The Stacked-Label Column Plot

Most of the statistical work I do involves events that occur rarely in places over time. One of the best ways to get or give a feel for the structure of data like that is with a plot that shows variation in counts of those events across sequential, evenly-sized slices of time. For me, that usually means a sequence of annual, global counts of those events, like the one below for successful and failed coup attempts over the past several decades (see here for the R script that generated that plot and a few others and here for the data):

Annual, global counts of successful and failed coup attempts per the Cline Center's SPEED Project

Annual, global counts of successful and failed coup attempts per the Cline Center’s SPEED Project, 1946-2005

One thing I don’t like about those plots, though, is the loss of information that comes from converting events to counts. Sometimes we want to know not just how many events occurred in a particular year but also where they occurred, and we don’t want to have to query the database or look at a separate table to find out.

I try to do both in one go with a type of column chart I’ll call the stacked-label column plot. Instead of building columns from bricks of identical color, I use blocks of text that describe another attribute of each unit—usually country names in my work, but it could be lots of things. In order for those blocks to have comparable visual weight, they need to be equally sized, which usually means using labels of uniform length (e.g., two– or three-letter country codes) and a fixed-width font like Courier New.

I started making these kinds of plots in the 1990s, using Excel spreadsheets or tables in Microsoft Word to plot things like protest events and transitions to and from democracy. A couple decades later, I’m finally trying to figure out how to make them in R. Here is my first reasonably successful attempt, using data I just finished updating on when countries joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) or its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

Note: Because the Wordpress template I use crams blog-post content into a column that’s only half as wide as the screen, you might have trouble reading the text labels in some browsers. If you can’t make out the letters, try clicking on the plot, then increasing the zoom if needed.

Annual, global counts of countries joining the global free-trade regime, 1960-2014

Annual, global counts of countries joining the global free-trade regime, 1960-2014

Without bothering to read the labels, you can see the time trend fine. Since 1960, there have been two waves of countries joining the global free-trade regime: one in the early 1960s, and another in the early 1990s. Those two waves correspond to two spates of state creation, so without the labels, many of us might infer that those stacks are composed mostly or entirely of new states joining.

When we scan the labels, though, we discover a different story. As expected, the wave in the early 1960s does include a lot of newly independent African states, but it also includes a couple of Warsaw Pact countries (Yugoslavia and Poland) and some middle-income cases from other parts of the world (e.g., Argentina and South Korea). Meanwhile, the wave of the early 1990s turns out to include very few post-Communist countries, most of which didn’t join until the end of that decade or early in the next one. Instead, we see a second wave of “developing” countries joining on the eve of the transition from GATT to the WTO, which officially happened on January 1, 1995. I’m sure people who really know the politics of the global free-trade regime, or of specific cases or regions, can spot some other interesting stories in there, too. The point, though, is that we can’t discover those stories if we can’t see the case labels.

Here’s another one that shows which countries had any coup attempts each year between 1960 and 2014, according to Jonathan Powell and Clayton Thyne‘s running list. In this case, color tells us the outcomes of those coup attempts: red if any succeeded, dark grey if they all failed.

Countries with any coup attempts per Powell and Thyne, 1960-2014

One story that immediately catches my eye in this plot is Argentina’s (ARG) remarkable propensity for coups in the early 1960s. It shows up in each of the first four columns, although only in 1962 are any of those attempts successful. Again, this is information we lose when we only plot the counts without identifying the cases.

The way I’m doing it now, this kind of chart requires data to be stored in (or converted to) event-file format, not the time-series cross-sectional format that many of us usually use. Instead of one row per unit–time slice, you want one row for each event. Each row should at least two columns with the case label and the time slice in which the event occurred.

If you’re interested in playing around with these types of plots, you can find the R script I used to generate the ones above here. Perhaps some enterprising soul will take it upon him- or herself to write a function that makes it easy to produce this kind of chart across a variety of data structures.

It would be especially nice to have a function that worked properly when the same label appears more than once in a given time slice. Right now, I’m using the function ‘match’ to assign y values that evenly stack the events within each bin. That doesn’t work for the second or third or nth match, though, because the ‘match’ function always returns the position of the first match in the relevant vector. So, for example, if I try to plot all coup attempts each year instead of all countries with any coup attempts each year, the second or later events in the same country get placed in the same position as the first, which ultimately means they show up as blank spaces in the columns. Sadly, I haven’t figured out yet how to identify location in that vector in a more general way to fix this problem.


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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