Thursday, April 30, 2015

Poor Egypt

Daron Acemoglu, Why Nations Fail

[Egyptians] recognize that the roots of these problems are political. All the economic impediments they face stem from the way political power in Egypt is exercised and monopolized by a narrow elite. This, they understand, is the first thing that has to change.

Yet, in believing this, the protestors of Tahrir Square have sharply diverged from the conventional wisdom on this topic.

When they reason about why a country such as Egypt is poor, most academics and commentators emphasize completely different factors [..Some] point to cultural attributes of Egyptians that are supposedly inimical to economic development and prosperity. Egyptians, they argue, lack the same sort of work ethic and cultural traits that have allowed others to prosper, and instead have accepted Islamic beliefs that are inconsistent with economic success. [Another] approach, the one dominant among economists and policy pundits, is based on the notion that the rulers of Egypt simply don’t know what is needed to make their country prosperous, and have followed incorrect policies and strategies in the past. If these rulers would only get the right advice from the right advisers, the thinking goes, prosperity would follow.

To these academics and pundits, the fact that Egypt has been ruled by narrow elites feathering their nests at the expense of society seems irrelevant to understanding the country’s economic problems.

In this book we’ll argue that the Egyptians in Tahrir Square, not most academics and commentators, have the right idea. In fact, Egypt is poor precisely because it has been ruled by a narrow elite that have organized society for their own benefit at the expense of the vast mass of people. Political power has been narrowly concentrated, and has been used to create great wealth for those who possess it, such as the $70 billion fortune apparently accumulated by ex-president Mubarak. The losers have been the Egyptian people, as they only too well understand.

We’ll show that this interpretation of Egyptian poverty, the people’s interpretation, turns out to provide a general explanation for why poor countries are poor. Whether it is North Korea, Sierra Leone, or Zimbabwe, we’ll show that poor countries are poor for the same reason that Egypt is poor.

[Rich c]ountries [..]  became rich because their citizens overthrew the elites who controlled power and created a society where political rights were much more broadly distributed, where the government was accountable and responsive to citizens, and where the great mass of people could take advantage of economic opportunities [..] People fought for and won more political rights, and they used them to expand their economic opportunities. The result was a fundamentally different political and economic trajectory, culminating in the Industrial Revolution.

The Industrial Revolution [a good thing a few centuries ago] and the technologies it unleashed didn’t spread to Egypt, as that country was under the control of the Ottoman Empire, which treated Egypt in rather the same way as the Mubarak family later did. Ottoman rule in Egypt was overthrown by Napoleon Bonaparte in 1798, but the country then fell under the control of British colonialism, which had as little interest as the Ottomans in promoting Egypt’s prosperity. Though the Egyptians shook off the Ottoman and British empires and, in 1952, overthrew their monarchy, these were not revolutions like that of 1688 in England, and rather than fundamentally transforming politics in Egypt, they brought to power another elite as disinterested in achieving prosperity for ordinary Egyptians as the Ottoman and British had been. In consequence, the basic structure of society did not change, and Egypt stayed poor.