Ukraine #3: Decision Theory, Madman Theory and the Mafioso Nature

This is a follow-up post to the last section of Ukraine Post #2 on the need for Better Decision Theory.

In particular I want to think more about the following result and some resulting logic and examples. If that’s not relevant to your interests and/or you’re fine with it being hand-waved later when I build upon it, you can skip or skim this one. It is definitely the first-draft longer version of something shorter that I have not yet had time to write.

Your Nature versus Your Decisions


The gap here is huge, a 24% net swing (a change of +/- 12% approving).

There is the obvious partisan divide on approving of Biden’s decisions (despite almost all Americans on both sides agreeing with the core idea of backing up Ukraine). The gap is mostly across the board.

Commentators notice they are confused. These are the first three topline responses.

Explanations are indeed offered as well, with varying degrees of plausibility.

I think there is a big difference between ‘decisions’ and ‘how you are handling’ something, and this is the heart of the problem.

I interpret this as the public, despite not knowing such fancy words as ‘decision theory’ or any of the technical thinking involved, intuiting the need for better decision theory. This is one of those places where ordinary person intuitions and models actually do remarkably well, because the dynamics have always applied to everyday life.

Thus, they intuitively notice three things in the context of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (and then they adjust their answers for partisan bias) whether or not they are right about either of them.

  1. Biden seems to prefer better outcomes that we prefer, to worse outcomes.
  2. Given who he is, his/our preferences, the hand he was dealt and who people believe him to be, Biden has made good decisions.
  3. Who Biden is and who people believe him to be (e.g. his expected preferences and decision theory) are serious problems that lead to worse outcomes.

One could of course disagree that the outcomes Biden wants, here or elsewhere, are to be preferred – I am not making a strong claim here even locally, and definitely not generally, beyond that one could plausibly model his preferences in this way.

One can consider the reversed case some people might make for Putin or Trump, if one didn’t want to defend the decisions made or their stated or revealed preferences. Not that you couldn’t mount a defense if you wanted to do that, but to point out you don’t automatically have to do this to defend them. One might claim that:

  1. Putin seems to centrally prefer worse outcomes (for us anyway) to better ones.
  2. Given who he is, his preferences and the hand he was dealt, and who we believe him to be, Putin has made poor decisions.
  3. Who Putin is and who people believe him to be (e.g. his expected preferences and decision theory) are serious advantages that lead to outcomes Putin prefers.

Again, we’d like to think that we don’t take kindly to the things Putin has been saying and doing, and that we come together to foil the plots of those who choose to act as cartoon villains. That we punish people who visibly have the mafioso nature.

Instead, we reliably reward such villainy, and this is known, thus encouraging more villainy. Biden is widely believed to be ‘making good decisions’ given a framework and expectation that villainy will be rewarded, to make the best of the situation, but that expectation was necessary for there to be a war in the first place. People notice, and pointing this out in regular-person terms (e.g. ‘looking weak’) has been part of Republican rhetoric for a long time, in places both accurate and others that are both inaccurate and at times absurdly silly.

On top of that, there is a pattern that says that transgressors and those who destroy value will win and be rewarded, and thus gain power. Others will back down, will silence the opposition to avoid trouble and get rewarded by that future power, and let them do this. The power that comes to such villains comes from the expectation of their future power, which is based on others’ expected expectations. Thus the scene in many a show or movie, and the similar examples in real life, where the Big Bad walks into town or looks like they’re gaining traction, and all the Little Bad ones out there fall into line even though it never, ever ends well.

Looking at something’s potential future power causes that power to manifest here and now, thus causing that future power. Even if that future probability is very low, the penalty extracted is promised to be super high, so are you going to take that chance?

It is the essence of much of politics.

It is the essence of much of venture capital.

A Community I know has an excellent word for this. They call it a Basilisk.

Pick One

A great illustration of both sides of this is this prominent Twitter post by the President.

As a set of two decisions these are obviously correct decisions. We will defend every inch of NATO territory because to do otherwise collapses all of our commitments and leads to chaos, which would eventually force escalations anyway, so even if you don’t do it ‘on principle’ you do it anyway. And yes, of course, all the talk of a ‘no-fly zone’ or other direct confrontation with Russia is completely off the table for damn good reasons.

And yet, tons of people who agree with both of these positions absolutely hated the ‘decision’ to post this, and the mindset that would think this was an acceptable thing to post, mostly using variations of this argument.

I shared Nixon’s interpretation below of what Biden intended, but that doesn’t mean that’s what people saw.

Biden is being the ‘rational’ party here, doing the ‘right things’ and making the ‘right decisions’ but also can easily be interpreted as giving an invitation to be walked all over.

That’s especially true if you read it ‘as if you were Putin’ using some sort of Inner Putin. If we won’t fight a war in Ukraine, and indeed won’t ‘directly confront’ Russia period aside from NATO (even if we include other explicit defensive pacts like Japan), and if Russia assumes that only direct confrontation matters, then Russia is free to do anything at all that it wants in Ukraine, including things like massacre civilians, use biological or chemical weapons, or perhaps even nuclear weapons, in order to cower the Ukrainians into giving up.

And it also implies that if they continued to Moldavia, then Kazakhstan, then all the other non-NATO former USSR countries, again, so what?

Before the invasion began, Biden said explicitly we wouldn’t directly intervene but promised ‘severe consequences.’ Putin presumably interpreted this as mostly a bluff. Sure, there’d be some sanctions, but nothing he couldn’t handle. That was through some combination of:

  1. Having the mafioso nature and thus doing always escalating against those who lack this nature on the assumption they always fold and are always bluffing.
  2. Not being able to recognize the impact sanctions would have and thinking he was prepared because no one is capable of telling Putin the truth.
  3. Not anticipating the scope of the sanctions.
  4. Expecting a fait accompli to render the issue moot within a few days.
  5. Assuming such things were inevitable either way.
  6. (Maybe) Caring enough about getting Ukraine to not care.
  7. (Maybe) Thinking threats of nukes would stop us from even doing that.

Given Putin already blew past one ‘severe consequences’ stop sign under false impressions and/or because he didn’t care, it’s a reasonable position to doubt he’d care about another one and treat this as a green light.

Or, more precisely, from the perspective of the mafioso nature, this is Biden explicitly pointing out the light is green, and such talk only reveals that this person is weak and always bluffing. Biden being Biden already made the light green, he won’t let stupid public opinion or political grandstanding force his hand when this much is at stake. Which is to his credit, but also it being common knowledge is a problem – it means Biden has destroyed his potential commitment devices.

Last time, I thought about the question: Why does the public support a no-fly zone? When it means NATO and Russia shooting at each other, and thus often leads directly to World War III?

Some of it is people not understanding that this is what a no-fly zone means, people simply see it as a Something therefore we must do it, or a Something that is more than whatever we’re doing but less than ground troops, or it’s something they remember us doing in other situations where something we didn’t like was happening. And I suggested that maybe many people don’t much care about living anymore or think the world is ending soon anyway or similar things, which is something I’ve worried about for a while now and really would like to understand better some time, the whole thing seems quite terrible and I don’t get why it’s happening.

On another level, one could also answer that the American public supports a ‘no-fly zone’ because decision theory. Handed down in the form of culture and instinct and system design rather than explicit theory, but with the same effect.

You want your leader to be capable of making good decisions. You also want your leader to have access to various commitment devices, and be able to credibly make threats that they will take actions that might from some points of view not strictly make sense.

It is the public’s role to play in the system to get angry, and to want to punish the offender, and demand that Something be done. Then if it didn’t work, demand Something more. The point of the public supporting locally dumb decisions is so that potential villains know that if they push too hard, not giving in to them stops being locally dumb from the perspective of public opinion, and starts looking locally smart, then looking locally necessary. This is a built-in, impossible-to-control push to escalate. It has limited authority, so when it’s sufficiently over the top stupid it can be ignored, but it matters. At a minimum, it is used to justify lots of other actions in lieu of the thing the public says they support.

This has worked in dragging us along farther and faster than the government ‘wanted’ to otherwise go, and in establishing that it will do that again in the future.

Yet it also means that the public’s job is to be unhappy with the situation, even if it supports the individual decisions, which again points back to the gap in evaluations.

In a way, we perhaps outsource the mafioso nature to this kind of distributed public and to social media and various other dynamics, thus allowing some benefits of the nature without bearing some of its costs. One problem with this dynamic is that it is easy for those with the nature to not notice this, and thus execute the wrong program (I originally wrote miscalculate, but this nature does not calculate).

This has a lot in common with Presidents being known to be rewarded or punished largely on the basis of whether conditions are improving or not and the state of the economy. The President doesn’t have that much control over economic conditions, but it is a physical world hard-to-fake measure of how things are going. Throwing the bums out when it looks bad isn’t all that accurate, but giving a bunch of weight to it is better than getting your process hijacked. This in turn leads to hijack by the dialectic, among other problems, but it’s at least a start.

Contrast that with the latest entry in people claiming that Trump said the latest candidate for the craziest thing he ever said, which slightly but importantly mischaracterizes a thing he did indeed say (45 second video).

The claim, from the Washington Post:

Former president Donald Trump, meanwhile, suggested on Fox News Thursday night that Biden should respond to the invasion by personally threatening to obliterate Russia with nuclear weapons. He decried Biden as weak for failing to do so.

The actual thing he says that he would say is:

  1. We (as opposed to Russia) are a nuclear nation.
  2. We have built up a bigger, better dick nuclear arsenal.
  3. We ‘don’t want to have to wipe out Russia.’

Note that he didn’t say that Biden should say that. He said he would have said it.

He knows Biden can’t say that. No one would take it seriously.

It would be like me walking into the local pizza place and saying “Nice pizza place you have here. Shame if something were to happen to it.” And the host would say thank you, I agree with your statement, would you like a table? Then either I would notice that didn’t work at all and leave, or I would enjoy a delicious pizza for Pi Day, leave a nice tip and go.

Trump has the mafioso nature in this sense. This allows his brain to generate the hypothesis that he should threaten to nuclear annihilation, that makes his threat plausibly more salient than his enemy’s threats, and that makes it thinkable to worry about whose dick nuclear arsenal is ‘bigger and better’ and causes the rubble to bounce additional times. And it automatically translates the words into the mafioso language.

Putin’s brain works the same way here. Worth noticing the previous clip also, where Trump claims Putin said he wouldn’t invade Ukraine while Trump was in office.

There’s always the question of what happens when two people with this nature face off. Sometimes there’s a fight (or war) and someone ends up injured or dead, but not that often. Thus, there’s usually some combination of looking into the future to see who would win the fight resulting in the future loser giving in now, thus establishing an efficient dominance hierarchy, and a general tendency to notice each other’s natures and thus conspire together against anyone lacking a similar nature.

If you divide the world into those having and lacking the mafioso nature, as those with this nature seem to often do, then it makes sense to align with those who have it against those who don’t. If you’re familiar with the background, one can compare and contrast this with the idea that those with the maze nature align with each other to increase what I call ‘maze levels.’ The dynamics are at least similar.

This all goes hand in hand. In order to speak this language and wield this leverage you need to provide overwhelming evidence that you have the mafioso nature, that you will endlessly escalate until confronted by a superior force that is also willing to endlessly escalate. The only known way to do this involves actually having the mafioso nature. That’s a problem, because then you’ll think in zero-sum terms and also make dumb decisions.

Pick Two

We would like the best of both worlds. It would be great to get someone who:

  1. Wants things that are good and positive sum.
  2. Makes smart decisions rather than dumb decisions.
  3. Benefits from the belief you have the mafioso nature, or otherwise might limitlessly escalate or do something disproportional if provoked.

By default, you get one. You can sometimes get two. But three?

Alas, that seems to mostly be impossible.

There are two possible approaches to solving the obvious contradiction.

The first and most obvious is to pretend to make dumb decisions and/or to want bad things.

This has been tried, most notably by Nixon with his Madman Theory. Nixon was trying to pretend to make dumb decisions while instead make smart decisions. Yet his decisions led directly to his removal from office (and also he imposed price controls) so while I’m a big fan of the Richard Nixon Twitter account, I don’t think the real Nixon did a great job in the ‘make smart decisions’ department.

Trump and Putin are the other potential examples listed in the linked Wikipedia article, and those also seem like examples of people who made poor decisions.

It is a weird and potentially incoherent sentence to say that if I were Putin or Trump I would have been able to make importantly much better decisions. But put me in their shoes and I couldn’t actually play their part at all. No chance. My ability to see that many of their decisions are dumb goes hand in hand with not being able to mimic their general ways of being.

That does not seem like a coincidence. Such things are very hard to fake, and one who fakes them or learns to go through such motions usually Becomes the Mask. This is a central theme of the Moral Mazes sequence.

The much easier method of wearing a mask is that it isn’t, or is no longer, a mask.

The whole idea of Madman Theory is that from a traditional perspective you want people to think that you don’t mind bad things, and might make very dumb decisions.

‘Dumb decisions’ is also shorthand and imprecise. What you want is to display very specific types of patterns and tendencies. You want a reputation for making a particular kind of locally dumb decision, in order to get those around you to engage in the behaviors you want, in ways that imply you’ll do this even when the logic behind it stops applying. To some extent this is about controlling their incentives, but to a grater extent it’s about controlling their perception of their highly localized incentives and scaring them into some combination of doing or not doing even things they think you might care about or might in the future care about, combined with a general paralysis and fear of doing anything at all they weren’t told to do.

This creates a non-local incentive to want nothing to do with them, to make such a person to go away, for you to not have power or especially power over those you care about.

It also is a Basilisk, as discussed above.

In practice, I think this approach is hopeless.

It does not work. You don’t get people pretending to make dumb decisions. You don’t get people who can make locally dumb decisions with a global purpose, and whose overall decisions are smart.

What you get are adaptation exercisers. The type of person who acts like Putin gets rewarded, so someone with that kind of decision theory and decision process and way of being is what you get, and that person keeps getting trained on further hill climbing around that set of behaviors. This set of behaviors is then incompatible with many types of action and decision that would very much help such a person’s cause, but the selection process that got them ahead not only does not sufficiently care about that, it views such abilities with suspicion since they are Bayesian evidence this is the wrong type of person.

The mafioso playing the role of a mafioso who can actually do high level nerd stuff like maintaining complex operations (or that cares about good things, or even any neutral things) does not win because of it, they lose because of it due to the reactions of others, and this more than makes up for the advantages of being able to do the nerd stuff, so it gets trained out of them if it was ever there to begin with.

If anything, the opposite is trained – conspicuous lack of such abilities. The need to avoid both motive ambiguity and beyond that character ambiguity requires a maximally strong stance against such things, a deliberate botching of such things.

Which, of course, leads to dumb decisions.

Pretending to want bad things rather than good things is a potential alternative approach. Politicians and others do sometimes pull versions of this off, pretending until they are in position to do a Heel Face Turn, although more often they pretend long enough to stop having principles.

On top of that, if you pretend to want bad things, this in practice usually leads to also having to pretend to make dumb decisions, or else your story won’t be believable. Refusing to make dumb decisions is a lot like refusing to cause bad outcomes. It blows your cover. So now you have two problems.

Pick Three

The second possible approach is to shift who is rewarded for who they are and what they are expected to do.

To do this, you need to create what I call The Good Equilibrium where the type of people who benefit from what they are, are the types of people who make smart decisions and want good things.

Such an equilibrium can absolutely beself-sustaining, in the right context.

The link above talks about Chris Pikula, who was central to moving Magic: The Gathering high level competition to The Good Equilibrium. This must continuously be fought for – it is a Republic if you can keep itbut we did in fact keep it, and it was pretty great.

We had a lot of big advantages that helped us do that, such as:

  1. Heavy nerd stuff and complex operations were central.
  2. Dumb decisions were a big liability.
  3. An authority could kick offenders out.
  4. Cooperation and creation were inherently necessary to success.
  5. Bad actors could not credibly threaten to do much damage.

In theory, one could extend this to the world stage. And in theory, that theory is kind of being tested right now by The West.

On the margin, this test has absolutely failed, and we will continue to reward cartoon villainy. Even if Putin loses and is forced to make peace on Ukrainian terms, he still did much, much better at his goal of conquering Ukraine or his broader goal of reconstituting the Russian Empire than he would have done if he had not threatened nuclear escalation, inflicted civilian casualties, imprisoned protesters and the opposition, gone in heavily for propaganda and otherwise played his role, on top of the advantages such plays have internally in maintaining control of the Russian Federation.

A central reason this plan failed, in my model and to the extent it has indeed failed, is because the same process that leads to the actions we are rewarding is indeed incapable of accurate information flow, incentive alignment, complex operations, avoiding corruption or generally not making dumb decisions.

The central feature of escalatory strategies is that if they seem like they are working, they will continue to escalate until confronted.

Someone who is not playing such a strategy could choose a good time to stop escalating, before one is confronted, and take the win. But those whose adaptation executions are centered on escalation lack this ability. The two go hand in hand. You see this with lots of similar patterns, whenever someone ‘gets away’ with things, such as when players cheat at Magic: The Gathering. It’s no different. At each stage, the person whose character says ‘cheat’ will think they of course should cheat a little more, eventually even if the circumstances are quite risky, up until they are finally caught. ‘Looking the other way’ to avoid confrontation only postpones it.

The invasion of Ukraine also required physical-world success. Wars are proof of work, invasions are not abstractions. Shapes had to be rotated.

The same type of process has been winning control of various surrounding countries and then adventuring into Ukraine for many centuries now, and they’ve learned not to take kindly to it, which also helped a lot.

So in all these ways, the same characteristics that allowed the invasion of Ukraine to happen also prevented the attempt from being set up to succeed. So the plan failed (assuming it indeed failed).

Pick an Exit

In the decision theory model presented here, the important thing in situations like the one we are in is to be the type of decision algorithm that responds to threats of escalation, and to actual escalation, with confrontation.

Yet it must be noted that in most confrontations in my life, I do the opposite of this.

There are certainly times when I respond to confrontation and escalation with confrontation and escalation, including times when I’m looked at as dumb or crazy for doing so. I’ve burned quite a bit of value rather than put up with those who said they were altering the deal, and to prey that they do not alter it any further. I’ve turned down deals that were in my interest to take because they were ‘not good deals’ or not ‘fair’ all the time.

And I do think a lot about incentive alignment of my actions in various contexts, and take it into account.

So yes, sometimes I practice what is suggested here.

But in plenty of other contexts? Not so much. Not big on confrontation.

This requires an explanation. Why the difference?

The first big obvious difference is that mostly I am not playing iterated games with the same players unless I want to do that. If someone exploiting you leads to them learning to exploit you even more, that’s a strong reason to avoid being exploited. If someone only gets to exploit you once, and it’s an isolated exchange, that’s less worrisome.

You do still need to worry you’re part of a pattern that encourages that type of action.

One good response, when you’re not forced into repeated interactions, is simply to let them ‘win’ the current exchange through such tactics, but then to walk away and never interact with them again, and when asked about them to speak ill.

This does not work so well if you are one of a limited pool that is forced to interact – a prison, a community of nations, or even somewhere with costly exist like middle management of a corporation or a small town or family. Then you have the problem of reputation, both with them and observers, and of things continuously getting worse.

Exit is thus a big deal. If there is reasonable exit, then extractive and escalatory strategies don’t dominate in the long term because playing them changes the pool of future opponents towards other extractive and escalatory strategies.

Imagine an Iterated Prisoner’s Dilemma.

(Quick refresher: Each round, players choose Cooperate or Defect, if both Cooperate each gets $2, if only one Defects they get $3, if both defect each gets $1). Then you play more rounds. Each round, assuming no correlation between your choice and their choice, you do better playing Defect, but long-term you want to get to where both players always Cooperate and make $2/round, or do better.

Doing better means something like sometimes defecting, but getting your opponent to still always cooperate because if they don’t you’ll defect even more and it will be worse. That’s the essence of much escalatory strategy.)

Now change it by allowing exit. After playing each round, each player then chooses S (Stay) or L (Leave). If they choose stay, they play again with same player. If they choose leave, they get another random person who chose leave as their new partner.

You don’t need any advanced decision theories to know that if both players Cooperate, both players will almost always pick Stay. If both players pick Defect, it seems almost always one or both will choose Leave. If it’s one of each, it depends, but if either player Defects a bunch of times in a row they’ll be getting a new partner for sure, cause there’s nothing to lose. Any threat to go super hard on someone is met with a ‘bye then.’

You might still be able to do slightly better than $2/round, if you offer something like only defecting a small percentage of the time, and the number of total rounds is limited or scoring has a discount rate.

But mostly what happens is, the cooperators pair off with each other. All other players keep bouncing around the pool until they change their ways. A few very unlucky cooperators do very very badly, but most do well, and all the defectors do poorly.

Suppose now we introduce some exit fee to choose Leave, and notice how the dynamics change as it rises.

In most of life the fee for exit isn’t zero, but it mostly is also not so large, at least at first. So anyone who interacts with me has an actual incentive to cooperate and create value. Some do not realize this, but that’s fine, because we’ll find them out quickly.

Another difference is that observed decisions are different here than unobserved decisions. That is a strange sentence to write, because what’s the point of taking advantage of unobserved decisions if you tell everyone what you did? Now suddenly you’ve been effectively observed. That’s no good. I thought about it, and realized that in my case it was fine, because I’m sufficiently robust about caring about being sure I am not rewarding bad actors, and because the details about exactly when and how I decide what to do need not be included.

I talk about this in my old post on Privacy. This is the importance of privacy of your state of mind, your plans and your intentions. There are many times and places where it is beneficial to be open about what you are doing. Sometimes, yes, absolutely tell them what you won’t do. Other times, don’t, and let them wonder, maybe intentionally even don’t be so sure yourself.

Most people can afford to be somewhat less careful in this particular way. And we all have to choose some actions which are not incentive compatible, or would not be robust to someone fully understanding our decision policy. This is real life, not some future AI scenario against opposition that sees your source code. If you’re fully and completely unexploitable, you are being insufficiently exploited.

I would, of course, love to write about a whole bunch of particular ways one can profitably be exploitable, but there are obvious reasons why one cannot, on the public internet, do this. A shame.

The other reason, of course, is that humans cannot fully optimize, and we cultivate particular habits and become our masks. When I had to run a company and constantly deal with these questions in practice, it was super stressful, and I very much did not enjoy these aspects of the job. That doesn’t mean I would never do it again, but I would do it with my eyes open, and because the job was too important not to do.

Yet some of this is simply not being able to fully execute correct strategy in practice,again because humans have characters and emotions and limited compute and lose their nerve. I enjoy playing poker, and I’m not bad at playing poker, but I’m better at playing poker in theory (although still not professional level or anything) than I am in practice, because I am often capable of finding plays abstractly more easily than I am capable of pulling the triggers in practice. Of course, I could be wrong about that – perhaps I think I think a good game, but actually it would blow itself up.

Another way of viewing all this is that one only needs the mafioso nature when forced to deal with the mafioso nature. It is common advice, when being sent to prison, to be told to display aspects of this nature as a form of self-defense, because exit is no longer an option and thus the dynamics involved will dominate. There are also times in regular life when one must deal with such agents, and exit is not a good option – there’s too much at stake or they’ve made it impossible. At that point, one needs to respond in a sort of kind, or even better establish that you would do so, a doctrine of escalate-to-de-escalate. Whereas most of the time this is unnecessary.

Conclusion: Pick a Policy

The Mafioso Nature, and the dynamics involved in it, seem more and more important to fully understanding the world, both for Russia and in the world more generally, as I explore these concepts more, which is why I’m willing to explore it at this length. I also want to understand better how it fits in with the Maze Nature, and other similar dynamics. Is it all one thing, or not? I don’t yet know.

The central puzzle is how to design a response to such problems.

My last Ukraine post talked about various policies we might collectively adapt (for some value of ‘we’) in places like energy or immigration or regulation or taxation, that would be wins if we could have such policies. One response I got that seems valid is to point out that our society is mostly incapable of having policies as thought about in this way. There’s no mechanism to implement this sort of thing.

When we want to ‘pick a policy’ for the kinds of things discussed here – to have a better decision policy – it’s even worse. Democracies have deep difficulties making even ordinary credible commitments of limited and well-defined scope, let alone the kinds of things discussed here. What we have are various dynamics that lead to various things in ways others can hopefully predict and model, and react to in ways we hope to like.

And of course a lot of this has been driving home that character is fate. These things are difficult to fake, so one must choose character and then accept the resulting fate – there mostly is no ‘present as having the X nature and do X-style things when it’s good but secretly have the Y nature instead and use Y-based processes that are better. What you perhaps can do instead is construct and have the Z-nature (or Y-prime-nature) that has the necessary characteristics and can handle the necessary dynamics, because it’s thought it all through and built a better model. The only way out is through. Sometimes that involves incentive manipulations using things outside your control. This problem is not new, and we have developed various dynamics to defend ourselves against it.

The alternative is to allow the future to belong to men like Putin.

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38 Responses to Ukraine #3: Decision Theory, Madman Theory and the Mafioso Nature

  1. Thegnskald says:

    “Mafioso” is a decent name for the Russian advantage, if we were to gamify nations; their system produces higher-level and more powerful Criminal archetypes.

    Gamifying the US, similarly, I’m inclined to describe our archetypical unit as a Culture Mage, specializing in cultural aura powers.

  2. Ninety-Three says:

    My experience talking with people who support a no-fly zone is that they don’t view NATO membership as a line in the sand: if the West abandons Ukraine then we’re demonstrating a fully general willingness to abandon our allies and Putin is going to annex all of Europe so we might as well start WWIII now rather than five years from now.

    • pithom says:

      Russians who (wisely) opposed helping out the Armenian leadership during the 2020 war understood Azerbaijan (a “dictatorship” by any measure) wasn’t going to conquer the world. Ultimately, not breaking ties with the winner brought dividends for Russia. And, unlike for the West in Ukraine, Russia could have won the war for Armenia (a “democracy”, if that means anything) rather easily.

  3. maline says:

    So you’re saying that no Evil Overlord will ever follow the List?

  4. justafool says:

    a few thoughts:

    1) wouldn’t “paladin nature” combine the best of both worlds? a character that always co-operates unless confronted with a defector, in which case the paladin “escalates to destruction?” (destruction of the paladin or the defector, not of the value or entity the paladin is protecting.)

    2) on “character is destiny” don’t we in fact have systems that allow us to change character? the massive hormone dumps we get in conflict absolute change both our choices and our perceptions of adversary behavior.

    3) is it not possible that putin is in fact, from his perspective, a “paladin” and not a “mafioso?” it’s just that putin’s definition of co-operation (bring glory to the russian people) is in fact our definition of defection. in this scenario, there is analytical difference between his being a “paladin” and a “mafioso,” because he will de-escalate once “the glory of the russian people” is threatened?

  5. Yosarian says:

    This might be be obvious, but I think it’s important; it is not a coincidence that liberal democracies that mostly lack “the mafioso nature” tend to be the counties with all the economic and productivity power and advanced technology etc, which both gives them direct leverage short term and long run allows them to field much stronger armies when pushed to do it. The ability to reliably bluff is powerful short term, but if you have to keep making dumb decisions in order to do it, you tend to win the battle but lose the war (both metaphorically and sometimes literally.)

    I said several ago that Putin is playing the wrong game extremely well, and that I thought that was going to be his downfall.

  6. Gullydwarf says:

    RE pick one / Putin thinking – there is an important aspect of Putin staying at the top (and alive), as sort of arbiter of conflicting clans within the ruling class.
    He doesn’t really care about Russian empire and such – he and half or maybe 2/3 of Russian ruling class / oligarchs / high-level officials want to live luxurious lives in the West while extracting wealth from Russia (and people living there) in order to afford that.
    However, there are elite groups that still care, and there is mostly hidden power struggle – and hence really incoherent actions, quite often resulting in very bad results.
    (For example, imagine the same invasion that is happening now, but 8 years ago, right after annexation of Crimea, without fully legitimate government in Kiev and Ukrainian military having no combat experience whatsoever)

  7. pithom says:

    The idea the West has been overly dovish to Russia is laughable. It was precisely Western hawkishness that resulted in the marginal benefits for the invasion being substantially higher than the marginal costs for Russia. Putin hasn’t invaded Mongolia, any country in Central Asia, Armenia, Belarus’, or Azerbaijan. Why? Because the West does not threaten him on those axes (and, yes, a pro-Western Lukashenko would be a real threat, “democracy” or not). Nor did he invade all of Ukraine in 2014, when it would have been by far the easiest for him to invade. Why? Because he certainly did not expect the relentless, mindless, endless Western hostility that has continued now for more than eight years. If hostility is permanent, if sanctions and anti-Russian policies in Ukraine will come no matter what -if not during this administration, then during the next- there is no solution to the Ukrainian question that is satisfactory to Russia without Russia resorting to force -given the strengthening of Ukraine’s military, sooner, rather than later.

    • Seb says:

      “ Because he certainly did not expect the relentless, mindless, endless Western hostility that has continued now for more than eight years.”

      Can you elaborate on this? Assume you’re explaining it to someone who has no idea what you’re referring to.

  8. J.S. Bangs says:

    I do not disagree with any of the principles outlined here. I have major disagreements with the implied frame about who “we” are and what “our” scope of action is. It is not possible to talk about this without getting political about the last 20 years, so here we go.

    The implied frame of this post is Team America: World Police, without any apparent irony or recognition of the limitations or dangers of this strategy. This frame assumes that we can and should act as enforcers of our preferred strategies everywhere in the world, regardless of petty formalities like “borders” and “treaties”, and that there are no downsides to doing so. In particular it assumes that Ukraine, a country that we have no border with, no particular historical connection to, and no strategic need for, is nonetheless crucial for setting up precedent against a country that has all three of those things. And it assumes that we can trivially make the US Military do these things to create the right incentives, blithely ignoring the incentives that this creates for the US Military itself.

    List the conflicts that the US has involved itself in since 2000, then list the ones that the Russians have participated in. Who has caused more suffering, destruction, and harm? Who has limited their operations to their neighbors, and who has gone adventuring all over the world? Who has the capacity to overrun any country in the world, and who is struggling with basic operations? Who is the actual threat, and who most urgently needs to be contained?

    You make a nice observation that Putin has the mafioso nature. This is something that our military class mostly lacks, but in its place we have “maze nature with bombs”. This is, shall we say, Not An Improvement. A mafioso wants specific things, and can probably be bought off. But the maze of bombs doesn’t want anything in particular, it doesn’t even really want to win, except insofar as losing might threaten its funding. Its incentives are only for perpetual conflict, so that money and prestige can continually flow through its veins, and I should not have to explain that an entity whose incentives are to always be at war is not one that we should be friendly with.

    Thus, I regard it as far more central and far more urgent to restrain the US military-industrial class than to restrain some west asian despot. This is why I appreciate the treaty boundaries of NATO as a bright line: it tells Putin which line he must not cross, but more importantly it restrains our own maze of bombs by providing them a boundary outside of which they don’t get to meddle.

    • TheZvi says:

      Ukraine gave up its nuclear weapons in exchange for explicit guarantees of its territorial integrity from USA, UK and Russia. This is not mentioned enough.

      Beyond that, I’m… not supporting or calling for any of the things you’re complaining about. I don’t agree that there is implicit support here for e.g. us invading Iraq in 2003, or for supporting whatever it is “we” happen to be doing, or ANY suggestion of support for any direct military action anywhere other than equipment/weapon deliveries/sales. And I’m certainly not saying our military has (or doesn’t have) good incentive structures. The “we” here is not the military (or the military-industrial complex, or whatever).

      • J.S. Bangs says:

        > Ukraine gave up…

        This is indeed important and something that I knew but tend to forget about, so thank you for reminding me. I wonder how well it stacks up against the (contested? unofficial?) promise that Russia received that NATO would not expand to the east. In both cases the promise seems to have been violated, but the ones doing the violating either dispute that they actually agreed to it, or argue that their actions don’t technically count.

        As for the rest, I believe that you don’t explicitly endorse any of the military adventures of the past two decades, and you don’t want us to participate in excess of what we’re doing already. That seems to be the consensus position among smart people online, which I appreciate. At the same time, the assumption of an interventionist military suffuses the discussion so thoroughly that I cannot imagine what we think we’re talking about if we take that off the table. Putin doesn’t threaten our own territory at all, nor that of our confirmed allies, nor even that of our important trading partners. The only reason to have the conversation about deterrence and game theory at all is because we think we’re cops, and it’s our duty and right to step into every conflict on the globe. This entire post is about how we can best be global cops and intimidate the thugs, given that we aren’t going to actually get into a full-scale war (this time). The option of just not being cops doesn’t seem to have been considered.

        • Hugo says:

          I think we’re all here to stop sloppy thinking, and rationality helps but you do need facts.
          First of all I’m not sure US military interventions (which probably should not have been done and shouldn’t be encouraged further) actually caused more suffering. Lots of civilian casualties in Afghanistan and Irak, but in the same period Grozny was leveled and Putin has a heavy handed approach in Syria. I think the number for both US and Russia is around the same order of magnitude.
          Secondly: Russia is definitely meddling in stuff around US allies. Syria is right between Turkey (NATO) and Israel, is present on Japanese island, and there’s the meddling in all kinds of western democratic processes.
          It’s really not like Russia was sitting by idly while the west spreads its idealology.

        • J.S. Bangs says:

          I jumped on to Wikipedia to try to do a quick tally, but got bogged down in the fact that the list of US military actions is too long (and includes lots of things with zero or single-digit casualty counts). So I’ll just offer that the Iraq War alone has a casualty estimate of 100K at the low end, and I don’t think that the Russians get to even half that.

          (Yes, I know that none of us like the Iraq War and that no one is calling for full-scale war in Ukraine. But I hold that the cop mentality that wants us to set “incentives” and “precedents” in Ukraine is the same underlying attitude that contributed to that conflict and others.)

      • Humphrey_Appleby says:

        Zvi: I read the Budepest memorandum and as I understand it, the signatories commit not to violate Ukrainian territory, but make no promises to come to Ukraine’s defence if another signatory breaks the treaty. As such, it is not a security guarantee at all. (A guarantee involves a promise by the guarantor to fight to defend the recipient of the guarantee). Am I misunderstanding? If you think we made a treaty commitment to defend Ukraine, please show me where?

        The distinction is pertinent to whether `NATO’ is a credible line in the sand. NATO members have a true security guarantee from us. I was under the impression Ukraine doesn’t.

  9. Jonathan Monroe says:

    A shower thought on the difference between the maze nature and the mafioso nature:
    In a maze, the perfect crime leaves no fingerprints. In the world of “Moral Mazes”, the ideal way to end someone’s career leaves them not even knowing that their career is over, let alone who did it. I am an expert, but I think this is because actually going out of your way to hurt someone over petty stuff signals that you care about your personal honour more than you care about the smooth operation of the maze, and getting caught indicates a lack of certain skills that the maze values.
    In a mafia, the perfect crime leaves as visible fingerprints as possible (consistent with staying out of jail, international plausible deniability etc.) because the whole point is to signal your willingness to hurt people over petty stuff. The best example is the Litvinenko and Skripal poisonings – of all the toxins Putin could use, he intentionally chose ones which make it obvious that the poisonings were planned at the highest level of the Russian state.

    • TheZvi says:

      Hmm. I don’t think it’s quite that clear, but there’s something there. In a maze you do want to be known as having leverage and power. Sometimes you want to do something super quiet, other times you want people to know – ideally THEY don’t know what happened, but the people you want to know do know, In a mafioso world, you sometimes want everyone to know, but sometimes you don’t because it would piss off the wrong person but you need them gone. And also there is usually some sort of Authority, even if you are mostly in control of it, so you often don’t want there to be *proof* that you did it if you don’t have formal authority to do it – e.g. you don’t shoot the guy on live TV. It’s a fine line.

      That’s me trying to quibble, but the basic point is right.

  10. Alex N says:

    “If someone only gets to exploit you once, and it’s an isolated exchange, that’s less worrisome”.

    This Game Theory misses the reality of human nature. You think you take an isolated loss, but you actually conditioning yourself to lose again.

    And while you never play the same player again, for the next mafioso your forehead reads “I will take a loss and walk away”. You can’t see it, nice people can’t see it, but mafiosos can.

    So unless you can avoid playing mafiosos altogether – how? – you will take losses. Which makes them not isolated.

    • TheZvi says:

      That’s a fair point. I don’t think of it as ‘they can see what I did’ so much as ‘they can see what type of person I am’ but it can amount to the same thing, and it is indeed a liability.

  11. thechaostician says:

    There’s something else that I think is important to the original question: why do people support Biden’s policies, but not how Biden is handling things? Leadership. Americans want the president to be the leader of the free world, not just another member of the free world. It doesn’t look like Biden is leading. It looks like Zelenskyy is leading, Europe is following Zelenskyy, and the US is following Europe.

    Another possible strategy in order to Pick 3 is to have multiple people. You have a spokesperson who exudes mafioso, while most of the decisions are made by other people who are publicly invisible. Of course, if people learn that you are pursuing this strategy, then it immediately collapses.

    • TheZvi says:

      My presumption is that the earpiece-strategy wouldn’t be congruent and would quickly collapse, both because it wouldn’t look right and because a true mafioso wouldn’t tolerate it.

      My favorite example of this is that Billy Beane tried to hire a manager for the As that would (1) know how to keep players happy and motivated and healthy and give them good mechanics and such, keep the clubhouse with him and (2) do all the specific things Billy’s math said won games, like never bunting, working counts and all that. And he found basically he couldn’t – the managers who were good at #1 refused to fully do #2, they found the earpiece (it was literal) insulting and refused to believe what he told them.

      • thechaostician says:

        I think that the most similar thing that has worked is the actor with an earpiece strategy. Reagan is the classic example, and Zelenskyy is probably doing something similar. The actor can imitate mafioso, and other strategies if helpful, and is willing to follow the script. This is a lot weaker strategy because everyone knows that they are an actor, but I don’t think it removes the effect entirely.

        • TheZvi says:

          Interesting that you think the actors are mainly acting here. I always took Reagan to be a very unique, very self-motivated individual doing a real thing, although it also could have been partly a strategy (and of course later on he got Alzheimer’s and at that point would have needed help). Zelenskyy’s actions here… I don’t know. Seems like it’s real to me but would be interesting if it wasn’t. He’d still need to be very, very brave. Also noteworthy that he as at 25% approval and seemed unable to do the peacetime job, in terms of what you think was happening there.

  12. Basil Marte says:

    > I suggested that maybe many people don’t much care about living anymore or think the world is ending soon anyway or similar things […]
    You already understand. Standard list:
    – beliefs as attire, worrying that the world will end specifically by nuclear war is like wearing a polka-dot shirt and bell-bottoms;
    – less applicable to immediate ends of the world, but most people don’t really have plans for a future that is much different from a repeat of today, thus to the extent they have enough sense to not just blithely assume that 50 years from now things will happen just like they do nowadays (but see all the 60 year olds who are repeatedly surprised (and feel humiliated) that they no longer have the physical condition they had at 30) their map of the future is blank, and they treat it as though the terrain were blank (AFAICT there would be a massive problem with pauper retirees if not for savings for retirement being a socially enforced “the thing one does” even while young);
    – lemon market of information, hence as a low-budget heuristic it is entirely justified to parse “the world will end” as nothing more than a marker of the speaker’s dislike. Partly this is due to very publicly discussed counterfactuals not having happened (nuclear war), partly good-faith modeling efforts having been way off for a time (wasn’t there a period when they said the degradation of the ozone layer would make humanity go extinct?), but mostly it’s shameless exaggeration for the sake of grabbing attention.

    > Wars are proof of work, invasions are not abstractions. Shapes had to be rotated.
    (impatient voice) Dude, you *pointed out* that the “loose abstractions” there are an invitation to line up pairs of symbols and explain why they deserve positive/negative affect, in a manner unrestrained by an inability to explain the opposite lineup (or for that matter a counterfactual selection of two different symbols from the relevant set).
    Worked example: the original author presumably chose the stereotype association “SF = Silicon Valley = programming = … = yay” vs. “NY = media = … = boo”, whereas you presumably thought “NY = finance = … = yay” vs. “SF = thank you for applying = boo”.
    Quick, which are the shape rotators, the eagles or the rattlers?

    • TheZvi says:

      I don’t know who the rattlers are but the Eagles are dishonorable scum, so presumably the rattlers.

      (I did realize that saying to rotate shapes was playing with fire a little, but all my other ways of saying it were just so much less fun.)

  13. George H. says:

    If you’re fully and completely unexploitable, you are being insufficiently exploited.

    I would, of course, love to write about a whole bunch of particular ways one can profitably be exploitable, but there are obvious reasons why one cannot, on the public internet, do this. A shame.
    un quote
    Zvi, well I had to read that whole post a few times. The above ‘stuck in my craw’ for a bit.
    When I realized that I love being exploited, by my family and friends. “Exploit me…” I’m not sure what things we can’t talk about… which leads me to conclude I didn’t understand you.
    I agree T is mafioso, like P. I also think it likely that P wouldn’t have invaded if T was still Prez. But I’m not sure that matters, P would have invaded sometime after T.
    I didn’t vote for B, but I’m glad he’s prez now. I like his decisions, and yet I’m not sure I approve of him… those are different things.

    • TheZvi says:

      I am saying something far more pedestrian here. There are specific ways in which it pays me, or most others, to be locally exploitable BUT if one SAYS that one is doing this on the internet, then that makes it far more likely one will be in this way exploited – it’s like, if you were to leave the spare key under a particular pot in front of your house, that might be a reasonable move – but you sure wouldn’t write that in a post.

      • KP says:

        As a general observation, “having sacred values” is both The Way and also a leverage point for negative-sum muggers.

      • George H. says:

        Huh, OK thanks. I grew up in small town America, where no one locked their doors and mostly left their keys in the car ignition. I never tried to put a dollar figure on what that level of relaxation was worth. (There are places in fly over country where you can still live that way.)

        • TheZvi says:

          It’s quite good, and I can say now that I’m no longer there that when I lived in a small town in Warwick I was in a constant argument where I didn’t want to lock our door and others kept insisting on doing so. But these days I’d think that if you left keys in ignition with the car unlocked and lots of other people did too then city kids would take the bus down there, and then drive a car back to the city…

  14. Craken says:

    —“And I suggested that maybe many people don’t much care about living anymore or think the world is ending soon anyway or similar things…and I don’t get why it’s happening.”

    I think this mainly applies to the middle class and above. For the more educated, traditional media bias leads to negative psychological bias.
    Social media. People at all social levels are ingesting more, and more harmful, media than they did a few decades ago.

    Perhaps another factor: the sense of facing an unending list of seemingly unsolvable problems in the world. We know that “experts say” these problems are serious. Some of them are. But, who can distinguish serious from trivial from nonexistent from unsolvable from ephemeral? Climate change, AGI, chemical pollution, radiological exposure, bio-weapons, nuclear weapons, habitat destruction, child hunger, vicious propaganda, cultural deracination, declining religious faith, costly family formation, economic unsustainability, bullshit jobs, multiculturalism/bowling alone, abysmal national leadership, crime, education, addiction–and that’s without getting into many of the politically salient worries. Most of it is not new; intensification and repetition may make it worse in the general consciousness even when elements of it have improved objectively. The bigger the problem, the less amenable it is to personal involvement, the higher the risk of trapped rat syndrome. I wonder how much of this relates to verbalist/physicalist dichotomy. If you face all these problems and have no scientific analytical framework, no weapons but words, perhaps despair is more likely.

    I agree that the low birthrate may be an indicator of low morale. But, that is ~70% the choice of women, especially when it comes to the number of children. And, in my experience, women definitely think less about large, abstract issues–the litany–than men do. They are more influenced by social pressures, now amplified by social media. Also, social media makes its participants’ lives more transparent, and thereby perhaps more susceptible to social pressure. Yet, 85% of American women in their 40s are mothers–hardly a collapse when looked at this way. Even among women with more than a Bachelors, 80% of forty-somethings are mothers, up from 67% 25 years ago. Around 10% of women have fertility troubles. The real buy-in to the future is having *a* child. Women are still buying in, it’s just that the buyers are more often having one child instead of two or three–probably due to higher costs, higher expectations for their children, family instability, and, not least, the fact that women get all that they need psychologically with the first child.

    The expansion on Galeev’s description of Putin as mafioso further explains why Russia is qualitatively inferior to the USSR in some regards. Even communism is a more effective state sustaining ideology than kleptocracy. But, it may be that Chinese support will allow Russia to look better than it is, just as the Soviet espionage network gave the communists more technical capacity than they could have achieved on their own. The Chinese certainly do not want to neglect Putin’s needs to the point of risking another unfriendly regime change in Russia. The fall of the Soviet Union was bad enough; to witness a Zelensky type carried into power by some kind of color revolution would be a more direct threat to the present Chinese regime. One could look at the Ukraine conflict as developing into both a Russian civil war and a proxy war between America and China. Putin has exposed both his backer and his enemy to nuclear risks which neither sought.

    Maybe natural resources should not be purchased from Russia due to its strategic significance. If we refuse to buy their commodities, this may end their chronic Dutch disease and shift the internal power dynamic away from kleptocrats and toward managers. This leads to intelligent leadership and positive sum domestic and foreign policy. Yet, there is a risk it may backfire, creating a more competent, dangerous Russia. Many consider China an example of such a backfire. And China is unlikely to comply with such a trading system anyway. In the long run, China is the major alternative to the West. Within 10 years they may be able to exit the American trading system in a stronger position than their competitors. The future is more likely to belong to men like Xi than to men like Putin. Xi has maintained more of the Leninist structure Mao created, thereby largely neutralizing the threat to the state posed by mafiosi run amok. Would Xi play the mafioso part if America engaged in the kinds of provocations in Taiwan that it has in Ukraine? Is it really just character or more a matter of circumstance?

  15. hnau says:

    The Consigliere gets to have 1, 2, and 3, under certain conditions.

    “If you agree to [smart win-win solution] I think I can sell it to the boss. But if we can’t come to an agreement he’ll force me to Defect and nobody wants that.”

    Effective leaders of democracies are sometimes able to use public opinion this way, as you imply.

  16. Purplehermann says:

    If you’re the Big Bad (or Man of Steel), mafioso + wanting good things doesn’t actually result in bad decisions – it results in exploiting weaker opponents in ways that do good things (for you at least).

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