Democracy, Bureaucracy and the Fear of Statisticians

Often when I am trying to explain problems in the modern political landscape or my own approach to political philosophy, I will return to Max Weber’s account of bureaucracy as more efficient than private office. Yes, I’ve heard all the jokes about “efficiency” in bureaucracy, but Weber’s argument rested on the contrast between private and capricious office-holders and the public and publicly accountable form of governance that characterizes both state and business organization. Weber’s concern was that bureaucracies were too efficient, that their tremendous instrumental rationality obscured a real stupidity about the best ends to pursue. Weber’s theory of bureaucracy was vindicated in the way that Nazi Germany efficiently murdered its Jews, Rom, homosexuals, and communists, and ever since there’s been a tendency to get distracted by the Nazi example whenever the amoral efficiency of bureaucratic regimes are mentioned.

My own interest is in the tension between proceduralism and participation, but this strikes many people as odd and potentially pernicious, since some of my concerns about the administrative state are echoed by populists and the Tea Party activists. (I like to point out to my fellow philosophers that Glenn Beck’s writers have clearly been reading Giorgio Agamben.)

The thing is, I  think the most pressing kind of political philosophy, the research that really needs to be done right now, is a philosophical investigation of the contemporary formulation of bureaucratic governance. In short, it’s time to resurrect the tension between the predictive power of social scientists and human freedom. This is the stuff of mid-20th Century existentialism: Heidegger’s criticisms of technology, Sartre’s anxieties about freedom, and to-and-fro of structuralism and post-structuralism and the crisis and critique of the human sciences that runs through Adorno, Foucault, and Derrida. All these Continental philosophical debates largely occurred at just about the same time that Anglo-American philosophers had become obsessed with freedom and determinism, modal logic and counter-factuals, artificial intelligence and qualia, and the question of scientific realism. These questions, it seems to me, are all very much of a piece. Even as they presented themselves as valuable avenues of research and live debates of scholastic importance, they also captured a epochal anxiety about singularity and freedom, the global battle between communist “technocrats” and capitalist “risk-takers.”

I’m simplifying mightily, of course. But when you read with the question of bureaucracy in mind, it’s amazing how often it shows up in surprising places. Take my favorite thinker of the period, Hannah Arendt. In a 1964 lecture on “Cybernetics,” Arendt said:

When I grew up, it was still very common and very fashionable to believe that people who knew how to play chess very well were very intelligent indeed. If today we know that some kinds of these machines — I’m not going to say and names — can play a reasonably good game of chess, then I think it is a question of human dignity to say that this kind of intelligence apparently has not the same status as other kinds of intelligence, as other kinds of thinking. In other words, it is still something technical and it resides still in such a thing which we may accurately call brain power…. but it does not say anything about the level, or about the special particularities of this human being as such.

Is this really only about computers, or “human diginity”? The best way to think about her anxiety here is through the lens of two kinds of rationality: calculation and practical wisdom.

Many decisions are easily calculable in terms of costs and benefits, risks and probabilities. Because many very difficult decisions depend on the evaluating one’s own costs and benefits alongside the cost-benefit calculations of others, it can be tempting to think of these decisions as incalculable. After all, the mind of the Other is unknowable, just as the future is full of surprising and incalculable risks. Unfortunately, this temptation is dangerous. When the stakes are high, human beings tend to act in highly instrumental ways, and to adopt strategies that are easily calculable in the same way as chess moves would be. Because most moves are easily dominated, their real options are remarkably limited, and a well-programmed chess game can out-predict even the best grandmasters.

We’re all technocrats now, capitalists more than anybody. Consider the case of Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, who uses rational choice theory to predict the future. For $50,000, he’ll answer two questions, and many people would think the money well spent:

His first foray into forecasting controversy took place in 1984, when he published an article in PS, the flagship journal of the American Political Science Association, predicting who would succeed Iran’s ruling Ayatollah Khomeini upon his death. He had developed a rudimentary forecasting model that was different from anything anyone had seen before in that it was not designed around one particular foreign-policy problem, but could be applied to any international conflict. “It was the first attempt at a general mathematical model of international conflict,” he says. His model predicted that upon Khomeini’s death, an ayatollah named Hojatolislam Khamenei and an obscure junior cleric named Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani would emerge to lead the country together. At the time, Rafsanjani was so little known that his name had yet to appear in the New York Times.

Even more improbably, Khomeini had already designated his successor, and it was neither Ayatollah Khamenei nor Rafsanjani. Khomeini’s stature among Iran’s ruling clerics made it inconceivable that they would defy their leader’s choice. At the APSA meeting subsequent to the article’s publication, Bueno de Mesquita was roundly denounced as a quack by the Iran experts—a charlatan peddling voodoo mathematics. “They said I was an idiot, basically. They said my work was evil, offensive, that it should be suppressed,” he recalls. “It was a very difficult time in my career.” Five years later, when Khomeini died, lo and behold, Iran’s fractious ruling clerics chose Ayatollah Khamenei and Hashemi Rafsanjani to jointly lead the country. At the next APSA meeting, the man who had been Bueno de Mesquita’s most vocal detractor raised his hand and publicly apologized to him.

Using game theory, mathematical modeling, and a panel of regional experts, Bueno de Mesquita can beat the best estimates of individual experts and the entire US intelligence community. His work has only one premise: “In the future, we’re still all raging dirtbags.” The CIA has claimed that his estimations are 90% accurate. Wow!

Rational choice theory promises us a world in which decisions are easily calculable because their results are precisely calibrated. The right choice would then be the one given by a calculation, not a decision taken by a free agent. We might wrangle over values and normative claims, but even these disputes can often be solved by making utility maximizing decisions that remove either-or decisions and make them both-and decisions: if we need not choose between our values, our pluralism can go unchallenged. That means that Bueno de Mesquita can resolve problems that would otherwise be unresolvable:

Recently, he’s applied his science to come up with some novel ideas on how to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. “In my view, it is a mistake to look for strategies that build mutual trust because it ain’t going to happen. Neither side has any reason to trust the other, for good reason,” he says. “Land for peace is an inherently flawed concept because it has a fundamental commitment problem. If I give you land on your promise of peace in the future, after you have the land, as the Israelis well know, it is very costly to take it back if you renege. You have an incentive to say, ‘You made a good step, it’s a gesture in the right direction, but I thought you were giving me more than this. I can’t give you peace just for this, it’s not enough.’ Conversely, if we have peace for land—you disarm, put down your weapons, and get rid of the threats to me and I will then give you the land—the reverse is true: I have no commitment to follow through. Once you’ve laid down your weapons, you have no threat.”

Bueno de Mesquita’s answer to this dilemma, which he discussed with the former Israeli prime minister and recently elected Labor leader Ehud Barak, is a formula that guarantees mutual incentives to cooperate. “In a peaceful world, what do the Palestinians anticipate will be their main source of economic viability? Tourism. This is what their own documents say. And, of course, the Israelis make a lot of money from tourism, and that revenue is very easy to track. As a starting point requiring no trust, no mutual cooperation, I would suggest that all tourist revenue be [divided by] a fixed formula based on the current population of the region, which is roughly 40 percent Palestinian, 60 percent Israeli. The money would go automatically to each side. Now, when there is violence, tourists don’t come. So the tourist revenue is automatically responsive to the level of violence on either side for both sides. You have an accounting firm that both sides agree to, you let the U.N. do it, whatever. It’s completely self-enforcing, it requires no cooperation except the initial agreement by the Israelis that they are going to turn this part of the revenue over, on a fixed formula based on population, to some international agency, and that’s that.”

A real crisis is one where sides cannot easily be chosen. If a formula always comes up with better decisions than I and my fellow citizens do, I think we’d all rather that the formula and its statistician-caretakers do the governing. That kind of proceduralism takes the average citizen out of the picture, or rather reduces her to a datapoint alongside others.

In a sense, the increased effectiveness of bureaucracies translates into reduced freedom for me. If political engagement is an important public good (and I believe it is) then bureaucratic predictiveness will lead to a maldistribution in that good: statisticians will get more of it, and regular folks less. For that reason, I’m really, really uncomfortable with predictive rational choice theory. It’s not  the resolutely self-interested view of the world Bueno de Mesquita advances that troubles me, the whole “raging dirtbag” shtick. It is, as Arendt put it, a “question of human dignity.” This is the very reason that Bueno de Mesquita refuses to handicap elections. The intersection of polling data and predictive technologies already contribute to a drastic narrowing of political outcomes in US elections. The capacity to know becomes the requirement to know.

In contrast, practical wisdom doesn’t depend on a person’s predictive powers. It allows one to surf that wave between the good and the possible that is characterized by intense risk and unforeseeability. For this reason, many philosophers see it as a corrective to our overly managed and predictable world. In exercising practical wisdom, I don’t want to act ‘rationally,’ according to a ratio or pre-ordained measure: I want to act wisely, i.e. with a view towards a Good that we can all only see in part. Those endowed with great practical wisdom ask: how can I act in a way that every model would call contrary to ‘self-interest,’ that can rocket us out of the one realm of calculation and into another? This will involve a great deal of reasoning, measuring, and calculating, but it should also entail a risk, a chance, fortuna out of which virtu can appear.

All the objections about incomplete information, lack of normative scope, and observer/participant problems pale before my anxiety that something essential about our freedom is lost when it can be reduced to a statistical abstraction that is nonetheless accurate. That’s why I love black swans, emergent events, and secret revolutions so very much. But that love would be pathological if it came at the expense of the well-being of the least-advantaged. I’m increasingly persuaded that attachment to civic engagement requires a non-epistemic justification, and that we must temper our love of administrative governance with the cautions of mid-20th Century existential phenomenologists like Hannah Arendt.

We have always been at war with Iran.

The recent peaceful return of British soldiers to the contrary, (and so smartly dressed!) it appears we are currently involved with groups carrying out military operations in Iran:

Most recently, Jundullah took credit for an attack in February that killed at least 11 members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard riding on a bus in the Iranian city of Zahedan…. A senior U.S. government official said groups such as Jundullah have been helpful in tracking al Qaeda figures and that it was appropriate for the U.S. to deal with such groups in that context. Some former CIA officers say the arrangement is reminiscent of how the U.S. government used proxy armies, funded by other countries including Saudi Arabia, to destabilize the government of Nicaragua in the 1980s.

Remind me again: who’s the rogue state here?

The effects of withdrawal and Iranian covert operations

Two recent “Intelligence Briefs” from PINR caught my eye: “Iran’s Covert Operations in Iraq,” and “The Implications of Strategic Withdrawal from Iraq.” As some readers know, I’m a big fan of PINR for supplying ‘open source intelligence,’ which is to say, generalized insights into foreign policy and educated guesses based on publicly available information. In these two pieces, they advance the argument that Iran is quite likely involved in supporting pro-Iranian groups and in trying to prevent the spread of violence eastward. Their goal in Iraq is simply to avoid a repeat of the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, which was expensive, destructive, and deadly. This means they are pursuing the eventual victory of a pro-Iranian, anti-Saudi Arabian regime in Baghdad.

PINR is only willing to say that Iran is playing a role in the country, not to accuse them of supplying particular groups or particular weapons. Those are beyond their ‘open-source’ capacities. The point is that:

“Iran is likely supporting the various friendly Shi’a groups in Iraq. Most Iraqi Shi’a factions — such as S.C.I.R.I. and Moqtada al-Sadr’s group — are probably accepting assistance from Iran since, even if they wish to remain independent of Tehran, they are willing to accept assistance at least until they gain power. Other Shi’a groups — such as S.C.I.R.I., which runs the Badr Corps/Brigade — spent years in exile in Iran when Saddam Hussein’s Ba’athist establishment was in power. Iran’s goal is to have one of these actors take and maintain power in Iraq, so that it can eliminate what has traditionally been a hostile Sunni Arab state.”

The second report is the truly interesting one. In the US, we’ve gotten so bogged down in questions of cowardice and bravery that we’ve stopped evaluating the goals of the continued occupation. Given the increasing likelihood of a strategic withdrawal, those interested in foreign policy must begin to evaluate the opportunities the region will supply without such a strong American presence. It’s not the WWII model, with complete capitulation and a long occupation: victory and defeat are rarely as absolute as we’ve begun to think of them. Instead, we’ll continue to attempt to balance Iranian influence in the region while furthering American interests in the oil available there. We can continue to do that from the safety of Saudi Arabia or Kuwait.

“The bottom line is that withdrawing the majority of U.S. forces from Iraq will not necessarily be a disaster for U.S. interests. The failure to achieve the original mission in Iraq has already occurred, and the United States has already suffered a significant loss of its interests. Withdrawing troops from the country may not make matters much worse. Instead, upon withdrawal the United States can begin to pursue operations more in line with its capabilities, using technology to eliminate potential Islamist threats and using its overt and covert elements to work toward a stable government in Baghdad.”

So long as we remain the occupying power, it will be impossible to differentiate freedom fighters from terrorists. When we leave, the only militants remaining will be sectarians and the hard-core jihadists. Nor will this spell an immediate victory for Iran… in truth, we may benefit Iranian interests more by remaining than by leaving, since we are distracted and bleeding capital, while they can sit back and manipulate events from relative safety.

The question PINR resolutely resists asking and answering is whether its ethical to leave Iraq now that we’ve destroyed the regime. I don’t relish the kind of ethnic cleansing and we may see; on the other hand, we don’t seem able to stop it and it continues even today, with almost 150,000 American troops caught up in the conflict. I hold out a little hope of a partition-type solution, but until there’s a Commander-in-Chief in office who’s willing to consider that possibility, the options are stay and perpetuate the violence or go and observe it from afar. In such a situation, it’s clear our responsibility is to reduce the solidarity that militants are currently experiencing against the invading Western power. It’s always possible they’ll settle on a political solution themselves.

Reading Tehran

This CSM piece gives an excellent background on the British-Iranian conflict that lead to the capture of British soldiers last week. The big mystery is why Iran would give the UK/US a clear casus belli like this, when we’re so clearly itching for a fight. It’s not like they couldn’t guess what sort of reaction there’d be to another “Iranian hostage crisis.” CSM suggests three possible motivations for the Iranians to provoke the British:

  1. It could be about nukes: “An attempt to rebuke Great Britain for its role in supporting a new United Nations Security Council resolution imposing fresh sanctions over Iran’s refusal to suspend its uranium enrichment program.”
  2. Or maybe they’re looking to trade for some Iranian hostages that nobody bothered to comment on: “Richard Beeston, the diplomatic editor of The Times of London, writes in an analysis that ‘privately there is acknowledgement that [the British sailors’] fate is bound closely to that of the Iranian captives‘ seized by the US” in January.
  3. Of course, it could also be due to ancient ethnic hatreds cartographic disputes (!?): “The main cause of the showdown could be a centuries-old dispute over the water border between Iran and Iraq. It began with the 1639 Treaty of Zuhab between the Persian and Ottoman empires, which divided the land without a careful survey. Disagreements through the 1980s, and some of the fiercest fighting in the eight-year war between the two nations occurred along this border. The Associated Press quotes Lawrence G. Potter, an associate professor of international affairs at Columbia University, who says that even to this day the exact demarcation has not been established. ‘The problem is that nobody knows where the border is,’ Potter said. ‘The British might have thought they were on their side, the Iranians might have thought they were on their side.'”

These are all fascinating theories, especially the last little dig at Iran’s geographic fundamentalism. But why does no one credit the Iranian claim that the British soldiers were in fact trespassing? It’s water. Boats float on top of it with a remarkable lack of precision. There’s been a flurry of GPS coordinates supposedly proving, or disproving, the location, but all I’ve seen are numbers on the page… nothing approaching real proof.

More to the point, I can easily credit the Iranian claim that these militaries might be engaged in all sorts of special forces or espionage work in or near their territory. We haven’t exactly shown a great deal of respect for national borders and sovereignty, lately, and if we were planning to invade, there’d be a flurry of this sort of minor infringement to put Tehran on edge and slow their reactions to future transgressions.

Of course, I’m probably overreacting… it turns out this has all happened before! CSM draws an apparently obvious parallel with a “2004 incident in which Iranians arrested eight British servicemen on patrol in disputed waters between Iran and Iraq. Those servicemen were released three days later, after making a televised apology for straying into Iran.” Could it all be as simple as that? Iranian hostage crisis: business as usual. Yawn.