The Dictator’s Handbook

Monday, October 3rd, 2011

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita has decided to popularize his ideas with a new book, The Dictator’s Handbook, co-written with Alastair Smith. Michael Moynihan reviews the “lucidly written, shrewdly argued meditation on how democrats and dictators preserve political authority”:

So how is it that undemocratic leaders — who exploit, imprison and brutalize their subjects — frequently maintain power for far longer periods than their democratic counterparts? Autocrats, the authors argue, need only reward only a small class of loyalists — the army, judiciary, an inner circle of advisers — who will reliably suppress opposition. While democrats likewise dispense rewards — sweetheart contracts, farm subsidies, welfare payments — they are constrained by a system of government that requires the loyalty of fickle voters. This ensures that if a leader accumulates wealth and power in a few hands, his job security weakens.

In a style reminiscent of “Freakonomics,” Messrs. Bueno de Mesquita and Smith present dozens of clever examples of how researchers identify and compare graft in autocracies and democracies. The authors demonstrate, for instance, that roads connecting airports to major cities in democracies tend to be circuitous, zigging and zagging across the landscape, while in autocracies they tend to be fairly straight. Why? Because autocrats are less likely to respect the property rights of those inhibiting their public-works plans. Powerless peasants, after all, are hardly in a position to threaten government authority. In a democracy, a large-scale use of eminent domain would be wildly unpopular, probably resulting in the ruling party’s replacement.

One might presume that a badly handled natural disaster greatly shortens time in office. It does — but only in democracies. Dictators, the authors argue, should view mass death by natural disaster as good politics. This is a jarring assertion, but consider that the higher the death toll in a democracy, the less likely an incompetent government is to be re-elected. The higher the death toll in an autocracy, however, the more money leaders can extract from foreign governments and aid agencies, money that is then used to strengthen the position of government loyalists.

And how about those well-meaning debt-forgiveness campaigners? While it might seem intuitively true that clearing balance sheets helps poor countries, “The Dictator’s Handbook” suggests that pardoning debt obligations tends to entrench authoritarian leaders and retard the development of democracy. With a wounded economy, autocrats find it more difficult to bribe their small group of key supporters.

The most fascinating chapter in “The Dictator’s Handbook” concerns the rewards that governments provide other governments. The authors make the obvious, but nevertheless controversial, argument that almost all aid money is dispersed not to alleviate poverty but to purchase loyalty and influence. There also exists an important political calculus for autocratic aid recipients, who are often willing to make unpopular domestic political decisions provided that the benefits are ample enough to satiate those loyalists who sustain their power.

Consider that democratic Turkey refused the Bush administration’s request to use its military bases for an attack on Iraq. After long and labored negotiations, Ankara calculated that the offered financial reward wasn’t enough to risk alienating its political reputation with its own people, who can simply retaliate at the ballot box. Instead, American planes flew from autocratic Kuwait, a government with a very small power base — and one that needn’t answer to an angry electorate.

The Predictioneer

Wednesday, March 24th, 2010

New Scientist has a piece on Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, who has successfully branded himself as the predictioneer:

Bueno de Mesquita’s “predictioneering” began in 1979 when he was on a Guggenheim fellowship writing a book about the conditions that lead to war. He had designed a mathematical model to examine the choices people could make and the probability that their actions would result in either diplomacy or war. Like any model, he needed data to test it.

A good opportunity arose when the US State Department asked his opinion about an ongoing political crisis in India. The ruling coalition had become unstable and it was clear that Prime Minister Morarji Desai would be forced to stand down and a new prime minister chosen from within the coalition.

Since his PhD thesis had been on Indian politics, and data on politics didn’t seem a million miles from data on war, Bueno de Mesquita agreed to help. He compiled a list of all the people who would try to influence the appointment of the next prime minister, what their preference was and how much clout they had. He fed this information into his computer programme, asked it to predict how the negotiations would play out and left it to run overnight. His own hunch was that the deputy prime minister, Jagjivan Ram, would take over. Many other experts on Indian politics thought the same thing.

The following morning, he checked the computer and found to his surprise that it was predicting a politician called Chaudhary Charan Singh would be the next prime minister. It also predicted that he would be unable to build a working coalition and so would quickly fall.

When Bueno de Mesquita reported the result to an official at the State Department, he was taken aback. The official said no one else was saying Singh and the result was strange, at best. “When I told him I’d used a computer programme I was designing, he just laughed and urged me not to repeat that to anyone,” says Bueno de Mesquita. A few weeks later, Singh became prime minister. Six months on his government collapsed. “The model had come up with the right answer and I hadn’t,” says Bueno de Mesquita. “Clearly there were two possibilities: the model was just lucky, or I was on to something.”

Three decades later, it is clear that Bueno de Mesquita is on to something.

Foreign Aid Keeps Autocrats in Power

Wednesday, January 13th, 2010

External aid often promotes longevity in office for autocratic leaders who are otherwise at risk of being deposed, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita explains, because it helps them patronize their core group of supporters:

In such cases, aid not only fails to promote economic growth, but it also diminishes the odds that the political system will evolve in a more inclusive, democratic and growth-oriented direction.

This may seem too large a claim to some observers. After all, external aid generally comprises only a small component of a nation’s total economy. Since 1975, for instance, international aid has averaged only about $7 or $8 per citizen. Such numbers imply that foreign assistance is not significant enough to reshape economic prospects and barely enough to provide relief to the world’s poorest people. This assumption, however, misses the fundamental benefit that aid provides to autocratic leaders, and again, the data illustrate it. Autocrats in countries with below-average growth rates who do not get aid have a 25 percent chance of staying in office for five years. If they receive economic assistance, that survival time rises to seven years, a 40 percent increase. A few dollars of aid per capita is small in terms of any impact on the national economy, but it is huge with respect to helping autocrats enrich their small coterie of supporters.

On average, every dollar of per capita foreign aid improves an incumbent autocrat’s chance of surviving in office another year by about 4 percent (even after taking into account the independent effects on political survival exerted by such factors as the country’s economic growth rate, black market exchange rate premium, national debt, and its geographic situation). Since the average autocracy gets about $8 per capita in aid, foreign assistance may boost the survival prospects of poorly performing leaders by 30 percent or more.

The economic logic of autocracy

Tuesday, January 12th, 2010

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita explains the economic logic of autocracy:

Just as we naturally consider successful those leaders who foster economic growth and prosperity for their citizens, we expect that leaders who produce famine, poverty and misery will earn a rapid retirement. But the data show that leaders who produce poverty and misery through the systematic corruption that is characteristic of autocracy keep their jobs much longer than do those who enrich their countries. Indeed, the eight countries consistently rated the most corrupt in the world — Congo, Iraq, Myanmar, Sudan, Indonesia, Syria, Pakistan and Burundi — are those in which political leadership has been most secure, measured by the longevity of its tenure. (Only countries that have experienced a complete breakdown in social order can rival an entrenched autocracy in generating extreme levels of corruption.)

With rare exception, only autocrats — leaders who are unresponsive to the popular will and who exercise power unchecked either by law or other institutions — hold on to power for a long time. Over the past century, the only leaders who have remained in office for forty years or more have been autocrats. By contrast, nearly half of all democratic leaders — leaders who hold power at the pleasure of the voters or an elected legislature — are out of office within about one year of coming to power. Such a short tenure is true of only about one-third of autocrats, a remarkable difference in survivability. Virtually no democrats — but one-quarter of autocrats — stay in office for more than eight years, even though few democratic leaders are subject to term limits.

The reverse is true for those who rule at the pleasure of a small, exclusive group. Exclusive leaders who rely on black-market corruption have a better chance of staying in power than those who engender high rates of growth, staying in office, on average, 25 percent longer. Indeed, at all periods during their tenure in office, these leaders do much better at retaining their jobs if they promote black marketeering, corruption and cronyism — distorting the economy — than if they promote economic policies that lead to growth and prosperity.

Why does this perverse outcome occur? As suggested above, leaders who would keep their jobs must produce what their supporters want; when those supporters are unrepresentative of the country, autocrats will not pursue policies that encourage the creation of healthy, educated, prosperous citizens.

Autocrats not only retain power by maintaining the loyalty of a relatively small group of supporters–which usually include those who control the military, the civil service, the communications and information infrastructure, as well as key economic levers — but they also have an interest in keeping that core group as small as possible. In a poor country, an autocrat faces personal political risks if he implements policies that dissipate resources away from the few upon whom he relies to those who have little say in ensuring his political survival. It is therefore politically irrational to implement transparent economic policies aimed at protecting and promoting property rights, rule of law, a broadly educated population, low taxes and free trade, if they enable challenges to the incumbent. It is not in an autocrat’s interest that people have ways to enrich themselves that he does not control.

This is why autocrats face their highest risk of being deposed in their first year in office; they have not yet identified their most loyal backers and have not yet fully secured their ability to transfer benefits to them. With time and experience, they get better at identifying those on whose support they really rely. They discover that excluding “the many” from sharing in the wealth of the country is the best way to reward a small clique of supporters.

Politics is predictable

Wednesday, December 2nd, 2009

Politics is predictable, predictioneer Bruce Bueno de Mesquita says, and Copenhagen is destined to fail:

Today’s emerging powerhouses like Brazil, India, and China simply won’t stand for serious curbs on their emissions, and the pro-regulation crowd in the United States and Europe won’t be strong enough to force their hands.

BdM has used his game-theoretic models to make some other predictions too:

For instance, I can tell you right now that bribing Kim Jong Il to mothball, but not eliminate, his nuclear program is the best way to handle North Korea, that the land-for-peace formula in the Middle East won’t succeed, and that it will take approximately $1.5 billion annually in U.S. aid to Pakistan to keep that country’s government fighting the Taliban and al Qaeda.

BdM explains how he took an early model of decision-making on the brink of war and applied it to everyday politics — in India, in this case — setting him down his current path:

Intrigued, I grabbed a yellow pad and listed everyone I thought would try to influence the selection of India’s next government. For each of those people (political party leaders, members of India’s parliament, and some members of critical state governments), I also estimated how much clout they had, what their preference was between the various plausible candidates for prime minister, and how much they cared about trying to shape that choice. With just one page of my yellow pad filled with numbers, I had all the information the computer needed to predict what would happen, so I plugged it in and awaited the results.

My “expertise” had led me to believe that longtime parliamentary leader Jagjivan Ram would be India’s next prime minister. He was a popular and prominent politician who was better liked than his main rivals for the prime minister’s job. I was confident that he was truly unbeatable. He had paid his political dues and it seemed like his time had come. Many other India watchers thought the same thing. Imagine my surprise then when my computer program, written by me and fed only with my data, predicted an entirely different result. It forecast that Charan Singh would become prime minister, that he would include someone named Y. B. Chavan in his cabinet, and that they would gain support-albeit briefly-from Indira Gandhi, then the recently ousted prime minister. The model also predicted that the new Indian government would be incapable of governing and so would soon fall.

I found myself forced to choose between my personal opinion — that Ram would win — and the logic and data behind my model. In the end, I chose science over punditry. When I relayed my findings to the State Department official, he was taken aback. He noted that no one else was suggesting this result and that it seemed strange at best. When I told him I’d used a computer program based on a model of decision-making that I was designing, he just laughed and urged me not to repeat that to anyone.

A few weeks later, Charan Singh became the prime minister with Y. B. Chavan as his deputy prime minister and support from Indira Gandhi. And a few months after that, Singh’s government unraveled, Gandhi withdrew her backing, and a new election was called, just as the computer model had forecast. This got me pretty excited. But had I just gotten lucky, or was I onto something?

BdM is optimistic despite Bali, Kyoto, and Copenhagen:

Road maps like the one set out at Bali make us feel good about ourselves because we did something. The trouble is, deals like Bali and Kyoto include just about every country in the world. To get everyone to agree to something potentially costly, the something they actually agree to must be neither very demanding nor very costly. If it is, many will refuse to join because for them the costs are greater than the benefits, or else they will join while free-riding on the costs paid by the few who are willing to bear them.

To get people to sign a universal agreement and not cheat, the deal must not ask them to change their behavior much from whatever they are already doing. It is a race to the bottom, to the lowest common denominator. More demanding agreements weed out prospective members or encourage lies. Kyoto’s demands weeded out the United States, ensuring that it could not succeed. Maybe that is what those who signed on — or at least some of them — were hoping for. They can look good and then not deliver, because after all it wouldn’t be fair for them to cut back when the biggest polluter, the United States, does not. Sacrificing self-interest for the greater good just doesn’t happen very often. Governments don’t throw themselves on hand grenades.

(Hat tip to Kalim Kassam.)

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on the Daily Show

Saturday, October 3rd, 2009

I haven’t watched The Daily Show in quite some time, but Bruce Bueno de Mesquita made a recent appearance to push his new book:

(Hat tip à mon père.)

Can Game Theory Predict When Iran Will Get the Bomb?

Wednesday, August 19th, 2009

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita has a new book coming out for a popular audience, The Predictioneer’s Game, and Clive Thompson of the New York Times visits him to ask, Can game theory predict when Iran will get the Bomb?

A tall man with a slab of gray hair, Bueno de Mesquita, who is 62, welcomed me with painstakingly prepared cups of espresso. Then he pulled out his beat-up I.B.M. laptop — so old that the lettering on the A, S, D and E keys was worn off — and showed me a spreadsheet that summarized Iran’s future.

The spreadsheet included almost 90 players. Some were people, like the Iranian president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei; others were groups, like the U.N. Security Council and Iran’s “religious radicals.” Next to each player, a number represented one variable in Bueno de Mesquita’s model: the extent to which a player wanted Iran to have the ability to make nuclear weapons. The scale went from 0 to 200, with 0 being “no nuclear capacity at all” and 200 representing a test of a nuclear missile.

At the beginning of the simulation, the positions were what you would expect. The United States and Israel and most of Europe wanted Iran to have virtually no nuclear capacity, so their preferred outcomes were close to zero. In contrast, the Iranian hard-liners were aggressive. “This is not only ‘Build a bomb,’ ” Bueno de Mesquita said, characterizing their position. “It’s probably: ‘We should test a bomb.’ ”

But as the computer model ran forward in time, through 2009 and into 2010, positions shifted. American and Israeli national-security players grudgingly accepted that they could tolerate Iran having some civilian nuclear-energy capacity. Ahmadinejad, Khamenei and the religious radicals wavered; then, as the model reached our present day, their power — another variable in Bueno de Mesquita’s model — sagged significantly.

Amid the thousands of rows on the spreadsheet, there’s one called Forecast. It consists of a single number that represents the most likely consensus of all the players. It begins at 160 — bomb-making territory — but by next year settles at 118, where it doesn’t move much. “That’s the outcome,” Bueno de Mesquita said confidently, tapping the screen.

What does 118 mean? It means that Iran won’t make a nuclear bomb. By early 2010, according to the forecast, Iran will be at the brink of developing one, but then it will stop and go no further. If this computer model is right, all the dire portents we’ve seen in recent months — the brutal crackdown on protesters, the dubious confessions, Khamenei’s accusations of American subterfuge — are masking a tectonic shift. The moderates are winning, even if we cannot see that yet.

Bueno de Mesquita’s model is loosely based on Duncan Black’s analysis of committee voting:

To predict how leaders will behave in a conflict, Bueno de Mesquita starts with a specific prediction he wants to make, then interviews four or five experts who know the situation well. He identifies the stakeholders who will exert pressure on the outcome (typically 20 or 30 players) and gets the experts to assign values to the stakeholders in four categories: What outcome do the players want? How hard will they work to get it? How much clout can they exert on others? How firm is their resolve? Each value is expressed as a number on its own arbitrary scale, like 0 to 200. (Sometimes Bueno de Mesquita skips the experts, simply reads newspaper and journal articles and generates his own list of players and numbers.) For example, in the case of Iran’s bomb, Bueno de Mesquita set Ahmadinejad’s preferred outcome at 180 and, on a scale of 0 to 100, his desire to get it at 90, his power at 5 and his resolve at 90.

Then the math begins, some of which is surprisingly simple. If you merely sort the players according to how badly they want a bomb and how much support they have among others, you will end up with a reasonably good prediction. But the other variables enable the computer model to perform much more complicated assessments. In essence, it looks for possible groupings of players who would be willing to shift their positions toward one another if they thought that doing so would be to their advantage. The model begins by working out the average position of all the players — the “middle ground” that exerts a gravitational force on the whole negotiation. Then it compares each player with every other player, estimating whether one will be able to persuade or coerce the others to move toward its position, based on the power, resolve and positioning of everyone else. (Power isn’t everything. If the most powerful player is on the fringe of an issue, and a cluster of less-powerful players are closer to the middle, they might exert greater influence.) After estimating how much or how little each player might budge, the software recalculates the middle ground, which shifts as the players move. A “round” is over; the software repeats the process, round after round. The game ends when players no longer move very much from round to round — this indicates they have compromised as much as they ever will. At that point, assuming no player with veto power had refused to compromise, the final average middle-ground position of all the players is the result — the official prediction of how the issue will resolve itself.

The computer model, in short, predicts coalitions.

Political Survival, Catholic Theology, and Marxist Frameworks

Friday, August 7th, 2009

In discussing Bruce Bueno de Mesquita’s fascinating thoughts on political survival, A. McGuinn makes this aside:

I have a bit of an interest in Catholic theology, on the basis that since this is what the brightest minds half the world could produce spent about a thousand years on, it is likely to have some value, even if it is fundamentally flawed.

In the same way, a large proportion of political science in the twentieth century was carried out in a Marxist framework, and while it is no doubt the worse for it, it is a stretch to dismiss it as worthless, less worthy as a point of comparison than Hobbes or Machiavelli, or to examine Lenin and Mao as political practitioners without giving any attention to the theories they expounded before coming to power.

The New Nostradamus

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Michael Lerner and Ethan Hill have dubbed Bruce Bueno de Mesquita the new Nostradamus for predictions like these:

  • Forecasted the second Intifada and the death of the Mideast peace process, two years before it happened.
  • Defied Russia specialists by predicting who would succeed Brezhnev. “The model identified Andropov, who nobody at the time even considered a possibility,” he says.
  • Predicted that Daniel Ortega and the Sandanistas would be voted out of office in Nicaragua, two years before it happened.
  • Four months before Tiananmen Square, said China’s hardliners would crack down harshly on dissidents.
  • Predicted France’s hair’s-breadth passage of the European Union’s Maastricht Treaty.
  • Predicted the exact implementation of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement between Britain and the IRA.
  • Predicted China’s reclaiming of Hong Kong and the exact manner the handover would take place, 12 years before it happened.

Bueno de Mesquita got his start by looking at Iran:

His first foray into forecasting controversy took place in 1984, when he published an article in PS, the flagship journal of the American Political Science Association, predicting who would succeed Iran’s ruling Ayatollah Khomeini upon his death.

He had developed a rudimentary forecasting model that was different from anything anyone had seen before in that it was not designed around one particular foreign-policy problem, but could be applied to any international conflict. “It was the first attempt at a general mathematical model of international conflict,” he says.

His model predicted that upon Khomeini’s death, an ayatollah named Hojatolislam Khamenei and an obscure junior cleric named Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani would emerge to lead the country together. At the time, Rafsanjani was so little known that his name had yet to appear in the New York Times.

Even more improbably, Khomeini had already designated his successor, and it was neither Ayatollah Khamenei nor Rafsanjani. Khomeini’s stature among Iran’s ruling clerics made it inconceivable that they would defy their leader’s choice.

At the APSA meeting subsequent to the article’s publication, Bueno de Mesquita was roundly denounced as a quack by the Iran experts — a charlatan peddling voodoo mathematics. “They said I was an idiot, basically. They said my work was evil, offensive, that it should be suppressed,” he recalls. “It was a very difficult time in my career.”

Five years later, when Khomeini died, lo and behold, Iran’s fractious ruling clerics chose Ayatollah Khamenei and Hashemi Rafsanjani to jointly lead the country. At the next APSA meeting, the man who had been Bueno de Mesquita’s most vocal detractor raised his hand and publicly apologized to him.

Bueno de Mesquita points to dictatorships to demonstrate rational choice for him:

“If you liberate people from the constraint of having to satisfy other people in order to advance themselves, people don’t do good things.” When analyzing a problem in international relations, Bueno de Mesquita doesn’t give a whit about the local culture, history, economy, or any of the other considerations that more traditional political scientists weigh. In fact, rational choicers like Bueno de Mesquita tend to view such traditional approaches with a condescension bordering on disdain. “One is the study of politics as an expression of personal opinion as opposed to political science,” he says dryly. His only concern is with what the political actors want, what they say they want (often two very different things), and how each of their various options will affect their career advancement. He feeds this data into his computer model and out pop the answers.

His “political science” models earn him significant consulting fees in the private sector:

“In the private sector, we deal with three areas: litigation, mergers and acquisitions, and regulation,” he says. “On average in litigation, we produce a settlement that is 40 percent better than what the attorneys think is the best that can be achieved.” While Bueno de Mesquita’s present client list is confidential, past clients include Union Carbide, which needed a little help in structuring its defense after its 1984 chemical-plant disaster in Bhopal, India, claimed the lives of an estimated 22,000 people; the giant accounting firm Arthur Andersen; and British Aerospace during its merger with GEC-Marconi.

These examples demonstrate how his work brings real economic thinking to policy:

Perhaps not coincidentally, the recent agreement that the United States reached with the government of Pyongyang closely resembles the one that Bueno de Mesquita’s model suggested: Kim agrees to dismantle his existing nuclear weapons but not his existing nuclear capability. “He puts it in mothballs with IAEA (International Atomic Energy Agency) inspectors on site 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. And in exchange, we provide him with $1.2 billion a year, which we label ‘foreign aid,’ of course.” The “foreign-aid” figure published in the newspapers was $400 million, which concerns Bueno de Mesquita. “I read that and I said, I hope that’s not the deal because it’s not enough money. He needs $1.2 billion, approximately, to sustain the loyalty of his cronies in the military and so forth. It’s unpleasant, this is a nasty man, but we’re stuck with it. The nice part of the deal is that it’s self-enforcing. Each side has a reason to credibly commit to their part of the deal.”

Recently, he’s applied his science to come up with some novel ideas on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “In my view, it is a mistake to look for strategies that build mutual trust because it ain’t going to happen. Neither side has any reason to trust the other, for good reason,” he says. “Land for peace is an inherently flawed concept because it has a fundamental commitment problem. If I give you land on your promise of peace in the future, after you have the land, as the Israelis well know, it is very costly to take it back if you renege. You have an incentive to say, ‘You made a good step, it’s a gesture in the right direction, but I thought you were giving me more than this. I can’t give you peace just for this, it’s not enough.’ Conversely, if we have peace for land—you disarm, put down your weapons, and get rid of the threats to me and I will then give you the land—the reverse is true: I have no commitment to follow through. Once you’ve laid down your weapons, you have no threat.”

Bueno de Mesquita’s answer to this dilemma, which he discussed with the former Israeli prime minister and recently elected Labor leader Ehud Barak, is a formula that guarantees mutual incentives to cooperate. “In a peaceful world, what do the Palestinians anticipate will be their main source of economic viability? Tourism. This is what their own documents say. And, of course, the Israelis make a lot of money from tourism, and that revenue is very easy to track. As a starting point requiring no trust, no mutual cooperation, I would suggest that all tourist revenue be [divided by] a fixed formula based on the current population of the region, which is roughly 40 percent Palestinian, 60 percent Israeli. The money would go automatically to each side. Now, when there is violence, tourists don’t come. So the tourist revenue is automatically responsive to the level of violence on either side for both sides. You have an accounting firm that both sides agree to, you let the U.N. do it, whatever. It’s completely self-enforcing, it requires no cooperation except the initial agreement by the Israelis that they are going to turn this part of the revenue over, on a fixed formula based on population, to some international agency, and that’s that.”

Selectorate

Tuesday, August 4th, 2009

Joseph Fouche calls Bruce Bueno de Mesquita‘s theory of the selectorate a quant theory of politics and summarizes Bueno de Mesquita’s own slide-based summary.

The key notion is that the populace is divided into three categories:

  • The selectorate is the subset with a say in selecting the leader. This group is small in a monarchy or military government and large in a democracy.
  • The winning coalition is the subset of selectorate whose support the leader needs to stay in office. This group is small in a rigged-election autocracy and large in modern democracy.
  • Those who are not part of the selectorate are disenfranchised. Literally.

To stay in power, a leader can provide private goods — like land, money, and monopoly rights — to his supporters in the winning coalition, or he can provide public goods — like roads, bridges, and rule of law — to everyone in society. The larger the winning coalition the more efficient it is to pay them off in public goods.

Where this gets interesting is in the incentives.

Members of the winning coalition want to get the most benefits possible, but they realize that they are always at risk of being removed from the winning coalition if they become too “expensive” for the leader (or challenger) to keep — so they prefer systems that increase their chance of staying in the winning coalition. This means they prefer systems where the winning coalition is a big proportion of the selectorate — like an electoral system that requires majorities instead of pluralities — but where the selectorate is as small as possible.

The leader, on the other hand, wants the selectorate as big as possible and the winning coalition as small as possible, to keep them competing for his largesse.

The disenfranchised naturally want the selectorate expanded to include them, but they also want the winning coalition expanded as much as possible, so that they might benefit from any public goods used to reward the large winning coalition.

I recommend all of the Bruce Bueno de Mesquita EconTalk Podcasts.

Recipe for Autocratic Success

Tuesday, May 12th, 2009

The recipe for autocratic success, Bruce Bueno de Mesquita says, is to embrace economic growth while postponing democracy — by providing the public goods vital to economic growth while holding back the coordination goods vital to seizing political power:

Examples of this strategy abound, including these cases during the past three years. China has periodically blocked access to Google’s English-language news service and recently forced Microsoft to block words such as freedom and democracy on the Microsoft software used by bloggers. Those moves were only the latest in a long line of Chinese restrictions on Internet-related activity, running the gamut from creating a special Internet police unit to limiting the number of Internet gateways into China. In Russia, meanwhile, President Vladimir Putin has placed all national television networks under strict government control. In October 2003, he engineered the arrest of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, one of his most prominent critics; a highly visible prosecution followed.

In Venezuela, President Hugo Chávez pushed through a new law in December 2004 allowing him to ban news reports of violent protests or of government crackdowns and to suspend the broadcasting licenses of media outlets that violate any of a long list of broadly phrased regulations. And in Vietnam, the government has imposed strict controls on religious organizations and branded the leaders of unauthorized religious groups (including Roman Catholics, Mennonites, and some Buddhists) as subversives.

Each of these cases has involved the restriction of what might be called coordination goods — that is, those public goods that critically affect the ability of political opponents to coordinate but that have relatively little impact on economic growth. Coordination goods are distinct from more-general public goods — transportation, health care, primary education, and national defense — which, when restricted, have a substantial impact on both public opinion and economic growth.

Historically, oppressive governments seeking to crack down on those pushing for democratic change have suppressed both types of goods — undermining their economies in the process. This was the dominant pattern in much of Asia and Africa until the 1980s, and it remains the case today in many of the poorest states, such as Myanmar and Zimbabwe. Recently, however, governments in Russia, China, Vietnam, and elsewhere have discovered that, by focusing their restrictions on coordination goods only, they can continue to provide those services necessary for economic progress and short-circuit the pressure for the political change such progress typically promotes.

Of course, the availability of most public goods has some impact on the ability of opposition groups to organize and coordinate. But four types of goods play a fundamental role in such activities: political rights, more-general human rights, press freedom, and accessible higher education.

The first of these goods, political rights, includes free speech and the rights to organize and demonstrate peacefully. Although political rights are largely negative, in that they limit state interference rather than require state action, they sometimes require governments to take a variety of steps to enforce them, especially when they involve minority groups’ voicing opinions that are unpopular with the majority.

As for more-general human rights, these include freedom from arbitrary arrest and the related protection of habeas corpus; the right to nondiscrimination based on religion, race, ethnicity, and sex; freedom from physical abuse; and the right to travel, both domestically and abroad.

A diverse and largely unregulated press (and other forms of media) is also vital to effective political opposition because it enables information to be disseminated that can bring diverse groups together around common interests. Like political rights, the right to a free press is a largely negative one because it generally requires the government not to interfere. It may also require affirmative steps, however, such as granting licenses to radio and TV frequencies, guaranteeing public access to those and other media, and translating official documents into regional languages.

Finally, broad access to higher education and graduate training is vital if citizens are to develop the skills to communicate, organize, and develop a political presence. Advanced education also helps create a large pool of potential opposition leaders, thereby increasing the supply of rivals to the incumbent government.

Some authoritarian governments claim that they deny access to higher education (and other coordination goods) because of their exorbitant costs. In reality, coordination goods are not generally more expensive than other public goods and are far cheaper than some, such as national defense or transportation. When governments choose to restrict them, therefore, it is to increase the political costs of coordination, not to save money. In fact, some coordination goods actually cost more to suppress than to allow — as when governments expend resources cracking down on opposition movements or jam free media outlets and produce their own propaganda.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita

Tuesday, April 28th, 2009

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita has appeared on Russ Roberts’ EconTalk podcast a number of times already, and each time I’ve found his game-theoretic take on political economy fascinating — but I’m not sure I found his recent TED talk quite as educational:

Describing a complex mathematical model to a non-technical audience is neither easy nor fun, but glossing over virtually all the innards isn’t helpful either.

Fans of Asimov’s Foundation will enjoy the moderator’s Seldon-esque concern for revealing the outcome of the analysis.