Pursuit of Truthiness

my gut tells me I know economics

A Simple Theory of Dick Cheney

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It is at least a year too late for people to really care about Cheney analysis, but when I think up something that seems obvious but hasn’t been said before there is only one thing to do.

There are lots of simple theories that people throw out for the actions of their opponents.  Some popular postulates are crazy, stupid, evil, corrupt, misguided, or power hungry.  Evil and power-hungry were probably the top Cheney explanations; think of Jon Stewart’s portrayal of Cheney as Darth Vader.

“Misguided” is an easy word to use, but the process by which people become misguided is important and presumably complicated.  How did Anakin Skywalker turn into Darth Vader?  It took several films for Darth to become “misguided”.

Cheney’s story is indeed long and complicated, though it is also interesting and important.  It is told well by Barton Gellman in Angler: The Cheney Vice Presidency.  (Professor Buckley recommended the book, saying “read it in a well-lit room with your back to a wall, it is quite frightening”).

The short version, however, is indeed short.  Cheney didn’t have to be evil, corrupt or power-hungry to do the things he did.  All he had to be was the one thing his critics rarely called him: stupid.  Not even really stupid, just possessing one faulty logic circuit.

Cheney always talked about the “threat”.  He took pride in being the one who was always thinking about America’s enemies and how to stop them.  And in a zero-sum world, an obsession with thwarting the efforts of enemies might even be healthy.  But of course we are not in a zero-sum world, and “how can we make things worse for America’s enemies” is not the same question as “how can we make America better off”.  And the latter is the question the vice-president should always be thinking about.

But can we really have common interests with our enemies?  Is foreign policy really a non-zero-sum game?  In the Cold War it certainly was.  A major nuclear war would be very bad for the Soviets but also bad for us.  Similarly, the Iraq war and the torture policy were bad news to some of America’s enemies (Saddam’s regime and any terrorists we capture) but were probably also bad for us, given the expense in lives and money of the first and the reputation hit and enemy radicalization of the second.

I suppose the real lesson here is that politicians should have to study economics and listen to economists, to whom game theory, non-zero-sum thinking, and marginal (rather than black-and-white, all-or-nothing) thinking are second nature.  It should be now surprise that it was an economist (Petraeus) who turned things around in Iraq by finding common ground with some former enemies (non-zero-sum thinking applied to Sunni tribal militias) and using incentives to change behavior.  I know everyone thinks their own field is more important than it is in reality (that’s why they choose it, right?) but it seems like economists are more rational in some important ways, and they are probably the best group we’ve got until professional rationalists come into their own.

Written by James Bailey

January 12, 2010 at 3:41 pm

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