Summer Reading



The end of summer, projects finished and unfinished.

I got through:

“French Theory: How Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze & Co. transformed the intellectual life of the United States” by Francois Cusset
“The Slow Plague: A geography of the AIDS pandemic” by Peter Gould
“The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus
“The Tipping Point: How little things can make a big difference” by Malcolm Gladwell
“Steve Jobs” by Walter Isaacson
“Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography” by Roland Barthes
“On Photography” by Susan Sontag
“International Relations and the Problem of Difference” by Naaem Inayatullah and David Blaney
“The Conduct of Inquiry in International Relations: Philosophy of science and its implications for the study of world politics” by Patrick Thaddeus Jackson

…And I’m about halfway through Dani Rodrik’s “The Globalization Paradox: Democracy and the future of the world economy” and Michel Foucault’s “Society Must Be Defended: Lectures at the College de France, 1975-1976”. Whether or not these fall by the wayside or get finished over the next week is somewhat uncertain.

The ones that I didn’t get through that I meant to are:

“The Strategy of Conflict” by Thomas Schelling
“The Gift: Forms and functions of exchange in archaic societies” by Marcel Mauss
“After Victory: Institutions, strategic restraint, and the rebuilding of order after major wars” by G. John Ikenberry
“No One’s World: The West, the rising rest, and the coming global turn” by Charles Kupchan

Syria and the Chemical Weapons Taboo


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Yesterday President Obama threatened military force against Syria if there were indications that the Assad regime was preparing its chemical weapons for deployment. This was the American president’s first directly threat of force against the Syrian regime since the rebellion began over 18 months ago.

In response to a question by Chuck Todd, Obama said:

I have, at this point, not ordered military engagement in the situation.  But the point that you made about chemical and biological weapons is critical.  … We have been very clear to the Assad regime, but also to other players on the ground, that a red line for us is we start seeing a whole bunch of chemical weapons moving around or being utilized.  That would change my calculus.  That would change my equation. … We have communicated in no uncertain terms with every player in the region that that’s a red line for us and that there would be enormous consequences if we start seeing movement on the chemical weapons front or the use of chemical weapons.  That would change my calculations significantly.

But what is it about chemical weapons as a category of military technology that sets them apart for international opprobrium? According to estimates, around 18,000 Syrians have already been killed since the fighting started, and the regime’s use of airstrikes and high explosives have not drawn similar imminent threats of force though they have destructive force similar to chemical weapons. Indeed, the Syrian regime has explicitly stated that it will not use its stockpile of chemical weapons against its own people — but has stated that it may use them against international forces.

So why the taboo on chemical weapons? Continue reading

Why Romney Fails


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I don’t know if you could really call it a “gaffe” — because that’s more so a minor thing that gets exaggerated by the media — but Mitt Romney sure did something similar a few days ago. Speaking at a fundraiser in Israel, Romney said that cultural differences explain the disparity in wealth and prosperity between Israelis and Palestinians. I hesitate to call this a gaffe because it has real implications for how Romney views development and economic policy. His comment drew criticism from Palestinian leaders, but Romney dug in his heels and doubled down in a National Review op-ed the next day:

During my recent trip to Israel, I had suggested that the choices a society makes about its culture play a role in creating prosperity, and that the significant disparity between Israeli and Palestinian living standards was powerfully influenced by it. In some quarters, that comment became the subject of controversy.

But what exactly accounts for prosperity if not culture? In the case of the United States, it is a particular kind of culture that has made us the greatest economic power in the history of the earth. Many significant features come to mind: our work ethic, our appreciation for education, our willingness to take risks, our commitment to honor and oath, our family orientation, our devotion to a purpose greater than ourselves, our patriotism. But one feature of our culture that propels the American economy stands out above all others: freedom. The American economy is fuelled by freedom. Free people and their free enterprises are what drive our economic vitality.

Continue reading

Pulled from my news feed


Articles that caught my eye this week (or these last couple weeks…) —

1. “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” by Anne-Marie Slaughter in The AtlanticThe former Director of Policy Planning at the State Department and Dean of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs at Princeton University’s article about the persistent barriers women (perhaps family-oriented professionals more generally) continue to face apparently set new web traffic records for The Atlantic.

2. “A Woman’s Place: Can Sheryl Sandberg upend Silicon Valley’s male-dominated culture?” by Ken Auletta in The New Yorker. Considering that long parts of Slaughter’s piece are in discussion with Sandberg — Facebook’s Chief Operating Officer — this article from a week back sheds some light on Slaughter’s.

3. “Political Scientists Make Lousy Predictions” by Jacqueline Stevens in The New York Times. Stevens, a political theorist from Northwestern University, rips into the (alleged) dominance of quantitative research in political science and National Science Foundation funding practices. Equally vitriolic responses here, here and here.

4. “The Billionaire’s List” by Ruchir Sharma in The Washington Post. The analysis isn’t as flushed out as I would have liked, but the crux of the issue becomes really clear and the graphic is great.

5. “Election Forecast: Obama Begins With Tenuous Advantage” by Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight/New York Times. Not exactly from this week, but Silver does awesome work over at FiveThirtyEight and in this post he lays out his methodology and the direction his analysis is going to take over the next few months.

Elinor Ostrom


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Elinor Ostrom passed away last week. She was the first, and remains the only, woman to win the Nobel Prize in Economics. Her recognition stands out again due to her training in Political Science and the relative lack of mathematical modelling in her work. Over the last week there has been tons of attention paid to her passing (see here, here, here, here and here), which speaks to either her tremendous influence in the social sciences or the closedness of my intellectual circle — I’ll let the reader decide. I had wanted to write something last week, but wanted to make sure I got the chance to re-read some of her work before.

Ostrom was best known for her research on common-pool resources (CPRs). She positioned herself against the tradition established by Garrett Hardin in 1968 with his extremely influential article “The Tragedy of the Commons.” Hardin, as well as many after him, argued that when individuals face a resource that is both non-excludable (once access is provided to some, it is very difficult to exclude others) and subtractable (an individual’s use of the resource means that another can’t use that same portion of the resource), an incentive exists for individuals to overuse the it (the CPR) and thus deplete it. Scott Gordon’s analysis of a resource’s “maximum sustainable yield” is another, perhaps more sophisticated, analysis of this same problem — where individuals face an individual cost-benefit curve that intersects the maximum sustainable yield curve beyond its sustainable point. The standard economic models that grew out of these analyses argued that overcoming the incentive to overuse and deplete a common resource necessitated outside intervention (ie, the State) and/or instituting well-defined property rights.

Ostrom’s research challenged this approach towards managing the commons. Ostrom explained how communities around the world have developed a diverse array of institutions, policies, rules, norms and systems to cope with the complex task of managing the commons.  Continue reading

Sam Sullivan’s Vancouver


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I had the chance to attend the Vancouver Urban Forum on Wednesday hosted by former Vancouver Mayor Sam Sullivan. The conference was really interesting, and maybe more than anything else, the consensus among local and international urban thinkers was striking. So I read the cover story in this week’s Georgia Straight with a sense of awe.

The article discusses Sullivan’s shift away from a Jane Jacobs-inspired vision of urban life, and towards a “Tom Campbell“-inspired vision (another former Vancouver Mayor, one known for his emphasis on high-rises). For Sullivan, the major development that forced his rethinking was suburban sprawl:

Considering the fact that suburban sprawl is—with its spacious, energy-consuming homes and requisite commuting—a disaster for the planet, then, to Sullivan’s mind, Campbell was right. Stacking people was right. Towers are good. And all the New Urbanist, low-rise, Jane Jacobs–loving, fuzzy-wuzzy antidevelopment forces were wrong…

“Haven’t Vancouver’s critical housing issues—almost nonexistent rental opportunities, the near impossibility of middle-class home ownership, and ongoing suburban sprawl—all been produced by the Jacobs-inspired shortage of affordable places to live within the city? Short supply plus high demand equals sky-high real-estate prices. …

“Can you see the whole thing as big, shiny high-rises?

Sullivan, rightly, insists that sprawl has negative environmental consequences (longer commutes, more car trips, greater areas that municipal services need to cover). But his conclusion that “densifying” Vancouver with new 35- and 28-, 25- and 31-storey apartment towers (these are projects currently underway in Kits Point and South Cambie, respectively) is essential to addressing the environmental crisis presents the issue too simplistically. There’s more than one way to make a city more dense, and there are better and worse ways of doing it. Somehow Sullivan seems to think that “density” can be achieved by simply “stacking” people in 30+ storey towers, and that this has no side effects on neighbourhoods.

Yet, if this is Sullivan’s view, why did he invite so many leading urban thinkers to his forum to argue for the exact opposite of his vision? Continue reading

A Euro Crisis Primer


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With Ireland voting on the European Fiscal Treaty on Thursday, a primer on the euro crisis might be helpful. The Fiscal Treaty (sometimes referred to as the Fiscal Compact) would create a permanent European bailout fund (the European Stability Mechanism (ESM)) to replace the European Financial Stability Facility that European leaders established at the beginning of the euro crisis to bailout illiquid countries. The ESM is Europe’s most signature response to the sovereign-debt crisis, and as such it suggests the broad themes of European leaders’ thinking on the causes of, and steps needed to resolve the crisis.

The origins of the current crisis lie in the structural problems of the single currency’s design and the contingent features which brought these problems to the fore. As Andrew Moravcsik has explained, the euro always hinged on a gamble: “the deficit-prone countries of southern Europe would adopt German economic standards–lower price inflation and wage growth, more savings, and less spending–and Germany would become a little more like them, by accepting more government and private sector spending and higher wage and price inflation.” In this sense, the very heterogeneous economies that signed the Maastricht Treaty would converge somewhere in the middle. The problem is that this convergence hasn’t happened. Over the past decade, deficit countries like Greece and Spain have become less competitive, as unit labour costs have outpaced average inflation across the eurozone. At the same time, Germany has suppressed wages below inflation. This divergence between excessive wage rises and wage suppression has led to a roughly 25% gap in competitiveness between Greece, Italy, Portugal and Spain, and Germany.

The only things that really converged over the past decade were borrowing rates across European countries. Continue reading

Twin Pillars of Instability


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China is currently experiencing the beginnings of two possibly very destabilizing events: the political scandal surrounding Bo Xilai, and the mounting indications that China’s high growth rates are starting to slow. Because of the unique mixed economico-political model run by the Chinese Communist Party these events hold the possibility to unleash a mutually reinforcing spiral of instability.

Minxin Pei argues that Bo Xilai is not the exception to the Communist Party’s organization, but rather the norm. China’s “princelings” have gamed the system to amass huge personal fortunes through combinations of corruption, patronage, and manipulation. Most countries can point to insiders who profit from political positions, but the Chinese case is particularly troubling given that the Communist Party’s implicit agreement with the Chinese people holds that the Communist Party will select highly qualified people to run the economy in a more or less technocratic fashion to deliver widespread economic growth. If there are really as many super-rich princelings as David Barboza and Sharon Lafraniere claim there may be (hundreds of thousands), then the game is up in Beijing. The spoils system, they argue, “poses a fundamental challenge to the legitimacy of the Communist Party.”

But at the same time, there are growing indications that the model may be falling apart already. Continue reading


Welcome to the Margins of Politics.

Over the last couple years, I’ve noticed more and more really high-quality blogs addressing issues in global politics. The first ones I came across were on Foreign Policy, then the collaborative project at The Duck of Minerva and some good blogs on the Council on Foreign Relations website, and finally lesser known outlets by graduate students and recent graduates. The conversation across different specialties, perspectives, geographies and platforms has been really eye-opening: Web 2.0 is alive and well in International Relations.

I’m jumping into the conversation. I expect it will take me a long time to get the hang of this, and I don’t expect to reach the stature of anyone who’s blog I currently read, but if nothing else this will help me articulate my ideas and force me to engage more deeply with global issues. I’m really excited about this new project.

A little about myself: I’m an undergraduate at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. I’m finishing up an Honours in Political Science and a Major in International Relations in May 2013. I spent the 2010-2011 school year on exchange at Sciences Po Paris. I’m really looking forward to writing my thesis next year, although I haven’t picked a topic yet. My research interests lie somewhere in-between power politics and French theory, strategic studies and critical social and political thought, but I’m trying to incorporate more economic and financial thinking into my studies as well.

At the Margins of Politics, you can expect to find my analysis of current events, ideas and sketches for my thesis, book (and article and blog) reviews, as well as anything else that seems relevant and that I can articulate my thoughts on.

If you want to get in touch with me, you can reach me at samsrowan [at] gmail [dot] com.

So welcome and let’s get started!