Author Archive | Henry Farrell

The Science of Hotness

As John notes below, hotness science has made some remarkable theoretical and empirical advances since my 2009 post. Nonetheless, the claim that political scientists are unusually smart given how hot we are seems to me to smack of special pleading. After all, even if we’re on the right side of the regression line, we’re still collectively subject to the ironclad law that physical hotness is associated with mental notness. Furthermore, using the precepts of Sound Social Scientific Reasoning1, we can surely draw inferences at the individual level too. And, as a complete aside, it might be interesting to inquire into the implications of the fact that Sides rates a sizzling pepper (the highest possible hotness rating) on Rate My Professor

1 A term of art, covering the axiomatic statements “ecological problems, schmecological problems,” and “g, a statistical myth except and unless it’s rhetorically convenient.”

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Why Do Policy Makers Hate International Relations Scholarship?

Paul Avey and Michael Desch have a forthcoming article in International Studies Quarterly, that supplements the ranking work that Erik summarizes below. The conclusions bear out the claims of Joe Nye and others that there is an increasing gap between academic international relations and the kind of work that US senior policy makers care about. Some 45% of the senior policy makers who answered Avey and Desch’s survey have training in international relations or political science. It doesn’t seem to have taken.

Aside from Economics, the scholarly disciplines that policymakers found of greatest use were Area Studies and History. … compared to the other disciplines, Political Science did rather poorly (see figure 1). This lower ranking may reflect the fact that in recent years the discipline has become dominated by more complex methodologies such as formal modeling and statistics. Policymakers tend to eschew, in the words of one respondent, “all formulaic academic, as opposed to historically based temperamental, realist projects,” preferring, in the words of another, “historical analysis, case studies, theoretical writings that illustrate theory with case studies and concrete examples.” … the higher the rank of the government official, the less likely he or she was to think that formal models were useful for policymaking.

There are a number of possible responses that international relations scholars could make to this (e.g. to argue that political science is in the business of finding out about the world, not helping policy makers, or to argue that it’s not US policy makers who international relations scholars should be trying to help). Or scholars could argue (as many have) that we should reform political science to move away from quantitative techniques and formal modeling towards more policy relevant work.

However, I can’t help wondering whether Avey and Desch’s piece misses out on some of the interesting things that have been happening over the last couple of years. They mention the Monkey Cage (among other blogs) as an interesting model of communication, but also caution that the Internet is full of unreliable information. But what we have seen over the last couple of years is an explosion of interest in political science results (some of them based on sophisticated quantitative or formal analysis; some derived from sophisticated qualitative research) that are cleanly presented and obviously relevant. Most of this interest has been in work in the field of Americanist political science – but this field is even more notoriously disliked by political types than international relations. Nonetheless, thanks to the efforts of Ezra Klein and others, it’s built up a real audience. We furthermore have reason to understand that some of our work at the Monkey Cage has had significant take up among policy makers.

This suggests not only that Avey and Desch’s cautious optimism about the prospects for short, punchy timely work could be strengthened, but that methodological sophistication is not a natural enemy of public interest. The problem lies less in methodological approach than in choice of topic (much international relations work is tediously self referential), disciplinary self-understanding (many international relations scholars don’t value public outreach, and don’t have disciplinary incentives to value it) and lack of venue. The last of these at least, we and other bloggers are working on (and will be able to work on better in The Monkey Cage when it starts to reach the larger audience of Washington Post readers). The decision of both Foreign Affairs and Foreign Policy to create big active websites soliciting timely content has built another venue that academics can use to connect to a policy audience. I can’t help wonder whether a survey of policy makers say, in five years time, would respond quite differently to a survey, thanks not only to generational shift among policy makers, but structural changes in political science. The incentives are shifting in interesting ways.

Update: Avey and Desch apparently have a guest-post on their findings in the Monkey Cage pipeline (we’re an autonomous collective – what can I say … )

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Why Are Business Gurus Overconfident Jerks?

Andrew asks me to expand on this below – as it happens, I do have some thoughts that I couldn’t shoehorn into the essay. He’s also right that my ideas are influenced by the Niall Ferguson debate. While there are some good business writers – the best ones are practical sociologists, with a lot of interesting insights into how organizations and institutions work. Still, most business writing is bad, and some is quite extravagantly bad.

My half-developed theory of this borrows from David Kreps’ famous arguments about corporate culture (institutional access required). Kreps, a game theorist, is trying to figure out why and how business reputation can be an asset. A lot of his answer has to do with corporate culture. We live in an unpredictable world, which means that firms cannot write ‘complete contracts’ e.g. with their employees, which would cover every possible contingency and eventuality. This might worry employees or contractors, who fear that in the event of an unpredictable occurrence, the firm will not stand by them. Their fears may lead them not to want to commit to the firm. Continue Reading →

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Why Care About the O’Bagy Affair?

Tom Ricks and Dave Weigel partially defend Elizabeth O’Bagy, the think-tanker who pretended she had a doctorate from Georgetown. Ricks’ take is that Washington DC society is too hung up on credentials, and there are many fools out there with doctorates. Weigel’s take is that no-one really would have cared if she had only had an MA degree – therefore, while she had to lose her job, she doesn’t deserve the public excoriation. From within the academy, both Dan Drezner and Steve Saideman defend the Ph.D. as representing an extraordinary amount of work.

I don’t have much to say about the ethics of Ms. O’Bagy’s actions – it seems a cut and dried case to me (Weigel is wrong to think that she just hadn’t defended – people in Georgetown are saying she was never in a Ph.D. program in the first place). But there are some interesting questions about the value of a Ph.D. in Washington DC in the first place. Some think tanks value Ph.Ds more than others – as Thomas Medvetz points out, think tanks vary substantially in how much they value academic capital (as opposed, say, to its journalistic or policy making equivalents). This may help explain the disagreement between Ricks and Weigel – they likely move in somewhat different circles of wonkishness (Ricks is at the Center for a New American security; Dave is a well connected journalist).

Whichever which way, the value of a Ph.D. as a credential in the think tank world is mostly unrelated to the things that academics care about. Academics tend to specialize heavily – newly minted assistant professors spend their first few years living on the fat that they have stored up during their dissertation research, and trying to turn it into peer reviewed publications. Think tankers may or may not use their dissertation work to get started – but are valued for a certain class of intellectual agility as much as for expertise. Acquiring detailed knowledge in a particular area is important, but so too is the ability to switch rapidly to another area if and when the market dries up. Thus, in the academic market, a Ph.D. signifies that you have an active research agenda in a particular area (and people are likely to care lots about the specifics of your dissertation). In think tank world, people may indeed care that you have a Ph.D., but see it more as a general signalling device. If you’ve learnt lots of relevant things doing your dissertation, great. If you have learned lots, say, from pursuing a policy job before your Ph.D., which is completely unrelated to your actual research, that’s great too, and maybe even better. Your reputation for expertise may be reinforced by a Ph.D., but it doesn’t necessarily depend on your dissertation research.

This is also reflected in the attitude of media towards academia. Any professor in a DC university quickly gets used to random cold-calls from media outlets looking for commentary on topics completely unrelated to their research. It doesn’t matter if you know nothing – all that matters is that you can call yourself a professor. Also, in a subtly Bourdieuian strategy of distinction, professors in US universities rarely refer to their doctorates and almost never refer to themselves as Doctor X or Doctor Y. This is better to distinguish themselves from those who have doctorates, but are not professors, just as surgeons in the UK and Ireland invariably want to be referred to as “Mr.” or “Ms.” X or Y, despite having trained as doctors (they revert to an older style of nomenclature to stress precisely that they are not mere doctors).

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SWIFT, the NSA and Glenn Greenwald

The most recent Greenwald document release – of a Powerpoint suggesting strongly that the NSA has a backdoor into the SWIFT financial messaging system – may have some interesting political consequences. Abe Newman at Georgetown and I are in the throes of writing a book about the internationalization of homeland security. Roughly, our story is that domestic officials in both the EU and US, who prefer to prioritize homeland security over privacy and civil rights, have been able to use cross national networks and forums to push their agenda, weakening the previously existing privacy regime in the European Union. And SWIFT is a big part of this story. The US began secretly requiring SWIFT (which is based in Belgium) to share its data after September 11. When EU decision makers became aware of this (thanks to a New York Times story which the Bush administration tried to get spiked), there was political uproar, resulting in the negotiation of a framework under which the US agreed to impose limits and safeguards in return for continued access. If you don’t mind wading through some political science jargon, you can get the basic story from the relevant bits of this paper.

This is interesting for two reasons. First – the EU thought the US had signed onto a binding deal on access to SWIFT data. If, as appears likely at this point, the US was letting the EU see what it did when it came in through the front door, while retaining a backdoor key for the odd bit of opportunistic burglary, it will at the least be highly embarrassing. Second – there are people in the EU who never liked this deal in the first place, and have been looking for reasons to get rid of it. The allegations of the last couple of months have helped their case considerably – this, if it bears out, will do more than that. If the US has demonstrably lied to the EU about the circumstances under which it has been getting access to SWIFT, it will be hard for the EU to continue with the arrangement (and, possibly, a similar arrangement about sharing airline passenger data) without badly losing face. Even though the people who dominate the agenda (officials in the Council and European Commission) probably don’t want to abandon the agreement, even after this, they’ll have a bloody hard time explaining why they want to keep it. The EU-US homeland security relationship, which had been looking pretty cosy a few months ago, is now likely to be anything but.

[Cross-posted at Crooked Timber]

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How Slavery Changed the US South

Avidit Acharya, Matthew Blackwell and Maya Sen find in a new paper that if it weren’t for the legacy of slavery, white Southerners today would be politically indistinguishable from Northerners.

Drawing on a sample of more than 39,000 southern whites, we show that whites who currently live in counties that had high concentrations of slaves in 1860 are on average more conservative and express colder feelings towards African Americans than whites who live elsewhere in the South. That is, the larger the number of slaves in his or her county of residence in 1860, the greater the probability that a white Southerner today will identify as a Republican, express opposition to race-coded policies such as affirmative action, and express greater racial resentment towards African Americans. We show that these differences are robust to a variety of factors, including geography and mid-19th century economic conditions and political attitudes. We also show that our results strengthen when we instrument for the prevalence of slavery using local measures of the agricultural suitability to grow cotton. In fact, our findings indicate that in the counterfactual world where the South had no slaves in 1860, the political views of white Southerners today would be indistinguishable from those of similarly situated white Northerners.
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Risky political science

Via Kevin Drum a story about the political costs of certain kinds of political science research.

When a pair of graduate students from little-known Brandman University dug out the salaries of top administrators at all 34 cities in Orange County and made them public, they were showered with praise. Cindy Smith and Janet Voshall testified before the state Legislature, were honored by the county board of supervisors and rode limousines to TV news shows. … But then the gold turned to lead. Smith and Voshall said the fallout from their work so rankled public officials that they had to move out of the county to find work, and their academic advisor, a 30-year political science professor, resigned his post in protest.

Not long after the report was released, Laguna Hills Councilman Allan Songstad and Tustin Councilman Jerry Amante, officers in the Orange County Division of the League of California Cities, proposed that the group respond to the report, but the league took no action. The Orange County chapter later broke away from the parent group, saying the league was too liberal, and formed the Assn. of California Cities-Orange County. Along with the chief executive of the breakaway group, Amante and Songstad met with James Doti, the president of Chapman University. Smoller said they refused to meet with him. Songstad said he and Amante made it clear to Doti that Kogerman’s report would make it difficult for Brandman public administration students to get hired in the county. “It just seemed self evident,” Songstad said.

… In fall 2011, Brandman’s chancellor, Gary Brahm, met with the Assn. of California Cities-Orange County over a proposal that the university sponsor a training program for newly elected council members. The group decided not to go through with it. That October, Smoller said, Brahm told him that his days as the public face of the program were over and that a nonacademic was being brought in as the liaison with local governments. Smoller resigned as head of the public administration program the next day but continued working as a professor. The day he resigned, a photo of Smith and Voshall was taken off the Brandman website — a coincidence, university officials said. … Unable to find jobs in Orange County, Smith and Voshall moved. Smith is selling insurance in Phoenix. Voshall works in Los Angeles for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.Smoller is at Chapman, hoping to start a public administration program there.

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NSF cancels funding round

As Nature reports, the NSF has cancelled its target dates for this round of political science funding. As best as we currently know, the NSF is planning to go ahead with its January 2014 funding round. Presumably, this is linked to uncertainties surrounding the Coburn amendment. The Nature story quotes me as saying that this is somewhere between devastating and crippling to political science funding as a whole – what I had meant to refer to was the fallout that would happen if NSF were to cancel political science funding altogether (which is not currently on the cards). Obviously, if you care about this issue and are a political science academic, you should talk to your university president, and your local Congressman/woman/Senator’s office.

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The NSA and Internet balkanization

Kevin Drum argues, contra John Naughton and James Fallows, that the NSA program won’t cause an ‘international uprising.’

it’s really not clear to me that broad public reaction is going to be very strong. Will Danish users stop using Facebook until some Danish company creates an alternate social networking platform? Probably not. The fear of NSA spying is simply nowhere near as compelling as the huge inconvenience of everyone being on a different platform and being unable to chat and share pictures with their friends in other countries. As for businesses, they’re probably less interested in avoiding NSA spying than they are in staying ahead of hackers and concealing their more dubious dealings from ordinary law enforcement agencies. Using a non-U.S. platform won’t do them any good on either of these scores. We’ll see, of course. Maybe this is the beginning of a long decline in U.S. information services, as overseas users start to move to other platforms. It’s possible. Unfortunately, I sort of doubt it. At most, I suspect we’ll start to see a bit more nationalistic reliance on domestic network infrastructure, but that’s something that’s always been likely anyway. Beyond that, people will just keep on doing what they’ve been doing.

I think that Kevin seriously underestimates the extent to which privacy and surveillance are important issues in countries like Germany. But the more important issue is that a strong European reaction does not require a mass public revolt. All it requires are more forceful actions by European officials who will have every incentive to make a fuss – specialized privacy commissioners, or, as they are called in Europe, data protection authorities.

Each European member state has a data protection authority (DPA) – an independent watchdog with powers to require corrective action from private companies, or to fine them. To date, these fines have been relatively small scale. Under new legislation in the pipeline, DPAs may be able to fine companies like Google or Microsoft 2% of their annual turnover, if they are found to have breached the privacy of European citizens. Up to the Snowden scandal, it looked likely that this legislation would have a carveout for FISA type requests from the US (the US has been quietly and intensively lobbying for this). No longer. It is clear that no carve out has any chance of making it through the European Parliament.

Furthermore, European politicians are responding to pressure over the NSA by trying to beef up European privacy law still further. One of the reasons that companies like Google and Microsoft have based themselves in Ireland is because the Irish DPA is … more understanding of their needs … than many of his counterparts on the continent. Germany is now pushing to eliminate this national level flexibility in interpretation.

The results are clear. Cooperation with the NSA is probably illegal under European law as it stands, and the law as it is likely to be amended. Big US firms like Google, Microsoft and Facebook may find themselves in the unappealing position of facing hefty European fines if they continue to cooperate with the NSA, and legal difficulties in the US if they stop cooperating. They are unsurprisingly quite unhappy with this turn of events. They are likely to be more unhappy still if (as is entirely likely) DPAs threaten action against European firms who outsource, say, email services to Google. And this is not to get into questions of government procurement (where national IT firms are likely to see a big boost in business thanks to security fears – if Microsoft is cooperating with the US government, do you really want to have it running your internal servers).

The simple lesson here is that it doesn’t take mass public defections to make life difficult for US cloud providers. All one needs is action by the relevant regulators. This kind of politics should also prompt political scientists to pay much more attention to interactions between national regulators than they do, as this is where much of the interesting political action is taking place between countries with low tariff barriers and increasingly interdependent economies (again, Abe Newman and I make this argument at greater length in a forthcoming piece in World Politics).

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