Below is a list of questions I’ve asked myself recently or heard other people ask that deserve some attention. They can be seen as potential guiding questions for a term paper, thesis, dissertation, professional project, blog post, or hobby. If I ever have the chance, I’ll delve into some of them and see what I come up with. Others are welcome to take these questions as their own starting point for original research (without attribution if that’s what they prefer) on the condition that any such researchers will report back at least briefly on what they find. Also, if anyone knows of any existing research on these topics, please point me in the right direction. The list will continue to grow and be reorganized as I add more questions, and any time I have any information to share about a given question, I will post a blog entry on the main page.

The Questions

What accounts for Robert Mugabe’s strange respect for electoral processes? Mugabe is the strong man of Zanu-PF, the single ruling party in Zimbabwe. He has held supreme power in his country since 1980, and (at least to my knowledge) long since either disbanded, co-opted, or ignored all independent institutions within the state system. And yet when the opposition MDC party emerged to contest elections in the 2000’s, Mugabe didn’t simply refuse to hold elections, unilaterally declare himself the winner, or commit widespread electoral fraud through control of the Electoral Commission. Instead, he opted for mass voter intimidation, political violence, and obstructionism – yet otherwise allowed the vote to be held. What was the cause of Mugabe’s strange respect for electoral processes? What can that tell us about him personally or about his regime?

How small can a society be and still remain a functioning society? This question comes from President Clinton, who asks specifically about East Timor and Kosovo. His question is do these modern states have sufficient population, geographic area, and economic activity to remain viable modern states? A related question, which Jared Diamond begins to address in his good book Collapse, is how large a population needs to be in order to maintain its ability to transmit knowledge to the next generation and continue the process of economic and technological development? Diamond points to the technological collapse of the Tazmanians after they lost contact with mainland Australia.

Whom do Europeans fetishize?  In certain segments of liberal American culture, Europe is fetishized (without much grounding in fact) as a bastion of liberal ideals and a paradise of good governance. France is a textbook example for many under-educated American liberals. Yet those who have spent significant time there realize that France and Europe at large are significantly behind the US in addressing key issues like gender, racial, and religious equality. Europeans, and especially France, are often willing partners of despicable regimes around the world. It was only 15 years ago when the French president actively supported a regime committing genocide in Rwanda. I understand that it when pushing for liberal changes in the US it helps to have an example to point to, and given the advanced state of the European social welfare system American liberals can be forgiven for assuming European countries are similarly advanced in other areas. But it does raise the question: who is France’s France? Who do European liberal activists tend to fetishize?

Just how far off are per diem rates? Whenever a person travels on behalf of his or her employer, that person is usually entitled to a fixed amount of money per day to pay for accommodation, food, transport, and all the other things they would have been able to do for themselves were they at home instead. But you can’t just hand out unlimited money, and ideally the limit should conform to some objective set of actual costs, given the location. But one look at US State Department per diem rates for various cities around the world and it’s clear that something is wrong here. You can get up to $306 per day in Ho Chi Minh City or $207 in the countryside. I happen to know from experience that you can get out-of-this-world accommodation and food for less than $150 a night, easily, in Ho Chi Minh City, and that it would be virtually impossible to spend $207 dollars in a day outside of the main cities. But are USG per diem rates too high across the board? It’d be nice to assembly a cost-of-living (or cost-of-tourism) data set and compare it with these published per diems and see what comes out.

Does the Supreme Court pay attention to itself? By tradition and current rules, aach Supreme Court justice is free to join another justice’s opinion or write his or her own concurring or dissenting opinion. We know that these opinions are watched closely by lower courts looking for guidance, by journalists looking for a story, and by lawyers looking for hints of how the court and individual justices will rule in future cases. Those are all good functions of written judicial opinions. But do the justices themselves ever read and respond to each others’ opinions? Do the clerks? Is this debate entirely within a single justice’s chambers, or do cross-chamber exchanges occur? If so, what are the formal or informal rules that moderate the debate? Most importantly, how successful are those debates? That is, do dissents and non-concurring opinions ever significantly influence the outcome of the majority opinion? Do justices and clerks think they do? Or are they just talking past each other while strengthening precedent (in the case of majority opinions) or laying the groundwork for a future reversal (dissenting opinions)?

Did the U.S. expand too far? Should it expand more? Economist David Barker put out a paper recently that complicates the typical view that Alaska was a great deal for the US, which purchased the state in 1867 for $7 million USD. Alex Tabarrock at the group economics blog Marginal Revolution has a brief write-up on the article, which concludes that discounted net present value of Alaska at the time of purchase probably didn’t reach $7 million. The article goes further at the end and asks: “The results of this paper suggest new lines of inquiry in the history of the West, such as: Has westward expansion been worth the price? What have been the costs and benefits? Should expansion have been less or greater than it was? Should United States expansion continue? Should the United States shrink by cutting ties with its remaining possessions?” This seems like a good application for a little firm theory, trade theory, comparative government wonkery, and M&A number crunching. We’ll probably have to narrow the question down to physical chunks of territory that changed hands at a certain price as the result of actual negotiations, just to make sure we have a solid purchase price to compare to a discounted cash flow or other model of value. Although, let’s not forget that territory is often conquered by force, and the price of potential wars can be estimated within certain bounds. Also, for territory that was relinquished freely or never sought after in the first place, estimates may be made based on the value of what the US got in return (say, by maintaining good business ties and peaceful relations, for example).

‘War on Terror’ military achievements and attribution: do Bush and Obama get equal credit for a given incident? First, President Bush began drone-fired missile strikes against al-Qaeda and Taliban targets in Af-Pak. Then President Obama stepped up the tempo of those strikes. Many Republican operatives reminded us of how aggressive the Bush Administration was in protecting our interests in the Af-Pak operations. Now they complain about Obama’s weakness and lack of focus, despite a clear increase in effectiveness. Hypothesis: journalists internalize these narratives and tended to attribute ‘War on Terror’ successes to Bush and his administration, while successes since January 2009 are described in more general terms as ‘US’ or ‘military’ achievements. Proposed test: lexical analysis of a standard basket of news sources (print articles in the NYT, WaPo, LAT, and transcripts of broadcast nightly news), checking for incidence of ‘Bush’ or ‘Obama’ and ‘administration’ in War on Terror success stories. Bonus points for checking for significant differences in Bush/Obama attribution across different outlets (i.e. Fox News and CNN).


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This is a group blog. JSC5 currently writes from the US. JSC7 writes from behind the Great Firewall of China.

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