Sunday, December 23, 2012

Re: Daniel Kuehn's Defense and Counter

I've read Daniel Kuehn's response to my critique of his stance on drones. He raises some concerns about my arguments against the use of drones and comes to two conclusions. He purports I am arguing that we need more Americans soldiers to die in order to discourage war and that I think that he is unaware of the problems of blowback. I mean to address both.

The implications that I draw from the concerns that I raise are clearly not the same as those that Kuehn has in mind. This seems to me a clash of perspectives that generally oppose one another - the public choice and the public interest interpretations of government - rather than misinterpretation of the facts on either side.

I analyze government with the expectation that self-interest will dominate. That includes the self interest of the politicians, military leaders, the voters, the bureaucrats, and others that exercise some influence over  government. I am admittedly pessimistic about this. When I learn that the military is employing drones in increasing number, I am not concerned about the intended consequences. I expect intentions to have minor impact compared to incentives. Good intentions do not lead to good results. With this in mind I review my two claims.
1) The danger that war poses to American service men and women is an important factor that restrains support for war. Action in Pakistan and Afghanistan (Kuehn writes specifically about Afghanistan) carried out by drones have received less attention than intervention carried out on the ground.
In response Kuehn wrote
So our soldiers have to put themselves in more danger just so we at home will feel bad for that danger that they're put in and be less likely to send them. Do I have that right?
I want to see less military conflict not more dead troops. But for now, let's assume that war is necessary. Drone warfare may be a safer solution for our troops in the short run. I have no doubt that a soldier flying a plane by remote is safer than one that is present with the plane or those with boots on the ground in a warzone. However, by making warfare more remote, drones numb the public to the horror of war. Public sentiment has an important effect on the actions of politicians. When public resistance to military intervention fades, a major incentive for politicians to end it fade as well.

For this reason, we will more than likely see increased dependency on drone warfare over the next decade. There is reason to challenge this trend. Drones don't just kill civilians (most military inteventions do that), they make life terrifying for them. A study by NYU and Stanford - which Kuehn refers to in his comment field - reads:
Drones hover twenty-four hours a day over communities in northwest Pakistan, striking homes, vehicles, and public spaces without warning. Their presence terrorizes men, women, and children, giving rise to anxiety and psychological trauma among civilian communities. Those living under drones have to face the constant worry that a deadly strike may be fired at any moment, and the knowledge that they are powerless to protect themselves. These fears have affected behavior.
The constant presence of drones makes life terrifying for those below. I cannot quantify the stress and discomfort this brings these people, but I do not think these researchers are mistaken in asserting that "US strikes have facilitated recruitment to violent non-state armed groups, and motivated further violent attacks." "Non-state groups," like the Taliban, are the organizations that attempt to bring terror to western nations. Regardless of the efficiency of drone warfare, it is a means by which U.S. intervention antagonizes bystanders and encourages them to join these groups. Kuehn appears to underestimate this effect.

About my second point I have less to say:
2) Drone warfare also separates the individual in control of the drone from the bombing he or she takes part in. As is the trend with most state interventions, foreign or domestic, economic, social, or military, drone warfare creates yet another degree of separation between those who coerce and those who are coerced.
The response to this was similar to the response to my first objection:
The same with the second point. I could see how some drone operators could treat what they're doing like a video game, and not consider the gravity of it. But again, what is the argument here - that to prevent that from happening we have to make life even worse for soldiers: make them less safe (and the countries they are operating in less safe) by being there, on the ground, with far less precision or time to make life and death decisions.
Pilots are aware that they are taking part in military offenses. I do not believe that this occurs in a "non-chalant" manner. It is, nonetheless, an offensive whose effects have been partly abstracted away. Some pilots' perceptions of these effects are certainly mitigated  some of the time. We ought to consider the marginal impact on a soldiers' willingness to use drones compared to other devices. Kuehn seems to think the impact of this is not substantial. I certainly haven't proved him wrong on that point but do think that it is worth considering.

Kuehn's argument can be summed up by one of his final statements:
Drones are safer for soldiers, they are safer for civilians, they are more dangerous for the enemy.
In considering the effects of this strategy, I cannot agree. Drone operations are conducted in secret. They lack oversight. The hours that drones spend flying above an area leaves that region in terror. I believe this terror is an under appreciated cost of drone warfare. Yet political incentives will more than likely encourage a shift toward these operations. One might suggest plausible limitation to these operations in order to fix this problem, but I don't expect to see any changes in the near future. I doubt the long-term consequences will be desirable. The NYU/Stanford study reaches a similar conclusion.

Friday, December 21, 2012

Kuehn is Mistaken on Drone Warfare

I usually appreciate Daniel Kuehn's critique of libertarians. His posts are usually well thought out and constructive. His point about drones, however, really makes my stomach turn:

Indeed, this is exactly why I've said that it's good that the war on terrorism is transitioning from a conventional to a drone war. It kills less Americans and it kills less innocent non-Americans than conventional war. How could I not support that?

So drone bombing is, on the margin, better for everyone. (If I'm interpreting this incorrectly, please let me know.) I find this absurd on its face. Let's consider the implications that Kuehn has not confronted.

1) The danger that war poses to American service men and women is an important factor that restrains support for war. Action in Pakistan and Afghanistan (Kuehn writes specifically about Afghanistan) carried out by drones have received less attention than intervention carried out on the ground. My intuition tells me that when the U.S. soldier count does not rise, Americans are less likely to care about foreign intervention. The logic is simple, the cost of the war decreases, resistance recedes.

2) Drone warfare also separates the individual in control of the drone from the bombing he or she takes part in. As is the trend with most state interventions, foreign or domestic, economic, social, or military, drone warfare creates yet another degree of separation between those who coerce and those who are coerced. A recent article published by German Magazine Via Der Spiegel tells of a former drone pilot who quit upon realizing this problem:
Modern warfare is as invisible as a thought, deprived of its meaning by distance [italics mine]. It is no unfettered war, but one that is controlled from small high-tech centers in various places in the world. The new (way of conducting) war is supposed to be more precise than the old one, which is why some call it "more humane." It's the war of an intellectual, a war United States President Barack Obama has promoted more than any of his predecessors.
If state force is obscured by a video game like environment, events will, on the margin, be interpreted more as though it is a video game than otherwise. Remote pilots will be more likely to engage in actions like double tapping.

I am not suggesting that this does not or cannot happen with humans in a real cockpit. I am only suggesting that, whether intentional or not, drone warfare has a sterilizing effect on one's perception of death and destruction. This holds terrible potential for the future of warfare, especially if we engage in a war between nations where each side has engaged in propaganda to dehumanize the "enemy."

Kuehn's final point bothers me most:
The problem that Doherty skirts around is we have twin evils, of course. There is collateral damage from war and that's bad (but certainly not murder), and we have the evil of terrorists and totalitarian Islamist governments. The trade-off between those two is quite difficult - much more difficult than Doherty is suggesting. A step in the right direction, in my mind, is moving forward in a way that reduces the first evil while still combating the second. I can't imagine how that could be controversial or suspect.
Kuehn reveals the assumption under which he operates: drone attacks will make us safer and minimize loss of life. Never mind a decrease of restraint and concern. Never mind the extensive research highlights the dangers of blowback. (A commenter on Kuehn's blog linked to a nice op-ed and article about this problem in Yemen. There are plenty of books and academic articles on blowback that you can find without too much effort.) Never mind the poor incentives that governments face when executing a war. Never mind the manipulation of statistics and definitions that make war seem less heinous and more innocuous than it actually is. Drones make us safer and minimize loss of life.

Or maybe drones encourage continual, mid-intensity warfare that increases ill-will toward the United States and help spread terrorist tactics from the radical Islamists to those who would otherwise remain unassociated. In theory, Kuehn might be right. Real world incentives and perceptions make may prove him incorrect.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Right or Wrong on Cantillon Effect, Richman is Right

Over the last week there has been a flurry of exchange between Austrian economists Murphy and Horwitz and market monetarists Sumner, Rowe, and Woolsey over the Cantillon Effect as mentioned in Sheldon Richman's article in The American Conservative. The good news is that progress has been made in the argument . The Austrians have done a good job of recognizing certain deficiencies in the simple, vulgar reading of the Cantillon Effect, and some of the opposition has acknowledged the refinement of the position. I'm specifically referring to one response from Sumner and the post that I linked to for Woolsey. This is a postitive development, but it has overshadowed Richman's main argument: elites use government to increase their own wealth and power and in the process make class structure more rigid.

Richman concentrates on government as a mechanism for wealth reallocation. Such involvement opens up substantial rent-seeking opportunities. As he describes in his article, "It was these [19th century, French] laissez faire radicals who pointed out that two more or less rigid classes arise as soon at the state starts distributing the fruits of labor through taxation: taxpayers and tax-consumers." While rents can be distributed directly - i.e., handouts gathered through taxation - they can also be distributed indirectly through inflation and the ensuing relative price changes. Investors who correctly hedge against expected inflation receive a portion of these rents. In this way, the Cantillon Effect is pertinent to the discussion. So far, the debate has done little to address this point.

Within a market, actors have incentives to increase their wealth holdings. This is complicated when government interferes through monetary manipulation, trade regulations, granting of labor monopolies, and any other action that transfers wealth from group A to group B by the use or threat of force. Impediments to collective action among large groups provide an opportunity for small groups to engage in rent-seeking behavior. Whether or not intentional, this leads to oppression of the poor by the rich. I need only cite a few examples. Young and unskilled workers - often those who are from the most disadvantaged of social groups - are kept out of the work force by labor union supported minimum wages and other labor market restrictions. Recently, a large number of middle and lower class Americans were economically crippled when, after buying houses that were overpriced due to politically driven incentives, the housing market collapsed. And, as Richman points out, wealth is redistributed from the poor to the rich due to inflation as the wealthy "are far better positioned to hedge and recover than workers who are laid off from their jobs." Some of the elite might face major losses as the effects of the policies work against their interests, but the general effect is to disempower and even confuse ordinary men and woman as the wealthy collect economic and political power by the generation of these crises small and large.

There is an important question that needs to be considered in analyzing the redistribution of wealth and power. How much of this is intentional? Are the wealthy overtly attempting to politically and economically castrate the middle and lower classes? There might be some elites out there that think in these terms, but I am inclined to take into account the incentives of the system rather than begin with accusations of conspiracy. If social systems encourage voluntary exchange, parties will attempt to better themselves through voluntary exchange. If it encourages the use of force to redistribute wealth, individuals will attempt to gain by taking advantage of government coordinated wealth transfers. The latter implies the use of force and is, is at best a zero sum situation. More often, the costs of the transfer lead to a net loss of wealth.  The more powerful the government, the greater the incentive for individuals and organizations to use the latter strategy to accumulate wealth and power. This is the message that has been overlooked. This is a cry against tyranny that should not be ignored. I am glad that the aforementioned economists have partaken in a fruitful discussion concerning the Cantillon Effect, but lets not forgot the context within which it was mentioned.