Friday, August 28, 2015

The Mismeasure of Growth

About six months ago, Tom Pepinsky wrote a post, on the occasion of Lee Kuan Yew’s death, where he argued graphically that Lee Kuan Yew’s claim to have taken Singapore “from Third World to First” was a bit overstated. (Yes, I’m posting about this six months later - but I have never claimed that this blog offers hot takes on the news!). Using Kristian Gleditsch’s expanded GDP data, he noted that, in percentile terms, Singapore was already quite wealthy by the time it became independent, especially when compared to its neighbours:

By this measure, Singapore was as wealthy as the UK (per capita) by the mid-1970s, not because it had grown especially fast, but because it had started from a relatively high base. On this view, the most we could say is that Singapore escaped the “middle income trap,” not so much the “third world.”

The post got a fair bit of attention, though also, as I recall, a bit of pushback on Twitter and in the comments about both the data source used (Gleditsch rather than the Penn World Table or the Maddison dataset) and the decision to look at the percentile rank of income rather than the actual per capita income. Indeed, the figure above looks different if we use the Penn World Table’s latest measure of “expenditure side real GDP, at chained PPPs” (recommended by the Penn World Table investigators for “comparison of living standards across countries and over time”):

(There’s no data for Myanmar in the PWT 8.1).

Now Singapore’s starting income rank is much closer to Malaysia’s (they were, after all, part of the same country until 1965), solidly in the middle, and does not reach the UK’s income rank until the 1990s, instead of the 1970s. The difference between the two graphs is even starker if, instead of percentile ranks, we simply look at the actual income per capita numbers in PWT8.1 vs the Gleditsch data:

Using the recommended PWT 8.1 measure, Singapore at independence in 1965 had a per capita income of around $3,000 per capita, only a bit higher than Malaysia’s, and only one-sixth of US income; using the Gleditsch data, by contrast, Singapore starts out at nearly double the income level of Malaysia (more than $6000 compared with around $3,500), about a third of US income (and about half of UK income). It’s a big head-start, and it does make Lee’s achievement look a bit less impressive (an average growth rate for the period 1965-1990, when Lee was Prime Minister, of 4.8% rather than 6.9% per year for the PWT8.1 measure). At the time, I thought that the difference between the two estimates of Singaporean GDP was simply a matter of different data sources. But when you dig deeper, it turns out that the source of Gleditsch’s numbers for Singapore was … the Penn World Table (version 8.0)!

What is going on here? In this particular case, the discrepancy is due, first, to adjustments in the 2005 PPPs used between versions 8.0 and 8.1 of the PWT that increased the base price level in many countries and years, and hence lowered their measured GDP, and second, to the fact that the Gleditsch data reports, not the “expenditure side” measure of GDP (basically real GDP adjusted for changes in the terms of trade), but the measure for “output side real GDP at chained PPPs” (which is not adjusted for terms of trade). The latter measure, according to the PWT’s handy guide, is the one that should be used “to compare relative productive capacity across countries and over time,” rather than living standards (which may be affected by favourable terms of trade - e.g., unusually low import prices or unusually high export prices).1 The combined effect of these two differences makes Singapore’s economic performance look less impressive on the Gleditsch measure (PWT 8.0) than on the PWT8.1’s “expenditure side” measure (or even the PWT8.1’s “output side” measure):

Indeed, the estimated growth rates for the period of Lee’s premiership of independent Singapore (1965-1990),2 according to all the different datasets available (Penn World Table 8.0, Penn World Table 8.1, World Development Indicators, Gleditsch, Maddison) do vary a fair amount:

(I include a measure from PWT8.1 for “real consumption of households and government, current PPPs,” which is also used to compare growth in living standards, according to this PWT document. Error bars can be understood as a measure of volatility in the GDP measure - larger bars indicate more ups and downs in the series). To be sure, by whatever measure, Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew grew very fast compared to the rest of the world (certainly in the top 10% of all countries for the period 1965-1990, sometimes appearing as the top performer overall), though it was not among the ranks of the ultra-poor when it started (the low-end estimate of around $3,000 per capita in 1965 may not be rich, but it’s three times the estimated per capita GDP of China in 1965 for the same measure). But purely by accident, the Gleditsch data shows Lee in the worst possible light:

Measure Growth rate Percentile Rank
PWT 8.1: Output side, chained PPPs 7.25% 100 1 out of 57
PWT 8.1: Output side, current PPPs, 2005$ 7.21% 100 1 out of 57
PWT 8.1: Expenditure side, current PPPs, 2005$ 7.03% 100 1 out of 57
PWT 8.1: Expenditure side, chained PPPs 6.89% 100 1 out of 57
WDI: GDP per capita, constant 2005$ 6.63% 100 1 out of 42
Maddison 2013: Real GDP per capita, 1990$ 6.38% 99 2 out of 80
PWT 8.0: Expenditure side, current PPPs, 2005$ 7.01% 98 2 out of 57
PWT 8.0: Expenditure side, chained PPPs 6.88% 98 2 out of 57
PWT 8.0: Output side, current PPPs, 2005$ 6.86% 98 2 out of 57
PWT 8.1: National-accounts growth rates, 2005$ 6.65% 98 2 out of 57
PWT 8.0: National-accounts growth rates, 2005$ 6.65% 98 2 out of 57
PWT 8.1: Real consumption of households and government, current PPPs, 2005$ 5.00% 93 5 out of 57
PWT 8.0: Output side, chained PPPs 4.83% 91 6 out of 57
Gleditsch 4.83% 91 8 out of 83

There are perfectly good reasons for this variation in growth estimates. Current PPP measures of GDP per capita should not, in general, be identical to chained PPP measures, since the PPP conversion factors will vary over time in the latter and not in the former; I assume that this divergence may be magnified when an economy is undergoing genuine structural transformation. Expenditure-side and output-side measures will also vary depending on whether a country is facing better or worse terms of trade, something that will apply especially to trade-dependent economies like Singapore’s.

More generally, the Maddison project, the World Bank, and the Penn World Table project make different adjustments to the numbers produced by national statistical offices, based on different views about how to compare various prices across countries and time and different assumptions about the structure of particular economies. And though in the Singaporean case this is not really a problem, ultimately most estimates of the productive capacity of an economy, or the living standards of a country, depend on the reliability of national statistical agencies, which are subject to different constraints, including lack of resources to gather data and political manipulation. Morten Jerven, for example, argues that in some African countries, the numbers measuring GDP are basically guesstimates of limited value, given the lack of reliable price surveys, the low capacity of some national statistical offices, and the impossibility of measuring certain economic sectors; and Jerome Wallace has written on the political incentives for manipulating GDP statistics in China, especially at the subnational level, which bias Chinese growth rates upwards. (Estimates of Chinese GDP in particular are currently controversial. Though the main PWT data reports estimates of the Chinese economy based on official national accounts data, the PWT researchers also provide an additional table reporting “adjusted” national accounts data based on the research of Harry Wu. The Maddison project reports the Wu-adjusted data instead, which results in generally lower rates of growth before 1990 than the official data).

How much does it matter, however, which measure we use to evaluate the economic performance of particular regimes and political leaders? Which leaders and regimes have the most “disputed” economic performance, depending on the measure used? Using the Beta version of the Archigos dataset, I estimated the growth rates of all available measures of GDP per capita for all political leaders who were in office by at least 8 years up until 2014 in the post-1945 period. Eight years may not seem long, but in fact only about 15% of all leaders survive that long in power, so this is a pretty select group of “political survivors.” Moreover, eight years is two American presidential terms (so the data includes some American leaders), and seems long enough for leaders to actually make a difference, or at least successfully ride out a crisis or two. The economic stars of this select group of about 350 politically over-achieving group of leaders presided over estimated growth rates greater than 90% of all other countries with data for the period in which they were in office (averaging all growth rate estimates from the different datasets):

The variation at the top is enormous, depending on what measure we use. For example, Obasanjo is ranked as the top performing leader from 1999-2007 on many of the PWT8.1 measures, but only in the 84th percentile according to Maddison, and the estimated growth rates for the period range all the way from 6.7% per year (Maddison) to 28% per year (PWT 8.1, growth in consumption). If we believe the PWT, Obasanjo presided over a seven-fold increase in Nigeria’s living standards; if we believe Maddison (or the WDI), Nigerian living standards merely increased by about 1.7 times during his time in office. The economic performance of other leaders varies even more dramatically: if we believe version 8.1 of the PWT, the real consumtion of households and government in Equatorial Guinea under Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo increased about 6 times from 1979-2014; if we believe the GDP per capita measures on the expenditure side in both versions of the PWT, living standards increased about 45 times; and if we believe the output-side measure from the PWT version 8.0, the productive capacity of the economy of Equatorial Guinea increased about 125 times, more than under any other leader in this dataset. A real benefactor! (Right). In this context, it is reassuring that almost all measures agree that Singapore’s productive capacity and measured living standards increased by around five times during Lee’s time in office.

The same variability is also evident among the very worst performers:

Depending on which measure you use, Nigeria’s economic output and living standards under the military government of Babangida either contracted at a rate of around 17% per year (PWT8.1, expenditure-side measures), or merely remained stagnant (Maddison, World Development indicators). Jabir as-Sabah of Kuwait presided over one of the most severe depressions in modern history (-15% per year for 12 years, output-side measure in PWT 8.0) or merely over an extended recession caused by falling oil prices (-1.3% per year, real consumption measure from PWT 8.1). In the case of Syria under Hafiz al-Assad, the different datasets do not even agree as to whether the economy was growing a bit or shrinking horribly during his time in power.

The problem is not that some datasets always produce higher or lower estimates, but that for some particular kinds of leaders and countries, they seem to disagree for opaque reasons. The biggest divergences in estimates seem to occur for leaders that presided over states whose statistical capacity is at best dubious, or who were undergoing some severe trade shock (wild swings in the price of oil, or severe conflict or civil war), but it’s hard to tell without more detailed analysis. (By contrast, estimates of growth rates in the “advanced” economies of Europe and the USA typically agree across all measures). Here, for example, are the leaders whose growth estimates differ the most (90th percentile and above) when measured in more than two different ways by two or more different datasets, as well as the sources of the high and low estimates:

Leader Lowest Highest Difference Source low Source high Measures
Obasanjo, Nigeria, 1999-2007 6.8% 28.2% 21.43 Maddison 2013: Real GDP per capita, 1990$ PWT 8.1: Real consumption of households and government, current PPPs, 2005$ 15
Babangida, Nigeria, 1985-1993 -18.0% 0.9% 18.84 PWT 8.1: Real consumption of households and government, current PPPs, 2005$ Maddison 2013: Real GDP per capita, 1990$ 14
Emile Lahoud, Lebanon, 1998-2007 0.0% 14.5% 14.45 WDI: GDP per capita, constant 2005$ PWT 8.1: Output side, chained PPPs 15
Jabir As-Sabah, Kuwait, 1978-1990 -14.6% -1.3% 13.28 PWT 8.0: Output side, chained PPPs PWT 8.1: Real consumption of households and government, current PPPs, 2005$ 13
Amad Al Thani, Qatar, 1995-2007 2.8% 15.8% 12.96 Maddison 2013: Real GDP per capita, 1990$ PWT 8.1: Expenditure side, current PPPs, 2005$ 13
Bashar al-Assad, Syria, 2000-2011 1.4% 13.3% 11.87 Maddison 2013: Real GDP per capita, 1990$ PWT 8.1: Real consumption of households and government, current PPPs, 2005$ 13
Bagabandi, Mongolia, 1997-2005 -0.6% 9.9% 10.49 Maddison 2013: Real GDP per capita, 1990$ PWT 8.1: Expenditure side, current PPPs, 2005$ 15
Hun Sen, Cambodia (Kampuchea), 1985-1993 -4.3% 5.4% 9.67 Gleditsch, from Maddison, PWT8.0 PWT 8.0: Output side, current PPPs, 2005$ 13
Nguema Mbasogo, Equatorial Guinea, 1979-2014 5.3% 14.8% 9.52 PWT 8.1: Real consumption of households and government, current PPPs, 2005$ PWT 8.0: Output side, current PPPs, 2005$ 12
Saddam Hussein, Iraq, 1979-2003 -8.6% 0.9% 9.45 Maddison 2013: Real GDP per capita, 1990$ PWT 8.1: Real consumption of households and government, current PPPs, 2005$ 14
H. Aliyev, Azerbaijan, 1993-2003 -5.2% 3.9% 9.04 PWT 8.1: Real consumption of households and government, current PPPs, 2005$ WDI: GDP per capita, PPP, constant 2005$ 15
Hun Sen, Cambodia (Kampuchea), 1997-2014 -0.8% 7.9% 8.64 Gleditsch, from Maddison, PWT8.0 PWT 8.0: Expenditure side, current PPPs, 2005$ 14
Elias Hrawi, Lebanon, 1989-1998 -1.5% 6.8% 8.28 PWT 8.1: Output side, chained PPPs WDI: GDP per capita, constant 2005$ 14
Menem, Argentina, 1988-1999 2.8% 10.9% 8.13 Maddison 2013: Real GDP per capita, 1990$ PWT 8.1: Expenditure side, chained PPPs 14
Khatami, Iran (Persia), 1997-2005 3.5% 11.4% 7.99 WDI: GDP per capita, constant 2005$ PWT 8.1: Expenditure side, current PPPs, 2005$ 15
Akayev, Kyrgyz Republic, 1991-2005 -8.1% -0.2% 7.92 PWT 8.1: Expenditure side, chained PPPs Maddison 2013: Real GDP per capita, 1990$ 15
Yeltsin, Russia (Soviet Union), 1991-1999 -13.2% -5.3% 7.91 PWT 8.1: Output side, current PPPs, 2005$ WDI: GDP per capita, PPP, constant 2005$ 15
Ngouabi, Congo, 1969-1977 -3.6% 4.3% 7.85 PWT 8.0: Output side, chained PPPs PWT 8.1: Output side, current PPPs, 2005$ 14
Al-Assad H., Syria, 1971-2000 -6.0% 1.6% 7.55 Gleditsch, from Maddison, PWT8.0 WDI: GDP per capita, constant 2005$ 14
Jabir As-Sabah, Kuwait, 1991-2006 1.5% 8.8% 7.30 PWT 8.1: Real consumption of households and government, current PPPs, 2005$ PWT 8.0: Output side, current PPPs, 2005$ 13
Nguesso, Congo, 1997-2014 0.3% 7.5% 7.17 PWT 8.0: Output side, chained PPPs PWT 8.1: Output side, chained PPPs 14
Kabbah, Sierra Leone, 1998-2007 -1.2% 6.0% 7.13 PWT 8.0: Output side, chained PPPs Maddison 2013: Real GDP per capita, 1990$ 15
Hu Jintao, China, 2003-2012 2.9% 10.0% 7.09 PWT 8.1: Real consumption of households and government, current PPPs, 2005$ PWT 8.1: National-accounts growth rates, 2005$ 15
Mwinyi, Tanzania/Tanganyika, 1985-1995 -5.6% 1.2% 6.79 PWT 8.1: Real consumption of households and government, current PPPs, 2005$ PWT 8.0: National-accounts growth rates, 2005$ 13
Berdymukhammedov, Turkmenistan, 2006-2014 5.5% 12.2% 6.76 PWT 8.0: Expenditure side, current PPPs, 2005$ PWT 8.1: Real consumption of households and government, current PPPs, 2005$ 14
Ilhma Aliyev, Azerbaijan, 2003-2014 9.6% 16.3% 6.75 WDI: GDP per capita, constant 2005$ PWT 8.1: Output side, chained PPPs 14
Johnson Sirleaf, Liberia, 2006-2014 1.0% 7.6% 6.65 PWT 8.0: Output side, chained PPPs WDI: GDP per capita, PPP, constant 2005$ 14
Manning, Trinidad and Tobago, 2001-2010 5.6% 12.2% 6.55 WDI: GDP per capita, PPP, constant 2005$ PWT 8.1: Output side, chained PPPs 15
Doe, Liberia, 1980-1990 -8.3% -1.9% 6.45 WDI: GDP per capita, constant 2005$ Maddison 2013: Real GDP per capita, 1990$ 14
Hamad Isa Ibn Al-Khalifah, Bahrain, 1999-2014 -1.1% 5.1% 6.27 PWT 8.1: National-accounts growth rates, 2005$ PWT 8.1: Output side, chained PPPs 14
Khalifa Al Nahayan, United Arab Emirates, 2004-2014 -7.1% -0.8% 6.26 WDI: GDP per capita, PPP, constant 2005$ Gleditsch, from Maddison, PWT5.6, Imputed based on first/last available 3
Macias Nguema, Equatorial Guinea, 1968-1979 1.6% 7.6% 5.97 Maddison 2013: Real GDP per capita, 1990$ PWT 8.1: Real consumption of households and government, current PPPs, 2005$ 13

Some of these numbers have an air of fantasy about them. It is not, I think, possible to know with any degree of certainty the GDP per capita of Equatorial Guinea under Macias Nguema (last one in the table above), much less to estimate its growth rate, since government bureaucracies pretty much ceased to operate, the country was more or less off-limits to foreigners, cocoa production collapsed, and perhaps a third of the population fled or was killed during his time in power. (Perhaps “per capita” GDP increased because the population was declining at the time, despite the apparently complete economic disaster, but it’s hard to say: under these circumstances, all GDP numbers must be suspect). Even when the numbers are not utterly fantastic, however, the divergences in growth rates sometimes seem inexplicable without a deep understanding of how the underlying GDP numbers were generated. Should we think that the average growth in living standards under Hu Jintao was around 2.9% per year, or closer to 10% per year? Or was it more like 7%, as the latest expenditure-side measure of GDP per capita from the PWT 8.1 says?

Or take a more detailed look at Nigeria, which has both the worst (Babangida) and the best (Obasanjo) performers in terms of growth, and also the most widely divergent estimates of such growth:3

Datasets do not agree on how high was Nigeria’s GDP at the beginning of Babangida’s time in power, in the mid-1980s: it could have been as high as $1158 per capita (PWT8.0, output side) or as low as $568 (WDI, constant 2005 dollars). By 1994, when he leaves power, it could have been as low as $229 (PWT8.1) or as high as $2,817 (WDI, PPP adjusted), a more than tenfold difference! The datasets also do not agree on how low GDP was by the end of Abacha’s reign and the return to elected governments (was it $1034, according to Maddison? or $228, according to PWT?), or how high GDP was by the end of Obasanjo’s second stint in office (was it $881, in constant 2005 dollars according to the WDI? or as high as $4,527, also according to the World bank, when adjusting for PPP in the particular way the World bank happens to do so here? Or merely around $2,400, according to the expenditure side measure, chained PPPs, of PWT8.1?). Some of these estimates consistently differ by about a factor of five; perhaps country specialists can explain them (adjustments by the statistical office to the national accounts? Different adjustments by dataset providers in response to changing prices of oil?), but the average user seems unlikely to know. Perhaps it’s impossible to tell exactly: based on available data, all we can tell is that average living standards (probably) declined under the military government of Babangida, and (probably) increased under under the elected government of Obasanjo, at least for a hypothetical “average person,” but it’s pointless to try to figure out by how much. (And that’s before we even get into philosophical questions about whether GDP per capita really measures anything of any importance).

The country’s political regime does seem to matter a bit for whether or not a country’s growth estimates agree; in general, estimates for more “democratic” regimes tend to agree more, perhaps because they tend to be calculated under more transparent conditions. Using Geddes, Wright, and Frantz’s dataset of authoritarian regimes, we can calculate the average growth rates and growth percentiles of all regimes in place for at least three years (so there’s enough data to calculate some sensible growth rates) since 1950 (n = 239). (As above, the growth percentiles are relative to the dates of the regime; so, for example, a regime that grew at 5% per year from 1950-1980 may be in the 95th percentile for that period, while a regime that grew at 7% per year in the 1970-1980 period may be only in the 90th percentile for that period, if other countries grew even faster in that time. This is a rough way of adjusting for common factors operating on the world economy on all regimes in a particular period of time; instead of looking at the growth rate of a regime by itself, we can look at how that growth rate compares to the growth rate of all other countries during the regime’s lifetime). Here’s what their growth rates and growth percentiles look like when plotted against their basic regime type (colored dots represent means of growth rates or growth percentiles from one dataset and one measure):

The graph indicates three things. First, for the periods in which there is data, democracies in the sample seem to have grown faster than authoritarian regimes, when averaging over the entire lifetime of each regime, as some of the best research on this topic suggests. Their median “growth percentile” seems to have been higher than that of non-democracies for the periods in which they were in existence. But depending on which measure we use, we could get the opposite result: on the PPP WDI measure, autocracies seem to grow faster than democracies. (A situation ripe for p-hacking!). Second, economic performance in democracies seems to have been more stable than economic performance in non-democracies, as Rodrik and others have shown in more detail elsewhere, though growth rates vary widely across both democracies and non-democracies, and the extent of the variation depends in part on which measure of economic growth we choose to focus on. But third, and most importantly for our purposes here, estimates of economic growth seem to vary more across datasets in non-democracies than in democracies. Especially in countries going through periods of “no authority” (civil wars, warlord regimes, etc.), estimates of growth are basically all over the place, as we should perhaps expect when statistical offices cease to operate and economic activity goes underground.

We can take the same look at the same picture at a finer level of detail:

In some places (e.g., “warlord” regimes - no central authority, like Afghanistan in the early 2000s), the error bars around the mean growth rates are huge, and estimates from different datasets are basically all over the place. Interestingly, estimates of growth percentiles across different datasets also differ quite a bit for the (mostly Middle Eastern) monarchies, and many party or party/military regimes. In comparison, estimates for average growth rates in democracies seem to agree pretty closely across all datasets. Indeed, the standard deviation of the different estimates of the log of the level (not the growth) of GDP, on any given year, within each regime, is higher in non-democracies than in democracies; in other words, estimates of “how wealthy the country is” on any given year differ more within non-democracies than within democracies, and the biggest outliers (the countries where different datasets disagree the most) are all non-democratic:

Moreover, the divergence in estimates is not just due to the poverty of most authoritarian countries; non-democracies have more diverging estimates of GDP at all levels of GDP on any given year. Though poorer democracies and hybrid regimes do tend to have more variable estimates of their level of GDP than richer democracies and hybrid regimes, as we might expect (perhaps poorer countries have more difficulty gathering reliable data), the opposite appears to be true for non-democratic regimes; estimates of the actual level of GDP of richer authoritarian regimes across datasets diverge as much as the estimates of the level of GDP of poorer authoritarian regimes:

Moral of the story: it’s difficult to measure incomes. It’s even harder to construct estimates of income that are comparable across widely different economies and societies, or to interpret these measures appropriately. (Income and political datasets should have more metadata!). But it seems hardest to do that for regimes that can lie with greater impunity.

All code for this post is available here.

  1. The choice to use “output side” (rather than Expenditure side) measures of GDP makes good sense for the Gleditsch data, which is designed for use in international relations research where measuring the productive capacity of an economy is more important than measuring living standards. But Gleditsch’s data for some countries sometimes mixes numbers from Maddison, the World Bank, and PWT that appear to have been calculated in different ways and for different purposes.
  2. The estimated growth rates are the coefficient of the simple linear model log(per capita) ~ year, for each measure of GDP per capita. Technically, these are trend growth rates (the slope of the trend line of the log of per capita GDP), rather than the geometric mean of each year’s growth rate (another usual way of averaging growth rates over time), but the differences remain whichever way one calculates average growth rates, and for most countries the estimated growth rates are pretty similar using either approach (even though trend growth rates may not be appropriate if the time series has a structural break).
  3. See my post on histories of instability for more on these kinds of “deep history” figures.

Friday, July 31, 2015

Propaganda as Signaling

In a lovely piece published nearly three decades ago, the French historian Paul Veyne noted that much “propaganda” art throughout history has been “without viewers.” His key example was Trajan’s Column:

“Trajan’s Column Panorama” by Juan Francisco Adame Lorite. Licensed under CC BY 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.
Trajan's Column
Not far from the Forum in Rome, Trajan’s Column raises its shaft thirty meters. Spiraling around it is a sculpted frieze whose 184 scenes and one thousand figures illustrate, like a cartoon strip, the conquest of Dacia by Trajan. Except for the first two spirals, viewers cannot make out these reliefs. Archaeologists study them with binoculars. Moreover, nobody would want to itemize this repetitious swarm or try to follow the account of military campaigns declaimed by the conquest of barbarian villages whose name or place on the map was unknown. Historians explain Trajan’s Column as a work of “imperial propaganda”. That shows how much a shortsighted rationality, one that cannot distinguish between expression and information, keeps its prestige even to our day, when it brings something to “society” or states what this thing is assumed to “bring to society”. We may however doubt that the Romans of Trajan’s time looked very much more at the reliefs, materially invisible, than today’s Romans and that they rushed to this spectacle to go around the Column twenty-three times with their noses in the air. The Column does not inform people; it simply lets them see the evidence of the greatness of Trajan faced with time and the weather. In the same way, at the summit of the Behistun Rock, Darius the Great had a monumental inscription engraved in three languages to the glory of his reign. This inscription was not meant to be read: it is located at the top of a peak, and only eagles or mountain climbers suspended on their ropes could read it (p. 3)

Behistun Rock inscription by Hara1603. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
Behistun Rock inscription Column
The lack of clear visibility of the great works of imperial art is so common, according to Veyne, it is hardly noticed, and when noticed it is explained as if it were some embarrassing technical fault. (The sculptor of the Vendôme column, a “faithful imitation” of Trajan’s column constructed for Napoleon, published a book to explain the meaning of the reliefs, since these could not be seen from below; he thought the book “might be helpful” given their invisibility. One wonders how many people read the book). Though Veyne did not use this terminology, his argument was that such works were a form of costly signaling:
The Column expresses the glory of Trajan, just as the heavens (which it is useless to itemize star by star) express the glory of Jahweh. In both cases there have to be far too many stars and far too many sculpted scenes. The expression of a superiority is only undoubted when it is excessive (p. 3)
Imperial art was thus not a way to transmit some specific ideological content to “legitimate” the social order, and its political force did not depend on any understanding of its meaning:
What the Column bears as ideology is the right it claims to exist, just as, in a country submitted to an authoritarian regime, loud-speakers diffusing official discourse in the streets count more for their omnipresence than for what they broadcast. Trajan’s Column is propaganda of a sort but not because of its imagery. It is such for its presence and for the power expressed by its redundancy (p. 11)
The same was true, mutatis mutandi, of most (especially political) rituals, whose meaning, painstakingly reconstructed by the anthropologist, is only dimly recognized, if at all, by participants. Much ritual activity, in Veyne’s view, was “conduct without belief,” as the title of the article had it, not because participants actively disbelieved or resisted what was said in and through the ritual but simply because they did not have the foggiest idea about its meaning:
Their multiplicity of meaning and the feeble intensity of the meaning most generally received make these ceremonials a behavior that functions at only about ten percent of their energy[,] and that meaning is not the one involving their content and what their creator intended. It is not the words of the Marseillaise that matter, when the day-nursery is inaugurated with music (p. 13)
Veyne’s point was not that official rituals are necessarily unconvincing or incredible, but that most of the time most people just aren’t paying enough attention to “get” the official message. (This point should not be a surprise to anyone who has ever given a lecture to a crowd of indifferent students). The meaningful content of official ritual and art matters much less than its limited emotional charge and oppressive bulk. For example, the Stalin cult required enormous resources to maintain, and much specialist energy was devoted to its symbolic construction. Yet despite the vast efforts of historians to understand the iconography of the cult (see, e.g., Jan Plamper’s The Stalin Cult), most Soviet citizens only engaged with cult productions superficially and without enthusiasm, hardly in the way required for any detailed understanding of their meaning. The Stalin cult was powerful primarily because Stalin was powerful, not because it had some specially designed symbolic content that most people “got.” A similar thing could be said of the later rituals of Soviet power, described with such care in Christel Lane’s The Rites of Rulers, and intentionally designed, on her account, to impress Soviet citizens with a wide variety of explicit values. Yet there is little evidence that the symbolism of these rituals had any but the most passing influence on the values and attachments of Soviet citizens to the political order; to the extent that they worked to “legitimate” the regime (as Lane claimed in a 1984 piece), such legitimation was predicated on the “signal” of the permanence and power of the CPSU, which was soon to vanish. As Veyne puts the key point more poetically:
We must […] be careful not to infer from the ceremonial of coronation of kings, for example, what monarchy is and what is thought of it and to bring grist to the mill of the ideological analysis of symbols. This ceremony does not show us the real visage of monarchy: it is merely a portrait by a court painter. The subjects of the king in all probability think something different of the monarchical regime. Even more probably, they think less of it: every portrait painter embellishes, interprets and defines the features of the model. (p. 14).
As long time readers will know, I think the “signaling” view of official ritual and propaganda is more often closer to reality than the “indoctrination” view, so Veyne’s ideas cater to my prejudices. Yet the “signaling” view of propaganda goes against the commonsense view that authoritarian ritual and propaganda “works” insofar as it indoctrinates or educates. (For example, my students are enormously resistant to it; I sometimes think that there must be some evolutionary benefit to believing that other people always believe what they are told, given my difficulties in convincing them otherwise). So I was interested to learn of new piece forthcoming in Comparative Politics, fittingly entitled “Propaganda as Signaling,” by Haifeng Huang, which provides further evidence for the signaling view.

The study looks at students exposed to mandatory political education courses in a Chinese University. These courses are seen as a pain:
Chinese students in general and even many instructors regard such courses as nuisances, i.e., rituals that they dislike but have to observe. Students also typically regard the courses as useless for their future careers. When asked how they treated the political education courses, only 8.0% of the students surveyed in the study reported they somewhat actively studied for the courses, with the rest acknowledging that they listened to lectures only casually, did not listen to lectures at all, relied on cram sessions to prepare for exams, or simply skipped some classes (p. 9)
The clever bit of the study exploits the fact that, since nobody likes these boring courses, student performance should thus depend primarily on their incentive and ability to maintain a high GPA. Conditional on academic standing, family income, Communist party membership, and the like, their satisfaction with the government should thus be unrelated to their recall of propaganda content. And indeed this is what Huang finds: people who do better at recalling propaganda content glorifying the CCP (the “good students”, let’s say) are no more likely to be satisfied with the government than people who do not recall such content. But the “good students” do appear to show a diminished willingness to challenge the CCP through dissent actions. They are more likely to believe, in Huang’s view, that the government is strong, even if it is not good.

Now, Huang does not dismiss the possibility of propaganda as indoctrination, though such socialization into regime values would happen in the more lively public sphere and by more indirect means. Moreover, the exact mechanism by which the better students believe that the government is strong is not altogether clear from the paper. (Perhaps they are more likely to attribute their boredom to the government’s ability to compel their attention, and thus draw inferences about the government’s strength? Perhaps their “ability” means they are simply more likely to form accurate beliefs about the government’s strength, irrespective of their feelings of satisfaction?). But the basic point is surely correct: power “legitimates” power in this case. Indeed, I suspect the very popularity of nationalist symbolism in the wider Chinese public sphere shows the same thing: it’s not that the government is powerful because it has been able to craft some very specific nationalist narrative that cleverly appeals to people’s values, but its ability to project strength makes the nationalist narratives a bit like Trajan’s column: a reminder of the CCP’s apparent permanence and overwhelming strength.

Tuesday, June 09, 2015

What do people think of democracy around the world? And does it matter?

(Warning: A long and rambling graph-heavy post on public opinion by someone who has never worked with public opinion data before, and who is in addition very skeptical about the importance of public opinion for large-scale institutional outcomes. Part of this occasional series).

I’ve been playing around with the data from the latest wave of the World Values Survey, trying to figure out what people think of “democracy” in these large-scale surveys, and whether it is related to any large-scale institutional features of political systems. And I must say, I find public opinion about democracy quite puzzling.

It’s not that people don’t like democracy. On the contrary, public opinion surveys like the World Values Survey or the various regional “Barometer” polls (Latinobarometer, Arab Barometer, Asian Barometer, Afrobarometer) tend to consistently find that people really like the idea of democracy; asking about democracy is like asking about motherhood. Consider the figure below, which plots the range of responses in the sixty countries surveyed by the WVS at various times between 2011 and 2014 to a question asking about people’s opinion of “having a democratic political system”:

In most of these countries (including many countries most people would classify as “authoritarian”), more than 75% of the population says that having a democratic system is a “very good” or a “fairly good” idea, while only small minorities claim democracy is a “very bad” or a “fairly bad” idea. In the modal country, in other words, large majorities are “pro-democracy” in some abstract sense. Nevertheless, these same majorities are not always very discriminating about what they consider “good” political systems. In some countries, large numbers of people agree both with the idea that democracy is a good form of government, and that having the army rule, or having a strong leader “that does not bother with parliament and elections” is also a good thing.

The figure below compares answers to the question of whether respondents consider “having a democratic system” a good idea with their answers to questions about other modes of political decisionmaking. It is ordered according to whether the pattern of responses in a country is similar to that found in New Zealand (the first country at the top left). New Zealand is a good reference country because (besides the fact that I live there) the pattern of belief in NZ is consistently “pro-democracy”: democracy is considered to be good by large majorities, while army rule, expert rule, and strong leader rule are not so considered, though expert rule is not altogether discounted.[1] Many countries display a similar pattern of responses (not just “Western” countries; see, e.g., Thailand, where democracy is greatly preferred to army rule or expert rule, even if a substantial minority does evaluate these alternatives positively, reflecting Thailand’s persistent political conflicts), but in others views are more confusing. For example, majorities of people in India, Mexico, and Egypt seem to think all political systems are a great idea; army rule, democracy, expert rule, it’s all good.[2]

Indeed, about 36% of all respondents in India give positive evaluations (answers of “very good” or “fairly good”) to all hypothetical political systems, while less than 1% of respondents are what we might call “principled democrats,” evaluating democracy positively while negatively assessing the remaining options, as we can see in the figure below.[3] By contrast, around 47% of respondents of respondents in Sweden are “principled democrats,” while only around 4% are what we might call “enthusiasts about everything.” (I’m not sure why people in India seem to be so enthusiastic about all the options here; perhaps this is some weird survey artifact. Readers from India might help me out here?).

The WVS also asks a number of questions about whether people consider various things “essential” to democracy, ranging from classic liberal ideas (free elections, equality under the law, civil rights) to economic and social outcomes (income equality, unemployment help, progressive taxation), to “antiliberal” ideas (“religious authorities interpret the laws,” “army takes over if the government is incompetent”). And though many people all over the world tend to agree that elections and other liberal freedoms are essential to democracy, there are clear differences in public opinion about what other things they also consider essential. The figure below is again arranged with New Zealand at the top, followed by those countries whose pattern of responses is most similar to New Zealand:

Public opinion about democracy in the countries at the top of the figure is recognizably “liberal”: free elections, women’s rights, and civil rights are seen as pretty important to democracy by large numbers of people, while economic equality and social security are seen as less important, and “antiliberal” ideas receive little support (though not zero support! One gets the impression that some respondents are just trolling the interviewers, but who knows; survey respondents are under no obligation to be consistent). By comparison, public opinion about democracy in Russia or Kazakhstan (and in most of the post-Communist countries in the sample) tends to emphasize economic equality and social security more (though civil rights and free elections remain important), while in Yemen or Pakistan just about everything in the list is seen as essential to democracy (including antiliberal ideas), and in Bahrain just about everything is seen as unimportant (another puzzling pattern!).

Aggregate public opinion conceals much variation among individual responses, of course. We might think of individual responses as divided into different types, depending on how much they emphasize different ideas – liberal, egalitarian, and antiliberal – relative to some baseline when answering questions about what ideas they think are “essential” to democracy.[4] In particular, we can distinguish between relative liberal democrats (people who consider free elections and individual rights more important than the average respondent in all countries, while de-emphasizing egalitarian and antiliberal ideas), relative social democrats (people who associate both liberal and “economic” ideas with democracy), relative egalitarian democrats (people who associate democracy primarily with “economic” ideas), antiliberals (people who associate democracy primarily with anti-liberal ideas, like “the army takes over when the government is incompetent”), antiegalitarians (people who associate democracy with everything except economic equality), enthusiasts (people who associate democracy with everything), and refusers (people who do not think any of the options on offer in the survey is especially essential). The figure below is ordered according to the percentage of respondents who express relatively liberal and liberal egalitarian views of democracy:

Perhaps unsurprisingly, large numbers of people in “Western” countries – Germany, Sweden, New Zealand, etc. – express views of democracy that are “liberal” or “liberal egalitarian” (relative to the world average), though proportions of “principled” liberals and “egalitarian” liberals vary (Germany contains a very large number of “egalitarian” liberals; New Zealand and the United States do not). Overall, however, pure liberal views are relatively uncommon; indeed, in some countries (Bahrain, South Africa) there are basically no detectable relative liberals (egalitarian or otherwise), while in many countries (e.g, Qatar, Iraq) large numbers of respondents emphasize both economic equality and anti-liberal ideas as essential components of democracy. This is not to say that in these societies nobody cares about free elections or civil rights; but many people there appear to see no contradiction between thinking that free elections and civl rights are important to democracy (even if not the most essential thing), and thinking that democracy also involves (perhaps more essentially) having a role for religious authorities in politics, or for the army when the elected government appears to fail.

Some variation is to be expected given that people in different countries may use different baselines when asked to rank ideas along a 1-10 scale (what a “ten” means in Sweden may not be the same as what it means in Bahrain, on average), but still, the differences are striking, and suggestive of “cultural” clustering among conceptions of democracy. And indeed, using a simple graph representation of the similarities between patterns of responses among countries,[5] and a community discovery algorithm, we find between 3 and 7 clusters (depending on the algorithm used), one of which typically corresponds to the “Western” countries plus Japan and South Korea, and another to the Post-socialist world (Soviet countries plus China plus a few others). For example, the figure below displays five clusters, arranged by color according to the average similarity of the conception of democracy of countries in the cluster to New Zealand; the labels in the legend show a representative country in the cluster.

The countries in the dark blue group (labeled “New Zealand”) show “liberal” patterns of responses, and contain most of the “Western” democracies, plus Japan, South Korea, and Uruguay. The countries in the orange (“Russia”) group contain most of the post-socialist countries, plus a few others (Egypt, Malaysia). Countries in light blue comprise an “Iberoamerican” cluster (Spain plus Argentina and Chile) that is pretty similar to the “Western Europe” cluster; countries in dark red are pretty similar to the post-socialist countries, though they tend to have more “illiberal” conceptions of democracy. One could easily tell a story here about how socialization in formerly communist countries tended to associate democracy with the egalitarian values of the socialist project, which, though denied in practice in some ways, seem to have been accepted by the vast majority of the population. And a contrasting story could be told about the “Western” conception of democracy, which more strictly separates egalitarian “outcomes” from democracy as such. I am less sure about the other, more illiberal clusters; I suppose one could tell a story about the importance of “religious authority” in some of them, but it certainly would not fit all countries. Perhaps the most obvious feature of the “Cyprus” (light yellow) and “Peru” (dark red) clusters is that they seem to gather many the countries of what was formerly called the “third world,” which suggests a better division into “first,” “second,” and “third” world conceptions of democracy. These conceptions, though not wholly distinct, do suggest that people’s views of democracy were shaped in some indirect way by both development patterns and the great ideological conflicts of the 20th century. People expect different (and sometimes contradictory) things of democracy in different parts of the world; and these expectations appear to have been partly shaped by the institutional history of their societies.

Nevertheless, there is little direct correlation between public opinion about democracy (“democratic values,” if you will) and “actual” measures of democracy (as devised by political scientists). Ronald Inglehart (one of the principal investigators for the WVS) has argued that the number of people who “like” democracy or find it important for their country is essentially uncorrelated with standard measures of democracy (he uses Freedom House, but the point holds for other measures, like Polity IV). Talk is cheap, and “liking” democracy has little to do with “having” a standardly democratic political system. Instead, he suggests, democracy is associated with what he and his collaborators call “post-materialist” values.

Inglehart is certainly right about the lack of correlation between “liking” democracy (or even considering it important) and standard measures of democracy (as we can see below); but though the measures of post-materialism included with the WVS do show some correlation with standard measures of democracy, this is not always very high. The percentage of people who give “liberal” answers to questions about the essential characteristics of democracy (relative to the world average) displays a higher correlation with “standard” measures of democracy than almost anything else, including “post-materialist” values:

I do not think this says much about whether a certain combination of views about democracy is needed to produce or sustain democracy; more likely, the process of socialization in countries with “consolidated” liberal democratic institutions, like New Zealand, more clearly differentiates “democracy” from other alternatives, and more clearly associates it with a specific constellation of institutions, than elsewhere, where democracy might be a bit of an empty signifier, ready to be filled with whatever content political entrepreneurs manage to pour into it. In other words, I find it more plausible that liberal democratic institutions tend to produce liberal democrats than the reverse. I also do not find Inglehart et al.’s argument for the importance of post-materialist values to the long-run stability of democracy convincing; though there is certainly a correlation between these post-materialism indexes and some measures of democracy (not all), some careful statistical work suggests the relationship goes away when using other measures of democracy and accounting for reverse causation (from institutions to values). The sorts of aspirational values that get expressed in surveys (which may not be ultimately reflective of deep commitments to defend or promote certain institutions) seem more likely to be shaped by institutions than the other way around; but perhaps that is only my prejudices speaking.

One piece of evidence for this “primacy of institutions” thesis, it seems to me, is the general lack of correlation between responses to questions about the actual degree of democracy in a respondent’s country and standard measures of democracy. “Expert” and “popular” assessments of democracy often diverge radically, suggesting that what people come to consider “democratic” is shaped by prevailing regimes more than the other way around:

Again, these differences are not altogether surprising; different people will answer “rating” questions like these from different baselines, and their responses may anyway be affected by such factors as how well they think the country is doing, what political events are in the news, and perhaps even their mood or the weather at the time of the interview. Someone with more time and training than me could probably figure out how to calibrate these responses better. Yet there are still some interesting patterns worth noticing. For example, there seems to be something of a “sour grapes” effect: in some countries where people rate the level of democracy lower, they also tend to give lower average answers to the question of how important it is that their country be ruled democratically. Moreover answers about more specific aspects of political life, such as the quality of elections, tend to be reasonably well correlated with standard measures of democracy; people in Rwanda, for example, are surprisingly upbeat when they answer the question of how democratically they think their country is ruled (perhaps due to the successes of Rwandan economic development under Kagame), but (on the aggregate at least) they have fewer illusions about their electoral process, which they accurately judge is hardly a perfect model of fairness. (The one obvious outlier is Singapore, where people express great confidence in the freedom and fairness of their elections while being given a low FH/Polity2 score).

The specific answers to questions about elections are interesting in themselves (it’s too bad it was only asked in 40 out of the 60 countries in this wave of the WVS). The figure below is arranged from “freest” to “least free” (by the total Freedom House score), starting with Australia and Chile:

Countries at the very top display high levels of trust in elections: most people think votes are counted fairly, election officials are fair, voters are given a genuine choice at the polls, opposition politicians are not prevented from running, there’s little violence at the polls, and media coverage is reasonably unbiased. (The Netherlands and Germany are model countries here; people there really trust in their electoral process!). As we go down the list, however, we find countries where trust in the voting process is mingled with distrust at the media and the rich (e.g., Taiwan and Brazil), and eventually countries where opinion is highly polarized (e.g., Pakistan, Zimbabwe, Egypt, or Nigeria, where significant numbers think votes are counted fairly and significant numbers think they aren’t). Only in a few countries do we find something like a generalized distrust of the electoral process by majorities of those surveyed; more usually, different groups in the population fiercely disagree about the fairness of the electoral process (as in Venezuela today – unfortunately not included in this WVS wave).This is one more reason to think that elections do not necessarily “legitimate” governments; if half your population strongly doubts their fairness, and the other half strongly supports it, the election is going to be experienced quite differently by each side.

The nine items on elections in the survey measure, as far as I can tell, four dimensions of the electoral process: fairness of the election itself (electoral officials are fair, votes are counted fairly, voters are threatened with violence at the polls); fairness of the media (TV news coverage, journalists); extent of choice (voters are offered a genuine choice, opposition politicians are prevented from running); and perceptions of problematic money in politics (voters are bribed, rich people buy elections). We can thus use an index of perceptions of the fairness of each of these components of the electoral process to construct a measure of polarization. The figure below is thus arranged according to one such measure, from the most polarized society (Zimbabwe, where the fairness of every component of the electoral process appears to be fiercely disputed, with approximately equal numbers of people trusting and distrusting each of them) to the least polarized (Germany, where there seems to be great consensus that every component of the electoral process is fair):

Perhaps the most striking thing we can observe in this graph is how much people distrust the media’s political role in most societies; almost everywhere the media component has the largest number of people expression reservations about its fairness during elections. And people in many societies generally considered to be democratic (e.g, Peru, Argentina, South Africa) express much distrust of almost every component of the electoral process; in Nigeria there almost seems to be a general consensus that everything about the electoral process is unfair. Yet there is a strong correlation between the degree to which perceptions of election day fairness are polarized and the degree to which the country has been democratic, by conventional measures; we might say that the mark of a consolidated democracy (by conventional measures) is simply that people in general agree that election day is “fair,” regardless of other disagreements:

Indeed, the more agreement there is on election day fairness, the higher people rate the degree of democracy in their country:

If I may speculate here, elections only seem to legitimate governments – ensuring some degree of institutional stability – when people already agree that they are fair. They do not have any magic “legitimating” powers if people do not already agree on their fairness; and whether people agree on the fairness of elections is only in part a function of their objective fairness. Deep conflicts in society may “spill over” to the fairness of elections.

All code for the figures in this post is available in this GitHub repository. You will also need the World Values Survey data file (sixth wave, 2011-2014), and the latest data from Freedom House (helpfully converted into an R-friendly CSV file by Jay Ulfelder here).

  1. For the details of how the measure of similarity was calculated, take a look at the code for this post. Essentially, I created a matrix of the proportions of the population giving each answer in each country, and used a Gower distance measure to calculate which countries were similar to which.
  2. Egyptians weren’t asked about army rule in 2013. Perhaps the question was regarded as too politically sensitive in the circumstances.
  3. The figure excludes Egypt, Morocco, and Qatar, where some of these questions weren’t asked. There’s a fair amount of non-response to these questions in many countries; that’s the reason why the bars in the figure don’t go all the way to the right hand side.
  4. This can be done in different ways, but below I simply categorize a response as emphasizing one of these ideas if it scores higher than the world average for the relevant items. More precisely, I combine the scores for the three items measuring each of the main ideas, and categorize a response as emphasizing that idea if it this number is larger than average across all countries. “Liberal” ideas are measured by the questions asking about how essential women’s rights, free elections, and civil rights are to democracy; “egalitarian” ideas are measured by the questions asking about how essential income equality, state provision of unemployment benefits, and taxation of the rich and subsidies to the poor are to democracy; and “antiliberal” ideas are measured by the questions asking about about how essential obedience to the state, the army taking over if the government is incompetent, and a role for religious authorities interpreting the laws are to democracy. All of these are, of course, highly imperfect as measures of these ideas; but this is in the nature of large-scale survey research.
  5. A weighted undirected graph where edge strength is the measure of similarity between any two countries in their response patterns to all of the nine questions concerning the essential characteristics of democracy. See the code for this post for more details on its construction.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Principal-agent problems in the Soviet Union, circa 1990

Widespread fictitious economic accounting was foiling planners to the point that the KGB employed its own spy satellites to ascertain the size of the Uzbek cotton harvest, but the spy agency itself suffered from internal falsifications.
From Stephen Kotkin, Armageddon Averted, p. 67.

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Electoral Parodies

I've been reading a lot about various dictators this summer. And again and again I am struck by the existence of what one might call “electoral parodies” in many dictatorships: abuses of electoral rules and standards so blatant and obvious that they cannot be interpreted as anything other than mockery. Here is a good example, from the Dominican Republic:
In 1941, as the new ally of the United States against the Axis Powers, Trujillo felt obliged to extend the democratic facade by creating an opposition party, and so the Trujillo party was formed. But Trujillo was the presidential candidate of both the new creation and his old official party. Under the Trujillo Party banner, he received 190,229 votes and as the candidate of the Dominican Party he polled 391,708; the total of both parties, 581,937, meant that Trujillo had again received 100 per cent of the vote (Wiarda, Dictatorship and Development: The Methods of Control in the Dominican Republic, p. 66.)
Others include such things as releasing the results of the election before it takes place, receiving 100% of the vote from more than 100% of the voters (another Trujillo specialty), declaring victory while failing to announce any vote totals, and so on. But my all-time favorite is this story, from Haiti. François “Papa Doc” Duvalier had been first elected to the Presidency in 1957 for a six year term in a rigged but reasonably competitive election, and had since consolidated his power. On 30 April 1961, there was a scheduled congressional election. Although Duvalier was not supposed to be on the ballot,
[f]ew voters considered it unusual that the name Dr François Duvalier was printed at the bottom of each and every ballot … Late that evening rumour spread that Duvalier – with two years to go on his current term – had declared himself reelected for an additional six years because his name had appeared on the ballot. On 4 May Attorney General Max Duplessis declared to the Electoral Board – called the Census Committee – that Duvalier indeed had been voted another term in office. Crowds were organized to collect before the palace and applaud this view. … … In three days the Census Committee convened, agreed, declared President Duvalier re-elected, and announced that he received more than 1.3 million votes … … The new legislature ratified the election (14 May 1961), and Duvalier responded: ’I accept the people’s will because being a revolutionary I do not have the right [not? sic] to hear the people’s voice (Diederich and Burt, Papa Doc: Haiti and its Dictator, pp. 169-170)
The sheer chutzpah of this “election” is a thing of beauty. Voters voted Duvalier into office without realizing that they had done so! He wasn’t supposed to even be up for election!

I’ve written before about elections without choice, but this stuff still fascinates me. Clearly, much of what is going on in these “elections” is about signaling – showing who is boss by doing something outrageous and getting away with it – but I am struck by the degree to which people who should know better still interpret them as somehow “legitimating” performances. There is something like a “third person effect” going on here, as if analysts thought that electoral parodies must have a greater impact on gullible others than they do on themselves. Yet electoral parodies are not “democratic facades” that legitimate regimes in the eyes of ill-informed citizens or commentators from abroad, but “democratic burlesques” that ridicule any possible standards of democracy, and are clearly experienced as such by most citizens and international audiences.

The Duvalier case is especially interesting, since it is so absurdly brazen, and if anything contributed to the “delegitimation” of the Duvalier regime in the eyes of international audiences. Unlike in the Trujillo case noted earlier, the “re-election” of Duvalier did not come about because of pressure from abroad; in fact the US did not know it was going to happen, and made it clear through its ambassador (the aptly-named Robert Newbegin, who was supposed to inaugurate a new era of Haitian-American relations after the expulsion of the previous American Ambassador, Gerald Drew, in 1960) that it considered it illegal. As the end of Duvalier’s original term approached in 1963, the US even put out the message that it would welcome a military coup to oust him, since it considered Duvalier’s legal term to be over. (Though various ineptly planned coup attempts and a number of poorly executed invasions from the Dominican Republic did take place over the next few years, Duvalier survived them all. The man was lucky, and his opposition was almost comically disorganized.) Most other nations in the Organization of American States, though generally reluctant to intervene in Haiti, agreed that Duvalier was an embarrassment, and his “re-election” a sham.

Worse, not only did Duvalier further strain his (already strained) relations with the US by insisting on his “re-election,” but he did not even gain any of the benefits of normally rigged elections, like (biased) estimates of opposition or government strength, or the ability to make a more or less plausible claim of popular support, since nobody knew that he was going to be on the ballot; it wasn’t supposed to be a presidential election! From the point of view of contemporary analysts, it looked like an unforced error; why couldn’t Duvalier just have waited for two years to steal the next scheduled presidential election in a proper way? It’s not as if Duvalier had no genuine supporters; the “quiet doctor,” underestimated by the traditional Haitian elite at every turn, appears to have skillfully appropriated the noiriste and populist mantle of Estimé, and could count on at least some genuine support in the countryside. And he could play the nationalism card to perfection, presenting Haiti as the injured victim of US racism and imperialism while extorting large amounts of aid by playing on US fear of communism. (He would occasionally invite the Polish or Czechoslovak legations for a chat, or let communist student unions stage the odd protest, just to show the Americans the dangers of not agreeing to his demands; the man had a singular talent for blackmail). But the “election” actually endangered the flow of aid (which, it should go without saying, was in large measure used for pure patronage purposes or simply stolen). It seemed to be more like an impulsive f*** you than a rational attempt to retain power.

My best "rationalistic" guess for why Duvalier nevertheless staged this electoral parody is that given the totally uninstitutionalized Haitian political context he might have thought that waiting two more years to steal an election might provide his enemies with too many opportunities to overthrow him; better to flush them out by an unexpected, enraging move like this than to give them time to prepare. And it certainly changed the political opportunity structure, since it entailed the cancellation of the scheduled presidential election of 1963, and thus foreclosed the option to battle Duvalier on an electoral terrain, however uneven; perhaps by forcing the opposition to adopt the techniques of the underground, he was moving the fight to a place where he had greater advantages, though this was a high-risk gamble. 

And yet all actors involved were forced to speak, with a straight face, the language of legitimacy, laws, rights, and popular sovereignty. Here, for example, is a bit Diederich and Burt quote from the Attorney General’s ruling, a masterpiece of this nonsensical rhetoric:
It is essential that immediately, even before counting the votes obtained by the candidates, we insist upon the principle which, far from being new, constitutes the very essence of national sovereignty. This principle can be defined: the members of the electorate, when presented with an electoral decree or law which looks to them incomplete, have the right to fully manifest their will to complete the law or decree and to designate a civil servant or a group of civil servants whose election was not foreseen. The intangibility of the principle once established, it will be easy for us to understand the the electorate of Port-au-Prince Arrondisement (used to establish legal precedent) has acted within its full sovereign power by designating François Duvalier for a new term under the title of President of the Republic. (Diederich and Burt, Papa Doc: Haiti and its Dictator, p. 169)
The language of legitimacy coordinates expectations even as it is being obviously flouted. Hypocrisy may be the tribute that vice pays to virtue, but this is not even hypocrisy; it’s more like trolling.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

The Saudi Monarchy as a Family Firm

(I normally don’t write on current events, since I’m not a specialist in the politics of any country, but I had just finished Michael Herb’s excellent 1999 book All in the Family: Absolutism, Revolution, And Democracy in the Middle Eastern Monarchies when I heard the news that the Saudi King had died. Since I think Herb's thesis about the resilience of Arab monarchies in a world that is basically hostile to non-democratic norms makes a great deal of sense, I thought I’d add my 2 cents.)

Observers of politics have historically applied the term “monarchy” to a variety of superficially similar but sociologically quite distinct regimes: the Roman empire, the Carolingian kingdoms, the Romanov autocracy, the Kuwaiti emirate, the British monarchy. To the extent that there are interesting similarities accross these disparate cases, they have to do with the existence of recognized norms for selecting effective rulers only from a specific lineage (what the Polity coders call an “ascriptive” selection process, or more informally, selection by birthright). Ascriptive selection processes are typically connected both with certain understandings of the basis of authority (e.g., the king should rule because he is the Custodian of Mecca and Medina, not because he represents the people) and an exalted status for the effective ruler; the titles “King” or “Queen” and their various equivalents – Prince, Sultan, Emir, Emperor, Caesar, Shah, etc. – are first and foremost markers of status, elevating the person of the monarch above the common run of people and entitling them to visible honours not available to anyone else in society. The combination of an ascriptive norm of selection to offices with effective political power (rather than purely ceremonial positions) and a particular set of person-centered rituals and symbols defines monarchy, though it does not explain how monarchies survive.

Indeed, given the magnitude of the shift towards democratic norms of justification over the last two centuries, the survival of monarchies presents a bit of a puzzle. Though ascriptively-selected rulers were extremely common before the 19th century, nowadays the number of national states with effective monarchies is tiny; the Polity dataset identifies only 11 countries (Bahrain, Bhutan, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Oman, North Korea, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Swaziland, and the United Arab Emirates) where there is a norm of selecting members of a particular family for the top executive offices, and you might notice that one of them is not normally thought to be a monarchy but a totalitarian regime. (The data excludes countries with less than 500,000 population; including microstates might add Tonga, Brunei, Monaco, and Lesotho to the list, among others.) In six of these (Bhutan, Jordan, Kuwait, Morocco, Swaziland, and the United Arab Emirates) powerful monarchs nevertheless share some power with other institutions, such as elected parliaments (in the Polity jargon, these regimes have “dual” executives, combining ascriptive and non-ascriptive selection processes). Moreover, once discredited, ascriptive selection processes have proven difficult to resurrect explicitly, even if we broaden our view to consider cases where ostensibly “republican” leaders have tried to ensure that control over the state passes to their sons or other family members after their death or retirement, as Mubarak tried to do in Egypt and Gaddafi tried to do in Libya. There are few “transitions to monarchy” in the 20th century, and the few I can find were quite short-lived. Though many highly personalistic regimes have shown a tendency to turn into family enterprises, they seem to have had mixed success beyond the second generation when recognized selection norms remain “republican” (consider, e.g., the failure of the Duvalier or Trujillo “dynasties” in Haiti and the Dominican republic); North Korea is exceptional in combining ostensibly republican justifications of rule with a successful ascriptive transfer of power to the third generation. We could look at these stylized facts and conclude that the remaining monarchies are mere traditional survivals, doomed to extinction once they run out of oil rents or superpower patronage (a view associated with Huntington, I believe). Or we could conclude instead that the remaining monarchies are precisely the most resilient examples of a once common political form; whatever the Saudi monarchy is doing, for example, it has served it well for over 70 years.

Herb argues that monarchies that have survived to the end of the 20th century (the book was published in 1999) are in fact distinctive in ways that make them very resilient. In particular, most of these are what he calls “dynastic” monarchies rather than “personal” monarchies. (Some people suggest that surviving monarchies in Jordan and Morocco do not fit neatly in either side of this dichotomy, but we’ll ignore these subtleties for the moment since the Saudi monarchy, at least, is the paradigmatic example of a dynastic monarchy). A dynastic monarchy can be compared to a family firm, with the family business being the corporate control of the state (and the enjoyment of its oil rents, in the Saudi case), the king as the family CEO, the senior male relatives as the key executives and company board, and most of the remaining family members as shareholders and lower-level employees. By contrast, in other monarchies the royal family does not play much role in governance or even in sharing the spoils of power; the king rules either in alliance with independent power holders (Barons in medieval Europe, powerful politicians in modern times) or as personal dictators who have managed to keep all potential challengers directly dependent on him through their individual political skills.

The Saudi monarchy fits the dynastic model quite well. Senior members of the family monopolize all important state positions, such as the defenceinterior, and foreign ministries, and they play a role in determining the king’s successor. (Since 2007 there is even a formal institution, the “Allegiance Council,” staffed entirely by senior princes, that is supposed to select and confirm a new king and crown prince). Like a responsible company board, the senior princes have on occasion deposed rulers deemed to be irresponsible, and bypassed unsuitable candidates for the succession. For example, they briefly eased King Saud bin Abdulaziz from governance after he blundered with an ill-conceived plot to kill the immensely popular President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt in 1958, and then more permanently in 1964, when they formally deposed him in favor of King Faysal; and the family chose not to make Muhammad bin Abdulaziz king in 1964 1975, despite the fact that he was the most senior of the surviving sons of Ibn Saud, probably due to general agreement within the family that his temper and drinking habits made him a bad candidate, according to Herb.

Moreover, because the family is so large – Yamani quotes an estimate of 22,000 royals in 2009; polygamy plus time produces lots of male-line descendants (Ibn Saud had 43 sons by many wives, who in turn produced many sons of their own) – it can control not only the “ministries of sovereingty,” but place its members throughout the state apparatus, and in particular the armed forces, where they serve to deter coups. In fact, the extended royal family serves as a parallel information-gathering mechanism through the practice of “audiences” with royals, which it uses to both understand what the population is thinking in the absence of a free media and to provide particularized patronage; as Herb puts it,
The ruling families, and especially the Al Saud, use the size of the family to extend the majlis [audience] system to as many citizens as possible … Like American members of Congress the princes of the Al Saud act as intermediaries between citizens and the bureaucracy, earning personal credit for solving the problems that arise out of a bureaucracy that is, in the first instance, a creation of the Al Saud (p. 43).
The family, like many a successful political party (or mafia), has a very hierarchical culture (deference to older members is strictly enforced), effective private dispute-resolution mechanisms (including special jails for misbehaving princes, apparently), and fora where princes are expected to speak candidly and honestly about what they learn from their contacts with non-royals (princes who develop reputations as liars are not likely to go very far). And in return for lifetime submission and service, all royals receive an allowance and a state job, calibrated to their seniority and political importance, from the enormous oil revenues the Saudi state produces. (Firm figures are hard to find, for obvious reasons, but Herb cites estimates that suggest that at the height of the oil boom, in the 1970s, the al Sauds received at least 12% of all government revenue - an utterly fantastic sum).

One of the key things that makes family governance work in this context is, paradoxically, the indefiniteness of the succession rule. The succession norm in Saudi Arabia, for instance, only establishes that the kingship should pass to the most senior “able” male descendant of Ibn Saud, rather than simply to the eldest son or brother of the current king. One might think that this would exacerbate the GoT-style succession conflicts common in many monarchies. (According to Kotkin, almost half of all Romanovs in Russia from Peter the Great to Nicholas II died in family disputes over succession issues, and Herb notes that the Ottoman Sultans even formalized their right to kill their surviving brothers on acceding to power in a “Law of Fratricide” in the 16th century). But Herb argues that the very indefiniteness of the succession norm, combined with the emergence of the modern state with its many positions to fill, actually incentivizes family members to “bandwagon” against ambitious princes who threaten the corporate hold of the family. Though individual princes may prefer to rule unconstrained by the “company board” of their senior brothers and uncles, they will typically prefer that the state remain in family hands over one of their brothers ruling alone or with the support of outsiders. And those who are not contending for the rulership have little incentive to jeopardize their position by supporting candidates who take “extreme” measures in their quest for power, such as threatening intrafamily violence or directly appealing to outsiders by developing alternative patronage networks or offering genuinely liberal reforms. For example, when King Saud bin Abdulaziz did a tour of the realm in 1963 distributing money to tribal chiefs in an attempt to salvage his position and undermine his brother Faysal by securing the support of “outsiders,” uncommitted family members quickly switched to Faysal’s side; as Herb says, the only effect the trip had was “to enrich some bedouin shaykhs and to further alienate his brothers, who sought a decree from the ulema declaring Faysal the ruler and making Saud king in name only” (p. 97). (Shortly after, Saud threatened violence against Faysal, which sealed his fate; he was now deposed for good). Given that different contenders will normally tend to offer similar “bargains” to influential family members and that other family members do not need to pre-commit themselves to one side or another, there is little point for uncommitted princes to strongly support candidates that threaten to overturn the family monopoly on power, while the “losing” contenders can expect to be rewarded with money and influence even if they do not inherit the kingdom. By contrast, a rigid succession rule provides incentives for ambitious royals to use more extreme measures (e.g., poisoning your brothers, appealing to the people) that risk the family monopoly on power.

On this account, the Saudi family does not remain in power because of special family bonds, the certainty provided by a clear succession rule, or some Saudi cultural predisposition towards monarchy, much less because of some special symbolic capital of kingship among Arabs. And though oil helps, Herb rightly notes that the price of support is subject to inflationary pressures; more oil revenues mean potential contenders must pay more for support. King Idris of Libya was overthrown when oil revenues were flooding state coffers (take a look at the GDP per capita line in this picture), partly because he had no family members who had incentives to defend him. The effects of US support on the al Saud family are also quite ambiguous: on the one hand, they mean the family has access to intelligence and resources otherwise unavailable; on the other hand, they provoke a cultural backlash that challengers can and have mobilized. Instead, the family's endurance in power is due to the fact that there are few incentives for family members to mobilize outsider support in their disputes; attempting to do so merely makes family members bandwagon against you. Hence, despite many divisions, on crucial questions the family tends to remain united; and a ruling class that is unified on crucial questions – meaning, a ruling class that does not seek to bring in outsider support to settle its major disputes – is very, very, hard to overthrow. 

This is not to say that the Al Saud family does not reach out to other sectors of Saudi society, distributing resources to favored groups or mobilizing symbolic capital to secure the support of the ulema, for example; but these actions would be quite ineffective if incentives pushed ambitious princes to mobilize outsider support on their own, “escalating” fights by, for example, courting the army or the clerical establishment as individuals. Moreover, even the mobilizing power of the symbols of kingship is typically quite limited. Herb tells a funny story that apparently circulated in the Saudi court in the 30s about the loyalty of the Bedouin to their emir:
As soon as it became clear that the Emir was going to be defeated, his Bedouin followers would be the first to turn and loot his army, justifying this by saying they were his friends and that as he was going to be looted in any case, they had more right than his enemies to the spoils (p. 62).
The Bedouin in the story did not dispute the legitimacy of the emir; they simply reinterpreted it to suit their interests when circumstances changed. In other words, as I’ve argued here in much more detail, the recognition of a norm of authority is compatible with all kinds of behaviours, including turning around once it becomes clear there are stronger challengers; to speak of the “legitimacy” of the Saudi king has very little explanatory power when we seek to explain why the Saudi system has endured. Indeed, in some respects the Saudi system has more in common with systems of single party rule than with medieval European kingship. The Al Saud are an odd party, to be sure; only women can join voluntarily (by marrying into the family) but without gaining any formal power (though they may have influence through their sons). But, with its internal dispute resolution mechanisms, its intelligence networks, its “service” requirements, the family basically mimics the institutions of an effective (if small) party on the Leninist model. And thus the incentives that keep it in power are not dissimilar from the incentives that kept the PRI in Mexico or the Chinese Communist Party in power: they are basically reasons for insiders to stick together and not seek outsider support, and thus to prefer corporate control of the state to going alone.

[Edit 2/3/2015. I got a date wrong - Muhammad bin Abdulaziz was passed over for succession in 1975, when he should have been next in line after Faysal's death. Now fixed.]