The phone call about India got me thinking that maybe war and peace decisions really aren't that different from everyday political confrontations. Sure, the stakes are higher -- people get killed in wars -- but then any politician seeking office sees the personal political stakes as pretty darn high. Intrigued, I grabbed a yellow pad and listed everyone I thought would try to influence the selection of India's next government. For each of those people (political party leaders, members of India's parliament, and some members of critical state governments), I also estimated how much clout they had, what their preference was between the various plausible candidates for prime minister, and how much they cared about trying to shape that choice. With just one page of my yellow pad filled with numbers, I had all the information the computer needed to predict what would happen, so I plugged it in and awaited the results.
My "expertise" had led me to believe that longtime parliamentary leader Jagjivan Ram would be India's next prime minister. He was a popular and prominent politician who was better liked than his main rivals for the prime minister's job. I was confident that he was truly unbeatable. He had paid his political dues and it seemed like his time had come. Many other India watchers thought the same thing. Imagine my surprise then when my computer program, written by me and fed only with my data, predicted an entirely different result. It forecast that Charan Singh would become prime minister, that he would include someone named Y. B. Chavan in his cabinet, and that they would gain support-albeit briefly-from Indira Gandhi, then the recently ousted prime minister. The model also predicted that the new Indian government would be incapable of governing and so would soon fall.
I found myself forced to choose between my personal opinion -- that Ram would win -- and the logic and data behind my model. In the end, I chose science over punditry. When I relayed my findings to the State Department official, he was taken aback. He noted that no one else was suggesting this result and that it seemed strange at best. When I told him I'd used a computer program based on a model of decision-making that I was designing, he just laughed and urged me not to repeat that to anyone.
Bueno de Mesquita projects a decline in global willingness to regulate greenhouse gases.
A few weeks later, Charan Singh became the prime minister with Y. B. Chavan as his deputy prime minister and support from Indira Gandhi. And a few months after that, Singh's government unraveled, Gandhi withdrew her backing, and a new election was called, just as the computer model had forecast. This got me pretty excited. But had I just gotten lucky, or was I onto something?
I set out to push my model by testing it against wide-ranging questions about politics and economics. I applied it to prospective leadership changes in the Soviet Union, questions of economic reform in Mexico and Brazil, and budgetary decisions in Italy. The model worked so well that it eventually led to a grant from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, a research arm of the U.S. Defense Department. darpa gave me 17 issues to examine, and as it happened, the model -- by then somewhat more sophisticated -- got all 17 right. According to a declassified cia assessment, the predictions for which I've been responsible over the years have a 90 percent accuracy rate.
This is not a reflection of any great wisdom or insight on my part-- I have little enough of both. What I do have is the lesson I learned back in 1979: Politics is predictable. All that is needed is a tool, like my model, that takes basic information, evaluates it by assuming people do what they think is best for them, and produces reliable assessments of what they will do and why they will do it.
However reliable my model has proven, though, it still represents a radical departure from the way most "experts" shape decisions about international affairs. Most diplomats, for example, remain convinced that a country's name is an important variable that helps explain behavior. That's why the State Department continues to be organized around country desks, just as the intelligence community is organized around geographic regions. Leaders of multinational corporations take much the same view. When they have a problem in Kazakhstan, they call their guys in Kazakhstan to find out what to do. That seems eminently reasonable. Yet it is terribly inadequate for solving most problems.