O que é este blog?

Este blog trata basicamente de ideias, se possível inteligentes, para pessoas inteligentes. Ele também se ocupa de ideias aplicadas à política, em especial à política econômica. Ele constitui uma tentativa de manter um pensamento crítico e independente sobre livros, sobre questões culturais em geral, focando numa discussão bem informada sobre temas de relações internacionais e de política externa do Brasil. Para meus livros e ensaios ver o website: www.pralmeida.org. Para a maior parte de meus textos, ver minha página na plataforma Academia.edu, link: https://itamaraty.academia.edu/PauloRobertodeAlmeida

Mostrando postagens com marcador Jared Diamond. Mostrar todas as postagens
Mostrando postagens com marcador Jared Diamond. Mostrar todas as postagens

quarta-feira, 12 de junho de 2019

Upheaval: novo livro de Jared Diamond (não creio que resolva a decadência brasileira)

Já li o "sample" oferecido pela Amazon, e não me parece que o Brasil chegou a tal ponto de deterioração para ser instruído por meio de um manual de "salvamento" da decadência.
Mas, aproveito para recomendar este livro do autor: Guns, Germs and Steel.
Paulo Roberto de Almeida

Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis Kindle Edition



A "riveting and illuminating" (Yuval Noah Harari) new theory of how and why some nations recover from trauma and others don't, by the Pulitzer-Prize-winning author of the landmark bestsellers Guns, Germs, and Steel and Collapse.

In his international bestsellers Guns, Germs and Steel and Collapse, Jared Diamond transformed our understanding of what makes civilizations rise and fall. Now, in his third book in this monumental trilogy, he reveals how successful nations recover from crises while adopting selective changes -- a coping mechanism more commonly associated with individuals recovering from personal crises.

Diamond compares how six countries have survived recent upheavals -- ranging from the forced opening of Japan by U.S. Commodore Perry's fleet, to the Soviet Union's attack on Finland, to a murderous coup or countercoup in Chile and Indonesia, to the transformations of Germany and Austria after World War Two. Because Diamond has lived and spoken the language in five of these six countries, he can present gut-wrenching histories experienced firsthand. These nations coped, to varying degrees, through mechanisms such as acknowledgment of responsibility, painfully honest self-appraisal, and learning from models of other nations. Looking to the future, Diamond examines whether the United States, Japan, and the whole world are successfully coping with the grave crises they currently face. Can we learn from lessons of the past? 
Adding a psychological dimension to the in-depth history, geography, biology, and anthropology that mark all of Diamond's books, Upheaval reveals factors influencing how both whole nations and individual people can respond to big challenges. The result is a book epic in scope, but also his most personal book yet.

segunda-feira, 11 de janeiro de 2016

Raizes do colapso brasileiro, um texto de 2006 - Paulo Roberto de Almeida

Um texto de 2006, que na verdade atendia a um pedido de jornalista para comentar o livro de Jared Diamond, sobre o colapso de civilizações, para oferecer comentários à obra e aplicá-la ao caso brasileiro. A despeito dos dez anos decorridos, creio que o diagnóstico e as prescrições se mantêm quase integralmente.
Paulo Roberto de Almeida
Brasília, 11/01/2016


Raízes do Colapso

Paulo Roberto de Almeida
Doutor em Ciências Sociais. Diplomata.
Respostas a perguntas colocadas por jornalista
do jornal do agronegócio Raízes (São Paulo, SP).


Perguntas e respostas, tendo como referência o livro:
Jared Diamond
Colapso: como as sociedades escolhem o fracasso ou o sucesso
2ª edição; Rio de Janeiro: Record, 2005.

1) Gostaria de contextualizar o livro de Jared Diamond, para o empresário do agronegócio entender porque este livro é nossa referência aqui e por que o senhor foi chamado a analisá-lo. Em sua opinião, o que esta obra trouxe de novo e por que se tornou tão comentada? Por que ela chamou a sua atenção especificamente?

PRA: Eu já conheço a obra desse autor americano, um cientista-pesquisador da área da biologia evolutiva, desde muitos anos, como editor da revista de divulgação científica Discover, da qual eu tinha assinatura nos anos 1980. Mais recentemente li o seu primeiro best-seller Armas, Germes e Aço (ainda na primeira versão americana), que aprecio particularmente, ainda que eu possa criticar a ênfase talvez excessiva nos fatores ambientais, e menos naqueles sócio-culturais ou econômicos, que explicam como as sociedades humanas evoluíram de maneira diferenciada ao longo dos últimos dez mil anos. Trata-se, em todo caso, de uma pesquisa original, de amplo escopo explicativo, trazendo uma macro-história ecológica global da humanidade, nesse percurso muitas vezes milenar que conduziu algumas sociedades à abundância e à liderança tecnológica e outras ao atraso relativo ou mesmo à miséria temporária. Um livro brilhante, sem dúvida, mesmo descontando a já referida ênfase no meio ambiente, em detrimento dos fatores moldados pelo próprio homem.
Era natural, assim, que eu me interesse por este novo livro, sobretudo contendo um título tão accrocheur, como diriam os franceses, ou appealing, no dizer dos americanos. Sempre somos fascinados pelos desastres, pelos fracassos, tanto quanto pelo sucesso e pela prosperidade. Este livro trata do “lado errado” das sociedades, que deveria ser estudado tanto quanto os motivos de sucesso, pois aprendemos mais pelos erros do que pelos acertos. Como se diz, a vitória tem muitos pais, o fracasso tem uma só mãe, quando não é órfã, ou solitária. Casos de insucesso nos negócios, de fracasso completo nos empreendimentos deveriam ser estudados nos cursos de administração, de forma tão detalhada, ou talvez até mais, do que os casos de executivos brilhantes ou de grandes realizações no mundo dos negócios, pois é pelos fracassos que podemos medir nossas chances de sucesso futuro, ou evitar os erros mais comuns.
Como eu acho que o Brasil configura, nos últimos anos, um notório caso de “fracasso” econômico, com um baixo crescimento cumulativo há praticamente duas décadas, fui buscar no livro alguns motivos de reflexão que poderiam me dar algumas luzes sobre as razões do nosso insucesso no crescimento econômico e na inclusão social.

2) O que o senhor destacaria como principais pontos do livro?

PRA: No plano metodológico, a visão macro-histórica já destacada, pois ela permite ver o mundo evoluindo no longo prazo, a trajetória das civilizações, que reproduzem certo ciclo de vida. Ainda no plano metodológico, a perspectiva comparada, que permite ver como algumas sociedades enfrentam problemas de modo criativo, enquanto outras não conseguem superar problemas prosaicos, como pode ser o do simples equilíbrio ecológico, ou da subsistência em meios materiais, que deveria ser objeto de simples planejamento elementar.
No plano substantivo, o livro fornece um amplo painel sobre diferentes caminhos de sociedades do passado e algumas do presente, mostrando, finalmente, que nada é muito novo na trajetória do homem e que os mesmos problemas sempre se colocam de forma recorrente, ainda que os meios técnicos e as paisagens se tenham alterado por vezes de maneira fundamental ou radical, desde a antiguidade, ou na era dos descobrimentos, e em nossa própria época.

3) Que paralelos podemos estabelecer entre a realidade brasileira e os exemplos bem-sucedidos e catastróficos descritos por Diamond?

PRA: O Brasil, como economia ou sociedade, não está exatamente apontando para algum colapso iminente, ainda que “pequenos colapsos” possam ocorrer, talvez nas contas públicas, como resultado dos crescentes déficits previdenciários, ou no terreno dos investimentos em infra-estrutura, onde obras importantes deixaram de ser feitas nos últimos anos por insuficiência orçamentária ou, mais exatamente, por incapacidade administrativa. Mas, o Brasil não está na iminência de uma grande catástrofe como as descritas no livro de Diamond, problemas de tal monta que acabam desestruturando toda a sociedade de forma irremediável. Nossos problemas são de natureza cumulativa, basicamente de organização, mais do que falta de meios ou de inteligência.
O que chama a atenção na experiência brasileira dos últimos vinte anos ou, praticamente, no último quarto de século, é a incapacidade do país de crescer de modo sustentável, primeiro pela aceleração inflacionária e pelo descontrole econômico ocorrido nos anos 1980 e na primeira metade dos 90, depois pela ausência de poupança e de investimentos produtivos, justamente. O que mais chama a atenção, de fato, é a nossa própria cegueira, mais exatamente da classe política, em continuar aprovando aumento de gastos públicos, não para fins produtivos, mas para alimentação dos “meios” tão simplesmente, em total descompasso com o crescimento da economia ou com a disponibilidade de recursos. A classe política tem demonstrado uma brutal insensibilidade para os efeitos cumulativos do baixo crescimento, do acúmulo de despesas obrigatórias sob responsabilidade do próprio Estado, do tributarismo e do regulacionismo excessivos, que na verdade “empurram” milhares de pessoas e de pequenas e médias empresas para o lado informal da economia, não porque elas ali queiram estar, mas porque não podem fazer de outro modo, em vista dos constrangimentos que teriam nos planos fiscal, tributário, regulatório. se desejassem, por acaso, ascender ao plano da formalidade e da plena legalidade.
Nossas pequenas “grandes” catástrofes estão nessa miríade de regulamentos burocráticos, de obrigações legais e, sobretudo, de regimes tributários que tornam a vida do empreendedor um inferno digno de Dante.

4) O Brasil está destinado ao fracasso ou há caminhos que indicam uma luz no fim do túnel? Ou ainda: que saídas temos para reverter nosso "colapso"?

PRA: O Brasil, certamente, não está, a priori, condenado ao colapso. Emprego este conceito num sentido bem mais metafórico do que real. Mas, o Brasil está, sim, condenado ao baixo crescimento, a uma quase estagnação do crescimento per capita, a uma deterioração sensível e contínua das instituições públicas, a uma erosão continuada da qualidade de sua educação, tudo isso ao mesmo tempo e cumulativamente, a persistirem os mesmos sintomas que indicam baixo crescimento da produtividade, desrespeito à lei, carga fiscal muito elevada, pesadas barreiras à entrada para novos negócios, corrupção generalizada no setor público, caixa 2 no setor privado – geralmente mantido mais em função do excesso de tributos de origem estatal do que por “necessidades” da própria empresa – e uma pesada herança do burocratismo de outras eras que ainda não foi extirpado de nossa cultura. Todos esses fatores podem não levar, exatamente, ao fracasso do Brasil, enquanto sociedade ou economia, mas indicam, sim, uma incapacidade desta nação de se adaptar ao mundo dinâmico da globalização contemporânea e podem, ao contrário, levar uma indefinição persistente quanto às reformas necessárias para superar esse tipo de impasse.
No campo das reformas, eu indicaria um conjunto de tarefas que nos permitiriam superar os problemas apontados, mas confesso desde já que sou totalmente pessimista quanto à capacidade dos governos – quaisquer que sejam eles – e da própria sociedade de aprová-las e implementá-las. Essas reformas, sinteticamente expostas, seriam as seguintes:
1. Reforma política, a começar pela Constituição: seria útil uma “limpeza” nas excrescências indevidas da CF, deixando-a apenas com os princípios gerais, remetendo todo o resto para legislação complementar e regulatória. Em vista dos seus custos para o País e os cidadãos (que pouco sabem do nível real de despesas), seria conveniente operar uma diminuição drástica dos corpos legislativos em seus vários níveis (federal, estadual e municipal). No campo da reforma eleitoral, introduzir a proporcionalidade mista, com voto distrital em nível local e alguma representação por listas no plano nacional, preservando o caráter nacional dos partidos.

2. Reforma administrativa com diminuição do número de ministérios, e atribuições de funções a diversas agências reguladoras. Retomada da privatização das empresas estatais que ainda existem e que são fontes de ineficiências e corrupção. Fim geral da estabilidade no serviço público, salvo para algumas carreiras de Estado (estritamente definidas).

3. Reforma econômica ampla, com diminuição da carga tributária e redução das despesas do Estado; severo aperto fiscal nos criadores de despesas “inimputáveis”, que são os legislativos e o judiciário. Reformas microeconômicas de molde a criar um ambiente favorável ao investimento produtivo e ao lucro e para diminuir a sonegação e a evasão fiscal.

4. Reforma trabalhista radical, no sentido da flexibilização da legislação laboral, dando maior espaço às negociações diretas entre as partes. Extinção da Justiça do Trabalho, ela mesma uma das fontes de criação e sustentação de conflitos. Eliminação do imposto sindical, que alimenta organizações de papel, de comportamento rentista.

5. Reforma educacional completa, com retirada do terceiro ciclo da responsabilidade do Estado e concessão de completa autonomia às universidades públicas (mantendo-se a transferência de recursos para fins de pesquisa e projetos específicos). Concentração dos recursos públicos nos dois primeiros níveis e no ensino técnico-profissional, cuja valorização passa pelo treinamento e qualificação adequados dos professores e a introdução de sistemas de remuneração por mérito e rendimento (diretamente aferidos pelos resultados dos alunos).

6. Prosseguimento da abertura econômica e da liberalização comercial; acolhimento do investimento estrangeiro e adesão a regimes proprietários mais avançados.

5) Se é possível escolher entre o fracasso ou sucesso, como observa Diamond, temos exemplos acertados do Brasil em direção ao sucesso?

PRA: Certamente. O Brasil é uma sociedade extremamente maleável, receptiva a quaisquer inovações que possam ocorrer no resto do mundo, capaz de adaptar e incrementar bens, serviços, modas ou quaisquer outras coisas que surgem nos mais diferentes quadrantes do globo, geralmente melhorando o próprio original. Começamos que somos uma verdadeira sociedade multirracial, o que é uma qualidade e um atributo extremamente positivos no plano interno, ainda que isso possa não ser ainda devidamente valorizado em outros países. Nossa proverbial tolerância e acolhimento da chamada “alteridade” também é um valor que devemos preservar e ampliar.
No quadro dos países em desenvolvimento, fomos uma das sociedades mais bem sucedidas na construção de um sistema produtivo industrial e agrícola de excelente qualidade geral. Nosso establishment científico também rivaliza, em qualidade intrínseca, com os melhores do mundo, faltando apenas maiores investimentos na pesquisa para levá-la a patamares ainda superiores de descoberta e inventividade. Temos sérios problemas quanto à transposição do conhecimento científico para o plano de suas aplicações tecnológicas, mas poderemos melhorar esse aspecto também, uma vez que as condições técnicas parecem já estar dadas para tanto.
Destruímos muito nossa natureza no passado e, de certa forma, continuamos ainda a dilapidar nossos recursos naturais, mas a sociedade já se conscientizou dos problemas e parece pronta para inverter o ritmo e a direção da “insustentabilidade” que estava sendo criada. Mais um pouco e teremos estabelecido um padrão de convivência com os recursos da biodiversidade que nos colocará no caminho do desenvolvimento dito “sustentável” (com toda a carga de “politicamente correto” que esse conceito possa ter).
De certa forma, a maior parte do establishment científico, dos técnicos de alta formação, dos formadores de opinião, dos pesquisadores sociais em políticas públicas e, certamente, muitos quadros governamentais, todos esses personagens da nossa vida social e governamental têm perfeita consciência dos problemas brasileiros, da origem de nossos problemas macroeconômicos, setoriais, das deficiências educacionais, enfim, dos “males de origem”, e já traçaram diagnósticos corretos e até “manuais de correção” dos problemas detectados. Os obstáculos parecem situar-se muito mais no plano político-institucional, do que no âmbito da própria sociedade civil, que poderia estar disposta a enfrentar um programa de reformas, desde que bem explicadas e justificadas como necessárias, para retomar antigos patamares de crescimento e de desenvolvimento econômico e social.

6) Quais as principais lições a serem tiradas desta obra, tendo em vista a situação do país?

PRA: A principal lição é a de que a persistência no erro é o caminho mais rápido para a decadência, a estagnação e, possivelmente, o colapso. Antes do Brasil, outras sociedades declinaram durante décadas, senão séculos: nos três séculos que se seguem ao Iluminismo europeu e à emergência de sociedades avançadas e conquistadoras na Europa, a China constituiu um desses exemplos de notável declínio, mais até do que econômico ou tecnológico, propriamente civilizacional. No século XX, tanto a Grã-Bretanha “imperial” e a Argentina “periférica” passaram por décadas de lento mas constante declínio econômico, industrial e, para esta última, até político, processo que neste caso não está totalmente revertido. Em todos esses casos de retrocesso ou de estagnação, o que primeiro experimenta disfuncionalidades são as próprias instituições públicas, que deixam de operar em condições de racionalidade aceitável, passando a acumular problemas operacionais e algumas vezes até conceituais que impedem essas sociedades de conduzir as reformas necessárias para reverter o declínio (que é sempre relativo, no começo, antes de converter-se em absoluto).
Deve-se dizer que a maior parte dos exemplos citados por Jared Diamond se refere a desequilíbrios das sociedades estudadas com o seu próprio meio ambiente natural ou social e geográfico, o que não é absolutamente o nosso caso. O Brasil tem, mais precisamente, disfuncionalidades institucionais, de natureza essencialmente política, que inviabilizam atualmente a continuidade de um processo de reformas que de certa forma foi conduzido com sucesso no decorrer dos anos 1990 – estabilização macroeconômica, por exemplo, ou privatizações e criação de agências regulatórias – mas que encontra muitas resistências para ser levado adiante naquilo que se refere ao espectro de contratos sociais – reforma trabalhista, por exemplo – ou naquilo que se refere ao controle dos gastos públicos – aqui envolvendo toda a classe política, nos três níveis da federação –, além de diversas outras reformas que tocam nos famosos “direitos adquiridos” (como a questão previdenciária).
Se não estamos (ainda?) em desequilíbrio com o nosso meio ambiente, estamos há muito em desequilíbrio com as contas públicas e com a qualidade (deplorável) da educação pública. Esses problemas graves precisam ser revertidos urgentemente.

7) - Esteja à vontade para acrescentar outras informações e comentários.

PRA: Tenho absoluta consciência de que existe uma enorme distância entre a amplitude dos problemas brasileiros, tal como detectados de modo breve nos parágrafos acima, e as modestas possibilidades de seu encaminhamento satisfatório por meio de um processo de reformas racionais e totalmente voltadas para os fins desejados: a retomada do crescimento em bases sustentáveis, socialmente inclusivo, com transformação produtiva e inserção na economia internacional.
Ao não acreditar que isso seja possível no futuro previsível, só posso antecipar que o Brasil continuará a “patinar” no baixo crescimento e na deterioração ainda maior de suas instituições públicas – entre elas os diversos legislativos, o próprio Judiciário, as polícias, as universidades e as escolas, de modo geral –, com o irremediável comprometimento da qualidade de vida de nossos filhos e netos, que certamente terão de enfrentar um problema fiscal ainda maior do que o que temos hoje. Em vista dos bloqueios persistentes existentes na sociedade brasileira – que não devem ser confundidos com alguns exemplos de “inconsciência societal”, tal como detectados no livro de Jared Diamond – minhas previsões são moderadamente pessimistas, para não dizer virtualmente “declinistas”. Meu maior desejo, sinceramente, é o de ser desmentido pelos fatos e pelos processos futuros.

Paulo Roberto de Almeida
Brasília, 7 de agosto de 2006

sábado, 5 de janeiro de 2013

The last Jared Diamond: aprender com sociedades Tradicionais?

Let Your Kids Play With Matches
Modern society is safe and supporting, but we could learn a thing or two from traditional cultures
Book Review Article
By STEPHEN BUDIANSKY
The Wall Street Journal, January 4, 2013

The World Until Yesterday
By Jared Diamond
Viking, 498 pages, $36

It must say something about the deep human longing for big ideas that explain everything that books like Jared Diamond's "Guns, Germs, and Steel" (1997) or Thomas Friedman's "The World Is Flat" (2005) do so well. Nobody could possibly read them for literary pleasure: Books of this sort are invariably ponderous, plodding, even deathly dull, their authors attempting to leaven the proceedings with gimmicks (lists, cutesy acronyms) and hand-holding authorial intrusions ("let me explain . . .") as a substitute for good writing. They sell like hot cakes.

"Guns, Germs, and Steel" transformed Mr. Diamond from an obscure ornithologist and physiologist (his original specialty was the gall bladder) into a star among "public intellectuals." That book's basic premise—which earned Mr. Diamond the enmity of academics in both the humanities and social sciences and from both ends of the political spectrum—was that the global domination of Western societies was mostly geographic and environmental happenstance. Favorable climates and soils and the availability of animal and plant species suitable for domestication largely determined everything that has occurred in the 11,000 years since the rise of agriculture: Food surpluses due to more efficient cultivation led to higher population densities, political centralization and advanced technology.

Mr. Diamond's theory had the virtue of offering a neat explanation for cultural differences that did not rely upon any suggestion of inherent racial superiority of one group over another. It had the vice of embracing an environmentally deterministic idea of cultural evolution that most anthropologists view as naïve or ridiculous, and of ignoring altogether the role of human agency. Leftist social historians pointed out that Mr. Diamond completely swept out of the picture moral choices such as colonialism and enslavement that kept many parts of the world in subjugation for centuries. Conservatives complained that the author discounted the importance of Western moral and political philosophy, particularly the concepts of individual liberty, property rights and free markets, in making scientific and material progress possible.

In "Collapse" (2005), Mr. Diamond extended the idea of environment as a cultural driving force to explain the sudden demise of civilizations, such as the Anasazi of the American Southwest and the Easter Islanders, and sweepingly argued that their fate will be ours unless we reduce human population and resource consumption. In "The World Until Yesterday," however, Mr. Diamond backs away some from the search for pat, all-encompassing answers. The book is a much more personal and anecdotal account that draws heavily on his own experiences among the primitive tribes of New Guinea with whom he has lived for extended periods since 1964 while carrying out field work on the ecology and evolution of birds.

Although his stated purpose, as the book's subtitle declares, is to find out "what can we learn from traditional societies?," Mr. Diamond is appropriately cautious about romanticizing the primitive world or suggesting that traditional customs always reflect innate environmental, medicinal or spiritual wisdom. One of the most admirable qualities of this book is, in fact, a refreshing skepticism toward simple explanations. Mr. Diamond notes early on that, while some traditional beliefs and practices may reflect effective adaptations to environmental conditions and social needs, others are more about maintaining internal power hierarchies, while still others have no sane reason for existing at all: They are just unique products of the infinite vagaries of human imagination and the quirks of history.

To take one particularly bizarre and grisly example, up until 1957 the Kaulong people—one of a dozen similar tribes living in identical environmental circumstances on the island of New Britain, just east of New Guinea—practiced the ritual strangulation of widows. None of the adjacent tribes did, and, as Mr. Diamond observes, there is no evidence that "Kaulong widow strangling was in any way beneficial to Kaulong society or to the long-term (posthumous) genetic interests of the strangled widow or her relatives." It was just one of those things, yet it was so firmly ingrained as a custom that the widows themselves perpetuated it, insisting that a male relative strangle them when their husbands died, even taunting or mocking his manhood if he quailed at the task.

Mr. Diamond offers some intriguing evidence to suggest that traditional societies may have a thing or two to teach us about raising children, however. He notes that in most hunter-gatherer cultures children are nursed on demand until age 3 or 4, sleep with their parents, are comforted instantly when they cry, and play together in multi-age play groups. They also are rarely punished and allowed far more freedom than we are generally comfortable with. Among the !Kung and Aka pygmies of Africa, children are never physically disciplined, on the grounds that they "have no wits and are not responsible for their actions," Mr. Diamond writes. "Instead, !Kung and Aka children are permitted to slap and insult their parents." In one tribe in the New Guinea Highlands, Mr. Diamond noticed that most of the adults had serious burn scars. It turned out these were mostly acquired in infancy: The adults made it a practice never to interfere with a baby, to the point of not preventing them playing around or touching a fire. (Other groups let small children play with sharp knives.)

Westerners who have lived with these small-scale societies are "struck by the precocious development of social skills in their children"; they are responsible, articulate and competent, and the "adolescent identity crises that plague American teenagers aren't an issue." But Mr. Diamond admits that all these impressions "are just impressions," hard to measure and prove, and his ultimate verdict is nuanced: "At a minimum . . . one can say that hunter-gatherer rearing practices that seem so foreign to us aren't disastrous, and they don't produce societies of obvious sociopaths."

One advantage of Mr. Diamond's anecdotal approach in "The World Until Yesterday" is that the details can be interesting even when they do not offer any larger lessons. This is especially the case when it comes to the many bizarre and varied superstitious traditions he describes, such as elaborate food taboos (eating kangaroo tail, according to one Aborigine tribe, causes premature baldness), and to some of the more hair-raising practices that apparently were the norm in the primitive world. Infanticide, he notes, is a not uncommon practice in traditional societies, a way of disposing of deformed, sickly or simply excess children that would be an unsupportable burden on their parents and the group. In hunter-gatherer societies, the overriding fact of life is a limited food supply, and a woman who is still nursing an older child may abandon or deliberately neglect a newborn so that the older will live; likewise she may abandon one of two twins. Other primitive tribes similarly do away with the old and sick; this is sometimes done by leaving them behind when shifting camp, sometimes by more active means—like encouraging them to jump off cliffs.

The problem with combining a sort-of-anecdotal memoir with a sort-of-big-idea book, however, is that Mr. Diamond insists on trying to milk significance out of everything that happens to him, with considerably varying degrees of success. Although the book has been nominally organized around a series of topics (war, religion, children, danger and accidents, health, language), it really is at heart a ramble. That could be fine, too, except that Mr. Diamond suffers from an all-too-familiar syndrome, albeit one that normally afflicts academic scientists only after they have won a Nobel Prize; he is convinced that everything he has done and every thought that has occurred to him not only is interesting but contains a valuable insight worth sharing with the world. (This includes Mr. Diamond's experience of having recurrent diarrhea in the jungle, from which he draws a considerably less-than-profound conclusion regarding the importance of personal hygiene.)

It also results in much unevenness of coverage. He expends dozens of pages belaboring the utterly obvious—the Western diet has too many calories and leads to high rates of diabetes—while inexplicably devoting little more than a sentence to the entire subject of sex, courtship, love and marriage, offering the single observation that, in most traditional societies, "willing sex partners are almost constantly available." I am sure I am not the only reader who might have been interested in hearing a little more about that.

People who write in order to write a good book, as opposed to those who write to impart their great wisdom, know that the first rule is that most of one's thoughts are not even worth writing down, and a good many that do get written down deserve to be ditched before anyone else sees them. Mr. Diamond's prose, which shows little evidence of ever having been subjected to such discipline, is at times almost comically inept. He frequently sounds like a caricature of a particularly tedious professor, pausing every few paragraphs to interject, "Now, let's consider," "Let's begin by," "Before answering this question," "In the preceding section we discussed," "Having thus addressed the question . . . ." In other places he sounds like a tedious professor lecturing to morons: "There are differences among people of the same age."

The sense of having stumbled into a middle-school textbook is reinforced by the gratuitous inclusion of numerous clunky color photos depicting the obvious, such as a fat American eating a box of fried chicken to illustrate our unhealthy modern diet. He spends pages on didactic definitions of terms: "war," "religion," "tribe." He describes, in mind-numbingly unnecessary detail, the physical appearance and technological amenities of a modern airport in New Guinea (ATM, baggage conveyor belt, X-ray scanners) to make the point that a modern airport in New Guinea now looks the same as a modern airport in the rest of the world. I think we get it.

Some of the "lessons" Mr. Diamond draws, moreover, border on the fatuous, or at least strained. Raise our children bilingually; respect the elderly; have stimulating dinnertime conversation instead of watching TV or playing videogames. "Diet and eating habits are an area in which there is a lot that we can do as individuals to help ourselves," he informs us. No, really? Do we need to read 500 pages about primitive societies to reach such cookie-cutter self-help prescriptions?

But when Mr. Diamond gets done trying to distill everything into a few talking points suitable for a publicity release, he ends with more interesting and subtle observations. I was particularly struck by what the New Guineans themselves had to say about the benefits of having entered the modern world in the decades since their first contact with Westerners in 1931. While they valued much of the technological convenience of the Western lifestyle—matches, clothes, soft beds and especially not having to worry constantly about having enough to eat—it was the non-material benefits that loomed even larger, above all the end of tribal warfare.

"Life was better since the government had come," one Western anthropologist was told by members of the Auyuna tribe, since a man "could leave his house in the morning to urinate without fear of being shot" by an arrow from a hostile neighboring tribesman. In 1931, Mr. Diamond notes, a New Guinea highlander living a few dozen miles from the coast would never have seen the ocean in his lifetime: The idea of traveling even 10 miles from his village "without being killed by an unknown stranger . . . would have been unthinkable."

And one New Guinean woman told Mr. Diamond that what she valued most of all about life in the U.S. was its "anonymity," the freedom to be alone, to have privacy, "and not to have one's every action scrutinized and discussed." As Mr. Diamond insightfully notes, this is simultaneously one of the greatest disadvantages of the modern world, the loneliness, alienation and tension of constantly being among strangers. One wishes that the author's willingness to confront complexity and avoid simple answers had informed more of this disappointingly uneven book.

—Mr. Budiansky's latest book is "Blackett's War: The Men Who Defeated the Nazi U-boats and
Brought Science to the Art of Warfare," forthcoming from Knopf.
A version of this article appeared January 5, 2013, on page C5 in the U.S. edition of The Wall Street Journal, with the headline: Let Your Kids Play With Matches.

sábado, 8 de dezembro de 2012

Jared Diamond - The World Until Yesterday (most recent book)

O mais recente livro do autor de Armas, Germes e Aço e de Colapso.

The World Until Yesterday

by Jared Diamond

This book is available for download on your iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch with iBooks and on your computer with iTunes. Books must be read on an iOS device.

Description

The World Until YesterdayMost of us take for granted the features of our modern society, from air travel and telecommunications to literacy and obesity. Yet for nearly all of its six million years of existence, human society had none of these things. While the gulf that divides us from our primitive ancestors may seem unbridgeably wide, we can glimpse much of our former lifestyle in those largely traditional societies still or recently in existence. Societies like those of the New Guinea Highlanders remind us that it was only yesterday—in evolutionary time—when everything changed and that we moderns still possess bodies and social practices often better adapted to traditional than to modern conditions.

The World Until Yesterday provides a mesmerizing firsthand picture of the human past as it had been for millions of years—a past that has mostly vanished—and considers what the differences between that past and our present mean for our lives today.
This is Jared Diamond’s most personal book to date, as he draws extensively from his decades of field work in the Pacific islands, as well as evidence from Inuit, Amazonian Indians, Kalahari San people, and others. Diamond doesn’t romanticize traditional societies—after all, we are shocked by some of their practices—but he finds that their solutions to universal human problems such as child rearing, elder care, dispute resolution, risk, and physical fitness have much to teach us. A characteristically provocative, enlightening, and entertaining book, The World Until Yesterday will be essential and delightful reading.
 
View In iTunes
  • Available on iPhone, iPad, or iPod touch.
  • Category: World
  • Expected Release: Dec 31, 2012
  • Publisher: Penguin Group US
  • Seller: Penguin Group (USA) Inc.
  • Print Length: 512 Pages
  • Language: English
  • Requirements: This book requires iBooks 1.3.1 or later and iOS 4.3.3 or later. Books can only be viewed using iBooks on an iPad, iPhone (3G or later), or iPod touch (2nd generation or later).

domingo, 30 de setembro de 2012

O Homem: um animal suicidario - Jared Diamond


Frédéric Joignot
Le Monde29 Septembre 2012

Il habite à Bel Air, quartier très chic aux jardins luxuriants de Los Angeles, dans une grande maison de bois pleine de gravures animalières. Avec son imposant collier de barbe, ses 74 ans, il fait penser à un vieux prêcheur amish. L'homme en impose. Il faut dire que ce professeur de géographie de l'UCLA, la vénérable université de la "cité des anges", biologiste évolutionniste réputé, fait à nouveau parler de lui après l'échec du Sommet de la Terre, cet été, à Rio, où aucune mesure n'a été prise pourrendre notre planète plus durable.

Depuis, beaucoup se demandent si Jared Diamond n'a pas raison. Si l'humanité ne court pas au désastre écologique, danger contre lequel il nous a mis en garde dans son essai Effondrement (2005). Dans ce best-seller mondial, âprement discuté par l'élite scientifique, il montre comment, à plusieurs reprises, les destructions de notre environnement ont contribué à l'écroulement de sociétés. L'auteur va même jusqu'àparler d'"écocide" : le génocide écologique. Si certains critiquent son catastrophisme, Diamond donne des conférences dans le monde entier, appelant l'humanité à se ressaisir.
DURABILITÉ ET AUTODESTRUCTION
Le sommet de Rio a montré qu'avec la crise économique les exigences écologiques passent au second plan. On vient pourtant d'apprendre – un exemple parmi d'autres – que la banquise arctique risque de fondre avant 2020, que les glaciers du Groenland sont menacés, ce qui va accélérer encore le réchauffement etbouleverser la circulation des eaux océaniques. Sommes-nous entrés dans un des scénarios tragiques décrits par Jared Diamond dans Effondrement ? Il nous répond : "L'humanité est engagée dans une course entre deux attelages. L'attelage de la durabilité et celui de l'autodestruction. Aujourd'hui, les chevaux courent à peu près à la même vitesse, et personne ne sait qui va l'emporter. Mais nous saurons bien avant 2061, quand mes enfants auront atteint mon âge, qui est le gagnant."
Si Jared Diamond est tellement écouté, discuté et contesté, c'est parce qu'il a bouleversé le récit classique de l'histoire, à travers trois ouvrages colossaux dans lesquels il décrit en détail les rapports conflictuels qu'entretient l'humanité avec la nature depuis 13 000 ans. Avant Effondrement, il y a eu Le troisième chimpanzé(1992), qui décrit les premiers méfaits d'homo sapiens sur la nature et nous imagine un avenir difficile, et De l'inégalité parmi les sociétés (1998), qui montre comment la géographie favorise ou pénalise le développement de civilisations - cette somme lui a valu le prix Pulitzer.
Avec Diamond, il devient impossible de séparer l'aventure humaine de la géographie, de comprendre le développement et le déclin des sociétés sans tenircompte des ressources naturelles des pays, de leur exploitation et de leur dégradation. Ecoutons-le : "On ne peut s'imaginer pourquoi ce ne sont pas les Indiens d'Amérique du Nord qui ont conquis l'Europe avec des caravelles portant mousquets et canons ou pourquoi les Aborigènes australiens n'ont pas dominé l'Asie sans comparer les richesses agricoles de ces régions, les animaux qui y vivent, la lenteur avec laquelle s'est implantée l'agriculture, puis la pensée technicienne et la gestion des ressources."

Ler o resto nestes links: 
ou


quarta-feira, 23 de maio de 2012

Por que algumas sociedades continuam pobres? - Resenha por Jared Diamond

Um dos livros mais importantes publicados nos últimos tempos. O resenhista, Jared Diamond, é um cientista, foi editor de uma revista científica para jovens, nos EUA, Discover (que eu assinava muitos anos atrás), e é autor de vários livros; dentre os mais conhecidos estão: Armas, Germes e Aço e Colapso!
Paulo Roberto de Almeida 



What Makes Countries Rich or Poor?

JUNE 7, 2012

Jared Diamond

The New York Review of Books, May 23, 2012
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity, and Poverty
by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson 
Crown, 529 pp., $30.00                                                  
diamond_1-060712.jpg
Women in Darfur returning from Kutum market to the Fata Borno camp for internally displaced persons under the protection of African Union soldiers, January 2007; photograph by Gary Knight from Questions Without Answers: The World in Pictures by the Photographers of VII. The book has just been published by Phaidon.
The fence that divides the city of Nogales is part of a natural experiment in organizing human societies. North of the fence lies the American city of Nogales, Arizona; south of it lies the Mexican city of Nogales, Sonora. On the American side, average income and life expectancy are higher, crime and corruption are lower, health and roads are better, and elections are more democratic. Yet the geographic environment is identical on both sides of the fence, and the ethnic makeup of the human population is similar. The reasons for those differences between the two Nogaleses are the differences between the current political and economic institutions of the US and Mexico.
This example, which introduces Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, illustrates on a small scale the book’s subject.* Power, prosperity, and poverty vary greatly around the world. Norway, the world’s richest country, is 496 times richer than Burundi, the world’s poorest country (average per capita incomes $84,290 and $170 respectively, according to the World Bank). Why? That’s a central question of economics.
Different economists have different views about the relative importance of the conditions and factors that make countries richer or poorer. The factors they most discuss are so-called “good institutions,” which may be defined as laws and practices that motivate people to work hard, become economically productive, and thereby enrich both themselves and their countries. They are the basis of the Nogales anecdote, and the focus of Why Nations Fail. In the authors’ words:
The reason that Nogales, Arizona, is much richer than Nogales, Sonora, is simple: it is because of the very different institutions on the two sides of the border, which create very different incentives for the inhabitants of Nogales, Arizona, versus Nogales, Sonora.
Among the good economic institutions that motivate people to become productive are the protection of their private property rights, predictable enforcement of their contracts, opportunities to invest and retain control of their money, control of inflation, and open exchange of currency. For instance, people are motivated to work hard if they have opportunities to invest their earnings profitably, but not if they have few such opportunities or if their earnings or profits are likely to be confiscated.
There is no doubt that good institutions are important in determining a country’s wealth. But why have some countries ended up with good institutions, while others haven’t? The most important factor behind their emergence is the historical duration of centralized government. Until the rise of the world’s first states, beginning around 3400 BC, all human societies were bands or tribes or chiefdoms, without any of the complex economic institutions of governments. A long history of government doesn’t guarantee good institutions but at least permits them; a short history makes them very unlikely. One can’t just suddenly introduce government institutions and expect people to adopt them and to unlearn their long history of tribal organization.
That cruel reality underlies the tragedy of modern nations, such as Papua New Guinea, whose societies were until recently tribal. Oil and mining companies there pay royalties intended for local landowners through village leaders, but the leaders often keep the royalties for themselves. That’s because they have internalized their society’s practice by which clan leaders pursue their personal interests and their own clan’s interests, rather than representing everyone’s interests.
The various durations of government around the world are linked to the various durations and productivities of farming that was the prerequisite for the rise of governments. For example, Europe began to acquire highly productive agriculture 9,000 years ago and state government by at least 4,000 years ago, but subequatorial Africa acquired less productive agriculture only between 2,000 and 1,800 years ago and state government even more recently. Those historical differences prove to have huge effects on the modern distribution of wealth. Ola Olsson and Douglas Hibbs showed that, on average, nations in which agriculture arose many millennia ago—e.g., European nations—tend to be richer today than nations with a shorter history of agriculture (e.g., subequatorial African nations), and that this factor explains about half of all the modern national variation in wealth. Valerie Bockstette, Areendam Chanda, and Louis Putterman showed further that, if one compares countries that were equally poor fifty years ago (e.g., South Korea and Ghana), the countries with a long history of state government (e.g., South Korea) have on the average been getting rich faster than those with a short history (e.g., Ghana).
An additional factor behind the origin of the good institutions that I discussed above is termed “the reversal of fortune,” and is the subject of Chapter 9 of Why Nations Fail. Among non-European countries colonized by Europeans during the last five hundred years, those that were initially richer and more advanced tend paradoxically to be poorer today. That’s because, in formerly rich countries with dense native populations, such as Peru, Indonesia, and India, Europeans introduced corrupt “extractive” economic institutions, such as forced labor and confiscation of produce, to drain wealth and labor from the natives. (By extractive economic institutions, Acemoglu and Robinson mean practices and policies “designed to extract incomes and wealth from one subset of society [the masses] to benefit a different subset [the governing elite].”)
But in formerly poor countries with sparse native populations, such as Costa Rica and Australia, European settlers had to work themselves and developed institutional incentives rewarding work. When the former colonies achieved independence, they variously inherited either the extractive institutions that coerced the masses to produce wealth for dictators and the elite, or else institutions by which the government shared power and gave people incentives to pursue. The extractive institutions retarded economic development, but incentivizing institutions promoted it.
The remaining factor contributing to good institutions, of which Acemoglu and Robinson mention some examples, involves another paradox, termed “the curse of natural resources.” One might naively expect countries generously endowed with natural resources (such as minerals, oil, and tropical hardwoods) to be richer than countries poorer in natural resources. In fact, the trend is opposite, the result of the many ways in which national dependence on certain types of natural resources (like diamonds and oil) tends to promote bad institutions, such as corruption, civil wars, inflation, and neglect of education.
An example, mentioned in Chapter 12, is the diamond boom in Sierra Leone, which contributed to that nation’s impoverishment. Other examples are Nigeria’s and the Congo’s poverty despite their wealth in oil and minerals respectively. In all three of those cases, selfish dictators or elites found that they themselves could become richer by taking the profits from natural resources for their personal gain, rather than investing the profits for the good of their nation. But some countries with prescient leaders or citizens avoided the curse of natural resources by investing the proceeds in economic development and education. As a result, oil-producing Norway is now the world’s richest country, and oil-producing Trinidad and Tobago now enjoys an income approaching that of Britain, its former colonial ruler.
Those are the main sets of institutional factors promoting power, prosperity, or poverty, and their roots. The other large set consists of geographic factors with direct economic consequences not mediated by institutions. One of those geographic factors leaps out of a map of the world in Why Nations Fail that depicts national incomes. On that map, both Africa and the Americas resemble peanut butter sandwiches, with thick cores of poor tropical countries squeezed between two thin slices of richer countries in the north and south temperate zones.
In the New World the two north temperate countries (the US and Canada, average incomes respectively $47,390 and $43,270) and the three south temperate countries (Uruguay, Chile, and Argentina, respectively $10,590, $10,120, and $8,620) are all richer—on the average five times richer—than almost all of the intervening seventeen tropical countries of mainland Central and South America (incomes mostly between $1,110 and $6,970). Similarly, mainland Africa is a sandwich of thirty-seven mostly desperately poor tropical countries, flanked by two thin slices each consisting of five modestly affluent or less desperately poor countries in Africa’s north and south temperate zones (see map).
Diamond-Africa_map-060212
Mainland Africa’s ‘peanut butter sandwich’ of national wealth. Tropical African countries constitute a thick core between two thinner slices of countries in the north and south temperate zones. All temperate mainland African countries except landlocked Lesotho in the south have average annual incomes above $2,400 (gray), ranging up to over $12,000. All except three tropical mainland African countries—Equatorial Guinea, Gabon, and Angola— have average incomes below $2,200 (red), ranging down to as low as $170 (Burundi).
While institutions are undoubtedly part of the explanation, they leave much unexplained: some of those richer temperate countries are notorious for their histories of bad institutions (think of Algeria, Argentina, Egypt, and Libya), while some of the tropical countries (e.g., Costa Rica and Tanzania) have had relatively more honest governments. What are the economic disadvantages of a tropical location?
Two major factors contribute to the poverty of tropical countries compared to temperate countries: diseases and agricultural productivity. The tropics are notoriously unhealthy. Tropical diseases differ on average from temperate diseases, in several respects. First, there are far more parasitic diseases (such as elephantiasis and schistosomiasis) in tropical areas, because cold temperate winters kill parasite stages outside our bodies, but tropical parasites can thrive outside our bodies all year long. Second, disease vectors, such as mosquitoes and ticks, are far more diverse in tropical than in temperate areas.
Finally, biological characteristics of the responsible microbes have made it easier to develop vaccines against major infectious diseases of temperate areas than against tropical diseases; we still aren’t close to a vaccine against malaria, despite billions of dollars invested. Hence tropical diseases impose a huge burden on economies of tropical countries. At any given moment, much of the population is sick and unable to work efficiently. Many women in tropical areas can’t join the workforce because they are constantly nursing and caring for babies conceived as insurance against the expected deaths of some of their older children from malaria.
As for agricultural productivity, it averages lower in tropical than in temperate areas, again for several reasons. First, temperate plants store more energy in parts edible to us humans (such as seeds and tubers) than do tropical plants. Second, diseases borne by insects and other pests reduce crop yields more in the tropics than in the temperate zones, because the pests are more diverse and survive better year-round in tropical than in temperate areas. Third, glaciers repeatedly advanced and retreated over temperate areas, creating young nutrient-rich soils. Tropical lowland areas haven’t been glaciated and hence tend to have older soils, leached of their nutrients by rain for thousands of years. (Young fertile volcanic and alluvial soils are exceptions.) Fourth, the higher average rainfall of tropical than of temperate areas results in more nutrients being leached out of the soil by rain.
Finally, higher tropical temperatures cause dead leaves and other organic matter falling to the ground to be broken down quickly by microbes and other organisms, releasing their nutrients to be leached away. Hence in temperate areas soil fertility is on average higher, crop losses to pests lower, and agricultural productivity higher than in tropical areas. That’s why Argentina in South America’s south temperate zone, despite its conspicuous lack (for most of its history) of the good institutions praised by economists, is the leading food exporter in Latin America, and one of the leading ones in the world.
Thus, geographical latitude acting independently of institutions is an important geographic factor affecting power, prosperity, and poverty. The other important geographic factor is whether an area is accessible to ocean-going ships because it lies either on the sea coast or on a navigable river. It costs roughly seven times more to ship a ton of cargo by land than by sea. That puts landlocked countries at an economic disadvantage, and helps explain why landlocked Bolivia and semilandlocked Paraguay are the poorest countries of South America. It also helps explain why Africa, with no river navigable to the sea for hundreds of miles except the Nile, and with fifteen landlocked nations, is the poorest continent. Eleven of those fifteen landlocked African nations have average incomes of $600 or less; only two countries outside Africa (Afghanistan and Nepal, both also landlocked) are as poor.
The remaining major factor underlying wealth and poverty is the state of the natural environment. All human populations depend to varying degrees on renewable natural resources—especially on forests, water, soils, and seafood. It’s tricky to manage such resources sustainably. Countries that excessively deplete their resources—whether inadvertently or intentionally—tend to impoverish themselves, although the difficulty of estimating accurately the costs of resource destruction causes economists to ignore it. It helps explain why notoriously deforested countries—such as Haiti, Rwanda, Burundi, Madagascar, and Nepal—tend to be notoriously poor and politically unstable.
These, then, are the main factors invoked to understand why nations differ in wealth. The factors are multiple and diverse. We all know, from our personal experience, that there isn’t one simple answer to the question why each of us becomes richer or poorer: it depends on inheritance, education, ambition, talent, health, personal connections, opportunities, and luck, just to mention some factors. Hence we shouldn’t be surprised that the question of why whole societies become richer or poorer also cannot be given one simple answer.
Within this frame, Acemoglu and Robinson focus on institutional factors: initially on economic institutions, and then on the political institutions that create them. In their words, “while economic institutions are critical for determining whether a country is poor or prosperous, it is politics and political institutions that determine what economic institutions a country has.” In particular, they stress what they term inclusive economic and political institutions: “Inclusive economic institutions…are those that allow and encourage participation by the great mass of people in economic activities that make best use of their talents and skills and that enable individuals to make the choices they wish.” For example, in South Korea but not in North Korea people can get a good education, own property, start a business, sell products and services, accumulate and invest capital, spend money in open markets, take out a mortgage to buy a house, and thereby expect that by working harder they may enjoy a good life.
Such inclusive economic institutions in turn arise from “political institutions that distribute power broadly in society and subject it to constraints…. Instead of being vested in a single individual or a narrow group, [inclusive] political power rests with a broad coalition or a plurality of groups.” South Korea recently, and Britain and the US beginning much earlier, do have broad participation of citizens in political decisions; North Korea does not. Inclusive economic and political institutions provide individuals with incentives to increase their economic productivity as they think best. Such inclusive institutions are to be contrasted with absolutist political institutions that narrowly concentrate political power, and with extractive economic institutions that force people to work largely for the benefit of dictators. The ultimate development of inclusive political institutions to date is in modern Scandinavian democracies with universal suffrage and relatively egalitarian societies. However, compared to modern dictatorships (like North Korea) and the absolute monarchies widespread in the past, societies (such as eighteenth-century Britain) in which only a minority of citizens could vote or participate in political decisions still represented a big advance toward inclusiveness.
From this striking dichotomy, the authors draw thought-provoking conclusions. While absolutist regimes with extractive economic institutions can sometimes achieve economic growth, that growth is based on existing technology, and is nonsustainable and prone to collapse; whereas inclusive institutions are required for sustained growth based on technological change. One might naively expect dictators to promote long-term economic growth, because such growth would generate more wealth for them to extract. But their efforts are warped, because what’s economically good for individual citizens may be bad for the political elite, and because economic growth may be best promoted by political institutions that would shake the elite’s hegemony.
Why Nations Fail offers case studies to illustrate these points: the economic rises and subsequent declines of the Soviet Union and the Ottoman Empire; the resistance of tsarist Russia and the Habsburg Empire to building railroads, out of fear that they would undermine the landed aristocracy’s power and foster revolution; and, especially relevant today, the likely future trajectory of Communist China, whose growth prospects appear unlimited to many Western observers—but not to Acemoglu and Robinson, who write that China’s growth “is likely to run out of steam.”
In their narrow focus on inclusive institutions, however, the authors ignore or dismiss other factors. I mentioned earlier the effects of an area’s being landlocked or of environmental damage, factors that they don’t discuss. Even within the focus on institutions, the concentration specifically on inclusive institutions causes the authors to give inadequate accounts of the ways that natural resources can be a curse. True, the book provides anecdotes of the resource curse (Sierra Leone cursed by diamonds), and of how the curse was successfully avoided (in Botswana). But the book doesn’t explain which resources especially lend themselves to the curse (diamonds yes, iron no) and why. Nor does the book show how some big resource producers like the US and Australia avoid the curse (they are democracies whose economies depend on much else besides resource exports), nor which other resource-dependent countries besides Sierra Leone and Botswana respectively succumbed to or overcame the curse. The chapter on reversal of fortune surprisingly doesn’t mention the authors’ own interesting findings about how the degree of reversal depends on prior wealth and on health threats to Europeans.
Two major factors that Acemoglu and Robinson do mention, only to dismiss them in a few sentences, are tropical diseases and tropical agricultural productivity:
Tropical diseases obviously cause much suffering and high rates of infant mortality in Africa, but they are not the reason Africa is poor. Disease is largely a consequence of poverty and of governments being unable or unwilling to undertake the public health measures necessary to eradicate them…. The prime determinant of why agricultural productivity—agricultural output per acre—is so low in many poor countries, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa, has little to do with soil quality. Rather, it is a consequence of the ownership structure of the land and the incentives that are created for farmers by the governments and institutions under which they live.
These sweeping statements, which will astonish anyone knowledgeable about the subjects, brush off two entire fields of science, tropical medicine and agricultural science. As I summarized above, the well-known facts of tropical biology, geology, and climatology saddle tropical countries with much bigger problems than temperate countries.
A second weakness involves the historical origins of what Acemoglu and Robinson identify as inclusive economic and political institutions, with their consequences for wealth. Some countries, such as Britain and Japan, have such institutions, while other countries, such as Ethiopia and the Congo, don’t. To explain why, the authors give a just-so story of each country’s history, which ends by concluding that that story explains why that country either did or didn’t develop good institutions. For instance, Britain adopted inclusive institutions, we are told, as a result of the Glorious Revolution of 1688 and preceding events; and Japan reformed its institutions after 1868; but Ethiopia remained absolutist. Acemoglu and Robinson’s view of history is that small effects at critical junctures have long-lasting effects, so it’s hard to make predictions. While they don’t say so explicitly, this view suggests that good institutions should have cropped up randomly around the world, depending on who happened to decide what at some particular place and time.
But it’s obvious that good institutions, and the wealth and power that they spawned, did not crop up randomly. For instance, all Western European countries ended up richer and with better institutions than any tropical African country. Big underlying differences led to this divergence of outcomes. Europe has had a long history (of up to nine thousand years) of agriculture based on the world’s most productive crops and domestic animals, both of which were domesticated in and introduced to Europe from the Fertile Crescent, the crescent-shaped region running from the Persian Gulf through southeastern Turkey to Upper Egypt. Agriculture in tropical Africa is only between 1,800 and 5,000 years old and based on less productive domesticated crops and imported animals.
As a result, Europe has had up to four thousand years’ experience of government, complex institutions, and growing national identities, compared to a few centuries or less for all of sub-Saharan Africa. Europe has glaciated fertile soils, reliable summer rainfall, and few tropical diseases; tropical Africa has unglaciated and extensively infertile soils, less reliable rainfall, and many tropical diseases. Within Europe, Britain had the further advantages of being an island rarely at risk from foreign armies, and of fronting on the Atlantic Ocean, which became open after 1492 to overseas trade.
It should be no surprise that countries with those advantages ended up rich and with good institutions, while countries with those disadvantages didn’t. The chain of causation leading slowly from productive agriculture to government, state formation, complex institutions, and wealth involved agriculturally driven population explosions and accumulations of food surpluses, leading in turn to the need for centralized decision-making in societies much too populous for decision-making by face-to-face discussions involving all citizens, and the possibility of using the food surpluses to support kings and their bureaucrats. This process unfolded independently, beginning around 3400 BC, in many different parts of the ancient world with productive agriculture, including the Fertile Crescent, Egypt, China, the Indus Valley, Crete, the Valley of Mexico, the Andes, and Polynesian Hawaii.
The remaining weakness is the authors’ resort to assertion unsupported or contradicted by facts. An example is their attempt to expand their focus on institutions in order to explain the origins of agriculture. All humans were originally hunter/gatherers who independently became farmers in only about nine small areas scattered around the world. A century of research by botanists and archaeologists has shown that what made those areas exceptional was their wealth of wild plant and animal species suitable for domestication (such as wild wheats and corn).
While the usual pattern was for nomadic hunter/gatherers to become sedentary farmers, there were exceptions: some nomadic hunter/gatherers initially became nomadic farmers (Mexico and lowland New Guinea) while others never became farmers (Aboriginal Australia); some sedentary hunter/gatherers became sedentary farmers (the Fertile Crescent) while others never became farmers (Pacific Northwest Indians); and some sedentary farmers reverted to being nomadic hunter/gatherers (southern Sweden about four thousand years ago).
In their Chapter 5, Acemoglu and Robinson use one of those exceptional patterns (that for the Fertile Crescent) to assert, in the complete absence of evidence, that those particular hunter/gatherers had become sedentary because, for unknown reasons, they happened to develop innovative institutions through a hypothesized political revolution. They assert further that the origins of farming depended on their preferred explanation of institutional innovation, rather than on the local availability of domesticable wild species identified by botanists and archaeologists.
Among arguments to refute that widely shared interpretation, Acemoglu and Robinson redraw in their Map 5 on page 56 the maps on pages 56 and 66 of archaeobotanists Daniel Zohary and Maria Hopf’s book Domestication of Plants in the Old World, depicting the distributions of wild barley and of one of the two hybrid ancestors of one of the three wheats (which Acemoglu and Robinson misleadingly identify just as “wheat”). They take these maps to mean that “the ancestors of barley and wheat were distributed along a long arc” beyond the Fertile Crescent, hence that the Fertile Crescent’s unique role in agriculture’s origins “was not determined by the availability of plant and animal species.”
What Zohary and Hopf actually showed was that wild emmer wheat is confined to the Fertile Crescent, and that the areas of extensive spread of wild barley and wild einkorn wheat are also confined to the Fertile Crescent, and that the wild ancestors of all the other original Fertile Crescent crops are also confined to or centered on the Fertile Crescent, and hence that the Fertile Crescent was the only area in which local agriculture could have arisen. Acemoglu and Robinson do themselves a disservice by misstating these findings.
My overall assessment of the authors’ argument is that inclusive institutions, while not the overwhelming determinant of prosperity that they claim, are an important factor. Perhaps they provide 50 percent of the explanation for national differences in prosperity. That’s enough to establish such institutions as one of the major forces in the modern world. Why Nations Fail offers an excellent way for any interested reader to learn about them and their consequences. Whereas most writing by academic economists is incomprehensible to the lay public, Acemoglu and Robinson have written this book so that it can be understood and enjoyed by all of us who aren’t economists.
Why Nations Fail should be required reading for politicians and anyone concerned with economic development. The authors’ discussions of what can and can’t be done today to improve conditions in poor countries are thought-provoking and will stimulate debate. Donors and international agencies try to “engineer prosperity” either by foreign aid or by urging poor countries to adopt good economic policies. But there is widespread disappointment with the results of these well-intentioned efforts. Acemoglu and Robinson pithily diagnose the cause of these disappointing outcomes in their final chapter: “Attempting to engineer prosperity without confronting the root cause of the problems—extractive institutions and the politics that keeps them in place—is unlikely to bear fruit.”
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    Full disclosure: I provided a book jacket quote of praise. I co-edited one book and co-organized two conferences with James Robinson.