Ideas from Poli Sci

As a political science graduate student I studied how governments work and how citizens behave. I’ve been thinking a lot about some of the “big ideas” from my grad school years, with particular reference to last week’s election of Donald Trump.

Part of the Law Code of Gortyn, Crete, fragment of the 11th column. 5th century BC. Image is in the public domain.

As a discipline, poli sci is pretty pessimistic. Its scholars think a lot about interests, power, and the often-unintended outcomes that emerge from the interplay of various interest groups and actors. Cooperative outcomes that increase human welfare aren’t impossible, but they aren’t terribly common, either.

Some of the thoughts on my mind, then, most of them worrisome:

  1. Political science has rarely predicted inflection points.
  2. Ethnic/identity salience is more easily triggered than un-triggered.
  3. Institutions rely at least as much on norms as they do on written/formalized rules.
  4. Social norms that restrain individual behavior take a long time to build and we know more about how they are broken than built.
  5. Virtuous and vicious cycles of behavior are an empirical reality.
  6. National/regional political movements provide cover for local score-settling.

And here are the abstracts of some articles that have stuck in my mind, some directly related to the thoughts above and some not.

Is That Even a Thing?

I loved this article, and the author’s third explanation of why we’ve started asking, “Is that even a thing?”:

[One reason we ask “Is That Even a Thing?” is] the closing gap between satire and the real thing. The absurd excess of things has reached a point where the ironic detachment needed to cope with them is increasingly built into the things themselves, their marketing and the language we use to talk about them. The designator “a thing” is thus almost always tinged with ironic detachment. It puts the thing at arm’s length. You can hardly say “a thing” without a wary glint in your eye. The volume, particularity and inanity of the phenomena effectively force us to take up this detachment. The complaint that the young are jaded or ironic is misplaced; it’s the conditions that are this way.


Last week my organization, US Common Sense, launched our public finance sustainability website, GovRank*.

Screengrab of the GovRank landing page

Here’s hoping the site will foster good research, debate about our methods, and more public awareness of the state of local finance. Here’s our description of GovRank:

We want all citizens, journalists, and public officials to have greater access to information about their governments’ finances. Recognizing the challenges of data availability, comparability, and transparency, US Common Sense compiled data for over 13,000 local governments and all 50 states dating back to 2008-09… We collected more than 97,000 financial reports and nearly 70,000 budgets; extracted “top line” financial figures; and ranked local and state governments’ relative performance.


Several friends have told me the site’s data gives ammunition to people who want to cut public employee pensions and benefits. But, I point out, it can also be used to advocate for responsible funding of such benefits. As a humanist, I have to believe making information available improves the world.

*US Common Sense has closed and GovRank is no longer available online (Oct.2020).

Perceptions and Conservation

An article that Elizabeth King and I co-authored has been published in Ecology & Society! Entitled Kenyan Pastoralist Societies in Transition, it talks about the role that perceptions of scarcity play in people’s decisions about how to use natural resources (pdf here).

Not surprisingly, when people don’t perceive a resource as scarce, they’re less likely to conserve it!

Map of the Sahel

This map is very disorienting. I’ve been looking at it, on and off, for the last 9 months, and it’s all the more relevant since the French military intervened in Mali and terrorists attacked a gas plant in Algeria last week.

It takes a while to focus on the map without mentally zooming in on the political boundaries, but give it a shot.

Look at the arrows indicating resource routes. Look at where the oil and gas lie. Think about the unstable regions and see how they all hug or lie within the Sahara: Algerian gas fields, Northern Mali, Northern Nigeria (land of Boko Haram), Darfur, South Sudan…not to mention the Arab Spring in Tunisia, Libya, and Egypt.

Now think a little bigger: refugee boats trying to reach the Italian island of Lampedusa, xenophobic riots in Greece, Libyan weapons in Gaza and Mali, etc.

No one is yet equipped to respond to these challenges. Scholars like Jeffrey Herbst and Igor Kopytoff have identified the central challenge to political order in Africa as “the projection of power over distance.” Western countries are coming up squarely against this problem, too, and this time we feel our citizens’ lives – and our countries’ energy security—are at stake.


Big Continent

Later this month I start teaching my own class for the first time. It’ll be an undergraduate international affairs lecture course at USC. I’m looking for images to grab my students’ attention.

The image below shows how big the African continent is. The map’s creator titled it “The True Size of Africa: A small contribution in the fight against rampant Immappancy.”


I first saw this map in The Economist. Its original source seems to be Kai Krause. Read more here.

Map of Iran

This map running in The Economist provoked a head smacking “ah-hah” moment for me. I’ve been thinking about the fact that both the ideological right and the left in Iran think obtaining a nuclear weapon is a good idea.

I’m used to seeing Iran on the eastern fringe of a Middle East map or the western edge of a Pakistan/Afghanistan map. This map shows it smack in the middle, surrounded by lots of scary neighbors.

Let’s think: if I were a country with an American invasion on two flanks; the Pakistani unstable, nuclear-armed government beside me; within fighting distance of Russia; would I want a nuke?

And those are just the global players on the immediate borders. There are more civil wars and breakaway regions within spitting distance than you can shake a stick at. Not that nukes are any good for dealing with insurgencies. Still, it becomes easier to understand how Iran could have a case of (possibly justified) paranoia.