Imagined interview with Ira Plato on Science Friday
Ira: Our guest today on Science Friday taught at a university in South Korea for eight years; has written two books, and claims he has a scientific approach to denuclearizing North Korea. Professor Shepherd Iverson, welcome to our program. It seems strange to associate science with foreign policy. Explain.
Iverson: Until last week Ira I thought your last name was Plato (not Flatow), and was prepared to explain that I am more an Aristotelian materialist than a Platonic idealist, though I do love your program. I am a student of the late great Columbia University cultural anthropologist Doctor Marvin Harris—the most published anthropologist in history—who wrote a textbook with the subtitle, “The Struggle for a Science of Culture.” Marvin Harris was deeply concerned about scientific methods and observed that although it appears ideas assert control over behavior, it is actually background material factors and conditions that ultimately create the ideas that are considered acceptable for behavior. He called this causal perspective, Cultural Materialism.
Puzzles solved using cultural-materialist principles: (give a couple examples)
1. Both Jews and Muslims established prohibitions against eating pork because they lived in semi-arid environments where food was scarce and omnivorous pigs competed with them for calories. This religious prohibition reduced pig populations.
2. The Hindu prohibition against killing and eating beef in India is because cattle made life possible, providing milk protein, agricultural labor, transportation and energy (dung). If you ate your cattle when you were hungry, you would die in the long run.
3. It wasn’t modern ideas, western education, or even the availability of contraceptives that led to fertility decline in India; it was women’s access to jobs independent of men and the rising cost of children in non-agricultural environments.
4. Women struggled for liberation for centuries but their lives did not improve until changing modes of production—from an agricultural and smokestack to a service and information based economy—selected against single-salary male-dominated households.
5. The Soviet Union did not implode because democracy (glasnost) was a better idea, but rather because its citizens wanted the standards of living they observed people enjoying in the West, while the Soviet political economy was failing miserably.
Because the underlying scientific principles of causation proposed in Cultural Materialism have effectively solved these riddles, and many others, I have applied these principles to the cloistered arena of political science to solve the problem of North Korea’s nuclear proliferation.
Ira: So are you an anthropologist or a political scientist, or an anthropologist working in political science?
Iverson: Although most political scientists are weary of an anthropologist critiquing their policies and trying to contribute to their field of expertise, I persist because their confrontational mode of conventional diplomacy has failed in North Korea, the Middle East, and elsewhere in recent history (Vietnam and Iraq), and the problems of peace are too grave to leave exclusively in their hands. Political scientists, policymakers and diplomats would be wise to exercise more humility and accept insights from other social sciences. We need more science.
Ira: Are you saying that political science is misnamed?
Iverson: In its current state, political science is not very much of a science at all, combining twisted historical comparisons with contrived statistical analysis of small unrepresentative samples. Often its elite practitioners—its diplomats and policymakers—are not political scientists at all, but are merely well connected bureaucrats or professional power brokers. Most of its lower-level practitioners stay in their comfort zone, collect their small academic salaries, and do not seek knowledge from other disciplines, even though the main theories of political science share a deep consilience with the major theories of every other social science.
Ira: Consilience is a word I am sure many of our listeners are unfamiliar with.
Iverson: A simple explanation is that the major theories of the different social sciences are actually quite similar, and therefore innovations in one area of expertise should impact the others. All theories are based on either idealist or materialist premises. I believe an educated ignorance of the scientific principles of Cultural Materialist causation is actually dangerous, considering the ramification such a narrowing of alternatives might have on foreign policy.
Failures in foreign policy have rather significant consequences. More than 150 million people lost their lives to the brutality of war, genocide, and political oppression during the twentieth century, while the cause and prevention of interstate violence remains an enigma. Therefore, we at least ought to consider more scientific approaches that might lead to policy innovations and alternatives. Science can empower U.S. diplomacy.
Ira: Will you describe this more scientific approach?
Iverson: In my new book I comment: “If the causes of war are predetermined by an unalterable structural destiny or by inscrutable edicts in our animal nature, then perpetual peace is probably unobtainable. However, if the causes of war can be reduced to a competition over money, and control over the land, people, and the resources that produce it, then it should be possible to pay in advance to prevent it.”
Anthropologists have lived with and observed cultures in which there is no warfare or violence. Therefore, violent behavior does not appear to be an unalterable property of the human genome, but is probably a learned behavior, taught under stressful material conditions. When there is plenty, there is incentive for peaceful relations. My goal as a social scientist is to find ways to create plenty, that is, to provide the material conditions and ubiquitous incentives for peaceful behavior. Based on this Cultural Materialist precept and on the logic and principles of behavioral science, I have devised a new strategy for preventing a nuclear North Korea and for reducing the chance of conflict in East Asia.
Ira: I’m all ears.
Iverson: If you want something done, you offer someone money. Therefore, unification, in theory, can be achieved by offering money to North Korean elites. This would compel Kim to safely acquiesce because of fear his elite base may unceremoniously remove him from power. This is my plan for how to prevent nuclear proliferation in North Korea and East Asia; it’s similar to a corporate buyout.
Imagine you control a multi-billion dollar capital fund and North Korea is an underperforming corporation controlled by an incompetent board of directors—the Kim family and a small number of ultra-elites—who will not negotiate a deal. In this regressive situation it is logical to offer shareholders—political and military elites, and government managers and bureaucrats—a higher price for their shares to persuade them to overrule their board of directors.
This theory of effective power is based on the causal principles of Cultural Materialism, the logic of Behavioral Economics, participant observations of technology-driven socio-cultural change, and the historic fragility of patrimonial dictatorships. From a social science perspective, what we can surmise from defector reports and from an array of reliable information is that North Korea is more ready for social and political transformation than it has been in 75 years. What are lacking are meaningful incentives for change and reasonable expectations it can be achieved.
Ira: You make the solution to this complicated situation sound simple. Aren’t you being a bit naïve?
Iverson: You know better than most Ira, that many innovations in science sounded impossibly naïve before they were adopted and became mainstream. Of course, the devil is in the details. This model for political change has many moving parts and must:
1) benefit everyone with something at stake in the region
2) provide enough incentive to the right people
3) have a chance of being funded
With these prerequisites in mind, I have created a platform for cooperation—the Reunification Investment Fund—and designed a Triangular Benefits Unification Model, in which the South Korean government guarantees large profits to private enterprises that in turn promise money to Pyongyang elites for unifying Korea and transferring political power to Seoul.
Ira: Why would private source put up the money?
Iverson: Private enterprises have huge incentives. What makes this proposal possible is the abundance of profitable resources and enterprises in the Hermit Kingdom that would come under South Korean and private control after unification. North Korea ranks 10th among nations in mineral reserves, with large deposits of magnesite, ore, coal, gold, zinc, copper, silver, rare earths, and other minerals worth an estimated $6-10 trillion. Everything is up for grabs, including temporary control over entire economic sectors in finance, energy, utilities, telecommunications, healthcare, manufacturing, transportation; ownership or licensing agreements for control over mines and seaports, construction contracts for railroads, tar roads, a gas pipeline, energy generation, etc.
Ira: So if you can raise the money, what will this fund accomplish?
Iverson: This fund will pay North Korean elites. Changing the incentives for North Korean elites is the key. I am reasonably sure the behavior of this vulnerable subculture—that keeps the Kim regime in power—can be profoundly influenced by secure promises of freedom and prosperity.
Elites must be assured of an uptown future; therefore I propose offering them a golden parachute. I estimate this elite buyout will cost $30 billion—$4.3 billion dispersed per year for 7 years. The top 1,000 North Korean families are promised $5 to 30 million; 11,000 upper elites—including all generals—would become millionaires; more than 100,000 elites would receive an average of $250,000 with a promise they may live in the free world as affluent citizens of a democratically united Korea.
Ira: So what if they take the money and run?
They can’t. This is a no risk investment. Money is not released until after unification and the transfer of political and military power. Therefore, although this money will come from private sources, the promised allotments—over 7 years—must be insured and underwritten by global banks, legitimized by the G-20, and approved by the international community, in order to assure North Korean elites they will receive just compensation for their loss of position and power after unification.
Such an undertaking will require historic levels of cooperation. Although in theory this plan should work, it may not be practical. This is a scientific solution, based on impassive logic and reason.
Ira: You make a good point. There is deep resentment on all sides. Most people would hardly condone paying the enemy or rewarding people who have a long history of human rights abuse.
Iverson: Indeed, on the surface it may seem counterintuitive, unethical, and even immoral. However, almost everyone in the pyramid of power has been replaced in recent years, and this new generation of elites may be viewed less as perpetrators and more as victims of an ignoble history. Most who will benefit are merely innocent inheritors of their fathers’ ill-begotten estate (position and power) and were not complicit in its acquisition or in the malevolence that followed. We do not punish the descendants of slaveholders or the children of thieves and murderers. This payment would amount to a bailout for the sins of their ancestors—without moral hazard. Payment details may be discussed, but surely some amount of incentive will motivate elites to make Kim an offer he cannot refuse.
Ira: Why would Kim go for it?
Iverson: He would have no choice. For practical reasons, promising personal and financial security to the House of Kim may ease the deal and prevent bloodshed. Denial of complicity in palace purges and other atrocities may preserve Kim’s public image; his father and the relic henchmen he has already dispatched from positions of power may be scapegoats for decades of malfeasance and unconscionable human rights abuse. However, if Kim does not acquiesce, with $20-30 million promised to each of the 200 most prominent families, they might take matters into their own hands. Or a coup d’état may be sponsored by well-compensated military elites. Since safety is more precious than power, young Kim would have little choice but to accept this offer.
Ira: What about the elites? They live in a surveillance state and could lose their lives or freedoms at any moment.
Iverson: All revolutions require military support. In my model, all generals will become wealthy. History has shown that not even a great leader can prevent the will of the people. North Koreans are ready for change. Digital visions of personal freedom and material prosperity have saturated cultural impressions, creating modern aspirations and a new social context for political change that has not existed before. After decades of silent transformation, the existence of a $30 billion fund sitting in escrow ready to pay elites vast sums upon unification may be a game changer.
This fund will provide a stable platform for peacefully managing the political transition, while international development banks and the South Korean government will provide a larger capital foundation for successful economic reintegration.
Keep in mind that the alternatives to this model for peace would cost trillions and might result in catastrophic loss of life.
Ira: From that frame of reference, your plan sounds like a WIN-WIN.
Iverson: Yes it is. And if you don’t mind Ira, I will read from my book: “If popularized in the media, business leaders and heads of state may see this is a workable plan to walk back nuclear proliferation, with ubiquitous benefits to everyone with something at stake in the region. The US would get the dissolution of a grave nuclear threat, an end to the possible transfer of nuclear materials and technology to terrorists or rogue states, and a chance to reassess its geopolitical interests in a much less threatening Asia-Pacific; Japan gets safety from missile attack and weapons of mass destruction, along with new labor, export, and investment markets; Russia gets secure rail and energy profits, and year-round passage to Pacific shipping; China gets a reprieve from the possibility of regional nuclear proliferation, free-market access to Korean minerals and ports, the removal of US troops from mainland Korea and an easing of great power rivalry; and South Korea will get permanent peace, trillions of dollars in mineral resources, energy security and diversification, several valuable Pacific seaports, rail connection to China and continental Europe, 50 percent more people, 120 percent more territory, and according to a Goldman Sachs study, development synergies that may propel its GNP past France, Germany, and Japan in just one generation.
For decades cloistered foreign policy professionals in Washington have failed to make a deal. Although the grim trajectory of geopolitics may seem unstoppable, we need not continue down this road leading into the abyss. Instead we may think outside the box and create novel solutions to unique contemporary geopolitical problems using the principles of science to arrive at a more reasonable approach. We need private and public leaders who can bring out the best in us; those who perceive the big picture and understand that the ideas that move humanity forward are often initially considered crazy, disruptive, or impossible; luminaries who can show us what we should want while smartly employing incentives to get us there. From time immemorial practical reason and creativity has helped us overcome nature, now in a digital nuclear age we must use science to be smart and innovative enough to save us from ourselves.”
Ira: That pretty much says it all. I thank you for sharing with us your inspiring scientific theories on foreign affairs and how to denuclearize North Korea. I hope your ideas can have an impact. And that’s all we have for today. This is Ira Flatow, wishing you a happy Science Friday.