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Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol and Nuclear Theory

By Taylor Marvin

[This post contains spoilers for Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol]

Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol is a very entertaining movie. Particularly interesting is the film’s depiction of nuclear conflict, which unfortunately doesn’t hold up to scrutiny.

The film’s villain — renegade Russian nuclear strategist Kurt Hendricks —  is motivated by the idea that stagnent world civilization can be revitalized by the disaster of a nuclear conflict, as long as the damage is distributed “evenly”. To trick the US and Russia into nuclear war, Hendricks clandestinely destroys the Kremlin with conventional explosives, and then uses stolen Russian nuclear launch codes to order a Russian ballistic missile submarine to launch a single nuclear missile at San Francisco in hopes of provoking a US retaliatory nuclear attack on Russia.

For this plan to work, senior American officials have to believe that the initial Russian missile launch was ordered by the Russian government. On the surface, this is credible; the missile is delivered by a submarine-launched ICBM after all, which are only possessed by a handful of nuclear states. However, Hendricks’ actions don’t make sense in the framework of nuclear theory.

Hendricks intends American officials to view the initial Russian missile launch a retaliatory strike by Moscow, under the assumption that the Russian government mistakenly believes that the destruction of the Kremlin was ordered by Washington. Limited retaliatory punishment strikes are an accepted part of nuclear war. For example, one state could, purposefully or accidentally, launch a limited nuclear attack on another. To prevent their opponent from retaliating with a civilization-destroying unlimited response, the original aggressor could consent to “sacrificing” assets of comparable value to their opponent’s losses. This limited retaliation would inflict enough destruction to satiate the original victim, while avoiding a wider nuclear exchange.

Hendricks’ plot’s efficacy rests on two deceptions: that the American leadership believes the strike on San Francisco to be an authorized Russian attack — rather than a loss of Russian control over their weapons — and responds with a multiple nuclear strikes of their own (of course, Ethan Hunt could have attempted to warn the US government that the immanent nuclear strike was not authorized by Moscow; the film never suggests this possibility). However, the missile launch isn’t a credible Russian response because its target — a nuclear strike on an American city — is not comparable to the conventional destruction of the Kremlin in a terrorist attack.

Is their any reason to believe that Russia would respond to a perceived American conventional attack on a symbolic target with a nuclear strike on an American civilian target? In short: probably not; the escalation risks of such a hugely unproporitonal retaliatory strike are clearly not worth the signaling value of such a strike. There is the faint possibility that Moscow would authorize a nuclear response if it felt that a ICBM strike was the only retaliatory action available to a unprecedented American aggression. However, land-attack cruise missiles launched from air or submarine platforms likely do give Russian forces the ability to hit continental US targets on short notice — most likely a 3M-14E missile launched from a submarine offshore. This conventional strike capability gives Moscow the ability to responde in kind to an American attack on a high-profile symbolic target; Moscow would have nearly zero incentive to escalate to a nuclear response.

Of course, this disproportion is the entire point; Hendricks wants the American president to not accept the Russian strike as a valid retaliatory action, and respond with a unlimited strike against Russian targets. However, the problem with Hendricks scheme is that it’s so unproportional as to be an unbelievable Russian action. Rather than launch a retaliatory strike, it’s entirely possible that US leaders would judge the strike on San Francisco as evidence that Russia had lost control of at least a portion of it’s nuclear forces, especially considering that the Kremlin had been destroyed by an unknown actor the day before. If this judgement was made US leaders would not initiate their own launch. Whether in the heat of the moment American leaders are this discerning is an open question, but it is a major flaw in Hendricks’ plan.

The success of Hendricks’ plot depends on giving the Russians believable reason to launch a retaliatory limited nuclear attack on the US, but simultaneously prompt the US government to respond with a broad nuclear attack on Russia. But the film fails of both counts: the (perceived) terror attack on the Kremlin is not severe enough to suggest that the Russian strike on San Francisco was ordered by a rational actor in Moscow, and the Americans are unlikely to respond to a single missile launched on a US city with broad retaliation. If Hendricks was actually interested in starting a nuclear war, it would make more sense to dupe the Russian submarine commander into launching general strike on the US rather than one intended to be construed as a retaliatory strike, which is inherently deescalatory. 

However, it is possible to argue that Hendricks wants a nuclear war, but not a countervalue exchange that would decimate civilization; after all, he talks about humanity emerging from the rubble stronger. In this case, framing the manufactured conflict as an escalating series of retaliatory strikes makes sense. A series of counterforce strikes on Russian and American nuclear infrastructure and military targets would kill huge numbers of people — both through the exchange itself and the ensuing environmental damage — but might not be fatal to human civilization. But again, the film’s nuclear logic fails: if Hendricks is seeking a counterforce exchange, the Russian retaliatory strike shouldn’t hit a US civilian target.

Of course, none of this makes sense. The film dwells on the fact that Hendricks wants a nuclear exchange whose damage is distributed “evenly” across the globe; but an American-Russian nuclear exchange would inherently focus its damage on the northern hemisphere. A counterforce exchange would be even more discriminating in its devastation. Ultimately, these flaws don’t matter: if your plan rests on defeating the Impossible Missions Force, you’re already out of luck.

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The Hunger Games and Political Control

By Taylor Marvin

I’ve been working my way through Abigail Nussbaum’s excellent reviews, and particularly enjoyed her reading of The Hunger Games (she has no love for Battlestar Galactica, but that’s another story).

The Hunger Games trilogy isn’t a particularly good narrative, and Suzanne Collins’ disregard for believable world building is particularly frustrating — Panem just doesn’t feel like a functioning state, and the lives of its people outside District 12 are at best one dimensional. However, one aspect of Panem society that does exist as part of a believable state structure is the concept of the tessera, which allows poor teenagers in the labor camp-like districts to earn food allotments for their families at the cost of an increased chance of random selection to fight in the gladiatorial Hunger Games, which are organized by the despotic Capitol.

Authoritarian regimes often align themselves with the interests of the middle class — the Assad regime in Syria is a good contemporary example of this phenomenon. Assuming that individuals’ political power is roughly aligned with their income, it’s often more secure in the long-term for despots to protect the economic interests of a pampered, and politically adept, middle class at the expense of a much larger poor population than to make populist appeals to the very poor.

In The Hunger Games, the tessera functions as a mechanism for aligning the district middle class interests’ in the districts with those of the regime in the capital. While impoverished districts like District 12 lack a true middle class, more secure district families aren’t forced to take out tesseras and have a lower chance of having their children selected for the Hunger Games. These families enjoy the benefits of the Games — presumably, greater social stability if we accept the regime’s rhetoric that the Hunger Games are a substitute for more severe forms of collective punishment — while avoiding their costs. The fact that upper-class children are occasionally randomly chosen to fight makes the system more acceptable for everyone in the districts by maintaining the illusion of impartiality.

How We Brought Basra to Oakland: An Analysis on Police Militarization

By Saad Asad


Videos like these and the recent police violence against the Occupy protests remind us of how militarized the police have become in recent years. Even in a city as serene as Newport Beach, the police seek to arm itself for the worst of possibilities.

The justification for these military units arose out of the War on Drugs and the War on Terror. Considering the violence drug gangs or terrorists could wreak on a city, police forces sought to arm themselves. However, this intention quickly swirled out of hand. Originally, only large cities like Los Angeles or New York City had S.W.A.T teams, now virtually every police department does. They are deployed for minor operations such as serving warrants. In the last two decades, there has been a precipitous increase in the use of these teams. From 3,000 requests a year in the 1980s, they are now called out about 40,000 times in a year.

But the overuse of S.W.A.T. teams is not all, police departments have begun acquiring all sorts of military surplus. A small town in Alaska was granted $202,000 to purchase surveillance cameras to track terrorist activity. Montgomery County in Texas purchased a weapons-capable drone, the Tampa police department operates an armored vehicle a tracked armored personnel carrier, and Fargo, North Dakota readied themselves with bomb detection robots. All told, the federal government has granted $30 to $40 billion in direct grants to state and local law enforcement.

There are severe consequences to this militarization which instills in the police a shoot first-ask questions later mindset. Glenn Reynolds notes this story:

“And, in a case that is now drawing national attention, 92-year-old Kathryn Johnston, who lived in a high-crime neighborhood of Atlanta, recently opened fire on police when they broke down her door while executing a drug warrant. They returned fire, killing her. It’s hard to believe any of this would have happened had the police taken a less aggressive approach in the first place.”

Far from this being the exception, the Cato Institute has a map that details the epidemic of botched police raids happening across the country that have resulted in the loss of innocent life.

Because police departments receive this equipment for virtually free, they continue to acquire them. Once these units are established, there is also a desire to use them even when they are not appropriate for a certain scenario. The New York Times explains:

“There is behind this, also, I think, a kind of status competition or imitation, that there is positive status in having a sort of ‘big department muscle,’ in smaller departments,” said Franklin E. Zimring, a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley. “And then the problem is, if you have those kinds of specialized units, that you hunt for appropriate settings to use them and, in some of the smaller police departments, notions of the appropriate settings to use them are questionable.”

To restrain this militarization, police departments must have greater accountability to the public. Few small towns would truly consent to the purchase of bizarre military equipment. Further, the federal government needs to restrain itself from offering these items to state and local police departments. Only then can we expect to see a decrease in the use of this equipment and hopefully fewer lives lost.

Even When You’re Hot, You’re Still Othered

By Taylor Marvin

From Buzzfeed:

  • The notion that the nation of Iran is, believe it or not, home to attractive human beings is indeed surprising.
  • “Look how exotic and strange they are!”
  • What’s the implications behind the choice of the possessive “their”? If the author intended to refer to ‘the women of Iran, the country,’ he’d have used the singular “its”. Instead, he chose the plural “their.” Read into this as you will.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

Arkady Rylov, In the Blue Expanse, 1918.

Arkady Rylov, "In the Blue Expanse", 1918.

What I read this week:

Photographs from Yemen’s conflict.

Kabuki theater at the Afghanistan donors conference.

Productivity in the Euro Area: Any evidence of convergence? (via Free Exchange).

Saving Syria: Assessing options for regime change.

The nostalgia for past elites.

Why I’m writing so much about Bain.

Soviet infographics.

Frank Ocean – Pyrite.

Drones and Commitment Thresholds

By Taylor Marvin

US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson, via Wikimedia.

US Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Brian Ferguson, via Wikimedia.

Glenn Greenwald takes issue with the Pentagon’s move towards awarding drone pilots combat medals:

“Whatever one thinks of the justifiability of drone attacks, it’s one of the least ‘brave’ or courageous modes of warfare ever invented. It’s one thing to call it just, but to pretend it’s ‘brave’ is Orwellian in the extreme. Indeed, the whole point of it is to allow large numbers of human beings to be killed without the slightest physical risk to those doing the killing. Killing while sheltering yourself from all risk is the definitional opposite of bravery.”

The Obama Administration’s drone strike programs are enormously problematic: it’s unclear if the immediate benefits gained from killing al-Qaeda leaders are worth the long-term costs of very publicly eroding Pakistani and Yemeni sovereignty, and whether frequent drone strikes create more militants than kill. “The unintended consequences of our actions are going to outweigh the intended consequences,” former CIA Station Chief Robert Grenier recently said, arguing that Obama administration’s enthusiasm for discriminant strikes is counterproductive. But complaining that the use of drones over manned aircraft isn’t “brave” is just silly — the point of war isn’t to demonstrate macho bravado by risking soldiers’ lives, it’s to force the enemy into submission. Complaints about “bravery” are a juvenile criticism of drone warfare.

Greenwald’ second point — that the low-cost nature of drone warfare encourages aggression — is more on point. “The rapid proliferation of drones, beyond their own ethical and legal quandaries, makes violence and aggression so much easier (and cheaper) to perpetrate and therefore so much more likely,” Greenwald notes. UCAVs’ lack of physical risk for those doing the killing is a feature, not a bug, at least to those on those on the trigger end. But while the operational capabilities of UCAVs differ from their manned counterparts by degrees, their risk avoidance is an absolute — no drone pilot will ever be killed by a SAM. Greenwald’s right to worry that increased use of unmanned aircraft will lower policymakers’ threshold for initiating armed conflict.

Arguing that more lethal military technologies increase the incidence of aggressive wars by lowering their expected costs aren’t new, and make sense. In operational terms, UCAVs are not distinct from manned aircraft, and require the same extensive local support networks. However, while other military advances — guided missiles, body armor — lower risks to individual soldiers on a continuum, in a strict sense unmanned drone warfare negates it entirely, at least from the perspective of policymakers looking to placate domestic audience. This is an important point.

American policymakers’ choice to utilize drones in Pakistan and Yemen is driven by the desire to minimize risk. It’s difficult to make firm arguments about how US military policy would differ if drones were not available. Presumably airstrikes, restricted to manned aircraft, would be a higher risk strategy than it is today, making politicians less likely to utilize them. It is unlikely that the United States would wage an strike campaign in Pakistan anywhere near as comprehensive as it does if unmanned aircraft were not available. However, drones aren’t a perfect substitue for manned aircraft, and the decision to use drones is costlier than Greenwald recognizes.

Greenwald underestimates the difficulties and local infrastructure requirements of drone warfare, and overestimates the military capabilities of UCAVs. Drones like the widely-used MQ-9 Reaper are smaller and slower than fighter jets, giving military planners reason to utilize manned aircraft over UCAV in low-risk theaters. The US Air Force flies manned F-15Es in Yemen, despite the low-profile of American military action there. Drone warfare is cheaper and less risky than manned airstrikes, but the difference is marginal — American policymakers do not make the decision to deploy UCAVs lightly, and there is no firm line between drone and other forms of warfare. These costs mean that when policymakers make the decision to engage in drone warfare they have already passed a relatively high commitment threshold, challenging the notion that “the temptation to use it regularly is virtually irresistible.” While the absence of drones would marginally raise the commitment level required to prompt agressive US military action, the change would be nowhere near as dramatic as critics of drone warfare imagine.

The Myth of Chinese Elite Competence

By Taylor Marvin

At Gawker, Hamilton Nolan has a great piece absolutely demolishing Dilbert creator Scott Adams’ calls for increasing America’s “national intelligence” through the powers of the internet.

What’s most interesting about Adams’ post isn’t its dripping narcissism – or, as Nolan points out, Adams’ seemingly complete ignorance that Wikipedia exists –  but instead is its gushing adoration of perceived Chinese efficiency. After dismissing American public policy as “a weird stew of religion, politics, and randomness,” Adams remarks:

“China has a political system that seems to produce intelligent decisions. You might criticize China’s leadership for being heartless and brutal, but that’s a separate discussion. If you consider how effectively they pursue their country’s interests, their national intelligence seems quite high.”

There’s a common meme in the West that China’s government, unbound by democratic consensus requirements, is inherently more efficient than its democratic peers. Fortunately for the United States, and democratic governance overall, there doesn’t seem to be much support for this argument outside of highly visible PRC public works projects.

It’s difficult to assess the Chinese Communist Party’s record “effectively [pursuing] their country’s interestes,” because the interests of the Chinese elite don’t necessarily coincide with the country’s, and it’s unclear exactly what the Chinese leadership’s goals actually are. However, we can say that domestically the PRC leadership seeks to preserve the Communist Party’s dominance in Chinese society, ensure continued economic growth, and prevent social unrest. Internationally China seeks to protect its access to international markets, extend its exclusive economic zone to encompass the entire South China Sea, and eventually replace the United States as the hegemonic power in the Western Pacific. Contrary to the perception of the Chinese government as an unusually intelligent decisionmaking body, on all of these fronts China’s actual record is mixed.

The meme of Chinese efficiency is based in the idea that authoritarian governments are more efficient than democracies, with the dominant example being China’s massive public works projects. Here the perception is largely true: NIMBYism and environmental impact reports are less likely to slow down projects in societies with little property rights. But conflating rapid construction with “intelligence” is problematic. China’s high-profile public works successes have come at less visible costs, like the displacement of millions of people, shoddy construction, and poor planning. The Chinese leadership’s ability to plan in the long term is also questionable. While China’s reluctance to slow industrialization is understandable, China’s massive pollution problem and inability to reduce greenhouse gas emissions will have severe consequences for future growth — an extreme discount rate that seems incompatible with any definition of high “national intelligence.”

On the international stage this record isn’t much better. In the last decade China’s foreign policy has encouraged Japanese rearmament, begun to replace Pakistan as India’s great strategic adversary, and encouraged stronger ties between the US and regional rivals like Vietnam and the Philippines. On occasion Chinese foreign policy appears to be dictated by the People’s Liberation Army leadership, not the civilian foreign ministry. In nearly every recent international incident China has favored stoking public nationalistic fervor for immediate domestic gains over long-term geostrategy. Despite its secure hold on Tibet, China greets any accolade granted to the exiled Dali Lama with embarrassing tantrums beneath a great power. These are not the actions of a secure foreign policy elite.

The Chinese Communist Party has managed to avoid any existential challenges since its ascendence. However, this security is more due to the last three decades’ phenomenal economic growth rather than a propensity towards selecting highly skilled political leaders. A common corollary to the meme of Chinese competence is the argument that governments dominated by engineers — China — are inherently more efficient than those dominated by lawyers — America. This isn’t to say that political leaders’ aptitude isn’t related to their training prior careers; suggesting a relationship is reasonable, though prohibitively difficult to empirically test. But the idea that China’s engineer dominated political elite is inherently more efficient and far-seeing than other governments is ludicrous. Reaching consensus in a 25 member Politburo will always be easier than satisfying the de facto supermajority requirement in the US Congress, regardless of politicians’ backgrounds. When focused on China the engineer vs. lawyer question is really just an embarrassingly reactionist argument in favor of oligarchy.

While small decision-making bodies are inherently more — in a limited sense — efficient than more diffuse governments, there’s little evidence that the modern Chinese Communist Party is a particularly effective selection method for high office. As People’s Liberation Army Navy analyst Feng recently noted, “the current Chinese leaderships are a group of dull, gutless technocrats who continually get out-maneuvered in the international arena by their American counterpart.” The recent overthrow of Bo Xilai was an embarrassingly public indication of how bitter power struggles within the Communist Party leadership can be; the uncertain succession mechanisms inherent to oligarchic autocracies are an enormous liability largely absent from mature democracies.

Adams appears to understand that cheerleading autocracy is repugnant, and half-heartedly covers himself by denouncing the Chinese Communist Party as “heartless and brutal.” But state brutality isn’t severable from discussions of state efficiency, because government brutality is an enormous long-term drain on growth. As mentioned earlier, China’s autocracy incentizes protecting the interests of the Chinese Communist Party, rather than the state. When these coincide — as during the Deng Xaioping-era economic reforms — the country benefits with the state; however, it is in the nature of autocracy for these to diverge. Today the Chinese state has cemented one of the most unequal societies on Earth, and is entirely unwilling to meaningfully address the massive corruption, incompetence, and abuses of the local-level Party — all of which retard economic growth, in addition to their brutal human toll.

Governance is difficult, and the American model certainly suffers from massive structural problems. The Chinese state also deserves commendation for presiding over unprecedented economic development, one of the best improvements in the aggregate human condition in history. But making ludicrously comprehensive arguments about China’s “national intelligence” is just silly.  Aside from the obvious problems with excusing state brutality, this distressingly popular meme doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Adams’ making an embarrassingly obvious “grass is greener” mistake — he’s familiar with problematic American governance but doesn’t know much about China, so Adams assumes that the Chinese Communist Party is better than what he’s accustomed to. America’s decline relative to China is grounded in the fact that there’s four Chinese citizens for every American, rather than a magically intelligent Chinese state.

Save California, Tax Oil

By Saad Asad

Facing a $16 billion shortfall, Gov. Jerry Brown of California passed a budget that makes significant cuts to programs for low-income families and puts tax hikes on the November ballot. Excluded from this rancorous debate was the passage of an oil severance tax, law in states as conservative as Alabama and Sarah Palin’s Alaska.

Oil severance taxes are merely taxes on the extraction of oil. Since the economic activity generated from drilling is only temporal, Californians deserve restitution for the non-renewable energy extraction in the state. A modest tax on California oil extraction could generate up to $380 million. These revenue gains could have helped avoid cuts to child-care subsidies for low-income families ($64 million) and the Healthy Families program ($80 million) during a recent round of budget cuts.

An oil severance tax would only be a small hit to oil companies. Consider  the recent profits of California’s major oil companies: Chevron pulled in first quarter profits of $6.47 billion, and Exxon a staggering $9.45 billion. CEOs of these corporations received $35 million and $25 million in total compensation for 2011, respectively.

Because the price of oil is set at the world market, the tax will not be passed on to consumers but will be held by the local producers. Though the introduction of an oil severance tax could lead to a short-run reduction in supply, this reduction will not increase prices at the pump. California is already an oil importer, so the current price already reflects these transportation costs.

Critics argue this tax would reduce current production and discourage new drilling, forcing more oil to be imported and reducing the economic activity generated by oil companies. However, research carried out for Wyoming’s legislature suggests that oil production is highly inelastic in regards to changes to production taxes (i.e. a severance tax). The report finds that, “a production tax rate increase is shown to decrease early period exploration effort, affect little change in reserve additions and future production, and substantially increase discounted tax revenue. Policy implications of this outcome suggest that state officials may consider raising production tax rates as a way to increase revenue while risking little in the way of loss to future oil activity.”

A University of Alberta study confirms this inelasticity, staging “the simulations are consistent with prior studies in that they reflect insensitivity of oil production volumes with respect to even comparatively large production tax rate changes.” Headwaters Economics, an independent research firm, claims that price is the ultimate driver of oil production in a state, not tax structure.

Another criticism of oil severance taxes is that aggregate state revenues will decline due to decreases in property tax (via devaluations of land) and income tax liability (via decreased profits). A RAND study disputes this point and argues that property taxes would fall 6 cents per dollar for every dollar collected by the severance tax, and the net revenue for every severance dollar raised would be between 84 and 99 cents.

Despite its positive benefits, oil firms have consistently prevented a severance tax from passing via the legislature or the ballot box. Gov. Pat Brown attempted to pass a severance tax in 1959 but failed, as did then Assemblyman Antonio Villaraigosa in 1995. Proposition 11 in 1980, also an attempt, failed 55%-45%. More recently, oil firms defeated Proposition 87 in 2006 by spending $93 million, the most expensive ballot in state history (for perspective: both sides of the same-sex marriage Proposition 8 battle spent a total $70 million).

If California wants to pass an oil severance tax, it needs legislators tough enough to stand up to the vigorous oil lobby. Though the campaign may be tough, it is necessary if the state wishes to save programs for low-income Californians and prevent budget cuts to K-12 or higher education.

Friday’s Reading List

By Taylor Marvin

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Night in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket, 1874. Via Wikimedia.

James Abbott McNeill Whistler, "Night in Black and Gold, the Falling Rocket," 1874. Via Wikimedia.

What I read this week:

Can the Democrats catch up in the Super-PAC game? (via Jonathan Chait).

Let it bleed: Libertarianism in the workplace.

The team with the football.

The Bible, the Constitution, and a Great Text’s Need for Constant & Open Interpretation.

Top Five Things Morsi has to Do if Egypt is to Succeed.

A quick report from Israel and the Palestinian Territories.

Hungry Ghosts – I Don’t Think About You Anymore But, I Don’t Think About You Anyless.

China’s Energy Concerns and the PLAN

By Taylor Marvin

I have a short piece up at the new energy site Watching World Energy on China’s supply chain security concerns and desire for power projection capability.

“Although it has not achieved open-ocean, or ‘blue-water’ capabilities, China is laying the foundation, in the words of the U.S. Department of Defense, of ‘a force able to accomplish broader regional and global objectives.’

Ensuring global supply chain security requires power projection capability, which in turn requires modern naval and air forces.”