Sunk costs and bad metaphors

It’s always useful to have a clear understanding of the kind of problem before one, and misclassifications are especially common when we are desperate to be seen throwing the right kind of slogan at an issue in time for a news cycle or an election. For example, political habits of thought make a lot of conflicts look as though some sort of Aristotelian mean between extremes should be sought, though many of these actually demand complete ‘victory’ by one side or the other, and others can lead to solutions with a lot of what both sides want, rather than two half-loaves.

Chancy situations put managers in a mood to reduce or eliminate risk, but Bob Leone used to point out correctly that most of these actually require us to choose the right risk rather than trying fruitlessly to have less or none. Every production or sequential process has a bottleneck, and it’s usually better to assure that the bottleneck is in the right place than to “remove it”, which of course just creates another somewhere else.

Terrorism and the occupation of Iraq are two opportunities to misunderstand the nature of the challenge with dire results. The press and the blogs have been alive with demands that the Democrats present their ‘plan for Iraq’, often packaged with constraints that the plan not lead to defeat, chaos in the region, or any other really distasteful outcome: the implicit model of the problem is that we find a way to undo the catastrophe orchestrated by the Republicans’ unfettered management of the enterprise over five years.

No sane person would demand a plan to reverse our wasteful use of petroleum over a century and put all that nice oil back in the ground to use again; it’s gone, burned, finished. The Iraqi Titanic is holed and passing the hundred-fathom mark on its way down (just today, for example, we have forty more bodies in the street, Al-Sadr’s militia breaking up into groups he doesn’t control, the police academy we built needing a wrecking ball ) . Following it into the whirlpool is a boatful of constitutional rights and moral principles that were, at least until recently, immensely important to Americans. The navigation of this latter vessel is of course on Republican principles that defy summary, but seem to include (1) we want to be able to torture people and imprison them indefinitely to get intelligence, (2) actually we don’t use or respect intelligence unless we already knew it, and we especially reject (3) intelligence from experts to the effect that information obtained by torture and mistreatment is likely to be wrong.

The reasons to vote Democratic have to do with not making more mistakes like Iraq, mistakes assured by the Republican intention to stay the course or to bravely steer more vessels into the same iceberg…or the one just east of it. There is no more reason to expect Democrats to have a way to extract a good outcome from Iraq than for them to turn Katrina (or even the next big hurricane) into a nice breeze and a rainy day. Just because the Iraq invasion was man-made doesn’t mean it’s reversible or fixable. The costs of that bungle are sunk, the dead are dead, the old political and cultural structures are landfill. The only plan to fix Iraq now requires that we suspend the second law of thermodynamics: don’t invade it.

Terrorism is deeply misunderstood when it attracts metaphors like war: a war is a program to cause a unitary decisionmaker to take specific actions of which he is capable, such as surrender, acceptance of occupation, division of a territory, and the like. The war metaphor entails a bunch of nice associated values like courage and determination, but it completely misrepresents a task like coping with terrorism (or drugs). Terrorism is a condition of ongoing risk that is much better approached with the metaphors of preparedness, planned response, and containment that we use for natural disasters than those of war or anything like it. It’s a risk that has to be managed, and for a long time, no matter that its agents hate us or offend our gods or won’t play fair (though getting these insights right has some predictive value). Would we deal with the San Andreas fault differently if we discovered the geology of California really disliked humans and buildings?

Democrats have to do what they have to do to get elected by a voting population profoundly misinformed and alienated by a ghastly alliance of willful ignorance, greed, power mania, and prejudice. It’s not fair, but that’s how it is. But they should be careful not to paralyze their time in power with dysfunctional commitments to make water flow uphill, even if voters and columnists desperately want to hear something soothing.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.

4 thoughts on “Sunk costs and bad metaphors”

  1. It's not enough to say – "they broke it so it's not our fault." If you think it's broken, you need to say what you plan to do. Maybe it can't be fixed. fine. So what ARE you going to do? Ignore it? Leave it, like a ticking bomb in the middle of the street?
    Having no plan means either that you don't think it matters (in which case, bashing the Republicans doesn't make sense) or that you are afraid to touch something that would be the next administration's responsibility – in which case, how can you be trusted with that responsibility?
    No plan is not an acceptable answer

  2. BTW, I don't agree with your assessment of terrorism. It is indeed an attempt to get a unilateral decision-maker to make decisions you want, including surrender, etc. – at least as it is used by militant Islam. The intent is to get non-Muslim populations to pressure their leaders to make concession after concession to Muslims, as we have seen, especially in Europe, where Spain has withdrawn from Iraq, laws are passed and social taboos raised prohibiting speaking against Islam or taking any other action needed to support resistance against creeping Muslim authority in (currently) non-Muslim lands. The way it has to be fought is different, but it is hardly equivalent to earthquakes, which happen randomly and cannot realistically be affected by human action.

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