Friday, September 20, 2019

CDSN Workshop #1 With A Bullet: Defence Procurement

The Canadian Defence and Security Network has two basic parts: a headquarters that is running all kinds of activities to train, connect, and amplify (the website/twitter account/podcast are the first visible/audible efforts there with much more to come) and five research themes--personnel, procurement, operations, civil-military relations, and security.  Those five themes/nodes/groups/whatever will have workshops and other efforts each year that will hopefully build to five distinct research programs over the first three years of the grant, and then we will re-set and then have five new research programs over the last three years of the grant.

Yesterday, we had our first workshop, and it was within the procurement theme, organized by Philippe Lagassé--a fun irony that procurement moved most quickly.  It brought together individuals (rather senior ones) from the relevant agencies/divisions within the government, from academia, and from civil society.  We did not have any folks from industry, i.e., defence contractors, because that would have impacted what the government officials could say.  That plus Chatham House rules helped to produce a very robust conversation of the challenges facing those trying to get the "kit" to the Canadian Armed Forces, and the efforts they have made to overcome a variety of obstacles.

As someone who does not study procurement--I was there mostly in my capacity as the Director of the CDSN and not as a researcher--I was very much drinking from the firehose.  I didn't understand many of the acronyms, and it took me half of the day to figure out why the "colour of money" mattered (or perhaps not)--whether it comes from operational funds or capital funds.  I learned a great deal and so here are some of the things I picked up along the way.
  1. It works!!  That is, the CDSN is an effort to get academics and military and government folks together so that we can understand each other.  The officials gave up a significant hunk of time, which is a precious commodity, to hang out with the academics yesterday, and the exchanges were quite forthright.  So, the efforts over the past five or six years to build this network paid off, and, yes, I am very pleased by that.  
  2. The Defence Policy Review that produced the Stronger, Secure, Engaged report has been pretty meaningful.  While the exercise might have been aimed at producing certain results, it did lead to a greater focus and more resources on improving procurement.  The various pieces of that document have become signposts for policy-makers.  While procurement is hardly fixed, the SSE seems to have led to a variety of improvements that make spending more predictable, that have empowered folks at lower levels, and so on.
  3. A key aspect of this is that Treasury Board, which holds the money in Canada essentially, and DND have overcome much earned distrust from the past and have figured out ways to move projects, especially less risky ones, along faster.  
  4. I have a new favorite acronym: SNICR (pronounced like either the candy bar or a kind of laugh) or Snow and Ice Capability Recapitalization.  It refers to snow removal systems--snow blowers--that the military needs and procures.  
  5. Betterment is not just something advertised on podcasts, but language used by Treasury Board to refer to efforts to improve an existing system rather than procure a new one (I think).  I asked why not use "Improvement", but the folks in the room just go along with TB jargon.
  6. Talking about risk in this kind of setting is strange.  Why?  Because we can think of at least three kinds of risk--wasting money on a failed program, getting unwanted political attention, and people being at risk of losing their lives.  So, we need to be clear about what we mean by risk as some kinds of risk aversion make more sense than others and some kinds of risk acceptance might be necessary to move more quickly. 
  7. The politicization of procurement, as analyzed by Kim Nossal, who was at this workshop, is a real impediment to improving stuff.  Why? Because it creates an environment of risk aversion.  Innovation requires failure--you have to try a bunch of stuff and then keep the stuff that works and accept the wasted money on failed efforts.  But if there are politicians and parties out there willing and eager to blow up any mistake into a major political issue, it deters folks from taking risks and thus stunting innovation.  
  8. One way to handle this is to be far more transparent.  That most news stories gain traction after those in office deny that there are problems.  If the parties could agree (holy collective action problem) not to take every bit of procurement bad news and make it a talking point for the most simplistic soundbite in Question Period, we might create an environment where the folks doing procurement take reasonable risks that allow stuff to move faster.
  9. Oh, and why do we need to be more agile, moving faster?  Because defence procurement is ultimately about getting better stuff to our troops in the field, in the skies, and at sea so that they are not outclassed by our potential adversaries who are also innovating.  I am not so certain autocrats do procurement better/faster as in such systems, taking risks and then having failures can mean more than political embarrassment--people can get killed.  But still, moving slowly in a high tech environment is not a good way to keep up with one's allies and stay ahead of one's adversaries.
  10. Which leads to one conclusion.  We need to discriminate.  That is, we need to develop different procedures and different rules for different kinds of projects.  Stuff involving info technology probably needs a different set of procedures than boots or tanks.  One size fits all does not work, so the question is can we come up with procedures that vary, depending on not just the size of the project but the nature of the thing being procured.  Maybe sole sourced projects (no or little competition) makes sense under certain circumstances rather than being an excuse for one party to crap on another?  
Again, I don't know much about this stuff, but I feel like I have a much better idea of some of the big questions and challenges.  My hope and our plan is for this workshop to lead to not just another one in year two and another one in year three, but a pattern of sustained interactions so that we academics get better data, get a clearer idea of the questions, and that when we start to develop some evidence-based research and policy implications, that we have a receptive audience.  That is one way in which the CDSN research themes will work.  There will be other models in the other themes, where it is less your turn, my turn, your turn, and more co-creation.  The key is that there is a productive conversation going on, and I am so very pleased.  That Phil did a great job bring folks from various realms together, that the government/military folks put in much thought and were quite open about the challenges they faced, that there were great conversations not just between government types and academics but among the government folks themselves.  And that the students (MA and PhD) involved got a great deal out of it.

Money for value, indeed. 

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Snatching Defeat from the Jaws of Victory

If Justin Trudeau and the Liberals lose this election, they will have only themselves to blame.  Of course, they would have required a time machine to avoid one of the big scandals--Trudeau's awful behavior that got in the news this week.  Blackface/brownface has been wrong forever.  Emmett Macfarlane pointed out that a pivotal cultural moment was a 1975 All in the Family episode where a noted bigot, Archie, felt awkward about being in blackface, teaching a lesson about what was and was not acceptable more than forty years ago.

So, JT has done it three times at least at the time I am writing this.  There has been lots of coverage today, but I was in a workshop (see blog post tomorrow) so I am writing this without having read most of the coverage.  The news suggests a level of cluelessness and privilege that is both breathtaking and unsurprising.  How dumb, immature, and insensitive must you be to keep on doing this?  He said he likes to dress up to a fault, essentially.  WTF?!

Other folks can explain this better than I can, but obviously being a privileged pretty boy meant not thinking too hard about stuff even when much of society had agreed that blackface/brownface is damned offensive.  And before folks say that this is an American problem--that Canadians don't have the same racial politics--please.  Canadians get enough American cultural products, and Canada has had enough of its own history of racial discrimination (remember, JT admitted Canada committed genocide against its First Nations) that, yeah, any semi-aware person would know not just now but way back in 2001 that blackface is wrong.

I will move onto whether this matters.  Well, it already has.  That is, JT's bad judgment in this area affected the trip to India, where he dressed up Bollywood-style, embarrassing Canada and giving fodder to those who wanted Canada to look bad (that would be Prime Minister Modi).  Back at home, the bigger scandal, seeking to protect scandal-ridden SNC-Laval meant pressuring the Attorney General, who happened to be an Indigenous woman.  Which then undermined his rep as being a feminist and being better on the treatment of First Nations.  So, we have a pattern of JT taking for granted the feelings of non-white folks, not just in the past but in the present.  Yes, he did some good stuff for First Nations peoples, including the commission to look into the missing women and improvements in access to drinkable water.  But it does seem to be the case that whenever it gets mildly inconvenient for the Liberals to do right by the First Nations, they go the other way.  It is easy to apologize (although I don't want to trivialize some of the meaningful apologies Trudeau has given over his term in office), but harder to do stuff when it conflicts with other interests.

That the talk and the action do not match up, as Hasan Minhaj pointed out on his show, is not that new (Stefanie VH and I discuss JT on that show on this week's podcast).  Folks are profoundly disappointed.  Are they still going to vote for the Liberals?  Probably, but perhaps not as much turnout and some party switchers, which then means that, yes, the Liberals, who had an easy election due to the other major parties having lousy leaders, may snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.

How will I vote in my first election in Canada?  Kind of like I have in some elections in the past: holding my nose. 

Monday, September 16, 2019

Paper Tigers, Liars, and the Next War

So much happened this weekend that we don't understand.  We don't know if it was Iran that attacked Saudi Arabia's production facilities, we don't know why they would do so, we don't know if the Houthis did it, etc.

What do we know? 
  1. Well, we know that the Trump Administration has no credibility--it has lied about a great many things, so even if they come out with some evidence of either Iranian complicity (and Iran is almost certainly at least complicit) or Iran guilt, it will be easy for folks to dismiss these claims.  After all, Trump is currently lying about saying that saying that he would meet the Iranians without preconditions.  
  2. We know that observers have taken to seeing Trump as a paper tiger--that he makes threats that he will not back up.  Which then encourages them to push harder and harder, expecting Trump to back down.  And they will be right to do so until ... they are wrong and find that even paper tigers eventually push back.  So, if Iran did take a risk, it might have been encouraged by Trump's previous bluffs and blustering.
  3. Saudi Arabia is a crappy friend of the US.  Maybe the Trumps love the Saudis for their entangled financial ties, but Saudi Arabia has benefited far more from American help than vice versa.  This, of course, is ironic, given Trump's criticism of NATO allies, as they have bled for the US.  Have the Saudis?  No, but the US has bled for them.  And because of them.  Oh, and another contrast: the US is not obligated to defend Saudi Arabia.  There is no mutual defense treaty between the US and Saudi Arabia.  The US has acted in Saudi Arabia's defense, most notably in 1990 when Saddam Hussein attacked Kuwait and threatened Saudi Arabia, but I can't find anything but an agreement to sell arms. 
  4. John Bolton was not the only guy in the Trump Administration who sought a war with Iran.  Pompeo is still around, and I am sure there are others.
While there must be work done to determine what happened and who is responsible, and Iran should face significant punishment by the international community, the US does not really need a war right now.  And Iran has plenty of ways to escalate in the region to make things hurt.  I am not sure a pinprick strike against Iran will not escalate. 

People have been wondering how the Trump Administration will do once it faces a real crisis, one that it didn't make.  Well, this is one that they only partly made, so, yeah, we are there now.  And I am very, very worried.  There are not too many good policy options, and I have confidence that Trump will pick a bad one AND will not do the necessary work to get allies and other countries to support the US course of action. 

I wish we could expect cooler heads to prevail, but none of those are in government these days.  So, what next?  Damned if I know.  Maybe the paper tiger will roar and then not bite, maybe Trump will overreact?  Maybe the Saudis will push for caution?  The key is the White House is dominated by the uncertainty engine in chief so no reason to be certain about any of this.  


Wednesday, September 11, 2019

9/11 After 18 Years

Yes, after this date, we can have US soldiers fighting in Afghanistan who were born after the date that triggered that mission.  For me, this particular anniversary is notable for being the first time I am teaching undergrads who have no memory of that day.  This year is the first time in eight years I am teaching undergrads, so I have gone from those whose first major IR memory was 9/11 to those who cannot have a memory of that day. 

I am not sure how that is going to change how I teach today.  I do know that the general sentiments in my previous 9/11 posts are particularly intensified, as I am angry and sad that whatever unity that could have been gained from the common experience of that day has been wasted.  More than that, we have kids in cages, we have Puerto Rico never getting the assistance it should have been, we have alienated allies who bled for the US in Afghanistan, and so on. 

9/11 will always be a pivot point in US history, where things could have gone in a number of directions.  Same is true for the 2016 election.  It didn't have to be this way.  But it is, and it is so very, very frustrating how much effort has been wasted, how many unforced errors have been committed, how much unnecessary pain is being inflicted. 

As I do need to teach today, I will leave it there for now.  For those who lost people on that day or in the responses to it, I am so very sorry. 

Sunday, September 8, 2019

Ranking Movies? Sure. People? Not So Sure

Sunday mornings are for tenure reviews.  Huh?  I am reading stuff to evaluate a scholar for whether he/she is worthy of tenure.  This is a standard part of the tenure process--to have outside scholars read a bunch of a candidate's work and then indicate whether they have made a significant contribution and whether they are likely to continue to do so.  As I have written elsewhere, this is a fair amount of work, almost always unpaid.  So, I have gotten a bit cranky when I do it these days.

What makes me really cranky?  Being asked to compare a tenure/promotion candidate to the top scholars in the field.  I don't even like comparing people to others who are at the same point in their career.  Why?  Because in my mind, tenure is not about whether you are the most cited person (probably what administrators think of as "best"), but whether one has made a contribution and whether one is likely to continue to do so.  When I consider a tenure candidate, my basic question is whether they have done enough interesting, well-executed research and whether they are likely to continue to do so.  That latter part is mostly a guess based on whether the person's research has moved beyond the dissertation--if they keep asking new questions and managing to publish their answers to such stuff, that suggests a good trajectory.

Asking folks to be ranked is problematic unless I have very good knowledge of the support they receive.  Person x may have five more publications, but they may also have a much lower teaching load, free research assistants, and ample funding compared to person y.  How does one rank different scholars if one does not know how much support they have received from their schools?  It would seem to be unfair to penalize with lower rankings those who got a lot of good work done despite limited resources if there are other folks who got as much or more work but with far more resources. Given that there are all kinds of problems that breed path dependencies that lead to people getting less support (discrimination due to race, gender, first generation-ness, etc), it would also seem that ranking, rather than focusing on contribution to knowledge, would be replicating or intensifying the legacies of the past.

I decided to include this text in letters I write from now on:
I got have gotten much support on twitter for this stance, and folks have asked if they could borrow this text.  Of course, because if we all agree not to rank candidates, then the universities that ask for it will have to drop their focus on that question.  I understand this is a collective action problem, and, as the text above indicates, I am worried that by not following the instructions given to me by some of the folks wanting letters, I might be hurting the candidate.  Hence, I am explicit about it and want more company.

It would be a minor revolution, but it would also perhaps reduce that whole "comparison is the thief of joy" envy/jealousy/competition dynamic and return our business back to where it should be--fostering better understanding.  And, yes, sometimes I get idealistic.  Perhaps I get more idealistic when it makes it easier for me to dodge work, as ranking candidates is not only unpleasant but requires more research.


Afghanistan Shenanigans

There is always temptation to mock Donald Trump, so let's try to put into perspective this whole "hey, let's bring the Taliban to Camp David* a few days before 9/11 anniversary to make the Deal of the Century; oops, let's not!" thing.

First, some basics:
  • No, the Taliban didn't organize the attacks on the World Trade Center and Pentagon and target #3 which became a hole in Pennsylvania farmland.  Nope, that was Al Qaeda, which the Taliban government of the time permitted to run around their country, organizing terrorist campaigns against the West.  
  • It is ok to negotiate with the opponents in a civil war (Afghanistan has long had a civil war, so folks who say that one will start anytime soon are missing the cold, hard reality) as civil wars end either by one side defeating the other or by negotiation.  Victory by the Afghan government and the NATO folks was never very likely, and we all gave up on that with the withdrawals in and around 2014.  A bargain would potentially stave off the defeat of the Afghan government, as its troops and its civilians are facing a very high price every day to continue the war.
  • But the war continues in part because of international support and in part because folks remember how the Taliban ruled before.
  • Which makes any deal pretty difficult to arrange, since there is no trust for the Taliban.  Again, this is mostly normal--that it is hard to negotiate these days and they usually need some kind of third party guarantor to punish those who cheat.  Who would that be in this case?
  • Didn't Jimmy Carter bring the Israelis and the Egyptians to Camp David to negotiate an agreement which stands to this day, despite assassinations, coups, and other political unrest in Egypt?  Yeah.  But Trump ain't Jimmy, and it is not clear there would be a Sadat in the room.
  • Sometimes, violence continues while the bargaining goes on.  I can't recall situations where the violence escalates in the final stages, but it might make sense from a Taliban perspective to get Trump to sign any deal.  Given that Trump often indicates he will take any deal, just to get a deal (see negotiations with North Korea, ultimately the revision of NAFTA fits in this category as well), the Taliban may have pushed a bit too hard.  But that is what happens when one develops a reputation for being a paper tiger.

Ok, with that out of the way, how do we make sense of the tweet about cancelling the meeting of Taliban officials, the President of Afghanistan, and Trump at Camp David?  The stories in the past few weeks focused mostly on the phased withdrawal of American (and maybe NATO?) troops from Afghanistan in exchange for ..... um .... Not clear.  There was definitely a sense of a "decent interval" which refers to the way the US got out of Vietnam--by Kissinger making a deal that doomed South Vietnam, but would have a bit of time--a decent interval--between departure of the US and collapse of South Vietnam.  The pics from the fall of Saigon make that interval look not so decent AND the Nobel Peace Prize that Kissinger earned (and that Trump may covet) quite tainted since it was less a treaty and more a surrender.

So, excuse the Afghans who are thrilled this thing didn't happen.
 “A lot of Afghans are happy about Trump’s tweets because they may stop a bad deal with the Taliban, but they ignore the fact that there is a fundamental lack of strategy in Afghanistan that could prolong and exacerbate the bloody conflict,” tweeted Haroun Rahaimi, a law instructor at the American University of Afghanistan in Kabul. “I fear for what may come next!”

They know what Kissinger did for South Vietnam, and they have long been suspicious of being sold out.  And, yes, Trump is not the most credible of negotiators or third party guarantors.  President Ashraf Ghani was not involved in the talks, so he and his supporters worried about what the deal would mean.

Again, the discussions did not seem to focus on power-sharing, on how to include the Taliban's armed forces in the Afghan military or how to demobilize them, or any of the usual topics of an effort to end a civil war.

The big problem here is not bargaining with the Taliban, but doing the work to make this happen.  That is, it requires a significant amount of expertise, discipline, and planning to figure out how to use whatever declining leverage the US has left (signaling one is leaving ASAP is not great for leverage, as Obama found out) to get a deal that at least has some pretense to guaranteeing that the side the US/NATO have been supporting is not betrayed.  All the stories about these negotiations indicate that the US "process" is a shitshow as the National Security Adviser has been left out of it (the schadenfreude about John Bolton being sidelined is offset by empathy for the Afghans), that it is run by an agent (Zalmay Khalizad) who may not be coordinating with anyone, and with Trump thinking he can go with his gut once he gets in the room with the Taliban officials.

Mostly, this tweet was about Trump's ego--that he tried to make a big deal because he thinks he can make big deals even though he didn't do any of the work to make a big deal likely and then he got upset when the Taliban continued to keep up the pressure.

I guess people have been thinking all along that things could be worse because he hasn't screwed up everything.  Maybe not, but I'd say he is working on it except that Trump doesn't work.  He is too damned lazy.




*  Camp David is on the same mountain/hill in Maryland as the summer camp I went to for all of my teens, and there is a reunion going on there this weekend that I could not attend.  I wonder how the folks who are attending are feeling about the turmoil over on the other side.



Thursday, September 5, 2019

Taking Advice from Republicans: Um, No Thanks

I am really tired of Republicans telling the Democrats how to run for office.  For an example:

First, y'all lost control of your party, stop trying to control the other one. 
Second, and, most importantly, primaries and general elections are different beasts.

20 or 10 or 5 or 2 candidates in a primary have to engage in product differentiation.  Saying one is opposed to Trump is not going to cause folks to pick one candidate over another.  Saying one is the best, most electable candidate to defeat Trump?  Sure, but they are all going to say that, and it will be hard to discern who really is more electable since the test is ... wait for it ... winning elections.  In the  winter, we will have primary elections which will serve a few purposes:
  1. The outcomes will determine who wins the right to confront Vader Trump. 
  2. The early outcomes will also suggest who is better at campaigning, who is better at running, and, maybe, provide hints of who is more electable.  
The debates and all the rest right now don't really tell us much about electability.  What they do actually do is differentiate the candidates as each tries to appeal to folks who vote in Democratic primaries (hint: Republicans don't vote in Democratic primaries except in a few strange places).  So, they are outbidding each other on the issues they think will play to their base, like medicare for all, for a green deal of some kind, etc.  That is, they think Democratic voters care about these issues (they do), and they are playing to the crowd.  Kind of like when Trump outbid all of the Republicans on how best to be a racist, but on policy issues and not just resentment (Yeah, I am smug that the Democratic base, for the most part, is not vile like a certain hunk of those who showed up in the GOP primaries).

Anyhow, the old pattern of US politics is to swing to the extremes in the primaries because only the most passionate folks show up in big numbers, and, yes, extremists are more passionate than moderates.  That is why the GOP establishment failed in 2016--they couldn't get the pro-diversity Jeb voters out (if they existed).   And then the candidates swing to the middle after that.  Although to be clear, on some of the issues that Wilson mentions--guns, abortion, health care, the middle of the American electorate is actually much, much closer to the middle of the Dems. 

BUT, yes, things are different now.  According to Rachel Bitecofer (whom I chatted with at APSA) and others who actually study elections and electoral behavior (unlike Rick Wilson), the key in 2018 was not winning GOP moderates but the Dems turned out.  The GOP turned out, too, but there are more Dems than GOP so the Dems just have to turn out to win.  And they will turn out because Trump is so very awful.

The Democratic nominee will spend the summer and fall of 2020 discussing how awful Trump is to turn out the Dems and the Dem-leaning independents (the GOP-leaners will go back to the GOP because that is what they do)  Hillary for all of her policy videos also did a pretty good job of documenting how awful Trump was, but the Dems were complacent, thinking that Trump might not be so bad.  He is now proven to be so bad.

I am not saying the Dems will win (Bitecofer is) as I am not sure the supporters of the losing Democratic candidates will support the nominee.  That, for me, is the key variable. 

All I am saying is that the Dems don't need advice from Republicans on how to attract Democratic voters next year OR how to win the primaries.  Disaffected Republicans are not going to swing in a bit way to the Dems.  We just need them to stay home.  Rick Wilson and his ilk can keep talking about what the Dems should do, and that is their right.  But we don't have to listen.  Instead, listen to Bitecofer. 




Tuesday, September 3, 2019

Mattis Redux: Former SecDef Forever

I criticized the choice of Mattis ever since it was broached in 2016.  I found it very problematic to have a very recently retired 4 star officer, especially a Marine, serve as SecDef.  As I go around the world, asking folks about their civilian-military relations, I always find it problematic when the Ministry of Defense is occupied by former/active military officers.  Why?  Because civilian control of the military requires ... civilians to control the military.

Recently retired officers are far less likely to see their job as overseeing the armed forces and more likely to see their jobs as protecting the military from civilian interference.  When Congress initially created the position, they required a ten year gap, which got reduced to seven, but let it all get waived if Congress felt like it.  And, alas, they felt like it.

Folks might say that Mattis did a good job while he was in office.  And I simply don't know if he did.  What proof do we have?  Trump's defense policy was awful before and since.  People forget that Trump was risking war with North Korea in the spring of 2018, and this stopped not due to Mattis's interference but because Trump decided he could make a great deal (kind of like today's news where Trump takes credit for a deal the Taliban says does not exist).  Folks could point to the continued investment in defending Europe, and that might be a Mattis initiative that avoided Trump's radar screen, but I really don't know if he should get credit.

I do know that Mattis was by Trump's shoulder when he signed the Muslim ban while visiting the Pentagon.  I do know that Mattis went along with various policies aimed at kicking transgender folks out of the military, that turned away interpreters who risked their lives in American wars, and so on.

I think there was a whole lot of wishful thinking going on--that people were hoping that Trump's worst instincts were being blocked by Mattis.

And that is kind of awful.  Because people were hoping a military man was defying the President or manipulating the President.  That is horrible from the standpoint of civilian control of the military and from the standpoint of good civil-military relations.  This erodes norms and encourages resistance and defiance and disobedience.  I am not worried about coups, but I am worried about the military following orders.  They don't always obey in the best of times (yes, sorry, but principal-agent problems are a thing).

Who has been making defense policy for the past three years?  The Joint Staff, as Mattis found more common cause with Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (and Marine) Joseph Dunford.  As someone who worked for a year on the Joint Staff, I have lots of respect for those folks, but I don't think they should be in charge.  I now have to re-think how I felt about the Joint Staff making policy during Rumsfeld's first year or two....

About the Marine thing, I tend to have a sore spot there.  Why?  Because their desperate desire for autonomy and keeping their units together meant that they subverted the President's intent and disrupted the efforts to develop unity of command in Afghanistan--better to be on their own in Helmand than working with others in Kandahar despite the latter being far more relevant for population-centric counter-insurgency.

Anyhow, what irks me know is that Mattis wants to have it both ways: to be a retired general who is apolitical but to do book tours to promote his book.  Would he be getting so much press coverage for his book about his life as a Marine (it does not cover his time as SecDef)?  I don't think so.

Mattis's first mistake was not taking off his uniform when he became SecDef (I mean in terms of his own views/identity/etc).
Matti's second mistake is thinking he can take off the coat of SecDef that cloaked his uniform now.  It is tainted and tattered, but it is on him for life.  I will never refer to him as Gen (ret.) Mattis--he will always be former SecDef Mattis.

PS I didn't even mention his time shilling for Theranos. 



Sunday, September 1, 2019

APSA 2019: Annoyingly Happy

A friend called me annoyingly happy at this year's American Political Science Association meeting, and I have to admit she is right.  I realized shortly before the conference that I have been off the job market for eight years, the longest span of my career by a good bit.  That is both cause and effect: effect because being happy means not going on the market and cause because being on the market is a source of misery.  APSA used to come through DC every other year when I got started, so this place is full of memories of me being anxious about getting a tenure track job.  This time, I was far more relaxed--I mean, what are the odds of another fire?  So, what happened at this year's APSA?

I handed out CDSN swag and got to talk about what we have done so far--hiring great stuff, starting the podcast, and preparing for the next seven years of interesting and hopefully relevant research.









I asked folks who do civil-military relations to meet up in the conference hotel bar, and we got a very good crowd.  There are a lot of younger scholars doing excellent work, so it was fun to spend some time with them and learn what they are doing and corrupt a minor:


I have been so busy getting the CDSN started and traveling this summer that I forgot that I was the chair and organizer of the panel---Some Assembly Required.  I found the other work on this panel super-interesting:
  • Jessica Blankshain presented a paper she is working on with Derek Reveron (both of CDSN partner US Naval War College) that considered who testifies before the House Armed Services Committee, seeking to identify trends. As the Dave/Phil/Steve project focuses on such committees, it was especially interesting to learn about a dimension that we had not been studying
  • Carla Martinez Machain (Kansas State) presented a paper on US military training programs, testing whether those who the US trained elsewhere committed more or less human rights violations.  I had some deja vu since vetting trainees due to Congressional legislation was something we did in the Balkans branch of the Joint Staff.
  • Michael Colaresi (Pittsburgh) presented a really cool paper basically looking at the info we have on rendition flights to determine which countries might have more oversight and more info about secret programs--the intuition is that the CIA would take less direct routes to avoid countries that have more oversight.  Super graphics and super interesting.  
I followed my recent pattern of going to few panels and meeting more people who I have met via twitter.  These conversations were most interesting.  One of them involved organizers of Out in National Security, an organization seeking to provide support to LGBTQ in the US national security community.   As one of the goals of the CDSN is to facilitate a more diverse and inclusive community of defence and security experts, I was seeking advice on how to help underrepresented folks.

And, yes, I hung out with old friends.  While I was most stressed long ago, trying to get my first job and then moving on from there, I have few regrets since I made lifelong friendships with fantastic people:

My last full day at APSA included meeting with my very first PhD student who is now recovering from his term as department chair and then meeting with my dissertation adviser--Miles Kahler--unbreakable vows and all that.  We met at the Phillips Collection, an art museum I have never visited before.  They had an amazing exhibit on immigration-related art.

It was very moving.  And it reminded me that the stuff we study has real human costs.  While I don't study ethnic conflict anymore, I will always apply the stuff I learned to contemporary events.

The only things left to do are to meet up with my sister-in-law and then fly home to start a new semester.  It was a great summer of travel and networking and organizing and podcasting.  Time to do that teaching thing:




Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Curiosity Drives the Agenda So Expertise Wanes

I had to do something this week that I would not have expected long ago.  I told the editors of Ethnopolitics that I could not serve on the editorial board any longer.  Why?  Because I haven't done serious research on ethnic politics in quite some time.  My curiosity shifted.  It took a while to make that shift (the irredentism book that was the research project in the fellowship application came out in 2008).  Why did I shift?  At what cost?  At what benefit?

I got into this career both because of a dramatic lack of imagination (I had no idea what else to do--firefighter, astronaunt, cop?)  and because I am deeply curious.  To a fault.  The joy of the academic career is that one can pursue their curiosity as far as it can go.  For me, I fell into the international relations of ethnic conflict by accident.  I was thinking about sovereignty which led to secession which lead to ethnic politics.  So, I asked how ethnic politics shapes the international relations of secessionist conflict.

This project bred new questions--what causes separatism, is it contagious, can institutions ameliorate ethnic conflict, and, when will countries engage in irredentism (seeking to regain supposedly lost territories... and, no, Greenland does not count).  I mostly satisfied my curiosity in each area.  The institutions stuff met a premature end thanks to criticism of the dataset upon which I had depended.  Others entered the fray with different data and more skills, so I mostly moved on (there is still a co-authored paper in progress).

I had another ethnic conflict project--on diasporas.  What causes some diasporas to be more mobilized and even more extreme than others.  What happened to that project?  Well, first, I learned that I really am not very good at training people to code data, so the dataset was not that productive.  Second:
 
While I was doing the irredentism project, I spent a year in the Pentagon, which produced a big question about NATO which evolved into many questions about civil-military relations.  The NATO/civ-mil stuff was so very interesting that I focused on it at the expense of the diaspora project.  I can't say I have too many regrets because the NATO and civ-mil stuff has been great for me.  It has led to new partnerships (including a certain big one), a really great project with a great friend from grad school that led to a, if I say so myself, cool book, a spinoff book, lots of travel to fascinating places with usually very good food.

I am now involved in the successor project--comparing the role of legislatures around the world in overseeing their armed forces.  More interesting arguments, more great travel, much more excellent food.  It has led to surprising findings and intellectual challenges.

The project after this one?  We shall see.  I have some ideas, including one with a former grad student, about bureaucratic politics and good or bad decision-making.  I am pretty sure I will stick closer to the civ-mil stuff than return to the ethnic conflict stuff.

Bridging both areas has led to some fruitful exchanges and thoughts, but I am really, really far behind in what is being done these days in the IR of ethnic conflict.  Which means I am a crappy reviewer for most work in this area.  Hence my departure from Ethnopolitics.  I am sure journals will still ask me to review that kind of stuff, but I think the only responsible position now is to say no.  I can't really assess whether an argument in that area is original or making a contribution since I have lost track of the literature.  I may not be that much better read in civ-mil stuff, but that is the stuff that I am teaching, reading, and writing.

There are costs.  I think I could have been more productive if I stayed in the same lane.  I would not have had to read new literatures--just keep up with the stuff in the one area.

But the benefit is this: I love what I am doing now.  I still have ample curiosity about the stuff I am studying these days.  I am sure my enthusiasm for this stuff is obvious in the classroom, which makes for better teaching.  And, no, it is not about the travel, but about the conversations that make me see connections, that make me see the world a bit differently.  I am not rigidly committed to my initial hypotheses, although it always does come back to institutions (thanks to UCSD).

It turns out I picked the right career.  I tend to suck at things that don't interest me, and I do pretty well when I am interested.  This career allows me to follow my interests.  There was no grand plan except to study what I want how I want.  I didn't have control over the where, but that worked out well, too.  I know I am lucky.

As I finish packing for yet another APSA conference, I am looking forward to hanging out with the cool kids of civ-mil. I still hang with the ethnic conflict crowd, but a new area of research means meeting new people, and, as shy as I am (my wife is probably laughing downstairs), I do like meeting new people and learning more about the world from folks who share my enthusiasm.  Hence, my effort to plan a meetup at this conference.

I hope all the APSA-goers have easy trips and less fire (see DC APSA 2014).  See you soon.





Can International Organizations Be Funny?

Seth Rogen and Evan Goldberg are developing a tv show for CBS focusing on the behind the scenes people at the United Nations.  The folks involved are quite funny, including the Sklar brothers (who had a great apperance on GLOW), Jay Chandrasekhar (Super Troopers and other stuff) and so on.  But I can't help but wonder a couple of things:
a) is there much comedy in the daily grind at the UN?
b) if one is going to make a comedy about an international organization, is this the right one?

Sure, banging shoes on podiums was good for a laugh way back in the day during the Cold War, but I am trying to think of what might be funny among the lower ranks.  Interpretation/translation errors can be a recurring theme, of course.  Making fun of the latest underqualified American Ambassador might provide some comic fodder.  But debates about arcane rules, failures to get consensus, talk about Article VI and VII, and such don't sing of comedic potential.  Maybe my friends who study the UN can help share what would be so funny about the institution.  To be sure, this has been done in movie form (thanks to Sara Mitchell for reminding me): No Man's Land.  Which is kind of funny--UN peacekeeping in Yugoslavia for some laughs.

What other candidates would there be?
  • NATO?  Well, War Machine was partly a NATO movie, and it was not that funny, despite my efforts to give the producer some material
  • The International Monetary Fund or the World Bank? Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.
  • The World Health Organization has much potential: M*A*S*H meets Office Space meets ebola!  It sings of comedic chaos as the WHO agents run around the world dealing with all kinds of strange diseases and varying levels of corruption and incompetent governments.  
  • The International Telecommunications Union?  I just mention it here because it is the oldest AND I had to do research on its earliest forms when I was a first year grad student research assistant.
  • The Warsaw Pact?  It could be the IO equivalent of Hogan's Heroes--looking back at something fairly tragic and finding comedy in it?  So easy to think of the bumbling Communists of Eastern Europe making mistakes and trying to hide them from the visiting Soviet commissars.  
  • International Civil Aviation Office?  The usual effort to save money by producing in Canada would not diminish the realism since the ICAO is in Montreal.  All kinds of hijinks can ensue between an organization which has promoted English as the language of air travel in a province that can be a bit dogmatic about French first plus having to deal with the new regulations of the post 9/11 environment could provide humor?
  • The International Criminal Court?  Nah, that might be good for a dramedy but not for a Seth Rogen comedy.  I mean, did anyone see The Interview?  Genocide is only funny twenty years later (see Hogan's Heroes) and not even then.  This show's recurring theme would be "Too soon?"
  • The European Union?  Sure, Monty Python could probably have lots of fun with heaps of bureaucracy, and the various strange coalitions in the European parliament could provide for some sitcom fun.  But how many jokes can one make about standardized toasters?  Oh, but we now have that Brexit plotline that will be the gift that keeps on giving.
If I had to choose, I'd pick either the WHO or the EU.  What would you choose as the basis of an IO sitcom?

Monday, August 26, 2019

A Royal and Legal Experience

Today, I met a Princess, and I met Justice(s).  Her Imperial Highness Princess Takamado of Japan is touring Canada to mark the 90th anniversary of Canadian-Japanese relations, and one of the events on her schedule was a lunch hosted by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court--Richard Wagner.  There were three other Justices at the event, including Hon. Madam Justice Suzanne Côté who sat my table.  Or, I sat at her table.

I don't have any pictures of the event.  They had a photographer, and it seemed gauche for me to take selfies so this program is the proof that it happened.

The Canadian Supreme Court staff is super-organized.  The directions to a specific parking spot were clear, I was met there and then escorted.  Apparently, escorts are less needed for security and more for the maze the place apparently is.

We all got there early enough to chat, with the group of SSHRC partnership grant (Queens is a partner, so she is familiar with the CDSN grant).
attendees being mostly folks with some kind of Japan connection--former ambassadors, leaders of Japan-affiliated/oriented associations, and some random academics.  The food was great but, alas, it featured Canadian stuff rather than Japanese stuff.  We had a variety of conversations at our table.  I sat between a guy who leads a Japanese gardening association in Montreal and a Queens University official (the Princess's late husband went to Queens).  So, of course, I chatted more with the Queens person who wanted to know how we prepared for the

Overall, it was a very interesting event.  I didn't get to chat with Princess, but I did get to meet a bunch of interesting people and interact with a Supreme Court Justice.  These are opportunities I would not get in a larger pond.

So, yeah, I am still loving Ottawa as we start our eighth year here. 

Wednesday, August 21, 2019

Trump and The Jews: When Philo Means Anti

This piece seeks to explain Trump's Philo-Semitism--that Trump claims to be a friend of Jews but is very much not.  It reminds me of my research trip to Romania in 2003 or 2004.  I had never heard the term Philo-semite until it was used to refer to the leader of the Greater Romania Party.  He was not able to speak with me because he was at Auschwitz proving his Philo-semitic credentials.  His party was a far right, virulently xenophobic, anti-Roma party which had been anti-semitic but was changing its spots (slightly). 

Why?  I seem to remember it was either because he thought that the European Union cared about it and not about discriminating against Roma, so it was best to make his party more EU-friendly for the upcoming elections OR because he thought the Jews do run everything.  Which is not great, really.

The WashPo piece explains that Trump and other self-proclaimed Philo-Semites believe the stereotypes about Jews but see them as good things, that they are cheap/clever (see the Horowitz list of stereotypes of advanced groups in yesterday's post), that their loyalty to Israel (not the US) makes them useful politically, etc.  But the piece goes awry:
"But while this form of “positive” anti-Semitism is better than the negative kind, it is still deeply dangerous"
No, hells no.  It is not positive and it is not better.  It might even be worse because it involves betrayal.  Jews see ordinary anti-semites, and they can prepare and address them and protect themselves.  A Philo-Semite appears to be a friend until he/she is not, so Jews might be surprised.  "Hey, Trump's daughter married a Jew and he has Jewish grandchildren, so we don't have to worry about him."  Uh, yes, we do.  Trump is a white supremacist, and his pals in that community don't think that Jews are whites--remember the chants at Charlottesville.  Anti-semitism, misogyny, homophobia, racism, and xenophobia tend to cluster together.  Trump feels more comfortable with these folks because his "philo-semitism" is just as anti-semitic as theirs. 

When someone proclaims themselves to be the best friends of group x, be suspicious.  The best friends of Jews often are not.  Trump may have given Israel a US embassy in Jerusalem and carte blanche in the occupied territories, but that makes him a friend of Netanyahu, not a friend of Jews.  Trump is not a friend of Jews.  The best evidence for that might just be the story of the morning (three or four shitshows ago), as he was proclaimed King of Israel by .... a Jew for Jesus.  For those who don't know or don't get it, Jews for Jesus are seen by Jews as wildly anti-semitic.  So, yeah, you can tell about someone's character by who their friends are.  Trump's friends are no friends of Jews.  So, if the Republican Jewish Committee wants to sell out its souls to suck up for a smidge of power, remember that they are betraying not Israel, but themselves. 






Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Loyalty and Modern Democracy

I am not a political theorist, and it has been decades since my last political theory class, but this is my blog, so I get to discuss whatever I want without doing extensive literature review (it is my party and I can cry if I want to).

So, excuse me if there are modern treatises that deal with this topic (see here for a great post by Peter Trumbore), but I just come to realize that this whole discussion of loyalty is very problematic.  The context is that Trump has used an anti-semitic trope--that American Jews must be loyal to Israel, which, in this case, means voting Republican.  There is so much wrong with this, but I want to focus on one party: loyalty.

When do we accuse someone of being disloyal in a modern democracy?  When they vote for another party?  Not so much.  Sure in our polarized times, identity with one party (see the post earlier today) becomes so very important.  But we tend not to use the language of loyalty and disloyalty.

Why do democratic citizens pay their taxes and do the other citizen stuff?  Is it because they are loyal to the government?  That might be the case, but we don't say it that way.  We say it this way: that citizens do their share because the government is legitimate, that the institutions are seen as valid, and they led to shared expectations of what is right and wrong.  I don't think Obama or Bush (either one) expected Americans to be loyal to him or to anyone else.

A poor measure, but the one I have handy, are google trends:





I have no idea if the usage of the word means anything, but this is might be the product less of Trump and more of polarization since the trend seems to start before Trump, but it jumps in the winter of 2017.

Anyhow, I can't help but think that the expectation about loyalty sounds either mob-like--don't betray the family--or authoritarian.  That dictators expect unthinking obedience.  So, putting aside the rank anti-semitism and hypocrisy built into Trump's statement, there is something else in it that reeks, and not in a good way.  Trump really has never had any clue about what it means to be a leader in a democracy.  He has never sought to represent or lead the entire American people, just his base.

So, today is just another day in Trumpland.  Maybe it will end in 2021, maybe it will not.  But, for now, the show goes on with the Jester-in-Chief having no clue about the substance or process involved in the job.

Self-Esteem, Group Status, and Comparison: Understanding US Politics Today

I have blogged here before about the insights of social identity theory, and I am returning to it because it is screaming right now.  How so?  Let's first consider the basics.

Social identity theory (as I learned via the work of Donald Horowitz) asserts that people's sense of self, their self-esteem, rides in large part on how they feel about the group with which they identify.  The logic of invidious comparison (my favorite academic phrase of all time) deduces (or induces?) that individuals will feel better about themselves if their group is doing better than other groups, and they will feel worse if their group is slighted or does worse.  And this can then get quite emotional, as people get quite upset when their self-esteem is being harmed.... perceived to be harmed is the key. 

The epiphany for me was the page in Horowitz's book that identified adjectives used around the world to describe "others"--groups other than one's own that either doing better or worse (advanced or backwards):

I found this persuasive for understanding ethnic conflict, but it can also be useful for explaining soccer riots.  The old Jerry Seinfield routine about rooting for laundry--the uniforms of a team, regardless of who is wearing them--is on target because one identifies with "our" team. 

This simple and not so simple insight (heaps of social psych I have not read on this) is very useful for understanding much around us today.

For instance, the crazy debate of the past few days has been folks who are upset about the NYT 1619 series--which marks the 400 anniversary of the start of slavery in North America with a bunch of pieces that elaborate on how much of today's politics, economics, and even traffic jams are the product of the past, particularly of slavery in the US.  Some folks are very, very upset.  Putting aside the ridiculousness of Newt Gingrich supposedly being upset by this (with the best twitter response of this or any era), some people are upset because they see it as a critique of white Americans.  By being critical of the founders of the US, by showing that racism is hard-wired into so many facets of American politics, society, and economics, the 1619 series is seen by members of a particular group as diminishing the value of that group and thus the self-esteem of its members.  If much of the success of white Americans relative to other groups is due to unfair advantages, and that is what slavery and its legacy has produced, then the members of that group will feel their self-esteem diminish.  They must attack those efforts that might make their group look bad. 

Yes, I am a white guy writing about this, but not all (sorry) white Americans share the same sense of their identity.  My identity and my self-esteem, like many other folks, does not ride or die on the sense of the United States as a white country.  Indeed, my self-esteem takes a hit when the US as a multiethnic country is attacked or undermined. The key is this: while others have some say in one's own identity (Nazis don't think I am white), the groups with whom one identifies is actually somewhat within the control of individuals.  This is how people can leave white supremacist organizations--they start to identify less with white people and more with some other group.  One does not have to be a Mets fan all of one's life (damn it), but it can be hard to see the world differently and identify differently. 

Things get complex because people have multiple identities (this is where intersectionality comes in), and often one identity has more salience than others. One of the events of the past week that truly annoyed me from an outside perspective was to see the Log Cabin Republicans re-endorse Donald Trump. This group consists of gay Republicans, and it is abundantly clear that Trump has been awful to the LGBTQ community.  These individuals, well, most of them, find it more important to identify as Republican than as LBGTQ apparently.   

Similarly, in the election of 2016, we saw many non-Muslim Indian Americans line up in favor of Trump because they shared a common animus--Muslims.  It is not so much that the group had the same identity as Trump, but both they and Trump felt better as Muslims in the US were marginalized.  Some Indian Americans may be re-thinking that now as it turns out that white supremacists hate not just Muslims but Indians. 

The larger point here is that we are seeing various people lash out against criticisms of their group because they feel their own status, their own sense of self, is diminished. 

How to combat the dynamics of social identity?  Cross-cutting cleavages used to be a favorite--that it is ok to have different identities as long as people are not always divided into the same groups.  That is, it is better if class, race, and party are not always dividing a place into the same sub-groups.  Political polarization is so dangerous precisely because everyone now is either in group a or group b.  Having racially, religiously, linguistically diverse parties reduces the tensions because not every political decision implicates one's identity.  The Republicans as a largely white, predominantly evangelical party are more likely to have to suffer from the identity dynamics because the fortunes of the party are connected to these groups' sense of self.  The failure of Democrats to win an office (hmm, the Mets seem to come to mind again) may or may not have a big emotional impact as the identities of its members are not so lined up with the party.  It might suck to lose, but it does not feel as much of an insult to the identities of atheists or non-orthodox Jews or LGBTQ or other members of this plural coalition because it is not so much about any individual group.  For the Republicans lately, any defeat is a defeat for whites and for evangelicals.  Which is why this is so much more of a blood sport for one party than another.

It is usually seen that the multiethnic party is at a disadvantage compared to the monoethnic party in the game of outbidding--that the monoparty can peel off voters of the same identity from the multiethnic party.  These days, those voters are called white working class in the US.  But perhaps the multiethnic party is better off in this competition for not being so easily captured and tied to a random outbidder precisely because they simply don't have as much invested in the party's well-being.  That is, to say it as ruthlessly as I can, the GOP is now a bunch of cultists tied to Trump.  The Democrats are too diverse to be quite as chained to any leader and especially one as awful as Trump.

This might make it hard to win elections, but it makes me feel good.  See, I am subject to social identity dynamics.

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Civil-Military Relations After Afghanistan

Jim Golby and Peter Feaver have a super-interesting piece at the Atlantic on what a deal with the Taliban might mean for US civil-military relations.  They were smart enough to ask questions in an experimental fashion this summer about attitudes about a potential end to the Afghanistan war--victory or defeat.  The timing is fantastic, as the US is currently working on a deal with the Taliban.  That deal may be quite problematic--a post for another day--so their survey is really quite prescient by asking different people similar questions but with additional info about a potential victory or defeat in Afghanistan.  For application to the current situation, one can imagine the deal going in either direction, selling out the Afghans to the Taliban in exchange for the US getting out or getting a peace deal with the Taliban share power with the Afghans we have supported and denying the place as a base for terrorism.

The basic findings are straightforward
  • Americans doesn't see the Afghanistan war as a mistake (unlike the Iraq war)
  • They want it to end.  Tis a forever war, and Americans don't like that.
  • Support for withdrawal among civilians is pretty consistent, but among veterans, it matters whether the troops are coming home in victory or defeat, with support for withdrawal declining if it is in defeat.
The big punchline is that leaving in defeat has different impacts on civilian and veteran attitudes about the military and civilian leaders.  That a defeat would deepen the divide between civilians and military folks (vets and those in service).  In the experiments:
  • veterans tended to give civilian leaders credit for a victory
  • nonveteran civilians tended to give military leaders credit for a victory
  • veterans tended to blame civilian leaders for a defeat
  • nonveteran civilians tended to blame military leaders for a defeat.
Note the pattern--the veterans give more of the responsibility for victory or defeat to civilians, and civilians tend to give more of the credit/burden to the military. In either victory or defeat, there would be divisions about who gets credit or blame.  This opens up an interesting research agenda--why do military folks think the civvies are responsible and vice versa?  This article does not explore that finding, but perhaps their forthcoming book does. 

Of course, I had to raise a question about one key aspect: that 75% of civilians and 90% of the veterans expressed confidence in the military, sans experiment--is this too high?  In most democracies these days, the citizens have more confidence in the armed forces than other institutions, and this makes some sense.  Unlike most other institutions, such as the legislature, the executive, the courts increasingly, the media, the armed forces are not seen as partisan.  That is a good thing.  But the whole "support our troops" mantra may cause folks to be less critical of the armed forces than they should be. 

While much of the blame for the forever wars rightfully should go to the civilians that put the militaries into difficult spots, the various armed forces have not always performed brilliantly.  We saw the US military subvert the intent of the President who wanted population-centric war while the Marines went to Helmand instead.  We saw a German colonel order an airstrike despite not having eyes on the ground, which led to more than a hundred Afghan civilians getting killed.  Not one, but two prison breaks took place while the Canadians were in Kandahar.  I can go on, but the major point is this: the armed forces of the US and its allies have had mixed success in the forever wars.  Maybe we should not be quite as confidence in their competence?  Or at least, maybe we should be asking questions, even if the answers ultimately lead to a clearer understanding of how outstanding they were. 


PS  I have a quibble--they state that Obama didn't talk about Afghanistan.  They cite a previous Feaver piece to support that, but that piece has no numbers to show Obama talked more or less about Afghanistan than Bush did, especially Bush after 2005.  I did count Harper talking about Afghanistan over time, which showed some interesting patterns in Adapting in the Dust.

Map Quiz! Biggest Private Employer in Each State

Ok, this is not a quiz but a series of reactions to this pic:

A few obvious patterns here.  Of course, the Walmart of it all.  What does it say that Walmart is the biggest employer for 21 states?  That they have done a great job of wiping out the competition, I guess.  Mostly red states plus Illinois and Virginia.  Hmm.  Lots of correlation/causation possibilities here. 

Let's come back to this, but focus on the other trends:
  • State university systems (which are not private employees, but whatevs).  California (woot for my PhD alma mater), New Mexico, Maryland, Nebraska, Iowa, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Hawaii! A mix politically, but, damn, given that universities not only educate the next generation but are incubators of innovation and economic growth, this would seem to be a good thing.
  • Health care systems--Oregon, Idaho, Utah, Arizona, Dakotas North and South, Minnesota, Vermont, Maine, Pennsylvania, Delaware, Connecticut, Massachusetts.  Hmm.  Is centralization/monopolization of health care a good thing?  In private hands, bad.  Public hands?  Good.  Damn, the US health care system sucks mightily.  I mean, it might make sense that such a service oriented business might employ a great number of people--everyone gets sick, everyone dies, etc.  But I wonder what this figure would look like for places with public health care--would health care still be a top employer?  Perhaps even more so since one can imagine California's health care providers together would employ more than the UC system (of course, if we combined UC with Cal State Universities...)
  • Three outliers in order of increased funkiness: GM in Michigan--not a surprise but we wonder how long this will last; Wakefern Food Corp in New Jersey--that the food business is that concentrated and that big (or that the other potential big employing industries have multiple firms?); and finally and most strange--Denver International Airport.  WTF?  I mean, I know one of its lawyers, but perhaps this says more about how the rest of Colorado's employees are split up into different entities?  That maybe there are multiple health care systems?  I do know there are multiple university systems.  
Back to the big picture, that the biggest employer in nearly half the states is the one that is best at destroying smaller businesses, best at paying low wages, and feeds a small overly rich and right wing family might help to explain a lot that is broken about the US political system.  Just as every election is "about the economy, stupid", we need to take seriously that the structure of the economic system deeply shapes the structure of the political system.  One can look at Walmart's dominance in two ways:
  1. the status quo, where the company store helps to manipulate the system so that people vote against their economic interests
  2. a unionized populace (see, Phil, I like unions sometimes) that takes all of their political power and advocates for better working conditions, national health care, etc.  
When people talk about Blue and Red states and that some states are Red forever, this map makes me think that this is not inevitable.  The question is: how to get folks in the Red states to realize that they are being exploited?  Shouldn't they want more secure health care?  Shouldn't they want a better wage than Walmart has to offer? 

To be sure, this map is deceptive since it is of largest employers and does not tell us about percentage compared to the rest of the state's population.  It may be that Walmart employees are actually not that big of a voting block in many of these states (Texas?).  Indeed, only 1.5 million employees--a lot for one business, but not that big of an electoral constituency. 

Just something to think about on a Saturday morning rather than reading graduate student work or reviewing a journal article.


Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Holy Hierarchy, Batman! Dissertation Defences and Food?

A few weeks ago, this thing became a topic on twitter and it just got new energy:

When I first heard of this, I was flummoxed.  Grad students are, pretty much by definition, poor.  Asking them to pay for the food and drinks at their dissertation defenses (I hate using the word thesis for the big hunk of research written by a PhD student) is just awful.  The inequality here is stark, as the grad student has both little money and little power.  The tenured profs (if you choose untenured profs to be your supervisor, well, damn) have both money and power, at least more than the grad student.

So, adding financial pressure to an already potentially fraught relationship is just ridiculous.  And wildly inappropriate.  I have never seen this "custom" where I was trained or where I have worked (three Phd granting institutions).  This may vary by discipline and/or by institution, but it is simply unfair and abusive.

This week, thanks to my trip to Normandy earlier this summer, I have been re-watching Band of Brothers.  In a scene taking place just before the big jump into Normandy, the beloved Lt. Winters is seen castigating the soon to be beloved Lt. Buck Compton.  For what?  For gambling with his men.  Buck thinks this is a great way to learn the new guys, since he just got assigned to Easy Company.  Winters argues that he should never put his men in the position where they are giving stuff, that they are in debt to, a superior officer.

While academia is not usually seen as hierarchical as the military (I have been disobedient to more than one department chair in my time--with mostly modest consequences), the relationship between adviser and advisee is not that dissimilar from officer to enlisted, as there is a wide gap in between in terms of money and power in both relationships.  I don't hold the lives of my students in my hands, unlike a military officer, but I do hold their careers in my hands.  I may not think about that much, but I am pretty sure the students do.  That is what privilege is all about--those who have it tend not to think about it, those who don't tend to feel threatened or insecure. 

Which goes to something very basic, identified by a dear departed uncle: with great power comes great responsibility.  While academics may not think they have great power, they very much do so over the PhD students they supervise.  I try to pay the bill whenever I have coffee or beer or lunch or dinner with graduate students (sometimes I forget or they move quickly).  I damn well never expect them to pay for me. 

So, I hope my fellow academics in other disciplines/regions start to consider exactly what they are doing with this tradition and end it.


A Semi-Spew Contest: A Correct Number?

I have long argued that anytime Trump uses a number, it is wrong.  It is one of the basic rules for understanding Trump.

So, I tweeted thusly in reaction to yet another Daniel Dale story about Trump and his wildly inaccurate statements:


I didn't get any serious answers, which is somewhat telling.  Instead, I got these answers:



[I used pics of the tweets rather than embedding all of them because I have limited time--one of the reasons I post less often these days]

The contest is still open: let me know of a time where Trump uses a number accurately.  Or give me more unserious answers, because we can use all of the amusement we can in these dark times.