Friday, March 30, 2007

Iraq Thought Experiment 1

Imagine that a large number of Democrats and Republicans with no memory of of the last six years were plopped down into a possible world in which the U.S. was engaged in a war in Iraq identical to ours. They have no idea how we got there, who made the decision to take us in, who the President was, who controlled Congress, etc. However they have all the information we have about the facts on the ground in Iraq.

(A) What percentage of our imaginary Democrats would vote (i) to stay indefinitely? (ii) To stay for a year? (iii) To leave immediately?

What percentage of our imaginary Republicans would (i) vote to stay indefinitely? (ii) To stay for a year? (iii) To leave?

35 Comments:

Anonymous Richard said...

OK, let’s start with a bounding exercise. I assert that the maximum percentage of imaginary Republicans who would support staying indefinitely is less than or equal to the current percentage of Republicans supporting that option. I assert that the maximum percentage of imaginary Democrats that would support leaving immediately is less than or equal to the current percentage of Democrats supporting that option. Does this sound right? Any other bounds we put on the percentages?

If I had to just guess right now I’d think that very few Republicans or Democrats would be in either the “leave now” or the “stay indefinitely” category. The argument, I think, would be about when and how to leave.

6:20 PM  
Anonymous Richard said...

Minor edit. The last sentence of the first paragraph should be:

Any other bounds we *can* put on the percentages?

6:22 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

JESUS H. CHRIST THAT'S INTERESTING!!!!!!

See, this is not a concept I had before..."bounding exercise."

Cripes, a little method like that in your conceptual toolkit can open up whole new worlds...

Less importantly:
You're almost certainly right about both the imaginary Republicans and the imaginary Democrats. Or at least that's what I was thinking when I posted.

But that methodological stuff about bounds...can you say something more about that? Is that risk analysis stuff? A decision-theoretic thing? What?

6:51 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

How about:

The percentage of imaginary Republicans who would be willing to stay another year is less than the percentage of actual Republicans who would be willing to stay a year?

Hmmm...not clear...

6:58 PM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

I've never heard it referred to as a "bounding" exercise, but he's right that that's the logical first step. I mean, in order to solve a problem where differing viewpoints are going to interact, we need to find our common ground first.

Good idea, Richard. So it seems that the first assertions that we're putting forth to test and see if we all agree is that:

1) Upper bound of HR (Hypothetical Republicans) that would support staying indefinitely would be less than or equal to the amount currently supporting it.

2) Upper bound of HD (Hypothetical Democrats) that would support leaving immediately would be less than or equal to the amount currently supporting it.


Also, it's probably good to put up the reasoning behind these two assertions:

1) I'm guessing he's reasoning that the Republicans currently are motivated very strongly to stand behind their Republican president in his decisions and they see staying indefinitely as being doing just that, since the President is of the "Until Mission Accomplished" persuasion. Removing this motivation would likely decrease the amount of indefinite support for the war, as it would change the vote to being based more on reason than party support.

2) The reasoning is that the Democrats are motivated to get out so they can label the war a total failure and do some significant damage to the Republicans. Removing this motivation would likely decrease the amount who support immediately pulling out because those voting mostly to damage the current administration would instead vote for a solution based on reason and less on party allegiance.


Right? If everyone agrees, then we can go for another limit that can chip away some possiblities.

8:01 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

I've not heard the term "bounding exercise", however, in engineering and physics (the fields I have formal training in) one routinely look at how systems behave in extreme limits.

E.g., one looks at how a system behaves as the independent variable(s) approach 0, +/- infinity, and any critical values.

I agree with Richard's first bound, "the maximum percentage of imaginary Republicans who would support staying indefinitely is less than or equal to the current percentage of Republicans supporting that option."

I say this in part for the reason set forth by The Mystic, and in part because almost all Republicans supported the invasion, and they might believe (consciously or not) that to call for a definite withdrawal date would be admitting that they were in error.

In other words, for today's Republicans both partisan and personal biases will make them more likely to support indefinite stay than the hypothetical amnesiac Republicans.

However, Richard's second bound ("the maximum percentage of imaginary Democrats that would support leaving immediately is less than or equal to the current percentage of Democrats supporting that option") is not necessarily true.

It is quite possible that some Democrats currently oppose immediate withdrawal because they personally supported the invasion, and (consciously or not) they don't want to admit their error.

In other words, while partisanship can bias today's Democrats to supporting immediate withdrawal, they may have personal reasons biasing them towards staying longer. I have no way to assess the relative numbers of today's Democrats who fall into each category.

The real question is, I believe, "Ignoring partisanship and personal biases, does the performance to date of the US presence in Iraq support the contention that the having our troops there increases the prospect for stability in Iraq in the mid- to long-term?"

If the answer is "Yes, the presence of our troops is improving the mid- to long-term prospects for Iraq." then we should stay indefinitely.

If the answer is "No, the presence of our troops is not improving the mid- to long-term prospects for Iraq." then we should stay indefinitely.

If the answer is "We can't tell if the presence of our troops is improving the mid- to long-term prospects for Iraq." then we should give it some interval and try to decide again.

Note that what matters is the performance to date of today's administration and today's military as they are the administration and military that would be responsible for the continued stay or withdrawal. To hypothesize otherwise would (IMHO) remove all value from the exercise.

9:44 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Why should we stay indefinitely if our troops are not improving the mid-to-long term propects for Iraq?

1:46 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

I look at the UK, where the colours are reversed, and the Conservatives, albeit with some kicking and screaming, are not undermining Mr Blair's War. Blair's opposition comes from his left, not in small part from his own party.

Sometimes specific facts and philosophies obviate certain thought experiments, where everything is interchangeable. Most politics is venal, but not all.

4:27 AM  
Anonymous Richard said...

I might have made up the term bounding exercise but the concept is used in lots of fields. Like Jim said, it’s used in engineering all the time, and I use it in risk analysis frequently. It’s particularly useful when you know that any exposure to a substance below x amount has been deemed “safe”. If the maximum possible exposure is less than x you can move on to other problems.

For example, in toxicology you might feed a bunch of rats (possibly bred to be at high risk of cancer) different concentrations of a food additive or ingredient. Some time later you sacrifice them and search for any signs of cancer. If some of them have cancer and some don’t, you identify the highest dose that didn’t cause any cancer as the “No Observable Adverse Effect Limit” (NOAEL). Then you divide this by 10 to account for the uncertainty of extrapolating to humans and then you divide by 10 again to account for variability among humans. These uncertainty factors can be smaller than 10 if you have good reason to reduce them, but this doesn’t happen very often. This gives you a Reference Dose (RfD). Next, you figure out the 90th or 95th percentile of exposure to the food additive or ingredient. If this high level of exposure is less than the RfD you declare that it’s safe.

Establishing minimum and maximum bounds is a useful starting point, and sometimes it can be enough to answer the question at hand. Usually it’s not, but it can be a handy screening tool. The next steps are to learn more about the distribution. Questions about the central tendencies, variability, skewness, etc. of the distribution become relevant.



Now, back to the issue at hand, I think Jim makes a good point about personal reasons possibly pushing in the opposite direction. A lot of good work shows that people stick to their previous positions far longer than they should, so the second bound I suggested might not be valid.

Tom’s point about looking for natural experiments is also important.

8:17 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

1. Right--philosophers and physicists do the same sort of thing when they imagine highly abstract/cartoonish examples in order to wash away all irrelevant complexity, but:

2. What's so interesting to me about this is that, since I rarely think about distributions of data along a curve, I rarely distinguish between thinking about, say, the mean and thinking about upper and lower bounds. Thinking about the upper and lower extremes specifically and independently (of each other and of, say, the mean or some other kind of average) is, obviously, very helpful in such cases, and, weirdly, not something philosophers are used to doing.

3. It's 'bound' that's interesting here, of course, not 'bounding exercise.' I got all excited and, then, confused.

1:04 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Tom's got a really interesting point here, incidentally.

Why the difference in the UK?

Tom, as is generally (but not always) his way, wants to suggest that this suggests some virtue on the part of conservatives.

That's one option...I can think of other plausible ones, but don't want to influence anybody just yet.

At any rate, Tom points to an important phenomenon that needs explaining.

Does the following fact play any kind of role here, or can we divide through by it?:

The left is almost always more reluctant to use force that the right is in analogous situations.

1:08 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

True, I did abandon neutral language and suggest that this was virtuous on the part of conservatives, begging the question as it were.

On the other hand, the observation about the UK does indicate that the left are not merely partisan hypocrites, either---they would oppose one of their own, and do.

6:40 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

As to your point about distribution curves, WS, it does expose the mushy middle to examination for partisan hypocrisies.

For instance, the position of the right that Iraq is key to the Islamicism crisis and um, redeployment is unthinkable is a principled position. So is the left's total (as near as I can see) opposition to force in general. I disagree with everything in the Nation of course, but don't perceive any incosistency. They were extremely tough on Clinton's initiation and prosecution of the Kosovo War, and that was a "good" one by most lights.

6:55 PM  
Anonymous lovable liberal said...

WS, have you been rereading Rawls?

11:55 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Heh. Not since grad school, LL, though I can see why you might think so.

10:36 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

The mushy middle (via RedState), the opportunists. Dante had a special place in Hell for them.

On Meet the Press today:

MR. RUSSERT: The House voted for funding for the war with a date certain, March of '08, to begin a withdrawal of U.S. troops. But in that bill was $20 billion of so-called pork, money for cricket infestation, tours of the Capitol, security at the National Convention, peanut crops. Why would the Democrats put that kind of money in such a serious bill?

REP. CHARLES B. RANGEL (D-NY): Because they needed the votes. That bill, we lost so many Democrats, one, because people thought we went too far and others because we didn't go far enough. And so a lot of things had to go into a bill that certainly those of us who respect great legislation did not want in there.

8:53 PM  
Blogger David Neiwert said...

Winston:

It's an interesting thought experiment, but when I begin to follow through on it, I encounter one chief obstacle:

In order to assess what the course of action would be henceforth, we'd have to ascertain what our objectives are in Iraq, and what our reasonable expectations of success might be.

It's impossible to assess these matters without intertwining them with the motives of the people who embroiled us in Iraq in the first place, as well as the conduct of the mission to date, all of which are inextricably bound up with the conduct of the Bush administration.

I've tried to figure out a way around this, and haven't.

1:37 AM  
Blogger The Mystic said...

I'm pretty convinced that this thought experiment quickly turns into one that necessitates a book to be written in order to accomplish the goals of the experiment, and by the time the research and investigating was done and the thoughts were coherently linked, edited, and published, the problem would be over anyway.

Not that someone shouldn't do it if he or she has the ability to devote full time to it, but I don't know about us being able to arrive at anything near conclusive, unfortunately.

12:50 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

David,

Good point, but:

Actually, we don't have to know which motives the people who got us into Iraq have...though we DO need to know what motives our current leaders have...and since those groups are basically the same...well, same basic problem.

This is an interesting point b/c I neglected to specify whether this important factor changed or stayed the same when we jumped worlds.

So we really get two different thought experiments: one in which the hypothetical Dems and Reps are actually in charge of the war, and one in which we keep the same president et. al.

I think what we really need, then is a case in which the hypothetical Dems and Reps make the jump across worlds, but do not know (and cannot tell) which party the President belongs to (and they don't know enough about his policies to figure it out).

This makes their knowledge pretty thin...but actually may end up having the surprising result of making the thought experiment *easier*.

My guess: the majority of people who didn't know which party had gotten us into this mess would be inclined for us to get out sooner rather than later.

4:48 PM  
Anonymous Richard said...

Another approach to this question would be to establish a policy market where people bet real money on the outcomes. Recent work has even come up with ways to build conditionals into policy markets, e.g. if the U.S. withdraws in less than six months and a regional war breaks out in less than a year could be one “contract” in the policy market.

AEI-Brookings has done a lot of work on policy markets. Check out http://www.aei-brookings.org/pages/index.php?id=37.

The interesting point, I think, is that we could require everyone to “put up or shut up” on a lot of these policy questions. It might make some of the BS go away.

6:12 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Let me correct the typo (I hope most understood my intent) in my post a while ago:
If the answer is "No, the presence of our troops is not improving the mid- to long-term prospects for Iraq." then we should leave immediately.

Correction is in bold.

10:56 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

With all due respect to everyone, I really didn't find the discussion very fruitful. How have we now straightened out our thinking about Iraq? Intuitions about who would have supported which policy in different possible worlds really don't help me clarify what should be done. One person's intuition on this matter will totally differ from another person's. Nor does Richard's "bounding exercise" or "policy markets" help. All this sounds really smart, but what it teaches us, the hell if I know.

11:01 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Tom notes:
"The mushy middle (via RedState), the opportunists. Dante had a special place in Hell for them."

And then quotes Rep. Rangel's acknowledgement that some pork was included to get the votes need to pass the bill.

This is a problem on both sides of the issue, as Andrea Mitchell noted on Chris Matthew's show:

What I’ve been told from inside the moderate center of the Republican caucus is that ... they really are not in favor of the surge. They don’t believe it’s going to work. But they basically said the president has until August, until Labor Day. After that, if it doesn’t work, they’re running.

Transcript at Think Progress.

Mitchell's comment bears directly on WS's thought experiment. If Mitchell is correct, then many Republicans that now support staying are doing so only to advance their political agenda, even though they believe that the right thing to do is withdraw.

11:13 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Anonymous wrote:
"I really didn't find the discussion very fruitful. How have we now straightened out our thinking about Iraq?"

I think WS's hoped that
1) If we could find consensus as to the probably actions of the hypothetical amnesiac congress, that could be the right course of action for us to follow.

And,

2) We could more easily find that consensus in the context of the responses of the hypothetical amnesiac congress-critters.

It seems to me to be worth a try!

11:20 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you Jim for some EVIDENCE that helps decide this question, one way or another. I also thought Tom's remark above about the UK was somewhat enlightening.

11:24 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"evidence", meaning, your reference to Mitchell's testimony that most Republicans are really supporting the war for partisan reasons. elaborate thought-machinery works in math, philosophy, physics, economics....i'm not sure it's going to help us with this

11:28 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Thank you, anonymous, for your kind words.

Tom's source (Rep Rangel) is definitive, as opposed to mine (Mitchell), although I find Mitchell's comments quite plausible.

Tom's citing of the UK calls for a more careful response than I can give. Let me simply state my beliefs (without justifying them).

The question (to my mind) is why Blair went along with Bush.

IMHO, Blair decided that:
1) The downside for both Blair and the UK to backing Bush's invasion of Iraq would be limited in scope and short in duration.

And,
2) The long-term payback to Blair and the UK for joining the invasion of Iraq would justify the limited short-term downside.

As #1 began to be proved wrong, it seems to me that Blair had the same choice as the US Republicans:
Either he could admit the egregious error and find himself hard-pressed to justify one's tenure in high office, or he could keep insisting that this was the right course of action and standing by Bush.

Blair has (IMHO) chosen the latter.

12:08 AM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

I've been havnig a hard time posting comments of late...

Anway:

1. Policy markets: another good idea, Richard. My guess: VERY MUCH senseless political chatter and obvious bullshit could be dispensed with if every assertion had to transformed into an actual wager.

I often use a similar device with philosophy students, who often hit a phase at which they'll try to defend all sorts of silly sh*t. So I often ask them whether and how much they'd be willing to bet on the claim in question.

2.Right, Jim: it was worth a try, though rather unclear that it has or will accomplish anything.

Dunno why Anonymous's panties are in a bunch over it. Not like it cost a lot...nor was participation mandatory...

Anyway, this thought experiment is a distant cousin of the "what if the tables were turned?" thought experiment...one which is appropriate to run only about ten times every day.

So it was fairly clearly worth a try here.

1:07 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

Or, Jim, Blair simply did what he thought was right.

Interesting commentary by Bill Himself Clinton on the eve of the war.

As for the thought experiment, I think the Tories in the UK and Mr. Neiwert's not-atypical comment are significant results.

4:51 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

And per Andrea Mitchell's comment, and not to spare anyone from charges of opportunism, one wonders if the GOPers who are willing to run from Iraq come Labor Day would do so because they thought it was the right thing, or because the politcal cost to themselves of continuing to support the war would be too high.

5:01 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Tom notes that Mr. Blair may be doing what he thinks is right by continuing to side with Mr. Bush. Tom is correct, Blair might be acting solely out of a conviction that invading Iraq was the right thing to do, and the surge is a viable approach to restoring order.

On the other hand, Blair may also (as I believe to be the case) feel that the political cost to admitting he made a massive mistake is greater than the cost of sticking with Mr. Bush.

I don't see a good way to distinguish between the two possibilities (or any other posibilites, either).

Tom then posts a link to Bill Clinton's editorial printed in the UK just prior to the invasion of Iraq.

In particular, Clinton wrote:
Russia and France opposed this resolution and said they would veto it, because inspections are proceeding, weapons are being destroyed and there is therefore no need for a force ultimatum. Essentially they have decided Iraq presents no threat even if it never disarms, at least as long as inspectors are there.

Clinton's second sentence does not follow from the first. France & Russia saw that the inspection and weapons destruction process was working -- and not finding any WMD. Ultimatums were not required for that process to continue. Had Iraq begun to take substantive efforts to impede the inspections, or taken steps to deploy WMD, ultimatums would then be in order.

Mr. Bush and Mr. Blair were set upon starting a war. They were unwilling to allow the inspectors to complete their work. Mr. Clinton sided with Mr. Bush as well. Mr. Clinton was also wrong.

What I find striking about Mr. Clinton's piece is that it is suffused with an absolute belief that Iraq had a significant stockpile of WMD, despite the glaring lack of evidence.

France and Russia, in contrast, had a rational assessment of our uncertainty and sought a policy that was conservative and pragmatic. They called for no more intervention that the circumstances warranted.

Why Blair and Clinton chose to project an aura of absolute knowledge is far from clear. Perhaps they felt absolutely certain Iraq had WMD (despite the lack of evidence). Perhaps they felt that they had to place their faith in Mr. Bush and toe the party line.

I don't think we will ever know.

9:33 PM  
Blogger Jim said...

Tom wrote (appropos Mitchell's piece)
[O]ne wonders if the GOPers who are willing to run from Iraq come Labor Day would do so because they thought it was the right thing, or because the politcal cost to themselves of continuing to support the war would be too high.

If Mitchell is correct in saying:
the moderate center of the Republican caucus is ... not in favor of the surge. They don’t believe it’s going to work.
then the "moderate center of the Republican caucus" are unprinicpled opportunists.

9:38 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Jim,

It's weird alright...but a semi-interesting sidebar:

I uttered almost exactly the following sentence to a friend of mine in the lead-up to the war:

"The administration's "WMD" evidence is obviously shit--but there's no doubt in my mind that Saddam has biological and chemical weapons."

Now, Clinton knows a lot more than I do, so his error is less excusable than mine...but almost nobody realized that Clinton had destroyed what was left of Saddam's "WMD"s (in this case, bio-chem weapons) with Desert Fox.

I think it was reasonable--at the very least for uninformed slobs like myself--to think, *on the basis of past evidence*, that Saddam had bio-chem weapons.

Your next question here will be:

Say more of this "past evidence" of which you speak so fascinatingly...

To which I will respond:

Uhh...ummm.... Der. Guess I'm not exactly clear on that. Because he used some sometimes?

10:23 AM  
Blogger Jim said...

Winston wrote:
Your next question here will be:

Say more of this "past evidence" of which you speak so fascinatingly...

To which I will respond:

Uhh...ummm.... Der. Guess I'm not exactly clear on that. Because he used some sometimes?


The "past evidence" is at least in part, I suspect, that Saddam Hussein was a low-down, lying, thieving, conniving, no-good, dirty-double-crosser.

It would have been perfectly in character for him to have kept some significant Chem/Bio weapon stockpile, and out of character for him to have substantially disarmed his Nuke/Chem/Bio weapons & capabilities.

This mental model of Saddam made it easy to believe the administration's dis- and mis-information campaigns.

(Note, the mental model is accurate -- Saddam was a very, very, nasty guy. In this case, he acted out of character, probably because he had little choice.)

Furthermore, because this mental model was wide-spread, when one said pre-invasion "There is no strong evidence Iraq has WMD" the response would often be "How can you believe Saddam!?!?!?"

Prior to the war, WS tells us he would state:
"The administration's "WMD" evidence is obviously shit--but there's no doubt in my mind that Saddam has biological and chemical weapons."

Winston's quite common position is addressed in Daniel Davies's post from 2004 on when to believe (or disbelieve) people.

Similarly, you might check out Matt Yglesias's mea culpa about supporting the Invasion of Iraq (which is not available at Matt's site, so I linked to its quotation by Brad De Long)

But definitely read Daniel Davies's post

2:13 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

The key part of Clinton's essay is

"But if we leave Iraq with chemical and biological weapons, after 12 years of defiance, there is a considerable risk that one day these weapons will fall into the wrong hands and put many more lives at risk than will be lost in overthrowing Saddam."

Since such weapons can be reconstituted in a matter of months, the actual possession of them at the time of the invasion was secondary. The nature of the UN resolutions was that the burden of proof was on Saddam that he didn't have them. But that is contrary to the new narrative, where Bush and Blair (and Clinton by extension, it seems) are the bad guys and France and Russia were acting in good faith.

In my opinion, the former is baselessly cynical, the latter naive. France and Russia were in bed with Saddam financially, and it's their motives that are more reasonably suspect.

As for Andrea Mitchell, I'm gratified you understood what I was saying, Jim, so much that you restated it. Doubtless neither side is immune to opportunism. Whether there is a large or small number currently in the GOP, we shall see.

4:42 PM  

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