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Professor Mueller and 'The 11 O'Clock Number'

"If your students are asleep, you're not going to teach them much," says John Mueller, winner of the 1997 Curtis Award for Undergraduate Teaching. Not to worry. In this distinguished political scientist's classes, they're all wide awake.

By Denise Bolger Kovnat

Students filter into 1101 Dewey Hall on this wet, rainy Thursday, settle into their seats, and pull out pens and paper for a session of Political Science 275, a course on "National Security Policy" with Professor John Mueller. It's the second week of the new semester.

Mueller walks in, puts his glasses down on the table, and, glancing for a moment at his notes, launches into the topic: the mathematical probability of war--or, as he explains it, how leaders will determine the "expected utility" of war before firing a single bullet.

Two Modest Predictions

When beneficial things come to us, we quickly begin taking them for granted. Why is this so?

By John Mueller

I have yet to run into an American over the age of 47 who regularly observes, "You know, if I had been born in the 19th century, I'd very probably be dead by now." Nobody really thinks in such terms, yet the statement is completely true--and, of course, I don't mean in the sense that just about everybody who happened to be born in the last century is no longer with us, but that life expectancy in the United States as late as 1900 was 47.

It is commonly observed that people don't appreciate their health until they get sick, their freedom until they lose it, their wealth until it is threatened, their teeth until they ache. In other words, when beneficial things come to us we quickly come to take them for granted.

If they make us happier, we may very well not notice after a brief period of often-wary assimilation: They become ingested and seem part of our due, our place in life. Occasionally, people in affluent societies might pause to wonder how they ever got along without faxes, e-mail, ATMs, word processing, EKGs, jet transportation, frozen pizza, VCRs, garbage disposals, flush toilets, electric can openers, cellular phones, or espresso machines, but on those rare occasions, the observation is generally something of a joke, and rarely do they seriously concede that these eagerly accepted additions to their lives might somehow have made them happier.

Indeed, if anything, there is a tendency to look back at the past myopically, forgetting its complexities, and horrors, and often giving it a golden glow. We like to view the past as a simpler time, though the plays of Shakespeare and Aeschylus certainly do tend to suggest that people in olden times really did have some pretty complicated problems. And nostalgic images of 1900 American life rarely remember rotten teeth or note that each day at least three billion flies were created in cities by horse manure.

A systematic, if quiet, process of standard-raising also contributes. For example, a caption poised above an old carpet sweeper on display in an exhibit in the Strong Museum in Rochester observes, "Labor-saving devices like carpet sweepers helped middle-class people satisfy their desire for cleanliness within the home." Lest one conclude that this was an improvement, however, the caption writer quickly adds, "Unfortunately, each new development raised standards and expectations for cleanliness, making the ideal as hard as ever to achieve."

The media may play something of a role in all this, one that leads to a notable paradox. In a place where things are going unrelievedly badly (Sudan, for example), there may be editorial paydirt in optimism. But in places where things are going remarkably well (the United States, for example), good news, precisely because it is so common, simply doesn't sell. Consequently, pessimists and doomsayers (nattering nabobs of negativism) tend to dominate. The Atlantic, for example, seems addicted to articles like "The Crisis of Public Order," "The Drift Toward Disaster," "The Coming Anarchy," and "The Coming Plague," and the editors will only be truly happy, some suggest, when they will proudly be able to feature an article entitled, "World Ends, Experts Say."

The political process is also essentially devoted to bringing out the bad news. Incumbents may like to stress the positive, but challengers can't --they must work very hard to ferret out things that are wrong and that, at the same time, concern a fair number of voters. If they are successful in this, it would be impolitic for the incumbents simply to dismiss the voters' concern. They must agree, or appear to agree, that the problem is genuine and then propose a solution to the problem that seems superior to the one proposed by the challenger. The process leads to nice anomalies: The cleanliness of the air in the United States has improved markedly over the last two decades, but most people think (and many people seem to want to think) that the opposite is true.

Therefore, the catastrophe quota always remains comfortably full. When a major problem is resolved or eliminated or when a major improvement is made, there is little reflective comment, and problems previously considered small are quickly elevated in perceived importance. Nowhere is this clearer than in international affairs, where the Cold War and the threat of nuclear holocaust have evaporated in recent years to the distinct inconvenience of doomsayers everywhere. But with scarcely a pause for breath they have adroitly come up with a list of new problems to plague us in our "new world disorder."

One enumerator lists "the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the ballistic missiles to carry them; ethnic and national hatreds that can metastasize across large portions of the globe; the international narcotics trade; terrorism; the dangers inherent in the West's dependence on Mideast oil; new economic and environmental challenges." That none of these problems is new and that some of them are actually of less urgent concern than they were during the Cold War is of little concern. Wars deriving from ethnic and national hatreds are neither new nor increasing in frequency in the world, and nuclear proliferation is no more a new problem--in fact, may well be less of a problem--than it was in 1960, when John Kennedy repeatedly pointed out with alarm that there might be 10, 15, or 20 nations with a nuclear capacity by 1964. And the international drug trade has obviously been around for quite some time, while the West's supposedly dangerous dependence on Mideast oil has been a matter of pointed concern at least since 1973. The impact of terrorism has often been more in the exaggerated hysteria it generates than in its actual physical effects--fewer Americans are killed by international terrorists than are killed by lightning or by deer. Economic and environmental challenges are hardly new either, but new alarms can be raised. In a pessimistic best-seller in 1993, historian Paul Kennedy was able to work up quite a bit of concern over pollution, immigration, and robotics. Interestingly enough, war, a central preoccupation of his pessimistic best-seller of 1987, had apparently vanished from his worries: the word "war" does not even appear in the index of the later book.

Or, like Zbigniew Brzezinski, one can focus on such endearing, if vaporous, problems as "turmoil." And if that isn't alarming enough, we can always moan about the deficit, a problem chiefly caused by the fact that people live too long. Happily, in the course of the century improved medical care has not only generated a wonderful new problem to complain about, but it has supplied the average American with nearly 30 additional years of lifetime in which to do so (and with his or her original teeth, to boot).

All this suggests, then, two modest predictions about the next century:

The world is likely to experience a massive increase in economic growth and well-being.

And nobody will be particularly impressed.

John Mueller is professor of political science. This article was excerpted from "The Rise of the Politically Incorrect One-Handed Economist," a presentation at a festschrift in honor of Richard Rosecrance, January 1997.
To make his point, he turns to football. The students relax, grinning. "Expected utility" may not be so formidable after all.

"The easiest way to explain this," Mueller says, "is to look at the extra point in football. A team can kick for one extra point, or run and pass for two points. What you'll find is that coaches overwhelmingly choose to kick--even though they would get more points if they ran with it. They want to maximize the expected utility of their choice."

Actually, he says, they have an equal chance of success whether running or kicking, but they opt for caution. "A coach thinks, 'I take the risk of being called a jerk if I go for more points with the run and have a lot more personal pain when I fail at it.' Well, football and war are not quite the same--although sometimes football looks like it."

He gets a laugh.

By now the blackboard behind him is covered with "greater-than" and "lesser-than" signs, and equations using V for victory, D for defeat, and SQ for status quo. Moving from probabilities of war to probabilities of crime, he says, "Did you know that, in any one year in New York City--even if you figured that each robbery or burglary was committed by a different person--98.9 percent of all New Yorkers did not commit a robbery or a burglary? Why? Probably not because they were terrorized by a murderous New York City justice system." Another laugh.

In Mueller's classroom, learning and laughter meet: He uses the latter to prod the former. As sophomore Amy Spurling says after class, "He can take a depressing subject like national security policy and actually make it entertaining."

Adds Alain Taylor '98, back for his second course with Mueller: "His method is dynamic. In one class he was using his laptop computer, with the screen projected on the board in front of the class. He's talking about the bombing of Iraq, and he's showing bombs dropping off the screen. And then he reels off all sorts of facts, just off the top of his head."

Mueller has taught at the University since 1965, the year he received his doctorate from UCLA. Since then, he has trained his research on large, moving targets: foreign and defense policy, international relations, war and peace, the war in Vietnam, the post-Communist world, public opinion, democracy and capitalism--and, in an unlikely twist, dance history and the genius of Fred Astaire. (He says he fell in love with dance after attending a 1967 performance of the New York City Ballet choreographed by George Balanchine.)

With his broad intellectual repertoire, Mueller is in demand not just among undergraduates, but around the globe as well. In recent years he has lectured in Canada, England, Germany, Hungary, Italy, Mexico, Norway, Poland, Romania, Slovakia, and Spain, and across the country--everywhere from UCLA to Harvard to the tiny Holley (New York) Public Library. In addition to his scholarly publications (seven books, to date, and enough papers to earn him membership in the American Academy of Arts and Sciences), he routinely writes op-ed pieces for The Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, and Mosty (a Slovakian journal), among many other publications.

He's a respected dance critic, too, having written a prize-winning book on Fred Astaire (Astaire Dancing: The Musical Films). He created and oversees the Dance Film Archive, housed at the University, and he has produced and directed about a dozen films on dance. (Mueller says he doesn't dance himself, however. "And the world is probably better off for it.")

Among his musical comedies is Reaching for the Moon, which incorporates songs by George and Ira Gershwin into a play by P. G. Wodehouse and Ian Hay. Originally produced by Eastman Opera Theatre in 1987, the show is in the planning stages for production at the Shaw Festival in Canada, in a slightly different form and under the title Foggy Day.

Undergraduates give him raves: "Well-prepared, knowledgeable, enthusiastic, and willing to assist students." "Riveting lecturer." "He can get me out of bed, even when I am sick." "May be the best political science professor of the 20th century." It's not surprising, then, that he was singled out for this year's Edward Peck Curtis Award for Undergraduate Teaching, conferred at Commencement in May.

Among the many people supporting his nomination was former poli sci major Ronald Resnick '85, now the managing director of Dubin & Swieca, an investment management firm in New York City. Looking back on his courses with Mueller, he wrote, "What impresses me most is his ability to perceive things differently from other people and to reconcile and explain events and processes in a logical, but utterly non-ideological way." More than 11 years after he graduated, Resnick says, Mueller still visits him when he goes to Manhattan and sends him copies of the papers he writes.

From Harold Stanley, chair of the political science department, came this anecdote. ("In political science," Stanley notes, "some consider the plural of 'anecdote' to be 'data.'")

"A few years back we had a critical departmental meeting in which a final decision was to be made in a job search," Stanley wrote. "Opinions had not yet crystallized. The meeting was shifted around a few times to ensure that all the faculty members could attend, or so we thought.

The meeting time came, we waited a few minutes, but Mueller did not show. I offered to go find him. I did. He was holding his regular office hours with about five or six undergraduates lined up to see him. I reminded him of the meeting and told him we were waiting for him. The withering look told me eloquently but wordlessly that office hours for his students came first. If hard choices had to be made, his colleagues would have to carry on without him for mere departmental work."

And there was the anonymous testimony of a current undergraduate: "To be honest, Professor Mueller is the standard for professorship and I cannot criticize." Mulling over what might possibly improve the course, the writer offers, "Perhaps if Professor Mueller brought food or gave away money. . . ."

No food, no cash, just lots of work--and leavening humor, always. Naomi Bass '96 recalls Mueller's discussion of the 1982-83 fight between Argentina and Great Britain over the Falkland Islands, a rocky outpost distinguished by, in Mueller's words, "few people and a lot of sheep." Reflecting on the cost of defending the islands, he wonders aloud, "How many people would have left the place peacefully if they were offered a fraction of what the British paid to defend it?"

(He's funny out of class as well. Political scientist Richard Niemi recalls the time, several years ago, when Mueller celebrated the end of his own term as department chair--a job with administrative details he clearly didn't relish--by forwarding to his colleagues via phone mail the last measures of Tchaikovsky's 1812 Overture.)

Another former student, Cynthia Rapp '96, '97 (MS), asks, "How often does a professor congratulate a class on being born at a very exciting time and then add, 'But I'm sorry you missed Watergate--it was a wonderful spectator sport.' "

How often, indeed? How does Mueller himself explain his skill in the classroom?

"I don't know. It's what I do, I guess," he says, shrugging his shoulders as he sits behind his large, L-shaped desk in a corner office on the third floor of Harkness.

A sleek laptop waits, open, in front of him. (Mueller is a technophile--to the extent that University media specialists advise faculty to observe one of his class presentations if they want to learn about the adroit use of multimedia.) Nearby rests a printer and a phone, but books are a priority, just the same: Neatly taped on the wall, in a key spot, a page lists the phone numbers and schedules for the Monroe County Library System.

He unfolds his lanky frame from the chair, walks to a bookcase holding stacks of papers in progress, and picks up a proposal for his eighth and latest book.

Its working title: Democracy, Capitalism, and Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery. "Actually, it will probably end up the other way around, with capitalism named first," he says. "Capitalism is really the point." (More on Ralph's later.)

He sits down and continues to ponder the process of teaching. "It's important to do a good job, it seems to me. Teaching can be pretty invigorating: If things go well, it's really quite fun. But if things go badly, it's quite depressing. So there's a distinct incentive to do well.

"You also learn a lot. When someone asks a question, you have to formulate your answer carefully. A lot of the writing I do comes out of the classes I teach --and vice versa."

As a student of American musical comedy, Mueller views teaching as "a sort of theatrical event. For example, if the students are asleep, you're not going to teach them much. You need a sense of pace. Like an actor in a live performance, you pay attention to what's happening with the audience.

"There's a musical comedy term, 'the 11 o'clock number.' Three-quarters of the way through the second act of a two-act musical, you need a big number to energize the audience. And then it's downhill to the finish.

"Sometimes you need an 11 o'clock number in a lecture, too."

More important (when students are awake, that is), Mueller is a distinguished scholar who offers, in the words of one former student, "an inspiring example of how one should go about learning."

Testifying to the breadth (and accessibility) of his learning, the file of his news clips kept in the Office of University Public Relations got so unwieldy that it had to be broken down by date. (The file that dates from 1991 weighs about five pounds, even so.) As U.S. News & World Report observed, "In the world of scholarship, where reputations are so often built on detailed study of the esoteric, Mueller has managed to defy narrow specialization by becoming a respected authority on both war and American dance." A photo shows him seated next to a hat stand holding both a top hat and an Army helmet.

He insists that all this media attention merely reflects "a natural relationship" between a political scientist and the press: "They're interested in issues I'm supposed to know something about." That--and the inescapable fact that he never fails to deliver provocative, carefully weighed, and eminently quotable quotes.

On China and Communism--is the country going the same route as Eastern Europe in rejecting it? "They're certainly doing so economically," he says. "But they're embarrassed by the fact that they're out of it politically. So President Jiang Zemin likes to quote from the Declaration of Independence. And he's fond of singing 'Kiss Me Once and Kiss Me Twice'--I don't know why. . . ."

On the obsolescence of major war: "The long peace since World War II," he writes in his landmark volume, Retreat From Doomsday, "is less a product of recent weaponry than the culmination of a substantial historical process. For the last two or three centuries, major war--war among developed countries--has gradually moved toward terminal disrepute because of its perceived repulsiveness and futility."

On free trade: In a paper presented recently at UCLA, Mueller writes, "Free trade furnishes the economic advantages of conquest without the unpleasantness of invasion and the sticky responsibility of imperial control."

As for Ralph's Grocery: In the proposal for his newest book, he writes, "Ralph's Pretty Good Grocery in Lake Wobegon, a Minnesota town invented by the humorist Garrison Keillor, operates under a sensible, if rather unexhilarating slogan, 'If you can't get it at Ralph's, you can probably get along without it.' It is a central perspective of this book that democracy and capitalism, despite their image problems, have triumphed in part because people have essentially been persuaded to accept a version of Ralph's slogan. They can't supply everything, but on balance, people have effectively if sometimes rather reluctantly concluded, if you can't get it with democracy and capitalism, you can probably get along without it."

The wide-open world of academia, in a way, is like Ralph's, too: If you can't study it here, you can probably get along without it. And study is the operative word for John Mueller. He can't get along without it. Even as an undergraduate at the University of Chicago, to imbibe as broadly as possible he changed his major four times, from physics to English to music to political science.

"I work a lot," he admits, "probably 70 hours a week--but that includes things like reading The New York Times, which I consider a part of my work."

Does he have any avocations? "Bicycling, I suppose. And dance, if you count that as a hobby. But really, that's a hobby that's gotten out of hand."

Curiosity drives him, as former student Ron Resnick '85 observes: "It is obvious to students in a lecture hall when a teacher is truly interested in what he is teaching."

Or, as Mueller himself puts it, "You can't fool all of the students all of the time if you're not interested in your subject. It's important to be interested in your subject."

With that, he bids good-bye, turns to his laptop, and begins preparing for his next class.

Denise Bolger Kovnat wrote about the Eastman School's Ying Quartet in the Spring-Summer 1997 issue of the Review.

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Rochester Review--Volume 60 Number 2--Winter 1997-98
Copyright 1997, University of Rochester
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