Top five books I read in 2018

This is the not-for-work list. It’s also mostly based on my subjective sense of how much I learned from the books.

Iran: A Modern History by Abbas Amanat — This is a long book that covers several centuries of Iranian history (beginning in 1501). It is definitely worth your time. At the end I learned a lot more about the brief Pahlavi dynasty than I knew and got a peak into the dynamics of the Iranian nation-state before, during, and after the revolution. The bits on the Qajars were my favorite (while I was reading the book my wife and I watched a number of Iranian movies and documentaries. I highly recommend this strategy).

The End of Alchemy: Money, Banking, and the Future of the Global Economy by Mervyn King (former governor of the Bank of England). A great chaser to this is Paul Volcker’s excellent bio.

The Rise and Fall of American Growth: The U.S. Standard of Living Since the Civil War by Robert J. Gordon — this is a great development book.

Money Changes Everything: How Finance Made Civilization Possible by  William N. Goetzmann 

The Wizard and the Prophet: Two Remarkable Scientists and Their Dueling Visions to Shape Tomorrow’s World by Charles C. Mann — This book surprised me. I thought it would be yet another uncritical celebration of scientific progress. But Mann is nuanced and makes a strong case for belief in science’s potential to keep the human project going despite the many current structural challenges — not least of which is climate change. Those into development will particularly enjoy the bits on the Green Revolution. 

I am still struggling to read fiction. In 2019 I will try harder.


On the Worldwide Bureaucracy Indicators Database

Pamela Jakiela over at CGD has a great post on the quality and composition of bureaucracies across the world. Like Jakiela, I was struck by this finding:

Across all countries in the WWBI data set, there is a huge amount of variation in the share of public employment concentrated in rural areas. However, rural public employment is very highly correlated with rural private employment—almost all the date points in the figure above are centered around the 45-degree line. One interpretation is that governments’ apparent urban biases may just reflect the concentration of economic activity in urban centers—and not any inherent desire to target government benefits toward urbanites. Or perhaps urban bias is a thing of the past. In any case, it is conspicuously absent from the WWBI data.Screen Shot 2018-12-06 at 10.18.31 AM

Makes you wonder whether urban bias has always been a Zambian Copperbelt thing with little traction elsewhere.

More broadly, I am happy that the Bank appears to be caring more about government and not just governance.

Bureaucratic capacity is a critical component of government and stateness. Based on my experience so far studying the political economy of development, if I had to pick a factor that is absolutely fundamental for the realization of long-run economic development it would be stateness.

If you think about it, a lot of the low-hanging fruits in development that could get many countries to lower middle income status and beyond — for example, agricultural productivity, petty manufacturing, rationalized construction sectors, healthcare, education, and water and sanitation — require a modicum of political stability, security, and mere copying and pasting of policy ideas from elsewhere (with sensitivity to local conditions and with some scope for experimentation).

Strong states can do this. Weak states cannot.

Does Tilly travel to the Congo?

As pointed out in numerous studies, juridical sovereignty is a serious impediment to stateness and political development in the DRC. Consider this from Christoph Vogel and Jason Stearns and African Affairs:

The most important belligerent in the Congo is the government itself: a large part of the FARDC’s roughly 130,000 troops are deployed in the Kivus, controlling key mining areas, towns and roads. Yet, it does not behave like a Hobbesian Leviathan, squashing competitors to impose control over territory. Instead, the relationship between the army and armed groups often resembles symbiosis: many armed groups, even those fighting the FARDC, retain close ties with army officers and politicians, who are intent on bolstering their own power bases and protection rackets. Much as during the late Mobutu period, instead of being a liability, ‘weak sovereignty has become a kind of resource, which continues to reproduce the state as a lame but living Leviathan’. This duality also applies to the security services as ‘involuted mechanisms, mainly preoccupied with their own reproduction’, even as they erode their own legitimacy. Such a conceptualization alters rationalist assumptions of civil war, as well as those of most foreign donors, insofar as they imagine a state that wants to defeat its opponents.DQcW0xcUMAATCsmThe Congolese government, however, has shown little interest in ending peripheral wars that do not threaten its survival. This does not make it less rational: it has privileged maintaining patronage networks—some of which incorporate its opponents—over the security of its citizens, and elite survival over institutional reform. Overall, these logics have emerged incrementally as various peace deals and integration efforts created deeply factionalized security services. Kinshasa then decided to use that as a means to distribute patronage and reward loyalty, instead of instilling discipline and monopolizing violence through reform, which could create a backlash within the senior officer corps.

The paper also has some great background details on the international dimension of the conflicts in eastern DRC.

Here’s the explainer for the title of this post.