Model, Politics

The Pitfalls of One-Man Rule

In light of the leaks about Michael Flynn, just about everyone, from America’s allies to its intelligence officers, seems to be reconsidering how much intelligence they share with Donald Trump’s White House. I can’t think of anything more damaging to President Trump’s ability to govern than various domestic and allied agencies (semi-)publicly mulling whether or not to share information with him.

It’s not that I think this will cause irreparable damage to his public image. At this point, you can be swayed by other people’s opinion of Trump or you can’t. Trump’s base doesn’t care what a bunch of intelligence geeks in suits think about him. They just want to see jobs come back.

It’s just that Trump is already beginning to experience one of the most significant failure modes of single-person rule: isolation.

One of the little talked about virtues of democracy is how its decentralizing tendency makes isolation of key decision makes much more difficult. Take Canada as an example. There are 338 Members of Parliament, each based in a different geographic region and expected to regularly travel there and respond to the concerns of the local residents. Each MP also has several aides, responsible for briefing them and keeping them in the loop. Cabinet Ministers have all of this, plus they’ll have one or two MPs acting as their assistants in matters of their portfolio. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is accountable to his constituents, his cabinet, his MPs, and through them, all of Canada.

It is very difficult to influence Mr. Trudeau’s decision making by influencing the information he receives. Government agencies can attempt it, but Mr. Trudeau is broadly popular, which makes this much more difficult. To hide information from a leader, you need a quorum. While this can be accomplished by a vocal minority, it becomes very difficult to gather even this in the face of enthusiastic majority support.

In addition, the diverse information channels Mr. Trudeau has access to mean that he is very likely to hear about any notable news that leaks out a department, even if his chief of staff or one of his cabinet ministers doesn’t want him to.

This has the effect of making power struggles somewhat transparent. In general, power among the elites is apportioned based on the results of elections and measured in terms of Members of Parliament and political capital (or, more concretely, opinion polling and what this means for re-election chances). All of this information is a matter of public record. Anyone who wants to know what elite faction is currently dominant and how much political capital it has left can find this out with a simple Google search.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the Vatican. Pope Francis was elected through an opaque process and few Catholics saw his election coming. The power games of the cardinals are hidden from most congregants and their reasons for voting how they do are between them and their god. Francis will reign until he dies or steps down, but the power games of the elites (read: the cardinals) haven’t stopped. Instead of jockeying for position directly, they will jockey by trying to control the flow of information to Francis. If one group of cardinals succeeds (or even partially succeeds), they will wield significant invisible influence.

This same sort of opacity is what makes the “science” of Kremlinology appealing. Without clear information, it takes a hundred subtle hints to figure out who has power (and perhaps even more critically, who is being listened to by those with power).

Right now, it seems like Donald Trump is in a situation that is closer to the Pope than the Prime Minister of Canada.

This normally isn’t the case for presidents. They’re deeply embedded in the fabric of a party and have multiple channels for information – as well as multiple factions they depend on for support. Trump lacks both history and (in his mind, at least) dependency. The route of last resort for information to travel to the president is through donors. Trump has closed off this route by believing he’s entirely self-made.

All of this means that Trump is at serious risk of being controlled by one or two influential advisors. If this happens, there really are limited options for his party to bring him back in line and coordinate on a legislative agenda if the interests of those advisors don’t align with the interests of the Republican party.

This is what should be keeping congressional Republicans up at night. Trump should be staying up at night wondering about what his agencies are refusing to tell him.

Governments have to rely on veritable armies of analysts to keep them swimming in the data they need to act. You want to launch an airstrike on a suspected terrorist? You’re going to need a dozen people to correlate a hundred small tidbits of information to positively identify them with enough time to spare to launch a cruise missile or a drone.

These people tend not to be that loyal to any particular party (at least when it comes to how they do their job). While the heads of departments are often political appointees, their deputies are career men and women who have come up through the civil service. Whatever they lack in loyalty to parties, they make up for in loyalty to the system. This is generally enough to allay any fears about them hiding information or failing to perform their role.

Enter Donald Trump, who seems like he might just try and rip the whole system down around their ears. Do you think they’re going to stand for that? If you can’t believe that they have conviction and a genuine loyalty to the system, at least believe that they have some instinct for self-preservation. Career civil servants rely on the system for a paycheck, after all.

Imagine you’re an intelligence officer, fairly high up. You know how much of a threat Russia is. You’ve been watching them for a decade and you’ve seen how they’re gobbling up territory along their borders, trying to reclaim some slice of their lost empire. You think Trump is going to give some of the intelligence you just collected to Russia, blowing the cover of a source or two. So, you hide it. It’s easy enough to do. All you really have to do is flag it as routine, not pass it up the chain of command. It’s almost the same as phoning it in, really.

Imagine you are Trump. Intelligence is drying up. What do you do? You can go yell at your CIA Department head (who might be loyal to you). He or she can go yell at some subordinates. And they’ll promise to do better. They might, for a week or two, or they might not. Maybe you start getting more intelligence, but it’s all of terrible quality.

What do you do? What can you do?

In the end, Trump is one man. He has maybe a hundred people who are personally loyal to him. If we’re generous, we might call it 150. But I think we have to cap it at Dunbar’s number. He can’t count on an unbroken chain of personal loyalty either, because there is a disconnect between the career civil servants and the political appointees.

Trump and all of his henchmen can rant and rail all they want. But at the end of the day, they can’t compel. They can’t hold guns to the heads of every CIA analyst and demand they tell the administration everything they know. They can’t even fire them all. You can’t solve an intelligence shortage by getting rid of all your intelligence analysts. At a certain point, you just have to give up.

Think I’m exaggerating? Think this couldn’t possibly work on Trump? Read Eichmann in Jerusalem and you’ll learn it worked on the Nazis. Where open resistance failed, obstructionism and carefully cultivated laziness succeeded.

Power is in many ways an illusion and a fragile one at that. Break it and you might not be able to put it back together. If Trump threatens the CIA (or any other agency; you can also image the DoJ taking forever to close an investigation or the EPA having a bunch of trouble finishing an inspection and giving an all clear) and fails to deliver on his threat (likely), then the jig is up. He’s lost all ability to change anyone’s behaviour through threats.

So, this is the problem Trump faces. He has the presidency and he intends to use it to make sweeping changes to America. But without close cooperation with lawmakers, his term is going to look a lot like an attempt at one-man rule. Certainly, this should be frightening for everyone who cares about checks and balances in America.

But it should also frighten Trump’s supporters. One man rule is a terrible system of government. If Trump makes a serious go at it, his cabinet and advisors will be at each other’s throats (when he isn’t around) in next to no time and he’ll face persistent (but impossible to end) resistance from almost every Federal department. I don’t know how exactly Trump plans to make America great again, but I bet he isn’t prepared for large scale passive resistance.

The final remaining question then is: will this resistance show up, or are the early rumours exaggerated. On this point, the world is watching and hoping that the ordinary civil servants of America display the requisite moral courage to passively resist Trump’s most damaging requests.

Epistemic Status: Model

Data Science, Politics

Thoughts (and Data) on Charity & Taxes

The other day, I posed a question to my friends on Facebook:

Do you think countries with higher taxes see more charitable donations or fewer charitable donations? What sort of correlation would you expect between the two (weak positive? weak negative? strong positive? strong negative?).

I just crunched some numbers and I’ll post them later. First I want to give people a chance to guess and test their calibration.

I was doing research for a future blog post on libertarianism and wanted to check one of the fundamental assumptions that many libertarians make: in the absence of a government, private charity would provide many of the same social services that are currently provided by the government.

I honestly wasn’t sure what I’d find. But I was curious to see what people would suggest. Answer fell into four main camps:

  1. Charitable giving and support for a welfare state might be caused by the same thing, so there will be a weak positive correlation.
  2. Tax incentives for charitable donations shift the utility of donating, such that people in higher tax countries will donate more, as they get more utility per dollar spent (they get the same good feelings from charity, but also receive a bigger rebate come tax time). People who thought up this mechanism predicted a weak positive correlation.
  3. This whole thing will be hopeless confounded by other variables and no conclusion would survive proper controls.
  4. Libertarians are right. Taxes drain money that would go to private charity, so we should see a strong(ish) negative correlation.

I was surprised (but probably shouldn’t have been) to find that these tracked people’s political views. The more libertarian I thought someone was, the more likely they were to believe in a negative correlation. Meanwhile, people who were really into the welfare state tended to assume that charitable donations and taxes would be correlated.

In order to figure out who was right, I grabbed the most recent World Giving Index and correlated it with data about personal income tax levels (and sales tax levels, just to see what happened).

There are a number of flaws with this analysis. I’m not looking for confounding variables. Like at all. When it comes to things as tied to national character as charity and taxes (and how they interact!), this is a serious error in the analysis. I’m also using pretty poor metrics. It would be best to compare something like average tax rate with charitable donation amount per capita. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find any good repositories of this data and didn’t want to spend the hours it would take to build a really solid database of my own.

I decided to restrict my analysis to OECD countries (minus Turkey, which I was missing data on). You’ll have to take my word that I made this decision before I saw any of the data (it turns out that there is essentially no correlation between income tax rate and percent of people who donate to charity when looking at all countries where I have data for both).

Caveats aside, what did I see?

There was a weak correlation (I’m using a simple Pearson correlation, as implemented by Google sheets here, nothing fancy) between the percentage of a population that engaged in charitable giving and the highest income tax bracket in a country. There was a weaker, negative correlation between sales tax and the percent of a population that engaged in charitable giving, but more than 60% of this came from the anchoring effect of the USA, with its relatively high charitable giving and lack of Federal sales tax. The correlation with income tax rates wasn’t similarly vulnerable to removing the United States (in fact, it jumped up by about 12% when they were removed).

Here’s the graphs. I’ve deliberately omitted trend lines because I’m a strong believer in the constellation test.

 

All the data available is in a publicly viewable Google Sheet.

I don’t think these data give a particularly clear answer about the likelihood of private charity replacing government sponsored welfare programs in a hypothetical libertarian state. But they do suggest to me that the burden of proof should probably rest on libertarians. These results should make you view any claims that charitable giving is held back by the government with skepticism, but it should by no means prevent you from being convinced by good evidence.

I am happy to see that my results largely line up with better academic studies (as reported by the WSJ). It seems that if we look at the past few decades, decreasing the tax rates in the highest income brackets have been associated with decreasing charitable giving, at least in the United States. Whether this represents a correlated increase in selfishness, or fewer individuals donating as the utility of donating decreases is difficult to know.

The WSJ article also mentions that government grants to a charity reduce private donation by about 75% of the grant amount. I don’t know if this represents donations that are lost entirely, or merely substituted for other (presumably needier) charities. If it’s the first, then this would be strong evidence for the libertarian perspective. If it’s the latter, then it means that many people intuitively understand and accept the key effective altruism concept of “room for more funding“, at least as far as the government is concerned.

Conclusions

Finding good answers to the question of whether private charity would replace government welfare turned out to be harder than I thought. The main problem was the quality of data that is easily available. While it was easy to find statistics good enough for a simple, limited analysis, I wasn’t able to find a convenient table with all of the data I needed. This is where actual researchers have a huge advantage over random people on the internet. They have access to cheap labour in the volumes necessary to find and tabulate high quality data.

I’m very glad I posed the question to my friends before figuring out the answer. It never occurred to me to consider the effect of tax incentives on charitable giving. I’m now of the weakly held opinion that the main way taxes affect charitable donations is by offsetting the costs with rebates. I’m also fascinated by the extent to which people’s guesses tracked their political leanings. This shows that (on my Facebook wall, at least) people hold opinions that are motivated by a genuine desire to see the most effective possible government. Differing axioms and exposure to different data lead to differing conceptions of what this would be, but everyone is ultimately on the same team.

I will try and remember this next time I think someone’s preferred government policy is a terrible idea. It’s probably much more productive to try and figure out why they believe their policy objectives will lead to the best outcomes and arguing about that, rather than slipping into clichéd insults.

I was also reminded that it’s fun and rewarding to spend a few hours doing data analysis (especially when you get the same results as studies that get reported on in the WSJ).

Ethics, Politics, Quick Fix

Don’t confuse constitutional rights with social norms

When Ken over at Popehat gets into a full-on rant about people who don’t understand rights, I’m often sympathetic. It was Ken who made me understand that people who don’t understand rights are a threat to everyone. When many people are misinformed about their rights, those rights become easier to take away.

When Scott at Slate Star Codex talks about good social norms, I’m very keen to listen. Scott helped me understand that social groups are worth cultivating and that it’s a good idea to think about how your group norms will change your experience of interacting with people.

So, when Tessa linked me to a Slate Star Codex post where Scott disagreed with Ken, I had some thinking to do.

The Slate Star Codex post is a response to a piece Ken put up after the furor around Justine Sacco’s tweets a few years back. Ken is defending the right of everyone else on Twitter to say whatever they like in response to Justine Sacco’s thoughtless tweets. The particular part Scott highlights is:

The phrase “the spirit of the First Amendment” often signals approaching nonsense. So, regrettably, does the phrase “free speech” when uncoupled from constitutional free speech principles. These terms often smuggle unprincipled and internally inconsistent concepts — like the doctrine of the Preferred First Speaker. The doctrine of the Preferred First Speaker holds that when Person A speaks, listeners B, C, and D should refrain from their full range of constitutionally protected expression to preserve the ability of Person A to speak without fear of non-governmental consequences that Person A doesn’t like. The doctrine of the Preferred First Speaker applies different levels of scrutiny and judgment to the first person who speaks and the second person who reacts to them; it asks “why was it necessary for you to say that” or “what was your motive in saying that” or “did you consider how that would impact someone” to the second person and not the first. It’s ultimately incoherent as a theory of freedom of expression.

Scott disagrees. He argues that there is a spirit of the First Amendment and it’s summed up by Eliezer Yudkowsky with: “Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Never. Never ever never for ever.”

Scott asks to imagine at what point damaging responses become appropriate:

What does “bullet” mean in the quote above? Are other projectiles covered? Arrows? Boulders launched from catapults? What about melee weapons like swords or maces? Where exactly do we draw the line for “inappropriate responses to an argument”?

Scott’s eventual line in the sand is: “Bad argument gets counterargument. Does not get bullet. Does not get doxxing. Does not get harassment. Does not get fired from job. Gets counterargument. Should not be hard.”

I’m sympathetic to what Scott was trying to do here, but ultimately, I’m on the side of Ken.

Scott wants to talk about the spirit of the First Amendment, which is fine. But the spirit he wants to read into it is divorced from the reality of constitutional rights. The First Amendment, like many of the rights in the US Constitution, is a negative right – it prevents the government from acting in a certain way, rather than saying it must provide people with a certain thing. The US Government can’t stop you from saying what you want, but it has no obligation to make you heard. If everyone ignores you, the government will not intervene.

It’s pretty weird to try and read a positive spirit into a negative right. The framers of the Bill of Rights knew when the rights they were setting down were negative rights. They understood the difference between negative and positive rights. To claim that the spirit of a definitely negative right is actually positive feels like an unfair attempt to halo a set of normative ethics (or perhaps aesthetics) with the positive affect that many Americans hold for their constitution.

As far as the government is concerned, as long as people are debating and silencing through legal means, there actually isn’t a distinction between trying to debate and trying to silence. Neither type of speech can be stopped. And I think it’s trivially easy to come up with examples for why neither should be stopped as a matter of routine (if you need inspiration, think of what your worst political enemies call “hate speech” and shudder about it being banned).

Luckily, negative speech and association rights and the government monopoly on force means that it is really hard to credibly threaten people’s freedom of association, so Scott is free to build a subculture that shares his beliefs about normative ethics. A subculture is free to demand positive rights for all members within the context of subculture related discussions and has free association as the perfect tool for enforcing it.

I’m glad that this is what rationalists are trying to do and I like our subculture and all, but we can’t claim that our weird norms are universal positive rights. I know this is a common thing for subcultures to do, but it’s embarrassing.

Politics, Science

Special Topics in Nuclear Weapons: Laser Enrichment

In an effort to make my nuclear weapons post series a one stop resource for anyone interested in getting up to speed on nuclear weapons, I’ve decided to add supplementary materials filling any gaps that are pointed out to me. This supplementary post is on laser enrichment.

Enrichment is one of the more difficult steps in the building of certain nuclear weapons. Currently, enrichment is accomplished through banks of hundreds or thousands of centrifuges, feeding their products forward towards higher and higher enrichment percentages.

Significant centrifuge plants are relatively big (the Natanz plant in Iran covers 100,000m2, for example) and require a large and consistent supply of energy, which often makes it possible spot them in satellite imagery. The centrifuges themselves require a recognizable combination of components, which are carefully monitored. If a nation were to suddenly buy up components implicated in centrifuge design, it would clearly signal its intention to increase its enrichment capacity.

Recently, laser enrichment has emerged as an additional vector for proliferation. Properly called SILEX (separation of isotopes by laser excitation), this new technology has the potential to make enrichment (and therefore proliferation easier). This post discusses how laser enrichment works and puts the threat it represents in context. It’s both a summarization (and simplification) of the recent paper on laser enrichment in published in Science & Global Security by Ryan Snyder and the product of my extensive background reading on nuclear weapons.

How It Works

Like gas centrifugation, laser enrichment requires gaseous uranium hexafluoride (Hex). While the preparation of uranium hexafluoride doesn’t represent a significant technical challenge (compared to all of the rest of the work of building a nuclear weapon), it’s still the sort of work that most reasonable chemists try to avoid. “Requires work with a poisonous, corrosive, radioactive gas” will never be a selling feature of enrichment work.

Laser enrichment also requires a large laser capable of outputting 10.2µm light (which must be converted to 16µm using Raman scattering off of H2 gas), capable of pulsing 30,000 times per second. This appears to be just barely possible with current technology and impossible with off the shelf technology. It’s the sort of thing that would have to be custom assembled.

Also requiring custom assembly is the enrichment cell, which must have a nozzle capable of injecting a supersonic stream of uranium hexafluoride in such a way as to minimize post-injection expansion. The cell also must have an optically transparent window for your laser to shine through and must have several egress lines – peripheral ones for enriched product and a central one for the jet to flow out of.

Finally, if you want to make this maximally efficient, you’re going to need a mirror set up so as to have your laser pass through the gas twice. This corrects for the circular shape of the laser. Without this mirror, you won’t have enough coverage at that edges of the gas and you’re only going to operate at 78.5% of the maximum efficiency.

The whole setup looks like this:

Image Credit: A Proliferation Assessment of Third Generation Laser
Uranium Enrichment Technology

Once you’ve assembled all of this, you’re good to start enriching.

Remember, natural Hex is largely made up of 238UF6 and is only about 0.7% 235UF6. The purpose of enrichment is to increase the percentage of 235UF6 in the gas until it is almost entirely made up of this isotope of uranium.

The process SILEX uses to achieve this is relatively simple. You run the Hex and a carrier gas (the paper says SF6) through this system at supersonic speeds and low temperatures while pulsing the laser so as to hit the jet just as it leaves the nozzle. If you’ve tuned your wavelength as directed, then photons from the laser will kick any 235UF6 molecules they hit into a heightened vibrational state (called the v3 vibrational mode), while doing nothing to the 238UF6 molecules that make up most of the Hex.

235UF6 in the v3 vibrational mode will eventually revert to a lower energy (or “ground”) state, but it is unlikely to spontaneously revert to a ground state during the few milliseconds it takes to traverse the cell. For the purposes of SILEX, 235UF6 in the v3 vibrational mode will remain in that mode unless something acts on it to change it. To improperly anthropomorphize a particle for a second, this is “bad” for the excited 235UF6, because it “wants” to be at a lower ground state.

The excited 235UF6 could get external “help” from a collision with 238UF6 (this collision would allow it to release a photon and revert to its ground state), but this is unlikely if you keep the overall concentration of UF6 in the carrier gas low (the paper recommends 5%). This is in fact exactly what is done, because efficiency is maximized when 238UF6 doesn’t get a chance to collide with 235UF6.

When you put Hex in a carrier gas like SF6, you’re going to see the formation of transitory dimers. These are temporary, weak bonds between one Hex molecule and one SF6 molecule. These bonds are fairly stable, unless the Hex is in the v3 (or similar) vibrational mode. If dimer formation occurs between v3 235UF6 and SF6, the dimer is very short-lived. The excited 235UF6 dumps all of its extra energy into the dimer bond, resulting in a lot of recoil; both the 235UF6 and the SF6 go flying apart in opposite directions. It’s the dimer formation that causes a very different outcome from a simple collision with 238UF6.

This recoil tends to push 235UF6 to the edges of the stream. A skimmer positioned around the outlet collects this enriched product. Note that it won’t be entirely enriched; the outside edges of the jet will have plenty of 238UF6 because the jet is going to be mostly 238UF6 – or at least, it will be when natural or lightly enriched uranium is the input.

If you were doing this on an industrial scale, you’d set a bunch of these cells up in series, with the enriched product of each cell being the feed for the next. In this way, you’d get the same sort of cascade towards higher enrichment as you would with centrifuges.

Proliferation

Laser enrichment might be more space and energy efficient than centrifuge arrays.

I have to say might because there’s some uncertainty here. A few key parameters that determine ease of proliferation using SILEX are missing. This isn’t because of censors removing them for security reasons. It’s because this technology is so new that there are serious question marks hanging over it. SILEX has shown promise in lab scale experiments, but there doesn’t yet exist any proof that SILEX will be superior to centrifuge enrichment when it comes to enriching uranium on an industrial scale. Given that the pilot project has been stalled since GE pulled out, it may be quite a while before we know if SELIX will fulfill its promise or not.

It looks like a SILEX would allow a country with technology on the level of Iran to enrich the same amount of uranium with only 59% of the floor area. This would make enrichment a bit easier to hide, but would do nothing to stop leaks. It was human intelligence, not satellite photos that allowed the west to discover the work at Natanz.

The error bound on SILEX energy consumption is large enough that it’s unclear if there would be a power consumption benefit or cost for rogue states switching to SILEX from indigenous centrifuge technology. State of the art American centrifuges still beat SILEX on floor space and they may beat it in energy use.

Estimates for SILEX efficiency span an order of magnitude and in the upper two-thirds of that range it seems to be a clear winner (in terms of amount of energy required per percent enrichment). I couldn’t see any consensus on the relatively likelihood of high vs. low actual efficiency, but I would personally bet that a lot of the probability distribution exists near the bottom of the allowed efficiencies. I haven’t worked in nuclear science, but I have done chemistry, and my experience is that few processes perform as well on an industrial scale as you might expect from efficiency calculations done at laboratory scale.

Enrichment with SILEX is quite possibly easier than enrichment with centrifuges. That is to say, even if SILEX doesn’t allow rogue nations to enrich more efficiently, it might allow them to enrich at all. SILEX requires some advanced optics knowledge and the lasers needed aren’t exactly available off the shelf, but they are easier to design and build than specialized enrichment centrifuges.

Before centrifugation became the preferred method of isotope separation for nuclear weapons (and nuclear energy), gaseous diffusion was used. Gaseous diffusion plants use truly prodigious amounts of space and energy. There is absolutely no way that these things can be hidden or disguised as something else.

With the advent of centrifuges, proliferation became significantly easier. Countries used to be faced with no good path to a functioning bomb. Plutonium is relatively easy to acquire and separate, but it is very difficult to build a successful implosion weapon (and impossible to do so without alerting anyone with test detonations). Uranium was relatively difficult to enrich, which closed off the option of a simpler gun assembly weapon (it is impossible to build a gun assembly weapon using plutonium).

If you want a nuclear arsenal and don’t care that gun assembly weapons are wasteful and less useful for staging, then the advent of uranium enrichment via centrifugation was a boon to you. Gun assembly weapons don’t even necessarily require test detonations, which allows for the (slim) possibility of entirely clandestine nuclear arsenals – assuming enough uranium can be secretly enriched.

SILEX may eventually exacerbate this problem, to the point where any country with access to uranium could conceivably build a relatively low yield bomb (say a dozen or two kilotons).

At present, the technology is too new for this to be true. SILEX almost certainly has a few kinks left to be worked out. Trying to work them out at the same time as your country builds a new nuclear program isn’t ideal. Best to wait for India or Pakistan to figure them out and then leak them to you in exchange for favours or missile technology (this has been North Korea’s approach to nuclear weapons and it has worked quite well).

In a decade, SILEX may make proliferation even easier. I don’t think it will make it easy to the point where Al Qaeda or Daesh can attempt to build nuclear weapons (can you imagine Daesh setting up a high-energy laser laboratory in Raqqa?). But I do worry that countries like Saudi Arabia or the Philippines might see the calculus around proliferation change enough to justify their building of a small arsenal of uranium weapons.

That would be a disaster for world peace and stability.

Governments are already reacting to threat posed by SILEX by adding necessary components to export ban and international watch lists. If any nation buys up a bunch of laser components over a short time without a good explanation, the international community will now suspect enrichment. I’m sure there are many men and women in the basement of the Pentagon and CIA headquarters now watching all laser equipment sales for more subtle signals of gradual stockpiling. Don’t think for a second that SILEX somehow represents a cheat code for proliferation. It’s still untested and unproven and governments and international organizations are already taking steps to reduce the proliferation risk.

Most nuclear technology is dual use. Uranium enrichment by centrifugation has made proliferation easier. It also increased the energy return on investment from burning uranium in power plants from ~40x to over 1500x (see here if you want to double check my calculations). Because of centrifugation, nuclear power plants could permanently end our dependence on oil if coupled with new battery technologies (and upfront capital and political will to build them).

SILEX could further increase the energy return on investment, making nuclear power plants even more economical. But SILEX also has the potential to make proliferation easier. It’s still a new, experimental technology and it might not even pan out. Until we know for sure, it is certainly best for the world to proceed with caution.

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Model, Politics

Checks and balances can’t last if they make governing impossible

There is an interesting post by Professor Bryan Caplan spinning limited government as an insurance policy against wild swings in political climate. You should go read the whole thing, but I’ll summarize for the lazy.

Professor Caplan makes his case using a thought experiment with an angel. This angel talks to you during Obama’s inauguration and offers you a bargain. The terms are simple If you accept, neither Obama nor Trump will be able to get much done. You trade away Obamacare and in exchange you don’t get Trump’s immigration policies. Professor Caplan frames this as a form of political insurance, a guarantee of mediocracy instead of potentially wild swings.

Professor Caplan points out that this insurance (which might be sounding pretty tempting to you right about now) is actually similar to the concept of limited government, something we already know how to achieve. From his post:

If you want the insurance of limited government, there are well-tested mechanisms to deliver it.  You all know them.  Supermajority rules require more than a majority to act.  Division of powers makes it hard for government bodies to accomplish anything on their own.  Judicial review allows judges to invalidate acts of government.  Federalism greatly reduces the cost of “voting with your feet.”  If you think these institutions aren’t working, the obvious solution is to strengthen them.  Impose more supermajority requirements.  Divide more powers.  Overturn legislation that fails to get support from six, seven, eight, or all nine Supreme Court Justices.  Make states pay for their own spending with their own taxes, not federal grants.

Prof. Caplan then briefly remarks on the known difficulties of attaining any of this. I’m actually not going to comment on that part of the post, because that isn’t what interested me.

Instead, I want to talk about limited government.

The thing I find most difficult when discussing limited government is that everyone wants a “limited” government to do different things. Many libertarians take it on faith that a limited government would naturally contain a police force to protect private property and contractual rights within the territory of the state and a military to protect that territory from outside threats. On the other hand, if you ask a centre-left policy wonk (hi!) about limited government, they’ll tell you that a limited government shouldn’t have much in the way of an army but it should be willing to run insurance programs in response to market failures. Radical leftists might want some redistribution without police or moral laws, while Christian fundamentalists might want strict morality laws but limited taxes.

(I want to pause here and point out that “limited government” as a concept must be backed up by a specific set of mechanisms by which it is limited. Throughout this essay I will treat “limited government” as the philosophy that a government shouldn’t be able to do whatever it wants and “checks and balances” or “separation of powers” as some of the specific mechanisms that are used to achieve that philosophical aim.)

With so many different (and sometimes mutually exclusive) ideas as to what a limited government actually means, you can’t just say “we have limited government” and expect voters to leave it at that. No matter how many checks and balances your government must contend with, voters are going to want to see it govern and they’re going to want to hold it accountable.

Voters in general do a good job of holding government accountable to their wants. Because of this, politicians tend to do what the voters want. For all of their reputation otherwise, politicians are actually quite good at keeping their promises. This seems to hold true irrespective of checks and balances. If you click through to the link, you’ll see that politicians follow through on their campaign promises roughly as often in the US (with a lot of checks and balances) as they do in Canada (which gives politicians a “get out of the constitution free” card in the form of the notwithstanding clause) or the Netherlands (which has the character more of a unicameral state than a true bicameral state like the US).

Faced with voters who have made demands and a need to achieve most of those demands if they wish to keep their jobs, politicians need to get things done. Checks and balances don’t change this simple fact. But checks and balances seem to have a lot of influence on how things get done.

During good years, the governments of Canada and America function relatively similarly. Legislation begins in the House, passes to the Senate, and is eventually signed by the Head of State. But during bad years the two countries look nothing alike. When America is wracked by partisanship or crisis, things still get done. But they get done by methods (read: kludges) that erode the very checks and balances that made them so difficult to do in the first place. Take this example (from The Economist): “The job of White House counsel was created to provide the president with sound legal advice; it has ballooned into a battery of lawyers—almost 50 under Barack Obama—whose task is to find legal cover for whatever the president wants to do”. America is a common law jurisdiction. Every justification President Obama made stick has become a permanent weakness in the nation’s checks and balances.

My observation is that both presently and historically, any attempt at checks and balances that makes governing too odious is eventually circumvented, ultimately leading to a government that is much less constrained than if it had instead been kept to less strict limits from the start. As specific examples, I provide Weimar Germany, the Roman Republic, and as we’ve discussed, the United States of America.

If you want durable limited government, then you have to be prepared to define limited government broadly and make your checks and balances effective only against extreme changes. Canada does a good job of it. Our system makes change possible but radical change incredibly difficult. The notwithstanding clause does allow the government to suspend certain parts of the constitution, but it has a deliberate sunset clause – any legislation passed with it lasts only five years, which is conveniently the maximum amount of time between elections. Actually modifying the constitution is prohibitively difficult, requiring the consent of the federal government and at least seven provincial legislatures (compromising at least half of the population).

A lack of serious resistance to reasonable policy proposals means that the Canadian Constitution and its checks and balances is at no serious risk of erosion. Meanwhile, the debate in America isn’t about whether the constitution is eroded, just about whether it is eroded to the point of ineffectiveness.

This is the choice you face with checks and balances. You can make them powerful and try to contend with the inevitable erosion they’ll face as politicians try and get things done in the face of them. Or you can make it easy for politicians to implement enough of their agenda to keep their voters happy and watch as they give up on any part of it that isn’t simple.

Viewed through this lens, Prof. Caplan’s suggestions are supremely harmful. They’re the sorts of things that will incentivize politicians to go hunting for any constitutional workaround they can find. I can’t think of anything that will hasten the demise of the American constitution more quickly than measures that make obstructionism easier.

All this is to say I think the rant I had when I first saw this article was justified:

The problem with checks and balances (as I keep articulating) is that they are fine in good times, but in bad times people need to be able to change stuff and you won’t have a supermajority to agree on what things to change. So you get people going from Point A (where we currently are) to Point B (where they want to be) in a way that is supremely damaging to the norms that we need for stable growth in the remaining 95% of cases.

If 51% of the population want something, they will probably eventually get something in that general area. We can control, however, where in that area they land. Do we want to restrain them temporarily, then have them get it in the most extreme form? Or do we want them to work within the system, be able to easily get it in a watered down form, and then dissolve for want of a remaining common enemy?

My overriding desire is for checks and balances that are reasonably effective over the lifetime of a nation. I support limited checks and balances because I truly believe that in the long run, this leads to governments being most constrained in their actions.

Epistemic Status: Model

Model, Politics

On Political Norms and Scandals

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau rang in 2017 with an ethics scandal. Electoral reform and President Trump might have pushed it out of the news, but it still bears talking about.

Maybe it’s just that my memory is fuzzy before 2004, but I feel like there was a point in Canadian politics when scandals weren’t a run of the mill occurrence. It seems like we’ve been treated to a non-stop parade of them since the sponsorship scandal. There was the In-and-Out scandal, that time Maxime Bernier left classified documents with his Hell’s Angels girlfriend, that horrible mess with Afghan detainees, the Robocalls (and associated criminal charges!), the F-35s, the senate, and now the Aga Khan.

There’s also been a host of minor scandals that didn’t even make it into this list, like the $50 million of G8 money spent to make Tony Clement’s riding prettier and that time the PM was rebuked by the International Commission of Jurists. To be fair, the governing Liberals have already had a few minor scandals of their own, like the cash for access dinner that maybe had something to do with a foreign bank getting approval to expand into Canada and Elbowgate (although the real scandal there may have been that we had to hear about it for days on end).

In the face of all of this, I have a confession to make. I haven’t cared about a political scandal in Canada since 2012. Trudeau could give $50 million to an ad agency while blowing up two gas fired power plants and performing lewd acts on a pig and I probably wouldn’t even bat an eye. And honestly, aside from a few partisans in the comments sections of online news, I bet you most Canadians feel the same way.

this is about what it would take for Canadians to be surprised
Not pictured: The pig

Why? Why the apathy in the face of serious and unethical behaviour?

I’d bet on a decade of scandals.

People aren’t outraged anymore because outrage requires norms to be violated. Unless Mr. Trudeau was doing cocaine off the seats of the Aga Khan’s helicopter, this latest scandal is just more of the same. If I lived in Toronto, even coke would be more of the same.

Rona Ambrose pulled off a passable imitation of outrage in question period (despite spending her winter vacation with a billionaire as well) and Mulcair is as angry as he’s always been, but for all their earnestness, they don’t realize that the Canadians who elected Trudeau aren’t going to turn on him without a truly novel scandal. Sure, he promised to fix Ottawa. But if we get one or two less scandals every four years, that will feel like a fix. For his voters to feel betrayed, Trudeau is going to have to do something really bad. And we just aren’t there yet. I don’t even think electoral reform got us there.

Critics called Mr. Harper “The Teflon Man” after no scandal would stick to him. They assumed that this was because of some aspect of Mr. Harper’s personality. They forgot to examine if the problem was larger than that. What if no scandal stuck to Mr. Harper not because of some strange and sinister aspect of his personality, but because of some failure of ours.

What if the lack of any truly damaging scandal during the Harper years wasn’t because of a deal he struck with Mephistopheles? What if it was because we no longer had norms left around that kind of scandal? What if the sponsorship scandal made petty corruption and favouritism boring and banal? What if we’ve lost the ability to expect better, so accept what we get as all we deserve? The answer to all these hypotheticals looks a lot like what we’re seeing right now.

Certainly getting people to even frown about Trudeau’s scandals is an uphill fight for the opposition. The people who voted for Trudeau like him –his approval rating is relatively high, at 48%– in spite of cash for access, his moving expenses, and the ridiculous hullabaloo about elbows. Trudeau’s supporters don’t seem to want to think bad things about him. Worst of all (for the opposition), a lot of Canadians think Trudeau is on their team.

Some of the time, politics is about teams. Our last election was fought on values, so it is perhaps more than likely that this is one of those times. When politics is about teams, you forget about the bad things your own team does, because you really, really don’t want to give the other team any ammunition.

When Harper was in power, the Conservatives didn’t want to hear anything about his scandals. They had a bunch of convincing reasons why they really weren’t that bad. I think they bought their own reasons too. The Conservatives were embattled, locked in what was to them a fight for the nation’s soul. Stephen Harper’s overriding goal was to change the relationship between Canadians and their government. In service of this goal, the Conservatives couldn’t afford to falter. They couldn’t afford to spend any time off of their message of economic stability. They had no time for contrition, not when there were elections to win.

But no time for contrition meant no time for reflection. And as is its eventual wont when out of power, the Liberal party engaged in a lot of self-reflection. They made their whole campaign about ending the nastiness coming from Ottawa. They built up a coalition of people who had been sidelined by Mr. Harper. And on the back of this team, they made their way back to power.

By casting things in terms of a fight for the soul of the country, the Conservatives gave the Liberals their best defense against scandals. They now have the boogeyman of Mr. Harper and his nastiness and cuts to brandish at any member of their coalition who thinks about leaving.

Currently this team is ascendant. So when the Conservatives crow about scandals, they find themselves offside on public opinion. Only the Conservative base wants to entertain the notion of scandals from Mr. Trudeau’s government, because serious scandals would mean the return of the Conservatives. For all who dread that eventuality, scandals must be ignored.

It gets even worse for the Conservatives though. Their earlier willful blindness means they’re just waking up to the fact that Canada is plagued by scandals and it hurts. I don’t know how they do it, but they have an amazing ability to fail to see any of the excesses of the previous government. Watch Rona Ambrose criticize Trudeau. She doesn’t make a single attempt to defend or acknowledge the previous government’s record. She just ignores it, as if it didn’t happen or isn’t worth mentioning.

Maybe this is a rhetorical trick that politicians can do and I’m naively falling for it. Maybe Rona Ambrose knows full well that Stephen Harper was no better than Justin Trudeau, but can’t acknowledge it if she wants her criticism to have teeth. If so, props to her as an actor. When I watch Rona Ambrose, I see a woman who believes that only she can see clearly. As far as I can tell, from her vantage point, Mr. Trudeau is violating a number of norms that the Conservatives resolutely defended for a decade.

But what Rona Ambrose sees as clarity, the rest of Canada sees as myopia. We know that the Conservatives were plagued by scandals for a decade and that the present state of affairs is certainly no worse than the previous one. So the Conservatives come across as sanctimonious. They’re behind the curve. And insouciance will always be almost synonymous with power (and therefore, in popular culture, with cool). The Conservatives care and they care visibly and impotently and a lot of the country can’t help but see this as weakness.

Even worse than being a loser is being a hypocrite and the Tories look like hypocrites as well. We all remember when the Tories were the ones explaining away scandals, not decrying them. Many people are angrier with the perceived hypocrisy than they are about the actual scandals.

Whether the ultimate reason is hollowed-out norms, team-based politics, or rage at Conservative hypocrisy, we’re in a shitty status quo. I didn’t want to find myself completely numb to Canada’s Prime Minister facing an ethics investigation.

Luckily, my partner Tessa still cares about scandals in Canada. And since I spend a lot of time talking with her, she prodded me about my breezy attitude towards scandals. She didn’t quite prod me into caring, but I at least I got to a state of meta-caring. I now care about my lack of care.

We got here because of norms. Political norms are a fragile thing. In Canada, they’re still damaged. We need a decade with as few scandals as possible to give them some time to recover.

I don’t think we’re going to get that. Not like this.

If we can’t count on politicians to police themselves, we have to find ways to make them accountable. We can’t let scandal norms become entrenched. I’ll let David Schraub explain:

There is an extraordinarily narrow range of levers through which one can be compelled to act in Washington: impeachments, being voted out of office, mandatory court orders … it’s not all that large, and it doesn’t cover all that much. Much of what we take for granted our government will do is not legally compelled, but is based on politicians following established patterns of political culture. Among those patterns is that a major scandal will lead to an investigation and some measure of accountability. But nobody forces Congress to launch an investigation, and nobody forces administration officials to resign or even acknowledge scandals reported in the media.

David is writing about America where the situation has become particularly dire. But Canada is also seeing norms deteriorate. That’s why we have to fight for them. Even in mild-mannered Canada, accountability can’t exist without a public outcry.

We have to call or write to politicians and tell them when we’re displeased. We have to press them to acknowledge their mistakes and promise not to repeat them. And we have to be prepared to vote against politicians who won’t desist, even if we like them, even if it means our side losing sometimes.

I’m not at the point of committing to vote against Mr. Trudeau. I think it’s still amateur hour with the Liberals and that they deserve some time to get over their learning curve. I think a lot of Canadians are in the same boat. I bet that Trudeau’s approval rating stabilizes or bounces back over the next few months instead of continuing to fall [1].

So the Liberals have some time, but they don’t have all the way to 2019. You get your first election on promises. The second has to be backed up by results.

Even though I think Trudeau and his Liberals deserve some time to sort themselves out, I don’t think they deserve my complacency. I’m going to post about every scandal, whether it’s on social media or on my blog. I’m going to talk with my friends about the importance of political norms and my displeasure with scandals. When I feel important norms are being violated, I’m going to write to my MP. I’m now committed to actively standing up for our norms, no matter who is in power.

Will you join me?

Epistemic Status: Model


[1] I’m expressing this guess as three ranges I think the approval rating will fall into on the first survey conducted after April 1st, given that the approval rating is currently 48% ^. The ranges and my associated confidence in them are:

  • 38-60% (90% confidence)
  • 42%-57% (70% confidence)
  • 46%-54% (50% confidence)
Advice, Software

A Dialogue on Lateral Thinking

Cast: The Hare (interviewer #1), The Coyote (interviewer #2), and The Tortoise (interviewee).

Hare: Okay, that wraps up the technical portion of the interview. Now we want to ask you some lateral thinking questions.
Tortoise: Lateral thinking questions?
Coyote: You know, questions that challenge your ability to come up with non-obvious solutions? Or when you find a solution by throwing out all your assumptions? Here at Acme Corp., we pride ourselves in coming up creative solutions to problems.
Tortoise: Okay…
Hare: We’ll start off easy [1]. Acting on an anonymous phone call, the police raid a house to arrest a suspected murderer. They don’t know what he looks like but they know his name is John and that he is inside the house. The police bust in on a carpenter, a lorry driver, a mechanic and a fireman all playing poker. Without hesitation or communication of any kind, they immediately arrest the fireman. How do they know they’ve got their man?
Tortoise: Hmmm… Well, if they can immediately tell the profession of everyone in the room without saying anything, presumably everyone is dressed in clothes emblematic of their profession. I think the jumpsuits firefighters…

The Hare snorts in amusement.

Image Credit: MaxPixel

Tortoise: As I was saying, the jumpsuits that firefighters wear often have nametags on them. So they arrest him because he’s wearing a jumpsuit that says “John”?
Coyote: Not quite right, I’m afraid. You see, all the other poker players were women.
Tortoise: I don’t really see how… You aren’t next going to ask me the one about the surgeon operating on her son are you? This isn’t secretly the HR section of the interview?
Hare: No, you’re already through that.
Tortoise: Because I assure you, I do think women can do anything men can.
Coyote: We weren’t questioning that at all.
Tortoise: It just seems weird to have a problem that hinges on interpreting fireman in an archaic way. I’m given to understand that it’s essentially gender neutral now, although I thought firefighter was preferred… Sorry, this is a tangent. You said you had more questions.
Hare: How about you ask the next one Coyote.
Coyote: A man lives in the penthouse of an apartment building. Every morning he takes the elevator down to the lobby and leaves the building. Upon his return, however, he can only travel halfway up in the lift and has to walk the rest of the way – unless it’s raining. What is the explanation for this?
Tortoise: That’s a really odd way for an elevator to work. What time period is this?
Coyote: That isn’t important to the question.
Tortoise: Okay, I know this is a digression, but how can more information not be important to the question? Like this is basic scientific method. You formulate a hypothesis that is capable of being falsified by the world. Then you see if the world falsifies it. And you keep doing it until you have a hypothesis that doesn’t get proven false. It’s basically the same as test-driven development, come to think of it. Didn’t you just ask me if I did TDD?
Hare: We do TDD. We also write code on computers, not whiteboards. The interview doesn’t map quite perfectly to the job, but we have found how candidates perform on these questions often correlates well with their later performance.
Tortoise: Okay, if you say so. Um… maybe the elevator uses water as a counterweight, but the counterweight leaks a lot and only really works properly when it rains? I really don’t have a better answer.
Coyote: Nope. The man is a little person. He can only reach the button for his penthouse when he has an umbrella with him.
Tortoise: Couldn’t he just carry an extendable pointer with him and use that?
Hare: If it’s any consolation, I got this one wrong too. Now I like to visualize the guy as the kind of person who is so lazy he won’t do anything he doesn’t absolutely have to, even if doing it would save him time.
Coyote: Hare keeps insisting that getting this one wrong is a badge of pride, because it proves that you have a huge inferential gap to that kind of laziness.
Tortoise: That’s the most reasonable thing I’ve heard in the last five minutes.

Coyote snickers nervously.

Image Credit: Jitze Couperus

Coyote: Um… Well, one last question: Assume there are approximately 7,000,000,000 (7 billion) people on Earth. What would you estimate to be the result, if you multiply together the number of fingers on every person’s left-hands?
Tortoise: Oh wow, that’s… oh, I see! Zero. There’s plenty of people with no fingers, so the result has to be zero.
Coyote: I’m glad you got that one. When people try and write out a solution the whole thing gets out of hand.

Tortoise groans.

Image Credit: Eric Kilby

Hare: Actually, that brings up an interesting point. Are puns a form of lateral thinking?
Coyote: I don’t think so. I think puns are more of a brute force thing. You know roughly what you want to say and what you’re punning off of, so you can do a brute force search in your head for likely combinations.
Tortoise: Puns feel closer than those questions. When I think of lateral thinking, I think of a much less constrained solution space. I felt like those problems just tested my ability to be clever in the exact right way on command.
Coyote: What does having one answer have to do with it?
Tortoise: Well look at your first question. A priori, I don’t think any reasonable person would consider my hypothesis less likely than the “correct” answer. If I was in the room with the police, then obviously my answer would reflect reality less closely than the answer that John is the only man in the room. But without that information, it really is just luck if you stumble onto the one right answer. Anchoring effects mean it’s hard to generate multiple plausible answers. And because you’re anchored onto the “right” answer, you view my answer as obviously incorrect.
Hare: You honestly did fine on this section. You really don’t have to argue about your score.
Tortoise: It’s not about score, it’s about the principle of the thing! Even if lateral thinking is a useful quality in a software developer–
Hare: What makes you think it isn’t?
Tortoise: Lateral thinking, by definition, involves unexpected solutions. Answer me honestly: do you like reading code where someone did the unexpected thing? I’d rather an ugly but conventional solution to an unexpected one that’s “elegant”. I mean, there’s a reason no one uses Perl any more, right? “More than one way to do it” is a horrible philosophy for code that has to be read by many people!
Coyote: Tortoise has a point there, Hare. I remember when Perl programmers used to brag to me that they could write a web server in one line of code. It made me think of the scientists in Jurassic Park. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you immediately have to go out and do it.
Hare: I don’t think programmers need to use lateral thinking all the time. But aren’t there often places where an unconventional solution saves a lot of time?
Tortoise: Name one.
Hare: What?
Tortoise: Name one unconventional solution you’ve implemented that saves time. Bonus points if you don’t need five lines of comments to keep everyone else on the team from being confused by it.
Coyote: I actually have one! I had to round to the nearest half to enable functionality that the designer wanted. I considered this horrible concept with recursive if-statements. But then I found out there was a much better way to do it. You just multiply your number by two, round, then divide by two. It’s one line and perfectly clear if you think about it for a second.
Tortoise: So why didn’t you ask me about that?
Hare: We have an interview script. We can’t just change whenever one of us comes up with a clever solution to a problem.
Tortoise: Then pick a few examples in your code where you actually had to think laterally and give them out as worksheets. At least that has a chance of accurately measuring our lateral thinking. And if we get it right, you have a convenient baseline in Hare here.
Coyote: Actually, I didn’t come up with the solution.
Hare and Tortoise: Stack Overflow?
Coyote: Stack Overflow [2].
All pause to consider this.
Coyote: Huh. So if I understand you correctly Tortoise, your point is twofold. One, lateral thinking isn’t a very important quality in a programmer. Doing things conventionally is actually more useful, because as Guido van Rossum pointed out when he designed Python, code is read more than it’s written.
Tortoise: That’s a really good way of phrasing it. How would you phrase my second point?
Hare: Actually, can I try this one?
Tortoise: Certainly!
Hare: The way we’re testing candidates on lateral thinking is pretty much invalid because there’s only one right answer and it’s the one we’ve already decided on. A better test of lateral thinking would be to give candidates some of the problems where lateral thinking was actually useful to us. And if we do this, we should be open to solutions that are different (or even better) than ours. Like your jumpsuit solution of the John problem.
Tortoise blushes
Tortoise: I think that sums it up well. And thanks.
Coyote: One thing I still feel weird about is treating lateral thinking as not that important.
Tortoise: I may have overstated my opposition a bit. I don’t think it’s unimportant. But I think there are many other skills that are more important and easier to test. Technical writing is a good example. It’s actually pretty easy to test someone’s technical writing and documentation abilities in an interview and that’s a skill a good programmer will use every day.
Hare: Or time estimation! I bet we could incorporate that really easily into the blackboard task.
Tortoise: Oh, that’s a really good one. I’m definitely stealing that for interviews I conduct in the future.
Coyote: I’ve got it!
The Tortoise and the Hare stare at him blankly.
Coyote: I’ve realized why I felt so bad about us not being enthusiastic about lateral thinking. I read a lot of science fiction and a lot of my heroes (like Ender, Breq, and Miles Vorkosigan) use lateral thinking to win. And you know how it is… when you read books like that, you want to imagine you’re like the hero. Admitting that lateral thinking isn’t that important to programmers feels like admitting I’m not like them.
Tortoise: Actually, I think Ender is the best example of convention being useful. A lot of what Ender did with Dragon army didn’t involve lateral thinking so much as it involved taking what Ender already knew worked from all of his experiments with his launch group practice sessions and putting it into systems where others could easily use it. This is the sort of thing you see really great programmers do. They make everyone else’s job easier by designing really good systems that transfer well. It was systems that let Ender win all of his battles but the last
Coyote: That’s a different way of looking at it.
Hare: It seems like in a lot of fields, lateral thinking is what makes people great, instead of really good. I’m think scientists and pro athletes, for example. And maybe that’s true in ours as well. But it also might be that what makes a really great programmer is their ability to build up systems that other members of their team can use.
Tortoise: And lateral thinking does help! Whoever it was on StackOverflow that came up with that answer, or whoever taught it to them, that person had to do some lateral thinking. And they’ve ended up saving a lot of programmers a lot of time with it.
Hare: But if we’re counting up total time saved, I guess Stack Overflow takes the cake, doesn’t it?
Tortoise: Yeah, Joel Spolsky and Jeff Atwood definitely showed how systems are incredibly useful to programmers.
Hare: Well now that that’s all cleared up, we’re actually out of questions. So do you have any questions for us?
Tortoise: So about your benefits package…


Footnotes:

[1] All puzzles in this dialogue taken from http://www.folj.com/lateral/ ^

[2] Specifically this question: http://stackoverflow.com/questions/6137986/javascript-roundoff-number-to-nearest-0-5 ^

History, Model, Politics

Trump is Marius, not Caesar

Yonatan Zunger has an article in Medium claiming that the immigration executive order from last Friday is the “trial balloon” for a planned Trump coup. I don’t think this is quite correct. While I no longer have much confidence that America will still be a democracy in 50 years, I don’t think Trump will be its first dictator.

I do think the first five points in Dr. Zunger’s analysis are fairly sound. I’m not sure if they are true, but they’re certainly plausible. It is true, for example, that it is unusual to file papers for re-election so quickly. Barack Obama didn’t file his re-election form until 2011. Whether this means that Trump will use campaign donations to enrich his family remains to be seen, but the necessary public disclosures of campaign expenses make this falsifiable. Give it a year and we’ll know.

Unfortunately, the 6th point is much more speculative. Dr. Zunger believes that it is likely that Trump received a large share in the Russian gas giant Rosneft in payment for winning the election and (presumably) lifting Russian sanctions in the future. Dr. Zunger relies on a recently announced and difficult to trace sale of 19.5% of Rosneft, which is close to the 19% claimed in the Steele papers (which should be the first red flag). But the AP article he links sheds some serious doubt on this claim. It makes it clear that it isn’t the whole 19.5%, €10 billion stake in Rosneft that has disappeared, only a “small” €2 billion portion of it. Between this contradiction and the inherent unreliability of the Steele papers, I’m disinclined to believe that this represents a real transfer of wealth from Russia to Trump [1].

This point, although relatively minor, represents an inflection point in Dr. Zunger’s post, where it shifts from insightful analysis to shaky speculation.

As Dr. Zunger goes into more detail on Trump’s supposed next step, incongruities pile up.

If Trump is planning a coup and building a parallel power structure, why did he pick General Mattis as his SecDef? The military is one of the most popular institutions in America. The military was more popular than the presidency, even when the relatively popular Obama was president. You better bet it’s more popular than Trump. This gives the military moral, as well as practical authority to stop any Trump coup.  Given that there’s no way that Trump will be more popular with the soldiers and officers who actually make up the army than Gen. Mattis is, he’s in an excellent position to shut down any coup attempt cold.

Gen. Mattis could stop a coup, but it’s his character that suggests he would. He has a backbone made of solid steel and seems to be far more loyal to America than he is to the president. See as evidence his phone calls to NATO members and support for maintaining the Iran deal.

The DHS isn’t plausible as a parallel power structure. Sure, 45,000 employees sounds like a lot, until you realize that the total staff of the NYPD is almost 50,000. Even in a scenario where the army stays neutral, the DHS would be hard pressed to police New York, let alone the whole country.

I also don’t think preparation for a coup is the only reason to ignore court orders. In Canada, we saw the Prime Minister routinely oppose the courts, culminating with a nasty series of public barbs directed at the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. This wasn’t a prelude to Mr. Harper trying to seize power. It was the natural result of a perennially besieged and unpopular head of government fighting to pass an agenda despite heavy opposition from most civil society groups. I would contend that the proper yardstick to measure Trump against here is FDR. If Trump goes beyond what FDR did, we’ll have cause to worry.

All this is to say, if Trump is planning a coup, he isn’t being very strategic about it. That said, if he found some way to ditch General Mattis for someone more compliant, I would take the possibility of a coup much more seriously.

[Image Credit: Carole Raddato]
Supposed bust of Gauis Marius. Image Credit: Carole Raddato

Instead of viewing Trump as a Caesar-in-waiting, we should think of him as analogous to Gaius Marius. Marius never seized power, but he did violate basically every conventional norm of Roman government (he held an unprecedented 7 consulships and began the privatization of the legions). Gaius Marius made the rise of dictators almost inevitable, but he was not himself a dictator.

Like America, Rome in the 1st century BCE found itself overextended, governing and protecting a large network of tributary states and outright colonies. The Roman constitutional framework couldn’t really handle administration on this scale. While year long terms are a sensible way to run a city state, they don’t work with a continent-spanning empire.

In addition to the short institutional memory and lack of institutional expertise that strict term limits guaranteed, Rome ran up against a system of checks and balances that made it incredibly hard to get anything done  [2].

Today, America is running up against an archaic system of checks and balances [3]. America has fallen to “government by kluge“, a state of affairs that has seriously degraded output legitimacy. From Prof. Joseph Heath on Donald Trump:

In response to the impossibility of reform, the American system has slowly evolved into what Steven Teles calls a kludgeocracy. Rather than enacting reforms, people have found “work-arounds” to the existing system, ways of getting things done that twist the rules a bit, but that everyone accepts because it’s easier than trying to change the rules. (This is why, incidentally, those who hope that the “separation of powers” will constrain President Trump are kidding themselves – the separation of powers in the U.S. is severely degraded, as an accumulated effect of decades of “work arounds” or kludges that violate it.)

Because of this, the U.S. government suffers a massive shortfall in “output legitimacy,” in that it consistently fails to deliver anything like the levels of competent performance than people in wealthy, advanced societies expect from government. (Anyone who has ever dealt with the U.S. government knows that it is uniquely horrible experience, unlike anything suffered by citizens of other Western democracies.) Furthermore, because of the dysfunctional legislative branch, nothing ever gets “solved” to anyone’s satisfaction. All that Americans ever get is a slow accumulation of more kludges (e.g. the Affordable Care Act, the Clean Power Plan).

Most people, however, do not think institutionally. When they see bad performance from government, they blame the actors that they see readily at hand. And their response then is to send in new people, committed to changing things. For decades they’ve been doing this, and yet nothing ever changes. Why? Because the problems are institutional, outside the control of individual legislators. But how do people interpret this lack of change? Many come to the conclusion that the person they sent in to fix things got coopted, or wasn’t tough enough, or wasn’t up to the job. And so they send in someone tougher, more radical, more vociferous in his or her commitment to changing things. When that doesn’t work out, they send in someone even more radical.

A vote for Donald Trump is a natural end-point of this process.

For Rome, Marius was the end-point. He held more power, for longer, than anyone who came before. The crucial distinction between him and those who came after, however, was that he acquired this power through legitimate means. Still, in order to govern effectively, he was forced to apply more kluges to the already disintegrating Roman constitution. It couldn’t hold up.

The end result of Marius was Sulla, who tried to bring Rome back to its “old ways” and repair the damage to the constitution. Interestingly, he did this almost entirely through extra-constitutional means. His reforms failed, although not just because of how he did them. Sulla tried to remove the kluges from the underlying system, but the result was an even more unworkable system.

Sulla was followed by the Triumvirate, a private power sharing agreement that divided up the empire and allowed effective governance at the cost of the constitution. The triumvirate led to civil war and dictatorship. And a bureaucracy capable of running the empire.

Looking back at history, I see three ways forward for America:

  1. It can slowly become an autocracy, which will break the gridlock in Washington at the cost of democracy.
  2. It can abandon its role as the world’s hegemon, retreat to isolationism, and see if its government is capable of handling the strain of this reduced burden.
  3. It can radically change its system of government. A parliamentary system (whether first past the post or mixed member proportional) based on the confidence of the house would probably prove much more responsive to the crises America faces.

I no longer believe in the great man theory of history. Instead, I’ve begun to see history as a series of feedback loops between people, institutions, and places. Geopolitical realities can exert as much pressure for change on institutions as people can.

If we didn’t have Trump this year, we’d have someone like him in four years or eight. The stresses on the American system of government are such that someone had to emerge as the “natural endpoint” of failed reform. But I don’t think it’s this person’s fate to become America’s first dictator. That part is reserved for a later actor and there is still hope that the role can be written out before they steps onto the stage.

________________________________

Footnotes:

[1] I’m a Bayesian, so I’ll quite happily bet with anyone who believes otherwise. ^
[2] For more information on the transition of Rome into a dictatorship and the forces of empire that drove that transformation, I recommend SPQR by Prof. Mary Beard. ^
[3] I’m certainly not opposed to checks and balances, but they can end up doing more harm than good if they make the act of governing so difficult that they end up ignored. ^

Falsifiable, Politics, Science

Nuclear Weapons: 8.0 High Value Anti-Nuclear Activism

Nuclear weapons represent an existential risk. I’ll let 80,000 Hours speak for me for a minute:

A survey of academics at the Global Catastrophic Risk Conference by Oxford University estimated a 1% chance of human extinction from nuclear wars over the 21st Century.

Luke Oman estimates the probability “for the global human population of zero resulting from the 150 Tg of black carbon scenario in our 2007 paper [delving into the effects of a single nuclear exchange] would be in the range of 1 in 10,000 to 1 in 100,000.” This being said, we think this estimate is too low, as it doesn’t account for the potential for weaknesses in their model or the risk of a societal collapse causing a permanent reduction in humanity’s ability to reach its potential (which is nonetheless an existential risk even if people remain).

If you’re interested in reducing the existential risk that nuclear weapons pose, I’ve identified a few areas where you may be able to make a difference.

8.1 Tactical Weapons

Countries have begun to reduce stockpiles of tactical weapons and put those that remain under better centralized control. No one ever wanted a fresh lieutenant in charge of the nuclear weapon that could eventually set off World War III – it just took everyone a while to realize this.

Still, it seems like this has primarily been possible because of the collapse of the Soviet Union. When the USSR seemed poised to overrun Europe, killing the commies was given priority over keeping humanity alive. Increasing regional tensions between Russia and NATO may result in a resurgence of tactical weapons.

Treaties that ban weapons under a certain yield, or require all nuclear warheads to have locks that can only be released by the civilian leadership of a country would be an excellent way to reduce the risk of conventional warfare leading to a nuclear exchange.

8.2 Arms Reduction Treaties

Not all arms reduction treaties are created equal. The Strategic Offensive Reductions Treaty (SORT) expired on the same day it came into full effect and set non-specific limits; while it may have reduced the total number of nuclear weapons deployed, it probably did this by causing the early retirement of already obsolescent systems. In addition, SORT had no verification provisions. We literally have no way of knowing if it actually had an effect.

On the other hand, the New Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (New START) has a robust verification mechanism, including demonstrations that technology has been fully decommissioned and eighteen inspector visits each year. New START sets specific limits on ICBMs, SLBMs, nuclear armed bombers, and total deployed warheads. It will be in full force for at least three years, but might be extended longer. It comes up for review in 2019, so convincing the US and Russia to renew it will be very important.

8.3 Anti-ballistic missiles

The US ABM system represents a real threat to global peace. If it is demonstrated to be effective, we could see China rapidly increase its nuclear arsenal. If it’s expanded to the East Coast of the US, or Europe, we could see Russia do the same.

If you live in America, pressuring your congressional representative or senator to vote against any measures increasing funding for the ABM system could be very important. You can call it a waste of taxpayer money, demand it not be built in your backyard, etc.

If you live near one of the current ABM sites, or are near one of the sites for potential expansion, you can engage in direct action.

In addition to organizing protests (it should be easy to get people uneasy about nuclear weapons near them), you can attempt to bog down any expansion or new construction in and endless morass of red tape. If a system is being built near you, you should attend any community meeting you can, be as obstinate as possible, and jump on any zoning violation, rushed environmental assessment, or other bureaucratic mistake like a rabid pit bull. This won’t be very effective if new ABM sites are built entirely within existing military bases, but if even a single support strut has to go up for municipal approval, there’s potential to make an impact.

Current ABM sites are Fort Greely in Alaska and Vandenberg Air Force Base, California. Proposed eastern sites are SERE Remote Training Site in Maine, Fort Drum in New York, Camp Ravenna Joint Military Training Center in Ohio, and Fort Custer Training Center in Michigan.

8.4 Donations

Both 80,000 Hours and OpenPhil have done their own preliminary assessment of nuclear weapon risk.

Neither piece offers firm suggestions for the most effective charity and I lack the expertise to do my own evaluation. Both OpenPhil and 80,000 Hours suggest that there may not be much room for more funding, although OpenPhil suggests that effective anti-nuclear advocacy may be underfunded.

For what it’s worth, I’m donating to the Ploughshares Fund. They seem to have the correct focuses, from preserving the Iran deal, to removing tactical weapons from Europe, to opposing new ABM systems. I don’t think they have that much more room for funding, so I’d welcome a more thorough effectiveness evaluation that would allow people concerned with nuclear risk to confidently donate their money.

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Falsifiable, Politics, Science

Nuclear Weapons: 7.0 Strategy

Having covered the practicalities of nuclear physics, nuclear weapon design, and nuclear weapon effects, we may now turn our attention to the strategies that have grown out of these physical realities.

7.1 Tactical and Strategic Weapons

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of nuclear weapons – tactical and strategic. This post has been focused primarily on strategic nuclear weapons, high yield weapons capable of destroying cities and hardened targets. Tactical nuclear weapons have smaller yields, allowing them to be hypothetically used on a battlefield that contains friendlies.

The line between the two gets somewhat blurred with the highest yield tactical weapons. Is a 5kt bomb tactical or strategic? No one really has a clear answer. These already crystal clear waters get muddied further when you add in “dial-a-yield” weapons, which can yield anywhere from <1kt to ~100kt. On the low end, they’re definitely tactical. But at the high end, they’re clearly strategic.

Most of the treaties that deal with nuclear weapons don’t cover tactical weapons. This is a bit of a problem, because tactical weapons are perhaps the easiest way that a conventional conflict could escalate into a nuclear conflict. It goes like this: my army is losing, so I have a fire-team use a tactical nuke launched from a recoilless rifle on your densest concertation of tanks. The 100t weapon totally destroys the formation, swinging the battle in my favour.

The nuke I used on you, the opposing general, is not a strategic weapon, so I don’t need codes from higher up or another person to agree with my decision.

You are now losing because those tanks occupied a key position. You reply with a 1kt tactical nuke of your own, fired from an 8″ howitzer 20km behind your own lines. It takes out 3,000 of my infantry. Satisfied, you go back to conventional war.

But I’m pissed off, so I dial up one of my short ranged tactical missiles to a 10kt yield. There’s a plume of smoke from the rocket launch, a bright flash, and a crater where your army used to be. I’m satisfied with a job well done, but your side is pretty enraged. So they call in a 50kt strategic nuke on an intermediate range ballistic missile that wipes out my forces and camp.

A few more levels of escalation and the ICBMs and SLBMs begin to fly. Once you believe nuclear war is inevitable, the only thing to do is try for a successful first strike and pray for the best.

7.2 First Strike, Second Strike, Counterforce, Countervalue

A first strike is an attempt to destroy an opponent’s nuclear arsenal before they can launch it at you. SLBMs or on station stealth bombers are the only real way to pull this off. The flight time for ICBMs between probable belligerents is much too long for the missiles to reach targets before those targets have a chance to respond.

Targets include airbases where nuclear bombers are known to be based, the known location of any mobile ICBMs, missile silos, docks where nuclear submarines may be resupplying, command and control systems, and key nuclear weapons decision makers. Separately, any nuclear submarines that have be detected will be attacked by the hunter-killer submarines shadowing them.

In all likely nuclear exchanges between larger nuclear powers (NATO/Russia, NATO/China, China/Russia, China/Pakistan, China/India, India/Pakistan, Pakistan/Israel and neglecting North Korea due to the primitive nature of its nuclear program), this won’t be enough. Some of the nuclear weapons will survive.

Baring a truly unlikely display of self-sacrifice and forgiveness, these remaining weapons will immediately be fired at the aggressor in a second strike – a retaliatory attack.

First strikes are predicted to be mostly counterforce, that is to say, aimed at an enemy’s military forces in general and their nuclear forces in particular. There will be civilian casualties, because there always are, especially with weapons as indiscriminate as nukes, but civilian casualties aren’t the goal of a first strike.

A second strike, on the other hand, would be primarily countervalue, that is to say, aimed at the most valuable targets an enemy possesses. Major cities, knowledge centres, and industrial centres are the primary targets in a countervalue strike. Civilian casualties are kind of the point and consequently will be rather high.

7.3 Mutually Assured Destruction

Nuclear policy has for decades been based on the idea of mutually assured destruction (MAD). Mutually assured destruction requires all nuclear armed powers to be committed to a massive countervalue retaliatory strike against any country which deploys nuclear weapons against them. Furthermore, this threat must be credible – enemy decision makers must believe it is real and can be carried out if necessary.

The goal of the mutually assured destruction doctrine is to prevent nuclear war by making it clear that all nuclear wars will be unwinnable, so that no power believes they can gain anything from them. Wargame succinctly summed up the desired end-state of the MAD doctrine with the famous line “the only winning move is not to play”.

For MAD to ensure stability, two things must be true:

  1. No actor can destroy the entire nuclear arsenal of another in a first strike.
  2. No actor can defend against a second strike well enough that they will escape unscathed.

While the current MAD equilibrium is relatively stable, it has come under threat from both the US and the USSR in the past. The closest we’ve come to nuclear self-annihilation has been those times when MAD had begun to break down.

The Cuban Missile Crisis was ultimately about first strike capability. The US had based ballistic missiles in Italy and Turkey that gave it the easy ability to target the USSR – and Soviet missiles (of which there were only 20 that could hit the continental United States from Soviet territory). With these forward deployed missiles and timely reconnaissance from the U2 spy plane, it had become perhaps possible for the US to wipe out the Soviet Union and face minimal retaliation.

When the Soviets began to build missile sites in Cuba, the problem became mutual. Suddenly each side had first strike capability. If you want to look for the hand of God in human affairs, I would suggest centring your search here. Conditions were riper for a first shot than a Mos Eisley cantina. It’s a genuine miracle that no one launched missiles.

The negotiated resolution to the Cuban Missile Crisis was publically all about Cuba. Kennedy promised to never invade again and Khrushchev promised to remove the missiles. But in secret, Kennedy promised to remove all of the US missiles based in Italy and Turkey. First strike capability was removed and equilibrium restored.

The second threat to MAD came from anti-ballistic missiles (ABMs). By the 1960s, both the US and USSR were working on ABM systems. The Soviets were building a network of ABMs around their capital Moscow, while the Americans were building a similar system around their missile silos in North Dakota.

These systems were imperfect and could be overwhelmed by MIRVs. But both sides were worried about the future; what if their enemy figured out perfect missile defense before they did? Both the US and USSR knew that If one side could gain a critical advantage in missile defense, they would be able to launch a first strike with impunity. The bitter irony was that systems designed to protect against nuclear attacks were making global nuclear war more likely.

This crisis was also defused through diplomacy. Both sides understood the risks and decided they weren’t worth it. The first Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty (SALT I) limited both the USSR and US to two ABM sites. Hot on the heels of this was the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty which revised the limit downwards to one site and limited the number of ABMs at each site to 100.

Unfortunately, the US unilaterally withdrew from this treaty in 2002 to begin work on a new missile defense system. If this system ever becomes operational to the point that the US can expect to survive a second strike from Russia or China, nuclear war will become imminent.

7.4 The Nuclear Triad

The delicate balance of MAD is maintained by the nuclear triad: ICBMs, SLMBs, and conventional bombers. Once a nation possesses all three legs of the triad it becomes almost impossible to remove their nuclear capability in a first strike.

Each leg of the triad has a purpose. ICBMs are static, but are relatively cheap and can often be launched quickly. SLBMs are more expensive and slightly harder to launch (they require accurate positioning for targeting) but are very hard to destroy. And conventional bombers have the greatest flexibility in avoiding attack, plus a very long range courtesy of in-air refueling.

These aren’t the only three methods that can round out a triad though. Really, the important thing is having three credible and disparate systems, such that it is impossible to remove your ability to make a countervalue second strike. Space based weapons (forbidden by treaties), air launched missiles, carrier based nuclear bombers, or nuclear torpedoes could all be used in place of one of the “standard” legs of the triad.

Only India, China, the United States, and Russia have confirmed nuclear triad capability. Israel is suspected of having a nuclear triad, but refuses to confirm or deny this assertion (Israel does wink suggestively when asked, which has led basically all experts to assume that they do in fact possess a nuclear triad).

7.5 Current Nuclear Strategy

Every country charts its own course on nuclear weapons. From public statements and acknowledged procurements, it’s possible to get some idea of each country’s strategy, but you have to understand that they really don’t broadcast these things. I mean, they broadcast them, but we shouldn’t take those statements at face value. There are a host of reasons – diplomatic, strategic, domestic, that prevent leaders from being entirely candid with their nuclear plans.

When reading into strategies, I focus on questions like: what are the known capabilities of deployed weapons? How many nuclear weapons can a country deploy? What delivery methods does a country possess? Where are its weapons based? What advances in technology are politicians highlighting in public speeches? Where have they faced technical difficulties? What countries are they friendly with? Unfriendly with?

I would also recommend avoiding the common pitfall of obsessing over the total number of warheads a country possesses. This number is much less important than the count of operational or deployed warheads. In any significant nuclear exchange, it is unlikely that any warheads but those immediately at hand for deployment will be used.

This section represents my best guesses at the current nuclear strategies of various countries. Please treat these as speculation, not as fact.

7.5.1 Russia

Russia wants to keep its status as a major nuclear power, but it needs to do it on a tighter budget than the USSR had. This means a focus on land based ICBMs, no truly stealthy fighters, and limited resources for its SLBM program.

Current sanctions on Russia have disrupted Russian supply chains and applied pressure on Putin to slash military spending – right as he becomes more confrontational with the rest of the world. Russia can’t afford to fall behind in the nuclear arms race. Its second strike capability is the only thing stopping the US from giving it much harsher ultimatums. Significant budget cuts would put this second strike capability under threat. But on the other hand, Russia can only afford its current military budget for so long.

This statement falsified if: real stealth bombers enter service with a sticker price of >$500,000,000 per unit, Russia manages a string of successful SLBM launches in 2017, the international sanction regime against Russia collapses with Trump as US president.

7.5.2 China

China’s nuclear arsenal is less advanced than that of Russia or the USA. MIRV-ready missiles have been rolled out only in the last decade and many of their missiles still lack MIRV capability (but they do incorporate some decoys and countermeasures). In addition, Chinese missiles are kept unfueled and without warheads in place, which drastically increases their second strike response time. They make up for this with a massive network of decoy silos, real silos, and tunnels built into the mountains of Central China. China only has a handful of nuclear missile submarines and its conventional bomber force is fairly obsolete.

China’s nuclear policy is explicitly second strike only. Based on all the facts above and what I know about China, I’m inclined to believe this. Historically, China has never cared much about what happens outside of China (broadly defined, of course). Since China already enjoys massive conventional supremacy over its neighbours, it has no need of nuclear weapons to intimidate them.

This statement falsified if: China renounces no first use, China threatens a non-nuclear state with nuclear attack, China has >10 active ballistic missile submarines by 2020, China develops a new dedicated heavy bomber.

7.5.3 India and Pakistan

Neither of these countries have sprung for forces really capable of mutually assured destruction and only India maintains a full nuclear triad. Instead of adopting MAD, they instead both aim to have forces just big enough to make a nuclear attack by the other not worth the risk.

Since these countries really only need to be able to deter each other (and possibly China), they’re freed from the need to spend to keep up with the US or Russia. Both India and Pakistan lack the ability to launch a truly significant countervalue strike in response to a first strike from the US or Russia. Given how unlikely the US or Russia launching a first strike on India or Pakistan is, this is a sensible approach.

This statement falsified if: Either of these countries test Mt range thermonuclear weapons, either of these countries develops an ICBM capable of targeting the continental United States (range >11,000km), either of these countries increases nuclear funding by >200%.

7.5.4 UK and France

These countries keep nuclear weapons because they’re members of the UN Security Council and it comes with the territory. Neither has a particularly robust nuclear force (the UK only has American made Trident SLBMs, France has indigenous SLBMs and nuclear capable bombers). It’s largely a prestige thing though. Neither country has been particularly enthusiastic about the nuclear rigmarole (and its price tag) since the end of the Cold War.

Nuclear policy in the UK and France is closely tied to the nuclear policy of NATO, although both countries do maintain some ability to conduct nuclear war on their own terms. Neither country has ruled out using nuclear against non-nuclear states in response to attacks with conventional forces and France has specifically mentioned that they would be willing to use nuclear weapons against countries that sponsor terrorism against them.

All this being said, it is unlikely that France or the UK would be the ones to start a global nuclear war.

This statement falsified if: Either the UK or France increases their supply of operational warheads, either the UK or France develops a full nuclear triad.

7.5.5 North Korea

North Korea’s nuclear weapons program is especially difficult to assess. In addition to the normal challenges when trying to understand a classified program, there’s the bluster of Kim Jong-un to sort through. Up until recently, experts thought ICBM technology was beyond North Korea. They were thought to be struggling with the re-entry heat shield, struggling with miniaturization, struggling with the whole endeavour.

Now, people are less sure. Has North Korea gained full ICBM capability? Or is this more bluster and staged photographs? There’s probably a dozen men and women in the Pentagon (and in many other places) who would love to know the answer for sure. My personal guess, based on the evidence (and the bluster) is that North Korea has a missile design that in theory could target the US, but they’ll need a year or three to get it working reliably. I don’t think they’ll pull off a successful test this year, but I won’t be surprised if they pull one off in 2018 or 2019. That also seems to be the view of the Ploughshares Fund, an anti-proliferation non-profit.

Even if North Korea can’t attack the US, there’s still Russia, China, Japan and South Korea at risk from its shorter range missiles. This represents a considerable threat to a large number of people. It’s tempting to laugh off these threats in light of the inflated numbers that North Korea likes to give for the yields of their weapons (e.g. claiming a 6kt detonation was a hydrogen bomb that could wipe out the whole US). You could look at the disconnect as evidence of a fizzle, but personally I see it as evidence that North Korea likes to exaggerate. In September, they tested a bomb with a yield of 10-20kt. Fizzle or not, if delivered to Seoul, it would kill over 100,000 people.

Under Kim Jong-il, the prevailing belief was that the nuclear program was a bargaining chip in order to get free food or other concessions from other countries. Its purpose under Kim Jong-un is less clear. Despite punishing sanctions, Jong-un has maintained and expanded the nuclear weapon and missile programs started by his father. Whether he is willing to trade them in for concessions or wishes to use them in an attempt at unification is unknown.

This statement falsified if: North Korea successfully tests a true ICBM (range >5,500km) with successfully atmospheric re-entry by the end of 2017 and analysts believe it has enough additional payload for a miniaturized bomb.

7.5.6 Israel

Israel’s nuclear weapons remain unacknowledged, because Israel has pledged to not be the country that “introduces” nuclear weapons to the Middle East. Israel’s statement should be given all of the skepticism one would give to Bill Clinton using the word “is”. Israel may intend “introduce” to mean “acknowledge” or “deploy”, but we’re all pretty sure they don’t intend “introduce” to mean what it literally does.

Israel wants to have nuclear weapons as the ultimate hedge against military aggression by its neighbours. In addition, it wants to ensure that none of its neighbours possess them. Given the clear support for genocide that some of its neighbours have expressed, this position is understandable. If it appears likely that one of its regional foes will develop nuclear weapons, Israel is likely to launch a conventional attack to stop their development. If a conventional attack fails, a nuclear one is not out of the question.

Many sources talk about how Israel holds nuclear weapons as a “Samson option” and is prepared to use them to utterly annihilate an enemy if it looks like they are in a position to destroy Israel. This is actually how I’d expect most countries to behave, so I think the obsession with the Samson Option in Western reports on Israel’s nuclear program has more to do with the story it makes than a real difference between, say, France and Israel.

Israel probably possesses a full nuclear triad. Since it does not confirm or deny its nuclear program, there are no publically available official details that would allow us to be sure of this. It does make sense though. Israel has the technical know-how to pull off the tricky parts of a triad, like SLBMs.

In the future, we can expect Israel to continue to hold onto its arsenal and continue to neither confirm nor deny its existence. I don’t think Israel is a particularly likely candidate to touch off a nuclear war, as it is unlikely to use nuclear weapons against another nuclear armed state. That said, Israeli use of nuclear weapons would almost assuredly result in many civilian casualties and is still an eventuality that basically everyone would like to avoid.

This statement falsified if: Israel joins the NPT and allows inspectors into its nuclear facilities, Israel publically acknowledges its nuclear arsenal, Israel does not launch an airstrike against any nuclear program started by another Middle Eastern country.

7.5.7 Iran

Iran does not possess nuclear weapons, but as recently as 14 years ago was probably working on them. Most analysts believe that this work mostly stopped with the US invasion of Iraq. Iran had no particular desire to become (more of) an international pariah for developing nuclear weapons, but couldn’t accept the risk of Iraq developing them without an Iranian counter. Iran remembered the nerve agent attacks that Iraq unleashed (with the assistance of the US) during the Iran-Iraq war and felt that any developments in Iraqi weapons of mass destruction had to matched.

Iran has been prevented from coming clean about its past development of nuclear weapons by the belief (rightly or wrongly) than any admission will result in sanctions or attempts at regime change from Western actors.

Iran does have a well-developed civilian nuclear program. Despite the wailing and gnashing of teeth among hawks, the current nuclear deal should prevent any breakout towards nuclear weapons. The deal includes a robust enforcement and inspection regime that has most global powers convinced that Iran won’t be able to restart nuclear weapons work secretly.

Donald Trump’s talk of reversing this deal is just that: talk. It isn’t a bilateral deal between Iran and the USA, it’s a multilateral deal between Iran, the Permanent members of the UN Security Council, and Germany. The US could unilaterally re-impose sanctions, but there would be a significant diplomatic cost for basically no gain; it took a network of international sanctions to bring Iran to the negotiating table the first time around, so it is doubtful that US sanctions alone would change anything. The Iranian economy isn’t very integrated with the US economy, further diminishing the sting of any unilateral sanctions. Honestly, the US would probably suffer just as much from a fresh round of sanctions as Iran would.

This statement falsified if: Iran renounces the nuclear deal, Iran leaves the NPT, Iran refuses to allow inspectors access to a site they wish to visit, inspections turn up clear evidence of nuclear weapons development done since 2005.

7.5.8 The United States of America

When Vladimir Putin goes to his magic mirror and asks “mirror, mirror on the wall, who’s the greatest nuclear power of all?”, the answer is invariably “the United States”. In every nuclear metric that matters (so, discounting the total number of warheads), the United States reigns supreme. It has the best stealth bombers, the most accurate missiles, and the biggest fleet of nuclear submarines. As the world’s one remaining superpower, the United States is the only country that is able to mount even a half-way decent first strike – although it probably can’t launch a successful first strike against any triad state.

I don’t know what US nuclear policy will look like going forward. If Donald Trump maintains good relations with Putin, then a nuclear exchange with Russia will be (even more) unlikely. I do think a nuclear exchange with China has become slightly more likely as a result of Donald Trump’s election, but I hope the risk is relatively low.

No matter how you cut it, the risk of a nuclear exchange is – and always has been – low. But no one truly knows how low “low” is. Is it 10% over the Trump presidency? 1%? Whatever it is, I wish it was lower.

I also wish Trump was less of a loose cannon. I can’t really make predictions about America’s nuclear policy over the next few years because the information I have is too heavily weighted towards hyperbole and bluster.

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