Pacific Standard

Death at the Summit

Originally appeared in Pacific Standard.

More than 200 climbers are entombed in the ice on Mount Everest. When wind clears the snow away, clothing and limbs sometimes surface like saplings in a spring thaw. You can tell the older victims by their mid-century ice axes and crampons. The latest are recognizable by their branded parkas and iPhones, still loaded with text messages and snapshots.

The 2011 climbing season drew its usual clientele of rich mountaineers, and it left four more dead, at least one of whom had been trading messages with his office until days before his death. A goateed Irishman of 42 with the gaunt, taut look of a fitness obsessive, John Delaney ran the Dublin-based betting site Intrade, a playground for speculators whose interests extended beyond sports and stocks. At the time, Intrade allowed users to bet on the outcomes of a wide range of events—elections, legal cases, TV talent shows, hurricanes—and to buy and sell their bets using a dynamic stock market-like interface.

The Daily

States of Failure

“Why Nations Fail: The Origins of Power, Prosperity and Poverty”

By Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson

Crown. $14.99.


To find out how screwed up a country can be, sometimes you just need to get breakfast. A couple years ago in Bangui, the capital of the Central African Republic (C.A.R.), the only eggs I found for sale were marked as imported from Cameroon, some six hundred miles away, and they cost more than the cage-free organic variety on offer at my local yuppie mart here in America. Raising chickens is easy and cheap: At these prices, someone should have been able to make good money producing eggs locally. But C.A.R., like many countries, is disordered at a deep level, and the old laws of microeconomics apply there only in the same sense that the law of gravity applies on the moon.


“Why Nations Fail,” the large and ambitious new book by Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, aims to explain this disorder and come up with a general theory of how places with reasonably similar cultural and natural-resource endowments end up either poor or prosperous. They point to Nogales, the city that straddles the U.S.-Mexico border near Tucson. Ethnically, the two sides of the city are identical twins. But the American side swims comfortably in cash, and the Mexican side is poor and violent. This same mismatch is visible across countless other political borders: North Korean kids are malnourished because they have no food; South Korean kids are malnourished because they skip meals to play Starcraft. Haiti exports refugees; the Dominican Republic exports shortstops. (For more on this check out “Natural Experiments of History,” the fascinating volume Robinson co-edited with Jared Diamond last year.)