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A few years ago, while I was researching a book on the history of globalization, I suddenly realized that I was seeing the same two names on a lot of the smartest stuff I was reading. The names belonged to two economists, Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. Much of their work focused on a single question: Why are poor places poor, and is there something we can do about it?
This is one of the most important questions imaginable in economics—indeed, in the world today. It is also one of the most politically fraught. In working on my book, I read numerous attempts by economists, historians and other researchers to explain why most of North America and Europe is wealthy and why most of Asia, Africa and Latin America is not. But these usually boiled down to claims that rich nations had won the game by cheating poor places or that poor places had inherently inferior cultures (or locations) which prevented them from rising. Conservative economists used the discussion as a chance to extol the wide-open markets they already believed in; liberal economists used it to make the attacks on unrestrained capitalism they were already making. And all too often both seemed wildly ignorant of history. I can’t recall encountering another subject on which so many people expended so much energy to generate so little light.
Acemoglu and Robinson were in another category entirely. They assembled what is, in effect, a gigantic, super-complete database of every country’s history, and used it to ask questions—wicked smart questions. They found unexpected answers—ones that may not satisfy partisans of either side, but have the ring of truth.
Why Nations Fail is full of astounding stories. I ended up carrying the book around, asking friends, “Did you know this?” The stories make it a pleasure to read. More important, though, Acemoglu and Robinson changed my perspective on how the world works. My suspicion is that I won’t be the only person to say this after reading Why Nations Fail.
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