Category: Current Affairs

Anti-Russia sentiment is the new McCarthyism

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column:

The Metropolitan Opera of New York has announced it will no longer stage performers who have supported Russian President Vladimir Putin. Carnegie Hall has done the same, and the Royal Opera House in London is canceling a planned Bolshoi Ballet residency. I expect more institutions to follow suit. Russia’s contemporary art scene, already financially struggling, fears ostracism from museums and collectors, mostly because of Putin’s recent actions.

Unwise, says I.  And:

It is simply not possible to draw fair or accurate lines of demarcation. What about performers who may have favored Putin in the more benign times of 2003 and now are skeptical, but have family members still living in Russia? Do they have to speak out?

Another question: Who exactly counts as Russian? Ethnic Russians? Russian citizens? Former citizens? Ethnic Russians born in Ukraine? If you were an ethnic minority born under the Soviet Union, your former Soviet passport may have explicitly stated that you were not Russian.

And what about citizens of Belarus, which according to some reports is planning to send troops into Ukraine? Might they be subject to such strictures as well? How about citizens of China, which abstained from the United Nations vote condemning Russia’s invasion? Which wars are performers from Rwanda or Democratic Republic of the Congo required to repudiate?

When exactly is this ban supposed to end?

And to close:

If anything, the McCarthyism of the 1950s is a bit more explicable than the cancel culture of the present. At least it was trying to address what was then considered a great threat. That said, McCarthyism is not a practice America should want to revive. Witch hunts, by their very nature, do not bring out the best in people, Americans very much included.

I guess we will really see who is against cancel culture and who is not.

How much expected surplus do we want Putin to have?

My Bloomberg column is on another topic altogether, starting with bank runs, but this part I can reframe in terms of principal-agent theory.  We want to squeeze Putin so hard that he “cries Uncle”, yet without eliminating his surplus so much that he takes a lot of extra risk.  Hard to achieve both of those ends at the same time!  Here is one bit reflecting that dilemma:

For a point of contrast on how decentralized incentives operate on each side, consider the nuclear alert ordered by Putin on Sunday. The chance of Russian nuclear weapons being ordered into actual use is small. But Putin faces a dilemma as he attempts to manipulate the decentralized systems of the Russian military. If he gave an order for a nuclear strike on a Ukrainian city, would the Russian military obey it? Whoever did would know they could be liable for war crimes.

The outcomes here are impossible to forecast, but the uncertainty works in favor of the Ukrainians. If it became known that Putin ordered a nuclear strike and was ignored, for example, he would become the proverbial “paper tiger” rather quickly and might lose power altogether.

These decentralized mechanisms potentially shift the entire logic of the war. Russia has to win fairly quickly, or these and other forces will increasingly work against it. Ukraine thus can fight for a military stalemate, but Russia cannot. The Russian forces must take increasing levels of risk, even if those risks have what decision theorists call “negative expected value” — that is, they serve as desperate gambles and on average worsen the Russian situation.

Of course that makes the war increasingly dangerous, and not just for the Ukrainians. If Putin is afraid the forces in the field won’t always carry out his orders, for example, he may order the launch of 10 tactical nukes rather than just one.

As AK would say, “Have a nice day.”

What is the Probability of a Nuclear War, Redux

Reupping this post from 2019. No indent.

I agree with Tyler who wrote recently that “the risk of nuclear war remains the world’s No. 1 problem, even if that risk does not seem so pressing on any particular day.”

The probability of a nuclear war is inherently difficult to predict but what strikes me in this careful survey by Luisa Rodriguez for the Effective Altruism Forum is how much higher all the expert predictions and model forecasts are compared to what we would like them to be. Keep in mind that the following are annualized probabilities. For a child born today (say 75 year life expectancy) these probabilities (.0117) suggest that the chance of a nuclear war in their lifetime is nearly 60%, (1-(1-.0117)^75). At an annualized probability of .009 which is the probability from accident analysis it’s approximately 50%. See Rodriguez and also Shlosser’s Command and Control on the frightening number of near misses including one nuclear weapon dropped on North Carolina.

These lifetime numbers don’t strike me as crazy, just crazy high. Here is Rodriguez summarizing:

If we aggregate historical evidence, the views of experts and predictions made by forecasters, we can start to get a rough picture of how probable a nuclear war might be.[8] We shouldn’t put too much weight on these estimates, as each of the data points feeding into those estimates come with serious limitations. But based on the evidence presented above, we might think that there’s about a 1.17% chance of nuclear war each year and that the chances of a US-Russia nuclear war may be in the ballpark of 0.39% per year.

Addendum: A number of people in the comments mention that the probabilities are not independent. Of course, but that doesn’t make the total probability calculation smaller, it could be larger.

Are nuclear weapons or Rogue AI the more dangerous risk?

I was going to write a long post on this question, as recently I had been urged to do by one of the leaders of the Effective Altruism movement, during a Sichuan lunch.

But then Putin declared a nuclear alert, and I figured a short post might be more effective.  To be clear, I think the chance of nuclear weapons use right now is pretty low.  But it is not zero, if only because of errors and misunderstandings.  So imagine this kind of scenario repeated across a few centuries, with an increasing number of nuclear powers at that.  And this time around, there is a truly existential threat to the current version of the Russian state, and a number of people are suggesting that Putin has gone a little wacko.

And this is in a world where, about one week ago, the conventional wisdom was that Russia would not really invade Ukraine at all, maybe just a limited police action in the east.

As for Rogue AI, here is a long Scott Alexander post (ungated) on the topic.  For now I will just say that it makes my head hurt.  It makes my head hurt because the topic is so complicated.  And I don’t take any particular form of technological progress for granted, not along any time frame.  That holds all the more true for “exotic” claims about what might be possible over the next few decades.  Most of the history of the human race is that of zero economic growth, sometimes negative economic growth.  And how good were past thinkers at predicting the future?  Don’t just select on those who are famous because they got some big things right.

So I see nuclear war as the much greater large-scale risk, by far.  We know nuclear weapons work and we know they can be deployed without any technological advances at all.  And we know they are highly destructive by their very nature, whether we “align” them or not, whether we properly train them or not.

How many people, as public intellectuals, have made “let’s make sure all countries holding nuclear weapons can accurately distinguish between an incoming rocket and a flock of birds” their main thing?  Zero?

An ongoing political shift

In another pandemic challenge for Democrats, many of the institutions and aspects of daily life that skew culturally liberal have been undermined by the more cautious approaches to the coronavirus in left-leaning precincts: the performing arts, libraries and museums, public education, academia, mass transit, progressive religious congregations, and restaurants and small independent retailers. In pre-pandemic times, these sorts of institutions and businesses provided sustenance in Democratic-leaning communities, and their shakiness after nearly two years of off-and-on withdrawal has its own political cost.

I would remove restaurants from that list, but otherwise I agree.  That is from Alec MacGillis.

War and dating apps (swipe left)

Ukrainian women in second city Kharkiv — just 20 miles from tyrannical Vladimir Putin’s vast invasion force — have been stunned by a salvo of admirers in uniform.

Hunky Russian troops called Andrei, Alexander, Gregory, Michail and a bearded Chechen fighter nicknamed “Black” were among dozens whose profiles popped up.

And they looked certain to get a rocket from Red Army commanders last night after giving away their position and posting pictures of their uniforms in flirty messages.

Dasha Synelnikova’s phone lit up with snaps of dozens of randy Russians when she set her location to Kharkiv on Tinder yesterday.

The soldiers are believed to have come into range after the Russian President’s commanders ordered a huge influx of tanks and troops within striking distance of the city.

Here is the full story, photos too, via the AG.  And a possible update?

Putin as a man of ideas

Commentators are drawing lessons from the conflict in Ukraine, but they are missing one key point. Above all, the Russian attack and possible dismemberment of Ukraine reflects the power of ideas.

Read the English translation of the Putin speech to justify Russian’s actions in Ukraine. It is striking how much Putin cites history, going as far back as the 17th century, to justify the Russian incursion.

One of Putin’s core views is that Ukraine is not a legitimate country in its own right. He is clear about this claim and its import: “So, I will start with the fact that modern Ukraine was entirely created by Russia or, to be more precise, by Bolshevik, Communist Russia.” Putin himself published a July 2021 essay “On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians,” which goes further back yet and discusses Ancient Rus.

Putin’s speech immerses the audience in detail, citing the history of Stalin, Khruschev, the 1917 October Revolution, the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk and what Stalin did in 1922 with respect to the People’s Commissar of Ethnic Affairs. The need for the earlier Soviet Union to offer concessions to the nationalists is portrayed as one reason why Ukraine was allowed to have some of its identity as Ukraine. Here is a typical passage: “Soviet Ukraine is the result of the Bolsheviks’ policy and can be rightfully called “Vladimir Lenin’s Ukraine.” He was its creator and architect. This is fully and comprehensively corroborated by archival documents, including Lenin’s harsh instructions regarding Donbass, which was actually shoved into Ukraine.”

By the time you get to the end of Putin’s speech he is still talking about history, and reciting how Ukraine squandered the wonderful inheritance left to them by the Soviet Union. Furthermore, that same Ukraine has become a tool of Western attempts to disrupt Russia.

Putin is full of ideas about history. You can argue how much these remarks reflect Putin’s own concern with ideas, or the Russian public’s concern or that of foreign audiences, but it is probably all of those. Furthermore, Putin has embraced a coterie of Russian intellectuals, marketing what is sometimes called Eurasianism, who parrot and develop the notion of Russia as a power-deserving Eurasian civilization.

If you think the current version of Ukraine was never a valid nation to begin with, a twisted set of mental contortions might bring you around to Russian expansionism. Russia is just taking back what is rightfully theirs, and by the end of this speech Putin is concluding that: “the possible continuation of the bloodshed will lie entirely on the conscience of Ukraine’s ruling regime.”

The obsession with ideas and also with history is a longstanding tradition from earlier leadership. For instance, Soviet dictator Josef Stalin held an extensive library, amounting to about 19,500 books, which he used as a personal, working archive. Stalin was known for his extensive marginalia and for leaving greasy fingerprints on the book pages. Marxist politics, economics and history were prominent in the library, and after Lenin, the most heavily represented authors in the library were Stalin himself, Zinoviev, Bukharin, Marx, Kamenev, Molotov, and Trotsky.

So Putin is hardly breaking from the mold. We also know, from previous documentation, that Putin considered the dismantlement of the former Soviet Union as a great tragedy. That too is an idea, and it further reflects the continuity between Putin’s efforts and those of his predecessors.

If you write books, whether good or bad ones, and wonder whether your work matters, I suggest the answer lies before you on your TV screen each evening. Russia is a nation of ideas, led by people who are obsessed with ideas. The rest of the world, most of all Europe, will need better ideas in turn.

Addendum: Here is Ryan Avent on the power of ideas.

A simple model of what Putin will do for an endgame

I would start with two observations:

1. Putin’s goals have turned out to be more expansive than many (though not I) expected.

2. There are increasing doubts about Putin’s rationality.

I’ll accept #1, which has been my view all along, but put aside #2 for the time being.

In my simple model, in addition to a partial restoration of the empire, Putin desires a fundamental disruption to the EU and NATO.  And much of Ukraine is not worth his ruling.  As things currently stand, splitting Ukraine and taking the eastern half, while terrible for Ukraine (and for most of Russia as well), would not disrupt the EU and NATO.  So when Putin is done doing that, he will attack and take a slice of territory to the north.  It could be eastern Estonia, or it could relate to the Suwalki corridor, but in any case the act will be a larger challenge to the West because of explicit treaty commitments.  Then he will see if we are willing to fight a war to get it back.

There are fixed costs to mobilization and incurring potential public wrath over the war, so as a leader you might as well “get the most out of it.”  Our best hope is that the current Russian operations in Ukraine go sufficiently poorly that it does not come to this.

Addendum: And some good questions from Rob Lee.

Trudeau has turned off the invocation of the Emergencies Act

After two days it is no more.  I was and remain completely opposed to this invocation of the emergency powers.  I think they simply should have arrested the protestors early on, before the whole thing became such a big deal.

Here is a good short essay on the “digital jail” created by having your funds frozen in a nearly cashless society.  How is it you are supposed to pay for a lawyer?  What about joint bank accounts with other family members?  The more you think about this option, the worse it gets.

That all said, I have never been sold on the more dramatic claims of the critics.  No, this is not the transition moment for crypto.  Canada has not become a fascist state.  The government made a mistake, and the mistake has been corrected.  They should not have had this power to begin with.

I would stress that eternal vigilance is the price of liberty, and vigilance was needed to push this one back.  But if this was your freakout for the week, most of your attention is directed to the wrong places.

My Conversation with Chuck Klosterman

Excellent stuff, we had so much fun we kept on going for an extra half hour, as he decided to ask me a bunch of questions about economics and personal finance.  Here is the audio and transcript.  Here is the CWT summary:

Chuck joined Tyler to discuss the challenges of writing about recent history, the “slow cancellation of the future” that began in the aughts, how the internet widened cultural knowledge but removed its depth, why the context of Seinfeld was in some ways more important than its content, what Jurassic Park illustrates about public feelings around scientific progress in the ’90s, why the ’90s was the last era of physical mass subcultures, why it’s uncommon to be shocked by modern music, how his limited access to art when growing up made him a better critic, why Spin Magazine became irrelevant with the advent of online streaming, what made Grantland so special, what he learned from teaching in East Germany, the impact of politics on the legacies of Eric Clapton and Van Morrison, how sports often rewards obnoxious personalities, why Wilt Chamberlain is still underrated, how the self-awareness of the Portland Trail Blazers undermined them, how the design of the NFL makes sports rivalries nearly impossible, how pro-level compensation prevents sports gambling from corrupting players, why so many people are interested in e-sports, the unteachable element of writing, why he didn’t make a great editor on his school paper, what he’d say to a room filled with ex-lovers, the question he’d most like to ask his parents, his impressions of cryptocurrency, why he’s trying to focus on what he has in the current moment rather than think too much about future plans, the power of charisma, and more.

Whew!  Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: I see the world as follows. Every decade, to me, is super weird, but the 1980s and ’90s pretended they weren’t weird. The ’80s pretended to be good versus evil. The ’90s pretended that good won. But when crypto comes and persists, you have to drop all pretense that the age you’re living in isn’t totally weird.

You have internet crypto, and everyone admits, right now, everything’s weird. And that, to me, is the fundamental break with the 1990s because everyone pretended most things were normal and that Seinfeld was your dose of weird, right? Jason Alexander — that’s a very manageable weird.

KLOSTERMAN: Oh, absolutely.

COWEN: Some guy in an apartment in New York City cracking sarcastic jokes — like, whoop-de-do.

And:

KLOSTERMAN: …this guy, Mark Fisher, who’s dead now, had this idea about the slow cancellation of the future. I feel like that’s one of the most profound ideas that I’ve come across in the last 10 years of my life, and it seems so palpable that this is occurring.

An example I will often use is, if you take, say, 10 minutes from an obscure film in 1965 with no major actors, and then you take 10 minutes from an obscure film from 1980 where nobody became famous, and you show anyone these 10-minute clips, they will have no problem whatsoever figuring out which one came first. Even a little kid can look at a movie from 1965 and a movie from 1980 and instantly understand that one predates the other.

But if you do that with a film from 2005 and a film from 2020 — again, an obscure film where you don’t recognize the actors — you’re just looking at it aesthetically and trying to deduce which one came first and which one came second. It’s almost impossible.

This phenomenon just seems to almost be infiltrating every aspect of the culture…

And:

KLOSTERMAN: Before I did this podcast, I listened to your podcast with Žižek.

COWEN: Oh yeah, that was hilarious.

KLOSTERMAN: Are you friends with him? It sure seemed like it. And if you are, what is it like to be with him when he is not in a performative scenario?

Recommended.  And again, here is Chuck’s new book The Nineties.

Ronald Reagan is underrated

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is one excerpt:

As I interpret the career of Reagan, he understood another point very well — and that concerns the scarcity of moral capital. Reagan knew there were real “bad guys,” and that it was up to leaders and elites to identify them and stand up to them, both rhetorically and diplomatically. Most of all, it was important to encourage the American public to internalize these same moral judgments. This may all sound corny and dated, but the pending conflict in Ukraine shows it to be an enduring truth.

The complementary Reagan vision was positive, optimistic and focused on what Americans can accomplish when working together. Americans are going to disagree on a lot of issues, he acknowledged, but they should maintain a relatively united front and save their real opprobrium for the truly destructive forces on the global scene.

Fast forward 40 years, and it seems that America has almost completely ignored these strictures. Many on the right seem most upset about the worst aspects of the left, and vice versa. Even when bad forces emerge in the international arena, Americans seem far more preoccupied by their fights with each other.

On Russia specifically, as recently as several months ago the current military escalation was hardly a topic of discussion among U.S. elites. When Mitt Romney tried to raise the danger of Russia in his 2012 presidential campaign, the point largely fell flat. Former President Barack Obama actually mocked him.

One of my biggest beefs about the status quo is that both the Trumpist Right and the Progressive Left are so willing to run down America’s moral capital in service of their pet partisan projects.

Will Our Military State Fail Us? II

A few years ago I reported on how the US repeatedly loses to China in war games (no indent):

David Ignatius writing in the Washington Post:

Here’s a fact that ought to startle every American who assumes that because we spend nearly $1 trillion each year on defense, we have primacy over our emerging rival, China.

“Over the past decade, in U.S. war games against China, the United States has a nearly perfect record: We have lost almost every single time.”

That’s a quote from a new book called “The Kill Chain: Defending America in the Future of High-Tech Warfare,” the most provocative critique of U.S. defense policy I’ve read in years. It’s written by Christian Brose, former staff director of the Senate Armed Services Committee and a close adviser to late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.). The book isn’t just a wake-up call, it’s a fire alarm in the night.

Brose explains a terrible truth about war with China: Our spy and communications satellites would immediately be disabled; our forward bases in Guam and Japan would be “inundated” by precise missiles; our aircraft carriers would have to sail away from China to escape attack; our F-35 fighter jets couldn’t reach their targets because the refueling tankers they need would be shot down.

…How did this happen? It wasn’t an intelligence failure, or a malign Pentagon and Congress, or lack of money, or insufficient technological prowess. No, it was simply bureaucratic inertia compounded by entrenched interests.

Now here is one bit from a post from a retired Army Colonel arguing that The US is not Ready for a Peer to Peer Fight in Europe:

LONG RANGE (NON-NUCLEAR) BALLISTIC MISSILES AND ROCKETS:

The US has NONE in the US Army, and the other Services have NONE OTHER THAN sea-launched and air-launched conventional, low flight level, subsonic cruise missiles. NO long range, land-based, conventional ballistic missiles in the US Armed Forces. How did this happen?

The US National Military Strategy is as much a defense industry-driven wish list of combat systems they want to build, as opposed to a threat-defeating strategy based on US Ground Forces out-matching our peer military adversary.  Russia, for example, has many hundreds (if not thousands) of state-of-the-art missile launchers, tens of thousands of missiles (plus the Zircon that flies at Mach 6-9 – hypersonic speeds), as well as a full suite of tailored, target appropriate warheads, at multiple throw weights that can be selected based on the target to be attacked. We – the US – have ZERO such weapons.

Here is a rebuttal.

I have no expertise in this field and can’t adjudicate these claims but what I do know is that I used to think that however bad the US government was, the US military remained by far the best in the world. But the failing US power grid, the lethargic response to the pandemic, the ignominious retreat from Afghanistan, all have caused me to update my priors on US military capabilities and not in a good direction.