10 November, 2018

Pining for Democracy: A Few Readings

Norman Rockwell, 
draft version of Freedom of Speech (1943).

"In the United States... there is nothing the human will despairs of attaining through the free action of the combined power of individuals."  

—Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol I (1835)

American democracy and the civic life that supports it is in decline. This is a theme that I used to devote a lot of time to. Several of my most popular posts from 2013 to 2015 are on the topic (see especially "Economies of Scale Killed the American Dream," "Honor, Dignity, and Victimhood: Three Decades of American Political Culture," and a few other posts like them), but I have not written much about it since then. Some of these earlier posts are less sophisticated or less empirically grounded than they would be if I wrote them today. However, my take on the topic today is consistent with what I wrote a few years ago: over the last six decades the scaffolding of American democracy has collapsed. Democracy as a way of life is dead.

I should distinguish this position from the current wave of hand-wringing occasioned by President Trump. Trump's quarrels are with liberalism, not self-government. The two are not the same. It is quite possible to have a political regime that is both illiberal and democratic. But even that observation is not quite sufficient—this word "democratic" has many meanings, and not all are germane to this post. Most who worry about "the integrity of our democratic institutions" are concerned about the mechanics of the federal government. Are elections for federal office fair, regular, and not tampered with? Is the gap between the popular vote and the electoral vote too wide? Does the Supreme Court or the Presidency have too much power? Are executive officers still bound by the rule of law? Has the system been gamed to favor one side or the other? Questions like these are the festering sores behind American democratic discontent.

However important they may be, these concerns are not the subject of this post. Quadrennial contests over the imperial crown have very little to do with day-to-day democracy. Do not misunderstand: those contests are important, praiseworthy, and worth preserving. The reason why they are worth preserving, however, is little understood. The genius of representative elections is not that they encourage leaders to enact the popular will (the people's representatives rarely enact such things), but because they are the centerpiece of a system that keeps political competition between the elites from escalating into terrible violence. Popular elections, national political parties, checks, balances, and liberal political norms are what keep the American elites from killing each other over their political differences. Coups, rebellions, civil wars, and violent purges are the norm in authoritarian systems. That American history records so few of these things is a great credit to her representative institutions.

But the democracy I am talking about happens several levels below the machinations of senators and presidents. To keep things conceptually clear, let's call this sort of democracy self government. Self-government is communal. It comes with the confidence that you and the citizens around you are capable of crafting solutions to your shared problems. Self-government is less a particular set of institutions than a particular set of attitudes. If the institutions needed to solve a problem locally do not exist, the citizens of a self-governing community will create them. These institutions may be formal government bodies, like the meetings of New England selectmen or Midwestern school-boards,  or they may be associations of a more civic or religious nature. From the perspective of the average American throughout most of American history this was distinction without a difference: whether the school board was a private or public organ mattered far less than the amount of control ordinary people had over it. For people living in such a community, democracy was more than  showing up at the polls every two years. It was a constant preoccupation, the center of their social strivings, and the fruit of their hardest labors. For these men and women, self-government was a way of life.  

Self-government has its terrors. The mobs that drove my ancestors out of their homes at gun-point were animated by a spirit of self-government. So were the klansmen who terrorized black families. But if minorities like Mormons and blacks suffered at the hands of uncouth men eager to leverage self-government for violent ends, it was the skill these minorities had at self-governing that allowed them to overcome their woeful circumstance. It was day-to-day democracy that built Zion in the wilderness and led marches through the camps of Babylon.

My position is that self government is a good in and of itself. In this I am quite old fashioned. I actually believe, like generations of Americans before me, and generations of English commonwealth men before them, that self-government is a forge of character. It creates a better sort of man and woman than would otherwise be. Humans ought to be embedded in communities of purpose. They ought to be anxiously engaged in the affairs of their locale. They ought to not only feel but be responsible for the world in which they live. They ought, in short, to live as citizens, not as subjects.

There was once a country where ought was are. That country is no more.

That is a long introduction to what is essentially a reading list. Via e-mail, a reader who trudged through those old posts asked if I could recommend what books he should read to understand this topic. My hope is that the books I recommend below will satisfy him and other readers as curious as he. The declaration that the democratic way of life is a superior one does not occur in any of themthat is my own subjective judgement. Those who do not share my values will not sympathize with my laments. They still will find value in the books I recommend below, however, They are focused on empirical questions: what was social life like in America's past? How did it change in our more recent past? Why did this change occur?

The first group of books I recommend all deal with how democratic institutions actually work. These include Matt Grossman's Artists of the Possible: Governing Networks and American Policy Change since 1945, Christopher Achen and Larry Bartel's, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, and Frank Bryan's Real Democracy: The New England Town Meeting and How it Works. All three of these books are written by political scientists and all three are data heavy. The first two, Artists of the Possible and Democracy for Realists focus on national political institutions and federal policy making. If you believe that representative democracy is a matter of popular mandates, the people's will, and other fairy tale creations, these two books will be hard medicine. Taken together they paint a very different picture of American institutions from the democratic myths most of us were raised on: at the federal level actual change in policy almost never has any relationship to popular opinion while voting has almost nothing to do with policy preferences.

This contrasts sharply with the sort of democracy featured in Frank Bryan's profile of Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine town meetings. These meetings are direct deliberative democracies: all business is raised, debated, and implemented by normal citizens of the township. The careful attention average citizens in these assemblies give to questions of policy is astounding. So is the amount of time they devote to convincing other citizens of their proposals. Bryan pairs his datataken from thousands of town meetings held over a decadewith excellent prose descriptions of what these meetings are like. Revealed is a portrait of self government in action from one of the few places that still has them.

The next set of books includes Theda Skopcal's Diminished Democracy, Robert Putnam's Bowling Alone, and Charles Murray's Coming Apart. These books describe the slow death of self-government in American civic life. Like the last set, all three of these are data heavy. Skopcal's book is the most important in the set and probably the most important of the entire list. A precis of her argument was published by Prospect Magazine two decades ago, and I encourage those who have never heard of her work to read it. In Diminished Democracy she traces the history of America's largest civic organizations from their origin in the Gilded Age to their demise in the late 20th century. One of the themes she pursues is the changing nature of activism, which has transitioned from a model built around locally organized chapters of volunteers who sacrificed their time for the cause to a model of professional fund-raising that asks only for money. Putnam and Murray finish this story. It is not just civic institutions that are hollowing out: churches, gaming clubs, unions, and even friendships have shriveled over the last few decades. Both books describe what is happening with extreme detail. (To these books I would add one article: Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning's "Micro-Aggression and Moral Cultures." Though they do not frame it this way, their research sketches how American moral culture has shifted in response to the societal changes Skopcal, Putnam, and Murray discuss. See my post on the topic for that framing).

Next up is Alexis de Tocqueville's Democracy in America, Daniel Walker Howe's What God Hath Wrought, and Henry Watson's Liberty and Power. My perspective on this question is strongly shaped by books like these, which paint a vivid picture of what it felt like to live the democratic way of life. This way of life had precedents in England and America's revolutionary period, but it did not take its full cast in the American context until the 1820s. Howe's book is both a social and political history. He mixes these two genres with incredible skill (I can only think of one other historian who has ever done it better). The only problem is that Howe's book is very large. For those who struggle with thousand page tomes, Watson's Liberty and Power might be a better bet. It covers many of the same themes as Howe, and though not quite as magical, it manages to do so in one fifth of the pages.

The first challenge to self-government came in the late 1800s. Changes in the economic structure of the global economy stripped many Americans of their economic independence and fatally undermined the sense of social equality that blossomed in the antebellum era. It is difficult to find one book that depicts these changes to my satisfaction. The closest I have read is Nell Irvin Painter's Standing at Armageddon: a Grass-roots History of the Progressive Movement Michael Lotus and James Bennett's take on this era in America 3.0 also accords quite closely with my view on the social changes that flowed from the era's economic realities. Pair them with the historical chapters on 19th century and early 20th century civic movements in Diminished Democracy and Bowling Alone (which describe how enterprising Americans met this challenge) and you will have a good understanding of the issues involved.

Finally, I think it is worth reading a few books on the old style of self-government in its final moments of glory. The Civil Rights movement is a defining case study of the principles of day-to-day democracy. The most engaging overview of the period is Juan William's Eyes on the Prize. Once you have a sense of the period's chronology and main actors, move to Payne's, I've Got the Light of Freedom or Aldon Morriss' The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement: Black Communities Organizing for Change. Both present the Civil Rights movement from the ground up, as the product of active self-government. The Civil Rights organizations came at the tail end of the democratic way of lifethe final victory before the trends Skopcal, et. al. record overwhelmed American society. Because of its social justice orientation the Civil Rights movement also serves as useful comparative study when placed next to the diminished protest movements of our own day.

 There are other books I could addLasch's Revolt of the Elites, Udall's Forgotten Founders: History of the Old West, Wood's Creation of the American Republicbut this is supposed to be an introductory list. For that purpose the fourteen books listed here is already too many.

Here is an abbreviated list for those who don't have the time to plow through fourteen titles:

1. Skopcal's, Diminished Democracy.
2. Tocqueville's, Democracy in America.
3. Payne's I've Got the Light or Morriss' The Origins of the Civil Rights Movement.
4. Howe's What God Hath Wrought or Watson's Liberty and Power. 
5. Bryan's Real Democracy.

Other readers should feel free to post their own recommendations in the comments below!

05 November, 2018

Why Is the Fight for Free Speech Led by the Psychologists?

Image Source
DR. STOCKMANN: It's my own fault. I should have faced them down long agoshown my teethand bite back! Call me an enemy of society! So help me God, I'm not going to swallow that!

MRS. STOCKMANN: But Thomas dear, your brother does have the power

DR. STOCKMANN: Yes, but I'm in the right!

MRS. STOCKMANN: The right? Ah... what does it help to be in the right if you don't have any power?
Henrik Ibsen, Enemy of the People (1882)
 On twitter, Jeffrey Sachs presents a puzzle:

Here’s a puzzle I think about a lot. If any academic field is associated with the contemporary debate surrounding free speech, it’s psychology. Haidt, Pinker, Peterson, Saad, Jussim, even Lehmann. All specialize or have backgrounds in academic psych. So what’s the puzzle?

If psychology has any core premise, it is that we do not observe or make sense of the world unmediated. Our brains “get in the way”, both for good and for ill. Our biases, habits, and biologies shape what we’re willing to do, say, or believe.

I don’t have an answer, just some very uncharitable guesses about psychologists as historically ignorant cognitive elitists who would blanche if forced to grapple with the actual existing nature of American political discourse. Like I said, uncharitable.[1]
For a fuller introduction to the folks mentioned in the post: Jonathan Haidt is on the short-list for "world's most renowned social psychologist." His research has focused on the psychology of happiness and the psychology of different moral systems. Steven Pinker's research originally focused on psycholinguistics, but he first became famous for several well written works of popular science that present the principle findings of cognitive and evolutionary psychology to a lay audience. Jordan Peterson is a personality psychologist whose academic articles typically explored  applications of the "Big-5" personality metric or investigated the physiological foundations of alcoholism. His favorite intellectual project (the subject of both his first book and a series of YouTube lectures) is leveraging advances in affective neuroscience and evolutionary psychology to rehabilitate Jungian theories of the mind. Gad Saad made his name investigating the evolutionary origins of and cognitive processes behind consumer behavior. His work marries marketing with evolutionary psychology. Lee Jusim is a social psychologist who specializes in the psychology of stereotypes. He was a pioneer in effectively incorporating field research into a laboratory-driven discipline. Finally, Claire Lehmann is the founder and editor of Quillette, a web magazine that regularly highlights the work of (and has been endorsed by more than a few of) all the other folks on this list. Before founding Quillette, Lehmann was studying psychology as a grad student, a pursuit she ended upon giving birth to her first child.

That is the academic background of the people on Sach's list. What earns them a spot on that list, however, is the other side of their biographies. Each of these individuals has moved from academic research to political advocacy. Though their arguments differ in style and intensity, these men and women have thrust themselves into the public eye in defense of academic freedom, ideological diversity, free speech, and political moderation, while attacking critical theory, post-modernism, and the excesses of the social justice left. They are not the only people to do this. But Sack is correct: the ranks of the culture warriors are filled with an unusual number of behavioral scientists.


I attribute this all to three things.

1. The conclusions academics reach tend to rankle the right. There are exceptions. If your research draws on evolutionary psychology, focuses on innate behavioral differences, or touches any sort of psychometrics (e.g., IQ), the angry tide does not sweep in from the right. The wave these men and women fear crashes in from leftward side. Moreover, the sort of leftist opposition that the academic consensus on these topics face leaves little room for rational debate or compromise: controversies over psychometrics or evolutionary psychology are usually framed in terms of good and evil, not right and wrong. The scientists involved are to be conquered, not reasoned with.

So that is point one: the people who want to shut controversial psychologists up are overwhelmingly creatures of the left.

2. Psychology, especially social psychology, is itself an overwhelmingly leftist discipline. We actually have data on this, and it is pretty grim: a recent survey of American tenure-track professors reveals that there 17.4 registered Democrat psychologists for every single registered Republican.[2] If there is a field of people who ought to be sympathetic to social justice railroading, these people are it.

3. Despite this, behavioral scientists have not yet adopted the rhetorical techniques or method of inquiry of "critical theory."  In contrast, see how these modes of inquiry have swallowed up the fields of anthropology and communications, and established creeping colonies in history, sociology, and area studies.  Given the left-leaning sympathies of almost all in the profession, the threat that the same might happen to the study of human behavior is real.

I use the word 'threat' consciously. That is how the people on this list perceive critical theory and the popular culture it supports. For men like Peterson or Haidt these ideas actually damage the psychological health of those 'indoctrinated' into them. Pinker and his type are less dramatic: they see critical theory and its attachments mostly as cruddy methodology. The threat it poses is to the scientific endeavor itself. Implicit in their view are two beliefs: first, that there is real 'truth' out there to be discovered; second, that if scientists are allowed to proceed in their debates without outside interference, they will eventually discover it.

This is key. Haidt et. al. do not just believe that critical theorists are wrongthey believe that the critical theorists can be proven wrong. If science does its thing, the bad theories and methods cannot last. That is the lesson they have taken from the replication crisis: behavioral science self corrects.   Uncomfortable data and uncomfortable arguments have the power to force change. Given enough time researchers will converge upon the truth. (Side note: social psychology's largely successful attempt to improve itself over the last decade and fix the gross methodological problems it used to be saddled with is, IMHO, an important counter-point to Sach's pessimism, and a big part of this story).

But all of this is true if and only if scientists are allowed to debate and investigate freely.

Haidt et. al. are confident they can win the debate if they are allowed to debate. For the heterodox anthropologist or sociologist the game is already over: their discipline has already been conquered. For the economist, the threat is too remote to take seriously. Behavioral science exists in that rare in-between: methodologically, it has the tools to fight back against the excesses of the activist. Socially, it provides a compelling reason for its practitioners to use them.


[1] Jeffrey Sachs, twitter comments (12:35 PM, 2 Nov 2018)

[2] That number is taken from Mitchell Langbert, Anthony J. Quain, and Daniel B. Klein, "Faculty Voter Registration in Economics, History, Journalism, Law, and Psychology," Econ Journal Watch, vol 13, iss 3, 422-451. See also Duarte et. al, "Political Diversity Will Improve Social Psychological Science," Behavioral and Brain Sciences (2014), 1–54; Yoel Inbar and Joris Lammers, "Political Diversity in Social and Personality Psychology, Perspectives on Psychological Science, vol 7, 496-503.

03 November, 2018

The Marvelous Machiavellian Mind Reader

Vizzinni: But it's so simple. All I have to do is divine from what I know of you. Are you the sort of man who would put the poison into his own goblet, or his enemy's? Now, a clever man would put the poison into his own goblet, because he would know that only a great fool would reach for what he was given. I'm not a great fool, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of you. But you must have known I was not a great fool; you would have counted on it, so I can clearly not choose the wine in front of me!

Man in Black:
You've made your decision then?

Vizzini: Not remotely!
The Princess Bride

Several of the books I have read over the last few months offer different perspectives on a fascinating study. The study, conducted by a joint team from Kyoto University and Caltech, pitted chimpanzees and humans against each other in a game of strategy that game theorists have dubbed 'Matching Pennies.' In his book The Secret of Our Success (which I sorta reviewed here), anthropologist Joseph Henrich explains both how the game works and how the chimps did:
Matching Pennies is a classic game of strategic conflict that has been played with both chimpanzees and humans. In the game, individuals are paired with another of their species for several rounds of interaction. Each player is placed into the role of either the Matcher or the Mismatcher. In each round, participants must select either Left or Right. The Matcher gets a reward only when his choice (Left or Right) matches the choice of his opponent. By contrast, the Mismatcher gets a reward only when his choice mismatches his opponent. The rewards, however, need not be symmetric, as illustrated in figure 2.4. In this asymmetric version, the Matcher gets 4 apple cubes (or cash for humans) when she successfully matches on Left, but only gets 1 cube when she matches on Right. Meanwhile, the Mismatcher gets only two cubes for any successful mismatches, no matter how they arise.

This kind of interaction can be analyzed using game theory. To win, the first thing to realize is that both players should be as unpredictable as possible. Nothing about your prior choices should allow your opponent to anticipate your next play—you have to randomize. To see this, put yourself into the shoes of the Matcher. Your opponent gets two cubes whether he plays Left (L) or Right (R), so you should essentially flip a coin with heads for R and tails for L. This means you’ll play R and L each 50% of the time, and your opponent won’t be able to predict your choices. If you deviate from 50%, your opponent will be able to exploit you more frequently. Now consider matters from the position of the Mismatcher: if you now similarly flip a coin, the Matcher will shift to play mostly L, since that gives him four instead of one. To compensate, as a Mismatcher you need to play R 80% of the time. Thus, the predicted winning strategy in a contest of intelligent rational actors is that Matchers should randomize their responses, playing L 50% of the time, while Mismatchers should randomize by playing L only 20% of the time. This outcome is called the Nash equilibrium. The fraction of the time that one should play L can be moved around by simply changing the payoffs for matching or mismatching on L or R.

 A research team from Caltech and Kyoto University tested six chimpanzees and two groups of human adults: Japanese undergraduates and Africans from Bossou, in the Republic of Guinea. When chimpanzees played this asymmetric variant of Matching Pennies (figure 2.4), they zoomed right in on the predicted result, the Nash equilibrium. Humans, however, systematically and consistently missed the rational predictions, with Mismatchers performing particularly poorly. This deviation from “rationality,” though it was in line with many prior tests of human rationality, was nearly seven times greater than the chimpanzees’ deviation. Moreover, detailed analyses of the patterns of responses over many rounds of play show that the chimps responded more quickly to both their opponents’ recent moves and to changes in their payoffs (i.e., when they switched from playing the Matcher to the Mismatcher). Chimpanzees seem to be better at individual learning and strategic anticipation, at least in this game.

 The performance of the apes in this setup was no fluke. The Caltech-Kyoto team also ran two other versions of the game, each with different payoffs. In both versions, the chimps zeroed in on the Nash equilibrium as it moved around from game to game. This means that chimps can develop what game theorists call a mixed strategy, which requires them to randomize their behavior around a certain probability. Humans, however, often struggle with this. A final insight into the humans’ poor performance comes from an analysis of participants’ response times, which measures the time from the start of a round until the player selects his move. For both species, Mismatchers took longer than Matchers. However, the humans took much longer than the chimps. It’s as if the humans were struggling to inhibit or suppress an automatic reaction.[1]
The chimpanzees are better strategists than the humans are. But why? The authors of the study suggest that development of language skills and stronger executive function in human brains has forced a trade off:
Matsuzawa hypothesizes that chimpanzees are better than humans at the masking memory task because human evolution degraded certain memory skills to make room in the brain for development of human language-related skills. The notion that chimpanzees may display some superior cognitive abilities due to a suggested lack of interference from language-related processes is further supported by evidence from comparative eye-tracking studies. These studies have shown that chimpanzees foveate on the same pictorial elements as humans, but do so in less time by making quicker eye movements. Authors suggest that longer fixation patterns displayed by humans are caused by high-level semantic processing on objects as they are viewed, and that the relative lack of such kinds of language processing in chimpanzees gives them an advantage for making rapid perceptual assessments of visual scenery.

The relatively poor performance of humans, together with the conjectured importance of language for humans, raise issues about the relevance of those game theory experiments in which humans have traditionally been unable to talk to each other. If verbal communication is indeed key to human strategic interaction, it seems that external validity would be enhanced if one lets humans talk.[2]
Henrich has an alternate explanation, arguing that human strategy-crafting can be distorted by an inborn drive to imitate:
This pattern may reflect a broader bug in human cognition: our automatic and unconscious tendency to imitate (to match). In Matching Pennies and other games like Rock-Paper-Scissors, one player sometimes accidentally reveals his or her choice a split-second before the other player. This flash look at an opponents’ move could result in more victories for those who delay. And in Matching Pennies, experiments show that it does for Matchers, for whom copying leads to victories. For Mismatchers, however, it leads to more losses, because they sometimes fail to inhibit imitation. In Rock-Paper-Scissors, it results in more ties (e.g., rock-rock), because the slower player sometimes unconsciously imitates the choice of his or her opponent. The reason is that we humans are rather inclined to copy—spontaneously, automatically, and often unconsciously. Chimpanzees don’t appear to suffer from this cognitive “bug,” at least not nearly to the same degree. [3]
I do not find Henrich's hypothesis convincing. His main point in this chapter is that human rationality is not nearly as neat as we think it is: after all, the Chimpanzees out perform us in many cognitive tasks, including this one. The "secret of our [read: humanity's] success" is not our biologically inherited capacity for reason, but the blindly evolved set of practices and beliefs that we have culturally inherited. Key to this argument is the notion that humans are especially prone to imitation. Compulsive and accurate imitation is what makes cultural evolution and inheritance possible.

The trouble with this view is that there is very little evidence that humans are actually compulsive imitators. Olivier Morin devotes several chapters to this topic in his book How Traditions Live or Die. Morin argues that cultural evolutionists like Henrich are wrong. The evidence on imitation, Morin points out, all goes in the opposite direction: humans are finicky imitators. We imitate very little of what we encounter, almost always do so as the result of careful calculation (not blind instinct), and are not skillful in our imitations. Morin maintains that the chapters of evidence he has mustered for this assault on cultural evolution is enough to debunk most of the theory altogether. I disagree (at some point I will have to review his book), but I do think the evidence he has collected debunks this particular explanation for the Machiavellian chimp.

What then explains the chimpanzee's strategic acumen? My favored explanation was proposed by Kenneth Payne in his book Strategy, Evolution, and War: From Apes to AI (which I reviewed here). He suggests that humans have trouble locating the Nash Equilibrium in competitive contests like these because they have been beguiled by intentionality (also known as "theory of mind"):
Why did the humans fare worse? The study’s authors speculated that human capacity for language and categorization had been earned at the expense of pattern recognition and perception, at which the chimpanzees remained adept. This is possible, though it does take a rather zero-sum view of cognitive abilities. I would highlight instead another uniquely human capability-intentionality-as the likely culprit. The human players were trying to put themselves inside the mind of their adversaries. That is, humans were strategizing on the basis of mind reading and not on the basis of probabilities and payoffs. Language and categorization are certainly important features of human cognition in which they surpass other primates (especially when it comes to the categorization of abstract meanings). but they are also manifestations of our intense sociability-the bedrock of which is our sense of others as autonomous agents with their own perceptions and beliefs. So strong is this sense of the inner lives of others that we cannot switch it off and engage in an alternative, more mathematically rational approach to strategy.

What might humans gain from being worse than chimps at finding an optimum strategy in adversarial games like this? The answer lies in the intense sociability of humans, even compared to the obviously social world of their fellow primates. Our theory of mind is the basis of rich cooperative relationships within human society. Being good at cooperating-understanding intentionality and communicating through language-has allowed our group sizes to expand and to forge mutually advantageous relationships on the basis of trust and comparative advantage. As individuals we may not outperform chimpanzees in the narrow ordered universe of two-person strategy games, but then those games differ from many of the real challenges in the social world of humans, where cooperation for mutual gain rather than zero-sum antagonistic relationships are typical. [5]
For millennia humans have celebrated what we now call 'theory of mind' as keystone of strategic brilliance. The master politician outmaneuvers his opponents by anticipating what they will think before they think it. Like Zhuge Liang, the master strategist wins his victories on the mental plane:

 Payne's view of strategic decision is less romantic. Our theory of mind makes us more empathetic and cooperative, not more Machiavellian. Each attempt to peer into an opponent's brain is an exercise in self-deception. Like Vizzinni in the Princess Bride, humans are ever beguiled into believing they have won the battle of wits. Too late do they discover that the best Machiavellians are not mind-readers.

[1] Joseph Henrich, The Secret of Our Success: How Culture Is Driving Human Evolution, Domesticating Our Species, and Making Us Smarter (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016), 80-81.

[2] Christopher Flynn Martin, Rahul Bhui, Peter Bossaerts, Tetsuro Matsuzawa, and Colin Camerer, "Chimpanzee choice rates in competitive games match equilibrium game theory predictions,"
Nature: Scientific Reports, vol 4, #5182 (2014).

[3] Henrich, Secret of Our Success, 81.

[4] Olivier Morin, How Traditions Live and Die (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 53-120. 

[5] Kenneth Payne, Strategy, Evolution, and War: From Apes to AI (Washington, D.C.: Georgetown University Press, 2018), 51.

30 October, 2018

Observations from Washington

Bri Buckley, Washington Dc Skyline (2015) 

"People, ideas, thingsIn that order!"

Attributed to Col. John Boyd (1927-1997)

As announced earlier, I spent the last two weeks or so traveling about. Most of that was in Washington and its environs. While in DC I had the opportunity to brunch, coffee break, and do all those DC things with a fair number of interesting people. This included the expected bevy of writers and reporters, but also some folks involved in developing or implementing policy for various federal agencies and departments. Included were individuals on both sides of the legislative/executive divide. From these discussions I gleaned an unexpected lesson: the overwhelming importance of people. I submit that misunderstanding on this point has led to a lot of flawed commentary on President Trump and his administration.

American political commentary trends towards one of three modes. The first, and these days the most common, is the politics of the circus race. Circus racers are spectators. They reduce politics to the stadium chant. What matters to them is victory. But they, like all spectators, have so little control over who wins and loses. In the end, their political expression is less about managing power than affirming identity. Rare is the analyst who can separate the facts of the circus race from the feelings they have for its players. Wonkery is the natural opposite of these stadium chants. If race-ground spectators cannot divorce policy from their own sense of self worth, the wonk yearns to abstract policy away from politics altogether. Wonks see the world in terms of ideas. Politics is the battle between policies (preferably policies they helped devise), not people. Lost on them is the lesson of this post: the best ideas matter far less than the best people.  Good people can develop new ideas to match the situation at hand; ideas disconnected from a network of people that can realize them are useless.

This is not an original observation, but it goes a long way towards explaining why things are the way they are in Washington right now. Some parts of the US government have been far more effective at realizing Trump's vision than others. Likewise, some individuals have been far more successful at getting Trump to match his vision with their own than others have. The rare commentator that attempts to explain why this is so usually adopts the third mode in contemporary political analysis: the court chronicle. Court chroniclers tend to describe Trump in Byzantine terms. Like all aged, mad emperors, Trump stands sequestered off from the real world, his actions mediated by the close coterie of advisors planted about him. Policy success is mostly a matter of personality. Those whom the President favors find their policies favored. Policy swings track the rise and fall of individual cabinet members in the eyes of the President.

There is something compelling about this sort of narrative, but I now think this is fundamentally wrong way to understand what is happening. Let me sketch out an alternative viewone which focuses less on cabinet personalities and more on the personnel one to two rungs below them.

Donald Trump came to power with a problem: he was not of Washington, knew few in Washington, but now suddenly was charged with filling hundreds of empty positions in Washington. In contrast to Team Hillary, who had been quietly building a shadow government months before the election was decided, Trump's election caught Trump's transition team flat-footed. The Trump campaign team was marked by its instability. Expecting a loss and not eager to associate themselves with a doomed and tainted movement, few potential appointees had worked with Trump or his team in the lead up to his election. The NeverTrumpers run a lot of the think tank patronage machinery in DC; neither they nor their recommendations were welcome.  Trump had few close relationships in congress; Senator Sessions was the only man or woman there he really trusted, and a single senator's staff is not large enough to fill an entire administration.

So Trump adopted expedients. As several sources described to me, what happened next went more or less like this: Trump or a deputy would call up a senator or congressman to exact his tax. They all had full staffscould they not sacrifice one man to help the administration out? Of course their help in this matter would be remembered. And so the congressional staffs were raided, with one man from this office and another woman from that one sent to the White House. There they were joined with the remnants of the old Trump campaign and the occasional insert from DoD that McMaster or Kelly was able to stick in. These were the folks that were called upon to make Trump's vague and often contradictory campaign pronouncements into a concrete policy program.

They have had a difficult time doing this.

It is worth pausing for a moment to consider why this may be so. Part of the problem was the deep-seated hostility of the career bureaucracy to Trump and Trumpism. No administration has leaked like this one has. This has created intense distrust at all levels of almost every department. But the distrust is not just between the political appointees and the old hands. The political appointees themselves have very little trust for each other. And why would they? Few had met before they were all squished inside their chosen agency. They had no experience working together and often had widely different motivations for accepting their role. It was difficult to work or conceive of themselves as a team. Likewise, very few of these appointees knew or had previous connections with the top career personnel now working for them. They also tended to have a rather poor understanding of the bureaucracies they had been tasked with managing. The more wonkish among them might even have had crisp policies in mind, but unfamiliar with the morass of laws and possible bureaucratic maneuvers governing their new home, it was easy for rivals or underlings to frustrate their aims. The less wonkish among them had a even harder time of it, despised as Trump toadies in over their heads. Finally, many of them, especially those who had worked for the last decade as part of the congressional staff, simply do not have much experience actually producing things. "They spent the last eight years saying 'No!'," one person told me. "They are very good at producing arguments and stopping a bill in its tracks. But when it comes time to make their own policy, they are lost."

This is a general, stylized picture. It describes what has happened in several executive agencies. For the sake of my sources I won't say which, though I don't think it will be too hard to guess which ones I am referring to. I describe all this as necessary background for my next example—the example of the department that has done it right: the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.

 USTR's meteoric rise over the last two years is miraculous. Compared to what has happened with most executive agencies and departments, it seems almost magical. USTR's staff does not leak. They are far and away the most productive member of the executive branch. Trump and his kind have talked for years about overturning the old order. In their sphere, USTR has not only managed to actually do that; they also maneuvered America's trading partners into going along with them. In contrast to just about everyone else, they regularly produce tangibles for the President to trumpet about. They do this without any of the indecencies that other agencies and their leaders embarrass the President with. Their influence is now immense. Robert Lighthizer is probably the single most important person in the U.S.-Chinese relationship (NSC's Matt Pottinger likely comes in at second), and is clearly the most important voice in setting the terms of America's economic engagement with the broader world. Since its creation USTR has played second fiddle to Treasury and State. Now it leads them. For the first time in the post-war world, American trade policy is leading foreign policy instead of the other way around.

 How did this happen?

Part of the reason is that Trump likes all of this. Trump is happy to see foreign policy take backseat to trade policy. Part of the reason is the character and intelligence of Ligthizer himself, something that outsiders recognized set him apart from many administration picks even before he was confirmed. But Lightizer is more than just one manhe is the leader of a small network of men and women who think like he does. Lightizer does not just have policy ideas. He has the people he needs to make turn those ideas into realities.

If you spend time looking at the biographies of the USTR appointees, a few things stand out: a large number are veterans of Skadden Arps, an international law firm who represents U.S. companies in trade fracas. This is the firm Lightizer himself worked at before he took on his current role. The remaining appointees are either from other international law firms that Lightizer had a close relationship with or are from within USTR itself. Consider why this background matters: as trade lawyers, Lightizer and his team are experts in the details of international law and international trade. They know as much about the topic as their own bureaucrats. If they are being pedaled crap by their subordinates, they would know it. Working in Washington on the cases that they did, Lightizer and his team already had a personal relationship with many of the career USTR subordinates they now rely on (and will surely maintain those relationships once they leave). They know both the players and the game as well as any bureaucrat. However, they are not bureaucrats. They come straight from the private sector and are thus used to working with private sector time pressures. They know how to produce

Most important of all, however, is that Lightizer and his team are a team. His top staff all know each other and have past experiencing working with each other. None of the distrust that has plagued other agencies is to be found in their office. Lightizer built the network he needed to upend decades of American policy long before he was in a political position that let him do so. This is what makes his Office so much more successful than the rest of the administration. The victory or defeat of a political programs is less about the policies employed than the people you find to employ them.

09 October, 2018

Notes From All Over (9/10/18): Constitutional Cycles, Cognitive Gadgets, and the Uses of Repression


"The Recent Unpleasantness: Understanding the Cycles of Constitutional Time"
Jack M. Balkin, Public Law Research Paper No. 648. 8 August 2018. (Indiana Law Journal, 2018 Forthcoming).
Our present condition is a little like an eclipse, although much less enjoyable. To understand what is going on today in America, we have to think in terms of political cycles that interact with each other and create remarkable—and dark—times... What are the three cycles at work in American politics? The first is the cycle of the rise and fall of political regimes in American history. The second is the cycle of polarization and depolarization. And the third is the decay and renewal of republican government, which I call the cycle of constitutional rot and constitutional renewal. Each of these cycles operates on a different time scale. I will introduce each of them in turn, and explain how they interact. Together, the interaction of the se three cycles—of the rise and fall of regimes, of polarization and depolarization, and of rot and renewal—generate constitutional time. Think of this lecture like a chronometer that tells you where we are in constitutional time...
See also: Jack M. Balkin, "Constitutional Rot Reaches the Supreme Court," Balkinization (6 October 2018).

"Précis of Cognitive Gadgets: The Cultural Evolution of Thinking."
Cecilia Heyes. Behavioral and Brain Sciences, 1-57. September 2018.

I have hailed Cecilia Heyes' new book Cognitive Gadgets as the most important work in the human sciences published this year. Behavioral and Brain Sciences also believes her work breaks new ground. You can read a 60~ page precis of the book for free on their website, where it is up for 'public comment.'

"Repression Works (Just not in Moderation)"
Yuri Zhukov, personal working paper. 29 September, 2017.

This paper is long. It also explains why I am so pessimistic about the Uyghur situation in Xinjiang.


"Here’s how much Americans trust 38 major news organizations (hint: not all that much!)"
Joshua Benton. Nieman Lab. 5 October 2018.

I personally would switch around the place of The Washington Post and The Guardian. (Find the original research here.)

"The Meritocracy Against Itself"
Ross Douthat. The New York Times. 2 October 2018.
...if you read this and then go look me up on Wikipedia (actually, please don’t) you’ll see that I also attended something that could be reasonably described as a prep school — so who am I, exactly, to declare that there was some huge distance between myself and the Kavanaugh types, or any other preppy clique?

And with that question you’ve struck to the heart of the whole meritocratic game, which depends on a reproduction of privilege that pretends to be something else, something fair and open and all about hard work and just deserts.

...Also, note the parenthetical disclosure in the story, where Miller explains how she got in touch with Kavanaugh’s freshman roommate Kit Winter and a friend of his, Itamar Kubovy, who visited their unhappy dorm room: “Editor’s note: Winter, Kubovy, and I went to high school together in New Haven, and Winter’s family and mine were friends.” That “high school” was Hopkins, currently ranked as the second-best private high school in Connecticut (fullest-possible disclosure: mine is ranked No. 14). So the story Miller is telling is about how a jock from the No. 5 private high school in Maryland was a jerk to his roommate who went to the No. 2 private high school in Connecticut, and who years later communicated the story to a reporter who also went to that same No. 2 private high school, who then wrote it up as a tale of social stratification for our times.
...A great many of the people who populate those schools, a great many of the people who complain about preppy creeps and rich jocks even as they try to imitate them, a great many of the people whose essays on What Kavanaugh Represents are populating elite-media websites these days, are much more like the “elites and legacies” than their self-image permits them to admit.
"Online Harassment Report: 2017"
Maeve Duggan. Pew Internet. 7 November 2017.
"Men and women experience and respond to online harassment in different ways. Overall, men are somewhat more likely to experience any form of harassing behavior online: 44% of men and 37% of women have experienced at least one of the six behaviors this study uses to define online harassment. In terms of specific experiences, men (30%) are modestly more likely than women (23%) to have been called offensive names online or to have received physical threats (12% vs. 8%).

By contrast, women – and especially young women – encounter sexualized forms of abuse at much higher rates than men. Some 21% of women ages 18 to 29 report being sexually harassed online, a figure that is more than double the share among men in the same age group (9%). In addition, roughly half (53%) of young women ages 18 to 29 say that someone has sent them explicit images they did not ask for. For many women, online harassment leaves a strong impression: 35% of women who have experienced any type of online harassment describe their most recent incident as either extremely or very upsetting, about twice the share among men (16%).

More broadly, men and women differ sharply in their attitudes toward the relative importance of online harassment as an issue. For instance, women (63%) are much more likely than men (43%) to say people should be able to feel welcome and safe in online spaces, while men are much more likely than women to say that people should be able to speak their minds freely online (56% of men vs. 36% of women). Similarly, half of women say offensive content online is too often excused as not being a big deal, whereas 64% of men – and 73% of young men ages 18 to 29 – say that many people take offensive content online too seriously. Further, 70% of women – and 83% of young women ages 18 to 29 – view online harassment as a major problem, while 54% of men and 55% of young men share this concern."


"The Big Hack: How China Used a Tiny Chip to Infiltrate U.S. Companies"
Jordan Robertson and Michael Riley. Bloomberg Businessweek. 8 October 2018

If true, this story is the scoop of the year. But the veracity of the story is up to question. Read a few entries in the dispute here, here, here, and here.

 "If Horses Had Wings : The Political Demands of Mainland New Confucians in Recent Years
Ge Zhaoguang (Introduction and translation by David Ownby). Reading the Chinese Dream. September 2018.

This essay is a good reminder of how complicated political opinion in China actually is. Many folks assume that Chinese liberals hate the Party most of all. But reality is more complicated. In my experience, the group they really can't stand is the political tribe targeted in this essay: the "New Confucians"

"How tensions with the West are putting the future of China’s Skynet mass surveillance system at stake."
Stephen Chen. South China Morning Post. 23 September 2018.

2018 Purdue Survey of Chinese Students and Scholars in the United States: A General Report
Center on Religion and Chinese Society. September 2018.

Eric Fish has a good twitter thread that summarizes the report, for those who don't want to read the full thing.


"Why most narrative history is wrong"
Alex Rosenberg. Salon. 7 October 2018.

Mark my words: this is going to the next academic crap-storm. You will see.

"Geopolitics and Asia’s little divergence: State building in China and Japan after 1850"
Mark Koyama, Chiaki Moriguchi, and Tuan-HweeSung. Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. September 2018.

"China Is What You Get If Your Civilization Never Gets Amnesia"
Razib Khan. Gene Expression. 29 September 2018.

Thoughtful review of Li Feng's Early China: A Social and Cultural History.


"The Rutherford Atom of Culture"
Lawrence A. Hirschfeld. Journal of Cognition and Culture (Vol 18, Iss 4), pp. 231– 261. 2018.

A compelling but flawed attack on cross-cultural psychology. See my longer take (and it is pretty long) in this tweet stream. My response is strongly informed by the logic of Cecilia Heyes' Cultural Gadget, mentioned above.

"Why your brain is hardwired to be bad at economics – and how to fix it."
Pascal Boyer. New Scientist. September 2018.

See also: Pascal Boyer and Michael Bang Peterson, "Folk-economic beliefs: An evolutionary cognitive model," Behavioral and Brain Sciences (October 2017) and the 32 commentaries on it.

“Can I Have My Amygdala Removed?”
'Neuroskeptic.' Discover Magazine. 7 October 2018.

"Empirical assessment of published effect sizes and power in the recent cognitive neuroscience and psychology literature."
Denes Szucs and John PA Ioannidis. PLOS Biology. March 2017.

This suggests that neuroscience and brain-imaging studies are ripe for their own replication crisis.

"Was Science Wrong About Being Right?"
Gemma Tarlach. Discover Magazine. June 2018.


The big academic news this week is the 'Sokal Squared' set of hoax papers that got through a series of critical theory oriented journals. I have written up two twitter threads summarizing my thoughts on the hoaxes:

Sokal Squared Thread I
Sokal Squared Thread II

"Hunter-Gatherers Maintain Assortativity in Cooperation despite High Levels of Residential Change and Mixing"
Kristopher M. Smith, Tomás Larroucau, Ibrahim A. Mabulla, and Coren L. Apicella. Cell (vol 28, iss 19). October 2018.

"The origins of human prosociality: Cultural group selection in the workplace and the laboratory"
Patrick Francois, Thomas Fujiwara, and Tanguy van Ypersele. Science Advances (Vol. 4, no. 9). 19 September 2018.

Very interesting attempt to apply cultural evolution theory to modern firms. A short critique of mine can be found here.


"Hired to Drain the Swamp, Fired in Less Than a Year"
Mark Perry, The American Conservative. 26 September 2018.

"How WhatsApp Destroyed A Village"
 Pranav Dixit and Ryan Mac. Buzzfeed News. 9 September 2018.


"Lessons From Bar Fight Litigation"
Burt Likko. Ordinary Times. 21 January 2014. 

"Why and How to Protect Your Garbage from Snoopers and Thieves"
Joshua Sheets. Radical Personal Finance Podcast (episode 578). 7 September 2018.


See also: Hiroshige Seko,  Robert E. Lighthizer, and Cecilia Malmström, "Joint Statement on Trilateral Meeting of the Trade Ministers of the United States, Japan, and the European Union" Press Release, 25 September 2018.

06 October, 2018

Travels and Other Announcements

Folks, I am going to be in the Washington DC area for most of next week. After that I will be in Northern Utah for at least a month or so. If you are a reader of the blog and would like to meet in person in either of these two locations, send an e-mail to the blog's e-mail address (you can find it on the right side bar) and we will see if we can make it work out. (Note: if you are not a regular commentator please introduce yourself so I have a better idea of who you are.)

I cannot give any guarantee that I will be able to meet, but there are a few holes in my schedule left to fill so it is worth a shot.

Also, I have two posts ready that will be published over the course of the next week. Both of these are set to auto-publish. I won't have time to log on and do it manually. What that means for you: I will not be checking comment moderation until at least the 17th. You are free to leave a comment before then, but none of them will be published until after I am out of DC. So there is no use sending me irate e-mails accusing me of censoring you.

25 September, 2018

Taiwan Can Win a War With China

Image Source
Danger is part of the friction of war. Without an accurate conception of danger we cannot understand war.
Clausewitz, On War (c. 1825)
Over the last month or so we have had a few raucous discussions about Taiwan and its future here at the Scholar's Stage. In these comment threads I have expressed the belief that Taiwan is in a much stronger military position vis a vis the PLA than most people inside or outside of Taiwan realize. Today I have a column up in Foreign Policy that lays out my argument. I encourage you to go an read the whole thing, but I will quote the core of the argument here:
To understand the real strength of these defenses, imagine them as a PLA grunt would experience them. Like most privates, he is a countryside boy from a poor province. He has been told his entire life that Taiwan has been totally and fatally eclipsed by Chinese power. He will be eager to put the separatists in their place. Yet events will not work out as he has imagined. In the weeks leading up to war, he discovers that his older cousin—whose remittances support their grandparents in the Anhui countryside—has lost her job in Shanghai. All wire money transfers from Taipei have stopped, and the millions of Chinese who are employed by Taiwanese companies have had their pay suspended.

Our private celebrates the opening of hostilities in Shanwei, where he is rushed through a three-week training course on fighting in the fetid and unfamiliar jungles of China’s south. By now, the PLA has put him in a media blackout, but still rumors creep in: Yesterday it was whispered that the 10-hour delay in their train schedule had nothing to do with an overwhelmed transportation system and everything to do with Taiwanese saboteurs. Today’s whispers report that the commander of the 1st Marine Brigade in Zhanjiang was assassinated. Tomorrow, men will wonder if rolling power outages really are just an attempt to save power for the war effort.

But by the time he reaches the staging area in Fuzhou, the myth of China’s invincibility has been shattered by more than rumors. The gray ruins of Fuzhou’s PLA offices are his first introduction to the terror of missile attack. Perhaps he takes comfort in the fact that the salvos coming from Taiwan do not seem to match the number of salvos streaking toward it—but abstractions like this can only do so much to shore up broken nerves, and he doesn’t have the time to acclimate himself to the shock. Blast by terrifying blast, his confidence that the Chinese army can keep him safe is chipped away.

The last, most terrible salvo comes as he embarks—he is one of the lucky few setting foot on a proper amphibious assault boat, not a civilian vessel converted to war use in the eleventh hour—but this is only the first of many horrors on the waters. Some transports are sunk by Taiwanese torpedoes, released by submarines held in reserve for this day. Airborne Harpoon missiles, fired by F-16s leaving the safety of cavernous, nuclear-proof mountain bunkers for the first time in the war, will destroy others. The greatest casualties, however, will be caused by sea mines. Minefield after minefield must be crossed by every ship in the flotilla, some a harrowing eight miles in width. Seasick thanks to the strait’s rough waves, our grunt can do nothing but pray his ship safely makes it across.

As he approaches land, the psychological pressure increases. The first craft to cross the shore are met with a sudden wall of flame springing up from the water from the miles of oil-filled pipeline sunk underneath. As his ship makes it through the fire (he is lucky; others around it are speared or entangled on sea traps) he faces what Easton describes as a mile’s worth of “razor wire nets, hook boards, skin-peeling planks, barbed wire fences, wire obstacles, spike strips, landmines, anti-tank barrier walls, anti-tank obstacles … bamboo spikes, felled trees, truck shipping containers, and junkyard cars.”

At this stage, his safety depends largely on whether the Chinese Air Force has been able to able to distinguish between real artillery pieces from the hundreds of decoy targets and dummy equipment PLA manuals believe the Taiwanese Army has created. The odds are against him: As Beckley notes in a study published last fall, in the 1990 to 1991 Gulf War, the 88,500 tons of ordnance dropped by the U.S.-led coalition did not destroy a single Iraqi road-mobile missile launcher. NATO’s 78-day campaign aimed at Serbian air defenses only managed to destroy three of Serbia’s 22 mobile-missile batteries. There is no reason to think that the Chinese Air Force will have a higher success rate when targeting Taiwan’s mobile artillery and missile defense.

But if our grunt survives the initial barrages on the beach, he still must fight his way through the main Taiwanese Army groups, 2.5 million armed reservists dispersed in the dense cities and jungles of Taiwan, and miles of mines, booby traps, and debris. This is an enormous thing to ask of a private who has no personal experience with war. It is an even great thing to ask it of a private who naively believed in his own army’s invincibility. [1]
I want to make a few additional comments about the piece. First of all, I try to be very transparent about the source of these arguments. Most of it is not original to me--much of the hard data that appears in the piece and my analysis of that data is adapted from Michael Beckley's 42-page paper for International Security, "The Emerging Military Balance in East Asia: How China’s Neighbors Can Check Chinese Naval Expansion," and Ian Easton's book length study, The China Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and American Strategy in East Asia (which I have referenced and recommended here before). Both of these fellows approach the issue from different perspective. Easton draws on studies conducted by the Taiwanese Ministry of Defense and manuals published by the PLA; Beckley focuses on historical comparison and Pentagon simulations. Despite this, their conclusions are complimentary. If you have read these two studies, very little of my article will be new to you.[2]

Second, you may notice a stylistic difference between this piece and the rather staid sort of military analysis you see published in places like War on the Rocks or most (but not all) think tank reports. I went out of my way to present my case in as vivid a narrative as possible. This is not just because the vivid is more likely to go viral (though I won't deny I enjoy it when something I have written travels). Rather, I chose to write the column in this fashion because vivid narrative is a useful analytical tool. Defense analysts are fond of acronyms, figures, and an obscure sort of idiom I will call RANDspeak. In some cases, RANDspeak brings clarity. In many cases, however, it simply serves as a linguistic signal that the author is a professional, not an amateur. I have little patience for publications that demand 'professional' writing like this. RANDspeak comes at a cost: in reducing analysis of military conflict to a flurry of euphemisms, one tends to forget the true nature of the topic being analyzed. War is not waged with acronyms. It is waged with men. The strategic results of conflict cannot be divorced from the lived experience of combat. War means steel, smoke, and blood--and more importantly, the awe, terror, pride, and rage these things instill into the hearts of the men and women who witness them. Narrative redirects our attention away from weapon systems and towards the minds of the men and women these systems are designed to kill and terrify. Often times it is at this level that victory and defeat is decided.

The second benefit of narrative is that it is more accessible to those who are not joined in the cloistered ranks of professional defense analysts. For many analysts this kind of concern is foolish. What matters, they tell me, is that the people who matter buy their argument. The people at large are never the people who matter. I find this extremely short sided. In the case of Taiwan the trouble with this sort of view should be obvious: Taiwan's greatest weakness is resolve. As I discuss in the article, the Taiwanese people have little confidence in their military. The Chinese invasion strategy is designed to take advantage of this. Easton's research reveals that their plans are centered on shocking the Taiwanese into submission. The success of the Chinese invasion strategy thus turns on the morale of the Taiwanese citizenry. That morale, in turn, will turn on the confidence the Taiwanese have in their own defensive systems. If the true strength of their position is not communicated to average people, their position will have no strength.


[1] Tanner Greer, "Taiwan Can Win a War With China," Foreign Policy 25 September 2018.

[2] Michael Beckely, "The Emerging Military Balance in East Asia: How China’s Neighbors Can Check Chinese Naval Expansion,"International Security Vol. 42, No. 2 (Fall 2017), pp. 78–119,; Ian Easton, The China Invasion Threat: Taiwan's Defense and American Strategy in East Asia (CreateSpace: 2017).

20 September, 2018

Psychology Makes the Strategist

Military activity is never directed against material force alone; it is always aimed simultaneously at the moral forces which give it life, and the two cannot be separated.
Carl von Clausewitz, On War

I have a new double-book review up at Strategy Bridge. This time both books were written by the same person: King's College (London) professor of war studies Kenneth Payne. The books are his 2015 The Psychology of Strategy: Exploring Rationality in the Vietnam War and his more recent Strategy, Evolution, and War: From Apes to AI. Here is how I introduce the topic:
A new science of human behavior has emerged over the past two decades. This new science has linked together the research of neuroscientists, cognitive and evolutionary anthropologists, decision theorists, social and cross cultural psychologists, cognitive scientists, ethnologists, linguists, endocrinologists, and behavioral economists into a cohesive body of research on why humans do what they do. Research in this field rests on two propositions about the human mind. The first, that the mind is embodied; the second, that it is evolved.

When behavioral scientists say the mind is embodied, they mean the mind is a biological thing and the study of decision making cannot be divorced from the architecture of the biological machinery that makes the decisions. Their research suggests most of the mind’s machinery works under the hood, below the level of conscious awareness. Researchers have their favorite object of study: for some it is hormones and emotions, for others it is specialized cognitive modules evolved in the deep human past to solve problems faced by our hominid ancestors, and for yet others it is culturally created cognitive gadgets impressed into the biological structure of brains at an early age by the societies in which we grew up. When behavioral scientists say these attributes of human psychology are evolved, they mean only that, as a biological thing, the human mind was created by the same evolutionary process that crafted the function and form of every other living thing. “Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution” (as one famous biologist declared several decades ago), and this is as true for the study of the human mind as it is for the study of bacteria or butterflies.

What does this have to do with war or strategy? Everything, answers Kenneth Payne, professor in the War Studies department at King’s College London. In the last three years, Payne has published two books on the subject. The first, The Psychology of Strategy: Exploring Rationality in the Vietnam War, uses the Vietnam War as its central case study; the second, Strategy, Evolution, and War: From Apes to Artificial Intelligence, extends the themes of the first book deep into the wars of humanity’s evolutionary past and forward into the less human wars of its future. The reasoning behind Payne’s books is simple: strategic decision making is human decision making. Like all aspects of human behavior, powerful insights about the nature of strategy can be gained by viewing it through the lens of behavioral science. [1]
I am extremely sympathetic to Payne's approach (this is why I jumped at the chance to get review copies of his two books). Any theory of military strategy that is not informed by behavioral science on the one hand and organization science on the other is a dead end. This is not a new insightas Payne writes about at some length in his books (and I mention in a footnote in this review) Clausewitz was obsessed with the psychological aspects of war and built his theory of war around them. The difference between Clausewitz 's day and our own is that we have a much stronger understanding of how the mind works than was available at the turn of the 19th century. It seems foolish to ignore this new knowledge. Clausewitz certainly would not have.

I encourage you to read the rest of the review. Payne's books are interesting—they cover everything from warfare among chimpanzees to the role emotion plays in political decision making to the implications of using AI to augment human decision making in battlebut as I argue, I think they may be less useful for what they prove (for as Payne admits, they prove precious little) than for the avenues of research they open up:
Payne’s books are full of small asides that—if properly investigated—could become their own books. Here are three potentially fruitful research questions that occurred to me as I read through these two books.

1. In one of the more intriguing passages of the The Psychology of Strategy, Payne suggests:
Insofar as honour is the goal for states embroiled in war, the fighting itself can tend to the ritualized and stylized, rather than the conception of ‘total’ war offered in parts of Clausewitz’ writing.… Display and attention to rules become integral parts of strategy. Societies have more latitude to fight according to their cultural precepts, rather than to adjust them in pursuit of efficiency. They can acquire armed forces and develop ways of fighting that seem in tension with strategic conditions facing them.

The contrast Payne sees between wars of honor and more total conceptions of war has striking parallels with patterns military historians have described independently. J.E. Lenden, Pier Mackay, and Stephen Morillo have described this exact contrast in their analysis of different wars between the polis of ancient Greece, the kings of medieval Europe, and the European empires of the 18th century. But if stylized wars of honor are a real phenomena, what determines when armies and states fight them instead of wars dominated by fear or interest? Why were the first ten years of the duel between Athens and Sparta defined by Greek honor norms, when these same norms had so little power to shape behavior in the later years of the conflict? What, in short, can the study of human psychology teach us about the durability of norms of war?

2. Cross-cultural psychology is a burgeoning subfield of psychology. Psychologists, and more than a few anthropologists, have discovered human beings from different cultures often have different cognitive profiles, including the psychological biases they are victim to. As anthropologist-cum-psychologist Joseph Henrich noted, “Many researchers want to study those psychological processes that make us uniquely human. The problem is, at this point, there has been so little systematic comparative experimental research across diverse populations that we currently lack any reliable way to know when we are tapping innate psychological processes, or the products of centuries of cultural evolution.” 
This critique is relevant to almost all the evidence Payne presents. Indeed, Henrich and a team of cross-cultural psychologists suggest in a forthcoming research article that optimism bias, one of the biases Payne discusses at length, is not similarly manifested in East Asian and Western populations. One must ask: Is Payne’s psychology of strategy really just the psychology of Western strategy?

This may cause some to question the utility of Payne’s entire work. In contrast, I see it as an opportunity to extend Payne’s general research program. For the last three decades scholars have tried to create viable theories of strategic culture that might explain patterns in the strategic decision making across cultures. While this literature has been plagued with many problems, one of its key failings is that most of it fails to explain how strategic culture is transmitted from one generation to the next. This literature also fails to describe the mechanism by which culture actually changes decision making.

By refocusing these debates on cognitive differences of decisions makers, progress may be possible. Psychology might be the missing key to the puzzle. It is easy to imagine a robust line of research that attempts to ferret out which elements of human psychology are most relevant to strategy, tests through laboratory and field studies which of these elements are cognitive gadgets unique to certain cultures and which are genetically ingrained human universals, and then uses these results as a lens through which to test strategic history.

3. Another new and fascinating line of research in the behavioral sciences is the study of what researchers have dubbed folk sociology. As cognitive scientist Pascal Boyer has described, “In all human societies, people have some notion of what social groups are, how they are formed, what political power consists of.” Linguistically, this folk sociology is expressed through metaphors. For example, we talk about groups of people as if they were unitary agents (“the American administration is angry with China”), and we talk about political power as if it were a physical force (“the Republicans bowed under popular pressure” or “the Conservatives crushed Labour”) even though neither of these things is true. Despite its inaccuracy, this way of talking is natural and appears in multiple languages. Boyer and his compatriots suggest this is because the cognitive resources we use to understand these concepts originally evolved for other purposes—in this case, understanding the behavior of actual unitary agents and intuitive models of physics, respectively. They have traced many ways in which this folk sociology has a powerful effect on the way humans understand and interact with political institutions and economic markets.

Is there such a thing as folk strategic theory? If Payne is correct, and warfare was a source of selection pressure throughout the evolution of humanity, then it is likely we have developed cognitive modules that channel or understanding of violence, strategy, and war into certain metaphors and mental conceptions.[2]
Readers interested in the citations for the various books referenced and quotations reproduced in this section should read the footnotes of the original piece over at Strategy Bridge. If the topic strikes your fancy, also consider purchasing Payne's two books.


[1] Tanner Greer, "#Reviewing The Psychology of Strategy & Strategy, Evolution, and War," Strategy Bridge (18 September 2018).

[2] Ibid.