Category: Political Science

What drives people to extremist YouTube videos?

There is a new and very interesting paper on this topic by Annie Y. Chen, Brendan Nyhan, Jason Reifler, Ronald E. Robertson and Christo Wilson.  Here is the abstract:

Do online platforms facilitate the consumption of potentially harmful content? Despite widespread concerns that YouTube’s algorithms send people down “rabbit holes” with recommendations to extremist videos, little systematic evidence exists to support this conjecture. Using paired behavioral and survey data provided by participants recruited from a representative sample (n=1,181), we show that exposure to alternative and extremist channel videos on YouTube is heavily concentrated among a small group of people with high prior levels of gender and racial resentment. These viewers typically subscribe to these channels (causing YouTube to recommend their videos more often) and often follow external links to them. Contrary to the “rabbit holes” narrative, non-subscribers are rarely recommended videos from alternative and extremist channels and seldom follow such recommendations when offered.

I am traveling and have not had the chance to read this paper, but I do know the authors are very able.  I am not saying this is the final word, but I would make the following observation: there are many claims made about social media, and many of them might be true, but for the most part they are still largely unfounded.

The doctrine of nuclear deterrence must evolve

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, about 3x the normal length.  Here is one excerpt:

From the vantage point of 2022, it is clear that the norms doctrine, while it served useful functions for decades — just as did the MAD doctrine — has its limitations. The most obvious is that norms tend to weaken and eventually collapse.

Once the use of nuclear weapons became classified as “unthinkable,” political actors tried to extend that designation to other kinds of weapons. In doing so, they weakened the concept of unthinkability. The broader category of “weapons of mass destruction,” for example, was also supposed to be unthinkable. Yet Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein used them against Iran in the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. This led some countries to support Iran, but Saddam remained in power until former President George W. Bush led the war against Iraq roughly two decades later.

In 2012, former President Barack Obama told Russian President Vladimir Putin that they should agree that chemical weapons should not be deployed in Syria, as that would constitute a “red line.” Syria went ahead and used them, and there was no major kinetic U.S. military response, thereby erasing that red line and possibly others.

The pattern is evident: Once the category of “unthinkable” weapons is created, it is expanded so much that it loses its credibility. Politicians tend to spend down the reputational capital that their predecessors build up.

And:

Another problem with the norms doctrine is that, sooner or later, there is value in breaking a norm — precisely because the norm was successful.

Think back to your high school. Your teachers probably set up behavioral norms that most everyone followed. That left room for a rebel who dared to defy those norms, if only for attention and to signal non-conformity.

With nuclear weapons, it’s not as if Putin or some other political “rebel” would use a bomb to make a point or to seem cool. Rather, Putin has been finding it useful to threaten the West and NATO with possible nuclear weapons use. If enough scary threats are issued, the use of nuclear weapons no longer seems unthinkable. And as the unthinkability norm erodes, eventually someone — Putin or not — may use nukes.

Finally, as mentioned above, the norms doctrine assumed the major nuclear powers all had a stake in a status quo…

Cameo by Thomas Schelling!

My excellent Conversation with Thomas Piketty

Lots of disagreement in this episode, though always polite.  Here is the transcript, video, and audio.  Here is part of the summary:

He joined Tyler to discuss just how egalitarian France actually is, the beginning of the end of aristocratic society, where he places himself within French intellectual history, why he’s skeptical of data from before the late 18th century, how public education drives economic development, why Georgism isn’t sufficient to address wealth inequality, the relationship between wealth and cultural capital, his proposal for a minimum inheritance, why he turned down the Legion of Honor, why France should give reparations to Haiti despite the logistical difficulties of doing so, his vision for European federalism, why more immigration won’t be a panacea for inequality, his thoughts on Michel Houellebecq’s Submission, and more.

Here is one excerpt:

COWEN: If I visit every major country in Europe, what I observe is the highest living standard is arguably in Switzerland — Norway and Luxembourg aside. Switzerland has one of the smallest governments, and they attempt relatively little redistribution. What is your understanding of Switzerland? What if someone said, “Well, Europe should try to be more like Switzerland. They’re doing great.” Why is that wrong?

PIKETTY: Oh, Switzerland. It’s a very small country, so it’s about the size. . . . Actually, it’s smaller than Île-de-France, which is a Paris region. Now, if you were to make a separate country out of Île-de-France, GDP per capita, I think, would actually be higher than Switzerland. Of course, you can take a wealthy region in your country and say, “Okay, I don’t want to share anything with the rest of the country. I’m going to keep my tax revenue for me. I’m going to be a tax haven based on bank secrecy.” That’s going to make you 10 percent or 20 percent richer. I’m not saying —

COWEN: It’s been a long time since Switzerland relied on bank secrecy, right? Following 9/11, that Swiss advantage largely went away.

PIKETTY: Oh, that’s wrong. Oh, you’re wrong on this.

We talk about Matt Rognlie and Greg Clark as well.  Recommended, this was fun for me to reread.

An Operation Warp Speed for Nasal Vaccines

I have been pushing for more funding for nasal vaccines since early last year when I wrote about trypanophobia and see also my Congressional testimony. The Washington Post reports that the idea is gaining traction among scientists but funding is limited:

As the omicron variant of the coronavirus moved lightning-fast around the world, it revealed an unsettling truth. The virus had gained a stunning ability to infect people, jumping from one person’s nose to the next. Cases soared this winter, even among vaccinated people.

That is leading scientists to rethink their strategy about the best way to fight future variants, by aiming for a higher level of protection: blocking infections altogether. If they succeed, the next vaccine could be a nasal spray.

…Scientists at the National Institutes of Health and the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority — known as BARDA — are vetting an array of next-generation vaccine concepts, including those that trigger mucosal immunity and could halt transmission. The process is similar to the one used to prioritize candidates for billions of dollars of investment through the original Operation Warp Speed program. But there’s a catch.

“We could Operation Warp Speed the next-generation mucosal vaccines, but we don’t have funding to do it,” said Karin Bok, director of Pandemic Preparedness and Emergency Response at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “We’re doing everything we can to get ready … just to get ready in case we have resources available.”

In my estimation, Operation Warp Speed was the highest benefit to cost ratio of any government program since the Manhattan Project. Amazingly, despite having now seen the benefits of the program and the costs of the pandemic, a government that spends trillions every year can’t get behind millions for a nasal vaccine.

To be sure, the emergency is over. The risk to the vaccinated are now tolerable and the benefits of further investment are much less than before vaccines were available. But the costs are also lower. Much of the research on nasal vaccines has already been done–what is needed is funding for clinical trials.

A nasal COVID vaccine will also pay off in future vaccine programs. If in a future pandemic we were able to use nasal vaccines to vaccinate more quickly, that alone could save many lives.

Addendum: Here’s my post on RadVac the do it yourself nasal vaccine.

Solve for the wartime presentation equilibrium

Ukrainian officials have run more than 8,600 facial recognition searches on dead or captured Russian soldiers in the 50 days since Moscow’s invasion began, using the scans to identify bodies and contact hundreds of their families in what may be one of the most gruesome applications of the technology to date.

The country’s IT Army, a volunteer force of hackers and activists that takes its direction from the Ukrainian government, says it has used those identifications to inform the families of the deaths of 582 Russians, including by sending them photos of the abandoned corpses.

The Ukrainians champion the use of face-scanning software from the U.S. tech firm Clearview AI as a brutal but effective way to stir up dissent inside Russia, discourage other fighters and hasten an end to a devastating war.

Here is the full story.  Maybe this feels gruesome, but I am not sure we should let ourselves be led by the nose of our intuitions here.  Furthermore, we have zero information on its effectiveness, or lack thereof.  So I am not ready to have an opinion on this practice.  We all seem fine with the idea of killing, so squeamishness on the “presentation side” probably is undertheorized.

I am more interested in what the next step looks like.  If this stands a chance of being effective, how might you try to “improve” the presentation?  Record death screams and send them in audio files?  A virtual reality version?  A “director’s cut” for the more committed audience members?

How about AI that scans the battlefield for fights your preferred side seems to be winning?  Then do face scans of the opposing soldiers and using internet, text, or phone calls, invite their relatives to watch the struggle.  Wouldn’t a fair number of family members click on that link?

Might some people crowdsource funding for extra footage, or shoot it themselves?  I read this (New Yorker) report about the recent Brooklyn terror attack:

Many [bystanders] also responded as no one should ever do in an active-shooter scenario—when presented with an escape route, they instead stopped to record videos.

A yet more advanced version of the footage could throw in deep fakes of some kind?  CGI?

Do you find this all more repulsive yet?  Ever watched a war movie?  We seem to accept those in full stride.  It would be weird — but perhaps a coherent view nonetheless — to think “killing fine, phony movie of killing fine, movie of real killing just terrible.”

What do you all think?

For the initial pointer I thank Maxwell.

Pakistan synthetic control estimate of the day

I find that Pakistan’s per capita GDP would have been an average of about $718 per year higher had the country not undertaken the effort to produce a nuclear weapon. This equates to per capita GDP being 27.8 percent lower on average over the 25-year weapons-development period. Results are robust to several alternative specifications, including country exclusion, sparse synthetic controls, non-outcome characteristics as predictors of GDP, and in-space placebo experiments of differing specifications.

Here is the paper by Anthony Mayberry, via TEKL.

The fragmentation of France?

The less fortunate have their own cultural markers of Americanisation. Again, Fourquet analyses names. The Maries of French tradition were replaced by Kevins (after Home Alone) and Dylans (after Beverly Hills 90210). The map of these American names coincides with the places where Marine Le Pen can count on her firmest support. Many National Rally activists bear names such as Jordan Bardella, today the number two in the party, or Davy Rodriguez, who headed its youth organisation. More phenomena of this kitschy low-status Americanisation include the immense popularity of country music clubs, vintage US cars, and pole dancing across France, as well the spread of the Buffalo Grill restaurant chain in hundreds of locations.

And this sentence I found interesting:

Americanisation was the only component of globalisation that did not bitterly divide the French.

Here is more from Krzysztof Tyszka-Drozdowski.  I wouldn’t say I have an opinion of my own on these issues — haven’t been there in a few years — but I found this piece stimulating.

From the comments (on war)

One of the really interesting contrasts that is widely known but highlighted by this war is just how well-provisioned and competent the USA is when it comes to manufacturing the needs of their armed forces as well as getting them where they are needed compared to their competitors.

The Afghanistan occupation may have been a failure but it was an unbelievable exercise in logistical execution. And even when the US had to leave in a hurry and left behind all that equipment, the controversy was all about “how could we let the Taliban get all that stuff?”. The cost of the equipment never really arose which indicates that the attitude to that was basically “there’s always more where that came from”.

Logistics wins wars…

That is from SpeculativeDiction.

That was then, this is now

The Red Army collapsed in the first weeks of the war.  This is no criticism of its individual troops.  It is a statement about bureaucratic rule, coercion, lies, fear, and mismanagement.  The problems were not new, nor were they unfamiliar.  Lack of transport, for instance, which was identified by nearly every front-line officer as the reason the retreat turned into a route that June, was a long-standing concern of units based along the Soviet border.  “It is absolutely unknown to us where and when we will receive the motorized transport we need for newly mobilized units”…Spare parts, fuel, and tires were impossible to guarantee.

Circa 1941, that is from the very good Catherine Merridale, Ivan’s War: Life and Death in the Red Army, 1939-1945.  Do not arrive too readily at conclusions about the current situation in Ukraine!  And Merridale books are in general a good place to read about Russian history.

What should we expect from the most accurate sources?

The best estimates of a maximally accurate source would be very frequently updated and follow a random walk. And authoritative sources like WHO are often said to be our most accurate sources. Even so, such sources do not tend to act this way. They instead update their estimates rarely, and are especially reluctant to issue estimates that seem to “backtrack” on previous ones. Why?

First, authoritative sources serve as a coordination point for the behavior of others, and it is easier to coordinate when estimates change less often. Second, authoritative sources need to signal that they have power; they influence others far more than others influence them. Both of these pressures push them toward making infrequent changes. Ideally only one change, from “we don’t know”, to “here is the answer”. But if so, why do they feel pressures to issue estimates more often than this?

…authoritative sources prefer a strong consensus on what are the big sources of info that force them to update. This pushes for making very simple, stable, and clear distinctions between “scientific” info sources, on which one must update, and “unscientific” sources, where it is in considered inappropriate to update. Those latter sources must be declared not just less informative, but uninformative, and slandered in enough ways to make few tempted to rely on them.

Due to the third of these pressures, authoritative sources will work hard to prevent challengers competing on track record accuracy. Authorities will issue vague estimates that are hard to compare, prevent the collection of data that would support comparisons, and accuse challengers of crimes (e.g., moral positions) to make them seem ineligible for authority. And other kinds of powers, who prefer a single authority source they can defer to in order to avoid responsibility for their decisions, will help to suppress such competitors.

Here is more from Robin Hanson.

What true conservatives should care about

That is the theme of my latest Bloomberg column, here is the opening bit:

If you are a true conservative — and I use the term not as Ted Cruz might, but in its literal sense, as in conserving what is of value in the modern world — then you should be obsessed with three threats to the most vital parts of our civilizational heritage, all of which are coming to the fore: war, pandemic and environmental catastrophe.

These three events have frequently caused or contributed to the collapse or decline of great civilizations of the past. After being seriously weakened by pandemics and environmental problems, the Roman Empire was taken over by barbarian tribes. The Aztecs were conquered by the Spanish, who had superior weapons and also brought disease. The decline of the Mayans likely was rooted in water and deforestation problems.

I think of true conservatism as most of all the desire to learn from history. So let us take those lessons to heart.

Two further points:

1. I don’t think of this as existential risk, rather humanity could be set back very considerably, with uncertain prospects for recovery.  In the median year of human history, economic growth is not positive.  A few thousand years of “Mad Max” would be very bad.

2. I think you should aspire to be more than just a “true conservative.”  You should be a liberal too!  So there is more to the picture than what the column outlines.  Nonetheless I see it as a starting point for reformulating a morally serious conservative movement…

Recommended.

My excellent Conversation with Roy Foster

Here is the audio, video, and transcript.  Here is part of the episode summary;

Roy joined Tyler to discuss why the Scots got off easier than the Irish under British rule, the truths and misconceptions about Ireland as a policy laboratory for the British government, why spoken Irish faded more rapidly than Welsh, the single question that drove a great flowering of Irish economic thought, how Foster’s Quaker education shaped his view of Irish history, how the Battle of the Somme and the 1916 Easter Rising cemented the rift between the Northeast and the rest of the country, what went wrong with Irish trade policies between the 1920s and 1970s, the power of Irish education, why the re-emergence of The Troubles in the 1960s may not have been as inevitable as many people believe, the cultural effects of Ireland’s pro-Allied neutrality in World War II, how Irish visual art is beginning to be looked at in a similar way to Irish literature, the social and economic changes of the 1970s that began to radically reshape Irish society, the reasons for Ireland’s openness to foreigners, what Irish Americans misunderstand, and more.

Here is an excerpt:

COWEN: If we think of the 19th century, as you know, I think it’s in 1831 that free universal schooling comes to Ireland. Are there ways in which, in the 19th century, Ireland is more modern than Britain?

FOSTER: That’s a very interesting and subtle question.

There is a theory that Ireland is used as a laboratory for British government and that they will apply further afield, in India and the Caribbean, models and lessons that they’ve learned in Ireland, which is sometimes referred to as Britain’s oldest or England’s oldest colony.

I have a slight problem with that, because Ireland is a very special kind of colony, if it’s a colony: it’s a metropolitan colony. The original inhabitants remain, one could say, in a far stronger position than in many of the areas of the British Empire, where they are effectively either enslaved or wiped out. But the point is really that what’s happening in Ireland in the 18th and 19th century is, as I’ve said earlier, a kind of dispossession.

But at the same time, there are elements — and this is true from the Act of Union, which abolishes the old, very elite Irish Parliament in 1800 — there are elements of experimentation in the British government of Ireland which aren’t (I have to say this) entirely malign, and you zero in on education. The attempt that was being made in the early 1830s was to introduce a nondenominational form of primary education for the Irish people.

Ireland being Ireland, it was rapidly denominationalized: the Catholics used it for their purposes and the Protestants used it for their purposes. But the theory of it was that you had to overcome the religious differences, which by the early 19th century seemed to dictate everything that was happening in Ireland.

The great novelist William Thackeray, who was married to an Irish woman, said when he did a tour of Ireland and wrote his Irish Sketch Book, “Where to get at the truth in this country: it is not possible. There are two truths, the Catholic truth and the Protestant truth.” By the early 19th century, this seemed all too true.

Substantive throughout, in my view one of the very best CWTs in some while.

Peru facts of the day

When Félix Chero knelt before Peru’s president Pedro Castillo last Sunday and swore to serve as the country’s justice minister he became the 46th minister in the Castillo government in just eight months. Since taking office last July, the president has rattled through four cabinets, four prime ministers, three foreign ministers and two finance ministers. Chero is his third justice minister…

On average, Castillo has changed a minister every nine days.

Here is much more from Gideon Long at the FT.