So last week there was some interesting data clean-up in the foreign policy blogosphere, and some less interesting commentary on it. Let's dive in!
Max Fisher posted an item at the Washington Post relying on World Values Survey (WVS) data to generate a global map of racism. He found a Foreign Policy write-up of a Kyklos paper that two Swedish economists published that relied on WVS data. Fisher's map was based on a response to one question:
The survey asked respondents in more than 80 different countries to identify kinds of people they would not want as neighbors. Some respondents, picking from a list, chose “people of a different race.” The more frequently that people in a given country say they don’t want neighbors from other races, the economists reasoned, the less racially tolerant you could call that society.
Fisher constructed a global map based on the responses to that query, a map that contained some striking findings. Western countries seemed to be far more tolerant (or far savvier at answering this survey question). Countries such as Pakistan seeming to be way more tolerant than India and Bangladesh, for example.
Fisher's post generated a lot of attention (full disclosure: I tweeted about it) -- so much so that some social scientists started to look at the WVS data and found some serious issues with it. The Fletcher School's Ashirul Amin, for example, dug into the data found that the reason for the seemingly low tolerance of Bangladeshis was a data entry error on the World Values Survey site -- the number of "tolerant" and "intolerant" respondents were reversed for one particular year.
Other social scientists, including Steve Saideman, also weighed in with methodological criticisms.
Going further, Siddhartha Mitter pointed out ways in which different nationalities view "race" as a different kind of social construct, thereby making inter-country comparisons a problematic exercise.
The biggest problem, of course, is that “race” is impossible to operationalize in a cross-national comparison. Whereas a homosexual, or an Evangelical Christian, or a heavy drinker, or a person with a criminal record, means more or less the same thing country to country, a person being of “another race” depends on constructs that vary widely, in both nature and level of perceived importance, country to country, and indeed, person to person. In other words, out of all of the many traits of difference for which the WVS surveyed respondents’ tolerance, the Swedish economists – and Fisher, in their wake – managed to select for comparison the single most useless one.
The reason I'm blogging about this, however, is where Mitter went after lodging these criticisms. According to him, the fault lies not with the data entry, but with the foreign policy blogger:
The problem here isn’t the “finding” that the Anglo-Saxon West is more tolerant. The problem is the pseudo-analysis. The specialty of foreign-affairs blogging is explaining to a supposedly uninformed public the complexities of the outside world. Because blogging isn’t reporting, nor is it subject to much editing (let alone peer review), posts like Fisher’s are particularly vulnerable to their author’s blind spots and risk endogenizing, instead of detecting and flushing out, the bullshit in their source material. What is presented as education is very likely to turn out, in reality, obfuscation.
This is an endemic problem across the massive middlebrow “Ideas” industry that has overwhelmed the Internet, taking over from more expensive activities like research and reporting. In that respect, Fisher’s work is a symptom, not a cause. But in his position as a much-read commentator at the Washington Post, claiming to decipher world events through authoritative-looking tools like maps and explainers (his vacuous Central African Republic explainer was a classic of non-information verging on false information, but that’s a discussion for another time), he contributes more than his weight to the making of the conventional wisdom. As such, it would be welcome and useful if he held himself to a high standard of analysis – or at least, social-science basics. Failing that, he’s just another charlatan peddling gee-whiz insights to a readership that’s not as dumb as he thinks.
Cards on the tale: earlier in the post, Mitter indicates he doesn't think much of Foreign Policy bloggers either, so I'm pretty sure he won't think much of my own musings here. And I understand Mitter's anger about a misleading map coming from an outlet that generates a lot of eyeballs. That said, his critique is off-base for two reasons.
First, in this instance, the primary fault lies not with foreign policy bloggers, but with academics. It's not like Fisher commissioned a bogus survey and then wrote up the findings in a misleading manner. Rather, he relied on a survey that goes back three decades and has been cited pretty widely in the academic literature. He got to that survey via an academic article that got through the peer-review process. Almost all journalists not in possession of a Ph.D., going through that route, would have taken the data as gospel. It's not clear to me why Mitter thinks a full-blown foreign correspondent would be better versed in the "social science basics." Would Mitter have expected, say, Ryan Avent or Matthew Yglesias to have ferreted out Reinhart and Rogoff's Excel error, for example? I'm all for better education in the ways of statistics and social science methodology in the foreign affairs community, but methinks Mitter is setting the bar extraordinarily high here.
Second, the blog ecosystem "worked" in this particular case. Fisher posted something, a bunch of social scientists looked at the post and found something problematic, and lo and behold, errors in the data were discovered and publicized. As I've opined before, one of the signal purposes of blogging is to critique those higher up in the intellectual food chain. I understand that Mitter would prefer that the original error never take place. By its very nature, however, the peer review process for blogging takes place after publication -- not before. That's a bit messier than the academic route to publication -- and, because Fisher has a larger megaphone, one could posit that with great traffic comes great responsibility. Still, I suspect that anyone who titles a post "The Cartography of Bullshit" probably wouldn't want too heavy of an editorial hand to be placed on their prose.
At the heart of Mitter's lament is his untested hypothesis that foreign affairs blogging has caused the decline in research and international reporting. This strikes me as more correlation than causation, however. Furthermore, it implies that they are substitutes when in fact they are complements. The source material for a lot of foreign affairs blogging is academic research and in-depth international reportage. If Mitter wants to see a better informed public, then there needs to be as much focus on the quality of the primary source material as in the quality of the transmission mechanism.
Am I missing anything?
UPDATE: Mitter has responded in part here, and at more length in a constructive comment to this post. Both are well worth reading, and put some more context into his original post. He's getting to some interesting tensions about the nature of expertise and "publicity" in a changing media landscape that are worth mulling over before responding.
Let's face it, we are at the stage in the U.S. presidential race when politics junkies like myself are feasting on the tiniest scraps of relevant information about the campaign. And, because I live next door to the swing state of New Hampshire, I'm getting bombarded with negative advertisements up the wazoo.
I bring this up because of the latest BBC poll:
A BBC World Service opinion poll has found sharply higher overseas approval ratings for US President Barack Obama than Republican challenger Mitt Romney.
An average of 50% favoured Mr Obama, with 9% for Mr Romney, in the survey of 21,797 people in 21 countries.
Here are the charts:
Now let's be honest -- this doesn't matter all that much from a foreign policy perspective. Obama scored similar numbers in 2008, and yet the signal lesson of his first year in office is that a president's personal popularity can't be leveraged into tangible concessions at the global stage.
Instead, all I see when I read these numbers are the negative taglines that could be played:
"Can we really trust a president who is super-popular in France? Of course not -- vote for Romney."
The country of Pakistan is a breeding ground for radical Islamic terrorists who want to destroy the United States -- and Pakistanis want Mitt Romney to be president. The choice is clear: vote for Barack Obama."
Readers are warmly encouraged to offer their own ways to twist this data into a negative ad.
I was pretty dismissive of Standard & Poor's debt downgrade last month. Re-reading that post, I stand by my political analysis of events going forward. Furthermore, the recovery of U.S. equity markets, the sharp reduction of yields on U.S. debt, and the failure of the other ratings agencies to follow suit are further data points suggesting that the S&P decision was flawed.
There's reality and perceptions of reality, however. On that latter front, after a recent expedition to Washington, I've concluded that regardless of whether S&P was right, they've won the argument in terms of perception. The summer debt debacle is, in many ways, the political equivalent of Hurricane Katrina. Perceptions of the Bush administration never recovered from that event, even though one could plausibly argue that the policy outputs of Bush's second term were better than the first term. Neverthelesss, Katrina was an inflection point that has caused a number of actors to reassess their perceptions about the political and policy competency of the White House and Congress.
Something similar seems to have happened with the debt deal. Politico's Ben White relays the dramatic effect on consumer confidence:
The Conference Board this week reported the biggest monthly decline in consumer confidence since the height of the financial crisis in 2008, its consumer confidence index falling from a reading of 59.2 to 44.5, the lowest in two years....
“The debt ceiling negotiation is an extremely significant event that is profoundly and sharply reshaping views of the economy and the federal government,” Republican pollster Bill McInturff wrote in a presentation of survey work he has done recently that suggests the debt ceiling debate has led to a significant shift in public opinion.
The partisan struggle over raising the debt went on for weeks before Obama finally announced on the night of Aug. 1 that a deal had been reached that resolves the issue for now. But while Washington has moved on to its next drama — the deliberations of the so-called supercommittee agreed to in the deal — its psychological impact has resonated widely.
McInturff said the result has been “a scary erosion in confidence” in both the economy and the government “at a time when this steep drop in confidence can be least afforded. … The perception of how Washington handled the debt ceiling negotiation led to an immediate collapse of confidence in government and all the major players, including President Obama and Republicans in Congress.”
A recent Washington Post poll found that 33 percent of Americans have confidence in Obama to make good decisions on the economy and just 18 percent have confidence in Congressional Republicans to do so.
These are especially dangerous readings when Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke has essentially said it is up to politicians to help boost the economy now that the Fed has fired nearly all its monetary policy bullets.
Speaking of Bernanke, he had this to say at Jackson Hole last week:
[P]erhaps most challenging, the country would be well served by a better process for making fiscal decisions. The negotiations that took place over the summer disrupted financial markets and probably the economy as well, and similar events in the future could, over time, seriously jeopardize the willingness of investors around the world to hold U.S. financial assets or to make direct investments in job-creating U.S. businesses. Although details would have to be negotiated, fiscal policymakers could consider developing a more effective process that sets clear and transparent budget goals, together with budget mechanisms to establish the credibility of those goals.
Ten days before Bernanke's speech, FP's Josh Rogin reported that Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had acknowledged the global ramifications of the debt fracas, telling a forum at National Defense University:
I happened to be in Hong Kong a few weeks ago, and I said confidently that we were going to resolve this; we were not going to default; we would make some kind of political compromise.
But I have to tell you, it does cast a pall over our ability to project the kind of security interests that are in America’s interest. This is not about the Defense Department or the State Department or USAID. This is about the United States of America. And we need to have a responsible conversation about how we are going to prepare ourselves for the future
Clinton's statements were confirmed by officials I talked to while down in DC.
So, can this perception be changed? Here, I'm bearish in the short-term. These kind of perceptions can be self-fulfilling. Economic growth is a remarkable political palliative, but growth looks anemic for a good long while. The Obama administration can try to change the narrative, but that's almost as difficult as Inception -- for the same reasons:
As Reinhart and Rogoff have observed, the economic aftereffects of debt crises are long-lasting. From here on out, the political effects of such crises will be on full display.
As someone who studies global political economy, this is fascinating. As a U.S. citizen, this is utterly depressing.
I think the notion that mere election of Obama would represent a “soft power surge” as it were, should be tempered. It’s not that there would be no Obama effect. It’s just that it would be concentrated in places where elites are enthusiastic about him and his policies. This would mean Europe, Africa and Latin America, I suspect. Other regions — the Middle East, Russia and Asia — might be less receptive.As the race draws to a close, I see prominent commentators are starting to speculate about whether electing Obama would bring a soft power surge. Hey, now we have some real live data! Foreign Policy and Gallup have run polls in 70 countries from May to September 2008. The big findings:
Gallup Polls conducted in 70 countries from May to September 2008 reveal widespread international support for Democratic Sen. Barack Obama over Republican Sen. John McCain in the U.S. presidential election. Among these nations, representing nearly half of the world's population, 30% of citizens say they would personally rather see Obama elected president of the United States, compared with just 8% who say the same about McCain. At the same time, 62% of world citizens surveyed did not have an opinion.Looking at the interactive map, I see that my initial supposition was partly in error. I was right about Europe and Africa leaning heavily towards Obama. I was surprised to see, however, that Japan, South Korea, and Saudi Arabia all trended towards Obama as well. On the other hand, large swathes of Latin America and South Asia are pretty indifferent to the whole election. As for McCain, there was no country in which enthusiasm for him outpaced Don't Know/Refuse to Say. He did the best in Georgia (23% to 18% over Obama, with 62% not knowing or saying). One final thought -- it's too bad that other countries (Russia, China, Brazil, Ukraine, Iraq, Israel, Indonesia) were not polled. UPDATE: Two online and unscientific global responses: one from the Economist and one at If the World Could Vote. At The National Interest, Nikolas Gvosdev points out that the global affection for Obama could be fleeting:
It would be foolhardy for the Obama team to assume that these strong ratings can easily and swiftly be translated into renewed acceptance of U.S. policies. And publics in other countries that are expecting an Obama administration would reverse or alter every last policy of the Bush administration are going to be disappointed.
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.