27 May 2011

Is college worth the cost?

The question, from the Honorable Mr. Phillips [Freakonomics blog]: "Is college worth the cost?"

The answer: I do not know, but I have some ideas about how to answer the question.

The first point is that we should begin by disaggregating whether all college diplomas are worth the same. Not to put too fine a point on it, but I think that we agree that degrees differ at the broadest level first by subject area (mathematics probably the most challenging, fashion design probably the least) and then by university quality (Harvard probably the best, Fort Snot Mid-State University and Cooking College probably the worst).

The second is that we should realize that college degrees are, at least to some degree (so to speak), positional goods even beyond rankings and subject. That is, the classic economist's signalling argument--that mere completion of a (say) University of Southern Indiana degree may signal something more valuable than dropping out of Cornell a year early--does hold. One of my favorite examples of this is a job posting (long since closed) from Penny Arcade, which included the following lines:
"And here are some other things we’re using to weed people out. It’s
not fair. I know. Life’s not fair.

- A Bachelor’s degree is preferred. I don’t care what it’s in.
- 2-3 years experience in a professional workplace as a designer
- You should probably be a fan of Penny Arcade. Probably. Yeah. "
PA, of course, was founded by two guys who never completed any post-secondary education. (Note: Actually, one of them may have, but I'm a thousand miles away from my reference books here.) And not that there's anything wrong with it! There are different standards for "talent" and "entrepreneurs" than for the people they employ, and that is how it should be. The point, however, is precisely that even Holkins and Krahulik (and Robert Khoo, in this case) are insisting on the credential as a credential and not for its "value." Cornell and USI are indeed equivalent here.

How would you disentangle these different strands? I'm not going to post the different empirical research here, both for reasons of time and also for reasons of not being at an IP address with clean access to JSTOR, but I think the readership knows that the arguments are actually a little bit more nuanced than the normal ones we hear thrown around. Suffice it to say that estimating the causal effect of attendance at Harvard versus Michigan is a little bit easier than estimating the causal effect of attending Wayne State versus not attending at all. Some clever empirical estimations have been done, but they are necessarily long-term (e.g., the ones exploiting the Vietnam draft lottery) and not necessarily relevant to today's marketplace.

That's important, because the fundamental driver for this question is now frankly financial. As it should be. In no other field of our normal experience, even including medicine, do we throw around so much money with so little idea of the benefit. When it comes to medicine, at least we have some confidence that more money may equal more life. For the Harvard/Michigan question, though, I'm not sure that we know how to answer that -- or whether the answer for someone at the 99th percentile is different for someone at the 99.99th percentile, or whether the economic benefits from attending Harvard have more to do with the social status of going to Natalie Portman's alma mater or more to do with the fine faculty. I mean, I think we all have private theories, but we don't really have any proof.

And that is the biggest problem here. The social scientific data is at least ambiguous about the effect of attending for most people, and certainly offers no direct advice about what people should major in. And yet the voices of authority that parents and their college-bound offspring listen to are uniform in their encouraging people go to college immediately and rarely draw a distinction between high- and low-quality schools (as opposed to high- and low-cost schools).

My caveats above aside, I am certain that a degree from the University of Oklahoma is better than one from Oklahoma State, and that one from Oklahoma State will travel better than one from Southwestern Kentucky Bible College. (I apologize if there is a SKBC.)

The data may be ambiguous, after all, but the costs are not. In the era of non-dischargeable student debt, that should be a real concern.

(There is a post that readers should read, and which I am including here so I don't lose it: Andrew Gelman offers some observations on the state of our knowledge about college degrees and how not to conduct a quantitative counterfactual.)

To be selfish for a moment: Most troubling, however, for a graduate student is this bullet point from Phillips's post:
Only a quarter (24%) of college presidents say that, if given a choice, they would prefer that most faculty at their institution be tenured. About seven-in-ten say they would prefer that faculty be employed on annual or long-term contracts.
Are we really moving toward a world in which public school teachers are going to have more job security and better pay than college faculty? I don't mean to be peevish, but this certainly triggers some destructive and non-productive feelings--like the feeling that if university faculty, for whom tenure was designed and for whom tenure has a real academic purpose, are going to be denied tenure while kindergarten teachers enjoy it, then maybe I'll just take a job at McKinsey after all.

Number One for 27 May 2011

I picked you up, I shook you up and turned you around:

The Human League, "Don't You Want Me" (a song my iTunes Genius is particularly fond of)

26 May 2011

Today's post

can be found at the Duck of Minerva.

It's a commentary on the new Coburn report recommending cutting NSF funding for political science. I humbly claim that it (well, both the post and the report) has must-read status for academics and the interested public.

Number One for 26 May 2011

Then kick me once again / And say we'll never part:
Tom Lehrer, "The Masochism Tango"

25 May 2011

Who was the greatest American president?

The question, from a backbencher: "Who was the greatest American president?"

The answer: Abraham Lincoln. There can be no serious dispute.

I begin by noting that this is an obviously old-fashioned and unscientific sort of question, the kind that admits of no empirical answer. Consequently, answering it reveals more about the respondent than about the topic supposedly under discussion. Nevertheless, I think there are common enough views about what makes a successful president, and I think the reasoning here is important enough to publicize, that I will answer it anyhow.

Who are the other contenders? I assume the list is short. Only the top ten percent should be seriously considered for the title; rounding up to the next whole president, that gives us five: Franklin Roosevelt, Theodore Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and George Washington.

I am aware that I am ranking Eisenhower much higher than his consensus position at something like 10th. But on the other hand, can we really accept Kennedy, shorn of his mystique, as being at the 90th percentile or above? As for Truman, the gap between contemporary and contemporaneous judgment is so wide as to suggest that one or the other camp has got him completely wrong, and although there is much to be said on Truman's behalf I am privately convinced that Trumania is a product of the fact that he has had a very good book written about him from which practically everyone is drawing their opinion. Eisenhower, by contrast, scores low because few people appreciate his particular genius--Fred Greenstein seems to have gotten it mostly right, as did Steven Amrbose's sources--for making far-reaching moves while appearing all but tranquil. I think the present situation in Washington, with our modern-day Birchers and Brickers, suggests that Eisenhower, although "conservative," had a special obligation and a special talent for keeping nuttery out of the GOP. Moreover, any right-wing president who opposes military (although, alas, not covert) solutions for everything and takes care to ensure that the writ of the Supreme Court runs everywhere, including in Orval Faubus' state, is doing something that left-wing scholars may not be able to fully appreciate.

Theodore Roosevelt is an obvious candidate for the top five, but he lacks the crowning accomplishment--or, what is more accurate, the supreme test--that would allow us to discern exactly what fraction of his talents he exercised in office and whether they would have matched the time. Despite his evident appetite for adventurism and statecraft in the Machtpolitik sense, Roosevelt was also the most sensible and even-handed Progressive president a Republican could dream of; the perversions of power embraced by the Wilson presidency--the fondness for racism, the flirtations with dictatorship, the obsession with moral purity--only serve to highlight how effective the first Roosevelt's approach to power was.

The case for Washington as one of the greatest--although, I think, not the greatest--Americans is easy to make. The case for Washington as a great president is surprisingly hard, and in the end it rests on much the same foundation as the case for Lincoln: He upheld the rule of the federal government. Yet Washington's presidency was too concerned with precedent-setting to make it the greatest presidency; and, after all, the scope of the presidency in those early days of the Federal Republic was simply too small to allow for anyone to ascend to real executive greatness, except maybe for Alexander Hamilton. In fact, it says something about Washington that, save Lincoln, he is the only president before 1900 whom you could even consider for the top five without blushing. (I leave the scholars' rankings of Jefferson as a consensus number four pick as a weird, and rare, example of left-wing Founding fetishism.)

By elimination, then, we have FDR and Lincoln. And FDR has a very strong claim. First, of course, he is the most successful American politician ever: five national tickets, four wins. Only one other president (Nixon) comes close (five national tickets and four wins)--but two of Nixon's victories were as vice president, while all of Roosevelt's wins were as president. Furthermore, FDR has both the most impressive domestic policy record and the most immediately globally consequential foreign policy of any president. So, that's something, too.

But FDR's weaknesses are the key. The familiar distinction between the fox and the hedgehog misses out on the crucial point that a great leader must have both tendencies. The fox and the hedgehog themselves, of course, are only concerned with survival, and their differing strategies are geared to that single goal. Yet if there is to be a case that leaders are at all transformative, then survival is not enough. They must be hedgehog-like in knowing One Big Thing to which they move forward, and yet fox-like in moving toward that goal.

In the end, it is not clear that FDR had a well-worked out vision of what he wanted the world to look like. The inclusion of France and China on the Four Five Policemen is a pretty bad knock against his strategic genius; the retreat from the New Deal toward the latter part of his first term is another one. Indeed, FDR always seemed depressingly ready to treat settlements as temporary. What he seemed to want, more than anything, was a world in which America was like America, but more so--fairer to the working man, nicer to the farmer, and stronger in the world.

None of this, for Roosevelt, seemed to require going any further in moral or political thought than the cliches of the sermons in the Groton Chapel. There was nothing particularly radical in Roosevelt's thought, even though he was quite often daring in his deeds. Unlike Churchill or Stalin, his great contemporaries, Roosevelt did not know what he wanted the postwar world to be like, which is why he could be played by each of them in turn. It is this failure of the imagination that played at least a role in making the years after the cessation of hostilities so perilous.

The contrast with Lincoln could not, in the end, be greater. Roosevelt inherited a state already willing to respond to a strong-willed executive; even Herbert Hooever, albeit as Secretary of Commerce, had discovered that. Roosevelt moved in a world in which mass media allowed the incumbent in the White House to shape public opinion in a new way, as even Calvin Coolidge had understood. And, most of all, the revolutionary situation Roosevelt encountered could be ameliorated through existing constitutional channels--although it is to FDR's everlasting credit that he understood that there was a crisis that had to be addressed.

Lincoln could rely on none of these advantages. The White House staff did not exist, and the federal government was not much more muscular; the press was partisan and local; and the constitutional machinery had been broken from the moment of his election. Lincoln, then, had to both fix the situation at hand but also do so in a way that would serve a greater vision of what the Union had to be, and what a commitment to political liberalism meant. For, in the end, Lincoln is the closest that the United States (indeed, perhaps any major democracy) has had to a moral philosopher in high office. He was radical, for his vision of the obligations of democracy cut to the literal root of what self-governance by free people meant.

And Lincoln is personally greater than FDR, too. FDR was a traitor to his class, but Lincoln rose above his roots. FDR could condescend to understand the sharecropper and the day laborer; Lincoln had, in essence, been both. It is not sufficient for a good president--or any other leader--to have empathy for the "common man," but it is probably necessary for a great leader to do so.

Thus, Lincoln. It is a provincial choice, in the sense that I would wager that Lincoln is probably the American political figure least understood outside of the United States (what foreign policy accomplishments did he have? and how can a non-American really understand our continuing fascination with the Civil War?), but nonetheless he remains a singularly consequential figure.

Number One for 25 May 2011

"All my life I have been acutely aware of a contradiction in the very nature of my existence."
Yukio Mishima, as interpreted by Philip Glass:

24 May 2011

Number One for 24 May 2011

I think it's time to blow this scene:
Yoko Kanno and the Seatbelts, "Tank!"

23 May 2011

Are tornadoes scary?

The question, from a backbencher: Are tornadoes frightening?

The answer: I used to say "no." But this summer has me reconsidering my answer.

One of the nice things about growing up in the Midwest/Mid-South region is that you are inured to the idea that tornadoes are scary. Hurricanes are frightening. Earthquakes are terrifying. City buses are the worst--just ask the kids in Adventures in Babysitting. But tornadoes? Nah. It's fun watching out-of-towners freak out about tornado watches. I don't even notice until there's a warning, and even then not until they actually interrupt a live program.

I understand that this is not how other people see it. And I am beginning to understand why.

There are unspoken rules. Tornadoes kill people in trailer parks, not people in hospitals. Tornadoes hit farms, not airports. And tornadoes are expected to keep the death toll in the high single digits, maximum.

So the tornadoes are breaking all of the rules this week.

These past few weeks have pushed 2011 into the realm of genuine statistical anomaly. The long-term trend for tornado fatalities over the past several decades has been for tornado-related deaths to gently, gently trend toward zero; I even recall reading a NOAA or an NWS report some time ago that argued, in essence, that at current rates we might more or less "solve" tornado-related deaths by 2030 or thereabouts.

Why? Because natural disasters aren't so natural, after all. Although the cause of the "disaster" might appear to be natural--e.g., the cyclonic winds, the hail, lightning, excessive rain, or what have you--the process of turning that exogenous shock into a disaster requires a society to either be poor or backward. I use those terms in their precise sense. "Poor," in the sense that if you don't have well-built buildings or a well-organized state to begin with, that there is simply very little to shelter you from the storm (sometimes literally) and nothing to help you cope with the aftermath. "Backward," in the sense that since about 1950, and really since 1980 or so, there have been almost no states that have failed to stock up on weather radars, public announcement systems, and so forth except as a failure of policy or a success of a diabolical policy. (One of the most fun and most frightening papers I've ever read was an entirely persuasive formal model showing exactly how an authoritarian but perverse government would use a disaster as a way to extort revenues from aid NGOs.)

In other words, given constant weather conditions, increasing prevention and response management should really make most disasters manageable. And, largely, in the developed world, they do. The Japanese earthquake is mostly notable for how few people died, and most of those who did die perished in the tsunami, which is rather harder to stop. My semi-informed guess is that a similar seismic event in, say, California, would easily top the death toll from the Japanese quake by mid-morning--before we found out that all the beach communities were floating in the middle of the Pacific.

The question, then, is whether 2011 is an outlier or the beginning of a new trend. The data are not clear, although the trend lines are way up--indeed, running ahead of what NOAA's model calls the "maximum" number that we should be expecting. Maybe it is a coincidence. Maybe there has been some sort of a change in the underlying weather-generating mechanism. But I am now actually a little afraid that these past few weeks could be the new normal. And if so, that would make the Midwest rather less tame and less placid. And what the region would gain in excitement it would more than lose in actual danger.

Number One for 23 May 2011

Everyone gather 'round now, sing us a song, just in case by tomorrow, it happens he's gone:
For the now exceptionally depressing GOP field: Ben Folds, "Steven's Last Night in Town"

21 May 2011

Honors List, Week of 5/21

Books I have read in the past week. Books are either Recommended or Not Recommended, and they appeal to either Specialists or Generalists. (*) is emphatic; (**) is doubly so.

Our aspirations are wrapped up in books:

Belle and Sebastian, "Wrapped Up In Books"

20 May 2011

Fun with Local Politics

I yield the floor to my distinguished colleague, the Hon. J.L.:
The question, from a backbencher: "Following local politics --- worthwhile or not?"
The answer: Worthwhile.
Strange as it may sound, I've become a lot less interested in politics as I've become a political scientist. Since moving to Washington for grad school, I stopped following politics back home, and never took an interest in local politics in D.C. I also haven't voted, being unregistered in D.C. and probably not a qualified elector back in Florida.
So it's been fun to pay attention to local politics again. I've spent the past week in Jacksonville, FL visiting friends and family. In the city's municipal elections on Tuesday, Jacksonville residents elected their first black mayor in a stunning upset. At the same time, District 1 voters reelected a controversial young city commissioner with a promising career in Republican politics ahead of him who, depending on your perspective, is either a theocratic zealot or a faithful Christian serving courageously in public office.
In the mayoral race, local businessman Alvin Brown defeated Mike Hogan, Duval County's Clerk of the Courts, for the seat being vacated by term-limited Mayor John Peyton. This race was never supposed to be close. High profile Republican figures were being assured of Hogan's victory. Hogan, a Republican, took a beating in the media and in the polls for dodging a debate. Apparently everyone in Hogan's camp thought it was a sure thing. Instead, this one-third black Southern city with a particularly nasty history of race relations celebrated the election of its first ever black mayor.
In political science, we are fond of aggregate--level voting models suggesting that partisanship and economic conditions are all that matter, and that campaigns and candidates make no difference. But in local elections -- even a runoff like this one with 37% turnout -- little things can make a big difference.
Skipping a debate is a risky decision. While you don't want to legitimize a trivial candidate by debating him, you risk seeming presumptuous if you decline to debate a serious candidate. The story in Jacksonville seems to be that Hogan made some mistakes and Brown, a Democrat, capitalized on all of them, all the while courting and winning support from key Republicans. In the end, Hogan's arrogant, tea party-themed campaign may have lulled his rapidly dwindling base of angry white suburbanites into thinking their votes were not needed, all the while alienating the more moderate factions of his coalition. But let this be a lesson: as lame as debates may be, don't skip them. The campaign turned on local issues, of course, but Republican candidates would be wise to learn from Hogan, who hitched his wagon to the tea party movement, all the while risking enduring some serious retaliation from voters disgusted with the GOP legislature and the wildly unpopular conservative policies of Hogan's co-partisan, Gov. Rick Scott.
In the other race I mentioned above, Councilman Clay Yarborough cruised to reelection, buying enough time to wait for a seat in the Florida Legislature to open up. Presumably, he won't campaign for higher office on his best-known position -- opposition to gays and Muslims holding public office -- but he seems to be enough of a true believer that I wouldn't put it past him.
Yarborough became embroiled in a controversy last year over his questioning of the (Republican) mayor's nominees to the city's Human Rights Commission. Parvez Ahmed, a professor at the University of North Florida, reluctantly responded to Yarborough's questions about gay marriage and the role of religion in public life and ultimately received Yarborough's approval in committee. Another nominee, a law professor, declined to answer Yarbrough's questions and was summarily blocked.
The next week, a journalist posed a similar line of questions to Yarborough. Asked if homosexuals should be allowed to hold public office in Florida, Yarbrough said he "would prefer they did not." As for Muslims, he admitted he "doesn't know." While this response is alarming from a legal/constitutional perspective, the lack of certainty is refreshing to hear from someone who otherwise seems so absolutely convinced of the rightness of his positions. In the end, Yarborough voted against Ahmed when his nomination came before the full city council. In fairness, it was another council member who turned the final vote on Professor Ahmed's nomination into an embarrassing spectacle.
Yarborough ultimately voted against putting Ahmed on the Commission, implying that Ahmed was connected to terrorist groups. (Professor Ahmed's nomination was eventually approved 13-6). It's kind of a shame that Yarborough is best known for his bizarre, discriminatory views on this one issue, an obscure, low-level nomination. In 2007, a local alternative newsweekly ran a fairly favorable profile, portraying Yarborough as an independent-minded and hardworking young politician. Fundamentalist quirks aside, Yarborough is in every way an unusually responsive and engaged public servant. He has shaken up the old-boy network and worked tirelessly for his constituents. After learning more about him, I'm torn between wondering if he should be stopped or encouraged.
In national politics, it's often hard to see how one official, one candidate, one campaign, one volunteer, or one voter can make a difference. But locally, things really are different. Every day, city councils, county commissions, and school boards spend our money and make importnat decisions that impact our lives. I commend those who are serving the public interest in these mostly unglamorous offices. This week in Jacksonville -- 700 miles outside the Beltway -- I've been reminded anew of both the promise and perils of politics.

Number One for 20 May 2011

She ain't gonna be able to love you like I will:

  • How big is a yottabyte? And forget the size of the datacenter -- what kind of power requirements would it draw? [ReadWriteWeb]
  • Why I Am Not a Hayekian. It was not a redistributionist government that made these people serfs.
  • When will average consumption levels per capita fall? And what does it mean for Caplan to hold that we're in the best of all possible worlds? [Bryan Caplan]
  • Honestly, this does look like a good show. [Kickstarter]
  • And the Penny Arcade TV Show is great show. Mysteriously addictive. [Penny Arcade]
  • Physical scientists aren't the only ones to succumb to the technocratic fallacy and other functionalist seductions [The Quantitative Peace]
  • Flattering for social science: "Duncan points out that social science is difficult and that physicists and other authority figures often don't recognize the discoveries made by social scientists." More, from Andrew Gelman. [Gelman Blog]
"Rumor has it", Adele

19 May 2011

Will Ph.D.s save humanity?

The question, from a backbencher: "If humanity survives the Mayan apocalypse in 2012, it will nevertheless have to deal with economic instability, nuclear proliferation, environmental degradation, and myriad other problems. I would like to read into the record two paragraphs from a letter to the editor of Nature (not available ungated) by a U.C.-Santa Barbara professor:
I disagree that we have a glut of scientists with PhDs (www.nature.com/phdfuture). The corporate view of PhD numbers in terms of what the market will bear ignores the major problems that only science can solve in the coming century.
The list is long: natural disasters, such as earthquakes and incoming celestial objects; environmental degradation; sustainable energy; famine and violence; untreatable medical conditions; and threats such as antibiotic resistance. If science abdicates, there is nothing else.
Will holders of the Ph.D. degree save humanity?"

The answer: No.

I would like, first, to quote further from Professor Kosik's letter:
The size of the military is dictated by our defence needs, not the market. In science, by analogy, our global defence needs are soaring.
Spending a few years in the service of science and the greater good, being rewarded with an advanced degree and, for example, going on to teach in high schools is an honourable fix.
I am always glad to read statements such as these, because it gives me an opportunity to quote Richard Feynman: "I believe that a scientist looking at nonscientific problems is just as dumb as the next guy." And, in this case, to remind professors that statements like these, uttered by tenured professors to graduate students, will someday be enshrined next to Marie Antoinette's milkmaid costume.

Kosik has succumbed to the technocratic fallacy (henceforward the TF). The TF is a variant of functionalism and holds that all social problems are analogous to engineering problems. The deficit, for instance, is not the consequence of differing views over the proper scope of federal spending and of federal taxation, considered separately (as they indeed are in our system); rather, it is the result of those damn fools in Washington being unable to work harder and come up with a solution. Similarly, wars, terrorism, crime, and the paradoxical consequences of welfare provision (e.g., the sort of thing covered in the Moynihan Report and other first-generation neocon commentary on the Great Society) are technical problems to which technical remedies exist and may be applied frictionlessly.

It should be immediately obvious that this is an attractive viewpoint to a great many people. And that is a group that includes not merely scientists and engineers, whose vanity it naturally flatters because of its naive faith in "reason" to overcome problems. It also includes a great many politicians and senior civil servants, both in competitive political systems such as the United States and less-competitive ones such as the People's Republic of China. Politicians are attracted to these policies because it offers them a nicely nonpolitical justification for their continuance in office, while similarly allowing them to disparage all those who disagree with them as (to use the Stalinist term) "wreckers."

Yet Kosik's letter, which is as pure an expression of the TF as we are apt to find, shows the real problems with the TF, both as an approach to politics and as a guide to real-world practice. As an approach to politics, the TF fails because it misunderstands the nature of political disagreements. Even political fights over purely technical issues (such as, say, CAFE standards) are always driven by interest or identity, neither of which are amenable to technical fixes and which are often compounded by institutional "pathologies" (which are often just institutional design tradeoffs). As a guide to real-world practice, the TF consequently is always running into the Arrow Impossibility Theorem, which requires the TF's adherents to eventually propose dismissing "political" solutions (which are the product of "irrational" conflict) in favor of ever-deeper technocratic fixes.

That Kosik presumes that "only science can solve" environmental degradation, famine and violence, and Deep Impact-style asteroid threats is to claim, simultaneously, that politics cannot solve these problems. Yet political science has much to say about all of these problems, and even leaving beside classic formulations such as the collective-action problem (and later critics), we should be able to recognize that these are basically political problems, not scientific ones. Famine is not caused by a lack of food; violence is not caused by a lack of periodic tables; and environmental degradation will eventually require a political, not a scientific, solution. Indeed, any scientific "solution" to environmental degradation will almost inevitably cause bigger headaches, since it strains belief that there is a sort of carbon-dioxide penicillin that would heal everything without any side effects.

In the end, the TF can lead to bizarre conclusions, like hedge fund managers' beliefs that the system of private property rights currently in vogue would survive the sort of economic catastrophe that would lead to $25-a-loaf bread. We've learned over the past few years that hedge fund folks are apt to really, really believe in their models' assumptions, but this seems to bespeak a sort of obsessive faith in the God of Equations and a willful ignorance of the God of Experience. Of course, that is why we call it the technocratic fallacy.

Number One for 19 May 2011

We could have had it all:
  • I wonder what the psychic comfort from knowing that books more easily used in digital form is, exactly. But Chicago researchers seem to get some. [Inside Higher Ed]
  • Hey, The New York Times. Maybe get someone who understands the Internet to set your digital strategy. [Gizmodo]
  • That I enjoy videos like this probably is a symptom that I've got a little bit of a spectrum thing going on: Boeing tests 747-8's brakes. [Gizmodo]
  • China's nouveau riche are terrible people. Those folks best be careful: China had a Communist government once, and it might have one again! [New York Times]
  • Caviar socialists. [Slate]
Adele, "Rolling in the Deep"

18 May 2011

Is compromise good?

The question, from a backbencher: "Is compromise desirable for its own sake?"

The answer: Of course not. A compromise is only preferable given the range of other plausible outcomes.

You may object that this question is a little bit one-sided, and indeed it does come from the Government's bench (so to speak). But on the other hand I have never understood why liberals love compromise so much. This has never been a problem with conservatives, who long ago embraced A Choice, Not An Echo as a pithy summary of why their party would never succumb to what was equally pithily referred to as "me-tooism."

(There is a strange affinity among both the American right and the global left for catchy slogans that convey entire programs in a few syllables. Granted, the American right has nothing as good as "peace, land, bread." But given time ... )

That the Republican Party has increasingly become firmer in its consistent advocacy of a set of policy positions is something of a triumph for what is known as "Responsible Party Government," an argument that political scientists first put forward decades ago. It was, essentially, a repudiation of the simple-minded high-school civics class bromides that politics is about "solving problems" or "coming together" or being bipartisan for the sake of bipartisanship. Given that very serious people used to mouth such bromides (remember the "vital center"?), the assertion that parties ought to stand for different things, and that voters should hold incumbent parties responsible for their conduct in office and then replace them with people who held different views, was viewed as something radical.

And it remains so today, at least for adherents of the Democratic Party. Managerial liberalism is out of fashion everywhere but in the White House, whose incumbent is resolutely committed to negotiating with everyone--with Republicans, with foreign governments, and with himself. In many cases, this is not a bad thing. In many other cases, his unforced willingness to give up policy positions as a show of "good faith" is merely weakness. (And I say "unforced" because the typical reaction is to say that structural factors somehow required the president to make every choice that he has made. That, however, seems doubtful, given his pre-election rhetoric and given his enthusiasm for obvious dry holes like the Baucus deliberations.)

On the other hand, the consistency of the Republican Party has made manifest two problems with the RPG doctrine. The first is that responsible party government requires responsible and unified government, to keep accountability clear. Yet the Republicans' dogged success at advancing their positions in the House--not even the full Congress!--means that the beautiful theory has been assaulted by a gang of vicious facts. One would have to be a real enthusiast for sausage-making to know what the Republicans are responsible for--which is to say, a graduate student in political science. Obviously, this is less a failing of the Republicans and more of American constitutional theory, which was designed less to instantiate the will of the voters (as RPG assumes) and more to consistently thwart it.

The second problem is that, as Duverger's Law assures us, America will always only have two parties. Let's think of a world in which there are two parties, A and Z, and that voters mostly prefer A's policies to Z's. Yet if A's incumbents somehow screw up badly in the implementation of their policy positions--under, say, president Ajimmy Acarter, or even Agerald Aford--then RPG says that voters should vote in the Z party next time (under president Zwarren Zharding, or perhaps equally president Zwoodrow Zwilson). This obviously is not optimal, since now voters are choosing a party that may be skilled at implementing policies that are the precise opposite of what voters would prefer. Yet that is what the RPG model dictates; there is no way to vote for, say, party A1 over A2, because you can only choose between A and B.

In such a world, of course, compromise with party Z may become desirable for party A, so that they can implement their policies more skillfully. Yet party Z will have no incentives to cooperate, and every incentive to screw up compromises--to be the Lucy holding the football for Charlie Brown at every incentive. If party A's partisans understood that, the dynamic would shift. But hope seems to triumph over experience every time.

Number One for 18 May 2011

I'm tired of being wasted, I'm so sick of being tired:

  • Your first response to this will probably be that "it's not about the money." But how much debt do you have to take on before it becomes about the money? Liberal arts degrees probably aren't worth the debt. [New York]
  • Roseanne Barr's brutal memoir of the late 1980s television industry. One wonders if it has changed. One suspects not.
    Hollywood hates labor, and hates shows about labor worse than any other thing. And that’s why you won’t be seeing another Roseanne anytime soon. Instead, all over the tube, you will find enterprising, overmedicated, painted-up, capitalist whores claiming to be housewives. But I’m not bitter.
    [New York]
  • Conspiracy theorists and DSK, by French people [Slate.fr]
  • This looks so good. [Kill Math]
  • Is the Internet causing half the rapes in Norway? [The Monkey Cage]
  • Knowledge workers of the world, unite! You have nothing to lose but your condo maintenance fees! [Felix Salmon]
Komeda, "It's Alright, Baby"

17 May 2011

What is the best IPE sitcom IPE scholars have never heard of?

The question, from a backbencher: "Everyone knows that Yes, Minister is a work of genius. But are there other BBC sitcoms that political scientists should know and quote?"

The answer: Yes: Hyperdrive.

How to describe it? The closest I can come is that the show is a parody of Star Trek: The Next Generation crossed with the Crimson Permanent Assurance section of Monty Python's The Meaning of Life. Perhaps even better would be to say that it is Doctor Who meets Firefly.

The essentials are that the crew of the HMS Camden Lock, a starship that bears a passing resemblance to the BT Tower, are on a mission to "to protect British interests in a changing galaxy." Rarely, this involves military action. Almost always, it includes trying to attract foreign direct investment to Britain or opening interstellar markets to British trade (a task made harder by the fact that Britain is not very good at exporting).

The delight for IR scholars, of course, is that we know that this is more or less how international relations works these days. Even though security folks still think IPE is sooooo boring, it's not exactly as if security work over the past twenty years was as exciting as it was in the preceding three thousand years. Yes, I know that many good scholars are keenly interested in learning more about low-intensity conflicts. But there is an obvious qualitative difference between studying how best to manage COIN and trying to manage a thermonuclear war.

The day-to-day nature of power in the international realm instead seems to be a little more mundane. What are your exchange rates? How credible is your government's commitment to paying off loans? (Not that it matters anyhow; Greece has been moving toward a sovereign debt crisis, enduring a sovereign debt crisis, or recovering from a sovereign debt crisis since 1827.) What are your labor regulations? And so forth. In such a world, the idea that Britain has to maintain aircraft carriers and other accoutrements of power projection is, frankly, ridiculous.

For some reason, it is only slightly less ridiculous when the French do that. But that may just be better advertising.

So Hyperdrive captures the precise absurdity of swagger in a world of intergalactic trade. Pragmatically, force is never the solution, even when the Camden Lock employs it. But as a matter of policy, national pride requires that the United Kingdom maintain a vast and expensive spacefaring Royal Navy. ("Britain is still a great power, isn't it?" one character asks the captain.)

And this is exactly the kind of dynamic that IPE scholars occasionally miss when they move from their quotidian models to asking broader questions. The same assumptions don't hold for models that seek to explain 50,000-feet phenomena as those that work for explaining more micro-level processes. At some point, other factors do start to confound simple models.

This isn't to say that such processes can't be explained. I rather think they can. But theory should include a sense that, just as gravity and the strong nuclear force (say) have different effects at different scales, so too do different kinds of political effects operate differently at different scales of analysis.

I'd also like to point out something that needs to be discussed more often. For all our discussions of the Liz Lemon problem*, I'm not sure that we've really thought about what it would be like if people who were ... not ugly, but just physically unattractive were cast in sitcoms. The BBC has always been much better about casting people who look like, well, people. It's realistic that The Office's Dawn is pretty enough to be crush-worthy but also not snagged by a real alpha male; similarly, Life on Mars' Liz White falls into the category of real-person cute, not celebrity cute. (Alison Brie on Community allegedly falls into the same range as Liz White did.) Hyperdrive takes that attitude to extremes.

* I've seen only eight minutes of Glee, ever, but as someone who shops in grocery stores I have of course seen many photos of Lea Michele. If the show presumes that she is unattractive, the show is an ass.

Number One for 17 May 2011

My intention's become not to lose what I've won:
  • Thoughts on ideological coherence. The coherence of ideologies seems to be something that my theorist friends take more seriously than I do. But at any level below the several thousand people around the world who are practicing political philosophers, Gelman seems right here:
    My impression is that many people have a personal feeling of political congruence--they feel that all their political views form a coherent structure--even though the perceived-congruent views of person X will only partially overlap the perceived-congruent views of person Y. For example, X can be a Democrat and support legalized gambling, while Y is a Republican who supports legalized gambling, while persons A and B are a Democrat and a Republican who oppose gambling. Four positions, but each has a story of why they are coherent. (For example, X supports gambling as a way of raising tax money, Y supports gambling because he opposes the nanny state, A opposes gambling as a tax on the poor, and B opposes gambling as immoral.)
    [Gelman Blog]
  • Speaking of ideologies, a neat attempt at estimating Cabinet members' ideal points. [Monkey Cage]
  • Conor's post on epistemic closure rings true, but I have to dissent in very small part: "We’re not going to make much progress on any of our political problems until we can come to some basic agreements regarding just WHAT we’re arguing about." But aren't most of our political "problems" caused by disagreements about what we should be arguing about? If we all agreed about the debt limit, there wouldn't be a problem (or, maybe, if we all agreed that the debt limit should be off-limits for brinksmanship, which is substantively equivalent). At a certain point, that is not epistemic closure--that is a difference of interests and identities. [Thought News]
  • Also, on competence, Jimmy Carter is at best the second-worst postwar president. By "postwar," I mean post-World War I.
  • Not to sound too much like Yglesias, but wouldn't congestion pricing solve this problem more quickly and predictably? [Freakonomics]
Ben Folds, "Boxing"

16 May 2011

What does natural selection mean for slavery?

The question, from the Honorable Mr. Coates:
It occurred to me last night that Darwin's Origin of Species was written just two years before the Civil War. In think this might mean something--not in the broad causal sense, but in the correlative sense. I don't have much background in intellectual history. But this is a question I hope to explore. What does natural selection mean for a bonded society?

The answer: It is a justification for slavery.

All good liberals hope that all good things go together. The local apogee of this thinking came in the 1990s, in which we hoped that increasing trade relations with China would give us cheaper tube socks and comfortable jobs in knowledge industries while letting the Chinese transform themselves from wretched peasants living in a tyrannical society into cheerful proletarians living in a happy democracy.

Well, we did get cheaper tube socks.

In the same way, liberals (and I'm using the term here in the broadest sense, to include everyone from John Stuart Mill to out-and-out social democrats) like to believe that more knowledge is better--that truth will somehow set us free. The history of social science should make us doubt that lesson. The recommended reading is Wikipedia's "Scientific Racism" article, which details how social science in a great many instances was used to justify existing power relations.

Before you say that social science has gotten "better" in that regard, think of exactly the kinds of things that critical theorists would mention, such as how psychometric theory is used by large organizations to make large organizations run better (e.g., ASVAB, the SAT) and the political consequences of that and how most research money comes from either the government generally or the military specifically. Yes, social science is "better," but I think that we should reflect on the fact that a good deal of what makes it better is likely to have come not from social science but from societal progress in general.

Returning to the main point: The argument is not that this was bad social science. In a lot of instances, it was the cutting-edge stuff that helped reify racial categorizations. (Think of IQ tests.) And it's hard for nonspecialists to determine the difference, anyway; if it were easy, then many fewer people would get tenure.

Natural selection obviously played a large role in all of this. The eugenics movement, the notion of the Victorian hierarchy of the races, and the general preoccupation with improving the "stock" of the "races" had real roots in (bad) readings of Darwin. This is different from the "Social Dariwnism" aspect of bad readings of Origins of the Species, by the way; this is simply reading in "natural facts" as social science. For the modern version, see the debate over The Bell Curve.

So when I say that natural selection is a justification for slavery, I mean really to say that we should not presume that there is an immediate and objectively understandable implication of the theory for social justice. Just the opposite. Such findings have no immediate implications for how we organize society. Regardless, we will read into them what we want to read, and the more powerful among us will see in these findings justifications for what they want to justify.

[Updated]: TNC has updated his original question, so I will update my answer. In a way, this is just a return to themes I have explored elsewhere, at greater length.

Ideas and innovations don't directly map onto the ways in which we view the social world. Ideas make politics, but not as they please; they do not make it under circumstances chosen by themselves, but under circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.

This is why I oppose technological determinism. Politics and power always matter. We used to think that the Internet would help liberate the oppressed--remember the "Declaration of Independence of Cyberspace" and all the other techno-utopias of the 1990s?--but it turns out that the effect of the Internet is at best greatly curtailed by the type of government that you had when the Internet arrived. Chinese democracy is no nearer, and very possibly less near, now than in 1991. The causal weight of the reorganization of social networks is conditioned by the ability of the sovereign to coerce those networks into a form amenable to Leviathan.

In the same way, how are we to understand "the telegraph" shorn of its rootedness in actually existing societies? It clearly helped facilitate commerce and "progress" in a great many ways. On the other hand, it also helped facilitate imperial control of distant lands in greater detail. And, in the same way, we tend to think that radio was as much a boon to dictatorial governments as it was to democracy--which is to say, it was just a tool. (It is easy to imagine democracy without the radio, since it existed. But it is actually hard to imagine what a pre-20th century fascist state would have looked like. There's a reason we think it's significant that futurism fed fascism.)

Looking for moral progress is tough. It does exist! But it's telling that we can find just as much of it in Lincoln, who was after all a corporate lawyer, as in Gandhi, who thought that trains, telegraphs, and lawyers had ruined civilization.

Number One for 16 May 2011

I need a job, so I want to be a paperback writer:
  • In the Monkey Cage era, it's more important than ever that journalists (and social scientists) read what journals publish with a grain of salt [Chris Blattman]
  • Dan Nexon's thoughts on IR as speculative fiction deserve a still wider audience [Kittenboo]
  • All new graduates going out into the workforce should remind themselves: Don't be a hero! Stakhanov is not a role model. [Alex Payne]
  • Switch "ATI" with "R" and you have the R forums exactly right [Penny Arcade]
  • One big reason I read Dumbing of Age is because it is still a treat to see IU as a setting. One gets sick of seeing Harvard, Yale, Columbia Empire State, and UCLA reused over, and over, and over. [Dumbing of Age]
Academic work is tamed for the moment, so I'm taking a few hours to work as a hack writer:

15 May 2011

Does The Zombies' "Friends of Mine" feature an unreliable narrator?

The question, from a backbencher: "The album Odessey Oracle contains both works of apparent genius and seemingly trite and unworthy songs. "Friends of Mine" falls into the latter category, and I know PM has thought about this quite often--is it treacle or is it actually genius. So which is it?"

The answer: It is a work of minor genius made great by the brilliance of the narrative setup.

Few songs on Odessey Oracle are as cheerful as they sound. "Care of Cell 44" is written in a major key. "A Rose of Emily" is not, but if you know the story (as I did not, to be honest) it is way too cheerful for the subject matter. And even my favorite track, "This Will Be Our Year" (covered, and alas covered more successfully, by OK Go), invites us to wonder what was so bad about all the years beforehand.

First Things (of all places) makes the argument for "Friends of Mine," and does so convincingly. (I am agnostic about the Straussian reading FT proposes for "Time of the Season," but that would explain why the song is a little bit more layered (why is it so important that the other boy be "rich like me?").) To quote:
Love can be seen as pat—everyday someone “sees someone standing there,” and then it’s on to dates, love songs, wedding invitations, and all the rest. It can be seen this way all the more so for those who, for whatever reason, are not able to pair off in the societally endorsed way. The unwillingly single, the gay, the spurned, the childless, the divorced, and the widowed might all have reasons to feel alienated, at least at times, by society’s (necessary) celebrations of married families. I don’t fit! The one wise about the ways in which love can fail or become deluding, which certainly would apply to a posited overall narrator of Odessey and Oracle, might have further reasons for feeling alienated from the happy feelings.

Um, happy wedding season, everyone.

14 May 2011

Number One for 14/15 May 2011:

Number One:

Wes Montgomery, "'Round Midnight"

12 May 2011

Should political scientists learn political theory?

The question, from a backbencher: "Should political scientists learn political theory?"

The answer: I retract my previous equivocations on the subject and affirm that they should, unreservedly.

Like Evelyn Waugh's Mr. Salter, though, I will caveat my policy by saying that political scientists need to know political theory up to a point.

There is no contradiction between these two statements, even though superficially they are plainly opposed. Rather, what I mean to suggest is that the role of political theory in the training of empirical political scientists needs to become something more like the role of methodologists in the training of the same. Just as we expect researchers to know enough about methods to be competent in their field, so too should we demand that they have reflected sufficiently about the normative implications of their work and of the real-world debates into which their work may enter.

This is an unabashedly utilitarian view of theory. Many theorists might object that this, then, devalues their work. After all, shouldn't it stand on its own? Isn't political theory a field in its own right, with its own claims, and with its own research? The answer to all of these questions is very much yes, but that is beside the point. I am not adjudicating what the role of political theory in the discipline should be, nor attempting to regulate its external affairs. After all, the same questions could be posed of methods research, and I would respond in the same way in that case. The distinction I am drawing is not one that demeans theory (or methods) but which merely underscores what is obviously true: that political science research is conducted by people who have scarce time and limited interest in debating the good, the just, and the true. If they had greater interest in discussing those topics, then they would be political theorists themselves.

Yet my analogy is exact. In the same way as we believe that methods training is an essential part of bringing up scholars to adhere to community standards and to producing reliable research, we should similarly believe that engagement with theory has the virtue of warning off scholars from making claims about their work, or assumptions within their models, that are either laughably wrong or dangerously naive. This is, consequently, a strong affirmation of the value of theory training, albeit one that is studiously agnostic about which of the different camps of theory should be employed. I leave that to the theorists, such as Mr. Williams.

With one exception. Such courses cannot linger too long on the ancients. I once described my university's required theory course as covering the sweep of theory from Plato to Aristotle. That was an exaggeration, as others promptly reminded me: The course also covered Augustine. Actually, teach Plato and Aristotle, and teach Augustine and Machiavalli too; teach Hobbes and Locke, but teach them better than they are normally treated; but mostly, treat people whose principal concerns were those relevant to the work of contemporary political science. Thinkers who deal with the nature of the state in its modern form (and the polis is not, in the end, a modern state), who deal with the questions of justice both within and among political communities, who deal with the questions of nationalism, and who deal with the nature of questions of personhood (of identity, of gender, and of race) are vastly more relevant to empirical social scientists than exegeses. That's a lot to cover in a semester, but better to serve up tapas that might be nibbled than an entree that will be left uneaten.

11 May 2011

Is "Starve the Beast" Conservatism on Its Last Legs?

The question: The Honorable Mr. Williams asks, "Is the coming debt ceiling fight the watershed moment for this strategy? Put another way, is this the culmination of Starve the Beast?"

The answer: No.

The Honorable Mr. Williams is a good man of sound judgment and public spirit, and so he believes that all men are like himself. But everyday politics has never been a game played only by the public-spirited, which is why Cincinnatus and the Duke of Zhou are remembered. Were their virtue normal, and not exceptional, we would have no need to remember their names. In essence, he proceeds from the false assumption that "starve the beast" means (a) starving the beast and (b) that it is possible to sate elite activists' demands.

Sometime around 1975, American politics irrevocably changed. The confluence of post-Roe, anti-ERA, and pro-Reagan mobilization created a new, self-consciously unified conservative elite which has dominated GOP politics for nearly 40 years and whose generational reproduction seems assured. (Eric Cantor was not there with Phyllis Schafly, but he is no different from the hungry young men who took part in killing ERA.) Among Democrats, the fracturing of the New Deal coalition healed, as it had to but the elite consensus that guided the Democratic Party and left politics has never recovered. It is telling that the Democratic Party features a far richer diversity of intramural debate than the Republican Party; the liberal movement inhabits dozens of "little magazines" where the intellectual Marines of an even larger number of factions contend.

The conservative movement is not monolithic, but its distribution of opinion has far less variance than its liberal counterpart. And Republicans have consistently shown a vastly greater ability to mobilize resources, direct policy, and maintain caucus discipline than Democrats--even when those goals are fundamentally not conservative. (Think, for instance, of the brutal whipping the leadership applied on Medicare Part D, which was more hated at the time among conservatives than the Iraq War. I know, because at the time I was writing for a conservative blog and that is what we all agreed.)

"Starve the beast" was never a strategy for the anti-tax, pro-military, and de-regulation faction that has been largely predominant in Republican circles since Ford fired Rockefeller. it was, instead, a slogan, rather like the Leninist "peace, land, bread" slogan that excused the practical surrender of Russian lands. The "beast" that was to be starved has, in fact, never been touched; Republicans are quite happy to put it on reduced rations by maintaining policy drift while giving the top 1% (and the top 0.1%, and the top 0.01%) of households by income generous tax breaks. Think not "starve the beast"--rather, think "feed the rich."

The acid test of whether Republican elites are more interested in serving what we used to call the moneyed interests lies in examining carefully legislative initiatives like Medicare Part D or the Walker plan for Wisconsin. These are not first-order priorities for conservatism. Indeed, it is difficult to deduce how most of these initiatives flow from the sincerely expressed ideals that philosophical conservatives embrace. But it is very easy to deduce how they serve the interests of key Republican constituencies. As those constituencies rack up the score in the Congress and in state houses across the country, it is difficult to see why they would ever relent.

Lombardi was wrong about football, but right about politics, when he said that winning wasn't everything--it was the only thing. And so too in politics. Government is for keeps, and there should be no unilateral disarmament. (One thing that I have never understood is the mentality prevalent among self-identified progressives that holds that compromise is a good thing of itself. It is one thing to take half a loaf; it is another to take half a loaf simply because someone has asserted, with no justification, that he deserves half of your whole loaf.)

The debt ceiling will be raised; it will be raised at the last possible moment; it will be raised at great cost to the poor and the Democratic. In this, Boehner is simply responding both to the structural pressures on him within his caucus but also to the fact that to do otherwise would be to miss an opportunity to press what are, I'm sure, his sincere policy preferences. And why should he do so? It is not "statesmanlike" to forbear from using your advantage in such a situation; it is merely weak. And so the "starve the beast" strategy will, apparently, fail, but it will have actually succeeded, because any concessions that he will have wrung out of the White House on this will be a net gain for his party.

In the other chamber

A revised version of yesterday's quantoids - v - quallys post.

10 May 2011

Why does automation threaten the viability of qualitative research?

The question, from a backbencher: "How are quallys different from quantoids?"

The answer: Few topics are so perennially interesting for the individual political scientist and the discipline as the Question of Method. This is normally, quickly, and violently reduced to the Quant v. Qual debate, which is a battle of those who can't count against those who can't read. Even divisions that really affect other dimensions of methodological debate, such as those that separate formal theorists and interpretivists from case-study researchers and econometricians, are lumped into this artificial dichotomy. Formal guys know math, so they must be econometricians, or at least close enough; interpretivists use language, ergo they are case-study guys, or at least close enough. And so elective affinities are reified into camps, among which ambitious scholars must choose. (How else to understand EITM, which is the worst bastardization of all: the melding of deterministic theory with stochastic modeling?)

(Incidentally, let's not delude ourselves into thinking that mutli-method work is a via media. In everyday practice, quantoids proceed according to a one-drop rule: if a paper contains even the slightest taint of process-tracing or case studies, then it is irremediably quallish. In this, then, those of us who identify principally as multi-method guys stand in relation to the qual-quant divide rather as Third Way folks stand in relation to left-liberals and to all those right of center. That is, the qualitative folks reject us as insufficiently pure, while the quant camp thinks that we are all squishes.)

There is one point, however, in which it is incontestable that the quantoids have the upper hand on everyone else. And that is in the ease of transmission of the techne of data management, of data collection, and the analysis of data. I do not mean the high-concept stuff. All of that is usually about as difficult and as rarefied as the qualitative or formal high-concept readings, and about as equally useful to the completion of an actual research project--which is to say, not very, except insofar as it is beaten into everyday practice. (That R^2 continues to be reported as an independently meaningful statistic even 25 years after King (1986) is shocking, but the Kuhnian generational replacement has not yet so far really begun to weed out such ideological deviationists.)

No, when I talk about techne, I mean something closer to the quotidian translation of the replication movement, which when put into practice is rather like the business consultant notion of "best practices." There is a real craft to learning how to manage data, and how to write code, and how to present results, and so forth, and all of this is completely independent of the project on which a researcher is engaged. Indeed, it is perfectly plausible that I could take most of the thousands of lines of data-cleaning and analysis code that I've written in the past month for the GSS and the Jennings-Niemi Youth-Parent Socialization Survey, tweak four or five percent of the code to reflect a different DV, and essentially have a new project, ready to go. (Not that it would be a good project, mind you, but going from GRASS to HOMOSEX would not be a big jump.)

There is nothing quite like that for qualitative guys. Game theory folks come close, since you can tweak models indefinitely, but of course they then have to find data against which to test their theories (or not, as the case may be). Neither intepretivists nor case-study folks, however, can automate the production of knowledge to the same extent that quant guys can. And neither of those approaches appear to be as easily taught as quant approaches. The sage of Cambridge (that is to say, Gary Rex) is uncharacteristically almost snide in a passage from an unpublished paper:
A summary of these features of quantitative methods is available by looking at how this information is taught. Across fields and universities, training usually includes sequences of courses, logically taken in order, covering mathematics, mathematical statistics, statistical modeling, data analysis and graphics, measurement, and numerous methods tuned for diverse data problems and aimed at many different inferential targets. The specific sequence of courses differ across universities and fields depending on the mathematical background expected of incoming students, the types of substantive applications, and the depth of what will be taught, but the underlying mathematical, statistical, and inferential framework is remarkably systematic and uniformly accepted. In contrast, research in qualitative methods seems closer to a grab bag of ideas than a coherent disciplinary area. As a measure of this claim, in no political science department of which we are aware are qualitative methods courses taught in a sequence, with one building on, and required by, the next. In our own department, more than a third of the senior faculty have at one time or another taught a class on some aspect of qualitative methods, none with a qualitative course as a required prerequisite.
And yet there is something real here. If every quant scholar has gone from the probability theory --> OLS --> MLE --> {multilevel, hazard, Bayesian, ... } sequence, what is the corresponding path for a "qually"? What could such a path even look like?

Brad DeLong put the problem plainly in his obituary of J.K. Galbraith:
Just what a "Galbraithian" economist would do, however, is not clear. For Galbraith, there is no single market failure, no single serpent in the Eden of perfect competition. He starts from the ground and works up: What are the major forces and institutions in a given economy, and how do they interact? A graduate student cannot be taught to follow in Galbraith's footsteps. The only advice: Be supremely witty. Write very well. Read very widely. And master a terrifying amount of institutional detail.
This is not strictly a qual problem. Something similar happened with Feynman, who left no major students either (although note that this failure is regarded as exceptional). And there are a great many top-rank qualitative professors who have grown their own "trees" of students. But the distinction is that the qualitative apprenticeship model cannot scale, whereas you can easily imagine a very successful large-lecture approach to mastering the fundamental architecture of quant approaches or even a distance-learning class.

This is among the reasons I think that the Qual v Quant battle is being fought on terms that are often poorly chosen, both from the point of view of the qualitative researcher and also from the discipline. Quant researchers will simply be more productive than quant guys, and that differential will continue to widen. (This is a matter of differential rates of growth; qual guys are surely more productive now than they were, and their productivity growth will accelerate as they adopt more computer-driven workflows, as well. But there is no comparison between the way in which computing power increases have affected quallys and the way they have made it possible for even a Dummkopf like me to fit a practically infinite number of logit models in a day.) This makes revisions easier, by the way: a quant guy with domesticated datasets can redo a project in a day (unless his datasets are huge) but the qual guy will have to spend that much time pulling books off the shelves.

The qual-quant battles are fought over the desirability of the balance between the two fields. And yet the more important point has to do with the viability, or perhaps the "sustainability," of qualitative work in a world in which we might reasonably expect quant guys to generate three to five times as many papers in a given year as a qual guy. Over time, we should expect this to lead to first a gradual erosion of quallies' population, followed by a sudden collapse.

I want to make plain that I think this would be a bad thing for political science. The point of the DeLong obituary is that a discipline without Galbraiths is a poorer one, and I think the Galbraiths who have some methods training would be much better than those who simply mastered lots and lots of facts. But a naive interpretation of productivity ratios by university administrators and funding agencies will inevitably lead to qualitative work's extinction within political science.

09 May 2011

What is the Least Impressive Bob Woodward book?

The question, from a backbencher: "What is the least impressive Bob Woodward book?"

The answer: It is the policy of this Blog that the least impressive Bob Woodward book is his biography of Dan Quayle, jointly authored with David S. Broder.

This Blog holds to this policy even though I have never read it. Nor will I ever. And it seems that Bob Woodward would similarly like to ignore this book's existence.

What makes a good Chief of Staff?

The question, from A loyal reader: What makes a good Chief of Staff? (See this blog post.)

The response: The short answer is: Discipline, loyalty, clarity, and "a passion for anonymity."

Aside from the military chiefs (who are high-ranking officers but only advisers), the most familiar chief of staff is the White House Chief of Staff. Of course, these days practically everyone who is C-level in the corporate world or at the assistant secretary level or above (even congresspeople!) have chiefs of staff. But what do these people actually do?

To a large extent, the position is defined by what it is not. Chiefs of staff cannot be personal assistants. And they never have been. A highly effective executive assistant or secretary is fairly invaluable to a high-level executive, if only because so much of the clerical work of the top jobs is so routine as to require both a high tolerance for tedium and the kind of focus on minutiae that is largely incompatible with the creative and high-touch work involved in executives' lives. (Yes, Stanley Kubrick and Steve Jobs are perfectionists, but they don't want to be bothered with literally mundane details, unless they decide they are important.)

Nor, however, can the chief of staff have an independent power base. That is fatal. The chief of staff must be entirely dependent on his or her principal for the daily conduct of his duties, because neither the principal nor his interlocutors may doubt for even a second that when the CoS speaks that he speaks for his boss and not for himself. Given that the CoS exists to handle the medium-priority issues (human resources, week-to-week strategizing, negotiating of second-tier considerations, and so on) that require the confidence that the principal has expressed a position, but which also do not require the principal to actually check up on the daily execution of these matters, it is immediately obvious that the CoS exists in a world in which absolute fidelity and discretion are always required.

Unsurprisingly, then, the success of a CoS also largely depends on the degree to which he can relieve his superior from the burdens of the office without in any way blocking the principal's light. That is why Brownlow's phrase--that a successful White House staffer should have a "passion for anonymity"--is both apt and unattainable. True, from time to time, the incumbent CoS is highly visible (such as Rahm Emanuel or James Baker), but usually they try not to be (H.R. Haldeman was barely known outside of the Executive Office of the President until late in the Nixon Administration, for instance). And that is for the best. If a CoS succeeds, he succeeds because he implemented the President's will, and so the President should receive the credit. If a CoS fails, then he must be fired, quickly and without remorse.

Thus, the job demands a rare, valuable, and unstable combination of skills and temperament. The CoS must have enough gravitas that people take him seriously, must be intelligent enough to act independently, must be loyal enough not to trade on his own account, and must be savvy enough to realize that the brighter his principal's star shines, the brighter his own reflected glory--but that the higher his principal rises, the likelier he himself is to be replaced by a figure more fitting the principal's new station. (Note that new presidents rarely place their senatorial or gubernatorial staffs into the West Wing at the same rank.)

I say "unstable" because anyone who possesses these skills will want to leave after a couple of years to run their own show. The list of qualifications is exactly that for being the principal, save that the principal has either earned or been given an office and that the principal's success is judged on strategic victories or failures. In either case, it is likely that a good CoS should at least always be considered for subsequent command, even if his talents are such that he is unsuitable for supreme command. (There are qualities demanded of the top person in an organization that are qualitatively different from that expected even of lieutenants who exercise highly independent judgment. Think here of the difference between a supremely talented staff officer and U.S. Grant, or between a highly efficient secretary and General Secretary Stalin.)

The prevalence of the title means that it has been degraded so much. A man might well think that his goal in life is to be White House Chief of Staff, much as another might want to be OMB head or still another to be Secretary of Defense; these are weighty roles, and the exercise of even the limited portfolios given to their incumbents are nevertheless a fair test of one's abilities. Yet if we were to rename the bulk of CoS offices as "private secretaries" we would see that it is something of the equivalent of a war college, or even better of the old apprenticeship system. It is impossible to learn how to act independently until one is given independent responsibilities, and the CoS job (if both the CoS and the principal understand it properly) is one in which the chief will be given a lot of latitude in order to achieve well- (even if broadly-) defined goals.

08 May 2011

Jon Huntsman and the Desperate Appeal

Former Utah Governor Jon Huntsman nobly sacrificed his presidential ambitions in 2009, when he accepted President Obama's nomination to serve as ambassador to China. Unfortunately for Huntsman, nobody has fully explained to him that being a part of the Obama administration is disqualifying for Republican caucus voters, who believe that the president was born in a Hamas-run madrasa in a small Indonesian village somewhere in Kenya. Also, there are rumors that the president's children are black.

Not that Huntsman's own background will fill the average believer in the wonder-working power of the evangelical Christian church with much more confidence. Most GOP voters, in my experience, know two things about Mitt Romney: the second is that he passed Obamacare in one state, and the first is that he is what they charmingly describe as a cultist. Huntsman combines all of the cult appeal of Romney with a C.V. that may be described as "Romney lite": just another rich, good-looking Mormon with a photogenic family and a record as a pragmatic, problem-solving governor. (Also like Romney, Huntsman's father served in the Nixon administration.) There is, consequently, little chance that Huntsman will ever exceed the 5 percent mark in any competitive primary, except Utah, and he will probably still lose that. (If Bob Bennett is too liberal for Utah Republicans, what hope for sensible moderate Huntsman?)

(If I seem a little bitter about all of this, it is because there was a time, namely early 2008, when I thought that something like a Daniels-Huntsman ticket was possible. And given that one of the two parties' nominees will inevitably win the White House, I prefer to have the sanest possible people running on both tickets. But the enduring appeal of birtherism and the splenetic chants to keep government out of our Medicare have rather soured me on the prospect.)

So, Huntsman's campaign faces some uphill battles. And he is trying to prevail by positioning himself as some sort of a Bobby Kennedy for the right: young, competent, passionate, and dedicated to national service. Hence, this Huffington Post coverage of Huntsman commencement speech at the University of South Carolina. Huntsman, in a bid to win the votes of young people (long a crucial Republican demographic), led the students in their traditional football cheer--"Go, fight, win, kick ass!"--and also sought to portray himself as a hep cat by talking about his ambitions to be a rock and roll musician.

Yes, because rock and roll is what all the kids are about. To be fair, I don't think MC Moroni would really fly.

To prove his rock bona fides, Huntsman quoted Ben Folds' song "The Luckiest" at length. Ah, "The Luckiest"--the second-sappiest song on the sappiest BF solo album, a song seemingly designed to be played as the night wears on at an emo wedding, a song that is pretty much the anti-BF5 ballad, a song that is ... intrinsically not cool.

We should spare asking Huntsman whether he knows any other BF songs, or what he thinks that "Philosophy" (for instance) is really about, or whether he's ever asked a girl to give him back his black T-shirt. But if Huntsman really wants to stake his credibility to coolness in 2011 on knowledge of Ben Folds lyrics, then let's raise him and call:

Governor Huntsman, what do you think about "Brick"?

03 May 2011

Grad school from below

Noahpinion shares what he learned in econ grad school. The post is enjoyable and worth reading because it speaks to an enduring divide between what faculty think graduate students are learning in grad school and what the lived experience of graduate students actually is. Moreover, Noah confirms a private notion of mine that Ph.D. students should run sections not just to "learn how to teach" but more to learn what, exactly, their doctoral coursework has been about.

As a current doctoral student, let me begin by saying that grad school has been both the most challenging and the most fun experience I've ever faced. But in my first year, I constantly felt as if I had no idea whatsoever what was going on, or why I should care about statistics, philosophy of science, the paradigm wars, or a good deal else that was being covered. Noah's summary of a first-semester macro course, with substitutions, could equally be a journal of my first semester in IR and then, later, in American Politics:
My first semester was on business cycle theory. (the second semester was all growth theory). We spent a day covering the basic history of the field - the neoclassicals, Keynes, Friedman, Lucas and the RBC people, and finally the neo-Keynesian movement. I recall reading the Summers vs. Prescott debate but not really getting what it was about. From then on it was all DSGE. We did the Ramsey model and learned about Friedman's Permanent Income Hypothesis. We spent a lot of time on RBC. We took a big break to learn value function iteration and how to numerically solve DSGE models by fixed-point convergence. Then we did Barro's model of Ricardian Equivalence, learned a basic labor search model, briefly sketched a couple of ideas about heterogeneity, touched on menu costs, and spent a good bit of time on Q-theory and investment costs. Finally, at the very end of the semester, we squeezed in a one-week whirlwind overview of Calvo Models and the New Keynesian Phillips Curve...but we weren't tested on it.
In the concatenation of models and the dearth of explanation and exploration, this seems familiar. In fact, the biggest difference between my first-semester experience and Noah's is that although he feels that he never learned how economists knew anything was "right"(HINT: they probably weren't!) I never felt as if, in IR, I was given a firm base to stand on. The joke in my comps study group later on was that if we were asked to name one thing that IR had "learned," we would answer "democratic peace" and throw away our other outlines full of citations contending that the democratic peace theory was bunkum.

In almost every way, this is a healthy approach. I'd rather have a humble field that attempts to redefine science not as a disciplinary cudgel but as a series of structured debates that at least allow us to rule out a lot of policymakers' opinions about causation as wrong than a shiny, quanted-up, scientific edifice that leads policymakers to cheerfully create the Great Recession (among other pathologies). If modern IR had the same track record at successful advising as modern mainstream econ, one wonders whether the world (or at least vast swathes of the U.S.S.R.) would not have been a charred cinder by the mid-1950s.

But let me be parochial for a second, and speak not about the virtues of this approach for humankind in general but the problems it poses for graduate students. (Such navel-gazing is common in the discipline; hence the fact that every quant IS scholar has wished, however briefly, there were more great-power wars, since that way they could have larger Ns to play with.) This experience of constant doubt and questioning makes political science graduate school, and IR Ph.D.s in particular, really difficult. Teaching, though, helped me to reconnect all of these abstract debates to the big questions I had begun graduate school in order to answer. In fact, teaching sections forced me to write down, for the first time, what I thought those big questions were.*

In reformulating my understanding of the field (and re-reading, and then reading more deeply) in order to answer my undergraduates' questions, however, I discovered what must be the graduate school version of teaching your grandmother to suck eggs--namely, that the grad syllabi I had found so mysterious the semester before had actually been meant as answers to exactly the same questions my students were now asking me.

Noah quotes Feynman, and so let me offer another Feynman vignette, this time from his second book of memoirs. When he found himself stuck in research, he found he could retreat to teaching, not only because at least the daily process of helping others learn offered some solace to someone who thought he had dried up but also because it eventually allowed him exactly the chance to return to the broader questions with fresher eyes.

So why were my undergrad classes so much more educational for me? The simplest explanation is just that this was the second time I'd gone through the material, and so the review made clearer connections that had been obscure. The more profound difference, though, is that undergrads are more incentivized to ask questions. Graduate students are vastly more risk-averse about asking dumb-sounding questions, not least because their professors will also be their colleagues and one simply doesn't want to make a bad impression. (The reverse calculation--that failing to learn something correctly will lead to catastrophically bad impressions down the road--almost never seems to be made, which I leave as an unsolved puzzle for rational-choice theorists.) Accordingly, a great many people in every seminar--I will wager 80 percent of students in 80 percent of seminars--are faking it, or, worse, wrongly confident in their abilities. And 100 percent of students fall into those categories at some point.

Returning to Noah's piece: More teched-up readers may enjoy the former physics major's sniffing at economics (although, recall that physicists have a low opinion of a lot of things). These same readers should also enjoy Donald Mackenzie's discussion of economic theory and assumptions about probability distributions).

*For the record, my first version was "Will the states system experience war or peace? Will it foster prosperity or poverty?" I've since revised that to be even simpler--"Will the states system experience conflict or cooperation?"--while adding the constant Leninist refrain "Who--whom?" Obviously, these are hardly original, but the point is that these questions are a little more fundamental, and admittedly simplistic, than the standard journal fare.)