The Sixth Risk is Boredom

Every chapter of Michael Lewis’s The Sixth Risk, as it sounds to somebody who had heard of the federal government before November 2016.

John “Curley” Stooge was an unprepossessing man–White, middle-aged, and graying at the edges. As I nibbled on a pastry in the kitchen of his modest 3,000-square foot McMansion, I listened to him tell his totally relatable story. “As a freshman at MIT, I’d wanted to do something normal, like become a nuclear engineer,” Stooge said. “Then, out of the blue, I was picked to become an astronaut. It was a change from what I’d wanted to do, but I thought it could still be a challenge.”

It would be a challenge. An “astronaut” is a federal employee who travels to space on behalf of an obscure agency called the “National Aeronautics and Space Administration.” If you’ve never heard of it, it might surprise you to learn that NASA has run many complex projects, including Skylab and even once putting men on the Moon. They even returned them safely to Earth! Of course, NASA has had some problems, like when they commissioned the most dangerous passenger vehicle ever launched, but that was because of Republican dreams of privatizing space. Besides that, however, the space agency’s record of manned space flight has been meaningful and successful in vague ways that cannot be quantified.

“After being an astronaut, I decided to give back to the country,” Stooge said. He spent a few years in the private sector making an absolute metric ton of money–literally: he ran a gold mine in South Africa and was paid in bullion–before being named Assistant Deputy Secretary of Defense in Charge of Space Warfare. “It came as a total surprise,” Stooge reflected. “I’d only given the Obama campaign several hundred thousand dollars and written three New York Times columns praising his plan to give SpaceX control of Mons Olympus, so when the call came I was politely shocked.”

In his new post, Stooge learned a real appreciation for the ways of government. “I didn’t know much about the civilian side of the defense side of the government,” Stooge said. “But the people there were really smarter than I’d expected. It turns out that even non-astronauts with fewer than two Ph.D.s can breathe through their nostrils, mostly.”

Stooge oversaw large and obscure projects of the federal governments, like the launching of “artificial satellites” that contributed to a “global positioning system”. Not many people have heard of GPS, but it’s used to tell Google Maps how to get to your nearest Williams-Sonoma or Crate and Barrel. It’s just one of the ways that Pentagon spending affects our daily lives–yet another reason why literally any deviation from the status quo must be resisted.

“I really enjoyed the work,” Stooge said. But everything changed on Election Day 2016. “We’d never thought that anyone but a perfectly liberal technocrat could win an election in a democracy,” Stooge said. He and his staff continued work on the Tantalus Kill-a-Tron 3000, a project that would give the American president the power to kill anyone anywhere instantly by the press of a button or a typo. “This was important work,” Stooge explained. “We’d wondered at drinks after late nights perfecting the Kill-a-Tron if it could ever be misused, but who ever thought that power might lead to corruption?”

The incoming Trump administration took weeks to learn basic facts about the Defense Department, like the fact that the “Pentagon” is a five-sided building that houses its leadership or that there were different parts of the military. “The ‘landing team’ was just six guys, all named ‘Chip’ and all from Jared’s real-estate firm,” Stooge recalled. “They showed up to be briefed, but ten minutes in they were asking questions like ‘wait, we don’t have a Space Force?’ and ‘so are we winning this war in Afghanistan or not?'”

Now an unemployed former official who works part-time as a vice president of Lockheed Martin, Stooge has adjusted to losing his government salary. But he worries about the Trump administration. What’s the biggest risk of the Trump administration, I ask him. He looks at me as if I’m slow. “The fact that the president can launch a nuclear war at any time for any reason,” he replies, slowly.

He can? I ask.

“Yes.”

I didn’t know that.

“You also didn’t know what GPS was,” he replies.

Okay, point taken. Before November 2016, I’d never really thought about the federal government, but over the course of reporting this book I’d come to learn that all those people in government buildings did things, all the time, mostly, and that at least a half-dozen of them were important. It stood to reason that the president and Department of Defense also mattered.

For some reason, I had earlier decided that I would just ask questions of former officials in this manner, often going on for pages and pages, just recapitulating things that should have been obvious to anyone who’d heard of “food stamps” or “the National Weather Service.”So what’s the second-most worrisome thing about the Trump administration? I asked.

“Definitely the Kill-a-Tron 3000.”

Yeah, that sounded pretty worrisome to me, too. If only someone had been paying attention before giving the government to a failed New York real-estate buffoon, we might have had a discussion about the wisdom of building such a project. But it was too late for recriminations. I had to leave for drinks with someone who had once worked at a little-known government body called the “Federal Reserve.”

Thoughts on Teaching at the End of the World

Stock image of podcast technology

This past semester, I worked with 23 Honors students at UMASS Amherst on a course modestly entitled “The Politics of the End of the World.” In that course, students explored different ways in which the physical sciences, the social sciences, and the humanities had approached ends of the world caused or threatened by disease, nuclear warfare, environmental change, and cultural processes. The students concluded the term by working in groups to prepare podcasts on how various societies in Massachusetts had approached the same ends.

This class was an evolution of an earlier version of the course, which was a one-credit-hour special topics class offered two years ago. Reworking that readings and seminar course into the new, four-credit-hour version formed my project during a year as a Lilly teaching fellow. That UMASS program gave me a year’s worth of seminars, and a course buyout, during which I could refine my understanding of the end of the world and of how to teach at a college level. I want to reflect on why I structured the course as I did and how I would reform that structure in the future.

My vision for the course was a simple one: having students learn by creating. Given that the study of the end of the world as a theoretical concept remains in its infancy, I could not teach the students by having them become acolytes to some dead scribbler or even by introducing them to the work of a community of scholars. Rather, I knew that we would have to knit together disparate communities whose work touched on a common theme, but who did not yet know themselves to be participating in a common endeavor. Moreover, even had such a project existed, I would have still wanted to have the students engage with the subject by creating their own knowledge, rather than copying and repeating someone else’s theories or descriptions.

The choice of a podcast as a final project followed naturally from that vision. Requiring students to create a podcast combined all the advantages of an open canvas with the additional benefit that numerous examples exist showing how to structure such a work. Like a traditional research paper, it would allow students to pose and explore a new argument; unlike those dreary assignments, a podcast—simply by being novel—would spur students to work with more creative (but no less rigorous ways) of performing analyses.

The technical challenge of producing podcasts rather than entering text into a word processor also put the project in a sweet spot. Because podcasts can incorporate interviews, sound effects, music, and other editing, they reflect the mediated information environment in which people, including students, actually exist better than do purely textual assignments. Furthermore, the very complexity of creating such a document provided a structure that would encourage (and all but require) students to master project planning, a division of labor, and creative ways to deliver their message. Yet podcasts remain far less complex than visual media, like an online video or a television program. Every technical challenge inherent in a podcast remains in a visual project but compounded by more complex challenges of shot framing, lighting, and acting. Such challenges can overshadow the goal of creating an argument, rather than a spectacle. A podcast, then, would produce the right mix of complication and simplicity that would help students break out of the 8.5” x 11” box within which so much undergraduate education is crafted to fit.

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Representation and Symbolism in International Relations (or Vlad the Film Critic)

We shouldn’t become so inured to the routines of great-power press conferences that we dismiss what seem like trivial or pointless throwaways. For instance, during a press availability at last weekend’s G-20 summit in Argentina, Russian President Vladimir Putin made time to talk about subjects ranging from the Ukrainian naval incident to Russian luxury cars and the recent Hollywood film Hunter Killer.

Here’s Putin talking about the Aurus Senat, his personally modified state car (the Russian version of the American Cadillac-badged The Beast):

Reporter: And a short second question, please. Your car, Aurus, the Russian-manufactured Aurus, has driven so far away from home for the first time and reached this continent; there is a big commotion around it, with local residents taking pictures with it near the hotel. You have been using this vehicle for several months. How do you like the car? I assume you were not always a passenger, but actually drove it? How do you like it? What do you like about it? What don’t you like? Thank you.

Vladimir Putin: I never drove the limo version, only the smaller car. Very good car, I like it. And I am not the only one – some of our Arab friends like it too. They are already expressing a desire to buy it. Therefore, I think we can do this, I don’t see any problems. This is a capsule, a fairly well assembled car and very comfortable.

Trivial, right? And next to Putin’s discussion of Ukraine, Russo-British relations, and the Kremlin’s line on why Trump won’t talk to him, sure. But on the other hand, Putin doesn’t dismiss the question out of hand (and is it too paranoid to think it’s a plant, or at least a welcome opportunity to discuss it?). And certainly RT found time to promote the car as a part of its coverage of the G-20 summit, stressing how it had impressed the international audience there. So let’s not dismiss the idea that Putin took a few seconds out of his busy day to talk about his car. Presidential time is valuable and it’s unlikely that serious and strategic presidents simply say things without at least some goal in mind.

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Star Trek: TOS (Terms of Service)

USS Enterprise NCC-1701-A Recently, we activated an Amazon Echo. My attitude toward smart speakers can be divided into two eras:

Before Echo: Why would anyone want a privacy-destroying box in their home? Why should Jeff Bezos know everything about how my house is laid out? Is the point of late capitalism really letting me have modest conveniences in exchange for better advertisements?

After Echo: Exchanging my privacy for the modest convenience of playing Barenaked Ladies through a voice command is the absolute pinnacle of late capitalism, and Jeff Bezos should probably just buy the presidency already.

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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.

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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