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Guest Reviewer: Charles C. Mann on Why Nations Fail
Charles C. Mann, a correspondent for The Atlantic, Science, and Wired, has written for Fortune, The New York Times,
Smithsonian, Technology Review, Vanity Fair, and The Washington Post, as well as for the TV network HBO and the series
Law & Order. A three-time National Magazine Award finalist, he is the recipient of writing awards from the American Bar
Association, the American Institute of Physics, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, and the Lannan Foundation. His 1491 won
the National Academies Communication Award for the best book of the year. He lives in Amherst, Massachusetts. A few
years ago, while I was researching a book on the history of globalization, I suddenly realized that I was seeing the
same two names on a lot of the smartest stuff I was reading. The names belonged to two economists, Daron Acemoglu and
James Robinson. Much of their work focused on a single question: Why are poor places poor, and is there something we can
do about it?
This is one of the most important questions imaginable in economics—indeed, in the world today. It is also one of the
most politically fraught. In working on my book, I read numerous attempts by economists, historians and other
researchers to explain why most of North America and Europe is wealthy and why most of Asia, Africa and Latin America is
not. But these usually boiled down to claims that rich nations had won the game by cheating poor places or that poor
places had inherently inferior cultures (or locations) which prevented them from rising. Conservative economists used
the discussion as a chance to extol the wide-open markets they already believed in; liberal economists used it to make
the attacks on unrestrained capitalism they were already making. And all too often both seemed wildly ignorant of
history. I can’t recall encountering another subject on which so many people expended so much energy to generate so
Acemoglu and Robinson were in another category entirely. They assembled what is, in effect, a gigantic, super-complete
database of every country’s history, and used it to ask questions—wicked smart questions. They found unexpected
answers—ones that may not satisfy partisans of either side, but have the ring of truth.
Why Nations Fail is full of astounding stories. I ended up carrying the book around, asking friends, “Did you know
this?” The stories make it a pleasure to read. More important, though, Acemoglu and Robinson changed my perspective on
how the world works. My suspicion is that I won’t be the only person to say this after reading Why Nations Fail.