A Good Conference

What makes for a good conference? The opportunity to see old friends and make new ones. Quality panels with work that challenges and crosses intellectual boundaries. Outstanding plenary sessions. Pleasantly situated receptions and dinners.

And what sort of conferences satisfy these criteria? To my mind, those that are small enough that everybody can fit into a banquet hall, that bring together adjacent disciplines, and that are held in interesting places. These are the meetings that people mark on their calendars a year in advance.

I have a couple of conferences that fall into this bin, and I’m just back from one of them: the annual meeting of the Society for Institutional and Organizational Economics (SIOE), formerly known as the International Society for New Institutional Economics (ISNIE). I think of this as the conference that brings together anybody who can trace a line to the Nobel Prize winners Ronald Coase, Douglass North, Elinor Ostrom, and Oliver Williamson. That’s a big chunk of three disciplines—economics, political science, and law—with smaller parts of several more.

This year’s SIOE meetings were held in New York, as Columbia’s Bentley MacLeod is the incoming president. My friend Sergei Guriev is the current president, and he gave an outstanding address at the gala dinner on inequality and well-being in economic transition—the subject of this year’s report of the EBRD, where Sergei serves as chief economist. (Spoiler alert: The postcommunist transition had an impact on average height—a common measure of developmental stress—analogous to being in a conflict zone.) We had keynote addresses by Matt Jackson (“New Developments in Network Economics”), Duncan Watts (“Computational Social Science: Exciting Progress and Future Challenges?”), and last year’s Nobel Prize winners in economics, Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmström (“Assets, Contracts, and Organizations—Past, Present and Future”).

Ownership ties among Ukrainian oligarchs circa 2004 (preliminary)

My own panel was SIOE in microcosm. Organized by Dean Lueck of Indiana’s Ostrom Workshop, we had four papers, spanning two disciplines, on governance and institutions. I presented work on “oligarch networks” in Ukraine with my longtime collaborator John Earle, Anton Shirikov (an outstanding Ph.D. student in political science at UW), and Solomiya Shpak (an equally outstanding Ph.D. student in public policy at George Mason). We are interested in how powerful businessmen in countries with weak institutions balance the desire to obscure ownership in key enterprises (the better to protect them from competitors and the state) with the need to maintain control over those assets. Ukraine is a rich setting in which to explore this question, with an abundance of both oligarchs and data.

I was joined on the panel by my UW colleague Nick Parker, who is exploring the impact of the fracking boom on an increasingly scarce resource: fine-grained silica sand. It turns out that Wisconsin is home to much of the sand used in the industry, and all of that extraction—and the associated transportation of sand by truck along rural roads—has led to battles with local regulators. Gustavo Torrens of Indiana followed with a revisionary look at the American Revolution. If the American demand was no taxation without representation, he asks, why not grant representation to avoid war? The answer lies in British politics—moving the political locus of the revolution from the New World to the Old. Finally, Werner Troesken of Pittsburgh discussed the origins of municipal-segregation laws in the early twentieth century in the American South. Contra the conventional understanding that increased housing demand by African Americans was responsible for such laws, Werner argues that it was the inability of whites to enforce segregation through vigilantism that motivated city councils to pass discriminatory ordinances.

A bit of this, a bit of that—but we’re all studying institutions and organizations. Sound like a good conference? Mark your calendar for next year’s meeting: June 22–24 in Montreal.

Game Theory and Medicine

It’s been radio silence for a few weeks as I have raced to beat various deadlines. The last of these lifted as I gave a talk on Thursday in the Internal Medicine Department at the University of Iowa. This was, needless to say, my first presentation to an audience in scrubs. I owe the rare privilege to my brother Brian, who is a faculty member at Iowa in internal medicine (pulmonary, critical care, and occupational medicine) and neurology.

What can a social scientist say that would be interesting, and on topic, to a group of physicians? Well, strategic interaction is everywhere, and the folks at Iowa were interested in learning some game theory. There are limits to what one can do in an hour, but we managed to cover the basics and to talk through a few applications, including to vaccination. The decision to vaccinate—oneself, or one’s children—is typically characterized by strategic substitutability: the more that others vaccinate, the stronger is the incentive to rely on herd immunity and not bear the (real or perceived) cost of vaccination. Equilibria will consequently be “interior,” with some but not all individuals choosing to vaccinate. Whether this is sufficient to eradicate a disease—well, you should check out my slides.

Relying on the herd

Putting this together was a lot of fun. I learned some medicine (including the morning of the talk, when I got to hang out with the lung-transfer team) and also some network games. (A big shout-out to Matthew Jackson and Yves Zenou for their excellent paper on “Games on Networks” and to Daron Acemoglu and Asu Ozdaglar for some exceptionally clear notes on network effects.) And, for a day, I got to pretend that I was a real doctor.

Is Trump Tipping? An Update

In what seems like eons ago, but in fact was early March, I posed the question: Is the Trump presidency at a tipping point? My conclusion then was that it was easy—perhaps too easy—to tell stories in which actors have incentives that lead to tipping points. Let’s not get carried away, I argued: one could just as easily tell stories that work the other direction.

Still, for the sake of argument, I laid out four tipping models, each involving a set of actors on whom the Trump presidency depends. Somewhat to my surprise, my imagination proved to be a pretty good guide to how things would play out over the last few months. Let’s take stock:

Disaffected insiders: This is a classic case of safety in numbers: it’s harder to get caught leaking if everybody around you is also talking to the media.

Um, that seems right. At this point, I wouldn’t be surprised if Ivanka is trash talking the president off the record. It’s the most transparent administration in American history.

The media: No legitimate news organization wants to get scooped. The more news organizations are investigating a story with legs, the more that others want to jump in.

Yep. The Times and the Post in particular seem to be in a race to win the Pulitzer for the Trump-Russia story.

Republican policy experts: Well-connected Republicans smell scandal and failure, discouraging them from taking positions in the Trump administration. This in turn discourages other potential nominees from seeking out such positions.

Is there anybody in DC who hasn’t already taken a job in the Trump administration who wants one now? As David Brooks writes, “even if the Trump presidency survives, it will be staffed by the sort of C- and D-List flora and fauna who will make more mistakes, commit more scandals and lead to more dysfunction.”

Republican members of Congress: Trump is still quite popular among Republican voters, so cutting loose the White House—say, by calling for an independent investigation of Trump-Russia ties—poses a political risk. That risk, however, may be smaller if other Republican members take the same position.

Yes, well…I think the most we can say is that there is a conspiracy of silence. But let’s check back on the GOP in another few months.

Second Pancake (on Ukraine after the Euromaidan)

A big shout-out to Grigore Pop-Eleches and Graeme Robertson, who organized a great conference at Princeton on Wednesday. It was the latest opportunity for scholars and policymakers to come together to discuss the future of Ukraine, which—I don’t think this is an overdramatization—is at a critical juncture in its history as an independent nation.

There is a saying in Russian: первый блин всегда комом, which translates roughly as “the first pancake is always a flop.” Novel endeavors often fail—but the second attempt may be successful. Postcommunist Ukraine’s first attempt at regime change was certainly a flop: the Orange Revolution of 2004 resulted in a change of government but little real reform. The Euromaidan Revolution of 2014 (aka the Revolution of Dignity), in contrast, has the potential to set Ukraine on a new path.

The difference is in Ukrainian society. Ukrainians learned from their first revolution that it’s not enough to replace those in power. Power corrupts, and power attracts the corrupt. Government turnover is therefore insufficient to produce real change. If you want to transform the political culture, you need to organize to monitor those in power.

Civil society at work

Ukraine today has a vibrant mix of NGOs, watchdog organizations, independent media, and other organizations dedicated to holding officeholders accountable. Credit for unveiling Paul Manafort’s corrupt dealings in Ukraine, for example, goes to Serhiy Leshchenko, a prominent investigative journalist and member of parliament (and participant in the Princeton conference). Major policy achievments include an asset-declaration law with teeth and a world-class electronic procurement system.

Inexperienced cooks may be hesitant to push on after the first pancake, wondering if the problem is with the pan. If Ukraine is to succeed, it is because members of the Ukrainian public drew a different lesson from the failed Orange Revolution. The future of Ukraine is in their hands now, not those of their political leaders. Let us hope that it is enough for the second pancake to come out right.

Going Deep

Consider me a convert. After listening to Ezra Klein’s interview with Cal Newport, author of the popular Study Hacks blog, I read Newport’s Deep Work: Rules for Focused Success in a Distracted World. The book is not written specifically for academics, but I haven’t read anything better about how to be one.

“Deep work” is cognitively demanding work requiring intense concentration. It is the sort of work that academics get paid to do, yet often find hard to accomplish because of the myriad other demands of the job. As with anybody who has been an academic for awhile, I have developed my own methods of going deep—parking myself where others can’t find me, leaving email to the margins of the day, that sort of thing. By and large, they have worked. Reading Newport’s book however, I realize that I could have been doing more deep work, and in less time.

I lived in central Europe for three years before moving to Berkeley for graduate school. When I left Budapest, I shipped 23 boxes of books back to the States. (Of these, nineteen ultimately arrived. Somebody in the Hungarian postal system has my annotated copy of The Wealth of Nations.) I read a lot during those three years, even as I worked often long hours at an NGO in Prague and in a research position at CEU.

The secret, I now understand, is that I quit work for the day when I left the office. I didn’t have my own computer, so there was no way to answer email (such as it was in 1997), clean data, revise a paper draft, or do anything else directly work-related from home. More often than not, I just picked up a book.

All of that changed when I got to graduate school; I have never since had a “normal” work schedule. I don’t bring work home so much as I never leave it. Through the miracle of Dropbox, my home machine looks exactly like my office one; my smartphone provides a portal to my job wherever I am. And so I work, even when I am not at work.

This is crazy, says Newport. If you bust ass during the day, if you close the door when you need to concentrate, if you minimize non-essential tasks—if you do all of that, there is no reason you cannot log off at 5 pm and go home. And before you say, that would never work in my job, please note that Newport is a (successful) computer scientist at Georgetown.

The social science behind Newport’s advice is straightforward: hard budget constraints promote efficiency. If you know that the workday ends at 5 pm, then you make the most of the hours that you have. And because you are not burning the midnight oil, you have the energy to work at a high level of intensity when you are “on.” Paradoxically, it may be easier to maximize hours of deep work when there are fewer hours in the workday.

The hard part, of course, is credibly committing to keeping the laptop closed after dinner and story time. But in my first week adhering to this schedule, it hasn’t been quite as hard as I expected. Reading more regularly means that I want to get back to the book I left on the bedside table the night before. At the same time, I know that if I take the evening off, I will wake up in the morning eager to get back to the deep work that I left at the office.

The Internet giveth, and the Internet taketh away. The ability to transmit data to anyone, anywhere, at zero marginal cost has created unparalleled opportunities

for collaboration. Dropbox, Skype, Slack, ShareLaTeX—complex research projects with multiple investigators were far more challenging before we had such tools.

But the same revolution in communication has given us Twitter, Facebook, and continuously updated news sites. I have heard that submissions to political science journals are down since the November election. If true, this is testament to the ability of the Internet to distract us from productive activity. Speaking personally, I have found it especially hard to ignore Twitter on big news days—and lately, it seems like every day is a big news day.

Yes, following politics is part of the job description for a political scientist. But it is a slippery slope, and I know that I have slipped. The only time my job requires that I have up-to-the minute information is when I am doing media or a public event—and I don’t do a lot of either. The rest of the time, the firehose part of the Internet is a distraction. And so, I have decided to adopt Newport’s recommendation to remove the Twitter and Facebook apps from all of my devices. I still have the accounts, but to access them I need to log in from my web browser. That’s a speed bump just large enough to discourage frequent use of social media.

(Yes, I appreciate the irony that any readers of this post who follow my lead will be less likely to learn of future posts through Facebook or Twitter.)

The previous two recommendations help to ensure a productive workday free of distractions. But that workday can still be spent on “shallow” rather than deep work. To guarantee that it does not, I have implemented a version of Newport’s practice of keeping track of the number of hours devoted to deep work. On my watch, I now have a simple clicker app, which I advance by one every time I log 30 minutes of deep work. At the end of the week, I record the total and reset the clicker. Human psychology should encourage me to try to beat last week’s mark, creating a powerful incentive to maximize the time available for deep work.

Enforcing a hard end to the workday, quasi-disconnecting from social media, keeping a tally of hours engaged in cognitively demanding effort—taken together, these represent a fairly sharp departure from how I had previously organized my day. I’ll see how it goes and report back. In the meantime, what works for you? Have you read Cal Newport’s book? How do you avoid distraction and go deep?

What CEU Means (to Me)

Not good. Ignoring an international outcry and over 50,000 protesters in downtown Budapest, Hungarian President János Áder has signed a bill intended to force the Central European University from Hungary. As I write, students are marching to Fidesz headquarters to protest the decision.

This is a critical juncture for Hungary—and a personal moment for me. I started my academic career at CEU, working from 1995 to 1997 as a research assistant for John Earle (who became my good friend and frequent collaborator) at the CEU Labor Project. It was a heady experience: discovering that I wanted to be an academic, participating in policy missions to Moldova and Mongolia, living in Prague (the original home of CEU’s economics department) and Budapest. Not least, there was the daily interaction with a truly international group of students and faculty, many from the postcommunist region that I had decided to study. I have had the good fortune to be associated with some great universities in my career, but for pure intellectual stimulation, nothing beats the CEU cafeteria in 1997.

CEU means a lot to me. It is a liberal institution in the heart of formerly communist Europe. It is a truly international university in a region with mostly national ones. It is an unusually vibrant intellectual environment. And it was once home. CEU will survive, perhaps in Austria if not in Hungary. But the dream of a central European university at the heart of an open postcommunist society—that is very much in doubt.

A Presentable Enemy (on the future of U.S.-Russian relations)

Photo by Yasha Hoffman

Andrei Kozyrev, Boris Yeltsin’s foreign minister from 1991 to 1996, was in Madison Thursday for a talk on the future of U.S.-Russian relations. We covered a lot of ground at the public seminar and later at our house for dinner—a thrill for faculty and grads alike. What a moment to be discussing such issues, with a U.S. president under investigation for suspected ties to Moscow! And yet, Kozyrev was skeptical that Russia’s relationship with the West had much to do with who occupied the White House.

Why this skepticism? The KGB (FSB) state in Russia needs an external enemy for domestic legitimacy. China will not do—it’s too close for comfort. Ukraine and other countries in the near abroad are convenient foils but certainly not peers. Germany is an essentially regional power. Only the United States is a “presentable enemy you can show to people.”

And so, even if Trump gives away the store, Putin “won’t take yes for an answer.” The Kremlin needs the Russian people to view America as an adversary. This is why Obama’s “reset” failed—not because it was insufficiently accommodating, but because it promoted a vision of the West at odds with Russian propaganda.

My own view is that the Kremlin’s propaganda machine has been impressively effective at adjusting to Trump’s victory. The establishment candidate was supposed to win—the outsider did instead. But Trump’s victory was an illusion. No sooner did he take power but the establishment pushed back, hard. If Trump ultimately fails to give Putin what he supposedly wants—recognition of Crimea as an integral part of the Russian Federation, the lifting of sanctions—this will be taken as evidence of the true nature of American power. And if he succeeds, he may paradoxically find himself as demonized as Obama.

What’s Next for the Study of Nondemocracy?

Pictured: Not actually Gehlbach, Razo, and Sonin

I’m back from a stimulating workshop on autocracy at Indiana University. Regina Smyth, Armando Razo, and Michael Alexeev have some exciting plans to institutionalize the study of nondemocracy at IU, and as part of the planning process they asked Konstantin (Kostya) Sonin and me to provide some perspective on the field. Armando joined us for a freewheeling discussion at Indiana’s famous Ostrom Workshop, where we proceeded to violate Elinor Ostrom’s one inviolable principle of seminar protocol: we went over time.

Where does the literature on nondemocracy stand? What have we learned, and what are the open questions? What’s next?1 Here’s what I said…

Much of the literature on nondemocracy falls into one of two broad categories: the analysis of formal institutions and the study of information control.2 There is some obvious overlap between the two: one purpose of autocratic institutions, for example, is to manage the flow of information among elites. But it’s nonetheless a useful distinction.

Let’s look first at the study of institutions. Here, I see a largely successful and reasonably complete research program. A short list of accomplishments would include:

  • The identification and analysis of regime types characterized by particular clusters of institutions. The term “nondemocracy”—by definition, any regime that is not a democracy—is arguably too encompassing to be useful. Recognizing this, scholars have narrowed their focus to autocratic regimes with a common set of characteristics. Levitsky and Way’s study of competitive authoritarianism is the ideal type here.
  • The elucidation of the logic of important institutions. Models of autocratic elections illustrate elections’ value to the ruler in a) signaling strength, and b) gathering information about the regime’s popularity. Similarly, models of parties and legislatures show how these institutions enable credible commitments and serve to co-opt the opposition.3
  • A frequently useful dialogue between theory and empirics. Consider, for example, the theory that autocratic legislatures serve as a mechanism to co-opt the political opposition. This argument has its roots in the empirical observation that autocracies with legislatures live longer. Theoretical work suggests that legislatures play this role by co-opting potentially dangerous social groups or elites. That work, in turn, has prompted renewed empirical inquiry, as scholars examine the behavior of authoritarian legislators to validate, support, and refine the co-optation thesis.

That is a lot of progress, but I don’t think we’re done. Existing work helps us to understand why autocracies are frequently populated by superficially democratic institutions, but it doesn’t say enough about why we observe these institutions in some autocracies and those in others. There is a story in the literature to support nearly any institutional arrangement one might observe in a dictatorship; we need a better understanding of why autocrats choose one set of formal institutions over another.

Now to the study of information control: Models of autocratic elections fit here as well, as manipulating election outcomes is one way to confuse elites and citizens about the regime’s popularity. But there is also a booming theoretical and empirical literature on media in autocracies that largely abstracts from formal institutions.

I love this work. To my mind, some of the most innovative research in political science today examines the control of media—especially but not only social media—in nondemocracies. It takes chutzpah, creativity, and skill to set up your own social network for the sake of figuring out how censorship works. And yet, much of this research feels geographically bounded. Reading these papers, I don’t always have a good sense of where in the parameter space we are. Why state media here and co-opted private media there? Why Russian bots but a Great Firewall of China? Kostya and I took a crack at this with our model of government control of the media—the size of the advertising market and the “mobilizing character” of the government do the work in our theory—but we did not offer a full theory of the role of information control in autocratic survival.

One paper that ties this all together is Guriev and Treisman’s “How Modern Dictators Survive.” The basic idea is that “informational autocracies” survive by manipulating citizens’ beliefs about the competence of the ruler. In one equilibrium, the autocrat manipulates beliefs by investing in state media; in another, he censors private media. (Think of this as Maoist broadsheets vs. the Great Firewall of China.) Repression is off the equilibrium path—citizens believe the ruler to be competent, so they do not rebel.

This is a promising theoretical approach, with some complementary empirical work on the horizon. I suspect we’ll see more of the same as a second generation of research on information control attempts to integrate what we’ve learned from rich country studies (not a pejorative) in recent years.

Where else can the field go from here? I see at least three possible directions:

  • Informal institutions and norms of autocratic rule. My sense is that Putin was able to consolidate control so quickly, and so completely, because he triggered protective responses learned during decades of Soviet rule. Work in this area would help not only to understand the mechanisms of autocratic rule, but also to illuminate threats to democratic survival—a focus of John Carey, Gretchen Helmke, Brendan Nyhan, and Sue Stokes’ Bright Line Watch initiative.
  • The relationship between the polity and the economy. It’s not that this has gotten no attention—think of what we know about economic growth in Mexico, not to mention the numerous papers and books on the Chinese growth miracle—but theoretical models of autocracy too often ignore the economy entirely or consider only economy (polity) ==> polity (economy). We need general-equilibrium theories. Janos Kornai’s The Socialist System is the model here.
  • The experience of non-contemporary autocracies. I have in mind especially pre-WWII cases, which have received comparatively less attention in the literature. I can say from personal experience that working on history is fun. But the real reason to study earlier autocracies is because the range of empirical phenomena is so much greater. This creates opportunities to test key theoretical propositions, and it gives us a sense of the choices that contemporary autocrats could have made, but for various reasons have not. Kudos to those who have already taken the historical turn: you’ve been an inspiration to me. I hope we’ll see more.

There is a lot to do!


  1. Thanks to the many friends who joined a Facebook discussion of these questions earlier this week.
  2. Kostya’s interesting work with Daron Acemoglu and Georgy Egorov is situated in an essentially institution-free environment—an important benchmark. The large literatures on protest and regime change sit just adjacent.
  3. There isn’t room in a blog post to give proper credit to the vast literature discussed here. For a recent (and already slightly dated) review of formal models of nondemocratic politics, see my ARPS piece with Sonin and Svolik.

Is the Trump Presidency at a Tipping Point?

A friend posts the following observation on Facebook: With multiple stories breaking about Trump-Russia, we may have hit a tipping point, from which the meltdown of the 45th presidency accelerates.

Part of me wants to think it’s true—the sooner the presidency is transferred to competent hands, the better—and part of me is worried about the meltdown. But let’s step back for a second and ask a basic question: What is the game being played, and why might this game feature a tipping point?

From a game-theoretic perspective, a game with a tipping point has the feature that players are more likely to take one action over another, the more that other players do the same. This herd tendency might arise from safety in numbers (protesting a repressive regime is safer in a crowd) or the belief that others have information about the “right” course of action. A tipping point occurs when enough players take some action (e.g., because they have outlier preferences or information) that this behavior becomes mutually reinforcing: others take the same action, which encourages still others to do so.

If you’ve seen a few of these models, it’s easy enough to tell stories in which players have the sort of incentives that lead to tipping points. Just off the top of my head, I can think of four, each involving a group of actors on which the Trump presidency depends.

Disaffected insiders: This is a classic case of safety in numbers: it’s harder to get caught leaking if everybody around you is also talking to the media.

The media: No legitimate news organization wants to get scooped. The more news organizations are investigating a story with legs, the more that others want to jump in.

Republican policy experts: Well-connected Republicans smell scandal and failure, discouraging them from taking positions in the Trump administration. This in turn discourages other potential nominees from seeking out such positions.

Republican members of Congress: Trump is still quite popular among Republican voters, so cutting loose the White House—say, by calling for an independent investigation of Trump-Russia ties—poses a political risk. That risk, however, may be smaller if other Republican members take the same position.

See, that was easy. It’s even possible to rank the four stories by distance to the tipping point. My rough sense is that disaffected insiders have already tipped, that the media are in the process of tipping, and that Republican members of Congress have a ways to go; I’m not sure about the Republican policy experts. (It’s hard to tell from the outside how much the historically low rate of presidential appointments is driven by lack of interest among potential nominees, versus the fact that Trump is not of the Republican Party and therefore has little base on which to draw.)

We can take this one step further, noting that there are likely spillovers from one “game” to another: The more leaks there are, for example, the more incentive for the media to invest in the story, which in turn affects the incentives of Republican policy experts and members of Congress. Maybe we’re headed for the mother of all tipping points.

The problem, as Paul Krugman observes, is that this sort of storytelling is “too easy and too much fun.” Once you start thinking about tipping points, you see them everywhere. But for each of the four cases above, I could just as easily tell a story in which the relevant actions are strategic substitutes rather than strategic complements. Perhaps leaking is a volunteer’s dilemma, for example, whereby each potential leaker hopes that somebody else will do the job (though, if so, there is some serious miscoordination, as the White House has sprung a thousand leaks).

Moreover, some of those around Trump may be playing a game in which it doesn’t really matter what anybody else does. Consider a last key group of actors: Trump associates under investigation. Here, the best metaphor may be the prisoner’s dilemma, whereby cooperating with investigators is the best action, regardless of what the accused expect their collaborators to do. Assuming that those under investigation have something to hide, this may be the game that poses the greatest threat to Trump’s presidency.


Hannah Chapman (Ph.D. student at UW) observes that Trump’s news conferences look a lot like Putin’s:

Under Trump and press secretary Sean Spicer, the near-daily White House news briefings have changed from routine interactions with a professional press corps to a high-profile media spectacle. The briefings frequently beat soap operas in daytime TV ratings and have been immortalized on “Saturday Night Live.” While that’s a shift away from normal U.S. politics, it resembles Russian President Vladimir Putin’s media strategy.

How does Putin’s strategy work?

The Kremlin keeps the appearance of a free press while actually reducing transparency. It does this by oversaturating the arena with pro-government reporters, keeping the focus on showmanship instead of content, and limiting opportunities for challenge and dissent. All this makes it harder for the press to hold the government accountable.

I’d give my eye teeth to know if Putin’s press conferences are an explicit model for Trump’s or if this is simply an example of convergent evolution.