Thoughts on Watching Public Enemies

I had the chance to watch Public Enemies over the weekend, and highly recommend it. (It’s from 2009, so yes, I’m behind on this.) The basic plot line is the effort by Melvin Purvis, of the Bureau of Investigation, to capture John Dillinger. It was the notoriety gained by the Dillinger case that would help the Bureau of Investigation to gain the “Federal” in its title, becoming the FBI under J. Edgar Hoover. 

There’s an interesting scene very early in the movie in which Hoover is sitting before an appropriations committee trying to get more funding. Hoover emphasizes the infamous nature of the criminals his agency is pursuing, and is met with the question of how many criminals he has personally arrested. The answer, of course, is zero: Hoover was a bureaucrat, who had risen through the ranks of the Justice Department. The year Hoover graduated law school is a key to understanding what follows–he finished in 1917, just as the US was entering the Great War. I can’t help but imagine that the mobilization effort Hoover would have witnessed in DC and around the country at that time was an important factor in a very important metaphor he used later.

You see (and have seen, if you’ve watched the movie), Hoover was the first official to declare a “War on Crime.” I am not aware of an earlier instance where war was employed metaphorically in this extensive, public way. The gruesomeness of the Civil War would have made that unlikely before Hoover. This metaphor has, of course, been used extensively since. War on Poverty, War on Drugs, War on Terror… it seems like the US government is always declaring war on something.

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The Positive Features of Disagreement

[Continuing the series on the structure of academic conversation which began here.] 

In the previous post on this topic I mentioned the negative features of disagreement, namely, that they distract attention and energy that could be used more productive. I left open the question of scenarios in which disagreement serves a creative purpose, but thankfully Bryan Caplan addresses one important aspect of this:

Mill states it well: “He who knows only his own side of the case knows little of that.”  If someone can correctly explain a position but continue to disagree with it, that position is less likely to be correct.  And if ability to correctly explain a position leads almost automatically to agreement with it, that position is more likely to be correct.  (See free trade).  It’s not a perfect criterion, of course, especially for highly idiosyncratic views.  But the ability to pass ideological Turing tests – to state opposing views as clearly and persuasively as their proponents – is a genuine symptom of objectivity and wisdom.

This seems like a straightforward proposition: being engaged enough in a disagreement that you can adequately and accurately restate your opponents position means that you have given a significant amount of thought to their position and yet have chosen to retain your own. This implies at least some degree of self-examination, and thus a sort of “inoculation” against at least some set of counterarguments.

Notice that I began with engagement. Disagreements are productive when both parties agree that having the debate is worthwhile. This is, I think, what separates many debates in the more esoteric areas of science–social, natural, whatever–from policy debates. People can generally see the significance of determining whether or not to keep bombing Libya, even if it is not a particularly salient issue to them personally (i.e., from the perspective of an average American rather than an average Libyan). On the other hand a more technical point about, say, what level of statistical accuracy is appropriate for a normative argument, can easily seem inane to an observer who is not engaged in the conversation.

I’ve been thinking of a number of examples to demonstrate this, ranging from the American West to religion, but I hate to reason by analogy and at least one person has already proposed a Christian-Atheist Turing test. That should be interesting, and if both sides actually try to follow the protocol of the Turing test it will be both surprising and refreshing. It also raises the question of whether there are some issues for which one opposing view just can’t encompass the other. I believe that there are. The next post on this will be ever-so-slightly more practical less abstract.

Social Media and the Arab Revolutions

No, not those Arab revolutions—I’m referring to those of the first third of the twentieth century. And not that social media: long before Facebook and Twitter, there were newspapers and journal publications. Apropos of the previous post (and Anderson’s Imagined Communities), here’s Albert Hourani:

In the 1870′s two new types of publication began to appear in Arabic: the independent newspaper, giving news of world politics and expressing political opinions, and–what most concerns us here–the literary and scientific periodical, with the double purpose of revealing to the Arab mind the ideas and inventions of Europe and America, and showing how they could be written about in Arabic…. [S]ince for a whole generation they provided almost the only popular reading-matter in Arabic, they gave the Lebanese an influence over the Arabic-reading public although short-lived. (Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age: 245)

And, showing that sometimes the direction of influence works in the reverse of that described in the previous post (i.e. something is written based on certain assumptions, and over time the assumptions are absorbed by the audience somewhat unconsciously):

[The Lebanese periodical al-Muqtataf and the Egyptian al-Hilal] tended to avoid anything bearing directly on local politics or religion, and which might stir up hostility. But behind them both, and others of the kind, there lay certain positive ideas about what truth was, how it should be sought, and what the Arabic reading public ought to know. That civilization was a good in itself, and to create and maintain it should be the criterion of action and the norm of morality; that science was the basis of civilization, and the European sciences were of universal value; that they could and must be accepted by the Arab mind through the medium of the Arabic language; that from the discoveries of science there could be inferred a system of social morality which was the secret of social strength; and that the basis of this moral system was public spirit or patriotism, the love of country and fellow countrymen which should transcend all other ties, even those of religion: it was largely through the work of these periodicals that such ideas later became commonplace. (Ibid., p. 246-7)

The Structure of Academic Conversation

Or, “What is the purpose of academic journals?”

[Please note: This is a question that has been on my mind for a while, so this is the first part of what is likely to become a multi-post series. It has been on many other, smarter, more experienced academic minds as well, as you will see from the links in each post.]

Tyler Cowen and John Sides have both given some attention to a paper Julie Suleski and Motomu Ibaraki, both of The Ohio State University. The paper (here, gated–Tyler notes the irony) looks at three questions: 

1. How many scientific papers that were published in peer-reviewed journals made it to a mainstream audience?

2. What percentage of papers was represented in the mainstream news media?

3. Since the number of papers published has increased, has the number of papers reported on increased?

Rather than answer their questions–not all of which I’m sure are particularly relevant, for reasons that should become obvious later in the series–I will selfishly merely use this as a jumping off point for some reflection on the purpose of academic journals. My own research as you know is in the area of social sciences, but I will attempt to make remarks that are applicable to the academic community in general, and offer a disclaimer when I have social or political science exclusively (rather than primarily) in mind.

The first principle to keep in mind is that disagreement saps energy. In Christopher Groskopf’s inaugural post over at Hack Tyler earlier this year, describing his decision to move from Chicago to Tyler, Texas, he explained that he was going in with the expectation that he would have “to spend a great deal of time actively disagreeing with people.” Christopher stated this with full awareness that the energy devoted to disagreement would not be considered productive in the traditional sense (I say this with respect for both his decision and his project). People tend to exhibit a basic understanding of this principle when they express disdain for partisanship in Washington, wishing that politicians would “stop arguing and get things done,” but I for one am fine if they keep arguing and do very little else–but I digress.

This same energy required by disagreement draws upon reserves that could otherwise be put toward creative pursuits. If you think of a finite supply of resources–say, a 24 hour day–any one of those that you devote to arguing with someone detracts a unit of the resource that could be spent painting/writing/filing taxes/whatever. The point is not that disagreements are always bad. Indeed, sometimes disagreement and creativity are complementary; for instance, Galileo’s disputes with the Catholic hierarchy were necessary. But could he have gotten more done if he were permitted to spend more time looking at the stars and less time arguing with bishops? Probably. The point is that people who are engaged in creative/productive pursuits will want to avoid debates over matters that they regard as settled or trivial in order to move on to new problems that they consider a better use of their time.

Having to retrace every step along the development of the modern scientific method, while not a debate per se (it was, but that isn’t the point), would be a distraction or a waste of time. At some point these settled or trivial matters accumulate, words take on technical meanings, and the discourse of the problem-solving or -exploring community becomes too sophisticated for the general educated person.

Basic rhetoric tells us that any piece of language consists of three primary elements: audience, purpose, and genre. By directing their writing to an audience with whom the author shares at least a minimum of basic assumptions about the world, the pursuit of knowledge, and the professional conduct of contemporary scientists, authors are able to significantly reduce the effort required to generate their reports/articles. Rather than retrace each of the elements learned in their decade-long process of becoming scientists that are crucial to the topic at hand, they can simply address individuals who already share that common pool of basic science education, and can thus read the article intelligently without a lot of background. Thus, more time can be spent at the frontiers of research rather than retracing old arguments. Thomas Kuhn describes this process in his book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions:

In the sciences (though not in fields like medicine, technology, and law, of which the principal raison d’être is an external social need), the formation of specialized journals… [has] usually been associated with a group’s first reception of a single paradigm…. No longer will [the scientist's work] usually be embodied in books addressed… to anyone who might be interested in the subject matter of the field. Instead they will usually appear as brief articles addressed only to professional colleagues, the men whose knowledge of a shared paradigm can be assumed and who prove to be the only ones able to read the papers addressed to them. (1996: 19-20, see also p. 163ff.)

This argument is simply stated, and of course its implications are nontrivial (which is not to say original with me), but that’s why we have the rest of this series.

Mexico Captures Another Cartel Leader

Jose de Jesus Mendez, described as a top leader of La Familia drug trafficking organization (DTO), has been captured. The Mexican government appears enthusiastic about the results of arresting Mendez, who has had a $30 million peso bounty (~US$2.4 million) on his head for some time. I am less optimistic, at least where levels of violence are concerned. My recent research (forthcoming) suggests that the removal of leaders in Mexico is a significant factor in the rising levels of violence there. Here are two charts which show expected levels of murders (relative to the mean level) following a leadership transition:


The first shows that killing leaders leads to an almost immediate (1 month lag) and more dramatic increase in violence than capturing leaders, so we have that to be thankful for at least. Mendez’s capture probably won’t show an increase in violence for about three months, long enough for politicians to place the blame elsewhere (or more likely, just express that they are baffled).

The second chart shows that the the removal of top-tier leaders results in a substantively small but persistent decrease in violence, while the removal of midlevel leaders causes larger increases. Mendez is described as a “top leader” in many of the articles coming out, but the LA Times piece linked above also says that he was a commander of a faction of the DTO, so given the information immediately at hand I would probably assign him to tier two. In a “real” quantitative analysis, of course, I would dig a little bit deeper but I feel comfortable with saying that here. I’ll keep an eye on this and if I can get murder data for Michoacan (where La Familia is based) three months from now, I’ll post it as a follow-up.

For more on Mexican DTO’s, Sylvia Longmire recently pushed her new book shared her expertise, also at the LA Times. She discusses her view that legalizing marijuana won’t cause the spontaneous collapse of the DTO’s. (Short version: they have other revenue streams. Short response: duh–but what business would relish a significant decline in profits on 60% of its sales volume?)

And here’s someone with undoubtedly more expertise on Mexico and its current drug-related violence than me, Professor Eduardo Gutierrez:

The policy of ‘dismantling’ the cartels (as conceived of and executed by the Mexican government) has had three unwanted effects: it generates or exacerbates cycles of violence, multiplies the number of criminal organizations, and extends their presence into new areas the country.

Original (in Spanish) here. I’ll post a full translation when I’m done, and more about the paper as it proceeds toward publication.

Thoughts (and links) on the Turkish Election

Topline: Erdoğan will now become Turkey’s longest serving prime minister as his Justice and Development Party (AK) achieves its third consecutive general election victory.

Foreign policy: From The Guardian,

The AKP will face a rocky third term. Analysts predict a dangerously overheating economy, and Turkey’s “zero-problem” foreign policy is being challenged by regional uprisings such as that in neighbouring Syria, long an ally of AKP-ruled Turkey.

I would just point out that Turkey’s “no problems” foreign policy has been challenged almost since its inception by politicians and pundits in the US and Europe. We will probably see even less attention given to EU accession now.

The challenge with regard to Syria is two-fold. First, Assad’s government–which has recently been warming to Ankara–will likely turn cold toward Turkey (last week Erdoğan called the Syrian government’s behavior toward protestors “savagery”). Second, Turkey now has a refugee problem on its hands akin to the one Syria was experiencing with Iraqi refugees. One difference is that these refugees could further destabilize things in the poor, Kurdish-populated south.

Turkey’s domestic politics: I found it interesting that within hours of counting the votes, the AKP-favoring Turkish newspaper Today’s Zaman was already remarking on the possibility of a new constitution, which Erdoğan promised on the campaign trail without getting into specifics. Here’s the second paragraph of the Zaman article:

The AK Party won 49.9 percent of the vote, up 4 percent from the last elections, but this translates into 326 seats in Parliament, meaning it will be more than 40 seats short of the two-thirds majority needed to amend the country’s constitution unilaterally and about four seats short of the 330 seats needed to refer a Constitutional reform to a public vote.

This is a higher percentage for the AKP than they got in 2007 (46.6 percent), which was considered a landslide at the time and likely gave Erdoğan and Davutoğlu the confidence they needed to start implementing their current policies, including “zero problems.” It won’t be hard to get the votes needed in parliament for the constitutional referendum, and that fact that the AKP can’t amend the constitution entirely on its own doesn’t strike me as particularly bad for the country’s future.

For more detailed results and a basic visualization by region, see here.

Turkish elections this Sunday

Turks head to the polls this Sunday for general elections. According to a recent Pew survey, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to suspect broad dissatisfaction with the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). 

For those who are interested, The Economist has a good guide here, but it’s in Flash.

My own research suggests that Turkey is developing a non-elite political culture that is quite happy with the AKP. Ryan Kennedy, my mentor at the University of Houston, and I wrote a couple of papers earlier this year analyzing public opinion in Turkey with respect to foreign policy attitudes by party (under review, abstract here). The final paragraph:

The refutation of axis theory suggests that Turkey is not allying with the US’s primary geopolitical competitors. Greater antipathy towards the US and the EU, however, is not unproblematic, even if it does not mean greater support for Iran or other actors. Indeed, contrary to rosier analyses, it seems that the attitude that “A Turk has no friends other than a Turk” still carries currency (Aktay 2010). Similarly, greater nationalism may still lead Turkey to distance itself from NATO or abandon its elusive quest for EU membership, much as Gaullism led France to abandon NATO (Taşpınar 2011b). Even with these risks, the policy recommendations of axis theory supporters, to marginalize Turkey as punishment for recent actions, would likely be counter-productive. Given the broad cohesiveness we observe in the Turkish electorate, it is likely that Turkish foreign policy will continue on a trend toward autonomy no matter which party wins a plurality of votes in the upcoming elections in June.

Food politics: EU-Russia edition

As Russian and EU diplomats prepare for a summit, relations have turned icy. Russia has tightened it’s restrictions on vegetable imports from Europe in the wake of an E coli outbreak that’s killed over two dozen people. More from the BBC here.

This food politics stuff is getting to be a real thing. Surely there are others out there who cover it better. If you have links, send them this way.

Dangers of low blood sugar

Right now, my conscious-but-still-dumb choice to skip lunch is causing me to send a lot of links to my one of my new favorite apps, Instapaper, instead of just reading them right away.

If you’re in an Israeli prison seeking parole, low blood sugar can be even more dangerous. At right is the percent of favorable rulings for parolees, shown before and after the judges’ mid-morning snack break and afternoon lunch. Read more at The Economist or check out the study here.

Yes, this originally came out in April. Refer back to paragraph one for why I don’t feel like coming up with anything new right now. Continuing this discussion of food and politics might be worthwhile…

Canada falls short, again

File this under data visualizations and the politics of food.

The USDA released its long-awaited replacement to the aging food guide pyramid this week, called MyPlate. 

Without regard to the actual nutritional effects of such a diet (it pretty well mirrors my own when I eat at home, except I go a little heavier on fruit and a little lighter on veggies), let me make a few quick comments about its use as a visual aid.

First, this seems like a good improvement on the pyramid, since it talks about proportions relative to one another rather than in absolute terms like “x number of servings per day.”

Second, the US is not the first country to use the plate as a basic guide. (See the gated link to “Comparison of international food guide pictorial representations
over at The New Republic.) People are pretty familiar with pie charts, so this seems like a good way to go. Pyramid representations are far less common–which means that we have less experience interpreting them and they are probably less intuitive.

A few downsides: 1) it’s a little bit hard to tell what the actual proportions are–as one commenter pointed out on Twitter, protein makes up less than 25% of the plate but this could be easily mistaken.

2) Since dairy is a separate circle you don’t get a good idea of how much it makes up of the whole. Therefore, even though grains make up 25% of the plate they really make up less than 25% of the overall diet.

3) Does this really tell us much beyond “eat approximately equal amounts of the five basic food groups?”

On the whole though, it has to be better than this rainbow from Canada, which gives almost no indication of either relative or absolute proportions:

If you want to do the patriotic thing with your plate, you could always do as I do on July 4 and eat a red, white, and blue waffle.