Monthly Archives: October 2015

To Choose or not to Choose: Should Students Choose the Topic of their Theses or Should Supervisors Do This?

Year after year I see a lot of BA/ MA/ PhD students struggling with finding and delineating a topic. If my memory serves me well, I had similar problems when I was a student. It can be overwhelming to choose a topic and then ‘slice it and dice it’ in a way that lets you finish in a realistic time scale. The problem is less one of motivation, students always have an idea what they are interested in. The real trouble lies in making the topic small enough to be feasible, but big enough to remain interesting for the student. [Spoiler alert: eventually, all feasible topics are minuscule] Students often have problems identifying the relevant scholarly literature (let alone identifying a gap therein). Which data to use, which sources, methods?

Etruscan civilization. Two-faced Janus head, from Vulci, Montalto di Castro, Viterbo Province, Italy.,De Agostini

Etruscan civilization. Two-faced Janus head, from Vulci, Montalto di Castro, Viterbo Province, Italy.,De Agostini

Ironically, most of the students end up with spending too much time on thinking and designing their research idea/ proposal/ sketch and too little with doing the actual research. I have seen many theses that have a lot of thoughtfully written introductions/ literature reviews/ ‘research frameworks’ but very little flesh to these bones in terms of evidence/data/criticisms/analysis etc. If it’s somewhat frustrating for the supervisors to read this, it is clearly an ordeal for the students who wrote that.

In other sciences it is not uncommon for the professors to suggest topics. This prompts the questions whether social sciences should also endorse such a practice. As with any interesting choice in life, this doesn’t come as a free lunch. There are clear benefits letting the supervisor choose the topic:

o Better matching of interests and hence better counseling
o Less time spend looking, more time spent doing research
o Going deeper into stuff

However, there are also clear disadvantages

o Students may end up being a lackey for the professor
(this is a particularly pertinent problem in German-style education systems)
o For the professor it becomes hard to dislike the project and to remain neutral
o It limits the creativity and one of the most important job skills:
making decisions without having lots of time.

Thus, it is hard to give general recommendations, but I have some observations to make: For PhD students I distrust to a certain degree a model in which the supervisor practically designs the project. I have seen cases where PhD students needed to defend the poorly developed research design of their professors in the doctoral defenses. This creates a lot of conflict of interest and even academic feuds among colleagues with the biggest victims being the students. Such a system creates citation fabrics for professors, but it is not always helpful for the student. There are obviously successful cases in which the professor and student work closely together to mutual benefit (e.g. joint publications). But I think this only happens if there are clear boundaries. Essentially the student needs to bring in his or her creativity and develop material sufficiently independently. In cases where students and professors become project partners it is very advisable to have an exam system which respects that: the supervisor should no longer be part of the (voting) evaluation/ exam committee.

In the case of BA/ MA theses, as long as similar boundaries are respected, I think it can be a viable alternative to let the supervisor suggest the topic. The supervisor often knows the literature much better, is better trained to identify gaps, puzzles and problems. He or she may also know interesting data sources or contacts. Of course, students need to be very careful and also realistic. Getting the topic doesn’t mean getting an excellent grade. But the more the topic is of mutual interest, the stronger the synergies for both sides involved.

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It’s time to Turn the Heat on FIFA’s Bribers

There is a funny little scene in a recent Sherlock Holmes movie where the detective drives a prototypic car creating an infernal noise. His colleague Watson is most concerned that this kind of transport would draw the attention of Holmes’ enemies to which the detective succinctly replies: ‘it’s so overt, it’s covert’.

The recent scandal about the World Cup 2006 bid very much reminds me of this scene. Not only did it sound scarcely credible when German football authorities assured that its bid was clean. To me it also seems obvious that we can trace back the ‘irregular’ activities to those who would benefit the most from such behaviour: corporate sponsors. In my previous blogpost I argued that Adidas holds a key position in the political economy of German football deeply influencing both the fate of the national and the international game. It came as little surprise then that Adidas’ former chief executive manager Louis Dreyfus was a prominent figure in the German World Cup bid, supposedly providing the necessary cash to ‘convince’ some of the FIFA representatives to vote accordingly. Far beyond this incident Andrew Jennings has described how companies have influenced and engineered FIFA decisions.

Given the involvement of powerful sponsors I also think that the corruption scandal is not about the ‘clean’ North implementing a highly naïve and unrealistic ‘good governance’ agenda on the Global South (for an example see here) as insinuated by Branko Milanovic and others. Corruption is essentially a north south problem which binds together, in a rather asymmetric way, corrupt practices involving both sides. Strangely enough, though, the heat is predominantly turned on the FIFA representatives. In a certain sense that is fair, since these are the decision makers and gate-keepers of the beautiful game. But it is also part of a remarkably partial and in some ways anti-regulation discourse that blames the bribe takers, but forgets about the bribe givers. For a long time, corruption was so accepted in Europe that many countries gave tax subsidies to bribe giving, especially for those bribes given abroad (for the German case see here).

It is time to turn the heat also against the bribe givers. To be sure not all types of practices of gift giving and of business coordination are acts of corruption. In addition, there are many practices that legally don’t count as corruption but are nonetheless serious instances in which money biases unfairly political decision making. Hence, the FIFA case is a fascinating case study for how to deal with these practices in a multi-cultural context. But in excessive forms corrupt practices such as leaked in the FIFA scandal, they are a serious problem for the legitimacy and credibility for the governing bodies. They are also a tremendous force for increasing inequality and poor performance in general (see IMF paper here). After all, most personalized money illegally given to FIFA representatives does not trickle down and improve the football infrastructure of their countries. In this sense there is also a difference between populist practices of dishing out sums to associations to secure their votes, and corrupt practices for buying of individual decision makers.

For all these reasons we need to include the bribe givers in the scandalization and treat the scandal issue as what it is: a global one, in which neither the rich or the poor countries hold the moral upper ground.

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Short article in Spanish on big (satellite) data

Iluminando el mundo nocturno.
Lo que revelan los datos satelitales sobre la economía y política en México
(publicado en U-GOB Tecnologia en Gobierno No. 4 – 2015)


En estos días, big data se discute tanto en publicaciones científicas como en el debate público. Por un lado, big data puede ayudar a la administración pública haciéndola más eficiente y eficaz. Por el otro, más información no es igual a mejor información, y el uso de big data también tiene un perfil político, conllevando ciertos riesgos. En este artículo quiero ilustrar las ventajas y desventajas de las nuevas tecnologías de comunicación, las posibilidades que generan, y los desafíos que las acompañan. Para ello tomaré el ejemplo de datos de satélites que muestran la iluminación (artificial) de la tierra en la noche.

Los datos satelitales son cada vez más accesibles para el sector público y organizaciones sin fines de lucro. Un ejemplo son los datos del Servicio de Satélites e Información de la administración pública de EE.UU. Desde hace 20 años sus satélites miden la emisión nocturna de luz eléctrica alrededor del planeta. Los datos revelan fascinantes detalles sobre la actividad humana a través del tiempo y en diferentes regiones del mundo. Las dos gráficas que he producido para este artículo muestran a México desde el espacio en los años 1992 y 2012, respectivamente.



A primera vista destacan tres cosas. La iluminación nocturna era muy desigual hace 23 años, comparando el centro del país (sobre todo la región capitalina) con áreas poco pobladas como Baja California o Chihuahua. También es obvio que la iluminación nocturna ha aumentado considerablemente en los últimos veinte años. Por último, se nota que no ha cambiado en todos lados a con la misma tasa. Es decir, la desigualdad interregional que existe en México ha crecido en estas dos décadas.
A diferencia de otros países, en México el uso de este tipo de datos todavía no es muy común. Este tipo de datos puede usarse para medir científicamente muchas cosas: crecimiento económico (vease p. ej. aqui), grado de urbanización (un ejemplo aqui), cuestiones de desigualdad (un ejemplo aqui), de la distribución de infraestructura (vease mi blogpost sobre Myanmar) y procesos políticos como clientelismo y corrupción (un ejemplo aqui).

Sin embargo, ¿qué tanto pueden revelar estos datos verazmente? La respuesta es: depende del propósito. Los datos de las gráficas miden emisión de luz y corrigen las fuentes naturales (como llamas de petróleos/ gas o incendios). Lo que revelan es información sobre uso de electricidad e, indirectamente, infraestructura (por ejemplo, líneas de electrificación y acceso a energía). Además, revelan información relevante sobre la urbanización y, sobre todo, sobre la extensión de zonas industriales y metropolitanas. El crecimiento descomunal de la región central en México es un ejemplo impresionante para este tipo de estudios. La hipertrofia de ciudades grandes es uno de los problemas más graves del país, y los datos de satélite pueden contribuir mucho a su análisis.

Ahora bien, hay quienes proponen usar estos datos para medir crecimiento económico en general o desigualdad. En ese sentido los datos son útiles sólo hasta un cierto límite. Son muy útiles para darse una idea del crecimiento económico en regiones que son difíciles de acceder o donde, por razones políticas, existe poca información. Tal es el caso de Myanmar (Birmania) o Corea del Norte.
En regiones donde las estadísticas públicas son más abiertas y confiables sin duda hay mejores fuentes de información y los datos de satélite pierden mucho de su ventaja. En México, a pesar de la confiabilidad de los datos estadísticos abiertos al público y a la investigación, este tipo de datos tiene potencial para la administración pública. La razón es que en México sí hay algunas regiones con baja calidad de datos estadísticos o donde la información es difícil de producir por la presencia de conflictos violentos.

Estos datos satelitales también serían de utilidad para medir la economía informal, el aumento del tráfico y para dimensionar problemas de contaminación y de la salud. Para todos estos fines podrían contribuir a un gobierno inteligente (smart government). En un sentido amplio, pues, los datos sirven, con ciertas precauciones, para evaluar el rendimiento de la administración pública. ¿Hasta dónde llega la infraestructura? ¿Cuáles son los criterios de distribución? ¿Son aplicados de verdad los criterios oficiales a la distribución de bienes comunes o pesan más otros procesos políticos? ¿Por qué ciertas regiones se quedan ciertas mientras que otras logran convergencia? En resumidas cuentas, estos datos pueden servir para rendir cuentas respecto a diferentes esferas del gobierno y, más directamente, podrían contribuir a reducir el favoritismo en la distribución de infraestructura energética.

Obviamente, el uso de big data – como todo tipo de innovación tecnológica – es ambivalente; es decir, la aplicación también trae ciertos riesgos y depende del cuidado y la ética en su uso. Si la información no es distribuida imparcialmente y no beneficia todos lados interesados, los datos pueden ser objeto de manipulación o difusión sesgada. Además, el uso los datos de satélite, cuya frecuencia está explotando exponencialmente dado el uso de drones y satélites privados, también conlleva nuevas cuestiones éticas respecto a las esferas de privacidad, violación de privacidad y uso comercial. Estas cuestiones serás más importantes en tanto los datos sean revelen información más detallada sobre individuos.

Para evitar estas desventajas es fundamental que el acceso a estos datos –big data- sea libre y se base en el respeto a los derechos individuales. La transparencia y claridad en las reglas del juego son fundamentales para igualar el acceso de todas las personas a los datos y la capacidad de todas las personas para usar la información. En este sentido el uso de datos solo servirá al interés público si es a la vez una herramienta al servicio de la administración pública y un mecanismo abierto para que los ciudadanos la controlen.

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The three worlds of football capitalism and why Bayern Munich dominates the German League

Germans say money doesn’t make you happy, but it is comforting. In this sense, money clearly is not everything in modern football, but it is more than often decisive. On average, the wage bill of a team in the British Premier League accounts for some 70 to 80% of the variation in table position (my calculations on basis of data from here.) In other leagues this may be less, but not by much. For the last years in the Bundesliga the correlation is around 60% despite the fact that some well-known big clubs such as Stuttgart and Hamburg notoriously try to proof the power-of-money thesis wrong.

Of course, correlation is no causation, and there are some quabbles about what kind of money is important (transfer fees, salaries etc.). But the fact is, money matters.

There are several main sources of income for football clubs: TV deals, and merchandising, match-day revenues and commercial sponsorship (see the excellent Swiss Ramble on the details). And then there is debt. Football clubs differ tremendously in the amount of debt they can accumulate without being punished. This can be due to either state intervention (tax arrears, subsidies etc.) or, for the lack of a better word, a sugar daddy in the form of an investor who doesn’t look too much at the returns of his or her investment (insert here you favourite Sheik, oligarch or other big-pursed aficionado).

The big leagues not only differ in the overall amount of revenues there clubs make, but also in the mix between these forms of revenue. In some leagues (relatively or absolutely) a lot of money comes out of TV deals (the Premier League being the outstanding example), in some it’s commercial sponsorship (especially the Bundesliga), and in others money comes from of ‘soft budget constraints’ (La Liga): big donors/ owners plus ‘sympathetic’ politicians. As for the latter, just think about the Lex Beckham, a provision in the Spanish tax law that gave favourable income-tax treatment to foreign players. Or think about the ways how clubs can accumulate tax arrears and get away with high loads of debt. This is not to say that these types of revenues don’t matter also in the other leagues, but the relative importance differs. There are clearly three (or more?) national variants across the main leagues.

These types seem to be strong related to what in social sciences is called varieties of capitalism. Some political economists claim that there is a crucial difference between ‘liberal’ Anglo-Saxon countries and ‘coordinated’ Continental Europe. In the first, the emphasis predominantly lies on market exchange (e.g. the UK), whereas in the second, there are strong corporatist arrangements between firms. Some also claim that these two are different from a Southern European type in which traditional social arrangement dominate. Moreover, in all three modes the government intervenes in the (football) market to a different degree and in different forms.

While these configurations or types are never perfect, they have some interesting stories to tell about the varieties of football capitalism. Germany being the industrial powerhouse of Europe, it is no coincidence that Bundesliga clubs make relatively more money out of sponsorship deals. Bayern Munich, for example, makes 60% of all revenue out of commercial activities among which sponsorship is the most important one (see Deloitte Football Money League 2015). The Bundesliga is much less successful in acquiring lucrative TV deals, and since fans-owned Bundesliga clubs also look down on the uninhibited involvement of tycoons these types of income are similarly limited.

So if commercial sponsorship rules for the whole of the league, it still doesn’t explain why Bayern also dominates nationally. Former boss Uli Hoeness would argue that this is entirely due to good shop-keeping, and thorough accounting (even if he himself seemed to be rather creative about these things). But is it really all due to good management? Other clubs should and clearly have emulated management practices at various times, and while some clubs clearly don’t – ahem Hamburg –, I doubt that good management is the full story.

Of course, one may also say that it was sheer damn luck in the form of a golden generation in the 1970s, but other clubs also had golden generations. Or rather they would have had, if these teams hadn’t been taken apart by bigger players in the food pyramid.

So we are back again to money. Indeed Bayern can look back to a long row of powerful sponsors such as Allianz, Audi, Telekom, Opel, Commodore, Iveco, Magirus Deutz etc. As Soccernomics argues it is fundamental for a club to have a good industrial environment to get this kind of corporate attraction. But again, other cities in Germany would have similarly good economic environments: Stuttgart, Frankfurt, Cologne, Hamburg are all cities with a decent network of large companies that could or do give money to sports.

I think there must be something else in the mix, a more sinister force, if you will. And my hunch is, it is Adidas, currently the second largest producer of sports accessories and clothes in the world. Adidas has gotten some bad press recently, because it is one of FIFA’s most loyal corporate sponsors and still clinging to Sepp Blatter. And the critique is well placed: Adidas made Blatter big, and Blatter made Adidas big. From the 1970s onwards Adidas became the main sponsor of the FIFA world cup. And Adidas is the oldest and arguably by far the most important sponsor of Bayern Munich. As early as the 1950s Adi Dassler gave money and equipment to the club Bayern Munich. What followed was a symbiotic co-evolution: each Bayern success meant better sales for Adidas and in return more sponsorship money. Perhaps the clearest example of this intimate relationship is the fact that Adidas currently holds 8 per cent of the shares of the Bayern AG.

Adidas is very different from all the other sponsors. Sponsors usually do give money to raise the profile of the company, to improve the public image. So they often lose interest after a while, especially if a team hits a bad run. Or maybe the companies loose interest because the go through a financial quagmire (Is Wolfsburg’s clock ticking?). But Adidas makes direct money out of sponsorship. With such a sponsor at the side, Bayern could wither away lush periods of sportive stagnation and easily bounce back every time, whereas other clubs like Gladbach, Cologne or Bremen would go into a vicious spiral of loosing on the pitch and in the corporate field at the same time. So good shop keeping perhaps, but cozy business relationships need more than that for a club to become the Bundesliga’s monopolist.


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