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“The people want the fall of the regime”: Schooling, political protest, and the economy

Political drama continues to unfold in the Middle East. This column uncovers education’s role in the recent uprisings. It finds that one unforeseen effect of increased investment in education has been the creation of a generation of well-educated but frustrated political activists. It concludes that – in more ways than one – the Middle East autocrats have contributed to their own downfall.

The wave of political protest that has shaken the Middle East since late 2010 has been a textbook example of a “prairie fire” revolution (Kuran 1989). The tragic act of protest of a Tunisian street vendor set off a contagious streak of demonstrations that has so far claimed two seemingly unshakeable incumbents in Tunisia and Egypt and still threatens a number of fellow strongmen. In seeking to explain the underlying causes of these protest movements, the popular narrative has pointed to the confluence of two structural forces, namely demographics and economic conditions. On the one hand, these were countries with a sizeable cohort of young, tech-savvy individuals with aspirations for the future. Combined with the simmering discontent over negative economic conditions – long-term unemployment, corruption, and the recent worldwide rise in food prices – this provided a powerful tandem that eventually motivated large numbers to demonstrate publicly for change.

Somewhat neglected in this picture – and eminently consistent with it – is the role of education. It is a robust and well-known fact in the political economy literature that more educated citizens display a greater propensity to engage in virtually all forms of political activity, ranging from more mundane acts, such as voting and discussing politics, to the more public forms of mobilisation at the forefront of the recent Arab episodes, such as attending political events, demonstrating, and presumably organising rallies through Facebook or Twitter (see for example Verba and Nie 1987, Putnam 1995, and Glaeser et al. 2007).

Recent research has furthermore shown that favourable economic circumstances can mute the propensity of individuals to engage in political activities (Charles and Stephens 2009). In a similar vein, in our earlier work (Campante and Chor forthcoming), we have found that factors at the country or industry level that raise the labour-market returns to the skills acquired through education in turn have a systematic impact on an individual’s incentives to engage in political activities. The lower the returns to human capital in the production sector, the more likely that it will be channelled to political participation instead.

Motivated by the recent developments in the Middle East, we have uncovered additional evidence on the political economy implications of the interaction between individual education and economic circumstances that affect the opportunity cost of devoting human capital to political activities (Campante and Chor 2011).

Individual opportunities and political protests

From a micro perspective, we examine data from the World Values Survey on political participation at the individual level. Pooling together close to 200,000 survey observations from more than 80 countries, we first construct a measure comparing an individual’s income to that predicted by observable characteristics, such as age, gender, education, and occupation. More negative residuals from a regression of income on a comprehensive set of individual variables, including education, indicate a greater degree of income “under-performance” relative to what is predicted from the individual’s observable characteristics. In fact, most of the Middle East countries in the World Values Survey exhibit, on average, large negative income residuals for individuals with some secondary education, suggesting an unusually high level of income under-performance compared to the rest of the world.

As it turns out, we find very robust evidence that individuals with more schooling who exhibit large negative income residuals also tend to be especially likely to engage in political activities.

Moreover, this finding does not hold uniformly for all kinds of political activity, but rather is confined to those, such as attending demonstrations, joining strikes or occupying buildings, that are more effort-intensive. (We find no similar statistically significant pattern with less effort-intensive forms of political participation, such as signing petitions and discussing politics.) This is consistent with our opportunity cost logic. That is, we associate a lower opportunity cost of production income foregone, as proxied for by income under-performance, with increased participation in political activities. This seems to suggest that the link between education, economic circumstances, and political participation is not just about “grievance”. After all, it is not clear that pure disaffection – as distinct from opportunity cost – would have an impact only on effort-intensive forms of political participation.

Education, opportunity, and regime change

Our paper then asks whether a similar interaction between schooling and economic under-performance might be coupled with an increased threat to incumbent regimes in the aggregate. We therefore shift to a macro cross-country panel setting, and investigate whether increases in schooling, when coupled with poor macroeconomic conditions that detract from the returns to that schooling, are associated with a greater probability of incumbent turnover. Here we use data on country schooling from the widely used Barro-Lee dataset, as well as information on leadership turnovers compiled by Campante et al. (2009) and extended to cover 1976-2010. We show that the interaction of increases in schooling with deteriorating real GDP per capita raises the likelihood and frequency that incumbent rulers will be displaced.

Consistent with the popular narratives on the Middle East revolts, we do find that incumbent turnover is also more likely in countries with a combination of a large youthful population share and poor income per capita performance, but our findings on the role of schooling continue to hold over and above this “youth revolution” effect. Also, our results are obtained while including both country and time fixed effects, so that the findings are based in part on the within-country variation in economic and political conditions. This is important as it implies that it is not just about rulers being more vulnerable in poorer countries, but also that incumbents can become more vulnerable if an increasingly well-educated population is faced with worsening economic prospects.

How does the above analysis inform our view on the recent events in the Middle East? As it turns out, the Barro-Lee data reveals that many Arab countries have in fact witnessed aggressive increases in schooling in recent years. Egypt and Tunisia, for instance, all registered large gains in total years of schooling among the population aged 15 and above, respectively rising from 2.6 to 7.1 years and from 3.2 to 7.3 years between 1980 and 2010. Out of the top 20 countries in the world as ranked by increases in general schooling during this period, there were eight Arab League countries, not to mention non-Arab Iran. At the same time, the typical Middle Eastern economy is far from skill-intensive. For instance, Clemens et al. (2008) estimate that skilled Egyptians who migrate to the US earn almost nine times as much as those who stay in their home country.

In other words, the increasingly educated populaces within the Arab World have not seen a commensurate improvement in the labour-market returns to their newly acquired human capital. Investing in educating is of course a good thing in its own right, but in an ironic twist it seems that by doing so without providing sufficient economic opportunities, the Middle East autocrats appear to have contributed greatly to the situation that now afflicts them.

It is telling that the Tunisian street vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, whose self-immolation was the spark behind the wave of protests, was rumoured to be a university graduate. Although that last detail about his education status now appears to be apocryphal (Fahim 2011), the fact that it gained such currency is itself illustrative of the broader trend of graduate unemployment in Tunisia.

As for the prospects for the regimes that might emerge from the political turmoil, we also find that the interaction of rising country schooling and declining income per capita tends to be associated with a subsequent increase in country democracy scores (from the Polity IV dataset). While we refrain from any specific predictive exercise, or even from causality claims, this does suggest that the ensuing incumbent turnover is frequently accompanied by some move towards democracy.


Campante, Filipe R and Davin Chor (forthcoming), “Schooling, Political Participation, and the Economy,” Review of Economics and Statistics.
Campante, Filipe R and Davin Chor (2011), ““The People Want the Fall of the Regime”: Schooling, Political Protest, and the Economy”, Harvard Kennedy School Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP11-018.
Campante, Filipe R, Davin Chor, and Quoc-Anh Do (2009), “Instability and the Incentives for Corruption”, Economics and Politics, 21:42-92.
Charles, Kerwin Kofi and Melvin Stephens Jr. (2009), “Local Labour Market Shocks and Voter Turnout: The Role of Political Attentiveness”, mimeo.
Clemens, Michael A, Claudio E Montenegro, and Lant Pritchett (2008), “The Place Premium: Wage Differences for Identical Workers across the US Border”, mimeo.
Fahim, Kareem (2011), “Slap to Man’s Pride Set Off Tumult in Tunisia”, The New York Times, 21 January.
Glaeser, Edward, Giacomo Ponzetto, and Andrei Shleifer, (2007), “Why does Democracy Need Education?”, Journal of Economic Growth,12:77-99.
Kuran, Timur (1989), “Sparks and Prairie Fires: A Theory of Unanticipated Political Revolution”, Public Choice, 61:41-74.
Putnam, Robert D (1995), “Tuning In, Tuning Out: The Strange Disappearance of Social Capital in America”, PS: Political Science & Politics, 28:664-683.
Verba, Sidney and Norman H Nie (1987), Participation in America: Political Democracy and Social Equality, University of Chicago Press.

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