Political Entrepreneurs

The Economic Engine of Political Change

Dani Rodrik on growth, institutions and structural change

July 1st, 2013 by Wayne Leighton

Dani Rodrik has a new paper on “The Past, Present, and Future of Economic Growth.”

Rodrik distinguishes between growth that is a function of  “fundamental capabilities” (human capital and institutions) and growth from “structural transformation” (the move to higher-productivity industries). He argues that periods of extraordinarily high growth are the result of structural transformations. Increases in fundamental capabilities exhibit important complementarities, but they are slower in developing.

What are the implications for political change? Rodrik’s other great work in this area merits future posts. For now, let’s look at just one question: How much must existing, poorly functioning institutions improve before economic conditions are likely to improve?

In a sense, Rodrik’s take seems pessimistic: The world is full of poorly functioning institutions, and improvement is sporadic. Yet there is reason for optimism, as the author describes in a recent blogpost on his paper:

The policies needed to accumulate fundamental capabilities and those required to foster structural change naturally overlap, but they are distinct. The first types of policies entail a much broader range of investments in skills, education, administrative capacity, and governance; the second can take the form of narrower, targeted remedies. Without some semblance of macroeconomic stability and property rights protection, new industries cannot emerge. But a country does not need to attain Sweden’s level of institutional quality in order to be able to compete with Swedish producers on world markets in many manufactures.

This does not mean that reformers need not worry about improving institutions, only that real gains may be had with some highly imperfect ones, under certain conditions.  Ultimately, sustained growth still requires well-functioning institutions.

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From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.189, ch.7)

The most successful entrepreneurs know what they do well, they know the market and the opportunities within it, and they choose those activities that create the most value. This is true in economic as well as political markets.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.178, ch.7)

[W]hen the right elements come together at the right time and place and overwhelm the status quo, it is because special people make it happen. We call them political entrepreneurs.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.176. ch.7)

While we started this book with Danny Biasone saving basketball, we end it with Norman Borlaug saving a billion lives. These stories are not that different. Both faced vested interests, which were reinforced by popular beliefs that things should be a certain way—that is, until a better idea came along.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.174, ch.6)

Because there was a general belief that homeownership was a good thing, politicians found the public with open arms.... Everybody was winning—except Alfred Marshall, whose supply and demand curves were difficult to see through the haze of excitement at the time, and except Friedrich Hayek, whose competition as a discovery procedure was befuddled... In short, once politicians started getting credit for homeownership rates, the housing market was doomed.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.166, ch.6)

Everyone responded rationally to the incentives before them. In short, the rules that guided homeownership changed over time, which in turn changed the incentives of these actors. And bad things happened.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.153, ch.6)

They understood the economics. The ideas had already won in ... the regulatory agency itself. All that remained to be overcome were some vested interests and a handful of madmen in authority.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.146, ch.6)

If the idea for auctions of spectrum use rights had been part of the public debate since at least 1959, why didn’t the relevant institutions change sooner? What interests stood in the way?

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.121, ch.5)

When an academic scribbler comes up with a new idea, it has to resonate well with widely shared beliefs, which in turn must overcome the vested interests at the table. Many forces come together to explain political change, even though it may seem like coincidence of time and place.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.120, ch.5)

It’s the rules of the political game that deserve our focus, not politicians’ personalities or party affiliations.

From the Pages of Madmen, Intellectuals, and Academic Scribblers (p.119, ch.5)

In short, ideas are a type of higher-order capital in society. Like a society that is poor in capital and therefore produces little consumer value, a society that is poor in ideas and institutions will have bad incentives and therefore few of the desirable outcomes that people want.

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