The Moorish Wanderer

Wandering Thoughts Vol.7

Posted in Ancient Times, Happy Times, Flash News, Morocco, Read & Heard, The Wanderer by Zouhair ABH on February 15, 2011

I do beseech the reader to allow for a self-indulgent post. Nothing peculiar, just a post that would not try to consider its subject to be serious, nor would it adopt a serious, formal tone. To my horror and surprise -not that much, though I suppose I can be allowed a bit of dramatization- that I can sometimes be pompous, if not entirely bombastic (pedant, was the word a young lady liked to use in describing my prose) and in any case tedious and sometimes esoteric.

Well, I suppose I am. I should perhaps confess a 180° about-face on many issues. First, this ‘dividing line’ about liberals and radicals. It seems to me that, as far as Morocco is concerned, the line is blurry, non-existent, almost. In these troubled time (another related thing upon which I might be digressive) even radical proposals, such as a constitutional convention -something I believe to be premature, even on a long-term time scale- look benign now.

Kalâat Megouna? Tazmamart? Moi?

I mean, one has only to look at the changes Morocco underwent in the 1990’s, when the late Hassan II moved from ‘Kalâat Magouna? It’s the capital of roses, dear lady‘ -a flat denial of the existence of hell-holes like Tazmamart to ‘that shows that if Morocco made mistakes in the past, it is willing to address them, and more importantly, not to repeat them ever again‘, an implicit recognition of ‘human rights abuses’ to put it euphemistically. And whatever -well-founded- criticism international NGOs made on Morocco’s records on human rights, the overall geopolitical changes, i.e. the end of the cold war and the shifting behaviour of western powers over ‘friendly’ dictatorships, compelled the late king into taking steps, the least of which was trying to make some efforts to improve the country’s image in terms of human rights (particularly the pardon to exiles in France and elsewhere), and one can even find commentators to claim that human rights and political freedom were at a better level in the late 1990’s than the late 2000’s.

This got me thinking: is it that much of a sign of weakness, from the top brass to start shuffling the government, the constitution, the economic structure, in short, the lot? Does it sound like panic? I mean, what sort of risks do they run through? I don’t know. There goes the other U-turn: I used to consider the Royal Cabinet -I don’t know why precisely this institution. Perhaps because it wields much more power than does the government- I used to consider it to be the symbol of absolutism. Now, I surprise myself into thinking: ‘how do they take their decision?’. Well, the premise of such seemingly foolish question is logical: they swept clean the Grandes Ecoles looking for new talents, so they are bound to be very rational, very thorough in their decision-making process. So, when all options are emptied, when all issues are discussed, dealt with, rationalized, there remains the only relevant question: “how do they take their decisions?”.

Sorry, I forget myself. Drifting in politics when I promised I should keep it ‘superficial’. What would I be posting about then? I do apologise for the digression, something that would perhaps explain why the feedbacks I got were generally pointing how utterly out of touch I can be in my postings. That is true, and it is multifarious: First, and I think I mentioned it before, there are very few things I care about, setting aside economics and Moroccan politics. I mean the only thing related to the Arab World I ever got close to get involved with was Colonel Lawrence Of Arabia’s wonderful book ‘The 7 Pillars of Wisdom‘, or perhaps a propaganda book I bought not so long ago about Gamal Abdelnasser.

T.E. Lawrence.

Other than that, I have to confess how shockingly disinterested in the recent events in Tunisia or Egypt, or even Algeria, I have felt. I am becoming even increasingly sceptical that the planned demonstrations on February 20th would not really help tip the balance toward more democracy and more equitable redistribution of wealth. That, of course, remains a subjective opinion (sorry for the pleonasm) and as the late Hassan II once said, as such it is not subject to criticism.

Second, when one is out of the country, one tends to be out of touch, not of the course of events -I claim I am more informed than many of my acquaintances back home- but in the little details, what pollsters sometimes fail to grasp; Something quite subjective, fainting, something that only instincts can get. And instincts feed on field experience that requires physical presence. Again, I don’t claim to have toured the country and thus know what every denizen of every god-forsaken spot in Morocco thinks about the constitution, the level of prices or the distribution of income, but living among fellow Moroccans, in a Moroccan context confers a great deal of information that can be captured as ‘the mood’.

So yes, I have to admit my utter failure in meeting the criterion Gramsci set for the organic intellectual. Hell I might as well forfeit my status as a intellectual (I am clearly not doing much thinking, you know). The blame is not entirely mine, though my guilt is substantial.

Perhaps it is a growing exasperation with a political system so senile, so concentrated, so hermetic to outsiders that whatever ambition I was grooming for a potential career have been gradually wiped out to be the shattered boy-dreams of a caustic wannabe policy specialist. End of story, the final act of the burning vision of a holy city.

On the virtual front however, the seeds of civil war have been sown: the anti-February 20th are stock raving mad against what they hold as the ‘enemies within’ or even worse, as an insidious ‘fifth column’. At this very day, I still do not understand why our valiant nationalists cannot accept the fundamental centrepiece of this democracy they are so keen on flogging as the main feature of the ‘Moroccan exception’: in a democratic society, there arise, almost inevitably contradictory opinions. It’s called diversity. On the other hand, trying to stifle opinions that do not ring harmoniously with the doxa, or what is hold to be common sense looks, sounds and feels like dictatorial behaviour, worse, self-enforcement of intellectual terrorism, the means of which are all too familiar and reminiscent of earlier, darker era: the would-be demonstrators are thugs, spies, professional activists and traitors. denigrating dissidence is not democratic, for those claiming that we are such democracy.

What is to be made out of this February 20th business? Overall, the claims are reasonable, in the sense that even some mainstream political parties took the same view -albeit some decades ago-. In fact, save for the minimum wage and the recruitment of unemployed graduates, I wholeheartedly agree with the need for a genuine democratic constitution, an independent judiciary and the rest. I disagree with tenants that such demonstration is not likely to change things. In fact, it shows how ignorant one might be of how the regime (these individuals are Makhzen-deniers) behaves: the top brass are scared witless of any infilat, any large scale riots not for fear for public safety, but because it hurts the PR image our leaders so carefully try to build.

Let me put to the reader this question: what makes a political power’s strength? What makes Al Adl or a couple of decades ago the CDT and USFP so powerful? Simply their ability to get people in the streets. In the perpetual muscle flexing and balance of power between dissidence and the Makhzen, those able to convince large numbers of citizens to demonstrate are considered with caution. Our policy makers would do their best to denigrate first, suppress the ringleaders second, then try to bribe and adulterate these social and political movement. Because the 20Feb movement is not structured as other past movement, only the figureheads are demeaned -through abject means- so as to destabilize and de-legitimize the demonstrations. Everything is done so as to monopolize all opportunities, all legitimacies, as J. Waterbury once stated: ‘It alone claimed to be something of an institution, and it alone combined the elements of […] legitimacy and the rudiments of an administrative and military apparatus

I need however to stress my own scepticism on the outcome. While the imminent showdown might -just might- compel the regime into making concessions on the institutional front, I’m afraid it is going to do its best to defuse it by promising the immediate measures that would pull the movement apart: jobs for the unemployed graduates (who usually abandon every bit of militancy and activism when they get recruited) or by promising subsidies for essential goods. I’m afraid that the demonstrators on February 20th would not be large enough, or geographically diverse enough to be considered a nation-wide. but as the saying goes: “بيناتكم آبضاوى”

I remember a tweet-discussion with our valiant MBA-winner (a feat on which I did not have the opportunity to congratulate him) on the existence -or not- of the Makhzen institution. I put to him, and to those who deny its existence, this paper by John Waterbury, so they can try and find the many occurrences of surviving patterns of behaviour.

Oh, and I reiterate my welcoming of any debate on whether Morocco is going the right path, or whether there’s still a Makhzen dominating the country. Debate anyone?

Proposals For a First Class Education (Part 1)

The trickiest of them all. Not that the successive Moroccan governments achieved something close to good results over the course of half a century, but any serious government, caring about the future of the the next generations as well as the current state of research and more generally the national level of culture -in all the broad definitions of the term-, will have to tackle head-on education.

A nightmare among many others, perhaps the worse of them all; Money is poured in a department that systematically fails to enact reforms. A bureaucratic department controlled by unions that are all too willing to engage in hostage taking, thus compromising the future of Moroccan children, and yet fail to stand up for their members, if indeed the teaching corps had any affiliation with these unions. By international standards, education in Morocco is wasteful, inefficient, and is effectively now a two-tiers system (through which your humble servant slipped by…). If there is one project on which a liberal/radical government has to deal with in priority, it is surely education.

The Failing Department. A radical overhaul is needed.

The current emergency program is a shambles. Not the least because it has been put hurriedly together, overseen by a minister who belongs to an opposition party set on shaming as much as possible the incumbent coalition. Whatever the Royal involvement with such a plan, it’s fate is sealed: it is going to blow over and go over the wall like the previous plans and strategies. We need something more radical; Something that would save money, on top of that. Let’s walk through some figures.

According to the UNPAN report, Morocco employs about 640.000 civil servants (2004 figures updated with the DVD). I did a piece on the civil service overall, so let’s get down to detailed numbers on education: of the half million civil servants, about 60%, that is about 380.000 workers at the education ministry. Not all of them are teachers, far from it. According to these numbers, the education department has 41.000 administrators, and the rest are indeed teachers of all grades. And yet, while payroll is relatively well distributed among them (roughly half the total public service workforce has half the expenditure budget) the administrative staff, the non-productive part of education that is, these 11% receive 30%, that is more than  three-quarters more relative to their size. This is a bad signal, and an inherently perverse payroll system.

Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that the whole workforce, and the education ministry is certainly no exception, is ageing. Now, we might benefit from precious experience, but when about 60% are 40 years-old and more, with only less than half with enough experience -that is, more than 20 years service- it is quite obvious that we need an overhaul by getting new people in, and phasing out the old guard, which is going to be the case in the next couple of years. Any government policy has to take the demographic factor into account. And the human factor is going to be critical, though full of handicap for the promised policies. Contrary to other government policies, the effects are difficult to assess overtime.

Raymond Boudon published some years ago a book that asks perfectly valid questions, on issues that apply also to Morocco: in a nutshell, the sociologist asks whether there is any equilibrium that can be reached between a thrust for egalitarian education, and republican elitism. in other words, there is an inherent contradiction in pursuing the objective of 80% baccalauréat-graduates per class age, and the maintenance of Ecole Normale Supérieure, Polytechnique and other top-notch, ultra-selective institutions. Save perhaps for the republican ideal, Morocco is in the same quandary: we need everyone to benefit from free and good education, and yet we also need top-class research facilities, elite professors and graduate students. Between open education and selective mechanisms, it turns out it is difficult even to claim there is some equilibrium between seemingly irreconcilable ends of the same stick. That is why I would be in favour of introducing systematic testing, right from the start. Do allow me to explain the objective of such seemingly un-left wing proposal.

Do testing hurt the principle of equity? I don’t think so. In fact, the problem with school drop-outs, or indeed failure cases within the education system, is, in my opinion, partly due to that fact that teachers and pedagogical specialists do not take notice of them. A child in difficulty is not helped when pushed through grades, as the required knowledge gets tougher. The current system allows for tens of thousands of students to go through unchecked till the baccalaureate, or even to higher education. The result is unemployed graduates, even PhD holders on the dole.

Systematic testing creates, when appropriately applied, virtuous results: because they need to be standardized, it takes little time for pupils, students and teachers alike to spot the patterns, learn the ‘classics’. If artificial learning can be taught, it is much better than slip false notions and gargantuan useless information in the current system. Surprisingly enough, battery tests, again, when properly designed, can deliver reliable results, in seizing the level of knowledge and thinking our pupils and students can field when asked precise, standardized questions. Countries that adopted standardized tests have produced mitigated results: on the one hand, standardisation produced good results in specific subjects (maths and languages) but not so in others (although I gainsay whether history, geography and social studies questions could not be incorporated in the test as well). World rankings by international institutions show that countries that adopted testing as a primary tool perform relatively better, in any case broadly better, than others that prefer more egalitarian curricula (Finland is a special case, though selection does occur at later stages, which proves the initial point anyway. This testing policy however, in order to be more effective, needs to be conjugated with other measures -to be discussed later on or in another post- among others, better training for teachers, a greater autonomy in curriculum design for local authorities to enjoy, are important factors as well.

In any case, I would advise not to use the same test framework for every grade; At primary school, it is not so much the accumulated knowledge than the understanding of the surrounding world that matters. Indeed, the curriculum to pupils from 5 to 12 years old should focus on logical thinking – a prelude to mathematics and sciences- as well as a combo of national language/foreign languages. By national languages, I mean one of the local versions of Tamazight and Arabic (with no prejudice to one language or the other).

As for foreign languages, just as my colleague pointed out, we need to break away from the crippling French influence. Therefore, English should be promoted as the first foreign language, and an optional one could be considered -French, but also Spanish, Russian, German or Chinese are all viable options-. The third part of the primary curriculum is an eminently qualitative one: ‘social interaction’ or the ability to interact intelligently with their environment. Personality building is not something the regular curriculum bothers to take a look at; And yet, the best performing school systems are the ones trying their best to create all the favourable conditions for personality to foster. Why not make it a primary objective for schools to attain? Alongside standard tests, schools would provide their pupils with a motley of activities that would allow them to express themselves. That, I agree is a tall order; For one, how can the education department measure such objective? In the grey world of cost-benefits analysis, if sums of money were to be spend on specialists’ training or building facilities (in this particular case, primary schools) how can the department assess the effectiveness of such policies? I am afraid there’s going to be some degree of reliance on psychological surveys, although one can be optimistic about the benefits they are bound to bring in assessing each school’s contribution. IQ has reliable tests to be measured, EQ also does have its own tests, albeit not as precise as one might have hoped for the department to use, but still reliable tools on the whole.

Secondary and High-school, while retaining the framework of standard-tests, would gradually shift towards more academic achievements: Languages of course, but also Mathematics should, in my opinion, be the main taught subjects in secondary school. Alongside these subjects, students can be allowed to undertake other subjects, whether in natural or social sciences, or indeed more literal subjects, or individual projects that would involve technical courses too. Diversity should be a public service. In any case, curriculum are, under the federalism option, a prerogative of regional bodies, and apart from federally mandated subjects, regional boards are allowed to offer whatever subjects they see fit for the younger generations to undertake.

In order to implement such policies, there is a need for sweeping measures, the cardinal one being to change substantially the teaching corps. Here we are in with a chance of success, as much of the teachers have many years of service and, according to the figures laid before, most of them are bound to retirement in the 5 to 7 years. In the meantime, the government might as well redesign the teaching curriculum: either by extending the training period -making it a Master’s degree in Education Science plus a minor, a Bachelor of Arts or Science in the intended major- in order to renew the total workforce, which should be restrained to the number of 200.000 over the next 5 years, as the teaching corps would be entirely renewed. Such a number would provide a ratio of pupils per teacher of 11 to 1, close to Finnish standards. The human resources strategy should also include slowing down on bureaucracy by reducing the number of non-teaching staff to the ratio of 1 administrator for 20 teachers, thus attaining a number around 20.000 administrators, 2/3 of which should be local or regional staff, and the rest would be in charge at the federal education department.

As far as the total costing goes, and based on the 2009 budget figures, Salaries to teachers should be higher, and a reallocation of 4 billions from the MAD 34 billion payroll expenses would upgrade the median salary of a teacher to MAD 17.000. On the other hand, there is a need to double the investment credits over five years to reach MAD 12 billion, which should be ample enough not to build new schools, but to improve the existing infrastructure to higher standards, especially in remote or marginal areas (among others, Casablanca, Taza, Tadla and Layun need more money for their ventures). The increase in education spendings, though modest, is not there for allowance-spree, but as an effort to provide the existing infrastructure with better facilities, and for the teaching corps, the means to attract younger and more enthusiastic workforce with a better pay and increased responsibility over their schools and their pupils.

There Is No Alternative… and a U-Turn is no alternative, either

Posted in Flash News, Moroccan ‘Current’ News, Morocco, Tiny bit of Politics by Zouhair ABH on February 9, 2011

The looks were pretty similar. Baroness Thatcher is not natural blonde, though.

Did you see the picture? Meryl Streep bears striking similarities with the Iron Lady, and I am looking forward to the movie. But that is another matter. What I want to post about is Constitutional Reforms. “Oh, that old pensum”, one might think, that pops around when the left-wing radical has no other idea to discuss. Yes but this time, it’s real politics. And perhaps the chance for the monarchy to choose a different course of action.

It is rumoured, more and more insistently too, that there is a constitutional reform in the offings. The wires might be crossed, but it seems now -and I thank Annouss for this idea- that the new frontier for constitutional change is the extended de-centralization, a devolution as it were, that would end once for all the Sahara problem, and at the same time square the last advocates for real constitutional reforms. The Modus Operandi is still unclear, and the most moderate among the pro-reform radicals are gambling on that to take away the maximum amount of reforms, which ranges from an upgrade version of the 1997 de-centralization bill, to a full, federative monarchy, which would be not only a breakthrough in the MENA region, but would even set the standards in Europe and elsewhere in the world.

To put it bluntly, this regionalism stuff could be either a bitter disappointment or an unexpected stunt. It is high time M. Azimane presented His Majesty, and the nation, with his findings, so that the officials can proceed with the process. (come to think of it, His Majesty might have already received the report…)

Unless the recent events in Tunisia, Egypt, most likely in Yemen or even neighbouring Algeria were putting off the officials from implementing the reforms, for fear it might be construed as panicky concession, thus furthering public thrust for more freedom. The slippery slope, they would argue. (From now on, I’d refer to the officials in charge of policy-making as “the top brass”, just a matter of convenience) Perhaps 2012 is the new deadline; Constitutionally, the King is entitled to call off elections when sees fit -and that resulted in a brawl in the 1980s when rebellious USFP Members of Parliament refused the Regal decision- but still, it would be construed as a cooling-off period for a great design that, in the top brass’s view, should not be sullied by electoral process. Who knows how these people think… (Note: again if they recruit brainy people to sort out the policies, I may be interested… )

Let’s cast aside the prepared February 20th demonstrations and the frenzy of the half-witted ranting tediously against them. Tabula Rasa, ok? I understand my approach is somewhat flawed; Political science and real-life politics do not work like economics. There is no point in trying to isolate effects; This approach however, allows to consider the constitutional reform in a broader sense. As a principle. And when time comes, I’d try to link it up with the current events. First, by conventional standards, it has to be agreed that the current constitutional set is not democratic: the monarchy is constitutional, but the constitutional is not democratic. And the press, as well as the public should do away with the rather cheap argument that ‘our neighbours are worse’. Because it contradicts the other popular argument ‘Morocco is different’. In any case, Morocco might end up in the stead of East Germany: late 1980’s, Erich Hönecker was adamant East Germany already had its Glasnost, and yet, it was the first country on the iron curtain to come tumbling down. Not that I see any parallelism between the MENA region, Morocco on the one hand, and East Germany and Eastern Europe on the other, but I’d broach the top brass to think twice before claiming -or getting their puppets to do so- that Morocco have already implemented its reforms, and that it might not go further.

Going back to the constitutional reform; It is now obvious that not only the reform is necessary, but it is officially considered as a ‘political correct’ kind of political claim, and that even the top brass is getting amenable to the idea. The vehicle to achieve this reform is of course the regionalization card, the last one the official line claims to be the last piece in the grand democracy Morocco is enjoying. The recent troubles are just putting the implementation of such reforms off.

What does the man in the street thinks? Not much perhaps. He or She are more anxious about rising prices -a possible trigger for social unrest- and the immediate measures the government takes to defuse any possible crisis. Plus word have been put on not to antagonize the regular demonstrators. To be ‘nice’ to the underdog for fear they might turn berserk and spark the much feared riots. But then again, the more ostentatious these policies are publicized, the more conspicuous the top brass look in their inability to come up with a more long-term, sensible solution. Unless they would prepare for a stunt in 2012.

So 2012 could well be the constitutional year. A word of caution though: whatever the decision they would come up with, there is a high probability I would find it to be half-backed. Too shy in reforms at best. So I am speculating on 2012 as the possible turning point for the speculation’s sake. So, 2012, instead of delivering an election, would give us a Royal Speech arguing for wide-ranging consultations that would eventually lead to a constitutional referendum on the new de-centralization. The centrepiece would be devolved assemblies with relatively extended powers. A good move to strengthen local democracy, and in the Sahara, undercut separatist claims (an even bolder move is to appeal to Polisario to join in and run these assemblies from within Moroccan sovereignty). In any case, it’s going to be wait and see for 2012: either an election or a constitutional referendum (or both !)

The trouble with such promising perspective, is that it is the final frontier. There is nothing beyond this ultimate set of reforms. The finally final concession -and even yet another harvest of ex-left wing radicals turned zealots for the regime. The question remains: can the regime afford to duck pressing institutional calls for reform by pulling together a half-backed reform? The writings’ on the wall. And failure yet again might just feed growing resentment and increase the likelihoods of a disastrous outcome sensible minds would not contemplate for Morocco.

Odd Ball

Posted in Dismal Economics, Flash News, Tiny bit of Politics by Zouhair ABH on February 8, 2011

The news from the financial markets are always funny to read: among many other things, one learns that for all the trouble the MENA region is heading to -or, for some countries there already experiencing it- the cost of insuring their sovereign debt is much lower compared to Greece. Incredible! Or is it?

Consider the following graph; I have to apologize for incomplete information, especially regarding the more recent levels of CDS on Greece, and for Egypt I had to crunch the missing numbers in order to get the current level. When one takes a careful look at these levels, and the way they evolve, there are many thoughts one could foster on the MENA region: Tunisia is a surprisingly low risk, when compared to Greece, or even to Egypt. The level of risk, captured via the CDS did certainly not justify the downgrading by Moody’s. Or if Moody’s did so, it has little to do with its political risk.

Cost Of Insuring Sovereign Debt CDS 2009-2011 (Datastream Reuters)

And for one, Leila Trabelsi was directly responsible for absconding 1.5 tons of gold bullion, which means € 45 Million, or $ 58 Million approximately. The sum might look like small beer, but when one keeps in mind the level of government debt Tunisia has -about $ 25 Billion- then it is obvious that annual payment can be endangered by that kind of blow; Not to mention the effect this has on the exchange rate the Central Bank Of Tunisia wants to sustain. There are other issues about the country’s sustainability in terms of economic growth, but it seems the downgrade was not, shall we say politically motivated, nor was it in reaction to market anxiety over developing events. And the market data shows it: the level of CDS remained remarkably stable, and for a troubled country, the financial markets do not seem to mind the difference with Morocco -as late as February 3th, CDS were slightly lower for Tunisia that Morocco’s-.

Why are Credit Default Swaps a good indicator for a sovereign debt? First, CDS are considered to be an insurance, mainly a guarantee against possible likelihood of default. In that sense, political instability, poor economic policies or unexpected low growth result can be indiscriminate factors in worsening CDS levels. In that sense, CDS are quite useful, but in the sense that they are signals: their prices are subject to demand and supply, and if their price goes up, it is a signal that, say for the Egyptian sovereign debt CDS to climb up to 400bps and counting, it means, first, that to insure $ 10 Million of Egyptian debt, an investor has to take on an insurance of $ 400.000. The signal is about expectations investors might have of the future. The more pessimistic they feel, the higher the price of CDS. And for the moment, levels of expected risk, in Tunisia or Morocco are very similar. Strange?

The same goes for Egypt: even though the country started from comparatively higher levels of risks (the higher CDS level, the higher the perceived default risk, markets-wise) they still operate at early 2009 levels, at which time Mubarak’s position was not particularly threatened – in fact, no one at the time would have bet a dime on successful demonstrations that we are witnessing today and since a fortnight. Again, a source in financial markets tell me that for all the media frenzy -and the local damage to the economy- foreign debt-holders are relaxed even with regime change, whether in Tunisia or Egypt, or other countries that might be on the waiting list. There remain countries like Morocco that were confirmed in their near-investment rating. At the time, and perhaps it might remain so, rating agencies do not see enough warning signals to downgrade the rating, perhaps because financial markets do not seem to mind the whiff of liberty in MENA.

In any case, the rumblings in the MENA region do not look harmful to the financial markets, as they rate Greek sovereign debt far more likely to default. this is good news for would-be protesters too worried they might compromise their country’s ‘good name’. It is also bad news for Greece, but ethnocentrism doesn’t involve me in feeling sympathetic to their miseries. I don’t know if I can stress enough the importance of these results: the MENA region has been experiencing, for many countries that is, sustainably high levels of growth, but the distribution effect has been marginal across countries. The current wave of public anger is not primarily motivated by political claims -this, in my opinion, comes with street protests- but rather by more redistributive policies. It seems financial markets, up to a point, do not mind that.

Game Theory & Revolutions

Posted in Flash News, The Wanderer, Tiny bit of Politics by Zouhair ABH on February 5, 2011

True to my word to Afrinomad, I’ll try and  delineate the game theory applications on revolutions. I’ll go slower, not the least because it’s uncharted territory there to me. I mean, the best I’d ever do with game theory is with economics application -just like the mess I am supposed to sort out by this spring-. This does not mean I don’t understand what I should be posting about. Let’s just say that there are some areas in political sciences I would do well to read about on my spare time (oh? Do I still have one of these?)

Looking back at the undergraduate days, I read an interesting book, which turned out to be a big helper in understanding political sociology: ‘Théorie du Choix Révolutionnaire‘ (T.Tazdaït, R.Nessah La Découverte, 2008). It is handy, in the sense that both authors are at ease with game theory concepts. And one of the many things I noticed -and recorded- was the constant reminder that revolutions, in essence are not really a rational behaviour. Why should it be? The whole idea of mixing revolution theory and rationalism seems ludicrous: not that both concepts are irreconcilable, but because that a pure rationale, from an individual point of view, collective action is deemed to failure. Shaw proposed the following the illustrate the paradox: let the following linear equation be an agent’s utility function R = p.B – C + D

It's already there, mate.

where R is the utility pay-off, p is the probability assigned to the effect the individual can have on a successful outcome for the revolution, C the cost of participation and D the expected pay-off. Before I go any further, this is not a normative model, in the sense that it should not elicit conclusions about what’s a good or a bad revolution. At best, it’s an abstract speculation on rationale behind individual and collective behaviour. Now, if there are masses of people supporting the revolution, an individual contribution to success is next to nothing. Plus if the individual does not participate, they incur no cost and benefit nonetheless from the revolutionary outcome. But if the same result was to be applied to every single member of the community, the revolution is doomed before it even begins. So there is the nodal problem: Revolutions are the deed of the multitude. And yet, when individuals weight in the costs and benefits, they have every incentive to adopt a free-rider behaviour: wait by and look on as he events undo the incumbent regime, then reap the benefits when it succeeds. If not, being obedient brings benefits too.

This ultra-rational behaviour does not explain why revolutions occur. In fact, it just makes people think that revolutions are inherently irrational. But are they? Perhaps this individual methodology is no good to understand collective action: it is logical to assume that the collective effort is not a mere aggregation of individual wills, that, past a certain critical mass effect, it subsumes it and exceeds to a greater strength.

Let’s find us some practical game theory application on Egypt and Tunisia: assume the revolution is a public good – there’s an interesting configuration by Vickery-Clarke-Groves which seems to me suitable for collective actions. In a game theory setting, for a revolution to succeed, it needs to devise some modus operandi following which the result would be strategy-proof, i.e. at some stage, all individuals would contribute to the outcome according to their true needs, and as such their benefits would be larger in contributing to the revolution than just standing out of it, when they would indeed benefit from a change of regime. Let me re-formulate it: there’s a need for a modus operandi such that those really in need for a revolution would in fact contribute rather than just stand by. These very individuals, the least endowed in a given society that is, have every incentive to revolt because the expected loss is considered to be lower than the benefits.

So, a public good, or a revolution, seeks the modified optimization program:

it’s easier to understand than it looks actually – the revolution seeks increasing the well-being of the majority -thus the mode- (first line) but takes ‘taxes’ out of different individuals (second line), and these taxes can be perfectly random, like death, or an injury or just a burned car. k is the last outcome: success (1) or failure (0). Then, at individual level (third line), they have types that are more or less attached to a change in the political regime or indeed achieving any desired outcome the incumbent government does not provide. Insofar the poorest elements have the lowest tolerance for a certain array of imbalanced distribution of wealth, income, power and other social symbolism outlets, they can be expected to react and contribute -issues of coordination are not discussed here- because in Egypt or Tunisia their numbers were important, the contribution of middle classes was perhaps marginal at the second level, but it nonetheless gave a larger boost to the public good. The game has a social choice function f(.) fully strategy-proof as long as it meets the following requirements:

basically, a function that yields a utility such that it is better for an individual to act following their type rather than portray another one (called the incentive compatibility).

When the coordination issue is not discussed, the key for revolutions, from a game theory perspective, is to ask first off, how wide is the gap between expected gains the rioter, soon-to-be revolutionary, is betting on, and their present wealth, and second, how many of them are ready to join in, i.e. how many are in the same position.

When coordination does arise, it can either be the fact of institutional nature -which game theory has little to do with- like pre-existing trade-unions, or the use of social networks (virtual or not), and that is a matter of algorithmic nature, on which I claim no informed knowledge. In any case, coordination in game theory assumes the existence of a benevolent referee which Tunisia and Egypt proved to be non-existent or negligible.

The whole exercise is pointless, save perhaps the idea that revolutions are not inherently dysfunctional occurrences of otherwise rational institutions and behaviour. With a bit of game theory, it can be proven that it is fully rational, and that the only problems in completing the argument are not related to reason, and could nonetheless be expected with the help of otherwise more randomized experiences.