Concerning strategy

Tom Garwin’s insight: It’s not a strategy unless it tells you what NOT to do.

Lunch today with Tom Garwin, an old friend now serving as Deputy Director of AID. We were talking about the idea I’ve been pushing about bringing focused deterrence to law enforcement against Mexican drug trafficking into the U.S. – to create disincentives for violence – and the difficulty of convincing people anything but a full-out attack on all the organizations at once is acceptable.

Tom made one of those obvious-in-retrospect remarks that completely clarifies a concept. “It’s not a strategy,” he said, “unless it tells you what not to do.”

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

11 thoughts on “Concerning strategy”

  1. I just finished reading your “When Brute Force Fails” and David M. Kennedy’s “Don’t Shoot”. Thanks to you and your blog for motivating me to read this important information. I wish more Americans would do so.

    Have you blogged or written elsewhere how you would translate the “Cease Fire”, High Point, etc. experiences into the realm of Mexican drug trafficking? Aside from problems with political resistance to singling out one trafficking group at a time, it isn’t so clear to me what the community would be that would exercise social pressure on the traffickers to reinforce the law enforcement focus on the group exhibiting the most violent behavior.

    On a tangentially related subject, one of these days I would appreciate a discussion of your recommendation that a registry of bullet and cartridge fingerprints from new guns be kept. I’m sure you didn’t have room or time to expand on this in your book, but it wasn’t clear to me why you believe this would be any more politically acceptable to the pro-gun lobby than putting taggents into explosives has been.

    1. No, I don’t imagine a way to put social pressure on the big Mexican DTOs to stop shooting. But it’s possible that economic pressure would work. The idea is to threaten them indirectly, by working on the groups that distribute their drugs in the U.S. Pick one of the big Mexican outfits, choosing the most violent (according to some publicly accessible standard). Tell the U.S. distributors that anyone buying drugs from the targeted group will become a target of the DEA and of its colleagues in state and local drug enforcement. Suddenly the most violent Mexican organization can’t find anyone to buy its drugs. The others pick up the slack, but the group selected for its high violence is out of business. Now announce that you’re running the contest again, and watch the Mexican DTOs race each other to the bottom of the violence league table.

      Yes, I can think of six reasons this might not work. But it’s worth staffing out.

      The September issue of Foreign Affairs has an essay where I develop the background analysis leading to this proposal.

      1. But all drug dealers are targets of the DEA. So does this boil down to, ‘We’ll leave you alone so long as you play nice’? Sounds like legalization in practice. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

        1. Anomalous wrote: Sounds like legalization in practice.

          This is a common misunderstanding. One of the structural consequences of illegality is high prices and that would remain in force whether policing is intense or modest. In contrast, prices drop dramatically under true legalization; for cocaine it would be around a 99% reduction in price whereas targeting drug enforcement toward particularly violent markets has not shown any impact on drug prices.

        2. “But all drug dealers are targets of the DEA.”

          Unless the DEA is a lot stronger than I think that it is, this isn’t true, except in a purely nominal sense.

          The idea is to deploy limited resources against priority targets.

      2. I’m a bit confused about the premises inherent in your proposed strategy. Is it the case that DEA has sufficiently mapped out in detail the trade channels between the Mexican suppliers and the US distributors so that it can credibly claim to monitor compliance on the part of US buyers with your strategy? Can the DEA credibly threaten the US distributors with the ability to terminate their business if found non-compliant? Which brings up the question, if they can, why not shut them down now? If the answer to that is that new groups will spring up, then that would be true even under your strategy, no?

        1. The DEA can create competitive disadvantage for any subset of U.S. distributors – and thereby for their Mexican suppliers – by imposing most of the enforcement costs on that subset. But it can’t do so for everyone at once, just as everyone can’t be above average.

    2. On a tangentially related subject, one of these days I would appreciate a discussion of your recommendation that a registry of bullet and cartridge fingerprints from new guns be kept.

      It’s unclear to me why anybody would think it’s a technologically feasible option, either, given that such ‘fingerprints’ are subject to change every time a gun is cleaned. The proposal is understood by anybody with even a passing acquaintance with the topic as at best a joke, and more commonly just another excuse to harass gun owners.

      Such ‘fingerprints’ have some utility for connecting cartridges and/or bullets recovered at a crime scene with a firearm recovered from a suspect, provided that suspect hasn’t had the time to alter the ‘fingerprint’, but the false positive rate given a search base of more than a few thousand guns would be incredible.

      Of course, from a certain perspective, any firearms regulation which inconveniences gun owners passes a cost benefit analysis whether it nominally “works” or not, because the inconvenience is the desired “benefit”.

  2. I’m not sure that something is a strategy unless it tells you what not to do. Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan, for example, was a strategy. It told the Union what it HAD to do. It didn’t block anything else if the resources were there. It just distinguished “have-to-do” from “nice-to-do.”

    1. Nah, generally a strategy WILL exclude a large range of actions. While permitting a whole range of others. It’s just that a lot of the excluded actions will be so manifestly contrary to your goal that it probably wouldn’t occur to you to do them anyway.

      For instance, interdicting smuggling of drugs North doesn’t exclude buying guns for Mexican drug cartels, because interdiction is a tactic. But any anti-drug strategy you could admit to in public without getting impeached would probably exclude doing that.

  3. “It just distinguished “have-to-do” from “nice-to-do.””

    Given limited resources, that *is* telling you what not to do.

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