Blunketty Blunk

by Daniel on December 6, 2004

I have no real post to go with this headline, but as a service to the British journalists with the thankless job of covering our Home Secretary’s love life (sample coverage “Mark, the Home Secretary is currently suing his pregnant ex-lover to force her to take a DNA test so that he can prove that her older child, as well as her current unborn child, is in fact illegitimate and fathered by him. Do you think he’s done anything unwise?”), may I pass on a fantastic old quote from JK Galbraith:

“Anyone who says four times that he won’t resign, will”

By my count, Blunkett currently has a Galbraith score of 1. I think he ends up staying, but that quote ought to be good for a couple of paras if you’re hard up against it. You can return the favour some time in the future.

Bremer’s last gift

by John Q on December 6, 2004

As the American ruler of Iraq, Paul Bremer had the amazing knack of being able to pick the worst possible decision on every occasion[1]. From the dissolution of the Iraqi army to his refusal to hold elections in 2003, when there was some chance they could have worked, he did everything wrong he possibly could. Now he’s gone, and most of his policies have been abandoned, but he’s left one last gift, which may turn out to be the most poisonous of the lot.

When Bremer set up the electoral system for the elections that are supposed to be held in January, he went for a single nationwide electorate, rather than having representatives of provinces or individual constituencies[2].

In any case, what this means is that, to the extent that fighting depresses the turnout in Sunni areas, Sunnis get less seats. Being a minority, they’re bound to lose most of the power they’ve traditionally held in any case, but under Bremer’s rules, they could be excluded almost completely. By contrast, under a constituency system, provided some sort of ballot could be held, Sunni candidates would be elected from Sunni areas.

To address this problem, Juan Cole is suggesting an emergency intervention, setting aside 25 per cent of the seats for Sunni candidates. It’s probably about the best that can be done in the circumstances, but the outlook is not that good.

Meanwhile, the onset of civil war has been announced, not by leftist opponents of the war, but by arch-hawk Charles Krauthammer who complains (haven’t we heard this before) about the unreliability of our native allies

People keep warning about the danger of civil war. This is absurd. There already is a civil war. It is raging before our eyes. Problem is, only one side is fighting it. The other side, the Shiites and the Kurds, are largely watching as their part of the fight is borne primarily by the United States.

I don’t recall Krauthammer mentioning civil war as part of the plan in 2003. But maybe this is one of those four-war things.

fn1. I don’t think this was simple stupidity. His orders were, as far as I can see, to establish a secular free-market democracy that would be a reliable ally of the US and Israel. Any halfway realistic policy would have required him to abandon these objectives, and settle for a moderately theocratic, semi-socialist and imperfectly democratic state, on the “Iran-lite” model, because that’s what a majority of Iraqis want. Instead, he followed the dream.

fn2. My guess is that his motive was to allow votes for Iraqi exiles who could be presumed to be more favorable to the occupation than the people who were actually experiencing it.

Posner and Becker Comedy Gold

by Kieran Healy on December 6, 2004

As Eszter notes, the “Becker/Posner Blog”: has solved whatever collective action problems it was having earlier in the week and now the first two substantive posts are up, both on the topic of preventive war, one from “Becker”: and one from “Posner”: Right now, my working theory is that the blog is an elaborate hoax. How else to explain stuff like this:

bq. Should imminence be an absolute condition of going to war, and preventive war thus be deemed always and everywhere wrong? Analytically, the answer is no. A rational decision to go to war should be based on a comparison of the costs and benefits (in the largest sense of these terms) to the nation. … Suppose there is a probability of .5 that the adversary will attack at some future time, when he has completed a military build up, that the attack will, if resisted with only the victim’s current strength, inflict a cost on the victim of 100, so that the expected cost of the attack is 50 (100 x .5), but that the expected cost can be reduced to 20 if the victim incurs additional defense costs of 15. Suppose further that at an additional cost of only 5, the victim can by a preventive strike today eliminate all possibility of the future attack. Since 5 is less than 35 (the sum of injury and defensive costs if the future enemy attack is not prevented), the preventive war is cost-justified. A historical example that illustrates this analysis is the Nazi reoccupation of the Rhineland area of Germany in 1936 …

The real Richard Posner is one of the preeminent legal minds of our time, so he can hardly be responsible for this. For one thing, parody of this quality is pretty difficult to write and I don’t think he has the time to devote to the task. Notice how the eminently reasonable introduction by “Posner” (as we shall call him) leads the reader to expect some sort of informed analysis — “a comparison of costs and benefits (in the largest sense of these terms).” But once this hook has been swallowed, within a paragraph we are in a fantasy world — “the expected cost of the attack is 50 (100 x .5), … can be reduced to 20 if the victim incurs additional defense costs of 15. Suppose further …” Suppose further! Quite brilliant stuff. The sudden _non-sequitur_ about the Nazi occupation of the Rhine caps the piece with Godwinesque cheek. After the lead-in sentence, “Posner” is careful not to mention again the war being prosecuted in Iraq. This is a nice move, reminiscent of the best UseNet trolls. When angry bloggers complain that neither the cost-benefit thing nor the analogy to Hitler make any contact with present reality whatsoever, or suggest that the post sounds like it was written in the Autumn of 2002 — or maybe the Winter of 1990 — they’ll have unwittingly set themselves up for a fall: after all, “Posner” was only considering the justifiability of preventive war _sub specie aeternitas_, not the actual costs and benefits of any particular war the U.S. might or might not be engaged in at present.

Speaking of which, “Posner’s” strategy neatly avoids the sticky business of having to work out a real cost-benefit calculation using available numbers — ones like, e.g., the cost of war to date in real dollars, N Combat Fatalities to date, skill-adjusted dollar value of Generic U.S. service person, “QALY”: adjustment for each of N Injuries sustained by U.S. service people, Expected Number of Fatalities in an Iraqi-sponsored WMD attack on the U.S. Mainland, productivity losses to an Iraqi WMD attack, probability that Saddam Hussein had WMDs of any sort, likelihood that they could have been delivered to the U.S., etc, etc. Those last two quantities are now known with a high degree of confidence to approximately equal zero, by the way. This might make it easier to calculate the right-hand side of the equation after the fact. (If you worry that having this calculation _before_ the fact would have been more useful, but think it would have been extremely difficult to do in any precise but still sensible way, congratulations on your perspicuity.)

Elsewhere on the blog, the “absurd suck-up comments”: from law students are a further indication that the reader is being gamed. Take this one from “Charles”, for instance:

bq. Dear Justice Posner, I am a 2L at DePaul and I just wanted to say that I think all of your legal decisions are brilliant. I think that you and Dr. Thomas Sowell are the most insightful economic minds in the world today.

Part letter to Santa, part backhanded swipe at Gary Becker — guess you’re the second string econ guy, Gary! — I’m surprised he didn’t mention he’d been a good boy all year and go on to ask for a Train Set and a copy of Public Intellectuals: A Study in Decline. But that might have been painting the lily. All in all, I look forward to future entries, which may provide further clues as to who the deadpan genius behind this blog really is. The “Medium Lobster”: perhaps? The “PoorMan”: maybe? I await further developments with interest.

Update: Sentence edited for clarity about probabilities.