Bruce Bueno de Mesquita on the Spoils of War
Dec 12 2016

Spoils%20of%20War.jpg There is a fascinating and depressing positive correlation between the reputation of an American president and the number of people dying in wars while that president is in office. Political scientist Bruce Bueno de Mesquita of NYU and co-author of The Spoils of War talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about how presidents go to war. Bueno de Mesquita argues that the decision of how and when to go to war is made in self-interested ways rather than in consideration of what is best for the nation. The discussion includes a revisionist perspective on the presidencies of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and others as Bueno de Mesquita tries to make the case that the reputations of these men are over-inflated.

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Explore audio transcript, further reading that will help you delve deeper into this week’s episode, and vigorous conversations in the form of our comments section below.


Allen Sherzer
Dec 12 2016 at 10:37am

I think the assessment on Washington was a little unfair. He absolutely was very ambitious and used every opportunity to add to his wealth and prestige. I’m a little surprised Mr. de Mesquita didn’t bring up his marriage to Martha, who was herself extremely wealthy and surely part of his calculus.

In the early part of the Revolution, however, the Crown made multiple overtures to resolve the conflict. This would, as was typical, result in lands and titles in return for allegiance. On the other hand, had he lost, Washington would not only have lost everything, but likely be tortured to death.

Odds of the Revolution succeeding were slim at best and some of the overtures came when the Continental Army was just barely hanging on. Surely a cynical Washington would have gladly sold out!
(On another note, the implication that Hancock objected to the taxes seems unlikely. Taxes on tea would surely make his smuggling operations even more lucrative.)

I think the founding fathers were indeed as described at first but later evolved into the people we like to think of themselves as.

Jim Derham
Dec 12 2016 at 2:14pm

[Comment removed. Please consult our comment policies and check your email for explanation.–Econlib Ed.]

Dec 12 2016 at 4:46pm

Russ, I really think you didn’t push the debate on this one, and maybe that was the point since this guy is so outside the norm, but I think you would’ve rightly called anyone else who tried to apply the results of some random duration of war regression to Abraham Lincoln’s motivations for fighting the Civil War a bloody crackpot. Moreover, I think the Newburgh Conspiracy and the fact that GW could have become Napoleon had he wished provide an impenetrable legacy. I found this guy’s cynicism to be both misguided and unproductive. His comments on LBJ were the cherry on top.

Jim Myles
Dec 12 2016 at 4:53pm

This is silly. The president should be a leader who determines policy based on the results of peer-reviewed models on the costs of war. I guess he has missed the debate on climate change modeling.

Brendan Walters
Dec 12 2016 at 4:59pm

Interesting thoughts from Bueno de Mesquita. While the correlation between the waging of war and presidential popularity is intriguing, I can’t help but feel that Mesquita has chosen his examples simply to be provoking.

Provoking they are. But, his analysis of Lincoln’s incompetence and motives are borderline obtuse.

Lincoln waged war on the South in order to get reelected? Granted, slavery may not have been the greatest driving factor in Lincoln’s decision making processes. This much is well known. However, Mesquita would have one believe that unification of the United States, and thus the solidification of an American identity, was an afterthought in Lincoln’s mind? Absurd.

And if Mesquita’s proposed embargo upon the South had been pursued in lieu of more immediate military action it likely would have only drawn out the entire affair, which inevitably would have involved bloodshed.

Further, stating that the Civil War should not have lasted as long as it did with nary a mention of military strategy is a gross oversight.

But hey, if the US had instead remained an English colony, we would all be far better off…

This is some grade A ivory tower thought – and that’s coming from a listener in Cambridge, MA.

Very intriguing interview, though!

Andre M.
Dec 12 2016 at 7:40pm

$18.99 on kindle, seriously?

Glenn Kasten
Dec 12 2016 at 8:04pm

Washington, Lincoln, and Kennedy are among the most studied of all Americans, so if there were some real evidence of self interested malfeasance, many people would have discovered it long ago, similar to the slavery issues of Washington and Jefferson and Lincoln’s shifting position.

It’s more likely that we have correlation without causation or perhaps the causation is in the other direction. Where’s Oliver Stone?

Kenneth Gauck
Dec 12 2016 at 9:22pm

I found this argument to be the most extreme case of special pleading. Mesquita has fallen in love with his theory (covered in previous podcasts) and must make everything conform to it. I was previously more attracted to his framework, but having seen what absurd conclusions it can be made to reach, I will henceforth regard it more like the Chicago school’s utility maximizing rational actor – useful as a model, but not descriptive of reality.

Samuel Blackmer
Dec 13 2016 at 3:07am

I’ve greatly enjoyed previous episodes with de Mesquita so when I saw he was your guest I was very much looking forward to it. I’m sorry to say I’m a little disappointed, it seems to me he is playing the armchair quarterback.

That any and all of these men were ambitious is without question, they were all presidents, it takes a special kind of ambition to want the job, but this really felt like he was shoe horning the facts to fit his theory.

While Lincoln’s handling of the war could easily be seen as incompetent, it is easy to see how this could have very easily been he was learning on the job, he was a president with very little political experience and even less military experience. While General McClellan proved to be incompetent, he looked good on paper, and while Generals Grant and Sherman were competent, this wasn’t known at the onset of the war, they proved themselves in the course of the war.

I did find the discussion interesting and will read the book with an open mind but I have a feeling this may not be Mesquita’s finest work.

Matthew Whited
Dec 13 2016 at 9:09am

[Comment removed pending confirmation of email address. Email the to request restoring this comment. A valid email address is required to post comments on EconLog and EconTalk.–Econlib Ed.]

Dec 13 2016 at 9:22am

I echo much of what has already been said. It’s hard to imagine de Mesquita arrives at these conclusions without a preexisting framework in need of some facts. Of course presidents want to be reelected but to suggest they never act in the country’s best interest (at least intentionally) is absurd.

He attempts to undermine the de facto term limits created by Washington by pointing out that numerous presidents attempted to run for 3rd terms. But voters rejected these attempts each time, no doubt inspired by Washington’s example.

Do stray bits of correspondence and some back room election dealing really transform our understanding of Lincoln? De Mesquita glosses over the magnitude of the political and social challenges that Lincoln faced – slavery, states rights, secession, war, the political economy – and blithely concludes that Lincoln is a novice focused on his own political career. This seems like Monday morning quarterbacking at its worst.

Finally, his take on “yes-men” was bizarre. His conclusion that “yes-men” that offer disagreement are the best kind of advisers is a bit of misdirection. By definition, a yes-man doesn’t provide pushback, even when he or she disagrees with the leader.

Gary Mullennix
Dec 13 2016 at 11:25am

de Mosquita had me until the solution. Taking an old, very old page from Plato’s Republic, he wants a committee of academics to analyse the likely cost of any presidents excursion into war. Plato chose, in his Utopian ideal, a group of very moral Guardians who would, for the good of all, manage life in said Republic. Guardians were not to be paid, nor clothed, housed or fed. That would constitute likely interference. It didn’t work and won’t work. We have a Senate and a press to do the job. Not well of course but the institutions are in place.

Jeff Withington
Dec 13 2016 at 2:46pm

1) Absurd complaints. de Mesquita bemoans that a compromise on slavery, which would have protected the institution, failed to pass.

2) Overconfidence in algorithms. The guest employed algorithms to predict the cost, length and outcome of wars and to provide criticism of leadership that failed to achieve the forecasted values.

3) Cherry-picked data. de Mesquita claims that the office of the presidency pushes its occupant to war…except when it doesn’t (FDR, LBJ, Obama).

4) Self-interested solutions. If the most important thing a president can do is get re-elected, then the most important thing de Mesquita can do is get appointed to the board he proposed. This board wouldn’t exist unless presidents like Lincoln and Washington were really abject failures so it’s in de Mesquita’s interest to smear them as such.

Dec 13 2016 at 5:23pm

1-One of the reasons I like this podcast is Russ usually pushes back on his guests and follows hayek’s guide to science and scientism; however, I’m not sure if this is even scientism. This seems more like character assassination on Washington and Lincoln and then turns around gives cryptic praise to LBJ, Obama, and (I presume but didn’t explicitly mention it) Woodrow Wilson and FDR???!! I will not comment on Washington but being well read and visited most of the sites of the civil war I have some major criticisms. Mesquita seems to buy into the school of thought about the civil war known as states rights/war of northern aggression. I am somewhat sympathetic to this principle as a libertarian/classical liberal but if this principle is invoked over the ability to own other people to do work then this principle doesn’t deserve to exist. It being like having an airbag in the car that would only go off only in very minor accidents but in major accidents it would not work. A few months ago Michael munger was on and said how the south transitioned from roman to greek ideas about slavery. The greek idea of slavery made peaceful emancipation impossible.
2- His criticisms of Lincoln’s handling of the civil war are absurd. War is in the 4th quadrant (nassim taleb framework) and is entirely unpredictable and unknowable. This idea that the civil war SHOULD only take 6 month is simply silly… just read Bent Flyvbjerg on Megaprojects. War is basically two competing megaprojects plus the spiritual/psychological problem of killing others.
3-His counterfactuals about the civil war are even more absurd. Trying to enforce an embargo on your neighbor is very hard to do and interferes with free trade. IF you want to play the counterfactual game then you must take into account France and England and some extent Russia. These naval powers easily could have intervened (thankfully didn’t ..much thanks to Lincoln and his cabinet).
4- Casualty wise the civil war is nothing compared to most major wars especially since the invention of repeating firearms and more effective rifles and artillery (I’m not sure if these show up in the authors “models”. US population in 1860 was 32 million and there was 600,000 casualties (much of this was to disease which McClellan the great organizer helped to implement and those reforms allowed Sherman and Grant to go on longterm offensive campaigns that were never done in military history!!). Napoleons and Washington’s armies were much smaller than of Grants or Lee’s. This was a truly modern war fought with industrial technology. Compared to future conflicts the US civil war is a drop in the bucket in terms of human loss. France, with a population of 40 million in 1914, lost 330,00 causalities (germans about the same number) 200 miles northeast of paris in the battle of verdun alone in WWI. Entire Soviet and German armies disappeared in the eastern fronts of WWI and WWII. The Finns during the winter war of 1939-1940 inflicted about 130,000 deaths on the red army in one of the most effective defenses ever and maintained their sovereignty. By the way the alliance of democratic Finland with Nazi Germany does not fit with the political science idea of the democratic peace theory.

[Nickname changed with permission of commenter to be more unique. –Econlib Ed.]

Dec 13 2016 at 5:55pm

An excellent podcast.

It is rare to showcase a more transparent example of “revisionist” history. I laughed heartily at the author’s various contortions, mischaracterizations, omissions and other high school level debate tactics in a highly biased attempt to denigrate some of our leaders and absolve others. Also, I doubt that his book could properly communicate the hatred of the wealthy that dripped from his voice at every opportunity in this podcast. Russ did an excellent job of giving him plenty of rope, which he used to hang himself multiple times.

Instead of a very lengthy point by point rebuttal of the history (it was a target rich environment), some of which has already been commented upon, let’s just focus on his solution.

Firstly, you try very hard not to apply models to out of sample data that occurred before the model was developed. There is no way to unlearn what you learned about the Civil War, so even if you don’t include that data in your model, you may subconsciously adjust it, which would create errors.

Next, if you have a new model and you apply it to an out of sample historical data set, in this case the Civil War, and you conclude that the Civil War was wrong because your model is better than the actual history and then use this erroneous conclusion to then propose that this and models like this should be used for future policy decisions is simply a comedy of compounded errors. The Civil War wasn’t disproven, the model was disproven. The hubris to believe so strongly in one’s models and then to propose that a panel of “expert” academics using these models should influence policy – it’s a good thing that I was stopped at a light because I was laughing so hard I would have otherwise driven off of the road.

Just one last point on the proposed solution. Wars always take longer and cost more than originally budgeted, but then ALL government programs take longer and cost more than budgeted, and not many people seem to notice or care.

Dec 14 2016 at 1:34am

Hugely enjoyed this conversation. While I’m not ready to endorse a model-based evaluation of history (and much less the notion of having a panel determine policy based on the model) and agree with other commenters that there is some amount of cherry-picking supportive facts and factoids, I submit that underrated presidents like Harding and Coolidge, who actively sought to keep the country out of war rather than self-servingly seek out the glory of war, should be re-evaluated. Coolidge defused a heated crisis with Mexico, expressly instructing his ambassador Dwight Morrow to “keep us out of a war”.

Dec 14 2016 at 4:10am

The banality of evil is reducing warfare to peer reviewed models of utilitarian calculus that must assume false conclusions like the legitimacy of interpersonal comparison of subjective value. At times it almost sounded like worship at the altar of authoritarian greatness of needless large scale bloodshed. The history of war shows that we’re very often lied to be officials of the government in such a way to build support for and reduce resistance to the commencement of active warfare measures of all sorts. The Gulf of Tornkin Incident, the Nayarin Testimony, the WMD and al Qaeda talk about Saddam, the ~$540 million spent by the pentagon to create fake al Qaeda videos as if they’re being aired by legitimate news organizations, and spread them via DVDs with Real Player callbacks that allow the pentagon to track who views this material by their IP address (which they can likely turn into an address either by intelligence operations or diplomatic channels). The pentagon creates a lot of war propaganda. And it seems like the government always has. Wars are sold on lies most if not all the time. Sometimes people believe the lies. Iraq war will be very cheap. Paid for in oil. We will be greeted as liberators. Democracy will flourish.

David McGrogan
Dec 14 2016 at 4:34am

I agree with many of the comments here.

Fundamentally I just think every president and every war is different. Trying to come up with predictive or explanatory theories, as Bueno de Mesquita does, is a bit of a fool’s game and an exercise in academic hubris to boot.

That said, I enjoyed listening to it, as it was certainly provocative – and I think his view of the Founding Fathers and their motivations is dead right.

Dec 14 2016 at 8:57am

I wonder if it is the conditioning of the commentators that has most in disagreement with the author? We have all been feed countless history lessons in our lifetime that are mostly an inaccurate accounting of events. Best part here is he challenges what we may believe to be true, or thought was true. That should be enough to have us all reflecting to some degree how our history is presented to us and by whom.

My father was a WWII bomber pilot and would cringe at the history books we had to read growing up. Often times he would spend entire weekends reading these texts front to back and at Sunday dinner would comment on how inaccurate the text was, and outraged that we had to read the required fiction and tested on lies. He believed that Pearl Habor attack was known by Washington and they dilberatly failed to inform the base.

If the likes of George Washington would kill the French so as
to acquire property for personal gains then isn’t it possible that
personal gain by anybody in a position power may be subject
to serving the self over the whole? And don’t forget, this land is land we stole from the Indians. Murdered them. The Indians should have killed every person stepping onto this land. That would have made the just like us.

Dec 14 2016 at 9:34am

Given the general hostility to the guest, I wish I could be contrarian, but it gave me a start when he said Johnson “paid for” the Vietnam war. Wasn’t he the President that wanted both “guns and butter”? So I checked. The national debt rose from $306 billion to $353 billion during his Presidency. Looks like an increase to me. Or maybe the increase was not to pay for the guns, but for the butter, so it doesn’t count?

Dec 14 2016 at 11:02am

Unlike the others above I like his take even if it is flawed because it is better to skilfully avoid war than to win wars but people who rate presidents rate war presidents higher. Also on domestic issues I think that those who created the greenback and then the Federal Reserve are to be blamed for the Great Depression and FDR’s response to it was not great and should not make him a great president.

I will take Van Buren, Cleveland, Harding over FDR and some the other called great. Lincoln is a mixed bag, good that he signed the Emancipation Proclamation but in many other respects bad.

Dec 14 2016 at 11:39am

TJP response to D.
1-You may be right in a philosophical sense and I don’t oppose people generating alternate hypothesis about history but if my question to you is are you prepared to take your relativization (post-modernizing) of truth to the limit. I’m all for questioning sources and reliability of history but that should include the author of these models of history as well. What motives does this author have in generating. Its seems quite well that the authors motive is to first doubt everybody’s expertise then say he should be in some sort of advisory role to the president. That is self interest manifested.
2-Pulling the Freudian trick of internal oppression (ohh its something that your father did) again is another relativist trick but still if there no such thing as truth then how do we know if what you think internally is true anyway. What is “oppression” and “drives”?
3-The aside about native Americans is absurd. I have no good foundation for property rights or morality outside of religion. By the way Hayek gives much credit to the maintenance of the extended order to religions or tradition in the book the fatal conceit. On the historical record of Indians ( but why should I bother because you like most relativists doubt the ability to know anything which may be true or truth itself) many died due to disease which would have happened anyway ie inevitable. We “took” the land from the Spanish/british/Russians mainly anyway and just like Machiavelli we have the land until we give up the will to defend it. We humans are either “monkeys” or (we ate from a tree in the garden of eden)…. Humans are not innately good or bad just self interested. Even are our self interest has limits. IF we “stole” land from the Indians who did the Indians take the land from in the first place. But again if you want to take the postmodern line then what’s the point of discussion anyway? As an aside myself where did the Romans get their empire? Where did the Babylonians get their empire? Where did the han chinese get their empire? Where did the Mongolians?
4-If truth is simply power and my interpretation of history is just my privilege then I should double down myself on creating and defending a history which privileges me. If everything is political so are your own actions…..especially academics!! (again I don’t on a philosophical level refute that but in your heart (will/brain) I think you think there is a such thing called truth). If you want a better explanation see Wittigstein philosophical investigations or Peter Berger (A rumor of Angels) or there is an article about this for free on JSTOR about relativizing the relativizers.
5-Finally, my passionate response is because I think your way of thinking ends in disaster. The more relativistic you get the more one is forced to go bombing missions like your father on other humans. My grandfather was flew B24’s and my uncle was in Vietnam. Most of the key players of those wars were relativists. My way may end in disaster too but I think philosopher kings (ie using scientific models and well educated people) can end in disaster as well and if the choice is nothing but power then I am going to use my power to chose not to follow this way of thinking and inform others about the dangers.

[Nickname changed with permission of commenter to be more unique. –Econlib Ed.]

Dec 14 2016 at 11:41am

I appreciate Russ for allowing people on this podcast who’s views will challenge my own. Even though I disagree with many of the conclusions that Mr. Mesquita makes, this conversation did remind me that history is not as concrete as I would like to think.

Mark H.
Dec 14 2016 at 2:35pm

As an American military officer, I find Mr. Mesquita’s assessment of the Civil War and the Revolutionary War greatly disappointing. Washington is portrayed as a lackluster commander who ends up beating the world’s greatest military and Lincoln could have just waltzed to Richmond (a big assumption that that would end the war). No where in this is an understanding of operational art or even the the basics from Clausewitz’s Vom Krieg. I’m fine with people taking contrarian positions. I find Mr. Mesquita starting with what result he wants and then searches for arguments to support his ex ante position.

Dec 14 2016 at 3:31pm


If the likes of George Washington would kill the French so as to acquire property for personal gains then isn’t it possible that personal gain by anybody in a position power may be subject to serving the self over the whole?

IF Washington had murdered the French, then you may have something, but then only with respect to the French and Indian War. But rest assured, Washington didn’t “murder” anyone. The actual history is – shall we say – more nuanced than the author suggests.

Mark H,

I am in total agreement. To suggest that one could go from a relatively peacetime stance to draft, train, equip, and logistically transport men and materiel over 19th century roads on foot and with wagons and then wage war that ranged over a half million square miles and win it in six months – that’s one incredible model. I also suspect that the Yankee veterans of the Battle of First Manassas would think that Stonewall Jackson (and later Lee) may not have been weighted appropriately in the model…

Dec 15 2016 at 11:46am

So many counterexamples immediately come to mind that the thesis wars make presidents popular while peacetime presidents suffer doesn’t seem to hold much water. Some of the most unpopular presidents include Nixon, Bush I, Bush II, LBJ, and Polk, all wartime presidents, while some of the most popular presidents today are Clinton, Reagan, Teddy Roosevelt, Jefferson, and Washington, whose presidencies weren’t marked by war. Maybe it’s a bit more complicated than the guest’s model implies?

Greg G
Dec 15 2016 at 2:30pm

I thought this conversation was a mess, but in the good way.

The guest offered a fascinating combination of worthwhile and original historical analysis mixed in with a lot of cheap Monday morning quarterbacking.

As usual Russ asked almost all the questions I wanted asked and challenged him in ways that were fair and on the money.

Flush Entity
Dec 16 2016 at 8:10am

Another great guest Russ.

But De Mesquita was on thin ice with Lincon. He said:

Well, the problem was that Lincoln didn’t have a parade of generals coming through the Oval Office to discuss with him, ‘This is how I would approach the war. This would be my strategy.’ Instead, he did what was convenient. At first, he turned to Winfield Scott, hero of the Mexican-American War, a former failed candidate for the Presidency; and an old man, who was out of touch with the military skills of the day. But was popular. So, he picked somebody who was popular rather than competent. Then he turned to General McClellan, and McClelland was well-known as a great parade general. But not a fighter. He could have brought in the Shermans and the Grants and so on, and said, ‘How are you going to conduct this war? How can we get to Richmond quickly?’ But he didn’t. And that was just incompetence.

The trouble is that in 1861, at the at the outbreak of the war, Grant and Sherman weren’t even Generals, they were Colonels. Neither of them had any track record of recent military command. The whole US army prior to the war was about 16,000 men including officers. No one in the US Army had fought a substantial engagement any way near the scale of those fought in the war. For example, the casualties in the battle of Gettysburg were 7,058 fatalities (3,155 Union, 3,903 Confederate). Another 33,264 had been wounded (14,529 Union, 18,735 Confederate) and 10,790 were missing (5,365 Union, 5,425 Confederate).

As can be seen, the numbers of soldiers involved in battles in the war were orders of magnitude greater than anything experienced for many years prior to the Civil war. No General, with the exception of Winfield Scott had experience of commanding large armies against comparable forces.

Moreover, it took time for Grant and Sherman to learn how to be effective Generals, they weren’t born great Generals. But by 1863 they were experienced with good track records, and Lincoln bought both East to prosecute the war.

Lincoln tried a number of Generals and sacked them when they didn’t perform to expectation. What was he meant to have done?

Andy Wagner
Dec 17 2016 at 6:53pm

I certainly appreciate the opportunity to hear such controversial and contrary opinions. It’s a healthy conversation.
Having said that, the prospect of an independent board of academics predicting the costs of war is right up there with a board of academics predicting the impact of an economic stimulus plan on the US economy. Wars, even more than economies, are the result of complex socio-technical systems and infinite interactions that are impossible for any set of “peer reviewed algorithms” to master.
To take two examples from the discussion: any model used prior to 1860 would not have included the wide-spread use of the rifled musket, which prior to the Crimean War, were only in use by a small number of specialized troops. Any model used prior to 1914 would not have included the wide-spread use of the machine gun, indirect-fire artillery, or poison gas. Just as the US did not consider the impact of guerilla tactic in Vietnam or Iraq–the second time, and Israel did not anticipate the impact of anti-tank missiles six years after the highly successful 1967 war. The notion of an omniscient, if independent “board of war” is preposterous.
As to the nobility of LBJ, increasing taxes to pay for his war and changing the criteria for the draft–if he were so noble as to gain Congress consent for the Vietnam War, perhaps instead of drafting soldiers against their will, he would have tapped the hundreds of thousands of already trained and drilled volunteer soldiers who made up the National Guard! The Guard didn’t go to war, because LBJ did want to spend his political capital to ask Congress to activate them! So much for his high minded prosecution.

Jim Glass
Dec 18 2016 at 12:11am

I’m a big fan of The Dictator’s Handbook and frequently recommend it to others … which made it even more painful and distressing to listen to a lot of this. Especially the Civil War notions which run dangerously close to (if not residing smack solidly inside of) the territory of the old “Lost Cause” history of the War of Northern Aggression, which is very, very bad history indeed.

I was hearing quite of list of things to reply to — but then this stopped me cold as the peak of indulgence…

RR: “you really should have had a What-If Chapter: … So, maybe we wouldn’t have rebelled against the British; the British would have ended slavery for the United States in 1820-something–when was it?” BBdeM: “Yes, 1827 or 1830, around there…” RR: “And then in 1860 instead of being a bloodbath of horrific proportions could have been something similar to the liberation of Canada. So, just thought I’d throw that in.” BBdeM: “And without Jim Crow.” RR: “Yeah, a huge thing. Absolutely.”

Let me get this straight: (1) The British couldn’t even enforce the Stamp Act on the colonies, and (2) With slavery totally protected in the USA constitutionally, the Southern states bolted right out because a Republican regime came in that explicitly posed no threat to slavery but merely opposed its expansion.

Yet in 1834 – but for the earlier greedy war-making of George Washington and Ben Franklin – the South would have been willing to voluntarily give up fully 40% of its total wealth (rising rapidly towards 50%) — over $9 trillion in today’s dollars measured by share of GDP (as done with George Washington) — *and* destroy its entire social system, because … why? They were asked to do so by the same guys who couldn’t enforce the Stamp Act?

This from proponents of the belief that political actors follow self interest? Suddenly the Southerners forget the self-interest value of 40% of their total wealth, and their entire social structure too. They wouldn’t instead just say good-bye to Britain like they actually did in 1776 (over a lot less) and would again to the USA in 1860 (over a lot less), taking all their slave wealth with them this time too, because … why?

So the result would have been and end to slavery “similar to the liberation of Canada”, where how much wealth was invested in slaves? “And without Jim Crow.” Not even any residual racism! Give me that magic wand and I’ll bring peace to the Middle East tomorrow. I mean, really?

BTW, as to LBJ “doing what he believe[d] right, and what most of us also believe was right … Including the introduction of the lottery to replace Selective Service, which cost him the support of Democrats in the Northeast, whose sons had high-risk lottery numbers–that is, they were likely to be drafted and sent to Vietnam. They stopped supporting him. And he knew that would be the consequence.”

There was no lottery during the LBJ years. “President Richard Nixon issued an Executive order prescribing regulations for random selection of the United States Selective Service system on November 26, 1969.” [wikiP] The first lottery took place on December 1, 1969.

Mick A.
Dec 18 2016 at 9:31pm

This was a very interesting discussion. However, I’m having a difficult time deciding how much weight I can necessarily give to the guest’s claims.

The guest states:

Economists have estimated the worth in real dollars adjusted for inflation, not appreciated, of George Washington’s estate, in contemporary terms; and it’s about $20 billion dollars. He is by far the wealthiest President. He is the 59th wealthiest person in American history.

However, I could not find any information to substantiate this claim. Granted I did not look for that long- all the claims I found placed Washington at about $525 million.

Am I misunderstanding the valuation posited by the guest?

Dec 19 2016 at 9:58am

@ Mick A.

Like you, I searched for evidence regarding George Washington’s net worth in current dollars, and I found the same thing – somewhere in the $500 million – $550 million range.

Prof. de Mesqita says flatly that Washington was worth $20 billion in “contemporary terms” which I take to mean current dollars. If he’s using a different definition, then I wish he would have explained it because his estimate is almost 40x higher than what’s emerged/general consensus.

Martin Dertz
Dec 19 2016 at 5:49pm

Lincoln and Washington waged unnecessary wars, but Obama signaled weakness by ending them: Listening to Bruce Bueno de Mesquita reminded me of Chappelle Show’s “Player Haters Ball” for American presidents.

It was interesting to get a contrarian view on some revered historical figures. However his level of certainty of how thing would have been, oversimplification of complex decisions, and claim to knowledge of decision-maker’s motivations (along with the priority of multiple, conflicting priorities in the case of Lincoln) was annoying and makes me curious if Bueno de Mesquita’s ever been in a position of leadership and/or charged with group decisions.

For example

Well, it certainly was a mistake, in my view. He should have let the South go and then put an economic embargo on it; and the individual states would have come slinking back, pleading to re-enter the Union. And then he could have dictated the terms.

Maybe. Or maybe it would have been more like the world of the 2016 novel
Underground Airlines which takes place in an alternate universe in which the civil war was avoided but slavery persists in spite of worldwide economic sanctions.

Robert Swan
Dec 22 2016 at 5:47pm

Not very impressed with the guest but it has been interesting to read the comments. Most of my schooling was in Australia — though I did absorb the deeper parts of U.S. mythology in my formative years from TV shows like Bewitched — so I can offer something of a sympathetic outsider’s view.

In general it’s a good thing to have cherished beliefs challenged, and it’s definitely healthy to think of Washington and Lincoln walking around in their times as ordinary men with ordinary failings; to realise it’s only the distorting lens of history that has turned them into giants.

Prof. Bueno De Mesquita certainly laid out the challenge, but he didn’t seem to have much to back his claims. His approach seemed to have more in common with Eric von Daniken than a sober historian. Like Greg G, I think Russ handled the interview just right; not arguing, but seeking evidence. There wasn’t much forthcoming and it occasionally took the wind from his sails.

No complaints that he was interviewed but I would like to know what the reader gets out of the book. From what I gather, it’s not much more than to raise some indignation and perhaps to wallow in some “if only” regrets. Taking Martin Dertz’s comment a step further, perhaps the book would be better recast as an alternative history and added to the entertaining fiction section of the library.

On the implausible $20 billion George Washington fortune, I’m suspicious that it comes from using modern land valuations and ignoring what a couple of centuries of national growth might have added to the real property value.

Dec 26 2016 at 3:04pm

I count at least a half dozen quotes from de Mesquita that ring very Howard Zinn-like: either lacking evidence entirely, or reading disputed evidence as dispositive of his own argument when it could be reasonably be read to the contrary, and some (as mentioned above by other commenters) just seemed flatly implausible. Due in large part to to cross-examination by Russ Roberts, little of this struck me as very convincing in support of his overall thesis of Washington: that it was not liberty that played a compelling role in his military career, but predominantly the desire to maintain the value of his land holdings. My question: whether you go to war against the Crown or not, would it really be inconsistent for someone in Washington’s position to have sincere convictions for liberty and a desire to protect one’s real property? I had a hard time following his argument because can’t see those two things as mutually exclusive.

Not that Washington or any of the Framers were saints, but some of the arguments here seemed a bit unfair and strained.

Dec 27 2016 at 4:45pm

TJP: “1-… This seems more like character assassination on Washington and Lincoln and then turns around gives cryptic praise to LBJ, Obama, and (I presume but didn’t explicitly mention it) Woodrow Wilson and FDR???!!”

Since Wilson took the US into an unnecessary war (albeit in his second term, when re-election wasn’t much in prospect, though I suppose possible), I don’t see why you would assume de Mesquita likes Wilson.

“4- Casualty wise the civil war is nothing compared to most major wars… US population in 1860 was 32 million and there was(sic) 600,000 casualties”

This source says 650,000-850,000, just among males: Your idea of “nothing” doesn’t match mine, which is one of the reasons I do not have a membership in the Cult of Lincoln.

“…By the way the alliance of democratic Finland with Nazi Germany does not fit with the political science idea of the democratic peace theory.”

Why not? The US is well known to have allied with the USSR in the same conflict… after Pearl was bombed. So “democratic peace theory” presumably allows for that sort of thing. And the USSR invaded Finland first.

Dec 27 2016 at 5:03pm

@Martin Dertz: You quote de Mesquita:
“Well, it certainly was a mistake, in my view. He should have let the South go and then put an economic embargo on it; and the individual states would have come slinking back, pleading to re-enter the Union. And then he could have dictated the terms.”

Which is dubious, but not for the reason you suggest. Serfs, or sharecroppers, are cheaper than slaves, so the peculiar institution wasn’t destined to survive.

But de Mesquita is way too optimistic as to the North’s economic power over the South. Given the highly protectionist (of Northern industry) policies of the Federal government (severely increased in time for Lincoln’s term, iirc) it is not at all clear that the South wouldn’t do better relieved of that burden and trading directly with Europe, never mind the practical and political difficulties of implementing such an “embargo”.

john Penfold
Dec 29 2016 at 5:47pm

I’m old enough to have read the Beards as an undergraduate when they were freshly published. Mesquite reminds me of them. He brings a one dimensional view about human motivation and of the complex reality leaders and potential leaders always face. While there is always truth in the one dimension, it is after all, one dimension and most often in the case of totally materialist views, not the most important. Prestige, respect, to appear lovely to others, were always more important to Washington. Come on Hancock’s wealth certainly wasn’t enhanced by independence from the mercantilist Brits. It is hard to read much Lincoln and not believe he was in fact convinced that we could not endure half slave and half free, and LBJ was just flat out evil. He imposed dependency on blacks on purpose. There is no other way to read it. On Viet Nam I’ll give him naiveté, he thought Kennedy’s the best and brightest weren’t fools, but they were. And Khrushchev caved in because he thought Kennedy so weak he was about to be overthrown by the military, not because JFK took a tough stance, indeed JFK was willing to give them anything they wanted if they let him win. See Yale’s Kagan on this.

James Mitchell
Jan 5 2017 at 3:49pm

This was a thought provoking episode; though sometimes I think Bruce Bueno de Mesquita was being contrarian for its own sake. I definitely got a “Charles Beard” vibe at one point.

I could probably comment on several topics, but I thought the way he criticized Lincoln’s prosecution of the US Civil War was … naive? To be blunt, I laughed aloud and the guest’s critique.

IIRC, (A) the duration should have been 6-months instead of 4-years; and (B) Lincoln should have consulted more general officers in order to get a “better” national military strategy.

I think we can all agree that the Civil War was terrible, and was certainly not decisively prosecuted along the DC-Richmond axis. I’m not trying to argue against that.

Instead, I’m saying that the comment about “supposed duration” seems like overreach by a quantitative political scientist, and even if the war should have been shorter, I don’t see how the “right” leaders (read Grant or Sherman?) — even if they could have gotten direct access to Lincoln before the war — would have been able to develop, explain, and get buy-in from the necessary stakeholders in DC about the “right” strategy.

Here are some more thoughts.
[Issue A] Duration “according to a statistical model”. In short, I wonder if that model is even applicable to this situation. I was unfamiliar, but I took a look at the 1996 paper and noticed that it was built on a data set of inter-state wars (not civil wars) and takes into account a few factors like population, strategy, terrain, and regime. I see two immediate problems: (1) model seems to ignore the size of the country; maybe the war would have been shortened if occurring in between two European states instead of the US [note “terrain” means to equate to maneuver-time, so maybe this would be analogous]; (2) the over-simplification of assigning certain coefficients a single value (e.g., can you really say the strategy was 100% based on maneuver or attrition, or that the “terrain” was all one type? Moving north-south along the Mississippi is not the same as east-west across the Appalachians).

When taking into account WWII and the challenge of selecting the proper level of abstraction, the original paper modeled WWII as 12 separate wars (e.g., Germany vs. Poland). So if it was against this data-set, I really would want to know more about how the guest choose to model the US Civil War before I bought into the notion that duration should have been 6-months.

(Though common sense tells me that it is highly unrealistic to have expected the war to last a single campaign season. We laugh at the fools that went to First Bull Run, so should we laugh at someone else that shows with “statistics” and says something similar?)

I think it is notable that the original authors did not want to include intra-state wars, and the only literature I can find quickly via google on the topic is for the post 1960 period. If this case fit so well, why wasn’t it originally included or more frequently discussed?

[Issue B] “Listening to more generals”. So who exactly are the generals that would be in this “parade through his office” that would have been able to show Lincoln (or anyone) a better way? Certainly not Grant or Sherman Some inconvenient fact: the war started in April, and Gen. Scott’s Anaconda Plan was almost immediately enacted. Sherman didn’t get to DC until June, and was still a colonel during the first battle of Bull Run in July. During this time, Grant was also a colonel, and serving in Illinois (his promotion to one-star was back-dated to May). How were these men supposed to know the strategy for winning-faster BEFORE the war developed? And get access to Lincoln without the rank of General or a record of continuous service (they both had been out of the service for 6 or 7 years)? And how would they have convinced the rest of the necessary stakeholders, generals, congressmen, etc.? I think it would have been impossible.

TLDR: I don’t believe the US Civil War was fought as efficiently or smartly as possible. And looking back in hindsight, it is really easy to say “don’t do this or don’t do that”. But I really have to push back against criticism by “modern statistical analysis” and the suggestion of “more listening” seems to disregard the historic record.

Brian Clenidnen
Jan 8 2017 at 9:58pm


As an economist why did you let him getting away with implying a successful presidency and a good president resides over a high GDP growth rate. The metric by which he judges good/bad presidents is completely flawed. Your a moron if you think the president is the one who directs a good or bad economy.

Also his whole narrative on Lincoln ignores he had to wheel and deal being the leader of a brand new party to stay in power. De Mesquita narrative assume Lincoln was a king or dictator not a less powerful executive (per today’s standards)of one of three fairly equal branches. He had congress to deal with. Lincoln writing and directions to his generals prove he knew how to end the war (destroy the army groups aka don’t let them get away) but the generals did not listen to him because they were political appointment to satisfy Lincolns allies. He had to let general after general hang themselves (with them getting tends of thousands troops killed will they were at it) before he could replace them. He had to find his Grants and Shermans by results.

Comments are closed.


EconTalk Extra, conversation starters for this podcast episode:

This week's guest:

This week's focus:

Additional ideas and people mentioned in this podcast episode:

A few more readings and background resources:

A few more EconTalk podcast episodes:



Podcast Episode Highlights

Intro. [Recording date: November 8, 2016.]

Russ Roberts: Your book argues that greatness is a little bit overrated; the presidents that we rate highly are over-rated; and that we particularly overrate presidents that take us to war, and in addition we misunderstand their motives. How do you see presidents making that fateful decision of committing the United States to war?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Well, somewhere on their list of priorities, well down on their list of priorities, may be things about what is good for the United States as they understand or what is good for 'we the people,' as they understand it. The top item on their list is what is good for them. I'm sure they think that what is good for them is good for the country. What is good for them tends to reduce to either economic gain or, more often, electoral gain--what will get them re-elected? Presidents who go to war are vastly more likely to be re-elected than presidents who produce peace and prosperity.

Russ Roberts: And they are vastly more likely to be rated highly by posterity, which of course is one of the inducements or incentives to go to war, I would think.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Absolutely. If you look at the rankings by historians, for example, of how our presidents have done, very highly correlated with how many American deaths in war they presided over. So, typically historians rank Warren Harding last among presidents. Warren Harding presided over zero deaths in war, and an 8% average annual increase in per capita income. At the top, they rank, for example, Abraham Lincoln, who presided over 750,000 American deaths in war; and a growth rate of under 2%.

Russ Roberts: You are a little bit cynical, Bruce. Some would call you a realist. Is there no room--you said, 'Way down the list is what's good for the country, good for the people.' You are suggesting that the decisions that these men made were--they fooled us. They made these bad decisions, or at least self-interested decisions, and yet somehow they managed to avoid the verdict of history that they were self-interested. How do you explain that?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Well, that's a very difficult question. For the average person, of course, the assessment of how presidents did is related to what they see as heroic things that they know about. Like war. War is a very big deal. It takes people's lives; it takes money; and so forth. And so we treat it as heroic because to treat it otherwise would be very depressing. Because we do a lot of war fighting. People say that they are in favor of peace and prosperity. And presidents--candidates for the presidency--say they are in favor of peace and prosperity. It just turns out that peace and prosperity doesn't get them re-elected, doesn't do them very much good. And I am indeed cynical. The first, most important thing a president can do is please enough of his or her constituents that the president gets reelected. And war does the trick.

Russ Roberts: Now, you talked in an earlier episode of EconTalk, and you talk in this book as well, about the role of dictators versus democratically-elected leaders: in particular, that dictators, having to only please a smaller group tend to be less eager to and less likely to produce prosperity. In fact, the opposite is often the case: they run the economy to the ground but suck off enough goodies for them and their friends that they prefer that to a more general type of prosperity. Given that the political--excuse me, not the political--given that the personal and financial and human costs of war are so extensive and spread very widely in the modern era--by the modern era I mean the last couple hundred years--are you surprised at how often the United States has gone to war as a democracy, with such a large base? Yeah, I understand dictators can go to war a lot. They don't have to respond to the electorate. They just have to keep their buddies happy who keep them in power. But in a democracy, the people in some dimension keep the leaders in power. Why has war been so common in the United States?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Well, as this book points out, and The Dictator's Handbook, which you were referring to, the earlier book, also points out: Democracies are not less prone to wage war than autocracies. They are more selective about the wars they wage. Autocrats are willing to fight what I would describe as tough wars--where their adversary is strong. Democrats--with a small "d"--democracies--tend to fight wars when going into the war the expectation is that there's a very high probability of victory. And of course sometimes that turns out not to be true; and then they have to try harder. And they do. But they are not reluctant to fight wars. They like to fight very weak opponents--hence colonial and imperial expansion wars. They like to fight when they are confident of winning: 93% of the wars initiated by democratic countries are won by them; and only about 60% of the wars initiated by an autocrat. So there's some first-mover advantage--autocrats not 50-50. But there's very careful selection by democrats. They fight wars that they are going to succeed in; and success generally makes them popular.


Russ Roberts: So, for those who are listening at whom who have not seen the book or looked at it, we are going to proceed to destroy the reputations here--or at least Bruce will--of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. We'll look at Kennedy and Obama, and if we have time we'll get to FDR (Franklin Delano Roosevelt). These are all leaders that you are very critical of, or at least take a revisionist approach. So, let's start with George Washington. Certainly an iconic figure to most Americans despite his slave holdings; he's still widely respected. He is in many ways the hero of the musical Hamilton, after Mr. Hamilton himself, I have to say I shed a tear when he sings "One Last Time," when he steps down from the Presidency, doesn't run again; creates a model for future leaders that puts us on the right path. He has a reputation for great honesty. He's a great general. And yet you are not quite so high on him. So, what's your view of Washington?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Well, let's take a step back to your list of wonderful things he did. He did not set a norm to limit terms to two terms. After Andrew Jackson, until the Constitution was amended, every president who was alive at the end of the 2nd term sought his party's nomination for a third term. Ulysses S. Grant did; Grover Cleveland did; Theodore Roosevelt did. Even Woodrow Wilson, near death at the end of his 2nd term, tried to persuade the party to nominate him. They failed, it's true, until Franklin Roosevelt; but they all tried, anyway. George Washington: let's understand a little bit about who George Washington was--not the mythology, but the real person. George Washington was the son, not the first son, not the second son--down the list--of a father who owned 5000 acres of land, including what we know today as Mount Vernon. He was a prosperous man, not super-wealthy but prosperous. He died when George was just 11. Lawrence, George's older brother, inherited Mount Vernon and a substantial part of the land; and Lawrence, who was idolized by George, became one of the top three investors in the Ohio Valley Company, which was a land speculation company. George, of course, was the land surveyor. Although he had very little education, he was good with math and he could survey land. So he was a great asset to the Ohio Valley Company because he could go out and figure out the lay of the land. Part of his job was to make sure the French didn't take any of that land. He literally started the French and Indian War. I repeat: literally. He led a set of troops, when he was 21 years old, into the wilderness; came across some Frenchmen; slaughtered them; took the leader of the group prisoner. One of his confederates, one of Washington's confederates, then assassinated the leader of the French who was the French Ambassador carrying papers to make peace with the English. So, great military leaders, not clear, either. Anyway, he was doing all of this to secure land. The King, then, in 1763, issued a proclamation: the colonists couldn't settle in what was then defined as the Ohio Valley; that included much of Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, and so forth. And so, George sends his agent, Mr. Crawford, out into the Ohio Valley to secure land on the fly. And he told Crawford, 'If anybody stops you and asks "What are you doing?"' because it wasn't legal to secure land, 'you tell them, "I'm out hunting." Because the King will be very upset if he knew what we were doing.' And so he secured huge amounts of land that was also land attached to his participation in the French and Indian War, a land grant that was supposed to be shared with his soldiers. He cheated his soldiers out of the better land; took the best land for himself. Some of them threatened to sue him; he just quashed them. And he amassed a fortune. His last position, just before becoming President, was President of the Patowmack Canal Company--the Potomac Canal, as we know it, from the Potomac River. What that canal did was bring, make it possible to bring produce from the Shenandoah Valley--which George owned--up to the port in Alexandria, which had been built by Lawrence, by the Ohio Valley Company, in which George had a direct interest, and shipped goods out. So it was a very profitable undertaking--or so he thought it would be, in the long run, for him. And that's what motivated him. Most people think of Washington as--besides a great hero, which he certainly was--as kind of a gentleman farmer. Economists have estimated the worth in real dollars adjusted for inflation, not appreciated, of George Washington's estate, in contemporary terms; and it's about $20 billion dollars. He is by far the wealthiest President. He is the 59th wealthiest person in American history. Three of the American founding fathers are in the list of the top 100 wealthiest Americans in all of history: Hancock, who was wealthier than Washington--made his money smuggling; and Ben Franklin, who was not quite as wealthy, who made his money because he had a monopoly on the printing press. These are the folks who led the Revolution. These were not the downtrodden. These were not the oppressed. These were people who stood to lose huge amounts of wealth because of the King's policies. And so they fought a Revolution. Which was, by the way, not very popular. Sixty percent of the colonists either were neutral or opposed to the Revolution.

Russ Roberts: So, in terms of the land, do you have a rough estimate of how much land Washington held at the onset of the Revolution, the outbreak of the Revolution?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: My recollection, it was around 60,000 acres.

Russ Roberts: And how big is--do you have any idea how big that is? I have no idea.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: I'm a city boy. What do I know. He owned a lot of the Shenandoah Valley.

Russ Roberts: It seems like a lot.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: He owned a lot of West Virginia. And, mind you, he owned a lot of what is now Pennsylvania. And mind you, much of this land--so it's not just how much he owned: it's where he owned it. He owned--almost all of his land was on the banks of rivers, and particularly where there were forks of two rivers. These were the main trading places. Indeed, after the French and Indian War he used this land grant--he violated a statute, a Virginia Statute of 1712, by taking for himself much more river-front land than any one individual was allowed to have. Because he knew that was where all the commerce would go. That was where the money was. And he also was very smart about his land. Whereas other people bought and sold land, he bought and leased land. So he held the land in the family and collected income from its use.

Russ Roberts: So it turns out, a quick Google search reveals that 60,000 acres may be about a hundred square miles. Which is not that much land. So, either your acreage count is off, or it's the quality of the land that matters. What I think is reliable is that he was worth a great deal of money; and most of that wealth was certainly land-based. Correct?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: That is correct.


Russ Roberts: So, the other--well, let's put it this way--

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: So let's just be clear here. For example, Mount Vernon, sits on the Potomac heading into Alexandria. The value is the port. It's the control over the shipment of goods. It's not how much land: the port doesn't take very much land. But it's very valuable land.

Russ Roberts: So, the question then is: Had the Revolution not occurred--if things had gone forward, if there'd been some kind of compromise over taxation with some representation--which was a real possibility. Could have happened. Right?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Sure.

Russ Roberts: You have a lot of interesting what-ifs in your book, literally: chapters, sections that you call 'What if?' where you speculate about what if these decisions had been made differently. And in particular the key question, it seems to me, is: What if the Founders, who many of admire--for different reasons--but what if they had said, 'These aren't fightin' words of the King's. These are just--we should work this out. It's not worth death and destruction; and independence isn't necessary.' What would have happened to those land holdings that would have been so catastrophic for Washington and others?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: So, had there been--had they negotiated a share of representation, Parliament--the colonists represented about 25% of the total British population. So they had a legitimate claim to 25% of the seats in Parliament. Which is of course a large amount. So there would be many ways to form political coalitions to control the government that would include the colonists, or some portion of them. They weren't themselves united. And that would mean creating policies that would have been more acceptable to the colonists. And indeed the British were not following terribly horrible policies. They wanted to tax the colonists, who were costing them a fortune to defend. This hardly seemed outrageous, it is true that in 1297 King Edward the First signed a confirmation of the Charter that said that you couldn't tax without the people being represented. But they could have easily been represented. And then they could have changed the policies. If you read the Declaration of Independence carefully, you'd discover that the two things, two big grievances that were driving the Revolution, were that the King was imposing conditions on the colonists' acquisition of land; and, even more--and this is a quotation--he was turning our frontier over to the "Indian savages." And the Indian savages are then described as knowing no other way of doing things except murder women and children. Surprising that this made the Declaration. So, those considerations of, what is the balance of the interest of the King between the Indian tribes and the colonists would have looked different if there were representation that they could have negotiated. But they didn't, because they didn't want that. They wanted to get rid of the English. Now, they accused the English of tyranny. The end of the chapter on Washington, just a little graph that shows, current best estimates available, of per capita income each year, in the colonies, and in Canada. And, Canada has some serious disadvantages, much worse weather, much less densely populated, and so forth. But they track very closely, during the time that George III is alive, they actually depart well after he dies in 1820. So, it doesn't look as if the colonists either did vastly better once they got rid of the English; or the Canadians did particularly badly when they kept the English--because they didn't get their independence till 1860. So this is not much evidence for this claim of tyranny. And they could have settled it.

Russ Roberts: I would respond to that by saying that monetary wellbeing is not the only thing that a person cares about. But I will defend--

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: True, but we don't have much data on other things. In any event, we don't have any evidence that the civil liberties of the colonists were any worse than the civil liberties of the Canadian colonists.

Russ Roberts: Or, that they were so bad in general. I have to concede your point in the following way: that when we think about the Revolution in its most rosy view--less venal and self-interested as you are suggesting--that rosy view is all about taxation without representation; the tax on tea; the British soldiers staying in people's houses--which I can't imagine happened: the quartering of soldiers, that big a problem. And we look upon those with great admiration, because it seems to suggest that the colonists were so passionate about liberty that they were willing to die just to avoid a crummy little tax on tea without representation. And the quartering of soldiers. It was not--as you--forget the economics, the financial side--it was not an oppressive regime in any sense, the colonies, by King George.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Those were not the things the world was about.

Russ Roberts: The other part I thought was so informative was, you do forget how, when a nation is being sculpted--literally created out of border skirmishes with Indians and the opportunity for financial speculation is quite extraordinary. And I salute you for reminding us of that. It's important.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: And it's not to take away from many of the great things that George Washington did, and as you put it, sculpting, a government. He did lots of very good things. Maybe at the top of the list: bringing Alexander Hamilton into the government to bring a sensible political economy perspective to how to create a new state. It's just: What drove him was not liberty. It was personal gain. And that seemed to be the characteristic of most of the Founding Fathers, who were very wealthy people. Even the Adams's--John and John Quincy's net worth--

Russ Roberts: No--

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: is almost identical: Yes, almost identical to George W. and George Herbert Walker Bush's net worth.


Russ Roberts: So, in reading these discussions in the book of motivation I couldn't help but think about Bruce Yandle's Bootlegger and Baptist theory, and the role that self-deception plays. So, the Bootlegger and Baptist theory is that, often the things that motivate policies, or ourselves, is always an idealistic one; then a not-so-idealistic one. And they tend to, we tend to forget about the not-so-idealistic one. And as you pointed out in the beginning of the conversation, George Washington probably, maybe, kind of saw himself as a noble leader of this fight for liberty. And maybe didn't think so much about his personal stake--at least consciously. What I wanted to ask you then, if you are going to push the view that he was conscious of it: I didn't notice in the book any private correspondence or direct evidence where he bemoaned the situation with respect to his personal wealth. Or did I miss that?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Well, he's very critical of the people who criticize him for the fight in the Ohio Valley that leads to the war, and earlier, where they are accusing him, and the Ohio Valley Company, of going into the area for venial purposes--for their own gain rather than for security concerns. And he's deeply offended, in his writings. People would have thought that, that he went for more than one reason; and yet of course he was surveying land the whole time and doing the things that would satisfy the King's order of the day to gain more land. So, yeah, it is there. Maybe you did miss it. There's not a lot--

Russ Roberts: But I don't see it--that part I noticed. I don't see it on the eve of the Revolution, that he's talking about these issues. Is it because it's embarrassing what you are arguing? Or it's gauche?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Maybe Alastair and I were trying to be too kind. So, Washington wore very fine clothing which he had made for him in England. He had the finest furniture, which he imported from England. He had the most expensive carriage, which he imported from England. And how did he secure the credit for these purchases? The collateral he provided was his stepchildren's wealth. Not his. This was a man who was not shy to take advantage of other people's money to make sure that his wasn't at risk. He kept track of every penny that he spent. Now, we didn't go into how he paid for all the goodies that he bought for himself. But these are relatively well-known facts. Our objective was, you know, not to be quite that harsh.


Russ Roberts: Let's move on to Abraham Lincoln. So, Lincoln has--I think he's in the top 3, most people would rank him as one of the top 3 if not the Number 1 greatest President of all time. A number of us have noticed as we've gotten older that 750,000 people did die in the Civil War. It perhaps could have been avoided; it could have been prosecuted differently. And you make both of those cases, criticisms of him. It does take someone like myself, born in 1954, a while to learn that he didn't fight the War to end slavery. So you can't really give him credit for that. But, for strategic reasons during the war he did encourage the end of slavery; he did do things that led to the end of slavery. So, he is a complicated figure. But you are a little more--again, as with Washington, you are a little bit harsher on him, certainly on those first two counts of why he provoked the War itself and how he prosecuted the War. So, make the case.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Let me start by saying that most people accept as common wisdom that the ends do not justify the means. And yet we forgive Lincoln because his ends end up being good: he got rid of slavery. Now, let's look at who Mr. Lincoln was. Prior to the mid-1850s, he is of course a very successful lawyer, a very wealthy lawyer, who was reluctant--he was opposed to slavery personally; he had grown up in an abolitionist-oriented household. But he was reluctant to do anything about slavery, as he put it, 'God will take care of it in God's good time.' And he just went along. Then, in 1855, he corresponded with the family lawyer, I think the name was George Robertson, who is also a friend. And this family lawyer had been very actively involved in passing the Missouri Compromise, in 1820.

Russ Roberts: Explain what that is.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: So the Missouri Compromise was a deal that said the country would remain balanced: Every time there was a territory that came in as a free territory, there would be a territory that would come in as a slave state to maintain the power balance between the pro-slave and anti-slave parts of the country. So, Lincoln wrote a letter to this man, a letter I must say I have not seen quoted before, in which he says, 'The time for the peaceful extinction of slavery is itself extinct.' That is, slavery can't be gotten rid of by peaceful means. Then in 1857 the Supreme Court hands down the Dred Scott decision, which says that Mr. Scott, an African-American, a slave who had been taken into free territory and so sued on the grounds that he became free when he was taken into free territory, lost; and the Court ruled that African Americans are not citizens, cannot be citizens, are incapable of being citizens; and that they are property. And due process has to work. If I take a bundle of flour into a free territory to move there, I still own the flour. Nobody can take it away from me. And if I bring wagons with me, nobody can take my wagons. And if I bring slaves, nobody can take my slaves. And in response to Dred Scott, Lincoln was fundamentally changed in my view. So he gives in 1858 the 'House Divided' speech, in accepting the Republican nomination for the Illinois Senate seat--

Russ Roberts: That speech with the key line?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: 'A house divided against itself cannot stand,' and it has the key line that the country cannot survive half-slave and half free. So, at this point Lincoln understands that it has to be all one or all the other. And he basically declares war on the South. Stephen Douglas, his opponent, says as much: He says, 'Mr. Lincoln is calling for the extermination of the South.' Lincoln, standing in the audience when this is said, doesn't respond. And he has now adopted the position that the way for him to become President is to divide the Democratic Party on the slavery issue. And for him to be the advocate of abolition at this point, which is the position of the Republican Party--it's basically what the Republican Party was founded for. And so he poses a question to Douglas; Douglas gives the answer that ensures his election to the Senate and ensures, as Mr. Lincoln had carefully calculated, that it would divide the Party in the 1860 election. Lincoln had been advised not to give the House Divided speech because it would cost him the prospect of winning the Senate. And his response was, 'Yes, but it will make me President.' And it did. So, in 1860 we have an election in which the Democrats are divided between Stephen Douglas who is viewed at the time as a moderate on the slavery question; John Breckinridge, who was the sitting Vice-President of the United States--James Buchanan's Vice-President--and is very pro-slavery; and Bell, Senator from Tennessee, who just wants the issue to go away--he just wants the country to continue. Lincoln wins the election with under 40% of the popular vote. He is then presented with numerous opportunities to avoid Secession and avoid war through compromise. He is presented, for example, with the Crittenden Amendment, a proposal--the Crittenden Amendment essentially said, 'The Dred Scott decision essentially said the Missouri Compromise was unconstitutional. We can't tell Territories that they have to be free or they have to be slave; it's not the way it works. It's up to them.' And more complicated than that: The Crittenden Amendment says, 'Well, what we will do is we will freeze things in place. Those states that are now slave will remain slave; those that are free will remain free; and so forth.' Lincoln likes the Crittenden Amendments; he thinks it's a pretty good idea. He turns to the Republican Party leadership, Party operatives, and says, 'What do you think?' They say, 'No, this isn't what we got elected for, so we have to stick by what our constituents want.' And so he rejects the Crittenden Amendments. The South is deeply divided over Secession. The votes are not straightforward. They are not overwhelming. But Lincoln simply refuses to budge. And this makes him President. Of course at this point, going back to the House Divided speech, he realizes that the only way the country can be all-free as opposed to all-slave is to get rid of the South. Because then he can amend the Constitution--he'll have the votes. With the South in the country, he doesn't have the votes. This seemed to have been his agenda after Dred Scott came down in 1857: it was about, 'What will work to make me President and what will get me re-elected?'


Russ Roberts: Couldn't you reinterpret that, though? Why can't you--I can interpret it as: The Dred Scott case was so offensive to him that he became galvanized to rid the United States of this terrible scourge?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: So, one can make that argument. Against it, we have to realize that Lincoln, when he was briefly in the House of Representatives for one term, introduced a bill, a Fugitive Slave Law, for the District of Columbia, which had not had a Fugitive Slave law--that is, a law in which people could come in and if somebody had escaped, [?] them back to their owner out of D.C. Now, this is a complicated bill, but there he was: he was the sponsor; it was deeply offensive to abolitionists; and in this earlier period, he took almost no legal cases to defend slaves--although Illinois was a free state--because he didn't want to be seen as fighting the Fugitive Slave laws in other parts of the country--which many of which were given to us by George Washington. So it's hard to make the case that it was, that Dred Scott offended him so much as that Dred Scott opened to him the opportunity: He could see now a path to the Presidency. We should also note, in 1848, when he was in the Congress commenting on the Mexican-American War, he gave a speech in which he described as a 'most sacred right, the right of any people to revolutionize,' as he put it,' to revolutionize against their government in any place where they could form a majority against the government; and overthrow their government.' That is, he had advocated secession. He was doing what was convenient. He may have believed it. I don't say he didn't. It doesn't really matter whether he believed it or not. What matters is his actions were designed to make him President. Solving slavery was quite secondary.

Russ Roberts: Let's say, then, that the Crittenden Amendment didn't pass; compromises fail. The South secedes. Why did he not tolerate that? Why was it in his interest to plunge the country into a civil war? Certainly there was a widespread belief that it would be short and easily won. And you argue that it should have been shorter and more easily won than it was. We'll get to that in a second. But why didn't he just say, 'Okay,' given that speech, he could just say, 'Well, it's not a house divided any more. The North is a new country. The South is a new country.' Again, you could, most people would argue he wanted to end slavery; he didn't want to be too public about it; it wasn't wildly popular despite our romance about anti-slavery so he didn't want to take a chance. But now, with Secession it gave him the opportunity to do that. Why was that self-interested, to provoke and proceed with the War?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Well, it certainly was a mistake, in my view. He should have let the South go and then put an economic embargo on it; and the individual states would have come slinking back, pleading to re-enter the Union. And then he could have dictated the terms. But, tolerating Secession was popular with a significant portion of the voters who elected him in 1860. Not with all of them: the Republicans were somewhat divided. There was a group of elite Republicans, Horace Greeley for example, who thought, 'Well, good riddance to them.' But Lincoln was not among those people. And more importantly, to go back to the beginning of this conversation: War helps presidents get reelected. And peace and prosperity unfortunately does not. He would have known that by then because the country had been involved--in the Revolution, of course; in the War of 1812, which got Madison reelected, which otherwise would have been unpopular; and so on. The Indian Wars were very popular. So, he probably had worked out: This is the path to reelection. We forget, after Andrew Jackson until Lincoln, no President had been reelected--I can rattle off the names for you if you like. There's a lot of them. And none were reelected. Lincoln was very keen to be in power and stay in power. And war was a path to doing that successfully. And of course he did get reelected. He was very unpopular as late as September 1864. And then, when Atlanta fell, the argument by McClellan's campaign, were dead in the water because McClellan's argument was we should make a deal with the South. And there was no longer a need because victory was now at hand.

Russ Roberts: McClellan, being his challenger in the 1864 election. Is that correct? Or is he Primary? Is he a Primary candidate?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: No, he was--they didn't have Primaries.

Russ Roberts: Yeah. He wasn't a Republican challenger. He was a Democrat challenger.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: He was a Democrat. He was from New York. And interesting, Lincoln invented the Absentee Ballot for the 1864 election, so that soldiers could vote, because they were overwhelmingly pro-Lincoln. But, tragically, the New York delegation of soldiers, their ballots arrive late. I'm sure it was coincidence, that postal fix[?].

Russ Roberts: Yeah, no doubt.


Russ Roberts: It is worth noting, and I think often forgotten, how many American Presidents in the beginning of the Republic were either--had served in war in a leadership capacity. And it reminded me of Winston Churchill, who was extremely eager to get into the Boer War as a young man because he knew that without some heroics that he was unlikely to be a leader. And he was very blunt about that. He wrote about it explicitly, basically: 'I have to risk my life if I want to--'. He at least was honest about it. He wasn't a coward, I don't think. But he certainly was willing to--a better way to say it: I think he was pretty excited there was a war for him to get into, because he saw that as the road to political greatness. And perhaps Lincoln did as well. Now, let's talk about the War itself. He certainly--two aspects of it I want to talk about. One I found extremely interesting, which was your point about having rivals and non-'yes'-men, or 'maybe'-men, 'no'-men, in your Cabinet. And he gets a lot of praise, Lincoln does, because he had such a diverse Cabinet. He gets a lot of sympathy, because his generals were so uneager to tangle with the enemy. As you point out, Richmond was a 100 miles away. He couldn't take it for 4 years, 5 years. What did he do wrong in the prosecution of the War? And talk about his Cabinet as a part of that?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Well, he did almost everything wrong. So, in the book, we take an academic study by Scott Bennett and Allan Stam that looks at a bunch of variables and how they affect the duration of war. They didn't include the Civil War in their study. We take their variables and apply them to the Union and the Confederacy--they are predicting how long war should last, and so we apply their model to how long the Civil War should have lasted. And the answer that comes out from the statistics is: Approximately 6 months. A little bit less. As opposed to 4 years. What was the problem? And, why should it have lasted for such a short time? Well, the problem was that Lincoln didn't have a parade of generals coming through the Oval Office to discuss with him, 'This is how I would approach the war. This would be my strategy.' Instead, he did what was convenient. At first, he turned to Winfield Scott, hero of the Mexican-American War, a former failed candidate for the Presidency; and an old man, who was out of touch with the military skills of the day. But was popular. So, he picked somebody who was popular rather than competent. Then he turned to General McClelland [sic, McClellan?--Econlib Ed.], and McClelland was well-known as a great parade general. But not a fighter. He could have brought in the Shermans and the Grants and so on, and said, 'How are you going to conduct this war? How can we get to Richmond quickly?' But he didn't. And that was just incompetence. Then, we have to look, as well, at who was fighting and what did they think the war was going to be like--to reinforce the notion of incompetence. The United States, including the South, had a population of 31 million--21 or 22 million of that population lived in the North. The remaining roughly 9 million lived in the South. And approximately half of those were slaves. So, they were a fifth column. They were people who were going to be pro-Union. So, the South is fighting 21 million people with about 4-and-a-half million people. The South grew very few food crops. They grew cash crops. Often tobacco. They didn't produce munitions. They should have been easy to defeat. Then, you look at somebody like Jefferson Davis. President of the Confederacy. Jefferson Davis had been [President] Franklin Pierce's Minister of War. He was a West Point graduate. He was a veteran of the Mexican War. This is a man of great experience and education, in military matters. He was horrified when he was asked to become President of the Confederacy because he thought the Confederacy had no chance of winning. John Breckinridge, the Vice President of the United States, the only member of the United States Senate--which he later returned to--who was convicted of treason. He also thought the South has no chance to win: 'We have to find a way out of this.' Lincoln neither looked for a way out nor looked for a good way to conduct the war. He just was, as people at the time saw him: Incompetent. Then there's the question of his Cabinet. So, we are told that he had a Cabinet of rivals, and that he managed these opponents brilliantly. We should note two things. First, from the perspective of rational decision-making, it is not prudent to fill Cabinet, or whatever, with rivals. What is prudent is yes-men. Because--

Russ Roberts: Such a beautiful, contrarian position. Because everyone would say the opposite. Go ahead.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: It's a lovely result. We should give credit: Randall Calvert. So, what Calvert shows is that when somebody who always disagrees with you--say, George Baldwin, Lyndon Johnson in the Vietnam War--continues to disagree with you, you don't learn anything from their disagreeing. But when somebody who has always agreed with you, say, Clark Clifford in the Vietnam War, says to you, 'You know, you are making a mistake; you are not doing this right,'--they disagree with you: Now there's information. 'Ah. This is somebody who thinks the way I do and is telling me I'm wrong. Maybe I need to re-assess.' So, there's a good reason to be surrounded with yes-men. Now, Lincoln understood that. Against the [?] popular view. I quote his two closest advisers, John Hay and John Nicolay, who comment on who Mr. Lincoln wanted to have and did have in his Cabinet. They say, "There are those who say that Mr. Lincoln will have some Southern Gentlemen in his Cabinet. First we must ask how would that work? Will the Southern Gentlemen give in to Mr. Lincoln? Will Mr. Lincoln give in to the Southern Gentlemen? Or will they fight all the time? No. It is his mature considered opinion that he shall have in the Cabinet his closest friends--the best and the brightest." That's not the quite the quotation; I have it memorized it, but it's very close. His closest friends, the best and the brightest. So, now we look at who is in the Cabinet. William Seward. So, Seward is, point to two, as the exemplar of the rival. Well, of course, he was a rival, in the sense that he ran against Lincoln for the Party Nomination. And he failed. On the third ballot. And was self-corrupt--we'll put that aside. But: How did they differ? Well, Seward was more abolitionist than Lincoln. Seward was--Lincoln was pro-immigrant; Seward was more pro-immigrant. These were not people who were rivals in the sense of their beliefs. They were just, you know, political rivals--as Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were, together in the government. They had basically the same views. It was not a cabinet of rivals. It was a cabinet of yes-men. And that's fine. You look at Salmon Chase. Salmon Chase was Secretary of the Treasury. Why was he there? So, during the nominating convention in Chicago, in a building called the Wigwam, which Lincoln packed with his supporters, with counterfeit tickets, Lincoln, the mayor of Chicago who was the campaign manager for Lincoln and for Illinois, turned to the campaign manager, or Salmon Chase, who was doing better than Lincoln in the nominating contest and said to him, 'My man, will give you--my boy will give your boy--anything he wants if you give us your votes.' They gave Lincoln their votes; and Salmon Chase became Secretary of the Treasury. This was just a political deal. These were not rivals in the sense of people who had fundamentally different views. Those were not entering.


Russ Roberts: So that should have helped him, right? According to the Calvert and your view of how--

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Yes. Yeah. But they apparently didn't convince him. That, for example, he needed to have generals walking through. None of these guys were military expert. That you [?]--

Russ Roberts: You want to say anything on behalf of Jefferson Davis? He stands out in your book as kind of a somewhat altruistic figure. It's a cause that we're not sympathetic to. Which is slavery, or at least the autonomy of the South. But I think you quote him in the book saying how he felt, I think--something along the lines of he felt like he had been given a death sentence when he accepted the Presidency of the Confederacy. Was he self-interested, or was he a little more, um, idealistic?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Well, he was self-interested. He certainly wasn't an altruist.

Russ Roberts: Why did he take the job? A job that he expected to lose in 6 months?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: So, yes, he thought the South would lose the War. On the other hand, he got to be the President of a Country--something that would never happen otherwise. And, if we look at his history, he was imprisoned briefly after the War. He was freed. He made a fortune. He did just fine. He couldn't have known that in advance. But what he could know was that the South ought to lose the War easily but that they were going up against the incompetent Mr. Lincoln: Maybe that will work out. We have to realize it's very hard today for people today to put themselves in the minds of people at the time. Lincoln at the time was perceived by his contemporaries as a well-intentioned nice guy, humorous, entertaining, not a serious person--

Russ Roberts: Great story-teller.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: and not competent. A great story-teller. So, Jefferson Davis saw an opportunity; and the same for Breckinridge--he saw an opportunity to be a big wake, the big fish in a little pond.

Russ Roberts: You want to say anything about Robert E. Lee? A lot of people would say he's the reason--it's not Lincoln's incompetence; it's just Robert E. Lee is one of the greatest, considered--maybe he's not but he's considered one of the greatest generals of all time. Do you give him any credit for the duration of the War? Or whatever you want to call it--'credit' is not the right word, maybe, but cause.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Absolutely. I understand what you mean. I take nothing away from Robert E. Lee, a descendent of two signatories of the Declaration of Independence--it's a very incestuous government. Lee was a great general, handed a very bad hand. He understood he had a bad hand. And so, yes, he certainly deserves credit. The length of the war is not determined by one person alone. But, the war statistically should have been a lot shorter. So, it might be that the 6-month estimate doesn't take into account the quality of generalship, although as it turns out that is a variable in the model. So, maybe it should have been a year. But there was no way it should have been 4 years.

Russ Roberts: It's a terrible tragedy. And, to make it clear for listeners who haven't read the book, certainly in terms of the outcome, you do bring the outcome--whether it was intended or not--freeing the slaves is a wonderful thing. Whether it would have happened peacefully without 750,000 people dying and whether under whatever circumstances it did occur would that have been worthwhile. Of course, to give you the full scope of the book, you really should have had a What-If Chapter: if all of them had made good decisions, had been less self-interested. So, maybe we wouldn't have rebelled against the British; the British would have ended slavery for the United States in 1820-something--when was it?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Yes, 1827 or 1830, around there. It was later in the Americas than it was in Britain.

Russ Roberts: And then in 1860 instead of being a bloodbath of horrific proportions could have been something similar to the liberation of Canada. So, just thought I'd throw that in.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: And without Jim Crow.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, a huge thing. Absolutely.


Russ Roberts: Now, we're skipping over 1812; you have a chapter on Madison; we're skipping over FDR, a chapter on WWII and FDR's hesitance to prosecute the war--in this case being his willingness to be reelected. And we're skipping over the chapter I found the most painful, which is the painting of LBJ (Lyndon Baines Johnson) as something of a tragic hero for his willingness to pay for the war in Vietnam as it went rather than pushing it on to the future. It's hard for me to read that: I have so little respect for LBJ. But we'll put that to the side.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Well, let me just comment that you disagree with some of the policies, I assume: the Medicare Policy.

Russ Roberts: No, no, no, no. That's nothing to do with my distaste for the man. It's his endless ambition and ruthlessness, which you seem to have soft-pedaled in your treatment of him relative to the other characters in the drama.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Because, the big story for him is that when he becomes President on the first night in the White House he says he's made a lot of mistakes, 'and I intend to use the time given to me to correct them.' And he does. And it is true that he is ruthless in correcting them. He is ruthless to his colleagues in the Senate from the South. He is ruthless all the time. He is not a nice man. But he is doing what he believes is right, and what most of us also believe was right. And that's the virtue. Including, the introduction of the lottery to replace Selective Service, which cost him the support of Democrats in the Northeast, whose sons had high-risk lottery numbers--that is, they were likely to be drafted and sent to Vietnam. They stopped supporting him. And he knew that would be the consequence. But it was, as the acronym for the system indicated, it was a fair system. It was ruthless; I won't deny that.

Russ Roberts: Well, I'll be open-minded about his Presidential years.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: And he did pay for the War.

Russ Roberts: Right. So, obviously I haven't read all the Caro volumes. [?] So, what can you do?


Russ Roberts: Let's move to the last section of the book, which is a comparison of two Presidents who drew lines with respect to aggression on the part of enemies of the United States and what motivated those lines. And that would be JFK (John F. Kennedy) and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and Barack Obama in the Middle East and the entanglement of Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Russia. Try to give us a quick sketch of what those two decisions were and how politics were decisive rather than something else.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: They both faced major threats to security. They both did what they believed would please their constituents. In JFK's case, he believed he would be impeached and he would lose the Democrats in the House if he did not take a tough stance against the Soviets. Even though, by his own estimates, the risk of nuclear war was one-third. So, being impeached, by him was viewed as having a lower expected value than nuclear war. He gambled on the country to secure himself in the Presidency. And in taking a tough stance, he got the Soviets to back down. Barack Obama came into the Presidency having promised to withdraw the United States from Iraq, and to a lesser extent from Afghanistan. That's what his constituents wanted. It was completely foreseeable that withdrawal from Iraq would mean a Sunni Civil War. It would mean that Iran would step in with military troops, into Iraq, to defend the Shia government, and that Iran would become the preeminent political power in the region. I say this was entirely foreseeable because in my 2009 book, The Predictioneer's Game, in the penultimate chapter, called "Dare to Be Embarrassed", I predicted that. This, before I knew who was elected, as a matter of fact. Anyway, Obama did what his constituents wanted. And what that meant was that he had this throw-down with Bashar al-Assad in Syria: If you use chemical weapons, it's a game changer. He used chemical weapons. The United Nations confirmed that chemical weapons had been used. And Obama dithered. We don't know who--maybe it was Putin, maybe it was Kerry--somebody came up with the idea that Assad should give up his chemical weapons, which he had denied he had, and that would solve the problem. Assad agreed to such an arrangement. The French President, François Hollande, said, 'Great. We should have a U.N. Resolution in the Security Council now that authorizes the use of force later if he fails to follow the timeline that we've all--including him--that Assad has agreed to.' The Russians say, 'No way.' Obama backs down, takes a weaker resolution. What is the consequence? Putin now knows that anything costlier than pushing hard for a resolution in the Security Council even though it would fail, and pushing Assad hard, is a freebie: that the United States is not going to take any action. And so he now knows that he can go somewhere and expand his interests. And he goes, of course, into Crimea; and does that. The signals of weakness pleased Obama's constituents. He did what he told them he would do. He did the single most important thing a President can do: He got reelected. And it didn't seem to have great regard for the long-term conditions that this was going to create. So, it greatly destabilized the situation in Iraq, which has spread elsewhere. And so forth. Even the Egyptian overthrow of Mubarak--which we may see as a good thing, though in the end it winds up with another dictator--what was the precipitating event is, President Obama's Afghan speech in which he said that he's going to cut foreign aid to Egypt in half. This was on the back pages of the New York Times. But front page in Cairo. And the generals then understood that Mubarak no longer was sufficiently important to the United States Government to warrant the money--which was of course how they made their living. And so they sat on their hands, looked for an alternative; they eventually found it in el-Sisi and so forth. But in both cases, JFK in the Cuban Missile Crisis and Obama in the Middle East and Crimea--he was doing what the people who elected him wanted him to do. But he wasn't do what he said he was going to do--the President of all Americans. He was doing not what was good for the country or We the People more broadly in the long run, but what was good for his electoral prospects. And it worked.


Russ Roberts: So, let me disagree with that a little bit. I don't--it's not easy for me to defend President Obama. He's not one of my favorite Presidents; doesn't make my top 10. But you could argue that his mistake was making that statement--not what he did in response. And the reason I say that is that, I don't really--in certain issues, let's take the pipeline that I think is still, I think, up in the air after a number of years it's been. I saw that decision as being catering very much to his core constituency--I want to say his core constituency, the people who are passionate about him. There weren't many Americans passionate about intervening in Syria, after Syria uses chemical weapons--Democrat or Republican. You talk about war fatigue or Middle East fatigue on the part of Democrat voters who had supported Obama. But I think there was a great deal on both parties. And had he not made that statement about the red line--which, I don't know whether it was a good idea or not--but had he not made that statement, I don't think things would have turned out that much differently. There's just not a lot of public support for adventuring in the Middle East these days, after the failure, or at least apparent failure, of recent ventures there.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: So, I think you misunderstand our argument.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, go ahead.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Okay. So, our argument is, conditional on having made that statement, the failure to be resolved about it, as JFK had been, it was also perhaps foolish for JFK to make the statements he made. I'll come back to that. So, conditional on his having made the statement about the game changer, he created a destabilization that was dangerous. Would it have been different had he not made the game-changer statement? It would have been the smarter thing in my opinion; you don't make game-changer statements unless you are committed to carrying out the threat. He was not. So, I don't disagree that it would--that the big mistake was to make the statement. But the chapter picks about it's been made. In the same way, with the Cuban Missile Crisis. Everybody who was an expert on the subject at the time understood that Soviet missiles in Cuba had not fundamentally changed the security or threat to the United States. Or, use a term I don't like: that the balance of power had not shifted. Because the amount of time it took for a missile to get from the Soviet Union to the United States was shorter than our response capability. So, when President Kennedy took the risk of nuclear war--

Russ Roberts: The fact that they were in Cuba was irrelevant.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: for political reasons, and Obama made the game-changer statement--not for, not thought through, because, not from what his constituents would have wanted--and then backed off of it to satisfy his constituents--and that created havoc. And a power vacuum in the Middle East. I happen to have thought at the time--I wrote about this at the time--that it was very foolish to go into Libya, where there was no prospect of creating a civil society. And that if the United States and its allies at that time, in 2011, were going to intervene anywhere where there was a prospect of a civil society coming out of it, it was Syria. At that time, it wouldn't have taken very much. There wasn't an ISIS (Islamic State of Iraq and Syria) threat, etc., etc., etc. But he chose not to, because that's not what public opinion wanted. And naturally part of the theme of the book is the job of the President to be a politician who follows opinion, or to be a leader who shapes opinion? Obama didn't shape opinion. He followed it.

Russ Roberts: And you make the same criticism of FDR in the [?] of WWII.


Russ Roberts: But, let's step back now and let's turn to some of your recommendations for what might reduce the eagerness of presidents to go to war. But I do want to mention: these are two cases, FDR in 1939--1938, no 1940, right--the election of 1940--

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: That's when he ran against the genuinely unexperienced nonpolitician, Wendell Willkie--media seem to have forgotten that. Sorry.

Russ Roberts: Right. But here are cases where presidents were at least hesitant to go to war. Yes, because the American people weren't enthusiastic about it. But that seems to be not a bad rule of thumb for presidents. It would be a kind of a--if that were the future of American policy, that they would only go to war when the American people were solidly behind it, I think we'd be in fewer wars. Maybe we'd be better off, on average, going forward. I don't know. Hard to know, of course. But respond to that; and then talk about ways you suggest that we might make these decisions better.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Well, I absolutely agree with that. But with the caveat: when public opinion is informed about the consequences of going to war and the consequences of not going to war. They were not informed about that adequately by Franklin Roosevelt until we were attacked and went into the war. So the final chapter of the book addresses this problem: How could we develop procedures, not requiring legislation particularly, procedures that would ensure that the public were better informed about three[?] costs of war? The job of the President to make the argument for war, and the public's job is to evaluate whether the argument for war is worth the cost: war's cost in terms of lost lives, lost opportunities, and lost money and time--opportunity. Suppose we had a council of foreign policy advisers whose job it was not to pontificate about alternative policies but to use well-developed, peer-reviewed, careful studies, algorithms, statistical analyses, models of what affects the costs of war in life, what affects the costs of war in dollars, what affects the costs of war in terms of the foregone opportunities by losing productive population and so forth. And used previously-agreed to set of procedures, much like the weather bureau may have 10 or 15 different models. And they look at the consensus in those models; predict the weather. We would have a bunch of models predicting these costs. The public would be told: 'Ah, if the United States were to decide to defend the Philippines, and Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, these would be the expected costs.' Then a President who believes that these are accurate estimates and is trying to persuade the public that the cost is lower will be in a difficult reelection position, when the costs are much higher, as these estimates would suggest. And the loyal opposition will step up and say: Wait a minute. These things are very costly. There are votes for us to gain by disagreeing--if these cost estimates exceed what the President is saying, we should hook ourselves to those, because the President will lose votes when it turns out to be this costly and in anticipation of that, the President will be more cost-conscious about military adventures. Now it will become the case that falling inside the cost estimate is going to be a political boon for the President. And falling outside them is going to suggest a lack of competence.

Russ Roberts: Well, that doesn't excite me much. Although before we started recording you mentioned this could be a private opportunity through the government. Doesn't have to be--doesn't have to be official.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Yeah; I don't need the government to be doing this. [?]

Russ Roberts: That's an interesting idea. I really like that a lot. But to suggest that these people on this committee are going to be peer-reviewing and modeling in the abstract, they are going to be prone to the same political incentives--

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Ah--they are not going to be modeling. They are not going to be peer-reviewing. They are going to be using previously-published peer-reviewed specialties.

Russ Roberts: Yeah, they'll be able to say 'Studies show....' and they'll fill in the blank, I suspect, in different ways.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Yeah, but the idea is not that this will be a government agency. The idea is that this will be academics who are skilled at these things. Who simply are publicizing, 'Here's the case: if the United States went into went into the South China sea, if the United States went into Saudi Arabia, if the United States--and so on--what would be the cost? And what would be the benefit?'

Russ Roberts: I think it's a good idea. And I do think that Bruce Bueno de Mesquita would be one of the people on that committee. So, you are perhaps self-interested in your assessment of this idea. You want to comment on that?

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: I am happy to not be on any of these committees. I'm too old.

Russ Roberts: Uh, okay.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Of course, if the party drafts me--

Russ Roberts: You'll suffer. Yeah. Or at least see your work used. I think you'd be happy either way.


Russ Roberts: Let's finish with the financial side of this, which I thought was extremely interesting and I hadn't thought about it until I read your book. I found it very provocative. A lot of economists I think would argue that wartime is a time for debt financing, a time to borrow money, because it's a one-time, unusual event. It's just like buying a house: it would be foolish to have to rely on current levels of expenditure. It would be foolish to have to lower our consumption so dramatically. Etc., etc. And yet you suggest, and I agree, at least tentatively, that having wars financed by current taxation, or at least more transparently, would reduce the likelihood of, say, spending a trillion dollars or more on Iraq with a return that does not seem to be commensurate with that expenditure.

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: Exactly. The difficulty--I have no problem with the reasoning of economists except that they are not political economists. The costs of war should be thought of as a political factor more than an economic factor. The consequence--so, for example, if we look at, as you've mentioned, the Iraq War, cost approximately a trillion dollars. By the way, the statistical estimates would have put the costs at about $400 billion, way below what it actually cost, but 8 times what Donald Rumsfeld said it would cost. People need to be able to assess what they are spending and what they are getting. So I think of it more as a purchase. I am purchasing something. It's not a house. And it has immediate consequences that need to be paid for, because otherwise it changes the political--not the economic but the political dynamics of the country in the future. So, George W. Bush put the Iraq War on a credit card. He didn't pay for it. He cut taxes--as it happens, disproportionately for Republican voters. And put the payment off to the future. Lyndon Johnson paid for the War in Vietnam as it went. He raised taxes. Now, it's a politically dangerous thing to raise taxes. So, when the people see that, it's an opportunity for them to say, 'Wait a minute,' as they did, 'we don't like this war. We don't want to pay more for it,' and got rid of the President. It's the politics, not the economics that should become the dominant consideration in how you pay for war.