Get to Know… Christopher Sands

June 2, 2011

Chris Sands is a Senior Fellow at Hudson Institute, where he specializes on Canada and U.S.-Canadian relations, as well as North American economic integration. He is also a professorial lecturer at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies, an adjunct professor in Government at the American University School of Public Affairs, and lectures at the Foreign Service Institute of the U.S. Department of State and for the US Department of Homeland Security.

Chris currently serves as treasurer and a member of the executive committee for the Canadian Politics Section of the American Political Science Association. He is a member of the research advisory board of the Macdonald-Laurier Institute in Ottawa, and a member of the advisory board of the Canada-United States Law Institute jointly-established by the law schools of Case Western Reserve University and the University of Western Ontario.

You can contact Chris Sands through the Hudson Institute.

What do you actually do in your job? Working at a think tank involves a constant process of absorbing and analyzing information. So I end up reading, talking to people, attending discussions and occasionally convening them. Then I need time to think about it all, trying to tease out the patterns and trends. Then, the hard part: writing up the results, and putting my thoughts out for critical review. Friends, colleagues, students of mine and of others, and a few persistent critics will respond, and then the cycle repeats. A friend recently told me about an episode of The Big Bang Theory where the main character describes his life as a physicist as, “I think about things. And them sometimes I write things down.” That is a fair summary of my life, too, except that I talk a lot along the way.

What is the hardest thing about your job? Fundraising! It is a constant challenge, meeting new people and trying to convince them of the value of the research I’m interested in doing. Not everyone with money is well-suited to be a think tank donor, either. Many want to control the outcome, or take a utilitarian view of research and expect you to lobby for their interests. The majority of the people who read and enjoy my work are policymakers or scholars (including students) who expect to get it for free, and even potential donors wonder whether it would be safer to wait and enjoy the work without paying. There is a story that Beethoven once auditioned for a new patron, a German noble, and after 30 minutes of playing the piano while the noble ate, chatted with people and paid very little attention, Beethoven stopped abruptly. The noble said, “Fine, I think we can give you something.” And Beethoven said “No. Art is not created for money but for those who appreciate it. You have money but not appreciation; art cannot thrive in your house.” Although probably apocryphal, this story captures something about the fundraising dilemma. In practice, you get a lot of rejection and bad matches before you can find a sponsor who appreciates the work and lets you alone to do it.

What do you most enjoy about it? Oh my gosh, what is not to love?  A life of research and writing is wonderful, but even better: I work on North American political economy! That means I get to interact with Canadians, Americans and Mexicans on issues related to building things, inventing things, growing wealth, and finding ways to regulate and inspect this productivity in a way that doesn’t interfere with its vitality. In an age of technology breakthroughs in manufacturing, energy, transportation logistics and information, there are some amazing possibilities. And this builds on a tradition of managing relations among the three countries that has had its difficult periods but which has ultimately reflected the pragmatism and mutual goodwill of the people who live in North America.

Where were you born and raised? I was born in Detroit, Michigan and raised in the Detroit suburbs. It is a wonderful part of the world, but tough to get to know for visitors. I love Michigan, though, and enjoy getting back there to visit family and see friends.

What did you study? As an undergraduate, political science, and as a graduate student more political science and economics. My French is less fluent than I would like, I have a little Spanish, but really enjoyed taking Latin in college. A few years ago, I found a copy of the bible in Latin, and my retirement project will be to translate passages and compare my renderings with what others have done.

What was your first job and what path led you to your work today? My first job was as a newspaper carrier for a weekly community paper. When I started, a subscription cost 70 cents for a month, which had to be collected in person, door-to-door. Year after year, the rate went up, first to 80 cents, then 85, and then to 90. Most subscribers would give me a dollar, so that the rate increases came out of what was otherwise my tip. Then, the paper decided that to boost circulation, they wanted the paper delivered to every house on my route whether it was wanted or not. This meant I had to dodge angry neighbors who didn’t want the paper, plus my customers didn’t want to pay for the paper when it was going to be delivered for free. It was a lesson in economics and business that illustrated for me the problems that can be caused by foolish management and a bad business model. Luckily, I used the contacts I made on my paper route to diversify into babysitting, lawn mowing, snow shoveling and other more profitable alternatives!

What is the best advice you received in the course of your career? Two great insights came to me from colleagues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies that I try to follow. First, Sidney Weintraub told me that when I wrote something, I should go back over it and try to eliminate all of the adverbs; then on a second pass, eliminate as many adjectives as possible. It was liberating for my prose style, which isn’t the best but got much better because of this tip. Second, Howard Wiarda told me that I should have one idea in every paragraph – no more and no less. This helped me to untangle my thinking and express ideas more clearly.

Looking back, what are you most proud of? That, despite working too often and too hard in my 20s and 30s, I was smart enough to realize that I needed someone in my life, hopeful enough to persevere through the travails of middle-aged dating, and lucky enough to find my wife Victoria and convince her to marry me. I was a typical Washingtonian whose work-life balance was in a severe state of disequilibrium, but found happiness after all. Now, I try every day not to mess this up!

When and how do you start your day? Once I get to my desk, I try to read, think and write for an hour (two on a good day) before the chaos of the world makes it impossible to concentrate. All of our technology makes it hard to avoid interruptions and diversions, but there is no substitute for silence and the chance to read, reflect, and write.

If you had an alternative career, what would it be? If I could I would be a full-time professor, but I’m in the small generation that is squeezed between the Baby Boomers (who dominate tenured professorships at universities today) and their children, so I’m lucky to have found similar work with the chance to teach occasionally as an adjunct professor. My next job, though, might be as a Walmart greeter. I do like to meet people and to be helpful!

Favorite sports team? I’m not a great sports fan, but still follow the Detroit teams: Lions, Pistons, Red Wings, Tigers as well as University of Michigan football.

Who is your hero or heroine? Not so much a hero as someone whose life I truly envy: Gian Francesco Poggio Bracciolini, who lived from 1380 to 1459, and was fluent in several languages including Latin and Greek. He traveled from his native Florence to monasteries around Italy and in Germany and France and recovered – often copying out by hand – a wealth of classical texts that were preserved in monastic libraries. Along the way, he kept a notebook filled with the best jokes he heard from monks and abbots and those he found in the satires and more humorous classical texts he uncovered.  To be able to bring great works to light for posterity and to do so with an appreciative sense of humor – that was a life well-lived!

Drink of choice? I’m a single malt scotch drinker, which is a luxury I try to reserve for weekends and special occasions.

Hobbies? The truth about me is that I dread boredom, and even when I am not thinking about work I like to keep my brain stimulated, so I try to make time for novels. I’m not much into the New York Times bestsellers, but prefer difficult, challenging, fiction. Last year I made it through the novels of Samuel Beckett (unpleasant but fascinating) and newer books by several Pakistani authors: Moshin Hamid, Mohammed Hanif, and Daniyal Mueenuddin. Contemporary Canadian and U.S. fiction tends to be too shallow and formulaic for me, but I am fond of a few Canadian authors like Margaret Laurence, Jacques Ferron, and even Hugh Hood.

What is one worthwhile book you read in the past year? Forgotten Partnership: U.S.-Canada Relations Today by Charles F. Doran. The book was first published over 25 years ago (in 1984) and is packed with insights on how the United States once and could again approach its relationship with Canada based on the author’s perception that during the Nixon, Ford, Carter and Reagan administrations U.S. relations with the Trudeau governments had fallen into repeated, low-intensity conflicts. When the book came out, it was soon overshadowed by the election of the first Mulroney government and a corresponding sense that the partnership was back on track.  I returned to this book as I began work on an edited volume on the legacy continued relevance of Doran’s  along with Dr. Greg Anderson at the University of Alberta – we both studied under Doran, who heads the Canadian Studies program at Johns Hopkins University’s Nitze School of Advanced International Studies. Our book, Forgotten Partnership Remembered, is due out from Cambria Press later this year.

What is one thing you’d like to learn more about? Industry! My work centers around the relationships that produce everything from cars to energy to consumer goods along international – often global – supply chains; and how this activity is regulated, inspected and taxed by governments. I’m always interested in learning about the dynamics of a new industry and the problems it has with how its design, innovation and production processes are governed. Recently, I have been looking into U.S. export controls for sensitive defense technologies and how these are affecting the integrated defense industrial base that has connected Canadian producers to the United States since at least World War I. I’m also fascinated by automation, from industrial and other applications for robotics to things like self-driving cars. The permutations of government-industry relations are numerous and dynamic and there always seems to be a new industry I encounter and then can’t wait to understand.

What is your favorite place in Canada and your favorite place in the US? My favorite city in Canada is Ottawa. I studied at Carleton University as an undergraduate during my junior (third) year abroad, and returned there to the Norman Paterson School of International Affairs as a Fulbright scholar. I have great friends in Ottawa, but more than that, having lived there for extended periods of time I came to really appreciate the city and its charm.  As for the United States, I love Michigan, the Detroit area and especially “up north.”

What is one thing you’d like to tell Canadians about the U.S., and/or one thing you’d tell Americans about Canada? The French essayist André Gide once wrote, “Please don’t understand me too quickly.” That would be my advice to Canadians and Americans regarding each other. The complexities and nuances of these two great societies are masked by our pragmatic desire to get along and forge ahead and get down to business or have fun in one another’s company. And the truth is, we keep it simple for each other and get along just fine most of the time; in short, we thrive on understanding each other, and ourselves, too quickly. Plato tells us that Socrates said that the unexamined life is hardly worth living. We would all do well to take another look at our neighbors and ourselves, and it is likely that if we did, we’d discover just how much we don’t know or understand at all.

Bonus: Do you consider yourself a “bilateralist”? Honestly, I am probably closer to being a continentalist – not in the 19th century sense of hoping for political union between Canada and the United States, but in the sense that I think that economic integration is desirable among Canada, the United States and Mexico. Perhaps that makes me a neo-continentalist (neo-con for short?). And I think that this economic integration is desirable because it has raised incomes, opportunity and quality of life as it has proceeded, making North America a competitive region of the world and a more interesting place to live, work and think. Of course, this economic integration raises important challenges for governance as it deepens. That is where things get really interesting, at least for think tank guys!


Also Get to Know… David Archibald, Susan Casey-Lefkowitz, Connect2Canada, Perrin Beatty, David Biette, John ParisellaSheldon AlbertsDanielle DroitschLee-Anne GoodmanDavid Wilkins, Christy Cox, Chris Sands, Birgit Matthiesen,  Scotty Greenwood, Luiza Ch. Savage


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