Saturday, January 28, 2017

Diamond on Acemoglu and Putterman

There is a nice article by Jared Diamond discussing the work of Acemoglu and his authors (AJR) and the work of Putterman and his coauthors (CCP). The theory of the reversal of fortunes that the former thought that applied to countries as geographic units, the latter proved that actually did not apply to populations. That is, the fact that countries that were richer in 1500 are today poorer does not mean that the related populations have become poorer. Today the USA is richer than Peru not because the Inca have declined and the Apache have rised, but because the Apache were basically replaced by well endowed European populations that have been richer all along. Diamond does a very good job at summarizing the work of this two sets of authors, and at discussing more generally the difficulties of operationalizing vague concepts in social sciences. It shows also some skepticism about institutional theories, for example by saying that Argentina is today richer than Costa Rica in spite of having worse institutions because Argentina's geography has accommodated much better the crops and domestic animals that Europeans brought with them. He finishes the article by saying this:
"I should make clear, however, that my overall assessment of AJR’s and CCP’s work is an admiring assessment and not a negative one. When one deals with big, complicated, multidetermined subjects such as economic history, it is unlikely that first scholarly treatments will discover the whole answer and identify all determining factors. Instead, one usually has to begin by identifying a few major factors, investigate whether those postulated factors are correct, and then see what still remains unexplained, before one can hope to identify further factors. AJR succeeded convincingly in formulating a problem and in demonstrating the explanatory roles of some factors. CCP have now extended AJR’s work by identifying further factors. That still does not give us a complete understanding of economic history. It remains a challenging problem, requiring much more research, for social scientists to disentangle the contributions of each of the elements of cultural and biological baggage to national wealth."

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