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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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Academics, Policy Makers, Blogs, and the Trouble with Op-Eds

The most prolific way academics seek the attention of the public and policy makers is by writing op-eds in national newspapers. Does this type of writing give policy makers or the public what they need from academics? I am not so sure and an interesting article about the relationship between academics and policy makers in the Chronicle of Higher Education supports this view (at least in my mind).

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Political Scientists Today

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Evaluating the “Wrong Hands” Rationale for Striking Assad

We are delighted to welcome a guest post from Omar Bashir (@omarbsr), a PhD candidate in Politics at Princeton University who specializes in international relations.  His research interests include accountability in defense and intelligence organizations, crisis negotiation, and the relationship between foreign aid and power. Omar studied previously at MIT and Oxford, and has been published in the Journal of Conflict Resolution and on the Foreign Affairs website. See here his previous guest post on drones.


Though its statements have rightly been dominated by the rhetoric of moral opprobrium, the Obama administration has at several points relied on a secondary rationale for strikes against the Syrian regime.  This rationale has little to do, directly, with the commonly assumed ends of saving Syrian civilians, upholding a norm, or redeeming American credibility.  It is the traditional interest-based rationale that foreign policy realists have been asking for, and it deserves scrutiny.

When the president is pushed to explain what good a strike would do, his answer has been, at least superficially, about defending international norms: “we cannot see a breach of the nonproliferation norm that allows, potentially, chemical weapons to fall into the hands of all kinds of folks.”  Later in the same interview, Obama says that “we want the Assad regime to understand  that by using chemical weapons on a large scale against your own people… you are not only breaking international norms…but you’re also creating a situation where U.S. national interests are affected, and that needs to stop.”

What does the president mean?  He could be asserting a national interest in the general defense of norms against the proliferation of or use of chemical weapons; in an age of heightened threat from non-state groups, states have a new reason to uphold these norms that did not exist in the aftermath of the First World War when international agreements on this issue were strengthened.  As Erik Voeten notes, chemical weapons are weapons of the weak, weapons that could grant modern terrorist groups a worrying increase in destructive and even coercive power.

But since the president keeps bringing the discussion back to the “folks” operating in and around Syria specifically, the threat in his mind seems to be not so much about the collapse of anti-weapon norms that may someday have consequences for states, but rather about the immediate danger of Syria’s chemical weapons finding their way into hostile hands in 2013.  After all, the president’s draft authorization is phrased in terms of preventing proliferation of, specifically, Syrian weapons. Proliferation in the draft is defined as including “transfer to terrorist groups or other state or non-state actors.”

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Gender Bias in Political Science

From the Chronicle of Higher Education:

By many measures, women in political science do not achieve the same success as men. Their ranks among full professors are lower; their teaching evaluations by students are more critical; they hold less prestigious committee appointments; and, according to a new study, their work is cited less frequently.

Why? And what can be done to change this? Those questions absorbed two panels here at the American Political Science Association’s annual meeting on Thursday. The problems are not new, and most likely not limited to political science. But the researchers who presented their findings hope that hard data and some serious self-reflection will spark change within the discipline.

Inside Higher Ed also has very good coverage of the same panels. Both articles contain links to the various papers on which the discussion was based, including this article forthcoming in International Organization (Cambridge has generously ungated it) by Daniel Maliniak, Ryan Powers, and Barbara Walter on the gender citation gap. 

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Do Military Interventions Reduce Killings of Civilians in Civil Wars?

From the abstract of a 2012 paper by Reed Wood, Jason Kathman, and Stephen Gent:

As a conflict actor weakens relative to its adversary, it employs increasingly violent tactics toward the civilian population as a means of reshaping the strategic landscape to its benefit. The reason for this is twofold. First, declining capabilities increase resource needs at the moment that extractive capacity is in decline. Second, declining capabilities inhibit control and policing, making less violent means of defection deterrence more difficult. As both resource extraction difficulties and internal threats increase, actors’ incentives for violence against the population increase. To the extent that biased military interventions shift the balance of power between conflict actors, we argue that they alter actor incentives to victimize civilians. Specifically, intervention should reduce the level of violence employed by the supported faction and increase the level employed by the opposed faction. We test these arguments using data on civilian casualties and armed intervention in intrastate conflicts from 1989 to 2005. Our results support our expectations, suggesting that interventions shift the power balance and affect the levels of violence employed by combatants.

In fact, they find that military interventions in favor of the rebel faction (as opposed to pro-government or neutral interventions) tend to increase government killings of civilians by about 40% (see Figure 2 below from p. 656).

Screen Shot 2013-08-27 at 8.58.11 AM

From their conclusion:

Supporting a faction’s quest to vanquish its adversary may have the unintended consequence of inciting the adversary to more intense violence against the population. Thus, third parties with interests in stability should bear in mind the potential for the costly consequences of countering murderous groups. Potential interveners should heed these conclusions when designing intervention strategies and tailor their interventions to include components specifically designed to protect civilians from reprisals. Such strategies could include stationing forces within vulnerable population centers, temporarily relocating susceptible populations to safe havens that are more distant from the conflict zone, and supplying sufficient ground forces to be consistent with such policies. These actions could fulfill broader interests in societal stability in addition to interests in countering an organization on geopolitical grounds. Successful policies will thus not only counter murderous factions but will explicitly seek to protect civilian populations.

The full paper is here (gated).


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So You Are Starting Your First Year at a Research University…

It’s August—and while that means a dearth of news about American politics, it also means that across the country, recent high school grads are getting ready to start up at a dizzying array of colleges and universities.  I’d be surprised if this blog has much of a readership among people in their late teens.  But having spent some 15 years at research universities, I thought I’d offer a few thoughts about starting undergraduate life at one, and would be curious to get others’ takes in the Comments.  I must have learned something in those eight years living in undergraduate dorms, right?  (Don’t worry—I wasn’t on the eight-year plan.  I was a residential adviser for most of my time in graduate school.  Hm, you still look worried.)

Research universities aren’t just a scaled-up version of a high school, with more students and better sports teams—they are organized differently, and understanding that organization is one of the first tasks of the entering undergraduate.  Case in point: in my high school, any study of literature would have been in the English Department, from Thoreau to Tolstoy.  I knew I liked literature, so when I got to college, I sought out a well-reputed class in the English Department.  But it was only months later, over the winter holidays, that I actually had time to read the course catalog, which was several hundred pages long.  And I realized, belatedly, that literatures written in foreign languages were taught in separate departments—Slavic Languages and Literatures, Germanic Languages and Literatures, etc.  Or else in the Comparative Literature Department.  I also realized that there were whole fields I had never encountered in high school—computer science, sociology, anthropology, to name just a few.

If I were starting again, I’d spend a lot more time reading (or now browsing) the course catalog, to get a better sense of how the fields at a university are organized.  I wouldn’t just read up in the fields I was most interested in.  In fact, I’d read up mostly in the fields I knew nothing about.  The less familiar the Department’s name, the better.  And I’d also spend more time asking people about the different fields, their main tools, their driving questions, their intellectual progress.  High schools are frequently organized by topic area, while universities are organized in part based on different disciplinary toolkits.  You might really like a subject like European history, but also find that the tools you want to use to make sense of that history are actually those of an anthropologist.  Or a computer scientist.  Or an economist.

In that is also a thought about picking classes, to the extent that first-year requirements leave room for choice.  Good classes convey facts, sure.  But they also convey ways of thinking and ways of learning.  More than the specific facts, it is those ways of thinking and learning that you are likely to retain years later.  So if the instructor of a course thinks about problems in a novel or compelling way, give the course a shot—even if you never imagined taking a class on pre-modern Chinese diets.

OK, so I would have spent more time asking people about the academic disciplines—but who, exactly?  Research universities are massive and busy, and some aren’t exactly brimming with people who will stop and explain the intellectual organization of the contemporary university to a wayward first-year.  But that’s where your advisers, teaching assistants, professors, and deans come in.  Harvard professor Richard Light has studied what makes for a successful college experience, and one of his main take-aways is that the students who get to know their instructors have richer college experiences.  His advice: make it a goal to get to know one instructor a semester.  That might mean balancing a few of those big lecture classes with smaller seminars.  It might mean thinking hard about a problem, and then heading to office hours to ask about it.  It might mean asking your teaching assistant why she went into a particular field.  Or it might mean asking a professor about her research, and seeing if you can get involved in it.  They’re called “research universities” for a reason—and yet, many students spend years on university campuses without getting involved in one of their signature activities.

Which brings me to… getting involved in general.  But not getting too involved.  In my high school in the 1990s, and maybe in yours today, a lot of people got involved in a lot of activities: sports teams, student government, religious groups, high school newspapers, weekend jobs, you name it.  But whereas high school life is highly structured, starting at dawn and going well into the evening in some cases, undergraduate life is much less so.  You might find yourself in class for 15 hours a week, leaving a lot of time for other pursuits.  Three weeks into college life, I’ll bet most first-year students couldn’t physically go back to their high school schedules if they tried.  (And having taught classes early on Monday mornings—well, 9:30 am—I have solid evidence of that.)  But the organizational and extra-curricular life at universities is a lot more specialized than that in high school.  It’s not the same people running every activity or doing every on-campus job.  So learn about lots of activities, organizations, and jobs, sure—but plan to devote your time to just a few, and to do those well.

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Does Peacekeeping Reduce Violence Against Civilians?

Most of the recent news regarding UN peacekeepers has been bad, ranging from their responsibility for a cholera epidemic in Haiti to their failures to reduce violence against civilians in The Congo, Sudan, and elsewhere. Nevertheless, a forthcoming article in the American Journal of Political Science by Lisa Hultman, Jacob Kathman, and Megan Shannon shows evidence that increased numbers of military and policy forces in a peacekeeping mission are correlated with fewer civilian killings in Africa.  Below is the abstract:

Does United Nations peacekeeping protect civilians in civil war? Civilian protection is a primary purpose of UN peacekeeping, yet there is little systematic evidence for whether peacekeeping prevents civilian deaths. We propose that UN peacekeeping can protect civilians if missions are adequately composed of military troops and police in large numbers. Using unique monthly data on the number and type of UN personnel contributed to peacekeeping operations, along with monthly data on civilian deaths from 1991 to 2008 in armed conflicts in Africa, we find that as the UN commits more military and police forces to a peacekeeping mission, fewer civilians are targeted with violence. The effect is substantial—the analyses show that, on average, deploying several thousand troops and several hundred police dramatically reduces civilian killings. We conclude that although the UN is often criticized for its failures, UN peacekeeping is an effective mechanism of civilian protection.

There is of course always the possibility that this correlation does not represent a true causal effect. I agree with the authors that there is no evidence that the UN increases troop levels when violence is low but the opposite may be equally problematic: the UN may increase troop levels after episodes of unusually high violence that would have subsided with or without an increased UN presence. Nonetheless, this issue can be dealt with (for the most part) by modeling the dynamics correctly. The authors perform a large number of tests and the finding appears to be robust.  In all, then, this is some much needed good news for UN peacekeeping and more importantly for civilians in conflicts such as the Congo, where the UN has recently increased its military presence including a much more forceful mandate.

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Did a Pro-Obama Canvass Produce McCain Supporters?

Does all this mean that Obama’s allies would have been better off talking up McCain in 2008?  Not exactly.  Like the effects on survey response and voter turnout, the negative effect on Obama support appears concentrated among infrequent voters.  So the people who were turned off were those least likely to turn out.  But the experiment does reinforce just how difficult persuasion can be, and just how central targeting is to an effective ground game.  And for campaigns and campaign watchers, it underscores that putting boots on the ground isn’t always enough—or even a net positive.  If the volunteers in those boots are knocking on the wrong doors, or saying the wrong thing, they might not be helping their candidate.

That’s from my post today at the Washington Post’s Wonkblog, reporting the results of a large-scale field experiment in Wisconsin during the 2008 presidential election.  For more, head over to Wonkblog.  Or if you are curious about the working paper on which it’s based, head here.

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Militaries: An industry in decline


Apropos of nothing in particular that’s in the news (except maybe this), here is a graph of how two measures of military effort have evolved from 1945 to 2007, by region.  (I’m working on a project that has gotten me mired in available data on military spending and force sizes, and I just thought this was interesting.)

The black line is the average across countries of military spending as a percentage of GDP, using the Correlates of War (COW) estimate of total spending divided by World Bank GDP figures (which only start in 1960).  The red line is the average across countries of armed forces per 1,000 population, again using COW estimates.

You see really striking long-run declines in the West, Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, and Asia.  In these areas it almost looks as if demobilization from World War II has taken place gradually and over 60+ years.  In Latin America and North Africa/Middle East,  you see pretty striking declines since the end of the Cold War, and perhaps some decline in subSaharan Africa since around 2000.

Why the long-run declines?  Many factors, surely, but on the international side it’s plausible to credit the disappearance of intense conflict among the militarily strongest states, which completely dominated international politics before 1946.  US-Soviet conflict was pretty intense into the mid-1960s, but since then the major powers have been less and less concerned about being invaded by each other.  I’d credit the nuclear revolution above all else, although there’s a lot of debate on this question and even without nukes there are probably other things that have been pushing in the same direction.  Such as, perhaps, democracy …

On the domestic side of things, there is pretty good evidence that the spread of democracy has been a significant factor.  Not worth getting into the details here, but if you look at the data country by country you find that on average, when countries transition to democracy their military spending and army sizes go down, quite substantially.*  In fact they tend to go down when they transition from very autocratic to only somewhat autocratic (that is, to “anocracies”, or semi-democracies using the Polity data).  The effect of a democratic transition on arms levels in the state in which the transition occurs looks to be larger than the effect of transitions in neighbors on a state’s own military spending, although this is hard to be sure about statistically due to endogeneity issues.  I would guess that most of the democracy effect is a domestic matter—for instance, autocracies want bigger militaries to help put down domestic opposition or to pay off cronies, or democracies want smaller militaries to lower coup threats—but some of it might also be an international effect.  That is, if democracies want smaller militaries then this could reduce the demand for big armies in their neighbors.

The graph also shows some interesting variation across regions.  E. Europe/FSU and N. Africa/Middle East stand out for high levels of military spending during the Cold War, though both now appear to be converging towards the rest of the world (except maybe for army sizes in the Middle East).

Update:  Mark in comments asked what the data for the US looks like, so at risk of the Wrath of Gelman I’ve added these to the graph for the West.  We spend and hire considerably more than other countries, both in absolute terms (which is well known, I think), and relative to GDP and population (maybe less so).  Note also the upward movement following 9/11, especially in military burden.

Cleaner pdf version here:  milburbyregion


*This is based on models with country and year fixed effects, so it’s probably not just that there is a coincidental global trend up in democracy and down in arms spending.  Benjamin Goldsmith reported the same pattern concerning democracy and the military spending in his 2003 JCR article “Bearing the Defense Burden,” (gated), looking at data from 1869-1989 (though he didn’t include time fixed effects in his model).


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