Saturday, January 20, 2018

VPWriting3: Front Burner

I'm really appreciating Van Jackson's writing blog Nuke Your Darlings more and more. I keep finding myself in the same place that he's in.

I took the holiday week off to restart my efforts to turn my dissertation into a book. I didn't make as much progress as I would have liked, but I made some.

But I sort of have too many projects and - as Jones noted - one fight at a time.

But I prefer cooking metaphors (not that I cook.) What's on the front burner being stirred and what on the back burner simmering.

Let me break it down. 

Work Writing
I have writing for work. There's a paper on regulating robotics that is 90% done. One big knot, some editing, and an ExSum are all that's left. I've been puttering with it for well over a year. Then I have another paper due mid-March on risk communications and robotics. I'll be presenting it at WeRobot2018. Right now at work, I'm trying to finish paper one and read for paper two (stacking ammo as Jackson would say.) It's a lot, but if I finish paper one next week and start writing in February, at 500 words a day I'll have my paper by the end of the month.

Implementation of this plan may not go so neatly, but, we'll see.

I have a third, fourth, fifth, and sixth paper in mind afterwards - we'll see.

Work works, I have dedicated time for it.

But my side-writing...

Besides my VP book, I have an idea for another book. It's timely, but not super urgent. Still, I should get it going. So, wake up early and write for an hour before heading to work. On the day I telework and on Sunday I write longer. At night do background reading - stacking ammo - for the second book. That works. Except it leaves no time for other projects.

And I have lots of ideas.

Also, there’s another book. I need to finish up a book on Pakistan that I was writing for my last job. The book is 90% done, but 10% of a book is still a lot of work. And it just needs to get finished.

And some deadlines came up for my third book - American Political Science Association conference and a Fellowship. I'm not ready to start writing, but this is pretty critical spadework and it requires time.

So, VP book gets pushed to the back burner. Pakistan book (which in part relies on a co-author - when I get stuff to edit, I turn it around right away) goes to the front, but I crunch on an upcoming deadline for the third book (that's in a week and a half.)

Hopefully Pakistan book is done in a month or so, then back to the VP book. Hopefully, I finish it up in a few months and can turn to the third book (assuming it is accepting for the conference or the fellowship proposal.)

But meanwhile, I have a bunch of op-eds I want to write. I have this idea about the State Department, and what about a one year review of the Pence Vice Presidency, oh and the Future of AI Commission. Sigh. But all of this takes time.

I guess I should take Van Jackson's advice, (derived from the fifth rule of Fight Club): one book at a time!

So, poking at the long-simmering third book for just a bit. Then Pakistan book up front, and the VP book will have to simmer. Op-eds etc. will just have to wait.

But even still, it is a lot of stuff to cram into my side-hustle. Plus carpool, commuting and just life. I'm kind of secretly hoping the government shuts down for a little and I can focus on this stuff...

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Oprah in the Oval Office? What does it really take to be President?

After an electrifying speech at the Golden Globes there is sudden excitement that Oprah Winfrey could run for president. The immediate questions are: Does she want to run? Could she win? I don't know. From my perspective, the interesting question is how she might function as president. Really, it is an opportunity to analyze what being president entails, using Oprah as a test case.

Quick recap of where I'm coming from. My dissertation asked the question of why the vice president went from nothing (a figure of limited consequence) to a leading presidential advisor. The key factor is that for the past 40-plus years we have been electing outsiders, individuals with limited experience in DC -- mostly governors. They have faced steep learning curves in office and turned to their vice presidents (who have consistently been DC insiders) for advice. I am in the process of re-working my dissertation into a book that turns this question upside-down and tries to clarify the nature of this insider advice.

In the meantime however, we have engaged in this tremendous experiment of electing not a mere outsider, but a actual amateur who has no political experience whatsoever. My thinking is that a true amateur, no matter how extraordinarily skilled, will struggle with the presidency.

The place to begin is evaluating Oprah Winfrey's skills and capabilities. It is difficult to overstate them. She is very, very famous (a household name) and very, very rich (a multi-billionaire.) There are other people who are very, very famous but they are not also billionaires. There are other billionaires (about 2000), but only a very few of them could be described as famous. Certainly being famous makes it easier to get rich but off-hand I cannot think of someone who is famous who has also made billions.

One of the few people who is both very, very famous and very, very rich is Donald Trump. This comparison only emphasizes Oprah's truly astounding achievements. Trump was born very rich and devoted his energies to becoming famous. His business career is checkered, but give the devil his due, Trump has a certain genius for celebrity. That isn't the same as being a genius, and being very rich in the greatest city in the world made it easier to obtain publicity.

Oprah was not born wealthy - quite the opposite. If she had a achieved a small fraction of her current wealth or fame she would be extraordinarily successful. That she entered the very, very top in two different areas is an astounding testament to her talent and will.

The skills she developed in achieving her success would serve her well in the White House. As a journalist and TV-host she had to process a great deal of information quickly and communicate both information and emotion to large groups and individuals. In both of her careers she had to think strategically, make decisions, and set priorities. As a business-person she had to manage information flows and organizations. Put simply, if any amateur could step into the White House and be effective, it would be Oprah!

Learning Curves
It's time for a silly thought experiment. Let's pretend that Oprah decides to go into oil prospecting. Oprah Oil has a nice ring. She isn't just investing in oil companies, she is buying land, drilling for oil, and getting it to market. (I know this is utterly illogical, but it's a thought experiment!)

Who would face the shorter learning curve on the Oval?
To be a good oil-person, Oprah would need to learn a lot about geology, mining engineering, energy logistics, and local environmental regulations - and probably a bunch of other stuff. Presumably, with her vast fame, she would have little difficulty raising money or recruiting talent.

If it is so easy to recruit talent, why can't she just hire the best people?

Of course she can, but how do you know the best people are in fact the best. Everyone thinks their doctor is really good - but are they? It is mathematically impossible for everyone's doctor to be good and how would someone evaluate this, what is the criteria?

Back to Oprah Oil: the best prospectors might not know the particular area in question or have certain preferred geological formations. The best drilling chiefs may have preferred approaches, etc. Ultimately, in this thought experiment, Oprah will need to learn from her mistakes in the oil business so that she can judge the advice she is receiving and make good decisions. Maybe you see where this is going...

Principal-Agent Problem
Quick bit of theory here. I am trying to show the classic principal-agent problem. Stated simply, when you hire/task someone to do a job for you - how can you be sure they are doing it well. Are they serving your interests, or their interests? Are they goofing off or working? Are they actually good at what they do?

If you spend all of your time monitoring your subordinates, you will have no time for your own work. Further, at the executive level there is a vast hierarchy. You can monitor subordinate executives, but down in the bowels of the organization it can be very hard to know exactly what is going on. Further, the subordinates may be performing functions in which the executive has limited expertise. The head of our oil company may know a great deal about oil production and transport - but not much about IT.

What Presidents Do
The first thing a president has to do is deal with people, either in mass (in speeches or on TV) or in small groups in ceremonial events and meetings. At the center of being a politician is getting people to like you. It can be exhausting, in part because it is an endless requirement. (Gives some insight to the introverted Nixon sitting in total silence on a boat with friends.) For some politicians it comes easily, for others it is hard work. Oprah undoubtedly can do this, although there will still be a learning curve.

Presidents also have to make big decisions. A president cannot be an expert in all of the policy issues that are addressed at the White House, but they need to know if a policy makes sense, is workable, and actually achieves the desired ends. At the same time, the president has to consider the politics. The optimal policy may not be politically feasible. Further, the tactical decisions made such as the media campaign or legislative strategy need to be considered. It isn't just, will Congress pass it - how does this policy affect other priorities in terms of the budget, political optics, and legislative calendar. A really good chief of staff can make all of this go, but you have to be certain you have a really good chief of staff. Such uber-competent and loyal figures are rare.

All of this gets even harder in foreign affairs - exponentially! Besides the multiple complexities of domestic politics, the president has to consider the multiple complexities of the other country (and of other countries interested in the doings of this first country.) I've written elsewhere, international relations move in time and space.

Further, in foreign affairs, the instruments often have to be carefully considered. Are the tools being deployed adequate to the desired ends? The tools of statecraft are complex. As one of my interviewees, an individual with vast experience in Washington, explained:
Things don’t automatically occur to you on a Chinese menu, you have to understand each instrument. Very few people walk into office understanding the economic, political, and military instruments available to the president. There are two ways to get this knowledge. One is to walk in the door with it. The other is to have them explained to you.
In her terrific work, Professor Elizabeth Saunders explains how presidential experience in foreign affairs is important. It is experience that allows president's to more effectively evaluate advice and plans and monitor subordinates. Frankly, to a great extent this applies to domestic affairs, as outlined above, as well.

So this is at the core of my dissertation. Outsider presidents, usually governors, are on the whole extraordinarily capable people but they struggle in the White House. As governors they have a reasonably good handle on domestic policy, although it gets harder. The media scrutiny in DC is far greater than in state capitals. The bureaucracy is much bigger and Congress is a more formidable body than any state legislature.  The learning curve in foreign affairs is even steeper.

So where does this leave President Oprah? First let's look at a celebrity turned politician and then president.

Lessons from Reagan
Reagan was a celebrity who ended up as a pretty effective president. Before the presidency he served two terms as governor of California, so that he was pretty well grounded in how to be a politician - from horse trading with the legislature to interacting with the media. It is worth noting that Reagan had also served for years as the president of the Screen Actors Guild - which seems like a pretty useful experience. As a corporate spokesperson for GE Reagan delivered thousands of speeches at GE plants and Rotary Clubs and such around the country. He wrote these speeches!

This was more than just an exercise in rhetoric - although that shouldn't be underestimated. (George Schultz remembers giving Reagan a copy of speech he intended to give. The President looked it over and with a few edits, transformed it from an op-ed to be read into a speech to be heard.)

In this process, Reagan worked out how he saw the world and where he stood on issues. He schooled himself on policy.

When, at 70, Reagan was inaugurated, he had been preparing for two decades. He made it all seem easy because he had actually worked very hard for a very long time.

Oprah could master these skills as well. But time is not on her side. It seems unlikely she could gain the needed skills by 2020 and in a few weeks Oprah will turn 64. Does she have a decade to invest in learning politics and be a viable candidate? Would a shorter apprenticeship be sufficient?

Of course, she could still run and win. This analysis is not about the political horse-race. Rather, it is an attempt to think about what we need presidents to do and why experience in comparable roles is important. I am still trying to get to my fundamental question of what is the unique advice insider VPs give to outsider presidents and what this tells us about the presidency.

Thursday, January 4, 2018

VPWriting2: Progress So Far

So my plan was to take time off on the holiday season to restart my project of turning my PhD into a book. But I also wanted to play. I had this wonderful vision of getting up early (about 6) and with a cup of coffee knocking off a quick blog entry as a sort of warm-up lap. Then, work on the book for about three hours, before spending an hour on one of my other writing projects. Then maybe an hour of reading for yet another project followed by a good work-out and lunch. Then my wife and I could binge-watch away the afternoon and evening. I'd do some other reading, and maybe play computer games (I always say I will, but never do.)

It was a good plan. Frankly, it is how I would live my life if I could (but I have a day job - bills gotta get paid).

Anyway it didn't work. On many days stuff came up - errands had to be run or other details of life had to be addressed. Some of my other writing projects would not stay within their allotted times. Also, I don't like going to be early and getting up early. I know I need to, but it just goes against my preferences and habits.

But the biggest issue was that when I was writing, I wasn't necessarily writing. I was inspired to write this stuff by Van Jackson's journal of his quest to crank out a book in six months. It was comforting to know that I wasn't the only one who isn't always writing when he is writing. Some of this is necessary, some is procrastination.

(Next entry on how that sometimes goes awry.)

Still, I did the math. Consistent production of 500 words a day (six days a week - I don't work on Saturdays) would be a book, a half-dozen long articles, and about 20 op-eds a year. For sheer writing time, that should only be an hour and a half a day. Nothing. Granted, you also need time for editing and reading - but you should be able to find that in the other 5-9 hours of your work day. It all seems so simple, but it is so hard to do.

The quarry - yet another writing metaphor
Anyway, the VP book isn't writing, it's almost all editing (with a dose of updating) so word count is not the right metric of progress. Still, I broke the seal. The project got started. The juices began to simmer. I began to see how the chapters needed to be reworked from dissertation to book. I began to see how to turn them from a series of proofs to a story and what kinds of materials I would need to connect things up. Lots of different metaphors for writing here.

Unfortunately, I may have to put this on a back burner yet again - for now. (More in a future entry.) Now, on this snowy day, to attack a real and immediate writing project.

Friday, December 29, 2017

VPWriting1: Inspired to write, something else...

2017 was not a great year for me, especially on the writing front. 2013-2016 were. In 2014 I finished my PhD. In 2015 I wrote the better part of a book on South Asia (more on that anon). In 2016 I wrote the equivalent of a book in conference papers and internal white papers (also I had a pretty good article in War on the Rocks.)

In 2017 - so far - I dithered with a couple of papers that were almost done, but still not quite - maybe I'll finish them on Sunday...

But hanging over all of this is my dissertation, the topic of this blog. It needs to be a book. There are even publishers willing to talk to me about. But it has to get done. Anyone can tell you that a dissertation is not a book and my writing skills are good enough (not amazing, but pretty good) that with some work the book can be more readable than the dissertation by several orders of magnitude. Plus, while the book won't be as analytical as the dissertation, the fundamental question has inverted.

In the dissertation I asked, "Why did the VP go from nothing to something." But now I want to know, "What does the President gets from the VP?" The first question has been answered adequately - not just by me. The second seems more interesting and insightful.

My dissertation is the raw material, but I have to break it apart and reconstruct it. It was hard enough assembling the 130K words of the dissertation. Now, I need to break it all down and rewrite it. It's a lot of work, and I have a day job (which also has a lot of writing projects.) Doing this takes time and I have not had tons of it between a real job, a long commute, and kids who need to be driven places constantly.

I thought I would take the holiday week off and really invest some time into the project. I have a decent intro and my Mondale chapter is in pretty good shape. But that's been my status quo for over two years. I thought if I put in some serious time up front and sort of "broke the seal" I could get into a rhythm and bring the project together.

This involved going to bed and waking up early (both of which I hate) and getting serious writing hours in each morning. It hasn't gone so well.

Over at War on the Rocks, the eminent Van Jackson has been journaling his efforts to write a book in six months. Honestly, it's been heartening since he's terrific and like me knows his topic back and forth (so he isn't doing fundamental research, just writing.) Still, some of his good days are only a few hundred words and he too loses hours to rabbit holes and anomie.

So, in that spirit, I thought I too would share my writing experiences, intermittently. Of course in my case, this might just be another procrastination mechanism - writing this when I should be, you know, writing my book. But, here the words flow, whole post was less than 30 minutes and it is nice to get this stuff off my chest.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

New Partial Paradigm for President-VP Relationship

I recently gave a presentation summarizing my research on the vice president and the next stage in
this research. My regular readers (should I have any) know that the central premise of my work is that outsider presidents find themselves relying on insider vice presidents. But I keep finding that I want to know more, what exactly is it that these insider vice presidents know that no one else can tell them?


I'm still wrestling with that question, with mixed success. But in putting this presentation together I did find a common trope that supplements with outsider/insider paradigm.

Policy & Politics
Usually, one of the two is more focused on policy and the other is more focused on politics. Carter, the engineer/technocrat famously hated to consider things politically - he wanted the optimal solution. Mondale was his "invaluable political barometer." The Clinton-Gore relationship was almost the exact opposite. Few figures in recent history have had the kind of politically sensitive antenna of Bill Clinton. Gore, on the other hand, was the policy-wonk. The Obama-Biden relationship appeared similar to Clinton-Gore, with Joe Biden, a talented retail politician, supporting the famously cool and analytical Barack Obama.

The Republicans on the other hand seemed to elect presidents more focused on the politics, with vice presidents focused on the policy. Reagan was famously big picture, while his Vice President took on details. His son, Bush 43, took on politics, while his super-staffer VP, Cheney, focused on the hard policy issues.

Although Bush-Quayle is an outlier, since Bush was an insider who did not particularly need his vice president's advice, he remained a policy-focused President, letting his VP tend to political affairs.

Seems like a pretty neat way to characterize the President-VP relationship.

Paradigmatic Problems
The problem is that this explanation is much, much too neat. None of these figures - who rose to great heights in national politics - can be considered unsophisticated on political or policy matters. It is more of a continuum, with Gore, Carter, and Cheney on a particularly hard end of the non-political and most others closer to the middle.

Still not happy, because it simplifies too much. What do we mean by politics, anyway? Cheney, was extremely astute in legislative strategy. When the Soviets invaded Afghanistan, Carter called for an embargo on grain sales to the Soviet Union. Mondale, worried about the Iowa primaries (Ted Kennedy was challenging Carter for the nomination) advised against it. Carter thought the the embargo was the right thing to do. But he also thought the American people would ultimately rally around the president. Mondale had a tough time campaigning in Iowa - but Carter was right!

Gore was not a terribly effective liaison to Capitol Hill (he had served there for a dozen years, but was did not take to the place like Mondale or Biden.) But, Gore pushed himself forward as the spokesman on NAFTA and helped deliver the win.

It might be more accurate to say that different people absorb and process inputs differently and that presidents and vice presidents ideally complement one another. But that's pretty generic and hence why we only have a partial paradigm.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

VPWatch5: The VP Must Kneel Before the President

There has been much news about the vice president recently. And I've been so busy (with Jewish holidays mostly - and I go offline for another in just a few minutes!) so that I haven't even finished my assessment of Pence's influence in the current administration.

The VP too has been busy, what with the new Space Council he's chairing and all the travel to firesfloods, and other scenes of horror (good work - seriously!)

But there was something else the vice president did that dominated the headlines... something at a football game.

Pence walked out of a Colts game when the 49ers kneeled during the National Anthem. This was part of the President of the United State's feud with NFL players who are choosing to kneel during the National Anthem to protest racism. This has been discussed ad nauseum and I have nothing to add. Although, as a Baltimorean, I have some pretty strong thoughts on the Star-Spangled Banner that have absolutely nothing to do with the current controversy.

My interest is the doings of the vice president.

Reportedly Vice President Pence is a really big Colts fan. But, when the President heard the VP was going to a game (not just any game, Peyton Manning's number was being retired), the President instructed the Vice President to leave if any players kneeled during the National Anthem. Since several members of the visiting 49ers had been kneeling all season, the outcome was pretty clear.

Pence left after the Star-Spangled Banner, missing the game and stirring up controversy. The President, in his inimitable way, blew a little story into a big one, tweeting:
I asked VP Pence to leave stadium if any players kneeled, disrespecting our country. I am proud of him and Second Lady Karen.
Whether or not Pence really wanted to walk out, or was doing so at the President's behest, the tweet robbed the VP of any dignity in his walk out.

Before our more civilized era (since Carter/Mondale) Presidents routinely humiliated Vice Presidents. LBJ's treatment of Hubert Humphrey was particularly cruel. Nixon (having suffered at the hands of Eisenhower) was pretty terrible to Agnew (who, in fairness, was legitimately awful.)

What's odd here is that it is not clear that the President wanted to humiliate Pence, but rather that he wanted to make the event about himself. His cruelty was casual and backhanded rather than LBJ's systematic viciousness towards Humphrey (who on some level the Texan feared.)

So what should Pence have done? Let's pretend that Pence would not have walked out on the game if given the choice. (He didn't walk out on Hamilton when the cast addressed him directly with a political message.) But defying the president is not a minor thing to do - especially for a vice president.

The only way for the vice president to influence policy is through access to the president and presidents do not have a lot of patience for disloyal VPs. This President may be touchier about loyalty than most, but really this applies across the board. The VP is the one person in the administration who cannot be fired - thus disloyalty is particularly problematic.

The VP could take stand, spending their term isolated from the president over at the Naval Observatory, perhaps issuing public statements against the administration. This would probably not go well. The president (any president) would savage an openly disloyal VP. And what would this gain the VP? Not much. The president still has significant support in the party and might receive an uptick in support from the opposing party - but hardly enough to offset the significant ideological divides.

If the president were in trouble (i.e. being impeached) the VP's smartest play is quiet loyalty. A VP too publicly ready for the president to leave office will not be well-regarded. Ford and Gore stayed out of things and let the process move forward on its own.

We are not near impeachment. That's a reality. The VP believes he can still be useful, fixing what he can in a dysfunctional administration. To be effective the VP needs access to the President. And for that, when called upon, having no significant Constitutional authority and, according to Chase Untermeyer, only one true resource to offer the president - time, the VP must kneel before the chief of the executive branch.

Wednesday, September 20, 2017

VPWatch4: Compare & Contrast POTUS/VP on Rosh Hashanah

I know I just wrote a post yesterday analyzing the role of the Vice President in this White House that requires a follow-up. But, like Jews around the world, my mind is elsewhere. We are entering the High Holidays, the Days of Awe. Tonight begins Rosh Hashanah, literally the "Head of the Year." It is the start of a new year and a time of introspection, but also a time to ask forgiveness.

Political leaders in the United States typically send greetings to the American Jewish community on its major holidays. There is nothing terribly remarkable about these greetings. They are like thank you notes for gifts, courteous and necessary. I would not draw any policy conclusions from these statements about these leaders positions on Israel or any other issue of concern to the American Jewish community - or anyone for that.

But I did find comparing the Presidential and Vice Presidential statements instructive.

The President's statement is perfectly fine. It briefly mentions the purpose of the holiday, had a nod to Jewish history and the place of the Jewish people in the world, and ends by mentioning the deep bond between the United States and Israel. I have nothing to criticize about it.

The Vice President's statement, in comparison, is a bit deeper. Only at the end does it give the obligatory best wishes to the Jewish people on their holiday. Instead we get a short homily about the central concept of the Days of Awe - Teshuvah. The statement then extends it to wishes for introspection and a better year for al.

On the one hand, the VP's statement might be a bit too religious and not sufficiently political. But I'm rather impressed with it. It makes specific references to the meaning of the holiday and relates them more broadly to all humanity. It has a voice in way that perhaps the President's statement does not.

Within the tangled channels of White House decision-making, the Vice President's office is a fast cruiser amongst a thicket of dreadnoughts. It is smaller than OMB or NSC, but it can choose its fights and focus almost exclusively on meeting the needs of its principal. Thus, it can find a unique voice.

Of course Presidents can usually attract the finest communications talent. Another possible conclusion is that the White House staff is starting to function adequately, but perhaps not at a very high level.

Of course that's reading quite a bit into a relatively minor item. Perhaps my Teshuvah is to lighten up and get a life (or at least spend the one I have on something important!)

Shana Tova Umetuka. To a happy and sweet new year.