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.
That is to say, the prevailing narrative around inequality is that it is bad because:
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
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!
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!
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  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.
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 . 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+) .
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.
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.
 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. ^
 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. ^
 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. ^
 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. ^
[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.
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  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”  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 . 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 . 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” . 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 .
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.
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”).
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.”
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.
 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. ^
 “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. ^
 Given that Christian and secular hatred of Jews was without reason, it’s unclear what they could have done to be less despised. ^
 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. ^
 Zola hated the pardon. He said all it accomplished was “to lump together in a single stinking pardon men of honour with the hoodlums”. ^
 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. ^
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.
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%.
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% . 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 .
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.
 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. ^
 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. ^
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™” . 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.
Historical Archetype: Frederick the Great. Proponents: Al Arabiya , 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.
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 .
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 . 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.
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!
The takfiri impulses of Wahhabism  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  – 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  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).
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.
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 . 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.
 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. ^
 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. ^
 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. ^
 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. ^
 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.) ^
 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.
Takfir is one of the many reasons that it is easy to find articles by Muslim authorsdecrying Wahhabism. Many Muslims legitimately fear a form of Islam that would happily deem them heretical and execute them. ^
 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 Englishlanguagereportingon Daesh from Muslim countries. Indeed, in manysourcesI’veread, the word takfiri was exclusively followed by “terrorist” or “terrorists”. ^
 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. ^
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:
Or in plain English:
Nuclear strike by the US, NK keeps nuclear weapons
Unilateral US troop withdrawal
North Korean invasion with only conventional US responses
North Korean invasion with US nuclear strike
US withdrawal and North Korean Invasion
Unilateral North Korean abandonment of nuclear weapons
US strike and North Korean abandonment of nuclear weapons
Coordinated US withdrawal and NK abandonment of nuclear weapons
NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; conventional US response
NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; US nuclear strike
US withdrawal paired with NK nuclear weapons abandonment and invasion
From these states, we saw the following equilibria and unilateral improvements:
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:
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:
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.
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):
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?
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.
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:
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 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?
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:
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.
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?
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.
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:
(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.
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.
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):
Unilateral US troop withdrawal
North Korean invasion with only conventional US responses
North Korean invasion with US nuclear strike
Unilateral North Korean abandonment of nuclear weapons
Coordinated US withdrawal and NK abandonment of nuclear weapons
NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; conventional US response
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.
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
Invasion of South Korea
Abandon nuclear program and submit to inspections
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:
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:
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.
Nuclear strike by the US, NK keeps nuclear weapons
Unilateral US troop withdrawal
North Korean invasion with only conventional US responses
North Korean invasion with US nuclear strike
US withdrawal and North Korean Invasion
Unilateral North Korean abandonment of nuclear weapons
US strike and North Korean abandonment of nuclear weapons
Coordinated US withdrawal and NK abandonment of nuclear weapons
NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; conventional US response
NK invasion after abandoning nuclear weapons; US nuclear strike
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):
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):
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.
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?
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 . 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 . 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.
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.
 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:
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.
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.
 If questioned here, I was going to mention carrier based bombers (France tried this for a while) and nuclear tipped cruise missiles (the US may move in this direction). ^
Using this presentation
The slides are available here. This content, like everything else original on my blog, is covered by the CC-BY-NC-SA v4 International license. If you present this, please reference this blog and include a link. If you are a student and using this presentation is against the academic policies of your institution, I’d ask that you please refrain from plagiarizing it.
“We knew the world would not be the same. A few people laughed, a few people cried, most people were silent. I remembered the line from the Hindu scripture, the Bhagavad-Gita… ‘Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.'” – J Robert Oppenheimer, on the reaction to the successful test of the first atomic bomb.
Because I keep talking about it piecemeal with various people and wanted to collect everything I’ve said in one place. Because some people are more scared then they need to be and some people are more blasé than they really should be. Because I care about elevating the level of the discourse (which is often really poor). Because I’m scared that people might actually endorse some of the really terrible proposed solutions to this crisis and I want them to understand why they won’t work.
The real experts are currently busy briefing politicians and making clipped statements to the media. Therefore, it falls to verbose hobbyists like myself to try and make sense of every cryptic utterance and disseminate some of what the experts are saying more widely.
1.3 Why is does North Korea have a nuclear program anyway?
There are a lot of theories here. I’m going to walk you through my favourite. See these men?
Pictured: Muammar Gaddafi and Saddam Hussein. Images courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.
Both of those men once ran countries. Now they’re deposed and dead. The common factor? America. Call it imperialism. Call it empire building. Call it promoting democracy or protecting freedom. Call it exacting justice on two terrible butchers. From one perspective or another, all of those are the truth. What matters to North Korea is that these men tangled with America, they didn’t have nuclear weapons, and now they’re dead.
As far as I know (and the bloody purges at the start of his reign probably attest to this), Kim Jong-un doesn’t want to die. If he has a nuclear deterrent, he might fancy himself safe from any American led attempts at regime change and/or ending his horrific prison camp system.
The Saddam Hussein regime in Iraq and the Gaddafi regime in Libya could not escape the fate of destruction after being deprived of their foundations for nuclear development and giving up nuclear programmes of their own accord
2.1 What should I know about nuclear weapons to understand this crisis?
It can be helpful to understand a bit about how nuclear weapons work before reading about using them. Here’s a very quick and slightly simplified rundown.
Nuclear weapons liberate energy from the nuclei of atoms. These can’t just be any atoms. You need the right version of the right atom to get a nuclear reaction. The ones relevant here are deuterium and tritium (forms of hydrogen with additional neutrons), plutonium-239 (commonly called “weapon grade plutonium”) and uranium-235 (“highly enriched uranium”).
There are two types of atomic reactions used in nuclear bombs. In fission weapons, plutonium or uranium atoms are split apart by the energy of a free neutron. This releases more neutrons setting in motion an unstoppable chain reaction (until the energy of it blows the fuel apart). The reaction is started by creating a critical mass. Weapon grade plutonium and highly enriched uranium are inherently unstable; at any given moment, a small number of atoms of either will be breaking apart, releasing neutrons. Get a large amount of either in one place (or compress an existing sample with explosives) and you’ll have enough neutrons to start the reaction.
Fusion is the opposite. In fusion, you slam two atoms together so hard that they merge. In fusion weapons, the fuel is a mix of deuterium and tritium (or a molecule called lithium deuteride, that turns into deuterium and tritium when exposed to neutrons). When you push these together hard enough, you get helium, energy, and a very, very energetic neutron. This neutron can then start fission reactions. In many thermonuclear weapons the true destructive power comes after these neutrons hit a very large outer shell of uranium, which then fissions very violently.
Fusion weapons are often called hydrogen bombs, because isotopes of hydrogen are used in them, or thermonuclear weapons, because high temperatures (among other things) are used to initiate the process of fusion. Not all bombs that use fusion are as destructive as “true” thermonuclear weapons (i.e. the things experts normally mean when they say “thermonuclear weapons”). It is possible to put a bit of deuterium and tritium into an “ordinary” fission bomb in order to generate some extra neutrons from fusion and speed up the chain reaction. This allows for more of the fuel to be used before it scatters itself around the landscape and increases the yield of the bomb.
Yields are commonly measured in kilotons (kt; equivalent to 1000 tons of TNT) or megatons (Mt; equivalent to 1,000,000 tons of TNT). A kiloton bomb is enough to do serious damage to a large city. A megaton bomb will utterly devastate it. Yields vary widely with design, but in general you’d expect a simple fission weapon to yield somewhere between 5 and 50 kilotons; a boosted weapon would normally yield between 25 and 150 kt; a fusion weapon can yield anywhere from 50 kilotons to 50 megatons. These ranges are just guidelines and have to do more with what is an efficient use of nuclear materials than anything else; you could make a one megaton boosted fission bomb (although that actually is the upper limit on what you can do without multi-stage fusion), but this would be very wasteful compared to creating a similarly destructive thermonuclear weapon.
Having a high yield in a small package is very important for miniaturization, the process of making a functioning atomic bomb small enough for delivery on a missile. When it comes to missiles, the smaller (and lighter) the warhead, the better. A lighter warhead allows a missile to travel further, a key requirement for countries like North Korea or America, with very distant adversaries.
North Korea successfully tested a missile in July with a range of 10,000 km (6,210 miles). This range is enough to reach the continental US and classify the missile as an Intercontinental Ballistic Missile (ICBM). In addition, a missile tested in 2016 had a range of 12,000km (7,450 miles).
The United States has successfully shot down mock intermediate and medium range ballistic missile (IRBM/MRBM) in tests of its Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system and mock ICBMs with its Ground-Based Midcourse Defense (GBM) anti-missile system.
North Korea claims that their nuclear weapons (including this latest one) are small enough to be mounted on their missiles (i.e. successfully miniaturized). Leaked intelligence suggests some of their earlier bombs are, but it’s unclear if that applies to this latest one as well.
It is unknown if US ground missile defense systems could successfully intercept an ICBM aimed at the continental United States or IRBM/MRBM aimed at US possessions or allies closer to North Korea (e.g. Hawaii, Guam, Japan, South Korea).
2.3 What are your best guesses for what we don’t know?
Oh my. Please remember that these are guesses.
2.3.1 Is this weapon fusion or boosted fission?
We won’t know for sure if the weapon the North Koreans detonated was “merely” a boosted fission bomb or a multistage fusion bomb until isotope analysis is completed (and even then, the results could be inconclusive or unreleased). I’m unwilling to hazard a guess here because I can make a plausible case either way. On one hand, boosted fission seems likely because it’s much easier than staged thermonuclear weapons. On the other, the North Koreans previously claimed to have detonated a thermonuclear bomb that clearly fizzled (if it indeed had a fusion stage). It doesn’t seem impossible that this failed test gave them the information necessary to make a successful multi-stage thermonuclear weapon.
I previously mentioned that testing would be necessary before any country could hope to reliably deploy multi-stage thermonuclear weapons. This is because there are a lot of unknowns in these weapons and it is hard to get them right. It’s much less surprising to see a country get their staged thermonuclear bomb right on the second try than it would be had they done it on their first.
There’s one final possibility, although it seems less likely. North Korea could have resurrected the old Sloika (layer-cake) nuclear weapon design. This is technically a thermonuclear weapon, but it requires a disproportionally (compared to its power) large mass of high explosives to work and lacks many of the desirable properties of the more conventional (staged) Teller-Ulam design (like the ability to chain as many additional stages as you’d like). The Sloika is currently regarded as a dead end in weapon development, but if the North wanted an impressive explosion to scare off the Americans and didn’t have any intent to ever put it on a rocket, it might be a good choice for them.
I don’t know. I want to believe that they haven’t successfully miniaturized this device (and that Kim Jong-un is posing with a fake in this picture). The first successful detonation of a multi-stage thermonuclear weapon required an 82-ton facility (Soviets mocked it as a “thermonuclear installation”). I find it hard to believe that in less than a year, North Korea could go from miniaturizing fission weapons to miniaturizing thermonuclear weapons, but it is possible that they have.
The recently released picture of Kim Jong-un with a “nuclear weapon” is certainly supposed to evoke a miniaturized multi-stage weapon. The distinct double humped shape (compare it to the single sphere of last year’s “disco ball of death“) suggests that there are two separate stages.
But this is a propaganda shot. Literally anything could be inside the enclosure in the pictures North Korea released (I actually think fissile material is the least likely thing to be in there, just based on how close Jong-un is to the thing; which isn’t to say that it couldn’t be identical in appearance to their actual weapons). It could be a true representation of their latest nuclear weapon designs, or it could be filled with lead. No one but Jong-un and his propagandists and senior subordinates know for sure.
Last year, North Korea claimed that a 10kt detonation was the successful test of a thermonuclear weapon capable of destroying the entire United States. We can’t trust official pronouncements about their nuclear weapons program. We can only trust the scarce scraps of hard evidence they leave.
So, in this case, I think we’re going to have to wait for more US intelligence leaks before we know either way.
2.3.3 Does the heat shield work?
It might depend on the payload. Doctor John Schilling, writing for 38 North (a North Korea focused blog run by Johns Hopkins) believes that the heat shield failed for one of the two ICBM tests this summer. He thinks that North Korea has a successfully tested a heat shield that will work with very light payloads, but has been unsuccessful building one suitable for heavier payloads (such a heatshield would need to be rather light itself).
Depending on the mass of the miniaturized North Korean bombs, they might have a heatshield suitable for striking targets on America’s east coast, or they might not be able to reach even there. It does seem likely that they can reach Hawaii or Alaska with their current proven heat shield design.
North Korea has every incentive to play down the mass of their weapons and play up the strength of their heat shield, which is what makes determining the likelihood they can successfully strike America so challenging.
2.3.4 Can THAAD and GCM defend America (and its allies)?
THAAD and GCM have both succeeded in their last few tests, but it’s unclear how closely these tests mimic reality. Unfortunately, success is relatively new for the GCM system. Previously it’s failed about as often as it has succeeded. Real missiles will probably be even harder to successfully target than the dummies it’s been tested on.
THAAD has been fairly reliable, at least in its last few tests. But it is currently only deployed to protect a few US bases in Korea. Seoul is not within its range and even if it was, THAAD wouldn’t be able to protect the South Korean capital (and its millions of inhabitants) from the conventional artillery aimed at it by North Korea. There are also THAAD launchers in Guam, Hawaii, and Alaska, giving those territories some modicum of protection.
I honestly don’t know what probability to assign to these systems making a successful interception of a North Korean missile. I think the THAAD is more likely to succeed than the GCM, but I have no hard numbers to put on either.
North Korea’s nuclear program has existed for more than three decades. But for many people, the latest tests are the first time they’ve really sat up and taken notice. To a certain extent, this makes sense. Before Kim Jong-un took over from his father, there had only been two nuclear tests and both of them were of fairly small bombs (the first was under 2kt, the second under 5kt).
If this is the first you’re seriously hearing about the crisis, it can help to get some of the historical context.
3.1 How expensive has the program been?
That’s a hard question to answer. The total cost direct cost is possibly between $1.1 billion and $3.2 billion, but it’s really hard to put hard numbers on anything that goes on in North Korea.
In addition to whatever North Kore has actually paid for its program, there’s the indirect costs. The program has led to international sanctions, the latest round of which will cost North Korea something like a billion dollars in exports. That doesn’t necessarily mean that their economy will shrink by a billion dollars though. The economic capacity that was consumed by the exports will still exist, but it will have to be used less efficiently (and may suffer from shortages of raw materials purchased with those exports). It will become harder for North Korea to acquire anything that it itself cannot produce and it will become less able to import food in the event of a famine or poor harvest. Those are both costly.
There’s also the opportunity cost. North Korea is incredibly impoverished, such that $1-3 billion dollars represents 3.5% to 10.5% of its entire yearly economic output. Had this been invested in a more economically useful fashion (e.g. in manufacturing or mining) North Korea would probably have a higher GDP. The opportunity cost of using this money in such a wasteful way cannot help but compound – that is to say the gap between what is and what could have been will only grow larger.
Here, I think a qualitative answer is best. The nuclear program has been incredibly expensive, but also – given that it is an excellent shield against regime change – worth it, at least from the perspective of Kim John-un.
3.2 Okay, but it’s cheap compared to the $61.3 billion the US spent on nuclear weapons in 2011. How can they get so much with so little?
I can think of two reasons for the discrepancy. First, the Manhattan Project created nuclear weapons from scratch. When the Manhattan Project started, nuclear weapons really were just a theoretical pipe dream. By demonstrating that nuclear weapons were possible, the Manhattan Program removed the theoretical question entirely.
But the Manhattan Project helped in ways beyond just demonstrating the technology was possible. Many other nuclear programs got help directly or indirectly from Manhattan Project scientists. Even the Soviet Union relied on the Manhattan Project to jump start their own nuclear weapons program (via the spy Klaus Fuchs, among others).
Of the nuclear powers, only America and India completed their nuclear programs without outside assistance, spies in other nuclear programs, or researcher exchanges. South Africa received assistance from Israel (and possibly France). Israel got assistance from France. France and the UK had scientists participate in the Manhattan Project. China got assistance from the USSR. The USSR conducted the aforementioned spying on the Manhattan Project. Pakistan received assistance from China (and possibly the United States) and in turn provided assistance to North Korea.
The other reason for the cheap price tag is domestic. In America, the government cannot force scientists or labourers to work on atomic weapons and must pay a wage commensurate with each employee’s skills. The American government cannot force someone who finds atomic weapons distasteful to work on them against their will. For example, Joseph Roblatt was able to leave the Manhattan Project, even in the middle of all the paranoia stirred up by World War II.
North Koreans have none of that luxury. They work for whatever pittance the government chooses to give them and are executed or sent to prison camps if they refuse. There is no room for conscientious objectors or for negotiating on salary. Put plainly, the North Korean nuclear program is much cheaper than other nuclear programs because it is underlain with slavery and coercion.
3.3 How did things get so bad?
To rip off one of my favourite authors, “slowly, then all at once”.
There was an agreement to denuclearize North Korea signed by Clinton and Kim Jong-Il in 1994, when the North first began to make progress on its nuclear program. This agreement would have provided the North with proliferation-resistant nuclear power plants and free oil as those new power plants were constructed, as well as eventual sanctions relief and normalization of relations with the United States and South Korea. In return for this, North Korea agreed to remain bound by the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) and submit to monitoring of its nuclear sites.
But this wasn’t a fully binding treaty and congress never secured the funds (it was signed right before the first midterm election of Clinton’s presidency, where Republicans took back the house). Delays repeatedly occurred on the American side and I’m not sure that the North Koreans ever fully suspended their nuclear program. No normalization of relations occurred, no sanctions were lifted, and George W. Bush eventually cancelled the agreement. North Korea soon announced that they were again developing nuclear weapons.
The nuclear program rapidly accelerated after Kim Jong-Il’s death in 2011. I’m of two minds about this. I’ve seen people claim that Jong-un has poured resources into the program to help prop up his standing internally, which certainly seems in keeping with his self-preservation instinct. But I also wonder if this could just be the natural result of North Korean scientists becoming more experienced and proficient in nuclear weapons production.
Either way, there have been four nuclear tests since Jong-un took power, three of them since 2016. The rapidity of these recent tests, their pairing with tests of missiles, and Trump’s bellicose response have combined to make the stand-off feel much direr than it has been at any other point in my life.
3.4 How many nuclear weapons does North Korea have? How does this compare to the US?
North Korea’s nuclear warhead count is unclear, but estimates range from 12 to 60.
There’s a big difference between prepared warheads, unassembled potential warheads in storage, and fissile material that can be used in warheads. When people estimate the number of warheads, they’re normally estimating the fissile material that the North Koreans could possess, probably assuming it’s all eventually going to active warheads. This assumption could be wrong if something other than fissile material – maybe highly technical bomb components? – is actually the limiting factor in North Korean warhead production.
The US has 1,550 active warheads . These are the warheads that could be quickly deployed. The rest of its stockpile is in various states of readiness. I think some of them could be used relatively quickly (i.e. in a day or two), while others could be used only after a significant amount of refurbishment or preparation.
If North Korea has many active warheads (e.g. 60), an American first strike becomes impractical. It would be very hard to guarantee that all of them were destroyed (thereby preventing retaliatory strikes against the US or US troops in South Korea). Inactive nuclear weapons would still present a threat in the aftermath of a successful first strike, but it’s a threat that can be mitigated by sufficient damage to the chain of command or the logistic structure of the North Korean army.
Likewise, raw fissile material can be mostly neutralized as a threat by eliminating the state infrastructure necessary to turn it into finished warheads (it could still be used to create dirty bombs, but these are far less of a threat than nuclear warheads). It takes labour and speciality components to turn enriched fissile material into a reliable and functional weapon, prerequisites that are difficult to fulfill if the state that normally supplies them has collapsed.
I should also mention that very few (if any) of North Korea’s active warheads will be similar to the most recent test detonation. Many of their weapons will be relatively weak pure fission devices (similar in strength to their previous nuclear tests). Now that they have a warhead capable of ~150kt yields, they’ll certainly try and ramp up production of it (assuming that it’s at all practically useful and doesn’t weigh several tonnes), but that will take time.
Some experts seem to think that North Korea has much more access to enriched uranium than plutonium. This will further slow down their ability to build new weapons in the ~150kt range, at least if they want those weapons to be miniaturized .
3.5 How bad would it be if North Korea used nuclear weapons?
The latest North Korean weapon would (if it actually had a yield of 150kt and these casualty estimates are accurate) kill almost 300,000 people in LA, 270,000 people in SF, about 550,000 people in Tokyo, or 490,000 people in Seoul. If you want to get a sense of the destruction, you can play around with it on NukeMap. For cities on the US West Coast or in Asia and Europe, use a ~150kt bomb. For the East Coast, a 5-20kt bomb is probably more realistic (if one can be delivered at all) .
The danger is greatest for South Korea and Japan. Their cities are much denser (so nuclear weapons are more devastating) and much closer to North Korea (making it easy for the North Koreans to deliver larger warheads on missiles). There is also less in the way of missile defenses protecting major Asian cities, making bombs aimed at them much more likely to succeed.
That said, if North Korea ever used nuclear weapons, the greatest loss of life would be inside North Korea.
Each Ohio class submarine can carry several times as many warheads as North Korea possesses. One Ohio-class submarine with a full complement of warheads has almost the same nuclear arsenal as France.
If an Ohio class submarine were to unleash its payload on North Korea, the country would cease to exist in any meaningful way. Every single major popular centre would be irrevocably devastated. It would be destruction unlike the world has ever seen. It would make Hiroshima and Nagasaki look like child’s play. It would be the scourging of an entire country with nuclear hellfire.
Trump’s speech, where he promised “fire and fury unlike the world has ever seen” wasn’t hyperbole. It was a statement of fact. A single US nuclear ballistic missile submarine could easily make good on his threats. A single US nuclear tipped missile could make good on his threats.
(There are 14 Ohio class submarines, by the way.)
3.5.1 I’ve heard that nuclear weapons cause an electromagnetic pulse (EMP). How much damage could North Korea do with this?
Like most questions about nuclear weapon damage, this depends on several factors.
First, there’s a common misconception that a normal anti-material nuclear detonation (e.g. one within a few kilometers of the ground) creates an EMP effect that can do widespread damage. This is technically true – there is a large EMP effect – but practically irrelevant because the electromagnetic pulse will only really affect areas already ravaged by the bomb. Absent the other effects, it certainly would do significant damage, but it’s hard to think of a case where the most damage to a city attacked by a nuclear weapon will come from the EMP.
The strength of this electromagnetic pulse depends on the type of bomb, its altitude, and the local strength of the magnetic field (the stronger the field, the stronger the EMP). The ideal nuclear weapon for producing EMP effects is a single stage weapon that produces a greater-than-average portion of its energy output in the form of gamma radiation and does this as quickly as possible .
I don’t think North Korea has resources to invest in optimising for EMP effects. Development would probably require tests, which themselves require an expenditure of the government’s limited stockpile of fissile material. Since cost-effective and material-effective EMP weapons are normally single stage, North Korea would risk weakening their deterrent posture if they conducted these tests (to the US listening in with seismographs, it would look like they had regressed in their program and were failing to achieve fusion).
It also appears that most electronics, especially unplugged electronics would survive an EMP almost entirely unscathed. Computers, phones, and cars would largely be undamaged, but power lines would be heavily affected. This would be bad, but also probably not irrecoverable. A bunch of things would have to go horribly wrong for an EMP attack on America to cause more casualties than a thermonuclear attack on a large city. For this reason, I suspect North Korea’s would favour attacking population centres in any retaliatory second strike over high altitude EMP-producing bursts.
3.6 How do we get North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons program?
That is the most important question. President Trump likes to assert that China could get North Korea to stop. I once thought this was true, but I’ve abandoned that position as I’ve become better informed on the topic. If we give up on the idea that China can magically get North Korea to stop, it’s difficult to conceptualize North Korea giving up its weapons program. We don’t have a lot of examples of this occurring; the only singular history has to give us come from South Africa, which was briefly a nuclear power but later gave up its weapons. The parallels – both were international pariahs who felt weapons were necessary against an encroaching threat – offer perhaps the only blueprint for the denuclearization of the Korean peninsula.
3.6.1 How come China can’t make North Korea stop?
China once saw North Korea as a buffer against American influence or aggression. North Korea was the fifth Chinese buffer zone  – one of the client kingdoms that surround the Han heartlands of the state. To some extent, that’s still true. North Korea does provide a buffer between American allied South Korea and China. But at this point, North Korea is also a significant threat to China’s security.
The relationship between China and North Korea has significantly deteriorated since Kim Jong-un became leader. Jang Song Thaek – the uncle that Jong-un had executed – was one of the primary conduits for diplomacy between Pyongyang and Beijing. With his death, bilateral relations are largely stalled. Apparently, China hasn’t even been able to send an envoy to North Korea in more than a year.
Even before that though, mistrust characterized the relationship between Beijing and Pyongyang (on both sides). Kim Il-sung was almost executed by the Chinese communist party early in his life. Additionall disputes arose between the two countries during the Korean war and many of them haven’t been resolved since. There were even border skirmishes between the two nations in the late 1960s (I fact I didn’t know until I began researching for this section).
I don’t know why I didn’t realize this until I had it pointed out to me by 38north.org, but throughout history, client kingdom relationships have rarely been characterized by meek submission on the part of the client . If you want an example of a heavily dependent ally that America cannot effectively control, look no further than Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. In addition to ignoring American requests to stop settlements, he resolutely opposed Obama, even crossing the normal red line of meddling in American domestic politics. Why should we expect China’s client states to behave any differently than America’s?
At this point, China seems to believe they’ve lost any ability to control North Korea. They responded to the latest North Korean missile test with the test of an anti-ballistic missile system of their own. The location of this system? Between North Korea and Beijing. This is not something allies do. This isn’t even something that disinterested parties do. Pakistan and the UK both have nuclear weapons, but the US has put no effort into building missile defenses against either of them. China fears and mistrusts North Korea more than the United States fears and mistrusts Pakistan (which incidentally is also another excellent example of a rocky relationship between client and suzerain).
All of this means that a solution for the present crisis will not come only from Beijing. The engagement of Beijing is key to bringing North Korea to the table – we can’t accomplish anything without them – but we can no longer foist responsibility for North Korea onto China.
3.6.2 Why did South Africa end its nuclear weapons program?
In the 1970s South Africa was internationally isolated. It was banned from major sporting events and faced coordinated economic and military sanctions. It was fighting two separate guerilla wars and one conventional war. Thanks to intervention by Cuba and the USSR, (white) South Africans legitimately felt like they might soon be overrun by communists.
In this climate, they saw nuclear weapons as a salvation and a guarantee of independence. They could not use nuclear weapons to pacify their own people, but they thought that nuclear weapons might buy them breathing room and permanent protection from communism. For this, a token nuclear deterrent was enough – it’s unclear if their weapons were even usable, or if they intended to use the threat of them to prompt international aid if their borders were ever threatened .
There was good reason for the world to sanction South Africa. Its apartheid system was despicable. It conducted one of the largest forced removals of people in history. It had a government without any principled claim to legitimacy. It was at war with its neighbours and had banned all dissent from its black citizens.
Many in South Africa wanted to prop up the system indefinitely. Many knew they were complicit in a great evil, but they feared death if apartheid were ever to unravel.
Does any of this sound familiar? South Africa had the same foundational paranoia that North Korea’s Kim dynasty currently possesses.
Here’s what happened. The sanctions – especially the sports bans – took their toll, demoralizing white South Africans. The Soviet Union fell, ending communism as an existential threat. Demographics forced the government to realized that they could only fight the tide of history for so long. F.W. de Klerk negotiated peace with the Angolans, the Namibians, the Cubans, and the ANC. He secured immunity for the state actors that had propped up apartheid. Then he dismantled his country’s nuclear weapons, followed shortly by his government.
This, I think, is the blueprint we must follow for North Korea. We should follow it not because it’s particularly attractive, but because it is the only blueprint we have.
3.6.3 How could we convince North Korea to give up its nuclear weapons?
First, the Americans and North Koreans would have to accept the current Chinese proposal, which would see North Korea pause its nuclear program and the US cancel joint military exercises with South Korea. This is actually similar in principle to the trilateral treaty that ended the conflict in Namibia and Angola. As a result of that treaty South Africa withdrew its forces, Cuba did the same, and Namibia ran democratic elections.
If there’s any backsliding or reluctance at all on the part of North Korea, then we can use some of the sticks that were particularly effective against South Africa, especially the sports ban (which seriously demoralized white South Africans). North Korea is currently allowed to compete in both the Olympics and FIFA. That should change. For as long as nuclear tests continue, all North Korean athletes should be banned from international competition. The North Korean government cares a lot about its successes in athletics (seeing them as proof of the power of juche), so taking that away from them would be a potent psychological blow.
If an American suspension of military drills fails to bring North Korea to the table, America will have strengthened its position with China at the same time as North Korea presents yet another embarrassment to Beijing. This will make it easier to coordinate even more damaging sanctions on Pyongyang. If Jong-un continues on this path, he risks well and truly alienating China, which would deeply cripple North Korea’s economy. I think at some point (e.g. if China gets pissed off enough that it threatens to stop guaranteeing North Korea against an attack), Kim Jong-un would have to blink and start bargaining with the powers arrayed against him
There are two paths that can be followed once the North freezes its nuclear program and America abandons its military drills. In the first, we can go back to where we were in the 1990s, but this time do it right. I’m personally pessimistic that this can lead to long term security, because totalitarian regimes and democracies can almost never co-exist, especially side by side. If North Korea remains under juche, some conflict with America will eventually escalate, ruin any existing deal, and lead to renewal of weapon’s research. I’m not opposed to buying time (every day where North Korea and America aren’t on a hair trigger is a day where far fewer people are at risk of dying!), but I’d also like to see this conflict settled for good.
Hence, the second path. It starts off like the first, with the world steadily upping the pressure on Kim Jong-un. But here, instead of just making this about nuclear weapons, we make it personal and we offer him a personal escape from his current situation . A guaranteed life of ease may not be owning a country, but it competes favourably with being dead. The goal here would be to remove Jong-un and replace him with someone able to undertake the Korean equivalent of the Khrushchev Thaw or Deng Xiaoping’s reforms.
This would go hand in hand with the negotiations following the suspension of military drills and might involve the following:
America removes all of its troops from South Korea
Kim steps down as Supreme Leader. He and all of his cronies are guaranteed a state pension for as long as they live.
North Korea agrees to abandon its nuclear program and accedes to the NPT and (after verification of the programs dismantling) the NSG.
A transitional government is put in place in North Korea. Realistically, this government will have to be heavily influenced by Beijing, but that shouldn’t rule out eventual re-unification.
I hate this plan. The only end that feels fitting for Kim Jong-un involves a firing squad.
A nuclear war between North Korea and America will (at a minimum) kill millions. Every day that tensions remain this high on the peninsula risks that eventuality. The current state of uneasy paranoia is unacceptably dangerous . Even a more stable stand-off, punctuated by brief periods of tensions this bad is too much of a risk.
North Koreans are not served by Kim Jong-un walking free and never facing justice. But they’re served even less by dying in a country turned into a conflagration.
I don’t know if this plan could work. I don’t know if there’s the political will. I don’t know if Trump or Jong-un can thread the needle, or walk the knife’s edge, or whatever metaphor you want to use for what would be an intensely difficult process. But I’m convinced that this plan, or something similar is the only way we can permanently de-escalate tensions on the Korean peninsula and remove North Korean weapons of mass destruction.
That’s the other reason I wrote this FAQ. Because I want people to have all of the context for this crisis. I want you to understand the true scope of devastation that any military response to North Korea would entail. I want you to understand that China cannot control North Korea. I want you to understand that missile defense is cold comfort. I want you to understand that we have done this before and we can do it again but that it will be hard and unsatisfying.
If you’ve made it this far, I have a favour to ask of you. Check my work. Make sure what I’ve written is correct. If I’m wrong, help me to understand this crisis even better. And if it checks out, tell other people what we know. Spread it as far as you can. Tell your friends, your coworkers. Tell your parents, your children. Help people understand what we have to do.
 For illustrative purposes, note that this means 175,000 to 380,000 fatalities if detonated above downtown LA or 270,000 to 760,000 fatalities if detonated above downtown Tokyo. For more on yield, see my post on nuclear weapon effects. ^
 If it is following the limits outlined in the New START treaty with Russia. ^
 It requires much more in the way of conventional explosives to compress a uranium primary than a plutonium primary. Uranium has a higher critical mass than plutonium, which has the consequence of requiring a greater initial mass or greater compression before fission can be obtained. Either way, this requires more explosives to start the thing. My understanding is that multi-stage fusion bombs are never started with gun-type primaries, making implosion a necessity and eliminating one option for making uranium weapons more explosive-efficient. If you want to efficiently miniaturize a bomb, you need to bring along as little conventional explosives as possible. It’s this need that has driven technologies like boosted fission. ^
 For maximum casualties, use an airburst. To see fallout, use a surface burst. Airbursts are favoured against soft targets, like cities, ports, and military bases. Ground bursts are used against hardened targets, like nuclear silos or government bunker complexes.
In large nuclear weapons (and 150kt is large by any reasonable standard), most of the fatalities come from the shockwave and thermal radiation (as opposed to the central fireball or prompt radiation exposure). When a bomb is detonated closer to the ground, there’s much less of a shockwave and fewer people are exposed to dangerous thermal radiation, but some of the soil becomes radioactive and is dispersed as dangerous fallout. ^
 I don’t know this for sure, because undisclosed. But I would bet several thousand dollars that one is there. ^
 Missiles with multiple warheads mount them on multiple independent re-entry vehicles, or MIRVs. I’ve seen this verbed, as in “those missiles were MIRVed with eight warheads each”. Each re-entry vehicle can pick an independent target (within some radius of the initial target) as it re-enters the atmosphere. Hence the name.
Technically, the Trident II missiles can carry 14 MIRVed warheads, but treaties limit them to 8. Both the US and Russia are allowed (by bilateral treaty) to have up to 288 nuclear tipped sub-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs), with up to 1152 warheads carried on those missiles (this is in addition to the maximum number of warheads allowed per missile). ^
 Gamma rays cause electromagnetic pulses by ionizing electrons in the upper atmosphere. These electrons circle magnetic field lines, producing a large oscillating electric and magnetic field, as well as acting as a giant coordinated synchrotron array. The gamma rays emitted from these synchrotrons cause a second, longer lasting and less intense pulse that can nonetheless damage systems weakened by the first pulse. ^
Single stage weapons more efficiently produce EMPS (compared to multi-stage weapons) because the first stage of multi-stage weapons can pre-ionize the air before gamma rays from the second stage reach it. Once air is ionized, the EMP will likely induce an opposite direction current in it, which will cancel out some of the EMP effect.
When gamma rays are produced extremely quickly (here, “quickly” really means “with little gap between production of the first and production of the last”), there is little chance for this opposite current to reduce the strength of the pulse. ^
 The reason for this is almost always domestic. While it might be better for a country as a whole to reap the benefits of a close relationship with their protector, this is often hard for the leader of a country to pull off without appearing to be a foreign puppet (which is the sort of thing that leads to losing elections or dying in a coup, depending on how political systems are set up to transfer power). Seen this way, Kim Jong-un’s domestic paranoia is one of the driving forces of his estrangement from Beijing. See also The Iron Law of Institutions. ^
 This isn’t without precedent. During the Yom Kippur war, Israel assembled several nuclear weapons in plain view of US intelligence gathering assets. This is thought to have contributed (although it is unclear how much) to the subsequent American decision to re-supply Israel, replenishing its material losses from the early stages of the war. ^
 Offering an attractive escape is key. Ratcheting up the pressure without one just makes nuclear war more likely. We’re competing here with “90% chance I get to keep running my country, 10% chance I die horribly”, or the like. If we can’t make an offer that can attractively compete with this, we should avoid squeezing Kim too tightly, just in case he reacts (apocalyptically) poorly. ^
 When tensions are this high, accidents can easily start nuclear wars. Accidents happen. Let’s say (and I do not particularly believe these numbers are correct, but they are illustrative) you expect one accident a year and 30% of accidents cause a nuclear war. After five years, there is an 83% chance that a nuclear war will have broken out. It’s this small but consistent chance for a horrendous death toll that I so desperately want us to avoid. ^
I’ve been ranting to random people all week about how much I love the Westminster System of parliamentary government (most notably used in Canada, Australia, New Zealand, and the UK) and figured it was about time to write my rant down for broader consumption.
Here’s three reasons why the Westminster System is so much better than the abominable hodgepodge Americans call a government and all the other dysfunctional presidential republics the world over.
1. The head of state and head of government are separate
And more importantly, the head of state is a figurehead.
The president is an odd dual-role, both head of government (and therefore responsible for running the executive branch and implementing the policies of the government) and head of state (the face of the nation at home and abroad; the person who is supposed to serve as a symbol of national unity and moral authority). In Westminster democracies, these roles are split up. The Prime Minister serves as head of government and directs the executive branch, while the Queen (or her representative) serves as head of state . Insofar as the government is personified in anyone, it is personified in a non-partisan person with a circumscribed role.
This is an excellent protection against populism. There is no one person who can gather the mob to them and offer the solutions to all problems, because the office of the head of state is explicitly anti-populist . In Westminster governments, any attempt at crude populism on the part of the prime minister can be countered by messages of national unity from the head of state .
It’s also much easier to remove the head of government in the Westminster system. Unlike the president, the prime minister serves only while they have the confidence of parliament and their party. An unpopular prime minister can be easily replaced, as Australia seems happy to demonstrate overandover. A figure like Trump could not be prime minister if their parliamentarians did not like them.
This feature is at risk from open nominating contests and especially rules that don’t allow MPs to pick the interim leader during a leadership race. In this regard, Australia is doing a much better job at exemplifying the virtues of the Westminster system than Canada or the UK (where Corbyn’s vote share is all the more surprising for how much internal strife his election caused) .
To the Commonwealth, one of the most confusing features of American democracy is its (semi-)regular government shut downs, like the one Trump had planned for September. On the other side, Americans are baffled at the seemingly random elections that Commonwealth countries have.
Her Majesty’s Prime Minister governs only so long as they have the confidence of the house. A government is only sworn in after they can prove they have confidence (via a vote of all newly elected and returning MPs). When no party has an absolute majority, things can get tense – or can go right back to the polls. We’ve observed two tense confidence votes this year, one in BC, the other in the UK.
In both these cases, no party had a clear majority of seats in the house (in Canada, we call this a minority government). In both BC and the UK, confidence was secured when a large party enlisted the help of a smaller party to provide “confidence and supply”. In this situation, the small party will vote with the government on budgets and other confidence motions, but is otherwise free to vote however they want.
The first vote of confidence isn’t the only one a government is likely to face. If the opposition thinks the government is doing a poor job, they can launch a vote of no confidence. If the motion is passed by parliament, it is dissolved for an election.
But many bills are actually confidence motions in disguise. Budgets are the “supply” side of “confidence and supply”. Losing a budget vote – sometimes archaically called “failing to secure supply” – results in parliament being dissolved for an election. This is how Ontario’s last election was called. The governing party put forward a budget they were prepared to campaign on and the opposition voted it down.
This feature prevents government shutdowns. If the government can’t agree on a budget, it has to go to the people. If time is of the essence, the Queen or her representative may ask the party that torpedoed the budget to pass a non-partisan continuing funding resolution, good until just after the election to ensure the government continues to function (as happened in Australia in 1975).
By convention, votes on major legislative promises are also motions of confidence. This helps ensure that the priorities laid out during an election campaign don’t get dropped. In a minority government situation, the opposition must decide whether it is worth another election before vetoing any of the government’s key legislative proposals. Because of this, Commonwealth governments can be surprisingly functional even without a legislative majority.
Add all of this together and you get very accountable parties. Try and enact unpopular legislation with anything less than a majority government and you’ll probably find yourself shortly facing voters. On the flip side, obstruct popular legislation and you’ll also find yourself facing voters. Imagine how the last bit of Obama’s term would have been different if the GOP had to fight an election because of the government shutdown.
3. The upper house is totally different
Many Westminster countries have bicameral legislatures, with two chambers making up parliament (New Zealand is the notable exception here). In most Westminster system countries with two chambers, the relationship between the houses is different than that in America.
The two American chambers are essentially co-equal (although the senate gets to approve treaties and budgets must originate in the house). This is not so in the Westminster system. While both chambers have equal powers in many on paper (except that money bills must often originate in the lower chamber), in practice they are very different.
By convention (and occasionally legislation) the upper chamber has its power constrained. The actual restrictions vary from country to country, but in general they forbid rejecting bills for purely partisan reasons or they prevent the upper house from messing with the budget.
The goal of the upper house in the Westminster system is to take a longer view of legislation and protect the nation from short-sighted thinking. This role is more consultative than legislative; it’s not uncommon to see a bill vetoed once, then returned to the upper chamber and assented to (sometimes with token changes, sometimes even with no changes). The upper house isn’t there to ignore the will of the people (as embodied by the lower house), just to remind them to occasionally look longer term.
This sort of system helps prevent legislate gridlock. Since the upper house tends to serve longer terms (in Canada, senators are appointed for life, for example), there is often a different majority in the upper and lower chambers. If the upper chamber was free to veto anything they didn’t like (even if the reasons were purely partisan) then nothing would ever get done.
Taken together, these features of the Westminster system prevent legislative gridlock and produce legitimate outputs of the political process. This obviates populist “I’ll fix everything myself” leaders like Trump, who seem to be an almost inevitable outcome in a perpetually gridlocked and unnavigable system (i.e. the American government).
Among certain people in Canada, electoral and senate reform have become contentious topics. It’s my (unpopular in millennial circles) opinion that Canada has no need of electoral reform. Get a few beers in most proponents of electoral reform and you’ll quickly find that preventing all future Conservative majorities is a much more important goal for them than any abstract concept of “fairness”. I’m not of the opinion that we should change our electoral system just because a party we didn’t like won a majority government once in the last eight elections (or three times in the past ten elections and past fifteen elections).
Senate reform may have already been accomplished, with Prime Minister Trudeau’s move to appoint only non-partisan senators and dissolve the Liberal caucus in the senate. Time will tell if this new system survives his tenure as prime minister.
In one of the articles I linked above, Prof. Joseph Heath compares the utter futility Americans feel about changing their electoral system with the indifference most Canadians feel about changing theirs. In Canada, many proponents of electoral reform specifically wanted to avoid a plebiscite, because they understand that there currently exists no legitimacy crisis sufficient to overcome the status quo bias most people feel. Reform in Canada is certainly possible, but first the system needs to be broken. Right now, the Westminster system is working admirably.
 Israel took many cues from Westminster governments. Its president is non-partisan and ceremonial. If Canada was every forced to give up the monarchy, I’d find this sort of presidential system acceptable. ^
 It’s hard to tell which is less populist; the oldest representative of one of the few remaining aristocracies, or (like in Israel or the governor-generals of the former colonies), exceptional citizens chosen for their reliability and loyalty to the current political order. ^
Epistemic Status: Started as a reduction ad absurdum.
It used to be a common progressive grumbling point that the social safety net subsidized the low wages of McDonald’s and Walmart (and many less famous and less oft grumbled about enterprises). The logic went that employees at those companies just weren’t paid enough; they wouldn’t be able to survive – a necessary prerequisite to showing up at work – without government assistance. The obvious fix for this would be forcing these companies to pay their employees more – raising the minimum wage.
In my last piece on the minimum wage, I said the existing evidence pointed towards minimum wage hikes having few negative consequences. Recent evidence from Seattle suggests this may not be the case (although there are dueling studies, further complicated by accusations of academic misconduct against the scientists who found the hike had no effect). If my earlier prediction proves false, it will be because $15/hour is much higher – and a much larger percentage increase, then any of the past studies looked at.
If a $15/hour minimum wage “fails”  then we will face a choice. Do we give up on higher minimum wages? Do we accept higher unemployment (and all of its associated disconnection, wrenching poverty, and mental health costs)? Do we try something radically different?
Certainly, there exist other potential programs that we can use to accomplish some of the goals of a minimum wage increase if an increase itself proves untenable. A guaranteed basic income (GBI) , while expensive, would accomplish many of the same economic security goals as a higher minimum wage, but it wouldn’t fix the fact that some people see their wage as a reflection on their moral value, instead of a commentary on the supply and demand of various skills. This could become quite the sticking point; one reason that libertarians get behind a GBI is that it would allow us to abolish minimum wage laws.
Eliezer Yudkowsky (don’t groan, this really is relevant) has an interesting theory about the left. He thinks that the left doesn’t hate capitalism – they just hold it to the same ethical standards they hold people to. It might be people on the right who claim that corporations are people, but it’s the left who treat corporations like people.
If we accept Yudkowsky’s theory, there are a lot of people for whom paying someone $8/hour is an unacceptable slur on that person’s value as a human being . This seems to match what I see from time to time on Facebook or in editorials. Here’s one out of Seattle; it ends with: “Finally, let’s be mindful that a minimum wage is about more than keeping the poor from starving. It’s also about attaching dignity to a person’s labor”.
Dignity being on the line changes the minimum wage debate. People can squabble over the economic pie endlessly. But make it about dignity and workers can’t back down. Even if a higher minimum wage leads to price increases or lost jobs.
And the Seattle Times article I linked is far too sanguine about price increases . It is correct when it points out that well-off people can eat price increases with nary a change in behaviour, but I don’t know how it can so calmly ignore how much of a struggle it is for low-income families to deal with price increases.
Of course, raising the minimum wage might give people some breathing room. But that breathing room is wasted if prices immediately increase to match the new incomes. Have you ever watched someone on a treadmill?
The real effect of increased prices will be felt by people living on fixed incomes. Price increases are especially rough on seniors, who often can’t work even if they wanted to. Although I suppose we could use inflation to deal with the truly scary unfunded pension liabilities that many governments now have to deal with.
Raising the minimum wage will have to result in higher prices if it doesn’t lead to improved productivity (and therefore laying off the least productive workers). Retailers can absorb wages up to about $11/hour and still turn a profit. Beyond that, they can only raise prices, raise productivity, or run a charity. They won’t do the third.
But look, steadily rising wages are nice. They’re an excellent anesthetic for discontent. They alleviate poverty. If it was worth the cost, the government could make the complaints of subsidization true by literally subsidizing wages.
For the government to carry out this subsidization in Ontario, the cost would be something like $9 billion dollars . This is equivalent to about 6% of the current budget – a bit less than the amount Ontario pays to service its debt. It wouldn’t be impossible to raise revenue for this – a progressive 1-5% tax increase would cover it handily , with the median Ontario worker seeing about $10.00 come off each paycheque with the new taxes.
There would obviously need to be some pretty strict rules in place here. What company would chip in $13 or $14 when their worker would be paid the same if they instead chipped in $11.60 (the current minimum wage)? We might get around this by making subsidization depend on the number of workers you employ (although this will tend towards monopolization and give the big retail giants quite an advantage) or their low productivity (but this has terrible incentives).
We still don’t know if the minimum wage hike will result in lost jobs. It’s also an open question how much we should (at a policy level) be aiming for full employment. But raising the minimum wage is a massive, $9 billion undertaking. Who pays for it (and if it happens at all) is deeply tied into questions about fairness, dignity, good governance and regressiveness. The least regressive way to do it is probably via subsidies; unfortunately, subsidies are the most corruptible of all options.
I previously mentioned the guaranteed basic income. My crude calculations give a (no doubt slightly high) estimate of $37 billion  for a GBI in Ontario, much higher than I’ve seen in the estimates from proponents. I’m personally worried that a GBI would be absorbed into raised rents , another example of a treadmill effect.
Economics policy is difficult enough as a scientific discipline. But tied up in ancillary questions (like “what is fair?”) as it is, it is uniquely susceptible to corruption by what people wish, rather than what is true . When it can’t be corrupted, it is often ignored. Public policy has a cost. Resources are still limited. For every dollar spent, there must be a dollar raised (if not now, then eventually).
When we focus only on what we feel is fair or justified and not on what is achievable, we aren’t doing anyone any favours. Raising the minimum wage to $15/hour might cause job losses or spiralling inflation, or it might require subsidies and tax raises. These aren’t the consequences of greedy corporations. They’re the predictable results of people making reasonable decisions in a massively complicated system.
Disturb it at your own peril.
 Failure (to me) means increased unemployment. A decrease in labour force participation would probably represent a return to single income families, unless preceded by high unemployment of the sort that drives people to give up looking for work. There’s also the failure mode of “causes spiralling inflation”, but that seems more likely to end the whole experiment prematurely. ^
 Unanswered questions I still have about a guaranteed minimum income include: “how can we pay for?”, “are you sure it won’t cause massive inflation in rents?”, and “no seriously, just saying it was fine when the Fed did QE isn’t good enough! Why won’t all that money chasing the same desirable housing cause the housing to become more expensive?” ^
 It’s weird to see the left capitulating here and more or less agreeing that a person’s value is at all tied to their wage. I think it’s important to strongly reject all attempts to link the intrinsic human value of a person with their economic value. Economic value maps to supply and demand, not intrinsic worthiness, so it’s an inherently fragile thing to base any moral worth on. ^
 It also makes a horrendous false equivalence between worker pay and CEO pay. Walmart’s CEO makes $21.8 million. Walmart has 2.3 million “associates”. Let’s say they average 20 hours per week, 50 weeks per year, for 2.3 billion employee hours per year. Removing the CEO’s salary would free up enough cash to pay the workers one extra cent per hour ($10/year). CEO salaries are a very tiny drop in the bucket compared to total compensation for companies with huge workforces. ^
1.7 million people make less than $15/hour. Assume they all make $11.60/hour, that they all work 40 hour weeks, 50 weeks a year and we end up with $11.6 billion. Since all of these are overestimates, this gives us an upper bound. $9 billion is my guess at a more realistic number. ^
 Here’s my calculations, based on the really excellent Statistics Canada data available here. I’ve made some simplifying assumptions (e.g. that everyone in each bracket makes the exact centre value of the bracket, that higher taxes won’t make people look for more ways to avoid them), but this should be broadly accurate. If you want to play around with the workbook, leave a comment with your email address and I’ll send it your way.
Note that “Total Revenue”, “Total Tax”, and “Tax as percent of income” are calculated by adding the “Tax at Midpoint” value to the “Taxes For Entire Bracket” values for all previous brackets. This is how the taxman does it. ^
Not pictured: any adjustment for the percent of people who are married. The simplest approach (50% of Ontarians are married and couples receive 30% less, so the cost should be 15% lower) brings the cost down to a “mere” $37 billion. This is the cost I quote above. ^
 Rent control is the only possible solution, but it might be worse than what it seeks to cure. The economist Assar Lindbeck claimed that “In many cases rent control appears to be the most efficient technique presently known to destroy a city—except for bombing.” This was falsified by communist Vietnam, according to a speech by its onetime foreign minister: “The Americans couldn’t destroy Hanoi, but we have destroyed our city by very low rents. We realized it was stupid and that we must change policy”. ^
 On all sides. For every Bernie bro convinced we need socialism right now, there’s someone who believes in the explicitly anti-empirical assertions of the Austrian School. ^