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Presidents Don’t Matter, but Dictators Do

On Monday, Dubner argued that the President of the United States matters far less than people think.

As it turns out, there is some economic research to back him up, at least when it comes to influencing economic growth. Ben Olken (one of my favorite young economists) at the Harvard Society of Fellows and Ben Jones from Northwestern (not the same Ben Jones of Dukes of Hazzard) have two recent papers on the subject.

The first of these papers, published in the Quarterly Journal of Economics in 2005, uses deaths of leaders in office as a quasi-random source of variation in the identity of the leaders. (You don’t want to use switches in leadership that arise when an incumbent gets voted out of office, because poor economic performance might be one of the reasons the incumbent was beaten.) They find that, in democratic countries, leaders don’t matter much. Dictators, on the other hand, appear to exert substantial influence on the economic fortunes of their countries. This result makes intuitive sense, since there are so many fewer checks on the power of an autocrat.

The second paper is slightly farther afield. In this study, Jones and Olken compare a country’s outcome after a leader is assassinated with the outcome after a failed attempt on the leader’s life. Their most notable finding is that successful assassinations of autocratic leaders are more likely to produce transitions to democracy than unsuccessful assassination attempts.