Friday, February 25, 2011

Measuring Democracy in the World?

Hans Rosling (Host of the BBC documentary The Joy of Stats) tweeted "In 2009 Saudi Arabia had a lower Democracy score than Tunisia, Egypt & Libya , In fact the lowest in the world!"  In the original link he shows for the year 2009 these three countries where recent uprisings have occurred or are occurring in the Middle East with a democracy score on the Y axis and per capita income on the X with all the other countries in the world in unlabeled dots.  (I cannot embed the graph here because it is copyrighted.)  It does show that Saudi Arabia is at the bottom of the graph on the democracy scale  (tied with one unnamed country) with Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya being higher on the democracy scale though lower on the income scale.

The cool thing about this graph is that on the right, where it says select, one can select other countries to see where they stand on this chart.  For example, I selected my home country the United States, the three countries in George Bush's axis of evil (Iran, Iraq, & North Korea), the country tied with Saudi Arabia (Qatar which according to the graph is #1 in per capita income), Venezuela and Haiti for the Western Hemisphere (no data available for Cuba in 2009 but it was tied with Libya and Iran for income & democracy for 2008),  and finally Afghanistan, Pakistan, & Uzbekistan for central Asia.

The updated graph can be seen here.  

The graph may not run on some early browsers.  With Windows Vista or higher it should work on Firefox or Internet Explorer.  Feel free to add or take away your own countries or look at different years or measures.

Inspecting the graph I have a few questions/observations.

1)  Why does North Korea have a slightly higher democracy score than Saudi Arabia?  No doubt both regimes are repressive.  Is it because the communist state treats it's men and women equally badly or is it simply because more information is available about Saudi Arabia?  At least it is possible to watch CSI on a satellite dish in Saudi Arabia.

2)  Opinions vary widely on how democratic Venezuela and Haiti really are as does this graph.  Venezuela has a score of -3 and is tied with Eqypt.  Some on the right may believe it should be lower given Hugo Chavez's demagoguery while some on the left believe otherwise given that elections have been held in spite of a failed coup attempt.  Haiti has a score of +5 (tied with Pakistan) where it has had 2 successful coups in the last 20 years and is the poorest country in the hemisphere.

3)  The two countries where the US is involved in nation building (Iraq & Afghanistan) are at zero on the scale along with the Ivory Coast, Burkina Faso, and Madagascar.  These three are sub-Saharan African countries with similar income levels as Afghanistan.  Would a military intervention in those countries by the US work as well?

4) Yemen has also been experiencing an uprising against it's government and has a score of -2 which is higher than any of the countries that Rosling cited.  It is still a country that gets over looked.

5)  Even in my home country the United States which is at the top of the list tied with Canada, European countries, and India isn't there room for improvement?  Back in 1900 the US was still listed as a 10 on the scale as women and many african americans were denied basic rights such as the right to vote.  Before slavery was abolished in 1865 the US had a score of 8.  In the earliest year of 1800, when Thomas Jefferson was elected President, the US had a score of 4 when only property owners were guaranteed the right to vote.  Only the two Koreas came the closest with a score of 1 and Great Britain with -2. (

Famously in the 2000 Presidential Election George W. Bush was elected over Al Gore.  There's a lot of finger pointing as to the reasons why: The Supreme Court stopping the recount, the butterfly ballot in Florida, Ralph Nader's candidacy, etc.  This fact is not in dispute Al Gore had 500,000 more popular votes than Bush but Bush won the Electoral College 271-266 (one Gore elector abstained and could have voted for Bush).  Only 51% of the voting age population participated.

Even now there's tons of opinions on the right and the left on how to do so.  In the state of Wisconsin for the last week thousands of protesters have been camping outside the state capitol building against Governor Scott Walker's budget which takes public employee's and teacher's unions right to collective bargaining away.  He has refused to meet with opposition groups or even take their phone calls but he did take a call from a man pretending to be right wing billionaire financier David Koch to discuss ways to sneak the bill through the legislature.  This is discussed in the clip below:

6) The French who followed the US in their democratic revolution would not be happy to hear that they are at +9 on this scale behind the US.

7)  It's ironic that Qatar is tied with Saudi Arabia for the least democratic country as it is the home of the Al Jazeera network.  The network was banned From Egypt by the Mubarak government during it's uprising for encouraging it's uprising.

8) How exactly did they measure this?  They use data from the Polity IV data project with this definition - it examines concomitant qualities of democratic and autocratic authority in governing institutions, rather than discreet and mutually exclusive forms of governance. This perspective envisions a spectrum of governing authority that spans from fully institutionalized autocracies through mixed, or incoherent, authority regimes (termed "anocracies") to fully institutionalized democracies. The "Polity Score" captures this regime authority spectrum on a 21-point scale ranging from -10 (hereditary monarchy) to +10 (consolidated democracy). The Polity scores can also be converted to regime categories: we recommend a three-part categorization of "autocracies" (-10 to -6), "anocracies" (-5 to +5 and the three special values: -66, -77, and -88), and "democracies" (+6 to +10); see "Global Regimes by Type, 1946-2006" above. The Polity scheme consists of six component measures that record key qualities of executive recruitment, constraints on executive authority, and political competition. It also records changes in the institutionalized qualities of governing authority. The Polity data include information only on the institutions of the central government and on political groups acting, or reacting, within the scope of that authority. It does not include consideration of groups and territories that are actively removed from that authority (i.e., separatists or "fragments"; these are considered separate, though not independent, polities) or segments of the population that are not yet effectively politicized in relation to central state politics.  It's complicated I know.

We human beings love to quantify intangible things like democracy or intelligence or a variety of other things and then we treat these measures like they are gold standards such as height or weight.  It is comical sometimes.  Gapminder is a good source of information for global statistics but it is easy to accept a lot of it as bible truth.

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