Tuesday, September 18, 2012

A stunning failure of empiricism

This Edge conversation with Daron Acemoglu is pretty interesting.  I haven't read his new book "Why Nations Fail", but I know it's down there somewhere.  I like the particular bit I put in bold.  I feel like ~95% of all political debates (both public and private) proceed at exactly the level of superficiality he describes.  

Another superficial answer is you can say, India is a democracy and China is an autocracy and that means India is better. But actually, this is where it becomes important to put more flesh on the concept of institutions. Institutions are not just what's in the constitution. There's a very naive view of institutions that says it's the parchment, it's what is written on the parchment, it's what is written on the paper. I write you have a Supreme Court, you have a presidential election, that makes you a democracy. I write something else, that makes you an autocracy. And of course, that's not what we mean by institutions. That would be a very naive view of institutions and one that would have very little empirical power to explain things.
There's a great example that comes from the comparison of two defining events in the United States and Argentina. Argentina, like many other Latin American countries has a constitution that has many similarities to that of the United States: a Senate, a Congress, a Supreme Court, a president, but these work very differently. In the United States, for example, though we sometimes complain about the Supreme Court, that it's just unelected people making political decisions, it's one of the important checks on the abuse of political power. It's not something that you can easily sideline.
For instance, in the middle of the New Deal controversy, FDR tried to sideline the Supreme Court and say, these guys are really slowing my New Deal legislation. He had majorities in both houses. He was a popular president. Many people were at least hopeful about the New Deal policies, but when he came up with his schemes to either fire new justices or add new justices to the Supreme Court so that they wouldn't block or slow down his legislation anymore, nobody supported him. The Senate didn't go along with him. The media took a pretty negative attitude toward it, and FDR gave up. He didn't mess with the Supreme Court although the Supreme Court became more accommodating to him.        
The same sort of thing happened in Argentina with Peron. When Peron came to power he also didn't like that the Supreme Court was blocking him in his program. There were a lot of things that he was trying to do. Then lo and behold, he came up with exactly the same scheme. He said, these Supreme Court justices are overworked and they're too old and we need new justices and nobody raised a peep. He was able to fire the Supreme Court justices, and appoint new justices. Ever since then whenever a new president comes in in Argentina, there's a whole turnover of the Supreme Court and the Supreme Court institution is a joke in terms of what it does to restrict the president, as we're seeing right now in Argentina.
You have these same things written in the constitutions, but they work extremely differently. Why is that? Well, the reason is twofold. One is that actually the details of how these institutions work is much more important than what is written in the constitution, than what's written on the parchment. Second, these institutions don't exist independently from how political power is distributed.
In particular in Argentina, political power was highly concentrated in Peron and Peron's party's hands. The media was nonexistent. There was really no within party opposition and between party opposition was largely silenced. So that means that huge monopolization of political power enabled him to sideline whatever he wanted. In the United States that was different.

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