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Posts from the ‘Europe’ Category

Foreign News As Entertainment

By Taylor Marvin

Photo by Mstyslav Chernov, via Wikimedia.

Photo by Mstyslav Chernov, via Wikimedia.

Under the provocative title “The Day We Pretended to Care About Ukraine,” Sarah Kendzior writes that much of American mass media coverage of the ongoing political conflict in the Eastern European country is “disaster porn,” that favors page views over responsible, informative reporting. Most readers do not know how the conflict is affecting Ukrainians because “few apocalypsticle authors pose the question, because the only relevant question is what it means for them: traffic,” Kendzior writes, mourning that coverages ‘looks, but does not listen’ to the protesters themselves. Separated from the pain and loss of violence and any impetus to understand it, “we seem to get off on destruction as a visual experience, removed from participation and consequence.”

It is certainly true that much of the coverage of the violence in Ukraine has been lacking. But is it really so surprising that so much coverage is, as Kendzior terms it, disaster porn? After all, another inconsiderate but appropriate description for “fire and blood” is dramatic, as so many of the photos coming out of Kiev are. As Emily L. Hauser notes:

The vast majority of Americans do not know a single thing about Ukraine, or indeed consume international news in any depth at all. For them, international reporting is an entertainment product, and while it is unpleasant to admit, conflict — particularly when dramatically photographed, framing which intersects with the valuation of whose suffering matters — is entertaining to those safely separated from it.

It is unsurprising that news coverage, particularly in a world where quick publishing is more lucrative than accuracy and depth, and where foreign bureaus are closing, pander to this audience. After all, even those who do closely watch foreign affairs similarly, for all practical purposes, view it as an entertainment good. It is often noted that highly-trafficked bloggers like the Washington Post’s Max Fisher — who caustically commented on Kendzior’s piece — occasionally get things wrong (Kendzior herself recently highlighted a piece that chided a Fisher post on Kazakhstan). But Fisher is a generalist, and I imagine that the bulk of his audience, spending ten minutes a day reading about foreign affairs, appreciate a similarly general, breezy style — which is why Fisher has an audience, and academic bloggers with the tight focus, on-the-ground experience, and language skills to really understand a specific place or time generally do not. Readers may like to pretend that their interest in foreign news is in pursuit of learning or global awareness — I certainly do! — but for most it’s entertainment. Fisher produces entertainment, which is why he has a large audience and is paid by the Post, and most esoteric bloggers are not.

This isn’t to single out Fisher or Buzzfeed, or say that entertainment is not informative. Many international affairs bloggers certainly are, and a skillful writer can teach a wide audience something while not boring them. But the simple truth is that the economics of expensive to produce 5,000 word pieces on Ukrainian history and political dynamics only a few will read are not promising.

Anyway, there’s a reason porn is one of the most prolific forms of media in existence.

France, Syria, and Power Projection

By Taylor Marvin

After the Obama administration’s weekend announcement that it will seek congressional approval before launching airstrikes in Syria, France has too announced that it will wait on the American government’s decision. On Twitter, The Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf took the opportunity to remark that regardless of its decision to wait, France could punish the Assad regime’s chemical weapons use no matter what the US eventually decides.

But solo French strikes in Syria are so unlikely as to be nearly unthinkable, and power projection capability outside of America’s is much more restricted than Friedersdorf argues.

In his announcement that France would wait on the US Congress’ decision, French Interior Minister Manuel Valls explained that despite the French government’s desire to act it ‘needs a coalition’ before striking the Assad regime and could not “go it alone”. This wasn’t a reference to a French desire for international diplomatic support; instead, it is a veiled allusion to the French military’s very real need for cooperation from US force. As Robert Farley noted, despite their relatively high defense spending major NATO allies France and the UK lack the cruise missile assets necessary for striking Syria in any systematic fashion and, in Farley’s words “most of the NATO militaries have, for better or worse, been optimized for coalition ops with the United States.” While the French Navy is perhaps more balanced than today’s air-defense and anti-submarine warfare-optimized Royal Navy, in operations requiring air defense suppression or launching large numbers of cruise missiles — with the latter obviously relevant to the proposed strikes in Syria — both countries depend on working in tandem with more capable US forces.

USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Denny Cantrell, via Wikimedia.

Is it any wonder the country of Monet would design the prettiest aircraft in NATO? USN photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Denny Cantrell, via Wikimedia.

As Daniel Drezner alluded to on Twitter and I briefly noted earlier this week at Political Violence @ a Glance, the air campaign over Libya definitively illustrated that British and French sustained power projection is depending on US cooperation. During the Libyan campaign non-US NATO member participants benefited from extensive opening-phase US strikes that decimated Libyan air defense networks and quickly ran short of precision-guided munitions, relying on US stockpiles to plug the gap. As I wrote at the time, the lesson here is that the British and French defense budgets are essentially optimized only for power projection alongside the US. Both countries spend far more than would be necessary if they only intended to operate within NATO’s original mission — that is, self-defense. But the gap between the spending required for fielding moderately capable defensive military forces and those capable of sustained power projection is enormous. By keeping their defense spending in the no-mans-land between these two benchmarks the UK and France both field militaries that for practical purposes service maintaining the pretext of global power — in the words of’s John Pike “maybe they were just planning on using their air force for air shows” — but incapable of actually fighting sustained campaigns overseas without close US support.

But of course the Libyan campaign isn’t an analog for the proposed strikes in Syria — while in Libya NATO air forces essentially provided direct air support and strategic strikes to rebels forces, airstrikes in Syria would be much more restricted, only involve standoff weapons, and likely aim to only target military forces associated with the regime’s chemical weapons use. France does possess the air assets necessary to conduct very-limited standoff strikes on Syria. Given that the Obama administration is apparently considering only extremely restricted strikes that will only — arguably — symbolically punish the regime for Assad’s chemical weapons use, it’s possible that the US will elect to mostly limit itself to strikes the French in effect would be theoretically capable of on their own. But as Valls said, despite the very limited options on the still-nebulous coalition’s table France is unlikely to go it alone for both practical and political reasons. If Americans want Assad punished, it’s a punishment that the US forces will have to be involved in administering.

Remembering the Great War

By Taylor Marvin

I’m lucky enough to own a collection of vintage World War I history books, which I inherited from my great grandfather. All were published in the late 1910s and early 1920s, and offer a fascinating contemporary take on the First World War. Here are a few of the most interesting and striking photos from these volumes, which provide a fascinating look at the destruction of the Great War and the forward-looking but doomed optimism of its aftermath.

Around the World With a Camera: Special War Edition, Photographs from the Battle Fields”, 1919.

“Now for Prosperity!”

Evident in every contemporary history of the First World War is an optimism that this “Great War” was the last that humanity would ever fight, and that its survivors had lived through the climax of history. From the introduction to Around the World With a Camera:

“Around the world with a camera visiting every nation under the sun! Who would not like to make such a trip in safety and in ease? It is a journey but few of us could make during the Great War, when every country was thronged with spies, making the use of a camera forbidden except by official photographers.”

“‘The World’s Greatest War’ has terrible significant. It means the largest armies ever assembled, the fiercest battles ever fought, the most cruel atrocities ever committed and the most splendid valor ever shown.

It has been impossible to realize that millions of men have been fighting against each other to the very death. It seems incredible that war should have involved nearly all the civilized nations of the Europe, extending across the seas to Japan and even touch Canada in the Western Hemisphere, and the United States.

And the most rigid censorship was established against newspapers photographers and correspondents; yet they were able to secure photographs, sketched and information which the public so eagerly awaited.

For hundreds of years to come the world’s interest will be centered in the four years through which we have just passed. Art and literature, economic and social advancement, in fact every activity of human endeavor will be influenced by this greatest of all epochs to an extent which we are unable to appreciate today because of our inability to obtain a comprehensive perspective. Unborn generations will peruse ‘Around the World With a Camera’  with an interest far greater than our own.”

It’s easy to mockingly dismiss this optimism — after all, in 1920 World War II was less than two decades away. But it is important to remember that in 1914 Europe had been at peace for half a century, and the absolutely unprecedented scale and destruction of the Great War stunned the world. Around the World With a Camera’s forecast of a future of perpetual peace and prosperity is much harder to dismiss as hopeless naivety in its contemporary context of a world exhausted by the costliest war in history.

Around the World With a Camera showcases amazing illustrations and photography from all fronts of the war:

“The Grey Fighters of the Atlantic Fleet Reach Home: Ship for ship, man for man, and gun for gun, this long line of super-dreadnoughts and other battle craft is second to none in the world. This unusual photograph of the fleet as it entered New York harbor was made from an airplane flying over the ships. Admiral Henry T. Mayo, commander of the Atlantic Fleet, has been made commander-in-chief of the United States Fleet, thus giving him the command of the Pacific Fleet as well as that of the Atlantic.”

Sketches from the front.

“An Anxious Moment for One Boche: Coming out of his dugout the Hun prisoner wonders if Americans, French, British or Italians are waiting for him, and also what will be the attitude of his visitors upon meeting. Seldom does the camera record a more interesting study in facial expression than it caught as this German gave himself up to a Scotch soldier.”

An expressive sketch of a French and American soldier.

An expressive sketch of a French and American soldier.

French recruiting poster: “Come to the Aid of the Soldiers from Alsace-Lorraine’ — men from the ‘lost provinces.'”

French Propaganda: “Memories of 1776 blend with the hopes of 1917. France welcoming America as a participant in the war to save civilization. The arrival of American troops ‘Over There’ aroused the enthusiasm of the grateful French people and electrified their courage.”

“The Smile That Is On To Stay: The shell which made the hole damaged but didn’t break, the head. Through thick and thin the British Tommy has retained his good nature and certain confidence in the final victory. He has passed through many a dark day since his army began the memorable retreat from Mons, but his smile has never worn off.”

The narrative of World War I as the climax of history is especially evident when reporting on the treaty of Versailles that ended the war:

“The signing of the Peace Treaty at Versailles on June 28th formally ended the greatest war in the history of the world, and as the German delegates attached their signatures the thoughts of many turned back to the days of 1871 when Bismarck imposed his stern conditions on the French delegates in the same hall.”

“Justice at the Peace Table.”

“The President and Mrs Wilson at  Buckingham Palace. The Manchester (England) Guardian says: ‘President Wilson exercised a manifold attraction during his visit. Everybody has been charmed by his homely personality; some by his oratorical skill, others by his good humor, and still more by the high moral resolve by which his is animated. It was left, however, almost to the last moment of his stay for the most intimate revelation of his character. Who, looking on this group photograph, will doubt this? That the man who can stand between a king and a queen to be photographed with one trouser leg at full length while the other is turned up a couple of inches is above everything else — human!'”

Optimism for the future:

“Carving the Masterpiece” — the League of Nations.

“Peace.” Flags of the United Kingdom, United States, France, Italy, Russia, Japan, Poland, and Belgium.

U.S. Official Pictures of the World War: Showing America’s Participation, by Captain James C. Russell and Captain William E. Moore. 1920.

“And unextinguished laughter shakes the skies.” African-American infantryman during the Meuse-Argonne offensive. Note the gas mask.

“How the Argonne was won. Like their Indian fighting ancestors the Americans fought from behind trees and bushes, digging a ‘fox hole’ fir cover whenever they paused. This photograph was taken by a Signal Corps operator during the advance of the 18th Inf., 1st Div., up the slopes of Hill 240, near Exermont, Oct. 11, 1918. These soldiers fought their way to the top in the face of heavy machine gun fire and drove the enemy from the position. The bullet-torn helmet in the foreground tells the story of a ‘buddy’ who lies ‘over yonder.'”

“While the ground soldier fought for days to gain a trench system of a patch of woods the airman sailed above viewing a reading the terrain like a map.”

“Yanks in Cochem smoking German pipes of peace.”

American soldiers at camp in France, 1918.

“Danger for gas attacks was impressed on our men by every means in order to enforce obedience to the army orders concerning the carrying and wearing of gas masks. This exhibition was staged for the benefit of soldiers by Maj. Evarts Tracy, C. E. In 1918 from 20 to 30 per cent of all our battle casualties were due to gas.”

The United States in the Great War, by Willis J. Abbot, 1919.

“The Italians in their mountain lines fought under appalling difficulties. The wounded men had to be lowered down precipices, often more than a thousand feet high, to emergency hospitals or waiting ambulances below. The American Red Cross played a large part in Italy.”

“General Pershing in a typical pose which suggests the force and poise of the man.”

“An arrested Arab sheik voluby protesting his innocence to his impassive captor, a British Tommy, who doesn’t understand a word of his language.”

Why the US Should Unilaterally Eliminate ICBMs

By Taylor Marvin

Barack Obama and Dmitry Medvedev after sign the New START treaty, April, 2010.

Signing the New START treaty. Photo by

In April 2010 Barack Obama and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev signed the New START nuclear arms control treaty. The treaty, ratified and entered into force this past February, reduced both countries’ levels of deployed nuclear weapons to numbers not seen since the 1950s. However, American support for the treaty was not universal – despite endorsements by George H.W. Bush and six former Republican Secretaries of State, conservative lawmakers and pundits alike rushed to attack New START as a threat to US security and appeasement to a resurgent Russia. Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney was especially critical of the accord, claiming in a Washington Post op-ed that “the Obama administration has been badly out-negotiated” and that the treaty could be President Obama’s “worst foreign policy mistake yet.” Despite this strident opposition the New START treaty was ratified, ushering in a new era in strategic arms limitations.

The ratification of the New START agreement was a victory for nuclear arms control advocates. It should not, however, be the end of efforts to reduce stockpiles of nuclear arms: in addition to the 1,550 deployed strategic nuclear warhead limit mandated by New START, both Russia and the US currently stockpile thousands of tactical nuclear warheads – weapons designed for attacking military targets not covered by New START — and maintain thousands more warheads in storage. Other nuclear powers field hundreds of their own warheads. Though the threat of nuclear war has declined since the end of the Cold War, as long as large numbers of nuclear missiles remain armed the threat of an accident or misunderstanding escalating into a nuclear exchange that ends human civilization remains. The United States should continue to reduce its nuclear arsenal.

Nuclear disarmament has long been a goal of progressives around the world. However, their efforts are often hampered by an unwillingness to recognize the deep structural incentives that encourage the preservation of the nuclear status quo. Anti-nuclear activists are too often unwilling to offer any detailed arguments about which specific weapons systems should be cut, and often seem to feel that by recognizing that nuclear weapons have some degree of strategic value compromises their deep moral opposition to their existence. This is unfortunate – if anti-weapons activists are unable or unwilling to offer detailed arguments in favor of specific arms control proposals, their laudable mission won’t be successful.

Progressives in the US and Russia must continue to argue for further bilateral arms control treaties that reduce both countries’ number of nuclear weapons. However, the United States should also take the revolutionary step of eliminating intercontinental ballistic missiles, a nuclear delivery system that plays a key role in America’s nuclear force. Though we should encourage Russia to do the same, US lawmakers should be prepared to make these unprecedented cuts unilaterally. This is a rational strategy that would increase global security, lower US defense costs and dramatically improve international perceptions of the US, all while not compromising American safety. The end of the Cold War is an enormous opportunity to defuse what’s still the greatest threat to human civilization. We shouldn’t let fear prevent us from taking it.

The Nuclear Triad System

Both the US and Russian nuclear arsenals are split between three distinct delivery systems in an arrangement termed the ‘nuclear triad’. At the dawn of the nuclear age, the only vehicles available to deliver nuclear bombs into enemy territory were large aircraft. As tensions between the USSR and its onetime Western allies began to escalate in the aftermath of World War II, the USSR, US and UK all invested in large fleets of intercontinental range strategic bomber aircraft capable of penetrating deep into enemy airspace in the event of a nuclear war. However, by late 1950s advances in surface-to-air missiles made it increasingly apparent that bomber aircraft would have difficulty surviving long enough to deliver their nuclear payloads.  While this revelation led to the development of more technologically advanced and survivable strategic bomber aircraft and autonomous nuclear cruise missiles that enabled strategic bombers to hang back from heavily defensed targets, it also encouraged the US and USSR to develop missiles with intercontinental ranges able to carry nuclear warheads across the planet in minutes. These ICBMs – intercontinental ballistic missiles – heralded a revolutionary shift in the Cold War calculus of nuclear destruction. Unlike relatively slow bomber aircraft, a mass exchange of ICMBs kill a significant portion of humanity in minutes, and apart from the wild-eyed, technologically infeasible missile defense schemes of the 1980s ICBMs defied all hope of being intercepted or destroyed before they reached their targets. Paradoxically, the almost incomprehensible destructive power of these new weapons stabilized tensions between the USSR and US, and likely prevented the Cold War from escalating into World War III. Because it was unlikely that any side could prevent an opponent’s ICBMs from reaching their targets both adversaries knew that any war would be unwinnable, removing any incentive for a preemptive strike.

However, the first generation of ICBMs were not entirely effective. Early ICBMs were large and delicate, limitations that forced them to be stored in fixed silos, meaning that both the Americans and Russians knew the exact locations of their adversary’s missiles. In the early years of the Cold War this was not a fatal deficiency, because early ICBMs were not accurate enough to target enemy missiles. However, rapid advances in ICBM guidance systems soon made targeting and destroying enemy missiles on the ground a realistic possibility. Both the US and USSR assigned large numbers of their ICBMs to the counterforce mission – destroying enemy nuclear forces and their command and control infrastructure – rather than the more traditional countervalue mission – destroying an enemy’s cities. A country capable of destroying the bulk of its opponent’s nuclear weapons on the ground possessed what was referred to as ‘first strike capability’: the ability to launch a surprise attack without suffering retaliation.

The advent of counterforce capabilities was destabilizing because it created a tempting incentive for a preemptive strike – because the side that launched their missiles first in a crisis had the advantage, both sides had an incentive to escalate any crisis to Armageddon. Because the flight time of these missiles is measured in minutes, by the time one side detected the enemy’s missiles launching they would have only minutes before their own missiles were destroyed on the ground. In a crisis this meant that both sides had the incentive to strike first, rather than risk their enemy making the decisive first move.

Though the advent of counterforce capabilities did destabilize the Cold War, it also introduced the possibility of limited nuclear war. While early nuclear war planners had assumed that any nuclear war would immediately escalate to targeting cities, a purely counterforce exchange would spare population centers, dramatically lowering casualties and potentially allowing for human civilization to survive a nuclear war. However, it’s worth remembering that even a pure counterforce strike would be unimaginably destructive: a US strike against a single group of Chinese ICBM silos would cause upwards of 20 million casualties [1]. A less restricted counterforce exchange – for example, one between the US and Russia – could kill millions more. The high civilian casualties inherent to even limited counterforce strike makes it hard to believe that a counterforce exchange would not escalate to a full scale war.

Russians and American engineers worked furiously to reduce the vulnerability of their countries’ nuclear forces. Early efforts to reduce vulnerability to a devastating counterforce first strike ranged from the practical step of hardening ICBM silos against anything but a direct nuclear strike to more dangerous schemes, like the US 1960s effort to keep B-52 bombers armed with live nuclear bombs in the air at all times to prevent a surprise Russian attack from destroying them on the ground (this scheme was abandoned after a series of accidental crashes terrifyingly resulted in the temporary loss of live nuclear bombs). However, other technological advancements more effectively reduced missile vulnerability. By the end of the 1960s ICBMs were smaller and powered by stable solid fuel rockets, meaning they could be stored fueled in very heavily armored underground silos and launched at literally minutes warning. Similarly, in the early 1960s the US and later USSR successfully deployed ballistic missiles that could be launched from a submerged submarine. While early submarine launched ballistic missiles – SLBMs – lacked the range to strike targets deep within the US or USSR, by the 1970s SLBMs were capable of the full countervalue mission.

The value of a submarine launched ballistic missile were obvious – unlike land based missiles, submarines were mobile and, with the advent in the 1950s of nuclear propulsion that allowed submarines to remain deep underwater for months, increasingly undetectable. Nuclear powered submarines capable of carrying dozens of SLBMs could lurk off enemy coastlines with impunity, allowing them to launch their nuclear weapons at close range and with little warning. Unlike land-based ICBMs, a preemptive first strike had no possibility of destroying SLBMs before a reprisal could be launched. With the introduction of SLBMs, the possibility of a survivable nuclear war largely vanished. While the USSR and US were the first to introduce nuclear SLBMs, the UK, France, and China soon introduced their own missile systems, and India is expected to field one by 2015. Additionally, the Israeli Navy is believed to possess a submarine nuclear deterrence in the form of shorter range submarine-launched nuclear cruise missiles.

However, unlike land-based ICBMs smaller SLBMs were never accurate enough for the counterforce mission. Both the US and USSR reserved their SLBMs for the ‘second strike’ mission that would annihilate the cities of any opponent foolish enough to launch a nuclear attack, while a large portion of ICBM forces were tasked with destroying their opponents own ICBMs. The total destruction SLBMs guaranteed to inflict on any nuclear aggressor was referred to as ‘mutually assured destruction’ – or, fittingly, MAD. The introduction of SLBMs capable of guaranteeing MAD stabilized the Cold War by definitively removing any incentive to launch a nuclear attack no matter the circumstances – for both the US and USSR, war was the worst case scenario.

US ICBM test launch. DoD photo.

These three classes of weapons – nuclear bombs and cruise missiles carried by strategic aircraft, land-based ICBMs, and SLBMs – make up the nuclear deterrence ‘triad’. Not all nuclear powers maintain a full triad. Because of the high cost of developing sophisticated SLBMs and the dedicated submarines to carry them, Israel only fields a short range cruise missile-born submarine based deterrent to complement its Jericho III land-based ballistic missile. Smaller, densely settle countries like France and the UK do not choose to field ICBMs due to the land requirements and cost of large ICBM bases (the US and Russia all base their ICBM forces in the sparsely settled open prairie and steppe), preferring to base their nuclear deterrent completely on SLBMs. Similarly, the high costs and limited everyday utility of long-range strategic bomber aircraft make them unpractical for smaller nuclear powers, many which only field tactical aircraft (in common usage, fighter aircraft) capable of delivering nuclear weapons over short distances rather than dedicated strategic bombers. Because of its high cost and the limited utility of nuclear triad redundancy, today only three countries maintain a full nuclear triad: the US, Russia, and China, though the People’s Liberation Army Air Force lacks the in-air refueling infrastructure to give their Xian H-6 strategic bombers true intercontinental capability.

The nuclear triad’s massive redundancy was its key advantage during the Cold War – while both the US and USSR had some incentive to strike first and destroy their rival, the triad system’s redundancy, varied delivery platforms and large number of individual weapons guaranteed that even if hit by a devastating first strike, a nuclear power would still retain the capability to retaliate. This redundancy was a key part of US nuclear doctrine: US nuclear planners required that each leg of the triad be capable of destroying the USSR independently of the other two. In this way the triad system was an important moderating influence on Cold War rivalry. However, the triad system also owed its existence to less defensible rationales. In the United States, after the development of the atomic bomb the Air Force had a monopoly on the strategic bombers needed to deliver early nuclear weapons, and later on ICBMs – a monopoly that marginalized other services. To counter this perceived deficiency, the US Navy lobbied for its own nuclear forces. In the late 1940s, before the invention of workable intercontinental ballistic missiles, US admirals vehemently argued for the construction of an extremely large class of aircraft carriers capable of launching the large strategic bombers required to carry early nuclear weapons. Air Force officials rightly perceived this as an explicit effort to end the Air Force’s monopoly on nuclear weapons, and bitterly opposed the construction of the USS United States supercarrier, which was canceled in 1949. Despite this setback, the shrinking size of nuclear weapons soon allowed the Navy to fly nuclear-armed aircraft off conventional aircraft carriers, and the Navy was later allowed to obtain its own SLBM deterrence force. While the nuclear triad’s redundancy did have its strategic advantages, its emergence was partially due to  interservice bureaucratic rivalries.

Competition between the US and USSR also contributed to the supremacy of the triad system. Unlike the smaller nuclear powers, both US and USSR held rival positions of leadership in the internationally community. Maintaining these bipolar leadership positions made keeping up appearances extremely important, and both the US and USSR made great efforts to match each other’s technological and social developments. When the Soviets launched the successful Sputnik satellite in 1957, the US launched a crash program to launch their own spacecraft as quickly as possible. Similarly, despite the dubious economics of building a supersonic passenger airliner, when the British and French began the high profile Concorde program (which never became anywhere near profitable) the Soviets immediately began work on their own supersonic airliner, the similarly unsuccessful Tu-144. Of course, the Cold War balance of power wasn’t altered by prestige projects like civilian space programs or glamorous supersonic airliners – the civilian technological arms race between the superpowers was only a proxy for their more serious military arms race. Just as the US and USSR strove to match each other’s civilian prestige projects, they faced an even more urgent need to counter their opponent’s military advancements. This continuous one-upmanship extended to the nuclear arms race, and contributed to the proliferation of a bewildering variety of nuclear weapons and delivery systems. While the triad system was not strictly necessary to mounting an effective nuclear deterrent, for the superpowers – unlike smaller nuclear-armed states – it was a necessity to maintaining their prestige and international image.

Modern Nuclear Forces

In the aftermath of the Cold War the risk of nuclear war has declined considerable. That doesn’t mean that the US nuclear arsenal is worthless – the American nuclear force still provides the deterrence that is the ultimate guarantee of US safety. However, it is hard to argue that the size and variety of US nuclear forces is strictly necessary in today’s world. To its credit, the United States has aggressively reduced its nuclear forces since the end of the Cold War: today the US fields roughly 1,800 deployed warheads out of a total inventory of 8,500, down from a 1960 high of over 30,000. However, despite these reductions the US and Russia still maintain large numbers of nuclear weapons deployed across their triad systems. China, the only other major power to maintain a full triad, also deploys a large number of weapons, though much less than Russia or the US.

US Deployed Nuclear Forces:

Under the terms of the New START Treaty, this number is required to drop to 1,550 by 2017. Currently, deployed US strategic nuclear weapons are distributed among the following delivery systems:

Trident II test launch. DoD photo.

– 1,152 warheads are deployed on 288 SLBMs. The US Navy’s current SLBM, the UGM-133 Trident II, carries 4 independently targeted warheads, explaining the discrepancy between the number of warheads and launch vehicles. Importantly, the Trident II’s 4 warheads is a treaty-imposed (SORT) limitation – the UGM-113 is physically capable of carrying up to 14 reentry vehicles. The US SLBM force is currently deployed on 14 Ohio class submarines.

– 500 warheads on 450 LGM-30G Minuteman ICBMs. Unlike its SLBMs, the US largely refrains from fielding ICBMs carrying multiple warheads, despite the fact that the START II treaty banning MIVR missiles never entered force. The US ICBM force is currently deployed in three clusters in North Dakota, Montana, and one split between Wyoming, Colorado, and Nebraska.

– Less than 150 aircraft-delivered warheads. While the US possessed roughly 300 nuclear bombs, most are in storage. Only about 60 aircraft are currently tasked with carrying these weapons, making US aircraft-delivered weapons of negligible importance in an actual full-scale nuclear war. It is important to remember that despite the limited size of the American strategic bomber fleet the US’s aircraft-delivered nuclear arsenal is still capable of killing most of humanity.

Russian Deployed Nuclear Forces:

Despite the disclosure requirements in the New START Treaty, determining the exact composition of deployed Russian nuclear forces is difficult. New START documentation lists 1,537 strategic offensive arms, likely comprised of:

– Roughly 160 SLMBs mounting roughly 576 warheads [2]. All Russian SLBMs are modern and highly capable, and are capable of hitting targets in the continental US from Russian territorial waters. Russian SLBMs typically carry more warheads than their American counterparts: the RSM-54 Sineva (NATO reporting name SS-N-23 Skiff) carries 10 MIRVed warheads, and the RSM-56 Bulava (NATO reporting name SS-NX-32), currently under development, will carry up to 10 warheads.

R-36 (NATO reporting name SS-18 Satan) test launch. Image by ISC Kosmotras (

– Roughly 295 ICBMs mounting roughly 1,007 warheads. Russian ICBMs are advanced and capable of immediate launch in a crisis. Unlike US LGM-30 Minutemans, Russia fields mobile ICBMs capable of being transported throughout the country, making a counterforce strike against Russian ICBMs extremely difficult. Russia continues to mount the maximum number of warheads possible on their ICBMs.

-At most 844 airborne nuclear weapons on roughly 76 strategic bombers.

Because Russia’s currently deployed weapons fall under New START’s 1,550 limit, Russia is not treaty bound to reduce its deployed forces by 2017.

Chinese Deployed Nuclear Forces:

Four decades of arms control treaties have forced the US and Russian governments to be reasonably transparent about their nuclear forces. Chinese nuclear forces are much more secretive, meaning that estimates attempting to quantify the Chinese nuclear triad are very inexact:

-China currently fields 10 to 14 SLBMs [3]. However, the current weapon, the JL-1, is short ranged and is not capable of reaching the continental United States from the western Pacific Ocean [4]. A more capable SLBM, the JL-2, is close to entering service.

-54 to 62 DF-3, Df-4, DF-5 ballistic missiles [5] that are nearing obsolesce. All of these missiles are liquid fueled, making them unable to be launched with little warning. Only the DF-5 is capable of striking targets in the continental United States.[6] China also fields fewer than 30 modern DF-31 and longer range DF-31A missiles [7].

-China is estimated to currently possess roughly 150 nuclear gravity bombs [8]. People’s Liberation Army Air Force strategic aircraft are much less capable than their US or Russian counterparts, and are incapable of intercontinental operations.

While the US and Russia are no longer at each other’s throats, every additional nuclear missile deployed increases the risk of a misunderstanding or accident leading to an unintended holocaust. This risk is real, and the costs of even a limited nuclear war would be truly unimaginable. While the US and Russia’s efforts to diplomatically reduce their deployed nuclear weapons are laudable, they aren’t enough. The US should take further steps to reduce its nuclear forces.

Eliminating ICBMs

Despite its troubled road through the US Senate, the New START treaty did demonstrate that there is still enthusiasm for arms reduction in the US and Russia. However, this isn’t enough. While still valuable, strategic arms treaties are an extremely conservative way to reduce the ever present threat of excessive nuclear arms. The United States should take the more dramatic step of eliminating one leg of its nuclear triad.

This would be an unprecedented advance in arms control, and would uproot the stasis of gradual treaty arms reduction. In addition to reducing the size of the US nuclear arsenal, such a dramatic action would win the United States enormous international goodwill and respect. This would also fit into the US government’s idealistic aspirations – only two years ago President Obama proclaimed that “I state clearly and with conviction America’s commitment to seek the peace and security of a world without nuclear weapons.” Eliminating a leg of the US nuclear triad is a laudable contribution to this worthy and attainable goal.

But which leg should the US eliminate? At Slate, defense reporter Fred Kaplan has convincingly argued that Russia and the US should begin phasing out ICBMs:

“Is anybody thinking about the idea of phasing out the ICBMs? These are the weapons that, over the decades, have spurred first-strike temptations to begin with. They are at once the most accurate and the most vulnerable nuclear weapons. That is, they are capable of destroying, and being destroyed by, the other side’s ICBMs. In other words, their very existence creates temptations of pre-emptive strike in the event of a crisis. They are the weapons, in fact, that generated the nuclear arms race of the 1960s to 1980s. Now that the Cold War is kaput and the notion of first-strike scenarios more improbable than ever, let’s get rid of them—rather than plan to build more of them—while the climate is clear.”

This argument makes sense. ICBMs are destabilizing, the counterforce mission’s dubious deterrence value makes them irrelevant to US security, and no one believes in first strike scenarios anymore anyway. Giving up American ICBMs would not decrease the US’s second strike capabilities, and would preserve America’s ability to credibly deter potential adversaries.

But why limit our aspirations to only one leg of the nuclear triad? SLBMs are the obvious choice to preserve: their invulnerability and second strike capability is the basis of MAD and the nuclear peace. However, unfortunately for nuclear idealists there are also good reasons for preserving US airborne nuclear weapons.

Nuclear warheads carried by strategic bomber aircraft make up only a small fraction of the US nuclear arsenal – under New START, the US fields less than 300 aircraft-launched nuclear bombs, most in storage. However, aircraft-delivered nuclear weapons offer flexibility unavailable to other delivery systems. Unlike ballistic missiles, manned bomber aircraft can be recalled or redirected, giving policymakers an extra margin of safety in a crisis. Similarly, bomber aircraft can be deployed without inadvertently starting a nuclear war. Arguably the greatest nuclear threat of the 21st century comes from small rouge nations possessing a handful of warheads like North Korea or potentially Iran, rather than great powers like Russia or China. US deterrence strategy towards these states relies on the threat of massive nuclear retaliation for destructive actions. However, ICBMs or SLBMs are not suited for this mission, because when a ballistic missile is launched it is not immediately obvious where it’s being targeted (while a missile’s target can be determined by its ballistic trajectory, this trajectory is not apparent until several minutes into the missile’s flight. A nervous observer a credible incentive to launch a retaliatory strike as soon as a potential enemy launch is detected, before the target is apparent). Even a justifiable US nuclear launch against a rouge state in a crisis (laying aside the arguable morality of any retaliatory nuclear strike) could easily be misinterpreted by China, Russia, or any other nuclear power as a preliminary strike against them, giving them enormous incentive to launch their own missiles against the US before they could be destroyed on the ground. While this scenario is unlikely, the inherent panic and confusion of any crisis scenario where the US is seriously deliberating a nuclear strike against a rogue state makes it much more likely. However, aircraft-launched weapons have much less room for misinterpretation – an aircraft’s destination is visible to anyone with the technological resources to detect it, and an nuclear airstrike’s slow speed compared to a ballistic missile make a panicked misunderstanding less likely.

Given that the technology required to manufacture nuclear weapons is likely to become available to more and more small states in the next century, deterring rouge states like North Korea and Iran, rather than superpowers, is likely to be the primary mission of the US nuclear deterrence in the future. This justifies the preservation of US air-delivered nuclear weapons and strategic bombers. Just as the US will continue to rely on its SLBM force to deter advanced powers like Russia and China, the strategic nuclear bomber force will deter small nuclear-armed states.

As Fred Kaplan points out, eliminating US ICBMs would not meaningfully compromise the American nuclear deterrent: while eliminating ICBMs would sacrifice much of the counterforce mission, the US would retain an iron-clad second-strike capability in the form of SLBMs and flexible nuclear response capability in deployed strategic and tactical bomber aircraft. However, as New START’s tumultuous road through the US Senate illustrates, even mild nuclear disarmament in not popular in some circles of American government. The USAF shares this opposition to nuclear cuts, especially to its ICBMs. Air Force Secretary Michael Donley emphasized this point in a recent speech before the Air Force Association, strenuously arguing against nearly all potential cuts to Air Force funding and mission and reiterating “as the U.S. nuclear arsenal gets smaller and the number and diversity of nuclear-armed powers increases, the flexibility inherent in our nuclear triad becomes even more important. We must maintain the nuclear triad.” However, like most criticism of cutting or eliminating entirely US ICBMs, this isn’t a compelling argument. Yes, the nuclear triad is more flexible than a nuclear force based on only two legs. However, unless proponents of the triad can explain how much marginal safety ICMBs contribute to the US nuclear deterrence and whether this marginal gains outweighs their costs, this isn’t a serious argument.

Eliminating US ICBMs faces three main obstacles: Republican aversion to all arms reduction, domestic interservice rivalries, and likely Russian refusal to make reciprocal reductions, which is sure to dampen US enthusiasm for such a drastic disarmament.

The first obstacle is perhaps the most manageable. While Republicans are sure to loudly proclaim that any reduction in US nuclear forces, much less a wholesale abandonment of venerable ICBMs, is appeasement and a gross threat to US security, the truth is that even without ICBMs the US will still enjoy a comfortable margin of nuclear security in the other legs of the triad. As noted above, the US enjoys a commanding SLBM lead over Russia. Because SLBMs are the basic of mutually assured destruction, this lead is an iron-clad guarantee of US security. Additionally, while aircraft-born nuclear weapons are the smallest leg of the US triad, the American strategic bomber force is far more capable that Russia’s. The mainstay of the Russian strategic bomber fleet – venerable Tu-95 turboprop aircraft – would likely have trouble penetrating US defenses in an open conflict, and Russia only fields 13 (as of 2011) modern and more capable Tu-160 ‘Blackjack’ aircraft. This US lead is even more pronounced over the Chinese, the only nuclear power to retain dedicated strategic bomber aircraft into the 21st century. In contrast the US dedicates 60 B-52 and B-2 aircraft to the nuclear mission, and retains highly capable B-1 Lancer aircraft which despite having their nuclear capability removed in 1995 could potentially be refitted for the nuclear strike mission. B-2 strategic bombers — whose stealth technology dramatically increases their survivability and capability — are a particularly important, and unique, US asset. The relative strength of the US strategic bomber force is an important counter to arguments that eliminating US ICBMs is dangerous. Even without the ICBM force, in combination with US SLBMs US air delivered nuclear weapons would preserve America’s capability to deliver a flexible nuclear response with strong deterrent value.

Additionally, preserving the bulk of the US airborne nuclear arsenal addresses another potential barrier to unilateral ICBM disarmament: domestic interservice rivalries. Even if the US completely eliminated its ICBM force the US Air Force would still retain a nuclear capability. Though the prestige and relevance of the nuclear mission has declined precipitously since its inception during the 1940s and 1950s military organizations, like any bureaucracy, are loath to voluntarily give up power and influence. However, the preservation of the airborne nuclear strike mission would preserve some measure of nuclear relevance in the USAF, giving lawmakers a tool to allay Air Force leaders’ opposition to eliminating USAF ICBMs. Civilian leaders could also leverage Air Force concerns over budget cuts to win acceptance for reducing the USAF nuclear force. While a minor component of total USAF spending, maintaining the nuclear deterrence force is still costly, accounting for an estimated $5.2 billion in fiscal year 2012, or roughly 3% of the total Air Force budget [9]. LGM-30 ICBM total operations and maintenance outlays estimated to increase by $19.5 million in 2012 [10]. Given the Pentagon’s tightening fiscal horizon, freeing up funds devoted to ICBM operations for more prestigious projects could entice Air Force leaders to refrain from protesting retiring the ICBM force.

The last obstacle is the highest. US domestic pressures will make it very difficult to eliminate ICBMs unless the Russians – still our principal nuclear adversaries, despite rising concern about China’s military ambitions – make matching cuts. This is understandable. Just as 1960s fears about a (ironically non-existent) “missile gap” between US and Soviet ICBM capabilities helped elect John F. Kennedy, modern Americans will be deeply wary of American disarmament that isn’t matched by the Russians. To most Americans, ICBMs are the weapons of nuclear war and it isn’t widely understood that land-based ballistic missiles are a smaller leg of the nuclear triad – in the popular consciousness, eliminating ICBMs is equivalent to abandoning America’s entire nuclear shield. If the Russians decline to make matching reductions, it will be very difficult to convince American voters that eliminating ICBMs is a rational next step in disarmament.

Unfortunately, the Russians are unlikely to eliminate their own ICBMs. Russian strategic nuclear forces are much more biased towards ICBMs than America’s, where SLBM-born warheads outnumber ICBMs by more than 2 to 1. Russia fields roughly 570 SLBM-carried warheads on 160 missiles, compared to approximately 1,000 warheads on 290 ICBMs. This means that the Russian military would sacrifice a much larger portion of its total nuclear forces by eliminating ICBMs. Similarly, the US fields more ballistic missile submarines than the Russians: while the US SLBM force is currently carried on 14 Ohio class submarines, the Russian fleet currently operates only 5 Delta III and 7 Delta IV class ballistic missile submarines. Exacerbating this imbalance, the Delta classes are nearing retirement, and are scheduled to be replaced by only 8 of the upcoming Borei class (one of which has already entered service), which is admittedly much more advanced than the Deltas it is slated to replace.

This imbalance is partially due to historical reasons – as a continental power, the USSR never invested as much in its navy as the US did – but is also due to chronically strained Russian defense funding. Ballistic missile submarines are extremely expensive. The upcoming Russian Borei class has a unit cost of $890 million, and the US Ohio class $2 billion. SLBMs are also more expensive than their simpler land-based cousins. The unit cost the American LGM-30 Minuteman is $7 million, while the cost of the UGM-133 Trident II is $30.9 million. Russian missiles show a similar price difference. This price difference shouldn’t be surprising: SLBMs are launched from underwater and must be compact enough to fit within the hull of a submarine, making them that much more difficult to engineer. Even today, SLBMs are difficult to produce: Russia’s “troubled” RSM-56 Bulava, currently under development, has failed 6 of its 16 flight tests. This isn’t a knock against Russian engineering prowess: it’s a fairly typical record for ambitious missile development programs.

Eliminating their ICBM force and maintain nuclear parity with the US at New START levels would require the Russians to field roughly 120 SLBMs mounting 540 individual warheads. Russia is unlikely to commit to such an expensive restructuring of its nuclear forces. Of course, the commitment problem caused by the US/Russian SLBM imbalance could be addressed by a future arms limitation treaty that limited strategic arms to fewer than 600 warheads, bringing US SLBMs in line with Russian arsenals. This isn’t hopelessly optimistic – it’s worth remembering that the 1,550 warhead limit mandated by New START is a dramatic decline from the 6,000 limit of the 1991 START I treaty, so further reductions are possible in the future.

Unfortunately, there’s no easy way around the Russian’s understandable reluctance to reorient their strategic nuclear forces – there’s simply no way US activists can convenience Russian leaders to spend billions dramatically increasing the size of their SLBM force in exchange for retiring the ICBM Strategic Rocket Forces. However, activists do have control over the domestic US reaction to understandable Russian intransigence. Republican hawks and many security-minded Democrats are sure to insist that the US will not deactivate its ICBM force if the Russians are unwilling to do the same. However, a bilateral disarmament is not strictly necessary. It’s difficult to argue that the United States would be less secure if it gave up its ICBMs and the Russians and Chinese did not.  By eliminating ICBMs the US would give up counterforce capability, but this really wouldn’t change the nuclear equilibrium between the US and Russia. Russia would have a monopoly on the counterforce capability to destroy US land-based missiles, but the US wouldn’t have vulnerable ICBMs in the first place. Both powers would retain a second strike capability in SLBMs and hardened Russian ICBMs, and a limited strategic bomber second strike capability. Eliminating US ICBM forces would lessen the change of an accidental war and reduce US military spending while preserving nuclear weapons’ deterrence value. Unfortunately, as New START demonstrated even moderate and objectively conventional arms control measures have trouble avoiding increasingly knee-jerk Republican obstructionism. However, that’s no reason not to press ahead. There’s a strong argument for unilaterally eliminated US ICBMs.

[1] Federation of American Scientists/Natural Resources Defense Council, “Simulated US and Chinese Nuclear Strikes”, 184.
[2]  Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, “Russian Nuclear Forces 2011”,  68.
[3] The Federation of American Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Chinese Nuclear Forces and US Nuclear War Planning”, 38.
[4] Naval War College, “China’s Nuclear Force Modernization” , 16.
[5] The Federation of American Scientists and the Natural Resources Defense Council. “Chinese Nuclear Forces and US Nuclear War Planning”, 38.
[6] Naval War College, “China’s Nuclear Force Modernization” , 15.
[7] US Air Force Air and Space Intelligence Center, “Ballistic and Cruise Missile Threats 2009”, 21.
[8] Naval War College, “China’s Nuclear Force Modernization” , 15.
[9]  Department of the Air Force, “FY 2012 Budget Overview”, 34.
[10] Department of the Air Force. “Fiscal Year (FY) 2012 Budget Estimates Operations and Maintenance, Vol. I”, 36.

An earlier version of this article first appeared in ClickRally Magazine.

This post has been edited to correct several numerical errors (February, 2014). I apologize for the oversight.

Italian Women in the Workplace

By Taylor Marvin

Recently Matt Yglesias posted this interesting graph illustrating Italian women’s low workforce participation rate:

Wow. Italy’s women employment-population ratio is much lower than Sweden or the US’s, and has grown at a historically much lower rate. Yglesias makes the good point that Italian women are working, but are overwhelmingly laboring in the home where their labor isn’t taxed. Obviously, this has a significant negative impact on Italy’s high public debt.

Italy’s economic problems aren’t solely due to its low female workforce-participation rate (Daniel Gros recently convincingly argued that governance failure bears the brunt of the blame). However, it’s reasonable to suspect that chronically underutilizing half of the available labor force has had negative consequences for Italian growth, which has stagnated for the last two decades:

This reminded me of a 1965 Playboy interview with Italian actor Marcello Mastroianni I recently stumbled upon, which anecdotally explores Italian women’s role in the workplace in the most misogynistic way imaginable:

MASTROIANNI: Because women are changing into men, and men are becoming women. At least, men are getting weaker all the time. But much of this is man’s own fault. We shouted, “Women are equal to men; long live the Constitution!” But look what happened. The working woman emerged—angry, aggressive, uncertain of her femininity. And she multiplied—almost by herself. Matriarchy, in the home and in the factory and in business, has made women into sexless monsters and piled them up on psychiatric couches. Instead of finding themselves, they lost what they had. But some see this now and are trying to change back. Women in England, for example, who were the first to raise the standard of equality, are today in retreat.

PLAYBOY: How about American women?

MASTROIANNI: They should retreat, but they don’t. I’ve never seen so many unhappy, melancholy women. They have liberty—but they are desperate. Poor darlings, they’re so hungry for romance that two little words in their ears are enough to crumble them before your eyes. American women are beautiful, but a little cold and too perfect—too well brought up, with the perfume and the hair always just so and the rose-colored skin. What perfection—and what a bore!

PLAYBOY: Are Italian women different?

MASTROIANNI: Thank God, yes.

PLAYBOY: How is she different from American women?

MASTROIANNI: She’s not afraid to be a woman—not yet, anyway. But what happened to women in America is beginning to take place in Italy, too, and I don’t like it. I don’t feel tenderness toward this new kind of women. I wouldn’t even want to have children by them. I want women to have all the faults and weaknesses they always had. I adore them, but we must keep them in their place. It’s presumptuous for a woman to show me she is a doctor of mathematics. Comptometers can do that. What’s more subtle and difficult is to know how to make a man feel important.

PLAYBOY: You don’t think women have the right to a career, to compete with men in the professional world?

MASTROIANNI: Of course, they must evolve—but not away from being women. At the same time, I admit we have to do something with them besides give them babies. In Italy, women now have fewer children and do less housework than ever. This makes them bored and a terrible weight on men. Now, I like to have a woman hang on—but not to suffocate me. So today she needs some kind of occupation, and it’s right for her to want to be on man’s level. My logic admits this—but my instincts tell me to watch out.

I’m not saying that we should read to much into this — obviously Mastroianni is only one man, and he doesn’t speak for all of Italian society. But Mastroianni’s views are a product of his time, and his opinions do tell us quite a lot about mainstream Italian social views of women in the workplace in 1965. If one of the leading stars of Italian cinema was comfortable describing American women — who by the mid-1960s were increasingly entering the workforce — as “afraid to be a woman”, these views are evidence of much stronger social barriers to female workforce participation in Italian society than in the US as late as the 1960s. A popular masculine narrative of working women as “not real women” and “angry, aggressive, uncertain of her femininity” is a powerful barrier to female workforce entry, and one that’s likely endured in Italian popular culture on some level.

Again, this is only an anecdote. But it is an interesting one.

Fighter Market 2020+: Uncertainty and Not Much Else

By Taylor Marvin

Ace Flight Global reporter Stephan Trimble is at the Seoul Air Show, where he snagged this picture of a chart presented by the European combat aircraft consortium Eurofighter:

Trimble is most interested in Eurofighter’s forecast of a joint Brazilian-Turkish fighter by 2025. However, there are a few more interesting assumptions here –Eurofighter forecasts that the Chinese Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter and the joint Russian-Indian PAK FA, which are both currently in their early development stages, will enter operation service by 2020. This is an ambitious time frame. Both the J-20 and the PAK FA are advanced fifth-generation aircraft that incorporate some degree of stealth and (presumably) supermaneuverability technology, ambitious technological advancements for both the Russian and Chinese defense industries. Remember, the Lockheed YF-22, the F-22’s predecessor, first flew in 1990, a full 15 years before the F-22 entered operational service in 2005. The PAK FA program’s T-50 prototype and the J-20 first flew in early 2010 and 2011, respectively, so a pre-2020 introduction to operational service for both programs would significantly undercut the F-22’s development cycle. How credible is this estimate?

First off, it’s important to take Eurofighter’s estimate with a grain of salt. In an age of European austerity Eurofighter GmbH lives and dies on export sales, meaning that it has an interest in talking up the threat of Russian and Chinese fighter programs in order to encourage sales of its 4.5+ generation Typhoon fighter. Eurofighter already makes a few dubious assumptions in this chart: Eurofighter GmbH — primarily a German, British, and Italian company — vindictively assumes that French rival Dassault’s excellent Rafale won’t achieve any export sales, and puzzlingly forecasts that the US-lead F-35 program will achieve its full 3,500 unit production run by 2030. Similarly, Eurofighter smugly predicts Typhoon export sales beyond 2035, which is certainly disputable given that the Typhoon has already lost high-profile export orders by Singapore and South Korea (though the Typhoon has been ordered by Saudi Arabia). This chart is fundamentally a marketing tool, and we should be aware that Eurofighter has an incentive to dismiss its French (Dassault Rafale), Russian (Su-35), and American (Boeing F-15E and F/A-18E/F) competitors and play up forecasted Russian and Chinese threats. That said, Eurofighter’s forecasted timeframe for the J-20 and PAK FA’s entry into service is interesting. How credible is it?

I’ve recently spent time exploring this issue. In a recent interview with Tai Ming Cheung, an expert on China’s defense industry and the author of Fortifying China: The Struggle to Build a Modern Defense Economy, Dr. Cheung judged a pre-2020 introduction of the J-20 to be highly unlikely. Similarly, East Asian military expert Richard A. Bitzinger recently told me that he judged the T-50 to be “destined for a very long and painful R&D cycle, if it ever emerges from it at all.” This suggest that Eurofighter’s forecast is optimistic at best. However, the story’s a bit more complicated.

The J-20 likely has a more secure future than its Russian fifth-generation counterpart, for a simple reason: China spends roughly twice as much as Russia on defense, and China’s defense budget is growing at a much more rapid pace. China’s rapidly expanding economy means that the PLA will be able to devote increasing resources to ambitious defense projects, meaning that China likely has the economic, if not technical, ability to field a fifth-generation fighter aircraft in the mid-future. By all appearances the J-20 is a high priority project within the PLA. International prestige is deeply important to China’s leaders, and along with space programs and aircraft carriers advanced combat aircraft are one of the most prestigious national technology projects. Similarly, China’s apparent aspirations for regional hegemony within the South China Sea arguably requires the flexibility of an internationally competitive maritime strike fighter, a role the J-20 appears well suited for.

Image at

J-20 flight testing. Image at

However, there are significant roadblocks to the J-20’s entry into operational service. China has no experience manufacturing modern fighters — China’s current premiere indigenous-produced fighter, the Chengdu J-10, is decades behind contemporary Western and Russian designs, and does not incorporate advanced technologies required for the J-20. Similarly, the J-10 currently utilizes Russian engines and Chinese industry has struggled to indigenously produce modern jet engines, a key (and often troubled) component of any aircraft program. While the J-20 prototype features indigenous engines, producing a production powerplant for an eventual operational variant will likely be a challenge. Similarly, Chinese industry has little experience working with the stealth technology and thrust-vectoring nozzles featured in most fifth-generation designs, and while the J-20 may forgo advanced stealth (especially advanced RAM coatings) and thrust vectoring in favor of affordability these advanced features likely remain challenging for China’s nascent but growing industrial base. However, these design choices are perhaps the strongest argument for relatively prompt introduction of a J-20 operational variant: by apparently deliberately choosing simplicity over the most advanced stealth and performance technology, the J-20 may be able to side-step the most challenging aspects of its development.

Of course, China’s military leaders face the same resource constraints as other militaries. China’s military budget is growing but not unlimited, and other ongoing Chinese military procurement programs like the J-15 naval fighter and construction of 2 indigenous carriers could out-compete the J-20 program for limited resources. This possibility is supported by the J-20’s apparent irrelevance to a prospective Chinese military action against Taiwan, which would likely be decided by the ability of Chinese land-based anti-ship ballistic missiles to deter a US Navy intervention, rather than a limited number of futuristic aircraft.

The Russian PAK FA program faces what could be described as the opposite constraint: while Russian industry has extensive experience constructing modern aircraft, the Russian government’s chronically strained finances offer little resources to devote to speculative development programs. This scarcity motivated Russia run the PAK FA program jointly with India, with the expectation that both parties would eventually purchase roughly 250 units each. However, despite previous Indian purchases of Russian Sukhoi Su-30 fighters international development efforts are fraught with difficulty, and it is uncertain whether the PAK FA program will ever result in an operational aircraft.

PAK FA T-50 prototype. Image by Maxim Maksimov.

PAK FA T-50 prototype. Image by Maxim Maksimov.

However, the Russian aviation industry does have extensive experience producing advanced aircraft. Similarly to the J-20, the T-50’s stealth and sensor equipment appear to be much less ambitious than what was designed into the American F-22, moderation that greatly simplifies development. Additionally, T-50 manufacturer Sukhoi has extensive experience with thrust-vectoring nozzles from its mid-1990s Su-37 technology demonstrator, though Russian industry has little experience with stealth technologies. Finally, Sukhoi has clear incentive to promptly introduce the PAK FA. Due to the anemic Russian military budget Russian manufactures are much more dependent on international exports than their American counterpart, and in the next three decades a large number of up-and-coming powers are expected to purchase advanced combat aircraft. Because the PAK FA is Russian aviation’s only fifth-generation game in town, it’s now or never for Sukhoi: either introduce the PAK FA, or potentially lose lucrative international sales to more advanced European or American aircraft for decades to come. However, it’s unclear if these incentive will be able to overcome the cold financial limits and political uncertainty facing the Russian defense industry — despite Indian involvement, the PAK FA faces a rocky road to operational service.

This suggests that the Eurofighter forecasts for both the PAK FA and J-20 are overly optimistic. However, I’d argue that we are likely to see some version of a Chinese fifth-generation fighter before 2025, though probably not earlier. Prospects for the PAK FA are much less certain, but Eurofighter’s 2018ish service introduction seems to be an unrealistic best-case scenario.

Vicky Cristina .001% of Humanity

By Taylor Marvin

I enjoyed this movie a lot. But I could suggest a new title:

“Rich White People Don’t Have Real Problems”

Jokes aside, Vicky Cristina Barcelona was a fun movie, and I’m glad I watched it. I imagine this film has a strange effect on people. On the one hand, it’s clever and entertaining, and is a wonderfully escapist fantasy. On the other, it’s only escapist because it’s exactly that — a fantasy. The lives of the characters in Vicky Cristina Barcelona have almost nothing in common with anyone I know — they’re all artists and poets who live in expensive mansions and lavish townhouses while flying off for impromptu romantic weekends in private planes. All of these people are impossibly gorgeous, cultured, can “tire of American materialism” because of their magical off-screen incomes, and live in a world where it’s possible to pursue a gloriously impractical masters degree in Catalan Identity even if you’re only capable of broken Spanish. The film idealizes values of non-commercial artistry that are almost insulting in their complete dismissal of the limitation of reality those of us not fortunate enough to count ourselves among the idle rich face. It’s the life that most of us, myself included, would love but seems impossibly distant. There’s a reason for this distance — almost no one lives like this. Of course, everyone knows this, and that’s why the vicarious fantasies of cinema exists. However, that still begs an interesting question: how many people actually are lucky enough to live Vicky Cristina, and what are my chances of being one of them?

First off, it’s clear that our characters are extremely wealthy. Javier Bardem’s character is an artist who inhabits a beautiful mansion in an expensive city, and can afford to drive gorgeous vintage automobiles. Vicky’s masters in Catalan Identity is commonly accepted code for “I plan on never having to support myself.” Similarly, Cristina is established to have spent the last few years producing a non-commercial movie, strongly suggesting she too is wealthy enough to avoid actual work.

It’s reasonable to assume that to enjoy this lifestyle you would have to be a wealthy resident of an OECD country. While there are certainly rich citizens of non-OECD countries, their numbers are small enough that we can reasonably disregard them. Similarly, the lifestyles of Vicky Cristina’s characters implies a high personal income — US $80,000 in purchasing power parity (PPP) a year seems like a reasonable lower-bound requirement. However, wealth isn’t enough to enjoy this lifestyle; youth is also important. Anyone over 40 is likely to old to enjoy the spontaneity and casual health of Vicky, Cristina and Juan Antonio’s lives. So, to start off our estimate let’s find the percentage of OECD member residents between the ages of of 20 and 39 with an income of over US $80,000/yr, PPP.

From OECD data, in 2000 roughly 30% of the population in OECD countries was  between the ages of 20 and 39, giving a total of 336,628,000 people, or 5.5% of the world’s population. Now, making the reasonably justified assumption that Vicky Cristina’s main characters have an average income of US $80,000 per year, their income places them  in the top 0.78% of the world income distribution. Here’s where things get a bit complicated. We need to make the assumption that only a non-significant number of people with incomes over $80,000 live outside the OECD. This is certainly wrong, but simplified the required data and is justified for our purposes. If we restrict this figure to OECD residents between 20-39 (making the unrealistic assumption income is equally distributed among age groups, which is clearly not true) we have .234% of the world that’s young and rich enough to aspire to the lives of Vicky Christina Barcelona.

However, there’s another factor that makes the lives of Juan Antonio and company so alluring: their attractiveness. The believability of the film rests on this — the romantic promiscuity at the center of the film’s plot is significantly more realistic for extremely attractive people. However, how can we quantify this requirement?

Let’s start with the women. Penelope Cruz, Rebecca Hall and Scarlett Johansson are all extremely beautiful. To start off, let’s say that they fall into the 99.5th percentile for human attractiveness, meaning that they each can be expected to be the best looking member of a random group of 200 people.

She is better at being hot than you are at anything. Seriously.

She is better at being hot than you are at everything you do. If this seems depressing it's because it is.

However, on second thought this percentile ranking seems wildly too low. Objectively, Vicky Cristina’s female stars are some of the most beautiful people on the planet, and certainly rank higher than the 99.5th percentile of attractiveness. Think about it — in my life I’ve seem thousands of faces noteworthy enough to remember, and can think of only a handful anywhere near as beautiful as the women of Vicky Cristina. Lets say that they’re a much more reasonable 1 out of 1,000, giving us 99.9th percentile. Even this seems low, but let’s work with it.

The same is true for male star Javier Bardem. The movie’s plot rests on his attractiveness — if he isn’t sufficiently charismatic, his seduction of three outrageously beautiful women wouldn’t be convincing even with cinema’s normal suspension of disbelief. Unscientifically, I’d rank Bardem as less objectively attractive than the female leads (though this could just be the leftover trauma of seeing No Country for Old Men at an impressionable age), but he’s still certainly in the 99th human attractiveness percentile. This gives us a combined average in the 99.575th percentile, making the cast better looking than 99.575% percent of humanity.

No we’re ready for a combined figure. Of the .099% of humanity young and rich enough to aspire to Vicky Cristina, only .425% can be expected to be attractive enough to truly live the glamorous lives shown in the film. That gives us a combined number of .001% of the world’s population. Given the current world population, we can expect there to be 67,752 people in the world with the attractiveness, youth, and income to live the lives of Vicky Cristina. Your chances of being one is roughly one in 100,000. The characters of Vicky Cristina are literally one in a hundred thousand.

Still feel bad about your uneventful, unromantic life? For comparison, your odds of being struck by lighting in your lifetime are 1/10,000. You are much more likely to be hit by lightning than be a carefree Spanish painter caught in a passionate love quadrangle.

Of course, this is a movie where being shot at point-blank range in the hand somehow doesn’t blow off your palm, so I’m not sure how useful this analysis is. Additionally, the large assumptions incorporated into this calculation likely make it very inaccurate. Personal consumption in Mediterranean Europe is significantly lower than in the US or northern Europe, throwing off our income figure, as does the fact that older people tend to have higher income than the age group we’re interested in. However, this is a decent figure, and these assumptions don’t ruin the fun. I’m sure I made some calculation mistakes, so feel free to try and find them.

And yes, I can enjoy movies without overanalyzing them. I think Vicky would sympathize with me.

Justice vs. Peace

By Taylor Marvin

ICC Logo.

ICC Logo.

An ICC prosecutor has requested an arrest warrant for Qadaffi. This is unlikely to have any tangible change on the conflict in Libya — the ICC has a poor track record of actually apprehending wanted national leaders, and it is unlikely the ICC warrant will encourage any Libyans still loyal to Qadaffi to abandon him. However, the ICC’s decision could perversly prolong the Libyan civil war by discouraging the defection of senior Libyan government officials. Being a leader in the midst of a civil war is a miserable experience — it’s hugely stressful and personally uncomfortable, and Qadaffi’s lost family members and presumably lives in constant fear of a NATO airstrike finally finding him. In many dictatorships government officials hold their positions more for personal gain rather than ideological devotion and if their comfortable lifestyles seem threatened there’s a huge incentive to flee the country and go into exile, as many former dictators have done. However, now that the ICC has committed to prosecuting Qadaffi’s the option to defect is closed — many senior civil Libyan officials are unlikely to survive surrender to the rebels, and there’s a strong possibility of facing ICC prosecution if they flee abroad. At this point, the Qadaffi government’s only option is to fight until the end, and he has every incentive to try and outlast the patience of NATO-member states’ domestic constituencies.

ICC prosecution of national leaders, even war criminals, sets a bad precedent because it discourages threatened dictators from fleeing uprisings and likely prolongs civil wars. Ironically, it would likely be better from the standpoint of encouraging democratic uprisings to offer immunity to dictators and even guaranteeing them an income once they’re deposed. Given that the international community doesn’t have many other options to influence the actions of dictators like Qadaffi or Bashar al-Assad, recognizing that even ideologically motivated dictators place some value on their personal comfort is a valuable tool in encouraging compliance.

Prospect Harry Potter Roundup

By Taylor Marvin

The final Harry Potter movie’s coming out, and that’s all the excuse I need to spend way to much time analyzing the Harry Potter universe. There’s a lot of interesting questions about life in the wizarding world, especially from an economic and sociological perspective. Here’s some of the most obvious:

1. How many wizards live in the UK?

This is actually pretty straightforward. We know that Hogwarts is roughly evenly divided between the four houses — inter-house athletics wouldn’t be fair otherwise — and we can estimate average house size by the number of people in Harry’s dormitory. In all seven books, only four other people are mentioned rooming with Harry: Ron, Neville, Seamus Finnigan and Dean Thomas. This implies that there are approximately 10 male and female Gryffindors in Harry’s year, and Hogwarts houses 280 students. This seems like way too low of a number, and J. K. Rowling has said in interviews that Hogwarts has a student body of 1,000 students. This doesn’t seem believable — it’s difficult to believe that we could get through 7 books without learning of other Gryffindor students Harry’s age, and a student body of 1,000 implies that Harry’s Gryffindor class of 1998 is less than 1/3 of the Hogwarts’ average class size. This seems implausible, but because we know very little about how often wizarding children are born to Muggle parents it is possible that Harry’s class is just abnormally small.

From the size of Hogwarts we can reasonably estimate the wizarding population of the UK and Ireland. In the 1991 the combined population of the UK and Ireland was 62.5 million people, of which roughly 10% were between 11 and 18.

This implies a wizarding population of 10,000, or 2,800 for a conservative estimate of Hogwarts population. At most 0.0175% of the general population is magical, giving a world wizarding population of 1,180,000. Worldwide there are 5,742 Muggles for every wizard.

However, there’s a lot of big assumptions here. First off, it’s possible that Hogwarts isn’t the only magical school in the British Isles. However, it seems implausible that the subject of another wizarding school in the UK or Ireland would never come up in 7 books, especially in Goblet of Fire. Also, it’s established that Professor Dumbledore is the most respected wizard in contemporary Britain, which implies that Hogwarts is an extremely prestigious school. If there were other magical schools to compete for students there would necessarily be some sort of vetting process to ensure that Hogwarts got the best students, which we don’t see — many Hogwarts students (notably Crabbe and Goyle) appear unintelligent and display no magical talent. This is strong evidence that Hogwarts is the only wizarding school in the British Isles, and our 10,000 high-end estimate holds.

This figure also assumes that the wizarding population shares the same broad age distribution as Muggle society. The UK displays an interesting population contraction caused by a temporarily lower birthrate in the mid-1970s, as seen in the above population pyramid. There’s no indication that the wizarding world suffered from the same birthrate fall (though if they didn’t it would lower, not raise our wizarding population estimate because school age wizards would be a higher percent of the population). Similarly, we have good reason to suspect that something strange is going on in wizarding demographics. It’s repeatedly established in the books that the population of pure-blooded wizards — those born to magical families, not Muggles — are falling. Yet dispute the fact racist wizarding families desperately want more pure-blood wizards born they have extremely low birthrates — Malfoy and Blaise Zabini are only children, and Crabbe and Goyle are implied to be as well. So what’s going on here? Presumably wizards have access to magical contraceptive techniques, but the fact that even wealthy pure-blood families exhibit very low birthrates implies wizarding demographics are somehow different than ours. Similarly, if the number of pure-blood wizards is falling and the number of wizards born to Muggles is constant — a reasonable, though unsupported, assumption — the total number of wizards must be declining. This implies a population pyramid much more top heavy than the general UK, and a higher total number of wizards.

2. Who was worse: Voldemort or Osama Bin Laden?

A lot of people have been noticing parallels between Osama Bin Laden and Voldemort:

Al Qaeda killed 3,000 people on 9/11, and thousands more in terror attacks in Africa and the Middle East. How many people did Voldemort kill?

This is difficult to say. We do know that the number of wizards killed by Voldemort and his forces is relatively low, both in absolute and relative terms. Voldemort’s pro-wizard racism motivated him to restrict inflicting magical casualties, and his methods of destruction were extremely limited. Almost all wizards killed by Death Eaters are described as being magically executed one at a time — there’s a limit to how many people you could actually kill this way. Similarly, wizards and magic in general isn’t actually that good at killing people. In The Prisoner of Azkaban wizards discuss in awed tones how Sirius Black killed 13 people with a single curse. This isn’t impressive by Muggle standards: we manage to kill dozens of people with single curses/bombs all the time.

How about Muggle casualties? The books establish that Voldemort and his supporters took special pleasure in killing Muggles, and mass Muggle attacks were generally attributed to freak natural disasters by the general public. This actually suggests fairly low Muggle casualties. Bridge collapses and freak hurricanes rarely kill large numbers of people, suggesting that during Voldemort’s time in power Muggle casualties were limited to the mid-hundreds per year. Despite Voldemort’s evil, he didn’t actually kill that many people. Osama was much worse.

3. Could the Muggle military have defeated Voldemort?

If the Minister of Magic had desperately come to the Muggle Minister for help against Voldemort, how useful would the UK military have been against Voldemort’s forces?

Despite all their ability to use magic, the wizards of Harry Potter are actually a lot less capable than modern Muggles at many simple tasks:

Wizard: “I have this document I want to send my friend in another country. I’ll send it to him by writing it out and tying it to a bird’s leg. It will get there in a few weeks, unless the owl gets lost/hurt/tired/captured by someone intercepting my letters.”

Muggle: “Sorry what was that? I was just sending an email. I’m going to go watch tv now and travel in comfort, which apparently you wizards don’t do.*”

*See Apparition, the Knight Bus, Portkeys, Floo Powder, flying on broomsticks, demon flying creatures.

The limits of magic compared to Muggle technology apply to military technology as well. Despite the fear it inspires, Avada Kedava, wizards’ main killing spell, isn’t actually that effective a weapon. It only targets one person at a time and seems to only function at close quarters range. It can be blocked or deflected by stone walls, suits of armor or frail vases, suggesting that it would be completeley defeated by basic Muggle vehicle armor and at least partially by modern infantry body armor. Similarly, other curses and hexes seem to be compleltely limited to short-range anti-personal use. While a group of Death Eaters would be a formidable opponent, their actual destructive power would be much less than than of a well-equipped British Army unit. The same goes for Voldemort’s magical allies. While a giant might be a dangerous foe to an isolated wizard, it’s hard to believe one would be much of a challenge for the Royal Air Force.

Forget the wand. Try a missile.

Forget the wand. Try a missile.

Similarly, on close inspection the defensive abilities of Voldemort and his Death Eaters are less impressive than they first appeared. While characters in the Harry Potter universe are able to magically deflect most physical threats, this ability isn’t effortless — it’s implied that using magic to block physical dangers requires concentration, effort, and awareness of the incoming threat. While Voldemort and his followers would be able to block individual Muggle projectiles, this ability could likely be overwhelmed by high numbers of projectiles. It seems unlikely that Voldemort would be able to magically protect himself against a sustained arial or artillery bombardment — eventually he would be overcome by the thousands of individual pieces of incoming shrapnel. This weakness applies to his magical soldiers as well. It’s hard to see Inferi, or zombie-like magically reanimated corpses, as a dangerous threat to a modern Muggle military. It’s never suggested that they are particularly difficult to physically destroy, and their debilitating fear of fire seems to a pretty glaring weakness against an opponent armed with, um, firearms.

Voldemort’s main advantage in a battle against Muggle military forces would be his ability to apparate — even if Muggle firepower could potentially harm him, he could just apparate out of harm’s way. However, there is good reason to suggest that apparition could be detectable by modern Muggle technology. As Hermione explains in Goblet of Fire, magic affect electronic technology. “All those substitues for magic Muggles use — electricity, computers, and radar — they all go haywire around Hogwarts,” she explains, because “there’s too much magic in the air.” It’s clear what she’s hinting at: magic significantly disrupts the electromagnetic spectrum. If Muggles knew what to look for, it’s likely that they could detect the significant EM disruption caused by disapparition and track a fleeing wizard by searching for the similar disruption caused by his reappearance.

Voldemort’s horcruxes would be a problem for a Muggle military. The Half-Blood Prince makes it explicitly clear that horcruxes are difficult to destroy even by magical standards. Horcruxes are impervious to most physical damage, and are only truly destroyed if they are disrupted beyond magical repair — in the books horcruxes are only destroyed by basilisk venom and cursed fire. However, this does imply that horcruxes are physical bodies, and could likely be destroyed by breaking them apart at the atomic level. Humans have several options to do this. An extremely powerful laser could likely destroy a horcrux, as could a nuclear explosion. If these options fail a horcrux could always be launched on a rocket and flown into the sun. If Muggles could manage to find Voldemort’s six horcruxes, we could destroy them.

4. How does the wizarding economy function?

This is an interesting question. The books establish that wizards can effortlessly produce most consumer goods — Hogwarts students practice conjuring physical items out of thin air, and are able to transfigure almost anything. There are exceptions to this, however: Gamp’s Law of Elemental Transfiguration states that wizards are unable to magically produce money or food. This doesn’t make a lot of sense — if Hermione can conjure birds to bombard Ron (we know the birds are physical and not apparitions because they painfully hit him) there doesn’t seem to be a clear reason why she can’t conjure steaks for dinner. But let’s accept this limit. How does an economy function when food seems to be the only good a consumer can’t produce themselves?

We know that most wizards have jobs, are paid in gold, and spend most of their income. Wizards shop for clothing and other consumer goods at shops, and the wizarding economy seems to function fairly well. This requires that wizards choose to buy consumer goods rather than produce them themselves. This seems bizarre — the Weasley’s are so poor that their children wear worn and holed clothing, so there must be an important reason Mrs. Weasely doesn’t simply transfigure her children some new clothing. We know that this is magically possible: J.K. Rowling is explicit about what items can’t be magically produced, and clothing isn’t one of these exceptions. The only reasonable explanation for this inconsistency is that most wizards are capable of magically producing consumer goods but choose to buy them instead. Maybe it’s possible to produce most goods like robes or parchment, but it’s difficult to do right. Possibly producing quality clothing requires so much magical skill it’s become a specialized profession, and despite Mrs. Weasley’s formidable powers even she can’t produce acceptable new clothing for her family. If this holds, despite magic the wizarding economy is very similar to ours.

This is an interesting question because the abundance of the wizarding world is likely similar to our future. It’s a good bet that this century advancements in robotics and artificial intelligence will completely revolutionize the process of production and create the greatest change in economics and human society since the Industrial Revolution. Just as the advent of industrial robotics has increasingly cut humans out of manufacturing jobs, the development of truly capable artificial intelligence will likely have the same effect on knowledge-based professions like engineering and law. This change will be extremely difficult to adapt to — what will the unemployment rate be when a consumer can buy a product designed by an evolutionary algorithm and produced at home on a 3D printer? How will market pricing work when the marginal cost of most products is zero? It’s not like Harry Potter provides any key insights into this future, but this is an interesting parallel.

Similarly, how does taxation work in the wizarding world? We’ve established that the Ministry of Magic provides expensive pubic services: free education at Hogwarts, a universal healthcare system through St. Mungo’s Hospital, and a court system. All these services require funding. Additionally, the wizarding government seems to be an abnormally large portion of society. At most the wizarding population of the UK and Ireland is 10,000, and by descriptions of the Ministry the wizarding government seems to employ at least a five hundred people. That is a huge government as a proportion of general society — for comparison, US federal, state, and local government employs roughly 20,000 people out of a population of 300 million. This must require a large tax base, which is puzzling because we never see any indication of wizards paying any form of tax. By the series’ own magical rules the government can’t magically produce money, and because the wizarding monetary system is on the gold standard the government presumably can’t run a large debt. The fact that wizards are on the gold standard is also interesting. Because the Ministry is unable to use an expansionary monetary policy to combat recessions the wizarding economy must be extremely volatile, a trait worsened by the fact that credit doesn’t seem to be widely available in wizards’ gold currency-based economy. Voldemort’s rise must have been accompanied by a severe recession and the loss of a good percentage of wizard businesses.

I’m sure I got a lot wrong here. Go at it in the comments.

Note: More Prospect ridiculous pop-culture analysis: The Economics of Alien Invasion- Battle Los Angeles Edition.

Leisure vs. Consumption and the Jetsons

By Taylor Marvin

Via Annie Lowrey, the Jetson family worked a total of 9 hours a week. Matt Yglesias has an interesting take on this. The Jetson’s dramatic increase in leisure time over modern Americans is presumably due to technologically driven worker productivity gains, allowing a future family to enjoy roughly the same consumption levels as today for much less actual labor. To Yglesias, this suggests an interesting tradeoff. The Jetsons have a choice between maximizing their leisure time by working less in exchange for decreased consumption, or working a normal 40 hour week and enjoying unimaginably more wealth than modern Americans.

This choice has a lot of similarities to the today’s debate over the future of Social Security. Since the 1900s, US worker productivity has increased rapidly, averaging 2.1 percent per year in non-farm business sectors since 1947, and increase in excess of population growth:

Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Annual Productivity Change in Non-farm Business Sector. Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Source: World Bank, Google Public Data Explorer.

US Population Growth Rate, 1960-2010. Source: World Bank, Google Public Data Explorer.

Unlike the Jetsons, American society has used this increase in productivity, and by extension income, to finance huge consumption increases. These consumption gains have been augmented by the increase in debt financing, which became much more widespread in American society after WWII. For the most part, this choice hasn’t been controversial: few Americans would want to trade increased leisure time for drastically lowered standards of living, even if the choice is technically possible. However, the current debate over raising the retirement age reflects this core tradeoff. Sometime in the next 40 years Social Security will require additional funding to remain solvent. This isn’t a serious policy challenge because Social Security solvency can be easily addressed by one of two potential changes — either the retirement age can be raised, lowering the cost of the program, or the federal government can devote more money to Social Security. This is the same basic tradeoff the Jetsons face. Americans can either use productivity gains to increase their leisure time by preserving or even lowering the current retirement age, or to finance increased consumption. On the federal level, this consumption is most evident in military spending and healthcare inefficiencies, the two largest portions of the budget aside from Social Security.

What’s interesting about this question is that, for all the alarm about rising life expectancies bankrupting Social Security, American’s real average life expectancy has risen only modestly in the last half century. Since the 1930s total life expectancy has risen considerably. However, since total life expectancy figure are heavily skewed by infant mortality this increase isn’t indicative of the percentage of the adult population that actually reached retirement age, or the age most adults could expect to die. Adult life expectancy — that is, the expected lifespan for those who had already reached adulthood — has increased only modestly since the creation of Social Security. In 1940 a 65 year old man could expect to live 12.7 more years, compared to 15.3 in 1990, a roughly 17 percent increase. Women’s adults life expectancies show higher gains: 14.7 to 19.6 in the same period. For comparison, average non-farm business productivity has risen roughly 350 percent in the same period. Consumption has risen by a similar amount.

So while American average consumption has risen drastically in the last half century, life expectancies and leisure time have not. American work more than most rich country citizens already, a trend raising the retirement age would increase:

Source: The Economist.

Source: The Economist.

Modern America has made the opposite choice as the Jetsons, favoring increased consumption over leisure gains. We’ll see if the eventual consensus on Social Security takes us towards or away from that imagined future.