Archive for the ‘criteria for success in doctoral studies’ Category

From Petraeus to Betraeus: how low will this story go?

November 11, 2012

As new information floods into the public arena, it now appears likely that David Petraeus has been living a double-life, violating military justice and violating a CIA code designed to protect the nation from interference through blackmail.  A man who clearly courts public adulation – one has only to see the volume of all those military medals  dragging down his army uniform to know that a narcissist is center-stage – is now exposed to investigations that surely will destroy forever the reputation that he has forged. Now, perhaps, is the moment for David Petraeus to fall on his own sword in order to protect Army,  CIA, and two Presidents from significant additional reputational harm.

From the very beginning of his career, it appears that Petraeus was set on a path designed to serve his narcissism.  Petraeus first met his wife-to-be, Holly in 1973, when he was a cadet at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. Holly was the daughter of the West Point superintendent,  a four-star general, who could trace his family’s military service right back to the Civil War. Was this a marriage designed to vault an ambitious young cadet onto an career path otherwise beyond his reach?

Holly surely did not think so when interviewed in 2008:

“I’m not stupid.  I wouldn’t have married someone on the make.”

One wonders how she might now re-address that insightful question as she confronts the likelihood of serial infidelity on the part of her cheating  spouse!

The adultery between David Petraeus and Paula Broadwell seemingly began a year or so after a casual 2006 meeting at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government,  where Broadwell studied as a graduate student. Twenty years younger than the General, strikingly attractive, and skilled more for her athletic than for her journalistic skills, Paula Broadwell hooked up with Petraeus  during a run along the Potomac River. Seemingly David Petraeus caught a common form of a devastating Potomac fever that has felled many an aspiring politician.

‘I think I passed the test,’ she would later say, ‘but I didn’t bother to transcribe the interview.’

In that respect, at least, she displayed a modicum of wisdom and common decency!

With the blessing of Petraeus,  Broadwell decided to write a case study of the General’s style of leadership. To this end, she made a half-dozen extended trips to Afghanistan in order to to spend time with her lover, while interviewing members of his senior staff and field commanders. Those she encountered on this mission – other than the General – were unimpressed by her abilities:

“‘Her credentials didn’t add up,’ said a former Petraeus staff member who was interviewed a number of times by Broadwell. ‘I was underwhelmed. It was surprising to me that she was his official biographer.’ Peter Mansoor, a former executive officer on Petraeus’s staff, said he thought the general’s uncharacteristic confidence in an untested writer was  ‘strange.’  ‘My gosh, if you are going to have someone interview everyone who has ever touched you in your life, choose someone who has written a biography or at least a history book,’ he said in an interview Saturday.” Joby Warrick, Ernesto Londono and Kimberly Kindy, ‘With Broadwell, general let his guard down’, The Washington Post, November 11, 2012

The General’s downfall was triggered by a growing suspicion on the part of Paula Broadwell, that her lover’s eyes had wandered to another target. In an attempt to close down the new relationship, Broadwell sent threatening emails to the other woman whom she deemed had moved too close to David Petraeus.  The recipient of those messages felt sufficiently threatened as to seek FBI protection.  The FBI investigation traced the threats to Paula Broadwell. and uncovered sexually explicit e-mails between Broadwell and Petraeus saved into her files.

And the rest is now part of a developing story that will damage several lives as it fully unfolds. At least David Petraeus will fulfill a lifetime ambition. His name – like that of Dominique Strauss-Kahn – will be known world-wide, and he will be recognized wherever he goes. Whether he becomes known simply as DP is an issue that is yet to be determined.





A President with a second-rate intellect

November 3, 2012

“Because he (Obama) had so much confidence, he thought whatever he did would work.  He thought he had  ‘a gift’ as he is said to have told Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.  He thought he had a special ability to sway the American people, or so he suggested to House Speaker John Boehner and Majority Leader Eric Cantor.  But whenever he went over the heads of the media and Congress to the people in prime time addresses, it didn’t really work. He did not have a magical ability to sway. And – oddly – he didn’t seem to notice….And that really was the problem: He had the confidence without the full capability….It is a mystery why the president didn’t second-guess himself more, doubt himself…If he wins, we will see a different presidency – even more stasis, and political struggle – but not a different president.” Peggy Noonan, ‘How Far Obama Has Fallen’, The Wall Street Journal, November 3, 2012

Peggy Noonan is very smart. She has enjoyed a long and extremely successful career commenting on American politics. She was speech writer for Ronald Reagan. In the above-cited column, she holds back from openly stating a truth that she surely knows, perhaps because Barack Obama is president of the United States. To understand that truth, one must be graced with an analytical mind. Only a minority of any society is so blessed – which may be fortunate in the short-run for this president, but not surely for the nation that he serves.

The bitter truth is that Barack Obama is cursed with a second-rate intellect. Second rate,, not third rate, please understand. Obama is capable of rote learning. He is capable of memorizing a speech – at least with the help of a tele-prompter. He is capable of passing examinations where memory is the key requirement. He is capable of penning a half-readable biography, at least with a major input from a fellow-traveler blessed with a superior intellect.

I have taught economics – a discipline that demands analytical skills – for some 50 years. Students blessed with analytical skills and even modest work-rates fare well in that discipline. Students who are limited to rote learning quickly disappear from economics classes into sociology, public affairs and history classes jn order yo evade failing grades. From what I know about President Obama – and we all now know a lot – he would not not have even a snow-flake’s chance in hell of ever passing a graduate examination in economic theory, however hard he might work so to do.

And that is the problem! As president, almost all decisions demand analysis. One cannot rote learn one’s way to a good solution. That limitation is precisely why Obama failed his first term when the stars were in perfect alignment for his success. He handed off the ball to his Democratic running backs on every game play because he could not figure out good strategies on the field. Stimulus, auto-bailouts, Obamacare,  Dodds-Frank are all the pitiful consequences of such a bounded intellect.

Should he win re-election on November 6  – and my fear is that he will lose the popular vote but win the Electoral College – America is in truly serious trouble. The stars now are not set in alignment for his success. They are set for melt-down and total failure. Devoid of analytical skills, President Obama will command no legislative agenda. His regulatory agenda will be  set by the socialists who cluster around him. The United States will follow the path of Argentina under Juan and Eva Peron.

And I am enough of a historian to advise you that this will not prove to be a happy or a productive path. It will be the road to serfdom.

The indoctrination of doctoral students in economics

October 20, 2011

In yesterday’s column, I discussed the arrogance of some rational expectations economists – Thomas Sargent and Robert Hall in particular – who believe, or pretend to believe, that rational expectations is the revealed truth of the economics profession.  I also mentioned the continuing arrogance of hydraulic Keynesian economists- Larry Summers, Christina Romer, Paul Krugman, Joe Stiglitz and Bradford De Long are good examples – who ignore predictive failure after predictive failure in the economics of Keynes, in part, one cannot avoid thinking, because their love of big government overwhelms their scientific instincts.

This retreat from science has a terrible impact on many economics doctoral students, most especially at the dissertation stage.  The choice of doctoral dissertation adviser is the most critical investment decision that a doctoral student most likely ever makes.  Guidance at this delicate transitional phase from critically evaluating the work of others to creating original work of one’s own is of the utmost importance.

And this is what all too often transpires. By year three or year four of their graduate education, most students are strapped for cash.  The so-called stars of the profession typically have access to the cash that doctoral students so badly require to complete their studies. However, in the United States most especially, all other planets are expected to revolve around the sun.  The sun demands complete loyalty in return for accessing his or her research budget.  In such circumstances, young doctoral brains are rarely stimulated. Rather they are thoroughly washed. 

In consequence, doctoral students work on projects that hold little intrinsic interest for them and indeed that often conflict strongly with the reality that they observe in their evolving lives.   They jump through all the hoops as they struggle to revolve around their sun, and then they find that they are trapped by their immediate past.

 For the tenure-track process is a publish or perish treadmill and the only hope for most is to publish directly off their dissertations. So, if successful, they confirm their brand, and most of them never escape from the grip of their sun.

Which, of course, is what the sun aimed for from the outset.  That is how human capital is forged and confirmed into place. If originality is deadened and enthusasm is destroyed for the upcomers in this process, the sun will care little. For he is the sun, and his brightness is accentuated by the comparative dullness of the other planets. God is on his side.

The limits of the rational expectations approach

October 19, 2011

Last week I praised the Swedish academy for turning its back on hydraulic Keynesians and awarding the 2011 Nobel Prize in Economic Science to two rational expectations scholars – Thomas Sargent and Christopher Sims. Today I devote a column to the insights of John Kay, who confirms my own view, expressed in earlier columns, that the rational expectations approach must not be pushed too far, as its practitioners are only too prone to do.

“In their world, the validity of a theory is demonstrated if, after the event, and often with torturing of the data and ad hoc adjustments that are usually called ‘imperfections’, it can be reconciled with already known facts – ‘calibrated’. Since almost everything can be ‘explained’  in this way, the theory is indeed universal; no other approach is necessary, or even admissible” John Kay, ‘The random shock that clinched a brave Nobel prize’, Financial Times, October 19, 2011R

 Rational expectations scholars are far from shy in pressing the universality of their approach:

“Asked  ‘do you think that differences among people’s models are important aspects of macroeconomic policy debates’, Prof Sargent replied: ‘The fact is you simply cannot talk about their differences within the typical rational expectations model.  There is a communism of models.  All agents within the model, the econometricians, and God share the same model.” John Kay, ibid.

When mere academics talk this way, one knows instinctively that they have lost a lot of contact with reality. I realized that many years ago at a meeting of the American Economic Association when Robert Hall accused me of challenging ‘the revealed truth of the profession’  because I had the nerve to mention the Austrian economics critique of the  rational expectations approach.

Now John Kay makes exactly the same point about Thomas Sargent:

“Rational expectations consequently fail for the same reason communism failed – the arrogance and ignorance of the monopolist.  In their critique of rational expectations, Roman Frydman and Michael Goldberg employ Hayek’s critique of planning; the market economy, unlike communism, can mediate different perceptions of the world, bringing together knowledge whose totality is not held by anyone.  God did not vouchsafe his model to us, mortals see the present imperfectly and the future dimly, and use many different models.” John Kay, ibid.

Perhaps the only characteristic that  hydraulic Keynesians and the rational expectations economists share in common is a belief in the communism of belief in their respective models. In both instances, that is why they should be treated with extreme caution by doubters whose intelligence and insight they are so wont to despise and summarily to reject.

Models that purport to explain everything, but that fail to predict anything correctly,  are not exactly the Gold Standard for an economics profession that does not fare well in predicting the future of the macroeconomy. In truth, such modelers have helped enormously to put the ‘con’ into economics.

The London School of Economics sells out for Gaddafi petro-dollars

March 3, 2011

As a LSE alumnus, I find this a difficult column to pen. Fortunately, my association with the School took the form of post-doctoral studies at the feet of great scholars such as A.W. Phillips, R.D.C. Allen, Peter Bauer and Basil Yamey, and not the Marxist members of the LSE faculty. Serendipitously, I completed my doctorate in economics at The University of Nottingham, and not at the now badly-tarnished LSE.  My fortune was good, because it now appears that the London School of Economics has entered into the business of putting up its doctorates for sale to the families and sycophants of  Middle Eastern dictators.

“Professor Sir Karl Popper, the great philosopher, argued that knowledge, science and freedom all depend on the ability to distinguish between an open society and its enemies. The London School of Economics and Political Science, where Popper taught, has shown itself incapable of making this distinction. Or to understanding its importance.” Editorial, ‘Academic Deficit: Questionable dealings with the Gaddafi family threaten LSE’s credibility.” The Times, March 3, 2011

“Urging the LSE ‘not to disown Gaddafi’, Desai somehow found it necessary to defend the LSE, stating that there’s ‘nothing wrong for the LSE to be ashamed of.  Academic research needs money – Rockefeller was a robber baron once but we take his money.” Lord Desai told me this morning. The economist and Labour peer founded the Global Governance Unit, beneficiary of the Gaddafi donation. ‘I left in 2003 but I said to them, if the money has no strings attached, take it.'” Wikipedia, March 3, 2011

Strings tend to have a long reach. In 2008, BaronMeghnad Desai, Professor Emeritus at LSE, and an unreconstructed Marxist economist to boot, was one of the two examiners of the 429-page thesis by Saif -al-Islam Gaddifi, the blood-thirsty son of Colonel Gaddafi. The title of that dissertation was: ‘The Role of Civil Society in the Democratisation of Global Governance Institutions: From Soft Power to Collective Decision-Making’.

In the wake of the civil war in Libya, information strongly indicates that Gaddafi’s dissertation may have been ghost-written. Evidence certainly confirms that the dissertation contains significant plagiarism of other scholars’ writings. Somehow, Baron Desai (who was appointed to the peerage by Prime Minister Tony Blair in 1991) managed to ignore both problems, even though rumors flooded LSE at the time of the examination. No doubt, his glowing examiner’s report helped to support Saif Gaddafi in securing a contract with Oxford University Press to publish the dissertation as a forthcoming scholarly book.

Shortly after Saif Gaddafi’s graduation, The Gaddafi International Charity and Development Foundation  pledged a donation of 1.5 million pounds sterling to the LSE.  The Chairman of that Foundation – surprise, surprise – is no other than Saif Gaddafi. The grant was welcomed with open arms by Sir Howard Davies, the Director of The London School of Economics. The grant went to the Institute founded by Meghnad Desai at the LSE.

In the wake of these revelations, the LSE is now under close press scrutiny. And the sun shines in some extremely unwelcome locations. It turns out that the School has secured an additional one million pound deal from the Gaddafi family to provide a training program for the dictatorship’s future elite. The LSE Director was personally involved in securing this lucrative contract from Saif Gaddafi.  No doubt all the Marxist political scientists on the School’s faculty were salivating at this opportunity  to encourage an anti-capitalist business climate across North Africa. 

And that is far from the end of an unfolding story. The Times discloses (March 3, 2011)  that similar programs have been provided by the LSE  to other ’emerging economies’, including Kazakhstan and Vietnam. The world’s academies await further disclosures of the decline and fall of the London School of Economics with bated breath. Like the Jasmine Revolution across North Africa and the Middle East – which now reaches out to threaten as far to the East as the People’s Republic of China –  one does not know where such disclosures will take us. Harvard, Yale, Princeton, Chicago?   Who knows where all this tainted ‘academic’ money has wended its corruptive way.

On mentoring doctoral students to successful completion

December 23, 2010

I understand that the overall success rate among doctoral candidates in the United States (across all disciplines) is very low for students who find themselves ABD (all but dissertation). I have seen figures as low as one in seven and as high as four in ten. Never have I seen a figure where a majority of thus-placed students, across the United States, successfully complete their dissertations and secure their degrees.

My success rate among the large numbers of students that I supervise is dramatically higher: in the range 96 to 98 percent across my career. How do I account for this huge differential?  In part, no doubt , it is due to the high quality of the graduate students who attend a program that has been graced by two Nobel Prize Winners in Economic Sciences. But that has not always been true, clearly not during my early career. Moreover, I have supervised my share of the most clever and of the less clever within the entry cohort of any program, top-knotch, or otherwise. So this is not the entire story by any means.

There are three reasons for my success. The first is a brutal requirement for productive hard-work that I place upon each and every student under my mentorship. Many are the students whom I have broken down into tears during the early phase of their dissertation, when they come to meetings with me bearing little or no incremental contribution. Like  young, untamed colts, once they are broken  in this manner, their expectations of a successful, well-disciplined career improve by several orders of magnitude.

The second reason for my success is that I place the same burden upon myself that I require from my students. I meet with each one for at least one hour every week of the year (with rare exceptions for vacations) until they have completed their dissertations. I read what they have written, provide detailed comments and suggestions, and expect that the better of those comments will be dealt with by the following meeting. By now, that has become  the  rational expectation for any student who seeks me out as a mentor and supervisor.

The third reason for my success is the dissertation proposal, upon which I place an enormous importance. Like building a fine house, work on the foundations is the basis of success. If the foundations are weak, any edifice, however magnificent it may appear to be, ultimately will collapse. Ideas  and structure are no less important than good concrete in this regard. To my mind, the Proposal is a contract that is written between the student and his committee, and that, once signed, is  inviolate with respect to the bond that it creates between the two parties.

For the Proposal to represent a contract, it must be well-developed and clearly defined with respect to all its aspects, including a thorough review of all the relevant literature.

If the dissertation embraces a normative position, is that normative position well-defined and internally coherent? How does it set against plausible alternatives?

If it contains positive analysis (as all my dissertations do) are the relevant models clearly articulated and developed, how do they compare with relevant extant models, and where does any element of originality lie? 

 If institutions are involved (as is the case with almost all my dissertations) how have those institutions evolved, what are their key characteristics, and (sometimes) how do they compare with other institutions in other locations,  across both time and space? 

If empirical analysis is required (as is the case with most of my dissertations) how well does the specification of the  empirical model reflect the theoretical model that has been developed, what are the testable predictions of that model, and how is the model to be refuted or not by empirical testing?

Finally, what data is required for such testing, does it exist or must it be compiled, and if so, from what sources and by what means?

Only when this foundational work has been completed will I allow a candidate to defend his Proposal before the committee. For only then is there a valid basis for a binding contract. Each committee member, in signing off on such a proposal effectively confirms (1) that the dissertation is worth while, and (2) that it is feasible.  Thereafter, the successful candidate can move forward with confidence to the completion of his dissertation.

Now, of course, the contract may be adjusted as the candidate discovers new insights or finds a better route to travel to his ultimate destination. However, whenever such an adjustment is proposed, all committee members are consulted, and their comments are taken seriously to make sure that they remain on board for the journey.

In a nutshell, those are the lessons that I have learned from a lifetime of experience. Not every supervisor and not every student will choose to follow that path. For me, however, it is the path to success, in some 96 to 98 percent of the cases that I have ever worked.