Invading the Moon

by Kieran Healy on December 7, 2004

Continuing the debate about preventive war begun by Judge Richard Posner (the discussion was begun by him, I mean, not the war) the Medium Lobster presents a competing analysis:

[T]the probability of an attack from the moon is less than one – indeed, it is miniscule. However, the potential offensive capabilities of a possible moon man invasion could be theoretically staggering. … The Medium Lobster has calculated this probability to be 5×109. … the resulting costs would include the end of civilization, the extinction of the human race, the eradication of all terrestrial life, the physical obliteration of the planet, and the widespread pollution of the solar system with a mass of potentially radioactive space debris. The Medium Lobster conservatively values these costs at 3×1012, bringing the expected cost of the moon man attack on earth to 1500 (5×109 x 3×1012), a truly massive sum. Even after factoring in the cost of exhausting earth’s nuclear stockpile and the ensuing rain of moon wreckage upon the earth (200 and 800, respectively), the numbers simply don’t lie: our one rational course of action is to preventively annihilate the moon.

I’m a bit sorry to break it to the Medium Lobster, but Judge Posner considers scenarios of precisely this kind, and uses pretty much this methodology, in his new book, Catastrophe: Risk and Response. Cases treated include the nanotechnology gray-goo apocalypse, the rise of superintelligent robots, and a strangelet disaster at Brookhaven Labs that would annihilate a substantial chunk of spacetime in the vicinity of our solar system. A recent review of the book raises most of the relevant critical points about the approach Posner takes. In essence, it’s all good geeky fun to apply the methods to cases like these but it’s a stretch to pretend we’re learning anything decisive about what we should do, as opposed to gaining insights on the scope and limits of some techniques for assessing alternatives.

In the case of cost-benefit arguments about preventive war, there are other objections. One, pointed out by Chris in the comments to my earlier post, is the the worry that your adversaries are thinking about preemptive attacks in much the same way you are, and so will move to preempt your preemptive attack with one of their own. You can still be committed to weigh up the costs and benefits as best you can, but it would be foolish to think one had a straightforward technique that cut through the difficulty and reduced it to a matter of simple calculation. One of the most important contributions of game theory is the way it reorients your thinking from a parametric to a strategic point of view. That is, you stop thinking of other agents as passive bits of the world and realize that they, like you, are searching for the smartest decision given what they anticipate their opponents will do. If you’re inspired by rational choice theory, as Judge Posner is, the simple application of cost-benefit methods should not look very plausibly as a way of reaching a strategic decision about the use of preventive action in cases like Iraq.

More broadly, though, the reason I find it disturbing that these elementary cost-benefit methods are presented by Posner as a serious way to resolve decision problems in international politics it that it’s clear he’s aware of their shortcomings and limits. In the Catastrophe book, for instance, he acknowledges that monetizing the costs of extremely unlikely disasters, for which little in the way of good evidence about their likelihood exists, is an essentially arbitrary process. (In more run-of-the-mill cases, of course, “arbitrary” does not mean “random.” The development and application of these pricing technologies has more to do with the push to quantify many kinds of risk than the rationality of the methods themselves. But that’s an argument for another day.) At a minimum, if we’re thinking of things like the invasion of another country it just won’t do to acknowledge the arbitrariness of the numbers being assigned to the variables, and then press on regardless. Nor is it satisfactory to sketch a cost benefit approach as if it represented how a rational agent would assess a situation in practice, and then jump in to specific cases like Hitler invading the Sudetenland. It’s not that these methods aren’t powerful, it’s that they’re being misapplied. Abba Lerner once commented that

Thousands of habits of behavior and of enforced laws had to be developed over millennia to establish the nature and the minutiae of property rights before we could have buying and selling, instead of each man just taking what he wanted if only he was strong enough. … Each set of rights begins as a conflict about what somebody is doing or wants to do which affects others … An economic transaction is a solved political problem. Economics has gained the title of queen of the social sciences by choosing solved political problems as its domain.

When the parameters of a decision are settled—to buy or not buy some commodity, for instance—then a tool like cost benefit analysis can be enormously powerful, especially when there are a lot of parameters. Even when aspects of the decision become increasingly uncertain or subjective, these approaches retain much of their power as heuristics for decision making. But eventually you’ll get to cases which should provoke reflection on the limits and applicability of the methods, rather than a perverse desire to rely on them all the more just because the choice is hard and you want a definitive answer. Whatever you thought of the pros and cons of invading Iraq, the last thing it could be called was a solved political problem. In such cases, wheeling out the cost-benefit machinery in the way Judge Posner does isn’t a way to make the political choice easier, it’s a rhetorical move to make the politics of the choice magically disappear.



epist 12.07.04 at 6:49 am

Perhaps the people at Mr. Show had it right, we ought to blow up the moon.

What struck me as really nasty about this sort of analysis is how it would work out in a ‘Mouse That Roared’ scenario, where a small power comes up with some powerful weapon.

Let’s see. . .

Chances of a U.S. attack (charitably) fairly low


damage done by a U.S. attack, total.

Hmm, if a ‘preventative attack’ has a possibility of producing a less-than-total-anhilation scenario, looks like they ought to go for it.

I wonder what the math looks like for allies with enough weaponry to make the sub-armaggedon scenario plausible?


aj 12.07.04 at 7:30 am

Destroying the moon without taking into consideration the possible effects such an attack would have on global tidal movements is absurd. Who would ever promote a war by means of such reasoning?


Sebastian Holsclaw 12.07.04 at 8:14 am

Sheesh you people don’t know how to think like good militarists. In your scenario we clearly need to take over the moon so that we are the ones who can launch the armageddon attacks. Get with the program. :)


Motoko 12.07.04 at 8:57 am


Bucky 12.07.04 at 9:31 am

“…would annihilate a substantial chunk of spacetime in the vicinity of our solar system…”
It’s already happened. Local space/time disappears just over the next major event-ridge. Already in the sense that we’re still moving toward it, but it wasn’t there a while back. The Instrumentality went up there and flubbed it into its constituent bits.

“…Thousands of habits of behavior and of enforced laws had to be developed over millennia to establish the nature and the minutiae of property rights before we could have buying and selling, instead of each man just taking what he wanted if only he was strong enough.”

That’s stunningly revisionist, though it’s a page right out of the mainstream colonial handbook. There were thousands of years, millenial decades of human living that knew no finance at all, but were not populated solely by simple grunting cave-folk bashing each other for immediate gain. People shared, in ways we can’t even summon now, supported each other, sacrificed for the whole, participated in an organic enterprise that was indistinguishable from their own lives – identity was taken from the community, and the community was not a bunch of self-interested scammers competing against each other.
It’s one thing to idealize the risks and discomforts of living close to the ground at the whims of seasonal change, it’s another and far more egregious to pretend this complex prosthetic-dependent civilization with its poisons and its terminal velocity, which benefits one minority at the expense of most others, is all that stands between us and bloody anarchy. We lived through the last Ice Age, and not as brutal savages either. Unless you’re willing to admit you think the Inuit are brutal savages. Something it’s no longer safe and socially acceptable to do. It was never accurate, just one more acceptable lie that comforted the tellers. Our true history is lost to us, just as the great threads of tradition have been broken, and traditional ways cast aside and ridiculed; and the scam, that all there ever was was darkness and suffering, repeated so constantly it’s accepted as fact. It’s not. It’s a lie.
Which brings me to the main point of the post as I read it.
There’s two very different approaches to analysis, no?
One with a pre-existing point that needs verifying and confirmation, that seeks its validation, and one that looks for what’s there with an open mind. Posner tries to justify what he already wants to do.
It’s the difference between a definition of what’s right as whatever isn’t wrong; and one that says that whatever isn’t right is always wrong.


Bucky 12.07.04 at 9:52 am

Just to clarify: the first bit there was satire, not prediction.
And in the second bit, the difference is between a morality that’s centered on defined wrong and one that’s centered on an indefinable but felt right. One’s easy, the other’s hard. One works in the long term, the other doesn’t.


cesperugo 12.07.04 at 10:32 am

Let us not loose ourselves in calculations over preempting the moon, while the very concept of ‘A place under the sun’ implies a much greater quantifiable threat.

There are of course too many uncertain elements in a feasible and scientifically pure cost-benefit calculation over preemptive war in modern times. With our limited processing power and understanding of the discipline, we may be able to perform cost-benefits calculations over military preemption in relatively small and isolated ancient tribal societies.

Posner’s post seems to be the preparation of his audience.


bad Jim 12.07.04 at 11:35 am

We’re Americans. The invasion of Iraq cannot have been a mistake. The occupation cannot be a mistake. If they posed no threat to us, they might have. Though they had nothing to do with the black day that followed my fiftieth birthday, they might have, and that justifies our harrowing of their cities, farms and countrysides. They are, after all, mostly Arab and predominantly Muslim.


cesperugo 12.07.04 at 1:34 pm

Let me clarify: I do not suggest that preemptive war is by definition wrong from a perspective of cost-efficiency. However, if we imagine a point of finalization where we can consider a war to have been cost-efficient, it will not (yet) possible to accredit this to the scientific merits of reliable cost-benefits reasoning. At best the application of a cost-benefits model will have improved the odds for cost-efficiency, but with as much certainty as a 1950’s weather forecast would predict the weather weeks ahead.

Considering this, cost-benefits calculations cannot yet be assigned critical weight in our decision to wage a preemptive war. For now, the leading motivations will have to remain panic and opportunity.


Deb Frisch 12.07.04 at 2:05 pm

“…the potential offensive capabilities of a possible moon man invasion could be theoretically staggering. … The Medium Lobster has calculated this probability to be 5×10-9.”

But the relevant probability is p(moon man attacks). Having capability is not sufficient- the aliens must have desire. It’s exceedingly unlikely a race with the intelligence to destroy the universe would choose to do so (present company excluded).

So it is rational to hold off on Universe War I.


Matthew2 12.07.04 at 2:11 pm

“the scope and limits of some techniques for assessing alternatives.”

These techniques are great to rationalise some decisions made with your “gut”.


Matt 12.07.04 at 2:26 pm

No blood for oil I can agree with, but blood for moon cheese, that’s another matter all together! Really, though- there is more typical Posner in Kieran’s discussion- a tendency to say a technique isn’t really valid and will give wrong results, but hey, we’ll go ahead and use it anyway. I really don’t see why he’s taken so seriously.


norbizness 12.07.04 at 2:31 pm

“Some would say that the Earth is our moon… But that would belittle the name of our moon, which is: The Moon.”


Andy 12.07.04 at 2:46 pm

Destroying the moon without taking into consideration the possible effects such an attack would have on global tidal movements is absurd.

Whatever you say, Mr. Save-The-Whales.


poopoo 12.07.04 at 2:54 pm

Agree about the strategic point but am not sure how we should think about these types of decisions if not for some sort of weighing of cost and benefits. Fuzzy logic? By their social construction? Cost benefit analysis is a lot easier to criticize than to replace.


pedro 12.07.04 at 3:42 pm


my aesthetic misgivings about the rhetorical use of elementary probability theory notwithstanding, a way to rescue cost/benefit analysis is to involve in the analysis quite a bit more events than the ones whose probabilities were dimly estimated in Posner’s post. Why certain events are deemed relevant to the cost/benefit analysis and others are not is actually legitimate criticism. Why, for example, is the risk of generating more terrorists not taken into account in the analysis?

If you want to be all mathematical about it, then cost/benefit analysis is hardly the best way of answering the question whether preventive war is a good idea. After all, the space of possible strategies to solve the problem (the threat of terrorist attacks) is not explored by a cost/benefit analysis of just the option of engaging in preventive war. Surely, it is possible that, provided with ad hoc probability estimates (like Posner’s rather simplistic example suggests), you can find that the benefit of engaging in preventive war is higher than the cost (even considering the cost of generating more terrorists, once again, provided ad hoc probability estimates.) But does that mean that embracing the doctrine of preventive war does not have other consequences on the makeup of the international political landscape? That’s a bit doubtful, and I suspect such side-effects are not taken into consideration to begin with in the cost/benefit analysis.

But let us humour the mathematically obsessed sophist, and say that all crucial possible social effects have been taken into account, properly estimated, and that the cost/benefit analysis yields a positive expected value (once again, provided ad hoc probability estimates–can’t help giggling right now.) Does this mean that preventive war is an optimal strategy in the face of terrorism? Hardly.

The problem can be expressed–mathematically–as maximizing benefits (or minimizing costs, if you prefer) over all possible policy strategies to respond to the threat of terrorism. Notice that computing benefits and costs is easy enough with money, in the cases that the most simplistic economist would consider: military expenses, etc. But social risks? International consequences? Those are not easily quantifiable in the same currency, can they?


Vaughn Hopkins 12.07.04 at 3:43 pm

How about using our morality to guide our decisions about war and not-war? That’s so…..old fashioned, but, it worked for our ancestors.


Deb Frisch 12.07.04 at 3:44 pm

I agree that cost-benefit analysis is more difficult to perform and susceptible to bias when the consequences are not money. I agree that Becksner’s two cost-benefit analyses of Bush War II were lame and lamer.

But I think it is a great idea to apply cost-benefit analysis to this war. It is a giant step toward a more rational debate – good news for card-carrying members of the reality-based community.

Estimates of the monetary cost of the war ranged from a couple of hundred billion to over a trillion. If you also tried to monetize the human, environmental and political costs, it would be even more difficult.

You could do a simplified/partial cost-benefit analysis and just include human deaths and injuries. A recent Washington Post article estimates there is a 7:1 ratio of injured:dead American soldiers in Iraq in the last 20 months. So we’ve paid >1000 lives, >7000 injuries (where injury probably means amputation) as insurance against another September 11.

When the number of soliders killed preventing another 911 is greater than the number of people who died on that day, will the warmongers and bean counters in WaRshington, d.c. see the light? Probably not – the bean counters aren’t the decision makers – they’re just the justfiers.

Kieran writes, “But eventually you’ll get to cases which should provoke reflection on the limits and applicability of the methods, rather than a perverse desire to rely on them all the more just because the choice is hard and you want a definitive answer.”

I disagree. I welcome the opportunity to do a rational analysis of the decision to attack Iraq and see if it was rational 20 months ago and whether it is rational to choose to continue today.

Unbelievably, Becker and Posner seem to think that an existence proof that “preventive war can be rational” implies that THIS preemptive war is rational. Of course, all they’ve done is show that CBA can be applied to Bush War II. As far as I can see, this is wonderful news for the reality-based anti-war crowd.



roger 12.07.04 at 3:45 pm

The menace of the axix of evil satellites is clear enough — it is as clear in fact as moonlight (which can be easily replaced, once we destroy our evil satellite, with a new and better reflective surface designed with American Know How). The question is: should the liberation of the moon be put before the UN or not? On the one hand, having a broad coalition of states worked for us wonderfully in Iraq — 45,000 states, from Spectria to Rio de Pissant, have contributed thousands of dollars and uncounted packets of Ritz crackers to the cause there, due to the resolve shown by our president (even though they’ve been mocked by the pro-terrorist set — who typically put down Ritz crackers, just as their hero Saddam did!). On the other hand, there’s France. First, the French pretend like the moon is La Lune. Second, they’ve woven the planet into various of the so called poems in their so called poetry. If you can call that poetry! I like poems that have the words “cannon”, “drone”, “marine”, and “freedom-loving” in them — poems for men, in other words, masculine, throbbing, full of good times with the boys around the campfire, eating beans. None of this La Lune crap.
Anyway, I’d say, uckfay the French (excuse my pig latin – heh heh) and let’s get operation Total Lunar Destruction off the ground. This will be a litmus test for the Democratic party: will the Party adopt a responsible anti-lunar stance, or will it dither with the La Lunatic French on the sidelines?


MikeAdamson 12.07.04 at 4:01 pm

I bet the Medium Lobster would be delicious with a little drawn butter.


Thomas 12.07.04 at 4:40 pm

Well, at least we finally have a debate, rather than whatever there was yesterday.

Kieran says: “At a minimum, if we’re thinking of things like the invasion of another country it just won’t do to acknowledge the arbitrariness of the numbers being assigned to the variables, and then press on regardless. Nor is it satisfactory to sketch a cost benefit approach as if it represented how a rational agent would assess a situation in practice, and then jump in to specific cases like Hitler invading the Sudetenland.”

But this misunderstands Posner’s post. The numbers assigned in the hypothetical were not, in fact, used to “press on” to a decision on whether to invade Iraq. They were plainly used as an example to show how a rational agent could assess one hypothetical (and stylized) case. I’m not sure what it means to say that in this context it isn’t “satisfactory” to go from the hypothetical case to what may be a particular historical instance of such a case. Is the suggestion that such a move can be done in a satisfactory manner in a blog post but wasn’t? What would be “satisfactory” in that context? (I think the answer is: don’t use the method at all. But then there’s nothing distinctively unsatifactory about the particular move, which makes Kieran’s complaint hard to understand–it doesn’t add anything to the rest of the post.)
The complaint that Posner’s model of cost-benefit analysis doesn’t reflect the insights of game theory is more interesting. I’d note that Posner’s blog entry did reference a more sophisticated (though still limited) discussion of the same issues by his colleagues at Chicago, and that paper includes some game theoretic insights.

It’s not clear to me that Kieran’s final objections apply to cases where the inputs aren’t monetized. Posner’s preventive war example wasn’t monetized.

The final bit of Kieran’s post raises some interesting questions: Is it just for cases like Iraq that these methods don’t work? Or are they similarly inappropriate for, say, the case of global warming? What are the differences? Does the bit from Posner that I posted on CT yesterday on global warming indicate a similar desire on Posner’s part to make the politics of the choices on global warming disappear? (The problem of global warming isn’t a “solved political problem”, is it?)


Poopoo 12.07.04 at 4:52 pm

How about using our morality to guide our decisions about war and not-war? That’s so…..old fashioned, but, it worked for our ancestors.”

What do you mean with “our morality?” And no, it did not work for our ancestors. And what do we do with competing moral claims other than compare their relative values on some metric?


roger 12.07.04 at 6:09 pm

Poopoo is onto something when he replies to Vaughn Hopkins : “What do you mean with “our morality?” And no, it did not work for our ancestors.”

The infinite improvement of cost benefit analysis can be demonstrated by its application to that grotesque pretender to morality, the ten commandments. Take “Honor thy father and they mother: that thy days may be long upon the land which the LORD thy God giveth thee.”

The benefit here – this land that the Lord thy God is giving thee – where is it? As a real estate transaction, I’d like to see the plat, I’d like to talk about title insurance, and surely we need some guarantee that future re-sale won’t be bound by some tiresome covenant or other. But let’s grant that even these primitive people (remember, zero wasn’t even invented yet – and let’s not talk about fractions!) are implying some benefit, perhaps symbolically. Now, surely we can grant that the mother has borne some birthing cost (medical care, ruining that charming shape for four or five months, and the supposed pain of birth itself, not that I was able to attend to witness this myself in the case of my wife, having a conference to attend on “Silly suits brought by the survivors of victims of industrial accident: evitable or inevitable?”) And let’s grant that father bears a great many costs – having to interrupt, for example, some very important chapter in his latest book in order to change the squawling thing’s diapers when the wife isn’t around, I don’t know where she went to – still, an openended commitment such as honor surely needs some time limit. Otherwise, you get into the situation well known from socialist economies — lack of incentive, lack of creative destruction, etc., etc. For instance, are we still going to do the honoring when father is 78 and perfectly able to work at, say, the local Shoneys, but insists on calling the son up and asking for a loan or something? Surely the laughable moral arrangements of our ancestors are displayed, in all their inglory, in this instance, in all their, well, laughability. Cost benefit analysis proves beyond a shadow of a doubt, given the frank lack of this so called land – the non-appearance of the entail being a cost borne by the party to which it was promised, remember – that morally, we have the perfect right to charge the kind of interest we would charge a friend for said loan, or the amount we charged the wife who wanted those supposedly necessary ‘baby things” for this supposed “gift giving” holiday.

How can we say that our morality hasn’t progressed by leaps and bounds! Now, onto the project of attacking the moon.


pedro 12.07.04 at 6:31 pm

If you’re going to do a cost/benefit analysis, at least have the intellectual decency of including a discussion of the relevant potential social consequences of the policy in question. And then, have the decency of doing the same cost/benefit analysis of a few alternative courses of action, no? Or is positive expected value enough to convince you that a course of action is optimal? Finally, if your cost/benefit analysis is grounded on costs and benefits ‘to the nation’, perhaps it would only be fair to compare the results of it to a less nationalistic cost/benefit analysis?


cloquet 12.07.04 at 6:39 pm

I thought there was something in here not too long ago about fish and bait.


Jake McGuire 12.07.04 at 6:54 pm

Didn’t John Quiggin post something along almost exactly these lines a few months ago? “Reagan confronting the Soviets increased the probability of global nuclear war by 1%, which outweighed the benefits of liberating Eastern Europe” or some such?


abb1 12.07.04 at 7:11 pm

But social risks? International consequences? Those are not easily quantifiable in the same currency, can they?

Well, maybe not easily and maybe not in the same currency, but I think all this is quantifiable on some level.

You know, predicting weather is a complicated task, but short-term forcasts are pretty reliable now – computer simulations help.

So, you could build a computer model (using GPSS or something) and parameterize all the variants you can imagine: Sunni resistance, Iranian nukes, antrax attacks, etc. with a reasonable level of accuracy and sophistication.

Then you run different scenarios, see the results and take the most beneficial course of action, expressed in dollars, lives, barrels, square miles, or …, nah, probably in dollars.

Of course the reality may surprise you.


Dan Hardie 12.07.04 at 7:26 pm

Deb Frisch speaks of >1000 lives, >7000 injuries (where injury probably means amputation)’

No, Deb. You’ve over-estimated amputations by a long way, but you’ve also greatly underestimated total injuries. ‘Amputations account for 2.4 percent of all wounded in action in the Iraq war — twice the rate in World War I and World War II, said Chuck Scoville, the amputee program manager of Walter Reed. Sophisticated body armor and medical techniques in the battlefield have preserved lives but not necessarily limbs. Available figures through Aug. 31 show that Army hospitals have treated 138 amputees from Iraq. There have been around 740 amputations so far among US forces.’ That comes from this excellently-researched story: ( story dated Dec 5, 2004, so it’s a very recent figure.

I haven’t seen figures for head injuries, but US Army surgeons have been quoted in a number of stories as saying how horrified they are by the numbers of amputations and head injuries: so head injuries are likely to be in the hundreds at least.

According to the best-informed US casualties site, ( the currently reported total of wounded is 9552. That breaks down to 4503 wounded and returned to action within 72 hours; 5049 wounded and not returned to action within 72 hours. How many of the latter are seriously incapacitated hasn’t been disclosed, as far as I know.

The Pentagon is releasing figures for the number of Americans killed in non-combat incidents, but hasn’t been giving figures for the numbers injured in such incidents, or invalided home with illness. According to CBS, whose figures were flagged up on Juan Cole’s website: ‘CBS has elicited from the Pentagon the real figure of US casualties in Iraq, which is more like 25,000. That number includes the 1230 or so killed and the 9300 classified as “wounded in battle,” but also 17,000 classified as non-combat sick or injured, of whom 80 percent do not return to their units in Iraq. Although some of the 17,000 are victims of disease, some unspecified number have actually been injured as a result of being in a theater of war.’
( ; )

This is of course very bad news for people trying to justify the war in cost-benefit terms, but I have to say that the real scandal is the Pentagon’s refusal to publish any estimates of the number of dead Iraqis, to publish figures on artillery fire missions and air strikes on urban targets, and the failure of the Pentagon and the Iraqi interim government to make any figures available on civilian mortality. The clowns who are having a go at the Lancet need to realise that under the Fourth Geneva Convention the US should, as the Occupying Power, be making such figures available, and is not.


Monty 12.07.04 at 7:52 pm

Since the beginning of time, man has yearned to destroy the sun. I will do the next best thing: blot it out!


pedro 12.07.04 at 8:10 pm


Yep, you can quantify away, however silly it may be. (Estimating the probabilities in question in a reasonable manner seems like an intractable problem to me.) But you can also make qualitative arguments that do not pretend to be grounded on solid computation; you can recognize the risks of certain courses of action, you can choose not to exclude sociological considerations from your analysis, and you can dispense with the pompous reference to most elementary probability theory–the point is certainly not didactic, I suppose–, and still make an argument that is worthy of discussion. Call it sociologically sophisticated, qualitative cost/benefit analysis, if you will.


Ben Hyde 12.07.04 at 8:20 pm

Medium Lobster and Abba Lerner in one posting! Delightful. Thanks.


Monica P. 12.07.04 at 8:48 pm

Let’s think about alternatives to cost-benefit analysis. First, how do decision-makers actually make decisions? Probably through a set of crude decision heuristics (Do I trust Rice and Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz? Is Saddam a bad guy? Is Iraq a gathering threat? Is it necessary to do *something* in the Middle East?). Then, is it possible to improve the decision heuristics by suggesting things that ought to be part of the decision–for example, act if you can honestly convince your traditional allies; act if you have made the case honestly to your nation and a majority supports action; act if there is lack of conflict in your inner circle on the need for action.

I’m not suggesting hidebound triggers, just wondering if it’s possible to identify general criteria to improve the quality of a decision. The question of whether our decision-makers *want* to make better decisions, of course, is moot in this whole debate–assuming they do, and accepting that the information requirements of cost-benefit analysis are simply too high, how should they proceed? What are the things that *have* to be in the heuristic?


fifi 12.07.04 at 9:10 pm

I don’t understand why our culture considers intellectuals “intelligent.”


Walt Pohl 12.07.04 at 9:22 pm

I don’t know how somebody’s dog Fifi got access to the Internet.


bryan 12.07.04 at 9:35 pm

blah blah blah

one of these days Kieran, POW! straight to the moon.


abb1 12.07.04 at 9:51 pm

I think a purely amoral technocratic computer simulation tool may be helpful – not as crude as ‘suppose the probability is 0.3’ of course, but a reasonably sophisticated one.

But then you need actual human beings to make actual decisions – based to some extent on this simulation, to some extent on intuition, experience and to some extent on ethics and principles. I guess that’s what they call ‘leadership’.

If this was all about calculating the odds, then Mr. Posner wouldn’t have a job, instead we could simply ask a technician to enter a bunch of decimal fractions into MSPosner 2000 – $29.99 plus S&H.


fyreflye 12.07.04 at 11:45 pm

Using the President’s logic that spending trillions of dollars to privatize Social Security now in order to prevent a possible unquantifiable shortfall in the future, it’s clear that the only way to deal with a possibly inevitable future attack would be to blow everything up now. It only stands to reason (mathematical proof to follow.)


jda 12.08.04 at 12:01 am

1500 (5×10^-9 x 3×10^12),

Uh–15,000? Ten times as bad as he thought it was.


roger 12.08.04 at 12:40 am

fyreflye – you are thinking out of the box! That’s what we need on this war on terrorism! Some people would say, oh, blowing up everything — wouldn’t that be expensive? Balderdash! First of all, blowing up everything surely means we’d have to contract out to re-construct everything afterwards, right? This is a jobs issue. This is a freedom issue. This is about what we are doing in Fallujah right now — destroying the city to win the loyalty of the inhabitants, one blown up house at a time.

Others will say, well, blowing up everything will increase the hatred of America in the world. Another myth! Spare the atom bomb and spoil the world, to paraphrase the bible. Fear, as we know from so many personal relationships detailed in some of our best advice columns, is very often the basis of love.

So, what is the down side? Oh, a lot of noise will from the blame America first crowd. Nitpickers. How about the rose window in the Cathedral of Chartres, they’ll be whining. As if we can’t make glass ten times better from our factories (after we reconstruct them).

I’m not saying I’m for blowing everything up. I’m a Democrat, and I voted for Jimmy Carter and the fellow who ran against Ullyses Grant, so I think I can speak from a bi-partisan perspective. Blowing up everything is merely an option we should consider, is all.

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