Saturday, November 25, 2006

Richard Clarke On Iraq and the Sunk Cost Fallacy

Speaking of Clarke's recent TNR piece, I was puzzled by, among other things, his characterization of anti-withdrawal arguments as committing the sunk cost fallacy.

He writes:

"Too often in the Iraq debate, we have let intuition, slogans, and appealing thoughts cloud logic. Perhaps the most troublesome example is the argument that we must honor the American dead by staying until we can build something worthy of their sacrifice. Stripped of its emotional tones, this argument is, in economic analysis, an appeal to sunk cost. An MIT professor once promised to fail me if I ever justified actions based on sunk cost--so I learned that what is gone is gone, and what is left we should conserve, cherish, and employ wisely."

I've got a passing interest in sunk costs, and I don't think it's any secret that you can sometimes use the sunk cost fallacy to trick yourself into doing things you ought to be doing anyway. But that's not what I want to discuss.

But I have two questions here:

1. Is anybody really (overtly or covertly) appealing to sunk costs in this discussion? I don't remember anyone doing so, but, of course, I only read a tiny fraction of what's out there.


2. Is it really always fallacious to appeal to sunk "costs" in a situation of this kind? After all, the costs we're talking about here are human lives.

Suppose, for example, that we knew for certain that, except for any good that might be associated with remembering or revering the dead, or to conferring meaning on their deaths, the world will be exactly as good/bad whether we stay in Iraq or leave. In such a case, would it make sense to stay with a mind to finishing the job in order to prevent the dead from having died in vain?

A 'yes' answer here in no way seems irrational to me.

Though it's not clear that this is really an appeal to sunk costs, anyway.

One might respond that what determines whether someone dies in vain is not their actual accomplishments, but their intentions, in which case the outcome in Iraq won't matter in that respect.

Actually, I think that the concept of dying in vain is kind of complicated...

It's hard to discuss it, of course, without remembering the right's nefarious use of the concept to trick people into maintaining support for the war. Their little strategy went like this:

First, start an unnecessary and possibly unjust war. Then, when others point out that the war is unnecessary and unjust, respond by saying "Oh, so YOU think that our brave boys have DIED IN VAIN!" It's weird, but this rhetorical trick almost always seemed to work. Seems to me that the best response is something like: "Well, IF they died in vain, it's the people who started the unnecessary war who are responsible for that, not the people who point out that it was unnecessary."

Have you noticed how I've started rambling lately?

Why, just the other day when I was getting a hamburger at Five Guys...Oh, man, those are good hamburgers...


Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

I think Clarke is right, conceptually. Don't throw good money after bad.

What has disturbed me about the reporting of the Iraq war, which I do believe has been extremely biased against the US/UK since the opening easy military victory, is that from what I gather from non-mainstream media sources, the majority of our troops think the situation sucks, but that they are doing good. (Not in the sense of "well" but in the sense of "good.") Neither do they seem to think the situation is lost.

If our troops, the ones who are making the sacrifices, whose "money" it really is, had or do turn against continuing (as they apparently did in Vietnam), that would swing almost all of us toward withdrawing, the consequences to be dealt with later.

One of your commenters elsewhere quoted the Wapo, NYT, and either the AP or Reuters in an argument against staying in Iraq. If those are the only sources of information one is willing to consult, then immediate withdrawal is the only rational choice.

But there seems to be more to the story, like the reasons why perhaps even the majority of our troops hate the mainstream American and world media.

9:37 PM  
Blogger Winston Smith said...

Dunno about that last bit, but I've wondered about the former bit. That is, I've wondered what the troops think about the worthwhile-ness of being there.

The situation is complicated, of course, by the fact that they were lied to about why we went in, and that attitude stuck even when the facts came out...and many of them, unfortunately, still believe in a Saddam-9/11 link.

But if we could control for that stuff, and discovered that they were STILL willing to stick it out for the good of the Iraqis...well, that would, indeed, put all this in a somewhat different light.

9:43 AM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

I read stuff like this now and then. I can't give it total credibility, but I believe it as much as I believe what's in the papers.

3:29 PM  
Blogger Tom Van Dyke said...

And I don't usually quote other blogs, but this fellow seems to have done a lot of work on the Iraq epistemology problem. I'm not asserting anything as factual counterargument, but doubts should be raised.

3:45 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


Don't look now, but one of the denizens of your beloved TNR seems quite simply to have lost his mind:

11:41 PM  

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