Friday, August 28, 2015

Whine Du Jour

I am not a fan of people who need to talk to me to sell me stuff.  Send me a letter and I will consider it. 

My union (I am still new to the whole union thing as my previous academic outposts were not unionized) apparently has a deal with an insurance company that gives me a modest bit of benefits.  Well, if I sign up for them.  And there is the hitch: the insurance company needs to send someone to my house to sign me up for these benefits. 

What are these benefits? A very modest accidental death/disability insurance and discount on glasses.  It was the latter that interested me as I have AD/D via my employer (perhaps due to the hard bargaining of my union ... or not as I had such stuff in other places). 

So, I stupidly agreed to meet with the salesperson to sign up, knowing that there would be some sort of pitch for additional benefits that I would have to pay for.  And that is what we got.  I wanted to cut to the chase to find out what these "permanent" "benefits" would be, but that would require more dancing through the script than I wanted to hear.  The price turned out to be 5% of my yearly income for benefits that we never quite got to. 

Oh, and those benefits that I was supposed to get? Well, the glasses coupon is only good for 2015, and I would have to go through this needs analysis/salespitch every year to keep getting that benefit.  Turns out my time is sufficiently valuable and that I am sufficiently impatient that I am willing to forgo the savings on my glasses so that I do not have to hear this pitch.

Sorry, salesperson, but since I was coerced into hearing what you had to say (to get benefits, need to meet with person in person), I was cranky to begin with and the script you had must made me crankier.

Oh, and union, crappy deal.  Thanks.

Thursday, August 27, 2015

An Awakening?

I was tempted to write about the Liberals' embracing of deficits but this is far more fun:

A video posted by Star Wars (@starwars) on

Scholars Supporting Iran Deal

Politico has the public letter signed by a bunch of Middle East and IR scholars.  My first reaction is that I agree with Chomsky and Mearsheimer?  Yuck.  Then I see that I agree with Chenoweth and Jervis!  Woot!

Howeverr, I don't really agree with the entirety of the letter, as I am not sure this agreement will stabilize the Mideast much (where is Marc Lynch's signature? Nope).  But the deal itself is a good one--arms control to limit proliferation is good, and that US opposing a multilateral deal is bad.

I definitely believe that diplomacy and not more force is required here.  Our military options suck and have lots of nasty 2nd/3rd order effects ... not to mention that the past 15 years in the Mideast should have taught us something about the limits of the use of force.

I am not sure talking with Iran will tame it, but rejecting this agreement will certainly not contain it.

What does surprise me about this letter is that it could have gotten far more signatures had it been circulated wider.  Ah, but academic networks are funky things.

The really big question is: if the agreement goes through, will Mearsheimer finally feel like folks are listening to him, that he really matters, and that he can feel better about his role in the world?  Or will he still think the Israeli lobby is behind everything and that politicians lie and all that?  Ironically, this suggests that we may see a key hypothesis to be tested!

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

A Challenge of University Governance

I am in the midst of a twitter argument with a Canadian expert on universities.  He started his series of tweets thusly:

And I jumped in quickly mispeled anticipation:
 Anyway, I teach via analogy all the time, so I cannot complain when folks use analogies, but it made me realize a problem folks have when they seek to run universities: that faculty are not ordinary employees.

How so?  It is not that employees elsewhere are not smart or highly educated.  No, it is that university professors are hired to be curious and critical.  These two attributes are baked into the job description.  Sure, there are issues of faculty governance as well, that make analogies with corporations or non-profits problematic, but it all starts, alas, with the reality that the agents in this principal-agent relationship are fundamentally different creatures. 

This requires the principals (the president, the board, whoever) to be aware of this difference.  Also, the principals need to be aware that universities often have "employees"with expertise in an inconvenient area (such as the one in this question).  Which combined with that built-in curiosity and critical outlook means that they will get burned if they ignore/deny/squelch such folks.  After all, one of the iron laws of academic life is that if you tell a professor to shut up, they will just get louder.

So, if you run a university, you may think it is like a corporation or a non-profit, and there might be much insight to be gained from thinking that way.  But then you might forget that the folks you are running are not the same--that the faculty are inherently pesky creatures. 

Monday, August 24, 2015

Dropping Off the Kid and Watching Others Drop

Was offline for most of the day driving to my daughter's college to drop her off.  We got lucky in that it only rained for part of the drive and it was not too hot.  Plus she is no longer on the third floor.

After meeting her friends, we took her to a gorge, as the town is famous for them. 

Just a beautiful hike with some mildly illegal activity:

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Lead This!

There was a piece in the NYT that seemed to suggest a "rainbow coalition" is supporting Trump.  Well, yes and no.  In the polls, there are more folks from a variety of segments of the GOP (or general) population indicating support for Trump than for anyone else in the rest of the GOP field:
Embedded image permalink

What does lead mean?  It means having more people polled indicating support for Trump than for any of the alternatives.  Which, in the case of these polls, means getting something like 20-25% support from these various segments.  So, lead?  Yes.  But a rainbow coalition?  Even a bizarro rainbow coalition?  No.  That suggests something a bit more sustainable, a bit more popular.  A different way to pitch these polls is that an overwhelming majority of these segments either within the GOP or within the population at large prefer anybody else to Trump.

But the media love this story because it gets eyeballs, links, etc, and so they give Trump heaps of uncritical attention.  And, by the way, as others have shown, Trump's "popularity" is mostly a creature of media attention.

So, yeah, Trump "leads" but he is also widely opposed because he is, well, despicable.  That the most of the rest of the field are racing to the bottom, pandering to be dumber/more xenophobic is on them, as George Will nicely argued:
Most of Donald Trump’s normally loquacious rivals are swaggeringly eager to confront Vladimir Putin but are too invertebrate — Lindsey Graham is an honorable exception — to voice robust disgust with Trump and the spirit of, the police measures necessary for and the cruelties that would accompany his policy. The policy is: “They’ve got to go.”
Had to get that out of my system.  Just a reminder: one can lead but still be a loser.  And that is a word that Trump is very familiar with: loser.

GOP Pander Bears

This whole race to the bottom in the GOP shows how gutless these candidates are.  Selling out to outbid Trump?  Pathetic.
Nicely illustrated by Brian McFadden of the NYT:

I tweeted this morning thusly:
And as the rest of the candidates chase Trump to the bottom, they not only get dumber but more racist.  As always, this is good for the Democratic Party and bad for Democracy.

Saturday, August 22, 2015

Inside Out: The Feels So Fine

Last night, I took my daughter to see Inside Out.  I had seen it earlier in the summer, but Soph Spew needed to see it before she goes back to college (and, yes, we have already given many of her old toys away a la Toy Story 3).

It was great to see the movie again.  It was fun to see my daughter's reactions, including to:

Thursday, August 20, 2015

Evergreen Post Invoking D&D

I thought I had blogged about this before, but I cannot seem to find the post.  Anyhow:

One of the most important contributions of Dungeons and Dragons (and perhaps whatever its founders borrowed from elsewhere) are the attributes that are key aspects of a character's background: strength, wisdom, intelligence, charisma, dexterity, and constitution.  Well, three of them actually stand out: wisdom, intelligence and charisma.

The big insight, of course, is that wisdom and intelligence are distinct attributes.  Someone can be smart but use their intelligence poorly.  Or someone can be very wise about making choices even if they are not that good at understanding stuff.  We usually notice cases of the former, as I did today when someone was tweeting about the Brady/NFL story.  That someone on the NFL's side was smart but not particularly wise.  That might be giving the NFL far more credit than it deserves, but it might still be applicable. 

I was thinking of the charisma score as well (Trump has heaps of charisma, alas, to enough audiences.  Rick Santorum?  Not so much).  That there a D&D inspired insult: zero charisma.  This means that one is utterly repulsive and cannot persuade people essentially.  The phrase even inspired a movie!   I have occasionally been tempted to hurl this insult at some folks, but have refrained.

The other attributes are also handy for thinking about the politics of our time as well as sports and other stuff, so maybe I will play with them in a future post.  Anyhow, I will be coming back to this post again and again when I want to point out something that is smart but not wise or when someone is utterly lacking in appeal or persuasiveness. 

Do More? Do More What?

I got into a twitter conversation with a frustrated friend of mine who is appalled by the loss of life in Syria.  He is frustrated that we are not doing more to stop the bleeding.  My response: tell me what we could do.  I have long argued here that the Mideast is the land of lousy policy alternatives and that the key lesson from the past 15 years of war there is of humility.  That the locals have far stronger incentives and any solution that is lasting requires the local folks do all the heavy lifting--governing, providing security, etc. 

Anyhow, I thought to reply today in two ways: consider my war record and then consider what can be done now. 
  • Iraq 2003: I was against the war.  Knew the folks behind it were bad at their jobs, saw it as a distraction from Afghanistan, thought it was just a bad idea.
  • Iraq 2007 surge: I think I was ambivalent because I bought the COIN logic but distrusted the Bush administration.
  • Afghanistan surge 2010: I was weakly for it, as it seemed like we owed it to ourselves and to Afghanistan to try to do it right--commit the resources that it needed and give it a chance.  Much ambivalence because Karzai and Pakistan were doing best to undermine the effort.
  • Libya: I was for it, since there seemed to be a viable actor on the ground to whom we could give air support.  Ooops.
  • Iran: folks in Bush administration kept leaking plans for bombing, and I kept being opposed.
  • Syria: largely opposed because I just didn't see a way through that didn't require a 10-20 year commitment that was simply not in the cards.  Also, remember, it blew up as the US was still heavily committed/exhausted by Afghanistan and had just left Iraq.
So, what can we do in Syria now?  Any real intervention that would stop Assad from killing people and stop ISIS from killing people would require the US to kill a lot of people.  Yes, the US because no one else has enough deployable troops to make a difference except for ... Turkey (which seems to be intent on killing Kurds more than anything else).  Invading Syria would be hard work, but might be do-able.  But keeping it at peace?  That would require a large occupation force for how long?  And how many casualties would the American people tolerate? 

Syria would be a very complicated peace-enforcing/state-building mission that would be very, very expensive and very, very violent.  Would the outcome be better than the current one?  I am not so sure.  So, we could get a high level of violence, perhaps more in the form of car bombs and IEDs and sniping than barrel bombs, but with outsiders paying a far higher price.

As always, it comes down to politics, and I just don't see a political settlement at the moment and little that outsiders can do to foster one given that Assad is fighting for his life with the help of Iran and Russia and that ISIS is not going to go away very easily.

Outsiders can do more to relieve the suffering of those who flee.  But what else can we do?
  • No Fly Zone?  Right now the air campaign against ISIS in Syria is facilitated by Assad's willingness to let this happen.  If we want to shoot down Syrian planes and helicopters, the airspace gets more dangerous.  That is ok if you acknowledge the tradeoff, but it is a cost to doing business differently.
  • Safe havens?  Would require some conquest to establish "safe" places, and we learned from Bosnia that save havens become targets and resolve very little.
  • Attack Assad?  We could launch strikes and perhaps land troops to get rid of the Assad regime, as Assad is the best recruiter ISIS has.  But then what?  ISIS takes over since our moderate opposition folks have not really amounted to anything there.
  • Conquer and occupy?  Thanks but no thanks.
So, the problem is not that there are lousy policy alternatives but that the various choices are awful, awful, awful.  And none are attractive enough that leaders can build domestic and international coalitions to sustain such efforts.

There are limits to power.  It is time we acknowledge that.