America As Terror Victim, Then and Now

After 11+ years without an attack (barring several near misses, and perhaps controversially not including the 2009 Fort Hood shooting), yesterday’s carnage at the Boston Marathon is a tragic reminder of our civilian population’s vulnerability to terrorism. I briefly lived in Boston (okay, Medford, but it was on the Red Line) after college. While I can’t say I cared much for the weather or the freeways, I thought it was a great town, especially for American history buffs and higher education addicts. And when it comes to looking a threat straight in the eye and telling it to EFF OFF OUTTA HEAH, Bostonians are rivaled only by New Yorkers, who are their rivals in everything.

Maybe this is because it’s still early days, or because the scale of the strike hardly compares–or simply because I haven’t had much time to check which brands of hysterical nonsense the network news has been peddling–but I’ve noticed a major tonal difference in the coverage of, and reactions to, the attacks this time around. Basically, September 11th scared us senseless. Boston has deeply saddened us and reminded us that the world can be a terrible place, but I don’t think we’re scared.

The bombers didn’t succeed in terrifying us. We’re reacting deliberately, not irrationally. People are going about their business. The stock market went down somewhat but it was heading that direction anyway. The rhetoric coming out of Washington is, with a few exceptions, level-headed, responsible and mature. The media, at least on the web, seems to be tamping down on irresponsible rumors and innuendo. We’re all waiting for the facts to come out.

And that is where we can find some solace in the heart of this disaster. It may take time, but we’re going to find out exactly what happened in Boston, and that means that the people responsible for it are on borrowed time. When we place our faith in judicial procedure and the rule of law, allowing the state to do what it does best, the vast majority of the world stands with us. If we treat terrorists as the criminals they are, instead of making them an unknowable, unbeatable existential threat, they lose power over us.

Another small point about terrorism in America: one could argue that we have actually endured multiple mass-casualty terrorist attacks since September 11th, most of which were perpetrated by lone gunmen. Definitionally, terrorists are supposed to be working towards some political motive, and these mass shootings don’t fit that bill. On the other hand, if you examine some of the demands of terrorist groups like Al Qaeda, they are as impossibly maximalist as Jared Loughner’s desire to end the government’s grammar-based mind control program. In any event, maybe we’ve been somewhat inured to the idea of essentially random mass carnage since we have been exposed to it so regularly in recent years.



Uh Oh, Ohio

A quick update on the subject of my last post. Salon reports that Ohio’s Republican Secretary of State Jon Husted has authorized and installed last-minute “experimental” patches onto electronic voting machines in 39 Ohio counties.

The post’s author, Brad Friedman, stresses that he has no evidence that the patch is anything but the minor software adjustment Husted’s office says it is, and he is not accusing Husted or anyone else of fraud. Nevertheless, he raises many questions about the last-minute timing of the patch, its apparent circumvention of a state board that is ordinarily required to certify voting software before its use, and Husted’s lack of transparency and somewhat evasive answers to his and other reporters’ questions.

The possibilities here run the gamut from “totally innocent, but looks really bad” to “brazen attempt to steal a national election.” Although a lawsuit has already been filed for an injunction against using the machines tomorrow, I would be interested to learn what the Obama team is doing about this, if anything.

If, hypothetically, Husted is trying to influence the outcome in Ohio, and if he proves successful, I also wonder if it’ll matter at this point. The way the polls have been looking recently, Obama can lose Ohio and still win the election handily.




On Stealing Elections

If all goes according to plan–and despite Mother Nature doing her damnest to introduce climate change as a campaign issue–the United States of America is going to have a presidential election next Tuesday. According to professional polling prognosticator Nate Silver, while Barack Obama is tied or even a little behind in national polls, he is comfortably ahead in the swing state polls and looks to have close to an 80% chance of a second term. Not bad for a guy who barely seemed to be awake in Denver a few weeks ago.

The accuracy of that prediction, however, is contingent on a number of factors:

  1. Whether the polls are unbiased and representative of the population at large;
  2. Whether a similar sample of the population turns out to vote on Election Day;
  3. Whether their votes are counted properly.

The media has devoted quite a bit of attention to the first two factors, with the right wing alleging polling bias and the left wing alleging voter suppression, but not so much to the third factor. This despite the fact that Mitt Romney’s former partners at Bain Capital, as well as his son, Tagg, have business connections to the private firm responsible for operating some of Ohio’s electronic voting machines. Incidentally, these are some of the same machines that can be hacked by an eighth-grader for about eleven bucks in parts. Some of these machines produce paper receipts; others do not. The 2002 Help America Vote Act specified a minimum standard for voting machines, but implementation has been left up to the states, resulting in an ugly hodgepodge of machines and procedures.

Would other developed countries stand for this level of disorganization and vulnerability? No. In fact, even some developing countries have more secure elections than the United States, particularly those that have been subjected to dictatorships in the past.

The United States has no history of dictatorship, but it does have a rich history of stolen elections at every level of government. Historian Tracy Campbell wrote a wonderful little book about it, Deliver The Vote, outlining exactly how many of our elections have been stolen, bartered behind closed doors, or otherwise distorted. It’s not a pretty picture on either side of the aisle.

One of the more prominent examples includes the election of 1876, where Republican Rutherford B. Hayes was handed the Presidency despite a loss in the popular vote and Electoral College in a straight-up quid pro quo; Hayes got to be President, and in exchange, he and the congressional Republicans agreed to withdraw federal troops from the South and end Reconstruction.

Remember this guy?

Another famous example was the election of 1960, when John F. Kennedy appears to have benefitted from a little of that ‘ol Chicago magic, courtesy of machine politician Richard Daley. Lyndon Johnson’s command of local politics in Texas may have proved decisive as well.

And there there is the 2000 election, where George W. Bush won Florida by 537 votes. A Mexican friend of mine  recently asked me how the country could possibly accept that margin of victory without a full recount, let alone a runoff or revote of some kind.

The proximate answer is that the Supreme Court told us to, albeit in a straight party-line vote, and Democrats acquiesced. The underlying and much more interesting reason is that by virtue of institutional design the United States values stability above all else, especially the strictly democratic “will of the people.”

This ethos is most famously codified in The Federalist No. 10–which muses extensively on the dangers the unpropertied masses would pose to “personal security and rights of property” if they ever gained direct control of the state–and continues through the two-party system, the Electoral College, the way Representatives are elected, the Senate’s supermajority rule, and, most importantly, the procedures necessary to amend the Constitution itself.

So the United States, in truth, has never been a democracy in the technical sense of the word, but it has been a very effective limited government, with the key power holders switching like clockwork every four to eight years. It has been a government designed not to give the people what they want (at least not immediately), but what is generally good for them, by eliminating volatility in government to the greatest extent possible.

Suppose that George W. Bush had been a Fascist and Al Gore had been a Communist. Any suggestion that Bush had stolen the election would have probably resulted in blood running in the streets. Instead, Bush was a Republican and Gore a Democrat, and their policy positions were similar enough for Democrats to grin and bear it when Bush won under questionable circumstances.

The real danger would have been an extended interregnum where it was not clear who was legitimately in charge of the country, giving factions an opportunity to mobilize. This happens frequently in the developing world (consider the recent case of Lopez Obrador’s shadow government in Mexico) and can result in very serious problems, up to and including civil war. As far as stability goes, accusing others of cheating is as dangerous as cheating yourself.

No matter who wins on Tuesday, and by what amount, I expect a winner to be declared and a loser to make a very public concession speech as quickly as possible, safeguarding the legitimacy of our institutions. Going forward, however, I am troubled by the ever-increasing polarization between our two parties. The distance could eventually result in one party or the other deciding not to accept the other entering power.

September 12th, 2012

What a difference eleven years can make.

In the immediate aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11th, 2001, the United States of America dropped into a boiling cauldron of pain, confusion, and anger. On September 12th, 2001, images of first responders desperately searching the rubble of the Twin Towers for survivors were juxtaposed against solemn Presidential press conferences, an outpouring of global condolences, and a tornado of speculation about the perpetrator of the attack. We were scared as hell.

What were we going to do about these Al Qaeda guys? What could be done against this kind of organization? It was based in essentially the least accessible country on Earth, led by veterans of a very successful insurgency against another military superpower, well-funded (at least by the standards of non-state actors), and stocked with additional affiliates, agents, and fellow travelers dispersed and hidden across every other continent. Dick Cheney thought it would take multiple generations to beat Al Qaeda, possibly even a century or more.

Well, it didn’t, even after a very costly excursion to Iraq. It took about a decade. The job’s not “done” in the usual sense of the word–putting an end to all terrorism and violent extremism everywhere isn’t even possible in comic books–but Bin Ladin’s organization is neutralized. It turns out that even the most sophisticated non-state actor isn’t going to last very long against the combined resources of the developed world.

Think about it this way. The United States made the dismantling of Al Qaeda one of its top foreign policy priorities. I say “one of the top” because AQ wasn’t President Bush’s top priority, although it probably took the #2 slot; AQ’s destruction has most certainly been President Obama’s top priority. This spot was formerly reserved for the job of containing the Soviet Union, which was by most accounts the second-most-powerful nation state in history. It was the world’s largest state geographically, and contained a workforce of about 150 million people who spent a lot of their productive capacity (in 1990, this amounted to about $2.7 trillion) building weapons.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a threat. By comparison, the Al Qaeda organization proper consisted of a few thousand people working with hundreds of millions to a few billions of dollars. To be sure, many of these people were highly intelligent, skilled killers, as well as absolutely ruthless and willing to die for their cause… but we are still talking about a group that was three to four orders of magnitude smaller than the USSR.

And the US switched focus only ten years after the USSR dissolved. Much has been made of AQ’s revolutionary, internet-enabled, decentralized nature, and how it supposedly made the organization impervious to the kind of brute force a superpower can muster, but it’s clear that ten years of technological process in networking didn’t change the nature of the game enough to absorb this kind of heat. Thus, when we turned a substantial portion of the military-industrial-intelligence complex designed to crush the USSR in a vice on Al Qaeda, we didn’t just kill a mosquito with a sledgehammer, we hit it with an 18-wheeler.

My point here is not to bray about how awesome America is, or to pen a rah-rah triumphalist superpatriotic screed. In my opinion, our approach to defeating AQ has been inefficient, brutal, inhumane, and at times illegal, befitting a “total war” mentality that may have been appropriate against Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, or Soviet Russia (although that is also debatable), but not against AQ. Nor, of course, do I want to minimize the suffering inflicted by Bin Ladin and Friends, here, in Europe, and throughout the Muslim world. These were very dangerous people. They had to go one way or another, and we have a mandate to insure their successors never become as dangerous.

It is merely to remember that they were–and are–human, and as such, neither infallible nor invincible. And in retrospect, it’s not that surprising they’re mostly dead now.


Reading back over my last post a few weeks ago, I realized that I sounded like a data-mining zealot or a pure empiricist. The post reads like it was written by someone that has no use at all for Aristotle or Huntington, or any of the other great political theorists… someone who believes that he can somehow pull pure truth out of a collection of social measurements.

No. That’s dumb. In fact, I think that data is worse than useless without theory. The fanciest statistical package in the world cannot make sense of a dataset by itself. Obviously, somebody needs to be gathering data, selecting an appropriate model, and choosing which independent variables to focus on, but that is still an overly facile representation of the problem.

Most packages at this point have automated procedures for selecting the “best” model according to some informational criterion. These come in various flavors and levels of complexity, but almost always boil down to a measurement of model fit–or how closely the mathematical function you’ve cooked up approximates the observed phenomena.

A perfect fit is laughably easy to achieve. All you need to do is throw every explanatory variable you’ve got (at the theoretical limit, this means every measurable quantity in the universe) into the bin marked “factors that somehow cause phenomena xyz” and you’re done. Your graph will connect every single data point you’ve got in a stunning display of super-squiggliness, you’ll have an R-squared of 1, and you’ll be published in every top journal in the land.

Not hardly (and that’s not just because more sophisticated goodness-of-fit measurements penalize you for such “chance capitalization”). You need to be able to explain the process by which you arrived at your magic recipe. In other words, why should we believe that factors a, b and c (and perhaps a*c) cause xyz, and what does that sequence of events look like?

This presents a chicken-and-egg quandary if we are really trying to discover “the truth” about xyz’s causes: if we don’t know what we’re looking for in the first place, we’ll have no idea what data to gather. And when we’re dealing with social outcomes, simply “measuring everything” doesn’t work. These are complex phenomena that demonstrate exceptionally high-dimensional causality. By discipline, and in causal order, political science is built out of mathematics, physics, chemistry, biology, psychology, and economics. We are still working on finding the elementary building blocks of matter; how are we supposed to know what to watch for five or six orders of magnitude later?

Note that I am not making an argument for extreme reductionism here. We’re not supposed to know, we’re supposed to make educated guesses. That’s what a theory is: a carefully considered, logically consistent guess, which in turn ultimately boils down to…. intuition. Yes: when trying to explain what individual people, or crowds of people, or millions people living in a state have done (or are going to do), and why they’ve done it (or are going to do it), I think our best bet is to have a flash of insight.

Where does that kind of insight come from? I have no idea, but reading lots and lots of work by the smartest, wisest, and most insightful people in history is a fantastic place to start.


Political science grad students tend to spend their summers sharpening methods skills at workshops (like SWAMOS, which I attended last summer, or ICPSR), writing or tuning up papers for publication, or simply taking a short break from the vicissitudes of graduate school. It’s unusual to see one stuck in a teenager-packed lecture hall four days a week desperately scribbling down notes on intro calculus and computer programming material. Stranger still for that poor bastard to be there voluntarily. Yes, friends, I am said bastard!

Why would I be subjecting myself to this misery? I have my reasons, above and beyond a well-documented masochistic streak. I’ll start with the general observation that political science and economics, which have always been related, are well into the process of merging. The cutting edge of each discipline is slicing deep into the other.

In 2012, a lot of the top job candidates in political science have an MA in statistics and are  more comfortable building formal models than they are discussing Aristotle–or Huntington, for that matter. This is a natural consequence of the triumph of rational choice theory: departments that routinely hire economists alongside (and often before) political scientists. The writing is on the wall, all over the floor, and spelled out in the sky via smoke-emitting biplane: we need to be data and math people now, or else.

Meanwhile, an increasing number of economists are interested in topics that would have been considered pure political science a few decades ago: political institutions, civil wars, ethnic group salience, legislative politics, and on and on. Although I’m not an economist, my sense is that the old core of the discipline, finance and labor studies and the like, is no longer considered very interesting or sexy from a jobs standpoint.

Economists in general have a better command of advanced quant methods than any other kind of social scientist, and as such, they are well equipped to address and conquer any topic they choose. Political scientists and anthropologists and sociologists of the old guard like to say that economists have no knowledge of theory, or of conditions on the ground in rural Bolivia, or what have you. Maybe not.

But which is easier to acquire–advanced quant or subject/area knowledge? How about advanced quant or political theory? All three are difficult, to be fair, but advanced quant is in relatively short supply. Furthermore, the state of the art in quant is accelerating away from standard-issue quant. So, if you want to be a top-shelf quant guy now, you don’t just need to be able to use statistical packages with competence; you need to be able to program new ones yourself.

Finally, if one looks outside the academia to see what kinds of skills are valued–and many of us graduate students are, given the putrid state of the academic job market–it’s pretty clear what employers are looking for. Big Data is the big dawg. My guess is that Big Modeling will recover from the financial crash sooner or later to form a two-dawg axis.

That there is a high-level explanation of why I’m currently doing what I’m doing to myself. In slightly more detail, I’ve decided that I need another 24 months of math and programming (at a minimum) to pull off my new dissertation idea. I honestly don’t know if I can combine video games and political science in a way that will a) answer interesting political science questions b) in a way that other political scientists will buy while c) being fun to play, but I’m sure as heck going to try!

And if it doesn’t work, that’s okay too. I’ll go start something up in silicon valley.

The Sims: Political Science Edition

Recently, I’ve been considering whether it might not be possible to combine the two areas I am intensely interested in, video games and political science, in a way that won’t get me kicked out of graduate school and might even result in an academic position at some point (or at least won’t totally foreclose the possibility)!

To be sure, political science has become a lot more receptive to advanced computational modeling in recent years, following developments in the natural sciences and more recently in economics. Yes indeed! Some of the more freewheeling practitioners of the dismal science are now writing papers about currency farming and auction house behavior in World of Warcraft.

And, on the flip side of the virtual coin, there are a goodly number of academic refugees now employed in Silicon Valley as big data miners, virtual behaviorists, and the like. The demand has become particularly fierce on the new frontier of video gaming, which lives on the Internet and is fueled largely by “social graphing” and “in-app purchasing.” Zynga, an online games company that makes millions of dollars operating virtual fiefdoms, is hiring data analysts like crazy.

Video games are now computational models that are designed to produce fun and mineable data.

But I digress. A professor of international relations I very much respect, Art Stein, likes to say that the cutting edge in political science methodology runs about a decade behind economics, which in turn runs a decade behind physics and biology. That means that if I finish my PhD around 2016, I might be in very good shape!

The potential applications of game-based simulation methods in political science are endless. This is particularly true in international relations, where direct experimentation is effectively impossible; for instance, we’re not likely to randomly distribute nuclear weapons to countries throughout the world anytime soon. But we can certainly build a model of nuclear crisis and run it tens of thousands of times on the internet, twiddling the knobs to see what comes out.

Is external validity a problem for this kind of experiment? Most definitely. But there are many well-documented issues with scientific inference from observational data (selection bias, anyone? how about endogeneity?), and formal modeling, while appealingly parsimonious, is even more abstract and much less able to deal with the complexity that characterizes the real world. The analytical solution space to N-person cooperation games melts down pretty fast above a handful of players.

Mayday, Mayday, May Day!

It’s the most wonderful time of the year! With anarchists scheming and protestors screaming, our May Day is here!

May Day is supposed to be a relic of late 19th and early 20th century labor strife, right? A quaint figment of socialism and labor activism in this country, before it was vanquished by the expansion of the middle classes, multiple Red Scares, and the advent of the open shop and right-to-work laws. Or, more recently, an excuse for the Warsaw Pact to polish its warheads for a nice little missile parade.

But that’s still ancient history. Not only did the Reds lose, the Weather Underground blew itself up. The Students for a Democratic Society took the blue pill and woke up as middle management. Most of us born in the 1980s and 1990s are still stuck in our parents’ basements. We’re printing resumes, not leaflets or samizdat.

Well, not all of us. The FBI just nailed three “self-proclaimed anarchists” (and two fellow travelers) for trying to blow up a bridge near Cleveland with fake explosives, helpfully supplied by that same agency. The supposed ringleader, Douglas Wright, is 26. Three of his buddies are in their early 20s, and the fourth guy is 35. Prior to the bridge attempt, the quintet allegedly discussed blowing up Cleveland bank signs, or perhaps attacking a Chicago NATO meeting, or even assaulting the Republican National Convention this summer. The basic idea was to strike a blow against the 1%. See, Dad, our generation has plenty of ambition.

May Day Martyrs

I’m generally pretty skeptical when the FBI stuffs an aspirational plot like this one (or this one, or this one over here) and claims that it’s saved the U.S. from unthinkable devastation. Certainly some fraction of the terrorist plots disrupted by the FBI are real threats, because they are planned by real terrorists with real resources. But some of these other guys (like the Cleveland Five) clearly wouldn’t have gotten past the “big talk” phase without FBI agents and informers making it very, very easy for them.

To me, the case is more interesting as an example of the American Left’s potential for remilitarization. The Occupy movement was born camped out near Wall Street and firmly committed to non-violent resistance. That group’s success has inspired similar protest communities throughout the U.S. and beyond. It hasn’t inspired the formation of a hierarchical organization. In fact, many of the Occupy movements have explicitly rejected that step towards institutionalization as being essentially corporate and anti-Democratic.

I wonder how long this novel style of organization will last. Mancur Olson once argued that consensus-based methods of decision making almost never survive in groups larger than a handful of members. So what? For one thing, the Left’s violent fringe may currently be disguised by the non-violent majority. For another, to the extent that Occupy remains decentralized, it may also prove ineffective, prompting more enthusiastic members to doubt the efficacy of its tactics.

This incident also brings to mind David Rapoport’s Four Waves of Modern Terrorism, which started with the “Anarchist wave” and ran through the “anticolonial wave,” the “New Left” wave, and finally the “religious wave,” which we are currently grappling with. Rapoport makes the point that a wave is much more than any single organization, although it may be represented by one in the popular consciousness (such as Al Qaeda and the religious wave). Waves last for multiple decades and are characterized by unique motivating factors, tactics, and technologies.

What might a “Fifth wave” look like? If we follow Rapoport’s schema, we’re about 10 to 15 years early–the era of religious terrorism is still in full swing. Perhaps our timetable has been bumped up a bit by the global economic crisis, as well as the crisis of economic expectations right here at home.

An Internet-enabled, decentralized, but still essentially hierarchical Al Qaeda is representative of the late Fourth wave. Maybe the Fifth wave will be spearheaded by recombinant masses of smartphone-wielding teens. Or tiny “working groups” of very smart individuals who are very good with computers. Or very smart individuals who turn themselves into one-man extermination squads.

Today’s capture of the Cleveland Five mostly troubles me because it suggests that the motive and the frustration are there.

Quick Updates

Whoa! Hey! Six months can go by pretty quick when you’re buried in schoolwork. I’ve been neglecting this blog something fierce, but will be back on a regular posting schedule tout-suite now that my second field paper is in. For now, a quick series of bullets, bang-bang-bang:

Protest Propensity in Africa, 1990-2010

How likely is protest after a 1 std. dev. food price shock?

  • The food security/protest in Africa field paper passed, so it’s on to the dissertation prospectus… which will also be about food security. Probably.
  • I presented the above paper at MPSA in Chicago a few weeks ago, in poster format. You can download a copy working paper from the conference website here.
  • The poorer/less democratic the country, the more vulnerable it is to protest when food prices rise. That’s not very surprising. What is kind of surprising is the marginal increase in effect: about 400% from the most democratic countries to the least, and 300% from the richest countries to the poorest.
  • The major outlier on the heat map above is South Africa, which is both wealthy and democratic by African standards. I think this may have something to do with the legacy of Apartheid on protest in that country.
  • I’m currently cleaning the draft up for submission/publication. I’m not 100% happy with the statistics yet.
  • For my next trick, I have some interesting results lined up connecting international food price volatility to leadership transitions in Africa. The upshot is that only autocracies seem to be vulnerable. More on that soon.
  • My advisor, Michael Ross, has a new book out on The Oil Curse. It’s way good, and the implications therein are troubling. Save money (and trees), read on Kindle!
  • The world has moved on since I posted on Msrs. Breivik and Putin. Breivik’s on trial in Oslo trying to prove that he’s not insane so his political point will stick. Two teams of Norwegian shrinks split the vote on that one, but his rationality was never a question for me. Putin, meanwhile, has been subject to protests in an increasingly restive Russia, which I did not forsee.

The Most Interesting Man In The World

Vladimir Putin’s recent announcement that he will be returning to the Russian presidency in 2012 is about as surprising as a Yaakov Smirnoff punchline. In America, citizens choose president by voting… in Putin’s Russia, president chooses votes by citizens! Or something along those lines. Putin first won election in 2000 with 53% of the vote; in 2004, he smashed the opposition by winning 71%, a feat that his deputy Dmitry Medvedev duplicated in 2008. I would say that the over-under on Putin’s number next year is a healthy 75%.

Cool shades.

Why not something a little higher, like 80%, 90%, or even a Saddam Hussein-style flawless victory? It could be arranged. The Putin circle’s mastery of Russian politics is complete. The media has been brought to heel by years of mergers and acquisitions activity and well-placed bribes, not to mention a steady drip of journalist assassinations. The opposition has been cowed into silence–even the Communists, who were once quite adept at seizing and holding political power, but seem to have lost their street-fighting chops on their way to the Duma, where they are content to play the loyal “opposition” to Putin’s United Russia party with a token number of seats. The regional governments have been packed with cronies. The military just had its budget increased.

Medvedev, the most serious (and only realistic) threat to Putin’s control of the Russian state, is heading back to the prime minister’s office, where he will no doubt spend the next eight years (two Russian presidential terms, the maximum allowed by the constitution) waiting to spell Putin in 2020. Western hopes that Medvedev would play the Gorbachev to Putin’s Brezhnev were completely unfounded.

Yes, Putin would appear to have Russia on a string… and yet heavy lies the crown. Personalistic authoritarian regimes like Putin’s often lack the institutions necessary to “reproduce itself in a legitimate way,” as Vladislav Imozemtsev recently noted in a shrewd piece in Foreign Affairs.

The temporary switch to Medvedev only worked because Putin was still in the public eye, constantly reminding Russians that he was as vigorous as ever. Rather than a democratically appropriate alternation in power, the whole exercise was couched as a sort of four-year adventure vacation for the president.

Indeed, Putin’s roster of activities during his time away from the presidency reads more like a page out of The Most Interesting Man In The World‘s battered travel journal than a typical stint in a prime ministership. A partial list includes plumbing the world’s deepest lake in a sub, riding with notorious Russian biker gangs, shooting Siberian tigers with a tranq gun, and piloting various military aircraft (fixed- and rotor-wing!). The guy wasn’t just trying really hard–he was trying too hard.

So what? Maybe the guy’s having a delayed midlife crisis or something; maybe he’s just checking items off his bucket list. Could be, except that everything we know about Putin personally suggests that the man has few romantic or adventurous inclinations. He is most often described as a cautious–even colorless–pragmatist who is methodical to a fault. In fact, his efficient, calculating, essentially passionless nature was a major selling point for Boris Yeltsin, who needed to pick someone who could squelch Russia’s burgeoning economic and social anarchy as his successor. Putin got the job because he was the Least Interesting Man In The World.

The transformation from KGB suit to invincible muscleman strikes many observers in the West as overly facile and tone-deaf from a marketing point of view. But the fact is that Russians eat this stuff up. Putin’s personal popularity stands at 68%, a number that most US politicians would kill for.

Another fact is that Putin needs his personal numbers to be legitimately sky-high–much more so than Barack Obama, say, who can perhaps survive a personal popularity score in the high 40s. Putin cannot, for the same reason he can’t win the presidential vote with 100% of the vote.

Russia’s economic future depends on two things: rising commodity prices (especially in oil and gas) and foreign direct investment. The latter is more important than the former in the long run, in part because Russia’s energy infrastructure desperately needs to be modernized, but mostly because Russia stands no chance of escaping its steady decline without economic diversification.

In short, the Russians need General Electric (and similar firms) to come invest in their country. Investors, in turn, are looking for credible signals that Russia will keep its end of the many deals it wishes to sign. Risk management experts tend to look at absolute dictatorships with a jaundiced eye, particularly when it comes to longterm infrastructure investments, because the investment climates in such countries are actually less predictable than they are in democracies. Absolute dictators may decide to do impulsive things like revoke foreign property rights; they might privilege crony-owned local concerns over more efficient foreign investors; and, most importantly, their countries might explode into civil war upon the dictator’s death.

An anocrat like Putin, on the other hand, floats along winning 70% of the vote, generally without widespread fraud. His popularity is genuine–albeit heavily stage-managed and augmented by media control–and foreign firms are confident in it. By the time he’s on his deathbed, the public should be familiar enough with Medvedev (who is a full 12 years younger) that the transition will go smoothly.

Of course, Putin doesn’t look like a guy who’s going to be on his deathbed anytime soon, does he?