“The Internationalists” and making war illegal

At Astral Codex Ten, there’s a great review essay on The Internationalists, a book about “the 1928 Kellogg-Briand Peace Pact” (I hadn’t heard of it either), which sought to “declare war illegal.” There are some obvious ways in which war has continued, but the thrust of The Internationalists and the essay seems to be that things have overall been moving in the right direction. Even authoritarian countries like Russia work to play down their warfare and conquest aims, particularly to their own populations. Part of the reason countries appear to have historically gone to war is to get rich by stealing things from other people, and to get more “land” for one’s people. These reasons haven’t made sense for many decades, if they ever did; today, the largest companies in the world are tech companies, and you can’t steal Apple, Google, Microsoft, or Amazon through invasion. Even if these companies were in Ukraine, attempting to “steal” them through invasion wouldn’t work because the vast majority of their value is in their people and systems, who would flee (in the case of people) and which would disintegrate (in the case of systems) in the event of invasion.

China has gotten rich in the last few decades by making stuff people want, not by attempting to forcibly steal things through invasion. China might change this strategy through invading Taiwan, and in the process destroy companies like TSMC, but it’s almost certainly not going to get richer in the process, and will likely achieve the opposite. In many countries, including the United States, we could immediately become vastly richer by changing some of our laws, rather than invading other countries: Hsieh and Moretti, for example, “quantify the amount of spatial misallocation of labor across US cities and its aggregate costs. Misallocation arises because high productivity cities like New York and the San Francisco Bay Area have adopted stringent restrictions to new housing supply, effectively limiting the number of workers who have access to such high productivity. Using a spatial equilibrium model and data from 220 metropolitan areas we find that these constraints lowered aggregate US growth by 36 percent from 1964 to 2009.”

36 percent! That’s a huge amount of growth—imagine making 36% more per year than you are right now. Like a lot of countries (though not Japan), we can dramatically increase aggregate wealth by liberalizing land-use laws. Essentially all countries have plenty of “space” for people—if we choose to let land owners do what they want to with their land. We’ve decided to be collectively poorer by not doing so, which seems unwise to me, but I’m one guy.

In most countries, too, birthrates are now at or below replacement levels. We’re not collectively able to reproduce ourselves, let alone need to somehow go find more “space” for others. Polling consistently shows American women want two or three kids, but most are having one or two, perhaps because they feel they can’t afford to have more. Maybe we should try to make the cost of living lower, so that more people can enjoy it—that is, the “living.” Instead, we’re perversely doing the opposite. “Perversity” may be the theme of this essay.

The anonymous reviewer says that “The US keeps starting or engaging in wars, like in Libya, Afghanistan, and Iraq,” but he or she doesn’t go further: There’s an interesting counterfactual history of the United States in which we don’t invade Iraq, spending around $2 trillion (“trillion” with a “t”). Let’s say we spend 10% of that, or $200 billion, on other things, such as true energy independence. Although Iraq wasn’t really about “stealing” Iraqi oil, Iraq—like Russia and Iran—wouldn’t have the money to create globally significant mischief without selling oil. What could we have done instead of invading Iraq? We could have invested substantially in battery technology and manufacturing, thus driving the cost of batteries for car applications, five to ten years earlier than actually happened—and we could’ve cut gas and oil usage far faster than we did. We’d get environmental benefits, too, on top of the geopolitical ones.

There are arguments like this around nuclear fusion power plants:

“Fusion is 30 years away and always will be.”

What happened? Why has fusion failed to deliver on its promise in the past?

By the 1970s, it was apparent that making fusion power work is possible, but very hard. Fusion would require Big Science with Significant Support. The total cost would be less than the Apollo Program, similar to the International Space Station, and more than the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The Department of Energy put together a request for funding. They proposed several different plans. Depending on how much funding was available, we could get fusion in 15-30 years.

How did that work out?


Along with the plans for fusion in 15-30 years, there was also a reference: ‘fusion never’. This plan would maintain America’s plasma physics facilities, but not try to build anything new.

Actual funding for fusion in the US has been less than the ‘fusion never’ plan.

The reason we don’t have fusion already is because we, as a civilization, never decided that it was a priority. Fusion funding is literally peanuts: In 2016, the US spent twice as much on peanut subsidies as on fusion research.

We’ve been consistently spending less on fusion than we did in the ’70s. The largest fusion project, the International Thermonuclear Experimental Reactor (ITER), is now going to cost around $21 billion—or about half of the $40 billion in weapons we’re shipping to Ukraine (Russia is a petro state and, without income from oil and gas sales, it would be unlikely to be able to fund a true war effort). $21 billion is also about 1% of what we’ve spent on the Iraq war. Maybe we’d not have working, commercially viable nuclear fusion here in 2022, but we’d be far closer than we are. Instead of investing in true energy independence, we’ve been investing in warfare, which seems like a bad trade-off. MRNA vaccines have made the world billions if not trillions of dollars richer, apart from saving a million lives in the United States alone. Maybe we should do more of that (I’m using the word “maybe” with some archness).

There’s a world in which we take the long view in an attempt to stop funding authoritarian regimes and stop invading them, and we instead focus on trying to get to the future faster. Most of the wars involving the United States in the last 30 years have been at least partially traceable to oil and gas (Saudi Arabia being the home of 15 of the 19 9/11 attackers, and being a putative ally of the U.S. but not exactly the good guys). Instead of saying, “Hey, maybe we ought to think about this relationship between warfare and gas,” we’ve decided to keep fighting random wars piecemeal. As of this writing, we’re not fighting Russia directly, but we’re not not fighting Russia. Simultaneously, had Germany invested heavily in conventional nuclear fission plants, it would’ve imported billions less in gas from Russia, and it would be poised to switch to electric vehicles. Russia’s warfare capabilities would likely be far worse than they are. Germany’s emissions could be far lower than they are. (France, to its credit, gets most of its electricity from nuclear sources: contrary to stereotype, the country isn’t composed entirely of Houellebecqian bureaucrats, sex workers, and waiters.)

Making war illegal is good, but making it uneconomical is also good, and the latter may help encourage the former. War is dumb and people get richer without it—one hopes the Chinese Community Party (CCP) sees this, as we did not during 2001 – 2003. Making war even more uneconomical than it is now requires a civilization that thinks further than a few months into the future. Maybe we should get on that. Things that are illegal and dumb aren’t very enticing.

One response

  1. Pingback: Links: The need for universal COVID vaccines, the polarization spiral, and more! « The Story's Story

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