Tuesday, January 23, 2018

What Are You Implying? Policy, Dammit!

I spent the weekend in suburban NYC for a Social Science Research Council Abe Fellows retreat, and it was great to get much feedback from folks with far more expertise on Japan.  It was also nice to have an opportunity to meet the people I have been emailing ever since I applied for the fellowship.  They were also very helpful, and I am grateful for the opportunity. 

One of the sessions focused on deriving policy implications from one's work, and this session was helpful but had the same problem as most stuff on policy implications.  Before I get to that, I should note that there has been a heap of discussion in person and online lately about whether we should be asking folks to develop policy implications from their work.  My basic stance: if there are policy implications, then, yes, develop and express them.  If the work is too theoretical or too early in its development, then no.  And, of course, I just gave an assignment to my PhD seminar to develop policy implications even though they are just starting out, so, yeah, that rule does not seem to apply so much when I am teaching.

Anyhow, the fundamental problem with figuring out policy implications is not distilling what one's findings say about what kinds of policies should be developed.  No, the problem is developing these implications so that someone in power will find them interesting and attractive.  For instance, the classic policy implication for much ethnic conflict/intra-state conflict work is: prevention is less costly, more effective and less problematic than intervention after the violence starts.  Okey dokey.  The problem is: who gets credit for preventing something?  Which media outlets like to cover non-events?  Hey, look, no violence in this country this month!  The Carnegie Commission on Preventing Deadly Violence spent a great deal of effort to argue that prevention was more effective, more efficacious, and more strategically sound than not preventing and yet ... we underinvest in prevention. On the other hand, experts said that austerity is good--governments should spend less--and this got picked up by right wing parties since it fit their ideology and their preferred policies.  Was it smart/good for their societies?  I think not.  But the policy implications of this economic work were bought by those who wanted to buy them.

So, how does one develop policy implications that politicians will find attractive?  That is the trick, and I haven't figured it out despite being 25 or so years into my career (and caring about policy implications a bit more since 2002).  In my current project on legislative oversight of armed forces, I think I know why legislators pay less attention to overseeing the armed forces in most democracies although the research is still underway--does anyone vote for a representative/Senator/parliamentarian based on their performance in overseeing the armed forces?  Probably not too many folks, so it is understandable that legislators don't put much effort into it (as far as we can tell thus far).  What we will have to figure out by the end of the project is why it would be in the interest of politicians to care about it--not just in the interest of their country but in the interest of their party and in the interest of the individuals who would be doing oversight.

That's the trick.  Once I figure that out, the next step is to figure out how to get the policy made, not just advocated.  Oh my.

Saturday, January 20, 2018

Retreat! Ssh, Steve

I am in the wilds of suburban NYC as one of the parts of an SSRC-Abe Fellowship is to participate in a retreat.  It is all chatham house, not for attribution, but the discussions aren't really political or controversial--they are aimed at improving our work.

A fun and different way to workshop:
  1. Everyone circulates five page summaries of their work beforehand
  2. Person presents what is not in their five pager--larger context, what challenges were faced, what gaps remain.  Person then must remain silent for rest of the session (yes, I had to be quiet for about thirty-forty minutes even though it was my stuff being discussed.  No, silence is not a Steve strength).
  3. Discussant number one asks questions about the substance of the work and discussant number two asks questions about the methodology.  Neither discussant is an expert on the person's stuff although there are some overlaps (although not so much for my work. If I had been doing rice politics....).
  4. Today/tonight, person comes up with responses
  5. Tomorrow, person gives short responses to previous day comments, and then leads discussion of the group about the project.
The retreat has talks by keynote speaker, by journalists who are Abe-Journalism fellows, a discussion about engaging policy folks, and other stuff.

So far, tis a very informative and engaging workshop.  I am mostly offline so the whole government shutdown/mass protests is barely in view.  Having sketchy wifi turns out to be a good thing.  I should have lousier wifi at home, and I might get more work done although probably an angry wife.... life is full of tradeoffs.

Anyhow, that is what I am doing while everyone else is protesting or complaining about the media's coverage of the shutdown.

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Advising, Phd Topics and Fads

In the past couple of days, an academic issue has played out on twitter: are advisers doing a disservice to students and to the creation of knowledge by warning them off of topics that are deemed less relevant, less in the moment?  Damned if I know.

On the one hand, I have heard plenty of tales of former/current students elsewhere that say that they were interested in a topic but their adviser told them it was not so relevant or interesting, and then the world changed.  One reason I don't remember telling students not to do a topic (besides the fact that I have a lousy memory) is that I am not confident about making predictions about what is going to be hot in International Relations in five years.  My own dissertation started as a theoretical puzzle about the nature of sovereignty.  As it evolved, it turned to focus on the international relations of secession, and it just so happened that countries started falling apart.  There was nothing strategic about what I was doing.  Oh, and when I was on the market, my focus on this tended to be trumped by those doing the IR of the environment if departments were focused on "new threats, new stuff."

Anyhow, the key to warning students away from untrendy topics is that one must have some confidence about what such stuff is.  And I don't have that confidence.

On the other hand, a scholar I respect insists that trendiness influences job prospects, and I can't argue with that:
I have seen folks who do hip stuff get more attention.  But the question is this: is it the topic or the framing?  Or the methods?  If it is about framing, then it is up to the Phd student to frame their topic in a way that interests people.  I do think much of the success of some folks in this business is really, dare I say it, about marketing.  

I do think Sara is right about methods: that methods fads are real, are far more predictable, and have real impacts on publish-ability and job market success.  So, in guiding grad students, I tend not to tell them what to study, but I do tell them how to study it and, yes, how to frame it.

There are advisors out there that are much more directive: study this, use this theory, and use this method.  I am not comfortable with that:
  1. I don't need them to use my theoretical approach to bring me fortune and glory.  Indeed, I had one student whose dissertation was squarely aimed against my work.  In other words, it is not disciples I seek.
  2. The dissertation is not a three or five year thing, but usually a ten year thing--it is what one works on during grad school and is the focus of much publication effort in the run up to tenure (or whatever the person does after grad school).  So, the student better be passionately interested in it. 
  3. If we tell our students not to do x, then x becomes under-explored.  Which means that we have a lesser understanding of that, and that is bad from a standpoint of knowledge creation.  And if one wants to be strategic, if you buy moneyball logics, then it makes sense to study under-valued stuff because there is less risk of being scooped, of being crowded out.
  4. The most important skill for a scholar and the hardest part of grad school is figuring out what to research.  That's what makes dissertation proposal writing so painful--coming up with an idea that is interesting to both oneself and the larger community.  As we progress in our career, this is what we need to do again and again.  Imposing one's will on a student about their topic seems to be a bad way to help someone become an independent scholar. 
  5. And, of course, if one wants one's work to be enduring, focusing on something faddish seems like a bad bet but focusing on making a solid contribution to our understanding of something significant seems to be the way to go.
So, Sara and I will differ on this, especially when it comes to fads about topics (not about the importance of methods fads).  But we both agree that having an incredibly loud and distinct laugh is best, so there's that.

Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Vets and Good Candidates

One of the striking ongoing dynamics in the US is that there seem to be not just more veterans running for office but running for the Democrats:

The joy of politics is anticipation: that one is likely to get "better" candidates" when the winds are blowing in your direction and not so much when they are not.  I didn't read much of a friend's work on this stuff (she is an Americanist, I am not), but I got some via osmosis.  So, we see veteran GOP politicians retiring before the 2018 election.  My reaction has been to post this:

As in, tis a clue!!!  That the GOP is in for a tough, tough election year.  Midterms are always tough for the party that is in power, and with much Trump nausea, more so.  We saw last night another long term state level seat (Wisconsin) go Dem.

We are seeing many more folks seeing to run for the Dems, including the aforementioned veterans. I do think more candidates and more competition is a good thing.  I am a bit more agnostic about whether former soldiers, sailors, marines, and airfolks (actually, not so many USAF vets) make for good representatives.  Some vets are smart and have good values, and others don't--being a veteran does not mean one is a good or bad person or representative.

However, there are two things here that make me be pleased by this:
1)  In most democracies, there is little incentive for elected politicians to care about serious oversight over the armed forces.  In the US, there are some--that there are heaps of dollars that can be directed to one's district.  But the larger pattern among democracies, at least as far as our initial research suggests, is that veterans tend to care more and can be pretty critical (see this and this and I need to do more reading).  They experienced military life and know that generals and admirals are not always right/wise/smart/good.  They are also often skeptical of the civilians in DoD and of defense contractors.  So, for this alone, the increased numbers of vets running for office is a good thing.
2) Until 2003 or so, the Republican Party tended to dominate the surveys of "Which party is stronger on national security?"  Screwing up Iraq bigly did much damage to that.  Having a team of politicians that are sharp on national security matters may help the Democrats perpetuate this advantage.

So, yes, woot for vets running for Democratic nominations, but a modest one since military experience does not automatically mean someone is going to be a good politician.

Update: Turns out I wrote this a day or two too late:

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

Trump is a Racist ... And?

I have not blogged about Trump's shithole shitstorm.  Why not?  Because we have known for a long, long time that Trump is a racist.
  • We know that his father was a member of the KKK.  
  • We know that Trump was sued twice by the US government for discriminating against African-Americans in his rental properties.  
  • We know that he relied on racial stereotypes when it came to hiring practices for his casinos--Jews, not Blacks, should be accountants.
  • We know that he was so very focused on the kids of color who were accused of raping a white woman in central park.
  • We know that he was an obsessive birther.
  • We know that he started off his campaign by calling all Mexican immigrants rapists and criminals.
  • We know that he sought a ban against all Muslims (Islamophobia/xenophobia go along with racism damn near most of the time, sorry Indian Americans).
  • We know that he has repeatedly used slurs towards Native Americans.
  • We know that he thought a judge of Mexican descent could not be impartial.
  • We know that he retweeted stuff from a guy whose twitter handle is "white genocide."
  • We know that he said that both sides at Charlottesville include fine people.  Yeah, some Nazis are fine.
  • We know that he thinks that a woman of Korean descent who gave an intel brief on Pakistan should be working on North Korea.
  • We know that Trump has appointed and hired racists: Jeff Sessions (too racist to be a federal judge in the 1980s, just racist enough to be Attorney General now), Stephen Miller, Steve Bannon, and, oh yeah, John Kelly (retired generals can be xenophobes).  
So, what is new about Trump's statements?  They are slightly more offensive than previous statements, and, well, yes, the countries in question are seriously and rightfully upset.

I guess what matters here is that this happens to be the event that gives people in the media to say what we have always known--that Trump is a racist.  That the permission structure has changed--that it is no longer seen as taboo to say that the Emperor is wearing no clothes--that Trump is a racist.  Of course, Trump will deny being a racist, but the entire discourse now makes it clear that he is a racist and that this is not normal.  Yeah, we have had presidents who had racist attitudes, but what we say and do in 2018 is a bit different than what acceptable behind closed doors (Nixon) or what was legislated in the 1920s (I just learned that Harding and Coolidge were awful in ways I had not known or at least remembered).

My frustration is, of course, that it took this long and this many events for folks to start saying what was already quite clear--that Trump is a racist.  He is not consistent about many things--he often switches his stances based on the last person who talks to him (or gives him particular flavors of Starbust candies?)--but his racism has been perhaps his most consistent attribute, other than his greed.

So, yeah, woot for folks calling Trump out as the white supremacist that he has long been.  This is significant.  But let's not overrate the moment either as it is not clear that it will change people's behavior for very long. 

Sunday, January 14, 2018

What To Do With 15 Minutes?

The false alarm in Hawaii yesterday raised that very classic question: if you only had a few minutes to live, what would you do?  Tweet, of course.  Well, other than that?

It depends on where I am and who I am with.  If I am alone but near chocolate chip cookies or cinnamon buns, well, I gorge.  Same goes for beer.  Reflux be damned.  If alone, I would call Mrs. Spew and College Spew.  If at home with Mrs. Spew, we would try to reach our kid and tell her how proud we have been, and that we are sad that we will not see the stuff that she creates (or would have created if we are all going to die).    And then I would look for some beer. 

The story yesterday raised the other choice: to try to survive or not.  I got into an argument online about whether folks were overreacting by putting their kids into the storm drains (concrete is not a bad choice), and I thought it might be an overreaction or a dangerous reaction.  I had friends online saying that they would have gone to the roof to watch the missiles come in because who wants to live after that.  This is assuming, of course, the missiles are carrying nuclear weapons.  If they are conventional, they can be survived by most folks (the storm drain would then be a not bad idea).  If they are carrying biological or chemical weapons, again, most people will survive.  And if you are in Hawaii, and the inbound missiles are from North Korea, then the odds are not bad that the missiles will hit water. 

Which leads to the most important thing we must do if we have 5, 15 or 30 minutes of warning... wait.  Just wait before panicking as thus far all alarms of nuclear attacks have been false, and most alarms about missiles have been false unless one lives in Israel, Iran, Iraq, and a few other places.  And if it happens to be the one time a nuclear weapon is falling on your head, tweet at me afterwards to tell me I am wrong. 

Saturday, January 13, 2018

Canada's Broken Defence Procurment: Time to Blame the Industry

David Pugliese does an amazing job of documenting the VCDS Mark Norman story about the investigation into his leaking of cabinet confidences.  There is much to the story, and it says much about the state of Canadian politics.  I'd just like to focus on one element of it: the defence contractors.

Whatever Norman's relationship with Davie, a Quebec shipbuilding firm, the key actor here that really starts the controversy is Irving, the shipbuilding firm that has gotten the lion's share of recent defence dollars.  It is responsible for both the Arctic Offshore Patrol ships and the new frigates.  The Seaspan company, on the west coast, is building the rest--supply ships, icebreakers, etc.  Because the RCN's supply ships were falling apart, the idea was to have a ship leased, reconfigured and used until Seaspan could produce the supply ships it is supposed to build.

Ah, but Irving complained, saying that the process was unfair, sole-sourced.  This is kind of funny (and sad) that Irving was not satisfied with winning the big competition, but felt compelled to screw with the minor contract going to the company that had lost the big competitions.  Maybe Irving would be better at this?  Oh wait, Irving is behind schedule on its ships, and a key challenge is it does not (I seem to remember) have enough dry dock space to work on many ships at once.  So, this important immediate need would either be put at the end of the line or it would force the other stuff to be delayed further.  A key thing to keep in mind about defence procurement is that delays mean heaps of money as defence inflation is a thing.  So, Irving butts in, causes a kerfuffle.  Seaspan joins in because it only has the second most number of ships to be built and second most amount of money heading its way (even as its own shipbuilding schedule is, of course, delayed).

The politics are complex, but since Davie is in Quebec, its premier (governor) was able to put enough pressure on the Liberal government to keep the program going, so ... ta da!  The ship in question is almost ready. 

The ruthless competition by one or two contractors to screw the third has spilled over into the leadership of the Canadian Armed Forces with Mark Norman in limbo for more than a year now.  Perhaps it is appropriate that his case should be as delayed as the typical procurement project, but the government should make a damned decision--to charge him or not.  That is actually the easy part of this (which is being bungled).  The hard part is to get Irving to be satisfied with damn near most of the dollars and not seek all of them.

While we can blame successive governments for screwing defence procurement up in a big way, they have had much help from the defence industry.  I have heard multiple reps from defence firms complain about government, and they are right.  But much of the blood or red ink is on their hands.  Maybe they don't need to follow the Japanese example of taking turns (Mitsubishi builds a sub in year 1, Kawasaki in year 2, M in year 3, K in year 4, etc).  But they do need to figure out how to live with each other and perhaps come up with rules of engagement so that they don't imperial Canadian defence and they don't burn officers who are just trying to get their people decent kit.