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Customer Review

474 of 524 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Erudite, ever so meandering, and ultimately inconclusive..., February 13, 2012
This review is from: Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty (Hardcover)
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I find the topic utterly fascinating: why do some nations prosper, and improve the life of their citizens, and others fail, often disastrously so? Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, both academics, propose a model based on the concepts of "extractive" vs. "inclusive" institutions. They attempt to support their thesis by undertaking a very broad review of economic and historical developments in a spectrum of 30 or so countries. They commence, like medical researchers do when they hope to minimize the number of variables, by examining "twins." In the author's case the "twins" are the cities of Nogales, immediately adjacent, in Arizona, and in Sonora. One is relatively prosperous, the other not so. It is a good start, and later in the book, the author uses the two Koreas. In both cases, geography and culture are relatively constant, which seems to bolster their view that it is the "institutions" that govern the lives of the respective citizens that are causative.

However the book can be a bit of a maddening slog in order to find some enjoyable nuggets of information and/or wisdom. For sure, if one establishes a situation in which individuals have incentives to produce they will work harder. So, why is this concept not universally embraced, by corporations and countries? I once set up a "profit-sharing" program for workers in my company; it seemed to change attitudes, improved the operating efficiency and reduce waste. After I left, the owner immediately eliminated it, though he would pontificate on the needs for economic incentives for himself! His outlook was rigid: if he was "sharing" the profits with the workers, he was a loser, and the thought that he might have a slightly smaller percentage of a much bigger pie never entered his mind. The authors confirmed my personal experience time and time again, and expressed it in terms of "The Iron Law of Oligarchy." An elite would be deposed by "revolutionary forces," only to see those forces turn into a new elite who acted much the same as the old. Among others, the authors cite Ethiopia as an example, where "the Derg" deposed Haile Selassie in 1974, and within four years Mengistu was using the same throne Selassie did. The authors could also have cited George Orwell's Animal Farm: Centennial Edition. I also found the authors description of how Venice turned into a "museum" to be one of their most concrete examples, in terms of identifying the steps taken by the elites to protect their interests, and eliminate the "profit sharing" with the masses. Likewise, as a counterpoint, there was a good description on how Botswana became the most prosperous country in sub-Sahara Africa.

For sure, I believe the "differential diagnosis" to be essential, and therefore comparisons of one historical situation to another can be most useful. But the authors seem to have taken this concept to the extreme, juxtaposing wildly disparate situations, and providing no "connective tissue." For example, chapter 6 contained 10th-12th Century Venice, the Roman Empire, and Axum, in Ethiopia, without any meaningful comparisons. Over and over again the details of the history of a country were included, generally correctly, but for no apparent reason in terms of supporting their thesis. Thus, we are treated to a catalog of Napoleon's military successes, the number of tons of gunpowder the British sold between 1750 and 1807, and Roosevelt's efforts to pack the Supreme Court. And I dare say that if the redundancies were eliminated by a good editor, a hundred pages would be shaved off the book. For example, three times in 50 pages there is the same list of African countries that had descended into civil war; the Battle of Adowa is mentioned at least twice, and there is the relentless mantra of using "extractive" to mean anything bad that is occurring in a country, and "inclusive" for positive developments. There are also the outright errors of Bill Gates' education (p.43) (Gates dropped out of Harvard in his freshman year), and the circulation of the French "Old Franc" until 1992 (p. 388).

And then there were the sins of omission. Several readily sprung to mind: all of Scandinavia, Singapore, Malaysia, Dubai, and Canada. Examination of these would have provided some useful counterpoints to one of the author's concluding propositions: "You can't engineer prosperity." And where is the rise of "extractive" institutions in the United States over the past 30 years? Totally omitted. Reviewing the extensive bibliography/references was also instructive. There was Kapuscinski's classic account of the fall of Haile Selassie, The Emperor but I was astonished to find missing Gunnar Myrdal's equally classic inquiry into the poverty of nations Asian Drama: An Inquiry into the Poverty of Nations.

It is a rich book, which covers a vast swath of human history. But it lacks the "connective tissue" that supports the author's thesis, and thus remains light-years away from any sort of "unified field theory" of development. 3-stars.
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Showing 1-10 of 22 posts in this discussion
Initial post: Feb 13, 2012 9:12:29 PM PST
TR says:
Very excellent review JPJ III! I liked your analogy of the profit sharing motif of your business to that of a nations success and the barren feeling of an impending downward spiral upon its dismissal by the "tyrant" taking over. You phrased the short sighted nature perfectly when you stated how ignorant it is to turn away from a smaller share of a growing pie than to demand a higher share of a smaller one (and of course the need to keep the masses in line once the motivation to contribute to more pay and esteem is removed). That's one to remember.

Your final lines that this book lacks the "connective tissue" to glue the random factoids of what is an inclusive vs. an exclusive political community was a point that I wanted to make in my review, but one that I succeeded in doing at a more more mundane level than your nice metaphor.

MLC aka stardreamers

In reply to an earlier post on Feb 14, 2012 6:24:41 AM PST
Thanks for your comment... seems we are on the same wavelength.

To add to my comment I made on your review... when I am reading a book, I commence my notes for a review. I had already used "meander" in my notes. Then I read your review... and thought I should not use the same word in the title to my own review... but it really is an apt description, arrived at independently, by two people, who see the same problem.

One of the great things about reviewing at Amazon is being led to another book you had never heard of, such as your recommendation on The Birth of Plenty: How the Prosperity of the Modern World was Created which is now on my "shopping list" at Amazon (alas, with another 120!) Nonetheless, I do intend to read it in the next 3-6 months. Thanks for the heads-up.



Posted on Apr 25, 2012 10:19:45 AM PDT
Due to rave reviews seen in an ad in the New Yorker, and an unused gift card for my local bookstore (the legendary Tattered Cover of Denver), I purchased the book. I am not sorry, and I am sure I will get something worthwhile for my time invested. But, I must say, as I completed the first chapter two things were disappointingly apparent; I was reading an unedited early draft, and there was a distasteful tinge of jingoism apparent. I know high-profile university professors must watch their step in this political environment, but I felt I was being put on notice that we were not going to be analyzing our own narrowing political and economic situation where we live (and read). Turning to Amazon's reviews, I found Mr. Jones comments which assured me that I was not the only one who wondered about the editing situation... I guess that's just another way to procure profits, where do those savings go?

In reply to an earlier post on Apr 26, 2012 6:13:27 AM PDT
Bruce -

To pay for the marketing department! :-)

Another Vine offering I reviewed, with a 2-star rating, was Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet

It was riddled with serious historical inaccuracies. It also came with a note from the Ballantine "marketing team" that assured me of Ford's "painstaking historical research." I couldn't help but think if they had just lobbed one person off the rah-rah "team," and hired one person who knew his/her history, it would have been a much better book.

Thanks for the comment about the "distasteful tinge of jingoism." It is a valid point that I omitted.


Posted on May 3, 2012 12:37:49 PM PDT
[Deleted by the author on May 3, 2012 1:44:16 PM PDT]

Posted on Aug 18, 2012 9:12:15 AM PDT
An excellent review and my feelings exactly. There is nothing really wrong with the content but the structure needs a major overhaul.

I did also have the frequent feeling that the authors explanations of"why" things happened failed to delive- we get a good description of what took place but I still feel that my understanding of why Britain lead the industrial Revoluition did not really progress by reading this book.

Posted on Sep 10, 2012 12:21:32 PM PDT
Beeing myself from Sweden in Scandinavia i wonder of our type of Nation is left out? I got that feeling from listening to the RSA event

Posted on Sep 22, 2012 12:03:39 PM PDT
Will says:
I liked your review. My experience with profit sharing was similar. Pre tax profits were outstanding, but growth had slowed to ~10%/year. After I sold out, the new owners abolished profit sharing for non management; even the engineers got cut out. Result: Lower pre tax profits & no growth.

Posted on Oct 23, 2012 5:54:05 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 23, 2012 5:55:27 PM PDT

I have yet to read the book; however, I believe that your review will help to enrich my (hopefully) inevitable reading of this book. For that, thank you. If I may ask, could you please recommend a book instead of this one?



In reply to an earlier post on Oct 24, 2012 5:50:51 PM PDT

Thanks for your comment... much belatedly, on my part... and a confirmation that the "Big Boys" are often very clueless as to what makes a viable company.

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