In an under-caffeinated state yesterday morning, I picked up the NYT Travel section to see where I might escape once my teaching is over in a few weeks. Nogales, Mexico, seemed easy to get to – you just go to Nogales, Arizona, and walk across the border. Good for tacos and cheap dental work.
A few hours and several coffees later, I settled down to read Why Nations Fail, Daron Acemoglu and Jim Robinson’s new book. It summarizes their many years of research (some with Simon Johnson) on political and economic institutions and their impact on economic growth. The book has no equations, graphs or tables and is aimed at a popular audience. The book begins by comparing the colonial history of Mexico and the U.S.
Mexico was settled by Spanish conquistadores who extracted as much gold and silver as possible and used the population as slave labor. The British tried to take the same approach when they arrived in Virginia. But there was no gold or silver and the population density was low. They were forced to set up political institutions that fostered economic activity. Settlers eventually got to keep a large slice of any surplus they generated and got the right to vote on taxation (this led to trouble for the British in the long run!). All very interesting and yet it seemed familiar. Eventually it dawned on me that a key Acemoglu and Robinson motivating example, used to show the importance of institutions, is Nogales Arizona vs Mexico. The geography is the same and yet the political institutions are quite different. And so are the economic outcomes. So, geography is not the major determinant of economic outcomes (roughly the theory of Jared Diamond) and political institutions are at the core of economic development.
Serendipity, synchronicity, call it what you will, but the time seems ripe for this book. Acemoglu and Robinson have a blog to accompany their book. I suppose they will interpret comtemporary events through the lens of their theory. I look forward to reading it on a regular basis.