Why leave money on the table?

Two of the implicit findings of the NYT investigation of Iraq reconstruction bear highlighting. First, while admirable amounts have been repatriated to the US and important political contributors, fully half of the funds have been wasted building things that will remain in Iraq to benefit no-one of importance, or just paid to Iraqis who will only spend it on food and rent in their own country. In a word, the success of the program has been limited.

Second, on the other hand, there remains a great deal yet to steal, and the increasing talk of withdrawal is putting US policy at risk of being profoundly careless. There should be no talk of cutting and running until the vein has been properly mined out. Ambrose Bierce understood this principle in another context:

A Hasty Settlement

“Your Honour,” said an Attorney, rising, “what is the present status of this case – as far as it has gone?”

“I have given a judgement for the residuary legatee under the will,” said the Court, “put the costs upon the contestants, decided all questions relating to fees and other charges; and, in short, the estate in litigation has been settled, with all controversies, disputes, misunderstandings, and differences of opinion thereunto appertaining.”

“Ah, yes, I see,” said the Attorney, thoughtfully, “we are making progress – we are getting on famously.”

“Progress?” echoed the Judge – “progress? Why, sir, the matter is concluded!”

“Exactly, exactly; it had to be concluded in order to give relevancy to the motion that I am about to make. Your Honour, I move that the judgement of the Court be set aside and the case reopened.”

“Upon what ground, sir?” the Judge asked in surprise.

“Upon the ground,” said the Attorney, “that after paying all fees and expenses of litigation and all charges against the estate there will still be something left.”

“There may have been an error,” said His Honour, thoughtfully – “the Court may have underestimated the value of the estate. The motion is taken under advisement.”

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.

3 thoughts on “Why leave money on the table?”

  1. Ah, yes, but realize that so many of the jobs were left properly unfinished, so the Iraq government will have to return the money we left by paying American contractors to finish the job. So the total amount will wind up properly divided, that is, 95% to US.

  2. The Deceased and his Heirs
    A Man died leaving a large estate and many sorrowful relations who claimed it. After some years, when all but one had had judgement given against them, that one was awarded the estate, which he asked his Attorney to have appraised.
    "There is nothing to appraise," said the Attorney, pocketing his last fee.
    "Then," said the Successful Claimant, "what good has all this litigation done me?"
    "You have been a good client to me," the Attorney replied, gathering up his books and papers, "but I must say you betray a surprising ignorance of the purpose of litigation."

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