Friday, April 18, 2014

Sanction Threats, Imposition, and Protest

If sanctions are to succeed as a tool of coercive diplomacy, they must impose real costs on the target. Yet, in most cases, they fail to do this—at least, directly. The economic costs tend to fall disproportionately on the average person, while the regime and its elite supports often find ways to benefit from newly emergent black markets. But might sanctions put pressure on the regime through some other channel? Say, by increasing protests?

There have been many attempts at answer this question, all of which have been plagued by serious measurement issues. The recent release of new data both on sanctions and protests allows for a more convincing analysis, which Julia Grauvogel, Amanda Licht, and Christian von Soest provide in this paper.

Classroom Activity: Gambling Over War

This activity comes after students are to have listened to a lecture (slides) on information problems as an explanation for war—which I'd say is the most useful explanation we've got. The broad contours of the argument are pretty straightforward, but the full implications are not. (That's something of an understatement. As I've discussed a few times before, a lot of very smart people have made incorrect statements about what this argument implies. In fact, while I'll gladly admit we've hit the point of diminishing marginal returns, I still think there's a lot we've yet to learn from this way of thinking.)

This activity was designed to illustrate both the general point that war can occur as a result of states taking (optimal) gambles and also to demonstrate two less intuitive implications of the argument: states who expect to do poorly in war are not necessarily any less likely to risk war; and states who are fairly sure their fait accompli will provoke military resistance may still execute them, even if said resistance would cause them ex post regret.

Friday, April 11, 2014

Classroom Activity: Commitment Problems

This activity comes after students are to have listened to a lecture (slides) on commitment problems. The lecture focused in particular on how the anticipation of future shifts in power can create incentives for preventive war. After walking them through a formal model fleshing out the argument, I then discussed the role of preventive motives in the US Civil War and showed them that interstate wars have occurred more often historically when there was reason to believe that war in the current year would have a significant impact on the distribution of military capabilities in the subsequent year. This activity applies that same argument to a slightly different setting: the problem of rebel demobilization, which Walter has called "the critical barrier to civil war settlement."

Thursday, April 3, 2014

Social Media and Protests

The Cairo protests that ultimately led to the ouster of Hosni Mubarak received a great deal of attention on Twitter—the most used hashtag in 2011 was #egypt—leading much discussion over whether we were seeing  "a Twitter revolution." But the mere fact that protests occurred at the same time as an increase in calls for regime change on social media does not establish that the latter in any way fueled the former. The same factors that lead people to take to the streets might drive behavior online. Absent a credible identification mechanism, there's no way to settle this matter empirically. But one question we might reasonably ask is whether we can at least identify a clear mechanism by which they might do so.

At this point, you're probably saying to yourself, "Um, yeah. Obviously." Because you're probably thinking that social media can help people learn that they're not alone. That Twitter can help break the fear wall. But there are problems with that argument,\(^1\) as Andrew Little discusses in a fascinating new paper, "Communication Technology and Protest."

Monday, March 24, 2014

Classroom Activity: Issuing Ultimata

This activity comes after students are to have listened to a lecture (slides) introducing the second big puzzle of the course: why states sometimes burn what they want in order to get more of it—that is, why wars occur despite the inefficiency their costly nature implies.

Thursday, March 13, 2014

Grade Distributions, Student Evaluations, and Good versus Easy Professors

Many view student evaluations with suspicion, and not without reason. There's some evidence that they mostly reflect the easiness of the course and the hotness of the professor (though it's worth noting that the importance of such factors appears to be greater at lower ranked schools). There's even some evidence that professors who earn facilitate more learning earn lower evaluations (presumably because their classes are harder and/or less fun.)

Others view this skepticism itself with suspicion, and not entirely without reason. There is undoubtedly such a thing as terrible teaching, and it's hard to imagine that it is in any way rewarded by students. Whatever else might weigh on the minds of students, they've just got to be responding, on some level, to things we'd all recognize as good teaching. For some, the notion that those who earn good evaluations should not be proud of them but perhaps even ashamed is not persuasive.

In this post, I argue that both sides are right. I also suggest that under fairly general conditions, it's going to be very difficult to quickly and easily differentiate good professors from bad using the sorts of measures that are readily available to administrators.