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Book Club

One of a series of lasts in Madison: the final meeting of the book club I co-organized with my colleague and friend Yoi Herrera. This time we read A Time of Gifts, the first book in Patrick Leigh Fermor’s superlative (and incompletely finished) account of his youthful journey— by foot, beginning in 1933—from Rotterdam to Constantinople. I love this description of the Hungarian language: “a dactylic canter where the ictus of every initial syllable set off a troop of identical vowels with their accents all swerving one way like wheat-ears in the wind.” Much better than the newspaper article (in the New York Times? I can’t find it) that characterized Hungarian as sounding like something falling down stairs. Fermor does justice to the rich languages of central Europe and the people who speak them.

We read a lot of good books, a couple of mediocre ones, and a few classics. Along with A Time of Gifts, I would put The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet at the top of my list. I also really enjoyed Mary Beard’s SPQR and Michael Chabon’s Moonglow.

In Book Clubs: Women and the Uses of Reading in Everyday Life, the sociologist Elizabeth Long discusses the social role that typically all-female book clubs play in American society. In such clubs, Long observes, the book is important, but so is the broader discussion about members’ lives that it generates. Yoi and I aimed to create somewhat the same environment, though in a co-educational setting and with a conscious decision to alternate fiction and nonfiction. I think we succeeded. It was especially gratifying to discover aspects of my professional colleagues’ personalities and interests that I would not have known from our weekday interactions. (Inevitably, our membership included many political scientists, though not only.) And Masha and I enjoyed the way that our home became part of the social institution—close to campus, we always hosted. I will miss that institution, perhaps more than any other I helped to create in Madison.

History, Variously Defined

If you read my last post, you know that I’ve been busy moving. That, at least, is my excuse for not writing up some thoughts earlier on the first annual Summer Workshop in the Economic History and Historical Political Economy of Russia, held in Madison in late May. For three days, we had economists, historians, and political scientists in town for a fabulous exchange of ideas and work.

The origins of this workshop lie in a discussion at the Slavic meetings in 2017. As I related at the time, historians and historically minded social scientists were talking—but seemingly past as much as with each other. Roughly speaking, historians felt that social scientists were inattentive to the messiness and contextual meaning of the data they were using. Social scientists, in turn, insisted that their methods were often employed to deal with such issues, but that it was hard to communicate this across the methodological divide that separates disciplines.

Thankfully, the scholars who were part of this discussion enjoy each other’s company, and so we decided to deal with our differences by spending more, not less, time with each other. Picking up on a suggestion by Martin Kragh, Amanda Gregg organized a pair of panels at the 2018 Slavic meetings—one with historians presenting and social scientists discussing, the other with precisely the opposite. Meanwhile, I had come into some money through a retention offer, and so I decided to organize a workshop with the help of Paul Dower, Natalya Naumenko, Dmitrii Kofanov, Martin Kragh, and the amazing staff at UW’s Center for Russia, East Europe, and Central Asia.

We had a fabulous lineup of papers and posters, by scholars senior and junior, across three disciplines: check out the program. And at the end of it all, we talked. I personally don’t think that every workshop needs to end with a conversation about The Relationship, but with many folks in the room together for the first time, this one was maybe useful. Here is what I took away from the discussion:

  • Format is important. We ran the workshop according to “cliometrics rules,” which is to say that participants read the papers in advance, authors had five minutes to remind the audience of their argument, and everybody participated in the general discussion that followed. This seemed to force a greater engagement with unfamiliar approaches than would have been the case with a more traditional format.
  • We can do better with graduate training. With a few exceptions, graduate students in history don’t take econometrics; those in the social sciences don’t take methods of history or even much history. What we need, and what some of us may be in a position to provide, is courses in reading across disciplinary divides. I have in mind especially seminars co-taught by historians and social scientists.
  • Collaboration can help but will be hard. There is nothing like writing with somebody to figure out how they think. That said, collaboration works best when coauthors can check each other’s work. Unless and until graduate training is truly interdisciplinary, that will be difficult.
  • We need to keep talking. Conferences are great but infrequent (though with the generous support of the University of Chicago, there will be more summer workshops). In between, technology can serve to keep the conversation going. To that end, I have set up a Slack workspace for those interested in the economic history and historical political economy of Russia—a place to share papers, discuss data, announce conferences, and so forth. Email me if you are interested.
Three disciplines in one backyard

I’m Moving

For every one of the sixteen years I have held a Ph.D., I have been a faculty member at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Beginning with my seventeenth year, I will be at the University of Chicago, with a joint appointment in the Department of Political Science and the Harris School of Public Policy. It is a bittersweet moment. I have lived in Madison longer than anywhere other than my hometown of Lincoln, Illinois. My wife, our son, and I have a community of friends and colleagues that runs deep. At the same time, life is short, and Masha and I have both been offered wonderful opportunities that we could not pass up. For anyone who is interested—and to head off the creative explanations of Political Science Rumors—let me explain my reasons.

First, I should be clear about what this decision is not. I am not fleeing Scott Walker (who is, um, no longer governor), department politics, university governance, or anything of that sort. The University of Wisconsin and its Political Science Department are healthy. Anyone who gets a chance to work or study here should take it. You will have amazing colleagues and a supportive work environment. And you will live in arguably the best college town in America. (I know of what I speak, having lived in nearly all the great college towns: Ann Arbor, Berkeley, Cambridge, and Madison.)

One more summer on the terrace

In short, this is all pull, no push. To understand the pull, it helps to understand me. As a scholar, I identify as both a comparativist and a political economist. At Chicago, I get to fully indulge both sides of my personality. Mornings? I’m in the Political Science Department. Afternoons? I’m at Harris. I’m having my cake and eating it too.

On top of that, it is useful to know that Chicago is investing heavily in political economy. There is a lot of hiring being done in the department, to join the already great group at Harris. Other plans are afoot. From the top down, there is a determination to make Chicago the preeminent center for the study of political economy. Stay tuned.

Finally, there is Chicago. Masha and I both miss the big city, and Chicago is our favorite big city in the country. I grew up downstate, with grandparents in the Chicago suburbs. My parents still live in Lincoln—from Chicago, a train ride rather than a drive away. (Here Scott Walker does briefly enter the picture: no high-speed rail to Madison, alas.) We want to walk to the Seminary Coop Bookstore after work, to have season tickets to the Chicago Symphony, to see the Cardinals beat the Cubs at Wrigley Field (whoops: there’s the downstate boy), and to raise our son in one of the most diverse neighborhoods in America.

Farewell, Madison. I will miss you. Hello, sweet home Chicago. I can’t wait.

John Dingell, Heresthetician

In one of two or three previous lives, I worked on Capitol Hill in the early 1990s as a legislative assistant to the member of Congress from my home district. It was a heady experience. I had always loved politics, and while my own political views were evolving—ultimately contributing to my decision to move overseas and try something else—I enjoyed seeing politicians at work and up close. For much of that time I lived on upper Connecticut Avenue, and on Sunday afternoons I would bike up to Politics and Prose to see in person the newsmakers who had been on television that morning.

John Dingell was then the chair of the House Energy and Commerce Committee. I remember first hearing him speak during a floor debate over something or other. I was not blown away. Like many newcomers to politics, I confused rhetorical mastery with political effectiveness. I am sure Congressman Dingell gave many fine speeches over the course of his long career (best remembered may be his riff on “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas”), and he emerged in his final years a skilled practitioner of the tweet. Be that as it may, his remarks that day were not designed to persuade. How, I wondered, could such a clumsy speaker have risen to a position of such power?

John Dingell was a master not of rhetoric but of what William Riker famously termed heresthetic: the art of political manipulation, or of “structuring the world so you can win.” I got a glimpse of this during an Agriculture Committee markup of a bill over which Energy and Commerce had partial jurisdiction. Chairman Dingell showed up to ensure that some language was removed from the draft legislation. Seated on the dais in the Agriculture Committee’s main hearing room, he gave the most perfunctory speech in opposition to the language that one could imagine. The only sentence that really mattered came at the end, when he stated (roughly—this was 25 years ago), “And I come here with the proxies of the members of the Energy and Commerce Committee to vote against this onerous provision.”

The proxies…”How many proxies does the chairman bring with him?” asked Kika de la Garza, the genial chairman of the House Agriculture Committee. Dingell slowly looked around the room before answering. “Let’s just say: enough.” The provision was struck without a vote, and the staff in the room declared their collective intention never to play poker with Congressman Dingell.

Riker recognized political manipulation as among the most important of the arts—one that could be learned from instruction as well as from practice. With John Dingell’s passing, we have lost one of our best teachers.

Producing (Not Writing) Your Own Book

I like to think of myself as an article writer who writes the occasional book. With my dissertation book, I did things the standard way: I wrote the manuscript, which upon completion of review I submitted (as LaTeX and supporting files) to Cambridge University Press for production. It was a hard experience. Numerous errors crept in during the typesetting process, which a kind employee at Cambridge and I spent a week cleaning up. (I think we caught them all.) A typical error: aa+b rendered as a/a + b. Ugh.

Second time around, when I wrote my textbook, I did the typesetting myself. My primary motivation in doing so was to ensure the printed accuracy of what I had written, but I had also noticed that some texts were set better than others, and I wanted some control over the process. I knew quite a bit of LaTeX at this point (if you feel more comfortable in Scientic WorkPlace or LyX, this is not for you), and it was not difficult to do the typesetting, once I understood the

Memories of this flooded back recently after a conversation on Twitter with Jelena Subotic and Anna Grzymala-Busse. Much of my experience was idiosyncratic (a particular publisher, a certain type of manuscript), and some of it may be out of date. At the same time, some of these lessons (e.g., with respect to producing indexes) are likely useful even to those who are happy to let the press do most of the work.

Here, for anybody in a similar position, is what I learned. Caveat emptor.

Negotiate the process in advance with your publisher. With my textbook, we agreed that I would produce the proofs, the copy/production editor would mark up the proofs by hand, I would enter changes directly in LaTeX—this process iterated until we were both happy with the product. (In addition to language edits, my editor would suggest that I move a figure over a few pixels, etc.) I submitted a PDF file for printing. I also provided the LaTeX and supporting files, just in case I got hit by a bus and something needed to be changed, but they weren’t needed and likely never opened. This all worked in part because I had an exceptionally good editor…if you have a very technical manuscript, you might ask if they keep a copy editor in reserve for that sort of work.

Don’t reinvent the wheel: find the document class that your press uses. For me, it was cambridge7a. You will make many changes from the default set, but it’s a place to start.

Ask the production company to produce the front matter (title and copyright page) and back matter (e.g., list of other books in a series).

As much LaTeX as you know, there will inevitably come a moment when you need to do something you don’t know how to do. Cambridge has a support line at Other presses may have something similar.

You are saving the press money by doing the typesetting yourself. They may be willing to increase your royalties in return.

Finally, if you are enough of a perfectionist to consider typesetting a book yourself, you may also want to produce your own index. It is a good thing to consider: you know your book better than any professional indexer will, and you will save the time otherwise spent cleaning up nonsense entries. In LaTeX this primarily involves inserting \index commands at the appropriate place in the manuscript and then compiling. Think BibTeX: the process is similar. In my case, I also wanted an author index, which is truly automatic if you have used BibTeX for references, although it requires a Perl script and a bit of customization if you are working with natbib. Check out my notes for doing this on Windows and Mac OS: I switched from the former to the latter between my first and second book. There is almost certainly a cleaner way to do this—mine uses the deprecated package multiind, still available at CTAN. If you get lost…I don’t know. I found most of this somewhere online.

Drawing the Wrong Lessons from Socialism

I have just forced myself to read the CEA report on “The Opportunity Costs of Socialism.” Personally, I rather prefer Francis Spufford’s Red Plenty for a palatable introduction to actually existing socialism. But a couple of observations.

Somewhat surprisingly for an economic analysis, the CEA report confuses the costs of transition to socialism (e.g., collectivization-induced famine) with the efficiency losses associated with the consolidated, “classical” socialist system. Assuming, as the authors do, that “democratic socialists” don’t mean to go so far and anyway couldn’t hurt a flea, the latter costs are more relevant to any institutional comparison. But one of the big lessons of socialism is that its incentive problems generalize. Capitalist economies are not immune, for example, to the ratchet effect or soft budget constraints. The question is whether institutions exist to minimize those problems.

This leads to the second error in analysis. It is not enough to study socialism. One also needs to study the transition from socialism. For if the big lesson of socialism is that state ownership and bureaucratic coordination do not work (well), the big lesson of postsocialist transition is that markets do not work (well) without supportive state institutions and regulation. The CEA report thus falters in situating economies along a single dimension of more or less “freedom.” One can have more market and more state at the same time. Or less of each (see, e.g., Ukraine).1

Frankly, it is disspiriting to think that “socialism” may be the frame within which economic debate takes place in coming years. But if that is to be the case, we would do well to draw the right lessons from the socialist, and postsocialist, experience. In the meantime, if the CEA is going to return to the debates of the 1930s, it would do well to remember the maxim that Roosevelt saved capitalism from the capitalists.


  1. Check your intuition: Which had larger bureaucracies in the 1990s: OECD countries or transition countries? Compare Figures 1 and 2 here.


Typically lurking just below the surface, the question of whether Vladimir Putin has anything on Donald Trump has dominated public discourse since the Helsinki summit and the American president’s declaration that he believes a former KGB agent over his own government. It is a fair question—one that we have every reason to think Robert Mueller and his team are investigating. But from a policy perspective, the relevant point is that Trump is behaving exactly as we would expect if Putin were in possession of kompromat. From the denigration of American institutions to attacks on American allies to his behavior toward Putin himself, Trump’s policy reads like Putin’s marching orders. There is remarkable consistency in this approach, such that reasonable people can be forgiven for thinking that some ulterior motive is at work. That may or may not be the case, but we don’t need to be certain that Trump is compromised. We should simply stop being surprised that he is acting as if he is.1


  1. Game theorists will recognize this argument as a practical application of Lemma 1 in Fudenberg and Levine’s (1989) work on “Reputation and Equilibrium Selection in Games with a Patient Player.”

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.