I'm crossposting this from the EA Forum, due to Habryka sort-of suggesting doing so.
The Strategy of Conflict, published in 1960 by Thomas Schelling, is:
A series of closely interrelated essays on game theory, [which] deals with an area in which progress has been least satisfactory - the situations where there is a common interest as well as conflict between adversaries: negotiations, war and threats of war, criminal deterrence, extortion, tacit bargaining. It proposes enlightening similarities between, for instance, maneuvering in limited war and in a traffic jam; deterring the Russians and one's own children; the modern strategy of terror and the ancient institution of hostages. (source)
Here’s a free PDF of the book, and here’s the Audible link.
In this post, I’ll:
My hope is that this post will draw some effective altruists' (EAs') and rationalists' attention to this interesting book, help them decide whether reading it is worth their time, and help them quickly gain some key insights from the book. (See also Should pretty much all content that's EA-relevant and/or created by EAs be (link)posted to the Forum?)
I read The Strategy of Conflict because someone told me they think this is a good book to read if one wishes to understand how international tensions might escalate to nuclear war, how many weapons might be used in a nuclear war, and whether countervalue targeting would occur. The book’s concepts, framings, insights, and examples indeed seemed useful for that purpose, as well as for a surprisingly wide range of other issues.
This was despite me already knowing some game theory - maybe around as much as one learns in a typical undergraduate economics degree? That said, I expect someone who already knows much more game theory than I did would get somewhat less out of the book.
I’ve ranked this as roughly the 9th (out of 44) most useful-seeming EA-relevant book I’ve read since learning about EA. If I wasn’t doing research related to war, I think I might’ve ranked it closer to 20-25th.
There were some sections of the book that I found uninteresting and/or hard to follow - particularly chapter 9, which I ended up partly skimming. This was basically due to some parts of the book using lots of symbols and equations without regularly reminding readers what the symbols stood for or regularly walking readers through the intuition of what’s going on. But perhaps more maths/econ/technically minded people would have no trouble with those parts of the book.
I also skipped Appendices B and C, as it sounded like they would be hard to follow and would cover relatively technical points about game theory that might be outdated by now anyway (i.e., perhaps the field has already elegantly resolved the issues Schelling was noting).
What follows are the Anki cards I made for myself. Some include direct quotes without having quote marks, while others are just my own interpretations (rather than definitely 100% parroting what the book is saying) but don’t note that fact. It’s possible that some of these cards include mistakes, or will be confusing or misleading out of context.
The indented parts are the questions. The answers are in "spoiler-blocks"; hover over them to reveal. And the parts in square brackets are my notes-to-self.
What two legal privileges does Schelling mention that corporations have?
The right to sue and the right to be sued
Schelling says "The mandatory secret ballot is...
...a nuisance to the voter who would like to sell his vote, but protection to the one who would fear coercion"
What term does Smithies use for the tactic of deliberately exhausting one's annual budgetary allowance so early in the year that the need for more funds is irresistibly urgent?
[Smithies' book was called The Budgetary Process in the United States, so I'm guessing he used the term in relation to the US government specifically.
Cited by Schelling.]
Schelling defines tacit bargaining as...
bargaining in which communication is incomplete or impossible
Schelling notes that the concept of "coordination" that's relevant in tacit bargaining is also often relevant in explicit bargaining. What are 3 common features of agreements which illustrate this?
[p.67-68. I'm paraphrasing. I just chose the first 3 examples; he also gave others.]
Schelling suggests a big part of bargaining skill is...
The ability to effectively influence how the problem is formulated, what analogies or precedents the definition of the bargaining issue calls to mind, and the kinds of data that may be available to bear on the question
What point from Schelling's discussion of tacit bargaining reminded me of the landmine ban treaty and Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons?
The claim that it can sometimes be necessary/important for the terms of agreement to be qualitatively distinguishable from the alternatives, and not simply distinguishable by degree
Schelling suggests that forces taking/sacrificing any land beyond their side of 38th parallel or the Taiwan Strait could have...
...signalled a determination to advance even farther and/or an intention to retreat even farther
[And it thus could've been unstable. P.76]
Schelling gives a three-part typology of games of strategy, in which one type is pure-conflict games. What are the other two types?
[p. 88-89. I'm not sure if these are the standard terms nowadays.]
Schelling gives a three-part typology of games in which one type is games of luck. What are the other two types?
Schelling highlights 5 areas of asymmetries between the two players in a threat situation which make threats a rich subject for study. These are asymmetries in…
Schelling says enforcement of agreements/promises depends on at least two things:
[I think this idea could be roughly paraphrased as:
Schelling defines a "strategic move" as:
"A move that influences the other person's choice, in a manner favourable to one's self, by affecting the other person's expectations on how one's self will behave"
[p. 160. "One constrains the partner's choice by constraining one's own behaviour".]
What does Schelling suggest operates similarly to the "threat" of inadvertent war?
The risk that limited war could escalate to general/all-out war (with that escalation not necessarily depending on deliberate decisions by leaders)
Schelling suggests compellent threats often take the form of administering punishment ___, whereas deterrent threats often take the form of administering punishment ___.
until the other person acts (in the desired way); if the other person acts (in the undesired way)
Punishment could include things like increased risk of general war.
He wasn’t saying that compellant threats always take the form of administering punishment until the other person acts. They could also take the form of administering punishment if the other person doesn’t act in the desired way.]
What are 2 key points about how the "threat" represented by risk of inadvertent war might deter aggressive acts and crises?
[Schelling, p. 189-190.]
The risk of inadvertent war can operate like a threat. If provocative acts are taken despite this "threat" yet war still doesn't result, this…
isn't strong evidence the "threat" was a bluff; the actors involved may have just gotten lucky
[Just as surviving a single round of Russian Roulette isn't strong evidence against the gun being loaded.
Schelling, p. 189-190.]
The risk of inadvertent war can operate like a threat. Does this require that either actor intended to use that risk as a threat?
Schelling says there's a distinction between nuclear and other weapons in the sense pertinent to the limiting of war. He also says that, if he's right about that but nevertheless the US wants maximum freedom to use atomic weapons, then we ought to, in the interest of limiting war, ...
destroy or erode the distinction between nuclear and other weapons as best we can
[This is to make it less likely that limited US use of nuclear weapons is charged with excessive symbolic significance, as evidence of the US rejecting all relevant limits and distinctions.
Schelling argues that a limitation on the number of missiles two adversaries can have might be more stabilising the larger the number permitted. He gives two reasons for this:
[The first effect increases the expected size of retaliation, thus deterring first strikes.
The second effect makes it harder to cheat on the agreement by disguising/hiding extra missiles, and to break the agreement and race to achieve a dominant number of missiles.
He doesn't suggest that this is a complete analysis or his all-things-considered view. This doesn't seem to account for risks of inadvertent or accidental escalation.
I think MIRVs hadn’t been developed when he first wrote this. I think the existence of MIRVs makes this false, since each MIRVed missile can carry multiple warheads and thus might take out more than 1 enemy missile in expectation.]
Schelling highlights 9 institutional and structural characteristics of bargaining situations that may affect how commitment tactics are/can be used. These are…
[p.28-35. That's a very long answer. It'd be good if I could somehow categorise or chunk these ideas.]
Note: This post contains only my personal opinions, and was written in a personal capacity rather than in my capacity as a researcher for Rethink Priorities.
 I generally prefer listening to audiobooks rather than reading physical books/ebooks, but in this case I downloaded the free PDF into my iPad’s Kindle app. This was because a few reviewers of this book on Audible suggest that they think they’d have been better off with a physical book rather than the audiobook, because the book uses a fair few equations and graphs.
 See here for the article that inspired me to actually start using Anki properly. Hat tip to Michelle Hutchinson for linking to that article and thus prompting me to read it. Note that some of the Anki cards that I made and include in this post violate some of the advice in that article - in particular, the advice to try to ensure that questions and answers each express only one idea.
Note: If you found this post interesting, you may also be interested in my Notes on "The Bomb: Presidents, Generals, and the Secret History of Nuclear War" (2020), or (less likely) Notes on The WEIRDest People in the World: How the West Became Psychologically Peculiar and Particularly Prosperous. (The latter book has a very different topic; I just mention it as the style of post is the same.)
Here's a comment I wrote on the EA Forum version of this post, which I'm copying here as I'd be interested on people's thoughts on the equivalent questions in the context of LessWrong:
Meta: Does this sort of post seem useful? Should there be more posts like this?
I previously asked Should pretty much all content that's EA-relevant and/or created by EAs be (link)posted to the Forum? I found Aaron Gertler's response interesting and useful. Among other things, he said:
Eventually, we'd like it to be the case that almost all well-written EA content exists on the Forum somewhere.[...]I meant "quite EA-relevant and well-written". I don't especially care whether the content is written by community members, though I suppose that's slightly preferable (as community members are much more likely to respond to comments on their work).[...]A single crosspost with a bit of context from the author -- e.g. a few sentences each of summary/highlights, commentary, and action items/takeaways -- seems better to me than three or four crossposts with no context at all. In my view, the best Forum content tends to give busy people a quick way to decide whether to read further.
Eventually, we'd like it to be the case that almost all well-written EA content exists on the Forum somewhere.
I meant "quite EA-relevant and well-written". I don't especially care whether the content is written by community members, though I suppose that's slightly preferable (as community members are much more likely to respond to comments on their work).
A single crosspost with a bit of context from the author -- e.g. a few sentences each of summary/highlights, commentary, and action items/takeaways -- seems better to me than three or four crossposts with no context at all. In my view, the best Forum content tends to give busy people a quick way to decide whether to read further.
And I read a lot of stuff that I think it could be useful for at least some other EAs to read, and that isn't (link)posted to the Forum. So Aaron's comments, combined with my own thinking and some comments from other people, make me think it'd be good for me to make linkposts for lots of that stuff if there was a way to do it that took up very little of my time.
Unfortunately, writing proper book reviews, or even just notes that are geared for public consumption, for all of those things I read would probably take a while.
But, starting about a month ago, I now make Anki cards for myself anyway during most of the reading I do. So maybe I should just make posts sort-of like this one for most particularly interesting things I read? And maybe other people could start doing that too?
A big uncertainty I have is how often the cards I make myself would be able to transmit useful ideas even to people who (a) aren't me and (b) didn't read the thing I read, and how often they'd do that with an efficiency comparable to people just finding and reading useful sources themselves directly. Another, related uncertainty is whether there'd be any demand for posts like this.
So I'd be interested in people's thoughts on the above.
You might want to make the answers into spoiler-blocks. Use >! to produce blocks like:
Good idea! I didn't know about that feature.
I've now edited the post to use spoiler-blocks (though a bit messily, as I wanted to do it quickly), and will use them for future lazy-Anki-card-notes-posts as well.
Just a writing tip. Might help to define initialisations at least once before using them. EA isn’t self evidently effective altruism.
Yeah, I definitely agree that that's a good idea with any initialisations that won't already be known to the vast majority of one's readers (e.g., I wouldn't bother with US or UK, but would with APA). In this case, I just copied and pasted the post from the EA Forum, where I do think the vast majority of readers would know what "EA" means - but I should've used the expanded form "effective altruism" the first time in the LessWrong version. I've now edited that.
Suggest you remove the "Exercises / Problem-Sets" tag, unless the exercise is supposed to be one of down-voting that label ...
Edited to add: MichaelA has now explained that he intended the exercise to be to answer the questions in the Anki cards. As a result of adding spoiler-blocks (some time after I made my comment), the "Exercises / Problem-Sets" tag is now somewhat reasonable in my opinion.
I didn't add that tag; some other reader did.
And any reader can indeed downvote any tag, so if you feel that that tag shouldn't be there, you could just downvote it.
Unless you feel that the tag shouldn't be there but aren't very confident about that, and thus wanted to just gently suggest that maybe the tag should be removed - like putting in a 0.5 vote rather than a full one. But that doesn't seem to match the tone of your comment.
That said, it actually does seem to me that this post fairly clearly does match the description for that tag; the exercise is using these Anki cards as Anki cards. People can find a link to download these cards in the Anki card file format here. (I've now added that link in the body of the post itself; I guess I should've earlier.)
As a meta comment: For what it's worth, I feel like your comment had an unnecessarily snarky tone, at least to my eye. I think you could've either just downvoted the tag, or said the same thing in a way that sounds less snarky. That said:
(Edited to add: Btw, I wasn't the person who downvoted your comment, so that appears to be slightly more evidence that your comment was at least liable to be interpreted as unnecessary and snarky - although again I know that that may not have been your intention.)