Inspiration vs. Substance

Joe Klein writes in a Time article. Speaking of the Obama campaign, he says,

The man’s use of pronouns (never I), of inspirational language and of poetic meter — “WE are the CHANGE that we SEEK” — is unprecedented in recent memory. [sic] there was something just a wee bit creepy about the mass messianism — “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for” — of the Super Tuesday speech and the recent turn of the Obama campaign. “This time can be different because this campaign for the presidency of the United States of America is different. It’s different not because of me. It’s different because of you.” That is not just maddeningly vague but also disingenuous: the campaign is entirely about Obama and his ability to inspire. Rather than focusing on any specific issue or cause — other than an amorphous desire for change — the message is becoming dangerously self-referential.

Klein sums up the Obama campaign, “The Obama campaign all too often is about how wonderful the Obama campaign is.” It is time for Obama to speak substantively.

Glass Houses

Gore Mansion

House #1

A 20 room mansion (not including 8 bathrooms) heated by natural gas — add on a pool, a pool house and a separate guest house, all heated by gas. In one month this residence consumes more energy than the average American household does in a year. The average bill for electricity and natural gas runs over $2400. In natural gas alone, this property consumes more than 20 times the national average for an American home. This house is not situated in a Northern or Midwestern “snow belt” area. It’s in the South.

Bush Crawford Ranch

House #2

Designed by an architecture professor at a leading national university. This house incorporates every “green” feature current home construction can provide. The house is 4,000 square feet (4 bedrooms) and is nestled on a high prairie in the American southwest. A central closet in the house holds geothermal heat-pumps drawing ground water through pipes sunk 300 feet into the ground. The water (usually 67 degrees F.)! &nb sp; heats the house in the winter and cools it in the summer. The system us es no fossil fuels such as oil or natural gas and it consumes one-quarter electricity required for a conventional heating/cooling system. Rainwater from the roof is collected and funneled into a 25,000 gallon underground cistern. Wastewater from showers, sinks and toilets goes into underground purifying tanks and then into the cistern. The collected water then irrigates the land surrounding the house. Surrounding flowers and shrubs native to the area enable the property to blend into the surrounding rural landscape.

So can you guess which house belongs to a self-proclaimed environmentalist?


Global warming?

Branded as “The Most Terrifying Video You’ll Ever See”, but really a reasoned approach to thinking about global warming. Watch, see what you think, and comment.

A reasoned response here:

Political Base: Money Graph

The Evolutionary Brain Glitch That Makes Terrorism Fail

Bruce Schneier has written an excellent piece on terrorism and why it almost always fails to produce the outcome its purveyors hope.

But like all cognitive biases, correspondent inference theory fails sometimes. And one place it fails pretty spectacularly is in our response to terrorism. Because terrorism often results in the horrific deaths of innocents, we mistakenly infer that the horrific deaths of innocents is the primary motivation of the terrorist, and not the means to a different end.

I found this interesting analysis in a paper by Max Abrams in International Security. “Why Terrorism Does Not Work” (.PDF) analyzes the political motivations of 28 terrorist groups: the complete list of “foreign terrorist organizations” designated by the U.S. Department of State since 2001. He lists 42 policy objectives of those groups, and found that they only achieved them 7 percent of the time.

According to the data, terrorism is more likely to work if 1) the terrorists attack military targets more often than civilian ones, and 2) if they have minimalist goals like evicting a foreign power from their country or winning control of a piece of territory, rather than maximalist objectives like establishing a new political system in the country or annihilating another nation. But even so, terrorism is a pretty ineffective means of influencing policy.

There’s a lot to quibble about in Abrams’ methodology, but he seems to be erring on the side of crediting terrorist groups with success. (Hezbollah’s objectives of expelling both peacekeepers and Israel out of Lebanon counts as a success, but so does the “limited success” by the Tamil Tigers of establishing a Tamil state.) Still, he provides good data to support what was until recently common knowledge: Terrorism doesn’t work.

This is all interesting stuff, and I recommend that you read the paper for yourself. But to me, the most insightful part is when Abrams uses correspondent inference theory to explain why terrorist groups that primarily attack civilians do not achieve their policy goals, even if they are minimalist. Abrams writes:

The theory posited here is that terrorist groups that target civilians are unable to coerce policy change because terrorism has an extremely high correspondence. Countries believe that their civilian populations are attacked not because the terrorist group is protesting unfavorable external conditions such as territorial occupation or poverty. Rather, target countries infer the short-term consequences of terrorism — the deaths of innocent civilians, mass fear, loss of confidence in the government to offer protection, economic contraction, and the inevitable erosion of civil liberties — (are) the objects of the terrorist groups. In short, target countries view the negative consequences of terrorist attacks on their societies and political systems as evidence that the terrorists want them destroyed. Target countries are understandably skeptical that making concessions will placate terrorist groups believed to be motivated by these maximalist objectives.

In other words, terrorism doesn’t work, because it makes people less likely to acquiesce to the terrorists’ demands, no matter how limited they might be. The reaction to terrorism has an effect completely opposite to what the terrorists want; people simply don’t believe those limited demands are the actual demands.

Now Bruce gets specific about Al Qaeda, 9/11 and our response.

This theory explains, with a clarity I have never seen before, why so many people make the bizarre claim that al Qaeda terrorism — or Islamic terrorism in general — is “different”: that while other terrorist groups might have policy objectives, al Qaeda’s primary motivation is to kill us all. This is something we have heard from President Bush again and again — Abrams has a page of examples in the paper — and is a rhetorical staple in the debate. (You can see a lot of it in the comments to this previous essay.)

In fact, Bin Laden’s policy objectives have been surprisingly consistent. Abrams lists four; here are six from former CIA analyst Michael Scheuer’s book Imperial Hubris:

  1. End U.S. support of Israel
  2. Force American troops out of the Middle East, particularly Saudi Arabia
  3. End the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan and (subsequently) Iraq
  4. End U.S. support of other countries’ anti-Muslim policies
  5. End U.S. pressure on Arab oil companies to keep prices low
  6. End U.S. support for “illegitimate” (i.e. moderate) Arab governments, like Pakistan

Although Bin Laden has complained that Americans have completely misunderstood the reason behind the 9/11 attacks, correspondent inference theory postulates that he’s not going to convince people. Terrorism, and 9/11 in particular, has such a high correspondence that people use the effects of the attacks to infer the terrorists’ motives. In other words, since Bin Laden caused the death of a couple of thousand people in the 9/11 attacks, people assume that must have been his actual goal, and he’s just giving lip service to what he claims are his goals. Even Bin Laden’s actual objectives are ignored as people focus on the deaths, the destruction and the economic impact.

Perversely, Bush’s misinterpretation of terrorists’ motives actually helps prevent them from achieving their goals.

Oddly enough, reading this list it sounds as if Bin Laden is some kind of statesmen with honor–if we simply comply with his demands he will leave us alone.  He is, by any definition, a psychopath.  I hope we all understand that this is simply not the case.   I thought it was common knowledge that Bin Laden and his religious backers want to establish a new caliphate and the forced conversion to fundamentalist Islam of all people.

Now the summary…

None of this is meant to either excuse or justify terrorism. In fact, it does the exact opposite, by demonstrating why terrorism doesn’t work as a tool of persuasion and policy change. But we’re more effective at fighting terrorism if we understand that it is a means to an end and not an end in itself; it requires us to understand the true motivations of the terrorists and not just their particular tactics. And the more our own cognitive biases cloud that understanding, the more we mischaracterize the threat and make bad security trade-offs.

I wish all of our elected leaders understand more about the actual motivations of Islamic terrorists as they make decisions on how to combat them. Decisions which oftentimes trade our liberties on the hope of better security.

China executes ex-head of food and drug agency

Well, I am not advocating that we follow the Chinese lead here, but one wonders what effect this type of policy would have on our own bureaucrats?

Quoting from the MSNBC article:

China on Tuesday executed the former head of its food and drug watchdog who had become a symbol of the country’s wide-ranging problems on product safety.

Zheng Xiaoyu’s execution was confirmed by State Food and Drug Administration spokeswoman Yan Jianyang at a news conference held to highlight efforts to improve China’s track record on food and drug safety.

Such cases “have brought shame to our administration and revealed serious problems. We need to seriously reflect on what lessons we can draw from such cases,” Yan said about Zheng and a separate case involving Cao Wenzhuang, the administration’s former pharmaceutical registration department director.

Zheng’s death sentence was unusually heavy even for China, believed to carry out more court-ordered executions than all other nations combined, and likely indicates the leadership’s determination to confront the country’s dire product safety record.

It makes me very thankful to live in the United States where we have much higher standards–both food safety and otherwise.

Last week, China’s food safety watchdog said almost 20 percent of products made for consumption within China were found to be substandard in the first half of 2007. Canned and preserved fruit and dried fish were the most problematic, primarily because of excessive bacteria and additives, the agency said.

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