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Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

J. M. W. Turner, The Burning of the House of Parliament.

J. M. W. Turner, The Burning of the House of Parliament.

The best links of the week:

Rethinking the coming of the civil war (The Journal of American History).

Why I want a male birth control pill (Science Not Fiction).

Road to Appomattox blogging (Paul Krugman).

Photos from the Chernobyl disaster (The Atlantic).

Ludovico Einaudi- Le Onde.

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“Kinetic Military Action” and Hypocrisy

By Taylor Marvin

The USS Stout launches a Tomahawk missile against a Libyan target.

The USS Stout launches a Tomahawk missile against a Libyan target.

Mark LeVine and Reza Aslan get the motives behind the intervention in Libya spectacularly wrong:

“Yet it is impossible not to recognize the rank hypocrisy in supporting the rights of anti-government protesters in Libya, while turning a blind eye to the same in Bahrain, where government troops have massacred dozens of unarmed civilians; in Yemen, where the regime of president Ali Abdullah Saleh has been firing live ammunition into peaceful crowds; in Saudi Arabia, whose military has been sent into neighboring countries to brutally suppress people’s demand for the most basic rights and freedoms; in the Palestinian territories, where non-violent demonstrations for an end to Israeli settlements have been completely ignored by an American administration who, until recently, vowed that a settlement freeze would form the basis of its Middle East policy.”

This isn’t hypocrisy; this is the US intervening when it’s in its interests and abilities to do so. Despite credible humanitarian justifications for US actions in Bahrain and Yemen, hypothetical interventions in these countries fail any reasonable benefit-cost analysis. Bahrain is the home of the US Navy’s Fifth Fleet, and Yemen is an increasingly ungovernable state with deep ethnic divisions and a strong al Qaeda presence. Wars, or in the administration’s terms a “time-limited, scope-limited kinetic military action,” aren’t required to be morally consistent- just because one humanitarian crisis meets the administration’s benefit-cost threshold for military action doesn’t make it hypocrisy if others do not. This criticism also ignores that fact that the humanitarian situation in Libya is much worse than in Yemen or Bahrain — while these governments have killed hundreds of their own citizens, Qaddafi credibly threatened the death tens of thousands. The US didn’t intervene in Libya just because of an imminent humanitarian catastrophe, it did because, in addition to moral concerns, the continued existence of the Qaddafi regime was undesirable to the US. The stability of Yemen and Bahrain, on the other hand, is highly valuable to US interests. This may be immoral, but that doesn’t make it false. Believing the US acts, or should act, for any other motivation is hopelessly naive.

Of course, LeVine and Aslan refrain from advocating US military actions against the governing despots in Bahrain, Yemen and Saudi Arabia. But how much diplomatic influence does the US actually have over these rulers? While the US is a large source of funding for the Yemen’s government, it’s not clear if the US could diplomatically deter crackdowns against protesters. Attempting to would incur diplomatic costs for the US, for uncertain gains. Criticizing the administration for “inconsistency” in its response to crackdowns against protesters across the Arab world isn’t just unrealistic, but spectacularly bad policy. Military interventions aren’t an all or nothing choice — the US intervenes when its cost-effective, in its interests, and has a reasonable chance of a desirable outcome. Demanding that the US ignore the vastly different political and military environments in Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain in pursuit of a different moral position is a recipe for unintended adverse involvement in very dangerous situations, and is much more reminiscent of the type of magical thinking that led to the Iraq war than LeVine and Aslan are prepared to admit. There are very good reasons to criticize President Obama’s decision making on Libya — it’s an open ended conflict that’s most likely end-state is a costly stalemate, the intervention seems to fail any reasonable cost-benefit test for the US, and the administration’s decision makers seems to have grossly overestimated the military capabilities of the rebels and strategic effectiveness of aerial strikes. But criticizing Obama for hypocrisy ignores the reality of international politics and limited US influence in the region, and is a poor argument.

Cortés and 16th Century Brutality

By Taylor Marvin

Cortés encounters the Tlaxcalans.

Cortés encounters the Tlaxcalans.

I’m currently reading Jon Manchip White’s excellent, if under appreciated, Cortés and the Downfall of the Aztec Empire. The encounter between the Spanish and the Aztecs is one of the most interesting episodes in human history. On the eve of the Spanish Conquest, civilization in the Americas had been isolated from the rest of humanity for at least 60,000 years, were roughly 4,500 years technologically behind European cultures, and had developed advanced urban societies completely alien to Europeans. It’s doubtful that history has seen another encounter between two peoples with so little in common, or one so violent- over the course of the conquest, the Spanish conquistadores and their indigenous allies likely killed over one hundred thousand Aztecs by hand. One Spanish chronicler recounts forty thousand Aztecs killed in a single battle, though this is possibly an exaggeration. This brutality extends to the Spanish reaction to the Aztec religious tradition, which the conquistadors violently eradicated. Modern popular history, both in Mexico and the rest of the world, tend to demonize Cortés for this slaughter. This blame is partially justified — though the vast majority of American indigenous deaths in the centuries after the European contact were due to the introduction of European diseases, the conquest of the Americas is still one of the greatest catastrophes in human history. But blaming the conquistadors for their brutality ignores the reality of the world they inhabited. Cortés was a product of a world universally at war, and the idea of religious coexistence had no basis in their world.

Cortés and his companions lived in a world of two religions- Christianity and Islam. In the eyes of Cortés Christianity, specifically Catholicism, was the one faith of civilization, while Islam was the deadly religion of aggressive fanatics that threatened to overrun all of the civilized world. This worldview wasn’t bigoted, but was rather an accurate reaction to the world a 16th century Spaniard inhabited. Europeans saw the Islam they encountered, with good reason, as aggressive and an existential threat to Christendom. Cortés and his men had experienced this conflict firsthand in Spain’s centuries long battle to evict the Moors, and also through stories of the seemingly unstoppable Turkish advance into Eastern Europe. In 16th century Spaniard’s worldview only two religions were even possible- the true Catholic religion of civilization, and that of barbarians. The Aztec religion clearly fell in to the latter category, and had to be destroyed. It’s telling that in Cortés’ dispaches to the Spanish emperor he refers to Aztec temples as “mosques.” The Aztecs didn’t build churches, so their religion and society was as much a threat as that of the Moors.

It is not surprising that no Spaniards questioned the narrative that it was their religious duty to conquer and forcibly convert the Americas. The idea that different religious beliefs could peacefully coexist was completely alien to the 16th century. While the Protestant reformation had begun in Germany 2 years before Cortés’ expedition into the Aztec Empire, it’s doubtful that he or any of his men were aware of it. To Cortés and his companions, the world was neatly divided into two competing sects — civilized Christendom  and Islam. Cortés was aware that other religious practices existed among Indian tribes that the Spanish had already encountered, but these practices were likely easy to dismiss as petty witchcraft rather than developed religious traditions equal in theological rigor  to Christianity. Similarly, Cortés and the rest of contemporary Spain deeply admired their Roman predecessors, who were clearly non-Christian. However, the religions of the ancient Romans and contemporary Indians were only academic interests — to practical Spanish soldiers, what mattered in the world was the apocalyptic confrontation between Christianity and Islam, or civilization and barbarism.

It’s not surprising that the Spaniards reacted to the Aztecs with such brutality. In addition to their motives of conquest, the Aztec religion was as organized and codified as Christianity, making it, unlike the unorganized religious practices of the Caribbean natives, a threat that the Spaniards’ experience with an aggressive Islam demanded they react aggressively against. This worldview of zero-sum cultural competition was undoubtably strengthened by the undeniably horrible aspects of the Aztec religion like human sacrifice, practices that, despite the Spaniards’ own appetite for violence and sadism, disgusted the conquistadors. The point is that we shouldn’t judge the Spaniards’ brutal conquest. Their actions were a product of their culture, a culture that grew out of a world more violent than we can really understand. The unified Spanish state was forged in the desperate struggle against the Moors, and we shouldn’t judge contemporary Spanish culture for its brutality and religious fanaticism, a fanaticism that was the natural reaction to a violent world. In many ways modern Latin America was born from the long brutal war between the Spanish and the Moors — we shouldn’t be surprised that the birth was violent.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Rembrandt, The Nightwatch

Rembrandt, The Nightwatch

The best links of the week:

Will future generations understand the Simpsons? (Salon).

Images of Italian colonialism in Africa (Foreign Policy).

Amazing photos of the human planet (BBC Earth).

Arctic Monkeys- Still Take You Home.

The Economics of Alien Invasion, Updated

By Taylor Marvin

I saw it. At the bottom of the page is what they got wrong.

Here’s the trailer for the upcoming film Battle: Los Angles:

This may or may not be a good movie. But it did get me thinking: if intelligent, advanced alien civilizations exist, what incentives would they have to invade Earth?

Though it’s impossible to reasonably speculate about extraterrestrials’ motivations, there are some universally constant factors that would influence the behavior of any technological civilization, no matter how alien:

  1. Space is extremely big, and the distance between even a relatively nearby alien civilization and us means that travel between the two would take at least decades. Barring a major hole in our understanding of physics faster than light travel is impossible, meaning that for even a very advanced civilization interstellar travel would be extremely costly and time consuming. Given the enormous energy requirements of interstellar flight, even for a energy-rich civilization that had intensively industrialized its solar system these costs would be very significant, and it’s been speculated that interstellar travel could turn out to be so expensive that no economy could reasonably support it. This logic would still apply to alien civilizations with vastly different available resources and economic systems than we’re used to. Even an enormous multi-world alien economy would face the problem of scarcity and costly interstellar travel would have to compete for resources with other projects. If aliens do choose to aggressively develop interstellar travel they must have an extremely powerful incentive to do so, especially give the huge opportunity costs of building an interstellar fleet.
  2. An alien civilization would have to be very close by to know about humanity at all. The Earth’s presence is obvious across great distances, and any alien civilization interested in our planet would probably be able to infer the presence of some form of life on Earth by the high concentration of free oxygen in our atmosphere. However, it would be much harder to detect our technological civilization. The main evidence of our civilization detectable across interstellar distances is our radio emissions, and it seems likely that even a vastly different alien civilization would be able to interpret radio emissions from Earth as a sign of intelligence. However, because humans have only been emitting lots of noise in the electromagnetic spectrum for about the last hundred years radio waves from Earth have only had time to travel roughly 100 light years, expanding in a sphere around the Earth at the speed of light. That implies that only an alien civilization 100 light years from Earth would be able to detect human technology. It’s unlikely that, given the vast size of the galaxy and presumed rarity of habitable planets, an advanced civilization would lie so close to ours. However, it isn’t impossible — within only a 21 light year radius of Earth lie 100 stars, some with planets. Despite this it seems unlikely that an advanced civilization would lie so close to us, because we would probably be able to detect it. It seems unlikely that an alien species experiencing technological development would not have emitted significant electromagnetic radiation during its history, emission that would be detectable by us. This, combined with an assumed 200+ year lag period between the advent of alien radio and interstellar space-flight technologies, strongly implies that there are no technological civilization within at least two hundred light years of Earth and no alien intelligence aware of our presence.
  3. There are few plausible incentives aliens would have to invade the Earth. Science fiction authors and filmmakers typically offer the Earth’s resources as motivation for aliens to mount an invasion of our planet. This doesn’t seem likely. Most of the resources Earth offers are common in the universe; water is ubiquitous, rare metals are a normal component of asteroids, and solar systems with terrestrial planets suitable for mining seem to be common. Given the very high cost of interstellar travel, it’s hard to imagine any physical resource found on the Earth that couldn’t be more cheaply exploited closer to an expanding alien civilization. However, one unique feature of Earth is its climate and atmosphere. If an alien species had a similar physiology to Earth life and planets with oxygen atmospheres and liquid water turn out to be rare in this section of the galaxy it’s possible that our biosphere could motivate an alien invasion. However, this doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. The only reason an alien civilization would send a military force, rather than a colonizing mission, to Earth is if they knew an intelligent species lived here and judged our technological abilities to be a threat. If an alien aggressor was aware that Earth harbored a technological civilization, it would be reasonable to assume the aliens also recognized human’s nuclear weapons capability, a fairly basic technology a sufficiently advanced civilization would likely  be aware of. The threat of a human nuclear defense of the planet would remove the incentive to invade Earth for its atmosphere or biosphere — resources that would be destroyed by nuclear warfare. An irradiated Earth would be of much less utility to even a radiation-tolerant species, making the notion of an invasion driven by a desire for alien living space or biological resources unlikely.

The sheer vastness of space is what ultimately makes the prospect of an alien invasion unlikely. Even if an advanced civilization was located relatively close to our solar system, the limited speeds of even extremely advanced space travel would mean that the flight time of an invasion fleet would be measured in centuries, if not millennia. For a civilization motivated to mount an extremely costly invasion whose prospective gains would be realized thousands of years into the future would require a species with the ability to think over the extremely long term without significant discounting future returns to present costs. The necessary long flight times of interstellar travel also have interesting tactical implications — a fleet that arrived at Earth would be armed with at least centuries-old technology from the aliens’ own perspective, with the possibility that human weaponry had advanced significantly during their long journey. The lack of clear gains from successfully occupying Earth, combined with the extremely high costs of developing sufficient interstellar travel capabilities, suggest that mounting an invasion of Earth would not be in the interest of most imaginable alien economies.

However, not all wars are motivated by economic concerns. The medieval Crusades are thought to have been at least partially motivated by the need for an outlet for Europe’s large number of otherwise unoccupied professional soldiers and overpopulation pressures, and it is possible to imagine similar conditions motivating an alien civilization. And of course we have really no real basis to speculate about what incentives an imaginary alien civilization might face. We can state that interstellar travel would probably be very costly for any civilization, but it’s possible that we’re wrong. Similarly, an alien species could put enormous value on Earth for reasons we can’t even comprehend, enough value to justify the extreme costs and long time horizons of an invasion. However, given the inherent expense of interstellar flight, likely large separation between intelligent civilizations, and universal prevalence of resources there seem to be few incentives for an alien invasion, even for an extraterrestrial species. We’re lucky.

Update: I’m a sucker for science fiction, so I saw the movie Friday. Unsurprisingly, the filmmakers chose not to incorporate my theories on the cost-effectiveness of alien invasion. Specifically (spoiler alert!):

  1. The aliens are willing to travel hundreds of light years, a journey that will take at the very least centuries (and that’s assuming extremely advanced propulsion technology like antimatter thrusters) to find water, the most common multi-element molecule in the universe? We know that water itself is extremely common in the universe, and we know that solid planets with surface temperatures to permit liquid water exist, because we’ve already found one. Even if the Battle: Los Angeles aliens somehow couldn’t find a water source closer to home, why would they need to invade Earth for it? The movie attempts to address this- a television reporter claims that Earth is “the only known source of liquid water in the universe.” Even if this turns out to be true, the aliens shouldn’t need to find liquid water — if you can generate enough energy for interplanetary travel, you can melt Pluto into as much liquid water as you want.
  2. The aliens’ invasion force is mostly composed of infantry. This doesn’t make much sense — if you truly want to exterminate Earth’s population, an orbital bombardment is a much cheaper way to do this. What are the aliens planning to do, individually shoot 7 billion people? This is not an efficient use of resources.
  3. Similarly, the aliens choice to use living troops rather than robots is interesting. It’s clear that the aliens don’t have some cultural taboo against constructing robots, as their air force is entirely drones. It’s also possible that, unlike humans, the alien species doesn’t have an aversion to losing soldiers.However, even if the alien society was willing to suffer preventable casualties utilizing live troops would be enormously costly for an invasion force, because living beings require biological inputs during the interstellar voyage to Earth. Even if the aliens put their troops into some kind of hibernation during the centuries to millennia-long voyage, they would still have to provide their troops with an atmosphere, requiring more massive, complex ships. This would significantly increase the cost of constructing an invasion fleet. Considering the resources necessary to transport and individual alien soldier to Earth, they aren’t expendable, and certainly have better things to do than hunt down Aaron Eckhart. Additionally, the aliens fight us on roughly equal terms — their weapons are similar to ours, and they seem to require roughly numerical parity to defeat human soldiers. That implies that the aliens have transported enough soldiers to earth to rival all of the world’s militaries — maybe ten million soldiers. This strains the limits of plausibility. Interstellar flight may be so slow and expensive that no civilizations ever have the resources to pursue it. Transporting ten million beings to invade one planet that isn’t home to any unique resource is certainly not cost effective.

Of course, analyzing the plausibility of a movie with the word “battle” in the title probably isn’t a great use of anyone’s time. Still, it is encouraging that it is difficult to imagine circumstances where even radically alien extraterrestrials would have an incentive to invade Earth. Alien invasion movies are fun, but they aren’t intellectually challenging. Something tells me this isn’t a problem.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Transantarctic mountains. Photo by Hannes Grobe.

Transantarctic mountains. Photo by Hannes Grobe.

The best links of the week:

Learning the alien language of dolphins (Science not Fiction)

Mainstreaming brutality (Outside the Beltway)

Ezra Klein vs. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsak (Ezra Klein)

The sex trade imbalance (Free Exchange)

Vieux Farka Touré- Diallo

The Long-Term Cost of the ACA

By Taylor Marvin

The way I see it, healthcare in the United States is facing three core problems:

  1. The morality problem- In the US, poor people without health insurance receive substandard care, and some die unnecessarily.
  2. The efficiency problem- The US spends a much greater percentage of GDP on healthcare than peer nations, and experiences significantly worse health outcomes.
  3. The fiscal problem- Healthcare costs are rising faster than real GDP growth. If the federal government continues to subsidize healthcare, healthcare inflation will challenge the solvency of the United States sometime in the near future.

The problem with the Affordable Care Act is that even in theory it only attempts to tackle one of these problems. Extending health insurance to all Americans, through the controversial mechanism of the personal mandate, is an attempt to resolve the morality problem, though it’s debatable how well this measure will actually work in real life. The ACA only indirectly attempts to address the efficiency problem, and makes no real attempt to answer the fiscal problem. This is understandable- healthcare cost inflation is a natural byproduct of advancing technology, increased access to advanced care and better healthcare outcomes, and will be very difficult to address while avoiding politically unpopular care restrictions like rationing. However, this is still worrying. Even if the ACA is able to effectively ensure universal health insurance coverage healthcare cost inflation is the only aspect of federal spending with the potential to consume the entire budget. While discretionary federal spending has consistently declined as a portion of the overall budget over the last half century, this drop has been offset by increases in mandatory spending:

Source: Congressional Research Service

Source: Congressional Research Service

Similarly, the growth of mandatory federal entitlements is almost entirely driven by healthcare costs. Contrary to popular conceptions, Social Security projected costs are essentially flat for the foreseeable future:

Source: CBO, via The Incidental Economist

Source: CBO, via The Incidental Economist

Even if the ACA is entirely successful, the new healthcare status quo still isn’t sustainable. The real risk of the ACA is that its controversial passage will make comprehensive healthcare reform that addresses all three of these core issues politically impossible for at least the next 20 years, at which point healthcare costs will have risen so high that the debt will begin to have real negative consequences and will be much harder to address. This isn’t entirely the ACA’s fault- the partisan battle lines in the healthcare debate were well drawn long before Obama was elected. However, the attention the ACA’s passage drew to the healthcare debate in general will make it much harder to actually pass a broadly effective package that will bring US healthcare costs and outcomes more in line with the rest of the developed world. This is an issue that needs to be settled as soon as possible, and barring major reforms in the structure of the Senate it will likely require some type of partisan consensus to pass. Before the ACA, most Americans had fairly flexible perceptions of the healthcare debate- in the past Republicans have sponsored bills that included and individual mandate, and liberals have historically differed on the value of a single-payer type system. However, the controversy the ACA attracted has made healthcare policy a type of ideological litmus test for activist party bases on both sides, significantly reducing the chances for future cooperation. The ACA only passed when Democrats controlled both Houses and the Presidency, a historic rarity for both parties. By polarizing popular opinions on healthcare policy the passage of the ACA may actually harm the long-term goal of comprehensive reform.

Surprise! – Palestinians Still Unpopular

By Taylor Marvin

Gallup has a new poll out that, unsurprisingly, shows that Americans tend to sympathize much more with Israel than Palestine:

The fact that Americans overwhelmingly sympathize with Israelis rather than Palestinians shouldn’t be that unexpected. Americans have historically tended to include Israel in the imagined pioneer mythos that defines Americans’ self-assigned cultural identity, an association aided by America and Israel’s shared cultural and ethnic heritage. Palestinians, as part of an ethnic and religious group without a long history in the United States, are largely excluded from this cultural identity.

What’s really interesting about this survey is the fact that Americans have overwhelmingly identified with the winners in a fairly one-sided military conflict. Objectively, the life of the average Israeli is much, much better than the life of the average Palestinian. This doesn’t impart the moral upper ground for either side, but it is worth noting that Americans have chosen to sympathize with the group that overwhelmingly enjoys a richer and more secure life. What’s also interesting is that 9/11 seemingly sparked a long-term decrease in American indifference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. It’s expected that 9/11 would lead to a dramatic increase in American popular identification with Israel- unfortunately, the equation ‘terrorist=muslim=arab’ seems to be pretty set in a large portion of American’s minds, even though 9/11 was almost completely unconnected to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. However, 9/11 didn’t seem to lead to an inverse drop in American sympathies for the Palestinians; Americans who supported the Palestinian cause in the 1990s didn’t change their mind after 9/11, but the increased superficial awareness of terrorism and the Arab world in general that popular media coverage the War on Terror sparked seems to have caused nearly all Americans to form a strong opinion about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Unfortunately for the Palestinians, this increased polarization seems to have almost entirely benefited Israel. It’s also worth wondering about this polarization’s implications for America’s historical role as mediator of Israeli-Palestinian negotiations- while the US’s claim to be an impartial party to the conflict was never very credible, the deep American popular sympathy for Israel and indifference to Palestinian grievances is becoming increasingly obvious.

Update: I changed the title of this post a day after it went up.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Home sweet home. Ortelius World Map, 1570.

Home sweet home. Ortelius World Map, 1570.

The best links of the week:

How we train our cops to fear Islam. Disgusting, terrifying, infuriating, and great reporting (Washington Monthly).

Why I am boycotting ABC News and Disney (Cato @ Liberty).

Is gender-discriminating insurance rates unfair (Democracy in America).

Internet pornography did not raise the marriage rate (Dana Goldstein).

The Frames- “Fitzcarraldo.”

The Tragedy of Counterinsurgency

By Taylor Marvin

“I don’t care about the apology. The only option I have is to pick up a Kalashnikov, RPG or a suicide vest to fight.”

Mohammed Bismil, brother of two Afghan boys killed in a NATO helicopter strike this week.

Miscommunications like this are going to keep happening. As tragic as they are, they’re a product of fighting a hot war in an environment full of civilians. While scaling back NATO air missions to the lower levels seen under General McCrystal would help, such a reduction would likely mean more dead US soldiers. Air power is an important asset, and restricting its use restricts one of NATO troops’ biggest safeguards. Of course, as long as air strikes kill civilians more Afghans will be pushed into the insurgency by justifiable grievances. There isn’t a way out of this trade- it’s inherent to counterinsurgency, and military power in general. Military operations kill people, and create enemies where there weren’t before. This is important to remember when considering the value of a no-fly zone over Libya.