Tag Archives: War

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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Consider Reparations

First … ally of President Trump’s. “We are in a civil war,” he said. “The suggestion that there’s ever going to be civil discourse in this country for the foreseeable future is over. . . . It’s going to be total war.” The next day … Trump critic … agreed with him — although she placed the blame squarely on the president. Trump, she said, “greenlit a war in this country around race. (more) 

Frequently in human history, one party has complained about how they’ve been treated by another. Typically, the first party suggests that the issue be resolved in particular ways, and the second party tries to avoid giving in to such demands. To pressure the other party to give in, such parties often act less cooperatively toward one another, and try to enlist allies to assist in this stance. Such conflicting coalitions can grow large, and the resulting feuds can be quite destructive, sometimes escalating into full scale war.

The larger society has an interest in resolving such disputes fairly, as the expectation of fair future resolutions can encourage better behavior. But that larger society has an even stronger interest in just resolving disputes somehow, anyhow, to prevent the accumulation of destructive feuds. So for roughly a million years, humans have used informal group norm enforcement. If a forager had a complaint about someone else, they could tell their band, and that band would discuss it and come to a consensus on how to resolve the issue. The band would then apply increasing pressures to get the disputing parties to abide by their decision, and to stop any feud.  

During the farming era, we formalized this practice as law, which lowered costs of making and enforcing group decisions on how to resolve particular conflicts. But the key idea remains: prevent escalating feuds via having relatively independent judges declare resolutions, and pressuring parties to respect them. Hopefully fair resolutions, but more importantly clear and widely accepted ones. Pressure parties and their allies not only to do what resolutions say, but also to publicly accept such decisions as resolving their conflicts. 

That is, we want people who have been loudly declaring their dispute to publicly put it behind them. For example, by treating ex-cons as “having paid their debt to society”. We’d like these legal resolutions to be reliable and predictable, to give people incentives to behave well and not do things that cause disputes. And when disputable events happen, we want the involved parties to have incentives to quietly make a deal to resolve them, so as to avoid larger social conflict and the need for a formal legal resolution. 

For a very long time, most legal conflicts have been resolved via cash transfers. Not always, of course; crimes often need more punishment than fines can produce. (At least without selling people into slavery or requiring crime insurance.) But cash makes many things easier, including trade and charity. Yes, cash doesn’t always make the best symbolic statement. Even so, law usually uses cash because it is an admirably robust measure of value across a wide range of groups and social contexts.  

Which brings me to the current US political conflict, and the topic of reparations for slavery and racism. Our political climate seems today to be drifting toward a war-like lack of restraint. And “grievances” seem an important part of this conflict. One side at least claims to represent wronged parties, parties whose wrongs have not been adequately addressed. And one especially big and long-lasting grievance has been about our history of raced-based slavery, and related racism. Many say that we have not adequately addressed this complaint. 

My main point here is that cash reparations for past slavery and racism harms make a lot of sense in the context of the general history and purpose of law. We have been suffering from a costly long-standing political feud, a law-like resolution could help us resolve and get past that feud, and cash transfers are our standard go-to way to resolve law-like conflicts.

I’m not going to argue for any particular level of compensation, nor for any particular interpretation of particular cases of precedent. I can believe that precedent isn’t clear here, and that many issues and complexities are in play. But complexity needn’t prevent resolution; we rely on law all the time to resolve complex disputes. In fact, in terms of avoiding wider social conflict, law is probably more socially valuable in more complex cases. 

Yes, reparations today for wrongs from long ago does require some form of vicarious liability, wherein the people who lose and those who gain from a cash transfer aren’t the same as those who did wrongs and who were harmed. But we actually use many forms of vicarious liability in law today, and ancient societies used it a lot more.  

Some fear that even after paying reparations, racism-complaint-based conflict would persist unabated. Others fear the opposite, that many would feel that we could cut back on other responses to racism, such as affirmative action, and “put the issue behind us”, risking complacency on future problems. Here I must come down strongly in favor of risking complacency. 

One of the main goals of law, and of humanity’s more ancient norm enforcement, has been to try to get disputes resolved, to give them a better chance of fading away. Yes, it remains possible that past wrongs will be repeated in the future. But to always presume that is to never allow disputes to be resolved, and to instead accumulate escalating complaints and feuds until war becomes nearly inevitable. 

If our national legal system isn’t up to the task of resolving this conflict, or isn’t seen as neutral enough by important audiences, I have a simple proposal: randomly pick 13 adults from the whole world, let them each pick one legal advisor, then isolate them all in a room and have them work together as a jury to pick a resolution. When they must pick a number, let them just use a median vote (each submits a number, the median of which is the answer). Finally, let the whole world apply social pressure to get everyone to accept this as the most neutral and independent resolution likely to be available anytime soon. Accept it, implement it, and then let it go. (If you worry about one side betraying the resolution later, consider spreading cash payments out over a long time period.) 

When conflict appears in a marriage, the couple sometimes seeks a counselor, who often offers neutral independent advice on how to resolve their conflict. Which is helpful when partners actually do want to resolve a conflict. But sometimes they prefer war, and the marriage ends. Similarly an independent reparations recommendation can’t force us to resolve our conflict over racism and slavery, if what we really want is all out war. But as with a feuding couple, if we think there’s still a chance that we’ll want to stay together, we might still give the independent counselor thing a try.  

Yes, like you I hear of many who seem eager for all-out war, as they feel confident they will win. For example, some intend to crush all opposition within the elite professions that they expect to dominate, such as journalism, academia, government, social media tech, and even law. But while such people do exist, social media exaggerates their numbers. It is not yet too late to step back from the brink, and reconcile. Via something like law. 

In a recent Twitter poll, I found that 800 respondents favored cash reparations (CR) 4-1 over affirmative action (AA) as a way to deal with past and present racism, including race-based slavery:


My 73 facebook poll respondents favored CR over AA 87% to 13%. Yes, there are reasons to doubt a wider public shares this judgment, but three different polls find at least that majorities of blacks favor cash reparations. The idea isn’t crazy.

Added 3pm: Over the weekend, I paid for nationally representative surveys via Google Surveys. When I asked the above question except with “just show results” replaced by “I don’t know” (IDK), then out of 220, IDK got 77%, AA 14%, and CR 9%. I initially paid for a much bigger survey, but bailed when I saw so many IDK. I tried again without the IDK option, and out of 1154, AA got 53% and CR 47%. I agree that these stats aren’t very supportive of a majority favoring CR over AA.

I interpret these stats as Google Survey respondents trying to answer as fast as they can to get paid more faster, and so only giving accurate opinions when such can be generated very quickly. If the question looks at all complex, then they pick an IDK or “none of the above” if they see one, and otherwise pick randomly. I’d pay a lot more for surveys where the same person is asked the same question a week apart, and only gets paid if their answers match.

Added 6Mar: Almost all responses are critical, from folks who apparently don’t want any reparations. They mainly complain that this case would be difficult to judge from a legal precedent point of view. But we almost never refuse to have a legal proceeding on the basis of difficulty of judging. If it seems plausible that a judge might find for the plaintiff, the case goes forward. A judge might then rule for the defendant because it seems too hard to find a clear enough reason to rule otherwise. But that’s after a proceeding, not before. I’m okay if the jury of 13 that I suggested picks, after much deliberation, a median compensation of zero; no reparations.

Added 8Mar: David Brooks comes out in favor of reparations:

Reparations are a drastic policy and hard to execute, but the very act of talking about and designing them heals a wound and opens a new story.

George Will opposes reparations because they’d be complicated.

Added 10Mar: A Postily poll of 283 finds 28% prefer AA, 36% prefer CR, 36% say IDK. Non-whites like CR more across the board, but even whites favor it 33% to 27%. Masters degrees & higher prefer AA. Democrats prefer AA over CR 45% to 26%. Oddly, all regions but the South preferred AA over CR.

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Beware Covert War Morality Tales

For years I’ve been saying that fiction is mainly about norm affirmation:

Both religion and fiction serve to reassure our associates that we will be nice. In addition to letting us show we can do hard things, and that we are tied to associates by doing the same things, religious beliefs show we expect the not nice to be punished by supernatural powers, and our favorite fiction shows the sort of people we think are heroes and villains, how often they are revealed or get their due reward, and so on. (more)

People fear that story-less people have not internalized social norms well – they may be too aware of how easy it would be to get away with violations, and feel too little shame from trying. Thus in equilibrium, people are encouraged to consume stories, and to deludedly believe in a more just world, in order to be liked more by others. (more)

Our actual story abilities are tuned for the more specific case of contests, where the stories are about ourselves or our rivals, especially where either we or they are suspected of violating social norms. We might also be good at winning over audiences by impressing them and making them identify more with us, and we may also be eager to listen to gain exemplars, signal norms, and exert influence. (more) Continue reading "Beware Covert War Morality Tales" »

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Cycles of War & Empire

I’ve just read five of Peter Turchin’s books: Historical Dynamics (2003), War & Peace & War (2006), Secular Cycles (2009), Ultra Society (2015), and Ages of Discord (2016). Four of them in the last week. I did this because I love careful big picture thinking, and Turchin is one of the few who does this now on the big question of historical cycles of conflict and empire. While historians today tend to dislike this sort of analysis, Turchin defies them, in part because he’s officially a biologist. I bow to honor his just defiance and careful efforts.

Turchin’s main story is a modest variation on related farmer-era historical cycle stories, such as by Jack Goldstone in 1991, & Ibn Khaldun in 1377 (!):

Different groups have different degrees of cooperation .. cohesiveness and solidarity. .. Groups with high [cohesion] arise on .. frontier .. area where an imperial boundary coincides with a fault line between two [ethnic] communities .. places where between group competition is very intense. .. Only groups possessing high levels of [cohesion] can construct large empires. ..

Stability and internal peace bring prosperity, and prosperity causes population increase .. leads to overpopulation, .. causes lower wages, higher land rents, and falling per capital incomes. At first, low wages and high rents bring unparalleled wealth to the upper class, but as their numbers and appetites grow, they also begin to suffer from falling incomes. Declining standards of life breed discontent and strife. The elites turn to the state for employment and additional income and drive up its expenditures at the same time that the tax revenue declines. .. When the state’s finances collapse, it loses the control of the army and police. Freed from all restraints, strife among the elites escalates into civili war, while the discontent among the poor explodes into popular rebellions.

The collapse of order brings .. famine, war, pestilence, and death. .. Population declines and wages increase, while rents decline. .. Fortunes of the upper classes hit bottom. .. Civil wars thin the ranks of the elites. .. Intra-elite competition subsides, allowing the restoration of order. Stability and internal peace bring prosperity, and another cycle begins. (pp.5-8 W&P&W)

Turchin (& coauthor Nefedov) collect much data to show that this is a robust farmer-era pattern, even if there are many deviations. For example, in Europe, 33 of 43 frontier situations gave rise to big empires, yet only 4 of 57 of non-frontier situations did (p.84 HD). “Secular cycles” vary in duration from one to four centuries; Western Europe saw 8 cycles in 22 centuries, while China saw 8 cycles in 21 centuries (p.306,311 SC). During the low instability part of each cycle, instability shows a rough “alternating generations” 50 year cycle of conflict.

I’ll grant that Turchin seems to have documented a reasonably broad pattern, containing most of his claimed elements. Yes, empires tend to start from frontier groups with high cohesion, and core cohesion changes slowly. First there’s war success and a growing area and population, and bigger cities. Eventually can come crowding and falling wages. Inequality also grows, with more richer elites, and this is quite robust, continuing even after wages fall.

While the amount of external war doesn’t change over the cycle, success in war falls. Many signs of social cohesion decline, and eventually there’s more elite infighting, with crime, duels, misspending state revenue, mistreatment of subordinates, and eventually civil war. Big wars can cut population, and also elite numbers and wealth. Eventually war abates and cohesion rises, though not to as high as when the empire started. A new cycle may begin; empires go through 1-3 cycles before being displaced by another empire.

Just as science fiction is often (usually?) an allegory about issues today, I suspect that historians who blame a particular fault for the fall of the Roman Empire tend to pick faults that they also want to warn against in their own era. Similarly, my main complain about Turchin is that he attributes falling cohesion mainly to increased inequality – an “overproduction” of elites who face “increased competition”. Yes, inequality is much talked about among elites today, but the (less-forager-like) ancients were less focused on it.

As Scheidel said in The Great Leveler, inequality doesn’t seem to cause civil wars, and civil wars tend to increase inequality during and after the war (p.203). External wars reduce inequality for losers and increase it for winners, without changing it much overall. It is only big mass mobilization wars of the 1900s that seem to clearly cause big falls in inequality.

In biology, over multiple generations organisms slowly accumulate genetic mutations, which reduce their fitness. But this degradation is countered by the fact that nature and mates select for better organisms, which have fewer mutations. Similarly, it seems to me that the most straightforward account of the secular cycle is to say since empire founders are selected out of a strong competition for very high cohesion, we should expect cohesion to “regress to the mean” as an empire evolves.

That is, in order to predict most of the observed elite misdeeds later in the secular cycle, all we need to assume is a random walk in cohesion that tends to fall back to typical levels. Yes, we might want to include other effects in our model. For example, civil war may allow a bit more selection for subgroups with more cohesion, and humans may have a psychological inclination to cohere more during and after a big war. But mostly we should just expect cohesion to decline from its initial extreme value, and that’s all a simple model needs.

Yes, Turchin claims that we know more about what causes cohesion declines. But while he goes to great effort to show that the data fit his story on which events happen in what order during cycles, I didn’t see him offering evidence to support his claim that inequality causes less cohesion. He just repeatedly gives examples where inequality happened, and then instability happened, as if that proves that the one caused the other.

We already have good reasons to expect new empires to start with a small area, population, and inequality. And this by itself is enough to predict growing population, which eventually crowds to cut wages, and increasing inequality, which should happen consistently in a very wide range of situations. I don’t see a need for, or data support for, the additional hypothesis that inequality cuts cohesion. We may of course discover more things that influence cohesion, and if so we can add them to our basic secular cycle model. But we don’t need such additions to predict most of the cycle features that Turchin describes.

In his latest book, Turchin points out many U.S. signs today of rising inequality and declining social cohesion, and at the end asks “Will we be capable of taking collective action to avoid the worst of the impending democratic -structural crisis? I hope so.” But I worry that his focus on inequality leads people to think they need to fight harder to cut inequality. In contrast, what we mostly need is just to fight less. The main way that inequality threatens to destroy us is that we are tempted to fight over it. Instead, let us try more to see ourselves as an “us” contrasted with a “them”, an us that needs to stick together, in part via chilling and compromising, especially regarding divisive topics like inequality.

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When Is Talk Meddling Okay?

“How dare X meddle in Y’s business on Z?! Yes, X only tried to influence Y people on Z by talking, and said nothing false. But X talked selectively, favoring one position over another!”

Consider some possible triples X,Y,Z:

  • How dare my wife’s friend meddle in my marriage by telling my wife I treat her poorly?
  • How dare John try to tempt my girlfriend away from me by flirting with her?
  • How dare my neighbors tell my kids that they don’t make their kids do as many chores?
  • How dare Sue from another division suggest I ask too much overtime of my employees?
  • How dare V8 try to tempt cola buyers to switch by dissing cola ingredients?
  • How dare economists say that sociologists keep PhD students around too long?
  • How dare New York based media meddle in North Carolina’s transexual bathroom policy?
  • How dare westerners tell North Koreans that their government treats them badly?
  • How dare Russia tell US voters unflattering things about Hillary Clinton?

We do sometimes feel justly indignant at outsiders interfering in our “internal” affairs. In such cases, we prefer equilibria where we each stay out of others’ families, professions, or nations. But in many other contexts we embrace social norms that accept and even encourage criticism from a wide range of sources.

The usual (and good) argument for free speech (or really, free hearing) is that on average listeners can be better informed if they have access to more different info sources. Yes, it would be even better if each source fairly told everything relevant it knew, or at least didn’t select what it said to favor some views. But we usually think it infeasible to enforce norms against selectivity, and so limit ourselves to more enforceable norms against lying. As we can each adjust our response to sources based on our estimates of their selectivity, reasonable people can be better informed via having more sources to hear from, even when those sources are selective.

So why do we sometimes oppose such free hearing? Paternalism seems one possible explanation – we think many of us are unreasonable. But this fits awkwardly, as most expect themselves to be better informed if able to choose from more sources. More plausibly, we often don’t expect that we can limit retaliation against talk to other talk. For example, if you may respond with violence to someone overtly flirting with your girlfriend, we may prefer a norm against such overt flirting. Similarly, if nations may respond with war to other nations weighing in on their internal elections, we may prefer a norm of nations staying out of other nations’ internal affairs.

Of course the US has for many decades been quite involved in the internal affairs of many nations, including via assassination, funding rebel armies, bribery, academic and media lecturing, and selective information revelation. Some say Putin focused on embarrassing Clinton in retaliation for her previously supporting the anti-Putin side in Russian internal affairs. Thus it is hard to believe we really risk more US-Russian war if these two nations overtly talk about the others’ internal affairs.

Yes, we should consider the possibility that retaliation against talk will be more destructive than talk, and be ready to forgo the potentially large info gains from wider talk and criticism to push a norm against meddling in others’ internal affairs. But the international stage at the moment doesn’t seem close to such a situation. We’ve long since tolerated lots of such meddling, and the world is probably better for it. We should allow a global conversation on important issues, where all can be heard even when they speak selectively.

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Dial It Back

In a repeated game, where the same people play the same game over and over, cooperation can more easily arise than in a one-shot version of the game, where such people play only once and then never interact again. This sort of cooperation gets easier the more that players care about the many future iterations of the game, compared to the current iteration.

When a group repeats the same game, but some iterations count much more than others, then defection from cooperation is most likely at a big “endgame” iteration. For example, spies who are moles in enemy organizations will usually hide and behave just as that organization wants and expects, waiting for a very big event so important that it can be worth spending their entire career investment to influence that event.

Many of our institutions function well because most participants set aside immediate selfish aims in order to conform to social norms, thereby gaining more support from the organization in the long term. But when one faces a single very important “endgame” event, one is then most tempted to deviate from the norms. And if many other participants also see that event as very important, then your knowing that they are tempted more to deviate tempts you more to deviate. So institutions can unravel when faced with very big events.

I’ve been disturbed by rising US political polarization over recent decades, with each election accompanied by more extreme rhetoric saying “absolutely everything is now at stake!” And I’ve been worried that important social institutions could erode when more people believe such claims. And now with Trump’s election, this sort of talk has gone off the charts. I’m hearing quite extreme things, even from quite powerful important people.

Many justify their extreme stance saying Trump has said things suggesting he is less than fully committed to existing institutions. So they must oppose him so strongly to save those institutions. But I’m also worried that such institutions are threatened by this never-compromise never-forget take-no-prisoners fight-fight-fight mood. If the other side decides that your side will no longer play by the usual institutional norms of fairness, they won’t feel inclined to play fair either. And this really all might go to hell.

So please everyone, dial it back a bit. Yes, if for you what Trump has already done is so bad that no compromise is tolerable, well then you are lost to me. But for the rest of you, I’m not saying to forgot, or to not watch carefully. But wait until Trump actually does something concrete that justifies loudly saying this time is clearly different and now everything is at sake. Yeah that may happen, but surely you want Trump folks to know that isn’t the only possible outcome. There need to be some things Trump folks could do to pursue some of their agendas that would be politics as usual. Politics where your side doesn’t run the presidency, and so you have to expect to lose on things where you would have won had Clinton become president. But still, politics where our existing institutions can continue to function without everyone expecting everyone else to defect from the usual norms because now everything is at stake.

Added 21Nov: Apparently before the election more people on Trump’s side were talked about presuming the election was rigged if their side lost. Without concrete evidence to support such accusations, that also seems a lamentable example of defecting from existing institutions because now everything is at stake. HT Carl Shulman.

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Stock Vs. Flow War

When our farmer ancestors warred, they often went about as far as they could to apply all available resources to their war efforts. This included converting plowshares into swords, ships into navies, farmers into soldiers, granaries into soldiers on the move, good will into allies, and cash into foreign purchases. When wars went long and badly, such resources were often quite depleted by the end. Yet warring farmers only rarely went extinct. Why?

The distinction between stock and flow is a basic one in engineering and finance. Stocks allow flows. A granary is a stock, and it can produce a flow of grain to eat, but that flow will end if the stock is not sufficiently replenished with every harvest. A person is a stock, which can produce work every week, but to make that last we need to create and train new people. Many kinds of stocks have limits on the flows they can produce. While you might be able to pull grain from a granary as fast as you like, you can only pull one hour of work from a worker per hour.

Natural limits on the flows that our stocks can produce have in the past limited the destructiveness of war. Even when war burned the crops, knocked down stone buildings, and killed most of the people, farmland usually bounced back in a few years, and human and animal populations could grow back in a few generations. Stones were restacked to make new buildings. The key long-term stocks of tech and culture were preserved, allowing for a quick rebuilding of previous professions, towns, and trade routes.

Future technologies are likely to have weaker limits on the conversion of stocks into flows. When we have more fishing boats we can more quickly deplete the stock of fish. Instead of water wheels that must wait for water to come down a stream, we make dams that give us water when we want. When we tap oil wells instead of killing whales for oil, the rate at which we can extract oil grows with the size and number of our wells. Eventually we may tap the sun itself not just by basking in its sunlight, but by uplifting its material and running more intense fusion reactors.

Our stronger abilities to turn stocks into flows can be great in peacetime, but they are problematic in wartime. Yes, the side with stronger abilities gains an advantage in war, but after a fierce war the stocks will be lower. Thus improving technology is making war more destructive, not just by blowing up more with each bomb, but by allowing more resources to be tapped more quickly to support war efforts.

This is another way of saying what I was trying to say in my last post: improving tech can make war more destructive, increasing the risk of extinction via war. When local nature was a key stock, diminishing returns in extracting resources from nature limited how much we could destroy during total war. In contrast, when resources can be extracted as fast and easy as grain from a granary, war is more likely to take nearly all of the resources.

Future civilization should make resources more accessible, not just to extract more kinds of slow flows, but also to extract fast flows more cheaply. While this will make it easier to flexibly use such stocks in peacetime, it also suggests a faster depletion of stocks during total war. Only the stocks that cannot be depleted, like technology and culture, may remain. And once the sun is available as a rapidly depletable resource, it may not take many total wars to deplete it.

This seems to me our most likely future great filter, and thus extinction risk. War becomes increasingly destructive, erasing stocks that are not fully replenished between wars, and often taking us to the edge of a small fragile population that could be further reduced by other disasters. And if the dominant minds and cultures speed up substantially, as I expect, that might speed up the cycle of war, allowing less time to recover between total wars.

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Beware General Visible Prey

Charles Stross recently on possible future great filters:

So IO9 ran a piece by George Dvorsky on ways we could wreck the solar system. And then Anders Sandberg responded in depth on the subject of existential risks, asking what conceivable threats have big enough spatial reach to threaten an interplanetary or star-faring civilization. … The implication of an [future great filter] is that it doesn’t specifically work against life, it works against interplanetary colonization. … much as Kessler syndrome could effectively block all access to low Earth orbit as a side-effect of carelessly launching too much space junk. Here are some example scenarios: …

Simplistic warfare: … Today’s boringly old-hat chemical rockets, even in the absence of nuclear warheads, are formidably destructive weapons. … War, or other resource conflicts, within a polity capable of rapid interplanetary or even slow interstellar flight, is a horrible prospect.

Irreducible complexity: I take issue with one of Anders’ assumptions, which is that a multi-planet civilization is … not just … distributed, but it will almost by necessity have fairly self-sufficient habitats that could act as seeds for a new civilization if they survive. … I doubt that we could make a self-sufficient habitat that was capable of maintaining its infrastructure and perpetuating and refreshing its human culture with a population any smaller than high-single-digit millions. … Building robust self-sufficient off-world habitats … is vastly more expensive than building an off-world outpost and shipping rations there, as we do with Antarctica. …

Griefers: … All it takes is one civilization of alien ass-hat griefers who send out just one Von Neumann Probe programmed to replicate, build N-D lasers, and zap any planet showing signs of technological civilization, and the result is a galaxy sterile of interplanetary civilizations until the end of the stelliferous era. (more)

These are indeed scenarios of concern. But I find it hard to see how, by themselves, they could add up to a big future filter. Continue reading "Beware General Visible Prey" »

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Party in the Street

Michael Heaney and Fabio Rojas’s new book Party in the Street: The Antiwar Movement and the Democratic Party after 9/11 tries to explain the puzzle of antiwar protests falling greatly after the election of Obama, who mostly continued previous war policies:

In examining war policy positions taken by candidates in the 2004 and 2008 [US presidential] elections, we find that Democratic politicians articulated more fervent antiwar positions than did politicians within the Republican Party, even though there were varying positions among politicians in both parties. Exit poll data reveal that politicians in the Democratic Party benefited during electoral contests from the support of antiwar constituencies. However, when we look at the evolution of actual war policies from the Bush to the Obama administrations, we find more continuity than change. The Obama administration shifted emphasis from Iraq to Afghanistan, but these shifts were still only a slight redirection of the trajectory set forth by the Bush administration. Given Obama’s continuation of many of Bush’s policies, we would have expected the antiwar movement to react with steady or increased levels of protests. Yet, antiwar protests declined during Obama’s presidency, even in the presence of policies that continued war. We argue that, in order to explain this pattern, a new perspective is needed on the relationship between parties and movements. (p.8)

On the surface, this looks like simple hypocrisy: Democratic party elites exploiting false voter beliefs that Democrats are more anti-war than Republicans. Heaney and Rojas are clear that this belief is false:

Our focus is not on why the antiwar movement failed to prevent – or to end – the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We think that the answer to this question is similarly evident: Barriers to policy success for the antiwar movement may have been insurmountable from the start. In general, antiwar movements tend to be less successful in achieving their policy goals than other social movements because they challenge the security interests of state actors and, thus, receive relatively little facilitation from the state. As a result, antiwar movements rarely prevent nations from going to war. (p.7)

But Heaney and Rojas do not phrase their explanation in the language of hypocrisy. They talk instead of identity:

Political actors embrace multiple identities during their participation in politics. When these identities overlap, they have the potential both to amplify party-movement cooperation (when they reinforce one another) and to undercut party-movement cooperation (when they conflict with one another). Thus, the interplay of multiple identities helps to provide an explanation for the dynamics of the party in the street. Drawing upon scholarship in the intersectionality tradition, we hypothesize that partisan identities often trump movement identities during periods of conflict, a tendency that may lead to important identity shifts among mobilized actors. …

Antiwar activists with identities linked to the Democratic Party tended to depart from the antiwar movement earlier than did activists without Democratic identities. Further, … although Democratic Party members generally held an antiwar point of view, their mobilization for the antiwar cause usually assumed a lower priority than mobilization on many other issues, such as health care. … We reach these conclusions after controlling for alternative explanations for individuals’ behavior, such as the possibility that differences in ideology may account for activists’ opposition to war under all circumstances, as opposed to under specific conditions. (p.9)

While this is all plausible, it seems to me rather evasive on the source of the key “reinforcement” and “conflict”. The authors don’t directly say why being anti-war and Democrat reinforce each other with a Republican president, yet are in conflict with Democrat president. Yet if Democrats were actually much more anti-war than Republicans, why is there a conflict between being anti-war and Democrat with a Democrat president? And if voters thought Republicans were no more pro-war than Democrats, why is anti-war reinforced with a Republican president?

When we identify with a party, we tend to be willing to believe its idealistic descriptions of itself, even in the face of consistent and strong evidence to the contrary. We like to think we pick a party because we agree with its positions, but in fact we often change our positions when our party changes its positions, to stay loyal:

At least some members of the mass electorate switch their issue preferences to align with their partisan identification, even when that issue is highly salient to them. … “The fact that partisanship leads to changes in attitudes on issues like abortion, government provision of services, and government help for blacks for many citizens clearly runs counter to the idea that party identification is largely a summary of other evaluations.” …

What does a politician do when she or he is left behind by the party on a key issue? … Politicians are much more likely to deliberately adjust their issue positions to the party’s new stand. … Politicians who elect to leave the group … are met with great scorn by their former colleagues. (pp.77-79)

Added 8p: If they had framed their story more in terms of hypocrisy, they might have asked which media or interest groups tried to tell antiwar protesters the truth before Obama was elected, what reception they received, and why did other big media chose not to tell.

Added 9a: More evidence here that voters change positions in response to changes in which politicians are in power.

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