2014, a year of war

[First of all, let me apologize for missing last week’s post. It was quite a week for me; the weekend itself (actually Wednesday to Sunday) was taken up by Gen Con, after which I had my four-day road trip back to Long Beach, and then of course I had to unpack, clean my apartment, stock my refrigerator and so on. Now that I’m settled in back in Long Beach, I should be able to resume my regular blogging schedule. Classes start on Monday, but I won’t let that stop me.]

Things aren’t looking too good in the world lately. Russia launched a secret invasion of the Ukraine and is now deploying “humanitarian convoys” with full military capability. The war between Israel and its neighbors has reached a new flashpoint. Assad continues to oppress Syria, but lately he’s looking like the lesser of two evils as he escalates the war against ISIS. Then again, ISIS is kind of his fault to begin with. But blame aside, ISIS is absolutely horrifying; they recently beheaded an American journalist. Even China just did some belligerent maneuvers around a US spyplane (basically a dick-measuring contest that China hasn’t the faintest hope of winning).

Indeed, things have gotten so bad that the UN has rated three different countries level 3 humanitarian crises, the worst rating any crisis has received as long as the UN has existed. People are making comparisons to the Rwandan genocide and even World War 2.

But it’s important to keep in mind that the reason this bother us, the reason it is so shocking and aberrant, is that the latter half of the 20th century and the start of the 21st have been the most peaceful period in recorded history. Technology notwithstanding, the level of violence we are seeing now would not have been out of place in the Middle Ages; even if they’d had a world news broadcast media it would have given these events only minor attention.

It’s also interesting to see how neoclassical economists try to understand the phenomenon of war. Right-wing economists who think that humans are rational are completely baffled by war, because it cripples infrastructure and kills millions of people (as neoclassical economists would say, “depreciation of human capital”, as though human beings were a special case of machinery), basically the opposite of what an economy is supposed to do.

Austrians use this fact as yet another plank in an anti-Keynesian platform; they frequently accuse Keynesians of thinking war is good—when I’ve yet to meet a Keynesian who actually said such a thing. Stiglitz, the one they cite most approvingly in that article, is a die-hard Keynesian; moreover the column in which Krugman talks about alien invasions was obviously tongue-in-cheek. It’s quite interesting to me how Austrians are always saying that humans are rational and economists are not, so apparently they don’t think economists are human. (I concur that economists are often irrational, but I never said humans weren’t.)

Krugman is more sensitive to the irrationality of human behavior than most neoclassicists, and as a result he does proportionally better; Krugman recognizes that war is done for political, not economic reasons. But as neoclassical Keynesians are wont to do, he doesn’t look deeper; human behavior is assumed to be a minor deviation from the infinite identical psychopath, rather than a fundamentally different paradigm.

Think about it: Why would it be that leaders become more popular when they start wars, especially if war is economically damaging? Shouldn’t people be angry at a leader who insists upon risking their lives and destroying their wealth?

To be fair, some are; anti-war protest is about as old as war. But the vast majority of people in the vast majority of wars have supported their leaders, sometimes even saying things like “I disagree with this war, but we must all stand together in order to win it.” If you think that humans are rational self-interested optimizers, this sort of behavior must seem absolutely nonsensical.

But it makes perfect sense once you realize what humans actually are. We’re not selfish. We’re also not altruistic, not in the broadest sense. We are tribal. We identify ourselves with a group, our tribe, and then act to advance the perceived interests of that group.

What tribe we choose can vary, even within one person: You can have varying degrees of solidarity (remember how I said solidarity can be quantitatively formalized?) with your family, your friends, your school, your home town, your state, your nation, your race, your culture, your religion, your species. You can be torn between these different identities when their interests conflict. At the two extremes lie your own self-interest and the interests of all sentient beings in the universe; one measure of your moral development as an individual is how much time you can spend toward the latter end rather than the former.

When a leader declares war, he—it is usually a ‘he’, though Margaret Thatcher is a notable exception—is either expressing that tribal instinct or capitalizing upon it. For examples of each, look no further than George W. Bush, who really believed in avenging 9/11 and toppling Saddam Hussein, and Dick Cheney, who saw the Iraq War as a great way to raise the value of Halliburton stock. (Among living people, Dick Cheney is the closest I can think of to a neoclassical rational agent. Among the dead, I think I’d go with Josef Stalin. Look upon your ‘rationality’ and despair.)

The reason Netanyahu’s popularity spiked in the invasion (it’s heading down now, but still over 50%) and Putin’s remains above an astonishing 80% is that they are maximizing this tribal instinct, rallying the tribe to righteous war against its enemies. They are behaving like the alpha male our ape brains have long missed—I mean, seriously, Putin looks like a shaved gorilla. The aggression is driven by an ancient animus that we have spent millions of years trying to transcend.

The good news is, we actually are beginning to succeed. The process is slow and painful, and there are setbacks—2014 was definitely a setback—but still, we do make progress. We have expanded our notion of tribes over time, far beyond its original capacity. We evolved for a tribe of about 100 people, barely above what we’d now call “friends and family”; we now unite ourselves into nation-states of hundreds of millions or even billions. The very fact that I can say “China did X” and not be speaking utter nonsense is proof that humanity has made it quite far along the continuum toward universal altruism. We have already advanced seven orders of magnitude; we have less than one left before we include the entire human species. Another two or three after that, and we’ll have encompassed all sentient life on Earth. Another five or six past that, the galaxy; then another nine and we may well have the whole damn universe. 7 down, 18 to go.

Don’t lose hope; this year’s violence is an anomaly in the trend toward peace.

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