Economics, Politics

When To Worry About Public Debt

I watch a lot of political debates with my friends. A couple of them have turned to me after watching heated arguments about public debt and (because I have a well-known habit of reading monetary policy blogs) asked me who is right. I hear questions like:

Is it true that public debt represents an unfair burden on our hypothetical grandchildren? Is all this talk about fiscal discipline and balanced budgets pointless? Is it really bad when public debt gets over 100% of a country’s GDP? How can the threat of defaulting on loans lead to inflation and ruin?

And what does all this mean for Ontario? Is Doug Ford right about the deficit?

This is my attempt to sort this all out in a public and durable form. Now when I’ve taken a political debate drinking game too far, I’ll still be able to point people towards the answers to their questions.

(Disclaimer: I’m not an economist. Despite the research I did for it and the care with which I edited, this post may contain errors, oversimplifications, or misunderstandings.)

Is Public Debt A Burden On Future Generations?

Among politicians of a certain stripe, it’s common to compare the budget of a country to the budget of a family. When a family is budgeting, any shortfall must be paid for via loans. Left unspoken is the fact that many families find themselves in a rather large amount of debt early on – because they need a mortgage to buy their dwelling. The only way a family can ever get out of debt is by maintaining a monthly surplus until their mortgage is paid off, then being careful to avoid taking on too much new debt.

Becoming debt free is desirable to individuals for two reasons. First, it makes their retirement (feel) much more secure. Given that retirement generally means switching to a fixed income or living off savings, it can be impossible to pay off the principle of a debt after someone makes the decision to retire.

Second, parents often desire to leave something behind for their children. This is only possible if their assets outweigh their debts.

Countries have to grapple with neither of these responsibilities. While it is true that the average age in many countries is steadily increasing, countries that have relatively open immigration policies and are attractive to immigrants largely avoid this problem. Look at how Canada and the United States compare to Italy and Japan in working age population percentage, for example.

Graph showing % of working age population in 4 OECD countries: Japan, Canada, USA, Italy.
After seeing this graph, I realized how hyperbolic it was to talk about Japan’s aging population. Source: OECD.


Even in Japan, where this is “dire”, the percentage of the population that is working age is equivalent to the percentage of the population that was working age in Canada or America in 1970. As lifespans increase, we may have to expand our definition of working age. But some combination of immigration, better support for parents, and better support for older citizens who wish to keep working will prevent us from ever getting to a point where it’s sensible to talk about a country “retiring”.

Since countries don’t “retire”, they don’t have to cope with the worry of “needing to work later to pay off that debt”. Since countries don’t have children, they don’t have to worry about having something to pass on. Countries don’t ever actually have to pay back all of their debt. They can continue to roll it over indefinitely, as long as someone is willing to continue to loan them money at a rate they’re willing to pay.

What I mean by “rolling over”, is that countries can just get a new loan for the same amount as their last one, as soon as the previous loan comes due. If interest rates have risen (either in general, or because the country is a greater risk) since their last loan, the new loan will be more expensive. If they’ve fallen, it will be cheaper. Rolling over loans changes the interest rate a country is paying, but doesn’t change the amount it owes.

Is Talk Of Discipline Pointless?


Even if countries don’t really ever have to pay back the principle on their loans, they do have to make interest payments (borrowing to pay these is possible, but it isn’t a good look and can pretty quickly lead to dangerous levels of debt). The effect of these payments ranges from “it’s mildly annoying that we can’t spend that money on something better” to “we’re destroying our ecosystem growing bananas so that we have something to sell for cash to make our interest payments”. Lack of discipline and excessive debt levels can move a country closer to the second case.

In a well-integrated and otherwise successful economy with ample room in its governmental budget, interest payments are well worth the advantage of getting money early. When this money is used to create economic benefits that accrue faster than the interest payments, countries are net beneficiaries. If you take out a loan that charges 1-2% interest a year and use it to build a bridge that drives 4% economic growth for the next forty years, you’re ahead by 2-3% year on year. This is a good deal.

Unlike most talk about interest rates, where they’re entirely hypothetical, I really do mean that 1-2% figure. That’s actually higher than the average rate the US government has been paying to borrow over the last decade (Germany had it even better; they briefly paid negative interest rates). Governments – at least those with a relatively good track record around money – really have a superpower with how cheaply they can get money, so if nothing else, it’s worth keeping debt relatively low so that they don’t lose their reputation for responsibility and continue to have access to cheap money for when they really need it.

That’s the case in a moderately disciplined developed nation with adequate foreign reserves, at least. In a cash-poor or underdeveloped economy where a decent portion of any loan is lost to cronyism and waste, the case for loans being positive is much more… mixed. For these countries, discipline means “taking no loans at all”.

When discipline falls apart and debt levels rise too high, very bad things start to happen.

Is 100% of GDP The Line Beyond Which Debt Shouldn’t Rise?

There is nothing special about 100% of GDP, except that people think it is special.

Sometimes, people talk about markets like they’re these big impersonal systems that have no human input. This feels true because the scale of the global financial system is such that from the perspective of pretty much any individual person, they’re impersonal and impossible to really influence. But ultimately, other than a few high frequency trading platforms, all decisions in a market have to be made by humans.

Humans have decided that in certain cases, it’s bad when a country has more than 100% of its GDP in debt. This means that it becomes much more expensive to get new loans (and because of the constant rollover, even old loans eventually become new loans) when a country crosses this Rubicon, which in turn makes them much more likely to default. There’s some element of self-fulfilling prophecy here!

(Obviously there does have to be some point where a country really is at risk from its debt load and obviously this needs to be scaled to country size and wealth to not be useless. I think people have chosen 100% of GDP more because it’s a nice round number and it’s simple to calculate, not because it has particularly great inherent predictive power, absent the power it has as a self-fulfilling prophecy. Maybe the “objectively correct” number is in fact 132.7% of the value of all exports, or 198% of 5-year average government revenues… In either case, we’ve kind of lost our chance; any number calculated now would be heavily biased by the crisis of confidence that can happen when debt reaches 100% of GDP.)

That said, comparing a country’s debt load to its GDP without making adjustments is a recipe for confusion. While Everyone was fretting about Greece having ~125% of its GDP in debt, Japan was carrying 238% of its GDP in debt.

There are two reasons that Japan’s debt is much less worrying than Greece’s.

First, there’s the issue of who’s holding that debt. A very large portion of Japanese debt is held by its own central bank. By my calculations (based off the most recent BOJ numbers), the Bank of Japan is holding approximately 44% of the Japanese government’s debt. Given that the Bank of Japan is an organ of the Japanese Government (albeit an arm’s length one), this debt is kind of owed by the government of Japan, to the government of Japan. When 44% of every loan payment might ultimately find its way back to you, your loan payments become less scary.

Second, there’s the issue of denomination. Greek public debts are denominated in Euros, a currency that Greece doesn’t control. If Greece wants €100, it must collect €100 in taxes from its citizens. Greece cannot just create Euros.

Japanese debt is denominated in Yen. Because Japan controls the yen, it has two options for repaying ¥100 of debt. It can collect ¥100 in taxes – representing ¥100 worth of valuable work. Or it can print ¥100. There are obvious consequences to printing money, namely inflation. But given that Japan has struggled with chronic deflation and has consistently underperformed the inflation targets economists think it needs to meet, it’s clear that a bit of inflation isn’t the worst thing that could happen to it.

When evaluating whether a debt burden is a problem, you should always consider the denomination of the debt, who the debtholders are, and how much inflation a country can tolerate. It is always worse to hold debt in a denomination that you don’t control. It’s always worse to owe money to people who aren’t you (especially people more powerful than you), and it’s always easier to answer debt with inflation when your economy needs more inflation anyways.

This also suggests that government debt is much more troubling when it’s held by a sub-national institution than by a national institution (with the exception of Europe, where even nations don’t individually control the currency). In this case, monetary policy options are normally off the table and there’s normally someone who’s able to force you to pay your debt, no matter what that does to your region.

Developing countries very rarely issue debt in their own currency, mainly because no one is interested in buying it. This, combined with low foreign cash reserves puts them at a much higher risk of failing to make scheduled debt payments – i.e. experiencing an actual default.

What Happens If A Country Defaults?

No two defaults are exactly alike, so the consequences vary. That said, there do tend to be two common features: austerity and inflation.

Austerity happens for a variety of reasons. Perhaps spending levels were predicated on access to credit. Without that access, they can’t be maintained. Or perhaps a higher body mandated it; see for example Germany (well, officially, the EU) mandating austerity in Greece, or Michigan mandating austerity in Detroit.

Inflation also occurs for a variety of reasons. Perhaps the government tries to fill a budgetary shortfall and avoid austerity by printing bills. This flood of money bids up prices, ruins savings and causes real wages to decline. Perhaps it becomes hard to convince foreigners to accept the local currency in exchange for goods, so anything imported becomes very expensive. When many goods are imported, this can lead to very rapid inflation. Perhaps people in general lose faith in money (and so it becomes nearly worthless), maybe in conjunction with the debt crisis expanding to the financial sector and banks subsequently failing. Most likely, it will be some combination of these three, as well as others I haven’t thought to mention.

During a default, it’s common to see standards of living plummet, life savings disappear, currency flight into foreign denominations, promptly followed by currency controls, which prohibit sending cash outside of the country. Currency controls make leaving the country virtually impossible and make any necessary imports a bureaucratic headache. This is fine when the imports in question are water slides, but very bad when they’re chemotherapy drugs or rice.

On the kind of bright side, defaults also tend to lead to mass unemployment, which gives countries experiencing them comparative advantage in any person intensive industry. Commonly people would say “wages are low, so manufacturing moves there”, but that isn’t quite how international trade works. It’s not so much low wages that basic manufacturing jobs go in search of, but a workforce that can’t do anything more productive and less labour intensive. This looks the same, but has the correlation flipped. In either case, this influx of manufacturing jobs can contain within it the seed of later recovery.

If a country has sound economic management (like Argentina did in 2001), a default isn’t the end of the world. It can negotiate a “haircut” of its loans, giving its creditors something less than the full amount, but more than nothing. It might even be able to borrow again in a few years, although the rates that it will have to offer will start out in credit card territory and only slowly recover towards auto-loan territory.

When these trends aren’t managed by competent leadership, or when the same leaders (or leadership culture) that got a country into a mess are allowed to continue, the recovery tends to be moribund and the crises continual. See, for example, how Greece has limped along, never really recovering over the past decade.

Where Does Ontario Fit In?

My own home province of Ontario is currently in the midst of an election and one candidate, Doug Ford, has made the ballooning public debt the centrepiece of his campaign. Evaluating his claims gives us a practical example of how to evaluate claims of this sort in general.

First, Ontario doesn’t control the currency that its debt is issued in, which is an immediate risk factor for serious debt problems. Ontario also isn’t dominant enough within Canada to dictate monetary policy to the Federal Government. Inflation for the sake of saving Ontario would doom any sitting Federal government in every other province, so we can’t expect any help from the central bank.

Debt relief from the Federal government is possible, but it couldn’t come without hooks attached. We’d definitely lose some of our budgetary authority, certainly face austerity, and even then, it might be too politically unpalatable to the rest of the country.

However, the sky is not currently falling. While debt rating services have lost some confidence in our willingness, if not our ability to get spending under control and our borrowing costs have consequently risen, we’re not yet into a vicious downwards spiral. Our debt is at a not actively unhealthy 39% of the GDP and the interest rate is a non-usurious 4%.

That said, it’s increased more quickly than the economy has grown over the past decade. Another decade going on like we currently are certainly would put us at risk of a vicious cycle of increased interest rates and crippling debt.

Doug Ford’s emotional appeals about mortgaging our grandchildren’s future are exaggerated and false. I’ve already explained how countries don’t work like families. But there is a more pragmatic concern here. If we don’t control our spending now, on our terms, someone else – be it lenders in a default or the federal government in a bailout – will do it for us.

Imagine the courts forcing Ontario to service its debt before paying for social services and schools. Imagine the debt eating up a full quarter of the budget, with costs rising every time a loan is rolled over. Imagine our public services cut to the bone and our government paralyzed without workers. Things would get bad and the people who most need a helping hand from the government would be hit the hardest.

I plan to take this threat seriously and vote for a party with a credible plan to balance our budget in the short term.

If one even exists. Contrary to his protestations, Doug Ford isn’t leading a party committed to reducing the deficit. He’s publically pledged himself to scrapping the carbon tax. Absent it, but present the rest of his platform, the deficit spending is going to continue (during a period of sustained growth, no less!). Doug Ford is either lying about what he’s going to cut, or he’s lying about ending the debt. That’s not a gamble I particularly want to play.

I do hope that someone campaigns on a fully costed plan to restore fiscal order to Ontario. Because we are currently on the path to looking a lot like Greece.

Model, Politics, Quick Fix

The Awkward Dynamics of the Conservative Leadership Debates

Tanya Granic Allen is the most idealistic candidate I’ve ever seen take the stage in a Canadian political debate. This presents some awkward challenges for the candidates facing her, especially Mulroney and Elliot.

First, there’s the simple fact of her idealism. I think Granic Allen genuinely believes everything she says. For her, knowing what’s right and what’s wrong is simple. There isn’t a whole lot of grey. She even (bless her) probably believes that this will be an advantage come election time. People overwhelming don’t like the equivocation of politicians, so Granic Allen must assume her unequivocal moral stances will be a welcome change

For many people, it must be. Even for those who find it grating, it seems almost vulgar to attack her. It’s clear that she isn’t in this for herself and doesn’t really care about personal power. Whether she could maintain that innocence in the face of the very real need to make political compromises remains an open question, but for now she does represent a certain vein of ideological conservatism in a form that is unsullied by concerns around electability.

The problem here is that the stuff Granic Allen is pushing – “conscience rights” and “parental choice” – is exactly the sort of thing that can mobilize opposition to the PC party. Fighting against sex-ed and abortion might play well with the base, but Elliot and Mulroney know that unbridled social conservatism is one of the few things that can force the province’s small-l liberals to hold their noses and vote for the big-L Liberal Party. In an election where we can expect embarrassingly low turnout (it was 52% in 2014), this can play a major role.

A less idealistic candidate would temper themselves to help the party in the election. Granic Allen has no interest in doing this, which basically forces the pragmatists to navigate the tricky act of distancing themselves from her popular (with the base) proposals so that they might carry the general election.

Second, there’s the difficult interaction between the anti-rational and anti-empirical “common sense” conservatism pushed by Granic Allen and Ford and the pragmatic, informed conservatism of Elliot and Mulroney.

For Ford and Granic Allen, there’s a moral nature to truth. They live in a just world where something being good is enough to make it true. Mulroney and Elliot know that reality has an anti-partisan bias.

Take clean energy contracts. Elliot quite correctly pointed out that ripping up contracts willy-nilly will lead to a terrible business climate in Ontario. This is the sort of suggestion we normally see from the hard left (and have seen in practice in places the hard left idolizes, like Venezuela). But Granic Allen is committed to a certain vision of the world and in her vision of the world, government getting out of the way can’t help but be good.

Christine Elliot has (and this is a credit to her) shown that she’s not very ideological, in that she can learn how the world really works and subordinate ideology to truth, even when inconvenient. This would make her a more effective premier than either Granic Allen or Ford, but might hurt her in the leadership race. I’ve seen her freeze a couple times when she’s faced with defending how the world really works to an audience that is ideologically prevented from acknowledging the truth.

(See for example, the look on her face when she was forced to defend her vote to ban conversion therapy. Elliot’s real defense of that bill probably involves phrases like “stuck in the past”, “ignorant quacks” and “vulnerable children who need to be protected from people like you”. But she knew that a full-throated defense of gender dysphoria as a legitimate problem wouldn’t win her any votes in this race.)

As Joseph Heath has pointed out, this tension between reality and ideology is responsible for the underrepresentation of modern conservatives among academics. Since the purpose of the academy is (broadly) truth-seeking, we shouldn’t be surprised to see it select against an ideology that explicitly rejects not only the veracity of much of the products of this truth seeking (see, for example, Granic Allen’s inability to clearly state that humans are causing climate change) but the worthwhileness of the whole endeavour of truth seeking.

When everything is trivially knowable via the proper application of “common-sense”, there’s no point in thinking deeply. There’s no point in experts. You just figure out what’s right and you do it. Anything else just confuses the matter and leaves the “little guy” to get shafted by the elites.

Third, the carbon tax has produced a stark, unvoiced split between the candidates. On paper, all are opposing it. In reality, only Ford and Granic Allen seriously believe they have any chance at stopping it. I’m fairly sure that Elliot and Mulroney plan to mount a token opposition, then quickly fold when they’re reminded that raising taxes and giving money to provinces is a thing the Federal Government is allowed to do. This means that they’re counting on money from the carbon tax to balance their budget proposals. They can’t say this, because Ford and Granic Allen are forcing them to the right here, but I would bet that they’re privately using it to reassure fiscally conservative donors about the deficit.

Being unable to discuss what is actually the centrepiece of their financial plans leaves Elliot and Mulroney unable to give very good information about how they plan to balance the budget. They have to fall back on empty phrases like “line by line by line audit” and “efficiencies”, because anything else feels like political suicide.

This shows just how effective Granic Allen has been at being a voice for the grassroots. By staking out positions that resonate with the base, she’s forcing other leadership contestants to endorse them or risk losing to her. Note especially how she’s been extracting promises from Elliot and Mulroney whenever possible – normally around things she knows they don’t want to agree to but that play well with the base. By doing this, she hopes to remove much of their room to maneuver in the general election and prevent any big pivot to centre.

Whether this will work really depends on how costly politicians find breaking promises. Conventional wisdom holds that they aren’t particularly bothered by it. I wonder if Granic Allen’s idealism blinds her to this fact. I’m certainly sure that she wouldn’t break a promise except under the greatest duress.

On the left, it’s very common to see a view of politics that emphasizes pure and moral people. The problem with the system, says the communist, is that we let greedy people run it. If we just replaced them all with better people, we’d get a fair society. Granic Allen is certainly no communist. But she does seem to believe in the “just need good people” theory of government – and whether she wins or loses, she’s determined to bring all the other candidates with her.

This isn’t an incrementalist approach, which is why it feels so foreign to people like me. Granic Allen seems to be making the decision that she’d rather the Conservatives lose (again!) to the Liberals than that they win without a firm commitment to do things differently.

The conflict in the Ontario Conservative party ­– the conflict that was surfaced when his rivals torpedoed Patrick Brown – is around how far the party is willing to go to win. The Ontario Conservatives aren’t the first party to go through this. When UK Labour members picked Jeremy Corbyn, they clearly threw electability behind ideological purity.

In the Ontario PC party, Allen and Ford have clearly staked out a position emphasizing purity. Mulroney and Elliot have just as clearly chosen to emphasize success. Now it’s up to the members. I’m very interested to see what they decide.

Economics, Politics, Quick Fix

Cities Are Weird And Minimum Wages Can Help

[6-minute read]

I don’t understand why people choose to go bankrupt living the most expensive cities, but I’m increasingly viewing this as a market failure and collective action problem to be fixed with intervention, not a failure of individual judgement.

There are many cities, like Brantford, Waterloo, or even Ottawa, where everything works properly. Rent isn’t really more expensive than suburban or rural areas. There’s public transit, which means you don’t necessarily need a car, if you choose where you live with enough care. There are plenty of jobs. Stuff happens.

But cities like Toronto, Vancouver, and San Francisco confuse the hell out of me. The cost of living is through the roof, but wages don’t even come close to following (the difference in salary between Toronto and Waterloo for someone with my qualifications is $5,000, which in no way would cover the yearly difference in living expenses). This is odd when talking about well-off tech workers, but becomes heartbreaking when talking about low-wage workers.

Toronto Skyline
Not pictured: Selling your organs to afford a one-bedroom condo. Image Credit: Abi K on Flickr

If people were perfectly rational and only cared about money (the mythical homo economicus), fewer people would move to cities, which would bid up wages (to increase the supply of workers) or drive down prices (because fewer people would be competing for the same apartments), which would make cities more affordable. But people do care about things other than money and the network effects of cities are hard to beat (put simply: the bigger the city, the more options for a not-boring life you have). So, people move – in droves – to the most expensive and dynamic cities and wages don’t go up (because the supply of workers never falls) and the cost of living does (because the number of people competing for housing does) and low wage workers get ground up.

It’s not that I don’t understand the network effects. It’s that I don’t understand why people get ground up instead of moving.

But the purpose of good economics is to deal with people as they are, not as they can be most conveniently modeled. And given this, I’ve begun to think about high minimum wages in cities as an intervention that fixes a market failure and collective action problem.

That is to say: people are bad at reading the market signal that they shouldn’t move to cities that they can’t afford. It’s the signal that’s supposed to say here be scarce goods, you might get screwed, but the siren song of cities seems to overpower it. This is a market failure in the technical sense because there exists a distribution of goods that could make people (economically) better off (fewer people living in big cities) without making anyone worse off (e.g. they could move to communities that are experiencing chronic shortages of labour and be basically guaranteed jobs that would pay the bills) that the market cannot seem to fix.

(That’s not to say that this is all the fault of the market. Restrictive zoning makes housing expensive and rent control makes it scarce.)

It’s a collective action problem because if everyone could credibly threaten to move, then they wouldn’t have to; the threat would be enough to increase wages. Unfortunately, everyone knows that anyone who leaves the city will be quickly replaced. Everyone would be better off if they could coordinate and make all potential movers promise not to move in until wages increase, but there’s no benefit to being the first person to leave or the first person to avoid moving [1] and there currently seems to be no good way for everyone to coordinate in making a threat.

When faced with the steady grinding down of young people, low wage workers, and everyone “just waiting for their big break“, we have two choices. We can do tut-tut at their inability to be “rational” (aka leave their friends, family, jobs, and aspirations to move somewhere else [2]), or we can try to better their situation.

If everyone was acting “rationally”, wages would be bid up. But we can accomplish the same thing by simple fiat. Governments can set a minimum wage or offer wage subsidies, after all.

I do genuinely worry that in some places, large increases in the minimum wage will lead to unemployment (we’ll figure out whether this is true over the next decade or so). I’m certainly worried that a minimum wage pegged to inflation will lead to massive problems the next time we have a recession [3].

So, I think we should fix zoning, certainly. And I think we need to fix how Ontario’s minimum wage functions in a recession so that it doesn’t destroy our whole economy during the next one. But at the same time, I think we need to explore differential minimum wages for our largest cities and the rest of the province/country. I mean this even in a world where the current minimum $14/hour wage isn’t rolled back. Would even $15/hour cut it in Toronto and Vancouver [4]?

If we can’t make a minimum wage work without increased unemployment, then maybe we’ll have to turn to wage subsidies. This is actually the method that “conservative” economist Scott Sumner favours [5].

What’s clear to me is that what we’re currently doing isn’t working.

I do believe in a right to shelter. Like anyone who shares this belief, I understand that “shelter” is a broad word, encompassing everything from a tarp to a mansion. Where a certain housing situation falls on this spectrum is the source of many a debate. Writing this is a repudiation of my earlier view, that living in an especially desirable city was a luxury not dissimilar from a mansion.

A couple of things changed my mind. First, I paid more attention to the experiences of my friends who might be priced out of the cities they grew up in and have grown to love. Second, I read the Ecomodernist Manifesto, with its calls for densification as the solution to environmental degradation and climate change. Densification cannot happen if many people are priced out of cities, which means figuring this out is actually existentially important.

The final piece of the puzzle was the mental shift whereby I started to view wages in cities – especially for low-wage earners – as a collective action problem and a market failure. As anyone on the centre-left can tell you, it’s the government’s job to fix those – ideally in a redistributive way.


[1] This is inductive up to the point where you have a critical mass; there’s no benefit until you’re the nth + 1 person, where n is the number of people necessary to create a scarcity of workers sufficient to begin bidding up wages. And all of the people who moved will see little benefit for their hassle, unless they’re willing to move back. ^

[2] For us nomadic North Americans, this can be confusing: “The gospel of ‘just pick up and leave’ is extremely foreign to your typical European — be they Serbian, French or Irish. Ditto with a Sudanese, Afghan or Japanese national. In Israel, it’s the kind of suggestion that ruins dinner parties… We non-indigenous love to move. We don’t just see it as just good economic policy, but as a virtue. We glorify the immigrant, we hug them at the airport when they arrive and we inherently mistrust anyone who dares to pine for what they left behind”. ^

[3] Basically, wages should fall in a recession, but they largely don’t, which means inflation is necessary to get wages back to a level where employment can recover; pegging the minimum wage to inflation means this can’t happen. Worse, if the rest of the country were to adopt sane monetary policy during the next bad recession, Ontario’s minimum wage could rise to the point where it would swallow large swathes of the economy. This would really confuse price signals and make some work economically unviable (to do in Ontario; it would surely still be done elsewhere). ^

[4] I think we may have to subsidize some new construction or portion of monthly rent so that all increased wages don’t get ploughed into to increased rents. If you have more money chasing the same number of rental units and everything else remains constant, you’ll see all gains in wages erased by increases in rents. Rent control is a very imperfect solution, because it changes new construction into units that can be bought outright, at market rates. This helps people who have saved up a lot of money outside of the city and what to move there, but is very bad for the people living there, grappling with rent so high that they can’t afford to save up a down payment. ^

[5] No seriously, this is what passes for conservative among economists these days; while we all stopped looking, they all became utilitarians who want to help impoverished people as much as possible. ^

Economics, Politics

You’re Doing Taxes Wrong: Consumptive vs. Wealth Inequality

When you worry about rising inequality, what are you thinking about?

I now know of two competing models for inequality, each of which has vastly different implications for political economy.

In the first, called consumptive inequality, inequality is embodied in differential consumption. Under this model, there is a huge gap between Oracle CEO Larry Ellison (net worth: $60 billion), with his private islands, his yacht, etc. and myself, with my cheap rented apartment, ten-year-old bike, and modest savings. In fact, under this model, there’s even a huge gap between Larry Ellison with all of his luxury goods and Berkshire Hathaway CEO Warren Buffett (net worth: $90.6 billion), with his relatively cheap house and restrained tastes.

Pictured: Warren Buffett’s house vs. Larry Ellison’s yacht. The yacht is many, many times larger than the house. Image credits: TEDizen and reivax.

Under the second model, inequality in new worth or salary is all that matters. This is the classic model that gives us the GINI coefficient and “the 1%”. Under this model, Warren Buffett is the very best off, with Larry Ellison close behind. I’m not even in contention.

I’ve been thinking a lot about inequality because of the recent increase in the minimum wage in Ontario. The reasons behind the wage hike – and similar economic justice proposals (like capping CEO pay at some double-digit multiple of worker pay) – seem to show a concern for consumptive inequality.

That is to say, the prevailing narrative around inequality is that it is bad because:

  1. Rich people are able to consume in a way that is frankly bananas and often destructive either to the environment or norms of good governance
  2. Workers cannot afford all basic necessities, or must choose between basic necessities and thinking long term (e.g. by saving for their children’s education or their own retirement)

Despite this focus on consumptive inequality in public rhetoric, our tax system seems to be focused primarily on wealth inequality.

Now, it is true that wealth inequality can often lead to consumptive inequality. Larry Ellison is able to consume to such an obscene degree only because he is so obscenely wealthy. But it is also true that wealth inequality doesn’t necessarily lead to consumptive inequality (there are upper middle-class people who have larger houses than Warren Buffett) and that it might be useful to structure our tax policy and other instruments of political economy such that there was a serious incentive for wealth inequality not to lead to consumptive inequality.

What I mean is: it’s unlikely that we’re going to reach a widely held consensus that wealth is immoral (or at what level it becomes immoral). But I think we already have a widely held consensus that given the existence of wealth, it is better to wield it like Mr. Buffett than like Mr. Ellison.

To a certain extent, we already acknowledge this. In Canada, there are substantial tax advantages to investing up 18% of your yearly earnings (below a certain point) and giving up to 75% of your income to charity. That said, we continue to bafflingly tax many productive uses of wealth (like investing), while refusing to adequately tax many frivolous or actively destructive uses of wealth (large cars, private jets, private yachts, influencing the political process, etc.).

Many people, myself included, find the idea of large amounts of wealth fundamentally immoral. Still, I’d rather tax the conspicuous and pointless use of wealth than wealth itself, because there are many people motivated to do great things (like curate all of the world’s information and put it at our fingertips) because of desire for wealth.

I’m enough of a post-modernist to worry that any attempt to create a metric of “social value” will further disenfranchise people who have already been subject to systemic discrimination and fail to reflect the tastes of anyone younger than 35 (I just can’t believe that a bunch of politicians would get together and agree that anyone creates social value or deserves compensation for e.g. cosplay, even though I know many people who find it immensely valuable and empowering).

That’s the motivation. Now for the practice. What would a tax plan optimized to punish spurious consumption while maintaining economic growth even look like? Luckily Scott Sumner has provided an outline, the cleverness of which I’d like to explain.

No income tax

When you take money from people as taxes, then give it back to them regardless of how hard they work, you discourage work. It turns out that this effect is rather large, such that the higher income taxes are, the more you discourage people from working. People working is a necessary prerequisite for economic growth and I view economic growth as largely positive (in that it is very good at engendering happiness and stability, as well as guaranteeing those of us currently working the possibility of retiring one day and generating revenues for a social safety net) and therefore think we should try and tax in a way that doesn’t discourage this.

No corporate tax

Another important component of economic growth is investment. We can imagine a hypothetical economy where absolutely everything that is produced is consumed, such that much is made, but nothing ever really changes. The products available this year will be the products available next year, at the same price and made in the same factory, with any worn-down equipment replaced, but no additional equipment purchased.

Obviously, this is a toy example. But if you’ve bought a product this year that didn’t exist last year, or noticed the cost of something you regularly buy fall, you’ve reaped the rewards of investment. We need people to deliberately set aside some of the production they’re entitled too via possession of money so that it can instead be used to improve the process of production.

Corporate taxes discourage this by making investment less attractive. In fact, they actively encourage consumptive inequality, by making consumption artificially cheaper than investment. This is the exact opposite of what we should be aiming for!

Interestingly, there have been a variety of report positive results of the recent cut in corporate tax rates in the US, from repatriation of money for US investment to bonuses for workers.

Now, I know that corporate taxes feel very satisfying. Corporations make a lot of money (although probably less than you think!) and it feels right and proper to divert some of that for public usage. But there are better ways of diverting that money (some of which I’ll talk about below) that manage to fill the public coffers without incentivizing behaviour even worse than profit seeking (like bloated executive pay; taxing corporate income makes paying the CEO a lot artificially cheap). Corporate taxes also hurt normal people in a variety of ways – like making saving for retirement harder.

No inheritance tax

This is another example of artificially making consumption more attractive. Look at it this way: you (a hypothetical you who is very wealthy) can buy a yacht now, use it for a while, loan it to your kids, them have them inherit it when it’s depreciated significantly, reducing the tax they have to pay on it. Or you can invest so that you can give your children a lot of money. Most rich people aren’t going to want to leave nothing behind for their children. Therefore, we shouldn’t penalize people who are going to use the money for non-frivolous things in the interim.

A VAT (with rebates or exemptions)

A VAT, or value added tax, is a tax on consumption; you pay it whenever you buy something from a store or online. A “value-added” tax differs from a simple sales tax in that it allows for tax paid to suppliers to be deducted from taxes owed. This is necessary so that complex, multi-step products (like computers) don’t artificially cost more than more simple products (like wood).

Scott Sumner suggests that a VAT can be easily made free for low-income folks by automatically refunding the VAT rate times the national poverty income to everyone each year. This is nice and simple and has low administrative overhead (another key concern for a taxation system; every dollar spent paying people to oversee the process of collecting taxes is a dollar that can’t be spent on social programs).

An alternative, currently favoured in Canada, is to avoid taxing essentials (like unprepared food). This means that people who spend a large portion of their money on food are taxed at a lower overall rate than people who spend more money on non-essential products.

A steeply progressive payroll tax

If income inequality is something you want to avoid, I’d argue that a progressive payroll tax is more effective than almost any other measure. This makes companies directly pay the government if they wish to have high wage workers and makes it more politically palatable to raise taxes on upper brackets, even to the point of multiples of the paid salary.

While this may seem identical to taxing income, the psychological effect is rather different, which is important when dealing with real people, not perfectly rational economics automata. Payroll taxes also make tax avoidance via incorporating impossible (as all corporate income, including dividends after subtracting investment would be subject to the payroll tax) and makes it easy to really punish companies for out of control executive compensation. Under a payroll tax system, you can quite easily impose a 1000% tax on executive compensation over $1,000,000. It’s pretty hard to justify a CEO salary of $10,000,000 when it’s costing investors more than a hundred million dollars!

Scott Sumner also suggests wage subsidies as an option to avoid the distortionary effect of a minimum wage [1], a concept I’ve previously explored in depth and found to be probably workable.

A progressive property tax

Property taxes tend to be flat, which makes them less effective at discouraging conspicuous consumption (e.g. 4,500 square foot suburban McMansions). If property taxes sharply ramped up with house value or size, families that chose more appropriately sized homes (or could only afford appropriately sized home) would be taxed at lower rates than their profligate neighbours. Given that developments with smaller houses are either higher density (which makes urban services cheaper and cars less necessary) or have more greenspace (which is good from an environmental perspective, especially in flood prone areas), it’s especially useful to convince people to live in smaller houses.

This would be best combined with laxer zoning. For example, minimum house sizes have long been a tool used in “nice” suburbs, to deliberately price out anyone who doesn’t have a high income. Zoning houses for single family use was also seized upon as a way to keep Asian immigrants out of white neighbourhoods (as a combination of culture and finances made them more likely to have more than just a single nuclear family in a dwelling). Lax zoning would allow for flexibility in housing size and punitive taxes on large houses would drive demand for more environmentally sustainable houses and higher density living.

A carbon tax

Carbon is what economists call a negative externality. It’s a thing we produce that negatively affects other people without a mechanism for us to naturally pay the cost of this inflicted disutility. When we tax a negative externality, we stop over-consumption [2] of things that produce that externality. In the specific case of taxing carbon, we can use this tax to very quickly bring emissions in line with the emissions necessary to avoid catastrophic warming.

I’d like to generalize this to Pigovian taxes beyond carbon. Alcohol (and other intoxicants), sugary drinks, and possibly tobacco should be taxed in line with their tendency to produce costs that (in countries with public risk pooling of health costs) are not borne by the individual over-consuming. I do think it’s important to avoid taking this too far – it’s reasonable to expect people to cover their negative externality, but not reasonable to punitively tax things just because a negative externality might exist or because we think it is wrong or “unhealthy” to do it. Not everything that is considered unhealthy leads to actual diseases, let alone increased healthcare costs.

A luxury goods tax

This comes from a separate post by Scott Sumner, but I think it’s a good enough idea to mention here. It should be possible to come up with a relatively small list of items that are mostly positional – that is to say that the vast majority of their cost is for the sake of being expensive (and therefore showing how wealthy and important the possessor is), not for providing increasing quality. To illustrate: there is a significant gap in functionality between a $3,000 beater car and a $30,000 new car, less of a gap between a $30,000 car and a $300,000 car and even less of a gap between the $300,000 car and a $3,000,000 car; the $300,000 car is largely positional, the $3,000,000 car almost wholly so. To these we could add items that are almost purely for luxury, like 100+ foot yachts.

It’s necessary to keep this list small and focus on truly grotesque expenditures, lest we turn into a society of petty moralizers. There’s certainly a perspective (normally held by people rather older than the participants) in which spending money on cosplay or anime merchandise is frivolous, but if it is, it’s the sort of harmless frivolity equivalent to spending an extra dollar on coffee. I am in general in favour of letting people spend money on things I consider frivolous, because I know many of the things I spend money on (and enjoy) are in turn viewed as frivolous by others [3]. However, I think there comes a point when it’s hard to accuse anyone of petty moralizing and I think that point is probably around enough money to prevent dozens of deaths from malaria (i.e. $100,000+) [4].

Besides, there’s the fact that making positional goods more expensive via taxation just makes them more exclusive. If anything, a strong levy on luxury goods may make them more desirable to some.

As I’ve read more economics, my positions on many economics issues have shifted in a way that many people parse as “more conservative”. I reject this. There are a great many “liberal” positions that sound good on paper, but when you actually do the math, hurt the poor and benefit the rich. Free trade makes things cheaper for all of us and has created new jobs and industries. A lot of regulation allows monopolies and large companies to crush any upstart rivals, or shifts jobs from blue collar workers making things to white collar workers ensuring compliance.

It is true that I care about the economy in a way that I never cared about it before. I care that we have sustainable growth that enriches us all. I care about the stock market making gains, because I’ve realized just how much of the stock market is people’s pensions. I care about start-ups forming to meet brand new needs, even when the previous generation views them as frivolous. I care about human flourishing and I now believe that requires us to have a functioning economic system.

A lot of how we do tax policy is bad. It’s based on making us feel good, not on encouraging good behaviour and avoiding weird economic distortions. It encourages the worst excesses of wealth and it’s too easy to avoid.

What I’ve outlined here is a series of small taxes, small enough to make each not worth the effort to avoid, that together can easily collect enough revenue to ensure a redistributive state. They have the advantage of cutting particularly hard against conspicuous consumption and protecting the planet from unchecked global warming. I sincerely believe that if more people gave them honest consideration, they would advocate for them too and together we could build a fairer, more effective taxation system.


[1] A minimum wage can make it impossible to have Pareto optimal distributions – distributions where you cannot make anyone better off without making someone else worse off. Here’s a trivial example: imagine a company with two overworked employees, each of whom make $15/hour. The employees are working more than they particularly want to, because there’s too much work for the two of them to complete. Unfortunately, the company can only afford to pay an additional $7/hour and the minimum wage is $14/hour. If the company could hire someone without much work experience for $7/hour everyone would be better off.

The existing employees would be less overworked and happier. The new employee would be making money. The company could probably do slightly more business.

Wage subsidies would allow for the Pareto optimal distribution to exist while also paying the third worker a living wage. ^

[2] Over-consumption here means: “using more of it than you would if you have to properly compensate people for their disutility”, not the more commonly used definition that merely means “consuming more than is sustainable”.

An illustration of the difference: In a world with very expensive carbon capture systems that mitigate global warming and are paid for via flat taxes, it would be possible to be over-consuming gasoline in the economics sense, in that if you were paying a share of the carbon capture costs commensurate with your use, you’d use less carbon, while not consuming an amount of gasoline liable to lead to environmental catastrophe, even if everyone consumed a similar amount. ^

[3] For example, I spent six times as much as the median Canadian on books last year, despite the fact that there’s a perfectly good library less than five minutes from my house. I’m not particularly proud of this, but it made me happy. ^

[4] I am aware of the common rejoinder to this sort of thinking, which is basically summed up as “sure, a sports car doesn’t directly feed anyone, but it does feed the workers who made it”. It is certainly true that heavily taxing luxury items will probably put some people out of work in the industries that make them. But as Scott Sumner points out, it is impossible to meaningfully fix consumptive inequality without hurting jobs that produce things for rich people. If you aren’t hurting these industries, you have not meaningfully changed consumptive inequality!

Note also that if we’re properly redistributing money from taxes that affect rich people, we’re not going to destroy jobs, just shift them to sectors that don’t primarily serve rich people. ^

History, Literature, Politics

Book Review: Origins of Totalitarianism Part 1

[Content Warning: Discussions of genocide and antisemitism]

Hannah Arendt’s massive study of totalitarianism, The Origins of Totalitarianism, is (at the time of writing), the fourth most popular political theory book on Amazon (after two editions of The Prince, Plato’s Republic, and a Rebecca Solnit book). It’s also a densely written tome, not unsuitable for defending oneself from wild animals. Many of its paragraphs could productively be turned into whole books of their own.

I’m not done it yet. But a review and summary of the whole thing would be far too large for a single blog post. Therefore, I’m going to review its three main sections as I finish them. Hannah Arendt’s Eichmann in Jerusalem set my mind afire and spurred my very first essay on political theory, so I’m very excited to be reviewing the section on antisemitism today.

(Reminder: unless I’m specifically claiming a viewpoint as my own, I am merely summarizing Arendt’s views as I best understand them)

Arendt’s history of antisemitism begins when religious pogroms against Jews ended. Arendt isn’t really interested in this earlier persecution, which she views as entirely distinct from later antisemitism. As far as I can tell, there are two reasons that underlie this distinction. The first is the lack of a political component to the earlier pogroms. Their lack of politicization – there was no one in Christendom who really spoke against them – made them almost by definition politically useless.

For antisemitism to become a rallying cry for a movement, it needed to be more than just antisemitism. It had to also implicate a whole host of people despised by the mob, people who could be expected to stand up against antisemitism, or people who could be compared to Jews so as to focus hatred on them (a practice which continues to this day). The unanimity of the Christian pogroms robbed them of any usage in power struggles between Christians, because any Christian could take up the banner of the pogroms and so divide support for their rivals.

Second, there was always one escape from the Christian pogroms: conversion to Christianity. This escape was notably lacking from later, political antisemitism. Jewishness became a racial stain carried down through the generations, not merely a different religion.

Nowhere is this distinction better seen than between the Vichy government and the occupying Germans. The Germans would ask the Vichy regime to exterminate Jews. And the Vichy government would wipe out foreign Jews, or Jews that didn’t have French citizenship, or Jews that weren’t willing to convert. The French were still somewhat in the old Christian mindset of “good” Jews and “bad” Jews. The Germans wished to exterminate all Jews and made no distinctions between good and bad.

Arendt analyzes this second distinction through the lens of vice and crime. To Arendt, a vice is a crime which has become accepted as inextricably linked to certain people, such that they cannot help but commit it. She describes this as similar to an addict being hooked on drugs.

When you accept that certain people have vices, you may excuse them some of their crimes. According to Arendt, in late 19th century/early 20th century society, a judge would face no opposition to giving a lighter sentence for murder to a gay man, or a lighter sentence for treason to a Jew, because these crimes were viewed to be a matter of racial predestination.

(This definition of vice cuts towards one of my most common annoyances with Arendt: she’s very prone to redefining common words to mean other things. This can leave incautious readers to jump to rather the wrong conclusion, as happened most famously with her definition of “think” in Eichmann in Jerusalem.)

The danger that Arendt identifies here is that this “tolerance” for murder or treason can be quickly reversed. And when this happens, it isn’t enough just to punish the traitors or murderers. Everyone who is racially or dispositionally inclined to these crimes must then be “liquidated”.

Hannah Arendt’s exact phrasing of the threat here is:

It is an attraction to murder and treason which hides behind such perverted tolerance, for in a moment it can switch to a decision to liquidate not only all actual criminals but all who are “racially” predestined to commit certain crimes. Such changes take place whenever the legal and political machine is not separated from society so that social standards can penetrate into it and become political and legal rules. The seeming broad-mindedness that equates crime and vice, if allowed to establish its own code of law, will invariably prove more cruel and inhuman than laws, no matter how severe, which respect and recognize man’s independent responsibility for his behavior.

Having separated modern antisemitism from earlier religious pogroms, Arendt also spends some time separating nationalism from totalitarianism. Nationalism, to Arendt, is always inward focused. It views one’s own nation as best and spurns contact with outsiders. Nationalism may be paranoid and bellicose, but it has no desire to expand, nor any desire to coordinate with foreign nationalists. Totalitarianism, on the other hand, is always focused outwards, its eyes set on world domination.

There were, of course, international organizations of both fascists and communists, the two totalitarian ideologies. But I wonder how nations like North Korea (with no real plausible path to world domination) and Eritrea (which as far as I know is entirely inward focused) fit into this framework. Both are definitely totalitarian, but they seem to falsify this important criterion. I’ll look for more on how to parse those countries when I get to the third and final part of this book, which covers totalitarianism itself.

Let’s pause for a second and ask why a book on totalitarianism is focused so much on antisemitism. One of the most enduring questions of 20th century history is “why were the Jews Hitler’s victims?” Why was this people singled out for destruction and not some other? Was it arbitrary? While Hannah Arendt may have some hindsight bias here, to her the attempt at extermination of the Jews was inevitable in light of the international focus of totalitarian ideologies and the international relationships of European Jews.

While banking may have become less and less Jewish dominated over the course of the 18th and 19th centuries, European Jews (at least the best off) still had an international bent. Arendt relates an anecdote about the end of the Franco-Prussian war in 1871; apparently Bismarck’s approach to terms was basically ‘have their Jews work it out with our Jews’ and she says that this generalizes to the how other treaties were made at the time.

This international network of leading Jews [1] meant that an antisemitic ideology had to frame itself in international terms to attack Jews, or that an ideology could explain its international bent by attacking Jews. Therefore, by virtue of being a people without a nation (who instead lived in all European nations), European Jews became an excellent justification for an international and expansionist totalitarian power.

I think these rumours of international control were a cruel double bind for the Jewish people: any successful quashing of the rumours of Jewish domination would have just served as proof for the next round, while the failure to quash them, brought about by a very real lack of power, meant that they flourished, despite the fact that their continued existence should have itself been all that was required to prove them false.

The view of Jews as international and of one mind was fueled by the clannishness that came about as a natural result of the social discrimination Jews faced in European society. Anti-Semites could imagine that Jewish endogamy meant that all Jews were of one family and therefore had a single goal, which was normally considered to be “world domination”. If even one member of this global clan was left alive, then the anti-Semites believed that they would have failed.

Antisemitism was a useful tool for whipping up the mob because in early modern times, Jews were despised. Arendt again separates this from the earlier religious hatred and attributes it to Jews losing their old formal position (as the state bankers) but not their “privileges” [2] or (at least as far as visible Jews, like the Rothschilds were concerned) their wealth. This loss of formal position, but not the wealth it brought, is identified by Arendt as a particularly vulnerable and despised state – it is, she claims, the state the French aristocracy found themselves in before the revolution. Arendt even claims that no one hated the aristocracy so much when they were fulfilling the societal function of oppressing peasants, although I wonder if it might instead be possible that they were then just as (or more hated), but possessed a surer monopoly on violence and discourse, such that the earlier hate was better hidden.

Arendt believes that all of these fault lines were compounded by several strategies that were undertaken by Jews, strategies that had served them well in the old days of forced conversions, but that were extremely maladaptive when faced with modern antisemitism.

First, Arendt reckoned that Jews had a special relationship with the state. They had formerly served the state (not the body politic, mind you, but the state) as its bankers, finding the capital it needed to wage its wars and build its monuments. In exchange for this service, the bankers had won special privileges for themselves (although note that these privileges were lesser than those afforded to Christians who served the state as e.g. knights) and some modicum of protection by the state for their coreligionists.

(Because of this requirement for paternalistic protection, any loss of central power for a state was almost always a disaster for Jews; petty warlords certainly did need their moneylending services, but they were much less adept at providing protection in return.)

Arendt reckons that this may have made the Jews of Europe doubly despised, first via the general Christian antipathy that was dominant at the time and second because it meant that any who had reason to hate the state would also hate the Jews, because of their highly visible relationship with it.

That the state had mostly upheld its end of the bargain in this deal led to the second strategy that backfired: the Jews were complacent with mere legal rights, despite their despised status. They thought that legal rights could save them from any of the consequences of being despised [3]. In the modern era, the strength of this purely legal protection was first put to test in France, when the Dreyfus Affair erupted.

Captain Alfred Dreyfus was a French Jew who was wrongly convicted of treason in 1894. In 1896, new evidence came to light that showed he was innocent. The military suppressed this evidence and trumped up new charges against Dreyfus, but word leaked out and a scandal was quickly born.

It is said that while the affair was ongoing, nearly everyone in Europe had an opinion on it. Nominally, the Dreyfusards believed Dreyfus was innocent, while the anti-Dreyfusards believed he was guilty, but both positions quickly gained several ancillary beliefs. Dreyfusards became noted for their anti-clerical positions – including that “secret Rome” controlled much of global affairs [4]. The anti-Dreyfusards became authoritarian, nationalistic, and fiercely anti-Semitic. They believed that “secret Judah” controlled everything.

I want to stress how little importance people ended up putting on Dreyfus. La Croix, a Catholic newspaper at one point stated: “it is no longer a question whether Dreyfus is innocent or guilty but only of who will win, the friends of the army or its foes” [5]. It is impossible to explain how the discredited trial of a single military officer could lead to jack-booted thugs attacking intellectuals and crying for “death to the Jews!” without the understanding of the usefulness of antisemitism for whipping up the mob that this book engenders.

“The mob”, as distinct from “the people” is one of the key concepts in Origins of Totalitarianism. It’s Arendt’s most important example of the type of politics she despises and she returns to it again and again. She describes the mob as the “déclassé” and the “residue of all classes”; the mob are those people who are excluded from civil and economic opportunities by virtue of their education (or lack thereof), disposition, personality, or airs, and deeply resent this exclusion, to the point where they wish to destroy the society that excluded them.

Arendt claims that the representation of all classes within the mob makes it easy to mistake the mob as representative of the people in general. Since this argument can be used to disenfranchise basically any group seeking rights, Arendt suggests that the key difference between a mob and a genuine movement lies in what sort of demands the group makes. The people will demand to have their voices heard in government. The mob will demand a strong leader to fix everything (by ripping apart the society that has excluded them). In the case of the anti-Dreyfusards, these strong leaders enjoyed a symbiotic relationship with the mob; they were all recovering esthetics and nihilists and saw in the mob a “primitive and virile strength”, something they found admirable and exhilarating.

Remember that there already was a perception that the Jews secretly controlled everything and that this theory was politically useful because it justified an international ideology and allowed for a polarization of society around attacking a hated other. With respect to the mob, Arendt gives a third reason why this sort of conspiracy theory might be useful as a rallying cry: it helps explain why the déclassé of the mob have been cast out of and abandoned by society. It is much easier for them to believe that there is some worldwide conspiracy then that there is some fault of their own.

(I trust that anyone reading this in 2018 sees why I found Arendt’s description of the mob so frightening. In the margin of the passage where she introduces the mob, I have written “MAGA voters?”)

Against the mob (and its steadily escalating violence) stood Clemenceau (then a journalist), Émile Zola, and a small cadre of liberal and radical intellectuals and their supporters. Arendt says that what made their position unique is their support for purely abstract concepts, like justice. If the rallying call of the mob was “Death to the Jews”, then it seems as if the rallying call of those arrayed against it was fiat justitia ruat caelum, or perhaps the old battle-cry of the French First Republic: liberté, égalité, fraternité.

Ultimately, the appeals of the intellectuals convinced the socialists, if not in the primacy of justice, then that their class interests were served by marching against the anti-Dreyfusards. And so the workers took to the streets and the campaign of terror of the mob was ended.

There was of course rather a large difference between ending open violent antisemitism and actually acquitting Dreyfus. Here the good and great of French society, the delegates of the representative assembly, were barely split: all but one opposed a retrial. The fight around a retrial was to simmer (largely outside of the chambers of government) for three years, between 1897 and 1900. During this time, Dreyfusards used the courts and the press to try and sway public opinion and force the manner, while the anti-Dreyfusards, the Catholic priests, and the army tried to launch a coup d’état (though Arendt mocks that whole endeavour to the point where I think they never got very close to actually seizing power).

Notable were the reactions of Jews outside of Dreyfus’s immediate family to the case. Arendt contends that they made such a deal of legal equality, that they believed that if Dreyfus had been found guilty in a court of law, he must be guilty or that if the verdict was false, it was just a legal error, not an attack against them as a people. Arendt is obviously speaking with the benefit of hindsight here; I wonder how obvious any of this could have been to a people used to discrimination, both social and official.

There was a passage here that felt particularly relevant even now. Arendt suggests that society at the time saw every Jew, however penniless as a potential Rothschild (and therefore unworthy of any protection or “special treatment”). Clemenceau, she says, was one of the few true friends the Jews had because he saw them, all of them, even the Rothschilds with their vast fortune, as members of one of Europe’s oppressed people. To this day, despite the Holocaust, the Jew quotas, the cries of “none is too many” by now-dead bureaucrats or “the Jews will not replace us” by a tiki-torch wielding mob today, and the high rate of antisemitic hate crime, it is hard to find many people who will stand up and say that Jews face systematic prejudice and oppression.

The end of the affair reversed Marx’s famous maxim of history, in that it was the farce that presaged tragedy. Appeals to justice failed. The popular hatred of the aristocracy and the bourgeoisie failed. Zola and Clemenceau’s appeals all failed. But a threatened boycott of the Paris Exposition of 1900 succeeded. The anti-Dreyfusard government was censured, and Dreyfus was pardoned [6].

It was only much later, via an illegal retrial, that an exoneration was achieved.

The fallout of the trials was far reaching. Rights for Catholics, including Catholic schools, were curtailed. Arendt bitterly remarks that this was a failure of politics; instead of the simple republican principle of equality for all, there was “one exception for Jews, and another which threatened the freedom of conscience for Catholics”.

The trial of Dreyfus occupies more space than any other single incident in the volume on antisemitism. It allows Arendt to introduce the idea of “the mob” and the conspiracy (here Jewish domination) that motivates it. But its centrality is mostly, I think, because Arendt views it as the only harbinger of what was to come; the first incident of true violent antisemitism (remember, Arendt views this as in a separate class from the ubiquitous Christian Jew hatred which characterized pre-modern Europe), as opposed to the “mere” social discrimination Jews faced in European society.

I was shocked by how modern this social discrimination was. Jews were consistently exoticized (some of which must have come from fascination with their “vice”, as Arendt defined it). She recounts a review of a Jewish poet from the 19th century, that laments at the normality of the poetry (the reviewer expected something other from normal human poetry).

This exoticism was both a social curse and a key. It was a curse in that it always set Jews apart and that the spectre of social discrimination, of being so exotic that one became the other, was always present. It was a key in that for certain “exceptional” Jews, Jews that society agreed “weren’t like the others”, the fact of their exception could lead to social climbing. These “exceptional” Jews were alternatively welcomed by, showed off almost like exhibits, or excluded by high society, depending on their rarity, their own merits, and the strength of antisemitic sentiments.

As Jews became more normalized in European society, it became harder and harder to be the exception, while the shadow of social discrimination never lifted. Therefore, increasing normalization led to less acceptance in society, not more. Arendt disagrees with the (she claims) commonly held notion that it was primarily Christian antipathy that kept Jewish communities from dispersion and assimilation in the Middle Ages, but thinks that social discrimination became an important limit on dispersion just as assimilation became possible.

This made me wonder about the nature of assimilation and safety. It’s certainly true that the Irish in America are now obviously safe beyond the reach of any Know-Nothing. But it’s clear that they had to give up something to attain that safety. For assimilated Irish (or assimilated Scots or Germans, the stock of my family), there is little of the old culture and none of the old language left.

The central political question of a multi-ethnic democracy might be “how can we ensure safety, without the need for total assimilation?” And certainly, I do not wish to suggest that assimilation is the surest of safeties. It did not save the assimilated German Jews. I wonder if there is in fact a critically dangerous period during very act of assimilation, where a people is vulnerable and dispersed just as social backlash against their increasing rights reaches a fever pitch.

Here, Arendt has no answers for me.

There might be those who question whether reading about antisemitism from Hannah Arendt is like letting the fox guard the chicken coup; One of the most enduring controversies of Hannah Arendt’s life was her alleged antisemitism. Her romance with the noted philosopher and Nazi Heidegger (although note that their relationship preceded his conversion to Nazism and she did not have contact with him while he was a Nazi), her criticism of Jewish leaders in her coverage of the Eichmann trial, and her criticism of historical Jewish attempts to find safety in this section of The Origins of Totalitarianism are the evidence most often given in support of her supposed “self-hating” nature (as she was herself a Jew, and moreover a German Jew who fled the Nazis).

I think it is certainly true that she was an often-harsh critic of some things that Jews had done and that she wrote perhaps unfairly and with the benefit of hindsight. I think it is also undeniable that she was biased against certain Jews (her cringe-worthy and horribly racist description of Ostjuden and middle-eastern Jews opens Eichmann in Jerusalem).

But I think the evidence for her “antisemitism” is often overstated and mainly comes from misreading her works; I mentioned above just how careful a reader must be if they don’t want to be tripped up by her redefinitions of common words. The criticism that she “defended” Eichmann as “just following orders” and not really culpable can be dispelled simply by reading Eichmann in Jerusalem, a book which ends with her calling for his death and features a section where she systematically dismantles the argument he was just following orders [7].

On the other side of the equation, we have her pioneering work on antisemitism which is fiercely critical of anti-Semites and all who enabled them, her work to resettle Jews in Israel, her work in Eichmann in Jerusalem systematically documenting the extent of the Holocaust, and her fierce and rousing defense of the holocaust as a crime against humanity perpetrated on the body of the Jewish people (from her biopic: “because Jews are human, the very status the Nazis tried to deny them”).

Arendt had standards that were impossibly high and I think she held Jews to higher standards than any other group. She may have been secular, but I think she also still believed that the Jews were God’s chosen people, chosen to be a light among the nations. When others said “we must not judge that, we were not there” about the Jewish leaders and their actions during the Holocaust, Arendt built a system of political theory around the act of judgement, a theory she thought that would be inimical to tyrants and Nazis.

She was assuredly arrogant. She assuredly burned bridges. A set of lecture notes she once prepared said:

For conscience to work: either a very strong religious belief—extremely rare. Or: pride, even arrogance. If you say to yourself in such matters: who am I to judge?—you are already lost.”

There is very little positive said in Part 1 of The Origins of Totalitarianism, which is to say that it doesn’t give us very much idea of what we can do to prevent totalitarianism and barbarism. But if we could ask Hannah Arendt, the great political theorist of the 20th century, the lost child of the French Revolution, she might say something like: “find your principles and stick to them; think about what is the right thing and do it; defend liberty always.”

Or, if I can for a second steal the speech her biopic puts in her mouth:

Since Socrates and Plato, we usually call thinking to be engaged in that silent dialogue between me and myself. In refusing to be a person Eichmann utterly surrendered that single most defining human quality: that of being able to think. And consequently, he was no longer capable of making moral judgements. This inability to think created the possibility for many ordinary men to commit evil deeds on a gigantic scale, the likes of which have never been seen before.

It is true, I have considered these questions in a philosophical way. The manifestation of the wind of thought is not knowledge, but the ability to tell right from wrong, beautiful from ugly. And I hope that thinking gives people the strength to prevent catastrophes in these rare moments when the chips are down.

Increasingly, it seems like this might be one of those moments where the chips could be down. I shivered when I read some of Arendt’s descriptions of the mob, because I knew it wasn’t a hypothetical. I’ve seen it, on social media and at rallies. With tiki-torches and with weapons, I have seen the mob. And I hope reading this book and others like it and thinking will give me the strength to act to prevent catastrophe if I am ever so unlucky to have to.


[1] I want to make it clear that Hannah Arendt (and I) don’t believe the old canard about Jews controlling the world. She specifically mentions this lie being baffling, because when it was started, it was true that a rather small group of European statesmen essentially did control the world. But none of those statesmen were Jewish and all of them were so at cross-purposes that no coordination occurred.

When Arendt talks about internationalism in the European Jewish community, she is simply saying that there were many ties of family and friendship among Jews of different countries, which meant that privileged Jews were more likely to have close associates in countries other than the one in which they resided, even compared to similarly privileged gentiles. ^

[2] “Privileges” here being “were treated the same as gentiles and weren’t discriminated against legally”. I am reminded forcefully of David Schraub’s excellent essay about the recent tendency to equate the Holocaust and occupation of the west bank. I think Arendt unearths reasonable evidence for the claim David makes, that “gentiles believed that superiority over Jews was part of the deal that they were always offered”, such that loss of that superiority feels like a special privilege for Jews. ^

[3] Given that Christian and secular hatred of Jews was without reason, it’s unclear what they could have done to be less despised. ^

[4] There have been several times in history when its looked like conspiracies against Catholics would reach the same fever pitch as those against Jews, but this has never quite materialized. Catholics in North America are still more likely to face hate crimes than other Christian denominations, but the number and severity of these crimes pale in comparison to the crimes conducted against Jews.

Even if the internationalism of the Catholic Church and its occasional use of the confessional for political gain (although the latter has not been seen in recent times), make it an appealing target for conspiracy theories, it offers much less in terms of racial theories. In Germany at least, racial theories would have been much less effective if the target was Catholicism, since essentially all Germans had been Catholic before the reformation and associated wars of religion. That said, Christianity arose from Judaism, so I’m not sure if the targeting of Jews rather than Catholics can be explained by religious lineage alone. ^

[5] How’s this for a case study on politicization, or a toxoplasma of rage? ^

[6] Zola hated the pardon. He said all it accomplished was “to lump together in a single stinking pardon men of honour with the hoodlums”. ^

[7] This was very important to Arendt, because she needed to show the totality of moral collapse in “respectable” German society in order to prove her point about the banality of evil. She recounts that Eichmann actually ignored Himmler’s orders to stop killing Jews, because within the context of the third Reich, they were unlawful orders that went against the values of the state. She then goes on to present distressing evidence about just how far this moral rot extended and just how easy it was for Hitler to cultivate it. ^

Economics, Falsifiable, Politics

Franchise Economics: Why Tim Hortons Has Become A Flashpoint In The Minimum Wage Fight

Since the minimum wage increase took effect on January 1st, Tim Hortons has been in the news. Many local franchisees have been clawing back benefits, removing paid breaks, or otherwise taking measures to reduce the costs associated with an increased minimum wage.

TVO just put out a piece about this ongoing saga by the Christian socialist Michael Coren. It loudly declares that “Tim Hortons doesn’t deserve your sympathy“. Unfortunately, Mr. Coren is incorrect. Everyone involved here (Tim Hortons the corporation, Tim Hortons franchisees, and Tim Hortons workers) is caught between a rock and a hard place. They all deserve your sympathy.

This Tim Hortons could be literally anywhere in suburban or rural Canada. Image Credit: Marek Ślusarczyk via Wikipedia Commons

It is a truism that a minimum wage increase must result in either declining profits, cuts to other costs, or rising prices. While supporters of the minimum wage increase would love to see it all come out of profits, that isn’t reasonable.

Basic economics tell us that as we approach a perfect market, profits should fall to zero. The key assumptions underpinning this are global perfect information (so no one can have any innovations that allow them to do better than anyone else) and zero start-up costs (so anyone can enter any market at any time). Obviously, these assumptions aren’t true in reality, but when it comes to fast food, they’re fairly close to true.

It is relatively cheap to start a fast-food restaurant (compared to say opening a factory). The start-up costs for a McDonalds, KFC, or Wendy’s are $1,000,000 to $2.3 million, while a Subway costs about $100,000 to $250,000 to start. This means that whenever someone sees fast-food restaurants making large profits in an area, they can open their own and take a fraction of the business, driving everyone’s profits down.

They’re probably driven down much lower than you think. If you had to guess, what would you say the profit margins for a fast-food restaurant are? If you’re anything like people in this study, you probably think something like 35%. The actual answer is 6% [1].

In addition to telling me that the average fast food restaurant has a 6% profit margin, that link helpfully told me that 29% of operating expenses in a fast-food restaurant come from labour costs. Raising those labour costs by 20% by increasing wages 20% increases total costs by 6% [2]. The minimum wage isn’t making fast-food restaurant owners make do with a little less in the way of profits. It’s entirely wiping out profits.

Now maybe your response to that is “well my heart doesn’t really bleed for that big multinational losing its profits”. But that’s not how Tim Hortons works. Tim Hortons, like almost all fast-food restaurants is a franchise. Tim Hortons the corporation makes money by collecting fees and providing services to Tim Hortons the restaurants, which are owned by the mythical small business owners™ that everyone (even the proponents of the minimum wage increase) claim to care so much about.

Most of these owners aren’t scions of wealthy families, but are instead ordinary members of their communities who saw opening a Tim Hortons as an investment, a vocation, or as a way to give back. They need to eat as much as their workers.

Faced with rising labour costs and no real profit buffer to absorb them, these owners can only cut costs or raise prices.

Except they can’t raise prices.

That’s the rub of a franchise system. The corporate office wants everything to be the exact same at every store. They set prices and every store must follow them. But there’s divergent incentives here. Tim Hortons the corporation makes a profit by selling supplies to its franchises; critically, they make a profit on supplies whether those franchisees turn a profit or not. They really don’t want to raise prices, because raising prices will hurt their bottom line.

It’s well known that (in general) the more expensive something is, the less people want it. Raising prices will hurt the sales volume of Tim Hortons franchises, which will decrease the profits at corporate Tim Hortons. The minimum wage hike affects Tim Hortons the corporation very little. They might see slightly increased shipping costs, but their costs are far less dependent on Canadian minimum wage labour. Honestly, the minimum wage increase probably is a net good for Tim Hortons the corporation. More money in people’s pockets means more money spent on fast-food.

Tim Hortons the corporation probably won’t say it, because they don’t want to antagonize their franchisees, but this minimum wage hike is great for them.

So, Tim Hortons franchisees have to cut costs or run charities. Given that they are running restaurants and not charities, we can probably assume that they’re going to cut costs. Why does it have to be labour costs that get cut? Can’t they just get their supplies for cheaper?

Here the franchise system bites them again. If they were independent restaurateurs, they might be able to source cheaper ingredients, reduce the ply of the toilet paper in their bathrooms, etc. and get their profits back this way.

But they’re franchisees. Tim Hortons the corporation has a big list of everything you need to run a Tim Hortons and you are only allowed to buy it from them. They get to set the prices however they want. And what they want is to keep them steady.

The only cost that Tim Hortons the corporation doesn’t control is labour costs. So, this is what franchisees have to cut.

There are two ways to decrease your labour costs. You can “increase productivity”, or you can cut wages and benefits. “Increase productivity” is the clinical and uninformative way of saying “fire 20% of your workers and verbally abuse the others until they work faster” or “fire 20% of your workers and replace them with machines”. While increased productivity is generally desirable from an economics point of view, it is often more ambiguous from a moral point of view.

Given that the minimum wage was just raised and it is illegal to pay any less than it, Tim Hortons franchisees cannot cut wages. So, if they’re against firing their employees and want to keep making literally any money, they have to cut benefits.

This might make it seem like corporate Tim Hortons is the bad guy here. They aren’t. The executives at Tim Hortons labour under what is called a fiduciary duty. They have a legal obligation to protect shareholder interests from harm and to act for the good of the corporation, not their own private good or for their private moral beliefs. They are responding to the minimum wage hike the way the government has told them to respond [3].

Minimum wage jobs suck. For all that economists claim there is no moral judgement implied in a wage, that it merely shows the intersection of the amount of supply of a certain type of labour and the demand for that labour, it can be hard to believe that there is no moral dimension to this when people making one wage struggle to make ends meet, while those earning another can buy fancy cars they don’t even need.

It is popular to blame business owners and capitalists for the wages their workers make and to say that it shows how little they value their workers. I don’t think that’s merited here. Corporate Tim Hortons has crunched the numbers and decided that if they raise prices, fewer people will buy coffee, their profits will decrease, and they might be personally liable for breach of fiduciary duty. In the face of rising prices, franchisees try and do whatever they can to stay afloat. We can say that caring about profits more than the wages their workers make shows immense selfishness on the part of these franchisees, but it’s little different than the banal selfishness anyone shows when they care more about making money for themselves than making money and giving it away – or the selfishness we show when we want our coffee to be cheaper than it can be when made by someone earning a wage that can comfortably support a family.


[1] As long as there are other available investments approximately as risky as opening a fast-food restaurant that return at least 6%, profits shouldn’t drop any lower than that. In this way, inefficiencies in other sectors could stop fast food restaurants from behaving like they were in a perfectly free market even if they were. ^

[2] This calculation is flawed, in that there are probably other costs making up total labour costs (like benefits) beyond simple wage income. On the other hand, it isn’t just wages that are going up. Other increased costs probably balance out any inaccuracies, making the conclusions essentially correct. This is to say nothing for corporate taxes, which further reduce profits. ^

[3] We can’t blame fiduciary duty, because fiduciary duty is how investing at all can happen. You might not like investing, but without investing, saving for retirement or having a national pension plan is impossible. If your response to this is to say “well let’s just tear down capitalism and start over”, I’d like to remind you that people tried that and it led to a) famine, b) gulags, c) death squads, d) more famine, and e) persistent shortages of every consumer good imaginable, including food ^

Model, Politics

Four Narratives on Mohammed Bin Salman

[10 minute read]

Since June 21st of this year, Mohammed bin Salman (often known by his initials, MBS) has been the crown prince of Saudi Arabia. This required what was assuredly not a palace coup, because changes of government or succession are never coups, merely “similar to coups”, “coup-like”, “coup-esque”, or “coupLite™” [1]. As crown prince, MBS has championed a loosening of religious restrictions on women and entertainment, a decrease in reliance on oil for state revenues, and a harder line with Qatar and Iran.

Media coverage has been, uh, split. Here’s an editorial in The Washington Post comparing MBS to Putin, while an editorial in The New York Times fawningly declares “Saudi Arabia’s Arab Spring, at Last” [2]. Given that there’s so much difference in opinion on MBS, I thought it might be useful to collect and summarize some of the common narratives, before giving my own perspective on the man.

MBS as the Enlightened Despot

Historical Archetype: Frederick the Great.
Proponents: Al Arabiya [3], optimistic western journalists.
Don’t talk to them about: The war in Yemen, the blockade of Qatar, the increased stifling of dissent.

Exemplified by the fawning column above, this school of thought holds that MBS is a dynamic young leader who will reform the Saudi economy, end its dependence on oil, overhaul its institutions, end corruption, and “restore” a more moderate form of Islam.

They point to several initiatives that back this up. There’s the Vision 2030 plan that aims to spur entrepreneurship and reduce corruption. There’s much needed educational reforms. There’s the decision to allow women to drive and view sports games. There’s the lifting of bans on entertainment. For some of them, the ambiguous clamp-down on “corruption” is even further evidence that MBS is very serious about his reforms.

To supporters, MBS has achieved much in very little time, which they take to be clear evidence of a strong work ethic and a keen intelligence. His current crop of reforms gives them clear hope that clerical power can be shattered and Saudi Arabia can one day become a functioning, modern, democracy.

MBS as a character in Game of Thrones

Historical Archetype: Richard Nixon
Proponents: Cynical western journalists, Al Jazeera
Don’t talk to them about: How real-life politics is never actually as interesting or well planned as Game of Thrones.

Cersei Lannister’s quotable warning, that “when you play a game of thrones you win or you die” might imply that MBS is on somewhat shaky ground. Proponents of the first view might dispute that and proponents of the next rejoice in it. Proponents of this view point out that so far, MBS seems to be winning.

By isolating Qatar and launching a war in Yemen, he has checked Iranian influence on the Arabian Peninsula. Whether or not it’s valid, his corruption crackdown has sidelined many potential sources of competition (and will probably net much needed liquid cash for the state coffers; it is ironic that Saudi state now turns to sources of liquidity other than the literal liquid that made it so rich). His conflict with Qatar might yet result in the shutdown of Al Jazeera, the most popular TV channel in the Arabic speaking world and long a thorn in the side of Saudi Arabian autocracy.

People who view the conflict through this lens either aren’t particularly concerned with right or wrong (e.g. westerners who just want to get their realpolitik fix) or think that the very fact that MBS might be engaging in HBO worthy realpolitik proves he is guilty of a grave crime (e.g. Al Jazeera, westerners worrying that the region might become even more unstable).

MBS as an overreaching tyrant

Historical Archetype: Joseph II (epitaph: “Here lies Joseph II, who failed in all he undertook.”)
Proponents: Arab spring activists and their allies
Don’t talk to them about: How much better MBS is than any plausible alternative.

Saudi Arabia is a rentier state with an unusual relationship with its population. Saudi state revenues are not derived from taxation (which almost invariably results in calls for responsible government), but instead from oil money. This money is distributed back to citizens via cushy government jobs. In Saudi Arabia, two-thirds of citizen employment is in the public sector. The private sector is almost wholly the purview of expats, who (if I’m reading the latest official Saudi employment report right) hold 75% of the non-governmental jobs [4].

With oil set to become obsolete in the next fifty years, Saudi Arabia is in a very bad position. The only thing that can save it is a diversified economy, but the path there isn’t smooth. Overarching reform of an economy is difficult and normally relies on extensive, society-wide consultation. Proponents of this theory see MBS as intent on centralizing power so that he can achieve this transformation single-handedly.

They note that the reversal of the ban on women driving has been paired with intense pressure on the very activists who originally agitated for its removal, pressure to say nothing and to avoid celebrations. They also note that the anti-corruption sweep conveniently removes many people who could have stood in MBS’s way as he embarks on his reforms and expropriates their wealth for the state [5]. They note that independent economists and other civil society figures – just the sort of people who could have provided (and did provide) nuanced feedback on Vision 2030 – have found themselves suddenly detained on MBS’s orders.

Proponents of this theory believe that MBS is trying to modernize Saudi Arabia, but that he is doomed to fail in his attempts without building a (possibly democratic) consensus around the direction of the kingdom. They believe that Saudi Arabia cannot have the civil society necessary for reform until the government stops viewing rights as something it gives the citizens (and that they must be grateful for), but as an inherent human birthright.

If you believe this, you’ll most likely see MBS as moving the kingdom further from this ideal. And you might see the invasion and ongoing war in Yemen as the sort of cluster-fuck we can expect from MBS’s too-rapid attempts to accumulate and use power.

My View

I would first like to note that one advantage of caricaturing other views then providing a synthesis is that you get to appear reasonable and nuanced by comparison. I’m going to claim that as my reward for going through the work to post this, but please do remember that other people have nuanced views too. I got where I am by reading or listening to them!

My overarching concern with respect to Saudi Arabia is checking the spread of Wahhabi fundamentalism. Saudi Arabia has been exporting this world-wide, with disastrous effects. Wahhabism may not be the official ideology of the so-called Islamic State (Daesh), but it is inextricably tied to their barbarism. Or rather, their barbarity is inextricably tied to and influenced by Wahhabism. It is incredibly easy to find articles by authors, Muslim or not, (many by academics) marking the connection between Wahhabism and terrorism.

The takfiri impulses of Wahhabism [6] underlie the takfiri doctrine so beloved of Daesh. Of course, the vast, vast majority of Wahhabis engage in neither terrorism, nor public executions of (by Canadian standards) innocent people. But insofar as those things do happen in the Sunni world, Wahhabi men are unusually likely to be the perpetrators. It is tempting to go further, to claim that conservatives are wrong – that there is no Islamic terrorism problem, merely a Wahhabi terrorism problem [7] – but this would be false.

(There is terrorism conducted by Shia Muslims and by other Sunni sects and to call terrorism a solely Wahhabi problem makes it sound like there are no peaceful Wahhabis. A much more accurate (and universal, as this is true across almost all religions and populations) single cause would be masculinity, as almost all terrorists are men.)

Still, the fact that so much terrorism can be traced back to a close western ally [8] is disquieting and breeds some amount of distrust of the west in some parts of the Islamic world (remember always that Muslim are the primary victims of Islamic terrorism; few have better reasons to despise Islamic terrorism than the terrorists’ co-religionists and most-frequent victims).

Beyond terrorist groups like Daesh, Wahhabism fuels sectarian conflicts, strips rights from women, makes life even more dangerous for queer people in Muslim countries, and leads to the arrest and persecution of atheists. I am in a general a staunch liberal and I believe that most religions can coexist peacefully and many represent paths towards human flourishing. I do not believe this about Wahhabism. It stifles flourishing and breeds misery wherever it lands. It must be stopped.

The fact that Wahhabism at home is a problem for MBS (the Wahhabi clergy is an alternative, non-royal power centre that he can’t directly control) could give me some hope that he might stop supporting Wahhabism. Certainly he has made statements to that effect. But it is very unclear if he has any real interest in ending Saudi Arabia $100 billion-dollar effort to export Wahhabism abroad. I would be unsurprised if he deals with the domestic problems inherent in displacing the clergy (i.e. they might not want to be displaced without a messy fight) by sending the most reticent and troublesome members abroad, where they won’t mess up his own plans.

There’s the added wrinkle of Iran. MBS clearly hates Iran and Wahhabism considers Iranian Shiites heretical by default. MBS could easily hold onto Wahhabism abroad simply for its usefulness in checking Iranian influence.

Second to this concern is my concern for the human rights of Yemenis. MBS launched a war that has been marked by use of cluster munitions and flagrant disregard for civilian casualties. MBS instigated this war and was defense minister for much of its duration. Its existence and his utter failure to hold his troops to humanitarian standards is a major black mark against him.

Finally, I care about human rights inside Saudi Arabia. It seems clear that in general, the human rights situation inside the country will improve with MBS in power. There really doesn’t exist a plausible power centre that is more likely to make the average Saudi freer. That said, MBS has detained activists and presided over the death sentence of peaceful protestors.

The average Saudi who does not rock the boat may see her life improve. But the activists who have struggled for human rights will probably not be able to enjoy them themselves.

What this means is that MBS is better than almost all plausible replacements (in the short-term), but he is by no means a good leader, or a morally upstanding individual. In the long term, he might stunt the very civil society that Saudi Arabia needs to become a society that accepts and promotes human flourishing [9]. And if he fails in his quest to modernize Saudi society, we’re much more likely to see unrest, repression, and a far worse regime than we are to see democratic change.

In the long run, we’re all dead. But before that, Saudi Arabia may be in for some very uncomfortable changes.


[1] As near as I can tell, the change was retroactively made all proper with the Allegiance Council, as soon as the fait was truly accompli. Reports that they approved it beforehand seem to come only from sources with a very vested interest in that being true. ^

[2] There’s something deeply disturbing about a major news organization comparing a change in which unelected despot will lead a brutal dictatorship with a movement that earnestly strove for democratic change. ^

[3] A note on news outlets linked to throughout this post: Al Arabiya is owned by Saudi Arabia and therefore tends to view everything Saudi Arabia does in the best possible light. Al Jazeera is owned by Qatar (which is currently being blockaded by Saudi Arabia) and tends to view the kingdom in the worst possible light. The Arab Tyrants Manual Podcast that informed my own views here is produced by Iyad El-Baghdadi, who was arrested for his Arab Spring reporting by The United Arab Emirates (a close ally of Saudi Arabia) and later exiled. This has somewhat soured his already dim view on Arab dictatorships. ^

[4] Foreigners make up about 53% of the total labour force and almost all of them work in the private sector. Saudis holding private jobs are ~15.5% of the labour force based on these numbers. If we divide 15.5% by 53% plus 15.5%, we get 22% of private jobs held by Saudis. I think for purposes of this comparison, Saudi Aramco, the state oil giant, counts as the public sector.

Remember also that Saudi Arabia has a truly dismal adult labour force participation rate, a side of effect of their deeply misogynistic public policy. ^

[5] Furthermore, they point out that it is basically impossible to tell if a Saudi royal is corrupt or not, because there is no clear boundary between the personal fortune of the Saud dynasty and the state coffers. Clearing up this particular ambiguity seems low on the priority list of a man who just bought a half-billion dollar yacht.

(If you’re not too lazy to click on a footnote, but are too lazy to click on a link, it was MBS. MBS bought the giant yacht. Spoilers.) ^

[6] I’ve long held the belief that Wahhabism is dangerous. When talking about this with my Muslim friends, I was often hesitant and apologetic. I needn’t have been. Their vehemence in criticism of Wahhabism often outstripped mine. That was because they had all of my reasons to dislike Wahhabism, plus the unique danger takfir presented to them.

Takfir is the idea that Wahhabis (or their ideological descendants) may deem other Muslims to be infidels if they do not follow Wahhabism’s austere commandments. This often leads to the execution or lynching of more moderate Muslims at the hands of takfiris. As you may have guessed, most North American Muslims could be called takfir by Wahhabis or others of their ilk.

Remember: there are Quranic rules of conduct (oft broken, but still existing) that govern how ISIL may treat Christians or Jews. With those they declare takfir, there are no such niceties. Daesh ecstatically executes Muslims they deem takfir.

Takfir is one of the many reasons that it is easy to find articles by Muslim authors decrying Wahhabism. Many Muslims legitimately fear a form of Islam that would happily deem them heretical and execute them. ^

[7] It is commonly reported that 15 of the 19 September 11 hijackers were Saudi men, brought up on Wahhabism. The link between Wahhabism, takfir, and terrorism is another reason it is common to find non-Wahhabi Muslims opposed to Wahhabism. Here’s a sampling of English language reporting on Daesh from Muslim countries. Indeed, in many sources I’ve read, the word takfiri was exclusively followed by “terrorist” or “terrorists”. ^

[8] It remains baffling and disgusting that politicians like Donald Trump, Teresa May, and Justin Trudeau can claim to oppose terrorism, while also maintaining incredibly close relationships with Saudi Arabia, which was described in a leaked diplomatic cable as “the most significant source of funding to Sunni terrorist groups worldwide”. ^

[9] To create a civil society, Saudi Arabia would need to lift restrictions on the press, give activists some official power, and devolve more power to elected municipalities. Civil society is the corona of pressure groups, advisors, and influencers that exist around a government and allow people to build common knowledge about their desires. Civil society helps you understand just how popular or unpopular a government policy is and gives you a lever to pull if you want to influence it.

A functioning civil society protects a government from its own mistakes (by making an outcry possible before any deed is irreversibly done) and helps ensure that the government is responsible to the will of the people.

That MBS is working hard to prevent civil society shows that he has no desire for feedback and believes he knows better than literally everyone else in the country who is not already his sycophant. I see few ways this could end well. ^

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.


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?


  • 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.


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.


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 Also Wikipedia exists.


  • 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.


[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).  ^

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