Month: October 2012 (Page 1 of 4)

Are Sandy and Climate Change Related? Part I

Source: The Atlantic

In the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy, there is much discussion about whether climate change was responsible for the storm. I’m not sure this is the right question we need to be asking, unless we think that whether we respond to climate change hinges on an affirmative answer.

Let’s suspend disbelief for a moment and say that it does. We need to believe events like Sandy were caused or made more likely by climate change in some way for us to feel compelled to act.

If so, is that connection real? I think we have to separate what we know about the science of climate change and extreme weather events from our political objectives. In terms of what we know, I think the scientific community has mixed responses about the connections, but in terms of the politics, it absolutely makes sense to connect the spate of recent extreme weather events and climate change. The presidential candidates have been silent about climate change, and because of Sandy, everyone is talking about climate change again. So, in terms of the narrative of what climate change means, connecting the dots in this way is important political communication. Let me start to unpack those ideas below in the first of a series of posts.

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Regional Variation in the Explanatory Power of War and Reason

Many conversations about the empirical relevance of game-theoretic models of war begin and end with Bueno de Mesquita and Lalman’s War and Reason.  That’s unfortunate, but it’s not exactly surprising.  Most game-theoretic studies of war do not include any empirical analysis, whereas War and Reason offered a systematic analysis of European dyads.  The standards by which BdM and Lalman would have the predictions of the International Interactions Game (IIG) be judged are clear.

In the Behavioral Origins of War, Bennett and Stam seek to assess the relative explanatory power of all the major theoretical explanations for war, including the IIG.  Not only do Bennett and Stam report that other variables outperform those associated with the IIG, they assesses the model’s reliability across time and space.  They find that the variables associated with the IIG predict behavior in Europe reasonably well, the Middle East and Asia somewhat less so, and they provide a worse than useless account of conflict occurrence in the Americans and Sub-Saharan Africa.  That is, conflict occurs less often in these two regions when the IIG predicts war than when it does not.

Bennett and Stam interpret this as evidence that the IIG assumes distinctly Western preferences, and so it’s explanatory power is limited to Europe.  In fact, implicitly treating the IIG as representative of all of “rational choice”, they go so far as to conclude that “rational choice” is more applicable to the Western world.

That’s a bold claim.  It’s also one that many critics of “rational choice” will find intuitively appealing.  Of course rational choice only applies to the West, one might say.  (Especially if one conveniently overlooks the fact that one of the two problem regions is the Western hemisphere…which I thought was pretty Western.)  Game theory makes no allowance for the importance of honor, after all.** How could anyone even doubt Bennett and Stam when they say that regional variation in the explanatory power of the IIG demonstrates the importance of culture?

Well, there’s just one little problem — in order to infer that actors who do not behave according to the predictions of a particular game-theoretic model do or do not hold a given set preferences,*** we have to assume that they were in fact playing precisely that game.  In other words, to infer that culture accounts for the IIG’s shortcomings, we have to make heroic assumptions about the applicability of the IIG.  Something of a contradiction, wouldn’t you agree?

The critical question then is whether there is reason to believe that leaders in the Americas and Sub-Saharan Africa are playing a different game than European (and Middle Eastern and Asian) leaders.  I think there is.

For all the talk of the importance of domestic politics in War and Reason, the IIG still treats states as unitary actors.  BdM and Lalman simply assume that leaders of democracies will value certain outcomes more or less than leaders of other regimes.  No meaningful decisions made by actors within the state.  The possibility of civil violence is assumed away.  That’s not problematic in and of itself, but it tells us something about what we can and cannot infer from Bennett and Stam’s results.

The following graph (click for larger image) displays the relative rate of civil and interstate war by region, as indicated by the latest release of the Correlates of War data set.  Each bar depicts the number of wars of each type fought in each region as a proportion of the number fought in the region most prone to that type of war.

Notice that the Americas and Sub-Saharan Africa, the two regions that most defy the expectations of the IIG, have experienced fewer than half as many interstate wars as Europe.  Though each region has seen a roughly similar number of civil wars between 1816 and 2007, the risk of civil war far exceeds that of interstate war in the Americas and in Sub-Saharan Africa.  In Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, leaders have historically faced threats both foreign and domestic.  Granted, we’re speaking in sweeping generalities here — there is significant variation within each of these regions that we’re overlooking.  There’s also significant variation over time that we’re ignoring.  But if we’re going to generalize about entire regions, it makes more sense to conclude that the reason why the model developed in War and Reason fits Europe better than other parts of the globe is because it focuses exclusively on international interactions than because it fails to account for cultural differences in preferences.  That’s not to deny that culture is important.  It is.  But until we know more about the observable implications of game-theoretic models in which actors simultaneously face some risk of both civil and international conflict, we won’t really know how much of the discrepancy between our theoretical expectations and our empirical observations owes to culture.

I know a few people working on such models.  In future posts, I’ll discuss some of their work.


*However, see here.

**This claim is patently false, but we all know that the existence of game theoretic models that account for [x] is not a sufficient condition for preventing people from claiming that game theory does not or cannot account for [x].

***To their credit, Bennett and Stam do not entertain the notion that non-Western actors are less rational than their European counterparts.  I have heard others interpret their results in this way, and one need not be a rational choice apologist to find such claims to be both offensive and disturbing, but Bennett and Stam only argue that non-Western actors hold different preferences.


I find your lack of faith…disturbing

Full disclosure: I am incapable of being completely, or even mainly, a detached observer or commentator when discussing either Star Wars or Disney, having grown up largely surrounded by both enterprises in equal measure. Anyone who walks into my office sees, hanging over my computer, two posters: a 50th anniversary Fantasia one-sheet, and an Episode I theatrical teaser poster. And chances are if it’s the first time you’ve come to visit me there, I’ll end up telling you why “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and the saga are the largely same cautionary tale about hubris. And scattered around the rest of my office, a plethora of Star Wars toys and Legos, a number of Disney collectibles…you get the picture. And I have on this blog been accused of being a corporate shill, incapable of saying bad things about the media companies that own the copyrights to the raw cultural materials out of which we craft the meanings of our lives.

All that by way of saying that today’s announcement that Disney had purchased Lucasfilm for $4 billion and is planning a new Star Wars film for 2015 (Episode VII, reportedly, and expect massive argument within Geekdom At Large about just what that means right up until opening day, which for the sake of tradition better be late May 2015) produced the following reactions from me in this order:

1) speechlessness.

2) [a few minutes of frenzied Internet fact-checking to make sure that this was not a massive hoax]

3) you know, this could work.

4) OMG a new Star Wars film! In only three short years!!

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ISA-NE Status Report and Other Tuesday Morning Stuff

  • The ISA-NE leadership hopes to make a decision by 1200 EDT concerning the status of the conference. While the DC area looks like it should be navigable by Thursday, we don’t have good information about Baltimore or about what the state of east-coast travel will be like. The Baltimore Sun is pretty useless. Any commentary from readers in Baltimore would be appreciated.
  • If you haven’t been paying attention, the situation in New York an New Jersey is simply terrible.
  • The US wind map that’s been going around Facebook is pretty neat. As of right now Sandy’s imprint is unmistakable.

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Australia Embraces the “Asian Century”

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard stated last Sunday that every Australian child should learn Mandarin, Hindi, or other regional languages as part of Australia’s embrace of the Asian Century.  While her new agenda set out in a 300 page report has received its share of harsh criticism and questions about funding, one  has to admire the audacity of Gillard’s vision of an Australia that seeks to engage Asian states and societies through an appreciation of their languages and cultures rather than insisting on interfacing with English.  This may represent a shift, to invert Bernard S. Cohn’s phrase, from the language of command to the command of language… well, at least if the Australian mindset toward Asia can be shifted in the process.

Meanwhile, America Clings to the “Roman Centuries” …

By way of contrast, America’s supposed “pivot” to Asia continues to lack a serious educational agenda.  As my colleague Robert Kelly has noted, there are still more students studying Latin (205,000) in America’s public schools than Chinese (60,000) — even though the number of students studying Chinese has tripled since 2004.   While the study of Spanish (6.4 million) certainly makes sense in a country where Spanish is spoken by 34 million citizens and most of the Western hemisphere, the continued emphasis on French (1.25 million) and German (395,000) are more questionable, particularly when Chinese is the third most commonly spoken language at home in the United States and French and German are not even in the top ten.  In essence, the emphasis on French and German education is not a reflection of domestic language needs so much as an artifact of a persistent Euro-centrism.

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Should College Costs Reflect Benefits to Society?

Florida Governor Rick Scott.

You’re a mean one … but are you a grinch?

Florida Governor Rick Scott is considering changing the cost of different college majors at Florida’s public colleges to influence students’ choices. The reasoning is standard rightist dirigisme: STEM degrees would cost less, and artsy ones would cost more, because STEM = jerbs and, presumably, English = liberals.

Debate over the proposal has broken down along the usual lines. Unsurprisingly, Marginal Revolution co-blogger Alex Tabarrok offers two cheers in favor of the scheme, dissenting only on the implementation (that instead of targeting STEM in particular the subsidies for selected majors should reflect the externalities of those majors … which, Tabarrok suggests, will mean subsidizing STEM). Meanwhile, displaying the sort of reasoning skills that belie the claims that studying the liberal arts makes you a better rhetorician, one undergrad protests that making her pay more will make her pay more:

Joanna Mandel, a theater student at Florida Atlantic University, said it would straddle students with debt they might not be able to repay. “Theater majors or English majors are not guaranteed to make a lot of money,” said the 22-year-old from Pembroke Pines. “Doctors and scientists, they make a lot of money. If anything, they should be paying more.”

Of course, the entire point is precisely that it’s hard for the state to see a return on those investments. In the Baby Boomers’ youth, when state budgets were less encumbered by pension obligations and other long-term debts, this wasn’t so urgent; moreover, of course, the pay distinction between different majors wasn’t all that great. In those circumstances, the argument that college wasn’t a pecuniary transaction carried more weight. Now that the Baby Boomers have declared generational warfare on my cohort, of course, there’s suddenly no more money to fund higher education and so conservatives and green eyeshades-types have gotten very interested in calculating rates of return on public spending.

Obviously, as political scientists, we all recognize immediately that this program is woefully misguided because it will likely cut the number of political science majors in Florida. Less flippantly, I think we all wonder whether the knock-on effects of this policy will be good for the country (or, at least, Florida). Yet I think that the argument against these measures is less obvious than it appears.

In the first place, it appears to be a simple fact that the American public is not particularly interested in funding the vision of higher education that academics cherish. If we as academics also cherish democratic responsiveness, then we should begin to consider proposals that change the university to fit its changed circumstances. Indeed, this is nothing new. Many of the public universities we rely on were once the products of nineteenth-century public policy designed to teach the sons of the state how to till the soil and build machinery more effectively (and the daughters to better manage the home). That was an innovation as alien to the Oxford and Cambridge model of higher education as the iPod is to the orchestral model of music production.

The standard academic rallying cry is that higher education, as such, has positive externalities to the point that it approximates a public good (that is, that we should tax even those who don’t enroll in college to support university educations). That may be so. This argument, however, is ultimately self-defeating, since it only requires someone like Gov. Scott to ask whether some majors are better for the public than others. And that, too, is almost certain. In that case, to maximize the public welfare, we should be only funding certain majors (recall in this case that we do not value inquiry for its own sake). By granting the premise that the public-goods justification is acceptable, defenders of the university have opened the door to the piecemeal subsidization of various majors. Perhaps it would have been better to stress the value of inquiry and of knowledge for its own sake; but perhaps some private donors or the publics of the European Union, India, or the People’s Republic of China will take up that mantle.

(I should note that the more powerful argument against this sort of arrangement on rightist terms is that for many majors the government is, essentially, the price-setter. How much is a degree in secondary education worth? That question is inseparable from how much the government, writ large, intends to pay for the services that those majors qualify their students for–which, by definition, is only weakly influenced by the market.)

What Tabarrok, Scott’s task force, and Joanna Mendel all miss, however, is how such a funding mechanism would transform disciplinary content and practice. It would, to a first approximation, likely kill off traditional humanities. Yet it would also incredibly privilege variants of economics, political science, and sociology that have high statistical or other quantitative content. I would also hope, quixotically, that we would quickly learn that majors offered by many business schools are hardly worth the time. But somehow I doubt that any social-scientific data offered along those lines would impress successful businessmen like Rick Scott.


Monday Morning Linkage

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Trans-Partisan Challenge

My daughter is very anxious that Mitt Romney might win the election. Before that she was worried about the European monetary crisis and what might happen if Greece defaults. This suggest that the problem is less one of our partisanship than of growing up the kid of international-affairs specialists who listen to the news during the morning commute.

Regardless, her anxiety suggested it was time for “the talk.” We’d already had the “Republicans are good people” talk. It went something like this: “your grandfather is a Republican, and he’s a wonderful human being. We just disagree on what’s best for the country. And whether your schoolfriend’s mommies can choose to get married.” So this time we explained that the parties periodically switch control over various branches of government, they do good things and bad things, and life goes on.

Anyway, this got me thinking about the “good things and bad things” part of the discussion. So here’s my challenge:  can you identify a policy where the “other side” is likely to do better?

In other words, if you’re pro-Obama, tell us about a positive change that a Romney administration is likely to make in US policy. If you’re pro-Romney, identify something that Obama did right and that Romney would mess up. If you’re one of those third-party types, probably best to skip this one.

My answer is below the fold.

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Nativism FTW

I’m pretty sure I’m the only Duck to  (a) have lived at a state fair, (b) know the 4-H pledge by heart, and (c) have been quoted by the Watertown, S.D., newspaper on … well, on any subject, actually. And although I had the misfortune to be born in Washington, D.C., I quickly decamped for America’s Heartland, where I learned Real American Values, which include RC Cola, moon pies, and a fondness for country music not sung by the Dixie Chicks.

So I feel pretty good in asserting my credentials as a Native USAmerican in these parts, even if my current status as a Ph.D. student living in Barry Hussein Osama’s Unreal “America” makes me suspect anywhere outside of academia.

To build on R. Kelly’s post below about the non-American response to the foreign policy debate, I thought I’d pass along news that, in South Dakota, at least, earning a graduate degree from a non-American institution and accepting speaking engagements at United Nations-led conferences makes you unAmerican. The fact that the Democrat running for Congress in this video earned a bachelor’s degree in Environmental Studies only further proves that he’s probably some sort of gay Russian-trained Taliban superspy working for the Chinese.


3rd Presidential Debate, Foreigner Version: If you’re not an American, you’re Mentally Ill or something

Did anyone else find the third presidential debate just appallingly narcissistic and self-congratulatory? Good lord. Good thing America is around to show you bubble-headed foreigners the way to freedom. I could run through all the offensive, ‘America-is-tasked-with-upholding-the-mantle-of-liberty’ patronizing condescension, but why bother? (Nexon does a nice job here.) I told my students to watch it, and in retrospect, maybe I shouldn’t have. It was so embarrassing, and in class this week I kept trying to explain why we talk down to the rest of the world like this while my students rolled their eyes in disgust.

I keep saying this – running around the world telling people how exceptional and bound-to-lead we are is a great way to alienate the planet and convince them of exactly the opposite – to not to follow us. We’d have a much easier time with the world if we could back off the blustery, Fox News nationalism and actually speak maturely. But Americans couldn’t give a damn about the rest of the world, no matter how much we posture about our world historic role to lead it.  Our ODA totals are disgrace for a coutnry as wealthy as we are. We don’t learn languages much. The only time we worry about casualties in the war on terror is when they are own; our clear disinterest for all the collateral damage we have done since 9/11 speak volumes to the rest of the planet.

So instead, here is the debate foreigners heard:

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Friday Morning Linkage

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