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.

13 September, 2018

A Small Note on the Terror of Uncertainty

Freedom of men under government is to have a standing rule to live by, common to every one of that society, and made by the legislative power erected in it; a liberty to follow my own will in all things, where that rule prescribes not: and not to be subject to the inconstant, uncertain, arbitrary will of another man.
John Locke, Second Treatise on Government, section 22 (1689)

This week's post on Xinjiang and the many things one can do there to be thrown into a political reeducation camp has been picked up by Foreign Policy. The FP version of the article has been published under the title "48 Ways to Get Sent to a Chinese Concentration Camp."

The material will be familiar to readers of this blog as most of the article is a direct adaptation of an earlier blog post here. However, I did make one significant point in the FP version of the essay that I did not make here:
A central element of this campaign is uncertainty. It is difficult to judge which of these items are official policy and which are simply the result of ad hoc decisions made by local officials. This is likely by design. One Uighur interviewee told HRW how he simply stopped using his smartphone because he could not tell which websites were allowed and which might incriminate him; another described how she stopped talking to neighbors and strangers altogether because she did not want to unintentionally say something that might bring the police to her door. Vagueness breeds fear. Fear makes the people subject to the Communist Party’s campaigns easier to control.[1]
I wish I could claim credit for this particular insight, but as the epitaphs placed at the top of this post evince, it is an old one. It does, however, help make sense of some of the more mysterious items on the list.


[1] Tanner Greer, "48 Ways to get Sent to a Chinese Concentration Camp," Foreign Policy (13 September 2018)

11 September, 2018

Things That Will Get You Thrown in a Chinese Political Education Camp

"People have to tell the crowd what their families did, just like during the Cultural Revolution."
—"Ainagul," 52, who left Xinjiang in 2017 and whose son is in
 a political education camp (interviewed May 18, 2018).
"A wife denounces her husband, an imam who was imprisoned for extremism, ... saying something about him propagating Wahhabism; and then a kid who denounces his father for having prayed and read the Quran. [There were also] people who have exceeded the birth quotas, the couple and their kids were crying as the authorities announced the huge fines against them. This is called a ‘Looking Back’ (回头看) exercise, looking back at what bad things people had done in the past 20 years.“
—"IIham," who left Xinjiang in 2017 (interviewed June 7, 2018).

Earlier this month, Human Rights Watch published a 125 page report on the crisis in Xinjiang:Eradicating Ideological Viruses: China’s Campaign of Repression Against Xinjiang’s Muslims. It does not make pleasant reading. The report consists mostly of excerpts from interviews that Human Rights Watch researchers conducted with 58 ethnic Uyghurs or Kazakhs, living in nine countries, who have managed to flee from Xinjiang over the last two years. This is the largest interview set yet published. The accounts published by Human Rights Watch largely corroborate other evidence we have gleaned so far from the five main streams of information that we have about what is happening in Xinjiang: 1) journalist accounts from within Xinjiang itself, 2) social media posts and online job advertisements in Chinese, 3) official state media photographs, statistics, or proclamations, 4) satellite imagery, and 5) other interviews with Kazakhs or Uyghurs who have been able to escape from China after all of this began. SupChina has put together a good round-up of all of the English-language material available before September 2018.

There is a lot of material in the Human Rights Watch report. I want to focus on a tiny slice of it: the reasons Uyghur or Kazakhs report that they are being thrown into "political education camps" (that is, a gulag with Chinese characteristics).

Things which may cause you to detained without trial and locked away in an education camp indefinitely, in Xinjiang, China, 2018:
  • Owning a tent
  • Owning welding equipment
  • Owning extra food
  • Owning a compass
  • Owning multiple knives
  • Abstaining from alcohol
  • Abstaining from cigarettes
  • Wailing, publicly grieving, or otherwise acting sad when your parents die
  • Performing a traditional funeral
  • Inviting more than 5 people to your house without registering with the police department
  • Wearing a scarf in the presence of the PRC flag
  • Wearing a hijab (if you are under 45)
  • Going to a mosque
  • Praying
  • Fasting
  • Listening to a religious lecture
  • Telling others not to swear
  • Telling others not to sin
  • Eating breakfast before the sun comes up
  • Arguing with an official
  • Sending a petition that complains about local officials
  • Not allowing officials to sleep in your bed, eat your food, and live in your house
  • Not having your government ID on your person
  • Not letting officials take your DNA
  • Not letting officials scan your irises
  • Not letting officials download everything you have on your phone
  • Not making voice recordings to give to officials
  • Speaking your mother language in school
  • Speaking your mother language in government work groups
  • Speaking with someone abroad (with skype, etc.)
  • Speaking with someone who has traveled abroad
  • Having traveled abroad yourself
  • Merely knowing someone who has traveled abroad
  • Publicly stating that China is inferior to some other country
  • Having too many children
  • Having a VPN
  • Having Whatsapp
  • Watching a video filmed abroad
  • Wearing a shirt with Arabic lettered writing on it
  • Wearing a full beard
  • Wearing any clothes with religious iconography
  • Not attending mandatory propaganda classes
  • Not attending mandatory flag raising ceremonies
  • Not attending public struggle sessions (Cultural Revolution style)
  • Refusing to denounce your family members in these public struggle sessions
  • Being related to anyone who has done any of the above
  • Trying to kill yourself when detained by the police
  • Trying to kill yourself when in the education camps proper.
Something terrible is happening in Xinjiang.

NOTE: Also see my earlier post, "Moral Hazards and China."

EDIT (13 Sep 2019):
An expanded version of this post has been published in Foreign Policy magazine. See also my follow up post here.

02 September, 2018

So Why Did They Publish Them? - A Few Notes on the Latest Batch of Fail-to-Replicates

The big news this week is a fresh study in Nature that reports the results of a team that sought to replicate 21 high profile experiments in social psychology, all originally published by the journals Nature or Science between the years 2010 and 2015. The study has garnered a lot of headlines. You can read takes by Science Magazine, The Washington Post, Ars Techica, The Atlantic, Science Trends, and many others with a bit of google searching. Popular interest is driven by the study's result: the research team was only able to replicate 13 out of the 21 experiments.

I am going to assume that readers are familiar with the general outlines of the "reproducibility crisis" (if you are not, Susan Dominus' New York Magazine long-read on the crisis, "When the Revolution Came for Amy Cuddy" is a good place to start). What is most interesting about this study is not that they found more experiments that failed to replicate. These days that is old hat. What is new about this study is that the experimenters asked a pool of 200 psychologists to predict which studies would fail to replicate and which ones would not. They did this both by survey and by prediction market. What did they discover? This graphic (pulled from the paper in Nature) tells the story:

You will notice that researchers did a very good job predicting which studies would fail to replicate. The studies the majority predicted would fail to replicate were the same studies that actually failed to replicate. What does this mean? Psychologists can tell the difference between good studies and bad ones. But that raises another question: if psychologists can sift the wheat from the chaff, why is so much chaff being published?

I have read some uncharitable answers to this question on Twitter. I think these answers are unnecessarily uncharitable. But before I explain why, let me offer you a challenge: go visit the website 80,000 Hours and see if you can predict which experiments will replicate and which will not. The folks at 80,000 have created a neat quiz which presents the results, methodology, and sample size of each experiment to you, and allows you to guess if the results were replicated before you see the real results.

OK, are we back? I took the quiz before I read the original paper or any of the news coverage about it. Despite this, I got on almost perfect scoreI only guessed two wrong, and both of those I labeled as "not sure." How did I score so well? My predictions followed a rough rule of thumb: if the study 1) involved "priming," or 2) seemed to fly against my own experience dealing with humans in day to day life, I predicted it would not replicate.

You can find a suitable definition of "priming" at NeuroSkeptic. Basically, it refers to attempts to unconsciously influence perception and decision making by exposing subjects to subtle stimuli. For example, there is a famous set of studies that found placing a picture of eyes on a wall will increase the honesty and generosity of those exposed to them.  You can criticize studies like this from two angles: on the one hand, this simply does not seem to describe how the actual humans you know go about living their lives. That is one of the reasons  studies like this garner so much attention. They are counter-intuitive. In the age of the TED talk, cleverly subverting people's intuitions is high prestige endeavor. But I tend to be extremely skeptical of any psychological study that makes unusually counter-intuitive claims. Why? Because for the greater part of humanity's evolutionary history, the single most important selection pressure put on human beings was the ability to intuit the behavior and intentions of other human beings. Being able to understand and predict other humans' behavior is critical to our survival. It is something we are naturally good at (though only a few very perceptive and articulate individuals are skilled at communicating these intuitions to others). I am thus usually very suspicious of any study which claims that our intuitions have led us to make faulty assessments of others' behavior.

My demand for especially strong evidence when priming studies are conducted is also informed by advances in other fields of the behavioral sciences. Over the last two decades, there has been a substantial amount of research done on the relationship between genetics and behavior, hormones and behavior, and life history and behavior. All three streams of research suggest that a lot of our behavior (say, our propensity to be honest) is determined days and years before the actual moment of decision. It is difficult, though not entirely impossible, to square this research with social priming studies that suggest that humans live in constant churn, buffeted about by a never-ending stream of imperceptible stimuli. 

Now I want to be clear here: none of the above means I reject all counter-intuitive findings, or even all social priming findings, out of hand.   But it does mean I ask for an unusually high standard of evidence before accepting them. But I do not think I would have demanded this same standard of evidence back in 2010. This is why I am less harsh on the editors of Science and Nature than many seem to be. By 2016 it was clear that those "surveillance cue" studies that had psychologists pinning eyes up on walls were failing to replicate. In 2010 the replication wave had not yet hit, and scientists were not trained to ask themselves whether their studies would replicate. Things have changed. Psychologists now constantly ask themselves if their studies will replicate; more importantly, they have a large body of failed studies to learn from. If you have paid any attention to these developments you will have learned which kind of studies do not replicate: those with tiny sampling sizes, those that rely on superficial social priming, and those whose results are counter-intuitively flashy. But this body of failed studies did not exist in 2010. It is not fair to judge the scientists of that time against data that has only become available in ours.

27 August, 2018

Tradition is Smarter Than You Are

The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to [a fence] and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.
G.K. Chesterton, The Thing (1929).
One of the themes pursued in the research of evolutionary anthropologist-cum-cross cultural psychologist Joseph Henrich is of interest to many far outside the academic worlds of anthropology and psychology. In this sense, Henrich reminds me somewhat of anthropologist-cum-political scientist James C. Scott. Their methods differHenrich is an innovator in field experiments, and is far fonder of his modeling and maths than Scott isbut their conclusions are oddly complementary.

Let's talk about Henrich first. One the clearest presentations of his ideas is in his 2016 book The Secret of Our Success. The book is less a heavy scholarly tome than a poppified version of Henrich's research, but Henrich's decision to trade theoretical detail for accessibility is understandable (it is also why I don't feel bad quoting large blocks of text from the book in this post). Henrich advances the argument that brain-power alone is not enough to explain why humans are such a successful species. Humans, he argues, are not nearly as intelligent as we think they are. Remove them from the culture and environment they have learned to operate in and they fail quickly. His favorite example of this are European explorers who die in the middle of deserts, jungles, or arctic wastes even though thousands of generations of hunter-gatherers were able to survive and thrive in these same environments. If human success was due to our ability to problem solve, analyze, and rationally develop novel solutions to novel challenges, the explorers should have been fine. Their ghastly fates suggest that rationality may not be the key to human survival.

If rational thought is not the key to our success, what is?

To answer that, Henrich says, we should look at the cassava plant. Cassava, or manioc, is one of the most popular staple foods in the world. But there is a catch: if not prepared correctly, cassava will slowly poison you. Yet some populations eat it without a problem. How does this work? Henrich explains:
In the Americas, where manioc was first domesticated, societies who have relied on bitter varieties for thousands of years show no evidence of chronic cyanide poisoning. In the Colombian Amazon, for example, indigenous Tukanoans use a multistep, multiday processing technique that involves scraping, grating, and finally washing the roots in order to separate the fiber, starch, and liquid. Once separated, the liquid is boiled into a beverage, but the fiber and starch must then sit for two more days, when they can then be baked and eaten. Figure 7.1 shows the percentage of cyanogenic content in the liquid, fiber, and starch remaining through each major step in this processing. 
Such processing techniques are crucial for living in many parts of Amazonia, where other crops are difficult to cultivate and often unproductive. However, despite their utility, one person would have a difficult time figuring out the detoxification technique. Consider the situation from the point of view of the children and adolescents who are learning the techniques. They would have rarely, if ever, seen anyone get cyanide poisoning, because the techniques work. And even if the processing was ineffective, such that cases of goiter (swollen necks) or neurological problems were common, it would still be hard to recognize the link between these chronic health issues and eating manioc. Most people would have eaten manioc for years with no apparent effects. Low cyanogenic varieties are typically boiled, but boiling alone is insufficient to prevent the chronic conditions for bitter varieties. Boiling does, however, remove or reduce the bitter taste and prevent the acute symptoms (e.g., diarrhea, stomach troubles, and vomiting). 
So, if one did the common-sense thing and just boiled the high-cyanogenic manioc, everything would seem fine. Since the multistep task of processing manioc is long, arduous, and boring, sticking with it is certainly non-intuitive. Tukanoan women spend about a quarter of their day detoxifying manioc, so this is a costly technique in the short term. Now consider what might result if a self-reliant Tukanoan mother decided to drop any seemingly unnecessary steps from the processing of her bitter manioc. She might critically examine the procedure handed down to her from earlier generations and conclude that the goal of the procedure is to remove the bitter taste. She might then experiment with alternative procedures by dropping some of the more labor-intensive or time-consuming steps. She’d find that with a shorter and much less labor-intensive process, she could remove the bitter taste. Adopting this easier protocol, she would have more time for other activities, like caring for her children. Of course, years or decades later her family would begin to develop the symptoms of chronic cyanide poisoning. 
Thus, the unwillingness of this mother to take on faith the practices handed down to her from earlier generations would result in sickness and early death for members of her family. Individual learning does not pay here, and intuitions are misleading. The problem is that the steps in this procedure are causally opaque—an individual cannot readily infer their functions, interrelationships, or importance. The causal opacity of many cultural adaptations had a big impact on our psychology. 
Wait. Maybe I’m wrong about manioc processing. Perhaps it’s actually rather easy to individually figure out the detoxification steps for manioc? Fortunately, history has provided a test case. At the beginning of the seventeenth century, the Portuguese transported manioc from South America to West Africa for the first time. They did not, however, transport the age-old indigenous processing protocols or the underlying commitment to using those techniques. Because it is easy to plant and provides high yields in infertile or drought-prone areas, manioc spread rapidly across Africa and became a staple food for many populations. The processing techniques, however, were not readily or consistently regenerated. Even after hundreds of years, chronic cyanide poisoning remains a serious health problem in Africa. Detailed studies of local preparation techniques show that high levels of cyanide often remain and that many individuals carry low levels of cyanide in their blood or urine, which haven’t yet manifested in symptoms. In some places, there’s no processing at all, or sometimes the processing actually increases the cyanogenic content. On the positive side, some African groups have in fact culturally evolved effective processing techniques, but these techniques are spreading only slowly. 
Figure taken from Henrich, The Secret of our Success, p. 98
The point here is that cultural evolution is often much smarter than we are. Operating over generations as individuals unconsciously attend to and learn from more successful, prestigious, and healthier members of their communities, this evolutionary process generates cultural adaptations. Though these complex repertoires appear well designed to meet local challenges, they are not primarily the products of individuals applying causal models, rational thinking, or cost-benefit analyses. Often, most or all of the people skilled in deploying such adaptive practices do not understand how or why they work, or even that they “do” anything at all. Such complex adaptations can emerge precisely because natural selection has favored individuals who often place their faith in cultural inheritance—in the accumulated wisdom implicit in the practices and beliefs derived from their forbearers—over their own intuitions and personal experiences. [1]
Henrich records another example of clever cultural traditions in northern Canada:
When hunting caribou, Naskapi foragers in Labrador, Canada, had to decide where to go. Common sense might lead one to go where one had success before or to where friends or neighbors recently spotted caribou. However, this situation is like Matching Pennies in chapter 2. The caribou are mismatchers and the hunters are matchers. That is, hunters want to match the locations of caribou while caribou want to mismatch the hunters, to avoid being shot and eaten. If a hunter shows any bias to return to previous spots, where he or others have seen caribou, then the caribou can benefit (survive better) by avoiding those locations (where they have previously seen humans). Thus, the best hunting strategy requires randomizing. Can cultural evolution compensate for our cognitive inadequacies? Traditionally, Naskapi hunters decided where to go to hunt using divination and believed that the shoulder bones of caribou could point the way to success. To start the ritual, the shoulder blade was heated over hot coals in a way that caused patterns of cracks and burnt spots to form. This patterning was then read as a kind of map, which was held in a pre-specified orientation. The cracking patterns were (probably) essentially random from the point of view of hunting locations, since the outcomes depended on myriad details about the bone, fire, ambient temperature, and heating process. Thus, these divination rituals may have provided a crude randomizing device that helped hunters avoid their own decision-making biases. The undergraduates in the Matching Pennies game could have used a randomizing device like divination, though the chimps seem fine without it. [2]
My China-focused readers will spot the similarities between this practice and that of the ancient Shang oracle bones. The Shang would burn the bones of oxen or turtle shells to divine all matter of things, including whether to embark on punitive military expeditions. Perhaps Shang military attacks also followed the logic of Matching Pennies?

Henrich also discusses a similar practice in Indonesia:
In Indonesia, the Kantus of Kalimantan use bird augury to select locations for their agricultural plots. The anthropologist Michael Dove argues that two factors will cause farmers to make plot placements that are too risky. First, Kantu ecological models contain the Gambler’s Fallacy and lead them to expect that floods will be less likely to occur in a specific location after a big flood in that location (which is not true). 
Second, as with the MBAs’ investment allocations in chapter 4, Kantus pay attention to others’ success and copy the choices of successful households, meaning that if one of their neighbors has a good yield in an area one year, many other people will want to plant there in the next year. Reducing the risks posed by these cognitive and decision-making biases, the Kantu rely on a system of bird augury that effectively randomizes their choices for locating garden plots, which helps them avoid catastrophic crop failures. The results of divination depend not only on seeing a particular bird species in a particular location, but also on what type of call the bird makes (one type of call may be favorable, and another unfavorable). 
The patterning of bird augury supports the view that this is a cultural adaptation. The system seems to have evolved and spread throughout this region since the seventeenth century when rice cultivation was introduced. This makes sense, since it is rice cultivation that is most positively influenced by randomizing garden locations. It’s possible that, with the introduction of rice, a few farmers began to use bird sightings as an indication of favorable garden sites. On average, over a lifetime, these farmers would do better—be more successful—than farmers who relied on the Gambler’s Fallacy or on copying others’ immediate behavior. 
Whatever the process, within 400 years, the bird augury system had spread throughout the agricultural populations of this Borneo region. Yet it remains conspicuously missing or underdeveloped among local foraging groups and recent adopters of rice agriculture, as well as among populations in northern Borneo who rely on irrigation. So, bird augury has been systematically spreading in those regions where it is most adaptive. This example makes a key point: not only do people often not understand what their cultural practices are doing, but sometimes it may even be important that they don’t understand what their practices are doing or how they work. If people came to understand that bird augury or bone divination didn’t actually predict the future, the practice would probably be dropped or people would increasingly ignore ritual findings in favor of their own intuitions. [3]
Henrich has dozens of these examples. The common thread pulling them together is that the people whose survival is guaranteed by strict observance of these traditions have no real explanation for why they are following them. Henrich goes into this with more depth in discussion of his ethnographic work in Fijii, where women do not eat certain fish while pregnant:
We looked for a shared underlying mental model of why one would not eat these marine species during pregnancy or breastfeeding—a causal model or set of reasoned principles. Unlike the highly consistent answers on what not to eat and when, women’s responses to our why questions were all over the map. Many women simply said they did not know and clearly thought it was an odd question. Others said it was “custom.” Some did suggest that the consumption of at least some of the species might result in harmful effects to the fetus, but what precisely would happen to the fetus varied greatly, though a nontrivial segment of the women explained that babies would be born with rough skin if sharks were eaten and smelly joints if morays were eaten. Unlike most of our interview questions on this topic, the answers here had the flavor of post-hoc rationalization: “Since I’m being asked for a reason, there must be a reason, so I’ll think one up now.” This is extremely common in ethnographic fieldwork, and I’ve personally experienced it in the Peruvian Amazon with the Matsigenka and with the Mapuche in southern Chile. 
Of course, it’s not particularly difficult to get similar responses from educated Westerners, but there remains a striking difference: educated Westerners are trained their entire lives to think that behaviors must be underpinned by explicable and declarable reasons, so we are more likely to have them at the ready and feel more obligated to supply “good” reasons upon request. Saying “it’s our custom” is not considered a good reason. The pressure for an acceptable, clear, and explicit reason for doing things is merely a social norm common in Western populations, which creates the illusion (among Westerners) that humans generally do things based on explicit causal models and clear reasons. They often do not. [4]
Henrich makes two arguments here, both relevant to contemporary debates in politics and philosophy. The first is that customs, traditions, and the like are subject to Darwinian selection. Henrich is not always clear on exactly what is being selected foris it individuals who follow a tradition, groups whose members all follow the tradition, or the tradition itself?but the general gist is that traditions stick around longest when they are adaptive. This process is "blind." Those who follow the traditions do not know how they work, and in some cases (like religious rituals that build social solidarity) knowing the details of how they work might actually reduce the efficacy of the tradition. That is the second argument of note: we do not (and often cannot) understand just how the traditions we inherit help our survival, and because of that, it is difficult to artificially create replacements.

I do not think Henrich is willing to extend these points to all elements of human culture. If we are to take analogies with genetic evolution seriously, then we should not be surprised if a large amount of our cultural baggage are just random accretions passed on from one generation to the nextin essence, the cultural version of genetic drift. But that is the trouble: we have no way to tell which traditions are adaptive and which are merely drift.

All of this meshes splendidly with the work of James C Scott.[5] (If you have never read anything by him before, I recommend starting with this essay). Scott has spent a large amount of his career studying the way states shape the societies they rule over, and the way societies try to resist the advance of the state. The central problem of ruler-ship, as Scott sees it, is what he calls legibility. To extract resources from a population the state must be able to understand that population. The state needs to make the people and things it rules legible to agents of the government. Legibility means uniformity. States dream up uniform weights and measures, impress national languages and ID numbers on their people, and divvy the country up into land plots and administrative districts, all to make the realm legible to the powers that be. The problem is that not all important things can be made legible. Much of what makes a society successful is knowledge of the tacit sort: rarely articulated, messy, and from the outside looking in, purposeless. These are the first things lost in the quest for legibility. Traditions, small cultural differences, odd and distinctive lifeways—in other words, the products of cultural evolution that Henrich fills his book with—are all swept aside by a rationalizing state that preserves (or in many cases, imposes) only what it can be understood and manipulated from the 2,000 foot view. The result, as Scott chronicles with example after example, are many of the greatest catastrophes of human history.

None of Scott's works are in Henrich's bibliography, but it is hard to imagine Henrich being surprised by this outcome. The social engineer is attempting to replace hundreds of traditions, norms, and nuggets of local knowledge through rational calculation. He is the functional equivalent of the European explorer starving in lands of plenty. The only difference between the rationalist explorer and the rationalist social engineer is that the engineer has the power to force the land to starve with him.

Can any of this be put into action? I suspect many conservatives will think the answer to this question is obvious. Henrich and Scott have provided empirical support for maintaining "Chesterton's fence." Chesterton asks us not destroy customs, tradition, and social structures that we cannot explain. Henrich and Scott question our ability to rationally explain them. Implicit in this is a strong defense of the local, the traditional, and the unchanging.

The trouble with our world is that it is changing. Henrich focuses on small scale societies. These societies are not static. The changes they undergo are often drastic. But the distance between the life-style of a forager today and that of her ancestors five hundred years ago pales next to the gap that yawns between the average city-slicker and her ancestors five centuries past. Consider the implications of what demographers call the "demographic transition model:"

image source
 Each stage in the model presents a different sort of society than that which came before it. Very basic social and economic questionsincluding subsistence strategy, family type, mechanisms for mate selection, and so forthchange substantially as societies move through one stage to the next. Customs and norms that are adaptive for individuals in stage two societies may not be adaptive for individuals in living in stage four societies.

If the transition between these stages was slow this would not matter much. But it is not. Once stage two begins, each stage is only two or three generations long. Europeans, Japanese, Taiwanese, and South Koreans born today look forward to spending their teenage years in stage five societies.  What traditions could their grandparents give them that might prepare them for this new world? By the time any new tradition might arise, the conditions that made it adaptive have already changed. 

This may be why the rationalist impulse wrests so strong a hold on the modern mind. The traditions are gone; custom is dying. In the search for happiness, rationalism is the only tool we have left.


[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)

[2] Ibid., 105.

[3] Ibid., 105-107.

[4] Ibid., 101-102.

[5] This theme runs through all of Scott's work, but it is expressed most forcibly in Seeing Like a State: How Certain Schemes to Improve the Human Conditions Have Failed (New haven: Yale University Press, 1998).

18 August, 2018

Taiwan Will Be Defended by the Bullet, or Not at All

Image Source

"The ultimate determinant in war is a man on the scene with a gun."

—J.C. Wylie, Military Strategy: A General Theory of Power Control

Some excellent comments were written in response to last week's post "Taiwan's Past Matters Less Than Taiwan's Present." Two of these comments were particularly excellent, and I am saddened to see them languish in a little read comment thread. As we can't let that happen, I will post them here for the benefit of the wider readership.

The first is by commentator writing under the name "J":
I am Taiwanese, by birth and by blood. My father's side is 外省人 [TG:  someone who retreated to Taiwan with the KMT], my mother's side is 本省人 [someone whose ancestors have lived in Taiwan for generations, and whose mother tongue would likely be Taiwanese Hokkien]. This is not an academic distinction, my maternal grandfather went to college in Japan and served in the Japanese Imperial Army as an NCO. He was later involved in the Taiwanese independence movement. Many of his friends disappeared during the White Terror. His personal journal was written completely in Japanese. His last overseas trip was a college reunion. His last gift to me was a book by a Japanese right-wing author. My paternal grandfather was a mid-level officer in the Nationalist forces. After the retreat to Taiwan, he served in the KMT civilian administration. Every new year, we called his brothers in China. His ashes are interred in Taiwan, but his wishes are to be buried, alongside his parents, at the ancestral plot in Shandong. Let's just say my parents didn't have the easiest time getting married. 
The Taiwanese affinity for Japan is real, but in recent decades, has also been politicized and weaponized. Taiwanese nationalists recognize its usefulness as a cultural wedge, and there has been a romanticization of the Japanese colonial era, and, of course, corresponding counter-narrative. In the battleground for the minds of the young, Japan is winning by a landslide. As a Taiwanese (who also speaks Japanese), it's a bit embarrassing, honestly. The Japanese national conversation hardly recognizes Taiwan, and only the ultra-rightwing WWII-apologists in Japan bother to acknowledge Taiwanese goodwill, mostly as a weapon in their domestic political disputes. The revival of Taiwanese-dialect culture maps to the same political dynamics. 
However, Taiwan is also deeply demoralized. Successive governments have all but given up on the idea of national defense, the conscription term has been cut to almost nothing. What was originally a national rite-of-passage - universal male conscription - is now basically a joke. The military is a pension farm, and thoroughly compromised by Chinese intelligence. Taiwanese industry is very dependent on Chinese markets and labor, and the business elite of Taiwan have all named their price. Similarly, Mandarin Taiwanese pop culture is integrated with China, and must toe the line. At the university level, administrations are dependent on Mainland Chinese students, who, by and large, are more disciplined, more focused, and more ambitious than the native Taiwanese student. 
Unsurprisingly, intermarriage between Taiwanese and Mainland Chinese is also ticking up, both at the college-educated level, and at the mail-order bride level. Taiwanese tourism heavily relies on Chinese visitors. As with all of the former Asian Tigers, birth rates are far below replacement nationally, and they are catastrophically low in Taipei. 
Even as Taiwanese culture grows (partially by DPP policy) more defiantly differentiated from China, the actual capability to resist Chinese coercion, either economically or militarily, continues to wane. The CCP doesn't need to do anything, except keep their mouths shut and allow current trends to continue. The Taiwanese attitude towards China appears to be an exercise in denial and wishful thinking. And that takes a toll on the national psyche. The younger generations may have Netflix and sub-titled Japanese TV shows, eating at gourmet restaurants and taking trips to Sapporo, Singapore, and Sydney. They may laugh at the gawking Chinese that are too poor to visit Europe, and visit Sun Moon Lake instead, but these bumpkin Chinese have what they don't have - a comprehensive vision of the future, and a deep belief that they are standing on the solid rock of history, and that they aren't going anywhere. Whereas for Taiwan and the Taiwanese, everything is contingent.

So take another trip to the wine countries of France, forget about having kids, and try to enjoy the moment.
In an alternate universe, Taiwan would be like Israel or South Korea - ferociously devoted to defense, fiercely determined to resist coercion. Or, for a more realistic example, to be at least as devoted as our ethnic cousins in Singapore. But perhaps that is only possible with the iron-fisted rule of a LKW for four decades. It would take herculean effort to shake Taiwan out of it's current complacent stupor. [1]
J's observations largely track my own experience in Taiwan (long termers will remember I was in Taipei for most of 2015-2016; my experiences there produced one or two blogposts of note). The "Japaneseness" of Taiwan is real and is readily apparent to anyone who has had experience with people from all three countries. In a way that is difficult to quantify or even articulate, Taiwan simply feels like the child of both of these cultures. This is true even in the north, where KMT resettlement was strongest. J is also correct to note that these differences have been overly politicized. Consequently, they are often exaggerated. But they are real, and folks like J are living evidence of their reality.

From a mainland perspective these differences mean nothing. Taiwanese tend to forget the astounding cultural diversity within China proper. The culture and lifeways of Han Chinese living in Ningxia and in Guangxi are more different from each other than anything that separates Taipei from Shanghai. As different as Taiwan may be, it has more cultural affinity with inner China than Tibet or Xinjiang does, and rare is the Han Chinese willing to entertain the independence of either of those regions.

However, one of the most significant cultural differences I observed when I moved from Taipei to Beijing had nothing to do with cultural heritage. J is right: the people of Taiwan are demoralized. There are benefits to this: Taipei is a less pretentious city than Beijing is. People are less concerned with putting on airs; the wealthy are less gaudy and hedonistic; nobody schemes of dirty, treacherous, or lecherous ways to get ahead. But that is exactly the trouble with the young of Taipei: none of them seem to believe that they can get ahead. Track down a student at Bei-Da and one at Tai-Da and you will find a world of difference. The Beida kid will not be any smarter than the Taida kid, but he will be infinitely more ambitious. Beijing is a city of dreamers and schemers. Chinese travel thousands of miles to live in that smog-choked, traffic-clogged wasteland of a city. Why? Because they earnestly believe that it is the place where they will rise above their origins. That kid from Beida starts high and aims higher. He earnestly believes that he personally is going to change the world. The kid from Taida? He doesn't even believe he can change Taiwan.

The exception to this is politics. In the realm of politics, it is the young Beijingers who drift as their apathy guides them. The opposite was true in Taiwan—politics was the one place young Taiwanese thought they might make an impact. But that was in 2015. Disillusionment with Tsai Yingwen seems to have dampened that spirit a bit.

I am more optimistic about the military situation. In terms of military culture, J is absolutely correct. Taiwan does not have one. I blame this situation largely on the ROC military itself. One could write a series of essays on the public relations and human resources mistakes the ROC military has made over the last two decades. Their mismanagement of the conscription system—which under normal circumstances would be the ideal vehicle for instilling such a culture—is criminal. The whining rhetoric that emanates from the Ministry of National Defense is also unhelpful. Taiwanese military figures do not shy from emphasizing the weakness of Taiwan's position, presumably in an attempt to get Washington to care more about their plight. However, by highlighting Taiwanese weakness all they (and their American supporters who make similar arguments) are doing is reinforcing the narrative spun by the PLA: Taiwan is doomed, too weak to be worth fighting for.

The shame in all this is that it is hardly true. This topic deserves its own post, so I won't delve deeply into it here. I'll simply share this thought: the same technological trends which make it so difficult for the United States Navy and Air Force to operate near Chinese waters make it equally difficult for the PLA to operate on the wrong side of the strait. The same cost ratios are at play as well. A long range SSM costs far less than any ship it might hit in a U.S. Carrier Strike Group. But the same is true for missiles launched from Taiwan (or, for that matter, Vietnam or the Philippines). We are quickly moving into a weapons regime that strongly favors the defender. Add this to the incredible difficulties inherit in organizing the largest amphibious invasion of human history, the unique hurdles posed by the geography and weather of Taiwan, and the general lack of training and experience on the part of the PLA forces that will be doing the invading. The potential for failure is high in the best of circumstances. With minimal military investment the Taiwanese can ensure it would be the worst of circumstances. [2]

This brings me to the other stellar comment in the thread, this one posted by long-time reader L.C. Rees:
The ROC exists because: 
1. the US doesn't want the PRC to have it 
2. the PRC doesn't have the strength to take it in the face of American resistance 
Until that 1-2 dynamic changes, or some alternative correlation of power (thermonuclear ROC, PLA soldiers who can walk on water, Neo-Imperial Japan with giant robots with friggin' laser beams,  etc.) arises, all the fine parsing of ancient sources will not amount to Jack Diddley except if it manages to sway gullible Americans. Americans can be gullible: TPM Barnett infamously thought that, if you bought low on Chinese power c. 2010, you could lock in American preferences of how the world should be into a hypothetical 2050 where the PRC dominated the world and the price would be too high. 
I doubt Barnett's option contract would have any more persuasive power in and of itself in a world where the PRC held sway any more than the VOC's claim on Formosa c. 1650 has power in and of itself to sway Washington or Peking today. If the VOC still dominated the Strait of Taiwan, then such a piece of paper might have kinetic force. The Dutch Navy sailing up the Yangtze and burning the PLA Navy at anchor would be as amusing as it is unlikely. However, the VOC is long gone and His Majesty's government in the Netherlands shows no sign of reviving it. Dutch naval power in the Pacific has been nil since 1942. 
On the subject of the inception of the Korean War, I've encountered a thesis I was unfamiliar with: Stalin pushed the war by letting his sock puppet Kim off the leash in order to drive a wedge between the PRC and the West, leaving the PRC reliant on the USSR for modernization. The Korean War was intentionally started to divert Mao's military resources away from Taiwan (Mao was pestering Stalin for help with Formosa) into an alternative theater Stalin had more control over. If this alternative scenario is accurate, it largely succeeded: Stalin's option contract here, festooned with the legal authority of T-34s and MiGs, is a better example for how to buy into PRC power while the price is low or property titles are being accepted. [3]
Rees is correct. The debate over whether the legal status of Taiwan was decided by the Cairo Declaration or the Treaty of San Fransisco irks because it is irrelevant. At the end of the day, the freedom of Taiwan depends on two things only:

  1. Are there men and women willing to die to keep Taiwan free?
  2. Do the Chinese understand how committed they are? 

That is it. All of that other stuff about blood brotherhood and historical claims is irrelevant. What matters is who can get their man to stand on the scene with a gun.

But here is where I part ways with Rees, who—if I understand him correctly—seems to think that only American men and American guns matter. U.S. military support is a necessary, but not sufficient, precondition for Taiwanese autonomy. Much depends on the Taiwanese themselves. The United States will not stop Taiwan from seeking reunification, if that is what Taiwanese voters ask for. But more importantly, the American military is tethered to the American public, and if that public has lost faith in Taiwan, they will not be willing to see American soldiers die for it. The whole structure rests on the Taiwanese people. If they are willing to sacrifice what must be sacrificed to maintain a credible deterrent, then their autonomy will be preserved. If they are not, no number of American fleets can save them.


[1] Comment by "J" on Tanner Greer, "Taiwan's Past Matters Less than Taiwan's Present," Scholar's Stage, 13 August 2018.

[2] Those interested in exploring this topic further ought to read two books (well, one study and one book): Andrew Krepenvich's Maritime Competition in a Mature Precision Strike Regime and Ian Easton's The China Invasion Threat: The Defense of Taiwan and American Strategy in East Asia

[3] Comment by "LCRees" on Tanner Greer, "Taiwan's Past Matters Less than Taiwan's Present," Scholar's Stage, 14 August 2018.