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.