Belmont Club

The Great Escape

As Evan Bayh and Phil Jones moved to put some distance between themselves and an enterprise on the rocks — President Obama’s “Change” agenda and Global Warming respectively, Hillary Clinton began to play down hopes for engagement with Iran by describing it as moving towards a “military dictatorship” which might have to be constrainted by sanctions. The recurring theme of the last month was that  nothing remained certain. John McCain who is facing a tough challenge for his Senate seat summarized the situation when he, “no incumbent is safe” as anger at Washington reached levels he has never seen before. All the old certainties seem shaky. And Fred Barnes at the Weekly Standard half-pityingly says that President Obama has “been reduced to stunts”.

What is to be done when situation is undergoing an unpredictable transformation. One strategy is to wait the storm out.

Sarah Palin’s decision to leave her official position at least temporarily seems more and more prescient. Her decision to become an unofficial person allows her to watch officialdom go through its worst period from the outside. Perhaps in their own ways Bayh and Jones are trying to ride out the storm by staying away from the eye. Maybe they’ve watched enough movies to know that when the hero is on a runaway vehicle and the emergency brake lever comes away in his hand there is nothing for it but to jump before the crash.

But a better metaphor than ‘jumping from a runaway train’ might be ‘temporarily exiting the market’ until business conditions settle down. After all when you absolutely positively know something is going to end in disaster you can short your position or start profiteering in parachutes. But people don’t know how things are going to turn out; and it is when uncertainty precludes decisive action that you wait it out and and swing from the side of the caboose until the the fallen bridge does or doesn’t come into view. This may be the logic behind Hillary’s attempts to revive a sanctions regime now that engagement with Iran is going nowhere or the ECB’s decision to temporize in the Greek debt crisis. Neither action does anything decisive; it simply goes through the motions of action in the hope that it will come out alright the end.

But a wait-and-see strategy is fraught with dangers of its own. Indecision was what doomed Admiral Nagumo during the Battle of Midway. The admiral was torn between arming his flightdecks for another strike on Midway island or loading his planes with anti-ship weapons in the event an American carrier was near. He had a 50-50 chance of making the right call. He vacillated from one side to the other and tried to cover both bases so that when the dive bombers from Enterprise arrived all his flight decks were cluttered with ordnance for both cases. They were soon torn to pieces by their own exploding ammunition.

Charles Logan at the Naval War College wrote that in a world where uncertainty was irreducible then the ability to rapidly remake oneself was all that was left. If Nagumo could only reconfigure his airplanes instantly, then maybe the admiral did not have to be defeated at Midway. Logan observed that in an complex and information-rich world the knowledge differential between insiders and outsiders would decrease.  Things would equalize until all faced the same irreducible uncertainties. Without the edge of inside knowledge everyone was hostage to the next moment. The advantage would lie with whoever could adapt fastest to it. Logan wrote:

Given that our potential adversaries have access to virtually the same information technology we have, the margin for victory will be the degree to which we manage our transformation into the information age … The margin for victory at Midway was command and control.

But not just any command and control. Only complex adaptive systems which could react effectively in an uncertain, rapidly changing situation need apply. Big bureaucratic and inflexible systems had no place in a dyanmically changing battlefield. Logan argues that only entities with the propserties of “emergence and self-organization” could adequately deal with a situation in tremendous flux. If Logan is right then one why reason why the Tea Parties have done so well is that they have a greater adaptive ability than the regular political parties. By contrast, one of the reasons why President Obama may be doing so poorly is that he is hampered by the rigidities imposed by his dinosaur advisers from Chicago and the Democrat legislative leadership. It’s dinosaur versus mammal in Ice Age 4, with apologies to Phil Jones.

If Logan is right it is not enough to simply avoid getting manacled to a runaway set of policies, it is important to actively build up an adaptive ability. It is vital to learn how to adapt and adapt quickly. Palin, Bayh, Phil Jones, Hillary Clinton and the ECB are going to survive or perish not simply on the basis of how far they are from the eye of the storm, but how quickly they can trim their sails to the changing winds. Maybe Prince Hamlet best described what one had to do while awaiting the Question.

If it be now,
’tis not to come;
if it be not to come,
it will be now;
if it be not now,
yet it will come:
the readiness is all


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