Friday, August 31, 2012

#VirtualAPSA2012 Update

. Friday, August 31, 2012

It's on for tomorrow. Final details still being nailed down. Follow me @whinecough for quicker updates and live-tweets. You'll need to be on Google+ to join the hangout. As of now it looks like one presentation in political theory, one in comparative politics, on in American politics, and two in IR/IPE.

Luke Perez, a doctoral student at UT-Austin, has really taken the reins on this. He's set up a site with some #VirtualAPSA2012 presentations that have already occurred, and he'll be moderating our live presentation tomorrow. You can follow him at @lukemperez.

If you were scheduled to present at APSA and would like to join this virtual conference, get in touch with us.

Thursday, August 30, 2012


. Thursday, August 30, 2012

Since the conference was canceled, some folks have decided to do virtual presentations of their papers in various formats. Dan Nexon got the ball rolling at Duck of Minerva with recorded presentations. I've joined a panel that will present our papers, live via Google+ Hangout, sometime early Saturday afternoon. If you're interested in joining a panel as presenter or discussant, or you are simply interested in watching it, keep your eye here or follow me on Twitter: @whinecough. Details tk.

Monday, August 27, 2012

On Obama, Race, and Political Survival

. Monday, August 27, 2012

Ta-Nahisi Coates has been (rightly) given a lot of praise for his thoughtful essay on how race relations has affected Obama's presidency and the current political environment. He does a good job of highlighting some key political science research demonstrating that Obama's race cost him a non-negligible number of votes in 2008 -- roughly 3-5% of the popular vote overall -- and that race has shaped his presidency in powerful, if subtle, ways.

Most of the attention both in the article and surrounding it has focused on the broader American culture, histories of black political participation, and the reasons why Obama has largely declined to discuss race at all during his presidency. I find that interesting, but I find it interesting less as an endpoint of discussion and more as the setting for a bigger topic: politicians' quest for political survival. Coates plays around with this a bit in the essay, and ends up critical of Obama for not directly taking on difficult issues regarding race in America. But in the interview above, Coates admits that while this makes him angry it is almost surely the correct decision. That is, if Coates' argument about current race dynamics in American politics is true, then Obama could not gain or maintain power by emphasizing race. Coates concludes -- literally -- by saying that Obama's supporters in the African American community (and elsewhere) understand this, so they are willing to overlook or at least forgive his inaction on issues they care about.

In ending the essay there Coates missed an opportunity to have a broader discussion about the politics of reform and change. Because this issue is not limited to Obama, nor to race. It affects all politics, and all politicians. Coates' mission in writing the article was to comment on race in American politics as it relates specifically to Obama, and he did a good job in that, but thinking more broadly can help us identify similar dynamics elsewhere. It can also prevent us from making conclusions like this one, the only part of the essay in which Coates deals directly with foreign policy:

The political consequences of race extend beyond the domestic. I am, like many liberals, horrified by Obama’s embrace of a secretive drone policy, and particularly the killing of American citizens without any restraints. A president aware of black America’s tenuous hold on citizenship, of how the government has at times secretly conspired against its advancement—a black president with a broad sense of the world—should know better. Except a black president with Obama’s past is the perfect target for right-wing attacks depicting him as weak on terrorism. The president’s inability to speak candidly on race cannot be bracketed off from his inability to speak candidly on every­thing. Race is not simply a portion of the Obama story. It is the lens through which many Americans view all his politics.
Italics added. This may indeed be true, but it doesn't have to be true to explain Obama's behavior. It is well established that Republicans "own" foreign policy as an issue; that is, voters tend to believe that Republicans manage foreign affairs better than Democrats. This was true before Obama, and it will likely be true after Obama. The question is whether they'd trust a black Democratic president less than a white Democratic president. This is a different question than any Coates asks, and he can't answer it. (Note that Obama is up 12 points over Romney on foreign policy.)

And even if it is true, we don't know how this would motivate Obama toward more aggressive behavior. After all, if Obama wanted to be seen as "getting tough on terrorism" there are more public ways of doing that than sending flying robots over remote parts of Yemen to take out individuals that Americans have never heard of.

What we do know is that, whatever his race, Obama has an incentive to consolidate power. We know that he has done very little to roll back the expanse of executive power conceived during the Bush administration, and has continued that expansion in at least some areas. We know -- as Coates says in the interview -- that Obama's first motivation is to win elections. Unless he first does that nothing else is possible. There are many bones to pick with selectorate theory, but at its core it's pretty hard to deny that the logic of political survival is sound at its core. So if we were hoping to explain why Obama has chosen to expand the drone program, continue assassinations of questionable legality, renege on his campaign promise to close military prisons, further derail the Doha round, and violate Pakistan's sovereignty in pursuit of bin Laden -- all policies that would have been likely under a McCain presidency, much less that of another Democrat such as Hillary Clinton -- Occam's Razor would dictate that we rely less on race dynamics than Coates suggests, even if that is precisely where we should look to explain Obama's actions in other policy areas.

In other words, the fact that Obama is a black president in a country with a complicated past (and present) of racial politics might go some distance in explaining why Obama say less about race than any other Democratic president since 1960. But to make that explanation cohere we can't just leave it at that and then complain, as Coates does, that "a total submission to [prejudiced voters] is a disservice to the country". What matters is that Obama wants to keep power, and he'll do what he needs to do to keep it. Service to the country, which means nothing at all when stripped of its normative assumptions especially in this context, is not Obama's concern.*

What does this mean? It means that while Obama may be different from every other American president in one respect, he is exactly the same as his predecessors in another. It is the latter fact that best explains his presidency, including his approach to racial politics, and not the former.

*And if "service to the country" could mean anything with any substance, "total submission" to the voters -- whether prejudiced or not -- seems like the most likely candidate to me.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Plan B and the Euro(pean) Debt Crisis

. Monday, August 13, 2012

A former student asks: "I've been a staunch euro-break-up skeptic. What are your thoughts?"--and linked to an Economist piece that argues that "For the moment, breaking up the euro would be more expensive than trying to hold it together. But if Europe just keeps on arguing, that calculation will change." The piece evaluates two scenarios for breaking up the euro--one throws out the Greeks and the second throws out most of Club Med. This so-called "Plan B" would "save the euro by surgery, excising states that cannot cope rather than clinging to the vain hope that they can regain their health within the euro zone."

Here are my thoughts. I see no problem in the EU that breaking up the euro solves. There are two solutions to the EU's debt problem. Either Club Med services the debt, or the northern countries "forgive" it. Currency arrangements have nothing to do with either solution. Let me elaborate.

1. The problem in the EU is debt. Club Med states owe too much to their northern partners. Some is sovereign debt, some is private debt. Take Greece or Spain or Portugal or Italy (or all of them) out of the euro and what do you have left? Debt: Club Med states owe too much to their northern partners. German banks and French banks face the same challenges regardless of currency arrangements.

2. Pushing Club Med out of euroland would simply substitute currency crises for the present bond market unrest. We would not see greater stability in such arrangements than we see at present. We would simply see a different target (currency pegs) (does anyone think Club Med would free float?). And we would see no more stability because the central problem (debt) would remain.

3. I suppose that nominal currency devaluation is what people have in mind when they advocate the breakup of euroland. With their own currencies, Club Med states can devalue and with cheaper domestic goods export more (and import less). And being able to export more will free up resources for debt service. Yet, European leaders long ago ceased to believe that small open economies can achieve a real devaluation via a nominal devaluation. In fact, it was precisely this that justified much of the political economic rationale for the EMS in the 1980s (and then EMU in the 1990s). Devalue and export to prosperity didn't work for Italy in the 1970s and is unlikely to work for Greece in the 2010s. And even if governments could achieve a real devaluation in this way, one must still worry about relative elasticities--does the extra export revenue generated by a real devaluation more than offset the higher debt service cost resulting from higher interest rates and dearer foreign currency?

5. At the end of the day, the EU crisis will end the way all debt crises end: through debt restructuring that is painful for creditors and austerity measures that are painful for debtors. The only issue is how the costs will be distributed between the debtor and creditor. The fact that EU solutions must be negotiated among umpteen governments ensures that this distribution will take far too long to reach and will claim far more innocent victims than it should. (See Dissolution of Yugoslavia).

Sunday, August 12, 2012

Why Paul Ryan Doesn't Matter

. Sunday, August 12, 2012

This has nothing to do with ideology. It is equally true if your politics are from the right, left, or middle. Paul Ryan's nomination by the Republican Party as the candidate for Vice President of the United States almost certainly means nothing of any significance. Or, at minimum, it almost certainly means nothing of any significance that we could possibly know right now. You may all read this post as my attempt to get everyone to shut up about this so my e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, RSS, and news browsing are no longer cluttered with trite discussions of Paul Ryan.

Let's start by trying to figure out why it could matter that Paul Ryan is the GOP nominee for vice president versus almost any other plausible person. We know that vice presidential nominees have very little effect on electoral outcomes, so that can't be it. Another possibility is that Ryan's policy preferences are different from Romney's policy preferences: the former is to the right of the latter and, as PM noted in a post that inspired this one, historically there is a roughly 30% chance that a vice president will serve as president due to the president's incapacitation, death, or resignation. If your own policy preferences are to the right of Romney's, you like the fact that Ryan is to the right of Romney. Perhaps he can influence Romney a bit. Or, in the event of Romney's incapacitation, you'd rather have someone from the right ascend to the presidency. Flip all that if your preferences are to the left of Romney's. Since one group is pleased by this possibility and the other chagrined, that must be an important difference, right?

Wrong. I'm sure Ryan and Romney's ideal points are somewhat different. I don't think their ideal points are all that far apart, but let's say they're distinguishable enough that it constitutes a qualitative difference in preferences over outcomes such that we would be able to tell the difference between them in a dictatorship. We still won't be able to in a parliamentary democracy that looks like ours looks. Here's why:

If Ryan is to Romney's right, then a Ryan presidency would be exactly indistinguishable from a Romney presidency under the following condition: the median voter in the House or Senate will be to the left of both of them on every issue of difference between them. This condition is almost certainly met. Differences over outcomes under their respective presidencies could occur only if the status quo ante is in between their ideal points and to the right of the median voter in both the House and Senate. In that case policy could move towards the middle in a Romney presidency and would be stuck in a Ryan presidency.

I hear some of you saying already that the median voter model is too simplistic to capture reality. I would respond in several ways:

1. It's much more complicated than simply noting that their ideal points are different and assuming that that matters;

2. Median voter models work pretty well when the voters possess lots of information and are more-or-less required to participate, as in the legislative process;

3. There is some pivotal voter in the House and Senate capable of constraining Ryan and Romney, and that person is almost certainly to the left of both of them on every significant issue;

4. Point #3 means that a median voter model likely stacks the deck in favor of the argument that any difference between Ryan and Romney is significant when compared to the real world: consider that for this not to be true, under the cloture rule the 60th most-liberal senator -- i.e. the 40th least conservative senator -- would have to be more conservative than Romney. The most recent data suggests that person at present is probably Ben Nelson (D-NE) or Olympia Snowe (RINO-ME), neither of whom are to the right of Romney on any notable issue that I know of.

Of these, #1 is inarguable, #2 is irrelevant if #3 is true, and if #3 is not true, then you should be ambivalent between Romney and Obama (and no one but me seems to be). #4 just drives home #3. So either the difference between Ryan and Romney doesn't matter or the difference between Romney and Obama doesn't matter. Which of those seems more likely to you?

Keep in mind that this only holds for issues in which the legislature plays a major role in setting policy. The president has more unilateral authority over foreign policy than domestic policy, so perhaps there are meaningful differences between Ryan and Romney there. The problem here is twofold: first, foreign policy doesn't map all that well onto a left-right ideological map; second, we don't really know what either Ryan or Romney really think about foreign policy. They might be close together; they might be far apart. Romney might be more hawkish than Ryan. We don't know. Saying that some unknown quantity might be different from some other unknown quantity would be right, but we can't do any comparative analysis on two unknown quantities so we have nothing interesting to say on the topic. Moreover, this would be true of almost anyone Romney could conceivably have picked, so again there's nothing interesting about Ryan per se.

The final argument is that nominating Ryan this election cycle gives him a leg up towards the nomination in future election cycles. Note that since the GOP will nominate someone in future cycles, this changes nothing about points #1-4 above.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

IR Theory

. Saturday, August 11, 2012

-- Phil Arena has written a new post on it. Every time he does it's a must-read. This is the must-readest yet.

-- Dan Nexon and Patrick Thaddeus Jackson have a podcast on it. I haven't listened to it yet, as I'm at a conference this weekend, but I'm sure it will be good. I bit at PTJ's heels a bit when he posted at DoM on the subject, so I might have more to say later.

I'm at a conference on public choice. I'm hoping it will engage me on a number of levels, including blog-worthy topics. I'm already pondering one on how Tyler Cowen's recent focus on trust as essential for economic development may be (or may not be) related to Charles Tilly.

More later, time permitting.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

It's Not Just the Data; It's Also the Model

. Wednesday, August 8, 2012

I was recently hired to teach a short course on quantitative methods to a firm that contracts with the Federal government. It was a good experience for me on a number of levels. First, it required me to go back through all my notes and "re-learn" a lot of methodological approaches that I was taught but don't frequently employ. Second, despite minoring in methodology at grad school I'd never taught a methods course. Third, I'd never taught a course in this format -- roughly 32 hours of instruction over 4 days -- at all. Plus I got paid. So a good experience.

It also means that a lot of issues related to data and statistical modeling are in the front of my mind, so when I saw posts from Matt Yglesias and Noah Smith on possibilities and problems for economists looking to do empirical work using quantitative methods it sparked a few responses.

First, both Yglesias and Smith are correct that it isn't enough to just mine data. Yglesias mentions that, under the arbitrary but common decision-rule for inference that social scientists employ, generally without thinking because of a convention that has nothing to do with social inquiry and which is neither scientific nor especially rigorous, we're willing to be wrong 5% of the time.

But I do worry sometimes that social sciences are becoming an arena in which number crunching sometimes trumps sound analysis. Given a nice big dataset and a good computer, you can come up with any number of correlations that hold up at a 95 percent confidence interval, about 1 in 20 of which will be completely spurious. But those spurious ones might be the most interesting findings in the batch, so you end up publishing them! 
This doesn't concern me that much in general, but Yglesias' next point concerns me quite a lot:
[T]here's also the problem of Milton Friedman's thermostat. Take a room with a furnace that's regulated by a really good thermostat. Your data is going to show that the amount of fuel burned by the furnace is uncorrelated with the temperature in the room. Thus you'll discover that burning fossil fuels doesn't cause heat. Oooops!
What this problem illustrates has nothing to do with data or with statistical analysis per se. After all, Friedman could come to the same wrong conclusion simply by sitting in his room and looking at each month's power bill. Some months the bill goes up, some months the bill goes down, but the room always feels the same. Friedman could then, without any statistical analysis at all, come to the same erroneous conclusion about the relationship between fossil fuel consumption and temperature inside his room.

The problem is in the model. Friedman's example suggests that a univariate model -- burning fossil fuels causes temperature changes -- is insufficient when there are other variables -- the thermostat, the temperature outside the room -- involved in the causal process. Similarly, an additive model will give false results if the relationships between variables are conditioned by the presence or absence of other variables. The difficulty is that, contrary to the assumption underlying the most commonly-used statistical models, we do not have perfect information regarding the data-generating process. Therefore we will never know if we have included the correct variables in our model. There is no statistical test for this.

There are many approaches to overcoming this problem. The inductive approach encourages gathering as much data as it can and mining it to look for correlations. Yes, some of them will be spurious but most won't be. And, contrary to the impression Yglesias gives, there are methods short of randomized controlled experiments that can help us determine which correlations are spurious and which are robust. None of them are perfect but all of them are better than chucking out statistical analysis entirely.

The data mining approach is fundamentally atheoretical. As Yglesias notes, sometimes we'll get very robust correlations that have nothing to do with causality. The canonical (fake) example of this is the finding that ice cream consumption causes crime, but there are many real-world examples of it, particularly in epidemiology research. Social scientists, however, try to get around this problem by developing theory about the phenomena of interest, deriving hypotheses from this theory, and then using statistical (or other) methods to evaluate whether the hypotheses can be eliminated. Thus the model is determined by theory: if we were trying to explain fluctuations in crime rates and had no theoretical reason to include ice cream consumption in our model, then we wouldn't include it in our model. Or, to bring this back to Yglesias, if we think that the temperature of the room is caused by fossil fuel consumption as regulated by a thermostat, then we would include both the fuel consumption and the thermostat in our model. Typically the way this is done is by estimating the average size of the effect of variable x on outcome y, while allowing for "random" -- i.e. unmodeled and therefore unexplained -- variance in y, which we call the "residual" and denote e.

This brings us to Smith's post. Much development in econometrics has concerned e. Without getting too wonky, if there are systematic processes operating within e then it is not random and our model has major problems. So methodologists have spent a lot of time trying to "fix" e, by which I mean making it resemble a "random" process even when it isn't. Fixing e is fine is what we're primarily interested in is predicting the central tendency of y. But simply fixing e is not fine at all if what we're interested in understanding what causes y.

This gets into Smith's criticism about economics. Often, economists find some factor that they either can't measure or can't explain but that nevertheless seems to have an important causal impact on outcomes like economic growth or the wealth of nations. Frequently they'll give a name to this -- such as "total factor productivity" -- despite the fact that they don't really know what it is:
This residual represents how productive capital and labor are, which is why we call it "total factr productivity" (TFP). What determines TFP? It could be "human capital". It could be technology. It could be institutions like property rights, corporate governance, etc. It could be government inputs like roads, bridges, and schools. It could be taxes and regulations. It could be land and natural resources. It could be some complicated function of a country's position in global supply chains. It could be a country's terms of trade. It could be transport costs and urban agglomeration. It could be culture. It could be inborn racial superpowers. It could be God, Buddha, Cthulhu, or the Flying Spaghetti Monster. It could be an ironic joke by the vast artificial intelligences that govern the computer simulation that generates our "reality", putting their metaphorical thumb on the scales because they are bored underpaid research assistants with nothing better to do.
A similar thing happens with "institutions" in economics. Again, the issue is not with the data. It's with the model. More specifically, it's with the theory from which the model is derived. Put more precisely, any approach that focus on fixing e rather than modeling the processes that are happening within it has no theory. When we "label the residual", as Smith puts it, we might think we are doing theory because we now have things to say about "institutions" or "total factor productivity", but really we are just defining the problem away using new terminology. In fact what we are doing is omitting relevant variables from our analysis and then concluding that we've solved the problem!

There are many problems with this, some of which Smith notes. For one thing this can lead to "semantic bias" (Smith's term), which in turn can lead us to all sorts of wrong intuitions about the way the world works. Political science is far from immune from these same problems*, but I think the problems are even bigger in economics, particularly when economists shift from academic exercise to policy prescription. Quite often economists neglect politics entirely -- i.e. they leave them in e -- when modeling economic outcomes. This is, as I put it once, like re-arranging the furniture for a party with no invited guests... perhaps interesting academically, but not  helpful for much else. It's also very likely to lead to a biased model.

The solution is not, as Friedman seemingly suggests, to just stop doing statistical analysis. It's to do better statistical analysis, in conjunction with better theory and better operationalizations of key variables. It's to try to improve the model rather than fix the residual, and to specify exactly what we do and don't know.

*The most common instance of this phenomenon is to use "regime type" as an explanatory variable in comparative studies. Sometimes this might make sense, but most commonly it's just dumped into a model with little theoretical justification and almost no interpretive value.

Monday, August 6, 2012

How the Fed Is Constrained

. Monday, August 6, 2012

Blogging has been light as Real Work has pressed, but there is something I don't want to let go. Dan Nexon linked to this post and asked:

The question remains, however, what mechanisms translate [the] pressure [on Bernanke] into constraint [preventing more aggressive monetary policy]?
It's a very good question. I think I've answered it over the past few years, but spread across a number of posts. So it's worth spelling out the mechanisms that could be operating. Some of these are supported by academic literature, some of them are more speculative. I could go into much greater detail on each of these, and have in the past, but I'll try to keep each point brief for now. So:

1. One constraint comes from the Fed itself. That is, Bernanke is not a dictator... he's a chairman of a corporation. This gives him quite a lot of latitude, but not omnipotence. The Fed has a Board of Governors, not all of whom are academics, and the strong norm is to operate by consensus at least as much as is possible. In addition, there are Presidents of the twelve regionals banks that constitute the Federal Reserve System and they also have influence. Remember: a big function of the Fed is to not freak everybody out. If major disagreements within the institution become public, everyone could get freaked out. So Bernanke, as the leader of this institution, may be willing to accept a somewhat sub-optimal outcome if he believes than an even more sub-optimal outcome is likely to obtain if he chooses to hold no prisoners. Central bankers aren't like op-ed writers (or bloggers)... their decisions actually matter. I imagine there is a strong bias against killing the patient that may sometimes preclude aggressive treatment.

2. Another pressure comes from Congress, an institution which has recently blocked the appointment of a Nobel Prize winning economist because he (supposedly) lacked sufficient qualifications for the job. This pressure has, in turn, hamstrung the White House. For much of the last few years the Fed has been understaffed at senior levels, as the Obama administration tried to figure out who they could nominate that would a) be approved by Congress; b) not attract the ire of the progressives who were already upset that the neoliberal wing of the Democratic party -- Summers, Geithner, etc. -- held such sway. This led to the Fed Board of Governors to have persistent vacancies until this past May. Keep in mind that Congress oversees the Fed, and right now the committee charged with that task is helmed by Ron Paul, who wants to abolish the institution and has passed a law through the House to audit the Fed. As I mentioned in my previous post, Republicans in Congress oppose further stimulus by the Fed and Democrats are quiet on the issue. Bernanke's last reappointment vote was the most contentious since three decades, and that was before the Tea Party's 2010 electoral success. In short, the Fed is in a principal-agent relationship with Congress, and this fact is salient. All else equal, the Fed would like to protect its autonomy. (Although, ironically, this discussion suggests that it has no real autonomy.)

3. Much is said about the Fed's dual mandate -- to maintain low and steady inflation while promoting full employment -- but the Fed actually has a triple mandate: those two plus regulation of the commercial banking system. Previous research has shown that locating regulatory authority in the central bank biases monetary policymaking in favor of banks. To some extent, both the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement arose in direct protest against this dynamic, although it wasn't articulated very well. More recently, the Fed has come under fire over the JPMorganChase losses and the LIBOR scandal. Faced with populist opposition from both the right and the left, one could understand why the Fed might choose to shoot for the middle: prevent unemployment from skyrocketing but don't risk any spike in inflation; stabilize the banking sector but don't do much to help repair household balance sheets via an erosion of the real value of household liabilities -- which are, of course, bank assets.

4. Additionally, in an important sense the Fed is the central bank of the world. It acted as a global lender of last resort during the crisis, it injected liquidity into the global monetary system by opening up swap lines with every major central bank, and it's quantitative easing programs have reverberated through the global economy. The Fed, therefore, may be constrained by needing to maintain global stability. In pursuit of this, perhaps, the Fed is willing to accept a somewhat slower recovery in the U.S. in exchange for a reduction in international economic (and political) volatility.

5. The Fed has intellectual biases of its own. This is related to #1 and #3, but deserves its own point. The Fed's experience in the 1970s and 1980s was that it is better to keep inflation low over the long term than to try to correct every uptick in unemployment. The Fed's experience in the 1990s was that if it prevented collapses in the financial sector than than full employment would come more or less naturally. The result is that the Fed knows how to keep inflation low, and can stabilize a faltering financial system, but it's not as good at keeping unemployment low. Moreover, it's only tool to do so is indirect: pump cash into the banking system in the hopes that they'll lend. Not only do politicians on the right and left oppose this for ideological reasons, some members of the Fed appear to believe that many of the economic problems in the country are structural rather than cyclical. If the Fed believes that the economy needs to adapt structurally, it might not pursue policies that could help lower unemployment even if they thought they would be successful. Better to manage the needed adjustment than to prevent it from occurring. Folks like Krugman and Sumner have been arguing vehemently against this view for years, but that doesn't mean that some Fed members don't feel that way. (Keep in mind, too, that Fed policy tends to be more relaxed during Republican administrations.)

To my knowledge there is no good literature on #1. David Singer has done a good work on #2, including this book, and on #3 with this article (with Mark Copelovitch). I'm also doing some research on #3, currently R&R. I don't know of much recent published work describing #4 (although I know some folks are researching it now), but Charles Kindleberger described the dynamic in The World In Depression. I've also blogged about it a lot over the years [e.g. 1, 2, 3, 4, 5]. As linked above, Christopher Gandrud is doing some research with Cassandra Grafstrom on Fed partisanship.

I Can't Believe I'm Defending Waltz


Over at the Duck of Minerva, Patrick Porter takes issue with Kenneth Waltz's argument that it would be no horrible thing if Iran got the Bomb. Read those before you read this...

... So Porter's right about the trembling hand. But I don't think he's being fair to Waltz (and I'm not generally inclined to give Waltz the charitable reading, but the old man has a few points that Porter hasn't dealt with).

1. We're in probabilistic territory here. The question is not "would a nuclear exchange be horrible" or even "would the pursuit of more advanced weapons exacerbate some already-existing tensions". The question is "is the likelihood of bad outcomes higher or lower if Iran gets the bomb, relative to other feasible counterfactuals". In other words, we need to specify values for two variables: the probabilities for nuclear conflict and conventional conflict, and the likely cost of those conflicts. This is hard, but it's really the whole exercise. Suppose, over the next two decades, that there was a 1% chance of 10 million deaths from a nuclear exchange involving Iran, and a 30% chance of 1 million deaths from a conventional war involving Iran. If we had to choose between the two, we'd have to accept the possibility of a nuclear exchange as being objectively better. We don't get to choose "none of the above"... that's Waltz's point. Maybe you'd assign different probabilities and/or different costs to those outcomes, but the point is that Waltz is forcing us to be precise. It's not enough to just say "nuclear war would be horrible".

That's the whole reason why Waltz keeps citing India/Pakistan. Porter writes: "In the wake of 9/11, a Pakistani army general warned India that his country could launch a rapid nuclear attack, telling Alastair Campbell to remind the Indians: ‘It takes us eight seconds to get the missiles over.’ If this volatile frontier is a signpost of things to come in the Gulf, then the future is dark."

How so? It's been a decade since then, with no significant casualties. Tensions now are lower than they were before both states went nuclear, and the trend is in a positive direction. How is that a "dark future" relevant to feasible alternative scenarios?

2. Regarding missing Armageddon through luck... yes. And I agree that the trembling hand is not to be taken lightly. But it is not only present in nuclear exchange. Nuclear conflicts may be more likely to escalate more quickly than conventional wars -- although we don't really know, since it hasn't ever happened -- but other conflicts still escalate. Waltz's argument, which must be taken seriously, is that the very severity of a nuclear exchange mitigates the effect of the trembling hand. To use Porter's examples of close calls, the Soviet officers worked hard to dissuade their commander from firing nukes just in case it was a false alarm. The Kennedy administration held back in 1962 just in case there might be nuclear retaliation. They did these things precisely because nuclear war would be so horrible that they didn't want to chance it. At every knife-edge point we've had someone has made the decision that a nuclear holocaust would not be initiated by him. At every chance, the trembling hand has pulled back from the button. That observation does not mean that we'll always be so lucky, but it does imply that luck isn't the only factor in operation.

3. Suppose you disagree with my #1, and think that the probability of a nuclear exchange and/or the costs of one are higher than I've put down. If that is the case, then aren't you required to advocate for a pre-emptive strike against Iran? One can't have things both ways... either the risk of a nuclear Iran is acceptable or it is not. Porter doesn't make it clear where he stands on this question. But to criticize Waltz -- who does make it clear where he stands -- he must. Porter leaves the impression that Waltz is being flippant, but I don't think that he is. Waltz is making calculations. They may be "ahistorical" -- in fact they must be, since there is no history of mutual nuclear exchange -- and they may be based on Waltz's gut, but they are calculations nonetheless.

Waltz is right about one thing: there is a correlation between nuclear capability and peace. Perhaps the correlation is spurious. Perhaps not. But it is correlation, and it can't just be dismissed.

International Political Economy at the University of North Carolina: August 2012




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