In Praise of Weak Leadership

In one of my last posts I complained about the uncritical approach of many (bad) management schools to leadership. The larger issue, of course, is the worrisome trend in world politics, to, once again, glorify the notion of stronger leadership.

We all know that the Roman republic only installed dictatorial rights on their leaders in times of emergency. But this is obviously what people seeking power want to convince us: that we live in a continuous state of emergency. And this where people fall for the idea.

But democracy, rule of law, accountability and republicanism are precisely built on a notion of weak leadership. The checks and balance in the system are meant to confine leadership in such a space that it cannot do too much harm. This system is so effective that it even works successfully in cases of warfare or terrorism.

At the heart of the problem lies a conceptual confusion. There is a big difference between a constrained and hence weak leader or a leader who is incompetent. In practice you can end up with all types of constellations, but the best constellation is really a weak, but competent leader, whereas the worst is a strong, but incompetent leader. Unfortunately, unhedged praise of strong leadership often gravitates towards a permissive stance to the latter.

In particular, some people seem to place high hopes into the combination of a strong, but competent leader. This is probably the legacy of a patriarchic culture in which people look up to a father figure. Indeed, in some cases this might work out (for some). But placing bets on the benevolent autocrat is a huge gamble, which, on average, fails.

Intelligent management studies know this of course. ‘No leader is perfect. The best ones don’t try to be—they concentrate on honing their strengths and find others who can make up for their limitations.’ So here is a simple rule: if someone aggressively seeks strong leadership, this should make him or her the least likely person apt for the job.

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Cyclical Policies and the Evolution of Long-Term State Capacity


This is a paper which links two related problems of policy making: problems of cycles (e.g. the adoption and abortion of a policy in a short run) and the more continuous problem of chronically weak state capacity. I argue that both are two different sides of the same coin. I use a highly stylized model, when and why political factions cannot agree on a common middle ground and then introduce ideologically opposed policies which will soon be reverted. I use a couple of historical episodes from Latin America, especially in terms of privatization vs. nationalization cycles, to illustrate the problem.

Here is the manuscript of the paper. Here is the link to the publisher.

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Why the Exit from Nuclear Energy in Germany?

4099 /Mutlangen, Protest gegen Pershing II-Atomraketen

(Protests at one of the US army bases in Germany where nuclear weapons were stored. Source)

For a while now I am intrigued with a simple question: of all (relatively) large countries, Germany is the only which seems to take exiting nuclear energy seriously. Why is this the case. This is not my field, but I have a suspicion.

When I ask learned colleagues I get three main explanations. The first is the notorious German Angst. We seek insurance even for choosing the right insurance, so perhaps we are just more worried about nuclear energy than say the French. This raises the question why we built the power plants in the first place. Maybe we needed to learn about the negative consequences of nuclear energy such as Chernobyl or Fukushima, but still, this answer leaves much to ask for.

Another answer comes from the relative strength of energy providers. The political economy story boils down to saying that in the German energy mix, traditionally, coal (both black and brown) played a much stronger role, and nuclear was in a weaker position. But this, if anything, makes matters worse for the nuclear exit, because it means that exiting nuclear energy comes with higher CO2 emissions and clashes with climate change considerations. (yes, yes, renewables, but still.)

The third one rests on the relative strength the German Green party. Indeed political mobilization is an important mechanism how issues are raised to prominence and finally reach the highest level of decision making. But again. This answer leaves much to be desired. For starters, it is not so obvious that German Greens did so much better. The table below shows averages over 15 years (1999-2014) of the Chapel Hill Expert Survey. German Greens are doing fine, but not extraordinarily fine. Moreover, if it is this party link, where does the strength come from, ultimately?


My feeling is that Germany needs to be seen in a unique historical and geographic context that conflated two important dimensions of nuclear energy: peaceful and military use. The unique circumstances were that Germany itself did not have any nuclear weapons, but a lot of nuclear arms were stationed on German soil. This triggered broad resistance, arguably much broader than in countries like France or the UK were the weapons were national ones. Hence, the German movement, much more than in most other countries, was always a mixture between peace and Anti-AKW (anti nuclear power plants), a constellation which is hard to find in other places. Perhaps Japan would be similar, but Japan had nothing as close to a political default line as the Berlin Wall.

If this argument is true, the legacy of US nuclear arms is really long and tipped the balance against the supporters of nuclear power plants. Events such as Fukushima were merely the trigger.

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Worshiping Leadership


Leadership is a dominant idea in business administration taught in courses and prescribed as a normative role model for their alumni to become leaders of the future. While traditional political science is more ambivalent about this topic and less focused on soft-skill and impact classes and the accompanying rhetoric the notion of leadership dissipates from business and economic degrees to public policy programs. This comes in conjunction of larger pressures for social science programs to become more practice oriented, and for researchers to show real-world impact etc.

In my view, this is an extremely ambivalent trend. To be fair, to some degree such practices are necessary and perhaps helpful in positioning students in the job market. Such classes may help students monetize their degrees and will also give them skills traditional programs wouldn’t offer.

But they come with a very specific normative and cognitive template to live up to. In a typical modern society only a tiny fraction of the population are leaders of substantive sorts – despite the inflation of job descriptions such as manager of ‘X’ or director of ‘Y’. Perhaps the share of leaders is somewhat higher among people with tertiary education, but even here the overwhelming majority of graduates will become parts of middle management in big companies, the government or non-profit institutions, they will be self-employed or just ordinary folks like everyone else. Not everybody becomes an entrepreneur, a thought leader or policy pusher. (And, as a matter of fact, many entrepreneurs either never went to university, or were drop-outs.)

And this matters: universities should think about what kind of citizens they want to educate. They should train good, critical and cooperative followers instead of gazillions of would-be leaders who want to change the world single-handedly. Such graduates either may become constantly disappointed by their own (stagnating) careers failing to make big impact, or they risk becoming delusional, egotistical policy entrepreneurs who have unlearned how to cooperate in larger groups. Universities, and public policy schools in particular should establish an ethic based on educating good citizens, good bureaucrats, and, most of all good voters who know how to deal with information and don’t fall for populist leadership rhetoric. Good followers also need to know when and why to (un-)follow.

In this sense following templates from economics and business administration departments is a dangerous liaison for other social sciences. The glorification of competitiveness, individualism may or may not work for the business world, but in other parts of the social and political domain it fails abjectly.

There are also important psychological reasons why we should be careful to ascribe leaders too much influence and importance in important social changes across the world. True, as Marx argued sometimes historical personalities in their circumstances can have a huge (but not always positive) impact. But more often than not we just ascribe certain outcomes to people, because this makes for simple causal stories. Who really pushed the technical frontier in personal computing? Was it really Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, or the myriads of programmers and engineers that spent hours on the actual technological advances? Who really makes a democracy work? The elite or specific government leaders, or the millions of voters who are smart enough to vote wisely and with responsibility?

In this sense, social science programs should spent much more effort to focus on the large majority of contributors to social change than the tiny elites. Why not give, for instance, prizes to ordinary employees within an institution (say an NGO or company etc.) instead of its president, CEO etc.? Why not discard all this excessive leadership rhetoric for a rhetoric based on cooperative behavior, real team-work skills and real, if infinitesimally small contributions to society?

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New article on frames in tax politics

Here is the link to a new article in Socio-Economic Review on the importance of frames in tax politics:

(apologies for bad quality, I am working on it. For a better resolution see web appendix below).

The article shows two main things. First, the psychology of frames affects when politicians decide to implement what type of taxes, however, politicians themselves cannot easily use any type of frame, but they depend on whatever has resonance to the larger audience. Second, this implies that the (right or wrong) tax is not always adapted for the right reasons. For instance, efficiency considerations, held in high esteem among many economists, do not play a decisive role in the political process. There need to be other beliefs in place more related to ‘folk economics’. In combination both facts explain (to some extent) why VAT as a tax revenue was much more successful in Germany than in the UK. The figure above illustrates the different motives of left and right politicians for endorsing VAT. (It is based on predicted probabilities estimated with a model explaining the likelihood of using a given argument. See text for details.)

Here is an of the article: kemmerling_manuscript_ser

Here is an online appendix detailing the rather complex coding procedure of parliamentary debates in Germany and the UK over time: kemmerling_online_appendix

Will upload the data soon. If you need them earlier, send me an email.

Finally, here is the official abstract:

Left without choice? Economic ideas, frames and the party politics of value-added taxation
Achim Kemmerling

Abstract: This article investigates how different ideas about value-added taxation (VAT) frame the partisan politics of the welfare state. It employs a content analysis of German and British politicians’ motives in parliamentary debates on whether and why to increase VAT rates. A qualitative comparison reveals that there are remarkable differences between the two countries. In Germany, there is a clear and consistent shift in the efficiency frame from macroeconomic condemnation to microeconomic appraisal even among left politicians. This is not visible in British debates, where traditional partisan contestation prevails. The difference in efficiency frames is closely related to unemployment becoming a much more salient issue in Germany than in the UK. The quantitative analysis shows that speakers are indeed more likely to mention the efficiency frame when they are concerned about the labour market.

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New Link for Our Panel At IPPA Conference, Singapore 2017

Dear all,

the link provided in my previous post on our panel was gated. Here is a direct link to all panels at IPPA in Singapore 2017:

Browse to Topic 3, Panel 3.


Achim Kemmerling

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Why the US and Europe Grow Unequal for Differing Reasons: A look at inequality among football teams

In my blog and in my classes, I frequently use sports as a prism to understand larger social trends. Now I have stumbled upon the Global Salary Report Survey 2016 by It contains information about the highest paid sports teams worldwide. Among the best paid teams most are from the US football, basketball and hockey leagues, as well as from the European football/ soccer leagues.

For this blog I have just picked two pictures which seem to me remarkable: one from the US, one from Europe. The first one is the US football league. It shows the differences between average salaries of each team. The spread between the highest paid team, Green Bay Packers, and the lowest, Cleveland Browns, is not even 2:1. This is incredibly low.


For the US many economists have shown that inter-firm inequality has increased tremendously in the last decades and that it is a significant reason for higher overall levels of inequality and some extreme forms of management pay. Some have called it the winner-takes-it-all markets. So what happens in NFL? It is well-known that the US political economy regulates little with the exception of professional sports. Politicians struggle with pay caps for CEOs, the tax system becomes less and less progressive (especially in effective tax burdens), and overall the population and the political apparatus seem to have developed a leniency for a great deal of inequality.

Not so in football. Apparently the hyper-commercialized breed of football allows itself much lower levels of inequality. In many professional US leagues there is a wage cap for top players, weaker teams sometimes preferential access to new talent, the worst teams are not relegated etc. All these are protectionist ways to guarantee a level playing field. So why do people cheer for ‘communism’ in football, but not in society? I can only think of a very strong and deeply entrenched ideology to be capable of allowing for this level of cognitive dissonance. So Democrats, next time you need an argument for progressive, redistributive forms of policy, look no farther than the capitalist world of high-end sports.

Traditionally speaking the problem has been the reverse in Europe. We don’t tolerate high levels of inequality for anything else but sports. Major sports leagues are much less regulated than in the US. There are no wage ceilings for football players, there is little in terms of guarantee a level playing field, and if you are unsuccessful on the pitch you are out. The neoliberal dream. I just pick one example from La Liga which shows a veritable duopoly of Barcelona and Real Madrid with all others trailing behind. As sportingintelligence reports the difference between the first and the last is a jaw-dropping 21:1, ten times as much as in the US case. And we know that this has real results such as very little competition for the top prize: the two times won almost 60% of all national championships.


But again, the inequality in football gives reason for concern for the whole of the European society. Unlike the US, in which more progressive forms of policies could be implemented politically if it weren’t for ideology, in politically fragmented Europe it is much harder to implement Europe-wide redistribution. The attempts of the EU at doing so are pitiful, and the workings of economically stronger governments such as Germany make matters worse. Hence, the problem seems to be more of a traditional political economy one: rich countries don’t want to pay poor countries and the institutions don’t make them do so. In this sense football shows which way Europe is heading. Perhaps European Social Democrats should ask their voters in the future if they are really content with having a handful of powerful economic players dominating the European market in the future.

But the real upshot of using the football analogy for excessive economic inequality is following: excessive inequality is not only tremendously unfair and counterproductive, it is also mind-boggling boring.

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