Bruce Bueno de Mesquita – The Predictionieer’s Game:
Conversely, the notion that the developments that make up history are primarily a series of chance events seems equally odd to me. Why fight over ideas, select governments, build armies, fund research, promote literacy, create art, or write histories if all we are doing is twiddling our thumbs while chance developments sund us bouncing around like the physicist’s particles? How can anyone deny strategic behavior and its consequences when we are surrounded by it in almost everything we do?
To be sure, the world as we know it could have swung one way or the other. That’s why neither the past nor the future follows an inevitable path. There are always chance elemnts behind which ways things, but those cahnce events rarely decide the future.
Bruce Bueno de Mesquita – The Predictionieer’s Game:
Diplomats are convinced that a country’s name is an important variable that helps explain behavior. That’s why the State Department continues to be organized around country desks, just as the intelligence community is organized around geographic regions. Leaders of multinational corporations take much the same view. When they have a problem in Kazakhstan, they call their guys in Kazakhstan to find out what to do. That seems eminently reasonable. Yet it is terribly inadequate for solving most problems.
Certainly knowing about places and how different they might be is important, but not as important as knowing about people and how similar they are, wherever they are. I have not arrived at this view lightly nor, I hope, in ignorance. After all, the training that led to my Ph.D. molded me into a South Asia specialist. I even studied Urdu for five years and did field research in India, so I certainly respect and value area expertise. But area studies alone are a poor substitute for the marriage of knowledge about places and the deep understanding of applied game theorists about how people decide. Surely we would think it ridiculous if chemists believed that oxygen and hydrogen combine differently in China than they do in the United States, but for some reason we think it entirely sensible to believe that people make choices based on different principles in Timbuktu than in Tipperary.
I’m currently reading the excellent Killing Rage by Eamon Collins based on a recommendation from Chris Blattman’s blog. Having became interested in Politics and the wider world around the time of the Good Friday Agreement, being a big fan of Irish literature and culture, and having stayed close to the Irish border during marching season I have always been very interested in the conflict, its origins, and possible solutions. Collins is a former IRA Intelligence agent turned informer and was murdered after the book was published. While Blattman was particularly struck by the insight of why young people turn to violence I am more struck by reading of the banality and acceptance of violence in places I have since visited and fallen in love with. One frequent locale is Rostrevor, a small village by Carlingford Lough (the border runs through the lake) where I stayed for a week taking a language course, one of the most peaceful places I have ever seen which was previously the scene of much smuggling in violence. The bank where my host father worked had been bombed several times and he had been held up during a bank robbery and everyone talked about these events with an acceptance and calm that was difficult to fathom. The contrast between the serene hill paths and parks and music and laughter and the darker sides of all of it is difficult to accept.
I’ve been reading a LOT about how to increase learning speed in startups and how to shorten feedback cycles to quickly see what is working and what isn’t and to then iterate on that. Because of this I found the following bit about decision/feedback loops in the military from Free Range International extremely interesting:
“According to Boyd, decision-making occurs in a recurring cycle of observe-orient-decide-act. An entity (whether an individual or an organization) that can process this cycle quickly, observing and reacting to unfolding events more rapidly than an opponent, can thereby “get inside” the opponent’s decision cycle and gain the advantage. Frans Osinga argues that Boyd’s own views on the OODA loop are much deeper, richer, and more comprehensive than the common interpretation of the ‘rapid OODA loop’ idea”
That rapid feedback loops are important in many areas makes perfect sense but I really liked how if you replace “opponent” in the paragraph above with “customer” you get a basic version of rapid learning for startups – except that you’re trying to make something they want instead of killing them. There’s a lot of other processes and approaches startups can learn from other fields.
The US economy is reeling and we are all worried, many of us have lost their jobs or know several people who have. There are good economic arguments for trying to keep as much as possible of the economic stimulus inside the country (to maximize the impact of each dollar spent) while avoiding new protectionism that might spark a trade war. With all of us so focused on the domestic economy it is easy to forget that things are also happening in the rest of the world and that they aren’t that different from what we are going through here (and many of the problems like speculative investment in Eastern Europe are not at all the US fault).
However, if the current crisis has taught us anything, it is that nations are interlinked. The economic decoupling was a myth and the economic crisis is hurting everyone and endangering many US foreign policy priorities, including the recovery of Iraq. Because of this I was extremely shocked to see the following shortsightedness from Richard Posner:
I think the big foundations, such as the Gates foundation (the biggest), should be strongly urged to redirect their extensive foreign charity to the United States at this time of depression. I am not suggesting that his projects should “Buy American,” in the sense of buying U.S. products to give to foreign recipients of his charities. The point is rather that charity should begin at home when home is suffering.
I agree that in these tough times all of us who have steady incomes should help less fortunate ones by donating more to local charities. But taking away funding from the developing world would both be immoral and counter productive. These countries are already suffering immensely from a crisis that they did not create, the World Bank’s Chief Economist for Africa expects up to 700,000 additional infant deaths in Africa because of the crisis and an increase in conflict and decrease in governance quality. Ted Miguel and Ray Fisman have shown how economic shocks greatly increase the likelihood of civil wars and the same is true for a rapid fall in natural resource prices. Offering aid and then withdrawing it can be much worse than not giving anything in the first place. This decade has taught us that failing states, from Afghanistan, to Pakistan, to Somalia are real security problems, not just for their neighbors but also for the West.
If the Gates Foundation and others like it suddenly stopped funding projects in developing countries countless projects that have come to depend on their funds (many of which were started because of it) would have to shut down and it would take a long time for them to recover once the money becomes available again. The cutting of funds would worsen the impact of the crisis in affected countries, increase the time it will take for the global economy to recover, endanger long term research into tropical diseases, and produce a (potentially protectionist) backlash against the United States that we really don’t need right now.
This crisis and the way we get out of it is a chance for the US to show its leadership and creativity in the face of tough problems and together we can achieve that. If you as an individual want to help those less fortunate than you consider making a loan on Kiva or donating to a US charity.
Update: As Lauren pointed out in the comments you can also contribute by spending your time solving important problems and make a career out of making the world a better place.
Update 2: Richard Posner wrote another post supporting the elimination of tax deductions for charitable donations to foreign countries while Gary Becker (on the same blog) had a more nuanced opinion. Posner also maintains that we should regulate such giving which as an entrepreneur leaves me just flabbergasted. Many innovative non-profits started by young upstarts with great ideas such as Kiva, Forge, Face Aids, and Unite for Sight would never have been started under this plan and the world would be worse off for it. Let’s foster entrepreneurship in all sectors of the economy, not limit it without good reason.