North Korean Nuclear Weapons Program FAQ

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

[30 minute read]

0. Table of Contents

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

1. Why?

1.1 Why are you writing this?

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

1.2 Okay, but why you in particular?

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

2. What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.2 What do we even know?

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

Here are the facts:

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

Here are the serious unknowns:

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

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

Oh my. Please remember that these are guesses.

2.3.1 Is this weapon fusion or boosted fission?

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

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

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

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

2.3.2 Is it miniaturized?

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

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

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

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

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

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

2.3.3 Does the heat shield work?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3. How?

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

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

3.1 How expensive has the program been?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.3 How did things get so bad?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3.6.2 Why did South Africa end its nuclear weapons program?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

4. Footnotes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Literature, Politics

Book Review: Shattered

[10 minute read]

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

Literature, Politics

Book Review: Strangers in Their Own Land

I just finished Professor Arlie Hochschild’s latest book, “Strangers in Their Own Land: Anger and Mourning on the American Right”, a book some people are trumpeting as the one that explains Trump.

That wasn’t exactly how I read the book. I think Trump’s win is well explained by some combination of the “fundamentals” and the Comey Letter just before the election. I’m also wary of falling into the trap of drawing conclusions about America because Trump won. The result of the election could have been changed by dozens of random events. I’m following Scott Alexander’s advice and not basing my narratives off of which potential events happened to actually happen.

Besides, Trump is barely even in this book. He only appears in any substantive way in the last chapter and Prof. Hochschild doesn’t devote much ink to him. If you’re using this book to explain Trump, you’re going to have to do a lot of the work yourself.

At its core, Strangers in Their Own Land is an ethnography about a specific group of people with all of the advantages and perils that entails. We get to learn a lot about its subjects, but we have to be careful whenever applying any of its conclusions beyond the small group of people actually profiled.

Like any ethnography, Strangers in Their Own Land lives or dies by the interest the author can evoke in her subjects. Here, the subjects are a small group of Louisiana Tea Party members. Prof. Hochschild certainly managed to make me interested in them by using them as a lens through which to peer at the “Great Paradox” of American Politics: why do many of those who could most benefit from the government hate it so much?

I’ve forayed into discussions of the Great Paradox before. Like Prof. Hochschild, I’m skeptical of the purported “two rungs up” explanation of the paradox. It goes like this: yes, lower income counties tend to vote against government programs, but it is not actually the people on those programs (or their loved ones) voting against them. People relying on government programs rarely actually vote. Actual voters in Republican-leaning counties are better off and are voting solely for lower taxes.

By focusing Strangers in Their Own Land on pollution, Prof. Hochschild was able to sidestep this explanation. Pollution doesn’t care if you’re rich or poor – one of the more heartbreaking stories in the book is about a nine-year-old who died from a rare neuroblastoma, which everyone suspects was caused by pollution. Despite this, his well-off parents and well-off family friends continued to oppose the EPA.

A focus on pollution made Louisiana the obvious setting for this book. It’s one of the most polluted states in America and has some of the weakest and most ineffectually enforced environmental laws. Louisiana also has a very high rate of welfare use, which let Prof. Hochschild compare the two rungs up theory with alternatives (as she could count on finding people who were or knew someone on welfare).

In Louisiana, Prof. Hochschild found no one who was happy about pollution. The Tea Party voters she interviewed loved the outdoors. Many of them grew up hunting and fishing and almost all of them continued to cherish those outdoor pastimes in adulthood. It hurt them deeply to have no game to hunt or to be unable to eat the fish they caught. Yet still they opposed more regulations on pollution.

Reasons for this varied. Some believed that regulating pollution would hurt the oil and gas industry and lead to unemployment. They were saddened by the effects of pollutions on the environment, but they refused to put the environment ahead of other people.

Others believed that the government was (indirectly) responsible for pollution. They saw the government as protecting the worst polluters while coming down hard on any “little guy” who leaked even a tiny amount of gas from his boat. They believed that any additional regulations would be applied to them and their friends, not to the big companies responsible for the real pollution. They figured that the free market would disincentivize pollution well enough if the government could just leave everything alone and let it work.

Yet others were religious and figured that the world would not be around for much longer. They saw God’s commandment in Genesis 1:28 (“fill the earth, and subdue it”) as justification for any pollution in the interim. Even justifying pollution wasn’t very important for the faithful though; they cared far more about a rapture they saw as close to hand than they did about any worldly concerns.

No one that Prof. Hochschild talked to said: “yes, the government could fix this, but we don’t want them to”. Instead, she got responses like “the EPA would just use whatever power we gave it to take away our freedoms”, or “the government can’t help, it’s in the pockets of the polluters and hates the little guys like us”; none of the Tea Party voters trusted the government.

Prof. Hochschild was used to people distrusting certain government figures or departments, while still believing that good government was possible, necessary, and worth fight for. Here Prof. Hochschild saw people so used to incompetent, hostile, or distant government that they had given up hope that good government could ever exist for them. Prof. Hochschild immediately wanted to know how this could happen.

She found that religious people tended to see the government as usurping the traditional role of the church. They thought that ensuring the welfare of members of a community should be the responsibility of that community. With welfare, the government was destroying the bonds that held communities together. They viewed the liberal tendency to leave the care of the poor to a central bureaucracy as evidence of a terrible culture of neglect and moral bankruptcy.

Some adherents of capitalism saw the government as the enemy. To them, job creation and economic dynamism came from private enterprise, which the government stifled through bureaucracy, regulation, and taxes.

Other interview subjects saw the government as taking their money and giving it to people who were unlike them, people outside of their communities. They thought they’d done everything right, played by the book, suffered, yet still found prosperity elusive. They worked long hours for scant compensation, while not far away, the government was just giving away money to single mothers – who they viewed as hedonistic sinners who had far more children than was reasonable. Factually incorrect beliefs about the number of children people on welfare had or the percentage of the population that was on welfare were rampant in this group.

This isn’t to say that everyone fell into one of these categories. Many people combined beliefs. It actually reminded me of a point Joseph Heath made in light of the sex education controversy in Ontario – when social conservatives realize they can’t get the regressive solution they want (everyone forced to live by their values), they tend to swing to the other extreme and ask for ultra-liberal solutions. They may most prefer the government forcing everyone to have their values, but absent that, they’d rather the government force no one to do anything, so that it can’t force them to give up their values.

I should also mention that not all Tea Partiers ignored the consequences of pollution. Strangers in Their Own Land also profiles Tea Partiers who cared about pollution, viewed it as a pressing issue, and advocated for the Tea Party to make pollution one of its core principles. They echoed something I heard in some of the Conservative Party of Canada leadership debates: “conservation is a conservative principle.”

Still, it was hard to take the anti-pollution Tea Party activists too seriously. They want to solve a collective action problem with the free market. Solving collective action problems with the free market is a bit like doing surgery with a pizza cutter. It’s not that it’s impossible, strictly speaking. It’s just that there are ways of doing it (in this case, via government) that are far less messy and far more likely to give the desired outcome.

It’s hard not to feel like the conservatives in this book are being betrayed by the industries they stand up for. One of the Tea Partiers who actually cared about pollution cared because his house was ruined in the Bayou Corne Sinkhole. Even as he stood up against pollution, he continued to advocate for a freer market, fear the EPA, and vote Republican. All of this has counted for nothing with Texas Brine, the company responsible for the disaster. It continues to drag its feet on the class action lawsuit launched by residents.

Further to this point, Prof. Hochschild dug up a damning report, prepared at the behest of the California Waste Management Board by some very fancy (and expensive!) consultants. The report identifies communities that won’t complain about “locally undesirable land use” (LULU), with the goal of identifying these communities so polluting (and property value lowering) activities can be more easily sited. Protests are very inconvenient for construction, after all.

Communities identified as ill-suited to resist LULU are:

  • Composed of long-time residents (who are unlikely to want to move away)
  • Small
  • High school educated
  • Catholic
  • Without a culture or history of activism
  • Involved in “nature exploitative occupations” (e.g. farming, ranching, and mining)
  • Conservative
  • Republican
  • Primarily peopled by advocates of the free market

The communities where Prof. Hochschild did her research hit basically every single one of these criteria. This prompted some introspection on her part, as realized that one of the ways that her home of Berkeley is able to avoid substantial pollution is by foisting the negative externalities of modern life (like pollution) off onto communities like those in poor, rural Louisiana.

The back of the book purports to contain an analysis that shows that communities where people are more conservative (and more likely to believe that pollution isn’t a problem) are more polluted. I’m cautious of adopting the conclusions from it though, because conclusions are all it contains. From those, it’s clear that multiple hypothesis could have been easily tested [1] but unclear whether or not this was specifically controlled for. Without being able to look at the raw data or see the analysis methodology, I can’t tell if the correlation is likely real or a statistical artifact.

I will beg the question for a bit though, because Prof. Hochschild treats the correlation as real and spends some time explaining it. I think her explanations are interesting enough to talk about, even if they may be based on a flawed analysis.

Prof. Hochschild doesn’t put willingness to endure pollution down to the poor ignorant workers being deceived by the big dastardly corporations, a change from leftist discourse that I found refreshing. Instead she focuses on stories and teams.

Prof. Hochschild believes that the people of the south are (in general) conditioned to look forward, towards what were historically the planter elite and are now the resource extraction executives. They want to be like the most fortunate people in their communities and so support the same things they do. When liberals tell them they should be looking backwards and trying to help people less fortunate than them, this feels like an attempt to enforce foreign feeling rules. They feel like they are being told that to be respectable or good, they must perform concern or other emotions that don’t feel genuine [2].

I’m using forward and back deliberately here. This is the book that coined the “standing in line” metaphor for the anger of white working class Americans. In this metaphor (called by Prof. Hochschild a “deep story”; a story that feels emotionally true), there is a long line stretching to the top of a hill. Just beyond the brow of it lies the American dream. The line is moving slowly (or perhaps not moving at all) and the people in it are weary from their waiting.

Despite this, they stand there, patiently waiting their turn. But something terrible happens. There are people cutting in line! From the interviews she used to construct this metaphor, Prof. Hochschild identified the line cutters as African-Americans using affirmative action, women taking traditionally male jobs, immigrants working more cheaply than American whites are willing to, and (somewhat amusingly) pelicans, protected by environmental laws that were killing jobs. While the people standing in line expected the government (personified by Barack Obama) to do something about the line cutters, they were horrified to instead see President Obama helping and supporting them.

I want to make it clear that this isn’t something that either Professor Hochschild or I believe is literally happening. When it comes to the actual suffering of the people interviewed in this book, Professor Hochschild is inclined to blame big business interests, while I think the blame belongs more to a changing economy and automation (there is of course significant overlap between these two causes). When it comes to pollution, we’re in agreement that Louisiana would really benefit from tougher environmental laws coupled with more rigorous enforcement of its existing regulations.

Even though I believe there is no real displacement, no cutting in line, this metaphor seemed to resonate with many of the Tea Partiers interviewed in this book. To those people, the government is betraying them, working against them for another team. This makes them utterly incapable of trusting the government (with the exception of the military) and makes them incredibly defensive of people they do feel are on their team, like Louisiana’s petrochemical industry, one of the few sources of jobs that feel ennobling for them in the state.

Like I mentioned earlier, the communities where Prof. Hochschild conducted her research also relied heavily on the government. Nearly everyone Prof. Hochschild interviewed was on some form of welfare, had been on some form of welfare, or had a family member who was currently or had in the past been on some form of welfare. No one was particularly happy about this though. People did what they had to survive, but there was much more honour in going it alone. They viewed work as inherently ennobling and accepting anonymous charity as shameful, the sort of Calvinist curse that seems to be common on the American psyche.

This actually reminded me of a topic that frequently popped up on Freddie de Boer’s now deleted blog [3]. Freddie was constantly worried that conspicuous consumerism was ruining the left. Freddie was apt to point out that there is a class of modern leftist that acts as if the important political projects of the left can be accomplished if they only signal their “woke” views hard enough, signalling primarily accomplished by consuming the correct media. Imagine, as an example, someone who is enthusiastic about Hamilton as if it were a meaningful political or institutional blow for leftist interests.

For both “woke” consumerist leftist cliques and Tea Party libertarians, the best off are able to buy virtue (or at least status), while the less fortunate have the misery of want compounded with the misery of failing to live up to an ideal that is predicated on a certain amount of disposable income (Hamilton tickets aren’t cheap, after all).

As much as the standing in line narrative has gotten air time, I want to caution against believing it as a universal motivating factor in Trump’s voters or working class whites more generally. Because this book is more an ethnography than anything else, it would be improper to take its conclusions, conclusions made about very small group of Tea Party activists and apply those conclusions across a country as varied and vast as the United States.

Strangers in Their Own Land doesn’t include polling data; it’s unclear how many of the people who supported Trump share the “deep story” presented by Prof. Hochschild. Remember, many of Trump’s voters decided at the last-minute and many of those last-minute voters voted more against Clinton than for Trump (due to Comey’s letter).

One hint that the views expressed by Prof. Hochschild’s subjects are niche comes from their near complete abhorrence of government programs. Polls of the American public mark this view as an anomaly, even in a country that voted ~46% Republican. In 2015, 83% of Americans said Social Security was very important. 77% said the same thing about Medicare, and 75% said it about federal aid to public schools. A “mere” 73% said the military was very important. It would probably be incorrect to take the views of the Tea Partiers who want to cut these programs and represent them as common.

It’s also important to remember just how much of Trump’s victory came from evangelicals voting solely (or mostly) out of the belief that Republicans stand against abortion. 81% of evangelicals (who comprise a full quarter of the US electorate) voted for Trump. We don’t need some new narrative to explain why groups like this voted for the Republican nominee; they’ve voted reliably for Republicans in every election that Pew has stats for.

Despite my quibbles, Strangers in Their Own Land was a fascinating portrait of the deep divisions in America and Prof. Hochschild was an excellent narrator. She consistently fought to react with empathy, even to people she disagreed with on virtually everything. When a woman named Madonna told her that she loved Rush Limbaugh because he stood up to Femi-Nazis, Prof. Hochschild (the feminist writer who coined the terms “emotional labour” and “the second shift”) invited her out to lunch because “it seemed like it would be interesting”. Nowhere in this book did Prof. Hochschild exhibit scorn or a sense of superiority.

I think it’s important to note that Professor Hochschild hasn’t sold this book as a complete explanation for Trump. That’s on a media that desperately wants a single easy story to hold on to. Strangers in Their Own Land doesn’t contain that singular story, but it does hold one fascinating piece of it.

One thing that may have helped Prof. Hochschild connect with the Tea Party members she interviewed was her own rootedness. The clash between cosmopolitan (multicultural, migratory, and individualist) and local (homogenous, traditional, and community-oriented) values was every bit as on display as the clash between right and left. Reading the acknowledgments section, I was struck by just how rooted in Berkeley Prof. Hochschild is. She has a small legion of friends and acquaintances and (one assumes) a deep web of interdependency with them.

Prof. Hochschild seems to be neither migratory, nor caught up in the atomization of society. Several of the people she interviewed directly critique this atomization and its corresponding effect on the breakdown of systems of mutual aid and support. Prof. Hochschild, by virtue of her position in a vibrant community (as well as her previous work that has touched on atomization) was well positioned to understand these critiques of the contemporary cosmopolitan.

I know that myself (and many other cosmopolitan-leaning liberals) have begun to feel the pain that can come with our migratory impulses. I abandoned a graduate degree, in part because it took me away from a community I had grown to love. For all that I often found myself completely disagreeing with the Tea Party members profiled in this book, I was glad to find that I might be able to talk with them about the benefits of community. I’m not sure if that would be enough of a starting point to convince them of anything substantial – rootedness and community are just one axis of (dis)agreement, just one part of the story – but it’s where I would start if I ever had to build a bridge to these strangers in their own land.


[1] Specifically, Prof. Hochschild looked for correlations between agreement with the statements “people worry too much about progress harming the environment”, “industrial air pollution is dangerous to the environment”, “the U.S. does enough to protect the environment”, and “Some people think that the government in Washington is trying to do too many things that should be left to individuals and private businesses”, political affiliation (Democrat/Republican), and pollution rates. Her analysis found that agreement with the statement “people worry too much about progress harming the environment” (as well as membership in the Republican party) was correlated with relative risk of being exposed to toxic chemical release. Because I don’t even have the P values these were significant at, let alone knowledge of how they corrected for multiple comparisons and how many comparisons were attempted, I have to treat the correlation as liable to be caused by chance. ^

[2] I think Prof. Hochschild could have done a bit more analysis around feelings rules, because in my experience, they cut both ways. As far as I can tell, there seem to be one set of local feelings rules and another set of cosmopolitan feeling rules. Cosmopolitan feelings rules emphasize charity and welcoming the stranger, while local feelings rules emphasize responsibility to family and community. In both cases, it is grating to feel compelled to pretend to emotions that aren’t genuine. ^

[3] I can’t find any remnants of Freddie’s blog that make the point I’m ascribing to him, but if you want to get an idea of the tone of it, I’ve found an excerpt from the post “Our Nightmare”, which talks about a different way he feels the left is under threat. Freddie is an excellent writer, and I do recommend checking out his current blog, The ANOVA. ^

Economics, Model, Politics, Quick Fix

On Low-Income Voters and Self-Interest

Neil McDonald’s new column points out that Trump’s low-income supporters voted against their own economic self-interest. This presents a fine opportunity for Mr. McDonald to lecture those voters about how bad Trump’s policies will be for them, as if they couldn’t have figured it out themselves.

I say: some of Trump’s supporters voted against their own self-interest? So what? Hillary Clinton’s well-off supporters, from Sam Altman, to many of my friends in the Bay Area did as well.

Back in Canada, I have even more examples of people who voted against their self-interest. They include myself, Mr. McDonald (in all likelihood), a bevy of well off technologists and programmers, and a bunch of highly educated students who expect to start high-paying jobs before the next election.

Just like Trump’s lower-income voters, we knew what we were getting into. We understood that we were voting for higher taxes for people like us. We voted for higher taxes because we like the things taxes buy – infrastructure, social services, and science funding, to name a few.

I have no doubt Mr. McDonald would understand this. But when it comes to low-income voters putting their aspirations for their country above their self-interest, he’s flabbergasted.

Americans are raised to believe that anything is possible in America if you are pure of heart and willing to work hard, which is nonsense, and that anyone can become president, which is even more foolish, and that free markets always make the right decision, which is nuts.

They are told that rugged individualism is the American way, which it isn’t, and that government is never the solution, which it sometimes most definitely is.

Mr. McDonald forgot to wonder if the people voting for Trump might desperately want these things to be true. What if the people he’s talking about really wanted everything he listed to be true and saw voting for Trump as their best chance to make them reality? What if they understood what they might lose and chose to vote anyway? Why should he believe they’re less likely to evaluate the consequence of a vote than he is? If any of these are true, are these voters still sheep led astray by right-wing politicians? Or are the politicians just responding to a real demand from their constituents?

These are the sorts of questions I’d like to see journalists who want to write about people – especially low-income people – voting against their economic self-interest grapple with.

It’s certainly unlikely that Mr. Trump will be able to deliver everything his supporters hope he will or everything he’s promised. That makes him a liar, or more charitably, overambitious. It doesn’t make his followers worthy of scorn for the simple act of voting for the type of society they wanted.

I would like to note that I view many of Trump’s policies as wrong-headed and profoundly lacking in compassion. I have no objections to someone scorning Trump voters because those voters seem to prefer fear to compassion and division to equity. I simply object to the hypocrisy of journalists mocking low-income Republicans for the same actions for which they lionize well-off Democrats (replace with Conservatives and Liberals if you’re in Canada and it still holds).

Why should people vote for their economic self-interest anyway? Sure, studies show that money totally can buy happiness, but it’s not the only thing that can. You can also become happy by living in a place that embodies your values. What left-wing think pieces criticizing the poor for voting against their interests miss is that this is true no matter how much money you make.

Here’s one theory of political consensus: if everyone votes for the policies that will be most to their own economic benefit, we’ll end up with compromise policies that tend to economically benefit everyone reasonably well. Here’s a different take: if everyone votes for the type of country they want to live in, we’ll end up with a country that fits everyone’s preferences reasonably well.

If you look at the exit poll data, it looks like people are pursuing a mix of these two strategies. Hillary Clinton won among people making less than $50,000 per year and Donald Trump won among people making more. While this may look like people are mainly voting in their economic interest, all of these margins were remarkably thin and notably much smaller than they were in the last election cycle. This could be indicative of more and more people voting aspirationally, rather than economically.

One interesting tidbit for Mr. McDonald though – if you look at the exit poll data, it turns out low income voters are the ones least likely to vote against their own self-interest.

Model, Politics

The Pitfalls of One-Man Rule

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What do you do? What can you do?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Epistemic Status: Model

History, Model, Politics

Trump is Marius, not Caesar

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

Politics, Quick Fix

Thoughts on Trump’s Inauguration Speech

1) At this point, the cat is out of the bag on white identity politics. I suppose I should say that only time will tell if this is good or bad, but I’m just going to say it will be bad*.

2) One of the most important tenets of the American Civil Religion is now on life support. Trump explicitly (and possibly deliberately) inverted JFK’s famous line. Instead of “ask what you can do for your country”, it was “a nation exists to serve its citizens”. Civic service as an ideal has been around since the classics obsessed founders (critically, this is why no one – not even members of his own party – trusted Aaron Burr; he wanted power for his own sake, not out of noblesse oblige). It’s hard for me to express just how weird it is seeing service to America being specifically denigrated by a Republican president. And I can’t see the left volunteering as the holders of this virtue. The left is much more interested in serving people than serving an idea or an ideal.

3) Really, the whole speech is basically a repudiation of everything in JFK’s inaugural address. Compare and contrast “America first” with “[for] half the globe struggling to break the bonds of mass misery, we pledge our best efforts to help them help themselves, for whatever period is required”. JFK’s speech is a call to stoicism and hope in the face of a long struggle. Trump’s speech is a proclamation that all problems will now be over.

4) I wonder if Netanyahu is having regrets yet? Trump specifically took a swipe at large subsidies to foreign militaries, which has to have the Israeli defence establishment sitting nervously, hoping he doesn’t mean them.

All credit to David Schraub, who predicted exactly this sort of thing. Between Tillerson and this speech, it looks like Trump is indeed going to prioritize being vocally supportive of every idea Netanyahu has over actually helping Israel in any concrete way. Obama may have criticized settlements, but he also provided $205 million for the Iron Dome system, which has saved hundred lives. With Trump, Israel is liable to get the opposite. Talk, after all, is cheap – and if the inauguration is any indication, this might be the only investment Trump makes in Israeli security.

* I think identity politics can be fine in many circumstances, especially when it’s explicitly positive sum. I think identity politics led by Trump are especially likely to be bad because he views the world in zero sum terms. This means that his identity politics will by necessity be us vs. them.