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Reform and Rebellion in Weak States

Sometime during my first year as a junior faculty member, I was wandering the stacks in Wisconsin’s Memorial Library. I can’t remember what I was looking for, but I remember what I found: a multi-volume chronicle of the peasant movement in Imperial Russia. That serendipitous discovery aroused an interest in economic history and historical political economy that has become one of the pillars of my academic personality. With Evgeny Finkel, Tricia Olsen, Paul Castañeda Dower, Steve Nafziger, and Dmitrii Kofanov, I have examined peasant unrest during the Great Reforms of Alexander II and the Bolshevik Revolution. And now, this week, Evgeny and I have published a short book on Reform and Rebellion in Weak States that returns to the themes of our very first paper with Tricia.1

We begin with the question that motivated that paper: When does reform provoke unrest among its intended beneficiaries? It is an old question, one that arguably dates to Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation (in The Ancien Regime and the Revolution) that “The regime that a revolution destroys is almost always better than the one that immediately preceded it, and experience teaches that the most dangerous time for a bad government is usually when it begins to reform.” Our examination of peasant unrest before and after Russia’s emancipation of the serfs in 1861 suggests a possible answer.

To understand our argument, consider a puzzle: How is it possible that the tsar and his ministers—overseers of a weak state that had just suffered a humiliating loss in the Crimean War—were able to effect a radical transformation of state and society that not only granted legal freedom to twenty million serfs but initiated a lengthy process of land reform that extended into the twentieth century? The short story is that, with innovation born of necessity, they relied on the very nobility whose land was to be transferred to the newly freed peasantry. Empowered by the reform statutes with control over the process, numerous landowners jumped at the opportunity to keep the estate’s best land for themselves and to ensure that former serfs received as little valuable land as possible. This opened a gap between what peasants thought they had been promised in the tsar’s Emancipation Manifesto (read out in village churches across European Russia) and what they actually received. That grievance translated into the largest wave of peasant unrest in the nineteenth century.

Our intuition, then, is that the delegation of reform’s implementation to those with a stake in the status quo plants the seeds of rebellion. But this raises further questions: To what extent do those with the power to block implementation internalize the resulting unrest? And is there always a trade-off between stability and reform, or is it possible to pursue the latter without risking the former? These are the sort of questions best answered with a model. In the book, we provide a simple one that builds on recent work in economics on contracts as reference points. In our context, the promise of reform represents an implicit contract against which its subsequent implementation is measured. From the tsar’s perspective, this promise is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, by allowing for disappointment, reform raises the possibility of unrest. On the other, the possibility of unrest encourages those with control over implementation—local agents, in our telling—to abide by the spirit of reform. A very general result is that any reform that incentivizes local implementation necessarily also increases the risk of rebellion.

This theoretical framework provides a lens through which to reexamine the Russian case. Relative to our earlier work, the analysis in the book pays more attention to the dynamics of unrest over the two-year period that follows publication of the Emancipation Manifesto in early 1861. A key finding is that it took time and the arrival of “peace arbitrators” (Leo Tolstoy was one) for peasants’ understanding of the intent of reform to settle. Once it did, and the actual process of negotiating terms began in earnest, landowner opportunism and peasant unrest were joined at the hip.

But wait: there’s more. In addition to a detailed analysis of the Russian case, for which we have rich data and a setting that allows for causal identification (emancipation directly affected only one of two large classes of peasants distributed unevenly across European Russia), we provide an extended discussion of four additional cases, each of which supplies some form of empirical leverage. The Tanzimat Reforms of the Ottoman Empire are a “most likely” case for our argument, given similarities in the nature of reform and the broader political context with the Russian case that motivates our theory. In contrast, the Lex Sempronia of Tiberius Gracchus—perhaps the world’s first major land reform—exhibits important internal variation in reform design, with top-down implementation among Roman citizens but not Rome’s Italian allies. (A big shoutout to my podcaster friend Mike Duncan of History of Rome and Revolutions fame for suggesting that we look at Ancient Rome.) Our extended riff on Tocqueville demands that we reexamine the French Revolution, where a detailed historical record allows us to trace the process by which the National Assembly’s declaration of the end of feudalism ultimately led to increased unrest. Finally, we briefly analyze several instances of land reform in twentieth-century Latin America, exploiting important variation not only across but within states.

It’s a fun read, and a short one. And it’s available for free download through June 17. Check it out.


  1. Technically speaking, what Evgeny and I have written is an “Element”: what Cambridge University Press calls their new short-book format. Ours is in David Stasavage’s series on Cambridge Elements in Political Economy.

Political Agency (Second Edition)

One of the pleasures of revising my textbook on Formal Models of Domestic Politics has been discovering work that speaks to our current politics. I began a series of posts on forthcoming changes to the text with a discussion of Wiola Dziuda and Antoine Loeper’s model of dynamic veto bargaining, which helps to explain Republican resistance to economic aid that might outlast the COVID crisis. Last month, I wrote about the Krasa/Polborn model of issue ownership, which suggests that a “Downsian” change in electoral platform may not resolve the GOP’s dilemma in the face of shifting demographics. Today, I turn attention to the politics of natural disasters, of which the COVID pandemic is a prime example.

Existing work—empirical and theoretical—suggests that a pandemic could have at least three possible effects. First, one might expect voters to react “irrationally,” punishing incumbents for events beyond their control, just as voters are alleged to have responded to shark attacks or losses in college football games. Even if one is willing to assume, however, that nothing about the course of the pandemic is within the control of governing elites, recent scholarship casts doubt on whether claims in the empirical literature generalize or hold in the cases originally examined. Second, it is in fact not obvious that voter “competence” is necessary for political accountability. Indeed, the strategic incentives of politicians who want to communicate that they are deserving of reelection may rely on the inability of voters to observe incumbents’ actions or to respond rationally.

Third, and perhaps most relevant to our times, the presence of a disaster such as a pandemic may provide an exceptional opportunity for voters to evaluate an incumbent politician’s fitness for office. Scott Ashworth, Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, and Amanda Friedenberg argue this point in a model of pure selection that is a primary addition to my chapter on political agency. In the Ashworth-Bueno de Mesquita-Friedenberg model, the possible impact of a disaster on an incumbent’s fortunes depends on whether she was previously “ahead” or “behind” in a race for reelection. If voters ex ante believe that an incumbent is more competent than her challenger, then a disaster—which may reveal the incumbent to be either competent or incompetent—can only reduce her probability of reelection. In contrast, those (possibly exceptional) incumbents who are disadvantaged relative to their competitors may benefit from events beyond their control: in essence, nature has gambled on their resurrection, providing them an opportunity to reveal their competence, should that be present.

Whether you think the pandemic increases or decreases Donald Trump’s chances of reelection thus depends on whether you think he entered 2020 the favorite or the underdog. If you believe, as I do, that he was behind, then COVID likely increases the probability of both a landslide loss and a narrow victory. Before you dismiss the latter possibility, ask yourself the following question: How will the American electorate respond if Trump moves beyond Lysol-gate and somehow manages to badger the FDA and the pharmaceutical industry into an effective vaccine ahead of schedule? It’s maybe not the most likely outcome, but it’s the sort of outcome that is more likely in the presence of a pandemic.

One more question: Why does it take so long to develop a vaccine anyway? I am no expert, but Bill Gates asserts that, had we invested heavily in vaccine production over the past decade, we could have been across the finish line in a year. Empirically, we know that voters fail to reward politicians for disaster preparedness, even though the returns to such investments are enormous. In the exercises (one could learn an enormous amount of theory just working through the exercises), I present a model by Sean Gailmard and John Patty that makes sense of such behavior. In the Gailmard-Patty model, voters prefer prevention spending but worry that politicians are investing in preparedness for the wrong reasons—say, to steer government contracts to friends or supporters. In equilibrium, even honest politicians may therefore fail to invest in prevention, as doing so may convey the impression that they are corrupt.


So, that’s about it. I have one more blog post planned on changes to my textbook, and it’s a big one: a discussion of a new chapter on models of nondemocracy. Stay tuned.

Delegation (Second Edition)

I consider the chapter on delegation in Formal Models of Domestic Politics to be unusually coherent. This is not patting myself on the back. Rather, the literature that this chapter summarizes, with its origins in the seminal work of Holmström, is of a piece. One paper follows another; all I had to do was follow the bread crumbs.

What, then, to add? As I have discussed previously, the second edition of my textbook features new models, new exercises, and clarifications. The new models push on both substantive and methodological frontiers, providing a mix of novel argument and novel technique. With this chapter, I was able to extend the theoretical narrative in an interesting direction while introducing a class of models that belonged somewhere in the text.

In particular: In the first edition, the chapter on delegation closed with a discussion of Gilligan and Krehbiel’s extension of the Crawford-Sobel cheap-talk model to delegation and information transmission in legislatures. This seemed a natural segue to a recent literature on cheap talk with multiple senders, where Galeotti, Ghiglino, and Squintani’s model of strategic information transmission networks has provided a framework for analysis of numerous political environments. Happily, a paper by Torun Dewan and Francesco Squintani provided the hook: their model of “Leadership with Trustworthy Associates” examines delegation to leaders. My chapter, which began with a model of delegation to bureaucratic agencies and grew to encompass delegation to legislative committees, thus now incorporates delegation by party elites to a leader tasked with making decisions on their behalf. The trail of bread crumbs is intact.

I do have one regret with this chapter. A pedagogical principle that guides the text is to present no more analysis than can be written on the blackboard and understood by Ph.D. students who have taken a semester of game theory and a semester of calculus. When that proves impossible with the original version of a model, I typically strip it down to something simpler; I try to avoid statements of the sort “X and Y show that Z is true.” I wasn’t quite able to do that with the Dewan-Squintani model without abandoning entirely the theoretical framework I wanted to demonstrate. There are a couple of hand waves. I hope the accompanying discussion compensates, but readers will be the judge.

Coalitions (Second Edition)

Halfway through my posts on the second edition of Formal Models of Domestic Politics, I am reaching the finish line for the manuscript itself. If all goes as planned, Cambridge will have the draft by next weekend. If you are reading this post, you might be reading the manuscript itself in a few weeks. Thank you in advance for your comments!

One of the joys of writing, and now rewriting, this book has been discovering papers that otherwise I might not have known. This is perhaps especially the case for the literature on legislative bargaining and coalition formation, which is not an area in which I have worked. I remember writing the first edition and discovering this amazing paper by Hülya Eraslan that showed that, notwithstanding the multiplicity of equilibria in the Baron-Ferejohn bargaining model, any stationary equilibrium (given particular recognition probabilities and discount factors) generates the same vector of expected payoffs. This is a remarkable result with great potential for applied work, where one might want to “plug in” a legislative bargaining game to proxy for the stakes in some contest for political power.

My reaction upon stumbling across a recent paper by Vincent Anesi and Daniel Seidmann was more bittersweet. The Baron-Ferejohn model that Eraslan examines assumes that bargaining is once-and-for-all: there is just one pie to be divided. In many contexts, however, a budget is negotiated annually or biannually, with the outcome in one period the default in the next. (I discussed a similar environment in my post on veto players last month.) Anesi and Seidmann show that, in this setting, most anything can happen in equilibrium. Contra Riker, winning coalitions may be more than minimal; in some equilibria, everyone gets a piece of the pie. Even more surprisingly, in period after period, some of the pie may be left on the table. (I have a hard time envisioning this with rhubarb pie, but appeals to welfare maximization will not get you far in this environment.) This is an “anything goes” result more typical of equilibria with history dependence, but Anesi and Seidmann work in a world of stationary strategies. It is a brilliant paper that fits naturally in the chapter on coalitions. It is a disappointing result, if you were hoping for predictive power similar to that of the Baron-Ferejohn model.

As with other chapters, I use the exercises to present related work. There is so much that could be included here; I have a long list of ideas for future exams. For the moment, I have stopped at two new exercises—one based on Maggie Penn‘s model of farsighted voting, in which the status quo is endogenous but broad societal forces rather than legislators drive the agenda, and one on Craig Volden and Alan Wiseman‘s model of bargaining over public and private goods. If I include any more, I will be past my deadline and over my page limit.

Electoral Competition (Second Edition)

I have been describing the changes in store for my textbook on Formal Models of Domestic Politics. Let me now turn to the three opening chapters: electoral competition under certainty, electoral competition under uncertainty, and special interest politics (the last of these substantially but not only applied models of electoral competition).

The formal analysis of elections was among the first applications of game theory to the study of politics. The field is well developed, and at times it seems there must not be much more to say. In fact, the study of elections has been reinvigorated with the incorporation of assumptions about parties’ (or candidates’) “immutable” characteristics—their honesty or competence, for example—which both intuition and empirical evidence suggest citizens weigh in deciding how to vote. When voters’ preferences over these characteristics are homogeneous and separable from their preferences over policy, we say that parties may possess a “valence” advantage. Numerous models explore platform choice in the presence of such advantages. I discuss some key findings briefly as an exercise in the chapter on electoral competition under certainty, and then more extensively in the following chapter on electoral competition under uncertainty.

The real payoff from this approach, in my opinion, comes when we drop the assumption that preferences over parties’ immutable characteristics and preferences over policy are separable. Consider a phenomenon well known to students of political behavior: the “ownership” of issues by one party or another. In the context of American politics, for example, the Republican Party historically has been more trusted on national defense, the Democratic Party more on education and healthcare. This is not about a party’s general competence but about its competence in producing some policy outcomes over others.

Stefan Krasa and Mattias Polborn have an elegant model of electoral competition with issue ownership; it is the most substantial addition to the first three chapters of Formal Models of Domestic Politics. The environment is straightforward—voters differ in the weight they place on different public goods; parties differ in their efficiency in providing those goods, to which they allocate more or less spending—but equilibrium behavior is truly surprising for anyone schooled in the Downsian tradition. Parties propose distinct bundles of public goods, even though they are office-seeking rather than policy-seeking, with each party providing more of the good that it produces more efficiently. And the positions they adopt are independent of uncertainty about voters’ preferences. Shift the expected median to the right or the left, and parties stay put; it is their probability of winning that changes, not their platforms. Applied to American politics, one can see the dilemma of the GOP in the face of changing demographics: so long as voters as constant in their evaluation of parties’ ownership of various issues, no shift in platform can prevent the erosion of support among an electorate increasingly attuned to “Democratic” issues.

There is, of course, another tradition of modeling elections as a mechanism for selecting politicians according to their type: the formal analysis of “political agency,” in which an incumbent politician plays agent to voters’ principals. But that is another chapter, a topic for another post.

Regime Change (Second Edition)

In previous posts, I began to describe the changes to my textbook on Formal Models of Domestic Politics, with a second edition planned for next year. Most of those changes involve new material: additional models and exercises, a new chapter on nondemocracy. There are, however, a handful of clarifications—small edits suggested by eagle-eyed students at UW and instructors using the textbook elsewhere, but also one big one in the chapter on regime change. A large portion of that chapter is devoted to the Acemoglu-Robinson model of regime change: an important theoretical framework in its own right, and also an opportunity to teach Markov games and the associated solution concept, Markov perfect equilibrium. Unfortunately, there was an error in the analysis, which nobody seemed to catch until Acemoglu and Robinson posted a correction in 2017.

I discussed this correction shortly after it first circulated. I wrote then:

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.

The basic idea, as I wrote in a subsequent paper with Paul Castañeda Dower, Evgeny Finkel, and Steven Nafziger, is that

[O]ffering maximal redistribution whenever the poor pose a credible threat of unrest, holding constant the elite’s equilibrium strategy to extend the franchise the first time that the poor subsequently have de facto political power…is profitable to the elite if the poor respond by not revolting. That this may be possible in principle follows from the fact that democratization only works as a commitment device when the value to the poor from democracy, in which distribution is maximal in every period, is greater than that from revolution. If the poor are sufficiently patient, maximal distribution in the current period, while deferring franchise expansion to the next time that the poor post a credible threat of unrest, is sufficient to prevent revolution.

As I also overlooked this, the main text and a couple of exercises in Formal Models of Domestic Politics required correction. Done. And making lemonade out of lemons, there is some pedagogic value in the revised discussion. In my experience, the one-deviation property is typically not learned on first exposure. What better way to illustrate its application than to walk through a deviation sufficiently subtle that it was missed for nearly twenty years?

What else? Well, the reason I knew about this correction is that Evgeny discovered it just as our article on “Collective Action and Representation in Autocracies” was going to press. In that paper, by way of setting up the empirical work, we generalize the Acemoglu-Robinson model to allow for a continuous institutional choice, which serendipitously—and instructively—sidesteps the issue discussed above. There is a brief discussion of that in the second edition of Formal Models of Domestic Politics. I also riff a bit on equilibrium multiplicity in “global games,” building on work by Mehdi Shadmehr and Ethan Bueno de Mesquita, and I provide a couple of new exercises. But mostly the revisions to this chapter—in contrast to all other chapters in the text—are about fixing what was previously incorrect.

Veto Players (Second Edition)

In my last post, I discussed in broad terms work on a second edition of my textbook, Formal Models of Domestic Politics. Beginning with this post, I will lay out the specific changes I have made to the text.

For the existing chapters, most changes fall into one of three categories: new models, new exercises (which sometimes cover new models), and clarifications. The chapter on veto players has a bit of each. In the first edition, this covered a grab bag of models in which some players had the ability to block change in policy from the status quo. This included both the social-choice theoretic treatment of George Tsebelis, with its normative emphasis on “stability,” and Keith Krehbiel’s theory of pivots, with its mirror-image focus on “gridlock.” One contribution of the textbook, I believe, is to show the close relationship between these two perspectives. Beyond that, the chapter presented models of portfolio allocation in parliamentary systems, à la Austen-Smith and Banks and Laver and Shepsle, as well as bargaining between veto players and special interests, as in my work with Eddy Malesky.

For each of these models, the analysis assumes an exogenous status quo; the motivating question is what movement, if any, is possible from that policy. But whence the status quo? A good answer is that the status quo is the outcome of some unmodeled prior bargaining process—for example, when government spending is “mandatory” rather than “discretionary,” as in Bowen, Chen, and Eraslan. Yet just as veto bargaining in the past may affect political behavior in the present, so might veto bargaining today affect political behavior tomorrow. Taking this idea seriously requires an explicitly dynamic framework, in which the political outcome in one period becomes the status quo in the next.

The big addition to the chapter on veto players is thus a discussion of dynamic veto bargaining. But what to include? Here it may be useful to articulate a basic principle I have tried to follow: textbooks are not literature reviews. I make no claim of comprehensiveness in either presentation or citation, though I do try to get seminal contributions right. Rather, in approaching a topic, I am typically looking for a single model with a sharp message that can be written on a blackboard, with extra points if the mechanics are novel.

Wiola Dziuda and Antoine Loeper’s wonderful model of “Dynamic Pivotal Politics” fits the bill. In contrast to other work in the literature, the model emphasizes shifts in the preferences of veto players rather than their identity or agenda-setting power. For concreteness, think of two veto players—two pivots, if you will—who have “left” and “right” preferences, respectively. Much of the time the two actors will disagree about whether a shift from the status quo is desirable, but with a shock to the political-economic environment sufficiently large their preferences will align. (Congressional action during the 2008 financial crisis may be a case in point.) Critically, whether the actors disagree tomorrow depends on the policy chosen today, which with the passage of time becomes the status quo. Each actor therefore has an incentive to reject changes to the status quo that from a purely static perspective are preferable, as by doing so they can lock in policy benefits in the future. In contrast to the environment of Krehbiel (or Tsebelis), gridlock in the Dziuda-Loeper model can be inefficient, as there are situations in which the status quo prevails even though the veto players would agree to overturn the status quo, if only they could commit to doing so for one period only.

As is typical, presenting this model in textbook form required some simplification, which in this case implied focusing on a two-actor, two-period setting. The first of these is just a special case of the N-player model in Dziuda and Loeper. The second is in fact a change to the environment, which in the original paper is an infinite-horizon setting. Moving to a finite horizon is not always my first instinct—I simplify the Acemoglu-Robinson model, for example, by stripping away much of the economy while retaining the dynamics—but in this instance it simplifies the analysis considerably, while retaining the core insights of the original model.

There are other approaches to dynamic veto bargaining beyond Dziuda and Loeper’s. In the exercises, I include Peter Buisseret and Dan Bernhardt’s model of the “Dynamics of Policymaking,” in which the identity rather than the preferences of veto players may shift over time. I like using exercises to introduce models that can be presented efficiently, and in this chapter I also add Chiou and Rothenberg’s discussion of pivots in a bicameral setting and Dragu, Fan, and Kuklinski’s analysis of constitutional review as a veto-players game. Oh, and I have tinkered with the original discussion of pivots, with what I hope is an even clearer presentation than before.

Next up: The chapter on regime change, which for surprising reasons required some fairly substantial revisions.

Second Edition

In my second year at Wisconsin, in the fall of 2004, I taught for the first time the second course of a new sequence in formal theory. Leaning on my own graduate training, I organized the syllabus around Persson and Tabellini’s Political Economics—the book from which I learned many models of politics. It didn’t last long. Political Economics is a monumentally important work, but as the title suggests, it assumes an understanding of economics that many Ph.D. students in political science do not have. To compensate, I began to write and distribute lecture notes that took the same models but separated the economy from the fundamental political logic.

That exercise in translation was the foundation for my textbook on Formal Models of Domestic Politics. Before long, I was adding models not in Persson and Tabellini that I thought both political scientists and economists should know. By the time I was finished, I was steeped in literatures I only vaguely understood when I started—yet my desire to cover more was always held in check by trimming and rewriting, as I sought to keep the text as accessible as possible. I finished and taught the final draft in the spring of 2012 at Harvard.

Improvements to the cover too

Eight years is a long time in academic research, and much has been published since Formal Models of Domestic Politics went to press. Hoping to stay just a few steps behind the field, I have been working on a second edition. If all goes as planned, I will be teaching a near-finished text to Chicago students in early 2021, with the manuscript going to production shortly thereafter. With a year to go, this seems a good time to discuss the broad contours of the next edition—what is new, what is tweaked, and what is missing. Beginning with this blog post, and continuing over the next couple of months, I will lay out the structure of Formal Models of Domestic Politics, Second Edition.

Let me begin by setting expectations. The revised text will not be the Mas-Colell, Whinston, and Green of politics. My vision has always been that Formal Models of Domestic Politics would serve as the primary but not exclusive resource for courses in formal theory and political economy. As before, the emphasis will be on clarity rather than comprehensiveness. What this means in practice is a book maybe 30% longer than the original. The big addition is a chapter on nondemocracy—a literature too immature to warrant coverage in the first edition. Most other chapters feature detailed coverage of one or two new models, plus several new exercises, many themselves based on research papers. I have also rewritten a few sections.

So, what is in the new text? I will be specific beginning with the next post. In the meantime, it might be useful to describe how I choose what to include. The models in Formal Models of Domestic Politics are a subset of 1) those I know, which 2) I believe represent important theories or modeling approaches and 3) I can write on a blackboard, while 4) fitting into the narrative flow of the text. Of the four constraints, the first is perhaps the most important. I try to read widely, in both political science and economics, but I undoubtedly miss a great deal. As for the second, there is no accounting for taste, as my former colleague Melanie Manion is wont to say. Again, I anticipate that instructors will supplement Formal Models of Domestic Politics with other work they want their students to learn.

The third constraint is driven by the underlying pedagogy of the text: models are learned by walking through the analysis, step by step, with a reasonable limit to the number of steps and tools required. If I cannot figure out how to strip down a model—if I am unable to distill an elaborate research paper into several pages of self-contained argument—then I cannot include it. Finally, the last constraint is just a matter of logistics: if a model isn’t central to the topics that I have idiosyncratically chosen to cover, or if it substantively belongs in an earlier chapter but requires material introduced later, then it doesn’t fit.

With all this as preface, I now proceed to describe Formal Models of Domestic Politics, Second Edition. First up, in the next post: the chapter on veto players, the centerpiece of which is new material on dynamic veto bargaining. Stay tuned…


November 9, the day the Berlin Wall came down. I was watching CNN with my friends in Ann Arbor. It must have been early evening, as there was live video of young people on the wall—singing, crying, drinking champagne. I remember thinking at the time that this was a once-in-a-lifetime event, that I should scrape together enough money to fly to Berlin and see it in person.

On display in College Station, TX

Would that I had. Thirty years later, I have shown that footage in class more times than I can remember. It never fails to brings tears to my eyes: I sit in the front row with my back turned to the students so that they can’t see my face. But why? I don’t think I cried in 1989. The emotional resonance arrived later, as I came to know people who had lived on both sides of that momentous year, and a few who had been in the streets during their own countries’ revolutions.

Let’s back up. In 1989, the most likely outcome for me was to return home to the family business (a large livestock farm) after business school, which I entered immediately after receiving my undergraduate degree in agricultural economics. Instead, I took what I thought was a short detour to work on Capitol Hill for the member of Congress from my home district in Illinois. Employment in a GOP office during the Gingrich revolution made me a Democrat, and by the time I realized I wasn’t going home I also knew that I wasn’t staying in Washington. (You dance with the one that brung ya, or you don’t dance at all.) A chance meeting with a constituent recently returned from Ukraine reawakened my interest in a region I had first encountered during a brief family trip to Leningrad and Moscow in 1987.1 And so in 1994 I landed in Prague to take a position helping Czech entrepreneurs to write business plans and get bank loans—my only qualifications for the job being that unused MBA and a capitalist childhood.

Thus began the three most consequential years of my adult life. Partway through a year working in this small consulting shop, I met John Earle—an economist at the Central European University, which at the time had campuses in Prague and Warsaw as well as Budapest.2 As my original employer lost its grant funding, John took me on as a research assistant. When he moved to Budapest with the rest of the Economics Department, I stayed behind to run an enterprise survey, traveling periodically to Hungary and joining John for a quarter in Stanford. Then followed a year working out of the Budapest campus, another quarter in Stanford, and two trips to Mongolia to help advise on enterprise privatization. My intellectual trajectory was set.

Meanwhile, I was living in Prague and Budapest: two of the great European cities, each now emerging from behind the Iron Curtain. I had many Czech friends from my first job, and through them I saw a slice of Czech society (and also the Czech countryside). I learned some Czech, and in the process internalized Milorad Pavić’s argument that personality changes when language does.3 In Budapest I worked with a group of young economists from throughout Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union; lunchtime everyday was a journey through the postcommunist region. Finally, three months before leaving for graduate school at Berkeley, I met a young woman from St. Petersburg with a passion for film and a shared interest in architecture. And my personal trajectory was set.

Revolutions inevitably disappoint, and 1989 is no exception. The reforms of the 1990s produced losers as well as winners, and the winners were sometimes undeserving. Disappointment, in turn, has led to backsliding that one can only hope will be reversed. Still, when I think of 1989, I think of my friends and my wife, all of whom would have faced different and more limited choices had state socialism not been reconciled to the dustbin of history. If choice is freedom, then millions gained their freedom in 1989, with only a few shots fired. Tonight, I raise a glass to that annus mirabilis.


  1. No, my parents weren’t communists: pay attention to the personal details. But they were interested in the world, and this tour of Scandinavia had a side trip to the Soviet Union.
  2. And now Vienna.
  3. In Landscape Painted in Tea.

American Values

A number of years ago, one of Russia’s premier investigative journalists related to me a trick of the trade. In the run-up to publication of a big story, reporters are hidden outside of Moscow. It is the days before a paper hits the newsstands that are the most dangerous. Journalists are often killed not because they have already revealed public or corporate corruption, but because they are about to do so.

I remembered that conversation after Rudy Giuliani’s pathetic parade of lies on CNN last week. In the course of defending his client’s indefensible behavior, Giuliani smeared Serhiy Leshchenko—Ukraine’s premier investigative journalist and a former member of parliament—and the outstanding Anti-Corruption Action Center (AntAC), falsely claiming that they had produced bogus documents to implicate Paul Manafort in crimes he supposedly did not commit. In fact, the so-called “black ledger of the Party of Regions” was real, as were Manafort’s crimes. (Robert Mackey has a great run-down at the Intercept; see also Leshchenko’s op-ed in the Washington Post.)

Fighting the good fight

I happen to know Leshchenko a bit; I have also met AntAC’s founders Daria Kaleniuk and Vitaliy Shabunin. They and a handful of others like them are the real heroes of contemporary Ukraine, fighting for some semblance of probity and transparency. I have tried to imagine myself in their shoes, and I just can’t. It requires a particular combination of physical courage and personal indignation to take on a corrupt oligarchy and their proxies in government.

Once upon a time, we would have said that people like Leshchenko, Kaleniuk, and Shabunin represented “American values”—of honesty, good government, and democratic accountability. Needless to say, America has often failed to live up to those values, over which the United States in any event has no monopoly. Still, it is jarring—sorry, appalling—to see the personal lawyer of the president of the United States accusing the good guys of the very behavior they have pledged to fight. Doing so not only sows confusion among American citizens, which is of course the goal, but also puts Ukrainian civil society at greater risk than it already is.

Shame on you, Rudolph Giuliani. You could learn a lot from Ukrainians about what it means to have the right values.