Matthew Yglesias writes:
Matthew Yglesias: [T]he aggregate audience for blog commentary is enormously larger than it was a few years ago, so it's quite possible that there are people reading this blog right now who have never heard of the classic[s]...
So here are five of the most classic classics:
Daniel Davies, who I am pretty sure exists and is really named Daniel:
D-squared Digest -- FOR bigger pies and shorter hours and AGAINST more or less everything else: And another hit and run: I find myself with a few spare minutes and make the mistake of reading Thomas Friedman again. His conclusion after a long, dull and witless ramble about the introduction of "democracy" to Iraq (just what the Gulf region needs, more puppet states) reads "If [it is] done right, the Middle East will never be the same. If done wrong, the world will never be the same". There's not much you can say to that except "shut up you silly man". But it does inspire in me the desire for a competition; can anyone, particularly the rather more Bush-friendly recent arrivals to the board, give me one single example of something with the following three characteristics:
- It is a policy initiative of the current Bush administration
- It was significant enough in scale that I'd have heard of it (at a pinch, that I should have heard of it)
- It wasn't in some important way completely f---ed up during the execution.
It's just that I literally can't think what possible evidence Friedman might be going on in his tacit assumption that the introduction of democracy to Iraq (if it is attempted at all) will be executed well rather than badly. Worst piece of counterfactual speculation by Friedman since the day he pondered the question "If I grew a moustache well, I would look distinguished and stylish; if I grew one badly, I'd look like a pillock".
Daniel Drezner, who I am confident exists and is named Daniel:
danieldrezner.com :: Daniel W. Drezner :: Why this administration is losing me on Iraq: The day after the fall of Baghdad, I posted:
For Operation Iraqi Freedom to succeed, military victories must be followed up with humanitarian victories. It's not enough to defeat Saddam's regime, there needs to be tangible evidence that conditions are improving.
Ten days later, I posted the following dilemma for the administration:
Rumsfeld, and the rest of the Bush administration's foreign policy team, face a clear choice. It can outsource peacekeeping functions to the United Nations or close allies, at the cost of some constraints on foreign policy implementation. It can minimize the U.N. role and develop/train its own peacekeeping force. Or it can do neither and run into trouble down the road...
Daniel Davies again:
D-squared Digest -- FOR bigger pies and shorter hours and AGAINST more or less everything else: The D-Squared Digest One Minute MBA - Avoiding Projects Pursued By Morons 101
Literally people have been asking me: "How is it that you were so amazingly prescient about Iraq? Why is it that you were right about everything at precisely the same moment when we were wrong?" No honestly, they have. I'd love to show you the emails I've received, there were dozens of them, honest. Honest. Anyway, I note that "errors of prewar planning" is now pretty much a mainstream stylised fact, so I suspect that it might make some small contribution to the commonweal if I were to explain how it was that I was able to spot so early that this dog wasn't going to hunt. I will struggle manfully with the savage burden of boasting, self-aggrandisement and ego-stroking that this will necessarily involve. It's been done before, although admittedly by a madman in the process of dying of syphilis of the brain. Sorry, where was I?
Anyway, the secret to every analysis I've ever done of contemporary politics has been, more or less, my expensive business school education (I would write a book entitled "Everything I Know I Learned At A Very Expensive University", but I doubt it would sell). About half of what they say about business schools and their graduates is probably true, and they do often feel like the most collossal waste of time and money, but they occasionally teach you the odd thing which is very useful indeed. Here's a few of the ones I learned which I considered relevant to judging the advisability of the Second Iraq War.
Good ideas do not need lots of lies told about them in order to gain public acceptance. I was first made aware of this during an accounting class. We were discussing the subject of accounting for stock options at technology companies. There was a live debate on this subject at the time. One side (mainly technology companies and their lobbyists) held that stock option grants should not be treated as an expense on public policy grounds; treating them as an expense would discourage companies from granting them, and stock options were a vital compensation tool that incentivised performance, rewarded dynamism and innovation and created vast amounts of value for America and the world. The other side (mainly people like Warren Buffet) held that stock options looked awfully like a massive blag carried out my management at the expense of shareholders, and that the proper place to record such blags was the P&L account.
Our lecturer, in summing up the debate, made the not unreasonable point that if stock options really were a fantastic tool which unleashed the creative power in every employee, everyone would want to expense as many of them as possible, the better to boast about how innovative, empowered and fantastic they were. Since the tech companies' point of view appeared to be that if they were ever forced to account honestly for their option grants, they would quickly stop making them, this offered decent prima facie evidence that they weren't, really, all that fantastic.
Application to Iraq. The general principle that good ideas are not usually associated with lying like a rug about their true nature seems to have been pretty well confirmed. In particular, however, this principle sheds light on the now quite popular claim that "WMDs were only part of the story; the real priority was to liberate the Iraqis, which is something that every decent person would support".
Fibbers' forecasts are worthless. Case after miserable case after bloody case we went through, I tell you, all of which had this moral. Not only that people who want a project will tend to make innacurate projections about the possible outcomes of that project, but about the futility of attempts to "shade" downward a fundamentally dishonest set of predictions. If you have doubts about the integrity of a forecaster, you can't use their forecasts at all. Not even as a "starting point". By the way, I would just love to get hold of a few of the quantitative numbers from documents prepared to support the war and give them a quick run through Benford's Law.
Application to Iraq This was how I decided that it was worth staking a bit of credibility on the strong claim that absolutely no material WMD capacity would be found, rather than "some" or "some but not enough to justify a war" or even "some derisory but not immaterial capacity, like a few mobile biological weapons labs". My reasoning was that Powell, Bush, Straw, etc, were clearly making false claims and therefore ought to be discounted completely, and that there were actually very few people who knew a bit about Iraq but were not fatally compromised in this manner who were making the WMD claim. Meanwhile, there were people like Scott Ritter and Andrew Wilkie who, whatever other faults they might or might not have had, did not appear to have told any provable lies on this subject and were therefore not compromised.
The Vital Importance of Audit. Emphasised over and over again. Brealey and Myers has a section on this, in which they remind callow students that like backing-up one's computer files, this is a lesson that everyone seems to have to learn the hard way. Basically, it's been shown time and again and again; companies which do not audit completed projects in order to see how accurate the original projections were, tend to get exactly the forecasts and projects that they deserve. Companies which have a culture where there are no consequences for making dishonest forecasts, get the projects they deserve. Companies which allocate blank cheques to management teams with a proven record of failure and mendacity, get what they deserve.
I hope I don't have to spell out the implications of this one for Iraq. Krugman has gone on and on about this, seemingly with some small effect these days. The raspberry road that led to Abu Ghraib was paved with bland assumptions that people who had repeatedly proved their untrustworthiness, could be trusted. There is much made by people who long for the days of their fourth form debating society about the fallacy of "argumentum ad hominem". There is, as I have mentioned in the past, no fancy Latin term for the fallacy of "giving known liars the benefit of the doubt", but it is in my view a much greater source of avoidable error in the world. Audit is meant to protect us from this, which is why audit is so important.
And so the lesson ends. Next week, perhaps, a few reflections on why it is that people don't support the neoconservative project to bring democracy to the Middle East (a trailer for those who can't wait; the title is going to be something like "If You Tell Lies A Lot, You Tend To Get A Reputation As A Liar"). Mind how you go.
 We also learned in accounting class that the difference between "making a definite single false claim with provable intent to deceive" and "creating a very false impression and allowing it to remain without correcting it" is not one that you should rely upon to keep you out of jail. Even if your motives are noble.
Cogent Provocateur, even though I do not think that he or she is named Daniel and "existence" is a tricky question here:
Cogent Provocateur: --- Operation Desert Snipe --- The Snipe Hunt is an American folk tradition, a rite of passage for the novice outdoorsman ... an elaborate practical joke which ends with the initiate crouching alone in the woods, in the dark, literally "holding the bag", waiting for the nonexistent Snipe. What if we sift through all the sand in Iraq without finding WMDs? (That means hundreds of tons, as advertised ... not lab samples, training rounds or inventory strays.) We're alone in the woods, in the dark, holding the bag. Paraphrasing NYT's Tom Friedman, we will have gone to war on the wings of a snipe. Too early to call it a night. It's a big desert, our last candle hasn't flickered out, and the mocking call of the snipe still echoes hauntingly in the distance, but ... the original standard WMD thesis is strictly defunct.
Saddam Hussein had extensive, active, advanced, clandestine chemical, biological and nuclear weapons programs. UN inspectors couldn't find WMDs because they were inept, or corrupt, or because Saddam played the shell game so masterfully. US intelligence pinpointed dozens of high-value target sites, hundreds of intermediate-value sites and thousands of low-value sites. Chemical and perhaps biological weapons were deployed to commanders in the field, who had orders to use them against invading Coalition forces. Special Forces teams were dropping in to secure and neutralize high-value sites in advance of the ground assault, with high-tech analytic Mobile Exploitation Teams (MET's) close on their heels.
Six weeks ago, it was beyond the pale to suggest otherwise. Today the man in the street doesn't exactly care much about WMD's ... but he's curious. The men in the hawk's nest -- and some of their media enablers -- care a lot. Alternative explanations are being spun out so rapidly, they're not even kept on the same page. In public, Bush and Blair -- as they must -- still insist WMDs will turn up. Behind closed doors, staff are obliquely, deniably huffing into trial balloons, testing branches of the contingency that never earned a spot of Rumsfeld's contingency sheet. What if there are no WMDs?
A Washington Post embed reports
analysts here and in Washington are increasingly doubtful that they will find what they are looking for in the places described on a five-tiered target list ... strategy is shifting from the rapid "exploitation" of known suspect sites to a vast survey that will rely on unexpected discoveries and leads.
Come what may later on, Blair's dossiers, Powell's "solid intelligence", and Rumsfeld's "bulletproof evidence" are dead letters. C'est la vie, c'est la guerre. Operation Desert Snipe is a marvelous case study in one of CP's pet themes -- collective self-deception. The plot spoilers were there all the time. "Everybody" was so sure, and so wrong. Down the page, we'll retrace the divergent arcs of evidence and attitude that brought us to this pass, and we'll sample some of the surviving alternative theses ... but first, a rundown of Truth or Consequences.
The joke is on us, but does it matter any more? We won, didn't we?
Yes, we won ... and yes, it still matters, else high officialdom wouldn't be clinging gamely to the original premise. And the PR labs wouldn't be working overtime testing damage control solutions. From August's "what's all this frenzy about a war?", to September's "you don't introduce new products in August", through November's election victory over an opposition "soft" on Saddam, through the winter games of spinning Blix on ice, through Powell's PowerPoint prestidigitation in February, to a no-time-to-vote forced March, we plied the crowd with predictable fare. We loosened them up with liberation cocktails. We circulated tray after tray of Saddam-as-Hitler appetizers. We dutifully jotted down orders for commercial or strategic side-dishes. But the main course was always a grand sterling-covered platter of sizzling Snipe a la Bush.
No WMD, no War Powers Resolution. No WMD, no UN Res. 1441. No WMD, no Coalition of the Willing. No WMD, no Azores ultimatum. Everything hinged on Iraq's possession of WMD, and her intransigent refusal to give them up. Scratch the surface of any auxiliary casus belli, and chances are you'll find a circular argument: "Saddam is evil and dangerous. How do we know? Because he has WMDs. How can we be so sure he has WMDs? Because he's evil and dangerous." "If she floats, she's a witch ... burn her at the stake! If she drowns, the poor thing's innocent." Did we go to war because Iraq failed a test she could only pass by surrendering artifacts she did not possess and could not reacquire? Did we run Hans Blix off the case because he was ineffective? Or because he was too effective? Why were we in such a hurry to dis-arm little Ali? Did we face an unacceptable risk that Saddam would pass nukes to terrorists? Or an unacceptable risk that the moment would pass without incident?
And Belle Waring, even though I am pretty sure that she is not named Daniel, but who definitely exists multiply:
John & Belle Have A Blog: If Wishes Were Horses, Beggars Would Ride -- A Pony!: I think Matthew Yglesias' response to Josh Chafetz' exercise in wishful thinking was about right, even if Brad DeLong's is more nuanced. I'd like to note, though, that Chafetz is selling himself short. You see, wishes are totally free. It's like when you can't decide whether to daydream about being a famous Hollywood star or having amazing magical powers. Why not -- be a famous Hollywood star with amazing magical powers!
Along these lines, John has developed an infallible way to improve any public policy wishes. You just wish for the thing, plus, wish that everyone would have their own pony!
So, in Chafetz' case, he should not only wish that Bush would say a lot of good things about democracy-building and fighting terrorism in a speech written for him by a smart person, he should also wish that Bush should actually mean the things he says and enact policies which reflect this, and he should wish that everyone gets a pony. See?
John came up with this "and a pony" scheme during a discussion we were having about crazy libertarians. (He was bathing Zoë as I told him about the article I'd read, and Zoë chimed in that she wanted to get a pony too. Duly noted.) Reason recently published a debate held at its 35th anniversary banquet. The flavor of this discussion is indescribable. In its total estrangement from our political and social life today, its wilfull disregard of all known facts about human nature, it resembles nothing so much as a debate over some fine procedural point of end-stage communism, after the state has withered away. Child-care arrangements, let's say. Position A: there will be well run communal creches! Position B: nonsense! the amount of work required from each individual to maintain a perfectly functioning society will be so small that people can care for their own children and those of others on a spontaneous basis, as the need arises!
Allow me to summarize:
Richard A. Epstein: even in the libertarian utopia, some forms of state coercion will be required. If we must assemble 100 plots of land to build a railway which will benefit all, and only 99 owners will sell, then we may need to force a lone holdout to accept a fair price for his land. Similarly, the public enforcement of private rights and the creation of infrastructure will require money, so there will have to be some taxes. [Note to self: no shit, Sherlock.]
Randy Barnett: Not so fast! Let's cross that bridge when we come to it rather than restricting liberty in advance. We'll know a lot more about human liberty in the libertarian utopia, and private entrepreneurs will solve these problems somehow without our needing to grant to governments the dangerous ability to confiscate our property in the name of some nebulous "public good." And as for rights enforcement -- look it's Halley's Comet!
David Friedman: Epstein places too much confidence in his proposed restrictions on government power. Rights could be enforced privately, and imperfect but workable solutions to the holdouts in the railway case could also be found. "To justify taxation we need the additional assumption that rights enforcement cannot be done by the state at a profit, despite historical examples of societies where the right to enforce the law and collect the resulting fines was a marketable asset."
Now, everyone close your eyes and try to imagine a private, profit-making rights-enforcement organization which does not resemble the mafia, a street gang, those pesky fire-fighters/arsonists/looters who used to provide such "services" in old New York and Tokyo, medieval tax-farmers, or a Lendu militia. (In general, if thoughts of the Eastern Congo intrude, I suggest waving them away with the invisible hand and repeating "that's anarcho-capitalism" several times.) Nothing's happening but a buzzing noise, right?
Now try it the wishful thinking way. Just wish that we might all live in a state of perfect liberty, free of taxation and intrusive government, and that we should all be wealthier as well as freer. Now wish that people should, despite that lack of any restraint on their actions such as might be formed by policemen, functioning law courts, the SEC, and so on, not spend all their time screwing each other in predictable ways ranging from ordinary rape, through the selling of fraudulent stocks in non-existent ventures, up to the wholesale dumping of mercury in the public water supplies. (I mean, the general stock of water from which people privately draw.) Awesome huh? But it gets better. Now wish that everyone had a pony. Don't thank me, Thank John.
UPDATE: John wants me to point out that he got the idea from a Calvin and Hobbes strip in which little Susie first wishes that Calvin was nicer, then realizes she might just as well wish for a pony while she's at it. So, thank that Calvin and Hobbes guy, or something.