Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Henry Ford Argument

Henry Ford's name will forever be linked with the Model T. It will also be linked with a much more controversial proposition, namely the belief that -- as Ford himself said -- "history is bunk." Ford's proclamation is particularly ironic in view of the fact that, as he aged, Ford seemed to be increasingly stuck in the past. By the time Tex Avery convinced Ford's grandson to hire a team of "whiz kids" from the Harvard Business School, Ford had driven his company into the ground. Avery brought Robert McNamara into the company; and together they turned things around. Unfortunately, McNamara would eventually become the architect of the Vietnam War -- but that's another story for another post.

Despite the obvious absurdity of Ford's proposition, his argument is alive and well. It raised its head again last week when Christopher Bond, the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee, according to The New York Times, "called for the committee to stop rehashing past controversies and to 'focus on the myriad threats we face today.'"

The immediate cause for Bond's admonition was the release of two pre-war intelligence reports on post-war Iraq. The reports predicted that after Saddam Hussein fell, "Iraq would be unlikely to split apart, but a post Saddam authority would face a deeply divided society with a significant chance that domestic groups would engage in violent conflict," characterized by "score settling" and "heightened competition for power among the different groups." The analysts also predicted that, "rogue ex-regime elements could forge an alliance with existing terrorist organizations or act independently to wage guerrilla warfare against the new government or coalition forces."

The popular argument is that because pre-war intelligence on Saddam's weapons of mass destruction was wrong, no one should have believed these predictions. However, what is conveniently swept under the rug is the information which was coming from Hans Blix and his weapons inspectors, who were on the ground in Iraq before the invasion. They kept sending back reports that there were no WMD to be found. Besides Blix, Scott Ritter, a former Marine and UN weapons inspector, kept insisting that Saddam's nuclear capacity had been destroyed by 1998 and could not have been reconstituted by 2001. He also said that 90% to 95% of Saddam's chenical and biological capacity had been destroyed and that Saddam did not constitute the threat he was declared to be. However, Blix and Ritter were dismissed as dupes. Those in power knew better and they therefore deserved the public's trust.

And what should we do with this intelligence now? Well, say Mr. Bond and the president's supporters, it is obviously irrelevant, because that was then and this is now. But it is instructive to dip a little farther back into "then."

Jules Witcover, also writing in The Times, refers to James Mann's book, The Rise of the Vulcans: The History of Bush's War Cabinet. Witcover reminds his readers that in the waning days of the first Bush administration, Paul Wolfowitz -- who was then Deputy Secretary of Defence to Dick Cheney -- directed his assistant I. Scooter Libby (do these names sound familiar for other reasons?) to prepare a draft which "set forth a new vision for a world dominated by a lone American superpower actively working to assure that no rival or group of rivals would ever emerge." Libby, for his part, passed the assignment to Zalmay Khalilzad -- another familiar name. Khalilzad produced a document which "envisioned a world in which American military power alone could rival or replace the collective security that had marked U.S. containment policy during the Cold War."

Remember, this was 1992. There is no evidence that George W. Bush had anything to do with these deliberations. At the time, he had not entered politics and he was happily attending to business as a part owner of the Texas Rangers. But the plan was not thrown together hastily after September 11, 2001. It was the kind of plan whose sweep and -- some would say -- beauty appealed to Wolfowitz, the mathematician. It inspired a kind of shock and awe.

Convinced of its brilliance, why should the plan's authors have paid any attention to the intelligence at hand? Their only problem was selling the idea to their boss. The rest, as they say, is history. And -- as Mr. Ford said -- history is bunk.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Triumph of Convenience

In his award winning book, The Ingenuity Gap, Thomas Homer Dixon illustrates how the catastrophic failure of modern systems -- like the electricity grid which left millions of North Americans without power five years ago -- can be caused by several smaller but cascading failures. Like it our not, we live in an interconnected world; and a failure in any of the many links which tie us together can bring the house down.

What is true of technical systems is increasingly true of social systems. A striking example of this phenomenon is contained in an essay in the Armed Forces Journal of April 27th. Its author, Lt. Col. Paul Yingling, criticizes the current senior officer corps at the Pentagon, claiming they lack moral courage. The "tendency of the executive branch," he writes is "to seek out mild mannered team players to serve as senior generals." And the senior generals perpetuate that leadership template. What we are left with is a system where "senior officers select for promotion those like themselves." What this means in practice is that career advancement lies in saluting and marching uphill, rather than questioning the wisdom of one's superiors.

This is not a new phenomenon. It happened during the Vietnam War and it happened in Renaissance England. In Robert Bolt's play, A Man for All Seasons, Thomas Cromwell -- the real villain of the piece -- lectures Thomas More on his failure as an administrator. More not only serves at the king's convenience, Cromwell says. He serves to expedite whatever the king deems convenient -- meaning that when he assumes public office the good administrator checks his conscience at the door.

More's reply has rung down the decades, ever since the play debuted almost fifty years ago: "I believe when statesmen forsake their own private conscience for the sake of their public duties . . . they lead their country by a short route to chaos." Thus, the debacle in Iraq comes down to, as Yingling amply illustrates, a team of weak leaders, acquiescing in one bad decision after another. Or, as Homer Dixon would put it, each bad decision in the public sphere forms a link in a chain, which eventually contributes to catastrophic public failure.

Whether it be at the Pentagon or at Enron, or -- closer to home -- in the self-dealing of the sponsorship scandal, we have seen the triumph of convenience over conscience. The path to success is not to speak truth the power, but to enable it. Those who do so are rewarded. Someone like More, who has the courage to disagree and offer reasoned arguments to whomever is the king, will lose his or her head -- or, as was the case with General Shinseki, his career.

We live in a time of wars and proxy wars, ecological degradation and extreme economic injustice. If we are to arrive at solutions to these problems, our public servants must hold to the courage of their convictions. Perhaps that explains why I feel so uncomfortable every time I see Stephen Harper making another public policy announcement. I watch as the minister or ministers who will manage the policy stand behind him, nodding silently -- like religious fundamentalists at a camp meeting, punctuating the preacher's sermon with silent "amens." I suspect that Mr. Harper does not seek out dissenters; and, despite the first part of that old saying, it seems to me that -- more often than not -- fools never differ.

In the absence of dissent at the highest levels of government, we, mere citizens, must have the courage to disagree. The disaster in Iraq or the Holocaust in Germany could only happen because thousands of Adolph Eichmanns sought career advancement, despite the demands of justice, in service of the king.

When Edward R. Murrow took on Senator Joseph McCarthy in 1954, he ended his broadcast with an allusion to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar: "Cassius was right: 'The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars but in ourselves.'" McCarthy died an alcoholic mess -- a fitting end for a man who thrived on fear and character assassination. His demise was the product of a kind of courage which -- at present -- is in short supply. Without such courage we will bring the house down.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Paying Attention to the Facts on the Ground

Richard Gwyn begins his column in The Toronto Star this week by proclaiming that "Canada has done something remarkable -- it has figured out how to contain within it another country." Gwyn's observation has, at least in part, been triggered by the obvious disarray in the ranks of the Parti Quebecois, perhaps best illustrated by Gilles Duceppe's decision to run for the leadership of the party -- a decision which he reversed some twenty nine hours latter. Gwyn warns his readers that separatism is not dead: "The new creed in Quebec politics will be 'autonomy,' or making the province as separate as possible within Canada."

And it is that trend which worries The National Post's Andrew Coyne. Heading his latest column "scenes from a dying country," Coyne observes that Premier Danny Williams is sounding a lot like Jean Lesage these days, insisting that when it comes to the province's resources, Newfoundlanders should be "masters in their own house." Add to that the present Quebec premier's insistence that Quebec be considered a nation within Canada and be given a seat at UNESCO and the future begins to look darker. Alberta, too, "cannot decide whether it is or is not in favour of the concept of a single national securities regulator."

Could these men be talking about the same country? The answer is yes -- and it has always been thus. The fact that it has always been this way is no reason to be sanguine about the future. However, it is instructive to consider how we got from there to here.

Fundamentally, Canada is a country of ideas; but, for most of its history, it has rejected ideology. The country entered upon the world stage just as the free trade movement of the nineteenth century was at its apex. Yet John A. MacDonald immediately established the National Policy as a way to set Canadian manufacturers on their feet. By 1935, William Paley had developed a template for broadcasting in North America, which held that broadcasters were private entities who paid their bills through advertising. But the CBC was established as a public corporation. In 1956, after two world wars had confirmed the conventional wisdom that nation states projected their power by the use of military force, Lester Pearson insisted that Canadian forces would be used for peacekeeping, not self defense or military conquest.

In fact, throughout its history, Canada -- like its native son, the economist John Kenneth Galbraith -- has had a great distrust of what Galbraith called "the conventional wisdom." Instead, public policy decisions have had more to do with the facts on the ground than with any theory of the way things should be.

During all this time the country struggled with its identity, weathered the Conscription Crisis of World War I, The Great Depression, World War II, and the October Crisis of 1970. We relied on the tools at hand; and, if those tools proved inadequate, we -- after careful reflection -- changed them. Like the first Prime Minister, whose nickname was "Old Tomorrow," we tried not to make decisions impulsively.

Why this walk down memory lane? Well, it seems to me that the present government, for all its political calculation, does not think things through. When Gilles Duceppe threatened a motion to recognize Quebec's de facto sovereignty, Mr. Harper -- within a week -- came up with his "nation within a nation" resolution, something which is already coming back to haunt him. Just as rashly, he decided to extend Canada's mission to Afghanistan until 2009, not giving much thought to whether or not we possessed the resources or the expertise to meet the longer term commitment -- as the scandal over the treatment of Afghan prisoners illustrates. And then there was Harper's reversal on income trusts -- a fundamentally wise decision -- but a reversal of a promise made in an election campaign. Framing his decision in the ideology of a party which holds that taxes are a scourge, Harper committed himself to a bad idea. When a government ignores the way things are, as opposed to the way it thinks they should be, it generates alot of bad ideas.

As Gwyn points out, Canada has thus far arrived at a different place than Montenegro, Kosovo, Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Perhaps Scottish voters will consider Canada before they seek a "velvet divorce." As millions of unhappy couples will testify, there is no such thing. The challenge is to remain committed to the union, by considering the partners' needs, aspirations and dreams. All of these things are manifested in what exists here and now, in what we have learned in the past -- and, most importantly, in not acting impulsively or in the heat of anger.

Gilles Duceppe concluded this week that seeking the leadership of the Parti Quebecois was a bad idea -- a decision bolstered by the fact that only two members of the party's caucus were prepared to support him. It would have been wiser to have taken note of that fact before he stepped in front of a microphone.

Wednesday, May 09, 2007

The Wolfowitz Principle

Almost forty years ago, Dr. Lawrence J. Peter enunciated the principle which bears his surname. Peter believed that "in a hierarchy, every employee tends to rise to his level of incompetence." There were, said Peter, many reasons for this. But the prime reason was that the set of skills which led to an employee's success at one level of the organization were not the skills required at a higher level. And, never having developed the required skills to succeed at a higher level, the employee -- and the organization he or she worked for -- failed at the task at hand.

Paul Wolfowitz is a stunning example of the Peter Principle. A mathematician by training, he is universally acknowledged as a very bright man. But, like another technocrat before him -- Robert McNamara -- he has been a remarkable failure at the American Department of Defence. And, also like McNamara, the man he worked for sent him off to the Presidency of the World Bank. The jury is out on Mr. McNamara's time at the bank. But it is becoming increasingly clear that Wolfowitz's tenure there, like his tenure at the Defence Department, has been a train wreck.

Both McNamara and Wolfowitz made their reputations as gurus of statistical analysis -- techniques which are widely thought to accurately predict the results of human endeavour. But, as McNamara now readily admits, those techniques are only valid if one thoroughly understands the terrain -- geographical, cultural, historical and political -- over which one travels. During McNamara's time at Defence, the numbers -- particularly the body counts -- were always on his side. But he, and the government for which he worked, did not understand Vietnam at all. By 1967 he wasn't sleeping at night, his wife had an ulcer and he knew that -- despite the numbers -- the war he had crafted was not winnable. Lyndon Johnson thought McNamara was melting down and replaced him with Clark Clifford, who understood that McNamara had stumbled upon the truth.

It would appear that Wolfowitz and his president have had no such epiphany. Even though his predictions that the war in Iraq would be easily concluded and paid for by Iraqi oil money have proved to be so much smoke, Wolfowitz went off to the bank convinced, as ever, that history would vindicate him.

And, if Wolfowitz did not understand Iraq, he understood the World Bank even less. That is not to say that, in some ways, Wolfowitz was not a good fit for the job. He, like several of his predecessors, believed that the way to improve the lot of the world's poor was to practice what John Ralston Saul has called "crucifixion economics," a set of economic principles perhaps best illustrated by the bank's requirements before it loaned money to Russia in the early nineties. Essentially, all the major assets of the state were privatized at fire sale prices and found their way into the hands of a few wealthy Russians, thereafter referred to as "the oligarchs." Then state services were drastically curtailed. The result was unemployment, loss of pensions and a crisis in Russian health care. Wealth was shifted up into the hands of a few, not down to the masses.

Naomi Klein, in a recent column in The Nation, provides a laundry list of similar demands which had to be met by other poor countries before the bank would lend them money. " . . . it forced school fees on students in Ghana in exchange for a loan; it demanded that Tanzania privatize its water system; it made telecom privatization a condition of aid for Hurricane Mitch; it demanded labor "flexibility" in the aftermath of the Asian tsunami; it pushed for eliminating food subsidies in post invasion Iraq." And if -- as in Russia -- things got worse rather than better, what was Wolfowitz's solution? Eliminate corruption and crony capitalism in the offending countries -- as if the bank's own demands had not encouraged, indeed, demanded such corruption.

And then came the case of Shaha Riza, Wolfowitz's companion. She had worked for the bank before Wolfowitz's arrival. And, sensing a potential conflict of interest, Wolfowitz took steps to -- at least temporarily -- remove her from the organization. To that end he worked out a deal whereby she would remain a bank employee, but she would be seconded to the U.S. State Department. However, the storm broke when reporters -- like David Corn, also of The Nation -- discovered that Riza's transfer included a 36% pay hike (from $132,000 a year to $180,000 and guaranteed annual raises of 8%). Nice work, if you can get it. Or, more precisely, nice work if you know someone who can get it for you. The salary increase will also effect Riza's pension. Under the new regime, she can expect an annual pension of $110,000 a year. Had she not been offered the promotion, her annual pension would be $56,000 a year.

All of this makes it hard for the bank to rail against crony capitalism. Mr. Wolfowitz does not owe his rise to competence. Instead, in the idiom of the day, he knows how to network. He has demonstrated his incompetence at not just one but two of the world's most powerful institutions. That kind of incompetence is greater than even Dr. Peter recognized. It needs a new name. Call it the Wolfowitz Principle.

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

The Myth of Inevitability

Thirty years ago I sat in a Canadian history class at the University of Manitoba. The class was taught by Gordon Rothney, one of the finest scholars and teachers I have known. He and I shared a place in common. He was born in, and I taught high school in, the same little town in the Eastern Townships. During the course of the year we, of course, discussed Quebec's place and future in Confederation. Rothney had no sympathy for the nationalism espoused by Rene Levesque; but he understood where it came from. And, more importantly, he was of the opinion that the nationalists would eventually win the day -- not because they had justice on their side, but because of what, he felt, were the inexorable tides of history.

He believed that the history of the twentieth century was the story of how power was being consolidated into geographic blocks. That consolidation began with economic pacts, like NAFTA and the European Economic Community. Eventually it would erode international borders and national sovereignty would be a thing of the past. He was quite confident that the growing influence of the United States would eventually hold sway over North America, and that the flow of power from North to South would, in the end, dissolve the historical east-west bonds which held Canada together. I remember arguing that, despite what Tolstoy said, history was not about unstoppable movements of people and resources. It was about wisdom -- or the lack of it -- as expressed in the choices which people made throughout time.

I must admit that, over the past thirty years -- particularly during the last Quebec referendum in 1995 -- I have sometimes thought that he was right. But, as of today, Canada has not disintegrated. Some -- myself included -- would argue that the present government's take on the federation makes that dissolution easier. But, for the present, it looks like we will hold the family together.

I thought of Rothney this week as I read John Ralston Saul's excellent book, The Collapse of Globalism. Saul claims that in the thirty years since I sat in Rothney's history class, the so called best and brightest among us have been in the thrall of an ideology of economic determinism. The result, in the 1980's and 90's, was public policies which were presented to us "with the force of declared inevitability." But, says Saul, there is nothing inevitable about our situation. Instead of being trapped by the tides of history, we are in an "interregnum," an era characterized by "a vacuum of economic thought, which adds an element of even greater uncertainty, because economics is a romantic tempestuous business, rather theatrical, often dependent on the willing suspension of disbelief by the rest of us." And, ironically, in the midst of this vacuum, we have come to see all of existence through an economic prism.

Having willingly suspended our disbelief, we have forgotten that we have choices, that "we have the power to choose in the hope of altering society for the greater good. . . The conviction that citizens have such power lies at the heart of the idea of civilization as a shared project." For, Saul writes, "To believe in the reality of choice is one of the most basic characteristics of leadership. Curiously enough, many individuals who think of themselves as leaders find this reality very difficult. They believe that their job is to understand power and management and perhaps make minor corrections to what they accept to be the torque of events."

We have substituted management for leadership. It is worth remembering that the current President of the United States holds an MBA from Harvard; and the current Prime Minister of Canada holds a Masters degree in Economics from the University of Calgary. One should not be surprised that they espouse what is, for the moment, the conventional wisdom. Thus, this week Mr. Bush vetoed a bill which would begin the withdrawal of troops from Iraq, arguing that such a bill would inevitably lead to chaos in the entire Middle East; and the Harper government claimed this week that its Green Plan was modest because anything more demanding would inevitably do untold damage to the Canadian economy.

What is so appealing about inevitability is that it relieves us of moral responsibility. We believe in financial accounting; but we work hard to sidestep any accounting for the long term consequences of our actions. Asked this week if, knowing that the intelligence his organization had on Saddam Hussein's nuclear capability was -- at best -- unreliable, he had argued against President Bush's decision to go to war, George Tenet answered that it had become clear to him that the decision was inevitable. To this assertion, former CIA analyst Michael Scheurer, in an op-ed in The Washington Post, wrote that Tenet faced a choice -- to go along or to resign: ". . . Tenet's resignation would have destroyed the neocons' Iraq house of cards by discrediting the only glue holding it together: the intelligence that proved Saddam Hussein was guilty of pursuing nuclear weapons and working with Al Queda."

When you have a mortgage and a family, it's never easy to make that kind of decision. But as Tenet's decision illustrates, the consequences can be disastrous. The potential to avoid disaster, despite what I learned in Gordon Rothney's history class, still resides in our power to choose.