EDIT: Thanks everyone for the great questions—I had a great time answering them and really appreciate all of them. Hope to be back soon! -James

Hello, Reddit!

My name is James Robinson—I’m a University Professor at the Harris School for Public Policy at the University of Chicago and the director of the Pearson Institute https://thepearsoninstitute.org/.

Last month Penguin published my most recent book (with Daron Acemoglu) The Narrow Corridor https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/555400/the-narrow-corridor-by-daron-acemoglu-and-james-a-robinson/

which provides a simple framework for understanding why societies vary so much in the extent to which their citizens enjoy basic freedoms. The book builds on our previous work on the long-run dynamics of political institutions (lots of things we don’t understand!) and is also an attempt to broaden the discussion about what constitutes a society.

Apart from this I continue to conduct field research and collect data in Africa, in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Nigeria currently, and in Latin America in Bolivia and Colombia where I teach every summer at the University of the Andes in Bogotá. I have also been trying to help the Interamerican Development Bank evaluate their project to help build Haitian state institutions which has been quite a challenge given the political situation there of late (though of course it has been most challenging for the Haitian people).

The Pearson Institute was started in 2016 to examine the roots and causes of violent conflict and to better understand strategies for resolving them. In addition to recruiting top researchers working in these areas, like Chris Blattman, Oeindrila Dube and Nobel Laureate Roger Myerson, we also sponsor a variety of events where we bring together practitioners and people actually involved in resolving conflicts, such as Sergio Jaramillo the Colombian High Commissioner for Peace and Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff: https://thepearsoninstitute.org/events/pearson-annual-lecture

Ask me anything—I'll be back to answer your questions around 2PM CT!

PROOF: https://imgur.com/a/VFGtQzB

Comments: 61 • Responses: 15  • Date: 

Lintar023 karma

Hello Prof. Robinson, nice to see you on reddit.

With the recent outbreak of chaos in Latin America, which countries do you think have institutions that are strong enough to withstand all of these fiascoes? I find that corruption and general lack of the public towards the institutions is a big obstacle in making Latin America a developed region.

PearsonInstitute22 karma

I agree that there are a lot of unresolved institutional problems in Latin America. We’ve seen this even in Chile, which one could argue had the best institutions in the sub-continent. Even there there are very high levels of inequality and social exclusion which is a big part of what has led to the protests. On the plus side for Chile, they have the institutions which can actually deal with these problems, few Latin American countries could. As for corruption, I tend to think of that as an outcome of institutional weaknesses, rather than a big source of the problems. It’s a symptom rather than a cause.

manthameow15 karma

Hey Prof! What country would you say Americans have the biggest misconceptions about and why?

PearsonInstitute18 karma

I think maybe Iran or parts of the Middle East. In my experience there’s a huge respect and admiration for US culture and creativity all over that part of the world. People don’t hate the US, they’d like to come here, visit, study, enjoy what we enjoy. In Iran, for instance. We are suffering from his history of antagonism which goes back to the support of western powers of the Shah, the Revolution and a whole series of events which have created a very toxic “high politics” but which I don’t think reflects most people attitudes towards the US at all.

realcaptainkimchi14 karma

I work in the tech field and there is, in my mind, a misconception that tech can solve all the problems. I think technology is great, but it isn't all encompassing. In your opinion, what is the most impactful application of technology currently for developing countries? What do you think that will be in the years to come? Also, what are some areas that don't need to be over engineered, or rather areas that can be solved by no/low tech solutions?

PearsonInstitute12 karma

Well I’m not a huge believer in the idea that there are institutional fixes for development problems. I do think that information technology can help farmers get better prices, it can inform people about how their governments are miss-behaving. I was in Zimbabwe recently, and it is mobile money which people can transfer on their telephones which is actually stopping the government for forcing people to hold and use the worthless currency they are printing. So you can see small benefits, but technology on its own won’t resolve institutional problems.

jkx12314 karma

How should we make sense of the current situation in Bolivia in terms of the framework laid out in The Narrow Corridor?

PearsonInstitute21 karma

It is an interesting moment. My view is that Bolivia has made huge strides towards the corridor in the last 15 years. You’ve seen the massive social organization and empowerment of indigenous peoples for the first time in the history of the country. Of course Morales has tried to undermine institutions as well to further his own personal powers, but his own party has fought back against this. I was in La Paz a few years ago during the Anulo tu voto (spoil your ballot) campaign against him. The optimistic read on what’s happened now is that people will not put up with him trying to consolidate his personal power. It’s unclear at the moment the extent to which the military has been independently involved. Let’s hope they can organize a legitimate election soon and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a new MAS candidate win.

tdoobt10 karma

What U.S. institutions need to change the most to prevent us from becoming a failed state? And how close are we? What can an average American do to help us move in the right direction?

PearsonInstitute14 karma

I think many US institutions work well, but there are obvious things that could be changed. The extent to gerrymandering of political boundaries is a complete outrage in a developed country. Also the many strategies which have been used to gradually disenfranchise voters for partisan reasons. I would also ask myself how could the judiciary be made less politically partisan. Is there some way of changing the way judges are appointed that could reduce this?

Theandric10 karma

How close is the USA to failing?

PearsonInstitute17 karma

Not very. Historically there have been many challenges to institutions in the USA and a lot of bad presidents. James Madison was very clear in the Federalist Papers that you don’t design institutions assuming that you will have good leaders. Think of FDR, he tried to pack the Supreme Court, he violated the term limits that Washington set and which had held for 150 years. But the institutions survived and even strengthened. The important thing is that people really support the institutions in the US and don’t put up with illegality and attempts to undermine them. That’s the big story with FDR, there was cross-party opposition to court packing for example.

pm_me_art__10 karma

Why do nations fail? ;)

PearsonInstitute27 karma

Because they have extractive political institutions and these create extractive economic institutions which create poverty. But you can read more in the book ;)

Mollusktshirt9 karma

What do you think the likely aftermath of a collapsed North Korean government would look like? What moves would what countries make to capitalize on that or to improve the actual situation in the region?

PearsonInstitute13 karma

It seems likely to me that that would lead to Korean unification. In that case the Koreans have a lot to learn from Germany integration. I was in Berlin recently and it is amazing the issues that still remain unresolved between the East and the West and the inequities that many in the East feel they suffer, while the Westerners think they are just being ungrateful for having been saved from communism. Exactly the same issues will come up in Korea.

pm_me_art__8 karma

What do you think about the whole situation in Chile? It's really confusing since there isn't one big reason for the protests, instead there are several small causes. It's more a general disapproval of the governments actiones and how they reacted to the first few protests didn't help. Still, as sbd who visited Chile and stayed there for about 2 months the first few protests seemed undue and the problems inflated by the people. Espacially considering that Chile is the richest country in South America and has the most stable economy which is probably going to be hurt by these protests.

To all the Chileans reading this, I get why you protest now, since the government really reacted in a completely wrong way, I just don't get why you were dissatisfied in the beginning.

PearsonInstitute8 karma

I think small things often trigger the mobilization and collective action which allows people to understand that there are big things too. I was in Chile a few years ago when all the students were on strike and putting the chairs through the railings of their schools. Chile is still a very oligarchic society. The preponderance of political and economic leaders graduate from several boys schools (a couple started to let women in for the first time a decade ago). There is great research on this topic by Seth Zimmerman at Chicago Booth School of Business who shows that what high school you go to determines your career path and income. So on the one hand people like President Piñera go on about how great Chile is, but most people only see the doors closed in their faces.

You can read more here: https://faculty.chicagobooth.edu/seth.zimmerman/research/papers/Zimmerman\_Top\_Jobs\_maintext.pdf

yakshack7 karma

Hi Professor! I LOVED your book Why Nations Fail as I think it laid out a really understandable reasoning as to why some nations lean autocratic and why some don't throughout history.

I'm having a hard time deciphering what's really going on in Bolivia due to disinformation campaigns in social media and media. Knowing what to believe is getting more difficult. Based on your work and research what can we expect to see as the country moves forward? Do you think Bolivia will remain on a democratic projection or do you foresee it falling into autocratic rule?

PearsonInstitute6 karma

I agree it is pretty unclear what has gone on. I’m quite optimistic though that the old narrow elite that dominated Bolivia, even after democratization in the 1980s, has lost its grip. The society has become radically more inclusive and there is a very vibrant politics which an autocracy won’t be able to contain. I really recommend the research of Sian Lazar an anthropologist who has studied politics in El Alto.

AlmostWardCunningham7 karma

Can any blame be laid on the populations of these countries not being astute enough to understand what's going on in their country and how to fix it, either through government brainwashing or just general ineptitude?

PearsonInstitute8 karma

I think there certainly are instances of this in history. That’s hard to deny. I think the important point is that there are very large regularities in patterns of economic development which is very difficult to understand by people being systematically being brainwashed. I think there’s ineptitude everywhere!

diligentdev6 karma

In Why Nations Fail, since it’s from 2012, you make predictions on China’s growth from their institutions. Assuming nothing dramatic changes, is China still heading to a collapse because of extractive institutions, or are they inclusive enough to allow for indefinite growth?

PearsonInstitute10 karma

My view is still that Chinese growth will collapse. It is important though to understand why China has been so successful. One reason I think is that there is a deep history, going back at least to Confucius and probably before, of meritocracy. China is the one part of the world where the pre-modern elite were people who passed an examination. That’s remarkable. Sure there were periods of corruption etc. but that is something very powerful about having a society where meritocracy is the norm if you decide to push economic growth. I still think that doesn’t mean Chinese growth will persist, but it tells you a lot about the way in which it will collapse. It won’t go like Venezuela, more likely, and this is what you see historically, it will be because of some crazy scheme, like the Great Leap Forward, or maybe the Belt and Road initiative...

Warcrimes_Desu5 karma

Heya professor! Two questions! First: What's your favorite restaurant, local or chain? Second: If you could create a free trade deal between the US and any other country that currently don't share one, which would it be and why? Thanks for dropping by :D

PearsonInstitute8 karma

I’m a vegetarian and I tend to like Indian food the best (though Ethiopoian and Lebanese food are also fantastic). There are many great places in Chicago for all this cuisine.

Any economist will tell you that trade is a good thing. Every experience of rapid economic growth has involved a lot of trade and exporting, be it Britain in the 19th century, or more recently South Korea or China. But what we also know is that trade has to be managed, it caused dislocation and changes in income distribution, so you need the right institutions to help people adapt to it and flourish.

mothius2315 karma

Hello prof. I'm a huge fan of Why Nations Fail and I'm looking forward to reading your new book.

My question relates to extractive resources. Almost universally, the countries with vast oil and gas resources are less democratic, more violent, and more corrupt. What are the best ways for a country to handle its extractive resources without falling into the common traps?

My second is related to countries like China and Vietnam. I know you've argued that even though the top governmental positions aren't inclusive, the rest of the government is. Do you think as these countries get more wealthy, they'll become more democratic over time? Isn't China taking too long?

PearsonInstitute6 karma

I don’t believe that natural resources on their own have either positive or negative effects, it depends on the institutions which determine how those resources are used and in whose interest.

I doubt China or Vietnam will democratize as a consequence of economic growth. There is no history of democracy or accountability in China and Confucius said “citizens do not debate government.” Actually he said something a bit more complex involved “the way” but I don’t have a good theory of the way! Also, and this is something we have done a lot of academic research on, there is no tendency for “modernization” to create democracy. It’s a myth not supported by the data.

Mollusktshirt4 karma

What is the biggest misconception regarding failed states, especially in mainstream politics (USA or worldwide)? What concept are you finding that you must reiterate and explain most?

PearsonInstitute8 karma

I think the biggest miss-conception is that states fail because of poverty. The most prominent piece of academic research on civil war for example, by Fearon and Laitin, shows that the biggest predictor of civil war outbreak, and implicitly state failure, is poverty. But poverty and civil wars are an outcome of institutional failure. The same sorts of institutions that create one tend to create the other. Another miss-conception is that re-building failed states is a technical “engineering Problem” when actually it is a political problem.