Sunday, January 28, 2018

VPWriting4: Apt & Updated Phrasing for the #MeToo Era

The other day I gave a short presentation where I attempted to summarize my ideas for my third book. (Not sharing any details just yet - but I have a proposal due soon: it's a long-shot!)

It is at my local Toastmasters, where I'm an active member. Unlike most Toastmasters, I didn't join because I'm petrified of speaking but rather because I love it and don't get to do it enough. I use it as comedians use Open Mike Nights (a blast from my past), that is a chance to work out new material.

I was talking about presidents and was about to observe what to me is a seminal issue in studying politics and history: is it the man or is it the moment?

We like to focus on personalities and tactics, but quite often the issues are deeply structural. Jimmy Carter wasn't a lousy politician because he was a technocratic engineer. He was actually a fantastic politician - he came out of nowhere to capture the presidency by finding a message that resonated and meeting huge numbers of people and impressing the hell out of them. He just picked the wrong time to be president.

But this post is not an extended discussion of Skowronek's work on Presidential Time. This post is about writing.

I was about to say, "Is it the man or is it the moment?" Then I realized it is sexist. So I said, "Is it the person or is it the moment?" That line doesn't resonate. It has no poetry.

Politically Correct or Courteous
First, let's consider the political correctness factor. Am I just being a wimp to PC thugs? I don't think so. The phrase I used effectively wipes women out of history. I was once schooled when I reflexively referred to scientists as "he." This is an even bigger matter.

One could tell women to be a little less sensitive, and not assume that an off-hand remark was yet another mark of the patriarchy. But when considering the vast and often off-hand discrimination and devaluation that women face, one should in fact make every possible effort to be sensitive.

Side-note, I'm a white guy. I'm Jewish, but really that has not been a big source of discrimination in my life - I am hesitant to claim that my experience puts me in a camp with African-Americans, women or any of the groups in America that suffer from serious institutionalized and social discrimination. My wife, by the way is Latina, and that at times is eye opening for me. I hope it has made me more sensitive.

But, back to me, as a white guy, the whole system works in my favor. It is just that simple. Now, I suffer from imposter syndrome and bouts of self-doubt to a huge degree - and that's with society telling me I'm great. Imagine if on top of the crippling doubt, I had society shouting at me, denigrating me, or harassing me. I'd crawl into a fetal position. Props to all the terrific women I know (including my wife) who have accomplished so much despite these obstacles.
Words. Words. Words.

My point is that this is not about political correctness, it is about courtesy.

Finding a Phrase
But now I face a writing problem. The phrase "is it the man or the moment" is so very apt. The phrase "is it the person or is it the moment" is meh. You lose the alliteration and hard p sound at the beginning ruins the flow.

My first crack at an alternative was "is it the person or is it the period?"

We've got our alliteration back, but there are too many hard sounds. I particularly don't like the d at the end. It needs to end soft, because the idea is an opening not a closing. Also, moment is a specific thing, period is less clear.

We can fix it a little by switching and saying, "is it the period or is it the person?"

Not great, but it actually sounds ok. Except that the point of the phrase "is it the man or is it the moment," is that we think of the key person first but then realize it is really about the context in which they operated. "Is it the period or is it the person," reverses this in a way that defeats the point.

I came up with another alternative: "Is it the actor or is it the scene?"

I really like it. Scene is simply a wonderful word, great sound and nicely evocative. Actor too is specific and nails down an idea. The problem is that a great actor can make a lousy scene, and a lousy actor can ruin a great one. If the point is that in many cases great leaders had the fortune to lead at the right time, does this version give the person side of the equation too much credit and agency?


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.