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Why Do Autocracies Build Taller Skyscrapers?

Short answer: Because they can!
Tall order: The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Tall order: The Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.Jorge Silva/Reuters

When Carl Henrik Knusten traveled to Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia several years ago and went to see the Petronas Towers, he thought he was just going to see the tallest twin towers in the world. Instead, he experienced a glorious—and confounding—symbol of state power.

“At the time, the guide told us several of the floors were vacant,” Knutsen says. “It sounded like a lot of waste, but they were extremely beautiful. That’s when I started thinking about the excess of these towers if they weren’t even used for the purpose they were built for.” Having completed his Ph.D dissertation on regime types and economic growth at the University of Oslo, Knutsen began to think that skyscrapers can tell us something about who built them.

That’s the logic at the foundation of a new working paper by Knutsen and his co-author Haakon Gjerlow at the University of Oslo. They find that the heights and styles of skyscrapers might help measure something much less tangible than steel and concrete: drawing the line between autocracy and democracy.