Insights from Committee On Public Safety

Link. The blog is dead, but well-worth reading for the sort of person who enjoys Luttwak. This is very different from agreeing with Luttwak, or thinking that he’s particularly worth listening to.

Epistemic status: Attempting to distill a distillation (CoPS’ analysis) of a distillation (written records: books, monographs, interviews, etc) of a distillation (insights and thoughts of generals, soldiers, spies, thinkers, intellectuals, academics, diplomats, bureaucrats, and more) of a distillation (war and politics, throughout time and space). For the purposes of this blog post, as in most of my “Insights from X” series, I will spend relatively little time critically examining the premises of the author, and focus on what they believe and how they think. In general, I am not trying to losslessly compress what people are saying: that would take more insight and time than I feel I have to offer. Rather, if the ideas presented here intrigue you and you wish to explore them further, I recommend reading the original.

  1. Strategy is downstream of politics

There’s the well-worn phrase of Breitbart’s that politics is downstream of culture. One of the arguments of CoPS is that strategy is downstream of politics. The reason that Kennan’s thoughtful call for a more moral and more enlightened America to confront the Soviet Union over negotiating tables and radio waves was turned into containment was that it was executed by the political figures of the time. Moynihan might respond that “The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.” Moynihan had his own views about what culture was, and what (white) salvation looked like, but the point that it is possible to change culture persists. Why are some countries corrupt when others aren’t? Frequently, we can point to particular political shifts that seem to have had a substantial impact, from Chester Arthur to Lee Kuan Yew. This is difficult.

“Culture is not instantly subject to conscious human design. It’s plastic, able to bend but only with effort. This plasticity is a result of culture being tightly intertwined with instinct, the inherited mental hardware of man. Instinct only changes through biological evolution over the ages of the Earth. This makes it hard to change culture, which is a hybrid of hardware and software. Culture can change but the process is long, arduous, and only happens over extended periods of time.”

CoPS acknowledges this possibility. “Politics is subject to the pull of culture but it has its own beat and its own rhythm. Politics can turn the tables and shape culture but the effort is power intensive. Since it’s uphill battle, culture usually has the upper hand.”

CoPS expands this into an entire “stack”: culture -> politics -> strategy -> operations -> tactics, but I think that the politics -> strategy link is most likely to be new to readers, as it was new to me. Operations, summarized, is the thing you do when dealing with the size of Russia and need a scale in between “the biggest military scale” and “prepping for a battle, or avoiding one”. Grand strategy is “contain China via reinforcing the seas” vs “emphasize trade to make Chinese cost of initiating aggression too high”. Operations is “have the Marine Corps make installations to control 1000-mile radius sea areas” vs “A mobile military is a useful military”. Tactics is which islands you take over.

2. Americans want normalcy.

Americans don’t want to fight, but more than that they don’t want to engage. They are, as a group, deeply myopic, and happy that way. Culture as CoPS works with it is about the “unspoken assumption”, and as hard to change as you might expect from that description. Culture can be fought by politics, but politics is always at a disadvantage.

3. How much decline?

Falling life expectancy. NIMBYism. Increasing isolationism. Dying cities. Dying regions. A despised elite, and a political class that is both increasingly wealthy and increasingly irrelevant. Increased focus on internal fights over external ones. Declining schools. Increasing regulatory capture, and increasing rewards to regulatory capture. LAmerica looks like a nation in decline. But how much, in what ways, and for what reasons?

4. Honor cultures

Reading enough to understand honor is critical for anyone to whom it doesn’t come naturally. People who don’t have the protection of a state have to rely on their own reputation to defend them. They must respond to slights with aggression that seems stunning to the tamed middle classes, or else show themselves weak.

5. OODA Loops

Observe, Orient, Decide, Act. CoPS is a massive Boyd fan, and has inspired me to read more Boyd.

Image:OODA.Boyd.svg

(Link: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:OODA.Boyd.svg. No changes were made.)

N. Quote

“War is a strategy intended to make the enemy conform to your political desires when doing so is contrary to what they’d do if they possessed both the power to resist and sufficient knowledge about your true political desires.”

“WWI is largely overlooked in American memory because of distance and the short amount of time it took for us to go over there, whip the Hun, and win the war. WWI looms larger in the memory of other nations whose wartime experiences were decidedly less satisfactory than America’s. They built monuments to unspeakable loss, grief, and human suffering while America built victory monuments and went home.”

I don’t know how to describe this one.

Advertisements

Takeaways from Fairbank’s China: A New History

This is not a comprehensive review: merely a few things I thought were particularly interesting. Fairbank has Opinions, and he’s not trying to go for a tone of boring objectivity. He’s not the first person I would recommend reading if you’re not familiar at all with Chinese history, unless you’re fine regularly googling phrases like the Chinese Rites controversy. If you are fine with regular googling, and you don’t mind getting one person’s opinion, he comes strongly recommended as an enjoyable historian: just don’t let him be the only person you read. I read him as part of an elephant book club, where every member reads a different book on the same topic, and he was an excellent fit for that environment.

  • Vatican II authorized ancestor worship.

I’m going to reiterate that one, actually. Syncretic forms of Christianity pop up everywhere I look, but my own rabbit hole into the intersection of a hierarchical church and the resulting conflict was fascinating.

  • Christianity really struggled in China.

Missionaries were often politically influential, as they were educated and had foreign backing, but these numbers are good for context: 400 million Chinese citizens, 40 million opium users, 3 million Chinese converts to Christianity.

  • The Boxer Rebellion was a war that the victors agreed to call a rebellion.

When the imperial court deploys the imperial military to stop foreign forces from invading, that would, in ordinary circumstances, be called a war. But there was actual resistance to the dowager empress of the time that didn’t get involved, and the imperial powers didn’t want to deal with overthrowing the reigning monarch.

  • It doesn’t help you understand modern China as well as you might like.

Renan: “The essential characteristic of a nation is that its individuals must have many things in common, and must have forgotten many things as well.” There’s a lot of Chinese history, and I don’t know what is remembered and what is forgotten. Even a naive observer could figure out that the nationalists must be evil, and the Japanese the same. Memories of Western humiliation are still prominent, and anti-Japanese sentiment is still strong enough that the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-1895 probably isn’t forgotten entirely. But is it remembered as “China was weak because the old government was corrupt”? Was China weak because the old ideas were wrong? How are the Boxers taught and viewed? I was struck by the extent to which I don’t know, and no book of history was likely to tell me.

Mere knowledge of facts, even facts well assembled to tell a narrative, do not tell you how common the narrative you are reading is to others. Understanding the raw facts can be useful, but understanding that decently educated Americans see the Seven Years War/French and Indian War as a British action that should not have resulted in taxation on the colonists is crucial: that George Washington started it is an afterthought. To pick the top google search result for me:

“The French and Indian War, which took place between 1754-1763, began due to a conflict between England and France over control of the Ohio River Valley. Both sides wanted the valley so they could expand their settlements into the area.” –Link.

(On how Chinese history is taught: NYT, Quora, and NPR.)

Contra Hanson on Punishment

Link: http://www.overcomingbias.com/2019/02/why-weakly-enforced-rules.html

Hanson asks “why should we punish something only moderately”. He gives

Some possible explanations:

  1. People like the symbolism of being against things they don’t really want to stop. It is more about wanting to look like the sort of person who doesn’t fully approve of such things.
  2. Having more rules that are only weakly enforced allows the usual systems more ways to arbitrarily punish some folks via selective enforcement. You might like this if you share such system’s tastes re who to arbitrarily punish. Or if you want to signal submission to authorities who want to use such power.
  3. If these things were actually legal and licit, people might sometimes publicly suggest that you are engaging in them. But if they are illicit or illegal, there’s a norm against accusing someone of doing them without substantial evidence. So if you want to discourage others from lightly accusing you of such things, you may want those activities to be officially disapproved, even if you don’t actually want to discourage them.
  4. We mainly want these norms and laws to help us deal with some disliked “criminal class” out there, a class that we don’t actually interact with much. So when we see real cases in our familiar word, they seem like they are not in that class, and thus we don’t want our norms or laws to apply to them. We only want less enforcement for folks in our world.
  5. What else?

1, 2, and 4 seem plausible to me: 1 is the classic Hansonian signalling argument, while 2 and 4 should be familiar to anyone with the concept that police are something suburbanites hire to keep down lower-class African-Americans.

However, Hanson neglects the most obvious explanation: people don’t commit crime deterministically. We could choose to think that individuals weigh the costs and benefits of an action, and then take it if the benefits outweigh the costs. However, a more plausible model is that, whenever we make a decision, there’s an element of whimsy, emotion, and circumstantial impact on our choice from other aspects of our environment. Did you enjoy your breakfast? Did you fight with your mother? These all impact your decisions in ways that aren’t remotely rational.

Now, these random influences don’t tend to make us do things we would otherwise never do: I’m not going to deliberately throw my laptop out of my window. But they can exert a strong influence on decisions where we are uncertain: do I read this book or that one? Do I stay home or go to that party? Or even cases where we wouldn’t normally do something, but feel inspired: I paused to listen to a good rendition of Amazing Grace, on my way home from work, so I feel inspired, positive, and clean a common area unasked for. Or perhaps, when my friend asks me to be his getaway driver, I say yes, because I don’t conceive of myself as doing anything harmful, my boyfriend broke up with me earlier today, and I don’t want to turn down a friend. In my model, crime has an error function.

CommitCrime=benefits-log(PrisonTerm)*p(caught)+e

SocietalBenefit=-PrisonTerm*p(caught)*(1-NoCrime)-CatchingResources(p(caught))+NoCrime.

If it’s positive, you commit the crime. Perhaps in an ideal model we could fully account for all possible sources of error, but in practice we tend to have levers like “increase likelihood of being caught” and “lengthen prison stays” and don’t have access to “make sure that nobody ever breaks up with anybody else” (which could, it’s worth noting, have other undesirable effects). I don’t think that e is normal: more likely it has a long right tail. Most people don’t commit crimes on normal days (aside from your three felonies a day).

If this is a reasonable model, then criminal policy should strike a balance between deterrence and over-punishment of people who happened to have a high-error day, for efficiency and fairness reasons. A long right tail means that doubling total punishment can have a rather small impact on likelihood of committing a crime, as this (very rough) graph demonstrates.

Moving from x1 to x2 requires doubling the likelihood of capture (or equivalent changes), but only decreases the likelihood of crime from 50% to 33%. That might be correct as a tradeoff, but it’s obvious that there is some point at which marginal punishment, even though it will deter marginal crime, mostly increases punishments for those who were already going to commit the crime. Given that putting someone in prison is more expensive than providing food, shelter, and a college education, increasing imprisonment of people who were already going to commit a crime is a substantial cost.

On the other side, people often have a fairness intuition. It is unfair if, for the same action, one person is handed a heavy punishment and the other a light one. It would be unfair if, after sentencing someone to jail, we flipped a coin: heads we double the sentence, tails we let them go.

As such, if people are frequently given the option to commit or not commit crime, and they repeatedly choose crime, this suggests that error was not the cause of their actions.  If your actions were caused by the error term (your meds interacted badly with what you didn’t realize was grapefruit; you didn’t get any sleep last night because the person upstairs held a loud party), it is unfair to punish you, at least very much. Combining this with a belief in inherent criminality being a dominant factor in propensity to commit crime has led to three-strikes laws. Similarly, your first drunk driving or speeding ticket, in every jurisdiction I’m aware of, is treated substantially more leniently than your fifth. The first could have been because you rushed your partner to a hospital and happened to get caught: your fifth is probably because you’re just speeding on a regular basis.

Finally, note that I have the criminal consider log(PrisonTerm) as their cost, but society has to pay linearly for each year. log(PrisonTerm) may not be the correct model, but there’s no question that the cost of prison for the imprisoned is non-linear. Increasing marginal costs imply that we should, at some point, stop. I believe that there is substantial evidence showing that we imprison people far longer than it makes sense to, but I won’t defend that point here.

Finally, we apply different levels of punishment to different crimes, and for good reasons. One is marginal deterrence. Scott Alexander says it well:

Chen Sheng was an officer serving the Qin Dynasty, famous for their draconian punishments. He was supposed to lead his army to a rendezvous point, but he got delayed by heavy rains and it became clear he was going to arrive late. The way I always hear the story told is this:

Chen turns to his friend Wu Guang and asks “What’s the penalty for being late?”

“Death,” says Wu.

“And what’s the penalty for rebellion?”

“Death,” says Wu.

“Well then…” says Chen Sheng.

And thus began the famous Dazexiang Uprising, which caused thousands of deaths and helped usher in a period of instability and chaos that resulted in the fall of the Qin Dynasty three years later.

The moral of the story is that if you are maximally mean to innocent people, then eventually bad things will happen to you. First, because you have no room to punish people any more for actually hurting you. Second, because people will figure if they’re doomed anyway, they can at least get the consolation of feeling like they’re doing you some damage on their way down.

Yes, being late is bad and something we want to deter. But once you’ve used your strongest possible deterrent, you don’t have any other options to incentivize marginal compliance. As such, we don’t want to use the death penalty on illegal immigration: this would make the marginal cost of all other crime zero, which would be bad.

The other is spread. It is costly to society to imprison people: we have limited total resources for deterrence, which must be spread over all possible bad things. Police officers and jail cells focused on illegal immigrants are ones that aren’t focused on speeding drivers. Arpiao’s famous reign of terror led to substantially increased violent crime: focusing on one sort of crime (illegal immigration) meant focusing less on everything else. When we reduce punishment and enforcement efforts of one crime, we’re (typically) increasing resources devoted to everything else. If I think that we are over-punishing a particular crime, and focusing too many resources on it, I should push for lowered punishment.

 

Short Review: The Big Nine

Overall: Not strongly recommended to anyone familiar with artificial intelligence and futurism. Possibly useful to see what other people are reading.

Analysis: Present seemed relatively accurate. Small econ errors (trash collection is both rivalrous and excludable, as is clear to anyone who thinks about them.) Forecasted future is overly specific and confident. Causes for different futures are implied to be largely about how aggressively we check China, and how left-wing on social/data issues we are.

Politics: Very left wing on social issues. If you’re familiar with the AI bias literature, there’s not much new there. Explicitly and surprisingly nationalist, and calls China “Communist” for some reason I don’t understand. Pitched very strongly at existing large US tech companies, trying to get them on board with her vision.