Saturday, July 31, 2004


I gave a lecture in my policy process course in which I discussed the appearance of Richard Clark before the 9/11 commission. The general topic of the lecture was to contrast the Rational Actor model of organizational decision making with the Bounded Rationality, or Agenda setting model of organizational decision making. I thought this part of the lecture might be interesting in light of the recent 9/11 commission report:

For now lets look at how this can be useful for analyzing when things go wrong. Typically people tend toward the rational actortional actor view of catastrophes. At one extreme it leads us to look for conspirational actorcies. There is a sort of assumption of omnipotence engendered by the rational actor model. So in the rational actor model bad things happen because powerful people want them to happen.
A less extreme version is to look for incompetence/heroes explanation of events. Something bad happens and you look for the cause in someone who didn’t do their job and the solution that someone at the top should have paid more attention. This reaction is typical to catastrophic events. After Pearl Harbor several admirals were fired. I think that this reaction is usually wrong.
I think the agenda-setting approach leads us to ask if the problem wasn’t people not doing their jobs but just the opposite—doing their jobs too well. The political scientist is often inclined to the systemic failure model. Under this model the problem is that everyone is doing their job, it is just that their jobs are designed to achieve contradictory goals.
The agenda setting model sees the government as rational actor at the subunit level but possibly ‘irrational actor’ at the level of the entire government. You can’t make rational trade-offs, say, between civil liberties and security, not wanting to treat people as ‘categories’ and wanting to detect crimes before they occur, babies and B1 bombers (Infant mortality and danger of nuclear attack), so you divide up these problems. You let one department be in charge of one goal pursue that exclusively and, therefore, rationally.
The amazing thing is that two guys got on the plane that were on the terrorist watch list. The CIA didn’t let out the information to the rest of the government about the extra information they had on these guys. Moreover a Minnesota FBI agent had information that single men from Arab countries were taking flying lessons but curiously had no interest in learning to land. This information was not even shared within the FBI, let alone followed up on.
Clarke suggests that the solution was to have a principle’s meeting where the President would get together with the top people and knock heads together. This is the heroic model, guy at the top makes people lower down do their jobs.
But the reason you have a terrorist watch list is for watching out for them to become routine. The agencies deliberately kept their information secret, sometimes over the objections of the field officers.
What I think is more likely to be productive is to look at it in terms of agencies having conflicting definitions of the problem. The CIA is an agency that looks at itself as fighting a war against foreign enemies. Its job is to spy on those enemies without their knowledge so they can be killed. The FBI as a law enforcement agency. Their job is to not harass citizens unless they have a complaint of a crime. This necessarily means waiting till a crime has occurred. More recently we have added a constraint to the FBI’s job that it not subject citizens to investigations on the basis of some general quality which has no direct relation (as opposed to a possible statistical relation) to criminal conduct. In other words, no profiling. Now the problem is that all the things that are good for accomplishing one set of goals undermines the achieving the other set of goals.
The CIA wants to keep information secret. If the enemy knows what we know they can figure out how we know it and prevent us from finding out more. They want to stop the enemy before he does something so they engage in probabilistic searches. They look at individuals based on their group charational actorcteristics and don’t worry about if they are offended by it or not—they aren’t citizens and the idea is to observe people without them knowing it anyway.
The FBI wants to gather evidence in open court to convince citizens that the accused has had a fair trial. It waits to act until their has been a crime—citizens are assumed innocent until proven guilty. It does not investigate people because of their membership in broad groups but only if they have specific information.
The CIA and FBI are not being petty when they don’t cooperational actorte, they are being rational actortional (at the level of the sub-organization at least). The FBI has learned that sharing information with the CIA will screw up its cases: not only does evidence gathered illegally have to be thrown out often the burden of proof is on the government to show that even legally gathered evidence was not in some way the indirect result of illegally gathered evidence. The CIA has learned that cooperating with the FBI is bad. The FBI’s use of intercepted cell phone transmissions from around the world to the WTC bombers was convincing evidence to the court of the defendant’s guilt. It was also convincing evidence to Al Qeada that using cell phones was a bad idea.
The point is not that Clarke is wrong. More meetings probably would have helped. But relying on the people at the very top to attend to every potential crisis is probably not the most efficient solution. It is probably particularly damaging to look for individuals to blame.
Looking for individuals at the bottom leads to bureaucrats protecting themselves with formal rules and procedures. The reason that the Minnesota FBI agents suggestions were not followed up on was that the FBI had instituted procedures to protect itself as the result of the last big thing it got in trouble for: profiling. FBI officers’ careers were put in jeopardy from this scandal and so procedures and paper-work were instituted to prevent investigations that might lead to profiling charges. The problem is these procedures worked. If the investigation had taken place the hijackers would probably have been alerted and gone home. The plot would have been prevented but the FBI would have been accused, probably correctly, of ethnic profiling (would they have investigated if they had been Swedes?).
The drive for "openness" as the solution for all problems has lead to a hero’s welcome for Clark. But I suspect that if the experience in Congress is any guide Mr. Clark’s actions will lead to there being less information about what our leaders do.
There is no precedent for a career civil servant reporting on the President during his term in office like this. We know a little more now than we did before about the decision making process at the White House (but nothing, I suspect, that truly surprises anyone who has followed the administration); it is certainly useful to know that even within days of 9/11 Bush wanted to know if Iraq was somehow implicated. But what the WH and all future WH’s have learned is be careful who you ask questions. Don’t ask a question that years later could be portrayed in a bad light. Or, if you must ask, make sure it is someone in your own political party whose loyalty you can be sure of. I think the Clark episode can only lead to Presidents requesting less information from a narrower range of sources. Sadly, the tradition of non-partisan civil servants as advisors on potentially politically sensitive questions is probably at an end. Surely not a result that will make us safer in the long run.


So Edwards thinks there are two America's and he want to remedy the situtation by supplying one low quality government issue America. The big problem will be chosing the uniform. Perhaps Mao jackets in, say, a nice understated grey?

Thursday, July 29, 2004

Kerry Speech

I found this a little strange:

"Let there be no mistake: I will never hesitate to use force when it is required. Any attack will be met with a swift and certain response."

It is strange, that is, if you think we are in a war.  Roosevelt didn't say that if there is a another attack we will attack them back, no question about it.  The statement brings out the underlying difference that people have about the war in Iraq and Bush's conduct of the war on terror.  The Democrats fudementally think of this not as a war, but as a law enforcement problem.  The people attacking us are criminals  and if someone commits a crime you find them and punish them.  But if you think of the conflict as a war then you try to find your enemies and kill them.  If you punish someone because you think they are going to commit a crime you are violating their rights.  If you kill an enemy before he happens to have managed to commit an attack then that is good. 


He is in trouble for calling his democratic legislature girley men. The victims of this slander should remember that the only thing worse than being caught on camera calling your opponents girley men is being caught on camera denying that you are a girley man, and that it was insensitive and homophobic and that your feeling are hurt, and I used to like you but now I think you are just a mean...mean....meaney man.. you bad man you.

And anyway, I thought that Hans and Franz were making fun of weak men. I thought they Hans and Frans were gay. Wait, is that homophobic, assuming that men who wear speedos and rub oil on each other are gay? and anyway, isn't it odd? Aren't Arnold's critics sort of saying girley man=homosexual and that anti-homosexual=homophobic and that homophobic=afraid of homosexuals and that therefore afraid of homosexuals=afraid of girley men and that therefore afraid of girley men=girley girley men? I find that very insulting to homophobs. That you would challenge my manhood. It is very insensitive and hurtful,...and I used to like really hurts...I think you're just a girley girley girley man....

Wednesday, July 28, 2004


The idea is so common that the UN is some kind of moral authority.  It is strange.

One reason I find people citing is that the UN represents all people in the world, so its decisions are fairer than the decisions of one country. 

There are two problems with this argument.  The first is that the UN does represent people, it represents governments.  Some of those governments may reasonably be thought of as representing the people that live in those countries and some may not.  Some may be little more than prisons.  It comes easily enough to those on the left to speak of Western democracies as not really representing the people but rather some powerful exploiting class.  If we can dismiss the government of the world's oldest democracy's claim to be representative why so readily accept the claim of some third world dictatorship.

The second problem is that the argument is a level of abstraction too high.  It may be true, on average, that the decisions of many countries are more representative of the interests of humankind than the decisions of one but the question we face is not a randomly selected country in multiple iterations of world history played over and over again.  We are talking about this particular world and the decisions of one particular country.  One only has to argue that on average the decisions of the US are more moral than the decisions of the United Nations.  Without getting into whether they are or not, it is not particularly implausible that a particular nation would be over time be more moral on average than the whole.  Indeed, it would be very surprising if it were not the case.  More over the same people who denounce US unilateralism often have in thier own mind a particular nation--one often hears Sweeden or Switzerland--as a moral exemplar.  Implicit in this claim is that that nation is on average more moral than the average. 

Consider this: Britain unilaterally ended the slave trade by force in the early 19th century, well before the US civil war.  If the matter had been put to a vote by the world's governments at the time the decision would have never passed, given that the institution of slavery was still common throughout most of the world outside of Western Europe.  Indeed, the British ended up fight in the Sudan against the Arabs since precisely because the British outlawed slavery.  If there had been a United Nations back then it would never have gone along with ending slavery, let alone the British 'war of choice' to end it.

This brings up a sort of background assumption that a nation powerful enough to act unilaterally is particularly likely to be less moral than average.  This may be the case but there are reasons for expecting the opposite to be the case.  The world's hegemon for the last two centuries has been successively France, Britain and then the US.  Part of the reason that each was the most powerful nation of its time was its morality.  A central reason that each was most powerful in its turn was its capicity as a society to be more moral internally.  France rose to military pre-eminence because of a political system that gave a far greater proportion of its population a stake in the society than any of its competitors.  Britain managed the same trick and later America.  Part of the reason that we remember 19th Century Britain as being so rigidly hierarchical and unfair to the lower classes was the role that Britain had in promoting human equality as an ideal. 

The writings of the British of that period are self-critical of their own inequality.  But compared to any of thier major competitors British society offered much more of a voice in government and opportunity for free expression of opinion and advancement.  A modern society's power is based on its capacity for building large organizations were individuals can cooperate freely.  Therefore, even as the abstract level,  I would not be surprised that we would find it to be generally true that the more powerful society should also, on average (as we statisticians say), to be more moral and fair. 

Why do the combined armies of the Arab countries--populations outnumbering Israel by more than 10 to 1--always go down to humiliating defeat in open warfare?  Isreal is a modern society.  They are able to cooperate and share ideas as well as criticise their leaders (to say the least).  Modern warfare is not a matter of individual courage so much as it is a matter of collective thinking and decision making.  The same Arab societies that cannot form effective modern business corporations (the manufactured goods of the middle East aside from Isreal is less than that of Norway) is likewise unable to form modern armies.  They are unable at the societal level to coordinate activities intellegently.  Internally these societies are ruled by force rather than reason.  That makes them rather nasty places to live (whatever ones views of the Arab/Israeli conflict I refuse to take seriously any Westerner who would claim to prefer living in the former).  But it also makes them weak. 

Rule of the strongest is not a good principle for ruling a society internally.  And yet, paradoxically, it may lead to a fairer world at the level of international society.   



9/11 commission: So the problem was group think and the solution is to put everyone into one big group.  This is one of the things which occurs with depressing regularity in American politics.  There is some great catastrophy, a blue ribbon commission is created to get to the bottom of it and the solution is to simplify the organizational chart.  Take all the lines that connect separate agencies in the big organizational chart and make them into one nice big box.  Of course all the lines that used to connect separate agencies will now connect departements and the people in those departments will have the same reasons for talking or not talking to each other as before.  Solution by 'flight' is the useful phrase of James March.  He means by it making a decision which allows us to feel that we have confronted  a problem without really having to face the trade-offs involved.  There are reasons these people didn't talk to each other--we wouldn't let them first among those reasons.  Drawing a big departmental box around the same people with the same incentives will solve nothing. 
My students were shocked to learn that Kerry is a billionaire by marriage. Odd how even politically active students can be so uninformed about what seems to me to be the first thing you would know about Kerry. We get the information we seek out. I am reading a lot of conservative bloggs so I hear things that are unflattering about Kerry. It seems that Kerry's wealth is something that his supporters do not find attractive about him. Still it was surprising to my students to find out that Bush is the least wealthy of the four people on the major tickets. (I suspect that Cheney is third but that is only because the estimates of Edward's net that I have heard vary between 25 and 50 million). One of the few things that political science is able to tell you is that income has become a less powerful predictor of party identification over the years. The habit of thinking of rich people as automatic Republicans dies hard, though. My Japanese Political theorist roomate asked me why Senator Jay Rockefeller was a Democrat. As if even one exception to this generalization was something that would require some sort of explanation.

This Heinz woman--telling a reporter to shove it. Doesn't she realize that annoying important people is how this poor man feeds his family? Such departures from decorum by a person of her status should not be wasted on a mere reporter. I think Cheney should straighten her out. Allowing such an outburst to be directed at a mere reporter (as oppossed to a fellow member of the Senate or something) is beneath her dignity, Big time! I think though, for all the conservative whining about a double standard, the press's lack of attention to Kerry's wife's indescretion is to our advantage. The more you see of her the less you dislike him.

Fox headline: Is 'The Village' Disney's Fictional 'Fahrenheit?'--No, I think that honor belongs to Michael Moore's Fahrenheit.

Tuesday, July 27, 2004


You have all these wonderful thoughts that seem to go to waste in your internal dialogues. Then you find a free blogg site and you mind turns out to be empty. The trick is to keep writing no matter what.

I am facing a big decision. It is mid-summer in my summer course and I still haven't told my students what I am, a conservative. Not even a presentable one. I still remember confiding in the head of my department that I was worried about going on the political science job market and letting slip in converstation that I am a conservative. John Brehm, dear man, avuncularly told me not to worry, there isn't any real predjudice against conservatives, except for maybe something bizzare, like a social conservatives. To his great credit he managed to not change his expression when I told him that is exactly what I was. Anyway, I have reached that point in my class where I have to tell them. We are discussing the formation of public opinion and reading two articles about the decision to go to war. I am able to keep my mouth shut about anything but the war is too much for me to keep quiet about. Actually, I don't mind having flat out arguments with students that just hate the war, it is the sort of passive acquiesence that you sometimes get. It is as if they are saying to themselves the creature we are hearing from is beyond reason, all we can do is non-commitally and meet afterwards to assure ourselves that we are right and righteous. I am probably exaggerating. Sometimes my memories from Antioch come back to haunt me. These are university of chicago students. They are very forthcomming about telling you that they think you are an idiot.

Is it possible that there is no spell checker on this blogg thing? I hope no one finds this thing.

Post Script: finally told my students what I was. Shocked disbelief. They asked me to prove it: "Say something conservative." That is the same thing people say when I tell them I speak Chinese.