Monday, February 19, 2018

Trump as Worst President?

Tis Presidents' Day in the US (the name of the holiday in Canada varies by province--Family Day in Ontario, I think), so folks are trying to figure out if Trump is the worst President in US history.  Too soon?  Maybe.


Tis fair for Silver to think that Trump hasn't done enough damage yet.  Those at the bottom of the list tend to be those who broke the country: Buchanan as the last president before the civil war, Andrew Johnson who screwed up Reconstruction, Harding who helped give us the Great Depression.  Thus far, nothing as bad as the Civil War, Reconstruction and the Great Depression have happened.

But to be fair, those dead Presidents were only partially responsible--they had tons of help (I am not so sure about Johnson--I don't know Reconstruction politics that well).  Harding had heaps of help from Coolidge, Hoover and Congress.  Buchanan was one of many who helped bring the US to the brink of civil war.

One could ask about individual contributions of awful (I am omitting the tax cut since he had heaps of help with that), and this is where Trump really shines:
  • Undermining every norm about conflicts of interest and seeking to profit off of the presidency.  Has any President engaged in more corrupt behavior in their first year?
  • Appointing an agent of a foreign country (at least one, maybe two) to be National Security Adviser.
  • Refusing to fight Russian meddling with American elections.
  • Speaking of elections, Trump has tried to encourage more voter suppression but his own incompetence may have harmed that effort.
  • Obstructing justice early and often.
  • Appointing a retrograde racist to be Attorney General (yes, the Senate is guilty of letting that happen, so not just Trump).
  • Undermining civilian control of the military by appointing active and very recently retired generals to many significant posts and delegating responsibility for major decisions to those in uniform.
  • Attempting to make the Justice Department a biased participant in American politics.
  • Leaving the US understaffed in key areas at a time of significant crisis (who is the Ambassador to South Korea?).
  • Lying every damned day about everything as well documented by Daniel Dale.
  • Brinksmanship with North Korea.  Yes, North Korea is a hard problem, but it is far closer to a boil now than a year ago, and much of that is on Trump and his statements.
  • His condoning/encouraging of white supremacy (one reason why Woodrow Wilson is overrated).
  • Spilling secrets that allies have collected, creating great mistrust of the US.
Sure, none of this involves war (yet), economic hardship (yet), or civil strife (depends on how you count the number of minorities beaten and killed over the past two years).  So, maybe Trump has not presided over the worst times in American history, but he has almost certainty committed the most and potentially some of the gravest unforced effors.  But, yes, recency bias is a thing.

So, it may be too soon to put Trump at the very bottom of the list, but he is properly rated if he is near the bottom. Again, it depends on whether it is about the individual or about the Presidency and the era.  Which is why survey questions are hard to write, and the answers are often hard to interpret.

Sunday, February 18, 2018

Tenure Letters and Cohort Comparisons: This Way Lies Confusion

Tenure and promotion letters are one of the services academics do when once they get past tenure themselves.  I have blogged in the past about whether or not to write these letters, so today's post is about a frequent challenge when writing such letters: some (many?) provosts/deans/whoevers ask the letter writers to compare the candidate to the candidate's cohort--other people in the same area of research who have been at it for a similar time.*
*This post only addresses research since outside letters can only speak to research and because my only experience has been in research universities.

This request poses both practical and normative challenges.  The practical challenge is this: how does one know who the comparative cohort is?  As far as I know, there is no handy search engine that will pop out names of people in a subfield or research area sorted by year of PhD completion.  I don't have an encyclopedic memory for who finished in what year, nor, because I am far behind in my journal reading, really know who is doing what.  Reading all of the materials is extra work enough without systematically going through "peer institutions"** and identifying folks in the relevant subfield who are at the same stage of their career. I posted on facebook, essentially asking my IR friends for names of folks who would be in this person's cohort.  Instead of giving me names (ok, one or two people did), this led to a long and interesting discussion of the entire exercise of comparing.
**  One of the basic problems in all of this is that every Dean/Provost has an inflated sense of what their institution is, so the list of peer institutions is quite small--the Ivies, the top public schools and a few others.  It does help me, however, that I moved from a school seen as peer (McGill) to one that is not (Carleton), so I get fewer requests now than I did at the old place.  Woot.

The folks arguing for comparing to a cohort argued this was one of the most valuable pieces of information in the letter since everyone mostly writes super positive letters lest their few criticism arm those who are opposed to a candidate for whatever reason (not infrequently illegitimate ones like sexism, racism, animus, retaliation, etc).  More importantly, some folks argued that to evaluate a candidate, they should be compared to their peers.***  This is what many letter requesters want, and some even name specific scholars (usually the most well known/cited/productive).   Even if focused on a person's contributions sans comparison, competition ultimately enters as one evaluates the quality of the presses in which the candidate publishes, the selectivity of the journals in which their work appears, citation counts and h-indexes are essentially comparative and so on.

***One friend argued with me that competitiveness is productive, that folks who are competitive will be motivated to continue to publish after tenure, and that those who are not motivated by comparing themselves to others are likely to become deadwood.  I think curiosity and professionalism bred into us is sufficient, but I am sufficiently ego-driven that I see something to that argument.


But this raises a question of what is the point of being a scholar, of being promoted and tenured?  To be better than others?  Or to be productive, to make a significant contribution?  What difference does it make if candidate x is not as productive as the most productive people in the discipline?  Not everyone can be above average.  Perhaps the idea is only to tenure/promote people who are above the people who are at the average level of productivity?  How I write the letter depends on how I see the profession, and while there is a heap of competition in it--to get into grad school, to get grants/fellowships, to get into the more selective journals and presses, to get jobs--I think the larger enterprise is not competitive. It is about making contributions to knowledge, building on the work of others (past and present).  That co-authoring, for instance, and other forms of collaboration should not be penalized (I wrote the linked post in the aftermath of my co-authored work being dismissed by my senior colleagues because .... motivated bias, so that post might be a bit strident).  Moreoever, as one friend argued, relative comparisons may be unfair when there is a heap of bias--in who gets cited, who gets published in the top presses, etc. 

The tenure/promotion letter, in my view, is about addressing whether this person has made a contribution and is likely to continue to make a contribution. To me, these are absolute questions, not relative ones.  Which is why most of the letter is about what the person has researched and written and what their stuff contributes rather than the bean counts and comparisons with cohorts.  When asked to compare, I try to do so because, like saying no to the request, not following the instructions can be seen as criticism. But I don't like it, and I have a hard time because I do not have a good grasp of who is in the cohort.  So, what else do I do?  I whine here about it.

Saturday, February 17, 2018

Long Gestating Kushner Rant

I have not really blogged much about Jared Kushner because it seems so unnecessary---that it is patently obvious that Kushner is unqualifed and, yes, a security risk.  But he is still around, still being given too much responsibility, and still threatening American national security.  Oh, and demonstrating why there are laws and norms against nepotism.

What experience does Jared Kushner have to be a White House operative?  Crickets.  Badly managing a business is not a background for this job.  The only experience he has is being married to a Trump.

What experience does Kushner have to help facilitate Mideast piece?  Being Jewish is not experience.

What experience does Kushner have to be Trump's emissary?  Ok, he's related to Trump, but he has no foreign policy experience.   He has no background on Saudi Arabia or China besides perhaps liking despots?

What experience does Kushner have to help with the opoid crisis? Nada.

What experience does he have reforming government agencies?  Or with Veteran's Affairs?

The only experience that seems relevant is amassing foreign debt.  Which has led to him revising his security clearance paperwork several times.  As the folks at Pod Saves America reminded us this week, lying on the form is a felony.  Which, of course, then would make Jared ineligible to get a security clearance.  Yet he has kept having access to the most secret info, and according to one story I saw, he asks more often than anyone else for the classified info.

Combining Kushner's lack of knowledge with how easily blackmailed he might be, there is no way any semi-normal administration would put him anywhere near the centers of power.  Because Kushner is married to the daughter of a President who does not care about norms, standards, rules, etc, Kushner is where he is.  He should have been kicked out of the West Wing on day one.  It would have been better for all concerned had he and Ivanka (another thoroughly inexperienced amateur) stayed in New York.  But that would require judgment about capability and culpability and vulnerability rather than loyalty tests.

Here we are, John Kelly, the White House Chief of Staff, trying to marginalize the President's son-in-law.... At least, we will have a reminder for the next fifty years that nepotism is a bad idea.   Oh joy.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Black Panther: The Most Meaningful Marvel Movie

Mrs. Spew and I went to the first showing of Black Panther last night, and we were not disappointed.  Since most folks have not yet seen it, only go beyond the break if you don't mind being spoiled or were able to see the movie pretty quickly.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Guidelines for NATO Spending: Inputs, not Outputs or Outcomes

I tend to complain a lot about the NATO 2% expectation--that members are supposed to spend 2% of their GDP on defense stuff, which probably makes more more Canadian than anything else I do (I don't skate or watch hockey much).  This is aspirational and countries are supposed to reach it by 2024.  I have written much about why this is problematic (it tends to make Greece look good, which is a clue; doing is more important than spending, etc), but today I want to focus on the heart of the matter: 2% is a measure of input and nothing else.

The basic idea is if we all spend a significant hunk of money, we will get more defense than if we spend somewhat less money.  But spending more money on defense may not improve NATO's ability to field effective armies, navies and air forces.  For many members, spending more could simply mean spending more on personnel, which might lead to a more capable force or it might not.  There are additional NATO goals which get far less coverage, which are aimed at persuading members to spend significant hunks of cash on capital--building ships, planes, tanks and other equipment.  Again, this is a focus on input.  Spending more on equipment does not necessarily mean getting better or more equipment.  It could simply mean more waste.

The funny thing is that the US is pushing Belgium to buy the F35, suggesting that this would help them get to 2%.  Buying a super-expensive plane may or may not improve Belgian military performance, but it might get Belgium off of the free-rider list?  I am trying to remember a similar example of being so focused on inputs that they become more important than outcomes, but can't at the moment.*


Sure, we tend to focus on inputs or even outputs because they are easier to measure, and in NATO dynamics, are things about which it is easier to come to a consensus.  It is hard to measure outcomes like readiness and effectiveness.  Also, big numbers are not secret whereas actual military capability--what can a country really do--might have to be covered in secret sauce.  But what really matters is whether NATO can fight better (against others, not against each other) or not.  Spending more might help, but it might not, depending on where the money goes.  When countries underperform, is it because they underspend or because they have restrictive rules or because they have lousy strategies (who could that be?) or because their procurement processes are busted (hello Canada!) or because the adversary gets a vote?

One last semi-related point: asking the Western democracies to spend more on defense after encouraging austerity post-2008 is a hard sell, and, yes, domestic politics is a thing.  After years of saying that spending must be cut on social programs because debt is the supreme evil, saying that the first priority now must be defense is just not going to fly, especially with all of the complex coalitions that are barely governing so many members of the alliance.

So, as we keep invoking 2%, let's keep in mind that many countries will never reach it, as it would require more than a few to increase defense spending by 50-100% AND it allows us to ignore the bigger challenges of how to foster greater effectiveness and readiness.

* The only thing I can come up with would be examples from the Soviet Union of meeting five year plan targets by building huge non-usable things that helped reach the goals measured by weight like one really ball-bearing or something like that.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Oscars 2018

I think I saw more of the nominees than in a normal year with fish sex Shape of Water being the last of the Oscar movies I will see in the theater.  Next week is Black Panther and then the rest of the summer movies of 2018 (summer is earlier than ever).  So, what would I vote for?

Best Movie:
Get Out.  It was the movie that did and will stick with me.  It had the most interesting and surprising premise.  It was multidimensional--funny, scary, moving, meaningful.  Number two is hard as Dunkirk was an amazing movie--very creative in its own way, very much the epic of the year.  But Shape of Water was also very multidimensional--Cold War spy thriller, sci-fi fish out of water (sorry), and romance.  Oh, and fish sex.  I saw Dunkirk a while ago so it is hard to compare with Shape of Water.  I did pay heaps of attention to the direction and editing of both, probably because of my daughter, Intern Spew, and her nascent film career.  Three Billboards was quite good and moving, but the racist redemption thing kind of took me out of the movie a bit.  Lady Bird?  Incredibly well acted but not all that special to me.  Sorry.

No vote for Best Actor as I saw only one of those--Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out.

Best Actress:
Frances McDormand was just a force.  Sally Hawkins comes close because she was so very good, so very expressive despite not being able to talk.  Saoirse Ronan was very good, but the role was not that special. 

Best Supporting Actor:
Despite the whole problematic redemptive racist thing, Rockwell pulled it off really well.  Jenkins was very good in Shape, but didn't help to make the movie.  Harrelson was fine in a small role--moving, but replaceable.

Best Supporting Actress:
Metcalf in a runaway.  Ok, I only saw two of the nominees, and Olivia Spencer was very good but again the movie didn't hang at all on her.  Metcalf helped to make Lady Bird be a notable flick.


Director:
Best movie should get best director, but I am inclined to give the writing award to Jordan Peele and the directing to either Nolan or del Toro since their movies were harder, more epic.  Hmmm.  Good thing I don't have a vote.

Best Original Screenplay:
Get Out.  It had better writing and a more interesting plot than the others--I saw all five of the nominees.

Best Adapted:
Logan.... only one I saw.


Thursday, February 8, 2018

What is Wrong With Mattis/Trump Dynamics? Let Me Count The Ways

The WashPo put out a great piece last night that is getting a lot of attention, asking whether Mattis can "check an impulsive president and still retain his trust?"  Lots of great details into the dynamics within American civil-military relations as the US barrels towards another war or two.  And the piece absolutely drives me nuts.  There is so much wrong both about how the US is operating and how the press is depicting the bizarro world we are now in, so I decided to enumerate my problems with both the facts that are reported and how they are reported: