Does democracy cause growth?

William Easterly’s new book, The Tyranny of Experts, argues that positive changes in freedoms are the causes of stable long run growth. But as he admitted to me recently on an Al-Jazeera talk show, the book does not present any rigorous evidence to back the claim, partly because thus far research findings have been mixed on the question of how democracy/autocracy impacts economic growth.

Well, Easterly’s book tour just got a boost thanks to Acemoglu et al. who have a new paper (see their blog post on it here) showing that democracy does indeed cause growth (boosting long run per capita income by as much as 20%):

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Reweighted relationship between GDP per capita and democracy (Source: Acemoglu et al., 2014)

Here is the paper’s abstract:

We provide evidence that democracy has a significant and robust positive effect on GDP. Our empirical strategy relies on a dichotomous measure of democracy coded from several sources to reduce measurement error and controls for country fixed effects and the rich dynamics of GDP, which otherwise confound the effect of democracy on economic growth. Our baseline results use a linear model for GDP dynamics estimated using either a standard within estimator or various different Generalized Method of Moments estimators, and show that democratizations increase GDP per capita by about 20% in the long run. These results are confirmed when we use a semi-parametric propensity score matching estimator to control for GDP dynamics. We also obtain similar results using regional waves of democratizations and reversals to instrument for country democracy. Our results suggest that democracy increases future GDP by encouraging investment, increasing schooling, inducing economic reforms, improving public good provision, and reducing social unrest. We find little support for the view that democracy is a constraint on economic growth for less developed economies [emphasis mine].

The full paper is available here.

Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson wrote the classic Economic Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy. The book is thin on empirics and analytical narratives, but is an amazing formal take on the subject of democratization. To balance Economic Origins you should probably also read Barrington Moore’s magnum opus Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy.

Let them have “Good Institutions”

The people in poor countries have the same aspirations as those in rich countries — to have the same chances and opportunities, good health care, clean running water in their homes and high-quality schools for their children. The problem is that their aspirations are blocked today — as the aspirations of black people were in apartheid South Africa — by extractive institutions. The poor don’t pull themselves out of poverty, because the basic ability to do so is denied them. You could see this in the protests behind the Arab Spring: those in Cairo’s Tahrir Square spoke in one voice about the corruption of the government, its inability to deliver public services and the lack of equality of opportunity. Poverty in Egypt cannot be eradicated with a bit more aid. As the protestors recognised, the economic impediments they faced stemmed from the way political power was exercised and monopolised by a narrow elite.

…… Making institutions more inclusive is about changing the politics of a society to empower the poor — the empowerment of those disenfranchised, excluded and often repressed by those monopolising power. Aid can help. But it needs to be used in such a way as to help civil society mobilise collectively, find a voice and get involved with decision-making. It needs to help manufacture inclusion.

That is Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson writing in The Spectator on Why foreign aid fails – and how to really help Africa.

I am a firm believer in the fact that “institutions rule” and are “the fundamental cause” of long-run economic growth and political stability. That said, I think this latest addition to the “Aid Debate” also detracts from the real issues regarding the efficacy of aid. It also runs the risk of creating the impression that the promotion of good institutions is a substitute for all forms of aid, or worse, that aid has led to the persistence of bad institutions and endemic poverty in poor countries.

How would the Central African Republic look today if it hadn’t received any kind of foreign aid over the years? I, for one, don’t think that it would be a bastion of political stability and stellar economic performance.

Strong and stable institutions are absolutely essential for the achievement of political and economic stability and general improvement of human welfare. And we should definitely preach this gospel for all to hear. But they also take forever to emerge, and depend on all sorts of localized variables that an international institution builder would most certainly miss (also, see here). And in the meantime, we still have to deal with the challenge of making the lives of the poor better (and within their lifetimes, approx. 60 years). Under these conditions, single panaceas (aid-driven or not) will obviously not work, especially if they come in as vague a package as “good and inclusive institutions.”

More on direct cash transfers

As Chris Blattman put it, the Cashonistas are rejoicing. And with very good reason.

There is mounting evidence that giving money directly to poor people does a much better job of improving their welfare than traditional channels of institutional(ized) aid-giving. On a related note, this evidence lends credence to claims by proponents of oil-to-cash programs. Oil to cash enthusiasts advocate for direct payments to citizens of revenues from extractive sectors (and especially oil) so as to avoid what is commonly known as the resource curse (more on oil-to-cash here). I am not one to argue against evidence, so I am intrigued by the success of Give Directly, and look forward to further impact assessments to ascertain the stickiness of the observed welfare gains.

However, I agree with Brett Keller that we shouldn’t allow the present evidence to distract us from thinking about things like schools, hospitals, business-promoting state institutions, etc.

Despite the within-community evidence of positive effects of direct cash transfers, we shouldn’t forget that these communities do not exist in a vacuum but within political economies of various states. For instance, given what we know about ethnicity and attendant barriers against collective action, what would be the effect of giving all the money to the people and then requiring them to comply with tax regimes and other collective action endeavors?

Furthermore, giving poor people money is often based on an implicit premise that the poor ought to become entrepreneurs and lift themselves out of poverty (People respond to incentives, and we know what would happen if say we guaranteed them direct cash transfers in perpetuity. So the scheme only works if poor people can use the money to start businesses). But entrepreneurship is hard. Even for people with trust funds and super-charged business incubation resources. So is it really fair to require that the objectively most risk averse among us lift themselves out of poverty by starting businesses? Isn’t this the role of the middle and upper middle classes who can tolerate the risk? I am not saying that entrepreneurship is limited to particular classes (lots of people from humble backgrounds have created wildly successful businesses the world over). What I am saying is that as a matter of policy we shouldn’t unnecessarily burden the most vulnerable among us.

Also, to borrow from Huntington, we are well advised to keep in mind that even though economic success leads to stabilization, the process of development can be destabilizing. With this in mind, for most development initiatives to succeed, they need political cover (broadly defined as the ability to shape or influence government policy). Interventions to accelerate growth must never lose sight of this fact. Those who make and/or can influence policy matter a great deal.

This might sound very 20th century, but I think that the best anti-poverty measure out there is still mass job creation by BIG business (and agree with Chris Blattman here). It beats all the pro-poverty pro-poor interventions I can think of. So may be instead of raining cash on the poor it might be better to think of smart ways of jumpstarting the growth of SMEs in the developing world into mass employers. This is not a trickle down economics argument. It is an argument for the continued emphasis on macro reforms in the political economy to provide an enabling environment for mass job creation.

We can’t continue to insist that institutions matter but then turn around and do our best to device anti-poverty interventions that skirt the very same institutions that we insist are the fundamental cause of long-run growth.

Direct cash transfers might prove to be a key part of the shortcut to Denmark (and I hope the successes stick). But like with most shortcuts, the potential for disappointment is a little higher than most of us would like to admit.

The decline of Economic History at MIT

What is the cost of not having economic history at MIT? It can be seen in Acemoglu and Robinson, Why Nations Fail (2012). This is a deservedly successful popular book, making a simple and strong point that the authors made originally at the professional level over a decade before (Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson, 2001). They assert that countries can be “ruled by a narrow elite that have [sic] organized society for their own benefit at the expense of the vast mass of people” or can have “a revolution that transformed the politics and thus the economics of the nation … to expand their economic opportunities (Acemoglu and Robinson, 2012, pp. 3-4).”

The book is not however good economic history. It is an example of Whig history in which good policies make for progress and bad policies preclude it. Only transitions from bad to good are considered in this colorful but still monotonic story. The clear implication is that if countries can copy the policies of English-speaking countries, they will prosper. No consideration is given to Britain’s economic problems over the past half-century or of Australia’s relative decline for a century.

That is Peter Temin writing about the story of Economic History at MIT in the 20th century. For more click here (H/T Greg Mankiw).

Also, to be honest, one of the reasons I am into development (and the politics around it) is because of my fascination with economic history. I wish more development practitioners and theorists alike cared a little bit more about economic history. At the very least, looking at how things really actually worked out in the past serves to temper the urge to completely fall for the latest fad within the development industry. 

Daron Acemoglu talks State Building

Last month MIT Economist Daron Acemoglu (co-author of Why Nations Fail) gave the Nemmers lecture at the Northwestern Econ Department (see video here).

In the lecture he defines inclusive institutions as having two components: (i) pluralism and (ii) political centralization.

Now, when most people talk about institutional development they like to focus on the first component. This is the crowd that will tell you that what Rwanda needed after 1994 was electoral democracy and free market institutions and all would be well (Did you know that Mali has elections this July?) But history teaches us that that is not the whole story. There is also the problem of Stateness (aka political centralization), and how it comes about.

Finally Acemoglu and Robinson are addressing what I think is a weakness in their inclusive-institutions-as-the-fundamental-cause-of-long-run-growth argument – the question of the need for political centralization through state building (and the messiness it entails). In the lecture, Acemoglu makes the argument that pluralism can actually lead to state building (or makes it easier) through the creation of “consensually strong states”; and that the process of state building can lead to pluralism due to the centralizing leader’s need to cut deals with local elites. In other words, there is reverse causation between pluralism and stateness.

The takeaway is that inclusive institutions result from the joint development of sustained economic growth and a wider distribution of political power.

This is all good, although I wish Acemoglu and Robinson explored the role of coercion in state-building. My reading of history may be completely out of whack, but when I look back in time I see a lot of conquests and forcible inclusion into states and a lot less “deal making.” Conquests not contrasts appear to be the modal MO of state formation.

Did European Colonialism Benefit Africans?

“We find it difficult to bring the available evidence together with plausible counter-factuals to argue that there is any country today in Sub-Saharan Africa which is more developed because it was colonized by Europeans. Quite the contrary.”

That is Leander Heldring and James Robinson writing in a new paper on the negative impact of colonialism on Africa’s economic prospects.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Interesting attempt at positive analysis of a difficult subject (esp. with regard to counter-factuals), although normative undertones drive most of the analytical narrative.

The negative legacies of colonialism – despotism, negative ethnicity, aid dependence, and general underdevelopment, etc – certainly do persist.

But for those unwilling to submit to the gods of path dependence, the question remains of how long incompetent African leaders will continue to blame outsiders for their own ineptitude. After half a century of independence, many Africans are wary of being the only ones left in the “bottom billion” once the East and South Asians climb up.

To paraphrase Achebe, the trouble with Africa is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the African character. There is nothing wrong with the African land or climate or water or air or anything else. Even external conquest and subsequent colonialism was not unique to Africa.

H/T Chris Blattman.

Where do the poor live, and how do we make them become middle class?

The Economist reports:

“WHERE do the world’s poor live? The obvious answer: in poor countries. But in a recent series of articles Andy Sumner of Britain’s Institute of Development Studies showed that the obvious answer is wrong. Four-fifths of those surviving on less than $2 a day, he found, live in middle-income countries with a gross national income per head of between $1,000 and $12,500, not poor ones. His finding reflects the fact that a long but inequitable period of economic growth has lifted many developing countries into middle-income status but left a minority of their populations mired in poverty. Since the countries involved include giants like China and India, even a minority amounts to a very large number of people. That matters because middle-income countries can afford to help their own poor.”

The article raises important issues that inform the debate on how to tackle problems of poverty and underdevelopment – is it all about politics & governance or all about economic expansion? The answer, of course is that it is a moderate mix of both.

But since political realities often force governments to concentrate on one or the other, a responsible answer is that it is all context-dependent; some places need strong economic expansion first, before political reforms can be anchored in society. In others, political change should be top of the checklist.

The Botswanas and Singapores of this world are lucky in that their leaders were smart enough to know what their countries needed and pursued it with singular ambition, despite the unavoidable mess that came with the choices they made.

This of course goes against the received wisdom among academics (me included) who believe in the strong power of the right types of (liberal, in the classical sense) institutions to put countries on the path to becoming Denmark. The problem with this approach is that it does not tell us how to compress the more than 600 years that transpired between the Magna Carta and the voting reform legislations in England in the latter part of the 19th century. Lest we forget, England (which is every scholar’s favorite source of empirical conceptualization of institutional development) has not always had good institutions.

Institutions take a lot of time to build. A lot more time than the average human life span.

So the question still stands: How do we get the most number of people out of poverty in the least amount of time with the least harm to their political and human rights?

More on this here.

More on Obama’s WB President Nomination

Source: Wikipedia

Nigerian Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala is definitely the dream candidate for the Bank. But the realities of U.S. domestic politics and foreign policy concerns are stacked against her nomination to the presidency of the Bank. It will be hard for the U.S. to selflessly relinquish an important tool of foreign policy and influence in the Bank’s presidency.

If Obama backs down, he will be criticized for being soft in the face of international pressure. If he nominates a non-American, he will still be criticized as an apologist for those who hate America (real or imagined) and a believer in American decline.

Obama’s incentive is to get his nominee become World Bank President. Full stop.

Source: Wikipedia

So far those rooting for Ngozi (including yours truly) have questioned Jim Yong Kim’s credibility (he is/was not a fan of neo-liberalism) and competence (he is not an Economics PhD; but a mere MD, PhD) as World Bank president.

You can get Kim’s co-authored book here (or your local library; $97 is a bit pricey), it is on my to-read list (A review of the book is available here).

Here is quoting a post over at the Duck of Minerva for a more balanced take:

If Dr. Kim criticized the growth agenda of the structural adjustment era, so what? This has all become mainstreamed into the Bank’s own philosophy of pro-poor growth.Does it take a PhD in Economics to run the World Bank successfully? If selected, Dr. Kim would be the leader with the most hands-on development experience that the Bank has ever possessed. He would be as or more experienced in the field as serious contenders that were mooted in advance like Susan Rice, Hillary Clinton, or Pepsico CEO Indra Nooyi (ok, maybe Larry Summers knows more but Summers always know more than anybody). As Daron Acemoglu and Jim Robinson pointed out on their blog [Why Nations Fail]: “Perhaps all of Mr. Kim’s critics prefer the status quo where the World Bank is run by ex-warmongers (Robert McNamara), bankers (James Wolfensohn) or career civil servants (Robert Zoelick). Wait wasn’t that the World Bank that they loved to criticize?”

Adding that:

You don’t have to denigrate Dr. Kim to praise the other candidates. The strongest case is that while Dr. Kim is a good candidate, Dr. Okonjo-Iweala is the dream candidate. She’s from a large developing country, knows the issue well, understands the complex world of global finance, and is intimately familiar with the culture and organization of the Bank. And, for her supporters, the changing nature of the international system has made this practice of the U.S. having the automatic right to appoint the Bank’s president an anachronism.