Monday, April 11, 2022

Just Notes - Not especially organised

From the last 90 minutes of Razib's interview with Samo I decided not to work that hard, just report items they talked about, sometimes interjecting my own summary or thoughts.

Much was made of actions by countries that are overdetermined, because they have more than one reason for them. These are more common in command economies like China and Russia, but not unknown in more free-market states, which also attempt to use policy to set general directions, as in increasing tariffs, directing research, and protecting industries. A lot of attention is given these days to whether China will invade Taiwan, but there are levels to this.  Actually accomplishing the invasion of a well-defended island nation is equivalent to a moon landing in complexity. Developing a military port structure for that cannot be done invisibly, so what must be done is developing commercial ports that can be shared, disguised, repurposed, etc. And there is an obvious side benefit economically to controlling many great ports. Expand this out to airfields, shipbuilding and aircraft development, energy flexibility, access to key resources and a hundred other secular uses. The line from the space program to personal computers is clear in America, for example.  The follow-on effects can be enormous. 

Therefore, if the Chinese credibly develop this capacity - they do not have it now - it has all sorts of uses.  They can use it as a threat without activating it.  It could be readily expanded to the possible invasion of other nearby islands, such as the Philippines  or Indonesia.  Japan and Australia would be much, much harder, but would be on the same line.  We fear powerful nations acting irrationally - it does happen - and initiating military actions that are unlikely to succeed but could do enormous damage. Burja looks also at military actions which are not irrational, because they have been long prepared for. Just having them in your back pocket without using them is influential.  In that light, a failed invasion of Taiwan would only strengthen the alliance against China in the region: India, Japan, Indonesia, South Korea, Vietnam. But a successful invasion would weaken any such alliance, as nations would quietly make accommodation for events that look inevitable.

Speaking of South Korea, the observation was suggested that reunification with the North, desired by the South Korean left which is a significant minority, is not likely to take the form of millions of starving refugees pouring across the border, under gov't control or not, but more along the lines of the poor Eastern European countries in the EU moving to the richer nations for work. There are lots of Bulgarians in Germany, Romanians in Italy, Poles in Ireland. As SK  has a population replacement rate of 0.9 and NK has 1.9, arrangements might be made in which many young people moved south to work cheap, and the SK gov't could arrange some sort of money transfer to the north as a sort of stabilisation fund. The NK regime has to make some concessions, but gets greater security of not having so much trade isolation.  They might also demand that the US troops be sent home, and they would have a good point. SK might dislike the NK political influence on its affairs, but the enormously reduced threat of insane tyrants invading is a nice tradeoff.

With that idea of national actions having multiple reasons underlying them, let me put together the Lego pieces he thinks are important for Russia. England, Germany, and Russia, to name a few, are not particularly good candidates for a solar world. Russia does have some skill with nuclear power, and developing barges that carry nuclear power plants that can be towed to whatever city you like is something that can be made in quantity once you figure it out.  Cooling and safety are easier. You can keep them, sell them, or rent them. Natural gas is not a world-wide commodity yet, though advances in liquefication might make it so. But at the moment, pipelines are the answer. Most of Russia's natural gas is in its arctic region. Therefore global warming has some advantages for Russia as it opens ports up more days of the year. They are in fact already creating pipelines between cities in the arctic. They are also developing nuclear-powered icebreakers. Taken together, more ports, more ability to move NG. Even in that region, more ports is more trade. If warming slows, they still win with icebreakers and pipelines, just not as dramatically. 

Natural gas, which is an on demand source in contrast to coal which has to be run 24/7, and is at least somewhat cleaner, is the natural complement to solar power at present, even more than batteries. Russia does not love solar for itself - how could it? - but applauds German and other European reliance on it. If the US gets there first in liquefying natural gas it won't matter for long, as it will then be figured out by others soon enough.

Russia gets invaded by someone in the West about once a century. That seems like a lot to them, so they try to expand to their natural geographic boundaries in order to get "strategic depth." They have never cared in the least about the countries they run over and control in order to get this strategic depth.  On the other hand, the invaders haven't cared much about Poland, Ukraine, or Czechia either. They just don't try to control them in between. To Russians, everyone not under their control is therefore out of control.

Putin is leading Russia to hedge its bets by selling high-grade weapons systems to India, even knowing that they will reverse engineer them and become competitors, as China did to Russia before. This is because while it is now being forced to be somewhat dependent on China, having a backup plan of a strong India, likely part of an anti-China alliance in the hemisphere, is in its long-term interest. They risk angering the Chinese with the move but consider it worth it.

Whether you are bearish about China because of the demographics of a rapidly-aging population should depend on whether you are bearish about the planet as a whole for this reason, as they are simply the most vulnerable out of many.  Nearly everyone except sub-Saharan Africa, actually. If you think that the West will figure this out after some pain and adjust its economies with technology that overrides this chronic lack of young replacement workers, then it is likely that China will eventually get there too, just with more pain.  However, if you think the graying of the planet is only partly solvable in the near term and we are all headed for a world of hurt, then it is reasonable to think that it could be catastrophic for China.

When China starts pushing for stricter international intellectual property enforcement, it will not be because we have persuaded them to behave and stop stealing stuff, but because they perceive themselves as now winning in the innovation race and have more to gain than to lose. (Libertarians will note that this is similar to what licensing and much regulation is, of people trying to pull up the ladder behind them once they have gotten ahead a little.) That day may not be far off, as many improvements by the Chinese now are not just stealing ideas and cutting costs with cheap labor, but actual steps forward. Note their improvements in battery technology, for example. It is the same as what Japan did in the postwar period, but China has 10x the number of people. Samo thinks that Chinese innovation has historically not been as good as Western, particularly North American, and their ascendance is likely going to be temporary.  But that "temporary" might be 2030-2050 leading the world in innovation, a result of their full-court press to steer all their young talent into fields good for the economy or for international prestige. 

Razib and Samo discussed bureaucratic decay, and Burja declared it so automatic and predictable that it is nearly measurable and should be factored into every evaluation of an institution, and industry, or even a country.  For all its new-worldness, America is the oldest democracy, and many American departments, such as its military, State department, and security agencies, have not changed in structure much since WWII. A people's tendency for innovation and independence can only take you so far, and in this case those have obscured and disguised our institutions flaws.  they possess a great deal of knowledge - often far more than we give them credit for - but their assumptions cause them to misdirect the application.  Khan thinks that it also feeds elite corruption, and notes that American military interventions have been less and less effective, even with technical superiority, as the decades have gone on.  We are no longer nimble. Burja gave the example of Russia needing naval vessels to intervene in Syria and simply buying commercial ones and repurposing them, which was extremely quick and cost-effective.  That the ships were not perfect for the job was irrelevant. He noted that it would be impossible for the Pentagon to do this.  It would take years, even decades to get a new type of Mediterranean transport ship up, and by then it would be obsolete.  We are no longer nimble.

Because of this they agreed that American military interventions are likely to get less and less effective, regardless of whether they are a good idea or not.  We have relied on technical expertise to override our failing systems, much as colleges have gotten less good at transmitting knowledge even as knowledge has increased because perverse financial incentives have siphoned off resources and energy. Those flaws have not only become institutionalised, but are now even applauded and regarded as the point of the university. He sees the military as well on the road to that already. Better technology and better training will not cover that forever.


David Foster said...

There is a lot going on with nuclear power these days, in the form of Small Modular Reactors (SMRs) which can be largely factory-built as opposed to mainly built on-site. Two of the leaders in this field are the GE-Hitachi joint venture and a private company (soon to be public) called NuScale. France and even Britain are showing increased interest in nuclear.

Key issue in the US will be public opinion. Nuclear fears seem to have died down a bit as the Cold War receded in time; unfortunately, such fears have been stoked to some extent by Putin's nuclear-sabre-rattling.

Surveys show that, in the US at least, there is a huge gap between men and women in attitudes toward nuclear power.

Deevs said...

David Foster: Sabine Hossenfelder just posted a video about nuclear power that's worth a watch. I only bring it up because she talks a little about NuScale in it, which is the first I've heard of it. So, just kind of interesting that it popped up in your comment so soon thereafter. Besides all that, her videos are pretty fun.

Anonymous said...

"They are also developing nuclear-powered icebreakers."

Astonishing ignorance. The Arktika was launched in 1975 and there are 11 nuclear powered icebreakers in service today.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

I may have misunderstood and they are now making more of them, and better. The arctic ports across the top of Russia are not open year round, after all. First search engine result: It kind of looks like exactly what Burja was talking about, doesn't it?

It just grows tiring, y'know? Other adults seem to manage interacting with others without that much effort.

james said...

Our military's basic gamble--that we can trade money for blood--only works to a point, and even then only if you're much richer and more productive than your adversaries.

David Foster said...

Deevs...thanks, a useful piece. I'm currently working on a long post about nuclear, and I've also bought a small speculative position in NuScale (via, Spring Valley Acquisition, which is the company they plan to use to go public)

It would have been useful for her to compare the cost of electricity in France (70% nuclear) with that in Germany and its obsessive 'renewable'' focus. Probably hard to do because various subsidies would need to be backed out, but worth doing.

I think those graphs that are show in this video (and elsewhere) showing Levelized Cost of Energy are very misleading, because they don't consider the time/reliability factor and the costs of long-term storage.

Anonymous said...

"Therefore, if the Chinese credibly develop this capacity - they do not have it now."

This makes no sense at all. They have ports all along the coast of China. They have places that make weapons, ships subs etc etc. Similar to the US really in this regard. You have a number of port facilities that are dedicated to making weapons, so do they. They are making more weapons than America these days.

I'm not sure why you think they have any need to hide anything. They have stated they will take back Taiwan and are working towards making that happen. They would like to do this peacefully but really cannot at this point, because of the USA.

So it will be military and perhaps like Ukraine. Interfering with that will be a very dangerous situation, for anyone that does. They are very serious about this

Anonymous said...

Here's what I would do. Nuke the first carrier group that interfered with my invasion.

Think about it.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

Black box:
Opponent of America = powerful, justified, and making all the right decisions.
Other data = irrelevant
Opinions other than Pen Gun's = stupid
Conclusion = automatic. Every time. With a claim of wisdom and objectivity thrown in.

If they could have, they would have. They haven't.

Thos. said...

Here's what I would do. Sell Taiwan a half-dozen ICBMs, warheads included.

China can rattle all the discount-store sabers it wants, but a nuclear Taiwan stays independent as long as it wants to.

Anonymous said...

"Therefore, if the Chinese credibly develop this capacity - they do not have it now."

Well what do you mean by this? I get stuff wrong all the time, but it seemed fairly simple.

Anonymous said...

"Sell Taiwan a half-dozen ICBMs, warheads included."

OK, that would trigger an immediate attack, you understand. They would attack before you delivered them.

Assistant Village Idiot said...

If they could have, they would have already. They are not willing to risk it yet. The Chinese do what they are capable of, no more and no less. If you would read more closely, you would know that i had not claimed that they intend to build secret bases but can't. The general principle of using commercial ports is the point.

I can't tell if you understand anything if you misread what I put out and assume I have said things I haven't.

Done. You contribute nothing.

Anonymous said...

"If they could have, they would have already. They are not willing to risk it yet."

Ah, OK I misunderstood. I thought you were talking about having to disguise a port to do stuff, which makes no sense.

I would not be sure they do not have the capacity. As well I am not on anyone's side. I like China more than America, because of its stated goals, but there are lots of reasons to distrust any stated goal.

Christopher B said...

Look at a map. Anything China builds in one of their ports has to get past Japan/Okinawa-S Korea-Taiwan-Philippines-Malaysia/Indonesia-Vietnam before they can even touch something close to open water in the Pacific or Indian Oceans. They don't even control Taiwan, and once they make a move on it they won't control any of the rest for a long time.

Anonymous said...

Yeah, but there is the small matter of the Russians occupying some Russian Islands, a bit north of Japan. They can sink ships to a large radius from there. As well its 1000km from Japan to Taiwan with little in between except a few small islands.

Anyway modern warfare now and going forward is missiles. Certainly there are lasers that will make a difference soon, but not yet. So missiles will be the way any war, outside of an actual landing, will be conducted.

As I said a very simple solution, demonstrating will and the ability to enforce, is to just nuke a carrier group, once things get hot. You gonna trade cities for a carrier group?

Assistant Village Idiot said...

The risk of escalation is that you provoke your opponent to do things that are irrational and actually not in their best interest. Whoever is minding the store over a military, be it a State Dept, a dictator, a junta, or a party, should expect that their opponents will act in a manner that is some combination of being a rational and irrational actor. But "should" is a very big word for everyone. Trade cities for a carrier group? Plenty of individual actors would, if they felt national prestige and their personal place in power were at stake. Groups...that gets more tricky, but maybe. Those who view the American response to 9/11 as ultimately irrational and tribal should be particularly aware of the possibility that the Russians, Chinese, Indians, or whatever might do the same.

Consider the Middle-Eastern powerful actors who sought to advance themselves and their causes by sticking it in the eye of the Americans in the 90s and 00s. How did work out for them personally and their causes? Al Qaeda made Iran even more powerful in the ME and Osama got himself killed in the process. Iraq had some improvement in places, but mostly became an Iranian state. Blame it on American irrationality if you prefer, but whatever, it didn't work for those guys.

A classic liberal argument has been not to make the Russians mad, not to make the Chinese mad, and to blame America if they did. Regardless of the moral truth of who is responsible for a nation's actions, the practical truth is that it might not be a good idea to make your irrational opponent worse. I think it is ultimately a failing strategy to always focus on appeasing insane people, but every time, in the short run there is some sense in it.

Nuke the Moon. Nuke Yellowstone. It would show the Chinese we are crazy and might do anything. Isn't that the extension of the logic of "would they trade cities for a carrier group?" It's placing a bet at a poker table. Don't assume we know the answer.