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Second Pancake (on Ukraine after the Euromaidan)

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

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

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

Civil society at work

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

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

Going Deep

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Internet giveth, and the Internet taketh away. The ability to transmit data to anyone, anywhere, at zero marginal cost has created unparalleled opportunities for collaboration. Dropbox, Skype, Slack, ShareLaTeX—complex research projects with multiple investigators were far more challenging before we had such tools.

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

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

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

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

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

What CEU Means (to Me)

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

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

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

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

Photo by Yasha Hoffman

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

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

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

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

What’s Next for the Study of Nondemocracy?

Pictured: Not actually Gehlbach, Razo, and Sonin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There is a lot to do!


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

Is the Trump Presidency at a Tipping Point?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

How does Putin’s strategy work?

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

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

Donald Trump as Lightning McQueen

Watching Donald Trump struggle to make good on his extravagant campaign promises, I am reminded of the opening scene in Pixar’s Cars. Hot rod Lightning McQueen attempts to win the Dinoco 400 by ignoring the advice of his “expert” pit crew, who demand that McQueen change his tires. Announcers Darrel Cartrip and Bob Cutlass describe the situation as McQueen pulls out of yet another pit stop with only a fill-up:

Darrel: Looks like it’s all gas-and-go for McQueen today.

Bob: That’s right. No tires again.

Darrel: Normally I’d say that’s a short-term gain, long-term loss, but it sure is working for him. He obviously knows something we don’t know.

But he doesn’t. McQueen blows first one tire, then another, and bounces to the finish line on his rims. He finishes in a three-way tie, which sets up the rest of the film. But for the rookie mistake, McQueen might have driven away with the Piston Cup.

Not changing your tires in an auto race is like not hedging your campaign promises in an electoral contest. You can say you are going to build a beautiful wall and have Mexico pay for it, impose a “total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States,” replace Obamacare with “something terrific,” or whatever you think the people at your rallies want to hear. Doing so may give you a lead, and even win you the race. But unlike the Dinoco 400, the contest doesn’t end when you cross the finish line. Voters expect you to actually deliver on your campaign promises.

Seasoned politicians understand this and try not to make high-profile promises they can’t keep. But Trump’s a rookie, and either because of his ignorance of how government works, or because he didn’t do the backward induction, he created expectations among his supporters that will be very difficult to meet. It may have looked like he knew what he was doing, but we’re now three weeks into the Trump presidency, and the wheels are already coming off.


Postscript: There is a moral for political economists in this story. The typical model in the Downsian tradition assumes that the “platform space” and the “policy space” are identical—candidates can (indeed, are assumed to) implement any promise they make. To me, that seems like equilibrium behavior masquerading as an assumption. On the equilibrium path, politicians don’t make promises they can’t keep, presumably because voters punish politicians who don’t keep their promises. Anticipating that, it is reasonable for voters to infer that any promise a candidate makes is one that he can keep. Donald Trump is way off the equilibrium path.

Imagining Trump’s End

I’m teaching Socialism and Transitions to the Market this semester, and we’re reading Francis Spufford’s excellent Red Plenty. Here he is on Khrushchev’s end:

[H]e was starting to frighten them…He had made alarmingly specific, alarmingly verifiable economic promises…He had tried to stick his thumb in the scales of the strategic balance by putting the missiles in Cuba; and the world had nearly burned. He was getting angrier and angrier, more and more impatient, more and more puzzled. “You’d think as first secretary I could change anything in this country,” he told Fidel Castro. “The hell I can! No matter what changes I propose and carry out, everything stays the same. Russia’s like a tub of dough…” The yeasty mass kept pushing back, and all he knew how to do was to keep trying the same methods, more and more frantically, more and more frenziedly, announcing new policies, rejigging the organisation chart, tinkering and revising…Meanwhile, he listened less. He mocked his colleagues to their faces. He sent Mikoyan to Cuba while his wife was dying, then failed to turn up to her funeral. He absent-mindedly alienated supporter after supporter, till by October 1964 there was a solid majority around the Presidium table for replacing him.

Which left the question of what to do about his promises.

Ah, yes. We’re going to have to worry about the promises.

The Parable of Vladimir Meciar

I received a message this morning from a friend unable to start the day, so in despair was she over recent events. My response was curt: “Get out of bed and write a check to the ACLU. Then find a protest to join or a refugee center where you can volunteer. This is no time to be defeatist. This is a fight we can win.”

That’s how I feel, but I owe my friend a justification for my optimism (and an apology for my curtness). As others have noted, what we have seen over the past eighteen months fits the pattern of creeping authoritarianism. The systematic violation of basic democratic norms—this is how democracies die. Those who do not yet see this as an existential threat (I’m looking at you, Paul Ryan) do not know their history.

But there is an important point missing from this discussion: Not every would-be authoritarian is successful. Consider the story of Vladimir Meciar: three-time nationalist prime minister of Slovakia, a populist with authoritarian tendencies…in short, the Slovak Trump. I lived in Prague for two years in the mid-1990s, when the papers were full of horrifying stories from neighboring Slovakia. There seemed to be little hope that Slovakia would soon join the community of Western democracies and every reason to suspect that Slovakia was sliding into tinpot dictatorship.

It didn’t happen. Vladimir Meciar is today the former leader of the former ruling party of a democratic Slovakia fully integrated into the EU and NATO. Meciar failed because of democratic institutions that proved surprisingly capable of accommodating opposition to his rule. He retained a base of support well into the new millenium, but by 1998 he had been cast out of polite political company; he could no longer build a ruling coalition.

If the Slovak public, less than a decade removed from communism, could defend their young democracy, then should not we be able to do the same? For all the problems with American democracy, the opposition to Trump possesses structural advantages of which dissidents in other countries can only dream: subnational governments firmly in control of the opposition party, media outlets that are privately owned and thus harder to fully capture, a dense organizational life to support collective action…It’s going to be a fight, but it’s a fight that America can win.