The Road Not Taken, No Not That One, You Know, The Other One

1961. Robert McNamara, the recently installed Secretary of Defense in President John Fitzgerald Kennedy’s cabinet, sits in his Pentagon office at a nine-foot-long mahogany desk, polished to a mirrorlike shine. He is wearing a dark suit, his thick brown hair slicked back on his head and parted in the middle, old fashioned wire-rim spectacles framing his mirthless eyes, his jaw clenched tight, a severe expression on his face, looking very much the Presbyterian elder he is.

The door opens, and Edward Lansdale, career spy and counterinsurgency specialist, enters. He has handsome, movie star good looks and a neat moustache. A look of determination is on his face, with a hint of a maverick smile, and he is carrying a box of what seem to be weapons and camping gear, caked with mud and even blood.

MCNAMARA is making notes on some graph paper.

MCNAMARA: [Stiffly] Colonel Lansdale, good to see you.

LANSDALE: Good morning, Mr Secretary.

MCNAMARA: Lansdale, we’re doing a systems analysis on our policy in South Vietnam. I understand you’ve just returned from a trip there and I need your report on the situation. You have nine and a half minutes for this briefing.

LANSDALE strides over to the desk and upends the content of the box. Out spill handmade pistols and knives, old French rifles, and bamboo punji sticks, all over the desk with a clatter, with a few falling on the floor.

LANSDALE: The enemy in Vietnam uses these weapons – and they were using them just a little bit ago before I got them. Many of them are barefoot or wear sandals. They wear black pajamas, usually, with tatters or holes in them. I don’t think you’d recognize any of them as soldiers, but they think of themselves that way. The people that are fighting there, on our side, are being supplied with our weapons and uniforms and shoes and all of the best that we have; and we’re training them. Yet, the enemy is licking our side. Always keep in mind about Vietnam, that the struggle goes far beyond the material things of life. It doesn’t take weapons and uniforms and lots of food to win. It takes something else, ideas and ideals, and these guys are using that something else. Let’s at least learn that lesson.

MCNAMARA stares at his soiled desk, blinking.

MCNAMARA: I see. [Stands up.] Colonel Lansdale, you can’t substitute emotions for reason.

LANSDALE: [Chuckles] It substituted just fine when we made those Marxists on Luzon think their villages were attacked by vampires.

MCNAMARA, somewhat fussily, fishes out his graph paper and pencil from under the weapons and other junk now on his desk. He walks to a clearer part of the desk and places it down.

MCNAMARA: Lansdale. As I said before, we are performing an extensive systems analysis on the situation in South and North Vietnam, and very much need to capture all the factors at play. I’m not sure if you are familiar with systems analysis. This is a process we used when I was an executive at Ford Motors. I have a list of seventy three factors our staff have so far found, including food supply, ammunition, rice production, oil imports, and so on. We’ll crunch the numbers, and once the analysis is complete, the output of the model will give us a clear path to victory.

LANSDALE glances at the list.

LANSDALE: Mr Secretary, your list is incomplete. You’ve left out the most important factor of all.

MCNAMARA: What is it?

LANSDALE: Well, it’s the human factor. You can put it down as the X factor.

MCNAMARA writes down “X Factor” on the graph paper.

MCNAMARA: What does it consist of?

LANSDALE: What the people out on the battlefield really feel; which side they want to see win and which side they’re for at the moment. That’s the only way you’re going to ever have this war decided.

MCNAMARA: Ah. Good point, but we’ve got that actually. Over here, see: “Volunteer signups”, “Ho Chi Minh “uncle-ization” ratio”, “Negative reviews on Saigon embassy facebook page”, “Mao Zedong cat pun frequency”, “GI sales of Conrad short stories”.

LANSDALE: I see. Well, what about the V factor?

MCNAMARA writes down “V Factor” on the graph paper.

MCNAMARA: What does it consist of?

LANSDALE: Vampires.

MCNAMARA: Ok. Ah, we’ll make sure to give that, uh, the appropriate weighting.

LANSDALE: Mr Secretary, there’s no mathematical formula for the human spirit.

MCNAMARA: That’s true. Some of those smart IBM boys we seconded from Cambridge found that a fifteen dimension vector including poetry writing and fish sauce consumption was a passable proxy in the Indochinese context, though.

LANSDALE: Oh, ok. Well that sounds just dandy. Don’t forget there are three brands of fish sauce popular in the south though – you should really track the lot.

MCNAMARA: Interesting. I’ll put those IBM boys onto it.


MCNAMARA: Good. This has been really useful, but I’ve got something else to do now. Oh, by the way, the intern you put on the Saigon embassy Twitter account is going great. The analytics are through the roof!

LANSDALE: [Snaps fingers, points back to MCNAMARA and smiles winningly.] I’ll pass it on.

MCNAMARA: Thanks Ed.

LANSDALE: Thanks Bob.

Rather loosely adapted from Chapter 22 of Max Boot’s recent biography of Lansdale, The Road Not Taken.


Boot – The Road Not Taken: Edward Lansdale and the America Tragedy In Vietnam
Brecher, Ames – War Nerd Podcast Episode 39
McNamara – In Retrospect
Wintermute, Boot – Max Boot interview on The Road Not Taken


I learnt about another two panopticons the other day. One is a watch that quantifies everything you do, physically. Treating oneself as big data is a very twenty first century thing to do. It’s the equivalent of a nineteenth century scientist dosing herself with her new experimental vaccine, but now risking nasty civic information death instead of horrible biological death. It also recommends itself as what Jamais Cascio calls a participatory panopticon: it is generated cooperatively by individuals, though once the information is collected it will presumably want to be liberated, and expensive. The prospects for medical advancement and self-empowerment seem rather marvelous; the prospects for medical insurance, whether state or private, seem less so. It all makes my use of runkeeper to track exercise look as wheezing and amateurish as the runs themselves.

The second is the British Library’s endearingly batty plan to store everything on the UK web. An enlightened quirk of British copyright law already gives them the right to do this, and it’s a beautiful, public spirited, idea. This can perhaps be grouped together with various initiatives worldwide to open access to government data, driven from within and without the state itself.

Let’s add to these the leviathans in the room – the security state panopticons. The US and UK ones we know of courtesy of Mr Snowden, the Chinese system has been in the open for some time, and presumably everyone in a uniform globally is at it by now, wrongly or wrongly.

Jeremy Bentham conceived of The Panopticon as a prison where everything a prisoner did could be observed, in order to reform him. That isn’t what we’re building today. We have a system of fledgling panopticons, built by competing interests, used for interacting institutional ends: a Panopticonarchy.

I’d say this system will be hard to completely avoid, and to do so successfully will be the equivalent of today’s statelessness. You will have to be like Hamlet and go live in a nutshell, and most people won’t want to. The choice for most individuals, already, is which panopticons to support and which to pollute, constrain and resist.

Deliberate Anarchy As Climate Governance

It is informative to think about the science of changing climate as two fields. The first is long-term meteorology, making predictions about how the atmosphere and climatic conditions change over long periods of time. This is about a century and a half old and built on physics, chemistry, and observations from a variety of real time and historical sources such as satellites and ice cores. The current dominant paradigm of long-term meteorology includes anthropogenic climate change driven by atmospheric carbon and other gases. It’s a very successful theory whose dominance has been cemented by a track record of new data emerging and anamolies resolving in ways which confirm it. The discovery that satellite measured temperatures were not accounting for relativistic effects caused by the speed of the satellites, and this was causing almost exactly the anomalous difference between ground and satellite temperatures, was one of the more dramatic of these. This was nearly ten years ago. The existence of a handful of outlying dissenting experts outside the paradigm is just confirmation that it’s a real scientific community; the same phenomenon accompanied Newtonian mechanics and the molecular theory in chemistry too. This is reality, as best we can tell.

The second field is political climatology, dealing with the ways a mass of people and their social institutions deal with the climate of the planet they live on. This is a new field at which we are still pretty awful (including attempts by climate scientists). I use the term political climatology deliberately, by analogy with the political economy, ie, economics, and the constraints that politics as a human behaviour places on it. We are pretty bad at the political economy, though we’ve had a few wins over the last century. At political climatology we are just pants.

I don’t just mean we are awful in that we have lousy outcomes, I mean the whole structure of the discussion and the seriousness of institutional design is lacking. The entire debate is in the wrong place. There are interesting arguments within climate science, and there are major and controversial policy decisions to be made. We have a science built on all the sophistication of the Englightenment and the Industrial Revolution, and a monster set of interlinked problems caused by the wondrous success of the same. Meanwhile our toolset for discussing and organizing around it as a society is like five drunk old men with head injury debating the existence of an iPhone.

There is one intellectually tenable policy position which can be shared between someone serious about seeing the world as it is and the fairy land tales of climate fabulists or deniers. That is the policy of deliberate neglect. Accepting the fact of human driven climate change, we choose not to make governments act to remediate it.

Though the changing climate is indeed something to dread and gird ourselves against, the argument goes, any political solution would cause damage too great to our institutions. 

Usually this is framed as economic cost, and people like Jim Manzi argue, contra Stern et al, that the GDP costs of mitigation are simply smaller than the benefits.

There are technical problems with Manzi’s argument: scenario choice is highly selective, and GDP is a lousy basis for century scale prediction. That latter post also suggests in an ecological catastrophe, money may not be everything. (When The Economist suggests you are suffering compulsive quantification disorder and need to sit back and smell the drowning flowers, something is up.) Nevertheless Manzi’s willingness to grapple publicly with scientific reality in arguing policy, something that say, George Monbiot, does routinely from a different political tradition, gets towards the type of debate required.

Climate change is a global problem, and worse than that, a global collective action problem. It’s also larger than a few percent of GDP. In the history of the world, there has been environmental catastrophe, but there has never been democratic world government. Dan Hannan, among others, argues that this is a straightforward function of the distance of the government from individual concerns. It helps to know that Hannan is a ferociously euroskeptic MEP, and has more recently found it convenient to disparage the science without fully disavowing it. Even souveriniste libertarian conviction politicians have bases to mollify, I guess.

The sorry record of corruption and bad policy in global institutions does rather support Hannan’s position, though. Indeed, even the experience of the smaller, transnational, EU supports it – technocratic, with little democratic check, and corrupt to the degree its accounts have not been signed off by an auditor in a dozen years. For those who support a different factional football team, consider the IMF, or the WTO. And as beautiful as the vision of the United Nations is, the power there is with the Security Council, a standing committee of Great Powers and their proxies. 

This is not a screed about UN black helicopters and mind control rays. We simply need to be clear-eyed about the state of our global political institutions before we hand them the Earth’s thermostat. This is especially since decades of dithering makes geoengineering more likely, or necessary.

Some (say, certain large, industrial, non-democracies) may  take the utilitarian line that political niceties are a luxury in the face of catastrophe – a case of give me liberty and give me megadeath. And certainly geophysics doesn’t care about politics. However, the argument for ecofascism is not only rather odious in itself, but highly centralised government has an appalling environmental record. Capitalism and democracy have their environmental failures, but communism is the most toxic pollutant man has yet devised. Contrast the Cuyahoga River and the Aral Sea. 

The environment, in this argument, is too important to be passed off to a global bureaucracy to create a Common Fisheries Policy for carbon. Human nature and its politics will not change any time soon. Better for liberty and ecosystems alike that nations remain in productive mutual anarchy.

That is not my position – this note is a way of thinking through the problem. There are other approaches. The world almost tried one with Kyoto-Copenhagen. Tech can change faster than human nature, and different social contexts allow it different expression. Deliberate anarchy is credible enough to be the benchmark. We can easily do worse. Can we do better?

花雨从天来 /已有空乐好 – 李白:寻山僧不遇作

A light rain fell as if it were flowers falling from the sky, making a music of its own – Li Bai, Looking For A Monk And Not Finding Him, Allen trans.

Would You Like Subsidiarity With That?

As it happens, the question of whether politics is a service industry once came up at the family dinner table, a number of years ago. I remember it because, on airing, my wife immediately quipped “Isn’t it a disservice industry?” and there the topic rested.

Tempting as it is to leave it there once more, given the time invested in the discussion leading to this question, let’s continue. John is after all brave and intelligent man, who like many economists struggles every day with Compulsive Quantification Disorder. He suggests here that Members of Parliament are best viewed as a kind of outsourced policy unit, a way to deal with our busy, everyday lives.

In a closing example it is asked Why do we hold an MP, who has power over our lives, to a higher ethical standard than say, a heart surgeon, who also has power over our lives?

Well, the question itself is wrong – we do hold heart surgeons to an extraordinary ethical standard, where we expect them to use their professional skills to their upmost to save their patients’ lives. And this is because saving lives and fixing dodgy hearts is at the focus of their professional role. If a heart surgeon fiddles with expenses, we are irritated because we paid more than necessary, and we feel certain general levels of professionalism have been breached, but it doesn’t compromise our mended heart. It’s also worth noting that a heart surgeon mostly has responsibilities to single patients; for our purposes she is mostly a hub, with spoke relationships emanating out to her patients.

What does an MP do? One of the roles they play is as a low tech vote proxy service for their constituents on particular votes before the Commons (or parliament of choice). John’s example is probably closer to say a mutual fund manager, making investment decisions on our behalf according to broad published guidelines, in this case a party manifesto, plus any individual pledges. On top of that, if they are in the cabinet, they also execute policy. Due to the way the Westminster system works, where the government can change without an election, this also goes for the shadow cabinet. That would be the part of government that can declare war, put you in prison for not paying your taxes, and so on. Any of these roles require good judgement and good character, and allowing people to be corrupt as a backbencher, but then reform as a minister seems an implausible reading of human nature.

Even this characterization is inadequate, however. Each and every member of parliament is responsible for the maintenance of the rule of law, to their constituents and to the common weal, whether society chooses them or not. To do that job requires respecting the law in the spirit and in the letter, its conventions and moral basis. It’s as fundamental as a heart surgeon being skilled at stitching up hearts. When you fail to respect the law – worse, the reason the law exists – then you prove yourself inadequate at an MP’s job.

Do people inevitably fall shy of this high moral standard, from time to time? Well, yes; and I’m actually pretty willing to overlook misdemeanors like claiming four pounds on dog food. I do find it indicative that one of the most centralising, box-ticking parliaments of recent times has fallen so broadly awry of exactly these sorts of pettifogging rules: it was lousy law and now we’re seeing why. Perhaps that has also fuelled some of the outrage and resentment behind this expenses scandal.

The state is larger than human at times, monstrous and casually cruel; this mortal God, Hobbes called it. To direct it, or mold this mortal god is yes, a sacred trust of sorts. It is sad when, from time to time, it chews politicians up and spits them out, the way lions, from time to time, chew up antelopes. It is sad but not unexpected.