Category Archives: Political Science

Not-Quite States of America, Doug Mack [Review]

Attention conservation notice: Doug Mack has written a good, short, breezy book about the territorial possessions of the United States, a topic that should help to shake conventional ideas of what the “United States” is.

One of the great thrills of social science should be the constant rediscovery of the world as begging for explanation. Viewing social life as a dynamic process should prompt a constant unsettling with the superficially —a disenchantment with received wisdom and estrangement from the familiar. When we flatter ourselves, social scientists preen themselves on exactly those dimensions: interrogating this and wrestling with that.

Of course, social life being infinite, most of the time we fail at this task. Intellectual fashions provide the most obvious evidence that much of what seems to be deep engagement really arises from fads. More fundamentally, however, researchers often proceed from “stylized facts” about parts of the social world that are merely better drawn caricatures of social life than the non-specialist presents. Even if we manage to liberate ourselves from the tyranny of conventional wisdom in some particular niche, the necessity of producing a steady stream of work that engages our fellows and our blind spots about our own ignorance (compounded by the epistemic arrogance that a professional standing as an “expert” breeds).

I am at least as guilty of these tendencies as the next social scientist. There is one small region in which I am slightly less guilty than my fellows, however: I think — I hope — that I take the peculiar composite nature of the United States government a little more seriously than the average scholar of international relations. For me, the “United States” is never a unitary actor, even if its outward appearance sometimes puts such a mask over its structurally divided government. Instead, I view the country as a patchwork actor, one marked by multiple traditions of identities, governed by two major parties who alternate according to a coin flip, and divided into fifty states and territories. 

It’s the “and territories” that, as Doug Mack describes in his new book The Not-Quite States of America, people often forget. A chance encounter with ceremonial quarters honoring Puerto Rico, Guam, US Virgin Islands, American Samoa, and the Northern Mariana Islands jolts Mack into realizing that millions of people—many, although not all, American citizens—live in what can only be described as a U.S. empire. Unsettled by this estrangement from the familiar, he sets out to visit them to learn about their people and their culture to make them more comprehensible. Mack’s book is a sugar-coated challenge to the way you will think about the everyday politics of “America”– and a surprisingly sharp (if inadvertent) challenge to categories IR and comparative scholars employ to divide the world.

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Writing a Literature Review: Advice for Political Science Senior Theses

No man is an island, and no thesis is wholly original. By writing a thesis, you are engaging in a conversation with those who have written on your topic and topics that you will claim (and establish!) are closely related to what you are studying. However, you are also trying to show that you are adding something to the debate. Consequently, your goal in the literature review section is to show that you

  • have identified, read, and analyzed relevant arguments
  • understand and respect the contributions of prior authors
  • know how they (or at least some subset of ‘they’) got it wrong

These goals conflict! “I respect you, but you are wrong” is a tough line to follow. I’ll discuss strategies below to address that.

Throughout, though, I want you to remember:

  • the literature review is a supporting actor. The star is your thesis (and its accompanying theory and research design).
  • you need to straddle humility and confidence in demonstrating your contribution.

This page supplements resources such as the UNC Writing Center’s guide to writing literature reviews and Dr. Raul Pacheco-Vega’s work (especially on using Excel to structure lit reviews!), which you should also read.

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Notes on Theory-Writing for Political Science Senior Theses

The following is a draft of advice for undergraduates working with me on writing senior theses. I’m intentionally leaving all the citations and academia flag-planting out of this; moreover, this is advice to my students, not anyone else’s, so don’t take this as gospel or hegemonic domineering.

What is a “thesis”?

You will spend this semester writing a “thesis”. By convention, we refer to the 35-50 pages you will produce with that word, but it’s worth unpacking why such a long paper is referred to by that name. After all, a “thesis” is just a claim that you want to put forward (and, ideally, test). You can state a thesis easily: for instance, “Hell, purgatory, and heaven seem to differ the same as despair, fear, and assurance of salvation” or “The economic effects of oil rents include the perpetuation of patriarchy.” So what about the other 34.9 pages you’ll write?

The answer is that we don’t care about them separate from your thesis. They are only the supporting stonework in the arch for which the thesis is the keystone. And like a keystone, your thesis will both be supported by and support the rest of the work. We refer to the whole work as a “thesis” in recognition, conscious or otherwise, of the importance of this central claim.

Theses–and here I’m referring to the claims, not the document you’ll produce–may be stated at any length. There is often a ‘gut’ version–“Voters blame politicians for random events”–and a more precise version, as in Achen and Bartels’s seminal paper on “blind retrospection”:

Switch analogies for a moment: regard the thesis as a Slinky that you can stretch or compress. Both “gut” and “precise” forms of the thesis express the same argument, but they have been reshaped to fit the space available (as well as the intellectual requirements of your task). But whatever shape or size the thesis appears to take at the moment, it must remain the same argument. A chief quality-control task for you as  knowledge worker is ensuring that your expression of the thesis remains as analytically precise and consistent as possible, whether said in punchy Anglo-Saxon words or elaborated in scientific (or pseudo-scientific) Latinate verbiage.

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Crude Nation, Raul Gallegos [Review]

Cover for Raul Gallegos, Crude Nation

One of the punchiest descriptions of the “resource curse” comes from Venezuelan oil minister and OPEC founder Juan Pablo Perez Alfonso, who called oil “the devil’s excrement”. Yet the saying obscures more than it reveals. Perez Alfonzo’s pessimism about oil dated to an era before contemporary scholarship admits of an oil curse (the most recent resource-curse literature argues that the curse began in 1980 or so, and Perez Alfonzo’s bon mot dates to 1975). It is also the money from oil, not the properties of petroleum itself, that is said to be the cause of the curse, whether through the knock-on effects on productive sectors’ competitiveness through the Dutch Disease of currency appreciation or the conversion of productive competition into indolent rent-seeking through the corruption of political institutions by the replacement of taxation.

The biggest problem for Perez Alfonsz’s wit, however, is the simple fact that for much of the twentieth century, it was hard to say that Venezuela had been particularly cursed by oil revenues.

The statistics suggest that oil simply made Venezuela richer than it would have otherwise been (assuming that its neighbors supply a good idea of its counterfactual, non-oil-based economic outcomes). Similarly, Venezuela’s Polity score (a measure of democracy) show that the country was ranked most democratic by outside experts during periods of high oil income, and only began a slide away from a Polity score as high as France’s when oil prices entered a prolonged depression in the 1990s.

Since the leftist government of Hugo Chavez (and, since his death, Nicolas Maduro) came into power in 1999, however, all of this has changed dramatically. Today, Venezuela does indeed seem to have been cursed by oil wealth in some fashion, as Raul Gallegos documents in Crude Nation, a fine, readable survey of contemporary Venezuelan life, based on his work as a reporter in the country.

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The Gendered Resource Curse

My co-author, Yu-Ming Liou, and I wrote this for the ISQ blog when we published our article on the gendered resource curse, “Oil, Autocratic Survival, and the Gendered Resource Curse,” explaining how oil rents can lead to worse political outcomes for women. But I don’t think ISQ ever used it, so I’m using it now.

Generally, increasing gender equality accompanies economic development. Figure 1 shows this relationship: as GDP per capita increases (rightward along the x-axis), gender inequality tends to decline (downward along the y-axis).

Social scientists and casual observers have long recognized that oil-rich countries like Saudi Arabia form an important exception to this rule. As Figure 2 demonstrates, autocratic countries that receive more than $1,000 per capita in income from oil and natural gas (shown in red) tend to have greater levels of gender inequality at nearly every level of income.

Why does oil income affect gender equality differently than other sources of wealth? We argue that this discrepancy results from a set of policies that oil-rich autocrats pursue to consolidate their hold in power. As we explain more below (and in the paper), the greater rulers’ dependence on political elites who value ideological fidelity, the more likely rulers are to enact the ideologically-informed policies they demand—even when those policies harm national welfare and make it harder to pay off supporters demanding more traditional forms of patronage.

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Quick Thoughts on Constitutional Amendments I’d Like

If it’s so great, how come we had to amend it so often?

It’s clear to everyone–and I mean everyone–that the Constitution badly needs amendments. Here are my thoughts about what those should be–with the caveat that I set a timer for 12 minutes to put these down.

Although I often strive to present relatively evidence-based recommendations in areas of my expertise, what follows is more a spur toward better theorizing than a distillation of disciplinary wisdom. But, let’s face it, part of never letting a crisis go to waste is acting on our instincts tempered by evidence. The whole point of a crisis, after all, is that matters are unsettled–and when they are unsettled, extrapolations from the past should be radically discounted.


End Lifetime Tenure for Supreme Court Justices

Part of the issue with the Merrick Garland nomination that led to Senate Republicans’ successful dynamiting of norms was that Garland could have served for decades, challenging Republicans’ now generations-old lock on the bench. One way to make succession planning easier–and the Court more responsive to the superior branches of government–would be to end lifetime tenure for justices. My favorite version of this plan would be to give every Court member a 14-year term, staggered at two year intervals; that would ensure that every President would get to make at least two nominations and every Senator would have to vote at least once. Ensuring regular turnover on the Court would go a long way toward making confirmation fights less apocalyptic, and that should be a major issue going forward.

24-year Term Limits for Legislators

I know political scientists have a ton of evidence showing that short term limits (two or three terms) weaken legislatures. But the cases that drive people actually crazy are the ones in which some senator or representative gets elected from a safe district and stays there until they literally die of old age–or, in cases like Strom Thurmond, arguably after they have actually passed on. Establishing a 12-term limit for representatives or a 4-term limit for Senators would end that abuse. Even though we’d lose some good legislators (the Lugars of the world, for instance), we’d also end the worst abuses of senatorial seniority and other stupidly antimajoritarian “traditions”.

Better Continuity of Government

For about two weeks after 9/11, people wondered what would have happened if the fourth airliner had hit the Capitol while Congress was in session. (That would have made the Tom Clancy parallels way more explicit.) The possibility that the legislature could be disrupted by a catastrophic terrorist or other incident is still live; I think most of everything in this Brookings report is still valid. Attention to filling mass vacancies is not a silly idea.

At the same time, we need to figure out the presidential line of succession. Arguments abound that, e.g., the current line of succession is unconstitutional (because the Speaker and President Pro Tem aren’t “officers of the United States”), that it’s dumb (because an accident could switch partisan control of the executive branch), that it could lead to constitutional crises (what if the President, VP, and Congress die, leading a Cabinet officer to take over–but a rump Congress meets and elects a Speaker of the House, who would then “bump” the new President?). Let’s be clear: this has been an issue since John Tyler imaginatively re-read the Constitution to show that William Henry Harrison’s death made him President, not a Vice President acting as President. And the 25th Amendment did not really clarify issues.

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Conditional Authority: When Centers Restrain Delegation

Just another day in the life of a state that only appears Weberian.

Attention Conservation Notice: Notes on making U.S. state and political politics legible to international-relations scholars.

Enough about the passing political scene. Let’s talk about something both less, and more, urgent: how do governments arrange their relations with sub- and super-ordinate authority?

Some quick background. There are many reasons to suspect that different arrangements of governance hierarchies offer different advantages and disadvantages. Centralized governments, for instance, can mobilize resources behind a single goal; consider that the North Korean government has been able to develop a nuclear weapons program despite having an economy on par with Kenya’s (by per-capita GDP) or Bosnia (by overall GDP). On the other hand, decentralized governments can pursue a wider variety of goals more efficiently. Splitting a unitary government into many can allow for different communities to have different policy outcomes or credibly commit that one community will not dominate another. Accordingly, real-world governance hierarchies appear in many different forms, from empires (which treat different peripheries differently, allow centers to act autonomously, and hold that centers can ‘invest’ subordinate authorities) to confederacies (in which centers are bound and invested by their subordinates).

These patterns combine and re-combine at many different “levels of analysis”, from internal office organizations (and re-organizations) to different accounts of how American primacy shapes global and regional orders. The rhetorics around such orders often obscure this; witness how many people still believe that ‘anarchy’ distinguishes international politics from domestic political orders, for instance. (What is more anarchic: intra-EU relations or intra-Somalia relations?) Similarly, contestations of hierarchy can obscure (or reveal) true hierarchical rankings, while great powers often have reason to behave as if they were just ordinary states. Accordingly, even though these considerations are a part of ‘international’ life, they remain obscured.

Yet the dynamics of center-periphery relations also remain occluded in the fora in which we should observe them readily. That includes not just relations we normally consider ‘domestic’, as between the federal government and the constituent members of the American Union, but also those we call ‘municipal’, as between a state government and the various local governments within its remit. The arguments for having a state government sponsor (typically many) local governments are manifold, but usually rest on some notion of popular sovereignty, the normative desire to allow distinct communities distinctive policies, a crassly reactionary desire to prevent redistributive or progressive politics, plain rent-seeking, and stealth arguments against democracy (surely one reason to divide school boards from ‘normal’ politics is to prevent Those People from winning elections, whoever Those People may be).

Yet a puzzling phenomenon recurs. Authorities delegated downward, from center to periphery, within U.S. states seems much more contingent than standard static analyses suggests. Why do states grant prerogatives they don’t want local governments to enjoy?

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