How NOT To Understand The Reconstruction Effort In Iraq
"He's Goodenough, He's Smartenough, And Doggone It, People Are Generally Indifferent Towards Him!"
By Pejman Yousefzadeh Posted in War — Comments (10) / Email this page » / Leave a comment »
Comes now Oliver Goodenough to inform all and sundry that when it comes to military and political analysis, he is anything but. This column presents such a hash of an argument that it boggles the mind:
Economics professors have a standard game they use to demonstrate how apparently rational decisions can create a disastrous result. They call it a "dollar auction." The rules are simple. The professor offers a dollar for sale to the highest bidder, with only one wrinkle: the second-highest bidder has to pay up on their losing bid as well. Several students almost always get sucked in. The first bids a penny, looking to make 99 cents. The second bids 2 cents, the third 3 cents, and so on, each feeling they have a chance at something good on the cheap. The early stages are fun, and the bidders wonder what possessed the professor to be willing to lose some money.
The problem surfaces when the bidders get up close to a dollar. After 99 cents the last vestige of profitability disappears, but the bidding continues between the two highest players. They now realize that they stand to lose no matter what, but that they can still buffer their losses by winning the dollar. They just have to outlast the other player. Following this strategy, the two hapless students usually run the bid up several dollars, turning the apparent shot at easy money into a ghastly battle of spiraling disaster.
Theoretically, there is no stable outcome once the dynamic gets going. The only clear limit is the exhaustion of one of the player's total funds. In the classroom, the auction generally ends with the grudging decision of one player to "irrationally" accept the larger loss and get out of the terrible spiral. Economists call the dollar auction pattern an irrational escalation of commitment. We might also call it the war in Iraq.
I love economics and economic analysis as much as the next person--perhaps more--but this is absurd. First of all, if you are going to apply the dollar auction analogy, you have to ask what is our "dollar" in Iraq? What is the fixed economic/political/military point after which further investment is futile. And alas, Goodenough is not good enough to inform us. Instead, he simply asserts that we have nothing more to invest without providing any kind of metrics whatsoever for his argument.
Then he employs a buzzword for the purposes of advancing a smear. See if you can identify it.
Do be Goodenough to read on for more below . . .
America is long past the possibility of some kind of profitable outcome in Iraq. Neo-con dreams of a quick, cheap victory, delivering democracy and peace and self-financed from Iraq's own oil revenue, got us started on this misadventure. Like the students, the early bidding seemed like a fun adventure to the boys in the Bush administration. "Bring 'em on," the chief boy said about the other bidders. And like the economics class, suddenly we were in the thing up to our necks, with only bad choices available at an ever-escalating cost.
Ah, the "neo-cons." No discussion would be complete without a sneer directed their way. That's fine and good in the abstract; political movements should not be immune to criticism and I write that as someone who is not a neo-con. Or a neocon. (The decision whether or not to employ the hyphen is a serious one.) But does Mr. Perhapssomedayhe'llbegoodenoughbutthatdayhasn'tyetarrived actually know what a neo-con (or a neocon) is? Doubtful.
In the bigger game of democratic politics, the dollar auction scenario has a particularly dangerous power. Politicians fear that voters will unfairly punish the realist who cuts off the escalation early, in the process also clearly "losing" the ever-diminishing prize. And maybe, just maybe, the appearance of a "win," even at an astounding price, will give some fig-leaf of coverage to the monumental stupidity of getting the United States of America mired in a this kind of situation to begin with.
If only my interlocutor had been Goodenough to read a poll or two--not to mention paying attention to the news--he would know that opposing the reconstruction effort in Iraq is the popular thing to do these days. And yet, he thinks that that those who want to bring American involvement in Iraq to an end will somehow be "punished." Uh-huh. In the same country where apparently the bosom ally of a major political party felt comfortable enough to take out an ad in the New York Times denouncing General Petraeus as a traitor. What alternative universe did this editorial come from?
The administration's goal is keeping the electorate pacified and the game in motion. Emphasize the cost already paid and the further cost of throwing in the towel. Promise that the other side is showing signs of exhaustion -- remember Dick Cheney and the few "dead-enders?" Like the man riding the tiger, Bush and company believe they are OK so long as they don't fall off. If the regular dollar auction is irrationality in action, U.S. politics make our Iraq policy irrationality on steroids.
"The electorate" voted to put Democrats in Congress in large part as a reaction to the reconstruction effort in Iraq. If that isn't Goodenough to show a lack of "pacification," I don't know what is. (A note to Mr. Goodenoughforgovernmentwork: When someone on the other side of the partisan and ideological divide shows that he can write your talking points better than you can, it is a sign, perhaps, that you have not quite mastered your brief.)
As our commitment to this war once again comes up for public deliberation, listen to the arguments being made for staying in the game.
"We must honor our dead." By putting more up to be killed?
"The other side is giving up the fight." Is this for real or is it another piece of what we might charitably call wishful thinking?
"We can't afford to lose." But can we afford to win even less? Remember the dynamic of the dollar auction, and think carefully when such plausible and emotionally appealing short-term logic is used to justify putting another whopping bid on the table.
Evidently, this "argument," devoid of terms or meaning is Goodenough for the Rutland Herald. You know, you can't just keep writing "dollar auction" and expect those two words to serve as some kind of magical talisman that will prove your point for you.
Oh yes, there is one other way out of the spiral -- in the classroom, if you allow some kind of negotiated settlement between the two sides, they can sometimes agree to split the dollar and halt the contest. Should we pursue this kind of thing in the Middle East? Of course not, we are told. That would involve talking to the enemy, and we all know that such dialogue would only serve to reward their evil actions. Victory is the only acceptable result. Back to the auction. Let the surge continue.
We have recently had discussions with Iran over the issue of Iraq. We will likely have more and whether one agrees with the holding of those discussions or not, the fact of the matter is that there is indeed "dialogue" taking place.
But we shouldn't be surprised that those negotiations are not noted. When your job is to write a colicky editorial criticizing another party, nothing that party does is ever Goodenough for you.