1280px-View_from_top_of_Tyne_CotJune was a big month for commemoration. The month kicked off with the 70th anniversary of D-Day and concluded with the 100th anniversary of the assassination of Franz Ferdinand. I can’t even pretend to comprehend the courage of the men who served in these conflicts, much less the unimaginable horror they confronted.

A New York Times story recounts the experience of one surviving American soldier who landed at Normandy on D-Day. “What happened to us should never happen to anybody. I came in the second wave,” he said. His landing craft had to nose its way through the floating bodies of soldiers who had not made it to the beach. The German fire was so relentless that rather than venture any closer to shore, the landing boats dropped his unit in the sea about 350 feet from land. “And so we went down in the water… It kept going over my head…And I had a Browning automatic rifle across my shoulders and bandoleers of ammo, hand grenades and a gas mask, and I had to get rid of all that. Otherwise I would be drowned. “When I got on the shore, all I had left was my helmet and my gas mask — no gun…I picked up a gun … because there were so many guys that had been killed…guns were lying on the beach. And a friend of mine who was from Oshkosh, Wis., hollered to me to come over and have shelter from the machine guns,” he said, tears in his eyes. “Of the 560 of us who landed that day, only 240 of us were alive” at the end.

And that was D-Day. In the second battle of Ypres, during the First World War, “In the area around Ypres – including Hill 60, Passchendaele, Lys, Sanctuary Wood etc. – over 1,700,000 soldiers on both sides were killed or wounded [along with] an uncounted number of civilians.”

Like I said, I can’t even imagine. And thus was born the 20th Century. We owe these men (and the soldiers were men) a huge debt that we can never repay.

POLI 150: The Alternate Ending

Rather withering reviews of the season finale of POLI 150.001 (season 20) led producers of this series to include a previously unreleased alternate ending in the online version of the course, (to be released to UNC students as a downloadable zip file from the Friday Center in September 2014). In contrast to other such compilations, this set will include only very limited interactive components. Sarah Bauerle-Danzman, a cast member for season 20, commented on the absence of interaction that “though students might find the powerpoint slides useful, the accompanying lectures are entirely predictable and thus really quite boring.”

The alternate ending is the most exciting component of this online version. Referred to on set during production as “World War III,” this alternate ending was filmed during a mid-season contract dispute that threatened to prevent a renewal of the series for a season 21. Reluctant to leave viewers hanging, the producers sought to tie up all of the loose ends of international politics in a single episode (and not even a double episode). When POLI 150 was renewed for the fall of 2014, producers shelved the alternate ending (and thus contrary to rumors, the course has not been relegated to an exclusively online offering).


For those who may have slept through an episode or two of the series this season, a brief synopsis might be helpful before we turn to the alternate ending. The United States is the hero. The US is a generally well-intentioned though sometimes idealistic hegemon. The US is not an extreme “idiot hero” in the mold of Maxwell Smart, but falls somewhere between the exuberant yet naive Finn (from Glee) and the somewhat more sophisticated and powerful Peter Petrelli (from Heroes). The US uses its power to construct and sustain an international order that embodies its belief in the pacifying consequences of democracy, trade, and international law. By constructing this international order, the US banishes war from the northern hemisphere (though precisely why the order has this effect remains uncertain–is it democracy? economic interdependence?) and ushers in a period known as “the Long Peace.”

Rising powers in the global south provide the show’s anti-heroes. These emerging states are accumulating economic and military power and seem increasingly able to challenge the American order. China, the leader of the so-called BRICs, has benefited from rapid economic growth during the past twenty years and has been spending heavily on military power. Yet, the episodes leading up to the series finale refuse to reveal China’s true power and objectives: is China a paper tiger or a real challenger to American hegemony? Will China insert itself peacefully into the American order, or will it instead use its accumulated power to challenge this order, even if doing so risks a war with the US? Rather annoyingly, the series refuses to answer these fundamentally important questions.

Though the series encourages us to expect a finale that involves a military clash between the US and China, other villains emerge over the season and thereby reduce the inevitability of a clash of the titans. Thomas Malthus, for instance, appears half way through the season as a foil to the Long Peace. Though banished to the global south, will he once again sow dissent in the global north? Vladmir Putin’s misadventures in the Ukraine emerge as a recurring theme about midway through the season. What is he up to in central Europe, and do his actions harken back to 19th century czarist Russia?

The season finale that aired on April 23 refused to resolve any of the questions. The alternate ending does so by weaving them into a single storyline that builds to an explosive conclusion. As the finale begins we see Malthus traveling north to meet American policymakers in Washington, DC. The news he delivers sparks a sharp decline in living standards across the global north, and sets off competition between the US, China, the EU, Japan, and Russia over the world’s energy reserves. Putin exerts control over central Asia and the “ikistans.” The EU asserts control over the north sea. China and Japan compete for control of Asian oil reserves, and the US strives to maintain its position in the Gulf States against Chinese and Russian encroachment and contemplates annexing Canada, Mexico and Venezuela. As competition intensifies, the great powers turn to military power to secure the energy reserves necessary to sustain current standards of living.

I will not recount the frantic and ultimately futile diplomacy that failed to prevent World War III as the crisis built. Nor will I reveal whether the great powers used nuclear weapons in this war. I will note, however, that this alternate ending makes it quite clear that the series’ creators believe the Long Peace to be a consequence of the American order, an international order that, by providing security to most of the states in the northern hemisphere, enabled people fortunate to have been born in or emigrate to this part of the world to enjoy a level of material well being and personal liberty without equal in human history. The alternate ending suggests that we should think a bit about how to sustain these achievements for future generations.

The one question the alternate ending failed to resolve concerned the ideological divides between different diaspora cultures, an issue of concern to at least one student in the course. When asked why he chose to leave this one question open, the series creator, Dr. Thomas Oatley, replied, “diaspora culture? I think you have me confused with GLBL 210.”



On Social Upheavals

Daniel Little posted about “Social Upheavals“–riots, revolutions, financial crises, and similar such events. While I find Understanding Society fascinating generally, I took particular note of this post because I have been trying to model (across a variety of contexts) the social processes that produce the distributions that Little discusses. These distributions are leptokurtic and fat tailed. That is, social processes typically produce outcomes that fall within a highly compact interval–95 percent of the time, tomorrow is pretty much like today–but every so often the processes generate radical change. For instance, 45 years of public quiescence and regime stability in Soviet Europe gave way to two months of public protest and fundamental political change.  Or, the so-called “Great Moderation” of the 1990s and 2000s was disrupted by the global financial crisis and Great Recession. How do we theorize the underlying social processes that generate these distributions? Or, as a recent IPE paper asked, “How can we reconcile the assumption that social reality is structured by comprehensible mechanisms, presumed to produce patterns that make them recognizable, with the existence of sudden ruptures?” (Johnson et al 2013).

Little suggests that we ought not worry so much about these upheavals. “When there are crises — like the financial crisis of 2008 or the riots in London and Stockholm in the past few years — we often try to understand them as deviations from the normal…But really, our desire to perceive order in the things we experience often deceives us. The social world at any given time is a conjunction of an enormous number of contingencies, accidents, and conjunctures. So we shouldn’t be surprised at the occurrence of crises, unexpected turns, and outbreaks of protest and rebellion. It is continuity rather than change that needs explanation.”

He continues, “social outcomes are always the result of a complex mix of influences. There are some broad underlying social causes that are relevant;… there are semi-random events that may serve as a flashpoint stimulating an outbreak; and there are countervailing efforts and strategies that are designed to reduce the likelihood of civil unrest or the spread of heterodox ideas. And this demonstrates that these classes of social phenomena are fundamentally indeterminate; they are best understood as being the consequence of a conjunctural set of processes and events that could have unfolded very differently” (my emphasis).

I am unsatisfied with both claims that Little advances. I don’t agree that “it is continuity rather than change that needs explanation.” The task of social science is to explain variation, and if the distributions we study are fat tailed and leptokurtic then (part of) the variation we need to explain is the shift from persistence to radical change. Failing to do so is to commit the same fallacy that financial engineers committed as they estimated the risk associated with real estate investment–they assumed that large events were unlikely. And that didn’t work out so well.

I also don’t agree that these “classes of social phenomena are fundamentally indeterminate.” The recognition that some phenomena are a product of a particular conjunction of processes and events need not imply that these phenomena are indeterminate. When the relevant conjunctions occur, the phenomena follows with some probability. Thus, conjunctural causality makes such phenomena rare (which may limit our ability to estimate the probability), but not fundamentally indeterminate.

Finally, I don’t agree that these social upheavals belong to a single class of events that occur only when a specific (and rare) conjunction of events or processes align. A large set of physical processes, such as earthquakes, exhibit the same distribution: years of stability and infrequent substantial upheavals. Yet, there is nothing conjunctural about the cause of earthquakes. They are the result of a non-linear process wherein the interaction between pressure and friction generates tension that is released through a series of events (tremblers, tremors, earthquakes), most of which are quite small, but a few of which are very large. The entire distribution, therefore, is generated by a single deterministic process. The only indeterminacy concerns the timing of individual events. If some social processes are like these geologic processes, then social upheavals need be neither conjunctural nor indeterminate.

It seems to me that the challenge social science faces is to explain why social outcomes that are typically stable sometimes change radically. And to meet this challenge it isn’t sufficient to assume that these radical changes are fundamentally indeterminate or occur in response to exogenous events. We need models of processes that generate such distributions. Some such work exists (see Baumgartner et al 2009 in particular), but it has had limited impact outside of American politics .

Johnson, Juliet, Daniel Mügge, Leonard Seabrooke, Cornelia Woll, Ilene Grabel, and Kevin P. Gallagher. 2013. “The future of international political economy: Introduction to the 20th anniversary issue of RIPE.” Review of International Political Economy 20 (5):1009-1023.

Jones, Bryan D., Frank R. Baumgartner, Christian Breunig, Christopher Wlezien, Stuart Soroka, Martial Foucault, Abel Francois, Christoffer Green-Pedersen, Chris Koski, Peter John, Peter B. Mortensen, Frederic Varone, and Stefaan Walgrave. 2009. “A General Empirical Law of Public Budgets: A Comparative Analysis.” American Journal of Political Science 53 (4):855-873.