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I think that today’s (Nov. 24, 2013) interim agreement in Geneva between the powers and Iran to “freeze” the advancement of Iran towards nuclear capability is another example of a culture-gap mutual mis-reading in bargaining – in particular the powers ascribing excess importance to the contracted-upon words as conveying their literal content, rather than viewing the meaning of the written agreement as only one thin layer of a complex and evolving communication and engagement between the parties.

At the same time, the agreement is in line with my suggestion here in the last paragraph of my post on Iran from two years ago:

  • A potentially better strategy would be to encourage Iran to follow its own interest by transparently staying only on the brink of military nuclear capability, and at the same time to admit Iran as a de facto member of the “nuclear club”. If, then, Iran nevertheless prefers to curtail transparency and renounce international recognition of its power, it will not only suffer the consequences of undermining its own interests, but might ignite an escalatory pace in which it is likely to suffer much more.

This strategy has, of course, its pros and cons as any other classical brinkmanship.

 - Aviad

The International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) report leaked on Nov 8, 2011 confirmed the obvious: Iran is striving to obtain military nuclear capability, and at this point it is a few months away from materializing it. The spiraling debate about the steps that the US, NATO or Israel should now take mask an important point – namely, that Iran itself has a strong incentive to stop just short of having a nuclear arsenal, and convince the world that it can arm a bomb on a few months notice but that at the same time it is deliberately avoiding this last measure. 

To understand why, it is worthwhile considering the motive behind the Iranian military nuclear plan. One potential motive is that Iran simply wants to destroy Israel physically. The Iranian president Ahmadinejad has made it clear, time and again, that he would have liked to see Israel wiped off the face of the earth. It is therefore conceivable that once Iran builds a nuclear arsenal capable of destroying Israel, Ahmadinejad and the Iranian leadership will immediately order to launch it at Israel. 

This scenario is conceivable but not necessarily very likely, though. Ahmadinejad cares about his country – he has, for instance, expressed concerns that in a confrontation of Iran with the west over its nuclear plan Iran might receive a blow which will not allow it to rise again for 500 years; he also believes that upon a nuclear strike against Israel mainland, Israel will still be able to respond with a nuclear strike against Iran’s main cities from its submarines – a strike that might withdraw Iran much more than 500 years back.

For this reason, a more likely motive for the Iranian military nuclear plan is to gain prestige and influence as a regional power. Being by now just a step away from possessing a nuclear arsenal, Iran has already gained this payoff from its nuclear plan. It is feared by its neighbors and it is considered a bigger threat than before by Israel, Europe and the US. But somewhat paradoxically, by making the last move to own an armed nuclear arsenal it might jeopardize its own achievement.

 The reason for this is the policy that Israel (and likewise the US and Europe) is most likely to adopt upon a nuclear armament by Iran. Israel will have to declare that it will consider Iran, its only known nuclear rival, as responsible for any nuclear attack whatsoever it might suffer – even though *conditional* on a nuclear attack against Israel, its most likely source will not be Iran but rather some evasive terrorist organization, which got its bomb in the international black markets, and against which it is extremely difficult to retaliate. Iran does not control all the organizations which might want to launch a nuclear attack against Israel. Nevertheless, by making itself the unique nuclear Muslim power in rivalry with Israel, technically able to delegate nuclear capability to organizations like Hamas or Hezbollah (even if Iran will never willfully do so), Iran makes itself vulnerable – from its own perspective – as the sole target for Israeli unavoidable retaliation.  

There are additional low-probability but pivotal scenarios in which nuclear armament by Iran might literally back-fire. Israeli radars detecting an approaching missile launched from the Shat-el-Arab region might not be able to discern whether it was fired from Iraq or from Iran. Since Israel is such a small country, it might have no choice but to adopt a zero-tolerance policy, treating any such missile as a nuclear one and launching an automatic extreme response. However, Iran cannot actually control any missile launching that Israel might suspect as coming from Iran.  

Currently, Iran seems to be humiliated by the IAEA report and by the response of the international community. Humiliating Germany and impoverishing it in the Versailles agreement at the end of World War I led to the rise of Hitler and to the worst atrocities ever in the history of mankind, during World War II.  Iran is a large nation with an ancient and rich culture, and humiliating it can only be counter-productive.

 A potentially better strategy would be to encourage Iran to follow its own interest by transparently staying only on the brink of military nuclear capability, and at the same time to admit Iran as a de facto member of the “nuclear club”. If, then, Iran nevertheless prefers to curtail transparency and renounce international recognition of its power, it will not only suffer the consequences of undermining its own interests, but might ignite an escalatory pace in which it is likely to suffer much more.

The huge ongoing interest in behavioral economics manifests dissatisfaction with the rational choice paradigm. At the same time, behavioral economics does not as yet constitute a new paradigm in itself. Social psychology and cognitive psychology have documented to date hundreds of biases and dispositions, some of which behavioral economics pursued. There haven’t yet emerged any clear “rules of the game” for behavioral economics that bound the framework (the analogue of “an individual is defined by her immutable preferences [over possibly very complex and stochastic objects], which she maximizes under the prevailing constraints” in rational choice), as well as the legitimate questions to ask within the framework and the ways to tackle them (the analogue of “what behavior and comparative statics/dynamics are ruled out under non-perverse preferences and a solution concept compatible with some version of common belief in rationality” in rational choice).

It is therefore interesting to compare the current state of affairs with a possibly similar episode in the history of science, namely Eighteenth-Century Chemistry. Chemists were envious with the immense success of Newtonian mechanics and optics, and were seeking to do away with alchemy, whose language tangled predictions about the world with allegorical and mystical prescriptions. Most chemists did believe in atoms, but they were reluctant to phrase any theories about them which would be no less hypothetical than alchemy itself. Textbooks of the period were still paying lip service to the four Aristotelian elements of Earth, Water, Air and Fire, but it was obvious these were not helpful for predicting the behavior of e.g. acids and bases.

So chemists began to construct Affinity Tables, which sorted known substances into categories, and specified which of these categories “attract” one another and to what extent. Soon enough they realized that these tables grow exponentially in size. The conceptual breakthrough came with Lavoisier, who suggested that one should first and foremost study the relation between elements, i.e. substances which cannot be decomposed into simpler substances.

Lavoisier’s list of elements contained, of course, the Oxygen which he discovered, and it dispensed with Phlogiston. However, it contained also Caloric which was dispensed with not-too-long afterwards, as well as other items such as Light, which we do not count today as chemical elements. Still, the concept of an element became the bedrock of chemistry, and as such enabled Mendeleev’s further breakthrough and, in the sequel, the modern atomic model. At the same time, Lavoisier himself acknowledged that his advances were made against – and in contrast with – the background of the systematic classification efforts of all those chemists who constructed and refined the affinity tables.

Are there any “elementary” motives of human behavior? Whatever the answer, it could be useful to keep the perspective that today’s behavioral economics, with its incremental efforts to classify dispositions and their implications, may eventually serve as a jump-board for a future conceptual breakthrough and a better paradigm; but that the language, approach and concepts of such a new paradigm may very well turn to be decisively different than those employed by behavioral economics today.

In early December 2010 a proposition was made with the suggestion that “all public monies for the arts should cease… a better case could be made to fund professional wrestling—it’s what the working class enjoy.” It should not be difficult to google out the context in which this proposition was made, with its heavy bag of politics, religion and gender. But instead of digging out again those juicy details, it is also a good opportunity to re-think why public sponsorship of beauty is actually vital.

Public provision is typically deemed justified in cases of coordination or market failure. Vaccination is a classical example: if all kids but one are vaccinated against a particular disease, the parents of the remaining kid have little incentive to vaccinate her, since she would never catch that disease from her friends. But if all parents free-ride with the hope that others will vaccinate their children, then too few might actually do so. Hence schools mandate a certain vaccination schedule as a pre-requisite for admittance (exempting very few on religious grounds), and health services provide vaccinations for free for those who haven’t received them otherwise.

Against what disease does beauty immunize us? Thousands of years ago, our sweet tooth for hoarding fat was selected for, since fat and glucose were hard to get; likewise, our instinctive attraction to flickering movement was fit, because it meant either predator or prey. Today, however, our favorite greasy meals do not nourish our body, but rather make us obese and ill. Likewise, when we zap to the next glittering channel, website or chat-room we ride ever faster the roller-coaster of gratification; we produce more rapidly content that others consume, and the economy is growing. But all too often this content does not nourish our mind. It sums up to no more than zero-drift white noise, that makes us comfortably numb.

Beauty is the antidote to white noise. Beauty, in the sense meant here, is not in the eye of the beholder, not a matter of taste. The Taj Mahal, Bach’s ciaccona, the double helix, Godel’s incompleteness theorem don’t gratify us – almost the opposite: they arrest us. They strike us against our boundaries, against the inevitable necessity of the world, with tension, proportion, balance.

And when beauty strikes us, we wake up. We no longer just passively swallow the external sensations from the world. We begin to perceive the world actively. We willfully move not only towards the steepest gradient of pleasure, but also against our limits. This to-and-fro dance turns our sensations into sense, and some tasks emerge as meaningful challenges for us. At least for a while, we become entrepreneurs. And possibly, part of the challenge in our enterprise is not just to take advantage or to buy the time and effort of the people with whom we interact, but actually to engage with them and with their own enterprises.

Beauty cannot be provisioned in a decentralized market. Unlike with vaccinations, the problem has nothing to do with free riding. The point is that there is no way in which beauty can be marketed: there can be no promo to genuine surprise. We cannot form demand for an experience which will alter our outlook, because the new outlook makes no sense to us before we actually have it. Our only chance to have beauty is to commission it by a centralized, public initiative.

There is an additional important difference between vaccination and beauty. If a vaccination program is ever frozen but the disease bursts again, it is easy to de-frost the vaccines and start re-administering them. Beauty, in contrast, cannot be stored. Among all the books in the world that Google can scan for us there is no manual for beauty, because invigoration can be encapsulated in no formula. Beauty is always a living experience, and one can be apprenticed to beauty only by others who are already striving for it and have already been apprenticed. So if the sponsoring of beauty is ceased for a single generation, it might take many generations to restore. Unfortunately, many parts of the world have experienced such long, dull and dark periods.

It is true that funding beauty is extremely frustrating, because most of the time we get only second and third and fourth – rate imitation of beauty. The artists who wish to strike us with beauty all too often manage merely to provoke and unnerve us. In some better cases they manage only to confront us with the fractures of our era, but in a way that preempts any balancing catharsis. In worse cases we are handed pompous kitsch. And those scientists – they ask us for billions to build particle accelerators in which maybe, only maybe, they would be able to catch a glimpse of an elusive quark which would confirm the super-symmetry of the world.

But if we do not want to drown in white noise there is simply no alternative to the centralized funding of beauty. This is the only way to allow for few apprentices to eventually come up with beauty that would nourish our mind. And when this happens there is a slim chance that beauty will percolate further in society, as wide-eyed entrepreneurship is, after all, contagious.

And sometimes, just sometimes, beauty can actually pay off. Like when one college dropout Steve Jobs audited a calligraphy course, which he attested to be “beautiful, historical, artistically subtle in a way that science can’t capture”, so that ten years later he and his partners  “designed it all into the Mac.” Or when those physicists at the particle accelerator of CERN invented the internet only so as to share among themselves the huge amount of data, didn’t even think they should patent their invention, and delivered to the world more bang for the buck than could ever be imagined.

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