Daron Acemoglu is the Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and he is among the ten most cited economists in the world. In 2005, Daron Acemoglu was awarded the John Bates Clark Medal for ‘originality, thoroughness, and prolificacy’ in economic research. Following this, a survey in 2011 named Daron Acemoglu as their third favourite living economist under the age of 60. His principal interests are political economy, development economics, economic growth, technology, income and wage inequality, human capital and training, and labour economics. Daron’s most recent works concentrate on the role of institutions in economic development and political economy. Daron Acemoglu is a member of the Economic Growth program of the Canadian Institute of Advanced Research. He is also affiliated with the National Bureau of Economic Research, Center for Economic Performance, International Growth Centre, and Centre for Economic Policy Research. Acemoğlu is the co-editor of Econometrica, Review of Economics and Statistics, and associate editor of the Journal of Economic Growth, and an editorial committee board member of the Annual Review of Economics. It’s an honour to talk books with one of the world’s leading minds in the field of economics. Please enjoy my interview with Daron Acemoglu…
When someone asks you ‘what do you do for a living?’ – How do you respond?
It depends on my mood, but I would say either “economist” or “professor”.
When you think about your childhood, what book comes to mind?
Comics and Dostoevsky’s novels.
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
I wanted to be an academic, mostly because I thought that was a profession that would give me the freedom to think and express myself in the way that I wanted. I wasn’t entirely wrong.
What do you think your school aged self would think of the present day you?
He would think that I am incredibly lucky.
If you could wrap up a single book and gift it to yourself as you left education – which book would it be?
This is a really hard question. It would depend on when I was doing it. I think in terms of sheer amount of new material I learned from a single book, nothing could top Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins, so perhaps that would be a nice gift for myself.
Does your reading have routine? Is there a particular time or place that you like to read?
Given how busy I am with two young kids, whenever I can find the time
Which book has had the biggest impact on your career so far? How did it impact it?
Structure and Change in Economic History by Douglass North, which crystallized many of the questions that had motivated me to get into economics in the first place and convinced me that these questions are not just interesting but also open for research.
This is a really hard question. People coming with different backgrounds would benefit most from different books. So let me pick three books that would appeal to people with varied backgrounds and interests:
The Strategy of Conflict by Thomas Schelling would provide an exciting introduction to issues of conflict, cooperation and strategic interactions without requiring a technical background.
Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty by James Robinson and myself, would be a good introduction to how economics, together with political factors, is useful for thinking about the long-run economic development (or lack thereof) of nations. But of course, I’m biased.
Levers of Riches by Joel Mokyr is an excellent introduction to the history of technology and the economics of the British Industrial Revolution, which would be ideal for people who want to understand the historical development of Western economies.
Do you have any books that you strongly associate with someone important in your life?
The Turkish poet Nazim Hikmet’s poetry, which I associate with my long deceased father, since we used to read it together 35 years ago.
What book have you recommended the most to friends and family?
Do you prefer fiction or non-fiction?
Hard to make that choice. But given my limited time nowadays, I have increasingly focused on nonfiction.
What’s the greatest book on economics ever written?
The Wealth of Nations by Adam Smith is unrivalled.
Do you think reading is important?
Absolutely. The other things compared to it.
What’s the best book you’ve read in the last 6 months?
Do you prefer real books or digital books?
It depends on my mood. I like skimming books, which is much harder with digital books.
I will name two. As I have become more worried about what’s going on in the United States, I reread 1984 by George Orwell, which is more than a tour de force, but also scary in some of its prescience. I also reread The Coming of the Third Reich by Richard Evans, which is also scary and points out lots of mistakes for us to avoid.
What is the book that you feel has had the single biggest impact on your life? What impact did it have?
Markets and States in Tropical Africa by Robert Bates, which convinced me about the importance of thinking about the politics and institutions of Africa.
If you could only teach the youth of today one thing about economics, what would it be and why?
Think about incentives and equilibrium. What I mean by incentives is that we have to take into account how various laws, regulations and practices influence individual decisions (or in the parlance of economics, that incentives to undertake certain actions are investments). What I mean by equilibrium is that individual behavior cannot be understood in isolation because what an individual does affects others, sometimes with surprising implications.
Are there any books you haven’t mentioned that you feel would make your reading list?
What books or subject matter do you plan on reading in the next year?
I am currently reading on the history of religion and on the history of violence in primitive societies.
If you were to write an autobiography – what would it be called?
I’m not convinced that my life is that interesting.