All posts tagged war

Book review: War! What Is It Good For?: Conflict and the Progress of Civilization from Primates to Robots, by Ian Morris.

This book’s main argument can be broken down into two ideas:

  1. War creates powerful leviathans and occasionally globocops.
  2. The resulting monopoly on the use of violence is important for (or necessary to) creating low-violence societies.

(2) overlaps a lot with Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature. Pinker’s version is sufficiently better that reading Morris’ version adds little value.

(1) is an old idea (“war is the health of the state”) that seems mildly controversial in its stronger versions. But Morris is relatively cautious here, admitting that many wars were destructive.

He goes around labeling many wars as productive or not, in a way that had me wondering whether he thought that was observable while the wars were in progress. When he got to World War II, it became clear that he considered that at least sometimes impossible: World War I initially looked harmful (ruining Britain’s globocop status), but when seen in combination with World War II he is able to classify it as productive (enabling the US to become a globocop).

Morris sometimes hints at a stronger version of (1) that would say leviathans or equivalent civilizing institutions couldn’t have been created without war. Morris never attempts to make much of an argument for such a strong claim. He does provide some arguments for the hypothesis that wars sped up the creation of peace-keeping leviathans. Whether that makes some wars good depends heavily on what would have happened without those wars, and Morris provides little insight about that.

If Morris were interested in testing his claims, wouldn’t he have discussed Switzerland? Swiss involvement in war over the past 200 years seems to consist of just a civil war in November 1847 with fewer than 100 deaths. Morris’ beliefs seem to imply Switzerland has lots of violence, yet Swiss homicide rates are unusually low (lower than the rest of western Europe). Maybe responding sensibly to the threat of war provides the benefits that Morris talks about, with few of the costs?

Much the book’s claims seem reasonable: wars did have some tendency to create stronger leviathans, and those leviathans did have some peace-keeping benefits. Yet those claims don’t come close to demonstrating the existence of “productive war”.

Book review: The Measure of Civilization: How Social Development Decides the Fate of Nations, by Ian Morris.

The ambitious attempt to quantify the sophistication of societies is a partial success.

His goal is to compare the development of the two leading centers of human progress over the past 16000 years (western Eurasia and eastern Asia).

I read this book before looking at summaries of his previous book. The Measure of Civilization was designed to provide support for the claims in the prior book, but was objective enough that I didn’t infer from it what the main message of the prior book was.

When I focus on the numbers in this book and ignore other ideas I’ve read, the most plausible hypothesis I see is that the east followed a more risk-averse strategy than the west. The west suffered at least one crash (200-700 CE) that was a good deal worse than anything the east is known to have experienced.

He tries to measure four different quantities and aggregate them into an index. But the simplest way to scale them leaves two (information use and military power) insignificant until about 1900, then rising at a rate which seems likely to make them the only factors that matter to the index fairly soon. He briefly looks at some better ways to aggregate them, but they still seem inadequate.

In sum, the basic idea behind measuring those four quantities seems sound. If he wasn’t any more arbitrary about it than I suspect, then the book has been somewhat helpful at clarifying the trends over time of the leading human cultures, and maybe added a tiny bit of insight into the differences between east and west.

Book review: Masters of the Word: How Media Shaped History, by William J. Bernstein.

This is a history of the world which sometimes focuses on how technology changed communication, and how those changes affected society.

Instead of carefully documenting a few good ideas, he wanders over a wide variety of topics (including too many descriptions of battles and of individual people).

His claims seem mostly correct, but he often failed to convince me that he has good reason for believing them. E.g. when trying to explain why the Soviet economy was inefficient (haven’t enough books explained that already?) he says the “absence of a meaningful price signal proved especially damaging in the labor market”, but supports that by mentioning peculiarities which aren’t clear signs of damage, then describing some blatant waste that wasn’t clearly connected to labor market problems (and without numbers, doesn’t tell us the magnitude of the problems).

I would have preferred that he devote more effort to evaluating the importance of changes in communication to the downfall of the Soviet Union. He documents increased ability of Soviet citizens to get news from sources that their government didn’t control at roughly the time Soviet power weakened. But it’s not obvious how that drove political change. It seems to me that there was an important decrease in the ruthlessness of Soviet rulers that isn’t well explained by communication changes.

I liked his description of affordable printing presses depended on a number of technological advance, suggesting that printing could not easily have arisen at other times or places.

The claim I found most interesting was that the switch from reading aloud to reading silently and the related ability to write alone (as opposed to needed a speaker and a scribe) made it easier to spread seditious and sexual writings due to increased privacy.

Bernstein is optimistic that improved communication technology will have good political effects in the future. I partly agree, but I see more risks than he does (e.g. his like of the democratic features of the Arab Spring aren’t balanced by much concern over the risks of revolutionary violence).

Book review: Fragile by Design: The Political Origins of Banking Crises and Scarce Credit, by Charles W. Calomiris, and Stephen H. Haber.

This book start out with some fairly dull theory, then switches to specific histories of banking in several countries with moderately interesting claims about how differences in which interest groups acquired power influenced the stability of banks.

For much of U.S. history, banks were mostly constrained to a single location, due to farmers who feared banks with many branches would shift their lending elsewhere when local crop failures made local farms risky to loan to. Yet comparing to Canada, where seemingly small political differences led to banks with many branches, it seems clear that U.S. banks were more fragile because of those restrictions, and less competition in the U.S. left consumers with less desirable interest rates.

By the 1980s, improved communications eroded farmers’ ability to tie banks to one locale, so political opposition to multi-branch banks vanished, resulting in a big merger spree. The biggest problem with this merger spree was that the regulators who approved the mergers asked for more loans to risky low-income borrowers. As a result, banks (plus Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac) felt compelled to lower their standards for all borrowers (the book doesn’t explain what problems they would have faced if they had used different standards for loans the regulators pressured them to make).

These stories provide a clear and plausible explanation of why the U.S. has a pattern of banking crises that Canada and a few other well-run countries have almost entirely avoided over the past two centuries. But they suggest the U.S. banking crises should have been more unique among mature democracies than was actually the case.

The authors are overly dismissive of problems that don’t fit their narrative. Commenting on the failure of Citibank, Lehman, AIG, etc to sell more equity in early 2008, they say “Why go to the markets to raise new capital when you are confident that the government is going to bail you out?”. It seems likely bankers would have gotten better terms from the market as long as they didn’t wait until the worst part of the crisis. I’m pretty sure they gave little thought to bailouts, and relied instead on overly complacent expectations for housing prices.

The book has a number of asides that seem as important as their main points, such as claims that Britain’s greater ability to borrow money led to its military power, and its increased need for military manpower drove its expansion of the franchise.


Book review: War in Human Civilization by Azar Gat.

This ambitious book has some valuable insights into what influences the frequency of wars, but is sufficiently long-winded that I wasn’t willing to read much more than half of it (I skipped part 2).

Part 1 describes the evolutionary pressures which lead to war, most of which ought to be fairly obvious.

One point that seemed new to me in that section was the observation that for much of the human past, group selection was almost equivalent to kin selection because tribes were fairly close kin.

Part 3 describes how the industrial revolution altered the nature of war.

The best section of the book contains strong criticisms of the belief that democracy makes war unlikely (at least with other democracies).

Part of the reason for the myth that democracies don’t fight each other was people relying on a database of wars that only covers the period starting in 1815. That helped people overlook many wars between democracies in ancient Greece, the 1812 war between the US and Britain, etc.

A more tenable claim is that something associated with modern democracies is deterring war.

But in spite of number of countries involved and the number of years in which we can imagine some of them fighting, there’s little reason to consider the available evidence for the past century to be much more than one data point. There was a good deal of cultural homogeneity across democracies in that period. And those democracies were part of an alliance that was unified by the threat of communism.

He suggests some alternate explanations for modern peace that are only loosely connected to democracy, including:

  • increased wealth makes people more risk averse
  • war has become less profitable
  • young males are a smaller fraction of the population
  • increased availability of sex made men less desperate to get sex by raping the enemy (“Make love, not war” wasn’t just a slogan)

He has an interesting idea about why trade wasn’t very effective at preventing wars between wealthy nations up to 1945 – there was an expectation that the world would be partitioned into a few large empires with free trade within but limited trade between empires. Being part of a large empire was expected to imply greater wealth than a small empire. After 1945, the expectation that trade would be global meant that small nations appeared viable.

Another potentially important historical change was that before the 1500s, power was an effective way of gaining wealth, but wealth was not very effective at generating power. After the 1500s, wealth became important to being powerful, and military power became less effective at acquiring wealth.

Book review: The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, by Steven Pinker.

Pinker provides a cautiously optimistic view of the dramatic reduction in violence over the past few centuries. He has tied together a wide variety of violent behavior (from genocide to cruelty to animals) into one broad pattern of people becoming more civilized.

He mostly covers the west, and I wished for more about the trends in the mideast and the more peaceful parts of asia. And why does he avoid commenting on the reported homicide rate for Somalia that’s less than the US – does he have reject the data as inaccurate, or does he want to ignore evidence that’s inconsistent with his claim that the rise of leviathan reduced crime?

The substance of the book is less reassuring than a casual glance would suggest. In particular, the section on the power law distribution of war deaths shows that the model he uses says the expected number of war deaths is infinite, apparently due to small probabilities of really destructive wars. It’s easy to overlook this disturbing implication if you aren’t reading carefully. I’m disappointed that Pinker didn’t talk about this more – how is it altered if we try to incorporate the finiteness of the available population? Should we focus a lot of our attention on avoiding unlikely megawars?

He cautiously speculates about possible causes (increased global communications, trade, democracy, self-control, reason, feminization, education, and intelligence via the Flynn effect).

If you’re an ideologue looking for an excuse to be offended, you’re fairly sure to find one in this book.

Pinker exaggerates the evidence for violence among hunter-gatherers (see the book Sex at Dawn for the other side of this debate). And the evidence Pinker does present is quite consistent with the hypothesis that violence increased when people switched from hunter-gatherers to stationary farmers.

The book is very long, and that’s not due to a simple desire to be thorough. Much of the evidence seems selected more for vividness and memorability (e.g. his evidence from fairy tales – not completely frivolous, but insignificant enough evidence that he wouldn’t have put it in a peer-reviewed article).

I didn’t learn enough from it to justify the time spent, but the ideas in it deserve to be known more widely.

The Frequency of Wars

The frequency of wars (pdf) by Mark Harrison and Nikolaus Wolf has some disturbing claims about the trend in wars. Despite many measures (such as fatalities) showing good trends,

One indicator has moved persistently in the wrong direction. How many countries are at war at any given time? Exploiting the Uppsala dataset on armed conflicts, backdated to 1946 and updated to 2005, Joseph Hewitt has noted upward trends in the annual percentage

That’s not as bad as it sounds, since an increase in the number of countries has played an important role in that trend (recognition of new countries can change the number of countries involved in a given conflict without any change in the violence in a given region). Still, that’s hard to reconcile with the widespread belief that wars are becoming rarer.

They suggest that more effective tax collection has provided governments with the ability to wage more wars than they could afford in the middle ages, and this has had more effect on the frequency of war than changes in the desire for war.

It’s not due to failed states – wealthy countries are as likely to start wars as poor countries. Democracy and international trade don’t by themselves do much if anything to reduce wars – only democracies without term limits engage in fewer wars:

democracies where leaders are subject to term limits are as likely to make war as autocratic states ­ and term limits are increasingly widespread.

Douglas Gibler who suggests that peace and democracy are joint symptoms of stable borders, not the other way around.

Trade and democracy are traditionally thought of as goods, both in themselves, and because they reduce the willingness to go to war, conditional on the national capacity to do so. But the same factors may also have been increasing the capacity for war, and so its frequency.

Martin, Thierry Mayer, and Mathias Thoenig have shown that trade had a double effect on the relative frequency of pairwise conflict. More bilateral trade reduced this frequency, but more multilateral trade raised it. Over time both multilateral and bilateral openness increased on average, but the net effect was positive. For any country pair separated by less than 1,000 kilometers, globalization from 1970 to 2000 raised the probability of conflict by one fifth (from 3.7 to 4.5 percent). On the interpretation of Martin and his co-authors, the same forces that widened the scope of multilateral trade made bilateral war less costly.

Britain relied overwhelmingly on imported calories. Despite this, in two world wars Britain had little difficulty in feeding its people. In contrast, those countries that believed themselves secure [due to abundant local crops] were the first to run short of food.

One encouraging point – starting wars probably isn’t rewarded:

On the record of all wars since 1700, to start one attracts a 60 percent probability of defeat.

Do these claims have any implications for the desirability of seasteading (i.e. could increasing the number of “countries” via seasteading have the same association with increasing frequency of wars as on land)?

It’s unclear whether a seastead that flies the flag of Panama would be an additional country in the relevant sense. They might be more like British colonies for quite a while, although that analogy has unpleasant long-term implications if their relations with their affiliated country deteriorate they way Britains relations with it’s colonies did.

New land-based countries are often the results of conflicts (e.g. Kosovo). Creating seasteads that way appears less feasible.

It’s unclear whether seasteads will have borders sufficiently similar to land-based borders to produce similar disputes over where the border should be.

And the societies that seem most seastead-like (Singapore, Hong Kong, Dubai) seem peaceful.

(HT FuturePundit).

Book review: Wired for War: The Robotics Revolution and Conflict in the 21st Century, by P. W. Singer.

This book covers a wide range of topics related to robotics and war. The author put a good deal of thought into what topics we ought to pay attention to, but provides few answers that will tell us how to avoid problems. The style is entertaining. That doesn’t necessarily interfere with the substance, but I have some suspicions that the style influenced the author to be a bit more superficial than he ought to be.

I’m disappointed by his three-paragraph treatment of EMP risks. He understands that EMPs could cause major problems, but he failed to find any of the ideas people have about mitigating the risk.

With some lesser-known risks, the attention he provides may be helpful at reducing the danger. For instance, he identifies overconfidence as an important cause of war, and points out that the hype often created by designers of futuristic devices such as robots can cause leaders to overestimate their military value. This ought to be repeated widely enough that leaders will be aware of the danger.

He expresses some interesting concerns about how unmanned vehicles blur the lines between soldiers in battle and innocent civilians. Is a civilian technician who is actively working on an autonomous vehicle that is about to engage in hostile action against an enemy an ‘illegal combatant’? Does a pilot walking to work in Nevada to pilot a drone that will drop bombs in Afghanistan a military target?

Iraq policies

Since mideast military policy appears to be one of the most important issues in this presidential campaign, I’m mentioning the best criticisms I’ve seen of the leading candidates’ plans:
Obama Imitates Olmert points out the problems with expecting air power to help the U.S. retain some control over Iraq (i.e. if Obama will withdraw troops from Iraq, he ought to give up hope of influencing whatever violence is left behind).
The amount of money that the U.S. has apparently needed to pay the enemy to stop fighting raises serious doubts about McCain’s hope that Iraq is being stabilized in any sustainable way (HT David Brin).

Book review: Black Rednecks And White Liberals by Thomas Sowell.
Thomas Sowell is a pretty smart guy. It’s unfortunate that he wastes his skills on reinforcing peoples’ existing political opinions. Much of what he says in this book is right, but the new ideas it offers don’t seem like they ought to change the political opinions of anyone who has thought much about racial politics. And the old but wise arguments are written in a style that seems designed to turn off anyone who isn’t already a fan of Sowell’s ideas.
He presents interesting evidence that the culture of black ghettos came from parts of Britain that were uncivilized at the time its bearers moved to the southern U.S. This is the kind of subject where it’s virtually impossible for most readers to tell whether he’s being objective or selecting evidence to fit his biases. More importantly, it’s hard to tell why it matters. Some people pay lip service to the authenticity of black culture, but I find it hard to believe that the origins of the culture several centuries ago plays an important role in peoples’ choice to adopt the culture.
One interesting aspect of Sowell’s story is that the large migration from the rural south to the urban north after WWII did not result in the usual assimilation of the migrants into the culture of the area they moved to. How much of that was due to the number of migrants, to their culture, or to their race? Sowell ignores this subject.
Sowell’s argument that western civilization was responsible for the nearly worldwide abolition of slavery seems mostly right, but I’m disturbed by his exaggerations. He misleads readers into thinking that the first abolitionists were western, but a quick web search told me that Cyrus the Great wanted to abolish slavery worldwide two millennia earlier.
There are several places in the book where he makes confident, unsupported assertions as if they were certain, when I doubt anyone has enough evidence to make anything better than a rough guess. For instance, he thinks George Washington couldn’t have gotten a prohibition on slavery into the constitution without driving the south out of the union (plausible, but it depends on hard-to-verify assumptions about his powers of persuasion), and that slavery would have lasted longer without the union (a controversial enough claim that abolitionists such as William Lloyd Garrison seemed to reject it, claiming the north would be a better haven for runaway slaves if it seceded and repealed the Fugitive Slave Law). There are probably some leftists who unfairly attack Washington for failing to accomplish more than he could possibly accomplish, but I don’t see signs that they get respect from anyone who would listen to Sowell.
I’m quite suspicious of Sowell’s claim that Hitler’s pretenses of having been provoked into military action were intended only to fool people in Germany. Even if people in other countries had enough information to know Hitler was lying, it’s easy to imagine that a fair number of them were looking for a way to rationalize neutrality, and that Hitler was helping them to fool themselves.