Sunday, March 26, 2023

Professing about Punditry: Calculating Value Over Replacement Pundit, Canada Edition

I look puzzled or annoyed as the anchor
got my title wrong, suggesting I run NPSIA
I have been thinking a lot lately about profs and punditry.  To start, I am just going to accept that profs who appear on TV are "pundits" as the definition of a pundit is: "an expert in a particular subject or field who is frequently called on to give opinions about it to the public."  Yep, that's us, among other folks.  Plenty of profs who aren't pundits, plenty of pundits who are not profs, but those who profess in the media are, indeed, pundits.  


This came up last week at the International Studies Association as there was a panel on "How Not To Bridge The Gap" which is about as deceptive as one can get in a panel title since it was really about how to bridge the gap--how to have the academics talk to the policy people and vice versa.  After a couple of decades of Bridging the Gap [BTG], a group dedicated to fostering the exchange, and a few years of a bit of that in a Canadian accent--the CDSN which has as BTG as a founding partner--folks are now asking about whether this is a good thing, whether it is dangerous, how to do responsible engagement, and such.

While all of this can be and should be quite complicated, I have a basic take on whether or not to do media stuff (and since I do a fair amount, you can guess where this is headed):

  1. We get public money to do our research, so we should give back.  Indeed, many grant applications require a dissemination plan.
  2. A fundamental part of professing is to disseminate knowledge.
  3. And if not us, then who?

This last thing is my focus today and was when I piped up from the audience last week.  That if we don't speak, the media will find someone else to fill that time slot, that page, that podcast, whatever.  So, one must ask themselves if one can bring more to something than whoever else they might get or whether one might not be as fit for that topic or issue than whoever else they might get.

This is where I borrow a concept from the analytics revolution in sports.  There have been all kinds of ways to measure the value of baseball players compared to each other, basketball players (one measure is called RAPTOR!), and so on.  My personal favorite happens to be from baseball.  I like it so much both because it has a good conception and has a fun acronym is VORP: Value Over Replacement Player.  This enables one not only to assess how a generic player in their position in the same season or time frame, but to compare players at different positions or in different time frames.  While technology, strategy, and medical care and the rest have changed over time, we can use this measure to figure out the relative value of players from different generations.  Babe Ruth is still #1 followed by Walter Johnson, Cy Young, and then Barry Bonds and then Bonds's godfather Willie Mays (this settles the Mantle/Mays thing).  I am happy to see Tom Seaver above Greg Maddox, that Seaver was much better than the replacement level starting pitcher of his era compared to Greg Maddox to the replacement level starting pitcher of his era.  In basketball, this puts Lebron over Jordan, which folks might disagree with just a bit. 

The point is not to stir up a debate about sports, but the idea of measuring someone compared the person a team could get that is easily available--off the street, from the waiver wire, from the minor leagues, whatever.  When it comes to media stuff, the producers of the various radio, television, podcast, and other programs need to fill content, so they will grab someone, anyone, to fill in a spot.  So, the point I raised at the conference and part of the reason why I do media stuff is: would we rather have a knowledgeable expert or some schlub off the street?  

Of course, they don't get just any schlub, they go to the experts who are already on their rolodex (to date myself even further).  We tend to see mostly the same folks again and again depending on the issue, so the question is, for every expert, are they more expert or less (dare I say it) hacky than the person who might be called instead?  

The VORP in sports is easy to calculate even if what goes in the calculations can be and is debated--how much does excellence at anyone time count compared to lifetime achievement, etc.  In punditry, how do we calculate VORP?  It will be less about what is quantified and more about what can be compared and ranked.  So, what may be in the minds of the producers and should be in our minds as we come up with a Value Over Replacement Pundit:

  1. How well they know the topic at hand?  Some folks are super sharp at one thing, others know a bit about a lot.  This measure here is about how much they know about the specific topic?
  2. What is their range?  How broadly can they speak?  Because you know the anchor is going to go off script and ask questions that are not necessarily in the strikezone.
  3. How articulate are they?  Can they speak/write clearly and dynamically?  I will mention my Lebron/Babe Ruth in Canadian circles on this measure below.
  4. How measured or responsible are they?  Folks saying that war between US and China is inevitable, for instance, have a lower VORP because they may very well be creating a self-fulfilling prophecy.  My speculating about terrorism in 1996 Lubbock should have set my VORP at a negative number.  On the other hand, I was far more responsible last March about calls for a No Fly Zone than a bunch of retired military officers in the US and Canada. 
  5. Availability: in sports, health is a gift/attribute in its own right, which means that some players rank higher because they can play most days.  Kevin Durant's VORP has been hurt by his various injuries.  In the pundit game, the question is whether one is willing to do it a bit, some, or a lot.  This can obviously tradeoff with expertise/responsibility pieces. 

There are probably other ingredients/variables, but let's stick with those for now, and folks can suggest additional ones.

The first item--how well they know the topic--allows us to bring in the positions from sports.  That one can have a high VORP if one is playing a position they are good at and a low one if they play one that is not their strength.  Babe Ruth has an incredible VORP because he was both a terrific hitter and an amazing pitcher.  So, some folks will have high Value Above Replacement Pundit because they know a lot about a lot, and they have the other key ingredients. In thinking about this and my experiences both in the media and watching other folks, I thought I should use a few key issues to highlight who has a high VORP.  And, yes, this was partially inspired by watching two NPSIA colleagues and one PhD student absolutely rock the Canadian intelligence beat.  

So, enough with the explanations and definitions, who has a high VORP in Canada?  Note, this is illustrative, not exhaustive.

I think number one on Canadian foreign policy, broadly defined, is Roland Paris.  He brings his years of academic experience on peacekeeping and international relations to bear along with his various times in government at different levels.  He is simply terrific at articulating complex stuff--his quotes today about Biden's visit to Ottawa were both accurate and delightful.  He is also very responsible--he's not going to say something that is wildly speculative.  If I were a producer, I would always go to him first on damn near anything.  When I appeared on TV with him once, I just basically said: "I agree with Roland." It did not make for good tv.  Bessma Momani has wide-ranging expertise, is compelling and clear, so she's a great go-to for Canadian relations with a variety of places.

On intelligence matters, Canada has quite a few folks who are super sharp on this: Stephanie Carvin, Leah West, Jess Davis, Artur Wilcyznkski, and Craig Forcese clearly have very high VORPs (I think Amar Amarasingam does too, but I haven't seen as much of his stuff).  Stephanie, Leah, Jess, and Craig have done extensive research, Artur has far more experience than the others in government in so many spots (he is a great podcast co-host for a couple of the podcasts on the CDSN Podcast Network).  Each are quite responsible, sticking within their lanes of expertise, not speculating wildly, and not having any ideological axes to grind (that's a hint for many of the folks who have low VORPs--who tend to dominate the editorial pages).

On defence stuff, Thomas Juneau has among the highest VORPs because he has academic and policy expertise, a willingness to do the media stuff, is excellent in both official languages. Stéfanie von Hlatky would have the highest defence VORP except she does not do that much media.  I wish she did more as she is super responsible, knows the Canadian defence scene, knows the US and NATO well, again strong in both languages.  I had fun watching her at a couple of NATO summits where the Canadian media grabbed us to "scrum" with them.  

Of the columnists, I think Shannon Proudfoot easily has the highest VORP.  Her columns always are well reported, provide valuable perspective, making one see things from a different angle.

Where do I fit in?  I think I have a decent, positive VORP score, but not as strong as those mentioned above.  I am not as articulate or as responsible.  I have a wider range than most, except perhaps Thomas and Roland (reminds me of the polls that show that men are far more confident about landing planes or battling bears), but with that greater willingness to talk about stuff at the edges of my expertise, I say stuff like Ukraine is going to lose the war.  I was wrong (many were wrong about that).  I should have been a bit more circumspect about potential predictions even while being clear as I could why a No Fly Zone was super dangerous. I did have fun saying "your guess is as good as mine" when an anchor went against the instructions asking about the pipeline sabotage.

One of the things I have been emphasizing in recent years is saying no to the media where my VORP trends negative or where I know folks who have much more value.  During the Vance/McDonald/Sajjan stuff of two years ago, I kept directing the media to people who studied gender and the military.  I was far more willing to talk when the story focused on civilian control of the military, something I study.  I have declined to speak much about balloons or about election interference as I really don't have that much to say.  I really don't know much about China, for instance. 

I will speak beyond my areas of expertise on the Battle Rhythm podcast because it is a smaller audience, I can edit myself afterwards, and my co-host and guests can and will correct me.  For a five minute hit on radio or TV, the anchor person is not going to push back if I say something wrong.  They may want me to do so since it might make for better tv.  

Who has negative VORPs, where a replacement pundit available off the street or waiver wire would be a significant improvement?  I could name a few obvious retired senior military officers, but that would be unnecessary.  I could also name some columnists for national papers in Canada including one who used to own a bunch of them before/after? he was convicted.

So some caveats here--I don't watch as much tv and I certainly don't listen to too much radio, so I am mostly influenced by the times I have appeared with other folks.  And, yes, most of the people listed above are very good friends.  I don't think I have to agree with someone to give them a high score.... but it probably doesn't hurt. Does that make me biased or do I simply hang with people with high VORPs?  ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

There is a tradeoff I forgot to mention in the first posting of this: if you say no a lot, they won't come back.  Which can be cool if one does not want to be bothered.  But saying yes a fair amount means that when I do say no, I can refer them to sharp, younger people who they don't know about, and this allows me to connect the media to diverse voices.  And they often listen.  The media wants good people, but they also have lots of time pressure, so they often go to the easiest get.  But if you give them help, they will add to their rolodex.

Feel free to nominate in the comments folks in the Canadian IR media space who are at either end of the VORP spectrum or in between.


Sunday, March 19, 2023

ISA 2023: So Much Gratitude

The ISA poster maker
was not wrong

 I am sticking around in Montreal after a wonderful ISA conference as I have a CDSN workshop on Climate Security.  So, I am hanging in my hotel room, marveling at how lucky I am.  I had a great time, meeting old friends, making new connections, giving feedback on a wonderful book, and being really grateful.  After two cancelled ISA's (Hawaii and Vegas, damn it!) and one strange, poorly attended one in Nashville last year, I was determined to hug longer and share my gratitude with all those who helped me along the way.  As it was a conference full of special events, this was not hard to do.


Lauren and me on
reconstructed McTavish       

Started by meeting up with a former undergrad who got hooked on IR in my Intro class at McGill . We walked around our old stomping grounds.  Lauren Konken and I had a great time, chatting about ye olde days and noticing what has changed at McGill.  The plywood instead of a real railing on my old office balcony?  Nope, that didn't change.

A ritual for Montreal conferences is for my former student Ora Szekely to take me to her favorite Chinese restaurant in Montreal's mini-Chinatown.  I am always thrilled to see my former students--they are mostly doing great, and they are mostly very funny people.  So, conferences are great for both silliness and pride.  I am quite thankful that I have had such great students over the years even if I whine about reading endless drafts.

I met with several editors to promote the Dave/Phil/Steve book manuscript, and they all indicated much interest. I feel good about our chances of getting our book out to a great press in the near future.

This was a year full of honorary panels honoring people I know.  Which means I am getting old.  I was asked to be on Victor Asal's panel, as the Ethnicity, Nationalism, and Migration section gave him an award for all of his work, and it was my honor to join Ora, Erin Jenne, Pat James, and some other folks (my memory sucks after a week of reduced sleep).  Victor has published an incredible amount of work in many areas with many, many co-authors.  And he is a mensch.  These panels are supposed involve some roasting, so I teased him gently while also noting his contributions and his mensch-ness.

For the first time, I attended the Presidential speech because the President for the past year has been Debbi Avant.  She was one of two senior IR grad students at UCSD when I arrived.  She was most welcoming, throwing a party for the prospective students, and then over my time there, most generous with her advice, and most supportive.  She was also a hell of a role model, starting with her doing security stuff at a time where no prof at UCSD did international security.  She was a pathbreaker in the field of civil-military relations, applying principal-agent theory to it before Peter Feaver made it cool to do so.  Since then, I have often asked her for advice, which she provided quickly and insightfully.  She threw yet another party when I visited Denver when I gave a talk on the Steve and Dave NATO book.  Most recently, she has served quite helpfully on the CDSN Advisory Board.  She gave a great, challenging talk, and was perhaps a little disappointed she didn't get as much pushback as she expected.

The other highlight was seeing my supervisor, Miles Kahler, be honored by various IPE luminaries.  The person assigned to talk about his work as an advisor could not make it, so I was happy to stand up towards the end and tell folks what a difference Miles has made in my career.  It was great to hear from these IPE leaders how Miles stood out, making me realize how I ended up emulating him--focusing on the domestic politics of IR, being at the intersection of comparative politics and IR, being a fox rather than a hedgehog (moving around, studying a bunch of stuff, rather than being focused on one big thing), and so on.  I was the first PhD student for whom he served as chair of the dissertation committee/primary supervisor (Debbi was the first one he worked with at UCSD).  So, maybe I made a dent on him too?  I am glad I got a chance to say a few words of thanks (and of snark) and share my appreciation of not just a great scholar but a terrific person.  I am far less intimidated of him now ;)

So, it was perfect that I ended my ISA by going out to dinner with Miles, his partner, and with another student of his.  It was a great dinner with a great beer, one that had a can that all admired.  "Any Time Is the Right Time."  Indeed. 

Friday, March 17, 2023

Talking to THE Civilian in Canadian Civil-Military Relations

 For the second straight year, Minister of National Defence Anita Anand joined my Civ-Mil class towards the end of the term.  That she is a former prof helps a great deal, I am guessing, in persuading her to spend roughly a half hour of her very busy time with us.  Last year, it was a bit of surprise.  This year, I knew ahead of time so I could prime my students to ask civil-military questions, not just Canada in the world questions.  And since the theme of yesterday's class was Culture Change, most of the questions focused on that. 

Once again, she spoke for a few minutes including discussing her background in corporate governance and how often she was in a boardroom that was far from diverse--that her previous work set herself up well for this moment.  She then talked about some of the achievements of the past 13-14 months: adopting the interim recommendation from Arbour about transferring sexual assault cases to the civilian courts, accepting the recommendations of both the Arbour panel and anti-discrimination panel, apologizing to those who were in the class action lawsuit, and more.  She noted that there is a lot of skepticism about culture change (I have heard much of that online and in person), so she noted how promotions of generals and admirals has changed (in my view, there is now much more civilian oversight than in the past, a very good thing), she mentioned a few programs that will be starting soon that I can't talk about at this moment, and more.  She said that she hoped to institutionalize these measures so they last for decades although this kind of contradicted some of her answers that focused on the right personalities and relationships at the top of DND/CAF. 

Anand then answered many questions.  So, what did they ask and how did Anand respond?

First, one student asked about whether the culture change effort was a short term effort or would require generational changes.  Anand indicated that there is no deadline, that it will require decades.

Second, how will the culture change fit into the defence policy update.  Here, she referred to a recent op-ed that suggested that she and DND were too woke and Marxist--she indicated that culture change is not something that gets in the way of operational effectiveness but is a necessary ingredient, something I have been yammering about as well on twitter and here.

Third, one student asked about the basic structure of Canadian civ-mil--that is a diarchy with the Deputy Minister and Chief of Defence Staff being equals.  Anand indicated that this structure works with the current team (which raised questions about what happens when the team is not good, and perhaps that structural change might protect against that some?).

Fourth, a student asked how do you keep this stuff prioritized?  The Defence Minister said that she needs to ensure every day that she, the CDS, the DM, her team, and everyone else is focused on this every day.

Fifth, one student asked about data sovereignty.  Anand responded by discussing how NORAD modernization is going to include a whole bunch of initiatives to improve the digital side of things.

Finally, our Visiting Defence Fellow, Colonel Cathy Blue, asked why Anand hasn't considered developing an Inspector General.  Anand noted that other agencies in Canada and beyond have IGs, but that her job as minister is to focus on implementing Arbour's 48 recommendations.  I found that a bit troubling as I understand that she is busy and the demands are high, but I didn't think the Arbour report was perfect and and should limit the imagination of what the Minister/DND/CAF need to be doing.   

I didn't get to ask any questions as I wanted the students to get their questions in during the short time we had with the Minister.  I will save mine for a future podcast interview or whenever we meet in person.  She did ask about my cookies, and my policy is always to deliver in person, so maybe some day we can actually meet in real life.  As always, I am super impressed with the current Minister of National Defence--I continue to think she is the right person in the right place at the right time.  She has faced greater challenges than she probably expected including a war in Europe.  We don't always see eye to eye on things, but she takes this whole civ-mil thing very seriously and very thoughtfully, and I really appreciate that.   I am very grateful that she is willing to hang with my students for a bit, as the students got a lot out of it.  I am also thankful to my students as they asked great questions.

Saturday, March 11, 2023

Three Years of Madness, Has the Learning Stopped?

 Two years ago, I posted about the lessons I learned in the first year of the pandemic. Quickly two years flew by, two years of vaccinations and folks railing against the vaccines, two years of death and two years of anxiety, stress, and "are we there yet?"  Sure, I marked last year's anniversary as well, noting the anger and frustration, so I am now struggling to figure out what I have learned as people start talking "post-pandemic"as if covid is gone.

More than a few relatives have been hit by Covid twice.  The only exception to all of this is my mother, who has been entirely covid-free.  Good thing given she is now over 90.  There is significant variation among my friends and family now.  Before, they all vaxxed and they all masked and most avoided most travel.  Now?  All are still getting boosted, but the mask and travel thing is now much more of a mix.  I just came back from a big family event in that hotspot of hotspots--Florida.  I saw a fair amount of masking, but very little at the big party.  

My own approach: damned if I know.  I tend to mask up when I am shopping, going to the movies (I keep on making mine Marvel!), teaching.  But receptions? Not so much because it is hard to do that networking/conversing thing behind masks.  So, I did duck out of one massive reception in Ottawa a few weeks ago.  For me, it is about risk mitigation.  I am going to a rock concert next week--which could be a superspreader event, so I am wearing a mask.  For less risky stuff, for outdoors stuff, I don't sweat it as much.  I am guessing that the vaccines have worked most of the time I have been exposed to covid, with that one exception from last summer.  

 I have been and will keep on skiing.  It is really the best anti-covid sport--distances between people outdoors, wearing stuff on one's face--with the only risky part the travel and the apres-ski.  

 My baking has slowed down, but when the occasion calls for it, I still bake up a storm.  I will be making cookies and/or brownies for next week's ISA convention in Montreal.   I have been adding new recipes at a slower rate.  Much of my time now is on planning the big kitchen renovation, which I wish we had done before the pandemic.  

Anyhow, back to the lessons of the past year.  I think the learning curve has flattened.  Most of the lessons were in the first two years of this thing.  Some of those have deepened--that leadership or its absence matters a great deal; that most politicians are craven as they are unwilling to impose any restrictions during new waves because of resistance they experienced before; that the anti-vaxxers who scream about freedom are mostly interested in dominating others; that people really are social so the mild lockdowns North America faced did leave some scars; that elections, yes, have consequences; that as long as the deaths are not so visible, they can be tolerated by the political system; that prevention remains much harder to get folks to support than response; and so on.

The biggest lesson I mentioned before remains: that COVID reveals not just pre-existing conditions in the bodies of its victims, but it reveals the flaws in our political and social systems.  It did not have to be this way--it did not have to be so partisan, that vaccines did not have to become so politicized and become an identity thing, that provinces and states could have spent money on improving health care, but many chose not to because they were led by people who want government to fail.  

Not only did this ultimately kill and disable more people than could have been the case, but it means that we are all less likely to be prepared for the next pandemic AND that we are unlikely to have politicians take the necessary steps next time.  So, yeah, either the learning has stopped or the unlearning has begun.  Damn.

Monday, March 6, 2023

Identities and Conflict: Recurring B Mitzvah Edition

I went to Florida for a relative's Bat Mitzvah.  As I have remarked earlier here, these events make me feel uncomfy as I am not a believer.  Many of the prayers and songs are burned into my memory based on the years I had to go to the various services before I left home.  My father kept reminding me of the Jewish opportunities at college, which caused me to wonder whether he was either relentlessly optimistic or just in denial.  So, the only times I go to synagogues or temples are wedding and Bax Mitzvahs.  

This time, something else helped make me feel a part of this community, reinforcing my identity as a Jew--the obstacles in the driveway that forced me to drive left/right/left/right and prevented me or anyone from entering the parking lot quickly.  Yes, this synagogue had an entrance similar to those at military bases... which speaks to the threats facing Jews in North America.  At the last BM in the fall, there was a metal detector and some heavy security at the door of the synagogue in NY.  It used to be the case that when I walked in a strange city, I knew I was near an American embassy when I noted an increase in security barriers.  These days, seeing such stuff tells me that I am near either an embassy or a synagogue.  

The threat of violence is real. Anti-semitism, along with the other hates--misogyny, racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and xenophobia--is on the rise.  At CPAC this week, the ethnic outbidding to appeal to the whitest, most "christian" folks produced much targeting of transgender people, but these folks and their pals didn't stop there.  Nick Fuentes, who got to hang with Trump not that long ago, apparently talked about all kinds of folks (or isms, which really are targeting people) that need to go.

So, identity is about us and them.  And right now these folks out there are making me feel more Jewish because a basic part of that id is the threat, realized in pogroms long ago, in the Holocaust, and now in smaller scale violence, is increasing again.  So, I don't believe in all the religious stuff, but I do believe that there are folks out there that would love to put me and my relatives into showers and ovens.  So, I feel the us because the them is getting so toxic, so scary.

This is not going to go away anytime soon especially when major political parties--Republicans in the US--worry more about alienating the Nazi wannabe's in their base than standing up for freedom.  The supposed party of freedom is very much becoming a party of tyranny.  

While I loved seeing my extended family this weekend, I can't help but notice the dark side of identity and the threat we face.