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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APSA Membership Dues and Annual Meeting Fees in Context

The other day, I wrote about how APSA annual membership fees aren’t quite as expensive as they may seem in the context of other large, primary scholarly organizations in the social sciences and history. Yes, the economists and the ISA may charge a lot less, but it seems like the AEA is a crazy outlier (as they are in conference fees) and ISA isn’t quite a primary disciplinary organization in the same way that APSA, ASA, AAA, and AHA are.

But on Facebook, someone challenged me that this might not be the entire story. In this day, hardly anyone joins a scholarly oranization if they’re not either on the job market or going to the annual convention, and membership fees are largely calibrated to be just about the difference between the member and the non-member registration rate for the annual meeting. So maybe APSA is a bad deal, but that only becomes relevant when we look at the total cost of attending the annual meeting.

I went back to the Web and found some data. I quickly discovered that the economists are maybe the worst possible reference group for social sciences and humanities disciplines. Not only does AEA have relatively low membership dues, AEA also charges very little ($115!) for annual meeting registration. This suggests to me that AEA operates under a very different business model than the other leading social science disciplinary organizations, especially since (inasmuch as a few seconds’ Googling can be held to be research) AEA doesn’t have all that many more members. I suspect the difference comes in Big Science institutional support, probably some wealthy members’ bequests, and (maybe most important) convention hall exhibition fees and a different ownership structure for AER and other association journals.

The bottom line: Don’t compare APSA to AEA. They’re not in the same field.

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Nancy Isenberg, White Trash [Review]

Attention Conservation Notice: An ambitious but sprawling book that, amazingly, silences the people it claims to describe while also doing good work in de-mystifying colonial-era myths. (Originally published 15 December 2016 but lost in the Great Server Error of 2017.)

Class and race intersect in many ways. Until November 8, the most common contemporary invocations of such intersectionality came from the Left to justify and explain the grievances of members of their coalition. Sometime around 8:30 p.m. Eastern time on Election Day’s night, though, the discourse changed radically, and it was suddenly the intersection of Whiteness and Working-Classness that obsessed observers–including myself.

Like many people, I turned to three books implicitly or explicitly on this subject: Kathy Cramer’s The Politics of Resentment, Arlie Hochschild’s Strangers in Their Own Land, and Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash.

Of the three, Hochschild’s is probably the most readable, Cramer’s the most perceptive and theoretical, and Isenberg’s the least useful. Hochschild and Cramer focus their attention on the contemporary intersection of identities and relate it directly to political action (or inaction). Isenberg’s book, however, is vastly more ambitious. It attempts to deliver a 400-year history of its subject, and, to give it credit, the first 250 years of that history are genuinely revelatory. (One can never again really give credence to Louis Hartz’s liberalism thesis after reading how the English upper classes viewed the New World as a cesspool in which to deposit their refuse classes.) In that sense, however, it is indeed an “untold” story (or at least a story not told often enough).

Yet the book suffers from too many flaws, many of which are structural. Its ambition is fatally undermined by the fact that it must rely on the testimony  largely of people outside the class of “white trash”; we rarely hear people in that category speaking for themselves even though they do. (In fact, there is an entire genre of music that mourns, celebrates, documents, and valorizes precisely this group.)  The contrast with J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy is stark: we are presented with enormous quantities of travelers’ reflections on encountering people who seem not quite human, reams of testimony about official actions that punished (or sometimes rewarded) members of the class, and, finally, a conclusion that literally quotes Mario Cuomo as often as it does a member of the group.

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