Thursday, December 23, 2010

The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists... and Political Economy?

Last week, NPR did a story on the awards of Granta, the prestigious literary magazine, for "The Best of Young Spanish-Language Novelists." The host (Don Gonyea) noticed that Argentina is the home country of 8 out of the 22 total awards. Spain comes in 2nd place with 6 award recipients. That's a lot of the awards, considering that there are over 20 Spanish-speaking countries – most countries had zero award-winners.

When asked about Argentina, Valerie Miles, one of the founding co-editors of Granta en español, suggested the following:

"...Argentina is a country with a very long and strong literary tradition... it also has to do with the fact that it has wonderful bookstores. Some of the really great and really important publishing companies that ran away from Franco's Spain ended up in Argentina..."

I like her answer and would like to take it a step further. Why might Argentina (and Spain) have the best publishing companies, the best bookstores, and the best novelists in the Spanish-speaking world?

I would suggest a general explanation, which draws on the broader literature on who wins international competitions.

When it comes international sports – whether we’re talking World Cup or Olympics – three basic factors matter: population, income, and interest. Let me explain.

Population: more people, more chances that your country will have someone who is great.

Income: mo’ money, mo’ opportunities (with apologies to Biggie). Money translates into better athletics and education.

Interest: here’s where culture comes in. When it comes to soccer, for example, you have to actually care about it to be internationally competitive (sorry China and the United States). When it comes to literature, well, I guess you’ve simply got to have some interesting experiences on which to draw for your writing.

So, I applied these basic ideas to the Granta awards. First, let's consider overall economic size. The recipients were all born between 1971 and 1981. For this time period, Spain and Argentina had the largest economies in the Spanish-speaking world. The GDP of Spain averaged $8.4 billion and that of Argentina $7.1 billion (in constant 2000 $). The next 3 largest economies were Venezuela, Uruguay, and Mexico – Uruguay and Mexico are both home to Granta award winners. The 5 smallest economies were: Honduras, Bolivia, Paraguay, Ecuador, and Nicaragua. And there's only 1 winner amongst them (Bolivia).

Now let's take a broader look at the data by country-income:

And here's a picture of the data by the overall economic size of countries:

To put a little rigor into this, I applied regression analysis to the number of award recipients for each country. (Warning to techies: don't get your hopes up, I'm not going to spend any serious effort on this...)

I took the average population and income (in constant 2000 $) for 1971-1981. (Interestingly, constant 2000 $ fits a little better than purchasing power parity measures.)

To proxy culture, I recalled something a French lit prof in college taught me: il faut la crise pour la création – artists need crisis in order to create. Now, there are plenty of ways to measure crises in the Spanish-speaking world. In the 1970s and 1980s, it had more than its fair share by several measures. I tried number of IMF arrangements and years of dictatorship, but the measure that works best is the number of times that democracy was subverted by a coup. It makes sense – these often combine economic and political problems.

Results? These three variables explain about 50% of the variance. Bigger and richer countries that have seen democracy breakdown are more likely to produce Granta award-winners. For the curious, click here for a set of regression results. There is a lot more I could do with this to make it more accessible for the non-technical readers... but I’ve got Xmas shopping to do. Sorry.

Now, true fans of the Vreelander are, of course, much more concerned with my personal correlation with the Granta award recipients. After all, I was able to use a spurious correlation between my career statistics and soccer performance to predict many World Cup matches this summer. The countries that have done the most for my career also did the best during the first round of the World Cup (but in the second round, my good friend, Martin Gassebner, would remind us that I got beat by an 8-legged monster... twice). The reason for the spurious correlation? Big economies mean better soccer and better universities... and countries with more money in their university system are more likely to be able to fly me over for a visit :-)

So, how does the spurious correlation work out for the Granta awards? Pretty well. I've spent more time working in Argentina than any other Spanish-speaking country. Second place? Spain. After that, Mexico,... and then a lot of zeroes – just like the Granta awards for most poor Spanish-speaking countries. All by itself, the variable measuring the number of days I have spent working in Spanish-speaking countries explains more than 80% of the variance in the Granta awards.

(And I can't help noticing one thing. The economic model does not predict the award for Bolivian author Rodrigo Hasbún. But the Vreelander model kind of does, because my connection to Spain is through the excellent ESADE Professor Pedro Parada of the Georgetown-ESADE GEMBA program... Parada hails from... you guessed it: Bolivia.)

A silly sidenote for the technical readers: When I put the Vreelander variable in the OLS model, it actually blows away the other variables in terms of statistical significance. This does not hold in the more appropriate Poisson model.

Bottom line: Why do more award recipients come from Argentina and Spain than any other Spanish-speaking country? They are the richest and the biggest, and they’ve had enough crises to motivate their craft.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Enter the Dragon... or Rabbit?

Back in 2009 when I was teaching at Korea University, I asked my Korean friends if they knew that China is shaped like a rooster. They did not. But they proceeded to tell me that Korea is also shaped like an animal... well actually like two animals.

From one perspective, Korea is shaped like a dragon:

From another perspective, Korea is shaped like a bunny rabbit:

For people interested in international relations and national identities, there are two take-aways:

(1) Korea-Japan relations:
My Korean friends explained that if you see Korea as a dragon, it is ready to handle an imperial Japan. If you see Korea as a rabbit, however, then the Japanese islands represent the animal's refuse. (I mean no offense to Japan - I'm just reporting what I was told.) My friends couldn't decide which image they prefer. They like the powerful Dragon-Korea. But they delight in the idea of Japanese islands representing rabbit-refuse.

Either way, the scars of the early 20th century Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula are still alive in the imaginations of young Koreans. (For a history of the years leading up to the occupation, when Korea was treated as a "protectorate" of Japan, see the work of Georgetown Professor Christine Kim.)

This helps to explain why - even when Japan and Korea have common interests - they rely on the presence of the United States, which acts as a buffer to placate domestic constituencies who may still have hard feelings (see the work of T. J. Pempel). Regional organizations also play a role. Japanese and Korean governments have been able to obfuscate some of the economic assistance that Japan has given to Korea by going through the Asian Development Bank. Japan exercises a great deal of control over this organization, though many other countries, including Korea, are also voting members. (For more on this topic, see this paper, co-authored by my brilliant student, Daniel Yew Mao Lim, as well as the excellent research of my friend and colleague, Christopher Kilby).

(2) North-South relations:
Despite more than half a century of tense and, at times, bloody relations between the North and South, my friends from South Korea can still imagine their country as one. Whether dragon or bunny, the animal has no border dividing it in half. Their imagination pertains to the entire Korean peninsula. Well, at least it did in 2009 when I was last in Korea... I'd love to hear the thoughts of my friends after the most recent round of North Korea's shenanigans. And what I would really like to know is how the youth of North Korea imagine their country...


Hye Jee Cho tells me she was taught that Korea is shaped like a tiger. Hye Jee was my colleague at UCLA, where I was a Global Fellow at the International Institute, and she was doing her Ph.D. Originally from Korea, she is now an assistant professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. She'll be presenting a paper on the International Monetary Fund at the Fourth Annual Conference on the Political Economy of International Organizations in Zurich this January. She shared this awesome picture from "Strangemaps":

So, Hye Jee recalls what she was taught growing up in Korea:
Koreans believed, from the old days of the Joseon dynasty (1392–1897), that the peninsula was tiger-shaped. But after the invasion by Japan in the early 20th century, the Japanese tried to "downgrade" Korea by conceiving of it as a weaker animal - a rabbit. (Note that Hye Jee does not personally believe that rabbits are inferior to tigers - it's just the story that she was taught.)

Saturday, December 4, 2010

Rise of the Rooster

We all need to know more about China. In today's blog, however, I don't want to get into the litany of facts that others have been covering. Instead, I want to bring up something rather simple: What does China look like?

I mean on the map. The shape of China - what does it resemble?

Everyone in China learns what animal the map of China resembles. But practically no one outside of China knows.

The question came up for me when I was visiting Beijing for the first time a couple of years ago. I found myself in a cafe with some newfound Chinese friends. They could speak English well enough for us to communicate; I was grateful because I don't speak Chinese. Well, somehow, the conversation fell upon my international travels. But my friends did not know the words in English for the various countries of the world. (Funny how the word for "Belgium," for example, doesn't come up when you're learning basic English.)

So, I started sketching a map of the world on a napkin to point out countries. I did a pretty good job with the Americas and an ok job of drawing Europe, but when it came to Asia... well, I just drew a circle where China was supposed to be.

"That's not what China looks like!" said one of my friends, incredulously.

"Um," I said, "I don't know the intricacies of the borders, but I've got the location right: south of Russia and Mongolia, east of the Central Asian countries, northeast of India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, and north of the Southeast Asian countries, west of the Koreas--"

My friend interrupted me. "But China has a very specific shape. It's easy to draw. And it looks nothing like what you drew.

"China is shaped like a rooster!" she concluded.

She drew the rooster on the map, and, sure enough, that was definitely China. I asked her if this is something she came up with herself. She just laughed. It turns out that everyone in China learns this as a child. It is deep-seated in their minds – this is how they imagine their nation to be shaped.

I think that it's taught to children so early in China that they take it for granted. When I ask people from China if they know what the map of China resembles, they simply shrug "of course." But, perhaps because they take it for granted, it doesn't seem to be something that comes up for outsiders. No one I've chatted with from outside of China knows about it. Most people are really surprised by it. Some people mistakenly think I'm making a joke. And almost everyone is struck by how obvious it is, once you point it out.

I should note that ignorance of the rooster connection is something I've found world-wide, whether I ask people from the United States, Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia... Even people I've met from Taiwan don't know about it. Now, of course, there are some folks who do know. If you Google - China rooster - you'll find plenty of pages. Here's one that came up for me today.

But, ok, so you've learned a bit of trivia. So what? What can knowing the shape of China teach me about international political economy?

One thing that comes to mind is the territorial integrity of China. Chinese people know how their country is shaped, right down to little details.

The capital, Beijing, is at the throat of the rooster.

Harbin is the eye.

Shanghai is on the chest.

The Xizang Autonomous Region (a.k.a. Tibet) is part of the tailfeathers - and it is very much part of the rooster. Try plucking the tailfeathers off of a real rooster and see how fast he gouges you with beak and claws.

And speaking of those claws - some say that the island of Taiwan represents one of the feet - they ask, how long can a rooster stand on one leg? (I ask, can a more moderate conception of the rooster leave Taiwan out?... Or can we someday have 1 rooster with 2 or 3 systems? This may become a central question for the future of international security.)

The territorial integrity of China is important to Chinese governments in part because of the history of empires collapsing following the loss of territory. Let's set aside questions of endogeneity. If this is what Chinese governments believe, then separatist movements will not be tolerated. I learned this from my friend and colleage, Pierre Landry, author of Decentralized Authoritarianism in China: The Communist Party's Control of Local Elites in the Post-Mao Era. On the extent and importance of Chinese nationalism, he recommends China: Fragile Superpower, by Susan Shirk. On the value of Tibet to the PRC, I recommend recent research by my friends/colleagues Andreas Fuchs and Nils-Hendrik Klann (the paper is here). They show that when the Dalai Lama is received by a country's government at the highest level, the country suffers reduced access to Chinese markets - exports to China drop. Check out the story here. (And for my view, click here.)

Finally, the #1 reason to remember the rooster shape is that it is a great way to get young children interested in learning the geography of a country that is going to become even more important over the course of their lives. Also, teach them to ask/state, "who"/"Hu" is the president of China. (They may also have fun with this: "Who is the next President of China? No, Hu is the current President. Xi ("she") is the next President.")

Roosters, wordplays, and China - great fun for the kiddies...