free agent, loose cannon, pointy stick ... taking an imposing analytic toolkit out of the box, over the wall and into the street ... with callous disregard for accepted wisdom and standard English

reading tea leaves from original angles, we've led with uncannily prescient takes on the federal surplus, the dotcom crash, the "Energy Crisis", the Afghan campaign, the federal deficit.

More where those came from ... stay tuned.

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03/01/2002 - 04/01/2002 04/01/2002 - 05/01/2002 05/01/2002 - 06/01/2002 06/01/2002 - 07/01/2002 09/01/2002 - 10/01/2002 11/01/2002 - 12/01/2002 12/01/2002 - 01/01/2003 01/01/2003 - 02/01/2003 02/01/2003 - 03/01/2003 03/01/2003 - 04/01/2003 04/01/2003 - 05/01/2003

All "major" articles of older material have now been imported, some with updates worth perusing. We'll keep it all on the main page for a while, will add a few loose pieces of history, will trim the main page and index the archives for convenience later.


free agent, loose cannon, pointy stick ...
... gateway to the next Progressive Era?
Some say it's nothing but a train wreck ... roll in the big cranes, clear the track, see what the crew was smoking. If I thought so, I'd not be writing this ... and if they thought so, they'd not be drumming so hard.

Many thanks to Tony Adragna and Will Vehrs, still shouting 'cross the Potomac at QuasiPundit. Early Camp Enron material can be found in QP's Dispatches department.
Tuesday, March 26, 2002

--- Tom's Amazing Technicolor Dreadcoat: This Helps Which Side? ---

Quantifying, publishing (and color-coding) our current terror threat assessment is a fine idea -- for the terrorists.

It provides no actionable information for you or me, except possibly at level RED (meaning "stay home" and/or "run away").

It does provide useful intelligence and control opportunities to an organized foe.

In the simplest case, an elevated alert level signals "busted"; a low alert level gives the green light: "proceed with Operation Jihad".

Higher up the scale, a serious foe can plant false alarms and track response levels to
(a) time, calibrate and decode our alert and alarm mechanisms;
(b) flood and eventually extinguish our responses (the "cry wolf" effect);
(c) validate their own containment systems, test suspected loose wheels and double agents, and "dry run" operational protocols.

Even current non-hostile forces can use this window of instrumentation to probe our reflexes. As a rule, we should play dumb -- maximizing uncertainty in the opposing camp -- except possibly when we possess specific lifesaving information ... and maybe not even then.

--- Proofreading Between the Lines: "consistent with" ---

Over at the WaPo, snarkster Dana Milbank has been needling White House flaks re the art of changing direction while keeping one's footprints in a straight line.
Brookings Institution foreign policy expert Ivo Daalder, a former Clinton aide said ... "Even as you change foreign policy you have to emphasize that it will always be the same." It's a trick that predates the Bush administration. "It has the benefit of reassuring outsiders of the continuity of foreign policy".

Bush's aides do this on domestic matters, too: farm policy ("consistent with what he's been saying"), the likelihood of more terrorist attacks ("that's what the president has always said"), even global warming ("the president has always said that the temperature of the earth is rising").

"The best way not to make news is to tell you we've said it before," a senior Bush aide said.
When getting spoked by a spokesperson from any quarter, listen for the phrase "consistent with". For future reference: "consistent with" is consistent with "same as", but "consistent with" is not the same as "same as".

For example, "went for a Sunday drive" is consistent with "died of massive trauma" ... but hardly same as same.

The flip side of "consistent with" is its proper application in cautious scientific testimony, where the speaker declines to go beyond the evidence, e.g., "ice shelf collapse is consistent with the GHG global warming hypothesis". In these cases, irate journalists will generally try to torture the speaker into giving up some turn of phrase consistent with the "either it is or it isn't" story template.

Sunday, March 24, 2002

--- Beautiful Minds and the Logic of a New Kind of War ---

No. Not the War on Terrorism ... but we'll get to that, and I'll briefly note some things that have probably already happened on that front.

[Many details below are drawn from William Poundstone's Prisoner's Dilemma ... an odd book, at once a biography of von Neumann, an intellectual history of the nuclear arms race, and a primer on game theory. In the latter role, it's as good an introduction as I've found for lay audiences, still absorbing for the better-versed, and an excellent companion to any background reading you might do in the context block of A Beautiful Mind.]

Set the wayback machine to 1945, and surf forward. In the closing crescendo of an old kind of war, writ larger than ever, the world's movers and shakers had been jolted by the implications of a new kind of war. When the first A-bomb test actually worked, even before Hiroshima and Nagasaki, serious thinkers in a limited circle understood they had something new and deadly serioius to think about.

This circle of interest expanded abruptly when "the bomb" was first demonstrated in actual warfare ... though it took a death toll no greater than some conventional exercises in the same conflict.

Rethinking gained urgency a few years later, when the atomic club expanded. It didn't help that charter member #2 was our ideological nemesis, or that a series of bellicose gestures and maneuvers had already been exchanged, or that US defense intellectuals had comfortably assumed a 15-20 year lead in this technology. (A 1945 analysis by the farsighted Vannevar Bush -- grandfather of the World Wide Web -- also concluded ICBM's were too far-fetched to enter into our strategic thinking about strategic thinking.)

The very idea of the H-bomb -- even before a practical test -- put new imponderables on the table. Unlike its primitive fission cousins, a fusion weapon can be as big as you want it to be. The threat of such a weapon -- even as a bluff, even though nobody knew if it would actually work -- could be enough to upset the strategic chessboard.

Throughout the ages, breakthroughs in weapons materials, tactics and technology had marked turning points in history, changing not just the balance of power, but the structure and dynamics of power ... all the rules, constraints, tempo, doctrine, command structure, diplomacy, politics. But past breakthroughs in tools or tactics usually left the option of falling back or taking losses until you figured out what the foe was up to, or how to blunt their advantage, or until they ran out their supply lines. No longer.

Suddenly all the timing windows were closing at once, and it looked like "field generalship" might go out of style. You had to plot out all the options in advance, and so did the other guy. It may be instructive to review our best minds' first drafts of this new logic.

The large-scale options seemed few, and novel, and -- per the divergent insights of competing schools of thought -- inescapable. Most readers will be surprised who signed on to which doctrines, and argued them to the point of implacable divergence, and later forgot -- or even denied -- the "inescapable" conclusions they had reached earlier.

Among the most popular options:
(1) One-world government, immediately imposed by US and allies, under threat of nuclear attack.
(2) One-world government, with the US yielding sovereignty to the UN or other international body.
(3) Blowing up the planet -- resetting civilization's clock -- before the other side did it.
(4) Blowing up the planet early in the arms race, setting the clock back only to the middle ages, before both sides built enough bombs to send it back to the stone age.

Early strategic calculations were especially ticklish since inventories were small, uncertainties were large, the numbers changed rapidly -- and not always in the same direction. How many usable devices did we have on hand? The President did not know -- and may have been kept in the dark -- and may not have trusted what he was told. By virtue of secrecy, compartmentalization, separation of components, bluffing, true uncertainty, and scarce components with short shelf lives ... maybe nobody knew! "Second strike" capability was a long way off, and thus Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) didn't enter the magazine of intellectual options until later still.

Presented with this novel and important problem, who thought what, when, and why?

(1945) Einstein, Teller and Oppenheimer -- rarely aligned on any issue -- called for "supranational" governance. A World Constitution was drawn up at the U. of Chicago.

(1945) Harry Truman: "It will be as just as easy for nations to get along in a republic of the world as it is for us to get along in the Republic of the United States."

(1945) Senator Glen Taylor (D-Idaho) introduced a resolution calling for world government, reasoning that the overhanging threat of imminent destruction would necessarily incline most common folk to everyday drunkenness and debauchery.

(1945) Bertrand Russell -- philosopher, colossus of mathematical logic, archetype of 20th century pacifism, national security outsider -- made strikingly accurate predictions of progress in both fission and fusion weaponry. (All the insiders were wrong by large margins.)

(1945-48) Russell argued for morally justifiable preventive war and world conquest "during the next two years". "Even at such a price [recognizing the brunt of destruction would fall on Western Europe] I think war would be worth while".

(1947) The phrase "preventive war" entered the public dialog. By 1950, it was subject of widespread and heated public discussion. Many in the defense establishment argued that Stalin would not develop weapons without eventually using them ... therefore it was incumbent on us to act first.

(1949) Oppenheimer's AEC advisory committee recommended suspending development of the hydrogen "superbomb" as a good-faith signal to the USSR, with the intent of defusing the big arms race and avoiding destruction of the human race.

(1950) Russell forgot he ever suggested preventive war, even vehemently denied it, called such accusations "a Communist invention" ... and fessed up only when confronted with articles under his signature. Looking back (1959) he observed "I had, in fact, completely forgotten that I had ever thought a policy of threat involving possible war desirable".

(1950) John von Neumann -- father of the computer, father of game theory, mainstay of the Manhattan Project, mainstay of RAND, national security insider -- firmly expressed the unhedged necessity of preventive war. "If you say why not bomb them tomorrow, I say why not today?"

(1950) Harold Urey -- first to isolate deuterium -- argued for rapid expansion of one-world government by any means necessary, starting with the Atlantic Union. He laid out the ironclad logic of preventive war, while predicting (correctly) that we would not follow the dictates of logic in this matter. He also predicted (erroneously) that strategic balance must prove inherently unstable.

(1950) President Truman received mass expressions of uncompromising public opinion for and against preventive war -- much of it from religious figures on both sides. For decades thereafter, the National Prayer Breakfast served as a syncpoint for blow-up-the-planet-to-save-it theology. Others were sure "preventive war" was the work of Satan (with possibly help from the Vatican).

(1950) The Archdiocese of Boston trial-ballooned the arguments for moral necessary of preventive war in the Pilot.

(1950) Gen. MacArthur argued it would send the wrong signal to "the Oriental mind" if we demonstrated weakness, i.e., by not blowing up the planet. He was forced to retract those remarks ... after they were published nationwide.

(1955) The USSR made substantive gestures of disarmament. President Eisenhower -- former Supreme Commander of Allied Forces, Europe -- proposed open-sourcing all military secrets, down to detailed blueprints of every military establishment, and "open skies" recon overflight authority.

(1958) Wargamers at RAND Corporation -- in those days the premier all-DOD think tank -- analyzed the strategics of conditional versus unconditional surrender. Congress got wind of this out of context, and outlawed any analysis of defeat.

(1962) In mutual miscalculation surrounding the Cuban missile crisis, we almost blew up the planet. The full story may not be known for years, but Russell's uninvited meddling on both sides -- grounded in his earlier theoretics on the game of "Chicken" (which Hermann Kahn credits as an inspiration for MAD and other systemic thinking about unthinkables) -- may have been instrumental in preventing the cataclysm.

To make a long story short, we confronted new factors in the logic of war -- not just novel arrangements of familiar factors -- and we took a long time to work out the implications. In retrospect, the planet's foremost masters of logic, strategy and practical warfare couldn't agree with each other ... and none of them had it right. Inescapable consequences were accidentally muddled through, flawless webs of logic held nothing, and here we stand today ... still alive and confused as ever.

In re the logic of our new War on Terrorism, I'll merely suggest this retrospective case study holds lessons for those who wish to learn them, that humility is in order when confronting the unfamiliar, that miscalculation, groupthink and premature closure are among the evident possibilities, and that warbloggers and "War Liberals" might find themselves perplexed some years hence by things they have thought and written of late.

Friday, March 22, 2002

--- Business Week: "Restating the 90's" ---

Business Week releases a bombshell analysis -- or is it just a crock? -- with a cover piece titled "Restating the 90's". The premise: contrary to what "everybody knows", the 1990's was a relatively poor decade for capitalists and a relatively good decade for labor.

CP knows well what "everybody knows" isn't always true, and the grand aggregates are especially easy to mismeasure and misinterpret. We haven't seen the article yet, but a sniff test suggests it's something more serious than the usual WSJ editorial page "life so hard bein' rich" flim-flam. We'll give it a read, and a second read, with interest ... and skepticism.

For instance, labor is rewarded mostly in real-asset equivalents, while capital is rewarded in speculative asset equivalents ... which swing markedly above or below real economic value ... which is determined only in the long run ... if ever. Baseline capital market valuations are obscured by a landscape of craters on top of craters on top of bubbles, and the "real return" signal is devilishly difficult to extract from foreground noise.

We'd be very surprised if unit returns to ordinary labor were notably richer in the 90's, but not at all surprised if a non-representative subset of hired help -- the "managing class" -- had managed to take both ordinary labor and ordinary shareholder capital for an expensive joyride.

We'd also be unsurprised if net capital accretion had fallen away from tradition relationships with gross capital formation. FASTER obsolescence and a higher Stupiddity Quotient may have shredded real capital "big timber" into bark dust at rates unprecedented in peacetime.

Thursday, March 21, 2002

--- Surplus and Deficit: The Big Question Not Asked, Not Answered ---

With or without partisan posturing, we're entering an era of budgetary bereavement. A $5T projected 10-year surplus ("Politicians overcharge the taxpayer!") became a series of projected deficits ("Politicians can't balance the books!"). Fingers will be pointed, blame will be cast, questions will be raised.

"Huh? Where'd it go?" is one such question. Popular answers include:
  1. War (bad answer ... $1B/month over sanding defense budgets)
  2. Tax Cuts (good as far as it goes, subject to counterpressures of Laffer-ish dynamic scoring ... though most of either effect lies several years out)
  3. Runaway Spending (bad answer ... outlays maintain a 10-year declining glidepath as % of GDP, though Runaway Spinning via selective comparison can make it look worse).
But everybody's favorite excuse is Recession ... and here CP has a provocation to provocate.

In any legitimate methodology, a forecast made in good times always embraces a conservative assumption: good times don't last. If I recall correctly, CBO (and OMB under the previous administration) always posited a "typical" recession ahead, with onset and recovery weighted in over e.g. the next 3 years.

Clinton administration OMB outperformed fiscal balance projections every year, largely because the lead edge of this hypothesized dip moved a year farther out with every year elapsed, and the recession never came.

CBO estimates are prepared under a doctrine of asymmetric risk -- they'd rather underestimate income than overestimate it. In practice, CBO lowballs GDP growth by about 0.2% annually (with respect to its best unbiased estimate), and compounds that underestimate for five years forward. Again, the methodology is built to favor favorable surprises (actual vs estimate) in more periods than not.

Now that we have logged an actual dip ("Step right up, folks, see the World's Smallest Recession"), why should we find any impact on 10-yr projections?

As fate would have it, our dip materialized in Year 1 -- rather than Year 2, or 3, or not at all -- and this should very marginally raise the odds of 3 dips rather than 2 in the 10-year estimating cycle. But that effect should be barely detectable in the 10-year aggregates. Can it take a $5T mountain down to a rapidly-eroding $1T molehill? Ludicrous.

In the context of heavyweight deficit foodfights, the "slowdown" delta is the biggest moving piece ... but to the best of my understanding [and having queried more than one budget-process maven] this effect shouldn't exist, and I don't see anybody in the arena scratching for an explanation.

CBO year-to-year revisions also include a category called "technical changes". Some of these are exceedingly technical changes in methodology, measurement and definition. Also in this category are changes to the big baseline S.W.A.G.'s ... productivity growth rate is the biggie. This is susceptible to almost limitless reasonable disagreement, especially given the emerging reality or unreality of "New Economy" dynamics.

Maybe we should be talking about this. Maybe we should be talking about trillions in capital destroyed in the burst of conjoined bubbles named "dotcom" and "broadband". But we shouldn't just blame the recession for five trillion fallen souffles, and go back to our usual arguments.

Tuesday, March 19, 2002

--- "... the power of Ice is also great ..." ---


BREAKING NEWS: Delaware legislature debates annexation of Newark, NJ ... experts point to difficulty in acquiring assets without taking on liabilities.

Monday, March 18, 2002

--- "Atta's Last Visa, Baby": A Case of Manufactured Outrage? ---

Truth may be stranger than fiction ... but sometimes the story line is embellished strangely by strange script doctors.

The story line: Student visa approval notices arrive by mail at the flight school where 9/11 attack team leader Mohomed Atta and co-conspirator Marwan Al-Shehhi prepped for aero-ballistic martyrdom. The applications rumbled through INS bueaucracy and emerged just in time (3/11) for the semi-anniversary observances of 9/11 terrorist attacks. Public outrage ensues, heads roll, and INS reform kicks into high gear.

What's wrong with this picture? To the general public, "what's wrong" is that some INS numbskull processed and approved enabling paperwork for a notorious evildoer (and his slightly less-notorious accomplice), and that INS systems and safeguards failed to catch it ... or even locate the paperwork for two of the most heavily investigated names on the planet.

To CP's gimlet eye, the occasion reeks of non-credible coincidence, systemic misreporting, adventitious hype and opportunistic exploitation for political gain.

Begin with too-perfect timing. Suppose that -- for whatever reason -- Atta's visa approval was a sure thing. What were the odds that this particular work item would wend its way through INS workflow and fall into the jaws of waiting newshounds with perfect timing for the 24-hour news cycle surrounding 9/11's semi-anniversary?

The approximate 3 year backlog in non-priority INS taskwork would suggest odds on the order of 1,000-to-1. Of course the mail could have arrived on other significant dates ... the first anniversary, or Fourth of July. Conservatively, let's call it 100-to-1 against.

Now, what are the odds that Al-Shehhi's approval would land in the flight school mailbox on the same day as Atta's?

Make a best-case assumption that both applications were submitted on the same day. [Apparently they were.] As work items proceed step by step through a bureaucratic paperflow lattice, they have numerous opportunities to fan out to different case workers, to take alternate branches of situationally-required procedure, to find themselves stacked in different stacks, batched in different batches, backlogged behind different higher-priority or unusually time-consuming cases. How long it takes to reach the end of the maze is largely the luck of the draw -- repeated shuffles, repeated draws -- unless the agency is persistently badgered by knowledgeable, interested parties.

Again, assuming that Atta and Al-Shehhi were identical cases [they weren't], that they entered the system simultaneously, and that their eventual approvals were fait accompli, I'd make their odds of simultaneous (same day) completion about 100-to-1 against.

That raises the combined odds against such an oddity to a very conservative 10,000-to-1 against ... at which point we are moved to inquire further: "Whose dice are these, anyhow?" ... "Let's review the tape" ... and "Quo vadis?".

Who benefits? Several points of context are suggestive:
(1) In DC (Dumbbell Configuration) factional politics, one faction has invested decades of priority effort in a largely successful PR campaign to disparage public institutions. This campaign has recently encountered significant setbacks. Following a decade of operational microreform in government, a decade of creeping corruption and customer alienation in major business sectors, and heroic public sector response to 9/11, the general public now expects government to do the right thing! Perhaps more remarkably, public agencies now rate on par with big business in independent customer satisfaction surveys. This alleged INS debacle provides a convenient opportunity to reinforce deep, diffuse popular pre-impressions of hopeless bureaucratic incompetence.

(2) INS is a particular (strategic or opportunistic) target for multiple agendas, covering the spectrum from fortress-America nativists to open-border multiculturalists.

(3) During the Clinton era, almost every major federal agency -- even such hard nuts as IRS and FAA -- achieved significant reforms in operational efficiency, customer service quality and/or mission effectiveness. [This trend is mirrored at state and local levels, and might persist regardless of leadership as information technologies percolate through agency infrastructure.] INS is the lone surviving major enclave of unreconstructed old-school bureaucracy.

(4) INS is a focal agency -- and locus of suddenly-evident required transformation -- in the new normalcy of perpetual war against terrorism.

(5) INS presents a convenient and largely defenseless scapegoat for more agile front-line defense and intelligence agencies who might wish to deflect attention from their own subpar performance. [1993 White House "Filegate" hearings featured many such CYA shenanigans.]

(6) Even in the most ordinary circumstances, INS produces a reliable parade of bureaucratic horribles ... and thus cultivates a virtual ecosystem of passionate enemies and retributive agendas.

(7) INS workflow is a target for public/private vendors. Would a prospective vendor actually use underhanded tactics to discredit its peers or client-internal competition? Anyone who's been on any side of the table in big league private/private outsource negotiations will have no trouble answering that one.

All this is to suggest that any of several actors might have any of several reasons to exploit such an unlikely event. In particular, the Bush43 administration has its own INS reform plan (or plans) on the drawing board, and seems to have lost not a single beat in exploiting the occasion, dispensing with formalities and pressing these plans forward. Without respect to the merits or motives of any such plans, CP suspects this apparent very public betrayal of public trust was a purposefully orchestrated inside job.

Now to the press. This story would not have made such a good story -- nor incited so much public indignation -- had more salient details made it into the lead paragraphs.

exactly what arrived in whose mail March 11? Newly approved student visas for known (and now deceased) terrorists? No. These were secondary notifications -- to the school, not the student -- confirming that visas had been approved and issued to two (living and not-yet-notorious) al Qaeda operatives last summer. These factual notices were factually correct -- though overdue -- and are apparently superfluous, since the school is under no obligation to verify visa status, student visas were not required, and status could have been verified from student's copies in case the school were interested.

In fact, applications for student visas were submitted under the school's sponsorship 2000-08-29, approved 2001-07-17 (for Atta) and 2001-08-09 (Al-Shehhi), at which time neither appeared on any US intelligence watchlist. Both, incidentally, completed flight training in January ... long before the visa applications cleared INS.

And did some mindless government desk-jockey find paperwork for "Mohomed Atta" in his in-basket, fail to recognize it ("Oh, THAT Mohomed Atta!") and lazily stamp it "APPROVED"? Not exactly. The belated secondary notifications were processed (mindlessly, if you like) by Affiliated Computer Services, Inc. in London, KY under a five-year, $75M outsourcing contract -- your tax dollars at work in the private sector.

Dallas-based ACS (a $2B multinational business, and a 99% GOP hard and soft money contributor) says "Not My Department":
Lesley Pool, the company's chief marketing officer, said ... "Our clients own this data, operate on this data," Pool said. "Our role is purely handling the paper."
Public reports to date are not specific as to whether this was a casewise, eyes-on manual procedure, or a rote computerized batch fulfillment process ... nor do we know the last point at which this data was in direct INS custody.

But we've known for years that INS is years behind in its work, so ... the news in this story, as most widely understood by the general public, is not true, and to the extent it is true, is not new.

Tuesday, March 12, 2002

--- Off the Cliff, into the Black Hole ---

Vincent Boland in the 2002-03-11 Financial Times alerts us that Avinash Persaud (global research honcho at State Street Bank, and author of a recent classic paper on herd behavior in financial markets) has another paper in the works. "Liquidity Black Holes" will disturb our slumbers with a warning that current trends in number-munching -- underestimating the balance of correlated vs uncorrelated risk -- are dragging us into the energy wells of markets that appear deceptively liquid when you're buying in, but turn stubbornly illiquid when you (and probably the herd) are selling out ... setting the stage for major instability.

For Persaud's 2000 "Off the Cliff" piece, see this PDF. Hear more on the groupthink of market stampedes and social proof from this Motley Fool, and keep an eye out for "Black Holes".

(In closing, Boland suggests "Investors and regulators have the same interest -- cleverer regulation, rather than simply more of it.")

Monday, March 11, 2002

--- 2001-12-05 Flashback: Three Wars on Terrorism ---

In a series of posts on The Fray, 2001-12-05, I distinguished Three Wars on Terrorism -- the War on Osama, the World Series, and the War Without End, and offered assessments of each. On this semi-anniverserary of 9/11, I offer them for review ... with the note that my armchair generalship of the Afghan campaign is (so far as I am aware) unsurpassed in the blogosphere, and with the caveat that my views on the extended outlook are not especially comforting.

Excerpts below, though readers are encouraged to review the originals in full.

From "Three Wars":
FOX and MSNBC caption it "America at War". On CNN it's "America's New War". ["NEW! Improved!! Now with Chlorine Dioxide!!!] Not too far back, a rising chorus sang "quagmire". Turn a page, and we heard "triumph". Turn the page again, and a discordant chorus is groping for the key, wavering between boredom and chaos. Each swing of the perceptual pendulum inspires its own waves of hindsight, chirping and chiding. How goes the war, now, really?

It depends. It depends on which war you mean, which may in turn depend on divergent identification of the core conflict, adversary, strategy, and dynamics of history.

In brief: War #1 - winning ugly; #2 - dicey at best; #3 - losing/lost.

From "War on Osama"
It's hard to find any military conflict in history where the aftermath worked out the way the winners had it figured. Even in a winning campaign there's risk of unintended consequences ranging from annoying through catastrophic:
(1) Osama may go out with a bang ... like taking a big bunch of us with him, or rendering a slice of Pakistan uninhabitable with a dirty nuke.
(2) Reactive elements may reverberate through central Asia (as they did in Southeast Asia post-Vietnam).
(3) Post-Taliban Afghanistan may be no better than pre-Taliban government, only US gets more of the PR focus.
(4) A holocaust-scale humanitarian disaster may follow US victory.
(5) We help turn Afghanistan into Shangri-La, and every other failed state on the map wants the same treatment.
(6) Etc., etc.
The real upshot is probably not any of these ... it hardly ever is.

From "World Series"
Single-threading is harder than it looks. Finishing what we start may take longer than we calculated. Starting what we start may take longer. Sometimes an adversary -- or even an ally -- can seize initiative by starting early. If we simply smash states and leave, the aftermath may be worse ... so each "spike" operation creates a long "tail" of draws on US resource and management bandwidth, and (as in War #1) the inevitable unintended consequences ...

So we face a protracted campaign, during which scheduled foes have time to learn from each others' experience, with no assurance we can dispose of old enemies faster than we make new ones. Even in the best case, invincibility could work against us ... in standard drama, the relentless giant is the heavy, not the hero.

From "War Without End"
We got massacred on the PR front ... burned/bombed bridges with the most vital intelligence sources ... compromised intelligence integrity by dallying with less salient sources ... blew gaping holes in the traditional counterterrorism pipeline ... emphasized the incomparable reach of our long sword, confirming to any alert future foe's the advisablility of attacking inside its arc ... and inside our armor if possible ... advertised vulnerabilities ... declared arrogant indifference to conditions that foment global unrest, tarring all such concerns with the broad brush of "moral equivalence" ... attacked our own traditions of liberal democracy and republican construction of law ... spun on old allies ... disclaimed nation-building ... while acquiring an increased stake in the local outcome, whether we stay or go ... ruled out "appeasement" -- historically the most effective boundary discipline for an imperial hegemon surrounded by barbarians -- on principle (in a principle-depleted battlefield) ... conducted a global interactive virtual workshop in "How to Break the United States".

In sum, we are more vulnerable to terrorism now than when we began the War on Terrorism, and we're marching with our heads screwed on backwards.

--- 2001-09-13 Flashback: Great Opportunities vs Terror ---

[In observance of the semi-anniversary of 9/11, this reprise of an article posted on The Fray, 2002-09-13. This copy retrieved from a working draft, no longer on Fray archives, may contain minor editing variances from the original post. This piece is on the upbeat side of the ledger ... the piece to follow is more foreboding.]

Enemies vowed "the streets of America will be awash in blood!", and so they are: "blood centers say there is an overflow of blood supply", with impatient donors spilling into the streets. Great, what next?

Forget rubbing out the international terrorist conspiracy. The world is simply not organized with terrorists lined up on one side of the ball and targets on the other. Terror isn't an enemy, it's not even an "ism" -- a system of thought -- it's just a tool. And it can't be rubbed out ... the harder we rub, the more seeds we scatter.

By nature, the Strong are few (and not always just) while the Weak are many. Terror is a desperate recourse, and will be reinvented ad hoc, ad infinitum by stubbornly popular lost causes. But terror does go in and out of style, and we can help usher it out -- not by creating martyrs, but by creating high-profile failures.

A project like the 9/11 attack takes major investment of time, money, planning, indoctrination, secrecy, opportunity and human sacrifice. If it knocks down buildings without deflecting our course in world affairs, it's a costly failure -- and its architects are losers.

A landmark exercise in terror often leads its sponsors into decline. Sympathizers recoil in revulsion or fear of retribution. We now enjoy an unprecedented opportunity to encourage this natural dynamic, isolate our foes, peel away support, loosen weak links, and penetrate or otherwise compromise their networks.

Terror invariably occupies one peripheral corner of a wider web of forces allied in sentiment -- hotheaded factions aligned on aims but not tactics, most of whom would never perpetrate such acts but are reluctant to betray the cause by interfering. In the aftermath of an overt act, the adjoining web of support thins out pretty fast.

Terror picks up allies of consequence, those who share nothing but an adversary in common. Fewer such interests will now find this bank-shot leverage worth the trouble, and many saw their own assets buried in the rubble. Among other considerations, the interests of all oil states and all industrial powers coincide in World Trade.

Terror uses allies of convenience -- smugglers, forgers, mercenaries, bribe-takers, common criminals large and small. These resources are not entirely without scruples, are professionally averse to intense scrutiny, and will unplug any connection too hot to handle.

Terror has allies in commerce -- global firms who will sell any available tool to any willing buyer, who remain neutral or even helpful in hope of contacts and preferences elsewhere. Most such firms had major assets in lower Manhattan, and all are capable of calculating the ROI on a decadal world-wide depression.

Terror exploits allies of complacency -- the underpaid gatekeeper, the clerk who rubber-stamps routine irregularities, the dispatcher who downgrades "out of territory" reports ... and the budget-cutter who defunded the very border agent posts that intercepted Ahmed Ressam and foiled the millennium bombings.

Beyond these problems of attrition, there will be defectors. The fanatic footsoldier is dedicated, motivated and incredibly naive. He spends years engaged in fantasy -- a bold strike against the hated enemy, a resulting chain reaction. When the actual blow is struck, the ideological enemy's human face becomes real. When the dominoes fall the wrong direction, many a True Believer regrets and repents. And every leader has enemies in his own ranks.

By virtue of being powerful, envied and misunderstood, America attracts enemies . Maladroit use of force would cultivate the next generation of fanatics, but artful manipulation of events -- and their perceptions -- can accelerate the natural process of decay in enemy camps.

How shall we proceed at street level? Defy terror! Congregate! Go to work! Go to school! Go to church! Shop! Vote! Invest! Our world will never be safe, so build it and rebuild it as many times as it takes! Sing, shout, laugh! Make love ... and war! Talk, argue, call each other names, bet on the big game, sing the National Anthem ... and play ball!

--- Nuke 'em if they can't take a joke? ---

Clear from context -- simultaneous appearance in major print media -- disclosure of DOD's Nuclear Posture Review is purposeful.

Also clear, the disclosure -- while not an official release -- has presidential sponsorsip. Where a rogue staff or congressional leak would have brought a "Release the Hounds" response, the guard dogs of minimal disclosure did not bark. Cheney fielded questions on topic this morning, with nary an eyebrow cocked at those despicable, aiding-and-comforting leakers.

Also clear, this is not the whole Review, or at least not the whole Posture.
For instance, we almost certainly contemplate extreme measures in case custody of Pakistan's nuclear inventory takes a wrong turn, and these measures very likely include nuclear options. (A flash flux on the order of 1,000 neutrons should destabilize one of these cores, and we have ways to deliver neutrons ... or render deep-shielded devices inaccessible.) We probably have scenarios -- though maybe not "Posture" -- for interventions in a full-tilt India/Pakistan conflict, among other unreferenced global points of interest.
The release is a bulletin to weaponeers of mass destruction, putting our preemptive options on the table. Implicitly, we are prepared not merely to act first, but to toast population centers (if that's where the goods are stocked) without the predicate of an overt hostile act. (Britain pitched eagerly into World War I to disrupt German naval development, rather than concede eventual parity and its nonspecific adverse consequences in nonspecific decades to come.)

For future reference, the message is directed with equal force to all nations, friend or foe.

The review also lays out predicates for resumed nuclear testing, for weapons innovation, and for massive expansion of stockpiles. This last point has the darkest implications ... the sole superpower is weighing the option of reigning forcefully over a world in which it has no (voluntary) friends.

For domestic consumption, the release prediscloses these shifts, while preserving the indispensable meta-posture of strategic ambiguity.

It's not the whole Posture, but is it the real Posture? Or does it include head-fakes and sections of "winning through intimidation" language intended for external consumption only? The Office of Strategic Illusion doesn't exist ... but if it did, this is the kind of release it would prepare and execute (with appropriate vetting at the highest levels, of course).

How many deltas are there between published and unpublished editions? And how many players are in on (how many levels of) the ruse?

Friday, March 08, 2002

--- Tabletop Fusion - No, but Yes, but No ---

The recently report of fusion in a small device at approximately room temperature and pressure has the earmarks of an irreproducible result. The most likely interpretation at this point is that the experimenters mistook the effects of an incident neutron source (part of the apparatus) for the effects of fusion, but ...

Few will be surprised if fusion is eventually confirmed in some similar experiment. Unlike deuterium/palladium cold fusion, this model is backed by well-accepted theory. Cavitational collapse of bubbles in fluid can produce extremely small domains of astronomical temperature and pressure. Feed the right elements into the cavity, and it should work, but ...

Suppose it works only in ways that can't scale up, that can't be used to produce net energy. Sonoluminescent cavitation requires delicately regulated temperature and pressure in the working fluid. Each fusion microburst drives the surrounding fluid far from this sensitive equilibrium. A large-scale reactor would have to capture the fusion energy products -- heat, neutrons, gamma rays -- as heat, without overheating the reaction vessel. And a "big bubble" model would presumably sacrifice the symmetry required to achieve ideal conditions at the center of collapse.

Next, fusion would attack the working fluid's chemical composition. In this case it's acetone, presenting three highly reactive elements (C, H, O) to a series of high-energy reactions. I can only guess at the reaction products, but acetone wouldn't be among them. [Industrial reactors might use heavy water or deuterides of lithium, berylium, boron, nitrogen, fluorine ... where there's no extended menu of downstream chemical and nuclear reactions.]

Finally, you'e got those neutrons flying around, being absorbed by other nuclei -- in the working fluid, in the apparatus, in whatever you're using to capture them on purpose.

What if this is all just a tease by Mother Nature? Great, now you can demonstrate fusion in the high school science lab ... but it stops there, and your zillion dollar magnetic confinement reactors aren't progressing much better.

Thursday, March 07, 2002

--- The Real Steel Deal - Part I ---

GWB finally bit the steel import bullet by promulgating a temorary (3 yr) compromise (30% of the requested 40%) tariff on imports from selected nations (Brazil, Si, Argentina, No!). The Gordian Knot is not cut, but rejiggered with a complicated lash-up of bungee cords.

Water over the dam? Gathering storm? Or teachable moment? Let's pull for the latter, and see how far we get. Hemmed in on all sides by garbage ideology and vested interest pleadings, there is a residual cluster of awkward issues with wider implications.

The Marketarian Axis pretty much insists there's no issue ... no such thing as dumping, or overproduction, or strategic predation, or standed investment, because there can't be, because there never is, because The Market is always right, because if The Market was wrong a good measure of force behind all their arguments would vanish in a puff of smoke and mirrors. [Despite pretensions to the contrary, this dogma has no foundation in any constructive theory of market equilibria ... even the one you might think you remember learning in Econ 101.] Less extreme variants of this creed are popular in Marketaria's outlying provinces.

The Protectionist Axis imagines trade is bad in general. Or at least imports are bad ... and it's hard to construct an export-only trading regime. This school closes its eyes to the general truism that voluntary exchange creates value -- at least where exchange crosses national borders. (Does the principle apply differently to trade across the street, or across town, or across the county line, or between Seattle and Miami?) They also cringe at the very real short-run costs of creative destruction, and would defer them as long as possible -- maybe forever -- even at the expense of long-run output and income. Like the Marketarians, they are surrounded by hangers-on who are soft on principles but hard on cases.

Ideology aside, there's a pragmatic alliance of vested interests favoring domestic steel, to whom the record is clear. Imports are predatory. Any bump in steel prices would be diluted harmlessly through the value chain. The industry is getting its act together, it just needs a little more time. Domestic steel means jobs.

There an opposing alliance of vested interests favoring cheap steel, to whom the record is also clear. The domestic industry missed the restructuring boat. Imports are declining anyway. American products will be more expensive and less competitive. Cheap steel means jobs.

And there are opposed interests here and abroad ... though both fear the outbreak of trade war. Either side can present a convincing case -- the structure and conduct of international steel markets either do or do not justify protective tariffs under existing agreements. Neither camp is inclined to yield an inch (or a centimeter) on the particulars.

Most organized labor hugs the protectionist side, favoring arguments over net numbers. The arguments and precedents are reusable in other arenas, in which aggressive trade policy might not entail net loss of US jobs (as it probably does in the case of steel). US industry generally favors open trade ... partly because US industry benefits from cheap steel, partly because US industry is multinational industry and stands to lose on both sides of the exchange if the steel case triggers a braoder contraction in trade.

From the fortified position behind any one of these lines, the question is simple and the answer is clear ... that's part of what makes the lines themselves attractive. But in the cramped space between these lines the answers are far from clear.

In the real world of real markets, competition can be strategic and predatory, legacy investments can become stranded, excess capacity can exist and persist, and the upshot can be locally unfair and/or globally counterproductive. In this world, price-tropism is at best half the story, our range of options is wider and the web of consequences is stickier. What's going on in that neglected realm? We'll take that up in The Real Steel Deal, Part II

--- Murky Disclosures re Shadow Government ---

"Shadow Government" is unfortunate coinage indeed, with hints of conspiratorial opportunism in the realm of Dilbert's Phil, Prince of Insufficient Light. Call it something else -- anything else -- "Asymmetric Warfare Contingency Reconstruction Assurance Plan", or whatever. Let the acronym mills work their will.

An executive contingency nucleus should exist. There are valid reasons to limit the number of people who know the plan. [For now, the practical implications are far-fetched. Bunker blueprints wouldn't be of much value to al Qaeda, who lack the means to select targets at will or sustain operational tempo. They must attack opportunistically, and against exposed targets.]

There is no excuse for hiding the scheme from a co-equal branch of government. Granted, a finite marginal risk attaches to each person in the loop ... but the relative risk attendant to four Congressional leaders is miniscule relative to some 300 Executive personnel.

Conduct to date is in keeping with GWB's taste for an Enron-like Culture of Minimal Disclosure, and with evident indifference to core constitutional principles. As this sinks in, it won't sit well with conservatives of a certain stripe.

An underappreciated angle is the divergence between Daschle/Gephardt's "nobody told us", and Lott/Hastert's hemming, hawing, equivocal concurrence to the effect that yes, they could not confirm being told. Disclosure aside, did the White House play partisan favorites re disclosure of plans for continuity in case of catastrophic near-destruction of the US government? Did Congressional Republicans play along ... and did they play dumb about it later?

Nondisclosure would be a misdemeanor affront to the Constitution ... selective disclosure would be a felony. And if Congressional Republicans hid the ball from Congressional Dem's, the consequences could be most severe.

I suspect we'll hear more on this "a uniter or a diverter?" front ... possibly from the formidable Senator Byrd (who follows Cheney and Hastert in the line of succession) ... at a time and place of his choosing.

On a related priority track, where's the buzz on the Baird Amendment? Following a major hit on the House of Representatives, there's no existing constitutional mechanism to reboot consitituional government.

--- Regarding the "Virgins or Raisins?" Controversy ---

The buzz, in brief, is that (following a period of strictly oral retransmission) early written transcriptions of the Koran recorded consonants but not vowels. Thus the martyr's reward might be the prized hur -- "white" (raisins) -- not Houri -- virgins. [A waggish compromise faction suggests Vegans ... of the dietetic or galactic variety?]

From what I've tasted of desire, I hold with those who favor Houri (unless more experienced Vegans are an option) with honorable mention to hur. Is it possible these pure, unblemished "raisins" of which the Angel whispered to the Prophet are, in the idiomatic wordplay of the day, the metaphorical equivalent of today's "cherries"?

Linguistic historians know well that vowel expression shifts and drifts with amazing rapidity in natural language communities, even literate ones. That seems to leave openings for interpretive transmutation in the space of decades.

For a faith pegged to strict authenticity of sacred text, any such gnat becomes a hard camel to swallow ... a single instance opens the entire text to the horrors of interpretation. Thus these scholarly speculations are, quite literally, fighting words.

The whole surrounding buzz reeks badly of cross-cultural caricature. For more angles than are dreamt of in your philosophy, see this MEMRI compilation.

Monday, March 04, 2002

--- Welcome to the Cogent Provocateur ---

CP is here to provoke, not persuade. Persuasion is a worthy enterprise, but its disciplines and those of analysis, assessment, interpretation and extrapolation are mutually antagonistic. We spot the turd in the punchbowl, you decide.

Pop controversies -- even in the "major leagues" -- tend to be badly framed, then argued inaptly but incessantly. Most articles of conventional wisdom fail a cursory desk audit:
"How do you know?" "If X were so, wouldn't Y and Z also be so?" "Did you check the math?" "Can you document that?" "Is there more than one alternative?" "How convenient that all the clues point in one direction!"
We hope you'll follow CP for angles not yet beaten flat, truer centerlines, sharper counterpoints, and prickly implications carelessly overlooked like thistles in the picnic grounds.

We proofread between the lines, sensitive to irregularities in the texture of information flow. Our kit includes tools from a host of standard disciplines, some of them underappreciated. Occasionally we'll extrapolate from nonstandard foundations, and take on the resulting greater burdens of proof and presentation.

CP takes a dim view of "crossfire" polemics, by whose conventions all White Hat elements -- true conclusions, valid inferences, authentic evidence, righteous advocates and their upstanding allies -- must have addresses on one side of Center Street, with all Black Hats -- false conclusions, fallacious reasoning, counterfeit data, reprobate spokesmen and their corrupt confederates -- lined up diametrically opposite.

Proper deductive reasoning doesn't align its premises that neatly ... nor does good drama ... and the future before us exceeds the grasp of either. Data is unsatisfactory, theories are conjectural, stakeholders are more clustered than aligned, and we're not sure what the questions are. Shouldn't we approach the big issues with humility, wariness and respect? The crossfire dynamic dictates otherwise.

Factions congeal and polarize by a process of linkage -- from champion to issue to demon to issue to champion. We end up with the Dumbbell Configuration -- opposing politicized masses at the extremes. The cynical center -- apolitical "cold dark matter" -- increasingly opts out. Arguments shrink to mere totems of group affiliation, shaken angrily at members of the opposing camp in bizarre tableaus of ritual combat.

CP thinks this is not just a major irony of the Information Age ... it's an invitation to error of systemic proportions. And CP has some ideas on how this came to be, where it's going from here, and what to do about it.

Meanwhile, the reader should avoid assuming CP opposes a given position just because we skewer arguments or debunk factoids raised in its defense.

Where is CP coming from? Raised Republican, swung conservative before it was trendy, flirted with objectivist libertarianism, radicalized in the 60's-70's, corporatized in the 70's-80's, functional Clinton Democrat, McCain sympathizer, mixed-model futurist. Views Left and Right as indispensable and complementary, like opposable thumbs. Thinks the American Left lives in the past. Thinks the American Right has gone way off the deep end.

A few housekeeping matters:
To minimize repetition, CP will catalogue stock rebuttals and foundational essays in a FAQ-ish section. ["Re argument by labeling adversary 'statist thug', see Rebuttal 13.B.2(d)", etc.]

A certain amount of verbal jousting is unavoidable ... so we'll give it a section of its own, and hope it stays there.

We favor open, attributable sources that require no sign-in or subscription (especially those without popups) . We will not knowingly infringe by promoting links to unauthorized reproductions.

Thoughtful feedback via e-mail is appreciated, but will rarely be acknowledged. Run-of-the-mill screed is best directed elsewhere. If your strongest argument adds up to "All you loony liberals are [Stalinists | Satanists | lousy tippers]", post it here.

It'll be quiet here for the next week or so. We'll be busy over at CAMP ENRON, consolidating and updating material from other forums.

This launch would be incomplete without a salute to Slate's factious, fractious forum The Fray, to Frayster compatriots Tony Adragna and Will Vehrs at QuasiPundit, and to the prolific pioneer Glenn Reynolds at InstaPundit.