Published Papers

Acemoglu, Daron, and James A Robinson. 2010. “Why is Africa Poor?” Economic History of Developing Regions 25 (1 June 2010): 21-50 . Abstract
In this paper we take for granted that the poverty of Sub-Saharan Africa is to a large part explained by its political and economic institutions. As citizens Africans do not have the incentives to save and invest, as politicians they do not have the incentive to provide public goods. We focus on the issue of how Africa developed such institutions. Historically, no society had the types of institutions required for modern economic growth, though a few had elements of them for quite long periods. Growth arose when institutional transitions took place. We argue that the historical dynamics of institutions in Africa have been different. Processes of state formation seem to have been delayed relative to Eurasia, and state institutions appear to have been intensely absolutist and patrimonial. These initial institutions interacted in a perverse way with a series of shocks that hit Africa, in particular the slave trade in the early modern period, and colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries. Africa countries emerged at independence with a complex path dependent set of institutions that were probably even worse than those which they had at the time of colonization. It was these that precipitated authoritarianism, sustained economic decline and reinforced the poverty we see in Africa today.
Acemoglu, Daron, Simon Johnson, James A Robinson, and Yunyong Thaicharoen. 2003. “Institutional causes, macroeconomic symptoms: volatility, crises and growth.” Journal of Monetary Economics 50: 49–123. Abstract
Countries that have pursued distortionary macroeconomic policies, including high inflation, large budget deficits and misaligned exchange rates, appear to have suffered more macroeconomic volatility and also grown more slowly during the postwar period. Does this reflect the causal effect of these macroeconomic policies on economic outcomes? One reason to suspect that the answer may be no is that countries pursuing poor macroeconomic policies also have weak "institutions," including political institutions that do not constrain politicians and political elites, ineffective enforcement of property rights for investors, widespread corruption, and a high degree of political instability. This paper documents that countries that inherited more "extractive" institutions from their colonial past were more likely to experience high volatility and economic crises during the postwar period. More specifically, societies where European colonists faced high mortality rates more than 100 years ago are much more volatile and prone to crises. Based on our previous work, we interpret this relationship as due to the causal effect of institutions on economic outcomes: Europeans did not settle and were more likely to set up extractive institutions in areas where they faced high mortality. Once we control for the effect of institutions, macroeconomic policies appear to have only a minor impact on volatility and crises. This suggests that distortionary macroeconomic policies are more likely to be symptoms of underlying institutional problems rather than the main causes of economic volatility, and also that the effects of institutional differences on volatility do not appear to be primarily mediated by any of the standard macroeconomic variables. Instead, it appears that weak institutions cause volatility through a number of microeconomic, as well as macroeconomic, channels.
Robinson, James A, Daron Acemoglu, and Thierry Verdier. 2004. “Alfred Marshall Lecture—Kleptocracy and Divide-and-rule: A Model of Personal Rule.” Journal of the European Economic Association 2 (2-3): 162-192. Abstract
Many developing countries have suffered under the personal rule of kleptocrats, who implement highly inefficient economic policies, expropriate the wealth of their citizens, and use the proceeds for their own glorification or consumption. We argue that the success of kleptocrats rests, in part, on their ability to use a divide-and-rule strategy, made possible by the weakness of institutions in these societies. Members of society need to cooperate in order to depose a kleptocrat, yet such cooperation may be defused by imposing punitive rates of taxation on any citizen who proposes such a move, and redistributing the benefits to those who need to agree to it. Thus the collective action problem can be intensified by threats which remain off the equilibrium path. In equilibrium, all are exploited and no one challenges the kleptocrat. Kleptocratic policies are more likely when foreign aid and rents from natural resources provide rulers with substantial resources to buy off opponents; when opposition groups are short sighted; when the average productivity in the economy is low; and when there is greater inequality between producer groups (because more productive groups are more difficult to buy off).
Robinson, James A, and Daron Acemoglu. 2000. “Democratization or Repression?” European Economic Review 44: 683-693. Abstract
Regimes controlled by a rich elite often collapse and make way for democracy amidst widespread social unrest. Such regime changes are often followed by redistribution to the poor at the expense of the former elite. We argue that the reason why the elite may have to resort to full-scale democratization, despite its apparent costs to themselves, may be that lesser concessions would be viewed as a sign a weakness and spur further unrest and more radical demands. The elite may therefore be forced to choose between repression and the most generous concession, a transition to full democracy.
Robinson, James A, Daron Acemoglu, and Simon Johnson. 2003. “Disease and Development in Historical Perspective.” Journal of the European Economic Association 1 (2–3): 397–405. Abstract
Health conditions and disease environments are important for economic outcomes. This paper argues that the main impact of disease environments on the economic development of nations is not due to the direct effect of health conditions on income, but rather because of their indirect effect via institutions. Health does affect income directly, but this can explain only a small fraction of today's differences in per capita income. In contrast, when previously isolated populations came into contact during the period of European colonial expansion, differences in disease environments had a major impact on the path of institutional development and consequently first-order consequences for economic growth.
Robinson, James A, and Daron Acemoglu. 2006. “Economic Backwardness in Political Perspective.” American Political Science Review 100 (1): 115-131. Abstract
We construct a simple model where political elites may block technological and institutional development, because of a "political replacement effect." Innovations often erode elites' incumbency advantage, increasing the likelihood that they will be replaced. Fearing replacement, political elites are unwilling to initiate change and may even block economic development. We show that the relationship between blocking and political competition is nonmonotonic: elites are unlikely to block development when there is a high degree of political competition or when they are highly entrenched. It is only when political competition is limited and also when their power is threatened that elites will block development. Blocking is also more likely when political stakes are higher, for example, because of land rents enjoyed by the elites. External threats, on the other hand, may reduce the incentives to block.
Robinson, James A. 2006. “Economic Development and Democracy.” Annual Review of Political Science 9: 503-527. Abstract
In this essay, I review recent research on the effects of economic development on democracy. On the theoretical side, for the first time there has been a systematic attempt to bring the types of formal models developed by economists and political scientists outside of comparative politics to bear on the origins of democracy. I present a simple analytical framework that captures some of the results in this literature. On the empirical side, the issue of identifying causal relationships in the data is finally receiving attention. However, the application of techniques adopted from best-practice econometrics shows no evidence that economic development has a causal effect on democracy. Neither does it support the idea that economic development influences the probability of coups but not democratizations. More likely, and in line with the model I develop, income per capita and democracy are correlated because the same features of a society simultaneously determine how prosperous and how democratic it is. There is still a lot to learn on this topic.
Robinson, James A, and Jonathan H Conning. 2009. “Enclaves and Development: An Empirical Assessment.” Studies in Comparative International Development 44: 359-385. Abstract
In this paper we investigate empirically whether or not the notion of an enclave adds substantially to existing knowledge of the determinants of long-run economic, political, or institutional development. We discuss the prominent place of enclaves in historical accounts in the dependent development literature, particularly in the work of Cardoso and Faletto (1966, 1979) and the large difficulties of determining in practice whether or not a country was or was not an enclave. We find little evidence for a relationship between past enclave status and long-run growth, inequality, or the size of the government. However, there does seem to be some preliminary evidence that countries that were enclaves have greater state capacity than non-enclaves and have been less democratic in the post-WWII period.
Robinson, James A. 2006. “Equity, Institutions and the Development Process.” Nordic Journal of Political Economy 32: 17-50. Abstract
In this essay I argue that to develop institutions that promote economic development societies must be equitable in fundamental ways. I particularly emphasize how important an equitable distribution of political power in society is to have well functioning institutions that support market activities. I show these ideas are consistent with broad patterns in the cross-national data and country case studies.
Robinson, James A. 2003. “From Current-Day Russia to Porfirio's Mexico.” Studies in Comparative International Development 38 (3): 81-92. Abstract
Good economic institutions promote prosperity. Yet bad institutions can persist because they induce patterns of distribution that benefit certain groups, which accordingly have a vested interest in the status quo. In Without a Map: Political Tactics and Economic Reform in Russia, Andrei Shleifer and Daniel Treisman show how politicians in Russia used a specific kind of deal, a mixture of expropriation and co-optation, to destroy these vested interests in the transition to a market economy. In this essay I show that there are close analogies between institutional change in contemporary Russia, and that which occurred in nineteenth century Latin America, particularly in Mexico during the Porfiriato. After developing the analogy I draw some conclusions from the Mexican experience for the long-run implications of Shleifer-Treisman deals. The good news is that sustained economic growth is possible with the institutions that Russia seems to have developed. The bad news is that these may lead to extreme social conflict and ultimately revolution. I argue that there are two mitigating factors in Russia that provide grounds for optimism that revolution may be avoided. First, Russia is a democracy; second, the role of foreign investment is limited.