From Thailand, Evidence of Coups’ Economic Costs

Last year, I used this space to report a statistical analysis I’d done on the impact of successful coups on countries’ economic growth rates. Bottom line: they usually hurt. As summarized in this chart from a post at FiveThirtyEight, my analysis indicated that, on average, coups dent a country’s economy by a couple of percentage points in the year they happen and another point the year after. Those are not trivial effects.

What makes this question so tricky to analyze is the possibility of a two-way relationship between these things. It’s not hard to imagine that coups might damage national economies, but it’s also likely that countries suffering slower growth are generally more susceptible to coups. With country-year data and no experimental controls, we can’t just run a model with growth as the dependent variable and the occurrence of a coup as a predictor and expect to get a reliable estimate of the former on the latter.

In my statistical analysis, I tried to deal with this problem by using coarsened exact matching to focus the comparison on sets of country-years with comparable coup risk in which coups did or did not happen. I believe the results are more informative than what we’d get from a pooled sample of all country-years, but they certainly aren’t the last word. After all, matching does not magically resolve deeper identification problems, even if it can help.

Under these circumstances, a little process-tracing can go a long way. If we look at real-world cases and see processes linking the “treatment” (coups) to the hypothesized effect (economic damage), we bolster our confidence that the effect we saw in our statistical analysis is not ephemeral.

Here, the recent coup in Thailand is serving up some intriguing evidence. In the past week, I have seen two reports  identifying specific ways in which the coup itself, and not the instability that preceded and arguably precipitated it, is damaging Thailand’s economy. First, I saw this Reuters story (emphasis mine):

Thai officials said on Tuesday that the mass departure of Cambodian laborers would dent the economy as thousands more migrant workers, fearing reprisals from the new military government, poured across the border.

Around 170,000 Cambodian workers have headed home in the past week, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), although the exodus is now slowing. Many left after hearing rumors that Thailand’s junta was bent on cracking down on illegal migrants.

Then I saw this tidbit in a Credit Suisse analysis shared on Twitter by Andrew Marshall (emphasis mine):

The coup and martial laws have produced stronger negative impact on Thai tourism, worsening the 2014 earnings outlook and could affect the magnitude of recovery anticipated for 2015…

Based on our conversations with [Airports of Thailand Plc], the coup…appears to have had a stronger impact on its international passenger volumes than the political conflicts… While the coup has restored peace in Bangkok and Thailand, and comforted the Thai people [!], we reckon tourists may take this more negatively and have chosen to go to other destinations.

In a country where international tourism contributes nearly 10 percent of the gross domestic product (here), that impact is a serious issue.

What’s important about both of these reports for the question at hand is the explicit connection they make between the occurrence of the coup and the economy-damaging behavior that followed. To me, these look like consequences rather than coincidences. Neither report definitively proves that the occurrence of a coups usually has an independent, negative effect on a country’s economic growth rate, of course. But they do make me more confident that the effect I saw in my statistical analysis is not just an artifact of some deeper forces I failed to consider.

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Ripple Effects from Thailand’s Coup

Thailand just had another coup, its first since 2006 but its twelfth since 1932. Here are a few things statistical analysis tells us about how that coup is likely to reverberate through Thailand’s economy and politics for the next few years.

1. Economic growth will probably suffer a bit more. Thailand’s economy was already struggling in 2014, thanks in part to the political instability to which the military leadership was reacting. Still, a statistical analysis I did a few years ago indicates that the coup itself will probably impose yet more drag on the economy. When we compare annual GDP growth rates from countries that suffered coups to similarly susceptible ones that didn’t, we see an average difference of about 2 percentage points in the year of the coup and another 1 percentage point the year after. (See this FiveThirtyEight post for a nice plot and discussion of those results.) Thailand might find its way to the “good” side of the distribution underlying those averages, but the central tendency suggests an additional knock on the country’s economy.

2. The risk of yet another coup will remain elevated for several years. The “coup trap” is real. Countries that have recently suffered successful or failed coup attempts are more likely to get hit again than ones that haven’t. This increase in risk seems to persist for several years, so Thailand will probably stick toward the top of the global watch list for these events until at least 2019.

3. Thailand’s risk of state-led mass killing has nearly tripled…but remains modest. The risk and occurrence of coups and the character of a country’s national political regime feature prominently in the multimodel ensemble we’re using in our atrocities early-warning project to assess risks of onsets of state-led mass killing. When I recently updated those assessments using data from year-end 2013—coming soon to a blog near you!—Thailand remained toward the bottom of the global distribution: 100th of 162 countries, with a predicted probability of just 0.3%. If I alter the inputs to that ensemble to capture the occurrence of this week’s coup and its effect on Thailand’s regime type, the predicted probability jumps to about 0.8%.

That’s a big change in relative risk, but it’s not enough of a change in absolute risk to push the country into the end of the global distribution where the vast majority of these events occur. In the latest assessments, a risk of 0.8% would have placed Thailand about 50th in the world, still essentially indistinguishable from the many other countries in that long, thin tail. Even with changes in these important risk factors and an ongoing insurgency in its southern provinces, Thailand remains in the vast bloc of countries where state-led mass killing is extremely unlikely, thanks (statistically speaking) to its relative wealth, the strength of its connection to the global economy, and the absence of certain markers of atrocities-prone regimes.

4. Democracy will probably be restored within the next few years… As Henk Goemans and Nikolay Marinov show in a paper published last year in the British Journal of Political Science, since the end of the Cold War, most coups have been followed within a few years by competitive elections. The pattern they observe is even stronger in countries that have at least seven years of democratic experience and have held at least two elections, as Thailand does and has. In a paper forthcoming in Foreign Policy Analysis that uses a different measure of coups, Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne see that same broad pattern. After the 2006 coup, it took Thailand a little over a year to get back to a competitive elections for a civilian government under a new constitution. If anything, I would expect this junta to move a little faster, and I would be very surprised if the same junta was still ruling in 2016.

5. …but it could wind up right back here again after that. As implied by nos. 1 and 2 above, however, the resumption of democracy wouldn’t mean that Thailand won’t repeat the cycle again. Both statistical and game-theoretic models indicate that prospects for yet another democratic breakdown will stay relatively high as long as Thai politics remains sharply polarized. My knowledge of Thailand is shallow, but the people I read or follow who know the country much better skew pessimistic on the prospects for this polarization ending soon. From afar, I wonder if it’s ultimately a matter of generational change and suspect that Thailand will finally switch to a stable and less contentious equilibrium when today’s conservative leaders start retiring from their jobs in the military and bureaucracy age out of street politics.

Military Coup in Thailand

This morning here but this afternoon in Thailand, the country’s military leadership sealed the deal on a coup d’etat when it announced via national television that it was taking control of government.

The declaration of martial law that came two days earlier didn’t quite qualify as a coup because it didn’t involve a seizure of power. Most academic definitions of coups have involve (1) the use or threat of force (2) by political insiders, that is, people inside government or state security forces (3) to seize national political power. Some definitions also specify that the putschists’ actions must be illegal or extra-constitutional. The declaration of martial law certainly involved the use or threat of force by political insiders, but it did not entail a direct grab for power and technically was not even illegal.

Today’s announcement checks those last boxes. Frankly, I’m a bit surprised by this turn of events, but not shocked. In my statistical assessments of coup risk for 2014, Thailand ranked 10th, clearly putting it among the highest-risk countries in the world. In December, though, I judged from a distance that the country’s military leadership probably didn’t want to take ownership of this situation unless things got significantly worse:

The big question now is whether or not the military leadership will respond as desired [by anti-government forces angling for a coup]. They would be very likely to do so if they coveted power for themselves, but I think it’s pretty clear from their actions that many of them don’t. I suspect that’s partly because they saw after 2006 that seizing power didn’t really fix anything and carried all kinds of additional economic and reputational costs. If that’s right, then the military will only seize power again if the situation degenerates enough to make the costs of inaction even worse—say, into sustained fighting between rival factions, like we see in Bangladesh right now.

I guess the growing concerns about an impending civil war and economic recession were finally enough to tip military leaders’ thinking in favor of action. Here’s hoping the final forecast I offered in that December post comes true:

Whatever happens this time around, though, the good news is that within a decade or so, Thai politics will probably stabilize into a new normal in which the military no longer acts directly in politics and parts of what’s now Pheu Thai and its coalition compete against each other and the remnants of today’s conservative forces for power through the ballot box.

One Outsider’s Take on Thailand

Justin Heifetz at the Bangkok Post asked me this morning for some comments on the current political situation in Thailand. Here is a slightly modified version of what I wrote in response to his questions.

I won’t speak to the specifics of Thai culture or social psychological theories of political behavior, because those things are outside my areas of expertise. What I can talk about are the strategic dilemmas that make some countries more susceptible to coups and other breakdowns of democracy than others. Instead of thinking in terms of a “coup culture”, I think it’s useful to ask why the military in the past and opposition parties now might prefer an unelected government to an elected one.

In the case of Thailand, it’s clear that some opposition factions recognize that they cannot win power through fair elections, and those factions are very unhappy with the policies enacted by the party that can. There are two paths out of that conundrum: either seize power directly through rebellion, or find a way to provoke or facilitate a seizure of power by another faction more sympathetic to your interests—in this and many other cases, the military. Rebellions are very hard to pull off, especially for minority factions, so that often leaves them with trying to provoke a coup as their only viable option. Apparently, Suthep Thaugsuban and his supporters recognize this logic and are now pursuing just such a strategy.

The big question now is whether or not the military leadership will respond as desired. They would be very likely to do so if they coveted power for themselves, but I think it’s pretty clear from their actions that many of them don’t. I suspect that’s partly because they saw after 2006 that seizing power didn’t really fix anything and carried all kinds of additional economic and reputational costs. If that’s right, then the military will only seize power again if the situation degenerates enough to make the costs of inaction even worse—say, into sustained fighting between rival factions, like we see in Bangladesh right now.

So far, Pheu Thai and its supporters seem to understand this risk and have mostly avoided direct confrontation in the streets. According to Reuters this morning, though, some “red shirt” activists are now threatening to mobilize anew if Suthep & co. do not back down soon. A peaceful demonstration of their numbers would remind the military and other fence-sitters of the electoral and physical power they hold, but it could also devolve into the kind of open conflict that might tempt the military to reassert itself as the guarantor of national order. Back on 1 December, red shirts cut short a rally in a Bangkok stadium after aggressive actions by their anti-government rivals led to two deaths and dozens of injuries, and there is some risk that fresh demonstrations could produce a similar situation.

On how or why this situation has escalated so quickly, I’d say that it didn’t really. This is just the latest flare-up of an underlying process of deep socio-economic and political transformation in Thailand that accelerated in the early 2000s and probably isn’t going to reach a new equilibrium of sorts for at least a few more years. Earlier in this process, the military clearly sided with conservative factions struggling to beat back the political consequences of this transformation for reasons that close observers of Thai politics surely understand much better than I. We’ll see soon if they’ve finally given up on that quixotic project.

Whatever happens this time around, though, the good news is that within a decade or so, Thai politics will probably stabilize into a new normal in which the military no longer acts directly in politics and parts of what’s now Pheu Thai and its coalition compete against each other and the remnants of today’s conservative forces for power through the ballot box.

Follow-Up on Bangladesh

Per BBC News this morning:

Bangladesh is entering a new phase of violence and uncertainty triggered by the opposition’s objections to elections due to be held on 5 January. In recent days the country has been paralysed by violent strikes and transport blockades. The BBC’s Bengali editor Sabir Mustafa in Dhaka says that there is now increasing speculation that a state of emergency may be declared to pull the country back from the brink…

Since 25 October they have held general strikes and road-rail blockades, leading to widespread violence and hitting the economy hard.

Dozens of vehicles have been burned or damaged by blockade supporters on the only highway linking the port city of Chittagong with the capital Dhaka. The all-important garments industry, which accounts for nearly 80% of Bangladesh’s exports, has been unable to make shipments for a week.

”If the current crisis continues for another month, then the whole economy will stumble to a halt and it will be very difficult to recover from it,” said Rubana Huq, managing director of the Mohammadi Group, a major garments exporting firm.

In a late-October post, I used Bangladesh as an example of “the political muddles that trap most countries for decades on a sine wave of democratization and de-democratization, and why durable exits from those oscillations are so hard to come by.” I concluded:

The histories of Europe and Latin America imply that Bangladesh will eventually find a way out of these oscillations onto a new equilibrium that includes durable democracy. Unfortunately, the history of countries born in the past half-century—never mind a cursory look at the politics on the streets of Dhaka right now—suggests this election cycle probably isn’t the moment that’s going to happen.

Things could still turn for the better, and this crisis could lead to a resolution that puts democracy in Bangladesh on firmer footing. That said, the latest news from BBC does not make me optimistic.

In fact, my statistical assessments of coup risk for 2013 lead me to believe that the prospects of another extra-constitutional seizure of power in Bangladesh in the near future are no longer small. That’s what happened when things last reached this kind of fever pitch in 2007, and Bangladesh’s presence among the 20 most coup-susceptible countries in the world this year suggests there’s a sizable chance we’ll see a similar turn of events again before election day on 5 January. If I treat the annual statistical forecast as my prior and use Bayes’ rule and some back-of-the-envelope estimates about the relationship between unrest this intense and coup risk to update it, I assess the probability of a coup attempt in Bangladesh in the run-up to elections at about 30 percent.

That may not sound like much, but it’s a lot higher than the estimate of about 10 percent I get when I do a similar exercise for Thailand right now, where a somewhat similar process is unfolding. In other words, if I had to pick between Bangladesh or Thailand as the country more likely to see a coup attempt in the next several weeks, I would bet on Bangladesh.

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.”

The Legitimacy Fallacy

I’ve never thought much of the concept of political legitimacy, and a recent rereading of Seymour Martin Lipset’s Political Man has reminded me why. In theoretical discourse on political stability and change, legitimacy is the Ouroboros, the mythical serpent locked in a circle as it eats its own tail. We appeal to legitimacy when we need to explain the persistence of political arrangements that defy our materialist predictions, and when those arrangements do finally collapse, we say that their failure has revealed a preceding loss of legitimacy. In statistical terms, legitimacy is the label we attach to the residual, the portion of the variance our mental models cannot explain. It is a tautology masquerading as a causal force.

In the chapter of his 1960 classic that got me thinking about this topic again, Lipset writes (emphasis mine) that

The stability of any given democracy depends not only on economic development but also upon the effectiveness and the legitimacy of its political system. Effectiveness means actual performance, the extent to which the system satisfies the basic functions of government as most of the population and such powerful groups within it as big business or the armed forces see them. Legitimacy involves the capacity of the system to engender and maintain the belief that the existing political institutions are the most appropriate ones for the society.

Lipset goes on to argue that this concept has predictive power; if we know how legitimate a system is, we can anticipate whether or not it will survive challenging times, or what social scientists sometimes refer to as “exogenous shocks.” To illustrate this point, he contrasts the fate of various democracies in Europe in the face of the Great Depression. “When the effectiveness of various governments broke down in the 1930s, those societies which were high on the scale of legitimacy remained democratic, while such countries as Germany, Austria, and Spain lost their freedom, and France narrowly escaped a similar fate.”

Voilà, right? I mean, going into the 1930s, I’m sure every astute social observer could have told you that those four countries were the ones where “belief that the existing political institutions are the most appropriate ones for the society” was weakest; that citizens in neighboring countries did not harbor similar doubts; and that those variations in beliefs would largely determine the trajectories European countries would follow through the coming storm. Otherwise, this remarkably accurate after-the-fact prediction would be nothing more than common hindsight bias.

More damning, though, are Lipset’s brief comments on Thailand. After discussing mid-century Europe, he writes that

From a short-range point of view, a highly effective but illegitimate system, such as a well-governed colony, is more unstable than regimes which are relatively low in effectiveness and high in legitimacy. The social stability of a nation like Thailand, despite its periodic coups d’etat, stands out in sharp contrast to the situation in neighboring former colonial nations.

Looking back from 2012, that view of Thai politics seems almost laughably wrong-headed. In the past few decades, the regime that Lipset identified as an exemplar of social stability founded on high legitimacy has been wracked by periodic waves of mass unrest and separatist insurgency. The latest and still-ongoing wave of mass upheaval has now lasted nearly a decade and concerns precisely the question at the core of Lipset’s definition of legitimacy: are the existing institutions the most appropriate ones for Thai society? Based on their voting patterns and participation in mass protests, it now seems clear that many Thais think not, but an oligarchical alliance of monarchists, militarists, and well-to-do urbanites still has enough power to resist attempts to fully dislodge the old regime.

To be fair to Lipset, I suspect few observers of Thai politics in the early 1960s would have foreseen the ruptures that seem inevitable with hindsight (and if this article from a May 1996 issue of Time is exemplary of the information available at the time, it’s easy to see why). But then, that’s really the problem, isn’t it? If we can’t reliably observe legitimacy or know that it’s crumbling until people behave in ways that show it has, what value is it adding to our theories of political change?

In a terrific working paper that disassembles the problem far more thoroughly than this blog post, political scientist Xavier Marquez accepts that legitimacy may have some value as a summary concept in casual discussions of politics, but he shows that it just doesn’t work as an element of explanatory or even normative political theory. As Xavier puts it, explanations of political stability that appeal to legitimacy “are strictly speaking tautological: they do not so much explain stability as restate the problem of stability in different terms.” If you’re interested in comparative politics, you really should read the whole thing, but the following passage (emphasis mine) nicely summarizes his reasoning:

To the extent that the concept of legitimacy appears to have some explanatory value, this is only because explanations of social and political order that appeal to legitimacy in fact conceal widely different (and often inconsistent) accounts of the mechanisms involved in the production of obedience to authority and submission to norms. Very often legitimacy works as a residual concept, a sort of virtus dormitiva that is used to explain the persistence of social and political order wherever obvious coercion or material incentives appear unable to account for its stability. But like most such residual concepts, it tends to hide the wide variety of mechanisms that actually sustain social order, including epistemic deficits, collective action problems, signalling conventions, emotional attachments, and cognitive biases. I thus suggest that explanatory social science would be better off abandoning the concept of legitimacy for more precise accounts of the operation of these mechanisms in particular contexts.

Maybe I’m being too harsh on the concept. Analogizing to physics, maybe legitimacy is more like the dark matter of political development, a substance we cannot observe but whose existence we can infer from the otherwise strange behavior of human particles in visible political systems.

The problem with that analogy is that the theoretical models we have of social systems are nowhere near as well-developed and specific as the ones physicists have used to infer the existence of dark matter. No one has seen dark matter, but physicists can and have used careful observation of many related phenomena to develop a fairly sharp idea of what it is (and isn’t). For now—and maybe forever—social scientists have nothing that even comes close. Until we can find a way to reliably observe preferences and beliefs across a wide variety of cultural contexts, appeals to legitimacy are going to keep us stuck in a pre-scientific world, where things can be true because they just make sense.

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