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Daron Acemoglu, the economist who says technological innovation does not equal prosperity

The Turkish-American researcher dismantles clichés. He argues that capitalism is based on the mistaken idea that human beings need to consume, when what they really need is to participate

Mar Padilla
Daron Acemoglu
Luis Grañena

Daron Acemoglu is an unbiased economist with a penchant for dismantling the clichés of mainstream thinking. This wild path, almost against the grain, is not new to him. He is the son of Armenians, a minority with a long history of struggle for survival in Turkey, his native country. His passion for observing the links between economics and politics comes from his adolescence, when the coup d’état by Kenan Evren’s military junta brought violence to the streets and poverty to Turkish households. He wanted to delve into the dictatorship’s consequences on the economy, but he had to study that interrelationship from far away. Acemoglu became increasingly critical of the situation in Turkey, and his father, fearing for his safety, advised him to leave the country.

A few years ago, Mark Zuckerberg, a guy with more power than Alexander the Great, revealed that one of his favorite reads was Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty. Written by Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, the book reveals that prosperity is not a function of culture or geography, but of the policies dictated by a nation’s institutions. Thus, fact by fact, Acemoglu and Robinson scientifically demonstrated that market self-regulation—the famous laisser faire—is really magical thinking, that what drives the economy is politics, and that what leads to shared prosperity is the democratic system. It was a planetary bestseller.

It is likely that in recent months Zuckerberg has immersed himself in Power and Progress Our Thousand-Year Struggle Over Technology and Prosperity, Acemoglu’s book with Simon Johnson. After in-depth economic, historical and social research, the two authors show that technological innovation in itself does not spur prosperity. Today we live better than our ancestors, but that is not because of successive technological inventions; rather, it is because civil society challenged the choices made by the elites and wealth was generated by distributing and making these technologies participatory.

Acemoglu, 56, is clear on the fact that it is necessary to return to such actions now. If they were feasible during the very difficult years of the Industrial Revolution—when new production techniques enriched factory owners and impoverished workers, to the point of shortening their life expectancy, until they organized and demanded improvements in their working conditions—they are also feasible now. “You have to exercise democratic control over the direction of technology,” Acemoglu says in email conversation. Period.

It seems clear that sooner or later he will be awarded a Nobel Prize. Daron touches on many topics and all of them in a very brilliant way.”
Mónica Martínez Bravo, an MIT-trained economist who studied under Acemoglu

When he left Turkey, Acemoglu went to the UK, enrolled in economics at the University of York, and discovered that none of his subjects dealt with political issues. He then decided to do his own research, applying empirical, mathematical and conceptual tools to his analysis of human affairs. At the age of 25, he received his PhD from the London School of Economics and soon after was appointed assistant professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), where he was warned that mixing economics with politics was an unwelcome heterodoxy. Almost surreptitiously, he continued his studies on these links. He is now a professor there, and one can safely say that political economy is currently in the mainstream at MIT.

Acemoglu’s theses have long been listened to with great interest around the world. Last summer, Gita Gopinath of the International Monetary Fund quoted the economist to urge regulating AI in a way that benefits society. Paul Romer, a 2018 Nobel laureate for his research on the importance of innovation in economic growth, has confessed that the Acemoglu’s research led him to rethink his ideas, and senior officials at leading AI labs discuss his books among themselves.

His capacity for work and analysis are legendary. “It seems clear that sooner or later he will be awarded a Nobel Prize, but among his former students we sometimes jokingly say that the question in Stockholm will be to decide the area in which he will receive it, because Daron touches on many subjects and all of them in a brilliant way,” explains Mónica Martínez Bravo, an economist trained at MIT, where Acemoglu directed her doctorate, and the current secretary general for Inclusion at the Spanish Ministry of Inclusion, Social Security and Migration.

Against automatic thinking

Not everything that is said should be taken as gospel. Against the more orthodox airs of American academia, Acemoglu brings a simple statement to his lectures: at the heart of the wildest capitalism there is an insurmountable error, which is that the human being does not need to consume; what he wants, more than anything else in the world, is to participate.

He has proven it a thousand times in his studies. Everything is connected. Exploring the infinite relationships between work, ways of life and political systems, Acemoglu has studied the Sicilian Mafia as both the cause and consequence of an absent state structure, the innovation geared toward alleviating climate change in the energy transition, the connections among culture, democratic institutions and social balance, and between the rise of fascism and war, the danger of too much data, the impact of AI on the labor market, civil power in the case of the Arab Spring in Egypt, and the rise and decline of the general laws of capitalism, among many other issues. “He is a visionary. Before a topic begins to generate academic literature he has already been studying it for some time,” says Martínez Bravo.

Those who know him well say he is a great teacher, that his knowledge is encyclopedic and that he is extraordinarily productive. “Every year he publishes around fifteen research papers in the most reputable economics journals, generating around 20,000 citations per year. His numbers are out of this world,” emphasizes Pascual Restrepo, Acemoglu’s former student and now his colleague in research related to the advent of robots in the labor market.

Two years ago, in a debate with economics guru Martin Wolf, Acemoglu’s thesis made the former confess that economic studies separated from politics and social science—the economic practice rigorously followed for decades—are actually “embarrassingly simple.” And Wolf then gets to the heart of a major problem: “We don’t have a good model for studying society,” he says. That’s what Acemoglu does: he forces you to rethink what you take for granted based on incontrovertible research.

That is why, in these times of automatism and programming, Acemoglu warns against uncritical thinking and insists on reflecting on and deciding the human uses we want technology to provide us with. He argues that there is nothing wrong with automation, that it has been around since the middle of the 18th century and that, of course, it will continue, but that it must direct its powers toward improving human life.

In the movie A.I. Artificial Intelligence (2001, Steven Spielberg), the robot-prostitute played by Jude Law tells the robot-child (Haley Joel Osment) that, in these times, information is the most expensive thing. That’s true now, too. Amidst all the fake news and misinformation, rigorous knowledge, backed by data, such as that produced by Acemoglu, is worth its weight in gold.

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