A tale of two storms

Sep 24, JDN 2458021

There were two severe storm events this past week; one you probably heard a great deal about, the other, probably not. The first was Hurricane Irma, which hit the United States and did most of its damage in Florida; the second was Typhoon Doksuri, which hit Southeast Asia and did most of its damage in Vietnam.

You might expect that this post is going to give you more bad news. Well, I have a surprise for you: The news is actually mostly good.

The death tolls from both storms were astonishingly small. The hurricane is estimated to have killed at least 84 people, while the typhoon has killed at least 26. This result is nothing less than heroism. The valiant efforts of thousands of meteorologists and emergency responders around the world has saved thousands of lives, and did so both in the wealthy United States and in impoverished Vietnam.

When I started this post, I had expected to see that the emergency response in Vietnam would be much worse, and fatalities would be far higher; I am delighted to report that nothing of the sort was the case, and Vietnam, despite their per-capita GDP PPP of under $6,000, has made emergency response a sufficiently high priority that they saved their people just about as well as Florida did.

To get a sense of what might have happened without them, consider that 1.5 million homes in Florida were leveled by the hurricane, and over 100,000 homes were damaged by the typhoon. Vietnam is a country of 94 million people. Florida has a population of 20 million. (The reason Florida determines so many elections is that it is by far the most populous swing state.) Without weather forecasting and emergency response, these death figures would have been in the tens of thousands, not the dozens.

Indeed, if you know statistics and demographics well, these figures become even more astonishing: These death rates were almost indistinguishable from statistical noise.

Vietnam’s baseline death rate is about 5.9 per 1,000, meaning that they experience about 560,000 deaths in any given year. This means that over 1500 people die in Vietnam on a normal day.

Florida’s baseline death rate is about 6.6 per 1,000, actually a bit higher than Vietnam’s, because Florida’s population skews so much toward the elderly. Therefore Florida experiences about 130,000 deaths per year, or 360 deaths on a normal day.

In both Vietnam and Florida, this makes the daily death probability for any given person about 0.0017%. A random process with a fixed probability of 0.0017% over a population of n people will result in an average of 0.0017n events, but with some variation around that number. The standard deviation is actually sqrt(p(1-p)n) = 0.004 sqrt(n). When n = 20,000,000 (Florida), this results in a standard deviation of 18. When n = 94,000,000 (Vietnam), this results in a standard deviation of 40.

This means that the 26 additional deaths in Vietnam were within one standard deviation of average! They basically are indistinguishable from statistical noise. There have been over a hundred days in Vietnam where an extra 26 people happened to die, just in the past year. Weather forecasting took what could have been a historic disaster and turned it into just another bad day.

The 84 additional deaths in Florida are over four standard deviations away from average, so they are definitely distinguishable from statistical noise—but this still means that Florida’s total death rate for the year will only tick up by 0.6%.

It is common in such tragedies to point out in grave tones that “one death is too many”, but I maintain that this is not actually moral wisdom but empty platitude. No conceivable policy is ever going to reduce death rates to zero, and the people who died of heart attacks or brain aneurysms are every bit as dead as the people who died from hurricanes or terrorist attacks. Instead of focusing on the handful of people who died because they didn’t heed warnings or simply got extraordinarily unlucky, I think we should be focusing on the thousands of people who survived because our weather forecasters and emergency responders did their jobs so exceptionally well. Of course if we can reduce the numbers even further, we should; but from where I’m sitting, our emergency response system has a lot to be proud of.

Of course, the economic damage of the storms was substantially greater. The losses in destroyed housing and infrastructure in Florida are projected at over $80 billion. Vietnam is much poorer, so there simply isn’t as much infrastructure to destroy; total damage is unlikely to exceed $10 billion. Florida’s GDP is $926 billion, so they are losing 8.6%; while Vietnam’s GDP is $220 billion, so they are still losing 4.5%. And of course the damage isn’t evenly spread across everyone; those hardest hit will lose perhaps their entire net wealth, while others will feel absolutely nothing.

But economic damage is fleeting. Indeed, if we spend the government money we should be, and take the opportunity to rebuild this infrastructure better than it was before, the long-run economic impact could be positive. Even 8.6% of GDP is less than five years of normal economic growth—and there were years in the 1950s where we did it in a single year. The 4.6% that Vietnam lost, they should make back within a year of their current economic growth.

Thank goodness.

Believing in civilization without believing in colonialism

JDN 2457541

In a post last week I presented some of the overwhelming evidence that society has been getting better over time, particularly since the start of the Industrial Revolution. I focused mainly on infant mortality rates—babies not dying—but there are lots of other measures you could use as well. Despite popular belief, poverty is rapidly declining, and is now the lowest it’s ever been. War is rapidly declining. Crime is rapidly declining in First World countries, and to the best of our knowledge crime rates are stable worldwide. Public health is rapidly improving. Lifespans are getting longer. And so on, and so on. It’s not quite true to say that every indicator of human progress is on an upward trend, but the vast majority of really important indicators are.

Moreover, there is every reason to believe that this great progress is largely the result of what we call “civilization”, even Western civilization: Stable, centralized governments, strong national defense, representative democracy, free markets, openness to global trade, investment in infrastructure, science and technology, secularism, a culture that values innovation, and freedom of speech and the press. We did not get here by Marxism, nor agragrian socialism, nor primitivism, nor anarcho-capitalism. We did not get here by fascism, nor theocracy, nor monarchy. This progress was built by the center-left welfare state, “social democracy”, “modified capitalism”, the system where free, open markets are coupled with a strong democratic government to protect and steer them.

This fact is basically beyond dispute; the evidence is overwhelming. The serious debate in development economics is over which parts of the Western welfare state are most conducive to raising human well-being, and which parts of the package are more optional. And even then, some things are fairly obvious: Stable government is clearly necessary, while speaking English is clearly optional.

Yet many people are resistant to this conclusion, or even offended by it, and I think I know why: They are confusing the results of civilization with the methods by which it was established.

The results of civilization are indisputably positive: Everything I just named above, especially babies not dying.

But the methods by which civilization was established are not; indeed, some of the greatest atrocities in human history are attributable at least in part to attempts to “spread civilization” to “primitive” or “savage” people.
It is therefore vital to distinguish between the result, civilization, and the processes by which it was effected, such as colonialism and imperialism.

First, it’s important not to overstate the link between civilization and colonialism.

We tend to associate colonialism and imperialism with White people from Western European cultures conquering other people in other cultures; but in fact colonialism and imperialism are basically universal to any human culture that attains sufficient size and centralization. India engaged in colonialism, Persia engaged in imperialism, China engaged in imperialism, the Mongols were of course major imperialists, and don’t forget the Ottoman Empire; and did you realize that Tibet and Mali were at one time imperialists as well? And of course there are a whole bunch of empires you’ve probably never heard of, like the Parthians and the Ghaznavids and the Ummayyads. Even many of the people we’re accustoming to thinking of as innocent victims of colonialism were themselves imperialists—the Aztecs certainly were (they even sold people into slavery and used them for human sacrifice!), as were the Pequot, and the Iroquois may not have outright conquered anyone but were definitely at least “soft imperialists” the way that the US is today, spreading their influence around and using economic and sometimes military pressure to absorb other cultures into their own.

Of course, those were all civilizations, at least in the broadest sense of the word; but before that, it’s not that there wasn’t violence, it just wasn’t organized enough to be worthy of being called “imperialism”. The more general concept of intertribal warfare is a human universal, and some hunter-gatherer tribes actually engage in an essentially constant state of warfare we call “endemic warfare”. People have been grouping together to kill other people they perceived as different for at least as long as there have been people to do so.

This is of course not to excuse what European colonial powers did when they set up bases on other continents and exploited, enslaved, or even murdered the indigenous population. And the absolute numbers of people enslaved or killed are typically larger under European colonialism, mainly because European cultures became so powerful and conquered almost the entire world. Even if European societies were not uniquely predisposed to be violent (and I see no evidence to say that they were—humans are pretty much humans), they were more successful in their violent conquering, and so more people suffered and died. It’s also a first-mover effect: If the Ming Dynasty had supported Zheng He more in his colonial ambitions, I’d probably be writing this post in Mandarin and reflecting on why Asian cultures have engaged in so much colonial oppression.

While there is a deeply condescending paternalism (and often post-hoc rationalization of your own self-interested exploitation) involved in saying that you are conquering other people in order to civilize them, humans are also perfectly capable of committing atrocities for far less noble-sounding motives. There are holy wars such as the Crusades and ethnic genocides like in Rwanda, and the Arab slave trade was purely for profit and didn’t even have the pretense of civilizing people (not that the Atlantic slave trade was ever really about that anyway).

Indeed, I think it’s important to distinguish between colonialists who really did make some effort at civilizing the populations they conquered (like Britain, and also the Mongols actually) and those that clearly were just using that as an excuse to rape and pillage (like Spain and Portugal). This is similar to but not quite the same thing as the distinction between settler colonialism, where you send colonists to live there and build up the country, and exploitation colonialism, where you send military forces to take control of the existing population and exploit them to get their resources. Countries that experienced settler colonialism (such as the US and Australia) have fared a lot better in the long run than countries that experienced exploitation colonialism (such as Haiti and Zimbabwe).

The worst consequences of colonialism weren’t even really anyone’s fault, actually. The reason something like 98% of all Native Americans died as a result of European colonization was not that Europeans killed them—they did kill thousands of course, and I hope it goes without saying that that’s terrible, but it was a small fraction of the total deaths. The reason such a huge number died and whole cultures were depopulated was disease, and the inability of medical technology in any culture at that time to handle such a catastrophic plague. The primary cause was therefore accidental, and not really foreseeable given the state of scientific knowledge at the time. (I therefore think it’s wrong to consider it genocide—maybe democide.) Indeed, what really would have saved these people would be if Europe had advanced even faster into industrial capitalism and modern science, or else waited to colonize until they had; and then they could have distributed vaccines and antibiotics when they arrived. (Of course, there is evidence that a few European colonists used the diseases intentionally as biological weapons, which no amount of vaccine technology would prevent—and that is indeed genocide. But again, this was a small fraction of the total deaths.)

However, even with all those caveats, I hope we can all agree that colonialism and imperialism were morally wrong. No nation has the right to invade and conquer other nations; no one has the right to enslave people; no one has the right to kill people based on their culture or ethnicity.

My point is that it is entirely possible to recognize that and still appreciate that Western civilization has dramatically improved the standard of human life over the last few centuries. It simply doesn’t follow from the fact that British government and culture were more advanced and pluralistic that British soldiers can just go around taking over other people’s countries and planting their own flag (follow the link if you need some comic relief from this dark topic). That was the moral failing of colonialism; not that they thought their society was better—for in many ways it was—but that they thought that gave them the right to terrorize, slaughter, enslave, and conquer people.

Indeed, the “justification” of colonialism is a lot like that bizarre pseudo-utilitarianism I mentioned in my post on torture, where the mere presence of some benefit is taken to justify any possible action toward achieving that benefit. No, that’s not how morality works. You can’t justify unlimited evil by any good—it has to be a greater good, as in actually greater.

So let’s suppose that you do find yourself encountering another culture which is clearly more primitive than yours; their inferior technology results in them living in poverty and having very high rates of disease and death, especially among infants and children. What, if anything, are you justified in doing to intervene to improve their condition?

One idea would be to hold to the Prime Directive: No intervention, no sir, not ever. This is clearly what Gene Roddenberry thought of imperialism, hence why he built it into the Federation’s core principles.

But does that really make sense? Even as Star Trek shows progressed, the writers kept coming up with situations where the Prime Directive really seemed like it should have an exception, and sometimes decided that the honorable crew of Enterprise or Voyager really should intervene in this more primitive society to save them from some terrible fate. And I hope I’m not committing a Fictional Evidence Fallacy when I say that if your fictional universe specifically designed not to let that happen makes that happen, well… maybe it’s something we should be considering.

What if people are dying of a terrible disease that you could easily cure? Should you really deny them access to your medicine to avoid intervening in their society?

What if the primitive culture is ruled by a horrible tyrant that you could easily depose with little or no bloodshed? Should you let him continue to rule with an iron fist?

What if the natives are engaged in slavery, or even their own brand of imperialism against other indigenous cultures? Can you fight imperialism with imperialism?

And then we have to ask, does it really matter whether their babies are being murdered by the tyrant or simply dying from malnutrition and infection? The babies are just as dead, aren’t they? Even if we say that being murdered by a tyrant is worse than dying of malnutrition, it can’t be that much worse, can it? Surely 10 babies dying of malnutrition is at least as bad as 1 baby being murdered?

But then it begins to seem like we have a duty to intervene, and moreover a duty that applies in almost every circumstance! If you are on opposite sides of the technology threshold where infant mortality drops from 30% to 1%, how can you justify not intervening?

I think the best answer here is to keep in mind the very large costs of intervention as well as the potentially large benefits. The answer sounds simple, but is actually perhaps the hardest possible answer to apply in practice: You must do a cost-benefit analysis. Furthermore, you must do it well. We can’t demand perfection, but it must actually be a serious good-faith effort to predict the consequences of different intervention policies.

We know that people tend to resist most outside interventions, especially if you have the intention of toppling their leaders (even if they are indeed tyrannical). Even the simple act of offering people vaccines could be met with resistance, as the native people might think you are poisoning them or somehow trying to control them. But in general, opening contact with with gifts and trade is almost certainly going to trigger less hostility and therefore be more effective than going in guns blazing.

If you do use military force, it must be targeted at the particular leaders who are most harmful, and it must be designed to achieve swift, decisive victory with minimal collateral damage. (Basically I’m talking about just war theory.) If you really have such an advanced civilization, show it by exhibiting total technological dominance and minimizing the number of innocent people you kill. The NATO interventions in Kosovo and Libya mostly got this right. The Vietnam War and Iraq War got it totally wrong.

As you change their society, you should be prepared to bear most of the cost of transition; you are, after all, much richer than they are, and also the ones responsible for effecting the transition. You should not expect to see short-term gains for your own civilization, only long-term gains once their culture has advanced to a level near your own. You can’t bear all the costs of course—transition is just painful, no matter what you do—but at least the fungible economic costs should be borne by you, not by the native population. Examples of doing this wrong include basically all the standard examples of exploitation colonialism: Africa, the Caribbean, South America. Examples of doing this right include West Germany and Japan after WW2, and South Korea after the Korean War—which is to say, the greatest economic successes in the history of the human race. This was us winning development, humanity. Do this again everywhere and we will have not only ended world hunger, but achieved global prosperity.

What happens if we apply these principles to real-world colonialism? It does not fare well. Nor should it, as we’ve already established that most if not all real-world colonialism was morally wrong.

15th and 16th century colonialism fail immediately; they offer no benefit to speak of. Europe’s technological superiority was enough to give them gunpowder but not enough to drop their infant mortality rate. Maybe life was better in 16th century Spain than it was in the Aztec Empire, but honestly not by all that much; and life in the Iroquois Confederacy was in many ways better than life in 15th century England. (Though maybe that justifies some Iroquois imperialism, at least their “soft imperialism”?)

If these principles did justify any real-world imperialism—and I am not convinced that it does—it would only be much later imperialism, like the British Empire in the 19th and 20th century. And even then, it’s not clear that the talk of “civilizing” people and “the White Man’s Burden” was much more than rationalization, an attempt to give a humanitarian justification for what were really acts of self-interested economic exploitation. Even though India and South Africa are probably better off now than they were when the British first took them over, it’s not at all clear that this was really the goal of the British government so much as a side effect, and there are a lot of things the British could have done differently that would obviously have made them better off still—you know, like not implementing the precursors to apartheid, or making India a parliamentary democracy immediately instead of starting with the Raj and only conceding to democracy after decades of protest. What actually happened doesn’t exactly look like Britain cared nothing for actually improving the lives of people in India and South Africa (they did build a lot of schools and railroads, and sought to undermine slavery and the caste system), but it also doesn’t look like that was their only goal; it was more like one goal among several which also included the strategic and economic interests of Britain. It isn’t enough that Britain was a better society or even that they made South Africa and India better societies than they were; if the goal wasn’t really about making people’s lives better where you are intervening, it’s clearly not justified intervention.

And that’s the relatively beneficent imperialism; the really horrific imperialists throughout history made only the barest pretense of spreading civilization and were clearly interested in nothing more than maximizing their own wealth and power. This is probably why we get things like the Prime Directive; we saw how bad it can get, and overreacted a little by saying that intervening in other cultures is always, always wrong, no matter what. It was only a slight overreaction—intervening in other cultures is usually wrong, and almost all historical examples of it were wrong—but it is still an overreaction. There are exceptional cases where intervening in another culture can be not only morally right but obligatory.

Indeed, one underappreciated consequence of colonialism and imperialism is that they have triggered a backlash against real good-faith efforts toward economic development. People in Africa, Asia, and Latin America see economists from the US and the UK (and most of the world’s top economists are in fact educated in the US or the UK) come in and tell them that they need to do this and that to restructure their society for greater prosperity, and they understandably ask: “Why should I trust you this time?” The last two or four or seven batches of people coming from the US and Europe to intervene in their countries exploited them or worse, so why is this time any different?

It is different, of course; UNDP is not the East India Company, not by a longshot. Even for all their faults, the IMF isn’t the East India Company either. Indeed, while these people largely come from the same places as the imperialists, and may be descended from them, they are in fact completely different people, and moral responsibility does not inherit across generations. While the suspicion is understandable, it is ultimately unjustified; whatever happened hundreds of years ago, this time most of us really are trying to help—and it’s working.

Why are all our Presidents war criminals?

JDN 2457443

Today I take on a topic that we really don’t like to talk about. It creates grave cognitive dissonance in our minds, forcing us to deeply question the moral character of our entire nation.

Yet it is undeniably a fact:

Most US Presidents are war criminals.

There is a long tradition of war crimes by US Presidents which includes Obama, Bush, Nixon, and above all Johnson and Truman.

Barack Obama has ordered so-called “double-tap” drone strikes, which kill medics and first responders, in express violation of the Geneva Convention.

George W. Bush orchestrated a global program of torture and indefinite detention.

Bill Clinton ordered “extraordinary renditions” in which suspects were detained without trial and transferred to other countries for interrogation, where we knew they would most likely be tortured.

I actually had trouble finding any credible accusations of war crimes by George H.W. Bush (there are definitely accusations, but none of them are credible—seriously, people are listening to Manuel Noriega?), even as Director of the CIA. He might not be a war criminal.

Ronald Reagan supported a government in Guatemala that was engaged in genocide. He knew this was happening and did not seem to care. This was only one of many tyrannical, murderous regimes supported by Reagan’s administration. In fact, Ronald Reagan was successfully convicted of war crimes by the International Court of Justice. Chomsky isn’t wrong about this one. Ronald Reagan was a convicted war criminal.

Jimmy Carter is a major exception to the rule; not only are there no credible accusations of war crimes against him, he has actively fought to pursue war crimes investigations against Israel and even publicly discussed the war crimes of George W. Bush.

I also wasn’t able to find any credible accusations of war crimes by Gerald Ford, so he might be clean.

But then we get to Richard Nixon, who deployed chemical weapons against civilians in Vietnam. (Calling Agent Orange “herbicide” probably shouldn’t matter morally—but it might legally, as tactical “herbicides” are not always war crimes.) But Nixon does deserve some credit for banning biological weapons.

Indeed, most of the responsibility for war crimes in Vietnam falls upon Johnson. The US deployed something very close to a “total war” strategy involving carpet bombing—more bombs were dropped by the US in Vietnam than by all countries in WW2—as well as napalm and of course chemical weapons; basically it was everything short of nuclear weapons. Kennedy and Johnson also substantially expanded the US biological weapons program.

Speaking of weapons of mass destruction, I’m not sure if it was actually illegal to expand the US nuclear arsenal as dramatically as Kennedy did, but it definitely should have been. Kennedy brought our nuclear arsenal up to its greatest peak, a horrifying 30,000 deployable warheads—more than enough to wipe out human civilization, and possibly enough to destroy the entire human race.

While Eisenhower was accused of the gravest war crime on this list, namely the genocide of over 1 million people in Germany, most historians do not consider this accusation credible. Rather, his war crimes were committed as Supreme Allied Commander, in the form of carpet bombing, especially of Tokyo, which killed as many as 200,000 people, and of Dresden, which had no apparent military significance and even held a number of Allied POWs.

But then we get to Truman, the coup de grace, the only man in history to order the use of nuclear weapons in warfare. Truman gave the order to deploy nuclear weapons against civilians. He was the only person in the history of the world to ever give such an order. It wasn’t Hitler; it wasn’t Stalin. It was Harry S. Truman.

Then of course there’s Roosevelt’s internment of over 100,000 Japanese Americans. It really pales in comparison to Truman’s order to vaporize an equal number of Japanese civilians in the blink of an eye.

I think it will suffice to end the list here, though I could definitely go on. I think Truman is a really good one to focus on, for two reasons that pull quite strongly in opposite directions.

1. The use of nuclear weapons against civilians is among the gravest possible crimes. It may be second to genocide, but then again it may not, as genocide does not risk the destruction of the entire human race. If we only had the option of outlawing one thing in war, and had to allow everything else, we would have no choice but to ban the use of nuclear weapons against civilians.

2. Truman’s decision may have been justified. To this day is still hotly debated whether the atomic bombings were justifiable; mainstream historians have taken both sides. On Debate.org, the vote is almost exactly divided—51% yes, 49% no. Many historians believe that had Truman not deployed nuclear weapons, there would have been an additional 5 million deaths as a result of the continuation of the war.

Perhaps now you can see why this matter makes me so ambivalent.

There is a part of me that wants to take an absolute hard line against war crimes, and say that they must never be tolerated, that even otherwise good Presidents like Clinton and Obama deserve to be tried at the Hague for what they have done. (Truman and Eisenhower are dead, so it’s too late for them.)

But another part of me wonders what would happen if we did this. What if the world really is so dangerous that we have no choice but to allow our leaders to commit horrible atrocities in order to defend us?

There are easy cases—Bush’s torture program didn’t even result in very much useful intelligence, so it was simply a pointless degradation of our national character. The same amount of effort invested in more humane intelligence gathering would very likely have provided more reliable information. And in any case, terrorism is such a minor threat in the scheme of things that the effort would be better spent on improving environmental regulations or auto safety.

Similarly, there’s no reason to engage in “extraordinary rendition” to a country that tortures people when you could simply conduct a legitimate trial in absentia and then arrest the convicted terrorist with special forces and imprison him in a US maximum-security prison until his execution. (Or even carry out the execution directly by the special forces; as long as the trial is legitimate, I see no problem with that.) At that point, the atrocities are being committed simply to avoid inconvenience.

But especially when we come to the WW2 examples, where the United States—nay, the world—was facing a genuine threat of being conquered by genocidal tyrants, I do begin to wonder if “victory by any means necessary” is a legitimate choice.

There is a way to cut the Gordian knot here, and say that yes, these are crimes, and should be punished; but yes, they were morally justified. Then, the moral calculus any President must undergo when contemplating such an atrocity is that he himself will be tried and executed if he goes through with it. If your situation is truly so dire that you are willing to kill 100,000 civilians, perhaps you should be willing to go down with the ship. (Roger Fisher made a similar argument when he suggested implanting the nuclear launch codes inside the body of a US military officer. If you’re not willing to tear one man apart with a knife, why are you willing to vaporize an entire city?)

But if your actions really were morally justified… what sense does it make to punish you for them? And if we hold up this threat of punishment, could it cause a President to flinch when we really need him to take such drastic action?

Another possibility to consider is that perhaps our standards for war crimes really are too strict, and some—not all, but some—of the actions I just listed are in fact morally justifiable and should be made legal under international law. Perhaps the US government is right to fight the UN convention against cluster munitions; maybe we need cluster bombs to successfully defend national security. Perhaps it should not be illegal to kill the combat medics who directly serve under the command of enemy military forces—as opposed to civilian first-responders or Medecins Sans Frontieres. Perhaps our tolerance for civilian casualties is unrealistically low, and it is impossible to fight a war in the real world without killing a large number of civilians.

Then again, perhaps not. Perhaps we are too willing to engage in war in the first place, too accustomed to deploying military force as our primary response to international conflict. Perhaps the prospect of facing a war crimes tribunal in a couple of years should be an extra layer of deterrent against any President ordering yet another war—by some estimates we have been at war 93% of the time since our founding as a nation, and it is a well-documented fact that we have by far the highest military spending in the world. Why is it that so many Americans see diplomacy as foolish, see compromise as weakness?

Perhaps the most terrifying thing is not that so many US Presidents are war criminals; it is that so many Americans don’t seem to have any problem with that.

Advertising: Someone is being irrational

JDN 2457285 EDT 12:52

I’m working on moving toward a slightly different approach to posting; instead of one long 3000-word post once a week, I’m going to try to do two more bite-sized posts of about 1500 words or less spread throughout the week. I’m actually hoping to work toward setting up a Patreon and making blogging into a source of income.

Today’s bite-sized post is about advertising, and a rather simple, basic argument that shows that irrational economic behavior is widespread.

First, there are advertisements that don’t make sense. They don’t tell you anything about the product, they are often completely absurd, and while sometimes entertaining they are rarely so entertaining that people would pay to see them in theaters or buy them on DVD—which means that any entertainment value they had is outweighed by the opportunity cost of seeing them instead of the actual TV show, movie, or whatever else it was you wanted to see.

If you doubt that there are advertisements that don’t make sense, I have one example in particular for you which I think will settle this matter:

If you didn’t actually watch it, you must. It is too absurd to be explained.

And of course there are many other examples, from Coca-Cola’s weird associations with polar bears to the series of GEICO TV spots about Neanderthals that they thought were so entertaining as to deserve a TV show (the world proved them wrong), to M&M commercials that present a terrifying world in which humans regularly consume the chocolatey flesh of other sapient citizens (and I thought beef was bad!).

Or here’s another good one:

In the above commercial, Walmart attempts to advertise themselves by showing a heartwarming story of a child who works hard to make money by doing odd jobs, including using the model of door-to-door individual sales that Walmart exists to make obsolete. The only contribution Walmart makes to the story is apparently “we have affordable bicycles for children”. Coca-Cola is also thrown in for some reason.

Certain products seem to attract nonsensical advertising more than others, with car insurance being the prime culprit of totally nonsensical and irrelevant commercials, perhaps because of GEICO in particular who do not actually seem to be any good at providing car insurance but instead spend all of their resources making commercials.

Commercials for cars themselves are an interesting case, as certain ads actually appeal in at least a general way to the quality of the vehicle itself:

Then there are those that vaguely allude to qualities of their vehicles, but mostly immerse us in optimistic cyberpunk:

Others, however, make no attempt to say anything about the vehicle, instead spinning us exciting tales of giant hamsters who use the car and the power of dance to somehow form a truce between warring robot factions in a dystopian future (if you haven’t seen this commercial, none of that is a joke; see for yourself below):

So, I hope that I have satisfied you that there are in fact advertisements which don’t make sense, which could not possibly give anyone a rational reason to purchase the product contained within.

Therefore, at least one of the following statements must be true:

1. Consumers behave irrationally by buying products for irrational reasons
2. Corporations behave irrationally by buying advertisements that don’t work

Both could be true (in fact I think both are true), but at least one must be, on pain of contradiction, as long as you accept that there are advertisements which don’t provide rational reasons to buy products. There’s no wiggling out of this one, neoclassicists.

Advertising forms a large part of our economy—Americans spend $171 billion per year on ads, more than the federal government spends on education, and also more than the nominal GDP of Hungary or Vietnam. This figure is growing thanks to the Internet and its proliferation of “free” ad-supported content. Insofar as advertising is irrational, this money is being thrown down the drain.

The waste from spending on ads that don’t work is limited; you can’t waste more than you actually spent. But the waste from buying things you don’t actually need is not limited in the same way; an ad that cost $1 million to air (cheaper than a typical Super Bowl ad) could lead to $10 million in worthless purchases.

I wouldn’t say that all advertising is irrational; some ads do actually provide enough meaningful information about a product that they could reasonably motivate you to buy it (or at least look into buying it), and it is in both your best interest and the company’s best interest for you to have such information.

But I think it’s not unreasonable to estimate that about half of our advertising spending is irrational, either by making people buy things for bad reasons or by making corporations waste time and money on buying ads that don’t work. This amounts to some $85 billion per year, or enough to pay every undergraduate tuition at every public university in the United States.

This state of affairs is not inevitable.

Most meaningless ads could be undermined by regulation; instead of the current “blacklist” model where an ad is legal as long as it doesn’t explicitly state anything that is verifiably false, we could move to a “whitelist” model where an ad is illegal if it states anything that isn’t verifiably true. Red Bull cannot give you wings, Maxwell House isn’t good to the last drop, and Volkswagen needs to be more specific than “round for a reason”. We may never be able to completely eliminate irrelevant emotionally-salient allusions (pictures of families, children, puppies, etc.), but as long as the actual content of the words is regulated it would be much harder to deluge people with advertisements that provide no actual information.

We have a choice, as a civilization: Do we want to continue to let meaningless ads invade our brains and waste the resources of our society?