Category Archives: War

Cut US Military in Half

To politically balance my previous suggestion to cut US medical spending in half, let me now suggest we cut US military spending in half.   I haven’t researched this subject anywhere near as much as medicine, so I can’t argue as strongly.  But the simple argument seems compelling: The US with 27% of world product has about 46% of world military spending (up from 40% in 2000).  Yet our "defense" needs are few, as we are rich, isolated, have friendly neighbors, and haven’t been invaded for centuries.  And it is hard to see how "offense" spending at this level could possibly be cost-effective. 

A bit of web search finds a 2005 William Nordhaus essay making similar points:

The U.S. has approximately half of total national security spending for the entire world. The runners-up appear to be China, with about $50-200 billion of spending for 2004, and Russia, with about $15-50 billion in recent years.  In one sense, the $590 billion for national security is not a "large" number, because it constitutes only 4.8 percent of GDP, which is smaller than the U.S. spent in earlier hot or cold war periods. On the other hand, national security spending is "huge" by absolute standards. It constitutes about $5000 per family. …

The question I would like to contemplate is whether the country is earning a good return on its national-security "investment," for it is clearly an investment in peace and safety, as well perhaps in oil supply and exports. The bottom line is, probably not. …

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Elusive Conflict Experts

Recently published in Interfaces:

[Regarding] the decisions that adversaries will make, we compared the accuracy of 106 forecasts by experts [e.g., domain experts, conflict experts, and forecasting experts] and 169 forecasts by novices about [choices in] eight real conflicts. The forecasts of experts who used their unaided judgment were little better than those of novices, and neither group’s forecasts were much better than simply guessing. The forecasts of experts with more experience were no more accurate than those with less. The experts were nevertheless confident in the accuracy of their forecasts. … We obtained 89 sets of frequencies from novices instructed to assume there were 100 similar situations. Forecasts based on the frequencies were no more accurate than 96 forecasts from novices asked to pick the single most likely decision.

Maybe conflict games are full of mixed strategies?  Hat Tip to WSJ Online, via Tyler Cowen.

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Beware Monkey Traps

It is said you can trap a monkey by putting a nut through a small hole in a gourd.  The monkey reaches in and grabs the nut, but then his fist won’t fit back through the hole.  Greedy monkeys will literally let themselves be caught rather than let go of the nut.  So far, no commenter on my essay seems willing to let go of the nut of effective medicine, held in the gourd of the second half of medical spending. 

As an analogy, imagine you ran a software company, whose many offices had different wage levels and work cultures, with average work hours ranging from seven to fourteen per day.  Surprised to see these offices were equally productive, you randomly changed wages, inducing changes in work hours.  You again found offices that worked more did not produce more; after seven hours people got tired and added as many bugs as they fixed.  If instead of just cutting wages to get only seven hours of work, you just told everyone "watch out for bugs," you would be in a monkey trap, refusing to let go of the nut of productive work in the gourd of extra work hours.

So begins my first reply at CATO Unbound.   I go on to argue that it is a monkey trap that keeps health policy experts from endorsing my proposal to "Cut Medicine In Half."  You might think that humans wouldn’t fall for such a simple trap, but consider our military policy of "Leave No Man Behind":

Depicted in the film Black Hawk Down, this mission resulted in the deaths of 18 soldiers. In fact, the strategy of enemy Somali militiamen focused on the American policy of not leaving any soldier behind; they knew that if they managed to shoot down a helicopter, the Americans would move in to defend the helicopter’s crew.

Since I suggest "showing that you care" signals explain our inclination toward excess medicine, and solidarity signals are said to explain "leave no man behind," perhaps monkeys are inclined to never let go of food as a signal to would-be thieves. 

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How Biases Save Us From Giving in to Terrorism

Terrorists are hampered by biases as much as the rest of us. In a Wired commentary "The Evolutionary Brain Glitch That Makes Terrorism Fail" Bruce Schneier discusses the interesting findings of Max Abrams in his paper Why Terrorism Does Not Work (International Security, Vol. 31, No. 2 (Fall 2006), pp. 42–78).

Basically, terrorists run into trouble because people use correspondent inference theory to infer the intentions of others: the results of their actions are assumed to be concordant with their intentions. If a person sweeps the floor we assume he wants it clean (but he could just be working off excess energy). If somebody hits somebody else, we assume the intention was to harm (but it could just be a game). Similarly, people infer that the horrific deaths of innocents is the primary motivation of a terrorist – which likely leads to a misunderstanding of the real goals of the terrorist.

This is bad news for terrorism as an effective coercive means to political or social ends. Although the terrorist can state his demands and goals, people will tend to assume that he is just a sadist rationalising. Possibly a dangerous sadist one has to occasionally acquiesce to, but the goals are not seen as essential to him. His "real" goals are assumed to be the destruction of society, and this makes accepting demands less favorable. Abrams finds empirical support for this in that terrorists are much more likely to succeed with their demands if they focus their attacks on military goals rather than civilian ones, and if they have minimalist goals (evicting a foreign power, winning control of a piece of territory). Attacking civilians or wanting to change the world makes people assume the intention is something else.

This analysis assumes bias among the non-terrorists making them unwilling to play along, but clearly there are plenty of biases among the terrorists too. The correspondence makes them impute evil intentions to governments that behave clumsily or violently. The emotional salience of terror probably introduces a lot of availability bias, impact bias makes terrorists overestimate the emotional effect of their actions, groupthink is likely pretty big within terrorist grooming communities and so on.

It seems that one could probably analyse terrorism in terms of cognitive biases quite fruitfully. Whether that will lead to ways of reducing terrorism is another matter. Maybe unbiased terrorists will simply see that the Bayesian thing to do is simply to go home since terror doesn’t work efficiently – or they would start making non-hyperbolic long-term plans for surgical strikes that simply cannot be misunderstood. Conversely, maybe terrorists could be incited to bias themselves into inefficiency, but highly biased people can occasionally be dangerous. Maybe the real aim should be an unbiased anti-terror strategy – but as long as politicians and public are biased they will likely see the unbiased strategy as wrong.

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Are Your Enemies Innately Evil?

Followup to:  Correspondence Bias

As previously discussed, we see far too direct a correspondence between others’ actions and their inherent dispositions.  We see unusual dispositions that exactly match the unusual behavior, rather than asking after real situations or imagined situations that could explain the behavior.  We hypothesize mutants.

When someone actually offends us – commits an action of which we (rightly or wrongly) disapprove – then, I observe, the correspondence bias redoubles.  There seems to be a very strong tendency to blame evil deeds on the Enemy’s mutant, evil disposition.  Not as a moral point, but as a strict question of prior probability, we should ask what the Enemy might believe about their situation which would reduce the seeming bizarrity of their behavior.  This would allow us to hypothesize a less exceptional disposition, and thereby shoulder a lesser burden of improbability.

On September 11th, 2001, nineteen Muslim males hijacked four jet airliners in a deliberately suicidal effort to hurt the United States of America.  Now why do you suppose they might have done that?  Because they saw the USA as a beacon of freedom to the world, but were born with a mutant disposition that made them hate freedom?

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Truly Worth Honoring

Today is Memorial Day.  In a park near my home is a plaque that reads:     

We honor all those who fought for our community.

There is probably a similar plaque near you.  I would be more proud to live in a community with a plaque that read:    

We honor those who fought against our community when it was wrong. 

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Tolstoy on Patriotism

Via Bryan Caplan, we get this quote from my favorite author, Leo Tolstoy:

If an American wishes the preferential grandeur and well-being of America above all other nations, and the same is desired by his state by an Englishman, and a Russian, … and all of them are convinced that these desires need not only not be concealed or repressed, but should be a matter of pride … and if the greatness and wellbeing of one country or nation cannot be obtained except to the detriment of another nation, … – how can war be avoided?

And so, not to have any war, it is … necessary to … destroy what produces war. … the desire for the exclusive good for one’s own nation – what is called patriotism. And so to abolish war, it is necessary to abolish patriotism, and to abolish patriotism, it is necessary to it is necessary first to become convinced that it is an evil, and that is hard to do.

Bryan comments:

A hundred years later, Tolstoy seems more perceptive than ever. In the modern world, how often do countries actually have anything to fight about? 

I intend to take this position:  I prefer what is good for the world, over what is good for my country, and when USA patriots disagree with others about what is good for the world, I’m not particularly likely to take their side.  But I wonder: Do I really take this position? 

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Useful bias

I would like to introduce the perhaps, in this forum, heretical notion of useful bias.  By useful bias I mean the deliberate introduction of an error as a means to solving a problem.  The two examples I discuss below are concrete rather than abstract and come from my training as an infantry officer many years ago.  Now technology solves the problems they solved, but the examples may still serve to illustrate the notion.

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None Evil or All Evil?

In yesterday’s Washington Post Shankar Vedantam had another fascinating bias article, "Disagree About Iraq? You’re Not Just Wrong — You’re Evil."

What is interesting about the [Iraq war] clash from a psychological perspective is not that supporters and critics disagree, but that large numbers of people on both sides claim to know the motives of people who disagree with them. … A wide body of psychological research shows that on any number of hot-button issues, people seem hard-wired to believe the worst about those who disagree with them. … said Glenn D. Reeder, a social psychologist at Illinois State University … "We find it difficult to grant that other people come to their conclusions in good faith if they reach a conclusion that is different than ours." …

When Reeder and his colleagues asked pro-war and antiwar Americans how they would describe the other side’s motives, the researchers found that the groups suffered from an identical bias: People described others who agreed with them as motivated by ethics and principle, but felt that the people who disagreed with them were motivated by narrow self-interest. …

Studies have found, for example, that people believe that those who disagree with them are less informed and that those who agree with them are better informed. On issues in which information is widely available, people concede that their opponents are knowledgeable but insist that their conclusions are self-serving and biased.  Another study found that liberals and conservatives not only overestimate their opponents’ partisan motives on questions such as abortion and same-sex marriage but also overestimate the partisan motives of people on their own side.

The article neglected to mention that in addition to over-estimating self-serving biases in others, we probably also underestimate them in ourselves.  I suspect this was not a random oversight. 

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Disagreement Case Study – Hawk Bias

Two weeks ago I asked for posts "describing disagreement case studies;" here is my first such post.  In January I posted on Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon’s Foreign Policy article claiming all known cognitive biases favor hawks over doves.  Foreign Policy then invited me to write this letter:

Kahneman and Renshon … fail to understand that inaccurate beliefs do not necessarily equal bad outcomes. We have evolved most biases on purpose, and many give us advantages. The best salespeople really believe in their product no matter its quality, the best lawyers believe their guilty client is innocent, and the best lovers are confident of being attractive. Similarly, people often attribute successes to their own ability and character, and their failures to circumstance. Our ancestors evolved these biases because they can provide strategic advantages by instantly signaling intentions, resolve, and abilities. Perhaps nations are better off biased. Of course, every belief bias is not exactly designed for maximum advantage in every situation. But we could be too biased, or not biased enough. Until we know the direction of our errors, we certainly do not know, as Kahneman and Renshon claim, that hawks "are likely to be more persuasive than they deserve to be."

Kahneman and Renshon respond:

As Robin Hanson’s comment illustrates, evolutionary arguments are sometimes used rather naively to defend the conclusion that the mind is perfect. Evolutionary psychology contends that human cognition evolved in the Pleistocene era, when humans lived in bands of fewer than 100 members. Assume for the sake of argument that cognitive biases evolved to yield just the right level of aggressiveness toward other small bands of humans. We still would not see why Hanson is confident that the cognitive machinery that was optimal in prehistoric times is still perfect in an age of world wars, ballistic missiles, and nuclear weapons.

So I find myself disagreeing with one of the few Nobel-prize winning psychologists ever (Kahneman), co-founder of modern cognitive bias studies, on the subject of bias.  Could I be more arrogant?  Surely he considers the possibility of his own biases, and can make use of many bias indicators.

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