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July 31, 2003

Thinking Inside the Box

A couple of very interesting op-eds in today's Wash Post address Congress's furor over DARPA's proposed (now deceased) terrorism futures market.

One of them addresses the merits of the proposed market. The other article takes on the bureaucratic habit of resisting smart, transformative ideas, and explains why flogging DARPA over its proposed market could have disastrous effects in our war on terror.

This article by a couple of Stanford professors points out that yes, the proposed market was indeed cutting edge economics and political science scholarship. Sure, the idea of structuring a market specifically to predict terrorist events is a bit morbid, but no more so than the markets' current hyper-sensitivity to terrorist events.

The more interesting and damning op-ed is this one, in which Professor Steve Kelman of the Kennedy School of Government (that's Harvard, folks) points out that DARPA's whole purpose is to think the unthinkable. Moreover, the public execution of a few DARPA officials will have a chilling effect on any federales who want to go against the grain and express a unique and valuable opinion.

Kelman argues that not only was the market concept theoretically sound, but its adventurous, "outside the box" approach to predicting terrorism had the potential to cover shortfalls in the intelligence process. That sounds like justification enough for keeping the program, but Kelman continues, pointing out structural flaws in the government that have surfaced as a result of Congress' posturing and grandstanding.

Kelman rather bravely argues that Congress' intemperate reaction was one source of the intelligence failures that led to 9/11. He notes that we had a lot of intelligence at the lower levels, but none of it percolated up through the bureaucracy. The reason he says, is that no bureaucrat wanted to think the unthinkable, and nobody in Congress would have been receptive to such a Cassandra.

Kelman's right. Imagine this speech falling from the lips of Senator Feinstein on 9/10/01: "You are telling me, Mr. Tenet, that you need to crack down on security because some street agent in Phoenix thinks a bunch of Arabs will hijack several planes simultaneously, fly them into skyscrapers and kill thousands? That's unthinkable. How morbid. Your crackdown on security at airports would violate the civil rights of thousands. Moreover, this is racist profiling of innocent middle eastern men. I demand that you stop this immoral program immediately, and discipline the agent who proposed it."

It's pretty easy to imagine her, or for that matter most other elected politicians, speaking in this manner prior to 9/11. It doesn't reflect badly on them, per se; but it's the nature of elected officials. If there's one thing politicians are attuned to, it's what the people think right now, and what they will be thinking in alternate Novembers. If there's one thing they aren't good at, it's thinking about the things that are unlikely to cross anyone's mind. Things like the internet in 1967, or a futures market predictive of terrorist strikes.

Kelman bolsters his case, pointing out that DARPA's mission is to be innovative and try things that haven't really been thought of before, like the internet. Who would have thought in 1967 that we could have had (1) computers at every desk and in every home, (2) linked to every other computer in the country, (3) in a benevolent, non-big-brother-ish fashion? Well, Vint Cerf, who worked with DARPA in addition to his academic preoccupations. That's who.

Kelman further claims that all bureaucrats ought to look for innovative ways to accomplish difficult government missions. But if heads roll and people are fired or disciplined over this markets kerfuffle, expect DARPA to learn what the rest of the bureaucracy learned long ago: energetic, innovative thinkers need not apply here.

It's too bad Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is no longer with us. He could tell you first hand what Congress does to innovative bureaucrats. You will remember that he was pretty much run out of town as a bureaucrat. His error was pointing out that the welfare system as then constituted (1967) would incentivize illegitimacy, bring blight to the cities, and mortally wound the Black family. It took until 1996 before people realized he was right, and Congress implemented welfare reform. Conincidentally, that 20 year span is about how long it took the rest of us idiots to realize that he was right.

Hopefully, it wont take us until 2023 to realize that the markets may have a better track record at predicting terrorist events than our Senators and intelligence services.

Posted by Blackavar at July 31, 2003 09:20 AM | TrackBack
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