December 6, 2004

· Internet

As Eszter notes, the Becker/Posner Blog 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 and one from Posner. Right now, my working theory is that the blog is an elaborate hoax. How else to explain stuff like this:

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 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 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.

Elsewhere on the blog, the absurd suck-up comments from law students are a further indication that the reader is being gamed. Take this one from “Charles”, for instance:

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 perhaps? The PoorMan maybe? I await further developments with interest.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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