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on September 21, 2012
(I agree with the review by Esn024.)

The authors put forth a theory: A leader spends most of his efforts just to keep his job. If the leader has to please only a few influential people to keep his job (e.g., the generals of the army), the leader is autocratic and many of the actions you associate with dictators becomes the "logical" thing to do if you want to keep your job. If the leader has to please many people, the leader is democratic and tends to do things that are good for the people.

It's a simple theory, but it (may) explain a lot of behavior. And it leads to some interesting consequences (e.g., autocrats want productive (but docile) workers, so they invest in health care and (limited) education.) Most of the examples are political, but the "leader" term applies to CEOs, mob bosses, and others.

This is a "wide-audience" book. It's not supposed to be "bogged down" with definitions and numbers and technical mumbo-jumbo. It's supposed to be a fun-to-read version of the theory. Still, I've read a lot of "wide-audience" books and, while this was fun to read, it wasn't very well crafted.

* It uses awkward terms: "leader" and "winning coalition" are fine, but "interchangables", "influentials" and "essentials" are unclear and too long.
* It does not clearly define these terms.
* It only gives a hazy definition of the theory. (Not much more than I gave above.)
* It does not have separate terms for "good policy" (effective at keeping job) vs. "good policy" (good for the populace).
* It doesn't define "good for the populace" at all.
* It doesn't do a strong job of convincing the reader that the theory is true.
* It has multiple examples where it's doubtful that their theory is the major thing at work.

The authors have the problem that every action by a leader is colored by so many specifics of what was going on and the people involved. It's hard to pull out clear examples that demonstrate a principle clearly. But the authors stick to examples, rather than present graphs, numbers, or any form of generalizations. (E.g., On page 256 is one of the few graphs and it shows why things tend towards autocratic or democratic and there's few in-between. This should have been earlier when they said they would generalize things to autocratic and democratic.)

For all this book's negatives (and there are more), I gave it 5 stars for a reason. This a book worth reading. It's a theory presented with a lot of anecdotal evidence and, by the end, I was convinced that there was at least something to their theory. The anecdotes are clear and the book is a fast read. The insights of the theory are fascinating and I won't interpret foreign affairs the same way again. (Especially the US's interactions with dictators!) If this book sounds at all interesting to you, I'd recommend buying it. But expect pangs of regret that the theory deserved a much better book.
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on January 15, 2012
"The Dictator's Handbook" is a book of political theory that aims to follow in Machiavelli's footsteps. It is provocative and has a number of useful ideas, some of which are even backed up by convincing evidence in the book (the section on foreign aid was particularly nice). But at other times, I found reading it to be frustrating.

There are a number of things to keep in mind: first of all, it is very much a work of popular fiction, written in common-sense language for the average reader to understand. Many of the assertions made would not hold water in a scholarly discussion because the definitions aren't very carefully defined, and small but vital details are glossed over.

Despite attempting to rise above the fray and present an overall picture of the political world that is more accurate than its predecessors, the book is very much a product of insular American political culture, and often propagates American political myths. For example, its poorly-argued assertion that the more democratic a society, the lower its taxes (pg. 13, "taxes tend to be low when coalitions are large"), which would be quite surprising to the Scandinavian countries, not to mention (at the other extreme) Dubai.

Another example is the assertion on pg.6 that the United States "has one of the world's biggest winning coalitions both in absolute numbers and in proportion of the electorate" (the authors define this as meaning that the American government is beholden to no less than about one-fifth of the American population). This point, which aligns nicely with American popular opinion, underpins many of the book's arguments as the actions of America are contrasted with the actions of other, less democratic countries (with smaller winning coalitions).

The authors don't acknowledge that this point has been seriously challenged, years before the publication of their book, in Martin Gilens' Oxford study from 2005, "Inequality and Democratic Responsiveness". Over a period of 21 years, Gilens analyzed the relationship between opinion polls showing what the American public supported, and the actual policy actions of the government, and came to the conclusion that "when Americans with different income levels differ in their policy preferences, actual policy outcomes strongly reflect the preferences of the most affluent but bear virtually no relationship to the preferences of poor or middle-income Americans."

If Gilens is right, it means that the de facto size of the winning coalition in America is much smaller than Smith and de Mesquita have acknowledged it to be in their book.

If we allow for this possibility that perhaps the winning coalitions of democracies are not nearly as large as advertised, many of the examples that are used in the book have their foundations pulled out from under them.

However, I still think that the authors have probably gotten a lot of things right, even if I find the writing style a bit too patronizing and some of the given evidence built on shaky foundations.
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on September 24, 2011
Robert Rizzo -- nicknamed "Ratzo Rizzo" by L.A. Times Columnist Steve Lopez -- is featured prominently in a new book that rivals Machiavelli's famous "The Prince" in its scope, while being much more relevant to the 21st Century. Written by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alastair Smith "The Dictator's Handbook: Why Bad Behavior Is Almost Always Good Politics" (PublicAffairs, 352 pages, $27.99) is a good introduction to an academic discipline I'd never heard of, selectorate theory.

Rizzo, the former city manager of Bell, California, a small community south of Los Angeles, stayed in power because he had the support of the city council, which was effectively elected by 473 voters (out of 2,235 who actually voted). The 473 constituted the essential electorate.

The other two legs of this political tripod are the nominal selectorate -- everybody eligible to vote -- and the real selectorate. In the former Soviet Union, the real selectorate -- the winning coalition-- consisted of a few members of the Communist Party who chose the candidates (some would say this has been revived under the regime of Vladimir Putin, who has the power to reject potential candidates for office).

For eighteen years, the authors have been part of a team revolutionizing the study of politics by turning conventional wisdom on its head. They start from a single assertion: Leaders do whatever keeps them in power. They don't care about the "national interest"--or even their subjects--unless they have to.

Selectorate theory posits that the difference between tyrants and democrats is that there is no difference. Governments don't differ in kind but only in the number of essential supporters, or backs that need scratching. The size of this group determines almost everything about politics: what leaders can get away with, and the quality of life or misery under them. The picture the authors paint is not pretty. But it just may be the truth, which is a good starting point for anyone seeking to improve human governance.

Selectorate theory applies to Wall Street, too, where the authors (Pages 148-149 ff) describe how small coalitions are in play: "The best way to organize a business is exactly the same as the best way to organize a government: rely on a small group of essentials..."

This applies to business in general, as the recent dumping of the CEO of HP, Leo Apotheker, who walked away with a platinum parachute of more than $25 million after 11 months on the job and was replaced by billionaire Meg Whitman, formerly of CEO of eBay and a former Republican candidate for governor of California.

Rizzo was in power for 17 years, starting at $72,000 a year in 1993 and ending up in the summer of 2010 with the munificent salary of $787,000 a year in a poor, mostly Latino city. No parachute for him, he's being investigated for corruption. Rizzo and his assistant spent seven years conspiring to illegally boost their pensions, created fake contracts, secretly increased their benefits and then filed workers' compensation claims in 2010, according to a grand jury indictment unsealed March 31, 2011.
Bueno de Mesquita and Smith's "theory of political survival" provides often surprising, counterintuitive insights on issues ranging from the so-called "Arab Spring" and U.S. foreign policy to corporate governance and tax codes. Among the topics explored:

. Why countries with oil and other natural resources -- the "resource curse" -- are more likely to be autocratic, have less economic growth and more civil wars than countries without readily accessible resources. The authors explain why President Obama should focus on resource poor countries like Syria and Cuba, rather than rich ones like Libya and Venezuela.

. Why foreign aid -- from humanitarian aid and disaster relief to the funding of Pakistan to fight the Taliban and hunt down Bin Ladin -- is so ineffectual, and how -- unless we restructure the way it's given -- both aid and debt forgiveness just encourage countries to let their problems fester. Speaking of Pakistan, on Thursday, Sept. 22, Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, saying that the Haqqani "militants" who attack U.S. targets in Afghanistan are a "veritable arm" of Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence secret police. Pakistan denied Mullen's charges on Sept. 23.

. Why natural disasters seem to disproportionately strike poorer nations, like Haiti.

. Why the easiest way to encourage political reform is to force a leader to rely on tax revenue.

The authors ask us to consider why it's important to not take a coalition's loyalty for granted -- why it's essential that you don't underpay your coalition.

The advice applies, they say, to Mafia boss "Big" Paul Castellano and an Italian of a different era, Julius Caesar. Both didn't give the coalition that brought them to power their due.

Castellano, who inherited the leadership of the Gambino crime family in 1976, neglected the Mafia's traditional businesses of prostitution, extortion and loan sharking that kept his coalition happy. Instead, he shifted the focus to racketeering and the construction business, which wasn't profitable to members of his coalition, that included John Gotti and Sammy "The Bull" Gravano. This lead to the Dec. 16, 1985 gunning down of Castellano at Sparks Steak House in Midtown Manhattan.

Similarly, Julius Caesar, they write, was not assassinated because he was a despot, as the common view holds, but because he was a reformer! Being a reformer who got ride of the policy of tax farming, which gave the job of tax collecting to persons outside government, instead rationalizing tax collection and reducing the tax bite. This was great for the common people, but not for the coalition that had put him in power -- the powerful "influentials and essentials" -- who ended up cutting him down -- literally.

The takeaway from "The Dictator's Handbook" that Castellano and Caesar both neglected: always attend to the interests of whatever group put them in power and kept them in office. Whether its the Oligarchs of Russia, who found out that crossing Vladimir Putin was a major mistake (see my review of "The Oligarchs" link: [...]) or a small coalition dictator like Egypt's Mubarak who outlived his usefulness to the Egyptian army, this rule applies.

"The Dictator's Handbook" is an important book -- a "must read" -- to anyone who wants to understand how politics really works in the political sphere and the world of business, in democracies and dictatorships alike.
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on March 14, 2012
This book tells you everything you need to know about "how the world REALLY works" within the first hundred or so pages. Still, what you read in that first hundred pages is more than worth the price of admission. The premise is just so sinfully simple, and can be directed at almost every aspect of human interaction. It's depressing. It's illuminating. It's provocative. It's invigorating. Probably in that order. One of those rare books that had me talking about it to all my friends.
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on July 13, 2015
I enjoyed reading this book, the writers I thought made some excellent points but also thought much of it was bad. Much of the logic needs work.

The writer theory is that all leaders depend on a coalition to remain in power, and this coalition has to be paid in money. Little, however, is stated of the glue of many political systems such as ideology, religion, nationalism, tribes and/or race. Why, many leaders find these much cheaper then money?

They also make many claims in their book that I think are just wrong. For example, Chiang Kai-shek did not make Taiwan a democracy; it was his son Chiang Ching-kuo and Chiang was not fooled by the US. Chiang was a sick man with not long to live; he was confronted by a very real threat that his regime would end as the US would sell out Taiwan to China so it was either make Taiwan a democracy or have it taken over Red China.

Democratic countries are not always economically growth driven, India for example was the largest democracy in the world, yet until fair recently its economy was terrible. There is little evidence that the Indian cared that much about it.

There are many points also that I did not like, for example, a discussion of the six-day war in 1967, the Israeli had about 17% by manpower and 39% of the economic military budget. The writers estimate the Israeli coalition in power needed to be paid 10% of the military budget, while the Egyptian (and presumably the rest of the Arab armies) 30% of their military budget. So taking this off, we have the Arabs with 55% of military budget and 83% of the military manpower. On numbers, the Arabs should still win. Maybe the writers should have considered Finland with its two wars with Russia and it would show them that such analysis does not work.

Another point is that the writers make some rather weird claims about a comparison of non-democratic and democratic countries at war. Non-democratic only use a small force initially opportunistically to attack their enemies. Maybe they should consider Hitler in the opening battle of France and Russia when he attacked with everything he had? In comparsion say to the minor forces used by democratic US in Vietman at the start.

They further go on that unlike non-democratic countries, democratic countries fight to the end. Well democratic Finland not NAZI Germany effectively surrendered in both its wars with Russia just before and during WW2. Similarly Stalin fought in Moscow as did Hitler in Berlin but democratic France did not fight in Paris, they declared it an open city.

Similarly, it was democratic Germany that made terms at the end of WW1 not NAZI Germany in WW2. It was democratic US, that made terms in the Vietnam war, not communist North Vietnam.

What I think is a problem with this book, is it is too US centered, and they are confusing great power and democracy.

A minor problem is that in an attempt to be politically correct, they tend to use the pronoun "she" rather then "he" a lot. Considering that most dictators are male, I think it became a bit of an irritant.
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on August 25, 2014
This book is quite an eye opener. It really answers some questions for me about why the world is as it is - and perhaps what might be done to alter it. I've understood parts of the puzzle for many years, but this book gives a very detailed framework.
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on August 4, 2014
They make a point pretty early on in the book and then draw it out with examples throughout the book. It's pretty hard to get through the whole book once you've read the first few chapters as any insights are far and few between. The subtitle "why bad behaviour is almost always good politics" is pretty misleading.
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on July 9, 2012
There actually isn't much that is new here since the principal insight offered is that most politicians, whether authoritarian or not, act out of their own self interest most of the time. Now that I've spoiled the book, let me offer a much cheaper alternative to get the same ideas in it: Yes Minister (Start with: Open Government) and Yes Prime Minister (Start with: The Grand Design). If you have Amazon Prime, the episodes are free to watch.
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on January 18, 2015
I read this for a discussion group I belong to--what a terrific book! The identities & catagories of those who take over, their cronies, & the irrelevance
of the "little people" in totalitarian systems, is beautifully illustrated in micro- & macrocosmic examples, both historical & theoretical. I have just
finished an analysis of Vladimir Putin & his dictatorial rape of post-Soviet Russia--if I didn't know better I would think he read "Dictator's Handbook"
& patterned his rise to power on it. Scary (both books)!!
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VINE VOICEon July 13, 2014
This book is a pretty straight-forward study of governance in all its manifestations, and refuses to entertain the idea that political parties and methods are different in anything but name. If you are like me and hate politics and generally avoid reading about it, then you should appreciate this book's ability to give you everything you really need to know about how governments and officials (elected or otherwise) do their jobs. It may seem terribly cynical and Machiavellian, but frankly politics are a charade, so any book that refuses to entertain alternative notions is already off to a good start.

I think the title was selected because it sounds edgy, not because it really describes the contents. I mean, it's hard to call something "bad behavior" if it is entirely appropriate given the context. Theft, assassination, rewarding your constituents, and other means of getting and staying in power are all warranted and even expected in the political game. So if being bad is the only way to survive, what's the difference between a dictator and a non-dictator? Nothing, really. But again, the title is an attention-grabber, and I can't fault the writers or the publisher for their promotional efforts.

After reading this I feel like I can understand why governments make the choices they do. I can also see the applicability of these concepts to businesses where chief officers use very similar methods to achieve short-term success and reward themselves and their cronies.

While not without its faults, I would definitely recommend anyone read this book. At the very least, you will suddenly see why money is wasted and why poor decisions always trump reason. There is an angle to everything, and this book helps you see it.
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