Bootleggers & Baptists: XLIV- Russian Vodka Boycotts

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Protests often tend to be more figurative forms of political expression than effectual forms of collective action. The process of organizing a demonstration incurs a myriad of monetary and nonmonetary costs including, but not limited to: costs of communication, coordination, transportation, creation of signs, and other varieties of picketing paraphernalia. The one exception to this rule is boycotting goods. Sure, the costs of communication and finding substitute goods can be high; but on the margin are substantially lower than traveling across the country to participate in a protest. The other economic difference between boycotts and live demonstrations is the ability to measure the direct impact. The influence of live demonstrations on public opinion can easily be conflated with other factors to quantify. In contrast, with boycotts, the effect is easily measured by a company or section of business experiencing a slump in sales. Money frequently outweighs principles, making it a persuasive mechanism for facilitating change. In other words, boycotts would be a more rational and economically superior form of protest.

However, this is not to say that every boycott is rational. Boycotts are often subject to the same fallacies that impact other spheres of political behavior. It is easy to perceive an inefficient or mistargeted boycott as a symbolic message analogous to a demonstration, but it could be a misallocation of time and communication costs, as boycotts can exert their influence more quickly and definitively. The romanticism of protest may capture the more visceral and polemical aspects of political participation but yield no results. Certainly, a cost analysis, overlooked by the droves of wide-eyed and quixotic-minded college-aged activists. All too often, boycotts latch on to the most salient products rather than what would drive an economic agent to behave differently. If a salient luxury product is only a drop-in-the-buck compared to a country’s annual exports. Often boycotts are directed towards commodities that would bear no economic impact, being more of a symbolic gesture. Case and point the absurdity of the Russian Vodka boycott [1].

Vodka must be the most ubiquitous Russian export, but Vodka doesn’t even make the top-five commodities that Russia exports to the United States. Per the Office of the United States Trade Representative, the top Russian imports for the United States included:

“….The top import categories (2-digit HS) in 2019 were: mineral fuels ($13 billion), precious metal and stone (platinum) ($2.2billion), iron and steel ($1.4 billion), fertilizers ($963 million), and inorganic chemicals ($763 million)...”

Socially conscious activists should be calling for a boycott of Russian mineral fuels since it is the largest export to the US. Arguably, validating South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham’s assertion that to crush Putin, you need to hit their “..oil and gas sector..”. Where does Russian Vodka rank in overall imports into the United States? It doesn’t even account for a sizeable amount of the Vodka consumed in the United States. As of 2017, Russian Vodka only accounted for 1.4% of all Vodka imported into the US. None of the top five vodkas sold in the United States were of Russian origin: Tito’s (produced in the US), Smirnoff (UK, US, Ireland, Italy, Brazil, and Latvia), New Amsterdam (US), Svedka (Sweden), and Absolute (Sweden).

Even the perennial favorites among the “vodka snobs” are produced outside of Russia: Grey Goose (France, Cognac region), Ketel One (Netherlands), and Belvedere (Poland). Some brands ( Stolichnaya) are being mistaken for being Russian by ill-informed consumers. Overall, a symbolic gesture, the Vodka boycott is a hollow gesture as they are plenty of viable substitutes for Russian vodka. Arguably, Americans weren’t drinking much in the way of Russian Vodka, to begin with. It is safe to say that the financial sanctions placed on Russia be more effective than the feeble effort among the lay public banning Vodka. Mirroring the fallacy of voting; your vote has little probability of influencing election results. Likewise, opting to drink a Grey Goose martini versus a cocktail using a Russian brand will have no sizeable impact on Russia’s economy.

Regardless of the impact of the boycotts, it is still a form of collective political behavior that picks winners and losers. It is ultimately susceptible to the formation of Bootlegger and Baptist (1983) coalitions. After examining the Vodka boycott, the prima facie impression of most observers would be the protesters would be the Baptists, and non-Russian Vodka producers would be the Bootleggers. There is some truth to this interpretation of the boycott, but it does not capture the whole story.

Invariably, there will be Dual-Role Actors lurking within the Baptist faction of the coalition. Political activism has its incentives structure for rational actors hopping on the self-righteous bandwagon. Participants in a protest can forge careers, earn social currency, network, gain more business, earn the right to virtue signal, and even gain a sense of moral superiority. Despite their sincere belief in the moral justification for not economically supporting Russia, they still obtain personal benefits.

Foot Notes:

1. I was planning on writing this blog post on Saturday, February 22; however, due to a busy work schedule and other obligations, I am writing this essay a week later. Damn you, Forbes, you beat me to the punch!

Focal Points- Part I: What is A Schelling Point

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One of Thomas Schelling’s best-known contributions to Game Theory was the concept of a focal point. Otherwise known as “Schelling point”. What is a focal point? We oftentimes hear the term being thrown around colloquially in various settings. Ranging from office board meetings to pundits on network news stations. The common definition of the term slightly differs from its connotation in Game Theory. The common definition of a focal point connotes a point of convergence. A central point from which all other connections radiate. This definition isn’t antithetical to how the term is used in Game Theory. Since most of these assumptions are implicit in the game-theoretical definition. A focal point from Dr. Schelling’s perspective operated as a conceptual bridge in the absence of clear communication. A focal point bridges the gap between information asymmetries when correspondence is lacking.

A focal point is particularly important in what is known as a coordination game. Simply put, coordination games are situations where the players benefit from assuming the same course of action. It can be assumed that in such scenarios nash-equilibrium is faithfully upheld by all participants. Because all players are conforming to the behavior of their opponents. Schelling’s conception of focal point may be applicable even in scenarios outside of the context of coordination games. A focal point could also be seen as a cultural-contingent point of reference, that can serve as a beacon of hope in contextual circumstances fraught with ambiguity. There are certain locations, times, dates, and people that serve as focal points to individuals of various cultural groups. The recognition of these focal points functions on a continuum ranging from locally acknowledge focal points to internationally renowned points of reference. A local bar may be a focal point to residents but in contrast the Panama canal a world-renown point of reference. While Schelling points may be an ingrained feature of coordination games we do see them peppered throughout our daily lives.

In Schelling’s seminal book The Strategy of Conflict (1960)  the Nobel laureate details one of the most widely cited examples of a focal point in game theory.

You are to meet somebody in New York City. You have not been instructed where to meet; you have no prior understanding with the person on where to meet, and you cannot communicate with each other. You are simply told that you will have to guess where to meet and that he is being told the same thing and that you will just have to try to make your guesses coincide. (Schelling, 1960, p. 56).

The only tool at your disposal would be to use a common point of reference in the lack of proper information be a common point of reference. In London, England it may be a shrewd strategy to meet at the Big Ben clocktower. However, opting to meet at “Big Ben” in NYC would be wholly inappropriate. A better potential meeting place would be the Empire State Building. In the absence of any cultural context, this task becomes nearly impossible. Without any cultural consensus, it becomes difficult to ascertain what is a crucial landmark. Not only consensus required but also the ability to rank the salience and notoriety of the location is necessary. Your favorite coffee shop in Greenwich Village maybe your favorite location in all of the city, but odds are you wouldn’t find the other “player” at this location in the absence of clear communication. These broad approximations are far from perfect science. One “player” waiting at Central Park and the other waiting at the Empire State Building are rational strategies. Both players missed the mark.

The conventional definition of a focal point isn’t completely different than how the term is used in Game Theory. From a game-theoretical standpoint, does have a “centering effect”. It serves more to operate as a tool to navigate the perils of imperfect information, rather than a noun describing the spatial origin of the reference point or a clumsy synonym for a talking point. When properly estimated by coordinating actors it does effectively operate as a point of convergence. It is just a matter of fine-tuning the location.