About Michael M. Bechtel

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The Effectiveness of Arguments in Direct-democratic Decisionmaking: Evidence from the Swiss Deportation Initiative?

On Sunday the Swiss decided to automatically expel foreign nationals guilty of serious crimes including murder and drug dealing. The vote on the deportation initiative has triggered strong reactions. Unsatisfied with the outcome of the referendum and allegedly ever more xenophobic Swiss immigration policies, opponents of the deportation initiative even engaged in partly violent demonstrations in several towns in Switzerland, a rarity in a country known for its peaceableness.

Two arguments dominated the public debate prior to the referendum, each attached to one of the two political camps. The Swiss People’s Party (SVP), which instigated the deportation initiative, ran a costly and highly professionalized campaign, claiming that immigrants to Switzerland are disproportionately responsible for crime. The SVP argued that expelling foreign criminals would significantly reduce crime rates and thereby add to public security. It also played to stereotypes. The “Ivan S., rapist, soon a Swiss citizen?”-flyer invoked the well-known Swiss antipathy against immigrants from former Yugoslavia and presumably also alluded to Ivan IV of Russia known as Ivan the Terrible.

SVP Deportation Initiative Flyer. Source: www.kriminelle-nein.ch/downloads/index.html

SVP Deportation Initiative Flyer. Source: http://www.kriminelle-nein.ch/downloads/index.html


Opponents like the Social Democratic Party (SP) said the deportation initiative was too harsh. They argued it would violate basic rights guaranteed in the Swiss constitution and even international law, since in some cases individuals would have to be deported to countries that practice torture or the death penalty.

Which of these arguments was more effective in changing people’s minds about the deportation initiative? This question is not only interesting for practitioners and scholarship on electoral behavior and immigration. Immigration constitutes a key component of globalization, a process in which countries remove legal restrictions on the flow of capital, goods, services, and, last but not least, labor. Immigration has therefore also become one of the rising themes in international political economy. The Swiss vote on the deportation initiative presents a valuable case to learn about the politics of immigration and the effectiveness of arguments in changing people’s minds about immigration policy.

From a political science perspective, examining the effectiveness of these two arguments poses a considerable challenge. Clearly, asking people about their preferences over the deportation initiative and having them indicate how convincing they find one argument or the other fails to provide any credible evidence. Individuals could hold an opinion because they find an argument convincing, but they could as well find an argument convincing because it supports their own opinion. We also have far too limited knowledge about the large number of other factors that potentially affect both citizens’ preferences over the deportation initiative and whether they find an argument convincing or not.

Jens Hainmueller, Dominik Hangartner, Marc Helbling and I have devised an empirical test that allows us to get an impression of each argument’s causal effects on citizens’ vote intentions. In the week prior to the referendum we conducted a large, representative telephone survey in which we embedded a randomized experiment.[1] We randomly allocated respondents into three groups. We exposed one group to the security argument and the second group to the non-discrimination argument. A third set of respondents received no argument and therefore served as a control group. To evaluate the effects of partisan cues we designed additional statements that individuals were exposed to randomly.

After providing respondents with an argument, we asked them to indicate their preferences over the deportation initiative and to answer more general questions about their attitudes toward immigrants. Any difference in respondents’ preferences between these different groups would be entirely attributable to the exposure to different arguments. Also, we are currently conducting a post-referendum survey in which we call the same individuals and ask them about their voting behavior and attitudes toward immigration to see whether the exposure to one of these arguments has any effects that last beyond the vote on the referendum.

We are currently conducting the last 300 interviews of the post-referendum survey and will post first results in this blog soon, so stay tuned.

[1] We thank the Wissenschaftszentrum Berlin and DemoSCOPE for financial support.


How to Study Things that Can Go Around in Circles

Two voters plus three voters makes five voters. If a party that used to hold four ministries loses one, it still controls three ministries. For many phenomena that we analyze in political science this linear world view seems appropriate or at least an acceptable simplification. But for many it does not. If terrorists used to attack at around 11pm, but now these attacks tend to happen two hours later, this means that they occur at 1am. If political candidates compete on a circular issue space, then a candidate moving far enough to the left will eventually end up at the extreme right. We measure such phenomena on circular scales: the 24-hour clock, compass direction, or calendar measurement. They do not have an origin, since the endpoints are connected.

Although examples for political events measured on circular scales abound, we still lack appropriate methodological tools to analyse this type of data. In an article recently published in Political Analysis, Jeff Gill and Dominik Hangartner start filling this gap. One of their applications analyzes the direction of party movements. This relates to a post by Romain Lachat (“Which Way from Left to Right“), where he conceptualized political competition in the Zurich municipal elections as taking place on a circle. The figure below shows the direction in which parties moved from 2002 to 2006. Most parties shifted to what many would call the economic right.


Figure: Directions of party movements in Europe from 2002 to 2006. Source: Gill and Hangartner 2010 (working paper version)

Another application contributes to research on violent conflict. Experts estimate the number of civilian fatalities in Iraq since the beginning of the Second Iraq War to exceed 80’000 deaths. An analysis of the time at which these incidents occurred (table 1), measured on the 24-hour clock, suggests that fatalities due to gunfire or mortar rounds happen on average earlier during the day than incidents due to bomb attacks, which form the reference category.

Table: Results for timing of attacks involving civilian fatalities in Iraq


While the signs of the coefficients indicate the direction of the relationships between the predictors and the time of incident, interpreting their size requires some trigonometric computations which the article describes in detail. The results suggest that gunfire casualties happen on average about one hour earlier than bombings. Moreover, their timing has shifted over the years. Directly after U.S. forces had invaded Iraq in 2003, bomb attacks used to occur Saturdays shortly before 8am on average. Such attacks now happen later during the day. The annual shift equals about one hour on average. I look forward to seeing papers that analyze circular data in political science!

Just Another Talk Shop? International Institutions, European Summits and Financial Markets

Many commentators hold the view that international diplomacy does not affect financial markets in any notable way. Especially since international decisions require consent by all actors, this de facto unanimity requirement allows every government to torpedo any attempt to bring about a collectively binding agreement. What we observe then in the theatre of international diplomacy and negotiations is a sometimes entertaining, yet economically ineffective play. Governments meet in “talk shops” and make lofty proclamations, but produce nothing more than “hot air” that markets do not care about.

In a recently published article, Gerald Schneider (University of Konstanz) and I take issue with the view that the results of deliberations in multilateral fora are “hot air”. Our focus is on decision-making in the European Union’s (EU) key intergovernmental body in the domain of EU foreign and security affairs. As is the case for most international institutions, the unanimity requirement governing this body allows nationalist governments to torpedo any attempt to build up a credible European defense force and a unified foreign policy stance.

We argue that investors react positively to a successful strengthening of Europe’s military component – a vital part of the intensified cooperation within the European Security and Defense Policy (ESDP) – since such decisions increase the demand for military products and raise the expected profits in the European defense industry. We find that financial markets react positively to those summit decisions which consolidated EU military capabilities and the ESDP. Each of these substantial Council decisions increased the value of the European defense sector by about 4 billion Euros on average. This shows that multilateral decisions can have considerable economic and financial repercussions.

Clearly, this is not to say that the skeptical view many hold about the effectiveness of international institutions, diplomacy and their relevance for the economy is incorrect. Yet, the potential for effective decision-making within international institutions that is relevant for markets may be underestimated, because we lack systematic evidence on when and how it matters. Our results also suggest that political scientists may detect economically crucial events in international relations by studying the way in which markets differentiate in the short run between events that are important to them and those that will remain “hot air”.

The World’s Most Expensive Seating Arrangement?

Not another futuristic seating arrangement

Cray X-MP/28

I came across this futuristic seating arrangement in one of the ETH’s buildings last week. Turns out this little monster is, or better was, a supercomputer named Cray X-MP/28. It was the world’s fastest computer in the mid 1980s (64 MB RAM, two 118 MHz processors). Even the computer you use to read these lines almost surely has more computing power than that. But unlike Cray X-MP’s catalog price your machine was certainly less than ten million francs. While back in the 1980s Cray X-MP was mainly used by physicists and chemists, nowadays also political science depends heavily on the availability of computing power in both state-of-the-art theoretical and empirical research.

Political scientists working on formal models of politics, for example, use computer programs to solve complex systems of equations within a few minutes. If I could reactivate former ten million Francs supercomputer Cray X-MP/28, it would probably need hours to deliver the solutions to the same equations. Or look at empirical political research that applies advanced statistical models. Some of these models still require hours if not days to be estimated. And sometimes, even computers with processors outperforming those of our huge yellow friend by a factor of 25 or more, fail to deliver any results, because the estimations do not converge.

So even though I sometimes wish myself back in time when political science was more about sitting down in a comfortable armchair and philosphizing about how the world works and should work, our profession nowadays is not at all like that. However, the next time I’m waiting for my computer to deliver results, I can sit down on what probably is the world’s most expensive furniture arrangement and have a cup of coffee.

Floods and Elections: How Lasting is Voter Gratitude for Disaster Relief Spending?

The recent flood in Poland has taken a heavy toll. More than 14 people have been killed and thousands evacuated. The damage from the Oder flood is estimated to exceed $2.5 billion. The Polish government has already promised to disburse $46 million to people in the most heavily affected regions, about $1,800 per household. Such disaster relief provided by the government is clearly vital to help those affected by the flood. But do affected citizens electorally reward such rapid policy responses to natural disasters and how long will their gratitude last?

Jens Hainmueller (MIT) and I address this question in a study that exploits the 2002 Elbe flooding in Germany as a natural experiment to estimate the short- and long-term electoral returns to disaster relief. Given the well known “peak-and-end” rule for forming retrospective judgments, the 2002 Elbe flooding provides an ideal case to establish an upper bound for the longevity of voter gratitude, as the incumbent’s policy response to the flood was both “peak” and “end” — it was massive and occurred immediately prior to a federal election.

Affected versus Unaffected Electoral Districts in the 2002 Election

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Traffic policemen, overspeed monitoring, and how to recruit PhD students in political science

Our International Political Economy research group is currently looking for a new PhD student. One of the challenges when trying to recruit the smartest and most motivated students in the discipline is to write a good job ad, one that will attract the right people. When trying to write the perfect job ad, inspiration comes in mysterious ways. I recently came across an interesting job ad with which the police of the canton Zürich tried to recruit new policemen for doing overspeed monitoring. The picture (see below) was telling and the headline obviously tried to appeal to adventurous and power-seeking young people: “Wir machen Sie zum Raserschreck” (We make you a speeder hunter). The ad showed a young policemen behind a speed camera, watching out to catch yet another speeder.

Speeder Hunter Job Ad, Canton Zurich Police

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