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.
When I was in 9th grade (in 1984) I subscribed to 4 car magazines: Motor Trend, Car & Driver, Road & Track, and & Automobile. Today, my fondest dream is to own zero cars and to rent an occasional Zip Car (preferably a Prius, Volt, or Leaf) whenever the need for driving should arise.
Reading "Engines of Change" was a good reminder for me about how important automobiles once loomed in my worldview. At some point my passion for cars was replaced by a passion for computers and technology. At 14 I thought I wanted to be an automotive journalist, and 42 I'm very happy to work at the intersection of education and technology (and to be driving a minivan - slowly).
I'm betting that my story, one of a shift from a love of automobiles to a love of computers, is not unique. How many teenagers who once spent time changing spark plugs and reading car magazines morphed into building PCs and hanging out on computing message boards? I have this theory that today's computer geeks were yesterday's car enthusiasts - and that is why today's Apple new product announcements are so much more exciting than the new model car launches.
Ingrassia takes us back to a time when new cars really mattered. He profiles 15 cars that have had a large impact on American culture. These stories are all engaging and well-told, and in learning about the Model T or the Corvette or the Mustang or the Honda Accord we also learn a great deal about the times in which they were introduced. This is not a book about the "15 best cars of all time", rather Ingrassia is interesting in describing the cars that had the biggest cultural impact.
Ford's Model T literally changed how American society was organized, as an affordable mass produced automobile was a prerequisite to a rural to urban migration and a mobile society. The Honda Accord was the first Japanese car to be built in a U.S. factory (in Ohio), and ushered in a long-term transition away from UAW dominance and the decline of The Big 3. The Chrysler minivan (a Lee Iacocca encore after bringing to life the Mustang) killed the traditional station wagon, empowered a new generation of soccer parents, and eventually led to Mercedes Benz's disastrous and short-lived purchase of Chrysler.
Ingrassia is a terrific writer, and is also the author of the excellent Crash Course: The American Automobile Industry's Road to Bankruptcy and Bailout-and Beyond. I hope that Ingrassia's next project is about the only cars that really excite me now, cars that run on electricity (although his chapter on the Prius in Engines of Change is excellent).
I think that there is a huge market of computer geeks (and educational technologists!) just waiting to buy our first batter powered car, as soon as the technology improves and the costs come down to a point where electric cars are nearly competitive with gas powered vehicles.
The world, or at least my world, needs more high quality concise books. Bryson's new Shakespeare, from the Eminent Lives Series, is one of the genres better examples.
The Modern Library Chronicles is another imprint with some excellent texts. To quote from their page:
"Modern Library Chronicles feature the world's great historians on the world's great subjects. Lively, accessible, and brief (most under 150 pages), these authoritative short histories are designed to appeal to general readers as well as to students in the classroom".
Wonderful, sweeping economic history of the world by one of my favorite writers (Bernstein also wrote "The Birth of Plenty"). These "big" history and "big" thought books are a great antidote to the short time frames and disposable knowledge of our blogging and information overload world. Helps to have a long-term framework to understand our own material lives. Excellent counterpart to Friedman's The World is Flat.
Fascinating extension of the evolutionary psychology framework. Argues that our brains have evolved in often "klugy" ways, meaning that evolution favors what works (and what comes first) and not what is optimal. I learned a good deal about things like memory, emotions, and perception...and now I know why I can be so dumb sometimes. Well written....a fun read.
Fun book from the NYTime's Magazine Consumed column...delves into the world of "murketing" - the new method of connecting with consumers who are immune to traditional mass marketing. Some interesting connections on how we could "market" educational technology.
You will never go into someone's house or office in the same way again. A psychologist who pioneered the field of personality research based on peoples stuff.
The author, a physicist at Cal Tech, is among those rare academics who both write beautifully, and can manage to make complex explanations understandable. This book definitely changed how I understand some fundamental aspects of my life and the lives of those around me, as getting a handle on randomness and probability (which again, our brains don't seem to be built easily to accomplish), helps illuminate some of the fundamental errors in judgment that I seem to make all too often.
Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein covers many of the same studies and experiments, and then puts a public policy slant on the conclusions. I'm finding in these sorts of books that the same academic studies and examples pop-up time after time, which is good as it takes me about 5 times to get them straight. Where Sway helped me understand why I'm susceptible to make bad decisions, Nudge helped me understand how I can use the principles of "choice architecture" to influence events and decisions. Both worthwhile reads for folks like us who have a vision of education we are trying to implement, both in terms of why people do things the way they do, and some "libertarian paternalistic" ways to shape decisions and actions.
The Irresistible Pull of Irrational Behavior by Ori Brafman, Rom Brafman is a sweet, short popularizer of the current social psych and behavioral econ research.
The original academic and body of research that Gladwell based his best-selling "Blink" on. Gigerenzer experiments on "fast and frugal" decision making have many implications for situations we face all the time in our lives - I just have not quite worked out if I'm so easily swayed and nudged (see below), and my mental probabilistic machinery is so poor (again see below) when I should trust my gut feelings and when I should do the opposite.
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