The Risks of a Russian “Gamble for Resurrection”

Dan Drezner nails it – Putin is backed into a corner, and that should frighten us.  Putin is actually paying massive costs for his strategy in Ukraine, for no discernible gain.  Sanctions are increasingly biting, and with the MH17 incident mobilizing Europe this will only get worse in the near-term future.  And so far, his gains from this strategy amount to: Crimea.  At tremendous economic and financial cost, and for the loss of his client state in Kiev. Even worse, the sanctions are beginning to splinter his domestic base.

One classic IR idea is the “gamble for resurrection“.  This is the idea that leaders, especially in authoritarian states, cannot afford to lose in major crises or conflicts – the regime’s support is shallow, and they might lose control if they show weakness.  So rather than back down, often leaders will escalate conflicts because it serves their best interests rather than those of the state.  The more sanctions undermine Putin’s elite coalition, and the less he has to show for it, the greater the risk that he will decide he cannot afford to lose and will start being riskier and more aggressive.

I’d add one more point to Drezner’s – that sanctions aimed at splitting Putin’s domestic base might well be read by Putin as an attempt to force regime change.  Putin surely understands the above logic, but might well put a different spin on things – that the point of these sanctions are to undermine his base of power and hope for a new government.  If so, the incentive for him is clear – each new round of sanctions must be met with more escalation, because if he backs down the personal costs could be immense.

Lying with Data: Hate Crimes Edition

My interest was piqued when I saw a much-tweeted article about the “most-prejudiced places in America”.  Maybe not the most grabbing headline, but it sure was when accompanied with this map:

Notice anything strange?

Something jumped out at me right away – the Deep South is a bastion of tolerance!  Until you look a bit closer – because the map doesn’t actually measure tolerance, it measures hate crimes.  Is it possible – just maybe – that in more prejudiced places, hate crimes don’t get prosecuted as such? For a quick thought experiment, place yourself at the scene of a Mississippi cross-burning in 1962.  The chance of that hate crime being reported, much less prosecuted, is somewhere roughly between zero and “not in a million years”.  As the disclaimer at the bottom of the story clarifies, the data for this map comes from voluntary submissions by local law enforcement – I think that this might be a wee bit biased, especially considering that the 9% of agencies that don’t report almost certainly have unusually high numbers. So we have two problems with using this data to make claims about American prejudice – first, that there’s some very nonrandom missing data, and second that the data is probably coded in a biased way.

If you see a map that seems to obviously conflict with well-known facts, you should look more closely. Yet there’s just something about pretty maps that makes people lose their ability to think critically.  I really need to start working those into my research,

A Short Quant Analysis of Video Game Ratings

A kind Redditor made a database of all video game reviews from IGN, a gaming website.  Obviously I couldn’t let this go to waste, so I popped it into R to see what could be done.  First off, a histogram of game scores reveals two obvious biases:



First off, there seems to be a substantial upward bias in assessment.  As a customer, I’d like a nice normal distribution centered around five.  This is centered around 6.9 and skewed to the right, which seems to validate the intuition that reviewers are often overly generous with games.  However, this could reflect the data-generating process: reviewers do not randomly select the games that they review, and may be non-randomly sampling a normal distribution.  However, the second problem is that reviewers seem to operate by flawed heuristics – the obvious big huge spikes are at round numbers and at .5, suggesting that reviewers are operating within a constrained space.  I would suggest we could probably eliminate ratings more finely-grained than a half-point, because this suggests it’s not tremendously informative.

As a gamer, as opposed to a social science measurement guru, I’m also curious about something else – are some platforms systematically better than others?  The answer seems to be, “not really – but some platforms are worse”.  See the graph below for the effects – basically, the line represents the average mean score, and the distance from the middle reflects whether games on that platform are better than the average (right of the line) or worse (left of the line).  Most are worse!  There are few platforms with positive and statistically significant positive effects on predicted score – interestingly, Macintosh is one of them.  Either Macs are a better gaming platform than given credit for – or only good PC games get ported to Mac.  However, there are a bunch of negative effects from platforms, and as you see below, there are a number of categories that produce truly awful games.  DVD interactive “games” are rated horribly, which shouldn’t be surprising – but Wii games, Game Boy games, and Nintendo DS games are – the coefficients on those are large, negative, and statistically significant.  I wonder if that’s because their games are targeted towards kids.


Click to embiggen


The data is kinda neat, but limited.  It’d be nice if it were dated, time series data – I’d love to examine whether ratings are changing over time. Eyeballing the chart of which systems do well and poorly, I doubt it.  Curmodgeons love to claim ratings are too generous and it was better back in the day, as curmodgeons claim to do.  I suspect the data would prove them wrong.  Next step might be learning how to use this hacked-together Metacritic API

Facebook, OKCupid, and Applied Social Science

The chief data scientist at OKCupid, Christian Rudder, has published a response of sorts to recent news about Facebook experimenting on its users.  The response is, basically, that all web sites experiment on their users.  As a question of fact, this is obviously correct – the modern art of website management and digital media in general is best understood as a practical application of modern social science.  As a question of norms, it doesn’t seem particularly troubling either.  While the Facebook experiment was in an ethical grey area, the experiments Rudder outlines would easily pass muster with an IRB.*  OKCupid didn’t get informed consent, but also posed no potential for physical or emotional harm to human subjects.

One thing the inter-academia Facebook kerfluffle has overlooked – nowadays more and more social science is taking place outside of the university.  Places like OK Cupid and Facebook are accumulating some of the most useful and illuminating data on human behavior, and it’s all locked up in proprietary databases.  They have adopted social science methods, but their insights aren’t getting out to benefit society as a whole.  None of it is peer-reviewed or shared amongst themselves, either – I have to wonder how many tech companies have internally validated “insights” that contradict what’s known by others.

As time goes on, a smaller and smaller share of social science will take place in the academy.  If you’re a psychologist or behavioralist and really want to dive into the mysteries of human motivation and interaction in 2014, would you want a job at a university or OK Cupid?


*: Institutional Review Board, a university body that approves experiments on human beings.

Russia, the EU, and Sanctions as Subsidy

Yglesias has a new post up on the package of sanctions the EU is preparing for Russia, and one in particular seems interesting, an EU embargo on Russian arms:

While the EU exports €300 million a year in weapons to Russia, EU countries import about €3.2 billion in Russian-made equipment. Those imports mostly go to former Warsaw Pact countries such as Poland, whose militaries have a legacy of using Russian arms. This is an appealing target because Eastern and Central European countries are also, in general, the countries most eager to see the EU take a more anti-Russian tilt.

Yglesias mentions one reason this is practical, that the brunt of this would be borne by the most militantly anti-Russian countries.  France and Italy don’t operate MiGs – Poland and Latvia do, and this embargo would cut them off from replacement parts.  If they’re interested in taking this step, there’s no visible main impediment. And it might actually make an impression. While 3.2 billion Euro comprises a whopping 0.2% of the Russian economy (by my back of the envelope estimate), it’s a fairly significant sector of the economy dominated by interests close to the state.

One thing Yglesias doesn’t mention: on this issue, the political economy lines up beautifully.    The 3.2 billion Euros won’t be lost, especially since the bulk of those imports are to Eastern European countries that are currently getting quaky and plowing money into their military.  Poland will keep buying fighter jets, but it won’t be buying MiGs – they’ll be buying Eurofighters, Saabs, and F-16s.  This embargo could function as a de facto subsidy to the big European military contractors that are mostly located in Western Europe.  I imagine that Airbus and BAE are leaning hard on their friends in the EU as we speak.

I can’t speak for the rest of the package, but this seems likely to happen.

Voodoo Economics and the Minimum Wage

Quartz suggests that companies can make more money by raising their wages, focusing on the well-paid line workers at QuikTrip and the research of Zaynep Ton at MIT Sloan..  I think we should probably file this under “Wonderful if true, but pretty darn unlikely”.  I think there’s a simple way to evaluate this type of claim – if true, where are the private equity firms running LBOs of fast-food chains and raising everyone’s wages?  This argument doesn’t even have to be of the “nobody leaves $20 on the sidewalk” strength, merely that if this were a reasonable strategy someone would have tried it.  However, that’s not the only argument against it.

Let’s assume that QuickTrip does get positive ROI on the high wages – how much of the “QuickTrip effect” is compositional?  There are two possible stories of the QuikTrip effect – the first is that higher wages drive higher productivity, and the second that higher wages attract more productive employees.  The Quartz story and Zaynep Ton focus on the first story, but to me that seems less plausible than the second.  A QuikTrip job is obviously much more appealing than one at McDonald’s, and presumably the selection process is more competitive.  Even if you believe in the QuikTrip effect, and there’s no reason not to, it is almost certainly because they attract better employees than their competition.

This has important policy consequences. First, this isn’t a generalizable strategy – by definition only a few companies can be “well-paid” relative to their competition and poach the better employees. For many companies, choosing not to play this game is the smarter choice.  Secondly, we should be very dubious about common liberal claims that raising the minimum wage will be inexpensive or positive-sum.  If there’s no direct productivity effect of high wages, then raising the minimum wage is costly; it doesn’t mean that it’s a bad idea, but deluding oneself about its effect does nobody any favors.  The belief in the positive-sum minimum wage raise is probably the closest liberal equivalent to the voodoo economics of deficit-reducing tax cuts – wonderful if true, but pretty darn unlikely.

The Consequences of MH17 for Ukraine (and Russia)

In the latest escalation in Ukraine, today a civilian airliner was shot down with a surface-to-air missile over Donetsk, killing all 295 people aboard.  It’s not clear yet what happened, but the explanation seems obvious – Russia gave jumpy, poorly-trained separatists heavy anti-aircraft systems (along with, probably, some trained operators, because you can’t exactly pick those things up and figure it out).  These separatists see a blip on the radar and fire enthusiastically without realizing it’s a civilian plane.  As the narrative is pieced together, I would be very surprised if we discover otherwise.

The crisis in Ukraine has officially spiraled completely out of control.  Over the past few weeks or so, Russian involvement has become more and more overt – yesterday evidence emerged of a Russian jet shooting down a Ukrainian plane, and Russian artillery shelling the Ukrainian army.  The two countries are very close to a de facto state of war, and a de jure state of war might not be far off.  I agree with Julia Ioffe – this incident is clearly a game changer, but it’s not immediately clear how.  However, the crisis has obviously entered a more volatile and less predictable phase that should worry everyone.

Americans should reevaluate the reputation of Vladimir Putin as an evil genius; for the last six months his behavior has been reactive and panicky. First, he lost his client state in Ukraine by pushing too hard against EU association.  He successfully claimed Crimea, but seems to have cemented the dominance of the pro-Western faction in Ukraine for the foreseeable future.  Vladimir Putin might have thought his backing of separatist rebels was a clever low-cost way to encourage the new Ukrainian government to fall into line, but as fighting escalated he has lost any control he might have had over the situation.  This incident was a shocking blow to his position; meaningful EU sanctions are much more likely than yesterday.  This is all a bad thing – the combination of reactive, panicky, and backed into a corner is terrifyingly unpredictable.

In my view, this incident substantially increases the chance of an overt Russian invasion of Eastern Ukraine.  Putin has completely lost control of the irregulars he has armed, and crucially has now done so very publicly.  He must be considering whether it is possible to disarm the rebels before they do something else that will so drastically compromise Russia’s international position, the economy, and potentially even his grip on power.  Unfortunately for him, a “peacekeeping operation” will now be even more vilified internationally than if he had launched one yesterday.  He’s in a very tight spot, which should frighten everyone involved.

Also, incidentally, try and extrapolate from this incident to policy for the US.  Putin was transferring arms to well-known actors immediately on the other side of his border, with defined objectives, trained fighters, and Russian intelligence handlers heavily involved.  Do you think we will have substantially more control or influence over Syrian rebels?


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