. They think like, Oh, you want to talk about your book or this or that, or, Oh, you want to talk about the Great Stagnation. I don't know. You do things for a number of years and you want to talk about different things.
Rasheed Griffith: My final question is based off of a remark by Junot Diaz. He said that “we're all in the Caribbean, if you really think about it.” So, Tyler, in what way are you in the Caribbean?
Tyler Cowen: The Caribbean obviously is a bunch of small countries that are so readily buffeted by global winds, outside crises and forces beyond their control. If you grow up in the USA, you were taught that you were the opposite of that. Maybe taught implicitly but that teaching is to some extent wrong. And we see with the pandemic. We see with the financial crisis. We see with the rise of China - that you, as a member of the USA, you are not invulnerable. You are actually living in the Caribbean. So, try to learn from the Caribbean because their situation is yours much more than, you know.
Rasheed Griffith: Thank you, Tyler for this very fun conversation. I really enjoyed it.
Tyler Cowen: A pleasure, Rasheed.