Richard Hanania is President of the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology.
He is the author of the recently published Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy: How Generals, Weapons Manufacturers, and Foreign Governments Shape American Foreign Policy.
Richard Hanania on Twitter - https://twitter.com/RichardHanania
CSPI - https://cspicenter.org/
Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy
The Great Awokening | Zach Goldberg & Richard Hanania
Music used with permission from Blade Runner Blues Livestream improvisation by State Azure.
Steve Hsu is Professor of Theoretical Physics and of Computational Mathematics, Science, and Engineering at Michigan State University. Previously, he was Senior Vice President for Research and Innovation at MSU and Director of the Institute of Theoretical Science at the University of Oregon. Hsu is a startup founder (SafeWeb, Genomic Prediction, Othram) and advisor to venture capital and other investment firms. He was educated at Caltech and Berkeley, was a Harvard Junior Fellow, and has held faculty positions at Yale, the University of Oregon, and MSU.
Please send any questions or suggestions to email@example.com or Steve on Twitter @hsu_steve.
What is Manifold?
Steve Hsu is Professor of Theoretical Physics and Computational Mathematics, Science, and Engineering at Michigan State University. Join him for wide-ranging conversations with leading writers, scientists, technologists, academics, entrepreneurs, investors, and more.
Steve Hsu: Welcome to Manifold.
Today's guest is Richard Hanania. It's pretty hard for me to describe Richard to someone who doesn't know him. But what I might say is he's a guy who has a traditional academic background, but somehow escaped and has established himself as a well-known public intellectual already at a fairly young age.
And I think it's fair to say with the help of the internet.
Richard Hanania: Yeah.
Steve Hsu: So, Richard, I think I became aware of you mainly through Twitter and podcasts and various people referred to you, I think, as having very insightful takes or views on all kinds of things. A very large range of things, which I think the audience will come to understand by the end of our discussion. You've got a very active mind and you're actually thinking about lots of different things.
So what I'd like to do is, I'd like to start with just a little bit of your personal history because great minds like yours, don't just materialize, fully formed on the earth. So somehow there's a development process and I find it and I think a lot of listeners find it really interesting to follow that, or learn about that development process.
So I'm just going to list some things from your personal history and then just let you riff on them. Go on as long as you want, or just comment a little bit on the aspects of your biography that I'm going to go through.
So you went to law school at the University of Chicago. And at the time were you thinking you were going to become a lawyer? It was not a stop along the way toward becoming a professor, was it?
Richard Hanania: No, not really. So I went to law school for the same reason that a lot of people go to law school. I mean, I was sort of lost. Not in undergrad. I mean I went to the University of Colorado. I grew up on the south side of Chicago. I just went to the University of Colorado, really sort of not thinking. I just had an idea that Colorado seemed like a cool place to be. So I just went there. I got a major in linguistics. But I really wasn't, I didn't really have a direction. I mean, I just started reading things I was interested in. I was just sort of hanging out. You know, finishing my classes.
And then it came time to graduate and I sort of didn't know what to do. I thought about grad school. You know, it's hard to start thinking about grad school, like your last year of college. I mean, I didn't really have any research background. I didn't know if I would be competitive and different programs. I thought about something like political science, anthropology. Something like that. So I applied to law school. I took the LSAT and you can go to law school without having any background. Law school is basically just, your GPA and your LSAT.
So I could get into a really good law school, but I couldn't really get into an elite, academic program, any kind of Ph.D. program. And so, yeah, I decided I would be practical and become a lawyer.
About midway through law school, end of my first year, within my second year I sort of decided that corporate life was not for me. I was just too interested in ideas. I just spend my free time reading. I wasn't really ... The idea of going to a firm and working 60 hours a week, which is what a lot of people that go to a place like University of Chicago end up doing, it just had zero appeal to me. And so the University of Chicago was, it was a great experience because I'd come from a very non-elite background. Most of the people I went to high school with, didn't go to college. My parents are first-generation. they came over from the middle east.
Richard Hanania: So I really didn't have anybody sort of directing me towards anything like an academic path. About midway through law school, I thought okay I want to be in the world of ideas. And so University of Chicago was actually a great formative intellectual experience because it was the first time I was really around people who were, who were as smart as me, to be frank.
And you know, we had a program grounded in law and economics. I found that very interesting. I found it great to be around people who maybe, maybe they weren't as intellectually curious as I was, but they were more intellectually curious than what I'd been used to. And so, so that was a great experience. And then second, third year I'm looking at academia. I graduated from University of Chicago law school, sort of sunk cost fallacy I just, I just finished. and then I go off to UCLA to get my Ph.D.
Steve Hsu: And, at what point did you decide on the specialization that you were going to have when you finally did your Ph.D.?
I decided on international relations. So that's a subfield of political science. I just loved reading history. I loved reading about sort of the trajectory of history, why we've gotten to this place where war is much less common than before. I was interested in current events.
Richard Hanania: And I wanted to understand it and study it at an academic level, so that pushed me towards international relations.
What was it about UCLA that attracted you?
That was, it was like the best program that would take me, honestly, it was between UCLA and a few other places. And UCLA was much, a much nicer place to live. So I ended up going there.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, and correct me if I'm wrong. You live in Southern California now, is that right?
Richard Hanania: Yeah, exactly. Yeah. So I came out here and I settled out here, with the COVID restrictions. it's been really getting to me, out here, but yeah, this is still home for now.
Steve Hsu: Yup. Yeah, I was an undergrad, I think, near where you live now.
I was an undergrad in Pasadena, so I'm pretty familiar with the area and actually spent a lot of time at UCLA at fraternity parties and things like this. So.
Richard Hanania: Yeah.
Steve Hsu: I definitely know the scene, or at least the 1980s version of the scene.
So after UCLA, you were a postdoc at Columbia, and at that time were you sort of solidly on the academic track? Or did you already think that you might be leaving academia?
So I was still on the academic track when I started at Columbia. I thought that I'd go there. I'd do a fellowship for two years and then I'd find an academic job. You know, at some point I sort of lost faith in what we were doing in international relations. A lot of the stuff I did early was using these complex and fancy statistical methods to understand international politics.
I think those methods tend to have a lot of problems with them. And the things that you could study sort of more I think with more rigor, they were too narrow. And so the studies you could do, you can answer a very narrow question that really didn't matter for the world. And I, I had gotten into it because I was interested in broad questions about history and sort of the nature of society and making sure we live in a world with less conflict.
Richard Hanania: You know there's not a lot of people doing that. At least very early in their careers, in academia. You would think that's one of the things you might have a chance to do in international relations. I don't think people tend to do that. I also thought that the people, the work that I was doing, and the work I saw being done, I just thought it was too divorced from the real world.
One of my interests has always been American politics. It's been international relations and I want to take what I know and what I find out and the tools that I have and try to apply them to the real world. So like about a year into my fellowship about a year and a half I started just dipping my toes in the water. I made a Twitter account. I was still on the academic track. So very, very, very careful. And you know, the things I said, just basically promoted my work. And then over time, I was just drawn into, more into the public space. So the first thing I thought was, okay, maybe I'll go work for a think tank, because that's something you might do if you have academic skills, but you don't necessarily want to be a professor.
And so I started working with Defense Priorities and I still have an affiliation with them. So I started writing reports and op-eds and stuff for them. I would also talk about American politics and sort of the culture war issues. And that stuff actually started getting a lot more attention than the foreign policy stuff. And people really thought I had something unique to say on these issues. And so now I basically split my time between writing about American politics and also writing about geopolitical and foreign affairs.
Steve Hsu: So this period that you're talking about when you're first getting on Twitter, is that something like 2018?
Richard Hanania: Yeah, exactly. So, 2018 more like 2019, but you know for a while there, I had like no followers. I wasn't really anybody. I was just on Twitter, just posting links to my academic articles and just articles that I found interesting. And then really, in 2020, I start getting more attention.
I start CSPI, the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology. That launches, in December 2020, right after the presidential election. And then my Substack, I really don't start. I might've started in 2020, but it really doesn't take off, it doesn't really get any attention until about spring of 2021.
Richard Hanania: So we're in it's, it hasn't been that long. This has been a very compressed schedule that I've been anything like a public figure, but that's sort of the timeline.
Steve Hsu: You're blowing up like crazy man. So.
Richard Hanania: People say that. Yeah, I hope.
Well, it's true. I mean, the most puzzling thing for me is trying to figure out how I actually became aware of you. Because at some point I became aware of you as somebody who says interesting and insightful things. And that's sort of how you got lodged in my brain. And, I don't know how it actually happened. And then of course, recently I've listened to a lot of your podcasts and read a bunch of your writing, which we'll come back to.
Steve Hsu: But let me talk a little bit about CSPI. So that's the Center for the Study of Partisanship and Ideology. And it's a nonprofit 501(c)(3), which you founded and you're the president of, am I correct?
Richard Hanania: Yes, that's right.
Steve Hsu: And so I'd love to hear the story of how that thing was created because that's a very unusual thing. Like the way that you got out of academia, you kind of left academia in style, I would say. You went from being a postdoc to running a very innovative, not-for-profit.
And, let me, I'm gonna read from the mission statement that's on your website. Now, before I do this, you could say if this is out of date or something and it sort of no longer characterizes what you guys are about, you can jump in and just give me the updated version. If not, I'm just going to read this because I think it really informs your worldview or what your worldview was when the statement was written.
So over the last few decades, scientific and technological progress have stagnated. So you're starting with very strong statements, right? Scientists conduct more research than ever before. But groundbreaking innovation is scarce. At the same time, identity politics and political polarization have reached new extremes and social trends such as family stability and crime are worse than in previous decades. And in some cases, moving in the wrong direction. What explains these trends and how can we reverse them?
Much of the blame lies with the institutions we rely on for administration, innovation, and leadership. Instead of forward-looking governments, we have short-sighted politicians and bloated bureaucracies. Instead of real experts with proven track records, we have so-called experts who appeal to the authority of their credentials. Instead of political leaders willing to face facts and make tough trade-offs, we have politicians who appeal to ignorance and defer responsibility.
To fix our institutions, we need to rethink them from the ground up. That is why CSPI supports and funds research into the administrative systems, organizational structures, and political ideologies of modern governance. Only by understanding what makes these systems so often dysfunctional, can we change them for the better.
And I want to say, just to compliment you, that I'm much older than you and I've been living in this world and gathering data and synthesizing theory, hypotheses for a long time. But basically, I don't disagree with anything that you've written.
Another guy who knows even more about institutions and political functioning, is a friend of mine named Dominic Cummings. I think he would agree with everything that you've written there as well. So I was struck by that. I think it's a very concise statement of a particular worldview. I don't want to say the doomer worldview, but it is kind of a decline of civilization worldview. Some of these issues like dysfunction of these institutions or limitations of politicians, maybe these are timeless. But, maybe say a little bit about how you came to these conclusions.
Richard Hanania: Yeah. So when I started CSPI, the idea was we were going to take social science and we were just going to do it better. With a focus on political science and political psychology, which are two areas that I've researched on and that I've written about.
So the idea was you see political science, you see, you know how people describe, for example, why conservatives and liberals are different and what motivates them. And the research is just very if you're not bought into the left-wing ideology of most professors, you could see the flaws on it.
Richard Hanania: So I took a class in political psychology at UCLA and every week was just about sub-cognitive or moral defect that conservatives have. It's like conservatism and racism, conservatism and immigration.
And they have something called, for example, system justification theory, where you have a need to explain away inequality, and people who have this higher need to explain away inequality are more likely to be conservative, just stuff like that. That's the quality of a lot of the research.
And so, I started CSPI with people who I thought were doing some good political science, they were more balanced, were giving us a more even and factual, and non-partisan view of the world. You know, no science or field of research in the social sciences is completely free of ideology or partisanship. But I thought that we need some balance.
The way I put it was, the intellectual and moral flaws of conservatism have been investigated to death. And that doesn't mean that everything that people have found is untrue, but somebody should also be looking at what the other side is. What are some flaws or intellectual defects or moral inconsistencies that liberals have, and that both sides, conservatives, and liberals and whoever else, however else you want to categorize people, whatever they share in common.
And so that we know we still do a lot of work along those lines. But I came to believe over time — I was influenced by the writings of Tyler, Cowen, Patrick Collison, Peter Thiel, about the decline of progress. And I thought that there was a bigger story here. And I started to see identity politics and what's recently been called wokeness as part of a larger story in that there's been sort of ideological and bureaucratic capture of institutions.
Richard Hanania: And I would say that the people who are on the right are moderates, who complain about the political bias in academia, I don't think they take it seriously enough. I think that the idea that disparities are caused by discrimination. And that we live in a white supremacist society and we have this suspicion, this presumption against objective standards that will show any group differences. And to use those in business or government, I think that's a huge problem for competent governance.
Civil service examination, for example, was done away with, because of disparate impact because groups scored differently on it. We can see with, sort of the politically correct ideas about crime and the causes of crime and I think were largely false narratives about biased policing, we can see what's happened to the murder rate in the last two years, just historic rises. So I think there's a broader story here. It's not just that, oh, conservatives are discriminated against. We have a biased view of politics and some people and some ideas are not getting a fair shake in academia. It's like these ideas are harmful and wrong and they have a lot of real-world consequences.
You know, that's something that I think that the sort of the backlash to wokeness to identity politics has missed. And I think that the progress studies people who are doing a lot of, interesting things, but at the same time, I think a lot of them try to position themselves as centrists that don't really grapple with the cultural issues and sort of the larger story here of what exactly is going on. So these two concerns, the sort of the cultural war issues, the sort of what I'd call the war on merit, the war on objectivity, along with the decline of progress, I think these are related issues and we deal with both of them at CSPI.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. So that was a great summary there. I mean, so our listeners can already, I think, get a sense of the breadth of the topics that you're capable of engaging with. In this mission statement, though, I was kind of struck by the fact that it's true, that a lot of the aspects of the viewpoint are maybe more often held by people on the right than on the left.
But I think someone from the left looking at what the statement that I actually read, wouldn't actually be completely sure that you were on the opposite side of the ideological spectrum. Cause to some of these assertions, like, okay, slow down in scientific and technological progress. There are plenty of people sort of left of center economists who might, endorse that hypothesis.
The idea that family stability and crime are worse than in previous decades. I think those are just quantitative measurements that people can make. The idea that politicians are enslaved by short-term incentives and bloated bureaucracies, I think. So a lot of these things are, I think, fairly neutral.
And maybe they arose partially from your reaction to some very left-leaning material that you were taught in graduate school, but not all the claims really I think are right of center in nature.
I don't know if you've listened to this podcast. I just ha I just came upon it by accident. There were two very left-of-center professors at Cal State Northridge. I think one is maybe a philosopher and the other one is maybe a political scientist. They spent an hour and a half, I think, seriously discussing. just you, Richard Hanania. I think they called it a conservative worldview, but, probably not based on the stuff that's in the mission statement I read. But, it was a very serious analysis of your worldview by two left-of-center academics.
Have you heard that?
Richard Hanania: Yeah. I did listen to that and, yeah, I mean, I think there's like a lot of different things I write about, and often somebody will sort of see a piece of it, but not see the other. So the foreign policy stuff and the American domestic policy stuff, they're often like in different worlds. So, somebody will see me as just a conservative, if they're reading the stuff on wokeness and identity politics and civil rights law and where it, where it came from. And somebody who's only come across my foreign policy writing is not going to call me a conservative. So those people had found a very specific set of essays that they were analyzing.
On the broader point of the progress studies. Yes. I think it's consciously non-partisan. And there's a new think tank in DC called the Institute for Progress that just opened up in the last week or so. Tyler Cowen is sort of seen as sort of the intellectual godfather of the progress studies intellectual movement. And I think people might say he's sort of right-leaning because he's pro market and he's an economist who likes markets and is skeptical of government in a lot of ways. Nobody would consider him to like a conventional Republican or a conventional right-wing personality.
Richard Hanania: So you're, you're right. There is nothing necessarily sort of partisan or related to one side or the other on these issues. Now I do have to say that to try to be nonpartisan and not to come down on one side of the other and the culture war, it can have its advantages. But I think if you're trying to do that too hard — and you know, I have no problem with people who are trying to have as broad appeal as possible, particularly if they're working in Washington, and have to actually convince politicians on a day-to-day basis on stuff to do, which is not what CSPI is trying to do.
But I think that there should be somebody out there who is willing to take on questions related to progress and relate it to the state of institutions that is directly related and that might actually be seen as something that's coming down on the side of the right.
Richard Hanania: So one example is we had a report by a guy named Leif Rasmussen, he's a computer science Ph.D. student at Northwestern. It's about the rise of woke language in NSF grants. And so, there's a story there about the politicization of academia. You know, maybe the researcher is or is not politicized, but at least you have to express certain ideas. And it could potentially be related to economic and technological stagnation.
I mean the COVID-19. I mean, people probably wouldn't have thought that this would have become such a partisan issue. But I think that what Philippe Lemoine has shown, he's another one of our research fellows, is that the people who are implementing COVID restrictions aren't doing anything resembling cost-benefit analysis.
I think if you look at it in an objective way, it's hard to see how it is justified. These things impose massive costs, and if they do help and reduce the spread of COVID, it's not very obvious. It doesn't jump out from the data.
Richard Hanania: So you are imposing massive costs on people and their ability to live their normal lives for an at best an uncertain influence on the spread of COVID. And I think this is particularly true after vaccines became available.
So I think, yeah, we're in a unique place in sort of the intellectual ecosystem. In that we're sort of, you know we have our foot in the camps of conservative slash libertarian thought. But at the same time, we're engaging in this broader discussion about technological and scientific progress.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I mean, I think if you, if I excise from the set of things that you write about or talk about just, just the woke kind of culture wars things, there all kinds of areas like the rate of scientific progress or COVID that I think obviously people could engage from all sides without any particularly partisan rancor.
Lemoine's writing was fantastic. I mean, he, I think, I think he did some of the best analysis of the data that was available on COVID. That was maybe like a year ago or something. Is that right?
Richard Hanania: Yeah, he's but he's done a series of yeah posts and essays last six months to a year. Yeah. And I mean they've been picked up by the New Yorker, one of the writers on COVID over there, it was picked up by Andrew Goldman, who's a famous statistician who has a blog. So yeah, I think by engaging with the sort of broader community of people, whatever their political orientation, and just doing high-quality work that smart people can appreciate. We can sort of have an extensive influence.
Steve Hsu: Right. You know, we could do a whole show talking about science and technology and the rate of progress. And whether there really has been a slowdown, this is something I've discussed with Tyler in the past. To be a hundred percent honest, I don't think it's easy to really understand this question unless you are yourself a scientist and technologist because it could be simply that a lot of the low hanging fruit was picked in an earlier period and it's nobody's fault, and maybe not even the fault of our institutions, that progress seems to have slowed down. This is a pretty complicated topic. I don't mean to go into it fully here. We could, we can revisit it in some other conversation, but that alone I think is worthy of quite a deep dive.
Richard Hanania: Yeah. I mean, yeah, we can, we can go into it or not. I agree with you that it's very, very difficult to sort of measure these things and people do the best they can. But it's hard. And you know, there's a response to the idea that the low-hanging fruit is, well, they say, well, also at the same time, computing power is increasing and we have new tools, like being able to sequence the genome cheaply. We have a lot more researchers and a lot more money being thrown at the problem. So it's hard to know whether it's actually harder or easier. I mean, there's a lot of advantages that we have that previous generations didn't have.
But I think there are certain areas like policy areas where you can look and you can say, okay, our institutions are really doing a bad job. So I think there's become something of a consensus among many that nuclear power is somewhere where we've really dropped the ball. This is a clean and effective and affordable source of energy. And just the regulations have been overly burdensome.
You know, I would say stuff like in personnel management, we know IQ tests are better than a lot of things, but they're not being used. And there's going to be all kinds of unseen effects of not using the best methods we have to select people for different jobs or universities, and that's getting worse with colleges dropping the SAT.
So I think there are areas like that where we can look at it and say, okay, we're really dropping the ball somewhere. You know, even if it's getting harder, we are making mistakes and it's worth finding out where those places are.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I agree that there are many readily identifiable mistakes that are being made. You mentioned nuclear power. I think a kind of rational civilization looking back from a hundred years from now will say, well, what was wrong with these guys for purely emotional, kind of non-rational reasons they left this power source untapped for a long time. If you read golden age science fiction from the fifties people like Robert Highland thought we'd be jetting around the solar system with nuclear-powered spaceships. And people like Freeman Dyson even worked on designing such spaceships around that time. So, yeah, I think for pretty much irrational reasons, we haven't exploited nuclear energy quite nearly as much as we could have.
So, we can revisit this question of the pace of scientific progress, but I want to move on to a slightly different topic if you don't mind.
For an old guy who grew up without the internet, maybe you can describe how you perceive the intellectual nexus that you're part of. It seems to me that just even in the last few years, we have this phenomenon of fairly well-known public intellectuals. I kind of put you in that category. You're becoming a well-known public intellectual, mainly mediated by, I would say social media, Substack, things like this. Now, I'm curious how that constellation of public intellectuals looks to you. I'm afraid that the ones that I like, might be a little bit right shifted and I'm missing out on some that are on the left or, or maybe, maybe I am being kind of fair in the way that I absorb content and evaluate these people. So maybe you can just map out what you think this space looks like.
Richard Hanania: Yeah it's very interesting. So when I started writing, I said, oh, maybe I'm going to place op-eds in major newspapers and I'll get a lot of attention that way. And I've been published in, pretty much, most, if not all of the major newspapers in the United States.
I wouldn't say, I should say all. There are a few like USA Today. I've never published an op-ed, but I published in most of the most famous ones. And my Substack tends to get a much bigger readership. And it gets a lot more attention than these, than these op-eds I think people are used to.
You know, cause when you're writing for a publication, they have a word limit, they have an in-house style. And I generally trust myself to be able to put the ideas together and to put them in a way that's appealing to a broad audience. It says something important.
I don't set out and say, I'm going to write 2,000 words or I'm going to write 4,000 words. I sort of know the argument that I want to make. And if I need to just include a figure, a chart or a graph, that's just copied and pasted from Pew Research, I can do that, which you can't do if you're just writing for the New York Times or something.
I think there is just this sort of intellectual freedom and this space to explore that you have with the new technology. I mean, namely Substack. It's a sort of very minimalist design [filled with] features. So like, if you look at the blog platforms from 10 years ago, if you want to really do complicated stuff, it's probably worse. But I mean, what's great about Substack is it's so well integrated into everything. So you post something on Twitter, you send it through email, you send it through text message, you can download it on your Kindle.
It just looks, looks really nice. You can get people to sign up and subscribe to your work. It's all integrated on the same system through Stripe. So Substack it's taken off for a reason.
The intellectual space, the places where I am most active, I think I kind of tend to follow people who are better on their own than they are with an editor. So I think there's a lot of good, there's a lot of interesting policy analysis done on the left. I think the people who came out of Vox, like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias, do a lot of great work. I wish actually there were more conservatives who didn't just deal with big ideas, but sort of did the day-to-day of, you know, policy of what's in the latest stimulus bill and things like that. There's just, I think, a sort of an underinvestment in that kind of thing. And I think despite all the culture war concern among conservative, or what's used to be called the intellectual dark web with sort of the cultural influence of wokeness and, and different policies that people get upset by, there's been less of a sort of a policy agenda and thinking about what politics can actually do to address the things people care about. One of my essays, Woke Institutions Is Just Civil Rights Law, was an attempt to actually provide that path forward.
So yeah, there's a lot of interesting work being done. I think that I'm filling a niche. And then I'm thinking about, sort of, I care about the culture war issues a lot. But I'm thinking about them in a broader perspective. I'm thinking about politically what is actually feasible, what can politics and policy accomplish.
But you know, it's really, I mean, it's great. There are just a lot of independent voices out there on foreign policy stuff. I mean, basically the right-wing papers and the left-wing papers, they pretty much sound the same. You have to go to Substack to see people now, like Glenn Greenwald, who are just like more strenuous critics of American foreign policy. People like myself. People like that with those views can break out in the op-ed pages sometimes. But they're drowned out by the sort of establishment foreign policy views that's still dominant today. So I, yeah, intellectually, I think it's an interesting time and I hope where I hope it goes towards actually more practicality, more trying to influence the world and doesn't turn into something of a debate club, which I think, I think certain circles, it's a trap that they fall into.
Steve Hsu: I think that if you took a set of, I guess they would be assistant professors your age, who are trained in social science, foreign policy, history, areas like this, I think most of them would envy you because you know, you're not saddled with the day-to-day departmental stuff that they have to deal with.
You're able to reach a broad audience. You're able to address a broad range of topics and you're getting people's attention. So, you're kind of in a very enviable position.
What does the economics of it look like for you? So you're not drawing assistant professor salaries, right? So somehow you are sustaining yourself through your Substack or through CSPI.
Richard Hanania: Yeah, well, through CSPI, I get grants from CSPI. The Substack it's not feasible because I do not, I guess I get some subscriptions, but I do not paywall anything as of now. You know, I was talking to somebody recently who had twice my free subscribers and twice my Twitter followers. So he's somebody about twice as famous as I am, but he had something like eight to 10 times more paid subscribers. Just because he paywalls stuff and I don't. So it's, it's really not feasible if you don't pay while you're material. Although people who are really big fans of yours, will contribute. So, yeah, it's basically CSPI. Until recently I was doing a lot of work for Defense Priorities, so I took a think tank salary from there. So yeah, I mean, it's part of the independent path and you have to sort of find your own funding.
Steve Hsu: Was it difficult to raise the initial money for CSPI? Were there sort of wealthy donors that you already knew? Or how did that work?
Richard Hanania: Yeah, exactly. I mean, We've been lucky to have a few big donors. These are people that I knew when I started to sort of dip my toes into the public space. And then you know, I was encouraged by a few of them to go ahead and do this. We've just been beating around these ideas for a while and they said go do it.
I think there'll be a market for it. And as we've got out there, we've found other donors and we've gotten a lot of attention. yeah, it's actually, not as hard as I would have thought it was probably easier actually than getting an academic job at this point.
Steve Hsu: That's great. Where do you see yourself in, say, five or 10 years?
Richard Hanania: Yeah. I mean, it's a good question. If you told me five years ago, or 10 years ago, that this is what I'd be doing, I would have been pretty, pretty surprised. Yeah, I don't know. I think, at least for the next year or two, I'm going to write more on the topics I care about. A lot about American foreign policy, a lot about the practical consequences of wokeness and what can be done about it. And also just bringing on smart people to CSPI to do important work. You know, when we get out there, success builds on itself.
So it's like sort of sending up a bat signal, anybody who's in academia who wants to do work that they think is interesting and that's going to appeal to a large audience and maybe they can't necessarily do it in academia or they'll do it in academia and nobody will pay attention to it. I mean those people are finding us, so it's great. There are a lot of opportunities out there.
Steve Hsu: Well, I think it's an all-star team. When I look at the pages of the various affiliates of CSPI, like Philippe Lemoine, I wonder if Zack Goldberg is one of them as well? It's people who have made really important observations.
What I actually want to turn to is the great awokening, which I think is based on Zach Goldberg's Ph.D. research. But I think I may have learned about it first from you.
Richard Hanania: Yeah. So the term great awokening was coined by Matt Yglesias who wrote about what Zach had done for Vox. So Zach, I think was the discoverer of the idea that. Yglesias sort of coined the term that took off.
Steve Hsu: Right. So I'm, I might be a little out of sync and maybe some listeners are already very familiar with this topic, maybe through Matt Yglesias, but for me, let me explain to you why I still find it interesting. To me, this awokening happened ... You know, I'm in academia, I've been in academia my whole life. I was quite familiar with the furthest left, radical left kind of views on all kinds of social issues. I was aware that they were slowly conditioning an entire generation of college students. At many universities now, all kinds of ethnic studies courses and things like this are required of all the students on the campus to take. So these sort of far-left academics now have a very good position to indoctrinate entire generations of kids.
But the whole thing kind of snuck up on me. I mean, here I am actually an administrator at a big Big 10 university. And I had no idea how far to the left, things had drifted while I wasn't paying attention.
And it's still kind of a mystery to me how this happened. And I think one of Zack's hypotheses for which there's empirical data is that it was actually a top-down phenomenon. So if you look at the usage of certain terminology, it was first in the New York Times and then propagated down. Do I have that right? Do I have those empirical results right?
Richard Hanania: Yeah, so he wrote this up for a series of articles for Tablet. And basically, he has the yearly data from the New York Times and the other major papers, how often they mention this sort of woke terminology, like systemic racism and LGBTQ, and things like that.
And then you have public opinion among white Democrats. And you could see sort of the sequential nature of what's going on. So yeah, the changing in the New York Times language precedes the shift in public opinion, and he's got other data in his dissertation that basically is similar.
You know, the correlation between how much the New York Times talks about racism and the views of white Democrats on how big a problem they perceive racism to be, is extremely, extremely strong over time.
So yeah, that makes sense from the top-down sort of understanding of this. You know, my, my theory, I don't know if Zach holds this too, but it really took off around the time that Twitter became popular around 2010, 2011. People like Cass Sunstein have talked about the radicalizing effect. When you get people of similar ideologies in the same space. I think you got a lot of journalists and a lot of academics, and a lot of activists, sort of all talking to each other. And I think that had a radicalizing effect. I think the ubiquity of smartphones, they started to see these videos of like police shootings and the aftermath of police shootings. Often you see them on Twitter or they're often presented with no context at all. Just like this person had, was just arrested for being Black or something. And then all they'll have is the person being arrested. You won't have any context to that at all, but these things really take off.
And then we saw the same thing with the alt-right I think was sort of also part of the same process where you have this radicalization on the right, but around 2015, 2016 internet censorship came down on it. And a lot of those people got kicked off the internet, basically. That didn't really happen until really the rise of Trump.
I think a sort of a simple explanation if I had to design one, it's basically social media and internet technology radicalized the elites. And then the elites started sending messages that got picked up by the general public. The portion of the public listens to them, of course. A portion of the public hates the media and will do the opposite of what they say. But for the people who listen to them, I think that's pretty much the process.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I think that comports with my impression. However, the role of academia in sort of preparing the battlespace maybe a decade or two before the events that you just described, I think is quite important. So, so whole generations of kids went through programs where they were taught a particular worldview that became very firmly established so that all young staffers at the New York Times, and maybe even at Nike and things like this had certain beliefs that I think that I could be wrong about this, but it seems like maybe they learned in college. And so then the situation was ripe for this impact from social media and then maybe some downward pushing of ideas from elite sources like the New York Times.
Richard Hanania: So, one of our researchers, Eric Kaufman, has also done research that relates to this question too. And what he finds relies on other research that has found this too, is that it doesn't seem that people's political views change all that much during college. So if you look at the political views of freshmen versus seniors, there doesn't seem to be a lot of movement there.
So I don't know if college is necessarily brainwashing people. When I taught undergrads, it seemed like for most of them it went in one ear, out the other, whatever I was saying. But it seemed like there were a few who came to college and did become really into sort of the campus culture and started to speak the language of the professor.
So maybe it's like a small minority that's particularly prone to being radicalized in these environments, that went out in the world and had a, yeah, outsized influence.
Steve Hsu: I should amend what I said. So, I didn't mean to imply that the vast bulk of college students are really getting successfully indoctrinated. It's the ones who are eventually going to be the activists, the most radical, the most, a category a friend of mine calls the berserkers. The ones who are really going to lead the charge when they're trying to effect some change tax someone.
Richard Hanania: Did you ever watch the Yale Halloween costume video where they're all yelling at Nicholas Christakis?
Steve Hsu: Yes, absolutely. Yes.
Richard Hanania: So if you, so if you go back, I watched the whole thing and it seems like how many people were involved in this? This thing that became the focus of our intellectual culture.
You know, there were like six or seven, maybe just yelling at him. And that was enough to turn our intellectual culture upside down and make people think that there was something major happening at our university. So, yeah, it doesn't take a lot of people. I think this is one of the themes of my Why Is Everything Liberal essay. It's that most people, even if they have political views, know you can just pull them and see what the average is. You know, the average is a little bit right, or a little bit left. But most people just want to be left alone. And they want to make money and have a nice life and hang out with their friends. Those who care the most have an outsized influence. Right? And so it could be useful to study broad trends in public opinion, but I think it's probably more useful to look at what's happening with the sort of the most radicalized and energized and motivated portion of the population.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I think that's exactly right. I think it's a relatively small number of outliers that are really driving things. What my friend refers to as berserkers. And yeah, I'm probably not that different in age from Christakis, and I saw those videos and I was just in shock because he was the... You know, we're not even allowed to use this term anymore probably, but he was the master of Silliman House.
Richard Hanania: Yes.
Steve Hsu: At Harvard and Yale, the faculty member who lives in the residential college and runs it, is called the master. Although I guess they've gotten rid of that title now. He was the master of Silliman College, and I used to have lunch in Silliman all the time because it's the closest residential college to the science complex at Yale, where is the physics building is. So I used to go, so I guess I was a fellow of Silliman when I was a professor there. And so I used to go to Silliman and they would give us free lunch because they wanted us to interact with the undergrads.
But the professors would all go to have lunch and we would all sit. Most of the professors just wanted to sit with other professors. And so I was one of the few that actually liked talking to undergraduates. But I knew that courtyard extremely well. And when I saw those kids yelling, I could not in all my experience, I could never imagine students, in the time that I was at Harvard and Yale, yelling at the master in that way. It was just shocking to me.
But when you watch carefully, yeah, it is a very small number of kids probably that are really taking the lead.
Richard Hanania: Yeah, exactly. So yeah, my undergrad was University of Colorado and people used to call it the Berkeley of the Rockies, because it was sort of at the cutting edge of a lot of this stuff for a state school back when I went to college in the mid 2010s.
I ran into ideas in college a half-decade or decade before I saw them out there in the real world. So I was introduced to the idea that gender is on a spectrum and we can't have two genders. Somebody said it in class once, and there was a girl who was sort of self-satisfied like she'd said something smart. And I sort of chuckled to myself. This was really the first time I'd heard such a thing. And then in 10 years, it becomes conventional wisdom.
So yeah, I mean, I think this would have been sort of a laughable view to most people who were undergrads at the same time I was. And then, yeah, 10 years later, I mean, you could see, especially on things like gender identity, you can see the direct line from the universities to the real world.
Steve Hsu: Are you familiar with the Foundation series by Isaac Asimov?
Richard Hanania: I'm familiar with it, yeah.
Steve Hsu: So he has this conceit that there could be a subject called psycho history, which is very mathematical, but it can actually predict the evolution of societies. And I never liked Foundation series for that reason. I just thought this is ridiculous. It's not going to be that way. Like a psycho history is not a real thing. And this is a good example because you and I lived through — and then everybody else lived through — this great awokening. We had our antenna attuned to what was happening on campuses. And you're younger than me, so you were more attuned also to what was happening in social media. But still, I think to actually demonstrate really what happened, to kind of really pin it down, it's still kind of an open problem. Like, I don't feel... I wonder whether academics who write about this period 20, 30 years from now will get it right about what really happened.
Richard Hanania: Yeah, I mean, do we have an understanding of what happened in the 1960s? I mean, it's hard to understand these things, right. A bunch of new ideas came in the 1960s that were pretty radical. I mean, you get some positive influence of society, some very negative influences on society.
And I don't think we have like a standard explanation of what happened, right? These things are inherently mysterious.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. I mean, part of my skepticism about the possibility of anything like psycho history, it makes me think, yeah, we might have still the wrong story about the '50s and '60s.
Now it seems to me, I, I, so I was a young kid in the early '70s and the '60s kind of lasted into the '70s actually.
So some of this is familiar to me and the thing is that there were very strong drivers in that period. So the kind of '50s post-war conservatism, there was obviously a very strong reaction against that, among younger kids, teenagers. And then of course you had the Vietnam war the idea that you could get drafted and go to Vietnam and get killed.
You know, those are very strong drivers that could push society in various directions. I kind of wrongly accepted a bit of this Fukuyama-ism that we had kind of entered into this stable, prosperous, we kind of have things figured out world. And so I don't see these super-strong drivers that could cause radical change in society.
That's why it kind of took me one of the reasons why it kind of took me by surprise.
Richard Hanania: Yeah. I mean, and not only Vietnam, you had sort of the moral certainty that came from the civil rights movement. You know one thing people say is that basically you had TV footage from the first time of being a brutalization of Black people in the south and that shifted public opinion.
And so you had, you had that and sort of that moral cause, and then you had Vietnam, but it seems like even if you, have nothing sort of morally as undeniable or a sort of inherently compelling as those things that were going on in the '60s and '70s, I mean, people can make people are good at sort of imagining moral causes, right? So gay marriage, and then the trans issue, and then police brutality. It seems like you're able to turn the volume up to 11 despite things that might be problems, but they're probably not problems to the extent that people think.
I think technology is just very, very important here. Like to go back to social media, to go back to the fragmented nature of the media. I mean you see it on the right. There's sort of a — you know, it's, it's a cliche to say the right-wing echo chamber, but some ways I think, I think it's good. I think it's prevented like the COVID hysteria. And I think the red states have had more reasonable policies during COVID-19. But at the same time you have like this, this anti-vax stuff, right, that is nonsense. And you have these people that are sort of in their bubble.
Richard Hanania: So it seems like just technology has allowed sort of, I think a lot of it is just reflection of human nature. I think there are people who just want to be angry. Who'd like the sort of politics. You know, conspiracy theories have always had an appeal to people. And I think there's sort of standard conspiracy theories on the right. And I think the left-wing views about systemic racism and this, a lot of these things can be compared to a sort of conspiracy theory.
So it seems like there are a lot more options out there for people to indulge in different ideas and form different kinds of communities.
Steve Hsu: It seems to me if we did, I'd try to identify the big drivers in the '60s, civil rights movement, Vietnam war, and maybe a kind of reaction against the conservatism of the '50s. Those were strong drivers. I think I agree with you, the one really strong driver that you can identify for these recent social upheavals is really the smartphone and social media.
I mean, people my kids spend all their time looking at their phones and so where everybody does now, I guess nowadays. And so, yeah, that's probably the main enabling factor that caused all these things to happen just in the last five, 10 years.
Richard Hanania: I mean, I'm glad I'm just old enough to remember the completely pre-internet days of politics. And so the 1990s is what I remember. I'm not old enough to remember the 1980s. But in the 1990s, if you said, you know what his politics are like, how did the average person think about politics?
It was boring white men in a suit on one side, boring white men in a suit on the other side, talking about the budget. One says balanced budget, and one says invest more in education and healthcare. And nobody was really excited about that. And they're sort of this was an idea in the 1996 and 2000 elections that it really doesn't matter who wins. They're all just sort of nameless faces. You know that is basically gonna do the same thing.
And I think if you were somebody who was interested in politics, you couldn't get it in sort of an infotainment format, right. You'd have to read the New York Times or watch CNN. And this is CNN like the same CNN in the 1990s before it became sort of more tabloidy. And that was just boring, I think, to most people.
And then you have right-wing talk radio, I think really pioneered the infotainment business. Then you have Fox News coming, I think in the late 1990s. And then you have these things on the left, too. It seems like the fragmentation of the media landscape, it seems like these things are really important.
Steve Hsu: So I'm conscious of the time we've been on for probably an hour now. And the next topic I was going to go into is your book. Do you feel like you still have energy to discuss your book a little bit?
Richard Hanania: Oh, sure, absolutely I can. I think I can go quite a bit longer, so sure.
Steve Hsu: Oh, great. Okay, So your new book is entitled "Public Choice Theory and the Illusion of Grand Strategy: How Generals, Weapons Manufacturers, and Foreign Governments Shape American Foreign Policy." And I guess for my audience, we should first define what public choice theory is because I think not everybody's familiar with that term. Maybe, can you give me a one or two-sentence definition of public choice theory?
Richard Hanania: Sure. Public choice theory came out of economics. And it's basically the idea that you use economic analysis with the focus on the rational individual as the fundamental unit of analysis. And you use that to explain political outcomes. So there are more specific applications of it, but on a broad level that's basically the idea.
Steve Hsu: So rather than sometimes when we discuss foreign policy, we sort of describe the state as a unitary actor. Like Russia wants this, and the Italians want this. And what you'd like to do maybe is dis-aggregate that into individual, maybe not all the way down to the individual person level, but certainly, to interest, powerful interest groups that are working, that have their own incentives, and it's their activities that actually shape what we call foreign policy by nation-states. Is that a fair characterization?
Richard Hanania: Yeah, exactly. So public choice, I mean, has had a much bigger role to play in analyzing American politics than international relations. And international relations has been pretty wedded to the unitary actor model that you just have to sort of think of states as the, as the fundamental unit of analysis and you go from there.
So we talk about things like grand strategy. What does the United States want? What kind of world is it trying to shape? What does it want out of this conflict? Or that? And we don't really we don't think about a lot of domestic politics like this. So what is the American grand strategy on immigration?
For example, it's one of the things I talk about in my book, there's basically an idea. There was a legislative history between, 1965 immigration act. And then basically that had all kinds of unintended consequences. It was updated in the early 1990s and there've been little changes at the edges, but there was no grand strategy of the kind of immigration policy we had.
We had a law. It had some consequences, some intended, some unintended. And then basically we're here. And the same thing with the healthcare system. You could see sort of these incremental changes. Everything is built on the system that came before it.
And so nobody would be silly enough to say, what is the American government's grand strategy in healthcare? You know, what are they trying to accomplish? We know that there's just a lot going on and there are interest groups and there are the voters. And then there are just concentrated interests and there's status quo bias and all these things. So basically, I'm trying to understand American foreign policy in a similar way.
I think that some people in academics who study international relations do this unquestionably, but I don't think that the field as a whole or public discourse surrounding geopolitical issues, I don't think it takes this perspective seriously enough.
So a couple chapters, first two chapters [in] the book is basically laying out the theory. And then the rest of the book is going into different aspects of American foreign policy. Like the sanctions regime, where we stationed troops abroad and tried to see whether it can be explainable through the grand strategy model or through a public choice model. And my argument is the public choice model gives you a better understanding of what's going on.
Steve Hsu: So, so once again, I can't help but agree with you, in the case of your book, what your assertions are. That example of immigration, there's clearly no U.S. grand strategy on immigration. There's no agreement on the facts. There's no agreement on some theory of the impact of immigration on working-class people, on elites. You know, so it's just a giant mess with competing interests.
And it's obvious, what happens in U.S. policy regarding immigration is clearly the, it's an emergent thing, which involves lots of different competing influences. And I think having spent a little bit of time talking to people in the intelligence and defense worlds and in think tanks, it's also clear that there isn't any kind of universal theory of geostrategy. People disagree violently on what the consequences would be of a particular military strategy or strategic move.
And so, I never understood this idea of a unitary actor. Now, if I were Brzezinski or Kissinger and I was writing sort of as if I were actually in control of U.S. foreign policy, this is what I would do, and this is why I should do it. It's obviously a fiction, but from that perspective, to lay out an argument for what would be in the best interest of the U.S. I think I can accept talking about a unitary actor in that context, but that's clearly not how things get decided.
Yeah, it's much worse than immigration. I mean, we have our problems, maybe it's similar. You know, we don't even agree like what should be the goal of the U.S. foreign policy? Should we be maintaining international peace? Should we be taking care of humanitarian issues and trying to make the world a better place? Should we be trying to democratize the rest of the world? Should we mind our own business and only care about our, the narrow self-interests of the nation?
Richard Hanania: I mean, we, we really it's, it's sort of a jumble, and when somebody in the think tank world or in an op-ed or whatever says something is in the national interest, they could be talking about just about anything. You know, they could be talking about things like national pride or, or something that's not even tangible.
I think that a lot of the foreign policy elites they're good at post-hoc justifications of why we have to be doing what we're doing. But you notice that there's such a high correlation between what we're doing now and what we're doing in the past that it doesn't seem like there's a consistent theme here because circumstances change and we keep doing the same thing.
So one of the figures in the book shows the American true presence abroad in 1950 and the American true presence abroad in 2019. And they're basically in the same places.
The places hosting the most troops are basically Italy, Germany, Japan, and South Korea. Right? So the axis powers and then the Korean War, right? What are the odds that the grand strategy in 1950 called for American presence in the exact same places you had in 2019.
You could look at this with Afghanistan where we go there to find Al-Qaeda and prevent another 9/11 and bring the people who planned the 9/11 attacks to justice. And then as we go on, it becomes about building democracy and women's rights and people bring up showing resolve because China and Russia are watching. And if the U.S. leaves those countries are gonna start doing bad things. And they're just very, very good at sort of ad hoc changing the story about what we're doing at any particular time.
I think foreign policy is, it's sort of unique in sort of the extent to which we have this need for coherence to tell ourselves a story about how it all makes sense. And you could see why people who are foreign policy elites and presidents would have an incentive to play along. They want to portray themselves as shaping world events, not necessarily just reacting to interest groups and acting in accordance with the status quo bias and following public opinion or intellectual fads.
But you know, I think if you think about it carefully and you really analyze what's going on, I think it's very hard to get there, that's actually what's going on.
Steve Hsu: So is the thesis of your book considered radical or heterodox? Are you anticipating that lots of academic IR people are going to attack you or consider your book unrealistic?
Richard Hanania: I don't know. I don't know how much they're going to actually notice it. I think it's gotten a lot of attention outside of the field. But I'm not in academia anymore, so I'm not really in those circles. So a lot of them might notice it, or they might not.
If they did notice it — some of course have, it's not like nobody has seen it. I think they're open to this critique because I really take seriously the intellectual history of international relations and sort of what the basis of the unitary actor model is supposed to be.
I know this literature well, and I can say exactly what's wrong with it. You know, sometimes it's hard within international relations. Like there are people who call themselves realists, people who are opposed to neoconservatism they're opposed ideology or idealism playing a large role in international affairs.
And those people, although from a positive perspective they're committed to the unitary actor model to understanding foreign policy, at the same time, like when they're making normative suggestions, they're always criticizing American foreign policy for giving into this interest or that interest directing in a stupid way.
So it's sort of interesting that there's a lot of people who share my critiques of foreign policy, but I just, I would argue that they don't go far enough. And seeing how the critiques that I make, and the critiques sometimes that they share, sort of really undercut their theory about the way the world works.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I imagine though, people who have some experience in DC who see how the sausage is actually made, would find your characterization of how these decisions come to be, much more plausible, right? I mean, very realistic.
Richard Hanania: Yeah. I mean, it really depends. I mean, some of them have a sort of a psychological or career interest in the unitary actor model and presenting American foreign policy as a lot more coherent than it is.
And the top levels of the government are appointed by the president. So they're, to a large extent, political actors.
International relations is an interesting field because you look at like Foreign Affairs, which is not the most famous academic journal, but it's considered a serious academic journal. And a lot of their people publishing there are people like Henry Kissinger or Condoleezza Rice. So the field does have a sort of an intimate relationship with power in a way that a lot of other fields don't have. So I think there is a tendency to sort of accept the establishment narrative of what the U.S. is actually doing abroad.
Steve Hsu: But I think anybody who's known some generals and watched what they do after they retire and how budget decisions are made about big-ticket weapons systems and things like things like that. They have to. They have to acknowledge its interests. Really.
You know, it's, it's a little bit like this woke discussion we were having earlier where most people are not following it very carefully. They don't have a big dog in the fight or anything, but there's some special interest group Raytheon or whatever that really cares about how a particular decision goes. And they're exerting maximum pressure on the system to try to get what they want in Washington.
Richard Hanania: Yeah.
Steve Hsu: People familiar with Washington must acknowledge that?
Richard Hanania: Yeah. My impression of just listening to people, sort of who have been in Washington and talking to them about these things as they will readily acknowledge that some interest group might have an influence on American foreign policy, but I still think there's for a lot of them, there's a tendency to see sort of the big picture as still having more coherence than it does.
So like a typical thing somebody might do is they might say, ah why does the U.S. antagonize Russia, they're going to push them closer to China? China is the real threat to the United States. So some people will say that. And so they'll maybe acknowledge whatever forces are pushing us towards being a little more antagonistic to Russia. But at the same time, they're sort of buying into the idea that American foreign policy is, or like can, in really a coherent way, actually focus on China, right? So there's still accepting that there is some kind of grand narrative that was worth fighting for, rather than just sort of a lot of disconnected policy decisions that are based on inertia, status quo bias, politics that are really connected to one another.
So I think this idea is like grand strategy and the rational actor or unitary actor model, I think it's very deeply embedded into the way people think about foreign policy. And if my book was just like, oh interest groups sometimes have an influence on American foreign policy. You know, it wouldn't be saying anything new or anything a lot of people can disagree with. I'm presenting, I think, a more radical critique of just the way we talk about it in the way we think about foreign policy. Even if people accept some portions of that argument I think that's hard to swallow for a lot of people.
Steve Hsu: I see. I mean, I do think that if I'm trying to explain what U.S. strategy should be I feel it's okay to say, okay, if there were a unitary actor, so you had a very strong unusually strong president and political party and political regime in power, that if they really could have their way and all these decisions, this is how they should view the chessboard. And this is how they should strategize. I think that's okay. But then obviously you have to be realistic about what it really can happen given constraints from domestic politics, et cetera.
Richard Hanania: Yeah. Yeah. I think that's right.
Steve Hsu: So you mentioned the current geopolitical situation where it seems to me that the United States is just crazy in pushing Russia into the arms of China. It just seems like the stupidest possible thing. And sometimes I just cannot understand how what poor strategic thinkers our so-called leaders are, or policy intellectuals are, or what have you been, in what they're doing right now. It seems a hundred percent wrong-headed to me.
Richard Hanania: Yeah. I mean the geopolitical situation is, it's sort of simple. I mean, Russia cares a lot more about Ukraine than the U.S. does. And Russia has sort of the power to influence Ukraine, more than we do or to assert its will through economic or ultimately, there might be a military coercion by the time people are listening to this.
A lot of it is driven by ideology, interest groups. So for example, the decision to expand NATO. There was an article actually, Peter Beinart’s Substack the other day, that pointed out that when the NATO expansion, after the fall of the Soviet Union was originally on the table, a lot of the prominent minds and foreign policy people like Henry Kissinger and George Kennan are saying, what are you doing? This is crazy. Why are we expanding on NATO? Why are we getting closer to Russia? There's no reason for this.
And it seems like the American establishment really wasn't thinking about it this much. There was lobbying from these Eastern European countries. There's lobbying from NATO itself. There was a committee set up by a guy named Bruce Jackson who was a Lockheed Martin executive who was really pushing for NATO expansion. And there was a clear financial interest there. And we just did it. And then we kept expanding NATO. And there's sort of a bureaucracy there to keep it going. And we just keep getting closer and closer to Russia.
And finally, we reached you, you're about as far east as you can go without getting to Ukraine, which is brilliant. Russians consider it central to their self-conception of a nation. It's having some kind of relationship with Ukraine, not letting it fall into the Western orbit.
And these people have been thinking about these things in a certain way, for a, for a long time, it's given them prestige and status, as you know, as champions of the Transatlantic Alliance. And I think if we had a grand strategy and maybe Biden would want to do this, if it was politically plausible, we would just tell the Russians that you know, Ukraine is not going to go into NATO. I mean, there's nothing vital here for American security.
Steve Hsu: I think he may have given them private assurances to that effect without producing the written document that they wanted.
Richard Hanania: The thing is it's hard to make that credible, right. Because even when we sign an agreement like the Iran nuclear deal. I mean, one of the problems with Iran now is basically Republican senators like Tom Cotton and Ted Cruz, they're saying that any Republican in office is going to tear it up and they're probably right. So that's even if you get a signing. So I wouldn't trust a private assurance if I was the Russians at this point. This is one of the problems of grand strategy. It's like there's a political wind change, administrations change, and the president actually has a lot of power, but that stops there from being really coherent across administrations. So I think Biden actually might if it was just up to him, he's shown some skepticism of sort of the more hawkish views in the foreign policy establishment. He showed skepticism over Libya. He pulled out of Afghanistan. He was skeptical of Afghanistan even a decade ago when he was at the Obama administration. So you could imagine him giving up on the idea that Ukraine will eventually be integrated into NATO and the EU. But I don't think he could do that even if you wanted to. So it looks like we're in a pretty bad position.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I, I kind of have the gut feeling that Biden's instincts are not entirely wrong on these issues. And he really is looking for a way to extricate ourselves from this without getting into a hot war with Russia. But on the other hand, who knows who's really making the calls, like to what extent he's really in control of the situation.
Richard Hanania: Yeah, I think the Afghanistan pullout, he got really killed politically. And you usually get the media, usually left-wing media. And so they usually can defend the Democrats, cover them when something bad happens. You know, there's a little bit of a cushion that they have, right?
But on foreign policy, it's actually not like that. The sort of the way that a foreign policy reporting works is that the people who become the most important journalists are the ones who are the closest to the government because they're relying on leaks and classified information and access to the generals and the national security bureaucracies. So the foreign policy and foreign policy reporters at places like the New York Times and the Washington Post, despite these places becoming very woke on everything related to domestic politics. I mean, it's still basically the New York Times that had a faction within it pushing for the Iraq war. It's not that extreme, but basically, you have this media that will be really, really tough on a Democratic president for not being hawkish.
And then the Republicans, although people say, oh, they're moving away from being pro-war. They hate liberals more than they care about actual foreign policy accomplishments. Right? So a lot of them were for the Afghanistan withdrawal when it was Trump doing it. And then they became anti-Afghanistan withdrawal when Biden was doing it.
Some of them were consistent. I mean, most Republicans in Congress are still pretty hawkish. It's still closer to a Bush-Cheney party than a Trump party, if you're just looking at members of Congress rather than sort of intellectuals on Twitter, where it's a little bit more balanced. This populism, this new populism has more of a presence.
Any kind of accommodation with Russia, I think he thinks he's going to get killed. And there's really not many options there. We're not going to go to war with Ukraine. One of the things they've been talking about in recent days is sending more troops to places like Poland and Romania. Like, okay, like that's not going to change what's happening in the Ukraine. It makes you look tough, right? That you're like confronting the Russians. They'll probably put sanctions on which generally don't work and don't do anything, but they could bring some suffering to the Russian people, to the Russian economy.
So there's really not a lot of good options here. If you look at Biden's political incentives. They don't really line up with what would be a rational settlement to the issue, which is just acknowledging that Russians care more about Ukraine and are more willing to go far to influence policy there, while we simply are not.
Steve Hsu: I really don't think the Russians want to get involved in a military confrontation in Ukraine. I think Putin is really most worried about the U.S. putting missiles there. And I think it's very similar in a way to the Cuban missile crisis. So, I think to me, their next move may be to place some missile assets closer to the United States, to the continental United States, just to reinforce to us that this is how it feels when you know your potential enemy, your adversary starts placing missiles within just a few minutes of key targets in your country.
Richard Hanania: Yeah. Yeah. And this gets to like, sort of the hypocrisy around the whole discourse. They say, well, we can't rule out NATO membership because Ukraine is an independent nation. So it can make its own decisions. I mean, how did that work out during the Cuban missile crisis? Right? How does that work out when Russia or China starts doing things with Venezuela. Even economic relationships between China and Venezuela are treated by the United States as some kind of threat to the United States, much less, a military alliance or placing missiles.
So yeah, I mean, these arguments that the foreign policy hawks make don't sound credible when you just imagine if the situation was reversed. You know they would make a completely different argument. But you know they still stick with them despite these very obvious critiques you can make.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I don't think they ever demand this kind of internal consistency or symmetry, or they ignore the golden rule. Like you, you, they never try to understand what it looks like from Putin's point of view. That's just beyond their ken, I think.
Richard Hanania: Yeah. And it's funny. I mean, the lack of self-awareness is just mind-blowing. So, I mean, then H.R. McMaster, the former national security advisor, he goes around saying, we need strategic empathy. And then you read what he means by strategic empathy. It's just like, figure out how to thwart these people and whatever they want to do.
So Robert Wright has a great Substack where he writes about foreign policy and he actually tries to apply the idea of strategic empathy, towards understanding foreign countries, potential adversaries. And it just doesn't mean that the common sense use of the term doesn't match the way that the foreign policy establishment uses these words. Not just strategic empathy, but things like a rules-based international order or like deterrence. These terms are often either ill-defined or they're defined in inconsistent ways. And I guess that's one of the things that made me want to study foreign policy. I thought that the thinking around it was really, really bad and I could improve the way we thought about these things.
But I started to believe that thinking is bad because there's an incentive for thinking. Because it allows us to continue on doing what we've been doing.
Steve Hsu: When I was growing up, I played a lot of board games, not just Dungeons and Dragons type games, but kind of things which were meant to be realistic simulations of modern warfare, World War II, things like this. And then anybody who's played those games, typically you don't just play one side, you played all the sides.
And so it's very easy for you to understand, like, okay, if I push this close, into the Ukraine, the Russians are going to have to respond this way. Right. And, it's just amazing to me that people who pass themselves off as foreign policy specialists or even military strategists, I think don't have even that level of understanding that a kid who just happened to spend a few years playing these games would have about the actual situation.
Richard Hanania: Yeah. I mean, I think at the heart of it, I think there is a sense that they don't want to say this out loud, but there is a sense of moral superiority. It's the idea that Russia is a dictatorship. They don't protect human rights. We are a democratic nation. So we get to play by different rules compared to these countries that don't have legitimacy.
Steve Hsu: Absolutely. It's absolutely the case that they are operating from that sense of moral superiority. And they'll often like when I'm debating people like this, they'll say don't, don't try to suggest that there's any false equivalence between us and them. And, and they really do feel this way. But then my next question to them is can we just descriptively at least then... I'm not suggesting there are moral equivalents, but just put yourselves in their shoes. How would you react if you were Putin and you saw this happening? What would you do?
Richard Hanania: Exactly.
Steve Hsu: Even that exercise I think is pretty hard for them.
Richard Hanania: Yeah, exactly. I mean, I would push back on the idea don't making this moral equivalency between the U.S. and its adversaries. I mean, neither Russia or China has done anything abroad that compares in the destructiveness to the Iraq war. Right? So if you want to say, oh, don't make a moral equivalency. I mean, you have to sort of answer for the humanitarian consequences of American wars and also American sanctions. I mean, you do the, you the tally.
Yes. Right? They meant, yeah, they do it because they're evil and sitting in a layer rubbing their hands together.
And we just make these honest mistakes, right?
Steve Hsu: But even if you give them, even if you don't demand moral equivalency, you just say, yes, America is good, they're evil. But at least maybe you could acknowledge they're somewhat rational. So then how are they going to react when you do X?
I think that's what CNN and lots of these people were saying when we were expanding NATO to the further to the east, that they could just see that eventually you get a non-linear response and where the cost-benefit is just completely wrong.
Like, what are we getting out of this to have to deal with that non-linear response from them?
Richard Hanania: Yeah, I think that when you grant that, like a side is evil, or you start with the premise, I think that kind of sort of rational analysis becomes very, very hard. So we see this, I think, in a lot of wokeness in the morally charged places in domestic politics. Like, if you want to have a rational discussion, okay. Like a liberal has something like anti-discrimination laws. And you just want to have a rational discussion, like what kind of incentives does this create? You know, what are the effects? Or something like affirmative action.
Once you sort of acknowledge that racism is like the ultimate evil. And so anybody who commits racism, like you don't think about their incentives or like what they might do, right? You just have to sort of force them to do what you want. So I think that this is actually if you want to hawkish foreign policy, this is a smart strategy.
I remember the run-up to the Iraq war. There's just tons and tons of stuff about Saddam Hussein and human rights violations and all the poor people he oppressed. And in that climate, it's just really, really hard to say, okay, does this war make any sense? Because you are always so close to being sympathetic with Saddam Hussein. It's like trying to defend Nazis who want to speak and someone's shutting down their speech. It's just very hard because these people are seen as so evil that you can't make a principled free speech argument or talk about their incentives or interests or anything like that.
So I think this is actually if you want to understand what's going on in the foreign policy discourse, and why it's pathological. I think this idea of just the other side being evil, is just a real hindrance to understanding.
Steve Hsu: Well, I agree that that kind of moralism is as Frank Herbert would say, the mind-killer, right? Like that definitely kills your ability to reason rationally about this.
The earlier stuff like the Iraq war, like sort of luxury wars, that we could either choose to have or not have. You know, that was an era of American supremacy. But here, we could lose. We could lose. Russia has more nukes than we do.
And so, I just think these people have completely, they're completely bonkers. They cannot even conceive of what really, how ugly this kind of military confrontation could get. Either with Russia or with China. I think they just do not get it.
Richard Hanania: Yeah, these are, these are tail-end risks and you're right. I mean, Russia has the ground forces to fight a war in Eastern Europe. We have some troops there, but not really. But they also have I think people have not updated their view of how modern war actually works. Like they think we could get air superiority, but what's actually going to happen is that they're going to knock out all our bases in Europe with missiles right away. And it's going to be extremely ugly.
Yeah. And then you think, I mean, you're not even bringing in nuclear weapons and it's a really ugly situation. And you do have these tail-end risks that you have to take seriously. And we're not taking it seriously, unfortunately.
I think that there's a desire to see what these people are doing and for policy they're serious and they take the gravity of the situation. They give it its due. And you know, we just don't see that. I mean, if you look back in my book, I talk about the decision to go into Iraq and Afghanistan and the sort of the strategy that we took there. And what, what was the plan to basically occupy those countries indefinitely. And it's shocking. If people are interested, go read the part on Iraq in particular, but also the part on Afghanistan, just how heavy Bush and those around him were about making these decisions. They just decided to invade Iraq there. A month after the invasion of Iraq, they still didn't know whether they would hand it over to the exiles. Or they would basically undertake a long and extensive occupation. They chose the latter. But really, it was done with very little discussion, very little thought. And they just made the decision and moved on. It's sad to think that that's probably what's going on here too with Russia and Ukraine.
Steve Hsu: Yeah. Of course, there the issue, the thing that they were playing cavalierly with were the lives and futures of Iraqis, right? Whereas now they're playing cavalierly with the lives of hundreds of millions of Americans. If we actually had a hot war with the Russians and the Chinese. So it's much higher stakes actually.
What scares me is that there doesn't seem to be, say what you want about the cold war, but it was actually conducted with a certain amount of analytical professionalism where, where people were very keenly aware of the stakes. And I think this is maybe is a little bit of physicist chauvinism on my part, but a lot of the people who've had input into policy during the cold war were the physicists who actually built bombs. And they, I think, were much, much more realistic, for example, than the current crowd that runs U.S. foreign policy.
Richard Hanania: Yeah, it's another one of my themes that I write about, sort of the proliferation of expertise. And you have people who will have narrower and narrower expertise but not very broad knowledge or understanding of the world. Yeah, it's a problem more generally. And I think we're really seeing in foreign policy as much as anywhere else.
Steve Hsu: Yup. Well, I think we're way over time. Let me, let me just close with one thing and I should say to my listeners, I'm going to eventually be on your podcast. So we'll have more discussions and obviously, I'd love to have you back on this one, because obviously there are lots of things you and I enjoy discussing.
Let me just end with a question about democracy. So I just want to ask you how pessimistic or optimistic you are about the functioning of democracy. So, there's some political science research from a group at Princeton that seemed to suggest that whenever the elites oppose the wishes of the majority, the elite tends to get its way. And this is a sort of empirical study of U.S. politics going back maybe a hundred years.
If you took that,if you're a Chinese political theorist and you want to really take that to an extreme, we would assert that maybe the American democracy is a little bit of a sham. You know, I'm curious whether you find that to be a reasonable criticism of our system. Like how does our system actually work? Not, not how it's portrayed to work, but what is really going on in terms of how preferences are aggregated in our political system.
Richard Hanania: Yeah. So if you're thinking about the sort of the justifications for democracy I don't think that justification, that the people get what they want, is necessarily the strongest ground to stand on. Because, as someone who knows a little bit about public opinion, it's very fickle. It depends on how you ask the question. It depends on how you frame things. So it's very hard to go from what the public really wants, it's hard enough to figure that out, to get the policy.
And any realistic system is going to have to account for the fact that most times and most places people aren't just not paying much attention. Maybe public opinion has a role to play in whether we actually go to war with Russia, but like everything that led to this point, like bringing Moldova and Montenegro into NATO most people don't even know that happened much less have an opinion on it, or are able to influence what we're doing.
The better argument for democracy is that it's just a way to have peaceful transitions of power, right? And I think, if that is how you understand democracy, I think we have that.
I think a lot of the stuff about the end of democracy a lot of it is just being upset that there are outcomes that people don't like. Like in Eastern Europe, a lot of these countries, people are voting for socially conservative parties, who don't support LGBT rights, and who want to restrict immigration, particularly in places like Hungary and Poland.
The idea that democracy is sort of falling often rests on the idea that whatever we don't like as elite American academics is undemocratic.
I think democracy is a peaceful transition of power, I think that's pretty safe in the west. People have concerns about Trump overturning the election, even if like the ways that that was trying to be done, that was through illegal mechanisms. You know, that would have been a norm-breaking to just give the electoral votes in these states to Trump when Biden won the state. So I could see how people can be upset about that, but it's still within the technical legal limits of what the American system allows.
So definitionally, I think we're going to remain a democracy. As far as how well it works I'm very concerned. I think what I say about foreign policy applies to other areas. I think there are interest groups. I think that you have more democratic participation in a way than ever. People care more about politics than they did 20, 30 years ago. But often caring about politics means hating the other side or just cheering on like you're a football team and they have this sort of polarization. And that doesn't necessarily get you the best policy outcome.
I think democracy is safe and well whether it works well in the U.S. I don't think many people would say that it does right now.
Steve Hsu: Yeah, I would say that as a system for preference aggregation, it leaves a lot to be desired. And as you pointed out, it's not even clear how to define what the preferences of the broad body politic are at any given moment.
This idea that it provides for stable transfers of power, orderly transfers of power. I think that is probably the best justification for democracy to provide the people with some idea that they have a circuit breaker, they can remove a ruler that they, they really despise.
This recent election, though, if you look at the polling, it seems to me, there is a very substantial chunk of the population — I think people don't want to acknowledge this — but it could be like 30% of the population just doesn't think this administration is legitimate. So that's getting pretty close to not having a good handover of power.
Richard Hanania: So, I haven't looked this up, but I would be surprised if it was that much different for the last administration. I mean, I think, and I think probably there was something to it. I forgot that there was probably something similar after Bush v. Gore. And then Obama, you had the whole birth certificate thing. And Trump became a major political figure basically on the birth certificate idea.
I don't think poll results like that I wouldn't worry about too much. It's really what's going on with elites, what's going on with political leaders that I think is important. So yeah, the polls people just don't think it's legitimate. I mean, people will tell a pollster anything, if something becomes politicized, right? They'll say something that sounds good for their tribe. Does that necessarily mean that democracy is falling apart? I don't think so. I think the institutions are strong. And I think that was actually a lesson from January 6. I mean the entire system basically stopped to stop anything from going forward that would have overturned the results of the election.
If you just look at your measures, like how much people, people hate each other, and this is something like people like Peter Turchin point to, who I disagree with, who I wrote an op-ed taking issue with his view about a year and a half ago. I don't think that that stuff is necessarily what matters. I think it's more political currents and institutions, and what elites are doing.
Steve: I'm glad you express your point of view on that because I have to go back and think about that because it is very possible that the polling results that so alarmed me after 2020 are actually more characteristic of typical presidential elections.
Richard Hanania: Yeah, you can get a lot of crazy results for public opinion. And usually, when people are building a narrative, it's the easiest thing in the world is to design a poll that will give you that result because public opinion is often very, very crazy. But you know, it's pretty much always been the case.
Steve Hsu: Great. Well, I think maybe we should stop here. It's been great to have you on the podcast. And as I said, I look forward to being on your podcast and I look forward to having you back again in the future.
Richard Hanania: It's been a pleasure, Steve. Thanks. This was fun.
Steve Hsu: Alright. Thanks.