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July 20, 2009

Planning for Failure

To the extent that people are preoccupied with equality for its own sake, their readiness to be satisfied with any particular level of income or wealth is guided not by their own interests and needs but just by the magnitude of the economic benefits at the disposal of others. In this way egalitarianism distracts people from measuring the requirements to which their individual natures and their personal circumstances give rise. It encourages them instead to insist upon a level of economic support that is determined by a calculation in which the particular features of their own lives are irrelevant.

How sizable the economic assets of others are has nothing much to do, after all, with what kind of person someone is. A concern for economic equality, construed as desirable in itself, tends to divert a person’s attention away from endeavoring to discover—within his experience of himself and his life—what he himself really cares about and what will actually satisfy him, although this is the most basic and the most decisive task upon which an intelligent selection of economic goals depends. Exaggerating the moral importance of economic equality is harmful, in other words, because it is alienating.

- Harry Frankfurt, "Equality as a Moral Ideal"

If you haven't already done so, you should the paper that quoted Frankfurt. It's a bit long, but well worth the effort.

The gist of it is that measuring economic inequality by measuring the disparity in income alone can be highly misleading since we don't work for income itself, but so we can buy things we want or need. By this measure (consumption equality), the gap between the undeserving and evil rich and deserving poor looks quite different. While income inequality itself has risen, consumption equality (what we buy with our unequal incomes) has remained relatively unchanged.

And then there are more subjective measures of well being and equality such as happiness. How equal are we in terms of satisfaction? It turns out that as income inequality has risen, inequality of happiness has actually fallen as the poor and minorities have actually increased their subjective sense of well being. All of this doesn't stop economists like Paul Krugman from claiming the poor are worse off than ever before. It matters not that their purchasing power is greater than it has ever been.

Someone else has more, and government must confiscate this excess wealth in the name of "fairness". This creates a series of perverse incentives designed to punish industry and success and reward failure and inefficiency:

Money can't buy love? For proof, look no further than Goldman Sachs. Last week, the firm reported a spectacular quarterly profit -- close to $3.5 billion for the bank and about $385,000 in compensation for each employee for the first half of the year -- and right on cue, the braying began for the heads of the Goldmanites. Earlier this month, Rolling Stone's Matt Taibbi, in a comprehensive exercise in conspiracy mongering, primed the pump of outrage with his article "The Great American Bubble Machine." Now a chorus of supporters has chimed in, shocked that in a recession the evil Goldman could turn such profit.

The rhetoric of outrage has come full circle: Before, the villains were the banks that were stupid and greedy enough to fail; now the villains are those -- a small club, basically just Goldman and J.P. Morgan Chase -- that have been smart and greedy enough to succeed.

What began as an effort to keep the financial industry from repeating its mistakes has turned into, as at other points in history, an attack on the idea of trading profit. It is no longer enough that the banks should be reformed; the opportunity to make this kind of profit should be eliminated.

The same perverse incentives are on display in our foreign policy. In Afghanistan, our soldiers and Marines are told they will have to do a far more complex job - and do it faster - with fewer boots on the ground:

Often Taliban fighters flee when helicopters arrive, Sun said, but this time they stayed, and attempted to fire a rocket-propelled grenade at one of the aircraft. The Huey made two strafing runs with its Gatling guns over the tree lines, while the Cobra fired missiles, finally ending the firefight. The helicopter crew spotted at least two dead Taliban fighters.

Although the Marines asked to pursue the Taliban fighters south, more senior commanders denied the request. Sun said he thinks the problem was a lack of helicopters to provide air power and to evacuate any possible casualties, as well as roads that had not been cleared of bombs.

"Due to the limited numbers of helicopters available, it would not have been in our best interest to get decisively engaged," Sun said. In addition, moving south would leave the bazaar open to attack, he said.

But some Marines voiced disappointment at not being able to track the Taliban, saying that decision may have allowed the insurgents to stage fresh attacks on the bazaar later in the afternoon. Faddis, Kowalski and their machine-gunning team were on guard duty in a mud-brick structure in the market that had a window facing fields to the south when shots broke out from a nearby compound. Faddis spotted a target and fired back. "They're moving out of the compound!" one Marine yelled, unleashing another volley of machine-gun fire.

The gun battle was complicated by the presence of women, children and shepherds in adjacent fields. Having staked out a claim in Lakari Bazaar, Sun said, the question remains whether his company should continue to hold this relatively strung-out position or pull back, knowing such a move would allow the Taliban to return, at least temporarily.

A local villager states the obvious:

"If you leave, everything will be the same," a middle-aged man who called himself Sayed Gul told McCollough. "If you guys stay for a long time, everything will be fine."

The upside, of course, is that when your metric for success is not how many of the enemy you kill or disarm but how many civilians you "protect", success becomes - as with Obama's promise to "save or create" millions of jobs - just another exercise in political ass covering.

They have a year.

Posted by Cassandra at July 20, 2009 07:17 AM

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"Although the Marines asked to pursue the Taliban fighters south, more senior commanders denied the request."

Interesting that it's *more senior* commanders not *more experienced*, eh?

Posted by: DL Sly at July 22, 2009 11:39 AM