Daron Acemoglu (born in 1967 in Istanbul, Turkey, of Armenian descent and now an American citizen) graduated from the University of York (United Kingdom) in 1989 then went on to earn a PhD in 1992 from the London School of Economics, where he stayed on teaching for a year. In 1993, he joined the faculty at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) where he is currently Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics.
He has authored around 120 papers in leading international publications like the ‘American Economic Review’, ‘Journal of Political Economy’ or ‘Review of Economic Studies’, as well as four books.
A member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the European Economic Association and the Econometric Society, at the age of just forty he was appointed editor of the society’s journal ‘Econometrica’. His multiple distinctions include the 2005 John Bates Clark Medal, which the American Economic Association then bestowed biennially on the most outstanding U.S. economist under forty.
Daron Acemoglu grew up a member of a minority community in 1980s Turkey. This made him something of a skeptic about traditional channels of authority and led him to wonder “whether the dysfunctional economy of the country and the widespread poverty of its people were related to its repressive political system.” Of Turkish origin and Armenian descent, he added his current U.S. citizenship into the mix after studying at universities in the United Kingdom. It was this transit between societies with differing degrees of social and economic development that first drew him towards growth theory.
And right away, Acemoglu found that traditional analyses in this branch of economics emphasized factors such as human or physical capital, while tending to sideline others that he felt were equally if not more decisive, starting with political structures and institutional influences.“Most of the work I’ve been doing over the last twenty-four years has been motivated by trying to understand the sources of poverty, to dig deeper into its causes.”
“Most of the work I’ve been doing over the last twenty-four years has been motivated by trying to understand the sources of poverty, to dig deeper into its causes.”
Acemoglu is currently Elizabeth and James Killian Professor of Economics at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the center that was his first choice to pursue postgraduate studies. MIT was keen to have him on account of his sparkling CV but turned him down for a scholarship, so Acemoglu decided to continue his education in Britain and enroll for a PhD at the London School of Economics. This change of plan would color his whole future in research, for it was during his studies in the UK capital that he met Professor James Robinson. The two men quickly realized that they had been engaging with similar issues from a parallel perspective, and embarked on what Acemoglu describes as a “very productive relationship.” It is with Robinson that he has worked on most of his publications on the subject of growth and economic development.
The approach taken by Acemoglu – and co-authors Robinson and Professor Simon Johnson – in ‘The Colonial Origins of Comparative Development: An Empirical Investigation’ (2001) marked a break with tradition by spotlighting factors that had not previously been seen as central: how a society is organized and why it makes the choices or adopts the policies that it does. “The role of technology, education and so on are very well understood,” Acemoglu explains. “But what was missing, in a sense, was to ask questions about why it is that nations don’t invest more in education or why they don’t encourage the adoption of the best technologies.” These are the decisions that give rise, with time, to each society’s institutions – understood as the set of formal and informal rules governing human interaction – and they, in turn, will determine its greater or lesser degree of economic development. It is for elaborating this concept of institutions and establishing its causal impact on economic development that Daron Acemoglu has received the BBVA Foundation Frontiers of Knowledge Award in Economics, Finance and Management.
In 2012, again with Robinson, Acemoglu published ‘Why Nations Fail’, in which the authors revisit their thesis about the quality of institutions to create a wider, more global theory of economic development. In its pages, they refine their concept of inclusive institutions (stable, ensuring legal certainty and equal access to opportunities) and extractive institutions (in which certain minorities use power to further their own interests).
The starting point for these publications – probably the best known in Acemoglu’s catalog – is plainly empirical in nature but anchored on a firm historical foundation. As he himself remarks, “economics is an empirical discipline, but it is in combination with theory that it achieves its greatest power for understanding social phenomena.”
More recently, Acemoglu has developed influential theories in the emerging field of network economics, applying them in one of his investigations to financial systems. He sustains that any negative shock, even a small one (like a defaulted loan), can trigger a chain of bankruptcies that extends across the economy. This contagion model gained particular currency after the global financial crisis of 2008, when “we saw instances of this play out before our eyes.”
But Daron Acemoglu, as the Frontiers jury recognizes, has also made substantial contributions on the exclusively theoretical front, as in one of his earliest studies (from the start of the 1990s) in the labor economics field. Its central premise was that unemployment insurance, by allowing workers to be choosier about accepting a given job offer, can actually boost the level of output in the economy – contrary to the traditional wisdom – improving productivity, welfare and wealth.
Acemoglu is the author of four essential books and over one hundred papers published in leading journals such as ‘American Economic Review’. In the words of the jury’s citation, his work has resonated deeply and broadly “across the social sciences.”