July 10, 2008

What's the word for this?

One of my long-term interests is human interest in the unpredictable. I've argued that much about human behavior is reasonably predictable (e.g., Beverly Hills schools will have higher test scores than Compton schools for a long time to come), but that we are more interested in the unpredictable.

For example, sports conferences are typically artificially structured to make future champions unpredictable in the medium term. The pro team that does worst this year typically gets the first draft pick of amateurs next year. In the NFL, the schedule is gerrymandered to give this year's worst teams the easiest row to hoe next season. This helps make the NFL more interesting.

The longest article in my 1971 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica appears to be the enormous entry on "World Wars" (lumping WWI and WWII together as two acts of one sad story). So, you could plausibly argue that the World Wars were (at least in the judgment of the editors of the E.B. in 1971) to be the most interesting thing in the entire universe.

It starts with a long description of the breakup of Bismarck's system of alliances that he forged in the 1870s when Germany tried to be allied with or at least neutral with every Great Power except the irreconcilable French. So, a major war was pointless because everybody was reasonably content with their lot on the European continent, except France, which wanted Alsace and Lorraine back. But France wasn't strong enough to take on Germany alone, and nobody else had much incentive to help France out. So, Great Power conflicts were rather dull in the 1871-1890 period.

As Germany became more globally ambitious in the late 19th Century and early 20th Century, however, this lopsided system broke down. The new Kaiser's bumptiousness, for instance, drove the Russian autocracy into an unnatural alliance with the French Republic.

Europe evolved toward a balance of power in which the two alliances were perfectly balanced. One mechanism driving this tendency toward equality of power (and thus unpredictability of the results of a war) was that the weaker side, at any point in time, had more incentive to bid more for a currently neutral power's allegiance than the stronger side.

The outcome was that the two alliances were so balanced that WWI went on, to the surprise of the participants, for a catastrophic 4.3 years.

Is there a term for this tendency toward competitive balance and thus unpredictability of outcome?

It doesn't exist in every situation. For example, there isn't an endless article in the Cncyclopedia on the wars between the U.S. and Canada. The balance of power between the two countries is so out of balance that there's no point to conflict, so the history is famously boring.

But the kind of things that interest people most, such as Republicans vs. Democrats, are the ones where a balance has evolved that makes uncertain who will win.

My published articles are archived at iSteve.com -- Steve Sailer

35 comments:

nix said...

On most accounts Germans were right to consider themselves a world power. They had a strong spiritual and intellectual tradition and their scientific and industrial output was enviable. In addition the German military was feared for centuries. I heard a mention of the Prussian army in a John Wayne movie! Even Israel, who oficially despise Germans as baboons, have, according to Israeli military historian Martin van Creveld, largely adopted the tactics used by the Wehrmacht.

But the Germans should have been more prudent about it, as Bismarck was. Being able and intelligent creates a lot of envy and will not automatically protect you from annihilation. Brits, French, Russians and Americans did not like being looked down upon and basically ganged up to keep the new "kid on the block" down. So now we have pop/rap culture, Coca-Cola and McDonalds in addition to the primitive English language instead of a more sophisticated world language and culture. Too bad.

bjdouble said...

In the terms of structural realists like Kenneth Waltz, a bipolar system is stable and a multipolar system is unstable.

By the way, it's not exactly right to say that a balance of power leads to war. A balance of power means exactly that, a balance. There are plenty of theories as to why wars start and continue, but the tendency towards war is increased by the possession of offensive weapons. World War I was greased along by the belief that the war was going to be short, like the Franco-Prussian war. What they didn't figure on was that the new technologies, specifically the machine gun and barbed wire, made a bloody stalemate inevitable. The stalemate was only broken once the accuracy of artillery reached the point, later in the war, that it became an offensive weapon.

Anonymous said...

Steve --

This sounds like it's sort of related to the concept of entropy and information theory.

Briefly, Claude Shannon defined information as "that which is surprising". A surprising data set has high entropy, corresponding to a probability distribution which is very broad and distributed over many points rather than narrow and peaked.

The more redundant something is, the less surprising it is, the less information it has, and the more compressible it is.


Is there a term for this tendency toward competitive balance and thus unpredictability of outcome?


This sounds a lot like the equipartition theorem in statistical mechanics...it's more likely to find energy divided up equally (on average) among a bunch of molecules than to have it all concentrated in one molecule.

This is because there are many more stable configurations in which every molecule has a little bit of energy than those in which one atom has a ton of energy.

Not sure how you'd apply this an international relations context, but it's sort of like the balance of power...*if* you assume that power can flow between nations, there are more configuration with many moderately powerful nations than a few ultra powerful nations.

Of course, military power obeys very different laws than kinetic energy, to say the least, and in particular it seems that unipolar systems in politics (Roman Empire, Mongols, China, UK, USSR, USA) are a lot more common than they are in statistical mechanics...

BGC said...

Yes - we like things unpredictable, but also with a comprehensible narrative logic (even when this is only apparent after the outcome is known).

So pure randomness (e.g. the throw of a dice) is not interesting - but we love the kind of balance that leads up to a 3:2 count on the last out of the ninth inning with bases loaded and an in-form slugger facing a tired but disciplined pitcher.

Although so unpredictable as to look random, the outcome is not really random because of the very high level of skill involved on both sides.

Whatever outcome emerges, the narrative can explain it - either by brilliant clutch hitting, or the pitcher's nerves of steel.

Sports is about 'manufacturing' such moments - and however artificially they are contrived, these moments are tremendously exciting and memorable.

halfbreed said...

Isn't this a bit self-evident? Of course we want to know about uncertain outcomes, simply because we don't know them. It's pretty much the same reason why what might be in tomorrow's newspapers holds more fascination for us than yesterday's newspapers. Or am I missing something?

Audacious Epigone said...

The term "parity" has been thrown around in the NFL for years. It works pretty well at the national level and individual levels, too. Not really an exotic word, though.

Darwin's Sh*tlist said...

If there's an adjective deriving from "parity" indicating that a thing or group of things tends toward parity, that would be a good bet. But I can't find one.

"Equilibratory parity?"

Sleep said...

I was watching the news every night during the period when both the Democratic and Republican primaries were still beautifully unpredictable. I lost interest immediately when McCain won Florida because I knew it was over. And I lost interest for the most part in the Dem one when Obama's lead looked insurmountable, though I still tuned in to see Hillary's last desperate appeals to her lower-class white base, while telling everyone I knew that those people would all defect to McCain even if Hillary did manage to win back the nomination.

I think I have an extreme phobia of competition though. I dont generally play sports, and when I do I tend to gravitate towards nice-guy "everyone wins" sports or ones where no one keeps track of the score.

Anonymous said...

This is a much clearer formulation of what you were trying to say in the "government" exchange between you and Friedman: the more there is an equilibrium of forces, the more unpredictable the outcome. The more overwhelming the force one party exerts, the more predictable it becomes that there won't be war.

OK, but doesn't that itself makes the more powerful side inherently totally open to corruption? Isn't this the reason, for example, that every enthnicity with a 4-digit population is trying to have a lobby in the US?

This is definitely worth exploring!


JD

P.S. Here's a scenario -- an awfully "racist" one: imagine that all the "non-white" groups -- other than the Japanese -- are gone. Only countries created by people of North European descent (I'm including Russians and other north Slavics in this), and the Japan exists. What would be the "balance" (or "imbalance") of power would there be? Would we still have a trillion-dollar military-industrial complex, or would it become a "militia-manufacture simplex" by then?


JD

Anonymous said...

The outcome was that the two alliances were so balanced that WWI went on, to the surprise of the participants, for a catastrophic 4.3 years.

America's crushing of that balance was rather disastrous for Europe, so much so that America felt an obligation to restore order 35 years later. It's hard to find a Jew today who is aware of his ancestors' crucial role in creating that imbalance, though the backlash from that Jewish handiwork is perhaps the most well known piece of history in the world.

Horatio said...

Anthrostochastophiliaphilia?

SFG said...

For example, there isn't an endless article in the Cncyclopedia on the wars between the U.S. and Canada. The balance of power between the two countries is so out of balance that there's no point to conflict, so the history is famously boring.
True, though don't ignore the role of a common culture; we took quite a bit of land from Mexico, and look how well we get on now, what with them sending their surplus population and all...

c23 said...

If you have a group of competitors, the ones that don't match up are eventually eliminated, so you end up with a level, unpredictable playing field. They are aware of this, so they will imitate or otherwise try to match stronger players. This is more obvious with regard to business than nations or sports teams. Walmart competes on reasonably equal terms with Target, not with mom and pop stores that have long ago gone out of business. And when Walmart has $4 generic drugs, other companies follow.

US politics is another example - Republicans drift to the left as the country drifts to the left in order to stay competitive.

Black Sea said...

Some candidates:

Equilibrium-induced Destabilization

Tragic Parity

The Ali - Frazier Syndrome

Andrew said...

Equilibrium.

The tendency of stable equilibria to stay that way...

We're most interested in how events "shake out," in how they will equilibrate when there's real uncertainty.

Yeah, there should be more words for all this!

Great concepts!

jem said...

"What's the word for this?"

Asperger's.

Truth said...

"Brits, French, Russians and Americans did not like being looked down upon and basically ganged up to keep the new "kid on the block" down."

HAHAHA!

Did we read different history books, or where the Germans considered a violent and aggressive people with a penchant for armed invasion of their neighbors in the name of Leibensraum?

That's a little like being carjacked and having someone accuse the interveining police officer of ganging up "to keep the new kid on the block down."

dearieme said...

"between the U.S. and Canada. The balance of power between the two countries is so out of balance that there's no point to conflict": I think you're precisely wrong. Until the decline of British power in WWI, the USA wasn't remotely strong enough to attack Canada with high hopes of success - she'd already failed in 1776 onwards and again in 1812. If I may say so, Americans overlook how recent their dominance is.

testing99 said...

Steve, that model of balance of power and "Stability" is a fairy tale.

After the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, the situation in Europe was NOT stable. Understandably, France wanted it's territory back and would do anything to get it. Bismarck, being stupid, created a permanent enemy for Germany.

In the Balkans, the crumbling of the Ottoman Empire, the desire of the Orthodox Slavs to re-establish themselves as they had been under the Byzantines, and the emnity of the Western Catholic powers (Austria, primarily) just continued the fights that had gone on since well, the 800's or so.

None of this was "stable" or "balance of power." Indeed, the technology and military theory of the time escalated any minor conflict into a world-war. Whoever mobilized first would have a tremendous advantage. So everyone mobilized at the same time. Making war guaranteed.

Moreover, as the losses mounted, quite naturally war aims on both sides escalated. The Kaiser's initial war aims were the physical defeat of the French and later the British armies. The massive German casualties soon increased the war aims to include massive territorial concessions by the French, and annexation of Belgium (traditionally the French-controlled buffer zone). The Allies of course escalated THEIR war aims (including the return of Alsace-Lorraine).

I'm shocked you don't understand this aspect of human nature. Neither side COULD back down, precisely BECAUSE of the losses.

Anonymous said...

The term for this is "negative feedback". Negative feedback usually brings stabilty while "positive feedback", in most cases, rapidly forces conditions to one extreme or the other.

-Bruce

Anonymous said...

To continue mechanics analogies, there are 2 types of equilibria:

1. Stable, such as marble on the bottom of a salad bowl. If you push it sideways up the wall, it will always eventually settle back to the bottom.

2. Unstable, such as marble on top of an upside-down salad bowl. If you push it sideways it will never go back to its initial place by itself.

So how about "unstable equilibrium"?

-dragonslayer

Anonymous said...

"Brits, French, Russians and Americans did not like being looked down upon and basically ganged up to keep the new "kid on the block" down."

HAHAHA!

Did we read different history books, or where the Germans considered a violent and aggressive people with a penchant for armed invasion of their neighbors in the name of Leibensraum?

That's a little like being carjacked and having someone accuse the interveining police officer of ganging up "to keep the new kid on the block down."

-----

Not at all. The Germans' real crime was arriving too late at the scene. While the United States was conquering and annexing half of Mexico in blatantly aggressive wars and the French and the British were conquering African and Asian peoples by the dozen, those "violent and aggressive" Germans were settling border disputes involving areas with considerable German population (Denmark, France).

This is not to deny later German crimes, etc. etc. etc., just to say that, if you want to criticize the Germans for Lebensraum objectives, take the beam out of your own eye and give Mexico its land back.

Don´t like the idea? That's because the United States was, and remains, a more efficient "carjacker" than Germany ever was - and you have no problem with that. So stop the moralizing.

The Sanity Inspector said...

Virginia Dare's descendants, if she has any, are probably black.

Ross said...

"The outcome was that the two alliances were so balanced that WWI went on, to the surprise of the participants, for a catastrophic 4.3 years."

The sides in World War One weren't evenly matched, the British, French and Russian Empires were clearly more powerful than the German, Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires by any measure that could be made.

It's just that the technology of 1914 didn't allow the Triple Entente to exploit their economic and numerical superiority, instead favouring a slow, defensive war of bloody attrition.

By 1918 technological advances such as tanks and precision artillery meant that those advantages could be translated into major breakthroughs against the Germans.

teacher.paris said...

testing99 said...
Steve, that model of balance of power and "Stability" is a fairy tale.

After the annexation of Alsace-Lorraine, the situation in Europe was NOT stable. Understandably, France wanted it's territory back and would do anything to get it. Bismarck, being stupid, created a permanent enemy for Germany."

No, the French politicians - the least competent pool of currupt pond scum in history prior to today's American politicians - wanted an issue to inflame the French voter.

It is unlikely a German population wanted to be reunited with the pathetic heirs of Robespierre and Corsican mafioso.

How wise of the Romanovs to ally with the country where the only thing that works is the Metro - when not on strike.

Anonymous said...

The name you are looking for is
"evolutionarily stable strategy" and it was coined by John Maynard-Smith.

tommy said...

The outcome was that the two alliances were so balanced that WWI went on, to the surprise of the participants, for a catastrophic 4.3 years.
Is there a term for this tendency toward competitive balance and thus unpredictability of outcome?

It doesn't exist in every situation. For example, there isn't an endless article in the Cncyclopedia on the wars between the U.S. and Canada. The balance of power between the two countries is so out of balance that there's no point to conflict, so the history is famously boring.


I don't understand your point, Steve. That two competitors who are almost evenly matched makes for "interesting history" is true, I suppose, but it's trivial. So is the idea that the outcome of any rivalry between well-matched competitors will be unpredictable. Are you claiming that open conflict is more likely when competitors are well matched? The example you provide of the wars between the U.S. and Canada, the relative lack of bloodshed between the United States and the USSR in the Cold War, the blitzkrieg against Poland during the Second World War, and most of America's wars since the end of WWII would all seem to argue against it. The strong devour the weak all the time. Could you elaborate further on this equilibrium you are speaking of? Whatever it is, I suspect it was more applicable to classical conflicts than modern ones.

Mike said...

Parity and negative feedback seem to cover it.

I would point toward a related but additional human (or at least Western) tendency, the drive to see/create parity where none exists. E.g., newspapers giving equal time to experts on evolution and intelligent design theorists.

It's human nature to not only be most interested in competitive-parity situations where either side could win (perfectly understandable, from an evolutionary standpoint of how to spend one's attention), but also to see or manufacture them when they don't exist.

tommy said...

OK, I think I understand your point. The weaker have traditionally only had three options: acquiescence to a bully's demands, alliance with a bigger kid or group of kids to fend off a bully, or taking their dismal chances in a fight against a bully. Not surprisingly, then, history tends to work toward the consolidation of small nations into empires or great alliances. Those who aren't part of a well-matched empire or alliance tend to disappear and, thus, the equilibrium of which you speak. You could call it the "equilibrium of national survival."

SFG said...

I was actually under the impression Israeli distaste for Germans had abated; Nazi jokes and VW boycotts are more of an American Jewish thing.

Copying the Wehrmacht? Well, why not; by most accounts they were the best army in history, they were just overmatched.

I think Germany mostly had bad luck. They were a collection of states until relatively late, picked the wrong side in WWI, and overreached themselves in WWII.

michael farris said...

In terms of competition, I think the elusive word you're look for is "fairness".

Not many people would enjoy watching Federer or Nadal destroy a 12 year old aspiring player in the Wimbledon final. Nor would they be interested in a two party race for president between John McCain and Chuck Baldwin (from something called the 'constitution party').

Only bullies enjoy watching the very strong trample the very weak, other people enjoy contests where either party could possibly win (even if the odds are 4 to 1, that's a very different thing from 2364 to 1.

dougjnn said...

“For example, there isn't an endless article in the Cncyclopedia on the wars between the U.S. and Canada. The balance of power between the two countries is so out of balance that there's no point to conflict, so the history is famously boring.”

The great disparity of power between the US and Canada has had nothing to do with keeping the peace between the two countries since the War of 1812 at least. Rather the opposite in fact.

War with Canada meant war with Great Britain. Americans love to remember the American Revolution, where we won, and forget the war of 1812, where we lost, or at the very least achieved an expensive draw, with our attempted conquest of Canada that formed a part of those 1812 war aims thoroughly foiled.

It’s only since WW I that the ideology of the unthinkability of war with Canada for reasons of fellow feeling, cultural closeness and the like, has grown up. It sure wasn’t part of the thinking of Polk’s supporters during the 1844 Presidential campaign when they chanted “fifty-four forty or fight”. They were demanding that the boundary between the US and Canada in the undetermined but rapidly settling Oregon Territory be what would today give us half of British Columbia.

Martin said...

"testing99 said...

I'm shocked you don't understand this aspect of human nature. Neither side COULD back down, precisely BECAUSE of the losses."

It is not often I agree with you, testing99, but this is one case where I do. War aims change, and as a war escalates, so often do the stakes. After leading their nations into a bloody, futile war, the leaders felt the need for a great victory, to prevent revolt (and themselves being hanged) if for no other reason.

That is a good reason why we should be circumspect in regards to war, and only enter into one, when there is no other option. You would do well to apply your erudition about the past to the circumstances of the present.

Mark said...

Germans were settling border disputes involving areas with considerable German population (Denmark, France). This is not to deny later German crimes, etc. etc. etc., just to say that, if you want to criticize the Germans for Lebensraum objectives, take the beam out of your own eye and give Mexico its land back.

Isn't that what the Mexican-American War was all about, too - just replace the "German" with "American" - "disputes involving areas with considerable [American] population [(California, Utah)]."

And they weren't even well-populated areas (at least not with people loyal to either government). Just look at the 1850 Census, taken 2 years after the end of the war. The Utah Territory, which included all of modern Utah, nearly all of Nevada, and a considerable chunk of Colorado, had only 11,380 people - most of them English-speaking Mormons. California had about 95,000 people, about half English-speaking. Total of the areas ceded by Mexico: less than 170,000. In contrast, Tennessee alone had over 1 million and Alabama nearly 800,000.

I still tuned in to see Hillary's last desperate appeals to her lower-class white base, while telling everyone I knew that those people would all defect to McCain even if Hillary did manage to win back the nomination.

Yes, except that McCain is doing nothing to win those voters to his side. He still trails in the polls by 6 to 7 points. That narrative is logical, too.

America's crushing of that balance was rather disastrous for Europe, so much so that America felt an obligation to restore order 35 years later. It's hard to find a Jew today who is aware of his ancestors' crucial role in creating that imbalance

What was the Jewish role in that imbalance?

If I may say so, Americans overlook how recent their dominance is.

That will change when Canada has finished importing enough people to make it competitive with the USA, and then renames itself North Pakichinastan.

Anonymous said...

Isn't that what the Mexican-American War was all about, too - just replace the "German" with "American" - "disputes involving areas with considerable [American] population [(California, Utah)]."

----

Only if you consider almost half the the present U.S. to be "border areas". Last I heard, these lands had never been under American or British sovereignty - much unlike Schleswig or the Alsace - so there was no "dispute" as to who their legitimate owner was. The German population of these (and other) areas was centuries old - the American population in Mexican lands was new, and betrayed the country that had taken them in. And your implication that because these lands had small populations they were there to be taken - the Nazis said the same thing about the Ukraine and most of Eastern Europe, which compared to Germany had a small population (that's why "Lebensraum" was there and not at the Provence or the Low Countries).

You can keep trying to figure out a way to make Americans righteous and Germans despicable for doing the very same thing...