Asking the Right Questions

This is a cross-post from the Good Judgment Project’s blog.

I came to the Good Judgment Project (GJP) two years ago, in Season 2, as a forecaster, excited about contributing to an important research project and curious to learn more about my skill at prediction. I did pretty well at the latter, and GJP did very well at the former. I’m also a political scientist who happened to have more time on my hands than many of my colleagues, because I work as an independent consultant and didn’t have a full plate at that point. So, in Season 3, the project hired me to work as one of its lead question writers.

Going into that role, I had anticipated that one of the main challenges would be negotiating what Phil Tetlock calls the “rigor-relevance trade-off”—finding questions that are relevant to the project’s U.S. government sponsors and can be answered as unambiguously as possible. That forecast was correct, but even armed with that information, I failed to anticipate just how hard it often is to strike this balance.

The rigor-relevance trade-off exists because most of the big questions about global politics concern latent variables. Sometimes we care about specific political events because of their direct consequences, but more often we care about those events because of what they reveal to us about deeper forces shaping the world. For example, we can’t just ask if China will become more cooperative or more belligerent, because cooperation and belligerence are abstractions that we can’t directly observe. Instead, we have to find events or processes that (a) we can see and (b) that are diagnostic of that latent quality. For example, we can tell when China issues another statement reiterating its claim to the Senkaku Islands, but that happens a lot, so it doesn’t give us much new information about China’s posture. If China were to fire on Japanese aircraft or vessels in the vicinity of the islands—or, for that matter, to renounce its claim to them—now that would be interesting.

It’s tempting to forego some rigor to ask directly about the latent stuff, but it’s also problematic. For the forecast’s consumers, we need to be able to explain clearly what a forecast does and does not cover, so they can use the information appropriately. As forecasters, we need to understand what we’re being asked to anticipate so we can think clearly about the forces and pathways that might or might not produce the relevant outcome. And then there’s the matter of scoring the results. If we can’t agree on what eventually happened, we won’t agree on the accuracy of the predictions. Then the consumers don’t know how reliable those forecasts are, the producers don’t get the feedback they need, and everyone gets frustrated and demotivated.

It’s harder to formulate rigorous questions than many people realize until they try to do it, even on things that seem like they should be easy to spot. Take coups. It’s not surprising that the U.S. government might be keen on anticipating coups in various countries for various reasons. It is, however, surprisingly hard to define a “coup” in such a way that virtually everyone would agree on whether or not one had occurred.

In the past few years, Egypt has served up a couple of relevant examples. Was the departure of Hosni Mubarak in 2011 a coup? On that question, two prominent scholarly projects that use similar definitions to track coups and coup attempts couldn’t agree. Where one source saw an “overt attempt by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting head of state using unconstitutional means,” the other saw the voluntary resignation of a chief executive due to a loss of his authority and a prompt return to civilian-led government. And what about the ouster of Mohammed Morsi in July 2013? On that, those academic sources could readily agree, but many Egyptians who applauded Morsi’s removal—and, notably, the U.S. government—could not.

We see something similar on Russian military intervention in Ukraine. Not long after Russia annexed Crimea, GJP posted a question asking whether or not Russian armed forces would invade the eastern Ukrainian cities of Kharkiv or Donetsk before 1 May 2014. The arrival of Russian forces in Ukrainian cities would obviously be relevant to U.S. policy audiences, and with Ukraine under such close international scrutiny, it seemed like that turn of events would be relatively easy to observe as well.

Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. As Mark Galeotti explained in a mid-April blog post,

When the so-called “little green men” deployed in Crimea, they were very obviously Russian forces, simply without their insignia. They wore Russian uniforms, followed Russian tactics and carried the latest, standard Russian weapons.

However, the situation in eastern Ukraine is much less clear. U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry has asserted that it was “clear that Russian special forces and agents have been the catalyst behind the chaos of the last 24 hours.” However, it is hard to find categorical evidence of this.

Even evidence that seemed incontrovertible when it emerged, like video of a self-proclaimed Russian lieutenant colonel in the Ukrainian city of Horlivka, has often been debunked.

This doesn’t mean we were wrong to ask about Russian intervention in eastern Ukraine. If anything, the intensity of the debate over whether or not that’s happened simply confirms how relevant this topic was. Instead, it implies that we chose the wrong markers for it. We correctly anticipated that further Russian intervention was possible if not probable, but we—like many others—failed to anticipate the unconventional forms that intervention would take.

Both of these examples show how hard it can be to formulate rigorous questions for forecasting tournaments, even on topics that are of keen interest to everyone involved and seem like naturals for the task. In an ideal world, we could focus exclusively on relevance and ask directly about all the deeper forces we want to understand and anticipate. As usual, though, that ideal world isn’t the one we inhabit. Instead, we struggle to find events and processes whose outcomes we can discern that will also reveal something telling about those deeper forces at play.

 

Demography, Democracy, and Complexity

Five years ago, demographer Richard Cincotta claimed in a piece for Foreign Policy that a country’s age structure is a powerful predictor of its prospects for attempting and sustaining liberal democracy. “A country’s chances for meaningful democracy increase,” he wrote, “as its population ages.” Applying that superficially simple hypothesis to the data at hand, he ventured a forecast:

The first (and perhaps most surprising) region that promises a shift to liberal democracy is a cluster along Africa’s Mediterranean coast: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt, none of which has experienced democracy in the recent past. The other area is in South America: Ecuador, Colombia, and Venezuela, each of which attained liberal democracy demographically “early” but was unable to sustain it. Interpreting these forecasts conservatively, we can expect there will be one, maybe two, in each group that will become stable democracies by 2020.

I read that article when it was published, and I recall being irritated by it. At the time, I had been studying democratization for more than 15 years and was building statistical models to forecast transitions to and from democracy as part of my paying job. Seen through those goggles, Cincotta’s construct struck me as simplistic to the point of naiveté. Democratization is a hard theoretical problem. States have arrived at and departed from democracy by many different pathways, so how could what amounts to a one-variable model possibly have anything useful to say about it?

Revisiting Cincotta’s work in 2014, I like it a lot more for a couple of reasons. First, I like the work better now because I have come to see it as an elegant representation of a larger idea. As Cincotta argues in that Foreign Policy article and another piece he published around the same time, demographic structure is one component of a much broader and more complex syndrome in which demography is both effect and cause. Changes in fertility rates, and through them age structure, are strongly shaped by other social changes like education and urbanization, which are correlated with, but hardly determined by, increases in national wealth.

Of course, that syndrome is what we conventionally call “development,” and the pattern Cincotta observes has a strong affinity with modernization theory. Cincotta’s innovation was to move the focus away from wealth, which has turned out to be unreliable as a driver and thus as a proxy for development in a larger sense, to demographic structure, which is arguably a more sensitive indicator of it. As I see it now, what we now call development is part of a “state shift” occurring in human society at the global level that drives and is reinforced by long-term trends in democratization and violent conflict. As in any complex system, though, the visible consequences of that state shift aren’t evenly distributed.

In this sense, Cincotta’s argument is similar to one I often find myself making about the value of using infant mortality rates instead of GDP per capita as a powerful summary measure in models of a country’s susceptibility to insurgency and civil war. The idea isn’t that dead children motivate people to attack their governments, although that may be one part of the story. Instead, the idea is that infant mortality usefully summarizes a number of other things that are all related to conflict risk. Among those things are the national wealth we can observe directly (if imperfectly) with GDP, but also the distribution of that wealth and the state’s will and ability to deliver basic social services to its citizens. Seen through this lens, higher-than-average infant mortality helps us identify states suffering from a broader syndrome that renders them especially susceptible to violent conflict.

Second, I have also come to appreciate more what Cincotta was and is doing because I respect his willingness to apply his model to generate and publish probabilistic forecasts in real time. In professional and practical terms, that’s not always easy for scholars to do, but doing it long enough to generate a real track record can yield valuable scientific dividends.

In this case, it doesn’t hurt that the predictions Cincotta made six years ago are looking pretty good right now, especially in contrast to the conventional wisdom of the late 2000s on the prospects for democratization in North Africa. None of the five states he lists there yet qualifies as a liberal democracy on his terms, a “free” designation from Freedom House). Still, it’s only 2014, one of them (Tunisia) has moved considerably in that direction, and two others (Egypt and Libya) have seen seemingly frozen political regimes crumble and substantial attempts at democratization ensue. Meanwhile, the long-dominant paradigm in comparative democratization would have left us watching for splits among ruling elites that really only happened in those places as their regimes collapsed, and many area experts were telling us in 2008 to expect more of the same in North Africa as far as the mind could see. Not bad for a “one-variable model.”

Ukraine’s Just Coup

As Ukraine’s newly appointed government confronts a deepening separatist challenge in Crimea, Viktor Yanukovych continues to describe his removal from office as a “coup d’etat” (here). According to a recent poll by a reputable firm, roughly one-quarter of Russians agree. A month earlier, 84 percent of respondents in a similar poll saw the protests against Yanukovich as a coup attempt.

But that’s all spin and propaganda, right? Yanukovych is a friend of Moscow’s, which presumably views his ouster as part of a broader Western plot against it, and state-guided Russian media have been peddling this line from the start of the EuroMaidan protests a few months ago.

Well, pedantically, Yanukovych is correct. Academic definitions of coups d’etat generally include four criteria: 1) they replace the chief executive; 2) they do not follow constitutional procedure; 3) they are led or facilitated by political insiders; and 4) they involve the use or threat of force. Sometimes we attach modifiers to signify which political insiders strike the blow—military, palace, parliamentary, or judicial—and the criterion regarding the use or threat of force is often interpreted broadly to include arrest or even credibly menacing statements. When political outsiders topple a ruler, we call it a successful rebellion, not a coup. When political insiders remove a sitting leader by constitutional means, we call it politics.

Ukraine unambiguously satisfies at least a few of these criteria. The sitting chief executive was removed from office in a vote by parliamentarians, who qualify as political insiders. Those parliamentarians were encouraged by a popular uprising that represents a form of coercion. Even if we assume, as I do, that most participants in that uprising would not have physically harmed Yanukovich had they captured him, their forceful attempts to seize and occupy government buildings and their clashes with state security forces are clearly coercive acts.

And, crucially, the vote to remove Yanukovych doesn’t seem to have followed constitutional procedures. Under Articles 108-112 of Ukraine’s constitution (here), there are four ways a sitting president may leave office between elections: resignation, incapacitation, death, and impeachment. None of the first three happened—early rumors to the contrary, Yanukovych has vehemently denied that he resigned—so that leaves the fourth, impeachment. According to Article 111, impeachment must follow a specific set of procedures: Parliament must vote to impeach and then convene a committee to investigate. That committee must investigate and report back to parliament, which must then vote to bring charges. A final vote to convict may only come after receipt of a judgment from the Constitutional Court that “the acts, of which the President of Ukraine is accused, contain elements of treason or other crime.” Best I can tell, though, those procedures were not followed in this case. Instead, parliament simply voted—380 to 0, in a body with 450 seats—to dismiss Yanukovych and then to hand executive authority on an interim basis to its own speaker (here).

The apparent extra-constitutionality of this process gives us the last of the four criteria listed above. So, technically speaking, Yanukovych’s removal checks all of the boxes for what we would conventionally call a coup. We can quibble about how relevant the threat of force was to this outcome, and thus whether or not the label “parliamentary coup” might fit better than plain old coup, but the basic issue doesn’t seem especially ambiguous.

All of this should sound very familiar to Egyptians. Twice in the past three years, they’ve seen sitting presidents toppled by political insiders while protesters massed nearby. In both instances, the applicability of the “coup” label became a point of intense political debate. People cared, in part, because perceptions affect political outcomes, and what we call an event shapes how people perceive it. We shout over each other until one voice finally drowns out the rest, and what that voice says becomes the history we remember. In a world where “the will of the people” is seen by many as the only legitimate source of state authority, a whiff of illegitimacy hangs about “coup” that doesn’t adhere to “revolution.” In a peculiar twist of logic and semantics, many Egyptians insisted that President Morsi’s removal in July 2013 could not have been a coup because millions of people supported it. The end was right, so the means must have been, too. Coup doesn’t sound right, so it couldn’t have been one of those.

It’s easy to deride that thinking from a distance. It’s even easier with the benefit of a hindsight that can take in all the terrible things Egypt’s ruling junta has done since it seized power last July.

Before we sneer too hard at those gullible Egyptian liberals, though, we might pause to consider how we’re now describing events in Ukraine, and why. Most of the people I know personally or follow on social media believe that Yanukovych was a rotten menace whose removal from office was justified by his corruption and, more recently, his responsibility for the use of disproportionate force against activists massed on the Maidan. I agree, and I’m sure the documents his accomplices dumped in the Dnipro River on the way out of town will only clarify and strengthen that impression. Yanukovych’s election win in 2010 and his continuing popularity among a large (but dwindling) segment of the population weighed in his favor before 19-20 February, but the shooting to death of scores of unarmed or crudely armed protesters undoubtedly qualifies as the sort of crime that should trigger an impeachment and might even win a conviction. That is, those shootings qualify as an impeachable offense, but impeachment is not what happened.

As moral beings, we can recognize all of those things, and we can and should weigh them in our judgments about the justice of what’s transpired in Ukraine in the past week. Moral and analytical thinking aren’t the same thing, however, and they don’t always point in the same direction, or even occur on the same plane. I’d like to believe that, as analytical thinkers, we’re capable of acknowledging the parallels between Yanukovich’s removal from power and the things we usually call coups without presuming that this acknowledgement negates our moral judgment about the righteousness of that turn of events. Those two streams of thought can and should and inevitably will inform each other, but they don’t have to move deterministically together. Let there be such a thing as a just coup, and let this be an instance of it.

PS. For an excellent discussion of the philosophical issues I gloss over in that final declaration, see Zack Beauchamp’s “The Political Theory Behind Egypt’s Coup” (here).

A Notable Year of the Wrong Kind

The year that’s about to end has distinguished itself in at least one way we’d prefer never to see again. By my reckoning, 2013 saw more new mass killings than any year since the early 1990s.

When I say “mass killing,” I mean any episode in which the deliberate actions of state agents or other organizations kill at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians from a discrete group. Mass killings are often but certainly not always perpetrated by states, and the groups they target may be identified in various ways, from their politics to their ethnicity, language, or religion. Thanks to my colleague Ben Valentino, we have a fairly reliable tally of episodes of state-led mass killing around the world since the mid-1940s. Unfortunately, there is no comparable reckoning of mass killings carried out by non-state actors—nearly always rebel groups of some kind—so we can’t make statements about counts and trends as confidently as I would like. Still, we do the best we can with the information we have.

With those definitions and caveats in mind, I would say that in 2013 mass killings began:

Of course, even as these new cases have developed, episodes of mass killings have continued in a number of other places:

In a follow-up post I hope to write soon, I’ll offer some ideas on why 2013 was such a bad year for deliberate mass violence against civilians. In the meantime, if you think I’ve misrepresented any of these cases here or overlooked any others, please use the Comments to set me straight.

A Faith-Based Initiative of Another Kind

According to AP, the U.S. government is considering deepening its ties with Myanmar’s military again, to include a re-up of the human-rights training programs American soldiers and lawyers do with scores of other countries and have done in Myanmar before.

With the backing of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, U.S. defense legal experts last week made their second trip to Myanmar in two months, scoping out what help they can provide on teaching about human rights and the rule of law…

With a quasi-civilian government in place and national elections due in 2015, the Obama administration argues that talking “soldier-to-soldier” with Myanmar on issues like military justice and military-civilian relations can encourage reform and help the U.S. build ties with a military it knows little about…

Priscilla Clapp, a former U.S. charge d’affaires in Yangon, says standing on the sidelines doesn’t serve U.S. interests. “We need to reach into the organization of the military and help educate people and expose them to new ideas,” she said.

The idea that these training programs deepen the recipient military’s commitment to democracy and human rights is essentially a matter of faith. As a GAO report referenced in the AP story makes clear, we have no idea how effective these programs are because we haven’t really tried to measure their impact.

Since 1976, the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program has provided education and training to foreign military personnel. The program’s objectives include professionalizing military forces and increasing respect for democratic values and human rights…

State and DOD’s ability to assess IMET’s effectiveness is limited by several weaknesses in program monitoring and evaluation. First, State and DOD have not established a performance plan for IMET that explains how the program is expected to achieve its goals and how progress can be assessed through performance measures and targets. Second, State and DOD have limited information on most IMET graduates, due to weaknesses in efforts to monitor these graduates’ careers after training…Third, the agencies’ current evaluation efforts include few of the evaluation elements commonly accepted as appropriate for measuring progress of training programs, and do not objectively measure how IMET contributes to long-term, desired program outcomes.

Even in the absence of rigorous monitoring and evaluation, a cursory review of relevant cases makes it hard to accept the premise that these programs are having the presumed effect. Egypt’s military has been the beneficiary of these programs (and much, much more) from the U.S. for many years, and they’ve just perpetrated a coup and a mass killing in the span of a single summer. As the Washington Post reported last year, the leader of Mali’s 2012 coup, then-Capt. Amadou Sanogo, “received military training in the U.S. on ‘several occasions’,” as did many of his compatriots. A high-profile murder trial underway right now in Indonesia involves a dozen troops from a special-forces unit that received training and assistance from the U.S. for many years, even as they were committing gross human-rights violations. So far, I haven’t even mentioned the School of the Americas. The list goes on and on and on.

And, of course, there’s the profound irony that the U.S. did exactly this kind of training in Myanmar before, for eight years. As that AP story notes,

The U.S. financed $4.7 million in military sales delivered to Myanmar between 1980 and 1988, and trained 167 officers at American military schools under [IMET].

Why did those sales and training suddenly stop in 1988? Oh, yeah

Near the start of this post, I claimed that American officials’ and officers’ belief in these programs’ effectiveness is a matter of faith. A cynic might point out that effectiveness depends on the goal. If the goal is to discourage military partners from intervening in their home countries’ politics and committing gross human-rights violations, the litany of historical counter-examples makes it hard for a civilian social scientist like me to understand how that faith is sustained. If, however, the goal is to provide a fig leaf for partnerships our government pursues for other reasons, then IMET seems to be working just fine.

There Are No “Best Practices” for Democratic Transitions

I’ve read two pieces in the past two days that have tried to draw lessons from one or more cases about how policy-makers and practitioners can improve the odds that ongoing or future democratic transitions will succeed by following certain rules or formulas. They’ve got my hackles up, so figured I’d use the blog to think through why.

The first of the two pieces was a post by Daniel Brumberg on Foreign Policy‘s Middle East Channel blog entitled “Will Egypt’s Agony Save the Arab Spring?” In that post, Brumberg looks to Egypt’s failure and “the ups and downs of political change in the wider Arab world” to derive six “lessons or rules” for leaders in other transitional cases. I won’t recapitulate Brumberg’s lessons here, but what caught my eye was the frequent use of prescriptive language, like “must be” and “should,” and the related emphasis on the “will and capacity of rival opposition leaders” as the crucial explanatory variable.

The second piece came in this morning’s New York Times, which included an op-ed by Jonathan Tepperman, managing editor of Foreign Affairs, entitled “Can Egypt Learn from Thailand?” As Tepperman notes, Thailand has a long history of military coups, and politics has been sharply polarized there for years, but it’s still managed to make it through a rough patch that began in the mid-2000s with just the one coup in 2006 and no civil war between rival national factions. How?

The formula turns out to be deceptively simple: provide decent, clean governance, compromise with your enemies and focus on the economy.

This approach is common in the field of comparative democratization, and I’ve even done a bit of it myself.  I think scholars who want to make their work on democratization useful to policy-makers and other practitioners often feel compelled to go beyond description and explanation into prescription, and these lists of “best practices” are a familiar and accessible form in which to deliver this kind of advice. In the business world, the archetype is the white paper based on case studies of a one or a few successful firms or entrepreneurs: look what Google or Facebook or Chipotle did and do it, too. In comparative democratization, we often get studies that find things that happened in successful cases but not in failed ones (or vice versa) and then advise practitioners to manufacture the good ones (e.g., pacts, fast economic growth) and avoid the bad (e.g., corruption, repression).

Unfortunately, I think these “best practices” pieces almost invariably succumb to what Nassim Taleb calls the narrative fallacy, as described here by Daniel Kahneman (p. 199):

Narrative fallacies arise inevitably from our continuous attempt to make sense of the world. The explanatory stories that people find compelling are simple; are concrete rather than abstract; assign a larger role to talent, stupidity, and intentions than to luck; and focus on a few striking events that happened rather than on the countless events that failed to happen.

The narrative fallacy is intertwined with outcome bias. Per Kahneman (p. 203),

We are prone to blame decision makers for good decisions that worked out badly and to give them too little credit for successful moves that appear obvious only after the fact… Actions that seem prudent in foresight can look irresponsibly negligent in hindsight [and vice versa].

When I read Tupperman’s “deceptively simple” formula for the survival of democracy and absence of civil war in Thailand, I wondered how confident he was seven or five or two years ago that Yingluck Shinawatra was doing the right things, and that they weren’t going to blow up in her and everyone else’s faces. I also wonder how realistic he thinks it would have been for Morsi and co. to have “provide[d] decent, clean governance” and “focus[ed] on the economy” in ways that would have worked and wouldn’t have sparked backlashes or fresh problems of their own.

Brumberg’s essay gets a little more distance from outcome bias than Tepperman’s does, but I think it still greatly overstates the power of agency and isn’t sufficiently sympathetic to the complexity of the politics within and between relevant organizations in transitional periods.

In Egypt, for example, it’s tempting to pin all the blame for the exclusion of political rivals from President Morsi’s cabinet, the failure to overhaul the country’s police and security forces, and the broader failure “to forge a common vision of political community” (Brumberg’s words) on the personal shortcomings of Morsi and Egypt’s civilian political leaders, but we have to wonder: given the context, who would have chosen differently, and how likely is it that those choices would have produced very different outcomes? Egypt’s economy is suffering from serious structural problems that will probably take many years to untangle, and anyone who thinks he or she knows how to quickly fix those problems is either delusional or works at the IMF. Presidents almost never include opposition leaders in their cabinets; would doing so in Egypt really have catalyzed consensus, or would it just have led to a wave of frustrated resignations a few months down the road? Attempting to overhaul state security forces might have helped avert a coup and prevent the mass killing we’re seeing now, but it might also have provoked a backlash that would have lured the military back out of the barracks even sooner. And in how many countries in the world do political rivals have a “common vision of political community”? We sure don’t in the United States, and I’m hard pressed to think of how any set of politicians here could manufacture one. So why should I expect politicians in Egypt or Tunisia or Libya to be able to pull this off?

Instead of advice, I’ll close with an observation: many of the supposed failures of leadership we often see in cases where coups or rebellions led new democracies back to authoritarian rule or even state collapse are, in fact, inherent to the politics of democratic transitions. The profound economic problems that often help create openings for democratization don’t disappear just because elected officials start trying harder. The distrust between political factions that haven’t yet been given any reason to believe their rivals won’t usurp power at the first chance they get isn’t something that good intentions can easily overcome. As much as I might want to glean a set of “best practices” from the many cases I’ve studied, the single generalization I feel most comfortable making is that the forces which finally tip some cases toward democratic consolidation remain a mystery, and until we understand them better, we can’t pretend to know how to control them.

N.B. For a lengthy exposition of the opposing view on this topic, read Giuseppe Di Palma’s To Craft Democracies. For Di Palma, “Democratization is ultimately a matter of political crafting,” and “democracies can be made (or unmade) in the act of making them.”

Egypt’s Mass Killing in Historical Perspective

On Thursday, I wrote a post arguing that Egypt was sliding into an episode of state-led mass killing. Now, three days later, it seems clear that Egypt’s post-coup rulers have carried their country across that threshold. According to a story in this morning’s New York Times, the crackdown that began a few days ago “so far has killed more than 1,000 protesters.”

This puts Egypt in rare and sullied company. Since World War II, the world has only seen onsets of about 110 of these episodes, and fewer than a handful of those onsets occurred after 2000: in Sudan in 2003 (Darfur) and again in 2011 (South Kordofan);  in Sri Lanka in 2009; and in Syria since 2011.

State repression is routine, but it rarely escalates and concentrates in this form. When it does, though, the escalation often occurs quickly, as it has in Egypt. Governments rarely back into mass killing.

Soon after Egypt’s crackdown began, lots of observers drew comparisons to Tienanmen Square. In fact, the violence in Egypt is probably already worse. We don’t know exactly how many protesters were killed in China in 1989, just as we’ll never know exactly how many have been and will be killed in Egypt in this campaign and whatever ensues. Still, most estimates of the toll in China in 1989 include fewer than 1,000 deaths and more like several hundred.

The prospect that Egypt’s crackdown is already more lethal than China’s is less surprising—though no less appalling—when we put the two cases into the proper reference sets. In my previous post on this topic, I argued that mass killings generally follow one of three story lines: 1) attempts by incumbent rulers to “drain the sea” in civil wars; 2) attempts by incumbent rulers to suppress emerging threats to their power; and 3) attempts by newly installed governments to destroy the rivals they have recently supplanted. China’s 1989 crackdown probably doesn’t qualify as a mass killing in the strict sense on which my data are based (at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians killed), but if it did, it would fall squarely in the second set. Egypt’s crackdown, by contrast, lands clearly into the third set.

In fact, most of the brutal crackdowns by incumbent rulers against emerging challengers that easily spring to mind fall short of this macabre 1,000 threshold, and with reason. Cases like Teinanmen and Burma’s Saffron Revolution and the Andijan massacre in Uzbekistan suggest that it’s comparatively easy for entrenched authoritarian regimes to quash nascent popular uprisings. Even the rare occasions when nonviolent movements succeed at bringing thousands of citizens into the streets fail more often than not to force a regime change (see here and here).

What tend to be much bloodier are efforts by putschists and recently victorious revolutionaries to consolidate their power after toppling a well-organized rival. Apparently, it’s much tougher to shove a genie back into a bottle than it is to keep the bottle from opening in the first place. Instead of focusing on Tienanmen, we should be looking to cases like Argentina’s “dirty war” and the civil war that erupted in Algeria after its 1991 coup for clues about the paths Egypt might now follow and the toll that violence could take.

Finally, I’m also seeing various claims that the violence by state security forces against Muslim Brotherhood members and supporters doesn’t constitute a “massacre” because the Brotherhood has also used violence, especially in some recent attacks on Christian churches. I don’t accept that equivalency. The sit-ins and marches and attacks on churches may be associated with a single organization, but they apparently don’t involve the same crowds, and virtually all of the dead so far have come from gatherings that were primarily nonviolent. If police and soldiers were only using violence to suppress attacks by civilians on other civilians, we might decry any disproportionality, but we would not call it a massacre. When snipers fire into marching crowds and burn tents with protesters still in them, however, we are right to utter that word. Guilt by association is a slender filament to start, and it cannot justify the indiscriminate use of lethal violence against unarmed protesters.

Mass Killing in Egypt

Let’s define a state-led mass killing as an episode in which state security forces or groups acting at their behest deliberately kill at least 1,000 noncombatant civilians from a discrete group in a relatively short period of time—weeks, months, or maybe even several years. This is a paraphrased version of the definition my colleague Ben Valentino developed for a U.S. government-funded research project, so using it allows us to identify and compare many episodes over time, as I did in another recent post.

Since World War II, nearly all of the state-led mass killings that have occurred around the world have followed one of three basic scenarios, all of them involving apparent threats to rulers’ power.

First and most common, state security forces fighting an insurgency or locked in a civil war kill large numbers of civilians whom they accuse of supporting their rivals, or sometimes just kill indiscriminately. The genocide in Guatemala is an archetypal example of this scenario. In some cases, like Rwanda, the state also enlists militias or even civilians to assist in that killing.

Second, rulers confronting budding threats to their power—usually a nonviolent popular uprising or coup plot—violently repress and attack their challengers in an attempt to quash the apparent threat. The anti-communist massacres in Indonesia in 1965-1966 fit this pattern. In rare cases, like North Korea today, just the possibility of such a threat suffices to draw the state into killing large numbers of civilians. More often, state repression of nonviolent uprisings succeeds in quashing the challenge with fewer than 1,000 civilian deaths, as happened in China in 1989, Uzbekistan in 2005, and Burma in 2007.

Third, rulers who have recently seized power by coup or revolution sometimes kill large numbers of civilian supporters of the faction they have just replaced as part of their efforts to consolidate their power. The mass killings carried out by the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia in the late 1970s are probably the most extreme example of this scenario, but Argentina’s “dirty war” and the long-running political purges that began in several East European countries after World War II also fit the pattern.

What happened in Egypt yesterday looks like a slide into the third scenario. Weeks after a military coup toppled Mohamed Morsi, state security forces violently assaulted crowds using nonviolent action to protest the coup and demand Morsi’s restoration to the presidency. The death toll from yesterday’s ruthless repression has already surpassed 500 and seems likely to rise further as more of the wounded die and security forces continue to repress further attempts at resistance and defiance. What’s more, the atrocities of the past 24 hours come on top of the killings of scores if not hundreds of Brotherhood supporters around the country over the past several weeks (see this spreadsheet maintained by The Guardian for details).

One of the many rationalizations offered for the July 3 coup was the argument that the Muslim Brotherhood had used violence to suppress its political rivals during and after mass protests against Morsi last December. People were right to challenge the Muslim Brotherhood over that thuggery, which was arguably a nascent version of the second scenario described above. In calling on the military to deliver them from that threat, however, some of those challengers seem to have struck a Faustian bargain that is now producing killings on a much grander scale.

Coups Slow Economic Growth

In the week or so since Egypt’s military removed President Morsi from office, political scientists have shown how military coups—and yes, that was a coup in Egypt—and the reactions to them can have enduring political consequences. For the Monkey Cage, Clayton Thyne showed how international responses to coups have historically affected the speed with which elected civilian government is restored. For Political Violence at a Glance, Brent Sasley responded to dueling pieces by Shadi Hamid and Barbara Slavin to consider how the ouster of the Muslim Brotherhood might affect the strategies of other Islamist parties and groups in the region.

To that roster of possible political repercussions, let me add an economic one: coups often hamper growth.

That’s one of the findings from a statistical analysis I did a couple of years ago for a private-sector client who was concerned about how various forms of political instability might affect investments in poorer countries. I had already generated probabilistic forecasts of coups for the coming year, but those forecasts couldn’t tell us how much he should worry about coup risk. To help answer that, we needed to look at the effects coups might have on economic processes that more directly influence the value of his investments, including growth in gross domestic product (GDP).

This isn’t a simple thing to do. It’s tempting to take historical data on as many countries as possible and compare growth rates in and after coup years with growth rates in coup-free periods, but the results would probably be misleading. The problem is that coups are much more likely to occur in a subset of cases that don’t look like the hypothetical “average” country, so the differences we’d see in a simple comparison could just as well stem from the things that cause coups in the first place as they could from the coups themselves.

To try to get a sharper sense of how coups affect economic growth in the face of these potentially confounding factors, I used a technique called coarsened exact matching (CEM) to sift and prune the data first. As with other matching techniques, the process starts by identifying the “treatment” whose effects we want to estimate—in this case, the occurrence of a coup. In contrast to laboratory experiments, we can’t randomly assign countries to treatment and control groups that do and don’t experience coups. Instead, we have to use what we know about the things that cause coups to approximate that experimental design by sifting countries into sets that faced similar risks of coups but didn’t all have them. By carefully comparing growth rates across coup and non-coup cases within these clusters of similarly coup-prone countries, we can get a more reliable estimate of the specific effects of the coup “shocks” on economic performance than we’d get from a simple comparison of all available cases.

The results of my analysis are shown in the series of charts that follow (with technical details at the end of the post). The charts summarize the distribution of estimates of the difference in economic growth rates between coup and non-coup cases. Of particular interest here are the estimated first differences, shown in purple in the middle of each set of plots. The peaks of those distributions identify the mean difference, while their spread tells us about the variance of those estimates.

As the first set of charts shows, in the year a coup occurs, the economies of coup-struck countries grow about 2 percentage points slower on average than the economies of similar countries that don’t suffer coups. The second set of charts shows that this drag seems to persist into the following year, when growth rates for coup-struck countries lag 1 to 2 percentage points behind their coupless peers. According to the third set of charts, this difference finally disappears in the second year after a coup, but by then the accumulated difference between the growth that was and the growth that might have been is already substantial. (They aren’t shown here, but results for the couple of years after that continue to show no more differences.)

Effect of Coup on GDP Growth in Year of Coup

Effect of Coup on GDP Growth in Year of Coup

Effect of Coup on GDP Growth in Next Year

Effect of Coup on GDP Growth in Next Year

Effect of Coup on GDP Growth Two Years Later

Effect of Coup on GDP Growth Two Years Later

Of course, it’s impossible to say exactly how the coup in Egypt will affect that country’s economy, which had already stagnated badly before the army led the president away under armed guard. Reports that Saudi Arabia and U.A.E. are rushing to lend money to the post-coup government, and the rally that occurred in the Egyptian stock market immediately after Morsi was toppled, might be grounds for optimism that Egypt will avoid or at least mitigate the typical damage. Still, I think this analysis should temper any such optimism by reminding us—as if we should need it!—that coups aren’t surgical strikes which neatly cure political cancers without producing myriad consequences of their own.

Now, for the technically inclined: This analysis was done in R using the MatchIt, Coarsened Exact Matching (cem), and Zelig packages. I used the Center for Systemic Peace’s list to identify when and where coups had occurred and Angus Maddison’s estimates to measure GDP growth. Coarsened exact matching was based on GDP per capita (log), Polity score (quadratic), post-Cold War period (binary), and any coup attempts in the previous five years (binary). Post-matching estimates of the effects of coups on growth were derived from a linear regression model that included all of those covariates as well as previous year’s GDP growth rate. I’m traveling at the moment and haven’t had time to post the data and R script for replication but will do so soon.

UPDATE: The R script I used for this analysis is now on Github, here. The data used in that script is on my Google Drive, here. If you find any errors of have any suggestions on how to do this better, please let me know.

Yes, That’s a Coup in Egypt

Apparently, some of the protesters who support what the Egyptian army is doing right now claim it isn’t a coup because they believe it expresses the popular will, and the U.S. and the E.U. so far refuse to stick a label on it.

Well, I hate to break it to those people, but in any conventional sense of the term, this is a coup. Here are a few of the definitions used by leading scholars of coups and civil-military relations. First, Monty Marshall, who compiles a data set on coups and coup attempts for the Political Instability Task Force (scroll down to the Polity IV section here):

A coup d’état is defined as a forceful seizure of executive authority and office by a dissident/opposition faction within the country’s ruling or political elites that results in a substantial change in the executive leadership and the policies of the prior regime (although not necessarily in the nature of regime authority or mode of governance).

Now Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne from the coding rules for their Coup d’état Dataset:

[Coups d’etat are defined as] overt attempts by the military or other elites within the state apparatus to unseat the sitting head of state using unconstitutional means…there is no minimal death threshold for defining a coup. A coup attempt is defined as successful if the coup perpetrators seize and hold power for at least seven days.

Last but not least, Samuel Huntington from his 1968 classic, Political Order in Changing Societies:

The distinguishing characteristics of the coup coup d’état as a political technique are that: (a) it is the effort by a political coalition illegally to replace the existing governmental leaders by violence or the threat of violence; (b) the violence employed is usually small; (c) the number of people involved is small; (d) the participants already possess institutional bases of power within the political system.

Force deployed? Check. By political insiders? Check. Chief executive replaced? Check. Legal procedures not followed? Check.

That the army’s apparent ouster of President Morsi may be popular doesn’t make it legal or erase the fact that he only “agreed” to go when coerced. That military leaders may not claim executive authority for themselves does not obviate the fact that they are pushing out a sitting president at gunpoint. That the coup could push Egypt onto a more positive trajectory doesn’t change the nature of the initial act.

On that last point, I’ll emphasize the word “could.” It’s impossible to say with confidence what comes next for Egypt. I’ve seen a number of people list infamous coups from the past (Algeria, Argentina, Chile, Iran…) as evidence that military intervention always makes things worse, but I’ve also seen a recent study by Nikolay Marinov and Hein Geomans showing that coups in the post-Cold War period have been less damaging to democratization:

Whereas the vast majority of successful coups before 1991 installed durable rules, the majority of coups after that have been followed by competitive elections… While the coup d’état has been and still is the single most important factor leading to the downfall of democratic government, our findings indicate that the new generation of coups has been far less harmful for democracy than their historical predecessors.

Again, I don’t know what comes next in Egypt, but I think the folks using historical analogies to argue that a coup can only make things worse there are ignoring an important source of bias in their analysis. Maybe coups are bad for the health of the polity, but there’s a selection effect at work here, too. Coups happen in situations that are already crappy, and the set of plausible counterfactuals in these crappy situations rarely includes a sharp turn for the better. A coup in Egypt might delay democratization and further damage the already-reeling economy, but it’s hard to imagine an alternative path from June 30 that is both politically realistic and looks a whole lot better. This is the common tragedy of transitional politics, and Egypt appears to be no exception.

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