27 June, 2012

Altruism and deterrence

Alice Krige as the Borg Queen in First Contact
Alice Krige as the Borg Queen in First Contact (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
I'm talking to some people about getting involved in an institute exploring global catastrophic risk.  What they do fits in with the textbook (still in progress), and with my next conference paper (working title: "Captain America Meets the Borg").

An interesting question came up regarding the promotion of altruism and deterrence as strategies to reduce global risk.  I hope they don't mind if I recycle some of my comments here.  I suspect my approach may be a little different than most, although to me it seems natural.  In fact, I'd characterize it as, in many ways, classically liberal.  I think James Madison in particular would approve.

I hate to admit it, but I’m something of a cynic on many of these issues.  Promoting altruism is a good thing in general, but I’d rather find a way to take advantage of selfishness, using personal payoffs to result in public goods.  For one thing, in a system where strong altruism is the norm, a selfish minority (if not so large that it is more advantageous to prey on one another instead of on the altruistic minority) has some structural advantages.  There’s a reason why some of the most successful people are clinical sociopaths: sane people are at a disadvantage when competing in stock markets, or as generals, or in presidential elections.  People who empathize too much hesitate and lose. 

(This is not to say you can’t have sane and caring success stories in these kinds of competitive areas, but they require special circumstances and/or compensatory talents.)

So the trick, much as Montesquieu observed, is to take advantage of those rare moments and set up a system where the predators are so busy contending with one another that they need to constantly curry the favor of the majority in order to  succeed, and where it is in the interest of most of the sociopaths to tolerate the long-term empowerment of the majority.

Of course, we might want to get rid of the sociopaths completely.  But sociopathology isn’t either/or.  It’s a continuum, and whoever is sitting in the long tail (whether Genghis Kahn or Bernie Madoff) is still in an advantageous position.  Besides, there will always be “mutations.”  And worst of all, since power accumulates around the sociopaths they are, in the long run, the ones who will be doing and implementing most of the designing.  The regulators get co-opted.  It’s built into the structure of the game.

Deterrence has a better chance.  Although there’s still the chance of suicidal decision-makers, one of the useful things about sociopathology is that people who value nothing over their own lives and profit can be risk adverse—if they can accurately calculate the probability and penalties for failure.  Thus one of the things we can do is increase transparency to the point that they can’t delude themselves that they are untouchable, and another is to encourage a balance of power in which those who can do harm are also subject to the greatest risk of retaliation.

So I guess I have more faith in selfishness than in altruism, IF the selfishness is enlightened self-interest, in a system where the desire for personal gain leads to the provision of public goods, and transparency is great enough, and the most potentially dangerous members of the group have the most to lose from actions that threaten the system as a whole.

Meanwhile, fragment power and disperse populations and encourage local resilience--because there will always be disasters and we need to plan to rebuild when they occur—while not allowing those preparations to encourage overconfidence and the “moral hazard” phenomenon. 

To steal a line from Robert Gilpin, I guess I'm a liberal living in a realist universe.  I'd like to rely on the goodness of man, but it seems to me the track record (and the structure of the system) makes that a sucker bet--especially when there can be so many lives on the line.  Better to encourage a system that can encourage and profit from the better elements of our nature, but doesn't rely on them so much that it can't survive disappointment.  

23 June, 2012

I love the Swiss...

Boeing F/A-18 Hornet of the Swiss Air Force Ax...
Boeing F/A-18 Hornet of the Swiss Air Force Axalp Shooting Demo 2006, Axalp-Ebenfluh Bombing and Gunnery Range, Switzerland (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
...in part, because of their tradition of armed neutrality.  Neutrality isn't something you just "declare" (sorry, Berkeley and Boulder), it's something you have to be able to defend.  So how do you do that without becoming a threat to others?  Without, to use the expression from political science, triggering a "security dilemma"?

One way is to make it damn expensive for anyone who might want invade, protecting the civil population even as it joins in the job of defending the country, and blocking entry points to the extent that the country can "button up" and remove itself from the outside world.

And this is what the Swiss did--and still do.  Those beautiful mountains?  Honeycombed with military installations.  The scenic bridges?  The tunnels?  Mined and ready to collapse.  The pretty little houses overlooking the roads?  False fronts for artillery.  The rifle hanging over the fireplace?  That's not for show--everyone has military training.

The Swiss have natural advantages.  But that is not enough.  They also have the will and the tradition of making the most of what they have.

There's a story--perhaps apocriphal--that a Nazi official threatened a Swiss diplomat with invasion.  "We outnumber you," he said.  "Even after your defenses, if we invade we'll outnumber you two to one."

The diplomat replied, "In that case, each of us will shoot twice."

And that is how you maintain your neutrality.

BLDGBLOG: Various forms of lithic disguise

12 June, 2012

The US in context: we're number eighty-eight!

 There's Global Peace Index each year, calculated by the Institute for Economics and Peace on the basis of
...23 indicators, ranging from a nation’s level of military expenditure to its relations with neighbouring countries and the level of respect for human rights. The index has been tested against a range of potential “drivers” or determinants of peace—including levels of democracy and transparency, education and material wellbeing. The team has used the latest available figures from a wide range of respected sources, including the International Institute of Strategic Studies, The World Bank, various UN entities, Peace Institutes and the Economist Intelligence Unit.
So where's the US?  Number 88 out of 153, between Equatorial Guinea and China.  (Within the US the most peaceful state is Maine and the least is Louisiana.)  Key factors bringing down the rating for the US are deaths in foreign wars, percent of population in prison, access to weapons, political terror, and weapons exports.  On the bright side, violent crime is low, and so is political instability.  Here's the map:
So it could be worse--but I can't say I'm proud of the company we keep.

Global peace index 2012: the full list | News | guardian.co.uk
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09 June, 2012

Students (loans) really are America's future

 Perhaps I'm especially sensitive to this because my own education debts will probably outlive me, but it seems to me there's something wrong with this picture.  Namely, what is the single largest asset on the balance sheet of the Federal government?
 That's right:  student loans.

The US Government's Single Largest Asset Is STUDENT LOANS - Business Insider
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07 June, 2012

Dumb and dumber

In case you missed it, Congress has been growing more stupid over the years, if we are to go by the quality of their speeches.  Here's a graph of the grade level of Congressional utterances, plotted by time and Party:
For particular Congresspersons, your mileage may vary.  And while there seems to be a precipitous drop for the Republicans, nobody comes out looking very good.
Rep. Mick Mulvaney, a Republican from South Carolina, speaks at the lowest grade level, registering just less than an eighth-grade level. Rep. Dan Lungren, a Republican from California, speaks at the highest level — about a 16th-grade level.  
Here are some notables: Rand Paul is among the lowest 20 members of Congress, at just above an eighth-grade level. Nancy Pelosi speaks around the average of an 11.5 level. House Speaker John Boehner is 12.6, Marco Rubio is a 9.4, and Rob Portman is at an 11th-grade level. Finally, Harry Reid is at about a 9.75 grade level. 
In the good news, maybe the rise from 2011 to 2012 is the beginning of a trend.  I wouldn't bet on it, though.

So what's going on?  Are politicians reaching out to an increasingly ill-prepared electorate?  Is it the influx of new members?  It looks like 2006 was a critical year.

Congress Is Getting Dumber And Dumber - Business Insider

05 June, 2012

Don't suffer the embarrassment of economic disfunction

Where's my jet pack?

English: David Graeber on a boat at Fire Island.
English: David Graeber on a boat at Fire Island. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Take a look at David Graeber's thought-provoking essay on why the future is so damn disappointing.  On one level, it's a critique of the neoliberal project as a means of prioritizing social control and profit stability over innovation and (potentially disruptive) progress:
what will the epitaph for neoliberalism look like? I think historians will conclude it was a form of capitalism that systematically prioritized political imperatives over economic ones. Given a choice between a course of action that would make capitalism seem the only possible economic system, and one that would transform capitalism into a viable, long-term economic system, neoliberalism chooses the former every time. There is every reason to believe that destroying job security while increasing working hours does not create a more productive (let alone more innovative or loyal) workforce. Probably, in economic terms, the result is negative—an impression confirmed by lower growth rates in just about all parts of the world in the eighties and nineties.
Britain - spy nation
Britain - spy nation (Photo credit: Clive Power)
But the neoliberal choice has been effective in depoliticizing labor and overdetermining the future. Economically, the growth of armies, police, and private security services amounts to dead weight. It’s possible, in fact, that the very dead weight of the apparatus created to ensure the ideological victory of capitalism will sink it. But it’s also easy to see how choking off any sense of an inevitable, redemptive future that could be different from our world is a crucial part of the neoliberal project.
On another, it's an inditment of the corporate bureaucratization of the culture.  I've certainly seen much of what he describes in the university, where ideas are marketed, students are customers, and administration seems to take priority over teaching or research:
The increasing interpenetration of government, university, and private firms has led everyone to adopt the language, sensibilities, and organizational forms that originated in the corporate world. Although this might have helped in creating marketable products, since that is what corporate bureaucracies are designed to do, in terms of fostering original research, the results have been catastrophic. 
My own knowledge comes from universities, both in the United States and Britain. In both countries, the last thirty years have seen a veritable explosion of the proportion of working hours spent on administrative tasks at the expense of pretty much everything else. In my own university, for instance, we have more administrators than faculty members, and the faculty members, too, are expected to spend at least as much time on administration as on teaching and research combined. The same is true, more or less, at universities worldwide.
The growth of administrative work has directly resulted from introducing corporate management techniques. Invariably, these are justified as ways of increasing efficiency and introducing competition at every level. What they end up meaning in practice is that everyone winds up spending most of their time trying to sell things: grant proposals; book proposals; assessments of students’ jobs and grant applications; assessments of our colleagues; prospectuses for new interdisciplinary majors; institutes; conference workshops; universities themselves (which have now become brands to be marketed to prospective students or contributors); and so on. 
As marketing overwhelms university life, it generates documents about fostering imagination and creativity that might just as well have been designed to strangle imagination and creativity in the cradle. No major new works of social theory have emerged in the United States in the last thirty years. We have been reduced to the equivalent of medieval scholastics, writing endless annotations of French theory from the seventies, despite the guilty awareness that if new incarnations of Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, or Pierre Bourdieu were to appear in the academy today, we would deny them tenure. 
There was a time when academia was society’s refuge for the eccentric, brilliant, and impractical. No longer. It is now the domain of professional self-marketers. As a result, in one of the most bizarre fits of social self-destructiveness in history, we seem to have decided we have no place for our eccentric, brilliant, and impractical citizens. Most languish in their mothers’ basements, at best making the occasional, acute intervention on the Internet.

If all this is true in the social sciences, where research is still carried out with minimal overhead largely by individuals, one can imagine how much worse it is for astrophysicists. And, indeed, one astrophysicist, Jonathan Katz, has recently warned students pondering a career in the sciences. Even if you do emerge from the usual decade-long period languishing as someone else’s flunky, he says, you can expect your best ideas to be stymied at every point: 
You will spend your time writing proposals rather than doing research. Worse, because your proposals are judged by your competitors, you cannot follow your curiosity, but must spend your effort and talents on anticipating and deflecting criticism rather than on solving the important scientific problems. . . . It is proverbial that original ideas are the kiss of death for a proposal, because they have not yet been proved to work. 
That pretty much answers the question of why we don’t have teleportation devices or antigravity shoes. Common sense suggests that if you want to maximize scientific creativity, you find some bright people, give them the resources they need to pursue whatever idea comes into their heads, and then leave them alone. Most will turn up nothing, but one or two may well discover something. But if you want to minimize the possibility of unexpected breakthroughs, tell those same people they will receive no resources at all unless they spend the bulk of their time competing against each other to convince you they know in advance what they are going to discover.
You don't have to agree with his estimate of causation.  Bureaucratization, I suspect, is more basic than  capitalism, and crony capitalism is not the only way capitalism can go.  Nevertheless, he's pointing to something very real.

Of Flying Cars and the Declining Rate of Profit | David Graeber | The Baffler:

'via Blog this'

04 June, 2012

The FBI: Bringing more and bigger terrorism to you

The New York Times estimates that of the "22 most frightening plans for attacks since 9/11 on American soil, 14 were developed in sting operations."  This may be conservative--but we can use it as a minimum standard for analysis.  And what do these stings look like?

THE informer, Shahed Hussain, had been charged with fraud, but avoided prison and deportation by working undercover in another investigation. He was being paid by the F.B.I. to pose as a wealthy Pakistani with ties to Jaish-e-Mohammed, a terrorist group that Mr. Cromitie apparently had never heard of before they met by chance in the parking lot of a mosque. 
“Brother, did you ever try to do anything for the cause of Islam?” Mr. Hussain asked at one point.“O.K., brother,” Mr. Cromitie replied warily, “where you going with this, brother?” 
Two days later, the informer told him, “Allah has more work for you to do,” and added, “Revelation is going to come in your dreams that you have to do this thing, O.K.?” About 15 minutes later, Mr. Hussain proposed the idea of using missiles, saying he could get them in a container from China. Mr. Cromitie laughed. 
Reading hundreds of pages of transcripts of the recorded conversations is like looking at the inkblots of a Rorschach test. Patterns of willingness and hesitation overlap and merge. “I don’t want anyone to get hurt,” Mr. Cromitie said, and then explained that he meant women and children. “I don’t care if it’s a whole synagogue of men.” It took 11 months of meandering discussion and a promise of $250,000 to lead him, with three co-conspirators he recruited, to plant fake bombs at two Riverdale synagogues. 
“Only the government could have made a ‘terrorist’ out of Mr. Cromitie, whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in its scope,” said Judge Colleen McMahon, sentencing him to 25 years. She branded it a “fantasy terror operation” but called his attempt “beyond despicable” and rejected his claim of entrapment.

There are real terrorists, but not enough to justify the expense and systematic loss of liberty associated with the "war on terror."*  How many "terrorists" are incompetent losers looking for a cause to latch on to, pushed by government agents to commit acts which will, when "uncovered," build budgets and careers?