Robinson, James A, Daron Acemoglu, and Simon Johnson. 2004. “Institutions, Volatility, and Crises.” Growth and Productivity in East Asia, Chicago and London, edited by Takatoshi Ito and Andrew K Rose, 71-108. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
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).
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 Simon Johnson. 2003. “An African Success Story: Botswana.” In Search of Prosperity: Analytic Narratives on Economic Growth, edited by Dani Rodrik, 80-119. Princeton: Princeton University Press.
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.
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.
Among countries colonized by European powers during the past 500 years, those that were relatively rich in 1500 are now relatively poor. We document this reversal using data on urbanization patterns and population density, which, we argue, proxy for economic prosperity. This reversal weighs against a view that links economic development to geographic factors. Instead, we argue that the reversal reflects changes in the institutions resulting from European colonialism. The European intervention appears to have created an "institutional reversal" among these societies, meaning that Europeans were more likely to introduce institutions encouraging investment in regions that were previously poor. This institutional reversal accounts for the reversal in relative incomes. We provide further support for this view by documenting that the reversal in relative incomes took place during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and resulted from societies with good institutions taking advantage of the opportunity to industrialize.
Robinson, James A, and Jean-Marie Baland. 2002. “Rotten Parents.” Journal of Public Economics 84: 341-356. Abstract
We study the implications of the trade-off between child quality and child quantity for the efficiency of the rate of population growth. We show that if quantity and quality are inversely related then, even in the case of full altruism within the family, population growth is inefficiently high, if the family does not have, or does not choose to use, compensating instruments (for example, bequests or savings are at a corner). In non-altruistic models this trade-off certainly generates a population problem. We therefore prove that the repugnant conclusion is not only repugnant, it may be inefficient. Moreover, we cannot expect intra-family contracting to resolve the inefficiency since it involves contracts which are not credible.
There are many well-developed theories that explain why governments redistribute income, but very few can explain why this often is done in a socially inefficient form. In the theory we develop, compared to efficient methods, inefficient redistribution makes it more attractive to stay in or enter a group that receives subsidies. When political institutions cannot credibly commit to future policy, and when the political influence of a group depends on its size, inefficient redistribution is a tool to sustain political power. Our model may account for the choice of inefficient redistributive policies in agriculture, trade, and the labor market. It also implies that when factors of production are less specific to a sector, inefficient redistribution may be more prevalent.
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.
We build a model of child labor and study its implications for welfare. We assume that there is a trade-off between child labor and the accumulation of human capital. Even if parents are altruistic and child labor is socially inefficient, it may arise in equilibrium because parents fail to fully internalize its negative effects. This occurs when bequests are zero or when capital markets are imperfect. We also study the effects of a simple ban on child labor and derive conditions under which it may be Pareto improving in general equilibrium. We show that the implications of child labor for fertility are ambiguous.
During the nineteenth centurymostWestern societies extended voting rights, a decision that led to unprecedented redistributive programs. We argue that these political reforms can be viewed as strategic decisions by the political elite to prevent widespread social unrest and revolution. Political transition, rather than redistribution under existing political institutions, occurs because current transfers do not ensure future transfers, while the extension of the franchise changes future political equilibria and acts as a commitment to redistribution. Our theory also offers a novel explanation for the Kuznets curve in many Western economies during this period, with the fall in inequality following redistribution due to democratization.