REVERSAL OF FORTUNE

REVERSAL OF FORTUNE: GEOGRAPHY AND INSTITUTIONS IN THE MAKING OF THE MODERN WORLD INCOME DISTRIBUTION

D. Acemoglu, S. Johnson & J.A. Robinson

The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 117, No. 4 (Nov., 20020 pg. 1231-1294

This is a very short summary taken from an essay I wrote. It is not intended to be a full exposition but rather a study aide.

AJR take a similar approach [to Engerman and Sokoloff] albeit they illustrate their thesis with statistical findings. They show there is a negative relationship between countries that were relatively rich in 1500 and economic prosperity today; the “reversal of fortune”.[1] They use population density and extent of urbanization as proxies for economic wealth in 1500 and argue that it was the relatively poor areas in which the “institutions of private property” were established whereas the norm in relatively richer areas was “extractive institutions” where power is concentrated in an elite and expropriation risks for the population in general are large. This is because “relative prosperity made extractive institutions more profitable for the colonizers; for example, the native population could be forced to work in mines and plantations”.[2] They posit that societies with good institutions are more able to take advantage of the opportunity to industrialize as private property institutions are “essential for investment incentives and successful economic performance.”[3] For example, they show that the regression analysis of current income against urbanization in 1500 predicts that Uruguay which had no urbanization in 1500 should have a current income 105% greater than Guatemala which in 1500 had an urbanization rate of 9.2%, and this turns out to be pretty close to the truth.[4] In order to prove the effectiveness of their instrument, and to thus prove that institutions cause growth and not vice versa, they have to show that the urbanization/population density in 1500 has no direct effect on current GPD levels other than through the effect it had on early institutions. Once they include the variable in their regression and control for the effect of institutions they cannot reject the null hypothesis that the coefficient of the instrumental variable is equal to 0, in other words that it does not explain any of the variation in GDP other than through its effect on institutions.[5]

Although similar to the ES hypothesis in that AJR are supporting what has come to be known as the “institutional hypothesis”, the instrument they employ is pointedly different to that of factor endowments. Indeed they specifically control for geographic variables including soil type and climate and do not find them statistically significant in explaining variation in GDP today.  They also engage much more directly with other hypotheses such as the “geography hypothesis” as well as the “colonial identity hypothesis”, the “latitude hypothesis” and the “religious hypothesis” and conclude that once they have controlled for geographic variants, the identity of the colonizers, the position of the colony relative to the equator and the religious makeup of the colonial society, all of those variables do not significantly explain variation in current GDP across ex-colonies.


[1] Acemoglu, Johnson and Robinson Reversal of Fortune: Geography and Institutions in the Making of the Modern World Income Distribution The Quarterly Journal of Economics, Vol. 117, No. 4 (Nov 2002) pp. 1231-1294

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid

[5] Ibid. 

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