Category Archives: War

The Fog of Disagreement

In the movie "The Fog of War," Robert McNamara, U.S. Secretary of Defense  during the Vietnam War (’60-’67) takes stock.

At my age, 85, I’m at age where I can look back and derive some conclusions about my actions. My rule has been try to learn, try to understand what happened. Develop the lessons and pass them on.

One key lesson is the centrality of disagreement, even with similar information and mutual respect:

The other photograph, you can just see me saying: "Jesus Christ, I love this man, I respect him, but he’s totally wrong. What am I gonna do?"  Johnson couldn’t persuade me, and I couldn’t persuade him. I had this enormous respect and affection, loyalty, to both Kennedy and Johnson. But at the end, Johnson and I found ourselves poles apart.

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Moby Dick Seeks Thee Not!

“Oh! Ahab,” cried Starbuck, “not too late is it, even now, the third day, to desist. See! Moby Dick seeks thee not. It is thou, thou, that madly seekest him!”

In my copy, these lines appear on page 599 of a 604 page book. Ahab is behaving the way we expect literary characters to behave at the end of a book; he is going to keep on pressing until there is some kind of dramatic resolution one way or the other. Starbuck is reminding him that just because it’s page 599 doesn’t actually mean anything; there is nothing objective about the situation that prevents Ahab from coming to his senses, turning the ship around, and taking everybody home.

It seems like a lot conflicts have this property. On top of everything else that makes up a conflict, there is the tendency for the combatants to cast themselves as playing a role in a great drama, and their range of options is restricted by the unexamined requirement that great dramas are supposed to have dramatic resolutions. This tends to crowd out plain old pragmatism, and also crowds out morality to the extent that the moral solution doesn’t correspond to one or both sides’ dramatic one (notwithstanding the fact that the holders of dramatic positions loudly proclaim morality to be unambiguously on their side).

The Israeli writer Amos Oz has made a similar point about the Palestinian-Israeli conflict.

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Peaceful Speculation

Supposedly, we have too many wars due to overconfidence and related biases.  In the latest American Journal of Political Science, Erik Gartzke says capitalism explains peace better than democracy:

It is widely accepted that democracies are less conflict prone, if only with other democracies. … Economic development, free markets, and similar interstate interests all anticipate a lessening of militarized disputes or wars. This "capitalist peace" also accounts for the effect commonly attributed to regime type in standard statistical tests of the democratic peace.

Part of his story is that speculative markets give accurate signals of intent:

Markets are arguably most relevant as mechanisms for revealing information …  States with economies integrated into global markets face autonomous investors with incentives to reallocate capital away from risk.  A leader’s threats against another state become costly when threats spark market repercussions.  Participants learn from watching the reactions of leaders to the differential incentives of economic cost and political reward. Two economically integrated states can more often avoid military violence, since market integration combines mechanisms for revelation and coercion. An economically integrated target can be coerced by the threat of losing valuable exchange, but a nonintegrated initiator cannot make its threats credible or informative.

If true, it would be yet another way that speculative markets can make us more honest.  My main complaint is that Gartzke’s analysis doesn’t control for a big influence on war: the fraction of young males, who tend to be biased war-mongers.

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Epidemics are 98% Below Average

A 1997 Proc. Royal Society paper by Rhodes, Jensen, and Anderson found that the frequency of cases of measles and whooping cough on the Faroe Islands from 1866-1970 each varied according to a power law with an amazingly long tail.   (Watts et al. 2005 find similar results in Iceland from 1888-1990.)    Here is what Rhodes’ power law looks like (up to a rate constant) extended to a larger population. 

Imagine a disease that infects different numbers of people each year.   In 16% of years it infects only one or two people, in 15% of years it infects three or four, in 50% of years it infects 16 or less, in 25% of years it infects 256 or more, in 12.5% of years it infects 4096 or more, and so on according to the power law  P(>s infected) = s^-0.25.   

The average number of infections per year would be infinite were it not for the fact that no disease can infect more people than there are.  Given a world population of ten billion, average infections per year would be 42 million, even though epidemics this large or larger happen in only 1.25% of years.  Most of this average comes from the 0.3% of years when the entire world is infected; if you worry at all about this sort of epidemic, worry most about the very largest ones.

Looking at recent track records of these sort of problems could easily bias us to pay too little attention to them.  I learned all this while researching a new paper on catastrophes, social collapse, and human extinction, and it turns out that many other types of disasters, like wars and earthquakes, are distributed with such long tails. 

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Do Biases Favor Hawks?

Via Tyler Cowen, we learn that Daniel Kahneman and Jonathan Renshon argue in Foreign Policy that all known cognitive biases favor hawks over doves: 

Social and cognitive psychologists have identified a number of predictable errors (psychologists call them biases) in the ways that humans judge situations and evaluate risks. Biases have been documented both in the laboratory and in the real world, mostly in situations that have no connection to international politics. For example, people are prone to exaggerating their strengths … Such a predisposition, often shared by leaders on both sides of a conflict, is likely to produce a disaster. And this is not an isolated example.  In fact, when we constructed a list of the biases uncovered in 40 years of psychological research, we were startled by what we found: All the biases in our list favor hawks. … these biases have the effect of making wars more likely to begin and more difficult to end.

Matthew Continetti responds, objecting that many biases also favor doves.  But all the commentary I’ve seen misses the key question: Compared to the advantages these biases gave our ancestors, are foreign policy advantages larger or smaller?   

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