Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Gene Callahan shamelessly flirts with me

A couple of interesting links to me on Gene's blog.

1. First, he agrees strongly with my point on methodological individualism. Humans act, aggregates don't. That goes without saying. What a lot of people leap to from that is that methodologically any scientific study of aggregates needs to be built up from individual action. We know enough about complex systems by now to no how dangerous that is. And even if it wasn't dangerous, it's clearly a less efficient way of doing science. There's an interesting discussion in the comment section where Ryan Murphy tries to defend methodological individualism, but I don't think it really holds up.

You never hear physicists talk like this, I should note. They study the aggregate of all things in the known universe (i.e. - the known universe) as cosmologists (indeed, they're even throwing unknown universes into the mix!), and they study incomprehensibly small sub-atomic particles, and everything in between. And sometimes they try to conform the theories governing the small stuff to the theories governing the big stuff, and sometimes vice versa.

Why don't they argue about this sort of thing? A less charitable person would say that economics is plagued with sophistry and philosophizing and isn't a real science. Obviously I think that's dead wrong. The reason why we do this and physicists don't is, of course, that nothing in the spectrum of the things that physicists study can really be said to have "agency". We've convinced ourselves that the human animal has "agency" (whatever that means exactly), which is what introduces the debate in the first place. Physicists have nothing like that to worry about, and they get along find. They study what seems useful to study. We should do that too.


2. OK, he doesn't link me in this one, but this discussion of the Ron Paul newsletters is good and we've had these same points made back and forth here at F&OST. I've really appreciated the inside scoop on the Mises Institute from both Gene and Bob, and it all sounds credible to me. This point is worth responding to, I think: "So does this disqualify Paul from deserving support for the GOP nomination? It sure would... if every other candidate was not saber rattling at Iran. I'm sorry, but when it comes down to choosing between a candidate who let someone use his name to make some really tasteless jokes about minorities, and a candidate who is likely to kill 100,000 Iranians... well, sorry, mass killing just seems a bit worse to me than racial boorishness."

It is an uncharacteristically ambiguous paragraph for Gene, which leaves a lot to your own gallivanting imagination about what it is he could mean (more on this below). Who is going to kill 100,000 Iranians and why are they going to be killed? Under certain scenarios, I would agree that a tainted Ron Paul is better than mass killings, but the nature of this mass killing is left a little unclear. If we just invade Iran under a Romney or a Santorum because Ahmadinejad looks at us funny, that would be horrific. But I think Gene puts a much higher probability on that than I do, and it's not clear to me why he does. I think Obama, Santorum, Romney, and Paul are all about equally likely to pull a George Bush on Iran, which is to say they are all extremely unlikely to do this. Gene clearly disagrees with my assessment on that. Now, what if Iran gives nukes to al Qaeda who then use them somewhere and - bolstered by the chaos - then fires a barrage of missiles into Israel. If that's why we go in to Iran, then I would say that's a damn good reason to go into Iran, and I would worry that Ron Paul might not. In addition, I'd worry that Ron Paul might stop collecting intelligence on Iran. I'm also worried Ron Paul might let al Qaeda and Taliban forces gather strength in the Af-Pak border area. While I don't like Santorum, and find Romney only somewhat more encouraging I'm not worried about either of them failing on these counts. And these are the steps that are important for preventing a war with Iran. So, needless to say, I think Gene's vagueness on the Iran point allows him to make a false choice - a false choice that's not really in front of us. If I had to choose between the newsletters and a senseless war with Iran, of course I would choose the newsletters. But that's not the issue at hand, Gene! That's not the choice we have to make!


3. Which brings me to his post about me and Obama and Iran. I'm getting a much better sense of what Gene meant when he made his cheery Christmas day suggestion that "Obama has threatened war with Iran". He didn't elaborate, but it sounded pretty serious to me (and I was not updated on the news), yet when I looked around for what he could be talking about all I found was Obama saying that "all options were on the table". That seemed trivial to me. Of course all options are on the table. Gene's newest post seems to confirm that's all he meant. If what Gene meant is that Obama made a conditional threat, then OK I can agree to that. But who cares? That conditional threat is always implicit, isn't it? If Syria invades Israel, we are in all likelihood going to go to war with Syria. If Russia invades Europe we are in all likelihood going to go to war with Russia. If North Korea invades South Korea we are in all likelihood going to go to war with North Korea. And in each of those three cases we probably should. So? It just seems misleading to me if, say, Obama talks tough in negotiation with North Korea, to say that he "threatened war with North Korea". No - what he would be doing is making our intentions crystal clear to a belligerent government.

By Gene's definition, the only way we wouldn't be "threatening war" is if we made a credible commitment to never wage war with any country ever. Anything else would be "threatening war" to Gene because we are leaving the option of war on the table - implicitly or explicitly - if certain conditions are met. That seems like a completely useless and unintuitive definition of "threatening war" to me. Gene seems genuinely committed to it, so I'll retract my suggestion that he was being "deceptive" and instead note that Gene is simply being unintelligible and unintuitive on this one.


  1. They think we have a belligerent government.

    What you miss, Daniel, is that what you call "making our intentions crystal clear" increases the probability of war.

    They think about us pretty much the same way we think about them. We're the ones with nukes, and we've used them on civilian populations. We're the ones with the most powerful army in the world, with global reach, bases in numerous countries. We've invaded a bunch of places that didn't threaten us--Iraq, Vietnam, not to mention Guam and Hawaii. I'm sure more could be listed.

    They're scared of us. It's like bears. You get bears not to kill you by not giving the bear reason to think you're threatening its children. Doesn't matter that you would never hurt a baby bear. Doesn't matter how nice you are, how obviously the good guy you are, how accidental the offense is. You step wrong, bear claws your face off. Don't take stupid risks.

  2. I would rather we be the bear and have them think through how not to scare us.

    Regardless of what I would rather have, that seems to be the reality of the situation. I obviously agree we are not perfect on these things, but I'm pretty comfortable rejecting an equivalence.

    The "all options are on the table" point is implicit. Iran has said as much as well. I take them seriously. I'm not planning on voting for anyone that will attack Iran unprovoked because I take them seriously. They should take us seriously too.

  3. It's just that they are thinking exactly the same way. The thing is, they don't know we're the good guys who are only acting tough so that we can deter the bad guys and stand up to them if push comes to shove. What they know is, we're a nation that tends to invade other nations, has a bunch of nukes, HAS USED THEM ON CIVILIAN POPULATIONS, and seems to be eying Iran. We look to them like they look to us.

  4. Perhaps you don't agree, but I think the Iranians are intelligent enough to realize that we used nukes only after four years of brutal war with an enemy that attacked us. I read what you wrote the first time. You don't need to all-caps it to communicate the point.

    I understand the Iranians think they're the good guys. My claim is often they're wrong (sometimes they're right, of course - I'm not some kind of neo-con that demonizes the very existence of Iran - but I am realistic enough to note there are some bad people in charge).

    If fear of them keeps us from preemptively attacking and fear of us keeps them from preemptively attacking, that sounds just peachy to me. I'm not looking for utopia here. I'm not personally worried that any of our presidential contenders would launch a preemptive attack. Iranians might disagree with me. I am somewhat (but not all that) worried about a preemptive attack by the Iranians. The Iranians may disagree with me.

    We can go around in circles on this all you want - I get what you're saying. It still seems silly to me to complain that Obama said something that (1.) doesn't signal any kind of inclination to strike preemptively, and (2.) everybody knew was our position all along anyway.

  5. No, they're not that intelligent. Especially since it's not that true. We would've dropped them on China, Russia, and maybe Vietnam. In some alternate universes, we did. And haven't you met Americans whose solution to the problems in the middle east is just to blow up the entire region?

    Doesn't matter that they're wrong. They think we're wrong. But it's not about who's good and who's bad. It's about expectations. My views on this have been heavily shaped by the Cold War (and if I were older, probably WWI as well). Russia and the US nearly destroyed the world on several different occasions because neither side took seriously the threat the other side considered the other side to be! The US thought it was so obvious that they were the good guys who would never launch nukes unless the Russians did first that they never realized that the Russians didn't know that! We thought the Russians were crazy warmongers with their finger on the trigger button, always plotting our destruction. But we never realized that they thought the same about us! To us, Iran is full of nutters who would love to nuke Israel and go to war with...everyone. But they view us the way we view them (and quite a lot of Americans WOULD like Iran obliterated. I've heard that sentiment expressed a number of times.)

  6. Daniel,

    First, he agrees strongly with my point on methodological individualism

    It's quite possible that I'm misunderstanding what you mean by "methodological individualism", but assuming I'm not, the problem with this line of analysis is that it's question begging.

    If you're not going to understand the behaviour of the aggregates in terms of the behaviour of their underlying components (that is, their microfoundations), then how are you going to understand them?


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