Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Unfalsifiable beliefs about Iraq and Terror

Over on (yeah, I like his blog, so sue me), Drezner is getting attacked for claiming that, in light of the declassified NIE report, "there simply is no way to claim that the invasion of Iraq has made the United States more secure against terrorist attacks." So I posed this question in the comments: for those who dispute Drezner's claim, what evidence would you accept that would change your mind?

1. For those who say "Iraq is a long-term strategic move, so we cannot judge by the short-term results reported in the NIE," clearly *no* evidence will suffice to convince you the War in Iraq was a bad idea. We have to wait. Thus, you can happily *concede* that the invasion of Iraq has made the U.S. less secure in the short term against terrorist attacks, since you can wait for the "long run" -- that happy, far-off day when we bring peace, tranquility and the NFL to the people of the Middle East. Of course, in the long run, we will all be dead.

2. For those who say, "But we don't know how bad things would be if we had refrained from invading Iraq," there can be no debate with you. You are living in the ivory-colored world of the hypothetical, the Donald Rumsfeldian paradise of "unknowable unknowns." For you, the claim that the War in Iraq is helping the War on Terror is literally unfalsifiable.

3. For those who say "Ah, but we've preserved American interests by taking the fight overseas, because thus far we've prevented another attack in the U.S.," the question becomes one of bloody calculation. For you, the *potential* for another catastrophic terrorist attack on the American "homeland" dwarfs the $250 billion spent on the Iraq war, the tying down of the American military, and of course, the 3,000 dead American soldiers (and counting). Moreover, your argument critically depends on there never being another substantial terrorist attack on U.S. soil (unless, of course, you claim that there would have been more such attacks absent invasion of Iraq -- if so, join your friend above in the unknowable unknowns club, please.)

So how about it, folks who disagree? Which camp do you belong to?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

When Iraq gets an NFL teams, the Seahawks will stomp them too.

But seriously, saying something along the lines of "we'll all be dead" is unnecessarily sensational and might render a pretty salient argument harder for someone of opposing opinion to handle.

10:17 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oops, that's supposed to read "NFL team," not, "NFL teams." I hate typos in my anonymous posts....

10:18 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Apparently Mr. or Ms. Anonymous Commenter, you are unfamiliar with John Maynard Keynes' famous quote, "in the long run, we'll all be dead." The point being that you can *always* avoid confronting the immediate, unpleasant reality you are confronted with by resorting to abstract theories about "the long run." But I am trying to be provocative anyway -- sadly, no one seems to have taken the bait.

11:44 AM  
Blogger Robert Boyd said...

I recognized (and appreciated) the quote.

I like Drezner's blog too, even though I usually disagree with him politically. Unfortunately, I agree with Drezner and you in this case, so I can't offer any kind of red-meat response. But I wonder if in argument 3 we can construct a kind of financial model. There is a big negative cash flow now (and by cash flow, I mean loss of lives and treasure because this is a metaphor, dammit!) and probably for the near future. But the value of not being attacked on native soil is a huge positive cashflow (in my absurd metaphor). You say for this calculus to work, we have to have that huge future cashflow forever--no more domestic attacks ever. But I think you could say that the value of the future cashflows, discounted to present, grows smaller the farther in the future we go.

In other words, if there is another large-scale attack 15 or 20 years from now, we still might be coming out ahead by being in Iraq now.

I don't believe this, by the way. I think we've made a huge strategic error by invading Iraq, even though removing genocidal thugs from power feels really good. But it seems obvious that the cost of invading is worth more than the benefit right now--and about the future, who can say for sure?

2:49 PM  
Blogger Ben said...

Though I understand the logic, I'm not sure you can discount human lives in the future like cash flows. Not because the notion is morally reprehinsible -- as I'm sure you know, we place monetary values on life all the time -- but because while a dollar today is worth more than a dollar tomorrow, I can't see why a human today is worth more than a human tomorrow. It seems to me we are dealing with absolute values, not relative values. Although -- it's interesting to compare the casualty figures from previous wars to Iraq today. If we had lost 10,000 troops in the first week of invasion, I don't think many Americans would have freaked out -- we would have accepted these casualties as a consequence of invading. Having successfully occupied Iraq, however, we are increasingly disquieted by the drip, drip, drip of death resulting from the occupation.

If you go back and read Kenneth Pollack's "The Threatening Storm: The Case for Invading Iraq," -- the book that convinced many moderates like me to support the war -- he estimated that in the best-case invasion scenario, we'd lose about 5,000 troops. We're still 2k shy of the best case scenario! And yet, it is an undeniable disaster over there. So maybe your discount-to-present idea has merit, albeit in slightly altered form -- discount-to-expectations?

5:45 PM  
Blogger Johnbai3030 said...

If the global population continues to grow, does that mean the value of an individual life goes down? If 5000 hypothetical human lives are worth x dollars when we have a global population of 6 billion, are they worth .5x in a global population of 12 billion? Or more likely it's not a direct correlation, the lives probably become less valuable on a curve, as they approach a limit of absolutely zero value.

Unless you see humans as a parasite, in which case perhaps they have negative value, and the death of humans is actually an overall net gain for the planet. And in that case, the more humans there are, the more negative (or absolute) value they have, and therefore, delaying the deaths of some human beings could be seen as a positive thing (like waiting to cash out your IRA until it fully matures) but in that scenario... gosh, it's so hard to wait. I mean who wants to wait for an investment to fully ripen, especially when there's fun stuff to buy with the money now. I say cash out now.

10:55 AM  
Blogger Robert Boyd said...

Ben--I basically agree. I don't think you can actually treat human life as a NPV valuation. But practically, I think one life today is worth more than one life next year or ten years from now. The more remote harms are, the less they mean to us. Especially if the future harms are not guaranteed--there is a chance that people will die, but not a certainty. This is why it is so hard to get governments and people to prepare for disasters. (Obviously this is not true of all people, but it is true on average.)

That said, please accept my explanation that the model I created was fundamentally facetious.

11:34 AM  
Blogger Robert Boyd said...

...And further, your Popperian arguments were quite good. I wouldn't have responded at all if I hadn't appreciated your logic.

11:36 AM  
Blogger Ben said...

Robert, you make a good point -- the idea is not that we *think* we value future lives less, but that we behave in just that way (e.g., our current non-policy on global warming). Prof. Cass Sunstein, a law prof at U. Chicago, has written about our failing in risk analysis -- you might check him out, if you haven't already.

John is obviously a big fan of Swift's "A Modest Proposal."

5:52 PM  
Blogger Johnbai3030 said...

Malthus, not Swift.

11:20 AM  
Blogger Robert Boyd said...

I will check out Sunstein. It has always been clear that people are not good risk assessors. I suspect we as a species have a tendency toward optimism. This encourages risk-taking. This benefits us (or at least benefitted us in the past) as a species, although it is irrational from the point of view of an individual.

3:56 PM  

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