Monday, February 28, 2011

Biggest Fish Face Little Risk of Being Caught

This is the title of a NYT article which seeks to explain why no CEO is likely to see jail time for his part (no need for gender-neutral language here) in creating the financial calamity of 2008. This is in marked contrast to the savings-and-loans fiasco of the 1980s. Following that series of unfortunate events, the federal government invested a lot of effort and money in prosecuting wrong-doers. As a result, over 1,000 felons were locked up. This time around, the federal government seems to have neither the resources nor the resolve to launch a similarly grand crusade. And financial operations have become so complicated that telling ingenuous creativity from fraud is all but impossible. Fraud is evident from top to bottom of the financial food chain – from CEOs withholding vital information from gullible investors, to mortgage brokers misleading clients about the terms of their loans and even encouraging them to lie on their applications. Still, the biggest fish have little to fear, and many have emerged from the debacle they engineered with increased net worth and unshaken self-confidence. What lessons should kids and all of us draw from this foreseeable failure to punish the criminal wrongdoings of those numerous vultures (who have not expressed the slightest regret or remorse)? I am not sure, but I guess conservative commentators will continue to blame the obvious erosion of the Protestant ethic on the usual suspects – an assortment of tenured and non-tenured liberal intellectuals, feminists, multiculturalists, gay rights activists, etc. This strikes me as a truly monumental failure to connect the dots by some otherwise intelligent, well-read, and generally nice people.

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Planet of the nerds

A couple of years ago, the American Political Science Association launched a new journal, Perspectives on Politics. It was meant to provide an outlet - some grumpy skeptics would say a ghetto - for methodological transgressions and other hetherodox musings. Last year, it published an article by Laurence Mead called "Scholasticism in Political Science." It defined "scholasticism" as "a tendency for research to become overspecialized and ingrown" - in the pursuit of rigor and under pressure from the publish-or-perish dictum. Apparently, this trend has gathered pace in recent years, as political scientists have churned out countless articles with little real-world relevance. How does Mead know? He has done a rigorous study of little interest to anyone outside of APSA, and maybe even to the alleged scholastics. He has coded thousands of articles from APSA's flagship journal, and has found that most are very narrowly focused and are rarely cited. I have a somewhat different causal model explaining the outcomes Mead observes. The pressure to publish rigorous rigorous research surely exists, but over the years this has become the only kind of research most political scientists find meaningful and exciting. Over the decades, political science has gradually become populated by highly intelligent technicians who are engineers at heart. These are the kind of people who once kicked Nietzsche out of academia, invented the MAD doctrine, and gave the world freakonomics. Naturally, they regard more metaphorical analyses as so much gibberish. And weed out any job applicants suspected of producing those as thinly disguised impostors. Of course, they also rarely miss an opportunity to congratulate themselves on their progressive liberalism. Adam Curtis claims in the first episode of Pandora's Box that those were precisely the kind of people who ran the Soviet Gosplan. But he is only a director without an advanced degree in anything and has no scientific understanding of such complex issues. So what does he know?

P.S. A few years ago most of the students writing senior theses in Political Science at our department suddenly started to cobble together quantitative research designs. This happened without any faculty encouragement. Apparently, they independently reached the conclusion that only number crunching can provide some solid foundation for their young scholastic feet. There must be something in the Zeitgeist pushing young minds in this direction - apart from the schemings and mutual hyping of the geek mafia.

Reaching for the stars

Yesterday evening I felt really sick and miserable. As I was watching the heart-braking footage from Lybia, I accidentally flipped the channel to CNN. There, a puffed-up Barbie clone was hyperventilating over their latest "developing story": "Starry night in Hollywood." Can you imagine, someone's mother will tweet during the Oscars "ceremony"; and, for the first time ever, they will stream live footage from backstage celebrations over the internet! And all this is being revealed to us with only three days to go before the grand gala! I succumbed to all the excitement, ran to the bathroom, puked, and immediately felt better. Who says Hollywood and infotainment aren't healthy and wholesome?

Beauty will save the world

Over the last couple of years, Stanley Fish has published quite a few blop-ed pieces on the NYT web site offering a spirited defense of the humanities’ right to life. Facing severe pressures and sometimes even the ax from desperate academic managers, the humanities are now expected to prove their true value. At a time of austerity and diminishing expectations, why should research and teaching of sometimes arcane subjects be supported? Isn’t it an anachronistic luxury which should be sent the way of the three-piece suite and the feather hat? Fish recognizes that the public (and cost-cutting deciders) won’t buy the argument that studying Antigona or Chinese vases will boost the GDP or someone’s lifetime earning potential. Nor can such activities be credited with the dissemination of knowledge about the best artistic objects created by humanity or of paragons of moral excellence. As we have come to recognize, there is no uncontestable scale on which a Vermeer painting can be placed above Inuit embroidery or even a punk tattoo. And reading about the bravery of those hapless hoplites at the Thermopylae is unlikely in itself to inspire fearlessness among ROTC trainees. So, what justification does Fish offer instead? Pleasure, pure and simple. He says we should not expect the humanities to bring us or anyone else anything beyond aesthetic pleasure and appreciation. Sound great, and I would be the first to recognize the kick reading an uplifting story or a beautiful poem can give me. There is only one slight problem with this justification, and Fish knows it. Why should a country music lover be asked to subsidize the joy brought to some by atonal music or cubism? William Graham Sumner settled that one a long time ago – the “forgotten man” should be left alone and not asked to make even the smallest self-sacrifice; and the sum total of egotistical pursuits will create a better society. In the current Zeitgeist, Fish cannot possibly provide a plausible rebuttal. Instead, he says beleaguered academic aesthetes should employ a few Machiavellian tricks in the dog-eat-dog infighting university politics has become. And use their rhetorical skills to convince the top brass that they are the custodians of a sacred academic tradition dating back to the Renaissance. Yeah, right – this is surely going to fly. How about, then, a slightly different spin? Maybe keeping the humanities afloat could expose some students to works which sometimes inspire awe and admiration – an existential posture surpassing anyone’s instant needs and desires? An education empowering students to pursue such self-transcendence could perhaps be seen as a public good – as opposed to a private investment in the expectation of future individual rewards.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Under the iron boot of academic liberalism

At the annual meeting of the Society for Personality and Social Psychology, Jonathan Haidt asked his colleagues how many of them would describe themselves as other than liberal. Maybe 20-30 centrists or libertarians raised their hands, and three conservatives - out of around 1,000 present in the auditorium. To Haidt the result signaled the blatant discrimination practiced by the liberal majority toward any non-conformists. He apparently berated his arrogant colleagues for the hostile climate they had created for the few brave dissidents in their ranks, and warned them that their extremism would damage the public's faith in their scientific enterprise. As I read this I scratched my head. What's the big deal, really? Isn't it obvious that anyone who has an IQ above 115 and has read at least 20 non-fiction books from cover to cover cannot possibly be illiberal? Well, I do have two personal acquaintances who deviate from this rule - one in his 50s, the other in his mid-20s. But they must be the kind of rare exceptions which only serve to prove the rule. There cannot possibly be anyone else in the world who is quite like them.

The show must go on

On BBC and Al Jazeera (which uses much British talent) the anchors and most of the reporters are stern, as if seeking to convey the dramatism and enormity of recent events in the Middle East. I guess this is the reason why the British empire was so short-lived - it didn't last in full swing even 100 years. Because it couldn't generate sufficient faith and good cheer. I guess the stiff upper lip did them in - the latest research shows that putting on the fakest of smiles makes you happy, regardless of any nuisances served up by any series of unfortunate events. Thankfully, CNN is a whole different story. Most of their personalities have been effortlessly cheerful. And they do inject some much needed fun into what would have been slightly depressing news coverage. Yuppies enjoying themselves off the Dubai coast in an upbeat ad, longer yachting reports, golf, and - of course - that other most exciting "developing story" - the upcoming wedding of William and Kate. I couldn't wait to hear who is in and who is out, a mere nine weeks before the momentous event! And the beaming "royal commentator" they had invited was just superb - so polished and knowledgeable, yet appropriately discrete. I hope the sun will never, ever set on the Time Warner empire.

Equal opportunity

The Notre Dame Magazine carries an article and inspiring photos of the university's new women's rugby team in action. Now, this is real empowerment. It finally offers female athletes an equal opportunity to suffer the debilitating concussions (and the many more visible injuries) commonly associated with college and men's football.

Who gets what, when, how

This is Laswell's famous definition of politics - the subtitle of his 1936 book which saught to explain what politics is all about. As Encyclopedia Britannica observes, it "later served as the standard lay definition of politics." I am watching the dramatic footage from the Middle East, and I am thinking: what an elegant definition; it captures with such razor-sharp precision the motivations of all those multitudes braving the hails of batons, tear gas canisters, and sometimes bullets. How could we ever begin to grasp what makes them tick without the scientific study of political attitudes and behavior? Last July Stephen Walt asked on the Foreign Policy web site if political science was drifting into irrelevance. Where did he get that, really?