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Adam Davidson's 'Why Some Countries Go Bust' Needs a Rewrite


Davidson gets things altogether wrong, even backward in some cases, as he attempts to encapsulate the ideas of eight different thinkers into 30 words each.

Among my many faults is a tendency to get worked up when reading things I find outrageous. As I am libertarian-minded, I have often told people who object to something as obscene, blasphemous, treasonous, or otherwise objectionable, "Then don't watch/read/listen to/buy it."

In general, I take my own advice and happily ignore all kinds of things I would otherwise find offensive. But I'm sorry to admit that sometimes my self-control slips. My friends and family have learned to tune me out when I start expostulating half to them and half to the absent author of the piece I hold in my hand; this leaves me feeling frustrated. Today, you get to be my therapy.

The piece in question is Adam Davidson's New York Times Magazine article, Why Some Countries Go Bust. In interests of full disclosure, I have borne Adam a mild grudge ever since I gave him a two-hour radio interview on the financial crisis, on 18 hours' notice in response to a frantic request from his producer, and only out-of-context bits and pieces of it ever made it on the air. But hey, that's his job, and it's show biz. We all end up on the cutting room floor sometimes. I was there to get free publicity for my book, he was there to educate the public, and I was well aware of the rule that it's his show to do with as he pleases. I can't deny, however, that this incident predisposed me toward irritation and that if he'd run my entire interview unedited I would have tried harder to find a way to agree with what he wrote.

I have no problem with the article itself, a cleverly illustrated account of a new book by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson. My hackles were raised by an inset purporting to explain the views and errors of eight economists on the question of why nations fail. I'm not sure Davidson was the author of this, but he took the byline, I assume he cashed the check from the Times, so he takes the lumps.

The inset consists of snippets, 30 words or so, to explain and refute the lifetime work of sophisticated thinkers. So I can't complain about oversimplification or missed subtleties. I can, however, complain when Davidson gets things altogether wrong, even backward in some cases. To set the record straight and teach a little intellectual history, I offer my revisions. Davidson says:

Baron de Montesquieu. Big idea: Warm climates breed indolence - "there is no curiosity, no enterprise, no generosity of sentiment." Forgot to consider: The ascendance of Aztecs, Arabs, Mughals, and so forth.

To start with some picky stuff, no one calls him "Baron," it's just Montesquieu. And he's hardly the first or only guy to make the Goldilocks argument that some places are too hot for virtue and some places too cold, the only perfect place is - surprise! - the place I live. Herodotus wrote it 2,000 years before Monty, and I've no doubt the claim is thousands of years older still.

What makes Davidson's summary baffling is Montesquieu actually claimed that hot climates bred hot tempers and societies that were good at conquest but not at building cultures or economies. For three examples, Aztecs, Arabs, and Mughals. He did not deny the tremendous cultural achievements of these empires, but he did deny those achievements were created by the hot-blooded warriors from hot places; instead, he gave credit to the conquered peoples whose cultures were formed in more temperate places.

All of this is wildly oversimplified, of course, but at least it's somewhere in the ballpark of something Montesquieu might recognize as his thought. If I had 31 words, I'd write:
  • Montesquieu. Big idea: Climate and geography play big roles in determining culture. Forgot to consider: Meteorology is not destiny. Complex interactions and feedback make predicting outcomes from weather reports a crapshoot.
Next comes Adam Smith. Davidson quotes him as saying a state should have, "peace, easy taxes and a tolerable administration of justice." That's a fair quote, but it wasn't Smith's answer to why some nations fail, it was his recommendation on what government should do. Therefore, it's puzzling why Davidson would say Smith forgot to consider, "How a state can get there." Smith did, in fact, have quite a bit to say both about why some nations fail and also about how a state can get to a good state. Here's my version:
  • Adam Smith. Big idea: If the government is strong enough to promote justice without weighing too heavily on society, everything will work out. Forgot to consider: We're still waiting to see that government, but things sometimes work out anyway.
The "big idea" for Thomas Malthus is unfair, "A child is just another mouth to feed." Malthus did not question the value of children, nor of people in general. If you get rid of the "just," you get close to the truth. Malthus was sensitive to the fact that people need resources to survive. If population outstrips resources, it gets cut back by famine, disease, or vice. Our choices are to live moderate lives through self-discipline and planning, or to overreach in good times and pay a terrible price later.

Saying Malthus forgot to consider potential improvements in agriculture is both dead wrong and misses the point. It's dead wrong because Malthus addressed this question specifically and at length. He would have had to be an idiot not to address it, and it's hard to believe anyone would have ever taken him seriously in that case. It misses the point because Malthus did not believe food was the only limit to growth. If all the manna anyone could ever want rained down from heaven, population would grow until something else pruned it back. My version:
  • Thomas Malthus. Big idea: Society cannot grow indefinitely and progress to perfection. We should pick a moderate level of development and concentrate on making it sustainable. Forgot to consider: The only alternatives to growth seem to be decline or stagnation. Some humans are satisfied with unchanging, tolerable comfort, but there always seem to be enough troublemakers to disturb the peace.
Alfred Marshall is alleged to have believed that countries are poor because they lack natural resources and to have forgotten that a lot of those poor countries got colonized for the resources they supposedly lacked. As with Montesquieu, this is almost backward. One of Marshall's most famous national comparisons was Japan to Australia: Japan successful with no natural resources and colonizing other places; Australia unsuccessful with vast natural resources and a colony to Great Britain.

Marshall did not concentrate on the amount of natural resources, but on the type, and also on the legal arrangements for exploiting them: a large class of self-reliant farmers or fishermen with legal rights and incentives for development created a strong economy. Concentrated resources that required large capital investment like mines, or legal arrangements that favored huge landholders, like the sheep grazing system in Australia, led to economic underdevelopment and political repression. Oh, and colonization by more robust economies. Here's how I would summarize it:
  • Alfred Marshall. Big idea: The type and distribution of natural resources influence an economy's development. Forgot to consider: Ideas, both cultural and technological, are more important than physical assets.
With Max Weber, the big idea is only somewhat mangled. "Protestants embody the 'spirit of capitalism' more than any other religious group." Weber believed that Calvinist ideas were very important for stimulating the development of modern economies. But it's a lot more complicated than that. The same social forces that led northern Europeans to reform their religious practices also led them to reform government and business. Individuals build societies and societies influence individuals. It's not a competition among religions to be the most capitalist, but the interplay of social ideas that lead to good or bad outcomes.

An example is Weber's comparison of Calvinism and Confucianism. Both are rational, energetic and not opposed to worldly success. But the idea in Calvinism is to be a tool of God. If you get rich doing something honest, you know you are working in accordance with God's plan, and improving the universe. The goal in Confusism is to gain cultural respect, to be a valuable person in society. Thus Calvinism led to disruptive progress, while Confucianism led to stagnation. So I would write:
  • Max Weber. Big idea: Social forces become imbued in both individuals and institutions, and determine the path of development. Forgot to consider: Ideas are not simple, static or passive. They recombine, grow and evolve in unpredictable ways; and they can jump from culture to culture.
The most accurate summary is of John Maynard Keynes' big idea, "Leaders need technocrats to redesign economic policy." I might quibble and change it to, "self-described technocrats with elite resumes and gigantic egos," and change "economic policy" to "everyone and everything, constantly," but I can live with the original. What's hard to accept is the claim that Keynes forgot to consider, "Leaders hate technocrats."

Presumably Davidson is thinking of leaders like Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot. The trouble is none of those guys was remotely Keynesian. Government in much of the world is filled with technocrats. And the opposition comes not from leaders (who are often technocrats themselves, or claim to be) but from populist forces among the citizens. My version:
  • John Maynard Keynes. Big idea: People like me should run everything. Forgot to consider: No one is stupid enough to let people like me run anything.
Jared Diamond is said to believe that, "Prosperous cities developed around easily domesticated crops and animals." The statement is true, and I have little doubt that Diamond believes it, mainly because everyone believes it. Cities need food, or all the people die. In the ancient world, transporting significant amounts of food was impractical. Hunting is not a reliable food source for a city-sized population. Fishing encourages dispersed villages, rather than cities that would deplete the fishery in a short time. So a prosperous city needed domesticated agriculture nearby. It also needed a good source of water, and some convenient transportation routes.

The "forgot to consider" is, "In many regions, they also failed to develop around them." One pronoun in a sentence with unclear antecedent is bad writing, two is reader abuse, and when the pronouns are parallel (like "they" and "them") with opposing antecedents, it's time for the grammar police to prepare the lethal injection. If Davidson beats that rap, he will still face extradition to the Court of Accuracy. The entire point of Diamond's work is that local conditions can create feedback loops that cause spectacular expansion in one place and overwhelm other places that seem almost identical. Little things like, say, guns, germs, and steel, make the difference. In my words:
  • Jared Diamond. Big idea: It's not the big, important, fast-growing things that determine the future, it's the exponential things, the things that grow faster the bigger they get. Forgot to consider: Explosive positive feedback is what shakes things up, but how things recombine afterwards depends on adhesive social forces, not disruptive ones.
Like Diamond, Jeffrey Sachs no doubt believes the big idea attributed to him, that poor soil and diseases are the main contributors to poverty. Hungry and sick are conditions that have always been closely associated with poverty in everyone's mind. The slander is in accusing Sachs of forgetting that poverty makes it harder to cultivate soil and fight diseases. If Sachs really did forget this, then he would be going around to impoverished people asking them to improve conditions. After all, they are the ones who would benefit most, so they should be the easiest to convince. But Sachs, like just about everyone else, is savvy enough to know it will take people with resources to address these problems.
  • Jeffrey Sachs. Big idea: Nations fail because people are poor. Fix the poverty and governance will take care of itself. Forgot to consider: See John Maynard Keynes.
OK, I feel better now. My friends and my family thank you.
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