Wednesday, February 23, 2011

How My Views Have Changed In the Past Three Years

Andy Gelman has an interesting post answering a question raised by Harold Pollack regarding the impact of recent events on one's views.

Pollack asks specifically about domestic policy.  My views there have changed, but no one cares about that, including, most days, me.*

So I'll limit myself to the international realm.

1. I've become much more skeptical about our ability to draw meaningful inferences from the analysis of observational data, particular when approaching statistical analysis as an objective means of uncovering the truth rather than attempts at building simple models.  This did not come about as a result of anything that happened in the real world, but it certainly influenced how I have interpreted the events of the past three years, so I hope you'll forgive me for including it.  See here, here, and here.  Or, if you're really interested in what I think about this, read this paper.

2. I've become much more skeptical about democracy.  I used to more or less believe the standard story in IR that democratic leaders have no choice but to make everyone happy, and this leads to all kinds of wonderful things, including peace and prosperity.  I now think it's better to assume leaders try to make the right people happy, no matter what that might mean for everyone else, and they can do this while implementing some pretty terrible policies.  These views were influenced by real world events as well as my teaching and research interests.  I find it very strange that so many IR scholars can look at the foreign policies of the US over the last decade, the economic policies over the past four years (under both administrations), the responses to disasters such as Katrina and the BP oil spill, and continue to believe that democracy forces leaders to secure their hold on office by pursuing policies that benefit everyone.  I've touched on this here, here and here.  But I'll again plug this paper as well as this paper.

3. As a result of 1 and 2, I've become more and more concerned that IR scholars give too little credit to factors other than regime type when it comes to explaining why the peoples of some countries live close to Hobbes' state of nature and others do not.  In particular, I worry that our theories are as devoid of any understanding of economics as the typical economists' theories are devoid of any understanding of politics.  Given the choice between living in a non-democratic country where the economy performs well and the standard of living is high, such as Singapore, or a democratic country where the economy does not perform so well and the standard of living is low, such as India, I know what choice I would make.  I suspect most IR scholars would make a different choice, and I think that if you pressed them to explain why, sooner or later they would assert a causal relationship between regime type and all manner of nice outcomes, many of which are painfully absent in India.  Because our faith in democracy is just that blind.  Sure, in fairness, democracy correlates with economic performance.  But do we really have a good understanding of the direction in which the arrow of causality flows here?  However, I'll freely admit that I have no expertise in the economics of development.  I'm not drinking the Kool Aid when it comes to democracy, but I'm not sure I'm ready to stand behind anything else yet.

4. I'm more convinced that most of the benefits created by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were captured by a small set of elites.  I hesitate to call them mistakes, because that suggests that the actor making the decision failed to achieve a desired goal.  Unlike Cheney, Bush has made some remarks that suggest that if he knew how things would turn out, he might not have invaded Iraq.  So maybe mistake is the appropriate term.  But I'm not sure.  At any rate, the wars did not cost him a second term in office, and it's not his money or life on the line.  I strongly suspect the same will prove true for Obama and Afghanistan.  Three years ago, I had more faith that the wars would produce outcomes that would benefit a broader swath of the US public; that democracy might actually take hold in these countries; and that if it did, it would benefit the US and its allies.  I question all three of these today.

Three years from now, I'm likely to be such a curmudgeon that no one will want to talk to me...

*If I could wake up tomorrow and honestly say that on virtually every domestic issue, I had no thoughts, no underlying predispositions, nothing at all save what Americanists would call a "non-attitude", I'd be a happy man.  When I honestly step back and ask myself what is the basis for the opinions I do hold, I am not remotely satisfied with the answers.  At least, not on most issues.  There are some exceptions.  But nowhere near enough of them.

And I'm not sure anything frustrates me more about politics than the conviction with which people who have essentially none of the relevant information nor the ability to draw valid inferences from a set of premises cling to the positions they hold.

I suppose that, itself, is also a major change.  In spring 2008, I'm not sure I would have said, at least not with any real sincerity, that I would like to have no opinions about domestic issues.

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