Monthly Archives: November 2015

The best media strategy against terrorism

Charlie Brooker satirically reviewed the reasons why not/ how to report cases of mass shootings. The short answer: Don’t make terrorists icons. It is also the best strategy against the media milking fear of terrorism:


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Why Simple Models never Imply Simple Policies: Game Theory and the Paris Attacks

After the news hit me that France retaliated the recent terrorist attacks by bombing Syria, I was reminded of a course about game theory I took not even one week after 9/11. The course was taught by a leading political science game theorist. Naturally, sooner or later the discussion gravitated towards recent events. Being a game theorist he couched his answer into a game theoretical situation, the chainstore paradox. In his eyes, the more powerful agent (USA) needed to assert his dominance and credibility by immediate and strong action. This would deter future acts of violence.

I was flabbergasted. This answer flew in the face of my basic psychological intuition that ‘violence begets violence’. You might deter some rationally-forward looking agents who care about a worldly political project. But if matters of hatred, grievance, honour, and eternally glory are at stake, indiscriminately bombing people only makes terrorists stronger. There are numerous examples to back this, just think about the coup that brought down Iranian prime minister Mohammed Mossadegh and which eventually ushered in the regime of Ayatollah Khomeini.

This makes me wonder about the role of social science expertise in understanding the world. It is a worthwhile endeavour, as long as you don’t fall into the trap of believing it uncritically. Game theory is particularly persuasive: simple, lean, and for some nerds like me even aesthetically pleasing. But don’t exaggerate its powers. John Ruggie once mentioned another game theoretic situation, the stag hunt, a classic cooperation dilemma. The idea of this game is that only cooperation leads to an optimal beneficial outcome, but that incentives poise two hunters to defect from cooperation. The result is that both end up with less meat on the table. After the hunt the two hunters part ways, and they never meet again. Ruggie asked where these two hunters would go afterwards. Wouldn’t they meet again and feel sorry about their lack of cooperation?

In many real life situations the social and psychic fabric of human interaction is much more complex than a game theoretical constellation. Games can shed light on interesting aspects of the story, but they also necessarily neglect other aspects. This is why simple models almost never imply simple policy recommendations.

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Blogpost on Wyn Grant’s

My Blogpost on Bayern, Adidas and the German football capitalism is now also here

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Myths about the Practitioners-Academics Divide

Teaching at a School of Public Policy I am often confronted with an academics vs. practitioners narrative. This narrative conflates several different alleged dividing lines. For instance, many students think that theory counts less than practical experience. In the media, academics live in an ivory tower, whereas policy makers and pundits work on real problems. The managerial university wants academics to have real impact and not to dabble in basic research.

There is some truth to the fact that many academics excessively focus on puzzles over problems, and engage in excessive intellectual Glasenperlenspiele. Yet, in general the academics vs. practitioners juxtaposition is misguided in several respects.


First and foremost, universities and academia need to be open and permissive to ideas from policy makers, experts, pundits and journalists, but universities are not the same as policy makers, experts, pundits and journalists. They have different tasks, different goals, and different training.

Just for starters, most interesting policy problems have a profoundly normative element, say an important normative tradeoff. Perhaps a certain type of social policy is good for equity but not for efficiency reasons. Or a surveillance system infringes on individual freedoms, but helps fighting crime. If an academic gave policy advice disguising it as technocratic, neutral evidence this would clearly be dissimulation and dishonest behaviour. An academic can talk about normative issues, but cannot preach it without becoming a politician. If he or she wants to do so, he or she needs to change hats.

Second, like all people ‘practitioners’ have theories in their heads, even if they never would call it like that. We need to intervene in Iraq? Yes, because we have a normative commitment and we think that interventions have a good chance of being effective. That’s an empirical (research) question (I am afraid usually they don’t). It is a question of disguised theory: I think interventions work, because life gets better among ordinary people (it didn’t really in Iraq), because people are grateful for toppling a dictator (well, not always), because it will lower the oil price (it didn’t). Revealing these types of implicit blinders and adhoc reasonings and working them through in a systematic way is perhaps something policy makers don’t have time for (although I think they should). Yet, it is definitely something academics need to do in order to make sure they know the limits of their own reasoning.

Thirdly and most profoundly, I think there is also a misunderstanding and a certain abuse of the word practitioners. If you think hard it is quite difficult to draw precise lines between practitioners and theoreticians in a modern knowledge-based society. Governments run dozens of think tanks, research institutes and large scientific back-offices for both their executive and legislative branches. Are people working in these institutions practitioners or researchers? Many employees in supranational organizations do more research than practical work (IMF staff papers, ILO working papers, EU commission reports). In these examples, the boundary between academic and practitioner is clearly fuzzy.

This boundary becomes even blurrier, if you look from the perspective of universities. Any random academic like me has gathered a lot of practical experience in running programs, launching new ones, thinking about pedagogical tricks how to motivate students etc. This kind of practical knowledge will be overlooked in a world in which innovation seems to originate exclusively in the private sector. Why is this the case? A basic reason is that unlike measurable skills, experience is hard to observe. Experience is knowledge created on and for a specific job. People from other sectors, other jobs would not necessarily guess what types of experience are important. This is why experience often does not pay. And this is why outsiders sometimes overestimate their skills. Just think about the millions of wannabe sports coaches who always know better which players to pick, which tactics to use etc.

More fundamentally, I think, the academics vs. practitioners narrative comes from a certain perspective that deems the private sector inherently more productive than the public sector. While there are many good examples that the public sector does indeed have efficiency and incentives problems, stated in such a general form this claim is more ideological than real. Large bureaucracies create slack, motivation problems and coordination failures, no matter whether they are in the private or public sector. In organizations efficiency and effectiveness usually depend on many other things (much more) than on the private/ public divide.

Why do I say this? Clearly not just to complain (although, as any good academic, I excel at that). But it is necessary to show and argue what universities can do and what their role in societies is. In my field, for instance, the main task of universities is to educate people who want to become a certain type of practitioners in the government and non-profit sectors. We train bureaucrats for all types of agencies, whether or not you like the term ‘bureaucrat’. Academics can give these people basic skills, knowledge. It is much harder for them to give them experience. And what they cannot do, for instance, is to make them entrepreneurs. The large batch of famous college drop-outs like Bill Gates or Steve Jobs are testimony of this.

In a famous poem Robert Frost said fences make good neighbours. Thus clearly defining a division of labour between academics and the real world out there is beneficial for both sides. If you know what academics can and cannot do, there is little reason to fear an academics vs. practitioners divide, but much potential for fruitful cooperation.

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