Category: Current Affairs

The Sheriff of Transnistria

You will probably start to hear a lot more about Transnistria in the near future. Transnistria sits in between Moldova and Ukraine and was formed in the 1990s as a pro-Soviet breakway state from Moldova. After a brief civil war it is now governed independently and its security is overseen by “a three-party (Russia, Moldova, Transnistria) Joint Control Commission that supervises the security arrangements in the demilitarised zone, comprising 20 localities on both sides of the river.”

Wikipedia: Although the ceasefire has held, the territory’s political status remains unresolved: Transnistria is an unrecognised but de facto independent semi-presidential republic with its own government, parliament, military, police, postal system, currency, and vehicle registration.[16][17][18][19] Its authorities have adopted a constitution, flag, national anthem, and coat of arms. After a 2005 agreement between Moldova and Ukraine, all Transnistrian companies that seek to export goods through the Ukrainian border must be registered with the Moldovan authorities.[20] This agreement was implemented after the European Union Border Assistance Mission to Moldova and Ukraine (EUBAM) took force in 2005.[21] Most Transnistrians have Moldovan citizenship,[22] but many also have Russian, Romanian, or Ukrainian citizenship.[23][24] The main ethnic groups are Russians, Moldovans, and Ukrainians.

Now here is where it gets weird.

Wikipedia: Sheriff (Russian: Шериф) is the second-largest[citation needed] company in the unrecognised breakaway state Transnistria. It is based in the city of Tiraspol. Formed in the early 1990s by Viktor Gușan and Ilya Kazmaly, former members of the special services, Sheriff has grown to include nearly all forms of profitable private business in the unrecognised country, and has even become significantly involved in local politics and sport,[2] with some commentators saying that company loyalists hold most main government positions in the territory.

…Sheriff owns a chain of petrol stations, a chain of supermarkets, a TV channel, a publishing house, a construction company, a Mercedes-Benz dealer, an advertising agency, a spirits factory, two bread factories, a mobile phone network, the football club FC Sheriff Tiraspol and its home ground Sheriff Stadium, a project which also included a five-star hotel.

And consider the following from 2021:

New Moldovan President Maia Sandu has said she wants her country to join the European Union and demanded Russian troops leave Transnistria.

But the breakaway statelet still affirms its allegiance to Moscow.

In Tiraspol, a billboard reads “Russia in our hearts,” while a portrait of Russian President Vladimir Putin hangs on a wall in Krasnoselsky’s offices.

Hat tip: The deputy, Kevin Lewis.

The U.S. is really good at destroying things

If a country is really good at X, and along comes social change Y, you ought to figure there is a pretty good chance Y will feed into X.

So for instance the United States is really good at retail.  So along comes Wokeism, and, lo and behold, Wokeism slots wonderfully into retail, whether you like that fact or not.  The Woke is marketed all the time, and so you can find “green” versions of so many products, even if organic food costs more energy, etc.  Or if you invent a new app, with anti-corporate purposes in mind, don’t be surprised if you wake up one day and the app has been co-opted by retail corporations.  And so on.

What we are now observing is that the recent innovation of “The Woke’ has been co-opted for the purposes of destroying things, in this case the economy and possibly the society and polity of Russia.  The lining up of European allies, the mobilization of sentiment on Twitter, the inducement of Visa and Mastercard to pull out, and you could go on and on and on.  The Woke campaign against Russia has turned out to be extremely powerful, well beyond what I had been expecting to happen.  Energy purchases might be next to go.

To be clear, sometimes we are good at producing or threatening destruction in very beneficial ways (WWII, 1973 airlift to Israel, ending the post-Yugoslavia wars, stopping Saddam from taking Saudi oil, etc.), and sometimes we are good at destruction in very harmful ways (you can supply your own list, but it is extensive).  In this post I am not going to try to assess the net expected value from the ongoing destruction of Russia, only to say that the final outcome is uncertain.

Nuclear power, airplanes, computers, GPS and much more all have been co-opted into destroying things, again noting these effects may be net positives on the whole.  They have been co-opted into retail purposes as well, nuclear power excepted.

Make no mistake about it, many of the most important “contributions” of Wokeism are to feed into, and enhance, those capabilities that America already is good at.

Which include retail and yes, destruction as well.

The Coase theorem, combined with the force of increasing returns to what a country is really good at, will see to this.

The same feeder tendencies may well be true for other innovations you might have in mind, be they practical or intellectual in nature.  Whether you like it or not, they will contribute to both American retail and to the American capacity to destroy.

Some people observe these trends and think the Woke is transcendent and all-powerful.  But under another reading, it is actually the Woke that is somewhat being pwned.

Who is working on creative solutions to limit nuclear war risk?

I don’t mean on the macro foreign policy side, but more the micro elements.  For instance, how do we make sure all countries with nuclear weapons have accurate early warning systems, so they do not confuse flocks of birds with incoming missiles?

Your suggestions do not have to be credentialed in the traditional sense, but they should be smart, curious, and hard-working, at the very least.

I thank you in advance for the nominations.

Addendum: I am looking for actual suggestions and will delete all “soapbox” comments.

Which Russians are getting cancelled?

The Russian filmmaker Kirill Sokolov has spent the past week distraught at the horror unfolding in Ukraine. Half his family is Ukrainian, he said in a telephone interview, and as a child he spent summers there, staying with his grandparents.

His maternal grandmother was still living in Kyiv, he said, “hiding from bombs in a bunker.”

Since Russia’s invasion began, Mr. Sokolov said he had signed two online petitions calling for an end to the war, an act that carries a risk in Russia, where thousands have been arrested for protesting the conflict, and some have reportedly lost their jobs.

Yet despite his antiwar stance, Mr. Sokolov on Monday learned that the Glasgow Film Festival in Scotland had dropped his latest movie, “No Looking Back.”

Here is more from Alex Marshall at the NYT.  Remind me again — why is this better than “simple racism”?  The Festival noted that the Russian government earlier had funded his film work.  Surely that could be grounds for cancelling anyone who went to public school in Russia?

The game theory of attacking nuclear power plants

From my latest Bloomberg column (do I really need to indent my own text?):

“Putin would like to find a way of making nuclear threats without quite incurring the liability from … making nuclear threats.

Enter nuclear power plants. When Russian forces attack the plant, there is some chance that something goes wrong, such as a radiation spill. But more likely than not, the plant will hold up, and most dangerous processes can be shut down and the very worst outcomes avoided. You can think of Putin as choosing a “nuclear radiation deployment” with only some small probability.

Why might he do this? Well, he is showing that the use of broader nuclear deployments is not out of the question. He is also showing that he is willing to take a huge risk.

Most of all, he doesn’t much have to fear retaliation. The Western powers cannot know if these nuclear attacks are deliberate strategy or simply an accident of tactics in the field, and so — if only for that reason — they will not respond with a major escalation. If Russian forces moved on Estonia, they might be courting a very serious NATO response. But not in this situation.

You don’t have to believe that Putin sat in his lair rubbing his hands as he dreamed up this diabolical strategy. It’s also possible that the attack on the nuclear power plant started by mistake, or was ordered by lower-level commanders. Putin then simply allowed it to continue, perhaps out of a general love of chaos. At the very least, he did not consider it a priority to stop the attack.

Game theory doesn’t always have to be about explicit plans and intentions. It also can help explain why “invisible hand” mechanisms lead people to a particular point in the strategy tree, as if they had those strategies as conscious intentions.

Attacking the nuclear power plant also illuminates some other parts of game theory. Ukraine and its people are taking very heavy losses and are hoping for NATO to intervene on their behalf. If the conflict seems riskier to all of Europe, and not just Ukraine, the odds of such intervention improve.

In this sense, the attack on the nuclear power plant does not have to be entirely bad for Ukrainian prospects in the war. The Ukrainian leadership is rightly horrified by this attack, due to the risks for Ukrainian citizens. But the attack could also mobilize European public opinion on behalf of military intervention for Ukraine. If the war greatly increases chances for the spread of dangerous nuclear radiation, then the likelihood that Germany, France, Turkey and other nations will intervene also greatly increases.

Notice, however, that the Russian position here may be sounder than it at first appears. European citizens care more about radiation in Ukraine than do American citizens, for reasons of simple proximity. Putin may realize he can put Europeans at greater risk so long as he doesn’t provoke an intervention from the U.S. military, which would probably be decisive. It is a risky strategy that he might just get away with.

If you are the Ukrainian government, your incentive is to make the nuclear power plant attack sound as risky and precarious as possible. Indeed, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy has done exactly that.”

I am sorry to say that the column does not have an especially optimistic ending.

I Booked an Airbnb in Kyiv

I booked 5 nights at an Airbnb in Irpin, a heavily bombed city near Kyiv.

I’m not going. (And I told the host I wasn’t going).

The host replied:

Любі друзі дякуємо за допомогу. На ці гроші ми зможело допомогти сімьям які залишились без будинків. Дякуємо

Dear friends, thank you for your help. With this money we were able to help families left homeless. Thank you

It’s a very strange world in which you can book an apartment in a bombed city thousands of miles away.

Would this form of charity pass the Givewell test? Probably not. Still I am glad to have done it. Not to make light of the situation, but the look on my wife’s face when I told her I had booked an Airbnb in Kyiv was priceless.

NFT markets in everything

Ukraine plans to become the first developed country to issue its own collection of non-fungible tokens, as it looks to capitalise on a flood of crypto donations to back its war against Russia.

Mykhailo Fedorov, Ukraine’s vice-prime minister, announced the plan in a tweet on Thursday and said Kyiv would reveal details of its NFTs soon.

The move is the latest sign of the Ukrainian government embracing digital assets as a way to fund its armed forces in their battle, and comes after it raised more than $270mn in “war bonds”.

One for each Russian tank destroyed?  Here is the full FT story, via Natasha.

Jesse Michels interviews me at Hereticon

Jesse’s description was “Wide ranging discussion with the brilliant @tylercowen. Topics include: Satoshi’s identity, Straussian Jesus, the Beatles and UFOs. Taped in early January but he presciently expresses concerns around Russia/Ukraine”

Great fun was had by all, and they added in nice visuals.

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?