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Professor Interviews — David Victor

By Taylor Marvin

David Victor is a professor of political science at UCSD’s School of International Relations and Pacific Studies specializing in international environmental regulations. Dr. Victor’s latest book, Global Warming Gridlock: Creating More Effective Strategies for Protecting the Planet, argues that international attempts to regulate greenhouse gases in large negotiating bodies like the UN are unlikely to succeed and efforts to abate global emissions should be shifted towards more practical regional and local agreements.

Prospect: What motivated you to write Global Warming Gridlock?

Dr. Victor: I have followed the climate issue for nearly three decades.  I wrote this book because the diplomatic community has been working seriously on the climate problem for 21 years and, so far, made almost no progress.  I wanted to understand why diplomacy has failed so badly, where it might had made progress, and find ways to do better.

Prospect: In Global Warming Gridlock, you argue that efforts to negotiate successful international agreements to limit greenhouse gas emissions have failed because of unrealistic expectations about countries’ actual willingness to abate emissions. Why is this the case?

Dr. Victor: Most environmental diplomacy creates strong incentives for governments to pretend they are doing a lot.  Global warming is no different.  Over the last two decades governments have focused much energy on setting ambitious goals—such as stopping warming at 2 degrees—but not much real effort on achieving those goals.  There are lots of reasons that diplomacy hasn’t made much serious progress, but one reason is that a lot of energy has focused on nice-sounding goals rather than practical action.

Prospect: What could be done to make these negotiations more successful?

Dr. Victor: The book outlines a full plan, but one place to start is to work in smaller groups rather than the UN system, which spans all nations.  Only a dozen countries really matter on climate—they account for 75% of all emissions.  Just getting those dozen to coordinate serious actions will be hard enough.  Getting them to do that with more than 150 others sniping at the margins—as happened in Copenhagen—makes the task of cooperation harder.

Prospect: Are you optimistic about future efforts to combat climate change?

Dr. Victor: Over the next couple decades I am pessimistic.  There are signs that some of the arguments I am making in the book are being implemented in practice—not just because I am making them but more generally because earlier efforts have failed so much that people are looking for new solutions.  Nonetheless, a serious effort working, initially, with the big polluters will take a long time to organize and implement.  Meanwhile, warming emissions will rise.  Over the long term I am a lot more optimistic—mainly because some credible action on emissions now will spur more innovation in low emission technologies.  Almost all environmental problems get solved through technological change.

Prospect: What contributions do you see political science making to climate change mitigation efforts? What influence do you feel academic political science research has on policymakers?

Dr. Victor: Almost all the really hard policy issues are rooted in the topics that political scientists study.  The science and engineering surrounding climate change are important, to be sure, but they are relatively straightforward when compared with the politics.  Politically, this is one of the hardest challenges on the planet.  It requires countries with different interests to spend large resources now to control emissions with benefits that are uncertain and which arise mainly in the future.  Societies generally aren’t good at doing that.  I don’t think the political science community has been properly engaged in this debate, which is a pity because we have learned a lot by studying other areas of international cooperation that can help guide the proper policies on the design of international institutions to address climate change.

Prospect: Many of your previous books focused on the intersection between international regulation and environmental and energy policy. Why do you find this field interesting?

Dr. Victor: In the 1990s many policy analysts took a turn toward “the market.”  We saw markets as institutions that would solve many of our problems.  I am a huge fan of markets, but the politics of setting up markets are often prohibitively difficulty—especially in environmental issues where one of the goals of a market strategy is to make pollution more expensive.  Political forces usually lead governments to choose regulatory systems rather than markets.  And many of the toughest of those problems are international and relate to the energy industry.

Prospect: What attracted you to academia, and did you consider any other careers before becoming a professor?

Dr. Victor: I have looked at a variety of careers, but academia has tremendous intellectual freedoms that, if not squandered, make it possible to pursue lots of diverse ideas.  I have been blessed in that people have let me have an unusual academic career in that much of what I do is linked to practical policy issues and to issues related to business strategy.  I like spending time with companies because it gives you a feel for what real investors—who are risking real money—are thinking about today’s most pressing policy issues.  The investor perspective forces a focus on reality.

Prospect: What advice would you give to students interested in pursing academic careers?

Dr. Victor: Academic careers require a PhD and they require a record of publication and service in the discipline.  While there is a lot of talk these days about interdisciplinary work—and a role for that, to be sure—the disciplines rule on campus.  Young scholars should focus on making a name in their discipline and avoid too many distractions.

Prospect: Your writing has been noted for its style and accessibility, qualities sometimes rare in academic writing. What is your writing process, and what advice would you give to aspiring writers?

Dr. Victor: I had a few mentors in graduate school who were good writers and who took the time to edit my work.  That made a huge difference because it let me see how I could shorten and focus my writing.  I also write a lot of opeds and short articles for policy and popular media, which offers me a chance to test out new ideas.  The oped format is tremendously helpful because it’s just 800 words long.  If you can’t convey your basic message in 800 words then you probably don’t really know what you are talking about.  My main advice to young writers is to let someone who is a good writer edit your stuff and then to edit your stuff yourself.  In my small seminars I require a lot of writing, and at least once a quarter I line edit a portion of each student’s essay to help them see how they can write better.   My field of research is plagued by articles and books that are too long for what they need to say.  Shorter is almost always better.

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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

El Greco, View of Toledo, 1596.

El Greco, View of Toledo, 1596.

The best links of the week:

At what price the moon? (The Atlantic).

Why Palestinians have time on their side (Jeffrey Goldberg).

The Bibi-Barack chess game (Andrew Sullivan).

Exit Gates with a warning (Fred Kaplan).

Publish and be (quite rightly) damned (The Science Bit).

Alexi Murdoch- Dream About Flying.

Vicky Cristina .001% of Humanity

By Taylor Marvin

I enjoyed this movie a lot. But I could suggest a new title:

“Rich White People Don’t Have Real Problems”

Jokes aside, Vicky Cristina Barcelona was a fun movie, and I’m glad I watched it. I imagine this film has a strange effect on people. On the one hand, it’s clever and entertaining, and is a wonderfully escapist fantasy. On the other, it’s only escapist because it’s exactly that — a fantasy. The lives of the characters in Vicky Cristina Barcelona have almost nothing in common with anyone I know — they’re all artists and poets who live in expensive mansions and lavish townhouses while flying off for impromptu romantic weekends in private planes. All of these people are impossibly gorgeous, cultured, can “tire of American materialism” because of their magical off-screen incomes, and live in a world where it’s possible to pursue a gloriously impractical masters degree in Catalan Identity even if you’re only capable of broken Spanish. The film idealizes values of non-commercial artistry that are almost insulting in their complete dismissal of the limitation of reality those of us not fortunate enough to count ourselves among the idle rich face. It’s the life that most of us, myself included, would love but seems impossibly distant. There’s a reason for this distance — almost no one lives like this. Of course, everyone knows this, and that’s why the vicarious fantasies of cinema exists. However, that still begs an interesting question: how many people actually are lucky enough to live Vicky Cristina, and what are my chances of being one of them?

First off, it’s clear that our characters are extremely wealthy. Javier Bardem’s character is an artist who inhabits a beautiful mansion in an expensive city, and can afford to drive gorgeous vintage automobiles. Vicky’s masters in Catalan Identity is commonly accepted code for “I plan on never having to support myself.” Similarly, Cristina is established to have spent the last few years producing a non-commercial movie, strongly suggesting she too is wealthy enough to avoid actual work.

It’s reasonable to assume that to enjoy this lifestyle you would have to be a wealthy resident of an OECD country. While there are certainly rich citizens of non-OECD countries, their numbers are small enough that we can reasonably disregard them. Similarly, the lifestyles of Vicky Cristina’s characters implies a high personal income — US $80,000 in purchasing power parity (PPP) a year seems like a reasonable lower-bound requirement. However, wealth isn’t enough to enjoy this lifestyle; youth is also important. Anyone over 40 is likely to old to enjoy the spontaneity and casual health of Vicky, Cristina and Juan Antonio’s lives. So, to start off our estimate let’s find the percentage of OECD member residents between the ages of of 20 and 39 with an income of over US $80,000/yr, PPP.

From OECD data, in 2000 roughly 30% of the population in OECD countries was  between the ages of 20 and 39, giving a total of 336,628,000 people, or 5.5% of the world’s population. Now, making the reasonably justified assumption that Vicky Cristina’s main characters have an average income of US $80,000 per year, their income places them  in the top 0.78% of the world income distribution. Here’s where things get a bit complicated. We need to make the assumption that only a non-significant number of people with incomes over $80,000 live outside the OECD. This is certainly wrong, but simplified the required data and is justified for our purposes. If we restrict this figure to OECD residents between 20-39 (making the unrealistic assumption income is equally distributed among age groups, which is clearly not true) we have .234% of the world that’s young and rich enough to aspire to the lives of Vicky Christina Barcelona.

However, there’s another factor that makes the lives of Juan Antonio and company so alluring: their attractiveness. The believability of the film rests on this — the romantic promiscuity at the center of the film’s plot is significantly more realistic for extremely attractive people. However, how can we quantify this requirement?

Let’s start with the women. Penelope Cruz, Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson are all extremely beautiful. To start off, let’s say that they fall into the 99.5th percentile for human attractiveness, meaning that they each can be expected to be the best looking member of a random group of 200 people.

She is better at being hot than you are at anything. Seriously.

She is better at being hot than you are at everything you do. If this seems depressing it's because it is.

However, on second thought this percentile ranking seems wildly too low. Objectively, Vicky Cristina’s female stars are some of the most beautiful people on the planet, and certainly rank higher than the 99.5th percentile of attractiveness. Think about it — in my life I’ve seem thousands of faces noteworthy enough to remember, and can think of only a handful anywhere near as beautiful as the women of Vicky Cristina. Lets say that they’re a much more reasonable 1 out of 1,000, giving us 99.9th percentile. Even this seems low, but let’s work with it.

The same is true for male star Javier Bardem. The movie’s plot rests on his attractiveness — if he isn’t sufficiently charismatic, his seduction of three outrageously beautiful women wouldn’t be convincing even with cinema’s normal suspension of disbelief. Unscientifically, I’d rank Bardem as less objectively attractive than the female leads (though this could just be the leftover trauma of seeing No Country for Old Men at an impressionable age), but he’s still certainly in the 99th human attractiveness percentile. This gives us a combined average in the 99.575th percentile, making the cast better looking than 99.575% percent of humanity.

No we’re ready for a combined figure. Of the .099% of humanity young and rich enough to aspire to Vicky Cristina, only .425% can be expected to be attractive enough to truly live the glamorous lives shown in the film. That gives us a combined number of .001% of the world’s population. Given the current world population, we can expect there to be 67,752 people in the world with the attractiveness, youth, and income to live the lives of Vicky Cristina. Your chances of being one is roughly one in 100,000. The characters of Vicky Cristina are literally one in a hundred thousand.

Still feel bad about your uneventful, unromantic life? For comparison, your odds of being struck by lighting in your lifetime are 1/10,000. You are much more likely to be hit by lightning than be a carefree Spanish painter caught in a passionate love quadrangle.

Of course, this is a movie where being shot at point-blank range in the hand somehow doesn’t blow off your palm, so I’m not sure how useful this analysis is. Additionally, the large assumptions incorporated into this calculation likely make it very inaccurate. Personal consumption in Mediterranean Europe is significantly lower than in the US or northern Europe, throwing off our income figure, as does the fact that older people tend to have higher income than the age group we’re interested in. However, this is a decent figure, and these assumptions don’t ruin the fun. I’m sure I made some calculation mistakes, so feel free to try and find them.

And yes, I can enjoy movies without overanalyzing them. I think Vicky would sympathize with me.

Where Should I Live?

By Taylor Marvin

Via Marginal Revolution, the OECD has a fun tool that allows you to rank member countries by how well they score on the specific quality-of-life measures you value. According to my preferences, I should move to either Australia, Sweden, or New Zealand and avoid Chile, Mexico and Turkey. Interesting. I feel like the OECD should have also included weather in their rankings, which likely has a significant effect on personal well-being, especially for immigrants. Most southern Californians would have trouble living in most of Scandinavia, no matter how good Norway’s governance and average income levels are.

It’d also be interesting to see what topics respondents from different member-countries place the most value on, and if these preferences match overall national rankings. Though Canada ranks the highest in the housing topic, do Canadians actually value home-ownership and large houses more than other nationalities? Preferences vary across societies, but awareness of what quality-of-life traits national populations tend to derive the most utility from would be an important tool for public policymakers. Of course there’s a selection bias here, but determining whether Sweden rankest highest on the environment measure because Swedes value a clean environment more than other countries or because of Sweden’s small population and service-based economy is still an interesting question.

New Paper By Darren Schreiber — “Red Brain, Blue Brain: Evaluative Processes Differ in Democrats and Republicans”

By Taylor Marvin

Via the Monkey Cage, an interesting new paper by UCSD authors on observed differences in brain activity between Democratic and Republican voters. Prospect recently interviewed co-author Darren Schreiber, whose perspectives on neuroscience and advice for students are a fascinating read.

Why Not To Vote

By Taylor Marvin

From a friend’s Facebook status, a common sentiment:

“If you choose not to vote, then shut the fuck up.”

This gets said often, but isn’t actually a solid recommendation. 129,300,000 votes were cast in the 2008 Presidential election, meaning that my vote had a roughly 0.000000007% effect on the outcome of the election. Of course, this is a huge simplification of the electoral college system — as a Californian who voted Democratic in 2008, my vote has no marginal effect on the Presidential election’s outcome. Similarly, if I choose to support the Republican presidential nominee in 2012 and remain in California my vote will again have no impact on California’s electoral votes. However, I can still influence the outcome of the election. Say Tim Pawlenty wins the Republican nomination and I decide to support him. I then write a masterfully well-reasoned and articulate blog post supporting Pawlenty that influences 10 voters in swing states to vote Republican, voters whose opinions have an enormously greater impact on the election than mine. In doing so I’ve had a far greater national impact than I could by voting, and could reasonably decide that voting is pointless while still remaining engaged in American democracy. The same logic applies to other non-voting political activities, like volunteering or donating. Voting is certainly admirable, but because of the electoral college system it isn’t the most effective way of influencing national politics for most Americans.

UCSD Begins Closing Libraries, America Suffers

By Taylor Marvin

UCSDs Geisel Library, one of the few not closing.

UCSD's Geisel Library, one of the few not closing.

UCSD, facing an unprecedented budget shortfall, has announced that it will close four of the six major campus libraries. Administrators justified the necessity of the closure in a mass email sent out this morning:

“Earlier this year, we communicated to the campus community that significant and continuing budget cuts could lead to the closure of four of the Libraries’ facilities.

While we have not yet received our final budget allocation, we have been informed that the Libraries will need to absorb at least a $3 million cut for 2011/2012, which leaves us no choice but to move forward with these closures and consolidations.

Unfortunately, these closures and consolidations will impact our ability to provide UCSD faculty and students with the quick access to resources and services they have come to expect from the Libraries. In addition, the closures will lead to a significant reduction in study space forstudents, with a loss of approximately 800 study seats.”

From an administration standpoint, it’s hard to see what other options were available. The UCSD library system were already asked to cut roughly 25% of it’s operating budget over the last four years, and with the majority of UCSD libraries’ expenses come from operations costs like staffing it’s difficult to see how these could further be reduced without closing individual libraries entirely.

Still, it is difficult to imagine the closures will not have a negative academic impact on UCSD students. While the libraries’ academic resources are intended to remain available in digital form during the transition, the study spaces lost are irreplaceable. It’s often difficult to find study desks on campus during peak hours as is, and severely reducing available spaces will make this more difficult. Many students, myself included, are basically incapable of studying at home because of the myriad distractions available outside of the controlled environment of the libraries. If we’re not able to secure the reduced study spaces in the remaining libraries, our grades will decline. While mitigating poor student impulse control isn’t strictly the responsibility of the university, the library closures are evidence that the California budget crisis is beginning to cut away at the core academic assets of the California public university system. Given California’s deep structural impediments to functioning governance the fiscal challenges facing the public university system are unlikely to go away, and deeper academic cuts are likely forthcoming. A world-class university system is one of California’s few remaining public achievements, and its decay would be a tragedy both for California students unable to afford a private university education and American national competitiveness as a whole. This suggests an interesting public policy dilemma: if states are unable to fund the elite public universities that benefit the nation as a whole does the federal government face any responsibility to step in and preserve these schools’ academic assets? Of course, this isn’t feasible in the current US fiscal climate, but if debt-restricted state budgets prove less quick to recover than the federal government this question will grow more relevant. Even temporary reductions in human capital growth imposed by poor university education can lower potential national GDP decades later, and California’s continuing inability to fund the public good of university education is likely to have significant adverse effects on American society far into the future.

National effects aside, the closure of UCSD libraries sends a strong signal to high-achieving American high school students: the UC system is not the place to be.

Motivations for Pakistani Naval Base Attack

By Taylor Marvin

A major attack on a Pakistani naval base by the Taliban has killed at lease 10 people and reportedly destroyed two P-3C Orion anti-submarine and maritime surveillance aircraft supplied to the Pakistani Navy by the US.

The nature of this attack is puzzling and largely unexpected. Karachi is far from the Taliban-contested tribal areas on the Afghan border, and the Pakistani Navy’s mission is competition with Indian conventional forces, not counterinsurgency in north west Pakistan. Wired’s Spencer Ackerman reads this as a Taliban attempt to coerce the Pakistani military into abandoning its counterinsurgency efforts:

“The Pakistani Taliban appear to be saying: Continue your alliance with the Americans, and your struggle with the Indians — Islamabad’s major strategic concern — will be a casualty.”

However, P-3C Orions have been used in Afghanistan as a counterinsurgency surveillance platform, and it’s possible the attack was a direct attempt to reduce the Pakistani military’s counterinsurgency capability rather than to coerce Pakistani military decisionmakers.

It’s also possible that this attack was designed to allow the Pakistani leadership to credibly direct blame at India. By destroying a strategic asset used to combat both the Pakistani Taliban and India, the attackers give Pakistani politicians the ability to divert public blame for the attack towards Pakistan’s traditional enemy rather than the Taliban, allowing the attackers to attempt to coerce government inaction against militant Islamists while reducing the likelihood of provoking a major military response. This seems to have worked — reportedly Pakistanis are already suspicious of India’s involvement in the attack. ISI support for militants is primarily motivated by the desire to sustain a potential  anti-India unconventional military force, and attacks that encourage Pakistani public enmity towards India are doubly strategically valuable for the Pakistani Taliban.

Reactions to Obama’s Middle East Speech

By Taylor Marvin

Interesting media reactions to Obama’s Middle East speech:

Yossi Klein Halevi:

“I listened in disbelief as he stated that, while there are those who believe that the regional instability of recent months makes a solution impossible for now, he believes the opposite is true. On what basis, Mr. President? From where I’m sitting in Jerusalem—watching Turkey turn Islamist and pro-Iranian, Lebanon being devoured by Hezbollah, Hamas legitimized by Fatah, the Muslim Brotherhood rising in Egypt, and Iran’s nuclear program proceeding apace—I would say that this is just about the worst time to try to entice an ambivalent Israeli into empowering his dovish side. At a time when Egyptian-Israeli relations—our only successful land for peace agreement—could be unraveling, Israelis are hardly likely to risk another withdrawal, this time from our most sensitive border, and without even the pretense of a peace agreement.

So: Yes to the vision. But no, we can’t implement it anytime soon. In other words: Yes, we can’t.”

Jeffrey Goldberg:

“And so I was similarly taken aback when I read a statement from Prime Minister Netanyahu yesterday that he ‘expects to hear a reaffirmation from President Obama of U.S. commitments made to Israel in 2004, which were overwhelmingly supported by both House of Congress.’

So Netanyahu ‘expects’ to hear this from the President of the United States? And if President Obama doesn’t walk back the speech, what will Netanyahu do? Will he cut off Israeli military aid to the U.S.? Will he cease to fight for the U.S. in the United Nations, and in the many  international forums that treat Israel as a pariah?”

Issandr El Amrani:

“Why pick up the Israeli talking point on “Israel’s right to exit” when Israel opposes Palestine’s right to exist? The lack of acknowledgment that the peace process has failed showed the predicament the US finds itself in: stuck with a peace process that is going nowhere. An “unrealistic” as this will seem to many, I’d just like some honesty on this.

Finally, one can only note what this speech is not: it is not an acknowledgement that the imperialist US posture in the Middle East must change, or that the amount of insane spending on deploying in the region and supplying arms to its dictators ($20bn to Saudi Arabia, the elephant in the room today). But that is probably many speeches and many presidents away. What this pretty but often ambiguous and vapid speech (which like most presidential speeches is first and foremost a speech to Washington) shows is thatwe have entered the interregnum between the American moment in the Middle East (1956-2011) and what is to come next, whatever that is.”

Reading At Tea Leaves

By Taylor Marvin

Chinese carrier Shi Lang nearing completion.

Chinese carrier Shi Lang nearing completion.

David Axe scrutinizes photos of the under construction Chinese carrier Shi Lang (formerly the Soviet Varyag) and concludes that the Chinese are developing a carrier-borne Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft similar to the US E-2 Hawkeye. In Axe’s eyes, this significantly raises the projected operational effectiveness of the Chinese carrier:

“In any event, if the Xian photo indeed shows a naval radar plane, then Shi Lang will be a much more capable vessel than originally projected.”

At Information Dissemination, Galrahn isn’t so sure:

“Not quite. There is no chance this aircraft will ever be deployed on the Shi Lang, and I believe it is the same reason why we don’t have a good, clear picture of this aircraft. The issue is an imitation E-2 would struggle to take off on the Shi Lang, because any aircraft as big and heavy as an E-2 would absolutely require a catapult launch – and Shi Lang doesn’t have catapults.

If indeed China is building several of these “Hawkeye” imitations, then the key detail we would be learning is in regards to the kind of new aircraft carrier China would supposedly be building. We’ll have to wait to see better pictures before we can say we know anything for certain, but while we wait for better understanding of new Chinese aircraft carriers, we can safely say that AEW for Shi Lang will be restricted to helicopters unless that ship suddenly has catapults installed somehow.”

This offers some insights into the mindset of China’s strategic planners. If the Chinese are truly developing a naval AEW platform, it won’t have a catapult-equipped carrier to operate from for decades. However, like the J-20, a land-based AEW aircraft would be an important strategic asset in the South China Sea and the rest of China’s continental shelf. While the fact that China’s naval planning appears to be limited to the near-shore western Pacific is likely due as much to economic limitations as a deliberate strategic choice, Chinese naval planners appear to be preparing not for international power projection but an attempt at regional naval hegemony. China certainly is moving towards a more aggressive international stance and is increasingly prepared to advocate for foreign military actions that would have been unthinkable a decade ago, but American commentators raising the specter of Chinese ambitions in the eastern Pacific and Indian ocean are likely overreacting, at least in the near term.