Has the Worldwide Trend toward Freedom/Democracy Slipped?

Dartthrowingchimp has built a simple but informative graphic charting the growth of civil and political rights over the past four decades as indexed and reported by the Freedom House index. You can click through to see it and read how it works; and if charting democracy around the globe is your bag, I highly recommend it–it’s way better than looking at country counts and line graphs.

DTC says that he thinks he “can see the slippage that Freedom House emphasizes in its recent reports, too.” I’m not sure that’s what I’m seeing.

What I think I see is the explosion of Democracy optimism that swept over the world in the wake of the Soviet collapse. When the Soviet Union collapsed several states regained independence and several states were newly formed. Some states both regained independence and then fractured and collapsed into new states which roughly coincided with old world dutchies and clan-based borders.

In most of these instances the newly (re-)formed states claimed a nominal dedication to democratic principals. Many of them wrote constitutions affirming this direction. Several states that underwent civil wars and came out as newly formed democracies were never formal satellites of the USSR. In Africa several states spent the Cold War with their internal conflicts stifled by either the US or the USSR–typically by funding dictatorships that, once left alone, were unable to maintain order.

In any case, these states used democratic rhetoric, passed democratic laws, and sometimes, maybe, possibly, actually had a passion to move in a democratic direction. Unfortunately, these commitments—whether sincerely held or not—were beset by the obstacles we knew in advance exist between power of the one and power of the many. These democratic gains were never consolidated, democratic institutions never gained the legitimacy or capacity to repel its assailants,  and ultimately both proved illusory.

In other words, whether these states were ever truly democracies remains an open question.

Freedom House (and Polity) both set for themselves a difficult task. Attempting to understand the political context of a state, from a distance, and in (more or less) real time is virtually impossible. Once ranked, that’s the rank. It is not subject to historical revision (historical revision comes with its own problems).

But my assumption is that these states were not democracies in any meaningful sense. Democracies are only democracies when, as Linz and Stepan said “democracy is the only game in town.” Before that, the true policy is somewhere in anocratic region…leaning toward democracy, maybe, but not a “a democracy” yet.

FHI is not measuring “democracy” directly, but in offering an indexed score of civil and political rights, it is, I think subject to the same criticism. A law and nominal protection to certain ideals is fine but how robust are they? How quickly can they decay? What level of trust in those institutions is there? The FHI has a great methodology, utilizing several types of experts with a variety of interests and knowledge about the countries they report on. But that does not free them from being victims of the zeitgeist. The Democracy optimism of the mid-90s wasn’t isolated to the US–it couldn’t have been. Democratic movements in the Eastern bloc and elsewhere were also, often, popular movements. Victories are perceived as victories, probably most of all by those that fought. So I don’t think FHI was “wrong” to record them as democracies (free). I just think that real time measures, although important, especially for prognosticators like DTC, are also deeply flawed. I think the freedom recession of the last decade or so is more a reflection of this methodological flaw.

That’s not to say there weren’t real gains made at this time, nor is it to deny there have been real losses since then. I just don’t think that in reality global freedom reached as high as it is reported by FHI, thus the recession we are in now would look less startling if that peak were modified.

The Tragedy of Philip Seymour Hoffman

Richard Grenell should study literature. A classic tragedy is one where a very rich, famous, smart, or talented person is brought low by inherent flaws—flaws which are known in advance to the spectators. The very essence of the tragedy is that the audience knows in advance that the hero is doomed while the hero himself is either unaware of this fact or (worse) thinks he can escape this preconstructed fate. Thus all actions are tinged with the foreknowledge of …well…tragedy. This literary mechanism is even called “tragic irony.”

Now, it’s kind of cynical to view Hoffman’s death as a tragedy in this way. If you thought Hoffman’s overdose was inevitable, that his cause was hopeless, then you would probably feel that way about all addicts. But the truth is, people escape addiction everyday. Most of us think of tragedy differently today. Today we think of tragedies as bad endings that didn’t have to be that way. The idea they could be avoided but weren’t is the tragedy.

What Grenell is saying is the former idea. And, I think it’s worth pointing out that Grenell’s interpretation of Hoffman’s death is the original notion of tragedy to a very fine degree. Sophocles could  not have crafted a better contemporary tragedy. Grenell may be heartless enough he isn’t saddened by Hoffman’s death. But “being sad” is a child’s response to tragedy. A real tragedy should cause anger on one level and force submission to the sublime awesomeness of an unfeeling and somewhat mechanical universe on another.

The Gold Standard in Research Design

A few days ago a piece ran int the New York Times criticizing the methodological approach the Center for Medicare and Medicaid Innovation Center uses to assess the effectiveness of different health care delivery options.

I recently moved from the social sciences (“International Relations” but with a focus on the socio-economic causes of conflict…technically a “comparativist” field or, because my research focused on Mexico, Venezuela, Peru, and Colombia…an “area studies” field). Now I work in behavioral health care and public health. In truth, I have always worked in policy. In studying policy from an academic point of view, we hear tell of these fancy methods known as Randomized Controlled Trials, but we rarely get a chance to read of one in our field. Dani Rodrick, a developmental economist preaches their use and is developing ways to utilize them in the field, but apart from him and, given our respective limitations as finite creatures in a world of scarcity, most of us never get a chance to actually conduct one.

Although I have always worked in policy, this is my first experience with health care policy. Most of my hallway mates are doctors. Some of them are medicals doctors, most of them are PhDs in psychology or PsyDs (Doctors of [Clinical] Psychology). Many of my current coworkers are from the world of randomized controlled trials, which they refer to as “clinical trials.” As a professional research assistant, I have two main functions: translating the findings from clinical trials for policy-focused folks, and translating policy stuff for clinical trial-focused folks. So when Austin Frankt and Adrianna McIntyre write “And just because health policy is closer in proximity to medicine (and its many RCTs) doesn’t actually make health policy more amenable to this kind of study than any other policy domain,” I feel them.

When I tell people my background, they look at me like I’m crazy. But this really is policy work. This really is outside the lab. Randomized controlled trials are great but they have limitations, extreme limitations.

Prior to this, in social sciences research, the biggest methodological conflict was always the quantitative folks versus the qualitative folks, the large-n folks versus the case study folks. My own thesis attempts to straddle that line, using a case study to fine tune certain macroeconomic models. It’s an uncomfortable world in-between these two approaches. So, trying to act as mediator between policy and RCTs now is uncomfortable–but familiar–territory.

So what am I trying to say in this long-winded comment? Basically this: In the world of lab coats, pills, placebos etc. the RCT is the “gold standard” of research designs. But outside that world, they are flawed and limited. And…for that matter, not all RCTs are equal. Many of them are flawed in their own ways, in their design, in their implementation.

But it’s this idea, specific to the hard sciences, that RCTs are “the gold standard” that I think is to blame for that NY Times “hit piece.” No one else outside the laboratory world thinks that RCTs are “the gold standard.” RCTs, like any method, are good at what they’re good at, and bad at what they’re bad at. They are a method, not the gold standard. If we dropped this idea, then it never would have occurred to anybody to critique the Innovation Center for not using RCTs when RCTs are either impossible or the wrong method entirely.

Legal Pot Means More Violence in Mexico–Not Less

There’s a lot going on here, both in Humphrey’s quick take and in the Alejandro Hope piece that he links to. I’ll start by saying that, at the top, broadest level, I agree with the Hope-Humphrey’s analysis that were pot fully legalized in the United States this would not collapse the cartels or bring peace to Mexico. I do however, disagree (a little?) on why that’s true.

Drug trafficking organizations (DTOs—or International Criminal Organizations ICOs, the nomenclature I prefer) are involved in several different markets—the vast majority of which are more accurately described as “grey markets,” that is, the illegal manufacturing, trade, or transport of legal goods. This would refer to the Knights Templars’ recent takeover of the otherwise legal avocado market, the infiltration of the ICOs into tomato farming, and even the diversion of oil from legitimate channels into illegitimate ones.

There are of course, as Hope mentions, several other drugs the ICOs trade in as well-heroin, cocaine, and methamphetamine. But there are also a group of non-narcotic but yet still illegal products as well: exotic animals, lumber and worst of all humans.

It’s hard to estimate the amount of money the ICOs make in just the marijuana sector. Hope cites between 1.5 and 2 billion dollars and that seems right to me based on my research. Hope says this will be “a blow” to the ICO revenues but “wouldn’t put them out of business.” I agree with this as well. As a matter of fact, I’m more pessimistic than Hope on this score. Mexico will maintain a comparative advantage in the cultivation and hybridization (and transport and retailing) of marijuana for several years even if (against all odds) the US went all-legal, everywhere, all at once. And the preeminent possessors of that institutional knowledge are the current ICOs and the farmers, soldiers, transporters, retailers (and their US-side distributors). In other words, a legal US marijuana market will be the endpoint for ICO-sourced marijuana. In other other words, while profits in marijuana will decrease, to the extent that any money accrues south of the border, most of it will still be going into ICO bank accounts.

I also agree with Hope, that “Mexico does not have a marijuana problem: it has a state capacity problem.” But that is where Hope and I split (a little).

Right now, 100% of marijuana profits end up in ICO bank accounts. They can use this money to offset future losses due to interdiction, crop burns, etc.; to bribe public officials; to hire new soldiers; and to buy formidable weaponry and other battlefield technologies. The government gets none of it (except those accepting bribes).

However, a legal marijuana market will decrease the cartel’s take while at the same time also increase the government’s take. These are funds the government can use to hire more police officers and soldiers and train them and to raise salaries—making bribery harder. They are funds the government can use to—simply increase their capacity to rein in lawlessness.
The ICOs have done their best to hollow out the Mexican state. Their main weapon in doing this is not their absolute wealth, it’s the difference between the money they can spend to do it vis-à-vis the money the state has to combat it. Addressing this gap is important in increasing state capacity.

So I think legalizing marijuana can actually have a greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts effect on Mexican state capacity. Why I eventually come to the same conclusion as Hope is because of the nature of the violence in Mexico. Most of the violence in Mexico is not between state actors and the ICOs; it’s between ICOs.

If it’s hard to determine how much money is made in the marijuana biz, it’s even harder to determine which ICOs are profiting the most from this sector (relative to the other sectors they are in). And that’s an important point. Whichever cartels are most affected by the loss of the additional revenues are going to become weaker relative to those cartels which aren’t as affected.

These relative power shifts are the primary driver of inter-ICO violence. In other words, legalized marijuana—at least for a while—should increase violence in Mexico. The plazas that abut the US border will be important geographical areas to control so long as there remain any black or grey market goods to smuggle across them. Disrupting the ICOs relative positions as they battle for equilibrium is exactly the kind of thing that will make violence worse.

Edward R. Tufte’s Envisioning Information

ei_bookcoverI picked up–and finished–Edward R. Tufte’s Envisioning Information yesterday. At 121 pages and filled with dozens of photographs, sketches, maps, charts, and graphs, it a mild read, but what a joy.

With illustration and insight drawn from Paul Klee’s critical writing, Galileo’s journals, and interviews and narrative excerpts from novelist Italo Calvino, Envisioning Information is designed for the humanist-statistician. Incorporating elements from graphic design, psychology, education theory, history, art, music, and architecture, Tufte makes it clear that there is no hard scientific or practical work that has value beyond its ability to be communicated to others.

Moreover, in the spirit of the Marshall McLuhan and other fundamental communications theorists, Envisioning Information is a model of the ideology it proscribes. The book is clearly written, graphics always appear on the same page on which the explanatory text appears (except in one instance to prove the importance of that point). Each page or two-page splash thoughtfully considers and balances white and dark space, text and graphics.

The book, also true to its ideology, is self-effacing. There is no grand statement that, at the close of the 20th century, the author and his field are poised on the edge of a whole new world. Computer graphics, really still in their infancy, are given special consideration for their special limitations (low resolution, and specifically the low resolution/high resolution frontier apparent at the computer-human interface) but are otherwise treated as just one more example of “flatland,” the theoretical 2D space that warps and constrains natural human thought and perception. Many, indeed most, of Tufte’s examples are from 16th-19th centuries. Certainly he recognizes advances in printing technology and overall human understanding to advances in envisioning and managing great information density; but he is also aware that these are largely mere refinements of previous methods. Tufte’s range of illustrations come from Galileo’s ingenious method of observing and tracking sunspots (in an age where conceiving of spots on the sun ran contrary to the church’s scholastic doctrine), to 18th century French dance manuals, to mid-20th century Japanese tourism pamphlets. He seems to have a special affinity for train schedules.

Tufte’s interdisciplinary, human-centered approach to visualizing data is not confined to superficial uses of examples from across time and cultures. It is his rare vision that allows him to see that a map and a table communicate the same information in the same way; it is his gift to be able to describe what he means when he says that. At one point, he compares a New York->New Haven train timetable to a local courthouse. The unnecessary columns of the timetable provide a similarly false sense of order to the timetable that the Doric columns do to the courthouse: “…the real work done in backrooms.” Magnificent.

The book contains no throat clearing. The short introduction is placed uncomfortably, cut across two-pages after the dedication and before the Acknowledgements. It is not treated as Chapter 0 as it is in most books on any subject (back to self-effacement, I presume). From there it jumps immediately into the concept of “flatland” (named after a very strange geometric romance by “A. Square”). Tufte waste no words in describing it or its subtle confundations explicitly. Rather he just describes its effects and trusts his readers to do the thinking on their own–another of the books ideological principals: graphics are not used because “information is confusing” or “audiences are numbskulls.”

As the book progresses, it becomes more and more useful to the novitiate or intermediate data visualizer. Each successive chapter contains more immediately practical advice than its predecessor. Tufte first presents good visualizations and failed ones. Later he will provide contrived good and bad examples to contrast. Later still he will show modest to good examples re-envisioned by him or his team to highlight the dramatic effects of minor changes in the use, thickness, or color of gridlines (for example).

As a How-To manual, the book does not offer much, which is unfortunate because I am very much in the “how-to” phase of learning data visualization. But the book was such a joy to read its impossible to critique its value based on my needs alone. I wanted and expected more of a how-to manual. What I got instead was a snapshot of 400 years (actually more) of humans slowly learning how to be understood. I learned how a 19th century re-envisioning of Euclid’s geometry invented Modern Art. I learned how to track sunspots. I learned why the Vietnam War Memorial is so entrancing and moving. And I learned that, from space, Earth resembles the Charles Schultz character Pigpen. I probably took away about five or six invaluable, timeless, and all purpose data visualization rules as well, which ultimately is the least of the books gifts.

Michael Pollan Says

Michael Pollan advises that shoppers should stay on the perimeter of the grocery store while shopping–where the bakery, dairy, and butcheries tend to be. When venturing down the aisles, his rule of thumb is “Only buy food your grandmother would recognize.” As long as you stick to the spirit of his comment and not delve too deeply into it semantically or operationally, that’s good advice. He’s trying to tell you to stay away from highly processed food derivatives, preservatives, and other ingestibles that are more like “lab materials” and less like food.*

As I was making myself a tuna melt for lunch, I was laughing at myself for adding Sriracha, the hot sauce deservedly beloved of hipsters and the subject of an Oatmeal comic. In my head, I began constructing a hypothetical, hipster tuna melt. Clearly it would need bacon (and more bacon), Sriracha, sashimi-grade tuna… I went on, and along the way began attempting to construct “Kitchen Tips for Hipsters” which would include such gems as “If you need to add ranch dressing, just don’t tell anybody;” and “There’s probably an ingredient you can replace with Sriracha.” By the time I had constructed my entire melt (and yes, I did add a smidge of [low-fat, yogurt-based] Ranch dressing instead of using my Extra-Virgin Olive Oil-based lite mayonnaise) I had a sandwich (with meat from a can) that my grandmother would have only vaguely recognized. Which reminded me of Pollan’s advice.


My grandmother would not have recognized a lot of the foods we consume. In my grandmother’s kitchen there were only three kinds of fat: butter, shortening, and the kind that rolls off pork products. E.V.O.O.—let alone herb-infused E.V.O.O.— would have been unrecognizable, accept maybe by way of comparison to vegetable oil, which as far as I know, she never used. My grandmother knew about cod and various river fish, but Mahi Mahi and red snapper would have made very little sense. Steak? yes. “Kobe beef”? Not a clue. I’ll give you ham, but prosciutto? Now, I am talking about my grandmother not any possible grandmother. An Italian, Greek, or Japanese grandmother would have had some of these on her shopping or To Do lists, but not mine.

So I wondered what my grandmother would have thought about my Instagram feed. Well, one thing I learned is that either I have less foodie friends than I used to, or that trend of taking pictures of your food is dying out. Here the first twelve food items in my Instagram feed and quick notes on whether my grandmother would have recognized them as food.

  1. Sushi—not a chance
  2. Woodhchuck Hard Cider—Kind of. My grandmother certainly knew about “cider” which, if I remember growing up well enough, was always hard, “apple juice” was not. But buying it –and having it filtered and force carbonated would have been odd to her
  3. Rudolphsuppe (made with reindeer cream)It’s possible, though unlikely, my paternal grandmother would have run into this dish if she also happened to run into one of the handful of Scandinavians in the Chicago suburbs at the time. My maternal grandmother would have had no clue for sure. The idea (fish with cream sauce) she probably could have handled, but Rudolphsuppe specifically, no way.
  4. Grilled Green Tomatoes—Well, Granny would have fried them, but otherwise there’s nothing unexpected here.
  5. Cannoliprobably not
  6. Ice cream cone(I think she would have had that one covered)
  7. Wild Orange Blossom Teavana[Lipton] Tea, yes. This? No.
  8. Philly cheesesteakAgain, the concept of chopped beef, cheese, and peppers on a bun, probably, the Philly Cheesesteak? I doubt it.
  9. Korean HibachiNot on your life.
  10. Berliner Weisse-style 1809Well, as its name implies, it was “food” long before my grandmother was born, and I know my grandmother knew what beer was, but Berliner Weisse? Nuh-uh
  11. Campside Session Ale(see above)
  12. Starbucks Iced LatteLike fat, there was only one kind of coffee in my grandmother’s house, robusta beans, Maxwell House specifically, but robusta nevertheless. 20 ounces? of Arabica coffee? iced? that you buy? for five bucks?!?! You might as well have come from outer-space.

Total tally: All twelve foods would have passed the spirit of Michael Pollan’s test, but only two of the foods would be foods my grandmother would have absolutely recognized.

Just to keep this somewhat on topic for the blog, it’s important to note that polices matter. The reasons my grandmother would not have recognized my hypothetical tuna melt and would have been confused by my Instagram feed is because she lived in an age that was poorer than our current one, that was less efficient, when trade agreements were more strict than they currently are, and when America was more homogeneous than it currently is. My grandmother spent most of her life in an era before the Baby Boomers were running the show, which had a range of implications all its own. As the world became more wealthy and more efficient it was the Baby Boomers and their affluent, educated children that reached out across the globe for more hedonic pleasures. It was the Boomers themselves, with their parents’ stories of the Depression to guide them, that nearly unilaterally (politically speaking) decided to start opening trade, which made such exotic faire cheap enough and accessible enough that our culture could latch on to it. Too often we think of the costs of our overseas adventurism, the “exporting of jobs,”and the fragementing of our culture. But in a very real way, average Americans all over the country, including Evansville, Indiana, are able to live in a manner completely alien to my grandmother. They can enjoy foods, drinks and styles of clothing that in the 1920s would have been reserved nearly exclusively for upper class East Coasters. But now, were she alive, she would at least understand if not actually consume a Wild Caught Albacore Melt with Sriracha and Spring Greens served on a low-carb, all-wheat wrap.

* As very famous scientist Neil De Grasse Tyson may or may not have said (according to a Facebook meme), we’re all just chemicals. Food is chemicals etc. So that last sentence is my attempt to rephrase Pollan while maintaining my scientific integrity.

It is somewhat off the spirit of Pollan’s advice, so what preceded is not meant to be an elbow in his ribs.

Colorado is getting bluer

This post is not really related to “technology” except that in order to make the video below I had to edit the Colorado county KML files in Google Earth based off data I got from Wikipedia. Then imported them into Quantum GIS and re-edited them. Then I had to save the resulting maps as PNGs and opened them in GIMP so I could crop and label them. I then took the exported GIFs and opened them in Windows Live Movie Maker, added transitions and captions. Finally I uploaded them to a YouTube account and linked to them here in my WordPress blog.

Some of this stuff I already knew how to do. Using QGIS and using images in Movie Maker were brand new. Obviously I hope my skills get better as I learn QGIS better…and Movie Maker or some better equivalent. Right now I’m really just trying to get a handle on Colorado politics.

The video below doesn’t necessarily say anything as it’s more or less stripped of context. It is of course interesting to see that Colorado’s blueness spread across the election and re-election of Obama. The gains in 2008 were particularly impressive, but it was “a Democratic year.” But one more county turned blue in 2012 and no counties returned to red despite 2012 being “a Republican year.”

The maps could be more informative if I graded the colors in terms of percent blue/percent red. Or if I simply showed the percent above/below some pre-chosen baseline.

It is also worth pointing out that all new blue counties were already adjacent to blue counties. So it’s not at all clear if those counties turned blue due to genuine changes of heart of red voters there or if the blueness was the result of immigration into those counties from blue-minded people from out of state choosing to live near other blue-minded people in state (or people moving from a high-cost blue counties out into nearby-but-cheaper red counties). Which is to say, I’m not providing this map as analysis itself. It’s really just here to document what I hope is a lot of progress in my ability to make useful maps and present them.

Syria’s Internet Disruption

On Thursday morning the Syrian internet went dark. This has several commentators wondering how easy could it be to shut down the internet. Apparently, in Syria, where there’s one major gateway which happens to be owned by the country, pretty easy.

I’m more interested in the other question, the one we asked after similar internet shutdowns in Egypt and Libya. Namely “will it matter”?

I suspect that it will not. There were revolutions and civil wars before there was Twitter and Facebook. It’s hard to imagine that were social media to have been around at the fall of the Soviet Empire there would have been more civil wars than we had. It’s possible of course. We can’t go back in time and relive the end of Communism with today’s internet.

Of course, a world that never had the internet is a different place than a world that had it and then lost. Certainly some greater than zero number of communications will be halted, rallies delayed, arms gone untraded etc. But I don’t think this will amount to more than just a minor hiccup for the rebels. And whatever hindrance it delivers to them, will also be delivered to some greater than zero number of government backers–not to mention all the unaffiliated citizens that want nothing more from the internet than to watch funny cat videos (or whatever the Syrian equivalent is).

Moreover, how many people in Syria are even on the internet? Not many. Its hard to imagine that too many more people joined the ranks of netizenry since the start of the rebel uprising. In 2010, nearly 4 million Syrians had access to the internet. A year later that number had only grown by about half a million. Assuming another half million people have joined since 2011, that puts nearly 5 million internet users…in a nation of just over 20 million, that’s not quite 25% internet penetration.

Although the Syrian shutdown is almost certainly more effective than the Egyptian one, my assumption is that, like its Arab Spring predecessors, it won’t amount to more than a minor bump for opposition and a temporary one.

As a matter of fact, if it was the Syrian government’s desire to upset the internet in order to inconvenience the rebels, then it would have been better to leave the internet up and monitor the communications thereon, because whatever the rebels replace the internet with, it will be harder, not easier, for the beleaguered government to track and intercept those communications.

Photo credit: Slate (“Syria’s Internet Just Went Entirely Dark” 11/29/12)