Barack Obama on Uhuru Kenyatta

This is from Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic:

Obama’s relationship with Kenyatta is complicated. A careful reading of Obama’s memoir, Dreams From My Father, suggests that he holds Kenyatta’s father, Jomo Kenyatta, the liberator of Kenya, indirectly responsible for his own father’s premature demise. (The elder Kenyatta, a member of the Kikuyu tribe, froze out Obama’s father, a Luo, from government service after the elder Obama complained too insistently about corruption.) And the younger Kenyatta’s association with human-rights violators has placed a question mark over his head. But Obama also believes that Kenyatta is at least intermittently committed to battling tribalism and corruption, and aides tell me that Obama will devote a part of his post-presidential years to the issue of African governance.

Instead of focusing on “African Governance,” I’d suggest President Obama spends part of his post-presidential years as Africa’s economic ambassador to the United States and beyond.

“Good governance” and “good institutions” are great. But the notion that African states have to reach zero corruption and zero rigged elections before any factories can be built is a misguided fantasy. Institutions and positive economic performance co-evolve. Good politics is not always good economics; and good economics is not always good politics. Africa, despite everyone’s apparent belief in the region’s exceptionalism, is not unique in this regard.

What Donald Trump teaches us about the stability of electoral democracies

Intra-elite checks and balances within America’s Republican Party are in shambles. It is increasingly clear that Donald Trump might be the exception that proves the rule that The Party Decides. Over the last 8 years the Republican Party has spawned and ceded power to all manner of groups and organizations aimed at delegitimizing and obstructing the Obama Administration. But by empowering fringe groups and ideas, the Republican party also ceded its power as a gatekeeper to key institutions like the U.S. Congress, state legislatures and governorships, and the U.S. presidency.

The result of this has been the Donald J. Trump presidential campaign. Trump is sort of self-financing (with loads of free publicity from an insatiable media), a fact that has left him untethered from the control of party elites who typically bankroll election campaigns in America. Electoral freedom from party elites has afforded Trump the luxury of dabbling in heterodox policy positions that are at variance with the positions of party elders. He is a populist who is promising a neglected segment of the Republican base a lot of goodies whose logical implication is an even bigger government — something the anti-tax establishment wing of the party doesn’t like. Trump also has a knack for plainly saying out loud what mainstream Republicans only ever communicate through dog whistles. This all makes for excellent political theater. It’ll be interesting to see if the party actually manages to stop the Trump juggernaut from getting the nomination.

The Trump phenomenon offers important lessons on political development in general and democratic consolidation in particular.

A key source of democratic stability in America has been the existence of robust intra-elite checks and balances within the leading parties. For much of American history the choice set presented to voters has been, for better or worse, significantly regulated by elites. This system has served to protect America from delegative democracy — whereby elected officials do whatever they want in-between elections. In other words, intra-elite checks — in an attempt to protect party brand names or sectional interests — have served to limit the variance between what politicians promise and what they do while in office. It has also protected the American political system from wildcards like Donald Trump.

The danger of posed by politicians like Trump is that because they are independent from fellow elites they are hard to keep in check in-between elections. This is a crucial point. Most voters do not have the time or interest to follow the everyday actions of their preferred politicians. Only a few activist citizens do. So the bulk of the monitoring of elected officials in-between elections tends to be carried out by other elected officials (like Members of Congress) or civilian elites (like lobbyists). A candidate that is untethered from these kinds of checks poses a real danger to political stability. Because they derive their power from opposing institutions, they are very likely to destroy the same institutions once elected. Trump has so far proven that he can win electoral contests without any support (and implied constraints) from America’s rightwing political and economic elites. Reasonable Americans have good reason to be very afraid.

Now imagine that Trump wins the nomination and the November 2016 election. What stops him from cobbling together a coalition that would win him reelection? All he has to do is give everyone what they want — crazy nativist talk for some, a nice dose of social services for others, and side payments to specific segments of the middle class to keep them comfortable. In this scenario the only thing that would stop Trump is America’s consolidated constitutional term limits. And even then the damage will already have been done.

Everyday politics in most young democracies have a lot of similarities to Trumpism. In these contexts the richest person in the country (or the one with the most power to determine who becomes rich) also tends to be the leading politician. Such politicians typically have the power to raise all the money they need to win elections. And because of their superior access to resources they also tend to have the power to determine who gets elected to legislatures and other important elective positions. The lack of independently wealthy elites that can finance rival factions, and because all elected officials typically depend on the one who controls the money spigot, means that very little intra-elite balancing happens in-between elections. In addition, political parties typically operate as personal enterprises of the president.

Notice that in these contexts, elections alone do not provide the panacea to the lack of intra-elite checks and balances. Anti-institutionalists can and do win free and fair elections.

Also notice that the failure of elections to correct the behavior of elites in-between elections is not because voters in these contexts are particularly dumb. It is just that most voters do not consider the institutional consequences of their personal electoral choices. It is elites who operate within institutions. And it is elites who care about institutional strength. When structural conditions dis-incentivize elite investments in institutional strength, personalist politics under a delegative democracy obtains.

In America, pro-Trump voters are probably not thinking about what a Trump victory will mean for democratic stability. They are simply responding to the bundle of solutions to their specific problems that Trump is selling them. And there are elites like Chris Christie who might join the Trump bandwagon, again for personal reasons or a resignation to the fact that Trump has voters on his side and the only way to stay relevant is to join Trump.

American institutions are old and strong enough to withstand the Trump candidacy (I think). They are also buttressed by strong informal (extra-institutional) intra-elite checks on presidential power. Chances are high that American democracy will survive Donald J. Trump.

But imagine this happening in a young democracy with a non-existent upper class and therefore almost zero informal checks on presidential power in-between elections. Such democracies almost always fail on their first contact with some variant of Trumpism. Trumpists violate term limits. Trumpists are erratic with policy. Trumpists know how to run populist campaigns and win elections. Trumpists undercut fellow elites and destroy institutional checks on presidential power.

The biggest lesson from the American 2016 election cycle is that elections, on their own, cannot protect political institutions in young democracies from characters like Donald J. Trump.

Elite Political Stability and Development: The Case of Europe

Alex Lee of Rochester and Avi Acharya of Stanford write:

During the Middle Ages, most European polities operated under a norm that gave only the close male relatives of a deceased monarch a clear place in the line of succession. When no such heirs were available, succession disputes were more likely, with more distant relatives and female(-line) heirs laying competing claims to the throne. These disputes often produced violent conflicts that destroyed existing state institutions and harmed subsequent economic development. Given these facts, we hypothesize that a shortage of male heirs to a European monarchy in the Middle Ages has a deleterious effect on levels of development across contemporary European regions ruled by that monarchy. We confirm this hypothesis by showing that regions that were more likely to have a shortage of such heirs are today poorer than other regions. This finding highlights the importance of the medieval period in European development, and shows how a sequence of small shocks can work in combination with both institutions and norms in shaping long-run development trajectories.

……. Our main empirical finding demonstrates the path dependent effects of the uneven nature of state development in medieval Europe arising due to the availability of male heirs. We show that regions of Europe that were ruled by medieval monarchs who had an abundance of male heirs are today richer than other regions. We are also able to trace our effects over time by showing that urban density in each century between 1300 and 1800 was higher in regions that had an abundance of male heirs. In addition, we show that an abundance of male heirs also decreased the frequency of internal wars and coups during the Late Middle Ages, and we find that contemporary economic development is negatively correlated with the frequency of these medieval wars and coups.

Forget the sweeping comparisons between England and the rest (esp France) that is common in works about economic development in Europe. This paper offers lots of great insights about the mechanics of statebuilding (and institution building) and the impact on economic development.

The linking of medieval European political realities to economics outcomes in 2007-2009 still requires a tighter justification. But the general insights in the paper about elite-level conflict and institution-building are spot on.

The paper is a reminder that our obsession with vertical accountability (mostly elections) as a means for institution-building is patently misguided. Much of the action takes place at the elite-level, hence the need to focus on horizontal accountability (as yours truly does….)

As they say, the paper is self-recommending.

H/T Andy Hall.

Making International Development Research and Assistance Work

In the spirit of discussion Tom Pepinsky has a nice pithy response to Chris Blattman’s post on the wastefulness of skills training as development assistance. Both raise interesting questions about development research and practice. Pepinsky writes:

It always strikes me how different the view of (say) the World Bank is from that of the local entrepreneur, laborer, or mother who works at home. My immediate thought when I hear that any individually-targeted development intervention has failed is “well, could it have succeeded?” In other words, does the intervention manipulate a binding constraint for an individual or household? ………….. The people who know how to learn about those everyday constraints are trained in ethnography—and I mean serious ethnography, the kind that involves languages and staying outside of a hotel.

A focus on institutions implies a different direction. Everyone agrees that institutions are important, but the cutting edge in development economics and related parts of political science focuses elsewhere. Why? Because institutions aren’t manipulable, their features bundle lots of treatments, core concepts remain tremendously fuzzy (try defining governance, for example), we don’t seem to have learned a lot from decades of studying them, and the potential for disaster from bad institutional design is just enormous.

I agree with Pepinsky. I would also add that on top of taking local contextual variables and institutions seriously, development practice and research should also take local elites (both economic and political) seriously.

The discourse on development oscillates between “institutions” and “the poor.” Governance reforms try to get institutions right. Pro-poor policies focus on alleviating suffering among the extremely poor via direct interventions at the “grassroots.” Many interventions therefore tend to be designed with a view of either constraining allegedly nefarious and/or clueless local elites via “institutions”; or completely circumventing them and going directly to the people. Needless to say, the attempts to go around local elites often result in failure.

The point here is not completely disparage pro-poor policies or governance reform programs. Rather, it is a reminder that chances of successful intervention go up when local elites are meaningfully involved. And by “involved” I mean when their interests and ideas are taken seriously. Elite capture is obviously a bad. But elite buy-in is almost always necessary for success. It is local elites that have the wherewithal to own job-generating cement plants. It is local elites who set tax rates. And it is local elites who build roads and power supply lines. Their ideas and interests therefore matter, and should be taken seriously (also just in case they do not necessarily want to, or cannot, transform their societies exactly into Denmark).

I say this because the assumption that local elites do not have much to offer except to steal state/aid resources for private benefit leads to research agendas (and interventions) that over-simplify their role in the whole process. Understanding local political dynamics, as suggested by Pepinsky, is therefore key for success. This means going beyond boilerplate “stylized facts” about ethnicity (or other sectoral interests) and patronage; and taking institutions (for example legislatures) and the coalitions of politicians who constitute them seriously. As students of the political economy of development, we ought to invest more in understanding local elite interests and ideas and how they influence state institutions and welfare outcomes at the grassroots.

Imagine for a second how different IMF or World Bank interventions would be if all their agreements with developing countries (say above a prescribed dollar amount) were subject to ratification by host-country legislatures. The process would be messy, yes (looking at you, Greece*). But I’d argue that finance ministers would get much better deals for their people — in no small part on account of greater levels of intra-elite accountability in the management of aid resources.

The irony of development research and practice is that we talk a lot about the importance of institutions, but then turn around and come up with ideas to circumvent them (and their elite membership) at every opportunity.

*Greece is a member of the OECD.

Let them have “Good Institutions”

The people in poor countries have the same aspirations as those in rich countries — to have the same chances and opportunities, good health care, clean running water in their homes and high-quality schools for their children. The problem is that their aspirations are blocked today — as the aspirations of black people were in apartheid South Africa — by extractive institutions. The poor don’t pull themselves out of poverty, because the basic ability to do so is denied them. You could see this in the protests behind the Arab Spring: those in Cairo’s Tahrir Square spoke in one voice about the corruption of the government, its inability to deliver public services and the lack of equality of opportunity. Poverty in Egypt cannot be eradicated with a bit more aid. As the protestors recognised, the economic impediments they faced stemmed from the way political power was exercised and monopolised by a narrow elite.

…… Making institutions more inclusive is about changing the politics of a society to empower the poor — the empowerment of those disenfranchised, excluded and often repressed by those monopolising power. Aid can help. But it needs to be used in such a way as to help civil society mobilise collectively, find a voice and get involved with decision-making. It needs to help manufacture inclusion.

That is Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson writing in The Spectator on Why foreign aid fails – and how to really help Africa.

I am a firm believer in the fact that “institutions rule” and are “the fundamental cause” of long-run economic growth and political stability. That said, I think this latest addition to the “Aid Debate” also detracts from the real issues regarding the efficacy of aid. It also runs the risk of creating the impression that the promotion of good institutions is a substitute for all forms of aid, or worse, that aid has led to the persistence of bad institutions and endemic poverty in poor countries.

How would the Central African Republic look today if it hadn’t received any kind of foreign aid over the years? I, for one, don’t think that it would be a bastion of political stability and stellar economic performance.

Strong and stable institutions are absolutely essential for the achievement of political and economic stability and general improvement of human welfare. And we should definitely preach this gospel for all to hear. But they also take forever to emerge, and depend on all sorts of localized variables that an international institution builder would most certainly miss (also, see here). And in the meantime, we still have to deal with the challenge of making the lives of the poor better (and within their lifetimes, approx. 60 years). Under these conditions, single panaceas (aid-driven or not) will obviously not work, especially if they come in as vague a package as “good and inclusive institutions.”

Did European Colonialism Benefit Africans?

“We find it difficult to bring the available evidence together with plausible counter-factuals to argue that there is any country today in Sub-Saharan Africa which is more developed because it was colonized by Europeans. Quite the contrary.”

That is Leander Heldring and James Robinson writing in a new paper on the negative impact of colonialism on Africa’s economic prospects.

Source: Wikipedia

Source: Wikipedia

Interesting attempt at positive analysis of a difficult subject (esp. with regard to counter-factuals), although normative undertones drive most of the analytical narrative.

The negative legacies of colonialism – despotism, negative ethnicity, aid dependence, and general underdevelopment, etc – certainly do persist.

But for those unwilling to submit to the gods of path dependence, the question remains one of how long incompetent African leaders will continue to blame outsiders for their own ineptitude. After half a century of independence, many Africans are wary of being the only ones left in the “bottom billion” once the East and South Asians climb up.

When will African leaders (and elites more generally) realize that a generator, a borehole and a septic tank, and a security guard at their mansions on dusty streets are not substitutes for well functioning power grids, water and sanitation systems, and general security?

To paraphrase Achebe, the trouble with Africa is simply and squarely a failure of leadership. There is nothing basically wrong with the African character. There is nothing wrong with the African land or climate or water or air or anything else. Even external conquest and subsequent colonialism was not unique to Africa.

H/T Chris Blattman.

There is no way around the basics: Development will take time

I just read Chris Blattman’s response to the UK Prime Minister’s op-ed in the Journal. It reminded me of a lot of the things that I have been reading lately in preparation for my fieldwork (My dissertation will tackle the subject of legislative (under)development in Africa, with a focus on the Kenyan and Zambian legislatures).

Cameron’s sentiments in the op-ed are emblematic of the problems of development assistance. Like in all kinds of foreign intervention, developed states often try to externalize their institutions (and more generally, ways of doing things). These attempts often ignore the lived realities of the countries being assisted.

Forgetting the history of his own country (think autocratic monarchs, monopolies, limited suffrage), Cameron thinks that democracy, human rights and free markets (all great things) will magically create jobs in the developing states of the world. They don’t. In fact, they often lag the job creation process. For development assistance to be effective it must eschew these feel-good approaches to the problem of underdevelopment.

Blattman is spot on on a number of points:

  1. Unchecked leaders are bad for economic development (this is why I am so much into PARLIAMENTS!!!): Also, democracy is NOT synonymous with limited government. Heads of state like Queen Victoria or Hu Jintao or Bismarck or even Seretse Khama were in no measure democrats. However, they reined under systems with strong (sometimes extra-constitutional) checks to their power. That made a difference.
  2. Institutions rule, yes, but the right kinds of institutions: 1688 moments do not drop out of the sky. They are often preceded by decades if not centuries of civil strife, economic change and plain old learning. Institutional development takes time. Plus each society requires its own unique and appropriate mix of institutional arrangements to meet unique economic and social needs. A procrustean approach to institutional development (embodied in global capacity building) will inevitably fail. Institutional development must never be allowed to be captured by those who think that we can transform Chad simply by having them adopt Swedish institutions.
  3. Growth will require creation of jobs, i.e. industrial development: The poor countries of the world need real jobs for high school-leavers and other less educated people. The present focus on the “sexy” entrepreneural sectors – whether they are small businesses for the poor or tech hubs for the very highly educated – as the engines for growth in the developing world is misguided. I reiterate, starting a business is a very risky venture that should be left to the wealthy and the occasional dare devil. The poor in the global south need stable 9-5 jobs. Lots of them.

And lastly, where do strong institutions come from? There is no easy answer to this question. What we know is:

  1. History matters: Present countries with a long history of stateness have a better track record of building strong institutions for development. Yes, they may not always be democratic, but countries with a long history of centralized rule have strong states (and institutions) that deliver for their people (for more on this see Englebert and Gennaioli and Rainer).
  2. Democracy does not always create strong institutions: Since 1945 many have chosen to forget the fact that universal suffrage is a pretty recent phenomenon in the political history of the world. For the longest time world polities were ruled by power barons who held de facto power (as opposed to the procedural de jure power in democracies). When democracy came along after the Enlightenment the resulting structures of rule often reflected these de facto configurations of power. Over time institutions in these countries were cemented enough to allow for complete outsiders like say the current president of the United States to be elected without upsetting the balance of power (in another era he would have had to have mounted a coup). This is the challenge of the democratization in the new post-WWII states. How do you make democracy serve the interests of the people, rather that purely that of the elite? How do you use democracy to create strong institutions? Is this even possible? And if not, what other options do we have?

Persistence of Culture (and Institutions)

“How persistent are cultural traits? Using data on anti-Semitism in Germany, we find local continuity over 600 years. Jews were often blamed when the Black Death killed at least a third of Europe’s population during 1348–50. We use plague-era pogroms as an indicator for medieval anti-Semitism. They reliably predict violence against Jews in the 1920s, votes for the Nazi Party, deportations after 1933, attacks on synagogues, and letters to Der Sturmer. We also identify areas where persistence was lower: cities withhigh levels of trade or immigration. Finally, we show that our results are not driven by political extremism or by different attitudes toward violence.”

That is Voigtlander and Voth writing in the Quarterly Journal of Economics.

Their paper speaks to my previous post on the challenges of institutional engineering given the stickiness of institutions (and by extension the cultures that create and then reinforce them). Of course culture is a dicey subject that is often misused to explain economic and social outcomes. Instead of using the amorphous term “culture” I prefer to hear more about the reward systems that make it beneficial for individuals and communities to engage in certain cultural practices.

On a more positive note, the paper provides some evidence of the power of economic opportunities to dis-incentivize engagement in hateful cultural practices:

“Instead of reinforcing persistence, we argue that economic factors had the potential to undermine it…… Our results also lend qualified support to Montesquieu’s famous dictum that trade encourages ‘‘civility.’’

Protestant ethic and the spirit of democracy?

This article explores Protestantism’s inadvertent, historic role in dispersing elite power and spurring democracy. Economic and political elites typically hoard resources and perpetuate class distinction. Conversionary Protestants undermined this social reproduction because they wanted everyone to read the Bible in their own language, decide individually what to believe, and create religious organizations outside state control. Thus, they consistently initiated mass education, mass printing and civil society and spurred competitors to copy. Resultant power dispersion altered elite incentives and increased the probability of stable democratic transitions.

I test my historical arguments statistically via the spread of Protestant and Catholic missionaries. Protestant missions account for about half the variation in non-European democracy and remove the influence of variables that dominate current research. These findings challenge scholars to reformulate theories about cultural vs. structure, and about the rise of democracy.

That is Woodberry of UT Austin in a rather provocative paper that will soon hit the printing press. The paper is a reminder of how much we still don’t know about the mechanisms that produce democracy and limited government – and by extension general institutional development.

You can find a copy here.

Talk of unintended consequences…

Judging from the NY Times coverage of the 1917 episode, legislators paid little attention to the implications of mandating a ceiling.  They focused instead on Treasury Secretary McAdoo’s request for a higher borrowing limit so as to fund an expensive war effort.  The ceiling was created to empower, not rein in, Treasury (prompting a failed effort to create a congressional  committee to oversee Treasury’s actions).  Similarly, the creation of the aggregate ceiling in 1939 reflected congressional deference to Treasury, granting the department flexibility in refinancing short term notes with longer term bonds.  As the Senate floor debate makes clear, senators viewed the move as removing a partition in the law that hampered Treasury’s ability to manage the debt.

……. This seems to be a case of the often unintended consequences of institutional design.   That is, we can’t always understand why we have a particular institution or practice by looking only at its contemporary usage.  Moreover, institutions crafted in a specific context to solve a particular problem often prove sticky, taking on new significance once politicians discover new ways to exploit them.  The often unintended consequences of institutional design will likely be central to any broader explanation of the evolving politics of the debt limit.

That is Sarah writing on the Monkey Cage blog.

I was struck by this post because I picked up Pierson’s Book – Politics in Time – today and couldn’t put it down. I highly recommend it for those of you out there interested in the temporal dynamics of institutional design and development.

Also, I just discovered this (in Pierson, 2004 p. 41): Stockman Reagan adviser in 1981 said of Social Security refrom that he didn’t want to waste “a lot of political capital on some other guys problem in the year 2010.” He was only one year off.