Tag Archives: War

Why Does Govt Do Stuff?

Looking across the many different activities and sectors of society, how well can we predict where governments get more vs. less involved?

Though this is an oft discussed topic, I can’t recall seeing an overall theory summary. So I thought I’d write one up. Here are some big relevant factors, and areas they may explain. Most are tentative; you may well convince me to move/change/add them.

Control – Whomever runs the government prefers to control areas that can be used to prevent and resist opposition and rivals.
Predicts more: religion, military, police, law, news, schools, disaster response, electricity, energy, banking.

Scale – If supplying a product or service has strong economies of scale, network, or coordination, it can be cheaper to use one integrated organization, who if private may demand excessive prices and thereby threaten control.
Predicts more: military, “roads” (including air, boat travel support), social media, money, language, electricity, telecom, water, sewer, trash, parks, fire, software, fashion, prestige
Predicts less: housing, food, medicine, art, entertainment, news, police, jail.

Innovation – As governments seem less able to encourage or accommodate effective innovation, governments tend to be less involved in rapidly evolving sectors.
Predicts more: roads, water, sewer, track, parks.
Predicts less: military hardware, vehicles, tech/computers, entertainment, social networks.

Variety – Governments tend to encourage and be better at relatively standardized products and services, done with fewer versions, more the same for everyone everywhere at all times.
Predicts more: war, medicine, schools, disaster response, roads.
Predicts less: housing, food, entertainment, romance, parenting, friendship, humor.

Norms – Norms are shared, and we like to enforce them together, officially.
Predicts more: religion, law, war, romance, parenting, medicine, drugs, gambling, slavery, language, manners, sports.

Show Unity – As we want to show that we are together, and care about each other, we like to do the things we to do to show such care together in a unified way.
Predicts more: religion, poverty/unemployment/health insurance, school, medicine, fire, parks, housing, food, disaster response, trash/sewer, coverage expansion subsidies.

Show Off – We want to impress outsiders with our tastes, abilities.
Predicts more: research, schools, high art, high sport, roads, parks, shared space architecture, trash/sewer.
Predicts less: low art/entertainment, low sport, gossip.

Hypocrisy – When we profess some motives, but others are stronger, the opacity and slack of government agencies, and better ability to suppress critiques, makes them better able to hide such differences.
Predicts more: medicine, drugs, gambling, schools, police, jail, courts, romance, zoning, building codes, war, banking.
Predicts less: water, sewers, electricity.

If we could collect even crude stats on how often or far govt is involved in each area, and crudely rate each area-factor combo for how strongly that factor applies to that area, we could do a more formal analysis of which of factors predict better where.

Note that scale is the strongest factor suggesting that govt does more when more govt helps more. Innovation and variety suggest that also when those factors are the cause of govt involvement, but much less so if those features are the result. While norms are on average valuable, it is much less clear when govt support improves them. Most signaling likely helps each society that does it, but is done too much for the good of the world overall.

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A Perfect Storm of Inflexibility

Most biological species specialize for particular ecological niches. But some species are generalists, “specializing” in doing acceptably well in a wider range of niches, and thus also in rapidly changing niches. Generalist species tend to be more successful at generating descendant species. Humans are such a generalist species, in part via our unusual intelligence.

Today, firms in rapidly changing environments focus more on generality and flexibility. For example, CEO Andy Grove focused on making Intel flexible:

In Only the Paranoid Survive, Grove reveals his strategy for measuring the nightmare moment every leader dreads–when massive change occurs and a company must, virtually overnight, adapt or fall by the wayside–in a new way.

A focus on flexibility is part of why tech firms tend more often to colonize other industries today, rather than vice versa.

War is an environment that especially rewards generality and flexibility. “No plan survives contact with the enemy,” they say. Militaries often lose by preparing too well for the last war, and not adapting flexibly enough to new context. We usually pay extra for military equipment that can function in a wider range of environments, and train soldiers for a wider range of scenarios than we train most workers.

Centralized control has many costs, but one of its benefits is that it promotes rapid thoughtful coordination. Which is why most wars are run from a center.

Familiar social institutions tend to be run by those who have run parts of them well recently. As a result, long periods of peace and stability tend to promote specialists, who have learned well how to win within a relatively narrow range of situations. And those people tend to change our rules and habits to suit themselves.

Thus rule and habit changes tend to improve performance for rulers and their allies within the usual situations, often at the expense of flexibility for a wider range of situations. As a result, long periods of peace and stability tend to produce fragility, making us more vulnerable to big sudden changes. This is in part why software rots, and why institutions rot as well. (Generality is also often just more expensive.)

Through most of the farming era, war was the main driver pushing generality and flexibility. Societies that became too specialized and fragile lost the next big war, and were replaced by more flexible competitors. Revolutions and pandemics also contributed.

As the West has been peaceful and stable for a long time now, alas we must expect that our institutions and culture have been becoming more fragile, and more vulnerable to big unexpected crises. Such as this current pandemic. And in fact the East, which has been adapting to a lot more changes over the last few decades, including similar pandemics, has been more flexible, and is doing better. Being more authoritarian and communitarian also helps, as it tends to help in war-like times.

In addition to these two considerations, longer peace/stability and more democracy, we have two more reasons to expect problems with inflexibility in this crisis. The first is that medical experts tend to think less generally. To put it bluntly, most are bad at abstraction. I first noticed this when I was a RWJF social science health policy scholar, and under an exchange program I went to the RWJF medical science health policy scholar conference.

Biomed scholars are amazing in managing enormous masses of details, and bringing up just the right examples for any one situation. But most find it hard to think about probabilities, cost-benefit tradeoffs, etc. In my standard talk on my book Age of Em, I show this graph of the main academic fields, highlighting the fields I’ve studied:

Academia is a ring of fields where all the abstract ones are on one side, far from the detail-oriented biomed fields on the other side. (I’m good at and love abstractions, but have have limited tolerance or ability for mastering masses of details.) So to the extent pandemic policy is driven by biomed academics, don’t expect it to be very flexible or abstractly reasoned. And my personal observation is that, of the people I’ve seen who have had insightful things to say recently about this pandemic, most are relatively flexible and abstract polymaths and generalists, not lost-in-the-weeds biomed experts.

The other reason to expect a problem with flexibility in responding to this pandemic is: many of the most interesting solutions seem blocked by ethics-driven medical regulations. As communities have strong needs to share ethical norms, and most people aren’t very good at abstraction, ethical norms tend to be expressed relatively concretely. Which makes it hard to change them when circumstances change rapidly. Furthermore we actually tend to punish the exceptional people who reason more abstractly about ethics, as we don’t trust them to have the right feelings.

Now humans do seem to have a special wartime ethics, which is more abstract and flexible. But we are quite reluctant to invoke that without war, even if millions seem likely to die in a pandemic. If billions seemed likely to die, maybe we would. We instead seem inclined to invoke the familiar medical ethics norm of “pay any cost to save lives”, which has pushed us into apparently endless and terribly expensive lockdowns, which may well end up doing more damage than the virus. And which may not actually prevent most from getting infected, leading to a near worst possible outcome. In which we would pay a terrible cost for our med ethics inflexibility.

When a sudden crisis appears, I suspect that generalists tend to know that this is a potential time for them to shine, and many of them put much effort into seeing if they can win respect by using their generality to help. But I expect that the usual rulers and experts, who have specialized in the usual ways of doing things, are well aware of this possibility, and try all the harder to close ranks, shutting out generalists. And much of the public seems inclined to support them. In the last few weeks, I’ve heard far more people say “don’t speak on pandemic policy this unless you have a biomed Ph.D”, than I’ve ever in my lifetime heard people say “don’t speak on econ policy without an econ Ph.D.” (And the study of pandemics is obviously a combination of medical and social science topics; social scientists have much relevant expertise.)

The most likely scenario is that we will muddle through without actually learning to be more flexible and reason more generally; the usual experts and rulers will maintain control, and insist on all the usual rules and habits, even if they don’t work well in this situation. There are enough other things and people to blame that our inflexibility won’t get the blame it should.

But there are some more extreme scenarios here where things get very bad, and then some people somewhere are seen to win by thinking and acting more generally and flexibly. In those scenarios, maybe we do learn some key lessons, and maybe some polymath generalists do gain some well-deserved glory. Scenarios where this perfect storm of inflexibility washes away some of our long-ossified systems. A dark cloud’s silver lining.

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Rah Chain of Command

During the first Christmas of WWI,

soldiers crossed trenches to exchange seasonal greetings and talk. … to mingle and exchange food and souvenirs. There were joint burial ceremonies and prisoner swaps, while several meetings ended in carol-singing. Men played games of football with one another, … Fighting continued in some sectors, while in others the sides settled on little more than arrangements to recover bodies. (more)

I just saw the 2005 movie Joyeux Noel on this. The movie itself, and all the reviews I could find, saw these events as a heart-warming story, of heroic soldiers resisting an evil military leadership:

Their castigators are elders who arrive to restore the bellicosity almost as a matter of tradition. (more)

[The movie] invents the notion that the men who took part in the event were subsequently punished. … But there’s no official evidence that such a thing happened, though subsequently the generals learned to rotate soldiers away from a specific section of trench. (more)

But the real military leaders did work to prevent recurrences:

It was never repeated—future attempts at holiday ceasefires were quashed by officers’ threats of disciplinary action (more)

commander of the British II Corps issued orders forbidding friendly communication with the opposing German troops. Adolf Hitler, then a young corporal of the 16th Bavarian Reserve Infantry, was also an opponent of the truce. …

The events of the truce were not reported for a week, in an unofficial press embargo which was eventually broken by The New York Times, published in the then-neutral United States, on 31 December. The British papers quickly followed. … The tone of the reporting was strongly positive, with the Times endorsing the “lack of malice” felt by both sides and the Mirror regretting that the “absurdity and the tragedy” would begin again. …

Coverage in Germany was more muted, with some newspapers strongly criticising those who had taken part … In France, … greater level of press censorship … press was eventually forced to respond to the growing rumours by reprinting a government notice that fraternising with the enemy constituted treason. (more)

I find it disturbing that viewers and reviewers aren’t more torn about this. No hesitation or reservations whatsoever expressed. Even though this is depicted in the movie as leading to soldiers deserting and spying on enemy arrangements.

Sure, if all soldiers would always refuse to fight wars, wars would not be possible, and that might be for the better, I’m not sure. But as long as war remains possible, national governments will want to control armies who can protect the nation against hostile armies. They won’t want armies who can decide to start or stop wars whenever they feel like it; they will want armies who accept a chain of command with the government at the top.

Sure, maybe we want soldiers and commanders at various levels to have the freedom to refuse to follow some limited set of commands to commit atrocities. As long as such freedoms are still consistent with our armies defending us from hostile armies. But we simply can’t just let any soldier or commander agree to a local peace any time and place they choose. Just as we can’t let them quit or switch sides anytime they choose. Or sell military equipment or supplies, or rape and pillage any accessible locals, or start new wars with new rivals.

The idea of armies that we control who defend us against hostile armies just isn’t consistent with very high levels of local discretion. Sure, the idea of armies is consistent with some modest levels of local control, and there are some borderline questions about how much discretion is desirable. But wholesale local negotiations of local truces, purposely hidden from commanding officers, surely that at least risks moving into dangerous territory. And an ordinary movie viewer who liked the idea of having armies to protect them from hostile armies should feel at least some wariness about this prospect, and some sympathy for the awkward positions in which such actions place commanding officers.

There’s a chain of command in the army for a reason. A good reason. Even at Christmas in the trenches.

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Unending Winter Is Coming

Toward the end of the TV series Game of Thrones, a big long (multi-year) winter was coming, and while everyone should have been saving up for it, they were instead spending lots to fight wars. Because when others spend on war, that forces you to spend on war, and then suffer a terrible winter. The long term future of the universe may be much like this, except that future winter will never end! Let me explain.

The key universal resource is negentropy (and time), from which all others can be gained. For a very long time almost all life has run on the negentropy in sunshine landing on Earth, but almost all of that has been spent in the fierce competition to live. The things that do accumulate, such as innovations embodied in genomes, can’t really be spent to survive. However, as sunlight varies by day and season, life does sometimes save up resources during one part of a cycle, to spend in the other part of a cycle.

Humans have been growing much more rapidly than nature, but we also have had strong competition, and have also mostly only accumulated the resources that can’t directly be spent to win our competitions. We do tend to accumulate capital in peacetime, but every so often we have a big war that burns most of that up. It is mainly our remaining people and innovations that let us rebuild.

Over the long future, our descendants will gradually get better at gaining faster and cheaper access to more resources. Instead of drawing on just the sunlight coming to Earth, we’ll take all light from the Sun, and then we’ll take apart the Sun to make engines that we better control. And so on. Some of us may even gain long term views, that prioritize the very long run.

However, it seems likely that our descendants will be unable to coordinate on universal scales to prevent war and theft. If so, then every so often we will have a huge war, at which point we may burn up most of the resources that can be easily accessed on the timescale of that war. Between such wars, we’d work to increase the rate at which we could access resources during a war. And our need to watch out for possible war will force us to continually spend a non-trivial fraction of our accessible resources watching and staying prepared for war.

The big problem is: the accessible universe is finite, and so we will only ever be able to access a finite amount of negentropy. No matter how much we innovate. While so far we’ve mainly been drawing on a small steady flow of negentropy, eventually we will get better and faster access to the entire stock. The period when we use most of that stock is our universe’s one and only “summer”, after which we face an unending winter. This implies that when a total war shows up, we are at risk of burning up large fractions of all the resources that we can quickly access. So the larger a fraction of the universe’s negentropy that we can quickly access, the larger a fraction of all resources that we will ever have that we will burn up in each total war.

And even between the wars, we will need to watch out and stay prepared for war. If one uses negentropy to do stuff slowly and carefully, then the work that one can do with a given amount of negentropy is typically proportional to the inverse of the rate at which one does that work. This is true for computers, factories, pipes, drag, and much else. So ideally, the way to do the most with a fixed pot of negentropy is to do it all very slowly. And if the universe will last forever, that seems to put no bound on how much we can eventually do.

Alas, given random errors due to cosmic rays and other fluctuations, there is probably a minimum speed for doing the most with some negentropy. So the amount we can eventually do may be big, but it remains finite. However, that optimal pace is probably many orders of magnitude slower than our current speeds, letting our descendants do a lot.

The problem is, descendants who go maximally slow will make themselves very vulnerable to invasion and theft. For an analogy, imagine how severe our site security problems would be today if any one person could temporarily “grow” and become as powerful as a thousand people, but only after a one hour delay. Any one intruder to some site who grew while onsite this could wreck havoc and then be gone within an hour, before local security forces could grow to respond. Similarly when most future descendants run very slow, one who suddenly chose to run very fast might have a huge outside influence before the others could effectively respond.

So the bottom line is that if war and theft remain possible for our descendants, the rate at which they do things will be much faster than the much slower most efficient speed. In order to adequately watch out for and respond to attacks, they will have to run fast, and thus more quickly use up their available stocks of resources, such as stars. And when their stocks run out, the future will have run out for them. Like in a Game of Thrones scenario after a long winter war, they would then starve.

Now it is possible that there will be future resources that simply cannot be exploited quickly. Such as perhaps big black holes. In this case some of our descendants could last for a very long time slowly sipping on such supplies. But their activity levels at that point would be much lower than their rates before they used up all the other faster-access resources.

Okay, let’s put this all together into a picture of the long term future. Today we are growing fast, and getting better at accessing more kinds of resources faster. Eventually our growth in resource use will reach a peak. At that point we will use resources much faster than today, and also much faster than what would be the most efficient rate if we could all coordinate to prevent war and theft. Maybe a billion times faster or more. Fearing war, we will keep spending to watch and prepare for war, and then every once in a while we would burn up most accessible resources in a big war. After using up faster access resources, we then switch to lower activity levels using resources that we just can’t extract as fast, no matter how clever we are. Then we use up each one of those much faster than optimal, with activity levels falling after each source is used up.

That is, unless we can prevent war and theft, our long term future is an unending winter, wherein we use up most of our resources in early winter wars, and then slowly die and shrink and slow and war as the winter continues, on to infinity. And as a result do much less than we could have otherwise; perhaps a billion times less or more. (Thought still vastly more than we have done so far.) And this is all if we are lucky enough to avoid existential risk, which might destroy it all prematurely, leading instead to a fully-dead empty eternity.

Happy holidays.

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End War Or Mosquitoes?

Malaria may have killed half of all the people that ever lived. (more)

Over one million people die from malaria each year, mostly children under five years of age, with 90% of malaria cases occurring in Sub-Saharan Africa. (more)

378,000 people worldwide died a violent death in war each year between 1985 and 1994. (more)

Over the last day I’ve done two Twitter polls, one of which was my most popular poll ever. Each poll was on whether, if we had the option, we should try to end a big old nemesis of humankind. One was on mosquitoes, the other on war:

In both cases the main con argument is a worry about unintended side effects. Our biological and social systems are both very complex, with each part having substantial and difficult to understand interactions with many other parts. This makes it hard to be sure that an apparently bad thing isn’t actually causing good things, or preventing other bad things.

Poll respondents were about evenly divided on ending mosquitoes, but over 5 to 1 in favor of ending war. Yet mosquitoes kill many more people than do wars, mosquitoes are only a small part of our biosphere with only modest identifiable benefits, and war is a much larger part of key social systems with much easier to identify functions and benefits. For example, war drives innovation, deposes tyrants, and cleans out inefficient institutional cruft that accumulates during peacetime. All these considerations favor ending mosquitoes, relative to ending war.

Why then is there so much more support for ending war, relative to mosquitoes? The proximate cause seems obvious: in our world, good people oppose both war and also ending species. Most people probably aren’t thinking this through, but are instead just reacting to this surface ethical gloss. Okay, but why is murderous nature so much more popular than murderous features of human systems? Perhaps in part because we are much more eager to put moral blame on humans, relative to nature. Arguing to keep war makes you seem like allies of deeply evil humans, while arguing to keep mosquitoes only makes you allies of an indifferent nature, which makes you far less evil by association.

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How To Prep For War

In my last two posts I’ve noted while war deaths have fallen greatly since the world wars, the magnitude and duration of this fall isn’t that far out of line with previous falls over the last four centuries, falls that have always been followed by rises, as part of a regular cycle of war. I also noted that the theory arguments that have been offered to explain why this trend will long continue, in a deviation from the historical pattern, seem weak. Thus there seems to be a substantial and neglected chance of a lot more war in the next century. I’m not the only one who says this; so do many war experts.

If a lot more war is coming, what should you do personally, to help yourself, your family, and your friends? (Assuming your goal is mainly to personally survive and prosper.) While we can’t say that much specifically about future war’s style, timing, or participants, we know enough to suggest some general advice.

1. Over the last century most war deaths have not been battle deaths, and the battle death share has fallen. Thus you should worry less about dying in battle, and more about other ways to die.

2. War tends to cause the most harm near where its battles happen, and near concentrations of supporting industrial and human production. This means you are more at risk if you live near the nations that participate in the war, and in those nations near dense concentrations and travel routes, that is, near major cities and roads.

3. If there are big pandemics or economic collapse, you may be better off in more isolated and economically self-sufficient places. (That doesn’t include outer space, which is quite unlikely to be economically self-sufficient anytime soon.) Of course there is a big tradeoff here, as these are the places we expect to do less well in the absence of war.

4. Most of your expected deaths may happen in scenarios where nukes are used. There’s a big literature on how to prepare for and avoid harms from nukes, so I’ll just refer you to that. Ironically, you may be more at risk from being hurt by nukes in places that have nukes to retaliate with. But you might be more at risk from being enslaved or otherwise dominated if your place doesn’t have nukes.

5. Most of our computer systems have poor security, and so are poorly protected against cyberwar. This is mainly because software firms are usually more eager to be first to market than to add security, which most customers don’t notice at first. If this situation doesn’t change much, then you should be wary of depending too much on standard connected computer systems. For essential services, rely on disconnected, non-standard, or high-security-investment systems.

6. Big wars tend to induce a lot more taxation of the rich, to pay for wars. So have your dynasty invest more in having more children, relative to fewer richer kids, or invest in assets that are hidden from tax authorities. Or less bother to invest for the long run.

7. The biggest wars so far, the world wars and the thirty years war, have been driven by strong ideologies, such as communism and catholicism. So help your descendants avoid succumbing to strong ideologies, while also avoiding the appearance of publicly opposing locally popular versions. And try to stay away from places that seem more likely to succumb.

8. While old ideologies still have plenty of fire, the big new ideology on the block seems related to woke identity. While this seems to inspire sufficiently confident passions for war, it seems far from clear who would fight who and how in a woke war. This scenario seems worth more thought.

Added 27July: 

9. If big governance changes and social destruction are coming, that may create opportunities for the adoption of more radical social reforms. And that can encourage us to work more on developing such reforms today.

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Big War Remains Possible

The following poll suggests that a majority of my Twitter followers think war will decline; in the next 80 years we won’t see a 15 year period with a war death rate above the median level we’ve see over the last four centuries:

To predict a big deviation from the simple historical trend, one needs some sort of basis in theory. Alas, the theory arguments that I’ve heard re war optimism seem quite inadequate. I thus suspect much wishful thinking here.

For example, some say the world economy today is too interdependent for war. But interdependent economies have long gone to war. Consider the world wars in Europe, or the American civil war. Some say that we don’t risk war because it is very destructive of complex fragile physical capital and infrastructure. But while such capital was indeed destroyed during the world wars, the places most hurt rebounded quickly, as they had good institutional and human capital.

Some note that international alliances make war less likely between alliance partners. But they make war more likely between alliances. Some suggest that better info tells us more about rivals today, and so we are less likely to misjudge rival abilities and motives. But there still seems plenty of room for errors here as “brinkmanship” is a key dynamic. Also, this doesn’t prevent powers from investing in war abilities to gain advantages via credible threats of war.

Some point to a reduced willingness by winners to gain concrete advantages via the ancient strategies of raping and enslaving losers, and demanding great tribute. But we still manage to find many other motives for war, and there’s no fundamental obstacles to reviving ancient strategies; tribute is still quite feasible, as is slavery. Also, the peak war periods so far have been associated with ideology battles, and we still have plenty of those.

Some say nuclear weapons have made small wars harder. But that is only between pairs of nations both of which have nukes, which isn’t most nation pairs. Pairs of nations with nukes can still fight big wars, there are more such pairs today than before, over 80 years there’s plenty of time for some pair to pick a fight, and nuke wars casualties may be enormous.

I suspect that many are relying on modern propaganda on our moral superiority over our ancestors. But while we mostly count humans of the mid twentieth century as morally superior to humans from prior centuries, that was the period of peak war mortality.

I also suspect that many are drawing conclusions about war from long term trends regarding other forms of violence, as in slavery, crime, and personal relations, as well as from apparently lower public tolerance for war deaths and overall apparent disapproval and reluctance regarding war. But just before World War I we had also seen such trends:

Then, as now, Europe had lived through a long period of relative peace, … rapid progress … had given humanity a sense of shared interests that precluded war, … world leaders scarcely believed a global conflagration was possible. (more)

The world is vast, eighty years is a long time, and the number of possible global social & diplomatic scenarios over such period is vast. So it seems crazy to base predictions on future war rates on inside view calculations from particular current stances, deals, or inclinations. The raw historical record, and its large long-term fluctuations, should weigh heavily on our minds.

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Will War Return?

Usually, I don’t get worked up about local short term trends; I try to focus on global long term trends, which mostly look pretty good (at least until the next great era comes). But lately I’ve seen some worrying changes to big trends. For example, while for over a century IQ has risen and death rates have fallen, both steadily, in the last two decades IQ has stopped rising (as has height) in most rich nations, and in the U.S. death rates have started rising. Economic growth also seems to have slowed, thought not stopped, world-wide.

Added to these are some worrisome long term trends. Global warming continues. Fertility has been falling for centuries. Rates of innovation per innovator have been falling greatly for perhaps a century. And since the end of the world wars, within-nation inequality and political polarization has been increasing.

One good-looking trend that hasn’t reversed lately is a falling rate of violence, via crime, civil war, and war between nations. But this graph of war deaths over the last 600 years makes me pause:

Yes, war death rates have fallen since the world wars, but those wars were a historical peak. And though the pattern is noisy, we seem to see a roughly half century cycle (as noted by Turchin), a cycle that is perhaps increasing in magnitude. So we have to wonder: are we now near a war cycle nadir, with another war peak coming soon?

The stakes here are hard to exaggerate. If war is coming back soon, the next peak might be high, maybe even a record high. And the easiest way to imagine achieving that is via nukes. If war may come back soon with a vengeance, we must consider preparing for that possibility.

Not only have we seen fewer war deaths since the world wars, we’ve also seen a great reduction in social support for military virtues, values, and investments. Compared to our ancestors, we glorify soldiers less, and less steel non-soldiers to sacrifice for war. (E.g., see They Shall Not Grow Old.) In contrast, ancient societies were in many ways organized around war, offering great status and support for warriors. They even supported soldiers raping, pillaging, exterminating, and enslaving enemies.

Yes, trying to create more local social support for war might well help create the next rise of war. Which could be a terrible thing. (Yes my even talking about this could help cause it, but even here I prioritize honesty.) However, if preparing more sooner for war helps nations to win or at least survive the next war peak, do you really want it to be only other nations who gain that advantage?

Given the stakes here, it seems terribly important to better understand the causes of the recent decline in war deaths. I’ve proposed a farmers-returning-to-foragers story, whose simplest version predicts a continuing decline. But I’m far from confident of that simplest version, which would not have predicted the world wars as a historical peak. Please fellow intellectuals, let’s figure this out!

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Champions Show War Ability

Sports make sense as a way for individuals to develop and show off certain packages of physical and mental abilities. Team sports make sense as a way to show off such abilities in contexts of team production, which have long been especially relevant to human success. Of course we need not be consciously aware of this function; genetic and cultural evolution needed only make us inclined to do sports when that might make us get and look good.

When two teams play each other, the final score is a good summary about the relative abilities of the two teams. Of course there’s more info to be gleaned from game details, but not that much more. And if you can’t study those game details well yourself, but must instead rely on the judgments of others, a final score is admirably resistant to bias and lobbying.

Many sports have a regular season of games, following by a championship round designed to select a tree of “champions”, a tree whose root is the uber-champion of all. Often a “world champion”. This is somewhat puzzling, as individual championship games are not that much more diagnostic about team abilities than are regular season games, and there are far fewer championship games. Why count these games so much more than others?

One could use an elo-rating type system to estimate the abilities of each team based on their pairwise scores. Or one could use even fancier statistical systems to estimate distributions over team abilities, using scores and other data. Within such systems, championship games would be just a few more games, and not be given extra weight. If we just want to know about team abilities, why put so much weight on championships?

Arguably, through most of ancient history the main abilities that observers were interested in inferring and developing via sporting contests were war abilities. This is plausibly why most sports have long been team sports focused on war-like contests, relative to more common social contests. And in war, one mainly cares about abilities displayed in contexts where stakes are very high: hard battles where a large fraction of combatants die, as opposed to practice battles where at most a few are injured.

So championships plausibly exist as a way to focus sporting displays on high stakes contexts. The closer a team gets to the root of the championship tree, the more is at stake in each game, and the better that game’s score becomes as a measure of player abilities in high stakes contexts.

Yes, outside of sports the stakes do vary over contexts, and observers should want to see how individuals perform across a range of stake sizes. But as war is rare today, in our world success mostly comes from consistent quality over many low stakes contests, not from a few super-battles. Designing sporting contests to instead maximize an emphasis on the highest stakes possible seems better explained as a heritage of war. As are many other features of modern human attitudes and behaviors.

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To Oppose Polarization, Tug Sideways

Just over 42% of the people in each party view the opposition as “downright evil.” … nearly one out of five Republicans and Democrats agree with the statement that their political adversaries “lack the traits to be considered fully human — they behave like animals.” … “Do you ever think: ‘we’d be better off as a country if large numbers of the opposing party in the public today just died’?” Some 20% of Democrats and 16% of Republicans do think [so]. … “What if the opposing party wins the 2020 presidential election. How much do you feel violence would be justified then?” 18.3% of Democrats and 13.8% of Republicans said [between] “a little” to “a lot.” (more)

Pundits keep lamenting our increasing political polarization. And their preferred fix seems to be to write more tsk-tsk op-eds. But I can suggest a stronger fix: pull policy ropes sideways. Let me explain.

Pundit writings typically recommend some policies relative to others. In polarized times such as ours, these policy positions tend to be relatively predictable given a pundit’s political value positions, i.e., the positions they share with their political allies relative to their political enemies. And much of the content of their writings work to clarify any remaining ambiguities, i.e., to explain why their policy position is in fact a natural result of political positions they share with their allies. So only people with evil values would oppose it. So readers can say “yay us, boo them”.

Twelve years ago I described this as a huge tug-o-war:

The policy world can thought of as consisting of a few Tug-O-War “ropes” set up in [a] high dimensional policy space. If you want to find a comfortable place in this world, where the people around you are reassured that you are “one of them,” you need to continually and clearly telegraph your loyalty by treating each policy issue as another opportunity to find more supporting arguments for your side of the key dimensions. That is, pick a rope and pull on it. (more)

To oppose this tendency, one idea is to encourage pundits to sometimes recommend policies that are surprising or the opposite of what their political positions might suggest. That is, go pull on the opposite side of a rope sometimes, to show us that you think for yourself, and aren’t driven only by political loyalty. And yes doing this may help. But as the space of political values that we fight over is multi-dimensional, surprising pundit positions can often be framed as a choice to prioritize some values over others, i.e., as a bid to realign the existing political coalitions in value space. Yes, this may weakens the existing dominant political axis, but it may not do much to make our overall conversation less political.

Instead, I suggest that we encourage pundits to grab a policy tug-o-war rope and pull it sideways. That is, take positions that are perpendicular to the usual political value axes, in areas where one has not yet taken explicit value-oriented positions. For example, a pundit who has not yet taken a position on whether we should have more or less military spending might argue for more navy relative to army, and then insist that this is not a covert way to push a larger or smaller military. Most credibly by continuing to not take a position on overall military spending. (And by not coming from a navy family, for whom navy is a key value.)

Similarly, someone with no position on if we should punish crime more or less than we currently do might argue for replacing jail-based punishments with fines, torture, or exile. Or, given no position on more or less immigration, argue for a particular new system to decide which candidates are more worthy of admission. Or given no position on how hard we should work to compensate for past racism, argue for cash reparations relative to affirmative action.

Tugging policy ropes sideways will frustrate and infuriate loyalists who seek mainly to praise their political allies and criticize their enemies. Such loyalists will be tempted to assume the worse about you, and claim that you are trying to covertly promote enemy positions. And so they may impose a price on you for this stance. But to the extent that observers respect you, loyalists will pay a price for attacking you in this way, and raising their overall costs of making everything political. And so on average by paying this price you can buy an overall intellectual conversation that’s a bit less political. Which is the goal here.

In addition, pulling ropes sideways is on average just a better way to improve policy. As I said twelve years ago:

If, however, you actually want to improve policy, if you have a secure enough position to say what you like, and if you can find a relevant audience, then prefer to pull policy ropes sideways. Few will bother to resist such pulls, and since few will have considered such moves, you have a much better chance of identifying a move that improves policy. On the few main dimensions, not only will you find it very hard to move the rope much, but you should have little confidence that you actually have superior information about which way the rope should be pulled. (more)

Yes, there is a sense in which arguments for “sideways” choices do typically appeal to a shared value: “efficiency”. For example, one would typically argue for navy over army spending in terms of cost-effectiveness in military conflicts and deterrence. Or might argue for punishment via fines in terms of cost-effectiveness for the goals of deterrence or rehabilitation. But all else equal we all like cost-effectiveness; political coalitions rarely want to embrace blatant anti-efficiency positions. So the more our policy debates emphasize efficiency, the less political polarized they should be.

Of course my suggestion here isn’t especially novel; most pundits are aware that they have the option to take the sort of sideways positions that I’ve recommended. Most are also aware that by doing so, they’d less enflame the usual political battles. Yet how often have you heard pundits protest that others falsely attributed larger value positions to them, when they really just tried to argue for cost-effectiveness of A over B using widely shared effectiveness concepts? That scenario seems quite rare to me.

So the main hope I can see here is of a new signaling equilibria where people tug sideways and brag about it, or have others brag on their behalf, to show their support for cutting political polarization. And thereby gain support from an audience who wants to reward cutters. Which of course only works if enough pundits actually believe a substantial such audience exists. So what do you say, is there much of an audience who wants to cut political polarization?

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