Model, Politics

The Graph Model of Conflict Resolution – Sensitivity Analysis

[10 minute read]

Last week, I used the Graph Model of Conflict Resolution to find a set of stable equilibria in the present conflict between North Korea and the USA. They were:

  • The tense status quo (s. 0)
  • An American troop withdrawal, paired with North Korea giving up its nuclear weapons (s.10)
  • All out conventional warfare on the Korean Peninsula (s. 4)
  • All out nuclear warfare on the Korean Peninsula (s. 5)

But how much can we trust these results? How much to they depend on my subjective ranking of the belligerent’s preferences? How much do they depend on the stability metrics I used?

To get a sense of this, I’m going to add another stability metric into the mix, come up with three new preference vectors, and look at how the original results change when we consider a North Korean invasion to be irreversible. After these eight new stability calculations, we’ll have nine slightly different ways of looking at the conflict; this should help us guess which equilibria are robust to my subjective choices and which might exist only because of how I framed the problem.

Alternative Stability Metrics

Previously we assessed stable states using Nash Stability and Sequential Stability. Sequential Stability allowed us to see what would happen if the decision makers were looking two moves ahead and assuming that their opponents wouldn’t “cut off the nose to spite the face” – it assumes, in essence, that people will only sanction by moving to states that they like more, not states they like less.

Maybe that’s a bad assumption dealing with Trump and Kim Jong-un. In this case, wouldn’t it be better to use Symmetric Metarationality? With Symmetric Metarationality, all sanctioning unilateral moves are on the table. Symmetric Metarationality also allows decision makers to respond to sanctioning. In effect, it lets them look three moves ahead, instead of the two allowed by Sequential Stability.

Before we see how this new metric changes things, let’s review our states, preference vectors, and stability analysis from last time.

The states are:

Click for a copyable version

Or in plain English:

State Explanation
0 Status quo
1 Nuclear strike by the US, NK keeps nuclear weapons
2 Unilateral US troop withdrawal
4 North Korean invasion with only conventional US responses
5 North Korean invasion with US nuclear strike
6 US withdrawal and North Korean Invasion
8 Unilateral North Korean abandonment of nuclear weapons
9 US strike and North Korean abandonment of nuclear weapons
10 Coordinated US withdrawal and NK abandonment of nuclear weapons
12 NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; conventional US response
13 NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; US nuclear strike
14 US withdrawal paired with NK nuclear weapons abandonment and invasion

From these states, we saw the following equilibria and unilateral improvements:

Click for copyable version

When dealing with Symmetric Metarationality, I find it very helpful to modify the chart above so that it also includes unilateral moves. After we make this change and blank out our results, we get the following:
Click for copyable version

From here, we use a simple algorithm. First, all states without unilateral improvements are Nash Stable. Next, we check each unilateral improvement in the remaining states against the opponent’s unilateral actions, then against the original actors best unilateral action from each of the resulting states. If there are no results lower than the original actor started, the move is unstable. Otherwise it’s stable by Symmetric Metarationality (and we’ll mark it with “S”). Like Sequential Stability, you can’t truly call this done until you check for states that are simultaneously sanctioned (this is often easy because simultaneous sanctioning is only a risk when both sides are unstable).

An example: There exist a unilateral improvement for America from s. 4 to s. 5. From s. 5, North Korea can move to s. 1, 13, or 9. America disprefers both s. 1 and s. 13 to s. 4 and has no moves out of them, so the threat of North Korea taking either of those actions is an effective sanction and makes s. 4 stable on the American side.

Once we repeat this for all states across both sides, we get the following:

Click for copyable version

We’ve kept all of our old equilibria and gained a new one in s. 12: “NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; conventional US response”.

Previously, s. 12 wasn’t stable because North Korea preferred the status quo (s. 0) to it and the US had no UIs from the status quo. North Korea moving from s. 12 to s. 0 is sanctioned in Symmetric Metarationality by the US unilateral move from s. 0 to s. 1, which leaves North Korea with only the option of moving from s. 1 to s. 5. State 5 is dispreferred to s. 12 by North Korea, so it can’t risk leaving s. 12 for s. 0. State 12 was always Nash Stable for the US, so it becoming stable for North Korea makes it an equilibrium point.

To put this another way (and to put an example on what I said above), using Symmetric Metarationality allows us to model a world where the adversaries see each other as less rational and more spiteful. In this world. NK doesn’t trust the US to remain at s. 0 if it were to call for a truce after an invasion, so any invasion that starts doesn’t really end.

It was heartening to see all of our existing equilibria remain where they were. Note that I did all of the work in this post without knowing what the results would be and fully prepared to publish even if my initial equilibria never turned up again; that they showed up here made me somewhat relieved.

Irreversible Invasions

Previously we modelled invasions as reversible. But is this a realistic assumption? It’s very possible that the bad will from an invasion could last for quite a while, making other strategies very difficult to try out. It’s also likely that America wouldn’t just let North Korean troops give up and slink away without reprisal. If this is the case, maybe we should model a North Korean invasion as irreversible. This will mean that there can be no unilateral improvements for North Korea from s. 4, 5, or 6 to s. 0, 1, 2, 8, 9, or 10.

In practical terms, modelling an invasion as irreversible costs North Korea one unilateral improvement, from s. 4 to s. 0. Let’s see if this changes the results at all (we’re back to sequential stability):

Click for copyable version

We end up losing the simultaneous sanctioning that made s. 4 a stable state, leaving us with only three stable states: the status quo, a trade of American withdrawal for the North Korean nuclear program, and all out nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula.

We’ve now tried three different ways of looking at this problem. Three equilibria (s. 0, 10, 5) showed up in all cases, one in two cases (s. 4), and one in one case (s. 12). We’re starting to get a sense for which equilibria are particularly stable and which are more liable to only pop up under certain conditions. But how will our equilibria fare when faced with a different preference vectors?

Bloodthirsty Belligerents

What if we’ve underestimated how much North Korea and the United States care about getting what they want and overestimated how much they care about looking reasonable? I’m going to try ranking the states so that North Korea always prefers invading and the US always prefers first that North Korea doesn’t invade the South and second that they have no nuclear weapons program.

This gives us the following preference vectors:

US: 8, 9, 0, 10, 13, 12, 5, 4, 1, 2, 14, 6
NK: 6, 14, 4, 12, 5, 13, 2, 0, 10, 1, 9, 8

Since we’re modelling the actors as more belligerent, let’s also assume for the purposes of these analyses that invasions are irreversible.

Here are the preferences vectors we’ll use to find equilibria:

Click for copyable version

Sequential Stability

Click for copyable version

Here we have only two stable states, s. 5 and 12. Both of these involve war on the Korean Peninsula; not even the status quo is stable. State 2 is at risk of simultaneous sanctioning, but the resulting states (4, 12, 5, 13) aren’t dispreferred, to s. 2 for either actor, so no simultaneous sanctioning occurs. There really are just two equilibria.

Symmetric Metarationality

Click for copyable version

Symmetric Metarationality gives us the exact same result. Only s. 5 and s. 12 are stable. This is suspicious, as the conflict has managed to stay in s. 0 for quite some time. If these preferences were correct, North Korea would have already invaded South Korea and been met with a nuclear response.

What if these preferences are substantially correct and both sides are more aggressive than we initially suspected, but North Korea disprefers being attacked by nuclear weapons below s. 0 and s. 10? That state of affairs is perhaps more reasonable than the blatantly suicidal North Korea we just imagined. How does a modicum of self-preservation change the results?

Nuclear Deterrence

If we’re assuming that North Korea has broadly similar preferences to our last variation, but doesn’t want to get attacked by nuclear weapons, we get the following preference vectors:

US: 8, 9, 0, 10, 13, 12, 5, 4, 1, 2, 14, 6
NK: 6, 14, 4, 12, 0, 10, 5, 13, 2, 1, 9, 8

Here are the annotated preferences vectors we’ll use to assess stability with Sequential Stability and Symmetric Metarationality. Since we’re leaving the belligerency of the United States the same, we’ll continue to view invading as an irreversible action.

Click for copyable version

Sequential Stability

Click for copyable version

One “minor” change – deciding that North Korea really doesn’t want to be nuked – and we again have the status quo and a negotiated settlement (in addition to two types of war) as stable equilibria. Does this hold when we’re using Symmetric Metarationality?

Symmetric Metarationality

Click for copyable version

Again, we have s. 0, 5, 10, and 12 as our equilibria.

As we’ve seen throughout, Symmetric Metarationality tends to give very similar answers to Sequential Stability. It’s still worth doing – it helps reassure us that our results are robust, but I hope by now you’re beginning to see why I could feel comfortable making an initial analysis based just off of just Sequential Stability.

Pacifistic People

What instead of underestimating the bloodthirstiness of our belligerents, we’ve been overestimating it? It’s entirely possible that both sides strongly disprefer all options that involve violence (and the more violence an option involves, the more they disprefer it) but talk up their position in hopes of receiving concessions. In this case, let’s give our actors these preference vectors:

US: 8, 0, 10, 2, 9, 12, 4, 5, 14, 13, 6, 1
NK: 6, 14, 2, 10, 0, 8, 4, 12, 5, 1, 9, 13

(Note that I’m only extending “peacefulness” to these two actors; I’m assuming that North Korea would happily try and annex South Korea if there was no need to fight America to do so)

There are fewer unilateral improvements in this array than in many of the previous ones.

Click for copyable version

Sequential Stability

Click for copyable version

This is perhaps the most surprising result we’ve seen so far. If both powers are all talk with nothing behind it and both powers know and understand this, then they’ll stick in the current high-tension equilibria or fight a war. The only stable states here are s. 0, 4, and 5. State 10, the “negotiated settlement” state is entirely absent. We’ll revisit this scenario with hypergame analysis later, to see what happens if the bluff is believed.

Symmetric Metarationality

Click for copyable version

Here we see more equilibria than we’ve seen in any of the other examples. States 2 (unilateral US withdrawal) and 8 (North Korea unilaterally abandoning its nuclear weapons program) make their debut and s. 0, 4, 5, 10, and 12 appear again.

Remember, Symmetric Metarationality is very risk averse; it considers not just opponents’ unilateral improvements, but all of their unilateral moves as fair game. The fact that s. 0 has unilateral moves for either side that are aggressive leaves the actors too scared to move to it, even from states that they disprefer. This explains the presence of s. 2 and s. 8 in the equilibrium for the first time; they’re here because in this model both sides are so scared of war that if they blink first, they’ll be more relieved at the end of tension than they will be annoyed at moving away from their preferences.

I think in general this is a poor assumption, which is why I tend to find Sequential Stability a more useful concept than Symmetric Metarationality. That said, I don’t think this is impossible as a state of affairs, so I’m glad that I observed it. In general, this is actually one of my favourite things about the Graph Model of Conflict Resolution: using it you can very quickly answer “what ifs”, often in ways that are easily bent to understandable narratives.

Why Sensitivity Analysis?

The cool thing about sensitivity analysis is that it shows you the equilibria a conflict can fall into and how sensitivity those equilibria are to your judgement calls. There are 12 possible states in this conflict, but only 7 of them showed up in any stability analysis at all. Within those seven, only 5 showed up more than once.

Here’s a full accounting of the states that showed up (counting our first model, there were nine possible simulations for each equilibrium to show up in):

State Explanation #
0 Status quo 7
2 Unilateral US troop withdrawal 1
4 North Korean invasion with only conventional US responses 4
5 North Korean invasion with US nuclear strike 9
8 Unilateral North Korean abandonment of nuclear weapons 1
10 Coordinated US withdrawal and NK abandonment of nuclear weapons 6
12 NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; conventional US response 6

Of the five that showed up more than once, four showed up more than half the time. These then are the most robust equilibria; equilibria that half of the reasonable changes we attempted couldn’t dislodge.

Note “most robust” is not necessarily equivalent to “most likely”. To get actual probabilities on outcomes, we’d have to put probabilities on the initial conditions. Even then, the Graph Model of Conflict Resolution as we’ve currently talked about it does little to explain how decision makers move between equilibria; because this scenario starts in equilibrium, it’s hard to see how it makes it to any of the other equilibria.

Hopefully I’ll be able to explain one way we can model changes in states in my next post, which will cover Hypergame Analysis – the tool we use when actors lack a perfect understanding of one another’s preferences.

Model, Politics

The Graph Model of Conflict Resolution – Introduction

[10 minute read]

Why do things happen the way they do?

Every day, there are conflicts between decision makers. These occur on the international scale (think the Cuban Missile Crisis), the provincial level (Ontario’s sex-ed curriculum anyone?) and the local level (Toronto’s bike lane kerfuffle). Conflict is inevitable. Understanding it, regrettably, is not.

The final results of many conflicts can look baffling from the outside. Why did the Soviet Union retreat in the Cuban missile crisis? Why do some laws pass and others die on the table?

The most powerful tool I have for understanding the ebb and flow of conflict is the Graph Model of Conflict Resolution (GMCR). I had the immense pleasure of learning about it under the tutelage of Professor Keith Hipel, one of its creators. Over the next few weeks, I’d like to share it with you.

GMCR is done in two stages, modelling and analysis.

Modelling

To model a problem, there are four steps:

  • Select a point in time for the model
  • Make a list of the players and their options
  • Remove outcomes that don’t make sense
  • Create preference vectors for all players

The easiest way to understand this is to see it done.

Let’s look at the current nuclear stand-off on the Korean peninsula. I wrote this on Sunday, October 29th, 2017, so that’s the point in time we’ll use. To keep things from getting truly out of hand in our first example, let’s just focus on the US and North Korea (I’ll add in South Korea and China in a later post). What options does each side have?

US:

  • Nuclear strike on North Korea
  • Withdraw troops and normalize relations
  • Status quo

North Korea:

  • Invasion of South Korea
  • Abandon nuclear program and submit to inspections
  • Status quo

I went through a few iterations here. I originally wrote the US option “Nuclear strike” as “Pre-emptive strike”. I changed it to be more general. A nuclear strike could be pre-emptive, but it also could be in response to North Korea invading South Korea.

It’s pretty easy to make a chart of all these states:

Click for a copyable version

If you treat each action that the belligerents can make as a binary variable (yes=1 or no=0), the states will have a natural ordering based off of the binary sum of the actions taken and not taken. This specific ordering isn’t mandatory – you can use any ordering scheme you want – but I find it useful.

You may also notice that “Status quo” appears nowhere on this chart. That’s an interesting consequence of how actions are represented in the GMCR. Status quo is simply neither striking nor withdrawing for the US, or neither invading nor abandoning their nuclear program for North Korea. Adding an extra row for it would just result in us having to do more work in the next step, where we remove states that can’t exist.

I’ve colour coded some of the cells to help with this step. Removing nonsensical outcomes always requires a bit of judgement. Here we aren’t removing any outcomes that are highly dispreferred. We are supposed to restrict ourselves solely to removing outcomes that seem like they could never ever happen.

To that end, I’ve highlighted all cases where America withdraws troops and strikes North Korea. I’m interpreting “withdraw” here to mean more than just withdrawing troops – I think it would mean that the US would be withdrawing all forms of protection to South Korea. Given that, it wouldn’t make sense for the US to get involved in a nuclear war with North Korea while all the while loudly proclaiming that they don’t care what happens on the Korean peninsula. Not even Nixon’s “madman” diplomacy could encompass that.

On the other hand, I don’t think it’s necessarily impossible for North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program and invade South Korea. There are a number of gambits where this might make sense – for example, it might believe that if they attacked South Korea after renouncing nuclear weapons, China might back them or the US would be unable to respond with nuclear missiles. Ultimately, I think these should be left in.

Here’s the revised state-space, with the twelve remaining states:

Click for a copyable version

The next step is to figure out how each decision maker prioritizes the states. I’ve found it’s helpful at this point to tag each state with a short plain language explanation.

State Explanation
0 Status quo
1 Nuclear strike by the US, NK keeps nuclear weapons
2 Unilateral US troop withdrawal
4 North Korean invasion with only conventional US responses
5 North Korean invasion with US nuclear strike
6 US withdrawal and North Korean Invasion
8 Unilateral North Korean abandonment of nuclear weapons
9 US strike and North Korean abandonment of nuclear weapons
10 Coordinated US withdrawal and NK abandonment of nuclear weapons
12 NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; conventional US response
13 NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; US nuclear strike
14 US withdrawal paired with NK nuclear weapons abandonment and invasion

While describing these, I’ve tried to avoid talking about causality. I didn’t describe s. 5 as “North Korean invasion in response to US nuclear strike” or “US nuclear strike in response to North Korean invasion”. Both of these are valid and would depend on which states preceded s. 5.

Looking at all of these states, here’s how I think both decision makers would order them (in order of most preferred to least preferred):

US: 8, 0, 9, 10, 12, 5, 4, 13, 14, 1, 2, 6
NK: 6, 14, 2, 10, 0, 4, 12, 5, 1, 13, 8, 9

The US prefers North Korea give up its nuclear program and wants to keep protecting South Korea. Its secondary objective is to seem like a reasonable actor on the world stage – which means that it has some preference against using pre-emptive strikes or nuclear weapons on non-nuclear states.

North Korea wants to unify the Korean peninsula under its banner, protect itself against regime change, and end the sanctions its nuclear program has brought. Based on the Agreed Framework, I do think Korea would be willing to give up nuclear weapons in exchange for a normalization of relations with the US and sanctions relief.

Once we have preference vectors, we’ve modelled the problem. Now it’s time for stability analysis.

Stability

A state is stable for a player if it isn’t advantageous for the player to shift states. A state is globally stable if it is not advantageous for any player to shift states. When a player can move to a state they prefer over the current state without any input from their opponent, this is a “unilateral improvement” (UI).

There are a variety of ways we can define “advantageous”, which lead to various definitions of stability:

Nash Stability (R): Stable if the actor has no unilateral improvements. States that are Nash stable tend to be pretty bad; these include both sides attacking in a nuclear war or both prisoners defecting in the prisoner’s dilemma. Nash stability ignores the concept of risk; it will never move to a less preferred state in the hopes of making it to a more preferred state.

General Metarationality (GMR): Stable if the actor has no unilateral improvements that aren’t sanctioned by unilateral moves by others. This tends to lead to less confusing results than Nash stability; Cooperation in the prisoner’s dilemma is stable in General Metarationality. General Metarationality accepts the existence of risk, but refuses to take any.

Symmetric Metarationality (SMR): Stable if an actor has no unilateral improvements that aren’t sanctioned by opponents’ unilateral moves after it has a chance to respond to them. This is equivalent to GMR, but with a chance to respond. Here we start to see the capacity to take on some risk.

Sequential Stability (SEQ): Stable if the actor has no unilateral improvements that aren’t sanctioned by opponents’ unilateral improvements. This basically assumes fairly reasonable opponents, the type who won’t cut off their nose to spite their face. Your mileage may vary as to how appropriate this assumption is. Like SMR, this system takes on some risk.

Limited Move Stability (LS): A state is stable if after N moves and countermoves (with both sides acting optimally), there exists no improvement. This is obviously fairly risky as any assumptions you make about your opponents’ optimal actions may turn out to be wrong (or wishful thinking).

Non-myopic Stability (NM): Equivalent to Ls with N set equal to infinity. This predicts stable states where there’s no improvements after any amount of posturing and state changes, as long as both players act entirely optimally.

The two stability metrics most important to the GMCR (at least as I was taught it) are Nash Stability (denoted with r) and Sequential Stability (denoted with s). These have the advantage of being simple enough to calculate by hand while still explaining most real-world equilibria quite well.

To do stability analysis, you write out the preference vectors of both sides, along with any unilateral improvements that they can make. You then use this to decide the stability of each state for each player. If both players are stable at a state by any of the chosen stability metrics, the state overall is stable. A state can also be stable if both players have unilateral improvements from it that result in both ending up in a dispreferred state if taken simultaneously. This is called simultaneous sanctioning and is denoted with u.

The choice of stability metrics will determine which states are stable. If you only use Nash stability, you’ll get a different result than if you combine Sequential Stability and Nash Stability.

Here’s the stability analysis for this conflict (using Nash Stability and Sequential Stability):

Click for copyable version

Before talking about the outcome, I want to mention a few things.

Look at s. 9 for the US. They prefer s. 8 to s. 9 and the two differ only on a US move. Despite this, s. 8 isn’t a unilateral improvement over s. 9 for the US. This system is called the Graph Model of Conflict Resolution for a reason. States can be viewed as nodes on a directed graph, which implies that some nodes may not have a connection. Or, to put it in simpler terms, some actions can’t be taken back. Once the US has launched a nuclear strike, it cannot un-launch it.

This holds less true for abandoning a nuclear program or withdrawing troops; both of those are fairly easy to undo (as we found out after the collapse of the Agreed Framework). Invasions on the other hand are in a tricky category. They’re somewhat reversible (you can stop and pull out), but the consequences linger. Ultimately I’ll call them reversible, but note that this is debatable and the analysis could change if you change this assumption.

In a perfect world, I’d go through this exercise four or five different times, each time with different assumptions about preferences or the reversibility of certain states or with different stability metrics and see how each factor changes the results. My next blog post will go through this in detail.

The other thing to note here is the existence of simultaneous sanctioning. Both sides have a UI from s. 4; NK to s. 0 and the US to s. 5. Unfortunately, if you take these together, you get s. 1, which both sides disprefer to s. 4. This means that once a war starts the US will be hesitant to launch a nuclear strike and North Korea would be hesitant to withdraw – in case they withdrew just as a strike happened. In reality, we get around double binds like this with negotiated truces – or unilateral ultimatums (e.g. “withdraw by 08:00 tomorrow or we will use nuclear weapons”).

There are four stable equilibria in this conflict:

  • The status quo
  • A coordinated US withdrawal of troops (but not a complete withdrawal of US interest) and North Korean renouncement of nuclear weapons
  • All out conventional war on the Korean Peninsula
  • All out nuclear war on the Korean Peninsula

I don’t think these equilibria are particularly controversial. The status quo has held for a long time, which would be impossible if it wasn’t a stable equilibrium. Meanwhile, s. 10 looks kind of similar to the Iran deal, with the US removing sanctions and doing some amount of normalization in exchange for the end of Iran’s nuclear program. State 5 is the worst-case scenario that we all know is possible.

Because we’re currently in a stable state, it seems unlikely that we’ll shift to one of the other states that could exist. In actuality, there are a few ways this could happen. A third party could intervene with its own preference vectors and shake up the equilibrium. For example, China could use the threat of economic sanctions (or the threat of ending economic sanctions) to try and get North Korea and the US to come to a détente. There also could be an error in judgement on the part of one of the parties. A false alarm could quickly turn into a very real conflict. It’s also possible that one party could mistake the others preferences, leading to them taking a course of action that they incorrectly believe isn’t sanctioned.

In future posts, I plan to show how these can all be taken into account, using the GMCR framework for Third Party Intervention and Coalitional Analysis, Strength of Preferences, and Hypergame Analysis.

Even without those additions, the GMCR is a powerful tool. I encourage you to try it out for other conflicts and see what the results are. I certainly found that the best way to really understand it was to run it a few times.

Note: I know it’s hard to play around with the charts when they’re embedded as images. You can see copyable versions of them here.

Politics

Nuclear Weapons Explained Backwards

[10 minute read]

The following is the annotated speakers notes for a talk I gave on nuclear weapons today. I’d like to claim that it was a transcript, but after practicing from these notes for almost a week, I ended up giving the talk mostly ex tempore. Like I always do. 

Note: The uncredited photos were created by the US government and therefore have no copyright attached. All other images are either original (and therefore covered by the same license as the rest of the blog) or are credited and subject to the original license (normally CC-BY of some sort).

Hi I’m Zach.

This will be a backwards explanation of nuclear weapons; I don’t have time to cover it all so instead of covering the boring stuff like how fission works, I’m going to talk about the strategic realities surrounding the use of nuclear weapons.

Let’s actually do this thing like you’re a bunch of kids; I’m going to assume you’re always asking me “why?”. So at the highest level: this is a presentation about nuclear weapons.

Why am I doing this?

This got the laughs I was hoping for

Like maybe a lot of you, I’ve been worried about nuclear weapons of late. My worrying actually started in September 2016. I don’t know if you remember, but that was the first time it seemed like Trump might really win. And then I think a lot of us had to grapple with what that meant.

And the biggest question there was “could this mean the end of the world?”

I was worried about the end of the world because I knew Trump might end up with the nuclear launch codes and all I really knew about nuclear weapons was that they were really dangerous. At this point I was very much in the pop culture mode of “these are the things that end the world in blockbuster movies”.

Of course before I could really take this fear seriously, I had to think about why Trump might actually use nuclear weapons. Like I was pretty sure he wasn’t going to nuke Tuvalu just for fun.

Here’s what the payoff matrix looks like for nuclear war between major powers. Everyone is pretty happy doing nothing, although they’d be happier if they could wipe out their pesky rivals [1]. Unfortunately, their rivals want to avenge themselves if they’re going to die.

The decision-making algorithm that tells us we’re going to stick to doing nothing is General Metarationality. We know how our opponents will act in response to our actions and we avoid actions that will cause strong sanctioning. And I don’t know of any sanctions stronger than getting nuked.

This whole thing works because everyone understands it. The logic is so inescapable and the probable actions of your enemies are so obvious that the whole edifice survives, even though doing nothing isn’t technically even the Nash equilibrium.

But this is just theory. How do you ensure mutually assured destruction in practice?

That’s a question people have been asking since the 1950s. By now everyone’s agreed that there’s a right way to do it and a wrong way to do it. The wrong way is to stick a bunch of missiles in a desert and call it a day. The right way is to come up with three separate ways of delivering your warheads, spend billions and billions of dollars on them, and call it a day.

Here we have the three methods that everyone’s chosen – and I want to make it clear that this is arbitrary; three others would work just as well [2]. As it stands though, the conventional nuclear triad is Nuclear armed bombers, like the US B-52 or B-2, Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles (ICBMs) like the US Minuteman III, and submarine launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), like the US Trident II. The idea with this triad is that it’s impossible for an enemy to launch a first strike so devastating that they take out your whole ability to respond.

Planners are always vaguely trying to build up their capacity for a “first strike” (remember the payoff matrix before; all nuclear powers would like it best if they could win a nuclear war). The first strike idea is this pernicious thought that maybe if you nuke someone else hard enough, you’ll take out all their nukes and just win. No one has ever felt confident in their ability to pull off a first strike, which is good because if someone ever was, nuclear war would become inevitable.

But why do we care about first strikes and MAD?

Because MAD has made civilization destroying nuclear war the default form of nuclear war, at least as far as all of the non-regional nuclear powers are concerned. With respect to Trump, it means that any nuclear war he starts with China or Russia, America’s traditional nuclear adversaries, would be really bad.

Now we all know that Trump is basically in Putin’s pocket. Because of this, I wasn’t very worried about a nuclear war with Russia; I always figured that if things got heated with Russia, Trump would fold.

At the time I first did this research – remember, this was September 2016, before we found out that Xi Jinping was more than a match for Trump – I thought nuclear war with China would become a lot more likely if Trump was president. So I looked into the Chinese nuclear arsenal and there I found the question that unlocked my understanding of nuclear weapons.

China’s premier missile is the silo-based Dongfeng 5. It has a range of about 12,000km and is tipped with a 5 Mt warhead.

A brief digression: when we talk about nuclear weapons and say “ton”, “kiloton”, or “megaton”, we’re referring to the explosion that would be created by a given mass of TNT. So, the warhead on the DF5 explodes with the same force as you’d expect from 5 million tonnes of TNT. Everyone always compares yields to Hiroshima and Nagasaki. I hate this and think it’s stupid – for reasons I’ll get into in just one minute – but I’ll do it anyway. The DF5 releases 250 times as much energy as the 20 kt bomb that destroyed Nagasaki.

Anyway, the DF5 is 5Mt. The premier missile used by the US is the Trident II. It also has a range of 12,000km, it’s launched from a ballistic missile submarine, and it is armed with eight W88 warheads, each of which has a yield of 475kt.

And this was confusing, because we generally think of the US as more advanced than China when it comes to military technology – and here it definitely is! So why does China have bigger nukes?

That’s our key question right there.

So I just told you I hate the Hiroshima comparison. Here’s why: it assumes that nuclear weapons scale linearly. Get twice the yield and you should get twice the destruction, right? But very few things in the real world are linear. Nuclear weapons certainly aren’t.

There are actually 5 or 6 ways a nuclear weapon can kill you. There’s the shockwave, which knocks over buildings. There’s the gamma ray burst, which make death inevitable even as you appear to recover. There’s the thermal radiation, which can give you third degree burns, even if you’re kilometers distant. There’s the central fireball, which rips apart everything it touches. And then there’s the neutron burst and the X-rays and all the other ionizing radiation sources.

Each of these scales differently, but all of them are sublinear. This means that as a nuclear weapon gets bigger, it gets less efficient. The number of people you kill per additional ton of yield is much higher when your yield is 20kt than when it is 5Mt.

Some of these scaling effects are really complicated because of interactions with the ground or the air, but two are simple enough that I can give you a quick explanation of how to calculate them.

When it comes to shockwave, I want you to imagine a sphere. The amount of stuff in that sphere is proportional to the radius of that sphere, r, to the third power. Energy is just the capacity to do work, in this case, move stuff. If you want to figure out the amount of stuff energy can move – say move in a city destroying shockwave – you move this equation around a bit and you end up with the cube root of energy. To double the range of the shockwave, you need eight times as much energy.

For thermal radiation, I want you to think about the surface of a sphere. The size of the surface is proportional to r to the second power. Now we have a set amount of thermal radiation at the start that gets spread evenly around the whole surface of the sphere as flux, even as the sphere grows. So, you get ten meters out and the energy is spread out one hundred times as much as it was at one metre. You multiplied the radius by ten and saw the energy go down by a factor of one hundred. This also means that if you add in 100 times as much energy, the radius with a given flux will only grow ten-fold. The destructive radius (for any given destructive radiation effect) is proportional to the square root of the initial energy.

In both these cases, this means you’re facing severe diminishing returns. The 5 Mt Chinese warhead isn’t 10x as powerful as the 475kt American bomb. It’s between 2 and 3 times more powerful.

It gets worse for the Chinese warhead. It’s error radius is 800m, about 10x the 70m error radius of the Trident II. When aimed at a specific hardened target, like say a silo or a fortification, a target that needs to be hit with a certain amount of energy, the Chinese weapon is actually between 3x to 5x less likely to damage it than the American one, even though it’s much bigger. That’s not even to mention that there are eight American warheads on each missile.

They’re on these things called Multiple Independent Re-entry Vehicles, or MIRVs for short. Each one can pick its own target. Add all this up and the Trident II missile is something like 24x to 40x more dangerous than the DF5, despite looking less powerful at first glance.

The Chinese warhead is big because they haven’t mastered accuracy or MIRVs. With those, size matters much less.

24x or 40x or whatever is nice and all, but why doesn’t America go for broke and pack their thing full of 5 Mt warheads too? Wouldn’t that be best?

Well that’s because space and especially weight is at a premium on a rocket. The heavier it is, the shorter its range. There’s this whole laborious process called “miniaturization” that all nuclear weapons programs have to master. You detonate your test bomb in a big fixed installation, but then you need to make it small enough that you can fit it on a missile. That’s hard.

If you look at the real experts – not the pundits on CNN, but the brilliant folks at 38North or Ploughshares – you’ll see that there’s a lot of anxiety about North Korea “miniaturizing” their nuclear weapons. Jong-un say they have. We don’t know if he’s telling the truth or not. Miniaturization is the difference between some scary seismic readings and a crater where Tokyo used to be. If North Korea can get their physics package (the nuke part of the warhead) down to 400, 500kg, then they’ll have room to put on a heat shield. Then they’ll have an ICBM.

Not a triad. So, there’s still time for a first strike. But they’re working on SLBMs. Soon, maybe in a decade, they’ll be a “real” nuclear power. That’s bad for the US. But it’s really bad for China. Right now, China is actually more at risk from North Korea than the US, according to many analysts. It’s actually gotten so bad that China has set up missile defenses between North Korea and Beijing.

These probably won’t work if push comes to shove, but that’s a story for another day.

So to summarize:

  • The major nuclear powers are China, Russia, and the USA
  • Mutually Assured Destruction is guaranteed by a nuclear triad and has kept these powers from nuking each other.
  • As long as the triad lasts, first strikes will bring massive retaliation
  • Retaliation means that you have to do a certain amount of damage to certain targets. You can achieve this with really big nukes, or really precise nukes.
  • Scaling means that 10x the yield does not bring 10x the destructive power. Conversely, accuracy gives a lot of bang for your buck. 10x accuracy means 100x or 1000x damage to a specific target.
  • Don’t use Hiroshima as a unit of measure, because people will assume that destruction is linear and overestimate how bad things will be
  • North Korea can’t do anything until they miniaturize a nuke. It’s unclear if they have yet.

If you want to learn more, either about nuclear weapons in general or North Korea’s nuclear weapon program in particular, you can go to my blog at socraticfm.com. Also Wikipedia exists.

Questions

  • In response to a question about the risk of Pakistani nuclear weapons falling into the wrong hands, I explained that this would be locally really bad, but drew the distinction between events that are bad for a localized group of people (like the Taliban nuking Karachi) and events that are bad for the human race (a MAD-level nuclear exchange between China and the US). If you’re worrying about the existential risk posed by nuclear weapons, the first is really just noise, except insofar as it can make the second more likely by increasing tensions all around.
  • In response to a question about disarmament, I talked about the New START treaty and the need to distinguish between warheads that are stored (most of them, at least for Russia and America) and warheads ready to go (1,550 for both the US and Russia, if they’re sticking to their treaty obligations). I stressed the need for further treaties like New START to slowly reduce the number of active (and therefore existentially dangerous) nuclear weapons in the arsenals of major powers.

Footnotes

[1] I was questioned pretty heavily on this pay-off matrix. Several people thought that Do Nothing should be preferred to Attack. I have two things to say to this:

  1. In an iterated game with this sort of matrix, the highest payoff comes when people cooperate the most. So while at any given point in time attacking might be preferred, once you take into account that real life is iterated, doing nothing is a better long term strategy.
  2. All of us born after the Cold War, or even born after the 60s, cannot adequately understand what it was like to live in a world where it really did seem like the Soviets might “bury us”. Faced with that kind of existential threat, a first strike seemed like an appealing option. In this globalist age, it does seem much worse to launch a first strike, especially because major powers do major mutual trade.

^

[2] If questioned here, I was going to mention carrier based bombers (France tried this for a while) and nuclear tipped cruise missiles (the US may move in this direction).  ^

Using this presentation

The slides are available here. This content, like everything else original on my blog, is covered by the CC-BY-NC-SA v4 International license. If you present this, please reference this blog and include a link. If you are a student and using this presentation is against the academic policies of your institution, I’d ask that you please refrain from plagiarizing it.

Politics

North Korean Nuclear Weapons Program FAQ

“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita… ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.'” – J Robert Oppenheimer, on the reaction to the successful test of the first atomic bomb.

[30 minute read]

0. Table of Contents

1. Why?
    1.1 Why are you writing this?
    1.2 Okay, but why you in particular?
    1.3 Why is does North Korea have a nuclear program anyway?
2. What?
    2.1 What should I know about nuclear weapons to understand this crisis?
    2.2 What do we even know?
    2.3 What are your best guesses for what we don’t know?
        2.3.1 Is this weapon fusion or boosted fission?
        2.3.2 Is it miniaturized?
        2.3.3 Does the heat shield work?
        2.3.4 Can THAAD and GCM defend America (and its allies)?
3. How?
    3.1 How expensive has the program been?
    3.2 How can they get so much with so little?
    3.3 How did things get so bad?
    3.4 How many nuclear weapons does North Korea have?
    3.5 How bad would it be if North Korea used nuclear weapons?
        3.5.1 How much damage could North Korea do with an EMP?
    3.6 How do we get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program?
        3.6.1 How come China can’t make North Korea stop?
        3.6.2 How did South Africa end its nuclear weapons program?
        3.6.3 How could we convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons?
    4. Footnotes

1. Why?

1.1 Why are you writing this?

Because I keep talking about it piecemeal with various people and wanted to collect everything I’ve said in one place. Because some people are more scared then they need to be and some people are more blasé than they really should be. Because I care about elevating the level of the discourse (which is often really poor). Because I’m scared that people might actually endorse some of the really terrible proposed solutions to this crisis and I want them to understand why they won’t work.

1.2 Okay, but why you in particular?

I researched nuclear weapons for two months and wrote a fifteen-thousand-word primer on the subject. Nuclear weapons are a thing I know a lot about. I covered North Korea briefly in that post, which means I already knew some of the background information for this post.

The real experts are currently busy briefing politicians and making clipped statements to the media. Therefore, it falls to verbose hobbyists like myself to try and make sense of every cryptic utterance and disseminate some of what the experts are saying more widely.

1.3 Why is does North Korea have a nuclear program anyway?

There are a lot of theories here. I’m going to walk you through my favourite. See these men?

   

Pictured: Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Images courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

Both of those men once ran countries. Now they’re deposed and dead. The common factor? America. Call it imperialism. Call it empire building. Call it promoting democracy or protecting freedom. Call it exacting justice on two terrible butchers. From one perspective or another, all of those are the truth. What matters to North Korea is that these men tangled with America, they didn’t have nuclear weapons, and now they’re dead.

As far as I know (and the bloody purges at the start of his reign probably attest to this), Kim Jong-un doesn’t want to die. If he has a nuclear deterrent, he might fancy himself safe from any American led attempts at regime change and/or ending his horrific prison camp system.

You don’t have to take just my word for it though. Here’s a professor suggesting the same thing. Or you could just listen to what North Korea itself said:

The Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Gaddafi regime in Libya could not escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations for nuclear development and giving up nuclear programmes of their own accord

2. What?

2.1 What should I know about nuclear weapons to understand this crisis?

It can be helpful to understand a bit about how nuclear weapons work before reading about using them. Here’s a very quick and slightly simplified rundown.

Nuclear weapons liberate energy from the nuclei of atoms. These can’t just be any atoms. You need the right version of the right atom to get a nuclear reaction. The ones relevant here are deuterium and tritium (forms of hydrogen with additional neutrons), plutonium-239 (commonly called “weapon grade plutonium”) and uranium-235 (“highly enriched uranium”).

There are two types of atomic reactions used in nuclear bombs. In fission weapons, plutonium or uranium atoms are split apart by the energy of a free neutron. This releases more neutrons setting in motion an unstoppable chain reaction (until the energy of it blows the fuel apart). The reaction is started by creating a critical mass. Weapon grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium are inherently unstable; at any given moment, a small number of atoms of either will be breaking apart, releasing neutrons. Get a large amount of either in one place (or compress an existing sample with explosives) and you’ll have enough neutrons to start the reaction.

Fusion is the opposite. In fusion, you slam two atoms together so hard that they merge. In fusion weapons, the fuel is a mix of deuterium and tritium (or a molecule called lithium deuteride, that turns into deuterium and tritium when exposed to neutrons). When you push these together hard enough, you get helium, energy, and a very, very energetic neutron. This neutron can then start fission reactions. In many thermonuclear weapons the true destructive power comes after these neutrons hit a very large outer shell of uranium, which then fissions very violently.

Fusion weapons are often called hydrogen bombs, because isotopes of hydrogen are used in them, or thermonuclear weapons, because high temperatures (among other things) are used to initiate the process of fusion. Not all bombs that use fusion are as destructive as “true” thermonuclear weapons (i.e. the things experts normally mean when they say “thermonuclear weapons”). It is possible to put a bit of deuterium and tritium into an “ordinary” fission bomb in order to generate some extra neutrons from fusion and speed up the chain reaction. This allows for more of the fuel to be used before it scatters itself around the landscape and increases the yield of the bomb.

Yields are commonly measured in kilotons (kt; equivalent to 1000 tons of TNT) or megatons (Mt; equivalent to 1,000,000 tons of TNT). A kiloton bomb is enough to do serious damage to a large city. A megaton bomb will utterly devastate it. Yields vary widely with design, but in general you’d expect a simple fission weapon to yield somewhere between 5 and 50 kilotons; a boosted weapon would normally yield between 25 and 150 kt; a fusion weapon can yield anywhere from 50 kilotons to 50 megatons. These ranges are just guidelines and have to do more with what is an efficient use of nuclear materials than anything else; you could make a one megaton boosted fission bomb (although that actually is the upper limit on what you can do without multi-stage fusion), but this would be very wasteful compared to creating a similarly destructive thermonuclear weapon.

Having a high yield in a small package is very important for miniaturization, the process of making a functioning atomic bomb small enough for delivery on a missile. When it comes to missiles, the smaller (and lighter) the warhead, the better. A lighter warhead allows a missile to travel further, a key requirement for countries like North Korea or America, with very distant adversaries.

If you’d like to read more about how nuclear weapons work, see my posts on the science underlying nuclear weapons and on nuclear weapon design.

2.2 What do we even know?

This is a really good question. Before I start on speculation or analysis, it’s important to talk about what we know for sure and what we can only speculate on.

Here are the facts:

  • North Korea possesses a nuclear weapons program.
  • North Korea has engaged in six known underground tests of their nuclear weapons.
  • There could be additional failed tests that we don’t know about.
  • The latest test was on September 3, 2017 and caused a quake with a magnitude between 5.7 and 6.4 on the Richter scale.
  • There doesn’t exist an exact way to transform this into a yield – all estimates of the bombs power are estimates.
  • These estimates range from 50kt to 250kt for the latest test [1].
  • North Korea successfully tested a missile in July with a range of 10,000 km (6,210 miles). This range is enough to reach the continental US and classify the missile as an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). In addition, a missile tested in 2016 had a range of 12,000km (7,450 miles).
  • The United States has successfully shot down mock intermediate and medium range ballistic missile (IRBM/MRBM) in tests of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system and mock ICBMs with its Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GBM) anti-missile system.

Here are the serious unknowns:

  • North Korea claims to have created a fusion weapon, but there exist other (less dangerous) technologies that could have been used in their last detonation. The precise type of their latest weapon hasn’t been independently verified.
  • North Korea claims that their nuclear weapons (including this latest one) are small enough to be mounted on their missiles (i.e. successfully miniaturized). Leaked intelligence suggests some of their earlier bombs are, but it’s unclear if that applies to this latest one as well.
  • North Korea claims to have a heat shield that will allow an ICBM to survive returning from space. This hasn’t been independently verified.
  • It is unknown if US ground missile defense systems could successfully intercept an ICBM aimed at the continental United States or IRBM/MRBM aimed at US possessions or allies closer to North Korea (e.g. Hawaii, Guam, Japan, South Korea).

2.3 What are your best guesses for what we don’t know?

Oh my. Please remember that these are guesses.

2.3.1 Is this weapon fusion or boosted fission?

We won’t know for sure if the weapon the North Koreans detonated was “merely” a boosted fission bomb or a multistage fusion bomb until isotope analysis is completed (and even then, the results could be inconclusive or unreleased). I’m unwilling to hazard a guess here because I can make a plausible case either way. On one hand, boosted fission seems likely because it’s much easier than staged thermonuclear weapons. On the other, the North Koreans previously claimed to have detonated a thermonuclear bomb that clearly fizzled (if it indeed had a fusion stage). It doesn’t seem impossible that this failed test gave them the information necessary to make a successful multi-stage thermonuclear weapon.

I previously mentioned that testing would be necessary before any country could hope to reliably deploy multi-stage thermonuclear weapons. This is because there are a lot of unknowns in these weapons and it is hard to get them right. It’s much less surprising to see a country get their staged thermonuclear bomb right on the second try than it would be had they done it on their first.

There’s one final possibility, although it seems less likely. North Korea could have resurrected the old Sloika (layer-cake) nuclear weapon design. This is technically a thermonuclear weapon, but it requires a disproportionally (compared to its power) large mass of high explosives to work and lacks many of the desirable properties of the more conventional (staged) Teller-Ulam design (like the ability to chain as many additional stages as you’d like). The Sloika is currently regarded as a dead end in weapon development, but if the North wanted an impressive explosion to scare off the Americans and didn’t have any intent to ever put it on a rocket, it might be a good choice for them.

For what it’s worth, the United States army has chosen to treat the bomb as a thermonuclear weapon.

2.3.2 Is it miniaturized?

I don’t know. I want to believe that they haven’t successfully miniaturized this device (and that Kim Jong-un is posing with a fake in this picture). The first successful detonation of a multi-stage thermonuclear weapon required an 82-ton facility (Soviets mocked it as a “thermonuclear installation”). I find it hard to believe that in less than a year, North Korea could go from miniaturizing fission weapons to miniaturizing thermonuclear weapons, but it is possible that they have.

The recently released picture of Kim Jong-un with a “nuclear weapon” is certainly supposed to evoke a miniaturized multi-stage weapon. The distinct double humped shape (compare it to the single sphere of last year’s “disco ball of death“) suggests that there are two separate stages.

But this is a propaganda shot. Literally anything could be inside the enclosure in the pictures North Korea released (I actually think fissile material is the least likely thing to be in there, just based on how close Jong-un is to the thing; which isn’t to say that it couldn’t be identical in appearance to their actual weapons). It could be a true representation of their latest nuclear weapon designs, or it could be filled with lead. No one but Jong-un and his propagandists and senior subordinates know for sure.

Last year, North Korea claimed that a 10kt detonation was the successful test of a thermonuclear weapon capable of destroying the entire United States. We can’t trust official pronouncements about their nuclear weapons program. We can only trust the scarce scraps of hard evidence they leave.

Pictured: The scale of a 10kt explosion vs The United States of America. Not pictured: America being destroyed. Note that while the pin marking the centre of America is highly visible, the radius of destruction covers just 30­ pixels of the approximately 450,000 pixels making up America in this image.

So, in this case, I think we’re going to have to wait for more US intelligence leaks before we know either way.

2.3.3 Does the heat shield work?

It might depend on the payload. Doctor John Schilling, writing for 38 North (a North Korea focused blog run by Johns Hopkins) believes that the heat shield failed for one of the two ICBM tests this summer. He thinks that North Korea has a successfully tested a heat shield that will work with very light payloads, but has been unsuccessful building one suitable for heavier payloads (such a heatshield would need to be rather light itself).

Depending on the mass of the miniaturized North Korean bombs, they might have a heatshield suitable for striking targets on America’s east coast, or they might not be able to reach even there. It does seem likely that they can reach Hawaii or Alaska with their current proven heat shield design.

North Korea has every incentive to play down the mass of their weapons and play up the strength of their heat shield, which is what makes determining the likelihood they can successfully strike America so challenging.

2.3.4 Can THAAD and GCM defend America (and its allies)?

THAAD and GCM have both succeeded in their last few tests, but it’s unclear how closely these tests mimic reality. Unfortunately, success is relatively new for the GCM system. Previously it’s failed about as often as it has succeeded. Real missiles will probably be even harder to successfully target than the dummies it’s been tested on.

THAAD has been fairly reliable, at least in its last few tests. But it is currently only deployed to protect a few US bases in Korea. Seoul is not within its range and even if it was, THAAD wouldn’t be able to protect the South Korean capital (and its millions of inhabitants) from the conventional artillery aimed at it by North Korea. There are also THAAD launchers in Guam, Hawaii, and Alaska, giving those territories some modicum of protection.

I honestly don’t know what probability to assign to these systems making a successful interception of a North Korean missile. I think the THAAD is more likely to succeed than the GCM, but I have no hard numbers to put on either.

3. How?

North Korea’s nuclear program has existed for more than three decades. But for many people, the latest tests are the first time they’ve really sat up and taken notice. To a certain extent, this makes sense. Before Kim Jong-un took over from his father, there had only been two nuclear tests and both of them were of fairly small bombs (the first was under 2kt, the second under 5kt).

If this is the first you’re seriously hearing about the crisis, it can help to get some of the historical context.

3.1 How expensive has the program been?

That’s a hard question to answer. The total cost direct cost is possibly between $1.1 billion and $3.2 billion, but it’s really hard to put hard numbers on anything that goes on in North Korea.

In addition to whatever North Kore has actually paid for its program, there’s the indirect costs. The program has led to international sanctions, the latest round of which will cost North Korea something like a billion dollars in exports. That doesn’t necessarily mean that their economy will shrink by a billion dollars though. The economic capacity that was consumed by the exports will still exist, but it will have to be used less efficiently (and may suffer from shortages of raw materials purchased with those exports). It will become harder for North Korea to acquire anything that it itself cannot produce and it will become less able to import food in the event of a famine or poor harvest. Those are both costly.

There’s also the opportunity cost. North Korea is incredibly impoverished, such that $1-3 billion dollars represents 3.5% to 10.5% of its entire yearly economic output. Had this been invested in a more economically useful fashion (e.g. in manufacturing or mining) North Korea would probably have a higher GDP. The opportunity cost of using this money in such a wasteful way cannot help but compound – that is to say the gap between what is and what could have been will only grow larger.

Here, I think a qualitative answer is best. The nuclear program has been incredibly expensive, but also – given that it is an excellent shield against regime change – worth it, at least from the perspective of Kim John-un.

3.2 Okay, but it’s cheap compared to the $61.3 billion the US spent on nuclear weapons in 2011. How can they get so much with so little?

Really, the correct comparison is the Manhattan Project. It cost about $2 billion in the 1940s (about $20 billion today), still ten times more than the North Korean nuclear program.

I can think of two reasons for the discrepancy. First, the Manhattan Project created nuclear weapons from scratch. When the Manhattan Project started, nuclear weapons really were just a theoretical pipe dream. By demonstrating that nuclear weapons were possible, the Manhattan Program removed the theoretical question entirely.

But the Manhattan Project helped in ways beyond just demonstrating the technology was possible. Many other nuclear programs got help directly or indirectly from Manhattan Project scientists. Even the Soviet Union relied on the Manhattan Project to jump start their own nuclear weapons program (via the spy Klaus Fuchs, among others).

Of the nuclear powers, only America and India completed their nuclear programs without outside assistance, spies in other nuclear programs, or researcher exchanges. South Africa received assistance from Israel (and possibly France). Israel got assistance from France. France and the UK had scientists participate in the Manhattan Project. China got assistance from the USSR. The USSR conducted the aforementioned spying on the Manhattan Project. Pakistan received assistance from China (and possibly the United States) and in turn provided assistance to North Korea.

When China refused to provide Pakistan with missile technology, North Korea and Pakistan agreed to a swap. North Korea provided Pakistan with missiles, and Pakistan helped North Korea set up its nascent nuclear program. This assistance was no doubt invaluable. It probably helped North Korea avoid costly mistakes and dead ends.

The other reason for the cheap price tag is domestic. In America, the government cannot force scientists or labourers to work on atomic weapons and must pay a wage commensurate with each employee’s skills. The American government cannot force someone who finds atomic weapons distasteful to work on them against their will. For example, Joseph Roblatt was able to leave the Manhattan Project, even in the middle of all the paranoia stirred up by World War II.

North Koreans have none of that luxury. They work for whatever pittance the government chooses to give them and are executed or sent to prison camps if they refuse. There is no room for conscientious objectors or for negotiating on salary. Put plainly, the North Korean nuclear program is much cheaper than other nuclear programs because it is underlain with slavery and coercion.

3.3 How did things get so bad?

To rip off one of my favourite authors, “slowly, then all at once”.

There was an agreement to denuclearize North Korea signed by Clinton and Kim Jong-Il in 1994, when the North first began to make progress on its nuclear program. This agreement would have provided the North with proliferation-resistant nuclear power plants and free oil as those new power plants were constructed, as well as eventual sanctions relief and normalization of relations with the United States and South Korea. In return for this, North Korea agreed to remain bound by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and submit to monitoring of its nuclear sites.

But this wasn’t a fully binding treaty and congress never secured the funds (it was signed right before the first midterm election of Clinton’s presidency, where Republicans took back the house). Delays repeatedly occurred on the American side and I’m not sure that the North Koreans ever fully suspended their nuclear program. No normalization of relations occurred, no sanctions were lifted, and George W. Bush eventually cancelled the agreement. North Korea soon announced that they were again developing nuclear weapons.

By 2006, North Korea had successfully tested a nuclear weapon. Another test followed in 2009, after a brief intervening suspension of the nuclear program. Both of these weapons were weak and probably very simple.

The nuclear program rapidly accelerated after Kim Jong-Il’s death in 2011. I’m of two minds about this. I’ve seen people claim that Jong-un has poured resources into the program to help prop up his standing internally, which certainly seems in keeping with his self-preservation instinct. But I also wonder if this could just be the natural result of North Korean scientists becoming more experienced and proficient in nuclear weapons production.

Either way, there have been four nuclear tests since Jong-un took power, three of them since 2016. The rapidity of these recent tests, their pairing with tests of missiles, and Trump’s bellicose response have combined to make the stand-off feel much direr than it has been at any other point in my life.

3.4 How many nuclear weapons does North Korea have? How does this compare to the US?

North Korea’s nuclear warhead count is unclear, but estimates range from 12 to 60.

There’s a big difference between prepared warheads, unassembled potential warheads in storage, and fissile material that can be used in warheads. When people estimate the number of warheads, they’re normally estimating the fissile material that the North Koreans could possess, probably assuming it’s all eventually going to active warheads. This assumption could be wrong if something other than fissile material – maybe highly technical bomb components? – is actually the limiting factor in North Korean warhead production.

The US has 1,550 active warheads [2]. These are the warheads that could be quickly deployed. The rest of its stockpile is in various states of readiness. I think some of them could be used relatively quickly (i.e. in a day or two), while others could be used only after a significant amount of refurbishment or preparation.

If North Korea has many active warheads (e.g. 60), an American first strike becomes impractical. It would be very hard to guarantee that all of them were destroyed (thereby preventing retaliatory strikes against the US or US troops in South Korea). Inactive nuclear weapons would still present a threat in the aftermath of a successful first strike, but it’s a threat that can be mitigated by sufficient damage to the chain of command or the logistic structure of the North Korean army.

Likewise, raw fissile material can be mostly neutralized as a threat by eliminating the state infrastructure necessary to turn it into finished warheads (it could still be used to create dirty bombs, but these are far less of a threat than nuclear warheads). It takes labour and speciality components to turn enriched fissile material into a reliable and functional weapon, prerequisites that are difficult to fulfill if the state that normally supplies them has collapsed.

I should also mention that very few (if any) of North Korea’s active warheads will be similar to the most recent test detonation. Many of their weapons will be relatively weak pure fission devices (similar in strength to their previous nuclear tests). Now that they have a warhead capable of ~150kt yields, they’ll certainly try and ramp up production of it (assuming that it’s at all practically useful and doesn’t weigh several tonnes), but that will take time.

Some experts seem to think that North Korea has much more access to enriched uranium than plutonium. This will further slow down their ability to build new weapons in the ~150kt range, at least if they want those weapons to be miniaturized [3].

3.5 How bad would it be if North Korea used nuclear weapons?

Bad.

The latest North Korean weapon would (if it actually had a yield of 150kt and these casualty estimates are accurate) kill almost 300,000 people in LA, 270,000 people in SF, about 550,000 people in Tokyo, or 490,000 people in Seoul. If you want to get a sense of the destruction, you can play around with it on NukeMap. For cities on the US West Coast or in Asia and Europe, use a ~150kt bomb. For the East Coast, a 5-20kt bomb is probably more realistic (if one can be delivered at all) [4].

The danger is greatest for South Korea and Japan. Their cities are much denser (so nuclear weapons are more devastating) and much closer to North Korea (making it easy for the North Koreans to deliver larger warheads on missiles). There is also less in the way of missile defenses protecting major Asian cities, making bombs aimed at them much more likely to succeed.

That said, if North Korea ever used nuclear weapons, the greatest loss of life would be inside North Korea.

Possible devastation in North Korea caused by a single American Trident II missile (assuming the MIRVed warheads can reach all these targets). View this is more of one sort of lower bound; I’m not targeting Pyongyang multiple times because the model on NukeMap cannot handle overlapping explosions (I instead targeted the eight most populous cities in North Korea). The approximately five million casualties here are almost a fifth of North Korea’s population (25 million).

Right now, there should be at least one Ohio class submarine in an undisclosed location off of the Korean peninsula [5]. Each Ohio class submarine is armed with 24 Trident II missiles, which are tipped with up to 8 W76 or W88 nuclear warheads (the yield of a W76 is 300kt, the yield of a W88 is 475kt) [6]. These missiles have a range of 11,300 km. An Ohio class submarine can strike North Korea most quickly from the Sea of Japan or the East China Sea. But in a pinch anywhere in the Northern Pacific Ocean will do.

Each Ohio class submarine can carry several times as many warheads as North Korea possesses. One Ohio-class submarine with a full complement of warheads has almost the same nuclear arsenal as France.

If an Ohio class submarine were to unleash its payload on North Korea, the country would cease to exist in any meaningful way. Every single major popular centre would be irrevocably devastated. It would be destruction unlike the world has ever seen. It would make Hiroshima and Nagasaki look like child’s play. It would be the scourging of an entire country with nuclear hellfire.

Trump’s speech, where he promised “fire and fury unlike the world has ever seen” wasn’t hyperbole. It was a statement of fact. A single US nuclear ballistic missile submarine could easily make good on his threats. A single US nuclear tipped missile could make good on his threats.

(There are 14 Ohio class submarines, by the way.)

3.5.1 I’ve heard that nuclear weapons cause an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). How much damage could North Korea do with this?

Like most questions about nuclear weapon damage, this depends on several factors.

First, there’s a common misconception that a normal anti-material nuclear detonation (e.g. one within a few kilometers of the ground) creates an EMP effect that can do widespread damage. This is technically true – there is a large EMP effect – but practically irrelevant because the electromagnetic pulse will only really affect areas already ravaged by the bomb. Absent the other effects, it certainly would do significant damage, but it’s hard to think of a case where the most damage to a city attacked by a nuclear weapon will come from the EMP.

For the electromagnetic pulse to be the primary effect of a nuclear weapon, you must detonate a bomb outside the atmosphere. At this altitude, there will be no direct damage to the target, but some electronics will suffer.

The strength of this electromagnetic pulse depends on the type of bomb, its altitude, and the local strength of the magnetic field (the stronger the field, the stronger the EMP). The ideal nuclear weapon for producing EMP effects is a single stage weapon that produces a greater-than-average portion of its energy output in the form of gamma radiation and does this as quickly as possible [7].

I don’t think North Korea has resources to invest in optimising for EMP effects. Development would probably require tests, which themselves require an expenditure of the government’s limited stockpile of fissile material. Since cost-effective and material-effective EMP weapons are normally single stage, North Korea would risk weakening their deterrent posture if they conducted these tests (to the US listening in with seismographs, it would look like they had regressed in their program and were failing to achieve fusion).

It also appears that most electronics, especially unplugged electronics would survive an EMP almost entirely unscathed. Computers, phones, and cars would largely be undamaged, but power lines would be heavily affected. This would be bad, but also probably not irrecoverable. A bunch of things would have to go horribly wrong for an EMP attack on America to cause more casualties than a thermonuclear attack on a large city. For this reason, I suspect North Korea’s would favour attacking population centres in any retaliatory second strike over high altitude EMP-producing bursts.

3.6 How do we get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program?

That is the most important question. President Trump likes to assert that China could get North Korea to stop. I once thought this was true, but I’ve abandoned that position as I’ve become better informed on the topic. If we give up on the idea that China can magically get North Korea to stop, it’s difficult to conceptualize North Korea giving up its weapons program. We don’t have a lot of examples of this occurring; the only singular history has to give us come from South Africa, which was briefly a nuclear power but later gave up its weapons. The parallels – both were international pariahs who felt weapons were necessary against an encroaching threat – offer perhaps the only blueprint for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.

3.6.1 How come China can’t make North Korea stop?

China once saw North Korea as a buffer against American influence or aggression. North Korea was the fifth Chinese buffer zone [8] – one of the client kingdoms that surround the Han heartlands of the state. To some extent, that’s still true. North Korea does provide a buffer between American allied South Korea and China. But at this point, North Korea is also a significant threat to China’s security.

The relationship between China and North Korea has significantly deteriorated since Kim Jong-un became leader. Jang Song Thaek – the uncle that Jong-un had executed – was one of the primary conduits for diplomacy between Pyongyang and Beijing. With his death, bilateral relations are largely stalled. Apparently, China hasn’t even been able to send an envoy to North Korea in more than a year.

Even before that though, mistrust characterized the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang (on both sides). Kim Il-sung was almost executed by the Chinese communist party early in his life. Additionall disputes arose between the two countries during the Korean war and many of them haven’t been resolved since. There were even border skirmishes between the two nations in the late 1960s (I fact I didn’t know until I began researching for this section).

I don’t know why I didn’t realize this until I had it pointed out to me by 38north.org, but throughout history, client kingdom relationships have rarely been characterized by meek submission on the part of the client [9]. If you want an example of a heavily dependent ally that America cannot effectively control, look no further than Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. In addition to ignoring American requests to stop settlements, he resolutely opposed Obama, even crossing the normal red line of meddling in American domestic politics. Why should we expect China’s client states to behave any differently than America’s?

At this point, China seems to believe they’ve lost any ability to control North Korea. They responded to the latest North Korean missile test with the test of an anti-ballistic missile system  of their own. The location of this system? Between North Korea and Beijing. This is not something allies do. This isn’t even something that disinterested parties do. Pakistan and the UK both have nuclear weapons, but the US has put no effort into building missile defenses against either of them. China fears and mistrusts North Korea more than the United States fears and mistrusts Pakistan (which incidentally is also another excellent example of a rocky relationship between client and suzerain).

All of this means that a solution for the present crisis will not come only from Beijing. The engagement of Beijing is key to bringing North Korea to the table – we can’t accomplish anything without them – but we can no longer foist responsibility for North Korea onto China.

3.6.2 Why did South Africa end its nuclear weapons program?

In the 1970s South Africa was internationally isolated. It was banned from major sporting events and faced coordinated economic and military sanctions. It was fighting two separate guerilla wars and one conventional war. Thanks to intervention by Cuba and the USSR, (white) South Africans legitimately felt like they might soon be overrun by communists.

In this climate, they saw nuclear weapons as a salvation and a guarantee of independence. They could not use nuclear weapons to pacify their own people, but they thought that nuclear weapons might buy them breathing room and permanent protection from communism. For this, a token nuclear deterrent was enough – it’s unclear if their weapons were even usable, or if they intended to use the threat of them to prompt international aid if their borders were ever threatened [10].

There was good reason for the world to sanction South Africa. Its apartheid system was despicable. It conducted one of the largest forced removals of people in history. It had a government without any principled claim to legitimacy. It was at war with its neighbours and had banned all dissent from its black citizens.

Many in South Africa wanted to prop up the system indefinitely. Many knew they were complicit in a great evil, but they feared death if apartheid were ever to unravel.

Does any of this sound familiar? South Africa had the same foundational paranoia that North Korea’s Kim dynasty currently possesses.

Here’s what happened. The sanctions – especially the sports bans – took their toll, demoralizing white South Africans. The Soviet Union fell, ending communism as an existential threat. Demographics forced the government to realized that they could only fight the tide of history for so long. F.W. de Klerk negotiated peace with the Angolans, the Namibians, the Cubans, and the ANC. He secured immunity for the state actors that had propped up apartheid. Then he dismantled his country’s nuclear weapons, followed shortly by his government.

This, I think, is the blueprint we must follow for North Korea. We should follow it not because it’s particularly attractive, but because it is the only blueprint we have.

3.6.3 How could we convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons?

First, the Americans and North Koreans would have to accept the current Chinese proposal, which would see North Korea pause its nuclear program and the US cancel joint military exercises with South Korea. This is actually similar in principle to the trilateral treaty that ended the conflict in Namibia and Angola. As a result of that treaty South Africa withdrew its forces, Cuba did the same, and Namibia ran democratic elections.

If there’s any backsliding or reluctance at all on the part of North Korea, then we can use some of the sticks that were particularly effective against South Africa, especially the sports ban (which seriously demoralized white South Africans). North Korea is currently allowed to compete in both the Olympics and FIFA. That should change. For as long as nuclear tests continue, all North Korean athletes should be banned from international competition. The North Korean government cares a lot about its successes in athletics (seeing them as proof of the power of juche), so taking that away from them would be a potent psychological blow.

If an American suspension of military drills fails to bring North Korea to the table, America will have strengthened its position with China at the same time as North Korea presents yet another embarrassment to Beijing. This will make it easier to coordinate even more damaging sanctions on Pyongyang. If Jong-un continues on this path, he risks well and truly alienating China, which would deeply cripple North Korea’s economy. I think at some point (e.g. if China gets pissed off enough that it threatens to stop guaranteeing North Korea against an attack), Kim Jong-un would have to blink and start bargaining with the powers arrayed against him

There are two paths that can be followed once the North freezes its nuclear program and America abandons its military drills. In the first, we can go back to where we were in the 1990s, but this time do it right. I’m personally pessimistic that this can lead to long term security, because totalitarian regimes and democracies can almost never co-exist, especially side by side. If North Korea remains under juche, some conflict with America will eventually escalate, ruin any existing deal, and lead to renewal of weapon’s research. I’m not opposed to buying time (every day where North Korea and America aren’t on a hair trigger is a day where far fewer people are at risk of dying!), but I’d also like to see this conflict settled for good.

Hence, the second path. It starts off like the first, with the world steadily upping the pressure on Kim Jong-un. But here, instead of just making this about nuclear weapons, we make it personal and we offer him a personal escape from his current situation [11]. A guaranteed life of ease may not be owning a country, but it competes favourably with being dead. The goal here would be to remove Jong-un and replace him with someone able to undertake the Korean equivalent of the Khrushchev Thaw or Deng Xiaoping’s reforms.

This would go hand in hand with the negotiations following the suspension of military drills and might involve the following:

  • America removes all of its troops from South Korea
  • Kim steps down as Supreme Leader. He and all of his cronies are guaranteed a state pension for as long as they live.
  • North Korea agrees to abandon its nuclear program and accedes to the NPT and (after verification of the programs dismantling) the NSG.
  • A transitional government is put in place in North Korea. Realistically, this government will have to be heavily influenced by Beijing, but that shouldn’t rule out eventual re-unification.

I hate this plan. The only end that feels fitting for Kim Jong-un involves a firing squad.

But.

A nuclear war between North Korea and America will (at a minimum) kill millions. Every day that tensions remain this high on the peninsula risks that eventuality. The current state of uneasy paranoia is unacceptably dangerous [12]. Even a more stable stand-off, punctuated by brief periods of tensions this bad is too much of a risk.

North Koreans are not served by Kim Jong-un walking free and never facing justice. But they’re served even less by dying in a country turned into a conflagration.

I don’t know if this plan could work. I don’t know if there’s the political will. I don’t know if Trump or Jong-un can thread the needle, or walk the knife’s edge, or whatever metaphor you want to use for what would be an intensely difficult process. But I’m convinced that this plan, or something similar is the only way we can permanently de-escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula and remove North Korean weapons of mass destruction.

That’s the other reason I wrote this FAQ. Because I want people to have all of the context for this crisis. I want you to understand the true scope of devastation that any military response to North Korea would entail. I want you to understand that China cannot control North Korea. I want you to understand that missile defense is cold comfort. I want you to understand that we have done this before and we can do it again but that it will be hard and unsatisfying.

If you’ve made it this far, I have a favour to ask of you. Check my work. Make sure what I’ve written is correct. If I’m wrong, help me to understand this crisis even better. And if it checks out, tell other people what we know. Spread it as far as you can. Tell your friends, your coworkers. Tell your parents, your children. Help people understand what we have to do.

4. Footnotes

[1] For illustrative purposes, note that this means 175,000 to 380,000 fatalities if detonated above downtown LA or 270,000 to 760,000 fatalities if detonated above downtown Tokyo. For more on yield, see my post on nuclear weapon effects. ^

[2] If it is following the limits outlined in the New START treaty with Russia. ^

[3] It requires much more in the way of conventional explosives to compress a uranium primary than a plutonium primary. Uranium has a higher critical mass than plutonium, which has the consequence of requiring a greater initial mass or greater compression before fission can be obtained. Either way, this requires more explosives to start the thing. My understanding is that multi-stage fusion bombs are never started with gun-type primaries, making implosion a necessity and eliminating one option for making uranium weapons more explosive-efficient. If you want to efficiently miniaturize a bomb, you need to bring along as little conventional explosives as possible. It’s this need that has driven technologies like boosted fission. ^

[4] For maximum casualties, use an airburst. To see fallout, use a surface burst. Airbursts are favoured against soft targets, like cities, ports, and military bases. Ground bursts are used against hardened targets, like nuclear silos or government bunker complexes.

In large nuclear weapons (and 150kt is large by any reasonable standard), most of the fatalities come from the shockwave and thermal radiation (as opposed to the central fireball or prompt radiation exposure). When a bomb is detonated closer to the ground, there’s much less of a shockwave and fewer people are exposed to dangerous thermal radiation, but some of the soil becomes radioactive and is dispersed as dangerous fallout. ^

[5] I don’t know this for sure, because undisclosed. But I would bet several thousand dollars that one is there. ^

[6] Missiles with multiple warheads mount them on multiple independent re-entry vehicles, or MIRVs. I’ve seen this verbed, as in “those missiles were MIRVed with eight warheads each”. Each re-entry vehicle can pick an independent target (within some radius of the initial target) as it re-enters the atmosphere. Hence the name.

Technically, the Trident II missiles can carry 14 MIRVed warheads, but treaties limit them to 8. Both the US and Russia are allowed (by bilateral treaty) to have up to 288 nuclear tipped sub-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), with up to 1152 warheads carried on those missiles (this is in addition to the maximum number of warheads allowed per missile). ^

[7] Gamma rays cause electromagnetic pulses by ionizing electrons in the upper atmosphere. These electrons circle magnetic field lines, producing a large oscillating electric and magnetic field, as well as acting as a giant coordinated synchrotron array. The gamma rays emitted from these synchrotrons cause a second, longer lasting and less intense pulse that can nonetheless damage systems weakened by the first pulse. ^

Single stage weapons more efficiently produce EMPS (compared to multi-stage weapons) because the first stage of multi-stage weapons can pre-ionize the air before gamma rays from the second stage reach it. Once air is ionized, the EMP will likely induce an opposite direction current in it, which will cancel out some of the EMP effect.

When gamma rays are produced extremely quickly (here, “quickly” really means “with little gap between production of the first and production of the last”), there is little chance for this opposite current to reduce the strength of the pulse. ^

[8] The others are Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, Manchuria, and Tibet. ^

[9] The reason for this is almost always domestic. While it might be better for a country as a whole to reap the benefits of a close relationship with their protector, this is often hard for the leader of a country to pull off without appearing to be a foreign puppet (which is the sort of thing that leads to losing elections or dying in a coup, depending on how political systems are set up to transfer power). Seen this way, Kim Jong-un’s domestic paranoia is one of the driving forces of his estrangement from Beijing. See also The Iron Law of Institutions. ^

[10] This isn’t without precedent. During the Yom Kippur war, Israel assembled several nuclear weapons in plain view of US intelligence gathering assets. This is thought to have contributed (although it is unclear how much) to the subsequent American decision to re-supply Israel, replenishing its material losses from the early stages of the war. ^

[11] Offering an attractive escape is key. Ratcheting up the pressure without one just makes nuclear war more likely. We’re competing here with “90% chance I get to keep running my country, 10% chance I die horribly”, or the like. If we can’t make an offer that can attractively compete with this, we should avoid squeezing Kim too tightly, just in case he reacts (apocalyptically) poorly. ^

[12] When tensions are this high, accidents can easily start nuclear wars. Accidents happen. Let’s say (and I do not particularly believe these numbers are correct, but they are illustrative) you expect one accident a year and 30% of accidents cause a nuclear war. After five years, there is an 83% chance that a nuclear war will have broken out. It’s this small but consistent chance for a horrendous death toll that I so desperately want us to avoid. ^

Politics

Westminster is bestminster

[6-minute read]

I’ve been ranting to random people all week about how much I love the Westminster System of parliamentary government (most notably used in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK) and figured it was about time to write my rant down for broader consumption.

Here’s three reasons why the Westminster System is so much better than the abominable hodgepodge Americans call a government and all the other dysfunctional presidential republics the world over.

1. The head of state and head of government are separate

And more importantly, the head of state is a figurehead.

The president is an odd dual-role, both head of government (and therefore responsible for running the executive branch and implementing the policies of the government) and head of state (the face of the nation at home and abroad; the person who is supposed to serve as a symbol of national unity and moral authority). In Westminster democracies, these roles are split up. The Prime Minister serves as head of government and directs the executive branch, while the Queen (or her representative) serves as head of state [1]. Insofar as the government is personified in anyone, it is personified in a non-partisan person with a circumscribed role.

This is an excellent protection against populism. There is no one person who can gather the mob to them and offer the solutions to all problems, because the office of the head of state is explicitly anti-populist [2]. In Westminster governments, any attempt at crude populism on the part of the prime minister can be countered by messages of national unity from the head of state [3].

It’s also much easier to remove the head of government in the Westminster system. Unlike the president, the prime minister serves only while they have the confidence of parliament and their party. An unpopular prime minister can be easily replaced, as Australia seems happy to demonstrate over and over. A figure like Trump could not be prime minister if their parliamentarians did not like them.

This feature is at risk from open nominating contests and especially rules that don’t allow MPs to pick the interim leader during a leadership race. In this regard, Australia is doing a much better job at exemplifying the virtues of the Westminster system than Canada or the UK (where Corbyn’s vote share is all the more surprising for how much internal strife his election caused) [4].

2. Confidence

To the Commonwealth, one of the most confusing features of American democracy is its (semi-)regular government shut downs, like the one Trump had planned for September [5]. On the other side, Americans are baffled at the seemingly random elections that Commonwealth countries have.

Her Majesty’s Prime Minister governs only so long as they have the confidence of the house. A government is only sworn in after they can prove they have confidence (via a vote of all newly elected and returning MPs). When no party has an absolute majority, things can get tense – or can go right back to the polls. We’ve observed two tense confidence votes this year, one in BC, the other in the UK.

In both these cases, no party had a clear majority of seats in the house (in Canada, we call this a minority government). In both BC and the UK, confidence was secured when a large party enlisted the help of a smaller party to provide “confidence and supply”. In this situation, the small party will vote with the government on budgets and other confidence motions, but is otherwise free to vote however they want.

The first vote of confidence isn’t the only one a government is likely to face. If the opposition thinks the government is doing a poor job, they can launch a vote of no confidence. If the motion is passed by parliament, it is dissolved for an election.

But many bills are actually confidence motions in disguise. Budgets are the “supply” side of “confidence and supply”. Losing a budget vote – sometimes archaically called “failing to secure supply” – results in parliament being dissolved for an election. This is how Ontario’s last election was called. The governing party put forward a budget they were prepared to campaign on and the opposition voted it down.

This feature prevents government shutdowns. If the government can’t agree on a budget, it has to go to the people. If time is of the essence, the Queen or her representative may ask the party that torpedoed the budget to pass a non-partisan continuing funding resolution, good until just after the election to ensure the government continues to function (as happened in Australia in 1975).

By convention, votes on major legislative promises are also motions of confidence. This helps ensure that the priorities laid out during an election campaign don’t get dropped. In a minority government situation, the opposition must decide whether it is worth another election before vetoing any of the government’s key legislative proposals. Because of this, Commonwealth governments can be surprisingly functional even without a legislative majority.

Add all of this together and you get very accountable parties. Try and enact unpopular legislation with anything less than a majority government and you’ll probably find yourself shortly facing voters. On the flip side, obstruct popular legislation and you’ll also find yourself facing voters. Imagine how the last bit of Obama’s term would have been different if the GOP had to fight an election because of the government shutdown.

3. The upper house is totally different

Many Westminster countries have bicameral legislatures, with two chambers making up parliament (New Zealand is the notable exception here). In most Westminster system countries with two chambers, the relationship between the houses is different than that in America.

The two American chambers are essentially co-equal (although the senate gets to approve treaties and budgets must originate in the house). This is not so in the Westminster system. While both chambers have equal powers in many on paper (except that money bills must often originate in the lower chamber), in practice they are very different.

By convention (and occasionally legislation) the upper chamber has its power constrained. The actual restrictions vary from country to country, but in general they forbid rejecting bills for purely partisan reasons or they prevent the upper house from messing with the budget.

The goal of the upper house in the Westminster system is to take a longer view of legislation and protect the nation from short-sighted thinking. This role is more consultative than legislative; it’s not uncommon to see a bill vetoed once, then returned to the upper chamber and assented to (sometimes with token changes, sometimes even with no changes). The upper house isn’t there to ignore the will of the people (as embodied by the lower house), just to remind them to occasionally look longer term.

This sort of system helps prevent legislate gridlock. Since the upper house tends to serve longer terms (in Canada, senators are appointed for life, for example), there is often a different majority in the upper and lower chambers. If the upper chamber was free to veto anything they didn’t like (even if the reasons were purely partisan) then nothing would ever get done.

Taken together, these features of the Westminster system prevent legislative gridlock and produce legitimate outputs of the political process. This obviates populist “I’ll fix everything myself” leaders like Trump, who seem to be an almost inevitable outcome in a perpetually gridlocked and unnavigable system (i.e. the American government).

Insofar as the Westminster system has problems, they are mostly problems of implementation and several Westminster countries have demonstrated that fundamental reform of the system is possible within the system itself. New Zealand abolished the upper house of their parliament when it proved useless. Australia switched to an elected upper house and has come up with a set of constitutional rules that prevent this from causing gridlock (here I’m thinking of the double dissolution election and joint session permitted by Australian law in response to repeated legislative failures).

Among certain people in Canada, electoral and senate reform have become contentious topics. It’s my (unpopular in millennial circles) opinion that Canada has no need of electoral reform. Get a few beers in most proponents of electoral reform and you’ll quickly find that preventing all future Conservative majorities is a much more important goal for them than any abstract concept of “fairness”. I’m not of the opinion that we should change our electoral system just because a party we didn’t like won a majority government once in the last eight elections (or three times in the past ten elections and past fifteen elections).

Senate reform may have already been accomplished, with Prime Minister Trudeau’s move to appoint only non-partisan senators and dissolve the Liberal caucus in the senate. Time will tell if this new system survives his tenure as prime minister.

In one of the articles I linked above, Prof. Joseph Heath compares the utter futility Americans feel about changing their electoral system with the indifference most Canadians feel about changing theirs. In Canada, many proponents of electoral reform specifically wanted to avoid a plebiscite, because they understand that there currently exists no legitimacy crisis sufficient to overcome the status quo bias most people feel. Reform in Canada is certainly possible, but first the system needs to be broken. Right now, the Westminster system is working admirably.

Footnotes

[1] Israel took many cues from Westminster governments. Its president is non-partisan and ceremonial. If Canada was every forced to give up the monarchy, I’d find this sort of presidential system acceptable. ^

[2] It’s hard to tell which is less populist; the oldest representative of one of the few remaining aristocracies, or (like in Israel or the governor-generals of the former colonies), exceptional citizens chosen for their reliability and loyalty to the current political order. ^

[3] See Governor General David Johnston’s criticism of some of Steven Harper’s campaign rhetoric. ^

[4] I’ve of the opinion that Corbyn’s “popularity” is really indicative of PM Teresa May’s unpopularity bolstered by his ability to barely surpass incredibly low expectations. ^

[5] Since rescheduled to December, in light of Hurricane Harvey. ^

Economics, Politics

Why Don’t we Subsidize Higher Wages? Or: Public Policy is Expensive

[7 Minute Read]

Epistemic Status: Started as a reduction ad absurdum.

It used to be a common progressive grumbling point that the social safety net subsidized the low wages of McDonald’s and Walmart (and many less famous and less oft grumbled about enterprises). The logic went that employees at those companies just weren’t paid enough; they wouldn’t be able to survive – a necessary prerequisite to showing up at work – without government assistance. The obvious fix for this would be forcing these companies to pay their employees more – raising the minimum wage.

In my last piece on the minimum wage, I said the existing evidence pointed towards minimum wage hikes having few negative consequences. Recent evidence from Seattle suggests this may not be the case (although there are dueling studies, further complicated by accusations of academic misconduct against the scientists who found the hike had no effect). If my earlier prediction proves false, it will be because $15/hour is much higher – and a much larger percentage increase, then any of the past studies looked at.

If a $15/hour minimum wage “fails” [1] then we will face a choice. Do we give up on higher minimum wages? Do we accept higher unemployment (and all of its associated disconnection, wrenching poverty, and mental health costs)? Do we try something radically different?

Certainly, there exist other potential programs that we can use to accomplish some of the goals of a minimum wage increase if an increase itself proves untenable. A guaranteed basic income (GBI) [2], while expensive, would accomplish many of the same economic security goals as a higher minimum wage, but it wouldn’t fix the fact that some people see their wage as a reflection on their moral value, instead of a commentary on the supply and demand of various skills. This could become quite the sticking point; one reason that libertarians get behind a GBI is that it would allow us to abolish minimum wage laws.

Eliezer Yudkowsky (don’t groan, this really is relevant) has an interesting theory about the left. He thinks that the left doesn’t hate capitalism – they just hold it to the same ethical standards they hold people to. It might be people on the right who claim that corporations are people, but it’s the left who treat corporations like people.

If we accept Yudkowsky’s theory, there are a lot of people for whom paying someone $8/hour is an unacceptable slur on that person’s value as a human being [3]. This seems to match what I see from time to time on Facebook or in editorials. Here’s one out of Seattle; it ends with: “Finally, let’s be mindful that a minimum wage is about more than keeping the poor from starving. It’s also about attaching dignity to a person’s labor”.

Dignity being on the line changes the minimum wage debate. People can squabble over the economic pie endlessly. But make it about dignity and workers can’t back down. Even if a higher minimum wage leads to price increases or lost jobs.

And the Seattle Times article I linked is far too sanguine about price increases [4]. It is correct when it points out that well-off people can eat price increases with nary a change in behaviour, but I don’t know how it can so calmly ignore how much of a struggle it is for low-income families to deal with price increases.

Of course, raising the minimum wage might give people some breathing room. But that breathing room is wasted if prices immediately increase to match the new incomes. Have you ever watched someone on a treadmill?

The real effect of increased prices will be felt by people living on fixed incomes. Price increases are especially rough on seniors, who often can’t work even if they wanted to. Although I suppose we could use inflation to deal with the truly scary unfunded pension liabilities that many governments now have to deal with.

Raising the minimum wage will have to result in higher prices if it doesn’t lead to improved productivity (and therefore laying off the least productive workers). Retailers can absorb wages up to about $11/hour and still turn a profit. Beyond that, they can only raise prices, raise productivity, or run a charity. They won’t do the third.

But look, steadily rising wages are nice. They’re an excellent anesthetic for discontent. They alleviate poverty. If it was worth the cost, the government could make the complaints of subsidization true by literally subsidizing wages.

For the government to carry out this subsidization in Ontario, the cost would be something like $9 billion dollars [5]. This is equivalent to about 6% of the current budget – a bit less than the amount Ontario pays to service its debt. It wouldn’t be impossible to raise revenue for this – a progressive 1-5% tax increase would cover it handily [6], with the median Ontario worker seeing about $10.00 come off each paycheque with the new taxes.

There would obviously need to be some pretty strict rules in place here. What company would chip in $13 or $14 when their worker would be paid the same if they instead chipped in $11.60 (the current minimum wage)? We might get around this by making subsidization depend on the number of workers you employ (although this will tend towards monopolization and give the big retail giants quite an advantage) or their low productivity (but this has terrible incentives).

We still don’t know if the minimum wage hike will result in lost jobs. It’s also an open question how much we should (at a policy level) be aiming for full employment. But raising the minimum wage is a massive, $9 billion undertaking. Who pays for it (and if it happens at all) is deeply tied into questions about fairness, dignity, good governance and regressiveness. The least regressive way to do it is probably via subsidies; unfortunately, subsidies are the most corruptible of all options.

I previously mentioned the guaranteed basic income. My crude calculations give a (no doubt slightly high) estimate of $37 billion [7] for a GBI in Ontario, much higher than I’ve seen in the estimates from proponents. I’m personally worried that a GBI would be absorbed into raised rents [8], another example of a treadmill effect.

Economics policy is difficult enough as a scientific discipline. But tied up in ancillary questions (like “what is fair?”) as it is, it is uniquely susceptible to corruption by what people wish, rather than what is true [9]. When it can’t be corrupted, it is often ignored. Public policy has a cost. Resources are still limited. For every dollar spent, there must be a dollar raised (if not now, then eventually).

When we focus only on what we feel is fair or justified and not on what is achievable, we aren’t doing anyone any favours. Raising the minimum wage to $15/hour might cause job losses or spiralling inflation, or it might require subsidies and tax raises. These aren’t the consequences of greedy corporations. They’re the predictable results of people making reasonable decisions in a massively complicated system.

Disturb it at your own peril.

Footnotes:

[1] Failure (to me) means increased unemployment. A decrease in labour force participation would probably represent a return to single income families, unless preceded by high unemployment of the sort that drives people to give up looking for work. There’s also the failure mode of “causes spiralling inflation”, but that seems more likely to end the whole experiment prematurely. ^

[2] Unanswered questions I still have about a guaranteed minimum income include: “how can we pay for?”, “are you sure it won’t cause massive inflation in rents?”, and “no seriously, just saying it was fine when the Fed did QE isn’t good enough! Why won’t all that money chasing the same desirable housing cause the housing to become more expensive?” ^

[3] It’s weird to see the left capitulating here and more or less agreeing that a person’s value is at all tied to their wage. I think it’s important to strongly reject all attempts to link the intrinsic human value of a person with their economic value. Economic value maps to supply and demand, not intrinsic worthiness, so it’s an inherently fragile thing to base any moral worth on. ^

[4] It also makes a horrendous false equivalence between worker pay and CEO pay. Walmart’s CEO makes $21.8 million. Walmart has 2.3 million “associates”. Let’s say they average 20 hours per week, 50 weeks per year, for 2.3 billion employee hours per year. Removing the CEO’s salary would free up enough cash to pay the workers one extra cent per hour ($10/year). CEO salaries are a very tiny drop in the bucket compared to total compensation for companies with huge workforces. ^

[5] 1.7 million people make less than $15/hour. Assume they all make $11.60/hour, that they all work 40 hour weeks, 50 weeks a year and we end up with $11.6 billion. Since all of these are overestimates, this gives us an upper bound. $9 billion is my guess at a more realistic number. ^

[6] Here’s my calculations, based on the really excellent Statistics Canada data available here. I’ve made some simplifying assumptions (e.g. that everyone in each bracket makes the exact centre value of the bracket, that higher taxes won’t make people look for more ways to avoid them), but this should be broadly accurate. If you want to play around with the workbook, leave a comment with your email address and I’ll send it your way.

Note that “Total Revenue”, “Total Tax”, and “Tax as percent of income” are calculated by adding the “Tax at Midpoint” value to the “Taxes For Entire Bracket” values for all previous brackets. This is how the taxman does it. ^

[7] Calculations:

Not pictured: any adjustment for the percent of people who are married. The simplest approach (50% of Ontarians are married and couples receive 30% less, so the cost should be 15% lower) brings the cost down to a “mere” $37 billion. This is the cost I quote above. ^

[8] Rent control is the only possible solution, but it might be worse than what it seeks to cure. The economist Assar Lindbeck claimed that “In many cases rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city—except for bombing.” This was falsified by communist Vietnam, according to a speech by its onetime foreign minister: “The Americans couldn’t destroy Hanoi, but we have destroyed our city by very low rents. We realized it was stupid and that we must change policy”. ^

[9] On all sides. For every Bernie bro convinced we need socialism right now, there’s someone who believes in the explicitly anti-empirical assertions of the Austrian School. ^

Model, Politics, Quick Fix

They don’t hate your values; they just assign them no weight

[3-minute read]

Content Warning: Extensive discussion of the morality of abortion

Previously, I talked about akrasia as one motive for socially conservative legislation. I think the akrasia model is useful when explaining certain classes of seemingly hypocritical behaviour, but it’s far from the only reason for social conservatives to push for legislation that liberals oppose. At least some legislation comes from a desire to force socially conservative values on everyone [1].

Liberals are terrible at understanding the values underlying conservative legislation. When an anti-abortion single issue voter took a reproductive rights seminar at Yale, he was surprised to hear that many of his classmates believed that anti-abortion laws were aimed entirely at controlling women’s sexuality, rather than stopping the (to his eyes) moral crime of abortion [2].

This is an easy mistake to make. It’s true that limiting abortion also limits women’s financial and sexual freedom. In the vast majority of cases it’s false to claim that this is a plus for the most vociferous opponents of abortion. To their detriment it also isn’t a minus. For many of the staunchest opponents of abortion, the financial or sexual freedom of women plays no role at all in their position. Held against the life of a fetus, these freedoms are (morally) worthless.

People opposed to abortion who also value these things tend to take more moderate positions. For them, their stance on abortion is a trade-off between two valuable things (the life of a fetus and the freedoms of the mother). I know some younger Catholics who fall into this category. Then tend to be of the position that things that reduce abortion (like sexual education, free prenatal care, free daycare, and contraceptive use) are all very good, but they rarely advocate for the complete abolition of abortion (except by restructuring society such that no woman feels the need for one).

Total opposition to abortion is only possible when you hold the benefits of abortion as far less morally relevant than the costs. Total support likewise. If I viewed a fetus to be as morally relevant as a born person, I could not support abortion rights to the extent I do.

The equation views my values as morally meaningless + argues strongly for things that would hurt those values can very easily appear to come out to holds the opposite of my values. But this doesn’t have to be the case! Most anti-abortion advocates aren’t trying to paper over women’s sexual freedoms (with abortion laws). Most abortion supporters aren’t reveling in the termination of pregnancies.

This mistake is especially easy to make because you have every incentive to caricature your political enemies. It’s especially pernicious though, because it makes it so hard to productively talk about any area where you disagree. You and your opponents both think that you are utterly opposed and for either to triumph, the other must lose. It’s only when you see that your values are orthogonal, not opposed that you have any hope for compromise.

I think the benefits of this model lie primarily in sympathy and empathy. Understanding that anti-abortion advocates aren’t literally trying to reduce the financial security and sexual freedom of women doesn’t change the fact that their policies have the practical effects of accomplishing these things. I’m still going to oppose them on the grounds of the consequences of their actions, even if I no longer believe that they’re at all motivated by those specific consequences.

But empathy isn’t useless! There’s something to be said for the productivity of a dialogue when you don’t believe that the other side hates everything about your values! You can try and find common values and make compromises based on those. You can convince people more effectively when you accurately understand their beliefs and values. These can be instrumentally useful when trying to convince people of your point or when advocating for your preferred laws.

Abortion gave me the clearest example of orthogonal values, but it might actually be the hardest place to find any compromise. Strongly held orthogonal values can still lead to gridlock. If not abortion, where is mutually beneficial compromise possible? Where else do liberals argue with only a caricature of their opponents’ values?

Epistemic Status: Model

Footnotes:

[1] Socially liberal legislation is just objectively right and is based on the values everyone would have if they could choose freely. Only my political enemies try and force anything on anyone. /sarcasm ^

[2] People who aren’t women can also have abortions and their ability to express their sexualities is also controlled by laws limiting access to abortion. If there exists a less awkward construction than “anyone with a uterus” that I can use instead of “women”, I’d be delighted to find it. ^

Model, Politics

Socially Conservative Legislation as Akrasia Managment

[5-minute read]

If you hang out with people obsessed with self-improvement, one term that you’ll hear a lot is akrasia. A dictionary will tell you that akrasia means “The state of mind in which someone acts against their better judgement through weakness of will.”

Someone who struggles with it will have more visceral stories. “It’s like someone else is controlling me, leaving me powerless to stop watching Netflix” is one I’ve often heard. Or “I know that scrolling through Facebook for five hours is against my goals, but I just can’t help myself”.

I use commitment contracts (I agree to pay a friend a certain amount of money if I don’t do a certain things) or Beeminder (a service that charges me money if I fail to meet my goals) to manage my akrasia. Many of my friends do the same thing. Having to face consequences helps us overcome our akrasia.

If you’ve ever procrastinated, you’ve experienced akrasia. You probably know the listlessness and powerlessness that comes with it, and the frantic burst of energy that you get as the due date for your task nears. Commitment contracts impose an artificial deadline, allowing akratics to access that burst of energy need to break free from an endless cycle of Netflix or Facebook.

Obviously it would be better if akrasia could be wished away. Unfortunately, I haven’t really met anyone who has entirely succeeded in vanquishing it. All we can do is treat the symptoms. For those of us stuck with akrasia, managing it with sticks (and perhaps the occasional carrot) allows us to accomplish our goals. Time your sticks right and you rarely get the listlessness or the shame that can go with it.

Recently, I’ve started viewing social conservatives who push for tough morality laws and then personally fall short of them as more than risibly hypocritical. I’ve begun to think that they’re deeply akratic individuals who think that strong public morality is their only hope for living up to their own standards.

This model has fundamentally changed the way I look at the world. When I read John Scalzi’s rant about covenant marriage while researching for this post –

As a concept, it’s pretty damn insulting. “Covenant Marriage” implicitly suggests that people won’t stay married unless they subject themselves to onerous governmental restrictions on their personal freedoms; basically, it’s the state telling you that it expects you to get a divorce at some point, unless it makes it too annoying for you to get a divorce to make it worth your while. The State of Arkansas is banking on sloth, apathy and state bureaucracy to keep a bunch of bad marriages together, as if bad marriages are really better than divorce.

– All I could think was yes! Yes, that is exactly what some of the people pushing covenant marriage believe and want. They believe that a bad (or at least difficult) marriage is better than a divorce. But they don’t trust themselves to stay in a difficult marriage, so they want to strongly bind their future self to the decisions and values of their current self.

Most of the akratics I know have been unable to overcome their akrasia via willpower. Only the consequences they’ve set up are effective. By the same token, social conservatives who frequently let themselves down (like serial adulterer Newt Gingrich, or any of these nineteen others) might be trying to overcome their failings by increasing the consequences. For everyone.

On one hand, this leads to onerous restrictions on anyone who doesn’t share their views. On the other hand, there aren’t many levers left to accomplish this sort of commitment device except through legislation that affects everyone. Look at marriage; in America, no-fault divorces are allowed in every state. You can enter a so-called “covenant marriage“, with more onerous exit requirements, but these are only offered in a few states and can be avoided by divorcing in a state with different marriage laws. Adultery laws are all but dead.

Even enforcing fidelity through prenups is difficult. Such clauses have been ruled unenforceable in California. While some other states might decide to enforce them, you’re still left with the problem of actually proving infidelity actually occurred.

This isn’t to say that I have a problem with no-fault divorces. If I didn’t support them for helping people leave terrible marriages, I’d support them for ending an embarrassing daily spectacle of perjury. But it is amazing that many governments won’t let consenting adults make more stringent marriage contracts if that’s what they choose. America let people get underwater mortgages that could never be repaid. But it won’t let a pair of adults set harsh penalties for cheating?

Faced with such a dearth of commitment options, what’s an akratic to do? Fail? If you’re religious, this is opening you up to the possibility of eternal damnation. That’s clearly not an option. Fighting for regressive “family values” laws becomes a survival mechanism for anyone caught between their conservative morality and their own predilections.

I know societal punishments aren’t a perfect solution for akrasia. Many people desire not to shoplift, yet shoplift things they don’t need anyway, despite all the penalties. Beeminder isn’t a perfect solution either. Some people lie. Some people give up. But it helps some people. It helped me.

For some people, societal punishments are the only thing that will work. In a push to liberalize everything about society, liberals really have backed some people into a corner. It wouldn’t be that hard to let them out. Make cheating clauses in prenups enforceable and allow them to include punitive damages. Allow couples to set arduous conditions on their own divorce. Listen to what people want and see if there are ways that we can give it to them and only them.

I can see the obvious objections to this plan. It might sweep up young romantics, still indoctrinated by their parents and ruin their lives. Some (from the liberal point of view) bad contracts could become so common that everyone faces strong social pressure to make them. But these are both issues that can be addressed through legislature, perhaps by requiring a judge to certify adequate maturity and understanding of the contract (to address the first concern) and forbidding preferential treatment from institutions or businesses based on marriage (or other salient contract) type (to address the second).

There are some things that liberals and social conservatives will probably never be able to compromise on. Gay marriage, trans rights, and abortion… these should be our non-negotiable demands. What makes these our red lines is the realization that we must allow individuals to make their own choices (and not deny them any benefits that people who make other choices receive). The cornerstones of social liberalism are a celebration of authenticity and an openness to the freely made personal choices of others, even when we disagree with them. Even when we think they’re nonsensical. Even when we think they’ll bring only grief.

It’s the authoritarian who seeks to make their choices the choices of everyone. Too often that authoritarian is the social conservative. Allowing them to sanction themselves won’t end that. Too many are motivated by self-righteousness or a belief that what works for them must necessarily work for everyone else. We can’t fix that. But we sure as hell can be better than it.

Epistemic Status: Model

Economics, Model, Politics

Meditations on Regulation, or the Case of the $10,000 Staircase

[10-minute read]

Breaking news: a retired mechanic spent one afternoon and $550 building a staircase. This is news because the City of Toronto said it would cost $65,000 for them to do it. They’ve since walked back that estimate, claiming it won’t be that expensive (instead, the final cost looks to be a mere $10,000).

Part of this is materials and labour. The city will probably go for something a bit more permeant than wood – probably concrete or metal – and will probably have higher labour costs (the mechanic hired a random guy off the street to help out, which is probably against city procurement policy). But a decent part (perhaps even the majority) of the increased costs will be driven by regulation.

First there’s the obvious compliance activities: site assessment, community consultation, engineering approval, insurance approval. Each of these will take the highly expensive time of highly skilled professionals. There’s also the less obvious (but still expensive and onerous) hoops to jump through. If the city doesn’t have a public works crew who can install the stairs, they’ll have to find a contractor. The search for a contractor would probably be governed by a host of conflict of interest and due diligence regulations; these are the sorts of thing a well-paid city worker would need to sink a significant amount of time into managing. Based on the salary information I could find, half a week of a city bureaucrat’s time already puts us over the $550 price tag.

And when the person in charge of compliance is highly skilled, the loss is worse than simple monetary terms might imply. Not only are we paying someone to waste her time, we are also paying the opportunity cost of her wasting her time. Whenever some bright young lawyer or planner is stuck reading regulatory tomes instead of creating something, we are deprived of the benefits of what they could have created.

When it comes to the stairs, regulations don’t stop with our hypothetical city worker. The construction firm they hire is also governed by regulations. They have to track how much everyone works, make sure the appropriate taxes go to the appropriate parties, ensure compliance with workplace health and safety standards and probably take care of a dozen minor annoyances that I don’t know about. When you aren’t the person doing these things, they just blend into the background and you forget that someone has to spend a decent part of their time filling out incredibly boring government forms – forms that demand accuracy under pain of perjury.

No source needed, because I stole this from a US government form and no documents produced by the US government can be copyrighted
What, you never noticed how fond government documents were of waving the p-word around? This basically says “fill this out right, or one of the state’s armed enforcers will use violence to bring you to a small room that you won’t be allowed to leave for a very long time”.

Hell, the very act of soliciting bids can inflate the cost, because each bid will require a bunch of supporting paperwork (you can’t submit these things on a sticky note). As is becoming the common refrain, this takes time, which costs money. You better bet that whichever firm eventually gets hired will roll the cost of all its failed past bids (either directly or indirectly) into the cost the city ends up paying.

It’s not just government regulations that drive up the price of stairs either. If the city has liability insurance, it will have to comply with a bunch of rules given to it by its insurer (or face higher premiums). If it chooses to self-insure, the city actuaries will come up with all sorts of internal policies designed to lessen the city’s chance of liability – or at least lessen the necessary payout when the city is inevitably sued by some drunk asshole who forgets how to do stairs and breaks a bone.

With all of this regulation (none of which seems unreasonable when taken in isolation!) you can see how the city was expecting to shell out $65,000 (at a minimum) for a simple set of stairs. That they managed to get the cost down to $10,000 in this case ­(to avoid the negative media attention of over-estimating the cost of stairs more than one hundred times over?) is probably indicative of city workers doing unpaid overtime, or other clever cost hiding measures [1].

The point here is that regulation is expensive. It’s expensive everywhere it exists. The United States has over 1,000,000 pages of federal regulation. Canada makes its federal regulation available as a compressed XML dump(!) with a current uncompressed size of 559MB. Considering XML overhead, the sum total of Canadian federal regulation is probably approximately equivalent to that of the United States.

The only thing that hates federal regulation more than libertarians is the bookshelf that has to hold it all. Image Credit: Coolcaesar on Wikimedia Commons

This isn’t it for either country; after federal regulation, there’s provincial/state and local regulations. Then there are the interactions between all three, with things becoming even worse when you want to do anything between different jurisdictions within a country or (and it’s a miracle this can even happen at all) between countries.

People who can hold a significant subset of these regulations in their head and successfully navigate them (without going mad from boredom) are a limited resource. Worse, they’re a limited resource who can be useful in a variety of fields (i.e. there has to be some overlap between the people who’d make good programmers, doctors, or administrators and the people who can parse and memorize reams of regulation). Limited supply and consistent (or increasing) demand drives the excessive cost of buying their time that I mentioned earlier.

This is the part where I’m supposed to talk about how regulation destroys jobs and how we should repeal it all if we care about the economic health of our society. But I’m not going to do that. The idea that regulation kills jobs is based on economic fallacies [2] and not borne out by evidence (although it is surprisingly poorly studied and new evidence could change my mind here).

As best we can currently tell, regulation doesn’t destroy jobs; it shifts them. In a minimally regulated environment, there will be fewer jobs requiring highly educated compliance wizards and more jobs for everyone else. As the amount of regulation increases, we should see more and more labour shift from productive tasks to compliance tasks. Really regulation is one of the best ways that elites can guarantee jobs for other elites.

Viewed through this lens, regulation is similar to a very regressive tax. It might be buying us social goods that we really want, but it does so in a way that transfers wealth from already disadvantaged workers to already advantaged workers. I think (absent offloading regulatory compliance onto specialized AI expert systems) that this might be an inherent feature of regulation.

When I see progressives talking about regulation, the tone is often that companies should whine about it less. I think it’s totally true that many companies push back against regulation that is (on the face of it at least) in the public good – and that companies aren’t pushing back primarily out of concern for their workers. However, rejecting the libertarian position doesn’t mean we should automatically support all regulation. After reading this, I hope you look at regulation as a problematically regressive tax that can have certain other benefits.

Because even taking into account its regressive effects, regulation is often a net good. Emissions standards around nitrous oxide emissions have saved thousands of lives – and Volkswagen cheating on them will lead to the “pre-mature deaths” of over one thousand people.

Corporations have no social duty beyond giving returns to their shareholders. It’s only through regulation that we can channel them away from anti-social behaviour [3]. Individuals are a bit better, motivated as they are by several things beyond money, but regulation is still sometimes needed to help us avoid the tragedy of the commons.

That said, even the best-intentioned regulation can have ruinous second order effects. Take the new French law that requires supermarkets to donate unsold, expiring produce to food banks. The law includes a provision indemnifying supermarkets against any legal action for food poisoning or other problems caused by the donated food. Without that provision, companies would be caught in a terrible bind. They’d face fines if they didn’t donate, but face the risk of huge lawsuits if they did [4][5].

Regulation isn’t just the purview of the government. If all government regulation disappeared overnight, private regulation – overseen primarily by insurance companies – would take its place. The ubiquity of liability insurance in this litigious age has already turned many insurers into surrogate regulators [6].

Insurance companies really hate paying out money. They can only make money if they make more in premiums than they pay out for losses. The loss prevention divisions of major insurers work with their clients, making sure they toe the line of the insurer’s policies and raising their premiums when they don’t.

This task has become especially important for the insurers who provide liability insurance to police departments. Many local governments lack the political will to rein in their police force when they engage in misconduct, but insurance companies have no such compunctions. Insurers have written use of force policies, provided expensive training, furnished use of force simulators, and ordered the firing of chiefs and ordinary officers alike.

When insurers make these demands, they expect to be obeyed. Cross an insurer and they’ll withdraw insurance or make the premiums prohibitively high. It isn’t unheard of for police departments to be disbanded if insurers refuse to cover them. Absent liability insurance, a single lawsuit can literally bankrupt a small municipality, a risk most councillors won’t take.

As the Colombia Law School article linked above suggested, it may be possible to significantly affect the behaviour of insurance purchasers with regulation that is targeted at insurers. I also suspect that you can abstract things even further and affect the behaviour of insurers (and therefore their clients) by making arcane changes to how liability works. This has the dubious advantage of making it possible to achieve political goals without obviously working towards them. It seems likely that it’s harder to get together a big protest when the aim you’re protesting against is hidden behind several layers of abstraction [7].

Regulation isn’t inherently good or bad. It should be able to stand on its own merits and survive a cost-benefit analysis. This will inevitably become a tricky political question, because different people weight costs and benefits differently, but it isn’t an intractable political problem.

(I know that’s what I always say. But it’s a testament to the current political climate that saying “policy should be based on cost-benefit analyses, not ideology” can feel radical [8].)

I would suggest that if you’re the type of person whose knee-jerk response to regulation is to support it, you should look at how it will displace labour from blue-collar to white-collar industries or raise prices and ponder if this is worth its benefits. If instead you oppose regulation by default, I’d suggest looking at its goals and remembering that the cost of reaching them isn’t infinite. You might be surprised at what a true cost benefit analysis returns.

Also, it probably seems true that some things are a touch over-regulated if $65,000 (or even $10,000) is an unsurprising estimate for a set of stairs.

Epistemic Status:  Model

Footnotes:

[1] Of course, even unpaid overtime has a cost. After a lot of it, you might feel justified to a rather longer paid vacation than you might otherwise take. Not to mention that long hours with inadequate breaks can harm productivity in the long run.  ^

[2] It seems to rest on the belief that regulation makes things more expensive, therefore fewer people buy them, therefore fewer people are needed to produce them. What this simple analysis misses (and what’s pointed out in the Pro Publica article I linked) is that regulatory compliance is a job. Jobs lost directly producing things are more or less offset by jobs dealing with regulations, such that increased regulation has an imperceptible effect on employment. This seems related to the lump of labour fallacy, although I’ve yet to figure out how to clearly articulate the connection. ^

[3] In Filthy Lucre, Professor Joseph Heath talks about the failures of state-run companies to create “socially inclusive growth”. Basically, managers in companies care far more about their power within the company than the company being successful (the iron law of institutions). If you give them a single goal, you can align their incentives with yours and get good results. Give them two goals and they’ll focus on building up their own little fief within the company and explaining away any failures (from your perspective) as the necessary results of balancing their dual tasks (“yes, I posted no profits, I was trying to be very socially inclusive this quarter”).

Regulation, if set up so that it seriously affects profits (or if set up so that it has high personal consequences for managers) forces the manager to avoid acting in a ruinously anti-social way without leaving them with the sort of divided loyalties that can cause companies to become semi-feudal. 

[4] The end game would quite possibly involve supermarkets setting up legally separate (with significant board overlap) charitable organizations that would handle the distribution, and compelling these shells (who would carry almost no cash so as to be judgement proof) to sign contracts indemnifying the source supermarket against all lawsuits. This would require lots and lots of lawyer time and money, which means consumers would see higher food prices. ^

[5] Actually, higher food prices are pretty much inevitable, because there’s still a bunch of new logistics that have to be worked out as a result of this law. If the logistics turn out to be more expensive then the fines, supermarkets will continue to throw out food (while passing the costs of the fines on to the consumer). If the fines are more expensive, then food will be donated (but price of donating it will still inevitably be passed on to consumers). Any government program that makes food more expensive is incredibly regressive – it’s this realization that underlies the tax-free status of unprepared food in Canada.

Supplemental nutrition programs (AKA “food stamps”) have the benefit of subsidizing food for those who need it from the general tax pool, which can be based on progressive taxation and mainly paid for by the wealthy.

It’s really easy to see a bunch of food sitting around and realize it could be better used. It’s really hard (and expensive) to actually handle the transport and preparation of that food. ^

[6] Meaning that a government that really wanted to reduce regulation would have to make it rather hard to sue anyone. This seems like an unlikely use of political capital and also probably in conflict with many notions of fundamental justice.

Anyway, you should look at changes to liability the same way you look at regulation. Ultimately, they may amount to the same thing. ^

[7] This is dubious because it’s inherently anti-democratic (the government is taking actions designed to be opaque to the governed) and also incredibly baroque. I’m not talking about simple changes to liability that will be intuitively understood. I’m talking about provisos written in solid legalese that tweak liability in ways that I wouldn’t expect anyone without a law degree and expertise in liability law to understand. If a government was currently doing this, I would expect that I wouldn’t know it and wouldn’t understand it even if it was pointed out to me. ^

[8] Note, crucially, that it feels radical, but isn’t. Most people who read my blog already agree with me here, so I’m not actually risking any consequences by being all liberal/centrist/neo-liberal/whatever we’re calling people who don’t toe the party line this week. ^

Literature, Politics

Book Review: Shattered

[10 minute read]

Foreword: November 8th was one of the worst nights of my life, in a way that might have bled through – just a bit, mind you – into this review. My position will probably mellow as the memories of my fear and disappointment fade.

My latest non-fiction read was Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign. In addition to making me consider a career in political consultancy, it gave me a welcome insight into some of the fascinating choices the Clinton campaign made during the election.

I really do believe this book was going to rip on the campaign no matter the outcome. Had Clinton won, the thesis would have been “the race was closer than it needed to be”, not “Clinton’s campaign was brilliant”.

Despite that, I should give the classic disclaimer: I could be wrong about the authors; it’s entirely possible that they’d have extolled the brilliance of Clinton had she won. It’s also true that Clinton almost won and if she had, she would have captured the presidency in an extremely cost-effective way.

But almost only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades and an election is neither. Clinton lost. The 11th hour letter from Comey to congress and Russian hacking may have tipped her over, but ultimately it was the decisions of her campaign that allowed Donald Trump to be within spitting distance of her at all.

Shattered lays a lot of blame for those bad decisions in the lap of Robby Mook, Clinton’s campaign manager. Throughout the book, he’s portrayed as dogmatically obsessed with data, refusing to do anything that doesn’t come up as optimal in his models. It was Mook who refused to do polling (because he thought his analytics provided almost the same information at a fraction of the cost), Mook who refused to condone any attempts at persuading undecided or weak Trump voters to back Clinton, Mook who consistently denied resources to swing state team leads, and Mook who responded to Bill Clinton’s worries about anti-establishment sentiment and white anger with “the data run counter to your anecdotes”.

We now have a bit more context in which to view Mook’s “data” and Bill’s “anecdotes”.

I’m a committed empiricist, but Mook’s “data driven” approach made me repeatedly wince. Anything that couldn’t be measured was discounted as unimportant. Anything that wasn’t optimal was forbidden. And any external validation of models – say via polls – was vetoed because Mook didn’t want to “waste” money validating models he was so confident in.

Mook treated the election as a simple optimization problem – he thought he knew how many votes or how much turnout was associated with every decision he could make, and he assumed that if he fed all this into computers, he’d get the definitive solution to the election.

The problem here is that elections remain unsolved. There doesn’t exist an equation that lets you win an election. There’s too many factors and too many unknowns and you aren’t acting in a vacuum. You have an opponent who is actively countering you. And it should go almost without saying that an optimal solution to an election is only possible if the solution can be kept secret. If your opponent knows your solution, they will find a way to counter it.

Given that elections are intractable as simple optimization problems, a smart campaign will rely on experienced humans to make major decisions. Certainly, these humans should be armed with the best algorithms, projections, data, and cost-benefit analyses that a campaign can supply. But to my (outsider) eyes, it seems absolutely unconscionable to cut out the human element and ignore all of the accumulated experience a campaign brain trust can bring to bear on an election. Clinton didn’t lack for a brain trust, but her brain trust certainly lacked for opportunities to make decisions.

Not all the blame can rest on Mook though. The campaign ultimately comes down to a candidate and quite frankly, there were myriad ways in which Clinton wasn’t that great of a candidate.

First: vision. She didn’t have one. Clinton felt at home in policy, so her campaign had a lot of it. She treated the election like a contest to create policy that would apply to the rational self-interest of a winning coalition of voters. Trump tried to create a story that would appeal to the self-conception of a winning coalition of voters.

I don’t think one is necessarily superior to the other, but I’ve noticed that charismatic and generally liked leaders (Trudeau, Macron, Obama if we count his relatively high approval ratings at the end of his presidency) manage to combine both. Clinton was the “establishment” candidate, the candidate that was supposed to be good at elections. She had every opportunity to learn to use both tools. But she only ever used one, depriving her of a critical weapon against her opponent. In this way, she was a lot like Romney.

(Can you imagine Clinton vs. Romney? That would have been high comedy right there.)

After vision comes baggage. Clinton had a whole mule train of it. Her emails, her speeches, her work for the Clinton foundation – there were plenty of time bombs there. I know the standard progressive talking point is that Clinton had baggage because a woman had to be in politics as long as she did before she would be allowed to run for the presidency. And if her baggage was back room deals with foreign despots or senate subcommittees (the two generally differ only in the lavishness of the receptions they throw, not their moral character) that explanation would be all well and good.

But Clinton used a private email server because she didn’t want the laws on communication disclosures apply to her. She gave paid speeches and hid the transcripts because she felt entitled to hundreds of thousands of dollars and (apparently) thought she could take the money and then remain impartial.

Both of these unforced errors showed poor judgement and entitlement. They weren’t banal expressions of the compromises people need to make to govern. They showed real contempt for the electorate, in that they sought to deny voters a chance to hold Clinton accountable for what she said, both as the nation’s top diplomat and as (perhaps only briefly) its most exorbitantly compensated public speaker.

As she was hiding things, I doubt Clinton explicitly thought “fuck the voters, I don’t care what they think”, it was instead probably “damned if I’m giving everyone more ammunition to get really angry about”. Unfortunately, the second isn’t benign in a democracy, where responsible government first and foremost requires politicians to be responsible to voters for all of their beliefs and actions, even the ones they’d rather keep out of the public eye. To allow any excuse at all to be used to escape from responsible government undermines the very idea of it.

As a personal note, I think it was stupid of Clinton to be so contemptuous because it made her long-term goals more difficult, but I also think her contempt was understandable in light of the fact that she’s waded through more bullshit in the service of her country than any five other politicians combined. Politicians are humans and make mistakes and it’s possible to understand and sympathize with the ways those mistakes come from human frailty while also condemning the near-term effects (lost elections) and long-term effects (decreased trust in democratic institutions) of bad decisions.

The final factor that Clinton deserves blame for is her terrible management style. When talking about management, Peter Thiel opined that only a sociopath would give two people the same job. If this is true – I’m inclined to trust him under the principle that it takes one to know one – Clinton is a sociopath. There was no clear chain of command for the campaign. At every turn, people could see their work undone by well-connected “Clinton World” insiders. The biggest miracle is that the members of the campaign managed to largely keep this on the down-low.

Clinton made much of Obama’s 2008 “drama free” campaign. She wanted her 2016 campaign to run the same way. But instead of adopting the management habits that Obama used to engender loyalty, she decided that the differences lay everywhere but in the candidates; if only she had better, more loyal people working for her, she’d have the drama free campaign she desired. And so, she cleaned house, started fresh, and demanded that there would be no drama. As far as the media was concerned, there wasn’t. But under the surface, things were brutal.

Mook hid information from pretty much everyone because his position felt precarious. No one told Abedin anything because they knew she’d tell it right to Clinton, especially if it wasn’t complementary. Everyone was scared that their colleagues would stab them in the back to prove their loyalty to Clinton. Employees who failed were stripped of almost all responsibilities, but never fired. In 2008, fired employees ‘took the axes they had to grind, sharpened them, and jammed them in Clinton’s back during media interviews’. Clinton learned lessons from that, but I’m not sure if they were the right ones.

I’m not sure how much of this was text and how much was subtext, but I emerged from Shattered feeling that the blame for losing the election can’t stop with the Clinton camp. There’s also Bernie Sanders. I don’t think anyone can blame him for talking about emails and speeches, but I’ve come to believe that the chip on his shoulder about the unfairness of the primary was way out of line; if anyone in the Democratic Party beat Clinton on a sense of entitlement, it was Sanders.

Politics is a team sport. You can’t accomplish anything alone, so you have to rely on other people. Clinton (whatever her flaws) was reliable. She fought and she bled and she suffered for the Democratic Party. Insofar as anyone has ever been owed a nomination, Clinton was owed this one.

Sanders hadn’t even fundraised for the party. And he expected them not to do whatever they could for Clinton? Why? He was an outsider trying to hijack their institution. His complaints would have been fair from a Democrat, but from an independent socialist?

On the Republican side, Trump had the same thing going on (and presumably would have been equally damaging to another nominee had he lost). In both cases, the party owed them nothing. It was childish of Bernie to go on like the party was supposed to be impartial.

(Also, in what meaningful ways vis a vis ability to hire staff and coordinate policy would you expect a Sanders White House to be different from the Trump White House? If you didn’t answer “none”, then you have some serious thinking to do.)

You’d think the effect of all of this would be for me to feel contempt for the Democratic Party in general and Clinton in particular. But aside from Sanders, I came out of it feeling really sorry for everyone involved.

I felt sorry for Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Sanders’ inflammatory rhetoric necessitated throwing her under the bus right before the convention. She didn’t take it gracefully, but then, how could she? She’d flown her whole family from Florida to Philadelphia to see her moment of triumph as Chairwoman of the DNC speaking at the Democratic National Convention and had it all taken away from her so that Sanders’ supporters wouldn’t riot (and apparently it was still a near thing). She spent the better part of the day negotiating her exit with the Clinton campaign’s COO, instead of appearing on the stage like she’d hoped to. The DNC ended up footing the bill for flying her family home.

I felt sorry for Mook. He had a hard job and less power and budget than were necessary to do it well. He trusted his models too much, but this is partially because he was really good with them. Mook’s math made it almost impossible for Sanders to win. Clinton had been terrible at delegate math in 2008. Mook redeemed that. To give just one example of his brilliance, he prioritized media spending in districts with an odd number of delegates, which meant that Clinton won an outside number of delegates from her wins and losses [1].

I felt sorry for the whole Clinton campaign. Things went so wrong, so often that they had a saying: “we don’t get to have nice things”. Media ignores four Clinton victories to focus on one of Sanders’? “We don’t get to have nice things”. Trump goes off the rails, but it gets overshadowed by the ancient story about emails? “We don’t get to have nice things.”

Several members of the campaign had their emails hacked (probably by the Russians). Instead of reporting on the Russian interference and Russian ties to the Trump campaign, the media talked about those emails over and over again in the last month of the election [2]. That must have been maddening for the candidate and her team.

Even despite that, I felt sorry for the press, who by and large didn’t want Trump to win, but were forced by a string of terrible incentives to consistently cover Clinton in an exceedingly damning way. If you want to see Moloch‘s hand at work, look no further than reporting on the 2016 election.

But most of all, I felt sorry for Clinton. Here was a woman who had spent her whole adult life in politics, largely motivated by a desire to help women and children (causes she’d been largely successful at). As Secretary of State, she flew 956,733 miles (equivalent to two round trips to the moon) and visited 112 countries. She lost two races for the presidency. And it must have been so crushing to have bled and fought and given so much, to think she’d finally succeeded, then to have it all taken away from her by Donald Trump.

Yet, she conceded anyway. She was crushed, but she ensured that America’s legacy of peaceful transfers of power would continue.

November 8th may have been one of the worst nights of my life. But I’m not self-absorbed enough to think my night was even remotely as bad as Clinton’s. Clinton survived the worst the world could do to her and is still breathing and still trying to figure out what to do next. If her campaign gave me little to admire, that makes up a good bit of the gap.

I really recommend Shattered for anyone who wants to see just how off the rails a political campaign can go when it’s buffeted by a combination of candidate ineptitude, unclear chains of command, and persistent attacks from a foreign adversary. It’s a bit repetitious at times, which was sometimes annoying and sometimes helpful (especially when I’d forgotten who was who), but otherwise grippingly and accessibly written. The fascinating subject matter more than makes up for any small burrs in the delivery.

Footnotes:

[1] In a district that has an odd number of delegates, winning by a single vote meant an extra delegate. In a district with 6 delegates, you’d get 3 delegates if you won between 50% and 67% of the votes. In a district with 7, you’d get 4 if you won by even a single vote, and five once you surpassed 71%. If a state has ten counties, four with seven delegates and six with six delegates, you can win the state by four delegates if you squeak to a win in the four districts with seven delegates and win at least 34% of the vote in each of the others. In practice, statewide delegates prevent such wonky scenarios except when the vote is really close, but this sort of math remains vital to winning a close race.  ^

[2] WikiLeaks released the hacked emails a few hundred a day for the last month of the election, starting right after the release of Trump’s “grab her by the pussy” video. This steady drip-drip-drip of bad press was very damaging for the Clinton campaign, especially because many people didn’t differentiate this from the other Clinton-email story.

At this point, I want to know whether WikiLeaks is an organ of the Russian state, or just manipulated by them. Personally, I gravitate towards the first. Chelsea Manning is a hero, but everyone else aligned with WikiLeaks seems to hate the West so much that they’ll happily climb into Putin’s pocket if it means they get to take a shot at it. ^