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Sweetening a peace

I. Introduction

In the West, there’s a debate between those who think the Ukraine war should simply be vigorously supported until Ukraine wins a decisive military victory and Russia is further weakened, and those like me, who think that some kind of a peace should be arranged immediately, with remaining conflicting claims and aims to be resolved through negotiation. It is not really an answer to say the Ukranians should decide. Of course they, and Russia, ultimately do decide. But those decisions cannot help but be affected by the views of partners whose support is essential now and will become the basis of Ukraine’s reconstruction, whether or not provision of support is made explicitly contingent. One way or another, “the West” is and will be involved in decisions that surround resolving to fight or seeking a peace.

Those of us who’d like to see an urgent settlement are immediately presented with a pretty damning question: How much of their country are the Ukrainians supposed to give up for your peace? On deontological grounds, the answer should be “none” — Ukraine is entitled to all of its internationally recognized territory, including Crimea. On consequentialist grounds, settling for nothing less than a certain, immediate recovery of everything might mean years of destruction, bloodshed, and impoverishment, would risk a broader, even more terrible war, and might not ever succeed. Before the Bucha atrocities were known, and before the Russian cruiser Moskva was sunk, Ukraine and Russia seemed close to terms for some kind of peace that “set aside” certain territorial questions, or maybe would defer them to some distant referendum. A compromise between consequentialism and deontology was on the table. But Ukrainian outrage and the wounded pride of Russia’s military apparently put an end to those talks.

II. Not Munich, not anymore

I don’t have an answer to the question of what Ukraine should or shouldn’t accept to avoid the carnage of continuing war. I do strongly believe that the interest of the West, and indeed of all the world, is in the shortest conflict possible. Crimea 2014 may have been Munich, but Ukraine 2022 will not be. Far from grabbing territory on the cheap, any territorial gains they achieve will be minimal, and won at a high cost in blood, materiel, and prestige. Rather than preventing a broader mobilization by antagonistic powers, Russia has guaranteed one, as the Eastern flank of NATO will now be heavily militarized. This war may leave Russia aggrieved or ruthlessly determined for revenge, but it will not be emboldened by a belief that it can invade neighbors cheaply and escape consequences for aggression. It is continued grievance, not ebullient confidence, that might render Russia a danger following a peace.

The West’s interest, then, should be to seek a peace that is good for Ukraine and diminishes Russian grievance and isolation. US Secretary of Defense Austin emphasized in remarks diminishment of capacity, but without diminishment of grievance that is at best a short-sighted. Russia is a large, resource-rich, nuclear power, with trade and military relationships that continue throughout the world. We’ve not been able to isolate North Korea enough to prevent dangerous militarization. Over even a medium term, we won’t be able to prevent a determined Russia from rearming. As we reach for World War analogies, it’s Versailles much more than Munich that should trouble us now.

III. Acknowledge multipolarity

Russia ought not be permitted to “win” in the sense of amputating much of Ukraine, but it ought not be defeated in a manner that leaves it isolated, aggrieved, and vengeful. Are there ways this war could end that would leave Ukraine whole but Russia in some sense satisfied and reintegrable into Europe?

I think that there are. There’s an opportunity in the fact that, from Russia’s very public perspective, this war is as much about punching back at a putatively domineering West as it is about achieving goals within Ukraine. I do not think Russia’s complaints about its own treatment by the West are particularly justified. Western powers were quite conciliatory towards Russia, until its 2014 annexation of Crimea and fomenting of separatism in Eastern Ukraine. Remember the 2009 “reset”?

Russia, however, perceives itself as a great power, and it is fair to say that Western powers did not treat it as one. We simply ignored Russian objections to military operations in Serbia, Iraq, and Libya. We had “statesmen” publicly dismiss Russia as a “gas station masquerading as a country”.

To a large extent, this war seems to be motivated by Russia’s desire to be recognized as at least an equal of the nations that have insulted and ignored it, especially the United States. (Go back and read your Fukuyama!) Recognition as an equal is something we can give in a peace settlement while betraying no territory or value.

Russian media accidentally published a weird, triumphalist statement a few days after the war began, written on the assumption that Russia would have achieved a rapid and complete victory. The statement concludes:

A multipolar world has finally become a reality… China and India, Latin America and Africa, the Islamic world and Southeast Asia – no one believes that the West leads the world order, much less sets the rules of the game. Russia has not only challenged the West, it has shown that the era of Western global domination can be considered completely and finally over.

The new world will be built by all civilizations and centers of power, naturally, together with the West (united or not) – but not on its terms and not according to its rules.

There is nothing objectionable in the idea that all must work together and have a hand in ordering the world. “The West”, and the United States, should openly and publicly welcome that. We have sometimes flouted them in practice, unfortunately, but those ideas formed the basis for the rules-based order and multilateral institutions we strived to craft after World War II.

There are and perhaps always will be real power differentials in the world, so some states will in practice have more sway than others. Russia, for example, has a military presence in Syria protecting port access to the Mediterranean that it craves. Very few countries have any sort of arrangement like that. When there is a civil dispute in Kazakhstan, Russia intervenes, but not vice versa.

De facto power is unequally distributed, a circumstance that Russia, the United States, and other powerful states, take advantage of. But at a normative level, we want to be a world of equals, all of whom work together to define our collective future. And at a practical level, we should all seek to create a more equal world, but one that extends the security that has been enjoyed by only a portion of the world to inhabitants of all nations, rather than one that extends insecurity to all.

A settlement with Russia could include a statement signed by, say, the American President and the leader of NATO affirming that the “world will be built by all civilizations and centers of power, naturally, together with the West (united or not) – but not on its terms and not according to its rules.” Russia might not have succeeded at its territorial aims, but it would have struck a blow against The Man, while the cost to Western powers would be simply to affirm aspirations that we all share.

IV. Recommit to the UN

More concretely, we could use the Ukraine settlement to acknowledge that the era of unilateralism in addressing global security challenges has proved a failure, and we must recommit to a multilateralism centered around a UN process. That process must be reformed to be more accountable, and less afflicted by the paralysis that provoked the United States and NATO to circumvent it in the first place. The catastrophic consequences of interventions in Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan, as well as Syria and Ukraine, have proven that letting independent powers or “coalitions of the willing” freelance global security invites accidents, abuses, and disputes. But the conditions that left the world helpless to prevent the catastrophes of Rwanda and Bosnia, not to mention the conflicts in Ethiopia and Yemen today, must also be addressed. [*]

V. Mutual regime change

I am absolutely opposed to “regime change” as an ambition of foreign policy. How a polity is to be governed is a matter for its own citizens to decide. However effective or poor a state’s institutions might be at enabling and ensuring consent of the governed, perceived foreign aggression or interference in the process provokes reactionary nationalism that may entrench a bad government and excuse its repression. It seeds mistrust and division that badly damages civil society. Even when it is “successful”, it rarely produces a government with enough legitimacy to govern well. Who is to govern Russia and how is for the Russians to work out.

Unfortunately, given the perception in the West now of Putin as a dangerous and aggressive dictator, it strikes me as unlikely that sanctions will be reversed while he remains Russia’s leader. Sanctions will not yield regime change, any more than they have in Iran or North Korea, and it will be very difficult to reintegrate Russia as a neighbor and friend while Putin remains in power. But a permanent “fortress Russia”, like a North Korea on steriods, is a terrible outcome, for Russia and for the world.

I think people in Russia quietly understand this dilemma. Perhaps even Mr. Putin himself does. But surrendering to a demand of regime change by hostile foreign powers is a humiliation, politically unthinkable.

What if, however, a settlement were to require mutual regime change? It would be very simple. What if Russia’s President Putin, Ukraine’s President Zelenskiy, and perhaps even America’s President Biden all agreed not to stand for a further term of office? That would be a kind of mutual recognition that existing leadership failed to preserve the peace and good relations, and a very terrible catastrophe occurred on their watch. It would constitute a remarkable act of statesmanship by each President. For democracies like Ukraine and the United States, regime change is regularized in the form of term-limited elections. Russia would, by its institutions formal and informal, work out its own succession.

There would be a risk that Putin would choose his own successor, perhaps a person still under his effective control. But there would also be a strong national interest in choosing a new government not so abhorrent to Russia’s neighbors that ending the country’s forced isolation remains impossible. A new government in Russia would be a true reset, a new hope for a warm peace rather than a cold war on the Eurasian continent, “from Lisbon to Vladivostok”. And that, according to former President Dmitry Medvedev, was one of Russia’s objectives in the war.

VI. Sanctions relief

The most straightforward sweetener of all is sanctions relief. Putin allegedly discounted the threat of sanctions in his decision to go to war, because he views Western powers as so implacably hostile that whatever sanctions his invasion might provoke would eventually have been imposed in any case. There was then little to lose in “striking first”.

I would like to see the West prove his thesis of permanent hostility wrong, and quickly reopen to Russia when a settlement is reached. If there is a change of government, failing to do so would unhelpfully validate Putin’s paranoia. For some period of time, the West will probably maintain controls on exports of dual-use technology to Russia, but as relations normalize and improved, hopefully those too can be loosened.

VII. An extended hand

In general, I think it is critical that Western leaders remind the Russian public that we will not hold a grudge against the people for their leader’s awful choice. We must express hope and optimism that Russians can become full fledged members of a Europe, a Eurasia, whole and at peace. This is a moment where love must temper judgment.

Whatever complicity you want to attribute to ordinary Russians for their failure to stop their leaders or their acquiescence to a ginned-up chauvinism, preventing or disrupting this war — under conditions of great risk and repression, when Vladimir Putin was resolved to prosecute it — would have been an extraordinary challenge. Given the risk, the degree of public protest and dissent has been astonishing. Perhaps there is room to offer the Russian public some credit for that. It would be a good outcome if nearly all Russians look back to this time and see themselves as having quietly been objectors, regardless of whether or not you think that is true.

VIII. Embrace Ukraine

Sweetening a peace is not just for Russia, but especially for Ukraine. Ukraine is the country being bombed and shelled and shot, whose people have been displaced and so much worse. Peace itself will be a profound reward for Ukraine. But with any settlement that is not complete and total victory, the sweetness will be tinged with the bitterness of terrible injustice and loss. Ukraine’s friends and partners should help ensure the most delicious peace possible for the country. Ukraine’s accession to the EU should be accelerated, and that should only be the beginning.

IX. Marshall plans

Europe and the United States should jointly provide extraordinary investment in Ukraine’s reconstruction, a new Marshall Plan. No doubt this investment will be expensive, but Ukraine is owed the support for its role and extraordinary valor in protecting the Europe’s postwar order.

If there is new leadership in Russia, a Marshall Plan should be undertaken there as well. The value of preventing the emergence of a vast, hypernuclear North Korea would far exceed the cost of the investment, as it did with Germany after World War II. Russia is a state beset with the “resource curse”, the infamous phenomenon whereby resource rich countries prove liable to corruption and difficult to govern well. It would be wonderful if a new investment program for Russia would look to neighbor Norway, among the most successful countries in the world at managing resource wealth for the benefit of its citizens.

X. Conclusion

All of this may sound difficult and unlikely, perhaps absurdly idealistic. But please consider the alternatives. Perhaps Russia’s nuclear saber rattling is just that, and there is no great medium-term threat. I am far, far from comfortable with that risk, but let’s say. What does a world look like over time in which Russia remains aggrieved and isolated, however badly it is beaten in this war? If North Korea and Iran can’t be coercively prevented from rearming over time, can Russia be? In an angry, isolated, still nuclear Russia, can we be confident that some even madder regime won’t emerge? Perhaps the best case scenario is that Russia becomes more comfortably, less bitterly, enmeshed in a reasonably rational, China-led bloc. But is that really likely? And can we do no better than a new cold war, with China and Russia on the other side, as our iffy very best-case scenario?

This war must come to an end quickly not just because every day it continues means death and destruction in Ukraine and risk to human life on all the planet. The war must come to an end quickly because we must start the work of building a future that is hopeful both for Ukraine and for Russia, upon which a hopeful future for the entire world depends. The longer and more bitterly the war drags on, the harder it will be to create that future.

Let’s work to end the war now, and build a durable prosperous peace, for Europe, the Americas, and also for Asia, Africa, the Indo-Pacific. We will always have our rivalries, but we can work together to make them constructive rivalries. We can no longer afford major war, between existing large powers, or with emerging powers like Iran. We cannot keep sleepwalking through history in habitual hostility, until something breaks that threatens all of our lives. We are too powerful to be so reckless and survive. Instead, let’s all survive, and thrive, in peace.


[*] A simple reform would be to impose obligations along with the right to veto upon permanent members of the Security Council. When the Security Council would have approved some action but for one or several permanent members’ veto, the power(s) that exercised the veto would become obliged to take a leadership role in ensuring a humane resolution of the crisis at issue diplomatically, without Council-authorized action. An independent inspector would simultaneously be convened, staffed by appointees of nations that would have acted, to report on and evaluate the vetoers’ diplomatic efforts. The intent of this would be to force vetoing powers at the Security Council if they act to shield their friends (Israel for the US, Serbia for Russia, etc.) to take some responsibility for their friends’ actions after the shielding. Another perhaps overdue reform might be to add a special joint permanent membership for India and Pakistan, so that when those two powers are agreed (and only then), they too have veto power. The world’s most populous nation should be a permanent member. But elevating post-partition India alone would empower one side of ongoing conflicts, for which maintaining some balance at the level of global diplomacy remains important.

Update History:

  • 17-May-2022, 1:40 p.m. PDT: “It is continued grievance, not ebullient confidence, that might render Russia a continuing danger following a peace.” Fix extent of blockquote, which mistakenly incorporated a paragraph of my text.

Love — universal, unilateral, unconditional, urgent

Love is a practical matter. It is the most practical matter. If we do not love, if we do not let love condition our actual behavior, both expressive and material, I fear that we will not survive.

The war in Ukraine is an atrocity. It must end, quickly. There are and have been many other wars, and they too are atrocities that it is to our shame, and my shame, to have tolerated them too distantly. Nevertheless, for all of these conflicts, love is not the answer alone, but it is essential to any durable answer.

In my world as constructed by social media, I see a lot of self-righteous hatred. War becomes permission to hate. Sometimes, it even makes a virtue of hatred, even recasts basic sympathy and affection for the human beings who constitute “the enemy” as betrayal, even treason. That is understandable, more than forgivable, among people under direct assault. It is not virtue even for them, but an excusable vice. For those with the luxury of distance, I think it is less excusable. I am not here to stand in judgment, it is not mine to excuse or not excuse. From what I find in my own heart, my own mind, I know you cannot possibly be worse than me. I only ask that you consider these words as you decide how you will be in this world we all share.

For a war to end before its combatants are completely exhausted, both parties must perceive something valuable, something desirable, in the future post-war. For Russia, as for Ukraine, there ought to be a world to gain. Because the world, in fact, is full of curious, sociable, loving people, and these partitions created by war, or even by smouldering political hostility, are scars upon the heart we all share. Russians should perceive, because it is true, that if these hostilities are overcome there is fellowship in the world more than open to receive them. Iranians should perceive that, Houthis, Americans, Germans, Saudis, Chinese, Tigray, Palestinians, Israelis, everyone.

This is not a claim about policy, or about details of economic engagement. Sanctions, the “economic weapon”, like war create a chasm, and their use should be minimized. But the claim here is not that peace, by enabling liberal free trade, makes everybody rich. Economic collaboration can and should be mutually enriching and so a material form of love. But trade and capital flows if misregulated can also yield coercive labor arrangements, unjust redistributions of wealth, unbalanced movements of activity and opportunity. Countries can and should regulate the terms of their trade, should see to their own and their citizens’ material interests, precisely to ensure that economic collaboration is in fact mutually and broadly beneficial, and therefore a form of love.

Similarly, this is not a claim about “splinternets” or different countries’ approaches to managing cross-border communication. As with economic collaboration, states have a right to regulate communications infrastructure in the service of social and political stability. You and I might prefer liberal democratic free speech norms to be reflected and protected in every form of mass and electronic communication. But not all states are liberal democracies. And even liberal democracies are currently finding it challenging to reconcile an expansive liberalism with the degree of stability necessary to sustain basic well being in a new technological environment. I hope we get better at it. Other polities will make different choices, and that is their prerogative. However, we can all hope for, and work to create conditions that enable, as much permeability and openness as possible, in order to promote interaction and culture and other expressions of love, consistent with states’ legitimate concerns about social stability.

We might see deficiencies, even practices that are deeply abhorrent to our values, in other states. But states are sovereign in a plural world. The people of a state, not outsiders, bear the consequences of revolution or repression. We should hope that beneficial change comes peacefully and gently, in other states as in our own. We can help other states to improve, but only if we do so openly, respectfully, on terms those states accept and allow. Often the best help we can offer is our own example. When our own example is not so compelling, we are unfortunately ill placed to help.

Love is unconditional. It is universal. States have policies, which we may find agreeable or terrible. But we are all impoverished, and endangered, if we let critique of policy or political leadership spill over into disdain for or diminishment of publics. We can always find reasons to hate. Citizens of every country are in some sense complicit in the worst behavior of their states, and no states are innocent of reprehensible behavior. We must love one another anyway. No individuals are free of sin. We must love one another anyway.

Judgment is necessary, but judgment without love is a dangerous vice. It gives us license to harm, punish, coerce, and hate while pretending to do justice. Judgment then becomes a dagger garbed in a costume of virtue. Love must be prior to judgment, and as much as is possible, the consequences of judgment should be inflected with and tempered by love, for victims, for the judged, and for everyone. We seek justice for war crimes, but if a consequence of insisting upon pursuing those crimes is prolonging the war and ensuring more bloodshed and atrocity, is that really justice?

Love is not a commodity in trade. It need not be exchanged. It is beneficial to the lover and the loved regardless of whether it is reciprocated. If we are judging before loving, we are doing a poor job of both. There are people who seem terrible, to us or in general. We must love them, even unilaterally. There are states that do genuinely horrible things. We must love the people even of those states. Love is hard, and it is not a replacement for the practical institutions, from gentle critique to courts to armies, by which we all help regulate one anothers’ behavior. But we must love first, or our regulation will become oppression or carnage.

We must, we must, we must, I say. And who am I, dear reader, to command you, to tell you how you should, how you must, be? I am just a person. These are just my words, offered with respect, offered with love. We are living through difficult and dangerous times. It is my view, just my opinion, that unless we put love before the passions of self righteousness, they may be more difficult and dangerous yet.

Every human has a smile to offer. I love you.

Let’s work together, with love in our hearts, to find and to build a just and durable peace. Quickly.


See also: David French on compassion.

Goodwill to all, and that includes China

I have no social science by which I can back this up, nothing that would qualify as “evidence”, no “receipts”. But I think that goodwill is an important force in human affairs, at individual, group, and national levels. I think it is a virtue in an ethical sense and wise as a practical matter to offer and seek to elicit goodwill.

Machiavelli famously wrote in The Prince:

…it is much safer to be feared than loved, when, of the two, either must be dispensed with. Because this is to be asserted in general of men, that they are ungrateful, fickle, false, cowardly, covetous, and as long as you succeed they are yours entirely; they will offer you their blood, property, life, and children, as is said above, when the need is far distant; but when it approaches they turn against you. And that prince who, relying entirely on their promises, has neglected other precautions, is ruined; because friendships that are obtained by payments, and not by greatness or nobility of mind, may indeed be earned, but they are not secured, and in time of need cannot be relied upon; and men have less scruple in offending one who is beloved than one who is feared, for love is preserved by the link of obligation which, owing to the baseness of men, is broken at every opportunity for their advantage; but fear preserves you by a dread of punishment which never fails.

As usually quoted, the excerpt omits the words that come immediately before:

[W]hether it be better to be loved than feared or feared than loved? It may be answered that one should wish to be both, but, because it is difficult to unite them in one person…

It is not as difficult in a nation, as in one person, to unite both fear and love. That the military of a country is strong and therefore fearsome does not preclude friendly relations with other countries, whether peer or weaker powers. Indeed, in many contexts, what is in a certain sense fear becomes sublimated into a less caustic attribute, respect, which can be mutual. The logic of ordinary deterrence — perhaps others are stronger than we are, but our will and capacity to defend ourselves is sufficient to deter would-be adventurers from imagining some transgression would be painless — is supportive of mutual respect and goodwill. Riffing on Niccolo, love itself cannot endure when opportunity and advantage tempt our counterparts to break the links that bind us. Love and respect, and therefore to a certain degree fear, are complements not substitutes.

I am terrified by the collapse of goodwill between great powers at the current moment. All I can say about the war in Ukraine is that our priority should be to achieve the most minimal terms all parties can live with so that politics can revert to less terrible means. People who perceive opportunity in war are shortsighted.

Beyond this war — we must pray there is a beyond this war — the collapse of goodwill between the United States and China since 2016 has been a catastrophe. As Scott Sumner very effectively points out, while there’s lots to dislike about China’s government, it is the United States that started the current cold war. We lashed out in hostility, blaming China for what in fact were our own poor choices. We should not have allowed, even encouraged, so much of our industrial base to migrate to China, and we certainly ought to work to restore what we have lost. But we had plenty of policy tools that could have prevented the destructive aspects of the “China shock”. We chose not to use them, because we got high on our own supply of a cartoonishly simplistic neoliberal globalization. Free markets and comparative advantage would lead to interdependence, peace, and prosperity. Any attempt by states to manage the process was “protectionism”. However terrible the effects upon domestic publics, they were to be endured. The market knew best, utopia was close at hand, just around the corner after some “trade adjustment”. We failed to look after our own interests, while other governments did look after theirs and so profited from some of our lapses. Durable goodwill depends upon parties setting and enforcing their own boundaries.

We should not revert to 2015 policy in hopes of recovering a relationship of goodwill with China. 2015 policy wasn’t working for us. But we should absolutely, as soon as possible, eliminate all bilateral tariffs against China. Country-specific tariffs are a terrible tool, because they provoke ill-will. They single out a particular country as a bad actor, and discriminate against its goods. There is no reason to do that! When we are concerned about our trade balance — which we absolutely should be, the insouciance towards international balance of the neoliberal period was sheer idiocy — we should intervene in the capital account, taxing purchases of our debt by foreign entities of any nation, on nondiscriminatory terms, and/or interest payments on our debt to foreign entities. By doing so, we can make unbalanced trade as bad a deal as necessary to achieve whatever balance of payments we deem desirable. I have made this case before (I call it “capital account protectionism”). In their magisterial Trade Wars are Class Wars, Matt Klein and Michael Pettis suggest capital controls as one approach the US might use to manage its imbalance (though they suggest accommodating imbalance by expanding public investment rather than private debt might have been an even better approach, a case I’ve made as well).

For the purposes of this essay, the crucial point is that we have more than sufficient tools that are nondiscriminatory across nations to manage our economic and trade concerns. In order to ensure minimal labor standards and prevent forced labor in our supply chains, we can create regulations and a certification bureaucracy (ideally multilateral) to enforce them uniformly, rather than call out some countries but not others for human rights abuses. When there are domains, such as communications infrastructure, that for national security reasons we insist should be produced domestically, we can regulate to require that, without calling other countries’ manufacturers spies or puppets of their state (whether they are or not). Rather than “friendshoring”, as Janet Yellen recently suggested, we should just make geographic diversification of our supply chains a matter of national interest. There’s no need to divide the world into more and less unfriendlies. The fact that some semiconductors are sole-sourced from earthquake and typhoon-prone Pacific rim nations would be a problem even if there weren’t geopolitical terrors laid on top of natural vulnerabilities.

Matt Stoller has a piece today which emphasizes the dangers more than the opportunities of China’s economic ambitions:

In May of 2020, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) declared its economic strategy, using the phrase “dual circulation.” Dual circulation meant fostering a domestic productive apparatus that is independent of foreign technology and finance, while making sure the rest of the world is dependent on Chinese control of key supply chains, whether it’s shipping, railroad construction, electric batteries, or solar panels. Chinese ‘grand economic strategy,’ in other words, is to operate as a giant monopoly on which the rest of the world must rely.

I’m sure this is right. But don’t we, and shouldn’t we, do the same? That is to say, for the same reasons all countries should maintain some degree of military deterrence of invasion, all countries should seek an “autarky option” that may be expensive to exercise, but that in extremis can be exercised in order to limit foreign powers’ ability to coerce them via trade dependencies. Given the international interdependence required to support modern life, most countries will find it impossible to make reversion to autarky cheap. Which is good, because the traditional liberal case for commerce as a foundation of peaceful coprosperity remains strong, as long as the trade occurs mostly on equitable rather than coercive terms. But occasionally, national sovereignty requires defying trade partners, and enduring what costs they impose, as food self-sufficient Iceland demonstrated during the financial crisis or (much less positively) Russia is demonstrating now.

So the first of China’s dual circulations seems like a good aspiration for all countries (albeit more achievable for large countries, or blocs like the EU, than for small states). The second circulation, the ambition to foster dependence of trade partners, ideally to become a monopolist in critical sectors, is not so nice. But it is hardly a Chinese invention. The country that has most frequently and successfully “weaponized interdependence”, as Henry Farrell and Abraham Newman put it, is the United States with its extraterritorial monopoly over the US dollar financial system. In global affairs as in business, I don’t think it’s plausible to demand that ambitious players unilaterally desist from seeking monopoly. Monopoly, with the coercive power it affords over others, is agreeable. Just as states have to be responsible for military deterrence and managing their trade balance, they must ensure domestic or diverse sourcing of important goods. The US should strive to reduce its dependence on Chinese manufactures, just as China should seek to reduce its dependence on US aviation, not because trade in these things is bad, but because for trade in these things to be good, it must occur on noncoercive terms. Sustainable trade relationships are continually voluntary and mutually beneficial.

The United States has no need to impose discriminatory bilateral tariffs, or to adopt a hostile rhetorical posture against China, or any other country for that matter. We have to tools necessary to see to our own interests, and should seek a warm peace and friendship with the people of every country. China does some terrible things. What it is doing with the Uyghurs is horrid, indefensible. But rhetorical hostility does the Uyghurs no good, and we have no effective means of coercing China to change its policy. The best we can do is try to persuade its leaders that there are better ways of addressing whatever problems they think they are addressing. We are more capable of persuasion and assistance as friends than as adversaries. At the moment, and not unusually, we’re using the issue just to snow ourselves. Our current posture of hostility towards China derives from trade disputes and military rivalry in the Asia Pacific, but we imbue it with moral weight by attributing it to human rights and autocracy, even though we overlooked those concerns, from Tiananmen to Tibet, for decades when our elites perceived the trade relationship as more profitable than threatening.

The current hostility between the US and China is mutual. There is no guarantee that any change of posture on our part would lead to a warm reception on theirs. But goodwill, properly understood, is free. It should be offered unilaterally, whether reciprocated eventually or not. Expressing goodwill does not mean sacrificing ones interests. Indeed, it was failing to look after our own interests that led to the recent collapse of the goodwill. Goodwill does mean, rhetorically, expressing warmth, a desire for peace and fruitful intercourse. It means working diplomatically, assiduously and proactively, to find ways of reconciling our interests where they diverge, rather than relying solely on mutual deterrence. It means encouraging interaction at a cultural and personal level, rather than treating foreign nationals presumptively as spies. It means love unconditional, to all the humans of all the nations, at the same time as we do the hard and necessary work of attending to our own interests. It means persuading, but not coercing, others that there might be something decent in our perspectives and values, while remaining open to what’s good in the perspectives and values that they offer to us. Goodwill is not weakness or naiveté. Our foreign policy should offer and seek to cultivate goodwill, sincerely, ostentatiously, and without apology.

Update History:

  • 27-Apr-2022, 10:10 p.m. PDT: “That the military of a country is strong and therefore fearful fearsome does not preclude” (Thanks @keunwoo!)
  • 2-May-2022, 10:15 a.m. PDT: “Janey Janet Yellin” (Thanks commenter Zack!); “…most countries will find it impossible to make reversion to autarky cheap,. Which is good, because…”
  • 17-May-2022, 7:55 p.m. PDT: “Janet YellinYellen” (Thanks commenter Zack again!)

Consensus not censorship

We’ve become obsessed over the past few years with the problem of misinformation. And for good reason. “Flood the zone with shit” is now standard operating procedure for a variety of interests and factions. Groups who pretend to be above that kind of thing let confirmation bias do the same work, elevating conjectures they find convenient to believe far beyond the evidentiary basis for believing them, and transmuting concurrence among prestigious groups whose biases are aligned into “authority” to which they demand deferrence. Casual information consumers become divided into two camps, the “do you own research” types who imagine, mistakenly, that they are capable of seeing through all this (and so succumb to their own confirmation bias), and those who more accurately understand that they cannot reliably distinguish truth from bullshit (and so opt out of democratic deliberation with a shrug, other than perhaps to vote for the candidates whose political party they distrust less).

“Combatting misinformation” has, understandably, become a prominent matter of public concern. I want to argue, however, that it’s the wrong approach. One way or another, trying to eliminate or suppress or deamplify misinformation amounts to a kind of censorship, It begs the question of who decides what qualifies as misinformation and why we should defer to their understanding of true and false, fact and fiction. If we all were comfortable that sources branded “Harvard” or “The Washington Post” or “CDC” were capable of doing the job, and that they would always “play it straight” with the public rather than triangulating interests of various stakeholders and insiders, then misinformation wouldn’t be a problem. We’d all happily defer to high quality information from trusted sources. Unfortunately but not incorrectly, we are now sharply divided over whether and when traditional authorities can be trusted, and over how much or little epistemological deferrence they merit. “Combating misinformation” as defined by these authorities amounts to letting sometimes untrustworthy and corrupt factions censor information that might be correct and important.

So, we are in a pickle. Our current information environment is dysfunctional. It divides and paralyzes us, and leaves us ill-informed. Our leaders, who are responsive to public opinion, make bad mistakes in order to flatter errors of constituents who have “done their own research” or who trust unworthy authorities. Suppressing misinformation could in theory lead to a correct consensus, but the very foundation of free-speech liberalism is that we have, in general, no certain basis for distinguishing information from misinformation, and therefore attempts to suppress “falsehood” are likely to repress important truths.

Free speech liberalism used to seem compatible with a functional society in a way that it now does not. Why is that? By virtue of the physical architecture of information, sources of broadly important information were much more centralized, prior to the emergence of the internet and social media. In the network television age, it was a free country, you could say whatever you want, you could publish subversive ‘zines and stuff. But unless and until your perspectives were adopted by some gatekeeper of centralized media, they would struggle to be relevant in any systemic and politically effective way. However, unlike in, say, contemporary Russia, the gatekeepers of traditional media were themselves fairly decentralized. There were three TV networks, plus many important newspapers and mass publishing houses, each marinating within some ungated local avant-garde. Politics and culture were genuinely contestable, to a degree. Meaningfully distinct publishers competed to form the mainstream. But they were mostly corporate actors with similar interests and vulnerabilities to state and advertiser pressure, and with a shared stake in maintaining something like the status quo. The struggle in that era was to get from margin to center, and that could never be a viewpoint neutral struggle.

Nevertheless, we had a functional polity in that era, with dissidence, yes, but also with broad consensus about what was true, false, and subject to reasonable contestation. As someone who often felt dissident, I can tell you that it sucked. Lots of important values and ideas got no meaningful hearing outside of very ghettoized information spaces. At the same time, it was a much more livable society beyond the frontiers of ones own dissidence. There was a lot one could get away with just taking for granted, as an individual trying to make sense of the world. Collectively, politically, we were a much more capable society, we had a stronger shared basis for action in the common good. The church of network television was consistent with an era of bipartisanship, and with experiments in policy—which were often mistaken, in part due to the narrow and blinkered information environment that framed them! But at least things could be tried, which is more than we can say for our polity at present.

We cannot, and I would not, go back to the church of network television. For all the confusion and outright nightmarishness of contemporary social media, I cannot help but score as a blessing the fact that a much wider range of voices can permissionlessly publish themselves over media capable of reaching large and influential audiences. However, the lesson we should retain from the equilibrium we have left behind is that a wild-west of free speech can coexist with a functional epistemological cohesion, if there are institutions via which a widely shared consensus can somehow rise above the din.

As Martin Gurri has pointed out, the internet can be understood as a kind of solvent of authority, and of the capacity of traditional institutions to sustain the trust that undergirds it. One way traditional authorities might counter that effect is by suppression and control, limiting the internet cacophony to a chorus reinforcing the messaging and goals of those authorities. That is the approach China and Russia have taken, and it has not been ineffective. “Combatting misinformation” can be understood as a variation of that approach, an adaptation of it to the formally liberal West. If internet forums can be persuaded to suppress as misinformation speech that is most at variance with traditional authorities, and to shape reach so that speech aligned with traditional authorities diffuses more quickly and more widely than alternative views, perhaps consensus around traditional authority can be sustained.

However, this approach brings two practical problems:

  1. It forfeits any opportunity to use the broader conversation as a means of informing and improving what becomes deemed authoritative. Our crisis of authority owes something to the cacophony of voices, sincere and disingenuous, that now outshout and dilute traditional authorities, but it also owes a great deal to the (reasonable!) perception that traditional authorities have performed poorly and so merit less deference. A soft censorship approach to restoring authority does nothing to remedy the sources of poor performance, while buried in the zone flooded with shit may be perspectives that are important and could contribute to wiser authority.

  2. Judging by the behavior of the Chinese and the Russians, soft censorship — encouraging important forums to suppress misinformation without actually banning it — may not be sufficient to restore consensus and then trust. "The Net interprets censorship as damage and routes around it,” John Gilmore famously wrote, and there is some truth to that. Relying upon suppression to sustain state authority creates a dynamic under which predictable challenges encourage ever more coercive and expansive restriction, abandoning free speech liberalism rather than saving it

Rather than suppress or censor, it would be better if we could build new institutions of consensus, whose authority would be based on stronger, more public, and more socially dispersed evidence than the institutions that are now flailing. This may sound naive, and it may prove impossible. But it seems to me we’ve done very little that could be accused of meaningfully trying.

I don’t have a silver bullet, of course. I don’t have anything more than half-baked ideas. But half-baked is better than not baked at all, or not even attempted. Let’s actually make a concerted, society-wide effort to design new forms of authority that would be more resilient to the cacophony of an open internet.

Some half-baked ideas:

  • We could dramatically expand our use of “citizens juries” or “deliberative minipublics” to help authoritatively resolve factual disputes. Much of the reason why traditional authorities are so distrusted is because publics and factions reasonably perceive them having particularities of interest that come unbidden with their roles and expertise. A Harvard professor may be more than qualified, may be “smart” enough, but if her interests and values are very different from yours, why should you accord any authority to her policy advice? The very expertise on which her claim to authority is based might well be used to snow you! We expect that politicians’ views will be colored by their electoral (or post-electoral) career interests, but jockeying for votes (or sinecures) and crafting policy well might call for very different choices. A citizens jury makes use of expertise (just like “expert witnesses” are called before legal juries), but vests the authority to make determinations in a “minipublic”, a group of citizens selected by lot, and so statistically likely to be representative of the public not-mini-at-all. Their role is to elicit evidence and probe experts, then deliberate directly and interpersonally in order to produce findings on behalf of the public at large. There are a lot of potential devils in details. If a competent prosecutor can get a grand jury to indict a ham sandwich, can we come up with procedures that genuinely empower the minipublic, rather than leaving it subject to manipulation and capture by its organizers? If participation in citizens juries is not compulsory (probably it should be!), will self-selection leave us with unrepresentative, and therefore unauthorative, minipublics? I don’t have answers to all of these questions, except to say that the more we try, the more likely we’ll learn how organize citizens juries effectively. I encourage you to read my friend Nicholas Gruen, and the wonderful Equality by Lot blog for more on the subject. (See also a recent piece by Michael McCarthy in Noema on using minipublics to make investment decisions.)

  • We could integrate the community college system much more deeply into the public epistemology side of academia, reducing the degree to which academic expertise is attached to the socially narrow class of elite research faculty. Community colleges should be a bidirectional bridge — helping communicate and explain current academic consensus to America’s plural communities via direct interaction with locally trusted experts, but also ensuring that the diverse experiences and perspectives of American communities are taken into account when forming academic consensus on policy-relevant questions, which necessarily touch upon values as well as potentially objective fact.

  • We could use “permissioned blockchains” (which involve no speculative financial tokens or environmentally destructive “mining”) ubiquitously in important institutions to notarize almost everything, generating public evidence of institutional history that would be difficult to hide, repudiate, or tamper with ex-post. This wouldn’t be an anticorruption panacea. Premeditatedly corrupt actors would try to circumvent a panoptic notary by falling back upon informal communication channels, the bureaucratic equivalent of turning off the bodycam. Or they might plan in advance paper trails of falsehoods, sequences of lies properly timestamped and notarized. But most corruption is not that smart, not that careful. In science class when I was a kid, I was taught that nothing should be crossed out in a lab notebook. Instead, mistakes should be struck through with a single line, permitting a reader to see both the mistake and the correction. This doesn’t prevent premeditated fraud, but it does reduce the temptation to “fix” or “fudge” things after the fact. Cryptographically attributing and notarizing everything as a matter of routine (which would not require making document contents universally public) strikes me as a similar structural encouragement of integrity.

In addition to reforms that might harden some forms of authority against the solvent of contemporary cacophony, there are reforms that might make the cacophony a bit less indiscriminately corrosive of even reliable information.

  • As Lee Drutman has described, a two-party electoral system creates incentives for each party to undermine the authority attached to information presented by officials of the other party, indifferent to the actual truthfulness or quality of the information undermined. Our system encourages partisans to tear down virtuous authority as readily as corruption and lies, indeed to confuse the former as the latter, if the institution whose authority might otherwise be enhanced is identified with the opposing party. Multiparty democracies have much less of this dynamic, as other parties are sometimes coalition partners as well as rivals, there is not a simple zero-sum game where one party’s success is everyone else’s disadvantage. A bit less radically, Jon Haidt, in his excellent article on how the internet has undone us, points to electoral reforms within our two party system that elevate candidates with cross-party appeal over more party-exclusive candidates to whom this zero-sum logic most applies.

  • We could try to reform the internet and social media structurally, in ways that don’t involve some superauthority making judgements about, then playing whack-a-mole with, putative disinformation. The contemporary internet’s encouragement of the divisive and salacious over less entertaining, more constructive speech plausibly has everything to do with most of that speech being hosted by gigantic businesses to whom accuracy or quality is a matter of indifference but emotional engagement drives activity and profit. I think we should seek an online civil society hosted by thousands or millions of smaller sites whose product is quality and curation for users rather than the eyeballs of users for advertisers. I’ve suggested before that we repeal or dramatically curtail Section 230 protections, to render the clip the wings of the current megaforums. We could pair this with content-neutral public subsidy to people who host and curate microforums which would actively curate and accept responsibility for the material they host.

  • As human beings, our understandings of the world are tangled up with our interests. Upton Sinclair’s man who can’t be got to understand what his salary depends on his not understanding is, to a first approximation, all of us. We develop sincere beliefs about the world that flatter, or at least are reconcilable with, the preconditions of our own well-being. People with very divergent interests will develop very divergent beliefs. A society that made greater use of social insurance, in which personal outcomes would vary somewhat less across individuals due to political choices, in which we really would be more "all in this together", would have an easier time finding epistemological consensus than one in which a person might make themselves unusually wealthy by accepting and promoting divergent beliefs. We'd have more consensus about climate change if there weren't influential groups of people who benefit materially by believing and arguing it is not a serious concern. If people in the fossil fuel industry only became somewhat better off rather than fabulously wealthy by persuading themselves and others climate change isn't real, we'd have less of such persuasion, and reach a functional consensus more easily. In general, there’d be less incentive to be a “grifter”, as many online influencers are accused of being, if we were a materially more equal society.

Maybe you like my specific suggestions. Maybe you don’t. Regardless, if we want to preserve liberal free speech in form, function, and spirit, we’ll have to develop new institutions for coming to authoritative consensus that rise above a now much louder din.

It’s a very urgent task. As I write, we collectively face a delicate crisis which, if mishandled, could lead to nuclear war, millions or billions dead, the end of modernity. It is not okay that the way we are thinking together is largely via TikTok, Twitter, YouTube, Facebook, MSNBC, and Fox News. These are low quality deliberative institutions.

As Aviv Ovadya put it in a conversation with Julia Galef

We're…living in a world now where, let's say stability isn't quite as quite where it was, where individuals can have far more influence on sort of the overall stability of the world and where you have a whole bunch of really tricky challenges up ahead within the next five to 20 years that could easily derail even a very, very well-functioning civilization. You're in this environment, and now you're making everyone dumber. You're making them less capable of handling it, both at an individual level and at a societal level.

You can think about this as, you’ve got your civilization driving its car down the road. And it's now starting to take LSD, and it's like seeing these hallucinations all over the place. And it's still trying to drive. There's going to be some level, some amount of LSD or some amount of like, of hallucination that you can still sort of drive without crashing. But there's going to be some level where you can't. We're just increasing that.

Hopefully we get lucky and muddle through our current crises. But we won’t get lucky forever. We have to develop the capacity to collectively speak, reason, and act together in ways that keep us free but also wise.

The great game of global public goods provision

War is bad. Excuses should not be made for it. All sides should work to end this and every war as quickly as possible and shift to modes of bargaining and competition that are not profoundly destructive.

I. Cooperate to compete, compete to cooperate

We often think of competition and cooperation as opposites, but as Michael Frank Martin has pointed out, competition is very often just one way that we organize cooperation. The Baltimore Orioles and the New York Yankees compete vigorously, each team really wants to win, but the framework of competition itself is cooperatively maintained. If the Yankees could permanently dominate all challengers, the game would become boring and fans would bail. They would only “rule over the ashes”. In professional sports, vigorous competition is a positive sum game. Starting from a degree of balance, each team has strong incentives, a great deal to gain, from winning. But from a grander distance, all teams, and the world at large, depend upon maintaining balance and vigorous competition rather than allowing any team’s entrenchment as permanent victor.

Textbook economic competition is also a positive sum game, from the perspective of the world at large. Starting from a degree of balance, higher quality or more efficient production confers to winners abnormal profits, for a while, incentivizing the race. Competition by multiple firms to win these profits drives costs down and quality up for consumers. But when a single firm definitively wins, positive sum competition becomes negative sum stagnation as monopolists extract rents, directly via price or by imposition of more subtle costs on consumers and other stakeholders. In business unlike in sport, a definitive victor is perfectly content to permanently vanquish its rivals. But the rest of us see a positive-sum dynamic replaced with negative-sum exploitation. “Antitrust” is the (much too narrow) name we give to the socially essential function of maintaining economic competition, which is really a carefully structured form of cooperation. Just as sports leagues sometimes let losing teams get the first pick of new talent to help maintain balance, states must ensure among firms that new entrants and also-rans are never permanently out of the running, that in practice winners take turns. When balance is sustained, business competition can be a strikingly effective way to organize cooperation.

Not all competition can be reckoned a form of cooperation, however. War is competitive, but it is not cooperative. There is no positive sum aspect to war that would guide us collectively to encourage the practice indifferent to who wins or loses. On the contrary, it is a profoundly negative sum affair we correctly seek to discourage.

II. The world is lumpy

We are now living in a multipolar world. The moment when perhaps a consensus could have emerged around models of governance and international cooperation championed by “the West” has passed for the foreseeable future. China, in particular, is a peer power, confident in the effectiveness of its own quite different mode of governance, unwilling to defer to Western or especially American strictures. China, the United States, Europe, and other powers will compete for power and prestige.

The challenge before us is to structure that competition so that it is a positive sum form of cooperation, rather than a negative sum prescription for mutual isolation and military conflict.

A new cold war is a bad idea. We barely survived the old one. Even its echoes now threaten to see us off. Defining international competition as a contest between democracy and autocracy (from our side), or between common-good cooperativism versus corrosive, selfish liberalism (from theirs), is a terrible idea. We are not the good guys, they are not the bad guys, and vice versa. Singapore despite political illiberalism and, arguably, corrupt nepotism is in many respects an admirable polity, one that despite limited electora competition is extremely solicitous of citizen input and concern. Japan was a full-fledge member of the “free world” despite decades of single-party rule. China’s “autocracy” should be distinguished from Russia’s, in that it has delivered to its vast population remarkable improvements in human flourishing, despite ugly (from my perspective) restrictions on free expression, religious association, and political contestation. China’s treatment of the Uighurs is inexcusable. So was our invasion of Iraq. In practical terms, the response cannot be to try to extirpate regimes that do or have done bad things, but to work constructively to reduce the misbehavior, in large part by offering alternative means of addressing the perceived threats that provoke it. “Constructively” means not threatening or promoting regime change, however much and reasonably and sincerely we might hope for and desire it. Political change is the domestic choice of a polity. When we offer advice and criticism, we should do so overtly and respectfully for our counterparts to consider, accept or reject. Covert “foreign interference” is always weaponized by factions, often to immunize the worst aspects of the domestic establishment from useful critique. Would the Castros have been so long in power without our indefatiguable help?

This is hard for us. We are culturally primed to view international affairs in desperately moral terms. “Never again,” we say. How can we not cheer revolutions against oppressive regimes? Why shouldn’t we quietly help? When our military might prevent atrocity, is it really moral to refrain? But moral ideas cannot be divorced from their consequences and still remain moral. By the time we face a choice between atrocity or military intervention, we have already lost. Though there are important differences of degree, military intervention inevitably involves atrocity. Then, as we’ve seen in Iraq, Afghanisatan, Libya, the downstream consequences are often even worse.

“Never again” is harder work than a Hollywood movie. We will never live up to the phrase just by standing up to current or imminent evildoing. “Never again” means prevention, and prevention by its nature must be forward-looking rather than reactive. “Never again” is the work of a State Department much more than of a Department of Defense, and when the work is done well the public may never notice that it has been done at all.

But publics also have a role to play, I think perhaps the most important. Goodwill to all, joyful intercourse across national lines on a human-to-human basis, resisting the impulse to turn nationalities into, and treat nationals as, two-dimensional villains or heroes — these things are crucial to the cause of peace. Of course it's not enough, good fences make good neighbors, we'll need our militaries and balances of power and deterrence and all of that ugly game theory. Weakness can be provocative, war must always be costly. But hard power games are very brittle. Without the soft flesh of human affection, all that will be left is bones, all of our bones. Love really is the answer, or at least an essential part of it.

III. Public goods provision as an arena of competition

Great powers will compete, for power and prestige. If that competition is mostly military, the result will be catastrophe. But the strongest governments gain their power, and fundamentally the consent of the governed, by effective provision of public goods. Great powers provide global public goods: they contribute to public welfare beyond the borders of their own state. Those public goods include military security, but also trade arrangements, development assistance, food security, disaster assistance, education, technology, and more. One silver lining of the (miserable, terrifying) Cold War was that the United States understood, while it ran, the importance of competing in the provision of global public goods. During its “unipolar moment”, undisciplined by competition, the United States succumbed to the temptations of a monopolist and began to shirk, doing less and charging more for support of other countries, demanding that they “pull their weight”. China, on the other hand, has increasingly understood that provision of global public goods is a core dimension of power, hypercharging development of ports and infrastructure throughout the erstwhile nonaligned world with its belt and road initiative. Western critics argue over the terms of the loans by which China finances that development — is it really so generous?. But fundamentally things are being built, trade and employment are increasing, in places neglected by American grandees except as objects of pity and charity. The West’s famous development institutions — the World Bank, the IMF — have grown worse than sclerotic. With some justice, they are perceived as predatory servants of Western creditors rather than enablers of public goods provision that domestic governments can’t manage on their own.

During this pandemic period, the West by now on its own could have produced and distributed, or assisted very capable countries like India and, yes, China, to produce and distribute, its highest quality mRNA vaccines to all of the inhabitants of the planet willing to take it. The cost would have been high, in absolute dollar terms, but small relative to the overall cost of stabilizing our domestic economies over the period. On humanitarian grounds, but not just on humanitarian grounds, the opportunity we have lost by failing to do that is absolutely extraordinary. Now that we are in a military crisis, would India be quite so nonaligned if we had more generously supported its health and welfare, commercial and other formalities be damned? Is it possible, if we had transferred this technology (that they will learn within a year or two regardless) that China might not treat us with such cold hostility? Iran? That perhaps even Russia, led by the man it is led by, would have been moved to a less bellicose posture. Perhaps not! Counterfactuals are unknowable. But in the broad scheme of things, how much would it really have cost? And regardless of its effectiveness as a charm offensive, how many lives might it have saved? On both political and humanitarian grounds, it was a foolish bet not to take.

Competing to provide of global public goods is a positive-sum way that great powers can vie for power and prestige. It’s effective. Powers that openly provide public goods that notably improve the welfare of others gain influence and opportunity. If this sounds hazy and hippie-dippie, look at the world in its current divisions. Why is India, the world’s largest democracy, hesitant to condemn Russia for its invasion of Ukraine? Decades of cooperation and help, on security but not just, make a difference.

An irony of the United States during its unipolar period is that while consent of the governed is at the very heart of our ideological project domestically, in global affairs we've emphasized hard power, whether military or economic, rather than soft. But use of hard power is perceived as coercive and resented. Soft power is persuasion. It brings with it consent. Hard power is usually costly to exercise. Soft power, on the other hand, while is often free, as the people you would hope to influence choose to be helpful of their own free will. All durable and decent modes of authority rely much more heavily on the velvet glove than on the iron fist, even if hard metal must always exist buried at some level deep beneath. We broadly understand this with respect to domestic affairs. I submit that the same must be true of international affairs. International affairs are not in fact anarchic, except during tragic periods when architectures of cooperation break down. We are now witnessing the barest hint of what that might mean, and I hope we witness not a day more of it.

It is incumbent upon us all, in the United States, in China, in Europe, in Russia, to build an international system built upon respect rather than coercion. In a multipolar world, powers will compete. Overt, cordial, cooperative competition for influence and authority via the provision of global public goods allows great powers to compete in a way that serves humankind and sustains global peace. No power has a long-term interest in frequent bouts of military competition or economic blockade.

IV. Feed the world

Food security is a global public good and a humanitarian necessity. The war in Ukraine is threatening food security worldwide, especially in the Middle East and North Africa. As Matt Klein has pointed out, the United States, India, Europe, and China have the means to buffer that shock, if we cooperate competitively to make sure the world is fed and prevent the war from continuing indefinitely. We should share the goal of feeding the world, and cooperate to set up a framework under which we each compete to do the most.

No power will win that competition, and no power will lose, but each power will make genuine progress in gaining prestige and influence in the countries that they assist. The competition will be real. Its rewards can be very valuable going forward in undergirding patterns of future trade, choices about security arrangements, financial relationships, and influence broadly. Like a good sports league, we should try to work with our rivals to create conditions conducive to this form of competition continuing in perpetuity, without any power permanently dominating.

V. Conclusion

Nationalism and humility do not easily go together. But we are all deeply imperfect polities struggling to hold together internally in order to productively cooperate, and to prosper and protect our interests in the larger world. Military competition turns us all into cartoon jingoists spiraling towards catastrophe. Competing to help, and to influence by admirable example, leaves the world over which we are all competing better off, even as our share of it ebbs and flows over time. Better luck next season. There must always be a next season.

Update History:

  • 8-Jan-2022, 2:00 p.m. EDT: “Competing to provide of global public goods is a positive-sum way that great powers can compete vie for power and prestige.” (ht @tatere)
  • 14-Apr-2022, 1:40 p.m. PDT: “, while it ran,” (set off phrase with commas)

Stop the war

The devil is dancing again in Europe, and I fear he will kill us all. It is time to stop the war in Ukraine and arrive at a negotiated settlement. Now. Yesterday.

There was and is no question who was to blame for the decision to pursue a maximalist invasion of a sovereign neighbor. Vladimir Putin is the aggressor. Over the longer term the story may be complicated. Questions of how we came to find ourselves in the circumstances under which Putin made his horrible choice — over the past few years, since 2014, since the 1990s, since 1917 — are sharply contested. There are accounts that would center Putin’s nationalism and revanchist imperialism, and also accounts that hold choices of the United States and the broad West substantially to blame. I lack the background adjudicate those contesting stories. Even among experts working in good faith, I think there would be no consensus on the truth of these matters.

The present is much clearer. In the run-up to the war, I favored the threat of strong sanctions in hopes that it would deter the invasion. When this long telegraphed war began, I expected, as most observers expected, quick Russian domination. I feared that sanctions would be too weak, that a divided, corrupted, and commercially entangled West would fail to impose sufficient consequence for Putin’s horrible choice, as it had failed to following Putin’s annexation of Crimea and fomenting of separatists in 2014. Like so many Western observers, I viewed the situation through the lens of Munich, the infamous appeasement of Hitler widely blamed for inviting the catastrophe of World War II. Putin’s domination of Ukraine might not be avoidable, but then it must at least be costly. Even though sanctions are terrible, they should be strong since they are the only consequence available. If arming the Ukrainian government could increase the cost of the invasion, that action, also ugly, might be justifiable as well. The key objective was that Putin should not imagine that his aggression had come cheaply, or that further aggression would not be fiercely resisted.

Both war and sanctions have gone very differently than I expected. The sanctions, both as formal state action and informal isolation by risk averse or publicity sensitive firms, have been profound. After a wobbly start, public outrage pushed politicians and businesses to spare no effort or instrument that might harm the aggressor’s economy. Freezing the reserves of Russia’s Central Bank, an extraordinarily severe intervention that had not been widely discussed in the run-up to the invasion, went from an unlikely “what if” to a fait accompli in a matter of days. Major Western multinationals abandoned their commerce in Russia overnight. Firms foundational to modern international commerce, like the shipping giant Maersk, announced they would not serve Russia, so the imports Russians rely upon for ordinary life may become scarce. Russian planes were forbidden from most European and North American airspace, planes’ leases were canceled, Boeing and Airbus announced they would not supply parts to Russia, international ticketing networks quickly excluded Russia’s flagship Aeroflot. Civil aviation to and within the country may quickly be crippled.

With the help of arms from Western powers, the war also has not gone as expected. I cannot judge whether Ukrainians’ fierce resistance has truly turned the tide of the war, or delayed what remains militarily inevitable. But it has imposed huge costs, in materiel and in blood. The apparent errors and unpreparedness of the invaders have been a public humiliation of Russia’s armed forces.

The most important costs of the war have not, of course, been borne by Russia, but by the people of Ukraine, whose homes have been bombed, who have been forced to flee by the million, who are giving birth in basements to infants without diapers, hot water, formula. In the moral calculus of the war, the suffering Russia has imposed upon Ukraine far overshadows the costs Russia has borne on battlefields and in pocketbooks. But suffering does not salve suffering. It all just compounds. The suffering of a Ukrainian mother mourning a child caught in the shelling and a Russian mother mourning her conscript son who had no idea he was going to war feel very much the same. This war is hideous, a monstrosity, for everyone touched by it.

Before the war, it was right to be concerned that Russia would win its blood-soaked prize without paying a sufficient price to deter further aggression. That concern has been addressed. Russia has paid a high cost in blood already, and its citizens will pay an extraordinary cost in deprivation until the sanctions are reversed. Yet the focus of the Western world remains how to make it hurt more, both economically and militarily. That may be reasonable while the aggression continues. But we should all be very clear that the goal now is to stop the aggression and limit the suffering of all parties. In my view, the outside world is focused far too heavily on vicariously fighting an inspiring fight and far too little on ending the misery and negotiating a peace. The Ukrainian resistance has been inspiring. But don’t mistake an inspiring fight for a good fight. War is evil. With every battle won so much more is lost. Every soldier left to rot on the battlefield is an eternity of tears. This is not a football game. There is no glory.

Suffering is bad. It is remembered. Sometimes it is avenged. Peace is the essential foundation of human flourishing. But a cold peace is a fragile peace. That was the lesson of Versaille, and now it is also a lesson of the Cold War. After World War II, the victorious powers wisely constructed a warm peace in Europe. Arguably the greatest period of human flourishing in all of history was the result. We need a warm peace now, one that encompasses and reconciles Ukraine, Russia, and their neighbors. The worse the suffering, the longer it endures, the more difficult it will be to build a modus vivendi that serves us all.

I do not like Vladimir Putin. I wish death upon no one, but my preference would be he retire from power, perhaps live out his days like Idi Amin somewhere. But it makes no sense, it is profoundly a bad idea, to sustain the war in hopes some backlash provokes his departure. That is at best a speculative enterprise paid for in others’ blood and misery. It is also a very reckless gamble. L’etat, c’est moi is not an unusual sentiment among autocrats. The circumstance most likely to provoke nuclear war is existential threat to l’etat. It would be great, fantastic, if the Russian Federation undergoes an orderly succession of leadership. But that is their business, no one else’s, to encourage or impose. While Mr. Putin is Russia’s leader, we shall have to build a warm peace with the Russia that Mr. Putin leads. Isolating states whose leadership we dislike is a tried and true tactic of the United States, see Iran, North Korea, Venezuela, Cuba. These are not success stories. We engaged with China, from the 1990s until 2016. It didn’t become a liberal democracy, as many hoped, but we did enjoy a warm partnership during that period, before we adopted a more adversarial tone under the Trump administration. Our relationship with China was bad for us, economically. But that was because we failed to look after our own interests, despite having every necessary tool to do so. We should go back to building a warm partnership with China, but do a better job of looking after our economic interests. Building a warm peace with Russia does not preclude carefully attending to both states’ security interests. On the contrary, it is prerequisite.

It is extraordinarily reckless for Western powers to be abetting a conflict this destructive, this intimate, with a nuclear superpower. My son is eight years old. He is everything, the only thing. I am very unsure now that he will see his ninth. I agree that it was necessary, when Putin resolved to invade Ukraine, to make sure that the action would be costly, so he would not be emboldened to a new imperialism. That objective will be accomplished. It is time for the parties, Ukraine and Russia, along with the EU and United States, to negotiate a settlement that nobody loves but everyone can live with. Stop the atrocity, stop the bloodletting, stop this war. Now.

The real prisoners’ dilemma

The prisoners’ dilemma is our goto example for a sort of gigantic sigh. Everything these days, we say, is a "coordination problem”. In the prisoners' dilemma, a prosecutor separates two alleged collaborators in a crime, and demands that each confess. If one confesses and helps to prosecute the other, the snitch will be set free while the hold-out will be punished very severely. If neither confesses, they both get off with a slap on the risk. If both confess, they'll both be put away, but not for quite as long as if one had held out and got busted. The gigantic sigh is that even though the prisoners’ common interest would best be served by both agreeing to hold out, absent any ability to coordinate, the narrowly rational choice for each prisoner is to confess. If the other guy isn’t gonna confess, and I do, then I get off, which is better than a slap on the wrist. If the other guy is gonna confess, and I do too, that’s better than the very severe punishment I'd receive if I hold out and let the other guy's confession damn me. So the outcome is both prisoners confess and are put away, even though both would have been better off if they’d held their tongues. Sigh. Alas.

It seems like every bad thing can be described as a prisoners’ dilemma. We’d all be better off, for example, if the world didn’t warm into a post-apocalyptic hellscape. But each of us gains a lot from our own activities that spew carbon into the atmosphere, and the probability of post-apocalyptic hellscape is not meaningfully diminished by our individual abstentions. So, for each of us individually, the rational thing is to keep on spewing. So we all do that, and the result is collective catastrophe. Sigh. There are things the government could do that would really make our lives better. But for politicians of either political party, the benefit to the country of a popular good thing is diffuse relative to the electoral disadvantage they would experience if the good thing happened under the other party’s leadership. So for each party, the narrowly rational choice is to block good things while the other party leads. The equilibrium is gridlock, good things left undone, unnecessary misery for all. Sigh.

In the unlikely event, dear interfluidity reader, that it was not old hat to you, you probably bristled a bit at my account of the original prisoners’ dilemma. Yes, sure, from a very narrow perspective it might make sense for each prisoner to snitch. But if the prisoners know each other and will encounter one another again, the difference between getting off entirely and a slap on the risk probably wouldn’t be worth the blowback. Maybe the other guy is gonna put a shiv in my belly. Maybe I’ll just lose a friend. Either way might be enough to shift my choice. The canonical prisoners' dilemma seems artificial, implausible. Theoreticians have to clarify that the certain bad outcome they predict holds only in a “one-shot" game. In a more natural “repeated” or “iterated" game, the prisoners might well keep their mouths shut. And that points to the problem with the prisoners’ dilemma as an intuition pump.

Human beings are fantastic coordinators. Almost everything we do involves coordinating with others, often without any kind of explicit agreement to do so. In many situations we empathetically place ourselves in the position of strangers, and do the right thing by them even at cost to ourselves. Why do you clean up after yourself at a picnic table hidden in some unsurveilled grove? Where there might be large rewards to collective action, we have developed extraordinarily contingent and detailed tools — contract law, formal organizations, states — to coordinate effectively. The prisoners’ dilemma in its cliché telling smuggles in an assumption that noncoordination is the default, that our prisoners will behave like selfish atoms absent a formal bond. But that’s not how humans are. Coordination spurts from us like a mutant weed, intertwining our behavior with others as soon as we encounter them, even if only imaginatively.

But the prisoners’ dilemma story is not so unrealistic in its particular context. Prosecutors really can get prisoners to confess by setting up these kinds of games! But note the active voice. The dilemma doesn’t just happen. Prosecutors frame the situation. They isolate the prisoners. They suggest the other guy is going to “play ball” in order to impair the expectations any tacit coordination would rely upon.

In real life, the prisoners’ dilemma doesn’t result from some anodyne “coordination failure”. The real prisoners' dilemma is a setup. More charitably, we can understand it as a battle between competing teams of coordinators. Police and prosecutors coordinate to apprehend the alleged criminals, to divide them in spaces that prevents coordination through overt communication, to carefully manage the information to which they are exposed in order to shape their behavior towards the self-interested, isolated actors presumed by a one-shot prisoners' dilemma. The prisoners — before their apprehension, tacitly or overty; during their ordeal itself tacitly; by virtue of expectations they may have arranged for the future — strive to coordinate in order to avoid their mutual imprisonment. If they are actually innocent, hopefully protestation of innocence becomes a strong Schelling point to coordinate upon. (There is no guarantee of that. The conventional logic and expected equilibrium are not altered by actual innocence.)

Coordination rarely just "fails". Almost always, what we call coordination failure results from one group of potential coordinators being outcoordinated by another group, under circumstances where the two groups’ interests diverge. High quality coordination is the human default, but we very often coordinate with one another to frustrate rival groups' ability to coordinate, to create coordination failures, in order to more easily achieve our own goals. Police and prosecutors isolate and seek to undermine the trust between prisoners. Antitrust authorities seek to hinder and punish certain kinds of coordination between firms. Fossil fuel interests work to undermine any consensus surrounding the likely course of climate change, in order to prevent that from becoming a basis of coordination against their interest by other parties. Partisan gridlock and civic strife are financed by interests who see more threat than opportunity in an effective, active state. The flames are fanned by interests who see more opportunity than threat in replacing civil society with entertainment. Red tribe / blue tribe, woke / antiwoke — these are strategic outcomes, not emergent phenomena. We fail to “pull together” because factions are coordinating excellently to divide us.

I often encounter a sentiment, especially among tech types, that coordination failure is at the root of all evil. If only we had better tools, new coordination devices, the theory goes, a lot of social ills might be solved. I think that misdiagnoses the problem. “Coordination failure” is a blessing at least as often as it is a curse. I am in favor of the coordination failures that help keep product markets competitive. I am in favor of police and prosecutors outcoordinating organized criminals (although I want them to do so in a way that frustrates the coordination of the guilty without conspiring to put away the innocent). I am in favor of criminalizing coordination between judges with litigants. I am in favor of journalists and whistleblowers outcoordinating well organized regimes of government and corporate secrecy when information in the public interest is being concealed. There would be no political stability if the coordination equilibrium that is the bedrock of any government’s authority were very easy to coordinate out of to some next shiny thing.

The evils for which we hold “coordination failure” responsible are not attributable to some sad theorem of game theory. We could say instead that they are caused by bad actors — the fossil fuel interests that frustrate our ability to coordinate against global warming, the plutocrats who create incentives to entrench partisan gridlock. But that is I think too easy, and often counterproductive. The root problem is divergence of interest itself.

Obviously, in any polity or human community, there will always be some divergence of interest. No two humans' requirements or yearnings are perfectly alike. But in some polities, the welfare of the community as a whole overwhelms whatever differences of station jockeying among subgroups might yield. In our society, differences of outcome within are so great, and broad social improvement so implausible, that coordinating competitively over our place in the distribution seems more fruitful than coordinating cooperatively to improve the distribution.

Until we remedy that, expect a lot of “coordination failures”. In the real prisoners’ dilemma, we are all one another’s prisoners, and one another’s prosecutors. We have better things to do.

Dreams and kindness are all we have

In a piece arguing that things aren’t so bad in Europe, Simon Kuper concludes

Instead, in a new version of American exceptionalism, we should recognise the US as a special case, and make plans to cope should its democracy collapse.

Oh well. Living in exceptional America, I agree that we are in collapse. But what does that even mean? The self-regarding story that Democrats like to tell is more petulant than informative. Yes, it’s possible that Republicans will modify electoral institutions — including most dramatically the way Presidential electors are appointed — in ways intended to entrench their dominance. But they are only capable of doing so because Our Democracy is already so crippled. Most Americans aren’t all that alarmed about what we might lose, because most Americans don’t perceive ourselves as meaningfully enfranchised. Yes, we can vote and our votes are counted, but both parties arrange electoral institutions so their insiders and incumbents are protected. As Krystal Ball recently observed, despite “change election” after “change election” our political system seems unmoved, impervious, corrupt, dysfunctional. We are misgoverned, and voting the way we vote has become just a ritual within a stable equilibrium of misgovernance. If Democrats hope to run on saving that, well, good luck. Democracy is supposed to be a source of institutional legitimacy. But most Democrats do not consider the current Supreme Court legitimate, even if they acknowledge that its empanelment was procedurally within the bounds of the law. Most Republicans don’t consider President Biden legitimately or even lawfully elected. Under our current politics, would either party choose to “save” democracy in a manner that wouldn’t supercharge a legitimacy crisis from the other side? Democracy is supposed to inform state action, so that it is performed competently, in a manner that accounts for the interests of the entire citizenry. Ha. The American system of government is decentralized, chaotic, and open to influence. But none of that constitutes democracy.

We do still have a great deal left to lose. The United States is a poor democracy, but it is also very far from an authoritarian or totalitarian state. Democrats fear that under Republican domination, we will revert to some reincarnation of (old-school) Jim Crow, a brutal, genuinely authoritarian, caste system. That’s a serious fear, one I share. Republicans fear that under Democratic dominance, freedom of thought and expression will become eviscerated by obligations to hew carefully to ever changing orthodoxies, at pain of being banished from polite society, denied economic stability, and excluded from a public square manicured by patronizing “experts”. Even our bodies are not safe from Republicans, as they obviously mean to force women, trans men, and nonbinary people to endure the trauma of unwanted pregnancy and childbirth. Even our bodies are not safe from Democrats, as they have arrogated to themselves a capacity to force God-knows-what to be literally injected into your bloodstream when the experts say it’s for the best, or else lose your capacity to earn a living. Democrats now literally regulate how we breathe. With just a bit of charitable imagination, you can see that fears of authoritarian overreach are understandable of partisans on both sides of our political divide. Of course, we all weigh those risks differently, and come to very different conclusions about which side’s partisans are the greater threat. Wherever you land, it’s a bad scene.

That’s not why we’re in collapse, though. Our partisan battles burst in great splendor, these great and garish arguments over totalitarianism and oppression, but quietly beneath sits the simple fact of dysfunction. Our government is incapable. It does not act effectively in real time to meet the challenges that address our polity. In the small, it delivers tests and masks just as the plague wave subsides. In the large, it presides helplessly, even enthusiastically, over decades of decline, a decimation of the ecosystems of production that once rendered us capable of providing for ourselves. We can no longer even arrange efficient operation of the few ports through which we receive the production others now do on our behalf. We continue to maintain the strongest, most expensive, military in the world, but we’ve squandered the far more useful soft power by which we were once able to exercise positive-sum influence. We’ve performed so abominably in global affairs that aspiring powers now threaten the deepest red line of the postwar order we crafted, and our President literally shrugs. The best we can do is counsel (and hope) that it won’t work out for them.

Dysfunctional government is not new in the United States. Arguably the only period we’ve had really functional government was the Roosevelt administration and the early postwar decades. But we always muddled through, right? Yes, we did, but we won’t now. Technology matters. It has changed things. The world is a tightly coupled system in ways that it never was before. “Technolibertarianism” has always been an oxymoron, because as Marc Andreesen tells us, technology gives us superpowers. A world in which everyone has superpowers is a world in which everything we do creates externalities and demands regulation. Techolibertarianism succumbs to its internal contradictions and becomes Peter Thiel selling surveillance to the state and bankrolling strongmen to become buyers. A fast-paced, interconnected world magnifies the power of coordination. A polity that can organize and coordinate the new superpowers of its public can do remarkable, amazing things. A polity that cannot organize and regulate those powers invites vicious internal conflict and collective paralysis. Governance matters more than ever, more than anything now. But since the 1980s the United States has worked to fetter and dismantle the apparatus it once built to develop and coordinate of the capabilities of polity. A hypothetical God, “the market”, was supposed to take care of that, better than any human institution we might instate, superintend, and reform. We chose a golden calf to lead us.

Time and technology have raised the bar on what is required of a functional state. Ours is simply not up to the task. We are out of homeostasis. The systems that are supposed to ensure a functional internal stability cannot meet the challenges presented by current circumstances. That is the nature of our collapse.

So, what next? I sure don’t know. One of the first books on finance I read was The Misbehavior of Markets, by Benoit Mandelbrot and Richard Hudson. Financial markets are famously unpredictable, but we can characterize and discuss them in terms of statistical distributions. Classically, financial theory models returns as drawn from normal distributions. Mandelbrot and Hudson point out that while there are periods during which that may be a serviceable approximation, there are periods during which it is not. During “storms”, returns are better described as drawn from Cauchy distributions. I’ve graphed the densities of those two distributions, normal and Cauchy, below.

Normal and Cauchy PDFs, looking kind of similar

At first blush, they don’t look all that different. Both are bell-shaped curves, centered around a clear mode. The Cauchy distribution, plotted in red, just has somewhat fatter tails. Let’s draw the same distributions again, this time showing 95% confidence intervals around the mode.

Normal and Cauchy PDFs, with crazy different confidence intervals

While superficially the distributions look quite similar, I had to dramatically expand the graph to fit the Cauchy distribution’s confidence interval. Where 95% of the normal distribution’s draws are within ±1.96, on the Cauchy, events as far as ±12.7 fall within the 95% interval. With the normal distribution, you can expect a series of draws to converge, on average, to the mode. Not so with the Cauchy, for which no stable mean exists. Even on average, you can’t say what will happen.

I believe we are right now in a political storm, in the way that Mandelbrot and Hudson described financial storms. That is how I interpret “collapse”. If you ask me to predict how things will be in 2022 or 2024 or whenever, if I’m to provide a point estimate, a specific guess, I’d say be we muddle through and our institutional forms remain the same and broadly intact. That’s still the mode, the peak at the center of the distribution. But it is now much more likely than in ordinary periods that “something breaks”, that we deviate dramatically and land someplace that would not have been conceivable during tranquil, more normally distributed periods.

The Cauchy distribution is symmetrical. If we interpret positive deviations from the mode as good outcomes and negative deviations as bad, the two would be equally likely. Common sense suggests that’s an overly optimistic view of our social predicament. When deeply invested political arrangements rupture, intuitively that suggests pain as immediate cause, effect, or both. Nevertheless, I think there is at least the potential for opportunity in this crisis. Even if it’s not quite as stout as the lower tail, a fat upper tail exists, and we can make it fatter by dreaming in public.

Nothing is broken in the world without something else being born. Any creature’s death at the very least yields a corpse, which yields succor for some other’s hungry mouth, or soil upon which new life may grow. If we do slip the chain of our outworn institutions, perhaps it triggers civil war, famine, holocaust, or autocracy. But it is also possible that we jump to something hopeful, a revision of our constitutional order that is more capable, more democratic, both. As things go awry, the range of what’s possible grows wide, and where we land to a certain degree becomes just a Schelling point, a self-fulfilling prophecy, one possibility that somehow gains currency as the status quo loses its hold on our imagination and we grope to coordinate to something else. The cyberpunk of the 1980s largely foreshadowed our present dystopia. The solarpunk of today may portend some refuge from our catastrophe. Much of what I do as a writer is propose speculative blue-sky social arrangements, on the theory that with the passage of time or in a time of crisis things that once seemed ridiculous or unthinkable become possible, even inevitable. Please consider joining me. It’s fun! There has never been a better time to imagine and promote any of the huge variety of arrangements that would be more virtuous and functional than our own, but that for reasons of practicality and inertia seem unachievable. We need to build a portfolio of dreams, each one unlikely, but from which some few will perhaps draw us away from cataclysm and destruction as familiarities unravel.

If dreams can thicken the right-hand tail of our quasi-Cauchy future, then perhaps kindness can wither the leftward tentacle. In the circus that is our mediasphere, unkindness is rampant, celebrated, and remunerated. But even when, behind masks, we are deprived of the comfort of one anothers’ smiles, in person the humans are mostly shockingly kind and decent. Last summer, my family roadtripped back to California from the East Coast where we spent much of the pandemic, through the heart of Red America, and the humans were… lovely. People in South Dakota on motorbikes wearing MAGA merch stopping to offer to take a photo of the three of us on Needles Highway. When you juxtapose the shit people talk — lock him up, lock her up, let them die, send them back — against the presence of real humans sharing space, exchanging kindnesses, it makes you nauseous. No one who wishes to live should be let to die. We all belong, just where we are in the company of one another. Locking up anyone is at best sad necessity, justifiable only in the context of a system of accountability that meets a very high burden, that the incentives it creates or the harms it prevents outweigh the first-order miseries of punishment.

Unmediated, outside of the temptations of commerce, the humans are mostly remarkably good to one another. It’s people being awful that goes viral on the apps, but those videos are absurdly unrepresentative. When our imaginations and conversations are dominated by salacious, mediated events, we become tempted to override our own gentleness, to prosecute cruelties in the service of an imagined cause with little connection to actual humans here and now. The result is rarely just. If we do start killing one another en masse, the killers will be electric with self-righteousness. Don’t be. Be kind. That left tail of catastrophe is made of social and political currents that would thrill us with unkind virtues that are only viciousness in drag. Be kind.

This is my delayed, belated New Years post. Happy New Year. May this 2022, may our vast, unsettled future, bring us breathtaking and wonderful surprises.

Mass representative democracy

Among the kids, participatory direct democracy is often taken as the ideal to which democratic polities ought aspire. But at least in theory, the case for representative democracy is strong. Political decisions really matter. They should be made well. But they are hard. Whatever interests and values you hold dear, it takes a lot of work to inform and educate yourself enough to know what political choices would in fact best serve them. This work must be performed in the face of tsunamis of misinformation propounded by those serving interests and values that diverge from yours, but whose partisans are eager to co-opt you. Democracy-skeptical public choice theorists aren’t wrong when they say that most voters are (and ought to be) “rationally ignorant“.

The genius, in theory, of representative democracy is that voters hire specialists to do the information work for them. In a representative democracy, it is not really your job as an ordinary citizen to have a strong view about the details that actually get legislated, like how many tax brackets there should be and how the rates should be structured across them. Your job is one that you (and only you) are eminently well placed to perform — to know your own interests and values, and elect a person who reflects them. That person become a specialist who gets paid to do the work of translating those interests and values into political choices that give them real effect.

This is the standard case for representative democracy you probably learned in civics class. Yet at this point, most of us roll our eyes more than a little at it. I don’t feel remotely represented by my alleged representatives, to whom I have no personal connection and little affinity of values or interest. In the US House of Representatives, I am one of about 750,000 people that my “representative” allegedly represents. In my city, I elect a “supervisor” I have never met who allegedly represents the values and interests of 80,000 of my neighbors. It’s a bit ridiculous. More than a bit. A person who “represents” a population of tens of thousands of people whose only commonality is geography effectively represents no one at all. Elections impose constraints on politician behavior, sure. If you want to keep the gig, you can’t do whatever will offend some least-common-denominator id among your constituents. You must do what it takes to raise funds for the competitive advertising campaigns that “elections” become. The first constraint is “democratic”, but it constitutes so watered down a form of representation that it counts for very little. The second constraint is often antidemocratic, since global-dollar-weighted and local-population-weighted interests and values are in conflict quite often.

Within the guard rails set by these two constraints, what “representatives” do cannot straightforwardly be described as representation. Almost any choice a politician makes would give effect to the values and interests of some of their constituents but not others. Absent the universal information work representative democracy exists to absolve us of, most of us cannot even evaluate whether the choices our representatives make are likely to further or frustrate our interests. The social architecture of contemporary representative democracy is like a how-to manual for the so-called “iron law of oligarchy“. Our institutions immerse our “representatives” among a class of electeds, bureaucratic staff, and professional courtesans. The burdens of the job keep them segregated from the publics they purport to represent. In an organic, social sense, they become bound and accountable much more to their comrades-in-arms within the governing class than they could ever be to the amorphous, conflicted group they call constituents. An economist might describe all this as an “agency problem” but that’s not quite right. There’s not a coherent enough principal whose interests the agent can be said to betray.

Modern representative democracy is simply a system whose predictable result is governance by competing coalitions of insiders, who develop deep relationships and thick connections to one another, while the electorate they notionally serve becomes an inchoate, threatening demon that must be flattered and appeased. The values and interests insiders actually serve may be corrupt and self-serving, or they may be idealistic and selfless, but they cannot accurately be described as “representing” their constituents as a body. Constituents feel unrepresented, because they are. Popular pressure builds for flawed institutions of direct democracy — ballot initiatives, referenda — under which the information problems representative democracy exists to solve run riot, but at least it isn’t always the same fuckers calling all of the shots.

Direct democracy enfranchises the citizenry to decide upon matters of whose details and ramifications they are rationally ignorant, with predictably imperfect results. Contemporary representative democracy creates a corruptible class of specialist-coworkers, who develop their own values and interests and substitute them for the those of their constituents (whose actual values and interests are too diverse and conflicted to make their own strong claim). Is there anyway we could get something that combines the enfranchisement of direct democracy with the informed participation enabled by representation? Yes.

Imagine what an online direct democracy might look like. All of us would be the legislature. Obviously, we wouldn’t meet (or mostly pretend to meet) under a neo-Roman dome in some self-important provincial city. With a legislature of only a few hundred souls, attention must be very carefully allocated. In our current Congress, there’s a whole economy of scarce floor time. (“I yield the remainder of my time to my colleague”, you’ll hear them say.) If all of our legislators were permitted to speak as much as they would, deliberation would take too much time. In fact, most legislators never weigh in at all on most issues that in a broad sense come before the Congress. Congress organizes itself into committees (by arcane means, with corrupt effect), and most matters never make it through and past committees to consideration by the broader chambers. If we had a legislature of 250 million (roughly the voting-eligible population), obviously the vast majority of citizen-legislators’ proposals and bright ideas could not be put before all their citizen colleagues. If only 1% of citizen legislators were to make a proposal each year, we’d all have millions of proposals to evaluate. That’s untenable. So we’d have to design a kind of stochastic parliament, where people’s proposals would initially go to very tiny fractions of “the legislature”. These random samples would constitute ad hoc “committees”, and each citizen would be responsible for serious deliberation on the proposals that come before them in this way, but each participant would field only a modest number of such proposals. Following deliberation and potentially modification at this stage, these ad hoc committees would vote to promote or kill the proposal. If they promote, the same procedure would recur but with a larger sample, and less scope for deliberation and modification. The number of such proposals that could be promoted to higher levels of review would be limited and so competitively rationed: only those gathering the most support would gain scarce “slots” compelling the broad polity to review them. Finally, the tournament-winning, most promoted proposals would get plenary up or down votes, like a vote on the House floor.

You can imagine this kind of thing, but it would do little to address the problems we invented representative democracy to solve. To function well, our citizenry would have to be extraordinarily engaged and informed, and it would take up all of their time. It would be like permanent jury duty.

But what if we elected representatives to participate in this kind of mass-democracy framework? Instead of electing one per 800,000 or one per 80,000, what if we self-affiliated into groups of common interest of no more than, say, 1000 souls, for whom personal, physical “town meetings” could be regularly arranged? Obviously, not everyone would wish to attend all of these meetings, but everyone could if they wished. With no more than 1000 constituents, an elected could become at least acquainted with her full constituency. She could be accessible and available to them all. She could maintain direct relationships with a substantial fraction of the people she represents, and be motivated and held to account by those relationships, by gratitude and shame experienced personally rather than by abstract shifts in what some consultant claims the polls say.

Instead of a few hundred Congresspeople, we’d have 250,000 representatives whose full-time job it would be to stay and live among and interact with their constituents, and participate in the online legislature. There would be no Congressional offices in Washington, no risk of going native among colleagues who become much closer than constituents. At a municipal level, there would be no councilmen or supervisors at City Hall. In my San Francisco, there would be roughly 800 legislators and any of us who cared to would know our representative and interact with her as much or as little as we pleased.

This proposal recognizes that the hard part of being a representative, or at least what ought to be the hard part, is not fundraising, rising through committees, learning the personalities and peccadillos of influential colleagues so that you can “legislate effectively”. The hard part of being a representative is representing. The problem we should devote ourselves to is the challenge of making one person’s voice become a capable stand-in for many others’ necessarily absent. The legitimacy of our entire system of government depends upon this thin reed, the quality of the bond between elected and constituency. When that bond becomes as attenuated and deflected as it has under current institutions, “democracy” fails to confer very much legitimacy at all, or to be effective at serving the interests of the people on whose behalf it claims to rule.

This proposal recognizes also that human beings are best motivated and held accountable by direct relationships to other human beings. Pecuniary incentives are course-grained, and always susceptible to corruption. Career incentives — they’ll serve the people because they want to be reelected! — are wildly insufficient. The range of things a politician may do and still get reelected is wide, and can deviate a great deal from their constituents’ interests. Career incentives are easy for outsiders to game. If you serve constituencies that may not entirely be those you supposedly represent, there may be a gig on K Street or a place in the party bureaucracy for you. The foundational error of the neoliberal period was the conceit that aligning financial incentives to social goods was easy, so market success and contribution to social welfare could, to a first approximation, be equated. Market success, alas, in the market for political careers as much as cigarette sales, can be welfare destructive rather than socially valuable. The best work results from intrinsic devotion to excellence plus human relationships that help steer a person’s excellence towards ends that a community values. People need to be well paid not so financial incentives direct their work, but so that financial anxieties and ambitions don’t misdirect, eclipse, distort, occlude the fragile foundations of real human achievement. Our representatives should be paid well, and should serve and live among tangible human communities whose interests they know and experience through organic personal relationships.

So “expand the House” from 435 to, um, 250,000, and put it online. Obviously, this is an idea that can’t be put into immediate practice at a national level. We have a lot to learn before we’ll trust large-scale stochastic deliberative assemblies to resolve political questions with extraordinarily high stakes. However, it is a vision that we should be working towards. Whatever you think of “crypto”, one thing that proposals like this highlight is the need for extremely trustworthy networked computation infrastructures that are credibly neutral, that are not subject to the discretion of some party that owns or operates the machines. If you want to run a legislature over a network, there can’t be a company that manages the database that might potentially manipulate it. You need the system to produce very persuasive, public evidence of its integrity at all times. I don’t think public blockchains in anything like their contemporary forms will get us there, but they are working prototypes of this sort of trustworthy computation. They are also sites of experimentation in (rudimentary, badly flawed) online deliberative assemblies such as “DAOs“. There is plenty to hate about contemporary crypto, but in the midst of all the scam and speculation there are emerging fascinating “petrie dishes” for experimental democracy, to which it is worth paying some attention, and cheering useful innovation. Most of cryptoland is understandably but unfortunately cynical of representative models of democracy. But the usual alternative — “governance tokens” directly voted, like shares of stock in a traditional corporation — performs poorly. Token-voting is plutocratic by design, and outcomes tend to be dominated by insiders and activists while much larger “rationally ignorant” groups just “HODL” (hold) their tokens for speculative purposes without voting them. The interests of stakeholders who are not tokenholders get ignored entirey. (See Vitalik Buterin’s lengthy critique of “coin voting”.)

Legislation is, in computer lingo, a very stateful application. Online deliberative assemblies will need to keep precise track of large numbers of lengthy documents and particular revisions thereof, which cannot be done on contemporary blockchains at a reasonable cost and speed. But it would not be so difficult to repurpose some of the technologies that underlie contemporary crypto to build bespoke, city-scale legislatures that could be operated affordably and generate compelling evidence of their integrity. Cities should give “mass representative democracy” a try, soon. If you live in a city of any size, do you feel, today, like you are adequately represented in city government? If not, what hope do we have to make representative democracy work at a state or national scale? We are collectively, and correctly, coming to understand that we’ve never really had the kind of Our Democracy that talking heads on MSNBC are constantly telling us we must save. It’s time to roll up our sleeves and build institutions we’ll have reason to be less cynical about.

Update History:

  • 8-Jan-2022, 12:50 a.m. PST: “ballot initiatives, referenda — in under which the information problems representative democracy exists to solve run riot”; “whose actual values and interests are too diverse and conflicted”; “The range of things a politician can may do and still get reelected is quite wide , and can deviate a great deal from where their constituents’ interests might lie.”; “…in the market for political careers and as much as cigarette sales…”; “help steer a person’s excellence towards ends that a community values.”; “…to resolve political questions of with extraordinarily high stakes”; “…in (rudimentary, badly flawed) online deliberative assemblies such as ‘DAOs'”; “…it would not be so difficult to take repurpose some…”

Republican primaries

Friend-of-the-blog David Shor gets into trouble for two distinct reasons. One is “popularism”, which provokes arguments about how poll-driven and message-disciplined Democratic electoral politics ought to be. The other is simply prediction. Shor is a Cassandra. Here’s Ezra Klein characterizing his views:

Democrats are sleepwalking into catastrophe. Since 2019, [Shor has] been building something he calls “the power simulator.” It’s a model that predicts every House and Senate and presidential race between now and 2032 to try to map out the likeliest future for American politics. He’s been obsessively running and refining these simulations over the past two years. And they keep telling him the same thing.

We’re screwed in the Senate, he said. Only he didn’t say “screwed.”

In 2022, if Senate Democrats buck history and beat Republicans by four percentage points in the midterms, which would be a startling performance, they have about a 50-50 chance of holding the majority. If they win only 51 percent of the vote, they’ll likely lose a seat — and the Senate.

But it’s 2024 when Shor’s projected Senate Götterdämmerung really strikes. To see how bad the map is for Democrats, think back to 2018, when anti-Trump fury drove record turnout and handed the House gavel back to Nancy Pelosi. Senate Democrats saw the same huge surge of voters. Nationally, they won about 18 million more votes than Senate Republicans — and they still lost two seats. If 2024 is simply a normal year, in which Democrats win 51 percent of the two-party vote, Shor’s model projects a seven-seat loss, compared with where they are now.

Sit with that. Senate Democrats could win 51 percent of the two-party vote in the next two elections and end up with only 43 seats in the Senate.

I’m not a fan of “popularism”. I agree with Shor’s view that Democratic Party activists, particularly on social issues, constitute a weird, vanguardist community that often fails by placing its own concerns and unpopular remedies before serving the actual preferences of the demos. But public opinion polling is a bad tool, both because it measures whatever it purports to measure poorly, and because serving the demos requires a richer understanding of the public’s predicament than answers tossed off in response to decontextualized multiple choice questions. I think in practice polling is as likely to mislead as to help. Our political parties require sociological change. They cannot remain platoons of ideologues supported by plutocratic philanthropy, joined at the hip to canny lobbyists and dealmakers, and serve the public well. There is no technocratic quick fix to that. The parties have to change. Democrats are no worse than Republicans in this regard, but that won’t save them.

Though I often take issue with Shor’s prescriptions, there is no one in US politics I trust more on description. If David Shor thinks Democrats are “screwed… [o]nly he didn’t say screwed” in the Senate, I believe him. And I’m not alone. It’s pretty much a commonplace, when I talk to people involved in Democratic politics, that from 2023 on, for the forseeable future, Democrats will have little means of exercising political power at the national level. Of course Democrats should be careful not to let that be a self-fulfilling prophecy. Human affairs are unpredictable and pessimism can be hubris as much as optimism. But the possibility that the United States will be governed by Republicans or else entirely gridlocked for the next decade seems like one we should be thinking about and taking seriously.

Apocalypticism doesn’t constitute taking it seriously. A loud, small group of politically active Democrats may think that Trump is basically Hitler and the contemporary Republican Party is basically Trump, ergo Republican political power is the holocaust, what’s the point talking about rearranging deck chairs in a gas chamber? But if we are trying to describe the actual world, holocaust is a tail risk, not the modal scenario. Under Republican control as much as Democratic, the range of possible outcomes is large. A politicosocial formation that prides itself on being adult, mature, serious, and devoted to reason owes the world more care than “après nous le déluge”. It may or may not be true that government at the Federal level will be dominated by the Republican Party for the foreseeable future. We oughtn’t concede that, but can we plan for the contingency? If it happens, what would make the world a better place?

The Republican Party, like the Democratic Party, is a big tent, an awkward coalition. Not everyone is Marjorie Taylor Greene. Mitt Romney is a fucking plutocrat, but he also proposed a better child allowance than any Democrat did. The fortunes of MSNBC and Fox News may depend upon salacious culture wars, but the actual welfare of most human beings depends much more on the material choices our government will make. Eclipsed by all the circus there is a great deal of heterogeneity within both coalitions on those questions.

I don’t have the answer, but a clear point of leverage in our system is the primary process. There should be no jurisdiction in the country where there is not a basically decent person with good views on material questions on the Republican primary ballot. To be credible at all, to not be a “RINO”, that person will be disagreeable on a variety of issues. In most jurisdictions they will be some shade of pro-life. They will be LGBT quietist at best, advocates of “content of their character” race-blindness at best. But a person can be unusually supportive of labor without being a RINO. They can be a devoted antimonopolist without being a RINO. They can take climate change seriously. They can, like Romney, agree that families require and deserve material support since every child is and ought to be a mouth without a job.

We make idiots of ourselves if the finest distinction we can draw is between Democrat and Republican. If Shor’s analysis is right, we’ll need a lot of the better Republicans. We should be thinking about how to encourage them to join primary contests, and how to help them win.

Then, if you are a vote-blue-no-matter-who Democrat in a red or purple jurisdiction, you should register as a Republican so you can support the better candidate in the primary. Democrats will produce a candidate. (Please, Democrats. Produce a candidate.) There will be some-who-blue you’ll still vote for in the general. Regardless of what party ID you’ve registered under, you can enthusiastically support the candidate you prefer. Ticket splitting and cross-party voting are glorious traditions in American politics that are worth reviving.

But if you are a person of conscience, and if it is in fact probable that the US will be structurally tilted towards Republican rule for the foreseeable future, you are not proving your virtue by absenting yourself from the forums that will shape what Republican rule actually means. 2025 will come, not the apocalypse. A world not in fact ended will require strategic, constructive engagement. If we are serious and not merely partisan, we should be building effective ways to provide it under plausible foreseeable futures.

Update History:

  • 3-Jan-2022, 9:25 p.m. PST: “you can enthusiastically support the better candidate you prefer.”; “deserve material support, since”; “the range of possible outcomes, for the polity we share and for the world in which it is embedded, is large”