All posts by Mathis Lohaus

About Mathis Lohaus

Postdoctoral research associate at University of Greifswald. I have a PhD from Freie Universität Berlin, where I was a member of the Berlin Graduate School for Transnational Studies (BTS). I'm interested in international anti-corruption, comparative regionalism, international law, human rights, international political economy, learning about macro economics, and of course pictures of kittens. More information and contact details can be found on my website.

Observing the 2017 elections in Germany


Since 1993, the Parliamentary Assembly of the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) has sent observers to more than 150 elections in its member states. This reflects a broader trend: Election observation missions (EOMs) have become very popular among international organizations, as we found out in a collaborative research project. This year marked the first time that parliamentarians from the OSCE states observed a federal election in Germany.  Eager to get a first-hand look at EOMs in practice, I signed up to accompany one of the teams in Berlin (and act as interpreter if needed).

During election day, our group visited a good number of polling stations in the Charlottenburg-Wilmersdorf district. At each stop, the observers asked a set of questions: How many voters are registered, how many have voted so far, did anything out of the ordinary happen? We then usually stayed for a while and observed the voters come and go; while the morning was relatively quiet, we saw significant traffic in the afternoon (overall turnout was 76%).

Things I learned about elections in Germany

All polling stations were similar, which should not come as a surprise given Germany’s reputation as obsessed with rules and procedures. We still saw some interesting deviations. Some polling stations were set up in spacious rooms while others felt overcrowded. The smaller and less accessible locations were also those in which the volunteer staff was under more stress and the lines were much longer.  It seems pretty trivial to point out that polling places should offer sufficient space, but apparently this is an issue even in a country as rich as Germany. (Side note: Even in the most crowded place, nobody was complaining. “We have to work with what is available”, one staffer told us.)

OSCE PA Election observation
The author with one of the OSCE PA election observation teams in Berlin on September 24, 2017

The volunteers running the polling stations (usually in teams of eight) were focused, well-organized and friendly. Still, some teams were more efficient than others when it came to double-checking voter records and setting up the room in the most favorable way. This suggests that the pre-election briefings held by the election authorities could be a little more practice-oriented.

In addition, a few of our interview partners were surprised to be visited by observers, sometimes to the point of being suspicious. In the most memorable moment of the day, we were led to a small room to await further instructions; it almost felt like an interrogation as depicted in spy novels, only that it happened in a German primary school. I guess the lesson here is that future briefings should mention the concept of EOMs and the existence of the OSCE…

What’s the point of observing elections in a consolidated democracy?

Election observation missions are only conducted with the consent of the respective government. The German federal government invited the OSCE Office for Democratic Institutions and Human Rights (ODIHR) in 2009, 2013 and 2017. But why send teams to one of most consolidated democracies among its 57 member states? In their 2017 pre-election “needs assessment” report, the OSCE experts mentioned campaign finances and the neutrality of media reports as potential issues — but strongly expressed their overall confidence in the electoral process. In contrast to 2009 and 2013, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly then chose to send a full-fledged delegation.

In the IR literature, it has been noted that international observers have become a fixture of elections around the world. Judith Kelley has argued that “once many honest governments had invited monitors, not doing so became a self-declaration of cheating”. Even for those intending to cheat, it might be more rational to invite observers and risk being caught than to face blanket criticism for the lack of transparency. Election observation thus triggers interesting cost/benefit calculations for individual states.

For front-runners, such as Germany in the case of elections, opening themselves to scrutiny strengthens claims to moral leadership. Assessing all group members in the same way also counters accusations of double standards. But what happens if observers find even minor shortcomings in the procedure of self-proclaimed leaders? The laggards in the group could now point out that nobody’s perfect and accuse their critics of hypocrisy. Moreover, autocratic states could send delegates to participate in election observation abroad, signaling adherence to democratic norms without incurring real costs.

It seems important to go beyond individual cost-benefit calculations and rather consider the group dynamics of peer review and potential norm internalization. Peer review is often used in international forums: not just regarding democratic elections, anti-corruption and other governance issues, but also with respect to more technical implementation issues.

My day with the OSCE leaves me wanting to learn more about signaling, reputation and peer pressure in the context of heterogeneous groups.

Dahrendorf Symposium: Discussing EU foreign policy

Dahrendorf Symposium

Two weeks ago I had the pleasure of attending (parts of) the 2016 Dahrendorf Symposium hosted by Hertie School of Governance, LSE and Mercator foundation. The event focused on European foreign policy. I was unable to attend any of the workshops, but will try and summarize the debates on the final day. Please also see my previous post on the scenarios for Europe in 2025.

Panel #1: Europe in the World 2025

Panelists:  Ahmed Badawi (Free University Berlin), Frances G. Burwell (Atlantic Council, Washington), Fabrice Leggeri (FRONTEX Executive Director), Daniela Schwarzer (GMFUS Berlin), Sylke Tempel (DGAP).

The panel did not directly address the scenarios, but rather focused on current challenges for the EU that have long-term consequences. Not surprisingly, the three main topics were challenges related to refugees/migration, the rise of European populism, and the consequences of Brexit.

[By the way: This and the other discussions will be available on YouTube soon.]

Panel#2: EU Global Strategy: game changer or wish list?

Panelists: Robert Cooper (British diplomat/adviser), Anne-Marie Le Gloanec (Sciences Po), Sebastian Heilmann (Mercator Institute for China Studies MERICS), Andrey Kortunov (Russian International Affairs Council), Alfredo Conte (Head of the Strategic Planning Division, European External Action Service EEAS)

The second panel of the day addressed the forthcoming EU Global Strategy on Foreign and Security Policy, which will be the successor to the EU’s 2003 strategy (“A Secure Europe in a Better World”). Three European/Russian academics plus two practitioners (the skeptical veteran Cooper and EEAS planning official Conte) turned out to be a good mix.

(Very selective) summary and reflections

I’m not an expert on any of these issues, but I found the following bits the most interesting:

Who is leading EU (foreign) policy-making? Echoing the famous “which phone number do we call?” argument, Frances Burwell adopted the American perspective and asked Germany to step up its leadership, including a bold decision in favor of mutualized debt and increased defense spending. Daniela Schwarzer pointed out that German leaders might think they did the Eurozone a favor over the past few years, but people in Athens see it differently. (Nobody made an attempt to defend German foreign policy choices…)

With an eye to the looming Brexit referendum, panelists suggested the UK might no longer be a reliable partner for European cooperation. Mr. Conte (EEAS) said that Brexit would mean losing one of the few members “with a strategic vision for the whole world, not just some regions” — but also result in one veto player less.

What about the European Union’s credibility and “soft power”? Andrey Kortunov described the EU as long-term “focal point for intellectual aspirations as well as material envy”, but said that the feasibility of the European model is now being doubted in Russia. Still, he urged European diplomats to focus on their comparative advantage: linking development and security (rather than trying their hand at geopolitics).

Anne-Marie Le Gloanec asked: “Do we still have the resources and soft power we thought we had when we wrote the first strategy in 2003?” Her diagnosis, citing the EU-Turkey deal on refugees and the EU’s actions in the MENA region, was rather negative. For the EEAS strategist Conte –not surprisingly– the answer was to develop a strategy revolving around “flexibility” and “credibility”, that is, member state activism and cash.

What role for the EU External Action Service? Not surprisingly (again), the EEAS representatives were confident about their ability to act and speak for the Europeans. Other panelists seemed skeptical regarding the service’s mandate and operational capabilities. Robert Cooper pointed out that “strategy” documents often amount to “bullshit”, and also said that EU members must invest in their foreign services’ day-to-day capabilities.

At a more fundamental level, the aforementioned call for national leadership seems at odds the very idea of the EEAS. Stuck between unwilling member states and external actors that don’t take her seriously, the high representative Mogherini indeed seems to face an “impossible task” (Le Gloanec).

What and where is our border again? Mr. Leggeri from Frontex, who seems to be a social constructivist, emphasized the need for a “credible external border” that is “emotionally perceived as ‘our’ border”. He added that he was “appalled” by the precarious situation in Lesbos “last year”, but said things were improving on the ground. Frontex, in his view, needs more resources and a mandate to plan for the future and do things other than emergency responses.

Some panelists made related points about what the EU can and should do beyond its external borders, but ultimately with a view to stabilizing them. On MENA, Sylke Tempel urged policymakers to work on good governance issues, as people there had “neither taxation nor representation”.

Should we embrace multi-speed Europe on social issues? Closely related to the idea of borders, some parts of the discussion addressed differentiation within Europe. Francess Burwell urged EU leaders to make a choice on migration: Ultimately, are the Syrian refugees going to be ‘visitors’ or ‘citizens’? (Her advice was crystal clear: Europeans need to work on turning them into the latter!)

The old debate about multi-speed Europe applies to social policy — which, in Europe and beyond, inevitably has consequences across borders. A member of the audience suggested to just accept the fact that Hungary, Austria and other do not wish to support Chancellor Merkel’s humanitarian policies. In response, Daniela Schwarzer instead called for a push-back against illiberal developments.

 

In sum, the panel discussions at the Dahrendorf Symposium raised many interesting questions (although, as usual at such events, they could have been even more focused). It was great to have practitioners, advocates and academics illuminate different aspects. With the Brexit vote around the corner and half a dozen crises ongoing in the neighborhood, readers of this blog are well advised to keep an eye on the EU …

Scenarios for European External Relations in 2025

Dahrendorf Symposium

Last week I had the pleasure of attending (parts of) the 2016 Dahrendorf Symposium hosted by Hertie School of Governance, LSE and Mercator foundation. The event focused on European foreign policy. I will summarize the debates on the final day in a separate blog post.

A few months ago, Hertie School hosted a scenario planning workshop as part of the Dahrendorf project. It focused on the EU’s relations to other world regions, trying to draw up scenarios for the year 2025. Meeting in five different working groups, the participants developed scenarios for the future relations between the EU and the U.S., China, Russia and Ukraine, Turkey, and the MENA region. Given my interest in forecasting and curiosity about scenario planning, I gladly signed up and contributed to the EU/U.S. working group.

At the Dahrendorf Symposium last week, Monika Sus and Franziska Pfeifer (who are coordinating the scenario project) briefly described our method and results to the audience. The publication with our 18 (!) brief scenarios is available via the Dahrendorf blog: European Union in the World 2025 – Scenarios for EU relations

The results are interesting and I really encourage you to download the document! Personally, I particularly enjoyed the process. It was a great exercise to think about  basic assumptions we have about transatlantic relations; to identify key drivers relevant for change; and to come up with scenarios that reflect the most relevant combinations of key drivers taking particular directions.

Transatlantic mistrust on tech
Illustrations for the scenario report by Jorge Martin

Let me indulge in a bit of self-promotion and quote the intro to my group’s scenario:

“In the years up to 2025 there will be a situation of balkanised technological regulation in the EU, driven by political debates which emphasise the need to shield national markets and societies against the uncertain effects of technological progress. On the other side of the Atlantic, political leaders will continue to embrace new technologies, with an emphasis on keeping the competitive edge also in terms of offensive capabilities in the cyber and AI realms. Only after a series of trigger events, increasing the pressure on decision-makers, will transatlantic leaders be willing to invest in a new institutional framework to manage the political problems associated with technological progress.” (‘Transatlantic Frankenstein’ scenario)

Then, of course, there was the Dahrendorf Symposium, which included a couple of workshop sessions (that I couldn’t attend) and two round-table panels on the final day. I will put my summary of these discussions into a separate post.

Why the German Intelligence Community Infuriates Me

One and a half years ago, I wrote the following about the German (BND) and the U.S. (CIA, NSA…) intelligence services in comparison:

(…) I think there is a marked difference in self-perception between the two nations. I don’t think anyone in Germany even wishes to have an equally powerful and expensive intelligence apparatus. Maybe I’m extremely naive, but I doubt wiretapping foreign heads of state is high on the BND’s agenda. (…)

Of course this was written in the context of the revelations about NSA and CIA operations that infringe on civil rights around the world. I still believe that (i) German agencies probably are less intrusive than their “Five Eyes” counterparts, and (ii) that public opinion in Germany is more critical of surveillance than in the United States.

...
Sign at the BND construction site (2008), CC-BY-SA by Schmidt/Richter on Wikimedia Commons

Recent news, however, have led me to re-evaluate my standpoint. While I still wish for “my” intelligence agencies to respect civil rights and the rule of law, most importantly I would really appreciate more professionalism on their side. I mean, you really can’t make this stuff up:

  • The construction site for the new BND headquarters in the center of Berlin was vandalized: after thieves removed a couple of faucets (!!!) from the upper floor, water kept leaking for hours
  • …leading to millions of euros in property damage (FYI: the new HQ is expected to cost >1.3 billion)
  • Nobody noticed anything. And this is not the first incident: In 2011, the top-secret construction plans were stolen or “went missing”…

Ironically, there is a German figure of speech that refers to particularly tight security as “wasserdicht” (waterproof). Of course people on Twitter are having a lot of fun with this and other bad puns. Check out the #watergate and #BNDleaks hashtags. Another particularly fitting yet hard to translate one is #läuftbeimBND.

On a more serious note, I am deeply worried about what goes on in the German intelligence community.

  • Domestically, the investigation of the NSU terrorism against immigrants suggests that the “Verfassungsschutz” (homeland security) was paying informants who not only failed to prevent or investigate any of these terrible crimes, but were present at the scenes of murders and then lied about it at court.
  • Internationally, it seems clear now that there is no concerted effort to curtain U.S. activities on European soil, despite all the symbolic outrage. The “no-spy treaty” was hot air, which is not surprising. New revelations about the British GCHQ or the U.S. services violating the rights of European citizens have not led to any serious response as far as I can tell.
  • (My working hypothesis is that several past German governments owe a lot to U.S. support in Afghanistan, which makes it very difficult to criticize these agencies.)
  • The parliamentary investigative committee on NSA/CIA surveillance is under multiple lines of attack:
    • witnesses and experts are extremely tight-lipped, and the BND routinely “forgets” and “loses” documents
    • three members of the committee have stepped down for unclear reasons
    • everything is obscured by lawyers and engineers claiming ignorance of each others’ field, which leads to almost farcical Q&A sessions
    • the security of the committee’s internal lines of communications is questionable: someone intercepted the package carrying the encrypted phone used by the committee chairman on its way to be serviced.
    • (Netzpolitik.org offers very extensive coverage of these events [in German], often supported by leaked documents.)

I am no conspiracy theorist, I am not against intelligence services per se, and I also know that politics are complicated. But this combination of blatant negligence when it comes to civil rights (in the country that spawned both the Third Reich and the Stasi!) with strategic and operational incompetence is infuriating.

Predicting the Effects of TTIP, or: Whose Crystal Ball Can We Trust?

In a paper called “TTIP: European Disintegration, Unemployment and Instability”, economist Jeronim Capaldo argues that there are flaws in four prominent studies on the effects of the proposed TTIP agreement between the U.S. and the European Union. The problem is two-fold. First, all studies use similar models and data, which means that they all share the same set of assumptions and should thus not be treated as independently reaching similar conclusions:

Methodologically, the similarities among the four studies are striking. While all use World Bank-style Computable General Equilibrium (CGE) models, the first two studies also use exactly the same CGE. The specific CGE they use is called the Global Trade Analysis Project (GTAP), developed by researchers at Purdue University. All but Bertelsmann use a version of the same database (again from GTAP).

A detailed discussion of the shared heritage of the different CGE models can be found in a paper by Werner Raza and colleagues (pp. 37-49), which Capaldo cites.

He then goes one step further and alleges that the underlying econometric models are simply false, or at least inappropriate. According to him, CGE models rely on several flawed assumptions:

  • High labor mobility is supposed to allow workers in less competitive industries to switch to those that benefit from trade liberalization, which are assumed to grow enough to absorb the new workforce.
  • Overall, the gains for workers with the right skills are supposed to outweigh the losses for others.
  • The model assumes that new trade between countries/regions is created (rather than diverted from elsewhere, which would be a zero-sum result).

While I have no training in economics and don’t know the econometrics literature, I realize that all large-scale models of social science need to rely on simplified assumptions. Nevertheless, it seems to me that Capaldo has a point. If his account is correct, then European policymakers should look for more diverse academic input. More generally, if the most widely used models really are blind to potential downsides for labor, then that goes against the interest of European citizens. (As they ought to be very loss averse when it comes to employment as well as skeptical about the distribution of pay-offs from economic gains.)

So how do we come up with an estimate that pays more attention to potential negative effects? Capaldo uses the UN Global Policy Model (GPM), which models economic activity as demand-driven, explicitly models different regions, and includes an estimate of employment. (Again, I lack the knowledge to assess how this works and how much sense it makes.) In this model, unemployment and household income are projected to deteriorate in the long term (2025) for several European countries, as aggregate demand is lowered due to trade diversion (see pp. 10-19 for this and other findings).

capaldo-figure4
Jeronim Capaldo, “The Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership: European Disintegration, Unemployment and Instability”, Global Development and Environment Institute Working Paper No. 14-03, October 2014, p. 14.

Capaldo is pretty transparent about the limitations of this approach:

  • the non-TTIP baseline scenario (which serves as a comparison) might be wrong
  • the chosen model might be as ill-specified as the ones he is criticizing
  • policy responses down the road are not included (and that’s hardly possible)
  • …and the paper completely ignores the investment dimension of TTIP (which is a weakness shared by the CGE models, according to Raza et al., p. 49)

So the headline “TTIP will lead to a loss of 600,000 jobs” does not really do the paper justice, although the author himself uses pretty strong language in the conclusion.

No matter which forecast turns out to be better in the end, this discussion shows that policy decisions should not rely on a single strand of academic analysis. There is a lot of uncertainty involved in these negotiations, and I don’t see how there can be a confident forecast of net effects.

One final note for the political debate in general: TTIP opponents should not forget that the status quo will not necessarily be maintained or improved just by inaction. The people likely to lose from TTIP are probably heading for difficult times anyway, leading to questions about how to compensate them. Whether European leaders will decide in favor or against TTIP, they are making high-stakes bets on how globalization will play out over the next decades.

Thanks to Zoe for pointing me to the study. And if anyone can add insight regarding the comparison between the different models, please let me know!

Introducing the DIY Standing Desk

Last year, political scientist Chris Blattman wrote about his attempt to reduce back pain by working with a standing desk:

That eminent scientific outlet, LifeHacker, informs us that sitting is killing us. My ridiculously good back doctor and the Columbia ergonomics office assured me this is not all hype, and that a standing desk would probably be a good move.

It has been. I enjoy the standing more than I expected. I do not get tired. My back has never been better, though weaknesses with my home desk option do bother it a little. Crucially, I discovered a trick for ensuring my feet never hurt (…).

In his blog post on the issue, he discusses the pros and cons for a number of desks costing between a few hundred and a couple of thousand dollars. But what if you’re looking for a very cheap way to see if a standing desk works for you? After all, back pain can become an issue long before you have tenure the financial means to buy specialized office equipment, and not every employer will be willing to help.

As an inspiration for grad students around the globe, here is the “Do-it-yourself Standing Desk”, as created by my colleagues Patrick, Maurits and Zoe.

standingsdesk
The DIY Standing Desk in action… all you need (in addition to the regular desk) is two crates and a surface for mouse and keyboard.

Marginal Costs in Intl. Affairs

Zero Marginal Costs SocietyLast week, Jeremy Rifkin presented his current book here in Berlin. In The Zero Marginal Costs Society, he argues that the marginal costs of production in many sectors are moving (close) to zero, leading to economic shifts on the scale of the industrial revolution. Three forces make this possible according to Rifkin:

  • a truly integrated global internet (communication + logistics + sensors)
  • abundant renewable energy
  • 3D printing as extremely cost-efficient mode of producing physical goods

No matter how you think about the details of Rifkin’s predictions, he makes persuasive points on what very low marginal costs can entail. This is obviously true for the areas he addresses (the economics of production, welfare, labor, automation, consumption).

But in addition,  marginal costs are worth  attention when we think about international relations and and transnational political affairs more generally:

  • If we buy Rifkin’s arguments, IPE scholars and others who care about economic power and growth prospects will put less emphasis on traditional metrics of factor endowments. If the Netherlands are just much better at making use of renewables than Russia, size is a bad predictor of success. How do you model something like the political will to embrace the future?
  • The marginal cost of reaching one more pair of eyes applies to political mobilization. No matter how high your PR budget, you can reach millions of potential recruits if you’re willing to be excessively cruel and upload an execution video. And how does having a single “viral” idea (involving buckets of ice) measure up against having a more traditional structure of supporters?
  • I’ve covered intelligence activities here on the blog, in particular the  large-scale surveillance conducted by the NSA and other agencies. Consider the logic of technology-driven surveillance: The marginal cost of targeting one more person is virtually zero. Keeping that person’s data for one more unit of time is free. And there is no physical or technological limit in sight.
  • Similarly, I suspect that “cyber war” skills probably scale at close to zero marginal costs. Once you managed to infiltrate a crucial bit of IT infrastructure (and still have plausible deniability to mitigate political repercussions), deciding about the amount of damage you want to inflict will not be a matter of costs.

I’m sure there are many more examples. And if you’re willing to bear the cost of adding one more book to your reading list, consider Rifkin’s.

International Relations & New Media

zib

In the current issue of Zeitschrift für Internationale Beziehungen (ZIB), four authors discuss International Relations and New Media. To complement the series in ZIB, we’re running a so-called “blog carnival” that deals with the topic. Please head over to zoon politikon to check out what our colleagues have written [in German].

Here, I would like to address two of the four ZIB articles. The first was written by Ali, a former colleague in Berlin, who is a very experienced blogger (and Twitter power-user).

Under the heading “The Republic of Scholars 2.0” [PDF, in German], he argues that academic discourse in less formalized settings (such as social media and blogs) is the modern equivalent of the exchange of letters among scholars in the 17th century. Thus, German-speaking academics should overcome their shyness and catch up to their American and English colleagues, who seem to be more active users of new media. You can find a summary of Ali’s argument on his blog.

Based on conversations Ali and I had last year, I have argued in the same direction:

Does this lead to shared cultural understandings or at least mutual tolerance? Or does the web merely offer a cheap and anonymous way of reinforcing prejudices and being angry at each other? As any self-respecting political scientist will tell you: It depends…

Academic blogging is probably a “most likely” case of a positive effect. After all, we’re talking about a group of people who share similar ideas and practices, are used to cross-border exchange, and have a lot to gain from talking to each other. Yet I am also cautiously optimistic for non-academic political blogs that speak to a general audience. Whenever people are exposed to voices from outside of their well-established “filter bubble”, this is a great chance to learn and understand new perspectives. The internet certainly offers a huge potential in that direction.

The second article is called: “Teaching IR with New Media” [PDF, in English]. Kimo Quaintance (who has a blog, too) advocates the use of tools such as Wikis and blogs in teaching, but also cautions that not all optimistic assumptions about digital natives should be taken at face value:

While students may possess broad experience with e-mail, social networking and mobile devices, this doesn’t necessarily translate into the kind of information literacy or knowledge creation skills useful in academia.

Kimo has some very good, constructive points on how to foster information literacy, collaboration and outreach. I recommend you read the whole piece.

Here I just want to echo his words of caution. Take the following as me playing the devil’s advocate: Under some conditions, I think that the usage of “new media” in teaching can feel artificial or forced. Blog posts instead of essays, web sites instead of presentations? That might work, but we should be careful not to be too optimistic based on our own enthusiasm for the medium.

First, and most generally, if the core elements of the discipline are old-fashioned, teaching might not be the best venue to change things. If the #1 skill to master is writing formal papers, that should be what you (are forced to) practice. But of course this is subject to change and should not be used to kill all kinds of innovation, so I don’t want to over-stress this point.

Second, think about the value added. Model UN and other simulations are useful because they are inductive tools to experience dynamics that might be difficult to understand based on theory alone. Spending many hours to set up a mock NGO website might be interesting, but we have to be sure that it really adds something that could not be learned in a more efficient way. Also, depending on the class, the experience should not overshadow the contents: If after three days of mock conference / web design I only remember how much fun the negotiating / coding was, but nothing about policy issues, maybe that’s a problem…

Finally, how many people do you know that were born in the 1990s and maintain a blog (in the “traditional” sense)? It might be that blogging is completely passé by now and  we’re beating a dead horse. Maybe the easiest way out would be to ask people about their media habits and productivity tools first, see how much desire for change there is, and then make suggestions. Or let people experiment in groups?!

To wrap up: Ali and Kimo have made a number of very good points on the usefulness of new media in the exchange between scholars and for teaching, respectively. I highly recommend both pieces! Again, please consider looking at the other blog posts dealing with New Media and International Relations, and of course the rest of the ZIB issue.

The Amateur Forecaster’s Diary Pt. 4

Good Judgment Project

This series returns because of one email to the author popular demand. If you have no idea what this is about, please consult parts one, two and three.

As I mentioned in my last post on the Good Judgment Project (GJP), in season 3 I was part of a team of “super forecasters”.  My team did OK, but we were significantly less successful than the other “supers”. This season has now come to an end and the project is about to launch the next one in August. I’d like to offer some reflections.

What went well?

We were able to exchange information across “super” groups, and some people were really impressive. I saw spread sheets and discussions that were much more sophisticated than what I expected in this “just for fun” setting. Apparently, the increasingly challenging task (with many rather tough questions and a high work load) really sparked the participants’ ambitions.

From what I could see in the cross-team forum, communication was very lively and mostly helpful. But I’m not sure how much it really mattered in the end. Given the number of questions and the old-fashioned bulletin board format, it was hard to keep up with every possibly relevant bit of information.

My own team brought together people from very different backgrounds, and it was nice to have a round of introductions. Given that the questions belong to different clusters, we proceeded to assign everyone two areas to prioritize and researching and answering questions.

What didn’t go so well?

Judging from the experience in my particular group, not everything was “super” in the end. My new group did not invest much more time and effort than my previous, “normal” teams. After all, the incentives and potential pitfalls are very similar: if communication does not yield results, people stop typing long messages; if there are only three or four active users, the team cannot perform as well; high cognitive load due to many open questions can be discouraging.

One innovation for season 3, the use of (paid) facilitators to ensure smoothly working teams, fell completely short — at least in our group. In theory, the facilitator would have helped us with coordinating tasks and making sure that no items are forgotten. But the person in charge did not really live up to that promise, and the only email I can remember getting from him is a goodbye note. This might be worth trying again, though.

Finally, one lesson I draw from my experience in the newly established and ultimately lowest-ranking “super” team: Being put in an environment that’s supposedly excellent and seeing the amount of work and experience the other teams bring to the table can be intimidating. I’m not sure how much work the GJP organizers should put into creating a positive team spirit and provide regular feedback, but at least in our case it might have helped.

The future of forecasting

I’m curious to see whether season 4 will be able to push the limits of what works in a “just for fun” effort. (After all, teenagers in World of Warcraft guilds spend a lot of time for coordination and planning, too.) It seems that the Good Judgment Project operators are considering some changes to the user interface to help manage the work load. I agree that there is some room for improvements.

I would love to hear what the GJP researchers have to say on the merit of inter-group exchange. Theoretically, it could either lead to group think or help everyone improve by leading to efficient information sharing. Generally, I am not sure to what extent the “meta” discussions and well-meaning exchange of tips that took place between teams are at odds with optimizing performance. Given that everyone has limited resources, maybe this process should be streamlined and formalized. Easy sharing of links to news sources is probably a good idea.

 

Of course none of that can change the fact that many questions are just impossible to answer with any kind of certainty. For example: predicting the behavior of small groups with secretive proceedings (Vatican, North Korea, Taliban…) or factoring in different layers of scientific and political uncertainty (“will the Swiss lab report that Arafat’s body contained a significantly elevated level of polonium-210?”). But it’s still fun to try your best, and I’m looking forward to season 4.

Bavarian Nepotism (“If it Happened There…”)

This post pays homage to Joshua Keating, who has written a number of articles for Slate in which he describes news events from the U.S. “using the tropes and tone normally employed by the American media to describe events in other countries.

CSU leadership in Bavaria, 1976 (CC Wikimedia Commons)
CSU leadership in Bavaria, 1976. CC-BY-SA Wikimedia Commons

BERLIN, Germany — Observers familiar with the political process in the German South were not surprised: after the details of a high-level nepotism scandal in the West European country’s most populous state were uncovered a few weeks ago, very little has happened.

The affair started in fall 2013, with a book published by university professor Hans Herbert von Arnim. While academic publication usually garner little attention in the country  –a number of tabloids dominate the market in the South– the book’s claims of nepotism were sufficient to spark interest at least among political opposition figures, who demanded an investigation. After several months of refusing to comment on the issue, the Bavarian government gave in to a ruling from a local court and published some findings. (Initially, these were accessible through the Bavarian public broadcasting service, but that site no longer appears to be functional.)

According to the report, Bavarian minister of education Ludwig Spaenle has dished out a grand total upwards of 810,000 USD to his wife since 1997. That equals 30 years of the current median household income in Germany. Altogether, members of the conservative-religious CSU party, which rules Bavaria since 1957, handed out almost 1.8 million USD of taxpayer money to their spouses over the last years.

Local officials point out that this is not illegal. The group of CSU silver-backs simply took advantage of a loop hole in the state’s laws (which the insular Bavarians are proud to defend against influences from the federal government). Since the year 2000, politicians have been banned from hiring family members and spouses — but lawmakers allowed for a continuation of existing contracts. This is why the current Bavarian prime minister, a veteran of the CSU who has weathered many scandals in the past, insists that none of the people involved will have to leave office.

The case appears symptomatic of broader problems in Germany. In the Southern state of Bavaria, a small group of elites have had a grip on power for almost 60 years. They are supported by a powerful business and agricultural lobby (the latter of which employs only a small fraction of the workforce, but receives lavish subsidies from the European Union). Traditionally, politics in the Southern state are shaped by social conservatism, local business interests, and a latent xenophobia. No wonder, then, that few people seem to care about a waste of taxpayer money at the top.

Perhaps the problem runs even deeper: one should not forget that Germany, despite its economic might and seemingly unquestionable democratic credentials, has yet to ratify the 2003 UN Convention Against Corruption. After more than ten years of dragging their feet –because of reluctance to curtail the freedom of members of parliament– federal officials have recently indicated that this might happen before the end of the year. Judging from recent events in Bavaria however, the prospect of real change remains slim. Instead, it seems likely that local customs remain entrenched, and  German politicians will find ways to bend the rules in their favor.