In his New York Times column today, David Brooks analogizes the government's proper role in the economy to an administration's actual role in a modern U.S. university:
[G]overnment will be a bit like the administration of a university. A university president is nominally the head of the institutions. He or she lives in the big house. But everybody knows a university president is a powerful stagehand.
The professors, the researchers, the tutors, the coaches and the students are the real guts of a university. They handle the substance of what gets done. The administrators play vital but secondary roles. They build the settings. They raise money. They recruit and do marketing. They help students who are stumbling.
The administrators couldn't possibly understand or control the work in the physics or history departments. They just try to gather talent, set guidelines and create an atmosphere where brilliance can happen.
Mulling it over, this is a better analogy than even Brooks indicates. The administration/everyone else dynamic at a university also captures the feelings that often predominate debates about the role of government in society.
To be specific:
1) Most faculty and students do their damndest to simply ignore the fact that a university administration actually exists.
2) Most faculty and students cultivate an active ignorance about things like budgets, revenues, etc.
3) The only time any university administration is popular is when it has resources to dole out;
4) Any time the administration interferes with what faculty, students, etc. want to do it provokes fierce resentment -- unless the faculty/student is in trouble, in which case the hope is that the administration will make it all better.
5) Trying to change any aspect of university governance is, I suspect, even more difficult than trying to get a law passed through Congress.
6) Paying customers rack up massive debts and inevitably feel like they're not getting close to their money's worth, even though the data suggests that the pecuniary rewards from going to college are pretty significant.
7) Even if administrators lack local knowledge about the research going on in their schools, they're nevertheless sure that they completely understand the research.
8) Even though administrators come from the faculty, approximately 99.8 percent of all faculty are completely ill-suited for administrative responsibilities.
Brooks uses this analogy because of his argument for how the global economy will function in this century:
In this century, economic competition between countries is less like the competition between armies or sports teams (with hermetically sealed units bashing or racing against each other). It's more like the competition between elite universities, who vie for prestige in a networked search for knowledge. It's less: "We will crush you with our efficiency and might." It's more: "We have the best talent and the best values, so if you want to make the most of your own capacities, you'll come join us."
The new sort of competition is all about charisma. It's about gathering talent in one spot (in the information economy, geography matters more than ever because people are most creative when they collaborate face to face). This concentration of talent then attracts more talent, which creates more collaboration, which multiplies everybody's skills, which attracts more talent and so on.
Well.... economic competition among countries has been something of a misnomer since the start of the Industrial Revolution. It's mattered only in the sense that geopolitical competition exists. To put this into concrete terms, from a strictly economic perspective China's massive growth is an unalloyed good for Americans, because it means a future growth market for U.S. goods and services. It good becomes slightly less pure only when people start worrying about a) whether China will convert its growing wealth into power; and b) whether Chinese power will advance interests that conflict with the United States.
More importantly, however, there's a way in which Brooks' model is the great power equivalent of the Dubai model of economic growth -- and as I noted earlier this month, a world in which everyone races after the Dubai model is a world of massive overinvestment and inadequate demand. Like the dollar auction game, a few countries might win, but most will lose in pursuing this strategy.
Readers are warmly encouraged to provide more ways in which the administration/university relationship is akin to the government/economy relationship.
The opening and closing of today's Tom Friedman's column:
For me, the most frightening news in The Times on Sunday was not about North Korea's stepping up its nuclear program, but an article about how American kids are stepping up their use of digital devices...
We need better parents ready to hold their kids to higher standards of academic achievement. We need better students who come to school ready to learn, not to text. And to support all of this, we need an all-society effort -- from the White House to the classroom to the living room -- to nurture a culture of achievement and excellence.
If you want to know who's doing the parenting part right, start with immigrants, who know that learning is the way up. Last week, the 32 winners of Rhodes Scholarships for 2011 were announced -- America's top college grads. Here are half the names on that list: Mark Jia, Aakash Shah, Zujaja Tauqeer, Tracy Yang, William Zeng, Daniel Lage, Ye Jin Kang, Baltazar Zavala, Esther Uduehi, Prerna Nadathur, Priya Sury, Anna Alekeyeva, Fatima Sabar, Renugan Raidoo, Jennifer Lai, Varun Sivaram.
Do you see a pattern?
OMG, I do see a pattern!! It's the the funky foreign name game! Hey, I can play that game too -- in fact, let's take a look at the first paragraph of that Sunday Times story, shall we?
On the eve of a pivotal academic year in Vishal Singh's life, he faces a stark choice on his bedroom desk: book or computer?
Guess what? He chooses the computer.
I understand what Friedman is trying to say here about American education, but mixing in the "kids are texting too much these days and it's rotting their brains" lament is as distracting a hook as... er... texting itself. Does Friedman seriously believe that the young people in South Korea, Vietnam, and China are abstaining from this technology?
Sorry, Tom, but the North Korea nucleas reactor story scares me far more. [So what do you think of the DPRK's latest provocations? Huh, smart guy?!--ed. I hope to post something on this later today.]
Every year I give a talk to Fletcher students entitled, "So you want to get a Ph.D...." in which I do my darnedest to convince them to seek alternative paths -- kinda like how a rabbi responds when someone wants to convert to Judaism. I am all too familiar with the possible downsides and relate these to the Fletcherites as clearly as humanly possible.
I bring this up because it's been impossible to avoid this "So You Want to Get a Ph.D. in Political Science" video over the last 24 hours, as apparently all of my friends/colleagues feel compelled to blog, tweet, or link to this sucker on Facebook. And I'm glad to have finally seen it. See, I was worried that I was becoming the most cynical person in political science. After having seen it, however, I'm now certain that whoever put that together possesses oceans of bitterness that I could never dream of consuming.
Look, pursuing a political science Ph.D. carries all sorts of risks and all kinds of occasionally pernicious socialization effects. That said, I'm not sure that alternative career pathways for someone interested in politics are all that much better at this juncture. The intern route? [Insert your own joke here about interns here -- ed.] It's no less demeaning and far more cutthroat than graduate school. Law school? Supply vastly exceeds demand in that field too, plus it's a vastly more expensive enterprise. Political journalism and/or publishing? That sound you hear right now is the collective gallows laughter from the employees orf that industry about its future prospects.
The key piece of advice I would give someone who is undeterred in getting a political science Ph.D. at this point is to recognize five important facts:
1) The process of getting a Ph.D. can provide you with a set of analytical skills that are of some use in the non-academic job market;
2) 99 percent of Ph.D. programs are geared to make you think that the only job worth having is becoming a political science professor.
3) If you really want to be a political science professor, you might as well know now that the odds are not good, the job market is terrible, and your control over your future professional destiny is extremely circumscribed.
4) Remember how your parents told you that if you really loved something and applied yourself, you would excel at it? Yeah, that's not always true. At the doctoral level, simply wanting something really badly is not sufficient to attaining your goal.
5) If you think you can resist the siren song of the academy, however -- and this is an important if -- then I can think of worse career paths.
Enough of this silliness -- I have a talk about zombies I have t prepare.
Your humble blogger is teaching Thucydides' History of the Peloponnesian War this week. Now, back in the day, there would be no need to justify the inclusion of such a classic into a course. Nowadays, with the kids and their YouFace, I suppose some justification should be provided. Here are three reasons to read this Greek classic:
1) It will purge 300 from your system. The ancients were all about the purging, and this classic will help you void the non-so-classic film. True, the two stories don't overlap all that much. And true, I like homoerotic goofiness as much as the next hetrosexual. That said, it's a crying shame that far more people have seen that mockery of Greek history than read... any Greek history. Alas, even modern criticisms of 300 wind up infected with stupid and ignorant Thucydides references. So read some Thucydides and you can enjoy
Gerald Butler's abs Lena Headey's abs 300 on a more refined, absurdist plane.
2) You will earn Star Trek street cred. Want to know where the Star Trek franchise gets the names for 90% of its obscure alien species? Look no further than Thucydides. Just one read and you'll discover the source of the Cytherians, the Battle of Tanagra, and other names that will
bore amaze your friends.
3) You will recognize some recurrent patterns in history. Thucydides will help one develop a better appreciation for life in 5th century BC, but it will really help one develop an appreciation for the aspects of human nature that are unchanged through time.
For exhibit A, consider this recent Kindred Winecoff post with respect to American soldiers, war crimes, and nativism. The relevant section:
The Washington Post recently reported that a handful of soldiers engaged in murder campaigns that targeted Afghan civilians for sport. I assume this, like the Abu Ghraib disaster, is an isolated incident, but that's not really the point. After reading the piece a friend remarked:[T]his isn't about U.S. troops, or even about this particular group of U.S. troops. It's too easy to blame this on the type of people likely to be soldiers, or say that this is a group of bad apples. In the right situation, this could be me. This could be you.
War may bring out courage and heroism in the human heart, and many of us like celebrating that. And there's nothing wrong with celebrating valor. But war also brings out brutality and nihilism. And that is why we cannot go to war lightly, why if war is to be an option, it must be the last option, a desperate refuge that we flee to with a heavy heart.
We generally don't think like that, especially in the run-up to wars. It doesn't enter our cost-benefit calculus.
I strongly suspect it enters into the cost-benefit calculation of any officer required to read Thucydides. All it takes is one read of his discussion of state failure in Cocyra to recognize that war has always had this kind of effect on individuals and societies. See if any of this sounds familiar:
The sufferings which revolution entailed upon the cities were many and terrible, such as have occurred and always will occur, as long as the nature of mankind remains the same; though in a severer or milder form, and varying in their symptoms, according to the variety of the particular cases. In peace and prosperity, states and individuals have better sentiments, because they do not find themselves suddenly confronted with imperious necessities; but war takes away the easy supply of daily wants, and so proves a rough master, that brings most men's characters to a level with their fortunes. Revolution thus ran its course from city to city, and the places which it arrived at last, from having heard what had been done before, carried to a still greater excess the refinement of their inventions, as manifested in the cunning of their enterprises and the atrocity of their reprisals. Words had to change their ordinary meaning and to take that which was now given them. Reckless audacity came to be considered the courage of a loyal ally; prudent hesitation, specious cowardice; moderation was held to be a cloak for unmanliness; ability to see all sides of a question, inaptness to act on any. Frantic violence became the attribute of manliness; cautious plotting, a justifiable means of self-defence. The advocate of extreme measures was always trustworthy; his opponent a man to be suspected. To succeed in a plot was to have a shrewd head, to divine a plot a still shrewder; but to try to provide against having to do either was to break up your party and to be afraid of your adversaries. In fine, to forestall an intending criminal, or to suggest the idea of a crime where it was wanting, was equally commended until even blood became a weaker tie than party, from the superior readiness of those united by the latter to dare everything without reserve; for such associations had not in view the blessings derivable from established institutions but were formed by ambition for their overthrow; and the confidence of their members in each other rested less on any religious sanction than upon complicity in crime. The fair proposals of an adversary were met with jealous precautions by the stronger of the two, and not with a generous confidence. Revenge also was held of more account than self-preservation. Oaths of reconciliation, being only proffered on either side to meet an immediate difficulty, only held good so long as no other weapon was at hand; but when opportunity offered, he who first ventured to seize it and to take his enemy off his guard, thought this perfidious vengeance sweeter than an open one, since, considerations of safety apart, success by treachery won him the palm of superior intelligence. Indeed it is generally the case that men are readier to call rogues clever than simpletons honest, and are as ashamed of being the second as they are proud of being the first. The cause of all these evils was the lust for power arising from greed and ambition; and from these passions proceeded the violence of parties once engaged in contention.
Seriously, go read the whole thing. [But, like, that was a really long paragraph of unindented text, man!!--ed. Then buy the book -- it looks much better on the printed page.]
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.