# Posner and Becker Comedy Gold

by on December 6, 2004

As Eszter notes, the “Becker/Posner Blog”:http://www.becker-posner-blog.com/ has solved whatever collective action problems it was having earlier in the week and now the first two substantive posts are up, both on the topic of preventive war, one from “Becker”:http://www.becker-posner-blog.com/archives/2004/12/preventive_war.html and one from “Posner”:http://www.becker-posner-blog.com/archives/2004/12/preventive_warp.html. Right now, my working theory is that the blog is an elaborate hoax. How else to explain stuff like this:

bq. Should imminence be an absolute condition of going to war, and preventive war thus be deemed always and everywhere wrong? Analytically, the answer is no. A rational decision to go to war should be based on a comparison of the costs and benefits (in the largest sense of these terms) to the nation. … Suppose there is a probability of .5 that the adversary will attack at some future time, when he has completed a military build up, that the attack will, if resisted with only the victim’s current strength, inflict a cost on the victim of 100, so that the expected cost of the attack is 50 (100 x .5), but that the expected cost can be reduced to 20 if the victim incurs additional defense costs of 15. Suppose further that at an additional cost of only 5, the victim can by a preventive strike today eliminate all possibility of the future attack. Since 5 is less than 35 (the sum of injury and defensive costs if the future enemy attack is not prevented), the preventive war is cost-justified. A historical example that illustrates this analysis is the Nazi reoccupation of the Rhineland area of Germany in 1936 …

The real Richard Posner is one of the preeminent legal minds of our time, so he can hardly be responsible for this. For one thing, parody of this quality is pretty difficult to write and I don’t think he has the time to devote to the task. Notice how the eminently reasonable introduction by “Posner” (as we shall call him) leads the reader to expect some sort of informed analysis — “a comparison of costs and benefits (in the largest sense of these terms).” But once this hook has been swallowed, within a paragraph we are in a fantasy world — “the expected cost of the attack is 50 (100 x .5), … can be reduced to 20 if the victim incurs additional defense costs of 15. Suppose further …” Suppose further! Quite brilliant stuff. The sudden _non-sequitur_ about the Nazi occupation of the Rhine caps the piece with Godwinesque cheek. After the lead-in sentence, “Posner” is careful not to mention again the war being prosecuted in Iraq. This is a nice move, reminiscent of the best UseNet trolls. When angry bloggers complain that neither the cost-benefit thing nor the analogy to Hitler make any contact with present reality whatsoever, or suggest that the post sounds like it was written in the Autumn of 2002 — or maybe the Winter of 1990 — they’ll have unwittingly set themselves up for a fall: after all, “Posner” was only considering the justifiability of preventive war _sub specie aeternitas_, not the actual costs and benefits of any particular war the U.S. might or might not be engaged in at present.

Speaking of which, “Posner’s” strategy neatly avoids the sticky business of having to work out a real cost-benefit calculation using available numbers — ones like, e.g., the cost of war to date in real dollars, N Combat Fatalities to date, skill-adjusted dollar value of Generic U.S. service person, “QALY”:http://www.evidence-based-medicine.co.uk/ebmfiles/WhatisaQALY.pdf adjustment for each of N Injuries sustained by U.S. service people, Expected Number of Fatalities in an Iraqi-sponsored WMD attack on the U.S. Mainland, productivity losses to an Iraqi WMD attack, probability that Saddam Hussein had WMDs of any sort, likelihood that they could have been delivered to the U.S., etc, etc. Those last two quantities are now known with a high degree of confidence to approximately equal zero, by the way. This might make it easier to calculate the right-hand side of the equation after the fact. (If you worry that having this calculation _before_ the fact would have been more useful, but think it would have been extremely difficult to do in any precise but still sensible way, congratulations on your perspicuity.)

Elsewhere on the blog, the “absurd suck-up comments”:http://www.becker-posner-blog.com/archives/2004/12/preventive_warp.html#trackbacks from law students are a further indication that the reader is being gamed. Take this one from “Charles”, for instance:

bq. Dear Justice Posner, I am a 2L at DePaul and I just wanted to say that I think all of your legal decisions are brilliant. I think that you and Dr. Thomas Sowell are the most insightful economic minds in the world today.

Part letter to Santa, part backhanded swipe at Gary Becker — guess you’re the second string econ guy, Gary! — I’m surprised he didn’t mention he’d been a good boy all year and go on to ask for a Train Set and a copy of Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline. But that might have been painting the lily. All in all, I look forward to future entries, which may provide further clues as to who the deadpan genius behind this blog really is. The “Medium Lobster”:http://fafblog.blogspot.com/ perhaps? The “PoorMan”:http://www.thepoorman.net/ maybe? I await further developments with interest.

Update: Sentence edited for clarity about probabilities.

1

David Weman 12.06.04 at 6:38 am

Hehheh.

Pretty much all responses to their respective posts respectfully disagrees with them.

2

matt 12.06.04 at 6:39 am

Are you sure you’ve read any actual Posner, Kieran? That sounds _a lot_ like him to me. (Comment from a much better economist than Posner- “Posner learned economics from reading intro text books. He should have read some more.”)

3

David M 12.06.04 at 6:45 am

I’m gonna have to say real. The Network Solutions whois shows that the domain is registered to Larry Lessig. Fraud is probably too much for a hoaxster.

4

peter 12.06.04 at 6:46 am

good lord, couldn’t they have known that they couldn’t possibly win with this blog? i mean, they are indeed now just one of the hoi polloi, and not even nearly as good as giblets. in fact, a nice google-bomb to link them to fafblog would be a nice touch…

5

John Quiggin 12.06.04 at 6:54 am

Notice how ‘Becker’ chimes in with some undergraduate law? Perfect.

Of course, we at CT would never, ever do anything like that.

6

paul lawson 12.06.04 at 7:01 am

Ah, Healey, you delight. A pint of porter to you.

You may be delighted/devasted (depending on your perspective on hurling) that Aisake O’Halpairn (I can’t spell it, I have no Gaelic,) has signed with Carlton as a ‘rookie’. Big brother, Setanta, is already ‘there’.

Diasporas become fractal. And, in the Irish instance, span generations – from when one of our lot, changed the gaelic name, for potatoes, took ship, discovered gold (twice), went back, married a child bride, and returned to take up a free selection square mile.

Is the ‘Medium Lobster’ Irish? Are there several ‘Bloomsdays’ a year in the parallel universe now operant in ‘touch screen’ Diebold land?

7

Chris 12.06.04 at 7:22 am

I can’t believe you didn’t include this passage from Posner’s post:

What is true is that a defensive war is by definition waged only when the probability of an attack has become one; the attack has occurred. The probability of attack is always less than one if the putative victim wages a preventive war, because the attacker might have changed his mind before attacking.

After reading this passage, one can’t help but wonder if the much-hyped Becker-Posner blog is really just meant to have “great” minds tell us things like, “If something hasn’t happened, it hasn’t happened,” and, “The only wars that are defensive are those that are defensive.”

8

dsquared 12.06.04 at 8:10 am

By the way, as a piece of cost/benefit analysis, “Posner” (I am as yet agnostic) is wrong. Starting a war is an irreversible project, so you have to factor in as part of the cost of starting a war the fact that you thereby lose the opportunity to start the same war at a later date on potentially more favourable terms. This “option value” is an orthodox part of modern capital budgeting textbooks post about 1994.

And thinking about it, “Posner” is also wrong on the history of the doctrine of preventive war. Preventive wars were outlawed under the Nuremberg Principles, not because the people who put them together hadn’t thought that there could be situations in which it was rational to declare a preventive war, but precisely because they (apparently correctly) believed that far too many of the inputs to any calculation like “Posner”‘s were intrinsically subjective and therefore prone to being gerrymandered into rationalisations of a war that had already been decided upon.

By the way, this sort of thing is almost enough to shake my faith in Bayesian statistics. It would be a great deal of fun to ask Posner precisely what he means by “probability” in this context; is he suggesting that if the Nazis occupied the Sudetenland over and over again, then as the number of Sudetenland-occupations tended toward infinity, the proportion of them which ended in war would tend toward fifty per cent???

9

sd 12.06.04 at 8:31 am

The Posner post was quite clearly an attempt to tease out two questions that have been very much entangled (to the detriment of good analysis) by the current war in Iraq: 1) Is pre-emptive war ever justified? 2) Is the current pre-emptive war in Iraq justified?

Many (most?) liberals believe that the answer to #2 is “No,” and so slide easily into believing that the answer to #1 is “No.” Posner’s argument is clearly aimed at convincing us that the answer to #1 is “Yes.” Its seems pretty likely (though by no means certain) that Posner is not attempting to convince anyone that the answer to #2 is “Yes.” rather, he’s talking to people who think that the Iraq war is a mess and a travesty, to try to keep them from the intellectually lazy error of therefore concluding that pre-emptive war is, by definition, a bad thing.

I’m sure Kieran’s childish rant has nothing to do with: 1) The fact that Richard Posner has made quite a good living for himself by applying simple legal theory to a field (law) that previously was relatively untouched by economics and in the process doing more useful, original thinking than half the assembled legal academy in the fifty years prior to his arrival. 2) Kieran is an academic in a field (sociology) that is collectively bitterly resisting the encroachment of economic analysis (From guys like, um, Gary Becker), which is often derided as being simplistic and unable to capture the nuances and complexities of the real world.

10

Chris Bertram 12.06.04 at 8:31 am

A few, somewhat telegraphic, points….

(1) John and DSquared notwithstanding, I’m unpersuaded that a consequentialist weighing of costs and benefits is the right way to think about justifiying a war. It is, at best, a very subsiduary component of such thinking. Maybe I’ll post on that at some point ….

(2) But even if it were, Posner’s weighing of costs and benefits _to the nation_ (!!!) rather than taking into account the interests of all is a recipe for aggressive imperialist war against other nations. (At least given some not implausible empirical assumptions.)

(3) Note that, if c&b _to the nation_ were an appropriate justification, it would fully justify a nation of fanatical jihadists who care little about their own survival waging thermonuclear war on the Great Satan. I take it that’s some kind of reductio of the idea.

(3) As David Rodin argued, at a seminar I attended last week, the problem with “preventive war” is that it involves a conspiracy to attack other nations (planning, active preparation etc.) and therefore itself licenses preventive war by those very nations on the nation adopting the doctrine. Surely not what the promulgators of the doctrine had in mind.

11

Dan Simon 12.06.04 at 8:35 am

Right now, my working theory is that the blog is an elaborate hoax….The real Richard Posner is one of the preeminent legal minds of our time, so he can hardly be responsible for this.

This Posner guy’s a piker–I got the full Crooked Timber “so awful a hoaxer must have written it to embarrass him” treatment merely for mentioning the conceivability of applying cost-benefit analysis to the issue of torture.

A modest proposal: a contest for the shortest, mildest statement that manages to crank up the Crooked Timber Sputtering Ad Hominem Insult Machine.

(Disclaimer: I’ve generally found Posner’s reasoning on just about any subject to be far weaker than his reputation would lead one to expect. And Kieran’s substantial criticisms of this particular argument of Posner’s are not at all devoid of merit. They would have been rather more compelling, though, had they not been unbecomingly festooned with irrelevant, sneering personal ridicule.)

12

lago 12.06.04 at 9:42 am

Perhaps the lesson here is that strong reasoning is not a prerequisite for making strong decisions.

13

dsquared 12.06.04 at 9:45 am

A modest proposal: a contest for the shortest, mildest statement that manages to crank up the Crooked Timber Sputtering Ad Hominem Insult Machine.

Tell you what, why don’t you post a comment consisting of a single full stop, then I’ll post “Get stuffed, Dan” and we can all get on with our lives.

14

abb1 12.06.04 at 10:04 am

This is fine, let’s assume that the c/b analysis works, I suspect it does in a very limited sense.

This is analogous to a wild-west situation: dangerous lawless town, you walk into saloon, you see a couple of suspicious fellows in a corner, you quickly calculate the odds and you shoot first.

The thing that’s missing here is acknowledgment that this whole wild-west model is one of the worst possible arrangements; most societies developed a much better one called ‘law & order’, the one where unprovoked attack is a crime.

Why wouldn’t he calculate the costs and benefits of implementing a proper system of international laws and international law enforcement.

15

Why wouldnâ€™t he calculate the costs and benefits of implementing a proper system of international laws and international law enforcement.

Perhaps the c/b analysis of calculating/proposing that doesn’t work for him.

16

Mrs Tilton 12.06.04 at 11:16 am

I agree that the quotation does sound reasonably Posnerian.

Posner once constructed a sort of algebraic formula for determining whether a temporary restraining order should be granted. On close analysis, it melted down into pretty much what ol’ Learned Hand had said on the matter many years earlier, in his naively unscientific non-quant way. Posner’s version was clearly a vast improvement, as it looked impressively mathematical.

Kieran’s still right; Posner is certainly one of the Big Swinging Brains of the legal game. But he is subject to parody and, at times, self-parody.

17

abb1 12.06.04 at 11:17 am

To think of it, actually a better analogy might be found in the Sopranos episode I happend to watch last night. A guy named Massarone gets killed because Tony wants to be absolutely sure the guy is not an FBI snitch. It works: the guy was indeed FBI informer, so, yeah, it does make sense to kill someone on a slight suspicion: you lose little and you gain the peace of mind.

Now what? Do we really want to live by the mob rules?

18

Mrs Tilton 12.06.04 at 11:18 am

I agree that the quotation does sound reasonably Posnerian.

Posner once constructed a sort of algebraic formula for determining whether a temporary restraining order should be granted. On close analysis, it melted down into pretty much what ol’ Learned Hand had said on the matter many years earlier, in his naively unscientific non-quant way. Posner’s version was clearly a vast improvement, as it looked impressively mathematical.

Kieran’s still right; Posner is certainly one of the Big Swinging Brains of the legal game. But he is subject to parody and, at times, self-parody.

19

Lee Scoresby 12.06.04 at 12:06 pm

“The Posner post was quite clearly an attempt to tease out two questions that have been very much entangled (to the detriment of good analysis) by the current war in Iraq: 1) Is pre-emptive war ever justified? 2) Is the current pre-emptive war in Iraq justified?”

First of all, the question isn’t about “pre-emptive war” but “preventative war.” In preemptive wars, the side about to be attacked strikes first in order to gain an advantage. In a preemptive war, war is inevitable and the only question is one of strategic advantage. In preventative wars, an attacker initiates a war to prevent a future, deleterious shift in the balance of power. Thus, in the former the probability of war approaches “1”, in the latter, the probability of war is always less. Preemptive wars are almost universally considered to be legitimate, not so with preventative wars. “Posner” is quite clear on this distinction.

Second, “Posner’s” argument here betrays pretty high ignorance of actual rational-choice accounts of war. In particular, “Posner” needs to deal with Jim Fearon’s argument that, for two rational actors, there is always some negotiated settlement preferable to war. That does seem pretty ugly things to the underlying reasoning behind this sophomoric cost-benefit illustration.

20

belle waring 12.06.04 at 12:54 pm

Kieran, you are teh funny.

21

Dan Hardie 12.06.04 at 1:47 pm

‘This Posner guyâ€™s a pikerâ€”I got the full Crooked Timber â€œso awful a hoaxer must have written it to embarrass himâ€ treatment merely for mentioning the conceivability of applying cost-benefit analysis to the issue of torture.’

No, Dan, you advocated the legalisation of torture by the US, and besides the ‘beyond parody’ reply, a number of people described you as a ‘sadist’, ‘coward’, ‘clown’, ‘sociopath’, ‘fool’, ‘chickenhawk’ and ‘Canadian’. Nothing like self-pity from a torture advocate for unintentional humour- gives whole new meaning to the phrase ‘he can dish it out but he can’t take it.’ When, by the way, are you going to answer the Dan Simon Torture Questions, enlightening us on which specific types of torture you do and don’t favour?

22

JW 12.06.04 at 2:41 pm

I’m agnostic as to whether “Posner” is a hoax. I am confident, however, that the “2L at DePaul” commenter is one (a hoax, that is; and a big fat one at that). If a second year law student hasn’t figured out that its “Judge” — not “Justice” — Posner, then he’s a lost cause.

23

cloquet 12.06.04 at 3:40 pm

Well, you don’t have to look very far to see examples of people using different personalities to express different viewpoints that probably reside in their own minds.

24

William Sjostrom 12.06.04 at 3:43 pm

Are you really shocked that students suck up to professors, especially big name ones? Then you have led a happily sheltered academic career. An important reason why many universities have anti-incest rules preventing departments from hiring their own recent graduates is to ensure that students spend time doing good work rather than just sucking up to their teachers for a job.

25

Todd Miller 12.06.04 at 3:46 pm

A SELF-PARODY? IS THE “TRIBE BLOG” PART OF THE HOAX IF THERE IS ONE?

It strikes me that the blog may be a self-parody — Posner himself exaggerating the qualities some are critical of him for. This less formal medium would be an ideal vehicle for that, and he does seem to have a sense of humor about himself and how others view him. It would explain why Posner would purposely write something that isn’t his best stuff; it’s only possible to parody oneself if you make it deliberately bad in some sense.

A perhaps related question is what, if anything, the so-called “Tribe blog” has to do with this. It was launched shortly after Posner launched. Could it really be by Tribe? If so, will it be a parody of Posner, or a self parody, or both? Or a straight blog?

If Tribe’s not actually behind it, which seems to be the official line at least at this point, was it a hoax of Volokh Conspiracy, which if so fell for it hook, line, and sinker? Or was Volokh Conspiracy part of the hoax, and if so part of the Posner blog hoax, if there is one, and if it’s connected? Or is this blog basically unrelated to the Posner blog, perhaps simply representing an effort to parody or criticize Tribe for his plagiarism, as Patterico suggested in a witty post that actually may be on to something?

Very confusing, to say the least. Rather than belabor it, for anyone interested, see these posts:

http://www.tutissima.com/archives/000690.html

I would be interested in any thoughts, either posted as comments or e-mailed.

26

Thomas 12.06.04 at 3:53 pm

Kieran was so busy sputtering that he didn’t bother to read closely (quelle surprise!) He claims that Posner only mentions Iraq once, in the first sentence.
But Posner does mention the war in Iraq again, in the first sentence of the 3rd paragraph: “Second, and more important, and well illustrated by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, if the threat of attack lies in the future it is difficult to gauge either its actual likelihood or its probable magnitude.”

The argument is very clearly related to the argument of his new book. In case anyone’s interested in, you know, actually reading something, as opposed to simply (and I do mean simply) ridiculing it.

27

tom 12.06.04 at 3:53 pm

I am still frustrated by the fact that so many of the comments are, literally unreadable. There much be some glitch in the software. This problem continues but I cannot see that it has been addressed. Is anyone else having the same problem? Very frustrating, because I would like to read this otherwise excellent blog in full without lines having been deleted.

As to Posner, if only these issues could be reduced to simple probability theory. Reminds me about the joke about economists on a desert island with a can of food and no can opener. “Assume a can opener.”

The trick here is to figure out what degree of probability is sufficient and how confident is one in one’s probability assumption.

As to Iraq, I always beieved that the probability of delivering WMD was near zero, at least over the next ten years. Our rulers simply lied about the probability as they raised the seemingly imminent specter of a mushroom cloud. Given the assumption of a mushroom cloud, they wanted you to conclude that the probability of that event could be close to zero and still justify the war.

And what would happen if we applied Posner’s analysis to North Korea or Pakistan? Attacking and destroying either of those countries is more justified than Iraq ever was, given our certainty level of WMD vs our certainty level even before the Iraqi war.

28

Kieran Healy 12.06.04 at 4:36 pm

Sputter, sputter.

bq. Second, and more important, and well illustrated by the failure to find weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, if the threat of attack lies in the future it is difficult to gauge either its actual likelihood or its probable magnitude.

All the more reason, you would think, not to talk like the cost-benefit language amounted to a rational, objective and well-specified calculation, rather than a bit of rhetoric.

29

raj 12.06.04 at 5:08 pm

Um, didn’t anyone else wonder whether a federal judge would really be involved in a blog? I mean, really.

30

Hamilton Lovecraft 12.06.04 at 5:10 pm

tom: Among its other features, the Firefox web browser seems to be better at rendering web sites like this one which have lines of text too close together for Internet Explorer to cope with. Normally I don’t hold with “use a different piece of software” as an answer to a problem, but you might give it a try and see if you like it.

abb1: Killing the FBI snitch will doubtless have unpredictable-at-the-time future costs which may greatly exceed the benefits in the present. Sort of like starting an avoidable war in the Middle East with no contingency plans and no exit strategy.

31

Thomas 12.06.04 at 5:31 pm

Kieran, if you’re now engaging the argument, can you tell us whether you think that, say, the risks of global warming are such that we should impose constraints on our use of fossil fuels? But don’t go using cost-benefit analysis…

32

Kieran Healy 12.06.04 at 5:36 pm

Kieran, if youâ€™re now engaging the argument,

My original post engaged his argument directly. Read it again.

whether you think that, say, the risks of global warming are such that we should impose constraints on our use of fossil fuels? But donâ€™t go using cost-benefit analysisâ€¦

Is there anything in my post that says cost-benefit analysis is a useless method? Is there anything that suggests we shouldn’t weigh the evidence as best we can when it comes to deciding what to do?

33

abb1 12.06.04 at 6:01 pm

Um, didnâ€™t anyone else wonder whether a federal judge would really be involved in a blog? I mean, really.

Vanity? Vanity of vanities and chasing of the wind.

34

nic 12.06.04 at 6:03 pm

I thought I was missing something, until I realised that the argument for preventive war is exactly like the argument for reducing fuel emissions to avoid risks of global warming.
Or, also, like supporting a ban on smoking in pubs, to reduce the effects of passive smoking. Totally cost effective. Nice and clean. Better living through napalm.

35

mg 12.06.04 at 6:05 pm

tom, I’m having a similar problem using IE. I find that you can see the lines if you select them with the mouse, or else just use “select all.”

36

Nathan 12.06.04 at 6:12 pm

I don’t think the blog is a hoax at all. If you check the domain registration details at register.com, you can see that the name has been registered by Lawrence Lessig.

Domain Name: BECKER-POSNER-BLOG.COM
Registrant:
LESSIG, LAWRENCE (EEBSYEWUWD)
559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305
US

You can check Lessig’s posting about Becker-Posner at http://www.lessig.org/blog/

37

Nathan 12.06.04 at 6:14 pm

I don’t think the blog is a hoax at all. If you check the domain registration details at register.com, you can see that the name has been registered by Lawrence Lessig.

Domain Name: BECKER-POSNER-BLOG.COM
Registrant:
LESSIG, LAWRENCE (EEBSYEWUWD)
559 Nathan Abbott Way
Stanford, CA 94305
US

You can check Lessig’s posting about Becker-Posner at http://www.lessig.org/blog/

38

Chris Bertram 12.06.04 at 6:17 pm

WE INTERRUPT THIS THREAD FOR A PUBLIC SERVICE ANNOUNCEMENT ….

You guys who are having screen display problem:

I’ve found it is possible to reproduce the effect you are complaining about if I (a) increase my screen resolution to its maximum, (b) then increase font size to its maximum and (c) use Internet Explorer.

I’d strongly advise changing one of a, b or c, but especially c unless you want to download lots of drive-by malware. Firefox is a better browser, is standards compliant, and is downloadable “here”:http://www.mozilla.org/products/firefox/index.html .

39

abb1 12.06.04 at 6:32 pm

And now if you could reproduce and fix the problem with your mt-comments.cgi being so incredibly slow and error-prone, that would really be helpful.

40

Martin 12.06.04 at 6:32 pm

Your post evokes the reflection that Posner’s entire career has been a sort of giant blog avant la lettre. His scholarly and judicial output since the 1960s has been shaped by the following characteristics, all of which are central to the blogging phenomena (at least as an ideal type):

(a) a willingness to apply an amateur knowledge of a technical discipline to a novel subject often in a half-assed fashion — beginning with the application of law to economics and expanding asymptotically to the application of all disciplines to all subjects;

(b) a stance of naive common sense;

(c) a flood the zone publication strategy, the initial zone being legal scholarship, later expanding to the body of American judicial opinions, and aspiring to flood a zone consisting of the set of all public policy and intellectual subjects;

(d) a willingness (perhaps unintentional) to say lots of wrong or stupid things as the price of maximizing output of smart or things.

What could be more bloglike, even if published in Harvard Law Review or Fed.3d.?

And to top it all off, he has parlayed these approaches into genuine preeminence in legal thought — in terms of intellectual contribution, not just academic status — without for a moment abandoning the foibles of intellect and sensibility that his approach shares with 4 (or whatever) million ordinary bloogers.

(So maybe you guys should get tenure credit for CT.)

41

George 12.06.04 at 6:43 pm

Few hatchet jobs are this witty. Well done.

And further to Chris Bertram’s Point #4, this sort of dispassionate risk/reward analysis does conjure up a horrific WWI-ish scenario where all parties, each seeking their own relative advantage, contribute to a catastrophe for all.

But there’s one major false note in the original post:

Those last two quantities [probability that Saddam Hussein had WMDs of any sort, likelihood that they could have been delivered to the U.S.] are known with a high degree of confidence to approximately equal zero, by the way.

Perhaps now, but certainly not at the time at which the decision to invade Iraq (and the relevant cost/benefit calculation) was made. Kieran almost certainly knows this. The sentence is either an oversight, or an example of appalling intellectual dishonesty.

42

Marcus Stanley 12.06.04 at 6:44 pm

The fact that Posner apparently totally ignores the effect of preventative war on the international system — legitimacy, trust, and norms in ongoing relationships between actors — is yet another demonstration of how harmful the “a-sociality” of simplistic economic theory is.

43

Marcus Stanley 12.06.04 at 6:45 pm

The fact that Posner apparently totally ignores the effect of preventative war on the international system — legitimacy, trust, and norms in ongoing relationships between actors — is yet another demonstration of how harmful the “a-sociality” of simplistic economic theory is.

44

The Navigator 12.06.04 at 6:49 pm

Nic,
Is estimating the probable cost of reducing emissions to avoid the risk of future global warming exactly like estimating the probable cost of launching a preemptive war in the Middle East?
Also, was there a consensus about the probable benefits of launching a preemptive invasion of Iraq – anything approaching the broad worldwide scientific consensus about the benefits of curtailing the emissions that lead to global warming?

45

Robin Green 12.06.04 at 7:17 pm

nic – in what way are they exactly alike? The argument for greenhouse gas emissions controls makes some attempt to consider the interests of all people in the world; Posner’s argument makes no attempt at all to do so – it only considers the interests of the nation deciding whether to go to war. I would have thought that was the biggest difference in the world.

46

Robin Green 12.06.04 at 7:23 pm

Tony Blair claimed to have WMD evidence which he could not reveal to the public.

Rumsfeld claimed that “We know where they [WMDs] are”… around the Baghdad area, he said.

Will we ever know the details of all this “evidence”… or was it all just porky-pies, like all the other “evidence” they dredged up?

Hmm… I wonder.

47

nic 12.06.04 at 7:38 pm

in what way are they exactly alike?

Hmm… let me think… well, they’re not.

Robin Green and the Navigator, what you guys are saying is exactly my point. I was *not* being serious! I thought the “better living through napalm” would give that away rather obviously. Tsk.

Though I don’t blame you for taking it literally. It’s entirely possible someone could have made that argument. I think someone else attempted that in earnest in this very thread.

More blurring of parody and reality – take your pick, it this comment something I made up, or is it for real:

bq. Napalm had a significant and beneficial purpose when used as an offensive weapon in the jungles of Vietnam.

48

Thomas 12.06.04 at 7:39 pm

Kieran, perhaps you could go ahead and make the argument then, for constraints on our use of fossil fuels. Tell us–exactly–what the risks of global warming are. None of these simplified scenarios, which only appears to offer “rational, objective and well-specified calculation.” Don’t go telling us that such constraints would easily be justified, if we assumed that the risks–which in reality are impossible to quantify–were said to be x, and the costs were y (also impossible to quanitify), and x is greater than y. That’s just rhetoric, and we’re entitled to more than that. (Unless we agree with the policy prescription, in which case we aren’t.)

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nic 12.06.04 at 7:49 pm

go ahead and make the argument then, for constraints on our use of fossil fuels. Tell usâ€”exactlyâ€”what the risks of global warming are

See? What was I saying? there’s someone who is earnestly attempting a parallel between the argument for preventive war and the argument for reducing fuel emissions… Scary, eh?

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ogmb 12.06.04 at 8:02 pm

The trick here is to figure out what degree of probability is sufficient and how confident is one in oneâ€™s probability assumption.

The trick is to realize that 1. war presupposes an overestimate of the expected returns on at least one side, quite possible on both sides, and 2. the incentives of the public and its leaders are rarely aligned when it comes to choosing between war and peace, with the rulers having the propensity to choose war more often than is socially optimal. Which turns the idiotic question “Is preventive justifiable?” into the more relevant question, “Which institutions support a decision making process that chooses war only when it is socially beneficial?” I.e. that actively biases the decision against the incentives and estimates of the rulers.

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ogmb 12.06.04 at 8:05 pm

the idiotic question â€œIs preventive justifiable?â€

OK, the question is partly idiotic because the word “war” is missing, but not only.

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ProfWombat 12.06.04 at 9:18 pm

You can’t even apply the Law of Trichotomy to complex numbers. You really make a jerk of yourself when you try to quantify the unquantifiable, and then try to legitimise your analyses by cloaking them in grade-school mathematics from dubious premises. All those ‘supposes’–my, my.
There’s a great takedown of this sort of thing in Davis and Hersh’s ‘Descartes’ Dream.’

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Walt Pohl 12.06.04 at 9:49 pm

Tony Blair and Donald Rumsfeld would show us the evidence of Saddam’s WMDs, but they’re too busy helping O.J. find the real killers.

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Martin 12.06.04 at 10:04 pm

I reread my comment about Posner’s career and find that a craven spirit of fairness compells me to add a John-Kerry-on-a-bad-rhetoric-day qualifier. Based on the somewhat limited number of Posner’s judicial opinions I have read, I feel that he is as least as careful as the average judge to make sure that the result he reaches is consistent with precedent and otherwise conforms to standard norms of the judicial role. (Since I am an old fashioned Karl Llewellyn realist, the phrase “as carefull as the average judge” allows quite a bit of leeway, but not unlimited.) The reasoning of his opinions often reads like blogs, however. Compared with most jusicial opinions, this is no insult.

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Tobias 12.06.04 at 10:47 pm

>my working theory is that the blog >is an elaborate hoax

Well, I went and asked Lawrence Lessig on his blog. Here’s his reply in the comment thread:

“Good question how you establish the authenticity in this space, but the fact is that I volunteered to register the site and have it set up and help with basic administration.”

Short of explicitly stating it’s real, yet I have the impression, he’s implying it and just regretting that there’s no way to prove the authenticity at this point.

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John Hempton 12.06.04 at 11:00 pm

I guess you are right. The historic revisionism is too strong. But why is it not news that it is a hoax yet.

JH

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mg 12.06.04 at 11:05 pm

Of course there’s a way. Posner’s U of Chicago site lists an email address to which you could write and ask. Or else just give him a phone call.

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Kieran Healy 12.06.04 at 11:35 pm

my working theory is that the blog >is an elaborate hoax

I hope people realise this was never my working theory.

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Ottnott 12.06.04 at 11:41 pm

Suppose the world has options other than (A) attack and (B) defend?

Too crazy to even imagine?

In Posnerspeak: suppose that the probablility that an adversary will attack at some future time is 0.5 +0.3, -0.4999. Suppose that with additional expense of 0.0000002 we can more accurately determine that the probability is 0.01 +0.01, -0.01?

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ogmb 12.06.04 at 11:51 pm

I hope people realise this was never my working theory.

I take it most people assumed preventive facetiousness. Justifiable preventive facetiousness.

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Thomas 12.07.04 at 1:10 am

Judge Posner, on global warming (posted originally at Lessig’s):

“Good comments, and mostly supportive though some skeptical along the lines of climate models are complex, climate science is uncertain, the experts may be wrong. All true; but reading the skeptical literature, I am reminded of the debates in the 1960s over the effects of cigarette smoking on human health. The evidence for serious ill effects was already very strong, but there were skeptics, some financed by the tobacco industry, who said such things as: the evidence is statistical, the mechanism by which nicotine and tars cause changes in lung tissue, etc. is not well understood, and in short we can’t be certain that there are these effects–the implication being that we should do nothing. Similar points are made today, often by energy companies or persons in their pay, and similarly insinuating that, given uncertainty, we should do nothing.

“That is a non sequitur. We rarely have the luxury of being able to act on certainties; you’d be a fool if, credibly informed that unless you had an operation to repair an aneurysm you had a 99 percent chance of dying within a week, you responded that you only act when you’re certain. In my last posting, I speculated that a 1 percent chance of criminal punishment might deter certain copyright violations, and I didn’t mean that only the irrational would be deterred.

“What would be irrational would be to conclude, from the fact that a minority of scientists deride global warming fears, that we should ignore the problem. Indeed, if you look at their grounds for skepticism, you may become more alarmed about global warming rather than less so. Because what you will learn is that their skepticism is based mainly on the existence of profound uncertainties about climate, and those uncertainties cut both ways and by doing so imply added rather than diminished risk. For example, skeptics point out that in the earth’s prehistory there have been periods (one roughly 10,000 years ago) in which the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere spiked, even though cavemen didn’t drive SUVs. Yes, and if one of those non-human-induced spikes coincided with our human-induced spiking, we’ll be in real trouble.

“I mentioned in passing, in the preceding posting, risk aversion. If you would rather pay \$100 certain than run a 1 percent risk of a \$9,999 loss, even though the expected cost of such a risk is only \$99.99, then you’re risk averse (think of the \$100 as an insurance premium). The greater the variance in possible outcomes, the more upset the risk averse are likely to be. The more uncertainty there is about climate, the greater the variance in possible consequences of increasing the atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide (and of other greenhouse gases, such as methane, which is even more heat-retentive than carbon dioxide, and is being released into the atmosphere in increased quantity because of the melting of the Alaskan and Siberian permafrost–and you can see what a dangerous feedback effect is possible as more methane in the atmosphere raises surface temperatures which melts more permafrost releasing more methane…). So people who are risk averse, and that is most of us when we are facing potential disaster on the scale that global warming might inflict, will not be reassured by people who ground their global warming skepticism in nothing solider than a reminder that other things besides human activity affect climate; those other things seem as likely to exacerbate the effects of human activity as to offset them.
___________

Good thing Kieran hasn’t seen this. I’d expect no end of sputtering. You know, all that â€œrational, objective and well-specified calculation” (he even uses numbers, not just words!).

Just rhetoric.

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Thomas 12.07.04 at 1:13 am

And wait til Kieran reads this one:

Asteroid collisions? I anticipate teasing comments asking me whether I’m also worried about invasions of aliens from other galaxies. (I’m not.) In fact the probability of a catastrophic asteroid collision, while small, has a greater expected cost than the \$4 million that is all that NASA is spending a year to map NEOs (dangerous near-earth objects, i.e., asteroids whose orbits intersect the earth’s orbit. For a good discussion, see the report of the Task Force commissioned by the U.K.’s minister for science. It was less than a century ago that an asteroid a mere 60 meters or so in diameter exploded over Siberia with the force of a hydrogen bomb. Fortunately, the only casualties, so far as anyone knows, were the local reindeer. Maybe the next asteroid will explode above Los Angeles, sparing the reindeer. Of course that’s unlikely; cities occupy a minute fraction of the earth’s surface. But a slightly larger asteroid, wherever it landed, could inflict tens or even hundreds of millions of casualties from tsunamis, fire storms, shock waves, and dense clouds of debris that could block photosynthesis and even trigger catastrophic global warming.
_________

That’ll keep Kieran posting for days, I’m sure.

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Deb Frisch 12.07.04 at 1:48 am

I agree that the probability it’s a hoax is very high. It’s kind of fitting – a fake blog by a fake-Nobel prize winner.

I’ve analyzed Posner’s pontifications on my blog. Ineed to eat some Wheaties before trying to plow through Becker’s prose.

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pedro 12.07.04 at 2:07 am

Thomas,

The inclusion and exclusion of the probabilities of certain events–notwithstanding the difficulties of estimating them–is certainly quite telling. How is it that the plausible effects of advocating a policy of preemption become null events for the purposes of the analysis?

In the case of global warming, cost/benefit analyses certainly take into account the effects of environmental regulations on the economy. How is it that the possible deleterious effects of pursuing a particular policy in response to the threat of terrorism are deemed unworthy of ‘rational’, probabilistic analsis?

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Jackmormon 12.07.04 at 2:45 am

The Medium Lobster has responded to Posner’s blog, calculating that a preventive attack on the moon is clearly justified.

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nic 12.07.04 at 9:49 am

All true; but reading the skeptical literature, I am reminded of the debates in the 1960s over the effects of cigarette smoking on human health.

Hahaha… There, Posner supports my theory, preventive war *is* exactly like bans on smoking! and on gas emissions! hurrah. I feel vindicated.

Hoax, or madness, does it even matter? There’s people who take him seriously anyway. That’s what’s so fascinating…

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Doctor Slack 12.07.04 at 7:03 pm

It could be that Posner is a closet Dungeons and Dragons enthusiast. At this point in the post:

Suppose there is a probability of .5 that the adversary will attack at some future time . . .[inflicting] a cost on the victim of 100, so that the expected cost of the attack is 50 (100 x .5)

. . . I half expected him to speculate about what would happen if the victim has a +2 Shield of Missile Defense, reducing the cost of the attack by 5-20.

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A Scott Crawford 12.08.04 at 12:12 am

Regarding “preventive” war.

While agreeing that the cost-benefit analysis arguments are not clear to me, the legal question is worth asking and debating.

1. The US has a tricky legal issue under question regarding the Constituionality of an Established Military, period. Let us not misuse or confuse the term “war” as it relates to the US Constition. The authority to declare war is supposed to reside wholly in the Legislative Branch, a qualification that has been circumvented over time, but especially post-WWII, when the collapse of the old colonial Empires and the cold war required an established military. The trick was to use vague and questionable Treaty Organizations, like NATO and the UN SC to allow the US Executive to wage war without explicit Congressional authority to do so.

This created two (or more) legal definitions of “war” in the US. The first, “formal” war, declared by Congress. The second, “executive” war, based on the retention by the Executive branch of (limited) War Powers to honor Treaty obligations, control the established Military, and to try and fill the void created by the utter failure of the previous International system. (“cold” war or “law enforcement” war have their own supporters as well).

It surprises me that no one seems to bother to note that the idea of “preemptive war” is an oxymoron. What we are really talking about is the legal extent of Executive Authority to justify using War Powers on the grounds of possible external threats, and without first securing the Constitional authority to do so from Congress or under the aegis of Treaty obligation.

We have allowed Congress to surrender it’s appropriate authority to declare “war” to a greater extent than many Americans think wise. We have gotten into the habit of allowing the US Executive, under the guise of Treaty, War Powers, the UN, NATO, and etc. to assume the power and legitimacy to wantonly use the military to engage in acts that most reasonable people would consider acts of war (i.e. bombing other Countries). This is not a vice particular to the Bush administration, as it’s worth noting that the previous administration engaged in acts of war in many more instances and often with less merit. Regardless, let’s not confuse “Executive War Powers”, with Consititional “Declarations of War”, as we’re only debating the former.

This is the basis of the legal debate. What are the appropriate limits and conditions vis a vis Executive War Powers? Both the Right and Left have their respective ‘pet’ uses for the US military that neither would dare submit for a formal Congressional declaration of war. And for all the Blair bashing over sending UK troops to Iraq by the British intelligencia, it’d be wise for his critics to remember the word, “Suez”, prior to judging him too harshly.

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Brian 12.08.04 at 8:22 pm

Whatever else, this discussion has brought great clarity to the concept of crooked timber.

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