Saturday, December 21, 2013


It's the solstice: time to take stock, and (in the Northern hemisphere, where I am right now) give thanks to the guardians of Asgard for another Ragnarok deferred.

It's been a slow year in this blog - only eight  posts, though most of them proved surprisingly popular. The post on Aztec political thought, in particular, was an unexpected hit, with more than 8,000 views so far, and my review of Randall Collins' Interaction Ritual Chains was even republished, with minor changes, as a more or less proper book review here. Many posts were about ritual, since for the first time I feel like I've "got" ritual; a friend told me recently that I was like a man with a hammer now, seeing ritual everywhere. In any case, thanks to everyone who read, commented, and shared these rather irregular footnotes!

In the season's spirit of sharing, here are some links for your reading pleasure, some older than others:
  • Phil Schrodt writes a dispatch on the insidious War on Yule:
Yes, the outward signs surround us: the evergreen wreaths on doors, the houses and streets festooned with lights against the darkness of December, the ubiquitous gaily-decorated trees—aluminum, plastic, occasionally real, all invoking the world-encompassing Yggdrasil—and festive gathering of friends and family [1] before the blazing Yule fire [2] to feast and drink mulled wine. Even that ever-present “Santa”: obviously an odd synthesis from many cultures, but coming out of the northern skies in a sled pulled by reindeer and accompanied by elves. The signs of Yule are everywhere.
But this has become shallow amid the crass materialism, the anodyne references to “the holiday season” and the confusion of social obligations. Where has our appreciation of the true Yule gone?: the blessings of the wisdom of Odin, the protection given us by Thor, the abundance bestowed by Freya? Recognition that with the passing of another year, the guardians of Asgard have again held off the Frost Giants [7], Ragnarok is again deferred, and in a few months the light and warmth of summer will return?

And now for your regularly scheduled solstice extremophiles blogging:

Deep Lake in Antarctica. Crawling with haloarchaea.

Happy Yule/Winter Solstice/Summer Solstice!

Sunday, December 08, 2013

The Age of Democracy

(Part of an occasional series on the history of political regimes. Contains some work in progress.)

This is the age of democracy, ideologically speaking. As I noted in an earlier post, almost every state in the world mentions the word “democracy” or “democratic” in its constitutional documents today. But the public acknowledgment of the idea of democracy is not something that began just a few years ago; in fact, it goes back much further, all the way back to the nineteenth century in a surprising number of cases.

Here is a figure I've been wanting to make for a while that makes this point nicely (based on data graciously made available by the Comparative Constitutions Project). The figure shows all countries that have ever had some kind of identifiable constitutional document (broadly defined) that mentions the word “democracy” or “democratic” (in any context - new constitution, amendment, interim constitution, bill of rights, etc.), arranged from earliest to latest mention. Each symbol represents a “constitutional event” - a new constitution adopted, an amendment passed, a constitution suspended, etc. - and colored symbols indicate that the text associated with the constitutional event in question mentions the word “democracy” or “democratic” (see data and methods note below for more details):

(Red lines indicate, from left to right, the date of the first mention of the word “democracy” or “democratic” in a constitutional text, WWI, WWII, and the end of the Cold War [1989]).

The earliest mentions of the word “democracy” or “democratic” in a constitutional document occurred in Switzerland and France in 1848, as far as I can tell.[1] Participatory Switzerland and revolutionary France look like obvious candidates for being the first countries to embrace the “democratic” self-description; yet the next set of countries to embrace this self-description (until the outbreak of WWI) might seem more surprising: they are all Latin American or Caribbean (Haiti), followed by countries in Eastern Europe (various bits and pieces of the Austro-Hungarian empire), Southern Europe (Portugal, Spain), Russia, and Cuba. Indeed, most “core” countries in the global system did not mention democracy in their constitutions until much later, if at all, despite many of them having long constitutional histories; even French constitutions after the fall of the Second Republic in 1851 did not mention “democracy” until after WWII. In other words, the idea of democracy as a value to be publicly affirmed seems to have caught on first not in the metropolis but in the periphery. Democracy is the post-imperial and post-revolutionary public value par excellence, asserted after national liberation (as in most of the countries that became independent after WWII) or revolutions against hated monarchs (e.g., Egypt 1956, Iran 1979, both of them the first mentions of democracy in these countries but not their first constitutions).

Today only 16 countries have ever failed to mention their “democratic” character in their constitutional documents (Australia, Brunei, Denmark, Japan, Jordan, Malaysia, Monaco, Nauru, Oman, Samoa, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, Tonga, the United Kingdom, the USA, and Vatican City).[2] And no country that has ever mentioned “democracy” in an earlier constitutional document fails to mention it in its current constitutional documents (though some countries in the 19th and early 20th centuries went back and forth - mentioning democracy in one constitution, not mentioning it in the next). Indeed, after WWII the first mention of democracy in constitutions tended to be contemporaneous with the first post-independence constitution of the country; and with time, even countries with old and settled constitutional traditions seem to be more and more likely to mention “democracy” or “democratic” in some form as amendments or bills of rights accumulate (e.g., Belgium in 2013, New Zealand in 1990, Canada in 1982, Finland in 1995). The probability of a new constitution mentioning “democracy” appears to be asymptotically approaching 1. To use the language of biology, the democratic “meme” has nearly achieved “fixation” in the population, despite short-term fluctuations, and despite the fact that there appears to be no particular correlation between a state calling itself democratic and actually being democratic, either today or in the past.[3]

Though the actual measured level of democracy around the world has trended upwards (with some ups and downs) over the last two centuries, I don't think this is the reason why the idea of democracy has achieved near-universal recognition in public documents. Countries do not first become democratic and then call themselves democracies; if anything, most mentions of democracy seem to be rather aspirational, if not entirely cynical. (Though many constitutions that mention democracy were also produced by people who seem to have been genuinely committed to some such ideal, even if the regimes that eventually developed under these constitutions were not particularly democratic). What we see, instead, is a broad process in which earlier normative claims about the basis of authority - monarchical, imperial, etc. - get almost completely replaced, regardless of the country's cultural context, by democratic claims, regardless of the latter's effectiveness as an actual basis for authority or the existence of working mechanisms for participation or vertical accountability. (These democratic claims to authority also sometimes coexist in uneasy tension with other claims to authority based on divine revelation, ideological knowledge, or tradition, invented or otherwise; consider the Chinese constitution's claims about the “people's democratic dictatorship” led by the CCP).

I thus suspect the conquest of ideological space by “democratic” language did not happen just because democratic claims to authority (especially in the absence of actual democracy) have proved more persuasive than other claims to authority. Rather, I think the same processes that resulted in the emergence of modern national communities - e.g. the rituals associated with nationalism, which tended to “sacralize” a particular kind of imagined community - led to the symbolic production of the nation not only as the proper object of government but also as its proper active agent (the people, actively ruling itself), regardless of whether or not “the people” had any ability to rule or even to exercise minimal control over the rulers.[4] There thus seems to have been a kind of co-evolution of symbols of nationality and symbols of democracy, helped along by the practice/ritual of drafting constitutions and approving them through plebiscites or other forms of mass politics, a ritual that already makes democratic assumptions about “social contracts.” The question is whether the symbolic politics of democracy eventually has any sort of impact on actual institutions. But more on this later.

Data and Methods

The underlying texts used to construct this figure have been gathered by the Comparative Constitutions Project. What “counts” as a constitutional document is subject to some debate, especially in countries like the UK or New Zealand that are sometimes said not to have a written constitution. But all of the documents gathered by the CCP are indisputably important, describing basic structures of government and setting out the rights of citizens. Unfortunately, however, most are not publicly available through the CCP repository due to copyright complications. I thank Zachary Elkins, one of the CCP Principal Investigators, for granting me access to them; I also want to note that the work of the CCP in collecting, categorizing, and coding them is invaluable (and hopefully may soon be more widely accessible, with the Constitute website).

Anyway, in order to create the figure above, I downloaded the PDFs of all the documents in their archive and extracted the text of as many as I could using the Python PDFminer library. (Some of the older constitutions have not been OCRd, and a few are password-protected, so there's no text for them; see the “inventory” file for details). I then used this R script to extract each mention of the word “democracy” in each of these texts. Specifically, I identified each line that contained the pattern “democ” or “demok” or “mocra” or “demo-” in every extracted text file (not all of the available texts are in English, but the word “democracy” has similar roots in most European languages at least), as well as the previous and the following line, and put them in a table. I then inspected this table for false positives - instances where the algorithm picks up the word “democracy” in cases where it isn't actually mentioned in the constitutional text, or instances, mostly in poorly-OCRd Cyrillic texts, where the algorithm picks up words that contain the pattern “mocra” but are not “democracy” or “democratic” (or any variant). The exact list of false positives I found is available in the script, as well as all the changes made to the original list of mentions. Finally, I calculated earliest and latest mentions of democracy (as well as a few other variables). The resulting dataset of democracy mentions plus all code (including the code for the figure in this post), is available in this GitHub repository.


[1] It is possible that there is an earlier mention of democracy in the data; I have not manually checked every earlier constitutional document, and some of them are poorly OCRd and not in a major language. But France and Switzerland seem right.

[2] Some mentions of democracy occur only in passing, as in New Zealand, where a 1990 bill of rights (coded by the CCP as an “amendment” to New Zealand's constitution) has a section on “democratic and civil rights” and indicates that restrictions on rights must be demonstrably justified in a manner appropriate to “a free and democratic society.” One could easily come up with a story linking most of the countries that do not mention democracy: it's basically countries whose constitutional documents are still strongly influenced by a UK or USA constitutional legacy in Asia, due to a relatively stable post-colonial or post-war history (e.g., Malaysia, Singapore, Japan) and monarchies whose sovereigns are still relatively unconstrained (e.g., Saudi Arabia, Oman, Tonga).

[3] This is tricky to check with an actual measure of democracy for a variety of reasons (though I'm working on it), but at least today there's no correlation. I do wonder whether a long history of mentions is correlated with democracy today - aspiration becoming reality, as it were - or whether the correlation between mentions of democracy and actual levels of democracy has varied through time (perhaps the language of democracy once meant something but today it does not, for example).

[4] For a fuller academic argument on this point, see my piece on “Models of Political Community” here. I think a similar process once took place in the late Roman Republic, as I argued in a piece on “Cicero's Conception of the Political Community” [ungated here]: Cicero almost came to the idea of a “national” state and “representative” institutions.

Update 9 December - minor edits for clarity; fixed some typos.

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Aztec Political Thought

(A footnote on Inga Clendinnen’s extraordinary “Aztecs: An Interpretation.” If there’s a better book on the Aztecs than this, I want to read it).

The Aztecs are hard to love. Theirs was a highly hierarchical society in which human sacrifice was a hugely important practice, ruling over a tributary empire oppressive enough that Cortés and his small band of Spaniards were easily able to foment rebellion among subject peoples and eventually destroy Tenochtitlan, despite being heavily outnumbered and more or less constantly on the brink of disaster. (Though I should say that Cortés himself strikes me as a great example of the Machiavellian “new prince,” a genuine conqueror of fortuna, always able to take advantage of whatever opportunities presented themselves). The usual presentation of the Aztecs as a warrior culture whose principal claim to fame is that they were able to conquer other peoples and leave behind some impressive monuments leaves me cold, and their art always struck me as difficult to relate to. But Inga Clendinnen’s superb book on the Aztecs paints such a powerfully seductive picture of their polity that I feel like I have a grasp of what is truly interesting about them for the first time. In particular, the Aztec (or better, the Mexica) view of (what we call today) “political” authority struck me as extraordinarily thought-provoking and worth thinking about, in part because it seems so alien, and in part because it shows the enormous importance of ritual in politics.

Consider this passage Clendinnen quotes from the Florentine Codex (one of the main sources for pre-conquest Mexica thought and culture), coming after the speech with which the Mexica greeted a new tlatoani (ruler; literally, the “Great Speaker”) and exhorted him to good behaviour:

Those early and anxious exhortations to benevolent behaviour were necessary, ‘for it was said when we replaced one, when we selected someone … he was already our lord, our executioner and our enemy.’ (p. 80; the quote is from Book 6, chapter 10, in Dibble and Anderson’s translation from the Nahuatl).

It’s an arresting thought: “he was already our lord, our executioner, and our enemy.” (Clendinnen comments on the “desolate cadence” of these words). The ruler is not understood by the Mexica as normally benevolent though potentially dangerous; he is the enemy, and yet as the enemy he is indispensable. There is something profoundly alien in this thought, with its unsettling understanding of “legitimacy,” something I do not find anywhere in the classical Western tradition of political thought. (Indeed, as longtime readers may guess, I think the political thought of the Mexica is further evidence of how impoverished and irrelevant our ideas about legitimacy are in the vast majority of historical cases).

But Aztec cosmology, it turns out, goes much further than this. The ruler embodies or channels Tezcatlipoca, who is often vaguely characterized as a god of “fate and war” (and normally downplayed in favor of Huizilopochtli, e.g., in the current Te Papa exhibit on the Aztecs here in Wellington, who is more understandable as a straightforward god of war, and is viewed as the “patron” of the Tenochtitlan Mexica). But Tezcatlipoca is the more important deity: he is described at the beginning of Book 6 of the Florentine Codex as “the principal god” of the Mexica.

A representation of Tezcatlipoca from the Codex Borgia. Image from Wikimedia Commons.

And he is not a merciful or benevolent god; on the contrary, he represents a kind of arbitrary malice that is visited on all alike, and is variously addressed as the Enemy on Both Sides, the Mocker, He Whose Slaves We Are, and the Lord of the Smoking Mirror (for the smoky reflections in dark obsidian mirrors used by the shamans, “obscure intimations of what was to come endlessly dissolving back into obscurity,” as Clendinnen puts it [p. 148]). From the same great prayer in Book 6 quoted earlier, addressing the ruler:

O my son, O our lord, O ruler, O my grandson: Our lord, the lord of the near, of the nigh, is made to laugh. He is arbitrary, he is capricious, he mocketh. He willeth the manner he desireth. He is placing us in the palm of his hand; he is making us round. We roll; we become as pellets. He is casting us from side to side. We make him laugh; he is making a mockery of us. (Florentine Codex, Book 6, chapter 10; p. 51 of Dibble and Anderson’s translation. The image is of a small ball of seed dough, rolled in the hand of the god).

Human and divine authority seem equally inescapable and malicious. The entire address to the ruler in this section of the Florentine Codex does contain a number of admonitions to behave well, yet it insists that nothing the ruler does will be sufficient to escape Tezcatlipoca’s malice; good behavior is no guarantee of divine favour:

Perhaps thou canst for a time support the governed … [But] [t]hou wilt become as smut, and he [Tezcatlipoca] will send you into the vegetation, into the forest. And he will cast thee, push thee, as is said, into the excrement, into the refuse … In thy time there will be disunity, quarreling in thy city. No more wilt thou be esteemed; no more wilt thou be regarded. … And soon it is all for thee; the lord of the near, of the nigh, will destroy thee, will hide thee, will trample thee underfoot. (pp. 49-50 of Dibble and Anderson’s translation of book 6, chapter 10 of the Florentine Codex).

(Clendinnen notes many other examples of the “shared and steady vision common to the different social groupings in Tenochtitlan” concerning “the casual, inventive, tireless malice of the only sacred force concerned with the fates of men,” p. 148).  And the ruler himself is a microcosmic image of the macrocosmic arbitrariness of Tezcatlipoca; as Clendinnen puts it, “Tezcatlipoca in the Mexica imagining of him was the epitome of the great lord: superb; indifferent to homage, with its implication of legitimate dependence; all bounty in his hand; and altogether too often not in the giving vein” (p. 83). She comments at more length on the analogies between divine and political authority:

It was this principle of subversion, of wanton, casual, antisocial power which was peculiarly implicated in Mexica notions of rule, and was embodied (at least on occasion) in the Mexica ruler. … For most of the time the tlatoani functioned in the mundane world, his authority deriving from his exalted lineage, his conquests, and his position as head of the social hierarchy. But that was merely a human authority, which could be displaced by Tezcatlipoca's overwhelming presence, especially when men who had violated the social order were brought before their lord. The place of royal judgment was called ‘the slippery place’, because beyond it lay total destruction. If his careful judges reflected on the niceties of their judgments, there were no judicious metaphors in the ruler’s punishment: only obliterating sacred power (p. 80).

When reading these passages, I cannot help but think: how could the Mexica be reconciled to their social and natural worlds with such an arbitrary, even malignant conception of divine and political authority? How is a ruler or a deity who is simultaneously seen as an enemy inspire support and commitment? As Clendinnen puts it, the puzzle is that “submission to a power which is caprice embodied is a taxing enterprise, yet it is that which the most devoted Mexica appear to have striven to achieve” (p. 76). Yet she hits on the right answer, I think, when she interprets these statements in the context of the rituals of Mexica society. In particular, she shows the Aztec state as an extraordinary example of what Clifford Geertz, referring to pre-colonial Bali, once called the “theatre state.”

I mentioned earlier that human sacrifice was one of the central practices of Mexica society. But this does not quite capture what was going on. Human sacrifice was the most intense part of the pervasive ritual practices that structured Mexica society, but it was never merely sacrifice.  Sacrifice was the culminating act of a set of amazing spectacles, enormously powerful intensifiers of emotion that made use of the entire register of Aztec symbols and pharmacopeia, and drew on the full resources of the empire. (Clendinnen’s descriptions of the Toxcatl, Izcalli, and Ochpanitzli festivals, running to many pages, cannot be properly summarized here – I am not competent enough – but they give a taste of the overwhelming intensity of the Mexica experience of ritual life, something that we can barely appreciate from looking at the stone relics available in museums). These spectacles were not closed or purely elite affairs, but involved the enthusiastic participation of ordinary people (as far as we can tell, but Clendinnen makes a good case). And they were not “games” (like the Roman gladiatorial contests) for the entertainment of spectators, or irregular and more or less infrequent affairs, like witch burning or hangings in Europe. Human sacrifice happened regularly and was central to Mexica self-understanding: “It is Mexica picturings which dwell on the slow tides of blood down the steps of the pyramids, on skull-faced deities chewing on human limbs, and human hearts pulped into stone mouths ... The killings, whether large or small, were frequent: part of the pulse of living” (p. 88).

The Mexica, like most other peoples that have ever engaged in sacrificial practices, understood these rituals partly in instrumental terms – as ways to “propitiate” the gods so as to achieve some favorable outcome. (And I suspect that, given a geographical setting where the main instrumental aim of religious ritual was to avert natural dangers that came at irregular intervals, such practices were subject to an “intensification ratchet” – if your efforts did not succeed in preventing the earthquake, volcanic eruption, or hurricane despite the previous long period of peace and quiet, the best inference is that it’s probably because you did not try hard enough. But that’s a story for another day; see Watson’s “The Great Divide” for some speculations along these lines). Clendinnen suggests that the Mexica understood what they were doing as, in a sense, catching the attention of the gods and awakening their pride:

The aim was to waken pride … The gods, those notoriously abstracted givers, had first to be attracted by performances which would catch their attention, and then coaxed to munificence by the presentation of gifts, the richer the better. There were histrionic displays of confidence in the generosity of the lordly giver (p. 72).

But the religious instrumentality of the ritual was the least important part of their function, in my view; I suspect, as I’ve said on another occasion, that here ritual is prior to belief. For one thing, Mexica rituals, as powerful intensifiers of emotion, were singularly effective at producing experiences of the sacred; it makes better sense to say that rituals were for the sake of these emotional experiences than to say that they were for the sake of certain material outcomes (like victory in war, or a good harvest, or the avoidance of natural disasters), though they were obviously rationalized in such ways (e.g., as means to ensure that the sun rose every day, or to prevent the destruction of the world, etc.). At the end of the day, human sacrifice is, instrumentally speaking, pure waste: it only makes sense from the point of view of the intensified emotions (“experiences of the sacred”) that it helps produce in ritual context. In turn these emotions bound together the community and made for a particularly intense kind of social life:

If Mexica rituals were valued for their connections and commentaries on life and their capacity to forge a particular kind of unity out of difference, participation was itself addictive. Given that access to ritual excitements was not an occasional grace note but an enduring part of the rhythm of living, ritual-generated experience and ritual-generated knowledge among the Mexica opened zones of thought and feeling at once collective, cumulative and transformative (p. 241).

We might say that the theatre state at Tenochtitlan was primarily organized not to provide security, prosperity, or even glory, but for producing transcendental experiences. In this setting, Mexica priests were, in Clendinnen’s felicitous phrase, “impresarios of the sacred” (p. 242), practitioners of the only art that really mattered in the polity, and capable of setting in motion all of its resources for the sake of producing such collective experiences. Their “work” involved not just sacrifice, but a whole series of techniques, from fasting to powerful hallucinogenic drugs to chanting and dance, designed for maximum emotional effect. (There is a great deal of interesting “psychological engineering” in Mexica ritual, and I occasionally wondered idly about the genesis of such complicated practices). And the overall effect of their work was a “calculated assault on the senses,” that contrived

by very different means, the kind of delirium that we associate not with high reverence but with Carnival. Through the chant when the priests spoke in the voice of the gods and the people replied; the swirling movement of processions and the slow turnings of the dancers in the flare of the pine torches; through the long preparation, the long isolation from the routine in the fasting period, the distancing formality of the painting and robing; through the patterns of dance and drum and song etched into the senses and graven into the muscles of throat and calf and thigh, came a shifting in awareness and of the boundaries of the self. And only then, as the self evaporated and the choreographed excitements multiplied and the sensations came flooding in, did the god draw near (p. 258; I could quote Clendinnen all day).

Such rituals should not, I think, be understood as promoting an “ideology” of submission – in the sense of stories told by ruling classes to preserve their privileges. No “private” privileges could compare to the intensity of these manufactured collective experiences, for one thing; and, as Clendinnen notes, the rituals at Tenochtitlan did not help to compel acceptance of Aztec supremacy among subject peoples either. Though it is true that in their thoroughgoing embrace of submission to and dependence on the god, Mexica rituals did dramatize the microcosmic hierarchy as an instance of the macrocosmic one, that hierarchy is not presented as just, or fair, or otherwise as "justified" in any sense we could recognize; the power of such practices was in their sacralization of social life through extraordinary emotion, not in their "justificatory" content. At the end of the day, their deep “message” could hardly serve to legitimize anything in the sense of persuading the subjects of the ruling elite’s “right to rule.” Again, Clendinnen is a much better writer than I am:

Just how fragile our social worlds are is something normally and mercifully masked from us, perhaps because we have been too little sensitive to the difference between societies which proceed as if the cultural terms of their existence are reasonably well fixed, and those where the 'making' aspect is evident, and where the recognition of dynamic possibilities is counterpoised by the recognition of the fragility of that which is made: the subversive insight built into the texture of that which is built. … In imperial Tenochtitlan the hierarchy was privileged to watch enactments intimating its own necessary final dissolution, or at least acknowledge its carefully crafted state to be a made thing: another precarious human construct. Beneath the immediate and superficial message of the high rituals ('the Mexica, gloriously differentiated, gloriously dominate') the darkest aspect of the human condition was dramatized through this brilliant human making …

What the rituals finally and most powerfully represented was a vision subversive of human distinctions, with all the elegancies and elaborations of the social order collapsed into the carnal indifference of death. The glamour attending the warrior performance on the gladiatorial stone would seem to be in fine accord with the 'warrior ideology' and its classification as state-sustaining, as handpicked Mexica warriors delicately slit the skin of their tethered victims in a display of Mexica might; but an analysis sustained over the whole parabola of the action from the perspective of the captor and his kin suggests a much darker vision. And most ritual warrior deaths were notably less heroic: trussed like deer to be logged, heads lolling, up the pyramid steps; others, similarly trussed, cast writhing into the fire …

Honours so hardly won were denied, ignored, made meaningless as men, jealous of least indicators of rank and ordered in accordance with that rank, watched undifferentiated bipeds being done to bloody death. …

In that butchery - there was no surgical precision here - blood jetted up, heads dangled from priests' hands, violated bodies were carried away for more dismemberings and distributions. And all this where large-scale butchery of animals was unknown; where humans were the creatures men most often saw slaughtered. If (as some would claim) all ceremonial works to sustain the existing social and political order, these performances did so in most devious ways. It is a perilous business to assert over close to half a millenium and vast cultural distance what the Mexica saw, and made of what they saw. It is nonetheless difficult to see these enactments as directly legitimating the Mexica, or indeed any, social order [my emphasis]. …

What the Mexica were shown, again and again, was a hard lesson - hard because it ran counter to human passions, vanities and affections, allowing no status to individuals or peoples or castes, but speaking only to mankind: the human body, cherished as it might be, was no more than one stage in vegetable cycle of transformations, and human society a human arrangement to help sustain that essential cycle. 'Enchantment' and 'violence' are typically presented as alternative strategies for the maintenance of social stability, but that distinction is not easily drawn in Tenochtitlan, where acts of state-approved violence were at once part of the complex rhetoric of cosmically sanctioned human power, and, more profoundly, illustrative of the ferocious constraints on the merely human. (pp. 260-262).

(Incidentally, I think this should give pause to those who think that unmasking the “naturalness” or asserting the “contingency” of a social order has liberating effects. But that’s a different story, and this post is quite long already.)

There is much more in this amazing book I have barely touched. Clendinnen’s chapters on women in Mexica society are a tour de force, and her discussion of the Aztecs’ final defeat by the Spaniards is touched by a deep empathy. She sees Aztec life from their perspective, at least as much as such a thing is possible. The book left me with an uneasy feeling, though. Could one imagine a situation in which Aztec culture had not been so completely destroyed by the Spaniards? How, given the dependence of their way of life on human sacrifice, could the outcome of the encounter between Spaniards and Mexica have been any different? The incommensurability of Mexica and Spanish values was not simply a result of what they believed; it was an incompatibility of ritual practices so thoroughgoing that no understanding seems to have been possible without a complete change in the ritual context. And in the end, the Aztecs remain hard to love.

(Update 11/21 - fixed some typos).

Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Perils of Public Opinion Research in Libya, circa 2000

This story of how Mabroka al-Werfalli (lecturer in politics at the University of Benghazi, previously the University of Garyounis) managed to conduct the research for her book, Political Alienation in Libya, is fascinating as a window into life in Libya under Gaddafi around the year 2000, and the difficulties of ascertaining "public opinion" in such a society:
Researchers always require an official authorization for opinion surveying in Libya. The problem was who should be contacted to get the permission? Although I was doing the research within my own society, it was difficult to identify who was in charge. Because institutions and individuals do not realize they are entitled to any sort of power, I was trapped for nearly four months in a revolving door of authorities, revolutionary committee offices and security agencies, none of which wanted to stick out their necks. It appeared that nobody wanted to shoulder the responsibility for giving the go-ahead for distributing such a daring questionnaire. (p. 1)
She then tells the story of how she gets shifted from the Basic Popular Congress, to the Head of Internal Security, to the Revolutionary Committee Liaison Bureau, to the governor of the city of Benghazi, and back again to the RCLB, all of whom require someone else's approval, or tell her they've gone on vacation, or simply refuse to meet her. Weeks pass, and she enlists friends and family members in the effort to secure a permit. Eventually, through the good offices of her uncle, she meets someone in security who is willing to grant her the permit "on the grounds that [she] was from the same tribe" (p. 2). But having a permit turns out to be a mixed blessing for her research:
It was not possible to wander around knocking on people's doors and requesting them to fill in forms. Libyans are not familiar with surveys of any kind apart from the population census that takes place every few years, so it is highly unusual for them to have individuals on their doorsteps asking them to answer unusual questions. 
The problem was how to calm people and attain their trust. I wanted to show good will by presenting the security permission, but people then suspected me of being sponsored by the security agencies, and consequently were afraid of me. When I approached people without showing my permit, they were also nervous and would not cooperate with me, fearing that I might have been doing something against the regime and wishing to avoid any involvement in this. People expressed a great deal of hesitation and apprehension when they read the questions set in the questionnaire. A number of them just said sorry and slammed their doors in my face. (pp. 2-3)
She does not give up, however. Enlisting her siblings and their close friends, she forms a team to help convince residents of the Al-Orouba district of Benghazi to answer her questions. Basically, they have to visit every house four or five times to gain people's trust, and some of the people who agree to be interviewed even help persuade some of their neighbors to cooperate with her. But even then sometimes people back out, or family members convince them that it was too risky to participate. Some people would only agree to be interviewed in a car, not in a house. And then the security officer who had given her a permit started getting nervous himself:
First he asked my late uncle to stop the process; then I was summoned to the headquarters where he worked and asked to make people write their names on the forms. I explained the irrationality of doing this, as it would jeopardize my entire project. They let me go but called me again about two weeks later and asked me to hand over all the completed forms I had by that time managed to collect. This was the most serious problem I faced while doing the survey. The decision to be made then was either to hand over the forms and lose all the months of work, or to run off with the forms in order to save them. I had to leave the country before all the forms had been collected. 
After I had left the country, security patrols visited my family to ask if I had managed all the forms so they could take them away. My family told them that I had managed to collect only a few forms, and that I had left for Britain. Because the fieldwork had taken so long, I was running out of time, and I had to go back to England to pursue my study [the book started as a PhD project]. So far, this excuse has protected my family, particularly those who were involved in the distribution and collection of the forms, from inevitable intimidation and detention [the book was completed in 2008, from the UK]. (p. 4)
Problems with the security services were not her only difficulties. There were also cultural obstacles. Interviewees did not wish to be interviewed at their homes, for obvious reasons; so they asked to be interviewed at her home. But her home turns out to be complicated to use:
It was quite difficult to do the interviewing in my home because 47 out of 76 interviewees were adult men, and because I had therefore to meet my interviewees either at the male-lounge (marbou'a) or on the roof above the flat, ... The roof was a good place when the weather was fine, but it was not convenient at all when it was raining and windy. The reason I resorted to the roof was that the male-lounge kept being occupied by guests coming for different purposes so I always had to leave immediately, not only because of violating the privacy of the interview but also because, as a female, I am not allowed to stay in the male-lounge if there is a male visitor. (p. 5)
She does get some help from the fact that she was the daughter of an Imam, but not enough. Trust was built up a little at a time; people who had completed the forms told their neighbors that it was safe to do so, and eventually the survey came to stand for something larger:
People regarded my interest in their political life as a promise to change the circumstances surrounding them, while others regarded it as a confidential and safe way to speak out, since their voices would be heard while their identities would never be revealed. (p. 5)
All of this can be neatly summed up in an observation she makes later:
For a relatively long period the state has been a strange entity for the individual in Libya. He or she has always dealt with it using extreme caution, or has avoided dealing with it altogether, believing that engaging with the state or its authorities involves a high risk to personal safety (p. 11)
The observation applies to other places as well. (One more for my file on the irrelevance of legitimacy).

Anyway, I haven't finished the book, but I think this has got to be a contender for "most difficult to carry out public opinion survey EVER." My hat is off to Dr al-Werfalli; she shows real grit, determination, and courage. I hope she is doing well in post-revolution Libya.

Friday, July 12, 2013

Inequality Regimes and Rawlsian Growth Rates: Some thoughts on the evolution of inequality 1960-2010, with special reference to Venezuela

(Mostly an excuse to play with the Standardized Worldwide Income Inequality Database, compiled by Frederick Solt, which I just discovered. This post also belongs, loosely speaking, to my long-running series on the quantitative history of political regimes. R code for everything in this blogpost available in this Git repository; you would need to download the dataset separately).
Inequality is difficult to measure. Socially relevant inequalities are manifold, and measurable inequalities in money income are not always especially important. (In the formerly communist states of Eastern Europe income was very evenly distributed; yet this did not mean that there were no important social inequalities). Even inequality in money income is not easy to measure properly. Most existing data is not very comparable accross countries or years, and it is often not even clear to what income concept the sorts of inequality measures people typically use to make a point in political discourse refer to: does it refer to after-tax, after-transfer income or to "market" income? Does it refer to individual or household income? What sorts of things are counted as "income"? How do we account for access to high-quality public services? At best, measures of income inequality are uncertain estimates of an unknown distribution of potential living standards, more or less valid for societies where "money income" is a useful proxy for the ability of people to enjoy various important goods, and of little value outside the context of a conception of a "just distribution" of these capabilities.
Despite the fact that estimates of what is essentially a statistical abstraction often play surprisingly big roles in current political debates (cf. the debate over The Spirit Level some years ago, or recent concern about a rise in New Zealand's gini index), I have recently become more skeptical about the importance of measured income inequality in politics: whatever importance the actual distribution of incomes has for political life in a society, it has to be mediated through complicated processes that refract local lived experience through the prism of context-dependent fairness norms that are only vaguely related, if at all, to the numbers used to measure its skewness.
Yet I'm curious: what sorts of income inequality have in fact increased, and where? How might these changes have mattered? Enter a new and shiny dataset: the Standardized Worldwide Income Inequality Database, which promises to ameliorate some of these measurement problems. The database uses the Luxembourg Income Study - very high quality income inequality data - to calibrate the much larger but less comparable United Nations University World Income Inequality Database. The result: lovely long time series estimates of both the market and the after tax, after transfer (net) gini index of inequality, including standard errors, for 153 countries. My first though on learning about this was: graphs! (Hopefully some non-obvious facts are also involved below).
Let's start by looking at a country that has often been cited as a great success in reducing inequality: Venezuela during the Chavez years. (Also, I was there recently visiting family after a long absence, and I have a personal interest in understanding the changes that have occurred during that time). One question I've been curious about concerns the evolution of inequality in Venezuela relative to other Latin American countries, especially since the coming to power of Chavez in 1999. How do changes in inequality in Venezuela compare to changes elsewhere?
In the following plot, we see changes in both the market ("equivalized (square root scale) household gross (pre-tax, pre-transfer) income", if you must know) and the net gini index of inequality (after tax, after transfer) in 19 Latin American countries from 1999 until 2010, ordered by the estimated rate of inequality reduction (countries that reduced inequality faster appear earlier; read the graph from right to left, top to bottom):
plot of chunk LatinAmericanTrendsInequality
Inequality in Venezuela has indeed decreased relatively quickly since 1999 - the second fastest decrease after Ecuador, which has also had left-leaning governments (though a far more unstable political context, with five different presidents since 1998). Three things are worth noting about the context of these trends, however.
First and most important is that this reduction in inequality is not driven by direct redistribution: there is barely any difference between the "market" gini index (our measure of inequality before taxes and transfers) and the "net" gini index (our measure of inequality after taxes and transfers). To the extent that the reduction in inequality is the result of government action rather than something else, it must have come about through measures like investment in human capital and labor market policies (see Morgan and Kelly 2012, ungated here, for the proper peer-reviewed argument). This is true of all Latin American countries save for Puerto Rico (which is part of the USA in a sense) and (to a lesser extent) Brazil; indeed, redistribution in some countries (Peru) appears to have perversely increased inequality.
Second, most Latin American countries have experienced reductions in inequality during this period, though most remain highly unequal. But Venezuela was already among the most equal countries in Latin America; in 1999, only Uruguay and Costa Rica had lower measured inequality (and the difference in net gini was within the margin of measurement error, so it should probably be disregarded). This surprised me; I had expected higher levels of inequality in Venezuela when compared to other countries, given the level of class conflict on display during the Chavez era. More surprisingly perhaps, if we take a broader look we discover that inequality in Venezuela appears to have been remarkably stable over the past fifty years, fluctuating around a flat trend:
plot of chunk LongerRunVenezuelaInequality
(Lines around dots represent 95% confidence intervals).
In fact, the low level of inequality in Venezuela as of 2010 only returned the country to the level of inequality it last experienced around ... 1992, the year of the February coup which made Chavez famous, and three years after the "neoliberal" paquete of 1989 (which was supposed to have triggered the Caracazo). Inequality did increase after 1992, and poverty had increased before then - the Venezuelan economy had been in decline for a while, as we can see below. Which all goes to show, I suppose, that political unrest and lived experiences of injustice are only very loosely connected, if at all, with measures of income inequality; whereas austerity and large income losses appear more immediately important to political outcomes (as Jay Ulfelder argues here):
plot of chunk LongerRunGDPPerCapitaVenezuela
(GDP per capita data from the Penn World Table v. 8.0).
Finally, it's probably worth noting that Venezuela's economic fortunes are deeply tied to oil prices, and that the rapid reduction in inequality in the last decade or so should also be placed in the context of the very large rise in the value of oil and gas during this period. Here is an estimate of the per capita value of oil and gas exports for Venezuela, from Michael Ross' oil and gas dataset:
plot of chunk OilAndGasData
In fact, Venezuela and Ecuador, the countries that have experienced the fastest inequality decreases, have been precisely the two countries that have benefitted the most from oil and gas price increases - money that flows directly to the state (especially since the Chavez government systematically asserted control over the state oil company) and can be used to provide employment and subsidize education, healthcare, housing, staples, and other goods, however inefficiently (e.g., the varios "Misiones" and other social programs created by the Chavez government). At least some of these programs must have played some role in the reduction of inequality, but given the amount of oil and gas money flowing directly to the Venezuelan state (representing most Venezuela's exports, which have become substantially less diversified over the last 15 years) and the typical patterns of clientelism and electoral politics in Venezuela it would have taken a bloody-minded kleptocrat not to reduce inequality by some amount. At any rate, inequality and poverty also diminished quite a bit during the 1970s oil boom, likely through similar channels - massive amounts of money flowing through the state, which increased its ability to employ people and subsidize public services. (I don't mean to sound grudging; though I have doubts about the effectivenes of some of these programs, some of the new housing built during the Chavez years looks decent, for example).
Let's take a broader look, however. How does the Venezuelan experience of inequality reduction compare to some countries outside of Latin America? Just because they've been in the news, let's look at the Venezuelan experience in coparison to Turkey and Egypt; and add the USA and New Zealand to see how two "developed" countries look as well.
plot of chunk ComparisonOutsideLatam1
That's right: Egypt and Turkey apparently reduced inequality faster than Venezuela in this period (though the error estimates of the gini index for both are also larger), and were less unequal than Venezuela by the end of the period! Also, despite the fact that the degree of "market" inequality was higher in the USA and NZ than in Venezuela, and did not decrease or even increased a little during this period (as measured by the net gini index), both countries remain less unequal than Venezuela (as measured by the net gini index), due to the effectiveness of their redistributive measures.
Now, this is perhaps surprising, but a bit of an aberration, and really, we are dealing with imperfectly estimated quantities (rates of decline) based on measurements with error. So there's really no point in arguing about whether inequality in Venezuela has in fact decreased faster than in Egypt or not; our methods of measuring inequality don't allow us to give a very precise answer to this question (error bars are large, etc.). In any case, it is clear that income inequality has declined pretty fast in Venezuela over the last 15 years, even allowing for some meaurement and estimation error, as we can see by calculating the trend rate of change in the net gini coefficient (the slope of a regression of log(gini_net) on year, to be technical, which yields the estimated trend annual percent rate change in the gini index) for all countries in the dataset:
plot of chunk ComparisonOutsideLatam2
(I took out countries that had too few datapoints, since the trends didn't look to me like they could be informative. The error estimates in the graph are nevertheless probably too small, since one would need to use the proper rules for error propagation to calculate them, which I have not done. Interestingly, the estimate of the rate of change in the net gini index for New Zealand and the USA since 1998 suggests basically that they have experienced no significant change in measured inequality from 1999 until 2010, contrary to popular belief; their important increases in inequality occurred earlier. More on this in a minute).
What strikes me about this graph is that countries that have achieved very fast reductions in inequality over this period appear to be quite disparate; though left governments are in evidence among these, many countries apparently achieved fast reductions in inequality with supposedly "neoliberal" policies (e.g., Egypt and Turkey) that are now in turmoil. Maybe this is evidence that the gini index does not capture socially relevant changes in inequality; but then it would also fail to capture changes in inequality in non-neoliberal Venezuela and Ecuador. (Of course, other confounding factors may be at work too).
It is also curious that many of the fastest reductions in inequality have occurred in states that do not engage in a lot of explicit redistribution. In fact, a simple correlation between the average redistributive capacity of a state (measured by the percentage difference between the "market" gini and the net gini coefficient) and the rate of decrease in measured "final" inequality over the period is slightly negative (so fastest reductions in inequality have occurred in states that are unable to affect market gini very much at all, or that even increase it through perverse redistribution):
plot of chunk RedistributionReductionRateCorrelation
It's probably not worth making too much of this correlation (measurement errors, the relatively short time period under consideration, and confounding factors are not taken into consideration), though it does suggest that many changes in inequality seem beyond the control of most governments. But even when we expand the period of observation all the way to 1960, the correlation does not entirely disappear, though it weakens greatly:
plot of chunk RedistributionReductionRateCorrelation2
Ultimately, however, the more directly and explicitly redistributive the state has been, the more equal it also appears to be over the long run:
plot of chunk RedistributionInequalityCorrelation
Or, to put it crudely, since 1960 at least market inequality has only been reliably reduced in states that take from the rich and give to the poor. And yet actually taking from the rich and giving to the poor seems to put nontrivial demands on state capacity and political life (witness the existence of robber states that take from the poor and give to the rich). The degree of change in the market distribution of income even appears to be a fair measure of that capacity; from the graph above, it's likely that a state that can consistently reduce gini index of market inequality by at least 30% is a pretty "strong" state (in the "infrastructural" sense of strong), whereas a state that cannot make a dent on the market distribution of income is more likely to be "weak" (with some communist exceptions like the USSR that did not engage in a great deal of explicit redistribution, since, to put it crudely the state owned everything and everyone more or less got paid the same).
And abilities to redistribute income appear to be remarkably "sticky." Few countries appear to become more able to affect the gini distribution over time:
plot of chunk StickinessOfRedistributiveCapacity
(I've deleted cases with very few data points to make the graph look prettier. See the code for the details). What is striking about this graph is how stable the redistributive capacity of most states has remained over a period of more than six decades: many countries show basically zero change in their ability to change the income distribution. To be sure, some countries have increased their redistributive capacity -- France is a good example -- and others experience wild swings in redistributive capacity, probably related to big political conflicts -- note Bangladesh and Chile, the latter with a big bump around the time of Allende. But at best we can detect a long-term decline in redistributive capacity for the majority of cases (even if the decline is often slight); and often, after a decline, we see long periods of stability rather than change: countries settle into an "inequality regime," with some occasional big bumps which indicate new equilibria.
Note that in many cases the redistributive capacity of the state does not change even while inequality increases: thus, for example, while the net gini has increased over the past six decades in the USA and New Zealand, their capacity to affect the gini coefficient has remained approximately the same (New Zealand has been able to reduce the market gini by about 27%, though there's a slight downwards trend in this number; the USA by about 22%). The structure of their economies changed (by political action, in part), producing more inequality, but their redistributive capacity as states remained basically the same. To decrease inequality by redistribution in cases where the market gini increases substantially seems to require either a big political shock, or a long-run increase in state capacity.
There is another historical pattern that struck me as interesting: both levels of inequality and redistributive capacities seem to be highly correlated accross regions. Neighboring countries appear to have both similar levels of inequality and similar redistributive capacities. Linked economic and political histories seem to produce both the equilibrium level of inequality and the long-run redistributive capcity of the state.
Here, for example, we see the average redistributive capacity of states per region:
plot of chunk RedistCapacityPerRegion
(Cases to the right of the solid line are states that on average made their income distribution more equal; the dashed line indicates the median redistributive capacity).
And here is a graph of net gini per region (all observations since 1960):
plot of chunk GiniRegion
No great surprises here, perhaps: Sub-Saharan Africa and Latin America have been the world's most income-unequal regions over the last six decades, whereas Europe has been consistently equal - the home of both Northern social democracy and Eastern European communism, both of which have been able to keep the distribution of incomes relatively equal through explicit redistribution, though in somewhat different ways.
But perhaps this is of little importance. On one (vaguely Rawlsian) view, what matters is not the income distribution per se, but the ways in which it affects the prospects of the worst off in society. How much does it matter whether or not inequality declines in any given society, especially for the poorest? This will depend on the growth rate of the economy; high growth with declining inequality will be better for the poor than low growth with increasing inequality, though the outcome of the comparison is ambiguous for high growth with increasing inequality or low growth with decreasing inequality.
Now, it occurs to me that with the average income for these countries as well as their level of inequality, we can make an informed guess (technically, a wild guess) about the average income of various deciles for the years in which data is available. To do this properly would be too painful for a blog post, but I assume that empirical income distributions more or less fit a lognormal distribution (even though they fit more exotic distributions better, like the Singh-Maddala distribution or the generalized Beta distribution). With a little help from R, I can then simulate the average income of each decile of every country in the SWIID dataset. (Take a look at the code for the gory details. Also: this is a VERY rough and ready simulation, extremely inefficient to run and cooked up in a day. Do not take these numbers too seriously). We can then provide some vaguely informed answers to a Rawlsian question: which countries have most increased the prospects of the poorest over the last six decades?
The question admits of two more precise formulations, which we'll take on in turn: what countries have had the highest growth rate of income for the lowest deciles of the population? And second, in which countries do the poor have the highest incomes? (The first corresponds to a sort of dynamic version of the difference principle, which I find more interesting). Let's start with looking at the Rawlsian growth rate (the rate of income growth for the lowest decile, which we'll assume represents the group whose position must be maximized in Rawls' theory); the higher the long-run Rawlsian growth rate, the more the country fulfills the dynamic version of the difference principle. Though in theory the long-run growth rate of the economy as a whole and the long-run growth rate of the income of the lowest decile should perhaps converge, in practice they diverge, even over long time periods - some groups do well over some time frame, others do badly. Now, what we would actually want to know from a strict Rawlsian perspecive is the highest long-run growth rate of income for a representative person in the lowest decile of a given country relative to the potential growth rate of the whole economy (in other words, what degree of inequality would produce the highest income growth for that representative person, given the particular structure of that economy), but this is a counterfactual quantity we cannot estimate, so we'll make do with simulating the incomes of the lowest decile for the actual combinations of growth and inequality in existing economies. (I repeat my warning: this is only a simulation!)
First, we estimate the long-run Rawlsian growth rate (for countries with data going back far enough - so we drop countries that don't have long enough time trends, say at least 30 years):
plot of chunk RawlsianLongRunRates
The "Asian Tigers" unsurprisingly top the list: over the last six decades, Taiwan, Singapore, and South Korea had the highest (simulated) Rawlsian growth rate (in countries with at least 30 years of both GDP and gini data). South Korea and Taiwan are below average in inequality, which makes sense, but Singapore is not. Over the long run, in other words, a high enough growth rate of income seems to compensate for higher than average inequality. But one surprise among the top countries is Egypt - where the poorest decile, if we believe this simulation (and you shouldn't), had a pretty good run over many decades, despite Egypt not being considered a big performer in terms of its average per capita growth. At the bottom, by contrast, we find that Venezuela has essentially experienced zero Rawlsian growth over six decades (in fact, its long-run trend in regular per-capita annual growth is also zero). Though below average in inequality, its income has suffered so many ups and downs (mostly following oil price changes) that the trend is flat; no wonder Venezuelans eventually got tired of all their politicians before Chavez.
Now, there obviously is a correlation between Rawlsian growth and regular growth, as well as between Rawlsian growth and average inequality, but it is not perfect, simply because the Rawlsian growth rate is a function of both the average growth rate and the gini index by construction, and these two things are not perfectly correlated; a high enough growth rate in the whole economy can overcome a large gini coefficient to produce high Rawlsian growth rates and vice-versa. But it's worth noting that extremely high levels of inequality do appear to be associated with plain low growth over the long run, bad for both the poor and everyone else except perhaps tiny kleptocratic elites:
plot of chunk RawlsiantoAverage
We can now repeat the exercise for the last 15 years and see how Venezuela stacks up since then:
plot of chunk RawlsianLongRunRatesSince1999
As we can see, the Chavez years (up to 2010; the data does not tell us what happened for the last three years) were quite good for the poor, according to this simulation: the combination of declining inequality and relatively high growth rates (due in great part to rising oil prices) made Venezuela a top ten Rawlsian performer - better even than China, which also had torrid growth rates but increasing inequality during this period. To be sure, this good "Rawlsian" growth rate is only relevant if we ignore the equal liberties principle, which from a strict Rawlsian perspective  is meant to have priority over the difference principle; and increasing disregard of classic liberal rights during this period counts against Venezuela. (I vaguely wondered whether perhaps a "Rawls index" could be constructed, using data like the UDS to measure compliance with the first principle, fair equality of opportunity using the gini index, and the difference principle using the rate of growth of the income of the lowest decile; but since the two principles are supposed to be lexicographically ordered, a combined Rawlsian index would be pointless, useful only if we relax that assumption. Nevertheless, if we relax that assumption, then we would have to face the question of how much the improvement in the condition of the least well off ought to count against the decline in the "equal liberties" of the first principle; and I don't know of any good principled answer).
At the same time, it is interesting to note the countries at the very top are not precisely all left-wing governments; Azerbaijan, Mongolia, and Ukraine appear there. This may be because the simulations are risibly wrong (an important possibility), or the data are wrong; or simply that policies of the kind the Chavez government tried out are not the only possible ones to bring about growth in the income of the poor (and now, with high inflation, sporadic shortages, a large black market premium for dollars, and other problems, they don't look especially sustainable either). Nevertheless, the high Rawlsian growth rate makes it easy to understand why many of the Venezuelan poor felt that Chavez improved their position, regardless of how much responsibility we ought to attribute to his government for that outcome, or how sustainable its policies may be with lower oil prices.
Regardless, a good growth rate for the poorest decile matters: if inequality had remained at its maximum level during the Chavez years instead of declining but the growth rate had stayed the same, I estimate that the a representative of the poorest decile would have earned about $2000 less over the entire period than they actually did. We can call this quantity the "Rawls gap": the amount of income the poorest decile would have gained (or lost) in a given period had inequality remained the same as at the beginning of the period. Of course, since the growth rate would have been different had inequality remained the same, this is merely a fiction; we can't really estimate this counterfactual.
Nevertheless, just for fun, here is the Rawls gap for Latin America, per year:
plot of chunk RawlsGap
This allows us to say that in Venezuela, the reduction of inequality that occurred during the Chavez period (assuming, per impossibile, that the growth rate would have stayed exactly the same had inequality remained at the 1999 level) gained a representative person in the poorest decile a total of about $1500-$2500 over 10 years, or about $200 per year, whereas the increase in inequality over the same period in Costa Rica cost a representative person in the poorest decile about $800-$1200 in income, or about $100 per year. This is nothing to sneeze at for the poorest decile (whose average yearly income is only about $3000 per year).
(It's kind of fun, though conceptually pointless and computationally expensive in my system given my crappy code, to calculate various Rawlsian gaps for arbitrary years and countries; for example, the "Rawls gap" for NZ is something like $2000 per year lost in income for the poorest decile if we assume the same growth trajectory but the level of inequality of the early 80s. Which of course we shouldn't - had inequality remained the same, the growth trajectory would have been different. As Adam Przeworski has said, everything is endogenous).
(We could also imagine even more exotic quantities, though I have no time to test them out here. Consider the Rawlsian compensatory growth rate, for example. This would be the growth rate that would compensate the poorest decile for an increase in inequality: if we want to say that some reform x would lead to higher income growth but higher inequality, then the compensatory Rawlsian growth rate is the growth rate where the income growth rate of the poorest decile at the higher level of inequality is identical to their income growth rate at a lower level of inequality but a lower overall growth rate for the economy; you would need a reform to produce at least the compensatory Rawlsian growth rate for it to be justified in terms of the difference principle. Which you may of course think is bogus).
Now, absolute incomes matter too; the difference principle in Rawls is not usually understood in terms of growth rates (though I think that should be the more natural interpretation). But the second version of the Rawlsian question above (where do the poor have the highest incomes?) has a much more obvious and boring answer: the Scandinavian countries, due to both generally high incomes and low levels of inequality due to high redistribution; and most of the countries at the top also score well in terms of the first principle (measured inexactly here by the UDS, which perhaps ought to be discounted a bit given recent developments in some countries). I include it here for completeness:
plot of chunk RawlsianCountriesSince1999-2
The roots of that ranking of countries are much older and deeper than this dataset allows us to see.
In theory, both the first ("equal liberties") and the second principle of Rawls' theory ("fair equality of opportunity" plus the "difference principle") ought to go together. In practice, however, Rawls himself thought that they did not always do so, though his reasons for thinking this were not always clear. Though I don't really have the tools to tackle the question of the relationship between liberal rights and the rest of the components of Rawls' theory properly (certainly not here), it looks as if we see a kind of inverted-U relationship in the data:
plot of chunk GrowthofPoorandDem
In other words, over the last half-century, the income of the poor has risen fastest under regimes that have not been on average highly democratic, but also has grown least in these regimes; non-democracy looks like a (potentially quite bad) gamble, though both democracy, long-run inequality, and the long-run growth rate of the income of the poor are probably determined by (or are a reflection of) some deeper social fact, like state capacity, which is not really susceptible to policy intervention. Whatever state capacity is (I have argued it is a kind of development of political technologies) it emerges out of political struggles that take a very long time to work themselves out with many tragic consequences along the way; and in any case the rate of improvement of state capacity is at times immeasurably low.

[Update 12/7/2013 - fixed a reference to a non-existing graph]