A Delayed Feedback Loop from 1982

Western Europe is currently a shining example of Normalization of Deviance.


This is why.

In his book Riding Rockets, Astronaut Mike Mullane explained that NASA ignored known risks with the Shuttle because the craft had flown without those risks manifesting themselves in an incident. It is a common feature of humanity. Someone tells you that riding motorcycles without a helmet is dangerous. But you do it once and get away with it. You do it twice. A thousand times. But on the thousand-and-first, someone cuts you off, and you spray your brains all over the landscape, realizing, in your last, painful instants on this Earth, exactly why doctors call people like you “rolling organ stockpiles”.

You normalized the deviance, assuming the odds would never catch up with you.

I was studying Russian in college when a lot of the debate on the trustworthiness of Gorbachev with respect to the gas supply took place. And that was part of an older debate. I clearly remember the arguments against the pipeline:

French, West German and British Firms were largely supported by their respective governments in evading Washington’s demands for an embargo on the shipment of technology for a Soviet natural Gas Pipeline to the West. Nor did they pay much heed to American arguments on the danger of dependence on the USSR for energy supplies.

The problem with such warnings is that the negative consequences are many times removed in time from their cause. When Gorbachev, and then Yeltsin proved relatively benign, never seriously threatening Europe’s newly acquired energy supplies, the talk of threat was dismissed as American jingoism. Now, between the Russian cut offs over price and the Georgian incident, the threat is being re-evaluated. Perhaps too little, too late, as delayed feedback loops often have more severe consequences than immediate cause-and-effect chains.

Individual Russians, such as Gorbachev, may be friends of the West, but Russia herself is not, and will not be until the last vestiges of serfdom are thrown off of that society several generations hence. Russia sees life as a zero sum game because her society has never created much wealth, it has subsisted on selling natural resources. The wealth from those resources is bitterly fought over within Russian society, and the created wealth of the West is viewed with jealousy.

As far back as in 1991, during the coup that ousted Gorby, Europe should have been taking precautions to diversify its future supply. It did not:

The EU currently relies on Russia for a quarter of its total gas supplies. Of the bloc’s 27 member states, seven are almost totally dependent on Russian gas.

Even former Eastern Block countries, where people should have had memories of previous bad experiences with the Russians, fell prey to Normalization of Deviance and wishful thinking.

“It was a huge shock. We thought we had good relations with Russia and that we’d be supplied at all times regardless of what happened between Moscow and Ukraine,” he says.
“We thought Russia would protect us.”

How could a resident of country within the former Iron Curtain make such a spectacularly obtuse statement? Some of it has to do with the modern intellectual’s assumption that Europe has outlawed bad behavior, and that the Russians will play nicely in the sandbox because that is what is expected of them.

The other reason is the special history that Bulgaria enjoyed with the USSR.

There is a Soviet / Russian joke about elephants. The nations of Europe decide to celebrate a year of the elephant by publishing a book in each nation. The French, of course, publish a detailed account of the sex life of the elephant. The German book is a dry, but extremely detailed encyclopedia about elephants. The Soviet book proclaims the superiority of the Soviet elephant. The Bulgarian book merely proclaims that the Bulgarian elephant is the best friend of the Soviet elephant (see the middle of the posting here, I have heard the same joke made about Mongolia as well, reflecting their tough position between the Russians and the Chinese).

So one can perhaps forgive a modern Bulgarian intellectual for such a statement, suffering as he does from two major blind spots. But not the rest of the West. As can be seen from the examples of the Shuttle and the helmetless motorcyclist, when the bill for normalizing deviance comes due, the price is often exorbitant.

19 thoughts on “A Delayed Feedback Loop from 1982”

  1. JJ: you ruined the joke with the typo “element” instead of “elephant”. (should read Bulgarian elephant is the best friend of the Soviet elephant)

  2. “Donorcycles”

    To willingly put ones head into the Russian gas supply ‘noose’, and then complain when it is tightened is typical political maneuvering.
    “Cheap heat courtesy of your ministers…” but then the butchers bill comes due.

  3. Well, I’d say a good number of people here in the US think that all sorts of things “can’t happen here” either. Yet the next few years will surely be a great education for them.

  4. The operating word here is “diversify”. Any monopoly ends up screwing the customers. The mistake is not that Europeans (and Ukrainians, and Belorussians, etc) wrongly considered Russia their friend (there is no friends in business), it is in relying one one and only supplier for their gas needs. That Russian society hasn’t shed remnants of serfdom is undeniably true, but it is irrelevant to the issue.
    I live in a zipcode where my cable needs are served exclusively by Time Warner. The prices are up, the service – mediocre at best, and I can’t switch to Cablevision because, as the Customer Service told me, it would be illegal. But it would be wrong of me to blame situation on badly trained Warner’s technicians, or their inadequate website designers, or Cablevision’s temerity, or a million other irrelevancies. The problem is monopoly, no matter what nation or company is enjoying it.

  5. “Putinism’s Piranha Stage: Russia’s prime minister turns on his loyal friends” by Bret Stephens in Wall Steet Journal on June 9, 2009 at pA17:

    In college I knew a guy who stocked his fish tank with goldfish and piranhas. First the piranhas ate the goldfish. It was horrible to watch. Then he stopped feeding the piranhas, so they ate each other. This was more interesting since there was no fish to feel sorry for. Finally one piranha was left. I don’t remember my classmate restocking the tank. The champion piranha starved. This is the theory and logic of third-stage Putinism.

  6. Tatyana, it’s not jjst the monopolistic aspect, though that is a big part of what’s going on. It’s also that, as the link Whitehall posted describes, Gazprom is an arm of the Soviet, errrr, Russian State, and is used for power projection.

    If this were only monopolistic in nature, Russia would just raise prices. It’s the cutoff aspect that moves from the economic sphere into the political.

  7. Oh, you can safely say “Soviet”, at least when talking to me, John Jay, I have no objections; or you can use “Neo-Soviet”, considering the short intermission that occurred.
    Well, of course Gazprom is part of the State (they have “saved” the industry from those bad wolves-oligarchs, you know. The funny thing is – in England they repeat it after Kremlin.)
    They use it as one of the levers of political control – but of course. What other levers they have? I don’t know if you had a chance to look at the link I posted for you some time ago (it still bothers me), but this is very characteristic attitude there now: do something, anything, that will make the foreigners fear us again.
    …”Соседи пялят без опаски
    глаза бесстыжие свои.”
    Read the thread, it’s incredible, how even people who grew up in SU in the 70’s willingly put blinders on their eyes.

  8. “Someone tells you that riding motorcycles without a helmet is dangerous. But you do it once and get away with it.” Etc.

    There’s a counter-intuitive alternative to the outcome you note. Studies have shown that removing stop signs at intersections, presumably a dangerous idea, can force people to take responsibility for their actions when they reach those intersections, resulting in fewer collisions.

    Could there be another lesson there?

  9. LaGrant, I’d like to see those studies. Not that it can’t be true, but market research is included in my job description. I’m naturally suspicious of studies when I have not seen the instruments.

    And as every biker knows, it’s not if you’re going to slide that bike, it’s when.

  10. “Пусть боялись, но при этом и уважали тоже.”

    Блядь. Не уважали. Не боялись. Смотрели на Москву как человек смотрит на таракан.

  11. Ah, now you see why that conversation still bothers me at night?
    But I think she is right, in the “feared” part. At least from Eastern Bloc point of view (and Baltics, etc). But is being feared should be a worthy goal for a country? It’s a bug, not a feature!

  12. Even in relatively simple cases, and when the time delays are measured in seconds rather than decades, people often find it very difficult to control systems with delays built into them. Try to steer a large boat for the first time, for example, and you will probably find yourself making “s” turns, even though you are trying to go straight.

    The human thermostat experiment, described in this review, provides a very interesting example.

  13. In mountaineering circles this phenomenon is called the “non-event feedback” loop. The more you do something risky and get away with it the less risky you perceive it to be. Some activity could be so risky that you have a 20% chance of dying from it, but if you do it 3 or 4 times and get away with it you’ll perceive that risk to be far, far lower than it actually is.

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