Friday, January 5, 2018

North Korea and acceptable risk

We probably aren't going to wind up in a nuclear war with North Korea because of Donald Trump's... insecurities.

Suppose you hear about a restaurant at which there is a 1% chance of contracting an antibiotic-resistant strain of necrotizing fasciitis.  You probably aren't going to get the flesh-eating bacteria.  In fact, it is very, very unlikely that you will get it.  Does it matter how tasty the food is?  Are you going to eat there?  What constitutes an acceptable probability, for a restaurant, of giving you the flesh-eating bacteria?

For me, personally, it's epsilon, which is the Greek letter we use in mathematics for a value arbitrarily close to zero.  Probabilities are never precisely zero, but I want that probability to be effectively zero.  (I can't find a way to get the actual epsilon into the text editor of this blog thing... sorry).  I don't care how many James Beard Awards the chef has won.  Once the kitchen gets an outbreak of necrotizing fasciitis, I ain't eatin' there anymore.  Shut that shit down.

You may also notice that I didn't pick the number, 1%, out of a hat.  Dick Cheney, anyone?

Anyway, what is the probability that the President of the United States will start a nuclear war because of his... insecurities?  He seriously did a "mine is bigger than yours" exchange with Kim Jong Un.  Seriously.  Is he likely to launch nukes against Kim Jong Un because he thinks it will show everyone how bigly his... button is?  No.  I would, in fact, say that the probability of that is quite low.

However, can you really say that the probability is even "epsilon?"  If you're being honest... no.  Admiral James Stavridis put the odds of a conventional war with North Korea at 20%, and a nuclear war at 10%.  Admiral Mike Mullen says we are creeping towards war too.  And none of this is necessary.  Why is it happening?  Because Donald Trump is mentally deficient.

Let's call this "the epsilon test."  The probability of starting a nuclear war for indisputably stupid reasons needs to be epsilon.  If that probability is higher under your presidency than epsilon, you fail.

Trump fails.  Clearly.  Right now, there is a possibility of a nuclear war with North Korea, and the closest thing to a reasonable explanation anyone can give is that North Korea cannot be allowed to have nukes, therefore we might go to war with them to depose the nuclear-armed regime, even though that war would escalate to the use of nukes.  'Cuz... that makes sense.

The probability of a nuclear war with North Korea is still very, very low.  But, it ain't zero, and as anyone who has ever played anything like Dungeons & Dragons can tell you, you should still worry.  D&D is (or at least used to be) based on dice like the good, ole' D20.  When you "roll to hit" (attack), you roll a 20-sided die.  If you roll a 1, it doesn't matter how badass your character is, you miss.  You fumble.  That's a 5% chance of a fumble.  Fumbles happen.  At inopportune moments.  Low-probability events happen eventually, as long as there are enough opportunities.

What is the precise probability that Trump will start a nuclear war with North Korea for some stupid, fuckin' reason?  Higher than epsilon, and that's all I can say, but that's unacceptable.  If Dick Cheney weren't a Republican, he'd be... taking a much harder line on that, given the 1% doctrine...

I consider it unacceptable to have a president who fails the epsilon test, and yes, this is why a fully-functioning political system would be having a real discussion about the 25th Amendment right now.  Yet... plenty of people are, well, fine with this.  In fact, plenty of people who know that Trump is crazy are OK with leaving him in control of nukes (e.g. McConnell, Ryan, and every other Republican who is only pretending to like Trump).  What would it take to accept a president who fails the epsilon test?

Here's a possibility.  Person A fails the epsilon test.  Person A is batshit crazy, and might launch nukes because of water fluoridation, or some such nonsense.  Low, but non-zero probability.  Person B won't launch nukes out of any stupid reason, but Person B is a neo-nazi, KKK-type who will try to turn back the clocks to the pre-civil rights era, repeal the 14th, if not the 13th amendment, and so forth.

Would you run a small risk of a world-ending apocalypse to prevent the possible ascension of a truly hardcore racist demagog?

How about if Person B is controlled by a hostile foreign power?  Through blackmail-- financial or sexual?  Would you run a small risk of a world-ending apocalypse to prevent the possible ascension of a foreign puppet in order to retain US sovereignty?

Funny, but you know what wouldn't even warrant consideration from me?  Person B has the wrong position on the top marginal tax rates and corporate tax rates.  I don't give a flying fuck what Person B's position is on tax rates if Person A fails the epsilon test.

Tax rates can change over time.  Over the course of the post-WWII period, they have mostly gone down.  If you want them to keep going down, then electing the wrong person in one year means postponing a decrease.  Get the fuck over it.  If you want them to go up, you're fighting the course of history in the post-WWII era anyway, and your challenge is to change political culture.  Get the fuck over it, and elect the candidate who passes the epsilon test.

I don't take formal, public positions on tax rates generally.  The tax bill that just passed was stupidly constructed because the GOP didn't bother to think about how it was constructed.  That's what happens when you skip hearings, debate, mark-up, and all of that, but in terms of the actual design of policy, I've studied enough economics to know how little we understand about tax rates, and my primary objection to the new law is how exploitable it is rather than the underlying concepts.  Tax law can be changed, though.  Ain't no comin' back from nukes.  Even the use of one, low-yield tactical warhead would destabilize the world politically in a way that could not be undone.

What is an acceptable level of risk when it comes to starting a nuclear war for the sake of stupidity?  Epsilon.  Nothing higher is acceptable.  Period.

Trump tweeted that his "button" is bigger, but he doesn't have an actual, literal button.  What really is bigger here is the risk of some moron launching nukes for no fucking reason.  That's not actually a good thing, though.

It has been a while since I have told you to read Thomas Schelling's The Strategy of Conflict.  Have you read it yet?

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