Tuesday, March 12, 2013

billg Reads an Informational Text

I should first note that while I read the Why Nations Fail blog, I've not read the book.

With that disclaimer, Bill Gates's negative review of Why Nations Fail is... interesting. First off, it is pretty clearly just billg knocking out a long post, perhaps completely unedited. Real blogging! It certainly has some quirks, like referring to Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson only as "the authors," and a general certainty that Acemoglu and Robinson are wrong because Gates's interpretation of history is correct:

The authors demonstrate an oddly simplistic world view when they attribute the decline of Venice to a reduction in the inclusiveness of its institutions. The fact is, Venice declined because competition came along. The change in the inclusiveness of its institutions was more a response to that than the source of the problem. Even if Venice had managed to preserve the inclusiveness of their institutions, it would not have made up for their loss of the spice trade.

Acemoglu and Robinson respond:

This is just bad history. Venice didn't decline because of the loss of the spice trade. If that were the case, the decline should have started at the very end of the 15th century. But the decline was already well underway by the middle of the 14th century. More generally, research by Diego Puga and Daniel Trefler shows that Venice's fortunes had nothing to do with competition or the spice trade.

Puga and Trefler:

Abstract: International trade can have profound effects on domestic institutions. We examine this proposition in the context of medieval Venice circa 800–1350. We show that (initially exogenous) increases in long-distance trade enriched a large group of merchants and these merchants used their new-found muscle to push for constraints on the executive i.e., for the end of a de facto hereditary Doge in 1032 and for the establishment of a parliament or Great Council in 1172. The merchants also pushed for remarkably modern innovations in contracting institu- tions (such as the colleganza) that facilitated large-scale mobilization of capital for risky long-distance trade. Over time, a group of extraordi- narily rich merchants emerged and in the almost four decades following 1297 they used their resources to block political and economic competi- tion. In particular, they made parliamentary participation hereditary and erected barriers to participation in the most lucrative aspects of long-distance trade. We document this ‘oligarchization’ using a unique database on the names of 8,103 parliamentarians and their families’ use of the colleganza. In short, long-distance trade first encouraged and then discouraged institutional dynamism and these changes operated via the impacts of trade on the distribution of wealth and power.

Of course, I find this amusing in light of the Common Core ELA standards. I'll leave scoring Gates's post against the standards as an exercise for the reader, but I would note that Gates does a particularly poor job with standard 1 ("...cite specific textual evidence...") and this points out the difficulty of scoring standard 8 ("...evaluate the argument and specific claims...") since, for example, there is no answer key in the Teacher's Edition with the real reasons Venice fell.

Also, the CC ELA pointedly does not allow the reader to cite the author's biases, for example, if he is a reviewing a book that directly challenges his role as an insanely wealthy monopolist philanthropist.

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