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Thursday, April 28, 2016

Endowments at UofL

Anyone at the University of Louisville who relies upon endowment funding received some very bad news earlier this month. University endowments declined about 17% in 2015.

While this is very bad news in the short term, it is actually part of a larger long-term problem.

At their peak, UofL endowments were worth $824 million on June 30, 2014. However, in a period covering more than a decade, University endowments are up only about 7% in total. This is not as good as the performance of in-state rival University of Kentucky, which has seen its endowments nearly double in that period. InsiderLouisville, which reported these facts, included this long-term chart in a March 2016 story:

Figures provided by the University of Louisville Foundation and the University of Kentucky

Given the recent hullabaloo over President Jim Ramsey's tenure at the university, I decided to investigate a bit further (especially given other recent controversies). After all, Ramsey is also the President of the University of Louisville Foundation, which is responsible for endowments. The Foundation outsources much of its money management, but is ultimately responsible for the outcomes. As its own webpage proclaims, "The Foundation is an independent 501(c)(3) not for profit corporation that holds, invests and designates funds of the University." Moreover:
The students, academic staff, schools, colleges and libraries of the University rely heavily on support generated from the endowments of the Foundation. These funds are invested and managed by the Foundation in support of the university’s education, research and service goals and used for scholarships, endowments, research chairs, grants and other academic initiatives. Gifts to the University are managed according to the wishes of the donor and the appropriate University departments. Gifts without restrictions are managed at the discretion of the Foundation Board upon recommendation of the president. 
Additionally,, the President often references his fundraising as a major success story at the University. In his recent public presentations (I saw these slides at a meeting with Arts and Sciences faculty and staff), the President notes that University of Louisville Foundation "private support" has grown from $35 million in FY 2002-03 to $154.7 million in FY 2015-16. 

Ramsey was hired at UofL on August 1, 2002, so this is essentially his tenure at UofL.

What about endowments during his entire tenure?

The endowment was worth $550 million on December 31, 2001, as revealed at the March 2002 Foundation Finance Committee meeting. Apparently, some UofL sources recently claimed that the value was only $221 million in 2002. At least one media outlet reported this number without checking the primary sources as I have here.

By the way, the endowment had grown an average of 14.7% annually for 5 years prior to Ramsey’s August 1, 2002 start date. This was reported to the Board of Trustees at their March 2002 meeting. Again, I'm linking to the primary sources from the University.

The endowment was worth $646 million on January 31, 2016. That means that during Ramsey's tenure as President of the University and the Foundation, the endowment has grown a total of $96 million, or about 17%. Annualized, the rate is about 1.25%.

Obviously, the growth would be a lot different if the baseline number was $221 million.

In any event, by comparison, the Dow Jones Industrial Average (DJIA) closed at 10021.57 on December 31, 2001. On December 31, 2015, the DJIA closed at 17,425.03, which means that it increased in value by about 73% during that time, or about 5.2% annually.

Readers with long memories may recall that fall 2001 was a tough time for the stock market. After the 9/11 terrorist attacks stock prices tumbled.

Indeed, because the value seemed low versus historic averages, my wife and I decided to invest about $5000 in the stock market that fall. However, we didn't really know anything and we didn't want to spend lots of money on a broker. We thought the future would involve more technology and knew that the NASDAQ hosted most tech stocks. Thus, we bought 150 shares of QQQ, which is an "exchange-traded fund (ETF) that gives investors and traders a snapshot of how some of the largest technology companies are trading stocks. The QQQ is heavily weighted toward large technology companies trading on the Nasdaq stock market, with over 50% allocated in the information technology sector."

We purchased 100 shares in October 2001 and 50 more a few months later in early 2002 (it was actually called QQQQ until 2011). The price was around $35 per share. For apples-to-apples purposes, the QQQ closed at $38.91 on December 31, 2001. On December 31, 2015, QQQ closed at 111.86. That means this NASDAQ-linked fund has almost tripled in value since the date we purchased it.

My only regret in hindsight is that we didn't invest more in QQQ.

Overall, both the Dow Jones Industrial Average and NASDAQ index funds have offered a lot of value in average returns during President Jim Ramsey's tenure at UofL. Yet, the Unviersity's money gurus have managed to dramatically underperform the market.

How does this align with Ramsey's claimed fundraising success? I offer three explanations.

First, it appears the baseline start number has been....er, mis-remembered.

Second, some of the fundraising has undoubtedly reflected one-time gifts that have been spent on specific projects. These are not endowed funds and are quite valuable to the University.

Third, as media outlets have reported, in recent down years, the University has been spending endowment assets to pay bills. "Asked about the drop in endowment value after the March board meeting of the U of L Foundation, Ramsey said they’ve been using Foundation assets to pay the bills and replace declining state appropriations, and expect increased donations and an improvement in the market to make up for what they’ve recently lost."

Let's hope this plan works out because the investment results have certainly not been great during Ramsey's tenure.


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Wednesday, April 20, 2016

ISA 2016

Looking back at the archives, I forgot to blog about the ISA conference in Atlanta during mid-March. While at the conference I  caught up with some old friends, watched the first round NCAA Kansas basketball victory, drank some good local beers, and served as a discussant and/or chair of three different panels.

I also delivered a paper, "Popular Culture and Public Deliberation about Torture" that needs a good deal of work even though it is too long. That link takes you to the working draft at academia.edu.


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Tuesday, April 19, 2016

College Sports are Broken at Louisville

As I mentioned last week, the same day that the Kentucky legislature agreed to cut University of Louisville funding by 4.5% (roughly a $6.3 million annual spending reduction), the Athletic Department announced that football coach Bobby Petrino had been given a 7-year contract worth over $30 million. He'll be the 12th highest paid college football coach in the land, making over $4.25 million annually.

Today's sports section featured a story about the team hiring a new offensive coordinator at $607,000 per year in salary. The same story mentions that three other newly hired coaches are making about $600,000 per year in combined salary, meaning that these four assistant coaches are making over $1.2 million next year. Given that this is only a fraction of the coaching staff, the football coaches' total compensation will almost surely exceed the size of the state budget cut the rest of the University is facing.

As I wrote last week, new assistant professors make about $54,000 in my department at UofL. Even figuring nearly 30% in benefits, the University could hire 85 assistant professors for the cost of the football staff.

There's more recent news along these lines if you pay attention. For example, the front page of the February 4 sports section of the Courier-Journal carried news that the University is seeking $55 million to (again) expand the football stadium.

These stories highlight much that is wrong at my University and with big-time college athletics. Before I list them, I know the arguments that boosters make. Basically, they argue that big-time college sports are a competitive business and these salaries and stadium costs reflect "the market" conditions. Athletic Director Tom Jurich, for instance, defended his contract to Petrino with these words: "This is a very competitive business. There's a very, very small handful of great coaches in this country. I think that's very self-explanatory. It's obvious that we have one of them. So I'm going to do everything in my power to make sure that he stays with us, that he finishes his career with us." The same article claims that "None of this is money from the university, or taxpayers, or student tuition or fees."

Frankly, these arguments are laughable.

First, as more-and-more student athletes have been arguing, they are essentially underpaid labor in a business that strictly limits what they can be compensated. In a free market, the star athletes make a lot more than the coaches. As Taylor Branch wrote in The Atlantic back in fall 2011, college athletes do not work in a market environment:
College athletes are not slaves. Yet to survey the scene—corporations and universities enriching themselves on the backs of uncompensated young men, whose status as “student-athletes” deprives them of the right to due process guaranteed by the Constitution—is to catch an unmistakable whiff of the plantation. Perhaps a more apt metaphor is colonialism: college sports, as overseen by the NCAA, is a system imposed by well-meaning paternalists and rationalized with hoary sentiments about caring for the well-being of the colonized. But it is, nonetheless, unjust. 
Second, market competition is artificially restricted. New business cannot spring up to compete against NCAA division I football or basketball programs. These businesses have formed a cartel, as Joe Nocera has written: "the N.C.A.A.’s real role is to oversee the collusion of university athletic departments, whose goal is to maximize revenue and suppress the wages of its captive labor force, a k a the players." He continues:
The N.C.A.A. has neither an antitrust exemption nor a player’s union to negotiate with. In other words, it lacks some of the legal protections that shield professional sports from antitrust suits. What it has, instead, is a work force full of young adults dreaming of becoming pros and willing to sign any document, no matter how onerous, if it will help them reach that goal. The document the N.C.A.A. forces them to sign completely stacks the deck against them.
Third, college sports are highly subsidized by government taxpayers and students (as I've blogged previously). The "free market" in college sports is cash-rich partly because some revenues are guaranteed and some costs are paid by third parties who do not directly benefit from athletics. Only about a dozen big schools do not subsidize their athletic programs and about another dozen could survive without subsidies. Some programs receive tens of millions of dollars in subsidies. The total amounts involved are truly staggering: "Public universities poured more than $10 billion over the last five years into their athletics programs."

At Louisville, about 20% of subsidies come explicitly from student fees and the total amount of subsidies averaged about $10 million annually from 2010-2014 (for a total of nearly $50 million). Again, for emphasis, in recent years the University has transferred about $2 million per year in student fees to athletics. Athletics has at least sometimes transferred a similar sum back to the University, but that is often framed as a generous gift from athletics rather than a repayment for subsidies.

Fourth, college football and basketball depend upon television revenue that is itself distorted by non-market limits on competition. This is from Reason magazine, so it is admittedly the extreme version of the libertarian argument. Nonetheless, the point it makes about the cost of doing business is true:
In an ideal world there would be property rights in, and markets for, spectrum. Unfortunately, the federal government nationalized the airwaves in 1927 and since then only licenses their use. Today, wireless broadband providers like Verizon and AT&T must bid at auction for the spectrum licenses they use, and this bidding helps ensure that the valuable airwaves are allocated efficiently to their best uses. Television broadcasters, on the other hand, have never had to bid for airwaves. The Federal Communications Commission licenses spectrum to station owners in exchange for a promise that they will operate in the public interest—and that includes making their programming available for free over-the-air and supported by commercial advertising.
Basically, there's a lot of extra cash in TV because the networks don't pay market prices for the right to use the spectrum. It creates a lot of funny money when they sell ads for programs.

Beyond these free market arguments, there are other economic (and ethical) reasons to challenge UofL athletic spending.

Sports competes with academics for philanthropy and other funds. Athletic Director Jurich notes that the stadium expansion will be privately funded, but that just means that UofL academics will be competing with the rest of the University to find new funding to replace funds lost to budget cuts.

Finally, consider the top-dollar nepotism at work in UofL Athletics. Tom Jurich's son Mark Jurich works for the Athletic Association in a variety of capacities. The former campus baseball star makes over $160,000 per year.

Bobby Petrino's son Nick is now the wide receivers coach for his father's team and probably makes $150,000 since that seems to be the minimum UofL coaches make. Petrino son-in-law LD Scott makes $150,000, according to that USA Today database.

A few years ago, Rick Pitino's son Richard served as an assistant basketball coach for two years. 

There's nothing like strong family ties, amirite?


---------------------------------------
Note: This is the third in a recent series about the political economy of the University of Louisville.

Part 1: It's Good to Be the King posted April 12, 2016, concerns President Jim Ramsey's lucrative relationship with Texas Roadhouse.

Part 2: Winner-Take-All in the University Setting posted April 15, 2016, discusses the stagnation in assistant professor salaries, juxtaposed against the explosion in university president compensation.


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Friday, April 15, 2016

Winner-Take-All in the University Setting

Recently, Thomas Piketty gained tremendous attention for his academic work on inequality. "Piketty summarizes this complicated theory with the formula “r > g” where “r” is the rate of return on capital and “g” is the rate of growth in the economy." Put simply, the wealthiest individuals, who benefit from their investments or other linkages to the financial economy, have been grabbing an ever-larger share of the nation's wealth. This chart reflecting nearly 100 years of income data is quite telling:




Financier Steven Rattner pointed out a few years ago that similar inequality has been mirrored in sectors of the economy that are not directly linked to free market returns on investments. Specifically, he noted that even university presidents are beneficiaries of the "winner-take-all" society that is now the United States:
Recently, thanks to data compiled by The Chronicle of Higher Education, I saw these macro trends reduced to the micro level in a perhaps unlikely setting: institutions of higher learning. 
In 2010, the 10 top-earning private college and university presidents made an average of $2.1 million. That’s up from $637,000 in 2000, a stunning average annual increase of 12.6 percent... 
And just as in corporate America, those who preside over these institutions have done far better than those who populate the armies that labor below them. Over the decade that ended June 30, 2010, average faculty salaries at the 50 wealthiest universities rose by 14 percent, while that of presidents increased by 75 percent.
When I was hired at University of Louisville in 1991, I made $31,000. That was considered a fairly modest starting salary -- it was certainly not at the high end of the pay scale. Using the CPI to adjust that to current dollars, my 1991 starting assistant professor salary would be worth $53,900 in 2015. The political science department has hired a handful of beginning assistant professors in recent years and all arrived making around $54,000. In short, 25 years after I was hired at a relatively modest salary (compared to what peer institutions offer), UofL is still offering the same beginning salary. The $54,000 figure is considered modest, competitive if adjusted for cost-of-living, but well below amounts offered by other schools.

University of Louisville President Donald Swain made $155,000 in 1991. He had been serving as UofL President since 1981, so he was in midst of his 11th year. Using the same CPI adjusted rate, that salary would be worth $270,000 today.  I have found some archival evidence that Swain also received modest deferred compensation payments, equivalent to about 10% of his salary. So maybe Swain made $300,000 in 1991.

Has the winner-take-all problem emerged at UofL? As I blogged earlier this week, Jim Ramsey, who is in his 14th year as the top administrator, makes more than a million dollars annually from his job leading both UofL and its Foundation, including about $1.67 million in annual salary, deferred compensation, and other perks (UofL pays his taxes, for instance, which accounts for $600,000 to $800,000 additional payments each year). A consulting firm retained by the University reported that Ramsey made $2.5 million from UofL in 2014. Note that the state of Kentucky reports that Ramsey makes about $350,000 from his job as president. That figure, however, does not include Foundation payments -- salary, deferred compensation, tax payments, etc.

Put simply, the intro political science faculty salary has been flat over 25 years. The University President compensation has apparently increased 5- to 8-fold, adjusted for constant dollars.

Incidentally, the Board membership at Texas Roadhouse is presumably tied to Ramsey's current position at UofL, but the external compensation is not figured into those earnings figures. As noted Tuesday, he's made millions of dollars more just from the common stock compensation he has earned from that service.

There is no common stock compensation for faculty, of course.

I am not posting this to argue that Ramsey has been a bad president of the University. He has performed his job and has helped move the school forward in many ways. Incoming student ACT scores are significantly higher than they used to be and student retention has improved. Despite his former "insider" status in state government**, Ramsey has not staved off incredible cuts in state funding. He has been successful in raising private funds and convincing the state to allow the University to increase tuition substantially. Some academic programs that make UofL (and Ramsey) look good were actually started by previous UofL leaders.

Could others have done his job just as well, perhaps for much less compensation? No one can know the answer to that counterfactual, but the "winner-take-all" mentality generally magnifies small differences in performance with large differences in compensation.

Yesterday morning, anyone tuning in to the budget livestream on the Health Science campus could hear about 5 minutes of live mic broadcast before the event started (it has since been edited out). An administrator (I believe from the medical school) was lamenting that he had already nearly forgotten his mid-semester vacation in Cabo because it had been 10 days since his return. A top-level financial administrator complained about the level of negativity she's constantly heard on the Belknap campus.

News alert: the inequity in financial compensation, illustrated by the mid-term vacation in Cabo as well as President Ramsey's compensation package, very much helps to explain the level of negativity on the Belknap campus.

Update: Yesterday's announcement of a new contract for the football coach won't help, but that's a matter for another day. He's going to be paid more than $30 million for 7 years of coaching. The Kentucky legislature, earlier in the day, approved a 4.5% budget cut for UofL. Given the current funding level of $140 million from the state, this will amount to a $6.3 million annual cut.

Here's a counterfactual: How many wins could the football team achieve with a coach paid $375,000 instead of $4.375 million annually?


------------

** Readers can judge for themselves what role Ramsey played in the current budget situation as he was state budget director for Governor Paul Patton when the state diverted $30 million from pension plans for other spending purposes. This was apparently a seminal move to divert such funds and it was replicated often over the next 15 years. Current Governor Matt Bevin is cutting University funding to pay for the past diversion of pension funds.


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Tuesday, April 12, 2016

It's Good to Be the King

It's also good to be President of University of Louisville.  Heck, to prove this, the University even commissioned a study by a consultant:
In a report that cost the university about $23,000, Verisight Inc. of Chicago found that [President James] Ramsey’s total annual of compensation of $1.1 million is 60 to 80 percent above the median pay for presidents at similar universities.
Those numbers don't include deferred compensation and other benefits.

In any case, despite this high level of compensation, I should say that it used to be good to be President of University of Louisville. However, recent events have muddied the waters tremendously. Lately, President James Ramsey has been under fire by some elements of the faculty -- and by a number of Board of Trustees members. My College, Arts & Sciences, overwhelmingly supported a "no confidence" vote in a survey of faculty.

Why all the recent troubles?

As noted, President Ramsey's salary is very high compared to other University presidents, while faculty and staff salaries are relatively low. The salary problem, by the way, is particularly acute in Arts and Sciences. Some members of the community are angry about the decision to withhold the men's basketball team from this year's NCAA tournament. A whistleblower has alleged serious executive misconduct. The medical school apparently had some recent trouble with accreditation. The array of concerns is large and diverse and I won't discuss them thoroughly here.

Let's focus on one rarely discussed issue.

Some members of the University community are especially unhappy about the business model UofL has adopted under Ramsey's leadership. There are a number of implications of this, but this post will focus on merely one: consider the University's relationship with Texas Roadhouse, a local company (despite the name):
Texas Roadhouse and U of L have enjoyed a close relationship in the past, most notably in 2010, when the university opened its Texas Roadhouse Student Center at the College of Business. This 1,840-square-foot lounge is designed to look just like a Texas Roadhouse restaurant, complete with signage and branding, though there’s no kitchen. It cost a reported $200,000 to build.
Why should this matter? Well, President Ramsey is a highly-compensated member of the Texas Roadhouse Board -- paid primarily in valuable shares of common stock:
On Jan. 7, the University of Louisville president received 8,500 shares of stock from Texas Roadhouse, where he serves on the board of directors. The acquisition brings his current reported total up to 97,418 shares. The next day, he received an additional 25,500 restricted stock units from the steak giant, which he can collect over the next three years but doesn’t own yet.
Texas Roadhouse stock shares closed Jan. 15 at $33.67, meaning Ramsey’s 97,418 shares were worth $3.28 million at that time.

The newest 25,500 shares are restricted, meaning they are incentives for him to stay on at the company as a director. The shares of the stock were broken into three separate tranches of 8,500 shares of restricted common stock. They were granted as part of the firm’s 2013 Long-term Incentive Plan.
The stock price is now $44 per share, meaning that merely the 34,000 shares of stock Ramsey received or was promised in January 2015 are currently worth almost $1.5 million. Then again, he must continue to serve on the Board through January 8, 2018, to receive the final 17,000 shares. Half (8500 shared) will be awarded January 2017 and the other half on that January day in 2018.

Ramsey's full SEC disclosures as a Board member can be found here -- and lots of other places on the web. These are required by federal law under "insider trading" regulations.

Interestingly, however, for many years President Ramsey apparently did not disclose these ties as part of the ordinary "conflict of interest" form that all UofL faculty must file.

This story summarizes President Ramsey's legitimacy crisis among many members of the faculty -- extravagant compensation, use of position and privilege for personal gain, double standards vis-a-vis the rest of the University community, and at least a whiff of unethical behavior.


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Saturday, March 26, 2016

2016 NCAA Tournament

I'm going to the Kansas game tonight versus Villanova (look for me by the upper deck rail, across from the Kansas bench). Rock Chalk! I also attended the game against Maryland Thursday night. Since the tickets were for the entire "session," that meant entry also to see Villanova defeat Miami. Handily.


Here are a couple of pictures from my seat Thursday. The first is halftime of game one, the second is during the introductions for game 2:




My NCAA pool brackets didn't go well this year, primarily because of my faith in Michigan State and insufficient appreciation for the ACC:


Obviously, if Kansas wins the tournament, I'll move up a bit in my pools.



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Sunday, February 28, 2016

Oscars for 2015 Films

Best Actress Academy Awards
Photo credit: Cliff on Flickr.
The Academy Award ceremonies are tonight and my wife and I have again been using some of our leisure time to view nominated films and acting performances. Regular readers may recall that I only saw one of the films nominated for best picture during the 2015 calendar year. Until 2016, I didn't see any of the nominated acting performances either.

In any case, based on my recent attempts to see many of the contenders, I'm going to rank-order the films and acting performances. Obviously, this is my completely subjective perspective -- and hardly an ideal way to think about art. Plus, I can only rank the performances I watched. That is a big limit since I failed to see three of the Oscar-nominated Best Picture nominees (including the favorite) and I've yet to see most of the acting performances.

Keep in mind that these are not my predictions about winners in each category. Go to the Hollywood Stock Exchange if you want predictions based upon betting markets. Spoiler Alert: Revenant is the favorite for Best Picture and its star Leonardo DiCaprio seems to be the biggest favorite in any of the major categories.

Note for future readers: Films and performances shaded in yellow below will indicate additions/edits after the Oscars are awarded (and the original blog posting).

Best picture

Spotlight **
Mad Max: Fury Road
The Big Short **
The Martian
Bridge of Spies
Room

Brooklyn
The Revenant

Comment: Spotlight is a very good film and the acting performances are uniformly great in a fairly large cast. One of my favorite shots in the entire film is a aerial view of the Boston Globe building with an adjacent billboard advertising AOL. The movie, of course, challenges the legitimacy of an enduring institution, but this scene implicitly challenges the endurance of an upstart institution that helped destroy the newspaper industry (a fact that is briefly mentioned in another scene when revenues from classified ads are discussed).

I assigned Mad Max in my spring 2016 film course, after class members voted in the fall 2015 Honors section to see it as the "student choice" selection. We debate whether it makes a feminist argument about global politics and/or the environment.

I enjoyed all of the other films too, though they are not without flaws. I'm guessing The Martian is the one I'm most likely to watch again in the future.  If that means anything.

Best director

Tom McCarthy - Spotlight
George Miller - Mad Max: Fury Road
Adam McKay - The Big Short
Lenny Abrahamson - Room

Alejandro G. Iñárritu - The Revenant

Best actor in a Leading Role

Matt Damon, The Martian

Bryan Cranston, Trumbo
Leonardo DiCaprio, The Revenant
Michael Fassbender, Steve Jobs
Eddie Redmayne, The Danish Girl

Comment: Several of these films were just released for home viewing, so I'll probably see them very soon.

Best actress in a Leading Role

Brie Larson, Room
Jennifer Lawrence, Joy **

Cate Blanchett, Carol
Charlotte Rampling, 45 Years
Saoirse Ronan, Brooklyn

Comment: Jennifer Lawrence was good in Joy, but I again thought she was too young for the role she was cast to play in a David O. Russell production. And the film was simply not very good.

Best Actor in a Supporting Role

Mark Ruffalo, Spotlight
Christian Bale, The Big Short
Mark Rylance, Bridge of Spies

Tom Hardy, The Revenant
Sylvester Stallone, Creed

Best Actress in a Supporting Role

Rachel McAdams, Spotlight

Jennifer Jason Leigh, The Hateful Eight
Rooney Mara, Carol
Alicia Vikander, The Danish Girl
Kate Winslet, Steve Jobs

Best Documentary Feature

I failed to see any of these to-date:

Amy
Cartel Land
The Look of Silence
What Happened, Miss Simone?
Winter on Fire

Comment: Netflix had 3 of these documentaries available to stream prior to the Oscars, including two of their own films: the politically-themed Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight For Freedom and the biopic What Happened, Miss Simone? Amazon Prime has Amy.

Best Foreign Language Film

And I haven't seen these either:

Embrace of the Serpent
Mustang
Son of Saul
Theeb
A War

Animated Feature Film

Inside Out

Anomalisa
Boy and the World
Shaun the Sheep Movie
When Marnie Was There

Comment: Maybe it was because I viewed it on a long airplane flight, but Inside Out did not live up to expectations. It made me laugh, sometimes, but it didn't really click for me. I am unlikely ever to see those bottom 3 films.


** I saw these films in the theater.


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Saturday, February 20, 2016

Syria and War as an Institution

Scholars like Ohio State's John Mueller have been arguing for decades that war is declining -- and that war deaths have decreased dramatically. Foreign correspondent John Andrews summarizes the long-term trends in The Economist earlier this year:
The death toll from the first world war was around 16m; the toll from the second world war was at least 55m. Yet even as the global population rose from 3 billion to 7 billion in the 50 years to 2010, the number of war-related deaths plummeted: that average was 180,000 a year during the four decades of the cold war; 100,000 a year in the 1990s; and 55,000 a year in the first decade of this century. The downward trend reflected the fact that, with rare exceptions, such as the Russia-Georgia war of 2008, states no longer send their armies to wage war against each other.
Andrews notes, however, that deadly conflicts in Syria and South Sudan cast doubt on the meaning of those stats:
The bad news is that 2016 will confirm that the trend has reversed itself. Instead of fighting each other, states battle religious, ideological or ethnic insurgencies, or help allies supress insurgents—or fall apart in civil wars that defy easy resolution. The civil war in Syria alone has been enough to move the trend upwards: the country’s descent into chaos since 2011 has claimed some 250,000 lives; since December 2013 civil war in South Sudan may have cost over 50,000 lives.
Is Syria an anomaly from recent trends, or does it reflect evidence that international war involving great powers is always possible? Even today, barely a week after a Syrian ceasefire agreement was announced, some experts fear the possibility of war between Russia and Turkey -- a NATO ally. The risks of escalation would be intensified in that scenario.

The apparent lesson is that neither scholars nor states can take non-violence for granted. The prevalence of violence and war went down for a number of reasons, but some of them require difficult diplomacy. And of course, great power restraint is a huge plus.

Thursday, February 04, 2016

Laughing off a Zombie Apocalypse

Zombies Ahead
Photo credit: *Keith
Ready for some shameless self promotion? A revised version of my 2014 ISA conference paper (which was itself based on a blog post) has now been published as an advanced access 2016 journal article. Here's the full citation, with a working link to the Oxford University press website:


Rodger A. Payne, "Laughing off a Zombie Apocalypse: The Value of Comedic and Satirical Narratives,"  International Studies Perspectives 2016; doi: 10.1093/isp/ekv026. 


Kudos to Dan Drezner for making me think about this.





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Sunday, January 31, 2016

SABR Day 2016



Yesterday was SABR Day and I again attended the Louisville "Pee Wee Reese" Chapter meeting. In fact, I arranged for the room on the University of Louisville campus and helped connect the group to a couple of the speakers. Kudos to local leader Harry Rothgerber for making all the detailed arrangements.

The first speaker was UofL baseball Sports Information Director Sean Moth. He calls the Cardinals baseball games on the radio and is also the PA announcer for the basketball team. Sean talked about his background in the media, discussed some of his favorite interviews, imitated Vin Scully and Harry Caray, and opined that the home run ball that ended the UofL season last year (and sent Cal State Fullerton to the College World Series) was foul. 


The second speaker was Greg Rhodes, Team Historian of the Cincinnati Reds and the former director of the Hall of Fame and Museum at Great American Ball Park. Greg is the author of half a dozen books, including two that have won top SABR research prizes.  Backed by a colorful and interesting PowerPoint presentation, he talked about the opening day tradition in Cincinnati, beginning late in the 19th century. In 2004, Rhodes published a book on this topic.  His presentation included numerous interesting anecdotes and some trivia. Did you know that Adam Dunn has hit more home runs (5) in that game than any other Reds player?

Greg focused a good deal of attention on several recent openers that I recall, including the 1994 game(s). The Monday traditional sell-out opening daytime game was played before a crowd of 55,000, but it actually followed a Sunday night game attended by only 32,000 fans. The Sunday game was not preceded by a parade or other typical hoopla. In 1995, the parade was held on the long-scheduled early April date even though the season was delayed because of labor strife. In 1996, the game was canceled after only a few pitches because of the tragic death of home plate umpire John McSherry.



The third and final speaker was UofL Assistant Professor Megan Shreffler who gave a talk on "The Socialization of Chicagoans into Baseball Fandom." Basically, her PowerPoint-backed talk addressed why some Windy City residents cheer for the Cubs, while others back the White Sox. Megan's talk included a bit of academic theory and was based on a survey of Chicago residents -- some responding via Survey Monkey and others filling out a paper form. She found that Cubs fans tend to root for their family's historic favorite team, while Sox fans are best explained by geography.

Megan is a Cubs fan and is very excited about the upcoming season.

Megan Shreffler

The event concluded with Dr. Jack Sullivan's recurring trivia contest, won by Jon Borie (14 points of 25) narrowly over Bob Sawyer (13.5) and myself (13).

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Sunday, January 03, 2016

Books of 2015

Library of historic photo books
Flickr photo by Simon Booth-Lucking. Some rights reserved.


As I have annually since 2005, I am posting a nearly complete list of books I read in the preceding year.

Please allow me to repeat the ground rules: First, I generally do not list academic books that I reviewed unless the review was published. In my academic job, for instance, I reviewed a number of books competing for a $100,000 award exhibiting the best "ideas for improving world order." However, only the winning entry is listed here. I read it as a member of the Final Selection Committee.

Of course, since I'm an academic, I read multiple chapters and large sections of many books pertinent to my research and teaching. However, I'm not going to list those here unless I read them cover-to-cover. Save for the books I use in class or read for review, I often skim over some portions even of outstanding books. It's a time/efficiency issue.

So, what did I read this year, mostly for pleasure? (Some of the recommended books may include a link to Powell's books; the blog receives a 7.5% commission on sales that begin via these links). I posted short reviews of most of these books at Shelfari. 

Non-fiction


Killing Yourself to Live by Chuck Klosterman

Otherworldly Politics by Stephen Benedict Dyson

Housekeeping vs. the Dirt by Nick Hornby

DiMaggio: A Hero’s Life by Richard Ben Cramer

Humans of New York by Brandon Stanton

Gold Mine 2010 by Bill James

I also read just about every word in Baseball Prospectus 2015, but not in cover-to-cover fashion. It was again edited by Sam Miller and Jason Wojciechowski.

Of these non-fiction books, most were worth reading. The Haugen and Boutros book won the 2016 Grawemeyer Award for Ideas Improving World Order.

I found Klosterman's book entertaining despite the somewhat morbid subject -- the writer drove around the US visiting famous sites where musicians died. Nick Hornby is reliably witty. Cramer's book about DiMaggio was not as good as I had hoped -- the section on Marilyn Monroe was far too long and the book had very little content after her death. 

Fiction

As I have in most years, I place the best works of literature at the top of the list, then the genre fiction (though there are some books that could be placed in either category). The least interesting or entertaining books are listed last in each section.

All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren

The Financial Lives of the Poets by Jess Walter

Angels by Denis Johnson

Decline and Fall by Evelyn Waugh

Frankly, I should have read Warren's classic book about a dubious southern politician years ago. The Walter book is funny, entertaining, and kind of sad. I thought it was heading to Breaking Bad territory for awhile, though the main character was motivated by systemic economic distress, not personal health. I was not altogether taken by this Waugh novel, despite the academic satire. 

Redshirts by John Scalzi

Kahawa by Donald Westlake

The Forever War by Joe Haldeman

Andromeda Strain by Michael Crichton

The Friends of Eddie Coyle by George V. Higgins

They Eat People Don’t They? by Christopher Buckley

The Wycherly Woman by Ross Macdonald

Looking for Rachel Wallace by Robert Parker

The Score by Donald Westlake (as Richard Stark)

E is for Evidence by Sue Grafton

The Turquoise Lament by John D. MacDonald

Time to Murder and Create by Lawrence Block

Doctor No by Ian Fleming

Starship Troopers by Robert Heinlein

Prospect by Bill Littlefield

The Ballad of Dingus McGee by David Markson

I read quite a bit of science fiction this year, mostly classic books that true fans read years ago (at least when they are anywhere near my age). Though Haldeman and Heinlein both penned military science fiction novels, I enjoyed the former much more than the latter. However, neither was as entertaining a book as was Redshirts, a postmodern story reminiscent of the Will Ferrell film Stranger than Fiction.

I originally read The Andromeda Strain as a kid back in the 1970s, when I also saw the movie. It seemed like a good time to read it again.

Thanks mostly to Bookmooch and PaperBack Swap, I continue to read books by a diverse array of (mostly) hard-boiled crime story authors. These writers typically develop a single main character across a long series of books: Parker's Spencer, Stark's Parker, Block's Matthew Scudder, John MacDonald's Travis McGee, Grafton's Kinsey Millhone, and Ross Macdonald's Lew Archer.

Neither Millhone nor Scudder nor McGee performed very well in this set of books. I saw some immediate detection errors they made when leaping to conclusions. The premise of the Block book was interesting, but the plot holes undermined the effort. McGee apparently confronted a serial killer, which is not a story genre that I find appealing.

The best hard-boiled stories I read all year involved criminals as main characters. The tale of Eddie Coyle was made into a pretty good movie starring Robert Mitchum. Kawaha involved a complicated heist by thieves intent upon ripping off Idi Amin. 

David Markson's satirical anti-western didn't work for me, though I typically love good satire. Buckley's satire was much more effective, though Washington flacks make for easy targets.


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Friday, January 01, 2016

Films of 2015

Twin Ranch Drive-In Movie Theater, Cleveland, Texas 0804090900BW
Photo credit: Patrick Feller on Flickr

As I note every December, I watch a lot of movies, though most are viewed on my television -- on DVD, from DVR recordings, or streamed from Netflix. Because I have not yet seen that many new films in the theater, I cannot yet write a credible post on the best movies of 2015. Most of the highly touted films are released in December, a very busy month. Eventually, of course, I will see them.

Again this year, I missed many of the summer blockbusters as well.

Indeed, the best films I saw this past year were movies that I originally missed in the theaters in prior years. I saw many late 2014 Oscar-bait films in theaters earlier this year. I'll surely see most of the 2015 Oscar-bait films early in 2016.

To make this abbreviated 2015 list, I scanned the top grossing movies of the year, as well as IMDB's most popular titles for 2015. I also consulted Metacritic.

In rank order of my preference, these were the best 2015 films I saw this year, so best as I can recall:

Ex Machina
Trainwreck **
Mad Max: Fury Road
Two Step
Spy **
Ant-Man
Inside Out
Results
People, Places, Things
Wild Canaries
Welcome to Me
Irrational Man
Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation
Hunger Games: Mockingjay 2 **
Kingsman: The Secret Service
Focus

** I saw these films in the theater.

A few of the top films are doing well in end-of-year critic lists, so I anticipate they will be competitive for Oscars. Surprisingly, Mad Max: Fury Road was named best film of the year by the National Board of Review. We watched it in my film class during the week I allowed for a student selection.

The bulk of the my 2015 list consists of genre films -- bawdy comedies, action flicks and science fiction. They are not ranked very carefully, though I think that the ones near the top are superior to the ones near the bottom:

Here's the annual list of 2015 movies that I intend to see in the future (hopefully in 2016):

45 Years, '71, 99 Homes, American Ultra, Amy, Anomalisa, The Assassin, Avengers: Age of Ultron, Best of Enemies, The Big Short, Beasts of No Nation, Black Mass, Bridge of Spies, Brooklyn, Carol, Chi-Raq, Clouds of Sils Maria, Creed, Crimson Peak, The Danish Girl, Diary of a Teenage Girl, Dope, End of the Tour, Everest, Far From the Madding Crowd, Furious 7, The Gift, Glen Campbell: I'll Be Me, Good Kill, Goodnight Mommy, The Hateful Eight, Home, Human Capital, I'll See You in My Dreams, It Follows, Jimmy's Hall, Joy, Jurassic World, The Look of Silence, Love & Mercy, Macbeth, Man from UNCLE, The Martian, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl, Mr. Holmes, The Overnight, Phoenix, The Revenant, Room, Salt of the Earth, Sicario, Sisters, Son of Saul, SPECTRE, Spotlight, Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Steve Jobs, Straight Outta Compton, Tangerine, Timbuktu, Tommorowland, Truth, The Walk, A Walk in the Woods, What We Do In the Shadows, While We're Young, Wild Tales, The Wrecking Crew, and Youth.

Keep in mind that I didn't get around to seeing many 2014 movies from last year's wishlist:

The Babadook, Belle, Big Eyes, Birder's Guide to Everything, Cheap Thrills, Chef, Equalizer, Fault in Our Stars, Foxcatcher, Fury, The Immigrant, Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Joe, Listen Up Philip, Lone Survivor, Manuscripts Don't Burn, Mr. Turner, Night Moves, Noah, Non-Stop, The One I Love, Only Lovers Left Alive, Palo Alto, Railway Man, Rob the Mob, Two Days One Night, What If, and the Zero Theorem.

Virtually all of those films are now readily available -- as DVDs at my University library or as recordings on my DVR. A few are on Netflix.


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Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Holidays


Embedded image permalink

If you've followed my twitter feed, you probably already know that I spent Christmas in Brighton, UK. It was my first Christmas abroad.

Brighton is a seaside town of tourism and artists, home to my wife's sister, her spouse, their children, and many friendly members of the husband's extended family.

On virtually every trip to the UK, I take in a few local sights, try to absorb some history and culture, and drink a daily pint or two of local beer -- often unavailable in the US.  This visit was no different.

The picture at left depicts a very small (palm?) tree, just a few feet in height. Below, I've also included photos of the Brighton Pier, the local Brew Dog pub that is within a 10 minute walk of where I am staying, and the Harvey's brewery in nearby Lewes. It was closed when we visited, but I had the beer on my last trip to the area. Readers may recall that I also visited a Brew Dog in Dundee in August 2014.

By the way, if I know you and you want to connect on Untappd, let me know.









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Thursday, December 10, 2015

Socially Responsible Investing

By original: Johann Dréo (talk · contribs) translation: Pro bug catcher (talk · contribs) [GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html), CC-BY-SA-3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/), CC BY-SA 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0) or CC BY-SA 2.0 fr (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/fr/deed.en)], via Wikimedia Commons


Recently, I read a fairly long article in the November 2015 Atlantic by James Fallows about Al Gore's investment ideas and practices. Gore now devotes much of his time to Generation Investment Management, a socially responsible investment firm that has seen spectacular results:
The most sweeping way to describe this undertaking is as a demonstration of a new version of capitalism, one that will shift the incentives of financial and business operations to reduce the environmental, social, political, and long-term economic damage being caused by unsustainable commercial excesses. What this means in practical terms is that Gore and his Generation colleagues have done the theoretically impossible: Over the past decade, they have made more money, in the Darwinian competition of international finance, by applying an environmentally conscious model of “sustainable” investing than have most fund managers who were guided by a straight-ahead pursuit of profit at any environmental or social price. 
...according to Mercer ["a prominent London-based analytical firm"], the average return for Generation’s global-equity fund, in which nearly all its assets are invested, was 12.1 percent a year, or more than 500 basis points above the MSCI index’s growth rate. Of the more than 200 global-equity managers in the survey, Generation’s 10-year average ranked as No. 2. In addition to being nearly the highest-returning fund, Generation’s global-equity fund was among the least volatile.
Moreover, beyond this evidence of real-world success, Fallows references some convincing academic research that strongly supports the notion that businesses should embrace ESG policies, meaning that they should account for environmental, social and governance effects of what they do. Sometimes, as Fallows notes, these businesses embrace the so-called "triple bottom line" (pictured above).*

A 2014 study (subsequently updated) by economists at Oxford, collaborating with the investment firm Arabesque, surveyed nearly 200 academic studies, books, industry reports, and newspaper articles about ESG. Fallows summarizes some of their findings:
The Oxford-Arabesque report found overwhelming evidence that “it is in the best economic interest for corporate managers and investors to incorporate sustainability considerations into decision-making processes.” According to the study, the advantages include more stable (and less volatile) revenues, significantly lower cost of capital, higher profits, and better share-price performance.
Fallows also mentions some prominent bankers and investors who now criticize firms and investors who focus too narrowly on short-term profit statements rather than long-term issues like sustainability. For example, Fallows mentions a series of speeches by Andrew Haldane (one example here), the Bank of England's chief economist, and a March 2014 open letter to other CEOs by Laurence Fink, Chair and CEO of BlackRock. This is from Fink's letter:
...the companies we invest in should similarly be focused on achieving sustainable returns over the longer term. Good corporate governance is critical to that goal. That is why, two years ago, I wrote to the CEOs of the companies in which BlackRock held significant investments on behalf of our clients urging them to engage with us on issues of corporate governance. While important work remains to be done, good progress has been made on company-shareholder engagement. I write today re-iterating our call for engagement with a particular focus on companies’ strategies to drive longer term growth.
As Fallows describes it, BlackRock is the world's largest asset management firm, managing about $5 Trillion. Fink told Fallows that he favors SRI in order to change business behavior:
“I truly believe we need to have inclusive capitalism, progressive capitalism”—a system that can be “stronger, more resilient, more equitable, and better able to deliver the sustainable growth the world needs.” Fink said that countless pressures, from hyper-fast automated trading to the frenzied tone of cable-news coverage, were steering managers toward destructively shortsighted behavior. “We decided that we needed to be a countervailing voice, to say that as your largest shareholder, we’re going to raise expectations about how you behave.”
Perhaps investor demands for sustainable profits will encourage a market shift towards more socially responsible practices all-around?


-----------------

*Here's a link to one of my favorite businesses that overtly emphasizes the triple bottom line in its operations.


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Thursday, November 26, 2015

Politics Through Film in Spring 2016

For the first time in some years, I'm going to teach a regular Political Science section of Politics Through Film (POLS 552 at UofL, but also POLS 399-03) in spring 2016. Since 2010, I've been teaching a version of the course either as the Department's capstone course for senior majors (495) or as an Honors seminar. Through this time, the course has always focused on Global Politics Through Film. However, I intend to tweak the course between now and January to have wider appeal. We will continue to discuss global politics, but we will also discuss some broader political science questions about political behavior, institutions, and ideas.

The film is an elective for the University's Film and Digital Media Studies Minor. Students from that program are welcome. I can check with the HUM personnel to find out if 399 could be substituted.

In any case, long-time readers may recall that I blogged about the earliest incarnation of the course extensively back in fall 2006. However, much has changed since then.

First, course members now view films on their own, outside of class. This means the scheduled amount of class time is reduced and we can devote all of it to discussion of the films and the political implications. Students can view almost every film for about $2.99 from a streaming provider. Many are free on Netflix or from a local library.

Second, the class and the discussion of the films is oriented around four classic narrative archetypes: romance, tragedy, comedy, and satire. Each of these archetypes suggests specific ideas about character, settings, and plot. They also align with particular political science theories and concepts.

Third, the course does not study the same films as it did in 2006. Based on my most recent version of the syllabus, here are the alterations:

Subtractions: Casablanca, Gandhi, Network, Red Dawn, Black Hawk Down, Breaker Morant, Twelve O'Clock High, and the Stephen Colbert appearance at the White House Correspondents' Dinner. They are arranged in the order that I would bring them back. Every version of the course except the most recent one has included Casablanca. There's a decent chance I will bring it back in the future.

Additions: Stranger Than FictionZombieland, The Dark KnightV for VendettaZero Dark Thirty,  and Mad Max: Fury Road. Again, these are arranged in the order of preference. I'll almost surely assign Stranger Than Fiction, but the most recent Mad Max was a student suggestion (I allowed the Honors students to select one class film) and I have not yet fully embraced it for this course.

For one week in the most recent semester, students had their choice of one of four films about Iran: Persepolis, Offside, Argo or Rosewater. Trita Parsi was a guest speaker.

Retained: Wag the Dog, The Quiet American, Saving Private Ryan, The Whale Rider, Dr. Strangelove, Hotel Rwanda and The Great Dictator.  Again, the order matters. I'm virtually certain to assign Wag the Dog, but many students complain about the value of The Great Dictator.

To appeal to a larger audience, I'm considering the study of these films: Idiocracy, Contagion, The Visitor, Thank You for Smoking and Outfoxed.

Obviously, if I added one or more of these films, then others would have to go.

Most of what I blogged about the course back in 2009 remains true:
I think it is a fun class for students and I must increase enrollment before late August for it to remain on the schedule. My pitch: students do not have to take any exams, but will write a couple of short analytical or review papers through the term -- culminating in a longer research paper at the end. I provide extensive feedback and typically allow rewrites of papers in classes at the 500 level. All of the paper assignments tie to film texts.



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Sunday, October 25, 2015

Benghazi: Time to Think the Unthinkable?

Three weeks ago, I gave a paper on "Thinking the Unthinkable About National Security Narratives." It was inspired by the brief uproar over Seymour Hersch's claims about the Obama administration's tale about the killing of Osama bin Laden. Indeed, much of the paper tracks a long series of likely political deceptions and fabrications fomented by various U.S. national security elites over the years. I focus on threat inflation, misapplied analogies to justify war, stories to support the conduct of American wars, etc.

Ultimately, the paper will need to expand on the evidence, but it briefly considers the bomber gap, missile gap, and window of vulnerability. These cases largely led to unnecessary and costly increases in US military spending. It also considers inflated threats that helped lead to war -- the Gulf of Tonkin incident and the first Persian Gulf War, for example. I barely discussed the numerous deceptions allegedly employed to sell the most recent Iraq war, which was the subject of so much of my blogging and academic writing for a decade. Instead, I quote some scholars who argue that we won't know for certain about alleged Bush administration deceptions until additional critical materials are declassified.

There are plenty of other likely deceptions with more modest political goals and some are mentioned in the paper (Jessica Lynch, Pat Tillman). Remember, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara didn't even think the deployment of Soviet Missiles in Cuba in October 1962 posed a new military threat to the US. He described it as a domestic political problem. That's not the way JFK framed it to the American public or to the Soviets.

Indeed, my "Unthinkable" paper describes the problem of deception about national security as endemic -- and especially problematic to study academically because of the huge advantages security elites have in the marketplace of ideas. They control information, largely thanks to secrecy, which gives them the ability to provide a particular narrative about threats, war, etc. They have the authority to speak, thanks to their position in power, which is accompanied by access to impressive material resources as well. The stories elites tell may endure for a long time, even as new evidence challenges some of it. My paper points out that historians and political scientists are still arguing about whether FDR tried to deceive Americans about the need for World War II. The relevant documents are ~75 years old.

Last weekend, the NY Times Magazine drew attention to some of the same questions I'm asking and problems I'm exploring, though Jonathan Mahler chose to focus on the Obama administration story about killing bin Laden.
It’s not that the truth about bin Laden’s death is unknowable; it’s that we don’t know it. And we can’t necessarily console ourselves with the hope that we will have more answers any time soon; to this day, the final volume of the C.I.A.’s official history of the Bay of Pigs remains classified. We don’t know what happened more than a half-century ago, much less in 2011. 
There are different ways to control a narrative. There’s the old-fashioned way: Classify documents that you don’t want seen and, as [Defense Secretary Robert] Gates said, ‘‘keep mum on the details.’’ But there’s also the more modern, social-media-savvy approach: Tell the story you want them to believe. Silence is one way to keep a secret. Talking is another. And they are not mutually exclusive.
In any case, this week, the world watched former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton testify for nearly 11 hours about the September 11, 2012, attack on the American diplomatic mission in Benghazi. The questions that Republicans wanted to ask were much like the ones I'm asking: Did the Obama administration, and especially Secretary Clinton, fabricate a political lie to the American people? Did they do this for reasons unrelated to genuine national security purposes (domestic politics)?

My paper included a number of caveats about the strength of the evidence about various alleged cases of deception because the ideas I'm exploring are ordinarily "unthinkable." Political opponents in the heat of a partisan struggle might accuse their foes of engaging in deception and political fabrication in the area of national security, but the wider reaction is usually much more cautious. And academics are especially cautious.

Critics are often not taken seriously if they argue that elites use national security matters to increase their popularity ("rally 'round the flag"), win elections, create jobs, or divert attention from personal political crisis. This is said to reflect paranoia and conspiracy theorizing.

And, in fact, Mahler's piece was attacked by critics as promoting "conspiracy theory."  Colleagues at the NY Times were apparently worried about the effect this story would have on the credibility of their newspaper's journalism. CNN's Peter Bergen called Mahler's story "bizarre."

So what is the story with Benghazi? Did Clinton seek to deceive? Or are conservatives serving up a juicy conspiracy theory based on thin evidence?

Based on my reading of various conservative twitter users, the question about Clinton's alleged deceptions now seem to be their primary concern. The critics argue that Clinton and others blamed an anti-Islamic video for the attack, when she and others in the administration knew it was an intentional act of terror. This is Clinton's entire statement of September 11, 2012, with the most controversial part in red:
 "I condemn in the strongest terms the attack on our mission in Benghazi today. As we work to secure our personnel and facilities, we have confirmed that one of our State Department officers was killed. We are heartbroken by this terrible loss. Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and those who have suffered in this attack.

This evening, I called Libyan President Magariaf to coordinate additional support to protect Americans in Libya. President Magariaf expressed his condemnation and condolences and pledged his government’s full cooperation.

Some have sought to justify this vicious behavior as a response to inflammatory material posted on the Internet. The United States deplores any intentional effort to denigrate the religious beliefs of others. Our commitment to religious tolerance goes back to the very beginning of our nation. But let me be clear: There is never any justification for violent acts of this kind.

In light of the events of today, the United States government is working with partner countries around the world to protect our personnel, our missions, and American citizens worldwide."
The debate over the years has often focused on a memo drafted by then-White House Deputy Strategic Communications Adviser Ben Rhodes a few days after this statement, which formulated the White House talking points to guide then-UN Ambassador Susan Rice on various Sunday TV programs. The administration wanted to sell the attack as “rooted in an Internet video, and not a failure of policy.” The presidential election was about 7 weeks away and the killing of bin Laden was a featured part of their story for reelection.

Essentially, conservatives claim that the evidence was soon clear that Benghazi was a predesigned terrorist attack and that there had been no anti-video protest at the mission in Libya. Nonetheless, the Obama administration blamed a video repeatedly.

This suggests a partisan deception about policy, right?

What is the evidence for the defense? Obama himself called the event an "act of terror" on September 12. The administration started acknowledging the premeditated terrorism by September 19.  That date is important because it turns out the intelligence agencies were apparently telling the administration that the video protest was the likely cause until September 24. In November 2014, the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence released a report that seemingly debunked the theory about political fabrication:








This week, conservatives are convinced that Clinton's same-night email to daughter Chelsea and phone call with Egyptian prime minister (September 12) constitute new smoking gun evidence about their original concerns. In a brief email reference, Clinton told Chelsea that the act was perpetrated by an al-Qaeda like group. She also told the Egyptian PM that “We know the attack in Libya had nothing to do with the film. It was a planned attack — not a protest.”

This sounds like fairly damning evidence and it might well be correct to blame Clinton and the Obama administration for playing politics with national security. However, this version of the narrative overlooks certain facts.

First, the Republicans still have not grappled with the intelligence reports. Was it wrong to say something publicly that was consistent with the intelligence? Readers may remember that this was essentially the defense of the Bush administration regarding Iraq, even though members of the administration often said things that seemed well beyond the intelligence findings. This reading doesn't explain the sentences Clinton apparently communicated to her daughter or to the Egyptians, but ask this question: Is it possible that those far more private instances simply reflect her going beyond the intelligence, perhaps based on unconfirmed evidence? I don't know, and neither do the conservative critics.

Second, Clinton's statement used the passive voice. She didn't say the video caused the attacks, she said some had claimed that. It's a classic Fox News tactic, of course. Indeed, Fox News was running with the video story on September 11, just as many other news agencies were. Susan Rice's statements on Sunday TV went further, but she wasn't the one being scrutinized this week. On those shows, Rice also repeatedly said, "we'll wait to see exactly what the investigation finally confirms." President Obama also made similar remarks that week about waiting for additional evidence to confirm what happened.

Third, the right's interpretations focused narrowly on Benghazi and ignores other important events occurring that day. The inflammatory video in question was provoking demonstrations at American embassies around the world. The US mission in Cairo was of special concern, though other attacks elsewhere led to deaths. The Obama administration was arguably trying to signal that the US would not tolerate this behavior. Perhaps they were thinking that there would be no replay of Iran 1979 on their watch.

I'm not creating this tale for them, I'm just providing a charitable reading of the situation. This is the story Clinton told the members of Congress this week:
FMR. SECRETARY OF STATE HILLARY CLINTON: During the day on September 11th, as you did mention, Congressman, there was a very large protest against our embassy in Cairo. Protesters breached the walls. They tore down the American flag. And it was of grave concern to us because the inflammatory video had been shown on Egyptian television, which has a broader reach than just inside Egypt. 
And if you look at what I said, I referred to the video that night in a very specific way. I said, some have sought to justify the attack because of the video
I used those words deliberately, not to ascribe a motive to every attacker but as a warning to those across the region that there was no justification for further attacks
And, in fact, during the course of that week, we had many attacks that were all about the video. We had people breaching the walls of our embassies in Tunis, in Khartoum; we had people, thankfully not Americans, dying at protests. But that's what was going on, Congressman. 
I'm not sure of Clinton's motives, but her story fits the words. Sure, the Republican story also seems to fit, but it presumes malfeasance without proving it. I'm willing to think about the unthinkable, but I want the evidence of deception to be as strong as it can be.

This post was motivated by several twitter exchanges I had yesterday with people on the right (linked above). I certainly agree that there's reason to be interested in this case, but it seems like a relatively mild instance of a much larger problem. Some people are quite worked up about it, but I didn't notice them screaming for heads to role because of Iraq. Or lies about Jessica Lynch. Or lies about Pat Tillman.

I know that Tom Nichols has a crafty argument about Bill Clinton's role in inflating the chemical weapons threat from Iraq, but Clinton wasn't the President who puffed up a nuclear threat to launch a war on Iraq. As I've written before, referencing David Kay, letting a chemical threat justify preventive war might spark dozens of such wars. 


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