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Argo: Uninspired and Unsatisfying

29 May

I finally watched best picture winner Argo yesterday (I’m not the only political scientist to watch it so late after its release!). It was a competent genre film that cast a light on the heroic, but largely unsung actions of American intelligence and foreign service officers during a turbulent time in U.S foreign policy. After seeing the film, however, I did not agree with the academy’s decision to award this film the “Best Picture” at this year’s Oscars.

My major issue with this film was not its depiction of politics or international relations (despite my professional expertise), but the license taken with the real story to produce suspense. Argo is a prisoner of its genre, especially in its last 45 minutes when the audience is bombarded with a succession of (false) moments designed to add suspense to the film. By being entirely consistent with the expected tropes of this kind of film, the writers created a false climax that was “safe” for Hollywood executives and mainstream audiences, but also totally uninspired and unsatisfying.

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The remarkable rise of continental Euroscepticism

26 Apr

The remarkable rise of continental Euroscepticism

Consider all the options to end America’s political dysfunction

10 Apr

Democracies have two fundamental constitutional choices they can make about the structure of their political system: whether to use a presidential or parliamentary system of government, and whether to use a plurality or proportional electoral system. When faced with a political crisis or chronic political dysfunction, critics of the existing system often propose pursuing one of the roads not taken. Unfortunately, they often forget that there are two choices to reconsider, not one.

For example, election law expert Rick Hasen explores in a new paper whether constitutional change from a presidential system to a parliamentary form of government is necessary to address political polarization in the United States (Seth Masket and Jonathan Bernstein both have nice writeups).

Hasen starts with the proposition that :

The partisanship of our political branches and mismatch with our structure of government raise this fundamental question: Is the United States political system so broken that we should change the United States Constitution to adopt a parliamentary system either a Westminster system as in the United Kingdom or a different form of parliamentary democracy? Such a move toward unified government would allow the Democratic or Republican parties to act in a unified way to pursue a rational plan on budget reform on other issues. Voters could then hold the party in power accountable if the programs its pursued were against voter preferences. It seems a more logical way to organize politics and insure that each party will have a chance to present its platform to the voters, to have that platform enacted, and to allow voters at the next election to pass on how well the party has managed the country.

Hasen examines four arguments against making this level of constitutional change to deal with our current political dysfunction. He rejects three of them as insufficient, but finds it too soon to reject the fourth. He thus advocates a wait-in-see attitude. Unfortunately, Hasen’s analysis is only half-complete because he only considers the choice between presidentialism and parliamentarism, but he fails to consider the equally choice of electoral system beyond the vague idea of “a different form of parliamentary democracy.”

I do not have any great insights to make about Hasen’s analysis, but I would like to see more consideration of the role of electoral systems in producing and reducing party polarization. If we are going to entertain the unlikely possibility of constitutional change, let us entertain all the options.

Some pundits were just wrong, not irrational

26 Mar

I agree with almost everything Kathleen Geier writes in her devastating takedown of the pundit class and their views on the Iraq War:

Pundits like to imagine that they take political positions only after a careful consideration of the merits — listening to arguments, studying position papers, weighing the pros and cons, and coming to a decision.

But politics is not necessarily so rational, and never was irrationality more plainly on display than in the months leading up to the Iraq War. Ten years later, it is worth exploring why so many opinion-makers – including those who were otherwise critical of the Bush administration — passionately advocated war.

For at least some leading pundits, their position seems to have been shaped less by “reason” or “ideas” than something more primal and even tribal, reflecting their fantasies about who they imagined themselves to be. What follows is a taxonomy of certain pundits on the center and the left who, to their eternal shame, beat the drums of war — hard.

Yet her argument fails to persuade me in two important respects. First, it seems predicated on the belief that there was no rational reason for someone on the left or right to support the war. Although the war’s aftermath has confirmed most of the author’s prior beliefs, this does not mean that a pundit who supported the war was a hack then and remains one now. Support for the war was and is a legitimate position, even if was as wrong then as it is now.
Second, she seems to equate a view that the war was necessary with warmongering. Time has proven that the war was not necessary, but in 2003 that was a legitmate question. Faced with a much larger and more vocal peace movement than the media seem to remember existed in 2003, it is not at all inconceivable that some pundits got a little defensive about being attacked for their views. Such defensiveness should not be equated with passion for war without clear evidence.

Broken Brackets

28 Mar

I have never in my life had a braket this broken:

My March Madness backet showing a failure to get any picks beyond the second round.

Prospect Theory and Realm of Losses: Why I so Angry WIth my Contactor

14 Oct

I am currently having my basement finished. The project was supposed to take six weeks, but is now entering week 17 (You can read more about it at our family blog). Until last week I was being very patient about the situation, but I finally lost my patience with my contractor and even sent a letter threatening a lawsuit after he didn’t show up for an appointment with me on Friday. Even though we are so close to being finished, I was willing to end the whole project. After talking with him the last few says, I feel like he is somewhat blindsided by the sudden hostility and mistrust emanating from me. He really feels like he has been a good contractor and, objectively, he really has been. So why am I so angry with him, why does he feel my anger is irrational, and how is this likely to play out? I think the answer can be found in prospect theory.

Prospect theory, in a nutshell, says that people make decisions based on an evaluation of risk (i.e., gains and losses) based on a reference point and that we are more adverse to losses than we motivated by gains. Prospect theory says that because I have a different reference point than my contractor about the utility of the basement remodel, we will have different interpretations about how the project is unfolding. Since my reference point is my basement before the remodel, the fact that I now have a basement that is less usable to me now puts me in the realm of losses. I am not willing to take additional risks like paying the contractor more money before he completes everything little thing we have already paid him for, even if that slows down the process and makes me suffer more in the long run. My contractor’s reference point is the finished basement he has visualized in his head, which means that from his view I am entirely in the realm of gains. He has done great work and my sudden hostility makes little sense when evaluated from this perspective. Of course, the reality is that I am not in the realm of gains because I have not realized any of the gains from the remodel. The long delay has made it even more difficult for me to envision myself in a swanky new basement.

What I hope will happen in this situation is that my contractor will deliver a bunch of doors to my house next week, which we paid for in August, and this gesture will restore some of my confidence in the project. If my contractor can help me to realize some gains in in this endeavor, my reference point may shift back to visions of a finished basement and the problem will be solved.

Two odd dreams.

4 Mar

I had two really vivid dreams the other night starring my good friend, Dawn. In the first dream, humanity had been mostly wiped out in some sort of apocalypse. I had gathered with some of the others 10% of humanity that had survived in Portland, OR. My friend Dawn died. At this point, the dream switched from third person to first person. I then proceeded to cry and cry and cry and cry and cry. Seriously, I was really, really sad that my friend had died. Maybe it was just the pent up frustration with all the death and carnage around me, but I was more sad about what happened then I think I have ever been in real life. I guess that what dreams are for. 

In my second dream, my mind decided to try to repair the damage from the first dream and it sent me to a wedding. I don't  know whose wedding it was (I have a feeling it might have been Nils!). While most of the dream was like me standing in a doorway looking at all the guests who were a mix of high school friends and my current students, the end was the most interesting part. Dawn was alive!!! And also the table cards at the reception telling you where to sit were vocabulary flashcards. That is my only clue as to whose wedding it was, and if you know Nils, he is like the only person I know who would might use his wedding to increase his guest's vocab. Anyway, my word was a word that described the annihilation of the human race in the first dream and I was very excited to show it to Dawn. Sadly, I cannot remember the word. The wife pointed out that the real word for it was decimated, which pissed me off because I totally wanted to use that word correctly as some point in my life and I blew my big chance. My dream word was even cooler though.

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