B enito Mussolini was a tyrant, but at least he made the trains run on time. Or so the story goes. Dictators are often seen as ruthless but effective. Official GDP figures support this view. Since 2002 average reported economic growth in autocracies has been twice as fast as in democracies.
But in fact, Mussolini’s trains often ran late—and dictators’ economic stewardship may not be as effective as they claim. New research finds that autocrats greatly overstate their countries’ economic growth.
In a peer-reviewed article that will be published this month, Luis Martinez, an economist, investigated dictators’ GDP-growth figures. To do so, he first obtained data on the brightness of countries’ lights at night, as measured by satellites, a well-known proxy for GDP. He combined it with data from Freedom House, a think-tank, on countries’ political systems. Assuming that the most democratic countries reported growth figures accurately, he then used the satellite data to estimate if other countries under- or over-stated theirs.
The data showed that dictators’ reported GDP tended to grow much faster than satellite images of their countries would suggest. This could not be explained by their economies being based on different industries from other countries, or that people there had lower average incomes.