Friday, June 12, 2009

Why Matthew Yglesias Doesn't Understand International Relations

. Friday, June 12, 2009

Apparently this post was not as self-evident as I thought. This part of Yglesias' post is what I was referring to:

But that equilibrium can occur on any one of a number of different levels. O’Hanlon is basically urging the world to settle into a stable high equilibrium, in which real US defense spending grows at around two percent per year and the Chinese grow faster than that.

In an alternative scenario, we reach an equilibrium at a lower level. Real US defense spending stays near where it is, and real Chinese defense spending grows, but at a modest rate. That low equilibrium would leave us better off. And it would also leave the Chinese better off. And the Indians and the Russians and the Japanese and everyone else. The world could maintain roughly the same balance of power as in the high cost equilibrium, but with dramatically less wastage of resources. Now the low equilibrium would be somewhat harder to achieve as a political and diplomatic matter. But since it the low equilibrium implies a much higher standard of living for the population of the entire world, it seems to me to be worth aiming for.

I don't think that's true. Nations do not move their defense budgets up and down in tandem. If the U.S. reduces its budget, Japan, China, and India will all be incentivized to spend more rather than less to fill up the power vacuum. After all, if what Yglesias was saying was true, then why not continue to lower military spending until we get close to the lower bound? China, Japan, India, and every other country could then just lower their spending too, we'd all save a bunch of money, sing kumbaya, and be happy.

Of course, that's not the way the world works. I don't think there is a Pareto-improving "low equilibrium" in which the U.S. cuts military spending and Asia responds by doing the same. I think that scenario leads to a different equilibrium in which the U.S. security guarantee in Asia become less credible. So Asia begins an arms race spurred by security dilemmas (we're already seeing some of this in Japan and N. Korea), and the region starts balancing against China. The U.S. might save some money, but Asia will spend much, much more and be less secure for it.

International relations theory is pretty clear on this point: when faced with uncertainty, states respond by building up their defenses, not by toning them down. Yglesias almost recognizes the logic of this this in his second-to-last sentence, but I think he massively understates the problem because he doesn't understand international relations.

P.S. A friend, who is in an economics Ph.D. program at a major university, wrote that Yglesias just doesn't understand basic concepts in game theory. This is basically what I was saying, since most canonical IR theory is based in whole or part on game theory. Now, Yglesias may actually understand the concepts, but he does not seem able to apply them.

4 comments:

Thomas Oatley said...

1. Isn't Yglesias merely explicating the logic of a simple prisoners' dilemma applied to an arms race? And isn't he saying we would be better off and no one would have less security if all would agree to not spend more? Yes, he is mistaken in calling cooperation an equilibrium, but otherwise I don't see the logical problem. There are joint gains to be had.
2. In proposing that we try to reach the low spending equilibrium, isn't Yglesias proposing exactly the kind of recommendation I said last week was the best IR scholars could hope to offer (i.e., the kind no one had an incentive to enact) http://tiny.cc/ggcuN .
3. Aren't you now criticizing him for precisely the reason I criticized IR and game theory's policy aspirations?

Kindred Winecoff said...

1. As you say, what Yglesias calls an equilibrium is not actually an equilibrium. Therefore, he does not understand the basic logic of game theory, which is the basic logic of international relations theory.

Moreover, the present situation (in which the U.S. maintains a dominant military and issues credible security guarantees) is *not* a PD. Yglesias is advocating moving into one (think Powell (2002)). That is unwise, and not Pareto-improving.

2. Perhaps. But my point then and my point now is that IR scholars can do more than say "iterate and play tit-for-tat" in every situation (which isn't really what Yglesias is saying; he's saying that cooperation under anarchy is somewhat easy to achieve). A better recommendation in this case would be to "stay out of the game entirely". Everyone has incentives to stay out of the PD trap, which is why the present equilibrium has persisted for the last half-century.

3. No. I'm criticizing him for mis-understanding international relations theory. In this case, theory can influence policy in a positive way. He just doesn't understand why or how.

If all that is wrong, then I can't see why. Perhaps you'd straighten me out.

Thomas Oatley said...

1. He misuses a word and you believe it's a different game. Don't see how that means he fails to understand game theory and IR.

2. "Perhaps. But my point then and my point now is that IR scholars can do more than say "iterate and play tit-for-tat" in every situation."

That wasn't actually my point, you know; it was an illustration of my broader point. Games have equilibrium strategies. If governments play them, we have nothing to say. If they don't play them, then advice based on the game is useless.

3. "(which isn't really what Yglesias is saying; he's saying that cooperation under anarchy is somewhat easy to achieve)."

Your objection to what he is saying is exactly my broader point.

4."A better recommendation in this case would be to "stay out of the game entirely". Everyone has incentives to stay out of the PD trap, which is why the present equilibrium has persisted for the last half-century."

I don't know what this means.

Kindred Winecoff said...

point-by-point:

1. He didn't just misuse a word, in my view, but rather come to poor conclusions by using poor logic.

2. Games can have multiple equilibria, and moving from one to another can be Pareto-improving. I think we can agree that governments often play sub-optimal equilibrium strategies. If good advice can help governments move from one equilibrium to a better one, then there may be some purpose for scholars in policy.

3. I think that the U.S. security guarantees make cooperation more easily achieved because the condition of anarchy is weakened by the over-arching strength of the U.S. If you create a power vacuum, then the influence of anarchy becomes stronger. That is what Yglesias is advocating, and he doesn't seem to understand the implications of it. (i may have missed your point; i found that comment a bit opaque.)

4. The current situation is not a PD. Moving into one is a bad idea.

Why Matthew Yglesias Doesn't Understand International Relations
 
There was an error in this gadget

PageRank

SiteMeter

Technorati

Add to Technorati Favorites