Chrystia Freeland

Some cracks in the technocrat cult

Chrystia Freeland
May 23, 2013 21:05 UTC

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.

Technocrats are in vogue within the intelligentsia, too. It is well nigh impossible to pick up a book about any social or political issue nowadays (including, I hasten to admit, my own) without coming across some data-heavy social science research. And the familiar pleas for common sense and a centrist approach, free from the taint of ideology, usually boil down to a call to put the technocrats in charge.

Technocrats have a lot to recommend them. We do, after all, live in the age of Big Data, and ignoring it or not being able to use it is a sure path to either bankruptcy or humiliation – witness the data jock extraordinaire Nate Silver and his legendary smackdowns of columnists who rely on anecdote and intuition.

But, particularly in the wake of 2008, a global crisis that technocrats both helped cause and failed to predict, there are also sound reasons not to rely mechanically on technocratic solutions. That’s why it is worth reading a new paper by Daron Acemoglu of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and James Robinson of Harvard University.

In their seminal 2012 book, “Why Nations Fail,” Acemoglu and Robinson offered a powerful new framework for understanding why some societies thrive and others decline – those based on inclusive growth succeed, while those where growth is extractive wither.

Prosperity, autocracy and democracy

Chrystia Freeland
Mar 2, 2012 00:00 UTC

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.

Their one-word answer, as Acemoglu summed it up for me, is ‘‘politics.’’ Acemoglu and Robinson divide the world into countries governed by ‘‘inclusive’’ institutions and those ruled by ‘‘extractive’’ ones. Inclusive societies, with England and its Glorious Revolution of 1688 in the vanguard, deliver sustainable growth and technological innovation. Extractive ones can have spurts of prosperity, but because they are ruled by a narrow elite guided by its own self-interest, their economic vigor eventually fades.

‘‘It is really about societies that have a more equitable distribution of political power versus those that don’t,’’ Acemoglu told me. ‘‘It is about societies where the elite, the rich, can do what they want and those where they cannot.’’