The Political Power of Inertia

Political scientists devote a lot of energy to theorizing about dramatic changes—things like revolutions, coups, popular uprisings, transitions to democracy, and the outbreak of wars within and between states. These changes are fascinating and consequential, but they are also extremely rare. In politics, as in physics, inertia is a powerful force. Our imagination is drawn to change, but if we want to understand the world as it is, then we have to explain the prevalence of continuity as well.

Examples of inertia in politics are easy to find. War is justifiably a central concern for political science, but for many decades now, almost none of the thousands of potential wars within and between states have actually happened. Once a war does start, though, it often persists for years in spite of the tremendous costs involved. The international financial system suffers frequent and sometimes severe shocks and has no sovereign to defend it, and yet the basic structure of that system has persisted for decades. Whole journals are devoted to popular uprisings and other social movements, but they very rarely happen, and when they do, they often fail to produce lasting institutional change. For an array of important phenomena in the social sciences, by far the best predictor of the status of the system at time (t + 1) is the status of the system at time (t).

One field in which inertia gets its due is organization theory. A central theme in that neck of the intellectual woods is the failure of firms and agencies to adapt to changes in their environment and the search for patterns that might explain those failures. Some theories of institutional design at the level of whole political systems also emphasize stasis over change. Institutions are sometimes said to be “sticky,” meaning that they often persist in spite of evident flaws and available alternatives. As Paul Pierson observes, “Once established, patterns of political mobilization, the institutional ‘rules of the game,’ and even citizens’ basic ways of thinking about the political world will often generate self-reinforcing dynamics.”

In international relations and comparative politics, we see lots of situations in which actions that might improve the lot of one or more parties are not taken. These are situations in which inertia is evident, even though it appears to be counterproductive. We often explain failures to act in these situations as the result of collective action problems. As Mancur Olson famously observed, people, organizations, and other agents have diverse interests; action to try to produce change is costly; and the benefits of those costly actions are often diffuse. Under these circumstances, a tally of expected costs and benefits will often discourage agents from taking action, tempting them instead to forego those costs and look to free ride on the contributions of others instead.

Collective action problems are real and influential. Still, I wonder if our theories put too much emphasis on those system-level sources of inertia and too little on causes at the level of the individual. We like to think of ourselves as free and unpredictable, but humans really are creatures of habit. For example, a study published in 2010 in Science (here) used data sampled from millions of mobile-phone users to show that there is “a potential 93% average predictability” in where users go and when, “an exceptionally high value rooted in the inherent regularity of human behavior.” The authors conclude that,

Despite our deep-rooted desire for change and spontaneity, our daily mobility is, in fact, characterized by a deep-rooted regularity.

A related study (here) used mobility and survey data from Kenya and found essentially the same thing. Its authors reported that “mobility estimates are surprisingly robust to the substantial biases in phone ownership across different geographical and socioeconomic groups.” Apparently, this regularity is not unique to rich countries.

The microfoundations of our devotion to routine may be evident in neurobiology. Behavioral routines are physically expressed and reinforced in the development of neural pathways related to specific memories and actions, and in the thickening of the myelin sheaths that facilitate conduction along those pathways. The result is a virtuous or vicious circle, depending on the behavior and context. Athletes and musicians take advantage of this process through practice, but practice is mostly repetition, and repetition is a form of routine. Repetition begets habituation begets repetition.

This innate attachment to routine may contribute to political inertia. Norms and institutions are often regarded as clever solutions to collective action problems that would otherwise thwart our interests and aspirations. At least in part, those norms and institutions may also be social manifestations of an inborn and profound preference for routine and regularity.

In our theoretical imaginations, we privilege change over stasis. As alternative futures, however, the two are functionally equivalent, and stasis is vastly more common than change. In principle, our theories should cover both alternatives. In practice, that is very hard to do, and many of us choose to emphasize the dramatic over the routine. I wonder if we have chosen wrong.

For now, I’ll give the last word on this topic to Frank Rich. He wrote a nice essay for the October 20, 2014, issue of New York Magazine about an exercise in which he read his way back through the daily news from 1964 to compare it to the supposedly momentous changes afoot in 2014. His conclusion:

Even as we recognize that the calendar makes for a crude and arbitrary marker, we like to think that history visibly marches on, on a schedule we can codify.

The more I dove back into the weeds of 1964, the more I realized that this is both wishful thinking and an optical illusion. I came away with a new appreciation of how selective our collective memory is, and of just how glacially history moves.

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The Steep Slope of the Data Revolution’s Second Derivative

Most of the talk about a social science “data revolution” has emphasized rapid increases in the quantity of data available to us. Some of that talk has also focused on changes in the quality of those data, including new ideas about how to separate the wheat from the chaff in situations where there’s a lot of grain to thresh. So far, though, we seem to be talking much less about the rate of change in those changes, or what calculus calls the second derivative.

Lately, the slope of this second derivative has been pretty steep. It’s not just that we now have much more, and in some cases much better, data. The sources and content of those data sets are often fast-moving targets, too. The whole environment is growing and churning at an accelerating pace, and that’s simultaneously exhilarating and frustrating.

It’s frustrating because data sets that evolve as we use them create a number of analytical problems that we don’t get from stable measurement tools. Most important, evolving data sets make it hard to compare observations across time, and longitudinal analysis is the crux of most social-scientific research. Paul Pierson explains why in his terrific 2004 book, Politics in Time:

Why do social scientists need to focus on how processes unfold over significant stretches of time? First, because many social processes are path dependent, in which case the key causes are temporally removed from their continuing effects… Second, because sequencing—the temporal order of events or processes—can be a crucial determinant of important social outcomes. Third, because many important social causes and outcomes are slow-moving—they take place over quite extended periods of time and are only likely to be adequately explained (or in some cases even observed in the first place) if analysts are specifically attending to that possibility.

When our measurement systems evolve as we use them, changes in the data we receive might reflect shifts in the underlying phenomenon. They also might reflect changes in the methods and mechanisms by which we observe and record information about that phenomenon, however, and it’s often impossible to tease the one out from the other.

recent study by David Lazer, Gary King, Ryan Kennedy, and Alessandro Vespignani on what Google Flu Trends (GFT) teaches us about “traps in Big Data analysis” offers a nice case in point. Developed in the late 2000s by Google engineers and researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, GFT uses data on Google search queries to help detect flu epidemics (see this paper). As Lazer and his co-authors describe, GFT initially showed great promise as a forecasting tool, and its success spurred excitement about the power of new data streams to shed light on important social processes. For the past few years, though, the tool has worked poorly on its own, and Lazer & co. believe of changes in Google’s search software are the reason. The problem—for researchers, anyway—is that

The Google search algorithm is not a static entity—the company is constantly testing and improving search. For example, the official Google search blog reported 86 changes in June and July 2012 alone (SM). Search patterns are the result of thousands of decisions made by the company’s programmers in various sub-units and by millions of consumers worldwide.

Google keeps tinkering with its search software because that’s what its business entails, but we can expect to see more frequent changes in some data sets specific to social science, too. One of the developments about which I’m most excited is the recent formation of the Open Event Data Alliance (OEDA) and the initial release of the machine-coded political event data it plans to start producing soon, hopefully this summer. As its name implies, OEDA plans to make not just its data but also its code freely available to the public in order to grow a community of users who can help improve and expand the software. That crowdsourcing will surely accelerate the development of the scraping and coding machinery, but it also ensures that the data OEDA produces will be a moving target for a while in ways that will complicate attempts to analyze it.

If these accelerated changes are challenging for basic researchers, they’re even tougher on applied researchers, who have to show and use their work in real time. So what’s an applied researcher to do when your data-gathering instruments are frequently changing, and often in opaque and unpredictable ways?

First, it seems prudent to build systems that are modular, so that a failure in one part of the system can be identified and corrected without having to rebuild the whole edifice. In the atrocities early-warning system I’m helping to build right now, we’re doing this by creating a few subsystems with some overlap in their functions. If one part doesn’t pan out or suddenly breaks, we can lean on the others while we repair or retool.

Second, it’s also a good idea to embed those technical systems in organizational procedures that emphasize frequent checking and fast adaptation. One way to do this is to share your data and code and to discuss your work often with outsiders as you go, so you can catch mistakes, spot alternatives, and see these changes coming before you get too far down any one path. Using open-source statistical software like R is also helpful in this regard, because it lets you take advantage of new features and crowd fixes as they bubble up.

Last and fuzziest, I think it helps to embrace the idea that you’re work doesn’t really belong to you or your organization but is just one tiny part of a larger ecosystem that you’re hoping to see evolve in a particular direction. What worked one month might not work the next, and you’ll never know exactly what effect you’re having, but that’s okay if you recognize that it’s not really supposed to be about you. Just keep up as best you can, don’t get too heavily invested in any one approach or idea, and try to enjoy the ride.

States Are Like the Millennium Falcon

Last week, artist John Powers wrote a wonderful blog post on how the original Star Wars movie pioneered American cinematic representations of a “used future”—that is, “a future with a past.”

The visual program of Star Wars is unique because it was chronologically stratified. Lucas borrowed from real machine age periods to give his cinematic future an immediately recognizable depth of time. We [are] meant to see that the oldest elements of the film, like Obi Wan Kenobi with his Samurai robes, and Darth Vader…were hold-overs from an older order…Luke’s Landspeeder and C3PO stood in for what was clearly an entire machine age…Luke and his rebel cohorts were flying into battle in the Star Wars equivalent of an old WWII surplus.

I’m a fan of Star Wars—well, of the first two and a half movies, anyway—but I’m also a political scientist, and John’s post got me thinking again about how political scientists think about states.

In American political science, the conventional (Modernist) view of states and their origins are embodied in Lucas’ Death Star. Hierarchically organized communities draw up and execute elaborate plans for a system that performs a clear set of functions. Everything in the whole serves a unique purpose, and each component was presumably built just for that purpose. The engineered system is complicated, but it is not complex. The whole is the sum of its modular parts.  Like Le Corbusier’s radiant city as described by James Scott, the ideal Modernist state is “a lyrical marriage between Cartesian pure forms and the implacable requirements of the machine.”

death star power trench plans

In fact, states are more the Millennium Falcon. States are not built de novo to fill political vacuums. Instead, like the hot rods Lucas celebrates in American Graffiti, states are motley assemblages of formal and informal institutions cobbled together on the go. Many of those parts were designed at some time for some purpose, but not necessarily the one for which they’re actually being used. Change often occurs at the margins in response to specific problems that are solved imperfectly. Instead of a spacecraft carefully designed to execute of series of specific tasks, we get a mostly functional “hunk of junk.”

Millennium Falcon

The builders of these assemblages are more craftsmen than engineers. They don’t have the luxury of time, the know-how, or the resources to build a new ship from the ground up, so they tinker at the margins as they go and hope the whole thing doesn’t disintegrate out from under them. Not trivially, they also have some attachment to the idiosyncrasies and imperfections of the system they’ve cobbled together. Even if they could scrap it for a newer and cleaner model, they probably wouldn’t want to. The Millennium Falcon may be a hunk of junk, but to its pilot, it’s “the fastest hunk of junk in the galaxy.”

The aesthetic of a “used future” George Lucas pioneered for American moviegoers in Star Wars is echoed in Paul Pierson’s call for social scientists to situate politics in time:

Contemporary social scientists typically take a snapshot view of political life, but there is often a strong case to be made for shifting from snapshots to moving pictures. This means systematically situating particular moments (including the present) in a temporal sequence of events and processes stretching over extended periods.

Moving pictures of the Hollywood kind often help us see the world differently. Lucas’ vision of a “used future” reminds us that the present is really an accretion of many pasts, and we shouldn’t ignore those origins in our theories of political development.

The WTO as Catalyst of Democratization

In a statistical analysis written up a few years ago in the journal Democratization, I found that countries belonging to the World Trade Organization (WTO) or its predecessor, the GATT, were more likely to attempt and sustain democratic government than ones that did not. By contrast, I found no such “boost” from participation in global or regional human-rights treaty regimes. This WTO effect showed up in models that also included a measure of trade openness, suggesting that the increased trade flows that membership is supposed to produce were not the source of the association. The statistical analysis wasn’t properly designed to identify a causal relationship, but I speculated that the WTO effect had to do with institutional and organizational changes it spurred within countries seeking to join:

Of all the organizations included in this analysis, the GATT/WTO is the one most explicitly and exlusively linked over the past half-century to deliberate Western efforts to globalize liberalism as such. Working in tandem with the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, the GATT/WTO has encouraged developing countries to create and sustain certain laws and practices in order to realize benefits from increased economic exchange with the world’s wealthiest states. Although democracy is not an explicit criterion for membership, it is certainly part of a larger suite of of liberal institutions and norms that are preferred by these organizations and their most powerful members. The decision to participate in this regime sets in motion a range of elite and technical exchanges aimed at producing certain kinds of institutional outcomes. In this manner, formal participation in this liberal project may facilitate or accelerate the development of local and international expectations, and even specific new actors, conducive to the establishment and persistence of democracy.

I was reminded of my conjecture by a story I read this morning on Laos’ ongoing effort to win WTO membership. At this point, 159 countries are already members, so we don’t get that many more chances to observe the effects of joining on domestic political economies. Still, this one seems to fit the story line so far:

After almost a decade of major economic transformation, the Lao People’s Democratic Republic is on the brink of World Trade Organisation (WTO) membership.

But the small country’s Herculean effort to join the exclusive trade club is a reminder to the ten other least developed countries (LDCs) now seeking membership of the cumbersome process involved.

“LDCs think it is easy to accede to the WTO, like becoming a United Nations member, but it is not,” Nicolas Imboden, director of the Geneva-based Ideas Centre, told IPS. The non-governmental organisation has been counselling Lao PDR, whose accession will be completed in October, for fourteen years. It is now starting to assist Liberia and Comoros, two other least developed countries on a waiting list that also includes Afghanistan, Bhutan, Equatorial Guinea, Ethiopia, Sao Tome, Sudan, Vanuatu and Yemen.

“They have to adopt the rules of the WTO and this is a huge task for most of them,” said Imboden. “They must undertake reforms, completely revise their legal systems and establish rules that apply to all foreign investors and importers, without discrimination.”

Imboden noted that many LDCs justify clamouring for membership on the grounds that it will open up new markets, a motive he argued is “flawed”, since LDCs already have good trade relations with most countries.

Rather, the “benefits” of membership are mainly domestic: aligning national economic policies with the WTO regime sets up the basis for improved economic efficiency and attracts companies eager to invest in these countries, not because of their market size, but to export to the neighbouring region.

“Reforms related to WTO accession require a change of attitude, not only a change of law,” Khemmani Pholsena, vice-minister of industry and commerce for Lao PDR, told IPS. “Lao PDR has reviewed and enacted some 25 trade-related laws and 50 other legislations since 2000. And I believe that these reforms will strengthen the rule of law, thereby cutting down on undue privileges and possibilities of corruption.”

If the statistical model is capturing something real, then these transformations should marginally improve the odds that Laos will transition to democracy. Of course, the observed “effect” is probabilistic, not deterministic, so I’m not suggesting that Laos will start holding free elections as soon as it joins.

I do, however, expect that Laos will eventually democratize, and that when it does, that data point will further reinforce the clear liberal trend in human political organization. As far as I’m concerned, what I said at the end of that 2008 paper still holds:

Taking a longer view, the evidence that international integration and the global trend toward democratic rule are interrelated is compelling. In his landmark work on the dynamics of political institutions over time, Paul Pierson reminds us that change processes involving complex causes and slow-moving outcomes are not readily explained by the kinds of models social scientists usually employ, especially in statistical analyses. When we focus narrowly on the kinds of discrete transitional moments studied here, these limitations do not loom so large. If we switch our vision to the long haul, however, they could be critical.

From a historical perspective, we might think of these transition events as the visible signals emanating from a slower-moving but also much-harder-to-quantify process of political and economic development that includes institutions at the levels of state and society as well as regime. Watching for patterns at this temporal and geographic scale is a bit like watching for climate change. The mechanisms generating the larger pattern are extremely complex and undoubtedly include elements of endogeneity, contagion, threshold effects, and feedback loops, to name just some of the possibilities. This kind of causal complexity makes it very hard to isolate the effects of specific variables, especially when the data we might use to test those relationships are often scarce or unreliable. And yet a pattern emerges. The production of greenhouse gases accelerates, temperatures rise, glaciers retreat, and species disappear.

Meanwhile, trade flows swell, international organizations, proliferate, more countries attempt democracy, and fewer of those democracies fail. The nexus of these trends almost certainly lies in the functional links between democracy and economic development–links that promote exactly the kind of positive feedback loops Pierson identifies as a key mechanism for path-dependent change in political institutions. When governments discover they cannot survive by force alone, they must find ways to secure the habitual, quasi-voluntary compliance of the populations they seek to rule. To secure that compliance, they need to promote prosperity and remove incentives to rely on force as a means to effect political change.

The second half of the 20th century demonstrated convincingly that the combination of democratic governance with market-based economies offers the most effective means to achieve those ends in a durable way. That combination does not always produce immediate gains, but at present there appears to be no sustainable alternative, so polities that try democracy and fail almost invariably try again. As Robert Bates argues, ‘The creation of limited government may not be sufficient to secure high levels of investment, much less the growth of national economies. But assurances to investors surely are necessary to secure the formation of capital,’ and thus to allow economic growth to occur. As technological and political developments have expanded the possibilities for global exchange, governments have increasingly reached out to one another in an effort to create new opportunities for growth and then to help their citizens realize the resulting gains. Thus, even as the instantaneous and visible status of many countries’ domestic political institutions remains highly volatile, the historical trajectories point decidedly toward a world increasingly composed of states with elected governments linked by dense networks of economic exchange and political and legal entanglements.

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