Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

22 September 2005

Rumsfeld Must Go

How many disastrous blunders must a man make before he’s let go? Only the President knows for sure.

Let’s review the facts. Rumsfeld’s obsession with WMD helped push the President to invade Iraq and make WMD the pretext for doing so. From all accounts, Rumsfeld counseled war and won the President’s approval for it over Colin Powell’s more cautionary advice. Rumsfeld then gave our generals half the troops needed to do the job. In the process, he made sure that the two generals (Shinseki and Zinni) who had asked for more troops and knew the most about insurgencies were no longer on active duty. Rumsfeld insists he didn’t fire them; he wants us to believe that these two men, in the prime of their lives and at the top of their careers, voluntarily retired just before what they’d trained for all their lives began.

Rumsfeld’s blunders increased exponentially after the invasion. He failed to plan for an insurgency. He joked that the looting of Iraq’s national patrimony was just Iraqis enjoying their newfound freedom. He failed to secure or collect the mountains of ordnance scarring Iraq’s landscape, which are now blowing up our troops and Iraqi security forces. His Pentagon assigned the bulk of our Arabic translators to the fruitless search for WMD, rather than vetting Baathist military officers and ferreting out insurgents. He failed to use the large caches of Saddam’s loot found by our troops to jump-start reconstruction. He failed to supply enough body armor or humvee armor to protect our troops against an increasing (and increasingly obvious) threat from explosive devices made using the ordnance he failed to secure or collect.

These failures are not surprising, for Rumsfeld has underestimated the enemy’s strength and cleverness at every turn. No doubt he approved the President’s ludicrous “Mission Accomplished” spectacle. (Do you really think the President would have stuck his neck out that far politically without Rumsfeld’s blessing, or that Karl Rove would have let the President do so?) And now Rumsfeld says, for the umpteenth time, that insurgents are “on the run,” when there is no evidence to support that assertion and Iraq may be slipping into civil war.

Does anyone really believe we can win this war with this kind of leadership? Does anyone think that our troops deserve better?

Now we find that Rumsfeld’s Pentagon withheld information from the FBI that might have prevented September 11. An intelligence unit in the Pentagon, known by the code name of “Able Danger,” had identified four of the 9/11 hijackers, including the leader Mohammed Atta, as terrorists inside our country. The Pentagon unit had this information long before 9/11. What did it do with the information? It failed to pass it on to the FBI.

The failure was not accidental. Nor was it negligent. According to the Pentagon itself, the failure was the result of a specific, deliberate decision.

The reason claimed by Rumsfeld’s minions is instructive. “The lawyers made us do it,” they say.

How credible is that excuse? This is the same Pentagon that gave us Abu Ghraib, notwithstanding the Geneva Convention and the prohibition against torture. This is the same Pentagon that relied upon, and probably instigated, the infamous “torture memo.” According to that memo, you commit torture only if you nearly kill someone or cause "organ failure." Now they are saying that the Posse Comitatus Act, which prohibits using our military for domestic law enforcement, prohibited informing the FBI of the presence of foreign nationals on our soil for purposes of terrorism. They want us to believe that same lawyers that defined “torture” so narrowly as to justify Abu Ghraib couldn’t also narrow the meaning of “domestic law enforcement” sufficiently to exclude passing on information about foreign terrorists. If you believe that, I’ve got a bridge I’d like to sell you.

So what was the real reason for failing to inform the FBI? If you know anything about Rumsfeld, there can be only one answer: turf. He’s the guy whose only claim to excellence of any kind is being a “skilled bureaucratic infighter.” He’s the guy who has consistently and successfully resisted every executive and legislative attempt to bring military intelligence under the control of anyone outside the Pentagon, despite the obvious advantages of central control and coordination. (The alternative of bringing the CIA and FBI inside the Pentagon is unthinkable for a whole host of reasons, including that very same Posse Comitatus Act.) Now, despite repeated references to turf battles in the 9/11 Committee’s report and every other public assessment of our intelligence services in recent years, Rumsfeld’s minions wants us to believe that his unit didn’t share information because the lawyers told them not to.

Is there any limit to the President’s loyalty to this arrogant, stupid, dangerous man? Does the President know what the phrase “last straw” means? Does he really care about the damage Rumsfeld has caused our troops, our civilians, and our country? When will he start to listen to the screams of those left wounded and bereft as a result of Rumsfeld’s incompetence? When will he realize that Rumsfeld’s pathetic attempts to “spin” his blunders only subject the Administration to ridicule?

I don’t know the answers to these questions, but I’ll make a pledge. On this blog I’ve questioned the direction and leadership of the Democratic party. But if Rumsfeld is still in office next year, I will vote Democratic for every office from Senator to dog catcher, regardless of any doubt. Maybe if enough folks send Karl Rove that same message, the President might stop worrying about loyalty to a self-aggrandizing idiot and think about appointing someone who can do a competent job as Secretary of Defense. Our troops and our people deserve no less.

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18 September 2005

An Opportunity for Democrats

(Republicans, Please Don’t Read!)

I’ve written before about the Democratic Party’s pitiful state of mind. Since its tragic and angering loss in 2000, the poor old Donkey can’t seem to think of anything but revenge.

When Franklin Roosevelt first campaigned for President, he had “a brain trust.” They were a select group of the “best and the brightest,” assigned to think and work on the toughest social and economic problems of the day. And they did. They came up with Social Security, regulation of the securities, banking and power industries, independent regulation of central banking (a la Alan Greenspan), and more thoughtful regulation of broadcast communication.

Today these ideas are so much an integral part of American government that we forget they all came from FDR’s think tanks (a term that didn’t then exist). Roosevelt’s Democratic “brain trust” invented the “mixed” economic system that we know today. It’s a “mixed” system because it mixes the best ideas from right and left, relying on free markets but restraining and improving them with government regulation in the public interest.

Not only did FDR and his think tanks save capitalism from itself. They created the most durable and resilient economic system the world has ever known. After three quarters of a century, no one has been able to design a better economic system than the one based on their ideas. That’s thinking!

Now fast-forward to 2005. As a contributor to the Democratic Party, I’m on the national committee’s e-mail list. About once a week, I get an e-mail over the signature of someone like John Kerry or Howard Dean. I have not made a detailed quantitative study of these e-mails, but the overwhelming impression they give me is negativity. “Do you know what the Bushies are trying to do??!!” they scream. “We can’t let this happen!” “Fight! Protest! Petition! Oppose! Send Money!” They remind me of a remark made by a wholly apolitical Southern lady (a distant relative) after accompanying a beau to a socialist rally in the 1930s. When asked what she saw as “the Socialist program” there, she replied “All kinds of things must cease.”

If you are unsure of the definition of “reactionary,” put yourself on that e-mail list. After only a few weeks of reading, you’ll have a firm and accurate idea what the word means.

I don’t read those e-mails any more, although occasionally I glance at the first paragraph. To judge by their tone, you would think that Democrats are a tiny minority party, relegated by its pitiful lack of power to protesting helplessly the actions of an eternally dominant majority. But they are not. The 2000 election was close enough to be decided by the Supreme Court. The 2004 election was hardly a landslide for Bush, notwithstanding September 11 and the then-recent capture and incarceration of Saddam Hussein. What’s remarkable is how close Democrats came to winning in 2004 with no new ideas whatsoever. A wave of popular support for the values that Democrats hold dear---civil rights, diplomacy, equal opportunity, community, working together---nearly carried an empty vessel to victory.

Now Democrats have a chance to awaken from their vengeful torpor. Bush and the Republican Congress are vulnerable for two reasons: incompetence and overreaching. Slowly the nation is coming to understand that, whether invading Iraq was right or wrong, the results we see on the ground there arose from poor or nonexistent planning, i.e., gross incompetence. There has been no recent evidence of better planning or greater competence, just a bumper-sticker slogan: “Stay the Course.” Ditto the response to Katrina at this date, despite the President’s vague promises. One would have thought that, four years after 9/11, we would have someone who could get relief supplies to a disaster area in less than 72 hours.

As for overreaching, Bush learned a lesson when he tried to privatize a part of Social Security. There are many parts of the Roosevelt legacy that work well, have universal public support, and require no radical change. Social Security is one of those, as the President discovered to his chagrin. More generally, even folks without the slightest clue about economics are beginning to understand that less regulation and lower taxes cannot possibly be the solution to every problem. The Republican think tanks, once so fruitful and successful, have begun to stumble. Flushed with success, they’ve applied some good ideas too broadly and too thoughtlessly.

So Bush, the Republicans and their thinkers are vulnerable, and Democrats smell blood. The 2006 mid-term congressional elections seem like a grand time for a counter-attack.

But there are two ways to counterattack. One is to out-think your opponent, attract the center and build a “big tent.” The other is to pander to your most extreme base and hope they outnumber the other side. On economic issues, both Al Gore and John Kerry took the second course. Clinton took the first and won handily, despite qualms (which hardly began with Monica Lewinsky) about his personal sexual morality. Isn’t there a lesson there?

What neither party seems to have fully internalized is that we have the world’s most successful economic system precisely because it is mixed, i.e., part capitalist, part communitarian or (if you like loaded epithets) socialist. It combines the best parts of free markets and government regulation, and it tries to do so pragmatically and intelligently, without preconception or dogma.

The genius of us Americans has always been that we do what works. That’s a large part of our secret of success. The Russians and Chinese put their trust in a beautiful but untested theory (Marxism), and look what happened. Yet as soon as Premier Deng uttered that famous slogan, “I don’t care if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice,” China’s economy began to take off and never looked back. The Russians are still trying to find a theory to connect them to the real world.

Democrats can take pride in having invented the mixed system, in Roosevelt’s think tanks. That invention was marvelous, but it is old news. Bush is President because, by year 2000, the revolution in thought that began with Franklin Roosevelt was spent. A new revolution had begun with Ronald Reagan, and it was time for new thinking. The Republican think tanks, which had been working in the darkness for a generation, stepped in.

You can call what they did a “counterrevolution.” To the extent that all revolutions lead to excess, maybe it was. We are certainly seeing some of that excess now; it’s what gives Democrats an opening.

But viewed dispassionately and honestly, what the Reagan think tanks did was just the next step in our evolving “mixed” economic system. In focusing on the need to regulate and control the excesses of free markets, Roosevelt’s think tanks had neglected some of markets’ strengths. The Republican think tanks exploited them. Free markets, they argued, often can do jobs more efficiently than government and are less subject to corruption and waste, because free markets impose an economic discipline that no political system can mimic. They were right. And so they made headway in expanding economic opportunity, fostering small business, encouraging innovation, eliminating waste in government procurement, and reforming the welfare system.

If you have an apocalyptic, political bent, you might call all this revolution and counter-revolution. I like to think of it as two opposing parties groping for a system that works well for everyone. The two parties have somewhat different values and different presumptions about what works, but they both are trying to win votes, one presumes, by making life better for everyone. If one party has a new idea to make that happen, it enjoys an advantage that may last for several election cycles. Roosevelt proved that for the Democrats, Reagan for the Republicans.

But parties get into trouble when they have no new ideas or, worse yet, revert to outdated stereotypes. Goldwater proved that for the Republicans in 1964, ending up on the losing side of the biggest landslide in American political history. Unfortunately, Al Gore and John Kerry seem to have proved the same point for Democrats. The fact that they lost by much narrower margins than Goldwater only suggests the broad residue of support that Democrats could enjoy nationally, if only they would wake up.

Al Gore might well be in the White House today---hanging chads and Ralph Nader notwithstanding---if he had not campaigned on bashing corporations and the wealthy. Americans can be manipulated, but they are not stupid. They know that corporations design and build the cars they drive, the airplanes they fly in, the televisions they watch, the drugs they take, the furniture they sit and sleep on, and often the houses over their heads. The also know that, by and large, those things work pretty well. Most Americans aspire to be rich themselves and don’t want to tarnish irretrievably the image of those who already are. Finally, most Americans have heard of what class warfare did, has done, and is still doing to Russia and want no part of it. Therefore, bashing the corporations and the rich, unless they are obvious scoundrels or criminals, is, in America, a political ticket to nowhere. Economically, it is a doctor prescribing leeches for fever.

Unfortunately, John Kerry and Howard Dean seem to be pretty firmly in the “bash ‘em, class warfare” camp. Maybe John Edwards is, too. So I have no illusions that the “Party of the People” is going to wake up anytime soon, even by 2008. But in the perhaps unrealistic hope that there are still some surviving “New” Democrats out there, I’d like to offer three points that might help them prevail.

My first suggestion is to recruit the help of leading economists. Have you ever noticed that most of the best economists seem to support Republican ideas? There are two reasons for this.

First, Republicans have listened to economists better than Democrats, so Republican ideas are often more congruent with current economic thinking. Not all economists may be Republicans. Yet, at least since the Reagan era, Republicans appear to have been quicker than Democrats to accept economics as a real science offering useful, practical advice. Republicans therefore have worked better with economists, inviting them into Republican think tanks, soliciting their ideas, and listening carefully. Rather than relying solely on values and slogans like “individualism,” “self-reliance,” and “personal responsibility,” Republicans have taken science seriously. They have, it seems, made the leap from religion to natural philosophy.

The second reason why economists often seem to be in the Republicans’ camp is more subtle. The problems about which Democrats care most---poverty and racism, for example---are not entirely economic and are very hard to solve. They are much harder than understanding the glories of free markets and how to control and regulate them. Like scientists in any other field, economists work on the easier problems first. Some may, just may, be ready to offer practical prescriptions for poverty and racism. They already have offered some useful prescriptions in the small, like eliminating redlining from the banking industry and attracting business competition to inner-city neighborhoods. Democrats can make more progress by enlisting them in their effort to solve social problems.

So my first suggestion is that Democrats try to catch the wave of modern economic science. Despite large pockets of poverty and ignorance, we are an educated people. These days no popular majority is going to follow a leader who mouths obsolete slogans like “soak the rich” or “subsidize the poor.” We need more thoughtful solutions to our problems, and most voters know it. Economists can help solve those problems, consistently with Democratic values, if only they are asked.

My second suggestion is a corollary of the first. There is one area in which modern economics has already been applied successfully to modern social problems: environmental protection. For almost twenty years, economists have suggested reasonable, market-based solutions for reducing pollution. For at least five, some of those solutions have actually been implemented. You know they must work when committed environmentalists (mostly Democrats), by the ones and twos are begin to support them, notwithstanding the political risks of being labeled apostates or “traitors to the cause.”

Unfortunately, Republicans have been the primary implementers of these solutions. I say “unfortunately” because Republican implementation has had two disadvantages. First, Republicans have seldom been the first and strongest promoters of environmental protection. So they often implement these modern economic solutions with a bias: when in doubt, favor the business that makes useful products and pays taxes, but incidentally pollutes. Second, because of this bias and the less-than-impressive history of Republican support for environmental protection, people suspect Republicans of institutionalizing this bias, and therefore modern economic solutions often lack popular support.

Democrats could overcome both these disadvantages, and make a stunning political coup, by co-opting these market-based methods of protecting the environment and taking them to the next level. Not only could Democrats insure that any bias when in doubt favors protecting the environment (especially in places populated by the poor and people of color). Merely by endorsing modern, scientific methods of reducing pollution, Democrats would make everyone take them seriously, allowing both the science and public-policy aspect of these useful ideas to take quantum leaps forward. The effect would be like Nixon going to China.

My final suggestion for new Democratic thought is more general: a focus on science and all it can do for humanity. George W. Bush has been the most “anti-science” president in American history. He has discouraged stem-cell research, one of the most promising fields of biotechnology and medical research. Like a tobacco baron trying to argue that smoking doesn’t cause disease, he has belittled and distorted a worldwide scientific consensus on global warming. (He only changed his tune---and then only by a few notes---after the international scientific community took the extraordinary step of writing a near-unanimous open letter protesting his bullheadedness.) He has undermined public understanding of and respect for science by approving the dilution of evolution in our public schools with transparently religious dogma, thereby disparaging all the practical good that an understanding of evolution can do.

Worse yet, the Bush Administration’s motivation for much of this hostility to science has been pandering to ignorant religious minorities, thereby confusing the very role of science with religion. The world has not really seen the like since the Pope curtailed Galileo’s astronomical research by threatening to excommunicate him in the early seventeenth century.

The short-term challenge to Democrats is to show our people how much science has done and still can do if left unfettered and properly funded, and to do so without negativity and Bush-bashing. Among other things, Democrats should look for ways to: (1) aggressively foster stem-cell research, minimizing religious sensibilities while widely touting research results; (2) propose practical and economically sound technological and social solutions to global warming; (3) emphasize the danger of failing to address global warming at all; and (4) constantly remind the public of the practical benefits of understanding evolution (such as avoiding bacterial resistance to antibiotics and avoiding crop failure due to pest evolution by diversifying crops).

Democrats can also use Katrina as a practical demonstration of the risks of ignoring scientific conclusions and treating scientists as just another political interest group, or as priests of an odd religion. Scientists knew precisely the strength of hurricane that New Orleans’ levees would withstand: a Category 3. That’s how they were designed. Scientists have for decades predicted that New Orleans would succumb to a Category 4 or Category 5. Scientists have known for years that hurricanes have been increasing in ferocity, probably due to global warming. Yet someone, somewhere (probably not President Bush!) failed to connect the dots, and New Orleans died as a result. There is a lesson in that which Democrats can use to their advantage.

But predicting with alarm is not enough. Katrina and President Bush have given Democrats an enormous opportunity. President Bush just announced his readiness to spend $200 billion to reconstruct the devastated areas. It’s his watch and therefore his problem how to find the money. Instead of carping about how Bush will bust the budget (a plausible tactic), Democrats should burn the midnight oil, join with competent specialists, and come up with a workable plan to do the job quickly, efficiently, and consistently with Democratic values. The Democratic program should be realistically priced at not a penny more than $200 billion.

If the Bush Administration listens (as it has promised to do), that program may actually help people and further refine the theory of our “mixed” economy. If it ignores the Democratic plan, any blunders or lack of success can be held up to searing scrutiny in future elections. But to do this, Democrats have to plan, not shoot from the hip.

These three limited suggestions are only the tip of the iceberg. There are many similar problems of public policy that might yield to a concerted assault by policy wonks and competent scientists, economists, and engineers. That assault, however, requires more than incestuous political “strategy” sessions deciding which interest group to pander to next. It requires real and sustained interdisciplinary problem solving, of the type that Republican “think tanks” have undertaken since the Reagan Administration. Democrats have a think tank “gap,” and they need to close it.

One last point. Each party has its skeletons in the closet. The Republicans have racism and the “Southern strategy.” They used it to inveigle many Southern Democrats into switching parties so they could continue opposing complete integration of minorities into American society. That was a shameful, despicable political tactic, but it did work, as least to some degree. President Bush did much to give that strategy the coup de grace when he appointed Colin Powell and Condoleeza Rice as Secretaries of State.

The comparable (although far less shameful) skeleton in the Democrats’ closet is its “soak the rich” and “class warfare” strategy. That strategy helped the party attract socialists and communists in the 1930s, but hasn't done much good lately. Still, no Democratic leader has made as dramatic a gesture in burying that skeleton as Bush did in his appointments. Someone should.

Despite his grand and noble visions, President Bush has made more serious blunders in policy and execution that any president I can remember. The Democrats lost the last election because they fielded a candidate with no vision who looked with nostalgia to past struggles (including Vietnam) for support. Even then, they came close to winning. Bush’s blunders now have given the Democrats a golden opportunity. To seize it, all they have to do is bury the skeleton in their own closet, stop reacting, begin problem solving, field a few new ideas, and look to the future, not the past. A good plan for recovering from Katrina would be an excellent start. One thing is clear, however: Democrats won’t start to win elections again until they stop whining, pandering and re-counting votes and get to work on the people’s problems.

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16 September 2005

Judge Roberts: A Man for the Times?

To me, the most poignant part of the Roberts Hearings came after most people probably had tuned out, when Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga) gave his testimony. Rep. Lewis literally bears the scars of the civil rights struggle, having been nearly beaten to death in the early 1960s. He is one of the few venerable, grizzled old lions of civil rights still living. Slowed by age, but still unbowed, he argued against confirming Judge Robert’s nomination because, in his view, Judge Roberts just didn’t “get” civil rights. Sen. Durbin (D-Ill.) asked him whether he thought Judge Roberts might have “redeemed” himself from the views that he once had argued as a staff attorney for the Reagan Administration. Rep. Lewis answered no, that Judge Roberts had no passion for civil rights and had been on the wrong side of history.

More than anything, that moment captured for me the central dilemma of the Hearings. In three days Judge Roberts showed no passion for civil rights. Nor did he show much passion for anything else. You could be passionately for a woman’s right to choose or passionately for the rights of the unborn. You could believe that homosexual marriage is an abomination before God or that free people should be free from discrimination. You could believe that Guantanamo and the Patriot Act are grotesque violations of civil rights or measures essential to protecting us from terror. Whatever your cause, you could have sat through the entire hearings and found not one word or twitch from Judge Roberts to validate your passion.

The closest he came was in speaking about women’s rights. He mentioned his wife, sisters and daughter, and his concern for their rights seemed genuine. But even then, there was little real passion in his voice or eyes, just sincere concern.

At one point, some senators seemed to suspect that Judge Roberts is an automaton, a brilliant robot programmed to decide cases “without fear or favor,” but without any human feeling. The whole room relaxed visibly when he cracked a joke. Sen. Kohl (D.-Wis.) opined, “You’re not an automaton.”

Judge Roberts’ lack of passion troubles me, just as it has nearly all the Democratic senators. But Judge Roberts did reveal one passion consistently throughout the hearings. At numerous times and in different contexts, he expressed a passion for the rule of law, for impartial and neutral justice. His eyes lit up, his face hardened, and you got the impression of very strong conviction—--the more so since in three days he showed no passion for anything else. If Judge Roberts revealed any emotion besides hope that his daughter would not suffer gender discrimination, that was it.

Judge Roberts’ passion is an odd one. Like a “passion” for neutrality, a “passion” for the rule of law is almost an oxymoron. A passion for neutral, impartial law is also odd in another respect. Some very smart people believe that no such thing exists. Some terms in the Constitution, they say, are so vague that a Supreme Court Justice, who has the job of interpreting them, has no alternative but to rely on personal values in giving them meaning, if only subconsciously. Others, like Judge Roberts, believe there is enough guidance in the Constitution itself, as well as in history, precedent, and perhaps the views of colleagues, to make judgments without resorting to one’s own values.

No one will ever resolve that philosophical dispute. As a matter of theory and psychology, I agree more with the “values” folk. One’s life experience, world view, and values can’t help but influence one’s decisions, particularly when they are as difficult and close as many the Supreme Court is called to make. Yet as a practical matter, a judge who believes in neutral, impartial rules that he can find with some effort is more likely to rule accordingly than a person who believes that no such rules exist and therefore sees her own feelings and values as perfectly legitimate bases for construing the Constitution.

So I take Judge Roberts at his word. He will judge without passion or prejudice, try to divorce his judgment from his personal feelings and values, and strive with all the power of his considerable intellect to find neutral principles of law with which his colleagues can agree. Is that the kind of Chief Justice we need today?

We seem to be living Yeats’ famous line, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Judge Roberts, certainly among “the best” in intellect, skill, knowledge, restraint and civility, seems to lack passion. But others have far too much. Extremists from the Islamic world are so passionate they blow themselves up, taking unwilling innocents with them. Passionate folk from our own ranks have blown up abortion clinics and government buildings. Our own people are so passionately polarized on so many “hot button” issues that their representatives in Congress, reflecting their passion, often sound like squabbling children more than leaders of a great democracy. Maybe the times we live in have too much passion and too little quiet reason.

Some of the issues that seem to divide us so passionately are not, perhaps, the most important and difficult we soon may face. Few of us actually have abortions or love women who do. Few of us are homosexuals who marry. But all of us have a vital stake, for example, in the tradeoff between civil rights and security. Our lives or our liberty may depend on it. If debate on this topic is so heated now, imagine how hot it might get after terrorists nuked one of our cities. Suppose the devastation wrought by Katrina were the result not of a hurricane, but of a terrorist attack. Can you imagine the strain on our legal system and our way of life? It could happen.

The near future does not look rosy. Iraq may be sliding into civil war. Al Qaeda, which once may have been a single organization, is now a hidden cancer metastasizing worldwide. There will be more hurricanes after Katrina, if not this season then next. The recent increase in their number and strength may be due to global warming---a problem we haven’t even begun to attack. California is still waiting for the “Big One,” a massive earthquake almost certain to come some time in the next century or so. After the War in Iraq and Katrina, our national debt is exploding, while our savings rate approaches zero. The financial burden on posterity increases daily.

As for our own body politic, it seems never to have been more polarized since the Civil War and Reconstruction. The brief sense of unity that came after September 11 is long gone. Pain and anger from the year-2000 election die hard. Democrats---who have had few ideas but revenge since then---reflexively cry “no, no, no!” to every new Republican idea from school vouchers to Judge Roberts’ nomination. We are even polarized on how to recover from Katrina. Republicans literally bubble over with new ideas---some good, some bad---from enterprise zones to yet more tax relief, while Democrats think of a recovery “czar” and a new federal WPA program. Haley Barbour, Governor of Mississippi, goes on television and tells the federal government to send money but keep out, an age-old response to federal intervention there. As I think of our country and its many deep divisions, even in disaster, the words from a verse in Handel’s Messiah keep running through my mind: “And we, like sheep, have gone astray, every one to his own way.”

As a people, our recent collective record in getting things done is not very good. We have botched a war, run our intelligence services abysmally, and allowed a great city to be inundated, although protecting it would have been a simple matter of pedestrian civil engineering. Maybe we need fewer people who have passionate ideas and more who work hard and silently and are very, very good at what they do. Doesn’t that prescription apply to Judge Roberts? Might we need a quiet unifier?

Hard times may lie ahead. If they come, they may put enormous strain on our legal system. Certainly another disaster like Katrina or another major terrorist attack would. If the rule of law is to survive a coming storm, whom do we want at the helm? Do we really want an ideologue or partisan, even one who shares our own passions? Willy nilly, passion breeds disrespect from those who don’t share it, and disrespect is not what our courts need in times of national stress. The federal courts already have their share of disrespect, with a few Senators and Representatives all but calling for civil disobedience from the halls of Congress. There have been physical attacks on federal judges and their families. If this can happen in relatively placid times (at least at home), what might happen when times get really tough?

As Judge Roberts observed in the hearings, our courts are what make the rule of law reality. They have no army, no independent source of funds, no large bureaucracy. They are truly the “least dangerous” and most vulnerable branch. Their survival in tough times depends entirely on the respect they command from the other branches of government and from the people. Maybe what we need most now is not passion, but the type of consistency, neutrality, quiet competence, iron integrity, and almost superhuman civility that Judge Roberts displayed at the Hearings. Maybe those qualities can earn grudging respect from all of our passionate factions and allow the rule of law to survive the much harder times that soon may come.

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14 September 2005

Civilian Control of the Military: Oversight or Micromanagement?

We may still win the War in Iraq. If we do, it won’t be because of our own brilliant planning and strategy. It will be because we muddled through. Or maybe Iraqis will finally get a taste of their last, best chance for liberty and begin to fight harder and smarter. If we lose, the United States---the strongest, richest, smartest, most technologically advanced nation on earth---will be zero for two in our last major “hot” wars. (I don’t count Gulf I because of its strictly limited objective; Bush I wisely hesitated where his son did not fear to tread.)

If that happens, what will have gone wrong? To answer that question, we can start with the man partly responsible for the first loss, former Defense Secretary Robert S. MacNamara. Not long ago, he publicly apologized for his role in the War in Vietnam. And well he might. He bears a large share of the responsibility for over 50,000 American deaths, countless military and civilian casualties in Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia, the defoliation and chemical poisoning of large parts of Southeast Asia, a domestic generational split in America that was only beginning to heal as we invaded Iraq, and political tarnishment of our own military for the better part of two generations. Seppuku might be more appropriate, but a verbal apology will have to do.

MacNamara apologized primarily for his so-called “domino” theory: that the fall of South Vietnam would lead inexorably to the rest of Southeast Asia going Communist. Of course, nothing of the sort happened: Laos and Cambodia tottered, but the rest held. Vietnam itself is now in the process of following China out of the darkness of communism into the light of free markets. History has put the domino theory clearly and firmly in the dustbin.

But the domino theory was far from MacNamara’s only sin. The story of how he mismanaged the War in Vietnam appears at length in David Halberstam’s book, The Best and the Brightest.

As CEO of Ford Motor Co., MacNamara was one of the first American executives to apply quantitative methods to business. He was apparently very good and very quick with numbers. Using this skill, he intimidated some very smart people, including Jack and Robert Kennedy. As a numbers man, he ultimately established “body counts” as the “metric” for success in Vietnam. He neglected unquantifiable political factors, like the stench of the corrupt and despotic South Vietnamese government and the steel will of the North Vietnamese. He completely ignored the most salient fact of all: the Vietnamese yearning for independence from foreign domination, including by the Chinese. He ignored the fact that often soldiers doing the counting couldn’t tell the difference between corpses of friend, foe, and the neutral peasant just trying unsuccessfully to survive. His obsession with numbers became so great that soldiers at every level began to “fudge” the body counts to tell him what he wanted to hear. Our military and political leaders lost track of what was really happening on the ground. Not only did we lose the war; we grossly underestimated its cost in lives and treasure.

Now comes Donald Rumsfeld. He and MacNamara had very different backgrounds and education. MacNamara was a successful business leader; Rumsfeld was a marginally successful political hack. Yet both had one key feature in common: their contemporaries described them as unusually arrogant, cocksure, and intimidating, even to hardened military folk. MacNamara intimidated with his intellect and command of numbers, Rumsfeld with his aggressive and overbearing personality.

To understand this about Rumsfeld, you don’t have to have read all the “deep background” reports of his browbeating Pentagon officials, most of whom (for obvious reasons) won’t be quoted for attribution. All you have to do is have seen a few of his news conferences on TV. Even on the other side of the TV screen, you feel the effect of his aggression, sarcasm and absolute bullheadedness. As you walk away and your adrenalin level subsides, you ask yourself what he said and what you learned. Most often the answer is nothing, except that Rumsfeld is one tough hombre in asserting his viewpoint, no matter how mistaken. As admirers and detractors both say, he is a “skilled bureaucratic infighter.”

Now Rumsfeld insists that he gave his military commanders all the troops they wanted, and President Bush says the same. But the facts tell a different story. Both General Shinseki and General Zinni are on record to the contrary. Both asked for about twice the largest number of troops that we have ever had on the ground in Iraq. General Myers, now head of the Joint Chiefs, tries to keep as quiet as he can on the issue, thereby leaving the impression that he agrees with Rumsfeld and Bush.

But a different story emerges when you consider the timing and the services involved. Shinseki and Zinni, both of whom asked for more troops, are gone from active duty. Myers is in charge. Shinseki is Army and Zinni a Marine. Together, they represent the services most bloodied in Vietnam, the ones that spent the next thirty years thinking hard about what they had done wrong. Most of their thinking involved insurgencies, since that was what Vietnam was all about.

Myers, on the other hand, is Air Force. That’s a great institution, perhaps our most important service strategically. (It certainly was in the Cold War, the Kosovo action and the thirteen-year containment of Saddam.) But you don’t fight an insurgency from a cockpit at 30,000 feet. The folks who know most how to fight insurgencies were the Army and Marines, represented by Shinseki and Zinni. Not surprisingly, both wanted a large number of troops to deal with contingencies, like the insurgency that later arose, and like the need to sequester the huge caches of explosives that are now blowing up our troops and Iraqi forces. Both Shinseki and Zinni are now gone, replaced by an Air Force general who knew far less about insurgency and contingencies on the ground, and who only may have acquiesced in Rumsfeld’s cut in requested troop levels at the outset.

Is it unfair to say that (assuming Myers really agreed) Rumsfeld “shopped” his generals until he got the answer he wanted? Is it wrong to conclude that, in so doing, he ignored the advice of the generals who were most expert on what eventually happened in Iraq? That’s what the bare facts suggest. If this conclusion is correct, Rumsfeld, and he alone, is responsible for the debacle that has followed.

If we lose this war, we therefore will have lost two major wars because two Secretaries of Defense went far beyond their competence. Both meddled directly in military planning and strategy---MacNamara in telling the military how to measure success (and therefore, indirectly, how to fight), and Rumsfeld in dictating how much force was adequate. What military decision is more important than how much force to put in the field? What decision requires more expertise, education and experience? What decision is more crucial to victory? Were we right to have it made by a marginally successful political hack?

The supreme irony is how often Rumsfeld and Bush have publicly lauded our military’s excellence in training, experience, and education. And they have been right to do so. Even in peacetime, our troops train constantly, as much as possible with live ammunition, often raising questions about the environment and noise near military bases. Their leaders attend special schools, institutes, and war colleges. There they read about, discuss, and analyze every conflict in world history, from the Peloponnesian War to Gulf I. They, too, use quantitative methods and sophisticated computer analysis to do their jobs. We do have the best trained, best educated, and brightest military in the world. So what have we done in fighting two of our most recent major wars? We’ve ignored and marginalized their top leadership.

Doing so was not just incredibly stupid and counterproductive. The results speak for themselves. It also violated an implicit social compact with our troops. We expect them to salute, fight and die for us on command; and they do. In return, we owe them not just honor and lip service, but competent strategic and tactical leadership, preferably from their own ranks. We should not expect our brave soldiers to die willingly because of poor planning or command by a political hack (or even a successful industrialist) trying to play soldier. Our present voluntary army only highlights the need to honor this vital social compact.

In George Washington’s time, the man who became President could lead troops into battle. By Lincoln’s day, that time had vanished. Today, it is a distant memory. Today the President’s constitutional role as Commander in Chief is figurative only. The job must be delegated, and delegated wisely to people who know what they are doing. Would anyone want President Bush, with his questionable service in the Texas Air National Guard, standing in for General Myers?

Having experts in charge is not just important for the troops. It is important for democracy. Congress is supposed to have some role in the decision to go to war, if only through the power of the purse. It can’t play that role if it doesn’t have good information about the cost in blood, time and treasure. Would Congress have been so easily stampeded into authorizing the invasion of Iraq if it had known that a successful operation would take 300,000 troops, costs half a trillion dollars, and maybe take several years? We’ll never know, because Rumsfeld’s “spinning” of the facts and disinformation---tasks at which he is so consummately skilled---left the Congress, not to mention “us, the people,” in the dark. Now the time window for ready victory, if there ever was one, has long since closed.

If we are ever invaded, we may not have a choice. But it’s different in an “optional” war. Then, we must all listen particularly well to our real military experts, especially when they give us bad news, and even more especially before we start a conflict (as in Iraq) or get too deeply involved in one to turn back (as in Vietnam). By his constant stream of self-serving disinformation, Rumsfeld the bureaucratic infighter prevented the democratic process from working where it was most needed.

So what can we learn from this sad history? What are the proper limits of civilian control of the military? Certainly, the executive branch (together with Congress) has to set policy. The goals and objectives of any military action, including whether and when to go and when to get out, are matters for civilian leadership and the political process. So are broad strategic limits based on politics or foreign policy. Examples include the decision not to invade China during the Korean War, restraints on the use of nuclear weapons, and restraints on air power to avoid civilian casualties. Military forces must accept these limits on planning and action---even when they rankle---because there can be considerations more important than strategic or tactical advantage, and civilian leadership must make those decisions.

Just as certainly, the executive branch must have the power to appoint and remove top military officials. Lincoln famously ran through several top generals before he found (in U.S. Grant) one who would fight the Civil War boldly and wisely. Truman fired MacArthur for insubordination and going far beyond the limits of national policy, nearly provoking all-out war with China. Both were right to do so.

But if we look honestly at our entire history, including our two greatest wars (the Civil War and World War II), we will see something interesting. Never after our Revolution have political figures meddled in strategy and tactics to the extent that MacNamara and Rumsfeld respectively did in Vietnam and Iraq. By telling our armed forces how to measure success in the face of an insurgency (with body counts), MacNamara was telling them not what to do or what political limits to observe, but how to fight. Rumsfeld's intrusion into military competence was even worse. In telling our military leaders how many troops to field, he intruded at exactly the point where military expertise is most valuable and most needed.

To see just how intrusive Rumsfeld's decision was, consider the "safety factor." No competent engineer would design a bridge to support exactly the maximum weight it is expected to bear. There is always a safety factor. Just so, competent military planners must include a safety factor in troop and equipment requirements to account for unforseen contingencies, breakdowns, disasters, bad luck, a enemy that is stronger or smarter than expected, and "the fog of war." In both engineering and military planning, safety factors are typically 20 to 30 percent, maybe 50 percent at the outside. But Rumsfeld allowed only half the troops that military leaders specified. He was not just quibbling about a safety factor, for a 50% percent reduction assumes an unheard-of safety factor of 100%. Instead, Rumsfeld was second-guessing the basic reasoning and conclusions of his military planners on a matter on which they were the experts and he the amateur.

The results speak for themselves. Had MacNamara not so distorted our sense of reality with his useless “body counts,” we might have realized the full cost of winning much earlier and extricated ourselves with less pain and humiliation. (It’s unlikely that we would ever have summoned the political will to "win," had we honestly faced the true cost of winning in blood and treasure, and had we understood the true determination of the Vietnamese to be free from foreign domination, even under Communism. The nuclear option was never realistic, let alone advisable, despite some hawks’ wishful thinking.) Had Rumsfeld recognized his generals’ competence, we might have thought twice about invading. Or, if the public and Congress had agreed to pay the necessary price, we might have stabilized Iraq during the brief window of opportunity and be on our way out now. Instead, we have a practical demonstration how foolish it is to do something halfway, especially when that something is waging war.

There are other constructive roles that civilian leadership can play besides setting objectives and broad limits and hiring and firing. It can coordinate supply by the government and the private sector to make sure that the military has what it needs. The federal government did so in World War II. It built huge aluminum plants, from scratch, to supplement the resources of Alcoa, which then had a monopoly on aluminum production. (After the war, those plants were sold to the private sector and became Reynolds and Kaiser.) Even in this supply-assurance function, however, civilian officials should not overstep their competence. An army general, General Leslie Groves, and not civilian leadership, ran the Manhattan Project that built the atom bomb.

In coordinating supply, the most important function of civilian leadership is setting and enforcing priorities. Here again, Rumsfeld fell far short of the mark. The spectacle of troops waiting months and months for armor for themselves and their humvees is simply inexcusable. There might be an explanation for delays in making body armor, which involves special ceramics and other exotic materials. But steel plates for humvees? Any competent Secretary who knew and worked well with the private sector should have been able to have all our humvees armored within sixty days, ninety at the most. It was simply a matter of priorities and expense. No doubt MacNamara, with his experience at Ford, could have done it. The role of civilian leadership should be to cut red tape, short-circuit normal procurement procedures, and goad, cajole and (when necessary) replace the private sector---all to make sure that what’s needed is in the field as quickly as humanly possible. When necessary, the Executive should request and procure emergency legislation from Congress; our troops deserve no less. Congress would agree quickly if the need is real, as it was for armor in Iraq.

Finally, civilian leadership can perform a useful role in goading and forcing the military to reform itself and adopt new technology. For some reason, the old saw that the military always fights the last war has more than a germ of truth. We all know the stories of the Maginot line and the difficult birth pangs of our own Air Force. Civilian leadership is appropriate and necessary in overcoming this institutional inertia and keeping our armed forces at the cutting edge, both in weaponry and in organization. It was and is crucial in downsizing and reshaping our Cold-War weapons and organization to be more mobile, agile, and ready to fight contemporary regional conflicts and insurgencies. Here Rumsfeld has done a good job. If we had never gone to war, or if he had never decided to play general, he might therefore have been remembered as a competent Secretary of Defense. Now history will likely tag him as our second biggest loser.

A salient lesson of Vietnam and Iraq is that civilian leadership can do great damage to our troops and our nation when it goes beyond its competence and second-guesses military leaders’ strategic and tactical decisions within their unique competence. How can we prevent that? Can Congress pass a law? Should we amend the Constitution to limit the role of the Executive to oversight, not direct command? Or should we just trust future executives to heed the lessons of the past thirty years and keep their political appointees’ hands out of military planning, strategy, and tactics? Our future security and success as a nation depend on the answers to these questions.

Military leadership is a learned profession like any other. It was in ancient times. It is far more so today, when making war involves advanced technology, communications, industry, politics, psychology, economics and (as in Iraq) religion. Politicians and bureaucrats would never think of taking out their own appendix, designing their own computers or televisions, or sitting in for Julie Gerberding in warding off the next bacterial or viral plague. Yet somehow, when placed in the Pentagon, they think they can second-guess folks who have spent their entire careers learning how to plan and wage war. If we don’t disabuse our political leadership of this notion---and fast---our losing streak may last indefinitely.

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09 September 2005

The Decline of Competence in America

Once we were a nation of doers. We controlled flooding on the Mississippi, once one of the most unruly rivers in the world. We eliminated yellow fever from Florida and neighboring states. While still a nation of farmers and traders, we arose from peaceful isolation and helped defeat the most fearsome war machine the world had ever known. To win World War II we invented atomic weapons and synthetic rubber. We also invented the phonograph, motion pictures, television, the airplane, the electric light, the laser, the integrated circuit, the Internet, and other marvels too numerous to mention. We put men on the Moon.

Once the rest of the world looked to us, literally, to do the difficult with ease and the impossible with sustained effort. We made reality of two of mankind’s oldest dreams---controllable flight and travel to celestial bodies. And we have invented a communications system to allow every person on earth to communicate with every other, singly or together.

Of late, however, our record is not so good. We have the biggest intelligence budget and the largest number of separate spy organizations in human history. Yet not only didn’t we prevent 9/11; crucial clues got lost in our vast intelligence bureaucracy. We relied exclusively on “safe,” high-technology methods; our “human” intelligence---the ability to spy---is virtually non-existent and will have to be rebuilt over decades.

For thirteen years we contained the Sunni in Iraq with air power. The cost was low and casualties minimal. Then we decided to invade, thinking the Sunni, like the Shia and Kurds, would cheer removal of a brutal tyrant. We were wrong. Now we have made Iraq into Hell on earth, without power, water, and sewage disposal, where lawlessness and insecurity reign. Innocent Iraqis, their security forces, and our troops die in large numbers every week.

We have the best, best trained, and best equipped military in the world. Thirty years ago, we fought another insurgency in Vietnam. Did we learn anything? Our people learned an important lesson---to honor and support our troops, whatever one might think of the policies that put them in harm’s way. But did our leaders learn how to win? Did they learn to listen to their military experts? Apparently not.

Now comes Katrina. We have the best and best equipped meteorological services in the world. Except perhaps for Japan, we have bested every other country in predicting storms and minimizing their consequences. For decades, our scientists have predicted disaster in New Orleans, yet we did nothing. The Big Easy slid into a Category 4 hurricane with levees designed to withstand a Category 3. Until recently, that was the kind of thing that happened on ferries in Bangladesh, not in cities in America.

If we are honest with ourselves, there are two words to describe these failures: gross incompetence. These are not words that usually apply to Americans, but they certainly fit here. These failures are the result of our collective failure to demand competent leadership.

We have excuses for the last election. President Bush had a grand vision. He spoke of liberty spreading worldwide, democracy in Iraq, and steadfastness in the war on terrorists. At home he promised an “ownership society,” an economic recovery, lower taxation, and greater excellence and accountability in our schools. In contrast, John Kerry offered no vision whatsoever, just more competence in execution. He lost, and understandably so.

But in Bush’s second term, we are seeing the results of our collective neglect of that important and elusive quality in our leaders: competence. All of us could agree with most or all of Bush’s grand vision (although we may have differed on detail and methods), but few of us asked “can he pull it off?” Now Iraq has become a practical demonstration of the old proverb, “The road to Hell is paved with good intentions.”

The 2004 election was a tough choice: demonstrated vision versus claimed but unproven competence. John Kerry didn’t make that choice any easier by having done little in his time in Congress, by being an abysmal public speaker, and by taking a shrilly defensive tone about his heroic service and heroic protest on Vietnam. And so we have a President with a glowing vision of the future who can’t seem to tie his shoes without a diagram and can’t seem to find advisors who can draw one.

Our problems of competence go far beyond the White House. Think of Bernie Ebbers. He was a high-school basketball coach. When he began his meteoric rise, he had no education and little experience in telecommunications. Yet he grabbed the job of CEO of one of the biggest companies in one of the most complicated businesses on Earth, and he did so at a time of explosive technological, economic, and political change. Did anyone wonder whether this former high-school basketball coach had what it takes for that kind of job? Did anyone mentally superimpose the image of their own high-school coach on one of the most complex, competitive and rapidly-changing businesses on Earth? Certainly not the directors and stockholders of all the firms Ebbers cobbled together during his rapid and ultimately tragic rise. Few raised a question until he had presided over one of the worst and most disastrous frauds in American business history.

Somehow, we Americans seem to have forgotten what competence means. We have lost our faith in doers and expertise and have put our trust in marketers. Our President is a marketer of grand and noble visions, and a highly effective one at that! Our captains of industry include many cheerleaders like Bernie Ebbers, with no other claim to fame than a cheerful disposition and a glib line.

Once upon a time, our business leaders knew how to do things. The first chiefs of Hewlett-Packard built their business from the ground up, designing and making products in that legendary Palo Alto garage. Now we have Carly Fiorina, a marketer, removed from the helm. Her firing may have been unfair and premature (as some claim) in what has now become a commodity business. But did anybody stop to think that a marketer who could not design or build a computer or printer if her life depended on it (her degrees are in medieval history, philosophy and business, and she began her career as an account executive) might not be the best person to lead a once-great firm out of the commodity business and back to leading innovation?

In our nation’s industrial heyday, CEOs rose from the bottom up. They learned by doing, and they demonstrated competence all the way up. The line of descent is strong and clear from Thomas Edison, through Andrew Carnegie, to Bill Hewlett and David Packard. It survives in Bill Gates. (Whatever you may think of his business practices and the quality of his software, he built a great business, and he did it from scratch.) Yet in the last decade or two, marketers and lawyers seems to have taken over from the folks who demonstrated competence all the way up from the shop floor. That may be appropriate for banks, insurance companies, and consulting firms, but is it appropriate for industrial companies? Is America’s manufacturing base declining because we have marketers and lawyers, not doers, at the helm?

Our media have been woefully complicit in the decline of competence in America. Indeed, they have led the way. They fill air time with “controversy” where none exists, at least among people who know what they are doing. They seek out crackpots who have never published a peer-reviewed article, seat them next to Nobel prize winners with hundreds of peer-reviewed publications and universal respect among scientists, and have a “discussion.” They put provenders of junk science and junk policy at the same table with intelligent, experienced folk with a long track record of success and declare a “debate.” They put independent researchers who have spent their careers studying an issue with an open mind alongside recent, paid advocates for corporate interests, without ever letting the audience know. Celebrity, not competence, is the coin of the realm, and the media make celebrities of crackpots and shills.

These increasingly widespread practices have two pernicious consequences. First, they confuse the public. When experts have “discussions” with crackpots or shills, the average viewer cannot tell the difference. Many problems today require years of training, experience, and expertise just to understand, let alone to solve. Confronted with expert, crackpot, and self-interested views, the average viewer can only make decisions based on personal impressions, prejudices, hunches, ideology, or wishful thinking. In short, neither the existence of expertise nor its substance---far less its value---gets communicated to the public.

Second, these journalistic practices encourage self-delusion on the part of our leaders and embolden scoundrels and liars. How can a leader acknowledge a mistake when there is always someone, somewhere on the twenty-four hour news cycle, insisting vociferously (and with a straight face) that a disastrous blunder was a cunning stratagem? Our poisonous political polarization is partly at fault here, but the media bear much blame for encouraging that polarization in order to sell news.

It might be understandable if this apotheosis of the fringe arose out of an attempt to insure evenhandedness and objectivity in reporting. But it did not. It is the lazy reporter’s response to the need to fill air time and provoke higher ratings. It exaggerates and overemphasizes extremes, neglects the mainstream and middle, and confuses the public and its leaders alike. It is journalism without editing. More aptly, it is journalism with “anti-editing”: the more extreme and wacky and less mainstream a view, the more air time it gets. Would Walter Cronkite call that objectivity?

As a result of this relentless disinformation from the media, “we the people” have forgotten that some things are not matters of “values” and “positions” and eternally up for grabs. In the real world, there are right and wrong answers to problems, especially on matters of expertise. Having umpteen-odd bureaucratic fiefdoms that don’t talk to each other is a wrong way to organize intelligence services. Building levees to withstand a Category 3 hurricane is a wrong way to protect a city beset by 4s and maybe 5s. And failing to provide the number of troops specified by the nation’s foremost military experts is a wrong way to plan for an insurgency. Probably President Bush and Donald Rumsfeld are the only people in America who still can’t understand that the extra troops demanded by Generals Shinseki and Zinni could have guarded and disposed of the vast caches of explosives that are now blowing up our troops and innocent Iraqis, could have kept the Iraqi people from looting their national patrimony, and could have protected reconstruction workers, guarded areas cleared of insurgents so they wouldn’t return, and sealed the borders against foreign terrorists.

As these examples show, not only don’t we recognize or reward competence any more. We don’t even respond to abject failure. George Tenet presided over the hollowing of our nation’s human intelligence and our worst intelligence debacle since Soviet spies stole secret designs for atomic weapons. Yet he retired in dignity with the Medal of Freedom. So far as I know, not a single person, at any level, has been fired, demoted or reassigned as a result of the failure to share intelligence that might have prevented 9/11.

Once we Americans knew how to find and use competence. Abraham Lincoln was not known for sharp political elbows. He was famously forgiving. Yet he fired some half dozen generals before he found one, U.S. Grant, who could almost match wits with Robert E. Lee. Only after Grant’s appointment did the North exploit its clear superiority in numbers, industry and technology and begin to put an end to slavery and a long, bloody war.

World War II and its aftermath saw men like George Patton and Douglas MacArthur. They were irascible, intemperate, impolitic, and insubordinate. They had to be reprimanded (in Patton's case) and removed (in MacArthur's). They were not pretty, politically correct or smooth, but they got the job done. Harry Truman ultimately fired MacArthur because he wouldn’t follow orders and risked all-out war with China. That president knew how to use and control expertise, both when it was right and when it was wrong.

Where are men and women like that today? Where are the ones with the guts and brains to tell us honestly what went wrong, how to fix it, how long it will take, and how much it will cost? Where are those who will even admit that something went wrong, that someone, somewhere screwed up? Without admission of error, we can never improve. We cannot move forward if we blanch at replacing blunderers and bureaucrats with doers.

Fortunately, we still have a few good role models left. Consider Dr. Julie Gerberding, director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. When they address a problem, they have a good idea of its source and a plan to fix it. They are cautious, careful, and thoughtful. They have comprehensible reasons for every step in their plans. They always have backup and fall-back plans. They know that bugs and their mutations are often one step ahead of Man, so they never declare “Mission Accomplished” prematurely. So far, they and others like them have prevented a new plague from emerging despite hints that several are brewing, and despite the enormous risks that modern travel poses in spreading communicable disease. They know what they are doing.

Another example of well-heeded expertise is Alan Greenspan. With a brilliant mind, a first-class education, and uncanny intuition, he guided this country’s economy successfully for the better part of three decades. He recently decided to retire, and the universal praise he has received was well deserved. If you superimpose a graph of the stock market bubble and its bursting in 2000 over a similar graph for 1929, the resemblance is astounding. Yet the Crash of 1929 caused a decade-long depression and helped provoke the world’s most destructive war, while the Crash of 2000 caused only a mild recession. There were many reasons for the difference in outcome, but certainly Alan Greenspan and better understanding of economics can take some credit there.

What bears notice and careful study is not just the extraordinary value of Alan Greenspan’s advice. The next Federal Reserve Chairman may not be so competent. Equally amazing is the fact that politicians and bureaucrats listened to him and refused to tread on his turf. If only generals, civil engineers and meteorologists could have found the same respect for their expertise, things might be much better in Iraq and New Orleans.

We probably couldn’t find better people than Gerberding and Fauci to do the job of staving off the next plague, or than Greenspan to guide our economy. Can we honestly say the same about Donald Rumsfeld for managing the war? Since the War in Iraq began, the most positive thing I have read about him is that he is a skilled bureaucratic infighter. If that is what we value in leaders, we are all in great trouble.

Why can’t we let generals, scientists, and engineers do their jobs without the intervention of wishful thinking, ideology, supervisory arrogance, and political manipulation? Why couldn’t we heed the repeated warnings that New Orleans was a city waiting to die? Why can’t we understand that global warming is not political platform or a Marxist ideology, but a sober, open-minded conclusion of the vast majority of the world’s scientists, based upon decades of research in many different fields of science? Why can’t we hold anyone accountable for fragmenting our intelligence services into multiple fiefdoms that don’t talk to each other and depriving them of human intelligence? Why can’t we select and heed experts like Gerberding, Fauci and Greenspan in fields other than public health and central banking?

Until we begin to answer these questions, we are all at risk. As Iraq and Katrina have shown, the modern world is complex and dangerous. There are many aspects of it that ordinary people, politicians and bureaucrats simply can’t understand. They have to rely on experts, and they have to be able to identify the right experts on whom to rely. If nothing else, Iraq and Katrina showed that people die in large numbers when real experts go unheeded. We Americans have stumbled, and stumbled badly, because our leaders did not understand that simple lesson. How long will it be before our leaders put that lesson to work?

07 September 2005

A Tale of Two Cities

The Great San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 was the worst natural disaster ever to hit an American city. Even after Katrina, it probably still is. Thousands of people died; many great buildings fell; and the fire that followed razed most of the city to the ground.

But something positive arose from that searing loss. People learned from it. It took over fifty years, but they applied science and engineering to an important problem: building habitable structures that can survive earthquakes.

Seismology---the study of earthquakes---became a real science, partly as a result of that tragedy. It attracted talent and money. Along with Japan, California became one of the world’s centers of progress and excellence in seismology.

In the last half of the twentieth century, engineering began to cooperate with science. An Australian named Bruce Bolt, who ran the Seismographic Stations at the University of California, campaigned tirelessly for seismologists and engineers to work together. Eventually, they began to cooperate. Scientists figured out how much shaking reasonably probable earthquakes were likely to cause, and engineers designed structures to withstand it.

Bruce Bolt died recently, but his legacy lives on. He had doggedly promoted a simple but powerful idea: if we can’t control Nature, we can at least predict its most likely depredations and plan for them. In part through his tireless effort, the law changed, despite opposition from self-seeking and short sighted politicians, business people and bureaucrats.

Over decades, Californians began to see the need to strengthen codes for new buildings and to reinforce existing structures. First schools, then public buildings, and finally private ones---all were reinforced or rebuilt under tough, far-sighted legal requirements.

A real test of this program came in the Oakland Earthquake in 1989 (also known as the Loma Prieta Earthquake for its epicenter.). A section of unreinforced, elevated freeway in Oakland collapsed, killing 42 people. Part of the Bay Bridge collapsed. But the total loss of life (estimated at 66) was minimal for such a large earthquake in such a densely populated area. In contrast, tens of thousands have died from smaller earthquakes in Iran and Turkey.

The Oakland Earthquake was about a magnitude 7. It was at least ten times smaller than the Great San Francisco Earthquake, which scientists estimate in retrospect as over magnitude 8. (Each increment in magnitude represents a tenfold increase in earthquake energy.) No one knows what might have happened if the Oakland Earthquake had been as big. Yet population density and the number, height and weight of structures were incomparably greater in 1989 than in 1906, and the loss of life was far less. The rational program of building to meet predictable natural disasters had succeeded.

Fate has not been so kind to New Orleans. For decades, meteorologists and flood-control specialists had been predicting devastation if a large enough hurricane hit head on. About three years before Katrina, the PBS television series “Now” laid out the scientific predictions for the general public, in a feature entitled "The City in a Bowl." Yet Katrina did not even hit head on, and still New Orleans died.

The problem with New Orleans was much the same as the problem with San Francisco (and Los Angeles). Earthquake country demands stronger buildings, and flood country requires stronger levees. Yet nothing was done. Now we have over a million displaced persons in our own country, and some of us are beginning to wonder whether there really is a difference between America and Bangladesh.

Once upon a time, there was a big difference, and the whole world acknowledged it. Bangladeshis met disaster with lamentation, prayers, and little else. We met it with study, science, technology, and engineering. We looked Mother Nature in the eye and said, “We can beat you.” And we did. We were a pragmatic, “can do” people. Our confident, competent, rational approach defined us as a nation.

This tale of two cities suggests that something very important may have changed. Our faith in reason and action seems to be growing thin, while our faith in God and political ideology grows.

Many people blame President Bush and his administration. There is some poetic justice in that. President Bush is certainly our chief apostle of religious faith and unthinking political ideology. And the Bush Administration has a lot to answer for. As Harry Truman said (pointing to his presidential desk), “The buck stops here.” But in truth the blame for New Orleans’ inundation (as distinguished from the government’s inept response to it) lies far from this White House in space and time, at the intersection of science and public policy.

Someone decided that the levees around New Orleans should be built to withstand a Category 3 hurricane. Katrina was a Category 4. Someone failed to notice that since 1969, when the levees were first built, hurricanes have been increasing in number and ferocity. Someone failed to heed the repeated warnings in newspapers, in scientific journals, and on PBS, that New Orleans was a city waiting to die. The tragic irony is that shoring up the levees would have been a simple, relatively inexpensive task---far simpler and cheaper (both physically and politically) than reinforcing or rebuilding schools and major buildings in California. Even rebuilding all the levees would have been incomparably simpler and cheaper than the recovery and rebuilding projects that now lie ahead.

This tale of two cities has a very simple moral. Modern science and engineering have brought us unparalleled health and prosperity. But they have also made our world complex and dangerous. In such a world, people die when we ignore reality and fail to deal with it, whether out of political ideology, blind faith, or simple inertia.

Science and engineering led our country to wealth and power because they work, just as they have in earthquake-prone California. But politicians, bureaucrats, the media and our leaders seem no longer to respect these disciplines. Politicians ignore the conclusions of scientists when those conclusions don’t satisfy their ideological preconceptions or political needs. Global warming is a prime example. Bureaucrats don’t understand science or engineering and are often too lazy to find people who do. And the media---believing that any controversy sells TV time---elevate junk scientists to the same level as Nobel prize winners in order to market food fights as news. And so we have a majority in a recent poll “voting” to dilute the teaching of evolution with ideological and religious twaddle. Our President approves.

Sure, evolution is “only” a theory. But so are atomic energy, the solar system, and gravity. Scientific theories like these are useful not because they make us feel self-important and the center of the Universe. Believing in a sun that revolves around the Earth did that but not much else. Science and engineering are useful because they work. They allow us to bend Nature to our will.

Evolution predicts that antibiotics, if overused, can cause bugs to develop resistance that makes the drugs useless. So we cut down using antibiotics for colds and flu (against which they don’t work) and keep our pharmaceutical powder dry for the next bacterial plague. Evolution also predicts that genetically homogeneous crops may cause disastrous famines---like the Irish potato famine of the nineteenth century---when plant pests mutate. So we diversify our crops and avoid the fate of Ireland. These detailed predictions, made by science, help us avoid suffering and catastrophic loss of life. Try that with “creationism” or “intelligent design.”

If our educational system were not largely obsolescent and rotting, even adults would know that science and engineering are not just religion by another name. They are uniquely valuable because they do useful work in the real world. They make our lives better in this world, not the next. If we ignore them, as New Orleans did before Katrina, we suffer and die here and now.

We Americans used to understand that point. Even our proverbs recognized it. Once we said, “Praise the Lord but pass the ammunition.” Now New Orleans is under water because people---maybe a whole lot of people---have lost their bearings.

In less than five years, our nation has endured two unprecedented tragedies. Both were caused in part by our failure to recognize and deal with reality.

We might not have prevented September 11. But any chance we might have had to do so was squandered through grossly incompetent organization and management of our intelligence services. It does not take twenty years' experience as a spook to understand that refusing to share information among multiple organizations with thousands of workers all trying to do the same job is not a winning strategy, and that those responsible for that policy ought to be in another line of work. Yet nothing has changed. Except at the CIA, the same people are running the same sorry show, with new figureheads having no real authority.

As for Katrina, the loss of New Orleans was entirely preventable. One does not have to be a meteorologist to know that Category 4 and 5 hurricanes are not “once or twice a millennium” events, as once was thought. All one has to do is have followed the news for the last decade. It does not take advanced technology to shore up a few levees. Nor would doing so have appreciably increased the national debt. All it would have taken is a little basic competence, understanding of the real world and political will. Yet despite decades of warning, nothing was done.

What is worse, no one has yet been held accountable for either failure: September 11 or the flooding of New Orleans. If recent history is any guide, no one ever will be held accountable. That means, among other things, that history is likely to repeat itself.

In ancient Rome, blunderers fell on their swords. In Imperial Japan, they committed seppuku. In the heyday of American business and government, they were fired or forced to resign. Not any more. Now they are given the Medal of Freedom and praised, their failures left unmarked as lessons for the future. If failure has no price, there is no incentive to succeed. The prime directive of all bureaucracies, “Cover Thy Ass,” is now our commandment for operational government at all levels.

What will it take to get us to return to hard-headed reason and accountable competence among our leadership? What will it take to get us to realize that Mother Nature does not yield to political ideology, pork-barrel politics, or religious dogma? What will it take to understand that implacable terrorists do not succumb to wishful thinking, only to realism, brains, and intelligent planning and action? Will our reawakening require a terrorist nuke in our nation’s capital? another Katrina? a dozen Katrinas?

September 11 put the writing on the wall. Katrina highlighted it in red. Do “we the people” still know how to read? This tale of two cities suggests that we won’t have much more time to get the message.

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