Is Formal Theory Back?

In blurbing my text on Formal Models of Domestic Politics, David Laitin expressed what I then only dimly perceived to be the book’s ambition:

My expectation is that Scott Gehlbach’s Formal Models of Domestic Politics will become the standard text for courses in positive political economy housed in political science departments. My hope, given the clarity of exposition and the engaging examples of the principles in the exercises, is that this text will make such courses more stimulating and spur a new interest in positive theory in our discipline as a complement to the econometric revolution.

A worthy goal, no doubt—but was the ambition too lofty? The text indeed sold well; I had a growing list of instructors who had adopted it for classroom use. Yet all the energy in the discipline seemed directed toward empirical work. Graduate students who ten years before might have been writing down their first models were instead writing preanalysis plans. Among those who did become formal theorists, there were complaints of editors desk-rejecting theory papers that lacked an empirical component (while not rejecting empirical papers unmotivated by formal theory). Formal theorists retired or moved on from top institutions without being replaced. I began to wonder if the more modest ambition for my book should be to preserve a bit of intellectual history.

A chance observation at last month’s MPSA meetings led me to reconsider the state of the field. At the lunchtime editorial-board meeting for the Journal of Theoretical Politics, my friend Maggie Penn reported that attendance at formal-theory sessions was higher than she had seen in years. Could it be that young political scientists were gravitating back to formal theory?

Hearing from me of this promising sign, and confirming that his course enrollments suggested the same, Andrew Little offered (as is his wont) a theory. Now more than a decade into the identification revolution, students have learned to be skeptical of findings from observational data. At the same time, they have discovered that experimental work is difficult and expensive. Each lesson has increased the relative attractiveness of formal theory.

That’s the demand side. On the supply side, recent editorial changes seem to have expanded opportunities to publish formal theory in the discipline’s top journals. (The accompanying figure—thanks, Anton Shirikov—depicts the prevalence of formal-theory papers in the top three disciplinary journals over the past decade.) Most notably, at the JOP, Sean Gailmard as field editor has excelled at shepherding theory papers through the review process, including work by many young scholars. The APSR also seems to have opened its doors a bit—though some of that may have occurred toward the end of the previous editorial regime. (Our count suggests little obvious change at the AJPS.)

These are encouraging trends as I sit down to work on a second edition of Formal Models of Domestic Politics. (To come: a new chapter on nondemocratic politics, new models for existing chapters, and new exercises.) Time will tell whether they hold.

What is Socialism? (2018 edition)

Farah Stockman at the New York Times has the story of the emergence of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) as a force within the Democratic Party. Ten years after “socialist” became a slur with which to paint Barack Obama, many Democratic candidates are embracing the label—a consequence, no doubt, of Bernie Sanders’ strong showing in the Democratic nomination race. But what does “socialism” mean in 2018?

Socialism, as historically practiced, prioritizes state ownership of the means of production, with an emphasis on bureaucratic rather than market coordination of the economy. Softer versions might allow for worker rather than state ownership, with a concomitant lessening of bureaucratic control. As far as I can tell, the DSA’s normative ideal lies toward the Menshevik end of the spectrum—at a minimum, they reject Soviet-style central planning. The organization is, nonetheless, more than just a proponent of Scandinavian-style social democracy, even if it often endorses policies that would move the United States in that direction.

Democratic socialists are socialists, and they would be recognized as such by an older generation of voters raised during the ideological conflict of the Cold War. But much of the electoral energy behind “democratic socialism” comes from younger voters (a substantial share of millennials express a preference for “socialism” over “capitalism”), some of whom would likely be surprised by what the term means to others.

I teach a course in “Socialism and Transitions to the Market“—basically, what happened in Russia and Eastern Europe between 1917 (1945) and 2000. On the first day of class, we define terms, beginning with the big one. What is socialism, I ask? To a person, students respond by emphasizing equality of distribution and a social safety net—in short, Sweden. Ownership of the means of production never comes up until I propose that, for purposes of this course, we define socialism as the political-economic system of countries that called themselves socialist. (János Kornai is our guide for the first part of the semester.) In that system, the state (typically) owns the means of production and economic coordination is (predominantly) bureaucratic.

Here’s the thing: Most young Americans know “socialism” only from Bernie Sanders, and Bernie Sanders didn’t run on a platform of nationalization. (Medicare for All is not the British National Health Service.) As a consequence, I believe, there are many “socialists” today who are little aware of the historical meaning of the term.

Traditional socialists likely find themselves in the position of Protestant clergy who discover that their congregants believe in salvation by good works—grateful that the pews are full, but wondering if anybody is listening to the sermon. Meanwhile, many older citizens must be aghast at the rise of “socialism” at home, thirty years after it was vanquished abroad. All the while, young people are going their own way, as young people do—lending new meaning to an old term as “socialism” enters the 21st century.


My paper with Paul Dower, Evgeny Finkel, and Steve Nafziger on “Collective Action and Representation in Autocracies” is out in the most recent issue of the APSR. It’s the latest installment in a project on reform and rebellion in Imperial Russia that, for me, never would have happened had I not ventured into the library stacks during my first year at UW. I have long since forgotten what I was looking for, but I clearly remember what I found: a multi-volume chronicle of peasant unrest in 19th-century Russia, compiled by Soviet historians working during the Khrushchev Thaw.

I immediately understood the value of this chronicle as a data source, but it took some time to identify questions that the data could answer. Eventually, and in collaboration with an amazing group of coauthors that also includes Tricia Olsen and Dmitrii Kofanov, those questions came to me. Since then I have enjoyed a very productive period exploiting this completely unexpected data source. I tell audiences: If you like this paper, then the moral of the story is that you should get your own books from the library. (And if you don’t, then send a graduate student to get them for you.)

Imagine my dismay, then, to discover that a library master plan is circulating at UW that would move a majority of campus collections to a closed-stack facility in neighboring Verona. The plan promises quick delivery of anything that might be located off campus, but that presumes that one knows what to order. I had no idea that the Soviet chronicle existed. Even had I seen it in the catalog, I would not have known that it contained thousands of detailed entries of peasant unrest, such as this account of resistance to brutal treatment by an estate steward:

The library master plan notes that fewer and fewer volumes are being checked out from the library. To which I say: The best way to accelerate that trend is to move books off campus so that nobody knows that they exist.

I have worked in libraries, in Russia, with rapid delivery but limited access to the stacks. I was always glad to be home. I hate to think that one of the distinguishing features of the American university could be lost here.

Anyway, the story is not over, the battle not yet lost. A petition circulates; faculty and graduate students (especially in the humanities) are raising a hue and cry. One friend suggests that we all check out a hundred books, of varying levels of obscurity, to signal our concern and to scramble any algorithm intended to determine which volumes should remain on campus. That might work—and even if it doesn’t, those obscure books may provoke some good research projects.

Last Lecture

It is a tradition at UW for faculty to attend the last lecture that a colleague gives before retirement. Today it was our turn to send off Byron Shafer, Hawkins Chair of Political Science and author of numerous books on American politics—most recently, The American Political Pattern: Stability and Change, 1932-2016.1 Byron’s lecture centered on this monograph’s thesis that the past 85 years of American politics can be neatly divided into four distinct eras: the High New Deal Era (1931-1938), the Late New Deal Era (1939-1968), the Era of Divided Government (1969-1992), and the Era of Political Volatility (1993-present). Each era is characterized by a particular party balance, ideological polarization, and substantive conflict, which together imply a policy-making process that is distinct from that in other eras.

We live in the Era of Political Volatility (no kidding), in which the parties are remarkably balanced (neither Republicans nor Democrats have a lock on the presidency or Congress), politics is extraordinarily polarized, and substantive conflict is waged in what seem to us familiar terms. The policy-making process that emerges may seem horribly gridlocked, but Byron asserts that in fact average output is similar to that in other areas—it just comes in spurts during the first two years of a presidency, in bills loaded up with unrelated items, passed with partisan majorities before the president’s party inevitably takes a drubbing in the midterms.

My question for Byron was this: To the extent that he mentioned Trump at all, it was to suggest that the current political moment is just a continuation of the era that began with Bill Clinton and the Gingrich Revolution. Could he entertain the notion that we have entered a new epoch? His response: It takes some distance to know that you have passed from one era to the next. That said, if, as seems likely, the Democrats seize control of at least one house of Congress this year (and especially if Trump then wins reelection), it will seem like just more of the same.

This is a remarkably different telling from the contention among many comparativists that Trump’s election, and his conduct as president, represent the rise of a new American populism and the decline of traditional democratic norms. But it seems to me that there is a way to square the circle. The old norms have been in decline since Newt Gingrich beat Ed Madigan 87-85 in the race for minority House whip. Trump is just the logical conclusion of this process. What is yet to be seen is whether the current political moment leads to a permanent scrambling of any of Byron’s three inputs (substantive conflict seems most likely, with a protectionist Republican in the White House) and consequent remaking of the policy-making process. This assuming, of course, that the basic constitutional framework that Byron takes for granted remains intact.


  1. Also, and you wouldn’t know it from his wardrobe, the only member of the department to have attended the Woodstock Festival in 1969.

Not According to Plan

David Bordwell—the William Riker of film studies—writes:

It’s a commonplace of film history that under Stalin (a name much in American news these days) the USSR forged a mass propaganda cinema. In order for Lenin’s “most important art” to transform society, cinema fell under central control. Between 1930 and 1953 a tightly coordinated bureaucracy shaped every script and shot and line of dialogue, while Stalin frowned from above. The 150 million Soviet citizens were exposed to scores of films pushing the party line.

True? Not quite.

Who says? Maria Belodubrovskaya, to whom I happen to be married. David again:

New books

Maria (“Masha”) Belodubrovskaya’s Not According to Plan: Filmmaking under Stalin draws upon vast archival material to argue that filmmaking, far from being an iron machine reliably pumping out propaganda, was decentralized, poorly organized, weakly managed, driven by confusing commands and clashing agendas. Censorship was largely left up to the industry, not Party bureaucrats, and directors and screenwriters enjoyed remarkable flexibility.

Filmmaking under Stalin, in other words, never worked as planned. Directors tried and failed to make films that wouldn’t be banned. Party officials tried and failed to build a mass culture industry. By the end of Stalin’s reign, the Soviet film industry was releasing fewer than a dozen films a year—a far cry from the Soviet Hollywood that was envisioned in the mid-1930s. Underlying this failure was an institutional environment that generated perverse incentives for all concerned. But the institutions didn’t come from nowhere. They were themselves products of Communist ideology—an ideology that proved largely incapable of producing useful propaganda, at least in this medium.1

Not According to Plan is a landmark in the study of film history and what Masha calls the “institutional study of ideology,” if I do say so myself—but I don’t need to, as others are saying it. Intrigued? Listen to Masha discuss the book on 1869, the Cornell University Press podcast.


  1. Scholars of communism will recognize an affinity to János Kornai’s characterization of the socialist system, in which the ideology of the governing party gives rise to particular institutions, which in turn dictate incentives. Notably, this is not the prevailing model in political science, where the equilibrium analysis of institutions has a strongly functionalist feel (e.g., institutions exist because they solve a commitment problem).

History and Economic History

Can historians and economic historians understand each other? That was the subtext of a panel discussion on “Number Trouble” at last weekend’s meeting of the American Association for Slavic and East European Studies (ASEEES). On the panel were some of my favorite historians of Imperial Russia: David Darrow, Tracy Dennison, Steve Hoch, Yanni Kotsonis, and Katia Pravilova. In the audience were Evgeny Finkel, Amanda Gregg, Martin Kragh, Steve Nafziger, and I—economists and political scientists working on late Imperial and early Soviet Russia. And we talked.

Many historians, I believe, look at social scientists doing history and think: You don’t know where these data came from, you don’t know why they were assembled, and you don’t understand what they meant to the folks at the time they were collected. And yet you insist on sticking these variables into your econometric models and drawing inferences.

Many social scientists, in turn, think: You assume that because the data are noisy we cannot use fancy methods, yet it is precisely because the data are noisy that the methods must be fancy. Done properly, econometrics provides a means of bounding the bias, of asking whether the qualitative conclusions are sensitive to varying assumptions about the data-generating process.

What is to be done when both sides are right? Social scientists will rarely have the nuanced understanding of sources that historians do. At the same time, graduate training and disciplinary incentives imply that historians who truly understand social science will be rare exceptions. Gains from trade will be hard to realize.

One possibility, suggested Steve Hoch, would be for social scientists and historians to coauthor with each other. I like the idea, and I can think of a few good examples, but disciplinary differences imply that such collaboration will be the exception, not the rule.

Maybe we just need to take more opportunities to talk with each other. Martin Kragh suggested after the conference that we should organize panels of historians with social scientists as discussants, and vice versa. My colleague Giuliana Chamedes and I have been trying to do something similar here at UW, with a regular seminar series in History and Politics that draws speakers and audiences from both disciplines. We’re still talking past each other as much as we are talking with each other, but I do think we are at least starting to get used to each other.

One Hundred Years

One hundred years since a small group of extremists seized control of a major European state, thus launching a civil war, collectivization, terror, the complete reorganization of economy and society, and a geopolitical standoff that could well have ended in human extinction—all in the name of an untested and ultimately incorrect theory of human nature. When Keynes wrote of “Madmen in authority…distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back,” he must have had the Bolsheviks in mind.

You’re sure this is going to turn out OK?

In commemoration of this catastrophe, the Slavic Review—the journal of the Association for Slavic, East European, and Eurasian Studies—has published a special issue on the Russian Revolution. Evgeny Finkel, Dmitrii Kofanov (Ph.D. student at UW), and I chime in with a short note on peasant unrest from March to October 1917. Disturbances in the countryside were an important factor in the rapidly evolving political situation between the February and October Revolutions, but most academic work focuses instead on what was happening in the cities. There certainly has been little attempt to systematically examine the conventional wisdom that peasant unrest in 1917 was driven by demand for land and freedom (zemlia i volia). That’s what we do in this paper, using two province-level counts (one from the Provisional Government, one from the 1980s) of disturbances during the Russian Revolution.

What do we find? Land matters, but good land matters most: peasant disturbances were most pronounced in provinces with relatively good soil. And “freedom” matters, but it’s arguably the freedom of former serfs and their descendants that is most salient, as unrest in 1917 was concentrated in regions that sixty years prior were populated with serf estates. (On the eve of emancipation in 1861, approximately half of all peasants were serfs; most of the rest lived on state lands.) Peasants, in short, acted to seize good land and to burn down the manor house, where that existed.

Or so the geographic patterns documented in our note suggest. Unfortunately, much of the underlying event data seem to have been lost to history, so the sort of analysis that Evgeny and I do in our work with Tricia Olsen and with Paul Castañeda Dower and Steve Nafziger doesn’t seem to be possible. But it’s a start—more evidence, at least, than the madmen of 1917 had to justify their actions.

Technology Made Us Slaves, Technology Will Set Us Free

I’m back. Vacation turned into the mad rush before the start of the semester turned into the actual start of the semester turned into…Anyway, it seems as good a time as any to return to the theme of distractions and how to manage them. My friend John Ahlquist alerts me to a piece about tech innovators going off the grid. It’s the latest installment in an escalating backlash against the smartphone and its unfair demands on our scarce attention. I touched on this earlier this year when discussing Cal Newport’s excellent book Deep Work. Suffice it to say that I am sympathetic to the idea that smartphones are draining our cognitive reserves and making it difficult to get any real work done. Nonetheless, I am reasonably confident that we are not permanently mired in some Zuckerbergian dystopia. Let me explain why.

The costs imposed by smartphone (ab)use are not just personal. They are imposed on numerous businesses, whose workers are distracted by the device on their desk even when the screen is off. Sooner or later, employers are going to figure out that they can get more out of their employees if the smartphone is stowed away, just as instructors have learned that they can get more out of their students if electronic devices are banned from the classroom. (Those who are forced to go cold turkey eight hours a day may find it easier to abstain at home as well.)

Now, leaving behind your smartphone isn’t yet practical for many of us, who rely on the damn thing to stay in touch in the myriad ways that make knowledge work possible. What is needed is a way to stay on the grid without getting sucked in. Those who are especially disciplined can remove the social-media apps, or even the browser, from their phones. I suppose employers could demand the same, but I don’t know many people who would be happy to work for somebody who demanded that they cripple their shiny new device. Somehow it seems easier just to be told you can’t have it.

What the market will reward is a crippled smartphone that people feel happy using and that employers feel comfortable allowing. Something, say, that you can wear on your wrist. Something that can tell you that a file has been uploaded to Slack or that your child’s school is closing early due to a snowstorm. A device from which you can make an emergency phone call or even respond to a text message. Maybe even something that tracks your movement to help you to stay in shape. But definitely not something that you would want to stare at for hours on end.

Come to think of it, we have these devices already. And they are just getting capable enough to replace a smartphone for short periods. The workplace of the future may ban smartphones but allow smartwatches. Sound fanciful? Maybe. But when was the last time you saw a doctor or nurse with a smartphone in her hand? I personally can’t remember one—but I do see lots of medical staff wearing Apple Watches and Fitbits.

The economic costs of constant distraction are too high to be absorbed indefinitely. And Silicon Valley is too smart not to provide a solution with so much money on the table.

(Not) Correcting Acemoglu and Robinson

When is an error not really an error?

Daron Acemoglu and Jim Robinson recently posted a correction to the key proposition in “Why Did the West Extend the Franchise? Democracy, Inequality, and Growth in Historical Perspective,” the seminal paper in what has proven to be an enormously influential research enterprise. That proposition characterizes equilibrium in terms of the parameter q, which measures the probability of future unrest in an undemocratic regime. When q is large, then promises of future redistribution are fully credible and democratization is unnecessary, whereas when q is small the elite democratize to prevent revolution the first time that the poor pose a credible threat of unrest.

Those results still hold in the corrected proposition, but it turns out that for intermediate values of q, the unique equilibrium is in mixed strategies: the elite democratizes with probability strictly between zero and one, and revolution occurs on the equilibrium path. Technically, this correction is driven by a failure in the original analysis to check for all possible deviations. Substantively, the issue arises because institutional change in the Acemoglu-Robinson model is treated as a discrete choice: democratize/not. This discreteness implies that democratization, when it takes place, leaves the poor with strictly more than their payoff from revolution, thus creating scope for the deviation that Acemoglu and Robinson discuss in their correction.

Models are abstractions from the real world, and at first blush treating democratization as dichotomous seems like a reasonable stylization. In reality, of course, elites choosing to surrender political power to some previously excluded group have a wide range of options available, such that we can think of “liberalization” as a continuous choice—any level of representation between 0 and 1. And generalizing the Acemoglu-Robinson model in this way resurrects the original insight.

Paul Castañeda Dower, Evgeny Finkel, Steve Nafziger, and I recently developed just such a generalization of the Acemoglu-Robinson model, by way of setting up the empirical work in our forthcoming APSR article on “Collective Action and Representation in Autocracies: Evidence from Russia’s Great Reforms.” As we show in an accompanying note, the equilibrium level of representation granted by the elite in our generalization leaves the excluded group with precisely their payoff from revolution, thus eliminating the incentive for the elite to deviate in the manner that Acemoglu and Robinson identify.

The key empirical prediction of “Why Did the West Expand the Franchise” thus emerges intact from a generalization of the Acemoglu-Robinson model to allow for a continuous institutional choice. Moreover, the prediction itself generalizes. Not only does the elite not “liberalize” when the excluded group poses a frequent threat of unrest, but conditional on some representation having been granted, the equilibrium level of representation is decreasing in the probability of future unrest. This is the prediction that we empirically examine in “Collective Action and Representation in Autocracies.”

What Trump Knows (apropos of Korea, Putin, and Charlottesville)

Donald Trump is a little man who knows one big thing: the power of political rhetoric lies in not sounding like other politicians. He is not the first to understand this—Bill Clinton won the Democratic nomination in 1992 by playing against (1980s Democratic) type—but few have honed the tool to such perfection.

During the presidential campaign, this furthered two goals. First, by saying what no other Republican candidate would (that the Iraq War was a disaster), or even what no decent American would (that John McCain was not a war hero because he was captured), Trump could signal that he was not a typical politician. Second, he could convey to key constituencies that he would provide more than lip service to their causes. Unseemly to release a list of potential Supreme Court nominees? Unheard of to attack a federal judge for his ethnic heritage? Unprecedented to call for a ban on entry into the country based on religion? Well, that was precisely the point.

As the saying goes, once you have a hammer, everything starts to look like a nail. And so three times in in the past five days Trump has gone out of his way to sound unpresidential. On Tuesday, responding to an escalating crisis with North Korea, he seemingly threatened a nuclear attack with his "fire and fury" comments. On Thursday, he responded to Vladimir Putin's order that the U.S. slash its embassy and consulate staff by expressing gratitude, saying that "we're trying to cut down on payroll." And today, after white nationalists brought bigotry and violence to Charlottesville, Virgina, Trump condemned the "hatred, bigotry, and violence on many sides—on many sides" (emphasis in the original: watch the video).

In each case, Trump left just enough room that one could explain away his comments, if so desired. "Fire and fury like the world has never seen" need not actually refer to nuclear weapons. He might have just been joking when he thanked Putin for helping the U.S. government to save money. And he did tweet that "We ALL must be united & condemn all that hate stands for."

Nonetheless, those accustomed to norms of presidential rhetoric heard the discordant notes in Trump's speech—and if they didn't, the media let them know. And so Trump signaled to his base that he is "tough," even if the North Korean leadership may be getting a different message. Simultaneously, he assured Putin that he is "understanding," for reasons that Bob Mueller is presumably investigating. And to white supremacists…well, just read what the white supremacist website Daily Stormer had to say: "Trump's comments were good. He didn't attack us. He just said the nation should come together…When asked to condemn, he just walked out of the room. Really, really good. God bless him."

My guess is that Trump will eventually say something approximately like the right thing about Charlottesville, as when during the presidential campaign he eventually disavowed former KKK leader David Duke (who said Friday in Charlottesville that "We're going to fulfill the promises of Donald Trump" to "take our country back"). This will constitute renewed permission not to break with the president, for those who desire that. But he will have already made his allegiances clear.