The difference between men and boys . . .

. . . is the price of their toys.

America and China should stop spying on each other because it’s a waste of money.

If one side refuses to stop, the other side should unilaterally cease spying.

Grow up. Stop playing with balloons.

Update: Check out this Reason article:

On Saturday, the F-22 scored its first-ever victory against an airborne adversary when it shot down…a balloon.

There may not be a better metaphor for the costly grandiosity of the American military than the use of a multi-million-dollar fighter jet to dispatch an unarmed, unmaneuverable opponent. But the fact that the F-22 had never won a dogfight before its decisive victory over what may or may not have been a Chinese spy balloon is a nice illustration of why the United States has the world’s most expensive military by a massive margin.

In short, it’s because the Pentagon buys lots of expensive toys that have no use.

Also from Reason magazine, a rare voice of sanity:

The balloon in question is absolutely massive, with “an undercarriage roughly the size of three buses,” as The New York Times put it. This would be an absolutely bonkers way to spy on the United States—especially since the images it picks up are reportedly no better than those it can obtain through satellites. One defense official said, as summarized The Washington Post, that the images a balloon like this could obtain “wouldn’t offer much in the way of surveillance that China couldn’t collect through spy satellites.”

Anyone on the ground could see the balloon in the sky without any sort of specialized equipment. To believe this was meant as a secret spycraft, you’d have to believe the Chinese authorities are just absolute morons, which (whatever else they might be) clearly isn’t true.



23 Responses to “The difference between men and boys . . .”

  1. Gravatar of MSS1914 MSS1914
    6. February 2023 at 15:03

    Cease all spying? No satellites, no recruiting agents, no signal interceptions, etc?

    I’m not sure that’s realistic or desirable. For instance, if you are fighting a war, you’ll want spy satellites/planes to monitor the enemy movements, platforms from which to monitor their communications, agents to inform you of their high-level deliberations. (Russia is finding out how devastating it is when your opponent has access to some of these things).

    Of course, you can’t build, deploy, and train all of these assets overnight, so you do that in peacetime. But once you have them in peacetime, the temptation to use them in peacetime is great, hence our game with China.

    How useful is all of this spying between the US and China? Like you say, not very useful. But with the high fixed costs of maintaining an intel capability for war, there is incentive to use it whenever possible in peacetime.

  2. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    6. February 2023 at 15:47

    MSS1914, Obviously you collect intelligence during wartime. I’m talking about all this childish cloak and dagger stuff during peacetime. Too much time spent watching James Bond films.

    What did the Chinese hope to learn?

  3. Gravatar of bill bill
    6. February 2023 at 16:46

    I think spying can serve a useful purpose. It allows both sides to have some more confidence that the other side isn’t planning something sinister (assuming that’s true, Lol). I’d like to think that more open people and societies can build trust. Each side needs a way to get that information back to its government.

  4. Gravatar of MSS1914 MSS1914
    6. February 2023 at 18:04


    “What did the Chinese hope to learn?”

    Nothing that couldn’t have been discovered through less public means. However, the point of previous post was countries like the US and China build surveillance platforms (yes, including balloons – cheap, low radar cross signature, good loitering ability) for war and once they have them, like any good bureaucracy, the military finds a use for them in peace.

    The really interesting thing to me is that, assuming this was not an errant balloon, Xi must have known about this mission. I can see some military/intelligence figure pushing this to justify their budget or test equipment, but did Xi not have anyone from the foreign ministry around to tell him what a relations disaster this would be? The diplomatic costs heavily outweigh any intelligence benefit they got. This doesn’t reflect well on China’s leadership and it’s decision making capability.

  5. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    6. February 2023 at 19:14

    Bill, Maybe, but I assure you that this balloon will not tell the Chinese anything about possible sinister intentions of the US against China.

    MSS1914, You said:

    “The really interesting thing to me is that, assuming this was not an errant balloon, Xi must have known about this mission.”

    Yes, but I think people underestimate the volume of stuff going on in a big country like the US and China, and the fact that leaders only have so much time to think about each area. Yes, he probably “knew” in some sense, but quite possibly hadn’t thought about the program for months or even years, and didn’t realize it would derail his charm offensive. So I’d reserve judgment on Chinese motives.

    It’s like the Wuhan lab issue. Some people seem to think Chinese leaders were spending all their time focused on genetics studies in Wuhan labs—that’s not what they focus on. Even today, I doubt the Chinese leadership even knows if it was a lab leak. How could they?

    It’s only in retrospect the Wuhan lab was seen as important. It’s (perhaps) only in retrospect that the balloon was viewed as important by Chinese leaders. Some claim there were earlier balloon missions. Maybe this one blew off course.

    “This doesn’t reflect well on China’s leadership and it’s decision making capability.”

    Yes, but we already knew that from zero-Covid, as well as numerous other mistakes in recent years.

  6. Gravatar of anon anon
    6. February 2023 at 20:15

    “the other side should unilaterally cease spying”, did you mean to write “US should unilaterally cease spying”?

  7. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    6. February 2023 at 20:21

    anon, For the most part yes. I’d support the US giving Ukraine data from our satellites—wartime is different.

    And I could support satellite “spying” that is used to ensure that arms control agreements are being adhered to. But yes, stop all this cloak and dagger nonsense. Both the US and China should stop unilaterally, even if the other side does not.

    I feel the same way about trade wars—stop even if the other side does not.

  8. Gravatar of Ricardo Ricardo
    7. February 2023 at 01:32

    Again, the logic here is bizarre.

    Let’s only collect intelligence during war. Not to prevent a war. Not to defend oneself against covert attacks on infrastructure; no that would be too boring and nonsensical. Let’s wait until we are already under attack and congress meets to declare war, then we’ll train and deploy intelligence officials. That makes so much more

    I really like the economic logic. Yes, let’s permit another country to steal all of our intellectual property, produce the very same product some company spent billions of shareholder money researching (in some cases tax payer subsidies), and then let another country not only build steal the research and build the product at a cheaper price, but also trade using the same trademark name (illegally) on platforms the CCP owns: Lazada, alixpress, alibaba, etc, but don’t take any action; just let it happen; it doesn’t make any sense to go after the robber; and don’t just let them rob you; make sure you say thank you sir for robbing me, and please do come and rob me again, because that is so much smarter.

  9. Gravatar of Sara Sara
    7. February 2023 at 01:51

    You write:

    “Anyone on the ground could see the balloon in the sky without any sort of specialized equipment. To believe this was meant as a secret spycraft, you’d have to believe the Chinese authorities are just absolute morons, which (whatever else they might be) clearly isn’t true.”

    As Trump might say: WRONG!

    There are many reasons to send massive balloons:

    1. You might be testing response time; and when and where the balloon is first sighted by military officials.

    2. When the balloon is found, and you know it will be, you will then know the time and location it was picked up on radar; you know the amount of time it takes to get jets into the sky, make a decision on whether to act, etc.

    3. Why balloons? Because balloons are one of the best ways to drop bombs today without being detected (harder than detecting a plane) AND it’s THE ONLY FEASIBLE WAY TO ATTACK THE ELECTRICAL GRID. You cannot deploy and EMP from space. It doesn’t work.

    The Pentagon has said since it suffered an “awareness attack”. That’s vital information if you are the CCP.

    You also quoted the NYT and CNN. Again, not reputable companies. Try again.

    The intelligence community has already confirmed they were not weather balloons, and there was more than one; there were three.

  10. Gravatar of Edward Edward
    7. February 2023 at 03:01

    Sara is correct.
    The speed of the balloon is slow and it is capable of traveling at much higher altitudes than planes, therefore it’s not always picked up on radar. It wouldn’t be the first time a balloon was used to conduct aerial assaults either. There is historical precedence.

  11. Gravatar of David S David S
    7. February 2023 at 04:07

    If the Chinese really wanted to throw some shade on us they could develop a high altitude spy plane that can fly at Mach 3+ and take detailed photos at that speed. This plane would have no strategic value, but it would make annoy the U.S. Air Force–and China’s neighbors.

    Of course the technology to build such a plane doesn’t seem to exist in China—they would need supercomputers and a lot titanium.

    The most feasible way to attack an electrical grid is to put Texans in charge of it. Greg Abbot could bring this nation to its knees with one bad winter storm.

  12. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    7. February 2023 at 08:47

    The US should not fight a conventional war with China—there is no reason to do so. If China attacks the US we know where to send our missiles. We don’t need spies. Of course, China won’t attack us, why would they?

    My fear is that we’ll attack China.

  13. Gravatar of LC LC
    7. February 2023 at 12:06


    Isn’t one of the characteristics of banana republics that they let any distraction/sideshow sidetrack important diplomatic initiatives? Furthermore, don’t they usually compound the problem with claims about “violations of sovereignty” and vows of retaliation?

    Never expected these to show up in US political discourse….

  14. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    7. February 2023 at 17:07

    LC, Exactly.

  15. Gravatar of DF DF
    8. February 2023 at 05:38

    Americans realize America’s military industrial complex is on autopilot, but they fail to realize that China’s surveillance state and PLA (under the aegis of “national rejuvenation”) are also very much on autopilot.

  16. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    9. February 2023 at 12:59

    Scott, I don’t understand what you are trying to prove with these posts, other than your own naivete and ignorance. If I don’t understand your statements about monetary policy, I don’t think you are an idiot, I think I am the idiot who just doesn’t understand. After all, you are the expert. I suggest that you also accomplish this really simple transference and try the same thing when it comes to areas that are completely foreign to you, such as military espionage. A completely crazy idea, I know!

  17. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    9. February 2023 at 15:41

    DF, I believe that most thoughtful people understand both points.

    Christian, I suspect that policymakers are way too influenced by Hollywood films. The world is not like a James Bond film.

  18. Gravatar of Kangaroo Kangaroo
    9. February 2023 at 19:21

    My first thought was the same as yours: WTF would they do such a stupid thing for? Except we know they did it before, and we know they aren’t stupid. So, whatever the other implications, the question of what they doing with it is still worth investigating.

  19. Gravatar of Jon Jon
    10. February 2023 at 16:21


    I don’t feel this is one of your more insightful posts.

    “To believe this was meant as a secret spycraft, you’d have to believe the Chinese authorities are just absolute morons, which (whatever else they might be) clearly isn’t true.”

    China spends several years using small drones and balloons to spy on US military training ops.

    US government spends years acknowledging seeing UFOs but insinuating that they are unworldly, advanced technology of unknown origin. Even Tyler Cowen buys into this and publishes several pieces suggesting he believes these could be aliens origin craft.

    A few people demurred and claim it was Ivan.

    Xi starts to get the idea he has duped the bumbling American government and approves sending the biggest spy platform yet.

    Initially the US government continues to play dumb, but the platform is so large that civilians can see it. Questions get asked by many including many in Congress. After hemming and hawing for days, Biden finally gets the nerve to take action at what is now obvious.

    “especially since the images it picks up are reportedly no better than those it can obtain through satellites. ”

    What, really? So it’s the size of three buses. Hubble, the biggest space borne telescope ever until James Webb was the size of one bus. Spy satellites are in space at 500 to 600km orbit. This ballon was at 20km. Have you ever used a camera with a long lens?

    Now suppose it balloon was focused on signals intelligence … do you think 20km versus 600km matters?

    “If one side refuses to stop, the other side should unilaterally cease spying.”

    So we should take down the satellites used to watch for ICBM launches and just assume there will never be a first-strike?

  20. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    10. February 2023 at 17:52

    Jon, See my reply to anon.

    As far as distance, spy satellites already can produce incredibly detailed images. I’d like someone to explain to me what China hoped to learn.

  21. Gravatar of Real Weather Balloon Real Weather Balloon
    11. February 2023 at 19:52

    Do you think it was actually a weather balloon gone astray?

    Do you not realize that ships and aircraft, among other things, are frequently employed for e.g. signal intelligence collection at close range by a wide variety of nations and that a balloon could easily perform the same kinds of missions?

    Do you really think intelligence collection on rivals during peacetime has no value? Would you not try to prevent Pearl Harbor? Should we have not been spying on the Soviets?

    Reasonable people can disagree about how hawkish we should or shouldn’t be on China, or on how large and the proper limits of intelligence collection in peacetime, but you’re a bit outside the limits of reason here.

  22. Gravatar of ssumner ssumner
    12. February 2023 at 01:07

    Real, No, I think it probably was spying, I just think this is being blown way out of proportion.

    No one has explained to me what the Chinese hoped to find. Boys will be boys and spies will be spies. I suspect that we are also spying on China.

  23. Gravatar of Tacticus Tacticus
    12. February 2023 at 13:30

    I do wonder what the point of this is. Is it from the top, ie Xi, or is it some James Bond-esque clique of PLA hardliners trying to embarrass Xi?

    It doesn’t sound like the balloons were that obvious, however. And they’re definitely not easy to shoot down.

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