Terrorism Response: Crippled by a False Analogy

Generals, it is said, usually plan to fight the last war. The French, for example, built the Maginot Line on their Eastern frontier with Germany. It was a massively fortified replacement for trenches, built as a result of the trauma of trench warfare in the First World War.  Unfortunately, the Germans simply went around the defenses by invading through Belgium in 1940. The French quickly lost the war.

General staffs and security experts often find it very difficult to adapt to new circumstances.

The same applies to most current thinking in Western security circles about terrorism. Officials, military officers and academics try to understand the current threat in terms of previous experience of terrorism, such as the PLO or the IRA.

There is one very important thing to notice, however. Almost all terrorism and irregular warfare before Islamic attacks was connected to wars of national liberation. There were a few exceptions, such as the Baader-Meinhof gang in Germany, but class-based Marxist terrorism has been very rare in western societies. Most major terrorist organizations in the twentieth century were linked to nationalist movements.

In fact, the experience in Iraq, Afghanistan and countries like Somalia (or Vietnam in the 1960s) reinforces the pattern, and it also forms the experience set of many senior military and intelligence officials today. Counterinsurgency is a matter of persuading a potentially hostile and uncooperative majority population to help what those locals see as imperial foreigners of doubtful legitimacy, bent on economic exploitation. Counterinsurgency is imperial thinking without the explicit colony.   The insurgents gain from provoking an overreaction from “occupying” outside forces.  Too much heavy-handed force makes the local population feel oppressed or disrespected (such as the execution of the 1916 rebels in Ireland, the Amritsar massacre in 1919, or internment of IRA suspects in 1971.) Violence forces people to choose one side or another, almost always at the expense of the outside power.

Once the support of the majority population is lost, the position of the foreign or colonial power is grim. It becomes too expensive to maintain a presence. Too many troops are required. Too many of those troops return home in body bags, endangering public support at home.  So the FLN forced the French out of Algeria. The Vietcong forced the Americans out of Vietnam.

The only way to fight such an insurgency is to prevent the alienation of the local majority population. You try to improve economic prospects, or address grievances, to undermine support for the rebels. You are patient, and hope that the inability of the rebels to provide a clear economic alternative will undermine the insurgent cause. Otherwise the administrators and colonels will find themselves on the boat or plane headed back to London, Paris or Langley.

It would be surprising, in fact, if officials and officers did not see current terrorist threats in the light of fifty years of this kind of experience. It is established conventional wisdom.

Think for a minute, however. An attack like the horrific carnage in Manchester a few days ago is not like this at all.  Contemporary Islamic terrorism is not a war of national liberation. It is not like the PLO or IRA or FLN.  In fact, it is the exact reverse in many ways. It is the terrorists who come from a tiny foreign community. Those foreign communities, most often of recent origin, are often seen, perhaps unfairly, as outsiders of doubtful legitimacy bent on economic exploitation of welfare and housing (at least as some locals may see it.)

In other words, the terrorists and their supporters actually occupy the slot of “outsiders” in the war of national liberation model. All the implications run in reverse.  In the event of hostility or escalation, the majority community in Manchester or Nice or Orlando are in their home territory already, and are not going to be driven back to any colonial capital. “Brits go home,” as Irish nationalists put it, doesn’t work very well when the Brits are in Britain.

This turns some of the conventional wisdom based on nationalist terrorism and counterinsurgency on its head. What about the overwhelming necessity to respond to terrorism in a proportional way, to avoid alienating the key target population? In this case a muted response may make the majority local population more alienated and frightened. They may feel they are being left unprotected, much like Iraqi villagers who doubt American troops will turn up to protect them when the local militants come calling.  An inability to protect eight-year old girls going to a concert may undermine the government in the eyes of those who expect protection.

What about the fundamental principle that terrorists win by provoking an overreaction? In national liberation, it is the foreign or colonial community which is most likely to be forced out if things escalate into open conflict. Consider the French settlers in Algeria, the piers noir, almost a million of whom were forced back to France after Algerian independence. But in England or Spain or Germany, it is Muslim communities which are the vulnerable outsiders, the tiny minority of foreign origin.  In other words, escalation and backlash is likely to lead to horrific consequences and departure  for Islamic populations in the west, not the departure of a colonial power back across the oceans. It is completely different to national liberation.

Provoking escalation and backlash is likely to lead to catastrophe for the terrorists, especially in a continent which has been only too willing to indulge in ethnic cleansing within living (and in Bosnia recent) memory. Indeed, it is only the desire of Western governments to prevent such a repeat of history affecting innocent Muslims which stops that Islamic disaster happening.

So why would Islamic terrorists do their best to provoke the authorities into an escalation which their tiny communities would almost certainly end up with a fate like colonial settlers forced to return back from India or Kenya or Indonesia?

It’s because the terrorists don’t think they are fighting a war of national liberation. They are fighting a war of religious conquest, in which they believe their success is divinely ordained because the enemy is decadent and weak.  Dealing with a different enemy requires different tactics.

It’s usually unexamined assumptions which get people into trouble. Western security experts are entrenched in a familiar set of assumptions which simply don’t apply to current terrorist threats.




2017-05-26T07:44:34+00:00 May 26, 2017|Assumptions|

How Economics dies as a discipline

This caught my eye the other week in a review of a new book in the Guardian.   Something seems to have gone very wrong with how people are taught Economics.

The authors analysed 174 economics modules for seven Russell Group

[i.e top tier UK] universities, making this the most comprehensive curriculum review I know of. Focusing on the exams that undergraduates were asked to prepare for, they found a heavy reliance on multiple choice. The vast bulk of the questions asked students either to describe a model or theory, or to show how economic events could be explained by them. Rarely were they asked to assess the models themselves. In essence, they were being tested on whether they had memorised the catechism and could recite it under invigilation.

Critical thinking is not necessary to win a top economics degree. Of the core economics papers, only 8% of marks awarded asked for any critical evaluation or independent judgment. At one university, the authors write, 97% of all compulsory modules “entailed no form of critical or independent thinking whatsoever”.

I doubt it’s any better in the US.  Indeed, there’s been hard evidence at times that Ph.D programs at the top US graduate schools go out of their way to discourage creative questions, and narrowly focus on “puzzle-solving” –  manipulating models with analytical brilliance – instead. People are increasingly not taught to think through assumptions or question the boundaries and limits of the models. That’s how you go extinct.



2017-05-11T17:32:34+00:00 February 21, 2017|Assumptions, Economics|

US election shock: You’ll forget the models were wrong within a few weeks.

If there's one thing I've consistently argued on this blog, it's that predictions are usually a waste of time and money. Instead, test your assumptions. Don't just “make assumptions explicit.” Look for how you might be wrong, because then you can do something about it.

So how did that play out, the morning after the US Presidential election? Leave aside your horror or elation. This isn't a partisan point. No matter what your politics or feelings about the result, there's a pattern of bad decisions and misjudgment here. And everyone will also forget that pattern within weeks.


With hours to go before Americans vote, Democrat Hillary Clinton has about a 90 percent chance of defeating Republican Donald Trump in the race for the White House, according to the final Reuters/Ipsos States of the Nation project.

The Huffington Post put Clinton's chances at 98%. (98%!)

The HuffPost presidential forecast model gives Democrat Hillary Clinton a 98.2 percent chance of winning the presidency. Republican Donald Trump has essentially no path to an Electoral College victory.

Huffpo also rather sneeringly attacked Nate Silver's 538 for estimating Clinton's chances at a mere 65%.

While I love following the prediction markets for this year’s election, the most popular and widely quoted website out there, fivethirtyeight.com, has something tragically wrong with its presidential prediction model. With the same information, 538 is currently predicting a 65 percent chance of a Clinton victory

As for The NY Times, their final prediction was

“Hillary Clinton has an 85% chance to win”

It's easy to criticize in hindsight. But why do people keep doing this? Why do naive people keep believing this kind of faux-technocratic nonsense? It just leads people to damaging self-delusion, not just in politics but in business and markets.

Elaborate models and data are no defense against wishful thinking. “Big data” does not protect you against many kinds of error. Monte Carlo simulations can be foolish. How could people possibly put a 98% chance on an election that was close to the margin of error in the polls, especially after the lessons of the shock results of Brexit, the Greek referendum and many others?

But they did. Financial markets were bamboozled, for example. Again.

Reuters: Wall Street Elite stunned by Trump triumph.

We need a better way to do this. Instead of models, you need an antimodel, which is what I am developing.

2017-05-11T17:32:35+00:00 November 9, 2016|Assumptions, Confirmation bias, Forecasting, Politics|

The flaw in international law, and The Chilcot Report

People pay too much attention to their forecasts (which are unreliable) and too little to their assumptions, and that often gets them into serious trouble. I argued in the last post that the assumption driving much EU integration – that international law and international organization is the foundation of the last seventy years of peace in Europe – is not always true.

So what else may have kept the peace in Europe for the last seventy years? What worked, if international law sometimes doesn't work? Think for a moment.

It isn't the same as the question of what you think international law is ideal or moral aspiration or a nice idea, but, again, what actually works. We all know people who are wonderfully nice, but maybe should not be entrusted with arranging your summer trip, or running a company, or handling air traffic control for inbound flights at LaGuardia. You may think it is ideal and moral that everyone should be honest as well. But you probably locked your front door when you left home this morning too. So what actually kept the peace, if not the EU?

Might it have something to do with the US deploying hundreds of thousands of troops in Europe, a chain of air bases from Keflavik in Iceland to Incirlik in Turkey, and the Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean? Not to mention the threat of thermonuclear escalation if anyone started a war. The US assumed much of the security of Europe, and strongly supported European rebuilding from the Marshall plan onwards, as well as the EU itself as a bulwark against communism. The Red Army might have been entirely unthreatening and peaceful and admired European law, but the citizens of Budapest and Prague who saw Soviet tanks on their streets in 1956 and 1967 might disagree. Yet western European countries could afford to reduce defense spending and focus on welfare and economics. In other words, the EU itself is more a symptom of the US stabilizing the security situation than the cause of security.

Let's say you splutter with outrage at the idea. There are definitely some people in Europe and elsewhere who are very uncomfortable with any positive consequence of Ameican foreign policy, ever. Fine. How would you test that? What kind of implications would you expect to see? The explanations lead very different places and feed different narratives. Seeing the question from different angles and questioning assumptions is usually essential to figuring out the right policy. And the things you feel uncomfortable about are the most likely place for blind spots, because you never look there.

In the same way, the reaction to the publication of the Chilcot report on British participation in the Iraq war was published yesterday. Most of the attention, like this Guardian editorial, is focused on poor prediction of consequences.

Let's agree the war was bad in retrospect. It is also clear that there was not enough effort to question the assumptions underlying intelligence assessments that Saddam Hussein still had weapons of mass destruction, or prepare for the aftermath.

But the press reaction doesn't really come to grips with a recurrent theme in the executive summary of the report. Why did Blair, a European multilateral liberal, stick so close to Bush, a Texan Republican? Was it to preserve the special relationship? Get invited to delightful Crawford, TX? Be a poodle and get dog biscuits?

Most media reactions lean towards thinking it was because Blair was a pathological liar, a vain foolish potential war criminal who ignored advice. They personalize the issue. But Blair was a highly skilled, highly popular leader before the war, not a cartoon villain, and he clearly had doubts about direct UK interests in Iraq. So what was he thinking?

In fact, Chilcot documents how Blair kept trying to push the US to go the multilateral route, to get UN resolutions, to persuade a coalition of allies rather than take unilateral action.

The report references a 2003 speech by Blair several times.

370. In Mr Blair’s view, the decision to stand alongside the US was in the UK’s long‑term national interests. In his speech of 18 March 2003, he argued that the handling of Iraq would:

“… determine the way in which Britain and the world confront the central security threat of the 21st century, the development of the United Nations, the relationship between Europe and the United States, the relations within the European Union and the way in which the United States engages with the rest of the world. So it could hardly be more important. It will determine the pattern of international politics for the next generation.”

In other words, it wasn't really about imminent threats from Iraq or whether it had WMD or supported terrorism for Blair. At best, those were fig leaves or PR concerns. It wasn't even primarily about the effect of disagreement on US-UK relations. It was to get the Americans to follow the norms of international law. It was to stop them acting outside the multilateral framework.

So consider this: international law didn't stop the Iraq war, because the Americans felt they couldn't rely on the UN framework. And Blair, as an internationalist progressive, went along to try to make sure the “pattern of international politics for the next generation” was based on international law and multilateral organizations. He tried to rein back American unilateral use of force by participating as a junior partner, to preserve international norms, albeit not enough for domestic opponents or some other EU governments.

So international law did not lead to peace but was the cause of at least UK participation in the Iraq war. Uncomfortable? Fine. But Blair might have stumbled into huge mistakes because of his assumptions. Forecasts and data and judgements got altered to fit them.

And that happens all the time.


2017-05-11T17:32:35+00:00 July 7, 2016|Assumptions, Decisions, Europe, Security|

How to ignore useless abstractions around Brexit

Now some of the initial shock of Brexit is wearing off, it's time to think about reactions. So don't make overconfident predictions, or pronounce on cloudy abstract principles, like so much of the media. Being for or against “globalism” or “openness” or “cosmopolitanism” is a self-deluding waste of time that just distracts you. Instead, look for flaws in your fondest, most cherished assumptions, because that's where you can find blind spots and the basis for action to make things better. It's much less comfortable but more effective.

So what is the biggest assumption about the EU and Brexit? Much of the shock is not really a matter of the result being statistically improbable (it wasn't), or even the medium-term economic implications for the UK. Instead, it seems to be a challenge to deeply-held ideas about international cooperation and global progress. It challenges the ideal of international law and cosmopolitan aspirations.

The great emotional driving force, the hundred-thousand-volt spark behind the EU Project is to make war unthinkable on the continent again. It's symbolized by Helmet Kohl and Francois Mitterand standing arm in arm at Verdun, saying never again. International law must replace international conflict. Instead of meeting on the battlefield, young people should meet in Ibiza nightclubs or Berlin coffee bars. Instead of war and nationalism, prosperity and peace. How could anyone be against that?

The fundamental assumption is that international law and organization prevents war, and that justifies ever closer union. So here's a question. Do you recognize these two faces? They're not pretty celebrities, admittedly.

On the day of their greatest success, both probably thought streets would be named after them in every city, town and village on every continent. You would probably have gone to a high school named after one, or joyously celebrated a national holiday named after the other. They would be remembered as perhaps the two greatest moral benefactors of mankind in history. In fact, both won the Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.

Not triggering any admiring memories? The first one is Frank Kellogg, American Secretary of State at the time. The other is Aristide Briand, foreign minister and later Prime Minister of France.

They signed the Kellogg-Briand Pact, which abolished war as an instrument of statecraft forever. Think about it. They made war illegal.

Think about it some more. It was agreed to by every major nation on earth.

Who could achieve more than that? Surely it justifies renaming a few major cities in their honor. Instead of Chicago, Kelloggsville, perhaps.

Signatory states promised not to use war to resolve “disputes or conflicts of whatever nature or of whatever origin they may be, which may arise among them.” Besides America and France, it was signed by Germany, Italy, Japan, the Soviet Union, China and the U.K., not to mention other countries from Afghanistan and Australia to Panama, Peru, Portugal and Persia. It passed the US Senate 85-1.

Unless you're a specialist in international law or legal history, you probably haven't heard about any of this. Why not?

Because the pact was signed in 1928. Within 5 years, Hitler had come to power. Within nine years, the Imperial Army of Japan murdered hundreds of thousands of civilians in the Nanking Massacre. Within 11 years, the worst war in human history had started. One signatory perpetrated the holocaust. Others killed hundreds of thousands in a single night in firestorm air raids that destroyed whole cities of civilians such as Hamburg or Tokyo.

So the assumption that international law prevents war in and of itself or creates new inviolable moral norms is catastrophically wrong. At best, international treaties were ineffectual, having little ability to hold back deeper, darker forces driving towards disorder. At worst, the legalistic perspective was actively harmful self-delusion, like the related League of Nations system, that distracted efforts and delayed more effective action.

So you can't just complacently assume international law or international organization works or produced good results as you congratulate yourself on your high moral standards, or even take a trip to Oslo to collect a Nobel Peace Prize. The world may slide towards carnage thanks to your ignorance. Symbolism and aspirations and norms may not work. The fundamental assumption about the EU is sometimes false.

But this shouldn't be a wholesale indictment of belief in international law or good intentions either. Instead, we can ask: what's different? Maybe the Second World War was so much worse that it reinforced the desire for legal norms, and that lasted fifty years. Then again, who needed convincing after the Somme or Verdun? Or maybe legal norms themselves are unreliable and fragile when put under stress, just when you need them most.

Or maybe there's a balance to be struck between law and international cooperation and other forces, that varies in different times and places. The tragedy is universalized principles can also actively undermine balances and blind people to problems.

That's the debate we ought to be having. Instead people talk past each other, shouting from within their fortresses of rigid assumptions.

So instead of mourning or celebrating Brexit this weekend, think about what we can do differently to Kellogg and Briand. Why didn't it work? Why has the EU worked till now? What has changed? What are the key assumptions which can break under pressure? Because that may point to specifics rather than abstract principles. Look for tangible, concrete, situational things, not norms.



2017-05-11T17:32:40+00:00 July 3, 2016|Assumptions, Europe|

How side-effects drive history (and Brexit)

It’s often the side-effects of decisions, mostly overlooked at the time, which turn out to be most significant. Polls are showing a significant lead for Brexit this morning, which would be one of the biggest geopolitical shocks of the decade. Of course, trusting polls has been a bad idea in recent times, and there are many who think the UK will draw back at the last moment. But let’s say there is at least some chance Britain may exit. How did this happen? It’s a chain of side-effects.

In October 1973, Syria and Egypt launched a surprise attack against Israel. The US supplied arms to Israel to defend itself.

One side-effect was an oil embargo by Arab oil producers against Western countries, which led to the first oil shock and a quadrupling in the price of oil. That naturally led to a huge transfer of wealth to the oil producers, including Saudi Arabia.

One side-effect was a huge increase in the influence and power of the Saudis, one of the most backward and retrogressive parts of the Islamic world, with “kings” allied to perhaps the most puritanical, backward religious sect in all of Islam. It as if in the United States Bo and Luke Duke suddenly become  multibillionaire monarchs, kept in power by paying billions to the Ku Klux Klan every year.

One side-effect was many billions of dollars were paid by the Saudis to promote the least tolerant, most aggressive forms of Islam all around the world.


One side-effect was the rise of Islamic terrorism,  like (Saudi) Osama Bin Laden, who attacked American targets culminating in 9/11.

A side-effect of 9/11 was the US attacked Iraq, a secular dictatorship which had not been directly involved in the strike on the US.  The US won a decisive victory and overthrew Saddam Hussein much faster and with fewer losses than detractors forecast. Overconfident US officials removed Ba’ath party officials from the Iraqi government and Sunnis feared they would lose their traditional dominance of the country.

One side-effect was Iraq was destabilized and slid into a civil war that trapped the US for a decade, costing thousands of US military casualties and several trillion dollars which had not been anticipated.

One side-effect was the US public became wholly averse to more boots-on-the-ground in the Middle East. Another side-effect was the turmoil in Iraq eventually spread to Syria. But public resistance meant the US refused to commit military forces, as did the UK and other EU countries.

One side effect was a breakdown in Syria, and a huge wave of refugees that headed towards Europe. Angela Merkel believed setting no limits on refugee numbers was a moral choice, and over a million refugees flooded into Germany.

One side-effect was that European public opinion became agitated and alarmed about the migrant influx, which appears to many to be accelerated by the EU’s open borders under the Schengen agreement.  Populists who had already made advances over the previous decade suddenly benefitted from a new resurgence of public support. Meanwhile, Merkel dealt with concerns about Syrian migration by promising visa-free entry to Europe to Turks. It appeared to many that she and the EU had lost control of borders.

One side-effect was that immigration began to dominate over economic consequences in the UK Brexit debate, a focus that boosted the “Leave” side in the final weeks before the vote. The British, already dealing with heavy migration from within the EU,  feared they could not control their borders.

So a “leave” vote in Britain is now possible, partly caused by a civil war thousands of miles away in Damascus and Egyptian attacks on the Sinai forty years ago.

And one side effect may be similar referendums in other countries and a partial break up of the EU itself.  In retrospect it is possible that Merkel’s decision to admit refugees without limit may have as a side-effect unintentionally wrecked seven decades of German promotion of EU integration.

Of course, you can dispute the exact causation and many other factors were involved too.  You could  easily construct other chains of unintended side-effects and argue it different ways, and it’s partially a game. The point, however, is that direct choices and intentions and calculations are only a small part of what happens in the international economy and international affairs. It’s often the side-effects that matter most. Chains of cause and consequence  quickly get too involved and intricate for anyone to figure out, often even in retrospect let alone predicting the future.

I’ve often argued overconfident prediction is usually a sign of self-delusion.  In fact,  it’s often the things that don’t even occur to us to predict that matter most, not even just the things we recognize we get wrong.

So it’s not your models or forecasts or ideologies that matter. Instead, it is being on the lookout for side-effects and unintended consequences, especially those you’d prefer not to see at all. If you see them, you can at least try to do something about them. Instead, most elites blunder forward blindly, clinging to their preferred model and plans.




2017-05-11T17:32:40+00:00 June 11, 2016|Assumptions, Current Events, Decisions, Systems and Complexity|

Resilience 1, policymakers zero.

Attention spans are short, particularly in newsrooms. The past is so stale, and outlets need exciting new click bait. So amidst the latest headlines it’s easy to lose track of larger patterns. Remember how worried everyone was back in January about the plunging stock market? It dominated the news agenda and it seemed how nobody could talk about anything else for weeks?

It gets little or no attention (at least from most journalists), but the market has of course come all the way back. The fear has dissipated. The panic that gripped everyone for weeks is gone. For now.

Of course that was statistically more likely, as I said at the time. It takes no great skill to say that:  serious 2008-style panics are also very rare. The deeper concern among markets, I suggested,  was more likely that policymakers were out of ammunition. But that might not matter so much, either. 

So consider this: it’s difficult to argue that the stock market recovery since January has anything to do with policymakers anywhere. No-one saved the day. There was no committee to save the world.  The recovery just happened, despite the fact that none of the problems people worried about – a fragile US recovery, slowdown in China, tension in the Middle East – have been resolved.  The risks are still there. Perhaps the ECB expanded QE – but there are doubts about its impact even on European bonds.  The panic subsided, the media found new breathless urgent stories, people moved on.

The conclusion? Financial markets and the wider economy do have some inherent stabilizing forces, at least in the short run. Not everything has to be planned or controlled by officials and ministers.  Control is less necessary than we think. But the more difficult corollary is we have less control than we usually think as well. The economy is a complex dynamic system which is only loosely coupled to our intentions.

There are limited situations where policy input is crucial, most especially bank runs or other liquidity problems. Bagehot laid out the heart of modern central banking in 1873; if you have a panic, lend freely on good collateral. The libertarian claim that markets are always optimal and right is therefore… wrong.  Intervention is sometimes needed.

But policymakers are usually not as important as they sometimes like to think, either. We sometimes like to think someone important is in charge and issuing orders (or at least open to blame later) but much of it is just theatrics. Often the most important things are not conscious deliberate choices, but underlying processes and feedback loops.  It helps to spot those at work. But it makes for a less vivid, personalized story.



2017-05-11T17:32:40+00:00 May 2, 2016|Assumptions, Central Banks, Equities|

Believing your own propaganda

I argued in the last post that people with strong principles, like much of the GOP establishment, often end up with strong blindspots too. More educated groups frequently like to think in terms of abstract principles. But it often needs a bit of a leap to see how other people think about their ideals.  If you’re a liberal, for example, you might find it distasteful to imagine that the GOP establishment has any principles at all, rather than simply manipulating their followers to make themselves rich.

You could grammatically decline the thought pattern like this:

  • I selflessly act according to enlightened, timeless principles which are proven to enhance the common good.
  • You are a rigid ideologue who has got stuck in an interlocking spider web of false (if sincere) beliefs and can’t see the truth.
  • He or She is a hypocrite and  cynical manipulator who talks about principles and ideals only to conceal or distract people from their vicious plans and nasty self-interest.

Of course, depending who you ask, these can all refer to the same person. Your own lofty principles may look like the most base self-interest to others. That’s normal politics.

People’s beliefs are mostly sincere.  After all, people can enact beliefs and appeal to moral principles to justify their self-interest without even being aware they are doing so.

This, however, is the problem. Your own principles may bring you comfort, and reassurance, and serve as a motivating force for your own side, convincing your allies of they righteousness. They may fit together in a coherent, elegant way, and reinforce each other.

But they are usually not much good for persuading anyone else, who appeal to their own different principles. Nor, partly because of that fact,  is intense belief in your own principles much good for seeing potential problems or things that can go wrong, or things that don’t fit into your assumptions.

But much of politics, and sometimes business decision making,  is based on exactly such strong principles and ideologies. Consider “maximize shareholder value” as a business principle, for example.

It makes such belief frameworks  fragile and more likely to produce huge mistakes, because they don’t see things coming that don’t easily fit their neat framework.  It also makes it more difficult to find compromises.

To make things work or be successful, you have to be able to see gaps and flaws and potential problems, and do something about them.  It doesn’t mean the other side is right, or your own principles aren’t valuable.  But most of the pressure – to seem confident, in control, to have the right answers and the right moral stance – tends to blind people to the things which sneak up unseen and can wreck their plans and doom their hopes.

You just have to find a way to be alert.


2017-05-11T17:32:40+00:00 March 14, 2016|Assumptions, Decisions|

What happens when you have principles

How do we make sense of a week that rocked American public life to the core?

It’s been another appalling, disastrous few days for the GOP establishment in particular. It now appears Ted Cruz is the only contender with even the faintest hope of catching Trump in delegate counts. But Cruz is even more unacceptable to the party leaders than Trump, because is so hostile to current institutions and power structures.  Rubio has performed poorly in the latest round of states and is still in danger of losing Florida. As a result, the Republican party is in “meltdown”, “chaos”, “collapsing.” The Bush wing of the party has been utterly routed. How could this happen?

If you look at explanations by insiders, like Romney’s speech, you just can’t help noticing the overwhelming shock and disbelief that someone who doesn’t espouse conservative principles is doing so well out in the country among supposedly conservative voters.

And there lies a major blindspot. As I’ve often argued, it’s  assumptions and ways of thinking that get people into trouble fastest, rather than particular facts. They never even notice facts that don’t fit their view of the world.

One of the most important patterns is just this: whether people primarily think in terms of abstract principles. This often tends to go with extra education and jobs which require justification of actions or abstract thinking about rules, such as journalism or law or some kinds of politics. And academia is in many ways all about abstract principles.

So notice that the GOP establishment usually tend to define their position in terms of principles or abstract ideals such as limited government, strict adherence to the constitution, free trade, and usually a tendency to foreign intervention in the service of principles like democracy.

Set aside for a moment what you think of individual policies, whether they are right or wrong, and look at the pattern of thinking here, what people consider correct or appropriate or relevant. Some people find this impossible to do, in isolation from a sense of moral outrage or indignation.

That, however, is a sign it is not just a matter of politics. It’s a matter of ethics as well,  which is why so many people come to feel so strongly about it. It’s how you define the good, and the right, and the true, and for many the cause or purpose in life. No wonder people get intense about the issues.

Morality on the established view is a matter of universal principles and objective impartiality.

It’s a pattern that dates back centuries. Kant, for example, summed up morality as “Always act on the maxim that you can, at the same time, will that it be a universal law.” In other words, anything you do should be justifiable in all times and places and contexts. (You notice that this itself is a principle?)

So consider: this necessarily means that your own self-interest or inclinations cannot be in any way a basis for morality. Instead, you are moral insofar as you are impartial or unbiased between groups, and set up things so that they function according to impersonal rules. You tend to see individuals as rational autonomous agents, instead of people from a particular nation or culture, or time, or place, or background.

This view has a lot to be said for it. It is the reason, for example, we don’t see CEOs of large corporations exclusively hiring their cousins or brothers-in-law for top jobs. It is the basis for bureaucracy, in Weber’s sense; large organizations can’t run without following abstract rules and policies and procedures. Modern life depends in large part on restricting clans or extended families or parochial interests. So this way of thinking comes naturally to managers of large corporations or civil service administrators. The finest thing you can be is objective and impartial and unbiased.

WEIRD principles

Are you nodding your head? It is a view which is often felt to be so common as to be unquestionable. But it is actually comparatively rare. In the world as a whole, probably only 5% or less of people think this way.   Even in most developed countries, less than 20-30% of people think of morality or decisions in this way. As Jonathan Haidt put it in The Righteous Mind, such people (like you) are WEIRD, standing for  Western, educated, industrialized, rich, and democratic. Researchers..

 reviewed dozens of studies showing that WEIRD people are statistical outliers; they are the least typical, least representative people you could study if you want to make generalizations about human nature. Even within the West, Americans are more extreme outliers than Europeans, and within the United States, the educated upper middle class (like my Penn sample) is the most unusual of all.

Instead, most people typically believe morality is a matter of religious revelation, or custom, or tradition handed down through the centuries. Or a matter of honor and reputation. Or most of all, rules that bind together a particular group or community and promote its survival.  Group solidarity – loyalty, self-sacrifice, respect for community elders, observing group norms – count for far more than universal principles. The essence of morality is something like loyalty, pulling your weight for the group.

An Inevitable Flashpoint

Where is this difference between ways of thinking most likely to show up and turn into major clashes and mutual incomprehension? Well, take a look at the issues where Trump established himself and rocketed to the top of the field, immigration and torture of terrorists.

If you think in terms of principles, restrictions on immigration, or building a wall, are almost a perfect example of lack of impartiality, of violation of universal principles, of the need to treat everyone in an equal, non-discriminatory, unbiased way.  The essence of morality is to be impartial in these cases, and not favor the interests of a particular group like  current inhabitants. (You can see Merkel’s policy on refugees in the same light. )

But if you think of morality in terms of care and loyalty and support for your own community or group, or at least a morality that  is embedded in a particular set of  customs or traditions, it is the perfect example of near-traitorous disloyalty and lack of ethics, of foolish adherence to vacuous abstraction, or a mere cover for the self-interest and malicious intentions of billionaires, or big business.

Again, before you rush to be shocked at one view or the other, stay calm, step back and recognize that they exist, and they help explain not just the lack of communication but the sense of anger and  emotional energy right now. Immigration is almost bound to be a flash point between views.

And torture? It’s obviously a violation of universal principle, one of the worst that can be imagined. How could anyone support infliction of pain as a universal idea? But in the other view, it’s more a matter of reciprocity. It may be undesirable, but in a specific context exceptions can be made if it is for the defense of the group and merely responds to unfair actions by the other side, such as acts of terrorism. Treating people in a universal, unbiased way, on principle, simply isn’t important. (Cue gasps from the universal side.)

So the two sides are talking past each other, and simply don’t understand each other. Unfortunately, it’s likely that as a matter of voter arithmetic that universal rectitude may often come a distant second to voter self-interest. But the way of thinking among the elites define this as the very essence of lack of morality.

Incidentally, as the GOP prepares to tear itself apart over the definition of ” conservative”, the establishment view is more or less than the same as classic 19th-century liberalism.

And on the Democratic side? The Democratic party is mostly a coalition of groups who do act in terms of group solidarity – ethnic loyalty, or labor interests, or the interests of sexual orientation groups, plus rich, educated progressives who also define their view in terms of principles, with slightly  different emphasis: equality, welfare, government action to pursue rational principles, a different kind of liberalism.

There is a third kind of fundamental view as well, although it more often gets forgotten or ignored, and can reconcile or ameliorate some of these clashes. That is to see morality or decisions as a matter of balances, a golden mean.  But that’s a story for another time.

How people think counts.

2017-05-11T17:32:40+00:00 March 6, 2016|Assumptions, Communication, Politics|

Woodenheaded Disasters

So we have a nervous start to the New Year, with a plunge in the Chinese stock market and tensions in the Gulf. There is a widespread sense that the establishment in many countries is “out of touch” and leadership is faltering. I was arguing the other day that there is often a deeper pattern to these problems. The Republican establishment in the US ignored all evidence that didn’t match their preconceptions until an anointed prince like Jeb Bush  was running at only 4% in primary polling.

This is in fact one of the deepest patterns in history. The great historian Barbara Tuchman pondered in The March of Folly: From Troy to Vietnam why policymakers and leaders so often do things which seem self-defeating and stupid.

A phenomenon notable throughout history regardless of place or period is the pursuit by governments of policies contrary to their own interests.. Why does intelligent mental process seem so often not to function?”

She called it Wooden-headedness.

Wooden headedness, the source of self deception is a factor that plays a remarkably large role in government. It consists in assessing a situation in terms of preconceived fixed notions while ignoring or rejecting any contrary signs.  It is acting according to wish while not allowing oneself to be deflected by the facts.

It is all too easy to decide a policy was wrong in retrospect, of course. But wooden-headedness means policies or decisions which are self-defeating and ruinous based on things which are clearly apparent at the time.  And it is remarkably common.  She traces it from ancient Greece through the policies of Renaissance Popes, Phillip II of Spain and the decision of the Japanese government to go to war with the United States in 1941.  US intervention in Vietnam in turn, led by the “best and the brightest” in the Kennedy administration, was beset by folly.

Folly’s appearance is independent of era or locality; it is timeless and universal, although the habits and beliefs of a particular time determine the form it takes.

One of the most interesting examples is the folly of the British government in its policy on its American colonies. The governing elite believed that trade with and possession of the thirteen colonies was utterly essential to Britain’s wealth and future, but insisted on the right to tax without the colonist’s consent.   It was, she says, the unworkable pursued at the expense of the possible.

Instead of confronting trade-offs or looking for alternatives, politicians in London were largely diverted by the game of faction, who’s in, who’s out.  And here is the most remarkable fact she notes: No British ministers visited America between 1763 and 1775 despite thinking the fate of the empire depended on possession of America.

There is often remarkable reluctance to go and look at the facts on the ground with a fresh eye. And it is not easy to do, whether it is sailing the Atlantic in the 1760s or working out why a business product is withering in the marketplace.  But it is also essential. Instead of prediction, it is a matter of taking a fresh look at what is already there. It is about discovering what you’re not seeing. It is about blind spots.

Most predictions about what will happen in 2016 will tun out to be wrong, of course. But at least we can try to look for contrary evidence and test assumptions about views, so we are not woodenheaded. Like most establishments and bureaucracies.


2017-05-11T17:32:40+00:00 January 4, 2016|Assumptions, Books, Decisions|