Ukraine Post #2: Options

Or: Why the current situation once again proves the need for all of my pre-existing policy preferences.

Writing about the war is continuing to prove difficult, as things move quickly, the epistemic environment continues to be almost maximally hostile and a lot of elements are things where I was not previously up to speed.

I want to build a model of the situation, which leads to the problem of where even to begin, yet the speed premium beckons and although having a newborn is great as you can imagine I’m on less than ideal amounts of sleep and free time.

Thus it seems worthwhile to skip ahead a bit and ask the practical question first. Assume for the sake of discussion that we prefer people doing better and not dying to people doing worse and dying, and agree that we do not want Russia to win the war

What would then be our options, either individually or collectively? What can we do?

(Where the collective ‘we’ here is some combination of ‘America’, ‘America + EU/NATO’ and ‘everyone everywhere who wants this same general set of outcomes.’)

I indeed strongly prefer such outcomes.

If you don’t prefer such outcomes enough to care, this post is not trying to convince you to change your mind and is probably not for you. That would be a very different post, and I don’t know what the True Objection would be of most people open to being convinced.  

If you do prefer such outcomes, there are a lot of different potential approaches.

On a personal level, one could:

  1. Provide military aid (e.g. by giving money directly to Ukraine).
  2. Provide humanitarian aid (e.g. by giving money to those that provide it).
  3. Lobby or advocate for better government policies or corporate actions.
  4. Attempt to build (and ideally share) a better understanding of the situation.
  5. Convince others to also prefer such outcomes, ideally via #4.

I am going to go ahead and advocate here for the policy responses I think are appropriate. The first ones are direct actions, which are pretty obviously:

  1. Provide military assistance to the extent we can without too much escalation.
  2. Humanitarian aid.
  3. Economic sanctions.

The rest fall under the category of ‘things worth doing anyway.’ This stuff is win-win. This means doing things like:

  1. Nuclear power.
  2. Additional other energy production of various kinds.
  3. Reconciling with other oil producers to extent possible.
  4. Carbon tax.
  5. Taking in as many Russians and Ukrainians as possible who want out.
  6. Supporting free flow of information.
  7. Everything else that’s obviously great (e.g. reduced zoning, more public transit, more building and urbanization, reduced occupational licensing, and so on…)
  8. Use better decision theory.

The approach we’ve broadly collectively selected so far seems to be best centrally described as Cancel Russia. This is leading to many useful interventions, but also to actions that are counterproductive, and causing us to miss or not take full advantage of some of the biggest opportunities.

I won’t discuss potential peace terms and what I think would be worth or not worth taking, other than to point out that any offer that fails to leave Ukraine’s armed forces and ability to continue arming intact, or that would replace the government, is an obvious non-starter, but that I think it is wise that Zelensky is willing to consider territorial concessions, and that commitments to not ‘join blocs’ are mostly cheap talk given the history of what has come before, what alternative arrangements could be made and the prospects of joining short term in any case.

Let’s get the obvious first one out of the way first, which is Military Assistance.

Military Assistance

The obvious first thing to do is provide various forms of military assistance. Every little bit helps, both increasing the probability of better direct outcomes and giving negotiating leverage. Winning and success beget winning and success.

In my model of the world, such success will make a big difference not only for the future of Ukraine but also the world in general. Marginal improvements in results, such as winning faster and more decisively or losing less so (and thus raising the imposed costs), is also big.

The threshold for being willing to take sides in a war is of course very high, but this situation seems to easily clear that bar.

Thus, if you agree with this and want to donate money, there might not be an obvious right answer but there is nothing I’ve found that dominates giving the money directly to Ukraine. You can do this with crypto or otherwise (note: I’ve had a warning this site might be dubious, I got this thread that Sam Bankman-Fried recently linked to as a more recent alternative, and a LessWrong reader suggested this one – alas I can’t currently afford to look into this more, but if you’re donating money do be careful to make sure it gets there).

If you’re in the necessary position, one could also step up and join their Foreign Legion (veterans only), otherwise source assistance directly or arrange for others to do so.

From the perspective of governments, the goal is to provide assistance in ways that are effective at improving Ukraine’s ability to fight while not causing too much escalation.

One would think the first step here is giving Ukraine sufficient money that individuals can focus their efforts elsewhere.

Then there’s all the military equipment and even volunteers, where we seem to have paid the cost of openly providing such aid, it’s proven acceptable, and so we should make the most of it. 

There’s the question of how to do things like get the Polish aircraft into Ukrainian hands and whether that poses an additional risk – I understand why flying them directly in from NATO bases seems like it should be out of play and why we rejected that, but I’m surprised there is no viable workaround. Part of the stated logic was that the aircraft are not needed or that they are crucial – they sound more important than they are and we can send other things that have more impact while causing less escalation. I am skeptical, but know less, and one advantage is that we now have a threatened escalation to deter Russian military escalations, that isn’t obviously insane to do.

Russia has deployed mercenaries but there hasn’t been much talk about mercenaries potentially showing up on the side of Ukraine, and also I haven’t seen much discussion of why they haven’t. Funding shouldn’t be an issue.

What we obviously cannot do, despite broad-based popular support for it, is impose a ‘no-fly zone’ or otherwise directly intervene in ways that cause our planes or soldiers to be firing at Russian planes, targets or soldiers.

The no-fly zone is the worst of both worlds. We 100% cannot do this, and luckily our governments realize this. We’re so used to facing a different style of foe fighting in a different style of war, where we don’t fear escalation and have automatic air superiority, that this sounds like a good idea rather than what it is, which is a commitment to acts of war that would not even help.

A no-fly zone makes sense if the enemy controls the air and is using the air in ways you want to prevent, and has no practical means of escalation.

However, the Russian military is designed with the idea that they won’t have air superiority, and is based around artillery. They have failed to achieve air superiority. They are either out of guided missiles or saving what they have left in case of escalation. It’s not clear that the Russian Air Force is capable of taking much practical advantage of the skies, or that it is getting more out of the sky than Ukraine, so a symmetrical ‘no fly zone’ might not even be net helpful.

There is an argument that failing to do this is some sort of show of weakness, of a willingness to back down in a confrontation. I mostly think that does not apply here to the autocratic leaders who matter here, who presumably all understand why it would be an insane move, but it does reinforce the need to make it clear in other ways that we are not going to be backing down from confrontations. It is hard to know if we have managed to accomplish this in the eyes of Putin.

I am worried that a lot of the people who are supporting a no-fly zone are, consciously or otherwise, supporting it because they no longer think there is a future. That they think about the literal end of the world and kind of shrug, because we’ve instilled in them that mindset through a combination of lack of opportunity and relentless rhetoric. If you literally think that there we will literally all die of climate change, or that you’ll never have the chance to raise a family, then a lot of things change.

Next up is the question of immediate humanitarian concerns.

Humanitarian Aid

There are already over two million Ukrainian refugees, and the Russians are creating much worse crises in various cities, while agreements to open humanitarian corridors seem to mostly not be honored.

Humanitarian aid in this situation punches above its weight. It helps make this the type of world we want to live in, it relieves pressure to give concessions or divert resources in order to mitigate the damage, and it helps with the Narrative of the situation and in keeping morale up and drawing the distinction between the different worlds and visions of humanity that are in conflict.

There is an urge among many I know to start comparing how much it costs to help people in need here versus in other non-conflict situations that they could see as ‘more efficient’ opportunities. Certainly not 100% of our worldwide aid resources should be redirected to the current situation, but I am confident that on the effective margin, given what resources have already been allocated to pre-existing situations, combined with a large ‘force multiplier’ on helping here, that if you personally are considering where your marginal humanitarian dollar that isn’t already committed should go, yes absolutely it should go to help with the damage done by the war – even if you need to do this via a reasonably generic method and accept that level of efficiency.

That doesn’t mean that there does not exist, somewhere, a better marginal intervention that would beat the best one here that you know about, but that is not the bar in practice.

And of course, even more than in the case of military aid, this mostly shouldn’t need to be left to private action, and it would be good to push for more public action to the extent feasible. But I doubt private action would in expectation reduce the size of public action, nor do I expect public action to be fully sufficient no matter how hard we push and there are aspects where that is all but certain.

I would like to have better targets for this than I do. This approach is at least endorsed by Sam Bankman-Fried, who I trust to be a good faith actor here who is making an effort, and I haven’t seen anything better, but as always if you have distinct knowledge then you should likely go with it. This NPR post lists many of the conventional sources, where one worry is whether your marginal contribution will pass through to help in Ukraine or it will effectively end up as general organizational funding. If it’s the latter, you can clearly do better.

Going the humanitarian route thus is helpful on multiple levels, and also you can be sure that you are doing something good. I’ve learned that a lot of people would much rather do the thing that is surely good over the thing that has higher expected value but is less certain, especially a thing that might turn out to be a sign mistake. And it’s likely good to put some amount of ‘guaranteed win’ into your portfolio for this reason alone.

A brief word on economic sanctions.

Economic Sanctions

Economic sanctions are very much a double-edged sword. Both sides get hurt, and they cause economic decoupling that we would much prefer in the long run to avoid.

By making it clear that the wrong actions will cause us to cut economic ties, the West is causing others who might be seen as taking wrong actions to wonder about their exposure to having their economic ties suddenly cut, and to whether they might lose various assets and relationships.

Will this lead to China and Russia creating a rival version of SWIFT that is out of our control? Will this lead to a shift in reserve currency or an unwillingness to hold reserves in the West? Are, as some say, any who play along with such restrictions ‘signing their own death warrants’ because the future wants to be free of such centralized restrictions and the people will rise up and reject any who bow down?

I mean, some stuff of that nature will doubtless happen. You’d be a fool not to consider your downside risks and take precautions. There will be less economic coupling, and more decoupling, due to the forward risk of sudden decoupling.

Yet the flip side of this is that by showing our willingness to use such tools, and the consequences of their use, we give strong incentive to not earn such exile in the future. We show we are not going to back down from confrontation. This matters too. There’s a lot of downside to this kind of decoupling no matter how well one plans for it. If it cannot be made an acceptable cost, but is a risk that can be prevented, then things should be fine.

Similar to the situation with the convoy, you do not want the penalty for being late to be death. You want proportional response and for people to have a way out, for Russia and whoever comes next. You want people to know that you’ll reserve extreme solutions for extreme situations, such as large scale wars of conquest. You want to hold out the ability to walk things back when the situation is settled, and ideally to specify what it would take – subject to negotiations, of course.

Instead we are doing all of this ad hoc, and in response to public pressure and largely privately in response to that pressure, which is harder to properly calibrate. And a lot of it will be hard to reverse.

Russia will to some extent be driven into the arms of China on a semi-permanent basis, as the only ones willing to trade with Russia and offer it the capacities Russia lacks. Although, if things continue much longer, it’s not clear even China will be able to do that, given its need to maintain good trade relations with the West. Mostly I see this as a sunk cost at this point.

I do think ‘no one trusts us not to do it to them and so they can’t work with us or trust our institutions’ is a real risk, but I consider it only the #3 risk here, or at least largely downwind of #2.

The #2 risk in my view is that we could be unable to prevent this from happening again, perhaps in a situation where it is deeply unwise. If this is essentially a cancellation, even if a cancellation is wise and appropriate one must worry about the selection process. Especially if the target next time might be China. We need a plan to ensure this is not done lightly.

The #1 risk I worry about is that we’ll create a permanent enemy by driving Russia to ruin and not picking up the pieces afterwards. That we’ll repeat the mistake of the Treaty of Versailles, and the mistake we made not giving Russia a lot more help in 1991. Our administration has spoken of ‘the ruins of the Russian economy’ being a lesson to others, and that is indeed a lesson but historically results have been far better when helping afterwards. The whole sanctions plan must involve a full more-than-reversal afterwards if we get everything we want.

Next up is the battle over information.

Information War

Right now, Russians have a highly distorted picture of what is happening in Ukraine.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t also have a distorted picture, but I’m confident it’s not on the same level.

To the extent that there is still independent media in Russia that can still spread the word on what is happening, and that can utilize support, that seems obviously high value. To the extent that you can help communicate what is going on to people in Russia in other ways, that also seems worthwhile.

Cutting off Russia from the outside world does the opposite. For example, someone or some group seems to have been screwing with people’s ability to make phone calls to Russia, and that seems super counterproductive on so many levels.

Trying to figure out what is going on, distinguishing sources and figuring out what is true and who is reliable, building a model of events, and sharing such work with others, and other neat stuff like that, also seems valuable.

As one would expect, I do not think that ‘shape the Narrative to be as favorable to Ukraine as possible’ is The Way. Whether or not there should be any propaganda ever, and acknowledging that the lines will always blur, there is clearly currently too much propaganda on the margin. There’s a ‘stop, stop, he’s already dead’ vibe here, and having an accurate picture matters a lot.

There is also way too much suppression of unfavorable information, whether it be accurate or inaccurate, and whether or not it directly aims to support Russia. When I put out my previous post, someone contacted me privately to let me know of sources that would give the Russian point of view because they felt afraid to share that information in public. This is not a healthy situation. We have to be better.

After I wrote that, it became clear the EU is doing the opposite, and further putting the burden on social media and search engines to actively censor disfavored information sources. This seems super terrible and a major escalation of the existing EU war on free speech. It’s not clear to me the extent this creates a duty to proactively monitor all social media content on one’s platform, but that is my default way to interpret this order on first reading – ‘must be deleted’ presumably means exactly that, your call figuring out how that might happen. 

Similarly, the way we treat Russian citizens and Russian cultural everything and such has to be better.

Canceling Russia vs Welcoming Russians

We need to very much draw a distinction between Putin, Russia the country, and Russians as people and as a culture.

Sanctions on Russia the country, and ceasing to do business with it or otherwise aid the war machine, makes perfect sense, especially when it comes to energy. But that’s the country, not the people.

The rush to cancel all Russians and all things Russian is no good and terrible. Not only does it need to stop, we need to do the opposite. There is nothing wrong with a Russian restaurant, or a Russian singer, or a Russian composer, or a Russian writer. There is nothing to hold against Russians living abroad. Those here have made a choice to be here. They are not our enemies, they are our friends. Or at least, they will be if we don’t make them our enemies through a new McCarthyism.

The worst cases, like a clinic in Munich that refused to treat Russians, seem to backtrack and in this case apologize after public outcries, which is a relief, but also should not be necessary. 

The best weapon in our arsenal is that we offer a better life, and we especially offer a better life to Russia’s youth and their best and brightest. These are people Russia depends on, as it ages and depopulates. Yet Russia neither presents them with opportunity nor offers them status nor treats them well. 44% of young Russians want to leave.

The obviously overwhelmingly correct and most important thing to do is to invite any citizen of either Russia or Ukraine to come live here, in America (and also the EU/UK), ideally with a full path to citizenship.

Not only is it the right thing to do for them, doing so strengthens us while weakening Russia severely. These people should be welcome even if they are a burden, but they are not a burden. We have plenty of depopulated cities that would love to have them.

Lesser versions of this are not as good, but are still vital if we can’t get the full version for all Russians.

At a minimum, as much as I hate credentialism, we could do this for anyone with a college degree and/or a qualifying job offer. That makes it very clear that such people will be a net benefit to us.

And notice that this proposal did not mention Russia. That was intentional. There will no doubt be lots of objections about how it’s unfair to offer these opportunities to Russians but not to others elsewhere, with and without charges of racism.

So you know what? Not a problem. If it’s conditioned on such things, we can easily offer it to everyone, everywhere. We benefit, they benefit, and Putin can’t say a thing in response because we’re treating everyone the same.

Obviously support for large increases in immigration, even skilled immigration is not there right now. And there are some very strong arguments against unlimited unskilled immigration (also known as open borders). But opposition to or limiting of skilled immigration has never seemed to me to make any sense. This context could be a way to find the necessary support, as it has at times in the past.

That leads into the general best things we can do, which is to get our house in order.

To Fix The Problem of Russia, Fix the World

Russia’s diplomatic support comes from autocratic countries that generally support other autocrats. Its opponents are largely democracies. Strengthening the free world, or making it more attractive, in any sense, helps tip the scales. Getting our economic houses in order, making our countries better places to live, having more people live in those places, they all help.

When times are good, support for freedom, trade and democracy tends to rise. When times are not so good, people turn elsewhere. For many reasons, we need better times.

Russia draws much of its strength from people who would prefer to be elsewhere, as noted above, that could instead lend strength to us, but which are turned away.

Russia even benefits from climate change due to its geography.

On top of all that, Russia’s economic backbone is oil and gas, which we want to do away with regardless. Without huge profits from oil and gas, the state could not sustain itself or its war machine.

This Twitter thread proposes a model of why this dependence is so complete. In this model, Russia is essentially a kleptocratic mafia state. In a mafia, character traits and behaviors necessary to maintain high status and not have one’s resources expropriated require a focus on violence, dominance, zero-sum competition for status and unpredictability. Such a focus is incompatible with the management of complex manufacturing operations. Not only are those who rise within a mafia-style system to have power and money incapable of complex operations, but they also can ill afford to empower those who do have such an ability. If they do, the balance of power might shift to those who can manage such operations. Internal creation that they can’t control is power they can’t wield and will belong to someone else who thinks differently, and thus is a threat. So they prevent it from happening, and outsource such creation elsewhere.

This results in a Russia that is far more dependent on outsiders and the West than it realizes, and also keeps Russia from prospering because those with power actively do not want this to happen. It is The Resource Curse on steroids.

Similarly, in this model, a lot of the Russian army’s problems stem from its budget being diverted to things like yacht purchases, as the state is incapable of keeping itself honest on this kind of scale and isn’t especially trying to do so.

I’m not confident this person’s model is entirely correct and would appreciate insight on the extent to which it is and to what extent their other similar threads can also be trusted – if they can, then this is by far the best source I’ve found for actual model building on the underlying situation, and it seems like it’s right, but I want to be get independent confirmation I can trust so I can be more confident and build upon what’s there, a lot of which is fascinating and paints a rich and consistent picture.

I want to explore those bigger questions more later, but mostly the point is that Russia’s revenue, and also its leverage over the West, stems from us not having our house in order. It is because we depend on Russian oil and gas. There’s also a looming problem with fertilizer and wheat and some mineral resources, which could be a big deal, but which in dollar terms is very secondary.

So the list of all of My Pre-Existing Policy Proposals would start in the obvious place.

Energy

Not being dependent on Russian oil and gas was a very good idea a month ago or a year ago. It would be a very good idea even if Russia was a reliable partner in trade and in peace and its government was a force for good, because climate change is a thing and supplies of oil and gas are limited.

The solutions here are all rather obvious, and they all work together. The more of them we do, the better things go.

When you don’t do any of them, you end up with Germany where they say they’re all about the environment, but they go about it by shutting down nuclear plants, and thus energy prices go nuts and Germany’s solution looks like it’s going to be to burn more coal. Madness.

So let’s start with the obvious: Nuclear power.

We need to build tons of new nuclear power plants, in both America and Europe. All that stands between us and this goal is to stop being idiots, take away regulations that effectively ban it, and then commission a bunch of plants. Or simply stop imposing undue burdens and let private investment happen. It’s known tech.

Nuclear power under reasonable regulatory regimes is cheap, safe, abundant, clean and effective. New reactor models are even more all of that than old models. The idea of nuclear power is scary and thus people have it in their heads that it is unsafe, but compared to the safety downsides of all the practical alternatives none of the safety objections are serious.

Yet we cannot build any new plants, because the official policy is to never approve a new plant. We have defined an unsafe nuclear plant as a plant that is capable of producing energy at competitive prices – if the prices would be competitive, the official policy is to insist on additional money spent on safety, without regard to any sort of cost/benefit. So no new approvals and no new plants under this regime, at all. This madness must end.

On the margin, energy produced by nuclear power is trading off against oil, gas and coal use. This is very much not hard. It would not be hard, again, even if Russia was not a concern.

This is the 100% obvious complete slam dunk. I find myself mostly unable to take seriously, on this or any other topic, anyone who looked into this at all and is in opposition.

Next up of course is Non-Nuclear Green Energy. I say non-nuclear because the idea of a category ‘green’ that does not include nuclear is pure absurdity, and it’s important that category boundaries reflect reality.

As people have suddenly been realizing, a bunch of NIMBY-style objections and huge other regulatory burdens have been severely slowing the building of various renewable forms of energy. People’s local concerns have been allowed to hold up things that are orders of magnitude more important.

This is the perfect time to ensure that the more important concerns here take precedence, and require a huge burden before we are willing to consider stopping or slowing down a new windmill, solar panel, hydro or geothermal project. I keep hearing that the entire fate of the world is at stake here, and now it has an additional justification. I really, really, really don’t care about your obstructed ocean view or that there would be a power line through a forest, or some obscure endangered habitat, stop it, just stop, shut up and multiply.

We can also offer additional direct subsidies, but mostly it isn’t necessary because the economics work fine. The best subsidy is of course to correct for externalities of alternatives through a carbon tax, but some direct help is fine too.

When I shared a draft of this I got objections to the claim that nuclear’s cost is cheap enough on the theory that solar is already pretty cheap (remember not to count tax subsidies in the calculation) and will become cheaper on the relevant time frames for building new plants. I do agree this is possible, but it seems far from certain even if we go full out on solar, especially when requiring it to scale on the level of ‘the entire electrical grid,’ and considering the storage issues involved in too heavy a reliance on solar power on that scale. This seems to me like a clear case of Why Not Both given the magnitude of the costs versus the benefits – you’d like to rely purely on solar most of the time in the worlds where it’s cheap and can scale that big fast enough, including because it conserves uranium, but you don’t know you live in those worlds and even if you do you’d like a backup system to relieve pressure on the necessary amount of storage so you’re fine in case of unusual weather events.

Also worth noting that all this includes better support for research into and other work on Fusion and other potential energy sources, to the extent that such things are viable, which I haven’t investigated.

The trickier one in a political sense is Oil and Gas Production, but in a practical sense it is not so tricky. High prices will lead to more production, although with meaningful lead times required. We can of course also help with this by loosening various restrictions on production, especially fracking, and we should do that. Whatever the trade-off was a month ago, the trade-off is different now, and the rules need to reflect that. Long term, we’ll be reducing usage, short term the costs of ow production are looking mind boggling. Making this concession also helps balance the scales in various ways.

Notice that no one objects much to other countries like Saudi Arabia raising production. Quite the opposite.

Then there’s the issue of what to do about Iran and Venezuela. We are talking to both trying to work out deals to get their oil flowing. Iran is a strange case here because Russia is their ally, and because they suddenly have even less reason to be willing to not pursue nuclear weapons. So any deal would require that they ‘switch sides’ and be actual friends, or it seems like it would backfire. For Venezuela, the worry is propping up the regime with cash and making things there that much worse. I’m not sure how the cost/benefit works out here.

Certainly we should be calling in chips to get increased oil production in places with slack capacity that we are already putting up with, and the countries that have the ability to do that should go along with it. Super high prices causes behavioral change that kills the golden goose, and they get the chips.

Even trickier is the canonical obviously correct but deeply unpopular policy, the Carbon Tax, or its more accepted incomplete alternative the Gasoline Tax. Insanely, there are calls for a gas tax holiday or other cut, at exactly the time when we need to reduce consumption. That’s why the price is going up. A price is a signal wrapped up in an incentive.

We want the price of using oil and gas to be super high. The price being high is great. It means people will consume less of it.

The problem, of course, is that the money is largely going to bad actors, and a lot of it to Russia, because they’re the ones selling and they get market price. Even Russia will still get a good fraction of market price, and market prices are high.

High energy prices hit the poor especially hard. This can of course be solved by using some or even all of the revenues from all such taxes to make a combination of tax reductions and direct payments to the poor. If they get all the revenue back, it’s pretty impossible for them to not be better off. Ideally we do it in a way that reduces rather than raises implicit marginal tax rates, especially in the range where they approach or exceed 100%.

Finally, there are the other things that are obviously insanely great, that can now be recast as supporting us in this struggle. I’ll try not to belabor too much.

Other Obviously Insanely Great Things That Were My Existing Policy Proposals

Supporting reduced zoning restrictions, further building, public transportation and urbanization all improve the energy situation directly while also improving life. Getting rid of stupid remaining Covid restrictions and other pointless rules helps as well. Reducing the demands of occupational licensing generally enriches life while in particular helping to welcome new people who will show up without such licenses, but that’s where the line starts to bleed between ‘this directly actually helps with X’ and ‘this is good and good things help with X’ so I will stop there rather than further writing a laundry list.

Playing Politics

I do see this as an opportunity to take a broadly pro-growth, pro-energy, pro-brain-drain, pro-lived-experiences physically-oriented platform, color it up as ‘anti-Russia’ and sell it to people who would not have otherwise supported it, allowing us to adopt much better policies.

The question is, would such an approach be practical? Would it stick? Is it worth one’s effort? In general, it is good to be skeptical of political action, although less skeptical if the rope is being pulled sideways. You risk being caught up in zero-sum games and Hegelian dialectics. 

I do think that it makes sense for the we of ‘people of the type who are reading blogs like this’ to make some amount of effort towards such a thing. At a minimum, we should do the research to create a shovel-ready platform of such policies, framed in ways that are popular and paired with ways to get the message out to the people, such that a candidate could choose to embrace it or a lobbyist or insider could push for policy changes or offer a concrete bill when they notice the votes might be there. 

Historically, the cost of such efforts is low, often in the single digit millions, with the potential to result in huge changes some of the time. This stands in high contrast with ‘help ingroup defeat outgroup’ type efforts, where the costs are much higher and the benefits often much murkier.

My hunch is that this is where some marginal dollars are now best spent. 

The last point is that we are in this mess in large part because we’re using bad decision theory.

Better Decision Theory

If you don’t want people to present and behave towards you like cartoon villains, you need to ensure that your inevitable reactions don’t reward cartoon villainy.

If you don’t want rule by those willing to escalate and who prove willing to hurt and kill and be unpredictable, you need to not take kindly to that in a way that matters to such people.

I continue to see lots of people, smart people, people who should know much better, arguing from Causal Decision Theory. They say you could do A or B, the worlds where I choose A look better than the worlds where I choose B, so I choose A.

And that totally, totally does not work.

I mean, it’s way better than choosing B every time. And it’s better than flipping a coin. But it’s highly exploitable.

It’s even more exploitable if a lot of what you factor in is avoidance of pain and risk.

What you are doing is rewarding those who put themselves in a position to inflict pain and risk upon you, or even upon others.

Others noticing you will give in to blackmail, and that you have the ability to pay them, is what gets you blackmailed. It is why hostages are taken. It is why cartels and mafia make sure everyone knows they are violent.

Some of this is that a lot of people have various forms of trauma or otherwise have models of the world that expect those who can and do inflict pain and violate norms to win, and instinctively back them exactly because they are inflicting pain and violating norms – so they will hopefully do it on your behalf or at least to someone else. That’s a general problem.

This is the whole quote-unquote “rational” response problem. Those who ‘play CDT’ in interactions, who can be relied upon to think about the consequences of actions but not to decide on and stick to policies and principles, are sitting ducks.

A certain amount of this is tolerable and to be expected. You don’t obviously want the response to a criminal taking a hostage to always be to ignore the threat entirely, because such people often are not thinking straight and a reputation for ignoring such threats would likely come at the cost of a lot more dead innocents. Yet you also need it to not be to give the criminal whatever they want or they’ll keep doing it. You would ideally want people to be able to trust deals they make with authorities, yet there are enough irrational and stupid criminals that authorities have collectively instead decided it’s better to mostly be untrustworthy.

I do worry that this decision is based on maximizing local outcomes at the expense of long term effects. Similarly, we’ve shown that we can’t be trusted to do things like promise not to further expand NATO, because we lack the ability to keep commitments that are no longer seen as in our interest in the face of pressure. Our word is in this sense no good, and this is common knowledge. We do plausibly claim our word is good in some limited contexts, and get sufficient value out of that for it to be plausibly self-sustaining – we keep our word on things like defending NATO allies mostly because otherwise people would know that we don’t.

We do at least understand those kinds of issues somewhat – we understand that we need to ‘maintain credibility.’ So there’s at least an attempt to execute our causal decision theory properly, and look forward into the future to the consequences of what people might learn about us from our decisions. Without that all would quickly be lost. We do understand the game of whether one is seen as willing to stand up to bullies, and we occasionally play to win.

What we don’t do is use a functional decision theory. We do not consider that the decision process we use is also being and will be used and has previously been used by ourselves and others, and to choose our process with this in mind.

What we don’t do is choose decision policies that lead to good outcomes, then follow those policies, even if following them in a particular situation would turn out poorly.

In a sense, we have no honor.

In another sense, we were saved because we did have honor.

It turned out that there are things that so offend us, are so outrageous to us, that when we see them we feel the need to rise up as one in outrage. The intolerant minority often wins, and we are actually pretty good at having intolerant minorities that win, and in this case it likely wasn’t even a minority. Thus, the various calls to ‘do something’ for various somethings, whether or not such moves were ‘rational.’ Pushed by the public, and thus immune to our bad decision theory, allowing us to do what needed to be done. Where the conclusions were sufficiently counterproductive and risky, like the no-fly zone, we were able to ignore this.

How do we properly respond to people like Putin who really do care about whether someone ‘looks weak’ and other such dynamics, without adopting the mindset and culture that awards those who ‘look strong’ with power and high status? How do we stand up to someone like Putin, and have someone like Putin know in advance we will stand up to them so that we rarely ever actually have to do the standing up, but without putting someone else also like him in charge, who would likely then collaborate (at least implicitly, but also likely explicitly) with Putin and others like him against the peoples of all nations?

On a personal level, getting yourself to where you are using a functional decision theory is very much worth it, as is helping others to get there with you – it’s good even on your own, but the more people use one, the better it does. Or at a minimum, we need to give the proper disdain to those who are advocating policies that would result in handing the world to men like Putin. In some ways doing it explicitly is exactly the worst thing – you are announcing that you are easy pickings and advocating for others to be as well. Yet I still hold firm that being explicit is still the better way. Better to be wrong in a way that lets errors be corrected.

Except in a sufficiently adversarial environment, where some very smart people have made it very clear how to run over them instantly in any situation large or small, simply by making a credible presentation as someone who will keep escalating. For this and other reasons, it is good policy to not allow oneself to be taken advantage of even when the cost of not allowing this is higher than the cost of allowing it. And especially when that second cost is time. There is of course a limit, but one needs to be careful not to get into bad habits. One must keep one’s honor.

Anyway, I hope that all proves helpful. It seemed better to share my thoughts here than not share them, while I work towards more explicit model construction and analysis. Better to write what one can while trying to figure out how to write what one for now cannot.

(Comment/moderation note: Policy on politics continues to be ‘no more than necessary’ so please use your best judgment. I intend to stay out of the discussions as much as possible except when seeking information.)

(One last thing I want to explicitly ask again, since I didn’t get much response on Twitter, is that I desire people’s opinions on Kamil Galeev as a source to help model build, even if as I do one disagrees with some of the consequent projections/conclusions.)

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60 Responses to Ukraine Post #2: Options

  1. Pingback: Covid 3/10/22: We Have a Plan | Don't Worry About the Vase

  2. J.S. Bangs says:

    Start off with full disclosure: I live in a country which shares a land border with Ukraine (though I was born in the US and am a US citizen). I in fact live less than 50km from said land border, and I visited the border crossing shortly after the fighting broke out to see if there was something I could do to help. At the same time, I am one of those who thinks that “we” (the EU/US/NATO) do not need to be deeply concerned with what happens between Russia and the Ukraine.

    That said: my only big disagreement is with the section on military aid, and the reason is that I do not think there is any practical way that Ukraine can win this war. The differences in population, in industrial capacity, and in economic strength are too great. Unless we send the army in and fight the war ourselves, which is a terrible idea for multiple reasons, Ukraine is going to lose. All that we can accomplish with military aid is make them lose more slowly, but losing slowly increases the amount of death, economic damage, and suffering that will occur as a result of the war. Military aid to Ukraine is ultimately bad for both Ukrainians and Russians, and we shouldn’t do it.

    Instead, I think we should think of our role as more of an evacuation: encouraging everyone who wants to get out to get out, providing as much aid to the refugees as we possibly can, and otherwise reducing the negative fallout of the war.

    • NoPie says:

      It will not happen. Even if we don’t help Ukrainians will continue fighting for long time and will have many many deaths.
      I think the opposite – we should help Ukraine to win this war.

    • Jorge says:

      “Unless we send the army in and fight the war ourselves, which is a terrible idea for multiple reasons, Ukraine is going to lose. All that we can accomplish with military aid is make them lose more slowly, but losing slowly increases the amount of death, economic damage, and suffering that will occur as a result of the war. Military aid to Ukraine is ultimately bad for both Ukrainians and Russians, and we shouldn’t do it.”

      Did you read the section on Game Theory? This is exactly what he’s talking about- you’re choosing World A over World B, because World A looks better. But your opponent knows you use this heuristic and is prepared to exploit you every time. You have to be unpredictable to some degree. You have to abide by principles rather than short-term hedonic maximization sometimes.

      Ukraine, EU, and the US have already surprised me with their unified response. They’re willing to take pain (lots of pain, even here Stateside in the form of worse economic conditions) and choose World B in exchange for honor. We’re all worse off, but over a long-enough time frame, this changes the payoff matrix for assholes like Putin to the point where World B is actually better in deep time.

      • pithom says:

        “We’re all worse off, but over a long-enough time frame, this changes the payoff matrix for assholes like Putin to the point where World B is actually better in deep time.”

        Tell that to the people of Afrin or Nagorno-Karabakh. All this war teaches would-be conquerors (who are not actively supported by the West) is that it’s better to prepare now and use more firepower in more areas when the war starts.

    • TheZvi says:

      In addition to the game theory issues, I actually think it’s wrong to think Ukraine can’t win. In modern warfare, sending a 200k-strong army into a nation of 40mm people that has conscription and that is unified in its violent opposition to you being there seems like very much not enough men to me, especially when they are ill equipped and low morale.

      Meanwhile Ukraine has tons of outside support, including an already 40k+ strong foreign legion of veterans, a huge morale advantage, on its home field, while Russia’s economy is in freefall, is unable to mass produce good new military equipment, and they aren’t making any moves to mobilize the kind of manpower they would need to take the cities.

      Like everyone else I did not expect Russia to try this, with a lot of my reasoning being that yes they could win the initial fight but they’d never be able to retain control – and now they’ve done so badly I don’t think it’s even going to come to that.

      • pithom says:

        “Meanwhile Ukraine has tons of outside support, including an already 40k+ strong foreign legion of veterans, a huge morale advantage, on its home field, while Russia’s economy is in freefall, is unable to mass produce good new military equipment, and they aren’t making any moves to mobilize the kind of manpower they would need to take the cities.”

        These are all ridiculous assumptions. Where’s the evidence for this “huge morale advantage” or “40k+ strong foreign legion of veterans” or “Russia being unable to mass produce good new military equipment”? The only thing going in favor of Ukraine is that the West is subsidizing its budget. But the territorial gains, casualty ratios of both men and materiel, balance of airpower and artillery, and potential and actual manpower ratios are all squarely on the side of the Russians. Even the budget is (remarkably), despite the recession in Russia. Most crucially, this war is far, far more important for Putin than it is for Zelensky.

    • Lambert says:

      Russia only has 3x the population, and being on the defensive is generally considered to give you a 3:1 advantage. And urban combat, where the defender is even stronger, hasn’t really begun in earnest.

  3. Jon S says:

    Another thing worth doing anyway: now is an excellent time to stop minting pennies and probably nickels.

    • TheZvi says:

      The one I was kicking myself for after was not mentioning the Jones Act.

      But yes, among many many other things, with nickel prices totally insane we shouldn’t be making nickels, and pennies aren’t worth it.

  4. alesziegler says:

    I might be wrong, by I think that alleged “promise not to expand NATO” exists largely as a matter of Russian propaganda. Once I tried to dig into this matter, but it is very murky.

    When it comes to humanitarian aid, I suggest that perhaps marginally better than anything on NPR list is People in Need, relatively large Czech NGO that has an experience from many conflicts (e.g. Chechna and Syria). They have comparative advantage in that they know very well how to operate in postcommunist world. Their english page for donating specifically to Ukrainian issues is here: https://www.peopleinneed.net/people-in-need-continues-support-ukraine-8586gp.

    • TheZvi says:

      Thanks for the link.

      On the NATO question, I remember pretty distinctly this being a real thing as a condition of German unification. Obviously we decided we were not bound by whatever we said, and I’m not claiming we should have been or not, but I do think they believed we’d agreed to it.

      • alesziegler says:

        Well, I am too young to remember German reunification. If it indeed was a real, clear promise known to the public, it was buried pretty thoroughly by “powers that be”, so it is difficult for new generation to find its traces.

        E.g. wikipedia article on NATO enlargement (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Enlargement_of_NATO) says this: “Though the topic may have been raised during the treaty’s negotiations, there is no mention of NATO enlargement in the September–October 1990 agreements on German reunification.[11] Whether or not Hans-Dietrich Genscher and James Baker, as representatives from NATO member states, informally committed to not enlarge NATO east of East Germany during these and contemporary negotiations with Soviet counterparts has long been a matter of dispute among historians and international relations scholars, with many arguments for[12][13] and against[14][15] it. Declassified documents[12] reignited the controversy in 2017,[16] which is discussed in more detail in the article on the Treaty on the Final Settlement with Respect to Germany#Eastward expansion of NATO.”

    • NoPie says:

      It doesn’t matter because promises that lead to bad outcomes do not need to be kept.

      If the Baltic states hadn’t joined NATO they would be in place of Ukraine today. Ukraine’s missed the boat and that was its only mistake.

  5. Anonymous-backtick says:

    On nuclear: “This is the 100% obvious complete slam dunk. I find myself mostly unable to take seriously, on this or any other topic, anyone who looked into this at all and is in opposition.”

    On the one hand, well, of course. On the other hand, I don’t understand the idea of taking this as a special case, instead of a completely representative case of the entire core essence of Progressivism, where you identify a problem (in this case, pollution/climate change/energy costs, take your pick), get yourself put in charge of fixing it, then do every single remotely plausibly deniable thing you can to make the problem worse so your prominence, authority, and budget increase. It’s exactly like the war on poverty, antiterror, race relations, criminal justice reform, etc. etc. etc. etc.

  6. thechaostician says:

    There are two points that you gave a one word mention to, but which I think are important:

    There has been a lot of talk about Russia the energy exporter, but very little about Russia the food exporter. Russia & Ukraine are both major exporters of wheat & seed oils. Almost all of this flows through the Black Sea and so is likely to be physically disrupted by the war, instead of just by sanctions. Food exports are not nearly as important to the Russian economy as energy, but they are extremely important to the importers, especially Egypt. About 40% of the bread eaten in Egypt comes from Russian & Ukrainian wheat. [1] The US has spare agricultural capacity, so this is a problem we can solve, but we need to solve it now, before all the spring wheat is planted.

    The de jure and de facto bans on fracking in Europe need to be removed. Fracking is unambiguously better than importing Russian natural gas. [2] Any country which imports Russian natural gas should pursue fracking instead.

    [1] https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/2/17/infographic-russia-ukraine-and-the-global-wheat-supply-interactive
    [2] Fracking is not as good as nuclear power, so France banning fracking is not nearly as absurd as Germany banning fracking. Fracking does have the benefit that it is possible to built new capacity in a few months, which would be hard for nuclear today even with a better regulatory regime.

    • TheZvi says:

      Yeah, that’s a good point. We outright subsidize leaving many plots unplanted and generally have extra capacity to farm, so it would be pretty easy to drastically upscale wheat production – of course, the price of wheat is already way up so presumably we should be doing that anyway? But we can help to improve that a bunch.

      Fracking mostly seemed like a special case of other stuff so I didn’t say more on it.

      • thechaostician says:

        Hopefully early increases in food prices will have already convinced us to plant more wheat.

        I’ve been binging the threads by Kamil Galeev. He does not meet Scott Alexander’s standards of a good Russia predictor: predict both (1) Russia will invade and (2) Ukraine will resist. Instead, Galeev predicted on Feb 16 that “Putin is reluctant to start a full scale invasion of Ukraine” [1]. He thought Russia’s goal was to keep Ukraine as a failed state [2]. Galeev also strikes me as overconfident that Russia will lose the war, which he predicted on Feb 27 [3], and the this will cause the fall of Putin’s regimes, like how the Russo-Japanese and Soviet-Afghan wars caused the fall of those regimes [4]. Both of these are plausible, but I don’t think that confidence is warranted. He does have a detailed model of how the internal dynamics of the Russian regime works, which (hopefully) has contact with reality at lots of points. But just because your model is mostly correct, that doesn’t mean that it always produces correct high level decisions.

        [1] https://twitter.com/kamilkazani/status/1493968165717561346
        [2] https://twitter.com/kamilkazani/status/1492980733362724866
        [3] https://twitter.com/kamilkazani/status/1497993363076915204
        [4] https://twitter.com/kamilkazani/status/1501678132218286084

        • TheZvi says:

          I don’t think those are good criteria. That’s what we like to call ‘resulting’ rather than asking what one *should* have predicted and why. My understanding is that most of those *inside the Russian government* did not expect Putin to attack (or at least, not until USA announced it). Given that, I think that predicting the invasion as a full-on thing certainly shouldn’t be a ‘if you didn’t predict this you are Jon Snow’ situation.

          I do agree he is overconfident in his conclusions, and presents evidence to support a model rather than presenting both sides. Those are serious weaknesses.

  7. George H. says:

    OMG Kamil Galeev’s twitter threads are awesome. (Still reading..) (And I thought I hated twitter.) I have no idea about truthfulness or whatever confirmation you are asking about. I will say what I did find confusing from news reports (like WTF is up with the convoy, and why paratroopers?) now makes a lot more sense if you believe his take on things. I must admit I’m suddenly much more hopeful of the outcome. I think we / Ukrainians need to give Putin some face saving concessions and stop the senseless fighting. I hope that can come sooner rather than later. Putin’s a big bully with nukes.

    • TheZvi says:

      Yeah, Galeev is definitely super awesome and makes Twitter into an art form, and helps explain a ton of stuff that doesn’t otherwise make any sense. And he has a ton of followers and makes lots of claims, so as time goes by and I don’t see many claims he’s getting things very wrong, I’m inclined to think he’s centrally getting things right.

      As for concessions to save face, the question is what would be sufficient. If ‘recognize Crimea and Donbass and otherwise leave and never come back’ that’s one thing, if it’s much more than that it’s another.

      • Mike Bloomberg Approves of this Message says:

        Yet notwithstanding your Love Letter to Big Twitter, Galeev would be so much better in a blog-format. I’m not going to spend 10 or 20 hours getting a twitter handle and configuring it to make it non-terrible, when 90% of the problem is the medium. Imagine if Einstein chose to float bits of general relativity theory down the shore in bottles instead of publishing papers; that is how twitter feels to us non-believers.

        • TheZvi says:

          I do think that long threads like that (plus threads of threads) makes it very feasible to read him as a normal blog. But yes, I’d prefer he have a normal blog created with a similar level of quality and attention to the medium.

        • George H. says:

          Hmm, OK I’m not on twitter, and I mostly hate twitter links. But if you follow Zvi’s last link, you get a thread of threads… which is actually pretty cool, and works from my computer with no twitter account on my part. You can use the back button on your browser to get back to the ‘thread of thread, table of contents’. And though I formally hated twitter, geesh I may check out Galeev’s posts. It’s information packed and entertaining and about Ukraine/Russia*. And perhaps like a haiku, the limited format of twitter can be a good thing… you’re forced to edit yourself. I do like him, and he may not be as good on a different format… IDK.

      • George H. says:

        Yeah concessions and peace may be a pipe dream on my part. And yeah no more than formal recognition of Crimea and Donbass. I don’t see anyway Ukraine goes along with this. They are going to want to be paid for all the damage*… and I can’t blame them.
        Oh and the west would agree to lift sanctions on Russia, let their economy come back.
        This is my favorite outcome though, I really feel sorry about the suffering of the Ukrainian and Russian people.. (the suffering of the Russians is yet to come, but seems inevitable.)
        (I guess the counter question is what about the suffering Iraqis?)

        *well maybe EU and US and rest of world can agree to help Ukraine out.. this in the long run is getting Ukraine into EU and ‘the west’. I think the right politician could sell that in the EU.

      • pithom says:

        “Or at a minimum, we need to give the proper disdain to those who are advocating policies that would result in handing the world to men like Putin”

        That is not the question. The question is one of creating a stable equilibrium which Russia and the U.S. can both support. The equilibrium of 2015-2020 was unstable, much like that in Karabakh, and was a classic example of the unfinished business of partition of the Soviet Union. That unfinished business is being remedied. It was “standing up to Putin” that got Ukraine into this mess in the first place. That’s why Putin decided appeasement of the West had failed.

  8. Gullydwarf says:

    RE Russian state being a kleptocracy / mafia (at the top, less mafioso the farther you are from power) – this is correct, mostly agreed-upon point in Russian intellectual circles.
    – there is a sizeable IT sector sufficiently distanced from power to work mostly like regular businesses in US / Europe
    – there is economic theory of why Russian state ended up with kleptocrats at the top – see https://www.patreon.com/posts/kornai-on-anti-15037261 , and then (as mentioned by Steve Keen few times in his Patreon posts), if you are a factory manager, and need to meet your quotas, but official suppliers didn’t deliver – well, you use your ‘connections’ to either get resources to meet that quota (and/or shift blame)
    – Ukraine, Belarus and ex-Soviet Central Asia also have the same problem (to a quite large – but varying from country to country – degree), due to identical genesis of their ruling elites

    • TheZvi says:

      Makes sense, thanks. The IT sector seems like something they’re trying to protect (e.g. they don’t let IT people leave if they realize who you are).

  9. bugsbycarlin says:

    I know you’re new to the space and trying to catch up, but it’s still good to place a premium on fact checking.

    “Will this lead to China and Russia creating a rival version of SWIFT that is out of our control?”

    They *already did*!

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/SPFS

    It’s connected to China, so getting kicked off of SWIFT hasn’t stopped these two countries from being financially interoperable.

  10. Gullydwarf says:

    RE ‘winning the war’ – the war is won if one party achieved its objective. Everybody is talking about Russia… but what are Ukraine’s objectives in this conflict (which actually started back in 2014)?
    1. (obvious) repel invasion
    2. get NATO military protection
    3. regain control over Donbas
    4. regain control over Crimea

    Curious about your thoughts on points 3 and 4, and if they should be included into the list of goals that absolutely must be achieved.

    • TheZvi says:

      I’d make 2 more like ‘retain ability to join EU, retain ability to join NATO, barring those gain some form of military protection/assurance that matters.’ And also negative goals, like ‘don’t demilitarize.’

      I think that the face-saving value of Crimea/Donbas is high and their value to Ukraine relative to other goals is low, and Russia has been sufficiently damaged that it wouldn’t feel like they ‘got away with’ it, so I’d be inclined to let those areas go. Without them, Ukraine is that much more pro-Western.

  11. Basil Marte says:

    > But opposition to or limiting of skilled immigration has never seemed to me to make any sense.
    Crux: “The nation-state is (or should be), among other things, a labor union and/or worker-owned company.” ?
    Obligatory reference: https://everythingstudies.com/2019/03/25/the-tilted-political-compass-part-2-up-and-down/

    > (NIMBYs) People’s local concerns have been allowed to hold up things that are orders of magnitude more important. […] shut up and multiply.
    I notice I’m confused. You included a section on game theory, but seem to be treating this question as mostly not about game theory. It is exactly because things are expected to create a large surplus that people voice/find concerns.
    (Likewise, that is partly an attempt to force you to produce more cookies, made possible by you visibly caring. And partly because making a legible divide between those who end up with different numbers of cookies inherently burns social capital, especially if done by purposeful allocation (doubly so if done by the local Authority). If you are willing to make yourself blameable for that by distributing them yourself, you are (un)welcome to do so, but you definitely don’t get to get the credit for bringing the cookies while shifting the blame-attracting task to someone else.)

    • Basil Marte says:

      Clarification: the crux is not mine — it’s my impression of what the Turing test would cash out to. (And more generally, keeping the boundary of the nation as unambiguous as possible is instrumentally convergent for all goals framed in terms of the concept. Including prevention of cognitive dissonance.)

    • TheZvi says:

      If NIMBY complaints were being used to extract Coasian bargains and monetary/efficient concessions then sure, but they’re totally not, mostly they’re being used to outright kill projects. Bringing a bunch of cookies doesn’t work. Also, if you have the Asymmetric Justice situation where you have to pay for all costs and fail to collect most benefits, you won’t do much or maybe not anything at all.

      The ‘game theory’ here is that the play is to agree generally to do all the things and collect all the surplus, no?

      • David W says:

        Perhaps one more piece to explain this: a fundamental belief that the world is zero-sum or at least only mildly positive-sum. Just about everyone who talks about ‘exploitation’ believes that it’s not possible for someone to win unless someone else is losing, and therefore someone visibly winning must be causing pain somewhere else, even if you can’t immediately identify the victim.

      • Basil Marte says:

        I didn’t say NIMBYs were anywhere near efficient. As long as in expectation they personally end up with positive winnings, they have the incentive to squeak, people-they-don’t-know be damned. Killing projects via accumulation of demands (be they zero- or negative-sum) can be a result of miscalculation and/or the fact that many different parties try to parasitize the same project at the same time. Cases of fully intended shoot-to-kill (where no “acceptable” alternative is proposed, or one infers that the proposer knows it to be unfeasible) are indeed not explained by this theory. I got it from https://pedestrianobservations.com/?s=surplus+extraction

        And my overall impression from the reading list is that such people largely think positionally, so if you end up not doing something that would have lifted all boats equally, they don’t mind, or perhaps “pretend” not to mind. (The topic hasn’t congealed yet sufficiently for me to have a clear terminology.) Separately, if you did do it successfully, Everyman expects that you would brag about it and/or that it would direct more attention (esp. conscious attention) to the object level by showing that it matters, and I conjecture that Everyman viscerally opposes that because AFAICT doing so is useful to him (in the EEA).

        Reading list, possibly mushing together related-but-distinct phenomena:
        – Ribbonfarm: Gervais principle series, esp. part 4, from part 6 section “wrangling Loser spirituality”, and the extra (unnumbered) part on morality;
        – Otium: Wrongology 101 and On drama;
        – ACX: review of TLP’s book (which prompted me to bulk-read all the others);
        – Meaningness: No cosmic meaning, section “Same old story”;
        – Three-body problem review;
        – In the vain hope the problem is related to the current thought soup and spreading better philosophy could even slightly abate it, Vividness: Ritual vs. mentalism.

        Assume Everyman is a member of a stone-age tribe, and at best a commodity as far as humans are concerned (potentially a net drain of resources, but not necessarily). Play for *personal* object-level results (or inclusive fitness) anyway. Actually, already notice that changes in the size of the gene pool don’t matter, only its composition. It will be a running theme that Everyman has that “if you once tell a lie, the truth is ever after your enemy” relationship to game theory. And to truth.

        Probably the most pressing failure condition for Everyman is to run out of social slack, and either being openly expelled or “having an accident”. Thus for him it is good policy to convert object slack (if/when he gets any) into social slack, even at a relatively steep exchange rate. Probably social slack keeps better, too. To the extent Everyman could set group norms “by talking to God before He created”, it would also serve his interest to enact a slack tax on object outcomes, the rate set in a way to maximize the rent falling into his lap (under uncertainty about whose lap it was going to fall into).

        Conjecturally, the chances of Everyman not running out of social slack are improved by diverting others’ attention from the object level. The prototypical way to get people to not pay attention to X is to pretend that X is unimportant (and also look at Y). Thus much concern about social and symbolic questions — first and foremost, shifting the group membership criterion away from “object-level contribution” — and to the extent it is plausibly deniable (preferably non-consciously, if that’s a thing) opposition to anything that would bring attention to the object level, both talk and actions/results of people. “The physical environment is safe, let’s party (mostly you’re paying)”, said because the non-immediate physical environment is full of wolves and/or hostile humans. The social focus and denial/repression/whatever of the object level is one half of the confusion between prediction and causation. Also of the “believe any absurdity claiming to explain away the non-human-caused evidence of the object level’s importance” half (though not the “despair of action” half) of the reaction. (Funnily, for all its wrongness this works recognizably like a Bayesian who saw a P(E)~=0 because they set P({H})=1 for some class of hypotheses not containing the truth.)

        Amid these ridiculously-strong claims, I don’t have a good feel for why the assumption that *unusual* actions tend to be more harmful than beneficial (to Everyman; impact to others is ignored). Maaaybe it’s because since the social game is mostly positional, most possible actions there are zero-sum? Anyway, assuming this to be the case, a generalized opposition to unusual actions and indeed to openly wanting non-default things makes sense.

        Opposition to anything that threatens to break up the tribe even makes good sense, for once: being larger than the neighboring hostile tribe. I suppose it also helps Everyman to individually be a smaller fraction of the group, perhaps to make his personal lack-of-contribution harder to notice. To the extent the question is one of openly breaking the group in twain by conscious sorting in an outcome-relevant way, Everyman expects to be in the losing group (what idiot would pick him for his own team?) and thus it is in his personal interest to prevent/delay/randomize the process to whatever extent possible, even in somewhat negative-sum ways, depending on specifics. The context doesn’t fit, but if the stone-age tribe were to find itself on a sinking ship and the bigman started to allocate very-scarce lifeboat seats, Everyman might e.g. insist that the ship is salvageable if this looks even vaguely plausible. Possible endgames include:
        – time for orderly action runs out, thus he gets to play “mad rush for the boats”, where he has better chances of survival even if overall fewer people survive;
        – salvage succeeds and everyone survives, because the original appraisal was too pessimistic. And/or performed by another Everyman who didn’t think of making an extraordinary effort. Or deliberately caused or made more likely — presumably the sentiment expressed by “don’t let a crisis go to waste” is quite ancient — this is another half of the confusion between prediction and causation.
        Game theory doesn’t float, throw it overboard.

      • George H. says:

        I know nothing of Coasian bargains, but windmill farms went up here, despite complaints, when the windmills paid a nice sum to land owners and also all the property taxes in the town. That would buy my vote. :^)

  12. Rotten Bananas says:

    A question for EAs: pick between the 2 when a larger state invades a smaller state:
    1) Letting the smaller state fall and suffer from short-term war and medium-term insurgency, while benefiting from long-term reconstruction; the larger state maintains a decent living standard; global markets being shaken by the shockwaves but the effects are transient;
    2) Reinforcing the smaller state and wage economic war to isolate the larger state, so that the smaller state suffer short-term war and medium-term reconstruction; the larger state’s living standard goes down the drain in the medium-term; global markets imploded by sanctions (e.g. gas) and that induces fundamental, COVID-level changes e.g. in energy.
    What is the balance?

    • TheZvi says:

      You think #1 is the alternative option and properly captures the downsides? Weird. And yeah, thinking like this is a major problem with EA-style thinking.

      • Rotten Bananas says:

        I’m pretty sure I haven’t captured the downsides of both scenarios and perhaps viewed 1) too optimistically from a Russian point of view, while ignoring worse outcomes that are potential catastrophic risks.

        (And no, I am indifferent to the outcome of the war simply because I am trying to keep cultural/ideological considerations out of my model)

  13. Y says:

    “I am worried that a lot of the people who are supporting a no-fly zone are, consciously or otherwise, supporting it because they no longer think there is a future. That they think about the literal end of the world and kind of shrug, because we’ve instilled in them that mindset through a combination of lack of opportunity and relentless rhetoric”

    I’m impressed — you more or less read my mind. I’m in my 30s, I don’t have or want a family, I’ve lived a good life, and I’m in a city that would be immediately destroyed in the event of a nuclear war. A world where dictators can use nuclear threats to launch wars of aggression and conquest seems worse to me than (what I imagine to be) a quick and painless death by nuclear strike. Accordingly, I find myself thoroughly undisturbed by the prospect of that escalation. I would actually be happy with escalation stronger than just a no-fly zone.

    I suspect that my fatalism is a result of two years of COVID knocking out a lot of my imagination for things I still want to go do in the world, and five years of… whatever the hell has been going on since 2016 knocking out my faith in world leadership. Fortunately for everyone else, I don’t get to make these escalation decisions :-). Cooler heads that still have some skin in the game will be doing so.

  14. Ninety-Three says:

    “I don’t know what the True Objection would be of most people open to being convinced.”

    I could see a case for “We want Russia to win the war because it’s better for everyone than WWIII or years of bloody guerilla warfare.” Taking Putin’s attitude as fixed, it’s plausibly the least of all the evils (though I don’t think we know enough about the situation to say for sure).

    • Ninety-Three says:

      “But opposition to or limiting of skilled immigration has never seemed to me to make any sense.”

      Further attempts at fiendish advocacy: Politics is very dumb. If you want to achieve a policy of “Not much low-skilled immigration” that is a significantly longer message than “Not much immigration”, I can imagine a political machine that is more likely to give you the five word policy you want if you shout a stupid three word policy that implies the five word one.

  15. Rotten Bananas says:

    TC has been pointing out all the cultural “sanctions” on Russians inside and outside Russia, and there are loads of comment of the likes of “we need to Punish The People so they will learn to hate their lives and Putin”. Sanctioning indiscriminately is about collective guilt and burning a mark into your national identity, and cultural ostracism is worse than economic sanctions to some degree, because you can emigrate to escape much of economic sanctions but cultural ostracism follows you wherever you go, like racism. BLM rises in the American cultural hierarchy while Russians fall from grace again.

    I’ve been pointing out in a few comments at MR that wholesale exit of Russian markets play into Russian ultranationalists’ hands of building economic and cultural autarky, and all the hate Russians now receive in the West will breed resentment to the West and pivots them back to the regime, which are the ways these sanctions will backfire. Russia won’t be Cuba or North Korea, inconsequential countries economically and culturally, but will come to resemble Iran, which has a “Resistance Economy” and strong Shia cultural institutions helped along by decades of isolation and a decade of actual sanctions. And this time, instead of bankrolling just the Hezbollah, Russia will be able to extend its cultural and ideological influence into far right groups all over the West and to use them as 5th columns to gradually (New Right’s metapolitics!) undermine efforts at economic war and cultural ostracism.

  16. Matty Wacksen says:

    >. Assume for the sake of discussion that we prefer people doing better and not dying to people doing worse and dying, and agree that we do not want Russia to win the war.

    There’s a sense in which these are conflicting goals. I do not want Russia to “win” the war, but the truly hard question to me is how much extra dying and doing worse this would entail, and how I feel about that.

  17. mark rode says:

    Checked the twitter account you mentioned. Looks excellent to me, makes a lot of sense. Will follow.
    Is he right? He might be. He may be wrong, too. Is it my domain? dunno: I speak Russian, I worked 8 years in Russia, and 4 years in Ukraine – been there often from 1992 till 2020. And Andreas Umland (true expert, think-tanker in Kiev; though with two PhDs at times over-focused) is an ex-colleague – I’d say: a friend. So, I say that tweeter rocks:
    Kamil Galeev. https://twitter.com/kamilkazani/status/1498377757536968711

  18. pithom says:

    Don’t be Duke Bong. Ukraine cannot win this war on the battlefield. Only a complete demilitarization of Ukraine (or, more likely, full Russian military control of it) will end the war. Any sending arms is just hurting Ukrainians.
    https://graymirror.substack.com/p/enjoying-your-russian-civil-war?s=r

    • Rotten Bananas says:

      Russia will win a pyrrhic tactical victory under a gigantic strategic blunder, and becoming Iranized in the long term, if that is what you’re after. Should have actually left the troops and equipment at the border.

    • Rotten Bananas says:

      NRx gonna NRx.

      To American citizens, our civil war is a small cost and a stimulus program. To the Russian regime, our civil war is an existential threat. To Ukrainian citizens and the Ukrainian regime, our civil war is the unquenchable divine vengeance of God for, uh, for something they probably did wrong. And to Germans, our civil war is the reason they have to hook their tailpipes to the stove to brew a cup of tea.

      1) This isn’t civil war but war between Ukraine and Russia, crude nationalism vs crude imperialism. One can crush another with brute force but never extinguish the National Idea – Azov Battalion’s motto. Nice job hiding his denial of Ukraine’s national identity.
      2) The existence of Ukraine isn’t an existential threat to Russia at all. NATO on Russia’s doorsteps isn’t an existential threat to Russia, just Putin (tho I agree NATO should have been dismantled if Russia expressed intention to be peaceful and replaced by mutual defense mechanisms, which is no longer the case)
      3) Russia in its current imperialistic form is the existential threat to Ukraine (while Western influences only “corrode”)

  19. Rotten Bananas says:

    Politically I prefer an outcome where a moderate version of Russian demands to Ukraine are met:
    1) Legally secede Crimea to Russia (it has a Russian majority on top of indigenous Crimean Tatars)
    2) Federalization giving more autonomy to local governments and minorities (not just the Russian-speaking ones!)
    3) Neutrality from NATO & the Union State (but Ukraine can and should join EU)
    4) Disband Azov Battalion and firing all far-right personnel in the Ukrainian military apparatus, they can exist as political factions and parties
    Where I depart from what Russia wants from this are 1) Ukraine should be armed to the teeth in order to ensure their neutrality from both NATO & Russia, 2) NATO is strengthened in Eastern Europe to guard against a potential Russian incursion & 3) prevent a wholescale annexation of Ukraine which is Putin’s ultimate goal.
    In exchange most sanctions outside personally targeted ones on Putin, Shoigu, Lavrov, etc. should be lifted to avoid collectively punishing the Russian people like the Iranians (whose sanctions, mostly justified by their nuclear program, should also be removed wholesale)

    • Rotten Bananas says:

      Most of those are ideological goals that aren’t significant EA-wise, the only thing EA is lifting sanctions.

    • Greg kai says:

      Joining the eu without joining nato will become a very strange option, i expect very few countries if any will remain in this configuration after the invasion, regardless of the outcome.
      The EU is not only an economic organisation, even if it’s political and military sides have processed much much slower than the economy. However, without the uk, the political/military integration will probably progress much faster now, especially as Eastern countries were also against it, but i would be surprised if their view has not U-turned… In fact, Putin has given a huge kick to both Europe integration and nato existence, which were both in slow death. Now both are back to life like they never were since Germany reunification.
      An European army is pushed by France since a long time but never gained traction. It will, or NATO will cover all EU countries, or both, soon.
      I would have found it positive, except instead of NATO return i would have preferred a stronger relation with a developping Russia, with was a natural EU partner were win win collaboration seemed so easy to reach. It is no more…
      After Ukraine suffering, this is the saddest outcome of the attack.

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