Beauty of Gray

Friday, May 03, 2002

Who's the dope again?

Anybody still want to defend the rope-a-dope interpretation? From the Post:

In his remarks, Powell set out the immediate task of rebuilding the capacity of Arafat's forces to police a cease-fire.

"We'll be encouraging Chairman Arafat to rebuild his security apparatus. We'll ask for maximum efforts from the Palestinian Authority to restore calm," he said.

So, right after the Israeli went in and spent several weeks destroying Arafat's security apparatus and proving that he and it were intimately involved in the planning and execution of terrorist assaults, now the US's sees it's first job as...rebuilding Arafat's terrorist forces? Next, Powell did not add, we're going to try and get the Taliban back on their feet and governing effectively in Afghanistan, so they can crack down on al Qaeda there.

With this quote, Powell shows incontrovertably that he, and Bush, don't care about Israel and don't care about fighting terrorism. They have completely and cravenly given in to the Saudis, choosing personal short term expediency over morality and long term effectiveness. And in return we get absolutely nothing from the Saudis. Why on earth are we caving in to Arab sentiments when caving in neither changes those sentiments nor results and any support for our own actions? I could see if, as a result of this cowardly capitualtion we in return got free use of Saudi bases and land for an attack on Iraq. But we won't. We're selling out Israel for absolutely nothing. This policy will result in not a single tangible benefit for the US, and it's simply unfathomable that Bush and Powell are so willfully blind about this fact.

The only dopes in this scenario are Bush and Powell, and the rope is the one they're hanging themselves with.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 11:39 AM

Wednesday, May 01, 2002
Poetry Wednesday

I might as well jump in on the trend. Here's one of my favorites, from Yeats:

He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven

HAD I the heavens' embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half-light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 1:33 PM

Iranian Reforms?

Here's a hopeful article about relaxations in the dress code for women (and in wider cultural questions) in Iran. (Found via the USS Clueless.) The article paints a hopeful picture that protests may be forcing the Iranian theocracy to relax some of their restrictions to avoid future unrest. It probably won't work, though.

Revolutions usually don't occur during the height of repression. Rather, they occur when a regime has weakened and started to make concessions. Inevitably, the demands of protestors and revolutionaries outstrip the ability or willingness of the government to reform, and a violent break occurs. As de Tocqueville analyzed in the case of the French Revolution, this is the pattern throughout history. Attempted gradual reforms almost always simply whet the appetite of the populace, and also show a weakness on the part of the ruling regime.

So the mullahs won't be able to stay in power by tweaking the edges of their system any more than Gorbachev's reforms prolonged communist rule in Russia. The two possibilities are that the population will continue presing and will, hopefully sooner rather than later, rise up and throw the mullahs from power. Alternatively, the mullahs could get scared and crack down once again on dissent. Depending on the strength of the opposition, this could other renew the repression or spark a real revolt. But either way, I don't see any chance that a "moderate mullah" regime can hold onto power for long.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 10:35 AM

Dumb question about the stock market

This piece by Robert Samuelson is an interesting look at the state of the current economy, and includes this regularly presented piece of info about P/E ratios:

Consider the implications for the stock market. Since 1950 the average price/earnings ratio (P/E) of the S&P 500 has been 16, says S&P's Howard Silverblatt. A dollar of earnings results, on average, in a stock price of $16. The S&P index is now about 1100. Divide that by earnings of $24.69, and the result is a P/E of almost 45. Gulp. The market is counting on a rapid rebound of profits. Investors aren't buying on the basis of today's earnings but on the much higher earnings expected for 2002 and 2003.

The unstated assumption here is that investors buy stocks, and stocks are valued (or should be valued) on the basis of their P/E ratio. The fact that this ratio has gone way up since 1950 is supposedly a big problem. But isn't this change just a simple consequence of supply and demand? An even more widely circulated nugget of wisdom is that the 80's and 90's turned the US into a nation of shareholders, and many individuals now invest substantial sums of money in the stock market both directly and through mutual funds.

So, a lot of people now are investing in the market that didn't used to. Or, to put it another way, the demand for stocks has gone up. The supply of stocks, on the other hand, has perhaps not gone up nearly as much. (New stocks are not created ex nihilo--they have original owners who likely stay in the stock market after selling those shares, so stock supply cannot possibly outstrip demand to lower prices.) Like anything, if demand increases, then so does the price. (In fact, isn't this how stock prices are determined? They're set so the supply equals the demand?)

I'd assume this is such an obvious point that someone must have looked at it before, but while I often see these two points (higher P/E ratios, more investors) seperately, I haven't seen them put together. In addition to underlying economic factors, it seems that this rise in the pool of investors (increased demand) could have helped fuel the bull market during the 90's. Now, the demand has levelled off as almost everyone has their investments in stocks if they're going to. This, combined with economic factors and the high valuations on the market, will keep the market relatively flat until share value (as measured by P/E ratios or some other metric) catches back up to their current high pricing, at which point the market will start to rise again. Maybe. Seems plausible to me, but expecting the stock market to be rational is probably not a winning bet.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 9:57 AM

Ask and you shall receive

In my previous post on Iraq, terrorism, and nuclear deterrence, I invited anyone to write and tell me why I was crazy. Not that most bloggers need an invitation, but at least two people have taken me up on the offer.

First, over in the comments section of this post at Live from the WTC, Bruce Moomaw argues forcefully that attacking Iraq is the wrong approach. He believes that nuclear deterrence can work to prevent any Iraqi aggression as it did against the USSR. He also argues that the costs of invading Iraq will probably be high, and will likely include a biological or chemical attack on US troops or on Israel. I think his second point is important—there seem to be many commentators (in the blogosphere and elsewhere) that are assuming Iraq is so feeble that a US assault will be easy and painless. I hope they’re right but am skeptical. I’m afraid Bruce is closer to the truth on the likely cost.

However, I still think attacking Iraq now is the right course of action. Basically, my disagreement with Bruce is that I think the costs of invasion are lower than he does, while the costs of not invading are higher than he does. I’m not nearly as sanguine that nuclear deterrence would effectively contain Saddam, and I also don’t think it addresses the possibility of Saddam assisting terrorists in acquiring nukes. As for the cost of an invasion, I’m less worried than he is about Iraq’s existing WMD stockpile. Chem and bio weapons are bad news, but they’re not nearly as bad as nukes. Any delivery via a missile is likely to be fairly localized and hence inefficient. Consider the sarin attacks on the Tokyo subways—there was enough gas to kill thousands, released into a tightly packed enclosed space, yet the ultimate death count was very small.

As for biological weapons, they’ve never been used in combat so it’s hard to know. But again, the anthrax example shows that they are probably not as terrible as you might think. First, because it’s tough to administer a dose to large numbers of people, and second because aggressive treatment can often cure the diseases in question.

The second response, focusing on threatening Mecca rather than the Iraq situation, comes from Jak King, and can be read here. He makes three points. First, he says that if the terrorists have more than one nuclear warhead, they could threaten retaliation to our retaliation. I’m not sure about this. The point of the original threat against Mecca is to deter any attack at all. If it works, this scenario will never play out, just as we never entered into a nuclear exchange with Russia because both sides had too much to lose.

His second point is similar—what if terrorists simply called the bluff and nuked New York? Again, this would mean the basic premise was flawed—that terrorists don’t value Mecca highly enough for it to be an effective deterrent. This is the crux of the matter, and is the thing I’m most uncertain about. Would a threat to Mecca actually be a strong deterrent? If not, then obviously the idea is worthless. And I simply don't know enough about the psychology and religious belief of the radical Islamic terrorists to say either way. Perhaps no-one does, and this uncertainty would make a threat against Mecca too dangerous and questionable.

Lastly, he points out an imprecise phrasing on my part, in identifying the international terrorist threat as Islamic. He points out that, for example, the drug lords in Columbia could also be considered international terrorists. Which is perhaps true, but they have nothing to gain from nuking a US city. I’d rephrase my point that “the terrorists groups who have such an apocalyptic vision that they would be willing to nuke a US city are all Islamic.” Ultimately, though, this is a side point. The threat to Mecca would obviously only deter Islamic terrorists, and a different technique would have to be used against others, if someone else became a threat.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 7:53 AM

Tuesday, April 30, 2002
Some sum games

Steven Den Beste has an interesting series of posts over at the USS Clueless concerning the impact of transitions from non-zero sum games to zero sum games. Specifically, the transition from expansion into unfilled environments/markets to competition for resources. I think he’s hit on an important transition point—the time when expansion ceases to be ”into space” and must begin to come at the expense of someone or something else. There’s a lot of good information and cross-connections there, but I’d take issue with one of his central points.

Which finally leads up to the key insight I had a couple of days ago: during the non-zero-sum expansion stage, it is the virtues of each competitor which decide how well they prosper. But after the switch to zero-sum competition, it is their faults which decide who will die. An uneven competitor, with both virtues and faults, may prosper in the early stages but will in the long run be destroyed by a competitor which is uniformly mediocre.

I think this is simply incorrect. I’d say, rather, that during the non-zero sum phase, an organism’s absolute fitness determines how well it prospers, while in the zero-sum case, it is relative fitness that decides. That is, as long as an organism can do pretty well, its population will grow in the absence of competition. But, when there is competition for resources, the winner will be the one that does the best job exploiting those resources. You don’t need to be flawless, just better than the competition. There is no necessary connection with strengths or weaknesses, since an organism with sufficiently strong strengths can overcome some weaknesses to outcompete another that might have fewer weaknesses but fewer strengths.

As an analogy, consider a tennis match, clearly a zero-sum game (for every winner there’s a loser.) Venus and Serena Williams probably make more unforced errors than any other players on the women’s tour, clearly a serious weakness. Yet they are also the two best players on the tour and regularly beat middle of the road players with no real weaknesses but without the great strengths of the Williams sisters.

More relevantly, if Den Beste’s conclusion held, you’d expect that the world would be populated by generalists that do many things reasonably well rather than by specialists that only can do one thing, but do it very well (with corresponding weaknesses in other areas.) However, the world is a mix of these two with, if anything, the specialists predominating.

Taking a more specific example, humans are clearly a species that has come to predominate on the basis of great strengths (technology, organization) overcoming tremendous weaknesses (soft, weak, poor senses, no natural armaments, vulnerable to the elements, etc.) His own example of McDonald’s also, IMO, contradicts his premise. McDonald’s is not universally mediocre. They provide consistently bad food cheaply and quickly. I’d say it’s a matter of the strengths (speed , price, and dependability) overcoming the weakness of the food.

I think this points out a practical difficulty in his dichotomy between things having virtues and weaknesses vs. uniform mediocrity. Namely, that it’s far from trivial to identify things as clearly one or the other, even more so in the case of large cultural movements than in the case of McDonald’s. Is it true that the US culture has fewer weaknesses than others? In what way? We are open and adapt well, but while he says that’s a source of strength, it could also be claimed as a weakness (no core values to inspire, leading to a weakness of will and tendency to capitulate to others who hold their views more strongly.) My point here is not that this (or any other feature of US culture) is a weakness, merely that it’s not so simple to divvy things up as strengths or weaknesses, except in retrospect. And of course it’s a continuous scale, rather than an either-or proposition. At what point does McDonald’s food become so bad that it goes from mediocre (in his classification) to a weakness? There is no clear line.

Also, I’d put the transition point for culture and religion back far in antiquity. It’s hardly recently that religions have started to compete. The Old Testament is largely a record of religious and cultural conflicts. Both Christianity and Islam expanded into societies with well established religions. The reason that Islam and Christianity are now two of the dominant world religions is that they have successfully displaced other religions (a group which, in Islam’s case, includes Christianity.) So that it’s wrong to say that only now have we entered into a zero sum game with respect to religion and culture, where Islam’s weaknesses become key, while its virtues allowed it to expand to this point.

As a side note, I’d say it’s less that the Islam meme is uncompetitive than it is that the Wahhabist/radical Islam meme is uncompetitive. And it’s inferior not to Christianity, but to capitalism. The success of many Islamic immigrants in the US shows that the fundamental flaw is less with Islam than with a particular (admittedly prevalent) contemporary interpretation of it.

Link posted by Doug Turnbull at 3:00 PM

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