The past week has been a lesson in the perils and the apparent inevitability of overreach. The most eye-catching example has been in Turkey, where what began as a few people protesting a planned shopping mall has burst into a mass revolt against the governing of Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan.
We are living in the age of the technocrats. In business, Big Data, and the Big Brains who can parse it, rule. In government, the technocrats are on top, too. From Washington to Frankfurt to Rome, technocrats have stepped in where politicians feared to tread, rescuing economies, or at least propping them up, in the process.
To understand the significance of the presidential election this weekend in Russia, read a book by two U.S.-based academics that is being published this month. Why Nations Fail by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University, respectively, is a wildly ambitious work that hopscotches through history and around the world to answer the very big question of why some countries get rich and others don’t.
One casualty of the uprisings in the Middle East has been the professionals who didn’t see them coming. The International Monetary Fund has taken a hit for its April 2010 report on Egypt, which praised the country’s ‘‘sustained and wide-ranging reforms since 2004,’’ noting they had made the economy more durable and less vulnerable to external shocks. Ditto the C.I.A., whose director, Leon Panetta, endured the very personal ignominy of seeing his public predictions to Congress proven wrong within hours of making them.
They are being called the Facebook revolutions, but a better term for the uprisings sweeping through the Middle East might be the Groupon effect. That is because one of the most powerful consequences satellite television and the Internet have had for the protest movements is to help them overcome the problem of collective action, in the same way that Groupon has harnessed the Web for retailers.
Daron Acemoglu of MIT is #88 on Foreign Policy‘s list of the 100 Top Global Thinkers of 2010. Acemoglu tells Chrystia that his big ideas involve “the relationship between democracy and development” and “the historical roots of economic success and political success, and unfortunately also economic failure and political failure, across nations.” Professor Acemoglu explains why he disagrees with modernization theory, which states that nations tend to democratize as they get richer. He also disagrees with the thesis of fellow FP Global Thinker Raghuram Rajan that income inequality was a root cause of the most recent financial crisis. Acemoglu also discusses the prospects for democratization in China, and Russia’s project to replicate Silicon Valley outside Moscow. His next big idea, he hinted, is exploring the relationship between individualism and society.