The Books Interview: James A Robinson

The co-author of "Why Nations Fail" on what really creates economic growth.

Could one boil down the thesis of your book Why Nations Fail to the James Carville-style slogan, “It’s the institutions, stupid”?                                                                        I suppose that’s fair. It’s the way that societies organise their economy and their policy that is crucial for how successful they are. When I teach Latin American development, I tell my students to look at the Americas today and rank all the countries in terms of prosperity. You start with the US and Canada and you get to Chile, Argentina, Mexico, Colombia and Bolivia, with Haiti down at the bottom. If you go back 100 years, that ranking is the same, so there’s some sort of inertial historical process generating these differences. And I don’t think you can explain it in terms of the US having had better leaders and better ideas. That never struck me as the right way to talk about it.

So the error of the IMF and others in the late 1980s and early 1990s was to suppose that certain sorts of policies lead inevitably to prosperity?                                          Yes, in the sense that you can’t implement certain policies in a system that’s resistant to them. Take central bank independence. In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe allowed the IMF to make the central bank independent. But that didn’t really make any difference to monetary policy in Zimbabwe. And, shortly after the central bank became independent, there was hyperinflation.

You downplay the role of geography in driving growth and prosperity, don’t you?   Yes. I’ve worked a lot in sub-Saharan Africa in the past 20 years and I find the idea that Sierra Leone, for example, is poor because of malaria or because it’s in the tropics absurd. I don’t think there’s any reason why Sierra Leone can’t be prosperous. It’s near Europe; it’s on the coast. You talk to people there and they have the same aspirations as you or I have – they want a nice house, running water, electricity; they want to be able to travel; they want to have decent schools for their children; they want opportunities.

Take two prosperous states – Britain and Japan. They have very different kinds of political institutions and political cultures. Isn’t that a problem for your argument?Consider the Meiji Restoration, which took place in Japan in the 19th century. It fits very well with the argument of the book. This is clearly a case in which very large changes take place in political and economic institutions. You can’t have any kind of economic development without a sufficient amount of centralised political authority. What distinguishes east Asia from, say, sub-Saharan Africa, is the history of political centralisation in that part of the world. It’s interesting you ask me about Japan; most people ask me about China.

Let’s talk about China. In the book, you argue that Chinese growth and prosperity are unsustainable. Why?                                                                                                     Thirty years ago, everyone thought that the Soviet Union was an economic miracle. It was a role model for all the developing countries. Think about India after independence, for instance. Look at a 1970s undergraduate economics textbook and you’ll find a graph with the Soviet Union overtaking the US. But as the editions go on, the date at which the Russians overtake the Americans is delayed and delayed. And then, at some point, the picture disappears altogether. I think that’s powerful because it shows how delusional we can all be. It’s a good reality check to say: “Well, we got this wrong in the past.” The thing the Chinese Communist Party really cares about is staying in power. And if it comes to a choice between allowing the institutional changes that will drive development or staying in power, it will choose staying in power.

Do economists need to take more notice of the role that political institutions play in fostering economic growth?                                                                                                I think they do but they are very resistant to that. My own impression is that the economic crisis has had very little impact on academic economics. At Harvard, where I teach, people in the economics department discourage students from doing research on political economy. They say that political economy is not a well-defined field in economics.

James A Robinson and Daron Acemoglu's "Why Nations Fail' is published by Profile Books (£25)

Jonathan Derbyshire is Managing Editor of Prospect. He was formerly Culture Editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 18 June 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Drones: video game warfare

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis