Tuesday, December 7, 2010

US Students Again Trail Other Nations

In my course on Comparative Politics, I like to use a 20/20 episode by John Stossel entitled Stupid in America. Stossel presents a superficially appealing argument (criticizing the "monopolistic" character of the US educational system) based, in part, on a number of different comparisons, both cross-national and domestic. The logic of his comparisons, however, is fundamentally flawed and highly biased. This is reflected in his selective use of statistics, especially international statistics.

In particular, Stossel draws from the PISA exam, which test students across a range of countries in math, science and reading. Of the many top-scoring countries Stossel could focus on, he chooses Belgium. Not surprisingly, Belgium has the type of educational system Stossel recommends--a voucher-based system that encourages competition among schools for students. He tells us that it is only through competition that an educational system can succeed.

I was reminded of this argument by a recent story in NPR, which discusses he results of the latest PISA exam (from 2009). Again, the US falls short. Stossel, I'm sure, feels the results further confirm his argument.

Interestingly, though, among the top ten performers, eight are in the Asia-Pacific region -- led by China, Singapore, South Korea and Japan. Now, if Stossel is correct, these Asian educational systems would all be voucher-based, but this is not the case. Most, if not all, are based on the same principle as exists in the US--that is, a system in which students are assigned to particular schools based on where they live. There is competition, it must be said, but it is a competition among students. Even more, the country that historically performs the best overall is Finland. Yet, Finland, too does not have a voucher-based system. The fact that Stossel failed to examine these top-performing countries fatally undermines his argument, comparatively speaking.

Methodologically, you cannot "pick-and-choose" your cases. A good comparativist will examine as many relevant cases as possible, regardless of whether they seem to support or disprove the argument. Indeed, a good comparativist will fully embrace those cases that, on the surface, seem contradictory. For, in showing that her theory can account for the "hard case," a good comparativist will have build an even stronger argument.

Sunday, October 3, 2010

Freakonomics: Crime

I haven't seen the movie Freakonomics, but something in a review caught my eye: the claim that dropping crime rates in the US are due primarily to the Roe v. Wade decision of 1973. Here's how Kenneth Turan of the Los Angeles Times describes it:

Much more counterintuitive is Jarecki's "It's (Not Always) a Wonderful Life." The subject here is a favorite of pundits: speculating on what caused the much-written-about drop in crime rates in the 1990s.Using animation and clips from the James Stewart classic, Jarecki illustrates Dubner's theory by first bringing up and dismissing the most conventional theories about the source of the decline: innovative policing techniques, harsher prison sentences, changes in the habits of drug users. Instead, the economist advances the notion that it was the Supreme Court's 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision, which legalized abortion and thereby reduced the number of babies with two strong indicators of a criminal future — being poor and being raised by a single parent — which caused crime to drop. Now that's freakonomics in a nutshell.I talk about the issue of crime (actually gun homicide rates) in my Foundations of Comparative Politics in the context of using comparative methodology to study real-world social, political or economic issues. Since I have not seen the actual argument--and it does seem intriguing (something on my "to see" list)--my comments will be circumspect. This said, the description above seems to boil the issue of crime down to a single factor, which is exceedingly problematic, albeit not necessarily wrong.

To test the claim appropriately, the researchers would not only need to be able to control for a range of other factors (innovative and more effective policing techniques, harsher prison terms, the "three strikes" law, etc.), but also demonstrate that these factors did not contribute to the reduction of crime in any meaningful way. In this regard, we also have to understand that, even if the Roe v. Wade decision had a material effect, its effect may have been significantly amplified--perhaps critically so--by the existence of other changes that have occurred since 1973. This is referred to as complex causality. Practically speaking, however, this cannot be done since those other factors cannot be adequately controlled for. Now, if the US were to revoke Roe v. Wade, and if no other material changes occurred, we would have a perfect scenario for a "testing" the Freakonomics claim--in other words, we would be able to conduct a within-case comparison in which we could control for a range of relevant variables while isolating the effects of "limited abortion."

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Next Succession in North Korea

I'm no North Korea expert (by a very long shot), but the emerging transition from Kim Jong Il to his youngest son Kim Jong-un, portends a possible shake up in North Korea down the road. No doubt, the son has been "groomed" for a leadership role and the path paved for his succession, but as the lineage extends from the original Kim (Kim Il Sung) to his son (Kim Jong Il) to his son (Kim Jong-un), the loyalty the family line almost has to weaken. Just as important is the debilitated condition of the North Korean economy--Kim Jong Il is reported to have told the Chinese on his recent visit there, that things aren't so bad, since "only" 20 percent of the population is suffering from famine, while 80 percent are "doing fine." It's all relative, I guess. At some point, the pressures for radical "reform" (really transformation) are simply going to be too great to resist. The incremental and limited reforms the North Korean state has implemented in the past have proven to be utterly inadequate. But, as long as loyalty to the regime was strong, the pressures could be tamped down. Soon--especially when Kim Jong Il is no longer in the picture (he seems to be in ill health)--this may no longer be the case.

Monday, September 27, 2010

The Domestic Factor in Foreign Policy

One of the things that is supposed to differentiate foreign policy analysis (FPA) from international relations is the stronger focus on or inclusion of domestic-level factors in foreign policy decisions. To put it very simply, FPA assumes that foreign policy decisions do not simply reflect factors or forces that impinge upon a state from the outside-in, so to speak, but also reflect, quite strongly, internal political processes and dynamics. Now, this may seem common sense to many casual observers, but realists (or more accurately, neo-realists) have long argued that domestic political considerations are largely irrelevant to the foreign policy decision-making process. Consider, on this point, what a well-known realist, Hans Morgenthau, had so say:

“We assume that statesmen think and act in terms of interest defined as power, and the evidence of history bears that assumption out. That assumption allows us to retrace and anticipate, as it were, the steps a statesman—past, present or future—has taken or will take on the political scene. We look over his shoulder when he writes his dispatches; we listen in on his conversation with other statesmen; we read and anticipate his very thoughts. Thinking in terms of interest defined as power, we think as he does and as disinterested observers, we understand his thoughts and actions perhaps better than he, the actor on the political scene, does himself. The concept of national interest defined as power imposes intellectual discipline upon the observer, infuses rational order into the subject matter of politics, and thus makes the theoretical understanding of politics possible. On the side of the actor, it provides for rational discipline in action and creates that astounding continuity in foreign policy which makes American, British, or Russian foreign policy appear as an intelligible, rational continuum, by and large consistent with itself, regardless of the different motives, preferences, and intellectual and moral qualities of successive statesmen.”

The point is clear: outside forces make political leaders behave in rational and essentially similar ways--regardless of their own interests, motives, perceptions, etc. and regardless of what sort of domestic pressures they may face--when it comes to foreign policy.

To get back to my main point, though, I was recently listening to news about recent peace negotiations between Palestine Authority President Mahmoud Abbas and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. As usual, the talks are off to a very rocky start as result of the end of a moratorium on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. The Palestinian negotiators are threatening to walk away from the talks unless the moratorium is extended, but the Israeli side, thus far, has shown little willingness to extend the moratorium, and, in fact, has already let it expire. Arguably, though, both sides would be better of "talking" than not talking, and both sides would be better off with an agreement. As almost everyone knows, though, "Middle East peace" generally, and Israeli-Palestinian peace has been one of the most intractable problems in the post war period.

But, why should this be the case? There are, of course, many, many reasons. Almost all of which, not surprisingly, can be found at the domestic and even individual level of analysis. In the current negotiations, a major part of the problem are the domestic political pressures that both Abbas and Netanyahu face. For Netanyahu, extending the moratorium would create a powerful backlash from conservative forces in Israel. He has little choice but to adopt a hardline stance, even though he wants the talks to continue. On the other side, Abbas would be extremely hard put to continue talks with Israel if building in the West Bank continues: he would, "lose credibility in the eyes of Palestinians." As Robert Malley of the International Crisis Group, "The irony is we have two sides that want to get the negotiations, who don't want the settlement issue to stand in the way, but because of their domestic politics, are incapable of bridging the gap, and are hoping and relying upon the US to do it for them."

Friday, September 3, 2010

Who Speaks for a Religion?

The Westboro Baptist Church (WBC) is a small and "virulently homophobic, anti-Semitic" religious group that regularly stages protests at the funerals of U.S. soliders killed in Afghanistan and Iraq. Why? Because the WBC believes that U.S. soldiers are fighting to promote tolerance of homosexuality. To make their point, members of the church may fly 1,000 miles or more to stage protests with signs reading, "Thank God for Dead Soldiers," "Planes Crash, God Laughs," "Pray for More Dead Soldiers," "God Hates Fags," and "You're Going to Hell."

By and large, most people try to ignore the WBC, hoping they'll tire of their crusade and melt back to obscurity. Certainly, few people suggest that the WBC represents Christianity at large or even a sizable segment of the Christian population. But, what if it did? What if the WBC were a m
ainstream Christian organization? Would this make the word of its founder, Fred Phelps, the word of Christ and of the Christian world? Certainly not. Yet, many of these same people believe that when a handful of radical Islamic clerics espouse their conception of Islam that it must, by definition, be the word of Islam.

The point is simple: any world religion is complex and multivocal. There is can be no one true interpretation--that is, when it is mere mortals who must do the interpreting. Yet, it is often the case that the interpretation that receives the most notice, especially among non-believers, is the one which is most virulent or the most fanatical. When we add into the mix an understanding that the interpretation of religious "texts" does not occur in a vacuum, but is instead influenced by an array of political, social, economic forces, it is easy to see that we must be very careful about ascribing universality to any view of any religion.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Social Constructivism and ‘Jihad Cool’

Last night (May 10, 2010), on the way home from class, I listened to a story on NPR’s Talk of the Nation (“Help Young Muslims Resist ‘Jihad Cool’). The story (interview) was interesting on many levels, but what I found particularly interesting—and relevant to our just-concluded discussion of social constructivism—was how some young, Western-educated, and relatively affluent and privileged Muslims, such as Faisal Shahzad, are being drawn into radicalism and “terrorism.” The speaker, Asra Nomani, argued, in essence that certain mosques and leaders in the Muslim community are constructing a reality that defines the West, and the United States in particular, as inherently dangerous and threatening to Islam. The West, as Nomani put it, “is the dark path.” She continues:

“We're hearing it in our mosques. I can tell you that in my mosque in West Virginia, I heard it every Friday from these sermons that would be spoken by PhD graduate students, by engineering professors, folks who were getting all of the advantages of our open society and yet, on Thursday night downloading from Saudi websites sermons that basically said, don't imitate the path, the disbelievers, meaning the West. And this is exactly that slippery slope that ends up with something like this Times Square bomb attack - attempt.”

In this socially constructed reality, it becomes easier to understand the type of “how-possible” questions that social constructivists, such as Roxanne Doty, speak of. Consider, for example, how it is possible for a privileged young man (Shadzad is the son of a vice marshal in the Pakistani Air Force) to load a car up with explosives and park it in Times Square with the intent of killing dozens of people. How is it possible, in other words, for individuals to come to an understanding that such actions are reasonable and justified? The answer should already be clear. To repeat: it is possible because, through an increasingly potent discourse, the West has become an almost demonic entity that must be destroyed, regardless of the personal costs.

We can also see how this discourse (seemingly) limits or narrows the type of choices available to “true believers.” On this point, Nomani notes (in an earlier article she wrote for the Daily Beast) that, for talented young Muslims, there are few nonviolent avenues for protests to lure them away from the temptations of “jihad cool.” To Neal Conan (Talk of Nation’s host) this made little sense. As he succinctly put it, “there are a million ways to express protest in this country.” Conan is certainly right, but the (social constructivist) point is that, within the reality of the anti-Western discourse, nonviolence protest is not a viable option; indeed, it is hardly an option at all.

Not surprisingly, Nomani seemed to recognize this—in responding to Conan’s remark, she emphasized the importance of constructing an alternative discourse, one that “educated” and “empowered” Muslim youth to see the world differently and to “take advantage of those non-violent ways.”

There is also a larger point here (social constructivists tell us). For it is not only a radicalized Islamic discourse that creates certain social constructed realities: the entire social world is a product of various discourses, some mainstream and some extreme. In the United States, we have created equally powerful discourses that shape our perceptions--create our "realities"--that few of us question or even think about.


A transcript of the story, “Help Young Muslims Resist ‘Jihad Cool’” is available on the NPR website at this address: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=126672350&ft=1&f=5

Asra Nomani’s original article, “The Would-Be Bomber’s Wife” is available on the Daily Beast webstie at this address: http://www.thedailybeast.com/blogs-and-stories/2010-05-06/the-would-be-bombers-wife/

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Sea Shepherd: A Global Policeman?

Today, most of the world considers killing (and eating) whales to be morally repugnant (although this certainly not the case for centuries leading up to the mid-20th century. Indeed, until the mid-1900s, whales were considered by most countries a “free resource, a gift from nature, available to anyone who would hunt and kill them.” Over the past several decades, however, attitudes and international norms have changed considerably. Part of this is due to over-whaling and the understanding that many species of whales were being driven to the brink of extinction. Part is also due to an understanding that whales are sentient and highly intelligent beings. Whatever the motivation, the distaste for whaling led to widespread international efforts to protect the species. These efforts began in the 1970s and eventually led to international agreements to regulate whaling, including the imposition by the International Whaling Commission (IWC) of a moratorium on commercial whaling (in 1986).

While most countries complied with the spirit of the moratorium, one major whaling country did not: Japan. Japan exploited a loophole in the agreement, a loophole that allowed countries engage in whaling for the purposes of scientific research. There remains a great deal of debate over Japan's use of this loophole--it is not entirely clear whether Japan's continued "slaughter" of whales violates the moratorium. But, even if it does, another issue immediately arises: there are no sanctions--no enforcement mechanism--that can prevent countries from engaging in commercial whaling.

This is where the Sea Shepherd comes in. Sea Shepherd is a non-governmental organization, which has taken up the role of enforcing international law, or, as the organization puts it on its website, its "primary mandate is to assume a law enforcement role as provided by the United Nations World Charter for Nature." Over the past couple of years, a major part of this effort has been directed at the Japanese whaling fleet (an effort made famous by the cable television series, Whale Wars).

From the standpoint of IR, the activities of the Sea Shepherd are interesting and represent a relatively new development. Traditional versions of international relations theory--i.e., realism--have assumed that only states matter. Yet, Sea Shepherd's activities demonstrate, albeit in a very limited way, that non-state actors have the potential to play a much larger, more significant role, and in ways that have not been anticipated. In this case, for example, we have a non-state actor enforcing (or attempting to enforce) international law against the Japanese whaling industry and by extension, against the Japanese state. On this point, it is sufficient to note that Japan's national government is the ultimate target of the Sea Shephard, since it is the government that permits its whalers to conduct "scientific research" and it is the government that defends this practice.

Of course, Sea Shepherds' "enforcement capacity" is insufficient to stop whaling, but this partly because of insufficient resources. If Sea Shepherd were vastly richer--and able to deploy larger and better ships and able to pay its crew members--it likely would have a much stronger impact. At the very least, it might be able force a rethinking of the Convention--it would force members of the IWC back to the bargaining table.

The point, I should stress, is not to extoll the activities of Sea Shepherd (there are many critics, including other environmental NGOs, such as Greenpeace, which disagree with the organization's tactics) or condemn Japan; rather, my point is to highlight the potential and growing role of non-state actors in world politics.

NOTE TO POLS 427 STUDENTS: This is a "quick-and-dirty" sample of a journal entry. It is useful noting that this entry was not based on single news story, but on a series of stories. In addition, my entry originally derives from the few episodes of Whale Wars I saw last year. In addition, to make the entry more substantive, I had to do a bit of research: I went to the IWC website, the Sea Shepherd website, and a few others. Better entries will often--but not always--require that you expand your reading beyond a single story.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

"Don't Ask, Don't Tell" and Comparative Analysis

Normally, one wouldn't expect to find an opportunity to connect the comparative method to the US military's "Don't Tell, Don't Ask" policy, but a recent article in the military's academic journal, Joint Forces Quarterly, show us how comparative analysis can be used in the most unexpected places.

According to this article (which is discussed in a recent LA Times column by Megan Duam--I will post the link below), the author relies at least somewhat on comparative analysis to show that having openly gay soldiers in the military does not have demonstrably negative impact on unit cohesion (which is the primary argument against allowing gays to openly serve).

Col. Om Prakash, the author, points out that countries such as Australia, Britain, Canada and Israel, which have lifted bans on gays in the military, have seen "no impact on military performance, readiness, cohesion or ability to recruit or retain"; instead, the don't ask, don't tell policy "forces a compromise in integrity" that is ultimately "damaging to the unit cohesion its stated purpose is to preserve."

I have not read the original article, so I cannot say how well Prakash carries out his comparative analysis, but, clearly, a good part of his argument is premised on comparisons.

Here is a link to the article by Megan Daum: http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-daum8-2009oct08,0,6727164.column

Thursday, October 1, 2009

The Subculture of Fundamentalism

The conservative backlash against President Obama has, I think, many sources, but one source is clear: the subculture of religious fundamentalism. This point is made clear in a recent interview of Frank Schaeffer on the Rachel Maddow show. Schaffer is a former founder of the "religious right." As Schaeffer explains, the religious right constitutes a distinct sub-culture in American society.

There are undoubtedly very clear, very powerful values and beliefs that shape how members of this culture see the world; these values and beliefs, more importantly, have a direct impact on behavior. One might say that they dictate, to a large extent, what people say and do. How else, for instance, can one explain the fact that one in three conservatives in New Jersey believe that Obama is the anti-Christ?

As students of political science and of comparative politics, the point is not to ridicule or condemn such beliefs, but, instead, to understand where they come from, why they thrive, and how they impact the world. As a comparativist, we can start to answer some of these questions by looking around the world. For instance, we can see if there meaningful parallels between fundamentalism in the US and fundamentalism in other countries. Identifying such parallels may help us understand better why fundamentalist ideas take root and how they spread. In particular, a little comparative thinking allows us to see how fundamentalism relates to other social, political and economic processes. Looking around the world also allows us to see what happens when fundamentalists occupy positions of dominance in the political and social system--as in Iran. We are also forced to confront uncomfortable questions, such as this: Despite differences in religious beliefs, would an American fundamentalist regime be meaningfully different the Iranian theocracy?


Here is the link to the interview: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lPwGV1h4lW8

Monday, September 14, 2009

South Korea and Global Sex Trafficking

The following is an excerpt from a longer article, which will be published this fall in the Korean Quarterly.

South Korea clearly does not fit the profile of most major source countries for sex trafficking. For South Korea is the world’s 13th largest economy and a member of the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). Its real per capita income, according to the World Bank, is just under $27,000—about the same as Greece and Italy. In mid-2009 (at the height of the global recession), moreover, the country’s employment rate was only 3.9 percent, one of the lowest in the industrialized world at the time. Significantly, too, in terms of the United Nation’s Gender Empowerment Measure (GEM), South Korea ranks fairly high: 26th in the world, which is comparable to Germany, Israel and Greece and one of the best in Asia (behind only Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore). Yet, as I just suggested, South Korea is a major source of trafficked and smuggled women in the global commercial sex trade. The major destinations, not surprisingly, include some of the wealthiest countries and regions—the United States, Japan, Canada, Australia, and Western Europe. But, other significant destination countries include those with a level of development very similar to South Korea, such as Hong Kong and Taiwan, and countries that are much poorer: Vietnam, Uzbekistan, and Kazakhstan.[i]

Minimally, there are tens of thousands of Korean women involved in global sex trafficking at any one time, and perhaps hundreds of thousands over the past several decades. In the United States specifically, there are likely at least five to ten thousand sexually exploited Korean women in total, and as many as 20,000 (perhaps more). Unfortunately, it is impossible to provide a precise estimate. It is also important to note that, rather than decreasing as the country has become richer, sex trafficking (including smuggling for sexual exploitation) from Korea, by all accounts, is steadily growing. There are several reasons for this, which I will talk about shortly. First, though, it is also worth emphasizing that South Korea is not only an important source of global sex trafficking, but is also a significant destination. Since the 1990s, in particular, thousands of women primarily from the Philippines, Russia, China, and Central Asia, have been “imported” into South Korea to work as prostitutes near US military bases for American soldiers (since the mid-2000s, though, the US military command has attempted to stamp out this practice through an anti-human trafficking campaign). At the same time, wealthy and middle class Korean men are increasingly fueling the demand for foreign sex workers in South Korea,[ii] for just as American men demand easily exploited, “exotic” foreign women, so do Korean men.

South Korea, however, is not unique. There are a number of countries that are both major sources of and destinations for global sex trafficking (it is also important to recall that all countries have their own, internally generated source of sex trafficking). Still, it is likely that South Korea stands alone as the most prosperous “supplier” of sexually exploited women to the rest of the world in general, and to the United States more specifically.


[i] Dong-Hoon Seol and Geon-Soo Han, “Korean Migrant Women in Entertainment Business in the United States, Japan, and Australia,” Report prepared for the Bombit Women’s Foundation (Seoul, South Korea, 2009).

[ii] Dong-Hoon Seol, “International Sex Trafficking in Women in Korea: Its Causes, Consequences and Countermeasures,” Asian Journal of Women’s Studies 10, no. 2 (June 30, 2004).