mostly nonfiction listener
"Traffic" freaked me out. I knew that 40,000 people died each year on our roads. And I knew that a car accident was the most likely way that trauma would encroach into my world. Vanderbilt gives me lots more things to worry about (like Dr's have the 2nd highest accident rate, pick-up trucks are dangerous to everyone else, new cars have higher accident rates then older cars, and intersections are bad news for bikers, runners, and drivers.
This is a book I'd like my girls to read as a prerequisite to getting their license (and I'll install the driver cam that Vanderbilt writes about being effective in teaching young drivers defensive skills).
Read the book. Slow down on the roads.
I read Why Nations Fail this month while traveling in South Korea. The book was much on my mind as I looked across the DMZ at North Korea on the 38th parallel. South Korea, a country of about 50 million people, enjoys a per capital PPP (purchasing power parity) GDP of around $32,000. (The U.S. is $48,000 by comparison - wealthier but also with a less equally distributed income). In North Korea, the GDP per capita (PPP) is $2,400 - an incredibly low numbers that still probably understates how desperately poor (and hungry) are the people of North Korea.
Why should North Korea be so poor, and South Korea so rich?
The two countries share common cultural roots, geography, and access to natural resources. This is the question Acemoglu and Robinson attempt to answer in Why Nations Fail. They look at examples such as North Korea, as well as other natural experiments of societies that share similar exogenous traits (resources, climate, etc.) - such as the twin Nogales's in Mexico and Arizona.
Acemoglu and Robinson's explanation as to why some nations are poor and others rich has everything to do with the elites. Poor nations are poor because the people who run these countries have made their subjects destitute in service of enriching themselves.
North Korea can best be understood as being run by a criminal family. Mexico is so much poorer than the U.S. because of its history of being run by elites whose main goal was to extract wealth, and who did not need to redistribute economic production as for most of its history the country lacked pluralistic institutions that could check the power of the rulers.
This argument, that some countries are poor because the powerful keep them poor, stands in direct opposition to the arguments that Jared Diamond makes in Guns, Germs and Steel. Diamond believes that the wealth distribution was largely pre-determined by immunity to disease (or lack thereof), access to domesticable livestock, and the raw materials and technologies to make advanced weapons.
I am a huge fan of Diamond's writing, but Why Nations Fail has me thoroughly convinced that more deterministic view of development (as put forward by Diamond and others) is problematic. Why Nations Fail should definitely be on the syllabus in any economic history or development course, and on the bookshelf (physical or virtual) of anyone interested in global inequality, poverty, and why some nations are so much richer than others.
Should you invest the time to read Why Nations Fail? The book is 544 pages, or almost 18 hours by audiobook (my reading choice). Acemoglu and Robinson would have benefited from a strong-willed editor, one who was willing to push them to provide less historical detail (the book has a ton from around the world across numerous societies), and more analysis of the implications of their arguments for countries like China and India.
I came away from Why Nations Fail thinking that if the argument is correct then China's long-term economic prospects might not be as good as we assume, and India's may be better. But having spent time time in South Korea, which developed so rapidly at least partly under a repressive military regime, it is hard to square this conclusion with the recent facts of some of our fastest developing countries.
Perhaps Acemoglu and Robinson next book will take outliers and implications, building on top of the theoretical foundations for development and inequality laid out in Why Nations Fail.
I love short books. Can you recommend any good, but concise, nonfiction? Great reads under 200 pages?
Here are my 5 concise reasons to read Robert Reich's latest book "Aftershock: The Next Economy and America's Future"
Reason #1 - Conciseness: Most books are too long. Aftershock is a blessed 192 pages; 4 hours and 29 minutes short in audiobook format.
Reason #2 - Originality: Reich's big argument is that out economy is fundamentally unbalanced. That the growth of inequality that has concentrated economic gains among the top 5 percent of the populations has resulted in an inability of most Americans to adequately consume. We cannot afford to buy what we produce (a problem near and dear to the heart of any parent who works in higher education).
Reason #3 - The Higher Education Plan: Reich actually has a plan for higher education. He would make tuition free (to public institutions), and recoup the costs with a levy on future earnings for anyone who participated. His proposal is more complex than this description, and wildly unlikely to ever be enacted anywhere, but still fun to debate.
Reason #4 - History: Reich was one of the first academic popularizers that I discovered. Back in 1992, he wrote The Work of Nations: Preparing Ourselves for 21st Century Capitalism, in which he argued that economic gains and options would accrue to the "symbolic analysts" - those who manipulate and create information. Reich was ahead of the game in 1992, and if we had listened more carefully to his warnings we might be in better shape today.
Reason #5 - Narration: Reich narrates his own book - and does it beautifully. Usually reading what you have written does not work out so well. Narration is a skill best left to professional readers. But in this case, Reich is the right person to read his own words