Musings On The Franklin Effect

The Franklin Effect is a concept in pop psychology which asserts that, if Alice does a favor for Bob, then Alice will be more inclined to do more things for Bob in the future. While I’ve observed a real effect like this, I think it’s different from the usual story in subtle but important ways.

The Franklin Effect takes its name from a passage in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography:

I therefore did not like the opposition of this new member, who was a gentleman of fortune and education, with talents that were likely to give him, in time, great influence in the House, which, indeed, afterwards happened. I did not, however, aim at gaining his favour by paying any servile respect to him, but, after some time, took this other method. Having heard that he had in his library a certain very scarce and curious book, I wrote a note to him, expressing my desire of perusing that book, and requesting he would do me the favour of lending it to me for a few days. He sent it immediately, and I return’d it in about a week with another note, expressing strongly my sense of the favour. When we next met in the House, he spoke to me (which he had never done before), and with great civility; and he ever after manifested a readiness to serve me on all occasions, so that we became great friends, and our friendship continued to his death. This is another instance of the truth of an old maxim I had learned, which says, “He that has once done you a kindness will be more ready to do you another, than he whom you yourself have obliged.” And it shows how much more profitable it is prudently to remove, than to resent, return, and continue inimical proceedings.

The usual explanation for this effect is that it works by changing the giver’s self-concept. Once you do someone a favor, the story goes, you automatically think of yourself as the recipient’s friend, and you’ll be more likely to do friendly things for them going forward.

By now I’ve given and received quite a few favors, and my experience doesn’t quite match this explanation.

As a recipient of favors, I’ve found that it matters a lot what I do with what I’m given. When I make good use of the favor and demonstrate this to the giver, the effect works more or less as described, albeit more weakly than one would assume from a naive reading of Franklin’s text. When I do this *and also* make myself helpful to the giver, this is often the start a deep, ongoing relationship. On the other hand, when I don’t do much with the favor (or on one occasion when the favor was useful but I stupidly neglected to demonstrate this to the giver), the effect is small or negative.

As a giver of favors, I find that I feel very differently depending on whether I think it led anywhere. I do favors for people when I want to help them for whatever reason, and I watch to see which favors result in actual help vs. which seem to go nowhere. (Relatedly, I’ll often give an opportunity to someone I don’t know well as a way of evaluating what they can do.) If it helped, I’m inclined to do more for the person, because I feel confident my future efforts will also be helpful. If not, then I become skeptical of my ability to help the person. I’m wary of pouring too much effort into a project that’s unlikely to work, and I’ll usually cut my losses after two or three failures if there are no other considerations. From watching others, I think this is a very common pattern, even if I’m more explicit about it than most.

Here’s what I think is actually going on: Requesting a favor from a stranger or acquaintance has two important components. There’s a request for charity, and also an overture towards partnership. People often want to dispense limited charity on the basis of magnanimity, civic responsibility, ego, or some such. People also want to partner with good allies or useful coalition members. The Franklin Effect relies on the overture towards partnership. The charity component can help facilitate the early steps of the process, but is otherwise irrelevant as far as turning one-off favors into ongoing relationships.

When you request a favor, some people will consciously evaluate your suitability as a coalition partner, and many more will do so subconsciously. Everyone will notice, consciously or subconsciously, whether you subsequently act like a good coalition partner. This includes social things like showing due appreciation, and also material things like doing favors in return. The latter will work better for people who have real value to offer each other, like Ben Franklin and his rival-turned-friend in the Pennsylvania Assembly.

I sometimes see my friends try to use the self-concept model of the Franklin Effect to get support from influential patrons. They’ll try to get a favor or endorsement from a big name, not because the favor is useful in itself, but because it represents a step forward in the ongoing project of catching the patron’s eye. I rarely see this turn into anything lasting in the way my friend wants. Because they lack the fundamentals that would allow them to become a good friend or ally, my friend can only ask for charity, which by itself is not a foundation for an ongoing relationship.

All this is to say that the Franklin Effect is not a hack to beguile people into helping you. Rather, it is an audition that gives you a chance to demonstrate your worth.

Reputation And Organizational Drift

At the opening of the American Revolution, the state militias were a formidable force. They went toe-to-toe with the British army, then the most powerful in the world, and came off reasonably well. However, by the time of the American Civil War, the militias of those same states had become a joke. Their first serious battle was a litany of logistical and tactical blunders, where “Stonewall” Jackson earned his famous nickname because his men did not immediately run away.

This is unsurprising. The militias of 1776 were sharpened by frequent conflicts against the Native Americans, and had learned from both British officers and native allies. The militias of 1861 were far from the frontier and were led by local politicians and businessmen with no military experience to speak of. No wonder one was more competent than the other. A militia (or university, or retail chain, or…) often functions the way it does because of skilled people in key roles. If those people leave or lose motivation or get reassigned, then the organization will become very different. Whether it’s a restaurant losing its manager, or a militia losing its veteran commander, the dynamics are the same.

If new skilled people arise or gain power, this will also change the organization. After Paul Graham retired and Sam Altman took over Y Combinator, the company expanded from its previous role as a startup incubator. It is now also a central industry hub, as well as an interface between the startup scene and adjacent sectors. This is mostly due to Altman’s skill at networking and making durable alliances.

Skill isn’t the only dimension on which organizations can change. They can also change their purpose. For example, in 1800 the United States military was built for frontier defense, but by 1900 it was built to project power externally. Also, in 1963 the counterculture movement was about reforming a corrupt society via moral and legal pressure, but by 1973 it was about seceding from a corrupt society via sex, drugs, and rock and roll. If an organization’s mission changes drastically, then it may lose the skills needed to carry out the previous mission as the old generation dies off.

All this may seem like a banal point, and in a way it is. Organizations change. Everyone knows this, at least in the abstract. Nevertheless I see a persistent error where many, many people make predictions based on stories of an organization’s previous form in a way that is utterly incompatible with the realities of its current form.

Among the most striking examples of this phenomenon is labor unions. Contemporary unions rest their claim to auctoritas on the victories of unions from the late 1800s and early 1900s. At the time, unions fought—literally fought, with truncheons and bombs—against factory owners who used private mercenaries and sometimes public police forces to violently suppress any independent power bases among the working class. The unions succeeded, establishing an organized power base and using this to negotiate for higher standards of living, then enshrining their victories (the 40-hour 5-day workweek, the concepts of minimum wage and overtime pay, etc) in law and custom.

Today’s unions present their activities as the continuation of this struggle. They claim that the mission of “get higher wages and better working conditions for our members” has remained constant, and that any differences in their tactics are a sensible response to changing circumstances. There’s a narrow sense in which it’s true that both groups would endorse that mission as a subset of their goals, but from the broader perspective of trying to predict how an organization will affect things we care about—which is the only reason it’s worthwhile to bother with this sort of analysis—this is as spectacularly unhelpful as drawing structural parallels between the engineers who designed the Minuteman missile on the one hand, and the actual Minutemen who Paul Revere rallied on the other, because there’s a line of institutional descent between them that maintained the mission “defend America”.

When looking at the structural factors that determine an organization’s capabilities and its effects on society, contemporary unions are nearly as different from their historical predecessors as the military-industrial complex is different from a citizen militia.  Historical unions fought the state; contemporary unions are a branch of the state. The main negotiating tool of historical unions was illegal or legally-gray strikes; the main negotiating tool of contemporary unions is the bureaucratic application of legal privileges. Historical unions were mostly made up of the industrial proletariat, and fought on their behalf; contemporary unions are mostly made up of government service workers, and fight on their behalf. Historical unions were ideologically committed to expanding their membership into new areas in order to carry forward the class struggle; contemporary unions are uninterested in class struggle because their leaders are no longer working class, and are uninterested in dramatic expansion because they lack the ideologue’s soaring ambition.

This is all fairly abstract, so let me say it more directly. If the John L. Lewises of the world were around today, they would be organizing workers to illegally seize warehouses from Walmart and Amazon. From their perspective, capital still controls the world, and labor is less organized than in the unions’ heydey, so similar action would be justified. Their self-styled heirs would never do anything remotely this extreme. Even if they wanted to, they don’t know how. This means that their role in society is utterly different. It may be that contemporary unions are a force for good, but if so then it’s good as conceived of by Teddy Roosevelt rather than by Emma Goldman. The only thing today’s unions have in common with their historical predecessors is a brand.

This is an unusually stark case, but similar situations are common. Organizational continuity does not come about because of some metaphysical property of the organization itself. It does not come merely from people’s duty to the stated mission, or from adherence to procedures and org charts, or from new members automatically assimilating to the culture. Rather, continuity comes from an organization’s current members using selection, training, and internal structure to shape the organization’s future membership. There is continuity only to the extent that these mechanisms produce it. You can evaluate this by comparing an organization’s past and present activities, or its past and present people and culture, or even by looking at the mechanisms of continuity themselves.

While many organizations live up to their old ideals, many others will mislead you by claiming to be more like their predecessors than they actually are. If you don’t want to be fooled, you need to be able to look beyond an organization’s brand—the restaurant down the street, the AFL-CIO, the Catholic Church, the company offering you a job, the New York Times, or whatever else—and see its people and institutions as they exist today.

No One Can Explain The Dominance Of Cavalry

The historical consensus holds that the invention of the stirrup was a major development in military history. By permitting the horseman to keep his seat, the simplified story goes, the stirrup changed the dominant strategy from the infantry-based armies of antiquity to the shock cavalry-based armies that came to dominate in the middle ages.

This story seems to make sense. The change in the composition of European armies is real and needs to be explained. (Infantry remained the numerical majority of most armies, but heavy cavalry became more important in determining the outcome of battles.) Horsemen without stirrups used different equipment in different ways than the stirrup-using knights we’re familiar with. The cavalry charge against massed infantry is almost unheard of in antiquity but becomes an extremely important tactic from the early middle ages until well after the ubiquity of firearms.

However, there is no historical consensus on when the stirrup became important in Europe. I’ve seen serious claims ranging from the late 300s to the late 700s. There’s sharp disagreement over very basic claims, like “Was the Battle of Adrianople a triumph of cavalry over infantry?” or “Did the Carolingian military use stirrups?” (I haven’t checked whether these questions were resolved by recent archeological work, but if the answers weren’t obvious 40 years ago, that’s still a notable fact.) The history of the stirrup before it reached Europe, e.g. in India or central Asia, is no clearer.

This is super weird. If the stirrup was such a huge deal, shouldn’t we be able to see its effects? If a historian in the year 3000 were trying to date the advent of the machine gun, and only had fragments of secondary sources and doubtful archeological scraps, it would still be possible because the machine gun so greatly transformed strategy, tactics, and the experience of individual soldiers. (The American Civil War is the only case I can think of where a smart scholar might get the wrong answer.) This is what we see for other massive shifts in historical weapons, such as chariots, castles, and artillery. If the stirrup were anywhere near this important, its effects should be similarly visible.

I’ve read all these historians arguing about the minutiae of manuscripts and archeological finds to set dates on when the stirrup was used where, but if their basic claim about the importance of the stirrup is true, then there should be much simpler avenues to answering the question.

At this point, I’m inclined to think the stirrup was not as overpowering as is commonly asserted. Important, yes, but important on the scale of chainmail or the rifled barrel, not on the level of the phalanx or the nuclear bomb. Not important enough to explain the transition from armies dominated by infantry to armies dominated by cavalry. If it were, its history would be more apparent.

If true, this raises two questions. The first, why so many historians have overstated its importance, is relatively easy to answer. For one thing, contemporary prejudices favor explaining large-scale trends as the natural consequence of technological development. More importantly, historians are like anyone else in that they are biased towards simple and compelling explanations for things. The story of the stirrup transforming combat has enough truth to it to lay the foundation for such a narrative. It fits very well from a purely local perspective. In contrast, broad sociological outside-view checks like the one I’m running here seem, if not rare, then at least uncommon.

The more difficult question is why Europe transitioned from infantry-based armies to cavalry-based armies, if not for stirrups. I’m not sure. It could be a combination of technological factors: larger horses, improved saddles, better armorsmithing, horseshoes, and the temporary loss of the composite bow, together with stirrups, producing a combined effect greater than the sum of its parts. It’s possible, but I don’t trust this type of explanation. Strategic considerations are usually Pareto-distributed in importance, and one major factor tends to overwhelm many medium-size factors.

It could be a matter of economic and social organization: the sharp division between landholding knights extracting wealth from their tenants on the one hand, and peasant farmers with little capital on the other, led to a combination of arms that was perhaps inefficient from a purely military standpoint but crucial with regard to internal coherence, thus leading Carolingian-style feudalism to succeed and spread in spite of some necessary overemphasis on heavy cavalry. This strikes me as plausible but far from certain. The institutional and cultural prominence of knighthood in Europe is consistent with this story, at the very least.

A more exotic version of the prior hypothesis is that Europe transitioned to cavalry not because its cavalry was strong, but because its infantry was weak. If feudalism made it institutionally and ideologically difficult to raise large masses of competent, well-equipped infantry, then perhaps this explains the shift.

I’m not confident in any of these explanations. The more I look into this, the more I think the dominance of cavalry in medieval Europe is a mystery that still needs to be explained.

Movements Without Strategists, And The Dissolution Of The British Empire

In The Anglo-American Establishment, Carroll Quigley presents a case study on the Milner Group, an association of British politicians and intellectuals that was more than a club and less than a political party. This case study illustrates a common phenomenon that limits the impact of competent, ambitious groups.

Quigley argues that the Milner Group played a decisive role in guiding the trajectory of the British Empire through the early and middle 20th century, especially the establishment of South Africa and the Empire’s later dissolution into the Commonwealth of Nations. However, his description presents an apparent contradiction. On the one hand, he paints the Milner Group as a driving force which shaped the path of British history for nearly a century, and enumerates many key events in which they played a major role. On the other hand, most of the individuals he describes seem unexceptional, and the events he chronicles (the consolidation of South Africa and the independence of South Africa and India) seem very similar to other events that were happening without the Milner Group’s influence (the consolidation of Australia and independence of Australia, Canada, and Ireland).

The Milner Group’s members are mostly people of solid but not remarkable competence. Most are politically adept, good at running projects, or both. They can do reasonably good work, but often need a lucky break or source of connections to attract the notice of an influential patron who dispenses appointments. They are held together by a combination of personal connections and ideological agreement, and ideological agreement is common enough that many people can be recruited this way. The visionary leaders, Alfred Milner and Lionel Curtis, advance a rather tepid vision that mixes federation and egalitarianism as the path to a flourishing civilization.

The group has some competent planners but no strategists worth the name. Quigley laments that their long-term plans suffered for lack of an economist; by this he seems to mean a person with a comprehensive theoretical understanding of how societies function and change. Without such a person, it’s impossible to take a strategic approach to the sort of global statesmanship and memetic engineering that the Milner Group engaged in.

From this and the apparent counterfactual inevitability of the Group’s accomplishments, I believe that the Milner Group was a moderately competent group whose objectives were downstream of broader memetic trends and power dynamics. They were reasonably good at accomplishing the goals they set, but had they not done so, someone else would have tried to accomplish similar goals at a similar time, and probably succeeded (although likely not so well or so quickly). This explains why they had such an easy time finding ideologically sympathetic recruits, why the rather unremarkable visions of Milner and Curtis were sufficient to inspire them, and why they had little trouble with defection despite the lack of formal oversight.

Thus, while it’s true that the Milner Group was involved in historically significant events, their counterfactual impact was modest. They likely determined the particular clauses in the Constitutions they wrote and the precise place that various borders were drawn, but it’s unlikely that they affected major trends.

Comparisons to contemporary groups are left as an exercise for the reader.

What Is Power?

Power is all around us. We swim through it like fish. It touches every part of us, and it is so vast that it can be difficult to see.

Power is the men in the glass building deciding where to invest. Power is the men in the marble building deciding where to bomb. Power is the man with stars on his shoulders and a red phone in his hand.

Power is the man in the lab coat who tells us that carbon emissions are too high. Power is the woman in the pearl necklace who tells us that graduation rates are too low. Power is the man with the flag on his lapel who tells us that the budget is just right.

Power is the woman at the newspaper who says someone should run a story about this hot new trend. Power is the man at the movie studio who says there will be more female leads this year. Power is the man with the book deal who says we can fix the Middle East.

Power is all of these things. But power is not just something that happens far away. Power is all around us. We swim through it like fish.

Power is your parents moving you to a new school where you don’t know anyone. Power is your brother screaming and screaming until your mother lets him have the top bunk. Power is your friends in the group house holding an auction to decide who gets the bigger room.

Power is game nights moving from Thursdays in San Francisco to Fridays in Berkeley. Power is the Dungeon Master refusing to let your boyfriend join the game. Power is knowing that you could run your own game.

Power is convincing your group leader to shift the project focus in a better direction. Power is the operations team reorganizing the furniture in the break room. Power is choosing what story the website will tell.

Power is all around us. We swim through it like fish. It touches every part of us, and it is so vast that it can be difficult to see.

Power is nothing but the ability to get things done. And everyone has things to do.

The Four-Year Locusts

Every four years, locusts descend on America. They tear through civic society, devouring any organization or community they can reach. Ideological movements, charitable causes, even hobbyist communities—all are food, to be ripped apart and turned into more buzzing drones, serving no ends but the swarm’s. When it finally disperses, it leaves behind a trail of wounded communities and withered institutions.

I am talking, of course, about the presidential election cycle.

As the election season gets underway, we are told that the enemy is uniquely evil, the foundations of the country are uniquely vulnerable, and if the wrong guy gets in then everything will be on a downward trajectory that could destroy all goodness and light in America. You may recall this from the elections of 2016, 20122008, and to a lesser extent 2004. (I’m too young to remember 2000 very clearly. Perhaps it was different, that far back; this has been getting worse over the years.)

The cycle starts with the journalists. It’s an interesting question how much of this stems from a genuine belief that this election is the turning point, and how much is a cynical ploy for readership, influence, and funding, but the effect is the same either way. The front pages and news programs are overrun by public statements, gaffes, and poll numbers, while op-eds and talk shows lend their voice to the chorus of doom.

The swarm swiftly makes its way online. At first it acts through the self-crowned thinkfluencers who follow a quarter-step behind the media juggernauts, but it doesn’t stop there. The ideas are tailored to turn regular people into chanting mouths repeating the same slogans in the same dire tones, and it’s only getting more virulent as time goes on. In 2016, for the first time, a great many of my European and Australian internet friends were taken by the swarm. They spent hours haranguing strangers on the internet, they strained friendships to the breaking point, they spent sleepless nights imagining the terrors the enemy would inflict if they won—all for an election on the other side of the world, where they couldn’t even vote.

And then finally the great day has come and gone, and for many the hated enemy is in power, yet somehow things are not so bad as they seemed. Slowly, over a month or two, people calm down. The previous administration’s legislation isn’t quite overturned. People forget that they were seriously worried about widespread attacks on gay men, or the repeal of the Second Amendment, or whichever fantasy sent them into a panic. Yet the damage to civic society remains.

*   *   *   *   *

Let’s look closer at what happens to communities and institutions. The swarm doesn’t just go after individuals. Groups are a natural place for it to feed. Any functional community is a concentration of engaged people who trust each other, brought together by a core of organizational resources. If the swarm can consume those resources, so much the better. So, naturally, the memeplex has come to include that you should bring your community into the righteous struggle. Purge the enemy. Recruit the masses. Dispatch foot soldiers to the larger fight. If even a small faction is following this plan, political discourse will dominate the community. Those who resist this are shouted down as missing the bigger picture, or even as enemy collaborators.

The community’s original purpose suffers as energy is directed elsewhere. The most dedicated members retain their original commitment, so they’re the most likely to leave in disgust as they realize how fickle their peers are, or to simply seek a private space where they can discuss their purpose without being distracted by the swarm. As the most dedicated drift away, the community hollows out.

I have seen this happen many times, including to some of the more fertile intellectual spaces in the public sphere. To speak of 2016 alone, on the left, the election kicked the effective altruism movement from slow decline into free-fall. Meanwhile, on the right, neoreaction was cannibalized by the alt-right hordes which it helped spawn, with only a fragment remaining intact in self-imposed isolation. In spaces where neither side wins a decisive victory, the result is ongoing conflict; to this day Twitter remains far more combative than it was in 2015.

*   *   *   *   *

What should one do about this? Can anything be done?

While the swarm is too big to defeat entirely, local defense is possible. Some areas can be kept clear. What is precious can be guarded. The swarm is temporary; you need only outlast it.

First and foremost, protect yourself. Do not give the swarm more of yourself than you choose. They will tell you that this fight is the most important, that this enemy is the most dangerous, that yours are the only words which can sway your friends and family to the light; this is a lie, even if the swarm’s agent believes it as he exhorts you to join him. Most people would do better to mind their business, as Ben Franklin would say, than to lose themselves in someone else’s fight. Do your job, tend to your household, cultivate friendships, fall in love. If you’re trying to change the world, then stick with whichever plan seemed wise during the midterm elections. That said, if you have thought about it soberly and still think it best to participate in the struggle, then do exactly as much as makes sense, in exactly the ways that make sense, and no more.

Under no circumstances should you pressure anyone else to join the swarm.

If you are part of a community that you want to preserve, make preparations to defend yourselves. Maybe the community leaders should agree to be on watch for political arguments that get out of hand, and to shut them down as they occur. Maybe your events will need an explicit “no politics” rule. Maybe you’ll have to ban repeat offenders from your group chat. I have no universal recommendation; much depends on the details of your situation. Even if you prepare well, know that some of your peers will be taken by the swarm. Decide ahead of time what to do about that. The threat is larger for groups that are more valuable to devour (larger, better organized, more money, more influential, etc) and groups that are memetically adjacent to the swarm (i.e., more political), while it is lower for groups with better intrinsic defenses (high morale, skilled narrative leaders, etc).

For the foreseeable future, at least, the swarm is a force of nature which must be reckoned with. Stay focused, stay calm, and mind your business.

What To Do If Nuclear War Seems Imminent

This document describes precautions to take in a scenario like the Cuban Missile Crisis, where nuclear war seems plausibly imminent within the next days or weeks. This is not a guide for what to do if a missile is currently inbound and will strike within minutes or hours.

Overview

If tensions between nuclear powers are running extremely high, and you are in or near a plausible target during a nuclear war (such as a major city in the United States or Europe), then I recommend evacuating to a safer place as soon as possible, and staying for days or weeks until things have calmed down. New Zealand is an excellent place to go.

This plan requires that you maintain a valid passport, so that you can leave your country on short notice if needed. No other special preparations are needed.

Proper calibration here should include substantial tolerance for false positives. For people with the means available, I think it was correct to evacuate during the Cuban Missile Crisis, even though it did not end up leading to nuclear war.

Why New Zealand?

New Zealand is of little or no strategic relevance to the current conflicts between nuclear powers. The experts I’ve talked to agree that it’s implausible that anyone would target New Zealand with nuclear weapons, or that anyone would invade New Zealand in the aftermath of a nuclear exchange.

New Zealand is easy to enter. Anyone with no notable criminal history and a valid passport from most countries, including the US, EU, and Canada, can get a New Zealand tourist visa on arrival, with no need for a prior application, and stay for up to 90 days. (Make sure to get a round-trip ticket, or they might not let you in.)

New Zealand is a major food exporter. If supply chains are disrupted, you’ll be close to the source.

New Zealand is very stable internally. It has a strong Anglo tradition of governance, reasonable national pride, no coups or civil wars within the last century+, negligible riots or ethnic strife, etc.

New Zealand is culturally familiar. It’s an English-speaking country that’s firmly within Western Civilization. As such, most of my audience will be more comfortable staying there while waiting for tensions to calm down, and will stick out less if there’s chaos or rioting after a war.

No other country is so good on so many of these dimensions.

Backup Plans

If you are unable to enter New Zealand, then there are many other countries which look like good options: many South American countries, Australia, and Botswana. Partial notes here.

If you are unable to leave your country (this is unlikely if you have a valid passport; see below), then you should drive to a small town far from any metropolis or other plausible target. (After brief examination, for people in the Bay Area, I recommend the Modoc Plateau in northeast California as a default unless/until more research is done.) Once there, organize, acquire supplies, and find a location to dig fallout shelters. Construction is described in Nuclear War Survival Skills, the full text of which is online. The book claims untrained civilians can build the shelters in 1-2 days.

Other Concerns

How will I know when to evacuate?

This will probably be obvious. Past diplomatic crises between nuclear powers have frequently been widely publicized.

If I decide to evacuate, I will send a brief alert to anyone who signs up to receive one via this form.

Won’t all the flights get booked due to mass panic?

Probably not, judging by past cases. For example, it looks like there were no large-scale evacuations during the Cuban Missile Crisis, in spite of very alarming headlines. (It seems to me that most people have trouble thinking about nuclear destruction in a way that permits any action whatsoever.)

What about nuclear fallout?

Based on a friend’s analysis, fallout risk in New Zealand is low unless New Zealand itself is targeted, and the experts I’ve talked to agree that this is implausible.

Fallout is dangerous for about two weeks. Nuclear War Survival Skills (full text) describes how to build shelters, which would be uncomfortable but effective.