Sunday, April 15, 2012

Coming War with Japan

Version 0.3

Can an Non-credible Book like The Coming War with Japan by George Friedman and Meredith LeBard Stimulate Ideas about Credible Threats?

Really, that's about the best I can do to justify reading this book. It's a crazy book, but that also makes it thought-provoking. The threat it proposes and the analysis is ridiculous, but I was able to devise a possible real threat chain--but not involving Japan. I actually conceived of that threat just as I started reading the book, but these authors aren't going anywhere near it. However, the book mainly fails because it makes lots of predictions that have already been invalidated by boring old reality.

The attraction to the book was obviously the title, but as soon as I read that George Friedman was associated with the ultraconservative Heritage Foundation, I knew where it had gone wrong. In brief, this book is just crazy money talking. I started by believing that I understood the Japanese pretty well after living in Japan for more than 20 years, but as a scientific sort of person, I was still willing to look at their evidence. Maybe he really meant an economic war or something plausible? No, they are arguing for military war. Maybe they have some compelling new evidence? No, not only are they using old and well known evidence, but they are using it in ways that are highly selective and even contradictory. (However, perhaps real scientists should be tested by how willing they are to believe things they don't like? In contrast, posers like these authors have already decided what they want to believe, and the key tactic is rejecting all of the problematic facts.)

It seems easiest to dismiss their military threat claim by pointing at their own evidence. The book spends a lot of pages explaining why America fundamentally can't afford to fight ground wars in Asia--but it works the same in reverse and is even less plausible for Japan, which has a much smaller pool of possible soldiers and almost no physical resources compared to America. (Too bad Dubya hadn't read the book before starting the war in Iraq, and perhaps Obama should have read it before ramping things up in Afghanistan...)

This fundamental problem of manpower and resources actually links to my idea for a plausible threat even though I was inclined to dismiss their thesis as soon as I knew they really did mean war in the military sense. This is actually an idea and analysis that came to me almost as soon as I opened the book and before I had read very far at all. It was obvious to me that Japan cannot and will not field a large number of troops, but is there some way they could plausibly fight a war anyway? My thought was that it could be conceivable with robots. The book was written long before that was plausible, but the science fiction authors have been there long ago. What I realized was that it might be conceivable for Japan to make a fleet of drones. Actually this is related to Rumsfeld's mumbling about asymmetric warfare. The cost of destroying an aircraft carrier with a swarm of drones would be extremely low compared to the cost of building the carrier. However, if Japan has the technology, the resources would still be a strain, but... What about the Chinese or the Russians or even the Iranians? Certainly the Chinese could do it using the students who earned masters and PhD degrees in America before they were kicked out of the country. Anyway, it's so obvious that nothing more needs to be said on that topic.

Therefore I'll loop back and point at a few of the glaring flaws in the book, just focusing on a few of the largest ones that caught my eye in the first 50 pages. On page 9 I noticed a citation of Yuddan, which was described as a Japanese bestseller that supports their position. They didn't provide an author, but if it's a bestseller then it should be easy to find, right? Maybe it's even been translated? No, they must have meant a book called 油断 (Yudan) from around 1975 by 堺屋 太一, but I'm pretty certain there was no bestseller called Yuddan, no matter how you spell it in Japanese. At that point I was expecting sloppy research, but they could have waited a bit longer, eh?

On page 29 they seemed to think the the Tokugawa Shogunate was a weak and divided government, which is basically ridiculous. Even the transition to the Meiji Restoration was relatively smooth and efficient, and the country never became fractured or seriously disrupted. Again, a book about Japan should start with a realistic understanding of Japan's history, eh?

On page 50 I saw an especially glaring example of the bias with the statement "The U.S., torn by internal dissension and bureaucratic infighting, ..." The thing that annoys me about this kind of thing is the projective aspects of it. THEY are the ones that are the masters of crippling the government based on the ideological perspective of destroying most of the functions of the government.

Getting out of the first 50 pages, but on page 198 they were arguing that America wasn't involved for the money with this gem, "...economic considerations playing an insignificant role." Again on page 200, with "... devoid of economic interests" just before twisting out "In any event, the reemergence of imperialism is intellectually challenging to a world that is essentially liberal democratic." However on the next page was the what struck me as the most plausible idea in the entire book: "Economics speaks to human greed, while politics speaks to fear." An example of a good idea from a bad source? Or more likely they borrowed it from somewhere and just forgot to mention the source?

Anyway, I mostly feel like I've written more than the book deserved. Lots of other flaws there. I forgot to say China got short shrift... Enough. Suffice it to say you should have a lot of leisure time before spend some of it with this book.

Even worse, I now confess that I wrote that much before finishing the book, and now that I've finished it, I feel I have to say more, even though I even more strongly feel the book was silly and not worth as much of a reaction as I've already written... Onward through the fog:

Some eye-catching, projective, self-contradictory, ridiculous, preposterous, other negative adjectives, or worse (including multiple adjective lists, of course) examples of rightwing bias and slant:

Page 256: "The power is there, but the thought of using it is quite alien to the American mind. Brute interference in free trade is anathema to American moral principles and the American psyche itself. But ideologies change, ...." In other words, American are deeply crazy, but we might change our minds, and history doesn't count, either.

Page 304 favorably cites Paul Wolfowitz, who writes books on crazy for a living.

Page 309 says "This [joint imperialism with the Koreans] would, of course, be a tremendous test of Japanese racism, for Japanese contempt for Korea runs as deep today as it ever did." This caught my eye mostly as a predictive statement that has been completely invalidated by current pro-Korean trends in Japan. It is possible that it was valid when they wrote it--but I did NOT see the evidence and I was living in Japan during the "today" of this book. In some ways I agree with the racism accusation, but "contempt" seems extreme unlikely and implausible as the substantive summary of the complex Japanese feelings towards Korea. I'm trying to make allowances for my having recently arrived in Japan at that time, but I can't buy it.

On page 310, "There is nothing more to conserve" with regards to energy. Absurd and extremely rightwing.

Pages 318-9 has a map predicting the state of the Pacific Ocean in 2000, and in comparison to reality it's completely incorrect, to put it politely. The funniest detail is probably the idea of North Korea being aligned with Japan.

On page 329 they say "How the [Japanese supreme] court could rule that Article 9 permits self-defense when it specifically bans the creation of an armed force is a matter best left to lawyers and theologians." Okay, so you could dismiss it as silly hyperbolic statement, except that it's part of a long section that is attempting to dismiss Japanese pacifism AND on page 328 their attempt to quote Article 9 is mangled. Poor editing is no excuse, eh?

On page 332 they argue that hundreds of bombers are cheaper than individual nuclear bombs. It would actually be possible to make the argument if they had gone into analysis of research funding, but they didn't bother.

In the next section there was a long and confusing passage where they first seemed to be arguing in favor of strategic bombing, though it eventually becomes clear that they are actually arguing against it. Or maybe the authors are on different sides of this topic and just got confused during the editing process?

Eventually that led to the hilariously naive comment on page 338 that "... Shinto Buddhism contains pacifist tendencies is beyond the scope of our discussion." Duh. They are separate religions. Is basic understanding of such fundamental knowledge supposed to be within the scope of authors claiming to write authoritatively about Japan? (No the book never mentioned the actual State Shinto and religious veneration of the emperor that was incorporated into the war effort.)

From page 390 there is a section of predictions, many of which are highly specific or even dated and therefore absolutely refuted, but all of which are completely ridiculous. My guess is that the draft of this section was the first thing the authors wrote, and then the rest of the book was an attempt to justify what they'd already decided they believed. There is a paragraph on page 401 about the 'trap of empire' that seems to doom America, but at this point the reader may be laughing to hard to notice.

As I already said, I spent too much time on this book. I do think it's a good idea to see how other people think, but it's even better to base my thinking on evidence from the real world.

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Doing Nothing

Version 0.2
An Idealistic Economic Thought Experiment due to Doing Nothing: A History of Loafers, Loungers, Slackers, and Bums in America by Tom Lutz 

In terms of a review of the book, I mostly just want to say that it was an extremely thought-provoking book and generally quite interesting. If I had to try to reduce it to a capsule description, I would call it primarily a review of the literature—but what literature! I really hadn't thought about the breath of the topic of leisure, mostly in fiction according to the roughly 700 hundred citations in the bibliography. Or to frame it in a different way, I tend to read over 100 books/year, and I think this is one of the most thought-provoking books that I've ever read.

Hard to come up with a criticism, but I guess I could say that the scope was limited in some ways. For example, there was nothing about hunter-gatherers as slackers who naturally tend to multiply until they lose all of their slack. However, it was thinking about the book along those larger-box lines that led me to the thought experiment. I actually wonder if my ideas, which actually seem original to me, were somehow transmitted implicitly through the book. There was nothing explicit, but I wouldn't be greatly surprised to discover that Bertrand Russell or Paul Lafargue or someone else among the hundreds of authors he mentions had done an analysis along similar lines. (After I finish this description, I'm planning to attempt to contact the author to see if he did encounter anything along these lines... However, if you know of anything along these lines, your comments and pointers would be appreciated--as well as a bit of explanation how you wound up here in the first place. (Yes, Gertrude, I try to remember to look for similar blogs after I prepare one that seems unusually creative or innovative... Usually my searches come up rather dry.))

Today's thought experiment begins by dividing work into three broad categories:
  1. Necessary work covers essential physical goods such as the production of food and crucial services such as garbage collection. The most important characteristic of this category is that the work needs to get done, but another important characteristic is that the demand for such goods and services is fundamentally limited. Food is a good example to work with. It's obvious that everyone need a certain amount of food to live, but you don't need two or three times that amount of food. (Actually, eating too much can even kill you.) From a historical perspective, it's crucial to note that amount of working hours required for this category of work has declined on the long term, though there are obviously major variations. Again using food as an example, hunter-gatherers in a fully loaded environment must spend all of their waking hours working to gather enough food just to survive. In earlier agricultural societies, most of the food-related work could be concentrated in certain seasons, and most of the time there was much less need for agricultural work. In modern industrial societies, only a small percentage of the population is able to produce a large surplus of food.
  2. Entertainment work is for such tasks as writing books, making movies, or programming computer games, as well as non-essential but recreational services. Perhaps the most interesting characteristic of this type of work is that the consumption of the products is fundamentally limited only by the available leisure time of the consumers. We have long since passed the point where anyone could read all of the books that are published each year, let alone all of the books in a public library. The corresponding transitions for movies and computer games were more recent, but now we have the Internet, and we're completely saturated with potential uses of our leisure time. With such a surplus of available entertainment, one key factor is how to motivate the creators, but it's also important to consider the quality of the goods and how the consumers will search for the best content to occupy their limited amounts of available time.
  3. Better-future work is such work as building new infrastructure and doing scientific research. There is some amount of infrastructure maintenance that really belongs in the necessary-work category, but most new infrastructure is intended to support improvements or higher economic efficiency. In the case of research, the most relevant for this category is the research into better ways to do work, so the key characteristic of this category is that what it produces then reduces the amount of time needed to perform the necessary work. If the total amount of working time remained unchanged, then that would mean more time could be directed into creating entertainment or doing more research.
This is just a rough framework for thinking, and in many cases it's hard to classify specific examples. For a complicated example, raising children seems to fit into all three categories. Before starting the actual thought experiment, it's worth noting that there is an obvious tradeoff between the last two categories. If more resources are invested in creating entertainment, then fewer resources are available for making things better and the rate of improvement will be reduced. However, we can't make such tradeoffs for the necessary-work category.

For my thought experiment, I'm deliberately ignoring a lot of complicating factors such as competition between countries and political insanity. In the specific case of international competition, I actually think you can argue the world is becoming more and more integrated across national borders, so it sort of makes sense. The situation as regards political insanity seems to be going in the opposite direction, but maybe part of the problem there is the lack of vision for a better future. (It certainly looks to me that most professional politicians are just in it for the money and thinking in the shortest time frame of the next election, whereas many (perhaps most) of the businessmen are even worse, only thinking of next quarter's profits.)

So for the thought experiment, imagine that you start with the assumption that everyone is entitled to life, and then leap to the conclusion that everyone is therefore entitled to the basic necessities of life such as food, clothing, and shelter. For the moment, don't worry about how it's paid for, but let's just assume that each human being should start out with enough to survive. Let's use food as the example because it's relatively easy to work with. You don't need an exact number, but you can calculate how much food is needed (plus a safety margin) and how many hours of work are needed to produce that amount of food, and you'll come up with a relatively small value, at least compared to the 40 hours/week that is regarded as a normal work schedule these days. (That value will come up a lot in this analysis, though it isn't a sacred number and could be changed. I'm using it mostly as a convenient reference point for a reasonable amount of work. I'm inclined to think that most people would prefer to work less but some would prefer to work more, especially if they liked their work or were especially motivated for any reason.) Of course you would need to total up all of the required work, but I'm confident that our current society has already progressed to a point where it's far fewer than 40 hours/week. For the advanced societies that I know best, I'd estimate the current value is somewhere around 5 hours/week, but that's because I think most service work is not going to qualify for the essential work category. If you simplify it by limiting it to farmers and pretend that each farmer works only 40 hours/week all year round, then the less than 1% of farmers in America would translate to less than 1% of 40 hours, which comes to less than 24 minutes per person per week, if the work of farming were actually distributed across the entire American population.

Since it would be difficult to figure out all of the essential work that belongs in the necessary work category, it would probably be better to do it from the other end, by dividing the GNP into essential and nonessential categories. In many cases it would be pretty obvious. A convenient example would be the music industry. No one would die if they couldn't listen to music, so that entire segment of the economy can be classified as nonessential. Maybe my guess of 5 hours/week for the truly essential work is too low, but certainly it's significantly less than 40 hours/week.

If the first objective is to make sure that the essential and necessary work is done, but the total amount is relatively small, how can we allocate it fairly? For the foundation of necessary work, I suggest we could try to equate it by difficulty to share the load in an equitable way, starting from the maximum load of 40 hours/week for the most pleasant kind of necessary work compared to the least pleasant kind of necessary work.

One way to do this might be by pairwise comparisons by large numbers of people. The key question would be "Would you prefer to do 40 hours/week of farming or 16 hours/week of garbage collection?" It would be especially useful to ask older people who had done several kinds of work during their careers, and their answers could be weighted more heavily. By comparing various kinds of work and various numbers of hours for large numbers of people, you would eventually have rough equivalences for the kinds of work on a average basis without having to worry about the actual preferences of individuals. From that data you could rationally design a basic economic system that would be designed to insure the essential work gets done based on a general metric of fairness.

Since the total amount of necessary work is much less than 40 hours/week, it should work out that the most pleasant kinds of necessary work would still come to less than 40 hours/week. The other kinds of necessary work would then be equated as smaller chunks. For example, there might be a broad consensus that 8 hours/week of garbage collection is equal to 24 hours/week of farming is equal to 40 hours/week of

 Different education for the different kinds. Total amount of time for first class quite limited, but must be filled, with better compensation as shorter hours. Guaranteed enough to live on, since everyone has a right to life, but working guaranteed to have more money to compensate for the lost time. People who choose to work more than needed might earn much more, but where do mega-managers fit in? Unneeded?