How political scientists should tackle the Big Issues

There's some interesting stuff a brewin' in the world politics blogosphere.

Over at Duck of Minerva, Daniel Nexon notes that world politics journals have done a pretty piss-poor job of addressing Big Issues -- you know, things like the 2008 financial crisis.  He then asks how political science journals can properly address such questions:

[N]ot a few people argue that the whole point of academic international-relations work is to avoid faddishness and overly speculative claims about unfolding events. Anyone who has ever heard “journalism” used as an insult knows one version of this line of argument. Still, the fact that international-relations articles usually genuflect in the direction of policy relevance suggests that even those in this camp think journals should have contemporary salience.

I’m not visiting this well-trod terrain to provoke a meta-argument about scholarship. Rather, I’m curious what “big” questions deserve more attention in our journals. The nature and dynamics of contemporary economic order strikes me as an obvious candidate, but what else is out there? And how ought such questions be addressed in a way that maintains a commitment to scholarly rigor–in its myriad forms?

As it turns out, I think Tom Pepinsky gets at one answer in his wish list of how he'd like to reform political science journals.  One of his requests is a return to the long review essay -- that is, a full paper devoted to just one Big Book: 

I’m not sure if the practice of writing long peer-reviewed essays on major books has disappeared because no one wants to write such essays, or because journals won’t publish them anymore, or won’t subject them to peer review. But I do know that in the humanities, and especially in disciplines like history which remain book fields, the practice of writing long, peer-reviewed reviews of major books has survived....

My experience writing long review essays is limited (I have done precisely one). But that essay made a key theoretical point, and so long as books continue to be published in political science—and they will—we should give professional credit to long, serious, and peer-reviewed essays that strive to make similar theoretical contributions in response to recent scholarship. Even if they concentrate on just one major work. After all, that is the natural way to foster the rigorous and critical exchange that drives the discipline forward.

So, to answer Dan's question, I think one way that journals can engage in Big Topical Questions that have a dearth of rigorous scholarship is to engage in the Big Books that are out there in a critical way.  Looking at my library, for example, I see the following ten books that I'd argue merit a full-blown review essay in World Politics, International Organization, or Perspectives on Politics:

1.  Carmen Reinhart and Kenneth Rogoff, This Time Is Different.

2.  Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature.

3.  Dani Rodrik, The Globalization Paradox.

4.  Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson, Why Nations Fail.

5.  Chrystia Freeland, Plutocrats.

6.  Pankaj Mishra, From the Ruins of Empire.

7.  Evgeny Morozov, To Save Everything, Click Here.

8.  G. John Ikenberry, Liberal Leviathan.

9.  Angus Burgin, The Great Persuasion.

10. Mark Blyth, Austerity.

Now, note a few things about this list.  First, they're all tackling big topics:  the secular decline in violence, the persistence of financial crises, the limits of technological solutionism, the rise of global inequality, and the significance of economic ideas.  These are big, meaty, enduring topics that are not going to disappear anytime soon.  These are not faddish books.   

Second, political scientists did not write most of these books -- even though they cover topics pertaining to political scientists.  One way  to look at this is to sniff at such foolhardy outworlders and go about one's business.  I'd suggest that a better way of responding is to imbibe these works but point out the ways in which pre-existing political science scholarship addresses or exposes some of flaws or weaknesses in their approaches -- and vice versa.   

Finally, many of these books would not qualify as "rigorous" in the social science-y sense of the word.  And that's OK -- the point of a good review essay is to apply rigor to ideas and theses that might be compelling but also might be eliding logical inconsistencies.  Pointing out the ways in which political scientists can rigorously test sweeping claims is in and of itself useful.  Projects born out of such efforts -- say, Giacomo Chiozza's Anti-Americanism and the American World Order -- are extremely valuable.  Indeed, this might be the best way for journals to wrestle with big and topical ideas without losing their rigor. 

So that's my (poached) suggestion.  Offer up your own in the comments. 

Daniel W. Drezner

China's Leadership Embraces Austerity In All Its Forms

Reuters reports that China's new leadership has added another new policy plank

China on Tuesday ordered a five-year suspension of the construction of new official buildings, state media reported, in the latest move by President Xi Jinping to crack down on extravagance and pervasive corruption.

The decision was “made in accordance with the country’s frugality campaign”, official news agency Xinhua said.

Some structures built in violation of regulations had tainted the image of the Communist Party and stirred vehement public disapproval, the agency said.

“The directive called on all party and government bodies to be frugal and ensure that government spending goes toward developing the economy and boosting people’s wellbeing,” it added.

The ban also covered “glitzy structures” built as training centres, hotels or government motels, it said.

I assumed the whole "frugality" thing was just a cover to engage in more efforts to cool down China's economy, but the Financial Times' Simon Rabinovitch interprets the edict the same way

China’s austerity campaign – unlike those in the west which have been triggered by budgetary shortfalls – is driven largely by the new leadership’s determination to address what it sees as the slipping moral standards of the Communist party elite.

Xi Jinping’s first move as party chief late last year was to bar lavish banquets, red-carpet receptions, wasteful travel and other trappings of corruption that have stained the public’s perception of the government.

Those measures have had a clear impact on the economy, leading to slower consumption growth in the first half of the year and dealing a blow to luxury goods companies around the world.

Whether the latest ban has a similarly negative impact on the property market will depend on how it is interpreted by state-owned companies. Chinese corporate executives have felt pressure to comply with Mr Xi’s earlier austerity policies even though government officials, not companies, were his targets.

Beijing has previously tried to stop local governments from building massive new offices, but only with limited success.

Let's call this the full-spectrum austerity program.  Not only is China's new leadership trying to cool down a geyser of new credit creation -- which it needed to do sooner rather than later -- it appears to want austerity to be the new watchword for Chinese society, Chinese culture, Chinese politics, etc.  

This gives rise to a very interesting question:  just how far can/will Xi and Li go with this?  Over at The Diplomat, Zachary Keck notes that even before this latest edict, China's new leadership was running into political roadblocks

Amid slowing growth, there are a number of signs of dissent among China’s leadership over a number of economic and political issues....

Premier Li Keqiang encountered stiff resistance from inside the government when pushing through his Shanghai Free Trade Zone this year.

Premier Li pushed hard for the FTZ following a March trip to Shanghai, his first domestic trip since taking his current position as the head of the government. As such, one government source told SCMP that “the Shanghai free-trade zone is like Li's baby,” while another noted that the premier would now lose face if the experiment fails.

But, according to three sources with “first-hand knowledge of high-level government meetings,” both the China Banking Regulatory Commission (CBRC) and China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) openly opposed certain initiatives proposed by Li’s office. The CSRC, for instance, opposed Li’s suggestion that foreign commodities exchanges be allowed to set up future deliveries warehouses in China, while the CBRC objected to a proposal to allow certain banks within the FTZ to engage in offshore banking services.

This dissent, presented in feedback memos to Li’s initial proposal, prompted the premier to slam his fists against a table in frustration, and tell a meeting that this opinion feedback was not acceptable. Li’s office also responded to both objections in memos, according to SCMP.

Meanwhile, others have been objecting to Xi Jinping’s “mass line” campaign, a revival of a Maoist crusade that urges Communist Party officials to communicate regularly with the masses. Xi has also used the campaign to target corruption and railed against the CCP to rid itself of “formalism, bureaucratism and hedonism and extravagance."

But the campaign, announced in April but only officially unveiled last month, is already coming under fire. Most notably, last week Study Times, a newspaper run by the Central Party School, published an article criticizing the concept.

In the world of foreign policy punditry, there are a lot of rules of thumb that people parrot without having any idea if they are actually true -- it's just something they hear often enough to think that it must be true.   One of these rules of thumb has been that the Chinese Communist Party can't tolerate economic growth below 8% or there's a trouble a brewin'.  We're about to see that hypothesis put to the test. 

One would assume that Li and Xi would not go down this path so soon after taking office unless they were damn sure that they had their political bases covered.  Then again, they would not be the first authoritarian rulers to misread their political support.