Do you have a model predicting >1% chance of significant political violence (>5,000 deaths) in the US in the next year? Pls share.
Also welcome: models predicting <.1%
Metaculus has been walking around 1-5% probability of a US civil war before July 2021. While 1% is the lowest probability one can give on Metaculus, rumor has it some reasonable people put more than 1% probability of significant political violence (SPV) happening.
I am[was] confused about this, and want[ed] to get a better sense of what models lead people to assign credence on this order of magnitude.
[it turns out this exercise led me to no longer feel disbelief, but I'm preserving it below. See Changing My Mind for my update]
My model borrows a bit from Samo Burja's civil war typology and goes something like: "while there's some probability of small-scale violence (e.g. a few hundred deaths from scattered violence), there simply doesn't exist the mechanisms for SPV". In my mind, mechanisms include:
- Military: e.g. military vs. government (coup), military vs. military (split along e.g. leadership lines), or a weak/disorganized military that doesn't withstand a revolutionary offensive. I don't see any of this happening with the US military (e.g. <.01%). ThirdEyeOpen on Metaculus outlines cases where the military 'sides' with the democrats or republicans, which blows my mind. Is this a blind spot for me? Is there some small chance that any coherent part of the military defects in this way?
- State (proxy wars): Both sides of a conflict having support from states. I guess there's some 'foreign interference' in our politics already, but if I'm Russia I really don't want to get caught supplying significant amounts of money/training/arms to insurgent groups in the US. That feels like much more risk (to Russia) than the incremental gain. But maybe there's some situation where it's worthwhile? Seems pretty close to WWIII, but I guess that's tail risks?
- Insurgency: I currently have this as a large bucket that spans from haphazard terrorism to organized attempts to replace the government. It seems like the US might experience some things on this scale, but how far? I’m having a hard time imagining violence worse than e.g. The Troubles. What am I missing here? Maybe it's easier to kill more people these days? Is the main concern effective terrorism from a few actors, or more like thousands of insurgents? Because organizing insurgents requires a bunch of stuff...
Changing My Mind
So I started to read about insurgencies, specifically looking for the kinds of qualities that give insurgencies 'oomf'. I felt confident that US extremist groups didn't have these qualities, and if I kept reading about insurgencies (e.g. by skimming articles in Wikipedia's list of revolutions and rebellions) I would find them. I was roughly right, but in the process of articulating these qualities and digging into the specific messy ways insurgencies go, my curve of ways-things-could-go-in-the-US started to change:
Looking back, I think my model was something like:
- There are a bunch of prerequisites to SPV.
- We are missing too many prereqs and they are too difficult to reach from here. It would be like threading 6 needles in a single go.
Now my model is something like:
- Prereqs can snowball, and the US has some proto-prereqs.
- The political violence nerds think it's possible (if unlikely)
I'll add an answer below for more detail on my model.
N.B. I'm not sure why I included this section... maybe I think other versions of myself would benefit from knowing that the inside experience of writing/researching/mind-changing is a feeling-heavy process.
There were at least three occasions where I sat down and tried to write down the gears of my own model so that I could make it abundantly clear why 1% chance of civil war was loony. The first two times I got increasingly irritated, like: why am I doing this? This is such a waste of time, it's just so obvious that this is not something to worry about. I'm having a bad experience, and also this is probably just making my life worse by taking up time and making me worry about things that don't need to be worried about. I'm just at a complete loss about what would cause people to believe civil war is possible, it feels like the burden of proof is on them. Why do I need to build these complicated models myself?
"Because a few reasons" went the response "but mostly I'm feeling a kind of feeling... a feely feeling... I'm not sure what it means but I have a suspicion that following it will lead to some cool discovery like:
a) a useful implicit model
b) the reason why people believe there might be SPV
c) actually changing my mind
And regardless, I'll get a better sense of what's up with this feeling."
Often times the feeling was demotivating, so the first two times I gave up / respected the feeling. The third time it led me to drafting the post above, and then shifted (like the felt shift in focusing) when I was reading about insurgencies.
Baseline rates of deaths from political violence are a bit tricky to pin down, but a process of elimination on homicides (YMMV, depending on which political acts you normalize as, on balance, apolitical. For various reasons, I tend to exclude DV, and theft, but include racism and police violence as political) gets us to 1k to 5k per year for the past decade, so, assigning an expectation of 1% for breaching 5k for the next year seems low.
We are likely operating on different definitions what constitutes political acts
Good point - I'm thinking political acts along the lines of violent protests, terrorism, and insurgencies. I can see how police shootings could be included there. The spirit of what I'm going for is how much change to expect, so e.g. deaths above and beyond what you would have in an average year