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 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.

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(Formerly known as bee) / Internet member since 1987
Member of the Surreality-Based Community

but this sounds fancier & and has the ring of the academic, game theory and all that crap.

Our intellectual friend has structured things to fit his model.
Say we had pulled out long ago [ cutting potential losses as in the game]. In the game you can't win but you will avoid losing, or losing more. Bright isn't it ? Game over, you walk away, buy a copy of the NY Times, turn on NPR and relax.

But in this real life non-game what possible consequences could be spelled out to confound our intellectuals analogy?
Now if BrightBoy threw in a few unpleasant options for those who exit his game that would be interesting, and realistic.

But it would also be complicated and messy, it would require thought, create angst, reduce snideness, and demand that you take a difficult position. But then you couldn't be a glib liberal wise ass so what would be the point?

Negotiate with this enemy? Back to the Mattel drawing boards and the economists, time for a fantasy game.

"a man's admiration for absolute government is proportinate to the contempt he feels for those around him". Tocqueville

I call it "let's knock down the Straw Man". Not your chump strawman, Pejman, but your chump opponent's.

By asserting that the reasons we are in Iraq amount to a dollar, he downplays the importance of winning there. It displays a fundamentally childish view of international politics and a misunderstanding of the nature of the conflict. Let me oversimplify just as much, though at least making an irrefutable point: we're killing terrorists there, and have been since March, 2003.

Secondly, his dollar auction is flawed because failing to win doesn't merely cost us everything we've spent so far, it also costs us what the other guy will do with the dollar, which is to destroy our civilization.

On the other hand, name jokes are bad mojo, and not funny.

Gone 2500 years, still not PC.

Is there such a thing? It seems to have no purpose except as a way to smear someone who exhibits conservative beliefs on foreign affairs. During the Cold War, Solchenitzen would have been smeared as a neo-con.

James Hansen - Scott THomas Beauchamp with a PhD. a way for people to look at a right-of-center politician and say "I don't like him" without having to get into specifics, without making it sound like a personal vendetta (which it normally is).

Typically, "neo-con" was originally used to describe the interventionist, internationalist side of the Republican Party (as opposed to "paleo-cons" like Pat Buchanan, who are isolationists nearly to the point of absolutism), but it now carries a number of other connotations, most of them pejoratives.

"I don't understand why the same newspaper commentators who bemoan the terrible education given to poor people are always so eager to have those poor people get out and vote." - P.J. O'Rourke

This is way off-topic but too urgent to wait on.

Please help get the message out. NOW!

They're going to try another jamdown on AMNESTY next week in the Congress.


NumbersUSA | Sept 13, 2007 | Roy Beck, President

[Text redacted. Fair use, gentlemen: fair use. Link and excerpt. - Moe Lane]

One that doesn't violate fair use, by the way.

Also, admitting bad manners does not actually excuse them.

The Fuzzy Puppy of the VRWC. I've been usurped!

First and foremost Goodenough assumes the notional dollar than is Iraq is already trading at its maximum value. I would disagree. I think right now, geopolitically, we're at the stage where Iraq has a lot of upward mobility before it reaches the "good money after bad" stage. So his own analogy is only valid if you buy into his worldview that we've already paid more than Iraq is worth.

His scenario also assumes both parties have the same ability to pay. I don't think that's the case. For the sake of argument here I'll stipulate Goodenough's assumptions in his dollar auction. But what if one party has a substantially greater ability to pay? According to Goodenough, Ronald Reagan's strategy of spending the Soviets into bankruptcy couldn't work. From my point of view it looks like it worked out okay.

Even if his analogy is right, the intrinsic value of something often exceeds its face value. Is/was YouTube really worth $1.65 billion? Businesses regularly pay over the book value for assets. Whether or not that is a good move depends entirely on what they want to accomplish.

And suppose the game isn't some kind of a drill carried out by an econ professor. Suppose we're playing poker.

"A man can never have too much red wine, too many books, or too much ammunition." -- Rudyard Kipling

Huh? by ktcat

Just what planet does this auction imitate? Auctioning off anything and then making one or more of the losing bidders pay makes sense where? Why not just strap electrodes to the bidders' bodies and shock the snot out of them? Not for any realy analytical purpose or anything, but just to be able to write some nonsensical article.

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