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Today’s post will be a synthesis post. In the post titled Oh My! Real Dialogue Has Broken Out…, your humble blogger chronicled the observations that “real, objective, definitional” dialogue, i.e. dialogue, has broken out within the President Trump electorate.
On an operational level, the Trump administration engaged in a series of acts that were the subject of the debate. Among these acts were a military action in Syria and personnel changes within the National Security Council. (see the “set-up” here and the effects here and here)
On a psychological level, these acts had a very significant signaling component. And since your humble blogger has spent some time explaining this aspect of human behavior, or what we call the et Invisibilium, (see here) I am republishing a post from Charles Hugh-Smith that does an excellent job explaining further this subject matter.
A further reason that I am bringing this post to your attention, and something that the below post clearly explains, is that “signaling” is also a strategy. Here is a definition of strategy:
1a (1) : the science and art of employing the political, economic, psychological, and military forces of a nation or group of nations to afford the maximum support to adopted policies in peace or war (2) : the science and art of military command exercised to meet the enemy in combat under advantageous conditions b : a variety of or instance of the use of strategy
3 : an adaptation or complex of adaptations (as of behavior, metabolism, or structure) that serves or appears to serve an important function in achieving evolutionary success foraging strategies of insects
And since signaling is a strategy, and a strategy has an implicit element that attempts to alter the actions of the trageted subject, it follows that a strategy has a testable component. In other words, one can objectively assess the effectiveness of the said “signaling” strategy to ascertain whether it met the desired effects.
Which brings me to the ecclesiastical area of the Visibilium Omnium and a post written by Hilary White that appeared at the OnePeterFive blog this morning titled Understanding Pope Francis: The Need for a New Narrative Framework. In this post, we read the following:
Immediately after that chilly, damp night in Rome when the Church was given her 266th pope, I remember seeing some brief comment here and there about “questions” over Bergoglio’s involvement in the Dirty War. But since no one really knew what it was all about, it got no traction. And so, these questions dried up almost instantly, lasting no more than a couple of days post-Conclave, until the secular media decided to change tracks. Only a scant few weeks later, Bergoglio himself started the game, distracting the media with his “Who am I to judge?” plane presser, and the lot of us have been running barking after his trail of carefully deposited breadcrumbs ever since.
If you dear reader analyze the above passage, in light of the signaling strategy perspective, what we see is that Francis, the bishop of Rome employed a very successful signaling strategy to… put the hounds off the trail, one can say.
Going forward and speaking more generally, one can say that the entire Francis bishopric of Rome is one entirely based on a signaling strategy. One can start with the Francis musings, i.e. the Francis teaching office and carry it through the produced docs, starting with Evangelii gaudium and ending with the diabolical “Joy of Sex”. If one looks at the past four years, one sees that there has been nothing in terms of “deepening” our understanding of the Faith. All we have gotten so far is le changement pour le changement… like l’art pour l’art!
Yet since Francis’ bishopric of Rome is just one big exercise in signaling strategy, this means that it, and by proxy the entire “new springtime of the spirit of VII” that has allowed for someone like Francis to ascend to the See of St. Peter, can now be objectively judged as to its results.
One piece of information relating to this last point is, as I have heard, that the crowds in St. Peter’s Square have been so bad, that the official Vatican photographers are instructed to focus their cameras on the “crowds” in front of the papal window during the Francis addresses and not photograph the empty spaces in the wider Square. Now, I do not know if this is true, but from the official L’Osservatore Romano photo shoot from Palm Sunday 2017, it would appear to be the case. (see here) Here is another one for your viewing:
And here’s how Palm Sunday 2012 (Pope Benedict’s last ) looked like:
Concluding, what is of significance here is that since Francis, the bishop of Rome has based his bishopric of Rome on a signaling strategy, he will be judged on the effectiveness of this strategy. The assessment can and will be made on objective assessment criteria.
One hint at how this assessment will end is by looking at the crowds in St. Peter’s Square at major religious Holy Days. This sub-set of the assessment criteria can act as a proxy for the numbers of Catholics that Francis has been able to “attract” back to the church pews and will eventually be reflected in the “contributions made pursuant to Canon 1271 of the Code of Canon Law”. Or to look at the situation more realistically, the numbers of Catholics that he has driven away.
But at the end of the day, this assessment MUST be made by the future Conclave Electors!
And finally, if we now hear that the Feast of Corpus Christi is being rescheduled for Sunday instead of being held on its proper day, Thursday the 17th, then it is fair to ask if the “crowd sizes” were a significant consideration in this UNPRECEDENTED TeamFrancis decision?
And now, to the signaling post, (see here).
UPDATE: Today’s General Audience
The Media’s Missing The Point: Syria, Empire, & The Power Of Signaling
Trying to reduce the carefully choreographed drama to one stage and one audience risks misunderstanding the signal.
It seems many media observers are confused by events in Syria and the swirl of competing narratives. Did the Swamp drain Trump? Did the Neocons succeed in forcing Trump to follow their lead? Is the U.S. ramping up yet another endless war?
Consider the possibility that none of these narratives actually get to the heart of what’s going on. To make sense of all this, we’re going to have to delve into topics far below today’s headlines.
I think Ilargi (The Automatic Earth) got it right in his recent essay Symbols of Strength, in which he proposed that the entire cruise-missile exercise had little to do with Syria and everything to do with signaling Trump’s willingness to use force to China’s President Xi jinping.
Signaling is a term that is currently much in vogue. I used it in my recent essays Virtue-Signaling the Decline of the Empire (February 28, 2017) and It’s What’s Happening Beneath the Surface That Matters.
The original idea of signaling, drawn from economist Michael Spence’s job-market signaling model, has become confused with communication.
Spence proposed the notion that a college degree bridges the asymmetrical information gap between employer and employee: the employer has a tough time obtaining useful information on the qualifications and intelligence of job applicants. A college degree signals employers that the applicant is perseverent enough to get through 4+ years of college, and has enough intelligence (and work ethic) to earn the diploma.
Here is Bloomberg writer Noah Smith’s description of the difference between signaling and communicating: “Spence’s signaling model was about proving yourself by doing something difficult — something so difficult that someone who didn’t have what it takes wouldn’t even bother.”
In other words, communication isn’t a signal. A quizzical raised eyebrow, a scoffing chuckle, a wry comment–all of these telegraph emotional content as well as information. But these are not signals.
A signal is a form of communication, but its cost must be high to be persuasive. A signal can provide information on intent, depth of commitment, willingness to accept risk and much more.
A signal is often intended to communicate different things to different audiences.
To understand signaling, we need to understand the difference between force and power. Edward Luttwak ably described the difference in his book The Grand Strategy of the Roman Empire: force is a mechanical input (expense) that doesn’t scale: it takes a lot of people, effort and treasure to force others to comply with Imperial edicts.
Power, on the other hand, is ultimately the sum total output of the Empire: its productive capacity, resources, human and social capital–everything. Power influences others without direct coercion. This allows the Empire to extend its influence without having to bear the enormous costs of applying force.
Luttwak explains that power results from positioning military assets to serve political-power objectives. That is, the assets must be positioned to credibly threaten the use of force anywhere in the Empire, but the job of maintaining influence/control is done more by signaling the readiness and ability to use force rather than having to put the force in the field (a very costly and risky venture that often turns out badly).
In other words, the perception of power and the willingness and ability to apply force is what matters in terms of political influence. If we look through this lens, we discern a much different picture of what may be going on with the cruise missile attack on Syria.
(I also recommend Luttwak’s companion volume, The Grand Strategy of the Byzantine Empire.)
The “Secret Sauce” of the Byzantine Empire: Stable Currency, Social Mobility (September 1, 2016)
Here is some essential context for the signaling of the U.S., Russia and China. The U.S. spends roughly $700 billion annually on its Armed Forces and another $100 billion on intelligence agencies and defense-related expenditures. So round it up to $800 billion.
That is roughly 15% of total federal spending, and a bit over 3% of America’s GDP. Historically, these are very low numbers. In other words, the U.S. isn’t even spending much of its total available output on its military.
Every great power aims its signals at both the international audience and the domestic audience. Rather than being a poker game, signaling is more 3-D chess, with three boards in play at all times: client states and allies; potential adversaries, and the domestic audience.
China, Russia and the U.S. are all signaling to these three different audiences with every pronouncement and every action.
We must be careful not to misread a signal primarily intended for a domestic audience as being more than a symbolic act. All the analysts who see the cruise-missile attack as “proof” that the Swamp has drained Trump, or the U.S. intends to raamp up its involvement in Syria are looking at only one board–or they’ve misread the game entirely, and are glued to a PR sideshow.
A successful signal performs on multiple levels, leveraging the effect at a low cost. No Great Power can afford to use only brute force to maintain influence. Signals may be directed at multiple audiences, and trying to reduce the carefully choreographed drama to one stage and one audience risks misunderstanding the signal.
The entire cruise-missile drama hints at the possibility that U.S. Neocons are being played. It’s all too pat for my taste. But that’s a topic for another essay.
* * *
For those interested in Imperial strategies, force and power, I recommend these books as worthy starting places. I am not an authority, I am only an avid amateur, so please let me know which other books you’ve found to be especially insightful.
How Rome Fell: Death of a Superpower (Adrian Goldsworthy)
War and Peace and War: The Rise and Fall of Empires (Peter Turchin)
The Rise of Rome: The Making of the World’s Greatest Empire (Anthony Everitt)
428 AD: An Ordinary Year at the End of the Roman Empire (Giusto Traina)
Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World (Jack Weatherford)
Venice: A New History (Thomas F. Madden)
Byzantium: The Surprising Life of a Medieval Empire (Judith Herrin)
This essay was drawn from Musings Report 14. The Reports are emailed weekly to major contributors and patrons ($50 annually or $5/month or higher).