A woman in Taiwan who tested positive for coronavirus was infected at a lab where she and her colleagues were handling mice which were infected with the virus, officials say.
Taiwan’s Epidemic Command Center said a woman in her 20s, who works at the Genomics Research Center in Taipei, tested positive for coronavirus earlier this week, making it the island’s first domestic case in nearly 5 weeks.
The woman developed a mild cough on November 26 and her symptoms intensified on December 4. She then experienced an abnormal sense of smell and taste on Wednesday, which prompted her to seek medical attention.
Genomic sequencing showed that the woman, who was fully vaccinated with Moderna’s COVID-19 vaccine, was infected with the Delta variant. This specific strain of Delta is identical to the virus which the center uses for research.
The woman told investigators that she was bitten by an infected mouse on October 15, but she later tested negative for coronavirus. She was bitten by another mouse on November 19, though this one was infected with the Alpha variant, ruling it out as the cause of her infection.
However, two of the woman’s co-workers were working on another mouse which was infected with the Delta variant on the same day as the second bite, Health Minister Chen Shih-chung said, adding that an error may have occurred during handling of the mice.
Traces of the virus were also found on tables and doorknobs at the lab, according to the Central News Agency.
The last day has seen the imposition of new travel restrictions and spreading alarm about the Omicron variant. It sure looks like a repeat of what happened with Alpha and Delta, as well as the original strain back in early 2020, and that we are probably doing this again.
How will this play out this time? It’s very early. There’s tons of unknowns. Yet there is a lot we can say already, and many actions need to happen now to have any hope of doing much good. So it’s time to move fast, see what we can say right now and try to capture the speed premium.
I’ll start with a summary of what we know about the game board based on previous experience, then look at what we know about Omicron and what moves have been played so far in this round.
I was almost finished with this post when the WHO decided to go with Omicron instead of Nu (or even Xi) and then I had to go through and replace Nu with Omicron about 25 times. We could have just said ‘the Nu variant’ a lot but the WHO hates both efficiency and fun even more than it hates freedom, it seems. Sad.
The First Three Times
In early 2020, we got warnings about a new potential pandemic. Almost all reactions were too little too late. What warnings I offered were less too late than most, but still too tentative and too late.
About a year ago, as the Alpha variant was spreading, it seemed like the same pattern was happening again. It was clear Alpha would take over. I extrapolated into the future, did the math as best I could, wrote the post We’re F***ed, It’s Over, noted the unknowns, and predicted a 70% chance of a large wave between March and May.
As I noted in the later update, it was not over. There was no big wave between March and May of 2021. Alpha wasn’t as additionally infectious as I expected, but it wasn’t that much less additionally infectious than I expected, and I didn’t have enough respect for several factors including seasonality. In hindsight the 70% prediction was somewhat overconfident, and a prediction of about 45% would have been better.
Then, as it looked like things would have otherwise died down and normal life resumed, Delta arrived. It was quickly clear it would not be contained for long and Delta would take over. The situation in India seemed super scary, with hospitals overwhelmed and the serious possibility Delta would sweep through the entire population, first in India and then around much of the world.
Then India’s situation stabilized quickly, and it seemed clear we had sufficient vaccinations plus control system reactions to prevent things from getting too far out of hand. There would be a wave now, perhaps another in winter, but it would not be a crisis.
Winter is now coming, and that winter wave is clearly already underway, except now we are likely to also face the Omicron variant.
If Omicron Is What We Think, We Cannot Stop It, Only Slow It Down
Before we get to the details of the Omicron variant, it’s worth taking a step back and asking what we know about such developments in general, and how things are likely to play out and what options might be available.
The first point is the obvious one. There is no stopping a variant that is substantially more infectious than Delta. If Omicron is indeed substantially more infectious than Delta, it will become the dominant strain throughout the world.
Once there are hundreds of detected cases, it is already far too late to successfully contain the new variant. By the time we have enough information to react to a new variant, there will already be hundreds of detected cases. We lose. Good day, sir.
That doesn’t mean there are no physically possible measures that could contain the new variant once there are hundreds of detected cases. It does mean none of them are remotely in the Overton Window, or logistically within the abilities of our governments even if they decided to try anyway. Playing to win the game is not an option here. We lose.
That doesn’t mean we can’t or shouldn’t do things that make us lose slower. We can absolutely slow down the pace at which Omicron displaces Delta.
Whether or not that time is useful depends on what we do with that time.
Perhaps not very much time. The worse Omicron is, the more rapidly it will take over and the less time we can buy with countermeasures. In practice, in terms of the takeover rather than the overall number of infections, we could likely buy ourselves a week or two, but it’s hard to see us buying more than that. We could also institute general restrictions against Covid-19 to reduce the number of infections across the board. Once again, we buy ourselves a small amount of time.
If buying time before a sufficiently large wave gets us better access to Paxlovid or other treatments, or allows us to get a lot more people booster shots that still work, or time to make a new version of the vaccine and roll it out, time can be quite valuable.
There’s also the possibility of stalling to get better seasonality effects when crunch time happens. The wave maxing out in December seems like maximally bad timing, and we’d prefer to push it to January or February.
If you buy time and then it is wasted, then nothing is gained. If you pay a big price to buy time, it needs to be paired with a similarly big effort to make use of that time.
The first step is always a debate over travel restrictions. Travel restrictions feel like Doing Something, and failure to impose such restrictions opens the door for blame.
When the WHO warned against travel restrictions, that’s when I knew in my gut what we were dealing with.
Travel restrictions are an excellent idea when the goal is to buy time. They can definitely slow down the rate at which the new variant spreads across borders.
What they can’t do is stop it entirely, even if they are imposed early enough, unless you’re sufficiently serious.
Sufficiently serious means actually closing off or at least aggressively quarantining everyone who has any exposure to the areas in question, which includes any areas not taking similar measures, anywhere. There can’t be exceptions, including for your citizens.
Realistically, your minimum case that could possibly fully work is to be Australia, and quarantine everyone at the border even if there’s no reason to suspect anything, and you need to do it right. That’s not going to happen.
Even if you did succeed, what then? How long are you going to keep your borders closed? A restriction to a few countries might help the first week, but within a month it won’t even much matter, because there’s too much spread elsewhere. It’s not like a variant worse than Delta is going to go away any time soon, so you’re stuck in a permanent state that in most places both can’t be created and can’t be sustained if you did create it.
For those places that showed they can sustain it, would you even want to, and for how long? When would it end? What’s your plan?
The other issue with travel restrictions is they continue long, long past the time when they still make any sense. Once containment has generally been lost, the restrictions don’t do anything. At a minimum, they do nothing unless you’re in a much much better place than the region you’re cutting off, whereas there were many cases of longstanding mutual restrictions where the same variant was dominant in both places, which is pure folly.
It does seem like ‘impose travel restrictions aggressively to buy time’ is a good response. The short term cost is very low, and with so many unknowns the upsides are very high. If you do that, you need to do it very quickly. The best time is a week ago, the second best time is right now, and all that. In the scenarios where it matters most, a week from now there won’t be much point.
Exactly what restrictions are imposed by who, and when, provides strong insight into how various governments respond to new information.
It’s worth noting that if a new variant is about to displace the old one, then lockdowns designed to stop the spread of the old variant are much less worthwhile. Once there’s a displacement event, the previous infection level no longer matters at all. If anything, previous infections could be an advantage, if the new variant is more dangerous, and/or it means the spread can be slowed down due to natural immunity. The flip side is if somehow natural immunity was going to stop working entirely against the new variant, then every case prevented in the meantime is a pure extra case, which based on history seems unlikely but is possible.
The bigger reason to reconsider existing lockdowns is that there are increasing marginal costs for lockdowns, and a limited capacity to impose them. The early efforts to stop the spread ‘used up’ a lot of that capacity. Lockdowns now, before the crunch time, could end up having little effect and also making it impossible or more expensive to lockdown again later when it matters most. To the extent that lockdowns are a good idea, they need to be timed carefully.
The counterargument to that is that a lockdown suppresses overall transmission levels of the new variant as well. Even if you have only 10 cases, if you slow down spread from those 10, that’s worth a lot and buys you time. That’s true, but mostly only works if you’re no longer importing meaningful numbers of cases from elsewhere, and for various dynamic reasons the amount of time you buy here won’t be very large.
You can also attempt to do a lot of sequencing, then do aggressive quarantines and contact tracing when you find the new variant, but the capacity to do this enough to matter is not present.
The best defense against prior waves and variants has been vaccination. Every time a new variant arrives, fears are stroked that the vaccines will stop working, or will be less effective.
Despite that, we’ve had months in which we could easily have updated the mRNA vaccines to fully match the Delta variant, we are now giving out booster shots even, and still no sign of any attempt to modify the vaccines.
I’m unsure how much evidence this is against the need to update the vaccines. If the vaccines had stopped working entirely, or taken a sufficiently strong hit, presumably we would have updated to a new version. The FDA has promised to look kindly upon such changes, and it seems like it could only help on both health and financial considerations. My guess is it’s actually quite a bit of evidence against any strong potential gains from updating, but weak evidence against weak gains.
So far, all talk of immune escape has mostly been exactly that, talk. That should make us wary of expecting it out of a new variant, or of updating too much from people’s concerns.
If a new variant comes along that does offer substantial escape from the vaccines, we will need to update the vaccines and get new versions out as quickly as possible. Will we be able to do that?
Technologically I have no worries. We’ll have that part solved within the week and probably within one day.
Engineering I’m also not worried about. My understanding is this is at most a two week process. There are still concerns about rate of production, since we were stupid enough not to scale this up enough in advance, but we’ll take whatever we can get.
It therefore comes down to the FDA making good on its word to allow this to happen, and then on our ability to distribute the new boosters and communicate effectively why they are necessary and get people to accept them. In the short term, we don’t need to worry that much about communication, so that has more time to get its act together.
The other worry is that if Omicron is sufficiently worse than Delta, especially if it combines being otherwise worse with immune escape, the amount of time available might be quite short. Even if everything went smoothly the full process would still take months. We could go faster in theory, but that would require efforts on a different level than we made the first time or have accomplished in a long while on anything. I’m not optimistic.
When we see a new variant spreading rapidly, what should our priors be about its biological properties?
Note that these are all things we should think are likely rather than anything that we know.
We have explored various potential mutations a lot by now, so we should put a lot of weight on what those mutations imply about the variant’s likely behavior.
We should presume that if something takes over quickly, it has a very large advantage infecting people who are unvaccinated and lack natural immunity.
We should presume that if it also has an additional property of vaccine escape, that seems like quite a coincidence, so it seems unlikely.
We should consider this even more unlikely if the variant started out in places with low vaccination rates.
We should also presume immune escape from either natural infection or vaccination is unlikely from our track record of Alpha and Delta not having this property.
We should presume there will still be more ‘breakthrough’ infections but that this comes from the protection levels no longer being sufficient because the new variant is easier to catch in general, not because the particular protections you have stopped working.
We should presume at this point some positive correlation between infectiousness and virulence, since both are likely tied to how much virus is typical (viral load), and previous variants followed this correlation.
We should be more confident in these things if our tests still work than if they start to fail.
What Do We Know About Omicron?
There have been a bunch of threads attempting to answer this question.
I’m going to err on the side of directly putting in too much of these threads rather than too little, in the interest of speed, and to offer an easy option to get closer to the sources.
I think this final graph is a bit confused here, unless ‘the original strain’ here means Delta. Delta had about a 120% advantage over ‘the original strain’ or 70% over Alpha. I’m going to take this to mean 500% as compared to that 120%, so 600% of original versus 220% of original, or about a 170% additional increase. Which is… better, but still quite a lot.
The graph above it does seem to imply that the Omicron advantage over Delta is being modeled here to be several times larger than the Delta advantage over Alpha/Beta, where ‘modeled here’ means looking at share of all cases in the country over time. This is a super scary graph, assuming it is accurate.
There’s also always the question of how this interacts with immune escape. Again, I’m using a baseline assumption that this is the same factor across the board regardless of level of immunity, and there isn’t an additional effect from escape of some kind.
South Africa’s vaccination rate is sufficiently low, and this rate of spread so high, that it wouldn’t much matter if there was vaccine escape properties, although it would presumably matter if there was escape from natural immunity.
Straight talk: If it’s 500% above Delta, in the way I understand it, We’re F***ed and it really really is over. At that point, it’s pure mitigation, and trying to flatten the curve a little bit, but yes everyone who isn’t immune is going to get this, and it would happen quickly. Under conditions where Delta would have had stable case counts, assuming a four day serial interval, this runs its course in America starting from a single case in about 50 days. If we assume 5 days per cycle, we get two months. Probably get somewhat more than that due to geographical barriers. There’d be a lot of attempted heroic prevention in the second half of that (the overall case number impact gets noticeable around the halfway point) and in particular in the endgame but in practice I doubt it much matters.
If it’s 170% above Delta, it changes how much time we have, and opens the door to meaningful action being possible to make things less awful. In particular, it gives a real shot to Paxlovid to be able to scale up in time to matter.
As always, such numbers are placeholders, approximations that simplify and mislead. Things aren’t that simple.
This is the Trevor Bradford thread. He concludes that selection from vaccinations did not drive variants in 2021, but that conditions are changing and such selection grows more likely over time.
This is an argument that the advantage that Omicron has comes largely from its escape properties – it has tons of escape properties, and South Africans can have lots of natural immunity even if they don’t have a high vaccination rate, which is leading to the rapid spread.
Note that while I don’t put zero stock in differential impact on natural immunity versus immunity from vaccination, I don’t put much probability mass there either. I’d presume until proven otherwise that they both will weaken about as much as the other.
I’d also presume that since vaccination without boosters is mostly sufficient to protect against severe disease, and boosters provide a gigantic boost to protection on top of that, and this is not going to fully escape, that a booster should still be sufficient to offer practical protection against the variant, and non-boosted vaccination should still provide strong protection although potentially not as robust as before.
Note that this being about escape is in some ways good news. If it’s about escape, then we don’t have any reason to presume that the new variant is deadlier, or presents something we can’t defend against by renewing our defenses.
I also don’t see any reason to think that any of this would make Paxlovid or other non-antibody treatments less effective, so we’ll still have all of that in our arsenal.
Then again, Bloom Lab points out that there’s a contrasting viewpoint, and some chance it’s worse than all that, although I’d still consider it highly unlikely:
This thread calls for help for South Africa to ‘help contain’ the virus, and to avoid ‘isolating’ the country. I don’t see how one could hope to contain anything at this point, regardless of help, or how not isolating could make sense. The call to provide other kinds of help seems right.
Link above is to the 7th post in the Bloom thread above, below to the 2nd one.
This seems like the reasonable skeptical take. Things could be quite bad on any number of fronts, but we don’t know much yet. I agree that any pronouncements on severity should be treated with even more extreme skepticism.
Putting it all together, it seems likely that at least some of the advantage here comes from escape, or what Kai prefers to call immune erosion, but that we can be confident that this will only be partial.
We can’t be sure how much additional transmission advantage Omicron will have on top of that, but the Hong Kong case is suggestive given there are so few other cases abroad, and this level of rapid spread seems unlikely to happen only (or even primarily) from immune erosion properties. In the scenarios where the growth rate is ‘real’ in the sense that it reflects a very high transmissibility advantage for Omicron, I’d be very surprised if it wasn’t better at spreading among the unvaccinated never-infected.
That’s not a very large red area on the right, but it is a very rapid rise. Still a chance this is all a blip. We will know more very soon.
The overall levels are still small, compared to places like the United States:
You might think this is lack of testing, but no, it’s not.
This is the biggest reason to think this could all still be a false alarm. A large rise from a very small number means a lot less.
Despite this, of course, it’s still too late to contain the situation, which is why I’m saying that we will basically never contain such situations. A few thousand cases is too many to come back from, and we’re already seeing cases in many other places – one in Belgium, one in Hong Kong and one in Israel.
The financial markets are taking this seriously. You can never be sure about such things, but from what I’ve seen the details of what is moving in what direction sure look like this is the ‘Covid beta’ rather than something else.
The large decline in Crypto is especially interesting, because we saw a similar thing in 2020 that at the time clearly didn’t reflect long term prospects and was based on the flows that happen in such situations. At the time I was too distracted to pull the trigger, which is quite sad. If the current move gets much bigger, then to the extent that one wants to be long, it seems like a potential opportunity to buy cheap (Not Investment Advice!).
That market reaction was motivating to get me to look at this quickly and take it seriously, and is definitely influencing my probability of this being ‘for real’ quite a bit.
The other big response was, of course, travel bans. The WHO warning against them is what got me to snap to attention and write this quickly, which also tells you what I think of the WHO:
I have a lot of news sources, but for pure ‘just the basic things that are happening around the world regarding Covid’ my source of choice is the BNO Newsroom and in particular their twitter feed. Here’s some stuff that happened, in chronological order, after a lot of different news items about various new European case counts and restrictions over the previous few days.
As far as I can tell the WHO’s reaction was to attempt to stop nations from closing borders.
An accompanying press release did a standard call for preventative measures, which doesn’t seem connected to any model of how that would help.
The UK goes first and fast, cutting off travel from six countries rather than only South Africa, as one would do if taking this seriously. Of course, if taking this fully seriously you’d cut off everyone, but that’s a much bigger ask, especially at this early stage. Again, we never actually win at this, we only lose slower.
The note of a ‘threat to the vaccine programme’ looks to me like an important insight into the psychology here. The entire pandemic is seen through the eyes of the vaccinations, and as a fight to be won, rather than as a more broad situation in which vaccines are the strongest tool but the goal is to do the best we can in practice.
So we see the jump, as always, to ‘maybe the vaccines will stop working.’
Israel second. The UK did first doses first and otherwise took its own path to vaccine distribution, some would say even exiting the EU for related reasons. Israel did what it had to do to get more vaccine doses faster, and give them out quickly.
Those two being the first two to ban travel does not seem remotely like a coincidence.
The timeline says this jump came after the UK and Israel took action, which is impressive. The extra day’s data makes a big difference.
Direct link to the tracker here. Doesn’t appear to let you view things over time, so here’s the snapshot now, as I’m writing this, at 12:52pm on 11/26, during which time South Africa’s case count hasn’t been updated:
Singapore up next, and again, does this seem like a coincidence to you at all?
Israel and Hong Kong (and later Belgium) detected the first cases not in Southern Africa, while also seeming like the places that would notice such cases first. Let’s not pretend it hasn’t arrived here yet.
Note the contrast. The EU proposes a ban and will consider it. The UK went ahead and did it.
Not that every EU member was about to sit around and wait.
Germany noting the ‘variant of concern’ and then saying they’re ‘very worried’ while not stopping flights is an interesting news item there, while others drop the hammer. Short Germany?
As long as you don’t, ya know, actually do anything about it, as we’ll see in a second.
Oh well, nothing we can do about things like that.
Very glad to see that they did quarantine the entire flight.
We are still going to ‘wait for more information.’ Others do not have that luxury.
Less than a day still isn’t so bad – they did it while I was writing this. Kudos.
Seriously, WHO, could you people be any less helpful? We all agreed on Nu and now we have to type Omicron all the time? Couldn’t even use Xi?
Here’s their announcement.
So please gather information and encourage everyone to take all the same measures as before, and otherwise do nothing.
A quick scan of the new Belgian report does not seem to indicate information I didn’t already have from Twitter. Here are its recommendations:
The identification of a first B.1.1.529 positive case in Belgium (but also at the European level) highlights the rapid international spread of this variant. Risk mitigation strategies should include travel restrictions or reinforced screening procedures at the international level (not only travels linked to South Africa), accelerating vaccination campaigns worldwide and accelerating the delivery of booster doses for the most fragile populations, reinforcing disease control interventions at all levels. Further, offering maximal support to African countries to ensure reinforced disease surveillance and control remains a high priority. These standard recommendations should shortly be updated based on the evolution of our understanding of the impact of this variant with regard to virulence, infectiousness, vaccine efficacy and activity of existing antivirals.
That all seems highly sensible, if incomplete.
EDIT: The actual moment I hit the send button, we did in fact restrict travel:
In the interest of the speed premium, I’m going to summarize my current thinking, while noting that I haven’t had that much time to think it over (nor has anyone else), and that my opinions will doubtless change quickly as the situation develops and also I have time to think.
Also, having to do this gives me a chance to do some intuition pumping.
These numbers are best guesses right now but please don’t take them too seriously or stick to them as the situation changes. If I don’t look stupid with some of these, then that would be me twisting my numbers to not look stupid. These numbers probably don’t live in the same universe and you could probably make very good bets against me by figuring out where they’re inconsistent, were I willing to book them, but these numbers aren’t supposed to be robust enough for that.
Anyway, here goes.
Chance that Omicron has a 100% or bigger transmission advantage in practice versus Delta: 30%.
The estimates in the threads were very large, including numbers like 170% and 500%, but I notice that my median estimate is far lower. That’s because the overall numbers are still small, and variants have a way of starting out spreading super rapidly for various reasons well in excess of how much better they end up spreading at equilibrium. This could all still be very overblown, and especially that’s likely in terms of the huge estimates of transmissibility advantage.
Chance that Omicron will displace Delta: 70%.
This implies there’s about a 40% chance that Omicron will displace Delta but with a <100% advantage, which seems at least reasonable.
In terms of this being a favorite at this point, I agree it’s still early, but also the pattern matching is way, way too good, and there weren’t any false alarms that got to this level of concern.
Chance that Omicron is importantly more virulent than Delta: 25%.
I mean everyone knows they don’t know, and this is definitely me guessing in a largely unprincipled way at this point. The virtue of putting a number on it even when you have no idea.
Chance that Omicron is importantly immune erosive, reducing effectiveness of vaccines and natural immunity: 50%.
There’s a lot of baseline biological reasons to suggest this, and there’s a lot of trust that this translates into actual effects, but will the effect be ‘important’? That’s harder to say, and we have skepticism from previous rounds. Seems likely that protection against infection will decline.
Chance that Omicron means the vaccinated and previously infected are no longer effectively protected against severe disease until they get an Omicron-targeted booster shot: 5%.
I find this much less likely than a waning of immunity to infection and modest decline in severe disease protection. Our immune systems are robust, the protection against severe disease from vaccines and infections has held up even when breakthroughs happen or vaccine effectiveness declines over time. 5% is a lot more worried than I was yesterday! And if that does happen, things are going to go very haywire, but for now I’m only at 5%.
Chance we will be getting boosters modified for Omicron within 6 months of our previous booster shot: 15%.
I notice that I don’t expect this to happen in many of the worlds where it would be an obviously necessary idea.
Chance that Omicron is less vulnerable to non-antibody treatments like Paxlovid or Fluvoxamine: 5%.
This is an ‘unprincipled’ 5% based on weird stuff happening, and I could probably get a lot more confident in a hurry by asking experts quick questions, but as far as I can tell there’s no interaction between such treatments and the changes in Omicron. So I can’t rule it out, but I find this unlikely.
Chance we are broadly looking at a future crisis situation with widely overwhelmed American hospitals, new large American lockdowns and things like that: 20%.
My gut is something like: Even with a huge transmission advantage, we might not get to this point because of vaccinations and Paxlovid, if we have enough time for that, and because every wave ends up peaking on its own one way or another, and there’s a ton of immunity already even if it will be weakened somewhat. If we assume 100% transmission advantage, there should be enough time to get Paxlovid online, so I think this is less likely than the doubled transmission, but I do notice that it’s on the table. Again, I expect to move this number quickly if I were to think more about it.
This has been written super quickly, so it will have mistakes, especially mistakes of reasoning. That’s how it works in a rapidly developing situation. Here’s the practical view for now.
If you haven’t had a booster, I’d consider getting one. Waiting for modifications for Omicron seems wrong, as if that happens demand will exceed supply for too long. If Omicron is for real, it might become very difficult to get an appointment for a while.
If you have things to do that involve exposure, all the more reason to do them now rather than wait. If you have travel plans a while out, don’t get too attached.
If you don’t have emergency supplies in case of another lockdown, maybe start thinking about what you’d need and stock up early on things that will keep or would be super important. Even if it’s unlikely, you want to notice when it becomes likely.
The chances of things ever fully ‘returning to normal’ went down once again, except if we decide to return to normal and live our lives anyway. We need a plan to do that, now more than ever.
From 1865 to 1909, Belgium was ruled by a great king. He helped promote the adoption of universal male suffrage and proportional-representation voting. During his rule Belgium rapidly industrialized and had immense economic growth. He gave workers the right to strike. He passed laws protecting women and children. Employment of children under 12, of children under 16 at night, and of women under 21 underground, was forbidden. Workers also gained compensation rights for workplace accidents and got Sundays off. He improved education, built railways and more.
Around the same time, Congo was ruled by an awful dictator. He ruled the country using a mercenary military force, which he used for his own gain. He extracted a fortune out of ivory. He used forced labor to harvest and process rubber. Atrocities such as murder and torture were common. The feet and hands of men, women and children were severed when the quota of rubber was not met. Millions have died during his rule.
The catch? They were the same person - King Leopold II of Belgium. He's part of a small club of people that have led more than one country, and might be the only one who did so simultaneously. What made the same person act as a great king in one nation and a terrible dictator in the other? If neither innate benevolence nor malevolence led to his behavior, it has to be something else.
This post covers Selectorate Theory. We'll come back to the story of Leopold and see how this theory explains it, but first, we have to understand the theory.
The theory takes a game theoretical approach to political behavior, by which I mean two things. First, that it's built on a mathematical model. And second, that it's agent and strategy based. That means the analysis doesn't happen at the level of countries, which aren't agents, but at the level of individuals, like leaders and voters, and that the behavior of these agents is strategic, and not a product of psychology, personality or ideology.
This abstraction makes this model more generally applicable beyond countries to any hierarchical power structure, such as small local governments, companies, and even small teams and groups, but to keep things simple I'll only talk about it in the context of countries.
I will try to give a comprehensive overview of the theory based on the book The Logic of Political Survival. We'll start with the basic framework, then go through the predictions and implications the authors talk about, then I'll mention further implications I think the theory has.
I won't go over the statistical evidence for the theory, except for a brief comment at the end, or over the mathematical model itself - the post is long enough without it - but I might do that in future posts.
I want to thank Bruce, the first author, for reading this article before publication. I sent him a question, not even sure I would get a response, and mentioned the article, saying I'd be happy to send it to him. He responded in just two hours and agreed.
Also thanks to Shimon Ravid, Nir Aloni, and Daniel Segal for beta reading this article.
The Basic Framework
The theory is based on the idea that the primary goal of leaders is to remain in power, or put simply, to survive, and that the behavior of organizations can be predicted through the optimal survival strategy for the leader, which depends on various properties of that organization.
To do all that, we need to make some assumptions and build a simple model of a country and the people and groups in it. The theory doesn't use abstract terms like "democracy" and "dictatorship" to define nations, instead, it tries to derive them from other properties.
Every country has a leader, and usually also a challenger for leadership. The other residents of the country are split into three groups, the Winning Coalition, which is part of the Selectorate. Those not in the selectorate are the Disenfranchised.
The leader or leadership is the one who can make policy decisions - this means Tax policy, and spending policy, which is the allocation of tax revenue to public goods and private goods.
These two assumptions about the leader are the basis for the whole theory:
No ruler rules alone. Every leader has to satisfy at least some people in order to rule. If they don't satisfy them, they'll be deposed.
The leader's goal is to gain as much influence/power/money as they can, and to keep it for as long as they can. This may sound cynical. And it might be, somewhat. But it also makes sense. Holding office is required to achieve the leader's personal goals - whether these goals are selfish or altruistic. To some people holding office isn't that important, but these people don't usually become leaders, and if they do, they don't stay long.
The leader's desire to survive stays constant, but the most effective survival strategy changes depending on the size of the other groups and other facts about the nation.
All residents engage in economic activity, pay taxes, and benefit from public goods. The size of the population determines the cost of providing public goods and increases how much tax can be collected. Residents may be included or excluded from the selectorate. Those excluded are called the disenfranchised.
The Winning Coalition
The Winning Coalition are the essentials, the keys to power - The people the leader has to satisfy to survive. The leader does that by rewarding them with private goods. The size of the Coalition (w) is one of two most important characteristics of a nation.
When the coalition is small, the leader can give private rewards to each person in the coalition. The more the coalition grows, the more expensive it becomes to produce private rewards for all coalition members, so the leader starts producing public goods instead.
This creates an interesting dynamic. When the coalition is sufficiently small, making it smaller is within a coalition member's interest (as long as they aren't the ones getting ejected, of course) since it lets them demand higher pay from the leader. As the coalition gets larger, there comes a point where it's better for the coalition to expand, as all of them already get so little private goods, that they can all benefit more from the leader creating more public goods and less private goods.
We'll see how small winning coalitions create autocracies and monarchies, and large coalitions create democracies.
The Selectorate are those who can influence who gets to be the leader (say, by voting). The size of the Selectorate (s) is the other most important characteristic of a nation. They do not get private rewards from the leader, but still benefit from public goods. The base rate probability of being included in the coalition for any selectorate member is w/s.
The selectorate wants the winning coalition to expand, since then more money will be spent on public goods, and it increases their own chance of getting into the coalition. They don't want the selectorate to expand as that decreases their chance of inclusion in the coalition - though this effect gets weaker as the coalition grows and more public goods are produced.
In the real world, common characteristics societies use to divide people in and out of the selectorate include birthplace, lineage, skills, beliefs, knowledge, wealth, sex and age. In the Coups and Revolutions section, we'll see how military ability matters especially.
The disenfranchised are those who don't have any influence over who gets to be leader. They too do not get private goods, but still benefit from public goods. The disenfranchised want the coalition to expand for the same reason as the selectorate. They also want the selectorate to expand so they may be included, but have no established way of making that happen - other than violence and asking nicely.
The Challenger is a person that challenges the current leadership in order to replace it. The challenger has a commitment problem - they have to get support from at least some members of the current coalition to win, but even if they promise to those who defect to their side that they will get more rewards than they currently do, they can't guarantee that, or even guarantee that they'll remain in the winning coalition at all.
The challenger can be anyone, but challengers from within the current coalition have an inherent advantage - they automatically get and take one supporter away from the current incumbent.
The challenger usually has a similar interest to the current incumbent (except who's the leader, of course) since they wish to replace and get the same benefits as the leader, or more. For example, if the winning coalition grows, the country the challenger is trying to take over now has a larger coalition, which makes it less valuable.
Every game theory model has to state what agents desire and get value from, and every model of a country needs to model some basic economics.
In this model the things people value are:
The untaxed portion of their economic activity
Private goods (only available for coalition members)
And the leader values:
Above all else - staying in office. If the leader fails to stay in office nothing else matters.
And, if they remain, tax revenue not spent on public or private goods.
Residents split their time between economically productive activities, which we'll shorten to work, and economically unproductive activities, which we'll shorten to leisure.
More specifically, work refers to activities that can, and leisure to activities that can't, be subjected to:
The leader decides on the tax rate,and collects the revenue.
The theory defines the tax rate as the percentage of total economic products the government extracts from the residents. No complex tax policies here - any such policy is simplified to that definition for analysis. But as we'll see, the theory does make predictions about more complex tax policies.
When the tax rate is 0%, residents split their time equally between work and leisure. As the tax rate increases they work less, until at 100% they spend all their time on leisure.
As people work more their income increases, which further increases the money available for taxation. Together this creates a tension between tax rates and GDP (the sum of what is produced by the economic activity of residents).
High tax rate > Less productive economic activity > Lower GDP overall
Low tax rate > More productive economic activity > Higher GDP overall
The tax revenue is a percentage of the GDP, so the leader always wants to find the tax rate that will create the most revenue.
The leader splits their tax revenue between private goods and public goods. Whatever isn't spent on those is the surplus, with which the leader can do whatever they want - engage in kleptocracy and keep it to themselves, invest it in some pet project, or keep it as a cushion against future political rivals.
Goods are assumed to be "normal", such that more is always better.
The optimal spending strategy for the leader requires finding how much needs to be spent on the coalition in total, and how much of that should be split between private and public goods.
Private goods only benefit coalition members. The pool of private goods is divided between the members of the coalition, making the value of private goods shrink as the coalition size increases.
Public goods are indivisible and non-excludable - they benefit everyone and have to be provided to everyone. Think roads, defense, education, sewage, the grid and communications. The price of public goods rises with the size of the population.
It's not necessary that any one good will be a pure private or public good - the theory simply deals with how much is spent on each type. Almost any public good will also have private benefits. If in the real world one of the things I listed as a public good is excluded or divided, it just becomes partially private.
Loyalty and Replaceability
The loyalty norm refers to how loyal to the leader are the coalition members . It is defined as the size of the winning coalition divided by the size of the selectorate (w/s) and it is also the base rate probability that a selectorate member will be part of a winning coalition.
A strong loyalty norm happens when coalition members are easy for the leader/challenger to replace. A weak loyalty norm happens when it's hard. The larger the selectorate is compared to the coalition, the more replacement options there are, which makes it easier to replace coalition members.
Selectorate size close to coalition size > Large w/s ratio (closer to 1) > Hard to replace members > Weak loyalty norm.
Selectorate size much larger than coalition size > Small w/s ratio (closer to 0) > Easy to replace members > Strong loyalty norm.
A weak loyalty norm means members of the coalition are more likely to defect to the challenger (since the probability of being included in the coalition is higher), and will require more spending from the leader to stay loyal. A strong loyalty norm means low chances of defection, and less required spending. Needless to say - Leaders like strong loyalty from their supporters.
This creates two competing effects on the coalition's welfare. On one hand, expanding the coalition reduces the amount of private rewards each member gets, on the other hand, if the selectorate size is kept constant, it increases the total amount spent on the coalition.
The following graph shows the relationship between the size of the coalition and these two effects.
Whether the coalition prefers to shrink or expand depends on where they are on this graph.
Coalition members prefer weak loyalty. When they're on the left side of the graph they only want to do so by shrinking the selectorate, since expanding the coalition would hurt their welfare, but on the right side of the graph both options are good for them.
Shrinking the coalition without shrinking the selectorate will increase loyalty, but if the coalition is small enough the extra goods compensate for it.
Affinity represents the idea that there's some bond between leaders and followers independent of policy that can be used to anticipate each other's future loyalty. All else being equal, people prefer to support leaders they have affinity for, but they won't support a leader with worse policy due to affinity. It is used in the mathematical model only for tie breaking, and isn't necessary for any of the main conclusions of the theory.
Leaders include in the coalition those they have the most affinity for. But, affinity has to be learned, and can never be known perfectly. Affinity is learned by staying in power. Challengers can have some knowledge of affinities before coming into power, but they'll always learn more once they're in power, and will remove and add coalition members as they do.
This asymmetric knowledge of affinity creates the Incumbency Advantage, expanded upon in the next section.
The deposition rule defines the circumstance under which an incumbent leader is deposed. In the book they use a deposition rule called constructive vote of no confidence, which simply means a coalition of size w is both sufficient and necessary to stay in office (though not sufficient to get it in the first place). For the challenger to win, they must both have enough supporters that they can create a coalition of size w, and get enough people to defect from the current leader so that they lack w supporters. In other words, if less than w of the incumbent's coalition supports the incumbent and at least w of the challenger's coalition supports the challenger, the incumbent is deposed and replaced by the challenger. Otherwise they stay. Hence the amount of people who's choice actually matters is never greater than 2w.
(The authors say that other deposition rules are plausible, but produce similar results, so they focus only on this one. We'll take them at their word for now and do the same, since we'll need to reproduce the mathematical model to see for ourselves.)
Coalition members who are only in the Incumbent's coalition will always prefer to support the incumbent, likewise for the challenger's coalition. Hence the decision depends on those who are in both coalitions, and on them the challenger has to compete with the incumbent, by offering a better deal.
The incumbent, to stay in office, has to at least match the challenger's offer. So the incumbent's strategy is to maximize the surplus after offering their supporters at least as much as the challenger's best possible offer.
The incumbent has the advantage, since they have better knowledge of affinities and can promise inclusion in the coalition and private goods more credibly, while the challenger cannot credibly promise to keep supporters in their coalition. The Incumbency Advantage is inversely related to coalition size, as the larger the coalition the less private goods matter.
The more the selectors know the affinity between them and the challenger, the lesser the incumbency advantage, and the more they'll be willing to defect. The incumbent counters that by oversizing their coalition, so they can punish defectors and still retain power.
The risk of defection moves from the risk of not being included in the challenger's coalition, to the risk of being excluded from the incumbent's coalition, or a mix of the two.
With the model in mind, we can see how the interaction of all these interests and incentives imply and predict various political behaviors.
Scope and Limitations
But before I get into the implications and predictions of the theory, I want to lay out the scope of the theory and its limitations.
The model doesn't distinguish between one ruler having all authority to set policy and a large group of legislators all capable of setting policy. For the purposes of the theory, they're treated as an individual and their inner group dynamics aren't addressed. This might sound like a big shortcoming, but I think the theory does exceptionally well even with democracies, considering that it abstracts the decision making process so much. Also unaddressed are questions of separation of powers and checks and balances.
The theory assumes no limitation on the implementation of policy. The theory has implications on how inefficiencies are addressed and how strategies are implemented, as far as they can be described as goods, but not on what the strategies themselves are.
The model treats good very abstractly. It does not deal with the question of which goods are prioritized (beyond public and private).
The model also assumes all members of all groups to be identical (except for affinity). There are no differences in competence. Particular interests (beyond what is covered above in economics) like protecting the environment, advancing science, or buying lots of yachts are not represented. Leaders don't represent people who share their opinions, but those who share their interests (and are in the coalition).
The theory naturally lends itself to being fractal - meaning every group might have subgroups with a similar structure, where the leader of the subgroup is an individual from the super-group. For example, a member of a country's selectorate or winning coalition might be the mayor of a town. With that said, the analysis in the book focuses on one level at a time, and doesn't consider interplay between levels (Though see bloc voting later in the article, which comes close to that).
That said, we should see that the insights from this theory have implications on all these questions when explored on their own.
With all those limitations in mind, the authors still extrapolate the implications of the model to a vast array of subjects, giving many concrete predictions. In this section I'll try to give a comprehensive overview of these implications and predictions.
Form of Government
The three general clusters of polities produce the characteristics of various regime types we're familiar with.
Large winning coalition systems resemble democracies - The leader requires a large supporter base, near or totally universal suffrage is common, plenty of public goods are provided and relatively little private goods, taxes are lower and economic productivity is higher.
Small-coalition, large-selectorate systems resemble autocracies - The leader requires a small supporter base chosen from a vast pool of potential people who otherwise usually only participate in rigged elections, the amount of public goods is tiny and the amount of private goods big but smaller than in monarchies, the leader extracts the vast majority of people's wealth and people are extremely poor. Examples: The soviet union, North Korea, Maoist China.
Smaller variations in size can account for variations within these regimes. It's hard to say which of two democracies is more democratic, or what makes it so, but if we can estimate the winning coalition of both, it's easy to say which is larger and what we should expect based on that. Not all democracies are the same, and neither are monarchies and autocracies - some more extreme and some milder.
I will sometimes use these regime types instead of specifying coalition and selectorate sizes, but remember what it represents are coalition and selectorate sizes. I do it mostly because it makes for less awkward phrasing, but also to reinforce the connection.
When autocracies transition to democracies and expand the selectorate faster than they expand the coalition, the loyalty norm increases, which mimics the structure of a more autocratic system where the coalition is smaller relative to the selectorate. In such cases transitional democracies will temporarily exhibit more autocratic behavior like kleptocracy and willingness to start wars. This shouldn't happen in transitional democracies that either increase the coalition first, at the same rate, or faster than the selectorate.
Presidential VS Parliamentary Democracy
In presidential systems the leader is usually elected directly by the people. In parliamentary systems the people choose a group of legislators which choose the leader themselves. As we'll see in the next section, this means they require less votes to be elected, leading to a smaller coalition. The US, which has a presidential system but also has indirect elections through the electoral college, is an exception.
Federalism and Localism
The authors predict that corruption will "rise as one moves down the ladder from the central governments to state or provincial governments and on down to city, town, and village governments. Each successive layer relies on a smaller coalition and so provides more incentive to turn to private rewards rather than public goods as the means of maintaining loyalty. That incentive may be partially offset by the central government's incentives to protect the rule of law, one of the central public goods it can be expected to provide."
Federalism should let people benefit from both the benefits of large states and the benefits of small states.
Correlated Support, Bloc Voting and Indirect Election
The basic model assumes selectors are independent - the choice of one selector doesn't influence the choice of another. But of course that's not the case in reality. If we relax this assumption we can see how correlation in selector support effectively reduces coalition size.
The people's choice of support one person can influence, how many people their support correlates with, the more valuable they are as a member of the coalition, and the less the people influenced are. This applies to influential writers, speakers, celebrities, prominent community figures, owners of media outlets and so on.
Bloc voting is when a group votes similarly, usually based on the directives of one person.
In such a case that person becomes highly valuable as a member of the coalition, since their support is effectively equivalent to the size of the group that follows them. The leader would want them in the coalition, but not their followers.
Whether the followers benefit from the bloc leader being in the coalition depends on whether that leader shares their rewards with them, which will depend, like just the leader of the country, on the structure of that group (See note about fractality in Scope).
When leaders can't reward people directly for their support, like in democracies where the vote is anonymous, they may still be able to reward groups. For example in Israel each ballot box is counted independently, and then the results from each ballot box and in each town is made publicly available. You can see the last election results here. This makes it very easy for politicians to invest more in places that support them and ignore those that don't.
Bloc voting can be institutionalized through indirect election, where instead of directly choosing the leader, citizens choose electors who choose the leader for them.
The US has the electoral college. In Israel the prime minister is chosen by the Knesset. In both cases they're not completely free to support whoever they want, the US electors can have limitations set on them by the states, and in Israel Knesset members need to be careful of displeasing their supporters, but in both cases it still reduces the influence of the people on the final outcome.
(The Dictator's Handbook splits the selectorate in two to make this distinction between those who can potentially influence, which they call the "nominal selectorate" or the "Interchangeables", and those who actually choose, which they call the "real selectorate" or the "Influentials". Though this distinction is useful for bloc voting and indirect elections, it's not consequential elsewhere, so I chose not to use it.)
Selectorate theory suggests that leaders have an interest to increase things that cause vote correlation such as ethnic, racial, religious, linguistic and other social divides. Residents benefit instead from increased independence of votes.
Term Limits and the Verge of Deposition
Leaders that expect to be deposed the next time they're challenged have nothing to lose, but much to gain if they can manage onto hold to power. Therefore they'll be more willing to do reckless things to survive, like going for a diversionary war.
A term limit creates two opposing effects.
It reduces the incumbent's advantage, because they can't supply private goods beyond the end of their term. This forces the leader to work harder to please their supporters.
It removes any reselection incentives by decoupling policy performance and survival, making the leaders stop working for the state, and turn kleptocratic.
The second effect comes from having nothing to lose, but since there's also little to gain from reckless actions, the leader is more likely to turn to kleptocracy to make the best of the remaining time than to do something that will keep them in power. Civic minded leaders may use this freedom to take actions that the public would like but the coalition wouldn't.
Post office consequences for kleptocracy can reduce the second effect.
Enforcing term limits requires the winning coalition to remove the incumbent. Since in small coalitions the value of inclusion and risk of exclusion are higher, the members don't want to enforce the limit and risk exclusion. This is why autocracies rarely have them, democracies often do, and some autocracies (mainly those with rigged-elections) have fake, unenforced term limits.
The theory predicts that leaders in autocracies survive longer in office than in democracies, with monarchies in between.
This stems from the Incumbent's advantage in guaranteeing inclusion in the coalition and promising private goods. So as the coalition expands and public goods become more important, the incumbent's advantage diminishes.
Small coalition > competition is over the provision of private goods > The incumbent has a big advantage
Large coalition > competition is over the best public goods policy > The incumbent has a smaller advantage
In the early period in office the new leader still hasn't learned affinities and sorted out his coalition, and therefore he lacks the incumbency advantage. Competitors will prefer to depose them as quickly as possible to take advantage of that. Therefore the early phases are most dangerous, but if the new leader survives them, they can persist for very long. This affects small-coalition systems more than large ones since their leaders are more dependent on private goods. This creates a higher variability in tenure in small coalition systems than large coalition systems.
Autocracies often have leaders like Stalin and Gaddafi who ruled for 39 and 42 years respectively. But they also more often have leaders like Bachir Gemayel who only survived two weeks in office before being assassinated. In democracies most elected leaders serve their full term, and are voted out after one or several terms if they don't hit a term limit.
Former leaders are dangerous to current leaders, as they're similar to a challenger with very good mutual knowledge of affinities with their supporters. The more important political survival is to the leader, the more incentive new incumbents have to permanently get rid of (say, by killing) the deposed leader. This leads us to expect that deposed incumbents are most likely to be killed or exiled in small coalition systems, and even more so when the selectorate is large. This can be seen as another reason leaders will want to keep power, though that's not included in the model.
When leaders are terminally ill, coalition members know that soon they will stop receiving private goods. This breaks their loyalty and drives them to defect. It might even become a competition of who defects more quickly to the new leader.
This makes small coalition leaders hide their health status from their supporters. This effect diminishes with coalition size as private goods become less important.
One way leaders can mitigate it is by having credible heirs who will take their place but keep the same coalition. Then coalition members have less to worry about not being included in the next coalition, and are happier to stay loyal.
Everything Leaders do they do with the purpose of keeping and gaining power, therefore as long as the coalition doesn't know, any effects their policies have after they leave office are unimportant. Policies that will have a good effect in the future are good only if the coalition knows. Similarly, Policies that will have a bad effect in the future are bad only if the coalition knows.
As we saw in the last section, democratic leader survive much less than autocratic leaders, so although autocratic leaders provide far less public goods, we can expect them to invest far more in the long term.
Even though we can expect regular public goods like rule of law, education, and infrastructure to be much better in democracies, we should expect to see that trend disappear for long term good like green technology, carbon capture, AI safety, pandemic preparedness, and so on. Green technology is a slight exception in that list, as it is a long term good heavily valued by most democratic coalitions.
Autocrats invest more in the long term, but for themselves and their friends, not the public.
Term limits should make this even more extreme, as leaders cannot even hope to last more than usual or come back after a time.
We can model competence as an ability to produce more goods from the same pool of resources. You can think about it as competent leaders paying less for goods, or as competent leaders simply having more resources - the math is the same.
Competent leaders and challengers are able to offer more goods than their opponent, and so find it easier to attain and retain office.
If the competence of the challenger is known, the leader will take it into account in his spending strategy - spending more against a competent challenger and less against an incompetent one. As far as the challenger's competence is unknown, the leader has to make a bet on how much to spend to be confident about surpassing the challenger's spending ability.
Since competent leaders spend less, they have more surplus revenue to use however they like.
Over time, all systems would select for competence. But the selection pressure is much higher in large coalitions than small coalitions.
There are three constraints on tax rates:
High taxes diminish how much people work. This tends to be the limiting factor in autocracies.
The coalition is affected by taxes, so it has to be compensated. This tend to be the limiting factor in democracies.
Tax collection isn't free, it requires resources and people to collect them.
As the coalition shrinks and the selectorate expands, autocracies tend to extract as much resources as they can from residents to give large rewards to the coalition and keep large amounts to themselves.
In small coalition systems, the coalition is compensated with private goods, which In the real world could also be tax exemptions. When the coalition is large, the leader cannot compensate them as much, since public goods cost more, and has to lower the tax rate.
Low taxes can also be considered a public good, which are inversely correlated with coalition size.
The theory predicts that as the winning coalition shrinks, taxes grow, and as the coalition grows taxes shrink.
Small coalition > High tax rate
Large coalition > Low tax rate
The lower tax rate in democracies is offset by the higher economic activity.
Though not part of the model, in the real world collecting taxes isn't free, and we can expect that the higher the taxes the more people would try to evade them and the more collecting them would cost. This can also offset the lower tax rate in democracies, and act as another limit for autocracies.
But you're probably thinking, "I live in a democratic country and I pay high taxes, what's up?". Indeed, many people pay high taxes in democracies - which seems counter to what the theory suggests - but it's part of a progressive tax system. There isn't one tax rate for everyone like the abstraction in the theory. In some places, under a certain income you don't pay income tax at all. And there are various extra benefits for things like getting married and having children.
On the other hand, autocracies often don't report correct tax rates or extract resources from citizens in roundabout ways, like forcing them to sell produce to the government, which the government then sells internationally at a much higher price. Autocrats may even raise tax rates beyond the point that maximizes revenue as a form of oppression.
We can also expect that the more competent at providing public goods the government is the more large coalitions will approve of higher taxes, but still not nearly as high as in autocracies.
The result should be that autocracies extract more resources in total from residents than democracies. We should also expect autocracies to tax the poor the most and the rich the least, while expecting democracies to do the opposite.
Economic Activity, Leisure and Black Markets
Per-capita income is directly related to coalition size.
This graph shows the functional relationship between coalition size, tax rates and economic activity predicted by selectorate theory.
Everyone would like not to pay taxes while their fellow citizens continue to do so (well, at least everyone that doesn't assign much importance to notions of fairness). As taxes grow people are more tempted not to pay them, and instead engage in the black market.
Leaders never want people to avoid paying taxes. But, they might offer that as a private reward to coalition members, either in the form of tax exemptions in the law, or through selective enforcement of black market laws.
The theory predicts that as the coalition shrinks, people will engage more in black market activities, and leaders will enforce anti black market laws more selectively.
Spending and Welfare
As loyalty decreases, the proportion of revenue spent goes up (and surplus goes down), and as the coalition expands more of that spending goes towards public goods.
Some things considered public goods by the authors and are expected to increase with coalition size:
Protection of property rights, protection of human rights, national security, Rule of law, free trade, transparency, low taxes, education, and better balanced markets, healthcare and social security.
In general, anything considered a public good by the coalition is expected to increase with coalition size.
Economic Growth is predicted to increase with coalition size since evidence shows it's related to some of the things considered public goods.
The authors also predict that "the total value of private goods will be higher in the initial period of incumbency - the transition period from one leader to another - than in subsequent years and that the overall size of the winning coalition will shrink after the transition period."
The authors suggest 3 reasons for corruption, all of which are much worse in small coalition systems, and exacerbated by strong loyalty norms:
Complacency: As far as reducing corruption can be considered a public good, small coalition leaders have no interest to pursue that and instead prefer to be complacent.
Sponsored Corruption: Allowing corruption can be a private benefit given to supporters.
Kleptocracy: The stealing of wealth from the state directly by the leader.
I think there's a fourth mode of corruption that is more common in large coalitions, is consistent with the theory and explains why democracies still feel so full of corruption. I explain it in the Gifts section under Further Implications.
Additional Sources of Revenue
In the basic model the only source of revenue for the leader is tax revenue. But it's easy to see what would be the effects on the country from an extra revenue stream for the leader. We'll explore three possible sources: Natural resources, debt and foreign aid.
An abundance of natural resources can create another income stream for the leader and reduce the leader's dependence on the economic activity of citizens.
In small coalition systems, this allows the leader to raise taxes even further.
In large coalition systems, it allows the leader to lower taxes even further.
The basic model assumes that spending can be lower than the tax revenue, but cannot be higher. Later in the book the authors check what happens if that assumption is removed and spending is allowed to grow beyond revenue.
debt acts like another source of revenue and increases kleptocracy.
Monetary foreign aid is usually given mostly to small coalition systems, where residents are poor and are in need of it. But if the resources are given to the leader to distribute to the population, the leader is expected to take much of it to themselves.
This gets worse when the leader is in crisis too. If the leader lacks resources to provide private rewards to their coalition, they will have an even greater incentive to distribute foreign aid money away from the public and, in this case, toward the coalition.
If a body wants to give foreign aid and wants the leader to make political reforms in the favor of the public, they have to condition the aid on the reform. Otherwise, aid given before a reform helps the leader fund rewards for his coalition, and is more likely to prevent these reforms rather than incentivize them.
Selectorate theory suggests that to be effective at improving the lives of residents, foreign aid should be conditional on prior political reforms, especially ones that hurt political survival. The aid should be transferred to independent organizations and administered by them, without interference by the recipient government. Evaluation the success of aid should focus on outcomes, and not just how much aid was given. More aid should be given to those who demonstrate effective use of it.
But wait, what reason do leaders even have in providing foreign aid to other countries according to the model? Foreign aid is part of foreign policy, which is discussed later, and can influence the policy of the receiving country. That influence can be a public good if it aligns with the interests of the citizens.
Exit: Leave the country to a more favorable place.
Voice: Try to change the system.
Loyalty: Stay loyal and wait for better times.
This section will focus on the first option, and the next section will focus on the second.
In this model, the reason for emigrating is to increase your access to public goods and, if you're lucky, private goods, so emigration is expected intuitively to be from poor polities to rich polities, and from small-coalition systems to large-coalition systems.
Disenfranchised, and selectorate members to a lesser extent, are most likely to take this option. Coalition members already benefit from their position, and are unlikely to be better off elsewhere.
Polities are affected by emigration. Every emigrant is one less person that can be taxed. In non-proportional systems, every selectorate member who emigrates also strengthens the loyalty norm. Emigration harms especially small-coalition leaders, who benefit from kleptocracy, and they are likely to prevent it. We see that in autocracies like North Korea and the Soviet Union.
Receiving polities are also affected by immigration. Immigrants increase the population size and the price of public goods. If they are enfranchised it expands the selectorate, and in a proportional system, the coalition as well - increasing spending public goods. If they are not enfranchised, the population grows but the coalition shrinks in proportion to it, making the leader spend less on public goods.
Polities may make immigration easier or harder, making them more or less preferable for emigrants. Large-coalition states that make immigration easier hurts the leaders of small-coalition systems by making it easier for their subjects to leave.
Potential emigrants have to weigh their decision against how difficult emigration is, and how rich, public good oriented and welcoming their target nation is.
Since there are many countries, the barriers to immigration are easier to overcome than the barriers to emigration.
I find Switzerland an interesting case study for immigration policy. It's very hard to gain Swiss citizenship, point-in-fact, nearly 25% of Switzerland's residents aren't citizens, or in the language of the theory, are disenfranchised. But these are mostly foreigners that came there knowing they won't get citizenship. More than that, these mostly aren't refugees who are looking to run away from some terrible country, but well-off people living in democratic countries where they're either in the winning coalition or have a high chance of getting into it (though, in democracies that matters less).
Reading Martin Sustrik's post on the Swiss political system, I intuit that they have a large minimum size for the winning coalition. Most of that coalition doesn't want to expand the selectorate and bring more people in, and yet due to its size, Switzerland is producing so much public goods that people prefer to be disenfranchised in Switzerland than enfranchised in their home country.
Coups and Revolutions
If migrating isn't a good option, people can try to alter the system. There are several ways people may go about doing that - From passing laws, to constitutional amendments, and up to assassinations, coups, revolutions and civil wars.
Protests and Revolts
Selectorate members with a small chance of entering the coalition might seek to expand the coalition in hope they'll be included, or just throw out the current members and hope to replace them ("Seize the means of production").
The disenfranchised have no chance of entering the coalition as long as they remain disenfranchised, and need a more fundamental change.
These groups are the most likely to rebel against small-coalition, large-selectorate systems.
The winning coalition is expected to oppose these attempts, as they have different interests. But they also have their own way of changing the system:
Coups and Purges
The leader and coalition may also take action to change the system. Remember, Leaders want to shrink the coalition and expand the selectorate. The coalition wants to expand the selectorate, and to either shrink or expand the coalition. We'll call the act of shrinking the selectorate or the coalition by removing some of its members purging.
Whether the coalition prefers to shrink or expand depends on where they are on the welfare graph. When the coalition is on the lowest point of the graph, where both expanding and shrinking the coalition increases their welfare, they’re conflicted on which direction to go in. Some may support reduction while others support expansion.
Purging the Selectorate
Given the chance, after a coup for instance, coalition members are glad to purge the selectorate, as it weakens the loyalty norm and forces the leader to spend more. Though the total spending increases, this doesn't benefit the selectorate and disenfranchised much, as most of that spending is directed towards the coalition.
Purging the Coalition
The leader is always happy to purge the coalition. For the coalition it's more complicated.
A coalition member on the left side of the welfare function can benefit from that as long as they're not the ones purged, as they will get a larger share of the rewards. But, if the coalition shrinks while the selectorate doesn't, the loyalty norm is strengthened and the total amount spent on the coalition goes down. Which effect dominates determines whether coalition members benefit from their fellow members being purged or not.
Purging the Selectorate and the Coalition
This is the optimal purge for non-purged, small-coalition members. They can get the benefits of both types of purges. Their share of private goods grows, and if the selectorate was reduced more than the coalition, such that the loyalty norm weakens, total spending also goes up.
Expanding the Coalition
On the right side of the welfare function, even non-purged coalition members never benefit from purges. Instead they benefit from expanding the coalition. But the leader would still like to purge the coalition, so they have conflicting interests.
This further predicts that once a coalition is far enough right on the welfare curve, they cannot possibly have anything to gain from shrinking the coalition. This predicts that the larger a coalition, the more stable the system will be.
Expanding the Selectorate
Leaders always want to expand the selectorate in proportion to the coalition, and the coalition always wants to stop them. If the selectorate expands and the coalition also expands proportionally, the coalition is fine with that.
Purging the Selectorate and expanding the Coalition
This is the ideal case for a coalition on the right side of the welfare graph, and the worst case for a leader.
Civil Wars and Revolutions
Going beyond protests and coups, the authors expand the model to talk about civil wars and revolutions.
The goal of revolution in this model is to either take control of part of the nation (creating a new one), or replace the existing selectorate with another (including the leader, of course). The American Revolutionary War is an example of the first, and the French Revolution is an example of the second.
The model suggests that revolutionaries would be motivated by the prospect of overthrowing the current system so they, the excluded, become the included. The revolution attempt is modeled as a civil war between the disenfranchised (the excluded), and those in the selectorate who chose to oppose them, where each side tries to rally people/strength to their side, and whoever has more wins.
Those in the selectorate can either join, oppose or ignore the revolutionaries. The selectorate has two advantages over the disenfranchised.
Those in power have an incentive to monopolize military ability to be able to defeat a revolution, so they either only train those in the selectorate, or induct those who are skilled into the selectorate. If instead the military was disenfranchised, they would just overthrow the system. So the first advantage of the selectorate is military ability. Formally, this is represented by a multiplier on their strength. Various things can change the value of this multiplier, like the technology available, but that's outside the scope of the model.
The second advantage is a greater ability to mobilize, due to an asymmetry of motivation. The disenfranchised can benefit from the revolution if it succeeds and they become selectors, but stand the risk of oppression and death if it fails. Passivity is safe for the disenfranchised, but not for the selectorate. If the revolution succeeds the selectorate will lose their current privileges. But like the disenfranchised, fighting is dangerous for them and it might deter them from fighting back.
The revolutionary leader promises a new alternative system. The disenfranchised calculate the expected benefits and costs from joining the revolution, and decide to join if it's worth it. The better the system the revolutionary leader promises relative to the current one the easier it will be to recruit. The ability of the leader to promise private goods in the new system solves the free ridercollective action problem that would appear if they could only offer more public goods.
Selectors make the same calculation, and decide based on it whether to fight back. The better the promised system relative to the current one, the less inclined they will be to fight back. The worse it is, the more they'll be willing.
This makes large-coalition systems immune to revolution. A new system with a large winning coalition isn't better for the current selectorate, so a revolutionary leader can't improve their situation. If the leader promises a smaller coalition they will replace the current selectorate with their supporters and the current coalition would lose their chances of getting private goods and get less public goods. They will also have trouble recruiting, as even the disenfranchised benefit from the high amount of public goods, and they're probably a much smaller group than the selectorate, making it impossible to recruit enough supporters to defeat the defenders.
Small-coalition, small-selectorate systems are vulnerable to revolution. There are way more disenfranchised than selectors, and their motivation to revolt is high. The selectorate, and especially the winning coalition, benefits greatly from such a system and will fiercely defend them.
In Small-coalition, large-selectorate systems, there are less disenfranchised, but the selectorate may have it almost as bad as they do, and will not be willing to defend the system - They might even join the revolution. Given the competing effects of selectorate size, the authors are uncertain what selectorate size would make revolutions more common, and do not make predictions. But they do predict that such systems have less chance of surviving a revolutionary movement so they focus their efforts oppressing the ability to recruit and organize for a revolution.
This leads to an expected difference in the members of the military in small and large coalition systems. Small coalition systems have to include the military in the selectorate, or else it would lead a revolution. Large coalitions don't need to worry about revolution and so can professionalize the army and include people outside the selectorate.
Outcomes of revolution
I wrote that the revolutionary leader promises a new, better system, with a larger selectorate and usually a larger coalition, and indeed, the theory suggests that the leader is sincere when they make this promise. But once the revolution is successful and the revolutionary becomes a leader, their incentives become that of a leader, and suddenly a big coalition is not in their favor.
The model predicts that if unconstrained, leaders will choose small-coalition, large-selectorate systems. Yet some revolutionaries like Nelson Mandela and George Washington greatly expanded the coalition after they won. Therefore, if a revolution results in an expansion of the winning coalition, it must be due to constraints.
One form of constraint is a non definitive win. When Mandela's revolution succeeded it wasn't a decisive win, and they had to form a coalition agreement with the former power. The rules were not the decision of a single person.
Another form of constraint is not having a single definitive leader to the revolution. In America the revolution was a joint victory by the thirteen colonies.
Large-coalition systems are expected to have little severe anti-government action taken by residents. But in the absence of deterrence, selectorate theory predicts that small-coalition, large-selectorate systems will have the most, and the most intense, domestic resistance. That's why they turn to:
To prevent coups, revolts, and other forms of challenges, leaders can turn to oppress their population. We'll see when and who leaders oppress the most, and how they go about doing it.
Every opposer compares the benefits of success to the risks of failure. Oppression deters opposers by increasing the risk of failure. To be successful, leaders intensify oppression with the expected gains of successful opposition, making the risk of failure match or overwhelm it.
Leaders use oppression to stay in power. The motivation to stay in power is a function of the value of holding office, and the risk from losing it. In small coalition leaders get the most value out of office, and also have the most chance to be punished when deposed. Large coalition leaders get the least out of office, but are allowed to walk out with what they got. The incentive to oppress opposition increases with the motivation to stay in office. Therefore large coalition leaders have a low motivation to oppress opposition, and small coalition leaders will attempt to hold office by any means possible.
The greater the inequality between the welfare of the leader and the welfare of the coalition and selectorate, the more tempting it is to challenge the incumbent. To counteract that the leader will intensify oppression on challengers.
In large coalitions the disparity between leader welfare and coalition/selectorate welfare is small, and thus oppression of challengers is also small.
A larger selectorate (stronger loyalty norm) also increases the disparity of welfare and oppression of challengers.
Since challengers from the winning coalition have an advantage over other challengers, leaders more fiercely oppress their own supporters who lead challenges.
Leaders also oppress anyone who supports challengers, and especially their own supporters, as they're the most influential.
Void of oppression, any selector not in the incumbent's coalition will join the challenger's coalition as that's their only chance of entering the coalition. Oppression discourages that. The extent of this type of oppression grows with the benefit of inclusion in the coalition. Put another way, "a leader has the greatest incentive to oppress selectors when the selectors stand to gain the most from unseating them", which is when the coalition is small.
Oppressing The Disenfranchised
Disenfranchised have an incentive to revolt when public goods provision is low. Small coalition leaders have a great incentive to oppress them.
Just as no ruler rules alone, no oppressor oppresses alone. Those who carry out the leader's oppression are more willing to do what it takes when they benefit from their rule.
Coalition members are an obvious choice. They're willing to oppress any source of opposition. This explains why the military and secret police are key members of the coalition in autocracies.
Selectorate members may be willing to oppress the disenfranchised if they benefit from the current system even if they don't benefit from the current leader. This happens in small-coalition, large selectorate systems, as the loyalty norm is weak and they have a good chance to be included in the coalition.
Coalition members have a conflict of interest in punishing challengers from within the coalition, as they benefit from the existence of credible challengers to the leader. The leader provides private goods to their supporters so they don't defect. If oppression removes all possible challengers, the leader no longer has to provide anything. Leaders can solve this dilemma for the coalition by hiring selectorate members to punish insider challengers. This could be the selectorate member's way to get into the coalition.
Large coalition leaders should find it hard to recruit people willing to oppress their fellow citizens, as the benefits of inclusion are small. They can also count on getting back into power if they lose it due to the higher turnover rate in large coalition systems.
Like any punishment, oppression depends on the credibility of the oppressor's threat to punish the oppressed. In particular these are the things required for credible oppression:
The leader is capable of retaining power and the opposition may fail. Leaders who lose power cannot punish those who opposed them, so threats are less effective when opposers believe they can succeed. Small coalition leaders are better at retaining power, and so are more credible oppressors.
Oppression has to be connected to opposition. Random oppression doesn't deter opposition, but it does increase the motivation for it.
War and Peace
The authors start the sixth chapter with an excerpt from Sun Tsu's The Art of War, and an excerpt from a speech by Casper Weinberger on the Weinberger Doctrine, to illustrate the differences between the approach to war in small coalition and large coalition systems. The full section is worth reading, but is too long to include here.
The authors set out to explain the phenomena of Democratic Peace, that democracies do not fight wars with one another, and more specifically, these empirical tendencies:
Democracies are not immune from fighting wars with non-democracies.
Democracies tend to win a disproportionate share of the wars they fight
Democratic dyads choose more peaceful dispute settlement processes than other pairings do.
In wars they initiate, democracies pay a smaller rice in terms of human life and fight shorter wars than nondemocratic states.
Transitional democracies appear to fight one another.
Larger democracies seem more constrained to avoid war than are smaller democracies.
To see the consequences of selectorate theory on war, we have to expand the model to a dyadic model, where we have two polities, and set the rules of engagement between them.
In this model, when leaders enter a dispute with leaders of other polities, they each either decide to fight or negotiate a settlement. If either chooses to fight, they both choose how much of their available resources to commit to the war effort. Like anything else, any amount spent on defense is an amount not spent on other things. Who wins is a function of regular defense spending (a public good) and war effort spending (which comes out of the private goods budget).
Residents receive payoffs according to the dispute's outcome (whether through war or negotiation), and if they're coalition members, the resources not consumed in the war effort. Then the selectors in each state decide whether to retain to replace the current leader.
The size of the coalition changes war strategies by changing which type of good the coalition focuses more on, and therefore which one the leader does as well. In a small coalition the leader is best off saving resources for the coalition rather than spending them on war. A defeat, unless specified otherwise, affects everyone equally - it doesn't affect the leader and coalition more than other members.
To clarify - It's not the outcomes themselves that are better or worse depending on coalition size, but increased effort at winning decreases the ability to give private rewards, which is more detrimental to survival the smaller the coalition is.
So like in the case of taxes, it's easy for the leader to compensate small coalitions for defeat, and difficult for large coalition leaders. Therefore, large coalition leaders try harder to win wars, and avoid them in the first place if they don't think they can win.
Further, this means that large coalition leaders are more likely to win wars. And since two large coalition leaders both anticipate that both would try hard if they war, they'd rather resolve conflicts peacefully.
Small coalition leaders try less hard, but still sometimes fight wars because the cost of losing is smaller for them.
There is an exception though, leaders will always try hard if they worry that defeat will directly cause them to lose their position. For example in WW2 both small-coalition and large-coalition leaders were nearly certain to lose their position or their lives upon defeat, so they either tried hard or surrendered their independence for survival.
At the other extreme are wars that require little resources to win, which both large and small coalition leaders may be happy to initiate and invest the little it takes to win. Colonial expansion can fit this category.
Small coalition > Higher focus on private goods > Less available resources to spend on war > Higher chance to be reelected upon defeat > low motivation to win wars > Willing to fight unlikely-to-win and likely-to-win wars > Less likely to win wars they start
Large coalition > Lower focus on private goods > More available resources to spend on war > Lower chance to be reelected upon defeat > high motivation to win wars > Reluctant to fight unlikely-to-win wars, but willing to fight likely-to-win wars > More likely to win wars they start
Since democracies are happy to take on easy wars, how aggressive they are is not inherent, but depends on the situation.
If we assume that lower casualties act like a public good - since the smaller the coalition the less casualties are children of, or themselves are, coalition members - then we can also expect democracies to care more about the life of their soldiers and have lower casualties. Same case for winning fast.
We'll compare disputes between three pairings of polities.
Autocrat VS Autocrat
Neither tries hard if there's a war. Each attacks if it believes that on average it can get more from conflict than negotiations. To paraphrase the authors, Because the war's outcome is not critical to their survival, the decision to fight is more easily influenced by secondary factors not assessed in the model, like uncertainty, rally-round-the-flag effects, and personal whims of leaders.
Autocrat VS Democrat
Though autocrats are willing to fight, they are reluctant to attack democracies if they anticipate they will reciprocate with force. Since democrats try hard, autocrats know they're likely to lose. However, since democrats are reluctant to fight wars they're unlikely to win, they're more likely to offer concessions when they aren't certain enough they'll win. This gives autocrats a strategy of creating disputes and making demands of democrats that they know won't be certain enough of winning to take advantage of their concessions.
Therefore autocrats are expected to start many disputes with democrats, but few of them will escalate to violence.
Democrats are more likely to initiate wars with autocrats than with democrats, but still only if they're likely to win. Autocrats are likely to fight back and not offer concessions, since the price of losing is smaller for them.
Israel, where I live, is a great example of this. How could such a small country constantly win wars against several countries much larger than it is, even when they attack together? Some attribute it to Jewish ingenuity, some to Arab disorganization. This model gives a different perspective.
Though small, Israel is a democratic country, and all of Israel's opponents are somewhere along the monarchy-autocracy line. So Israel tries hard, perhaps even harder than other countries would due to the worry that loss wouldn't just be some loss of independence or an economic blow, but an existential danger, both to the citizens and, perhaps more importantly, the leader.
On the other hand, its opponents don't try hard, and can only spend so much on war before displeasing their small coalitions.
Honestly, this paints a bleak picture for me, as it suggests that Israel may have an incentive to keep these countries autocratic. On the one hand, a democratic Egypt or Syria is (according to the model) less likely to attack Israel. On the other hand, if they do attack the war would be far more devastating than any war Israel previously had, and it's far more likely it will lose. And the size difference would make them more likely to attack than if the countries had a similar size.
Israel's other front is against regimes that are weaker, and even much weaker, than her. Terrorist organizations like Hamas and Hezbollah aren't a credible existential threat to Israel. Israel can conceivably attack Hamas tomorrow and land a decisive victory. It doesn't, because the cost is high and uncertain, it will not be a popular move.
Hamas knows that, so they make relatively small attacks against the citizens of Israel (something a dictatorship couldn't care less about, but a democracy cares a lot), and get concessions from Israel. When Israel does retaliate, it's not enough to deter an autocratic leadership.
Democrat VS Democrat
A democrat will initiate war against another democrat only if they're sufficiently sure they'll win, or that their opponent will offer concessions instead of fighting back. A democrat will only fight back if they believe they have sufficiently high chances of winning, otherwise they will concede.
In the last sections we haven't given much thought to why a leader would choose to go to war, except as one of two solutions to a dispute. We also didn't give much thought to the question of what they intend to do after they win. In this section we'll explore war aims, and how the outcome of war in the losing state is affected by the winner state. We'll need to add a few more assumptions to do that.
Foreign policy regards actions leaders take to get an advantage in international competition against other nations, in order to survive domestically. The model assumes foreign policy efforts are a public good.
The winner in war either wants to obtain resources from the defeated state, force policy changes, or force structural changes (the makeup of the selectorate and the coalition).
These are treated as regular goods and are split by the leader between public goods, private goods, and personal benefit. War aims are a mix between private and public goods that depends on the size of the coalition and the selectorate - Small coalitions drive leaders to seek private goods in war, and large coalitions drive them to seek public goods.
The postwar settlement process is modeled as a struggle in which whoever spends more relative to the other gets more. Foreign policy spending is determined by coalition and selectorate size.
Commitment and Compliance
The settlement has to be maintained somehow, and various things can make it more and less difficult.
We'll split settlements into ones that require active compliance from the loser and ones that only require passive compliance. The UN's agreement with Iraq after the Gulf War that it would allow inspections of their disarmament required active compliance. Territorial changes only require passive compliance as the defeated state has to actively challenge the winner to get back territory. Active compliance is harder to enforce than passive compliance, and leaders take that into account when forming their war aims.
Further, It's likely the defeated leader would like to go back to their previous policy if they could, leading to a commitment problem for the loser and an enforcement problem for the winner. Even if the loser wanted to follow the agreement and could credibly demonstrate that, internal pressures can stand in their way. If a challenger suggests a more attractive policy that includes breaking the agreement, it'll be hard for the leader to survive without also breaking the agreement, especially in large-coalition systems.
If, however, the new policies are in the interests of the citizens and the coalition is large, the commitment and compliance problem is reduced.
Installing a Puppet
To mitigate the commitment and compliance problem, the winner can replace the losing leader and install a puppet.
Like any other leader, a puppet still has their own interests and faces domestic pressures. If the leader loses the ability to remove the puppet from its position it will stop being loyal to them. Still, Installing a puppet increases the chances of compliance, but requires further military investment to achieve a total victory. Winners who install a puppet are incentivized to also install a small-coalition, large-selectorate regime in the defeated state, since in these regimes leaders have the most power and survive longest.
Large coalition leaders are most likely to install puppets since they spend most on foreign policy.
If the winner chooses to make structural changes in the defeated state - change the sizes of the coalition and selectorate, as well as who's included - they will make them smaller if their own interests are different from the ones of the residents, and make them larger if they do.
If we look at the US's history of modifying other countries, we can see Iran as an example of pushing a country in an autocratic direction, and West Germany and Japan as examples of pushing countries that had similar interests to them after the war in a more democratic direction. It's important to note that in Germany and Japan's case the move toward democracy wasn't instant, but instead took several years during which both countries were managed from the outside. So the move to democracy can be very slow and costly.
Making the state more autocratic can help a puppet leader rule, so such structural changes often come together with the installation of puppets, while making the defeated state more democratic is unlikely to come together with installing a puppet.
This further strengthens the bleak image of Israel's relation with our neighbors. If Israel just has it easier when her neighbors are autocratic, our foreign policy efforts are likely to keep enforcing it, even if citizens like me hope our neighbors will get to have better lives under better regimes.
Taking territory from the loser continues the war after it was already won, and the defeated leader can attempt to get the territory back, so leaders aim for territorial expansion only if they benefit from it. Territory can be valuable in two ways,
Strategic value comes from strategic territory that helps the state to win wars.
Resource value comes from resource-rich territory.
Autocratic leaders benefit more from resources than democratic leaders as they get to keep more to themselves. This also means that democratic leaders would be more willing to return resource-rich territory. Territorial expansion shifts resources from the loser to the winner, weakening the former and strengthening the latter.
Strategic territory increases the ability of the leader to provide the public good of security, and the ability to defend other gains from war. Autocratic leaders may value strategic territory for the reduction in resource requirement in defense, but democratic leaders value it much more.
Small coalition > Leader gets more value from resources and has lesser need to defend citizens > Prefers resource-rich land to strategic land > Less willing to give back resource-rich land > More likely overall to seek territorial expansion
Large coalition > Leader gets less value from resources and has greater need to defend citizens > Prefers strategic land to resource-rich land > More willing to give back resource-rich land > Less likely overall to seek territorial expansion
As usual, the size of the selectorate has a small "autocratic" effect on large coalition systems, and a more pronounced effect on small coalition systems.
Satisfy != Benefit
Implicit in the theory, but not made explicit by the authors, is that the leader has to satisfy their supporters, but that does not necessarily mean doing what's good for them. If a leader can make people believe policy x (which is better for the leader) is better than policy y (which is better for the people), the leader can do x, get the personal gains, and not lose support. This is part of why journalism is important, and why weak journalism fosters bad policy. In small coalition systems, it's easy to simply censor information and suppress the press. Large coalitions won't put up with that, but a flood of irrelevant information can do the job just as well, without reducing satisfaction. Charismatic leaders give less and get more.
The selectorate theory implies that the most important thing about the way a leader is chosen, is how much of the population they have to satisfy in order to get and stay in office. So voting methods which reward being approved by a supermajority of the population should result in better policy for the people. I say reward instead of require because systems that require supermajority can become weaker and less stable. The authors give an extreme example of Poland in the 18th century which gave veto power to all legislators, which led to foreign powers easily stopping any decision being passed by bribing just one person. Also see Abram Demski's Thoughts on Voting Methods which discusses voting methods and support levels.
Gerrymandering can also be used to manipulate the voting system into giving some people less voting power than others, thus making the coalition smaller.
The theory says that in large coalition systems, the less disenfranchised people there are, the better. In modern democracies usually the only people who are disenfranchised (except non-citizen immigrants) are kids. Which suggests a motive for lowering the voting age (seealso). It also discourages any form of limitation on voting rights, such as intelligence tests or maximum age limits.
In a small coalition system, especially ones with a large selectorate, the leader is almost always the richest, most powerful person in the country. This is of course because they can steal more from the state, but also because they stay for longer, and can extract much more resources from the population. Unless you become part of the coalition, any riches you get that draw the attention of the state can, and probably will, be taken from you.
This also means that usually no one under the leader can bribe them, only foreign parties.
In large coalition systems, this is very different. The leader can only steal so much from the state, only stays for so long, and cannot extract resources as they please. Combined with the prosperity large coalitions bring, this creates a situation where the leader is rarely the richest member in their country.
Thus it opens the opportunity to bribe the leader with gifts (and promises of gifts, lest they'll be discovered too early).
In other words, where in small coalitions the leader trades goods with the coalition for policy (army policy, police policy, production policy, etc..), in large coalitions the relationship is flipped and the leader trades policy with the rich for goods.
Back to Leopold
I opened this article with the story of Leopold II who was simultaneously king of Belgium and ruler of the Congo Free State. Now, armed with selectorate theory, let's see what explains the difference.
When Leopold was king, Belgium was already a constitutional monarchy, yet he still had considerable influence - Like his father, Leopold II was skillful in using his constitutional authority.
The authors estimate his, and his government's, selectorate to be fairly large for the time, at 137,000 out of nearly six million residents.
When Leopold became king, many European countries were gathering colonies and building empires, and Leopold wanted to join the party.
Finally, after much trying, he acquired a lot of land in Africa. Though unlike other colonies, his colony wasn't owned by the state, but was his own private property.
Leopold did that by lending money from the Belgium government, and creating his own private army.
In 1878 he sent a company led by explorer Henry Stanley, disguised as a scientific and philanthropic expedition, to establish the colony in Congo. "Representatives of 14 European countries and the United States recognized Leopold as sovereign of most of the area to which he and Stanley had laid claim", which was 74 times the size of Belgium.
So while in Belgium he was constrained by a large winning coalition, in Congo he had almost no constraints - he only had to reward his private military. Further, the revenue from Ivory and rubber acted as an extra revenue source like natural resources. This let him provide more goods in Belgium without raising taxes. He got the name "The Builder King" for all buildings and urban projects he would construct (And also many private ones, of course).
Eventually, evidence got out that he was growing rich on the back of slave labor and atrocities, and he was forced to cede control to the Belgium government. And though still bad, Belgian Congo was much better than Leopold's.
The picture we get is of a person who just ruthlessly followed incentives. In Congo he had what to gain from showing no restraint, so he didn't. In Belgium he had to satisfy a large coalition so he was what can be considered a good ruler, at least by past standards.
Unfortunately, I think the theory suggests that even a benevolent version of Leopold couldn't have done better for Congo than leaving it alone. He probably didn't have the money to provide them with public goods, and the only way he could take over was by relying on a small coalition in the form of an army.
A Note on Evidence
The authors did vast empirical work, checking all the predictions they could against real-world data, which I completely ignored. This is because I wanted this post to focus on the ideas of the theory, and reviewing the evidence deserves its own full post. Still, it won't do to not even comment on it.
The biggest hurdle to the empirical study of the theory is estimating the size of the selectorate and coalition of different countries (With coalition size being much more difficult). In some countries (like Israel) it barely feels like it fits.
How they estimated these values and the techniques they used are a story for another time (as well as the criticism on how they've done that, and their response to the criticism), but using these estimates and techniques they found evidence for even the most complex and specific predictions they make, such as the swoosh-shaped welfare function of the winning coalition. Further, they found the model better predicts the data than other predictors such as government type (e.g, democracy or dictatorship).
The reason I think a review of the evidence wasn't crucial to include in this post is that, on some level, the ideas speak for themselves. For the most part, you can see intuitively if the predictions fit or contradict the world you know. At least for me, they seem to fit fantastically well.
Further, at least at first glance, many of the patterns predicted by the model seem unrelated. A simple model that gives logical explanations for so many such patterns is already doing something right.
To say it differently, if neither the authors nor anyone else did any empirical work on this theory, I would probably still find value in it, as it elegantly explains many important (seemingly) unrelated patterns. Of course, it's important to do empirical work to make sure we're not fooling ourselves, and so I'm very glad the authors did it.
The easier it is to estimate selectorate and coalition size the more practically useful this theory will be. The authors are aware of that and just recently published a paper on a new measure of coalition size.
What I would like to have is a public, regularly updating index of selectorate and coalition size estimates for all countries.
Should you read the books? I tried to make this post comprehensive enough that for most people it would be a good alternative, so I don't think you need to read them to understand the theory.
Still, I haven't covered all the statistical evidence given in the book or the mathematical model, and with such a large book that touches on so many subjects it's difficult not to miss anything, and impossible to reach the same depth. The books also have far more examples than I could bring here.
So if you still want to learn more, I would recommend the books. The Dictator's Handbook for a more public oriented book with many examples and stories. And The Logic of Political Survival for a more in depth, academic version that includes a wider range of topics, the mathematical model (appendixes to chapters 3, 6 and 9) and in depth statistical analysis (chapters 4-10).
And if you do read them and find something I missed, be sure to leave a comment.
I also recommend CGP Grey's excellent video The Rules for Rulers which is based on The Dictator's Handbook. It doesn't cover nearly as much of the theory as this post did, but it covers the part it does cover much better than I can, and it's a more digestible resource to send to someone else.
Future Plans (You can help)
I hope to write more posts about or inspired by this theory. I already have some plans and ideas, some of which I would like help with. I will replace these with links as I write and publish them.
Reviewing the evidence for selectorate theory. I would like to do a followup post reviewing the evidence for the theory, but I'm not very strong on the statistics side. If you want to collaborate on this with me I'd be happy to.
A post going deeper into the mathematics of the theory. I tried to recreate the mathematical model in python, and got stuck on a few things I didn't understand. If you want to help me with the math and with interpreting things that aren't clearly explained (I can handle the coding), I'd be really grateful.
Explorable Explanation of selectorate theory. This requires recreating the mathematical model in code. It would be a far better explainer than just text and images could ever be, and I think the theory is important enough that I would really want there to be such an explanation, but It would also probably take a lot of time and effort, so I don't know if I would do it (even if i had the mathematical model coded up).
Term Limits and how to improve them.
Estimating the coalition size in Israel. I already started writing it, it's an interesting and difficult exercise as the political system in Israel doesn't lend itself easily to that notion.
Selectorate Theory gives a strong basis for thinking about politics. It shows that it's viable to analyze politics based on the interests of actors inside the state, specifically, based on the expectation that the prime goal of those in power is to stay in power.
The biggest shortcoming of the theory is the difficulty of estimating the coalition size. Though the authors are working on it. If this problem is solved it will make the theory much more useful.
But if you can estimate just 2 variables about a nation (coalition and selectorate size) you can know how to set your expectation regarding a wide range of possibilities - like human rights, taxes, economic activity, corruption, government spending, foreign policy, war aims and strategy, immigration, and oppression.
Large coalitions lead to more public goods, lower taxes, shorter tenure, less oppression, better civil rights, higher wealth and welfare, less corruption, more emigration freedom immigration appeal. They use natural resources to the benefit of the public. They try harder in war and don't get into wars they are likely to lose. They are more likely to make concessions in war and to return conquered land. They are more likely to intervene in the affairs of foreign countries by forcing policy, installing policy, and transforming regimes. Unfortunately the welfare of the citizens of those nations is not their interest, and they are more likely to make regimes more autocratic unless the citizens share common interests with them.
Small coalitions lead to few goods for the many and many goods for the few. They have higher taxes, worse civil rights, more poverty, longer tenures, more corruption and kleptocracy, and less freedom to emigrate. They use private resources and foreign aid to the benefit of the leader and their small coalition, leaving residents in even poorer states. They don't try hard in war yet are happy to get into them, and are more willing to let their residents be hurt. They are more likely to steal resources from other nations. Their residents are driven to revolt, and they ruthlessly oppress them to prevent it.
Large selectorates reduce total spending by increasing the coalition's replaceability and forcing them to be more loyal. They most prominently affect small coalition systems which become more autocratic.
In the words of the authors, the theory provides "An explanation of when bad policy is good politics and when good policy is bad politics". and more specifically, "For those who depend on a small coalition, good policy is bad politics and bad policy is good politics". Corollary, for those who depend on a sufficiently large coalition, good policy is good politics and bad policy is bad politics. Succinctly, in small coalitions the interests of the leader and the public diverge, and in large coalitions the interests align.
Selectorate theory suggests that to increase prosperity, both in our own nations and in foreign nations, we need to increase the coalition size in these countries. We should include the largest proportion of the selectorate we can in the coalition, and include all residents in the selectorate. To achieve that we should implement direct elections with better voting methods and voter anonymity. We should organize government in ways that lead to larger coalitions, like presidential systems over parliamentary systems. Employ term limits effectively. Give local authorities more power, but make sure they don't become corrupt. And to help those in smaller coalition systems, we should open our borders and make it easy to become a citizen, be careful with our foreign aid, and be weary of some of our own bad foreign policy tendencies.
Thanks to everyone who commented on Whither Tartaria (currently 1079 comments). Many of you really like modern architecture, and many others of you really hate it. I appreciate most of you being able to accept disagreement on that and move on to the bigger question of why there’s so much more of it now.
The most interesting thing I got from the comments was Chaostician linking to Wikipedia’s page on the Great Male Renunciation - men’s fashion changing from ornate colorful clothing to dark suits. Wikipedia seems pretty convinced that this was because of egalitarianism norms:
The Great Male Renunciation is the historical phenomenon at the end of the 18th century in which Western men stopped using brilliant or refined forms in their dress, which were left to women's clothing. Coined by psychoanalyst John Flügel in 1930, it is considered a major turning point in the history of clothing in which the men relinquished their claim to adornment and beauty. The Great Renunciation encouraged the establishment of the suit's monopoly on male dress codes at the beginning of the 19th century.
The Great Male Renunciation began in the mid-18th century, inspired by the ideals of the The Enlightenment; clothing that signaled aristocratic status fell out of style in favor of functional, utilitarian garments. The newfound practicality of men's clothing also coincided with the articulation of the idea that men were rational and that women were frivolous and emotional.
During the French Revolution, wearing dress associated with the royalist Ancien Régime made the wearer a target for the Jacobins. Working class men of the era, many of whom were revolutionaries, came to be known as sans-culottes because they could not afford silk breeches and wore less expensive pantaloons instead. The term was first used as an insult by French officer Jean-Bernard Gauthier de Murnan but was reclaimed by these men around the time of the Demonstration of 20 June 1792.
In the United States, the movement was associated with American republicanism, with Benjamin Franklin giving up his wig during the revolution, and later the Gold Spoon Oration of 1840 denouncing Martin Van Buren.
The post-Renunciation standards for men's dress went largely unchallenged in the Western world before the rise of the counterculture and increased informality in the 1960s.
I see no reason to disagree, except that one could argue that there’s a more general trend towards less formal dress - eg from men wearing a suit and hat in public in the 1940s, to today’s t-shirt and shorts, and I’m not sure if that’s also because of egalitarian feelings.
This is interesting because the male fashion change happened around 1800, but the architecture change happened around 1930. Those are different enough times that I need to re-evaluate my theory that the move from ornate to plain across many different artistic fields was all part of the same big transition. If every field changed for a different reason, then some things I ruled out (because they didn’t apply to fashion or poetry or whatever) might need reconsideration as possible explanations for architecture.
For architecture, the headline theory is more or less correct: we are living in an era of a technological regress. We would not be able to build most of these landmarks even if we tried. I live near a nice Victorian bridge https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hammersmith_Bridge built in 1880s for around £80k. The standard Bank of England inflation measure gives inflation on a broad basket of about x110 from there to now, so the construction would have cost be around £9m in today money. Now, the bridge is still standing but needs repairs. It is not clear if the repairs can be done for less then £150m. The last time this city built a bridge over the same river, it was a much smaller pedestrian only bridge which cost £18m and then another £5m to repair just a few years later. The last time they tried to build a proper large bridge, they spent £60m on thinking about it, realised it will cost over a £1bn and abandoned the project.
Baumol's Cost Disease and concepts of comparative advantage are critical in here. And you can tell, because actually we _are_ still building, or re-building, a few of these -- there was active renovation on Notre Dame (which went horribly wrong with an accidental fire), and Sagrada Familia is actively under construction. But the cost to employ skilled masons to produce that kind of ornamental stonework has gone up _drastically_ relative to the baseline of what laborers broadly earn. It used to be that if you were a lower class person with the aptitude for engineering, "mason" was probably your best career choice. And you could still choose that! But you also could be any of a dozen other flavors of engineer, and many of those choices would carry considerably less risk of bodily harm, plus many of them have the "bits versus atoms" leverage, such that your work can ultimately produce much more marginal revenue per hour of labor. The fact that the kind of person who might decide to become a mason has that kind of life choice available feeds back into what it costs to hire a mason.
If for a given pile of money, we can either build one beautiful art deco skyscraper, or twenty featureless cubes, then the people who have capital to allocate to buy office space are probably going to buy the featureless cubes.
One 1994 attempt to construct a large building in a classical style (Castello di Amorosa in Napa Valley) cost the owner ~$73m in 2021 dollars, and the quality of the workmanship still doesn't come close to what you see in the best examples of the 1800s.
Remember, the Baumol effect happens when new technology makes some industries more productive. Since the high-tech industries are so lucrative, wages go up. Then low-tech industries have to raise their wages so that their workers don’t all desert them for the high-tech industries. But since low-tech industries aren’t improving their productivity, they just because more expensive, full stop.
If stonemasonry is a low-tech industry, and new high-tech industries are arising all around it, stonemason wages could get prohibitively high (compared to everything else) until nobody wants to hire them anymore. This would create pressure for architectural styles that require as little masonry (or, generalized, human labor) as possible.
This has gotten me thinking about furniture.
I got a new place recently and have been looking for furnishings. Sometimes I look at people’s furniture Pinterests. If Pinterest is any kind of representative window into the soul of the modern furniture-enthusiast, people really like Art Nouveau. Typical pictures that people pin will look like this:
As far as I can tell, you can’t buy any of these anywhere - they’re a combination of antiques and concept pieces. The people who pin these and pine after these end up getting minimalist Scandinavian furniture with names like UJLIBLÖK, just like everyone else.
Anything that even comes close to the above costs high four to five digits. I don’t know if this is because it’s antique, because it requires more labor, or both.
I’m harping on furniture because it avoids a lot of the complicating factors in architecture. There isn’t some vague collection of “elites” making our furniture decisions. It’s a pretty free market! There are lots of normal middle-class people spending big chunks of money on furniture, lots of them really really like the old stuff, and the old stuff is still either unavailable or unaffordable. It seems like it used to be affordable - it wasn’t just kings and dukes who had the old Art Nouveau stuff - but for some reason that’s changed. I think Baumol effects offer a tidy explanation here, and if we use them to explain furniture, then they start looking really attractive for architecture.
I want this one to be true, because it exonerates our civilization. If we could make things like the Art Nouveau furniture above, or the Taj Mahal, relatively cheaply and easily, then the question of why we aren’t doing that demands an answer. If it’s just a quirk of basic economics, then our civilization is fine, and maybe we can hope that stoneworking technology advances to the point where we can do this kind of thing again cheaply.
My big remaining objection is: if this is true, why isn’t it obvious? How come we don’t have architects saying “Of course I’d like to build something ornate, but it costs too much”? How come we don’t have rich people (and the occasional cash-flush government working on a monument that it really cares about) saying “screw the price, I really want this one thing to look nice”? I feel like I’m doing some kind of weird archaeology here to try to discover why this happens, whereas every single person in architecture and construction and so on should know whether or not this is true.
Even if Baumol is part of the explanation, there must be some other part, a kind of Stockholm Sydrome style explanation for why, after it became hard to build ornate things, we went all sour grapes and decided that actually, ornateness is bad. I don’t want to speculate further here, because the responsible thing to do would be to actually figure out the economics here before moving on to the consequences of the economics; I have a friend who might work on that and I’m going to hold off until they’re done.
The things that these two buildings have in common are:
- Built by very low-wage South Asian laborers (maybe the economic explanations really do matter?)
- Religious and nationalist goals (thus designed to express/elicit popular not elite sentiments?)
I'm sure there are other examples as well, but these were the first two that came to mind. Both are very very impressive IRL! In particular, the pietra dura work on the Sheikh Zayed mosque is very similar in both style and quality to that of the Taj Mahal.
Thailand seems to have a daily minimum wage of $10, which probably works out to a little over a dollar an hour, which is probably close to what the West was paying people back when it had Art Nouveau and such. I don’t know if this is a coincidence.
Architectural ornament is much cheaper than it used to be, so it is less important. There was a big boom in statues and curlicues in the late 19th century and into the early 20th, but a lot of it was about new techniques for sculpting forms in stone or metal. All those charming buildings in NYC's Chelsea were the result of the falling cost of cast iron fixings. Sure, adorn your office or apartment building with colonnades and six dozen statues of Audrey Munsen and see if you impress anyone.
The other issue I had explained to me involves the Queen Anne style Victorian. A generation before that kind of detail would have been ruinously expensive. But with new technology they were able to mass produce all those wooden details. For a while poorer (but obviously not poor) people used that to build houses that were above their station. And then the rich had to go in the opposite direction and go much simpler.
Okay, this ought to be an empirical question. Does architectural ornament cost more or less than it used to? If somebody does a deep dive into this, I will absolutely link them. If you think you could do exceptionally good research in exchange for money, please contact me.
William Cunningham frames the political angle a little differently:
There are some interesting side details to this. 1) civil engineers *hate* the fancy parts of new architecture frequently. Turns out that if something looks impossible, it’s often at least very hard. 2) building code, building science, even availability of materials and construction crews familiar with particular techniques are often huge constraints on this sort of thing. LEED gold certification is a big deal for any entity capable of affording a classical style massive building, and in many ways it actively insists on not doing the things that make classical buildings last. Watch just about anything by Joe Lstiburek where he discusses wall and window efficiency and issues, and marvel at how poorly we build buildings these days. 3) good luck getting the permits in a typical city to build something like the Art Deco Detroit Train Station — it’s massively too big for its neighborhood these days and all the “in character for the area” crap isn’t going to be easy for the cool old giant buildings. I don’t have great evidence that this is the case, but I have a feeling that selling a small group of “elite” people like a planning board on the exciting new thing is easier than an Art Deco style fancy building. 4) cost to do a lot of the old style things has skyrocketed, so going cheap or justifying new expensive on environmental grounds is the new way of the world.
Part of the issue is building something traditional that meets modern standards for things like insulation is prohibitively expensive. Most of those Barrett homes are still modern timber frame with a facade of stone or brick on the outside, the more offensive ones don't even put the stone somewhere that makes sense from a structural view, it's obviously just a decorative layer.
There's currently a new house being built near where I live entirely out of stone, complete with masons and chisels on site, presumably because it's in a conservation area and had to match the surrounding properties. But it looks like they're building a traditional stone shell then lining it with what is effectively an entire modern house on the inside, which is going to be almost as expensive as building two houses.
And one of the responses is by Jim, who is finally (hallelujah!) a real architect. He writes:
I'm a professional architect, albeit one of the minority who does traditional design work. Will try to answer a few of your questions here and below.
>>But if the changes wrought by these thinkers are so unpopular, why haven't market forces simply swept them away? People have agency over which art they buy, which galleries they visit and over which houses they buy. In the UK, where I'm based, basic market logic supports your intuitions: old houses command a premium. But that preference hasn't been carried through into the housing projects that are built.
Because almost all of the architects are modernists, and you need to hire an architect to get a new building built. The complexity of design and construction has increased enormously in the past century, in part because of new technologies and in part because of regulation. The design professionals have the licenses and expertise that you need to navigate the maze, which puts you at their mercy. They can throw you a few bones by making vague references to your preferred aesthetic, but mostly they’ll do what they’ve been taught to do and like.
And since modernism is all they know, even their sincere attempts to do traditional design work tends to generate kitsch. That goes to your comment about Poundbury below.
This goes back to a point I revisit a lot: capitalism is still not capitalist enough. No matter how hard you try to get everything based on money and market forces, it’s still controlled by kind of elite taste and sense of “wouldn’t want to make waves”. We need double-capitalism - no, fifty capitalisms!
The funny thing is that, in my experience of actually dealing with them, NIMBYs are motivated in part by the sheer ugliness of so much new development. The YIMBYs hate on the historical commissions and their stringent design reviews, but it never occurs to them that if new developments looked more like the historic districts they degrade, people might actually support them more.
Note that the preservation movement followed close on the heels of widespread modernist building. It's quite possible that modernist architecture has had an enormous, though indirect, negative economic impact on middle class Americans by driving land use restrictions that make housing more expensive.
Oh, thank goodness - finally a way to turn this into an EA cause!
I also got some comments from a professional sociologist, Cicada Meth Orgy Fungus (look, people on Twitter have weird names sometimes). He writes:
Some people mention Steven Pinker’s The Blank Slate, which apparently has a chapter on this. It contrasts a traditional idea that architecture needs to appeal to some innate sense of beauty vs. a modern idea that there are no innate senses and so it can be whatever is easiest or more politically convenient. Fluffy Buffalo writes:
I think Steven Pinker had some good insights on that issue in "The Blank Slate". If I remember the argument correctly: modernist architecture/ city planning/ art came into fashion as the conviction spread that there was no such thing as a "human nature" - that, in fact, human tastes and human society were nearly totally malleable, and shaped by their surroundings.
That can take different flavors: the proactive approach is, if you thought that the olden ways were bad and needed to be changed (and after centuries of monarchy, after the excesses of the industrial revolution, and after World War I, there was good reason to believe that), getting rid of the art and architecture of these periods and replacing them with something radically different was a good first step toward molding a new society. This was explicit in communist countries, maybe less so in democratic ones.
The lazy approach is, if people don't have innate preferences, you don't have to worry about making buildings aesthetically pleasing, providing green spaces etc. You can build stuff as cheap and as functional as you can make it, and after a generation no one will miss the pretty old houses and cozy parks. That was probably the thinking behind a lot of post-war planning in Europe - partly out of necessity, because the old stuff was lying in ruins, and rebuilding it close to the original would have been a luxury that would have been hard to justify. The same approach is also present in US housing projects from the 70s onward. And in office buildings around the world, for that matter :-/
Did this reshaping work? Yes and no - we ended up in a place where people still miss the old elaborate styles (because, IMO, they did tap into universal human aesthetic preferences) and pay good money to travel to see the old masterpieces of art and architecture, but where it would still feel weird and anachronistic to just bring them back. It may be time to find a new twist - a new way to please those preferences that doesn't feel 100% rehashed old-school. In architecture, I think new technologies should help a lot - with 3D painters, CNC machines, robots, CAD and AI, it shouldn't be too hard to come up with a way to produce eye-pleasing ornaments , murals and building shapes at a reasonable price. But no one is doing it, because the current crop of architects can apparently only think in steel, concrete and glass.
Steven Pinker devoted a chapter ("The Arts") of The Blank Slate to this question. He comes down pretty strongly in support of the idea that the elites do this stuff *because* people don't like it. (As presented above, "Maybe elites are specifically trying to signal not being commoners, by choosing the opposite of commoners’ aesthetic preferences?")
Modernism certainly proceeded *as if* human nature had changed. All the tricks that artists had used for millennia to please the human palate were cast aside. In painting, realistic depictions gave way to freakish distortions of shape and color and then to abstract grids, shapes, dribbles, splashes, and, in the $200,000 painting featured in the recent comedy *Art*, a blank white canvas. In literature, omniscient narration, structured plots, the orderly introduction of characters, and general readability were replaced by a stream of consciousness, events presented out of order, baffling characters and causal sequences, subjective and disjointed narration, and difficult prose. In poetry, the use of rhyme, meter, verse structure, and clarity were frequently abandoned. In music, conventional rhythm and melody were set aside in favor of atonal, serial, dissonant, and twelve-tone compositions. In architecture, ornamentation, human scale, garden space, and traditional craftsmanship went out the window (or would have if the windows could have been opened), and buildings were "machines for living" made of industrial materials in boxy shapes.
Why did the artistic elite spearhead a movement that called for such masochism? In part it was touted as a reaction to the complacency of the Victorian era and to the naive bourgeois belief in certain knowledge, inevitable progress, and the justice of the social order. Weird and disturbing art was supposed to remind people that the world was a weird and disturbing place.
But modernism wanted to do more than just afflict the comfortable. Its glorification of pure form and its disdain for easy beauty and bourgeois pleasure had an explicit rationale and a political and spiritual agenda.
Modernist and postmodernist critics fail to acknowledge another feature of human nature that drives the arts: the hunger for status, especially their *own* hunger for status.
The problem is that whenever people seek rare things, entrepreneurs make them less rare, and whenever a dazzling performance is imitated, it can become commonplace. The result is the perennial turnover of styles in the arts.
In twentieth-century art, the search for the new thing became desperate because of the economies of mass production and the affluence of the middle class. As cameras, art reproductions, radios, records, magazines, movies, and paperbacks became affordable, ordinary people could buy art by the carload. It is hard to distinguish oneself as a good artist or discerning connoisseur if people are up to their ears in the stuff, much of it of reasonable artistic merit. The problem for artists is not that popular culture is so bad but that it is so good, at least some of the time. Art could no longer confer prestige by the rarity or excellence of the works themselves, so it had to confer it by the rarity of the powers of appreciation.
[O]nly a special elite of initiates could get the point of the new workds of art. And with beautiful things spewing out of printing presses and record plants, distinctive works need not be beautiful. Indeed, they had better not be, because now any schmo could have beautiful things.
In his 1913 book Art, the critic Clive Bell  argued that beauty had no place in good art because it was rooted in crass experiences.
Thirty-five years later, the abstract painter Barnett Newman approvingly declared that the impulse of modern art was "the desire to destroy beauty".
In the year 2000, the composer Stefania de Kenessey puckishly announced a new "movement" in the arts, Derrière Guard, which celebrates beauty, technique, and narrative. If that sounds too innocuous to count as a movement, consider the response of the director of the Whitney, the shrine of the dismembered-torso establishment, who called the members of the movement "a bunch of crypto-Nazi conservative bullshitters."
I mentioned that last anecdote to the art teacher in my high school, and was surprised to get a fairly enthusiastic response to the effect that yes, there is a raging controversy over whether art should be beautiful, and if not, whether beautiful art should even be allowed. She directed me to a recent story, clipped and posted to her bulletin board, about a city which had arranged for a public art project, seen the proposal somehow come in as a larger-than-life statue of Poseidon in the form of a merman holding the reins of five orcas, canceled the project because *that's just not the sort of thing we do*, and run into the absolutely unprecedented problem of massive public support for the public art project they wanted to cancel.
Other people focus more on the idea of deliberate ugliness because our civilization doesn’t deserve beautiful things. Aka writes:
Theodore Adorno famously said "It is barbaric to write poetry after Auschwitz."
Some people were very insistent about this, saying that I was stupid for not having read the primary sources where post-WWII builders explain that this is exactly what they are doing. I admit that my claim in the original post that I hadn’t heard people say this before had more to do with my own ignorance than with what other people had said, and I will try to read those sources, but I think these people’s strident tone is a bit misplaced. Even granting that many people said that, there still seems to be a mystery here. Did Google think about the horrors of WWII before deciding to build a kind of ugly headquarters? Did some random 1990s suburb think about the horrors of WWII before deciding to build a kind of ugly City Hall?
Usually there is some group of people with some silly idea, like “let’s only build ugly things to remind ourselves of the horrors of WWII”, and they make like five things, and then the market gives ordinary people what they want, which is pretty things (at least for some watered-down mass market definition of “pretty”). If someone said “let’s only eat bad food from now on to remember 9-11”, it would never work. Heck, people won’t eat slightly-worse-tasting food to avoid diabetes and save their own lives. If some group of architects actually coordinated the entire world into only building ugly buildings for 70 years to in order to make an important moral point, this would be one of the most impressive acts of coordination in the history of the world. We should find these same architects and ask them to coordinate us into only building environmentally-sound buildings in order to prevent climate change, or whatever.
I guess I’m willing to accept “some people did this originally, and those people were cool, and then that became the cool thing, and then we ended up in a vicious cycle where everyone has to pretend to like it”, but if that were true it would still be pretty astonishing.
Also, are we still doing this? Because people like Frank Gehry are making stuff like this:
…which doesn’t exactly scream “penitence” or “silent contemplation of the evil within us all”.
I've been exploring the question you're asking for the past several years. I haven't got a well-organized answer yet, nor time today to say much. But this isn't an isolated phenomenon. Rather, it's a pattern that has repeated throughout history and around the world, one of naturalist art executed with great skill being deliberately replaced with highly abstract art not requiring as much skill.
- The cave paintings of Chauvet Cave in France ca 30,000 BP (before present) are more natural and technically much more sophisticated than any cave or rock paintings found after 20,000 BP (some of which are quite abstract and stylized).
- The stone "goddess" idols of Europe circa 6000 BP were more realistic than their artistic descendants, the highly abstract, smooth, angular stone "idols" of the Cyclades, ca. 5000 BP, which were strong influences on modern art.
- Minoan and Mycenaean art (circa 2000 BCE) were both much more naturalistic and sophisticated than the highly abstract Greek art of the Geometric and Archaic periods.
- Ancient Egypt produced extremely skilled naturalistic art, and very stylized, abstract, and seemingly less skillful art at the same time. Check out the art of the pharaoh Akhenaten, who briefly introduced very naturalistic, realistic art, and was erased from history after his death. Note that most Egyptian wall paintings are Cubist.
- The representational art of Western Europe, starting with Constantine, and throughout the Middle Ages (with the exception of the Frankish court and some Byzantine art), up until nearly 1300 AD, seems to have been very deliberately bad, and in many times and places it was banned entirely. This was probably due to Christianity and Islam both having a horror of the misleading power of representational art (which fear came straight out of Plato). Note much medieval art was also Cubist.
- 19th century African art, which is what everyone today thinks of as "African art", is nearly all highly abstract and anti-naturalistic (and was also a big influence on modern art). Yet the very few pieces of pre-colonial African art (pre-1500 CE) which we have are more naturalistic and technically sophisticated, including a few (from present-day Nigeria) that were more skillfully made than their European contemporaries. I've even seen a series of statues made in Benin, from IIRC 1400 to 1900 AD, which show the gradual loss of realism and heightening abstraction.
Don't think of this as "progress". We also see change in the opposite direction; e.g., the gradual naturalization of Greek art from the Archaic, through the Classical, and into the Hellenistic era. Art around the world has always cycled between the poles of naturalistic realism and abstract spiritualism. The former tends to appear in times of wealth, safety, sea trade, and intellectual freedom (e.g., Athens, Venice, Renaissance Italy, the Dutch Masters, Elizabethan England); the latter, in times of great crisis. I think this is because abstract art is, seemingly without exception, more spiritual in its motivation.
These two opposing types of art are based on two general opposing philosophies, one which takes the physical world as real versus one which takes the transcendent as real. Many artistic features of each recur consistently. For instance, abstract art is often linear, with clear black borders between solid (unshaded, unmixed) primary colors, cubist in perspective, & uses size and distance to denote spirituo-political rather than physical truths.
The underlying opposition is not so much stylistic, as about the "purpose" of art. "Spiritual" art comes from the point of view that one already possesses absolute Truth, and the purpose of art is only to indoctrinate (as in Plato). Nazi and Stalinist art both used "naturalistic" representational techniques, yet were spiritual in nature: they used art for the same propagandistic purposes as religions do; they always presented images of either the ideal or the demonic; they are generally images of power. Art that is naturalistic "in nature", by contrast, is made by people who are studying nature and trying to understand it, as opposed to people who scorn messy, "imperfect" nature in favor of their beautiful abstract "Truth". Naturalists don't see everything in terms of propaganda, power, and conflict.
The rise of modern art is well-documented. The motivation for its abstraction derived originally from Plato--modern art is supposed to be the artist-as-prophet providing humanity with a more-direct vision of Plato's transcendent forms; the argument for why representational art is bad comes straight from Plato's Meno. (Though many of the early modern artists got their Plato indirectly, through Christianity or Hegel; and Romanticism and the decadents were also major influences.) Those other periods of abstract art I just mentioned which were just then being discovered were also influential, as was medieval art.
But analysis of the rise of modern art has been hindered by the fact that it was an ideological movement which still controls academia and Western art institutions, and it has always been in that movement's interests to revise the past in order to blame its failures on its enemies. For instance, you'll commonly read that modern art began as a response to the horrors of WW1. The truth is quite the opposite: proto-modern artists were demanding a great war from about 1906, and got quite psyched up about WW1 (see eg Ezra Pound's BLAST). They believed Western civilization was systemically corrupt and needed to be utterly destroyed before they could create "true Art". (They used phrases like "a clean sweep" and "a great burning".) Albert Gleizes, one of the founders of Cubism, hoped for the complete destruction of cities and a return to a more pastoral, spiritual, community-oriented medieval lifestyle. The artists now paraded as "modern" to give the illusion that modern art was some sort of peace protest movement--e.g., Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen--weren't modernists at all; just read their poems. Not a single modernist technique among them.
So minimalist modernism in the West may actually owe more to curiosity about Japan following the Meiji Restoration than to internal factors. As the rare person who actually enjoys (some) modernist buildings and art, I think this cultural appropriation was probably a good thing.
The ugliest buildings to me nowadays are probably McMansions. They try to imitate traditional 19th century or earlier building styles, but fail heavily, partially because Baumol's cost disease means less easy access to the heavy manual labor those styles required.
I might be the only person in the world who likes McMansions. They just look like nice, pleasant buildings made by people who want to vaguely enjoy the place where they live. Probably the least offensive thing people are making these days.
Michael Watts brings up an aspect of signaling I’d forgotten about:
There is something to this point:
> This only works if making beautiful things is expensive. For example, the clothing of the Kanxi Emperor (first picture on left) required servants to create the intricate patterns, dyes that had to be harvested from finicky insects and rare plants, etc. Displaying your ornate dyed objects let everyone know you were rich. With the invention of sewing machines, industrial dyes, rhinestones, etc, even poor people could dress like the Kangxi Emperor.
[But] it is overstated. This problem was encountered by pretty much every traditional society, and they almost all implemented the obvious answer of sumptuary laws. Wearing yellow clothing in China could get you in serious trouble. Wearing clothes with dragons on them *would* get you in serious trouble. Feudal Ireland had a careful system in which your social status determined the number of different colors you were permitted to wear simultaneously. Etc. etc. etc.
And while imperial costumes are popular in modern China, and lots of people have them or rent them, they are, predictably, cheap imitations. A true imperial robe would be cheaper now than it was at the time, but it wouldn't exactly be cheap today.
From my own reading the best theory I've seen is that we lost the language of beauty. It's a bit like trying to revive Latin. For any but the most genius artists to make beautiful things, you need centuries to build up a corpus of techniques, habits, useful misunderstandings, etc, so to raise the general level.
This level itself seems to be many things. Firstly technical, we literally don't have enough stone carvers, people don't understand the value of it, and economics compounds things in losing economies of scale.
Secondly cultural, surely you need a period of time for the taste of the audience to be both discovered and formed by art, and this in a coherent cultural context. Globalisation might kill art by removing context, as if you were to paint a painting without a canvas.
Thirdly there's freedom to follow patterns that lead towards beauty, paradoxically because we preach too much freedom. I personally suspect our lapse from making beautiful things has sewed ways of thinking that prevent any but the most extreme free thinkers from reconstituting the foundations for beauty, which is not the same skillset as an artist. I'm personally interested in rediscovering how buildings were ornamented, and managed to read an entire book that said nothing useful at all. A good example of a pattern in ornament that we'd struggle with today is that ornament isn't meant to overwhelm, it's decoration, it should develop and harmonise with building form. Today the artist is told to show their vision, but this harms them if they leave the canvas. Their idea of freedom prevents them from appreciating the nature of their restraints, and the new freedom that creates.
So I'm personally unsurprised that we're struggling to make beauty today, though it's a mystery how we got here in the first place. My best idea is high modernist mass construction undermined the economics of art long enough to break continuity of knowledge between generations, but his isn't a sufficient theory.
Here are some of the art installations from Burning Man:
I will leave it up to you whether this is “true art” or “beautiful” or any of those vague terms. But nonprofessionals with limited budgets are making things very different from the usual modernist stuff. If we wanted our public art to look very different, we could do it tomorrow.
So, is it just me or is the Tartaria conspiracy theory… blatantly obviously correct? Like, our modern society has all the trappings of that sort of “twilight of the gods” fiction. We have technology which we still use despite being unable to produce it (nuclear power, skyscrapers, space travel), a culture of pessimism and trying to hold on to what we have over producing anything new, a decadent and onanistic upper class, a drugged-into-complacency lower class. Like, there’s nuttiness which I don’t accept, but this seems so abundantly obviously true-in-substance that I feel like it just barely counts as a “conspiracy theory”. Just scratch out the references to "Tartarian Empire" and replace it with "Interwar America" and it seems like a fairly accurate description of history.
I want to make it clear that even though I used the Tartarian conspiracy theory as a frame story for my (hopefully) reasonable speculations about art, the actual conspiracy theory is bonkers and not “basically correct” in any sense. I haven’t explored all the nooks and crannies, but I know part of it is that Tartaria was destroyed by a “Great Mud Flood” which explains why so many buildings have basements with bricked-up windows (I have never seen this - is it true? If so, what is the explanation?) I have been looking at the preview of this book, which appears to assert that (among other things) that Neil Armstrong and Yuri Gagarin were the same person, but scientists have covered this up. It also includes the truly excellent sentence “Researchers concluded that history and science are probably a set of lies".
So no, this conspiracy isn’t just shorthand for “there’s been some technological regress over the past century.”
i think you might be ignoring the role of novelty here. like, if youre the sort of person who is very interested in a given art form (say, designing buildings), youre gonna study them a lot, and then get bored of the types of buildings that already exist, and want to see and create new weird buildings. i mean, i agree that its weird and maybe bad that weird artsy buildings have become a thing for government buildings, but i dont think its surprising that the architecture world is interested in buildings that the average person isnt, because the average person doesnt want an interesting or novel building, they just want a good building (a reasonable desire!). its like stravinsky's atonal music. it sounds worse, like, aesthetically, but its very clearly weird and novel, and if you think about music all the time, (maybe) you want that..
i think the most famous and esteemed architecture of the last 50 years is *extremely* diverse. frank gehry vs frank lloyd wright vs moshe safdie vs zaha hadid look like they come from different planets.
In case you don’t immediately recognize all those names, here’s one top building from each:
In the 1800s, an elite person had probably only seen a few dozen magnificent buildings in their life. Today, every architect has seen (pictures of) nearly every magnificent building on Earth. So as the pool of comparable buildings has exponentially expanded (from dozens to thousands), novelty has become much more prized.
Prestige within a creative field is so tightly bound with novelty that it’s pretty much inevitable that ambitious new works must abandon older forms, even when many of the artists and elites may prefer them.
Personally, I think the greatest music ever written was from the Romantic era, specifically Beethoven’s symphonies. Plenty of music critics (classical ones, at least) would agree. And yet, nobody writes in that style anymore, and nobody seems to think anybody should be writing in that style. Romantic music is done, like it or not (I don’t).
And then it devolves into complicated discussions by people who know music theory a lot more than I do, for example Heinrich:
I agree with all this. I think where it gets challenging is where the most parsimonious ways of doing something, given the constraints of tonality and the other rules of music, have already been “taken”, so to speak. I think this may be true of fugal counterpoint, which seems to want to tend stylistically towards a kind of robust baroque language a la Bach and Handel, and no-one since the mid C18th has really been able to do it particularly differently. So do we accept that that’s basically how fugues sound, or do we resolve not to write fugues? Not sure
I think my objection to this is that modern buildings look alike to me on most axes. I understand that one is a pile of weirdly-shaped concrete blocks and another is a pile of differently-weirdly-shaped concrete blocks, and that in some sense those must be totally different architectural problems. But there’s no modern building that looks as different from any other modern building as either looks from a cathedral - let alone more different than a cathedral looks from a Chinese pagoda. If you were really trying to maximize variety, you should have a bunch of buildings that look “modern”, a bunch of buildings that look “traditional”, and a bunch of buildings exploring weird spaces in between or totally different from either. Instead every building looks modern in about the same way.
Why doesn’t anyone make a building with the structure of top left, but the color and decoration theme of bottom-right? Wouldn’t that actually be new and unusual?
The Berlin Stadtschloss ("city palace") was reconstructed in the last 10 years, and has just been officially inaugurated last week. It's mostly a reconstruction of the old style, with lots of ornaments.
There was (and is) a furious debate on whether the reconstruction should be in this ornamental, reconstructive style. As far as I can tell, one side of the debate included most of the architectural/artistic world, who would have favoured something modern and condemned the reconstruction as "fake Baroque palace.. a stage-set of an old capital, with phony, manufactured charm, erasing traces of the bad years of the 20th century."
The other side was the general public, who generally was in favour of lots of ornaments and its beautiful aesthetics. Perhaps untypically, the general public won this fight.
And Webster gives us stories from Macedonia and Austria:
I think Skopje is a major counterargument to Scott's claim about people preferring traditional architectural styles. Briefly, the Macedonian government decided to build a bunch of public buildings and monuments in a neo-classical style to remind everyone of their ancient heritage - it looks awful, and everyone inside and outside the country agrees that the buildings are super kitschy and shouldn't have been built.
My interpretation is that people prefer *old* buildings, not *old-style* modern buildings. The 19th century saw a large number of buildings built in revivalist styles, mostly neo-Gothic and neo-Romanesque, but most of these buildings are forgotten nowadays (compare the relative popularity of the Stephansdom and the Votivkirche in Vienna - they look the same, they're both located right in the centre of the city, but the Votivkirche barely gets any visitors).
I’m including this because I was in Vienna last week, I went to Stephansdom like everyone else, and then I got lost and stumbled into Votivkirche and thought - wait, this is at least as good as Stephansdom, why isn’t it in any of the tourist books, how come nobody else is here, what’s going on?
Maybe this is even more proof that I don’t have taste.
Deiseach gives us some more information about Luigi Bocconi University (the modern building on my comparison graphic). You can read the comment if you want to see the whole thing, but she quotes part of the architects’ prospectus, eg:
In order to make this grand place of exchange we thought about the research offices as beams of space, suspended to form a grand canopy which filters light to all levels. The offices form an inhabited roofscape. This floating canopy allows the space of the city to overlap with the life of the university. Allows internal and external public spaces to merge. The beehive world of the research is physically separate but always visually connected to the life of the lower levels
The underground accommodation is treated as an erupting landscape which offers support to the inhabited light filters above. Spatially this underground world is solid, dense and carved. We tried to establish a continuity between the 'landscape' of the city and the 'made landscape' of this undercroft […]
I used to hate this kind of stuff - it always reminded me of that one really pretentious Pepsi logo. But I recently visited the Sagrada Familia Museum, and it had quotes from Gaudi’s notebook, and he sounds exactly like this. So maybe it started with brilliant architects actually having thoughts like this, and then everyone else had to fake it in order to keep up?
Several people brought up opinions that the first generation to make non-traditional art (eg modern architecture, impressionist painting, Art Deco, jazz, e.e. cummings) were very good, original, and actually quite interesting critiques. Then every generation after that was terrible. They suggested something like that rebellion is good and constructive when you have a very specific thing you’re rebelling against, understand it inside and out, and are still in some sense “constrained” by the world it created, and then the generation after you doesn’t understand the traditional forms at all and just sort of does vague rebellion-adjacent things cluelessly in the hope of capturing some of the original energy.
This reminds me of Athrelon’s claim that first-generation Chinese-American immigrants insist on slavish adherence to all the (seemingly pointless) rules of Chinese culture, second-generation immigrants have the good parts of Chinese culture (driven, intelligent, lawful) without the bad parts, and third-generation immigrants lose the good parts and become indistinguishable from other Americans. Maybe rebellion can be good and productive for one generation, and after that you’re just confused.
CORENTIN: Always wanting to experiment further, to move forward, is part of human nature. The use of new chords and more and more complex rhythms in order to express as closely as possible the spirit of the new times has led to the dissolution of tonality. As long as it remained natural, this evolution produced masterworks in which tradition and novelty coexist in infinitely variable percentages. The dosage was sometimes explosive, sometimes tousling, but often successful.
Today, I’m more convinced than ever that there is no natural border between styles. The schools may be opposed but not the styles, which should complement each other. But in the 1960s, suddenly it was all about serialism and electro-acoustic music; there was the quasi-institutional obligation to wipe out the past, and the subsidies only went to what has been called “contemporary music” (the word “contemporary” being abusively linked to a style instead of just meaning “of our time”). Without this political, ideological, and basically non-artistic doctrine, there would have been a natural complementarity between tradition and innovation, in music as in all other arts.
ERICH: I know some great American composers, like Arnold Rosner and Harold Shapero, have spoken of having felt alienated in American music departments, due to the dogmatic serialism there. In your experience, have the conservatoires of Paris been more accepting of 19th-century idioms?
CORENTIN: Absolutely not – quite the contrary! Western Europe, and France in particular, has spearheaded this systematic destruction of all artistic tradition, of any style that could be related to the past. The conservatories have been forced to practice a clean slate policy. This undermining action, well supervised by the institutions and the media, has had the disastrous result that, for several decades, composition – in the original sense of the word – is no longer taught in the conservatories. I did all my musical courses at the Conservatoire National Supérieur de Musique (CNSM) of Paris. I obtained five Prizes … but I was not able to attempt the “Composition” Prize since this Prize is only for composers of so-called “contemporary” music, that is to say “experimental”.
Many people recommended books or papers on this subject. I haven’t read them yet, but the most enthusiastically mooted were:
The Work Of Art In The Age Of Mechanical Reproduction From Bauhaus To Our House The Rite of Spring by Modris Eksteins Art and Culture: Critical Essays by Clement Greenberg The Intellectuals and the Masses. Pride and Prejudice among the Literary Intelligentsia 1880-1939 Shock of the New (TV series) The Civilizing Process by Norbert Elias Distinction by Bourdieu
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” This is a special Friday edition. If someone forwarded you this email, or you found this online, it’s a sign you should subscribe.
One of the most common refrains on the topic of climate change is that it “shouldn’t be a political issue.”
The reason for that, in many people’s eyes, is that it’s purely a scientific issue. Ideally, this ought to be true. The snag is that addressing climate change is a deeply political issue — it’s something that will almost certainly require human action, government intervention, private sector buy-in, and efforts from the global citizenry as a whole. In many cases, it could involve actual lifestyle changes.
Whether you view climate change as a political issue or not is actually irrelevant, because it has become one. That means, as a political journalist, I’ve had to cover it.
Over the course of my career as a reporter, I’ve actually done quite a bit of work on climate change. I’ve reported on the band of teenagers who sued the U.S. government for its role in allowing climate change, which they argued was an infringement on their liberty. I’ve reported on dozens of pieces of climate change legislation. I’ve reported on candidates — from presidential to local levels — who decided to run on a climate change platform (and how it impacted their races). And I’ve also reported on the climate change skeptics: the politicians, pundits, political donors and energy executives who have argued that the threat of climate change is being vastly overstated by the left.
I’m not a dogmatic person. I’ve changed my mind about all sorts of critical issues over the years, from gun control to the existence of God to UFOs to how to solve our broken immigration crisis. I’ve changed my mind about politicians like Barack Obama and moved my position on hot-button issues like critical race theory. I say this all to note that I’m open: I enjoy being wrong. I find it exhilarating and terrible and fun and ultimately it has always helped me grow.
And in all this time reporting on this issue, learning about it, engaging with a wide range of views, my perspective has really not moved much. I believe we are witnessing a period of time where humans are causing the Earth to warm; I believe that warming will have catastrophic impacts on the planet that will probably fall to our grandchildren but that we are beginning to witness now; I believe that the issue is complex, but that the science can be easy to follow. I also believe this will be a defining issue — politically, scientifically and globally, in everyday life — for the next 100 years.
Today’s edition is not about the politics of climate change. It’s not about what we should do to address it, or what pieces of legislation are best, or which party is in denial. Instead, as a staff, and with the consultation of climatologists, we’re just going to try to give you a thorough understanding of the scientific issues at hand. We’re going to do something far too few news outlets have done: explain what’s happening, what the science says, what the skeptics say, what we can reasonably infer from all of this, and what we don’t actually know yet.
And since this piece is covering a scientific issue, I collaborated more with the Tangle staff — and outside sources — than I usually do. A few months ago, we added an editor named Ari Weitzman to the team; you may remember that he pushed me to write about American Indian Reservations and supplied the introduction in a previous Friday edition. He also happens to have a degree in Environmental Studies from the University of Chicago and a deep interest in climate change. I’d like to thank him, because he did the bulk of the research and prep work for today’s edition: I’ve worked with him to try to make it easier to read, understand, and flesh out the most important points. I’ve also given him a byline on this piece for his work, which is the first time I’ve ever shared a byline in Tangle (we’re growing!).
Since this is a unique edition of Tangle, I’m especially interested in your feedback. And as a reminder, you can always reply to this email to reach me or, if you’re a subscriber, you can leave a comment on the article by clicking the headline of this piece in your email or going to our website, https://www.readtangle.com/
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Joseph Fourier was a French mathematician who lived from 1786 to 1830. He isn’t very renowned today, except by scientists and mathematicians. Like many great thinkers, he has a namesake work: Fourier Analysis, which falls under a branch of mathematics called harmonics. However, part of Fourier’s most significant work was his study of heat and conduction.
In 1824, Fourier wondered about the Earth’s temperature. After conducting a rudimentary analysis, he concluded that the Earth was warmer than it should be given that its only heat source is the sun. Fourier theorized that something must be insulating the planet to prevent heat from the sun from radiating back into space, and proposed that gases in our atmosphere trap and radiate heat back to the surface.
It’s actually a rather simple idea: The Earth’s atmosphere allows most direct sunlight through, where it is absorbed by the planet and re-emitted back as heat energy. Imagine a strip of asphalt in direct sunlight. When you stand over it, you can feel the heat emanating from the surface. On a planetary scale the Earth is doing the same thing, and some surfaces like exposed rock and asphalt radiate more heat than others like plant cover or ice sheets. A portion of that heat is then insulated by the atmosphere, and reradiated back to the surface. This is a natural process that allows Earth to retain energy from the sun, and regulate its temperature.
“Many chemical compounds present in Earth's atmosphere behave as 'greenhouse gases'. These are gases which allow direct sunlight (relative shortwave energy) to reach the Earth's surface unimpeded. As the shortwave energy (that in the visible and ultraviolet portion of the spectra) heats the surface, longer-wave (infrared) energy (heat) is reradiated to the atmosphere. Greenhouse gases absorb this energy, thereby allowing less heat to escape back to space, and 'trapping' it in the lower atmosphere.”
In other words: greenhouse gases are those that let sunlight (and its energy) through, but then stop that energy and heat from going back into space.
These gases include water vapor, carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and fluorinated gases. The EPA’s website is an informative source of information on the wide variations in the energy absorption strength, lifespans in the atmosphere, and sources of all of these gases. Fluorinated gases are very powerful greenhouse gases and can live in the atmosphere for up to 270 years, but they aren’t naturally produced and are emitted from human activities (primarily as aerosols and refrigerants) at a much lower rate than other greenhouse gases. Conversely, carbon dioxide is a much less powerful greenhouse gas, but is produced both through natural process and human activity, and at a much higher rate.
In the United States, carbon dioxide emissions are roughly five times larger by volume than emissions of all other greenhouse gases combined. Carbon dioxide is also a part of what’s called the global carbon cycle, which we’ll explain in more detail in a second. Generally, the carbon cycle is a process where geochemical and biological events play a role in how carbon dioxide is processed (like, say, by being absorbed into the ocean). This means some excess carbon dioxide will be naturally processed by the planet, while some will remain in the atmosphere for thousands of years.
The carbon cycle.
Even though it’s a “less powerful” greenhouse gas, carbon dioxide gets a lot of attention because of the length of time it remains in the atmosphere and the huge volume at which humans emit it. Primarily, climatologists are concerned with carbon dioxide in relation to the atmosphere’s greenhouse effect. As its name suggests, CO2 is a molecule composed of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. As with methane (CH4: one carbon atom and four hydrogen atoms), a more powerful greenhouse gas that is emitted at a much lower rate and lives on in the atmosphere for about a decade, carbon dioxide contains carbon.
One thing you’ll often hear from people skeptical of the threat of climate change is that carbon dioxide is a naturally occurring component of life on Earth. This is the kind of challenge that is both true and misleading: it’s true that carbon dioxide is natural and critical to life. It’s misleading to suggest that means everything is fine if we’re emitting additional millions of tons of it into the atmosphere every year.
As NASA writes, “Carbon is the backbone of life on Earth. We are made of carbon, we eat carbon, and our civilizations—our economies, our homes, our means of transport—are built on carbon.” Carbon exists naturally in the landmasses of the Earth, the ocean, and the atmosphere. It is also naturally exchanged through these three reservoirs in a process known as the carbon cycle. Over hundreds of millions of years, the balance of carbon in these reservoirs may vary, but the geologic (i.e. occurring over a time scale of millions of years) exchange between them has remained relatively consistent over time. In fact, for the 50 million years prior to 1890, carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere were dropping, and the planet — with some periodic fluctuations — was cooling.
Again: this is an accurate point often made by people skeptical of the dangers of climate change, interpreting real science to come to a misleadingly comfortable position of unconcern (of course, it’s also worth pointing out the obvious: The scientists who are telling us the world has been cooling on a geological scale are also the ones sounding the alarms about climate change).
Still, as more and more carbon has been released into the atmosphere since the start of the industrial revolution, the carbon cycle has seen one noteworthy change: the exchange of carbon between the ocean and atmosphere has tipped towards the ocean absorbing much more carbon than it is releasing. On one hand, the ocean absorbing as much as a third of global carbon has provided a regulating effect on heating and has prevented extreme warming from occurring over the last 100 years. On the other hand, for the health of ocean life, it’s extremely bad. One of the ways we know that the ocean is absorbing carbon is that it’s acidifying, significantly. From NOAA again:
Carbon dioxide, which is naturally in the atmosphere, dissolves into seawater. Water and carbon dioxide combine to form carbonic acid (H2CO3), a weak acid that breaks (or “dissociates”) into hydrogen ions (H+) and bicarbonate ions (HCO3-).
Because of human-driven increased levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, there is more CO2 dissolving into the ocean. The ocean’s average pH is now around 8.1, which is basic (or alkaline), but as the ocean continues to absorb more CO2, the pH decreases and the ocean becomes more acidic.
The interplay between the greenhouse effect, the lifespan of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and the carbon cycle presents a basis for the theory of human-caused (or anthropogenic) global warming. As early as 1896, the Swedish scientist Svante Arrhenius suggested that the global trend of fossil fuel combustion would result in a warming Earth.
Once again, the theory is fairly direct: more fossil fuels burned means more carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere. The more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, the longer it takes the natural carbon cycle to transfer the carbon to the land and ocean, and so it accumulates. The accumulating carbon dioxide enhances the greenhouse effect and results in more heat being contained by the atmosphere. This drives global mean temperatures higher.
It would take some time for Arrhenius to be proven right. Due to Earth (at a geological scale) being in a cooling phase, the planet’s natural capability for self-regulation, and the sheer magnitude of the process of global climate change, our planet’s global mean temperature would not be observed to dramatically curve upwards until the 1980s. In 1988, The New York Times reported that “temperatures have been rising more or less steadily for much of the last century. But, in the view of some scientists, a sharper rise detected in the 1980s is the most persuasive evidence yet that carbon dioxide and other industrial gases are trapping heat in the atmosphere and warming the earth as if it were a greenhouse.”
The support for anthropogenic factors causing global warming requires data on a large scale — which we have. One of the most iconic visualizations of such data has come from Charles David Keeling’s observations at the Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, which he began making in 1958 and whose observatory is still gathering data to this day. The Keeling Curve, as it’s widely known, is a chart that demonstrates the increase of atmospheric concentration of carbon over time. It looks like this:
Since 1958, carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere has increased from 320 parts per million (ppm is on the Y-axis in the above chart) to 420 ppm. The Keeling Curve also demonstrates annual seasonal variability of atmospheric carbon, which had previously only been theorized. Since the large majority of plant life on Earth is in the northern hemisphere, plants will be “breathing” more in the summer — emitting more oxygen and absorbing more CO2. See how the curve on the graph has a jagged, saw-tooth pattern? That pattern confirmed the seasonal variability theory to scientists, and that expected pattern reinforces the reliability of the data from Mauna Loa.
The data speaks for itself. And given what it shows us, it appears impossible to refute Arrhenius’s theory that human beings have measurably increased the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.
As we’d expect, given this concentration of carbon dioxide, Earth’s global mean temperature has been increasing for over a century, with a particularly sharp increase in the 1980’s. Geologically, however, Earth is far from the hottest it has ever been, which is demonstrated in this chart:
Without ice core data to extend back hundreds of millions of years ago, when the Earth was so hot that there were no glaciers or ice caps, it is hard to get an accurate understanding of the level of carbon in the atmosphere at that time. Through a new methodology that uses seismic tomography, however, scientists in the Netherlands believe that the carbon dioxide concentration was about twice as much as it is today — which supports the understanding that atmospheric carbon drives global temperatures.
Additionally, it is important to think about the scale represented in the temperature graph above. The entirety of the ice core data we have corresponds to the extreme right-hand portion of the chart — the part above the letter “y” in the word “Today” on the x-axis. The wide fluctuations in global temperature shown above to have occured over thousands to millions of years are due to a combination of complex factors. Over a period of a hundred years, however, an increase of a few degrees Fahrenheit sticks out. It is notable, and likely due to a singular cause. During one such major increase marked above, the Paleocene Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), a massive atmospheric carbon spike accompanied an observed acidification of the ocean, again reinforcing our understanding of the carbon cycle and temperatures.
The causal relationship between atmospheric carbon and temperature increase that was theorized in 1896 and demonstrated during the PETM is being demonstrated again now. Since atmospheric carbon began increasing in 1880, global mean temperatures have risen over a degree Celsius (about 1.4 degrees Fahrenheit).
The data indicate a clear trend in increasing temperatures starting in the 1980s and continuing to this day. Since climate change theorists have long understood the connection between carbon dioxide and global temperature, there has been no shortage of models that have attempted to forecast future temperatures. One good way to challenge the anthropogenic warming theory, and evaluate if it is correct, is to look at the performance of the models that assume human-caused warming. In a metastudy performed by NASA that evaluated 17 warming models from 1970 to 2007, the research team found that 14 fit observed data, with 10 “closely matching observations.”
This forecasted increase is due to a process called a positive feedback loop, which is a process whose outputs increase its inputs, thereby causing the process to accelerate. Positive feedback loops can happen in different ways, but here are a few concerning ones that we’ve already observed:
More heat means a higher concentration of water vapor can be trapped in the atmosphere. Water vapor is a greenhouse gas, which means more warming, which means more water vapor in the atmosphere.
The ice caps and glaciers reflect sunlight back into space, so it can’t be absorbed and reradiated back as infrared light to be trapped by the gases in our atmosphere. This helps keep the planet cool. But as global temperatures get warmer, the ice caps melt, meaning less sunlight is reflected back... which means more sunlight is absorbed and radiated as heat, which means more melting.
Methane and carbon dioxide are trapped in permafrost — soil that remains frozen all year round. There is a lot of carbon stored in permafrost in the Siberian and Canadian tundras, for example. Higher temperatures mean melting permafrost, which means more carbon released into the atmosphere, which means more permafrost melting even faster.
It isn’t all bad news, though. There are actually a few negative feedback loops, too, all of which are projected to help regulate the warming process.
Warming means more evaporation, which means more cloud cover. Clouds reflect sunlight back into space, which decreases warming.
The hotter the earth gets, the faster it radiates heat out to space. The faster heat is lost by the planet, the more slowly its warming occurs.
Human behavior causes emissions that cause warming, which humans notice and use to evaluate their own behavior. This evaluation causes less emissions… we hope.
In general, scientific models are projecting a two-to-five degree celsius increase in global mean temperatures between now and 2100. The largest unknown factors are the natural variations in Earth’s carbon cycle and how much intervention humans will be able and willing to take. However, due to the positive feedback loops that have already started, even extreme intervention is not likely to be enough to prevent some warming.
To put it another way, warming itself is a cause of warming. If our actions are left unchecked and we go about “business-as-usual,” the effects of warming will themselves be the leading cause of warming; at which point it will be too late for action. If those feedback loops become self-sustaining, there will be little we can do to prevent a “Hothouse Earth” and the resulting catastrophic effects.
“Global warming” is the general understanding that the Earth is getting hotter, and the implication and informed consensus is that human activity is driving that increase. “Climate change” refers to all the other effects, like the ocean acidification described above, that the global mean temperature increase will cause. These effects include changes in precipitation patterns, more droughts and heatwaves, a longer growing season, stronger hurricanes, and drastic sea level rise.
“Climate change” is mostly used as an umbrella term to refer to any changes to Earth’s climate that are caused primarily by the increase of atmospheric carbon from human beings, but the science behind it is based primarily on the understanding of anthropogenic warming.
Part of understanding climate change is grasping the magnitude and consequences of the climate’s changes to all life on Earth. The Earth itself has gone through hot phases before, and life on Earth will find a way to continue. However, biodiversity and stable environments, factors that human life on Earth depend on, will be greatly stressed. In fact, based on the warming we’ve already experienced, biodiversity is already being stressed. And since the planet has never experienced warming this quickly before, we don’t really know how such a sudden change to global climate will continue to affect life on Earth.
We know it won’t be a good thing, though. According to the journal Health Affairs, should temperatures increase by 1.5°C, a United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report found that “of 105,000 species studied, four percent of vertebrates, six percent of insects and eight percent of plants would lose half of their climatically-determined geographic range. At 2°C the percents double to triple. At 1.5°C we will lose 70 to 90 percent of coral reefs, at 2°C there will be a 99 percent loss.” This will mean loss of habitable and arable land, which in turn mean mass migrations and decreased food production, which in turn mean human death and catastrophe at a scale that is hard to predict or imagine.
There has been doubt and skepticism leveled against climate change and global warming for as long as the terms have existed. Criticism over forecasting models and their performances have generally been in good faith, but theoretical criticisms of climate change are in many ways not much more reasonable than challenging Earth’s roundness. We actually have a very good understanding of what’s going on. And, as it happens, many of the loudest, most well-funded skeptics of climate change have either reversed course or been outed for pushing propaganda in order to boost their own profits (see: executives in the energy industries and the politicians they bankroll).
Some of the most popular skeptic responses are as follows:
All energy on Earth comes from the sun, so all changes in heat are due to the sun.
The climate has changed before; it’s a natural process.
Earth has been hotter before, so it’s not going to be destroyed.
The Earth is getting warmer, but humans aren’t causing it.
The Earth is getting warmer, but it won’t cause dire effects.
There actually isn’t a scientific consensus about climate change.
The temperature data isn’t reliable.
Actually, the Earth is getting cooler.
Some of these points are not very strong. Most, like carbon dioxide being essential to life or the fact that the Earth is currently in a cooling cycle, are based on sound facts at their roots but fall apart under scrutiny. The popular science site skepticalscience.com provides more discussion and detail in response to these claims, and I encourage those interested to visit that website, but these are the basic rebuttals:
A change in energy coming into Earth is due to the sun, a change in energy retained is not.
Climate change may be a natural process, but it is not an exclusively natural process.
The Earth won’t be destroyed, but that isn’t the concern. The concern is that the livable area for eight billion people will be greatly reduced and countless species on the Earth will be destroyed, which will be catastrophic.
Humans are increasing greenhouse gases, which increases global temperature, which causes climate change.
The effects are not disastrous at the moment, but we are only just beginning to see the dire effects of climate change.
It is true that on a geological scale, the Earth had been cooling. For the past 100 years, however, the Earth has been warming. If anything, the fact that the Earth is warming as quickly as it is in the midst of this geologic cooling trend bolsters the argument that we’re living through anthropogenic warming.
As I said in the beginning, this issue is not about telling you what can be done or what should be done or whose politics are right. Some people who believe climate change is a global threat have suggested very half-baked, self-defeating and ineffective solutions. Some people who have staked out political positions that are skeptical of the threat of climate change have simultaneously embraced solutions that may help control it for reasons other than fear of the climate crisis. The politics of all this, unlike the science, are not at all simple.
Others have seemingly lost their patience. David Archer, a professor of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago who Ari studied under, is an expert in the carbon cycle and climate. He is also a contributor to RealClimate.org, “a commentary site on climate science by climate scientists.”
We asked him which projections appeared most accurate in his view. “So far we’re following the worst-case ‘business-as-usual’ scenario,” he said in an email. “So doomsday people have been right.”
We asked him what individuals can do, given that some of the major greenhouse gas emitters are corporations. “Not much,” he told us.
We asked him about efforts to reduce carbon footprints and the electric car revolution, which he described — in broad terms — as little more than “symbolic.”
We asked him, globally, what actions could be taken — actions that are achievable — to obtain the lower end of climate change projections. “I’m not optimistic,” he said simply.
I don’t share all this to be a doomsayer or depressing, only to tell the truth as I see it. Archer’s skepticism is that of one man — an expert and a professor, who has seemingly experienced the frustration of screaming into the void for many years. Lots of experts share Archer’s skepticism. Lots of other experts believe we still have time, that technological advances and political will can answer the call. I share that belief myself.
Two months into the coronavirus pandemic, I expressed optimism that we would witness the fastest production of safe and effective vaccines ever, largely because there was so much will and money behind it. I was right, happily. Not because I’m smart, but because I recognize that humans are an incredible, unstoppable, unbelievably clever and resourceful species when our backs are against the wall.
The problem with this issue is that far too many people don’t believe our backs are against the wall. My hope is that this newsletter can play some small part in convincing a few more people that they are.
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