Cold War incentives

“We’re mostly pretty right,” I told my daughters (13/11). The gist was that our diet is pretty good, but some of what we do will be wrong, we just don’t know what. Even though we shifted to eat slightly less meat, thinking like Bayesians even in the kitchen, I’m 100% sure we are not 100% right.

Related is the idea of incentives. We think our current incentives are aligned, and they may be, but they too need occasional updates. Hopefully exposure and examples tune us in to them a little more.

To set the scene, it’s 1983. The Berlin wall has been up for two decades. Ronald Reagan has been president for three years and he’s rattling the Soviet Union. The U.S. is conducting war games, which is exactly the pretense the Soviets planned to use to disguise their first strike. The Soviets have an information problem. They need to orient themselves.

“They (the Soviet Union) started an operation to look out for indicators that the Americans were preparing to launch a nuclear attack. Are the military mobilizing? Were blood banks being stored up in case the casualty rate increased? Eventually it became completely absurd. Agents were told to count the lights on in the Pentagon in Washington or the Ministry of Defense in London. If there were more than a certain number, this would clearly conclude they were plotting away at night. And, if they came up with ideas they would get promotions. The agents in the field didn’t get promotions for saying nothing. You only got promotion for finding evidence that, yes, they are planning something.” – Taylor Downing, September 2021

This is the opposite of the don’t just do something principle (part of the Favorite Ideas Daily Email), which notes that sometimes the best action is not to act. But it’s hard to reward inaction that leads to a good outcome. That’s just not how we see the world.


The seeds of the ’80s were laid in the post-war alignments. A few favorite bits: Dan Carlin has a great podcast episode about the Cuban Missile Crisis (1962). Konrad Schumann jumps over (1961) the barbed wire wall, and it’s fascinating to think that this thing basically showed up overnight. There is also a documentary on YouTube about building a tunnel, maybe the first reality TV?, under the wall to save some college friends.

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