Saturday, July 31, 2010

Dark before the dawn: History

In his seminal political science book Essence of Decision, Graham Allison dealt briefly (pp. 261-63) with a question America was asking itself in 1971, the year Allison published his work. The question: “Why do we keep fighting in Vietnam when we know we’ve lost?”

The real darkness before the dawn comes from continuing to accumulate losses past the point when the costs of prolonging a struggle outweigh the benefits. Dawn comes when the struggle ceases. It’s Kaprun, Austria (picture), where the “Band of Brothers,“ after their fight across northern Europe, finally settled once Germany surrendered—several months/years too late for millions of casualties.

Allison said people keep fighting past the logical surrender point because they don’t have organizations feeding them accurate information about the enemy’s strengths or their own weaknesses, they underestimate the strategic costs of continuing, and top leadership gains unfiltered access only to the most highly visible costs of struggling (organizations distort the rest). Also, since most organizations consider treasonous any serious look at surrender, the option gets short shrift.

Not only organizations get in the way. At the top, anybody with a career closely identified with the struggle rarely sees the costs of continuing outweighing the benefits. Other high level voices are discounted because they always opposed the struggle—their views don’t mark any tipping point. Change comes either when an internal political shift aids the opponents of continuing, or when the outsiders who are winning the struggle do something that alters the balance between those wanting to continue and those wanting to quit.

Famous unnecessarily dark periods include Vietnam in 1966-75, after McNamara first realized the U.S. could not win, most of World War I (1914-18), after Germany’s surprise sweep through neutral Belgium failed to knock out France, much of the Great Depression (1935-40), after Roosevelt turned away from the economy in mid-1935 to focus instead on the politics of re-election (Shlaes, p. 246), World War II after Germany failed to invade Britain but invaded the U.S.S.R., and Japan attacked the U.S. (1941-45), Southern resistance to integration after Jackie Robinson, Truman integrating the military, and Brown v. Board of Education made integration inevitable (1954-65), and Nixon hanging on for 17 months after Watergate burglar James McCord began talking to federal authorities.

Our current dark period began with the elections of Republican governors in Virginia and New Jersey last November, states Obama carried a year earlier. The defeats should have shown the Obama political team they needed to shift course, and start governing as leaders of a whole country, not just its liberal fifth. Month after month, we pay an economic cost for Obama’s unlearned lesson. Dark before the dawn.

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