CERGE-EI isn’t just for economists. Dr. Milan Svolík, a political scientist at the University of Illinois, visited CERGE-EI recently to discuss his research on election outcomes. We sat down with him for a chat:
Tell us about what influenced your decision to become a political scientist.
When I applying for PhD programs, I got accepted to both economics and political science programs. At the time, I was so bored of interest rates and unemployment levels, I thought it would be much more interesting to know why people vote, why we fight wars, why we have some countries that are dictatorships and others that are democracies. So I intentionally decided that I wanted to study political science. That decision was primarily based on the idea that most mainstream economic topics are not as exciting as political topics. I didn’t know at the time that you can actually study most of these topics within the field of economics. Now I know it, but I didn’t at the time!
So what are your research interests?
I study what would be called political economics. I study several things.I’m interested in why some countries are dictatorships and others are democracies. I study transitions to and from democracy. I study the politics of new democracies, why some survive, while others are more or less corrupt or more or less functioning. I also study political accountability—why elections sometimes work as a way of keeping politicians in line, and why they sometimes don’t work.
Why does this research interest you?
I think it has to do with the fact that I’m from Eastern Europe. Because all of these things you can see here. Some countries are dictatorships, some are democracies. Some are more authoritarian, some are more democratic. Why is Russia governed by somebody who looks like a new dictator, and Czech Republic is not? I think those are basic questions that we should be able to answer, and they have been around for quite a long time.
What insights do you think are the most influential in your work?
I am too young to have produced influential and important things yet (laughs). I don’t think I have any great answers, but I think some of the questions I ask are very very important. If you look at the 20th century, you see there are great economic questions: why and when do we have recessions, why do we have enormous growth in some places and not in others. But I think there are also incredibly interesting political questions. Why are some regimes ‘persistent democracies’ while others are changing from democracy to dictatorship. The changes you can observe in the 20th century provoke as many political questions as economic questions. And many of these questions are poorly understand but deeply fundamental. Why is China still a dictatorship, but managed to quadruple its GDP/cap in the last 20 years? We need to understand what will happen in North Africa. Is being a democracy important for economic growth, or is it ultimately irrelevant? There are so many questions.
How do you think your field will develop and change in the next 10 years?
It’s hard to say. Some of the big questions will remain the same. Even in the politics I’m interested in, the questions are as important today as they were 100 years ago, and we still don’t have completely satisfactory answers. One thing that is changing is the methodology. Very few economists and fewer political scientists were doing experiments even 20 years ago. And now field experiments are becoming very popular. In ten years we will see what we learn from the wave of experimental economics that is being produced right now. I am very interested to see how people digest evidence coming from these experiments.
What do you think of CERGE-EI?
I think it’s an incredible institution. It has an incredible collection of young economists, and these are some of the most talented people from the region. I hope CERGE-EI will be able to keep them here. It’s very hard to find such a number of high quality people in one place.
What advice do you have for new PhD students?
I would give two types of advice. When I speak to political scientist grad students, I give them the absolute opposite advice as economics students. When I speak to them, I tell them to learn as much technical methodology as they can—to study econometrics, game theory, and formal theory. Because they don’t get enough of it. But for economics students, there is so much technical stuff already forced on you. So for economic students, I would advise them not to forget to always ask, ‘Why? What is the basic economic question here. What is the big question I want to understand?’
The second piece of advice is to be very cautious about ‘fashionable topics’ or ‘fashionable methodology’, because those change very quickly. If something is fashionable in year 1, it may not be fashionable five years later when the student is graduating. I think it’s important to follow gut-feelings about what is important, rather than any particular fashion.
Interviewer: Tamta Bakhtadze
3 December, 2012