My Five Songs (Whatever That Means)

I’ve been trying lately to force myself to fill out a playlist that I titled simply “My Five Songs” and left empty, with the goal of creating it…and then seeing what I meant by that title. The songs that most define me? Probably not, no, but close. The songs most often on my running playlist? Perhaps, but that selection process is a bit different. The songs I like most? Maybe. But, limiting myself to one per artist, the Stones and Pearl Jam are grossly underrepresented by that standard; Heartbreaker and Not For You would be unjustifiably missing. So, maybe they’re just the five songs that, when pressed, I’d put on a mix CD as sure-fire representations of me, what I like, and just how rooted in derivatives of 70s AOR rock particular (?) my taste in music is. (I like that one. Let’s go with that.) So, without further ado, here they are:

  1. Corduroy by Pearl Jam (live, with a Pink Floyd intro – stick through it)
  2. Gimme Danger by Iggy & the Stooges
  3. Honky Tonk Women by The Rolling Stones
  4. Lookout Mountain by Drive-By Truckers
  5. Everlong by Foo Fighters

And there you have it. With two honorable mentions, only barely beaten out by Honky Tonk Women, in Up Against the Wall, Redneck Mother (I saw Ray Wylie Hubbard at SXSW recently, btw, and he’s still got it—in spades—but I’m partial to Jerry Jeff’s version) and Too Drunk to Dream. (List should’ve been eight, clearly, to include those two and Fooled Around and Fell in Love, but we can’t have it all, can we?)

And, no. Those last three aren’t ironic. They almost made it. (As did Ain’t Goin’ Down Till the Sun Comes Up, but I can’t find an acceptable youtube version.)

Making course prep work for you and your research

I took on a new course this semester, thanks to a generous course development grant from UT’s Department of Asian Studies: War and Peace in East Asia. While I’m blogging about the lectures as they happen, I also wanted to take some time to talk about what preparing for the course over the second half of the summer has done for me in terms of my research—and why new preps, if you’ve got to take them on, can work to your advantage as a researcher.

The key, for me, was to choose my background readings carefully. While this is certainly a new prep, requiring case examples and empirical work devoted to a particular region (as opposed to the globe, which my causes of war class focuses on), I did my dead-level best to make sure that the readings I focused on paid dividends on at least one of my research agendas. In fact, that one little strategem is precisely why this course, before I gave a single lecture, has enriched my research.

My first big post-dissertation project has been on international military coalitions (see here and here for articles that will be incorporated into the book manuscript), and as a result of focusing my class cases on multilateral crises and wars, I’ve come across tons of great material for it, from negotiations between the United States and the Soviets over the latter’s entry into the war against Japan in 1945 to the terms of American cooperation with South Korea once North Korea stormed across the DMZ.

As a result, I managed to tell myself that I’m multitasking when I’m prepping for an upcoming course—and actually believe it. For me, that’s no small thing.

Scouting combines, the Wonderlic, and game theory

It looks as though the NFL is adding a new mental aptitude test to evaluate players at the scouting combine. Why put that on a blog about political science? Well, because Gregg Doyel’s Twitter response below lets us think hard about some basic problems that plague cooperation across varying contexts, whether political, environmental/ecological, or—in this case—economic. Here’s what Doyel says:

GreggDoyelCBSCollege players should band together and refuse to take the Wonderlic, etc. If the results get leaked, and low scorers mocked, why take it?2/17/13 4:29 PM

Now, given the recent Wonderlic fallout, Doyel’s reaction is totally reasonable. (And for the record, I’m a big fan of Doyel’s work; his “Hate Mail” columns are priceless.) Who wants to take a test and run the risk of getting humiliated? *If* the players *could* band together and refuse to take these tests, then the league *would* be stuck, and it *would* have to accept the new reality; with the league unable to refuse to draft or sign anyone, the players would likely carry the day.

Maybe they *should*, but they likely *won’t*, because—if, as professionals, they care about their careers—individual players have no incentive to band together like this. Yes, this comes at the cost of low scorers getting mocked, but there’s just no real collective incentive to band together.

Why wouldn’t players want to cooperate here? Well, it depends on what players care about—their career or other players’ feelings. Here’s what I mean. Imagine that those who take it get treated better (say, signed to higher salaries or signed at all) than those who don’t. True, if none take these tests, the league can’t do anything, *but* what’s to stop one or a few people from thinking “Well, if I take it and the others don’t, I’m in a great position with the league after the combine.” Sure, the ones who maintain solidarity are made worse off—because the league can single them out with smaller or no contracts, which it couldn’t do if they all cooperated—but the ones who *do* take the tests have more of the pie to share amongst themselves. So if everyone else isn’t taking the tests, it benefits any given player to take it and prove his willingness to “play ball” (pun intended) with the league. And here’s the kicker (an unintended, but surely better, pun)—there’s no incentive to be left out, so if you know that the other guys are taking it, then you have to as well if you don’t want the punitive contract (or, again, no contract at all). Yes, you’re all back in the situation you were in before, but that’s better than not getting *anything*, which is what you get if you’re one of the few that doesn’t take the test.

So what does this all mean? To the extent that players are ambitious and care about their careers (which, presumably, is what professionalism is about), most if not all will take the Wonderlic and associated tests—despite the fact that it comes with all the bad stuff Doyel hits on, and despite the fact that *if* all the players refused, they all might be collectively happier. But, ultimately, if the league rewards those who take it over those who won’t, then this tragic outcome—the result of what is essentially a multiplayer prisoner’s dilemma—will be the most likely outcome, and we won’t see much of a change in how things work, however much better the alternative that Doyel points out might be.

Three (adapted) rules for academic writing that I really need to remember

George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language is one of my favorites—at times a bit reaching, but often enough an excellent reminder of the value of clear language—and after re-reading it this morning, I pulled out these three rules for writing (in fairness, his list is a bit longer) that I’m putting here for no other reason than to remind myself of them:

  • Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  • If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  • Never use the passive voice where you can use the active.

Public commitment at blogging best. Let’s see how I do.


* for more Orwell, check out this running transcription of his diaries 1938-1942, in “real time” seventy years later.

International security, week 3

Following up on last week’s treatment of the bargaining approach to war, we continued the discussion this week about the (unfortunately?) time-honored dispute over the link between the distribution of power and the probability of war. I won’t belabor the substance of the discussions too much, but two things stood out to me that I thought worth noting today. [Arm raised over dying horse…]

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IS week 2 follow-up: how we model war

With some time on my hands before watching Kentucky brutalize LSU down in Baton Rouge, I want to return to another topic we covered in international security this week: specifically, the choices we make when we model war. This will be a long-running discussion, I think, but we had a question asked about how relevant the group of models we read—which treat war as a costly lottery—are for something other than interstate war.

In line with Thursday’s post, I’d consider that a question worth thinking about. I asked the class what every model we read assumed about a war, and we came down on three things:

  1. war is costly
  2. the outcome is probabilistic
  3. bargaining stops once war begins

When you’re talking about costly lottery models, that’s pretty much it, no? We’ll spend more time during the semester on what it means to relax assumptions 1 (in the leader-centric weeks) and 3 (in the war-as-costly-process week), but we can still say a lot about what the costly lottery assumptions get us in terms of, say, civil/intrastate or extra-state war.

The answer, I think, is quite a lot, though as always it depends on what we’re asking the model to tell us. To the extent that intrastate wars have these features—especially their costliness and the probabilistic nature of the outcome—then we’d expect to see similar dynamics in their causes. That is, discrepancies between the distribution of benefits and the distribution of power, shifting power, private information with incentives to lie—all these things—can lead players to fight a war that has the features of a costly lottery.

Now, there are many differences between the belligerents that fight interstate and intra-state wars, sure—agency problems, enforcement problems, etc. maybe differ across them—and to the extent that we’re interested in those features of intrastate wars, we’d want to model them explicitly. But unless they’d give us profoundly different answers about the effects of, say, shifting power and incentives to misrepresent—and in some cases they very well might—we’ve no need to complicate our models with them unnecessarily. Insurgencies, for example, may have the flavor of players bargaining before a decisive third audience—the public—or wars may have varying degrees of the risk of pure stalemate, etc., and if we want to know about the effects of those features, we build them in…

…but until we get to that point, there’s little wrong with seeing just how much we can translate from one context to another based on the extent to which one simple set of assumptions characterizes both.

International security, week 2

Today I taught session two of international security, where, if you saw the syllabus I posted here last week, we focused on bargaining and war. I tried to structure today’s readings and discussion around what I see as the arc of thinking about war as a bargaining process—from a useful analogy to way of identifying concrete causal mechanisms and, eventually, closer to developing solid hypotheses. As with last week, I’m not going to run down everything that happened in class, but I will touch on a couple of notable things that came out of discussion. More, as usual, after the jump.

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International security, week 1

I taught the first session of International Security yesterday (see this post of the syllabus and the rationale behind it), and we spent a lot of time, as promised, on the role and promise of assumptions in theory-building and testing. I can go on at (too great a) length about these things, as I’m sure my students discovered, but it allowed for some good, in-depth discussions of a few critical points that I think are worth repeating here. Note that this isn’t an exhaustive outline of what we covered, but just some points I want to revisit. Below the break, of course…

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This semester’s graduate syllabus: international security

As excited as I am about teaching International Security this semester, it’s never easy putting together a graduate syllabus. My own fetish for brevity comes into tension with my enthusiasm for the topic and the ever-present temptation to cover everything, and, in case you’re interested, here’s my latest attempt at striking that balance.

Inevitably, syllabi are statements about what we view as important, whether or not we intend for them to send such a signal. We may assign some things to make it more difficult to weasel out of reading them, but I don’t get the sense that students put a lot of effort into figuring out which is which. So in putting this course together, I tried to think hard about what’s “important” in the study of war and peace, not in terms of big outstanding questions  or trendy topics (though they’re covered) or what I consider “good” or exemplary work (that’s also represented in spots), but in terms of what someone who wants to start a research agenda in this subfield really needs to know. And I’ve come down on something that will, perhaps, be totally unsurprising: theory, both its development and its use.

First, the development of theories. We’re getting better as a subfield about trying hard to produce logically valid arguments, the kind that imply their own evidence (and can thus be falsified), but we’ve got a long way to go (which is good news for anyone getting started in IR). A senior colleague of mine has said (though I’m paraphrasing) that IR is characterized by a lot of sloppy answers to a lot of important questions, and I’ve decided that I want to push my grad students in the direction of developing good answers to those big, pressing questions about why large groups of people get together and kill each other and things they value in large numbers. I don’t want to set them on a particular topic, nor do I want them to adopt a specific tool, but I want them to be able to evaluate and develop logically valid arguments about, i.e. useful models of, the political world. As my students will see throughout the semester, it’s hard coming up with valid arguments that can then be used to add empirical content to the subfield. It’s hard, but it’s eminently worth it.

Second, the use of theories. Too often, some of our most useful and insightful theories, especially formal ones, elude empirical testing, and while it’s understandable—because, yes, it’s difficult—I want my students to get to the point of engaging the best arguments we have on the level of designing an appropriate research design, using the right sample, etc. in light of what the underlying assumptions of the model tell them to. When we engage theories only on the level of their hypotheses, it’s too easy to miss what the structure of the argument itself is telling us about the proper domain in which the argument applies, the error structure we should expect, and the functional forms of our variables. In short, using theories well (and responsibly) requires being able to identify and understand the critical nuts and bolts of the logical structure that produces their implications, and that’s what this course is aimed at: understanding what the arguments out there really say, what they imply, and what that means for testing them.

So what’s “important” for an IR course? It’s not just moving from one “image” to another (or reversing them), changing units of analysis, or blending the study of interstate and civil war—it’s learning how to those things effectively and responsibly. And as my poor students are about to find out, that ain’t easy.

But it sure is rewarding. I can’t wait to get into that classroom.

What makes a model useful?

As we worked through our first session on Nash equilibrium Friday in the graduate intro game theory course, we inevitably hit the point of the class becoming rather frustrated at the idea of multiple equilibria. “If we can’t get a deterministic prediction, what’s the point?” Or, more commonly, it’s “There’s got to be some reason to expect one equilibrium over another! Surely, that one is better than the two that also exist.” Then, of course, the inevitable response is that the definition of a Nash equilibrium gives us no traction on that idea.

So what are we to do? Continue reading