Peter Thiel and thinking for yourself

Peter Thiel is asked the formula for starting great businesses at every talk he gives. His answer is every time the same: “There is no formula. You have to figure it out for yourself.”

In his interview, Tyler offers a summary of Thiel’s thought. (Search for the paragraph that mentions Tocqueville.) I haven’t read enough Girard to follow the part about original sin, but Tyler describes Thiel as someone who is trying to get us to break free of socially-derived opinions and to see the world without distortions.

I was still in Europe when I read this, and it prompted me to think about the social environment there. It’s not at all hard to find people beating up on Europe as a bad place to start a tech company; you’ll find no lack of grievances about its regulatory attitude, its taxes, its anti-trust initiatives, its punitive bankruptcy codes, and so on. Still, I think that it’s underrated in one significant way. I submit that from a Thielian perspective we might expect great entrepreneurs to be better developed in Europe, especially in Germany, because it’s easier to be independent there.

(This is my second post on Tyler’s talk with Thiel, the first is here.)

My favorite review of Zero to One argues that despite appearances the book is not about how to found startups, but really it’s a book of ethics. Thiel thinks that we live in a society of deep conformism and constrained imagination. For him, the key to doing something great (of which starting a company is just one example) is to uncover insights hidden from popular opinion, or in other words to think for yourself.

Tyler has written that there’s an enormous sense of freedom in Sweden: “Autonomy reigns… Sweden is the land of the true individualist, sometimes verging on atomism.” I think it’s easier to be individualistic in Germany too. When I lived there I felt a freedom that’s unavailable in America, a social one not related to regulations or government expenditures. First you’re more free from pursuing status markers; second there are fewer pressures to conform. I’ll make this case focusing mostly on education.

Moving from Canada to go to an American suburban high school and then an American college was distressing in one particular way: It was hard to meet the need to keep up. In college especially you feel these irresistible pressures to seek and display prestige, most of which were earned by going through ever more grueling tournaments. When you enter college you’re with this big pool of students more or less like you, all trying to distinguish themselves in four years or so. That creates an environment that breeds the most intense mimetic pressures. The more that people wanted something (anything), the more it became desirable. This would work its way through until those with only marginal interests get sucked in too.

I think that’s how you’re led to situations where something like 45% of the graduating Harvard and Princeton classes in 2007 entered finance. (That figure is 31% for the Harvard class of 2014.) Toss in consulting, tech, and medicine and you’ll probably claim over a majority of the career aspirations of graduates from elite colleges. Now step back; isn’t that odd? For all of the talk about training people to think critically, somehow you find everybody trying to enter one of very few career paths.

Thiel has asked: “Is this a reason that we ended up sometimes underperforming because we are insecure about things, we want to get validated by winning various competitions?” Now I’m skeptical of the claim that all of us secretly dream of ditching finance to become marine biologists. But I think that these paths are so common because they offer not only prestige, but also assurance that others want this highly-desirable thing too.

Everybody in the world feels these pressures to some extent. I think though that in Germany this is less pronounced; there are fewer markers of social prestige, and it’s more normal to go on different career paths.

Start with schools. There’s no designation of an elite stratum of universities; no “Ivy League,” no “Oxbridge,” no “Grandes écoles,” no “zhongdian daxue.” While certainly some schools are better regarded, choosing a university better resembles a lifestyle choice. If you want to be in a big city, maybe you’ll go to the University of Munich or Humboldt in Berlin. If you want to be in a sunny area and be surrounded by hippies, maybe you’ll go to Freiburg or Heidelberg. Each of these have specialties of course, but they’re all about ranked the same, and they cost the same too (free except for a small administrative fee).

It’s not just postsecondary. Germany is often praised for its system of apprenticeships. From fifth grade on, students are separated into grammar schools (Gymnasiums and Realschulen) and vocational schools (Hauptschulen). Grammar school students are prepared for college work, while Hauptschule students are taught more work-related skills. After school they move on to apprenticeships in fields like construction and IT. It may be most desirable to enter a grammar school, but early on kids are aware that different paths are possible.

When I say that growing up in Germany helps bestow independent thinking skills, I’m not saying that it’s because they’re all taught Straussian art of close reading. Instead I’m arguing that society has suppressed the value of certain status indicators, and that encourages people to think for themselves. To put it another way, there are fewer tournaments for kids to go through, and the value of winning them is not so high. Germans I’ve met are incredibly humble. Nobody feels the need to perpetrate an international hoax about how desirable they are. In addition, people aren’t all drawn to the same fields like finance and consulting. They take up professions like baking or manufacturing, and work with the earnestness that comes from knowing that their work is dignified; it’s easier for them to do the equivalent of moving to Dayton to study widget machines.

Let me end with one last speculation. Germans are taught about the crimes of the Nazi state since elementary school. The Holocaust is mentioned in no fewer than three subjects: biology, history, and German language. People are taught that crowds can be wrong, and that it’s a duty to stand apart if you disagree. Maybe these frequent exhortations to avoid groupthink increases independent thinking on the margins.

Time to summarize. Thiel thinks that great businesses are built by people who discover secrets hidden by conventional opinions. I submit that you can become that sort of person more easily if you grow up in Europe, particularly in Germany. Put aside the question of taxes and regulations, and consider the social environment. America holds dear a lot of status symbols. Germans have fewer elite reference points and makes it common for people to pursue non-prestigious work; those in the services aren’t all trying to earn their masters’. Therefore we should expect more independent thinking to come from Germans.

Thiel himself thinks that Germany is too pessimistic and too comfortable. The best argument against everything I’ve said is to point out that, in fact, Germany has not produced any Facebooks or Airbnbs. Actually, the best-known German tech entrepreneurs may be the Samwer brothers, who are notorious for copying successful ideas from Silicon Valley to try to scale them in other markets. So much for originality.

So maybe taxes and regulations matter more after all; I also don’t want to pass over cultural norms that stigmatize failure. But if the limiting factors to great entrepreneurship is independent thinking combined with courage (as Thiel has said, courage is in shorter supply than capital or genius), then maybe it’s better to be away from America. After all, policies are easier to fix than the social environment, and original minds may grow up over there and start companies over here.

P.S. This column appeared in the Times just yesterday on why so few tech companies have emerged from Europe. At the end there’s this quote: “In Europe, stability is prized,” Professor Moser said. “Inequality is much less tolerated. There’s a culture of sharing. People aren’t so cutthroat.” I think that everything except the part about “stability” would be positives for Thiel.

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Data on police officers killed since 1961

In 2012 I put together some data for Radley Balko on the purported rise of police killings. Last week I saw that Dara Lind prepared something similar at Vox. My data goes back a little bit further than Dara’s (her’s goes to 1996, mine to 1961), and I thought to put up what I have here.

The FBI keeps track of two types of police deaths: Accidental deaths and felonious killings, which involves the deliberate killing of law enforcement officers in the line of duty. I’ve collected three statistics related to the latter. First, number of officers feloniously killed since 1961; second, the rate of felonious deaths per 100,000 officers since 1989; and finally, average felonious deaths per five-year period since 1961. I present these statistics in chart form here, and at the end of the post I share my data file and talk about the process of obtaining these figures.

Everything is collected from the Uniform Crime Reports compiled by the FBI. One comment from the 1990 UCR report I found very interesting: “The 1990 total was the lowest since the FBI started collecting such data in the 1960s.” I was able to find online older UCR report up until 1961, and that has made me somewhat confident that my data goes back to the first years that the FBI started to keep track of this number. I’d like to keep updating this as new data comes in so that it can be a complete and easily-searchable source of for these numbers. Your help and feedback is appreciated.

Here’s the summary: In general, the job of policing has become much safer since 1961. Here are a few interesting points.

  • More officers were feloniously killed in the 11 years between 1970 and 1980 (1228 deaths) than in the 21 years between 1993 and 2013 (1182 deaths).
  • The rate of felonious killings per 100,000 officers has declined from about 18 in 1989 to about 5 in 2013. It was over 3 times safer to be a police officer in 2013 than 26 years ago.
  • In the five years between 1971 and 1975, an average of 125 officers were feloniously killed per year. Most recently, between 2006 and 2010, the equivalent number is 50. That’s more remarkable given that the number of officers employed has increased considerably since the ‘70s.

Now the data. Click on these pictures to zoom.

Number of officers feloniously killed since 1961

police-fatalities

I’ve put in a trendline to better illustrate the decline. The peak year for deaths was 132 killings in 1972. The safest year recorded was the most recent: 27 deaths in 2013. That’s nearly an 80% drop. The number of deaths has steadily decreased since the ‘70s, with two spikes in 2001 and 2011.

Next, felonious killings per 100,000 officers since 1989

police-fatalities-rate-per-100,000

You’ll see from the data source in the next section that the number of officers has grown from about 400,000 officers in 1990 to about 530,000 officers in 2000. Still, this decline in the rate of killings isn’t just driven by an expanding denominator (number of officers), but also a declining numerator (number of killings). The number of killings has decreased even when the number of officers grew by over 25%.

The data on the number of officers serving is really difficult to find, which is why my cutoff has been 1989, the last year for which I can get reliable data. I’ll talk more about this in the next section.

Finally, five-year averages of felonious killings

average-police-fatalities-decade

This is just an aggregation of the first chart, useful for seeing the decline of felonious killings in half-decade chunks.

Summary

Every time a police killing makes it to national headlines, voices pipe up warning of an ominous trend in the rise of police officer killings. (See Radley’s recent compilation of some of these articles.) This data indicates that policing is much safer than in the past.

2013 was the safest year recorded for felonious killings of police. It’s hard to go down from 27 deaths. Consider that an increase of 9 felonious killings of police in 2014 would be a 33% rise from the year before; meanwhile, 9 felonious deaths over the 1972 peak would be only a 5% increase.

The data

I’ve compiled everything I’ve found into a Google Doc that you can find here. The first sheet holds the data I’ve collected, along with the source of every year’s UCR report. The next three sheets hold each of the three charts above. You’re very welcome to use it as you like, but please link to this original post or mention @danwwang.

Now some remarks about how I got the data. It was a big challenge to find some of these data points because collections are so haphazard, so I especially welcome feedback and corrections if you catch any errors.

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Which countries are inward-looking?

Peter Thiel has given lots of talks about Zero to One. Most of them are formulaic with small variations tailored for local audiences. But his talk at Mercatus was different. Instead of giving a presentation on the book, Thiel answered a flurry of questions from Tyler Cowen, most of which not about the book but about his views. Take a look at the video or transcript to see them discuss chess opening moves, the Old Testament vs. the New Testament, bad startup names, Thiel’s German background, and more.

It’s taken a while for me to get to this, but I wanted to write up two thoughts I had on this interviews. Here’s the first post.

Inwardness

I thought that the most interesting part was when Tyler and Thiel talked about places in the world that are inward-focused. Here’s one of the sections.

PETER THIEL: We had a 25-year boom in finance, from ’82 to ’07. I think that’s slowly ebbing, slowly abating. It’s going to be increasingly regulated, and so if you want a long/short blue state trade, you want to be long California, short New York. The long/short red state trade, by the way, is you want to be long Texas, short Virginia.

If you ask, what do Virginia and New York have in common, and what do Texas and California have in common? Both Texas and California are very inward-focused places. California, both the Hollywood version and the Silicon Valley version, are very focused in on themselves. Texas is also a very inward-focused place.

What Virginia and New York, or let’s say DC and New York City, have in common is that they’re centers of globalization. Finance is an industry that’s fundamentally leveraged to globalization, and DC is fundamentally leveraged to international geopolitics.

There are other relevant sections too. Thiel also suggests that France is a good candidate for inwardness because it’s fairly antiglobalization. He also talked at length about how Japan is an even better candidate, because fewer people are learning English or copying from the west. Meanwhile, China is a more difficult case.

I nodded along when I read this. I love listening to Thiel because he gives us novel analytical frameworks, and I thought that this inward/outward axis was another great one. But then I thought about it more and found that I had trouble applying it more generally. So I decided to write up my questions.

How are Texas and California inward-looking?

At first glance, Texas and California are odd fits for being inward. California, both the Silicon Valley version and the Hollywood version, gets much of its revenue from overseas. And it would be strange to pinpoint D.C. as the place most fundamentally leveraged to international geopolitics given the importance of oil to Texas.

But there’s more to it than that. Movies and tech may earn a lot of money from overseas, but that’s mostly because the rest of the world wants to buy into the California vision. With oil the argument is a bit more slippery, but I think it’s plausible that Texas sees people outside as distant customers who are abstractions as long as the price of oil remains high. It may have an attitude close to California’s, which one MR commenter describes thus: “They took advantage of globalization to sell to China, but they’re not designing an iPod with China in mind.”

Time to disclaim that I’ve only had brief visits in each state and can’t speak much from personal experience. From afar though it seems like they’re both places with distinct narratives. I think that outsiders see this too: When Germans talk to me about Bavaria they often analogize it to Texas. Both Texas and California have special founding histories. Both make outsized contributions to American culture in terms of cuisine, inventions, entertainment, etc. And both proclaim themselves to be models that the rest of the country should follow.

So I think I can be a bit more formal about what Thiel about inwardness. It about having your own people as the primary reference points for evaluating success. You love making as much money as you can from outsiders, but the “domestic” audience is the one you care most to please.

What about other places?

I’ve mentioned that Thiel offers Japan and France to be good candidates for inwardness. Tyler suggests that Brazil fits too based on a salient metric: Young people listen to Brazilian music, not American pop.

Which places are not inward-focused? Thiel identifies New York, London, and D.C.; the first two because they’re heavily finance, which is leveraged to globalization, the last because it’s leveraged to international geopolitics. (I’ve just enjoyed reading Tony Judt make the same argument that New York is outward-looking from a cultural perspective; here’s a version of that essay.)

Thiel agrees with Tyler and offers another metric for evaluating inwardness: How quickly Facebook took it over. It’s related to language. Brazil was hard because it’s a “self-contained country where most of the people who speak Portuguese live.” By contrast, Switzerland, Scandinavia, and the Netherlands are countries that are not so inward because Facebook was able to take these over very quickly.

This is where I get confused. To me those are the most inward-focused countries in Europe. They are its Californias, cherishing their culture while selling their visions abroad. As Tyler has written, the religion of Sweden is to be Swedish. I feel that this applies even more fiercely to Switzerland. When you visit you can’t help but note the enormous pride people have for their traditions, their mountains and lakes, and their exporting companies which are unabashedly Swiss. Yes, everyone in Sweden and Switzerland speak English, and yes they’re very cosmopolitan. But I don’t see these as signs that people are surrendering their cultural identity; rather it’s more like a Japanese openness to learning from other cultures so that they can improve their own.

Then I’m led to other questions about this framework. So we should expect France and Japan to do well because they’re modestly antiglobalization at a time when globalization is in decline. But what are they levered to instead that should make them outperform? If vertical progress is driven by inward-looking countries, why does it matter how globalized the rest of the world is? Finally, can we validate this model by looking within countries? For example, if being inward-looking is the recipe for success at a time of declining trade, should we expect regions like Québec and Scotland to outpace the growth of their respective countries?

As usual, I wish that Tyler and Thiel would say more.

One more thought

It’s not a reason for me to doubt the validity of his argument, but I think it’s scary if Thiel turns out to be right. If all the vertical innovations are coming from countries that are inward-looking, and declining globalization stops them from being propagated, then what happens to the rest of the world? It’s quite hard to become Swiss or Japanese, and I don’t mean in just the legal sense. What are other consequences if there are increasing returns to being inward-looking?

Maybe it doesn’t entail a rejection of being cosmopolitan. Perhaps it’s not a coincidence that the states Thiel cites as most inward have the largest foreign-born populations. (California is first, Texas is third behind New York.) Tyler or Thiel might dispute this, but I think that Germany is inward-looking too. It’s also the country with the most immigrants in Europe. So maybe in some places being inward-looking is to celebrate a set of values and to welcome people who also share those values. I hope that’s the case.

The strangeness of Berlin

Berlin is one of the three cities in Europe that really made me go “wow.” It’s the one that I find hardest to characterize, but here’s an attempt.

Let’s start with the history. Berlin was hopping in the ‘20s, one of cultural capitals of the world. Soon the fanatics took over and made it the capital of the Third Reich. Next came the Allies’ bombs and the Soviet tanks. Then it was divided, and a massive wall broke it in half. That wall endured for thirty years before it was torn down. Now it’s a vibrant place of 3-and-a-half million.

You can’t go through all of that without being weird, and that’s putting it mildly. I went to Berlin before I visited London and Paris, and didn’t then appreciate that it’s so special. Now I’ve had the chance to reflect, and I think Berlin is simply far more interesting than the other two.

Walk around. Notice that Berlin has no organically-developed architecture. You won’t find the consistency of London and Paris. Everything clashes with everything else; there is not the white, neoclassical grace of Westminster, or the more striking grandness that grows along the Seine. Not every building agrees even with itself; witness the glass dome designed by Norman Foster placed on top of the Reichstag. 

After a while, you might alight on a thought. It’s an uncomfortable one, because you don’t really want to believe it, and maybe it’s because you’re just tired, so perhaps you shouldn’t entertain it at all—but you do. Berlin is sort of ugly.

There are no skyscrapers designed by brand-name architects, like in London. There’s no central, well-preserved “oldtown,” like in Strasbourg. The heart of the city isn’t dominated by a centuries-old cathedral, like in Cologne or Milan. If you want to see well-preserved cities on the eastern side of Europe, Berlin is not your best bet; go to Prague or Budapest instead. If you want to see “typical” German architecture, drive through the Black Forest, up to the Rhine valley, or through Bavaria. Berlin might be thought of as a northern Munich, with its old Baroque buildings mixed with contemporary work; only Munich is sunnier, richer, and a hundred times cleaner. To me it’s not obvious if Berlin is example of any aesthetic perfection; there’s always another city that does something better.

But I don’t take this lack of beauty to be a negative. Instead I think of it as quite marvelous.

When I reach for examples of German culture my references always go in one of two directions. It’s either the highly-polished works of Beethoven, Schiller, Brahms, or Fontane. Or it’s the really dark stuff: Berg’s gruesome opera Lulu; Kafka’s surrealist short stories; Brecht’s near-tragic Threepenny Opera; Schönberg’s atonal string quartets; Schiele’s crude, erotic paintings; Döblin’s Berlin Alexanderplatz; and on and on.

The first group feel like the product of a Munich or Cologne upbringing. The latter, with its seediness and edginess, belong to the spirit of Berlin. (Yes I know that many of the people here aren’t Germans, but their works are in German or they’re German-speaking and that’s what’s relevant.)

So what’s attractive about Berlin is precisely what’s missing in the cities that are beautiful. It’s not perfect and it cares not to be. Walking through its streets and thinking about the place is unsettling; you don’t know if something strange and unfortunate is going to happen next. That gives it an incredible vibrancy, a freedom that comes from knowing that it doesn’t have to be gorgeous or be beholden to the aesthetic past. Consider that both east and west were equally vigorous in destroying old buildings. The east even managed to demolish the Berlin Palace (Berlin Schloss), the summer residence of the Hohenzollern kings.

Berlin will surprise you. One hears all the time about how Germans are so great at planning and engineering. And then you read of something like the construction of the new airport in Berlin, which has been so mismanaged that every year it needs to add two more years to its completion date, and needs to take out another billion in loans. It was supposed to start operating in 2011, and completion now looks like it’s going to be 2017. The story of its construction involves huge plot twists, and at this point you can’t help but laugh at headlines like “Berlin Airport: The five biggest mistakes,” and “An endless debacle at the BER airport.”

What fun to live in a place like that, in spite of knowing that the hilarity comes from the mismanagement of your taxes. My great complaint with living in southern Germany is that it’s far too comfortable. Things are beautiful and need no change. The occasions for surprise are always structured. Where are the plot twists, the vendors selling delicious goods without a license, the spontaneity that comes when you know that neighbors don’t judge? Everything in the south is polite. Berlin is not that.

The message of Berlin is that not everything is set, that it has room for you. The latter I mean quite literally: There’s plenty of housing available. Someone told me that his two-bedroom apartment in a nice area of the former West Berlin costs 200 euros a month. It’s a small place, but a good location. Is it possible to live anywhere close to SoHo or the Ninth Arrondissement for less than seven or eight times that amount? And it’s not just housing; the food options are diverse and cheap, and you hear sometimes of the amazing nightclubs set up in abandoned warehouses.

Berlin can’t stay weird and cheap forever. Plan a visit before it turns into Paris.

(Here’s some color-footage of Berlin in July, 1945.) 

@danwwang

Space and military experiments in the sixties, and what we’ve lost

I’ve just finished Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. It’s about Project Mercury, America’s first manned spaceflight program, which paved the way for Gemini and Apollo.

Too much of it focused on the relationships between the astronauts than I liked, though I wouldn’t have enjoyed it more if it went harder on the technical details. I wish that I knew enough physics and engineering to appreciate its details about propulsion. I don’t, and instead I most enjoyed reading about the environment that produced technology. (This is also how I felt when I read The Idea Factory, a book about the inventions that came out of Bell Labs.)

What’s most striking is how easy it was then to run experiments with unpredictable consequences. It’s almost unbelievable to read about everything that the American government was willing to try in order to beat the Soviets. Reciting anything like a precautionary principle to a scientist at that time would probably provoke incredulity and contempt. The sixties were a time when people won funding and permission for trying out really radical things, on a scale that’s hard to grasp today. Here are some examples of what I mean, by no means an exhaustive list of interesting projects of that time.

  1. The rockets that put the first American astronauts into orbit were modified intercontinental ballistic missiles. NASA made some tweaks to the Redstone and Atlas missiles, stuck astronauts on top of them, and shot them up. That was how Alan Shepard entered space in the first Mercury flight in 1961. Someone thought that you can send astronauts into space and bring them back to earth on missiles designed to deliver warheads, and they were right.
  2. The sound barrier was broken by an experimental rocket plane in 1947. The X-1 reached Mach 1.06 by being drop-launched from the bomb bay of a B-29 Superfortress. The X-planes managed to enter space, and the Air Force endeavored (unsuccessfully) to get them to be considered alternatives to NASA’s missions. Someone thought that you can break the sound barrier by launching a plane from the air rather than from the ground, and they were right.
  3. Then I learned that scramjets take this to a whole new extreme. Scramjets are drop-launched from about 50,000 feet, travel at around Mach 5 (~4,000 miles per hour), and can theoretically reach Mach 20. If I understand them correctly, scramjets don’t exactly have engines; instead they suck in a huge amount of oxygen, and “ram” that into a combustor to produce thrust. They travel fast enough that you can get from New York to London in less than an hour. Experimental flights were conducted in the ‘50s and ‘60s, and a patent for its design was first submitted in 1964. Alas it doesn’t look like there hasn’t been much more research and experiments with scramjets for the last few decades.
  4. Project Orion, an investigation into nuclear propulsion, was started in the late ‘50s. Physicists thought that you can travel through space by continuously blowing up atomic bombs behind a spacecraft, which would be protected from these explosions by a copper- or lead-tinted plate. This was however mostly theoretical, and no experiments were ever conducted.
  5. Speaking of nuclear explosions, perhaps the single best representative of the spirit of the times is the Starfish Prime test. James Van Allen had just told the world his discovery of a layer of radiation by the earth’s magnetic field when the military decided to detonate a thermonuclear bomb inside it. It was around 1960, when the military had begun conducting nuclear tests in high altitudes and outer space. Starfish Prime involved detonating a 1.45 megaton bomb (100 times the size of the Hiroshima bomb) in what’s now known as the Van Allen radiation belt. The detonation temporarily altered the shape of the belt, destroyed a lot of satellites, and created an artificial aurora borealis that could be seen from New Zealand to Hawaii. Only later did we learn more about the belt and discover, for example, that it plays a crucial role in shielding us from solar winds. Here’s James Fleming, a science historian, on Starfish Prime: “This is the first occasion I’ve ever discovered where someone discovered something and immediately decided to blow it up…” and no less with a hydrogen bomb.

It wasn’t just the government and the military that conducted experiments. Ordinary people more broadly were impacted by innovations from the ‘60s. Microwave ovens were becoming commercially available, Norman Borlaug’s Green Revolution produced food for millions, people debated the merits of massive civil engineering projects.

The precautionary principle is now being invoked to stop people from drilling a hole in the ground to force up natural gas. Imagine learning about these innovations with the attitude of today. “Bring into our homes a machine that heats food by means of electromagnetic radiation? We need decades to study the effects of this.”  “Break the sound barrier? Why do we need to break stuff?” “Engineer new types of crops? Let’s stick with what’s natural.”

Now perhaps we shouldn’t detonate thermonuclear bombs in something we immediately discover. But it feels like we’ve lost something important. In the ‘60s, people thought about how something should work in theory, designed experiments, and ran them to to test their ideas. Their successes were the bases for new inventions, and ordinary people were able to accept them for commercial use.

With so many leaps in technology what a thrill it must have been to live in the sixties and look forward to the things to come. But something changed, and it feels like we’re no longer so eager to run experiments or accept even not-so-radical inventions. Commercial flight hasn’t gotten faster for decades. Our kitchens haven’t changed much in 50 years. The most successful commercial applications of military technology, namely GPS and the internet, both came from the ‘60s. What a pity that the moon landings in 1969 marked not a new era for human ingenuity, but a capstone for the old one.

Swiss Efficiency

Moleson-sur-Gruyeres

“The Swiss can be divided into two general categories: those who make small, exquisite, expensive objects and those who handle the money of those who buy small, exquisite, expensive objects.” – Malcolm Gladwell

I spent last weekend in two parts of Switzerland: German-speaking Bern and French-speaking Montreux. Switzerland seems reluctant to designate a federal capital; regardless, most federal institutions are located in Bern, including the parliament, the federal council, and the central bank. Montreux is more of a resort town right on Lac Léman, better known as Lake Geneva.

It’s too easy to dwell on the beauty of Swiss cities and countrysides, or on how well the Swiss exhibit culture, or on their small quaint traditions. Instead I want to explore a different trope in this post, and share some experiences with the splendidness of seeing Swiss efficiency in action.

By efficiency, I don’t just mean the ability of the Swiss to work hard (although this is the country to overwhelmingly vote down a referendum to replace the four-week mandatory vacation policy with the more typical six-week policy). Instead I’m referring more generally to just how well everything works. When you’re dealing with services in Switzerland, everything that could be simplified is simplified. Servicepeople and public authorities have put in a tremendous amount of thought to make things work well. Here are some examples.

Trains. We have to start with this one, obviously. I needed to board five trains to get to the town I was visiting from Germany. A booking agent figured out all of the connections from the first leg of my trip. Of the four connections I had to make, three had gaps that were under five minutes. As an Amtrak rider, I sweat when I book long trips that leave 15 minutes for making a connection. When I dared to ask the agent whether a 3-minute schedule gap is enough, she looked back and responded plainly: “Don’t worry, you’ll make it.”

And I did. Trains departed on the minute they were supposed to depart, and would arrive usually a minute or two earlier than scheduled. To me it’s all still amazing: I had to make 5-train trips, twice, sometimes with very tight connections. All of them connected smoothly, and it was all done with a single quick booking.

Trains, again. Here’s a more subtle way to demonstrate the thoughtfulness of service: When I was on the train that crossed German-speaking Switzerland to French-speaking Switzerland, the priority of the train announcements changed. When I got on, “Näster halt…” was first, “Le prochain arrêt est…” was second; when we crossed, these two flipped. How very cool that someone considered to do this.

Slipping safety. On the top of the Alps near Lake Geneva, I found steps that led to a viewing platform. These steps were made of steel grates, meant to reduce slippage and snow accumulation. On every third step of the way up you’ll find a vertical barrier, covering half the step, and alternating on the left and right side. At first I was annoyed because they forced me to zigzag when I climbed up. When I asked my friend what they’re for, he explained that if someone slips then they might fall by just three steps and not the whole way down. When they built the stairs, the designer thought about how someone might fall, and built this to prevent the most dangerous kind.

Parking lots. When we drove into an underground parking lot, there were electronic displayed that showed the number of free spots available and arrows pointing us to the closest one. We didn’t have to drive through every level hoping to find an opening. Instead we were directed to one immediately. This system is made possible because there’s a sensor above every single spot.

Queues. Other than for making small purchases, you find very few of these. Whenever you’re waiting to speak to a serviceperson, say for booking a train ticket, you pick up a numbered ticket from a machine and wait for your number to appear over a service counter. That leaves you free to sit down or wander a bit. This isn’t done just in train stations; I found this system in the tourism office and in the box office of a concerthouse. It took me a while to get used to how frequently that this system is deployed; always look around to see if you should have grabbed a ticket!

These are small examples, and apologies if these are in fact quite common around the world. I find these subtle little touches everywhere, and they’re are wonderful when you experience them. It’s like the whole country is run as a four- or five-star hotel.

Why and how are things like this? “Why” questions are always harder to answer than “what” questions, but I’m happy to present a few hypotheses.

Here’s the crudest: Everything in Switzerland is so expensive that it would be impossible to expect poor terms of service. If you’re paying the equivalent of 5 dollars for an espresso, or 30 dollars for lunch, or 50 dollars cable car ride, then excellent service should be part of the package. (This is mostly wrong, of course, because things aren’t necessarily as expensive for the locals, who are still the majority of customers.)

It would only be slightly better to offer: “Oh, that’s just how the Swiss are. It’s in their nature to be so careful and attentive.” Maybe that’s true, but as a first attempt we should look for social reasons to explain cultural tendencies.

I’d like to think that everything works so well because everyone expects things to work well. It’s a lot easier to shirk if you expect your co-workers at the next line to shirk. Likewise, it’s a lot harder to shirk if you expect to be the only broken part of the system, the person who messes up the fine work of others.

That doesn’t explain how the system got to be the way it is. A deeper explanation might be this: Maybe people feel especially respected and empowered here. A waiter in America typically sees it as temporary work; I’ve heard that waiters, and general servicepeople, expect longer careers here. Most of them are not graduates of elite colleges waiting for something else to turn up. Rather they may have gone to trade school and expect to serve a different role in society. They’re not looking to jump ship, and society finds ways to honor them for what they do, including through the welfare system by making sure that no one has too hard of a time to make ends meet.

And especially for the Swiss, perhaps the compulsory two-year military service gives people a good sense of what they can expect from their fellow-citizens. Here’s a quote from Luigi Zingales, reflecting on his rather different experiences in Italy: “If you start from the presumption that everybody around you is there to take advantage of you, you’re going to behave in a completely different way than if you are more optimistic about people around you.”

German services are certainly efficient, but the Swiss services are on another different level. Mark Twain, who lived briefly in Berlin, was so enamored of the German post that he wrote one of his few non-satirical essays, “Postal Service,” to celebrate its efficiency. I think that he would have been yet more impressed had he lived in Switzerland.

Here are some pictures from this trip.

Swiss Alps Moleson

From the top of Le Moléson. Mont Blanc is on the left, Lake Geneva is on the right.

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Short thoughts on Germany

Here are some short, unsystematic thoughts on two months of living in Germany. Instead of giving broad overviews of what life is like here, I’m trying to keep these thoughts idiosyncratic. They’re mostly things I found personally surprising.

(Since moving to Freiburg I’ve also visited Berlin, Prague, Colmar, Strasbourg, Paris, Basel, Zurich, Milan, Luxembourg, and Brussels. I’ll share pictures of some of these places at the very end.)

Canadian > New Yorker > American > Chinese. I’ve tried introducing myself in various ways. People are most enthusiastic when they hear that I’m Canadian or that I study in New York; they’re not quite so impressed to hear “Ich bin ein amerikanischer” or that “Ich komme aus China.” When people hear that I’m Canadian they ask thing like whether I speak French, if it’s true that there are lots of jobs there, and whether people really don’t lock their doors. (The answers are “yes but not well,” “I guess in some areas,” and “I wouldn’t know since I’d never try to open a door without notice.”)

Germans follow rules. Most people don’t jaywalk; they will stand because the crosswalk light is red, not just because there are no cars coming. Cashiers don’t always examine my change when I’m buying coffee or groceries. On the train, nearly every car ends up being a Quiet Car; the conversations that get loud are usually in English or French.

Berlin feels oppressive. Its buildings are wide and not high. They’re huge, low-slung blocks, the sort that you’d use the word looming to describe. Many buildings cover the length of an entire street, and not just in the central Mitte area. You’ll find yourself walking beside the same wall for a few minutes, realize that it’ll be a while more before you can leave it behind, and then see that the next street is like this too. You won’t get this feeling in Paris, where buildings are lighter and more ornate.

Other Berlin thoughts: East Berlin is 1000 times more interesting than West Berlin. I didn’t have a single bad meal, and all of them were cheap. It’s amazing how different things can look at the end of a 10-minute walk. It’s much more edgy than Paris. You can find expressions of German shame all over the heart of the city, sometimes it feels like on every street. The Berlin Philharmonie has some of the cheapest student tickets I’ve found: 8 euros one night for a string quartet. The whole city is cheap: someone told me that rent for his two-bedroom apartment is 200 euros a month.  I’m already wishing of going back.

The European concert experience is less alienating than the American. I’ve seen some kind of show, usually an opera, in the half-dozen cities I’ve visited. Europeans tend to be better dressed, but they’re less reverent toward the concert experience. Here, ticket sellers are more friendly, ushers smile more, and the applause doesn’t feel so gratuitous. It’s amazing how cheap tickets can be in Zurich or at La Scala. A lot more young people attend, and I think not just because student tickets are so cheap and easy to get.

German bakeries are underrated. You’ll find a bakery on every other street. They’re independent but quite uniform. Behind a glass case you’ll find pastries, rolls, and either lunch-y sandwiches or cakes. Behind the counter are shelves of large, round loaves of bread, usually at least a dozen varieties. I don’t have their names down, but the typical German bread is dark, thick, and seeded. I much prefer these dark breads to the boring, crusty French baguettes. Alas I’m still not yet used to German coffee; it gets much better in Italy or France.

Chinese food is the opposite of German food, but you can make do. Chinese uses meat sparingly, and many dishes are about maximizing its flavor to enhance vegetables. Germans will give you a big piece of schnitzel or wurst, throw in some potatoes or fries, and round it out with sauerkraut or red cabbage. It’s hard to find greens here, and that includes spinach and kale, not to mention the heartier Chinese greens. Nonetheless you’re not entirely without hope if you want to cook the Chinese way. The key is to find the flavorful cured meats. Look for the salamis, Schwarzwald ham, and the drier sausages; you can find them cheaply and easily in any supermarket. Slice these up thinly, toss them in the wok, and then throw in lots of cabbage or whatever leafy vegetables you can find.

Germans come in all shapes and sizes. I’m getting better at distinguishing Europeans based on behavior and facial features. The French and Italians are distinct, and there are some giveaways that people come from Eastern Europe. But I don’t know yet how to tell whether someone is German. What are the signs that give it away?

Bitte (BE-te) is a very useful word. Its meanings include: please (as in both “Yes, please.” and “Please pass the salt.”), you’re welcome, pardon me?, and here you go. There are more uses depending on context. Another common German word is schön, which means beautiful, also with lots of uses based on context.

Germans talk to me in English. They would do this even before I open my mouth to badly say the few German phrases I know. This would only happen in Germany, which mystifies me; Zurichers would start with German, Parisians with French. My new friends insist that it’s because they wish to be polite and make me feel comfortable, which makes me feel guilty for making them speak in a different language in their own country. Everyone is so keen to speak English to me that I’m finding it difficult to practice any German at all. My American friends sometimes get annoyed at this too.

Some places in Europe feel more like China than America. I find very little similar between living in America and living in China. In Europe I occasionally get the same feelings I get walking the streets of China. In China and Europe, you find more open-air markets where you can grab a meal; the bargaining between pedestrians and drivers/cyclists tends to be more confident; it’s much easier to catch the smell of exhaust; and there’s more chaos but no less order. You get the sense that most people in cities are used to living in cities, which is a feeling I don’t much get in American cities. Or maybe I just feel this way because I’ve properly never lived in a DC or an NYC…

One final story. Here’s something that happened on the very first day that I arrived in Germany. I was getting off the train from Frankfurt when my bag bumped against the door and my water bottle fell out. The mid-forties German man behind me made a grab for it, but it ended up on the tracks. He told me to wait, and stood with me and all my bags for about five minutes before the train left the station. When we could see my bottle, he first tried to recover it when a rope knot he fashioned, and then looked for one of those grab tools you use to pick up trash.

Neither worked. He looked both ways, and said: “Grab my hand.” Then he jumped down, took the bottle, and hopped back on the platform. He handed it to me, turned around to leave, and called out: “It’s better for a German to get in trouble here than for an American.” I didn’t see him again.

It was very, very decent of him. I was infinitely impressed.

And now some pictures.

Landscape - Alps

The Faulhorn in the Swiss Alps, close to Interlaken. It took about two hours to get to the top with a sled, and it takes about 40 minutes to slide down to the bottom of the mountain.

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Short thoughts on Zurich

From my home base in Freiburg, I’ve visited the following cities in the past month: Berlin, Prague, Colmar (France), Strasbourg, Lucerne, and Zurich. Zurich is my favorite, so I’ll share a few thoughts.

I spent two days in there, one of which in nearby Lucerne. The area is breathtaking, but the highlight is still the city. Zurich is old, but every building is well-maintained; you can’t say the same for Prague. The downtown area wraps around a river, which leads to Lake Zurich in a twenty-minute walk from the center of town. I lived in the east bank, close to the Grossmünster.

Here are some short, scattered thoughts of what I saw, with a few pictures thrown in between.

Zurich as a perfect city. Every one of the centuries-old buildings are well-kept; it does brisk trade with people near and far; it has so many opportunities for culture; and it’s on a lake that leads into the mountains. The people who live there are sophisticated, serene, and enjoy the highest standards of living on earth. They are nature-loving, live routinized lives, and they’ve built hidden defenses throughout the whole country, ever ready to be used against an invading army. Don’t you see? The Swiss are the elves of modern day. Has it been documented yet that Zurich was Tolkien’s inspiration for Rivendell?

(Isn't this Rivendell, or maybe the Grey Havens?) (Like, isn’t this Rivendell, or perhaps the Grey Havens?)

Zurich is expensive. Going to Zurich as a student is the easiest way to feel indignant towards the rich, Piketty-style. It’s a place where a cup of coffee costs around $5, where a slice of pizza costs around $15, and pasta around $30. No, you can’t find cheaper options if you look in a different part of town. When you walk around a big city and can’t find a lunch option for less than $15, you start to despair. How are prices driven this high?

That said, the best parts of my trip were the cheapest. The three things I most enjoyed: First walking around, which of course is free. Second going to the Swiss National Museum, which has cheap student tickets. And finally going to the Zurich Opera for Tristan. Last-minute tickets cost $17, for a splendid production. Who else offers Wagner of this quality for the same price as a slice of pizza would cost?

Zurich Operahouse(Zurich Opera House)

More people should be let in. Zurich has a high number of foreigners, but these are mostly already talented people from other developed countries. We all know that the Swiss are highly restrictive with granting residency and citizenship. When you walk around Zurich you can’t help but feel that this place could absorb a good number of immigrants/refugees from poorer places. Zurich gets more diversity and lower labor costs, and of course the immigrants benefit a great deal. There’s so much space; it shouldn’t be enjoyed only by rich foreigners and generations-old Swiss.

Swiss historical importance… I don’t know enough European history, but let me present a hypothesis. Zwingli did his most important work in Zurich, which makes it not just an important site for the Reformation but also the Counter-Reformation. The Swiss has either sent mercenaries or used its diplomatic position to influence every war in Europe. Pretty soon after it industrialized, it exported more per capita than any other country. Can we say that you get an outline of the entirety of European history if you study only Swiss history?

So much culture… I’m glad that such a good production of Tristan could be my first live German opera experience. The Swiss National Museum had fantastic displays, at just the right level of detail. The not-far Basel Kunstmuseum has an amazing collection. Swiss culture is splendid, and kept cheap. Tyler of course has a theory about this.

Little historical shame, but should there be more? You can’t walk two blocks in Berlin without being reminded of some terrible episode in German history. That’s not the case in Zurich. But Swiss history is by no means all nice. Some examples follow. Although Switzerland never permitted slavery, many families made great wealth from the slave trade. Although it never established colonies, it profited a great deal from colonialism. Although it doesn’t provoke conflict, it has sent mercenaries to fight in most major European wars. It has managed to make money from many of the terrible things done by Europe. You can argue in all sorts of ways that neutrality is not always morally justified. Maybe Berlin goes too far in the other direction, but shouldn’t Zurich be commemorating more?

Languages spoken in the street…  On the weekend I heard slightly more Chinese than English in the streets, and hardly any German. I wasn’t just only in the shopping district on the west bank; it was the same around the Grossmünster and Kunsthaus area too. The Chinese I heard spoke Mandarin, mostly in dialects from the northeast.

Catching stares... I was stared at more in Zurich than I was anywhere else. I don’t know why that would happen here more than in Prague or Colmar.

Every shop is closed on Sunday. Nearly two million live around the Zurich area, the city is a major business center, and it attracts many tourists who come here specifically to shop. So it’s mystifying why no store is open on Sunday. The only place open is a mall area under the main train station. Again Tyler has written on this.

Visit Zurich. It’s an aesthetic experience, and I don’t just mean that it’s nice to see pretty buildings. Just make sure to bring your wallet.

Zurich sunset

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2014

It seems typical for bloggers to write a year-end review post. Here are some belated reflections on a year of blogging, and other stuff too.

This blog…

I’ve published a total of 64 posts this year. Most are pretty short; about half are small notes or excerpts of books or articles I’ve read recently.

The most important posts are my essays. There are five of them, and each one is fairly substantial—the shortest is about 2000 words, and the longest is about 5000.

Not all of them were well-read, but two got quite a bit of attention. Each of them took the #2 spot on Hacker News, did well on different subreddits, and got lots of social shares.

One of these pieces, a catalogue of Peter Thiel’s evidence of a technological slowdown, was especially well-read. It was covered by Marginal Revolution, Noahpinion, and other econ blogs; and it was linked-to by The Browser, FT Alphaville, the BBC, and Bloomberg View.

I have to say that I’m bemused that my most popular post was the one with the fewest of my own words. If you’re curious, my definite favorite essay is the one about the mechanics of nuclear bombs and American nuclear deterrence strategies. Here are all of them, listed in order of publication:

How are collateralized debt obligations and credit default swaps structured (2800 words) — Goes through the entire process of how mortgages are packaged, re-packaged, re-re-packaged, etc. into CDOs. Then I explain how CDSs can be set up to bet against CDOs.

Civil asset forfeiture: When the law confiscates from the poor (2000 words) — Explains the procedures of civil forfeiture, its legal and historical basis, and how its revenues has been spent. I also highlight a few of its victims.

What are hedge funds, and what social functions do they serve? (2400 words)  — Goes through the distinguishing characteristics of hedge funds (limitations on raising capital, 2-and-20 etc.) and describes a few of the bigger players (historical and contemporary, including LTCM, Renaissance, and Quantum). Then I present an argument that hedge funds should be allowed to bear more risk in the financial system.

This second part was controversial, and many people didn’t like my framing of the topic. Most people didn’t like that I said that hedge funds serve any kind of “social function” at all.

Why is Peter Thiel pessimistic about technological innovation? (2000 words) — Collects some of Thiel’s evidence that we’re no longer technologically accelerating, organized by subject matter. These include his remarks on energy, space, computers, finance, etc. This was my most widely-read essay, mostly because of links from Marginal Revolution, the BBC, etc.

The logic of nuclear exchange and the refinement of American deterrence strategy (5000 words)  — My favorite. The first part is about the mechanics of nuclear bombs: their construction, delivery, stockpiles, effects upon explosion, etc. The second part is about the evolution of the views of America’s nuclear strategists, and how policy correspondingly changed. The heroes of this story are Thomas Schelling, William Kaufmann, and Robert McNamara.

Before I talk more about blogging, here’s one big note about the present…

I’m spending the next four months in Germany, all the way until May, when I graduate from Rochester.

I live and study in the city of Freiburg, a (small) city framed by the Black Forest in the state of Baden-Württemberg. It’s in the southwest, sitting close to that corner where Germany, France, Austria, and Switzerland meet. The closest major cities are Strasbourg, France; Stuttgart, Germany; and Basel, Switzerland. Frankfurt, Munich, Bern, and Zurich are not far away. This area is gorgeous. Here’s a picture of the center of Freiburg, which I took from the top of a nearby mountain called the Schlossberg:

Freiburg from mountain

It’s my first time in Europe. My program also takes me to Berlin, Prague, Luxembourg, Paris, Stockholm, and London. I plan to spend lots of time in the Black Forest, and also to France and Switzerland which are so close. For the next few months, instead of researching and blogging about the stuff I’ve been interested in, I’m going to write as often as I can about Germany and Europe.

I’ve set up Instagram specifically for this trip. If you’d like to see what I’m up to, follow along here.

Some notes on blogging so far…

I’ve always found writing to be satisfying, so keeping this blog has been great fun. And it’s been productive in addition to the simple pleasure of writing out ideas.

I’m a big fan of James Somers’ idea that writing makes you more curious. When you have a regular commitment to present your thoughts to an audience, you start to notice more, you remember more, and you think differently about everything you see. It’s like a more attention-intensive form of being on Twitter, where you look for things to tweet about and package ideas concisely.

Here’s something else to mention since I brought up James. Before this year, my blog consumption consisted exclusively of economics professors. Only recently and with the help of Quora and Twitter did I discover that there are many kinds of bloggers out there. Three people in particular have been inspirations: Kevin Simler, Vera L. Te Velde, and James. They blog about all sorts of things informed by their intellectual backgrounds; it’s something that I’d like to do. They’ve all been at this for a while, and I wish that in a few years that I’d build as much as they have.

Blogging’s given me the chance to meet people online. Some very cool people have reached out, on Twitter or by email, after reading one of my posts. It’s new and novel that I get to know people by doing this.

Highlights of last year…

For those curious, here are some of my personal highlights of 2014:

Going to China. My grandfather passed away in November, 2013, and I spent the entirety of the following January with my family in the southwestern city of Kunming. This was my third and most meaningful trip after I left at age 7.

Working at Shopify. I spent the remainder of the year working at Shopify’s office in Toronto, as a content marketing intern on the growth team. It was exciting to be there. Shopify was growing so quickly that I was “older” than ~31% of the company after eight months. There’s no work experience like the one in a growing tech company.

Going to Public Choice Conference. In June I headed to D.C. for the Public Choice Conference run by Alex Tabarrok. In addition to Alex, I got the chance to chat with Tyler Cowen, Robin Hanson, and Bryan Caplan, all of whom I started reading since I started college. I also got to chat with the very cool Donald Marron, who has one of the most interesting economist resumés I’ve seen.

The books I most enjoyed…

Here are the books I had trouble putting down:

Wrapping up…

Where should I visit in Germany? I’ve been to Frankfurt and Berlin, and plan to head to Munich, Nuremberg, and the Cologne area. I’ve visited the nearby cities of Colmar & Basel, and want to explore all of the Black Forest. What else should I see in the next few months?

I love book tips. I’m currently reading Peter Watson’s The German Genius, Wolfgang Palaver’s biography of Girard’s ideas, and re-reading Moby-Dick. What should I pick up next?

Also, please feel free to give me other tips. I know that some people find it hard to follow this blog. What can I do to make it easier for you to find my posts? And I’m really quite a newbie photographer. Let me know how my pictures on Instagram could be better. Finally, do write me if you think that there’s something I’d enjoy learning about.

I’ll be writing a proper post on Germany soon. Consider subscribing to this blog, and/or following me on Twitter or Instagram.

The Logic of Nuclear Exchange and the Refinement of American Deterrence Strategy

The most spectacular event of the past half century is one that did not occur. We have enjoyed sixty years without nuclear weapons exploded in anger.

What a stunning achievement—or, if not achievement, what stunning good fortune. In 1960 the British novelist C. P. Snow said on the front page of the New York Times that unless the nuclear powers drastically reduced their nuclear armaments thermonuclear warfare within the decade was a “mathematical certainty.” Nobody appeared to think Snow’s statement extravagant.

We now have that mathematical certainty compounded more than four times, and no nuclear war.

– Thomas Schelling, 2005 Nobel Prize in Economics Lecture

When Robert McNamara was named the Secretary of Defense in 1961, he brought to the Pentagon a group of aides who came to be known as the Whiz Kids. They were young, book-smart men eager to apply the latest in systems analysis, game theory, and operations research to military strategy.

It did not take them long to alienate senior officers. Once to settle a particularly heated argument about nuclear plans, a 29-year-old Whiz Kid declared: “General, I have fought just as many nuclear wars as you have.”

The flip remark understates a fact that deserves great wonder: The world has now gone for seven decades while avoiding nuclear destruction. The thermonuclear war that was once regarded with the greatest of fears and as a mathematical certainty has not come to pass.

In addition, it’s also a startling display of the role that a group of civilians played in defining U.S. nuclear strategy. After a first draft by the military, American strategic objectives were subject to continuous refinements. Many of these refinements came from civilian theorists, most of whom came from the RAND Corporation, and few of whom had seen war. One of the earliest nuclear intellectuals from RAND started out as a naval strategist; when he produced his most important work on naval strategy, he had never seen the ocean, let alone set foot on a ship. In seminar rooms, these strategists pondered the novel challenges of the nuclear world and worked out ideas by discussing not the efficient application of force but rather the exploitation of potential force.

This essay is a short introduction to how nuclear weapons are created and deployed, and the ideas that strategists, policymakers, and the military implemented to reduce the risk of nuclear war.

(Published in prettier formatting on Medium.)

What Are Nuclear Weapons?

 

Thirty years after the detonation on Hiroshima, the world had produced enough nuclear weapons to create the equivalent of about 3 tons of TNT for every man, woman, and child on earth. Here’s context to put that figure into some sort of perspective.

Nuclear Explosions

What happens in a nuclear explosion? First, a huge blast drives air away, producing high winds and changes in air pressure that crush objects. Then come radiation: direct radiation will cause fatal illness in a matter of a few weeks, while thermal radiation will cause first-degree burns a few miles away. Fires immediately follow; a strong blast can generate a firestorm, which destroys everything in a concentrated area, or a conflagration, which is not so strong but spreads along a front. Then there’s fallout: particles are scooped up from the ground, get irradiated by the explosion, and spread depending on wind conditions. Finally, at a sufficiently high altitude, a blast might produce electrons that interact with the earth’s magnetic field, setting off an electromagnetic pulse that can destroy electronics and metal objects.

The world has set off over 2400 nuclear explosions, nearly all of them by America or the Soviet Union, most of them underground. Americans have tested most of their weapons in the southwestern states of Nevada or New Mexico, or on islands in the Pacific. The Soviet Union has conducted mostly in Kazakhstan or archipelagos in the Arctic Ocean.

Nuclear detonations have been set off underground, underwater, and in the atmosphere. They’ve had usually minor and sometimes permanent effects on the earth. As a dramatic example, America’s first hydrogen bomb, named “Ivy Mike,” completely obliterated the small Pacific island on which it was tested.

The effects of nuclear explosions have always provoked anxiety. Before the first nuclear test in New Mexico, Enrico Fermi rounded up his fellow scientists to place a grim bet. Some of them speculated that an atomic bomb would ignite the atmosphere, and Fermi offered wagers on whether the Trinity test might destroy the atmosphere of the planet, or merely that of New Mexico state. More recently, Carl Sagan wrote that instead of igniting the atmosphere, nuclear weapons may cool the world enough to produce a nuclear winter.

The effects of nuclear tests have not always been well controlled. Shortly after the Ivy Mike test, America detonated the most powerful thermonuclear bomb it would ever construct. “Castle Bravo” was expected to yield a blast of five or six megatons, but instead produced a blast of 15 megatons. The blast carried fallout to inhabitants on the Marshall Islands, some of whom ate the radioactive powder they believed to be snow. Hundreds were overexposed to radiation, and a nearby Japanese fishing ship crew suffered from radiation poisoning. Fallout from that blast eventually spread 7,000 miles, including to India, the United States, and Europe.

The Mechanics of Atomic and Hydrogen Bombs

There are two types of nuclear bombs. The atomic bomb creates temperatures equal to those on the surface of the sun; and the much more powerful hydrogen bomb bring the equivalent of a small piece of the sun to earth.

The basic nuclear weapon is the atomic bomb, otherwise known as the fission bomb. Atomic bombs typically have yields measured in the thousands of tons of TNT, or kilotons. Their explosive force is generated from a fission process; fission occurs when a neutron enters the nucleus of an atom of a nuclear material, which is either enriched uranium or enriched plutonium. A large amount of energy is released in the process, which causes the nucleus to release a few more neutrons. In the presence of a critical mass, these neutrons go on to create a chain reaction. There are two types of bomb designs for initiating fission. The first is the gun assembly technique, which brings together two subcritical masses to form a critical mass; the second is the implosion technique, which compresses a single subcritical mass into a critical density.

On August 6th, 1945, the U.S. Air Force dropped the atomic bomb known as “Little Boy” on Hiroshima. Little Boy was a gun-type bomb with a core of 60 kilograms of uranium-235. About 700 grams of it fissioned (just over 10%), generating a blast of 12.5 kilotons; about 60,000 to 80,000 people were killed by the blast, while up to twice that number were killed by burns and radiation. Three days later, the U.S. dropped an atomic bomb on Nagasaki. The Nagasaki bomb, known as “Fat Man,” was an implosion-style bomb carrying 8 kilograms of plutonium-239. Once again about 10% of the material fissioned, producing a yield of about 22 kilotons and instantly killing about 40,000 people. The complete detonation of its plutonium would have caused an explosion 10 times its size.

The more sophisticated and far more destructive kind of nuclear weapon is hydrogen bomb, otherwise known as the thermonuclear bomb, the fusion bomb, or the H-bomb. In hydrogen bombs, heavier isotopes of hydrogen are fused together to form helium. That reaction creates a great deal of energy, far more than the chain reaction possible in fission bombs. Hydrogen bombs are far more difficult to construct than the atomic bomb; nine countries possess nuclear weapons, but only five have definitely developed hydrogen bombs. A successful detonation requires the explosion of a fission bomb (the “primary”) to ignite a fusion (the “secondary”). The difficulty presented by the hydrogen bomb is the risk that the atomic bomb might explode prematurely and blow up the whole bomb, an event referred to as a “fizzle.”

Hydrogen bombs are hundreds or thousands of times more powerful than atomic bombs. The first hydrogen device, which couldn’t be used as a weapon, was detonated by the United States in November of 1952. A true hydrogen weapon was not detonated by America until March, 1954. The bomb, Castle Bravo, was the most powerful nuclear explosion America would ever generate; at 15 megatons, it was over 700 times more powerful than the blast at Nagasaki. The Soviet Union would detonate its first hydrogen bomb in November, 1955. In 1961, it would go on to detonate the largest nuclear weapon ever: The Tsar Bomba had a yield of over 50 megatons, or over 2500 Nagasakis.

The value of a weapon of these sizes is not immediately obvious. A 1-megaton bomb would kill most people within hundreds of miles, while the largest of cities would be destroyed by a bomb of 10 megatons.

How Are Nuclear Weapons Delivered?

There are two types of nuclear deployments. Strategic weapons are launched against homelands, while tactical weapons are used on battlefields.

Strategic nuclear weapons are typically delivered in one of three ways. First, they may be launched from bombers; these can either take the form of free-fall gravity bombs or as air-launched cruise missiles (ALCMs). Second, they’re deployed on intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBMs), which are launched from underground silos and are capable of reaching any target on earth. Finally, submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBMs) are deployed by submarines, which can lie at sea for months and surface only to launch. The majority of warheads are deployed on ballistic missiles, while a few hundred are located at bomber bases.

There has been a greater variety of tactical nuclear weapons, though they’re no longer deployed. They were once a regular part of arsenals, including as torpedoes, mines, artillery, and rocket launchers. A young Colin Powell was an officer stationed in West Germany in 1958 when he was tasked with guarding against a Soviet invasion; if the enemy came over, he was to launch 280 mm atomic cannons, which fired artillery shells with yields of 15 kilotons (or about the explosive force of Hiroshima). These tactical weapons have never actually been put to use.

Stockpiles

The global nuclear stockpile peaked at 70,000 weapons in 1986. Most have been owned either by the Americans or the Soviets.

Both countries have vastly reduced their arsenal. In the last 25 years, America has reduced its stockpile from about 23,000 weapons to around approximately 7000 today. Meanwhile, Russia has brought down its stockpile to around 8000 weapons, from a peak of 30,000 inherited from the Soviet Union.

There are seven other countries with confirmed nuclear weapons: France, China, the U.K., Pakistan, India, and North Korea. Israel is rumored but not officially confirmed to have nuclear weapons. Of all nine countries, five are confirmed to have hydrogen bombs: the U.S., Russia, France, China, and the U.K. India has claimed to have detonated a hydrogen bomb, but scientists debate whether it was a true two-stage thermonuclear device.

The vast majority of nuclear weapons are and have been operated by the U.S. and the Soviet Union; the stockpiles of other countries are miniscule in comparison. Currently France has the next largest stockpile, at around 300 weapons, while North Korea has fewer than 10. Motivations for acquiring the bomb have varied for every country. China, for example, sought not to depend too heavily on protection from the Soviet Union, just as Britain decided that it wanted warheads not controlled by America. Meanwhile, though France was motivated by a similar concern not to depend too much on the United States, it has also developed nuclear weapons because it craved status. Charles de Gaulle believed that that the bomb would “place France where she belonged, among the Great Powers.”

American Nuclear Strategy

 

As America demobilized after the Second World War, Eisenhower believed that nuclear weapons were a cheap substitute to maintaining a large army to deter Soviet aggression. With his Secretary of State John Foster Dulles, he defined a policy called “New Look” that relied on nuclear forces, as opposed to conventional forces, to deter aggression. The United States would be “willing and able to respond vigorously at places and with means of its own choosing.”

What did that mean in practice? At the discretion of the president, the entirety of the American nuclear stockpile would be delivered to enemy targets, both military and civilian. It was a first-strike policy: The enemy faced vast destruction if the United States determined that it crossed a line. Eisenhower and his staff considered it the ultimate deterrence.

It also attracted immediate skepticism from strategists. Critics of the policy considered it reckless and crude. First, it seemed practically an invitation for the Soviets to strike America; before a major action, Soviet forces should eliminate the American means to respond. Second, Eisenhower drew no bright line for incurring nuclear attack. Was America ready to initiate nuclear exchange, and guarantee the deaths of millions, in order to prevent a small country from turning Communist? What about Soviet meddling in the internal affairs of an allied country? In other words, this commitment to initiate exchange was insufficiently credible.

Strategists who made it their living to think about nuclear exchange attempted to make improvements. Many of the them were analysts at the RAND Corporation, a research institute set up by the Air Force to improve engineering and ponder novel scenarios for the modern world. These analysts tried to create options between official U.S. displeasure and full-scale thermonuclear exchange.

The rest of this essay is about certain ideas they developed to reduce the likelihood of mutual destruction. It gives a broad overview of the evolution of American strategic thinking, which started from massive deterrence, then moved through to reject elaborate methods of defense, and ended up on relying on once again on a robust system of deterrence.

Counterforce

William Kaufmann was a RAND analyst and political science professor who tried to create opportunities to wage limited war given weapons of unlimited power. He developed and was the proponent of a strategy that came to be known as “counterforce.”

There are two types of targets: military, which includes airbases, command stations, barracks, etc.; and civilian, which means cities and industrial sites. Early nuclear plans made no distinction between them. When authorized by the president, the stockpile would be launched against every target deemed to be valuable.

Kaufmann developed a different strategy: In case of conflict, not every warhead would be launched, and those that were launched would strike only military targets. The goal was to wipe out the enemy’s military capabilities while warheads held in reserve would threaten enemy cities. In the ideal world, after suffering a (reduced) retaliatory strike, the United States would have eliminated Soviet military capabilities and would be able to use Soviet cities as hostages to bargain for surrender.

What were the virtues of counterforce, as opposed to the cities-also countervalue, strategy?

First, civilians would avoid the brunt of the force. Vast numbers of innocents in cities would be largely spared. In a full-scale nuclear exchange, defense scenarios anticipated hundreds of millions of Soviet and American deaths, no matter who launched first. A counterforce strike also gives an incentive to the retaliating side to also target only military sites. A successful counterforce attack was projected to save over 100 million lives. Moreover, from a strategic standpoint, it created a chance for nuclear war to be limited. Counterforce offered the enemy an opportunity to recognize defeat early and so surrender with its civilian force intact.

The Pentagon warmed to counterforce. By 1962, Secretary McNamara publicly declared counterforce to be official U.S. policy, and encouraged the Soviets to adopt it as well.

It also had its skeptics, who argued that there were no guarantees that it might work as planned. When the enemy detected ICBMs, SLBMs, and strategic bombers racing towards its territory, it had no way to determine that it was subject to a “mere” counterforce strike. It was not clear that counterforce might really stave off escalation, and perhaps the simplicity of massive deterrence was still the best strategy after all.

Curtis LeMay, director of the Strategic Air Command (SAC), thought it meant going soft on the enemy; Thomas Schelling, who worked at RAND and consulted for the Pentagon, never fully embraced it; and even McNamara ended up skeptical of its usefulness. As a result, American nuclear strategy see-sawed between counterforce and massive deterrence; it would be integrated into nuclear plans, and then quickly stripped away, only to be re-introduced years later.

Conventional War

In addition to counterforce, Kaufmann also advocated for another way to keep war limited: Building up conventional military forces.

This was precisely the strategy rejected by Eisenhower. The Soviets were far superior in troops and tanks, enough to overrun Europe. Instead of trying to match their forces, Eisenhower wanted to rely on the massively-destructive and easily-deployable nuclear bomb to stave off attack or deter aggression in the first place.

But massive deterrence was risky. The enemy will try out many gray areas to test which actions were permissible; in each instance the American president has to decide whether it permits the action and lose face or launch the warheads, which risks national suicide while guaranteeing the deaths of millions.

Kaufmann thought that it was reckless to use nuclear weapons at all, save only in the gravest of circumstances. He observed that America’s most successful foreign actions were carried out without the use of nuclear weapons (as was the case with the Berlin Airlift and the intervention in Korea), and continued to believe that their use could be spared.

But it would require that the United States invest in different means for response. He suggested building up conventional forces, which meant included significant ground forces to beat back a Soviet invasion of Europe and smaller scale teams that can be rapidly deployed to “hot spots.”

In the logic of deterrence, an investment in conventional warfare is a signal that nuclear arms were too dangerous to be used. Building up conventional forces was advocated not only by Kaufmann but also important figures like Bernard Brodie and Herman Kahn, two of the earliest nuclear strategists. The growth of conventional forces in the Kennedy Administration was an acknowledgment to the Soviets that they could meet conflict without compelling the use of nuclear arms.

Schelling, in his Nobel Prize lecture, considered conventional forces to be a form of arms control, one as if both sides signed a treaty not to engage in nuclear change: “The investment in restraints on the use of nuclear weapons was real as well as symbolic.” With more options available, going nuclear was moved even further back to be the path of last resort.

SIOP: Single Integrated Operational Plan

Until the end of the Eisenhower Administration, nuclear target planning was delegated to senior military commanders. No single group or person oversaw the selection of targets nor organized the deployment of the nuclear force.

Take a second to imagine what that meant. The president had only the binary decision to strike or not strike. If he decided to strike, it’s up to the different services, each with their own stockpile, to deploy the weapons. The Air Force, the Navy, and the Army made their own war plans. Multiple, redundant warheads would be delivered to a target if it was selected by more than one branch. Due to a lack of coordination, an attacking force might be wiped out by the detonation caused by another American strike. Everyone launched at their own pace; the Navy was found to have been planning strikes fifteen days after the start of war.

This was the state of American nuclear plans for over a decade. The Joint Chiefs of Staff were resistant to the idea of a single branch, which would most likely end up being the Air Force, to control all warheads. The Navy was loath to give up its prized nuclear-armed Polaris submarines, and regarded all moves to centralize to be a plot by the Air Force to monopolize nuclear weapons.

It was only towards the end of the Eisenhower Administration that military objections were overruled. In 1960, Eisenhower authorized the creation of the Single Integrated Operational Plan (pronounced SEYE-OP) to coordinate a contingent plan of nuclear strikes. Only then did the United States integrate target selection into a national plan led by a single organization: the SAC.

SIOP went through different iterations. Some of them integrated the doctrine of counterforce, giving the president different options for launching strikes.

But still it didn’t eliminate concerns about overkill. SAC made extremely pessimistic assumptions about the probability of a successful strike. They planned to lay down four thermonuclear warheads with the power of 7.8 megatons for a Russian city the size of Hiroshima; the successful detonation of all of them would generate an explosive force 600 times more powerful than the 12.5 kiloton bomb that wiped out the Japanese city. It also did not consider the impact of fallout damage, because fallout generates little military value. These assumptions gave SAC the chance to constantly demand more bombs and bombers.

Still, most iterations of SIOP still emphasized the launch of nearly the entire stockpile. Plan 1-A would involve launching over 3000 nuclear weapons, projected to kill nearly 300 million people mostly in Russia and China. SIOP also targeted countries like Albania, for which the presence of a single large air-defense radar was enough to justify a strike by a megaton bomb; no consideration was given to the political fact that the country had been drifting away from the Soviet bloc.

SIOP was refined by different administrations and by different secretaries of defense, but it always suffered two flaws: massive overkill and relative inflexibility in the severity of response. Reading SIOP made presidents and generals feel “appalled” and “stunned”; it would be referred to by Henry Kissinger as a “horror strategy.”

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