What We’re Reading

Who is protesting in Brazil?

The current developments in Brazil have caught all by surprise. Yearly increases in bus fares, notoriously bad public transportation, inflation and slow economic growth (weirdly combined with low unemployment rates) have been looming for some time now. The Free Fare Movement (MPL) has been actively voicing its demands for better public transportation since at least 2006 and other similar organizations and movements have also been mobilizing for better public services. In this context, therefore, it would not be accurate to state that the “the Giant is awake” on the streets (“o Gigante acordou”). Yet, it would also be cynical to say that the current mobilization is not unprecedented – at least since redemocratization.

The nature of the unfolding events, affected by almost daily incidents and bipolar swings in public opinion and in an editorialized media, makes it hard for most of us to answer simple questions: Who are these protesters? What do they want? Social media outlets, in particular Facebook, have been primary sources of information for protesters over the past few weeks. However, social media also works to bias our opinions on the basis of our own personal experiences and social groups: after all, birds of a feather tend to flock together, as research on social network has shown (McPherson, et. al, 2001).  In summary, it has been difficult to see the forest for the trees.

On Sunday, June 23rd, Ibope, a well-know survey company in Brazil, released the first (to my knowledge) systematic collection of data on the characteristics of the protesters. This data is illuminating and, importantly, allows us to answer further questions: how different are these protesters from the “average” Brazilian? Are these protesters different than those individuals who usually engage in politics?

The plots below show a comparison of the demographic profile of protesters and the broader Brazilian population. Protesters are much younger, and, as expected, students are over-represented compared to the population. Also, those who mobilize are clearly better off compared to the rest of the population: the discrepancies between income and education distributions of the protesters and the population are remarkable. For instance, about 10% of the population has a higher education degree, whereas about 43% of the protesters have at least a college degree.

age education



These differences might be due in part to the sampling process: Ibope surveyed protesters on Thursday, June 20th, a point at which the protests had already started to encompass a wider swath of society, distinct from the left-leaning individuals that mobilized early (who would be, presumably, less well-off than the protesters on June 20th).

There are other possible explanations: it is not uncommon for those who engage in political activity, in particular mass-based political action, to be better off than those who do not. This hypothesis has taken many shapes and forms and it is commonly referred to in political science literature as the socioeconomic status (SES) model and there has been systematic evidence supporting it in various places, including Brazil (Verba, 1995; Norris, 2002; Reis, 2000).  This model is known for not taking into account variation in mobilization over time, events that trigger mobilization, and the power of organizations, which are patently important in times of nation-wide mobilizations, but, despite all these pitfalls, it is interesting to see the predictions made by the SES model supported by these simple analyses.

However, support for this stripped-down version of SES model receives only very modest support even if one turns a blind eye to all methodological issues underlying this quick-and-dirty analysis of the Ibope data. According to the SES model, individual who engage in political activity also tend to be more active in “non-political” organizations. This does not seem to be the case among the protesters surveyed on June 20th in 7 cities in Brazil – they are no more likely to be engaged in non-political associations.

Rather, it was found that protesters are less likely to identify with a political party and less likely to be affiliated with a political party than the population overall. This is not surprising given the likely effect of social desirability bias when answering these questions in protests that block streets to make their dissatisfaction with the current state of affairs heard – whatever this dissatisfaction means in more specific terms is still to be determined.

union party

In summary, students and young people do seem be the largest groups out on the streets, and those who are mobilizing have attended school for longer, and have higher incomes than most of the population. Also, they seem to feel less represented by a political party than most of the population – even though this is a tough comparison given the unstable nature of party “sympathy” in times like these.  Despite this interesting protester profile, however, we still do not have answers to all of our questions.

Are these protesters very different from the early joiners whose protests mostly focused on reducing bus fares? It is hard to say, even though the type of demand and the way in which they mobilized (mostly through civil society organizations) seems to indicate as much.

Protests continue to shake the country: mayors from all over the country have backed down on the increase of bus fares and are starting to rethink their public transportation contracts and policies, governors have started to become less supportive of police repression (at least publically), the federal government is starting to play a more active role in pushing laws and reforms, and the Congress is rushing to discuss and vote on some of the issues raised by protesters (such as committing all oil royalties to spending on education and health and repelling a controversial constitutional amendment on the investigative powers of the Public Ministry). Protesters are still shaking the trees, but the characteristics of the protesters will help determine on which side the fruit will fall.

[I used data from PNAD 2011 to make the plots about the demographic characteristics of the Brazilian population and I used the population from the states in which Ibope surveyed protesters. For the plots about questions on representation and population, I used data from ESEB 2010. Both of these datasets can be found in Centro de Estudos da Metrópole and Consórcio de Informações Sociais.]

Bringing the State Back In (to the discussion on redistribution and innovation)


In recent months, the New York Times has published a series of opinion pieces that read like an abbreviated syllabus in comparative political economy. An analytic piece from late April chronicling the (perhaps) excessive generosity of Danish social democracy kicked off the discussion, prompting a response from Nancy Folbre as well as a “Room for Debate” roundtable on the sustainability of continental welfare states. The Folbre piece linked above makes brief reference to a recent(ish) paper by Acemoglu, Robinson and Verdier (ARV) which argues that while some countries may be able to combine robust welfare states with sustained economic growth, all countries can’t do so at the same time without retarding global innovation rates. They explain their argument succinctly in the short version of their piece:

The fact that technological progress requires incentives for workers and entrepreneurs results in greater inequality and greater poverty (and a weaker safety net) for a society encouraging more intense innovation. Crucially, however in a world with technological interdependence, when one (or a small subset) of societies is at the technological frontier and contributing disproportionately to its advancement, the incentives for others to do so will be weaker. In particular, innovation incentives by economies at the world technology frontier will create higher growth by advancing the frontier, while strong innovation incentives by followers will only increase their incomes today since the world technology frontier is already being advanced by the economies at the frontier.

America: enduring child poverty and substandard education so you don’t have to. You’re welcome, Sweden.

Thomas Edsall has a piece from April evaluating this argument in light of some countervailing claims, and it’s well worth a read. Whether redistributive incentives are really the key driver of cross-national innovation rates deserves serious critical scrutiny. It’s also worth thinking in normative terms about whether one might tolerate a slower iPhone development cycle (or even – gasp – a lack of iPhones altogether) for the sake of greater social equity.

That aside, however, the ARV model seems plausible. Anyone who has dug a bit into the literature on Varieties of Capitalism will recall the basic claim about innovation: both ‘cutthroat’ liberal market economies (LMEs) and ‘cuddly’ coordinated market economies (CMEs) innovate, but do so differently. LMEs, with their flexible labor markets and ubiquitous-but-impatient venture capital, make radical technological leaps, while CMEs are better at incremental advances. America develops the Fordist production system, Germany makes cars that don’t suck. The ARV model takes this observation to its logical conclusion: CME incrementalism relies on LMEs to expand the technological frontier. For those of us who would like to see a more robust safety net and more egalitarian distribution of post-transfer income, this is discomfiting.

I don’t have anything close to the formal chops necessary to critically evaluate the technical specifics of the ARV model. I would, however, make two observations about its real-world importance and applicability. First, as the authors briefly acknowledge, people have tried to test some of the implications of their thesis. Taylor (2004) and Akkermans, Castaldi and Los (2007) both use patent data to compare innovation rates between “cutthroat” LMEs and “cuddly” CMEs. The former article finds no discernible difference between them, while the latter finds limited and industry-specific support for the notion that LMEs innovate the fastest and/or most radically. ARV do cite both of these efforts, but don’t really address the complications they present to their central argument.

Second, and more crucially, much of the discussion around this question ignores the state’s potential to drive innovation through direct investment in science. ARV treat innovation as a function of incentive structures facing potentially innovative individuals or firms. “Cutthroat” economies, with their looser regulation and weaker redistributive regimes, provide innovators with stronger incentives to invest capital in risky-but-potentially-innovative ventures. State investments in R&D, though, could plausibly drive innovation on the supply side by providing resources in a manner divorced (or at least estranged) from market pressures.

To cite a few well-worn American examples, many of the technological advances crucial to the twenty-first century economy happened outside the private sector. The first general-purpose computer was developed to calculate artillery firing tables for the U.S. Army. The microprocessor was developed by NASA in order to miniaturize computers for guidance and navigation during the Apollo program. The packet switching network that became today’s internet was first developed by ARPA (now DARPA), an advanced research agency within the Pentagon. Today, the National Institutes of Health commits a budget of roughly $30 billion per year to biomedical research, including the kind of risky basic research that may not generate immediate commercial returns, but can lead to radical innovations over time. The NIH alone represents almost a third of the money spent on health research in the United States, and is likely the reason that America is a leading innovator in this sector. The National Science Foundation commands another $7 billion to fund research across scientific disciplines (with one, ahem, notable exception). More trivially, that self-driving car that Google has been promoting like mad recently? It also has its roots in a series of DARPA initiatives.

I don’t mean to suggest that the private sector doesn’t drive a substantial majority of innovation in contemporary developed economies. Even the NIH budget, colossal by any standard, represents less than half the capital devoted to biomedical research in the United States. Nor is all state-funded research created equal. Some work suggests that state subsidies of private sector R&D initiatives may crowd out, in whole or in part, private investment in similar projects (a cursory lit review indicates mixed evidence on this score). Still, if the concern is that more egalitarian societies might de-incentivize the kinds of risky bets that lead to radical technological leaps, that effect could be at least partially offset by direct public investment. It may yet be possible to subsidize school lunches without gutting technological progress.

São Paulo Demonstrations: It’s Not About 20 Cents, Stupid!

(Editor’s Note: The following is a guest post by Raphael Neves, PhD candidate at the Politics department at the New School for Social Research, and assistant professor of politics at the University of São Paulo)

São Paulo, the largest city in the Southern hemisphere and Brazil’s financial center, is located thousands of miles away from Istanbul but its 11.3 million inhabitants still know what it feels like to be in Taksim Square. This month, both bus and subway fares
increased by 20 cents of real – the equivalent of 9 cents, USD. Protesters took to the streets following the raise, leading to several clashes with the police. Authorities
claim the increase was below the inflation rate (6.50% in the last 12 months). The mayor, Fernando Haddad, a philosophy professor and the former minister of education under Lula, had stated during his election campaign last year that the city would have to raise the already subsidized fares, frozen since 2011. Brazil has received some of the best combined democracy, economic growth and income distribution scores among the BRICS. So why are people complaining? face_protest The demonstrations have been organized by the Free Fare Movement, which promotes free public transportation for all (a demand the mayor says would cost almost 3 billion USD/year). As the event page of one of the protests on Facebook shows, the demands range from the decrease in public transportation fares to better salaries for teachers; from increased freedom on the Internet, to objections of the construction of soccer stadiums for the next World Cup. Furthermore, the São Paulo state police, commanded by governor Geraldo Alckmin, has overreacted and stepped out of the law. Countless people were arrested for bringing vinegar to the demonstrations. According to police officers, vinegar may be used to produce a bomb. In fact, demonstrators say, it alleviates the effects of tear gas. As a result, protesters have embraced a campaign to “legalize” vinegar. They’ve made Guy Fawkes masks their symbol and “V for Vinegar” has become an immediate hit on social networks. Mockery and creativity are central in these protests as
they’ve helped keep people mobilized. Even when they are forced to split up by the police, they keep connected online.

As the construction of a shopping mall at Taksim square became the last straw for protesters in Turkey, in Brazil, the 20 cents increase has catalyzed dissatisfaction. The perplexed may wonder whether ten years of Workers’ Party rule – Lula’s first term inauguration was in 2003, Dilma, his successor, in 2011 – have contributed to
fight inequality. The answer is yes. However, and here we may have a sharp distinction between Turkey and Brazil, the protests are not directed only towards the government. They are much more dispersed and fragmented. On the one hand, a large part of the population has been integrated into the economic market and consumption levels have never been so high. On the other hand, this possibly made people more aware of other problems way beyond material needs. A minimum wage worker may now choose which cell phone or TV she or he is going to buy, but one is unable to have dominion over basic
aspects of everyday life. In São Paulo, where rent is as expensive as in New York, someone who lives in a poorer area will spend at least two hours in an extremely crowded bus or train to get to work. To lose control over one’s own time and space is enough reason to revolt, isn’t it?

"São Paulo will shut down if the fare doesn't go down!"

“São Paulo will shut down if the fare doesn’t go down!”

All in all, the political system has not been capable of processing this generalized and
fragmented dissatisfaction. The increasing scale of the demonstrations is probably due to their rejection of any sort of party commitment. Of course, the risk of such detachment between civil society and political institutions is to give even more autonomy to bureaucratic structures that administer Brazilians’ lives. In this sense, mobilization may lead to political change, although the result is not necessarily more “progressive” – think,
for instance, of Indignados in Spain, a movement that demanded a radical change of the political system but was followed by the election of Mariano Rajoy. The challenge Brazil
faces is to make democracy more visible; to go beyond the right to cast a ballot in order to empower citizens to exercise effective control over all realms of their lives. These 20 cents are worth a change.
Raphael on twitter: @politikaetc

Taksim: The Public’s Square

Amnesty International.

(Editor’s note: The following is a guest contribution by Jonathan Endelman, PhD student in Sociology at Yale University)

Ostensibly, the protests in Turkey began after the Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan planned to place a shopping center and luxury housing complex in the Taksim Square’s Gezi Park in Istanbul, an historical gathering point for protest movements of the Turkish left. However, the current controversy over the proposed shopping center in Taksim square in Istanbul is a much larger matter than a construction project. As many analysts have recently pointed out, it was never really about the trees. What we are seeing today is nothing less than a power struggle between two opposing sides with radically different visions for the country’s future.

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What We’re Reading

In this new (regular) feature, we will be providing a round-up of what we at The Smoke-Filled Room have been reading that seems interesting and especially germane to the problems of contemporary political science. We’ve noticed that other blogs regularly include links to interesting content they’ve found on the web, and we’ve decided to shamelessly follow that example. Like good academics avoiding our own work, we have eclectic reading habits, as you will no doubt come to see. So, what we’re reading this week:

  • Albert Hirschman lived a more interesting life than most social scientists. “In dealing with events during the difficult period between 1935 and 1938, Hirschman… decided to fight in the Spanish civil war against Franco with the very first Italian and German volunteers, some of whom were killed on the battlefield. For the rest of his life, Hirschman remained entirely silent about this experience, even with his wife, though ‘the scars on his neck and leg made it impossible for her to forget.’ Returning from the war, he worked closely with the anti-Fascist Italian underground, carrying secret letters and documents back and forth from Paris.”
  • Patrick Cockburn provides an excellent account of the war in Syria, which “no one” is winning, in the London Review of Books.
  • Jeffrey Lewis decides to pivot from a technical topic, the overhyped threat of electromagnetic pulses, to questions of threat inflation and isolationism. “One of the criticisms of the Bush administration’s preemptive doctrine was its ‘unilateralism.’ Well, unilateralism is just isolationism on steroids.”
  • Jane Mayer, Human Rights Watch’s John Sifton and Ross Douthat offer their thoughts on President Obama’s National Defense University speech.
  • Check out the funky cover art on this old CIA study of the 1962 China-India War.
  • Boiling over: Sweden finally has to deal with two decades’ worth of inadequate immigrant integration policies. Colin Freeman with a nice take in The Telegraph.
  • Shikha Dalmia blames the harassment faced by women in India (“eve teasing”) on “free-floating male libido with no socially acceptable outlet.”
  • On the naming of American bases: “Fort Lee, in Virginia, is of course named for Robert E. Lee, a man widely respected for his integrity and his military skills…[yet] he was responsible for the deaths of more Army soldiers than Hitler and Tojo.”
  • Turkey’s Parliament is debating a bill to restrict the selling of alcohol. Domestic critics have suggested that the bill’s supporters are pushing an Islamist agenda. However, as Marya Hannun points out, this is not dissimilar to alcohol sale restrictions in Texas. As some of the supporters of the bill point out, it is also not dissimilar to alcohol sale restrictions in Sweden. Coincidentally, Swedish restrictions, which have progressively loosened over time, are directly related to the strong influence of religious temperance movements upon the Swedish Social Democratic Party, which  dominated Swedish politics for most of the 20th century. So perhaps the Sweden comparison is not one Turkish pro-restriction politicians should make.

Survivorship Bias, Sample Sizes, and the Oregon Medicaid Study

I think most coverage of the Oregon Medicaid Study [gated] has been bad. Very bad. I wanted to flag one way that it has been especially bad.

We don’t do very much U.S. domestic politics on the Smoke-Filled Room but I think the broader methodological issues are worth highlighting. So, for those that don’t obsessively follow wonkish U.S. policy debates, a bit of background. When Oregon expanded Medicaid coverage a few years back, it did so via a lottery. That allowed researchers to compare outcomes between those who received Medicaid and those that did not. And they found no statistically significant improvement on several metrics of physical well being (cholesterol checks, blood pressure checks, etc.). They did find statistically significant improvements in terms of mental health (principally depression) and financial health (apparently from not having catastrophic health expenditures). In general, physical metrics moved in the expected direction (lower blood pressure) just not sufficiently in that direction to be indistinguishable from zero. This could either be true evidence of a null relationship between insurance and health outcomes, or it could be a sign that the study was too small to capture changes in those outcomes. If you look at the study, the fact that something like 22 out of 25 metrics move in the expected (healthier) direction, even if they don’t move far in that way, suggests to me that Medicaid does improve health outcomes. But that’s a separate issue.

Two conservative, smart writers are Ross Douthat of the New York Times and Megan McArdle of the Atlantic. Both are forced to acknowledge that the Oregon Medicaid Study shows Medicaid coverage generates strong financial and mental health benefits for Medicaid recipients, but argue rhetorically: Wasn’t this about saving lives? Douthat asks, “The health care law was sold, in part, with the promise (made by judicious wonks as well as overreaching politicians) that it would save tens of thousands of American lives each year.” McArdle, drawing on the same rhetorical playbook stresses, “[W]e heard that 150,000 uninsured people had died between 2000 and 2006.” See, classic liberal over-promising and under-delivering. You told us poor people would live, not that they would be less depressed and more financially secure.

The important thing is that the Oregon Medicaid Study was a “post-treatment” survey. I’m using “treatment” in the jargon-y way. I just mean assignment via lottery to either the “treatment condition” of receive Medicaid for two years or the “control condition” of continuing insurance free for two years. It’s right there on the first page of the article: “Approximately 2 years after the lottery, we obtained data from 6387 adults who were randomly selected to be able to apply for Medicaid coverage and 5842 adults who were not selected.” To be even more precise, and requiring Douthat and McArdle to turn to the second page of the article, they collected this data via in-person interviews.

Let’s just stop right here. Dead people tell no tales. Hence they were not included in the study. The study occurred only on those people that lived to talk at the end. Medicaid could have saved 1000 lives in Oregon and this research design would not have noticed. Or Medicaid could have killed 1000 people. Same thing. This is what we like to call survivorship bias. It’s so simple, I don’t see the need to belabor the point.

But let’s imagine the study had been designed differently. At this level of power, would we have noticed? A little quick math: about 20% of Americans are uninsured, studies suggest being uninsured is associated with about 20,000 additional deaths a year nationally (U.S. population ~300m), and the control group was about 6000 people. The expected value of uninsured “excessive” deaths in this study is this rate of “excessive” deaths caused by lack of insurance per uninsured person per year times the total number in the control group. I think that gets us about 2 excessive deaths per year, or 4 excessive deaths for the period under study. I’d be very surprised if this study would be able to discern, in a statistically significant way, if Medicaid saved lives. (The death rate in the United States is 799.5/100000, meaning out of our 6000 folks, we’d expect about 96 deaths in these two years.) Even without survivorship bias.

My point: the Oregon findings in no way impugn the possibility that 20,000 Americans a year die from lack of insurance, and that Medicaid might save them. This is true solely because of survivorship bias, though sample size problems make it doubly true.