Today in Yak-Shaving

(What is “yak shaving“?)

I needed to add plots to a final draft of an article that my co-author had just finished revising. Most of the plots were pre-made but two of them were new–just minor changes to existing work.

Normally, I would fire up my laptop to do this. That’s where I do most of my work in R. But earlier this morning I had installed a new battery on the mid-2012 MacBook Pro workhorse, and that meant it has to go through a power calibration cycle, so it was unavailable for service.

I turned instead to the small auxiliary laptop I use for presentations. I adjusted the code. Then I went to run it …

… and the small auxiliary laptop didn’t have the new package I use for this project now.

I downloaded it…but it didn’t run on the version of R installed on that machine.

I updated R…and then had to re-install all of the packages. Including packages to load older versions of other packages that work better than the current version.

Meanwhile, Microsoft Office decided that everything needed to be updated.

All of this led the computer to crash. But at least I have new versions of all the tools that I need to start the one simple line of code….

So if you ever wonder “but how did that take so long?” remember: it’s the yak’s fault.

Academics write well enough, actually

The most intimidating sight in the world: the empty page

The complaint is perennial: Why can’t academics write well? I’m not going to tag any particular examples of essays plying these waters; their numbers are so vast that the genre has become as stale and repetitive as it accuses scholars of being. Finding myself waiting for a server migration to complete before I can do real work, however, let me essay a response.

The Presumption: That Academics Can’t Write

The standard form of the complaint fits into one of a few categories:

  • Academic prose is dense. The standard exposition of this complaint involves putting some poor humanities or social-science professor in the stocks and mocking how inscrutable their prose is.
  • Academic writing is boring. Although often confused for the complaint that “academic prose is dense”, boredom and density form distinct branches of this family tree. Dense prose must of necessity be boring, but spritely prose about a topic that readers find dull will produce boring effects as well. Similarly, the leadenness of academic prose may result not from any bad sentence taken individually but from the plodding insistence on adding details, citations, and counterarguments, until the weight of all these straws breaks the reader’s back.
  • Academic writing is structured poorly. This more sophisticated critique begins with the observation that scholarly monographs and articles are not structured to be welcoming to outsiders. Sometimes, renegades from the academy will profess to reveal the secrets of the temple–that academics don’t read the entirety of every book they cite. They will point out that, unlike bestselling nonfiction texts, many scholarly books are designed to be read nonlinearly or in pieces. The failure of academic writing is thus linked to the failure of academic reading.
  • Academic writing concerns itself with trivial topics. I hesitate to mention this, since it is not, strictly, a complaint about writing but a complaint about scholarship. Yet the two sets of complaints are so tightly correlated that I must mention them together, as frequently the argument holds that academic writing is bad because those boffins are wasting their time writing about the history of the s

The Second Axiom: That Academic Writing Is Distinctively Bad

None of these complaints would matter if it were not for the assumption–sometimes unstated, sometimes spotlighted–that academic prose is distinctly bad. The comparison sets are usually drawn from journalism, good-selling texts written by academic (and that does exist), and from high-profile authors of nonfiction unburdened by academic affiliations.

One senses occasionally a desire on the part of the author to turn the red pen that some professor wielded against a sophomore essay back against authority in these complaints. Who doesn’t yearn to undermine the teacher? The number of complaints about the distinct badness of academic prose penned by scholars themselves means that this complaint has deeper foundations than a lust for vengeance.

Most Bad Academic Prose Is Bad For Good Reasons

One cannot defend the indefensible, and so I begin by disclaiming any intent to do so. I admit that most academic prose is bad; long habituation to academic writing has sharpened my ability to distill meaning from bad writing but it has not improved the taste.

Some academic writing is bad for bad reasons, too. Professors have to publish to keep their jobs; graduate students have to publish to get a job; and not a few veterans of the theory wars of the 1980s and 1990s learned that outfitting banalities in the latest jargon could camouflage their intellectual weaknesses. So I will not defend them, either.

Most bad academic prose, however, is bad for good reasons. Among them:

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Everyone Is Misreading Burke’s View of Parties

So what are political parties?

Burke’s definition of party as “a body of men united, for promoting by their joint endeavours the national interest, upon some particular principle in which they are all agreed” is frequently cited (and disparaged) as idealistic. Commager (1950, 309), for instance, preferred “a body of men—and women—organized to get control of the machinery of government.” Dismissing Burke as ignorant of pragmatism in politics requires an overly hasty judgment or a poor reading of the text, however, especially given that in the same paragraph Burke scorns “the speculative philosopher” who seeks to mark “the proper ends of Government” in favor of “the politician, who is the philosopher in action”. Burke’s politicians form their “connexion” to “to put the men who hold their opinions into such a condition as may enable them to carry their common plans into execution, with all the power and authority of the State.”[1] And this entailed a common duty among a party’s members to fight for power and organize each other:

They are bound to give to their own party the preference in all things; and by no means, for private considerations, to accept any offers of power in which the whole body is not included; nor to suffer themselves to be led, or to be controuled, or to be over-balanced, in office or in council, by those who contradict the very fundamental principles on which their party is formed, and even those upon which every fair connexion must stand.

A close reading will show that Burke’s full definition of party as aiming to control “the power and authority of the State” is a definition far closer to Commager’s than he realized. But Burke had already gone beyond Commager in defining the relationship of policy to the party. “Principle”, as Burke employs the term, resembles a party platform aimed rather than some airy and abstract philosophy. Indeed, Burke explicitly recognizes the importance of solidarity and the temptations that might break it (“to accept any offers of power in which the bole body is not included”) and those that would lead to the solidifying of one faction against another (“the preference in all things”)—a more active and experienced concept.

Burke’s view on parties is even closer to that of the “UCLA school” (Bawn et al. 2012, 579), although they also commit the same misreading of Burke as did Commager. Bawn et al argue, contra Commager and even more Aldrich (1995), that politicians are not the center of parties. Instead, as for Burke’s partisans, politicians are the instruments through which “policy demanders” contest for the policy outcomes they desire: “interest groups and activists form coalitions to nominate and elect politicians committed to their common program.” If we remember that for Burke, “politician” was a more general category than “officeholder” or “candidate” and described those who gathered together to “put the men who hold their opinions” into influence in order to execute a common program, then it becomes apparent that the two definitions resemble each other much more than has been recognized. They are not, however, identical: Bawn et al differ profoundly from Burke in their view of the precedence of party and ideology. Whereas Burke believed that politicians gathered along preexisting divisions over “great leading general principles in Government”, Bawn et al describe a process of endogenous ideological formation in which the coming-together of interest groups produces a partisan goal (573-575).

PhD Students Should Think About Publishing From Day One

Accurate view of graduate school socialization. Via Pexels.

Once again, I’ve been invited to give my advice to graduate students about Graduate School and The Market, the two topics that occupy the anxious discussions of years 2 through N in a young scholar’s career. A quick note: I recommend reading my earlier post with job-market advice; this is an update and a companion to that piece.

There’s an inevitable selection problem when talking about how someone’s career succeeded. We don’t see the counterfactual outcomes, nor do we observe the shape of the probability distribution of success given the variables that went into the probabilistic determination of success and failure. It’s likely that the single largest factor in my succeeding in getting a job where and when I did was the composition of the search committee at UMASS-Amherst the year I was first on the market for tenure-track (t-t) jobs, coupled with the specifics of the job ad: a committee with an Americanist chair and a job ad that needed someone who could teach Honors courses in a joint appointment at a public university spoke to several of my key skills and accomplishments unusually well.

So it’s possible that my success is a fluke, and should be judged accordingly. But I have been around; I’ve now been on a search committee; I’ve been through additional searches; and I know a little bit more than I ddi when I was a graduate student. Indeed, I may be at Peak Advice, since my personal experience as a job candidate closely overlaps with my service as a committee member, and I really have seen this market at close hand. I hope, then, that this lets me talk about what worked and what didn’t work for me. I should caveat all of this by bounding my advice a little further: the dynamics of hiring at top-5 research universities and at teaching-intensive universities are very different from “ordinary” R1 jobs.

What Worked

As the title of this post suggests, what worked was publishing. As both an applicant and as a search committee member, this was the single biggest qualification that I found relevant. I had early publications in Comparative Political Studies and American Politics Research (both with fine co-authors!). Publications will not get you a job, but not having publications will make it much harder to get one. It is not uncommon to hear that search committee members won’t even look at CVs that lack publication, and these days committees can be picky enough to insist on publications in good places as well. There are other factors in play, of course, and even an R&R at a good enough journal can be a substitute, but this is the single biggest factor.

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Is “America First” A Slogan With An Anti-Semitic Past? (Yes)

A reader writes:

I read your opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune entitled “Trump has no secret agenda – WYSIWYG” I did not understand one sentence of the piece, “So does his proud assumption of the motto “America First,” a slogan with anti-Semitic overtones.” I have lived all of my life in small-town Illinois and Iowa and have never associated the phrase “America First” with with anything other than the statement that America’s interest should be placed first ahead of other interests. Would you please explain to me how or why that phrase is anti-Semitic in any way. Perhaps there is a regional meaning with which I am unfamiliar. I would appreciate a reply to my question. Thank you.

This is a point that’s relatively well established. Here are some links:

(The original The Washington Post version had a link to one of these, which might have helped!)

UN Sanctions Against North Korea, 2017: A Rough Guide

The font of all knowledge has a quick guide to current UNSC resolutions sanctioning the DPRK.

August 2017: Resolution 2371 (2017)

Passed in response to July 2017 DPRK ICBM tests.

Included:

  • ban on coal exports as  well as iron, iron ore, lead, lead ore and seafood
  • restricted DPRK financial institutions from access to international financial system
  • prohibited joint ventures with other countries
  • banned additional DPRK laborers from being sent abroad

U.S. statement:

  • “the strongest sanctions ever imposed in response to a ballistic missile test” (“Fact Sheet“)
  • “the days of talking were over and it was time to act” (Ambassador Nikki Haley)
    • “The most stringent set of sanctions on any country in a generation”
    • “These sanctions will cut deep, and in doing so, will give the North Korean leadership a taste of the deprivation they have chosen to inflict on the North Korean people.”
  • President Trump told reporters that North Korea will be “met with fire and fury and frankly power, the likes of which this world has never seen before”
  • Tillerson compliments DPRK on two weeks of restraint

North Korea response:

  • “ready to ruthlessly take strategic measures involving physical actions by fully mobilizing our national power” (Yonhap)

September 2017: Resolution 2375 (2017)

Response to the North Korean nuclear test of September 2, 2017.

Included:

  • annual cap of 2MMbbl/yr of all refined petroleum products (of stated 4.5MMbbl/yr annual consumption) (Fact Sheet)
  • freezes crude oil
  • bans supply of LNG
  • bans DPRK textile exports
  • slow ban on DPRK export lbaorers

U.S. statement:

  • “the strongest sanctions ever imposed on North Korea” (Fact Sheet)
  • “We are done trying to prod the regime to do the right thing. We are now acting to stop it from having the ability to continue doing the wrong thing. We are doing that by hitting North Korea’s ability to fuel and fund its weapons program. Oil is the lifeblood of North Korea’s effort to build and deliver a nuclear weapon. Today’s resolution reduces almost 30 percent of oil provided to North Korea by cutting off over 55 percent of its gas, diesel, and heavy fuel oil. Further, today’s resolution completely bans natural gas and other oil byproducts that could be used as substitutes for the reduced petroleum. This will cut deep.” (Ambassador Nikki Haley)
  • Trump calls DPRK leader Kim a “madman” (Twitter) and “Rocket Man” (UN speech):
    • “The United States has great strength and patience, but if it is forced to defend itself or its allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea. Rocket Man is on a suicide mission for himself and for his regime. The United States is ready, willing and able, but hopefully this will not be necessary. That’s what the United Nations is all about; that’s what the United Nations is for. Let’s see how they do.”

DPRK reaction

  • Kim terms Trump a “mentally deranged U.S. dotard” and vows “highest level of hard-line countermeasure in history”

December 2017: Resolution 2397 (2017)

In response to November ICBM test by DPRK

Includes

  • restriction on 2375 cap to 500Kbbl/yr of refined petroleum products (compared to stated 2016 levels of 4.5MM bbl/yr) (Fact Sheet)
  • freezes crude oil exports at 4MM bbl/year
  • Requires countries to expel DPRK laborers by end of 2019
  • Completes sanctions on food, agricultural products, etc.
  • Bans DPRK imports of heavy machinery, industrial equipment, etc

US statement

  • “we have leveled an unprecedented response.” (Ambassador Nikki Haley)
    • “This resolution ratchets up the pressure on North Korea even further, building on our last resolution, which included the strongest sanctions ever imposed on them. Those sanctions fully banned textile exports from North Korea. They banned all joint ventures and all new work permits for overseas North Korean laborers. And, critical to the regime’s ability to develop its nuclear and missile programs, the previous resolution cut off 55 percent of refined petroleum products going to North Korea. Today, we cut deeper.”

 

North Korea reaction:

  • “an act of war” (Slate)
  • avenge itself against those who voted for the resolution (Bloomberg)

Additional Notes on Undergraduate Success

Literally a generic, rights-free stock photo of “success”. Your success may look different.

Some additional notes on undergraduate success prepared in advance of a reprise of meeting with UMASS students about settling into college.

Last year, I wrote some notes for undergraduates about how to succeed in college–and how to conceive of “success” itself. This year, I’ve been asked to reprise this advice, but with some additional points on how to connect with faculty, how to find research and internship opportunities, and how to ask for a letter of recommendation.

How to Connect with Faculty

UMASS is a big school, and my advice is going to reflect my experiences here. Advice for students at other kinds of colleges would be different. At Amherst College, for instance, much of what I’m going to say wouldn’t apply because faculty are expected to be more involved in student affairs than at UMASS; surprisingly, maybe, the same would also be more likely to hold at a community college, where faculty focus almost exclusively on teaching.

So what makes UMASS different? It isn’t, really, that the faculty don’t care less than their colleagues at other kinds of universities. It’s instead that their jobs focus primarily around research. Now, I’m speaking mostly about full-time, research professors here. That’s mostly who I think you’ll have in mind. Broadly speaking, almost anyone who is a “full” professor, an associate professor, or an assistant professor–like me–will be on a contract in which (whatever the percentages say) research is our primary responsibility. There are other folks, who include lecturers and adjunct professors, for whom the story is a little different. But I want my advice to reflect my experience, which will still help you a lot.

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Counterfactuals and Policy Interventions

A synthetic control-derived counterfactual of Ecuador’s predicted GDP in the absence of the 1973 oil price shock. Liou and Musgrave, 2014 (not published (yet) ).

A pressing question in policy analysis concerns estimating counterfactual outcomes. Given that we only observe one world, how do we know that policymakers’ decisions had an impact compared to likely alternative outcomes? If we assess that their decisions did have an impact, how confident can we be that its impact was positive or negative? Such answers confront what social scientists call the Fundamental Problem of Causal Inference: we can’t know for certain what the outcome had a different intervention (or none) been chosen, so instead we have to infer the existence and magnitude of an effect from other sources.

This problem is not merely academic: it affects everything. Any causal claim of the form “If X, then Y; if not-X, then not-Y” requires an assumption that we can evaluate X and Y given that we will only observe one potential outcome. Things get complicated in the real world, where we might observe Y because of processes not involving X (for instance, if I drink caffeine, I may feel more alert, but I may feel more alert if I go for a bike ride instead even if I do not drink coffee) or where some other process might interrupt the postulated mechanism (if I drink caffeine, I may not feel more alert if my body has developed too high a tolerance for caffeine, for instance).

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